- Author: David Barclay
Book online «The Devil's Mistress David Barclay (books to read this summer .TXT) 📖». Author David Barclay
Copyright © 2021 David Barclay
Front Cover Design by Kealan Patrick Burke
Interior art by Bob Veon
Formatted by Kenneth W. Cain
Edited by Kenneth W. Cain
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the authors’ imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
They said the old woman lived at the top of the hill beyond the potter’s field, at the edge of the northern forest. No one knew exactly where. Some said there was a hidden path beyond the graveyard. Others claimed a secret route behind a giant oak, one which only appeared in the dark and the mist. The rumors were as wild and varied as the flowers in old Maribelle’s field, but there was no doubting her existence. Not after all Isabella had heard.
“Do you wish to keep going, my lady?”
Jacob had pulled the carriage to a halt at the side of the trail. The two of them had been riding hard for an hour, the path growing increasingly sparse as they left the township behind. Ahead it narrowed to a root-filled thread, a mere three feet wide and thick with mud. It was barely visible in the dying light. In the western sky, the sun was strangling amidst a tangle of trees, the last vestiges of daylight cascading down through the barren forest.
Isabella opened the carriage door and stepped out onto the path. Jacob regarded her from the coach box, his driver’s hat pulled low over his face. His beard would not be in for another two winters, and yet, he never complained of the cold.
“Have we come too far?” she asked. “Have we missed it?”
“I think not. We passed no divide beyond the cemetery.”
“Are you certain?”
“Aye, certain as certain could be.”
She looked at the road ahead, if it could be called a road. It was too narrow for the horses. Jacob would not tell her no if she asked him to push on—he was too young and too loyal for such a rebuke—but the attempt would profit no one, least of all her.
“Could it be much farther?”
“Couldn’t say, my lady. I can tell you the rain’s coming, and ’twill be a hard journey back.”
“Is it your leg that tells you?”
“Beth, mistress,” he said, indicating the brown mare at the right of the hitch. “She doesn’t like the damp.”
The horse whinnied as if to confirm this, shuffling back and forth in the black mud.
Isabella looked from horse to driver, sensing the same hesitation in the boy. Jacob would not say the words, but the meaning was writ upon his face. Give up this foolish errand. Head back while it’s still safe.
This, she could not do.
There was a small brass lanthorn hooked to the side of the carriage, and she used the spare tinderbox to light the candle within. “Wait here while I see the trail. I will not be long.”
Jacob climbed down off the coach box, the wooden peg below his right knee clanking on each step. He brought his flintlock with him, and when he reached the ground, he tipped his powder horn into the breech, readying the weapon to fire when called upon. Standing there in the twilight, with his long, steel weapon and wooden leg, he might have passed for a man thrice his age. “Don’t go far. The wood is not safe.”
The wind picked up in a sudden gust, and from the forest there came the howl of a timber wolf, somber and somehow melancholy in the night.
“Not far,” she said, toying with the crucifix at her neck. “I promise.”
There was a lake of water just beyond the carriage, a puddle so large it might have stuck the wheels even if the path were wide enough to accommodate the horses. She skirted its edge, careful to avoid the brambles. By the time she reached the end, the sun had all but disappeared from the horizon. The carriage was only just visible behind her. In the thick of the wood, the night itself had substance, and the scant orange glow of the lanthorn seemed to scatter the darkness hardly at all.
She began to walk farther in, following the arch of trees which bent and twisted overhead in a high, thin corridor. The trail continued for another quarter mile, then abruptly ceased. A wall of intertwined trunks blocked the way.
Isabella turned in a circle, refusing to believe they had come so far only to be thwarted. Then she saw it, the trunk of an enormous dead oak rising from the earth like a many-armed giant. She and Jacob had traveled well beyond the cemetery, but it had to be the one from the old tales. It was too large to be anything else.
She made her way through the thick of brambles. There was a path on the other side, a strip of trodden earth no wider than her body. She took two steps forward…
…and almost fell to her death. The path ahead dropped into a long, shale slide, leaving only a narrow strip of gravel between the rock wall and oblivion. There came the melody of waves crashing against rocks below, the sounds of the bay roiling in the night.
Isabella bit her lip, looked back in the direction of the carriage, and resolved to push on. She leaned back into the shale and began to move sideways, cursing that she had worn her riding habit and not dressed as a man. The