The Penwyth Bride (The Witch's Daughter Book 1) (7 page)

BOOK: The Penwyth Bride (The Witch's Daughter Book 1)
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“Hold up there!”

An arm came about my waist, snatching me back.

The darkness broke apart. I stood at the edge of a cliff, blinking in the sudden flood of a noontide sun, and turned to look into Roger Penwyth’s disbelieving eyes.

CHAPTER SIX

 

“What are you about, Miss Persia Eames, to climb to the top of Tol-Pedn-Penwith?” Roger’s voice lashed me. “Are you going to fly?”

I shuddered under the soft strap of his voice.

“I--I don’t know,” I stammered, disconcerted and beginning to grow frightened at my own behavior. What
was
I doing? “It was the lights, you see…”

“What the deuce are you talking about?”

Roger had been loosening his arm from around my waist when I showed no sign of toppling forward, but his grip tightened suddenly, and I cried out.

Immediately he released me.

“I got lost,” I began. “I had been to the Penwyth Quoit, and then I missed the path back to the Hermitage. There were lights like the glow from a lantern, and I thought they belonged to someone who could lead me home. So I followed them.” I looked around me in bewilderment. “But now they are gone . . .”

They had been a prickly oiliness, an element outside of my affinity, and the knowledge lay heavily in my mouth.

“Ah,” Roger said, almost at random as if he did not know what he should reply. “But Penwyth Quoit is no easy distance from the Hermitage, and hidden from the casual observer. Who brought you there, and left you?”

It was a penetrating deduction, but for some reason I felt a reluctance to expose his cousin’s perfidy.

“I am very tired.” I answered obliquely instead, but I must have looked and sounded pathetic for he immediately began assisting me over the tumbled boulders away from the void, down to the bottom where his black-and-white horse peaceably cropped the furze.

When I reached the bottom I could not help glancing back. The tor loomed over me, a craggy heap with rooks cawing and wheeling about it. And it was laughing.

I shivered, wondering how it was that I, even in my desperation, could attempt such a climb.

Roger would be wondering the same thing but his face was blank. He moved with a restless discomfort, avoiding eye contact when our glances chanced to meet. Several times he opened his mouth to speak only to shut it as if he talked himself out of the remark. It happened so often that I began to entertain the possibility he was even more uncomfortable in the company of strangers than I.

This time the evidence of neglect in his person was too clear to ignore: a carved horn button was missing from the front of his felted waistcoat while the ones remaining dangled ominously from fraying threads; his neckcloth was creased in a warren of wrinkles; a seam had begun to open at the shoulder of his frock coat, tailored from an expensively subtle snuff-colored ribbed silk.

I could not help the fleeting comparison of Roger to his distant cousin Damon, whose easy manner possessed the highest degree of polish.

Roger led me to a flat rock and bade me sit while he fumbled in his saddlepack, pushing past sheets of foolscap and clinking inkwells. Eventually he drew out a flask. I drank the cider he offered gratefully, washing away the dirt I found coating the inside of my mouth.

“How is it you found me?” I asked when I could speak without a catch.

Another of his queer hesitations.

“This path leads to my home,” he said with a thumb toward the narrow goat’s track wavering across the moor. “I had business in St. Ives, but instead of using the toll road I decided to take the shortcut. I rarely do so for the way can be treacherous.” He kept his attention on the toe of his jackboot scoring a line in the unforgiving soil. “The road changes from time to time. Sometimes I’ll find a cairn I never noticed before, or my horse will stumble into a bog that wasn’t there a week gone by.”

His moonlit eyes suddenly met mine. “But today I decided to chance the moor.”

“I am glad,” I said, and meant it. “I do not like to think what might have happened if you had chosen safety over speed.”

“Nor I. I’ll take you back to the Hermitage. Can you ride?”

“I’ve never been on a horse before. My foot . . .”

I trailed off delicately, as I usually did when speaking of my deformity. Usually it was enough to quash any further inquiries.

Roger, however, evidently did not concern himself with niceties.

“Yes? Your foot? Did you injure it in an accident?” He clapped his gloved hands together; his horse raised its head and ambled over. “Did your nursemaid fall asleep before the fire and let you hurt yourself?”

His manners were abominable, just as Lady Penwyth said.

“I was born with it,” I answered coldly. “It is a clubfoot.”

“Ah.”

I looked up quickly. I thought I heard triumph in his voice, but found instead grave sympathy schooling his features.

“Come then, don’t be afraid,” he growled as I continued to stare at him suspiciously. “Avallen won’t let you fall, and I’ll walk beside you.”

The thought of another two hours in Roger Penwyth’s company did not make me feel any better. I dithered; impatiently he grasped my waist and threw me atop the butter-smooth saddle.

Within minutes of setting off I began to tremble in a delayed reaction to my climb up Tol-Pedn-Penwith. I swayed precariously over the mare’s crest when she stumbled, but this time there was no hesitation in Roger’s action. He put his foot in the stirrup and swung easily up in an uncurling ripple of muscle to settle behind me on the horse’s rump.

His body loomed over mine like a mountain. I inched forward as far as I could, resisting another fleeting thought about how delirious with joy I would be if this were Damon coming to my rescue, but the sudden plunge of the horse breaking into a canter made me think of nothing but clutching its mane.

“Be easy,” Roger said, and his breath warmed my temple. “I won’t let you fall either.”

Avallen blew gustily as she carried us over a hillock, bringing up puffs of dust under her hooves. I uncracked my eyes, and when I did, saw a glint flickering over the top of the mound ahead of us.

“There it is!” I exclaimed, prizing my fingers from the horse’s mane to point. “The light!”

Roger drew Avallen up. “I don’t see anything.”

The wind giggled as I peered at the scoured edge of the mound. Roger urged the horse forward. Broken rock littered the surface, and among the debris I saw the ruined outlines of a carved cross, like the fallen ornament of a graveshead.

Roger caught his breath.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Hush. Stay still.”

He swung down from the horse, and intently studied a cluster of towan weeds writhing about another broken boulder, triumphant in its destruction.

Suddenly I saw what had seized his attention.

A graceful crane perched upon the rock. Its color was cloudy gray, like the mist-saturated sky above it, allowing it a disguise. I would never have noticed the bird but for Roger.

With measured excitement he dug inside the saddlebag. For one horrifying moment I thought that he would pull out a pistol.

I flinched as he drew his hand forth. But instead of a firearm, he brought out a sketching pad and a charcoal.

With a furtive glance at me that was half guilt, half defiance, he stalked as close to the bird as he dared before crouching down to scribble away on the pad resting upon his knee.

I don’t know how long we remained in the odd tableau, me shivering on the back of the patient horse, Roger intent upon his work, and the crane disdainfully ignoring us all. I was just about to slide down from Avallen to give my thighs a rest when suddenly the bird stretched its head and took flight.

Roger made a sound of frustrated regret as he stood from his crouch to watch the flapping crane disappear toward the sea.

“Were you able to capture it?” I asked.

He looked startled. “What do you mean?”

“On paper. Were you able to capture its likeness in your sketch?”

“Not as thoroughly as I would have liked.” He snapped shut the cover of his sketchbook, threading the pencil through the loop without offering to show me the work that kept us idling for at least two quarters of an hour.

My annoyance must have shown, for a faint color rose up through the tanned skin of his cheeks. He said, a little defensively, “Cranes are rare on the moors these days. I had to seize the opportunity as it came.”

“Of course.”

His mouth tightened. As he secured the sketchbook away in the saddlebag, he hesitated in a mannerism that was beginning to irritate before he continued. “The older folk say that the sky used to teem with cranes, so many that they would blot out the sun. The flock would cover this area when they landed, packed wing to wing, and their brakes and croaks were loud enough to be heard in Bodmin. But no one would hunt them, even in the Starving Time.”

A vision burst into my head: emaciated women hunched behind the rock, watching the stilt-legged birds with indecision and fear.

“I thought that cranes preferred marshland,” I said quickly. “At least they do where I come from.”

He swung up behind me again and clucked Avallen forward. “This valley used to be a marsh, Miss Eames. All of it, as far as the eye can see, and over the hillock there used to be a lake. But the cranes gave up looking for it at last.”

A chill, despite the warmth emanating from Roger behind me, crawled over my spine.

“You’ve wandered onto land that used to be part of Lyonesse. We are riding over all that is left of it.”

###

In a shorter time than I thought possible, we achieved the larch cluster screening the Hermitage from its wild neighbor, the moor.

Instead of guiding Avallen to the courtyard as I expected, we clopped toward a pair of slate-roofed outhouses. Here, he allowed me to slip down the side of his horse.

“Safe and sound,” he murmured, his eye avoiding mine again as he fiddled with a loose buckle on the reins.

“Thank you.” I stepped away from his thigh which was flexing powerfully as he controlled his animal, nodding in both gratitude and dismissal.

He took the hint. “Stay away from the lights, Miss Eames,” he said, pulling the corner of his tricorn in farewell. “Sometimes they belong to those who practice the art of shipwrecking, but you would be lucky in that instance. The alternative is far more unpleasant.”

And without explaining what the alternative was, he touched silver spurs to Avallen’s glossy hide and cantered away.

I watched him depart, relived to be away from his uncomfortable society, happy to be close to a cool drink and a dry shift when suddenly I realized that I did not know in what part of the grounds he had left me.

I did not have to wonder long. Before the beats of Avallen’s hooves faded, I heard whistling. A gardener, smocked and muddy, appeared from behind the end of a long yew hedge. His face was seamed with age and the stolid unflappability I was beginning to recognize as the mark of the Cornish common folk. He showed no surprise at seeing me in this remote part of the property.

“Be that young Penwyth?” he asked me with a polite pull at his forelock.

“That was indeed Mr. Roger Penwyth. Do you think you could direct me--”

“Eh, he don’t linger much at the Hermitage, do ’ee? Mistress up at the house don’t like him, nor he her, and so he leaves them be.”

I was impatient to be at the house myself, but the gardener did not seem to notice my battered state. He spat comfortably and leaned upon his spade.

“He were riding the piebald,” the old man said with a touch of wonder.

“Do you mean the horse? Indeed he was. Do you think you might--”

“Piebalds are tricky beasts, t’fairies and knackers ride their mothers in secret afore they foal and so the piebald marks their hides as a fairy’s mount. Never saw anyone save Roger Penwyth ride a piebald horse a’fore.”

I was beginning to realize that the old gardener was deaf and probably crazed with loneliness. He smelled of smoked chicory and years of long labor.

His mouth split to show me nubbed teeth. “You were riding the piebald, weren’t ’ee?”

“If you could call it riding,” I replied with a slight smile.

“Come here. I’ve something to show ’ee.”

My legs were trembling I was so tired, but even so I could not bring myself to command this lowly servant to show me the way to the house. I followed him behind the yew hedge and down a worn brick path.

He stopped at the end of an ancient stone wall covered in suffocating vine where an iron gate peeped through the green tangles. He pushed the gate open and stepped back, motioning me to look.

A ruined garden lay before me.

Blasted stumps of trees and weed-snarled paths spread in a tangled mass of dead leaves and sticklike canes. Withered blooms struggled against nightshade and ivy creeping in sinister purpose. And the scent of mourning choked the air.

The gardener spat again.

“No one up at the house comes out this way. Master and mistress ain’t much for gardens, ’cept to grow vegetables, and corn. They’ve forgotten it . . . along with many other things.”

BOOK: The Penwyth Bride (The Witch's Daughter Book 1)
12.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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