Bened laughed. “I am certain that when that man gets asked what happened to his ear, your dog will immediately grow ten sizes in the telling.”
Primrose smiled. “I know. So, you do not think they will be hanged?”
“No. They are locals and we were not hurt, they were. It becomes their word against ours. The one I knocked to the ground broke both legs and the other is missing most of his ear. Since I got the feeling they have grown up in this village, it is very likely it will be decided they have paid enough for their crimes. It will all depend on whether they have caused trouble for any of the villagers as well.”
“That seems wrong since they had every intention of killing us for a few coins.”
He shrugged. “The villagers do not know us.”
She nodded and sighed. It was not right but it was often the way of things. It would not even be reported to anyone higher up than the local magistrate. The very last thing any village wanted was to have it known some of their local men had killed two of the gentry. Since the men had failed then no one would see the sense of bringing that sort of trouble down on their heads. And, it was also her aunt who was really the one behind it all yet she still rode around free.
“Do you think my aunt is still close?” she asked.
Bened could feel an itch on the back of his neck but could see nothing threatening and he nodded, deciding the proximity of the woman who wanted them dead was what caused it. “Do you think she will give up?”
“No. I think she has been planning this for a very long time. When small actions gained her nothing she decided to be bolder. Killing my father with no repercussions following probably made her think she could do as she pleased.”
“Even if you had found what she used, it might not have been enough to stop this. Poisoning is very difficult to prove unless you actually catch the killer with the poisoned item in hand while her victim dies at her feet. The fact that she is a gentle-bred lady would only mean you had better have very hard proof.”
She noticed how he kept looking around as he spoke and asked, “Do you sense someone?”
“I do but I see nothing and can get no sense of what direction the threat may be, which means it may not be very close. Just remember, if I suddenly disappear from your side, just keep riding along as if nothing alarms you.”
Primrose nodded but the tension that held him ramrod straight in his saddle, his hand resting on his rifle, soon leeched into her. She looked to her left and realized they rode along the edge of a cliff. Looking down made her dizzy so she quickly turned her gaze elsewhere. A moment later she saw something glint up in the trees just ahead. “What is that?” she asked. “Up ahead and to the right a little. I saw something glint in the sun up in that old oak tree.”
Bened looked in that direction, swore, and drew his rifle, but he was too late. The crack of the rifle shot echoed through the air. Smudge suddenly reared and, to Bened’s horror, Primrose went flying out of the saddle to land at the very edge of the cliff. She clutched at the ground but could not get a firm hold. Before he could race to help her, she lost her tenuous grip and slid over the cliff. He swung around, aimed at the man he could see scrambling down the tree, and fired. The man was still falling as Bened threw himself from his saddle and raced to the edge of the cliff.
His heart was in his throat as he searched for her body on the rocky ground at the bottom but saw nothing. He was heartily cursing himself for missing the danger even though he knew he had felt it, had been looking for it, and had just not had enough time to find it. Then he heard something scrape against the cliff wall. He looked down at the length of the wall and nearly shouted in relief. Primrose was clinging to a ledge, her body half on it and half off. The noise he had heard had been her pulling herself up onto it.
“Bened?” she called as she cautiously stood up on the narrow ledge she had half-landed on.
“Here.” He lay down on the ground and held his arm down. “Can you reach my hand?”
Primrose reached up as far as she could but only brushed his fingertips with her own. “No. Just a few inches too far away. Maybe I can . . .”
“Nay, do not move. I will fetch a rope.”
He took the one on his saddle and found her gloves. Tying the rope around himself, he then tied her gloves on the other end and tossed the rope down to her. It was not until she affixed the rope around her small waist with a skillful knot that his heart ceased beating so fast his chest hurt.
“As I pull, use your feet and hands to save yourself from banging into the rocks.”
“Is the man who shot at me gone?”
“Aye.” Bened glanced toward the tree and saw that the man had not moved. Either his shot or the fall had probably killed him. “Very gone.”
The moment Primrose reached the edge of the cliff Bened grabbed her and yanked her into his arms. He just sat there holding her close and savoring her each and every breath for several minutes before he turned his attention to untying the rope around her waist. He carefully looked her over for any injuries, relieved to find only a few scrapes and bruises he suspected she would know better how to treat than he did. He could have lost her this time, he realized, and knew that the devastation he would feel if that happened had nothing to do with the dangerous circumstances and everything to do with what was growing in his heart.
Primrose checked her horse over and found a deep graze from the bullet along the mare’s right flank. It explained her panicked reaction. After fetching some things from her bags to treat the wound, she mounted her horse and silently followed Bened as he continued along the road. Even though her curiosity urged her to look, Primrose kept her gaze averted from the body sprawled beneath the tree. A faint odor on the breeze told her the man who had tried to kill her was dead and she had no wish to put that image in her mind to haunt her later.
“So are we still going to go to your family?” she asked as she slid her hand into the puppy’s basket and stroked its soft ears to comfort her nerves.
“Aye. Aside from the fact that I cannot keep strewing dead men over the English countryside without having some sheriff or magistrate coming to find out what is going on, that one came too close to being successful. Your aunt is also sending out men to kill us at a faster rate.”
“Because we are getting too close to finding Simeon?”
“I think so. I suspect he is aware of being in danger and probably knows just who it is, but she could yet catch up to him. The last thing she wants is you interfering with that in any way.”
“I pray you are right about Simeon. There is always the chance that she is trying so hard to be rid of me because she has already succeeded in getting rid of Simeon.”
“I just cannot get myself to believe that she has yet been successful in doing that. You said your brother was a very clever fellow, right?”
“He is. Sometimes confusingly so.”
“Then he has to have begun to see that he is being hunted. That is probably why he left his friends with no word of where he was going or why. He suddenly figured out what was happening with your aunt and ran.”
“From your mouth to God’s ears. He is, after all, the one she really needs to be rid of.”
“She needs to be rid of everyone who has had a hand in this. When she hands her idiot husband the barony, she has to be certain there is no one left who knows what she has done or who could even guess what she has done. Anyone she has chased and anyone who has worked with her. There will be a cleansing done when she has rid her world of you and Simeon.”
Primrose shuddered. “She truly has shrugged off any reins that held her back.”
“She has and that makes her a very dangerous woman.”
“Are you certain you wish to bring such a woman anywhere near your family?”
“They will be fine. I suspect a few already know we are coming, maybe even why.”
“Maybe one of them can tell us whether or not Simeon is still alive.”
He reached across the space between them and patted the hand she had clenched so tightly on the reins. “There may be one there who can do just that. Trust me, there will be some help they can give us and they will do so freely.”
Simeon cursed silently as he pressed himself deep into the shadows near the far end of the alley. This time he had gotten the warning too late. He was not sure how he could get away without being seen. His aunt had her men everywhere and he could not let the woman get her hands on him again. Brief though it had been, those few moments in her company had been hell.
The sound of a door opening just to his right startled him and he warily looked at the young woman’s face as she peered out and found him. He was tensed for her to cry out a warning when she held one finger up to her lips and silently told him not to make a sound. Then she signaled him to come inside. She was a pretty little thing with her thick black hair and crystal blue eyes but he did not think she was offering him any more than a handy shelter.
He slipped in and started to speak but she clasped a hand over his mouth. “Follow me,” she whispered so softly he had to strain his ears to hear her.
There was no reasonable other choice for him so he followed her. She led him down a dark hallway to some stairs. Once in the cellar, she moved to a heavy set of shelves holding a lot of wine. She started to pull on it and he hurried over to help her, although it moved very smoothly after the first resistance. Behind it was a stone cave or cell. There was a small bed and table and he noticed someone had added a washing-up table with a jug and bowl as well as a chamber pot. A tray of food and drink was set on a table with one chair pulled up to it.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“It used to be a priest hole. Now it can hide you from the one looking to kill you, m’lord.”
“How do you know someone wants to kill me?”
“I saw it. I am a Wherlocke, you know.”
He was not sure what he was supposed to glean from that so he just nodded. She studied him as if waiting for some reaction to her name and then looked amused. Simeon was not accustomed to women being amused by him but tried not to feel insulted.
“A country lad, are you?” she asked as she walked into the cell and uncovered the plate of food. “No real dealings with the city or society?”
“Not much, no. A bit when I went to Oxford but, otherwise, I was learning to be the baron. I left Oxford after a year for they said I had outpaced them and there was no need for me to do any more than return for each exam. I did.” He shrugged.
“Aye. I saw that you were a smart lad. But she wants you dead. She wants that clever mind of yours destroyed and gone forever. Seems whatever power lets me see what I do does not like that waste.”
“Are you a seer?” he asked.
“A seer?” She laughed and then nodded. “I like that word. A seer. Aye, I see things. All manner of things whether I wish to or nay. Did you think I made a habit of opening doors to strangers, or even wonder how I knew you were hiding there right then and needed to get out of there and hide?”
“It did seem a suspicious coincidence but I was rather out of choices.”
“I do not work for that evil crone chasing you and your sister. She is all dark, not one spark of the light in her. And those men she keeps hiring are not all that much better.” She frowned. “There is one whose only tether to her is fear but not for himself, for others.” She shook her head. “Not that you can do anything about it.” She lit a lamp sitting in the middle of the table. “Now, I have brought some salve for your bruises.”
“I do not have many.”
“I can see by the cautious way you move that you have a lot. Might need to remove your shirt.”
Since he was no untried boy, Simeon had to wonder why her saying he should take his shirt off would make him blush. That thought left his head when she pressed a hand against his back and the pain of it stabbed through him. Grudgingly he took off his shirt and allowed her to tend to the scrapes and bruises he had collected while fighting his aunt’s men. The moment she finished, he put his shirt back on, acknowledging that the salve helped, but only to himself.
“You were lucky to get away,” she said as she pocketed the small pot of salve. “So stay here and I will let you know when it is safe for you to go to your uncle and his man.”
Before he could ask how she knew so much she was gone and he was shut in. He did not even catch her name yet she knew all about the trouble he was in and whom he was trying to get to. Sitting down to eat the aromatic stew she had set out for him, he hoped she was just what she seemed to be. A young woman who saw things and acted upon them, one who would not just turn him over to his aunt. He had to keep surviving, not only for the sake of the name and title of which he was the last in line, but for his sister. They could not let Aunt Augusta win.
Bened was still uncertain about seeking help from his family even as he rode up to his cousin Sir Argus’s new country house. Since the man had married the Duke of Sundunmoor’s daughter he had become quite domesticated. If the number of children running about was any indication, the Duke was visiting, perhaps even others of his family had gathered. They might even know he was in trouble.
“Oh my, your cousin is having a house party,” said Primrose, feeling uneasy about intruding.
His cousin’s country home was massive, not at all what she had anticipated. There was money there and she began to wonder why Bened would think himself below her. One who came from such a group, had relations with such money, and even a duke as a cousin was not considered lesser gentry. His blood was probably a lot richer than hers no matter what his direct family did for a living.
Suddenly the hairs on her arm stood up and she frowned at them. “How odd.”
Bened saw his cousin standing in the doorway of his manor looking every inch the powerful man he was. “Cousin Argus has that effect on a lot of people. He is a very powerful man but do not let him scare you.”
“Would he try to?”
“Sometimes he does not even have to try.” He saw a small woman with red-brown hair hurry out to stand next to Argus. “Ah, now I understand why there are so many of the young ones about. Penelope is here.” He looked at Primrose. “Another cousin. She takes in any of the wee ones bred by some of the more roguish members of the clan. I fear most of them are tossed out by their mothers because of what they can do and despite the nice stipends given to them for the care of the child.”
He laughed as she began to look confused. “Do not worry. The sheer number of them can be confusing but they are good people.”
“And all gifted as you are?”
“With different gifts but I will not weigh you down with what they all are at this time. If any of them display one that alarms, you just let me know. I can explain most of them.”
“Do you know if any here now have a gift that will tell me if my brother is alive and safe?”
“I believe there might be one.”
Bened dismounted after they halted in front of the manor, handed his reins to a stable hand, and then helped Primrose down. He held her hand as he walked up and introduced her to Penelope and Argus. “Is someone in trouble?” he asked.
“According to the letter we got from Chloe that someone is you and your companion,” said Argus. “Penelope brought my boys up for a visit and the duke is here to see his grandchildren. He brought the brood,” Argus said as they started into the house, “including the devil twins.”
“Argus, do not speak so about my brothers,” called out a pretty woman with dark red hair as she hurried up to them and was quickly introduced.
“I will say what I like when it was your father who stole our nanny away by making her a duchess. I know he did it because I took you and he had no one left who could keep those two from destroying the world.” Argus looked back at Bened. “So how bad is this trouble you are in?”
Lady Lorelei sighed, grabbed her husband by the arm, and dragged him into a large front parlor. “At least let them have some drink and perhaps some light refreshments before you badger them.”
Before Primrose could say anything the woman was rushing off to see to refreshments. She looked at the people whom Bened called cousins and with whom he obviously shared a comfortable intimacy. She prayed she did not embarrass him before these people he had such regard for and tried very hard to smother the nervousness that might cause her to stumble.
“Congratulations on your honors,” said Argus. “Knighthood and a baronet as well. Very good. Heard that earl gave you a little piece of land.”
“Aye, not far from Modred’s castle.”
“Pretty around there and good land.”
“Glad to hear it. Have not yet seen the place for myself. It could be something impressive or just a cottage for some farmhand but the acreage is a good amount. I am certain I can think of something to do with it but it is not what troubles me at the moment. Just what did Chloe have to say about me and trouble?”
“Just that you were in trouble, evil follows, and that you were headed this way. If you stopped to ask for help, the cloud of doom hanging over you would ease.”
It was the way Penelope began to giggle and Bened grinned that kept Primrose from being alarmed by the man’s statement of doom and evil. As far as she could tell a lot of these people had gathered here because the woman named Chloe had told them to and to help Bened. Even with that touch of strangeness she began to think might be a deep-set part of the clan, this was the way family should be, she thought, and had the odd urge to cry.
“Chloe says it is you the woman truly wants to hurt,” Penelope said to Primrose.
“Actually, she wants me dead and she wants my brother dead, too,” Primrose said. “That way her husband, my uncle, will become the baron and she will be the lady of the manor.” She looked at Argus. “Did she have anything to say about my brother?”
“Only that he is in danger. Bened being with you made what she saw concerning him more clear. She has no connection to your brother, although she thinks that will be changing. Something about one of us we have missed.”
“Another surprise child?” asked Bened.
“I think she would have said so. She knows us all well enough not to be too shy of saying it bluntly.” Argus shrugged and fixed his gaze on Bened. “You know we lost some of our connections when we had to destroy so many of our own records just to keep people out of the hands of the witch hunters or the church.” Bened nodded. “Well, from time to time another pops up. Could be that is what it is. Another lost connection appearing.”
Lorelei appeared with several maids who efficiently served everyone tea or coffee and set out all manner of little sandwiches and cakes to eat. She then sat down next to Argus whose harsh features softened into a manly beauty when he looked at her. Primrose suffered a pang of jealousy and worked to kill it.
“So one of us is already helping?” asked Penelope.
“Chloe said one of us would lead him to safety so that we should be ready for her. Said she has been alone too long which I take to mean that she has a gift she cannot really share with anyone or has trouble from those who see what she is. But all this trouble will, in the end, lead her to the rest of us.”
“But whoever this is will lead Simeon, my brother, to safety?” Primrose asked, needing to be sure that good news was really what she had heard.
“That is what Chloe said and she has never failed us yet. Now, one cannot just sit back and think it will happen just like that. Chloe does not see everything that happens or everyone who is involved. She sees a possibility and might see one step that is very important for things to change. So, we respond as if someone has just delivered us some information and we act on it.”
Primrose slowly nodded. “Which is probably what is already known and that is why she sees what she does. For you not to help would be out of character and thus change the fate she saw.”
Argus glanced at Bened and grinned before nodding in agreement with Primrose. “Precisely. It does make life difficult, though. She sends out a warning and then you have to think carefully so that you know you are acting as you would normally and not as you think you ought to, which could change the whole. Our cousin Alethea sees things more precisely but also just small parts of the whole. Chloe implied that the one helping your brother is one of them but more. Not sure what that means.”
“I sometimes think our Chloe likes to play at being mysterious,” said Penelope.
“Could be,” agreed Argus. “She can have a puckish sense of humor. But I believe what she does is try to be far too careful about putting her own interpretation on what she sees. We get a perfect description of what she saw. She doesn’t want us to know what she thinks because it could change what she saw.”
“So Simeon is still alive and will be safe,” Primrose whispered.
“He obviously does not have people shooting at him from the roadside,” said Bened.
“Why is your aunt trying so hard to see you dead?” asked Penelope. “You cannot inherit anything, can you?”
“No. But I think she realizes I might have guessed what she is up to and she will not allow that. Bened believes that, too. She will be rid of anyone who helped her or who she believes has guessed what game she played. I am still finding it difficult to understand how none of us saw this in her in all the years she has been lurking around.”
“The closer it is the harder it can be to see,” said Lorelei.
“I suppose.” Primrose helped herself to one of the small cakes and immediately her puppy popped its head out of the basket she had carried in with her, causing both of the other women to gasp and then laugh.
“I am sorry. I did not even ask if it was permissible to bring her in. I have just gotten so used to carrying the basket with me everywhere. Is it allowed or do you have a place for dogs?”
“No, it is fine,” said Lorelei, and she elbowed Argus when he muttered something. “A tiny dog like that will be no bother. What happened to its eye?”
“Does not have one. Born that way.”
Lorelei moved closer and patted the dog. “Even with that mar it is quite a beautiful little dog.”
“It is a man-eater,” said Bened, and he grinned when Primrose protested.
“No, she is not. She was protecting me and went for the man’s throat.”
“She must have been feeling a bit peckish because she missed that and ate the man’s ear.”
“Stop it. If the fool had not yanked her off before she let go of him, she would not have taken a piece off.”
“If one wished to, I suspect you could sew the piece back on,” said Penelope.
Bened shook his head. “Dog ate it. That is what I am saying—a man-eater.”
Primrose shook her head. “She is just a puppy. Put anything in a puppy’s mouth and it will try to eat it.”
Penelope was laughing so hard she had to hold her stomach and Bened grinned at her. “Think that funny, Pen, you should have seen her expression when the puppy, fresh from her mangling of the man, licked her face.” He nodded when Penelope laughed even harder.
“You will have to excuse our Pen,” said Lorelei, even though she was grinning. “She has spent much of her life surrounded by young lads. Her humor sometimes reflects that influence.”
“Poor puppy,” Primrose said, scratching the dog’s ears. “I need to give her a name. Cannot keep calling her Puppy.”
“What were you thinking of? Anything in particular?”
“I was thinking of Boudicca or Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.”
“Very impressive names.”
“Bigger than the dog,” murmured Bened.
“She tried to save my life. She deserves the name of a strong woman.”
“Boudicca then,” said Argus. “She hurled herself at a much larger foe and somehow came out of the fight the victor.”
“Boudicca then. I had best take her for an airing and, if there is a place where I may do so, I would really like to wash off the road dust and the rock dust from the fall.”
“What fall?” asked Argus.
Bened explained what happened and Primrose suddenly found both women escorting her off to a bedchamber. Sir Argus told his wife to put her and Bened at the far end of the guest wing, which caused Lorelei to give him an odd look, but Primrose was quickly distracted by the chatter of the two women as they led her away. They gave her a thorough look-over, putting some healing cream on her scrapes and bruises, and showing the dog a tiny walled-in area where it could go outside. Boudicca rushed out, did her business, and raced back in to sit at Primrose’s feet so fast both women laughed.
“She is very attached to you,” said Lorelei.
“I suspect it is because I saved her from drowning.” At their encouragement she told them the whole story and realized she had been a little reckless. “I suppose Bened calling her a man-eater is a bit better than having him continue to call her a rat.”
Before Primrose knew it she was chatting freely with her new friends as they led her outside to meet some of the others. The first thing she noticed was that there were a lot of boys. One little girl with thick black curls and dark blue eyes took it all in her stride, doing as she pleased, and facing down any boy who tried to stop her.
It was overwhelming. She was so jealous she felt guilty. This is what she had always wanted. A huge, boisterous family one could always turn to for help, comfort, or a little bit of loving madness. When they returned to the house she excused herself and went back to the bedchamber they had said was hers. She needed to do something to smother these little bouts of jealousy before she said something to give herself away. Settling down on the bed, she welcomed Boudicca into her arms and soon fell asleep.
“Penelope, have you seen Primrose?” asked Bened.