A sound like a low-voiced groan brought her out of her fine reverie of vengeance. Surely it was impossible, a man’s voice within the convent enclosure, but it was a voice nonetheless. Thea was almost certain. She was fluent in English, Spanish, and French, but this sound was none of them.
“Hola!” she ventured nervously. No use trying English here; the English were enemies again, since the Bourbon king Carlos had signed the treaty of Fontainebleau with Bonaparte. It might be a French soldier—the thought made her shiver; she had heard stories about the French troops marching through Spain. If it was one such, her borrowed habit would be little protection from him. This complicity with the French had been another of her uncle Tomas’s reasons, there at the inn at Burgos: too dangerous to have a niece, even a half-Spanish one, with an English surname and wheat-blond hair, as part of his household. “Quien es?” she tried again.
There was no sound this time, but a faint rustling in the brush by the ditch. Dorothea considered probabilities. A child from the village, looking for berries; a goat, foraging; a Bonapartist spy; a Fernandista, lost in the northern wilds and come to enlist the aid of the nuns in the Prince’s cause….
“Fustian,” she said aloud. “Fairytales.” She turned around again, away from the culvert. At her first step the sound began again, faintly, a soft sporadic moaning that faded into the reedy sound of the wind through the brush. Someone has hurt an animal, Thea thought indignantly, and she moved toward the sound again. As she edged closer to the culvert Thea pulled the skirts of her habit closer, a foolish gesture which, unaccountably, made her feel safer. Carefully, so as not to startle it, whatever it was, she peered over the edge, into the underbrush, and found herself staring at the ragged, filthy body of a man.
Her first thought, after her astonishment, was that he was the most handsome man she had ever seen, a hero from the pages of the novels of which Silvy so deeply disapproved. Not a bright, fair-haired hero; this man was dark, brooding, with black hair tumbled over his high, dirty forehead; he had a long nose and a shapely mouth, a narrow, determined chin. Certainly, she thought, if he opened his eyes, they would be black and filled with secret sorrows.
“Owwrch.” The man was shivering convulsively. That was what made the brush rustle so.
Heedless of the danger in attending a lone man here, out of sight of the convent, and quite careless of the damage to her habit, Thea clambered into the ditch and knelt beside the man. He did not have the look of a peasant, nor even that of a Spaniard. His clothes were rough, dirty, and torn; about him, there was an almost unbearable smell of sweat, sickness, and a trace of stale drink. Her first thought was that he was drunk, but she remembered too well from her father how a man deep in his cups smelled, how he acted; there was something much worse than drink to blame for the stranger’s stupor. Tentatively, she reached to touch his forehead.
“Angel.” She drew her hand back, startled. “Can’ be angel. Not f’ me. Wunnever bleeve it.” His eyes had opened quite suddenly. They were blue, not black, and hazy with fever. “Are you an angel or not?” he demanded quite clearly—and in English. Then he gave a convulsive shudder and fell back again.
“Sir?” She shook him gently, but there was no response. “Sir? Diós,” she muttered to herself. He was English; her heart had lifted momentarily at the sound of those few crisp, deep-voiced words. Here was a gentleman, whatever his dress. Thea was appalled by the stench when she leaned close; his forehead was burning hot, and, when she brushed the hair back, she was sickened by the sight of a deep gash smeared with blood and obviously infected. “My God.”
What to do? Tell Mother Beatriz? Or simply fetch Manuel Ortiz, the man who was porter for the nuns, and have him bring the man up to the convent? He was as English as she herself was; she could hardly permit him to stay in the village where he might be discovered by the authorities. However, Mother Beatriz would fret, worry about the danger to the House, and by the time she made a decision, the stranger could well be dead.
“Sir?” she tried again.
Her voice or touch roused him a little. He opened his eyes and really seemed to see her this time. “Adele?” He was squinting; Thea realized that she must be framed against the sunlight, her face indiscernible. “Not Adele,” he added with a feverish chuckle. “Nor an angel either, but closer. Lo siento, hermana. Estoy enfermo.” His accent was dreadful.
“Can you walk? Please, sir, I can take you to the convent, if you can walk.”
“English? Must be an angel after all.” He peered up at her face, grimacing as he shifted positions to see her better. “Go away, little Sister. Dangerous companions….” He closed his eyes and seemed to be drifting toward unconsciousness again.
“Sir?” There was desperation in Thea’s voice. “Please, sir, can you stand up?”
The stranger’s eyes opened again, unseeing. “Adele?” he asked again. “Bitch,” he said, and he fainted dead away.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books