“What power there is in the word my.”
— WILLIAM GODWIN
I cannot for the life of me recall what happened during the weeks that followed that harrowing night. It seemed that I lapsed into a swoon that lasted an eternity, drifting into consciousness only momentarily. I seem to remember an aged man with a glass eye – perhaps a doctor? – leaning over me, his head against my breast, listening to my heart. I heard, though I did not see, the Judge – but his voice was too low for me to discern his words. For the most part, though, all I knew was a vast and soothing darkness: an untroubled sleep that left me heated and refreshed.
When I awoke at last, my vision flickering into awareness, I found that I was lying in a long, broad bed. Past the curtained hangings that surrounded me, I saw a little oaken table on which stood a silver pitcher. Overcome with an uncontrollable thirst, I struggled to rise but I found that my left hand was fastened to the bed above my head by leather straps; my waist and feet were likewise bound. The Judge, it seems, had taken every precaution to keep me.
I tried to call for someone, but my voice was parched and I could barely speak above a whisper. With consciousness also came a sudden awareness of pain – my broken wrist belonging to my one free, unshackled hand, was set in a cast but still sent an excruciating thrill of agony through me whenever I made the mistake of attempting to move it. Thirsting and speechless, I lapsed into another, deeper sleep: one like death.
It was night again when I awoke – the curtains were drawn, though they billowed in the wind for the casements had been flung open. The same elderly man with the glass eye whom I had seen briefly during my few waking periods was sitting at my bedside, calling for a fresh towel, while bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth. I realized then that I was burning with a fever, the blankets beneath me soaked with sweat, my body shuddering convulsively.
I fell again into a swoon, deeper this time. A month seemed to pass in my consciousness – though it was surely only a half hour at most – before I awoke to feel a man’s lips pressed against mine. And then it was as though a great pressure upon my chest was lifted and I could breathe again, for as he breathed his breath into me, I started to gasp and he pressed his head against my chest and listened to my breath and I saw that he was the glass-eyed doctor.
“And how long must this medicinal kissing continue?” I heard the Judge enquire, his voice dripping with irony and loathing.
“As long as you wish him to breathe.” The doctor returned, smoothing a wettened towel along my fevered brow and cheek. “What happened to my nurse?”
“She left her post in this room.” It was the Judge’s voice again and as he spoke, he drew closer to the head of my bed so that I saw him at last. “And so I had her cast out. My men Gottfried and Baillie will attend you.”
“They are not trained in medicine, my lord – ”
“Yet they seem to follow orders at least. Had your nurse been here earlier, he would not be close to death, would he?”
The Judge’s tone was measured and soft, but the physician flinched at the insult. When he held a cup of water to my lips, I drank desperately before falling back upon my pillow, the fever in my body cooled. The doctor leaned over me, but the Judge caught him by the shoulder.
“He has endured enough of your kissing,” he said. “Leave him to sleep.”
When I awoke again, I found myself lying upon a low sedan, the morning sun streaming slantwise across my face through a tall French window. A foot away from where I lay, a long table stood, adorned with bowls topped with thick cream, fine sugar, and strawberries still glistening as though freshly washed. Again, as I had upon my last awakening with the pitcher of water, I tried to lean towards them for a taste and – again – I found myself cunningly restrained by cords of a soft, delicate, unyielding material binding my waist, feet, and wrists.
“Alive again, Alan?” As he spoke, I lifted my eyes to see him sitting in an armchair facing me, a cigarillo burning in his fingers and Blackwood’s upon his knee. He set the paper aside and rose, smiling down upon me, though his eyes held no laughter as he felt my forehead, then my cheeks, then the pulse at my wrist. “Very good,” I heard him murmur. And then – “You are hungry and thirsty – that fool of a nurse left you yesterday and nearly killed you with her negligence.”
He drew a low footstool by the head of the sedan, sitting close between me and the long table. Plucking a strawberry from the bowl, he sampled it himself, not sparing me a glance. I watched him, a mixture of hatred and hunger making my face burn. He then filled a tall glass full of water, so cool that it made the glass sweat, and brought it to my lips, holding me upright and letting me lean against his breast so that I would not choke as I drank. I had never tasted anything so delicious – I drank shamelessly, endeavoring to forget that my Adversary gained his pleasure from this fresher ensample of my helplessness.
“How frustrating it must be to be you,” he said, fetching one of the glistening fruits dipped in milky cream and offering it to my lips. “You wish nothing more than to fly me and yet you live at this very moment at my pleasure.”
“Alas, sir, you do me wrong,” I said. “I would never presume to leave you. Particularly not after having passed your test.”
“And what difference would that make to you?” Complin enquired. “Your innocence has been proven, yes. But that has not changed my resolve, to do with you as I will. And that resolve you have ever sought to thwart.”
His lips were bloodless as he spoke, as though he repressed with considerable force a deep and passionate energy. I struggled now to resist recoiling from him; I think I still shuddered; but I compelled myself to return his gaze with a look that, I hoped, was pure of guile.
“You cannot expect me to wish my own demise,” I said. “I cannot side against myself. My lord, you have robbed me of almost everything – my mistress, my good name, my liberty. I have nothing save these twin things: a knowledge of my own innocence and…”
He saw my hesitation and I fancied that I saw a smile approach his lips. When I did not continue, he said, “Must I force words from you too now?”
“Can you not guess yourself?” I looked at him with the frankness of despair. “Your power, my lord.”
I felt him, like a tiger rippling its long muscles at the first glimpse of its prey, shudder with joy at my reply. I had known he would; I was beginning to see that my only hope lay in remaining within his talons and lulling him all the while. My desperate need to escape, I saw now, only awakened him.
“And yet…” he said, as I drank from the newly-filled glass that he held to me. “This is not the first time that you have spoken so. You will understand, dear Alan, if I hold your flattery at arm’s length.”
“Of course, sir. We both bear the scars of our encounters with one another.”
“We do indeed. Speaking of which…” He took up a cloth from the table and wetted it in the water pitcher before dabbing at my lips. “That ogreish physician thought he would kiss you awake. My tastes may, perhaps, be cruel, but even I cannot bear to think of his ancient spittle on your lips.” He continued to press the wet cloth against my mouth, his touch almost motherly. “I had him teach me his peculiar practice – in case you lose your breath again, Alan.”
I met his eyes and, I confess, could not prevent myself from flushing deeply. He laughed then and said, “Oh, I do believe in your innocence now.” As he watched me, his gaze hardened, the sparkle in them as cold as starlight. “You will never escape me again, Alan. That is over, an impossibility. You will sooner turn to air than leave my side. And before the month is out, I will have made you certain.”
“Then you do not intend to return me to prison?”
“If I were, would I not already have done so?” He gave my shoulders a firm embrace, his breath touching my cheek, and then abruptly rose.
“Gottfried and Baillie will see to your needs for the rest of the day. Tonight, at dinner, you shall learn of your fate, Alan – and what you are, respecting me.”
The rest of the day passed as a long, lingering dream. Once I had finished a light breakfast, I was led into an adjacent windowless room where an elderly serving woman drew up a warm bath for me and then took her seat in a corner with her knitting, her eyes on me in the flickering candlelight. I attempted to undress myself, but my broken wrist had not yet healed completely and my attempts were useless fumbles; seeing my discomfort, the ancient creature gave a sigh of disgust and rose to unbutton my shirt and help me into the waters.
“Why he insists on treating your sort like princes, when all the while…” She stopped her own mouth with a pipe that she withdrew from her long coat pocket, lighting the lump of coal in it while watching me sink gingerly into the steaming water.
“What do you mean…my sort?” I asked.
“Shut your mouth, love,” was her only reply. “Do you think our Lordship pays me to gossip on his affairs?”
Fortunately for me, I was only left with this forbidding creature for a few minutes, for she was soon relieved of her duty by a younger, more matronly serving woman who smiled down at me in the candlelight and said, “You’re looking so much better, dear, than you did a fortnight ago. Is your wrist quite healed?”
“There is still quite a bit of pain…but a fortnight, you said?”
She laughed at my look of shock, dipping her fingers in the fragrant water and ruffling my hair with it. “Oh, you were on death’s door, my love. Do you not remember? Oh, of course not – you were delirious the whole time.” She made a clucking, sympathetic sound with her tongue, soaping the hair at the back of my neck.
“Well…” I said. “I have the Judge to thank for my life. He saw to my care so very carefully.” I knew these women were his creatures and there could be nothing gained and everything lost in confiding in them.
“Of course,” she said with a light laugh. “He would lose so much were you to lose your life, now, wouldn’t he? What fair hair you have – why, it reminds me of my son’s. He was a beauty too, like you.”
After my last attempt at questioning, I knew better than to do more than simply acknowledge her peculiar remark. Once she had washed my hair, she offered me a towel and robe of crimson cloth and I was led from that room to an adjacent bedroom. I heard the key turn in the lock once she left and so I knew this to be my new cell. I had to own, it was far lovelier than any I had suffered yet. The windows were barred, but their glass was stained a delicate, azure blue that provided a beauteous contrast to the dark oak that made up the paneled walls of my chamber. The books that adorned the room were peculiar – an odd mix of theological treatises by English bishops and French novels that I could, alas, not understand as my mistress had neglected to teach me that language.
I looked about for a change of clothes, but could find nothing and so, wrapped in my robe, I lay upon the bed with a variety of these volumes and passed the time in reading of holy transubstantiation and looking at portraits of what appeared to be various medieval tortures, all captioned bewilderingly in French. The thought of the Judge perusing these volumes, as he must surely have at one time or another, was morbidly amusing to me, though the added recollection that he must have envisioned me in one or more of these straits was a less entertaining thought.
I eventually fell asleep in the midst of my studies and awakened to the sound of a key turning in the lock. It was Gottfried, a twinkle rising in his eye when he saw in what way I had passed the time. “Complin will be amused to see that you took such pleasure in his library,” he said. “Now – ” he tossed a shirt, trousers, and light coat upon the bed. “Dress yourself for dinner.”
The Judge’s dining room was spacious, its walls decorated with leather hangings, but the table was rather intimate and as I was seated across from the Judge, I could already smell the claret and the meat that glistened from the cup and bowl set before him. My own fare was blander and gentler, I suppose on account of my delicate health: a generous serving of meat broth and a mug of claret.
“Drink, Alan,” said Complin. “The doctor prescribed the wine for your blood and the broth for your bones.”
It was rich and heady, but it certainly warmed me, and as I had no fear at least of poison, I did as he commanded. After a moment, I noticed that the Judge had ceased to dine himself, and was studying me instead. I perceived as well that we were altogether alone again.
“Is something wrong, sir?” I asked, setting the silver down.
“I was only thinking how curious it is to see you this way and to know that, save for myself and these few who serve me, all the world believes you dead.”
I felt a sickness catch hold of my spirit at these peculiar words. “What do you mean? Dead?”
“I mean that I had my men, Gottfried and Baillie, declare to the town that their hounds and caught you and savaged you to death. There is a pauper’s headstone bearing your name on the outskirts of town, Alan. And being dead, of course, there are none in all this world to search for you now. Even the gallant bandit who took you under his wing, were he to catch news of you in the New World, will believe that you lost your life.”
“But – why? What could you possibly gain from this deception? I am already believed to be a criminal – what further rights do I have that you can deprive me of?”
Complin smiled at this. “Oh, Alan, what a charming question. It is almost as though you truly believe that as a Scottish judge, I have the authority to do with you in every way as I will. Of course, I can hang you and so I longed to do while you were my prisoner. The thought of you suspended still, I confess, enchants my heart. But do you think that I could do everything that I willed with you? Tell me, what was one of the worst torments that you saw within those volumes of mine that I left in your chamber? I know that you could not keep yourself from examining them.”
I studied the murky broth before me, hesitating to meet his eye again. “Well, flaying…”
“An exceptional choice!” he smiled. “Could I flay you, Alan? Could I really, before all the lords and tribunals of Scotland and Europe, and let them see my handiwork and my manifested will?”
I finally met his eye, my mouth dry and speechless.
“Not in your former state, no. But you are dead and resurrected now for my pleasure – and there is a way that you are ignorant of now but shall learn hereafter in which I will have the world bear witness to my desire.”
“Your passion for my destruction, sir, is unquenchable,” I remarked with a sigh. “What a shame it must be for you that I only possess one life for you to steal.”
“Your destruction, Alan?” He looked at me, his gaze like a wavering fire. “So I once thought. Perhaps I do still. And yet your death would be your release, not mine…”
This was the first note of true hesitance that I had beheld in my Adversary; it was not as though the surety of his will had changed, but it was rather like the very nature of that will had altered subtly. I saw my chance and chose to press it.
“Sir,” I said, holding his gaze. “I can only plead for my life. Do with me as you wish but please let me live, I beg you. I cannot help but think that if you truly wished my death, that I would be dead already. Why, you could hang me here, from the rafters of this hall, if you so desired.”
He did not reply, only drinking his claret and observing me in silence.
“Moreover,” I continued. “You have conspired against me long before I was a prisoner of justice. I know that when I fell into your hands, you must have found the letter that I found on my mistress’s corpse – the one in which she addresses a ‘Lord A’ and speaks of me as a ‘sacrifice’ offered to you. Tell me, sir, what did she receive in exchange for me? And who is this mysterious Lord who bargains on your behalf?”
Complin rose to stand by the fire, his fingers rising to trace the scroll-like woodwork that formed the mantle. “There are mysteries, both spiritual and human, that you will never understand, Alan. The powers and principalities that bind you to me are many – and Lord Allerdice to whom she would have sent that epistle is one of them.”
“Lord Allerdice? Who is he?”
“An enemy of mine,” he replied. “Who owed me a considerable debt and repaid it in full by serving you to me. Your mistress, the Lady Rebecca Claremont, hoped to win his good graces by doing as he wished – and as I commanded – and putting you in my power.”
I accepted the cigarillo that he offered me and he took up the flickering candle that stood on the table, holding it to me and watching as I lit the candle at its flame and inhaled the fragrant smoke.
“Was my mistress’s death a part of your plan?”
“Of course not. That was all your own wicked destiny’s doing. Did you kill her, Alan?”
“No, but I confess that I half wish that I had.”
He lit his own cigarillo, the ember burning like a coal. “She loved you – in her own way. But her love had no power and therefore no loyalty. She could not bring herself to fight for you and so she proved faithless and gave you to me.”
I watched him as he stood by the fire, his pallid Roman profile silhouetted against the flames. Again, as before, I marveled at the awful strength that my Adversary embodied. All the romantic notions that had drawn me to my mistress seemed exemplified a hundredfold in his person: if she was the shadowy nymph of my more innocent, ignorant years, then he was the dark Venus of my maturer youth. Yet the faith that he would keep with me would be my undoing; one or the other of us must possess the other and, in that moment of mastery, thwart the other’s will. And yet as I watched him, I could find no gap in his armor, no frailty that I could take and enlarge. As he stood there, shoulders cloaked in a light mantle of fur, he seemed impenetrable in his strength. And yet, I thought, I will not cease to sound the depth of that strength, even if it lowers me to Hell itself.
“I only have one more question, then, my lord,” I said. “When did you set your sights on me?”
He half-turned from the fire to me, his gaze still on the leaping flames. “There were many occasions. You will remember none of them. What use is it to recount a chance glimpse in the public square or on a forested path, when I was no more than a face in the throng to you? Suffice it to say that I knew you before you knew of me and that our meeting in the prison yard was not the first sight that I had of you.”
“I find it hard to believe that I would not have noticed you.”
“You flatter me, but I believe that your heart was too full with thoughts of a certain lady.” I noticed that when he alluded to the Lady Claremont, a peculiar smile twitched at his lips. There was a subtle pleasure that he derived at the thought of the love that had altered to hate in my breast.
“Now, Alan, I told you that you would learn tonight what you are now in respect to me. Come.”
He led me from the dining hall along an adjacent passageway and into a chamber illumined to a gold by a host of candles upon a corner table. Within the room, I saw a host of black-cloaked figures, their faces covered in gilded masks, conversing with one another. At our entry, they offered their bows to Complin and one of them stepped forward saying, “Why, I believe that we have met your charming young guest already.”
I recognized the songful lilt of that voice; it was the former guest of Complin’s whom I had met many months ago, who had longed to watch me dine on sweetmeats skewered with needles. At the memory, I felt my courage buckle and I recoiled, but the Judge caught me by the shoulder, staying me.
“He is mine,” he told the men. “And I would have him contracted to me, with you as my witnesses, before he is presented to Lord Allerdice – else our good Lordship might be tempted to take him for himself. It is not the first time that he has coveted what is mine.”
His words were as horrible as they were mysterious and I said, “My Lord, I fail to understand. What is it that I am being pledged as?”
“Mine.” The Judge nodded to the men, one of whom caught me roughly by the shoulder, forcing me to my knees before him. “Alan Williams, I place before you a choice: will you be my vassal, mine to do with as I will, or will you throw yourself upon the mercy of this court of lords? Consider my mercy; consider theirs. Consider your faith, too – where and in whom you would plight it. The choice is yours.”
“Both choices are damning, my lord.”
He smiled a little at this, glancing up at his masked companions. “Choose, Alan.”
The eerie similarity which this awful moment bore to the dream that I had had upon the night of my escape made me feel sick unto death. “Please let me consider the choice then.”
“We depart from this place to Lord Allerdice’s feast in a week’s time, Alan – before our departure, you must be mine or theirs.”
“You cannot force me to make such a choice,” I said, rising to my feet. “Deliver me to these lords if you wish, but I will not willingly pledge myself to you. You will not make me an accomplice in my own destruction.”
Complin’s lips grew bloodless with rage – he had evidently not expected such resolve on my part. He nodded briefly to the men, who offered him bows and quickly departed. Once they had left us alone, he caught me by the shoulder, forcing me brutally against the wall. I do not believe that I had ever seen such uncontrolled fury on his part, his breath hot against my throat as he caught me by the collar so roughly that the fabric tore as easily as wet parchment.
“Are you finding pleasure in your little game, Alan?” he asked. “I see that twinkle in your eye – I promise you, it will damn you.”
“Perhaps, my lord. Be that as it may, I hope that you can find your satisfaction in something other than my possession.”
He seemed to grow very still, even to the point of ceasing to breathe for a long moment. Then, suddenly, he loosened his grip upon my collar, a faint smile playing on his lips. “Very well, Alan. Have it your way. I can see by your looks that you are deriving enjoyment from humiliating me in this fashion. I promise that you will regret your decision to spurn me so carelessly.”
“What will you do, my lord? Hang me or flay me?”
He met my gaze for a long, silent moment. Then, to both our astonishments, he began to laugh and I, perhaps from the unbearable suspense or the ludicrous hilarity of my peculiar situation, could not prevent myself from joining him.
“You are either the most foolish or most clever lad in all of Scotland. But whichever it is, I will have my will on you.” The sudden alteration from repressed fury to joviality had brought an unwonted color to his cheeks, making him appear almost boyish in the candlelight. Yet as I watched him, his enmity began to return and usurp his momentary lightness of heart; I saw it in the slow downturn of his lips and the coldness that began to harden his gaze as he watched me. “I will not torment you tonight – you would enjoy it too much. I wish you to meditate upon your choice. In time, you will see why it was an unfortunate one, for the both of us.”
Gottfried was summoned and returned me to my chamber for the night. Before he departed, he turned to me and said, “I take it that you rebuffed the Judge. Do you believe that was wise?”
I flung myself on the bed, kicking off my shoes and loosening my coat, utterly exhausted and strangely, perversely, pleased with myself. “I haven’t the faintest idea. But I do know that it was immensely satisfying to behold his reaction. You should have seen him – he truly thought I would offer myself up to him without any resistance whatsoever.”
“Of course he did. Any sane soul who valued his comfort would have. You acted as a boy, not a man.”
“I take it that he has made such propositions before?”
“He has not. In all the years that I have known him to be a guest of Lord Allerdice’s feasts, I have never seen him even entertain the notion.”
“And I tell you that I would rather be tortured for the sport of all his companions than wed myself to him,” I said.
“How well you have described your very fate,” Gottfried winked.
“What would you have me do? All I have left is my inner will.”
“Of course,” said Gottfried, blowing out his candle. “And that is the last thing he wishes to take from you.”
“And his companions?”
“It is all one and the same to them. All they wish to see is your suffering – and that they will.”
Even the horror that I felt at hearing this could not entirely dispel my exultation. “If only you had seen him,” I said again in the darkness.