The rain had let up by the time Euan and Sweeney threaded their way past Taunton. Occasional rays of sunlight now cracked through the rapidly-moving clouds to intensify both the green of the rolling pastures and the deep red of the rich, freshly-plowed earth. The lanes down which they sped grew narrower and narrower, criss-crossing at occasional clusters of gray or white or red farm housesnarrower still over the old bracken-crowded stone bridges spanning the numerous low and changeable streams that alternately lapped and frothed their ways north to where the Mouth of the Severn emptied out into the North Atlantic.
At a signpost marked "Monksilver" Euan veered left and barrelled into a winding lane barely wider than the car, sunk down between ten-foot-high hedgerows that seemed to go on forever.
"How much farther to Quincombe, Euan?" asked Sweeney, trying without much success to massage a cramp out of his right shoulder blade.
"Just a mile or two. Well get you sorted out. Theres a lane coming up to the left that runs by the cottage, but I think Ill take you through the village. We can pick up the other end of the lane up at the top there. Wont take long."
"Jesus, Im stiff as a board. When we stop I wouldnt mind taking a walk if there were someplace dry to wander... and where I wouldnt get run over." He narrowed his eyes at the gangly man behind the wheel and pushed out his moustache.
"As to dry, I can take care of you from your shins down, at any rate. There are about a dozen pairs of wellington boots at the cottage. Ones bound to fit you. And as to where to walk, there are some rather intriguing walks I can point out for you through the pastures around the manor and up into the game preserve. And the roads arent as dangerous as you might think."
Sweeney shot him a skeptical look. Hed always felt more at home in paved, crowded cities than out in the country. All that fresh air and quiet was all right for a while. But usually sooner rather than later he hungered for the reassuring urban hum in his ears again. It was that hum, and not the twittering of country birds, that made him want to reach for his fiddle. And as he toyed with the thought, he figured an hour spent sending tunes scampering off his strings would probably loosen him up more thoroughly than would a walk through the underbrush.
"No, youll see," Euan was rattling on. "When we get to the village, it opens up a bit. Then the road is relatively wide as it follows the stream up past the manor house. Really quite safe. Actually, youll want to acquaint yourself with it right off, since itll be your fastest way back and forth to the village if youre on foot."
"What about at night?" mused Sweeney. "Theres not a street lamp within thirty miles of here. Ill bet its blackern the ace of spades after dark."
"Youd be surprised," said Euan. "Live out here long enough and your eyes adjust. Some say its the cider. Hasnt been a pedestrian run down in Quincombe in, oh, five years at least. And that was some deranged German tourist that old Walter ran over in his Deux Chevaux. Served them right, the pair of them. Oh, heres the end of that lane I told you about. Goes past the cottage."
He pointed as they sped past a tiny, unmarked turning through the hedgerow. Sweeney glimpsed a hillside well-wooded with white birch and oak sloping gently upward beyond.
"So you only come down on weekends? Pretty nice setup for a working boy. I wouldnt mind having a house in the country."
"My mother left me the cottage. I come and go. I let a couple of old pals live there as a favor for a while... Big Pete and Trevor... you might meet em at the pub if theyre not on a delivery run. Hardly the ideal tenants. Damn near burned the place down. Since then I keep it empty. It is a little remote, away from the rest of the village. Suits me fine as a rule, since most of the locals can be very tiresome. They generally dont bother with the lane. If anyone fell down and cracked his skull open out there, it might be days before somebody happened by and found him."