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Authors: Claire Cray

Merrick

BOOK: Merrick
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Merrick

By Claire Cray

Copyright 2012 Claire Cray

 

Chapter 1

 

The carriage
lurched to a graceless halt, launching me nearly off of my seat. I muttered an
oath, lifting my shackled hands to rub my head where it had smacked against the
wall.

“You’d best be
working on that vernacular of yours, young William Lacy,” the constable
sneered. “Your new master may not be as tolerant as the rest of us.”


Tolerant
,”
I scoffed under my breath, and touched my tongue to the tangy cut on my lower
lip, made by the constable’s own ring just two days prior. Or perhaps it had
been one of his friends on the night watch?

Drawing back the
curtain of the carriage window, the constable seemed not to hear me. A faint
glow illuminated his homely face, and his expression turned a little strange.
“Better take my advice, boy,” he said quietly. “For I wouldn’t want to see him
angry.”

I felt a little
color drain from my face, and then I frowned with grim resolve.

I’d done it this
time.

It all started
with one of the finest Saturday evenings the world had ever seen. The boys and
I were the kings of the tavern, winning at cards and arm wrestling, and my good
friend Jeremy, the owner’s son, kept the port flowing. I even had a bit of fun
with Molly Wrigs behind the bar before us rascals headed into the streets for
I-can’t-remember-what reason. Neither can I recall how we ended up in that
garden, though I do recall picking a great deal of roses and lying down in a
very comfortable hedge before I heard the sound of glass breaking and a great
deal of screaming. And of course, I recall the night watch showing up, and I
recall realizing I was the only one who got caught.

Six broken
windows. A judge’s house. I was booked for public intoxication, breaking and
entering, trespassing, vandalism, and attempted burglary. Shit’s sake! There
was no doubt I’d be in prison now if not for my dear sweet mother.

My throat
tightened up at the thought of what she’d done, and I couldn’t help shooting a
glare at the constable. It wasn’t his fault, but he’d been the one to tell me.
“You’re lucky your mum’s so young and pretty,” he’d said with an ugly smirk
when he came to the murky cell, keys jangling. “Rumor has it there wasn’t
nothing she wouldn’t do to get her bastard son out of prison.”

I had never been
much for fighting when I could avoid it, but it was a good thing I was still in
shackles – for the memory had me yearning to punch a hole in his fat head.

Hearing the
driver’s footsteps squelching in the mud as he approached the door, I gave
myself a stern order:
Do what you have to do, stupid. If you muck it up,
it’s her in prison, instead of you.

I’d really done it
this time.

The constable
leaned forward to unlock the shackles for the first time in several days. “Hope
you’re not thinking of running,” he said. “Remember it’s your poor mum who pays
the price for your nonsense now.”

“Where would I
go?” I muttered. I’d seen nothing from the carriage all these two days but
trees and fog. Oh, this was a cruel fate!

The constable
looked solemnly at me. I looked over his shoulder at the open carriage door,
trying to get a glimpse of the man who’d soon take ownership of my life. His
tone softened, which disturbed me mightily.

“You ought to be
thanking your Good Lord, Lacy,” he said. “This Merrick’s been respected in
these parts for right near forty years. A skilled apothecary could send you
back with the stuff to make a living. Better than a life of crime, ain’t it?”

I didn’t reply,
watching the idiot leave the carriage before me. Who said anything about a life
of crime? I just wanted to sell my books. Brainless pigs. They didn’t know a
menace from a mouse. They’d throw anyone in stocks given the chance. It was
plain enough they’d dump anyone off into servitude. But he was right: five
years bound in an apprenticeship was better than a trip to the work house.

My boots sank into
the muck all the way past my ankles before I toppled over. My damn legs were
asleep! I muttered another oath as my hands hit the mud. Three days shackled in
a rat infested jail, two days in a carriage, and now I was on all fours in the
mud. The boys in the city liked to give me trouble for my fastidious habits,
but I supposed this level of filth would be even past their limits.

“Is he infirm?”

I lifted my head
at the low, slow, gravelly voice, and froze solid.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Holding a lantern
at the edge of the road was a tall, menacing figure in a dark hooded robe,
complete with a veil that completely concealed his face. It was Death himself,
come to escort me into the underworld.

Stones were
forming in my gut. Ah, for one last glass of port! Oh, for one more handful of
Molly Wrigs!

“On your feet,
boy,” the constable said gruffly, and he and the driver hauled me up by the
arms. “He’s fine and fit, Master Merrick. Or is it Doctor Merrick?”

“Only the
villagers call me Doctor. Hold the lantern to him.”

My legs were still
numb. I could hardly heed the constable’s order to stand up straight.

“He’s been
shackled five days, sir,” the constable said as the driver moved the lantern
toward my face. I squinted against the glare. “He’ll be steady on his feet soon
enough.”

“Can he ride?”

I noticed then the
black mare in the shadows. I’d never sat on a horse in my life, but the beast
was the least of my fears. I looked between the driver and the constable, who
seemed even more spooked than I was. Were they really going to leave me with
this dark wraith and his nightmare horse? I felt like I’d been whisked out of
1799 and dropped into some medieval peasant’s nightmare. So much for civilized
justice in the United States!

They avoided my
shocked gaze. The driver tossed me my satchel and held the door for the constable,
who climbed back into the carriage. “Mind yourself, boy,” he said over his
shoulder. “Think of your mum.”

The carriage
rattled off down the road, leaving me alone in the dark with the faceless
Merrick and his lantern.

“Come,” Merrick
said.

Was I to share a
horse with him? I swallowed, trying to make my feet move. “Beg your pardon,
sir. My legs are a bit dead from the shackles and the ride. Perhaps I ought to
stroll beside you…”

“You are late
already, and we must be back.”

I reluctantly
pulled my tingling feet out of the mud, hissing softly at the pins and needles,
and plodded closer.

He clucked at the
horse. It knelt, and he beckoned me with one gloved hand.

Fancy trick. I
trudged forward and straddled the horse uncertainly, nearly falling over when
she straightened her legs. I took the lantern when Merrick held it out to me,
trying to ready myself for when he sat behind me. Lord, he was terrifying! I
could scarcely believe I was to spend the next five years bound to this living
ghoul.

Feeling his
thighs, hips and chest press up against me was startling to say the least,
especially since they felt hard as steel. Not what I expected of an old man.
When the mare started forward and I teetered precipitously, he flattened a
large hand against my abdomen and pulled me back against him.

I flinched at the
pressure against my bruised ribs, but was chilled solemn when he didn’t remove
his hand. I supposed I did seem a bit unsteady on the horse, or at least that’s
what I tried to reason – but then I felt him rubbing my abdomen, feeling back
and forth as though he were testing my muscles. When his fingers wandered up to
my chest, I froze.

Splendid. Just
splendid
.
I’d officially gotten myself into the worst possible predicament. I’d heard
plenty of stories of young apprentices and their unspoken extra duties: my own
friend John once confided in me that he ran from his apprenticeship after
waking up with the blacksmith’s burly body pinning him to his pallet, his rough
hands squeezing the poor chap all over. Plenty of street rats were born that
way.

Well, no way I was
getting ravished by some backwoods ghoul! I wondered now if John’s lecherous
blacksmith was as monstrous as my Grim Reaper.

But remembering my
predicament, I felt my heart sink. What was I to do about it with poor Mum
under the judge’s thumb, her own freedom collateral for my servitude? I
clenched my teeth as the gloved hand roamed down my leg and back up…

…and then took the
reins again.

I stared ahead
into the darkness beyond the light of the lantern, my body stone-still and
tingling from his unexpected touch.

“You’re healthy,”
he said in that gravelly voice.

I breathed a
secret sigh of relief. So it had been an impromptu examination, then. It seemed
a bit odd, to be sure, but I latched onto the explanation happily enough.

We rode in
silence, occasionally taking up a canter when the road allowed it. He seemed in
a modest hurry to get home.

At last we reached
a strange dwelling, at least to my city-bred eyes. Merrick’s home was a stone cottage
tucked into a jagged face of rock rising from the forest floor. It was hard to
see much of the surrounding landscape in the dark, but I guessed it was like
the rest of the New England forest: damp, dense, and miserable.

All right, perhaps
I was wallowing a bit.

Merrick dismounted
first, then took the lantern from me and held out his other hand. I accepted
his help awkwardly, grabbing his wrist and sliding off of the horse with only a
somewhat stupid-looking stumble when I hit the ground. The horse immediately
began to saunter away.

“You must always
be clean before you enter,” Merrick said.

I looked after the
horse, confused. “Aren’t you going to tie the…”

“Weather looks
after herself. Did you hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” I
said. “If you would advise me as to where I might…”

“There is a wash
tub in the lean-to, and rags and soap for bathing.” He passed me the lantern
again. “Don’t miss a hair. Leave your clothes there. You can wash them
tomorrow.”

I blinked at him,
then reminded myself that he could see me staring even if I couldn’t see him. I
looked down. “Yes, sir.”

His robe flared
slightly as he turned and entered the house.

I sighed and
headed toward the wooden lean-to just left of the cottage. It was good to move
my legs freely, at least, and though I found his demand for a thorough washing
spectacularly odd, at least it was in line with my own spectacularly odd
fastidiousness.

The shed was
well-constructed, with three plank walls against the side of the stone cottage,
and hung with a variety of mystifying tools along with several bunches of dried
plants. To my relief, the wooden wash tub was being kept warm on a low brick
stove. I couldn’t strip fast enough. As I dipped a rag into the water and
lathered it with the soft soap again and again, scrubbing and rinsing my aching
body, I noted with some surprise what a pleasant atmosphere the little shed
had. The plants and the steamy wood emanated a pleasant smell, and how often
did I get to wash up with heated water?

When I was so
clean my naked skin squeaked under my wet fingertips, I took a breath and
headed awkwardly over the stone path to the entrance. I pushed the partially
open door carefully, trying to shield my private bits with my other hand, and
jumped slightly when Merrick opened it the rest of the way.

He was still
sporting the hood and veil. This was well and truly odd. And he stood there at
the doorway staring at me – at least I had to suppose so, for I couldn’t see
his eyes. I shivered a bit, though it wasn’t much cold.

“You’ve been
beaten.”

“Er…” I stammered.
“Yes.” I sneaked glances around the room. There were herbs hanging from every
spare inch of the ceiling and glass jars covering wooden shelves and stone
nooks all over the walls. Several potted plants rested in the sills of the
shuttered windows, and a heavy wooden table sat at the center of the room.
There were stacks and stacks of books about, and the air was redolent with the
scent of the plants. At the rear of the room hung a heavy leather hide,
evidently covering a doorway.

Most interesting
to me were the books. I hoped I’d get the chance to look at them more closely –
that would certainly be some comfort. A pang of sorrow went through me when I
thought of my own books back in the city, and the living I’d started to make
with my peddling and appraisals of rare volumes.

I’d started
trading books at age ten for the sheer love of it, and all the shops in the
city came to know me so well over the years that it was only natural when they
started to ask for my opinion on new items in their collections. By the time I
had turned eighteen the previous winter I’d even started to build a good
reputation among the wealthier residents of Manhattan, who loved to flaunt
their cultured tastes through their carefully cultivated private libraries. The
fees I collected for appraisals had grown from pocket change into a decent
living, and I had started to feel like a real success in my own right.

Ah, well. So much
for that.

He stepped back to
allow me room to enter, and I stepped forward. He closed the door behind me and
circled around my back. “And what was your crime?”

“They say I
smashed a judge’s windows.”

“Did you?”

“No. I was asleep
in a hedge. Everyone was quite drunk.” I thought of copping to the
rose-picking, but thought better of telling an herbalist I’d just violated a
garden.

“Are you in the
habit of such behavior?”

“No, sir.”

“Can you read and
write?”

I wished I knew
where he was looking. I shifted on my feet a little, feeling goose bumps rise
as I stood naked on the wooden floor. “Yes, sir.”

“Can you do so
well?”

I nearly scowled
at what sounded like condescension before I caught myself. “Yes, sir, as well
as anyone I know.” Better, in fact. By leaps and bounds.

“Then you can read
and sign our contract while I prepare a poultice for your injuries. Put on this
night shirt.” He gestured to the heavy wooden table where a sheaf of paper sat
next to a folded night shirt.

I did as I was
told, watching him move through the leather curtain into the back room. A glow
began to flicker around the edges of the hide. I looked at the contract,
written in a script that was surprisingly elegant and controlled for an old
man’s. The contract was ordinary for this type of arrangement. I was committed
to him for the next five years, during which time I would perform all the tasks
he saw fit to put me to while he trained me in his craft. He would report to
the courts every so often to assure them I was still in line with the
arrangement.

There were a few
peculiar rules, though. I was to wash my entire body daily – again, odd, though
certainly not unfavorable for me. I was to retire to bed as he instructed –
that seemed a little strange. And I was not to reveal information about Merrick
or the cottage, however trivial, to anyone without his approval. That was less
surprising, I supposed, as it only stood to reason that most masters would
guard their trade secrets jealously.

Oh, well. This
contract was a formality, anyway. I supposed I appreciated the gesture, as it
allowed me to feel I was entering this of my own will – but the fact was, this
was
my jail sentence, and my mother’s freedom and clean record depended on my
compliance. If I displeased Merrick, if he sent me back to the city, my mother
would bear fines while I went back to prison. And if I became a fugitive, she’d
be the one in shackles.

I squeezed the
quill a little too hard as I signed my name, my lips thin. That damned spiteful
judge. So much for the next five years of my life – and all for a couple of
broken windows that weren’t even my fault. It wasn’t fair!

“Come here when
you are finished, William.”

I looked up at the
call, confused for a moment as I thought it was someone other than Merrick
speaking. His voice sounded smoother than before. Rising from the table, I went
to the back room and pulled back the leather to find an actual damn
cavern
.

The leather
covered the mouth of a cave in the rock the cottage stood against! At the back
of the chamber there hung another hide, which I guessed concealed the passage
to another cave chamber. God only knew how deep it went…

I must have shown
something on my face, for Merrick said, “Are you leery of caves, William?”

“I’ve never been
in one before, sir.” Truth be told, I was leery of it all. The floor here was
not wood, but stone. A double-sized bed stood in the corner nearest the
entrance. An assortment of strange ornaments hung from the ceiling above it. On
the wooden nightstand was a stone bowl where some sort of resin was burning, letting
off a fragrant smoke.

“Hold your
nightshirt up to your neck and lie on your back.”

I looked at the
bed, then back at him. I couldn’t help thinking of John and the lecherous
blacksmith, but sternly pushed the idea out of my head. The man was an apothecary
and a healer, and I was badly bruised. There was nothing else to it.

Once I was on my
back, Merrick came near with a steaming wooden bowl and a small stool. Sitting
beside me, he set the bowl on the nightstand and began to pull off his leather
gloves.

I was somehow
reluctant to see his hands. What was all that leather and gauze hiding if not
some terrible deformity? I thought I might as well wait until the touching part
was over before I tried for a glimpse, and so I fixed my eyes to the odd trinkets
above. They were mostly beads and wooden shapes, along with some leather
pouches. I realized slowly that many were Indian amulets, some resembling the
ones my own mother kept tucked away.

I tried to stay
relaxed when he laid his palm over the dark bruise at my waist where a boot had
hit me.

But it was hard
not to react when his hand skimmed past the bruise, running slowly up my side
and over my chest to come down the other side of my waist. It grazed over my
navel, the heel of his palm traveling the dip between my hipbones, then
continued back up the side again to make the same slow, caressing circle.

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