I dreamed. No. No I relived my waking nightmares. I burned with fever and across my eyes danced Alo’s uncle still holding my Da’s bloody scalp … the hooded discipline-giver with his heavy lash … the men who had degraded me while I was locked in the stocks … the laughter of the Headman as he sold me away from the only home I had ever known … the half-faced monster that had led the attack on my new home.
I grappled with these nightmares for three days. I don’t remember the end of the battle. I don’t remember being found just inside the main gate just after dawn. I don’t remember that it was only Docia that I would allow to approach me. I don’t remember finally collapsing into her arms, barely able see through the sticky blood that had cascaded across my face from a head wound.
I didn’t see the fearful looks some people gave me or the loyal looks of the village and estate people. I was senseless to Jonah and some of his most trusted men as they bore me on a stretcher to the cabin and to Docia and Mrs. Wiley tending my body and my wounds. Nor did I hear the village women that would come every day to carry news of my health back to the ones that were busy putting all the damage to rights.
I didn’t know that Topher, despite his own injuries, would snarl and snap at anyone that came too close to me when he wasn’t expecting it; that he slept at the end of my bed on a pallet barely bigger than a cradle like he was a pup, refusing to leave my side except when Docia would remind him that I would be worried if he didn’t eat or allow his wounds to be tended.
But I was told all these things within an hour of regaining my senses. I also demanded to know what our casualties had been and who was injured and whether they were likely to live or die. I was terrified of the answer but I had to know.
“Fel … please … not so soon,” Docia begged.
I looked at her and asked point blank. “Is he dead?”
She shook her head. “But … but he’s sorely injured. He cannot stay awake more than a few moments at a time. Some of it is Mona is keeping him sedated due to the pain and to keep him still until his wounds start to knit properly. Some of it is that he lost so much blood before it could be brought under control.”
A man came through the cabin door and smiling brightly asked, “Are you upsetting my wife?”
“Robbie,” I said by way of greeting.
“Well, your head can’t be too damaged if you recognize me.”
Dealing with a headache and annoyance I rasped, “I won’t be the only one with a damaged head if you persist in being that silly.”
Docia squealed in delight making me shudder as she cried, “Oh she’s better! I knew it! Topher!! Come quick, she’s awake and fussing like her old self!!”
I groaned and Robbie’s smile got even wider. “Serves you right you know for worrying everyone.”
He was trying to tease me into forgetting the questions I wanted answers to. “It won’t work. Move so I can get up. I have to know what is going on. I’ll … I’ll be needed … I … I think …”
Flashes of memory – real or imagined I’m not sure – reminded me of the looks that were turned my way … the horror, the disgust. I blanched. Robbie saw and said, “None of that. How long have you known you were a berserker?”
“A … a what?” I asked, thinking it was some mental condition that would have me locked up for everyone else’s safety.
He looked at me. “Hmmm. Docia mentioned she saw you in this state once before … or rather after you’d experienced it. It was when your family was killed.”
Shamefaced I looked away from him. I’d barely been keeping my feelings at bay and to be reminded so baldly was almost more than I could bear.
“Easy Fel,” he said kindly. “Usually it is men who have this trait. Some seem to … to wallow in it almost like it is a talent; some in fact ritualistically seek such a state. From what I see however I take it that you do not.”
“Lord no,” I whispered in disgust. “I’m … I’m a monster. What person in their right mind would want to be that … that thing I was … to put all they care for in harms way … to completely lose control …” I shuddered again and wished I’d never woken up.
Robbie for his part pulled a chair up to the side of the bed I faced and said, “Fel, there are things in life that we cannot always easily control. Why God burdens us with such aspects I cannot tell you. Perhaps it is a challenge that we have to face, to overcome, to give us a goal so as to be better people. Perhaps He gives us those aspects so that at His time and His control He can use those aspects for His own purpose. Who knows, I do not. But I can tell you what a beserker is so you can better understand the state you were in.”
He became the professional doctor and despite myself I listened. “Berserker is just an old name for it. A more modern term is battle trance. If you read the books from before the Dark Days it is a term denoting a specific and altered state of consciousness – a purely psychological state if you will – that is brought on by stressful situations or in some cases purposely sought through wrote actions designed to create the trance. While in the trance state the person rarely, if at all, feels fear or pain. They can act very differently from what their normal daily behavior is – from extreme altruism such as when a mother will sacrifice all to save her child with absolutely no thought for her own life – what I call the mother bear effect in the extreme – to being outwardly aggressive to the point of a killing rage.”
“That’s me … a madwoman killing …”
He shook his head. “Did you hear me mention madness? You are no more mad than I. I suspect subconsciously you’ve known or at least suspected about this personality trait and you’ve done everything you can to avoid activating it. From what I’ve seen it takes something extreme to bring it out. In fact,” he grimaced. “If your trance state were that easy to bring about it would have come out at least once during all the times that your life has been threatened over the years. It has not. The only time it has come about is when …”
“Enough,” I said trying to find the strength to prove to him I didn’t want to hear the rest.
“Very well, but hopefully you understand and will not descend into self-pity.”
I croaked, “Self-pity?!”
“Good. Outrage. Use it. Get better Fel. You are needed.” At my continued look of stubbornness he sighed. “You are not mad … in love yes but that’s not really madness in the traditional sense.”
I gasped. Robbie smiled kindly. “Docia and I discuss everything Fel. And I think my cousin is lucky to have you. The problem is that after Uncle Lee died Cor began to develop an oversized attachment to his honor.”
“There’s not a thing wrong with his honor,” I said hotly.
“Not if it comes with commonsense. He allowed what he thought was his honor to lock him into a situation that no matter what he could have done was only bound to get worse.” He forestalled me with a raised hand. “No, I’m not trying to second guess him Fel, hindsight is much more clear than foresight. But once the trouble with Francine began he – both of you – tried to manage it yourselves with no help. You tried to keep it hidden when you could no longer deny that there were problems beyond what normally would have occurred during a marriage.”
“Are you saying that … that it is our fault that Francine … that she …”
“No! Perish that thought now.” He sighed. “Francine must take full responsibility for that, but at the same time she may well be beyond taking responsibility in full.” He shook his head. “Let us return to Cor. Mother and Father have done what they can for Cor. They are fairly certain he will not die.” His words stabbed me. “But more than medicine he needs to want to live and right now … right now that flame is not flickering very brightly.”
“ … Is useless.” At my sharp look he said, “I know. The dunderhead loves – or at least the memory of what they once shared – her despite it all and I suppose that is what happens to every man at some point but we aren’t all blessed with happily ever afters. Mother and Father had no idea that Francine would inherit her mother’s temperament and then take it to this extreme.”
Trying to sit higher in the bed I asked, “You mean her mother wasn’t … wasn’t … this bad?”
“Well, at least you’re willing to discuss the truth of it,” he said. “No, she was not this bad. Nervous, frail, easily discombobulated, occasionally manipulative … all those yes but not so self-centered in her approach as Francine has become. Father thinks it is Francine’s addiction and the particular teas that she became dependent upon to manage her mood swings that have actually exacerbated the problem. She chose the teas rather than behavioral modifications to intervene and keep her balanced.”
Not quite understanding what he meant I asked, “Uh … be … behavioral mod … if … fications?”
Before he could explain Docia was back with Topher in tow. I spent a few minutes assuring myself that the boy was mending, making sure he was eating and letting his wounds get tended. “I’m minding Mistress Fel … but don’t ever scare yer ol’ Topher like that again. I didn’t fight off them crazy Outlanders only ter come home and lose yer. Yer’ve still got ter much ter teach me!”
I smiled for the first time since I awoke. But then I felt my eyes grow heavy and I nearly cursed. “Docia! What was in this mug?!”
She brushed the hair out of my eyes and gently took the mug from my suddenly limp hand. “I didn’t dose you silly … as if I’d risk you wrath over it … it’s only that nasty Sherpa tea you’re so ever loving fond of. What you’re feeling is your body telling you it is time to rest so listen to it Sister. Stop fighting and rest … you’ll need it.”
I woke the next morning in a start. I heard Topher whisper fiercely, “Now yer’ve done it Jonah. She’s awake and Mistress Docia is going ter tell Mrs. Wiley and we’ll be sitting in hot water and get no dinner.”
The older man snorted. “Yer leave me sister ter me. Gilly needs ter waken afore they leave. If we don’t fetch her she’ll ne’er forgive us.”
Sitting up groggily I asked, “Before who leaves?”
Jonah came to the bed and helped me to pull myself up. When I was upright but still on the bed he answered, “Them Lathrops … all of ‘em … including Miss Francie.”
“What?! She can’t!”
My head ached so badly it wanted to fall off … and I wouldn’t have minded if it had … but I shooed them out and struggled shakily to tie a skirt on over the top of my nightshirt. I wasn’t an appropriate outfit for polite society but it didn’t sound as if there was time to armor up and they would simply have to take me as I was.
At the door I leaned on Jonah. I could see that Topher wanted to pout about that but I told him, “How do you think it would make me feel if I was to lean too hard accidentally and tear at one of them scabs you likely have under those clothes you’re wearing?” When he realized I had at least considered leaning on him he seemed satisfied enough but he stuck to me like a shadow … a limping shadow but a plucky one.
It seemed to take forever but at least as I went along some of my strength seemed to be returning and I mounted the front porch stairs mostly under my own steam. I heard voices in the parlor and it was that direction I headed. Both Jonah and Topher stopped at the door and I entered alone.
Hazel saw me first and came forward. “Oh my Dear, I am so glad to see you awake.”
“Hazel,” I asked in a whisper. “What is going on?”
She fell silent and unusually docile as she looked behind me. Elder Lathrop had followed me into the room. He stood stiff and uncomfortable. “Mistress Fel,” he intoned. “Would you permit me to have a word with you?”
My first thought was you better believe it buster, but I merely nodded to him and followed him into the adjoining room. He closed the door behind me and said, “Perhaps after your ordeal you should sit.”
“I’ll stand,” I told him.
He sighed, “Very well. What I have to say is … uncomfortable.” He seemed reluctant to start but once he had I could well understand why he would feel that way.