The Malorie Phoenix

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Dawn brought rain and the slow caving in of the stable block. Benedict gestured to his tenants, all of them filthy and staggering with weariness, that the line of buckets was no longer needed. Hours ago they knew the stable was lost, and their efforts were to control the fire from spreading to the surrounding outbuildings and haystacks. He could barely speak; the acrid smoke had reduced his voice to a croak. The air was still heavy with the scent of charred wood tinged with an undertone of roasted meat.

His one remaining horse, a two-year-old colt, stood shivering in the paddock. Benedict took off his regimental coat, ruined by smoke and burning embers, and laid it over the animal’s back.

“Poor little Billy,” he whispered.

Little Billy, the last of the Malorie stud.

He turned away from the living creature in the paddock and contemplated the sickening horror of the ruined stable.

Figures moved over the smoking wreckage. He should join them. He should… There were so many things to do, although he wasn’t quite sure what they were. What was becoming more certain was that all the responsibility was his.

A group of men clustered together, and a blackened beam rose into the air to stand briefly erect before falling aside. The men stood silent, heads bent. One of them leaned to pluck something from the ashes, and straightened up, shaking one hand. Burned.

A gust of wet wind blew smoke in his direction and when it cleared he saw a woman approach. People had come to him all night, asking after sons and husbands, the stable hands. He didn’t know. They’d all know soon enough. Who was this one, though? She was wrapped in a hooded cloak and as she came closer the cloak blew aside revealing a bundle in her arms; an infant.

“Sir.” Her voice was hoarse, her eyes huge and bright with fever, lips chapped and bleeding. The effort of speaking made her cough and drop to her knees.

“Who are you?” He put out a hand to help her, but she thrust the bundled infant at him. “Take her. Take the child.”

“You’re ill,” he said, shocked at her pallor and the feverish flush on her sharp cheekbones. She was more than ill; she looked as though she might die. “You must—”

“Take her. Her name is Sarah.”

His arms closed around the bundle as she pushed herself from the ground and turned away.

“Wait!”

“Sir?” Ned Thompson, his stableman was at his side. “We found…we found two bodies, badly burned. You’d best come and look, sir.”

“Two bodies?” He stared at Thompson. “My cousin. Has he returned?”

“We don’t know, sir. What’s that you have, sir?”

“A child. The woman who was here just now—did you see her? Where did she go?”

Thompson shook his head. The woman had disappeared as easily as a wisp of smoke.

He looked again at the bundle in his arms. A very small child, not more than a few weeks old, he thought, comparing it to others he’d seen in the village. Dark eyelashes rested on rosy cheeks, and as he watched, the minute eyebrows raised, and the pink lips smacked. An ember floated onto the child’s skin, and he raised his hand to brush it off, leaving a dirty smear behind.

Its eyes opened wide and blue. Her eyes. Her name is Sarah, the woman had said. The infant’s mouth opened too, and she gave a tentative sort of squawk like a hen disturbed on its nest.

Birds started their dawn chorus as though this was just another spring day, their songs muted by the rain. To Benedict the music held little joy, none of its usual appeal.

“My lord?”

Benedict resisted the urge to turn and see whom the stableman addressed.

My lord.

Those two words told him all he he had dreaded throughout this long night of fighting the fire.

The new Earl of Trevisan moved forward to identify the dead, his daughter in his arms. As he did so one of the child’s coverings unwrapped and his breath caught—blood?

But he looked more closely and saw a great flawed ruby sewn onto the infant’s dress in a spiderweb of stitches.

The Malorie Phoenix had returned.

 

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