When they entered the house in Bridge Street, Dick was stretched out on the dining room bed, panting and sweating, his skin abnormally red.
Agnes stopped short and moaned. “Richard…” The name in her mouth was a world of pain. If Will had imagined the courtship to be one of convenience, that illusion died now.
“He’ll be fine,” his lips formed the words, as meaningless as his graveyard speech, and she gave him the look he deserved: he was in no position to judge such a thing.
Kneeling by the bed, she stroked Dick’s forehead and whispered his name in a futile attempt to wake him up. Will looked away, but he could feel her touch on that fevered face. The jealousy was a hollowing-out of his chest, his head, his whole being. A heart-sucking, brain-fucking annihilation of everything he knew. It was an ache so vague and all-encompassing it practically replaced his sense of self. It was everywhere, in all his veins and all his bones, a dose of poison just below lethal, smudging every tissue with ice.
You have no business caring, he told himself. You don’t even know this woman. In fact, if she cared about Dick, there was probably something deeply wrong with her.
But when she stood up with a forbidding look on her face and strode past Will to the table, he breathed in the wake of her passing to catch the scent of her, and the trace of cow and smoke and bread was a caress of bruises. Helpless to resist, he watched her open a satchel and empty a jumble of bottles and pouches on the scarred wood. Common enough garden herbs, he knew. Aunt Joan had just such a collection. But the way they shivered in the candlelight… it was witchcraft.
Agnes put the herbs in a bowl and mashed them up with some water. Her slender, soft-looking hands worked the pestle, their pallor a dizzying flash in the low light. Lost in the rhythmic motion, Will was blindsided by a memory from Barton: the first time his fingers had found their way down his own hose.
Cheeks burning, he looked up at her face again, at the evidence of a rough life already digging its trenches in her skin. Was this the only choice she had – to bind herself to Dick? Didn’t she realise the danger?
The feeling of rope against his throat made him pull at his collar. Breathing in deeply, he shrugged off the memory of towering elms, of devils in the dusk. That night in the woods… it was a long time ago, but now that he saw Dick sweat and groan in the grips of his fever, Will remembered how close he himself had come to death. Only the timely intervention of leeches had saved him.
At the thought, he blurted, “Maybe we should bleed him?”
Agnes looked up from her bowl. “You have the money for a doctor?”
“No.” Will paused a beat. “But I have a knife.”
Agnes’s hand made a jerk, knocking the bowl to the floor. “Oh no…” She fell to her knees and gathered the shards of crockery in her hands, a sob rising in her throat. “That was my last peppermint!”
Will’s heart made a squeeze. Good. Let the bastard suffer.
But something better in him won out. “I believe you’ll find some in the garden.”
Agnes looked up, anger blooming in her cheeks. “And leave you alone with him?”
Will hesitated. Her gaze dropped to his hand, and it duly cramped, as if to underscore the folly of letting him handle a blade. He balled it into a fist and hid it behind his back. Jerking his head at the door, he said, “I’ll help you look for the peppermint.”
Agnes glared at him for a moment, but then she acquiesced. A resigned lowering of her shoulders, a pained glance at Dick, and then she donned her cloak again.
Outside it was still pitch black. Thrown for just a moment, Will stayed on the threshold, in the honey-warm pool of candlelight that oozed into the night from inside. Big fat drops of rain battered his head and snaked inside his collar while he balanced on the edge.
“Let’s just rip everything out of the flower beds and bring it inside,” Agnes said.
He turned to look at her, convinced she was making a feeble joke, but her face was serious. Panic had stolen her wits, apparently. Panic at the sight of her beloved in the clutches of death.
Will shook his head. “No need.” Venturing into the storm, he felt his way to where he knew the peppermint grew. He squatted and fumbled through the plants, the rain a wet lash against his face. Catching a leaf between thumb and forefinger, he rubbed and smelled it. Nothing. Just a regular plant smell. He pinched the next one and rubbed it. Too pungent.
Agnes kneeled beside him, a hint of warmth shielding him from the wind. “What are you doing?”
“The smell of peppermint is unmistakable. We don’t need to see it to find it.”
“Oh… of course.”
He felt her reach out to help. Their hands collided among the soaked leaves – a momentary spark of fire in the chill – and Will clenched his teeth. He had no business reacting to her presence. She belonged to Dick, and Will would be damned if he let himself want anything of his again.
But who was he kidding? The reason he was out here searching for peppermint at all was because of her. Seeking a cure for fevers not for Dick, but because of her.
A sudden thorn tore a gash in his finger, and he put it in his mouth. Such a tiny wound, but the pain shot through all his defences. When he went back to feeling his way through the herbs, his fingertip stung and ached as if his whole being had gathered in that minor digit.
Within minutes, he lighted on the right plant and tore a few stalks. Agnes found some elder leaves, and they went back inside to find Dick mumbling in his sleep, face dappled with a sickly dew. Seeing him suffer, Agnes stifled a moan, and Will turned to her.
“We need to do it.”
“Look at him. He has an excess of blood, and there’s no one else who can do it. If I had gone to Barton before… But there’s no time.”
Agnes’s gaze slid to the storm-wracked man on the bed. Her eyes were wide, with too much white. Her mouth was no longer the soft summer pink of the graveyard, it was pale and strained like a gag.
“Maybe you want to do it?” Will said.
“Maybe I do.”
Her whisper was strangely audible through the howling of the wind, but she didn’t move. Will reached for a knife, and she tensed. She didn’t stop him, but she followed his every move, her eyes black in the flickering light, her nostrils stretched in whitening fear. Will picked up a candle and put it by the bed, where it cast ghostly shadows on Dick’s face. There was a warming of the air as Agnes approached behind him, and the metal glinted in his fist, asking: should he really do this? Or should he give the knife to her?
Moving slowly, he rolled up Dick’s sleeve to expose the inside of his arm. He could hear Agnes breathing and paused, unsure of how to proceed. “A… bowl, perhaps?”
Without a word, she went to fetch one, and Will put it under Dick’s elbow.
“Maybe a rag, too. For…”
Excess blood, he didn’t say, but Agnes stifled a sniffle as she obeyed. He didn’t have to name the horror to make it real.
Feeling dizzy, he looked down at the knife. It was a perfectly ordinary knife, a simple household utensil used for cutting meat and bread. Now to be used on a man’s skin. For a moment his mind filled with the image of the scraping knives in Goodman Field’s tannery, the careful removal of flesh from leather-to-be.
His hand cramped again, clutched the knife tighter. The man at his mercy had once been the boy who had harassed Will throughout their school years. His curse lay on the riverside elm where he had bound Will and where Annie had fallen. When he left for London, Will had been shackled to the tannery in his stead, and now he was aiming to bind Agnes in a golden hoop.
And yet what power did he have now, asleep, unconscious, lost to the world?
It would be so easy.
A sudden chill had Will shivering. Breathing in, he laid the knife against the blue shadow in the crook of Dick’s arm. The world seemed to hold its breath… and then he made the incision. The blade was sharp: only a small nick was needed. Dick groaned softly as blood pooled in the hollow, flowed over and ran in twin streams on either side of his arm into the bowl beneath. Will watched it run – trickling, trickling – hypnotised by the dark red colour. Fluid and fast, it left the body so easily, through such a small hole. Life brimming over, leaving forever.
Staring, dazed, he tried to think: how much blood was enough to alleviate the fever, but not enough to kill? When should he stop the flow?
A hand reached past him and clamped down on the wound, thumb pressing hard. Will swayed where he sat, brushing her arm. She leaned into him, winding a rag around Dick’s arm, movements quick and sure, experience winning over fear. Will breathed her sweat, and her elbow knocked into his ribs as she tied a tight knot.
Scarlet guilt hissed in his chest as he stared at the bowl in his hand, at the trembling, dark liquid. Had he been prepared to let the blood run dry?
When he glanced up, Agnes looked back at him, their eyes a pair of frightened birds above the scene of the carnage. Stripped by that all-seeing gaze, Will got to his feet and put the bowl aside, legs strangely weak beneath him. Wiping his hands, he fought to keep his voice light as he said, “I’ll keep watch over him if you want to sleep.”