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Chapter 1

May, 1794

Sovay rode out early while the dew was still wet on the grass. The grooms had not risen when she stole from the stables, and thin layers of mist wound themselves round her horse’s legs like skeins of discarded muslin as she crossed the bridge over the lake. Once she was away from the house, she spurred her horse to a gallop, crouched close to his neck as she took the old green road through the forest and up onto the common. There, she took up station at the cross roads, positioning herself in a grove of young birch, ready for the London coach, certain that he would be on it. Then she would expose him for the lecherous, double dealing, false hearted, craven little whoreson villain that she now knew him to be. 

They were engaged and he had betrayed her with a chamber maid. Even the thought of him filled her with shaking fury.

‘Not the first he’s ruined, neither,’ her maid, Lydia, had told her, giving her a look. With no mother, and only an invalid aunt to advise her, Lydia had taken some aspects of Sovay’s moral guidance upon herself. Well, she needn’t worry on that score. Sovay had not been that much of a fool. Not quite.

Her anger was mixed with a restless impatience. Where was the coach? She wanted this over. Her horse sensed something of her agitation and stamped and pawed, his shoes ringing on the stony ground. She patted his neck and whispered in his ear to quieten him.  The air was full of the sweet musky scent of broom and gorse. When gorse is out of bloom, love is out of favour. She remembered her mother telling her that. It must have been a long time ago. She plucked a sprig of yellow broom and fixed it to the brim of her brother’s hat, her mind going back to the revenge she would have. She would make him beg, she would make him crawl and plead for his life. If he failed the test she was about to set for him, she would shoot him dead.

The crack of a driver’s whip, his shouts and curses, the crunch of wheels and the labouring snort of horses broke into her thought. She spied through a veil of shifting leaves. There was no other traffic in any direction. She pulled down the black mask that she’d worn at last winter’s Masked Ball and pulled up a green silk kerchief to hide the lower half of her face. The coach creaked almost to a halt at the crest of the rise, the horses sweating after the steep hill. As the driver drew back his whip to urge them onward, Sovay drew her pistols and walked her horse forward.

‘Stand and deliver!’

Her words were whipped away by the wind, swallowed by the great open space of the common. She repeated her demand, making her voice deeper, more commanding, and the guard raised his hands into the air while the driver reined the horses in and lowered his whip. Her heart beat harder when she saw that they obeyed her. She kept one pistol upon them and used the other to rap on the door of the carriage.

‘Out. All of you out!’

Two passengers alighted: James, looking pale and frightened, and with him another young man. He was well set, with a fresh, ruddy complexion, a little above her brother’s age, about four and twenty. He was in no hurry to get down from the coach and seemed neither worried nor discomforted by this interruption to his journey and his self assurance unnerved her. Sovay trained her pistol on him as she ordered the two to part with their valuables and place them in the saddle bag that she threw down to them.

While James sprang to follow her instructions, the other one showed more reluctance, but soon she had divested both of their watches and their gold.

‘Still I want one thing more,’ she said, addressing James. ‘That diamond ring that I see you wear. Hand it over and your life I will spare.’

She could feel her hand shaking when before it had been steady. This was the test she had set for him. The ring had been given as an expression of true love in an exchange of tokens. He had sworn to die rather than part with it. If he gave it to her, then all the doubts she harboured, all the stories that she had heard about him, were true. James did not hesitate, he was struggling to free the ring from his finger, spitting on his hand to work the band loose. She changed her aim and her hand shook no more. She didn’t need to make James beg and crawl. He was doing that of his own accord. He had fallen to his knees, squeezing tears from eyes shut tight in prayer, his clasped hands shaking in supplication.

‘Hold your fire, highwayman,’ the fair young man said as she pulled back the hammer.

He took the ring from James and brought the bag over to her, slinging it in front of her saddle. She holstered one of her pistols and he dropped the ring into her our stretched hand. The stone flashed in the sun.

‘He has given you everything,’ the other young man looked up at her. ‘What more could you want from him? Small hands for a highwayman,’ he added and smiled as if he knew her secret.

He was quick. He read her intention in an instant. His eyes still on her, he threw up her arm as she squeezed the trigger. James screamed but the shot missed. The horses reared and shied in their traces so the driver had to struggle to stop them from breaking away and the coach from overturning. Sovay used the confusion to make her escape. She had business back at the house.

Excerpted from SOVAY © Copyright 2011 by Celia Rees. Reprinted with permission by Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books

by by Celia Rees

  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
  • ISBN-10: 1599902036
  • ISBN-13: 9781599902036