A Death in Sheffield
In what seemed like only a few short hours, Mrs. Manley was leaning over Artemis, shielding a candle. “Wake, missy; yer uncle says yer to begone—he hopes to get ye back quick as a wink, to scotch the scandal.”
Artemis struggled to sit up, feeling as though she’d hardly slept at all. “Thank you, Mrs. Manley. Is there to be breakfast?”
“Nay, missy. I’ll pack bread and ham fer ʼee.”
The fire was not yet lit, and Artemis shivered as she pulled on her riding habit, and buttoned her wool cloak up to the throat. No matter, she thought with grim resolution as she re-plaited her hair. It is my wedding day, and this time—God willing—it will go forward without some disaster striking; they do say that the third time’s a charm.
Feeling her way in the dim light, she descended into the kitchen to see Droughm coming in the back door, stamping his feet on the rush mat and looking up at her. The kitchen fire was only getting started, and Artemis tucked her hands underneath her arms.
“Will you be warm enough?” Droughm asked.
“I has me rabbit-lined cloak,” Mrs. Manley offered, apparently willing to give him anything he desired. “It’s precious warm.”
Artemis replied, “Thank you, Mrs. Manley, but my cloak has a hood, and I should be warm enough once the sun comes up. Thank you for your kindness.”
The woman smiled her gap-toothed smile. “Ye’ll mind wot I tole ʼye, missy.”
“I will never forget you,” Artemis assured her in all honesty, and then they went outside, the light from the sunrise barely illuminating the morning mists.
“No more runaway weddin’s.” Their hostess gave Droughm an arch look.
“Certainly not,” said Droughm, as he cupped his hands for Artemis’ boot. “She has learned her lesson.”
“Come back, any time,” the woman called out as she waved them off, and there was no mistaking that she was not speaking to Artemis.
The horses’ hooves sounded over-loud as they struck out along the empty road. “Well, she was a treat,” observed Artemis in a tart tone as she tightened her cloak’s hood under her chin.
“She does not know that I am spoken for,” Droughm pointed out in a reasonable tone.
“I’ll have you remember that she is spoken for,” Artemis replied crossly. “Does loyalty mean nothing, anymore?” She was tired, and cold—and the subject was a sensitive one.
He pulled Trajan up so as to walk beside her. “I suppose it depends on the marriage. Many do not marry for love, and never intended to be loyal to begin with.”
But Artemis shook her head in disagreement, her stubborn gaze on her horse’s ears. “Not always—many of the officers professed to love their wives, but then they took a Spanish mistress. It was accepted, because they were away from home for so long, and men have their weakness.”
There was a small pause, and then he asked quietly, “Is this about me?” He glanced at her, as the horses’ hooves crunched on the gravel road and the mists rose around them.
Artemis sighed so that her breath formed a cloud in the cold air. “I don’t know what this is about, and I sound like an archwife. I’m sorry, Pen.”
Droughm looked down the road ahead of them, barely discernable through the fog. “I never intended to marry—never could imagine having to be bound to one woman. And then I saw you in the garden, and ever since that moment—here’s a rich irony—I’ve been in an absolute fever to bind you to me. I am terrified that you will get away, and the rest of my life will be lived without you.”
The words were patently sincere, and she decided there was no time like the present to bring up her concerns. She lowered her gaze to her hands as she flexed her fingers in her gloves to keep them warm. “I am worried—” she ventured slowly; “I suppose I am worried that I will always be inadequate, and that you will look elsewhere.”
He let out a bark of laughter, and surprised, she looked over at him. “What? You haven’t had an easy time of it, Pen—you can’t convince me otherwise.”
With a smile playing around his lips, he flicked his crop against his boot as the morning birds could be heard calling from the treetops. “I must tell you a cruel and unjust truth.”
Reading his tone aright, she smiled slightly. “I am forewarned, then.”
“The very difficulty of which you speak is actually physically pleasing, for a man.”
Eying him with some surprise, she asked, “Truly?”
“Have you heard me complain?”
Laughing, she accused him, “You are only saying this to make me feel better.”
“Upon my word,” he assured her. “Ask any man.”
“It would make for an interesting topic of conversation, but I will take your word for it.” Feeling immeasurably relieved, she teased, “Then I am not such an utter disappointment.”
“Definitely not; it is one of the many reasons that I am in a fever to bind you to me.”
She laughed at him, and then he led her off the road, so that they walked across a sheep pasture, the scattered sheep not even bothering to look up as they passed. “What is today’s plan of action?”
“We’ll need to cover forty miles, more or less, and stay to the side roads because the horses are recognizable. We’ll try to cross over the border in the countryside, away from the Great North Road where it crosses the border near Carlisle. On the other hand, they may assume I would not be so foolish as to follow the Great North Road through Carlisle, and therefore they won’t be watching there—so Carlisle actually might be the best place for us to cross the border.”
“Cat-and-mouse,” agreed Artemis, who was familiar with the tactics of war. “Should we trade the horses, perhaps? We can always retrieve them on the return.”
But apparently, he’d already considered this. “I think not; speed is most important at this point—we’ve only one day more, and nothing we can readily purchase will be as fast as these. Ready?”
She nodded, and the bulk of the day was spent in hard riding, interspersed all too rarely with a short break to stretch their legs and have a bite to eat. Artemis bore up well; there was nothing for it, after all, but as the afternoon wore on she was aware the events of the past three days were taking their toll. When this is over, she promised herself, I shall sleep for a week—unless Droughm has other plans, which he probably does, judging by his comments about the cruel and unjust truth.
She was concentrating on the terrain ahead—she was tired, and a fall could mean disaster—when Droughm suddenly pulled up, cursing roundly.
“What is it?” she asked in alarm, automatically scanning the horizon.
“Threw a shoe,” he replied tersely, dismounting to examine his horse’s rear hoof. “The devil.”
This was an unlooked-for problem, as any delay only worked against them. “There must be a smithy along here, somewhere,” she ventured, gazing out over what appeared to be a vast expanse of uninhabited land.
With his hands on his hips, he let out an aggravated breath. “I believe Carlisle is just over the next set of hills to the east; since it’s a large town, there should be a public livery stable. I can get the shoe replaced while you hang back—they’ll be looking for the two of us together, and—as I said—they may not be looking for us at Carlisle in the first place, since it would be too obvious.”
“And you now sport a beard.” It was true; several days without a razor had left him with a decidedly piratical appearance, which was rather appealing, in its own way.
He nodded, and remounted. “We’ll take it easy—unless we see anyone, and then I’m afraid Trajan’s foot be damned.”
“Do we split up, in the event?” Oftentimes, the strategy in retreat was to require the enemy to choose whom to pursue.
“You will not leave my side,” he replied, very seriously. “I will have your promise.”
“Yes, sir,” she teased.
They walked the horses for several miles, and in the late afternoon they finally paused on a hilltop to view Carlisle in the distance, nestled in a sweeping valley.
Droughm gestured with his crop. “The border is perhaps ten miles beyond. Once we are across it, I believe we can conscript nearly anyone to marry us, as long as there is an additional witness.”
“Excellent,” Artemis replied. “Trajan will have his shoe and I will have my ring, just in time for dinner.”
They threaded their way through the outcroppings of rock and shale, and made their descent toward the town. Despite the fact she was disheveled and bone-weary, Artemis felt a surge of elation; the border was a few miles away, and with any luck, the enemy would not have guessed they would come through Carlisle, as bold as brass. Soon their mad flight would be over.
Approaching circumspectly, they skirted along the perimeter and stayed in the shadows of the hedgerows that bordered the surrounding fields. Droughm was alert and watchful, and Artemis kept her face lowered, respecting his cautious mood. He finally pulled up so that she could come abreast of him, and pulled out a soft leather drayman’s hat from his saddlebag.
As he donned the hat, he indicated a livery stable, up ahead. “Stay here in the shadows, and keep your hood up and your head down; I should not be gone above a half-hour, God willing.”
Artemis watched him enter the public stable, his shoulders slightly slouched as though he had nothing more urgent to consider than his horse’s missing shoe. Callisto shifted her weight and lowered her head to pull at some grass during this welcome opportunity, and Artemis hoped they would not both fall asleep, now that they had stopped moving for a moment.
Lost in her thoughts, she was taken completely by surprise when Callisto startled and reared her head back, pulling away from the man who’d seized her reins. Horrified, Artemis stared in disbelief as Marco from the Ballantine ball raised a pistol to her. “Make no sound,” he warned in a low voice.