Clutching the rough homespun around me, I followed Jamie down yet another flight of dark stairs. This was the third, and the narrowest yet; the lantern he held lit the stone blocks of walls no more than eighteen inches apart. It felt rather like being swallowed up into the earth, as we went further and further down the narrow black shaft.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” I asked. My voice echoed in the stairwell, but with a curiously muffled sound, as though I were speaking underwater.
“Well, there’s no much chance of taking the wrong turning, now is there?”
We had reached another landing, but true enough, the way ahead lay in only one direction—down.
At the bottom of this flight of steps, though, we came to a door. There was a small landing, carved out of the solid side of a mountain, from the looks of it, and a wide, low door made of oak planks and brass hinging. The planks were grey with age, but still solid, and the landing swept clean. Plainly this part of the monastery was still in use, then. The wine cellar perhaps?
There was a sconce near the door that held a torch, half-burnt from previous use. Jamie paused to light it with a paper spill from the pile that lay ready nearby, then pushed open the unlocked door and ducked beneath the lintel, leaving me to follow.
At first, I could see nothing at all inside but the glow of Jamie’s lantern. Everything was black. The lantern bobbed along, moving away from me. I stood still, following the blob of light with my eyes. Every few feet he would stop, then continue, and a slow flame would rise up in his wake to burn in a small red glow. As my eyes slowly accustomed themselves, the flames became a row of lanterns, situated on rock pillars, shining into the black like beacons.
It was a cave. At first I thought it was a cave of crystals, because of the odd black shimmer beyond the lanterns. But I stepped forward to the first pillar and looked beyond, and then I saw it.
A clear black lake. Transparent water, shimmering like glass over fine black volcanic sand, giving off red reflections in the lantern light. The air was damp and warm, humid with the steam that condensed on the cool cavern walls, running down the ribbed columns of rock.
A hot spring. The faint scent of sulfur bit at my nostrils. A hot mineral spring, then. I remembered Anselm’s mentioning the springs that bubbled up from the ground near the abbey, renowned for their healing powers.
Jamie stood behind me, looking out over the gently steaming expanse of jet and rubies.
“A hot bath,” he said proudly. “Do ye like it?”
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said.
“Oh, ye do,” he said, grinning at the success of his surprise. “Come in, then.”
He dropped his own robe and stood glowing dimly in the darkness, patched with red in the glimmering reflections off the water. The arched ceiling of the cave seemed to swallow the light of the lanterns, so that the glow reached only a few feet before being engulfed.
A little hesitantly, I let the novice’s robe drop from my arms.
“How hot is it?” I asked.
“Hot enough,” he answered. “Dinna worry, it won’t burn ye. But stay over an hour or so, and it might cook the flesh off your bones like soupmeat.”
“What an appealing idea,” I said, discarding the robe.
Following his straight, slender figure, I stepped cautiously into the water. There were steps cut in the stone, leading down underwater, with a knotted rope fastened along the wall to provide handholds.
The water flowed up over my hips, and the flesh of my belly shivered in delight as the heat swirled through me. At the bottom of the steps, I stood on clean black sand, the water just below the level of my shoulders, my br**sts floating like glass fisher-floats. My skin was flushed with the heat, and small prickles of perspiration were starting on the back of my neck, under the heavy hair. It was pure bliss.
The surface of the spring was smooth and waveless, but the water wasn’t still; I could feel small stirrings, currents running through the body of the pool like nerve impulses. It was that, I suppose, added to the incredible soothing heat, that gave me the momentary illusion that the spring was alive—a warm, welcoming entity that reached out to soothe and embrace. Anselm had said that the springs had healing powers, and I wasn’t disposed to doubt it.
Jamie came up behind me, tiny wavelets marking his passage through the water. He reached around me to cup my br**sts, softly smoothing the hot water over the upper slopes.
“Do ye like it, mo duinne?” He bent forward and planted a kiss on my shoulder.
I let my feet float out from under me, resting against him.
“It’s wonderful! It’s the first time I’ve been warm all the way through since August.” He began to tow me, backing slowly through the water; my legs streamed out in the wake of our passage, the amazing warmth passing down my limbs like caressing hands.
He stopped, swung me around, and lowered me gently onto hard wood. Half-visible in the shadowy underwater light, I could see planks set into a rocky niche. He sat down on the bench beside me, stretching his arms out on the rocky ledge behind us.
“Brother Ambrose brought me down here the other day to soak,” he said. “To soften the scars a bit. It does feel good, doesn’t it?”
“More than good.” The water was so buoyant that I felt I might float away if I loosed my hold on the bench. I looked upward into the black shadows of the roof.
“Does anything live in this cave? Bats, I mean? Or fish?”
He shook his head. “Nothing but the spirit of the spring, Sassenach. The water bubbles up from the earth through a narrow crack back there”—he nodded toward the Stygian blackness at the back of the cave—“and trickles out through a dozen tiny openings in the rock. But there’s no real opening to the outside, save the door into the monastery.”
“Spirit of the spring?” I said, amused. “Sounds rather pagan, to be hiding under a monastery.”
He stretched luxuriously, long legs wavering under the glassy surface like the stems of water plants.
“Well, whatever ye wish to call it, it’s been here a good deal longer than the monastery.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
The walls of the cave were of smooth, dark volcanic rock, almost like black glass, slick with the moisture of the spring. The whole chamber looked like a gigantic bubble, half-filled with that curiously alive but sterile water. I felt as though we were cradled in the womblike center of the earth, and that if I pressed my ear to the rock, I would hear the infinitely slow beat of a great heart nearby.
We were very quiet for a long time then, half-floating, half-dreaming, brushing now and then against each other as we drifted in the unseen currents of the cave.
When I spoke at last, my voice seemed slow and drugged.
“Ah. Will it be Rome, then?” Jamie’s voice seemed to come from a long way away.
“Yes. I don’t know, once there—”
“It doesna matter. We shall do what we can.” His hand reached for me, moving so slowly I thought it would never touch me.
He drew me close, until the sensitive tips of my br**sts rubbed across his chest. The water was not only warm but heavy, almost oily to the touch, and his hands floated down my back to cup my buttocks and lift me.
The intrusion was startling. Hot and slippery as our skins were, we drifted over each other with barely a sensation of touching or pressure, but his presence within me was solid and intimate, a fixed point in a watery world, like an umbilical cord in the random driftings of the womb. I made a brief sound of surprise at the small inrush of hot water that accompanied his entrance, then settled firmly onto my fixed point of reference with a little sigh of pleasure.
“Oh, I like that one,” he said appreciatively.
“Like what?” I asked.
“That sound that ye made. The little squeak.”
It wasn’t possible to blush; my skin was already as flushed as it could get. I let my hair swing forward to cover my face, the curls relaxing as they dragged the surface of the water.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to be noisy.”
He laughed, the deep sound echoing softly in the columns of the roof.
“I said I like it. And I do. It’s one of the things I like the best about bedding ye, Sassenach, the small noises that ye make.”
He pulled me closer, so my forehead rested against his neck. Moisture sprang up at once between us, slick as the sulfur-laden water. He made a slight movement with his hips, and I drew in my breath in a half-stifled gasp.
“Yes, like that,” he said softly. “Or…like that?”
“Urk,” I said. He laughed again, but kept doing it.
“That’s what I thought most about,” he said, drawing his hands slowly up and down my back, cupping, curving, tracing the swell of my hips. “In prison at night, chained in a room with a dozen other men, listening to the snoring and farting and groaning. I thought of those small tender sounds that ye make when I love you, and I could feel ye there next to me in the dark, breathing soft and then faster, and the little grunt that ye give when I first take you, as though ye were settling yourself to your job.”
My breathing was definitely coming faster. Supported by the dense, mineral-saturated water, I was buoyant as an oiled feather, kept from floating away only by my grip on the curved muscles of his shoulders, and the snug, firm clasp I kept of him lower down.
“Even better,” his voice was a hot murmur in my ear, “when I come to ye fierce and wanting, and ye whimper under me, and struggle as though you wanted to get away, and I know it’s only that you’re struggling to come closer, and I’m fighting the same fight.”
His hands were exploring, gently, slowly as tickling a trout, sliding deep into the rift of my buttocks, gliding lower, groping, caressing the stretched and yearning point of our joining. I quivered and the breath went from me in an unwilled gasp.
“Or when I come to you needing, and ye take me into you with a sigh and that quiet hum like a hive of bees in the sun, and ye carry me wi’ you into peace with a little moaning sound.”
“Jamie,” I said hoarsely, my voice echoing off the water. “Jamie, please.”
“Not yet, mo duinne.” His hands came hard around my waist, settling and slowing me, pressing me down until I did groan.
“Not yet. We’ve time. And I mean to hear ye groan like that again. And to moan and sob, even though you dinna wish to, for ye canna help it. I mean to make you sigh as though your heart would break, and scream with the wanting, and at last to cry out in my arms, and I shall know that I’ve served ye well.”
The rush began between my thighs, shooting like a dart into the depths of my belly, loosening my joints so that my hands slipped limp and helpless off his shoulders. My back arched and the slippery firm roundness of my br**sts pressed flat against his chest. I shuddered in hot darkness, Jamie’s steadying hands all that kept me from drowning.
Resting against him, I felt boneless as a jellyfish. I didn’t know—or care—what sort of sounds I had been making, but I felt incapable of coherent speech. Until he began to move again, strong as a shark under the dark water.
“No,” I said. “Jamie, no. I can’t bear it like that again.” The blood was still pounding in my fingertips and his movement within me was an exquisite torture.
“You can, for I love ye.” His voice was half-muffled in my soaking hair. “And you will, for I want ye. But this time, I go wi’ you.”
He held my h*ps firm against him, carrying me beyond myself with the force of an undertow. I crashed formless against him, like breakers on a rock, and he met me with the brutal force of granite, my anchor in the pounding chaos.
Boneless and liquid as the water around us, contained only by the frame of his hands, I cried out, the soft, bubbling half-choked cry of a sailor sucked beneath the waves. And heard his own cry, helpless in return, and knew I had served him well.
We struggled upward, out of the womb of the world, damp and steaming, rubber-limbed with wine and heat. I fell to my knees at the first landing, and Jamie, trying to help me, fell down next to me in an untidy heap of robes and bare legs. Giggling helplessly, drunk more with love than with wine, we made our way side by side, on hands and knees up the second flight of steps, hindering each other more than helping, jostling and caroming softly off each other in the narrow space, until we collapsed at last in each other’s arms on the second landing.
Here an ancient oriel window opened glassless to the sky, and the light of the hunter’s moon washed us in silver. We lay clasped together, damp skins cooling in the winter air, waiting for our racing hearts to slow and breath to return to our heaving bodies.
The moon above was a Christmas moon, so large as almost to fill the empty window. It seemed no wonder that the tides of sea and woman should be subject to the pull of that stately orb, so close and so commanding.
But my own tides moved no longer to that chaste and sterile summons, and the knowledge of my freedom raced like danger through my blood.
“I have a gift for you too,” I said suddenly to Jamie. He turned toward me and his hand slid, large and sure, over the plane of my still-flat stomach.
“Have you, now?” he said.
And the world was all around us, new with possibility.