His father dies when John is twenty, but by then the damage is done. His mother sleeps six feet beyond the reach of the Georgia sun and John has been imported to New York.
A job has already been arranged for him after he finishes college: it is written into his father’s will that he be incorporated into the bowels of the Donner business empire. His half-brother, Northern blood cold in his veins, sees that his father’s wishes are obeyed. John, who no longer has an excuse to return to the warmer climes of Dixie, endures the life he has been assigned. Endures, but does not accept.
Northerners are arrogant and quick to spout their opinions like gospel. John keeps his mouth shut. He has little to say that won’t get him punched in the mouth and his drawl guarantees a second hit. He can hit back, and harder too, but it doesn’t do to go brawling when one shares blood with Pedro Donner. The punishment is never worth the indulgence.
So John listens, and hates everyone he sees, and when the rumbles of discord between the two halves of the country turn into declarations of war, he already has a plan in place.
Five patient years see him free of New York. He had to dress in blue to escape it, has to march under his brother’s banner, has to present himself to be shot at by men he may have grown up alongside—but in one move he sheds the smoky stone city and trades the passive exterior of a businessman for another far more important mask.
Spying comes to him naturally. He is accustomed to lingering in the shadows and watching from the outside. No one attends to or remarks on his movements. Critical information collected from his brother’s meetings or stolen from his communiques passes into Southern hands. A man has his loyalties. Only the dirtiest sort of traitor could do otherwise.
He hates his half-brother but has reason to appreciate the fact that Pedro, too, has natural talents where warfare is concerned. The captain leads his company with confidence and a steady hand. He trains the inexperienced in matters of gunplay, keeps an eye on supplies, and runs guerilla drills. No one is shot until their third skirmish; no one is killed until their sixth. This includes John, and despite despising the blue uniform he wears, he finds himself thankful he is not one of the grey coats on the opposite side of the field from his brother.
It doesn’t take long for Pedro’s star to rise. Soon enough their company has swelled to a regiment and he is being addressed as ‘Colonel’. There are bets among the troops as to how long it will take him to achieve each level of general. John keeps his predicted timelines reasonable but optimistic and makes sure the details of his bets reach the ears of his brother via tongues other than his. He speaks only when absolutely necessary. His presence within the circle of his brother’s war council continues to be expected.
Someday, he thinks, he will shoot the Colonel right off his horse and his right-hand man with him. Perhaps the right-hand man first. Claudio, captain of B Company. The captain doesn’t go to battle; he massacres. His preferred method of combat is guerilla style: sneaking up on his targets and surprising them with death. The sight of his deeds with a bayonet has turned John’s sturdy stomach more than once. Claudio could have written The Young Man’s Guide to Being A Northerner: he is as condescending and presumptuous as New York’s best.
They are marching into Missouri when Pedro is made brigadier general. He brushes the blood off his hands and takes a short leave of absence to celebrate the promotion at the home of a nearby friend. Accompanying him are John, Claudio, and Pedro’s aide-de-camp, along with a small contingent of soldiers John silently thinks of as his brother’s personal guard.
John does his best to hide his eagerness. Missouri is a divided state; her government is in turmoil, and there are as many grey friends for him here as for his blue brother. He can do good work in a place like this.
The friend is a politician named Leonato, who has a verdant summer estate near Hannibal. The family is waiting on the porch to greet the soldiers: Leonato, sedate and greying, his brother Antonio, a jolly, fierce bear of a man, and two young women: Leonato’s pretty butterfly of a daughter, Hero, and his niece Beatrice, who immediately picks a fight with the aide-de-camp.
It doesn’t take Leonato five minutes to suss out that John was born and raised in Georgia. Despite the blue on his back, John’s welcome is silently withdrawn. A cool wind seems to blow through the crowd in any room he enters.
That’s fine, that. Leonato may join the brigadier general and Claudio in falling from their horses.
The house party is a merry one for the participants. They picnic and shoot and fish and dance every night. John makes himself familiar with the house library and the footpaths through the surrounding countryside. He may have miscalculated his welcome in the great Leonato’s house but was more than correct in his expectation of other classes of friends. His brother may while away his days at the river’s edge; there is a war on, and John has a job to do.
The fourth night, he is smoking a cigar on the back veranda steps, watching the waterwashed indigo sky darken to navy. The fiddle is busy in the front drawing room. Laughter and chatter float out of the open windows and reach him even here.
Footsteps approach from the direction of the outhouse and a gleam of calico print emerges from the darkness of the yard: Hero, who ought to give thanks on her knees for her good fortune in taking after her mother; Hero, who blushes every time she looks at Claudio.
“Sergeant. Lovely evening, isn’t it?”
He smooths his face into neutral friendliness and nods politely. “Ma’am.”
“Will you be joining us later?”
“No, ma’am. Not much of a dancer.” It’s a lie. He’s told thousands in the last year, all sliding off his tongue like silver; curious that he should feel a touch of guilt over this one.
She pauses at the top step. He glances up as she points her face into the night breeze and closes her eyes. “We should have followed your example, had the dancing outside.”
She looks down at him, the hint of a smile on her lips. “Do you not get hot in those coats?”
“Yes ma’am, I do. That’s why I’m out here keeping away from the dancing.”
She laughs. “The wisest of us all.”
She goes inside, but later she brings him a glass of lemonade, setting it by his hip with a wordless smile before returning to the arms of Claudio.
A week’s leave stretches into two. John begins to itch. He has missives to deliver; none yet urgent but becoming more so, with their contents expected and needed.
And his invisible collar is chafing. He has made contact with a few of the local bushwhacker guerilla bands; their network stretches the length of the state. He could put in a few months’ time here, help the rebels take the state, and they would be able to send him through the gauntlet that is the Mississippi River. In a few months he could be home. It is time to throw in all cards for the South.
He can’t simply leave. Were he to run without a foolproof, multi-stage plan, it would be no better than throwing himself headlong at his own demise. Brigadier General Donner has the means to drag him back by his hair. He’ll be shot for deserting, brotherly blood or no. If they find out he’s a turncoat, well—he thinks of Claudio with the bayonet and shudders despite himself.
He makes contact with the bushwhackers and begins to design his escape. They are able to take two of the missives off his hands, which leaves still three to see to. With the guerillas, he sketches out the trail he’ll need to take to reach his contacts. He gets information—nothing solid, not a single real name, Missourians are suspicious folk—but enough to get him outside of his brother’s reach.
All he has to do is get away from the house.
There are always four sentries patrolling the estate. He’ll need a diversion.
Luring the daughter of the house into the dark, crooked arms of the woods is easier than any mission he has ever been assigned.
When she is away from her room, he slips an anonymous note under her pillow: poorly coded directions to the nook in a signature oak some distance from the house where another letter—the true letter—may be found without risk of discovery. Claudio is a rash man of extreme, unnecessary caution. She will not question it.
At midnight, the figure of a woman can be observed slipping from the sleeping house and making her way over the moonlit grass. She slides into the shadows of the trees. She does not carry a lantern; this is her home and she knows it well. She does not see the soldiers watching her from within the darkness of the wood.
John is some distance away from the oak, so he does not see what happens, but he knows what to expect. The missive waiting for her is an old communique with sensitive information about Northern ammunition transport, now worthless. Worthless, yes, but genuine. His brother will recognize its validity in an instant, as well he ought, having used those same lines of transport for months before they were sabotaged. Pedro and Claudio will watch Hero, Leonato’s daughter and Confederate spy, pull the missive from the tree where she receives messages from her rebel contact.
He hears: an owl hooting. The distant snap of a twig as Hero passes under the trees. A shout of rage from Claudio. The sound of flesh connecting with flesh; a cry of pain from Hero.
That’s the engagement off, then.
More shouts, now, and lanterns flaring to life. Blue-black uniforms closing in through the trees. Hero’s voice raised in protest. Running figures coming from the house. John slides away from the chaos happening at the oak, toward the distant fence where a horse is tethered and waiting.
He thinks suddenly of lemonade.
Spies are hanged, even female ones.
But she is a Northerner, after all. And he is free.
He is caught by unfamiliar Union troops in late October. He has no papers on him, so nothing incriminates him but his grey uniform; but he has nothing with which to save himself either. Even throwing his brother’s name into the conversation, a pathetic move born of desperation that will sit bitterly in his mouth on the jolting ride through the Ozarks, doesn’t help him. They send him to a Union-run military prison outside St. Louis. He is unloaded on a drizzly, freezing day and thrown into the icy mud of the yard.
The prison is hardly more than a large roofless enclosure. Split trees form the walls of the stockade. Two bodylengths above the ground, a walkway runs around the interior perimeter; armed guards stalk this road day and night.
He absorbs the details of his new cage and wonders how he is going to save himself this time.
The prisoners, of which John thinks there must be nearly five hundred, are massed together in the yard. Some of the earliest inhabitants still have tents, or the remains of them, but everyone else is exposed. Even on a day like today there is no shelter. John looks around, looking for a spot out of the rain, but his choices rapidly narrow to leaning against the wooden wall like many of the other inmates to accept what meager protection it offers.
A hacking cough catches his attention purely because of its timbre. He thought this was a men’s prison but—there. A huddled, dirty figure curled against the wall, hair like a rat’s nest, a dress dyed dirt-brown: a woman.
Even as he watches, her thin frame is racked by a fit of coughing that must surely break her to pieces. Odd, to find a woman in a men’s prison. Brief curiosity touches his mind—such a woman must have done something truly dastardly, to have earned herself such a punishment—but it is no concern of his. He hopes she took out fifty captains and brigadier generals before she went down. He begins to move away.
Then she turns her head, trying to wipe some of the spitting rain from her eyes with a patch of skin less filthy than all the rest, and John sees her face.
He steps back in shock. “Watch it!” shouts another prisoner, shoving, but John is stricken, paralyzed, deaf. All he sees is that dirty, hacking figure.
Leonato’s daughter. Hero.
Her head slumps against her knees, the posture of hopeless exhaustion. She is tucked against the wet wooden wall, seemingly heedless of the mud she sits in. She has no covering—no hat, no coat, no blanket, just her muslin dress standing between her and the cold October rain and rapidly approaching winter. And she is ill.
John is saying something, words barely reaching his own ears – Oh God, oh God, oh God. His heart is burning – I did this, I did this, he has never tasted hell so close.
He stumbles to the yard entrance and yells until two irritated prison guards stroll up to frighten him away from the door. He tells them he needs to speak to the warden; they laugh at him, of course.
“There is a woman here who should not be,” he insists. They keep laughing, jeering more loudly as his own volume increases, until he is wild with fury and desperation. “Let her out of here, damn you!” he screams. “The woman has done nothing wrong, she is innocent, she—”
He gets a musket-butt to the face, a bruised jaw, and a bloody mouth for his trouble.
He does not know what to do. Shame curls like black smoke through his soul. He cannot approach her. He cannot tell this wretched woman what he has done to her. He is not so self-absorbed as to attempt companionship. So he avoids her, but he watches her.
She keeps to herself. She doesn’t stand out—just another ailing, muddy form among many. John cannot help wondering how matters stood when she was first thrown into the yard and curses himself until he is sick to his stomach.
The others hardly register her, though some must surely know she is among them. This is a prison full of Southern soldiers, not hardboiled criminals—many have farms and families they want nothing more than to return to. He would have expected at least some to be solicitous to a woman, but they are also starving, freezing, despairing men who want to do anything but die, and a sick woman is an easy target.
John finds himself creeping toward her, hovering near her at mealtimes, making sure no one steals her bowl of gruel that is more water than anything else. Some make the attempt, but he is tall and muscular, and new—he has not yet lost his strength or his hope, and when he stands like a wall before her, black eyes aflame, few are interested in taking the matter further.
He beseeches the guards for a blanket—”A woman,” he says, over and over, making such a nuisance of himself that they eventually give in. He stations himself near her along the wall, alert for any approaching movement that may signal a scheme to steal it from her.
She coughs and sleeps and sometimes watches him with dull, distant eyes that seem to be trying to figure out who he is.
He wakes one morning and finds his breath visible. All over the prison yard, puffs and columns of steam taunt the occupants with imitations of better days: cigars and chimneys; winter days when sharp, clear air was drawn into the lungs with vigor, inflating the whole body with a sense of life, alacrity, possibility.
John looks over at Hero. She is still asleep. He looks at the streak of mud on her cheek, wishing for something to clean it off, when he realizes no small white clouds are materializing in the air before her face.
She isn’t breathing.
His heart is a rock of ice in his chest. “Guard,” he shouts. He has never been so afraid. “Fetch a doctor, guard!”
No, no, no, she cannot die—cannot die like this, not here, not in this place where he put her. Not before he has saved her. Not before he has paid his penance. He should have been trying to save her, he should have been finding a way to pour his life into her body—
He is shaking her, rubbing her limbs, anywhere he can create a warming friction. “Hero,” he begs.
Her eyes open. Brown—clear as bourbon bottle-glass, sunlight through whiskey. John gasps in relief.
She is shuddering with cold. He does what he has wanted to do for days: peels off his grey coat and wraps it and the blanket around her. He fetches his gruel and hers, dumping his portion into her bowl before he walks back to where she is propped against the wall. He storms the yard door and demands the doctor. He offers all he has left to give, and she nods once in acceptance, and he curls himself around her, pressing as much of the warmth of his body into hers as he can. The butterfly girl of the spring would have gone rigid at such a touch, by a stranger to boot. Now she is too weak to even flinch.
The prison doctor never comes.
Ice-cold fingers curl around his. “What is your name?” she whispers.
He shakes his head. Doesn’t matter.
“Please,” she shudders, and he hears himself say John.
She closes her eyes. “John,” she whispers, almost too quiet to hear. “The Baptist.”
He looks at her urgently, wondering if she is hallucinating, wondering how he is supposed to treat a fever in this rotting patch of hell.
If not for the breath on his neck he might not have known she was still speaking. “Who preceded a Savior.”
She sleeps against his shoulder, so feather-light she might blow away in a gust of wind, and he counts her every breath.
Hero becomes his sole purpose.
There is nothing outside the prison. His existence is mud and timber walls and her body shaking violently with cold.
Her hacking cough is the music and speech of his days. John watches her slow exhalations out and waits for her to gasp air back in. He would breathe for her if he could. He would pull her illness out of her lungs and infect his. He does not know what she is sick with but knows he must not catch it, for if he sickens they are both lost.
Hero is so cold that it radiates from her into him. Bodies share heat, or should, but she has none to give. From time to time he has to break away from her to jump in place until his body is again hot enough to warm her, knowing all the while that any exertion will only serve to make him hungrier. Hunger carves out his stomach, which screams in tandem with his eyes, that can see the ridges of her skull. If he starves to death they are both lost—but she is starving so much more quickly than he is.
To pull her mind away from this place of slow, painful death, he tells her stories of his home: the sun-drenched farm where he ran down red clay roads with his two hounds, the cradling branches of trees ornamented by hanging moss, the scent of sweet corncakes that would lure him out of bed and into the kitchen, where he would be greeted by his mother’s smile. When her body is seized by fits of coughing so fierce she can’t inhale, he speaks what comfort his soldier’s tongue can—all the while, a litany running through his head: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry from the depths of my soul. He kicks the rats that target her leather boots (a lone blessing, Hero’s boots: she put on heavy shoes to meet her lover in the spring-saturated woods, not wanting to muddy her satin slippers) and carries her to the latrine pit. With his thumb he crushes every maggot infesting the gruel so that they won’t writhe nauseatingly in her mouth.
It’s penance. It is.
But some days—it simply...
There is paper in his trouser pocket: just one small folded square, unnoticed by either the soldiers who caught him or the admission guards. He peels a sliver of wood off the prison wall and uses rats’ blood for ink.
He pries the sole off his boot and pulls out a silver pocket watch: the one thing left to him by a father he barely knew. He runs his thumb over the monogram engraving: his father’s initials match his. “Thank you,” he whispers, “you old bastard. Finally good for something.”
John has spent enough time in the prison to have gotten a sense of the guards. He takes the watch and the letter to the one he has marked as potentially sympathetic: a greying man with tired eyes who has mentioned his daughters in conversation with the others.
When he returns to Hero, she is still sleeping and his hands are empty.
The hacking cough adds a note to its symphony. Faint, at the back, waiting for its time to sing solo: a rattle.
We’re getting out of here. The hiss reaches him: a conference of three other men, one of whom was shipped in with him.
You’re strong. You’re smart. We need strong men, sharp men.
Sure you can. Weaker than you were, but aren’t we all? Once you hit that open road, all your energy will come flooding back, see if it don’t.
We’re heading down Missip’ way. Ain’t risking soldier’s prison agin. I wanner see my wife. She were expecting when I signed up.
They explain the escape plan. It’s a good one—even John, with a keen nose for the balance of risk to potential payoff, has to agree.
We can do it three, but better four of us.
That girl’s dying, man. She’ll be in the ground in a week an’ you’ll only join her if you stay. Take your chance while you have it.
John shakes his head. “Appreciate the offer.”
The conspirators are gone in the morning. He doesn’t hear anything of their fate and knows better than to ask, but they never reappear in the prison.
It rains again, again, again. First, a drizzle that serves to drop the night from cold to near-freezing, then endless lashing sheets that soak them to the skin. When it finally stops they are standing in ice-cold mud up to their ankles. The night turns freezing.
Hero is crying. Her tears turn to frost on her cheeks. He stands against the wall and holds her to his chest, trying ineffectively to warm her.
Damn the rain and damn the mud and damn the cold. Damn December and damn Missouri. Damn the North, damn the South, damn everyone who started this war, everyone who ever believed in this war, ever fought in this war. Damn it all, damn them all, and damn him most of all.
An arrival at the entry gate is hardly noted; of greater concern is the wet snow that the gray sky above is starting to expel.
“John Donner!” shouts a voice. “Where is the prisoner John Donner!”
John looks up slowly; his bones and blood are too cold to allow movement to be anything but painful. At first he doesn’t answer. If they take him away what will become of her? Let them try to find him. Let them try to discern between him and this field of sludge.
Then, lightning in his heart: he remembers the letter to his brother. It is still a risk to unmask himself, but, but. He lifts his arm. “Here,” he calls hoarsely. It takes a few tries before they hear him.
A tall, straight man in mud-spattered blue strides across the yard to him. He is not posted to the prison; a field officer, John decides. As he gets closer he begins to look familiar, but John can’t place him.
“John Donner?” he says. “You wrote a confession—” and then he sees Hero.
John watches with scientific interest as the man’s ruddy complexion turns grey to the mouth. “God in heaven,” he utters and starts shouting for aides. John studies the man, missing half of what he says in the distraction of trying to identify him.
“Donner!” And like a match striking alight, he realizes: Benedick. His brother’s aide-de-camp. The idiot has shaved his beard. “Are you listening? I’ve been traveling for days. She’s been granted a release. I’m come to take her home.”
John stares at him. Hot tears rise in his eyes and burn as they start to freeze.
Benedick is shouting to figures across the yard. He has gone from ashen to impassioned red in an instant. The warden and a clutch of guards have materialized to receive the end of a tongue-lashing—what kind of conditions are these to keep prisoners in, a cesspit full of rats, sleeping outdoors with a snowstorm brewing, Confederates! they’re human beings for God’s sake—
John isn’t listening. He is watching two blue uniforms trot across the yard, carrying a stretcher. He is holding her to his chest, he is feeling the shallow expansion of her ribs under his thumb, he is scratching his chapped lips across her forehead.
“Give her to us, man!”
And then she is on the stretcher. She is terrifyingly pale, stretched out like that against the dark ground. And the stretcher is hoisted, and boots are squelching through the mud of the yard, and they are halfway to the door and he can’t see her face but the gray blanket covering her is slipping to the side.
John reaches out a useless hand. Benedick’s head, constantly spinning between the exit and the woman in his care, looks down at her; he tucks the dirty wool back into place. The contingent vanishes through the archway and the door bangs shut with a rattle of metal.
Slushy snowflakes land on John’s face and melt, dripping into his eyes; stinging his neck; soaking his hair and his coat.
He imagines what she is doing. In his mind he travels far from the stinking, snowy prison yard. He lives every second of her days.
She is walking into her father’s library; her footsteps, left, right, left, are echoing on the wooden floors. They are dulled by a plush rug as she crosses to the fireplace. She is pressing an affectionate hand to her cousin’s wild mane of hair where Beatrice dozes on a chaise near a comfortably snapping fire. She is turning to the many bookcases, eyes idly seeking out a promising title. Now she is lifting her hand, selecting one of those cloth-bound volumes, carrying it to the seat beside her cousin. She reads, breathes softly in – out; fingers turn a page – another – another. Her lashes cast a shadow on a cheek that is flushed pink from the warmth of the room. She is not dead; she is not.
He waits to be executed.
True winter arrives with wind that cuts like knives. The yard turns into a thick sheet of ice and snow packs on top of it. In Benedick’s wake some of the prisoners were given blankets, but two in three still go without. They are permitted fires of coals—no flames—and on these beds they roast rats whole. The prisoners huddle together as best they can, one stinking mass of disease, some so hungry they eat their own lice.
John prays to die.
Spring. He had forgotten there was such a thing as spring.
“You hear that?” says the prisoner stretched out to his left. His eyes are bright. A hair couldn’t be found on his chin if one sought it with a magnifying glass. “Birdsong!”
Spring has turned the yard into a sewage pond. “How fortunate that we survived the winter so we could die of cholera,” says the prisoner to John’s right, a grizzled old man with a beard to his navel.
Hero wakes in a warm bed, the white linen sheets soft against her skin. Bare feet touch the wooden floor beside her bed; she steps, left, right, to the window and pulls aside the curtain. The window shows her a sky that looks like heaven itself.
The old man and the youth look at him patiently. The elder says, “If you’re done with your recitations, how about you help an old soldier up so I can take a piss.”
The old man and the youth go within a day of each other. The full storm of disease that the ice kept at bay falls on the prison yard with the endless spring rain. The stretcher stamps a constant path in and out of the front gateway. John watches as though behind glass. His heart continues to beat and his stomach continues to cramp, and he cannot do anything about the sick and dying but eat the food they do not. He stops drinking anything but the rainwater he collects in his mouth. Somewhere beyond this pit, Hero is kneeling beside her cousin, planting their kitchen garden. There is damp, black dirt on her hands; there are dark outlines around her fingernail beds. Then those hands are dipped in a bucket of warm well water and emerge clean as the morning.
The days grow steadily warmer. The rain stops. John recalls his previous summer in the Missouri hills: broiling hot even in the shade, caves and creeks the only source of respite—and prays that sunstroke carries him off instead of dehydration.
One morning there is a commotion at the front gate. For an hour the men listen to a hubbub of wagon wheels and hoofbeats from the other side of the wall. The warden appears on the upper walkway and shouts: “General’s shutting the prison down. All inmates to be transferred to another site.”
The yard transforms into a thunderstorm of arguments. Are they being sent somewhere worse than this place? Could anything be worse? Are they being led to their deaths? A new site may be heaven in comparison, man! They must flee this hell while they still can! Should they revolt? They may live to regret going peaceably as so many sheep—
The guards brandish their rifles.
Under close supervision, the prisoners begin to trickle out of the yard. Eventually, as he approaches the bottleneck, John sees what is holding up the line. A guard in blue is sitting at a table in the breezeway outside the metal door, recording each man’s name in a prison ledger. Three more guards stationed on the door’s opposite side hold guns at the ready for any hopeful escapees. Prisoners are being loaded into wagons, their wrists and ankles secured by manacles that link together on one long chain. Once on board, the only way to escape is with the whole wagon.
The man at the ledger doesn’t look up when John’s boots stop in the doorway. “Name?”
John considers lying. If John Donner is dead, no one will hunt him if he escapes.
But he can see the names scratched in columns on the page and stubborn pride streaks through him. It didn’t defeat him, this place. His name in black ink on the page, that’s proof, that’s a shout of triumph. He might be dead tomorrow but it’s his own two feet walking him out of this hell.
The guard’s head lifts. He looks at John, then looks around. “Miss!”
John looks up.
Brown eyes. Clear as bourbon bottle-glass. Sunlight through whiskey.
He chokes, “My God.”
A young woman, clad in a dress as green as life and shaded by a parasol, stands some ten paces away. He watches the uncertainty clear from her eyes—his own beard is quite a bramble these days and he is far thinner than before—and refill with light.
With a glance at the guards John steps closer, unsure how close he may approach her. She does the same, sans glance. He looks at her shining dark curls, at the roses in her cheeks. Her parasol is propped on her shoulder and held by one hand; he looks at the bones of her wrists. The shadowed hollows are filled.
“Sergeant Donner,” she says. “I am relieved to see you standing.”
“Same to you, ma’am.”
She smiles, glorious and beautiful and shining. “I prayed your stories would carry you through. I see they did.”
“Your memories. Of your home.”
“No,” he says, looking steadily at her. “Not them.”
She looks back at him. Her lips part. She steps forward—left, right. Close enough for him to smell lavender. “John,” she whispers. “I can’t get you out. Moving you was the best I could do.”
He lowers his voice in turn, speaking fiercely. “Get me—? Hero. You don’t owe me a damn blasted thing. The only thing I deserve from you is a musket ball through the skull!”
She is shaking her head. He watches her mouth work as she searches for words. “That’s not what this is about. It’s about—forgiveness. It’s about the fact that I want you to live more than I want retribution.”
He looks at the determination in her face and declines to remind her he is a confessed spy.
As if reading his mind, she says quietly, “You were never charged as a spy. The only people who saw the confession were General Donner, my father, and Benedick.”
And herself, he realizes. His brother must have showed the missive to Hero, later; asked her what she wanted to do to John the truest bastard. And she chose... this.
“You’ll be imprisoned until the war ends. And then—” She takes a deep breath. “The new prison camp, it’s clean. There are tents. The food won’t be fine cuisine by any means but you won’t have to eat vermin. You can survive. You will.”
“I will,” he promises her. The tension lines around her eyes relax.
“In the meantime, to see you through...” She looks behind her. Another woman breaks free of a group clustered near a wagon that is certainly not prison-issued. Beatrice, he realizes. The cousin. She carries a burlap bag, which is handed to Hero. After having given him a look he would not be able to interpret with an entire guidebook, she returns the way she came. He realizes Leonato and Hero’s uncle are waiting by the wagon. All their eyes are locked on him. He shifts so that Hero’s parasol blocks them from his line of vision.
“This is for you,” she is saying. “Blankets and bandages will be available to the others at the new site but I had to make sure—I don’t know when I’ll—I needed to see with my own eyes you had these.”
In the sack: two blankets, a set of clothes including wool socks, shoes, a coat, a hat with a broad brim, soap, bandages, iodine, jars of curing herbs, a tin of crackers, a tin of dried fruit, a canteen that sloshes when it moves, a small Bible, an empty journal, three pencils, and a sachet of dried lavender. He drops the bag and drinks half the canteen right then and there—head tipped back, water pouring down his throat and swelling his belly, liquid life coursing into his body.
He reaches over his head to whip off his shirt. Hero pointedly looks away, so he tugs off his boots and drops his filthy trousers too. He dons all the new clothes, even the socks despite the heat. The coat and trousers are neutral brown. He’s had a lifetime of wearing brown, but she is right: this way he won’t stand out as a target for thieves. He tucks the lavender sachet into his pocket. Then he drinks the rest of the canteen.
When he lowers it he realizes she is fighting tears. Those brown eyes look up at him—knowing, remembering. Grieving. Worrying.
It takes him three tries to speak. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
She shakes her head. Her eyes drop; she won’t meet his. “Just—stay alive, John. I just want us alive at the end of all this.”
He studies her. Wets his lower lip, breathes in. “And then?”
There—her eyes glance up. She smiles up at him: tentative at first, then a wide brilliant flash of sunshine.
“Perhaps you might stop by for supper. We’ll have a plate ready.”
“I—” He finds himself laughing. “I look forward to it.”
One of the guards loading the wagons steps up. “A’right, enough jabbering. It’s your turn.”
John picks up the sack. He looks down at Hero, memorizing the way those brown eyes are looking back at him. He straightens his shoulders and turns, allowing himself to be herded to a wagon where manacles cut into his wrists and ankles. He climbs up to join his filthy, sick fellows. There isn’t a spark of hope in their eyes.
He thinks of Hero, who would open her own veins for someone who needed blood. He thinks of the day he arrived at the prison and the day she left. He thinks of the bitterness he has harbored all his life toward a brother who was born with the correct surname, and of the enemy general who is sending him to a clean camp. He looks at the others and thinks: perhaps this is not by chance. Perhaps there is more to do here.
He twists around, locating her. She has not moved from where he left her. He holds her gaze as long as he can: while the wagon hatch is closed and locked, while the driver snaps the reins and says git, while the wagon slowly pulls away to join the line rolling up the road to some place beyond the visible horizon. He looks at her until her face is a blur, until the green of her is a blur, and then the wagon clears a hilltop and all that remains is the sky.