CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Four days later

 

            The moment Pete woke, he knew something was dreadfully wrong. Even from behind closed eyelids, he could feel a sense of desperation in the room - an intangible aura of worry, sickness, and long hours spent pacing. There was nothing he could put his fingers on, only fleeting remembrances of his mother’s sickbed as she had lain ill with fever at one point in his childhood. She had taken several weeks to recover, and despite his youth, Pete had keenly felt the weight that hung about the room whilst his sister had tended to her frail charge. Yes, that same feeling was definitely present in this room. But who was ill? Was it he?

            Pete tried to open his eyes, and found he could not. His eyelashes were glued together with the crust of over-long sleep. It took several seconds before Pete was finally able to pry his lids open, one by one. He saw the wooden beams of a ceiling, dark just above his head but lighter towards his feet, where they appeared to be glowing with the light of a single candle beyond the line of his sight. As he stared at the beams, the light in the room flickered as the candle flame wavered, apparently nearing the end of the wick. He heard a soft snore beside him, and moved to turn towards the noise.

            The searing pain that ensued streaked along his side and yowled behind his eyelids, taking away his breath. For several moments he simply fought with shallow breaths to fill his lungs and ease the throbbing pain in his gut. Not eager to repeat his earlier mistake, Pete turned his head only a fraction of an inch, and strained to see in the dim light. To his surprise, what was closest in his view was a woman’s softly rounded hand, resting motionless upon his chest just below his collarbone. While the sight was not unwelcome, it was the first time in Pete’s memory that he had woken with the hand of a lady upon his breast, and he was quite taken aback. In sooth, there had been the odd wench or two in his past, and though he was no lothario, it was not entirely out of the question that Pete might wake and find some cotter’s daughter at his side. But the pale glow and unblemished nails of this particular woman’s hand marked her as one whose skin had not been aged by toil and sun, so clearly she was not of the peasant class. As much out of astonished curiosity as a desire to see if the woman’s face was as fair as her hand, Pete slowly, slowly tilted his head to the right, following the line of her arm.

            Just beyond his own side, he could see that the woman was kneeling by the side of the low bed on which he lay. Her face was cradled in the crook of a bent arm, while the other stretched out upon his breast as though protecting him. Dark curls spilled over the bed, obscuring the woman’s face. A second delicate snore told him she was asleep.

            He heard an indrawn breath from beyond him, too, and with aching slowness, turned his head back to center, and then slightly to the left, giving him a partial view of the far side of the room. Beside the single flickering candle, he could make out the outline of a second woman, seated sideways in a rickety chair. She also slept, her head leaning upon one arm which lay draped over the back of the chair, the other cradling a small white bowl in her lap.

Two women? His situation grew more enigmatic by the minute!

As Pete watched, the woman shifted her head slightly, and the flame illuminated her face. There was something naggingly familiar about her: the strong chin, the blond, thickly arched eyebrows…. and in the instant Pete’s mind registered her name he gasped, sending another shard of fire streaking across his gut.

            Ariana woke at the sound, and quickly rushed to his side with the silence of a cat. With a glance at Rosemary’s bent head, she hurriedly whispered,

            “Pete! Art thou awake?”

            Pete opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.

            “Nay, do not speak. Lie still. I am here.” She pulled a cloth from her belt and wiped the sweat from Pete’s brow.

Ariana. Then the woman beside him was Rosemary. And they were tending his bedside because… Pete recalled how he had come to their aid, and he groaned.

            “Shh…’tis all right. Thy forehead is not so warm as ‘twas an hour ago. I think mayhaps thy fever is waning slightly. Oh, Pete,” Ariana cried, her soothing tone splintering into a whispered sob. “Do not try to speak, but nod thy head if thou knowest me and can understand me.”

            Pete took a deep breath, and managed a tiny nod. Ariana let out a ragged sigh and adjusted the quilt to better cover his feet. “’Tis five days since the… you woke only once before and babbled like a… we knew not if…” Ariana curled her fingers as if trying to catch and corral her thoughts. When she spoke again her voice was calmer, though still tremulous. “Pete, worry not. If thou hast made it this far, thou wilt recover yet.”

            Ariana reached for the small white bowl she had set by Pete’s side when she had kneeled beside him. He could see now that it was a mortar and pestle, and there was a potent herbal smell emanating from it.  Ariana swiftly crushed the herbs beneath the pestle, and in a low voice continued,

            “Thanks be to the Savior, the surgeon was close by. Though the inn looks a fright, the rest of the town is a sight better, and the surgeon was but a short distance from here. He was just sitting down to table when the ostler burst in to fetch him. He stitched thee up well enough, but warned me quite strongly that the wound might suppurate… and indeed, thou art suffering more from infection of the wound than the wound itself, I fear. Rosemary and I have been tending thee since.” Ariana glanced over at Rosemary’s bent head and sighed. “She slept not those first two nights, but lay in vigil by your side and wept. Since then she hath slept but little.”

            Ariana tapped the pestle on the rim of the bowl and set it by her side.

            “I needs must change the dressing upon thy wound, and apply the herbs to them. I fear… the herbs are strong, and they will sting terribly. But they will help thee heal. Shall I wait until thou art asleep again, or art thou strong enough?”

            Pete’s eyes strayed to the bowl on the floor.

            “A mixture my mother taught me,” Ariana explained quietly. “A gypsy tincture of comfrey leaf, garlic tisane, myrrh, rue, calendula, ginger root, and cayenne. ‘Tis the last two that I fear will sting the most. But they will fight the infection in thy wound, and the comfrey will soothe the swelling. Will you trust me to be as gentle as I can?”

            Pete nodded again, and as he did so, Rosemary shifted in her sleep, drew a long breath, and raised her pale face from her arm.

            Seeing Pete’s eyes open, Rosemary gasped and rose on her knees to look at him. Pete wanted to speak but he could not, and Rosemary looked to Ariana, her eyes burning with her unspoken question.

            “Aye,” replied Ariana, speaking normally now that Rosemary had woken. “His voice is weak, but he knows and understands what we say.”

            Rosemary looked to Pete’s face, and found him looking back at her. Though his eyes were dull with pain, it was as Ariana had said: his gaze held her fast, and there was no trace of confusion or dementia. Rosemary uttered a soft, relieved “Oh!”, and two fat tears spilled onto her cheeks.

            “I needs must change his poultice,” Ariana said, “before the herbs air too long. Wilt thou be of comfort to him whilst I refresh his bandage?”

            Rosemary did not tear her eyes from Pete’s, but picked up his right hand from whence it lay upon the blanket, and held it firmly betwixt her own. With great care, Ariana lifted Pete’s left arm, easing it away from his side. From the foot of the bed she pulled the corner of the blanket, then lifted the whole side of the blanket and carefully folded it towards Rosemary.

Even before his eyes could inform him, the cool air on his skin alerted Pete to the fact that beneath the blanket he had been utterly naked save for his shirt, which had been slit clean down the middle, exposing his chest and belly to the cold night air, and a bandage of white cloth that was wrapped about his waist. All his other clothes were gone, and Pete cried out, mortified that he lay as bare as a babe before these two women. He tried to pull his hand from Rosemary’s to cover his groin, but Rosemary tightened her grip and would not let him go.

 “Forgive me, Pete,” Ariana whispered, her dagger poised to cut through the bandage at his waist. “The surgeon had to remove thy raiments when he stitched thee, and because of the position of the wound, I had to leave them off to give the stitches time to heal. I… I assure thee that I have looked upon thee with the purity of a sister, and my sole concern was to heal thee. Rosemary’s, too. Prithee do not be embarrassed.” To hide her own reddening cheeks, Ariana let a swath of hair fall over her face as she deftly sliced through the bandage.

Any thought Pete might have had regarding that statement was erased by the sting of the air on his now uncovered wound. He sucked in air through his teeth and gripped Rosemary’s hand as Ariana peeled the bandage from the red gashes of the twin stab wounds. With a damp towel she wiped away the small trickle of pus that told her the herbs were doing their work by pulling the inflammation from beneath the skin to the surface and ridding the site of infection. She laid the towel on the ground, and picked up the white bowl.

“Pete, I am sorry for the pain this will cause thee. Without them the wound continue to suppurate, and I would fain cause thee pain now in order to save thy life.”

Pete nodded, and held his breath. Ariana briefly ran her fingertips across the crescent hematite moon at her forehead, then dipped into the bowl and applied a lump of the herbal mixture to the wound. For a moment Pete felt no pain, only a strange awareness of the mixture, which felt a bit like someone had smoothed a spoonful of cold porridge over his midsection. But within seconds the cayenne and ginger root dug their nails into his flesh, and he arched his back, crying out and turning Rosemary’s knuckles white with his grip.

Ariana worked as swiftly as she dared, and cringed at each spasm and groan. At last the dregs of the mixture had been applied, and she quickly re-stitched the bandages together with a needle and thread. Pete shuddered, feeling alternately chilled and feverish, and strained to control the tremors in his back and limbs. Rosemary stroked his hand and smoothed the sweaty strands of hair from his cheeks and forehead as Ariana returned the bowl to her chair and poured a small amount of the cloved mead John had prepared for them into her pounded-tin cup.

Was it really less than a week ago that they had left the Green Lanterns Inn? Ariana thought. It seems like a lifetime ago.

She put her hand behind Pete’s head and helped him to sit up just enough to sip from the cup she held to his lips.

            “Drink it all, if thou canst. It shall help thee to sleep.”

            Pete took a long draught from the cup and then lay back into the pillow, utterly exhausted by his pain and the effects of the mead upon his empty stomach. Ariana and Rosemary stayed by his side until his eyelids drooped closed, and his limbs grew slack. Ariana put a hand upon his chest, and knew by the measure of his breathing that he was once again asleep. She put the back of her hand to his forehead, and feeling that his fever had not decreased but had not worsened either, nodded to Rosemary and moved to replace the spool of thread with which she had re-stitched the bandage upon the dresser.

Ariana took one last look at Pete to reassure herself that his breathing was returning to normal, and turned to Rosemary, who silently motioned for Ariana to join her outside. Rosemary quietly shut the door behind her, and the two women walked noiselessly down the hall and out into the barren field that posed as the Scot’s Arms’ frontage. Rosemary took Ariana’s hand as they walked a few paces down the lane. Ariana tilted her face up to the sky; it was grey, but the heat from the sun could still be felt, and it warmed her cheeks.

“His consciousness means he is on the mend, does it not?” Rosemary asked.

“Aye. The infection still lingers, more strongly than I had hoped, in faith, but the herbs are doing their work. I thank thee for seeking them yesterday, whilst I tended to him. Thou art a quick study – bringing back nearly all the herbs I described.”

Rosemary nodded. She had not felt much like talking in the past few days, and honestly, it had been a gift from Ariana to be sent out to collect herbs. Anything, just to relieve the impotence of inactivity. At least by having collected the herbs, she felt like she was doing something to help Pete recover. Hitherto, Rosemary had been the one to “fix” whatever problem had arisen in their travels together, but in Pete’s case, she felt utterly useless and powerless to help. She suspected Ariana knew that, and had charged her with a task out of sympathy.

“How long?” she asked, and Ariana replied,

“I know not. The only other wound I actually treated was my…mother’s…” She still could not speak of her without her heart cramping. “She had gotten a terrible burn once that became infected. I dealt not with such things normally - mostly I made tonics for sickness and pessaries to sooth the pain of my monthly flux. In sooth, Pete does not seem to be recovering as quickly as I had hoped. Burns are different than wounds, but still, I seem to remember a boy in our camp who had been gored several times by a bull who woke and spoke sooner than Pete did. The camp’s finest healer dealt with the boy, though. His knowledge was far greater than mine.”

Rosemary sighed impatiently. Before Pete had woken, she had felt only pain and remorse on top of the sweeping gratitude for Pete’s timely heroism. But now that there was a glimmer of hope, a thousand other emotions bubbled to the surface: anger, frustration, resentment. Not at Pete, but at the situation.

 “The whole world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is to remain unafraid.” So had her father sung. Well, that was all well and good, but being “unafraid” seemed a bit naive in the face of their molestation, Pete’s near murder, and the burden of healing Pete as best they could on their own. The surgeon had “lowered himself” to see to Pete’s wound  at the ostler’s rather formidable request, but had swiftly enough declared that he was only at his country house for a bit of rest before returning to his more “well-born” clients in town, and excused himself with barely a “Godspeed” before hurrying back to his supper. Rosemary thought Pete’s actions that day made him worthy enough of the surgeon’s care, but evidently the surgeon had taken one look at Pete’s scruffy beard and wilted muffin hat and had decided otherwise.

And amongst the fear and resentment, there was a slight, nauseating disgust. Lord only knew what had become of those two men from the inn. The ostler had “taken care of them,” so he had said, but that could mean anything from gaol to… well, worse than that didn’t really bear thinking about. Somewhere in the confusion amongst the surgeon’s visit and the women’s panicked attendance on Pete as he lay bleeding from his wounds, the ostler had gone back into the dining hall and disposed of the unconscious attackers. He was closed-mouthed about in exactly what manner he had rid the inn of the men, and would say only that they had been “taken care of.” Neither Rosemary nor Ariana had pressed him for details.

She certainly was not sorry for them, whatever had happened, but the thought of violence being done to anyone with whom she was personally acquainted still made Rosemary squeamish. She knew that men killed and tortured, but in her experience, that was something that had always happened “out there,” not in her own relatively gentle existence. Now violence had come to live at her front door, and she still could make sense of it only a small thought at a time.

“I just want Pete to get better and then for us to be gone from here,” she grumbled, and Ariana nodded, feeling much the same.

The ostler, showing the women more compassion than they had anticipated from so taciturn a man, had permitted them to keep their previously-rented room free of charge whilst they nursed Pete back to health. He said that he rarely had enough custom to fill all four of his rooms, and seeing as Pete had been the one to rescue the women (Ariana had gotten the distinct impression that the ostler carried some guilt that it was not he who had defended them from his seedy boarders), he had generously given them the room until such time as he had custom enough to require it back from them. Moreover, he had loaned them an additional quilt and a set of burlap-bag pillows that had likely come from his own bed. Torn between concern for what lice might have found their home in the pillows and gratitude for his generosity, the women had ultimately accepted his gift, and neither seemed to be suffering any ill effects or undue itching. Yet, despite the ostler’s belated generosity, the Scot’s Arms was still an unsavory, dismal place. Like Rosemary, Ariana could not be shut of it soon enough.

If only there was a way to help Pete recover more quickly, Ariana thought. She had no wish to short-change Pete in his recovery, not after he had rescued them so valiantly. But a speedier healing would no doubt be best for all involved, would it not?

“Rosemary?” Ariana ventured. “I am thinking… if there was a way to speed Pete’s return to health, we could all leave sooner. And surely that would be the best for all three of us, would it not?”

“Thy tone of voice tells me that thy sentence has a ‘but’ clinging to its tail.”

“Well, aye. It doth. Only… I do know of some herbs and tinctures that stimulate the body – tea made from leaves of the coca plant and sarsaparilla; extract of olive leaf, guarana, that sort of thing – but these are elements foreign to English shores, and are expensive. Moreover, they would have to be gotten quietly, as I think thine English doctors are more in favour of taking the humourous blood out of the body than stimulating it from within. I doubt the surgeon would care to know that a female gypsy was treating an English patient in such ways.”

“That periwigged, pretentious coward! I care not what he hath to say! If he dares to raise an objection to thy methods after he simply left Pete because he was not some beef-glutted town dweller, I shall -”

“Aye, aye,” murmured Ariana soothingly. “Yet it would be better to get such herbs and extracts without drawing much attention to the fact that I only just know what I am doing. Mayhaps that particular surgeon would not object, but others might only see an English citizen being questionably drugged by a gypsy.”

“Particularly one who doth wear a hematite moon betwixt her brows?”

Rosemary raised a knowing eyebrow. Like many gypsies, Ariana and her mother had adopted the predominant religion of their host country, and she had been raised a Catholic. Yet she had also made veiled comments about her travels in between the time she left Rosemary and then returned to her upon that fateful day at the Green Lanterns Pub. She said only that she’d “been near Cornwall,” but the rituals in which she indulged prior to administering to Pete suggested to Rosemary that Ariana might have spent time in a coven… or someplace very like it.

Not that such a thing bothered Rosemary – she knew Ariana well enough to know that whatever choices her friend made were with a pure heart. But if a gypsy needed anything to compound an Englishman’s fear or dislike, it was having the whiff of witchcraft about her.

In response to Rosemary’s question, Ariana gave a sardonic humph and kicked a pebble with her booted foot.

“Be there any potential harm to a body in what thou wouldst prescribe?” Rosemary asked, her tone one of concern.

“I think not. But I have ne’er actually used such potent remedies before. I only know they exist. Naturally, I would ask Pete if he wished me to try them before making use of them.”

The heat and the emotions of the day made Rosemary impatient to be doing something, anything to improve their current state. “Then let us go back and ask him already. If he agrees, we still have some coin. If they do not cost more than we have, we shall get thee thy medicines. Pete will get well, we will continue on to London, and we will one and all forget that any of this ever happened!” Rosemary turned on her heel and began walking back towards the inn.

Goodness, but Rosemary could show a temper when she wished. Ariana sighed, and trotted a few paces to catch up with her friend. She took Rosemary’s hand, and the two walked in broody silence until they reached the inn door, where Rosemary stopped to kiss Ariana’s cheek.

“Mine apologies, coz. As if thou didst need my foul mood on top of all thine other troubles.”

Ariana hugged Rosemary tightly, replying over Rosemary’s shoulder, “Never fear. We two have seen much and slept but little this past week. I blame thee not.”

Cheered, Rosemary pulled away from the hug and playfully stuck her tongue out at Ariana, then raced into the inn and shut the door. The jest had the desired effect: Ariana laughed, and yanked open the door to chase her friend to their room.