The following is a chapter from a currently nameless fictional piece in progress simply because I’ve written about three pieces this week and don’t feel too happy publishing any of them. So here’s a dose of fiction for a change. It’s only the first draft so don’t get too excited but I hope you enjoy it. I am aware that the sentence structure and word order is clunky in places but feedback is good.
Nina dreamed in colour. It was her secret.
Tonight was too important for dreams though. The hall was alive with excitement as the maid slipped out into the cool of the corridor. In the shadows of an alcove a young man waited, his face unusually sober.
He said nothing, watching her stonily through the gloom.
“It’s going to be a beautiful morning,” she offered but immediately regretted it.
“Let’s just get going before you are missed, shall we. Her ladyship’s engagement is the perfect cover.”
The servant grimaced but said nothing. She began to lead the way through the marble floored corridors, refusing to be unnerved by his silence. It took minutes for Nina to find her way to the Duke’s study, darting to and fro as she navigated the stone warren with uncanny ease. The young man cursed as he tried the door but she hushed him and pulled a key from her apron pocket. It paid to plan for plans gone wrong.
He gave a reluctant nod of approval, motioning for her to keep watch while he searched. He was surprisingly fast despite his thoroughness but it was clear from the low murmur of frustration that he could not find what he was looking for. The girl glanced over her shoulder, signalling him to be quiet.
Nina’s heart froze as the approaching footsteps paused outside the door and the voices fell silent. She didn’t realise until they were gone and she could breathe again that she had been biting her lip. A quiet sigh escaped her as she motioned for him to continue. They had less than ten minutes until the guards would be back.
A stifled cry moments later told her that he had found what he was looking for. Another few seconds and the drawer was put back together as though it had not been touched and the object was deposited safely in the young man’s jacket pocket. They locked the door behind them as quietly as possible and hurried back in the direction of the ballroom.
They were nearly there when the housekeeper appeared from nowhere, blocking their path. For a moment she looked surprised, then her single brow furrowed in suspicion.
“And where have you been?”
“I apologise ma’am. I had run out of champagne but when I came to fetch some more I found this man wandering the corridor. Naturally I followed him, being suspicious but he is in fact the harmless halfwit brother of one of the visiting noblemen. His brother was meant to keep an eye on him but he had gone off to dance with some girl and our guest had wandered off and managed to lose himself.”
The young man grunted, his eyes wandering absently but the housekeeper’s frown only deepened as she crossed her arms over her broad chest.
“The guards would have found him soon enough.”
Nina shrugged helplessly.
“They can be so rough.”
She slipped her arm through her companion’s as though he were a wayward child.
“Come sir, let’s be finding your brother.”
She began to lead him away but the housekeeper grabbed her wrist, pulling her back. The young man instinctively stepped between the two, shielding his accomplice.
It was a moment before Nina realised that all was lost. Her eyes narrowed in thought as the thief and the housekeeper stared one another down.
Footsteps on the stone broke the trance.
Nina tugged the young man’s shoulder, jerking her head in the opposite direction. They fled, angry shouts snapping at their heels.
The distance from the ballroom was sufficient that the commotion would be hidden by the music and the chatter but at a junction in the corridor, the girl hesitated, caught between the safety of a crowd and the danger that it would pose to the mind behind the plan.
Loyalty won out and she darted down the sweeping staircase, away from the party , the young man close on her tail. With all of the richest people in town at the Duke’s Ball, it would be safe to guess that the finest horses were waiting outside.
The clatter of armoured feet was gaining on them but Nina was familiar with palace protocol and knew that no shots would be fired. The moment that they stepped outside into the courtyard however, they would be instant targets. She was running out of breath and she knew without looking that the young man was too. There was a wheezy tail to his short, sharp breaths but when she glanced back at him, his face was set.
A handful of dozing stable boys leapt up in surprise as the fugitives burst out of a side door nd across the flagstones. An arrow bounced off of the stone but they were too near the stables already and the guards did not want to risk explaining an injured beast to disgruntled guests. The young man slammed the stable door shut behind him, leaning heavily on the wood. He waved his hand down the row of stalls.
“Cut them loose as you go to cause confusion. Get on the second from the end.”
“I don’t have a knife!”
He shot her an exasperated look as he threw her a dagger from his boot. She dropped it clumsily but it didn’t take long for her to regain her composure and begin to run again.
“Unbolt the double doors at the end so we can get out in a hurry. They’re beginning to lock the gates.”
The ropes were not thick and she could cut through them with one slice but the animals seemed oddly unperturbed by her panic and the shouting outside. She was halfway down the row when the burly figure of the stablemaster sprang at her from the gloom. He hesitated, recognising her terrified face but his confusion turned to shock as the young man charged him, slamming him against the wall and knocking him unconscious. Nina squeaked in dismay but the thief ignored her, grabbing the blade and shoving her forwards.
“Second from the bottom. Move.”
Guards were hammering at the doors, spurring her onwards and making the animals toss their heads anxiously. The lad was not far behind, grabbing her knee and throwing her up onto the bare back of the horse.
“Do you ride?”
She shook her head, clinging to the beast’s mane with an ashen face.
The banging on both doors was growing louder as he threw her the looped end of a rope.
“Put this round his neck.”
Nina never knew how she did it, shaking as she was, but she did just as the doors gave way and all hell broke loose. For a moment, chaos reigned and she was too terrified to do anything but grab tightly at handfuls of her horse’s mane and screw her eyes shut.
Her companion’s shout of frustration brought her to her senses. The courtyard was thundering with agitated horses all whinnying and bucking in fright as they searched for their escape. The stable hands were rushing around the edges trying to restore order and the guards – there was a whole troupe of them now – fumed as they paced up and down, cursing angrily and unable to fire at the two runaways charging towards the rapidly descending portcullis.
“Up the stairs to the wall! There’s a building adjacent to that lookout post and we could get down from there. They won’t have time to shut the city gates if we move fast.”
The young man wheeled his horse around, digging into its flanks and dragging Nina’s mount along behind. She nearly fainted cantering up the narrow stone steps to the wall but focussing on the back of the young man’s head in front prevented her from looking down and it was over in moments.
A sigh of relief was breathed too soon for they were falling now. A bone shattering crash cut her scream short before it could escape and she slid down the side of the horse and would have fallen from the animal altogether had an impatient hand not grabbed her by the back of the dress and hauled her back into position. A pale face glared at her in the lamplight.
“Be ready this time. Focus! I won’t help you again. I don’t need you from here.”
She nodded once, pressing her lips together to hide the tremble. She hardly knew the man but understood that the threat was not empty.
The second time she held on.
The streets were lively with the late night market and the riffraff waiting to watch the fireworks display that marked the Duke’s goodwill to all of his subjects. At first this made the thief anxious but he needn’t have worried for the young woman behind him wore the Duke’s emblem beneath a distressed countenance and the people parted for them without a second glance.
By the time the soldiers had reopened the gates and found their own horses, the fugitives had a good few hundred yards head start. The fireworks were beginning and to the young man’s relief, this made the crowd somewhat slower to part for their pursuers than it had been moments before.
Minutes later and the gate was in sight. Nina gave a cry of relief for the iron bars stood open before them; the order had not yet reached them.
The watchmen had seen them from a distance and were appearing to investigate the commotion but the young man showed no sign of slowing.
“Urgent courier from Duke Bayard. Make sure we are not followed. The message is of utmost importance.”
The captain of the unit saluted the thief clumsily, snapping out several orders to the men around him. Nina didn’t know how he did it but her accomplice took his hand from the reins and returned the gesture smartly.
Heated argument followed them down the WEstward Road but it was some time before there were any hoofbeats and even they soon faded.
It was over an hour before the young man slowed the pace to a steady trot and then a walk. Unshod hooves were unbearably loud against the quiet stars and now that they were out of immediate danger, Nina realised that every bone she never knew she had felt rattled and battered. Her hands and legs were stiff and painful for holding on so long. She was desperate to ask where they were going but his rebuke for her fall earlier had stung enough . It wasn’t until they turned off the path some time later to wade down a stream in the woods that the girl plucked up the courage to speak.
“Where are we going?”
He glanced back at her, his eyes glinting in the moonlight. Though they spoke in low voices, both felt even that to be too loud and said no more, Nina being too exhausted for the reality of their predicament to have set in.
A few miles more trickled by before they left the river and turned to a more easterly direction. Then a few miles more.
The trees were blurring and the gentle sway of the horse soothing to the girl’s weary soul. Several times, her head began to nod but a snapped twig or a tired snort from one of the beasts would startle her awake for a few minutes more.
It was in the hours of silence that are neither late nor early that they stopped at last. The sudden lack of movement made the girl dizzy and the young man had to catch her as she tumbled from her horse. Satisfied that she could remain on her feet, he saw to the animals, nearly fainting themselves from exhaustion. A blanket appeared from the young man’s saddle bag and he handed it to Nina, telling her to sleep.
“How do I know I can trust you? You might kill me in my sleep. Or run away and leave me.”
“I won’t do that. Go to sleep.”
She lay down, pushing some dead leaves into a pile to make the tree roots more comfortable. Something disturbed her though and she sat up.
“I don’t even know your name.”
The young man peered at her through the night, startled by the distress in her voice. He thought for a moment before returning to what he had been doing.
“Pleased to meet you Mr Chrome. I’m Nina Sabiya.”
But she was already asleep. Paxton watched her for a moment with a curious expression. She was not part of the plan. None of this was. Yet at the same time there was something about the whole situation that felt strangely natural, as though the disruption to his journey was right in some way.
Ignoring the cathartic undertones of the robbery, he reached inside his jacket for the prize.
The bottle shone brightly in the darkness. As he held it up, he turned it slowly, the soft red mesmerizing in its intensity. Nearby, Nina’s eyes fluttered open for a moment but the bottle of burgundy in Paxton’s hand was just another bright dream.