Shadows were chasing
him, pressing in on him, suffocating him. There were voices. He couldn't
understand any spoken words, but he knew they were accusing him, condemning
him, and tearing him apart with their merciless judgement. He struggled
to his feet, lost under the weight of his guilt, and when he finally stood,
but he couldn't move, couldn't run as his mind dictated he should. He was
rooted to the spot, helplessly watching the crows as they obscured the
sky like a huge black cloud. The noise of their wings reminded him of water
rushing over steep rocks, and he craned his neck in order to
gauge the distance
between him and the source of the menacing sound. Suddenly he was
pushed to the ground by a force so overwhelming that it drove the air from
his lungs. A sharp pain at the back of his head made his awareness
...and he found
himself lying on the rough wooden floor by his cot. Startled by his own
panting, he tried to move and scan the room, but the pain was still there,
throbbing through his head relentlessly. The moonlit sky beyond the small
window gave him back some measure of orientation as he struggled to a sitting
position, wiping the sweat off his face with the sleeve of his cotton shirt.
His heart was still hammering wildly as the door flew open and someone
entered the room. A familiar voice called out his name.
"Josiah, are you
all right? What happened?"
A feeling of gratitude
warred with embarrassment that someone should be witness to his plight.
Elizabeth. She of all people...
He tried to rise,
but a surge of dizziness forced him to place his head onto his knees, and
he fought to regain his breathing and to calm his still racing heart.
A cool hand brushed
across his forehead, and he shivered under the touch.
Elizabeth stated with concern.
he managed hoarsely. "It was...only a dream."
He made an effort
to raise his head at last, but a wave of nausea washed over him,
and he closed his eyes. Suddenly she was very close, and the image of her
in her white nightgown, bathed in moonlight, merged with a fragrance so
sweet that it brought on a different kind of dizziness. Then there was
softness, too, the softness of her touch as she knelt beside him, pulling
his head against her breast. Her fingers gently probed the back of his
head, and he flinched as she encountered the source of the pain where he
must have hit some solid object on his way down. But the pain was easily
all those sweet
sensations she evoked, and for a moment he allowed himself to simply relax
in her arms, absorbing the moment of perfection she created. The scent
of her, the softness she surrounded him with, the warmth of her concern
wove an irresistible spell around his heart, one he was reluctant to break,
even though he knew he must.
he tensed and lifted his head. Immediately she moved into his line
of vision, her eyes huge with worry.
He mustered a faint
smile. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "Was I that noisy when I hit the ground?"
"You cried out,"
she replied, and he marveled fleetingly at the softness of her palm against
his cheek before the realization hit him how intimately she was touching
him, how compromising the whole situation must look for anybody who happened
by. Carefully he took her hand and dislodged it from his face.
"Thank you for
coming," he rasped, shifting his weight in order to get up. Instantly she
was on her feet, supporting him, steadying him as his legs threatened to
give way under his own weight. She helped him to his bed, and he slumped
down gratefully. She sat beside him, and he sensed her eyes on his face,
although he kept his own carefully lowered to avoid her gaze.
"Tell me about
that dream," she demanded quietly, but he shook his head, regretting it
instantly as another stab of pain shot through him. "Josiah," she urged,
"don't be stubborn. You know talking about it will help."
"Nothing will help,"
he replied, dismayed at the hopelessness displayed in his voice.
She remained silent
for a while, but her fingers stole around his where they rested on his
thigh. He tolerated her touch, trying to ignore the fact that it burned
his skin and seared his heart.
"Lie down, Josiah,"
she ordered softly, and he complied with childlike obedience. He had to
admit that it felt good to be lying down again, but when he opened his
eyes a moment later, her face was above him as she bent over him, studying
him intently. He closed his eyes again, unable to meet that quiet
gaze without responding in a most embarrassing way. He heard a rustle of
cloth as she moved off the bed, and hoped she would simply leave, believing
he had fallen asleep. For a while he still heard her moving about in the
room, but gradually the sounds blurred and became muted as he drifted off.
Elizabeth put the
glass of water she had gotten for Josiah on the makeshift nightstand next
to his cot. She felt a rush of tenderness as she looked down into his gaunt
face, his features finally relaxed in sleep. She reached out to feather
a caress across his hair, but stopped in mid-movement, her hand suspended
above his head.
She wondered about
the demons that obviously haunted him. It was not hard to guess that his
must have been a difficult life so far. In a way he reminded her of a rock,
shaped by the forces of nature, the rough surface gradually smoothed by
rain, sand and wind.
He stirred in his
sleep, and she reached down to pull up his blanket. Making a mental
note to talk to Nathan first thing in the morning, she caught herself staring
at the collar of his nightshirt where the top buttons had come undone.
Her eyes had adjusted so well to the dim light of the moon that she could
make out the gentle throbbing of Josiah's pulse at the side of his neck.
Droplets of perspiration glistened in the hollow of his throat, and her
fingers ached to touch him there, to wipe the moistness away.
She thought how
eagerly he had responded to her touch earlier when she had held his head,
and how he had fought her at the same time. Wondering how long it had been
since he last had been held by a woman, she stroked his cheek unthinkingly.
His eyes fluttered
open and he turned his head, looking at her in surprise.
"Yes," she whispered,
smiling, "I'm still here."
"How long have
I slept?" he asked, glancing toward the window.
"Not long enough,"
she replied, "but it does seem to have helped. Your eyes are clearer now."
He sat up, and
she could see that his movements were steady and secure again.
"Are you still
dizzy?" she asked, relieved when he shook his head.
He swung his long
legs over the edge of the bed and looked up at her with a frown. "I'm very
grateful for your help, Elizabeth," he said, and she thought that she had
never liked the sound of her name more than when he spoke it.
"But you should
go back to sleep now. You look tired."
"Are you sure you
will be all right?" she asked, hoping he hadn't detected the regret in
Rising to his feet,
he extended his hand to help her up. "I will be," he said. They stood very
close, facing each other, and when she lifted her face to look up at him,
his mouth was mere inches away from hers. She could feel his breath on
her skin as he sighed softly. They didn't speak, they just exchanged a
look of silent understanding. On impulse, Elizabeth rose on tiptoes and
pressed a small kiss to his cheek. He turned his head slightly, and she
got the corner of his mouth instead. There was a quick intake of breath,
his or hers, she wasn't sure, and she cast down her gaze as she turned
to leave. Before
the door, she looked back at him once more. There was something in his
eyes that made her want to weep, to go back to him and hug him to her,
rocking him to soothe the despair she saw reflected in his gaze.
Whatever it was that was giving him nightmares, Elizabeth resolved to find
out about it and exorcize the demons before they could do even more harm
to his soul.
"Good night, Josiah,"
she said. "Sleep well." Tearing herself away, she turned and closed the
door behind her.