1750: Jacqueline: The Legend of Nimway Hall

1750: Jacqueline: The Legend of Nimway Hall

Volume 1 in The Legend of Nimway Hall Series
Available in print and e-book editions.
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-42-2
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-08-8
Release Date: March 15, 2018

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens brings you the opening story in a series of romances touched by magic as old as time.

A gentleman fleeing the bonds of loveless marriage and a lady in desperate need of a champion join forces to defend an ancient legacy.

Jacqueline Tregarth, lady and guardian of Nimway Hall, is devoted to protecting her people, the Hall, the estate’s wood, and its farms. She yearns for a husband to help her meet the challenges, but all those seeking her hand are interested only in controlling her lands. With the estate’s stream running dry and summer looming, she sets men digging to reopen an old spring. Her workers discover a dirt-encrusted ornament buried at the spot; once removed, water flows and fills the old lake—and Jacqueline realizes the ornament is some kind of ancient orb.

Meanwhile, Lord Richard Devries, overly-eligible darling of the ton, fights free of kidnappers seeking to force him to offer for some lady’s hand. But on escaping into the countryside, he gets lost in Balesboro Wood and stumbles on a covert scheme to divert a stream. Later, he finds his way to Nimway Hall, where the household is celebrating a spring running again.

Richard is welcomed and meets the fascinating Miss Tregarth. That his youthful hostess is disinclined to bat her lashes at him piques his interest, yet after his recent experiences, he feels safe in her company—for him, an unusual and comforting experience. Indeed, everything about Nimway Hall is calming and soothing.

Then Richard makes the connection between what he saw in the wood and the Hall’s recent water shortage and leads Jacqueline and her men to the diversion in the wood. Subsequently, he learns of the various men pursuing Jacqueline, and recognizes the danger to her and to the Hall. Although self-protective instinct presses him to travel on, his lamed horse has yet to recover, and despite all inner warnings, Richard feels compelled to step into the role of a supportive protector.

Aided and abetted by the household, the estate community, Balesboro Wood, and the ancient orb, propinquity works its magic, seducing Richard with a role into which he and his talents fit perfectly, and tempting Jacqueline to hope that her champion has finally found his way to her side. If the tales told of those snared by Balesboro Wood and sent to the Hall are true, then…

Yet true love never runs smoothly, and both Richard and Jacqueline must search within, embrace their destinies, and find the courage to seize their heart’s one true desire—all just in time to foil a dastardly plan that would wreck all they and the Hall’s people hold dear.






Apple Books

“Stephanie Laurens’ heroines are marvelous tributes to Georgette Heyer: feisty and strong.” Cathy Kelly

“Stephanie Laurens never fails to entertain and charm her readers with vibrant plots, snappy dialogue, and unforgettable characters.” Historical Romance Reviews

“Stephanie Laurens plays into readers’ fantasies like a master and claims their hearts time and again.” Romantic Times Magazine

“A romance fueled by more than one kind of magic, The Legend of Nimway Hall is an utterly spellbinding tale.” Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing

“Mystical, historical, and entirely romantic, The Legend of Nimway Hall will draw you in and captivate you as only a true love story can. Never has there been a more perfect pair than Jacqueline and Richard. Their tale is one for the ages.” Amanda K., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

“Stephanie Laurens gives another delightful tour of the eighteenth-century English countryside, manners, mysteries, magic, mirth, and all.” Kim H., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

June 6, 1750
Nimway Hall, Somerset

“Miss! Miss! You got to come and see!”

Caught in the act of crossing the great hall, Jacqueline Tregarth swung to face the front door, propped wide to let the sunshine stream in, just as Billy Brakes, one of the gardener’s boys, came pelting in. “What is it, Billy?” Eyes widening, she walked toward him. “Has something gone wrong?”

Billy halted, wheezed, and shook his head. After a second, he managed, “The digging’s going fine, miss. But Crawley’s working over where the dowser says the spring should be, and he—Crawley—says as you need to come and take a look.”

She frowned. “A look at what?” The Hall’s groundsmen were digging out the bed of an old lake that had been allowed to dry up thirty years ago, as well as striking down to open up the spring that used to fill the lake. Over the recent winter and spring, the stream that had provided water to the house and most of the estate for the past thirty years had steadily failed; it was now not much more than a trickle. In that region, water was known to change its course, sometimes with little warning, but with summer in full swing and the first crops ripening in the lower fields, the estate desperately needed a good, reliable source of water, especially to drive the estate’s mill.

“I dunno, miss.” Billy blinked guileless blue eyes at her. “I think they hit a lump of something. Crawley just said to come and get you so you could look and decide what you wanted to do.”

A lump of something? Jacqueline glanced down the great hall, but none of the tasks awaiting her couldn’t be put off. “Very well. I’ll come.” She waved Billy ahead of her, picked up her skirts, and followed him out of the front door, down the steps, and onto the gravel path that led around the eastern side of the house.

Neat, well-tended lawns rolled away to the line of trees marking the edge of the wood that protected the Hall in an arc from the southwest through the east to the north. Bees buzzed in the lavender bushes bordering the path, and the sun, still high in a cloudless blue sky, shone down with welcome warmth.

As she followed Billy past the corner of the house and onto the wide north lawn, Jacqueline reflected that she really should have stopped to find a hat—freckles were thoroughly unfashionable. The thought made her grin. Being fashionable didn’t feature on her list of aspirations. Leading her people and taking care of the Hall and the estate were all that really mattered to her.

The lake lay a hundred or so yards behind the house, in the northeastern quadrant of the area the household deemed “the grounds.” A narrow path of beaten earth followed the low berm that circled the wide, shallow lake.

At various points on the lake bed, in groups of two and three, men were working with shovels and wheelbarrows, removing the soft earth that had once been underwater. Jacqueline paused to survey the results of their efforts; they’d done a good job of deepening the lake in preparation for releasing the blocked spring. The men saw her and paused, raising their heads and looking expectantly her way; she smiled and nodded in approval and encouragement, then continued walking. The Hall’s gardener, Crawley, was waiting at the far end of the lake with Mr. Mainard, the dowser she’d called in.

As Jacqueline neared, she saw that Crawley was standing over a deeper hole into which both he and the dowser kept glancing. She halted on the path nearby and arched her brows at Crawley; Billy had rejoined the nearest group of men. “Billy said you found something.”

“Yes, indeed, miss.” Crawley lumbered over to offer her his hand and steady her down the slope of the bank to the lake bed. “Seemed a bit odd, so before we went further, I wanted you to look and tell us what you think.”

Gripping Crawley’s gnarled hand, Jacqueline raised her skirts and went down in a controlled rush. She was relieved to find the earth firm enough beneath her leather-soled slippers. She released Crawley’s hand and her skirts and walked over to the deeper hole.

On the other side of the hole, Mainard frowned into its depths and shifted from boot to boot. He glanced at her, bobbed his head respectfully, then looked down again. “This is the right place. I’d take my oath the spring is down there.”

She halted at the edge of the hole and looked in. At first, all she saw was a hole several feet deep and a yard or so square, its floor and sides composed of rich, friable earth. Then she caught a gleam of something beneath the dirt in the center of the hole. She crouched and stared. “What is that?”

“It’s a stone of some sort.” With a grunt, Crawley dropped back into the hole, his boots landing well clear of the object. “I just glanced it with my shovel, then I thought it best to wait and get your orders.”

Country folk were superstitious, and the locals of this county, and especially those on the Nimway Hall estate, were wary of disturbing unexpected finds. Local legends too often carried warnings of dire consequences.

“What, exactly, is it?” She couldn’t make out the object’s size or even the material from which it was made. “Brush away the dirt, and let’s see.”

Crawley took a rag from his pocket and bent and cautiously wiped away the first layer of dirt, then the next, revealing the upper surface of what appeared to be a smooth, pale, milky stone.

Jacqueline caught the glint of metal—brass, copper, or gold—like fingertips holding the stone. “It looks like some sort of ornament.” She studied it, then caught Crawley’s eye. “Can you test around it to see how big it is or whether it’s attached to something larger, then see if we can lever it up? Preferably without damaging it.”

Crawley studied the lump, then grunted. He straightened, looked out over the lake, then bellowed to another of his lads, “Matthew! Fetch me a trowel.”

Jacqueline rose from her crouch. Crawley bent again to the buried ornament and carefully felt in the dirt around it.

Mainard looked troubled. “I swear, Miss Tregarth, that the spring is down there.” He pointed at the object Crawley was tending. “If I had to be precise, I’d say it’s right below that spot. And before you ask, that ornament, whatever it is, couldn’t have distracted my dowsing. I only react to water, nothing else.”

“I’m sure we’ll find the spring, Mr. Mainard—I don’t doubt that.” She gave him a reassuring smile; he was the best dowser in the area and came with an excellent reputation. “I have no idea why that ornament was buried there, but if we need to remove it to get to the spring, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Mainard continued to frown. “I can’t imagine why anyone would bury such a thing on top of a spring—on the spot a spring used to be.”

Nor could she, but she wasn’t about to allow any object, no matter how unexpected or strange, to keep her people from the water they needed.

By the time Matthew came running with a trowel, Crawley had cleared around the ornament—a smooth, roundish stone, about the size of a man’s fist, trapped and held in claws of some burnished metal.

Crawley took the trowel, crouched beside the dirt-encrusted lump, and carefully inserted the trowel’s blade at an angle such that it would strike well below the object.

They all watched with bated breath.

The trowel sank smoothly in to the hilt.

Crawley grunted. He tried again from a different angle with the same result. “Right, then.” He glanced up at Jacqueline. “Looks like it’s not stuck to anything—we should be able to free it.”

She nodded at him to proceed.

Five minutes later, Crawley waggled the trowel one last time, and the dirty lump rolled free. Crawley rose, handed the trowel to the waiting Matthew, then, once again, drew the rag from his pocket. This time, he handed it to Jacqueline. “Here.”

She took the rag, then Crawley bent and carefully lifted the ball of dirt enclosing the stone and the structure housing it. He held it up, then turned and offered it to her.

After spreading the rag over her hands, almost ceremoniously, she accepted the stone. The weight was similar to an ornament of that size fashioned from gold and crystal. Balancing the stone in its mounting on one palm, she used the edges of the rag to wipe more of the dirt away; it clung to the metal more tightly than it had to the smooth stone.

“I’ll have to use water to clean the rest off.” She peered at the stone. “But it does seem to be some sort of ornament.”

Crawley grunted. “Strange place to bury an ornament.”

The men returned their attention to the hole.

Intending to shake the loosened dirt from the rag, Jacqueline tipped the ornament, stone first, into her palm—

The stone softly glowed.

Quickly, she righted it, but even as she stared at it, the glow faded, and the stone returned to its previous, not-quite-translucent milky-white state.

She felt her heart thud.

“Well, I’ll be damned!”

Startled, she looked at Crawley—it was he who had spoken. He was staring at his feet.

Following his gaze, she saw water bubbling up through the hole left by the ornament.

Cradling the stone closer, she beamed. “We have water!”

“Water!” The call was taken up and relayed to all the men.

Most came running to look.

As Crawley clambered out of the hole, Mainard shook his head and met Jacqueline’s eyes. “That”—with a nod, he indicated the ornament—“was buried right on top of the spring. Like a plug.”

Smiling, she held up the ornament, supporting it with both hands. “It seems it’s something of a good luck charm, then.” She glanced around at the men. “At least, for this household.”

Everyone grinned and agreed.

Crawley called the men to order, pointing out that the deeper hole was filling fast and would soon overflow and start to fill the basin of the lake. He gave orders for the men to finish off preparing the lake bed.

Leaving Crawley and the men to that task, Jacqueline accepted Mainard’s support to climb up the bank and onto the path. Carrying the ornament partially wrapped in the rag, she walked with the dowser back toward the house.

When they reached the path at the rear of the house, Mainard halted and bowed to her. “Thank you for sending for me, Miss Tregarth. It was an interesting exercise, opening up your old spring.” He glanced back at the activity around the lake. “I confess I have never come across a…stopper like that plugging the neck of a spring.”

She glanced at the ornament, now nestled in the crook of her arm. “Indeed. It does seem hard to believe that someone buried it in that very spot.” She looked up and met Mainard’s eyes. “But there are stranger tales about these parts, several of which involve Nimway Hall. This is simply another to add to our list.”

“Indeed, miss.” Mainard bowed. “My horse is in the stable. I will leave you here. Once again, thank you for your custom.”

She inclined her head and watched the dowser walk off to the stable, then she looked again at the ornament. She raised it to the sunshine, watching the light slide over the surface of the now-dull stone. “I fancy you will clean up very nicely, and then I’ll put you on show to be feted as the Hall’s good luck charm.”

Smiling, she lowered the ornament. Holding it between her hands, she walked toward the house.

* * *

“I have never been lost in my life!” Tired, dusty, and frustrated, Lord Richard Edward Montague Devries—deeply reluctant darling of London society—plunked himself down on a fallen log. Exasperated, he stared at the trees surrounding him, at the woodland stretching in every direction as far as his eyes could see. “Damn it, Malcolm! Where the devil are we?”

His horse, a hefty dappled-gray gelding who went by the name of Malcolm the Great, continued to forage through the leaf mold carpeting the ground and didn’t deign to respond.

With his forearms on his knees and Malcolm’s reins loosely looped in his long fingers, Richard hung his head and sighed.

He’d fled London two days before, leaving his lodgings in St. James as if merely going for a morning ride in the park. At the corner of Jermyn Street, he’d been joined by one of his closest friends, Sir Toby Lackland, and they’d ridden into the park. Then through the park and on. They’d kept riding, ultimately out along the highway and on via Andover and Salisbury. The ruse had been necessary; after the events of the night before, he’d needed to avoid alerting anyone to his departure and, even more, his destination.

He’d been glad of Toby’s company—to ensure he escaped London without hindrance.

That was what his undeniable good fortune had reduced him to—fleeing the capital, with his friends watching his back.

Richard picked up a twig and poked at the dead leaves between the toes of his riding boots. As the second son of the wealthy and powerful Marquess of Harwich, ever since Richard had gone on the town at twenty, he’d featured on the matchmakers’ lists. His mother being a Montague only increased his eligibility, his desirability as a husband for the swarms of young ladies who every year descended on the capital to hunt through the ballrooms for a suitable match.

He’d nearly been caught—trapped—long ago, but he’d learned his lesson well. Subsequently, when one of his father’s distant cousins had died and left Richard a manor house in Wiltshire along with substantial accumulated wealth, he’d foreseen the inevitable reaction and had remained alert and very much on guard. He’d successfully avoided the ballrooms for more than a year and thereafter neatly sidestepped the multitude of snares the matchmakers had laid before his feet. He’d been twenty-five at the time; as the years had rolled on and he’d continued to decline to succumb, the matchmakers had grumbled and largely given up, viewing him as a lost cause.

As a gentleman unlikely to stumble and fall into their grasping arms.

All had been well for several years, his life relatively peaceful, then earlier that year, his paternal great-aunt, Lady Dulcimea Caverthorne, had informed the family at large that she was naming him her heir. Dulcimea was nowhere near her deathbed, but she was an exceedingly wealthy, childless widow, and other family members had been prodding and pricking her to declare the disposition of her estate. So she had. Apparently, said other family members had forgotten that Richard was Lady Dulcimea’s favorite and had been for decades; pushed too far, she’d declared enough was enough and had stated her final wishes, which she’d signed and sealed in her will.

Being her heir, combined with the land and wealth he already commanded, rendered him almost as potentially wealthy as his older brother, Gideon, who would inherit their father’s title and entailed estate. Given that the prospect of Dulcimea’s wealth would immediately catapult Richard to the giddy pinnacle of the matchmakers’ lists, he’d been relieved that only the family had been privy to Dulcimea’s declaration.

A week ago, someone had blabbed and let the until-then familial secret out, and the news had flashed through the ton like wildfire.

Within a day, Richard had been drowning in invitations to balls, soirées, entertainments of all kinds, and house parties galore. Bad enough, but as soon as he’d shown his face in public, he’d been accosted by older gentlemen clearly hounded by their wives to secure his presence at their dinner tables—on two occasions, he’d been buttonholed in the street, followed by three separate incidents in his clubs. In his clubs, for God’s sake!

For several days, the situation had been an open joke among his closest friends.

Their laughter had come to an abrupt end three nights ago.

After spending a convivial evening with Toby and a group of likeminded others, Richard, Toby, and another of their close circle, Lord Charles Herries, had ambled out of the door of what was presently the most fashionable hell in town and had turned their footsteps toward their beds. It had been late, somewhere in the small hours, and with the street flares burning low and its streets and lanes cloaked in shadows, London had slumbered around them. On reaching Piccadilly, the three of them had gone their separate ways; Richard had headed south via a lane to St. James, his usual route into that precinct of well-heeled bachelors, while the other two went north into Mayfair, toward their parents’ houses.

Luckily for Richard, Toby and Charles had halted in Piccadilly to argue some point. They’d been within earshot of Richard’s battle cry when, in the dark confines of the alley, he’d been set upon by four ruffians. Two, Richard could have managed on his own; he’d been carrying his swordstick and was an expert with a blade. But four…

Toby and Charles had come running, naked steel gleaming in their hands, and the ruffians, already nursing several wounds, had sworn and run off, dragging with them the one of their number Richard had already incapacitated.

After catching his breath, with his friends at his back, Richard had given chase.

He, Toby, and Charles had burst out of the alley to see the ruffians piling into a coach. One man hung on the back, and at the sight of them, he’d called to the driver, who had whipped up the horses. The coach door had swung, then been hauled shut, and the coach had clattered off along the empty street.

That the four ruffians had had a coach waiting…understanding had sent a chill through the three of them and through Richard in particular.

The men had come to seize him—to kidnap him.

Ascertaining their motive required little thought.

Someone had paid the blackguards to kidnap him in order to stage some compromising situation, which would force him to offer for some young lady’s hand; although he’d spent the rest of the night discussing possibilities with Toby and Charles over several large brandies, they’d all felt certain of that.

They’d also agreed that he needed to treat the incident seriously and take himself off, out of harm’s way, given that none of them could immediately discern a way to nullify the root cause of his problem.

Charles had dropped a heavy hand on Richard’s shoulder. “We’ll find some way, but for now, you need to play least in sight.”

Toby had grunted. “Better still, disappear altogether. And not just out of London. Nowhere in society is safe for you now.”

Grim, Richard had nodded. “And I won’t be safe until we find some way to make me less eligible.”

Toby had soberly appended, “Without doing something of which your mother wouldn’t approve.”

They’d all agreed on that as well; all three had a healthy respect for the Marchioness of Harwich.

Richard heaved another part-irritated, part-exasperated, part-resigned sigh. He’d spent the last twelve years gracing the circles of society’s upper echelons. Leaving London as he had—being driven from it—had felt like a form of rejection. A repudiation of his birthright.

In truth, while riding west with nothing to do but think, he’d reached the point of deciding against marriage altogether. After his one and only brush with love had ended so disastrously—with him learning from the young lady’s own lips that her liking for him arose from considerations of his wealth and station and had nothing to do with affection or even respect for him, the man—his view of matrimony had cooled. Given what he’d since been privileged to see of his brother’s marriage—a union based on dynastic considerations and mutual respect that had deteriorated into a hellish relationship that had deeply scarred Gideon and left his wife, Melissa, a temperamental shrew—Richard’s aversion to marriage had only grown.

The latest attempts to force marriage on him had deepened his distrust of matrimony, the state, to the point of outright rejection. His brother had already fathered two sons; there was no pressing need for Richard to marry.

Taking refuge with his maternal uncle, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, a devout bachelor, had seemed the obvious answer to his immediate need. He could sit in His Grace’s palace and lick his unexpected but nevertheless stinging wounds while taking sage counsel.

That had been his plan as he’d ridden out of London on the morning following the attack.

After a thankfully uneventful journey, he and Toby had parted ways the previous afternoon in Yeovil. While Toby had continued on to visit his ancestral acres near Sidmouth, Richard had struck north. He’d spent last night in a small inn just north of Yeovil, and this morning, he’d set off on what should have been a relatively easy last stage of about twenty miles, riding across country to Wells.

His gaze on his boots, he shook his head. By now, he should have been relaxing in the comfort of his uncle’s library, regaling the bishop with the details of his close escape. Instead, he—who had hunted since he could walk and had never been lost in any woods or forests before—was sitting in this accursed wood with no idea which way to go.

He dropped the twig, raised his head, and looked around again. There were no real paths, not even bridle paths, to follow through the trees, just spaces and clearings through which to navigate, all covered with a carpet of long-fallen leaves.

Malcolm the Great stood nearby, cropping a patch of thin grass. Other than the chirping of birds in the canopies high above and the occasional rustle of a squirrel or rabbit, the wood remained quiet.

Given the sunshine slanting through the shifting leaves to dapple the forest floor, it was difficult to imagine the somnolent quiet as menacing, yet Richard nevertheless felt trapped and, worse, as if something—the very air—watched and waited.

For what, he didn’t know.

He’d noticed a sign just before he’d ridden into the trees, naming this Balesboro Wood.

A bale was an evil force; he should, quite clearly, have taken due note and stuck to the lanes. But the lanes would have led him far afield, the route much longer, and he knew that all he had to do was head directly north and he would eventually reach Wells.

“Yet here I sit…” Stifling another sigh, he rose and stretched, then walked to Malcolm the Great.

The huge gelding was favoring his off-front leg—another unexpected problem. Richard lifted the hoof and inspected it again, but the thick sliver of wood was still there, wedged between the iron shoe and the pad of the hoof. If he tried to tease the sliver out with his knife, he could well send a splinter deeper into the softer part of the hoof and do significantly greater damage. He needed to find a farrier who would have the right tools to safely remove the sliver.

Lips setting, he released the hoof, straightened to his full height, and set his fists on his hips. Enough of bemoaning his state. The angle of the sunbeams and the cooling temperature told him the sun was setting, the day slowly dying. He had next to nothing with him beyond a few changes of clothes thrust into his saddlebags. He hadn’t been able to bring anything that looked like luggage with him, much less his valet and groom. It might be summer, but spending the night sleeping rough in this wood didn’t appeal; quite aside from appeasing his rumbling stomach, he needed to find shelter, and that, relatively soon.

From the slanting light, he could deduce which way was north, but to that point, the knowledge hadn’t helped him. “Which way?” he murmured.

Almost as if in answer, he heard the distant rumble of voices. Male voices.

Perhaps woodsmen who could direct him to the nearest village. With a tug on the reins and a click of his tongue, he got Malcolm the Great’s attention, and leading the huge horse, Richard started walking toward the voices.

The men weren’t moving, either toward him or away; the sound of their voices grew louder the farther Richard walked.

Innate caution stopped him from calling out; there were at least two men, and he was, after all, a lone traveler lost in these woods, and his horse was worth a pretty penny, not to mention the ring on his hand and the sword at his hip.

Eventually, he reached a glade that ended in a shallow rise beyond which, if all he could see and hear spoke true, lay a dip of some sort. The men were in the dip and still speaking. They weren’t talking loudly but seemed to be standing and discussing something.

Richard halted a few yards from the upward slope of the rise. Ears flicking, Malcolm the Great halted silently beside him.

From beyond the rise, in a plainly educated voice, came the words, “Very nice work, Morgan. I knew I could rely on you. Your contrivance has achieved exactly what I needed. Well done!”

Something in the gentleman’s tone—a tinge of unholy excitement—fed Richard’s caution. The question of what “contrivance” a gentleman might be examining deep in a wood gave him further reason to exercise discretion.

“Thank ye, sir,” came a reply in a deeper, rougher, countryman’s voice—presumably the lauded Morgan. “Do you want it left as it is? Or should we look to gradually dismantle it, like? When you give the word, o’course.”

After a second’s debate, Richard looped Malcolm the Great’s reins around a branch, then silently crept up the rise. He was an expert huntsman; he knew how to move through woodland without alerting his prey.

“No, don’t repair it—at least, not yet.” The gentleman went on, “I want the farmers as well as the miller in dire straits before I make a move.” After a moment’s cogitation, the gentleman decided, “It will serve me best to leave this construction of yours in place until I’m certain of gaining all I want from it.”

Richard was curious to discover what “the construction” was. He dropped to all fours as he neared the crest of the rise. He thought the men were facing his way, and he now had no wish to be spotted eavesdropping.

As he eased toward the top of the rise and, very gradually, raised his head, he heard Morgan reply, “Aye, sir. As they haven’t found it yet, there’s no reason they will. I’d say it’s safe to leave well enough alone—no need to keep checking on it.”

“No, indeed,” the gentleman concurred. The scuffing of feet on leaves suggested the pair were now moving away, heading to Richard’s right. “The less chance of any of us being spotted near here, the better. Come on. We’d better get going.”

Sure, now, that something underhanded was afoot, Richard raised his head enough to peer over the rise. He found himself looking down into a narrow valley. A decent-sized stream burbled over a rocky bed that wended its way along the valley bottom.

The men—judging by their clothes, a gentleman and a rough laborer—were walking along the stream’s opposite bank. They were already well to Richard’s right and making for two horses—one a reasonable-looking hack, the other a cob—tied in the trees at the mouth of the small valley. Richard raised his head further and looked along the rise, but the rise continued, curving away from the end of the valley, which opened into a clearing. If the men rode out through the clearing, they wouldn’t see Malcolm the Great.

Satisfied on that score, with the men no longer speaking, Richard turned his attention to whatever construction the pair had been examining. He studied the stream; the men had been standing on the far bank, more or less opposite Richard’s present position, looking at something while facing him…

The men mounted and turned their horses. Richard flicked a glance their way, but didn’t catch any clear view of either man. He hadn’t seen their faces, only very oblique profiles and their backs as they’d walked away.

He grimaced. He waited, unmoving, until the men’s horses’ hoofbeats faded, then he rose, dusted the woodland detritus from his clothes, and walked back to Malcolm the Great. Richard untied the reins and led the great horse up and very carefully down the other side of the rise and into the valley.

Determined to discover what was going on, Richard secured Malcolm the Great beside a small copse of trees opposite where the men had tied their horses. Then he leapt over the stream and walked back along the other bank. Once at the spot where the men had stood—easy enough to define via the footprints in the softer earth—he looked around, trying to see what the pair had been discussing, what the “construction” was.

It took him several minutes to grasp the implications of what he was seeing—that the stream burbling down from the head of the valley, now to his right, lost volume as it passed along that stretch until, to his left, it was reduced to a trickle.

The construction wasn’t easy to stumble upon; if he hadn’t known something had to be there and actively searched, he would never have found it.

It was also ingenious.

He spent long minutes working out what had been done. The bed of the stream was over two feet deep. Tunnels had been carefully bored into the stream bed below the level of the rippling water. None of the tunnels were big enough to show suction or appear as a gaping maw, but all working together, the series of tunnels was enough to drain the stream of much of its flow.

Richard turned and looked away from the stream. At that point, on that side, the valley didn’t slope upward but ran roughly level to a rocky line beyond which the ground fell away. Richard strode to the line of rocks and discovered that they marked the edge of a short drop, the first of a series of what might, centuries ago, have been landslips along the edge of an escarpment.

Standing on the lip of that escarpment, he looked out and found himself surveying the wide swath of land known as the Somerset Levels. On the northwestern horizon, he saw a peak bathed in the rosy glow of the westering sun. The peak looked vaguely familiar…then he realized he was looking at Glastonbury Tor.

Instantly, he could place where he must be. The Tor lay southwest of Wells, which meant there was no chance at all that he would reach the comfort of his uncle’s hearth that night.

With a disgusted grunt, he turned back to the stream and his examination of what was, in essence, a cannily concealed diversion. The tunnels channeled the water away under the bank and continued underground, but only for so many yards. Thereafter, the water had been allowed to ooze out and spread over the surface, but by that point, the ground sloped gently toward the escarpment, so the water continued in that direction, camouflaged by rocks and leaf litter, until it spilled over the edge.

Crouching and peering over the edge, he visually traced several rivulets snaking down the escarpment’s rough and tumbled face. Immediately below, at the foot of the first drop, the grass grew in a particularly verdant shade of green, more like a boggy water meadow than a normal tract of cliffside grass.

He rose and walked back to the stream. “So the gentleman and his man diverted the waters of the stream, but to no discernible purpose.”

Of course, the gentleman had a purpose; Richard simply didn’t know what it was.

The air was starting to lose its warmth as the sun dipped toward the horizon. Richard leapt over the stream and strode along the bank to where he’d tethered Malcolm the Great.

Untying the reins, he stroked the horse’s long nose. “Come on. I might be lost, but there’s one woodsman’s trick that’s guaranteed to work even in this accursed wood. If you want to find habitation, just follow water downhill.”

He set off with Malcolm the Great clomping behind.

As he walked beside the dwindling stream, Richard wondered just what the gentleman had meant by his “getting all I want” from the diversion he’d arranged.

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