Chapter 1

The country was more barren than she had anticipated; wet air, so thick lingering fog hit the tongue, tasted of dirt and bent grasses - the flavor of cold. Stinging winds changed direction, the bunching muscle of her horse altering course with it. In agreement with the steed, Arabella yelled out and pushed her stallion to race over unfamiliar ground. One misplaced hoof would break the horse's forelegs and most likely kill her, but both creatures needed the run.

The horse turned again. She gave him his head, allowing the beast to run where he would so long as the pace remained breakneck. No soul had crossed their path in the open; there was nothing but scrubs and crags, vast rocky moors, damp and dimmed.

A distant monolith struck from the fog. Arabella took control, signaling the beast to obey. Another sharp turn and they headed toward the jutting rocks. Hooves churned up heather, crushed slippery pasture. A sharp yell and she checked the beast, skidding to halt at the base of her target. Mamioro was left behind, Arabella hitting the earth with bare feet. Fingers and toes sought rocky handholds, the wild thing smirking at the welcome burn in her arm from the exertion of a climb.

While the beast chewed grass below, the outsider viewed the landscape she'd chosen for exile.

It had been a long time since she'd been so pleased.

Heel hard against his mount's flank, Mr. Harrow raced, so close to catching the streak of black that marred his land. It was the scream that drew him, a shout floating in the fog. That sound would cost the trespasser... for had the intruder been silent they might have even gone unnoticed. But now they had need to fear the one who pursued.

Another guttural whoop cut through damp air. Mr Harrow closed in, moving to the east where the fool veered far from the road.

No local would dare. No farmer, no merchant, no soul who knew him. None were welcome on what was his. Eyes narrowed to follow the bandit's movements. Mr. Harrow adeptly dodged bogs that concealed other intruder's corpses, all while sneering at the inconvenience, at the audacity.

Tugging the reign to the point his horse complained, he checked the beast and slowed so no clop of hooves betrayed his approach. The fool had gone to high ground, obviously lost and looking for landmarks or his band of brigands in the mist. A great horse, larger than his, the inky beast he'd followed stood riderless at the base of another pile of useless boulders. From his mount Harrow glanced up the precipice, finding the rider out of sight - leaving an animal without tack - the fine Arabian saddleless, and no doubt stolen. Wherever the rider had gone, did not matter. Not when, if Mr. Harrow worked quickly, the vagrant would be less a horse and he'd one richer.

With a length of rope gathered from his saddle, he dismounted, knotting the hemp. The animal grew hostile at approach, nostrils flared and ears laid back. After a chuff the stallion nickered and Harrow's horse shied. Pacing nearer, he raised the rope, and a few clicks of the tongue were offered.

The Arabian was having none of it.

The monster reared, front hooves tearing air. Harrow stilled, preparing to throw the lead once the beast ceases its temper.

"He is a killer. You would be wise to step away while you still can."

The hiss came from a thing crouched in the same drab grey of her surroundings, perched like a gargoyle above him.

"You." He caught the full measure of the woman, the curl of his lip far more threatening than her stamping horse. "Imp..."

Before the unwelcome gentleman could continue, Arabella slid down the rocks, graceless in her landing. Between a mess of loose, wind-tangled hair and the hood she'd tried to cover it with, snapped eyes far too sharp for a thing so poor.

She was no English lass, yet she stared at him as if he were the one out of place.

Mr. Harrow stepped closer, moving to grab her arm, yet did little more than reach before her stallion reared again, forcing him back.

She warned a second time, "If you continue your approach I cannot be responsible for his actions. He is an outright demon of a horse. Lower your rope and go."

"I will not."

The way he responded, the set of his jaw, Arabella was certain few would argue. Hubris or not, he frightened her. It wasn't simply the size of the man, nor was it the hard look in his eye; there was something more she did not like. Had she been alone, without her great beast, her voice would never have been so steady.

One crass leer, a look that said he could smell her hidden fear, matched his derision. "Who's household do you belong to, or are you simply a vagrant?"

The accusation brought a shadow of a smile to Arabella's lips. "I am not the one trying to steal a horse, Mr. Harrow."

Chin lifted, eyes narrowed, Harrow demanded, "How do you know me?"

Arabella ignored the question, shifting toward her stallion before the beast might trample the intruder into an early grave. Reaching out dirty fingers, she cooed, the stallion snorted, gave an agitated whinny, and stilled to the point it was uncanny. A blur of grey wool and she sat atop the beast like a queen on her throne.

No matter her cold looks, he knew why she had scaled the creature. She was anxious of his presence. It had been easy to make her so; all it took was one promising look, the same one he leveled at men who thought to insult him. He broke those men.

Black eyes glittered, the smallest of mean grins waiting. "Your name, red-haired wench?"

Smirking back in mock delight, Arabella said, "Imp was quite astute. You may call me that."

Fingers tangled in Mamioro's black mane; a simple shift of her thigh, and the stallion launched himself back into the wilds. Harrow watched her flee, rushing to his mount so he might give chase and punish her as he had intended.

Nothing had been gained in Harrow's hunt of horse and rider. The savage was still running free, an occasional distant streak across the horizon he could not catch. He pursued the brazen -haired harridan, only to turn his head and find her miles off - as if she were some specter capable of being in two places at once. It was that devil horse, the beast too swift and her careless riding that kept her from him. Unwilling to be so reckless, Harrow was not about to risk his stallion or his neck giving further chase. Like all fools who bounded through unknown lands, the woman with her dirty feet would find soon enough the savagery of the landscape would not tolerate her games; he need not even bother. The bogs would claim her... or she would lose the road and wander without food or water. Either way, she would learn. And if she didn't, if he found her again, she would learn another way.

Grinding his teeth at the hours lost and nothing gained, Mr. Harrow turned toward the direction of his initial goal, kicking his tired horse into a gallop. He was overdue to receive his new tenant - the complication another slight against the miscreant Imp.

Ambling up the pathway toward the long vacant Crescent Barrows, Harrow peered past neglected foliage to find a cart had arrived, as had a lanky figure, ancient and ramrod straight. The weathered, old gentleman seemed a good match for a crumbling manor tainted by rumors of ghosts - the White Woman - old tales both baseless and bland. The only thing one needed to fear within Crescent Barrows was what living men could do once solitude twisted the mind.

Clearing overgrown hedgerows he dismounted to greet the newest in tenants. "Good afternoon, Mr. Griggs."

Hollowed cheeks were sucked deeper before the old man began, "I am here to take governance of the property."

"Then by all means." Pulling a tangle of iron keys from his pocket, Mr. Harrow brushed past the man to unlock the main entry, the heavy door whining when pressed. "Let us enter."

Before the solicitor followed behind his host, the old man looked to a solitary servant calling, "Payne."

An African came from the cart, stoic as he followed the party inside.

The portal shut, little light filtering in to break up the darkness of the entry. Crescent Barrows was no country manor of extravagant rooms and fine gardens. It was a sturdy stone structure lacking more modern comforts, antiquated in its layout.

Beyond the narrow vestibule a great hall waited, the room's massive hearth infested with nests of eight legged residents. Ignoring the squalor, Harrow threw several logs into the jaw and lit a quick blaze, singeing webs and forcing the spiders to flee as the shadows retreated and heat worked to thaw the room.

Watching the old man survey shabby covered furniture and the threadbare ancient rug, Mr. Harrow spoke, "You have only the one servant? I shall send more to help unload your wagon."

Unsmiling, eyes deeply sunken into his face, Mr. Griggs answered, "That is unnecessary."

"As you wish." They were almost eye to eye, Mr. Griggs exceptionally tall and so slender it seemed unnatural; a sharp contrast to Harrow's unfashionable broadness. "Yet a room must be prepared for you at this late hour."

A top hat was placed upon the scant hair clinging to Mr. Griggs's skull. "I am merely acting as solicitor and cannot linger. The Baroness Iliffe is your tenant, sir..."

Dark brows drew together, Mr. Harrow's response low, "Yet the house is rented in your name, sir."

"Her ladyship is an extremely private woman." The skeletal man offered a warning. "Your reputation as a discrete gentleman of business and the fact this house... is difficult to let... were a good fit for her needs. She does not come to the country for socializing and has no interest in a reception from her neighbors. It is her desire her title remain unknown and she be left alone."

"And, what of the Baron Iliffe?"

A toneless answer. "Dead, three years past."

A grieving widow confining herself to the countryside... the very idea was repugnant. But not as infuriating as the fact nobility thought to dupe him. "And when will this grand lady arrive to take possession of the house?"

After a condescending glance at the squalor of the room, it was apparent in Solicitor Griggs's estimation the house stood ill-suited for imminent arrival. "Her ladyship does things in her own time."

As Harrow made to argue the solicitor left, offering little more than a stiff bow. Atop a sorrel gelding the old man rode out upon darkening moors, the stretched shadow moving like the boney finger toward the township of Harding.

I wrote this ages ago and thought it might be fun to clean up and share with you. Reviews would be very welcome!