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WARRIORThe Blades of the Rose
By Zoë Archer
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Ami Silber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTrouble at the Docks
Southampton, England. 1874.
Gabriel Huntley hated an unfair fight. He had hated it as a boy in school, he had hated it during his service in Her Majesty's army, and he hated it now.
Huntley ducked as a fist sailed toward his head, then landed his own punches on his attacker in quick succession. As his would-be assailant crumpled, unconscious, to the ground, Huntley swung around to face another assault. Three men coming toward him, and quick, cold murder in their eyes. Their numbers were thinning, but not by much. Huntley couldn't keep a smile from curving in the corners of his mouth. Less than an hour in England, and already brawling. Maybe coming home wouldn't be so bad.
"Who the hell is this bloke?" someone yelped.
"Dunno," came the learned reply.
"Captain Gabriel Huntley," he growled, blocking another punch. He rammed his elbow into someone's gut. "Of the Thirty-third Regiment of Foot."
His ship had docked that night in Southampton, bringing him back to British shores after fifteen years away. As he had stood at the bottom of the gangplank, his gear and guns strapped to his back, he'd found himself strangely and uncharacteristically reticent. He couldn't seem to get his feet to move forward. After years of moving from one end of the British Empire to the other, following orders sent down through the chain of command, he was finally able to decide on his fortune for himself. It was a prospect that he had been looking forward to for a long while. After resigning from his captaincy, he had booked passage on the next ship to England.
However, that idea had already begun to pale on the voyage back, with days and weeks of shipbound idleness leaving his mind to pick and gnaw at whatever fancy struck him. Yes, he'd been born in England and lived there for his first seventeen years-in a dismal Yorkshire coal mining village, more specifically. But nearly the other half of his life had been spent on distant shores: the Crimea, Turkey, India, Abyssinia. England had become no more than a far away ideal of a place recreated again and again in company barracks and officers' clubs. He had barely any family and few friends in England besides Sergeant Alan Inwood. The two men had fought side-by-side for years, and when a bullet had taken Inwood's leg, the trusty sergeant returned to England. But he'd written Huntley steadily over the years.
In Huntley's pocket was Inwood's latest missive. He'd memorized it, having read the letter over and over again on the voyage to England. It promised a job working with Inwood as a textile agent in Leeds. An ordinary, steady life. The prospect of marriage. Leeds, Inwood claimed, had an abundance of nice, respectable girls, daughters of mill owners, looking for husbands. Huntley could have a job and a wife in a trice-if he wanted.
Huntley knew how to fight in the worst conditions nature and man could create. Monsoons, blizzards, scorching heat. Bayonets, sabers, revolvers, and rifles. He'd eaten hardtack crawling with maggots. He'd swallowed the most fetid and foul water when there had been nothing else to drink. None of it had broken him. He had nothing left to fear. Yet the idea of truly settling down, finding, good Lord, a wife, it turned a soldier's blood to sleet.
After the ship had docked, Huntley had lingered at the foot of the gangplank, jostled on all sides by the shoving and cursing mass of the crowded dock. He had tried to make himself take the first step toward his new life, an ordinary life, and found that he couldn't.
Not yet, at any rate. Instead of rushing toward the inn where mail coaches waited to take passengers to English towns and cities near and far, Huntley had begun to walk in the opposite direction. Though he'd been at sea for months, he needed more time. Time to think. Time to plan. Time to grow accustomed to his strange and foreign homeland. Time for at least one pint.
He walked without real purpose, winding his way through the maze of narrow, lamplit streets that led from the pier. He hadn't gone more than thirty yards from the docks when the crowds thinned, leaving him on a quiet, dark street bathed in seaside mists. A large orange tabby cat slunk by, heading for the docks and promises of fish. At the end of the street was a tiny pub, casting yellow light onto the slick stone pavement outside, and full of raucous laughter and rough talk, not unlike the kind that could be found in any military barracks.
It seemed like heaven.
Huntley had started toward the pub, the desire for a pint of bitters strong in his mouth. At least that part of him was a true Englishman. As he strode toward the welcoming chaos, his soldier's senses alerted him to trouble close at hand. In the gloom of an alleyway leading off the street, he heard it first, then saw it, the sight that turned his blood to fire and overrode all thought: one man, badly outnumbered, wounded and staggering, as half a dozen men attacked him and several others stood nearby, ready to throw themselves into the fray should they be needed. He knew at once that what was happening was wrong, and that he had to help the injured man.
Huntley had launched himself into the fight, needing to even the odds.
Three men now came at him, throwing him against a damp brick wall. Fortunately, his pack kept him from smashing his head against the bricks. Two men took his arms while the third pinned his middle. Before any of them could land a punch, Huntley slammed his knee up into the chest of the man pinning him, knocking the air out of him with a hard gasp, then he wedged the heel of his boot against the man's ribs and shoved. Winded as he was, the man could only scrabble for a hold before being thrown into a pile of empty crates, whose sharp edges made for a less than cushioned fall as the crates broke apart. Huntley swiftly rid himself of the other two men.
He considered going for his rifle or revolver, but quickly discarded the idea. Firearms in tight quarters such as alleyways were just as dangerous to whomever wielded them as they were to the intended targets. Striking distance was too close, and it would be far too easy for someone to grab the weapon from him once it was cocked and turn it on him.
Fists it was, then. Huntley had no qualms with that.
Huntley sprinted toward where the victim was being pummeled by two men. As Huntley came to the victim's aid, one of the attackers managed to graze a fist against Huntley's mouth. But it was nothing compared to the damage the victim had taken. Blood was splattered all over the man's shirt and waistcoat, his jacket was ripped at the seams, and his face was swollen and cut. Huntley had been in enough brawls to know that if the victim made it through the fight, his face would never be the same, even under his gingery beard. He was still swinging, though, bless his soul, as he staggered and struggled.
"I don't like bullies," Huntley rumbled. He grabbed the man who'd just punched him and gripped him by the throat, squeezing tightly.
The man scrabbled to pry Huntley's fingers from around his neck, but the hand that had grown strong gripping a rifle through fifteen years of campaigns couldn't be removed. Still, the man managed to choke out a few words.
"Whoever ... you are ...," he rasped, "walk ... away. Isn't your ... fight."
Huntley grinned viciously. "That's for me to decide."
"Fool," the man wheezed.
"Perhaps," Huntley answered, "but since these are my fingers around your throat"-and here he tightened his hold, squeezing out an agonized gargle from the other man-"it wouldn't be wise to start tossing out names, would it?"
The man's answer never came. From behind Huntley, an abbreviated cry shot out, sharp and dreadful. Turning, Huntley saw a flash of metal gleam in the half light of the alley. One of the attackers stepped back from the victim, a long and wicked blade streaked with bright red in his hand. Blood quickly began to soak through the front of the victim's waistcoat and run through his fingers as he pressed against the wound in his stomach.
"Morris isn't going anywhere," the knife-wielding man said. His accent was clipped and well-born, as neatly groomed as his gleaming blond hair and moustache. He seemed comfortable with the red-smeared blade in his hand, despite his aristocratic air. "Let's go," Groomed Gent commanded to the other men.
Huntley spent half a moment's deliberation on whether to go for the upper cruster with the knife or attend to the fellow who'd been stabbed, Morris. He released his grip on his captive's throat at once and barely caught Morris before the wounded man collapsed to the ground.
The attackers quickly fled from the alley, but not before someone asked, pointing at their unconscious comrade slumped nearby, "What about Shelley? And him," gesturing toward Huntley.
"Shelley's on his own," Groomed Gent barked. "And the other one knows nothing. We have to move now," he added with a snarl. And before Huntley could stop them, every last one of the assailants disappeared into the night, leaving him cradling a dying man.
And he was dying. Of that, Huntley had no doubt. He'd seen similar wounds on the battlefield and knew that they were always fatal. Blood seeped faster and faster through the gash in Morris's abdomen. It would take something akin to a miracle to stop the advance of death, and Huntley had no store of miracles in his pack.
He gently lowered himself and Morris to the ground. "Let me fetch a surgeon," he said. He slipped the straps of his pack from his shoulders so the weight eased off.
"No," gasped Morris. "No use. And time's running out."
"At the least, I can get the constabulary," Huntley said. He recalled the icy cruelty of the knife-wielding gentleman, the sharp angles of his face that likely came directly from generations of similarly ruthless people's intermarrying and breeding. "I had a decent enough look at those men's faces. I could describe most of them, see them brought to justice."
A mirthless smile touched Morris's lips. "That would be the fastest way for you to wind up dead in an alleyway, my friend."
Huntley wondered who those men were, that attacked a gentleman in an alley like common footpads but had enough power for retribution. Perhaps a criminal organization. With a well-heeled gentleman as a member of its ranks. Was such a thing possible? He couldn't think on it now. Instead, knowing that his face would be the last that Morris would ever see and wanting to make the remaining time more personal, he said, "Name's Huntley."
"Anthony Morris." The two shared an awkward handshake, and Huntley's hand came away smeared crimson.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Morris?" he asked. Not much longer now, if the dark blood drenching Morris's clothing was any indication.
Frowning, Morris started to speak, but then Huntley's attention was distracted. The remaining attacker, who had been slumped unconscious against a wall, had somehow come to without making a sound. But now he was crouched nearby, whispering into his cupped hands. Looking closer, Huntley was able to see that the man held something that looked remarkably like a small wasps' nest-but it was made of gold. The close air of the alley was suddenly filled with a loud, insistent droning as, incredibly, the golden nest began to glow.
Not once, through the many places around the world he had been posted, had Huntley ever seen or heard anything like this, and he had seen some of the most incomprehensible things anyone could envision. He was transfixed, his mind immobilized by the sight.
The buzzing grew louder still, the nest glowed brighter as the man whispered on. Then something appeared in an opening in the nest, a tiny shine of a metallic wasp. Of its own volition, Huntley's hand came up, trying to reach out toward the mysterious spectacle. A line of wasps suddenly shot from the nest, directly toward Huntley and Morris. And Huntley still could not move.
With a grunt and groan, Morris managed to shift himself around in Huntley's arms and shove him down to the ground. They both splayed out onto the slippery pavement. And just in time. Dozens of wasps slammed into the wall behind them, their noise and impact against the brick like a round of bullets shot from a Gatling gun. Chips of mortar and brick rained down onto Huntley as he raised his arm to shield himself and Morris. He quickly reached out and grabbed a wooden board from a crate that had been broken apart in the fight. Several nails stuck out from one end of the board, and this he hurled at the man with the wasps' nest. The man yelped in surprised pain as the board hit him in the head, then staggered to his feet and scurried away, cradling the nest and pressing a palm to his bleeding scalp. It wouldn't be difficult to catch up with the wounded man, but in those few minutes, Morris would be dead, and Huntley had seen enough death to know it was better with someone, anyone, beside you.
He might have joined Morris in the afterlife, though. Huntley looked up at the wall behind him. Two dozen neat holes had been punched into the solid face of the brick. Exactly where his head had been. If Morris hadn't pushed him, those holes would now be adorning his own skull and his brains would be nicely splattered across half of Southampton, where they wouldn't do him much good.
"What the hell was that?" he demanded from Morris. Huntley heaved himself up into a sitting position, with Morris leaning against him. "Wasps like bullets? From a glowing golden nest?"
Morris coughed, sending another bubble of blood through his fingers. "Never mind that. Something I have to tell you. A message to deliver. Must be delivered ... personally."
"Of course." Huntley owed Morris his life. That bound him to his service. It didn't matter that, in a matter of minutes, Morris would be dead. It was an unbreakable rule, one that was never questioned, never doubted. Honor was held at a premium when the rest of the world went to hell. "Have you a letter? Something I should write down?" There were a few books in his pack, but of any of these he would gladly sacrifice a few pages to transcribe Morris's message.
Morris shook his head weakly. "Can't write the message down. Even so, there are no mail routes to deliver it."
A message that could not be written. A destination beyond the all-encompassing reach of the British postal service. Things began to get stranger and stranger. Huntley started to wonder if, perhaps, he was lying drunk in a gutter somewhere, already deep in his return to England alcohol binge, and everything that had happened, was happening, was a whiskey-induced delusion. "Where's it going?"
"To my friend, Franklin Burgess." Morris gritted his teeth as a wave of pain moved through him, and Huntley did his best to comfort him, brushing clammy strands of hair back from Morris's forehead. "In Urga. Outer Mongolia."
"That is ... far," Huntley managed after he found his voice.
Another ghostly smile curved Morris's mouth. "Always is. Was headed to a ship to take me there when," he nodded toward the horrible wound in his stomach as his smile faded. With his free hand, he clutched at Huntley's jacket. The strength left in Morris's grip surprised Huntley, but Morris was growing more and more agitated. Huntley tried to calm him, but to no avail. Morris became nearly frantic, spending the last of his energy as he tugged Huntley closer. "Please. You must deliver the message to Burgess. Thousands of lives at stake. More. Many more."
Huntley hesitated. Inwood's letter was in his pocket. The promise of a quiet future beckoned. What Morris asked was huge, a deviation from plans to settle in Leeds, and yet, to Huntley's mind, an adventure into unknown lands was infinitely preferable to tranquil stability. The fact that he'd thrown himself into a fight minutes after arriving in England told him so. Intelligent, probably not, but Huntley never put much stock in dry logic. And Morris had saved his life, the ultimate obligation. He could not refuse the dying man.
He said, "Give me the message. I'll deliver it to him."
Excerpted from WARRIOR by Zoë Archer Copyright © 2010 by Ami Silber. Excerpted by permission.
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