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Secret Passages - unpublished content

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On The Account
  by Helen Hollick


  (Excerpt from first draft)

Exmoor, England
March, 1719

One


An hour after dusk had settled into the darkness of night, Tiola fed another stick into her meagre fire. The wood was damp and it gave off more smoke than heat, but it was better than nothing up here on the windswept openness of Exmoor. She was sheltered behind the magnificent tor of rocks that separated the valley from the sea, three hundred feet below. It was said that the devil had lived here in a castle of stone with his many wives, but angered by their infidelity he had blasted the eyrie to pieces. All that remained were the bare, jagged bones, the skeleton rocks piled stone upon stone. Nothing but a story, an old tale to explain the strangeness of a natural formation; the devil did not exist, but Tiola was aware that something was lurking out there in the darkness, watching her.

The stick flared into flame and the light caught the glint of an eye a few yards off. Tiola calmly added more wood to the fire and smiled to herself. This was the Valley of Rocks famous also for the feral goats that thrived on the coarse sea-salt grass. A huffed snort and a stream of misted breath evaporated into the cold air. A pony then, not a goat; one of the distinctive two-thousand year old Exmoor breed with their shaggy coats and light-coloured muzzles. Had she borrowed such a pony from the stables at Tawford Barton she would be at her destination by now, but her mission was secret and she wanted to know who had been following her these past seven days. Had she asked for a mount they would have insisted on a servant to accompany her, and her strange shadow would not, then, eventually reveal himself.

The pony moved away, uncomfortable at the smell of fire; she heard his hard little hooves clatter on some rocks, then the sound of him cantering away, the drumming thudding as if the very ground was hollow.

She fed the flames with yet another stick. "You are welcome to share my warmth and light," she said as she moved her hand slightly in a figure of eight motion and the sulky fire leapt into vigorous life.

A shape approached from the opposite direction to where the pony had disappeared. Tall, lean and slender of figure, he was dressed immaculately in knee-high leather boots and black breeches; a sumptuous green-velvet longcoat and an exquisitely embroidered waistcoat covered a linen shirt with the froth of a French Lace cravat beneath his chin. At his left hip, a rapier scabbard delicately engraved and inlaid with silver and lapis-lazuli enamel: a gentleman's slender weapon sheathed inside. Over it all, a hooded, ankle-length sable-lined cloak fastened across his chest with a gold chain looped to two diamond-encrusted clasps that glistened in the star-light - an elegant man, his fastidious apparel incongruous out here on the open moors.

He pressed his slender-fingered, manicured hands together as if in prayer and bowed, his bright, sapphire-blue eyes gazing at her from beneath lustrous, raven's-wing black hair.

"Namaste, seņora preciosa."

She returned the greeting, but did not rise from her seated position on the damp grass. "Namaste. Well met, Mahadun of the Night-Walkers. I would know why you have followed me so closely these last seven days. What is it you seek?"

Smiling, showing perfect white teeth, he indicated the fire seeking permission to sit. When Tiola nodded, he sank elegantly down to sit cross-legged opposite her. "Am I not old friends with Tiola of the White Craft? Do I need a reason to be in her company?"

"That you do not, but there is a reason behind this meeting, and I would know what it is." Again her fingers made the figure-of-eight sign and a small escape of breath left her mouth on a soft hieshhh whisper.

Mahadun's smile remained intact, but he tilted his chin a little higher, a subtle gesture of defiance. "Your gift of magick does not work on me Lady. If I tell you what is in my heart and in my mind, then it will be through my own wanting not your trickery."

She inclined her head in acknowledgement of the mild chastisement and felt in the basket beside her for the bottle within, passed it to him. "It is brandy; a distillation you enjoy, if I recall correct."

Eagerly he prised open the cork sealed with wax and drank deeply, then dabbed his mouth with the back of his hand. "And if I recall, there is little that you remember incorrectly, for you are the Wising Woman and you know everything."

Tiola laughed and brought out a muslin-wrapped pasty filled one half with meat and vegetables, the other with apples and blackberries; a more than adequate meal for a growling stomach. She peeled aside the hard pastry casing and bit into the succulent meat within, offered none to her companion for she knew he did not eat much of the food that a man would savour. Mahadun had his own preference for sustenance, one outside her ability to supply. "If I knew everything, my friend," she said between mouthfuls, "I would not have need to ask why you are sitting beside my fire."

As a tactic to receive an answer it failed, for Mahadun sampled the brandy again then removed a Spanish cheroot from his coat pocket and lit it with the use of a burning stick. The scent of strong, sweet, Virginia tobacco filled the air.

"For myself," he said, "I wonder why you are out here alone, scampering over the moors? It can be a dangerous place among the rocks and heather, where robbers and murderers lurk."

"There are few footpads up here on the desolate tracks of Exmoor beside those who remain of the Doone clan in the next valley yonder, and I have no reason to fear them."

Mahadun puffed on his cheroot, sending spirals of blue smoke into the cold night air, the tip of it, as he inhaled, glowing red like a minute star. "A man called Sir Ailie Doone bade me watch over you, in case harm should stalk your path."

"And since when, Mahadun, have you taken note of the bidding of men?"

He remained silent, only the glow of his cheroot and the firelight illuminating his pale, expressionless face. At last, stubbing the cheroot out on a stone and immediately lighting another, he said, "Since I suspected that your friends have something I want."