ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

A Death in Sheffield

Chapter 37

 

“Tell me,” Droughm insisted, and she could see that he was controlling his temper only with an effort.

  “To appease Thor, the shield-maiden would have to be sacrificed.”

“Good God,” exclaimed Droughm angrily, and Trajan started at the vehemence in his tone.

  “Not exactly,” Artemis teased. “I can’t imagine such a thing would be considered proper Church doctrine.”

“He tried to kill you?”

“Well, yes—but it was a paltry attempt, Pen. He’d no experience in taking prisoners, or with conducting executions; that much was evident.”  Artemis found she was rather enjoying herself.

“Artemis,” he prompted ominously. “Tell me.”

“It was on a Sunday, and he professed a desire to show me the mines when there was no one working.  I was willing—there was precious little to do there, I must say—and  he showed me where the silver ore was most plentiful, and explained at length the importance of appeasing the gods—I believe he very much regretted having to sacrifice me, and was trying to talk himself into it, now that I look back upon it.”

“The damnable bastard. Go on.”

“He told me that he had something important to show me, and led me into the recesses of the oldest tunnel—he held a lantern, as it was quite dark.” She reflected for a moment. “There is something very unnatural about being underground with no light, with the sounds echoing off the hewn rock; it makes one long to turn and scramble for the sunlight.”

“I can well imagine. Continue, if you please.”

“We traveled through the tunnel; it was very narrow because it was an ancient one—he told me even the Romans had mined in the hills, there—and led me into a chamber where he’d constructed an altar of some sort—a lot of kindling, and some artifacts scattered about.”

“An altar?”

  “Well, remember that he was mad, Pen. He kept a robe hanging on a hat rack and put it on—along with a crown—with a great deal of ceremony.  I suggested we return to where it was warmer—it felt as though there was snow on the ground, Pen, it was that cold—but he explained that he would start a fire on the altar and that I—as the shield-maiden—I was to throw myself on the fire, once he’d got it started.”

There was a stunned silence. “He honestly thought you’d volunteer?” 

“Well, yes—he saw it as an honor, of sorts.  I refused, but then he hoisted his Brown Bess and held me at musket-point—the sacrifice was slated to occur, will I or nil I.”

“So you shot him?”

Artemis shook her head. “Not immediately—I made an attempt to dissuade him, but I’m afraid the die was cast when he lit a lucifer from the lantern and then threw it on the kindling. There was nothing for it; I drew my pistol and fired. He was that surprised, Pen, and went down like a straw-target.”

Droughm considered this recital for a moment in the silence it deserved. “Good God,” he said again.

“The place was filling with smoke, so I had to scramble out.  There was some blasting equipment in a crate near the entry, so I scattered some blasting caps and black powder—I learned about explosives from the men in artillery.”

Droughm made a strangled sound.

“What?” she defended herself, warming to the subject and rather proud of herself, despite everything.  “It worked wonderfully—I waited outside, and once the fire reached the blasting caps you could feel the ground tremble with the explosion.  Fortunately, it had started raining—it was always raining in that miserable place—and so the smoke did not attract attention.”

“What was your purpose when you engineered the cave-in—did you seek to conceal what had happened?”

The question was posited in a mild tone, but she could sense his sharp interest, and looked at him in surprise. “Well, yes.  I suppose I thought to conceal everything; I truly, truly did not want to have to explain the circumstances—can you imagine?” She thought about it, and then admitted, “I can see now—with the benefit of hindsight—that it may not have been the best thing to do, but during the war, no one ever worried about a potential murder investigation. And I did not know that I was the heiress, then, or how it might look.”

He nodded. “I see. And so now—once the rubble is cleared away—they will discover a burnt corpse.  Will it be clear that he was shot, do you suppose?”

“There’ll be a hole between his eyes,” she confessed.

“Remind me not to vex you,” he remarked absently.  “So, once they clear it out, a murder investigation will open, and—as his heiress and companion—you will be the prime suspect.”

“Yes—but that is my last dreaded confession; I swear it, Pen.”

He flicked his crop against his boot. “Who knows you went there with him that day?”

“No one,” she assured him. “It was Sunday; the servants had the day off and—since he planned to murder me—he didn’t want anyone to know of the excursion.”

“Good; we will place the blame on someone already dead.  Your Uncle Stanhope, perhaps, would make a likely candidate.”

“A falling-out among thieves,” she agreed with relief. “An excellent strategy.”

“You have no idea what happened, and did not see him that morning.”

“Yes, sir,” she teased.

“And you didn’t have a pistol.”

“Oh,” she said doubtfully.  “The servants know I had a pistol.  We would set up target practice by hanging pie tins from the trees.”

Droughm was mightily amused. “Did you indeed?”

“There was precious little to do there, Pen; you would have gone mad.”

“Not as mad as Uncle Thaddeus, I hope.”

She quirked her mouth. “Wait until you get there, Pen; you can easily see how such a thing could happen—all that rain, and grim mining.  I hope Somerhurst is not like that.”

He gave a bark of laughter. “Not even remotely.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” Recalled to her situation, she added belatedly, “Not that I would not gladly live wherever you were, Pen—truly.”

  “At present, my main concern is that you do not end up living in Newgate.”

Surmising that Newgate was a prison, she agreed with some fervor, “I would appreciate it.”

They rode through the rolling countryside for another quarter hour until Droughm decided that her reprieve was over. “It is time you returned to the carriage, if you please.”

“Perhaps you should join me.” She slanted him a look.

“I’ll ride alongside; I’m afraid I can’t abide riding in a carriage any more that you can.”

As he hadn’t understood her innuendo, she made it plainer. “I could see to it that the ride was abidable.” In a meaningful manner, she arched a brow.

Grinning, he regarded her. “Artemis; you shock me.”

“I am desperate for company,” she confessed. “And willing to make any sacrifice.”

Regretfully, he advised, “As much as I think it a fine idea, it is too difficult to do the deed in a carriage on a rough road—trust me on this.”

Laughing, she nonetheless remembered the soldier’s euphemism for a different kind of sexual service.  “I could play the piper, instead.”

At this reference, her husband professed his profound shock that she knew about such things and chided, “You were allowed too much fraternization with common soldiers, Artemis.”

“I imagine that is true,” she agreed with mock-contrition, watching him from the corner of her eye.

“You must be careful to watch your words—not with me, of course, but when you are amongst others.”

“Yes, Pen,” she agreed meekly.

Eying her, he continued, “Because soldier’s cant is very vulgar, and you may not even be aware of the meaning of what you say.”

“Oh, I am well-aware of the meaning,” she said mildly.

He whistled for the coach to pull up, and considered for a moment. “I suppose I can tie up Trajan and join you—just this once.”

 Having entertained no doubt that he would do so, she hid a smile as he lifted her from her horse.  “I may require some instruction,” she confessed, and his only response was to make a strangled sound.