The following is an excerpt from my fourth novel (in progress) “Passages”.
“Here I am,” she giggled, waving her hand, and hurrying back into the shadow.
“Wait!” he called, squinting into the gloom, catching only a fading glimpse of her wheaten hair glowing halo-like atop her head. “You know I cannot chase. . . wait!”
“You’re not trying!” She called, only now her voice was far behind him.
He turned on his heel, fighting the sudden rush of vertigo that made him stumble. “I am trying with all my being. Please…please stop. Don’t leave me again. ” Something silver flashed in his peripheral vision but vanished when he turned too quickly to look upon it. He fell to his knees onto a hard and graveled ground. “Melly, please…”
Her laughter faded, swallowed by the thickness of the place — wherever this place was. He strained his eyes, searching for any trace of light; there was none. He listened, willing sound to come; there was none. He placed his hand on his chest in reassurance that his heart was still beating.
“You’re not dead yet,” a familiar voice said, from behind.
William turned, still on his knees feeling the small stones digging into his flesh, yet unable to rally the strength to try to stand. “Why must you haunt me, Richard?”
“You ask as if I have a say in the matter,” he replied with a mirthless chuckle, stepping casually into an expanding circle of sickly-green light. “I’m as—that is, we—” he gestured to his ever-present and mute companion, linked like a puppet to his back, the lower half of its face being cut away, “—are as eager for an end to this as you are.”
The companion peered over Richard’s shoulder, and even though it had no mouth William could tell there was a grin in its emerald eyes.
“Leave me, then! Begone, both of you! Back to the devil in Hell you’ve come from!”
“Hell?” Richard laughed. “My, my if I did not know better, I would almost believe that those are the words of a pious man.” He took a step closer, a slow grin spreading across his lips. “Could this mean that you have at last renounced your pact?”
“I MADE NO PACT!” William screamed, opening his eyes suddenly to a stab of sunlight.
The door to the bed chamber opened suddenly, and two men, James and Peter rushed in.
William gulped in a breath and began to cough. The spasm ripped through his chest, bringing with it spatters of blood and phlegm, fouling the fine white cambric of his night shirt.
“Peter, quickly, bring my kit!” James ordered as he helped William sit up in bed. He grabbed a shallow basin from the night stand and placed it on William’s lap for him to spit into.
Peter Garland was beside them now, James’ wooden apothecary kit held out in his withered hands. When William finally gained control and was able to look up, he could see the old man standing silent, ashen faced, with a deep crease forming between his brows. He heard me.
Have you brought your cup again, Peter? William looked to Peter, and a pang of guilt struck his heart at the thought. Peter had spent years atoning for his part in the trial, steadfastly defending William against lingering rumors and old prejudices. He is not here to hurt me.
“My lord,” James began, than softened his voice, “you’ve had another dream. That’s all.”
“They’re waiting for me. They were here, right here. I’ll never be free of them, James.”
“Of bad dreams? They are only result of the nostrums I should think,” James said with a shrug, as always, ready with the clinical explanation. “I can cut back on the nightshade—”
“Nightshade?” Peter gasped. “Is that what you’ve been giving him?”
James rolled his eyes then turned toward the old man. “Do you have an objection to the accepted methods of treating sleeplessness? I was not aware you were a trained physician.”
Peter glared, and set the kit down out of James’ reach. “I know far more than you seem willing to credit me with. I have been with him since you were at your mother’s teet, and I know, without doubt or reservation, that the last thing this man should be treated with is nightshade! Have you no sense?”
“And why not? It helps him sleep—”
“And dream of devils!”
The men each caught their tongues and looked toward William.
“Forgive me,” Peter said with a slight bow. “The choice of course is yours. He is your physician. I…am merely an old man.”
William held out a hand toward Peter.
Peter accepted it almost shyly. “Does the brew help you?”
William shook his head. “I do not think it makes a lick of difference. Not in my sleeping or in the dreams. But thank you for thinking about it. Perhaps you should explain it to James sometime.”
“That would be advisable,” James huffed. “Will, honestly, I am at a loss of how to help you.”
“I will,” Peter promised, ignoring James. “But not just now.” He straightened his back, and assumed the formal posture he took when he was performing his duties as the duke’s chief advisor. “I believe you wanted to send a correspondence, my lord.”
James crossed his arms and stood back. “Spell passed? I’m dismissed?”
“Only for the moment,” William assured him. “I do have something I need Peter to do for me. I would like it to be between us.”
“Of course.” James gathered his kit, tucking it unceremoniously under his arm as he headed toward the door. He stopped, hand on the knob and turned back toward Peter. “He needs rest. And he needs peace. Whatever matters of business that must be dealt with, I’m sure Lord Sean can attend.”
“I’m sure,” Peter replied.
“James,” William began, only to be seized with another fit of coughing. Peter helped him lean forward, to spit into the basin. “Thank you. James, please do not be far. If it was a matter of business I would call my son, but it is not. Please, humor me.”
James heaved a heavy breath. “As you wish.” He left, closing the door softly, only to push it open and peer back in. “No brandy!” He scolded, then closed the door more firmly.
“No brandy,” William mimicked, pointing his finger at Peter. “You heard him. You must stay clear minded.”
“Shall I pour two?”
A half smile crossed Peter’s face as he opened the small private cabinet where William kept his spirits and brought the ornate decanter and two goblets to the bedside stand. He poured the two drinks evenly and handed one to William, then raised his own and quietly uttered his customary toast, “To life.”
“To life,” William repeated quietly then took a small sip. It burned, as he knew it would, but it went down well enough. “To the living…Peter, may I ask you something rather personal?”
“Personal?” Peter smiled looking down into his goblet. “What is there left to know about me after all these years in your service?”
“I’ve hardly considered you a servant.”
“But that is what I am. I am at your service, as you are owed no less from me, and I am glad to give it.”
“As am I.” William took another small sip of the brandy, letting it sit on his tongue before swallowing. He knew James would be annoyed that he was so blatantly defying medical advice, but he needed the comfort the warmth the drink was bringing to him. It also kept the cough down and more importantly, helped calm his nerves when difficult memories haunted not only his sleep, but his waking thoughts as well; as they were now. “I do not know how I could keep this estate together without your help. I’ve no mind for business and budgets and…all that. You’ve kept my records and accounts masterfully. I could ask for no better. But what I wish to ask has nothing to do with business or accounts.”
William took another sip, for courage to broach a subject long avoided between the two of them. “Peter, do you ever think about that time?”
Peter looked up from his glass, a pained look crossed his face that he banished as quickly as it came. “Time, my lord? What time?” He took a sip from his goblet, swallowing hard. William waited while Peter rolled the goblet between his palms, then finally raised his eyes to meet William’s, and answered in a near silent whisper. “Every day, Will. Every day.”
“Would you have done things differently, if you had known me better then?”
Peter was silent, clearly unnerved by the unexpected conversation. “I am not proud of my part in your trial. I did what I thought—given the alternative—was the merciful thing. I knew you were an innocent man, but they would never let you be, and I had hoped, after all these years…”
“Do you ever think about Laurel?” There, it was out. The name he’d not mentioned in Peter’s presence since they’d come to know each other on the crossing back from Port Edin. He was not even certain that Peter would remember her.
Peter went pale, the goblet trembled in his hand. He gave a quick nod, looking away.
“So you do think about her.”
“Yes,” the old man replied. “I did not know if you did.”
“Every day, Peter.”
“I couldn’t save her. She…she confessed that she cast the spell on that torn page—the one found with her hair and clothes. She said she’d cast enchantments and the law was clear…I had no choice, surely you understand that? She confessed—”
Peter looked up then. “Lied? What do you mean? ”
William looked Peter in the eye. “I was not an innocent man, Peter.”
Peter stared, the goblet shaking in his hand. “What?”
“Oh, I never made a pact with the devil if that is what you’re fearing.”
Peter sat down slowly. “No…I never thought you did. I still don’t.”
“Good. Peter, please take another sip. You’ve gone rather pale.”
“Not entirely. That is why I asked if you would do it differently if you knew…things. And if I tell you now, will you think differently of me?”
“I cannot say. I did not know you then, as I do now. I know you to be a good hearted man, a strong man. A just man. I do not think anything you say will change that.”
William allowed a half smile. “That page with the prayer—you called it a spell—that condemned her was really mine, Peter.”
“I used it before those meetings I had that caused all the trouble. I used it to be persuasive, just as the charges claimed. I cast the spell. Not Laurel.”
“But you’re not a—” Peter stood, his mouth open with the word left unsaid.
William could hardly stand the look of betrayal that crossed Peter’s eyes, but he forced himself to meet his eyes. “Witch? Is that what you were going to say?”
William shook his head. “That is the king’s word. Not ours. We…I am simply a child of the Old Ways. The prayer I used was no different than a knight praying for protection on the eve of battle. I simply asked for help from The Blessed Mother. I uttered the chants and cast the charms, followed the Ways and kept the secrets. Just as my brother accused.”
“He also said you used them for evil.” Peter pointed out. “Do you say that was true as well?”
“No. On that he was quite mistaken.”
Peter allowed a smile to creep across his face. He resumed his seat, and refilled his goblet. “Then I can answer your question.” He took a hard swallow. “I would not have done it differently.”
“Mercy for a heathen?”
“Mercy, for a good man.”
William reached out a hand again. Peter grasped it and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you, my friend.”
“You’re quite welcome.” Peter set the goblet down went to the writing desk and picked up his quill. “Now, I believe you said you had a correspondence to draft.”
“To who, sir?”
Peter dropped the quill. “You do not intend to tell him what you just told me?”
Peter set the quill down, crossed the room and took the goblet from William’s hand. “No more brandy for you!”