From The Horseman's Word:

PROLOGUE

Gramercy Park, New York City, 1863

Lee had just won a decisive victory at Chancellorsville, and reports swirled that the Confederate Army that was marching up the Shenandoah Valley would succeed in invading the North this time. Anxious families along the Susquehanna had already begun to bury the family silver and board their windows. Those that could abandoned their homes and fled with what valuables they could carry. The fear had begun to spread even as far as New York City - along with the tales of desperate renegades and looters. But the man who slid beneath the ancient lion-headed pilasters that supported shelves of priceless leatherbound volumes was no common looter. Oh, he was renegade enough, with his tawny hair, and quick smile, and green eyes that could go from calculating to beguiling in an instant. But if he snatched treasure, it would be from the jaws of a giant snake in the teeth of the priests of Baal. If he stole, it would be only the ill-gotten gains of fat landowners and excise men.

No, Rose corrected herself sharply, as she struggled to control the gun she held in her shaking hands. Lane Fallon was no such thing. He was nothing but the worst sort of common criminal - a traitor and a coward.

He studied her, his eyes hooded with calculation as they moved to the silver dueling pistol that was said to have belonged to Charles II himself. "Would you do it?" he asked curiously. "Would you truly shoot me?"

"Why should I not? The police have come to hang you. They say you're a Confederate spy," she said.

"I am not," he said.

Her mouth twisted angrily as she looked at the chest he carried, taking no pains to disguise the fact that he had just pried it open. It was an ancient casket, beaten out of ancient bronze, chased with curious figures of horses - some of them bird-headed. "Just an ordinary thief and profiteer then?"

He shook his head. "I never lied to you, Roisin. Not about who or what I was, nor about anything else."

Roisin. My sweet Roisin Dubh. My dark Rosaleen.

Despite her resolve, the soft syllables brought memory wafting like the sweet scent of spring air. A pleasure garden on the wooded banks of the East River. Women squealed in gondolas that swung from a massive wooden scaffold. A wheelbarrow race was in full force; a daredevil walked a tightrope high above the fairgoers heads.

All of them as much of a cheat and illusion as the tales Fallon had spun of Tir Na nOg, the legendary Irish land beyond the Western Sea. No, she believed Lane Fallon had not lied to her. But like the Fair Folk that were supposed to inhabit those hollow hills: he might never lie, but he was incapable of telling the truth.

"Don't call me that. My name is Rose."

"You will always be Roisin to me. My dark Rosaleen. The one woman who could have made me a better man."

"Do you even know what such a thing is?"

"Oh, no, that was cruel. You were never cruel to me, Roisin." Rose thought she heard a genuine note of hurt in Fallon's voice.

No, Rose wanted to hear a note of hurt - wanted him to be as hurt and confused as she was now. But what cause was there for confusion? She had known Lane Fallon for what he really was for almost a week now. She simply had not wanted to believe it. But she had heard the words clearly, and there could be no doubting their meaning - despite the thick brogue of the man who was whispering them in the shelter of a copse in Jones's Wood.

"You have seen the chest for yourself? Are satisfied with the price I offer?" the Irishman asked.

"The price is as you promised," Fallon said. "And so a debt is owed. A debt will be paid."

Yes, she had seen him for what he truly was a week ago in Jones's Wood, and yet the glamor of fancying herself in love with him had made her doubt her own ears.

Now the police had come to hang him. And she was the only one who could stop them. She drew a deep breath, considering her options. In one hand she held the fate of Lane Fallon, liar, traitor - and her own first, true love; in the other, the fate of New York City - or even quite possibly that of the Union itself.

She weighed them in the balance, and made up her mind.

"Go," she said, waving the pistol awkwardly toward the long windows that opened out into the back garden - and the unguarded mews beyond. "They did not think to post guards along the back way."

He raised an eyebrow, as he studied her. Then his face softened. "Ah, my sweet Roisin. Beneath that sweet face, you have the spirt of Grainne Ni Mhaille, the Pirate Queen herself."

"My name is Rose," she said. "Now, put down the chest and go."

But he made no move to do as she said. "Alas, I fear I cannot."

"Why?" she demanded. She glanced incredulously at the treasure he still clutched. "Will you not relinquish the chest? Does it truly mean so much to you? They are here to hang you, do you understand, you fool? Can a piece of filthy lucre really be worth your life?"

For a moment, his face grew as wistful as her heart. Then his jaw set, and he reached under his coat and pulled out a battered volume she immediately recognized as her father's confidential memorandum book. But Fallon simply ignored her outraged gasp and handed it to her. "A piece of lucre may not be worth my life, but other things are." His face hardened with determination. "You say you want to help me? Then I will tell you how you can best do that. Not by saving my sorry skin. Rather, you need to go to Jones's Wood and find a man named Sammy Nunn. Tell him to give this to Sullivan - in the name of the Society of the Horseman's Word. And with them, give him a message from me. Tell him a debt is owed; a debt will be paid. But I cannot fulfill it in the way he would have me. The Society must see to its own. It would seem Fate has decreed another path for me."

It cost her only a moment's hesitation before she tucked the book in her sleeve. "And you?"

He raised a shoulder with a nonchalance she was certain he was feigning. "I will face the fate many would say I so richly deserve," he said with a shrug, then his face softened once more. "My sweet Roisin, you would do me the favor of saving my worthless neck, but I would ask another favor instead. Give me one last kiss before we part, my love, Roisin. One last kiss as a token you will not hate me when you remember me."

And without waiting for her answer, he kissed her - softly, sweetly, in a way that she knew, despite the myriad logical objections that warred within her, would ruin her for ever being kissed by any other man.

Then he calmly threw open the doors to the library and stepped out into the grand entrance gallery lined with priceless artifacts that had been snatched from around the globe: Chinese urns, Babylonian weapons, Assyrian griffins and Grecian stelae - a conquering king's ransom.

At the foot of the grand staircase, a pair of anxious policemen stood dwarfed by the massive statues - or maybe they were dwarfed by her father's towering rage. For there were few that would not be. Jonathan Adair was an imposing man - one who had collected the world's treasures as if it were a tribute from a score of vassal countries, and expected no less obedience from a pair of constables whose yearly salary would not have paid for the coat on Adair's back.

His fury only redoubled when he saw the chest in Fallon's hands. "Unhand that!" he snarled.

But Fallon ignored him and addressed himself to the constables instead. "Gentlemen, I fear you are laboring under a dreadful misapprehension. I am given to understand that you are here to hang me as a Confederate spy," he said. "I assure you that I am no such thing. I am in fact an English spy. And if I am to be hanged for that, so be it. But let us at least have our charges correct."

Roisin gasped. The constables shuffled. "No more words!" Jonathan Adair snapped. "You know your duty! Seize him!"

Grateful for the instruction, the policemen lunged, but Fallon stepped back easily. "Have a care, gentlemen! There is a little matter we must clear up first. For this casket contains the most dangerous weapon this war will ever see. And I need to deliver it personally to General John E. Wool, Commander of the Eastern District before my neck is to be broken."

Robert Adair went puce. "That chest is mine! Bought and paid for..."

"With the blood of starving Irishmen," Lane said, his eyes and voice suddenly cold. He turned back to the constables. "And that is why General Wool needs to see it - before more men die. For I promise you, it is a weapon powerful enough to control nothing less than the fate of the Union."

The policemen - most likely Irishmen themselves - shuffled again, torn between displeasing a rich man and a fear of the Confederate Army that was said to be drawing ever closer.

"Come, come, gentlemen," Lane said, his voice suddenly as soft and persuasive as when he had cajoled Rose to accompany him to Jones's Wood. "Surely there can be no risk here. I am not denying that I am a spy and a traitor - willing enough to go along quietly to the scaffold. All I ask is that you clap me in irons in one of the forts in New York Harbor instead of in the Tombs. How could such a thing possibly hurt? You have my complete assurance that an Army gallows can hang me as thoroughly as a police gallows ever will."

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird