I forgot to tell you that the poem the stranger was murmuring is by Lewis Carroll. Thank you for all the reviews so far, and keep them coming! Enjoy!
Alice came to sharply, gasping and spitting water. Her hands clenched a small railing, and she was chilled and soaked to the bone. She shivered hard, and blinked the salty water out of her eyes.
She sat inside one of the little boats heading back toward the flickering lamps of the Lane, Captain Kerbeck's ship. Alice coughed again, gagging water out over the side. A hesitant hand rested on her elbow. She turned, and pushed a strand of wet hair out of her face with quivering fingers.
The man she had found below the deck of the burning ship sat right next to her—equally wet and disheveled—but his bright eyes watched her, his features soft.
"Well, lass, I hope you had your fun," a crewman growled as he paddled. "You nearly got yourself killed—and what would the cap'n have done to us then, eh?"
Alice's lips were too cold for her to retort. She settled for throwing him a drenched glare. Out of the corner of her eye, she almost saw the stranger smile. Her gaze found him again.
"What happened?" she stammered to him, another shiver running through her. The stranger started to scoot toward her, but halted. He still kept his hand lightly on her arm.
"This man pulled you through one of the cannonball holes," a sailor said. "We caught sight of you just before the sea took the last of the fire."
The first sailor laughed.
"Aye, she went off half cocked, to save him—and he had to drag her out of the water like a drowning cat."
Now, as all the sailors on the little boat laughed heartily, the stranger's hand closed around her arm, and the soft look on his face transformed to one of danger, aimed at the first sailor.
She laid her cold hand on top of his. His eyes flashed to hers. She managed a crooked smile. For a moment, she just gazed back into his eyes, wondering why he would not speak. And then she saw that he was still bleeding—profusely—and water mingled with the blood that ran down his face. She winced. The salt had to hurt his wound.
The next moment, they reached the side of the Lane. The sailors attached the boats to the pulleys and hoisted them jerkily up, until the sailors could climb out onto the deck. They turned and helped the stranger out, and then he turned and gave his hand to Alice. She accepted it, feeling as though she might collapse at any moment.
However, all thoughts of herself fled when the stranger swayed toward her, his eyelids fluttering. She leaped forward and caught him, trying to bear his weight. His arm fell across her shoulders, and she wrapped her arm around his back. She heard both of them dripping seawater onto the clean teak deck.
"What's the situation?" Captain Kerbeck asked, striding up to them, heels tapping. Alice could see him more clearly now, by the light of the lamps. His steely eyes darted up and down both her and the stranger.
"He's been hit in the head," Alice said. "He needs attention."
"There's no one better than yourself to give it," the captain replied, then turned to bark orders at two hustling crewmen. Alice's mouth fell open.
Kerbeck turned impatiently back to her.
"Ship's doctor is engaged in treating the two men who have been shot. The helmsman is on the edge of death."
"Miss Kingsley," Kerbeck snapped. "If you wish to interfere in the business of the ship, you ought to be prepared to accept the responsibility of the business of the ship. Take him to your cabin. Jones will bring you a bandaging kit." He swept past them. The stranger leaned heavily on her.
"But—" Alice tried again. The captain answered over his shoulder.
"We are far from the Empire, Miss Kingsley. The niceties and proprieties you are used to are luxuries that cannot be observed here."
Alice gritted her teeth.
"Niceties and proprieties…" she muttered. "Codfish." She adjusted her grip on the stranger, and grasped his left wrist, so she could more easily bear his weight by means of his arm. Then, she started forward.
"Come on," she encouraged. "It's not far—just down these stairs…"
He swayed again, and it took all her strength not to buckle beneath him. Biting her lip, she maneuvered him down the narrow stairs, through the pokey hall and to the door of her cabin. She pushed the door open with her toe and urged him inside.
It was completely dark in there. Luckily, she knew the room fairly well, and guided him to her trunk, where he thudded down into a sitting position. He groaned.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, turning and fumbling for a match. She lit a lamp, which illuminated most of the room, and carried it closer to him. He closed his left eye against it. Now she could see him fully.
His eyebrows were very dark, and expressive. He had a straight nose, a strong jaw and cheekbones, but a soft, unique mouth and the blackest eyes she had ever seen, and long lashes. But the skin of his face was completely white, and the blood stood out like a deadly stain. Alice hung the lamp up on a hook just above his head, and leaned toward him. She reached out, then hesitated.
He kept his left eye closed, and only glanced up at her for a moment. Stepping closer, Alice stretched out her hands and ran her fingers gently through his raven locks, probing for the wound. Her fingertips met hot liquid.
He hissed through his teeth and jerked away.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Alice cried. Both his eyes closed, and he caught one of her hands—his hold was very gentle—and he directed it back up toward his head.
"Are you sure?" she said. He did not answer. Leaning down again, wishing for more light, Alice combed his hair away with his fingers, and found the wound—a cut on the right side of his head, two inches long. Alice sighed, wincing.
"I wish the doctor were here…" she whispered. He kept both eyes closed, slumping a little. Alice kept combing the hair away from the wound, ignoring the way her fingers were turning crimson.
And then she stopped. She frowned. Two long locks of his hair, on the left side of his head, were a striking shade of orange-red. She had never seen a feature like that on anyone—not in Overland, anyway. But in this light, they appeared like bright ribbons against black velvet. Like the scarf on the Mad Hatter's top hat…
He shivered. Alice blinked.
"Are you all right?"
He took a small breath.
"A wee bird sat upon a tree, When the year was dune and auld," he said, his voice hoarse, a Scottish brogue coloring his words. "And aye it cheepit sae peetiously, 'My, but it's cauld, cauld.'"
Alice stared at him a moment, then stood up straight.
"Oh! Are you cold?"
His eyes met hers for an instant, but the look he gave was rueful. She turned and darted to her cabinet and flung it open, then pulled out a thick blanket her mother had given her.
"Take off your wet jacket, if you please—it will help you get warm," she instructed, holding the blanket up. The stranger reached up and unbuttoned the front of his coat, then moved to pull it off. But his hands went limp and his head rolled back. His jaw muscles clenched.
"Let me help you," Alice said, tossing the blanket down on the trunk and tugging on his sodden, heavy coat. With a little help from him, she managed to pull it off and hang it on a hook near the door. He wore a loose white shirt beneath, which would dry quickly. She picked up the blanket and swept it around his shoulders, then wrapped it tight around in front of him.
She felt him watching her as she secured it in the front. She lifted her face, which was not far from his, now. She could see herself reflected in his eyes—yet his gaze seemed to go straight through her. She canted her head.
"Do I know you?"
He blinked, and said nothing.
A knock came at the door.
She stood up.
The door swung open. A seaman held a wooden box and a bowl of water out to her.
"Here's a bandaging kit. The doctor can't see him this evening—he is extracting a bullet from the helmsman. Tricky business."
Alice swallowed, trying not to let her vibrant imagination go down that path. She took the box and bowl from him.
"Thank you so much."
He nodded, then left, shutting the door behind him. Alice crossed back to the stranger, feeling the ship sway a little beneath her. She set the bowl and box down on the trunk beside him, and moved to grab her little stool.
"Miss?" the seaman stuck his head back in through the door.
The seaman leaned on the doorframe.
"The bald cook says this man's name is Taryn."
Alice glanced at the stranger.
The seaman shrugged.
"He didn't know."
"All right…" Alice murmured as the seaman left. Alice pulled the stool over and sat right in front of the stranger, then opened the box. She found a white cloth, dipped it in the water, squeezed it out and lifted it up to "Taryn's" face. He stared at nothing while she gingerly wiped the blood off his cheek, nose, eyelid and brow. She rinsed out the rag, squeezed it, and started again. As she worked, she began humming the tune to "Greensleeves." It seemed fitting. Her mother always had done the same when she was cleaning Alice's wounds after she had tripped and fallen as a child and skinned her knee.
When that was done, Alice reached inside the kit, pulled out a thicker cloth, folded it up and pressed it against the wound itself. He hissed again, but did not twitch, so Alice kept it still. She then found other lengths of thin cloth and, while holding the thick bit with one hand, bound the thin strands around his head as tightly as she could without making it uncomfortable for him.
"So…your name is Taryn," she said as she secured the bandage and sat back to see if she had done well. He did not look at her. She washed her fingers off in the bowl of water and dried her hands. She canted her head at him.
"Why on earth didn't you come out when the ship began to burn?" she asked. He blinked slowly, his gaze still distant.
"Jack and Jill went up the hill, To fetch a pail of water," he murmured. "Jack fell down, and broke his crown, And Jill came tumbling after."
A lump formed in Alice's throat. Had this man's mind been damaged by the hit he took on the head? Reflexively, she brushed a stray strand of hair out of Taryn's eyes, her brow furrowing.
"Are you warmer now?" she asked. He did not reply. Sighing, she reached down, took hold of his hand again, and tugged, rising to her feet. He followed suit, one hand holding the blanket around his shoulders. She pulled him over to her bed, he sat down on the edge of it, then swung his legs up and, grimacing, lay back onto the many pillows she had. Alice threw another blanket over him, for he still looked dreadfully pale. She drew the stool over and sat down, unsure of what more to do. The lamp above them swayed back and forth. Taryn watched it.
Alice then realized that she was still completely soaked, and cold as well. She grabbed another blanket and drew it around herself, and leaned against the side of the bed. She played with a frayed bit of the sheet next to Taryn's hand. Silence fell.
A draft came through the door, and the lamp went out. The cabin plunged into darkness. Alice swallowed, but her bones felt heavy, and she did not have the strength to get up and find another match. She was still cold, and salt stung the back of her throat. She closed her eyes, fighting back the memory of what she had seen on that burning ship…all those broken bodies…
"Thank you for saving me, Taryn," she rasped. The ship creaked and groaned as it sailed through the now-calm sea. And fingers found hers, and closed softly around them. Warm, calloused fingers. Alice smiled in the dark, something tugging on the edge of her memory, but before she could think on it, her head had drifted down to rest on her arm, and she fell asleep.