The road is dark and it’s a thin thin line. But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time. Maybe your other boyfriends couldn’t pass the test…
Trigger Warning! So as not to be all spoilery, there is character death and other stuffs in this post. Proceed with caution.
Ververe 29th, 1513 – Riding grounds, outside River Sulis, Lothianshire, Albion
It seemed strangely quiet this morning. She couldn’t remember the last time that she had been riding all by herself. As it was officially Hybel break as of yesterday afternoon–despite it not yet being Hybel–there were no lessons, including riding lessons. Then Vivi had something that she was doing with her father and brothers, Elizabet had known that for a good couple of weeks. Then this morning her father told her that the FitzChivalries had sent over a servant, Marianne had sent her regrets but she wasn’t going to make it either. Still, Elizabet would be damned if she was going to spend the first day of her break sitting around the estate doing nothing.
It was, in fact, a perfect day for finding some of those trails that Marianne was too chicken to ride and Vivi preferred to avoid as well, she said she always felt like she was going to tip off. Well, of course she felt that way, that’s why Elizabet rode astride rather than side saddle when she was going on trails like that.
But what should have been a good day of riding, just her and Honey and practically the whole riding park was actually setting up to be a not so good day after all. It felt like someone was taking a pin and pricking her up and down her spine. Every branch that creaked in the faint breeze, every dry leaf that crackled seemed like an executioner’s drum. Like something horrible was ahead.
Once Honey had picked her way down out of the trees into a meadow, Elizabet climbed out of the saddle, her nervousness was obviously translating itself to the horse because it felt like she was about to bolt. And Elizabet was nowhere near big enough and strong enough to wrench the horse’s head if the mare spooked.
If she had taken half a dozen steps before she realized that she had made a mistake, she’d have been surprised, that single pin was suddenly dozens, every instinct telling her to get out of that clearing and do it yesterday.
She’d just started to move toward the stirrup when the rustling of grass and something internal told her it might already be too late. She looked up at the easiest way out of the meadow.
“Lord Rance.” Elizabet’s heart sunk. Her father had many acquaintances who were just fine, but Rance–he gave off the same vibe that Cox did, one that said that he was not… safe?
Outwardly, he was just another man, a counsel member, one that her father had been trying to court around to an alliance for a while now. So far as Elizabet knew though, he’d never found anything that Rance had wanted. Rance had a son who would be starting at the Academy at the start of the next year–so it wasn’t entirely–weird that he would be in River Sulis, or even that he’d be riding in the park.
But she knew, in that way that she could never say how, that this was not right.
He slid out of his saddle and Elizabet bit her lip, hard.
“Ah, Lady Elizabet, just the lass I was hoping to see.” Elizabet’s throat went dry. Why would he want to see her?
“I guess the luck is more with you than me, Lord Rance.” Elizabet said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Rance stalked toward her at a ground eating lope that was as intimidating in it’s purposefulness as having Rance suddenly looming over her was. “Some people would count this as their lucky day.” He swept up one of the plaits hanging over her shoulders, twining the blonde strands around his fingers for a moment.
“Somehow, I seriously doubt that I’m going to be one of them.” Elizabet said, grabbing her plait and pulling it out of his hands, repressing an urge to shudder.
“Well, what you think is hardly relevant.” Rance told her with a matter of fact tone that Elizabet didn’t like at all. “I’m just taking what I am owed.”
“Owed? What are you going on about.”
“Your father has tried for years to find something that could sway me ’round to an alliance with him. He’s got a block, you know, on this edge of the country. Only Firth and Rance don’t vote en block with your father. The Earl of Firth hates your father’s guts and I truly think he’s given up on it as the earl’s heir feels much the same way. He’s figured out ways to work around Firth.” Lord Rance smiled, it wasn’t a pleasant thing. “However, I have been on occasion both a help and a hindrance. I’ve never found any reason to make it easy for him. He’s never had anything I’ve wanted–until recently.”
“However, one evening–at a quaint little tavern that I sometimes frequent–your father’s steward, Masen, happened to catch up with me–and it so happened that your father had come into something I was interested in.” Rance was moving closer to Elizabet with the same purposefulness that he had crossed the meadow with. She had a sneaking suspicion that she knew what he was interested in.
“You see, Lady Elizabet, it is so hard to find such things–They’re very easily broken.” He said in a musing tone.
“Well, I’m not that easily broken.” Elizabet snarled, refusing to be cowed by this jackass.
“All the better.” Rance almost purred in a thoroughly disturbing tone.
“I don’t care what you think you’re owed–or what my father agreed to, you’ve got about two seconds to stop touching me or you’re going to regret it.” She slapped his hand away from her hair. Rance just laughed. He caught her shoulders and forced her back toward Honey’s side, pinning her more or less against the horse. Honey whuffled in surprise, but otherwise stood firm, trapping Elizabet.
She shoved at his chest when he let go of her arms enough that she could. Rance’s chuckle was just fuel for the fire that was suddenly racing up Elizabet’s spine. She was not going to be another one of Rance’s “broken toys”. He was just enough off balance from her shoving that when she kicked him in the knee, he took a step back. She used the newly won space to get one good gut punch in.
He gasped a moment for breath, but when he caught it–and her–he was smiling. He liked this.
Catching her hands up in his left, he belted her across the face. A few moments of struggle later–his nose slightly crooked and bleeding profusely from her elbow slamming repeatedly into it. Her cheeks on fire from where his slaps had split them. Her nose was dripping blood too, but she didn’t think her nose was broken as his surely was. He hit her hard enough to send her reeling.
She didn’t think she passed out–exactly, but everything had gone all fuzzy and when it cleared, her riding habit was tossed off into the grass on one side and he was drooling against her neck–actually drooling–like a dog. The feeling of that sliding down her neck forced a reaction out of her. She lashed out with a foot and caught him hard in the gut. He made a surprised wumph and crossed his arms across his torso.
Elizabet squirmed up into something of a sitting position, the two of them staring at each other for a long moment, then he leaned forward, his lips stirring her hair as he spoke. “I love it when you fight. So many of them just cry and squall. It’s so much better when you fight, bitch.”
As if something in the core of her had been embers that were suddenly fed paper and stirred, fire raced along every nerve ending in her body. She snarled something–some words that didn’t make any sense–except they did. Rance had about enough time to look uncertain and back up a few feet before a bolt of lightning screamed through the tortured air and wrapped around him.
Two more bolts, in quick succession, hit him square, the third knocked her to the side and she collapsed, face down, into the meadow’s soft green grass as rain began to fall as if the very sky were crying for her.
Darin and Brandon had about enough time to scramble after Josh who took off as if he knew exactly where he was going–but nowhere near enough time to ask if he by any chance knew were he was going. He cut through some of the thickest trees seeming like a shadow except his bright flag of hair.
A few minutes, enough time for a couple other rumbles of thunder to crash down somewhere ahead, they broke through the trees into a meadow. Two horses, one a butterscotch colored mare, the other a very ordinary seeming chestnut gelding were grazing on the ground, seemingly unconcerned about what had happened in the meadow.
Given what Darin knew about horses, they should have been bolted for the four winds by now, not grazing calmly.
On the other side of the butterscotch horse who whuffled at Josh as he passed and he patted the mare’s nose absently–it sorta seemed like all hell had broken loose. A blonde girl was flung to one side, a scarlet riding habit balled up and tossed off to the other. It was obviously the girl’s because she was only wearing underwear.
“Bet.” Josh sobbed, kneeling by her side and reaching out to stroke her hair. Feeling very much the outsider as Brandon knelt by the girl as well. He had little sisters–he probably had a better idea than Darin did what to do with–all this.
But if he wasn’t going to look at Elizabet, his eyes were drawn to the–other person in the meadow. Electricity crackled over the man’s skin still. Sparking and shooting little miniature bolts of lighting out into the muggy air.
He was groaning–the occasional tortured sounding breath escaping from his mouth which was twisted and split. He was obviously dying and even had that best doctor been on sight, nothing they did would have changed that. A gasp behind him dropped his stomach as even seeing Elizabet’s crumpled riding habit and the dying man hadn’t.
Stupid, Darin! Stupid! He maybe had remembered to tell the kids to stay with the horses–but of course they weren’t going to. They were kids–curious enough for six cats. He should have been smart enough to stay with them. To wait where he was. Now he was going to die, probably painfully, when his sister and Raven realized that the kids had seen someone die because he was an idiot.
And that fate would be reserved for if the kids didn’t figure out what had happened to Elizabet. If they had any inclination of what Elizabet in her unmentionables meant, Sara-Beth would go hunt up the bonephone itself and bring him back so she could keep killing him.
He heard some stirring behind him and took his attention off Anna-Marie and the other kids for just a second to see Elizabet climbing disorientedly to her feet. Josh caught her when she stumbled and her breath hissed between her teeth half in pain, half in reaction before she buried her face in her brother’s coat.
The man on the ground flopped for a moment like a fish, flipping onto his back, before blood spewed out of his mouth in a miniature fountain, eyes half-open.
“Is he–?” Brandon asked. Darin, much as he didn’t want to, but feeling probably the most qualified to make the call, went over to where the man lay, now still a hand under his nose indicated no breath, a touch to the neck, wrist, and chest indicated no flutter of heartbeat. He was dead.
“Aye.” Darin said. “My sister’s a nurse, she taught me–y’know?” Brandon looked puzzled, but seemingly more by the idea that Darin would think that he’d question him than by the pronouncement.
“He’s, he’s, he’s…?” Bronx gasped. Shit!
“We’ve got more trouble than that.” Josh said finally. “That’s Rance. And Rance doesn’t go to the pot without at least a couple of guards around. He wouldn’t want them that close, if–well.” Josh trailed off. “And they probably don’t know exactly where he is–was?” Josh looked at the body like he wished it would stir again so he could tear it to bits as he pulled his sister a little closer to his shoulder.
“But they’ll be coming.” Brandon agreed. “I’m not sure why that’s more trouble, though. He got struck by lightning.”
“He just happened to get struck by lightning while attacking my sister? You really think anyone will buy that was a coincidence given our family history?” Josh asked.
“But can’t your father do something about it? I mean no offense, Josh, but nothing goes in or out of River Sulis without your father’s saying it can.” Brandon pointed out.
“Father told him he could.” Elizabet’s voice shook and sounded more like an echo than like the vivacious girl that Darin was coming to know. “He wanted an alliance with Rance–and I was–the payment they…” Josh drew in his breath and muttered something into Elizabet’s hair.
“Like I said. We’ve got trouble.” Josh closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “Okay, Brandon–get Bet out of here. We can force father’s publicity machine to cover our asses, but only if those guards can’t connect Bet being attacked with Rance’s death. Darin–will the kids talk?”
“Only to their parents, probably–and then more about,” He jerked his head toward the body. They didn’t even seem aware–as of yet–of Elizabet. Maybe that was because between the horse and the fact that she was clinging to Josh like ivy to an old stone wall, they just couldn’t see that she was more naked than dressed. Maybe. “I’ll–um–see what I can do.” Darin said. Not certain what he would do, but needing–somehow–to make some sort of promise given the look in the other boy’s eyes.
“Okay, get the kids out of here too.” Josh said. “I’ll bullshit the guards, I’m good at that, and can pull rank if worse comes to worse.”
“Anna-Marie.” Darin called the girl over. She and her friends came to where Darin stood, giving wide birth to the dead man in the grass. “I need you to go back to the pond, go back to the horses, we’ll get you there. And take care of Bronx for me–and Starla, okay? Can you do that for me?” Anna-Marie’s hands shook but she nodded. Her head had barely completed one full nod before the other kids were taking off for the pond at a run. He voiced a silent prayer to the Lord Wright that he would keep those kids at least sort of sane.
“I should–I should go with them, shouldn’t I?” Darin asked as Anna-Marie’s yellow dress disappeared at last into the ring of trees.
“No–please–I–please?” Josh asked. Darin had about enough time to nod before the sound of horses making their way up the incline hit his ears.
Josh squared his shoulders, pulling around him an aura of Lord Joshua, son of the baron of River Sulis as thick as Darin had ever seen it and he strode over to where Rance’s horse stood at the mouth of the path. He heard the jingle and thump of two men dismounting and braced himself.
“What’s going on here?” One of the two guardsmen in the emerald green of the Gwynedd family demanded.
“I could ask you the same thing.” Josh’s voice was haughty. “Shouldn’t you have been here attending to your lord rather than leaving him to die alone like some common rabble in the grass?”
“Die?” The other one asked.
“Who are you to ask me anything?” The first sneered.
“Lord Joshua, son of the Baron,” his eyes flickered over the man’s plain surcote. “Unless your father has very messed up priorities, guardsman, I would say that alone gives me every right to question your actions.” The guardsman flushed.
“Begging your pardon, my lord.” He said dropping his eyes.
“I’ll consider it.” Joshua shook his hair back from his face, how he managed to do it, given the water that was currently dragging Darin’s hair into his eyes, Darin would never know. “As to what happened here, Lord Rance was struck by lightning.”
“Just his lordship?” The guardsman asked shrewdly.
“We heard a lass scream.” The second guardsman added.
“My sister, the lady Elizabet was nearby, I believe she was thrown when her horse was spooked by the lightning striking so near. I had one of my companions accompany her back to our estate.” Josh said calmly.
“But.” The first guardsman’s eyes narrowed.
“But? Is there something else that I should know, guardsman?” Josh demanded. The guardsman obviously knew that Rance was going to be with Elizabet, it was clear on his face–but the only people who would be able to back up that version of events were either dead or damned unlikely to admit he set his own daughter up to be raped, which is the only way the baron would have foreknowledge.
“No, no, sir, m’lord. Haynes.” He obviously knew he was trapped, instead turning to the second guardsman. “Go see to his lordship.”
“Yes, sir!” When the first guardsman had his back to Josh to go back toward the horses and the second had his back to Josh walking toward the dead nobleman, Josh turned and met Darin’s eyes. He mimed wiping sweat off his forehead and Darin shot him a grin.