VAGABONDS

Loneliness had driven him out, the sweep of moonlight outside the tunnel enticing his soft footfalls into the protecting trees.  There he could stan upright again, throw back the dark cloak and breathe deeply of autumn’s fragrance, crushed, old leaves and damp earth.  There, he could bare his head of the covering hood and feel the night breeze on his face, his hair flowing back across his broad shoulders, taste freedom and the night air once again as his heart swelled to meet the limitless, studded sky.

The grass was unkempt and caught around his boots with a pleasant swish as he strode on, weaving through the swaying branches like a flowing shadow, in silence, with the easy grace and confidence of night’s creatures.  Three more days and she would be back; thoughts of her stabbed him with longing, and so he was careless, just for a moment, as the moon sailed clear of the scudding clouds and stared down, fiery white on his hair.  He halted suddenly, instinctively, at the edge of the woods, lifted the hood to shroud his head again.  A rustle, a disturbance, did not blend with the sounds of night and ignited a small flare of warning.  A woman’s voice, over there, across the clearing.  Other voices, too, shrieks of cruel laughter, over-bright, men’s voices, rough; his skin shivered with apprehension.  Crouching low, he waited, watching for their movements, prepared to melt away again.  So many people strolling at night in the park did not know how close they passed to him, one with the dark trees.  Danger snapped around him, colder than the night wind, hissed a warning in the flurry of scattering leaves.  So he should go, too, quickly, away from this place.  He turned then heard the laugh again, arrested by its savage twist of menace. Wounded moanings rose eerily from the trees, wails of pain and helplessness, sobbing sighs, pleadings.  His heart thudded in horror at the cries of suffering and bouts of muffled laughter, strangling shrieks.  Trapped by anxiety, he hesitated, straining to see through the silvered darkness of shrubbery and trees and started violently, dropping down through sheer instinct as he heard the splashing of erratic footsteps in the stream over the tumbling stones, saw the ribbon of silver that wound back towards the tunnel, towards home, and then saw her fall, lie motionless in the water, in the freezing water, and no-one came.  And the silence of night stole back and he had no sense of anyone close, only her there, long hair flowing out, face among the glistening stones.

He waited in an agony of indecision, knowing they were there, hiding, his body flooding hot with escalating panic.

Still she did not move, did not struggle.  He stood abruptly, shedding a thousand, rippling aches from clenched muscles, skirted around the edge of the clearing, running swiftly now, eyes fixed on her, as though his stare could link them, refuse her death.  Then he heard their guttural whispers, timid at first, then exultant, and they stole from the trees like foxes from a den and sidled closer to her.  He heard their gasps as they milled together and giggled nervously, wickedly, and he saw flashes from their clothing, saw they were young, was close enough now to smell their feral wildness, to know there were eight of them. He was also close enough to see the black fingers of blood trailing lazily in the little stream.  His throat closed with bitterness, the sting of bile stayed his breath and his anger surged at the piteous sight of her, while they stood there and muttered, trampling the grass, gibbering like demons in the moonlight in this abandoned place that he had once cherished.

He felt her life dim, weaken, this poor, pathetic thing, and there was only him, and even as fear dampened his body, fury shattered his caution and he leapt forth at them, landing lithely within the folds of his coat, scattering them in sudden squeals of alarm, his warning, rumbling snarl cutting the sudden silence in swathes as he warily moved his head from side to side, watching them, creeping ever closer to her, now extending his hand towards her body, his sharp nails exposed daggers, the cloak swirling about him, a nebulous shape.

They were caught momentarily in suspended shock, then banded closely together and sneered and yelped sharply at this strange, powerful being with fangs bared in the moonlight, heard the deadly menace in the primal, rolling growl. They jostled eachother in confusion at this fearsome, black gargoyle with the blazing golden hair that crabbed across the ground towards the thing in the stream, away from them, to steal their plaything.  Enraged, they lunged at it as it continued to retreat, its outstretched hand now hovering over her.  Emboldened, they pressed forward in a tight knot, and their cunning barks did not warn him, disgust so strongly pervaded his mind.  Their heads were flung high warily, the moonlight gleamed on their sweat, on their wild, dilated eyes, and they cursed him, then the men ran at him, swinging their chains, even as his boots felt the seeping cold of the water as he grasped a limp and clammy arm to drag her, eyes averted to her for that moment that was just long enough.

They struck him, six men, and he stumbled on the slippery stones and fell in the icy stream and they trampled him and savagely kicked the breath from his body, dragged his face towards the moonlight and gasped at what they saw, shrieking in frenzy in their drugged euphoria.  He struck back suddenly, lashed out, drew blood, could smell it above the stink of his own fury, then the whirling chains cracked against his face.  The women now also ran forward, struggled to hold him down in the stream, beside her, even as his great strength lifted them bodily from his shoulders and his boots struck again and connected with a succulent, sickening crunch.  But there was no grunt of pain because they could not feel anything but manic pleasure in the euphoria of their capture, more fun than the last, and the radiating, dazzling lights.  His blood flowed from his eyebrow to blind him before joining hers in the stream, and it was then that one of the men lifted the rock and slammed it down against the side of his head, furious and hostile because it had never been like this before and he was afraid of the great, powerful animal lying wrecked before him and could already feel its claws at his throat.

                                                                    -------------------------------

Thoughts were painful, jostling crowds within his wounded mind, rising and falling with urgency, clamouring to be heard, stifled by the throbbing in his head.  He felt dew-damp grass under him, the constriction of chains, numbness of limbs.  And then he knew with an overwhelming sorrow that she was dead.

He tried to move, aching everywhere, and found his strength utterly drained and it was as though he drifted above the ground as the first face swam before him, ghostly, monstrous in the silent midnight hours.  He heard the sulky muttering and then other grinning faces surrounded him and he could not see them through the dried blood and something else that stung him sharply then made him ill and drowsy then startled him with spirals of colours and sudden, overwhelming surges of joy that left him breathless with wonder.  Although it cost him enormous effort, he shook his head in confusion and the explosion of pain burst into a million twinkles as though he trod stars of fantastic colours as they wheeled across the sky.  Desperately, he struggled to awareness just as he felt the sting of another syringe and heard the wild laughter and endured the blows to shoulders and thighs, for they were still afraid of him.  He lay passively while loathing twisted his gut and fuelled that hard knot of untouchable, inner strength.  But again, they held out loving arms and smiled kindly, kissed him, accepted him, and he was no longer a freak and he wept with gratitude. Beautiful colours radiated from them, bathed him in heavenly light, and he floated with them, laughing and free, with the sunshine warm on his face and the soft air like sensuous velvet flowing over his skin.  He looked at his hands and they were a man’s hands and the claws were gone, and he turned and ran in disbelief to the crystal stream where a broken doll lay and peered into the mirror water.  He saw a fair-haired, handsome man with a strongly moulded face, clean-shaven, of aquiline nose and full mouth.  He stared in astonishment at his reflection, the clear, blue eyes freed of hooded brows, watched the rare, dawning smile slowly light his features, and delighted in what he saw, what he should always have been. He no longer felt the chains, or the chill of his damp clothes, or cared about the dead girl in the stream.

They sat beside him and studied him with ape-like curiosity, touched his face, the roughness of fur on nose and chin, the upswept cheeks.  The girls reached out to twist his golden hair around their grubby fingers, stroke his arms and broad chest, slide their hands reflectively along his muscled thighs.  The men rounded on them and slapped them hard across their heads, and they spat back, glowering from beneath their greasy hair.  The heat of their bodies kept away the chill of night and their eyes transfixed and shone with a strange fever.

He awoke on the damp grass, numbed, shivering, with the warmth and sunshine and love vanished, and his head bursting with agony. They scrabbled over him, yet the knot of strength in the essence of his being to which he still clung grew ever stronger, fed by a deadly rage and conviction that sustained his courage.  He flexed his arms and the chains strained but held, so he relaxed, lying passively with closed eyes.  He would become stronger with each passing moment and then he would break free and kill them for ripping away her life and torturing him.  Already he could feel their unwashed flesh shredding in his claws, the flow of their warm blood through his fingers, and exulted in anticipated vengeance.  There would be no nightmares of self-loathing this time.  When such scattered, lucid moments burst with horrifying clarity into his mind, his battered body screamed with pain and his heart with primal savagery, but then he would drift serenely back into their arms again, and the men welcomed him kindly as brother and the women were scented and clean.

Their jabbering talk subsided into an expectant sullennes and one of the women approached him in a different way, slyly.

She spoke in muffled tones through the thick fog of dope in his brain and her name lunged out at him and he thought it was beautiful. Meriliana.  He shivered with revulsion as she lay close to him, aware she was stroking him, though his limbs felt numb from his shackles.  He could smell her strong, gamey odour; her murmurs were wheedling and sultry and she plucked at his strange clothes with impatience, at the leather thongs that stitched his sturdy tunnel garb and confounded her in the darkness, for the moon had now melted into the distant city buildings across the park in its ancient journey through night.

“Strip him! Strip him!” she chanted, and the others that had been his friends and were no longer, howled with anticipation and he felt their mauling hands.  While his face was terrifying, she saw his body was strong and broad and graceful with a sexy power she could taste.  Frustrated, she punched him, and he tightened his arms again against his bonds, stealthily, testing his strength, and Catherine smiled at him and he clung to the vision of her cross-legged on his bed in his chamber, chin in hand as she listened to him read, the candlelight framing her shining hair.  He struggled upwards, swarming to the top of consciousness just before drowning, and her voice was clear and her breath foetid and sickly sweet on his face, so then he knew it was not Catherine.

He opened his eyes and she gasped at their blue intensity and purred against him with deepened interest.  But his stare was pasted flat and emotionless, and her dirty, travelling caress drew no response.  She roughly pushed apart his thighs to plunge in her hands and grasp him boldly, kneading him, violating him.  His skin crawled with disgust and she became incensed that she could not arouse him, for he filled her grip with latent promise, even as he lay inert as lifeless meat and denied her. He clenched his jaws to arrest the surging scream.  She slapped him and scratched him spitefully.  He heard her shill voice crush the sudden babble of arguments but the words washed over him in meaningless venom, and then he felt the touch of cold steel and stilled with shock, knowing his strength was not yet enough to save him, and his struggles may well mean death.

They shredded his clothes away in long slashes, cutting him carelessly, whispering to each other with the smell of his blood in their nostrils, sliding wide-eyed stares at him, ripping cloth from his thighs, cutting the lacings of his shirt, shredding it from his chest, then she was back, mollified, and the empty syringe fell from her hand as she stroked his body, sliding her fingers through the golden hair on his chest, tracing the roll of muscle in his shoulders, pouting at the chains that hampered her, though they dared not free him.

“I will have you,” she hissed into his face, “I will fuck you!”

 His flesh shrank from her leprous touch, his mind suspended to block his revulsion.  Meriliana felt him tremble and became bolder as he lay there on the ground, helpless, hurting, drugged, and traced her broken fingernails along his inner thighs.  He retreated from her to that core of burgeoning strength and concentrated on it and not on the evil that crept insinuatingly across his skin. She plucked at him again and he closed his mind, turned his head away and felt the stab of knives in his brain.  Catherine.  Sweet Catherine.

The others were getting colder and tired now with passing night and slumped passively on the ground, waiting for her indifferently, familiar with her strange ritual.  He was no longer so fascinating, he could do nothing in his chains, did not struggle or fight, nor did he cry or plead and his face looked grisly with the caked blood.  He was probably already dead, or soon would be.  Meriliana alone was left to play. Perhaps he did not really exist at all, a creature born of another fantastic, surreal trip.  When they wandered on again, they would not know, or even remember, but they had to humour her, for she was their supplier and her body bought their stash.  There was a heavy, sobering weariness in their bones as they looked uncomfortably at the dead girl, whose blood no longer flowed and whose skin was pearly white in the gloom.  They slunk like animals into the trees and watched as Meriliana stood and stripped off her shawl and tasselled skirt and they looked dully at her nakedness, for she wore no underwear.

She turned back to it, lying there on the ground with its golden hair sprawled out on the grass and straddled its bare thigh firmly between her own.  She rocked on him slowly at first, watching his face, saw his chest rise in deep breaths of distress, then it was easier as she became aroused and pleasure radiated into the pit of her stomach and tingled her nipples unbearably.  She slid her hands inside his shredded shirt to drag her fingernails deeply across his skin to make him bleed, and then she heard him moan.  Animal or man, she recognised that groan and exulted in it.  He did not look at her, at the swaying breasts, tried to keep from breathing in her feral odour.  She cried out suddenly, shuddered, spread her legs and ground down against him with flooding heat, twisting estatically, jerking to completion.  She looked at him with contempt, his face turned away, pressed to the earth in the darkness, devastated as they all were, ultimately, by her power.

She leaned forward, pressing her breasts against his chest, then suddenly aware of the chill of night in her nudity, she carefully spat in his face and got up, stood astride him insolently for a moment, then walked away indifferently, scooping up her clothes.  Her head was already heavy with returning reality, belly growling with nausea, the deformed man already forgotten.  He would die, anyway, like the girl.  She had filled him with poison and watched him lap the nectar of sweet hallucinations.
 

So they had left him there, bound and still, dead, like her.  They had trailed away and kicked him savagely in passing, even Meriliana, and it took all his endurance and discipline to lie limp and lifeless, eyes closed so as not to provoke them with his rage, tangible and malevolent within his soul.  He felt his blood trickle down his cheek into the grass, along with her spittle.  His body burned with assault in the mist of dawn as he lay beside the stream.  When he felt the last vibrations of their wandering footfalls, he moved at last, his scream of desecration a mere whimper as he flexed his battered shoulders, feeling anew every jab and kick, his flesh swollen around his chains.  Vincent rolled onto his side, sore and stiff, then caught his breath in renewed horror as he stared directly into her sightless eyes.  He moaned for them both as he hauled himself up to sit painfully leaning forward, dragging his bound legs beneath him, his long hair, matted with blood and dirt, swinging across his face to shut her from his gaze.  He rested for a moment longer, shivering with cold and shock in his slashed clothing, utterly humiliated, then strained against the biting chains, stretching the links until one snapped at last, and then he worked his arms loose with returning circulation bringing its own agony.  He needed to rest again before he could free his legs.  He trembled violently with effort.  His head ached from his bashing and the receeding tread of drugs.  He gripped the remaining chains in his great hands and twisted, the sweat sheened his skin and stung his injuries, his blood surged with deadly determination and he broke free again, so suddenly, it shocked him.  He floated above in exhausted hallucination and saw in the silver, pre-dawn light, a great, muscular man with a hideous face drooped into long, golden hair, the darkening bruises and bloodied scratches visible through his ripped clothing, sprawled beside a swirling little stream, and in the stream there lay an abandoned, crumpled thing.

The last of the brilliant, spiralling colours cleared from his head and he stared at his thigh where she had ridden him and left her mark, hardened and rancid in the night air, and bitter tears filled his eyes and spilled drunkenly down his cheeks.  He struggled to his feet and almost fell again, weakened with shock, then gathered his cloak around him like protective, dark wings, anxiety now overriding all other feelings as slender streaks of red and orange crept across the sky.  He bent down, head bursting, to retrieve the chains and held them, clinking gently, then walked to the stream where she lay and dropped them in beside her, the water swirling away all traces of him.  He looked around warily, but the park would still sleep for at least another hour before the first joggers appeared.  He turned, casting a last look at her, hair swaying out idly, then huddled within his cloak, limped slowly into the trees.

-----------------------

Vincent’s expressive face darkened and set rigidly, eyes opaque beads, shuttered within the jutting angles of his clenched face.  He looked at Jacob, and through him, then lifted his head defensively as Jacob stepped forward from the doorway towards him.  He was leaning against the far wall, by his small wash-stand and a single candle cast a weary light at the other side of his chamber.  Jacob stopped in consternation and peered at him.  Vincent looked hunted and guilty and a sullen menace radiated from his hooded gaze.

“Vincent?” Jacob called softly, “what is wrong?”

“Nothing, Father.  Stay away.”

Jacob stood helplessly, unable to move, struck by the sadness in Vincent’s low voice, by his stance in the darkness.  His eyes became accustomed to the dimness and he saw that Vincent was dressed only in a long, woollen shirt and there were strange marks on his bare legs and a redness on his thigh.

“Tell me what has happened,” he urged, struggling for calm as always, “What is that? Are you hurt?”

“No, Father,” Vincent answered with infinite weariness and patience, “Do not trouble yourself.  It is only a rash and it is healing.  Please allow me to finish dressing.”

“Perhaps I could examine it first, if you don’t mind,” Jacob persisted gently, anxiety overriding the warning in his mind.

“No!” Vincent cried out violently, the bark of protest as stunning as a rifle shot in the serene quiet of the room.

Once again they were staring eachother down, Jacob thought resignedly, then turned abruptly and left Vincent alone.  He knew from long experience when to yield or suffer the distress of violence and broken things.

Vincent waited motionlessly until the receding sound of Jacob’s cane assured him he was truly alone, then he turned once again to the basin, and squeezing out the cloth, he slowly and methodically resumed scouring his skin where she had been, remembering how her legs had been open, the smell of her panting breath, the feel of her sliding rhythmically on his thigh with increasing urgency, warm, wet, rank.  The burning bile soured his throat as he scrubbed and the water in the basin turned pink.  And still he felt her slime.

----------------------

Jacob had turned his chair at the desk in order to be in full view of the open doorway.  The library had often been Vincent's sanctuary when, heartsore, he had sought Father's wisdom and solace.  Jacob kept an unread book opened before him, the lantern drawn close.  He waited hopefully for Vincent to approach him, just as he had been waiting for the past two days.  But again, even though he listened intently for those measured footfalls, he missed seeing him, so quietly did he move.  Jacob caught only the flicker of his shadow on the wall as he strode purposefully past on his way Above yet again.

He sighed with exasperation, leaned back despondently in his chair and snapped the book shut with bitter disappointment.  Anxiety had exhausted his patience and would inevitably drive him to Vincent's chamber.  Although he knew from long experience that confrontation would only make Vincent hostile, he could feel some terrifying darkness about him that was different from the other times.  Something ugly was sending Vincent Above each night, keeping him apart from the community, some deadly purpose that prodded tendrils of distress in Jacob's own soul.  He even considered simply marching boldly into his chamber, right up to him to embrace him firmly, hold him tenaciously with all his ageing strength to try and melt the menace there with the warmth of his love.  Despite Vincent's savage outbursts when frustration could no longer be contained within that gentle heart, Jacob did not believe he would intentionally hurt him, and that knowledge was his only advantage.  He remembering so soothing him as a child, feeling his iron muscles relax as he leaned at last against the only father he had ever known.  Despite his fear, Jacob smiled wryly in the soft, intimate light of the lantern as it glowed serenely across the unread book and his absently tapping fingers.  Vincent now towered over him, could easily push him aside with devastating consequences.  But beneath the turmoil of his fragile emotions, Jacob believed Vincent loved him still, just as he continued to acknowledged him as Father.  He wondered desperately what he did above in the night hours; to go in the cold of late autumn for such a long time could only mean some driven focus.  He could feel the icy squeeze of warnings in his own heart, felt foreboding and danger.

He was aware of silence as the settled hush told him all were asleep in his large family, except one.  He must have dozed, for at least two hours had passed, and his back and hip were stiff, the oil low in the lamp.  He struggled up, leaned on his cane and slowly departed, taking the stairs carefully in the increasing gloom.  He hesitated for a moment then turned towards Vincent’s chamber, halting at last outside the beautiful, woven drape Narcissa had made him, listening carefully.  He could not rest until he knew Vincent was home again, and he was desperately tired.  He lifted the corner and peered in, just a parent checking on his child, was all.  The dimness told him only one candle was lit again, barely enough to see, and Vincent’s bed was empty, though it had a curiously trampled look, as though of nightmares.  He turned to glance into the far corner, where he had surprised him before, and he was there, totally absorbed and therefore unaware he was being watched.  His breeches were flung on the floor and he was washing his left leg harshly, up along his thigh where that rash had been.  Jacob saw it was still there, but worse than before, now bleeding.  But Vincent continued to rinse out the flannel and scrub at his skin.  Jacob was frozen with horror, then very slowly let fall the edge of the drape, caught his cane under his arm and, using the wall for support, silently departed.  He could not do  anything now, the chamber had been rank with Vincent’s hatred.

---------------------------

Catherine had returned the following day, and Jacob hoped to see her soon, but it was another full day before she came Below, and then she came directly to him, in the late hours.  Vincent was Above again, although he must have felt she was close.

She skipped lightly down the stairs to the library, but her face was set in a worried frown.  As she greeted him, she smiled with her characteristic warmth, then clasped his hands urgently as she sat beside him in Vincent’s chair.   She looked beautiful as always with her long, sleek hair and wide, grey eyes, cheeks blushed with cold.  The soreness eased in Jacob’s heart at the sight of her.

“Father,” she said anxiously without preamble, “there is danger Above and I have come to warn you of it.  The sentries told me Vincent is not here, but you must tell him also, urgently.”  Jacob made to speak, but Catherine pressed on.  “No, listen!  There seems to be a dangerous band of hobos in the park, we don’t know where they are hiding, but there has been serious trouble.  There seems to be about ten of them, going by sightings, and they steal food and money. We believe the money is for drugs and are piecing together a profile of their operations.  They have bashed shopkeepers senseless, are vicious thugs.  They are only young, and are controlled by some woman who has been seen buying from known dealers, but we cannot yet determine where they live.  My guess is in isolated regions of the park; some campfires have been found and old blankets.  But they never return to the same place.  They get their supplies and move on.  We fear they will leave this area soon, as they must know the police suspect something.  Father, I am afraid Vincent is in danger as he also keeps to the more isolated areas.  He must stay Below until this is resolved.”

Jacob listened intently, then patted her hands, still gripping his own, and set her back gently.  She sighed out her stress then looked at him again.

“We believe they have killed a girl,” she said quietly, “along the stream, on the other side of the woods.  She is not one of their kind.  It seems to be an enforced overdose and a beating.  She was also bound with chains.  There were also broken chains in the water beside her, but they are a mystery.  The links have been forced apart, as though to free someone.”  She looked directly into his eyes, her own wide with growing fear, “Someone of immense strength.”

Jacob realised his mind had still been in hopeful denial, but now he sagged in his chair and knew with utter conviction that Vincent had already been involved.  He now understood the latent violence in his eyes, the aura of unspeakable rage, and could only guess at the cleansing ritual he had twice witnessed which was becoming nothing short of self-mutilation.  Yet to disclose any of this would only terrify Catherine, and there was not a single thing he could offer her in the capture of this gang.  Vincent would already be aware of her presence and anxiety, and Jacob fervently hoped it was bringing him home, away from danger.

He laid his hand gently on her arm, aware she had been closely watching him.

“Can you sleep here tonight?” he asked, “I think it would be of enormous help to Vincent if you were here for him after your journey away.  He has missed you.  Then perhaps we can all talk together.”  He smiled at her fondly, but she saw the underlying distress in his eyes.

“Yes, Father,” she said, “if you think it will help.  I will be in the chamber you have kept for me.”  She sighed as she stood wearily.  “I really am very tired and don’t relish the thought of going home alone, even in the safety of the tunnels.”  She smiled at him softly and kissed his forehead and studied him a moment, here in his beloved library, the lamplight glowing on his thick, wavy hair. He patted her cheek kindly, his warm, brown eyes gentling with affection, then reached for his glasses as she trod the stairs with slow and measured tread.  He would wait for just a little while, in case Vincent returned.

---------------------------

Catherine roused from a restless sleep, drowsy, nerves jangling in the deafening silence.  She sat up, pushing back her long hair, then realised she was Below and the candle had gutted low, dancing small shadows on the wall.  It did not matter if it entirely extinguished, for the passage lights were kept burning.  The imprint of fading nightmares had set her heart hammering with fear and uneasiness and she tried to snatch at fragments that were incomprehensible, felt the icy touch of dread.  She threw back the blankets and pulled on a robe loaned by Mary, aching to see Vincent, to draw comfort from seeing him asleep and safe, for surely by now he would have returned.  She guessed by her watch that dawn would be paling the stars, suffusing the east with  streaks of lemon.  She missed the early twittering of birds, which she could hear even from her balcony.  The silence here tended to unnerve her, even as she gratefully breathed in the smell of burning candles, tallow and old books.  Perhaps Above was the dream.

Quietly, on swift, bare feet, she ran to his chamber, meeting no-one, setting the candlelight fluttering in her wake.  She stopped and gazed at Narcissa’s drapes, remembered that first night, before lifting an edge to peer inside.

Vincent’s bed was rumpled, a single candle burned on the small table where he normally read.  She saw the customary book, but it was on the floor, the pages curled, the spine cracked.  She stepped inside and whispered his name hesitantly, then saw him in the far corner near the washstand, half-naked, wearing only a sleeveless shirt of homespun, warm wool.  He seemed to be bathing, the water dripping down his legs.  She had turned away instinctively from intrusion, then noticed the angry, red rash on his left thigh.  She called his name again, softly, and moved towards him anxiously, but he was utterly engrossed, staring at some loathsome, fascinating thing only he could see.  She stole close enough to touch him, but she did not, waiting for him to see her in the unusually deep gloom.  He was hiding.  When he became aware of her at last, he straightened and she saw he was shivering and there was an unnatural gloss to his skin.  She saw blue bruises across his shoulders and legs, and the swollen brow, and could only stare at him, throat tightening with anxiety and horror.  There was a damp flannel in his hand and he gestured to that ugly rash where pinpricks of blood were swelling through the skin.

“It won’t go away,” he said simply.  She caught his arm and he stilled, looking up in mild surprise at her, eyes sunken within the cavern of his face.

“Leave it now, Vincent,” she murmured softly, “we need to get Father to dress it for you, and you must not touch it, and then it will heal.”

He looked at her in bewilderment, his breathing catching in his throat as though he had been fleeing in panic.  She calmly held his gaze with her own, took his hand and coaxed him to his bed, pressing him down gently upon his pillows, feeling the racing thud of his heart against her palm.

“Why do you hide in such darkness, Vincent?” she whispered, but his eyes slid away from her.  “Promise you will wait here,” she insisted then, leaning forward to capture his vacant, straying stare, struggling to understand the emotions scattering across the dark shadows of his face in the lowering light.  Suddenly the candle was extinguished and she stood poised, plunged into utter darkness, Narcissa’s drapes cutting out all light from the passage, smelling the acrid smoke, listening for him.  He sighed and moved and moaned, and she turned and felt along the wall until she came to the doorway, then she fled towards Jacob’s room.

He knew it was a dream and knew it should not have been, and knew his real life should have been the dream, to be forgotten on awakening to the normality of morning sunshine.  His heart was uplifted with fierce joy as he wandered by the stream again, under the blue sky, relishing the soft breeze of a warm day, smelling the lush grass underfoot.  The others were there, too, and they smiled at him and Meriliana was gypsy beautiful and watched him from sultry black eyes as he crouched near the water and leaned over to study his reflection again, ignoring the discarded, broken doll in the water with its dull eyes and open mouth.  He recognised himself and yet did not, for it was only him now, freed of the demon, with his smooth skin and clear, blue eyes, and a full mouth undivided.  He smiled broadly with pleasure and marvelled at the change in his face, wondered at the strange and naked feel of his cropped, golden hair, at the broad, smooth hands, a man’s hands with short, square nails.  He turned to glance at lovely Meriliana and became transfixed with horror, as she swayed and moulded before him into something crass and repugnant, and her long hair became lank and greasy and her skin smelled rancid, and her eyes were narrow and cruel, and the hands she extended were dirty and carried his dried blood and skin beneath her nails.  Then he saw his own hands were furred again and the nails curved claws, and when Jacob roused him, the tears were sliding down the ridge of high cheekbones into his hair. And then this was only him as before, once again.

There was a relentless stinging on his left thigh beneath a thick, white wadding, and a lantern burned cheerfully, flooding his room with invasive, dancing light, making him shield his eyes.  Catherine was there, too, and she and Father coaxed him gently, helped him carefully pull on the soft, leather pants that lay lightly on his injuries and he heard their muttered voices as they saw the marks upon his body. Then Father was gone and he had sense only of Catherine as she lay beside him, here in the tomb of his chamber below that flooding sunshine and freedom.  She moved carefully against him, laid her arm across his chest, and watched his face, the blue skin  below the closed eyes, and felt him crushed by an overwhelming sadness, heard the broken sigh.

“Vincent,” she whispered, “what has happened to you?” and as he turned towards her, she cradled his great, shaggy head gently within her small, soft hand and kissed his hair, smoothing back its wild tangle from his face, careful not to touch his brow.

The bruises, the rash, the fever of drugs, the broken chains.  He had been there; they had beaten him, abused him.  Perhaps they had not killed him because they thought he was already dead.

She thought of the girl in the stream and could only guess how he had come to be there. She ached with dawning realisation and tears of agony and sympathy for him burned in her eyes as she moved to listen to the murmurs of some strange song, haunting, dragged from the depths of his soul.  Through her grief she struggled to understand, the united warmth of their bodies steadying her shattered nerves.  It was not a song after all, but some lilting, melodious chant that she strained to understand.  The great muscles knotted beneath her stroking hand and then he looked fully at her, through her, his gaze straying, drifting, searching vainly about the rocky walls while an aching restlessness shook him

“Meriliana,” he said wistfully, tasting the word, his body quivering again, “Beautiful name, don’t you think?”

Catherine stilled with shock, leaned over to capture his eyes, drowning in the sadness there.

“Did she hurt you, Vincent?” she asked softly, “then make it all right with drugs?  With poison?  They were bad people and they have gone.  They almost killed you.”  He tried to focus on her face, frowning, shaking his head in slow denial.  She stilled him gently, holding his face to her.  “They killed the girl, didn’t they?”

Vincent turned from her swiftly, struggled to rise off the bed, began his habitual pacing, though his body was sore and his leg ached against the dressing.  She watched him, the latent violence, the anguish, the marks of pain illuminated on his body by the lantern.

“I saw the man I should have been, Catherine!” He shouted at last, swooping at her savagely, “can you even begin to imagine what joy I felt, to be normal, even if just for a little while?  Can you imagine how I look beneath this?”  He pointed to his face with a sharp nail, eyes narrowed and savage, face flushed with rage. He stepped back, aware of her shock, and clammy fingers shivered over his skin again and he felt the heat rising, the slow pound of his blood as measured drumbeats in his brain. “I crave it.”  He looked at her steadily,  “I want you to see too, to see me, not what I’ve become.”  He confronted her squarely, legs braced, his great chest heaving, and through the hectic disarray of his golden hair, she saw the wildness of addiction in his eyes.

Catherine rose and walked to stand before him, so close their sleeves brushed.  She could hear his rapid breathing as she tipped back her head to lock his entreating gaze.

“I came to see Vincent,” she said softly, “but he is not here.”

He stared back at her, stunned, then he seemed to fold inwards, claws ripping his belly.  He slumped back onto his bed, sick with pain and fever, turned his head away, closed his eyes in defeat.

He remembered the doll, but knew it was not a doll, and it grew larger before his eyes until it transformed into the girl again, with her eyes open in the stream and her flowing hair idly swaying in the water, and her blood, and the chain that bound her arms against her sides.  He felt her cooling skin beneath his fingers as he tried to grasp her to drag her out and remembered them snarling at him, milling together in a malevolent pack, heard their triumphant howls, saw their sweat in the moonlight, the craziness in their eyes.  The handsome man was there too, mocking him, graceful, fair, blue-eyed, resplendent in the sunshine, worthy of his Catherine, then he crumpled like a dropped puppet.  Vincent  saw the demon crawling out and the old horror and fear struck his heart.

Catherine sat beside him, his sweet Catherine, her arms stealing carefully across his shoulders in soothing embrace, her lips gently soft upon his bruises.  She brushed back his long hair, traced the line of his cheek and jaw with a lingering touch that made his heart ache.

“Crave me instead,” she whispered and lay back on his bed in sultry sexual invitation, opening her knees suggestively, feeling his intense gaze slide upwards along her thighs.  He leaned over her, pinned her with his eyes.  She invited him, here, now, boldly, lifted her hips to slide off her panties, gripped his hand and pressed it firmly up beneath her skirt, holding it between her legs with her own, against the secret, silken hair, moving against him so he could feel her hunger, her musky readiness.  Vincent exulted in her desire, and, in total abandonment, was barely able to strip before she gripped him, stroking, caressing, guiding him, insistently while gently dismissing his foreplay, and then he was on her, sinking into her with rough and savage need, but she only sighed and arched and urged him on, until the sweat glistened in the muscular valleys of his back, until he burst into her at last in a flood of passion and purging rage which left him utterly exhausted, drained.  He moaned with pain as he tried to lift his weight off her, his body sore and battered, but she circled her arms around him possessively, sweeping her hands down the curve of his spine to press his buttocks down gently to stay him there, inside, comforting, within loving refuge.  Carefully, he settled against her shoulder, her legs still twined around his, and buried his face within her sleek hair.  Catherine held him, soaked in him.  She felt him relax in healing sleep at last, watched the lantern cast its serene shadows upon the rough walls, and waited.