The Shadow of Heaven
James Towne, Virginia – May 23, 1610
Too late, Crispin Worthington discovered he hated dying even more than he hated his father.
Undoubtedly this new sentiment derived largely from the nature of his soon-to-be demise. He would have preferred a quicker and less painful end. At least he could console himself with the knowledge that starvation had been his choice while God had decreed his sire.
With a sigh, Crispin shoved aside dreams of tables laden with stout English fare and squinted at the pink dawn filtering through the waddle and daub walls of his cottage. Ignoring the ever-present rumble of hunger in his belly, he hefted his weakened frame aright. He grabbed a tankard, scooped brackish water from the nearby pail, and quaffed the contents in a single gulp. His stomach growled in displeasure at this poor offering.
His gaze strayed to the neighboring pallet. The lad had but a week, perchance two if Crispin scavenged a fish or a rat or a root or even a boot. He refilled the tankard and carried it to the pallet. “Here, John, drink. I go to take my turn on the watch. When I return, I’ll bring victuals.”
“Keep them for yourself—if you find aught.”
Crispin poured the remaining water in a basin and began to wash. “I shall find something. ‘Tis the advantage of being in command.”
A weak smile tweaked the corners of the young man’s mouth. “A pity that command is but temporary. We could hardly have fared worse this past winter had you challenged Percy for the council leadership. When does our esteemed president return from Fort Algernon?”
Crispin shrugged as he donned shirt and breeches. “Soon.” Stockings he no longer needed—not since he’d boiled the leather of his last boots to keep John alive a little longer. He buckled his cuirass strap, noting how loosely the breastplate fit his frame.
“Not soon enough for me. I cannot continue, Crispin. Remember when I asked—”
“You ask too much, my friend. Besides, the supply ships should be here any day.” Unless, of course, the Spanish intercepted them before their arrival. He shuddered at the thought as he belted on his sword and slung a bandolier over his shoulder.
John’s empty gaze focused on the movement, then flickered up to Crispin’s face. “Do you ever fear the Company has abandoned us, like Raleigh’s lost colony?”
“Of course not.”
But the lad would not be mollified by platitudes. “If Percy hasn’t returned with provisions, or if the fleet hasn’t arrived by tonight, end my torment.”
“You know I cannot. Even in this wilderness, there are penalties for murder.”
“You have the knowledge to end my suffering without being detected. The penalties for suicide are worse. A man can ask God’s forgiveness for a murder, but not a suicide.”
Crispin rammed his morion onto his head, as if the helmet could block the sound of John’s despair. And his own powerlessness to prevent it. “Keep your superstitions to yourself, lest you find yourself in more difficulties.”
“More difficulties than slow, torturous death?” Beads of sweat glistened on the lad’s forehead, and his eyelids drifted shut. “Please. I can bear this no longer. For the love of God, Cri—”
“Love of God? Enough! I will listen to your nonsense no longer.” Crispin yanked a musket off the wall, shoved open the door, and stormed outside. His burst of temper gave him strength for several steps, until hunger and weakness resumed their places, leaving the weapon’s ten pounds heavy in his arms.
Sunlight twinkled on the tops of the distant vine-draped pines. He sucked in a deep breath of spring-scented air, already detecting the underlying stench of the swamp and the noxious fumes that would engulf the land with poisons by summertime. His bare feet slopped through the mud of a recent rain as he hurried past another freshly turned mound of earth that scarred the fort’s floor.
“You are late,” Hugh Lloyd greeted when Crispin mounted the three-foot height to join the man on the north bulwark.
Crispin ignored the insubordination. Siege and starvation had a way of erasing rank and class. “How many last night?”
“Two. Three if your companion has also expired.”
“Nay.” Crispin’s grip tightened around the stock of his musket. “Not yet.”
“I know not whether to rejoice or sorrow for his sake. What did we do to so anger the Almighty that He punishes us so dreadfully?”
“The sins of my fathers are enough to condemn me for eternity.”
“Aye, their infamy is known throughout the land. Indeed, the Worthingtons exceed even the Percys in iniquity. No wonder we are the most cursed among men.”
As if Crispin needed the reminder. “Speaking of Percy, have you seen aught of his return from Algernon?”
Lloyd gestured to the wide, quiet James River. Dawn glinted on its surface but revealed no ship enroute from the south. “Nay, not yet.”
Crispin leant against his firearm, allowing the barrel to support him as he swept his gaze from the river to the swath of untilled fields and stump-scarred ground around the settlement. In the distance loomed the never-ending forest that teemed with game, vegetation, and natives. The same barren landscape that limited surprise attacks from hostile Powhatans also kept at bay all source of sustenance.
To starve, with a veritable feast only yards from their doors. God was not only vengeful, but malicious.
Movement beyond the wall caught his eye. He jerked the musket into position, weakness making him lurch against the palisade.
Heigh! A man!
Fear sliced through the hunger in his belly, then ebbed to resignation when he caught sight of a pale linen shirt. An Englishman—one of their own—maddened by hunger and despair, driven to desperation.
The fellow crashed against a stump and went down, only to push himself to his feet again.
Crispin lowered his musket. “Return, you fool!”
Lloyd added his own admonitions, but their erstwhile neighbor ignored their orders. Babbling incoherently, the crazed fellow staggered closer to the tree line. The rising sun caught on dirty red hair, lighting it with a fire to match the reddening sky.
Drawn by the shouts, three more men joined Crispin on the bulwark, staring in stupor at the desperate sight before them. John’s movements were slow and jerky, but none of those who remained behind had strength for pursuit.
Then an arrow whizzed from the trees. John reeled but kept to his same forest trajectory. More arrows filled the air around him, and his body jerked and fell. Like a horse headed back to a burning barn, he rose and continued towards the trees. The macabre scene repeated for indeterminate moments until at last the lad failed to rise.
A dozen or more Powhatan warriors inched forward from the tree line, just beyond the range of Crispin’s musket. If they apprehended John, the lad would learn the true definition of slow and painful death.
“Quick! The cannon!”
It took the strength of all five men to position the seven hundred pounds of iron. By the time they had the falcon aimed towards the forest, the Powhatans had faded into the trees.
Lloyd shook his head. “Poor lad. Pray God he be dead by dark, lest the savages capture him while he yet lives.” Indeed, only the idea of a fate worse than death inhibited many from seeking relief from their torment in a shower of Powhatan arrows.
Bile raced across Crispin’s tongue. He swallowed, but it simmered in his unappreciative stomach at the notion of yet another senseless death. Of the hundreds he’d witnessed these past six months, this one struck the deepest blow. “I’m going after him.”
Lloyd grabbed his arm. “Fool! You’ll die before you reach him.”
“We’re all going to die—‘tis only a matter of when.”
“As soon as I reach the gate, fire the cannon.” Crispin jumped to the ground and then glanced back at the men huddled around the cannon with grim determination etched in their haggard faces. “And if I fail to return, Hugh has command.”
He raced to the palisade gate. Fortunately for his waning strength, it had long since ceased to serve its original function and now sagged open, revealing the dilapidated state within to any would-be conqueror. No doubt were the Spanish to appear, these most miserable of men would welcome them as deliverers.
As soon as the falcon’s explosion rent the air, Crispin snaked forward. The reverberations sounded for several seconds, then the ball splintered a sapling in the distance. After a few last, muffled rustlings, silence enveloped the landscape, broken only by the hoarse commands of the men on the bulwark.
He had traversed approximately fifty furloughs of the distance when an arrow whizzed next to his face and speared the ground beside him. He glanced at the shaft. Strands of his hair were entwined in the feathers, a testament to Powhatan marksmanship.
Another cannon blast shook the ground. Crispin used the commotion to creep closer to the boy’s body.
A soft moan whispered through the weeds.
More arrows rained in Crispin’s direction. One bounced off his helm. Another found the armhole of his breastplate. Thanks in part to the gap left by his shrunken size, it zipped under the metal and embedded in his armpit. He gritted his teeth and yanked it out, then under cover of the next report of the cannon, wriggled the remaining ten yards to John’s prostrate form.
“Has hunger so addled your mind that you’ve forgotten what those savages will do if they capture you alive?”
John’s fingers wrapped around his arm. “Crispin?”
Crispin waited for the next discharge of the falcon. As the blast snapped branches beyond them, he hooked his arms under John’s armpits and haltingly dragged him across the field. The pop of musket shot filled the space between the cannon fire, suggesting some of the Powhatan warriors had decided to brave the sporadic and ineffective cannon. Arrows poured down on them, and Crispin stumbled as one pierced his thigh. Locking his mind against weakness and pain, he forced himself to continue their slow progress back to the fort.
As they reached the shadow of the palisade wall, other hands relieved him and carried John to his cottage.
“You are also injured.” Lloyd gestured to the splintered remains of the arrow protruding from Crispin’s blood-stained breeches.
“’Tis minor. Take the bulwark. I need to see to—”
“Captain Worthington!” called the man who had assumed the watch. “Ships!”
“Two.” The man checked again. “Nay, at least three!”
Could it be? “English?” The fleet? He feared to say the words lest he offer his companions false hope.
“Nay, they are strangely wrought. God keep us, the invasion has begun!”
A wave of churning dismay swelled through Crispin’s exhausted frame despite his efforts to remain stoic for the others’ sake. “Then let us hope the Spanish are more compassionate than the Powhatan when they kill us.” He ignored the arrow yet lodged in his thigh and clambered onto the bulwark. To their east, three crafts floated up the river, still but tiny dots against the water’s surface. “Our first step is to resituate the cannon.”
In their weakened state, they struggled some minutes to reposition the heavy falcon.
Crispin glanced at the river again, his dread transforming to bewilderment. “So far as the Spanish know, we are a thriving colony of several hundred souls. They would never mount an attack with but three ships.”
“Think you they are English then? We are saved!”
“By three small ships?” Crispin tugged at the cuirass that had begun to chafe against his wound. “They are hardly the fleet that is to be our salvation.”
But the desperate men heeded not his advice. They jumped down and rushed toward the gate, joined by other survivors who also abandoned their posts.
“We are saved! We are saved!”
Indeed. But by whom? And for how long?
* * *
After two weeks at sea, temperatures and tempers were climbing in the tiny, crowded hold. Demetria rested against the bulkhead, cradling the babe in her arms as she stroked his perspiration-drenched brow.
At least this final leg of their journey would be short. Already, the rough seas of the Atlantic had mitigated to the calmer waters of the Chesapeake Bay as at long last, they sailed into Virginia—nine months after their expected arrival. This morning’s stop at Algernon, the fort at the bay’s mouth that guarded the inland settlement from Spanish attack, had added another passenger.
Speculations now sprinted from passenger to passenger about the conditions in James Towne. Had she traded one nightmare for another? The misgivings that had accompanied her for the entire year—ever since the ill-fated Sea Venture had set sail from England—now blossomed into panic.
She pulled her babe more tightly to her breast until Tramontane squawked in protest. If—
She glanced over her shoulder. The darkness below deck deepened the shadows lining Sir Thomas Gates’ features and hid his expression. “Aye, my lord?”
“Come with me.”
Demetria followed the governor topside and waited while he conferred with Captain Newport. The sun’s glare on the water stung her light-sensitive eyes—Newport did not permit his passengers to venture above deck and disturb his crew. She inhaled air blissfully lacking the stench of their overcrowded quarters.
Her new vantage point offered Demetria her first opportunity to observe this New World. The hazy outline of dark forests on either distant shore edged the wide James River. Overhead, gulls dived and soared while she watched their carefree sport with envy.
“We use the tide, not the wind.”
She whirled to face the speaker, a painfully thin man with eyes sunken from hardship and despair. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
“I noticed your interest in the sails. They are limp because we use the tide to convey the ships up the river to James Towne.” He held out a gaunt finger to Tramontane, who gripped it in a chubby fist. “How old is the child?”
“Six months. He—”
“Ah, Percy, there you are.” Governor Gates inclined his head towards the newcomer as he joined them. “Mistress Fletcher, you have no doubt heard of the Honorable George Percy, who arrived on the first voyage three years ago.”
A lump of ice lodged in Demetria’s throat. She swallowed, but her dread left a path of biting cold to her belly, then echoed lingering chill back up her spine. That the Earl of Northumberland’s brother should appear so! She gathered her composure and murmured the appropriate acknowledgments to the man before her, trying not to stare at his emaciated form, at this confirmation of the murmurings below deck.
“Master Percy assumed control of the council after the previous president’s death last fall. He informs me that the situation in the settlement is quite dire.” Unlike her new acquaintance’s countenance, the governor’s cheeks—tanned by their nine-month sojourn in Bermuda’s sunny clime—glowed with vitality above his golden beard. “I fear your husband’s demise may cost us more than we anticipated. You and the good doctor were married some time, were you not?
Demetria repeated her oft-rehearsed lie. “We married a year before we set sail.”
“And he told the Company you assisted him in his practice in England.”
“A little.” A very little—one patient. Her time with Malachi had been short enough—verily only a few weeks and not the twelve months they had represented to the Company before leaving England—and her duties limited to a few simple tasks as instructed by him.
“I fear, Mistress Fletcher, we shall need your ‘little’ at James Towne. Indeed, we shall need all the medical knowledge and skills you possess.”
Except she possessed no significant knowledge or skills that equipped her to assume responsibility for others’ lives. Her pretense had seemed harmless enough at the time, and the best means for securing her escape. But now? Would her ineptitude alert the governor to her deception and put Tramontane at risk? Or worse, hasten some ailing colonist’s death? “Surely there is another—”
“Percy says there is one who has done what he could, but he knows less than you.”
Oh, she doubted that! Trapped by her lies, she fumbled for an excuse. “My lord, I am merely a woman.”
Master Percy leant forward, his eyes intent. “Mistress Fletcher, James Towne has experienced hundreds of deaths.”
Her throat caught. “Hundreds?”
“Aye, hundreds. Those remaining will be grateful for whatever assistance you render—the sick and dying will not concern themselves with your sex. We expect the next supply fleet any day. Given the presumed loss of the Sea Venture, undoubtedly the Company will send another doctor, but until his arrival, we need you.”
Resentment welled within her. No one needed Demetria. Not her uncle, who’d collected an estate he wanted and a niece he didn’t upon her father’s death. Not her husband, for whom she’d been merely a convenient means to a profitable connection. And certainly not the poor colonists of James Towne, who deserved a real doctor.
The babe in her arms began to fuss. She shifted him against her shoulder and patted the back of this helpless, innocent child—the only person on earth who truly needed her, who depended on her for sustenance and security. For Tramontane, she would brave any storm, risk any punishment, tell any lie.
“What caused such a massive number of deaths, sir?”
“War. Sickness. Starvation.”
“Starvation? I know of no cure other than sustenance.” She looked around the Deliverance, one of the two tiny ships the survivors had created from the Sea Venture’s wreckage after a tempest had tossed them onto Bermuda.
Governor Gates nodded as his keen gaze followed her glance. “Aye, and we carry provisions only for our journey, not enough to feed an entire colony. We must all beseech God for that fleet’s precipitous arrival.”
Especially since the arrival of a new doctor would minimize the risk of errors on her part—and Gates’ discovery of her deception.
The ships drew closer to the shore, bringing the passengers near enough to discern the changed landscape. Instead of the deep forests and reedy swamps that had accompanied them since they had left Fort Algernon, the rough timber of a palisade scarred the coastline.
Master Percy swept his hand before them, the lace at his cuff tarnished and torn. “There it is, Sir Thomas. James Towne.”
Town? Nay, all that peeked above the walls were the gables of a few thatched-roofed cottages.
Percy gestured to the river. “The channel is nigh to thirty feet deep here, eliminating need for either dock or boats.”
The ship drew along the water’s edge only yards from the town’s palisade. A flood of skeletal forms, like phantasms from some unspeakable nightmare, stumbled though gates hanging askew from their hinges. Silence descended on the ship, save for stunned curses from the sailors. Piteous cries floated from the shore, over the creak of wood and snap of rigging.
Governor Gates shook his head. “Order everyone to the chapel as soon as we disembark.”
The crew lowered the gangway. Demetria hung back as other passengers stepped ashore. The low peal of a bell reverberated through the sultry air calling all to the chapel. Gathering her courage, she urged her trembling legs to follow the shuffling mass.
Gaunt hands clutched at the arms and clothes of the new arrivals as the wretched remains of the colony begged succor. James Towne. With morbid curiosity, Demetria examined the humble cottages, most in various states of sad disrepair.
A particularly persistent hand gripped her wrist, pulling on her arm. She tried to yank free from the boney fingers. “Stop— Oh, Master Percy.”
“We need you immediately.”
He towed her into a nearby cottage where raspy, gurgling breaths filled the gloom. Her eyes strained against the stinging smoke of the small fire to gaze at a crude pallet whereon lay a man—boy, really, if one were to judge by the paucity of his beard. Dried blood matted his auburn hair and streaked his freckled cheek. Her gaze traveled to his bare chest, and she gasped.
Wounds covered his emaciated form. From his breech-clad thighs, several shafts protruded from blood-rimmed punctures.
Master Percy released his grip on her arm and frowned. “How like him to disappear at the most inopportune time.” He nudged her further into the room. “Go ahead and start.”
“Start? But what am I to do?”
He waved his hand impatiently. “Stitch him together, of course. I trust you can sew?”
“You will have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate your artistry with fabric later. For now we need you to mend flesh.” He spun around and vanished into the sun.
Demetria stared after him for one confused moment, then turned her attention to the lad. Bitter memories and compassion welled within her, and despite her misgivings, she vowed to render whatever service she could. She peered more closely at the lad to determine—
A shadow fell across the pallet. She whirled, instinctively tightening her hold on her babe.
A man’s form loomed in the doorway. His broad shoulders blocked all but a few meager rays of the sun while his ebony hair brushed against the portal. He stopped short when he spied her.
“What are you doing?”
She stared at him, willing her tongue—once so dangerously impudent—to reply, but the harsh menace in his voice scraped raw fears she’d thought buried a year ago.
“Faith! A silent woman.” A sardonic smile stretched across the stranger’s mouth as he stepped fully into the room, allowing the light to flood back in. His metal breastplate hung loose around his torso, his thinness exaggerating his height.
Though she fought the urge to cower, his presence was too overwhelming, her survival instincts too strong. Painfully aware of the cottage’s small size, she stepped back and transferred Tramontane to her far hip.
“And timid, too.” He strode to a crude bench and set down a linen pouch.
Demetria stifled a gasp as she caught sight of the red-ringed hole in his breeches. A recent wound, judging by the still scarlet hue of the blood, and similar to those that perforated the lad on the pallet.
“So you decided to forego our new governor’s call to thanksgiving, Mistress?” He grabbed a bowl from a shelf. The movement divulged another bloody laceration, this one under his arm. “A wise choice.”
That accent. So familiar. So frightening.
And yet, not so impossible after all?
“How so?” She fought to feign nonchalance against the premonition that skated up her spine.
“How so?” The hardness that tightened his jaw roughened his voice. Fire—anger?—lit eyes of a disquieting green she had seen before. But where? “You will not be here long ‘ere you curse God rather than thank him.”
Demetria studied him while she searched her memory for any tidbit, any scrap of information. Could it be? And yet, unlike Geoffrey’s golden beauty, this man’s hair was of ravens-wing black, his temples already touched with hoarfrost. Why had she not paid more attention when Geoffrey spoke of the prodigal son she’d never met?
Because in Geoffrey’s company, her every thought had focused on escape.
This man’s hollow cheeks bespoke deprivation while the bump of his once-broken nose evinced a past of violence. Her gaze dropped over the tattered sleeves peeking out of his breastplate to his blood-stained breeches. Nay, not only his past.
He dumped the contents of the pouch into the bowl and began to create some mysterious concoction. He seemed to have forgotten her, and for a moment, she almost relaxed as she studied him further, trying to imagine how he would appear restored to health.
A year’s separation—a year’s healing—had convinced her that Geoffrey’s mastery over her had been as much a trickery of the mind as a domination of her body. But this man . . .
Even in his present state, he exuded raw, physical power. The rent in his sleeve afforded her a window to observe the rippling of sinew as he mashed his secret potion into submission. She shivered and held herself in check despite a rising urge to flee the cottage—an action that would once again draw his attention to her.
Tramontane’s weight sagged in her arms. She shifted him, freezing when the stranger’s gaze darted to her, then to her son. Eyes too old for the man’s face studied the babe.
“The child sleeps. Set him down yonder and help me.” He nodded towards another pallet.
Gently she settled Tramontane on the blankets, then straightened, flexing the strained muscles of her arms.
The stranger extended the bowl to her. “Hold this.” The tangy scent of the mixture within teased her senses.
She stepped nearer to take the bowl, and the stronger smell of dangerous male overpowered the medicine—a fearsome combination of blood and determination, earth and the wild undercurrents of this strange new land.
He crouched beside the pallet to examine the lad’s injuries, frowning as he probed a wound. For one frightening moment, his resemblance to Geoffrey intensified. The young patient jerked and moaned as new torments appeared to reach into his unconsciousness. Demetria tensed, yet the healer’s large, calloused hands remained gentle, soothing even, as he dipped his fingers into the bowl and dabbed the mixture on the lad’s wounds.
Her confusion returned, ten-fold. When she’d left England last year, Malachi had assured her—over her objections—that in a thriving community of six hundred souls her path would seldom, if ever, cross with that of Geoffrey’s brother. In view of the fact that they’d never met, and with Malachi to lend credence to her new identity, she’d clung to the hope of safe anonymity.
But Malachi Fletcher was dead. Given the astounding death rate at James Towne, wouldn’t Geoffrey’s brother have suffered the same fate?
Nay, this could not be another of that cursed line. Not this man, who tenderly soothed ointment on the lad’s battered body. Not this man, with eyes too old and too weary to be younger than a monster of two-and-thirty-years. Surely God would not be so cruel as to strike down Malachi—despite their deceptions—and let live another spawn of that evil family. The need for reassurance formed the question on her tongue again and again, only to have prudence call it back each time.
Voices murmured in the warm air, and footsteps scraped against dirt. Demetria glanced at the door as a shadow fell over the room.
“Here you are.” Annoyance laced George Percy’s voice as he stepped over the threshold and glanced at the man beside her. “I could not find you earlier.”
“My apologies. I wasn’t aware you needed constant notification of my whereabouts.” The stranger arched his brows above that unnervingly familiar countenance.
Percy pursed his lips but did not rebuke the other’s impertinence. Demetria’s suspicions rose with her fears. Who would dare to thus address the recent leader of the colony—and an earl’s son?
Except another earl’s son.
“Our new governor ordered all to attend services.”
“I had more important matters to attend to.”
“More important than yielding a few minutes to God to thank Him for our deliverance?”
“I would have been more inclined to offer thanksgiving had the reverend’s homily come after a meal.”
Demetria tensed at this irreverence, but Percy only frowned. “Better temper your remarks around our new governor. He is not one who will overlook your disrespect towards God.”
“Just tell me he didn’t overlook our need for supplies.”
Percy shook his head. “I wish I had better news to offer. Gates said the Sea Venture’s crew jettisoned much of her cargo in the storm. The survivors used what remained during their stay on Bermuda.”
“Mean you we have fifty additional mouths to feed and no further provisions?” The inflection in that soft voice intensified his resemblance to Geoffrey. Demetria braced herself for an outburst of temper.
“Very little. Enough for a few weeks, mayhap.”
To Demetria’s shock, the expected explosion never came. No lashing out. No display of temper. Her doubts returned as the stranger merely rubbed his hand across his brow and sighed. “And you bear still more bad tidings?”
“Aye, I do. I fear the doctor is among the supplies that failed to survive the voyage. But behold, Worthington. God has provided you with an assistant, the doctor’s able widow, in his stead.”
Worthington. The name struck Demetria stronger than any of Geoffrey’s blows, hammering away the last of her denials.
She closed her eyes, vainly endeavoring to wake from this nightmare. Instead, she opened them to once again encounter the green-eyed stare of Crispin Worthington, younger brother of Geoffrey Worthington, Baron Sherworth—her husband.
Her real husband.
The monster she’d last seen in England a year ago, and very much alive.