The horseman pounded through the lashing sheets of rain, each driving hoof beat sending a spray of mud and water behind him into the bushes on either side of the narrow dirt road.  Muffled to the jaw in the woolen folds of a French cloak with his wide-brimmed boater hat pulled down low over his eyes, he showed little more than nose and cheekbones to the night, yet his rigid back and the deadly length of the colichemarde hanging in its scabbard chains gave him the appearance of a military man.  The butts of two long barreled horse pistols protruded from the holsters strapped on either side of his saddle-horn close to his hand reach.

  The fury of the gale had increased in the past hour, since the rider had left Sittingbourne on this forest road to London.  Overhead the treetops swayed, whipped by driving rain and held in the moaning whisper of the wind. He could see scarcely twenty feet in front of him, yet he did not slacken the breakneck pace of the big black horse between his thighs.  

  Tom Blood was late to his appointment.

  Because of his tardiness, men might die; not tomorrow or the next day, but within the next few months, or whenever his Grace the Duke of Ormonde, now Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was done with his work of ferreting out members of the Irish Council here in England, and had returned to Dublin to superintend their executions.  For, in England of this year 1669, a wave of sympathy had arisen for the people of Ireland, hunted and hounded as they had been for the past hundred years and more by Tudor greed and Cromwellian fanaticism. Ormonde had come home to put an end to such nonsense.

  The men behind bars now in Dublin prison were innocent of wrongdoing.  They were hostages for the act of a few hotheads making trouble for the Crown across the Irish Sea.  Yet they would die, not with honor and with glory, but like common felons at the end of a hangman's rope, unless this man who rode so swiftly through the downpour of an English countryside could carry out his mission.  One of those men in prison was brother to this solitary rider, another was husband to his younger sister.

  And so Tom Blood, late colonel of cavalry in the Flanders wars, galloped the muddy roads of Kent toward London, with hope stirring his veins to the belief that he might save those hostages from their fate.  A grim smile touched his firm mouth, half hidden behind the upturned collar of his cape-cloak as he considered the enormity of the task he had set himself.

  "Faith, it's mad as a shee fairy I am, giving up my commission with Dutch to risk my name and neck in a lost cause," he told the racing horse.

  And yet—

  His velvet purse was fat with golden guilders.  He was young and strong, and the colichemarde rattling in its long scabbard at his side had won him a certain fame along the Zuider Zee.  Blood called to blood, he told himself with a wry chuckle, intending no pun, and if anything might save his older brother, it was up to the younger to learn it.

  Fifteen years ago he would have had no chance at all, for then England had been governed by the puritanical fist of Oliver Cromwell and the only safe Irishman in England—unless he were a turncoat—was a dead one.  But Charles II ruled from Whitehall, filling the land with his own high spirits and love of gaiety, and when the king laughed and was amused, no man thought of death penalties.

  Sewn into a secret pocket of his leather buff coat was a folded paper bearing five names, the manes of those men who had played Judas in Ireland and—"

  "Stand, there!  Stand and deliver!"  a voice roared.

  A mounted man with a pistol in his hand stepped a white mare from behind a thick tree bole out into the driving rain.  The solitary rider swore suddenly and leaned his strength against the wet reins, drawing in the black horse.

  "Now what the devil—"

  "Not the devil, just a tobyman after your valuables."

  "Are you serious?"  Blood wonder with a laugh.

  The man scowled.  He was in his early middle age, with a faint white line across his left cheek—a dagger-mark?  or sword slash?—whose hard black eyes, peering out form under thick, bushy brows, gave his face the appearance of an animal.

  "Ar, serious I be.  Enough to put a ball atwixt your ribs in you don't hand over your money purse and sundry other objects you might have, such as watch, fob, per'aps an earring or two."

  "In this rain?  With water dampening your powder so that no spark in all the world could—"

  The highwayman started, turning his eyes in reflex toward the pistol he held sheltered under a fold of his great-cloak  Instantly Blood was on him, sodden hat whipped off by his hand lashing across his eyes like a thick whip. The pistol roared.  Its ball went by Blood's jaw, just missing the skin. Then Blood held on of his own dags in his fist, smashing its long barrel hard into the other's face.

  There was a sickening crunch.  The tobyman slid sideways out of his saddle and landed in a rain washed puddle, sinking down in wet, thick mud.  The younger man stared at him a moment, grinning and shaking his head.

  "It was close, you spalpeen, I'll give you that.  You're faster with your popper than a lot of soldiers I've come up against."  His hand touched his jaw that still felt the brush of wind from the misaimed pistol ball as he grimaced.  "Too close for my liking, and in such case—"

  He was out of the kak and moving through the mud and water in red leather thigh boots, bending over the fallen robber, lifting off his Dutch felt hat and sodden great-cloak, drawing the pistol from limp fingers.  Blood studied the weapon, pursing his lips in admiration of its scrolled barrel and ornately carved haft. "A master gunsmith's product if it's anything, and probably stolen from some fool nobleman who didn't have the guts to use it."  He thrust the weapon into a capacious pocket of his French cloak.

  He bent above the fallen man anxiously, then straightened and smiled.  The man suffered from a clout between the eyes, no more. He'd have dark circles for a day or two, then be good as new.  Blood glanced at the white mare and let his eyebrows lift.

  The animal was dainty, almost small, but the eyes that searched her quarters for signs of speed soon found them.  His big black was a fleet runner, but Tom Blood had the feeling that the white mare might give him a running start and still beat him in a hundred yards.

  He reached for the reins, stroking the velvety nose of the horse.  She nudged him, tossing her head almost playfully. Turning, he stared down at the man lying in the mud.

  "It's a favor I'll be after doing you, my friend.  By taking the tools of your trade, I'll remove temptation.  Maybe then you'll find an honest occupation for yourself."

  Carrying the hat and great-cloak, clutching the reins of the white mare, he mounted the black.  Toeing the animal into a canter, he brought the smaller horse behind him, keeping an easy pace.

  The Red Bull Tavern lay ahead by no more than six short miles, by all his reckoning.  Long before the hour was up he would be closeted with Lady Anne Jeffries, an Irish sympathizer and a member of the secret Council, laying plans for the triumphal entry into court circles of Colonel Tom Blood, late of the Zeeland royal horse.

  The rain and wind lessened somewhat in the next few minutes, greatly increasing the visibility.  Blood took advantage of the respite from the downpour to open his leather jerkin and touch the scar of an old bullet wound that ran along his ribs.  His fingers rubbed gently, soothingly, removing a little of the ache that always came to that part of his flesh when excitement filled his veins.

  Deep inside him, he was ashamed of the ache; he supposed it might be a carry-over from the old days when the law of Ireland had required its kings to be physically without blemish.  It had been a rigid standard, for the kings in Ireland had been fighting men and in battle a man sometimes lost a hand or an eye or a leg; and though he might be as much a king as ever, the crown was taken away from him and given to another.  Or maybe he was just too proud.

  He heard the flapping of the big wooden tavern sign on its rusted chains almost as soon as he saw it.  The red bull painted there had long since faded so that the bare wood showed through, but the letters below it were distinct enough.  Blood trotted through the open gateway into the yard, dimly lit by candle lamps fastened to the front of the stables and sheltered from the rain by overhanging eaves.

  A link-boy came running to take the reins.

  Blood dismounted in the shelter of the big barn, smelling damp hay and horseflesh, saddle  leather and manure. He flipped a coin to the link-boy and, carrying his saddlebags and spare great-cloak, trudged through the downpour to the inn.

  A bell clanked on a spring somewhere as he came into the common room, pausing to shake rainwater from his garments, slapping his wet hat across a booted thigh.  Quick footsteps turned him toward a tavern maid bobbing into a curtsy.

  "The name's Blood," he smiled.  "There'll be a room reserved for me."

  "Oh yes, sir," she smiled.  "The lady is expecting you. If you'll follow me."

  "Just so your way take you through the common room so I can get myself as wet inside as I am out, with a glass of sack.  Or better, fetch a bottle when you've shown me to the room."

  He waited while she struck steel to tinder and lighted a lamp, then walked behind her up the narrow stair and along a hall.  She opened a door and stood back.

  A candle burned on a small oak table set against the stuccoed wall.  Wooden beams made long shadows across the ceiling by its light. As he stepped through the doorway, he saw a big four-poster bed dark with shadows, its curtains pulled partly open, a heavy oaken chest, a standing cupboard, a table and two chairs.

  A woman stood before and opened casement window, staring out into the downpour.  She wore a blue taffeta gown, partially hidden under the woolen great-cloak in which she was wrapped against the light chill.  Only when he spoke to her did she turn, slowly and with seeming reluctance.

  "Lady Anne?"  he wondered, hearing the latch click into place behind him as the maidservant closed the door.

  She had been weeping.  Her eyes were red with tears, and fear lines were etched across her ripe red mouth and in the pale skin of her low, broad forehead.  Even so, Blood accounted her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Thick black hair framed a wide, oval face out of which slumberous eyes under plucked black brows regarded him curiously.  Her mouth was wide and generous, very red, and to his mind seemed shaped for languorous kisses.

  "Colonel Blood?"  she asked, sighing gently.

  He made a little bow, tossed his captured garments across the chest and, loosening the buttons of his French cloak, shrugged out of its.  In thigh boots and plain woolen breeks, his fine lawn shirt covered by a leather jerkin, he appeared slim by wiry, with a lean middle and heavy shoulders.  Taking up the solitary candle that had been lit against his coming, he touched the flame to the wicks of twin pan-lamps resting on the table.

  "You'll forgive me if I make myself comfortable," he apologized.  "I've had a long ride the day and could stand some relaxation."

  His glance brushed the big four-poster bed as he stifled a yawn.  He'd been up since daybreak and had ridden close to fifty miles, all the way from Sandwich.  Those partially drawn curtains appeared to beckon to him. There lay temptation in the form of soft pillows and mattress and warm blankets.

  "A ride which you would have been wise not to have made."  Lady Anne lifted her hands, spreading them wide, then letting them fall weakly.  "I'll be no help to you at all. Not any longer."

  A knock on the door swung him around, but not before he caught the stark terror in the face of this noblewoman.  She turned toward the open casement, one hand catching the sill and tightening until the knuckles showed white.

  Blood opened the door.  The maid stood there, holding a tray on which rested a tall, narrow bottle of sack and two glasses, together with some brown bread and a little cheese.  Blood slipped a coin into her palm as he took it from her hands.

  His foot kicked the door shut.  He waited until he heard her footfalls receding down the hall before he spoke.  "Now then, acushla: tell me what it is that troubles you.

  She shook her head and gave him a wan smile.  "No need to concern yourself, colonel. It isn't anything where you can help.  Except that perhaps it would be wise for you not to be seen in my company, after I brief you on your mission here in England."

  He poured sack into a glass and handed it to her.  Lady Anne sank down onto the edge of a chair and leaned an elbow on the small table.

  "Why not let me be the judge of that?"  he asked.

  Again the wan smile touched her lips.  "The trouble is mine, and mine alone. Listen carefully.  I haven't much time for explanations. What you hope to do in London will require sharp wits and an ability to snatch at opportunity which borders on the miraculous.  You were selected from half a dozen likely candidates for the job."

  Her gaze studied him closely.  After a while, she nodded. "You may do, perhaps.  If anyone will, that is. You already know about the hostages in Dublin prison.  It's our hope—since Ormonde is in London—that with great good fortune you may be able, in some manner, to argue him into freeing them.  They've committed no crime. They're merely hostages, left to rot in prison until His Grace of Ormonde finishes his work here in England of unearthing what he considers to be traitors to the Crown—and goes back to hang them.

  "While you're here, you're to act as executioner of the five traitors who betrayed them to the duke as members of the Council of Dublin.  I haven't the slightest idea as to how you can do it. The Council feels that's up to you, I'm here to brief you about your background, to pass on a few names of people in the Council who will take my place and see to it that your entry into London society—"

  "Sure, and why does anyone have to take your place?"  he wanted to know with a smile. "I couldn't ask for a prettier fairy godmother."

  She stared at him out of dull, frightened eyes.  "It's beyond my power to help you more than I am at this moment."

  "Ah?  And why so?"

  "By tomorrow morning I'll be proscribed as a common criminal and sentenced to the Tower."  She shuddered. "Have you ever been in the Tower of London, colonel?"

  "It's a pleasure that's been denied me."

  "A hateful place, filled with ghosts and tainted with spilled blood.  Many men and women have had their heads lopped off there. As mine will be."  She smiled weakly as he muttered an oath.

  "You've too pretty a head to lost it to an ax," he told her.  "Isn't there something we can do to save it?"

  She put her hands to her cheeks, shaking her head.  "Please. Please, just listen to me. I can still perform this one last act for the Council before—before my usefulness is at an end."

  Her words tumbled out one after another as if she feared some strange enchantment might snatch her from the room before she was done.  "Your name will be Blood, of course. Colonel Tom Blood. But your family is to be no longer Irish but English. You understand? You come from a little town in the Midlands.  Shrewsbury. Your family consists of landed gentry. You're the younger son, left out of the inheritance. You went to Flanders to make your fortune. You did well but not well enough to suit you."

  "So you're on your way to London, to discover what proximity to the throne may do for you.  A young man can go far in Charles's court if he's made of the right stuff. I—I was to have seen that you dressed correctly, met the right people—"

  Her voice broke.  She bit her lower lip against the tears flooding her eyes.  Blood considered her a moment, pity touching him. He said slowly, "I take it that the Council chose you for your task just as it chose me, because you were the one best fitted to introduce me into London society.  Am I right?"

  She nodded.  "Yes, that's so.  I have a fine town house and am welcomed at Whitehall."

  "Then surely if I helped you in your trouble I'd merely be helping myself?"

  "I've already told you, colonel.  I'm beyond help."

  "Why not let me be judge of that?  Suppose you tell me what it is that frightens you so."

  Lady Jeffries drew a deep breath.  "At this moment, Lord Deptwick—secretary to the Duck of Ormonde—is carrying certain papers to London to turn them over to his Grace as the first step in his campaign to break the secret Council for Ireland which does what it can for the Irish cause here in England.  You know that the Duke of Ormonde is Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and runs his government there for Charles II? Well, those papers will prove beyond a doubt that I've allied myself with the Irish cause and have schemed and worked these past five years to help those unfortunate people.  I have rather a high place in the secret Council, you see."

  As if to encourage her, he came close and pressed her shoulder to his hip.  He felt her tremble as she sat brooding at the rush-strewn floor. "I don't fear dying so much.  It's the torture that worries me. They'll try to force the names of other members from me and—God help me, I don't know whether I can refuse to answer."

  She was sobbing softly.  Blood felt his anger rise.  His hand pressed her shoulder even closer.  An instant she stiffened, lifting wet eyes to stare at him, then let him fold her against him.

  "Faith now, acushla.  Papers, you say? They mayn't be as damning as you make them out.  A few careless words here and there—"

  She shook her head and leaned against his hip.  "They damn me, believe me. Reports on the Irish situation, all highly confidential.  Instructions on how to act so as best to serve those poor devils in Dublin prison waiting on the Duke of Ormonde for execution.  A little diary in which—like the fool I am!—I kept record of my actions. Oh, there's more than enough to send me to the block!"

  Blood found himself staring at the wet great-cloak which he had flung across the chest and the shapeless Dutch felt hat with its bedraggled feather.  Scowling, he told himself to consider her helplessness and not the soft warmth of her body pressed so close to his own.

  She was weeping openly now, letting terror master her nerves.

  He opened his eyes wide.  "You said—what was it? Something about the papers being delivered tomorrow in London?"

  "Yes.  Lord Deptwick had them now.  He bribed a maidservant in my employ to ransack my home for such evidence.  Nancy turned them over to him tonight. He's taking a coach from Canterbury.  He'll be in London town a little past dawn."

  "How will he come?  By what road?"

  "Why, the old Roman road, I assume.  It's the shortest and best route to London from Canterbury."

  Excitement made him squeeze her tighter.  "And this tavern? How far from this old Roman road would you guess it to be?"

  She caught his thought and lifted her head, staring up into his eyes with sudden, frantic hope.  "What are you thinking, colonel? Have you some plan in mind?"

  "The roads hereabouts are filled with highwaymen.  Suppose one of them were to hold up this Deptwick fellow?  Take those papers from him?"

  Her spirits drooped and she hung her head.  "No high toby rider would bother with them. All a highwayman would be interested in is money."

  "Not this one," said Blood with a grim smile.

  He released her to cross to the chest where lay the sodden garments of the man he had overcome a little earlier.  With a hand he swept them up, fluffed up the feather and donned the hat. Then he wrapped himself in the great-cloak and grinned at her.

  "I don't know the fellow's name, but he rides a white mare.  He tried to rob me scarce two hours ago. He botched the job.  However, he'll appear again tonight along old Watling Street."

  She was standing, hands clasped together in her eagerness.  "Can you? Oh, do you think you can carry it off?"

  "I'm no Claude Duval, but I may find a way."  He came to her, lifting one of her hands and kissing it.  "Stay here. Don't answer the door or let yourself be seen until I'm back in this room."

  "They'll see you leave down below."

  "Not by way of the casements."

  He walked with her to the windows, opening them onto the night.  The rain was now a drizzle and showed signs of ceasing entirely. Overhead the moon tinted the clouds with silver as it sought to break through.

  Tom Blood thrust a booted foot through the window.  His hands held onto the sill as he lowered himself to the slanting roof of the smoke shed below.  A moment he paused like that, smiling up at the worried girl above him.

  Then he released his hold, felt his boots grip the roof tiles.  He ran to the edge of the roof, lowered himself over it. His foot touched a barrel top, steadied and held him.  A moment later he was racing toward the stables.

  The link-boy had fallen asleep.  It was close to midnight and only a few roisterers remained in the common room.  Blood walked past him, noiselessly removed the saddle from a stall partition and moved toward the white mare.  Within five minutes he was lifting to the kak and urging the animal through the wide doorway.


  In Roman times Watling Street had run northwestward out of Londinium as far as what was not the town of Chester.  Below the Thames it went from Richborough to London, then cut across the city, widening past Aldersgate as it traversed Hampstead Heath and Charnwood Forest.  In Kent it intersected the road where the Red Bull Tavern stood, less than ten miles from its yard gate.

  Colonel Blood rode through the night with worry gnawing his middle.  His quixotic notion that saw Anne Jeffries as a wronged woman might well be no more than blindness to a trap being laid for him.  Somehow the authorities—whose duty it was to keep an eye out for Irish sympathizers, to catch them and bring them before the Crown for punishment by hanging—had tumbled to the fact that he was in England.  They had set a woman in his room—he'd never laid eyes on Lady Anne Jeffries before this night, so whether the woman who'd babbled out her fears to him was the real Lady Anne or not, he didn't know—instructing her to send him to his death on a lonely highway under a silver moon just showing through the flying clouds.

  His only orders, when he'd received them in Groningen, had been to travel across the North Sea to Sandwich and to meet Lady Anne Jeffries at the Red Bull Tavern.  She would give him his instructions. He knew little more than that, having been told that the Council, through Lady Anne, would guide him into London society and so ease the first part of his mission.

  The rest, of course, was up to him.

  He shook himself with a laugh.  "I'm daft. Anne Jeffries a catch-spy?  No more than I'm his Grace the Duke of Ormonde—bad cess to the man."

  He stooped to avoid a tree branch heavy laden with wet foliage as he pounded past.  The North Downs countryside stretched away on either side, great undulating uplands heavily turfed and broken here and there by chalk and green sand ridges.  This was the northern limits of the weald before it gave way to the claylands bordering the Thames. As he galloped he could see an occasional fence and a dark blob which was a farmhouse.  No candle showed in those darkened windows. All the world was asleep around him. Only he was alive, racing on and on.

  Toward death?

  In the distance he could see the spire of a parish church silvered by the moon.  He glanced at it a moment , then reined the mare aside, for the muddy length of Watling Street was before him, spotted by rain puddles and clumps of broken stone which showed where the old Roman highway had been.  The road was empty.

  Blood slid his captured pistol out from under his belt, checking its fresh load of gunpowder, its flint and steel.  Mounted on the white mare, wrapped in the tobyman's great-cloak and feathered felt, there was nothing to connect Colonel Tom Blood, late of the royal Dutch cavalry and now on his way to London to make his fortune at court, with this highwayman waiting to rob a passing coach.  Faith, he ought to be safe enough, barring some unforeseen accident.

  His lips twisted.  It was up to him to prevent such an accident.  The white mare stirred restlessly under him. The five mile run had only whetted her appetite for another gallop.

  "Easy, love," he laughed softly, patting the glossy neck.  "Bide a bit with me and I'll give you all the exercise you'll want."

  His eye consulted the moon.  It was time for Deptwick and his coach to be passing the old stile he could see a hundred yards up the road as if he hoped to be in London by daybreak.  Where was the man? Impatience ran through him with every heartbreak.

  Twice he almost turned away, convinced that he had undertaken a fool's errand.  But each time he remembered the wet, frightened eyes of Anne Jeffries and swung back to his lonely vigil.  Another few minutes he would give Deptwick, then be away on the rare running.

  He heard the creak of a dry wheel-hub first, loud in the silence of the countryside.  The creak of harness and the sudden snap of a whip, the mushy clopping of horses' hoofs in the mud and rain puddles, and then the coach and four was swinging around the bend in the road and advancing on him at a slow trot.

  The driver was cursing the rain, the road and his horses.

  Colonel Blood laughed in his throat.  Gossoon that he was! He had forgotten that the road was little better than a quagmire. No wonder Deptwick was so late.  His big hand tightened on the curving pistol butt, lifting the barrel beneath his sheltering cloak.

  The coach was nearer.  The first horse was less than a length away.  Blood toed the mare from the stand of trees where he had been hidden.

  "Stand and deliver," he bellowed, feeling like a play-actor and vastly glad that none of his old cavalry companions was on hand to see him playing at such mummery.

  The pistol glinted long and deadly in the moonlight.

  The driver dropped the reins and lifted both arms.  A wigged head topped by a sugar-loaf hat poked through the curtained coach window.

  "What the devil's the matter, Osborne?  Are we mudded again?"

  "No, milord.  It's—"

  "Well, well?  What the devil?"

  Colonel Blood stepped the white mare into view, making a faint bow.  "Oblige me, y'r lordship. Fortunes of the road. Please descend."

  "Oh, damme.  A tobyman."

  The door opened.  Beyond the man Blood caught a glimpse of white lace and dark cloth.  "Your companion also, if she'll be so good."

  A giggle answered him.  A slim ankle covered with a clocked silk stocking came thrusting onto the coach step.  Then a blonde woman, taffeta skirt uplifted in a ringed hand, manteau tied back by ribbons, slipped through the narrow opening and stared up at him with wide eyes.

  "Charles, will he shoot us?"  she gasped.

  "No, of course not," snapped Deptwick.  "All he wants is'r money."

  Blood bowed.  Oblige me then, milord.  Your purse and rings. On top o the big rock yonder.  And you, milady. Your own rings. And any other valuables."

  The woman giggled up at him.  In the dim light she seemed very young and very empty-headed.  A light o' love, then. Someone with whom Deptwick might while away the hours until they reached London, and after that, if he weren't tired of her by then, pass the time in his room at the Duke of Ormonde's town house.  She was tugging at her rings as she went on regarding him.

  "Milady," Blood murmured, waving his pistol at her, indicating the rock a few feet away.

  "Oh," she said.  "Oh, yes. My, you must think I'm an awful dunderhead to go on staring at you like this when—but this is the first time I've ever seen a real honest-to-goodness highwayman and—"

  "Alicia!"  roared Deptwick.

  "Oh!  Oh, yes, dear.  Coming. I'm coming."

  Blood gestured at the driver who climbed down into the mud.  "All of you—walk one hundred paces up the road toward London."

  "The devil!  You don't mean to set us afoot?"

  The woman wailed, "All this mud!  My new corked shoes!"

  Blood bowed.  "I must search the coach.  And in safety."

  "All you'll find is my portable writing desk and some papers.  Two carryalls, milady's and my own."

  "I need no inventory.  Now up the road, all of you."

  In a moment Blood had swung from the stirrup to the coach step and into the vehicle.  There was a smell of leather and perfume and sweat inside the coach. On the seat, tucked into a corner, was a small writing portfolio.  Swiftly Blood opened it and searched, finding a packet of letters wrapped in black ribbons and varied other documents.

  Blood looked out the coach door.  Lord Deptwick, the woman and the driver were standing a hundred feet away as he had ordered.  He turned back to the writing portfolio, thrusting it inside his cloak. He glanced through the clothes in the two carryalls.

  There was nothing else in the vehicle.

  He stepped from the coach to the stirrup and swung into the kak.  One arm he stabbed out as he bent in the saddle to snatch up the valuables from the flat rock beside the road.  Then he toed the mare to a gallop. Within seconds he was out of sight amid the great trees which blanketed this corner of the weald.

  The deed was done, and he was a highwayman.

  Under English law, riders of the high toby were hung at Tyburn.  A grim chuckle convulsed his throat. Irish sympathizers were also hung for their deeds, so he had little to lose by the night's work unless Deptwick or the addlepated blonde were to remember his face.  Still, he felt himself safe enough; a flap of his captured great-cloak had veiled his features all through the robbery.

  He gave the mare here head, choosing to let her pick her own course rather than guide her through the downs country.  She ran easily, smoothly, and he swayed so gently to her pace that he came close to falling asleep in the saddle. Twice he shook himself out of a dangerous lassitude.  The third time he found himself with closed eyelids he shook the reins and made the mare break stride.

  Tiredness caused him to stagger when he swung down out of the saddle in the empty barn.  The link-boy was gone, probably to a straw cot in the pantry. Blood unsaddled, removed the bridle, and returned the mare to her stall.

  He went back up the rain barrel to the smoke-shed roof, then drew himself up over the casement sill.  A push of his hand opened the leaded windows.

  Lady Jeffries was asleep.  He stepped into the room, carefully placing the writing case and stolen valuables atop the oak chest and let the great-cloak slide from his shoulders.  He considered the tow wooden chairs and shook his head.

  The bed was the only place where he might stretch out comfortably enough for sleep.  If Lady Anne should wake and object to his presence, it would be time enough to argue the merit of the floor rushes as a mattress.

  He stripped to his skin and extinguished the pan-lamp flame.  Crossing to the bed he threw back the covers and slid between them.  His thigh brushed her nakedness but Colonel Tom Blood told himself he'd had enough excitement for one night.  He would rather dream than dally.

  The pillow took his head with cradling softness.

  A moment later he was asleep.

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