Read an Extract
18th December 1814, the Chiltern Hills, Hertfordshire
‘You have to agree, Ajax, that it would be unpleasantly ironic to survive five years of being shot at, blown up and starved in the Peninsula to die of exposure in some Hertfordshire valley.’
The big grey flicked one ear back and carried on plodding through the driving rain. An intelligent animal, he probably thought it was not so much ironic as foolish.
‘Rodgerson’s directions were clear enough.’ Hugo kept talking as he scanned the sides of the valley for any glimmer of light. He was beginning to shiver and feel sleepy and neither was good, not when he’d been riding since daybreak. He was soaked through to the skin despite the oiled wool cloak that had seen him over the Pyrenees in winter on one occasion. ‘That cross-country cut to get us onto the Northampton road without having to go out to Aylesbury would have saved hours.’
But a bridge had been down and then a road flooded and he had turned north in the fading twilight using his pocket compass and a sodden and tattered route map. They must have gone clear between Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead, either of which would have provided a comfortable inn for the night. Instinct told him he was heading north-west now, which should be correct, but it was pitch dark, his tinder box was damp and the low cloud obscured the stars. Every yokel for miles around seemed to have vanished into their dwellings – wherever those were hidden. He couldn’t blame them, he’d settle for a flea-infested hovel himself, if one presented itself.
‘First cover, we’re taking it.’ Ajax did not bother to flick an ear that time. The horse was big and tough but both of them were out of practice at being quite this cold and wet. ‘This will teach me to underestimate the terrain,’ Hugo muttered. And it would teach him to be antisocial and avoid invitations as well. He could be putting on a cheerful face in the midst of some jolly family gathering preparing for Christmas, right this minute.
Hunching his shoulders sent a fresh trickle of icy water down his neck from the brim of his hat as he narrowed his eyes against the rain. Hordes of children, irascible great aunts, flirtatious young ladies, too much rich food, charades… possibly dying of exposure was preferable after all.
They were in a shallow valley. To his right was a river and what he assumed were water meadows, now impersonating a lake. To his left rough grazing sloped up into scattered trees and scrub. Someone, surely, must live in this landscape? Would the trees thicken up and offer any more shelter?
There. Ahead and to the left, a flicker of brilliance like a star, only too low and too yellow to be anything but a man-made light. He turned Ajax’s head towards it and almost immediately the squelch of hooves into waterlogged earth became the splash and crunch of metal shoes hitting the stones of a rough, potholed track.
As they came closer he could see the shapes of huddled hovels and small cottages higher up the slope. They seemed to be in darkness, but the light shone steadily from an unshuttered window in the slightly bigger building nearest the track, a beacon to guide him in. Against the sky he could just make out the jut of a pole above the door with a battered tangle of twigs thrashing in the wind at the end of it. ‘An ale pole, Ajax. There will be something for me to drink, at least.’
The ground came up to meet him with a force that jarred his tired legs as he slid out of the saddle in front of the front door and he steadied himself with a hand on the pommel while he thudded on the panels with his other fist.
No reply. Damn it, he would break in if he had to and pay for the damage afterwards…
The door swung open spilling light and heat into the rain. Hugo blinked against it, looked down to meet the concerned gaze of the woman holding the door open and said the first thing that came into his head. ‘You are as wet as I am.’
Hell, she’ll think she’s facing a lunatic. But it was true. Wide hazel eyes smiled up at him out of a freckled face that was rosy with damp heat. Brown curls stuck to her forehead and cheeks, her sleeves were rolled up to reveal hands and forearms that dripped water and her wide white apron was soaked and glued to her skirts.
‘But not as cold, I will wager,’ she said with a laugh in her voice, turning to call over her shoulder, ‘Boys! Quickly. Come in,’ she added, ‘Before you drown. You will not be going any further tonight, that is for certain.’