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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
“No change. I’ve just put fresh water in the hand bath.” A few drops gleamed on the sides of the small pewter kettle on the brazier, freshly filled.
I nodded and put a hand on his arm in thanks. It was startlingly solid and warm after the imaginations of the last hour, and somehow comforting.
“I’d like to stay with him alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. I’ll go to the chapel—or should I stay near in case…” His voice trailed off, hesitant.
“No.” I tried to smile reassuringly. “Go to the chapel. Or better yet, go to bed. I can’t sleep; I’ll stay here ’til morning. If I need help, I’ll send for you.”
Still dubious, he glanced back at the bed. But it was very late, and he was tired; there were shadows under the kind brown eyes.
The heavy door squeaked on its hinges, and I was alone with Jamie. Alone and afraid, and very, very doubtful about what I proposed to do.
I stood at the foot of the bed, watching him for a moment. The room was dimly lit by the glow of the brazier and by two enormous candlesticks, each nearly three feet tall, that stood on the table at the side of the room. He was naked, and the faint light seemed to accentuate the hollows left by the wasting fever. The multicolored bruise over the ribs stained the skin like a spreading fungus.
A dying man takes on a faint greenish tinge. At first just a touch at the edge of the jaw, this pallor spreads gradually, over the face and down the chest as the force of life begins to ebb. I had seen it many times. A few times, I had seen that deadly progress arrested and reversed, the skin flush with blood once more, and the man live. More often…I shook myself vigorously and turned away.
I brought my hand out of the folds of my robe and laid on the table the objects I had collected in a surreptitious visit to Brother Ambrose’s darkened workshop. A vial of spirits of ammonia. A packet of dried lavender. Another of valerian. A small metal incense burner, shaped like an open blossom. Two pellets of opium, sweet scented and sticky with resin. And a knife.
The room was close and stuffy with smoke from the brazier. The only window was covered with a heavy tapestry, one showing the execution of Saint Sebastian. I eyed the saint’s upturned face and arrow-punctured torso, wondering afresh at the mentality of the person who had chosen this particular decoration for a sickroom.
Indifferently rendered as it was, the tapestry was of heavy silk and wool, and excluded all but the strongest drafts. I lifted the lower edge and flapped it, urging the charcoal smoke out through the stone arch. The cold, damp air that streamed in was refreshing, and did something to calm the throbbing that had started in my temples as I stared into the reflecting water, remembering.
There was a faint moan behind me, and Jamie stirred in the draft. Good. He was not deeply unconscious, then.
Letting the tapestry fall back over the window, I next took up the incense burner. I fixed one of the opium pellets on the spike and lighted it with one of the wax tapers for the candlesticks. I placed it on the small table near Jamie’s head, careful not to inhale the sickly fumes myself.
There was not much time. I must finish my preparations quickly, before the opium smoke drove him too far under to be roused.
I unlaced the front of my robe and rubbed my body quickly with handfuls of the lavender and valerian. It was a pleasant, spicy smell, distinctive and richly evocative. A smell that, to me, conjured the shade of the man who wore its perfume, and the shade of the man behind him; shades that evoked confusing images of present terror and lost love. A smell that, to Jamie, must recall the hours of pain and rage spent wrapped in its waves. I rubbed the last of it vigorously between my palms and dropped the fragrant shreds on the floor.
With a deep breath for courage, I picked up the vial of ammoniacal spirits. I stood by the bed a moment holding it, looking down at the gaunt, stubbled face. At most he might last a day; at the least, only a few more hours.
“All right, you bloody Scottish bastard,” I said softly. “Let’s see how stubborn you really are.” I lifted the injured hand, dripping, from the water and set the soaking dish aside.
I opened the vial and waved it closely under his nose. He snorted and tried to turn his head away, but didn’t open his eyes. I dug my fingers into the hair on the back of his head to prevent his turning away, and brought the vial back to his face. He shook his head slowly, swinging it from side to side like an ox roused from slumber, and his eyes came open just a crack.
“Not done yet, Fraser,” I whispered in his ear, trying as best I could to catch the rhythm of Randall’s clipped consonants.
Jamie moaned and hunched his shoulders. I grasped him by both shoulders and shook him roughly. His skin was so hot I nearly let go.
“Wake up, you Scottish bastard! I’m not done with you yet!” He began to struggle up onto his elbows with a pitiful effort at obedience that nearly broke my heart. His head was still shaking back and forth, and the cracked lips were muttering something that sounded like “please not yet” over and over again.
Strength failing, he rolled to one side and collapsed facedown on the pillow again. The room was beginning to fill with opium smoke and I felt mildly dizzy.
I gritted my teeth and plunged my hand between his buttocks, gripping one curving round. He screamed, a high breathy sound, and rolled painfully sideways, curling into a ball with his hands clasped between his legs.
I had spent the hour in my chamber, hovering over my pool of reflection, conjuring memories. Of Black Jack Randall and of Frank, his six-times-great-grandson. Such very different men, but with such startling physical similarities.
It tore me to think of Frank, to recall his face and voice, his mannerisms, his style of lovemaking. I had tried to obliterate him from my mind, once my choice was made in the circle of stone, but he was always there, a shadowy figure in the recesses of my mind.
I felt sick with betrayal of him, but in the extremity I had forced my mind to clear as Geilie had shown me, concentrating on the flame of the candle, breathing the astringency of the herbs, calming myself until I could bring him from the shadows, see the lines of his face, feel once more the touch of his hand without weeping.
There was another man in the shadows, with the same hands, the same face. Eyes filled with the candle flame, I had brought him forward, too, listening, watching, seeing the likenesses and the differences, building a—a what? A simulacrum, a persona, an impression, a masquerade. A shaded face, a whispered voice, and a loving touch that I might bring to deceive a mind adrift in delirium. And I left my chamber at last, with a prayer for the soul of the witch Geillis Duncan.
Jamie was on his back now, writhing slightly against the pain of his wounds. His eyes were fixed and staring, with no sign of recognition.
I caressed him in the way I knew so well, tracing the line of his ribs from breastbone to back, lightly as Frank would have done, pressing hard on the aching bruise, as I was sure the other would have. I leaned forward and ran my tongue slowly around his ear, tasting and probing, and whispered, “Fight me! Fight back, you filthy scut!”
His muscles tightened and his jaw clenched, but he continued to stare upward. No choice, then. I would have to use the knife after all. I knew the risk I was taking in this, but better to kill him myself, I thought, than to sit quietly by and let him die.
I took the knife from the table and drew it firmly across his chest, along the path of the freshly healed scar. He gasped with the shock of it, and arched his back. Seizing a towel, I scrubbed it briskly over the wound. Before I could falter, I forced myself to run my fingers over his chest, scooping up a gout of blood which I rubbed savagely over his lips. There was one phrase that I didn’t have to invent, having heard it myself. Bending low over him, I whispered, “Now kiss me.”
I was not at all prepared for it. He hurled me half across the room as he came up off the bed. I staggered and fell against the table, making the giant candlesticks sway. The shadows darted and swung as the wicks flared and went out.
The edge of the table had struck me hard across the back, but I recovered in time to dodge away as he lunged for me. With an inarticulate growl, he came after me, hands outstretched.
He was both faster and stronger than I expected, though he staggered awkwardly, bumping into things. He cornered me for a moment between the brazier and the table, and I could hear his breath rasping harshly in his throat as he grabbed for me. He smashed his left hand toward my face; had his strength and reflexes been anything like normal, the blow would have killed me. Instead, I jerked to one side, and his fist glanced off my forehead, knocking me to the floor, mildly stunned.
I crawled under the table. Reaching for me, he lost his balance and fell against the brazier. Glowing coals scattered across the stone floor of the chamber. He howled as his knee crunched heavily into a patch of hot coal. I seized a pillow from the bed and beat out a smoldering nest of sparks in the trailing bedcover. Preoccupied with this, I didn’t notice his approach, until a solid clout across the head knocked me sprawling.
The cot overturned as I tried to pull myself up with a hand on the frame. I lay sheltering behind it for a moment, trying to get my senses back. I could hear Jamie hunting me in the semidarkness, breath rasping between incoherent phrases of Gaelic cursing. Suddenly he caught sight of me and flung himself over the bed, eyes mad in the dim light.
It is difficult to describe in detail what happened next, if only because everything happened a number of times, and the times all overlap in my memory. It seems as though Jamie’s burning hands closed on my neck only once, but that once went on forever. In fact, it happened dozens of times. Each time I managed to break his grip and throw him off, to retreat once more, dodging and ducking around the wrecked furniture. And once again he would follow, a man pulled by rage from the edge of death, swearing and sobbing, staggering and flailing wildly.
Deprived of the sheltering brazier, the coals died quickly, leaving the room black as pitch and peopled with demons. In the last flickers of light, I saw him crouched against the wall, maned in fire and mantled in blood, penis stiff against the matted hair of his belly, eyes blue murder in a skull-white face. A Viking berserker. Like the Northern devils who burst from their dragon-ships into the mists of the ancient Scottish coast, to kill and plunder and burn. Men who would kill with the last ounce of their strength. Who would use that last strength to rape and sow their violent seed in the bellies of the conquered. The tiny incense burner gave no light, but the sickly smell of opium clogged my lungs. Though the coals were out, I saw lights in the darkness, colored lights that floated at the edge of my vision.
Movement was becoming harder; I felt as though I were wading through water thigh-deep, pursued by monstrous fish. I lifted my knees high, running in slow motion, feeling the water splash against my face.
I shook off the dream, to realize that there was in fact wetness on my face and hands. Not tears, but blood, and the sweat of the nightmare creature I grappled with in the dark.
Sweat. There was something I should remember about sweat, but I couldn’t recall it. A hand tightened on my upper arm and I pulled away, a slick film left on my skin.
Around and around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. But something was wrong, it was the weasel chasing me, a weasel with sharp white teeth that pierced my forearm. I hit out at it and the teeth let go, but the claws…around and around the mulberry bush…
The demon had me up against the wall; I could feel stone behind my head and stone beneath my grasping fingers, and a stone-hard body pressing hard against me, bony knee between my own, stone and bone, between my own…legs, more stony hardness…ah. A softness amidst the hardness of life, pleasant coolness in the heat, comfort in the midst of woe…
We fell locked together to the floor, rolling over and over, tangled in the folds of the fallen tapestry, washed in the drafts of cold air from the window. The mists of madness began to recede.
We bashed into some piece of furniture and both lay still. Jamie’s hands were locked on my breasts, fingers digging bruisingly into the flesh. I felt the plop of dampness on my face, sweat or tears, I couldn’t tell, but opened my eyes to see. Jamie was looking down at me, face blank in the moony light, eyes wide, unfocused. His hands relaxed. One finger gently traced the outline of my breast, from slope to tip, over and over. His hand moved to cup the breast, fingers spread like a starfish, soft as the grip of a nursing child.
“M-mother?” he said. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was the high, pure voice of a young boy. “Mother?”
The cold air laved us, whirling the unhealthy smoke away in a drift of snowflakes. I reached up and laid the palm of my hand along his cold cheek.
“Jamie, love,” I said, whispering through a bruised throat, “Come then, come lay your head, man.” The mask trembled then and broke, and I held the big body hard against me, the two of us shaking with the force of his sobbing.
* * *
It was, by considerable good luck, the unflappable Brother William who found us in the morning. I woke groggily to the sound of the door opening, and snapped to full consciousness when I heard him clear his throat emphatically before saying “Good morning to ye,” in his soft Yorkshire drawl.
The heavy weight on my chest was Jamie. His hair had dried in bronze streaks and whorled over my breasts like the petals of a Chinese chrysanthemum. The cheek pressed against my sternum was warm and slightly sticky with sweat, but the back and arms I could touch were as cold as my thighs, chilled by the winter air gusting in on us.
Daylight streaming through the uncurtained window revealed the full extent of the wreckage I had only dimly realized the night before; smashed furniture and crockery littered the room, and the massive paired candlesticks lay like fallen logs in the midst of a tangle of torn hangings and scattered bedclothes. From the pattern of indentations impressing itself painfully into my back, I thought I must be lying on the indifferently executed tapestry of St. Sebastian the Human Pincushion; no great loss to the monastery, if so.
Brother William stood motionless in the doorway, jug and basin in hand. With great precision, he fixed his eyes on Jamie’s left eyebrow and inquired, “And how do you feel this morning?”
There was a rather long pause, during which Jamie considerately remained in place, blanketing most of me from view. At last, in the hoarse tones of one to whom a revelation has been vouchsafed, he replied, “Hungry.”
“Oh, good,” said Brother William, still staring hard at the eyebrow, “I’ll go and tell Brother Josef.” The door closed soundlessly behind him.
“Nice of you not to move,” I remarked. “I shouldn’t like us to be responsible for giving Brother William impure thoughts.”
Dense blue eyes stared down at me. “Aye, well,” he said judiciously, “a view of my arse is no going to corrupt anyone’s Holy Orders; not in its present condition. Yours, though…” He paused to clear his throat.
“What about mine?” I demanded.
The bright head lowered slowly to plant a kiss on my shoulder. “Yours,” he said, “would compromise a bishop.”
“Mmmphm.” I was, I felt, getting rather good at Scottish noises myself. “Be that as it may, perhaps you should move now. I don’t suppose even Brother William’s tact is infinite.”
Jamie lowered his head next to mine with some care, laying it on a fold of tapestry, from which he peered sideways at me. “I dinna know how much of last night I dreamed and how much was real.” His hand unconsciously strayed to the scratch across his chest. “But if half what I thought happened really happened, I should be dead now.”
“You’re not. I looked.” With some hesitation, I asked, “Do you want to be?”
He smiled slowly, eyes half-closing. “No, Sassenach, I don’t.” His face was gaunt and shadowed with illness and fatigue, but peaceful, the lines around his mouth smoothed out and the blue eyes clear. “But I’m damned close to it, want to or not. The only reason I think I’m not dying now is that I’m hungry. I wouldna be hungry if I were about to die, do ye think? Seems a waste.” One eye closed altogether, but the other stayed half-open, fixed on my face with a quizzical expression.
“You can’t stand up?”
He considered carefully. “If my life depended on it, I might possibly lift my head again. But stand up? No.”
With a sigh, I wriggled out from under him and righted the bed before trying to lever him into a vertical position. He managed to stand for only a few seconds before his eyes rolled back and he fell across the bed. I groped frantically for the pulse in his neck, and found it, slow and strong, just below the three-cornered scar at the base of his throat. Simple exhaustion. After a month of imprisonment and a week of intense physical and mental stress, starvation, injury, sickness and high fever, even that vigorous frame had finally come to the end of its resources.
“The heart of a lion,” I said, shaking my head, “and the head of an ox. Too bad you haven’t also got the hide of a rhinoceros.” I touched a freshly bloodied weal on his shoulder.
He opened one eye. “What’s a rhinoceros?”
“I thought you were unconscious!”
“I was. I am. My head’s spinning like a top.”
I drew a blanket up over him. “What you need now are food and rest.”
“What you need now,” he said, “are clothes.” And shutting the eye again, he fell promptly asleep.
I had no memory of finding my way to bed, but I must have done so, because I woke up there. Anselm was sitting by the window, reading. I sat bolt upright in bed.
“Jamie?” I croaked.
“Asleep,” he said, putting the book aside. He glanced at the hour-candle on the table. “Like you. You have been with the angels for the last thirty-six hours, ma belle.” He filled a cup from the earthenware jug and held it to my lips. At one time I would have considered drinking wine in bed before brushing one’s teeth to be the last word in decadence. Performed in a monastery, in company with a robed Franciscan, the act seemed somewhat less degenerate. And the wine did cut through the mossy feeling in my mouth.
I swung my feet over the side of the bed, and sat swaying. Anselm caught me by the arm and eased me back onto the pillow. He seemed suddenly to have four eyes, and altogether more noses and mouths than strictly necessary.
“I’m a bit dizzy,” I said, closing my eyes. I opened one. Somewhat better. At least there was only one of him, if a trifle blurry around the edges.
Anselm bent over me, concerned.
“Shall I fetch Brother Ambrose or Brother Polydore, Madame? I have little skill in medicine, unfortunately.”
“No, I don’t need anything. I just sat up too suddenly.” I tried again, more slowly. This time the room and its contents stayed relatively still. I became aware of numerous bruises and sore spots earlier submerged in the dizziness. I tried to clear my throat and discovered that it hurt. I grimaced.
“Really, ma chère, I think perhaps…” Anselm was poised by the door, ready to fetch assistance. He looked quite alarmed. I reached for the looking glass on the table and then changed my mind. I really wasn’t ready for that. I grasped the wine jug instead.
Anselm came slowly back into the room and stood watching me. Once convinced that I wasn’t going to collapse after all, he sat down again. I sipped the wine slowly as my head cleared, trying to shake off the aftereffects of opium-induced dreams. So we were alive, after all. Both of us.
My dreams had been chaotic, filled with violence and blood. I had dreamed over and over that Jamie was dead or dying. And somewhere in the fog had been the image of the boy in the snow, his surprised round face overlying the image of Jamie’s bruised and battered one. Sometimes the pathetic, fuzzy mustache seemed to appear on Frank’s face. I distinctly remembered killing all three of them. I felt as though I had spent the night in stabbing and butchery, and I ached in every muscle with a sort of dull depression.
Anselm was still there, patiently watching me, hands on his knees.
“There is something you could do for me, Father,” I said.
He rose at once, eager to help, reaching for the jug.
“Of course? More wine?”
I smiled wanly.
“Yes, but later. Right now, I want you to hear my confession.”
He was startled, but quickly gathered his professional self-possession around him like his robes.
“But of course, chère madame, if you wish it. But really, would it not be better to fetch Father Gerard? He is well known as a confessor, while I”—he gave a Gallic shrug—“I am allowed to hear confessions, of course, but in truth I seldom do so, being only a poor scholar.”
“I want you,” I said firmly. “And I want to do it now.”
He sighed in resignation and went to fetch his stola. Arranging it about his neck so that the purple silk lay straight and shimmering down the black front of his habit, he took a seat on the stool, blessed me briefly and sat back, waiting.
And I told him. Everything. Who I was and how I came there. About Frank, and about Jamie. And about the young English dragoon with the pale, spotty face, dying against the snow.
He showed no change of expression while I spoke, except that the round brown eyes grew rounder still. When I finished, he blinked once or twice, opened his mouth as though to speak, closed it again, and shook his head as though to clear it.
“No,” I said patiently. I cleared my throat again; I croaked like a bullfrog. “You haven’t been hearing things. And you’re not imagining it, either. Now you see why I wanted you to hear it under the seal of confession?”
He nodded, a bit abstractedly.
“Yes. Yes, to be sure. If…but yes. Of course, you wished me to tell no one. And also, since you tell it to me under the seal of the sacrament, then you expect that I must believe it. But…” He scratched his head, then looked up at me. A wide smile spread slowly across his countenance.
“But how marvelous!” he exclaimed softly. “How extraordinary, and how wonderful!”
“ ‘Wonderful’ isn’t precisely the word I would have chosen,” I said dryly, “but ‘extraordinary’ is all right.” I coughed and reached for more wine.