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«Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 1 THOUGH HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden Mist. Mist it ...»

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A sudden bustle and clatter in the courtyard distracted her. Bess turned to listen, heard voices.

"Welcome to The Black Mare, young sir. And the missus, I take it."

Tim's voice, and it fitted the rest of him. Even dead, Bess felt her skin crawl at the raspy, obsequious tones.

"Thank you," came a man's voice. Young. Earnest. Familiar, though.

I’ve heard him speak before. Who is he?

"Here now," said Tim, "don't I be knowin' you, sir?" Curious, Bess left her equine friend and floated to the entrance of the stables. In the center of the courtyard, a carriage had pulled up.

The horses stood puffing steam from their nostrils, and the coachman flung a blanket’s over their sweating bodies. A young soldier stepped out. He turned to extend his hand to a pretty young woman, probably his wife, whose belly was heavy with child.

"I know you," Bess whispered softly. “I remember you…” "No," said the young redcoat, addressing Tim but seeming to avoid the ostler's gaze. "We've not met."

"Liar," said Bess. "Oh, you liar, you were there, that evil day."

Tim's eyes widened, then he touched his forelock in exaggerated deference and gave the soldier a sly wink. "All you soldiers, I s'pose you look the same. Well, I'll give you m'best, for your lady to rest in, sir. Please to follow me."

"You? But I thought the landlord was --" The soldier stopped in midsentence, and his shoulders sagged. Bess's lips twisted in a silent snarl. Ah, but he was handsome, wasn't he, with his wide blue eyes and

fair hair tied back with a red ribbon. She remembered his name:

Lieutenant Robert Larrimer.

The innkeep and his guests walked away, and Bess returned to the mare.

"That was Larrimer! He was one of them!" "Balance," the mare replied, pawing with one black hoof. "The wheel turns. It has been one year since your death, Bess."

"And he has come, this day of days," said Bess. Her spectral hands closed into translucent fists.

"Now you know what drew you here," the mare's "voice" was intense, a hot needle piercing Bess’s mind. "Larrimer is the reason you rose from your uneasy rest. He is one of those responsible for your death, and the death of your beloved. Revenge is yours to grasp, Bess."

Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 5 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 6 "My beloved -- merciful Heaven," Bess could scarcely speak. Breath was agony in her throat, and tears sprang to her eyes. "They killed Jamie, too?" She had given her life so that Jamie might be warned of the ambush, might flee. And her sacrifice had been for naught! Sobs choked her.

The horse nodded, and her eyes were sad. "The next day, he returned.

In broad daylight. He knew only that you were gone, and he couldn't live without you. They gunned him down, Miss Bess...shot him down like a rabid dog, on the highway. Larrimer was there when they did it.

Your Jamie died in a pool of his own red blood, and they buried him at the crossroads, in an unmarked grave."

Bess buried her face in her hands, weeping wildly. “No! No!” The mare was relentless as she finished, "And now, one of the men responsible is out there. It is your turn to kill."

Bess shook her head. "But Larrimer -- he didn't -- he tried to stop them."

The mare was inexorable. "He was one of them. Never forget that! And he is within your grasp. Heaven is merciful, Bess, for it's given you a chance to win your passage on to the afterlife. Kill the man who killed your love, and the balance is restored. An eye for an eye."

"But I can't..." Bess protested.

"Do as you will," the horse said, suddenly indifferent. She reached for a mouthful of hay, began chewing. "You can always stay here with me. I enjoy the conversation. You’re much more lively to talk to than the other horses. All they talk about is eating and foaling."

Trapped here in the inn forever? Bess shuddered at the idea. If I’m being given the chance to go on, to leave the earth for the afterlife, hadn't I better take it?

"How do you know all this?" she whispered. “Who are you?” “Just a mare. My name is Midnight, but Tim calls me ‘Night,’ Miss Bess. As to how I know…well, beasts know things, see things, that humans wot not of," the mare lipped up another wisp of hay and chewed.

"Just as we can see you, where they cannot, we know things."

"I see," Bess whispered. It made sense. The stories always talked about animals being sensitive to Otherworldly forces, able to see spirits. She thought of Larrimer again. That handsome young man, alive, married, the father of a child, while her darling Jamie lay in unhallowed ground, trodden on by man and beast alike. “It's not fair!” she cried.

"No, it isn't," the mare agreed.

Bess nodded, her mind made up. It could not be mere coincidence. She, dead by her own hand, a ghost returning on the eve of her death, and he, one of the men who had killed her, returning as if by fate.

Larrimer, he’s the key to the afterlife. Jamie’s dead, but perhaps if I avenge him we can both rest.

Tonight. Please God, she would have revenge tonight, hurt that handsome, sweet-faced youth as badly as he had hurt her, as badly as he'd hurt Jamie. The thought filled her with hot pleasure. Bess turned back to the horse and smiled, and the mare closed one eye in a conspiratorial wink.

# Larrimer was appalled to realize that "the best room" was the one in which Bess had died. Anna, tired and drained, had been too distracted to notice her husband's reaction to their quarters. After the midwife

–  –  –

had examined her, given her a potion, and prescribed a day's rest, Anna eased her bulk onto the bed, and was asleep in minutes.

Her husband sat in a chair near the window, his head buried in his hands. The memories haunted him at night, lurked on the edges of his consciousness by day. And here, in this room, where the worst of it had happened, they flooded his mind and would not be dismissed...

"Is that all the ale you've got?" Captain Jennings bellowed, slamming his empty tankard down on the table in the taproom. The innkeeper, a tall, thin man, shook his head. "But, Captain, you've not paid --" "Bring me more ale, damn you!" thundered Jennings, and the landlord scurried to obey.

Larrimer cleared his throat. "Captain, with due respect, we ought to pay the man for--" "Larrimer, you irritate me," growled the older man. "He's been giving aid to a killer. Taking his ale is little enough punishment. Ha, look how he sends his daughter to wait on us!" His voice dropped. "I've got other plans for her tonight."

Larrimer closed his mouth in miserable compliance. Bess, he believed the girl's name was. It was she who had been consorting with the highwayman James "Bonnie Jamie" MacLaren.

The girl wore a dress of dull red, and a white apron. Her feet were bare as she walked over the cold stone floor, and her breasts moved with quick, shallow breaths. Larrimer could see she was terrified.

"Miss," he said gently. She turned sloe-dark eyes upon him. "Our orders are to capture Bonnie Jamie, so he can be tried, but he's never harmed anyone. Likely the judge will spare his life."

She smiled then, red lips curving hesitantly, shyly. Sweet Jesu, but she was lovely.

"Ha! The Colonel said if he resists, he's a dead man!" Jennings snarled, and then showed crooked teeth in a cruel smile. "Miss Bess...I'm glad you're here. Lads, did you know that if you wish to catch the big fish, you need proper bait? I'd say this slut is proper bait indeed!" As Bess backed away, furious but too frightened to defend herself, Jennings made a sudden, deadly lunge. Clamping a hand upon Bess's arm, he dragged her into his lap. She struggled, then froze, a drop of sweat trickling down her suddenly pale face, as Jennings placed the muzzle of his pistol to her throat.

Larrimer bolted to his feet. "Captain, this is outrageous! I will not--" Then he, too, fell silent and still as a tiny sound--the almost unnoticeable click as the pistol was cocked--reached his ears. Smith, Jennings' second in command, had drawn his own pistol and now stared down the sight directly at Larrimer.

"We soldiers work hard," said Captain Jennings in a deceptively gentle voice. "We deserve a little...sport...now and then. The girl's a whore, Robbie, and we've got the authority to send her whole bloody family to a very nasty gaol cell if we so choose. All I'm asking is that she help us snare her elusive fox of a highwayman." Without removing the pistol, he tangled his fingers in her hair, tugged her face down to his, and kissed her wetly.

Larrimer looked away, sick. He'd accepted the offer of a commission in the King's army, thinking that the life of a soldier would be filled with travel and excitement. He'd had no idea that officers like Jennings even existed -- men who enjoyed causing others pain. But Jennings was in command. What could he do?

Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 7 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 8 He wished for a moment that he could leave on some pretext -- leave and warn the highwayman not to come. That ugly scarecrow of an ostler, Tim, speaking in a voice that sounded rough and somehow unused had told Jennings that he'd overheard MacLaren promise to come to Bess "by moonlight, Cap'n. He said he'd come t'her by moonlight, though Hell should bar the way. His very words, Cap'n."

Larrimer cursed silently as he stared at Bess's terrified face. Bonnie Jamie MacLaren had robbed a good many travelers on the road, 'twas true, and had been a thorn in the side of the law for almost four years now. Capturing him would be quite a coup. But MacLaren's glittering pistols and rapier had always been for show. No one had ever been injured by the highwayman--save, perhaps, their pride.

He remembered something else that Tim had said. At the time he hadn't understood, but now he did, all too well. "Don't forget, Cap'n. When you're done wi' Miss Bess...

"Yes, yes," Jennings had said. "You have my word. Now hurry along and attend to that other matter we discussed, Tim, that's a good lad."

The ostler had tugged his forelock, and melted into the shadows.

Now Larrimer knew what Tim had meant when he'd said, "when you're done..."

My God, Larrimer thought, in horror, I can't let this go on! I must do something!

But he hadn't, had he? Larrimer lifted his head from his hands, not at all surprised that his face was wet. "I should have done something, damn it," he said aloud to the dark stain on the floor.

His words had woken Anna. She stretched, and smiled sleepily at him.

Larrimer's heart turned over. He went to her and kissed her softly, sweetly. The shadows had fallen outside as well as in his own heart, and he told her, "It's time for supper, love."

# Bess hovered over them as they ate.

The serving wench commented on the strange chill that haunted that corner of the otherwise cosy, firelit taproom. Pale, pregnant Anna shivered and put on her shawl. Lieutenant Robbie Larrimer rubbed his cold hands and glanced reflexively behind him. Bess watched them, excitement flowing through her. Soon…soon… The words of the black mare in the stable, Night, spurred Bess on, warmed her. Revenge would win her rest -- revenge, and nothing else.

Before retiring, Larrimer and Anna sat beside the fire in the taproom for a while. As the minutes stretched by, Larrimer grew increasingly uncomfortable. Bess drank in his apprehension like wine. He was nervous, nervous about lying down to sleep with his warm wife and babyto-be in a room where he'd watched an innocent seventeen year old girl die.

Be nervous, Robbie, Bess silently urged. Be nervous while you still can… # Surely it was his imagination that had him so rattled, Larrimer consoled himself. He didn't believe in ghosts, not in this rational Age of Enlightenment. He was haunted, true enough, but by memories and shame, not by specters.

–  –  –

Despite the diligent application of a bedwarmer, Larrimer was cold.

His wife slept peacefully, her breast rising and falling, the swell of her stomach arching up beneath the covers.

Larrimer tossed and turned. It had been a year ago, tonight, in this room, and he had tried, but not hard enough...

They tossed the sobbing girl back and forth between them, each of them taking crueler and more vulgar liberties. The harder Bess sobbed, the louder they laughed, slobbering and pawing and pinching.

Larrimer stood by, feeling wretched. He could no more have stopped this than he could have stopped the moon from rising in a few hours.

The Lieutenant glanced out the casement at the road that waited in the darkness like a serpent, and himself hoping that the highwayman would break his promise -- that Bess would not have to watch Bonny Jamie Maclaren die in the ambush Jennings was planning.

"That's enough, lads," the Captain said, finally. Larrimer sighed with relief. They'd had their fun, they'd let her go, now, lock her in her little room in the attic, while they waited for her lover. Bess was rumpled and sore from pinches, but mostly unhurt, save for her dignity.

Larrimer turned back from the window and winced. They had torn her dress, using a bit of cloth as a crude gag.

Chuckling, Jennings took a dagger and slit the chemise that peeked through her torn bodice. The men laughed and slavered as the girl's breasts bobbed free, white and rose-tipped in the candlelight.

"Now, watch this," said Jennings. He took a musket and rubbed its muzzle over the girl's nipples, then made lewd sounds when they stiffened in response to the cold iron. The soldiers hooted.

"Good God, Jennings!" Larrimer protested. "Haven't you done enough?" "You and I will have to have a talk when this is over, Lieutenant," replied the captain, his eyes never leaving the wide, frightened ones of the girl.

"Yes," said Larrimer, in a strong voice that shocked even him with its edge. "Before God, we will."

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