Word Count 1144
The Best Laid Plans
The horse was one he did not know, a big gelding with a tough mouth, and disinclined to listen. Kit had gone to speak and meet him, to blow in his face, before mounting. But he did not get a greeting bunt, or sneeze, or nuzzle. The horse rolled a white eye at him, and shifted his feet. Now Kit's hands slipped, sweaty on the reins. His arms ached. His back itched. Two hours more to go. The empty trees and land made his stomach upset. At least in the city there were people nearby, who might not be friends, were perhaps not enemies-- yet. And, too, it bothered him obscurely that he had not had to bring apples for the horse.
Kit got to the place in the slanting light of the dusty afternoon. There was an alehouse overlooking the cornfield. It was by the trade road. He would not be remarked. He took a bench by the back door, sent for cider, drank half, he pulled his hat over his eyes and dozed a little. The meeting was to be at 10. It would be in the open, in a cornfield. Crouching in the open was horridly exposed, but there was reason to it. No one could creep up unseen at least. Still he felt clenched all over. He had paid for a room. He was not planning to use it.
At last the moon rose, low on the horizon, peeking through a tangle of blackthorn that marked the wild edge of the town. What light there was was not black but the deepest lovely blue, peculiar only to summer. Kit had changed and washed. The air was soft against his face. He had only to receive the package and it would all be over.
It might be over over for some time at least, that was the best he could hope for. But at least this task would not be crouching, just off-stage in his thoughts. In Kit's dreams was the dark worm of Francis Walsingham, rooms that smelled of old mens secrets, the implacable black eyes of the Queen. And all somehow tangled with the splash of rain, and the clean of the river, the golden laughing love of Thomas, which was not to be his, for so many reasons. In his dreams, the secrets, the guilt, the anger. Not in the day. Nor the night. Work.
9:30 now. He settled himself to the dirt of the corn meadow to wait. Pressed to the ground he was one more shadow. He would hear and see the footsteps before they got close.
He let his breathing slow. He felt the living earth beneath him. The church bell shuddered over his skin. 10 o clock. The man was late. He let his heartbeats count some time, a long time. He raised his head to look.
“Tsss” It could be birdsong or insect, except it was not. “Tsstsst,” there again. A man hiss-whispering through his teeth. The man was in the shadow of the blackthorn hedge.
The man was supposed to come into the middle, the open. They were to have received the same instructions. Something was not right, and not right was wrong, and you could never just walk away from wrong. Not with this. With this you had to go and find out. Kit rolled to the shadows and stood up.
“I bring fresh fish to sell,” Kit said. He said it quietly. Confident of response. He was a hand-span too far back for the knife intended for his belly. He had a a blurred glimpse of a white face, black hole of the mouth open, Kit came forward hard, pushing the knife aside, forcing the hand to open or break.
The knife fell. Kit heard it fall. He kicked hard and sharp at the man's knee. The man went down, Kit was on him.
“Supposed to ask for herring. Knave.” Kit felt the his own voice come, alien, remote. The eyes above Kit's hand were white with fear now. Kit could feel the grinding of the bones in the broken knee beneath his own leg.
The man twisted his head sharp to the side, free of Kit”s hand for only a moment. He reached into his own mouth before Kit could stop him.
“Who art thou?” Kit asked, he was still sprawled atop the man, the damaged knee grinding against his own. He was trying to be quiet. He had his own dagger to the knave's throat. The man seemed unaware of it. He gave wheezing laugh. His eyes were strange, the pupils juddering. Not drunk, but something like it that Kit did not know. His mouth formed the soundless words, his teeth were bleeding.
“Too late,” he said.
And Kit did hear the footfall too late, and the merciless squeezing thing that came around his throat, the crushing lifting him up and away, Kit's scrabbling fingers and kicking feet made no difference. As the dark lightning came to take him to death, he thought the man beneath him was dead too.
“There now, sit easy, let me see to this. I did not expect to see thee. No-- let me look, Kit.”
“I'm not hurt.”
“I doubt you know what you are. How much of the ride here do you actually remember?”
The pains came alive, as Kit spoke then, out of the cold and distance, his skin waking and flinching, with memory and heat all at once, as Thomas worked with the water and salve.
“When I awoke it was dawn. All was empty. As if it never happened,” Kit's voice was a sore croak. “I was in the shadow of the hedge.”
“Clearly, it happened. Lift thy chin”
“There,” Thomas put the bowl aside. “That will heal. Don't pick at it. I can do nothing about the line around thy throat. That was made with a strong cord. He meant to kill thee Kit.”
Kit moved his cheek hesitantly. Thomas had applied soft squares of bandage, affixed to his face honey, not painful after all, but strange. He found himself reflecting that 'Don't pick at it,' did not sound like advice for or from a bold intelligencer. Thomas has put the bowl aside, and stood before the fire now. The window behind them was darkened by drawn curtains, the trickle of light reduced Thomas to a shadow-shape.
“He meant to kill thee,” Thomas said again. “Oh, Kit.” He lurched the step forward and folded down all at once like a man struck by lightning. His head was in Kit's lap.
And Kit did have the courage or strength to say 'what about Audrey.' He just sat and rested his hands in the soft golden hair.