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Excerpt from Caught by the Tides

Beyond the Dark

From Caught by the Tides by Diane Whiteside
in BEYOND THE DARK

One

Northern coast of France, April 1803

The full moon lit the incoming tide like a pathway to Avalon. The waves lapped at the beach, filling the small cove with a gentle music which the greatest harpist might have envied. Beyond the headland, the English Channel was dark and touched with silver, as empty of ships to the naked eye as any highway to Paris.

Owen Bentham might have smiled at this evidence of a very great spell but he was too busy finding the strength to stand upright. He’d just ridden for two-and-a-half-days to reach Normandy from Strasbourg, the great French and Alsatian city on the Rhine.

Now his legs were so numb they could have sunk into the sand before he noticed, while his back had become a jolting flame spiraling through his ribs and neck. He could map every fold in his cravat by his sweat’s caked dirt and salt. He hadn’t changed his leather trousers, or the rest of his clothes. He was badly unshaven, a sight his father’s wife would have crowed over and cited as proof of his inability to be a gentleman.

But his knives were sharp, his powder dry, with all of his weapons in their places, ready for use at a moment’s notice.

He listened again, straining every sense to search for pursuers.

Another set of waves came in, spilling higher across the sand until it washed across the tip of his boots.

Where were Bonaparte’s men? He’d hidden his tracks and he’d ridden fast. He’d chosen to be taken off near Le Havre, not Calais, making for a longer passage back to England but a more unexpected departure point.

All the time, he’d abjured the use of magick lest its use be traced back to him. One of his great strengths as a courier was his ability to avoid magick in even the smallest details. His saddle was balanced on his shoulder, removing his few possessions from his final mount. He’d borrowed horses from other Britons whenever he could, leaving no traces of magecraft to be tracked by. Some had even ridden with him and tied him in the saddle while he slept.

The only sound was the tide singing to itself and to the land.

A muscle twitched in Owen’s jaw. As a former sergeant in His Majesty’s dragoons, he was far happier on land than aboard ship. But only the Navy could cross the Channel and carry him back to England. The French knew it, too, and would be watching for him, since it was the last place they could catch him – making that leg the most dangerous part of his journey. Still, there was no other route.

He shrugged and lifted his right hand, palm outward to the sea.

The moon struck crimson fire from his signet, sending a single beam of light dancing deep into the water.

Owen clenched his fist, turning the beam into a short pulse – once, twice, thrice. Then he held his hand open, letting the light shine uninterrupted for the count of ten.

A minute later, a gig glided out from behind the headland, its crew rowing with the quiet precision of men who’d been trained under a cat-o’-nine-tails. Behind it, a bit of the moon’s reflection rearranged itself into a naval sloop, skimming the water under a single sail. As he’d expected, they’d been concealed by an excellent cloaking spell.

Owen surveyed the silent cove once more before waiting for the cutter to pick him up. Surely he’d have time to take a brief nap before offering to stand watch aboard the sloop. . .

Trethledan Cove, the next night

Emma Sinclair braced her back against the cliff and scrabbled for a hold among the crumbling rock. Rain crashed over her head, hungry to knock her off her feet. Lightning ripped across the sky and showed the world around her – the ravenous English Channel battering at her ancestral lands as if it would devour all of Cornwall tonight. Below her, waves pounded over the dark, jagged rocks of Trethledan Bay, little more than a shallow beach now with the high tide coming in.

She raised her eyes to the ocean beyond, looking for the sight that had summoned her during the worst storm for ten years or more. Earlier this afternoon, when the weather had been warm and sunny, she’d watched a brig sailing far off-shore on a very unusual course. She’d even thought she’d heard cannons firing – but shrugged it off as loneliness for her long-dead naval husband.

Then this storm had arrived, so hard and fast it had to be built by a mage, and she couldn’t sleep.

The wind caught her cloak’s deep hood, whipping it back off her face. But she saw it again, as she’d seen it from her bedroom – a small bright spark of red, glimmering on the beach. A mage-light, which Nurse said could only be lit by a living mage.

Emma let go of the cliff and started scrambling down the path. In ten minutes or less, high tide would cover the sand and anyone there would drown. She had to lead the mage to the hidden path before he drowned.

A stone turned under her half-boot, sending her sliding a good yard down the steep trail. Her heart stopped for a moment and she gulped, almost inhaling salt spray from the crashing waves. She closed her eyes for a moment, forcing calm back into her veins.

There was, after all, no one else to do this. Emma’s usual companion, Aunt Mary, was visiting Lydia, overseeing Emma’s sister’s first lying-in. She’d given all the servants leave to attend the great fair at Whitmore Hall – everyone except Nurse and Jem Keverne, Nurse’s husband. And Grandfather, for all that he’d been a great general with the knighthood and honors to prove it, was well past eighty and very close to joining his beloved Deborah on the other side of Death’s door.

The storm had come so quickly that the Gwythias had covered the bridge below The Morthol castle before any of the servants could return, thus isolating the four of them at Trethledan House. Grandfather, Nurse, and Keverne were sound asleep now, exhausted by age. She was the only one who hadn’t completely collapsed after tending the animals.

Emma pushed her foot forward and took off again, not allowing herself to think of everyone who’d met their deaths on these cliffs.

She leaped onto the sand, searching for that red glimmer. Water roiled across the flat expanse, marked by greedy leaps of white foam.

Was that lump too rounded to be a rock?

Lightning shot across the sky, its trail laced with wickedly green phosphorescence. Another bolt crashed into the headland, sending a great mass of rock and boulders into the greedy ocean.

Emma swayed, almost falling to her knees. The wind clutched at her stout boat cloak, trying to rip it away from her body. But the deep folds, originally designed and made for the Royal Navy, stayed close.

Hunched over, fighting for every step, she staggered to the unknown form and stooped down.

It was a man, most definitely a man, and a large example of the species, at that. His chest was barely moving and he had several days growth of beard, obscuring his features. He wore riding clothes – leather jacket, leather breeches, high boots, white shirt. Crimson pulsed sluggishly out of his side, tinting the water in the fitful light. The ocean washed over and around him, ripping and tearing at the sand under him as if hungry to suck him back into the Channel’s maelstrom.

A ruby shone in the heavy gold signet on his right hand. It was a gryphon’s ring, the mark of a King’s Messenger and a mage. For him to be here, in a brutal storm and clearly close to death meant an act of war – or treason – had been committed.

Emma growled, deep and low. Bonaparte’s fleet had killed her husband at the Battle of the Nile five years ago. It might be 1803, England and France might be technically at peace thanks to that idiotic Treaty of Amiens – but she would not abandon this castaway and let the French tyrant destroy anyone else, no matter what it cost her.

She gripped him under his shoulders, set her feet, and tugged.

Nothing happened.

She took a very deep breath and tried again, pouring her entire strength into it until every muscle in her back screamed and her legs nearly crumpled under her.

He didn’t stir an inch. But the ocean washed completely over his chest, leaving only his nose and mouth free.

Emma gasped for air, glaring at the seas in frustration.

If she had just a little bit of help, she could haul him over to the path and up it, just far enough to be out of the tide’s reach.

How on earth could she move him? There wasn’t time to run for help.

If only he weighed less. She could have carried a young boy.

Well, there was the old country charm that Nurse had taught her to make burdens lighter. She was no mage, certainly not enough to light the candle which would have gained her entrance into a competition for mage school. But she could work some of the truly ancient charms, like the one which would make a bushel of apples feel light as a feather on the long walk back from the west orchard.

Another wave raced forward.

Emma gulped. She clasped the man’s face in her hands and quickly said the charm, using Cornish as she’d been taught. Then she caught his shoulders again and heaved.

He came free easily, gliding across the sands like a swan, until he almost knocked her down.

The charm had never worked so well before – but she’d no time to think about that.

She stepped backward, glancing over her shoulder to judge where she was going.

The ocean followed them, lashing and frothing at him. The water was alive with sand and gravel, slipping under her feet like quicksand. Rocks moved in it, tumbling at the edges of waves, always aimed at the two of them. Her hand slipped out from under him once but she quickly grabbed him, biting her lip.

If she’d doubted before that this was a mage-built storm, she didn’t now, not when the ocean was trying to catch them both.

She was chilled to the bone, colder than the wind and waves could account for, even with saltwater and sand slipping into her boots.

She had to take him up the path before the tide came in but there wasn’t time enough to drag him.

What other options did she have?

She could try another charm – the one she’d overheard Nurse using when her husband had drunk one too many pints. Supposedly it made anyone who was unconscious walk as lightly and easily as a small puppet.

But it was a very strong charm, more of a spell from a mage’s arsenal. Nurse could work it because she was a magick worker who’d competed for mage school, although she hadn’t been selected. Emma didn’t have any such strength and the mage was too close to death to help. But perhaps the gryphon ring could help a little, although she’d never heard of such a thing in the old stories. Still, it was the only chance.

Squatting once again, she wrapped her arm under the man’s shoulder and quickly chanted the puppeteer’s charm. Then she straightened up, keeping his arm over her shoulder and her arm around his waist, hoping at least part of his body would come out of the surf.

To her vast shock, he stood up with her, his eyes shut. He was lightweight, unresisting – and wholly unable to steady himself.

Thunder cracked, as if hurling a curse. Waves crashed against the headland and boulders tumbled into the ravaging sea.

Emma gulped, locked her hand into his leather braces to hold him, and ran for the path, her hip and leg rubbing against him with every stride.

The longer she held onto him, the more she brushed against him – and the easier it became to move him. . .

 

 

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