Duncan awoke later than usual the following morning. From his supine position in his bed, he gazed through a small gap in the lush red curtains over his medium-sized window to the world outside. The weather had not changed much from the day before, and although it was not raining or snowing and thin rays of sunlight streamed through a hole in the clouds, the sky was an ominous hue, and the atmosphere had an expectant, electric quality to it. Shaking off the residual unease of his forgotten, pulseless dreams, he stretched beneath his tower of blankets, relishing the popping and snapping sensations that resonated within his stiff body; his overburdened hike the previous evening had left him tender. He relaxed there, content, until an unearthly wail, sounding as though it began deep within some primordial creature and rumbled up through its throat, exploded from somewhere near the dying, flickering embers of the fire and filled the room, bouncing off the bare walls. That sound, raw and animalistic and not at all human, made Duncan’s breath catch in his throat and his heart pound. When the wail was cut short, he heard a violent rustling sound coupled with loud gasps and choking emanating from the same source. It took him a moment to process and react to the alarming noises. Duncan swung his legs out of bed, threw open his window curtains for light, and lunged across the room to where William lay.
In the pale rays of the shy midmorning sun, William was quivering in his makeshift bed. His blankets were half-strewn onto the floor, his bare, agitating legs twisted in the wool. His trembling hair spilled across his face in long, damp tendrils, and his shuddering arms curled in toward his body at unnatural angles.
“Hey!” cried Duncan, drawing up a few feet short of his guest, irresolute. He did not want to get close enough for William to touch him. What sort of devilry was this? Could he be contaminated in some way?
William appeared not to hear him. “William!” he tried again. Still, he shook. His exquisite features were transformed into a grotesque mask by the musculoskeletal contortions. He blinked rapidly and his neck jerked from side to side. He bared his teeth as his muscles bulged like thin, knotted ropes. White, foamy saliva leaked from the corner of his mouth, and Duncan remembered the many sick wolves he had seen in recent years. Might he have been bitten during his time in the wilderness? Duncan, helpless and alarmed, could only stand and watch as William behaved as one possessed. A visceral, intense reaction of revulsion and fear gripped him. This man was tormented by something
. Something evil.
Coming to a decision, Duncan raced to the door and threw it open. “Malcolm!” he barked, for his valet was racing along the corridor toward his bedchamber. He must have heard that frightful wail; Duncan doubted whether anyone in the north wing of the castle had escaped it. “He’s…ill…or something—get help!” Duncan did not know what kind of help William needed. A physician or a priest? Both? Malcolm did not wait for further direction. He spun on his heel and raced off in the opposite direction.
Duncan returned to his room, where he saw that William had fallen still but for one last shiver. His strange behavior could not have lasted longer than half a minute, he calculated based on his movements around the room and corridor, though it felt as though an hour must have passed. Was it safe to approach him? he wondered. If William were indeed possessed, would some demon enter Duncan as well?
Deciding that, having spent the night in the same room as William, Duncan would have already been contaminated if that were to happen at all, he made his way toward him. He now lay limply on the couch, one arm dangling over the edge of the cushions, leaving his knuckles to graze the floor. He was, as ever, beautiful, though Duncan noticed a new pale yellow stain on the front of his shift. When he heard frantic footsteps and metallic clanking in the corridor outside, he threw a blanket over William’s lower half to preserve his dignity.
Angus, long sword drawn, led a group of brawny, wild-eyed men into the room. All but one were in some state of undress, and most were shirtless. Malcolm brought up the rear, candlestick in hand. Duncan’s heart leaped into his throat when he saw the motley crew arrive, and all of them froze as they took in the scene of William, sprawled on the couch as Duncan, immobile, stood over him. Duncan considered throwing himself on top of William lest any of the new arrivals attack him. He was helpless, after all, and probably dying. Deciding this would be excessive, he opted to step a little closer to William, so that he now stood between William and his father and his men.
“I think he must be ill, or possessed, or something,” Duncan explained, hardly looking from the figure below him as he tried to shift nonchalantly to a solid position between William and the others. It was irrational, but he almost felt that if he looked away, William might start to shake again. And seeing anyone obviously in the throes of something sinister and terrible, even if he was an English stranger, was not something Duncan wished to relive. “Mhairi ought to see to him. Or Master Bovary. Or Father Broun. I don’t know which.”
“What happened?” Angus asked, coming to stand beside Duncan. He had lowered his sword, so Duncan did not mind his closeness. They stared down at William, who had yet to move a muscle.
“I woke up, and he was shaking,” Duncan said, tilting his head. It was difficult to tell whether William was breathing. Was he dead? “And he was spitting…foam.”
“Shaking and spitting?” Angus repeated, looking as though he wanted to get a better look at William but appearing reluctant to get any closer to him. Angus was no coward, but he was not stupid.
“Aye. Trembling all over, and he frothed at the mouth.” Duncan noticed now that the saliva remained on William’s lips and chin, and without reflection, he leaned forward and wiped it away with the sleeve of his shift. William’s lips were soft and yielded to Duncan’s light sideways pressure. He heard Angus draw a breath behind him, and a few of the other men present shifted with unease. Duncan wondered if he had sealed his fate as a dead man, but he disliked seeing the drool there. He did not know William, but he imagined that if he were able, he would have wiped it away as soon as possible.
“The wolves got him,” one of the guards interjected. “He has the sickness. I’ve seen it before. The witch can’t help him. Neither can the physician. Shall I call in Father Broun for his rites, m’lords?”
“Thank you, Barrach,” Duncan said curtly to the offending guard. The idea of William succumbing to the venom of a wolf bite made him testy. It was not a peaceful death, and he would wish it upon very few. “If we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it.” He disliked it when the more superstitious or fanatical of his men called Mhairi a witch. She was not evil—she was unparalleled in her experience in all matters related to health, and the effectiveness of her work made others uncomfortable. They assumed there was something supernatural in her skill. His defensive thoughts were interrupted when a single weak, breathy sound, like the sighing of a kitten, issued from William’s lips. No one in the room moved.
“Is he…dead?” another guard asked after a pause. Perhaps because of the gravitas of the situation, Angus’s men were being annoyingly informal. Neither Angus nor Duncan attempted to discipline their impertinence, however, for the sight of William’s face, which emitted no further noise, absorbed them. Again, Duncan could not help but wonder if William was dead. But now
he must be. That breath had been his death rattle.
The paralyzing spell of William’s audible breath now punctuated by the profound silence, Duncan came to his senses and knelt upon the floor next to the couch. He reached out and tucked an arm under William’s shoulders, raising him from the cushions, a manipulation that did not elicit any sort of reaction from his lifeless visitor, whose head tilted backward without support. His jutting shoulder blades felt slight and delicate as glass beneath the thin layers of fabric separating their flesh. Duncan shifted to prop the back of William’s still warm head against his chest. He flicked William’s face twice with his middle finger. Still, William did not react, so Duncan beckoned his father to pass him his blade. Grabbing it by the hilt, he placed the end of Angus’s long sword under William’s nose. The metal clouded as William’s warm, shallow breath fell upon it.
As though prompted by the sound of Duncan’s deep, tense voice, William cracked open his eyelids to reveal pupils large as saucers as he squinted at the seven partially naked men peering down at him. Duncan withdrew his father’s sword and laid it on the floor.
“Heaven,” mumbled William, the word slurred almost beyond recognition. His bleary gaze floated over his audience with unfettered interest. Duncan felt his cheeks flush. If he did not know any better, he would have supposed William was merry; he did not appear fully attending, nor did he seem aware that everyone’s attention was fixed upon him. His lips tugged upward into a vague, almost simple smile, and Duncan was once again struck by his remarkable feminine beauty despite the purple rings about his eyes and his sunken cheeks.
“You aren’t dead yet,” Angus countered brusquely in his lilting English, immune to the sentiments of pity and intrigue Duncan fought to suppress. Duncan knew his father hated speaking English more than he did, for though he had never said so, he appeared self-conscious of his accent. Perhaps because of this, he was always less tactful than usual when conversing in the language. “I take it the wolves got you?”
William stared blankly at Angus for several long moments, as though processing his words, then closed his eyes. “Tired,” he whispered, and then, sighing, drifted off to sleep. Duncan untangled his arms from William and laid him back in his blankets. He remained uncommunicative, muttering often irrelevant one-word answers to anyone who addressed him by name.
The guards, Malcolm, and then Angus dispersed.
“You will call me back when—if—he is coherent again,” Angus said on his way out.
Duncan had intended to spend his day skinning yesterday’s kill with the captain of the guard, but now, it seemed, he was to spend it guarding an ailing Englishman. Grumbling inwardly about his ill fortune, he dressed and retrieved a book from his bedside table, then sat in his chair before the hearth. He read a few pages before he set the book in his lap and eyed William.
“Why are you here?” Duncan asked. Maybe William would be more honest now that his defenses were down.
William smiled and turned his head to the side. “You,” he murmured.