“Done,” I said, a moment later, and gently replaced the poultice. Stewed onion and garlic wrapped in muslin and soaked with penicillin broth would keep the wounds moist and draining. Renewed every hour or so, I hoped that the warmth of the poultices would also encourage circulation in the leg. And then a dressing of honey, to prevent any further bacterial invasions.
Concentration alone had kept my hands steady. Now it was done, and there was nothing more to do but wait. The saucer of wet leaves rattled against the counter as I set it down.
I didn’t think I had ever been so tired before.
BETWEEN THEM, Roger and Mr. Bug got Jamie up to our bedroom. I hadn’t wanted to disturb his leg by moving him from the surgery, but he insisted.
“I dinna want ye to be sleeping on the floor down here, Sassenach,” he said, when I protested. He smiled at me. “Ye should be in your bed—but I ken ye willna leave me alone, and so that means I must go and be in it, too, aye?”
I would have argued further, but in all truth, I was so tired that I wouldn’t have complained much if he had insisted we both sleep in the barn.
Once he was settled, though, my doubts returned.
“I’ll joggle your leg,” I said, hanging up my gown on one of the pegs. “I’ll just make up a pallet by the fire here, and—”
“You will not,” he said definitely. “Ye’ll sleep wi’ me.” He lay back on the pillows, eyes closed, his hair an auburn tumble against the linen. His skin had begun to fade; it wasn’t quite so red. It was, however, alarmingly pale where the tiny hemorrhages didn’t stain it.
“You would argue on your deathbed,” I said crossly. “You don’t have to be constantly in charge, you know. You could lie still and let other people take care of things, for once. What do you think would happen, if—”
He opened his eyes and gave me a dark blue look.
“Sassenach,” he said softly.
“I would like ye to touch me . . . without hurting me. Just once before I sleep. Would ye mind much?”
I stopped and drew breath, terribly disconcerted at the realization that he was right. Caught up in the emergency and worry of his condition, everything I had done to him during the day had been painful, intrusive, or both. Marsali, Brianna, Roger, Jemmy—all of them had touched him in gentleness, offering sympathy and comfort.
And I—I had been so terrified at the possibility of what might happen, of what I might be forced to do, that I had taken no time, allowed no room for gentleness. I looked away for a moment, blinking until the tears retreated. Then I stood and walked over to the bed, bent, and kissed him, very softly.
I stroked the hair back from his forehead, smoothed his brows with my thumb. Arch Bug had shaved him; the skin of his cheek was smooth, hot against the side of my hand. His bones were hard under his skin, framing his strength—and yet he seemed suddenly fragile. I felt fragile, too.
“I want ye to sleep beside me, Sassenach,” he whispered.
“All right.” I smiled at him, my lips trembling only a little. “Let me brush out my hair.”
I sat down in my shift, shook out my hair, and took up the brush. He watched me, not speaking, but with a faint smile on his lips, as I worked. He liked to watch me brush my hair; I hoped it was as soothing to him as it was to me.
There were noises downstairs, but they were muffled, safely distant. The shutters were ajar; firelight flickered against the glass of the window from the dying bonfire in the yard. I glanced at the window, wondering if I ought to close the shutters.
“Leave them, Sassenach,” he murmured from the bed. “I like to hear the talk.” The sound of voices from outside was comforting, rising and falling, with small bursts of laughter.
The sound of the brush was soft and regular, like surf on sand, and I felt the stress of the day lessen slowly, as though I could brush all the anxieties and dreads out of my hair as easily as tangles and bits of pumpkin vine. When at last I put down the brush and rose, Jamie’s eyes were closed.
I knelt to smoor the fire, rose to blow out the candle, and went at last to bed.
I eased myself gently into the bed beside him, not to jostle. He lay turned away from me, on his side, and I turned toward him, echoing the curve of his body with my own, careful not to touch him.
I lay very quietly, listening. All the house sounds had settled to their night-time rhythm; the hiss of the fire and the rumble of wind in the flue, the sudden startling crack! of the stairs, as though some unwary foot had stepped upon a riser. Mr. Wemyss’s adenoidal snoring reached me, reduced to a soothing buzz by the thickness of the intervening doors.
There were still voices outside, muffled by distance, disjointed with drink and the lateness of the hour. All jovial, though; no sound of hostility or incipient violence. I didn’t really care, though. The inhabitants of the Ridge could hammer each other senseless and dance on the remains, for all I cared. All my attention was focused on Jamie.
His breathing was shallow but even, his shoulders relaxed. I didn’t want to disturb him; he needed rest above all things. At the same time, I ached to touch him. I wanted to reassure myself that he was here, alive beside me—but I also needed badly to know how things went with him.
Was he feverish? Had the incipient infection in his leg blossomed in spite of the penicillin, spreading poison through his blood?
I moved my head cautiously, bringing my face within an inch of his shirt-covered back, and breathed in, slow and deep. I could feel the warmth of him on my face, but couldn’t tell through the linen nightshirt just how hot he really was.
He smelt faintly of the woods, more strongly of blood. The onions in the dressing gave off a bitter tang; so did his sweat.
I inhaled again, testing the air. No scent of pus. Too early for the smell of gangrene, even if the rot was beginning, invisible under the bandages. I thought there was a strange scent about his skin, though; something I hadn’t smelled before. Necrosis of the tissue? Some breakdown product of the snake’s venom? I blew a short breath through my nose and took in a fresh one, deeper.
“Do I stink verra badly?” he inquired.
“Uk!” I said, startled into biting my tongue, and he quivered slightly, in what I took to be suppressed amusement.
“Ye sound like a wee truffle-pig, Sassenach, snortling away back there.”
“Oh, indeed,” I said, a bit crossly. I touched the tender spot on my tongue. “Well, at least you’re awake. How do you feel?”
“Like a pile of moldy tripes.”
“Very picturesque,” I said. “Can you be a trifle more specific?” I put a hand lightly on his side, and he let his breath out in a sound like a small moan.
“Like a pile of moldy tripes . . .” he said, and pausing to breathe heavily, added, “. . . .with maggots.”
“You’d joke on your deathbed, wouldn’t you?” Even as I said it, I felt a tremor of unease. He would, and I hoped this wasn’t it.
“Well, I’ll try, Sassenach,” he murmured, sounding drowsy. “But I’m no really at my best under the circumstances.”
“Do you hurt much?”
“No. I’m just . . . tired.” He sounded as though he were in fact too exhausted to search for the proper word, and had settled for that one by default.
“Little wonder if you are. I’ll go and sleep somewhere else, so you can rest.” I made to throw back the covers and rise, but he stopped me, raising one hand slightly.
“No. No, dinna leave me.” His shoulder fell back toward me, and he tried to lift his head from the pillow. I felt still more uneasy when I realized that he was too weak even to turn over by himself.
“I won’t leave you. Maybe I should sleep in the chair, though. I don’t want to—”
“I’m cold,” he said softly. “I’m verra cold.”
I pressed my fingers lightly just under his breastbone, seeking the big abdominal pulse. His heartbeat was rapid, shallower than it should have been. He wasn’t feverish. He didn’t just feel cold, he was cold to the touch, his skin chilled and his fingers icy. I found that very alarming.
No longer shy, I cuddled close against him, my br**sts squashing softly against his back, cheek resting on his shoulder blade. I concentrated as hard as I could on generating body heat, trying to radiate warmth through my skin and into his. So often he had enfolded me in the curve of his body, sheltering me, giving me the warmth of his big body. I wished passionately that I were larger, and could do the same for him now; as it was, I could do no more than cling to him like a small, fierce mustard plaster, and hope I had the same effect.
Very gently, I found the hem of his shirt and pulled it up, then cupped my hands to fit the rounds of his buttocks. They tightened slightly in surprise, then relaxed.
It occurred to me to wonder just why I felt I must lay hands on him, but I didn’t trouble my mind with it; I had had the feeling many times before, and had long since given up worrying that it wasn’t scientific.
I could feel the faintly pebbled texture of the rash upon his skin, and the thought came unbidden of the lamia. A creature smooth and cool to the touch, a shape-shifter, passionately venomous, its nature infectious. A swift bite and the snake’s poison spreading, slowing his heart, chilling his warm blood; I could imagine tiny scales rising under his skin in the dark.
I forcibly repressed the thought, but not the shudder that went with it.
“Claire,” he said softly. “Touch me.”
I couldn’t hear his heartbeat. I could hear mine; a thick, muffled sound in the ear pressed to the pillow.
I slid my hand over the slope of his belly, and more slowly down, fingers parting the coarse curly tangle, dipping low to cup the rounded shapes of him. What heat he had was here.
I stroked him with a thumb and felt him stir. The breath went out of him in a long sigh, and his body seemed to grow heavier, sinking into the mattress as he relaxed. His flesh was like candle wax in my hand, smooth and silky as it warmed.
I felt very odd; no longer frightened, but with all my senses at once preternaturally acute and yet . . . peaceful. I was no longer conscious of any sounds save Jamie’s breathing and the beating of his heart; the darkness was filled with them. I had no conscious thought, but seemed to act purely by instinct, reaching down and under, seeking the heart of his heat in the center of his being.
Then I was moving—or we were moving together. One hand reached down between us, up between his legs, my fingertips on the spot just behind his testicles. My other hand reached over, around, moving with the same rhythm that flexed my thighs and lifted my hips, thrusting against him from behind.
I could have done it forever, and felt that perhaps I did. I had no sense of time passing, only of a dreamy peace, and that slow, steady rhythm as we moved together in the dark. Somewhere, sometime, I felt a steady pulsing, first in the one hand, then in both. It melded with the beat of his heart.
He sighed, long and deep, and I felt the air rush from my own lungs. We lay silent and passed gently into unconsciousness, together.
I WOKE FEELING utterly peaceful. I lay still, without thought, listening to the thrum of blood through my veins, watching the drift of sunlit particles in the beam of light that fell through the half-opened shutters. Then I remembered, and flung myself over in bed, staring.