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Episode 57

Under a Harvest Moon

A harvest moon, red as a Rutland cheese, gave way to a bank of clouds drifting westward to throw the long, gentle slope of the hillside into darkness all the way down to the banks of the River Dee. A spring rain was coming, the air rich with the sweet, loamy scent of it. Wavering stalks of grass turned pewter in the light with the surrounding trees closing all around to form a frame of deepest indigo. The only sounds to be heard were the wind moving through the leaves and the distant tolling of the church bell down in Brigham marking the hour as two in the morning; the pair of sonorous bongs assuring all in this corner of Cumbria that England and the empire were at peace. The silence that closed in after the bells were stilled was broken by the occasional hoot of an owl echoing from deeper in the dense border of elm, oak and ash.

Well inside the shadows of the wood, her back against the bole of a century-old larch, Arabella Paget-Thorpe sat with her father’s double barrel punting gun across her knees. Ten feet from where she sat, Rahul Mushar was crouched, unmoving and unseen, his rifle slung over his shoulder. Both of them were listening for any misplaced sound from the long wold that fell away from the edge of the trees in which they’d waited concealed for the past four hours.

The hill below would be covered with grazing sheep come summer. Now it was dotted with rabbit warrens that would need to be cleared and filled before the herds were moved from their winter home at the north of the estate. That would be done by Hugh Mathers and his sons, the ghillies who watched over the meadows and forests and granite-bound valleys of Huntoun Manor. Hugh had served her uncle until his passing and now served her father, Archibald Paget-Thorpe, the sixth earl of Huntoun. There had been a Mathers in the same role since the time of the first earl in the days of Queen Anne.

By normal custom, it would have been the Mathers brood who dealt with any poachers seeking to trap game on Huntoun land. Except that a gang of thieves had recently murdered a greenskeeper in the southern end of the county. The old retainer was found in a ditch with his throat slit and pockets cut. The killing threw the traditionally peaceful countryside into a withering panic. This was a place that had not seen violence since the days of Cromwell.

Rather than risk the lives of any of the clan Mathers, Arabella’s father had determined that this was work more suited to a soldier. He requested that Rahul, his Gurkha subedar from their days on the Northwestern Frontier, take up a post to guard over the Huntoun holdings. Her father would certainly not have approved his daughter accompanying the wily warrior on his manhunt. That’s why she waited the past three nights, until her father was deeply involved in his studies, before climbing down the trellis outside her bedroom window to join the subedar, the big-bore Boyd and Taylor twin-barrel in the crook of her arm.

Rahul Mushar knew better than to try and dissuade the girl. Neither he nor her father could keep Arabella from her adventures. Not even in the wild hills of the Punjab, haunted by vicious Pathans and bandit tribes. The earl long ago gave up the notion that he exerted any degree of control over his headstrong daughter. Perhaps if there had been a feminine influence about. Sadly, that was not to be as Arabella’s mother had died in childbirth leaving her to be raised in a world of men with a remote military cantonment for a nursery.

She spoke Pushtu and Hindi like a native, rode like a Cossack and shot either pistol or rifle as well as any man in the colonial company her father commanded. Now, just turned twenty, she was Lady Huntoun, daughter of an earl and long overdue to enter polite society and marry well among the peerage. But her interests lay elsewhere. Such as stalking villains with a shotgun in her hands alongside the black-eyed Nepalese manhunter she looked upon as a second father.

Arabella looked out over the benighted landscape with a sense of renewed wonder that this land, as far as she could see in any direction, belonged to her father. Unlike the arid, unforgiving mountains of the Kush, Huntoun Manor and its surrounding holdings were a verdant fairyland of plowed fields neatly ringed by walls, rolling pastures and deep glades; dotted here and there with thatch-roofed homes centuries old. It all took time to grow accustomed to and she was not yet fully acclimated to having a title nor the responsibilities that came with it.

In truth, this was never meant to be her life. Her uncle, Randolph Paget-Thorpe, the fifth earl of Huntoun, was only a year older than her father. It was anticipated that he would reign here for many years and pass the title to his son and heir, Emmett Paget-Thorpe. Her father fully expected to serve the crown until resigning his commission as colonel of the army and retire to a lodge he’d had built in the foothills of Hyderabad. And Arabella intended to remain by his side.

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