The Raven’s Lady – a series of surprising disclosures

Part 2 of The Raven’s Lady, the short story I wrote as a prize for Crystal Cox. You can read part 1 here.

George Morland, Smugglers Isle of WightBut when Felix got to the room assigned to him—one of the guest rooms on the west frontage of the house—he couldn’t sleep. Perhaps a stroll in the woods: scene of many a childhood game when he and his widowed mother lived here with his grandfather. And a slightly older Felix often stole out on a night such as this, when the moon was nearly full, to trap game in the woods, or just to watch animals living their secret lives while the world slept.

No sooner thought than done; he let himself down from the window and was soon slipping into the shadows under the trees. As he had so many times before, he chose a trunk to lean against, stilled his movements, and slowed his breathing to wait for what the night had to show him.

There was a fox, trotting purposefully along the path. An owl swept by on silent wings. Two deer stepped daintily out of the undergrowth, then startled as they caught the fox scent and leapt backward again, crashing away into the deeper shadows.

No. Not the fox. Someone was coming from the house. Without moving a muscle, he prepared for action. A figure. But not large enough to be Cyril. The hope that he could clear this whole matter up this first night died, but his curiosity remained. Where was the lad going? For the person hurrying along the path was no more than a boy, surely; short and slender, with a youthful gait.

On an impulse, Felix followed, using all his woodcraft to stay silent and undetected, but still keep within sight of the boy.

They took the fork leading down to the cliffs. Below on the beach, clear in the moonlight, people milled around several rowboats in the surf. He’d found the smugglers after all! No legitimate cargo would be unloaded on a remote beach in the middle of the night.

The boy took the path down the cliff face, but Felix would be seen if he followed. He concealed himself in a rocky outcrop, where he could watch both the beach and the path from the village. If the smugglers planned to take the cargo inland tonight, that was the most likely direction for whatever transport they had arranged.

As time wore on, however, it became clear that the cargo was being stored in the old cave complex Felix used to explore as a child, before his mother married again and took him away. Good. He could bring a troop to watch until the smugglers came to retrieve the goods, and catch them all.

Oddly, the boy Felix had followed seemed to be directing the whole enterprise, people appeared to be coming to him for orders, and several times Felix saw him run into the surf to catch someone by the arm and redirect them.

The rowing boats went back for another load, and the night was beginning to lighten in the east before the last of them had its cargo removed and put back out into the waves.

Below, the smugglers began to slip away singly and in small groups.

Something odd struck Felix about the faces that looked up at the cliff before beginning to climb the path. No beards or mustaches. Not even the shadows one would expect on at least some of them after a day’s growth. His mind took a while to interpret what his eyes were telling him. Women. Every smuggler he could see was a woman.

He looked again at the boy, shaking his head to dislodge the wild thought. No. Not Miss Bellingham. That milk-and-water miss could not possibly be a smuggler. The boy—or the woman, in fact—could be anyone in the house, or could easily have come from one of the farms beyond the house. But he was definitely a she. As the light strengthened, the way she moved, and the curves inside the breeches she wore, became more and more obvious.

Then the raven swooped down to land on the beach beside her, and removed all doubt. Miss Bellingham’s pet cawed at her, a loud raven alarm call, and she looked anxiously up at the cliff. A few quick orders to the remaining women on the beach, and they all scattered, some heading for the path and some for the narrow way around the cliffs that had been uncovered as the tide fell.

Now what did he do? He stiffened his shoulders. Woman she may be, but smuggler she certainly was. He would do his duty, of course. Even though once, long ago, she had been Joselyn, the girl child who dogged his footsteps and whom he would have died to protect.

Miss Bellingham led a few other women up the cliff face, and stopped to speak with them a few paces from where Felix hid. The raven swooped in to join them.

“It will be enough, Matilda,” she was saying. “The money we raise will pay your rental and that of the other tenants and keep cousin Cyril from casting you out.”

“For another quarter, miss,” the woman addressed as Matilda said dolefully. “We canna keep doing this here smuggling though. If’n the Black Fox catches us, or the excise, we’ll all hang.”

Miss Bellingham nodded, her brows drawn anxiously together. “By next quarter, perhaps I will have thought of something else.”

“Master Felix had no business dying in foreign parts,” Matilda declared.

“I do not suppose he did it on purpose,” Miss Bellingham said. Was it just his imagination, or did her tone sound wistful?

“If’n he’d lived, tha’ could have wed him,” another woman suggested. Felix recognised her; she was a servant at the grange. “Tha’ always said he promised to come back and wed thee.”

“He was 14, Betsy. Even if he was alive, he would have long forgotten a few words said in haste when his mother took him away.”

“Mayhap you should marry that man your cousin brought home,” Betsy said.

Miss Bellingham gave an inelegant snort. “If I were inclined to marry, and I am not, I would certainly not marry anyone who was friends with cousin Cyril.”

“He’s a well-enough looking young man,” Betsy insisted, “and polite, too.”

“He is prepared to pay my cousin in order to get his hands on my trust fund. In any case, I do not think he wishes to marry me any more.”

“Only for that you’ve gone out of your way to discourage him,” Betsy said.

Miss Bellingham giggled. “I just listened to everything Cyril said he liked, and did the opposite.”

Why, the little minx. Certainly, Miss Milk-and-Water was unrecognisable in the laughing maiden he could see before him. He had told Cyril he preferred women with opinions, who could think for themselves and hold an intelligent conversation. He might have added that he wanted to wed a lady who put the welfare of his tenants ahead of her own, as this delightfully grownup Joselyn clearly did.

The women were splitting up, Miss Bellingham and Betsy taking the wood path, followed by the raven, and the other women heading along the clifftop to the village. He watched them out of sight, but stayed where he was. He had a lot to think about. Miss Bellingham was clearly not the Black Fox, even if she was a smuggler. And she was far more the Joselyn of his memories than he had believed.

The sound of shifting rocks attracted his attention.

Two men emerged from another rocky outcrop some distance down the cliff, and walked up to the junction of the two paths, talking as they came. One was cousin Cyril, the other a dark burly man who walked with the distinctive roll of a sailor.

“It’s my cousin, I tell you,” Cyril insisted.  “That damnable bird follows her everywhere.”

“I don’t care who it is,” said his companion. “She’s on my patch, and I’ll have her cargo and I’ll kill anyone who gets in my way, and so I will.”

“Look here, Fox!” Cyril was clearly alarmed. “You can’t kill my cousin. I’ve got a man up at the house who’s willing to pay good money to marry her.”

The Black Fox, for it must be he, looked interested. “How much is the wench worth?”

“2000 pound. And this Matthews is willing to stump up 500 to have the rest free and clear.”

“2000, eh? That’d go a long way to sweetening your exile!” The Fox laughed. “Worth more dead than alive, I’d say.”

Cyril shook his head. “She’s made a will leaving the lot to her sister’s children. Not that the brats need it. They’re wealthy orphans; inherited a packet when their parents died. I need her alive, I tell you.”

“You could marry her yourself.”

Cyril shook his head. “I tried that. She won’t have a bar of it. And I’ve no wish for a wife anyway.”

“Drug her, marry her, and then kill her before you run,” the Fox advised.

For a moment, Cyril looked interested, but then he shook his head. “Too complicated. I couldn’t have the bans called. Even if I could wait—and the real Viscount Maddox could turn up at any time—no-one here would believe she was willing. I’m just lucky that I heard two men discussing his unexpected survival, and his petition to the courts to be recognised as viscount. It has given me a little warning to sell off everything I can lay my hands on. Once the courts notify me, I’ll not be able to touch a penny.”

“A special licence?”

“Expensive. And chancy—she could still refuse me at the church. No; getting this Matthews to court her is the best plan.”

“Or…” The Fox fell silent, clearly thinking deeply.

“Or?” Cyril prompted.

“I could buy her off you. I’ll pay 400 pound, mind, and not a penny more! But I’ll be able to sell her to the Barbary pirates, a fair-haired virgin like that. She is a virgin, I suppose?”

Cyril nodded, eagerly.

“Yes,” the Fox continued. “It’s only fair, the trouble she’s caused me, taking cargoes on my patch. Yes, and I’ll take my pick of the other women she had with her.” He grinned, an evil leer that made Felix shiver. “Some to sell, and some to use on the way.”

“450,” Cyril said, “and you have a bargain. What’s the plan, then?”

The two men moved out of earshot, still talking. Felix hurried after them as soon as they’d cleared the open ground and gone into the trees, but they had horses tied in a small clearing, and he caught up only to see them ride away.

Time to return to the house, then, Felix thought. And past time for a little conversation with the lady smuggler.

Part 3 is here.

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