The villagers told Richard that only Norna knew where the brigands were keeping Cynthia. They also told him that if he looked directly at Norna he would be turned to stone. Ordinarily Richard had no time for village superstitions. Unfortunately, his time was running out. So were his options.
Norna was an old woman, reputed to be a witch, who lived by herself in a cottage in the woods. She supported herself by spinning yarn. None of the villagers in Wodensdale knew Norna. They only knew that she had always lived there. She seemed to know everything.
One of the villagers gave Richard an old, ornate hand mirror and the advice, “If you look at Norna’s reflection in this you will be safe, Sir.”
“Many thanks,” Richard said. “How can I find Norna’s cottage?”
“On the other side of Lord de Boinville’s manor you will find a path seldom trodden on. Follow that.”
The de Boinville’s manor house was an Elizabethan mansion built on the ruins of a medieval csstle. It had seen better days.
Richard did as advised, walking through a wooded area that looked as though it had never been cleared. When he finally saw a cottage that looked as old as the woods he knocked on the door, and turned around, looking at the door through the mirror. “Who is it who knocks?” came the sound of an old woman’s voice.
“I am Richard Crawford. I teach at the village school. I live in the vicarage with Vicar Wedgewood.”
“Why do you disturb me at this time?”
A canting crew of seven brigands has kidnapped Cynthia de Boinville. The villagers have told me you might know where they are keeping her.”
Norna opened the door. Through the mirror she looked timeless. “Wait for Eric Smallwood to pay the ransom,” she said.” That is safer.”
“He got the ransom note yesterday. Lord Johnnie is the upright man of the brigands. He demanded over half of Eric’s patrimony. When Eric read that he got drunk in the village inn. He left Wodensdale this morning.”
“Why do you care about Cynthia? She is not your betrothed.”
“She loves me and I love her. We were going to elope, get married, and move to Canada. Then we learned that the de Boinville estate is badly in debt. If the family loses the estate, the villagers will be evicted. Their forefathers have lived here for centuries. They know no other way of life. I know what it is like to work in a mill. Eric Smallwood’s father owns coal mines. He offered to pay off the debts.”
“The brigands are keeping Cynthia at the top of Thunors Pike,” Norna said, naming the small mountain that overlooked Wodensdale. “The brigands will violate her in three days if the ransom is not paid. Lord Johnnie will go first. Then the others will enjoy her. She just turned twenty. That will be a bad wedding night for her. Then they will kill her.”
“You make me so angry I want to run to the top of Thunors Pike right now,” Richard said.
“You will not benefit Cynthia by getting killed.” Norna advised. “The Duke of Wellington did not defeat Napoleon by frontal assaults. Lord Johnnie has already bested you in a fist fight. You must use surprise. Follow the creek that goes through Wodensdale. It has its source near the top of Thunors Pike. Where it goes into the mountain, the brigands have their camp. Attack at dawn when they are asleep, but you can see.”
Norna went back into her cottage and came out with a dagger. “Take this,” she said giving it to Richard. “It is a good stabbing knife. It is a good throwing knife.”
Richard walked back to Wodensdale, and entered his room in the Vicarage.
Lord Johnnie had no pity for Cynthia. He got his name because he looked aristocratic. Nevertheless, he hated all aristocrats, especially his father. His father forced his mother when she was his servant girl. When Lord Johnnie’s mother got pregnant, his father fired her to please his wife. He never did anything to help Lord Johnnie and his mother.
Lord Johnnie admired the French Revolution. He wanted something like that in England. He wanted to watch his father die on the guillotine.
At the camp of the canting crew Lord Johnnie gathered the brigands. “If Eric Smallwood pays the ransom we will be rich,” he told them. “If he will not pay, we need to keep a guard at the camp every night. We also need to make sure Cynthia does not escape.”
“Who would attack us?” one of the brigands asked.
“He could not rescue Cynthia.”
“No,” Lord Johnnie said, “But he would try. I respect him. After we fought, I found him walking through the woods alone. We talked. Before Richard was born his father was killed keeping his mother from being raped. Two swells were out on the night in search of intrigues. They came into the shop owned by Richard’s father, and grabbed his mother. Richard’s father killed one. The other killed Richard’s father. He was knocked out by an Army veteran who lived upstairs.
“Because the swell who killed Richard’s father was the son of a lord he got off with a caning.
“When Richard was eighteen he challenged the man who killed his father to a duel. He killed him. Because Richard was not a lord, he was sentenced to hang. But the judge was a fair man. Because he knew about what had happened to Richard’s father, he commuted the death sentence to clemency in return for Richard joining the Army to fight Napoleon.
“After distinguishing himself in battle Richard was given a battlefield commission to lieutenant. Then in a battle in Spain, Richard’s captain ordered Richard to kill three French prisoners. Two were enlisted men. One was an officer. The order was of course illegal. Richard could tell that his captain would kill the prisoners if he did not. He took the prisoners over a hill, where the captain could not see. With his two double barreled pistols he fired three times into the ground. Then he said to the French soldiers, ‘Go back to your lines.’
“The French officer asked Richard, ‘What is your name Lieutenant?’
“‘Richard Crawford. Why do you ask?”
“‘I would like to thank you some day.’
“‘When you are shooting at us again, aim poorly.’
“‘You are a credit to the British Army, ‘ the French officer said. He gave Richard a French gold coin. The three French soldiers left. But one of them got a grenade, and threw it into a hospital tent killing several wounded British soldiers. When he was killed, Richard’s captain denied telling Richard to kill the prisoners. He said Richard’s orders were to take the prisoners to join other French prisoners. The gold coin in Richard’s pocket was considered proof of his guilt.
“For the second time in his life, Richard was waiting to be hanged. Instead he was flogged and drummed out of the Army. Richard went to London, and got a job in a mill. Vicar Wedgewood, who had baptized Richard, and married his parents, found him there, and offered him a position teaching at the village school.
“I have fought in the prize ring, but my fight with Richard was one of my toughest fights. I almost lost. I did not expect that. I am taller and heavier than he is. The cove does not look like much, but he knows how to handle his fists.
“I like Richard,” Lord Johnnie said, “He hates the swells like I do, but he loves Cynthia. I am afraid of him. He can harm us.”
In his room in the vicarage Richard cleaned and loaded his two double barreled pistols. He was sharpening his saber when there was a knock at his door. “Yes?” he asked.”
“Lord de Boinville wants to talk to you,” Vicar Wedgewood told him.
“Send his Lordship in,” Richard said.
Lord de Boinville had suffered polio as a boy. He entered, walking with a cane. Richard stood respectfully. “Eric Smallwood will not pay the ransom,” Lord de Boinville said.
Lord de Boinville looked at the weapons on Richard’s bed, realized what was happening, looked relieved, and said, “I do not deserve this after the way I treated you. You are a better man than I am.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I expect to be killed. If I do not try, Cynthia will die.”
“May I sit down?”
“Of course,” Richard said, getting him a chair. Richard sat on his bed.