CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

            At the back of the inn’s small alehouse, Rosemary slid into the chair next to Ariana’s and gave her a quick kiss upon the cheek. Ariana closed the book of poetry from which she had been practicing her reading, and smiled at her friend.

“Feeling better?” she queried, and Rosemary let out a happy whoosh of breath and leaned back in her seat.

“Much,” she answered. “All I really needed was a few good hours. I feel as fresh as daybreak. Didst thou sleep at all?”

“Aye, not as much as thee, but then, I had a fair nap in the wagon.”

“’Tis only two or three of the clock. Art thou refreshed enough to continue on today? I believe we can make Swindon by nightfall if we leave within the hour.”

“I can ride if you give me another half hour to rest.” Ariana pushed the sack that Sarah had packed for them over to Rosemary. “Art thou hungry?”

“I am ravenous!” Rosemary peeked inside the sack, then sighed. “I adore Sarah’s pies, but I really feel the need for a hot meal today; e’en gruel would suit. Have we enough coin to spare?”

Ariana poked into the purse tied to her belt and felt the coins. “Aye, we have enough. Thou canst not eat like a king, but some porridge would not go amiss. Even a roast chicken will not beggar us.”

“Ah! Bless Thee, G-d,” Rosemary breathed in joyous relief at the ceiling, and lifted her hand to catch the attention of the ostler. He ambled out from behind the bar, passed the only other inhabitants of the ale house sitting two tables in front of the women, and came to a rest at Rosemary’s side. She shouted her order of a roast chicken, a half-loaf of bread, and a pint of ale for the two of them to share. The ostler sniffed by way of acknowledgement, and shuffled off to the kitchens to prepare their meal.

One of the men at the other table nudged his partner with his elbow, and turned around in his seat to look at the women. His face was nearly obscured by a scraggly, thickly matted black beard, and the grime in the creases of his eyes gave him the look of a crusty alley cat squinting at its prey. He was an under-nourished sort of lean, and wore a dust-covered black coat with a hole in the elbow and faded brown boots. His companion, only slightly less grimy than he, had close-cropped dishwater hair and sickly blue eyes, one of which had a tendency to stray to the left. Both men eyed the women, then the particularly filthy one pushed back his seat and walked over to their table.

“Y’ look like lasses wha’ should no’ be eatin’ alone,” he said, leering at them and sitting down without being asked upon the seat opposite them. Rosemary recoiled a bit at his yellow-toothed leer, and discreetly put a hand to her nose before replying in as polite a tone as she could.

“Gramercy, good sir, but we are content to be alone. I… thank thee for thy pains.”

The man’s dishwater-haired companion had walked over to stand beside his friend, and clucked his tongue at Rosemary.

“Now, now, don’ be shy. We only wants to talk with ye awhile. Where be the ‘arm in tha’?” The men’s faces seemed too intense for Rosemary’s comfort, and she squeezed Ariana’s knee apprehensively beneath the table.

We thank thee,” Ariana said to Dishwater one in a firm voice, “but we are quite content as we are. Thou art most kind, but we must bid thee good day.”

 Filthy looked at Dishwater in mock concern, and touched a filthy hand to his chest. “Are we no’ welcome? Do these maids no’ wan’ our comp’ny?”

Dishwater moved around the back of the chair to stand near Ariana. “I think they’s jus’ bein’ coy. S’that not right, lass?”

He spied her book upon the table and picked it up. “Wha’ are ye reading, my sweet? I never knew a lass wha’ could read. Will ye read a bit to me?”

Ariana held out her hand for her book, but Dishwater held it out of her reach. Ariana’s voice was arctic when she spoke.

“Prithee, sir, kindly return my book to me at once.” She reached for the book, but Dishwater laughed and lifted it higher. Before Rosemary could stop her, Ariana scowled darkly and lunged for it. The man caught her wrist in his other hand and pulled her out of her seat.

“Wha’ will ye give me for it, lass?” he trilled mockingly, dropping the book to seize her other wrist.

Rosemary bounded out of her seat to aid her friend, but Filthy caught her by the arm and whipped her about to face him, hauling her against his chest and tugging her arms about his waist, grinning and baring his yellow teeth.

“Would y’ prefer t’ dance instead?”

He bent his lips to her neck and bit her pale skin, laughing as she gasped in surprise. Rosemary squirmed and struggled in his grip. She managed to free one of her hands and gave him a desperate shove, but no sooner had she put two inches’ distance between them then he grabbed her firmly about the waist and yanked her once again to his chest, securing her to him. Once more she tried to fend him off, and one of her flailing arms caught him in the eye. She heard the thunk as her wrist hit the bone, and she gasped as he snatched her hand from the air, twisting her arm behind her until her shoulder burned.

Rosemary’s heart thudded as his playful mood turned angry, and he growled, “I enjoy a bit o’ fire in a maid, but on’y so much.”

He looked round to see his partner likewise struggling to kiss Ariana, and called to him, “Methinks we ough’ t’ teach these lasses wha’ respect is! They don’ seem t’ understand.”

“Righ’ you are,” answered Dishwater, and pulled Ariana’s wrists until her hands were locked about his waist.

Rosemary murmured frightened protestations as Filthy stepped two awkward paces forward until her back was against the table, then with a single savage movement, he lifted her up and threw her on her back across its top, knocking the wind out of her.

With a violent yank, he tossed Rosemary’s skirts over her waist and grabbed a fistful of hair at the crown of her head before crawling on top of her and pushing her thighs apart with his knee. Rosemary choked on the bile that had risen to her throat and let out an agonized cry of terror. Ariana, who was still struggling to remove her wrists from her laughing adversary’s grip, looked over her shoulder and cried out in fear.

Dishwater let go of one wrist in order to get a better hold, and Ariana took advantage of the moment to unsheathe the dagger at her waist. With catlike speed, she swung it over her head towards the man’s chest. He managed to move just enough out of its range that it only struck his shoulder, and with a furious grunt of pain he tore it from her hand and flung it across the room. With a start, Ariana remembered Pete lying in his bed upstairs, and she screamed as loudly as she could. Dishwater let go of her other wrist and backhanded her viciously across the face, sending her spinning in semi-consciousness to the floor. She moaned as she fell, and he placed a foot on her skirt to pin her to the ground as he grinned and slowly unbuckled the tattered belt at his waist.

Up in his room, Pete inhaled sharply and woke with a start. Was that a scream that had woken him?

He strained his ears, and thought he could hear the sounds of a struggle below. He heard a clattering screech as a piece of furniture scraped across the floor, then a woman’s plaintive sob. The girls! Frantically pulling on his boots, he yanked open the door and flew down the stairs.

Pete burst through the doorway of the pub, where the sight that greeted him made the air rush to his head and caused his heart to stop. Rosemary was splay-legged on a table with her skirts bunched about her waist, her nostrils flared and white with terror as she struggled for breath. A disgustingly dirty, dark-haired man lay atop her, pinning her wrists above her head with one hand as he clawed at the fastening of his trousers with the other. On the floor, Ariana lay motionless while a man wearing only a shirt with a fresh bloodstain at the upper arm was jerking the laces from her bodice.

He was no hero, but there was no way Pete could stand by and not come to their aid. He looked wildly about for a weapon. With a speed borne of desperation, he seized a wooden chair that had been overturned nearby and brought it crashing down upon the dark-haired man’s back. The man grunted and slumped over Rosemary as the chair splintered across his body. The one kneeling over Ariana looked up, and drew a breath as if to speak.

 Though the seat had broken away, the back of the chair was still in Pete’s hands. He swung it around and clipped the man squarely in the face, sending him sprawling onto his back at Ariana’s side, where he lay unconscious as blood gushed from his broken nose. Pete dropped the remnants of the chair and bent to check on Ariana when he heard Rosemary scream, “Pete!

He whirled around to find that the dark-haired man had clambered off of Rosemary and had seized Ariana’s dagger from where it had skittered beneath the table. The man grinned maliciously as he crouched in a fighter’s stance opposite Pete, holding his unbuckled trousers up with one hand and gripping the sharp blade with the other. He chuckled and turned the blade to and fro, causing it to glint dangerously in the light.

The ostler appeared in the doorway bearing the roast chicken on a trencher, and Pete looked up, momentarily distracted. Whilst the ostler gaped at the sight before him, Pete heard Rosemary scream as the man with the dagger abruptly lunged forward.

In the instant Pete turned his eyes back to his foe, he felt the searing white heat of the dagger being plunged into his belly. He gasped and gave a strangled grunt of disbelief as the attacker swiftly withdrew the blade and thrust it into him again. The man pulled back for a third assault, but by then the ostler had dropped the tray and had grabbed the villain by the collar. Despite his age, the ostler was not a small man, and the force with which he slammed Filthy into the wall knocked the man cold. Ariana opened her eyes just in time to see Rosemary’s attacker hit the wall and then slide to the floor, where the ostler gave him a savage kick in the ribs for good measure.

Pete’s head spun as he touched a hand to the gash in his belly. A dark, wet stain was already forming on his jerkin, and when he drew his hand away it was drenched in blood. Rosemary’s white face was a frozen mask of horror as he looked up to meet her eyes, and like a bewildered child he showed her the red upon his hand.

“It -” he said tremulously, then crumpled as his legs collapsed beneath him. Rosemary catapulted herself off the table and knelt over him.

Get up!” she sobbed, then looked at the ostler, her eyes panicked and wild.

For G-d’s sake,” she screamed. “Fetch a surgeon! Run!”

            Pete had not the strength to turn his head, but heard the ostler race to the door. From his position on the floor he felt Rosemary’s trembling hand on his chest and caught a glimpse of her stricken face. It wavered briefly in his vision before he heard a rushing in his ears like a wave approaching at tremendous speed, and the blackness closed in.