I twirled my sword, the metal whistling in the air, and grinned. He paused in his hacking at the piece of wood, glancing up at me in both confusion and mild amusement, wiping the sweat off his forehead. At the age of twelve, he was just starting to develop the strength to lift the entirely to0 heavy axe over his head. He smiled, cocking a brow at me. “You are wearing my clothes,” he stated.
I glanced down at the baggy trousers and loose shirt I was wearing, the fabric hanging off my ten year old body. I shot him a grin. “Where else was I supposed to find the proper attire?”
“Liz, you are distracting me from preparing the firewood,” he said.
“It can wait,” I answered. “Right now, we must practice.”
“We’ve practiced each time you’ve come to visit this week.”
“And we will continue practicing until I am able to beat you.”
He chuckled, shaking his head and driving his axe into the wood again. “You are arguably the most competitive, most stubborn person I’ve ever had the sad misfortune of meeting.”
“Oh, hush, you love me.”
His axe came down much too hard on the end of the log and it shot straight up in the air. Carter ducked, cursing as it came crashing back down about five feet away. He gave a deep sigh and repositioned the log. “As much as I’d love to swing a sword at you, if I do not finish this by tonight, His Lordship will not be happy.”
I dropped my arm, knowing exactly what he was referring to, the burn on my lower back throbbing in sympathy. But surely a five minute break couldn’t hurt. “Just one round, then?”
“Fine.” I sheathed my sword and started making my way toward the stable. “You chop wood. If you should need me, I will be out for a ride. You won’t mind if I borrow Flame, would you?”
His arms stopped halfway, his head whipping around to meet my gaze. “You will not touch her.”
I grinned at him over my shoulder. “You couldn’t possibly—“
“Elizabeth,” he snapped, the venom in his voice making me turn around. He came marching toward me, a fire I had never seen before burning in his eyes, frightening me. “You have everything. Freedom to do whatever you like whenever you like, you have more clothes than you can count, a home in which you are welcome, a bed that you can sleep in, and hundreds of people that will do whatever you say. I have none of that. I am out here all day, working for hours upon hours. I am not even allowed in my own bedroom! I sleep in that stable, in that stall all the way in the back. The only thing on this property that is truly mine is Flame. No one else is allowed to ride her, not even you. Do you understand?”
I stared at him with wide eyes, completely taken aback, utterly speechless, blinking several times.
Carter dropped his head, weighing the axe in his hand, his brown hair falling over his forehead. When he raised his eyes back up to mine, he shook his head and said, “You may take any other horse and I will be here to wash it down when you return. But you may not take Flame.” He chopped at the wood again, harder than he had before, the log splitting right down the middle.
I take a step forward, the grass tickling the pads of my bare feet, the squishing of the mud the only sound in the suddenly heavy silence. Carter threw another piece of wood on the ground, lifting the axe over his head again, and crashing it into the log. My voice was very soft when I asked, “You sleep in the stable?”
“I would greatly appreciate it, Your Ladyship, if you would allow me to get back to my work,” he said stiffly.
“Why have you never told—"
“Good day, Your Ladyship.”
I was not going to leave him. “Why have you never told me this?”
He didn’t answer me, the axe coming down again, the sound going off like a gunshot.
“I will not stand for this,” I said, turning on my heel and heading back for the house. “I am going to tell Papa and he will—"
“No!” His hands latched onto my shoulders, spinning me around, his eyes wilder than I’d ever seen them. “You mustn’t tell anyone. I hadn’t even meant to tell you.”
“But why?” I demanded. “This is not—"
“You know why, Liz.” He reached around to press a hand to his back, the muscles in his face pulling tight at the memory of his lashes.
“Oh.” I swallowed, biting my lip and trying to think of a solution. “Well, then you will return home with me. Papa will most assuredly—"
Carter gazed at me sadly. “Lawrence would never allow us to leave. Imagine the scandal.”
“Perhaps you alone could sneak away—"
“And leave my brother and sister behind?”
I paused. “No, I suppose not.” I blew out a frustrated breath and dug my fingers into my hair. There had to be something I could do. If there was a way I could just—
“Carter,” came a loud girl’s voice. We both turned to see a girl around ten or maybe slightly older come down the hill toward the stable, her brown hair hung in perfect ringlets around her face.
Carter frowned. “Catherine?”
“Hello, Carter, Elizabeth.”
I smiled, but did not make much of an effort to make it look genuine.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
She pouted, jutting her lower lip out in the most obnoxious way possible, digging the toe of her slipper into the ground in a terrible impression of shyness. “Have you forgotten you promised to teach me the basics of fencing today?”
I froze for a moment, my brain processing what she had said.
She must’ve seen the expression on my face because she immediately straightened from her ridiculous posture, a shred of smugness bleeding on to her face. “Oh, pardon me, was I interrupting something?”
I shouldn’t have been affected by such a simple question. After all, he was entitled to have other friends, even if those other friends were girls. His life was difficult enough balancing between his rows with Lawrence and taking care of siblings. The more friends he gathered, the better. That is all we were, so the ugly feelings bubbling inside me of bitterness and hurt were completely irrational.
I cleared my throat and plastered on my most practiced, most believable smile, turning to Carter. “No, I was just leaving. I supposed I ought to change and see if I can’t find James meandering about somewhere.”
Carter’s features darkened at the mention of James but he simply nodded.
I unstrapped the sword from around my waist as I started walking up the hill, handing it off to Catherine. “I suppose you’ll be needing this.”
“Oh, Elizabeth, I did not know you owned a sword.”
“I don’t. That is the sword Carter uses when he is teaching me how to fence. But it seems I will no longer be needing it.”
Catherine tilted her head, curious. “Oh?”
“You won’t?” Carter asked.
“No.” I turned back to Catherine, smiling kindly and hiking up Carter’s massive trousers and I started back for the house. “I have recently decided the sport is not to my taste.”
Catherine said, “That is a shame.” Her tone made it clear that it truly wasn’t.
I faced him one more time, making sure he caught my meaning when I said, “But do not worry. No one shall know that other than me.” I will keep your secret.
His shoulders relaxed and the tension bled out of his face, a clear sign of appreciation in his eyes mixed with an obvious apology.
“And me,” cried Catherine proudly.
Both Carter and I smothered a laugh and I nodded to her. “Of course, Catherine, and you.”
I was jerked out of my dream—memory?—when I heard the voices from the other room rise dramatically. Immediately, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my heart took off like a rocket. Lawrence must’ve found us and he was going to—I didn’t know what he would do when he found us, but it wasn’t going to be good.
I ran out into the room, hearing Carter shout, “Go get the doctor! Now!”
I swung into the room to see them all huddled around Stone again. I pushed toward the front of the group until I was standing beside Lydia. “What? What’s happened?” But one look and I understood what all the fuss was about.
At some point, Stone had been turned on his stomach and we realized that his missing hand was only part of the torment he had suffered while he was away.
His filthy white shirt clung to his back, red having seeped through the entirety of it.
Mom came charging into the room, going directly to her patient. She took one look at the crimson drenched shirt and looked at William. “Do you still have that sewing kit?”
“Bring it here.” She dropped to her knees beside him, gently ushering Lydia out of the way, rolling up her sleeves.
“What does this mean?” Lydia demanded as she shifted toward Stone’s head, allowing my mother the space she needed to work.
“We will know as soon as I—thank you,” Mom grabbed the kit from William’s hands, rummaging through it until she found what she was looking for: scissors. She quickly set to cutting a straight line through his shirt, peeling it away from his flesh as gently as she could.
Stone let loose a moan that seemed to come from the very depths of his soul.
“He is awake,” Nathaniel said, looking at my mom with hopeful eyes. “That must be a good sign.”
Mom bit her lip as she stared at what she had uncovered. “I’m gonna need a lot more strips of cloth and a lot more alcohol.”
Several pirates ran off in search of what she had asked for.
I saw Lydia’s face and was immediately filled with trepidation. Ignoring that feeling, I skirted around Mom until I could clearly see what had happened and I almost did a double take.
All sound in the room ceased as we took in the sight.
Burn after burn seared into the flesh of his back, each line looking more painful than the last. His skin almost seemed to vibrate from the intense heat of each lash, bubbling as we gazed at it, the blistering skin filling with a terrifying puss color. It was as if he had been whipped with a piece of wood taken straight out of the fire.
I covered my mouth in equal parts revulsion and horror. Who could possible do something like this to another human being? I turned to Carter and noticed the furious ticking of his jaw.
He stared down at the burns and pressed a hand to his own back, the way twelve-year-old Carter had done in my dream.
“Oh, God!” Lydia cried, digging her hands into the ground beside Stone’s head, tears spilling out of her eyes.
“He wanted to make sure we knew who did this,” Carter said. “He’s left us his signature.”
He nodded. “Those are the marks of his belt.”
The men returned with Mom’s supplies and she got to work on the first burn, shaking her head in sympathy as Stone let out a howl that caused my own eyes tear up.
His hand clutched at the earth, looking for anything to hold on to while Mom did her best to heal him.
I saw Lydia’s gaze shift from his back to his grasping hand, saw her squeeze her eyes shut, saw her reach out a trembling hand and slip hers into his. Instantly, his hand clenched around hers, tightening to the point his knuckles turned white and she winced—but she didn’t let go.
Mom cringed as she dabbed at one of the burns and called me over to her. She leaned close so no one else would hear what she was going to say. “The burns are infected. We need to get him medication—"
“But this is the nineteenth century,” I argued. “There isn’t really—" I stopped, an idea occurring to me. I met her eyes. “There is an apothecary that we know.”
She nodded. “That’s perfect. I’ll go with you and—"
Mom blinked at me, her hand pausing above one of the burns, looking at me like I had lost my mind.
She had no idea that Robert looked exactly like Dad. There was no way she would be able to cope with seeing him again, let alone help heal Stone.
“I mean, you have to stay with Stone. You can just give me the list and I’ll make sure we get everything.”
“Lizzie, you have no idea—"
“Mom, he needs you right now. You gotta stay here. I promise I can get whatever you need.”
“I’ll be more useful getting him the medication he needs than just staring at his back.” She shook her head, getting to her feet. “I’m going with you and that’s final. Mrs. Brooke,” she said, turning to the woman that had followed her to the stable, “please get me a piece of paper and something to write with.” She looked back to me. “I’ll make you a list. We’re gonna split up and find as many items as we can, as quickly as we can.”
Mrs. Brooke returned surprisingly fast, handing Mom what she had requested.
Mom thanked her and immediately started heading for the door. Not seeing any other option and knowing any other attempt to dissuade her wouldn’t have any affect, I hurried after her.