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Chapter 9 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

“Stop!” The voice out of the shadows beneath the olive trees made her jump. Though her hands shook, she continued tugging at the girth, jabbing the Creature with a sharp elbow, to hinder his attempts to blow himself out.

A dark blur detached itself from the grove at the end of the paddock and advanced.

“Ma’am. You must go back. You must go back inside.”

She knew the voice; it was Sam’s. She gave the girth one final tug and scrambled aboard the Creature’s back just as he reached them.

“I can’t go back.”

Infuriatingly, her voice came out breathy, girlish and shaky. Emboldened, Sam reached out and caught the Creature’s reins. The Creature tossed his head and raked with his forefoot. Her right hand reached down to pat his neck, her knees against his flanks signalling the same subtle message.

Easy, boy. Not yet.

Unseen by Sam, Charis’s left hand crawled, inch by inch, to her pistol.

“Let go my reins.” That was better; it came out sharp and authoritative.

Sam hung on. “Ma’am, they say his grace the King lies tonight barely more than a day’s ride from Castle Lestrade. His anger will be terrible, should he arrive and find you fled.”

“He won’t find me fled.” Her fingers caressed the inlay of metal in the smooth mahogany of the pistol butt. “Should anyone enquire, the lady who has left so abruptly is a gentry-woman of north Gaaldine. You know Lord Lestrade’s orders.”

The silence spoke louder than words could have done.

“What? You would disobey your master? You would betray Lord Lestrade to the King? You would — ”

Even as she spoke the grip of her fingers was tightening around the pistol’s butt. Her thumb rested, promise as much as threat, upon its cock.

Sam’s voice rang with desperate sincerity.

“I have to, ma’am. Whatever his orders, Lord Lestrade doesn’t under— That is, my brother’s gone horse boy to the Royal Stables and he’s told me things. His grace the King never forgives dereliction.”

“He never forgives loyalty, either. It just takes longer.” The words came out of nowhere. They fell into the shadowy paddock with the flat, echo-less sound of absolute truth.

“No, ma’am!” Sam dropped his grip on the reins and lunged for her body. The Creature — responding to Charis’s thought as much as to the commands of hand and leg — swung, barging Sam to the ground with a sideways blow of his shoulder. He lay on his back, blinking up at her, aware for the first time of the pistol in her hand.

“You aren’t going to use that, ma’am.”

He sounded much too assured.

“Don’t. Make. Me.” Charis’s teeth were set; her mind calculating odds and distances. The Pretender was where? Perhaps fifteen leagues to the north-east. Lord Lestrade a few hundred yards away in the castle. No point in worrying about Sally. At least the girl had a merchant’s facility for assessing profit and loss, and no illusions about nobility or majesty cluttering up her thoughts.

Sam propped himself up on his elbows. “Now, miss. Give over.” His voice was losing even the barest pretence of respect. Soon, a small, detached part of her mind told her, he would yell for assistance.

She had brought the Pretender’s wrath upon them all, she and Lord Lestrade between them. Something to live with, if she lived at all. But she could not fall prisoner of the Pretender, no matter how many lives stood between her and escape.

“Go.” She waved the muzzle of the pistol. “Run. Turn outlaw. But do not for the love of the Holy Virgin let him find you here.”

Sam scrambled to his feet and leapt towards her. She squeezed the trigger; he fell backwards, his mouth open in shock.

She gathered up the reins and turned the Creature’s head toward the vast dim bulk of the hills to the south, dark against the swirling starfire of the sky.

Behind her a voice gasped, thin and reedy, with an ominous whistle in it, “God bless his grace King Jam—”

A clotted gasp drowned the rest. She spurred the Creature down the rutted cart-track and did not look back.

Another shape emerged from the farthest side of the olive grove. He bent, briefly, over the body of the fallen groom. When all had been done there that needed to be done he whistled up his own horse, and, keeping always to the woodland and shadow, set off along the same route the girl had taken.

Two and a half days or more to Cavron Castle assuming she was making that way (where else could she go?) All the normal dangers for a girl travelling alone, multiplied ten-fold by the Border lands’ lawlessness and the whole area buzzing with rumours of the Pretender’s proximity.

One would not lay money on her surviving, save at the most extravagant of odds. Nevertheless —

There was no-one to see, which was perhaps fortunate. His smile had a wild-cat’s bared-teeth ferocity.

The girl came of gambling stock; gamblers, too, who unlike that unspeakable fool Lestrade weighed the risks before taking them anyway.

It was time to see what he could do to adjust those odds.