Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Four)

The following morning Elena rose before dawn and dressed for her role. Surveying herself in the mirror afterwards she couldn't repress a smile. Her aunts would have a fit if they could see her now, her figure shamelessly displayed by the masculine attire. It felt good though, comfortable and familiar after the restrictions of female clothing. She checked the priming of her pistol and then thrust the weapon into her belt beside her knife. The smaller blade slid into her boot. Then she sat down on the edge of the bed to wait, turning over in her mind every last detail of the plan.

Minutes crawled by like hours until three discreet taps on the door announced Concha's return. Quickly Elena unlocked the door and let her in.

'Well?'

'The horses are ready and waiting, Dona Elena. I've packed the saddlebags with a change of clothes and a few other necessities. I couldn't risk taking too much out of the house with me. We'll have to buy provisions later.'

Elena nodded. 'Did you meet any of the other servants?'

'No, but they will be stirring soon. We need to make haste.'

'You've done well. Get changed now while I find out what's happening.'

Concha nodded and began to strip off her gown. Elena went to the door and, after listening carefully, opened it a crack. From the end of the corridor she could just make out the murmur of men's voices. Then a door opened further down the passageway.

'Is that everything?'

'Aye, my lord. Groom's bringing t'horses round directly. I'll take these bags down now.'

A few moments later the English servant went past carrying saddlebags. Elena frowned; she had mistakenly assumed that Lord Henry would continue his journey by coach but of course it was quicker to ride. Easier too, given the state of the roads. She had no leisure to consider the implications because, as the servant disappeared from view, his master hove into sight and he was unmistakably dressed for riding. Elena's heartbeat quickened. She could only hope he would forgive what she was about to do. When he had gone she turned back to Concha.

'Now.'

The two women left the room and, closing the door silently after them, hurried along the passage to the chamber so recently vacated. Once inside they locked the door after them. Concha dragged the sheets off the bed. While she tied them together Elena went to the window and peered out. Then she breathed a sigh of relief. The lane below was deserted. Just now all attention would be on the front of the house from whence Lord Henry was leaving. Her aunts had said their farewells the previous evening and Don Fernando and Don Esteban never rose before ten. Her uncle would likely be the only one abroad because courtesy demanded he be present to see his guest depart. With a pounding heart she turned to her companion.

'Come on, Concha. It's now or never.'

They fastened one end of the makeshift rope to the central mullion and flung the rest out of the window. It snaked away down the wall and stopped a few feet clear of the bottom. Elena climbed over the sill and then, taking a firm grip on the sheet, began her descent. It was only a short distance to jump at the end and then she was standing in the lane. Moments later Concha joined her. They exchanged grins and then, together, they ran.

Another two minutes brought them to the waiting horses. Of necessity they had to keep to a steady pace until they were clear of the city and Elena had to resist the urge to look over her shoulder every five minutes. There was no reason to fear pursuit just yet. With luck it would be hours before their flight was discovered. Enquiries would reveal that they were seen heading west, but once clear of Madrid they would circle round and turn south instead. After that they would have to ride fast. Fortunately they were well used to that. If they could throw off their pursuers for long enough her family would likely wash their hands of the whole business. She and Concha would go to England. It was going to be a long and dangerous journey but, if things turned out as she'd planned, they wouldn't have to do it alone.

Harry and Jack made good progress over the course of the day and, by evening, had covered about twenty miles. It might have been more but they'd stopped at midday to rest the horses, and thereafter had deliberately slackened the pace. With so many miles to cover it made no sense to push their mounts too hard, especially not in the heat of the day. Harry was glad it was not yet summer so the midday heat would not be too fierce.

They made their camp by a stream, and having attended to the animals' needs, turned to their own. Don Manuel had been generous in providing them with provisions so they wouldn't need to concern themselves with that for a while. Afterwards they could stop off en route to restock, even hunt if necessary.

'Did you ever visit Seville before, my lord?'

'No, but I understand it's a beautiful city.'

'I heard that too. It'll be interesting to find out.' Jack smiled wryly. 'T'army didn't allow time for much sightseeing.'

'No, it didn't.'

'When I left Spain after t'war I never thought as how I'd be back one day.'

'Nor I.'

'Strange how things work out, isn't it?'

Harry sighed. 'Very strange. If there is a divine plan I'm damned if I know what it is.'

'Well, I suppose if we don't want local bandits to be part of t'plan we'd best keep a watch. I'll take first one if you want to get some sleep, my lord.'

'Very well. You can wake me at…' Harry broke off, listening intently. Then he looked at his companion. 'Do you hear it?'

'Aye, my lord. Riders, coming this way.'

'They could be harmless, but keep your rifle handy until we find out.'

Harry scanned the road, staring intently into the gathering twilight. While banditry was rife he would have expected to be further from the city before experiencing any such problems. Most likely the two horsemen were just travellers like themselves.

'They're slowing down,' said Jack. 'Must've smelled t'smoke from our fire.'

'Probably.'

The horses came into view round a bend in the road. There were only two. Harry let out the breath he had been holding.

'Not a serious problem, I think.'

'Aye, they may just ride on, my lord.'

'Perhaps. Best to be sure though.'

'As you say.'

However, as they drew nearer the riders turned off the road and approached the camp. Harry frowned.

'Wait. Do they look familiar to you?'

'Funny you should say that, my lord. I was just thinking t'same th…' Jack broke off. Then as the riders reined in his eyes widened. 'Blood and sand! What in hell's name are they doing here?'

Being temporarily robbed of speech, Harry vouchsafed no reply. He thought he knew the answer already, and the ramifications were deeply disturbing. Mingled with that was another sensation that he didn't want to examine too closely.

'Looks like a mort o' trouble, my lord.'

Harry found his voice. 'Indeed.'

As far as he could see, trouble didn't begin to cover it. Reading his expression correctly, Jack nodded.

'Best take a firm line wi' 'em, I reckon.'

'Absolutely.'

Harry watched as the two women dismounted and then, grim-faced, went to meet them.

Elena handed her horse's reins to Concha and, taking a deep breath, watched the advancing figure. When she had plotted the details of their escape from Madrid her imagination had conveniently glossed over this scene. In those hopeful plans Lord Henry was most sympathetic and immediately acceded to her request. Now that the reality was upon her, she felt far less confident. In the first place Lord Henry looked distinctly forbidding, and, in the second, much larger than she remembered. His servant was no weakling either. He would do what his master ordered. She licked dry lips. What if his master decided to take her straight back? What if she had been entirely mistaken in him? Sweat started on the palms of her hands.

Further speculation was impossible because he was in front of her now, every last intimidating inch of him. Under the weight of that penetrating gaze any coherent thought became difficult. It swept her from head to toe, creating a frisson that was only partly to do with fear. Then it returned to her face and remained there. He came straight to the point.

'You've run away.'

'Yes. I'm sorry to spring this on you, my lord, but I had no choice.'

The grey eyes were steely. 'To spring what on me, exactly?'

Her heart pounded. 'Concha and I want to travel with you.' Seeing his expression she hurried on. 'We are both accomplished riders, we both know how to take care of ourselves and we're used to rough living.'

'I dare say. All the same…'

'We won't slow you down and we won't be a nuisance.'

'You cannot seriously imagine…'

'All we ask is the protection of your company until we reach England.'

'England! Now, look…'

'I have a married sister who lives in Hertfordshire. She will help us, only first we have to get there.'

'I'm not going to England, Elena, not for months yet.'

'Of course not. First we will help you to discover the truth about your brother. Then we will go.'

'Elena, you must see that it isn't possible.'

There it was again, the familiar use of her name, yet it didn't seem in any way disrespectful on his lips. Rather it afforded a glimmer of hope.

'I will not go back, my lord.'

'I wasn't suggesting that you should, but nor is it fitting that you should attempt such a journey.'

'If you do not help us, then we shall go on alone and face what comes.'

'It's too dangerous. Quite apart from the vagaries of the weather and the numerous natural obstacles you are likely to encounter, the mountains are full of brigands.'

'It would be less dangerous with four,' she replied. 'Concha and I both shoot well.'

Harry felt winded, as though he had fallen from a great height and then landed between a rock and a hard place. Desperately he tried to marshal his thoughts. Elena wouldn't go back and he didn't blame her for it, but neither could he let her go on alone. Every masculine instinct forbade it. Yet the implications of their going on together were fraught with difficulty too. No matter what she said to the contrary, he would be responsible for the two women. It was a burden of care he could do without. Besides, his track record in that area was abysmal. Had he not already failed the woman who had trusted him most? Had he not also failed the man who had been his best friend? Their trust in him had been misplaced and both were dead. His jaw tightened. If he abandoned Elena and Concha now he would be adding two more to that score because they would likely perish before they ever saw Seville, never mind England. Conscience dictated that he couldn't let that happen.

'All right. You travel with us, but it will be on the condition that you take orders from me.'

'Of course.'

'I mean it, Elena. All our lives may depend on it.'

She nodded. 'Very well.'

'You will take your turn to keep watch, gather wood for the fire and cook when necessary. You will also look after your own mounts. Is that understood?'

Her expression was the epitome of meekness. 'Clearly, my lord.'

'Good.'

'I'll help Concha unsaddle our horses, then.' She turned away and then paused, glancing back over her shoulder. 'Thank you. You won't regret this, I swear it.'

Harry wished he could believe that.

As the two women led the horses away, Jack came to stand beside his master, regarding the scene quizzically.

'They're not leaving right way, then, my lord?'

'They're not leaving at all.'

Jack stared at him. 'Does that mean what I think it does?'

'Yes.'

'Er, right.'

Harry's eyes glinted. 'You have some difficulty with that, perhaps?'

'Oh, no, my lord, none at all.'