I’ve had sick kids in the house for the last two weeks (one of those situations where, instead of them getting it all at once, they drag it out by only getting it one at a time) so I’m a bit brain dead at the moment. Lack of sleep, never-ending fetching of cups of juice, endless viewings of Moana and Horrible Histories…
But since I’m home with sick kids, I’ve been writing and editing and baking (so much baking…) The Bride Price is getting ready for its August 1st release (*bites nails*) and is now available for pre-order! I’m still finishing up revisions on An Unpracticed Heart as well, which is slated for a late-fall release (I’m looking at end of November-ish, to be honest.) And I’ve written another short story/scene set in the same world as my previous stories Dust and Silver, Sleet and Shadow, Pale for Weariness, and Music in its Roar. I’m posting it below for you, just to prove I’ve not been sitting around, resting on my proverbial laurels. *wiggles butt* These laurel things are prickly!
Upon the Brink
I cannot see a thing. The rain ceased some hours before, but still a heavy mist clings to everything, clutching stubbornly to the rooftops, mingling with the smoke that belches out of every chimney and streams from every factory this near to the water.
“Stop here,” I say, and knock my fist against the ceiling of the carriage for good measure. The carriage meanders to a halt, and I drop the window and poke my face through the narrow opening. Despite the lights that should belong to the buildings I know are there, the orbs of illumination that should mark the position of each boat and ship currently trawling along the surface of the river, we are encased in a thick, stinking cloud that seems to glow from within, and all without providing any light by which George, my driver, can direct the horses.
The murk is even more impenetrable outside of the carriage. I stand still for a moment, the fingers of my right hand touching the door until I find my bearings. For there are no landmarks on which my eyes can fix, and before I can restrain it, a panic wells up inside of me, tightening around my chest like a steel band.
The sound of a ship’s horn is my saving grace. My mind latches onto it like the needle of a compass, and I move forward, picking carefully over the uneven ground as I approach the river.
Behind me, George clambers down from the carriage, and I hear his soothing words to the horses before he is swallowed up by the fog behind me. My eyes have adjusted to the point that I can make out a few larger impediments on either side of me. Warehouses, no doubt. And as I pass between them, the sounds of water slapping against the bank, of metal and wooden things knocking against each other grows louder. A gentle, downward slope of the ground, and I know I’ve nearly reached the water’s edge.
The light of the lamp catches my eye before I’ve taken three more steps. Two flashes, and then it is gone. Two more flashes…
My pace quickens, and what seems like it will be a great distance to travel is proven to be another trick of the mist when I almost stumble into the bearer of the light, one arm reaching out to steady me as the shuttered lantern swings from his other hand.
My gaze sketches out the edge of narrow shoulders placed somewhere beneath a head and the brim of a cap. I search for the more identifying features of a face, but the gloom is too thick and so I must make do with the familiarity of the voice instead.
“Mr. Robson.” There is no gesture I can make that he will see, and so I move closer, my eyes fixing on the thin line of light peeking out from behind the cover of his lantern. “Where is he?”
My guide says nothing, but his fingers tighten on my arm and he draws me onward, our steps kicking out stones behind us as we rush towards the river and the treasure most recently dredged out of it.
I expect a body, of course. I have seen enough of them over the years to believe myself prepared for whatever sight Mr. Robson and I will stumble upon. Why should I gasp when the line of an arm—of a pale hand, its fingers ratcheted back—crosses into my vision? My eyes absorb everything, the one foot that is missing a boot, the waterlogged and dingy trousers. His coat is gone, and the sleeves of what I assume was a once-white shirt are now stained grey from his time in the river. And then I come to his face, his eyes closed, silt and debris around his mouth and nostrils, his forehead crowned with filthy hair that is plastered to his skin and already drying.
There is something else, something I discern even in the faint light from Mr. Robson’s shielded light. I gesture towards his lantern, and he uncovers one side of it, directing the illumination at the body’s torso. More specifically, at the holes in the waistcoat, large enough through which I could slip the end of my little finger.
“Dammit all to hell,” I say, the profanity tumbling from my mouth as I drop to my knees in the mud. Not holes in the fabric from everyday wear and tear, and certainly not ill-placed buttonholes marring the discolored velvet. I make an attempt at the buttons, tearing off my gloves when they inhibit my progress. A knife from my pocket comes next when even my bare fingers prove insufficient at tangling with the sodden fabric, and I slice through what might have been his finest waistcoat before I’m left to tussle with the shirt underneath.
And now there is more. Not merely the stains from the water, but darker blotches spread across the linen, and when I slice off the remains of his neckcloth and rip at the already gaping collar, two holes stare out at me, the gaping flesh like a pair of eyes set into the skin above his abdomen.
“Christ, he’s been shot,” Mr. Robson says, and crouches down beside me for a better look.
I ignore the bullet holes for the moment. There’s nothing much I can do about them now. Instead, I retrieve a handkerchief from inside my cuff and wipe at the filth streaked across his face. I don’t pause to discover if he’s breathing or not. The pallor of his skin, the unnatural curve of his neck does not speak well towards my finding any life left within him. But still I treat him gently, as if he is only resting and I have no wish to disturb him.
I clear away the silt as best I can, without soap or clean water at my disposal. There is the rough growth of stubble along the edge of his jaw and on his upper lip. For a moment, I fancy that his mouth moves as I brush at the filth caked around his nostrils. My imagination, I tell myself. A trick of the poor light, and nothing more.
A crunch on the loose stones reminds me of Mr. Robson’s existence, a thing I had forgotten during my care of the body before me. “What now? Do you want the police involved?”
My hands still in their ministrations, my fingers hovering an inch above the pale throat displayed before me. “No.” And I shake my head for good measure. “Too many of them are already tucked in the pockets of the Guild. They’ll make a lesson out of him, and I can’t have that.”
The shreds of his sliced neckcloth are the next to go. I toss them away, filth-caked rags pitched beyond my range of sight. And then I allow myself to touch him, the shadow of dark hair on his chin giving way to the smooth skin at the base of his neck. My fingertips rest there for longer than they should. I try not to wonder what Mr. Robson might think of me, but I need to do this, to imagine there might be still some warmth in his body, and not merely a reflection of the heat radiating from my own flesh.
A flutter, then. And nothing else. Mr. Robson shifts beside me and begins to stand, begins to speak, but I gesture with my right hand to quiet him while the fingers of my left return to that hollow place at the base of his throat, where I would swear I had felt a jump, a beat, a pulse of life.
A prickle of something climbs up my scalp. Not terror, never that. More the fear of dashed hopes, that I’ve gone and let myself believe he might still be alive, his heart still struggling to beat within the confines of his ribcage, and all while his soul has already departed and is floating somewhere in the ether, looking down on me and pitying the poor woman who won’t let go.
As if he can hear me, as if the weak, plaintive murmur to fall off my tongue will be enough to drag him back into his body, to reignite a spark of something—anything—inside of him.
That’s Mr. Robson speaking, still trying to catch my attention even though I’m currently incapable of portioning off enough thought to even glance his way.
“He’s alive,” I say, and grit my teeth as soon as I say it. Because I may be wrong. God help me if I’m wrong.
Pushing away my fright, for I’m not sure how best to handle either outcome, I struggle to bring him back, if only for the ticking of a single second. I grip his face, his jaw held between my fingers as I turn his face towards mine. And when there’s no flicker from his eyes or the hint of a breath, I let his head roll back onto the stones as my hands travel downward, over his throat, onto his chest where those two bullet holes still gape at me, unblinking.
“Dammit, dammit…” The swears slide out of me like a chant, as if there might be some secret to the restoration of life hidden between those vulgar syllables. With no other recourse making itself known, I cover the wound closest to me with the end of my thumb and press down with all of my weight, digging in until I see a twitch at the corner of his left eye. “Wake up, you stubborn…” I push again, the movement intended to cause him pain, to draw fresh blood. Because where there is blood willing to flow, there is life.
In the poor light, the trickle that runs down the side of his chest, soaking into the remains of his shirt, appears as black as ink. But it continues to flow, this slow stream, and so I beg Mr. Robson for a handkerchief, a clean one, and I press it over the hole, delighting in the realization that there is again blood circulating inside his veins.
“We need to move him.”
And here is the new danger: If he still lives, then there will be those who still wish him dead. The two holes in his chest, an attempted death sentence. Throw his body in the river and let the tides and the buffeting from however many ships do the rest. And if we’d not come upon him tonight, no doubt all manner of scavenger would have found him in the morning, both human and otherwise.
My right hand remains over the seeping bullet hole as I put the fingers of my left in my mouth and let out a shrill whistle. Less than a minute later, George comes shuffling towards us, rubbing his hands together until I hear several cracks from those crooked digits. “Pah,” he says at first, before spitting over his shoulder. “So we’re dragging ‘em from the river now, are we?”
It’s a simple plan. I take over care and control of the lamp while Mr. Robson and George each hoist up an end of the body, the pair of them walking sideways up the bank and towards the carriage.
“Inside, on the floor.” I wrench open the door and step back, allowing them all available space to maneuver Mr. Muir’s substantial frame through the narrow opening without causing him further injury.
Only now will I permit myself to refer to him by his surname. If he had been dead, surely and truly, I could not apply his appellation to that still figure by the water. But now that he lives, at least for a time, there is a reclamation of his identity. He is Mr. Callum Muir again, no matter how frayed the thread on which he holds to life.
I climb in behind him, or around him rather, as the bulk of his figure takes up more than the carriage boasts for a floor. A tug of my skirts to make certain no part of my wardrobe will be caught in the door, and I give a quick order to George before he ascends towards his perch in the driver’s seat.
“Home, and quick.” The words are out before I can think over the wisdom of them. But the children are with their grandmother in Hampshire, and my husband is away. On business, he says. But even should he return, it is only a few hours I need to collect my thoughts and decide on a better, safer place to take him. Mr. Muir’s home, I’m sure, will be the first place they’ll look should anyone begin to suspect the river failed to finish the task they started. My own home, I fear, will be second. “Quickly!” I say, and Mr. Robson snaps the door shut behind me, what little light his lamp provided cut out as I’m thrust into the darkness of the carriage with the bleeding form of my patient beneath me.
The lack of illumination forces me to remain still. I wait for my eyes to adjust, for my limbs to settle in with the rhythm of the rock and sway of the carriage. On the floor, on my knees, my skirts twisted around my legs and one elbow braced on the seat to keep myself from falling over Mr. Muir is how I remain until I trust myself to move again.
I still hold Mr. Robson’s handkerchief in my hand, warm and damp with blood. I seek out his chest, pushing away the collar of his shirt until I’ve revealed the still-bleeding wound and can clamp the handkerchief over it. My other hand settles on the middle of his chest, the dark hair there matted to his skin from his sojourn in the river and the bleeding I restarted.
“Mr. Muir.” Leaning over him now, I place my mouth quite close to his ear. “Mr. Muir, can you hear me?” I glance up when we pause, and I listen to the sounds of another carriage crossing our path before our progress picks up again.
No change. And so I resort to digging, lifting up the upholstered seat and searching for the tin I know is tucked inside, the one stuffed with clean bandages, tweezers, needle and thread, and other tools deemed necessary in certain emergencies. But the one thing I want I cannot find, at least not without the aid of a proper light. My hands delve into Mr. Muir’s pockets, and I send up a muttered prayer that the item I want the most wasn’t lost along with his coat.
To feel the scratch of my nails against the cold metal of a flask is to return to that joy of the first moment when his pulse stammered fleetingly beneath my fingertips. I drag out the thin slip of silver, a slosh of fluid inside assuring me that I’ll not be met with disappointment when I unscrew the cap.
Once it’s open, I pass it beneath my nose, inhaling deeply and then coughing as even the edges of my nostrils are in danger of being singed by whatever liquid Mr. Muir has taken to carrying around with him. A swig for myself then, one that scalds my tongue, my mouth, and burns its way down my throat before I tip it sideways and pour out several drops over the holes in his chest.
The effect is instantaneous, and considerably more volatile than what I expected. A whine from him, his back arching off the floor of the carriage, followed by a howl of pain as I apply the same medicine to the second bullet wound.
If there are words mingled in with his cries, I cannot make them out. He jolts upwards into a sitting position, nearly knocking his skull against mine before I scramble backwards, my shoulders pressed against the door. The flask is still clutched in my hand, and I hold it to my chest, rather like a shield, one with contents I can toss into his face like holy water should his injuries prevent him from reverting to something wholly human.
In the dark—the light that filters in through the windows dimmer than anything a pale half-moon could provide—his figure looms like a faceless shadow. He draws his knees up, his back rounded forward and his head bowed. Even drawn away from one another, there is little space between us. And so I sit and watch him, the erratic rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathes, the slight twitch and turn of his head at every sound that doesn’t match with the normal clatter and jangle of a moving carriage.
He is on top of me before I can finish. Hands braced against the door, his arms bearing his weight on either side of my head. A lift of my chin and there are his eyes, flecks of gold and green glowing without the aid of any additional illumination.
“I’m not dead.” Not a question. A statement. An unequivocal fact.
And yet I’m compelled to answer. “No,” I say, and shake my head.
His gaze dips down. To my mouth, my chest, and then to the silver decanter cast in miniature I currently hold in my hands. “Is that mine?”
I thrust it towards him. I cannot remember what I’ve done with the cap, but he seems not to notice as he takes it from me and drinks—no, pours the remainder of its contents down his throat. He doesn’t cough, doesn’t even flinch at the alcohol that still smolders at the bottom of my own stomach.
He wipes his mouth with his sleeve, or what’s left of it, and drops back to his haunches. A breath shudders through him, and he drops his chin, all of the fire draining out of him as quickly as it sparked to life. “It hurts,” he confesses, and there is the whine again, like an undercurrent in his voice.
Following that shudder, the rest of his body begins to tremble. Five seconds… perhaps ten… and one shoulder dips to the side before the rest of him follows along the same trajectory. With a heavy thud and an awkward arrangement of limbs, he hits the floor of the carriage again, and then he’s still.
I’ve no fear that he’s gone and left me. His chest rises and falls, every exhalation an audible thing, even above the rumble of the wheels beneath us. I reach out and pick up the flask he’s dropped, but it’s empty now, and I toss it onto the seat. Better this way, I think, as I’ve never had much of a head for drink.
And I’ll need all the clarity of thought I can muster tonight. An unconscious man in my carriage, with two silver bullets no doubt lodged inside his chest. I sit back, maneuvering into as comfortable a position as I’m capable of achieving for the rest of the journey home.
Home. As if this were simply another day, another jaunt to the edge of the Thames and back, my carriage burdened with its usual load of inhuman creature bleeding out onto the floor.
Mr. Muir. The name repeats itself inside my head. “Callum,” I say, outside of it. And he shifts at the sound of his name on my lips, as if he’s there, right there, only waiting for a word from me to resurrect himself into awareness. “Don’t worry,” I tell him, because perhaps he can hear me. And I rest my hand on his knee, revelling in the warmth of life I feel coming off of him now. “We’re almost there.”