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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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Surprised at Larrimer's tone, Jennings turned his head and regarded him. The younger man stood his ground, sticking out his chin. "You and Smith keep watch, then," Larrimer said. "See that the girl doesn't escape. And to make your task a bit easier--" He bent and propped the musket up on its butt, wedging the barrel firmly beneath the girl's left breast. "Oh, good job!" said one of the men, who began to tie the weapon against Bess's body.

"Now, keep good watch!" laughed Jennings. He removed the gag and kissed her lips, then jerked back, his hand to his mouth. "You bitch!" he cried, staring at the blood on his hand. "The wench bit me!" He cracked her across the face with his hand. Larrimer winced. Bess's eyes filled with tears and the imprint of Jennings' hand welled up red on her face, but there was no surrender in her expression.

Angrily, Jennings shoved the gag back in her mouth. "I had half a mind to keep you for myself, and not give you over to that madman of an ostler -- but now, you get what you deserve."

The Captain straightened and glared at Larrimer. "Watch her." And then he was gone.

Silence fell. The minutes crawled by. Larrimer and Smith alternately stood by the window, and sprawled in chairs. Larrimer tried not to look directly at Bess, sparing her what small amount of humiliation he could, but once he caught her in the act of twisting her hands against the knots. When she saw him looking, she froze like a frightened deer.

Trying to get the blood back into her hands, poor lass, Larrimer Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 9 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 10 thought, and he looked away again, wishing he could loosen the knots.

But Smith would never stand for it.

The minutes stretched into hours, and more than once Larrimer caught himself drowsing. The moon rose like a silver ship tossed on cloudwaves.

Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot. Hoofbeats along the road.

"Bastard's on his way," said Smith softly. He began to prime his musket. "And it looks like we'll have a clear shot at 'im from here."

Larrimer realized that they weren't even going to allow Bonnie Jamie the opportunity to surrender. They were just going to kill him in cold blood. Sickened, he heard Bess take a breath, a deep, deep breath, and he turned toward her.

Afterward, he was never sure what he planned to do--free her, perhaps.

But time suddenly seemed to slow as he faced her. He realized, too late, that she had managed to work a finger free--one finger, placed on the trigger of the musket, and she gave him a blazing look of triumph as she pressed down and -Bess, no!" Larrimer screamed, bolting awake.

"Oh, yes," came a soft, angry whisper. His heart slamming against his chest, Larrimer looked wildly around the room.

She stood beside the open casement, transparent as gauze, white as moonlight, floating a foot above the floor.

"Bess," he breathed. His skin erupted with gooseflesh and his blood was mountain water in his veins. "You've come back!" She nodded, and floated nearer. "Yes, I've come back. For you."

He would have thought it impossible for his fear to deepen, but it did.

He clutched the coverlet. Somehow, impossibly, Anna slept on.

"Bess, I tried to stop them--I tried--" "But you didn't," she interrupted. She moved closer still, floating gracefully toward him like milkweed down. "You didn't stop them. You didn't save me. And you helped murder my Jamie!" Out of the corner of his eye, Larrimer noticed that a pile of rope was slowly uncoiling. It undulated like a snake in the air. His pistol floated upward, too, as if borne by an unseen hand.

He opened his mouth to protest, but that was all she needed. Her body contorted into a slim thread and she dove down his throat.

She was there, inside him, and Larrimer felt the terror, the same terror she'd felt that night one year ago. The pain, the humiliation, the fear, the futile hope that her sacrifice would save her beloved...

And suddenly Bess saw what Robbie had seen, that night one year ago.

Through his eyes, through his memories, she saw her own death. The gun exploded, shattering her breast. She convulsed, but she was already dead, had to be dead, with a hole in her chest and the red blood spattered, trickling down her pale features like red ribbons, like the love-knot in her black, black hair....

With her spirit animating him, Larrimer moved. He climbed out of the bed, and stood beside the open casement, against the bedpost while the rope snaked around him, binding the primed pistol into place, the muzzle pressing into his chest. His fingers writhed, seeking release from the tight bonds, stretching, stretching…but not to find release, only to touch the trigger.

Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot. Hooves on the cobblestones. For a wild moment, both ghost and mortal thought the highwayman had returned, as he had vowed, for his black-eyed Bess. But a shadow moved across the courtyard, trotting over to the window; a black horse, riderless. And Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 10 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 11 beside it, a man, a white-faced man with eyes the color of madness, and hair the color of moldy hay.

"Come," said a voice inside his (her) head. "Take your revenge, Bess, and let me bear you away to a better place."

And his mortal ears heard the ostler's rasping tones, "Kill him, Bess!

He killed your Jamie!" Blood oozed from his bound hands, staining the ropes as Larrimer's fingers strained to reach the trigger. This is justice! Bess’s wild exultation reached Larrimer. A life for a life — your life for Jamie's!

Larrimer knew he had only seconds to live. Images from his life flashed through his mind -- and Bess shared them. She saw Robbie, in civilian garb, approaching the highwayman at a tavern, delivering the sad news with a warning to come not near the inn. Larrimer had wept as he'd spoken to Jamie. And then, later, when Jamie lay dead, Larrimer had challenged his Captain, had dueled with him, rapiers flashing by torchlight -- and he would have won, save for the Colonel's interference. Larrimer’s report had ended any chance of Jennings achieving his longed-for promotion and reassignment. Instead the Captain had been permanently assigned here, to this backwater village, the site of his disgrace, to languish.

Pity flowed through Bess, as she lived Larrimer's torment, his grief, his guilt and shame. He'd suffered for a year, suffered as much as any prisoner locked in a gaol of his own making...

"No!" echoed words that Larrimer somehow understood came from the black horse. "No, do what you must, Bess! You must avenge your Jamie, for vengeance is sweet!" More than one life, Bess thought, even as Larrimer's fingers, under her guidance, brushed the trigger. More than one life lost and ruined...Jamie's, mine, Father's... She turned her (his) head back over the shoulder, to see the sleeping woman on the bed. Shall there be three more lives, ruined, then? Larrimer’s and Anna’s and the wee babe’s shattered this time not by Jennings, but by ME?

"No!" shrieked Bess, pulling herself abruptly out of Larrimer's body.

The soldier sagged against his bonds, gasping. "I will not do this! I will not ruin more lives because mine was cut short!" She wept freely, and tried to touch Larrimer's face. Her fingers passed right through him. "Larrimer, Robbie, I forgive you. I forgive you with all my heart."

The soldier staggered as the rope fell as if it had been abruptly cut.

He dropped to his knees.

Bess leaned out the casement and confronted the mare, who half reared, her eyes glaring wildly in the moonlight. "He had no part in it, Night! How will killing him send me on to eternal peace? It cannot be right, it cannot!" Bess’s gaze fastened on Tim, who was staring up at her in horror, horror, she realized, that had nothing to do with seeing a ghost.

"Night," Bess said, slowly, in confusion, "Night, why is Tim with you?” She stared down at the ostler, frightened now. “Tim killed my father, he betrayed Jamie and me. He is no friend to either of us!" Larrimer crawled over to the casement, beside Bess's spectral image, and looked out. The horse screamed, a harsh, unnatural sound, and then

-- Larrimer moaned with terror -- it began to change.

The creature retained the outward seeming of a horse, but its pawing hooves left trails of fire. Its mane and tail erupted in sheets of black flame. Larrimer could feel infernal heat against his face. The black beast roared angrily, exposing sharp teeth -- the teeth of a Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 11 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 12 carnivore. Its eyes flashed red, and sulfurous smoke belched from its nostrils.

Beside Larrimer, Bess sank to her knees and he heard her gabbling something that sounded like a prayer.

The creature turned to Tim, who had fallen to his knees and was groveling in fear. "We wagered for a soul, and you wagered that I'd have hers, Tim," it thundered in a terrible silent "voice" that filled the night. "She is proving...difficult."

"Take her! She vowed to kill him, and by doing so, damned herself,” Tim urged. "Take her, take her!" "Take her I shall," the beast growled.

The beast suddenly grew long arms, black as pitch. They reached for the specter. Bess cried out and struggled, but unlike human hands, these were able to close upon her misty form. The hands clasped her arms. Bess shrieked, a lost, desolate sound.

"Leave her be!" cried Larrimer. He was determined to fight for Bess, as he had not fought before. His gaze darted desperately around the room, seeking something to serve as a cross.

Nothing...but wait! With a gasp, he dragged his rapier from its sheath, and, with one swift snap, he broke it across his knee, ignoring the blood that slicked his fingers. To make a cross, he needed something...rope, or ribbon...

The spectral arms pulled Bess up from her knees, until she was poised at the end of the casement. One good pull, and she would be through it.

"Fight, Bess! Fight it!" he shouted.

Larrimer’s fingers fumbled at the nightstand, and then they closed on the ribbon Anna used to hold her locket. Feverishly, Larrimer bound the broken sword into a cross.

Larrimer thrust his makeshift weapon between Bess, who was half through the casement, and the Nightmare, brandishing the holy symbol in the face of the thing from Hell. It hissed violently, and drew back, but it did not release the ghost girl. "I am no simple demon, foolish mortal! Think you a simple cross can defeat me?" Larrimer felt his conviction waver, but he looked at the locket, then at Bess. "Ah, but this is no simple cross!" he declared. "I have broken my sword, and will never wield it against man nor woman again.

And I have bound it with a symbol of the deepest love of which man is capable--my vow to my wife. I challenge you in the name of a God that bade us show mercy and love -- as Bess has shown mercy and love to a poor, unworthy soldier!" The Nightmare cried out, a low, ululating sound, and fell back. "I wagered for a soul, and a soul I shall have!" it shrieked.

Tim was already up and running across the courtyard. The Nightmare was upon him in a single leap, her hooves clattering against the cobblestones, leaving ribbons of fire writhing in her wake.

"Nooooooo!" screamed Tim, as the beast, never pausing in her giant strides, swept him up, onto her back. He shrieked, but stayed on as if tied there.

A moment later, the Nightmare, bearing its damned burden, was gone.

Bess fell back into the room in a heap. Larrimer's "cross" fell from nerveless fingers, and he clutched the casement sill to steady himself.

He drew a deep breath, then another. Finally, he looked down at Bess.

She was not looking at him. Slowly, she gathered herself, then sat up.

Her head was cocked, in a listening pose. Then Larrimer heard it too.

Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot. Hoofbeats on the road.

Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 12 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 13 Bess smiled, the secret smile that only women in love can know, and leaned over the casement, looking out. She began to loosen her hair.

Larrimer could see him now, coming along the ribbon of highway--a man on a horse, a smoky dappled beast that shone like mist in the moonlight.

There he was, the French-cocked hat, the thigh-high boots, the doeskin breeches. His spurs glistened and jingled. It was Bonnie Jamie MacLaren, come at last, as he had promised so long ago, for his Bess.

The highwayman paused beneath the window, to fondle a length of hair that had once been black, inhaling its sweetness. "My love," he said in the rumbling, warm burr that Larrimer had heard once before, when he'd broken the news of Bess's death. "My love, I've been waiting.

But I could not come for thee until the stain of thy suicide was purged. Had thou killed yon soldier boy, I'd have never been allowed to see thee again."

"Jamie..." Bess whispered. "Oh, Jamie..."

The highwayman held out his arms, and Bess slipped over the casement sill. He clasped her close, and then bent his head to kiss the landlord's daughter -- kissed her with a fierce tenderness that Larrimer understood, had shared with his Anna.

Neither of them looked back, as the ghostly figure spurred his spectral steed. Away they went, following the highway until, at last, they were gone.

The cock crowed. Larrimer slumped against the window sill, his eyes filled with tears of joy. Softly, he whispered a blessing upon both of them.

It was, finally, over. He need not carry his burden of guilt a step further. He was free to hold his head high, to love his wife and child, with no secrets between them. For the highwayman had come for his love by moonlight, as he had vowed, though Hell had barred the way.

–  –  –

Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 13

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