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though hell should bar the way

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They’ve gone and made me into the villain of the tale. Depend on it, years from now, all they will remember when they think on me (if they think on me) is Tim, the half-mad ostler, standing in the way of true love. They’ll not remember that less than five years ago they knew me as Timothy, finest judge of horseflesh in three shires. They’ll not remember that less than five years ago I sat beside them in the taverns, sharing stories of beautiful women and the unlucky bastards they ensnared.

She did this to me, mind. Bess the landlord’s daughter, and that blasted love-knot in her black hair.

I’d not worked for her father (an ill-faced man, in truth; one who seemed not just twice, but thrice his daughter’s age) above three days when she made my acquaintance, sauntering up behind me as I lifted up yet another bale of hay in the inn’s stables. I didn’t hear her approach; the first hint I had of her presence was a cloud of dark hair and the smell of rose petals about her.

“At last, the elusive Timothy. I had almost begun to despair.” Beneath the hair, a pair of jet-black eyes and blood-red lips came into my view. I gaped, half-dazed. “My father speaks of little else.” She smiled at me. Her teeth were very small, and very white.

“Miss Elizabeth—“ I stammered. I could think of nothing else to say but her name, taste every lovely sentence on my tongue, even in the face of her father’s inevitable disapproval.

“Oh, please,” she purred. Her fingertips ghosted against my cheek. “Call me Bess.”

They’d not recognize me these days. When I first arrived in the courtyard of the inn, I stood tall and unbowed, eyes bright blue, my hair close-cropped and auburn. I could have had any woman in the countryside eager and willing for my kisses, caresses, and more. Now I am this gaunt apparition, eyes shadowed, hair unkempt.

Bess must have been satisfied to see it; her highwayman love even more so.

The first I knew of him was in the tavern. Davey from the farm whispered it to me over a pint, how Bess the landlord’s daughter whispered sweet nothings into the ear of a fine stranger.

“Nonsense,” I choked. “She’d never—she’s more good sense than to throw herself away on a penniless lout.”

Davey chuckled. “Hardly penniless. All lace and velvet and fine new boots. A girl would be a fool to pass anyone of his ilk up.”

My head spun, from more than the ale. “She wouldn’t,” was all I could think to say. “She wouldn’t.” Davey leaned towards me. “All right there, lad? You’ve looked peakish for a while, though I’ve not wanted to say it.”

I staggered to my feet. “She wouldn’t.”

“Have your way, Tim—“ Davey’s hands reached to steady me in vain. “She wouldn’t. She would’t.”

It wasn’t until later that night, when I had Bess in my arms in the barnloft, that my mind was set at peace. I looked into her dark eyes (fine dark eyes in the moonlight), and the story came tumbling out. “…and I wouldn’t blame you, I wouldn’t, if you chose him instead.” I gulped in a breath. “I swear I wouldn’t.”

She smiled at me: serene, angelic. “And why should I?” she whispered. “When I have you?”

She told me this, and I believed it. God help me, I believed her and my spirit soared as I held her closer, as her bright red lips dipped to my neck in the moonlight.

More stories. The highwayman had shot a battalion of honest soldiers in cold blood; the highwayman had robbed an orphanage; the highwayman had seduced and stolen his way into unforgivable infamy.

I told these stories to Bess, when I dared to crawl up to her room as her father dozed next door. She loved to hear them, and I, fool that I was, thought nothing of it that I could please her. I whispered them to her, more and more and more—atrocities against King and country and God Himself—and she smiled to herself as she plaited her long black hair.

That was her habit of long standing: to plunge her delicate pale fingers into the gleaming mass of her hair and weave the strands into obedience. She never looked at the mirror to do this; I expect she never needed to. She already knew she was beautiful, my Bess, and vanity was never one of her sins.

Therefore the looking-glass at her dressing table sat covered, all the days that I knew her.

It wasn’t until I spotted the highwayman below her window that I realized what a fool I had been. I betrayed him, and her, to the redcoats out of passion, true; but not the sort that everyone imagines.

Seeing him standing below her hair, as fine and well-kept as he was, stirred a memory free: of what I had been before I had come to her, and what I was now. He had everything I had lost, and her besides, and I hated him. I wanted him to suffer. I stand condemned, no better than he.

All the world knows what happened next: of how the redcoats came, how Bess nobly destroyed herself rather than let her highwayman die, how he died shot down on the very roads he terrorized.

Their hearts lie with the two lovers, away from he who caused them such grief.

But you who listen to my story with such patience: hear this, before you judge me.

I went to the landlord in the morning, to beg one last look at Bess from him. In life, I knew, I would never be so fortunate as to hear forgiveness from her lips; at least in death, I could imagine that she still nursed kinder sentiments towards me from whatever sweet heaven had welcomed.

The landlord goggled at me. “I don’t know where it is,” he said. “I don’t know where she is.”

I stared at him, aghast. “How—What sort of father are you?”

It was his turn to stare at me, puzzled. “I’m not her father”; and that was true, I realized. It had always been Bess, smiling Bess, who called herself the landlord’s daughter. The landlord, for his part, said nothing on the subject at all.

He looked at me, as though waking from a deep slumber; and I looked upon what I could have become, with time. The two of us run the inn together now, and from time to time, when we dare, we make inquiries.

The highwayman had indeed been shot down on the open road, left to die in a pool of his own blood, and likely moldered in an unmarked grave. At that I knelt to recite a prayer I no longer trusted, because perhaps—perhaps!—we were safe. But the landlord, that man who’d been at Bess’s mercy far longer than I, only shook his head. He knew better; I did not.

When the first tales of seeing a ghostly couple at the inn began to spread, I knew our days were numbered. She forgot little, Bess, and forgave even less; and her highwayman was of no less vindictive stock. They will come for me and exact their punishment. I can hope for nothing else.

I pen this now, my confession, before that day comes and hide it away; may someone read it and vindicate me. May someone read it and know to flee when they see those dark tresses tumbling down in the night, and the highwayman rising up to kiss them. May someone read it and find what beauty in these filthy details that they can.

Or perhaps it is, in truth, a love story. Perhaps I am the one who is wrong, after all. Out of all her victims, she chose the highwayman to join her for eternity. Of all men she had seen and used and sucked dry to the bones over her long years surviving, perhaps he was the only one who shared her imagination, the fire she thought long dead within herself. Or perhaps when she walked out alone onto the highways, dead and not-dead and always lonely, she saw him lying in the mud, all of him soaked crimson with blood except the fine lace at his throat, it was only that she could not resist. Perhaps, perhaps.