Possess Me Ch. 08bytitania123©
The old lady's head was tilted down, bobbling in reaction as the wheels navigated along the well-rutted road. The angle caused the inhaled air to grate indelicately along her nasal passages, only to be expelled in a rushed explosion before the cycle was repeated. Ice-blue eyes peered out from behind piles of luxurious furs, squinting in irritation at the rude noise the crone was filling the compartment with.
When a particularly loud snore shook the cold air, but did not stir the culprit, Josephine sighed rather unladylike and repositioned herself under her many warm skins. Plopping back against the carriage's side wall, she rested her head so one eye could peer out through a tiny crack of the mostly-covered window. The day was overcast, and held a dismal, gray tone. Their road was darkened by the many towering trees blocking out the wintering sky, though none held any leaves. She could hear the horses' puffing breaths, the creaking of the wheels as they groaned through the cold, drying mud. She caught a glimpse of Holt's horse, though he was not visible.
That morning he had told her it would be a full day's travel to the inn. Stilwell would arrive sometime during the night and the following morning, escort her to his keep. She moaned at the thought of spending the rest of her afternoon pent up in her freezing carriage listening to her old nanny snore. She was eager to be settled in her new home, her new life beginning as she had always been promised.
Hooves thudded over planked wood, and she knew they were crossing a river by the sound of its rushing waters. Just as she was about to wake Nan to cease the grating noise, she heard Holt's deep voice call outside. The carriage abruptly stopped. Eager for some form of excitement, Josephine threw back the thick curtain over the window and stuck her head out. She could see her white breath as she scanned around.
Holt had dismounted and was leaping down the steep embankment at the end of the bridge. "What is it Holt?" she called, curious as to what had peaked her stalwart protector's interest.
"A person, miss, in the river," he called back as he disappeared from sight.
Without thought, she flung back her coverlets and dashed out the door. Her nanny was too slow in waking up and orienting herself to her ward's actions to restrain her. Before Nan could protest, the young miss was leaning on the railing of the bridge with great curiosity.
"What sort of person, Holt?"
"A woman, miss. A young one, like yourself," he called over his shoulder as he pulled the lifeless form from the rushing waters. One of the coachmen had approached and helped him lift up as Holt climbed back up the rocky bank.
"Is she dead?" the eager young lady asked, clamoring closer to the large man as he carried the lifeless body. He laid her down gently, her wet, heavy cloak tangling awkwardly around her body. As he knelt down, his leather pants, wet from stepping thigh-deep into the water, squished. He put his ear to her face, listening for any stirring sound. "Is she dead?" she repeated in a tight whisper, also leaning closer to the crouching figure. Hush filled the space.
Josephine crept even closer.
"Is she dead?" her voice barely audible.
"She breathes not, my lady," he said at last in a forlorn sigh, sitting up. All eyes fell sadly on the drowned creature. Her clothing, now wet, appeared even darker, like the antithesis of life, and it caused her white skin to look all the more death-like. The small company gazed upon her, their countenance falling with each drop of water passing under the bridge.
"Poor dear," Nan finally said, breaking the funereal silence, "so young."
"And beautiful. I wonder how she came to be in the river. Look, she bleeds! She must have banged against the rocks..." Josephine's feminine voice trailed as she began to notice all the damage done to the drowned body.
"Come, child, this is not a scene for a young lady." Nan began pulling on the woman's hand to lead her back to the carriage.
"No, we must not leave her body-" she tried to protest, but was interrupted by a wrenching and violent expulsion of water and air. Josephine turned quickly back to the once grotesque scene. The body was heaving onto its side as water and white froth shot out of the mouth.
Holt helped turn her onto her side so the offending liquid could drain. At last the coughing subsided and the body lay asleep, voiceless and unnamed.
"Alive," someone whispered in shock, no one moving for a few heart beats.
"Holt, carry her to the carriage, then fetch me one of my simple gowns from my trunk. We must warm her immediately or she still risks death." Josephine turned and walked back to her conveyance and stepped inside. Holt did as bid and laid the girl down on the floor of the carriage. He returned with a simple brown shift and wool overdress. "Now, we must arrive as soon as the horses can possibly manage. And how of you? Do you need to change out of your wet things?"
"Nay, miss, I shall be fine."
"Then let us be off." Holt shut the door and all mounted up and departed at a much more hurried speed than they previously traveled. Josephine and Nan began stripping the girl of her drenched clothing, balancing themselves through the jostling ride. Though she said nothing, Josephine ran her fingers over a fading bruise and scratches on the juncture of the girl's neck.
Several fresh bruises covered her arms, legs, and even abdomen. Her left knee was bloody as were her fingertips. Josephine was most distraught to notice her bloody fingernails that appeared as if she had clawed against stone until her flesh tore away.
The two worked together to redress her. Nan bandaged her knee and hands with shreds of the girl's skirt while Josephine tucked the still fine blue ribbon into her pocket. She did not voice her thoughts as to her identity, but kept them to roll quietly inside. Together they hoisted her into the seat next to Josephine. Nan argued at first, pointing out that the girl was a stranger to them and it was unfitting for a lady to be on such familiar terms with her. But Josephine disregarded her and pulled the still unconscious girl closer into her arms as Nan tucked the many furs around their bodies.
The cold from the strangers' body was a solid force driving into Josephine's slim form, and she could not fight the loss of heat alone. So, despite the confining space, Nan sat at her other side while she shared her heat with the sleeping beauty. In an hour's time, Josephine had managed to pull the cold from the girl's body, and all were fast asleep in their cocoon of warmth.
The trio was still asleep as the carriage rolled to a stop in front of the busy inn. Per her orders, Holt carried the still unconscious figure to Josephine's room despite Nan's arguments about propriety. People had not yet assembled for supper and thus the main hall was fairly empty as the small company ascended the stairs, only a drunk looking up from his dim corner. Josephine and Nan's supper was to be served in their room so she could tend to her new ward.
After eating, Josephine brushed the girl's dark curls, hoping to spare the once silky locks. As she worked the tangles free, humming a slightly sad tune, Nan watched from the fire side, remembering when a nine-year-old Josephine had done the same for the younger sister of the DeWal family. No one knew the depth of the young Josephine's grief to have lost her sister to fever that winter.
The two women sat before the fire that evening, embroidering the last of Josephine's gown for the ceremony. She was rather pleased with the design they had chosen. She grew in excitement at the thought of seeing Stilwell in the morning. She was quite pleased with her parents' choice.
Josephine cast her eyes back to the sleeping young woman. What if she does not wake? Will Stilwell let me keep her? He is not an unkind man, perhaps I may convince him. And if she does wake and has no place to go, no home, maybe she can stay as my maid. She pulled the fine, silk ribbon from her pocket and ran a thoughtful thumb over it.
And yet, though her gown was not that of a lady's, it was well made and of quality fabric. Too, this ribbon, very expensive. I wonder that a servant or even a peasant should have it. Perhaps she is the daughter of a land owner or lord. Then she will not stay. Oh, well. Perhaps, if her home is not far, she will become my first friend here. I will not have to go to the city, as Aunt Vella thought. She smiled at the pleasant thought of a friend so close.
Nan slept on the small cot near the door, and Josephine lay in the bed next to the dark-haired girl, several scrapes along her cheek and chin the only hint that she was not peacefully sleeping of her own accord. Murmurs in the night roused Josephine from sleep. The girl was waking, slowly stirring, mumbling nonsensical sounds. Josephine sat forward, rubbing the sleep from her heavy eyes. Their fire still burned, though it was eating the last of the logs in the firebox. The room was dark and heavy in the soft shadows.
Her abused brow was furrowed and her full lips curved in a sad, perhaps painful frown. Her eyes remained closed though her head twisted back and forth as small whimpers sounded in the back of her mouth. She was distressed, and Josephine wasted no time in running gentling fingers across her skin that was unmarred. "Shh, sleep, my friend, you are safe now. Shh," she soothed in her dulcet tones. After several minutes of calming reassurance, watery eyes cracked open, and then slowly parted, though they remained squinted from pain.
"Hello there," Josephine greeted her softly, still brushing her comforting fingers across her forehead. She waited for the eyes to flicker to her face and focus in recognition as one human to another. "Hello," she repeated, smiling warmly. "How do you feel?"
The liquid pools of brown scanned uncertainly about her before returning to regard Josephine. "My head, it hurts," her rasped voice whispered. Her body tensed as if to move, but pain seized her features, relaying just how damaged her body was.
"No, no. Ease yourself and do not try to move. You have been through quite a lot."
"What happened? Where am I?"
She whispered, as Nan was still asleep, and the darkness of the hour seemed to dictate quiet tones. "We are stopped at the Split Oak Inn on the far northern side of the great forest. We found you in the river. You were drowned. Though how you came to be lodged amongst the boulders of the river, we do not know. Do you not remember?"
The young woman's eyes flickered with some recognition of pain, before she turned away and shook her head. Josephine relaxed back a little in disappointment. "What is your name?"
The girl swallowed and looked back to study the trustworthiness of the pretty face intently staring down at her. After several moments' pause, she spoke. "Brynna, my name is Brynna." Her voice was husky, as if her throat was raw and swollen.
Josephine could see lingering pain that had existed before the marks of the river and would last long after her scrapes and bruises were healed and forgotten. "Do not fear, Brynna, you are safe with me. I will see you stay well and protected." She gently squeezed her hand reassuringly. Water welled in the girl's eyes. Her tightened throat could not manage a 'thank you,' so she settled on a broken smile of gratitude. She returned to the dark, her mind unable to process the meaning of any of it.
When Stilwell arrived the next morning to meet his betrothed, the two discussed what should be done with Brynna. Though many objections were raised, he rightly argued that nothing could be decided until they knew what her previous living had been. Was she missing from her father? A husband? Had she done something criminal and was escaping persecution? Too many unanswered questions made assuming responsibility for her dangerous. And Stilwell would not risk the safety or reputation of his new wife.
Josephine entered the well-lit room with Stilwell behind her. The fire was roaring, and the side table near the bed held a small tray of stew, bread and a flagon. The cup remained full. Brynna slept under the many layers of furs and coverlets. Josephine sat on the edge of the bed and reached out a hand to wake her.
"Brynna," she prompted gently. Slowly, she opened her eyes and turned towards the sweet calling voice. Her eyes widened at the sight of a tall man standing behind the young woman Brynna was eternally indebted to. "How do you feel?"
"Still in pain, my lady."
"You have food here. Have you no stomach for it?" She shook her head slowly, careful to not stir her pain by moving quickly. "Brynna, I would like to introduce my fiancé, Stilwell Goodchime. We are set to depart shortly to our home," she paused to smile at him at the pleasant sound of our home, before turning back, "but first we need to decide about you. I know you are hesitant to speak of it, but we must know of your history. Where did you come from and what brought you to the river?"
Brynna visibly tensed at the question, and turned away as she gathered her thoughts. She closed her eyes. After a few moments of quiet, she breathed deeply and turned back to the pair. "I have no home. My father...lost his fortune. It weakened our position, and to avoid...an unhappy match, I chose the alternative."
"You mean you threw yourself into the river?" a slightly condemning Stilwell asked with a furrowed brow.
"No, my lord," Brynna quickly answered, ashamed that someone would think such a detestable thing about her. "I meant to find a new life. To seek service somewhere. But the river...I had to cross it and was unable to fight the current. I was swept over a waterfall...and-" She could not continue as tears filled her eyes.
"Shh, there now. You are alive. I am sorry to hear of your misfortune, but you are safe now, and I will do what I can to help you." She looked up at Stilwell, but could see his resistance to her desire. She stood and asked to speak with him privately. He followed her into the hall.
"My lord, I know your reservations to what I seek, but please, think of the poor girl. She is no criminal. She is but a misfortunate woman, with no one to help her. Please, please grant me this favor. You can make it your wedding gift to me. Allow her to come with me. She can be my lady's maid."
Stilwell breathed deeply, considering all the possibilities. "You have not even asked her if she wishes for your help."
"She said she set out to look for placement somewhere. I know she would be more than happy to be my maid." She looked beseechingly up into his face. It was the face of the man who would provide for her desires the rest of her life. She was so accustomed to her father always securing her requests that she felt her heart flutter at the thought that Stilwell would not treat her in kind. The denial of this simple, important desire was a frightening augury of her life to come.
His scowling, thoughtful face at last softened. "Very well, my lady, if providing for her would make you happy, then it will be my pleasure to allow it. However," he said in warning, pausing her glee, "my promise extends only so far as she remains as she claims. If I discover she is otherwise, then I will not hesitate to turn her out." He leveled his face so Josephine knew he spoke in earnest.
"Thank you, my lord," she said, still smiling. She reached up on tip-toe to place a kiss on his cheek as she had done for her father at every gift. But the feeling was quite different, and Josephine pulled back with wide eyes, recognition of new sensations darkening them. He held her gaze of mixed feelings before gently kissing her lips in show of the proper way to thank him. She smiled again; yes, her parents had done a fine job in choosing her husband.
She returned to Brynna's side. "Brynna," she whispered to the girl who had fallen asleep in the quick moment she was away. "Brynna, if it pleases you, I would be very happy if you would come to live with me in my new home as my lady's maid."
Brynna studied her through half-sleeping eyes, somewhat unsure. "You wish for me to be your lady's maid?" She waited for the pretty blonde to nod. "Thank you, I do not know what to say." She sounded uncertain, a fact that did not slip past Josephine's keen notice.
"You only need to say 'yes,'" she assured. "Now, as it is, you are still too weak to travel with us today. I will have Holt stay with you while you mend and in the morning he will accompany you to our new home. I marry in four day's time. Nan will stay with me until the month-long celebrations end, and then she returns with my mother and father. Hopefully, at that time, you will be able to start your work." She could see Brynna's eyes slowly closing, though she struggled to stay awake. "Rest now, Brynna. Eat and gain your strength, and I will see you tomorrow evening," she whispered and left to join her betrothed and Nan in the carriage.
Throughout the day, Brynna was roused from her recuperating sleep by either the maid Josephine paid to help her use the chamber pot or Holt who fed her. His continual gentleness and soft voice persuaded the reluctant woman to trust him, despite his monstrously large and gruff appearance.
The still tired and sore Brynna drifted in and out of sleep when she was left alone. Occasionally, she would wake with a start, feeling herself tumble over the waterfall. Other times she would cry in her sleep, her physical pain competing with a deeper, unseen injury.
When the morning came, the maid came to help her wash, change the few bloody bandages, and dress warmly for the journey to her new home. She ate what little she could, though her spirits kept her hunger at bay. Waiting for Holt to escort her to the carriage, she sat, wrapped in her cloak by the dying fire fighting sleep when footsteps sounded down the hall.
Banging of knuckles against far-off wood and then voices that grew in strength and then a door slamming. The pattern of sound repeated twice, growing closer at each incidence. And then the knock came from the door next to her room and a voice demanded the occupants open. A voice that wove her dreams. A voice that pulled her body like the strings of a marionette. A voice that was a stabbing shard of ice.
A voice that belonged to Malik.
She sat to, a thousand pains buried in her avalanching terror. She stood and immediately buckled in half. Slowly regaining a standing position, she limped to the door, pressing her ear to it.
"It is empty, my lord," she recognized Saul's voice after a door opened. They were still a small distance away, but she heard their boot-clad feet approach her door. Panic rose as she took a step away and clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle the desperate whimper. She jumped at the pounding on the door, tears immediately filling her eyes.
"Open up," his voice called.
She shook her head in denial. How did he find me?
The banging came again. She heard a creak of old hinge."Yes?"
"I am looking for someone; a young woman."
"Well, I've none to sell you," the old man's gravelly voice answered smartly.
"I'm not looking to buy," Malik ground out.
"Well, I wouldn't just give any to you. How'd that benefit me?"
There was a chilling pause. Brynna leant her ear back to the door, listening. "Who stays with you in this room?"
She could hear the beginnings of a scuffle as, no doubt, an officious Malik pushed his way into the room. "Now, see here!" the old man objected. Brynna could hear the three enter. He will be here next, find me next! she thought. I have to get out, make a run for it.
But he'll see me, catch me!
He will catch me if I stay. I cannot stay unless I want him to find me. she blinked at the discomfort the idea created. Stop wasting time and go! she hedged only for a moment and then cracked her door so a single brown eye could peer out into the hall. The door across from her stood open and two men encased in darkness could be seen with their backs to the door, a cornered, frightened figure kneeling before them.