The old man in the powdered wig eyed Kate's pistol and sniffed. "I'll make you a wager, Sir." His travelling companion, a young clergyman by his clothes, rolled his eyes.
"Will you, by God?" Kate had encountered some strange reactions to being held up, but this was a new one.
"Ay. Consider yourself to be a good swordsman, do you?"
The over-rouged ancient, who from his garb and the coat of arms on his carriage door could be none other than the Earl of Avebury himself, cocked his head to one side. "Then I have 20 guineas that say you can't beat my chaplain in a fair fight."
"My lord!" protested the chaplain.
"Remember who pays your wages, Berrigan."
The clergyman sighed, and examined his fingernails.
"Let me get this clear." Kate resisted the urge to scratch her head. "You want me to fight a man of the cloth?"
"That's the size of it. Rapiers. No daggers. First man disarmed is the loser."
A thought struck her. Maybe this was the Earl's way of stalling for time. Backing out of the carriage, she satisfied herself that no men in the Earl's livery were rushing across the moonlit heath towards them, and ducked back inside.
"Well? What do you say, Sir?" Avebury's eyes glinted. "Think my chaplain might be too much for you?"
This was madness. If the old man had 20 guineas on him, Kate should simply demand he hand it over. But the wager intrigued her. What could a chaplain know about swordplay? "What's to stop me from relieving you of the money even if I lose?"
The old man smiled, revealing stained, gapped teeth. "Your word."
Kate snorted. "The word of a highwayman?"
"Of a fellow gamester, Sir."
She pursed her lips. The chaplain was wearing neither swordbelt nor baldric. "Do you even own a sword, Sir?" Berrigan nodded "And you have no objection to this bout?" He glanced at his employer, opened his mouth, closed it again, and shook his head.
Avebury cackled. "That's the ticket."
Kate hesitated a moment longer then pulled a coin from her coat pocket. "Heads, we fight. Tails, I just take the money. Agreed?"
The Earl rolled his eyes. "Agreed. For heaven's sake, man, get on with it."
She tossed the sixpence. Three pairs of eyes followed its spinning progress before it clattered onto the carriage floor beside the chaplain's scuffed shoes.
The Earl rubbed his hands together and turned to his employee. "It's up to you then, Berrigan. Lose and the money's coming out of your wages."
Kate retrieved her sixpence and backed out of the carriage. The chaplain stepped down, walking past the bound figures of the footman and coachman to retrieve a rectangular case from among the Earl's luggage. Avebury's stubby legs dangled out of the door as he settled himself on the carriage floor for a ringside view.
She removed her hat, baldric, and coat, and drew her sword. The clergyman took an elaborately tooled scabbard from the case, unsheathed a swept-hilt rapier, and made a few practice passes with it. Kate's eyes widened as the finest Toledo steel glimmered in the moonlight. This was no novice.
The Earl chuckled and she threw him a filthy glance before returning her attention to the man in the black cassock. He lifted his rapier in salute, then assumed the on guard position. She did the same, muscles tensing in readiness.
For a long moment they eyed one another, then Berrigan engaged her blade. Kate found the going easy at first, but she didn't relax. He was merely gauging her reach, she knew, testing her mobility and defences. Once he had her measure, he would begin in earnest. And so it proved. Soon a flurry of controlled yet vicious strokes had put her on her back foot. Grimly, she parried, riposted, twisted, and lunged, evading a slash to her masked cheekbone by the fraction of an inch, watching her opponent's eyes for clues as to his intentions and finding few. At last, with difficulty, she managed to regain the initiative and to force Berrigan back a few steps.
By mutual consent they broke off to regroup. Her forearm stung, and she saw that her sleeve now sported a bloody slash. The chaplain was unmarked and though his colour was heightened, his breathing sounded even. Kate's shirt, on the other hand, was soaked and her chest was heaving. She wished she could take off her disguise and wipe the sweat from her face.
"Better than you thought he'd be, ain't he?"
Kate ignored the Earl's taunt and kept her eyes on the chaplain.
"Ready?" Berrigan raised his blade once more. She nodded.
This time, when the chaplain's edge came cutting towards her, she was ready. Parry. Riposte. Quick forward step. Upward cut. Ward. Duck and roll. Oof! She scrambled back to her feet. Slash. Lunge and thrust. Determined to finish this quickly, she pressed her attack with all the energy she could muster.
Silvered blades flashed in the moonlight as the combatants swayed to and fro, the heath echoing to the sounds of feet stamping on turf, lungs gasping, and the clash of steel. Horses whinnied and rattled their traces as Kate pressed Berrigan backwards towards the carriage, until he recovered himself and forced her in her turn to give way step by grudging step. This time it was Clover who nickered a protest and moved out of her mistress's way.
Kate lost all track of time and of the reason they were fighting. This was no longer about guineas but about which of them was the best. She slid out of Berrigan's body charge, turned, and engaged his blade again. Then, just for the barest moment, she found herself inside his guard. Quick as thought, out snaked her rapier.
"'S blood!" The oath revealed, if his expert swordsmanship hadn't already, that he hadn't always been a clergyman. He pulled back and examined his cut sleeve and bleeding forearm. His gaze when it returned to hers was edged with respect.
"Better than you thought I'd be?" He gave her a rueful nod. "Shall we finish this?" She resettled her grip, raised her rapier, and stepped forward.
Traverse. Lunge and thrust low. Almost got him then. Disengage. Slide. That was too close for comfort. Parry and riposte. Horizontal cut. Devil take him, but he's good! Ward. Reverse cut. Didn't like that, did you? Circle. Feint. Diagonal rising cut...
They were so well matched, the bout could have gone on forever, but suddenly Berrigan, straightening from a crouch, caught the heel of his shoe in the hem of his cassock, and for a crucial moment his balance went and his attention wavered. Kate brought the flat of her blade up hard, aiming for the knuckles which at this angle weren't protected by the swept-hilt. He yelped and in spite of himself loosened his grip. With a deft flick, she disarmed him and watched, chest heaving, as the expensive sword sailed through the air and landed several yards away.
"Deuce take it! You let a common highwayman beat you, Berrigan. Shame on you." They ignored the Earl's indignant shout.
"My wager, I think." A relieved Kate held out a hand.
Still flexing his stinging fingers, the chaplain straightened. "Indeed, Sir." He clasped her hand and shook it, then indicated the bloodied slashes on both their forearms. "We were evenly matched, you and I. May I ask where you learned to use a sword?"
Kate was silent, remembering long summer days spent with Ned and Ralph in the yard, using wooden swords to start with then progressing to the real thing. Her good-natured brothers had been overjoyed when at last she had succeeded in besting them, but she had found the victory oddly dissatisfying. "My brothers taught me."
"They taught you well." Berrigan bowed and she returned the gesture.
While the chaplain retrieved his weapon, wiped it clean of grass and dirt, and slid it into its scabbard, Kate put on her coat and hat and wished she had a change of shirt in her saddlebag. The bewigged old Earl had struggled to his feet by the time she returned to the coach. His expression was disgruntled.
"My winnings, my Lord." She held out a gloved hand.
He dug in the capacious pocket of his coat, pulled out a leather purse that clinked, and flung it at her. "Here, damn your eyes!"
Not very sporting. She plucked it out of the air, checked its contents, grinned, and bowed. "A pleasure doing business with you."
The night air felt wonderful against Kate's face and she took off her tricorne to allow it to cool her hairline.
"Hardest 20 guineas I've ever earned," she grumbled, as she let Clover set her own pace across the springy turf and heather. For all Kate's complaining, a sense of wellbeing suffused her. Berrigan had been no mean swordsman, yet she had beaten him.
She had left Avebury's coach far behind, and the track she was following was barely discernible in the moonlight. But even by night she knew the heath like the back of her hand. As she rode past a copse of spindly trees, a barn owl took flight with a hiss and a flap of pale wings. She turned her head to watch it begin a long, slow glide, its unwinking gaze fixed on the ground below. Lord help any small rodents tonight.
Somewhere a dog fox barked. Had Kate been of a superstitious bent, the shrill, lonely call combined with the ghostly shape now sweeping low over the heath would have made her shiver. Instead she pictured herself in the snug of the Rose and Crown, ale in hand, telling of tonight's duel. Some of her friends would applaud her audacity. But Stephenson would most likely call her a fool for risking injury in pursuit of what was hers already. And he would be right.
Yet if I had to do it all again, I probably would. She chuckled and shook her head.
The southern edge of the heath came in sight, and more importantly, the highway alongside it. Though badly maintained, the surface would be easier going than the uneven thatch, occasional bog, and rabbit holes that posed a constant risk to both horse and rider. Kate urged Clover up the gentle incline, and seconds later hooves were clattering on stone.
Kate had been humming to herself as she rode, lulled by the rhythmic motion, thinking first of the duel with the Earl of Avebury's chaplain then of the kiss she had given Rebeccah. How else to account for her lapse of attention? Too late she registered the approaching clip clop of hooves and jingle of harnesses.
A group of dragoons, their scarlet coats black in the moonlight, rounded the bend up ahead. Public discontent about the prevalence of footpads and highwayman in and around London had been growing more strident. Perhaps this armed patrol was the result. Whatever the reason, it was unfortunate. Though Kate was no longer wearing her mask and kerchief, the mere fact of her presence abroad at this hour would be enough to raise their suspicions. And should they discover her gender and the contents of her saddlebags ....
"You there, halt!" bellowed the dragoon captain, using his tricorne to whip his horse into a gallop. With whoops and shouts, his men spurred their mounts and followed.
"That's all I need," muttered Kate, "to play the fox to their hounds."
Muttering an apology for bruising Clover's mouth, she hauled on the reins, and urged the mare off the highway. Close by was an area of dense woodland that Kate knew well but hoped her pursuers didn't.
As she arrowed towards it, a loud crack was followed by something whizzing over her right shoulder. She ducked in reflex, then glanced back and saw one of the soldiers was lowering his musket. Glancing forward once more, she found she had reached the edge of the wood and Clover was about to plough between two trees, speed unchecked.
"Whoops!" Kate ducked a low branch intent on removing her hat and reined in Clover to a less suicidal pace.
As she made her way deeper into the wood, the tree trunks crowded closer, muffling the shouts of her pursuers. Whipping branches left sap and scratches on her cheeks, and the leaf litter churned up by Clover's hooves added an earthy note to the aroma of rotting wood, fungi, and foliage.
The track Kate was following led eventually to a clearing, and as Clover thundered through it, past a startled badgers' sett, a blackbird burst from the undergrowth with a loud chattering cry of alarm. Kate managed to keep her seat as the mare shied, but it was a near thing.
After a heartpounding moment, she regained control of her mount. Somewhere close by, a twig snapped like a musket shot. With a muffled curse, Kate kneed Clover into motion once more.
She took a deer trail that led down a wooded, steeply descending slope. Twice Clover lost her footing, first on a stone, and then on a protruding tree root, each time sliding several feet. Kate soothed the snorting mare and made noises of encouragement, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder.
The sound of running water grew steadily louder. At the bottom of the incline, she paused to let Clover catch her breath, then guided her towards the line of trees marking the brook. Urging the mare past an overhanging willow and into the shallow water, Kate turned her towards the north. Clover shook her mane in protest then resigned herself to placing her hooves carefully on the stony bottom. The brook burbled, and Clover's legs swished, and in the distance Kate could hear the dragoons shouting and calling to one another.
They went several hundred yards upstream before Kate was satisfied. With a squeeze of the knees and a light tap of the reins, Kate urged the mare up the bank. Once on dry land again, she turned onto a bearing that would, if her sense of direction was up to scratch, bring her back to the point where she had entered the wood. The dragoons would not expect that. At least, she hoped so.
And so it proved. Soon, to her relief, the shouts, curses, whistles, and sporadic crack of twigs underhoof had faded. The sounds of the night returned. Somewhere, an owl hooted. It was a peaceful sound.
She slowed Clover to a comfortable pace and patted her lathered neck. This time, the fox outwitted the hounds.
When at last she emerged into the open, there was no sign of pursuit. Somewhere deep in the dense woodland's heart, the dragoons were searching for her. Kate gave a satisfied grunt and headed Clover back towards the deserted highway. An hour later than she had planned, she turned the mare's head towards London
"Where have you been?" Alice put her hands on her hips.
Kate raised an eyebrow and finished closing the door. "Pardon me, my dear. I intended meeting you at the Rose and Crown, truly, but other ... matters detained me." She gestured at herself, and the landlady's eyes widened as she took in Kate's scratched appearance.
Kate dumped her saddlebags on the floor, and hung her hat and baldric from the door hook.
"It's just as well you were delayed." Alice stepped forward to help Kate out of her coat. "Or you'd be sharing a cell with John Stephenson."
"What the Devil?" Kate stopped unbuttoning her shirt and stared at the other woman. "What happened?"
"Who else? We were enjoying a quiet drink in the snug, and in comes the thieftaker and a band of his bullyboys armed with sticks and truncheons. They were looking for you."
Kate frowned. "Me?" This is an unwelcome development.
"'Blue-eyed Nick' at least. ... Said they had reliable information you frequented the Rose and Crown."
"Did they, by God!"
Alice nodded. "I was never so frightened in all my life. They took their cudgels to any who refused to answer their questions or who so much as looked at them ill, especially the Mollies, poor wretches. I've never seen so many broken heads and bloodied noses. One of the fiddle players had his own instrument smashed over his head.... And all the while, Josselin just looked on with this strange smile on his face." She shuddered. "That monster!"
Kate resumed her unbuttoning and took off her shirt. "And Elborrow stood by and did nothing?"
"Even if he hadn't been so badly outnumbered, he hadn't much choice, Kate. I was close enough to overhear their conversation. Elborrow was furious. Asked what did Josselin think he was doing, for he paid Bodenham Titt well to leave the tavern alone."
"The Beadle, eh? I knew Elborrow had someone in his pocket, just didn't know who." Kate scratched her chin. "What was Josselin's reply?"
"He couldn't give a fart what Elborrow's prior arrangements were. He'd just paid the Beadle a handsome sum for immunity, and if his men broke limbs or even killed some of the regulars in the course of tracking down a felon, it was no skin off his nose. Especially since they were most likely pickpockets and footpads who would be no loss to society."
"Christian of him!" Kate stepped out of her knee breeches, picked up the pile of discarded clothes and carried them into the bedroom where she dumped some in the laundry basket and flung the rest on a chair. Alice followed and watched her cross to the washstand and pour water into the basin.
"Go on," said Kate, wincing as soap found its way into the gash on her forearm and the scratches on her cheeks.
"When Josselin's men told him they'd found no trace of you," continued Alice, "he started looking for others to arrest. That's when Stephenson made a run for it."
"Fool!" She reached for a towel. "Chances are Josselin didn't know who he was."
"I know." Alice sighed. "And for a moment, I thought Stephenson had made it to safety... But the thieftaker had more of his bullyboys stationed outside the exits. Last I saw, Josselin had him trussed like a turkey and bound for Newgate."
"Poor devil!" Kate loosed her hair and tried to get the knots out with her fingers.
"Here, let me." Alice grabbed a hairbrush and pointed to a chair. Kate nodded her thanks and sat down. "When you didn't come home," heavy-handed brushstrokes betrayed the strength of Alice's feelings, "I thought you'd been taken too."
"Some dragoons chased me," admitted Kate, "but I gave them the slip."
"Dragoons?" The brushstrokes grew more violent.
Kate took Alice's hand and gentled her strokes. "I'm not a horse."
"It's getting too dangerous."
"That's half the fun."
Alice threw the brush across the room, stalked towards the window, and stood, arms folded, staring out into the night.
Kate rose and moved behind her, hesitating before wrapping her arms around the other woman, and burying her nose in fragrant red hair. "I've never hidden either my occupation or the fact that's it's dangerous, now have I?" she asked, her voice muffled.
"Then why so upset now? Thieftakers have tried to take me before and failed." Not Josselin, admittedly. "Nothing's changed."
"Yes it has." Alice's voice was thick with emotion. "I didn't ... care for you then as much as I do now."
Ashamed she was unable to return the older woman's sentiment, Kate pulled her closer. "If it makes you feel any better," she murmured, "I'll avoid the Rose and Crown from now on, lie low for a few days ... until Josselin has lost interest."
Alice gave a strangled laugh. "You wouldn't be welcome there anyway. Elborrow's barred you."
"What?" She blinked. "The ungrateful wretch! After all I've —"
"He had no choice, Kate." Alice turned within the circle of her arms and regarded her. "Josselin threatened to report him for receiving stolen goods. Said if he got off on that charge he'd tell the brewery Elborrow was running a disorderly house. Either way he'd lose his licence."
"Ah." Kate scratched her nose. "Fair enough. I'll miss Mrs Elborrow's oyster pies though."
Alice's eyes flashed and she slapped Kate, hard. "Damn you!"
Kate rubbed her cheek. "What was that for?"
"For not taking anything seriously." The other woman stamped her foot. "Faith! If you had been at the Rose and Crown as arranged, Kate, Josselin would have earned himself a Tyburn Ticket for your capture."
"True." Kate brushed a lock of red hair behind Alice's ear. "But I wasn't." She leaned in to kiss a flushed cheek, the corner of a soft mouth. "I'm here with you. And much nicer surroundings these are," she indicated the bed, "than the condemned hold at Newgate." An earlobe loomed so she nibbled it. "Why don't we make the most of it, eh?" She caressed a corset-clad breast then glanced up and saw eyes glazed with desire. "Take off your clothes, my dear, and let's enjoy ourselves."
For a moment longer, Alice resisted her blandishments, then with a soft curse and a sigh, she allowed herself to be led towards the bed.
Rebeccah peered out at the darkening sky and bit her lip. Instead of crossing Putney Heath while it was still light, in convoy with other concertgoers, they were alone and night was drawing in.
"It wasn't Robert's fault, Madam," repeated her maid. "Some urchins meddled with the traces."
"That's as may be, Mary, but they wouldn't have been able to meddle with the traces if he had stayed with the carriage instead of going off with you and Will."
Mary flushed and looked away, her manner stiff. "Beg pardon, Madam, I'm sure."
Rebeccah sighed. It wasn't the maid's fault, after all. "No, I beg yours, Mary. The truth is I would far rather have joined you three for a walk in the sunshine than been cooped up indoors, listening to that caterwauling. But please don't tell Mama I said so."
Mary's lips twitched. "I thought Mr Abel was meant to be much admired."
"In moderation his voice may well be bearable. And I'm sure my mother, had she not been in bed with a sick headache, would have enjoyed him immensely — she is always eager to hear the latest songs from the Continent. But my preferred idea of entertainment," continued Rebeccah, glad that Mary was no longer upset with her, "would have been a trip to the New Theatre. Congreve's plays are always amusing, especially when Mrs Barry and Mrs Bracegirdle are on top form."
The concert at Richmond Wells had been Mrs Dutton's idea. Anne was still visiting her friend in the country, so it had fallen to Rebeccah to keep her mother company. Five shillings each, the tickets had cost them, and at the last moment, a megrim had confined Mrs Dutton to her bed. Worse still, she had insisted her indisposition should not prevent her daughter from attending the concert (in spite of Rebeccah's increasingly broad hints that she would not mind in the least).
So after the tedious drive, made longer by the carriage having to go via London Bridge, Rebeccah had found herself amongst an audience of inveterate fidgets, coughers, and sneezers, perched on a chair that grew harder by the minute, wishing herself outside listening to birdsong instead of to Mr Abel, who seemed overly pleased with himself and his high-voiced performance.
When the concert ended at last, releasing her from purgatory, an eager Rebeccah sought the peace and quiet of her carriage, only to find that the horses had broken free of the traces and her redfaced maid, footman, and coachman were darting around trying to retrieve them, while the amused locals looked on.
In the end, a couple of onlookers took pity on them and came to the servants' rescue. Soon the four horses were recaptured and yoked to the traces. The delay had cost Rebeccah's party dear, though, and the other concertgoers' conveyances had departed an hour ago.
As the carriage swayed and rocked its way along the highway across Putney Heath, Rebeccah chewed her lip and wondered why the urchins had targeted her carriage. True, Robert had left it unattended, but Mary insisted that other coachmen had done the same. Was it just chance that had made the urchins release her horses, or had someone instructed them to do so? And had it been done out of a sense of mischief or to delay her?
A thought struck her then, making her heart race and her cheeks heat so that she was glad the dimness of the interior hid them from Mary's gaze. Suppose Blue-Eyed Nick was trying to contrive another meeting. It had been a week since the kiss. Would he demand another one? And this time, would he insist it be on the lips?
Distant shouts roused Rebeccah from her pleasant daydream. With a start she became aware that the coach's pace had increased to the point of recklessness. Then came a pistol shot, and the boom of a blunderbuss. The coach slowed, almost catapulting the maid into Rebeccah's lap.
They disentangled themselves. "It could be Blue-Eyed Nick," said Rebeccah, unsure whether she was trying to reassure Mary or herself.
But a moan from the footman's position at the rear of the coach turned her anticipation to dread, and she couldn't bring herself to peer out of the window for fear of what would meet her gaze.
The carriage door opened. "Well, well, what have we here?"
The man's bulk took up the width of the doorway. A mask hid the top part of his face, but the bottom half was bare. A badly healed scar at the corner of his mouth had left him with a permanent sneer.
He turned his head and called to someone out of sight, "Couple of birds ripe for the plucking, boys." Removing his tricorne to reveal a wig badly in need of refurbishment, he made a mock bow. "At your service, ladies." His laughter was cruel, and so was the glint in his steel-grey eyes, as he put on the hat and grabbed hold of the carriage door to help himself up.
The vehicle tilted under his weight as he stepped inside, lowering his head to avoid braining himself on the roof, bringing the stench of unwashed clothes, horseflesh, and fried onions with him. Both women shrank away until their backs were pressed against the far side of the carriage.
"Aw, don't be like that." The highwayman's grin revealed tobacco-stained teeth. "Just 'cause I ain't one of your fancy gents drenched in lavender water." He reached for Rebeccah's pearl necklace, and tugged, too hard. The string broke, scattering pearls everywhere. "Devil take it!" His grin became a scowl.
Another man, as small and skinny as his companion was bearlike, appeared in the doorway. Though masked, his sharp features reminded Rebeccah of a rat. "Only two?" said the newcomer with a frown. "How are we going to split 'em between three of us?"
"Jemmy'll have to make do with our leavings."
Rebeccah's signet ring glinted and the man with the scar reached out a meaty hand. "I'll take that pretty gewgaw." He winked. "And then I'll take you."
The threat galvanised Rebeccah out of the paralysis that had overtaken her. She kicked him between the legs, reached for the door handle, and tumbled out of the carriage to the hard ground.
"Ow!" She rubbed her stinging elbow and staggered to her feet.
A lanky highwayman (Jemmy, presumably) was using a willow switch to drive the unhitched team across to where three horses were cropping grass. He threw her a startled glance.
Rebeccah lifted her skirts, and ran, but had gone barely five steps when she heard, "Stop or I'll blow your friend's brains out." The bellow halted her in her tracks, and she turned, heart hammering.
The scarred man's sneer was more pronounced than ever. He had dragged Mary from the coach and now had the muzzle of a cocked pistol pressed to her temple. Every instinct was screaming at Rebeccah to keep running, but she couldn't leave her maid in such peril. Lifting her chin, she turned and walked back towards the carriage.
"Lookit that," laughed Ratface. "She's taken a shine to yer, Jack."
Rebeccah ignored the lewd exchange that followed, and walked as slowly as she dared, her eyes darting from side to side.
A liveried figure lay motionless beside the highway. The coachman. Is Robert shamming? On the ground beside him lay his blunderbuss, but smoke curling from its muzzle revealing that she would have to look elsewhere for a weapon.
Remembering the moaning, she sought out Will. The footman was sitting on the road by the rear of the carriage, both hands clutching a bloodied thigh.
No help there.
She came to a halt a yard from Jack. The maid's gaze was full of terror and Rebeccah shot her an encouraging glance, which was difficult considering her knees were knocking and her mouth so dry she had to clear her throat to get the words out.
"Let her go, Sir, I beg you."
The big highwayman cocked his head to one side. "Not so hoity-toity, now, eh?" He shoved Mary aside with such force she fell over, and reached for Rebeccah, spinning her round and squashing her so tightly against his barrel chest she could barely draw breath.
"You're going to regret kicking me in the stones." His breath was hot in her ear and the scratch of bristles made her want to vomit.
Ratface, meanwhile, had decided to grab Mary and received a slap from the struggling woman, provoking guffaws from his colleagues.
"I'll make you pay for that, baggage!" He forced the maid's hands down by her sides, and looked at Jack. "Can I take her now?"
Will tried to rise. "No! Take the horses and valuables, but let the women go."
Jemmy crossed to the footman and knocked him back down with a blow and a curt, "Shut up!"
"Please listen to him," urged Rebeccah. "If you release us unharmed, I'll give the constables a false description of you and say there were seven in your gang not three." But the arm around her tightened and she bit her lip against the pain.
"You shouldn't have kicked me," growled her captor, beginning to drag her backwards.
Oh God! His grip was unbreakable. She dug in her heels, but succeeded only in leaving drag masks. Then the scarfaced man let out an odd little huf and the arm imprisoning her went limp. Rebeccah gaped at it in incomprehension, then jerked herself free and turned round.
The eyes behind Jack's mask were sightless, and he had acquired a hole in the centre of his forehead. He dropped heavily to one knee, then to both, then toppled forward, teeth crunching on the surface of the highway.
Only then did Rebeccah register the drumming of hooves, which had been at the edge of her hearing for several minutes. She turned and blinked at the masked rider on a black horse thundering across the heath towards her, a smoking pistol in one gloved hand.
"Blue-Eyed Nick!" cried Mary, looking as startled as Rebeccah felt. He was 100-yards away and closing fast. She found it hard to breathe.
"Devil take 'im!" Ratface drew his pistol and cocked it. "This is our snaffle. Look lively, Jemmy." He took careful aim.
Rebeccah's warning came too late for the maid to do anything. The crack of the pistol was deafening. Fearful, Rebeccah peered through the acrid blue smoke that surrounded them and saw the rider still coming, his progress unchecked.
Thank the Lord!
Jemmy was rummaging in one of the horses' saddlebags. He emerged with a blunderbuss and took aim.
"No!" Rebeccah hurtled towards him, grabbing his arm just as the weapon went off.
The lanky highwayman tried to club her with his blunderbuss. Her ears were still ringing and bright afterimages flecked her vision, but she managed to dodge the blow. He raised the blunderbuss again then came the crack of a pistol shot and he grunted. For a moment he remained frozen, arm raised, then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed.
Rebeccah straightened cautiously. When the toe of her shoe in Jemmy's ribs didn't get a reaction, she stooped and rolled him over on his back. A dark stain was spreading from the hole drilled through his waistcoat.
The hoofbeats were louder now, and she looked up just as Blue-Eyed Nick reined his lathered horse to a halt five yards away. The pale eyes behind the mask were as icy as she had ever seen them. He discarded the smoking pistol and drew his sword.
"Let her go." The order was aimed at Ratface who now had a knife to Mary's throat.
"Damned if I will! We worked hard to set up this lay, and no jumped-up wool-snaffler is going to snatch the proceeds."
Blue-Eyed Nick dug in his heels and urged his mare forward. His rapier glinted in the moonlight, and Ratface's eyes widened as he backed a few steps, dragging his squirming captive with him.
"No need to take it nasty. We can come to some arrangement, can't we?" Sweat beaded the little man's upper lip as the horse continued to advance. "Now don't be unreasonable. She's my bargaining chip." Mary's mew of terror made Rebeccah's stomach lurch. "How about a third. That's fair, ain't it?" He licked his lips. "Come now, a third is a sizeable snack."
As the rider continued his silent advance, Ratface stepped back ... and caught his heel in a tuft of grass. Blue-Eyed Nick struck, leaning so far out of his saddle Rebeccah was amazed he kept his seat. The rapier whisked the knife from the maid's throat, and she gasped, dropped to the ground, and curled herself up like a hedgehog. Ratface was still gaping down at Mary when the rapier skewered him through the eye.
It was like some macabre tableaux, thought Rebeccah, unable to tear her gaze from the horrific sight. With a dull sucking sound, the blade withdrew, sprinkling her with something warm and wet, and Ratface crumpled to the ground. Jolted out of her fugue, and clamping down on her revulsion, she hurried over to join her sobbing maid.
"There, there." She wrapped her arms around the other woman. "It's all right, Mary. We are safe." She caught sight of her bloodspattered skirts and grimaced. "Though our dresses are somewhat spoiled."
She glanced up and saw Blue-Eyed Nick was wiping his blade on a kerchief. He caught her gaze, his eyes warming perceptibly.
"We are safe, aren't we?"
She turned back to the woman in her arms, whose trembling seemed to be subsiding. "Did you hear that, Mary?"
"Thank the Lord!" murmured the maid, uncurling.
Rebeccah looked up at their saviour once more and paused. Was it her imagination or was the highwayman swaying in his saddle? "Good heavens!" She released Mary, stood up, and took a pace towards him. "Are you hurt?"
He sheathed his sword, drew off a glove and touched long fingers to his left shoulder. They came away coated with something dark and glistening. "I'll be hanged if that first shot didn't ... " He turned to regard her. "A mere pinprick, Madam. Please, do not concern yourself." But the swaying was becoming more pronounced and his eyes widened. "Pox take it, I think I —" With boneless grace he toppled from his saddle.
The black mare's ears flicked forward, and she nosed the man lying at her feet, then tugged the cuff of one sleeve with her teeth. When he didn't stir, she nickered soft and low and tugged the cuff again.
Rebeccah bent to examine the fallen rider, but the mare startled her by squealing and butting her hand away with its nose.
"Hold, girl." She held out a hand, palm up. "I'm not going to harm him."
Nostrils flared as the horse scented her, and large brown eyes regarded her from close quarters. After a moment, to Rebeccah's relief, the mare nickered and backed a few paces.
She bent and examined Blue-Eyed Nick's left shoulder. The coat, waistcoat, and shirt beneath it were soaked with blood.
"Is he dead?" asked Mary, who had recovered enough to join her mistress.
"A swoon." Rebeccah bit her lip. "So much blood!"
"We must pack the wound." The dumpy maid scanned their surroundings and pursed her lips. "I need moss."
Rebeccah gave her a doubtful look. "Out here, in the middle of nowhere?"
"Ay, Madam. In fact we couldn't have picked a better spot."
Mary's mother had been a Cunning Woman, and she had learned country lore at her knee. The Duttons had quickly learned to entrust their health to their maid's care before paying out good money to an apothecary or physician, whose treatments were often ineffective and sometimes fatal.
But staunching Blue-Eyed Nick's wound was one thing, leaving him swooning and vulnerable on the Heath quite another.
"Help me get him into the carriage first." ordered Rebeccah, grabbing the unconscious highwayman under the arms. Mary hesitated then took his feet.
He was lighter than expected, but it still was hard work dragging him towards the carriage. The mare pawed the ground and followed them.
"May we assist you, Madam?"
The footman was limping towards them. Beside him staggered a dazed-looking coachman.
"Robert!" squealed Mary, setting her burden down. "You're alive."
The coachman grinned at her then winced and put a hand to the back of his head. "My head aches like Blazes. The whoreson clubbed me, Mary. " He glanced at Rebeccah, "Begging your pardon, Madam."
"Granted." Rebeccah frowned at the footman's bloody thigh. "Should you be walking on that, Will?"
"It looks worse than it is, Madam. The bleeding's stopped though it stings a fair bit." He jerked his head at the figure slumped at her feet. "He looks in a bad way, though. Never thought I'd be so glad to see him!"
"Indeed, I believe he saved all our lives. And now it's our turn to repay that debt," said Rebeccah. "I'm taking him back to St. James's Square."
"As you wish, Madam. Though won't Mrs Dutton object?"
"Only if she finds out." Rebeccah flushed under the servants' combined scrutiny. "She will be in bed with her megrim, so if we are careful, we should be able to carry him up to my room unobserved."
"Your room?" Mary looked shocked.
Rebeccah rolled her eyes. "He'll be too weak to make any attempt on my honour. Besides, where else can I put him so you may attend to his wound whenever you need to without raising suspicion?" She pre-empted Mary's next question. "By the time Anne has returned, he will either be dead or well enough to make good his departure." Pray God, it's the latter.
"Will you all give me your word not to betray his presence to anyone?" She held each of their gazes in turn.
The three exchanged glances, then shrugged, and chorused, "Yes, Madam."
"Thank you," Rebeccah's shoulders sagged with relief.
They manoeuvred the highwayman into the carriage. Then the two men went off to get the team of horses back into harness. Mary, meanwhile, grabbed a carriage lantern and went looking for some moss.
Rebeccah gazed down at Blue-Eyed Nick, who was sprawled on his back on the seat, his knees drawn up so that his long legs would fit inside the carriage. A nicker from the doorway made her glance round.
"He's in good hands," she told the mare. "Be patient. Mary will be back soon with some moss." I'd better prepare him for her.
She stripped off the highwayman's mask and kerchief. He'll be more comfortable without them... And besides, I want to see him. It was a handsome face, she decided, reaching out a hand. Smooth to the touch too, not like that brute's bristly chin. Thoughts of what might have happened had this man not intervened made her heart race, and she took a few calming breaths before continuing.
With difficulty, she eased Blue-Eyed Nick's coat over his shoulders, followed by his waistcoat, then started unbuttoning his shirt. Beneath it, wrapped tightly around his chest several times, was a long narrow strip of coarse white cotton, now soaked with blood. She frowned and wondered if it were protection against the cold, though on a warm August night it seemed unlikely. With a shrug, she began to unwind it.
From outside came a jingle of harnesses and murmur of voices. The carriage jerked forward a yard then came to rest. Then it dipped as Mary climbed aboard, her arms full of moss.
The last of the cotton strip came free, and Rebeccah's startled intake of breath attracted Mary's attention.
"Bless me, now I've seen everything!" murmured the maid, peering round Rebeccah at the shapely breasts now revealed. After a moment she chuckled. "Well, well." She tried to ease past Rebeccah, who was frozen with shock. "Excuse me, Madam. But I'll need to get closer if I'm to treat her."
"I beg your pardon." A still disconcerted Rebeccah stood back so that Mary could examine the wound, tut that the shot had not passed cleanly through but was still lodged inside, and begin to pack it with moss.
The woman beneath Mary's capable fingers shifted and moaned, and Rebeccah winced and turned away, just in time to see Will's face in the doorway. Instinct made her block his view of the half-naked highwayman ... I mean highwaywoman. She cleared her throat and hoped she didn't look flushed.
"How are you progressing?"
"The horses are hitched and ready when you are, Madam."
"Good. There's something else I need you to do." She remembered his wound and bit her lip. "But only if you think you are well enough."
Will asked gamely, "What is it, Madam?"
"Drape the bodies of the dead highwaymen over their horses' saddles, and take them to Putney. ... I'm afraid you'll have to ride Blue-Eyed Nick's mount."
He looked askance at the black mare, who gave him a distrustful glance in return. "As you wish, Madam."
"Tell the Beadle we were attacked ... but make sure not to mention Blue-Eyed Nick." Rebeccah pursed her lips and thought. "You and Robert killed the rogues while defending our lives and our honour. Your wound will reinforce your claim."
The footman nodded.
"While you're there, ask for directions to a reputable apothecary. Get him to treat your thigh and send the bill to me."
Will smiled. "Thank you, Madam."
"Then return home to St James's Square. ... You can stable Nick's horse in the Mews with our coach horses. That's all, I think."
"Very good, Madam." Will limped off to gather the first of the bodies.
A groan from behind followed by Mary's protest made Rebeccah turn. The highwaywoman's eyes were open, and she had pushed herself up on one elbow and twisted to face Rebeccah. Her skin was ashen, and there was a glaze to the pale eyes that Rebeccah didn't like the look of.
"Lie still," ordered Mary. "Do you want to make the bleeding worse?"
"Your footman won't be able to ... Clover." The injured woman slumped back, her eyes closing.
Mary and Rebeccah exchanged a puzzled glance, then Rebeccah had a flash of intuition. She leaned forward. "Is Clover your horse?"
Eyelids cracked open then came a hoarse, "Yes."
"Are you saying my footman won't be able to ride her?"
"Unless ... whistle."
At the second attempt, the highwaywoman managed a whistle — two notes at an oddly discordant interval. Rebeccah mimicked it. From outside came a nicker, and the mare's nose poked inside the carriage.
Rebeccah clapped her hands. The ghost of a smile curved the highwaywoman's lips then her eyelids fluttered closed, and a cross Mary pronounced her in a swoon once more.
"I beg your pardon, Mary," said a contrite Rebeccah. "But it was necessary if Will is to ride her horse."
Already, Will had got the highwaymen's bodies slung over their saddles, and tied the three mounts together so they could be led. She called him over and told him about the whistle, then demonstrated. The footman's dubious look changed to one of relief when, after using the whistle and calling her by name, he was able to mount Clover.
As Will led the train of three horses and their macabre burdens off towards Putney, Rebeccah took a last look at her surroundings and decided she had done all she could. She shut the carriage door and banged her fist twice on the roof.
"Take us home, Robert," she called. "As quick as you can."
The ground felt springy beneath Kate's boot heels. She paused and frowned down at the turf. Why am I on foot? Turning full circle, she scanned the vaguely familiar surroundings for signs of Clover but found none.
Movement drew her attention to a clump of trees beside the highway. A rider had emerged and was heading towards her. Kate stared at the grey gelding with the white blaze on its forehead in confusion. Newton?
She lifted her gaze to the rider, a girl from her slender build. Shock coursed through her as she took in the pale eyes behind the mask, the black hair tied at the nape of the neck, the masked eyes and kerchief over mouth and nose.
Her world realigned itself. How old was I then — fifteen, sixteen?
Neither the girl nor the gelding had noticed Kate. She stepped back, but had the impression that if she hadn't they'd simply have ridden right through her without ill effect. Swivelling on one heel, she started after them.
A shabby coach and four, lacking a footman, had appeared. As it rumbled along the highway, the girl rode to intercept it. A feeling of deja vu, so strong it gave Kate goose-pimples, overtook her. No wonder this place looked familiar.
Hounslow Heath. It's happening all over again!
"Stop." She sprinted after her younger self. "Don't go through with it. It's a trap." But the rider gave no sign of hearing her shout, and instead drew her pistol and cocked it. Even if her sixteen-year-old self had heard the warning, she would probably have ignored it. Right now, Kate knew, the blood was pumping through the girl's veins, and she was in a state of wild excitement. This was the first coach she had robbed alone.
They had planned the ambush together, Kate and her mentor, Philip Wildey. Then at the last moment he had sprung his surprise. It was time for Kate to show what she could do alone, he had said with a smile. She'd been eager to prove herself to him, hoping to use the proceeds to pay for the gelding and brace of pistols he had lent her.
"Little fool!" Kate balled her fists as the girl fired a warning shot then drew her second pistol.
The coach was slowing even before the bellowed "Stand and Deliver." That and the lack of a footman should have tipped her off that something wasn't right. But under the kerchief, the girl was smiling, congratulating herself on how smoothly everything was going. And all the time....
The carriage door opened and out spilled four dragoons, muskets at the ready.
Kate could remember her shock, dismay, and incomprehension at this turn of events, as though it were yesterday. It had stunned her so badly it robbed her of any chance of flight.
By the time her younger self recovered her wits, the soldiers had dragged her from her horse and thrown her to the ground. Musket butts rose and fell, and boots kicked. Though it made her sick to her stomach, Kate forced herself to watch.
When the beating stopped at last, the girl was like a rag doll. Two of the laughing soldiers tugged her to her feet, supporting her while another man, tall and handsome and from his dress not a dragoon, stepped down from the coach. He stopped directly in front of the girl and gave her a mocking smile.
"Whoreson," shouted Kate, but no one heard her.
Wildey untied the blue silk kerchief that had been his present to the girl and was now bloodspattered, and stuffed it in his pocket. Then he blew her a kiss and turned his back. She spat at him and screamed and cursed until one of the soldiers backhanded her across the face.
A dragoon handed Wildey the discharged pistols and Newton's reins. He nodded, tucked the weapons in a saddle bag and mounted up. At a stroke the treacherous highwayman had earned himself the horse, its tack, the pistols, £40 reward, and a pardon for his own crimes. She had found out later she wasn't the first naive youngster he'd groomed then turned in.
As he rode off, the soldiers bound the lolling girl and bundled her inside the coach. Kate watched it trundle away, massaging her left shoulder, which had begun to throb. Hounslow Heath had taught her a severe lesson she had been lucky to survive, she mused. The throbbing intensified.
"It's nestling against the bone," said a woman's voice. Kate looked round in startlement but could see no one. "Tsk! I can't quite —"
Pain lanced through her, and she stumbled and fell to her knees, clutching her shoulder and wondering what on earth was happening to her.
"You're hurting her!" came a second voice that she was sure she had heard before somewhere.
"Almost there, Madam. Almost ..."
"Argh!" Kate curled around the white hot agony that was her shoulder, trying not to vomit. Her eyes watered, and it was hard to breathe.
"Almost ... Got it. ... Would you look at that? Nasty —"
Then blackness overtook her.
It was the smell that hit Kate first — the stink of unwashed bodies, damp straw, and corruption. She waited for her pupils to adjust to the gloom — the barred window on the far side of the vast room let in hardly any daylight — her heart sinking as the familiar surroundings became clear.
The Common Ward. She felt the beginnings of a headache. Maybe I imagined finding that nail, and all these years have been a dream.
Certainly the faces were familiar. That gangling boy pissing into a chamber pot in one corner was Dick Lemon, and wasn't that old man with a face like a walnut Ben Field?
"... read it to her?"
The question was barely audible above the talk, laughter, obscenities, sobbing, and lunatic howling. In time Kate would be able to tune out the clamour, but for now ....
"Pardon?" She turned to look at the questioner, a middle-aged woman in a stained green dress, a fading letter T branded on her left cheek. Her mind supplied a name. Hannah Kneebone.
"I said Lizzy Blake's had a letter. Will you read it to her?"
Memory returned. Life in Newgate, if you could call it that, was expensive. Blankets, candles, soap, cooked food, lighter fetters (or even none at all) — everything cost money. There was even a departure fee, if you were lucky enough to survive your stay. But little of the cash a prisoner arrived with escaped the Keeper's 'garnish', so another source of income was vital. Since Kate was one of the few who could read and write ....
"Has she a penny?" Hannah nodded. "Then I'll read it to her."
Kate stood up and made her way across the room towards the big-bellied young woman in the shabby dress, shuffling as fast as her ankle fetters would let her, stepping over chamber pots, elbowing ribs and kicking shins, returning greetings and ignoring obscene suggestions as she went.
One man glared before moving aside. She hadn't endeared herself to the male prisoners here. When her gender had first been revealed, some had offered to do Kate the 'favour' they had done Lizzy Blake — until her baby was born, the girl would be safe from hanging. The offers were premature, to say the least. Kate had yet to be sentenced, and since it was her first offence, it was by no means certain she would hang. Had the 'neck verse' not been restricted to males who could read, she might have opted for Benefit of Clergy. As it was, there was still the possibility the judge might sentence her to branding or transportation rather than the noose. But should it come to hanging, she would rather opt for a quick death than endure pregnancy and childbirth overshadowed by the gallows. Besides, what about the child? Was it fair to leave it motherless? Kate thought not, and said as much. It hadn't stopped her harassers from leering and pawing her though. In the end she had given one a black eye and kneed another in the stones so hard he was pissing blood for a week. After that they had left her alone.
Lizzy's face lit up as Kate settled on the straw next to her and held out a hand. Penny deposited safely in her breeches pocket, Kate accepted the crumpled letter, and held a stub of candle close to the almost illegible scrawl.
It was from Lizzy's parents, full of reproaches and pious platitudes about atoning for her sins and making her peace with the Almighty. There was no mention of the baby. By the letter's end her pretty face was ugly with crying, nose dripping, eyes red.
Unfeeling brutes. Kate pulled out the penny. "Here." She pressed it into Lizzy's palm and folded her fingers round it.
"But —" The girl's gaze was confused.
"Just take it before I change my mind." Kate stood and made her way back. She felt drained and slightly nauseous, and ached all over.
"Why's Lizzy staring at you like that?" asked Hannah.
Kate gave a weary shrug and sat down on the hard wooden shelf that was her bed. "My head aches like the Devil." Her surroundings seemed to be wavering, like a heat haze rising off stone on a hot July day. She frowned.
"You look a bit flushed," commented Hannah.
Kate grunted, swung her legs up and onto the bed, then stretched out and pulled the threadbare blanket over herself.
The other woman reached over and pressed the back of her hand to Kate's forehead then drew it back like a scalded cat. Wiping her hand on her dress, she edged away. The words 'Gaol Fever' hung unspoken in the air between them, but Kate was too tired to panic.
"It's probably just a chill," she murmured. Then she remembered how Ned had said those same words to her on her last visit, here, in this very room. The next day her brother was dead. "I just need to rest." She closed her eyes.
But it was hard to sleep, what with the pounding headache, aching limbs — her throbbing shoulder was a particular trial — and the clamour of the Common Ward going on all about her.
At intervals, waves of heat drenched her with sweat, and she discarded the blanket and coat in an attempt to get cool. A little later, chills began running through her. Sure her hands and feet must be turning blue, she eased back into her coat, and huddled into the blanket's barely adequate warmth. And so it went on, what seemed like hour after hour of fever alternating with shivering that left her drained, aching and sore.
Thirst overtook her. Kate dug in her pocket and pulled out a threepenny bit, but it took all the energy just to raise her arm, and then the coin slipped from her fingers and rolled away across the floor.
"A drink, Hannah, for pity's sake!" she croaked.
"Here," came a woman's soft voice that was vaguely familiar. A hand slipped under her head and lifted it, then something cool was trickling between her lips, spilling down her chin, and pooling in the hollow of her neck.
"Not too much," warned another voice. The flow lessened but didn't stop. Like a dying man in the desert, Kate drank. "That's enough."
The source of the water dried up and Kate let out a wordless groan of protest. Then she felt her head being lowered, and something soft mopped her brow.
"More later," promised the soft voice. She tried to open her eyes, to see who it was. At first they wouldn't obey her, and when they did the light was too bright to make out much except that the eyes looking down at her were green and full of compassion. She tried to say "Thank you," but all that emerged was a croak. Against her will and to her frustration, her eyelids closed once more.
"Sleep now." A hand smoothed her hair.
So she did.
***back to the Academy