Outside London, England
Once a major in his majesty’s army, once baron of the vast estates of Harwich, Grayson Merrick recalled the vibrant home of his past. As he wearily dismounted in the bleak quiet of a nameless town, those memories tempted him, but he refused to let them distract. His horse stomped weakly, tossing his head, and Grayson patted its neck, clucking his tongue in comfort. He didn’t want to be here, either.
They’d ridden hard out of that chaotic hell they left behind, away from the city that no longer housed music and light.
Like an eviscerated body, the guts of the capital had spilled onto the streets. With what stealth they could manage, they navigated through the clear roads to avoid the piercing howls of rioters tearing through the hollowed buildings.
From here, Grayson couldn’t see the funeral pyres choking London, but there was no lack of that sickening flame along the countryside. Since the plague, ash suffocated England. Images of that ravaged city no longer identifiable as London filled his mind. The stench of hundreds of burning bodies clung to his skin, coated his throat.
Humans scurried like rats there, scavenging for any crumb of food they could find. Dozens of them attacked him and his men as they had looked for a rumored stronghold within the city confines, for the order that rumor promised.
Others called out in pain, pleading for help, for mercy. He’d been forced to ignore them as he scoured the darkened streets on the basis of a story too good to be true.
With each failed search, with so many lying dead on the streets, his anger grew. Anger and disbelief at what had happened to his country in only two short years; at the speed with which the plague had destroyed so much. In the end, it proved to be only a rumor—a story to give the weak hope. There was no one organized enough to do much of anything, let alone defend a stronghold or administer a fallen city.
Here, on the silent streets of this unknown village, he drew his sword. It’d become habit not wasting gunpowder and shot as he prepared for what might be around the next corner. One thing he thought he’d never have to worry about in a small country village.
This village most likely lay deserted in the aftermath of disease, but scavengers were everywhere. Grayson crept forward, hunting for fresh water. It’d been over a day since they left what remained of London, and their meager supplies rapidly dwindled.
A cold wind raged down the street, and Grayson flexed his fingers in his worn gloves. For his trouble, he hadn’t discovered the people he sought, and had managed to find only one keg of unspoiled gunpowder hidden in the halls of Parliament. He’d been half tempted to light it and walk away.
Anger ate away at him even as fatigue tugged his limbs.
“Finchingfield!” Grayson called the man who served as his captain in his makeshift army. “When the men have finished the search, have them rest a few hours. We leave at first light.”
“Agreed.” Wesley Finchingfield responded with his customary nod. “Merrick,” he continued, eyes darting around the streets, ever vigilant. “Are we heading straight to Harwich or detouring to Colonel Bulger’s estate?”
Grayson resisted pinching his nose to ward off a headache from this wild goose chase. “We’ve made a habit of pursuing children’s tales, why stop now?” His tone was dry, disgusted at himself for still believing in order in a world filled with chaos. “We head to Bulger’s estate before returning to the coast.”
“Perhaps we’ll finally cross paths with some luck.” Wesley snorted, clearly not believing his own words. “And the weapon stores promised on the Colonel’s estate.”
Grayson nodded and muttered, “Perhaps.” Then, shrugging off the pessimism of the moment he reiterated, “Before sunrise.”
Wesley Finchingfield, his trusted captain, nodded and went to see the command was followed. Grayson rolled his shoulders in a vain attempt to ease the tension permanently residing there, and entered the first house he came to.
Sunrise wasn’t far off, and he needed to rest but couldn’t let this opportunity bypass him. He held no hope they’d discover aught more than a handful of pistols with the odd musket carefully hidden, but couldn’t take that chance. Most places had already been looted of anything valuable—pistols, clothing, wood—but they checked anyway. Methodically going from house to house, he saw Wesley on the street opposite doing the same.
The autumn sun lightened the horizon, and Grayson added the last pistol to the ever-expanding pile they’d accumulated since leaving London. The carriage, no longer the elegantly appointed vehicle he’d once chaperoned his sister in during her season, wobbled on its wheels. With no means to repair it, and no time to waste doing so, it teetered on its springs, every rut threatening to collapse it.
He hoped it could make the return journey to the estate in one piece.
As he waited for his men, he absently scratched the mud off the door, the faded emblem of his crest unrecognizable now. He’d taken only twelve men on this fool’s errand, and had lost none of them to plague, murder, or desertion. Bulger’s estate lay another half day’s travel northward, and in the condition he was in now, Grayson wasn’t positive he could make it. Sitting on the dirt road, he leaned against the wheel and closed his eyes.
Instantly alert, Grayson looked up into the hooded eyes of his friend. Wesley stepped back and jerked his head toward the horizon where the sun now shone, fully visible. Without a word, the small group remounted and headed north.
The journey took longer than half a day, but Grayson insisted on stopping at every establishment they came to, searching for food, muskets, rifles, swords, and gunpowder. Anything to make their lives easier, anything he could use for those under his protection.
“We have more than enough guns,” someone groused, not realizing Grayson was in earshot, as they meticulously searched an abandoned house in the middle of a field.
Grayson’s silent glare stopped further arguments. He knew what his men thought of him. They had lived through enough of his difficult orders since the collapse; orders that had kept them all alive.
Stepping close to the man whose features were now painted with regret, he leaned down and made sure he had his full attention. “The day danger emerges from the distance will be the day, I’m sure, you wouldn’t want to be one pistol short.”
Dismissing the man, Grayson stepped back and jerked his head to the others. Carrying what they found, a pair of lead goblets suitable for melting down and a single pistol, they quickly resumed their journey.
Arthur Bulger’s estate did not quite lie in ruins, but had an air of abandonment to it. Hedges grew wild, a carriage lay overturned, and several pieces of furniture dotted the long drive. Grayson nodded to several men, who veered off and set about removing anything useful from the carriage.
They rounded a bend in the driveway and came upon the decaying bodies of a half dozen men, all shot. Grayson didn’t recognize any of them, none were Bulger.
“Shot,” Wesley said softly, scanning the estate as they slowly made their way onto the manor proper.
“That is unusual,” Grayson agreed. “I expected them to be emaciated victims of plague. But then,” he added with an amused tone as they dismounted in the courtyard, “perhaps Bulger was in residence when those men tried to raid his home.” He looked to the manor and scanned the windows. “Perhaps he still is.”
Grayson held out hope his friend was still alive. The old man was a tough son of a bitch; tougher than any of them. And having a man like Bulger on his side might restore order faster. Wesley motioned to the remaining men to search the perimeter as he followed Grayson around the manor.
Rather than the crisp red of the British army, they wore dark pants and heavy greatcoats to ward against the cold. From this distance, even with a spyglass, he doubted Bulger would be able to tell friend from looter.
“Keep an eye on the windows,” Grayson ordered. “The Colonel isn’t known for warning shots.”
As they came to the rear of the house, a set of graves caught his attention. Not in the family plot, but along the side of a small stone fountain. The roughly cut wood was tied into a haphazard cross over a freshly dug grave.
Colonel Arthur Bulger one read and beside it Irene Payne Bulger.
“Damn,” Grayson hissed, his vague hopes for coming here harshly extinguished. Sadness and anger welled in him, roared in his ears to block out everything else. Forcing that rage under control, he shook his head to clear it, unable to afford such a lapse, no matter how momentary.
“I never expected it would get the old man,” he admitted.
Grayson saluted in respect to his former colonel, his mentor, and turned on his heel. Several of his men already attempted to push open the front doors with little progress.
“Barricaded,” Grayson muttered. He glanced back to the grave—how had Bulger and his wife been buried? Looking around the courtyard, he knew they’d find more bodies in the manor house.
With a final shout of triumph, they broke through. Darkness shrouded the inside and the stench of death and decay hung over the rooms. Musket balls punctured the walls, tapestries lay slashed on the floor, bits of broken china scattered over everything else.
He took a moment to adjust to the reek of death before walking through the house. Wesley followed him, as always his second shadow. In the library, once a dignified sanctuary of knowledge, pages from books fluttered in the wind of a broken window, half-boarded with cabinet doors. Utterly ransacked, Grayson didn’t think there was one undamaged book in the entire room.
“Bulger saved my ass once,” he said quietly. Partly in respect for the dead, partly because Grayson didn’t believe he was telling this to his friend. “I was a young lieutenant and we had just set out for Portsmouth.”
His lips twitched at the memory and he turned to an expectant Wesley. The reality of his situation crashed on him and he shrugged. “I can’t remember the details,” he lied, “but whatever it was I did, Bulger intervened and saved me from a whipping.”
“There’s his shako,” Wesley nodded, pointing to a shelf where the seemingly untouched military cap laid, badge gleaming dully in the light. “We can place the badge on his grave.”
“No.” Grayson’s harsh refute echoed in the room. Angry, not at Wesley for suggesting such a thing, but at himself for his momentary weakness, he spun on his heel and stalked out. “Check the eastern rooms,” he commanded Wesley. “I’ll be upstairs.”
He took the stairs two at a time, randomly opening doors along the long corridor. The first few held nothing, stripped bare of all comforts, looted for necessities and the rest left in ruins. But no further bodies.
Who was left? Who had attended Bulger and his wife? Who had barricaded the front doors?
At the end of the hallway stood a pair of double doors, leading, Grayson assumed, to Bulger’s suite. It would be just like his former colonel to hide weapons, powder, and shot in his private chambers, especially once word of the riots reached the old man.
The first thing that struck him, when he opened the doors, was the heavier stench of death. Through a hazy sliver of sunlight that drifted through crooked curtains, he saw a man’s body on the bed. Grayson hesitated for a moment on the threshold.
Veering toward the windows, he yanked open the curtains hanging precariously on their rods. Weak afternoon sunlight lighted the room, angling across the bed. Grayson checked the man, but he was dead and recently. The body, swollen from the plague, had not yet begun to decay. A gentleman, by the looks of his clothing.
A relation of Bulger? As far as Grayson knew, the colonel had no sons, only two daughters also married to career army.
He didn’t know what made him look, what sound captured his attention, but he suddenly knew he was not alone. Cursing his carelessness, he drew his sword and looked around. There, on the opposite side of the bed, pushed against the wall.
She lay on a settee, head resting on one arm, dark hair falling down the side of the sofa. He glanced to the bed, to the man there, and wondered who the dead pair were. She looked to have survived the plague; her face and neck were thin and smooth. Died of neglect, then. The last living being in the house and she couldn’t summon the strength to feed herself.
His eyes locked on the rifle lying just under her reach. Sheathing his sword, it was then he noticed that powder marks blackened her hands and were smudged along her face and neck. He quickly scanned the area, a small bag of powder and a case of shot rested on a nearby chair.
Cautiously walking closer, Grayson crouched before the prone figure and surprised himself by reaching out to touch her. He stopped just short of her cheek, curling his fingers into a fist. He took a brief moment to admire her beauty.
Even in death, she captivated.
Standing, he picked up the rifle and backed away, turning to search the rest of the room before he’d take the powder and shot.
That was when he heard her moan.