by Rosemarie Hauer
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.
"You're hurt," Elizabeth stated with concern.
"Its...nothing," 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 overpowered by
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.
Slowly, deliberately, 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 her voice.
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
stepping through 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.