If they caught her, she would die.
"Damn ye, where are ye?"
The disembodied voice sounded eerily close. That it reached her ears at all over the roaring of the surf terrified her. They were near. The knowledge goaded her to greater speed despite the treacherous nature of the path underfoot. She had to keep moving....
" 'Twill be the worse for ye, ye little besom, once I get me hands on ye again."
The voice came from almost directly overhead. Daring a quick glance upward, Claire saw that the chilly white saucer of a moon had risen just high enough in the sky to be visible over the lip of the cliff. By its wintry light, she could barely make out the speaker's dark shape through the thick gray fog that had rolled in from the sea sometime in the long hours after sunset. Her heart pounding, she shivered and fought to keep her breathing from degenerating into terrified, and possibly audible, panting. Dangerous as the trail she crept along was, it was her only possible escape route. The spit of land her pursuers searched was narrow, and it ended in a straight drop of more than ninety feet to the tumultuous Atlantic just a few hundred yards past where she clung to the cliff. Had she still been on that marshy outcropping and been forced by its geography to turn back, she would have run straight into the arms of those who meant to kill her.
"Ye'll rue the day you tried to make a fool of me, missy, I promise ye that."
He knew, or at least suspected, that she was near, Claire realized with a clutch of horror. Otherwise, such threats would be meaningless. Forcing herself to forgo the dubious comfort of another glance up for fear that he might see the pale flash of her face against the blackness of the rock, she fought to keep panic at bay as she crept onward. Without warning, her foot slipped. Barely suppressing a cry, she grabbed at the wall for support. Her outflung hand scrabbled desperately over the rock and closed around a jagged jut of stone that saved her. For a moment after she regained her balance she stood perfectly still, her heaving chest pressed tightly against the unforgiving granite, heart pounding, eyes closed, as she willed her breathing to return to something approximating normal.
If she fell, she thought seconds later with a flash of bleak humor, glancing down at the whitecaps pounding the rocky beach as she negotiated the tricky spot, at least she wouldn't have to worry about being killed by her pursuers. She would have done the job quite thoroughly herself.
The thought of falling, of her body hurtling helplessly down to be broken on the sharp rocks below, was almost enough to cause her to freeze in place. But then she had a hideous mental vision of the fate her pursuers intended for her. Tied to a filthy bedstead in a room off the kitchen of the farmhouse where her captors had taken her, she had overheard their plans: In the small hours of the morning, when all honest folk were asleep and all of the other sort knew to look the other way, they meant to take her out to sea and drop her, bound hand and foot, into the frigid depths. Drown 'er like a mewling kitten, was how their leader had put it, his voice spine-chilling in its careless joviality. Claire shivered again, violently, as the callous words replayed in her head.
This band of brutal strangers meant to kill her. But why? Why? She had racked her brain but found no answer that made sense. Ever since she had tricked the man above her into releasing her from her bonds by claiming she had to make urgent use of the chamber pot, then clouted him over the head with said chamber pot when he grudgingly handed it to her and turned his back, she had quit asking herself why. She'd been too busy running for her life. She could figure out the why behind this nightmare later. If she survived.
"Eh, Briggs, what're you doing? Ye're afrighting the poor lassie."
This second voice sounded as close as the first. Claire recognized it as belonging to the group's leader. This time, despite the best will in the world not to do so, she was unable to prevent a terrified glance up. There were two dark forms standing close together near the very edge of the cliff, which was now some forty feet above her head. From their stance, they were, presumably, looking toward where the others still searched for her along the spit. Another quick, reflexive glance down revealed little save the frothing breakers and the inky infinity of the night beyond the fog. But she knew that another fifty feet or so of treacherous cliff still stretched between her and the relative safety of the beach.
Did they know of this path? Did they know that she had taken it and was directly below them even as they spoke? Were they toying with her, like cruel cats with a terrified mouse? This possibility, which had just popped into her mind, terrified her.
Please God, she prayed with a quick glance up into the ether, she did not want to die. Not tonight, not like this. She was only twenty-one years old.
To her horror, she felt her knees begin to shake.
This would never do. Take a damper, Claire, she ordered herself sternly. She was not going to die. She had already lived through so much: the far too early death of her mother; a childhood made dark and frightening by the cruelty of her father; a promising marriage turned bleak and empty; and the crime that had given her over to her pursuers. She had survived too much to die now.
Fiercely telling herself that, Claire stiffened her knees and inched onward. Pebbles underfoot made her slide precariously a second time, and again she nearly cried out. But she managed to choke back the sound even as she recovered her footing, and then, gritting her teeth, she forced herself to go on. With luck, they would believe her hidden somewhere in the prickly gorse above. With luck, they would never even think of looking down.
Once she reached the beach, she reminded herself in between sliding footsteps and deep, calming breaths, the safety of Hayleigh Castle, her husband's family seat, was less than an hour's walk away. Although she had hated the vast turreted pile from her first sight of it, her heart yearned for it now. How ironic was it that her husband was there, all unknowing of the danger that threatened her, while she fought for her life practically in the castle's shadow? Strain though she might, she could see nothing of it through the fog-shrouded darkness. But she knew it was there, perched like a great stone falcon on the rocky promontory overlooking the sea that was this one's twin. The high granite cliff on which the castle was built and the one she was presently descending, known as Hayleigh's Point, served as end posts to a half-circle of cliffs surrounding a bay that looked as if a hungry giant had taken a bite out of the coastline. From the castle to this spot was a distance of perhaps six miles. To the east was desolate marshland dotted with beacon fires ready to be lit at a moment's notice should Boney, now fortunately occupied in Russia, at last decide to invade. To the west the land fell away in a sheer vertiginous drop straight down to the turbulent waters of the Atlantic. The only way up, or down, was via perhaps half a dozen narrow paths winding precariously through the rocks. The locals called them smugglers' paths because, once the province of goats, they were now used almost exclusively by the "gentlemen," as the smugglers were known in these parts, who over the course of the war had turned the running of the French blockade into a fine art.
Tonight this particular path had saved her life, so whatever quarrel anyone else might have with those who traded clandestinely with the hated French, she herself was grateful to them.
"Come, milady, stop your foolishness now and ye'll see we'll not harm ye." The leader's accent was pure Sussex. His voice turned wheedling as he raised it to be heard over the pounding of the surf. Clearly he too knew -- suspected -- that she was near. "We'll carry ye back home, all right and tight, just like we intended all along, see if we don't. 'Twas merely the matter of a small ransom, which has since been paid."
Milady...a ransom...paid? Did they know, then, that she was Lady Claire Lynes, wife of the heir of the Duke of Richmond, one of the richest peers in the realm? But David, her feckless husband, had little money of his own, and could get his hands on no very substantial sum until he inherited, if indeed he ever did. As the present Duke, who had lived abroad for many years, was both unwed and childless, David cherished some hopes in that direction. But still, hopes would not pay a ransom. In any case, her abduction was only hours old. There had been precious little time....
But no. It was a lie, a trick meant to cozen her into revealing herself. She was not such a fool as to fall for that, no matter how much she might wish to believe that it was true. She had heard their plan with her own ears, and there was no reason to suppose that it had changed with her escape.
You'll not catch me that easily, Claire vowed silently to the men above her. Continuing to move, she willed herself to think no more about the plot against her until she was once again on solid ground. Situated as she was, a single misstep could prove fatal. Instead, she concentrated on the rhythmic slap of the waves against the rocks below in an effort to calm herself. Sweaty palms, shaky knees, and a racing pulse were a recipe for disaster, she knew. Wetting her lips, she was surprised to taste salt in her mouth. Only then did she realize that the great plumes of freezing spray from the sea that had intermittently blown up to splatter the cliff had left her wet through. She was beyond cold; her hands were as icy and lacking in feeling as those of a corpse. Though her high-necked, long-sleeved traveling dress was made of wool, it was a fine kerseymere variety that provided little warmth, and certainly it had not been designed to withstand exposure to the elements. And her boots, her cunning little half-boots that were so fashionable this season, had equally not been designed for a death-defying climb down a near-vertical cliff. Their smooth leather soles slipped and slid like skates over the slippery ground. She did not have even a cloak to ward off the elements. Like everything else she had brought with her on the journey from her sister's home in Yorkshire to Hayleigh Castle, it had been left behind in her carriage when she'd been dragged out.
"If ye put me to the trouble of fetching the dogs to sniff ye out, milady, it'll be the worse for ye." The leader's coaxing tone had deteriorated into pure threat. Claire dared another scared glance up and saw that the men had not moved. But they held a lantern now; its warm yellow glow swayed gently in the leader's hand as, back turned to her and the sea, he held it aloft to illuminate the night.
The light, she realized, her breath catching on what was almost a sob, was bright enough to allow her to see a bleeding scratch on her hand where it clung to an outcropping of rock. If the men turned and looked over the edge of the cliff, it was also bright enough to give her away.
She was more than halfway down now, she reckoned, as, unnerved by the light, she stopped, holding tight to the rocks with both hands. Closing her eyes and pressing her forehead against the spray-slick granite, she sent another prayer winging skyward and took another calming breath. If she could just reach the beach, she would run as if her heels had sprouted wings. Somewhere at its far end lay another path that led to the castle and safety. But first she had to reach the beach, and to reach the beach she had to move.
Gritting her teeth, she did.
"Very well, milady, ye've brought it on yourself." The leader's raised voice was harsh with frustration. Claire listened with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as he called out, presumably to the rest of the band who still searched the spit: "There'll be bloody hell to pay if she's not found, ye understand? Bloody hell. Briggs, go fetch Marley's hounds."
A glance up confirmed that only one dark shape was now visible above her. Briggs had vanished into the night, presumably gone to fetch dogs to hunt her down as if she were vermin. Claire's heart leaped and her breathing quickened as panic threatened once again to overtake her.
Why would anyone want to do this to her? Try though she might -- and despite her determination to do so, she hadn't been able to dismiss the question from her mind -- she couldn't make sense of it. Was it some unlucky happenstance of time and place, as she had first supposed, or, as was seeming increasingly possible, was it a carefully executed plan directed specifically at her? She had spent Christmas in Yorkshire, in the bosom of her own family, choosing to go to Morningtide, her sister Gabby's home, over a celebration with her husband and his mother. Her excuse had been an urgent desire to be with Gabby, who was all but bedridden by a most difficult first pregnancy. With both her parents dead -- her abusive, unloving father, the Earl of Wickham, three years before, and his third wife, her beautiful but modestly born mother, when Claire was a mere infant -- her two sisters, and now Gabby's husband as well, were her family, as well as being the people she loved most in the world. The holiday had been the merriest she had known since wedding David, and she had enjoyed every minute of it. Then, a week after Boxing Day, she had reluctantly bowed to David's wish that she join him and a party of guests at the enormous, drafty anachronism that was Hayleigh Castle, her husband's family seat since the days of William the Conqueror, and set out. That had been two days ago.
Shortly before dark her traveling carriage had neared its destination. She had been aware of a not-unfamiliar lowering of her spirits as the reunion with her husband drew ever closer. The day was gray, cheerless, threatening rain, its bleakness a perfect match for how she was feeling. Then, in a dense wood not many miles from the castle, her carriage had been attacked. Without warning a band of masked riders had appeared out of nowhere, surrounding them, forcing the vehicle to halt. The coachman, fumbling for his blunderbuss, had been shot from his seat forthwith. The horror of that had scarcely sunk in when the carriage door was wrenched open and two burly men peered in. With the best will in the world to show courage, she had screamed as hysterically as her maid, Alice, a sweet country girl from Gabby's household recruited to take the place of her own beloved Twindle, whom she had left behind to care for Gabby. Shrinking back into the plushly upholstered corner of the seat, she had tried to fight off the rough hands that reached for her. Her efforts availed her nothing. In an instant she was dragged from the carriage. She fuzzily recalled Alice being pulled out behind her; the maid's screams had abruptly stopped just seconds before a foul-smelling rag had been pressed over Claire's nose and mouth. After that, she remembered no more until she had awakened upon that bed in the room behind the farmhouse kitchen, quite alone.
" 'Tis your last chance to behave like a sensible lassie, milady," the leader called, bringing her back to the present with a jolt. Glancing up, Claire realized that she could no longer see him. He must have moved away from the edge of the cliff. Only his voice and the lantern's glow that limned the cliff edge in gold told her that he was still near. Obviously he did not know of the path's existence, or had forgotten it if he did. It was her good fortune that the crime had occurred in country she knew. She had spent the first months of her marriage at Hayleigh Castle, and David himself, in one of his even then increasingly rare charming moods, had shown her this path down to the windblown gray shale crescent of a beach.
The sea was roaring in her ears now as, inch by perilous inch, she crept closer to it. Through the fog she could see the curvy white lines of foam where the waves broke against the shore. Beyond that, the black vastness of the ocean blended with the black vastness of the sky so well that one was all but indistinguishable from the other.
She had only twenty or so feet to go, she calculated with a fresh surge of hope. Once on the beach, she would run as if all the hounds of hell were after her -- which, by then, they might well be.
A tiny pinprick of light, warm and yellow amid all the cold blackness, shone briefly on the surface of the sea. Her eyes widened and her step faltered. The light was there, and then gone even as she strained to see. So fast did it appear and disappear that she was not quite sure her eyes were not playing tricks on her -- until it flashed again.
Still staring in some perplexity out to sea, she at last arrived at the uppermost reaches of the beach, stumbling a little as she made the transition from slippery path to uneven ground. Frowning, she continued to probe the blackness for another glimpse of light. Then she gathered her sodden skirts in one hand to clear her feet and started to scramble over the rocks toward the beach proper. Had she imagined it? No, there it was again. There was no mistake.
Were her pursuers coming after her by boat now? she wondered, panicking anew. But no. A glance up confirmed that they were still above her, presumably searching the cliff. The yellowish glow of the lantern light through the fog was unmistakable.
But she had seen something. Perhaps it was no more than a fairy light, she thought, shivering as she clambered over another rock and at last reached the relative flatness of the beach itself. The moors thereabouts were legendary for elusive beacons sighted briefly in the dead of night, and fairy lights were the name the local folk gave them. Or perhaps it was a fisherman, late getting in. Or, more likely, smugglers...
A muffled crunch on the shale behind her was her only warning. At the sound, Claire's heart lurched. She whirled, but it was too late: A man loomed behind her, a tall dark shadow just separating from the legion of shadows that were rocks and cliff and sea, close enough to touch. She was caught! She would be killed....
She never had time to let loose the scream that tore into her throat before something slammed hard into the back of her head and she crumpled without a sound into blackness.
Copyright © 2002 by Karen Robards