Et Voila! That’s how the story started…
Oxford, a clearing on the outskirts of the city – June 1650
I CANNOT BREATHE.
A thick coif wraps around my head, and a black gown covers every inch of my body. As Mother ordered, its wide collar hides the contours of my shoulders. I must abide by the rules not only in public, but also in this clearing, where I spent much of my childhood.
I slide my fingers between my throat and the material of the coif, loosening its tightness over my neck. My chest rises and I take in a mouthful of air.
“I do not know when we will see each other again. I will stay in London for the summer months.” His somber, buttoned waistcoat makes Peter look so severe. The vest is finely cut yet bears no ornament, and a wide-brimmed hat hides most of his face.
I tempt him again. “You can always give up your charge and stay in Oxford. There is a good life here away from Westminster and its fruitless negotiations.”
His hands are clasped on the Holy Scriptures, as if those words were his own, and I want to steal the Bible away from him. My friend should not use the name of Our Lord to serve his own ambitions.
“Sarah, you know it is my duty to work for the protection of our rights against Charles’ rule.”
Peter takes my hand and brings it to his lips for an innocent kiss. Looking away I ignore his touch on my skin. My eyes catch the outline of something lying on the other side of the withered oak, among the ferns and yellow leaves.
Intrigued, I walk away from Peter. After a few steps, the discovery becomes clear.
A human form. A man. Gasping for breath.
I run toward him and almost stumble over the hem of my dress. The blade of a broken sword is embedded in the tree next to him. Playing cards are scattered amid the brambles. The Ace of Hearts stares up at me.
A feather protrudes from the top of his purple hat. His brown boots, the colored sash, and the golden hilt of the sword …
“A Cavalier,” Peter whispers, already by my side. “He must have fought one of ours and been left for dead.”
Cruel pleasure poisons my friend’s words.
I kneel by the soldier’s side and support him with my right arm. His eyes are closed, his mouth open. Holding my handkerchief over the wound on his neck, the cloth is quickly stained crimson.
The elegant man is alive, barely. I let out a sigh of relief.
“We need to take him to a physician.” My voice is steady, but I avoid looking up at Peter, who stands rigid next to me.
The Cavalier lays his left hand on mine, and my soul shivers. His eyes have opened. They bring back the cherished memory of another meadow in the spring sun and a young boy who gave me a red rose. I was a child then, but I can still remember his smile. The Cavalier’s smile.
“A good thing we found him. Justice will be rendered.”
Peter does not mean justice. He means slaughter. My own people will have the Cavalier executed.
I will not allow more blood to be shed. Not his blood.
I know at once, with clarity, what I must do.
Oxford, Faculty of History – Today
MADISON SPIED ON the Puritan, and the Puritan spied on the lovers. He hid behind a tree, his hand clenched on a Bible, his mouth twisted into a snarl. His hatred radiated out of the painting into the classroom, and punched Madison in the belly. She closed her eyes.
Violent scenes flashed behind her lids. Severe faces stared back at her, and battles played out around her. She saw blood. Blood on her hands and on the face of the Cavalier, the other man in the painting. The warm liquid stuck to her skin. To her soul.
Visions had shaken her before. But nothing like this …
Like a freakin’ Taser shot.
A wave of nausea flushed through her body, and an acrid taste invaded her mouth. She stood, but her knees buckled. Shuffling the few inches back to her seat she flattened her palms on the cold surface of the desk. The contact helped, but briefly.
Madison dragged her attention back to the painting, spread by the slide projector all over the classroom wall. In a forest clearing, a blond Cavalier lay in the arms of a young girl. Judging by his limp posture, he’d been badly injured. On the right side of the scene, a man dressed in black—the Puritan—watched. A plain hat covered half of his face. But Madison could see enough of his expression. He reeked of jealousy.
“Miss LeBon, do you need to take a break?” Doctor McCain’s familiar East Coast accent took her out of her trance and brought her back to the classroom.
As she shuffled in her seat, Madison’s chair squeaked. The other students turned in her direction. Embarrassment fired up her cheeks, but she managed to shake her head and give the professor a faint smile. He nodded and returned to his lecture.
Clad in dark blue jeans, he rested now on the corner of his desk. His compact body partly blocked the image of the painting behind him.
“William Shakespeare Burton was a relatively unknown artist, but this work, The Wounded Cavalier, enjoyed some success after he died. The scene takes place around 1650, after the execution of King Charles the First.”
The tutorial continued, but Madison looked away through the classroom window. One of the spires jutting into the Oxford skyline caught her attention. Her breathing slowed, and the trembling of her hands stopped. Almost.
She had been knocked off her feet before, but the ghosts had never made her sick enough to bring her breakfast to her lips. Never before had they been mere characters in a painting.
So much for leaving behind her voodoo heritage and the long line of LeBon psychics.
Madison gave herself a mental slap. She would not follow in her ancestors’ footsteps and end up a total whacko. She would not drown herself in the Mississippi or hang her pretty neck from the branch of a cypress. She would not let anyone shut her in a nuthouse. Just because she talked to those who were not there.
Confusion seeped into her. She would stand, fight and die for her crazy family, for her Cajun blood.
But no way am I going further into the loony bin. At least, not quite yet.
When Doctor McCain signaled the end of the session, her fists were tightly clenched, her knuckles white.