The afternoon light had faded into the gray shades of dusk, and the room seemed filled with all the despair of the world’s ending. Tomorrow’s dawn will see you dead. There was no hope of finding Jamie tonight. I knew he would not return to the Rue Tremoulins; he wouldn’t have left that note if he were coming back. He could never lie beside me through the night, knowing what he intended doing in the morning. No, he had undoubtedly sought refuge in some inn or tavern, there to ready himself in solitude for the execution of justice that he had sworn.
I thought I knew where the place of execution would be. With the memory of his first duel strong in his mind, Jamie had shorn his hair in preparation. The memory would have come to him again, I was sure, when choosing a spot to meet his enemy. The Bois de Boulogne, near the path of the Seven Saints. The Bois was a popular place for illicit duels, its dense growth sheltering the participants from detection. Tomorrow, one of its shady clearings would see the meeting of Jamie Fraser and Jack Randall. And me.
I lay on the bed, not bothering to undress or cover myself, hands clasped across my belly. I watched the twilight fade to black, and knew I would not sleep tonight. I took what comfort I could in the small movements of my unseen inhabitant, with the echo of Jamie’s words ringing in my ears: Tomorrow’s dawn will see you dead.
The Bois de Boulogne was a small patch of almost-virgin forest, perched incongruously on the edge of Paris. It was said that wolves as well as foxes and badgers were still to be found lurking in its depths, but this story did nothing to discourage the amorous couples that dallied under the branches on the grassy earth of the forest. It was an escape from the noise and dirt of the city, and only its location kept it from becoming a playground for the nobility. As it was, it was patronized largely by those who lived nearby, who found a moment’s respite in the shade of the large oaks and pale birches of the Bois, and by those from farther away who sought privacy.
It was a small wood, but still too large to quarter on foot, looking for a clearing large enough to hold a pair of duelists. It had begun to rain during the night, and the dawn had come reluctantly, glowing sullen through a cloud-dark sky. The forest whispered to itself, the faint patter of rain on the leaves blending with the subdued rustle and rub of leaf and branches.
The carriage pulled to a stop on the road that led through the Bois, near the last small cluster of ramshackle buildings. I had told the coachman what to do; he swung down from his seat, tethered the horses, and disappeared among the buildings. The folk who lived near the Bois knew what went on there. There could not be that many spots suitable for dueling; those there were would be known.
I sat back and pulled the heavy cloak tighter around me, shivering in the cold of the early dawn. I felt terrible, with the fatigue of a sleepless night dragging at me, and the leaden weight of fear and grief resting in the pit of my stomach. Overlying everything was a seething anger that I tried to push away, lest it interfere with the job at hand.
It kept creeping back, though, bubbling up whenever my guard was down, as it was now. How could he do this? my mind kept muttering, in a cold fury. I shouldn’t be here; I should be home, resting quietly by Jamie’s side. I shouldn’t have to be pursuing him, preventing him, fighting both anger and illness. A nagging pain from the coach ride knotted at the base of my spine. Yes, he might well be upset; I could understand that. But it was a man’s life at stake, for God’s sake. How could his bloody pride be more important than that? And to leave me, with no word of explanation! To leave me to find out from the gossip of neighbors what had happened.
"You promised me, Jamie, damn you, you promised me!" I whispered, under my breath. The wood was quiet, dripping and mist-shrouded. Were they here already? Would they be here? Was I wrong in my guess about the place?
The coachman reappeared, accompanied by a young lad, perhaps fourteen, who hopped nimbly up on the seat beside the coachman, and waved his hand, gesturing ahead and to the left. With a brief crack of the whip and a click of the tongue, the coachman urged the horses into a slow trot, and we turned down the road into the shadows of the wakening wood.
We stopped twice, pausing while the lad hopped down and darted into the undergrowth, each time reappearing within a moment or two, shaking his head in negation. The third time, he came tearing back, the excitement on his face so evident that I had the carriage door open before he got near enough to call out to the coachman.
I had money ready in my hand; I thrust it at him, simultaneously clutching at his sleeve, saying, "Show me where! Quickly, quickly!"
I scarcely noticed either the clutching branches that laced across the path, nor the sudden wetness that soaked my clothing as I brushed them. The path was soft with fallen leaves, and neither my shoes nor those of my guide made any sound as I followed the shadow of his ragged, damp-spotted shirt.
I heard them before I saw them; they had started. The clash of metal was muffled by the wet shrubbery, but clear enough, nonetheless. No birds sang in the wet dawn, but the deadly voice of battle rang in my ears.
It was a large clearing, deep in the Bois, but accessible by path and road. Large enough to accommodate the footwork needed for a serious duel. They were stripped to their shirts, fighting in the rain, the wet fabric clinging, showing the outline of shoulder and backbone.
Jamie had said he was the better fighter; he might be, but Jonathan Randall was no mean swordsman, either. He wove and dodged, lithe as a snake, sword striking like a silver fang. Jamie was just as fast, amazing grace in such a tall man, light-footed and sure-handed. I watched, rooted to the ground, afraid to cry out for fear of distracting Jamie’s attention. They spun in a tight circle of stroke and parry, feet touching lightly as a dance on the turf.
I stood stock-still, watching. I had come through the fading night to find this, to stop them. And having found them, now I could not intervene, for fear of causing a fatal interruption. All I could do was wait, to see which of my men would die.
Randall had his blade up and in place to deflect the stroke, but not quickly enough to brace it against the savagery that sent his sword flying.
I opened my mouth to scream. I had meant to call Jamie’s name, to stop him now, in that moment’s grace between the disarming of his opponent and the killing stroke that must come next. I did scream, in fact, but the sound emerged weak and strangled. As I had stood there, watching, the nagging pain in my back had deepened, clenching like a fist. Now I felt a sudden breaking somewhere, as though the fist had torn loose what it held.
I groped wildly, clutching at a nearby branch. I saw Jamie’s face, set in a sort of calm exultance, and realized that he could hear nothing through the haze of violence that enveloped him. He would see nothing but his goal, until the fight was ended. Randall, retreating before the inexorable blade, slipped on the wet grass and went down. He arched his back, attempting to rise, but the grass was slippery. The fabric of his stock was torn, and his head was thrown back, dark hair rain-soaked, throat exposed like that of a wolf begging mercy. But vengeance knows no mercy, and it was not the exposed throat that the descending blade sought.
Through a blackening mist, I saw Jamie’s sword come down, graceful and deadly, cold as death. The point touched the waist of the doeskin breeches, pierced and cut down in a twisting wrench that darkened the fawn with a sudden flood of black-red blood.
The blood was a hot rush down my thighs, and the chill of my skin moved inward, toward the bone. The bone where my pelvis joined my back was breaking; I could feel the strain as each pain came on, a stroke of lightning flashing down my backbone to explode and flame in the basin of my hips, a stroke of destruction, leaving burnt and blackened fields behind.
My body as well as my senses seemed to fragment. I saw nothing, but could not tell whether my eyes were open or closed; everything was spinning dark, patched now and then with the shifting patterns you see at night as a child, when you press your fists against shut eyelids.
The raindrops beat on my face, on my throat and shoulders. Each heavy drop struck cold, then dissolved into a tiny warm stream, coursing across my chilled skin. The sensation was quite distinct, apart from the wrenching agony that advanced and retreated, lower down. I tried to focus my mind on that, to force my attention from the small, detached voice in the center of my brain, the one saying, as though making notes on a clinical record: "You’re having a hemorrhage, of course. Probably a ruptured placenta, judging from the amount of blood. Generally fatal. The loss of blood accounts for the numbness in hands and feet, and the darkened vision. They say that the sense of hearing is the last to go; that seems to be true."
Whether it were the last of my senses to be left to me or not, hearing I still had. And it was voices I heard, most agitated, some striving for calmness, all speaking in French. There was one word I could hear and understand—my own name, shouted over and over, but at a distance. "Claire! Claire!"
"Jamie," I tried to say, but my lips were stiff and numb with cold. Movement of any kind was beyond me. The commotion near me was settling to a steadier level; someone had arrived who was at least willing to act as though they knew what to do.
Perhaps they did. The soaked wad of my skirt was lifted gently from between my thighs, and a thick pad of cloth thrust firmly into place instead. Helpful hands turned me onto my left side, and drew my knees up toward my chest.
"Take her to the Hôpital," suggested one voice near my ear.
"She won’t live that long," said another, pessimistically. "Might as well wait a few minutes, then send for the meat wagon."
"No," insisted another. "The bleeding is slowing; she may live. Besides, I know her; I’ve seen her at L’Hôpital des Anges. Take her to Mother Hildegarde."
I summoned all the strength I had left, and managed to whisper, "Mother." Then I gave up the struggle, and let the darkness take me.
RAYMOND THE HERETIC
The high, vaulted ceiling over me was supported by ogives, those fourteenth-century architectural features in which four ribs rise from the tops of pillars, to join in double crossing arches.
My bed was set under one of these, gauze curtains drawn around me for privacy. The central point of the ogive was not directly above me, though; my bed had been placed a few feet off-center. This bothered me whenever I glanced upward; I kept wanting to move the bed by force of will, as though being centered beneath the roof would help to center me within myself.
If I had a center any longer. My body felt bruised and tender, as though I had been beaten. My joints ached and felt loose, like teeth undermined by scurvy. Several thick blankets covered me, but they could do no more than trap heat, and I had none to save. The chill of the rainy dawn had settled in my bones.
All these physical symptoms I noted objectively, as though they belonged to someone else; otherwise I felt nothing. The small, cold, logical center of my brain was still there, but the envelope of feeling through which its utterances were usually filtered was gone; dead, or paralyzed, or simply no longer there. I neither knew nor cared. I had been in L’Hôpital des Anges for five days.
Mother Hildegarde’s long fingers probed in relentless gentleness through the cotton of the bedgown I wore, probing the depths of my belly, seeking the hard edges of a contracting uterus. The flesh was soft as ripe fruit, though, and tender beneath her fingers. I winced as her fingers sank deep, and she frowned, muttering something under her breath that might have been a prayer.
I caught a name in the murmurings, and asked, "Raymond? You know Master Raymond?" I could think of few less likely pairings than this redoubtable nun and the little gnome of the cavern of skulls.
Mother Hildegarde’s thick brows shot up, astonished.
"Master Raymond, you say? That heretical charlatan? Que Dieu nous en garde!" May God protect us.
"Oh. I thought I heard you say ‘Raymond.’ "
"Ah." The fingers had returned to their work, probing the crease of my groin in search of the lumps of enlarged lymph nodes that would signal infection. They were there, I knew; I had felt them myself, moving my hands in restless misery over my empty body. I could feel the fever, an ache and a chill deep in my bones, that would burst into flame when it reached the surface of my skin.
"I was invoking the aid of St. Raymond Nonnatus," Mother Hildegarde explained, wringing out a cloth in cold water. "He is an aid most invaluable in the assistance of expectant mothers."
"Of which I am no longer one." I noticed remotely the brief stab of pain that creased her brows; it disappeared almost at once as she busied herself in mopping my brow, smoothing the cold water briskly over the rounds of my cheeks and down into the hot, damp creases of my neck.
I shivered suddenly at the touch of the cold water, and she stopped at once, laying a considering hand on my forehead.
"St. Raymond is not one to be picky," she said, absently reproving. "I myself take help where it can be found; a course I would recommend to you."
"Mmm." I shut my eyes, retreating into the haven of gray fog. Now there seemed to be faint lights in the fog, brief cracklings like the scatter of sheet lightning on a summer horizon.
I heard the clicking of jet rosary beads as Mother Hildegarde straightened up, and the soft voice of one of the sisters in the doorway, summoning her to another in the day’s string of emergencies. She had almost reached the door when a thought struck her. She turned with a swish of heavy skirts, pointing at the foot of my bed with an authoritative finger.
"Bouton!" she said. "Au pied, reste!"
The dog, as unhesitating as his mistress, whirled smartly in mid-step and leaped to the foot of the bed. Once there, he took a moment to knead the bedclothes with his paws and turn three times widdershins, as though taking the curse off his resting place, before lying down at my feet, resting his nose on his paws with a deep sigh.
Satisfied, Mother Hildegarde murmured, "Que Dieu vous bénisse, mon enfant," in farewell, and disappeared.
Through the gathering fog and the icy numbness that wrapped me, I dimly appreciated her gesture. With no child to lay in my arms, she had given me her own best substitute.
The shaggy weight on my feet was in fact a small bodily comfort. Bouton lay still as the dogs beneath the feet of the kings carved on the lids of their tombs at St. Denis, his warmth denying the marble chill of my feet, his presence an improvement on either solitude or the company of humans, as he required nothing of me. Nothing was precisely what I felt, and all I had to give.
Bouton emitted a small, popping dog-fart and settled into sleep. I drew the covers over my nose and tried to do likewise.
I slept, eventually. And I dreamed. Fever dreams of weariness and desolation, of an impossible task done endlessly. Unceasing painful effort, carried out in a stony, barren place. Of thick gray fog, through which loss pursued me like a demon in the mist.
I woke, quite suddenly, to find that Bouton was gone, but I was not alone.
Raymond’s hairline was completely level, a flat line drawn across the wide brow as though with a rule. He wore his thick, graying hair swept back and hanging straight to the shoulder, so the massive forehead protruded like a block of stone, completely overshadowing the rest of his face. It hovered over me now, looking to my fevered eyes like the slab of a tombstone.
The lines and furrows moved slightly as he spoke to the sisters, and I thought they seemed like letters, written just below the surface of the stone, trying to burrow their way to the surface so that the name of the dead could be read. I was convinced that in another moment, my name would be legible on that white slab, and at that moment, I would truly die. I arched my back and screamed.
"Now, see there! She doesn’t want you, you disgusting old creature—you’re disturbing her rest. Come away at once!" Mother Hildegarde clutched Raymond imperatively by the arm, tugging him away from the bed. He resisted, standing rooted like a stone gnome in a lawn, but Sister Celeste added her not inconsiderable efforts to Mother Hildegarde’s, and they lifted him clean off his feet and bore him away between them, the clog dropping from one frantically kicking foot as they went.
The clog lay where it had fallen, on its side, square in the center of a scrubbed flagstone. With the intense fixation of fever, I was unable to take my eyes off it. I traced the impossibly smooth curve of the worn edge over and over, each time pulling back my gaze from the impenetrable darkness of the inside. If I let myself enter that blackness, my soul would be sucked out into chaos. As my eyes rested on it, I could hear again the sounds of the time passage through the circle of stones, and I flung out my arms, clutching frantically at the wadded bedding, seeking some anchorage against confusion.
Suddenly an arm shot through the draperies, and a work-reddened hand snatched up the shoe and disappeared. Deprived of focus, my heat-addled mind spun round the grooves of the flags for a time, then, soothed by the geometric regularity, turned inward and wobbled into sleep like a dying top.
There was no stillness in my dreams, though, and I stumbled wearily through mazes of repeating figures, endless loopings and whorls. It was with a sense of profound relief that I saw at last the irregularities of a human face.
And an irregular face it was, to be sure, screwed up as it was in a ferocious frown, lips pursed in adjuration. It was only as I felt the pressure of the hand over my mouth that I realized I was no longer asleep.
The long, lipless mouth of the gargoyle hovered next to my ear.
"Be still, ma chère! If they find me here again, I’m done for!" The large, dark eyes darted from side to side, keeping watch for any movement of the drapes.
I nodded slowly, and he released my mouth, his fingers leaving a faint whiff of ammonium and sulfur behind. He had somewhere found—or stolen, I thought dimly—a ragged gray friar’s gown to cover the grimy velvet of his apothecary’s robe, and the depths of the hood concealed both the telltale silver hair and that monstrous forehead.
The fevered delusions receded slightly, displaced by what remnants of curiosity remained to me. I was too weak to say more than "What…" when he placed a finger once more across my lips, and threw back the sheet covering me.
I watched in some bemusement as he rapidly unknotted the strings of my shift and opened the garment to the waist. His movements were swift and businesslike, completely lacking in lechery. Not that I could imagine anyone capable of trying to ravish a fever-wracked carcass like mine, particularly not within hearing of Mother Hildegarde. But still…
I watched with remote fascination as he placed his cupped hands on my br**sts. They were broad and almost square, the fingers all of a length, with unusually long and supple thumbs that curved around my br**sts with amazing delicacy. Watching them, I had an unusually vivid memory of Marian Jenkinson, a girl with whom I had trained at Pembroke Hospital, telling the rapt inmates of the nurses’ quarters that the size and shape of a man’s thumbs were a sure indication of the quality of his more intimate appendage.