They found him lying facedown amidst the hardened, frosty runnels of St. Swithin's squash patch, half frozen and out of his senses, with a crimson cap of blood crusted at the back of his head.
Elizabeth Redclift, the younger of the two sisters, hastily crossed herself and murmured a prayer, while Meg, the more direct of the pair, dropped to her knees beside the unfortunate fellow, turned him gently onto his back, and sought a pulse at the base of his throat.
Even in those straightened circumstances, it gave Meg something of a start, the look of him. He was fair, with features so finely chiseled they might have been shaped by an Italian sculptor instead of an often -- in Meg's view, at least -- careless deity. Just looking at him, she felt a strange shift, deep inside, a singular tension, as though she'd just stepped onto the crumbling edge of some precipice, either to fall or to soar like Icarus before his wings melted.
Even Elizabeth, who had sworn never to marry, preferring to take holy vows instead, drew in a breath and spoke with awe. "Mercy," she said. "He looks like a favored angel, or a saint. Is he alive?"
Meg commenced wrapping the poor traveler in her cloak, which was none too warm but better than his own clothing, amounting to a torn, soiled shirt and once-fine breeches in much the same state. "Aye, sweeting, he's alive," she replied, "though truly it is a mystery why that should be so. 'Tis plain he's been wandering a while -- see how dirty he is -- and this wound is fair old."
"I'll fetch Mother Mary Benedict," Elizabeth said, and started toward the postern gate gaping open behind them, one of several like it, placed here and there in the abbey's venerable walls. The good dame was abbess, and therefore the ultimate authority.
Meg hastily grasped her sister's kirtle, which was hardly in better condition than the stranger's garb, though cleaner of course, and neatly mended, to stay her. The sheriff had been at the front gates, just two days past, looking for a man of similar countenance, and Meg both misliked and mistrusted the king's man, for she'd seen him in the village often enough, bullying peasants and even merchants.
"No, Elizabeth -- we mustn't be too hasty. He may be an outlaw, or a heretic, doomed to burn at the stake."
Elizabeth gasped again, spread one hand over her bosom, swallowed and then crossed herself again. "Surely there are reasons for the abbess's rules, Meg -- the plague is abroad, and there are knaves aplenty wandering the roads in these hard times. We would be wise to be cautious."
Meg cherished her sister, would indeed have laid down her very life for her, but in these moments she sorely missed Gabriella, her twin, gone these several months to Cornwall. Gabriella was bold and strong-minded, and having her so far away, all the while knowing little or naught of how she fared as the duly wedded wife of Lord Avendall, was akin to having a limb sundered. In all these months, there had been no word, and Dame Johanna, Gabriella's companion, had neither returned to the abbey, as expected, nor sent a message. Meg was secretly worried, though she put on a brave face for Elizabeth's sake.
"Never mind caution," she said, rather impatiently. "Go and fetch the pushcart from the potting shed -- the big one we used to harvest pumpkins. It should support his weight, so that we can bring him in out of the cold. And mind you don't call attention to yourself while you're at it, Elizabeth Redclift. You'll give an accounting if you do."
Elizabeth looked pityingly at the wayfaring stranger, then turned, hoisting her kirtle and the skirts of the gown beneath, and dashed across the frost-scoured garden to disappear through the postern gate.
The god-man, barely alive by Meg's reckoning, murmured something and stirred, and Meg hastened to lend what comfort she could, gathering him up in her arms. "Here now," she said, "you've fallen amongst friends. We'll not turn you over for burning unless it comes out that you deserve it."
She thought just the faintest flicker of a smile touched the man's mouth at that moment, but of course she must have imagined it. He was surely too broken to feel mirth, and certainly too weak to show it if, for some unfathomable reason, he did.
"Come to that," Meg went on, holding him closer to lend what warmth she could, and rocking him back and forth as she'd oft done with Elizabeth, who had been sickly as a child, "it's hard to credit that anyone could warrant such a horror, isn't it? There's no need to be so cruel, it seems to me. If one merits condemning, then he should simply have his head chopped off, quick and clean. Or have an arrow put true through his heart..."
She was rambling a little, but there was nothing for it. Meg had ever tended to chatter when she was nervous.
The man's head had fallen back over Meg's supporting arm, revealing his throat and long, perfectly shaped, though unwashed, neck. Although his features would have been cherished by any woman, Meg noticed, with what was mayhap an unmaidenly degree of interest -- for he could truly be called beautiful, in the way of saints and angels -- there was nothing of the feminine in him. He was, for all his lithe build, his thick and lengthy lashes, his wondrously wrought face and limbs, completely, uncompromisingly, and inarguably male.
Pity, Meg thought, that he's in such a sorry state, for we might have been wed, he and I, and traveled to Cornwall, to find Gabriella. He looks to be the adventuring sort -- see his hand, calloused from the hilt of a sword, see the fine, sturdy form of his shoulders and forearms...
"Have done, Margaret Redclift," Meg scolded herself, muttering. "You'll forfeit your immortal soul for such thoughts, if you haven't already."
A tendency toward unseemly reflections was, it seemed, her besetting sin. That she was wont to act upon her musings often made matters worse, of course.
A clatter at the postern gate revealed Elizabeth, hurrying with flushed cheeks over the hard, empty furrows of the field, pushing the garden cart before her. Her dark hair, truly her greatest glory, had escaped her wimple, tumbling tousled and gleaming over her slender shoulders and down her back.
Watching her, Meg thought with no little ruefulness what an irony it was that Elizabeth, the most comely of all three Redclift daughters, was the one who had no wish to marry. She'd be content, the little goose, to stay at St. Swithin's Abbey all her days, and never know the tender caresses of a man, the tug of an infant's mouth at her breast, the clash and clamor of everyday life out there in the wide, frightful, glorious world.
Meg, for her part, was certain that Gabriella's new husband would provide adequate dowries for his wife's sisters, if he had any honor at all. She wanted a certain sort of mate and, since her expectations were quite stringent, fully expected to purchase him, like a good horse at the summer fair. Elizabeth, on the other hand, wished to become a postulant and surrender the whole of her bride-price, should she ever actually have one, to the coffers of the Holy Church.
Mother Mary Benedict, the abbess, bless her soul forever and ever, had refused this offer, saying that Elizabeth must first live outside St. Swithin's for a year, mayhap with Gabriella in Cornwall, or even at court, attending some great lady of the king's household. Only when she'd experienced life beyond the convent walls, and found it truly wanting, would she be permitted to take her vows.
"What do you suppose he's called?" Elizabeth asked, her breathing belabored, as she and Meg hoisted the poor wounded sojourner into the pumpkin cart.
"It hardly matters just now, does it?" Meg countered, unreasonably and inexplicably nettled by her sister's question. "Come, we'll put him in the planting shed; it's warm enough, and no one ever goes there, now that the crops are in."
The journey back across the frozen runnels of dirt was trying indeed, for the stranger, though comely, was as ungainly to transport thus as Zacheus, one of the abbess's two white mules, would have been. Alas, both animals were gone, Zacheus, the elder, with Dame Johanna and Gabriella, on the journey to Cornwall, and Enoch, mysteriously vanished from a nearby pasture.
"It does matter," Elizabeth insisted, huffing, for she could be stubborn, despite all her saintly inclinations. "We can't refer to him as 'the stranger' forever, can we?"
"We shan't have cause to refer to him at all, I should think," Meg answered, nearly oversetting the cart in her efforts to traverse a particularly high furrow. It made her a little sad, to think of the man going away, whether under his own power or the sheriff's, as he inevitably would. "He looks hearty, for all his hurts, and he'll soon be gone from us."
Elizabeth persisted, and Meg reflected that there might be hope for her sister yet. If Elizabeth had a failing, it was that she was too docile in most matters, and she seemed to lack any inclination toward adventure. "He wants a name," she said, with resolution, gasping as she pushed mightily at the back of the cart.
"Zacheus, then," Meg teased, pausing to tuck a wisp of chestnut hair back into her own wimple. "For the mule."
Elizabeth looked sorrowful, and Meg was sorry she'd mentioned the creature. Zacheus, like Gabriella and Dame Johanna, was elsewhere, and Elizabeth had been almost as fond of him as she was of their sister.
"No," poor Elizabeth said, for though she was merry of spirit, she seldom knew a jest when she heard one, "that won't do. There is bound to be confusion, when Dame Johanna returns, as she left us, mounted upon Zacheus's back. She'll bear tidings of Gabriella, you may be certain."
Meg shook her head. She feared that Gabriella's party, for all the brawny and well-armed guards her husband-to-be had sent as an escort, might have been waylaid by bandits somewhere in the journey, and she was aware that the abbess shared her concern, though they said little about the matter. There should have been a letter by now, at the very least. And why had Dame Johanna, Gabriella's chaperon, failed to return, once her charge was safely married?
Presently, Meg and Elizabeth gained the planting shed, stumbling and struggling as they went, and made a bed for their fallen angel by pushing three long potting benches together in the center of the small, rickety structure. His mattress was of rough, empty seed bags -- better than many in the abbey itself, for all that -- and they laid him upon it with great care and industry, nearly exhausting themselves by that effort alone. Then, for good measure, they covered him in still more of the crude bags, that being all they had in the way of blankets.
"Mother would put him in the infirmary," Elizabeth said pointedly, surveying their wretched attempt at hospitaling.
"As will we," Meg replied briskly, "once we know he's in no danger of burning or hanging."
Elizabeth muttered something that might or might not have been a prayer for patience. "You'll kill the poor man, Meg Redclift, and all in the name of saving him from punishments that may exist only in your own fancy."
"I won't take the chance," Meg whispered, mayhap harshly, gripping Elizabeth's arm and dragging her aside. "I mean to ask him to take me to Gabriella, once he comes around. He's a fine specimen, isn't he -- a soldier, I'll wager."
Elizabeth looked as horrified as Meg expected, and crossed herself, once more, this time violently. "Or an outlaw, certain to cut our throats the moment he awakes -- Sister, I fear you are either a fool or a madwoman, even to think of venturing -- "
Meg glanced back at their captive and thought she saw his eyelashes flutter slightly. "He'll need water," she said brusquely. "And medicine. You go to the well, and I'll fetch the remedy box from the infirmary."
"You'll steal it, you mean," Elizabeth pressed. Now, of all times, she'd decided to be spirited. "Honestly, Meg, I despair of your soul sometimes."
"I depend wholly upon grace for my salvation," Meg said virtuously, batting her eyelashes. She was also leaning quite heavily on the hope that God had a better sense of humor than her sister did. "Now, do as I say, Elizabeth. Don't force water, mind you, unless he awakens -- just put droplets on his tongue, or you'll choke the poor wretch."
Elizabeth's eyes went round, and she turned pale, though not, Meg suspected, at the prospect of choking the patient. It was the possibility of his waking up that frightened her.
"Donkey feathers," Meg snapped, impatient now, and not a little spent from the rescue effort. "What have you to fear if he does come round, he's that weak?"
"You mustn't curse," Elizabeth said, very righteously. Then, at the look on Meg's face, she turned and fled to fetch the required water.
Meg herself made quick work of stealing the medicine chest, and returned to find Elizabeth watering the stranger's tongue as carefully as if he were one of the spring seedlings she always nursed so tenderly. For all her timid ways, Elizabeth had a gift for looking after broken and fragile things.
"He hasn't wakened, then?"
Elizabeth shook her head, flushed with noble works, hard exercise, and scandal. "He spoke once, though, and quite clearly, too. He cursed someone named Blodwyn to hell and perdition for stealing his purse. I always thought they were one and the same place -- hell and perdition, I mean."
Meg set the remedy box down with a thump and raised its lid to peer none too knowledgeably at the contents. "Mayhap only the two names could suffice, so heartfelt was the curse," she said. "Do you suppose we should smear a paste on his chest?"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes; poultices and potions were her provence, for it was she who grew the herbs for them, and oversaw the crops and gardens that gave the inhabitants of St. Swithin's an unusually varied diet.
"You come and dribble the water, Meg," she said, with an authority she showed only when dealing with plants. "I shall mind the medicine box."
Meg smiled to herself and pretended to mild chagrin. "Aye, Sister," she said, and came to tend the stranger.
Before she'd had a chance to accustom herself to close proximity -- there was something pleasantly disturbing about being so near this particular man -- the splendid wretch opened his eyes and gazed up at Meg, perplexed.
She had never seen eyes so blue; the color of them fair stopped her heart and surely put an end to her breath.
"Who -- ?" he asked. "What -- ?"
Meg simply stared at him, and all but strangled before she remembered to breathe. "You've come to St. Swithin's Abbey," she managed, by a miracle no less impressive than the parting of the Red Sea or the multiplying of the loaves and fishes. "Devonshire."
The beautiful stranger frowned, as though he'd never heard of either place.
Elizabeth came promptly to stand just behind Meg. "What is your name, good sir?" she asked sweetly, showing no sign now that she feared him an outlaw or a heretic, as before. And where, pray, had her former shy and maidenly nature gone? "You are safe with us."
Meg gave her sister a baffled look, then turned her attention back to the man lying on the bed of planting benches. "You shan't be betrayed," she promised him, mayhap rashly, but in all sincerity nevertheless.
"I don't know," he said, at length. "What I'm called, I mean."
"Donkey feathers," Meg said again, vastly disappointed by this news.
"We shall just have to give you a name," Elizabeth announced brightly. "Raphael would suit you, for indeed you are quite lovely to look upon -- "
The wretch curled his lip. No archangel he, it would seem. "No," he said, with conviction.
"Apollo, then," Meg blurted, not to be left out, and was instantly mortified.
He smiled, and showed that his teeth were as perfectly made as the rest of him. "My thanks to you, milady," he said slowly, and it was obvious that he was much spent, for all his magnificence. "But I hardly think it suits. A more practical name, pray -- just until I've retrieved my own."
"George?" Meg said, thinking of the dragon-slaying saint, and never knowing where she got the courage to speak again, when she'd made such a fool of herself just moments before.
"Oh, no," Elizabeth protested, with enthusiasm. "Adam would suit ever so much better. You're certainly the first man -- the first to live here at St. Swithin's, in any event -- and, like the Adam of old, you have no memory."
"Adam, then," said Adam, and Meg was sore vexed that her sister had been the one to choose an acceptable name, when all the time she'd wanted to turn the poor fellow over to the sheriff, where he'd surely have met with heaven-knew-what sort of fate. Besides, she still thought "Apollo" fitted him better.
"Go and mix your medicines," Meg said to Elizabeth, and none too charitably, either.
Adam closed his eyes again, and slept.
"Turn him onto his stomach," Elizabeth said, undaunted, going back to the remedy chest and lifting out a tray in the top to reach for and extract a small mortar and pestle. "It's the wound on his head that wants care. After that, you can give him a bath, since you're so smitten as to compare him to a pagan god. Then he'd best have a little broth."
Even brazen Meg could not conceive of bathing the man, though she would be forced to confess, the very next time she visited the chapel, that she found the idea somewhat less repellent than might have been well. "And what do you propose to do with yourself, Saint Elizabeth, whilst I'm running a cloth over the flesh of a naked man and spooning soup into his mouth?"
Elizabeth had the good grace -- and not a moment too soon -- to blush. "You wouldn't want me to do it, would you?" she asked meekly.
"Of course not," Meg relented, glancing sidelong at Adam's long, loose-limbed body. Even in that state, he looked uncommon comfortable in his skin, as only a man who liked and trusted himself could do. "What do you suppose happened to him?"
"He was set upon by thieves and rogues, no doubt," Elizabeth whispered, wide-eyed. "You don't suppose he carries plague, do you?"
Now it was Meg who made the sign of the cross. They had been safe at the abbey, so far, but the pestilence raged all around them, and Mother Mary Benedict was careful whom she admitted within its walls for that reason. "He looks too -- well, sturdy -- for all his hurts," she said, after another close examination. "Do you really think we should bathe him?"
"That's what the dames do first, when one of the villagers comes to the infirmary," Elizabeth said. "Mayhap he has lice, or fleas."
Meg parted his blood-matted hair, much in need of washing, and squinted at his scalp. "No sign of lice, and it's too cold by half for fleas."
The visitor, so lucid only moments before, suddenly began to shiver. His teeth chattered, and both Meg and Elizabeth hastened to find more seed bags to put over him.
"We must tell," Elizabeth said solemnly. "He's very ill, Meg, and it's beyond our poor means to tend him proper."
"No," Meg replied, after a brief and agonizing tussle with her Christian conscience. "No, they'll send for the sheriff, just because he's a man, and a stranger. Come -- I'll turn him over, and you take a look at the gash in his head, see if it wants stitching. While you're at it, I'll fetch water and some cloth."
"Meg -- "
"Please, Elizabeth," Meg importuned, and was startled to realize that she'd taken Adam's hand in her own. "He's in danger, I know it -- and we're his only friends just now."
"Fancies," Elizabeth scoffed, but she set herself to examining the wound, and Meg made haste to fetch a basin and cloth. Upon her return, she washed his hair and scalp thoroughly, but with care, so as not to aggravate the injury, and Elizabeth mixed a poultice and applied it. Then, using a strip of precious cloth, she made a bandage for his head.
Since Adam's clothes were mere rags anyway, it was no great revelation to strip away all but his trunks and, using rainwater and strong soap, scrub his flesh clean. That done, Meg hurried to cover him again.
They had not, so far, managed to purloin the broth they'd decided he needed. There had been risk enough in taking the medicine chest and the basins of water from the barrels outside the refectory door.
Meg had no small reputation for mischief, and therefore knew she must use great care not to draw notice from the nuns or the other residents of the convent.
"You'd best fetch the soup," Meg told Elizabeth, in a whisper. "Say it's for me, that I'm feeling poorly and cannot possibly come to vespers."
"I shall not lie on any account," Elizabeth said, with saintlike indignation. Then she swept out, in grand dudgeon, and left Meg alone with the man they had christened Adam.
He was resting more easily now, under the piles of rough sacks; it did seem that Elizabeth's poultice and the bath had soothed him a little.
Presently, Elizabeth returned, carrying a steaming wooden bowl in both hands, with a spoon protruding from the broth. Her expression was defiant; she had completed her mission without breaking any of the commandments.
Except perchance the one about stealing.
Meg wakened her patient to eat, supporting his head in the curve of her arm while spooning nourishing portions of broth into his mouth, and though he seemed disoriented, he took the food readily. There was no guessing how long it had been since the man had had so much as a morsel to eat, and he finished the soup with good appetite before lapsing back into a healing sleep.
Meg stayed with him until the vespers bell chimed, and would not have left him then, had Elizabeth not sternly reminded her that a few prayers, properly offered, would not go amiss -- and could most particularly benefit the man they'd found in the squash patch. Dutifully, Meg attended vespers and, fervently, she prayed.
That night, alone in their cell, with Gabriella's empty cot as an ever-present reminder of their sister's absence, they made whispered plans. Elizabeth still refused to utter an untruth, no matter what happened, whereas Meg suffered no such scruples, but they were in agreement in one wise: it was their moral duty to save Adam's life, if they could.
For three days and nights, Meg and Elizabeth managed to keep their secret, sneaking back and forth, between prayers and the daily tasks that all were expected to perform, bringing food, changing bandages, smuggling blankets and even snitching trunk hose, soft leather boots, and a jerkin from the supply of old garments the nuns had gathered for the poor. During that time, he rallied occasionally, and if he made any attempts to leave under his own power, he did not succeed.
On the morning of the fourth day, Meg arrived, having slipped out of the refectory early, after breakfast, to find her charge on his feet, though unsteady, and wearing the ill-fitting but serviceable garments she and Elizabeth had provided.
He made, for all his grim efforts to hold himself up unsupported, a splendid and imposing figure, standing upright that way. Indeed, he was a soldier, sure as she breathed.
"You've recovered, then," she said, resigned.
"You sound disappointed," he remarked, reaching out to steady himself by grasping the edge of one of the high tables used for potting seeds in the early spring.
Meg swallowed, then summoned all her courage. "I shall give you my dowry if you'll take me to my sister," she said boldly. It was a rash bargain to propose, since she didn't actually possess a bride-price. "She is called Gabriella, and she went to Cornwall to be married, and we've heard naught of her since, nor have we seen Dame Johanna, her chaperon. Something may well be amiss."
Adam sat down heavily at this pronouncement, bemused. "Gabriella?" he said, frowning as he pondered. "I know that name. I have heard it oft, methinks, and it is not common."
Meg took a hopeful step toward him, then stopped. Mayhap he was a friend to Gabriella, but he might also have been the very one to do her harm. "Perhaps you have a sister by that name," she ventured, with growing excitement, "or a friend?"
"Aye, a friend," he agreed, with a sort of befogged certainty. "For I have no sisters, nor brothers either. I know that much of myself, at least."
"And what else?" Meg dared to ask. "What else do you remember, I mean?"
His blue eyes darkened, like water before a storm and, having shed his bandage long before, he thrust a hand through his hair. "I have scenes of battle in my head. Horrible visions of bloodshed and torment."
"Then you must indeed be a soldier," Meg said.
"Aye," he said again. He held out his hands, long and elegant hands more fitted to plying the strings of a lute than wielding a sword, and examined them as though they belonged to someone else. "These callouses are those of a swordsman, not a farmer or a tradesman."
Meg shook her head. "No, I should not have taken you for a laborer. Your clothes, such as they were, were costly ones, finely made."
He jumped to his feet, swayed, and sat down again. "Where are they?" he asked, speaking moderately even though anxiety was plain in his eyes. "Was I wearing boots? Carrying anything?"
"No," Meg said, and produced the pitiful fragments of a shirt and breeches from the place where she had hidden them. "Someone had taken your boots and all else you had in the bargain. It is a wonder you did not die of cold, or suffer frostbite."
"Where did you find me? Show me, now."
"I can't," Meg replied, alarmed by the force of his insistence. She had been in the convent for some years, with her sisters, and was unused to the presence or habits of men. They were fascinating creatures, in her opinion, but they made a great deal of noise and took up considerable space. "It's still a secret that you're here. If we go out into the field, someone might see us."
He raised himself back to his feet, slowly and with some effort. "This is the end of your secret, I'm afraid," he said. "If you won't show me where you found me, straightaway, I'll go looking on my own. And I give you my warrant, milady, that I'll be noticed in the doing."
Meg flushed. "You are ungrateful, sir, if you will permit my saying it."
"It seems to me that you say whatever you wish," he retorted. "As to my ingratitude, there you are mistaken. I probably owe you my life, whatever it is." He swayed again, but this time he held his feet. The light of determination glowed fierce in his eyes. "God's teeth, demoiselle, you can't have expected to keep me here forever, like a pet mouse. I'm a man, and an unruly one -- I've guessed that much of my nature, at least -- and it does not suit, your being alone with me in such a wise!"
Meg bit her lower lip. Waited a moment or two, before returning to her truest concern. "Will you not take me to find Gabriella, then?"
"No," he said. "I will not." He frowned and went to the window, stooping a little to peer out, for he was tall as a giant. "What is this place?"
"St. Swithin's Abbey, Devonshire," Meg said. She'd told him that already, as it happened, given him her name, too, but he could not be blamed for forgetting, given the circumstances. Still, she wished he'd pay attention.
He turned, regarding her with surprise and no little censure. "Surely you're not a nun?"
Meg's temper, put aside heretofore, in the cause of mercy, flared slightly. "Do you think me unfit for the holy life?" she countered.
He smiled, and that left another sweet bruise on Meg's heart. "Peace, milady," he said. "I have no opinions about you at all, except that you're too beautiful for my liking, and too spirited, by half, for a proper maiden."
Meg simply stared at him, unable to discern whether she'd just been complimented, or insulted. She misliked his stated lack of opinions where she was concerned, misliked it indeed, for she wanted, she found, to fill his thoughts, to occupy his mind like an invading army. Still, he'd also said she was beautiful -- no one had ever told her that before.
"You've been kind to me," he said at last, with a slight and very courtly bow of his head. "I am ever in your debt."
"But not so much so that you will grant my boon and take me to see Gabriella?"
"Oh, more so, milady," he answered smoothly, and it came to Meg that he might have been a courtier as well as a soldier. He was certainly artful enough for it. "I would be no gentleman, if I took you from this place -- nay, but the worst rascal ever God made. Surely you know it is a ruinous thing for a lass to travel with a man not of her family."
Meg hesitated, then burst out with the wildest portion of her scheme. "You could marry me."
He regarded her so long, and so thoughtfully, that Meg began to hope he meant to accept her proposal. "Nay, milady," he said at length, "though I find you charming, I must needs refuse. Has it not occurred to you that I might already have a wife?"
Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster