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Excerpt for The Highwayman by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



The Highwayman

By Eleanor Musgrove

Inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem of the same name.



Published by Eleanor Musgrove 2019 


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Text, format and cover design: © Eleanor Musgrove 2019


Cover image: © Petrafler | shutterstock.com


Characters and situations described in this book are fictional and not intended to portray real persons or situations whatsoever; any resemblances to living individuals are entirely coincidental.


eamusgrove.wordpress.com | @masqueblanc


The wind tore at the trees, shaking the whole forest in the darkness. Above the treetops, the clouds resembled nothing more than wild waves tossing the ghost of the poor stricken moon around a watery grave. The long road from the town beyond the hill was little more than a ribbon of moonlight, tossed aside on the purple moor by some unseen hand, and it was by this road, amidst small stones sent skittering by his horse's hooves, that the highwayman came riding up to the old inn door.

He was a sight to behold, if anyone had been awake to see him; he wore a french cocked-hat pulled low over his eyes, so that it brushed the mask he wore. Beneath his chin was an abundance of lace in the form of a rather fetching – and extravagant – cravat, and a similar lack of modesty could be found in the quality of his tailoring. His coat was the colour of claret, though it took on a slight purple hue in the moonlight, and his doe-skin breeches were fitted so exactly as to make any onlooker wonder if they were simply sewn directly on every evening. Over those breeches, he wore boots that went right up to his thighs, drawing the wandering eye back up from his feet in the stirrups to the jewels embedded in his pistol-butts and the hilt of his rapier. He was an accomplished highwayman, and his attire showed the rewards he'd reaped from his success; indeed, some unfortunate travellers had taken one look at him and thrown everything they had of value at his feet, begging to be allowed to flee with their lives.

The inn had a courtyard at the front, all uneven cobbles, with the odd forgotten tankard lying around to trip the unwary. The sound of iron horseshoes striking stone seemed to shatter the silence of the night, but no sign of movement came from within the building. Somehow, the occupants must still be asleep, despite his less-than-stealthy arrival. He reached out with his whip to tap on the closed shutters, just to make certain, but the inn was locked up for the night, the windows were barred, and it didn't seem that anybody intended to come out and investigate any strange noise that might have been heard. He took a deep breath and whistled a favourite, familiar tune; only a few bars had passed his lips before the shutters of an upper window flew open. There she was; Bess, the landlord's daughter with her dark, soulful eyes and her full, tempting lips. She was plaiting a dark red ribbon into her hair in an intricate pattern he - with his simple ponytail - couldn't begin to understand, and as she worked her way down the long, thick braid she began to sing the second verse under her breath.


“Ten thousand miles it is so far

To leave me here alone,

Whilst I may lie, lament and cry,

And you will not hear my moan, my dear,

And you will not hear-”


She stopped with a laugh, and called down to him.

“What brings you here tonight, my dear Tristan?” It wasn't his name, not his true name, but they could not risk the use of his real name while he was so obviously an outlaw. If they had met in the street, in their normal everyday clothes, it might have been safe, but he was every inch the highwayman, and she was in her nightgown, and a false name was all that might stand between them and disgrace, to say nothing of the gallows.

“I wanted to see you,” he admitted, “and to ask you a rather great favour.”

“What's that?” She was smiling; no doubt she knew what he would ask for. It was what he always asked for, but tonight was different. Tonight would change everything, for both of them.

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart,” he called, and she laughed. “I'm after a prize tonight. I’ll be back by morning, with enough lovely yellow gold to change our lives forever.”

“Oh, Tristan. Truly?”

“This sort of prize doesn’t come along often, not in this part of the country. If the rumours are true, it’s enough to solve all our problems. I’ll tell you about it in the morning, when it’s done. But if the law follows hard on my trail, and they manage to keep up with me, then look for me by moonlight.”

“I can hardly believe it,” Bess whispered, “after all this time...”

“Believe it,” Tristan assured her, “I haven't failed you yet. About that kiss...?”

“Of course I'll kiss you.” She leant precariously out of her casement, and he stood in his stirrups to reach for her. He barely managed to touch the tips of his fingers to hers, to his frustration – why had she met him at an upstairs window, and not on the ground floor? - but then she tugged at the ribbon in her hair and the whole plait came undone, long black waves spilling out and down to brush across his chest. He took a deep breath, inhaling his love's sweet scent, and then he kissed her hair in lieu of her lips. There would be all the time in the world to kiss his beloved Bess, once this was done and they had the luxury of leisure.

He paid no mind to the creak of a stable-wicket, but perhaps he ought to have, for he was not as unobserved as he thougt. The eyes watching from the darkness were the wild, ruthless eyes of a former feral child, the orphan, Tim, who tended the horses. Bess' father had taken him under his wing after the lad had been caught pickpocketing drinkers at that very inn, and he had done his best to become a good citizen. It was no secret, among those who frequented the inn, that Tim's efforts to be good were all in a bid to impress his master's daughter; he had been smitten with her since he first laid eyes on her, a mere boy of ten – and now, at thirteen, his affection for her had not diminished in the slightest. The only people in the county who seemed unaware of Tim's infatuation with Bess were the girl herself, and her father, which was probably for the best. Bess was a woman grown, now, seventeen years old and fond of the young ostler as a sister might love a brother; soon enough she would be expected to marry, and Tim was hardly likely to be considered a reasonable suitor. Oh, but he adored her, in his way, and so he stayed still and quiet in the stable to listen to the lovers' tryst.

“Don't get caught,” Bess warned her love softly as he gathered his reins again, “even if you have to ride for days to shake them off. I'll wait.”

“Watch for me by moonlight,” he reminded her fondly, “I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

Then he tugged at his reins, raised a hand in farewell, and galloped away to the west.


~*~


Bess woke in a thrill of anticipation, but her highwayman did not come. She listened for hoofbeats as the inn began to serve lunches, but none of the horses that arrived carried her love on their backs. She waited all day, as she went about her business, but still Tristan was nowhere to be seen; and out of the bright bronze sunset, before the moon could rise, a troop of redcoat soldiers marched to commandeer the inn.

The inn emptied swiftly, the locals abandoning their ales and rushing home to run errands they'd forgotten until the very moment they spotted King George's finest men at the bar. The soldiers didn't even speak to the landlord, they just snapped their fingers and waited for ale to appear. Seeing so many soldiers waiting to be served, the landlord called up the stairs to Bess.

“Bess! I need you down here serving!” Distracted by his good fortune, he didn't notice the soldiers bolting the door behind the last customer, but he certainly noticed when they pushed him out of the way and barged up the stairs.

Bess met them halfway down, and was promptly bundled back up into her own bedroom. The soldiers forced a rag – the fact that it was relatively clean was little comfort – into her mouth, to stop her from crying out, and tied her to the foot of the bed. The bindings forced her to stand up straight, like a soldier on parade, the ropes tied tight enough to sting. All the while, she could hear their laughter and their taunts.

“Quite a picture you'll make for your man, there. Pity he'll never see you again.”

“Won't see anyone again,” another man sniggered. “Where's our new lad? Where's Tim?”

“That's right – where's our bold new recruit?”

“He's just locking up the old man behind the bar,” another man confirmed.

Bess' heart sank. Tim was young and impressionable, and for the last few months he had spoken of nothing but his admiration for the King's men in their smart red coats as they marched around the country tackling wrongdoers. Bess – and, for that matter, her father – had slightly lower opinions of the soldiers, and this visit wasn't doing anything to improve matters, but they had thought Tim would move past his current ambition to join their ranks, given time. Now, she stared in disbelief at the man who'd spoken. Had Tim taken the King's shilling, young as he was?

“Oh, of course, our hostess here doesn't know. Tim's the one who brought us here – he heard you and your scoundrel last night.”

“And here he is! The hero of the hour!”

Tim stood in the doorway, his brow furrowed. “Why is Bess all tied up? She's not the one who's been robbing people.”

“Well, we can't have her warning the brute, can we? Come here, we've got a present for you.” Bess could only watch in stunned horror as they helped him into a red coat of his very own, and Tim fairly glowed with pride – until he looked round to see what Bess thought of it.


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