Nothing like a nice fictional piece of disaster to get our heart racing. The heroine or the hero has to survive to the end of the book, which is comforting to know, but meanwhile we authors can put them through all kinds of trials.
This week, I’m looking for excerpts about danger — physical, emotional, moral, societal: you decide. Mine is physical, and is from the subsriber-only newsletter short story I’m writing at the moment, with the plan of getting a newsletter out this week.
One more race, and Rhi would be free. No horse in all of England could catch Atlanta. By the terms of her agreement with her father, she had merely to win next week, and he would sign the new will and rip up the old one.
Her resentment rose, all the more fierce because she understood that Father acted out of love. He wanted to see her married to protect her, he said. She was too young, too inexperienced, too female to own and run the finest racehorse stud in Great Britain. And Father was dying, fading a little more with each day, which she resented more than all the rest.
Atlanta tossed her head and whickered, sensitive to Rhi’s mood. She took a deep breath, and another, letting the anger drain from her with the air she exhaled, emptying herself of everything but the joy of the horse’s movement, the freedom of the gallop, the love of the wild heath across which they raced for the sheer glory of the speed.
Cen watched from the shelter of a copse of trees. The mare lived up to all he’d read about her, and the rider too. He had known Rhiannon Enright would be good, but she had more than lived up to the promise she had shown as a child. Back then, she rode astride — and the gossip in London that had sent him here said she did so still, in the races held once a month for the past four months. Today, she was properly and sedately side-saddle, but the way she raced had nothing proper or sedate about it.
She flowed with the horse, the two moving as one beast, all grace, power, and beauty. The horse was magnificent, but Bucephalus was better.
As if on cue, Bucephalus whickered. Cen had tethered him upwind of the mare, and out of sight, but that meant his stallion was downwind, and would be picking up messages on the breeze. Unlikely that Rhi would hear, but better to play it safe. He’d come to find out if Atlanta was as good as they said; if the heiress was as appealing. Not that he had doubted the latter. She had won his heart when she was a baby just old enough to toddle to the stables and he perhaps a year older, if they’d guessed his age right when they found him. She had been just thirteen and his affection beginning to turn carnal when her father exiled him.
No point in dwelling in the past. The army had given him a new name, new skills, friends and a future, and now he had come full circle to the place where he began, able at last to reach out for the prize he had once believed beyond his reach. He had made up his mind, as if there had been any doubt. He would enter the race, and win her for his bride. Yes, and the stables where once he had been the lowliest of stablehands.
But as Cen stood, taking care to stay behind the undergrowth and to move smoothly and slowly, something caught his eye on the valley floor.
There. Beyond the racing mare. Movement in a hollow screened by bushes. He frowned even as he squinted to refine his focus. Horses; two, no three. And men preparing to mount.
And there! Caught in his peripheral vision, two more horses on a hillock like his own, but on the opposite side of the valley. One of the riders raised his hand in a signal to the men in the hollow, and they mounted, keeping low over their horses’ backs.
A threat to Rhi? Cen made up his mind, whistling the signal that told Bucephalus to pull at the tether and come to him. In the time it took for the horse to trot up the hill, and for Cen to adjust the tack and mount, all five of the stranger riders were ahorse and heading on an interception course for the lone female rider. What was she doing out without a groom?
Rhi had noticed her pursuers, and Atlanta was lengthening her stride, aiming for the gap between the two groups. She had the speed, if she was fresh. But Rhi and Atlanta had been racing the heath for an hour. The other horses were gaining.
Cen and Bucephalus, coming from a different vantage, might be able to put themselves between the chasing men and the woman, if they were fast enough, if she kept on the same tack. At the very least, the rogues might hesitate if they knew he was watching, though men who would assault a woman would not hesitate to dispose of such an inconvenient witness.
Atlanta faltered. Ah. Rhi had seen him. He pointed to the other riders and gestured her to keep coming, and after a moment, she nudged her horse on. But the hesitation had the nearest of her pursuers right on her heels.
The look of mingled panic and determination on Rhi’s face as she approached removed any lingering thought that the scenario might have an innocent explanation. Cen pulled the cudgel he kept in a holster hanging from his saddle, holding it aloft as Rhi passed him, and swinging it down on the shoulder of the man immediately following.
The man behind swung wide as the first rider fell, and kept after Atlanta, but Cen faced two more, and beyond them another, muffled in a greatcoat and scarf, shouting, “It’s only one man. Get rid of him.”
Cen grinned. Only one man and his horse. More than enough, though they were coming at him with guns. At his cue, Bucephalus spun around and caprioled, his hind hooves connecting solidly with one of the attacking horses as Cen ducked a bullet and threw the knife from his sleeve at the rider of the other.
A shout from the direction Rhi had fled caught his attention. A party on horseback, and known to Rhi, apparently, for she continued her wild gallop towards them. And the would-be assailant who had followed her had pulled up, and was looking back for directions.
In moments, the attack was over, the fallen men collected by their companions and the group fleeing back the way they had come. Cen let them go. A sting in his arm hinted that he hadn’t entirely evaded the bullet, but it was no more than a scratch.