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Bryony was going to sneeze. The agonizing tickle built inexorably with the disturbance of dust and straw in the hayloft. She pinched her nose with fierce fingers, squeezing her eyes tight shut as she prayed for deliverance. Through the drumming of her heartbeat, she could hear the low voices in the barn below, the scuffling of booted feet on the flagged floor. They were dragging something, hay bales presumably. But why? And who were they to come out of the night like shades, to come with such clear mischievous intent? They had clubbed old Jebediah to the cold stone of the stableyard without a second thought. What would they do if they found her?
She sneezed, burying her face in her hands as images of rape and murder ran rampant in her head. Such things were common occurrences in this year of revolution, 1779. Or at least they were if the hushed whispers of the women in her mother's drawing room and the pontificating rhetoric of the men around the mahogany dining table were to be believed.
"What was that?" a voice from below demanded, and a dreadful silence fell, a silence during which the creeping paralysis of terror gripped the girl in the loft, convinced her that the sound of her heart could be heard throughout the wooden building.
"Only rats," someone said after the silence had continued into eternity, and the scuffling and dragging began again. "That'll do," the same voice said. Although low, it carried an authoritative ring that was not disguised by an inherent softness that sounded to the wild imaginings of the listener above like spring raindrops. There was a renewed silence, but this time it was clear from the quality that it came from the absence of life.
Had they gone? Bryony came onto her knees, wincing at the protestations of her cramped muscles, held for so long in rigidity. She listened again. Nothing. Then she smelled it. Smoke. She heard it. The insidious crackle of fire taking hold. They had put a torch to the hay bales below, stacking them up to create a funeral pyre for the unseen, unheard watcher in the loft above. She was going to dieburned alive like Joan of Arc. Did it hurt? Of course it did. She had read enough in the books of the saints extolling the excruciating torments of martyrdom, the blistering skin, the stench of roasting flesh, the sounds of popping and bursting as . . . dear God.
She stumbled to the ladder. Smoke curled, thick and black and impenetrable; flames crackled, then surged in sudden brightness. The smoke filled her nostrils, was dragged into her protesting lungs, and she was drowning in the hot dryness. Hindered by the rigid whalebone of her hooped petticoat, she half fell, half jumped down the ladder into the inferno, her only thought that there was one door, one possibility of salvation.
Flames from the pyre flicked out at her like the venomous tongues of a nest of vipers. She dodged, covering her nose and mouth with the lace-ruffled sleeve of her rose damask evening gown. The thin soles of her matching satin pumps seemed to absorb the heat of the fire, scorching the bottom of her feet, and the warning smell of singeing hair brought tears of desperation to her already streaming eyes. The heat was so intense that it seemed she would not need to be touched by flame to be reduced to ashes. The door, her goal, was lost in the smoke, her sense of direction vanquished by terror, and she stumbled blindly in circles, straining for air that was not forthcoming, every inch of her skin stinging with the pain of the heat. Then, by some miracle, the door loomed in the smoke-wreathed darkness. She cried out in hopelessness as she touched the heavy latch and found the metal heated to an unbearable temperatureunbearable to any but the desperate.
Fighting down the agony as the skin of her palms blistered, she jerked on the solid fastening. As it eased upward, she pushed with her last vestiges of strength against the massive double door. It swung open, letting in a rush of air that caught the conflagration behind her, sending it upward and outward with a great roar of triumph. The flames seized the back of her gown. She screamed in pain and terror, outlined in flame in the doorway. Then she was lost to the world as a smothering black cloud drowned her, rolled her over, knocked her to the ground with head-splitting violence, and light and life dissolved in a starburst of dazzling color.
Benedict Clare left the close confines of the log cabin and went out into the summer evening. The heat of the day was retained by the tall trees surrounding the small clearing, and he wiped his brow with his neckcloth. This evening, that broad brow was buckled with a deep frown. He was a man who considered himself cured of sentiment, immune to the softer emotions. There was no room for them in the life struggle he had been fighting ever since puberty. He couldn't blame the men for their startled disapproval. He had been condemning his own weakness from the moment he had tossed that ruined bundle of scraps and tatters into the wagon, atop the stolen cache of muskets and ammunition, and ridden away from the Trueman plantation, the blazing barn at his back.
But once the raid had been completed successfully, Loyalist weapons appropriated to the Patriot cause, firing the barn had been unnecessarya self-indulgent act of personal revenge. It was a revenge to which he was entitled, God knew, but the trapped girl bore no guilt, and if he had not indulged himself, she would not have suffered. Some stubborn sense of justice had obliged him to pick up the pieces. He hadn't known whether she was dead or alive when he had borne her off, but he had known that he could not leave her.
She was alive, but for the last twenty-four hours she had drifted in and out of consciousness, caused more by the blow to her head when it had struck the cobbles, he suspected, than by the burns on her back. The latter were not as severe as he had feared and were healing with the sureness of young, healthy skin, although, judging by the soft moans as she moved on the cot and when he dressed them, they were sufficiently painful to cross the boundaries of unconsciousness.
He strolled through the trees to the banks of the narrow creek that ran into the broad reaches of the James River some two miles along. The creek was clogged with bullrushes and swamp grass, navigable only by canoe, and Benedict's only companions were the curlews, pipers, and their like rising to circle above the marsh. Raising his musket, he sighted, squeezed the trigger, and the dark shape fell from the sky. It was a plump plover that would make good eating, and he was in need of a substantial dinner. He had been living off dry stores since the raid on Trueman's, unwilling to leave the girl alone for the time it would take to hunt his supper until he was sure she had rounded the corner. Slinging his musket across his shoulder, the bird dangling from his hand, he made his way back to the cabin.
Bryony became aware of the soreness first, as always. It seemed to be a part of her, exacerbated to stinging rawness by an unwary move, so that, even in sleep, she seemed to move with care or not at all, lying still until her motionless limbs cried out for relief. The muzziness was still in her head, and when she opened her eyes, she looked through a blur as if viewing her surroundings from underwater. It was too much of an effort, so she closed her eyes again, flexing her toes in the hope that her cramped legs would be satisfied with the activity of their extremities. It was a vain hope, and with a groan of sheer misery she inched herself onto her other side.
"Are you awake?"
It was a voice she knew, one that had punctuated her sleep-waking; it went with the hands that soothed her hurts, held the cup of water to her parched lips, lifted her on and off the tin pot with a gentleness that did its utmost to avoid unwary contact with her sores. She did not know to whom it belongedthat did not seem to be of the least importance. Through the watery blur of her vision, she had once in a while registered a bearded face, brightly sharp eyes, but then she had slipped away again into the warm darkness.
"I think so." Her voice sounded strange, an unfamiliar croak, and she realized that she had not spoken for as long as she could remember. Panic flared. "Where am I? Who . . .?"
"Hush, lass. You haven't the strength yet to get yourself into a fret." The soft voice gentled as his hands moved her onto her belly. She felt a sudden coolness as the blanket was drawn back, then the wonderful, now familiar sensation of the healing oil smoothing into the hurt skin of her back and legs. Her heart swelled with gratitude. The flash of panic receded, and she slept again.
When Bryony next awoke, it was to a world of sharply clear objects, of lucidity of thought, of complete awareness of her body, of its lines and contours, of its place and shape in the world. She lay still, taking inventory, trying to separate confused memories. Her back still hurt, and when she turned her head restlessly on the thin pillow, a bruising soreness stilled her instantly. But she was awake, and she could see without mist, and she could hear without the buzzing in her ears. What she could not do was remember where she was, or why she was here, or how she had hurt herself, ordear God, she could not remember anything beyond the bewildering turmoil of the last however many days she had lain here, drifting, cared for by some strange man. A memory took shape, sharpened. Slowly, almost fearfully, she placed her hands on her belly, moved them up and down. She was as naked as the day she had been born. She raised the blanket, and her eyes confirmed her touch.
Bryony hastily dropped the blanket and lay staring up at the rough-hewn, smoke-blackened clapboard roof. Her mind stretched to remember, something . . . anything! But there was nothingjust an abyss. She knew only that she was in a log cabin, that she was naked, that there was a man somewhere for whom that nakedness had become familiar. What had happened to her? What had he done while she was lying here, defenseless? But she knew what he had done. It was the only thing she did know. He had not harmed her, he had cared for her like a nurse with a baby, attending to her intimate needs. And Bryony wished she had died rather than wake to this shaming reality, peopled with only these recent and so mortifying memories.
A creak and a square of bright light heralded the opening of the cabin door. She blinked as the dazzle struck her unaccustomed eyes, then the light was blocked for a minute by the bulk of a figurean utterly recognizable figure. She retreated behind closed eyes.
Leaving the door open, Benedict crossed to the bedstead and stood looking down at its occupant. The girl had her eyes tight shut, but there was something about her posture beneath the blanket, about the sudden mobility of her face, that told him not only was she awake, she was finally fully conscious. He knelt down beside the bed. "Open your eyes, Bryony."
Bryony! Her eyes shot open, meeting the intent scrutiny of a pair as black and resonant as ebony. "Is that my name?" She forgot the agonies of shame for the moment in this all-important question.
The breath whistled through his teeth as he absorbed the implications of the question. "Can you not remember?"
She shook her head, wincing as the soreness rubbed against the pillow again.
Those hands, with remembered gentleness, turned her head to one side, parting the blood-stiffened locks of raven-dark hair, feeling the lump. "You took a blow to the head to fell an ox," he said, sighing. "I suppose it is not surprising. But it is a damnable complication."
"How do you know I am called Bryony?" Her voice shook a little, as much with disuse as anxiety.
"It was embroidered on your handkerchief and on all your undergarments, what remained of them." He stood up, turning away from the cot, so he did not see the scarlet wave flooding her cheeks. Taking a small ceramic pot from a shelf carved into one of the horizontal logs that formed the wall, he unscrewed the lid and came back to the bed. "Lie on your belly, lass, and I'll dress the burns on your back."
Bryony stared at him in mute refusal for a second, then shook her head gingerly. "It is all right, thank you. I do not feel them anymore." There was a note of pathetic dignity in her voice, pathetic because of the undisguised appeal that lay beneath.
"You are being foolish," he said quietly. "If those burns become infected, they will mortify."
"Then I will do it myself," she countered in a choked whisper.
Benedict frowned. She could not possibly manage such a thing, and it was a task that had to be done. However, perhaps it would be best if she discovered that for herself. He could see little to be gained by coercion, easy though that would be. Shrugging, he placed the pot on the blanket beside her. "As you please. I will bring you something to eat in a few minutes."
The door swung shut behind his departing figure, and Bryony struggled to sit up in the welcome dimness, shafted by bars of sunlight sliding through the gaps in the logs where the moss and clay filling had come loose. She dipped her finger in the oily, aromatic cream and reached a hand behind her. Her blind fingers brushed roughly against the weals, and tears sprang into her eyes. She tried reaching over her shoulder, then upward from her waist, but it was impossible to do more than skim patchily over the burns.
The creak of the door again drove her back beneath the blanket, and the ceramic jar fell to the earthen floor. Benedict placed a steaming bowl on a three-legged stool by the hearth and wordlessly picked up the ointment, replacing the lid. Looking down at her, he quirked a well-drawn eyebrow but said only, "I have some broth for you. Are you hungry?"
The rich, savory aroma from the bowl filled the cabin, and Bryony realized that she was famished, even as she realized that her body was making another, imperative demand, one that would interfere with her pleasure in food if it was not satisfied. "I have to go outside first," she said, blushing furiously at renewed memory.