A Death in Sheffield
“I am begging you, Pen. If you have the slightest shred of compassion—”
Twisting his mouth, Droughm lifted his gaze to the horizon. “What am I to do with you?”
Artemis had engaged in a war of wills with him ever since he’d hired the carriage in Gretna to make the three-day journey to Sheffield. To add insult to injury, he did not join her within, but rode Trajan alongside, speaking to her from time to time in an attempt to alleviate her misery. Artemis found it hideously stultifying, and implored him to allow her to ride beside him instead. “Callisto is very biddable—I can easily manage her with one hand.” Gauging his expression, she could see that he was weakening, and redoubled her efforts. “Please, Pen.”
“Perhaps for a time—but I’ll have your promise that you’ll stay on the road, and maintain an easy pace.”
“I will, I promise.”
As they stopped to saddle Callisto, Artemis hoped that he wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t wearing suitable riding dress and use this excuse to change his mind, but he made no comment as he helped her mount up. Once they were underway, she lifted her face to the breeze and sighed. “Much better—thank you, thank you.”
“You do not make a good invalid,” he noted dryly.
“I’ve never been an invalid before, and I do not recommend it. If anyone else inquires after my arm, I am tempted to smack them with my splint.” Holding the reins in her teeth for a moment, she tugged on her skirt in an attempt to arrange it over the sidesaddle, but then gave up, aware her ankles must be showing. “I suppose I’m lucky it’s only my left hand, and not my right that is out of commission.”
“Speak for yourself—I am very fond of that hand.”
Laughing, she cast him a playful glance. Last night at the posting inn, she’d introduced Mrs. Tittle’s suggestion about warm oil, and the result was so satisfactory that the experience had been eagerly repeated, with Artemis having to caution him to stay quiet on more than one occasion.
They rode in companionable silence for a time, Artemis carefully keeping a sedate pace so that he wouldn’t change his mind. It was so enjoyable—the weather was mild, and the open countryside pleasing to look upon. However, there was a subject that had to be broached, and Artemis decided there was no point in shrinking from it. With a small smile, she glanced over to him. “I must ask you a question, and I am not certain how to go about it.”
He raised his brows. “This sounds ominous.”
“It’s about my doll, you see.”
He did not pretend to misunderstand, and immediately sobered. “Forgive me, Artemis; I did not think you’d notice.”
“I noticed,” she replied, and waited.
“I wanted to see the plates—to examine them. I think I was half-hoping that you were mistaken.”
“And was I?”
Nodding, she looked ahead again and decided this made sense—she’d not been able to imagine any other reason to do what he’d done. If he wished to take them away from her, after all, he would have simply done so—and she would have willingly relinquished them.
He shifted in his saddle to face her. “I am sorry; I should have asked your permission.”
To show she was not offended, she asked, “Do you wish to leave them in the doll, then?”
He ducked his head for a moment, considering. “It seems as good a hiding place as any.”
Having to address the subject brought back all her misery over the Colonel’s involvement, and her buoyant mood evaporated. “I wonder—I wonder if perhaps they should be destroyed.” She lowered her gaze to contemplate her hand on the reins. “I was so tempted, and more than once.”
“I’m afraid we must deliver them to the Treasury Inspectors.” Reaching over, he touched her knee. “I will see to it that any necessary revelations are discreetly handled—you have my promise on it.”
She teetered on the edge of asking if he could use his rank and standing to sweep the matter away, but then drew back. He might do it for her, but she shouldn’t ask it of him—shouldn’t put it between them. Things were going so well, they were so happy together—and the lovemaking last night had ascended to a higher, more blissful level. She must not allow him an opening to think her a spoilt child, unable to face the consequences of her actions.
Watching her, he said gently, “When this matter is resolved, we will take a wedding trip. Where should you like to go?”
All too willing to change the subject, she thought about it. “I don’t know—I’ve never had a choice, before.”
“Anywhere you’d like,” he reiterated, flicking his crop on his boot.
“I suppose we cannot go to the Continent, if Napoleon is planning a re-conquest,” she reminded him.
“An excellent point. Anywhere else, then.”
“If there is a re-conquest, though, I imagine you will be busy.” She eyed him.
“Artemis,” he said. “Choose.”
But she had literally no ideas, having only a hazy knowledge of world geography outside the theatre of the last war. “What was Algiers like?”
“Abductions, pirates and slavers,” he replied succinctly. “A miserable cess-pit.”
Then he must have been there in connection with his work, as she’d already guessed. She decided that she didn’t have any preferences—as long as she was with him, and didn’t have to ride in a carriage. “What would you choose, Pen? Have you a favorite?”
He thought about it, gazing out over the countryside. “Can you swim?”
“No,” she admitted with regret. “Where would we swim?”
“The West Indies—Tortola, perhaps. I have a friend who has a plantation there, and I could teach you to swim.”
“That sounds wonderful; you are a very useful sort of husband,” she noted with approval.
“Save for those times when I am defiling your doll.” His worried gaze skewed over to hers, contrite. “I feel terribly, Artemis—I must remember that it is now the two of us, and that I should consult with you—and perhaps even defer—on occasion. I’m afraid I am not used to thinking in such terms.”
“And no blame to you; you’ve done as you wish for a long time, and with good reason. Truly Pen—I’ve not an ounce of insubordination in me, and I will gladly follow orders.” She felt badly for him—he was remorseful about the doll, and she had the feeling this was unfamiliar territory for him.
“If you do not mind, this may be a good opportunity to tell me of your uncle.”
For a brief instant, she harbored the uncharitable thought that he’d deliberately manipulated her to open her budget on the subject, but then decided it didn’t matter—she would willingly tell him the whole without prompting. “Where should I start?”
“You were to bring him the plates—start at the beginning, if you do not mind. We’ve plenty of time.”
It occurred to her that she would be allowed to ride for as long as the story continued, and so she was determined to spin it out. “Uncle Thaddeus was a miser—and that was the least of his sins, I assure you. He begrudged even a peat fire, and would rather lose a finger than light a candle.”
“Good God; the man was as rich as Croesus,” Droughm declared. “Unfathomable.”
“Tight as a drum,” she confirmed, and considered for the first time how much better it all would have gone, if the Colonel had inherited just a modicum of this trait. “And he was much struck when he met me at the posting inn—where he haggled about the fare, and caused a horrific scene. He said I was his ‘pretty chicken’.”
“Did he? You did say he was fond of Macbeth.”
She marshaled her thoughts for a moment, in an attempt to explain the inexplicable. “Yes; he recited lines from it constantly, and there was a good reason—at least in his mind. He told me that Macbeth was based on a real-life thane—one who’d been awarded his estates after conquering a Viking.”
Droughm frowned, skeptical. “Is this true? I’d never heard such a thing.”
Artemis shrugged, then winced as her shoulder reminded her she should not. “I have no idea, but I would put no faith in anything he said—he had determined that the real Macbeth was his ancestor, you see, and for reasons that are unclear, he was also very fond of the conquered Vikings—there was that famous battle near Sheffield, with the Vikings involved.”
Droughm considered this. “The Battle of Constantine, I believe—perhaps a thousand years ago.”
“That is the one,” Artemis exclaimed, happy that he knew of it. “It was all melded together in his mind—he was Viking and Macbeth, all at the same time. He was quite mad.”
Frowning, Droughm wondered aloud, “And yet the Treasury contracted with a madman to mine silver for the Crown?”
“Oh, he was very shrewd in his own way, and he did not invite others into his strange world. He explained it all to me, however, because I was his shield-maiden.”
Her companion stared at her. “And what is a shield-maiden?”
“I had no idea—not at first, but it seemed apparent he was very pleased that I’d arrived, and treated me with some kindness. He even allowed a coal fire in my chamber when I complained of the cold, because a shield-maiden should have a fire, if she liked.” Artemis made a wry mouth. “I was to find out why this was, later.”
“One cannot help but pity him,” Droughm observed. “But at least he did not mistreat you.”
She lifted a brow at him. “Oh-ho, you have yet to hear my tale, Pen. He was very eager to show me the mines—very proud of them, and I’ll admit that it was interesting to see how it was all done. Such hard work, and the men deep in the tunnels for hours and hours at a time. He took me aside and explained—very seriously—that the god—Thor, I think it was—required a sacrifice to make up for the taking of the silver from the mountain.”
Droughm made a sound of incredulity. “It is nothing short of bizarre—did you tell no one?”
With a grimace, she confessed, “I thought he was mad, of course—but I felt a bit sorry for him, and remember, I had literally nowhere else to go; I didn’t even know the Stanhopes existed—not that they turned out to be much help. And mine uncle did treat me well, as though I was his pet; it was a balm to my soul—I was still so sad. I wasn’t yet ready to strike out on my own.”
“My poor Artemis.”
The warmth of sympathy in his voice triggered a need to speak of that which she had heretofore simply endured, and she said quietly, “Everything I had ever known died the day the Colonel died. I remember standing at his funeral; watching the splendid ceremony and hearing the guns salute, but it was no comfort to me. We had only each other, you see.” She paused, dangerously close to tears.
With a hand on her reins, Droughm pulled the horses up, then placed a gentle hand on her knee, whilst she recovered her equilibrium. “Surely, someone should have taken you in; a man of his standing—”
She mustered a wan smile. “Oh, I had several offers of marriage; from his officers, of course, and from a very kind Chaplain from Shropshire. But I thought I should do as he’d asked me, and travel to Sheffield to deliver the plates. At the time, I would not have made a very joyful bride.”
“It was Providence,” he insisted. “You came here to make me a joyful bridegroom, instead.”
“Yes.” Her gaze searched his face. “It was Providence—that’s what I think, too.”
But he had waxed romantic as long as he was able, and now sought to return to her story. “So; you did not deliver the plates.”
“No, I did not. Once I took my uncle’s measure, I thought it foolhardy—and I’d begun to suspect—” here, she paused. “I’d begun to suspect it was all not on the up-and-up, and I worried that the Colonel’s part would be exposed. So I told mine uncle that the packet had been stolen—I feigned ignorance as to what was inside. Mine uncle and the Constable were very unhappy with this turn of events, and it motivated mine uncle’s next move; he decided that Thor must be angry, and therefore the god must be placated.”
With growing incredulity, Droughm exclaimed, “You don’t mean—”
“Definitely; it was time to screw his courage to the sticking point, and present a sacrifice, with no further ado.”