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Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller

Tags: #Fantasy

Duainfey (6 page)

BOOK: Duainfey
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Becca felt her stomach clench, and took a deep, calming breath. "I will do my best in the Corlands," she said softly, and took another breath before slipping off the stool.

"I did promise Mother I'd try to be back before Father came down," she said, apologetically.

Sonet waved the apology away with a large rough hand as she came to her feet and moved over to the door. She pulled Becca's cloak from the hook and draped it 'round her shoulders.

"Thank you," Becca said again, twisting the brooch closed before stretching high on her toes to kiss the weathered, fragrant cheek.

"Take good care, Sonet."

"And you as well, child. And you, as well."

 

Chapter Four

Becca walked quickly along the track, shoulders hunched as if against a chill breeze. It was a pleasant, tree-lined way, normally one of her favorite walks, but Becca had no thought for trees, or for the gilderlarks trilling from the side of the path; she barely noted the moist scent of new leaf, or the faint sweetness of the springtime's first honeycups.

No, Becca was thinking of the Corlands, and what she might . . . really . . . hope to find there.

She
had
read the almanacs; she knew that in the Corlands winter came early and stayed late; that high summer, which often lingered lazily into what was rightly fall here in the Midlands, might in the Corlands be a matter of a week or two.

She had known all that, had expected that she would need to discover new plants to replace those that pined for the sun after an absence of a day or two, and those others that were too fragile to transport. Yet to hear Sonet's calm assertion that the oldest friends in her medicine box—feverease! fremoni! aleth!—could not withstand the climate to which she was bound—that gave pause.

Pause, indeed.

She had no illusions regarding her own frailty; she knew herself to be strong beyond what was strictly ladylike. But a land so inhospitable that weedy aleth, which set down roots in gravel and flourished, sun or shade, could not survive it—what toll might such a land take upon her?

Biting her lip, she walked even more quickly, as if she might outpace these disturbing thoughts. Plainly, she needed to question Sir Jennet more closely regarding his land and the conditions she could expect to discover there. Perhaps, indeed, she should write to him—though that would be shockingly forward. Becca sighed. She would ask Mother, she promised herself, and if writing was found to be out of the question, then she would surely have ample time to talk with him at Caro's dance, in just eleven days' time. No, she corrected herself, that must be ten now, unless Caro's crowing at the calendar yestereve was mistaken.

So deep was she inside these dismaying thoughts that she did not for some time hear the approach of the horse. It was the bells at last pierced her abstraction—bells with a tone so high and sweet that they must set anyone's teeth on edge. Accompanying the bells were the sound of hoof beats at canter, and a deal of what might be irritable blowing.

Becca took a step off the side of the path as chestnut filly, white star a-blaze upon her noble brow, came 'round the curve in the path, shaking her head so that her mane slapped the side of her neck, reins hanging loose; saddle, disturbingly, empty.

"Here now," Becca said softly, raising a hand. "Stop a moment, lady."

The horse checked slightly, sending a testy, interested glance in Becca's direction.

"Stand!" Becca said firmly, and at that the horse blew hard, as if to say, "Well, finally!" slowed, and then stood, as she had been bid.

The too-sweet jangle of bells ceased, and Becca gave a sigh of her own.

"Well, now," she said conversationally. "Where have you left your rider?"

The filly stamped one emphatic forefoot, waking an irritation of bells.

"I understand," Becca murmured. "Plainly he is an idiot. I sympathize with your predicament and applaud your forthright action. Alas, we cannot leave him to lie in a ditch."

The horse blew a light interrogatory.

"Well," said Becca, moving forward in a smooth, soothing glide, her eyes decently lowered. "There are those who would judge you harshly for your action, and never ask if it was justified. It is wholly unjust, but we must deal with the world as we find it, and accommodate ourselves to those things which we cannot change." She had reached the filly's side, and carefully raised her hand to stroke the silken neck.

"Now, what we may very well be able to do is convince your rider to have done with those idiotish bells, which I think would please you a very great deal, would it not?"

A slight shake of the head.

"I thought it might," Becca murmured, stroking. "However, for this plan to work, we must find your rider, fool though he is, and show proper consideration for his health. In this way, he will come to understand that you had merely laid out a lesson for him, and bear no lasting enmity."

The filly flicked her ears, apparently in some skepticism of this sentiment.

"Come now," Becca murmured, leaning into the warm shoulder. "Own that he might do very well, eventually, if you have the schooling of him."

There was a pause, as the filly considered this, then a sigh of agreement.

"I knew you would be sensible," Becca murmured. "Attend me, now. I am going to take your reins and the two of us will follow your track back to the place where you left your rider." She paused, then reached up and gathered the reins, pulling them gently over the filly's head.

"I am sorry," she said, as she got them turned around and heading back the way the horse had come, "about the bells. If we walk softly, perhaps they won't be
too
bad . . ."

 

They walked slowly, indeed, Becca murmuring commonplaces about the weather and the trees, interspersed with praise for her companion's good sense and forbearance. The bells were, unfortunately, nearly as irritating at a whisper as they were in full throat, and Becca made a mental note to read the filly's rider a very stern lecture, indeed. What person of sense needed to advertise himself in such a wise? If—

There was a movement at the edge of Becca's eye. She turned her head, and the filly stopped, blowing lightly against her shoulder.

"Praise harvest!" Devon Jestecost was somewhat the worse for wear, Becca thought critically. His coat was dusty, and torn, his hat was gone and there was a crusty scrape across one rather pale, downy cheek.

"Good morning, Devon," she said politely, and as if there was nothing the least bit unusual in finding him
en déshabillé
at the side of the road, one leg before him and the other bent at a painful and not entirely natural angle. "Did you lose something?"

"Say rather the wretched beast lost me!" he retorted. "Damn, but I'm glad to see you, Becca! Help me up, will you! I've got to get her back before she's missed!"

Becca stood where she was, the filly's nose against her shoulder.

"Get her back?" she repeated.

"Well, you don't think she's
my
horse, do you? She's Leonard's."

Becca stared. "What in land's bounty can Leonard want with a horse—"
Like this
, she had been about to say.

Devon laughed raggedly. "Since he has the seat of a pig and the grace of a wood carving?"

It was hardly a respectful way to speak of one's elder brother, though it was. Becca acknowledged, regrettably accurate. Alas, Leonard prided himself on his horsemanship, by which he meant his ability to drive horses. His ambitions lay in the direction of the Four Horse Club, though Becca had heard no less a whip than Robert Trawleigh proclaim him "a trivial whipster."

"Best I can make out is Leonard wants to kill himself in style," Devon said—and gasped, his pale face going paler. "Bring the horse over here, Becca, there's a dear. I'll mount off that rock."

"Will you?" Becca said interestedly. "Perhaps you'd like to stand first."

"Well, I would," Devon muttered, "but my leg—"

"Your leg," Becca interrupted him, like he was seven instead of a supposed young gentleman, "is causing you a great deal of pain, is it not? Come, Devon, you and I both know that what you want is a doctor."

"You're out there," he told her sharply. "The
last
thing I want is a doctor." He sighed, then, and closed his eyes, leaning back in the weeds. "Oh, scythe l take it, Leonard will have heard the whole thing from Quince by now."

Becca shook her head. "You told Lord Quince's stable boy that your brother had sent you for the filly?" That would hardly have surprised the boy; Leonard's ineptness in the saddle was legend across the Midlands. What could, Becca thought again, Leonard be thinking? She glanced at the filly standing so still and ladylike beside her.
Not
a cart-horse, this one.

"Well, of course I did," Devon said peevishly. "He wouldn't have let me take her, else. Saddled her right up for me without—"

"With bells on the blanket?" she interrupted him. "Or was that your idea?"

"Scythe, no! What d'you take me for? It's Leonard's tack; he had it sent 'round last night."

"Leonard's lost his mind," Becca pronounced, after due consideration.

"Now, haven't I been saying so for—damn! that hurts."

Becca moved, bringing the horse to the rock Devon had pointed out.

"It's no good," he said. "You're right; I can't even stand, much less ride."

"Yes, but
I
can ride," Becca said. "And had better. First for the doctor. What's her name?"

"Eh? Oh, the filly. Rosamunde. And bells are out some benighted poem Celia Marks has got her head full of lately."

Becca paused with her foot on the rock, the reins gathered in her good hand, and paused, dazzled by a sudden realization. She turned to look at Devon, his face salt white and sweat standing on his upper lip.

"Leonard bought the horse to impress Celia," she said. Of course, he had. Leonard's
other
ambition in life was to secure the hand of the reigning local Beauty.

"She'll be no end impressed when he breaks his fool neck," the gentleman's fond brother returned.

"I suppose. Well." It was, she reflected, a good thing that she had put on a split skirt for the walk to Sonet's. Rosamunde was outfitted with a gentleman's light saddle, which meant she would have to ride astride.

"Becca, is this one of your better ideas?" Devon asked faintly.

"Probably not," she replied. "Do you have a better one?" Silence. "Neither do I. Stay still and try to rest; I shouldn't be long." She turned and put her hand on the filly's elegant neck.

"Rosamunde," she whispered into a delicate ear; "I only have one good arm, and I haven't ridden astride since I was ten. Be kind to me, please."

The ear flicked; Rosamunde turned her head and snorted gently into Becca's hair.

"I can't in conscience ask for more than that," she murmured, and threw herself into the saddle.

It was sorry scramble, but she got herself decently upright, reins in hand. The stirrups were too long for her, and her skirt was bunched uncomfortably, but it would suffice, especially if her mount cooperated.

She leaned forward to whisper into an ear. "To town, beautiful lady." She pressed her right leg against the firm ribs, and Rosamunde turned, heading down the track toward the village at a smooth and seemly walk.

 

Voices were heard over the bells; and the sound of several horses, approaching. Becca pressed her leg against Rosamunde's side. The chestnut stepped to the edge of the path, and stood quite docile and calm, the voices loud in the sudden absence of tinkling.

Becca recognized the deepest voice as belonging to Lord Quince, and the next loudest to Leonard Jestecost. The third, threading between the others, was light and unfamiliar, and for a moment Becca wondered if the last rider was a woman—Daphne Quince, perhaps, who was a notable horsewoman, and took as much interest in her father's stables as he did himself.

". . . tired of his distempers being dismissed as boyish high spirits!" Leonard was saying hotly as he and Lord Quince came 'round the bend in the path, the elder man a little in the lead and Leonard mounted on stolid, patient Ebonsole, the Quince's teaching horse.

Rosamunde nickered, and stamped, twice. Ebby turned his head—and ambled to a stop, Leonard staring from his back.

Lord Quince pulled up beside him, eyes squinted in laughter, and doffed his hat.

"Good morning, Miss Beauvelley," he said gallantly. "Fine morning for a ride."

"Good morning, Lord Quince," she replied evenly. "It is a fine morning, indeed."

The third rider had joined them, reining his high-necked dark stallion in to the right and and slightly behind Leonard and Ebby. Becca received an impression of height, and of an unlocated glitter, which might, after all, have simply been the sun striking off a ring.

"What the
scythe,
" Leonard gritted, "are you doing on my horse? Dismount at once!"

"Here, now, that's no way to talk to Miss Beauvelley," Quince protested. "There's no harm—"

"No harm?
No harm,
you say? To have my horse stolen, and to be made a fool—"

"Peace, peace, young Jestecost," the third rider spoke, his voice as cool and rich as cream. "The horse appears to have taken no hurt, nor has the charming rider. All is, one would consider, well, except perhaps for the vexing question of the young brother who was thought the author of the mischief." He shifted slightly in the saddle and his horse moved forward, showing Becca a tall man, indeed, with golden hair that shone in the sunlight, eyes the color of old ale—

 . . . sharp faced,
Dickon murmured from memory,
but with a good, strong nose . . . 

Those tawny eyes met hers and Becca felt as if her head were full of honey, sweet, golden, and sticky.

"I hope he broke his neck!" Leonard said hotly, and Becca turned to him, feeling the stickiness melt away in a flash of anger.

"In fact, he's only broken his leg," she said keeping her voice calm, and her posture relaxed, so as not to communicate her emotion to her mount. "Rosamunde and I are going for the doctor."

BOOK: Duainfey
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