The innkeeper looked up, startled, as the heavy oaken door was pushed open. The blizzard which had raged all day had left drifts, impassable and dangerously deep, around the village and the inn was full of travellers who had chosen to extend their stay at a hostelry known for its fine wines (smuggled from France, as all knew and no one mentioned) and excellent cuisine (again owed to the demmed Frogs as the cook was an émigré, whose affection for sharp knives had not extended to the guillotine which awaited him for his Royalist sympathies.) The innkeeper thought of his own hearty supper, likely going cold, and sighed but put on his best smile and prepared to welcome the new arrivals.
His smile froze on his lips with shock as the three figures were silhouetted for a moment against a background of inky night and whirling flakes. The two at the front were slender and lithe, great coats swathed around their forms, keen eyes sweeping the parlour. Rudge stepped back uneasily. He’d seen eyes like that before in his brief stint in the Army as a youth; mercenaries eyes, hard and flat. The two men, one fair, one dark, swept off their snow-encrusted hats and fanned out, allowing the third member of their party to step forward into the comforting warmth created by a fire in a hearth large enough to roast a pig in the olden days, before Mistress Rudge had bullied and scolded her man into installing a closed stove in the kitchen. “And bless me, but the steps I save, not traipsing back ‘n forth will stretch from here to Paddleswick Green in a week, I shouldn’t wonder!” she had exclaimed, roundly bussing him when he finally gave in.
The last man...tall, and dark as a fallen angel, bare-headed, his shoulder length hair powdered with snow, so that he looked for the world like a dandy on his way to milady’s ball. Broad shoulders tapered to a trim waist and his coat flared open to show lean, powerful legs, shod in boots that, crusted with ice and snow as they were, still gleamed with a sheen imparted by blacking mixed with champagne.
The fair haired man steeped forward and smiled at Rudge, blue eyes glittering like icicles. “A room, brandy, food. In that order, if you’d be so kind. Oh; and a hot bath would not go amiss. I am chilled to the bone, as are we all.”
The innkeeper swallowed. The man’s voice was cultured and his words polite but there was a lingering air of danger about all three of them and he was minded to turn them from his door, were it not for the fact that it might prove fatal. No swords hung by their sides, no pistols spoiled the line of the clothes they wore, revealed as the heavy coats were discarded, yet he still felt that were it to come to a fight, these three would have no problems dispatching young Jem and Saul, the hulking ploughboys who acted as peacekeepers when the bar got rowdy, in return for a steady supply of home brewed.
“I – the inn is mighty full, sir. Fine gentlemen like yourselves, travelling – ” He paused, forehead wrinkling in a frown. He had heard no coach.
“We took our horses around to the stable,” he was told. “We travel light and in some haste. This storm has overset our plans but no matter. Now; it grows late; my master is weary and we –”
The tall gentleman spoke for the first time. “Your master is impatient. Pray, what seems to be the delay?”
The third man turned from his scrutiny of a series of hunting scenes on the wall, smoke-dimmed and yellowed and smiled charmingly. “Why, my lord, I am persuaded there is none! Friends of Lord Harris must always be welcome here, is that not so?”
Rudge’s brow cleared. “Oh, if it’s his lordship you’ve come to visit! Aye; his manor lies some twelve miles from here; a good friend to – ahhrump!” Recollecting that Lord Harris’ tolerance for smuggling might not be a fit subject to discuss with strangers, he contented himself with coming around to greet the three properly, pouring them glasses of his best brandy while he directed Polly, the maid to make ready the best room in the inn.
“If I’d known you were coming...but I spoke truth; we’m be overflowing with guests. Only the one room, unless I shift someone to the stables and I don’t like to do that. It has a fine feather mattress though and a bed fit for a King. I can bring in some trestle beds too -”
“One room will seem like luxury for men accustomed to a tent with the sound of cannons to lull us to sleep,” said the blond man merrily.
“Ah! Army men, be ye? I served myself in the days when I was – oh, right ye are, Polly! All sorted? Show –” He paused and looked at them in patent curiosity.
The blond, who seemed to be the spokesman for the group, smiled slowly. “I am Captain Williams, that is Major Pryce and this is –”
“I am the Duke of Liamstone.”
Rudge gasped and paled. “Milord! Forgive me! I had no notion! I’ll clear the rooms at once. Here, Polly. Roust out that long-nosed apothecary and the fellow with the shifty eyes in the west rooms. They can –”
“No need for that, Polly,” said Major Pryce, smiling down at her in a way that set her heart fluttering beneath her serviceable print gown. “Really; one room will more than suffice. But do, please arrange for some hot water. I would like to feel my toes again before I sleep and at the moment they are decidedly chilly.”
She bustled away, squeaking faintly as the captain sped her on her way with a slap to her pert rump. Rudge took a deep breath. “Please to follow me,” he said importantly.
They fell in behind him, with Captain Williams appropriating the bottle of brandy with a dexterous sweep of his hand, and were shown into a large room, clean and furnished plainly but comfortably. The bed dominated it; a vast billow of fresh linen, four posted and weighty with ornate carvings incised into the dark wood.
“’Tis said this bed is over three hundred years old,” confided Rudge. “It has been in my family these dunnamany years. The story goes that my grandfather three times removed was given it as a reward by a lord who used to live in these parts, in gratitude for him saving the lord’s son from drowning one winter when the little lad went through the ice on Todger’s Pond. A strange gentleman, and they do say he had some odd ways, but the bed brings pleasant dreams I’m told.”
“Really?” Major Pryce commented. “Fascinating...”
“Not as much as a hot meal would be,” said the Duke with some asperity. “Your name, innkeeper?”
“Rudge, sir; Josiah Rudge, at your service.”
“Bring up our saddlebags from the stable. I’ll be wanting to change for dinner.” He smiled for the first time, the curl of his lips transforming his face magically. “I’m devilishly hungry.”
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Go to Chapter Thirteen
Go to Chapter Fourteen
Go to Chapter Fifteen
Go to Chapter Sixteen
Go to Chapter Seventeen
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