Fire, alcohol, and you. Could you do anything more stupid?
Grant Benton, future Lord Crowle, glared at the dog. It really hadn’t been Dandy, the very ugly collie, who’d spoken. No, the irritating voice of his madness merely pretended to be speaking via the family dog. It didn’t matter. Grant did as he always did: he ignored the voice and the idea that he was insane.
Who goes first? asked Harry, the future Earl of Boudon. Coin toss?
Grant nodded as the young man pulled a guinea out of the pile of coins on a nearby rock. It was the stakes of the bet, and Grant could feel his hands itch at the idea that soon this small mound would be his. Unlike these toffs, he needed the money. Meanwhile, the boy expertly flipped the coin into the air. Grant called and won. Then he gestured graciously at the young Harry. I shall allow you the first attempt, he said softly.
Yes, do let’s burn the guests to a cinder. I’m sure your sister will be very pleased.
It was for his sister that he was doing this mad escapade. She’d just gotten married this morning, to a man more than twice her age. She did it for the money. Thanks to their idiotic father and grandfather, the earldom was nearly broke. Gambles like this were the only way Grant could pay for the festivities.
The bet was simple: who could blow the longest and greatest plume of fire. The prize was enough money to pay for half his sister’s wedding, which had just occurred some ten hours before. The judges were all young bucksfriends of Harrywho had added their coins to the pot. And as the mound of guineas grew, Grant felt his luck settle thick and hard about his shoulders.
That’s gas. You have a rather noxious belch.
Harry stepped into the cleared area beside the Crowle family barn. It was a big building next to an open pasture. The main purpose in coming here was for safety. He had a couple buckets of water handy and would make sure there would be no lasting damage to the rather handsome Harry.
You can’t control fire.
Calculated risk then. Plus, destiny and luck.
Farts and bad breath.
Grant shot a glare at the confused dog, who whimpered in anxiety. It’s perfectly safe, he said, patting Dandy’s head. Then he took a discreet sip of brandy from his flask. He wasn’t quite as drunk as he pretended, but he was certainly more topped than ever before when doing a fire-breathing stunt. But bloody hell, he kept seeing his sister’s face when she said, I do. She was terrified of her future, and damn it, it shouldn’t have happened.
He swallowed another hefty slug, feeling the brandy burn like fire in his belly. Damned father. Irresponsible ass. And where was the idiot on this day when his only daughter sold herself for money? Gone with the Earl of Willington on some fool errand. Gambling, most likely. Especially since his father had promised him quite clearly that he’d get all the money sorted right and tight.
Sure he will. And a fairy is about to drop a fistful of magic beans in his pocket too.
Grant snorted, for once in agreement with his madness. But then he sobered. With his father off doing whatever ridiculous thing, Grant was the one left to find a way to pay for the festivities.
Come on now, cried Grant, egging on the suddenly nervous Harry. Good on him, Grant thought. The boy had a brain. Tell you what, he offered. You don’t need to do it at all, you know. Just forfeit the purse to me, and you won’t need to set fire to your handsome mug.
Nice try, but your luck doesn’t run that way. Thought you’d learned that by now.
Grant didn’t respond, even in the privacy of his own thoughts, because he could see the future earl was considering the possibility. Harry was hesitating despite the derisive sneers of his friends. Meanwhile, Grant waved negligently with his fake bottle of brandy. In truth, it held a tiny bit of brandy mixed with a fat load of lantern oil.
I’ll still do it, he offered. And you can judge if the show is good enough for the purse. That was the safest bet all around. He knew what he was doing. He’d spent more than a month training with a gypsy to learn the trick.
Here’s the thing: if you pick stupid young men to be your marks, you can’t really expect them to be smart, can you?
Just as his madness predicted, Harry gave in to the pressure from his friends. They egged the boy on, and in the way of all privileged bucksespecially the drunk onesHarry thought he could do something just because he was talented and rich.
I’ll do it! Harry said as he puffed up his chest. Seen it at a fair just last week. Spent a time talking to the gypsy about it.
Of course he had. That was the exact same gypsy who had taught Grant. And the man who had suggested Harry as the mark.
Then do it! bellowed his friends.
The dogthe real dogreleased a long-suffering sigh. Rather disconcerting that. Meanwhile, one of Harry’s friends lit a torch, but Grant nabbed it. Last thing he needed was two burnt, rich lordlings. He marked the direction of the breeze and made sure to stand well upwind from the soon-to-be-without-eyebrows Harry.
Ready? Grant asked.
Harry nodded, his eyes huge as he filled his mouth with brandy. Then while Grant held the torch out, Harry leaned forward and tried to mist out his mouthful of brandy.
It didn’t work. Or rather, it worked very badly. The mouthful of brandy came out more as a huge watery glob. The splat hit the torch then boom! Fireball! The heat flattened Grant’s face, pressing on it like a hot blanket, but he had been prepared. He’d wet his face and slicked back his hair. Harry hadn’t done either. And as the man stumbled forward, trying to extend his short glob of brandy, the fire had crackled into his hair. The boy reared back, but too late.
Then Grant was there, a drenched towel in his free hand. With a flick of his wrist, it wrapped halfway around Harry’s face. Another roll of his elbow and wrist, and the man’s entire face was turbaned.
Gahck! Harry exclaimed, his hands pressing drunkenly about his head.
Hold still. Make sure everything’s out.
Harry quieted, while Grant spared a glance to his friends. Every young buck was standing there with eyes wide in horror.
It’s cold, came Harry’s muffled voice.
Grant judged it time for the unveiling. Stand still. Let me get this off you. And so he did, taking his time for the maximum effect. After all, the towel had been sopping wet, straight from the bucket. Certainly it had doused the fire, but it had also shed water onto Harry’s coat, waistcoat, and cravatall of which were now drooping and wet. Then he unveiled Harry’s poor face.
Red and ragged. His cheeks, nose, and mouth were red from the heat, and his hair had been burned to a jagged mess. But what was more ridiculous were his eyebrows: all gone except for two dark smudges on the farthest sides of his face. He looked like a lumpy potato with two tufts of greenery pushing out beside his eyes. He blinked as he emerged, looking to his friends for reassurance in the way of all young bucks.
And his friends collapsed in laughter.
Are you all idiots and fools? A loud voice interrupted. His brother. Bloody hell.
Exactly what I was saying. You, farts, and your brother. All explosive.
Grant spun around to face Will, but he still held the wet towel in one hand and the torch in the other. A bit hard to appear innocent in that position. Still, he tried.
Will! What are you doing here?
Are you trying to burn yourselves alive?
Grant grimaced. His brother was four years younger than Grant’s twenty-six years, but ten times more of a killjoy. Once the boy had worshipped him, but time and bad parenting had changed that. Three years ago, Will had been forced to return home from school because of a lack of money for tuition.
Grant, who had been older, also left his education, but for London where their father introduced him to gambling, wenching, and all sorts of fun ways to lose money. Will, on the other hand, had returned home to become what he was: the best damn steward in England. The man actually loved the land he tended and showed all the signs of becoming as sour a Yorkshire man as possible.
Why would you do this? Will demanded, grabbing the torch and tossing it into the waiting bucket of water. Diane is trying to impress her new husband’s family, not burn them alive. What if you set fire to the hay? The woods are not that far away! Or the house! Try to behave like a decent gentleman for one bloody day!
Tick tick tick It was his madness’s way of indicating that Grant was moments away from doing something foolish. Sadly, his madness was correct.
Grant felt his hackles rise. He never took well to being scolded in the first place, but to have this dressing down in front of Harry and his friends was beyond ridiculous. Especially since there had been no risk, and Grant knew exactly what he was doing. He was paying for their sister’s wedding!
Will, it’s perfectly safe
The hell it is! Now get out of hereall of you. And go find father. He’s been missing for hours, and I don’t like it.
Grant struggled to hold on to his temper. With him and Father in London most of the time, Will had gotten used to giving orders. He’d forgotten that he was the second son, and not the bloody heir.
I will do as I please, he said softly, on the lands that I will inherit.
His madness got louder. Tick! Tick! Tick!
As a drunken fool trying to burn everything to the ground? By all means then, kill us all.
Grant clenched his hands tight. He would not punch his brother. The God’s truth was that both of them were half drunk and spoiling for a fight. It had killed them to watch Diane sacrifice herself in marriage. But neither of them had the wherewithal to offer her another option. They couldn’t frank a Season for her. They couldn’t even tell her to go find a man she loved because the only man she’d fancied had been the third son of a nearby squire. A sweet enough boy to be sure, but nowhere near her station, even as an impoverished daughter of an earl.
So Grant and Will had watched in twisting agony as she had said, I do, and now, they were both dealing with their failures in the only way they knew how. Will became pompous and angry before stomping off to brood in his beloved woods. Grant was drinking and gambling. But at least he did it with a good purpose in mind: that nice pile of coins that Harry was inching toward.
Hold on there! Grant cried as Harry started to pick up his purse. We’re not done with the bet yet!
It was Will who stomped forward. You bloody well are!
They couldn’t be. Because if Grant didn’t breathe firefor whatever reasonthen Harry would be declared the winner. Grant would lose the winnings plus his stake in the pot, something he could not afford to lose. He had to win this bet! But first he had to get rid of his interfering, sour pot of a brother.
Go on, Will. Go glare at the creek like you always do. I’ll stay here and see to things.
See to things? his brother snorted. By being a drunken ass?
I’m pretending! Grant wanted to scream. Well, he was mostly pretending. But that didn’t matter. I am entertaining our guests, he ground out. Then, before his brother could say anything else, Grant held up his hand. I swear upon my honor that I will not blow fire out here.
That produced a hoot of delight as Harry gleefully held aloft the pot of coins. I win! I win!
Go Will, Grant practically hissed at his brother. Just go.
Will hovered for a moment, clearly not trusting his older brother. But in the end, he grunted and stomped away. Grant watched him retreat for a bit, knowing with a silent curse that the man would hover. He would be out of sight, but he’d keep a wary eye out just in case Grant went back on his word. Well, the devil with that! He grabbed Harry’s wrist, stopping the man from dividing coins with his friends. We are not done yet, he said in a low voice.
Harry frowned. But you promised. Swore on your honor. You can’t go back on that.
Around him, all his friends nodded dumbly in agreement.
Grant all but rolled his eyes. I swore I wouldn’t breathe fire out here. Didn’t say anything about somewhere else. He looked hastily around, trying to think of the safest place. It had to be an open area away from people, but still out of sight of his brother in the woods. The barn, he quickly said. I can do it inside the barn.
Inside the barn? echoed Harry. Isn’t that rather dangerous?
It would be if he hadn’t been trained. If he hadn’t practiced until his face and mouth were raw and blistered. But the threshing was done. There was enough open space, not much straw on the floor, and he would be careful where he blew. In some ways, it would be safer inside because there was no wind.
I can do it, he said. Follow me in there, or forfeit the coins if you’re too afraid.
Ha! the boy chortled. You won’t do any better than I did. I had a good pop there, didn’t I?
His friends all agreed that indeed, Harry blew a rather good ball of flame. Grant actually smiled. They hadn’t seen anything yet.
Then let’s get inside. He made an elaborate gesture toward the front of the barn. If Will were watching, he’d see them amble toward the house. Then they’d duck at the last moment to the front of the barn and slip inside.
It went exactly as planned. They slipped inside the dairy parlor where six cows remained. There had once been twenty here, but most had been sold to pay their father’s debts. The last one had gone for the wedding, but this bet would go a long way to buying it back. There were horses here too. Their guests’ animals, stored temporarilyabout a dozen, stalled quietly without even a whinny to bother the cows.
Meanwhile, they climbed to the threshing floor. As expected, there was barely an inch of straw on the floor. Most of the hay was in the loft above. Grant lit a lantern. Fortunately, he knew where candles were kept. It wasn’t as safe as the torch, but it would serve well enough. He had practiced with both.
The boys arranged themselves with a variety of jeers, cheers, and drunken giggles. No one had come bellowing after them to ruin the fun, so they were getting a little bolder in their ribald comments. The only one who seemed worried was Dandy, as the dog dropped onto his haunches and stared mournfully at Grant.
It’ll be all right, old boy, Grant said. So long as he kept his hands steady and his wits about him. He debated taking another swig from his flaskif only to steady the thumping of his heartbut realized what he was about to do would require attention. So he chose the prudent course and tucked the real flask away. Then he made a show of picking up his fake flask. That was what he needed now: a jolly good show.
It’s harder, you know, with candles, he said loudly. I might just blow them out. True enough. So if I do just as good a show as Harry there, I get the win because this is harder.
No, no! hooted Harry’s friends. We’re judging the beauty of the fire, old boy. Not Harry’s fault your brother soaked the torch.
Grant grimaced. It was a delicate line handling a drunken bet. Push too hard, and the judges would declare Harry the winner just because they could.
Fine. Length and beauty of the stream, he said. Longer fire, prettier fire.
He gathered a fistful of candles in his hand. He’d likely burn his hand from hot wax, but he counted it a necessary sacrifice. And with every blister, he’d damn his interfering brother for the pain.
Harry stepped forward and lit the four candles Grant clutched in his fist. Good long wicks, thank God, so the flames rose high. Time to burn! he thought somewhat gleefully, despite Dandy’s whimper of anxiety.
Grant gestured for Harry to back away. The last thing he’d need was an amateur getting in his way. Then he took a big mouthful of lantern oil. Hideous taste, but he was used to it by now. Then he took a lungful of air, held the candles aloft at the right distance, and misted the oil.
Perfect! The oil fluted just right. The candle flames touched the mist and the flume of fire appeared. Glorious! He’d never done better!
Ka-boom! whispered his madness.
No ka-boom. A steady plume of flame that kept growing and growing. And growing. What the hell?
Dust. Bloody hell, the dust! This was a threshing floor. The problem wasn’t the few bits of wheat left on the threshing floor. Well, that wasn’t the problem at first. First, it was the damned dust in the air. So fine that he hadn’t even noticed it. After all, it was a barn. That’s what barns smelled like. But it was in the air, and it was flammable.
He watched in slowly dawning horror as his plume of fire grew, sparking and firing randomly in an expanding cone that fell steadily to the floor. Oil would have extinguished in the air before chest level because he’d aimed upward. But not when the dust motes caught fire and kept catching fire. All the way down to the floor where a thin layer of straw sparked immediately.
He gasped and started stomping it out. Then he reached for the bucket of water that he always kept nearby. The bloody bucket of water that was still outside with the torch in it.
He stomped on the flames, but it was too late. Hot wax splattered on his hands as he jerked the candles out, but it was a useless act. The fire spread lightning fast. He was still uselessly stomping on the nearest bits when the whole floor burst into flame.
The boys screamed. Harry managed to strip off his jacket and beat at the flames near Grant, but the fire was too big and was rapidly growing too hot.
Out! Out! Grant bellowed.
Grimly, Harry nodded, the dismay clear in his red face. Then they both rushed for the door. It was only then that he heard the frightening lowing of the cattle downstairs. The cattle! His family couldn’t lose the cattle! It would ruin them for sure! Then he heard the horses scream, and he remembered all that expensive horseflesh down there as well.
He had to get the barn doors open. And then he had to herd the animals out. Harry was already ahead, slamming a smaller side door open. Grant pivoted, aiming for the main doors. Behind him he heard the roar of the flameloud and horrifying.
It took all his strength to haul the doors open. He shoved them wide, the rush of cool air a relief even as it gave the fire more life. What had been loud became a screaming inferno.
Where were the cows? The beasts were too stupid to run out. They had to be huddling together and would have to be herded out. Bloody hell, he couldn’t see! The flames were crackling and popping everywhere, and the smoke was so thick, his every breath burned.
He stepped forward and nearly trippedon what, he hadn’t a clue. Yes, he did. It was Dandy, the dog. The herding dog!
He whistled twicetwo long, sharp notesall he could manage in the thickening smoke. It meant it was time to get the cows to pasture. Dandy was off in a wink with Grant stumbling after him. Inside. Into the roaring flame.
He wasn’t thinking about dying. He was thinking of his brother’s face when Will found out he’d burned down the barn. It was manageable if it was just the barn. But they couldn’t lose the cattle. They couldn’t!
So he stumbled inside, coughing and gasping as he tried to find the cows. But the horses were nearest. He ran to the closest stall and slapped the thing to get it moving. Not as dumb as a cow, he decided, because the thing reared, but then ran.
He kept going, one stall after another. Then he found the cows. He didn’t so much find them as fall on top of one. Thankfully, the dog had started to do the work, barking and biting to get the stupid things moving. With Dandy’s help, Grant cursed and kicked and shoved until every one of the dumb creatures ran out through the flames.
Was that six? Had he gotten them all? What about the horses? Were there more? Grant couldn’t tell. He couldn’t breathe, and he sure as hell couldn’t see. His skin felt like it was crackling, and he stumbled forward. Everything was ablaze. Where was the door?
All that straw in the hayloft, all the wood, everything was ablaze and falling down around him. He picked a direction and rushed forward, but he couldn’t make it. He tripped again and dropped to his knees. He had to crawl. Which way?
Something grabbed his wrist. He blinked, sweat and soot in his eyes. Dandy? It was the dog, tugging him forward. That way? Must be.
Trust the dog. When all else fails, trust the dog. He’s much smarter than you.
He did. With Dandy leading the way, Grant crawled out of the barn. He was safe. The cows were safe.
The barn collapsed behind him.
I stand corrected, his madness drawled. Lots of luck here tonight. And all of it bad.