First published in “Solander” the Magazine of the Historical Novel Society Vol.6 No.1 May 2002
There was a large, square-toed boot sticking out of the hay and it should not have been there. Eliza stopped abruptly and raised her lantern to illuminate the dark interior of the stable, but the boot’s owner was nowhere in sight. She gave it a tentative kick and retreated slightly. A muffled curse came from under the hay and in the next instant it heaved and parted to reveal a mud-streaked face. Clear eyes blinked into the light, incongruous amidst the dirt. Eliza turned to flee.
“Are you for King or Parliament?” The question, which came out in a rasping voice as if its owner was badly in need of a drink, stopped her short. He did not sound dangerous and his long, dark hair and bright blue doublet left Eliza in no doubt as to which answer he was hoping for.
She glared at him and put her hands on her hips. “Neither,” she replied. “You are all the same …” Behind her was a row of empty stalls, where only a week ago there had been six beautiful horses. The Roundhead soldiers had commandeered them in no uncertain terms, leaving the household only Master Charlie’s fat pony. Much use he was to anyone, she thought.
The man swayed slightly and frowned in confusion as he attempted to interpret her strange answer. Eliza wondered if he was drunk and shook her head in exasperation.
“You cannot stay here,” she said. “Sir Thomas’s messenger came not an hour ago to tell us that you were well and truly routed in this morning’s battle. The Parliamentary soldiers are bound to come looking for you.”
“I know, but if your master is on our side, perhaps …?”
“I never said he was. And he is not my master, he is my cousin.”
The man’s scowl deepened as he studied her worn attire with disbelief written clearly on his face. “Is he now. Well I had better be on my way then. If you please, mistress …?”
He stretched out a hand for assistance and Eliza pulled him up with great reluctance. She had heard many tales of rape and murder recently. It would be so easy for him to pull her down and …, but she banished such thoughts, and as soon as he emerged completely it became clear that he was incapable of attacking anyone.
“Your leg, sir,” Eliza exclaimed “you cannot walk, surely?” His right thigh appeared to be nothing more than a huge, bloody mess and barely supported its owner. He leaned against the wall while he tried to regain his balance and gave her a lop-sided smile.
“Do I have a choice? I suppose I could steal the pony, but he looks as if he can barely support his own weight, never mind anyone else’s.”
Eliza made up her mind. He was a fellow human being and she did not care tuppence which side of this pointless war he was on. “You must come with me,” she declared.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I will hide you and see to your wound. You need rest.”
“I could not put you at risk, mistress. Your cousin …”
“I hate my cousin!”
“And his sanctimonious wife. Now hurry, there is no time to lose.”
His eyes narrowed. “Why should I suddenly trust you?”
“Because you have no choice.” She looked pointedly at his leg and without waiting for a reply, she took his arm and placed it across her shoulders.
They traversed the yard, keeping close to the stable wall as far as possible. Twice they had to stop to let the man rest, but at last they reached the back door. Eliza’s room was situated above the kitchen and easily accessible via a back staircase, but first they had to cross a narrow hallway outside the open kitchen door. Their luck held and they made it upstairs without detection.
Eliza turned to her patient and whispered, “Take your clothes off.”
“Now there’s a command I do not hear often enough.”
Eliza ignored his teasing. “I’ll burn your garments and find you something less conspicuous. We must cut your hair and shave you …”
“Absolutely not! If I am to die, I refuse to do it with my ears on show.” Eliza quashed a giggle. She had to admit that she found the Royalist fashion for long hair infinitely more attractive than the shorter style of Cromwell’s troops.
“But it would be safer and it will grow again.”
“No. I am sorry to go against you when you are trying to be kind, but I cannot agree.”
“Very well. Let me fetch some hot water and a candle, then maybe I’ll think of something else.”
When she returned he had wrapped himself in a blanket and lay on the bed shivering. She saw that he had washed his face and as the candle-light played over his features she decided that she liked the way he looked. Fierce and craggy with a proud nose and sharp cheekbones.
“That’s all we need,” Eliza muttered, as his body shook once more. “Now you have the wound fever too.”
“No, it is only that your room is somewhat chilly.” He frowned and glanced around the tiny space which hardly even merited the appellation ‘closet’. “Is this the best your cousin can offer his kinswoman?”
“Yes.” She refused to be drawn on that point. It was none of his business how she was treated here. “You should try it in winter,” she joked instead.
“I think I would prefer my tent.”
Eliza uncovered his leg and washed his wounds as best she could. It was not an easy task as the blood had stuck to bits of clothing and dirt, and the whole sorry mess had congealed together.
“I’m Eliza,” she said to divert him from what she was doing, “and you are?”
“Sir Richard Malleyn, but perhaps I should not have told you that.”
She shrugged. “It makes no difference. I shall not tell anyone.”
He made not a sound while she tended him, apart from drawing in hissing breaths from time to time, but when she left the room for a moment and returned with a large handful of gauzy, white spider’s web to put on his leg, he exclaimed, “What the hell …? I beg pardon, but really …”
“Shhh, it will help staunch the bleeding, I swear.” She put her fingers on his mouth to stop further protests and became aware of the softness of his moustache and lips. He looked up and their eyes met. Eliza turned away, scalded by the intensity of his gaze.
“If you say so, but I hope you left the occupants behind.”
“Rest,” she ordered with a smile, and he obeyed, closing his eyes instantly. She was moved by his trust. After all, they knew nothing of each other, and yet …
The Roundhead soldiers came an hour later, clattering into the courtyard with much shouting and stamping of horses’ hooves. Eliza had just retired for the night and a knot of fear began to form in her stomach as she listened to the noise outside. Sir Richard slept serenely, obviously too exhausted to be woken by anything short of an explosion. A strange feeling of protectiveness tore through her. She had helped him thus far, she could not fail him now.
Blowing out her candle, she climbed into the narrow bed which creaked alarmingly at the added weight. It was warm under the covers and his naked skin burned her through her shift. She shook him awake.
“Quiet, the soldiers are coming. You must lie underneath me and not breathe a word, do you hear?”
“But surely they will see me?”
“I think not. My bed sags terribly, they will only think it is the mattress.” She sounded more confident than she felt and prayed that it would be so. It must be so.
“Very well.” He disappeared under the blankets, somehow folding his legs so that they did not stick out at the end of the bed and she crawled on top of him, wondering whether he would suffocate under her bosom. She had to stifle a hysterical giggle at the thought that this was a much kinder fate than what the soldiers would do to him.
It was a strange thing, this lying on top of a man. She had no experience of such things and she could feel the heat of him spreading through her. A tremor shimmered up her spine and she felt Richard move ever so slightly in response. His movement sent another tingling sensation through her veins, but there was no more time to think of such things, for the door was thrown back against the wall with a crash that made them both jump, and a light shone into her eyes. She lifted her head from the pillow, scowling mightily.
“What is the meaning of …?”
“Your pardon, mistress, but we are looking for Royalist soldiers.”
“In here? Really, sir, what do you take me for? I am Sir Thomas’s cousin.” Eliza did her best to sound indignant, imitating her kinsman’s wife at her haughtiest.
Three men, dressed in the uniform of the New Model Army, crowded into the small space between the bed and the washstand. One peered under the bed, another behind the door and the third stared at Eliza as if he was trying to make up his mind whether she spoke the truth or not.
“Looks fairly empty, sir …”
Eliza managed a laugh. “I am sure I do not know where you think I could hide anything in here. My cousin is not exactly generous with his accommodations.” She stared the soldier in charge straight in the eye and the man pushed his companions roughly out the door.
“I apologise for the intrusion, but … orders, you know …”
The door slammed shut and Eliza held her breath for a moment before letting it out on a long sigh of relief.
“I do not wish to complain, but might I breathe now?” came a muffled whisper from somewhere under her chest. She rolled to the side to give him air, and then they lay still, side by side, waiting.
At last the soldiers could be heard leaving the yard and Eliza turned to look at Richard in the moonlight.
“Never scare me like that again!”
“I will try, although you may have to accustom yourself to worse in the months to come.”
“As my wife there will be times when …”
“Your wife?” Her eyes flew to his, but although he looked perfectly serious she could not be sure. “No, no, there is no need for that. No one will know you were here. Besides …”
“There is every need, whatever your position here.” He took hold of one of her work-roughened hands under the blanket and rubbed his thumb across the hard surface. “You may have to sleep in a tent, Eliza, but I’ll take better care of you than this.”
“And if I prefer to stay here, in a safe household?”
“Nowhere is entirely safe right now.” He smiled. “And this is a very chilly room. I’ll keep you warmer, I promise.” His deep voice made Eliza tremble.
“You are incapacitated, not thinking rationally.”
“Perhaps not completely disabled.” He began to kiss his way up the soft column of her throat. “Besides, would you not like to be a Lady?”
She laughed shakily. “I already am. Did I not tell you? Lady Elizabeth Harborough.”
He stopped kissing her abruptly and sat up. “The devil you say? The Duke of Harborough’s daughter? Hell, I had better sleep in the stables after all.”
Eliza pulled him back down. “Don’t you dare. ‘Lady Malleyn’ sounds much better than ‘cousin Elizabeth the traitor’s daughter’. Besides, I find I am in need of warming now.”
He chuckled. “As you wish, my lady.”