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Voices murmured in staccato German behind a heavy door, the sound nearly inaudible through the waltz tune reverberating from the nearby ballroom. "Cannot permit ... treachery ... look like an accident ... what about the Russian ... French ... tell..."
A frustrated listener pressed an ear against the keyhole, straining to hear that rapid conversation. Vienna was crawling with spies. Who did these two work for? Had they engineered the disappearance of that officer last week? Footsteps suddenly echoed from around the corner, raising panic. To be caught at all meant failure. To be caught here could mean death. Fingers grasped a hidden knife, their tension belying the listener's assumed nonchalance.
But it was only Jack.
Suddenly the hall dissolved into twilight, the listener now a searcher, frantically crisscrossing the battlefield after Waterloo. Images rose in stark horror--shattered bodies, burning gun carriages, mud--all permeated by the eternal smell of smoke and gunpowder. He had to be here somewhere. Trembling hands turned over an officer wearing a familiar green uniform. Dear God, it was Andy. And over there was Robin; poor Robin who had always been so cheerful, even during that hellish march across the Pyrenees when altitude sickness nearly drove them mad.... The grim search continued. Another body, and another. Repeated shock deadened all sensation. A shattered leg, a severed head, pools of blood, carnage, death....
Jack pinned under a horse....
Amanda awoke screaming, shaking so hard it was a wonder the bed did not shatter. Both hands covered her mouth, trying to force back the sobs. That had been a bad one.
Burthad warned her against searching for the body herself. She should have listened to him. A year later she still dreamed of that day. Jack. Her husband. Dead.
She said the word deliberately, repeating it aloud. The finality of the sound woke her fully, dragging her from the half-slumber in which she had still been trapped.
Her senses pricked to attention even as her body froze. No wonder the nightmare had returned after an absence of a month. Smoke teased at her nostrils--not the faint scent of cooking fires that permeated this run-down wing of the inn, but wood smoke. And it was thickening even as she identified it.
Throwing on her gown, she grabbed the valise she had not bothered to open when she'd fallen, exhausted, into bed immediately after dinner. A peek around the door verified that the hallway was still clear of flames.
"Fire!" she shouted, running to the end of the corridor, banging on doors as she went. Turning to retrace her steps to the stairs, she repeated the call. "Fire! Fire!"
Surely she was not the first to awaken. She could hear the crackling flames now, loud above the wails of those that she had disturbed. The noise increased as she approached the central block of the inn. Merchants and farmers were crowding behind her, pushing and shoving in their frenzy to escape. But the more important guests were housed in the second wing, the one that now burned.
"Has anyone roused the others?" she shouted as the innkeeper stumbled into view and began organizing his servants to fight the blaze.
"Too dangerous," he replied shortly.
And on the first floor that was probably true, she conceded. The fire had apparently started on the ground floor and had already roared into the rooms above. There was movement there. But the arrogance that was nearly universal among the aristocracy would prevent them from alerting their servants. Racing up to the second floor, she repeated her call, banging on doors to awaken whoever might be ensconced there. Having done all she could inside, she escaped into the yard.
People were huddled near the stables, some in shock, others cursing the innkeeper--as though he were at fault for disturbing their sleep--and the rest milling uselessly about. She had witnessed similar scenes after sudden, violent action too many times to bear remembering.
"Are any of you local?" she demanded, unconsciously employing the same brisk tone with which Jack had always kept his troops in line.
A boy nodded.
"Is there a doctor nearby?"
He nodded again.
"Good. Fetch him.." The lad turned and ran into the darkness.
"You, sir," Amanda next addressed the most intelligent-looking of the nervous men.
He glanced at her in surprise.
"Yes, you. You seem capable. Form the uninjured into groups and prevent the fire from spreading."
He glanced where she was pointing. There was a gap between the burning wing and the stables. The grooms were already throwing water on the thatching under the direction of the ostler, but there were not enough of them to stop the blaze. His back straightened. "Right."
She had judged well, she reflected as she turned to the others. He was already forming bucket brigades. She had not dared suggest that the landlord needed help to save the second wing. Guests would hardly be agreeable to entering the inn again, but the relative safety of the stableyard would keep them occupied.
The wounded were already in evidence, though those with serious injuries had not yet escaped. Would she never be free of death?
Sparing a moment to reflect on how familiar it all was, she set to work. Within minutes she had settled the injured as far from the fire as possible. Ripping up the petticoat that was in the valise she still carried, she ordered one of the inn's maids to get what supplies she could from the portion of the old wing that was still intact. It would not be much, of course. Pray God the doctor would arrive soon.