A Dreamers Escape
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by Jamie Richards
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: After many adventures, a young woman in an unhappy situation discovers that her rescuer is indeed a knight on a white horse. Regency romance.
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books/Paladin Timeless, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: April 2005
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [350 KB]
Reading time: 259-362 min.
"Here now, Guinevere, steady my friend." A man was gently tugging on his horse's bridle, trying to get the large white mare to walk down a gangplank to the dock below. "That is it, my beauty--keep coming, slowly. No! No! Do not pull back, my Welsh compadre! We want forward. You do not want to go back on the boat, trust me. The land behind me is solid, my friend, it does not move up and down and sideways, as did the ship. So come on!"
The horse in question snorted in disbelief. She was not a good sailor. George Webster, the Earl of Minsterfield, had discovered this in the middle of the English Channel. His batman had elected to stay with the regiment in France, so her master rather than a groom tended to Guinevere's needs. His men had nicknamed him Major Webb, reflecting the easy informality of his nature, but he was not feeling informal at the moment. Guinevere should have recognized the seriousness of his command and not resisted, but she was a bit reluctant even though it would mark the end of her uncomfortable voyage.
The Dover docks were busy. Easterly winds had risen yesterday, facilitating westward passage across the Dover Straits from Calais in beautiful summer weather. Three newly arrived ships had docked in the early morning hours, but only one had its gangplank down, the one on which his lordship continued to coax his reluctant horse. She was in some distress and moved slowly, wobbling a bit as though unsure of her balance on the undulating gangplank. The crossing had been relatively easy but not smooth enough for the horse. Colicky from mid-Straits, her symptoms of a horsey version of mal de mer were only now beginning to subside. Calais might be visible from Dover on clear days, but that did not mean the trip was always smooth, and without the ability to cast up her accounts, colic could have been fatal. However, when Guinevere saw the dock at the end of the gangway, each step she took away from the ship seemed to revive her spirits.
Her owner, a young but seasoned veteran of the peninsula, was slim and strong. His hat had blown off in the wind, as his hands were busy comforting and guiding the horse. His long auburn hair, whipped by the wind, flew in his face. In the back it fell to his neck in curls envied by most of most of the ladies he met. His features were clean cut and regular with a strong square chin; anyone would say he was attractive. His broad shoulders tapered down to a slim waist, and his buff-colored stockinette breeches exhibited well-muscled legs. He wore no jacket or coat, merely a loose sort of shirt, partially unbuttoned, which fell below his waist. It might not have been fashionable but it was comfortable.
"Your horse still looks colicky, Webb," a slightly older man looking for his bags a bit further off on the dock called. "Will she be all right? Such a fine animal, I hated to see her so uncomfortable out there in the Channel."
"No more than me, your Grace. I think she is going to recover quite soon," Webb said, "but thank you for your kind words. She was distressed but should quickly throw it off now we are on solid land again. Where is your man Andrews? Dukes are not supposed to hunt up their own luggage."
"Oh, really?" The duke laughed. "We have done for ourselves a great many times in the past few years, have we not Major? Andrews is still on the ship, looking for one of my boots. I am sure when he discovers me down here looking for my bags he will be affronted. He is more worried about my consequence than I am. Speaking of consequence, my good man, are you not guilty of the same thing? My goodness," he chuckled, "leading your own horse down to the dock instead of allowing a groom to do it? For shame, sir!"
Webb laughed. "You caught me out, your Grace. I might even have dirt on my hands. Can you imagine?"
"So long as your hands stay soft, major."
Both men laughed at the pretensions of their society, so silly in the perspective of recent war and deprivation of which they had seen so much.
"Are you heading directly home to Canterbury, your Grace, or will you travel to London first?"
"No Major, not at all--no London for me. I have been gone from home too long as it is. I have to get back. I have not seen my heir since his baptism in '14 and I have a little girl I have seen only three times in her four years. I have been gone too long by far to prolong it by a London fling." He sighed happily. "My duchess anticipates my early arrival in Canterbury and so do I. How many years have we given the foreign office this time, Major Webb?"
"Well sir, I have not been home to Minsterfield for eight years, but you and I met each other for the first time when I visited London three years ago. So it has been the same three years for me it has been for you plus five more for me earlier. Feels like a lifetime."
"In some ways it was, Webb," he said, growing more serious. "All of a lifetime for far too many fellows who could not come home at all." He sighed. "Where are you bound, Major? I know you mentioned Minsterfield, but I do not know it. Is it far from here?"
"It is a good ride, your Grace," Webb said, "but it is all relative, is it not, considering we rode across Portugal, Spain, and France, usually in the rain, and often without food. Minsterfield should be a simple ride in comparison. It is close to Darlington in Durham County, very near the border with North Yorkshire. Guinevere and I shall be on the road for a piece, but we do not mind ambling."
"Your estate sounds distant but pleasant. I very much liked North Yorkshire when I traveled through there as a lad," the Duke said. "You will not be hurrying home then?"
"Nay, my friend, I shall not be rushing. I have no countess awaiting me as your duchess and children do you. After all the grief and noise and mud and pain of the past few years it will be very pleasant to wander homeward enjoying an English summer."
"A fine idea. Good travel and the best of luck to you and yours, Major."
"And to you and your family, your Grace. Be well!"
The two men parted and Webb began leading Guinevere up the dock away from the ship. With each step, the horse developed a better balance. By the time the docks were behind them, Webb thought he might be able to ride.
"Guinevere," he said softly in the horse's ear, "or so I call you in this land of the Sassenachs, instead of Gwenhwyvar, my white phantom; Guinevere, we are finally here in England. 'Tis an island true but no longer does the floor go up and down and sideways. Thankfully, it stays in the same place all the time while we move across it. In short, your courage has brought us again to our destination and we shall soon be so far from the ship we shall no longer be able to see it or the sea on which it rides.
Guinevere's soft snort seemed to show her appreciation for his concern, and her negative head motion from side to side seemed to indicate a wish to avoid such methods of travel in the future.
"I agree, my Welsh friend. We shall stay on this island for a good while. The time has come, Guinevere, to end our roving. Adventure called and we survived; but now we are home."
Hearing a soft snort, definitely happier than the previous one, George Webster, Earl of Minsterfield laughed and swung aboard. He walked the horse slowly up the steep hill through the city and onto the west road leading to Hythe and the beginnings of the hills that reached all the way westward to Surrey and Hants. The road through old Cantium would eventually lead to London, where he would stop for the night near the Thames to see the two new bridges of which he had heard, buy a pottle of strawberries, and maybe even go to Seven Dials to see if he could buy a new ballad or two for his sister Moira to play. Then he would turn his back on smelly London and head north for Minsterfield where his responsibilities lay waiting. 'Twas a long trip and would of course go much faster if he rode the Mail instead of his queasy horse, but speed was subservient to his wish to see England again in all its summer glory. He wanted to travel slowly to enjoy the sights as well as to rest both man and beast from their years of service on the continent. It would be the height of ingratitude to part from Guinevere when she had carried him through so many terrible battles. Moreover, he planned to avoid the newer turnpikes in favor of older country roads far less traveled and more interesting.
After an hour of slow travel, Guinevere was able to increase her speed. When they could no longer smell the sea, they were well on their way and Guinevere was more like herself. The day was warm and the breeze slight. The fields on either side were beautiful with the dull greens of heather contrasting with the reddish trefoil in the lower areas, and the yellowish--green hop vines growing at times on both sides of the road. Webb thoroughly enjoyed himself, but even so, as the road began to rise outside of Hythe, he decided not press his luck. He pulled off the road in the late afternoon at a hedgerow tavern appearing at the side of the road. It was not the sort of place where he would ever take his sister, but he was used to hard living. Here he could probably get a bed and food for himself and Guinevere for the price of a dinner in a larger place. Until he cashed in the letter of credit he was carrying, his funds were limited.
Webb dismounted and began leading his horse to the stables in the rear. This did not prove possible. As he neared the open stable door, a heavy man with close-set eyes emerged with a menacing hayfork. Behind him two other men followed like goslings after their mother, each carrying a club. One had a knife as well.
"Far enough, sir traveler, stop right there," said the heavyset man, trying to speak like a gentleman. "We has fallen on hard times, kind sir, and has need of yur purse and yur fine horse. Jebb and Petey, follow my lead!"
"Right, Mitchum. We be right behind you."
Mitchum raised his hayfork menacingly, while Jebb and Petey raised their clubs. It seemed almost unreal to Webb, as if he had wandered into a charade some group was staging.
"Let me say goodbye to my horse, then, good sirs, and you can have her." So saying he put his left arm around Guinevere's neck and suddenly put all his weight on his horse's neck. Guinevere knew this signal well. She promptly swung Webb up in the air. His rising foot caught Mitchum in the chin and put him out of the picture. Quickly lowering him, Guinevere raised her head again in a well-rehearsed move. Webb's feet swung up and caught Petey and Jebb entirely unprepared as they rushed forward. Jebb's club went flying, while Petey, the one with the knife in his belt, felt the heel of Webb's boot as his legs descended. His soft hat was no protection and he fell to the ground as though hit with a poleax. This left the weaponless Jebb facing Webb who had no weapon either, except for Guinevere.
Jebb thought he had a chance. Understandable, because Webb did not look powerful. If the remaining thief had seen Webb stripped for action in a boxing ring, he might have hesitated. However, he had not and came charging, both fists before him, hoping to overpower his victim in the first minute of combat. This technique works well if one's opponent remains still, but Webb moved. Webb pivoted to the side, then reached in and pulled Jebb's arm down and back as hard as he could. The fight was over as soon as it began. Jebb, the third thief, lay moaning in the dirt; much more concerned about his dislocated shoulder than harming Webb.
Webb wanted to leave all three in the dust, but Jebb's obvious pain was too much for Webb to simply walk away and leave. He went back, put his left foot on the man's chest, pulled on his arm until he heard it pop as the man passed out. Webb then pulled off his cravat and made a sling out of it for Jebb's arm. Only then did he walk away, leaving three unconscious would-be criminals lying in the dirt of the stable yard.
Remounting Guinevere, Webb rode down the road looking for a more welcoming place to spend the night while his body settled down from the charged-up fighting form it had become all too used to on the continent. He decided it might be wise to choose well-established inns at crossroads or in larger towns. He thought back to the map in his head. He would pass through Hythe, then Ashford, before reaching the capital of Kent in Maidstone. After Maidstone he would find shelter in Wrotham, then Caye, mayhap Elthuth if he recalled his map correctly, and then London.
After a few days, he and Guinevere had developed a routine. Early departure from the inn of their choice carrying food for lunch in the saddlebags while they rode westward, seeing the sights and talking to people. Eventually there was the excitement of London, cashing in his line of credit at a bank, a meal at Gunter's Tea Shop at 7 Berkeley Square topped off with a lemon ice, and the pleasure of crossing the Thames on the new Vauxhall and Waterloo bridges; both built in the past year. Nonetheless, the city was noisy and dirty, and the Thames did not smell much like rainwater from the Cotswolds. It reeked of urban effluvia if a person were unlucky enough to be downwind. Happily, that evening Webb and Guinevere had stopped off for a rest on the south bank where the smells were bearable.
The reason for stopping was a large barge anchored in the middle of the river near the Westminster Bridge. Some twenty musicians sat on the barge, with torchlight fighting off the encroaching twilight. They were playing lovely music, involving soaring sweeps of violin and viola, punctuated by passages from horn, piccolo, and flute. A couple standing next to Webb on the bank said the occasion was a celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of George Frederic Handel's Water Music. Its first performance had been for King George I a century ago during a royal trip up the river to Chelsea. George I, the first Hanoverian king had loved this composition partly because Handel came from Halle, near enough to Hanover for the homesick monarch. Along with hundreds of others on bridges, on shore, and on three other barges anchored in mid river, Webb listened happily to the waterborne musicians for nearly an hour. Then as the rivermen towed the musicians' barge back to the bank, he turned Guinevere northward to find a bed for the night. As he rode he hummed bars of the music still lingering in his mind as he imagined the royal party so long ago when only the London Bridge spanned the Thames. He was so bemused he failed to note the malevolent gaze of two individuals who fortunately were watching him from the wrong side of the crowd to do him any harm. A third man, Jebb, was trying to pull them in another direction. Between this man's efforts and the flow of the crowd, the other men whom Webb had bested at the run-down inn were unable to reach him. However, they had noted his direction.
The next morning he rode out of the city, stopping wherever fancy suggested something pleasant to see. As they made haste slowly, both rider and horse finally threw off the effects of their sea travel and their years of war as they fully enjoyed their first holiday in a long time. By the fifth day after London, the only flaw Webb could see in his travel plan was his unexpected loneliness. He wished he were sharing this travelling experience with someone. Evening conversations at various inns and one-sided chatting with Guinevere helped somewhat, but this still left long solitary stretches during the day. However, Webb tried to be content and enjoy the trip.
The sun beat down as they headed north on the dusty road. Overall, Webb felt good. He was finally heading home. Unknown to him he was trailing possible trouble behind him. And ahead? A very different sort of problem stood waiting.