Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Cornwall, June 1831
Assisting Gerard Debbington, brother of
Patience Cynster, brother-in-law of Vane Cynster
and Miss Jacqueline Tregonning
In: The Truth About Love
Newmarket, August 1831
Assisting Dillon Caxton, cousin of Felicity Cynster,
brother-in-law of Demon Cynster,
and Lady Priscilla Dalloway
In: What Price Love?
Somerset, February 1833
Assisting Lord Charles Morwellan, Earl of Meredith,
brother of Alathea Cynster, brother-in-law of
Gabriel Cynster, and Miss Sarah Conningham
In: The Taste of Innocence
London, November 1835
Assisting Miss Penelope Ashford, sister of Luc,
Viscount Calverton, sister-in-law of Amelia Cynster
In: Where the Heart Leads
London, October 1837
Assisting Heathcote Montague, Cynster man-of-business,
and Miss Violet Matcham, companion to
Lady Agatha Halstead
In: The Masterful Mr. Montague
The shores of Bridgewater Bay, Somerset
Excruciating, relentless, it razed his senses and shredded his mind with fire-tipped claws.
Agony seared, brilliantly bright, successive lightning bolts devastating and eradicating all ability to think, to know—even to remember.
He’d chosen it, accepted it—welcomed it.
This was his necessary suffering, his torment along the road to hell.
It was nothing more than he deserved.
He couldn’t move, could no longer tell if his body was even there, if he still inhabited it.
His mind lost its final tenuous tether and fell away, conscious thought a ribbon drifting out of his reach.
Gradually, battered by the onslaught of unrelenting pain, his senses, too, started to fail. To stutter. Then . . .
Oblivion lay ahead, a void of nothingness toward which he sank.
Beyond would lie the flames of hell, of eternal damnation.
Stifling a sigh, Roland, Infirmarer of the priory of Lilstock, straightened from the tangle of seaweed he’d been picking over. As usual in this season, he’d brought the youngest novices to help him harvest the medicinal bounty the sea provided. It was a weekly chore and he was glad of their help, even though he sometimes wondered if the benefit was worth the cost; the youngest novices were so very easily distracted.
Expecting to have to deal with a wandering sheep, or perhaps to identify some unusual bird, Roland raised his head and looked down the beach.
Only to see the entire bevy of novices eagerly scrambling down the dunes, their focus a tangle of wet rags bundled every which way and cast up, flotsam on the rough sand.
Roland focused on the rags; he’d been at the priory, above the bay on the southern shore of the Bristol Channel, for the last decade—he recognized the tangled bundle for what it was. “Wait!”
His bellowed command brought every boy up short. None had got within twenty yards of the body. All turned puzzled faces his way.
Roland ignored them. Robes flapping, he strode swiftly down the dune on which he’d been working; for their still-innocent sakes, better he view the body first. The Lord alone knew what state it would be in.
The Channel was one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Captains needed to bury their dead before putting into Bristol, and sometimes storms prevented them from doing so on the open sea. So said captains performed last rites once they were in the calmer waters of the Channel. But the Channel, although deep, was a maze of strong, swiftly running currents. Bodies regularly fetched up along the southern shores.
Quite aside from their faith’s command to see all such bodies treated with due respect, there was also the danger of disease to be assessed.
And, needless to say, legitimate burial wasn’t the only reason bodies washed ashore.
Tramping over the sand, the grains shifting beneath his booted feet, Roland studied the rumpled heap of wet material—dark suiting with a glimmer of dirty ivory—and wondered if this body belonged in the latter category.
By the time he crouched beside the body, he was certain that was, indeed, the case. For a start, the man—for it was a man—was almost certainly English. Fair hair, now lank and sodden, but nevertheless well-cut, clung to a broad forehead and cheeks that, originally, had held the sharp angles and clean planes that were hallmarks of the aristocracy.
This man had been well-born. But now . . .
Experienced eyes scanning the ungodly tangle of long, once elegant limbs, tracing the unnatural angles and impossible contortions of bones forced into positions they simply could not—should not—ever be in, Roland felt something in him seize—with pity, with horror, with outright shock.
What manner of rack had this man been placed upon?
The man had fetched up on his stomach, his head turned toward the sea, his shoulders askew, his spine twisted, arms and legs hanging like limp twigs. Roland looked down on the man’s face, on the side he could see, once handsome but now battered, the skin pallid, holding the leaden tinge of death.
This man had been broken, hideously and utterly, before death had claimed him.
Roland made the sign of the cross, instinctively murmuring a prayer for the man’s soul. He started to turn to give orders to the novices—a sibilant
from the sea made him pause.
A wave rolled in, higher than the most recent; the tide had turned and was coming in.
The wave reached the man, washing up around his body, lapping at his sodden clothes. The water came high enough to briefly cover the man’s chafed and parted lips and his nose.
Roland had seen no reason to try and prevent that.
Then he saw the thin stream of bubbles escape from the man’s mouth.
“Good God!” Roland shot to his feet. His heart was pounding.
But he was the Infirmarer.
The sea receded. Roland swung to the novices, now gathered in a curious group fifteen paces away. “You—Godfrey.” Roland pointed to the leanest and fittest of the bunch. “Run back to the priory and fetch the stretcher. Ned and Will—you go, too, and bring back my medical bag, and the bag of splints and bandages. Go. Now—and
He didn’t need to make any further exhortation; the three boys shot off like hares, racing and leaping up over the dunes, making for the path to the priory on the headland. Turning back to the unknown man, Roland wondered if he was doing the right thing—if there truly was any point, any hope. If what was to come would ever be worth the price . . . yet he was God’s man; he had no choice. He had to try.
That he had no guarantee that the man would live was beside the point. Also irrelevant was that, if he lived, the man would likely not thank him for rescuing him into a life of unending pain and misery.
The man had literally been cast up at Roland’s feet, a wreck, but yet alive. This wasn’t a matter for Roland to judge or question. He was the Infirmarer, and he knew his duty.
To him fell the task of saving this life.
Mind reengaging with that task, Roland swiftly assessed, then blew out a breath. For the novices’ benefit, he said, “I don’t want to risk shifting him until we’ve done all we can to stabilize his limbs.” That was what the splints and bandages were for; thinking of how many splints he had in his bag, and how to use them, he ordered, “Ben and Cam—do you have your knives with you?”
Both boys nodded.
“Good.” Roland pointed down the beach. “There’s a stream that runs into the sea along there. Follow it back a little way and you’ll come to some reed beds. Cut as many reeds as you can carry and bring them here as soon as you can.”
“Yes, Brother Roland,” the pair chorused, then turned and jogged off.
“Brian and Kenneth—collect all our baskets and stack them by the path to the priory. We can pick them up later, on our way back. Then return here.”
“Aye, Brother Roland.”
Roland turned to the six boys left. “We can’t move him yet, but we need to keep the water from him as best we can. So we need to build a wall of sand to keep the tide back until the others return with the supplies and I can bind him. So . . .”
All he had to do was point to where; the novices were still young enough to enjoy building walls in the sand.
e’d thought he would have passed through the inferno’s portal by now, but no. The pain went on.
Stoically, locked deep within a mind he was somewhat amazed still existed, he endured.
He waited. Still. For death to claim him.
While the agony rolled on.
till, he remained. Fleetingly conscious now and then. Distantly aware.
Although of what, he had no idea.
radually, he realized he was still within the mortal world. That his physical body still existed, albeit as nothing more than a dull ache. That his mind, trapped within a head he couldn’t really feel, still functioned.
He lived. Still.
Why, he couldn’t fathom.
The pain had receded, not disappearing so much as becoming an integral part of his being.
An integral part of the new him.
If this existence—this non-death—continued, at some point he would have to open his eyes and find out what had happened, but, like the rest of his body, his lids did not seem to actually be there, not physical entities he could command.
So he waited.
To see what came next.
t last, he was able to raise his lids. Only a sliver, and the light was blinding, so he instantly lowered them.
But someone was there—someone he now realized had often been there, someone he’d sensed even through the haze of pain—and that someone had seen.
Cool water touched his parched lips. He parted them, and the trickle of water down his throat—the sensation of it—was unimaginably intense, his senses, so long dormant, unused, abruptly flaring to life.
“Can you hear me?”
So his ears still functioned, too. The voice was deep, a man’s, resonant, the tone calming, caring. A flicker of his lashes was all he could manage in response.
“Your name. If you remember it, if you can manage to speak it, that’s all I would ask of you.”
His name . . . they would need one to put on his gravestone, of course. But the man he’d been was now dead, even to him; not even in death did he wish to lie beneath that man’s name.
More water was offered and he took it, grateful enough as he accepted that he should answer—that he should give the caring man a name.
His mind roamed, sorting through his memories; gradually, his past took more definite shape. Recollections solidified, what that now-dead man had done, what had happened—and all that had happened even earlier in his life . . .
another name—an alter ego he’d created long ago and had used on and off until the end. He’d killed off the man he’d been, but that other . . . he’d forgotten about him.
As he was dying—and given the weight of his sins, he expected no other outcome—perhaps this was Fate’s way of giving him the opportunity to tie up even that loose end?
He did like neat plans.
“Thomas.” His voice was raspy, harsher than he recalled, dulcet tones ruined by his ordeal. Breathing deeply enough to speak took conscious effort and multiplied the ever-present pain by several orders of magnitude, yet as he sensed the caring man lean closer, he forced himself to lick his cracked lips and say more clearly, “Thomas Glendower.”
Pain lanced through his side; darkness swept across his consciousness and he let himself flow with the tide.
ill he live?” Prior Geoffrey, white-haired and ageing, rested a hand on Roland’s shoulder.
In the tiny end cell of the infirmary, seated on a stool by the narrow cot on which the man they’d rescued from the shore had lain for the past weeks, Roland looked up and answered truthfully, “I can’t say, but as he’s lived this long, through all of this”—Roland gestured to the countless splints and braces, the outward signs of the long list of procedures he’d had to employ to patch the man up and put right what he could—“and he hasn’t faded yet, I have to assume he will recover, at least as far as that’s possible.”
His gaze on the man’s damaged face, Roland paused, then drew breath and put into words the issue his conscience had been wrestling with ever since he’d found the man on the shore. “I still don’t know if we’ve done the right thing—if saving him was the right thing to do.”
Prior Geoffrey didn’t immediately answer, but then his long fingers gently gripped Roland’s shoulder. “Ours not to know the workings of the Almighty, my son. If Thomas Glendower lives, you, at least, can be assured that you will have performed exactly as you should have.”
Roland hoped so. Inclining his head in acceptance, he said no more.
homas sat on the bench in the medicinal garden of Lilstock Priory, the stone wall of the infirmary warm at his back, and stared unseeing at the profusion of plants filling the neatly laid-out beds.
He could feel the sunshine on his face, could sense the light waft of the summer breeze. Could smell the rich aroma of freshly tilled loam and the tang of fruit ripening in the nearby orchard.
He could hear the soft thuds and grunts as two monks worked further down the garden, could hear the birds chirping and twittering in the trees. Even though one eyelid now drooped, and the orbit of that eye would never be perfect again, he had regained normal vision in both eyes; he could follow the swooping flight of swallows across the blue expanse of the sky.
He wasn’t sure if that—the return of his senses and his faculties—would ultimately prove a blessing or a curse.