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A Ribbon of Scarlet

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His smell lingers with me always, even in my sleep... as if the dark folds of his cloak were draped about my shoulders, heavy and made of a cloying velvet. I wait for him every night, Cathy having shooed me away from the common room and the loud nightly customers, ever the conscientious innkeeper. What I want to do is dash out the door and run down the road, heels and heart pounding, arms pumping, my blood rushing violently into my ears, my eyes, clouding my already dimmed vision. And then I would find him, alone and tormented, his eyes closed in... what is it, pain? Or is it fury? I would find him there, and I would clutch him safe to me, stroke his knitted brow; perhaps murmur a gentle childhood lullaby that he just might remember... and we would kneel there in the heather for a long, long time, crowned by the cold, distant moonlight above.

But, no... I do not do any of these things. What I do is light a candle, then another. I leave the door to the room open and shuffle to the back pantry, beyond my father's room, and pilfer two more candles. When I get back, I light those, too; the more light, the merrier, I suppose, and the easier he will sleep.

I don't know what exactly goes on in his mind, but I would like to. I want to know what's destroying him from the inside. Sometimes, he'll wake me with wild, desperate sobs... yells... flailing and kicking and screaming; and he won't recognize me when I wake him, and he'll strike at me so I have to throw myself down on his chest and wait for the madness to leave him.

Other times... he'll whimper, soft-like, and moan but one word, one name: "Jacky... Jacky..."

Jacky.

There isn't much I know about her, really; I do know she's dead, and also that her death is part of the reason James is in his current condition, driven by a burning vengeance to destroy those who supposedly caused her ultimate demise. From the way his voice sounds, sometimes, during his nocturnal utterances, I think that he might have been her lover... and that he still thinks about her a lot, when he's sane enough to, poor man. At times, even, when he looks at me, I don't think he really sees me, for me. He just sees, well, a source of comfort, I guess... a shelter from his torment... but that the one he really loves has passed from this life, from his life, and while he remains here, he could never feel for another the feelings he harbored for her.

I loosen my mop from it's ribbon, shaking it out quite violently, as if shaking these thoughts from my head. What's done is done. She's gone anyways. My hand goes to the scarlet love-knot that James had tied not two months before, his long fingers tangling in my hair. She's gone. But still... I can't help getting the feeling that he's going too, and fast. That his spirit is still chasing after hers, fleeting and ethereal through the skies. And I also know that, whatever happens in our future, my own ghost shall always, always follow his.

As I am changing into my nightdress, I hear footsteps in the hall... a resonant, familiar pace that makes my heart leap, but not with excitement, no. With the deepest, most all-consuming worry. The nights his footsteps sound so slow, so heavy, are the same nights that the bed dampens with his salty sweat; the same nights his troubled groans fill my ears with incessant, painful repetition. I know he would have come in through the back entrance, where none could see him, a silent shadow hiding his face il tenebroso. A rather shameful feeling of dread begins to well up in my chest as I pull the translucent fabric of the shift over my head and smooth it down, keeping an eye on the door all the while.

Just as I finish changing, the handle turns, and the door is slowly pushed open, creaking a bit on its aging hinges. James's face is covered in shadow and his mask, so I can't see his expression clearly. He merely stands there for a moment, his face turned towards me. "Bess," comes his hoarse whisper, and I lower my hands, realizing that I had been holding them clenched tightly in front of me as if begging for alms - or praying, perhaps - my knuckles turning white with pressure. I flush a bit, and then condescend to approach him, as slowly as he had come down the hallway; I reach out for him, and he does come to me, yes, and buries his head in my shoulder as his arms circle my waist. There was no storming about, no growling nor crying out nor fist-shaking, yet his pensive half-silence troubles me infinitely more.

But instead of speaking, asking all the thousands of questions that would only burden him further, I pull back from James's embrace and busy myself with removing his cloak and mask. Pulling them both off, I shake them out and fold them neatly. Going to place them on the splint-bottom chair in the corner, I find my gaze once again drawn to James as he stands, his back to me, to divest himself of his sword belt, from which he unbuckles the scabbard, and props them both neatly against the bedside table. Then, he turns, and I gasp in horror.

His countenance is very grave as he leans up against the wall to tug off his boots, but what I notice most are the long, jagged red rows plowing angrily across his left cheek... and the ugly bruise forming on the bone just above one eye. Biting my lip, I continue to observe his weary, hollowed face as he straightens, unbuttons his waistcoat, and pulls his shirt over his head. Another bruise, this one flaring in bluish hue across his left side. My eyes follow him as he shuffles over to the washstand, where he gives his hands and forearms a good scrubbing, then splashes some water on to his face, dries briskly, and sheds the remainder of his clothing before crawling into bed. He lies still. I watch him.

After a few moments of utter silence, he flips over and stares back at me, his dark gaze boring holes through mine. I finally ask, "Aren't you going to eat anything?", not physically able to bring my voice anywhere above a soft murmur. James shakes his head.

"No, dear one... no. I - I just want to rest now. Just rest." I nod, but he continues to look at me, his eyes strangely calm. What is going on? He seems well enough tonight... "Aren't you coming to bed?", he speaks again, and I have to glance away, to keep myself from staring. It's his eyes... they seem to be enchanted, bottomless pools of brackish water, with goblins all 'round, reaching out their elfin hands to pull me in and let me drown. There's something wrong. I know it.

"In a minute," I hear my soft reply, but am not entirely conscious of actually speaking. I sense his eyes on my back as I go back over to the washstand, open the cabinet underneath, and pull out the jar of comfrey-and-yarrow poultice. Going to him, then, I kneel by the bed and motion for him to sit up; he does so, hand going ruefully to his face, as if he just now realized the cuts that were there. I am aware of an uneasy silence as I smooth the healing salve over his skin, the warmth of it doing my shaking hands good. Bess. Calm down. Just get this over with. It's probably nothing - no more than a bit of a scuffle with some blustering drunkard he met on his way back. I ease myself up next to him to do the bruise on his side, pressing gently to feel for broken bones. He winces at one point, but other than that remains utterly quiet, and something in his brooding face keeps my eyes straying to his sword, propped up in the corner and looking almost cryptic in the half light. "There, all done," I announce, my voice just a bit too loud, too cheery, bouncing from the whitewashed walls. James, however, seems not to notice, and grabs my wrist before I can stand up, and holds me there, holds me down whilst he studies me with the most abject curiosity. Why is he acting so strangely?

"... James?" In response to my voice, he looks at me more squarely, raising his brows a bit, then dropping his gaze suddenly as his eye bruise reminds him of its presence. "Is... everything alright?" I speak slowly to him, as if to a child, struggling to keep my voice calm. He nods and releases me, examining me for an instant longer before giving me a small smile, petting my cheek, and lying back down, exhaling deeply and tiredly as he burrows into the sheets. After a moment, I haul myself up, replace the jar of salve, and wipe off my hands before bringing myself around to look at him again. He seems to be deep in slumber already, his injured cheek resting on the pillow. Great. Probably rubbed off all the stuff while he was at it.

My gaze, however, returns inevitably to the sword. Something's wrong... I just know it! I sigh in frustration, once again bringing my hands up, rubbing them together, knotting my fingers as my mind races, a stagecoach flying onwards with neither road nor directions.

Another second's deliberation, and I pad quietly over to the resting weapon, peeking nervously at James's still form. Deep breath. As I secure the sword in my trembling hand, the metallic tip of the scabbard scratches against the floor, and I freeze, looking over at James again. Still asleep... and starting to snore a bit. Another deep, steadying inhalation, and in one smooth, strained movement, I lift up the scabbard and draw out the sword, feeling slightly Arthurian in my much altered and uncommonly hysterical state of mind. I look, then, to the object in my right hand. What? Th- the sword... it's...

The glint of steel in the candlelight is dulled, buffed out by clots a of tacky, reddish-brown substance all along length of the curving blade; I sniff at it, and my nostrils are directly assailed by the smell of... Blood?!

Reaching out a slow, reluctant finger, I press my nail into a patch of the sickly sweet, metallic-smelling substance and examine the bits I scrape off. Oh Lord... it really is blood... I swing my glance wildly over to James, who is lying flat on his back, snoring lustily. My heart begins to race in pure, utter panic. No... he wouldn't have! He couldn't have! I know what he does out there... and what he doesn't. He's not some bloody murderer! Oh no no no... Breath already coming in pants, I resheathe the sword and set the whole assemblage on the floor, as noislessly as my trembling self can manage. What... is... going... on?! Flying to get my shawl, I snatch it up - air... I need some air...! - blow out the nearest candle, cram my feet quickly into my boots, and, bundling the laces out of the way, am out the door, down the hall, slinking furtively past the kitchen, and out the back entrance, flying blindly into the night.

All rational thought has escaped me now, I only want to know what is happening, what James has been doing... and how close to capture he might be. Oh dear Lord... please help us... keep him safe. Keep us all safe. I let my feet take me where they will, now cutting through a damp tenebrous alleyway, now leaping over the restive body of a sleeping drunkard who's collapsed near the doorway of a roadside tavern... the main road heading out eastway, where I know that he often waits, a dragon of myth hunting eagerly for his prey.

Rounding the corner to where our inn's narrow street connects to the highway, I nearly stumble for a moment, but I pick myself up and keep going, keep running. I am out of the town, now, where people are sparse and buildings even sparser. Oh, James... please tell me you didn't... please tell me nobody saw you... please tell me you won't be caught... please, James... please...

Please tell me you have no blood on your hands.

Mud has formed along most of the road, courtesy of the warming rains we have so often been blessed with, and I sometimes have to stop and pick through it as it holds onto my ankles, pulling me down, pulling me in. Bess... Bess... I seem to hear James's voice now, echoing through the recesses of my mind... my head is spinning, and I think that I might collapse. Want of oxygen? I struggle to breathe. No... Bess... think. Think! It's in your mind! A shadow passes over the glowing half-moon, and I seem to see things, lurking by the roadside, reaching out to grab me. No! What are you looking for? I don't know what I'm looking for. I don't know anything...

Sliding to a complete stop, I stand there in the middle of the road, bent double, hands resting on my knees, panting only a bit yet feeling totally exhausted. After a few moments, my head stops spinning, and I look up once more, re-fastening my shawl, which had flown all hoi-polloi as I ran. The moon seems to clear, then, and I turn my face to it, as a sunflower to the daytime light, taking a deep breath and trying to empty my mind... but finding, to my regret, I cannot. James... what have you done? I just want to know... please. I won't be angry. I promise... Just tell me...

My thoughts are interrupted then, when I open my eyes to glance around. I find no bogies in the shadows now, no concievable danger, only the shape of two lone figures... standing over something on the ground...

Curiosity and dread being tearing my mind in equal directions as I jog over to where the figures stand, finding by the soft light that they are two men, dressed in rags and tatters. They seem to take no notice of me, yet shuffle off as I come up beside them, breathing heavily. As I look down to the place they were staring, I become paralyzed in sheer and utter horror. Oh, dear Lord... Oh, God... no... no...

As I stare down at the bloodied, discomfited face of a human body, I am dimly aware of one man muttering to the other, "It's awright, Joey, I known tha' sod... 'e warn't worth a tinker's dam, 'e was... world 'as one less bastard in it", but I cannot seem to tear my eyes away. I - is he alive? Turning to the beggar-men, I ask "Sir! Is this man alive? Sir...?", but let my voice trail off as they seem to not hear me, ignoring me, going on their own way. I bend down, and let my hand stop just under the prostrate man's nose, and feel no air there to tickle it. My God... he really is dead! What happened here? My stomach turns in revulsion as I smell, once again, the odor of blood, but I pinch my nostrils and eyes closed as I try to calm my erratically pounding heart. There is something, though, that draws my gaze back to the still face of the cadaver... some old familiarity lurking there. Squinting through the clinging darkness, I observe that his face is tight, as if having struggled, an arrested movement from a hushed, nocturnal death-fight. It's his eyes... his eyes...

His eyes are still open.

I let out a shriek and draw back, landing on my rear in the dust, scuttling back as far as I can. No! Get away... get... away...! Stop it... no closer... please... James... help me... please stop it...

"Stop it!", the small girl yelled, kicking violently at the stranger's knees, her dark hair flying as she shook her head, eyes closed and voice breaking with startled sobs. The stranger laughed coarsley, holding her out further from him so that her short legs couldn't reach him. "Pretty little thing, isn't she?"

"No! Let me go! Let me -"

A large man came thundering into her vision, bellowing all the while. The stranger dropped her, flat on her back, and through the jar of pain, the little girl looked up, tears streaking down her cheeks, and in that instant, she saw the stranger's face...

"I... it's him..."
~<>~<>~<>~<>~

My father had known Bliffil for a few years, back when he frequented our inn. I, unfortunately, also had the perverse pleasure of his acquaintence. "Perverse", of course, is quite the correct word, applicable to both the man and his sentiments, as he always was fond of making a grab at my various parts and personage... even when I was scarce high to his waist. Especially then. Neither Father nor I liked him much, but I suppose we did put up with him best as possible - Father trying to keep his gorge down, and I trying to stay out of the reach of Bliffil's straying hands.

After a while, we saw him no more.

But now, here he is, lying quite dead in the dust at my feet. Still shaking, I kneel carefully next to him, and run my eyes down along the length of his form. Squinting, I notice that there seems to be a dark patch of something around his midsection, which is obviously rounder now than I remember... Blood. It's blood. Someone must've run him through the stomach, I suppose...

James... is this your work? Will you be able to rest now that you've done it? Will we be able to be together now? For real? Please... please tell me what's going on... Is this vile man the same one who haunted your dreams so much? Is it all over now that you've killed him? Please...

Please don't do this any more.

I close my eyes and take a long, rattling breath. Ah, well... it's over now anyways. What's done is done... and I doubt that Bliffil has many people on this earth who will mourn for him. I certainly won't.

Pulling my shawl tighter around my shoulders, I shiver in the chill eastward breeze and begin my journey back home. I do hope I have not left him too long...
~<>~<>~<>~<>~

As I peer through the door, I find the kitchen quite dim, lit only by the light of the hearth fire. Cathy stands silhouetted in front of it, bending to the flagstones, probably putting her customary jug of late-night coffee to boil. Does this woman ever sleep? Snorting to myself, I manage to slink past her, and creak up the stairs, praying I don't meet anyone on the way up.

Easing open the door to our room, I dart in and lean against the wall, exhaling in relief. The walk back had calmed my pounding heart for a bit, but it has started jumping crazily once again. Draping my shawl back on the chair, I simply stand for a moment, looking at James's still, sleeping face. I see it twitch a bit, and he stirs quietly... but the covers are wound and flung all around, as if he'd tossed in feverish nightmare as he so often does. Oh, James... Going to him, now, I stroke his dark locks back from his forehead - sure enough, it's damp with sweat. It doesn't matter what you've done. I'm sorry I left you so suddenly, and wasn't here to comfort you tonight. I am so sorry...

I slip off my shoes and lie down next to him, my arms tight around his waist and my face resting up between his shoulder blades, the skin of his back warm and smooth to the touch. In a little while, the inky blackness outside will begin to fade to a pale grey, and I'll dress and go down to the kitchen to begin the workday, filled with people and talk and food and bright, transient glimpses of other lives, other stories. As he wakes, now, and turns to me with light in his eyes, a brimful light I have never seen before, I am filled with cautious, tender hopes for the future...

... And as his lips gently caress my cheek, along my jawline; as his fingers graze over the blood-red ribbon woven in my hair, I give James a tentative smile and whisper a soft good morning.



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