Copyright © 2013 Coleen Kwan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Through the long hours of the night London pitched and groaned, a restless creature in uneasy slumber. A thousand fires flickered across its twitching back. Over rivers and hills it sprawled, swallowing up quiet fields and meadows, an insatiable protean organism powered by a life of its own. To the north, the edge of the city lapped up against ancient hamlets, preparing to overtake them one by one. And just a few miles past, surrounded by winter fields lying fallow, sat a crumbling manor house, its lichened facade bravely and futilely facing the city’s inevitable onslaught. Tonight its peace was broken by a rider galloping up the drive, his horse all afroth, a limp figure clasped in front of him. They slithered to a halt outside the stout oaken door. Still carrying his load, the rider dismounted awkwardly and ran towards the house.
Julian Darke battered his shoulder against the oak door. His arms were fully occupied with the comatose woman, and he dared not set her down. In his agitation he had some strange notion she would disintegrate if he loosened his hold.
“Figgs! Open up,” he bellowed, his lungs burning with the effort. Despite the frigidness of the night, sweat poured down his back, soaking into his shirt and britches. He kicked at the front door with his scuffed boots and cursed like a tar.
On the other side of the oak, heavy feet shuffled, then a key rattled in the lock, and the door finally groaned open. Julian barged in, shoving aside the lumbering manservant.
“Call my father,” Julian ordered. “Rouse him if you must. Quick, man. Don’t just gawp there. Can’t you see this is a dire emergency?”
Not pausing in his stride, he moved down the dimly lit hallway. His shoulder muscles twinged under the weight of the woman in his arms. She couldn’t have weighed much, but he’d held her debilitated form steady on his mount for what had felt like hours, and his limbs shrilled for respite. Not yet, not yet. The peril had not yet passed.
He kicked open the door to his father’s examination room. Despite the darkness he trod surefooted to the table in the centre of the room, where he gingerly lowered his burden onto the surface. Not the faintest sound issued from the bundle of cloak that was the woman he’d carried home. His throat tightened. Surely she hadn’t perished just when he’d brought her to safety?
“Julian? What’s going on?”
He turned to see his father entering the room. Despite the lateness of the hour, Elijah Darke was still fully dressed in suit and waistcoat, reading spectacles perched on the end of his nose, an unlit pipe in his hand.
“This woman needs our help.” Julian gestured towards the figure lying on the table. “She’s gravely injured. She needs both our expertise.”
Pocketing his pipe, Elijah approached the table and turned on the twin lamps suspended above the examining table. Julian let out a small sigh of relief. In a crisis, his father was always clear-headed. He would act first and ask questions later.
“What have we here?” Elijah lifted the stained cloak covering the woman. He froze. “God in heaven! Her face—”
Julian nodded grimly. He had seen her face earlier on and, after a cursory examination, had instinctively hidden it with her cloak.
“Good grief, son, you’re injured too!” His father’s face whitened as he stared at Julian. “You’re covered with blood.” He moved towards Julian and hauled open the lapels of his rumpled coat.
“A few scratches only. Most of the blood is hers.” Impatient, Julian tore off his bloodied coat and dropped it to the floor. “It’s nothing, Father, nothing compared to her wounds.”
His father made a testy growl. “Your injuries need proper seeing to.”
“You cannot assist me in that state. At the very least wash your hands.” Elijah divested himself of his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and scrubbed his hands at a washstand.
Julian hurriedly followed suit, flung on one of his father’s clean aprons and within moments was back at the table. His father had peeled the cloak back from the woman’s body and was bending over her.
“Well?” Julian asked.
His father grunted. “See for yourself.”
For some reason, instead of staring rudely at her exposed face, he found himself reaching for the hood of the cloak and smoothing it back from the woman’s head. A handful of brown curls tumbled out, incongruously bright and clean and fresh against the oozing mess staining everything else. The tang of spilt blood hit the back of his throat, like the taste of pennies. He swallowed hard, aware of his roiling innards. Why was the smell of blood unmanning him like this? Since he was old enough to walk, he’d assisted his father. He had lanced boils, drained suppurating wounds, stitched up gaping cuts, all with nary a wince. And he was a qualified doctor too. He’d dissected corpses, amputated arms and legs, trepanned a number of patients. In all these years he’d never suffered a queasy turn, and yet now his stomach threatened to unman him. Why now? Why did this woman affect him so?
She was a stranger to him; he’d never laid eyes on her before this evening. It must simply be his body protesting, sapped of energy after the tribulations he’d faced tonight. He willed his nerves to steady as he took a proper look at the woman.
Under the harsh, hissing light, the white of her face was crisscrossed with deep gashes, like a peach haphazardly sliced open. Mercifully both eyes appeared intact and unharmed. Congealing blood spattered the front of her dress, the pattern of the faded cotton submerged beneath the sticky mess. A swelling contusion on her right temple indicated the heavy blow which had rendered her insensate.
Elijah lifted up one of the woman’s hands. “What happened here?” His voice was rough with disbelief.
Julian could only shake his head at the bloodied stumps, all that was left of the middle and ring fingers. He had bound his handkerchief as best he could around the hand, but there had been considerable loss of blood, and the fingers had been crudely removed, leaving behind a messy lump of flesh.
“Can we save her hand?” he asked.
“We shall do our best.”
Using a sharp pair of scissors, Elijah began to cut off the woman’s dress in order to complete his examination. As the shears tore through the thin material, the woman moaned. It was no more than a murmur, but it seemed the most blood-curdling sound Julian had ever heard. She squirmed, her flailing arms almost knocking the scissors from Elijah’s hand.
“Hold her down, son,” Elijah barked.
Julian obeyed, but the instant he pressed down on the woman’s shoulders, her eyelids flew open. Two green eyes stared up at him, frozen in a moment of sheer terror. With the glaring lights overhead, he must appear like a dark silhouette looming over her, Julian surmised. And then every thought fled from him as she started to shriek and thrash her limbs, struggling with all her might to free herself.