London: February, 1692
The colonel towered over Clark Tanner’s small, cluttered desk. The tiny office somehow made the man seem twice as big as he really was. Clark shrank further into his chair. His hand fluttered up to shield his eyes as one would do under the glare of a scorching sun.
“Where is he?” the colonel demanded.
“Sir?” Clark said, though he knew quite well what the man wanted.
“You know where he is.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Clark said. If only the man would believe his lie and go away. “If you seek my employer, I assure you, he has gone home for the eve—”
The colonel slammed his fist down on the desk, upsetting a stack of shipping receipts which tumbled across the worn floorboards.
“Do not think to play me for a fool!”
“I would never presume to insult you,” Clark said. “I merely—”
“Enough of your games. Where is your brother?”
Clark sucked in an unsteady breath. “You are mistaken, sir, to believe I can help you.”
“And you are gravely mistaken if you think I cannot make you talk. Jared Tanner murdered my brother. You will help me find him and bring him to justice or I will have you charged as an accessory and hanged right beside him.”
Clark believed him. What a fool he was to think he could ever protect Jared. He had never succeeded before.
Still, he had to try.
“Perhaps it was an accident.”
“A man does not wrap his fingers around another man’s throat and squeeze the life out of him by accident.”
There was no refuting that. Perhaps he really should just give in to the man, end Jared’s torment once and for all.
He almost gagged on the bitter bile that rose in his throat. What was he thinking? Jared was his brother. His brother! He couldn’t betray him.
Rapier quick, the colonel lunged forward and took hold of the lapels of Clark’s worn black coat. He jerked Clark from his chair and hauled him halfway across the desktop crushing receipts and upsetting a pot of ink which left a shiny, wet trail as it rolled off the desk to spread its dark contents across the floor.
Nose to nose with this brutal and all too real avenging angel, Clark knew that he would betray Jared and the knowledge lay heavy on his heart.
One word. One small word, spoken with the force of a pistol shot.
Clark felt the impact. His breath rushed out of him and with it the words. “The colonies. He went to the colonies.”
The colonel released him and he sank back into his chair with all the life of a flag in calm air. He watched the man tug his coat straight, pick a bit of lint from his sleeve, then turn on his highly polished heel and pull open the door.
“Have mercy on him, sir.” The plea bubbled up and out of Clark before he even knew he had thought it.
The man stopped dead, but he did not turn or look back as he said, “I will show the bastard the same mercy he showed my brother.”
Then he was gone, his words of doom lingering to chill the air in his wake.
“Jared.” Clark moaned, burying his face in his hands. Never in all their growing years had Jared asked Clark for protection. Not even when their father singled him out time and time again as the object of his violent abuse. Not once had Jared asked for help and Clark had never found the courage to offer it. Not once.
Until the night Jared had killed Lord Robert Carthstead. Then he had come, desperate and terrified of what they would do to him. For the first time Jared had begged for help and for the first time Clark had been capable of giving it. It had, in fact, seemed rather simple at the time. Many people went to the colonies to escape punishment. Some even accepted it as their punishment in place of imprisonment. For Jared to disappear should have been so easy.
But Clark was weak. Now Jared would hang for sure, betrayed by the one person in the world he thought he could trust.
Or maybe not.
Clark bolted up from his chair sending the last of the papers on his once cluttered desk scuttling to the floor. There was still a chance. Colonel Carthstead did not know just where in the colonies Jared was hiding. But Clark did, or at least the general area. Together they had gone over the map several times before Jared sailed.
He dropped to his knees and began a frantic search for a shipping schedule amidst the fallen papers. Working for a shipping company had its advantages. He could arrange passage on the next ship sailing for Virginia. He would reach Jared before Carthstead and together they would find a haven so safe that nothing, no one could ever touch Jared again.
A slick wetness on his fingers brought him up short. Ink. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and tried to clean the liquid off with impatient swipes, but the black stain remained and in fact seemed to spread. He stared at his fingers. They seemed to grow blacker by the moment, the ink crawling over his skin. The handkerchief fell unnoticed from his hand to land in the puddle on the floor.
It was an omen.
Unnerved, he scrabbled for his fallen handkerchief and scrubbed once more at his fouled hand, rubbing and rubbing, but the stain only grew and what skin remained unstained turned dark red—like blood.
Clark gave a small cry as he thrust the ruined handkerchief away from him and clutched his hand to his stomach. He cowered back against his desk, closed his eyes and forced himself to take deep, calming breaths.
It was just ink. Just ink.
After a long moment his breathing slowed almost to normal and though his hands still shook, he resumed his search for the shipping schedule.
He had to be strong now. Had to keep his head. If he did not reach Jared before Carthstead….
Northern Carolina Colonies: March, 1692
The forest ended, yielding abruptly to civilization. Jared Tanner hesitated at the edge of the thick foliage, reluctant to leave its embrace. So here it was. The village. Just as the old man in London had said it would be. Incredible really, that the mangy reprobate had been telling the truth. Many times since he started this journey, Jared had struggled with a sick fear that the small holding he and Clark had purchased from the man didn’t really exist. Even now, he was halfway inclined to believe it didn’t. Yet, here was the village as described, so perhaps the house would be there, too, just a day’s ride or so from this bastion of civilization. Time would tell.
He looked the village over carefully. It was quite small and a good deal rougher than he had expected. Of course, this whole land was not what he had imagined while standing on a London dock. How could he imagine such a place? He had never been more than forty miles away from home in his life and those he had traveled not more than six months ago when he had left home for good and journeyed to London. Six months. Almost three since he had left London. Forty miles had seemed so far. Now, thousands of miles separated him from home and as he stood looking at the cluster of buildings that made up this village it came clear to him as never before: He would never see England again.
The thought didn’t trouble him as it might have. England held nothing for him now but fear, and the long journey south from Jamestown through wild tangles of forest and swampland had stripped him of any doubts that this was the perfect place to disappear. That is, if you managed to survive. If not, then you would disappear with a finality that was a bit grim to contemplate.
As he looked the village over one last time before committing himself to entering it he had to concede that, though not a cozy place, it was not too bad for a settlement hacked out of the wilderness. The buildings were unsophisticated, sided exclusively with wood, no brick as could be found here and there in Jamestown, and unlike Jamestown the streets here were simply packed earth, not lined with crushed oyster shells to alleviate the mud. That suited him just fine. Jamestown had been far too civilized for his taste. What he wanted was isolation, and the lack of activity in these streets was encouraging. The less people the better.
He led his horse up the broadest of the streets. As he passed he took note of the various merchants the town had to offer, a farrier, a milliner, even an apothecary among others. At the end of the street sat a building larger than the rest. Its sign declared it to be a public house.
Just what he needed. He would stay the night there, in a real bed for a change though it would cost more. He patted the pocket that held his thinning purse. Alarmingly thin really. Between the cost of passage aboard the Lady Louisa and the price of the horse and provisions he had secured in Jamestown, there was little left of the money he and Clark had managed to scrounge between them. In truth, he could little afford extravagance. He had more supplies to purchase before journeying again into the wilderness. But, oh, a bed. A real bed. It had been so long.
He pulled out his purse and hefted it. One good night’s sleep would be worth a bit of deprivation later on. He’d indulge tonight. After all, it was a sort of celebration. In just a few more days he would be free of civilization for good.
He left the horse at what served as a stable behind the inn, then, steeling himself, he entered the building. On the threshold he paused. Where the street had been fairly empty, the tavern was crowded. Too crowded. A couple of hard looking men pushed him to one side as they entered. He searched their faces for sign of a threat, but the men ignored him as they made their way to a table. Jared inhaled and released the breath slowly. He had to relax. There was no reason why anyone should take an interest in him here. Besides, he would not be here long. A night or two at the most. He just had to remain calm and careful a little longer.
Forcing his fear to the back of his mind, he studied his surroundings. The tavern was hardly a sight to behold. The long room was dark, lit only by the roaring fire at one end and several squat candles placed along the tables. What light the fire and candles managed to put out was severely obscured by a thick haze of smoke that swirled on the drafts and brought stinging tears to his eyes. Dark, heavy beams crossed the low ceiling, forcing some of the taller patrons to stoop as they jostled for a place at one of two long plank tables whose benches were filled almost to overflowing with unwashed, unkempt men. These tables were made of long planks with benches on either side. They stood in the center of the floor flanking a rickety staircase that led to the upper story. Along the walls, a few more private tables stood in the gloom, for the most part unoccupied. The noise of a multitude of voices and poor table manners combined to reverberate throughout the room in an unintelligible roar and the pungent smells of sweat, beer and pottage mixed with the smoke in the thick air.
Trying not to breathe too deep, Jared moved into the room. He headed for the most isolated table tucked into a dark corner. Halfway there he stopped himself. Very few people occupied the small tables. He turned and maneuvered a place at one of the crowded long tables. No sense drawing unnecessary attention.
As he took his place, a curvy blond woman approached with a dish of pottage.
“You looking for supper?” she asked.
Jared nodded his assent and she placed the food and a mug of beer before him, pressing up against his arm in the process. She wore no bodice or corset over her loose shift and as she bent low the garment provided ready access to a roaming eye. He let his roam, not only where the blouse invited, but over the rest of her as well. She had all the right curves and a pretty face, but she was none too clean and as his gaze traveled from her exposed breasts to her face, her knowing smile made him blush.
He turned his attention quickly to his food and the wench laughed as she sauntered away. Lord, what kind of place was this? A woman like that would chew a man up and spit him into the dirt when she was done with him. He would pass, thank you very much.
He took a bite of his food and forgot all about the wench. He had died and gone to heaven, or as close to heaven as he was likely to ever get. The pottage was rich and thick, laden with vegetables and oh—fresh meat. He took another big bite and closed his eyes to relish it with the same intensity as the first.
A sudden shriek brought him back from paradise. He opened his eyes to see a man, built like one of Hannibal’s elephants, sling a tall, skinny girl over his shoulder. The girl didn’t struggle. As the man went up the stairs she hung limp and trunk-like down his back. Her hair dangled in squirming thick clumps that almost touched the floor, as if the elephant’s trunk had split into three or four separate appendages at the end. Jared watched them disappear up the stairs, the food in his mouth temporarily forgotten. A cackling laugh started his jaw chewing again and he turned to face the merry eyes of the man seated across the table.
The man, older and infinitely gruffer than Jared, took a great swig of beer then said, “You got to be quicker than that, laddie, if you be wanting a tumble. These here be the only free lasses for miles. Course, they ain’t really free.”
Jared swallowed his food, knowing that he should remain silent, but unable to help himself. “You mean their services are for sale?”
“Well now, aren’t you a quick one.” The man laughed and gave a broad wink.
“Isn’t the law against this sort of thing? I would think your sheriff would object. That is, if you have a sheriff.”
Luck just might be with him on this point.
“Oh, we have a sheriff right enough,” the man said.
Of course they did. Luck had never been a friend of his.
“But,” the man continued, “these here be hard men in a hard land and the sheriff, well, he don’t object to things that help keep the overall peace. Besides, ‘tis harmless enough.”
Not quite knowing how to reply to this, Jared shoved another bite of food in his mouth as an excuse to say nothing. He looked about the room, studying these hard men of whom he was now a part. A sorry looking lot, to be sure.
A third serving girl made her way around the room with a pitcher of beer, refilling a mug here and there. When she drew near, Jared held out his own mug. She poured mechanically, without once looking at him, her manner stiff and aloof, unlike the blond. Wild chestnut colored strands of hair escaped the knot that sagged at the back of her head. Unlike the other two wenches, she wore a stiff, black bodice over her loose shift, adding some slight semblance of modesty, though its tight lacing pushed her breasts upward, accentuating their fullness. Every so often she would wipe her hands on her dark green skirt.
She passed on, filling other mugs held out to her in demand, swatting the empty hands that reached to pinch or fondle. One particularly rough looking man with a jagged scar across his jaw dangled a leather pouch from the tips of his extended fingers, directly in the girl’s path. The girl studied the bag for a moment, then cursed and batted it away. It landed with a clink of coins that brought a chain reaction of stillness to the room as all eyes turned to the woman.
The stillness was brief. An amused murmur rippled through the room as a man who could only be the tavern keeper charged through the crowd, his dirty white apron flapping about his stork legs. He cuffed the maid on the side of the head, then twisted a fistful of her hair in his talon hands, wrenching a cry from her.
The potential customer retrieved his pouch, extracted two silver coins and with a strange, almost predatory smile slipped first one, then the other coin deep within the cleavage of her half exposed breasts. Before withdrawing his hand he gave one breast a hard squeeze. The girl flinched, but made no sound, instead giving him a look that burned with a hatred as intense as any Jared had ever known. The man laughed and started up the stairs.
The innkeeper retrieved the coins before shoving the girl away. She stumbled, but soon recovered and lifting her head high, she let the half-filled pitcher of beer fall to the floor where it shattered. Then, as graceful as any great lady, she followed her customer above stairs, trailing the jeers and lewd comments of the other men.
“You daft wench!” the innkeeper bellowed and he snatched up the nearest mug and hurled it at her departing back. It missed its target and exploded against a stair. With a rather avian cry the man kicked the remains of the pitcher across the room. “You,” he squawked at the blond woman across the room, “get over here and clean this up.”
The noise of the tavern resumed its previous roar as the men, their entertainment over, returned their attention back to their beer and pottage.
“Willards doesn’t take kindly to selective wenches,” the gruff old man across the table said. “If your money clinks, he’ll be making sure they’re willing.” He looked warily at the ceiling. “That bloke be having his hands full though, that’s for sure and certain. She’s a hellcat, that one.”
Jared studied the man for a moment. A hellcat? He cast an involuntary glance at the ceiling. It was none of his business. He wouldn’t be here long anyway and he would only be back for occasional supplies. If these people saw nothing wrong with buying and selling such services, who was he to argue? He would just let it be. And if the girl didn’t seem to be exactly willing? So what. It wasn’t his business.
His grip tightened on his spoon until his knuckles were white. Somehow the meal had lost its savor, but he forced himself to finish eating. It was getting late. His body ached with fatigue and he wished to check on his horse before turning in. He trusted Willards’s stables with his horse about as much as he would trust Willards with his sister. He shuddered at the thought and ate faster.