April 28, 1662
Blackman-- age 18:
Blackman's father died when a tree he was cutting fell the wrong way and crushed his body. He had stood there, watching the demon felling the tree, doing the killing at his request, his hatred of his father consuming his reasoning. His father was too capable to mark and cut the tree incorrectly. All the villagers knew that. It did not take more than that to spread the gossip. People in the village swore up and down Blackman had placed a curse on his own father. His obvious lack of caring did little to erase that belief.
Hemispot died, crumbled by the rim in the dungeon. His heart had simply stopped. Blackman dug a grave for the old man in the back of that old mansion and dropped him in. And then, he walked away from the grave site.
May 17, 1662
Harper-- age 17:
"Mail!" March yelled as he entered the dorm room. The other students gathered around him. One by one, the tall, lanky red-head handed envelopes out to the proper pupil. Harper took his two and went to his bed. He opened the one from George Kettle first.
"In the year of Our Lord, 1662, this Third of May,
Dear Ray ... "
There was news from the village, odds and ends and then: "... Blackman returned April 20th. Shortly after his return, he took on a position with Lord Hemispot. Three days later, Blackman's father died in a freak accident. The death did not seem to bother our Blackman. It's doubtful he's forgiven the old man for things that were done to him while he was growing up.
"I do not like the suffering in Blackman's eyes. He stays away from me. I have tried to speak to him, but he refuses to have anything to do with me. Perhaps he would like to hear from you... I know you considered yourselves blood brothers. I can remember you were the only one he trusted."
Harper dropped the letter onto his lap.
Blackman was back.
Vivid images of eleven year old Billy Blackman filled Harper's mind ... Laughter, sunshine on dark hair, impish grins right before they pulled a prank ... and the visions changed and he saw a sad Blackman, a bitter friend who desperately wanted a normal, happy life and knew he'd never get it.
Had going to sea been a good thing for him? From Kettle's words, it hadn't.
Would Blackman remember him? Would he want to hear from him?
Harper tugged his small chest from beneath his bed and opened it. He removed pencil and paper and began to write:
"Dear Billy ... "
Why was it so hard to write to a friend? There had been a time when there was not enough time in the day to speak together. Words tumbled from them both as though there would never be another day.
'We're older,' Harper pondered pensively. 'We've changed, gone in different directions. Where's the meeting point now?'
Sighing, he put words on the paper, memories, accounts of his own life now; He asked questions.
The letter was mailed, but it came back, unopened.
September 19, 1665,
Harper-- age 20,
Blackman-- age 21:
"... People shun him because they say he is insane. I confess I believe he is. Lord Hemispot died when his house burned down in June taking the life of the mute servant, Adle. I thought Blackman would be free then, return to us, but my hopes proved to be false ones; He has grown worse. The phobia the villagers had placed on Hemispot has now been transferred to Billy. They claim he is a warlock and therefore evil. Sometimes I hear the town's people muttering about taking his life, freeing themselves of the corruption he bears. I have made fun of them, talked them out of doing that wicked act, but there will come a time when they will no longer listen to me.
"Blackman lives in his father's cabin. He wanders around, not speaking, drunk most of the time. He neither bathes nor washes his clothing. His hair is lank, long, filthy. There is a look of death in his eyes.
"You must come. I fear you are the only one who can reach him. I do not know why I felt thus, but I do. Perhaps it was because you were the only one he trusted when you were young. He turned to no one else, shared with no one else. I have no right to request a change of plans on your part, but if anything of the friendship you once shared with Billy remains, you must come."
Harper reread the letter. Of course he must go. The dreams he had been having now made sense: Blackman wept in them. He cried for help. Harper had struggled in his dreams to reach his friend but there was always a thick, hideously-black curtain between them.
Going to Paris to study art would have to wait.
Blackman needed him.
September 26, 1665,
Harper-- age 20,
Blackman-- age 21:
The old cottage needed repairs; The weeds choked the grounds around it; There was a hole in the roof. Harper peered inside and sighed. The place was filthy, in bad need of renovation inside as well. Furniture lay broken, scattered across the room. Mice scurried across the slovenly, unsanitary floor.
"Oh, Blackman, why?"
The dwelling was empty. Perhaps Kettle would know where Blackman was. An eerie feeling made Harper shiver. He whirled, searched the landscape around him and saw no one. Harper laughed at himself but the feeling remained. It felt as though someone was watching him. The world was too quiet; Even the birds had ceased their singing.
"Blackman?" He waited but no one answered. 'Don't be such a fool,' he told himself. 'There's no one there.' Still ...
"You know me," he said aloud. "I'm Ray ... Ray Harper. We were friends once, remember?" Nothing ... not even a breeze. "I'm going into town for cleaning supplies and then I'm coming back to scour and disinfect this place. How can you live in such pollution?" The feeling that he was being watched vanished. Harper picked up his bag and began the long walk to Kettle's house.
"Would you like another wee dram, Raymond?" George Kettle held up his bottle of fine, old scotch whiskey.
"No, this is fine. I came as soon as I could, Mr. Kettle. How he is?"
"He walks around, muttering. Mrs. Cardle passed out when he walked by her yesterday. She swears he put a curse on her."
"Gin is her curse, not Billy."
"Aye, but the villagers choose to believe otherwise. Ah, well, most of them are fools who still believe there's gold at the end of the rainbow and spend most of their time looking for it instead of working and earning their living. What else can you expect from them?"
"You mean there isn't any gold?" Harper asked lightly. "All these years and I've been searching those rainbows for nothing."
"Och, you're in fine form, now aren't you?" His eyes sparkled in joy.
Harper half smiled. "I went to his cabin. I can't believe he would live in that ... mess."
"He's haunted; Anyone with half a brain can see that. They all stood back and allowed that man to beat his child. I accept blame for that as well. I could have done something but I did not want to interfere in family matters; I wish I had now."
"I remember you cowing Blackman's father."
"A bully always backs down when someone confronts him face to face. If enough of us had gotten together back then ... Och, well, we canna go back and change the past, now can we?"
Philip, Kettle's lone servant came in. "I've gathered all the cleaning items you requested, Mr. Kettle."
"Thank you. Leave them on the outer table; Ray will take them with him when he leaves."
"Yes, sir." He left.
"Will you stay for dinner?"
"That's another thing I need to borrow from you. Could you spare food until I can make it into the village?"
"Aye. I'll have Philip pack a basket. Will you be staying to sup with me?"
"No, I think I'd like to get back out to the cabin and start cleaning; I'd like to get as much done before nighttime."
"Then I'll have the basket fixed now. Go with God, Raymond, and be careful."
Harper searched Blackman's face. He had suddenly appeared at the door, slamming it back with a huge shove. The shock had worn off from them both. Could this be the clean, neat child he had once known? Blackman's hair was long, lank, grimy with oil and dirt. It hung down in his face. Blackman lifted his head and Harper saw an expression of animosity and something so darn close to being discomfort in the blue eyes, it could be nothing else but that emotion.
"What the hell are you doing in my home?!"
"I've brought food, " Harper said as he lifted the basket in his left hand. Blackman, silent, hostile, turned his gaze upon the basket in the right hand. "This is cleaning supplies, and from the looks of you, the first thing to be scrubbed is you; I've got the water already boiling."
Blackman tromped in and tried to slam the door but the hinges, half undone from the original blow, would not allow such a rapid movement. Harper reached past him and shut the door in easy, restrained movements.
"This should be fixed. When winter comes ..."
"I don't want you here."
"I don't suppose you do. It would spoil the effect, now wouldn't it?"
Despite himself, Blackman asked, "Effect?"
"You've got the whole bloody village afraid of you."
"They should be."
Harper stared coolly at his friend and Blackman turned away. "Take off your clothes."
He laughed in disdain. "Aren't you terrified you'll get contaminated?"
"Don't be daft. Look, Billy, I've come to help, that's all. You need food; your home needs cleaning up and repairing, and you need a bath, clean clothes too. You have to admit that." Blackman grumbled beneath his breath. "The water is ready."
"I don't want a bloody bath! And I don't want you here! I told you that!"
"You stink." The statement was flat, hard. He settled the huge washtub on the repulsive, soiled floor, grimacing as he did so. "You smell as though you've peed on yourself." His lips twisted in disgust. "God, I bet you did."
"No one asked you to come and smell me, did they?" The hatred, the rage, was solid, distinct. "You always did like to meddle in other people's business."
"What's happened to you?"
Blackman rubbed grimy hands in his eyes. "Go away." He stumbled to a stained, grubby pallet and sank down onto it. His whole form had dejection written all over it.
Blackman shot up, darted toward Harper, prepared to strike the man, force him out the door ... and ended up a crumpled heap on the floor instead. "Don't ever try that again, " Harper warned. "I'll throw you further next time." He listened to Blackman's cursing a moment before remarking casually, "I see you learned a lot of new words while you were at sea; Mr. Kettle would be proud of you."
"Kettle can rot in hell." He sat up but did not rise again.
"Take off your clothes." Harper waited. "You're not going to eat until you're clean. How hungry are you?" He waited again. "Billy, how long has it been since you ate?"
"A couple of days ...?" He held his head and moaned. "Just go away, you damned fool. I don't want you here!"
"Yes, you do." Blackman issued a long line of expletives. "You were watching when I came in. I felt you. I felt you the first time I came too." After pouring both cold and hot water into the tub, Harper went to his friend and knelt down. "Let me help you. Do you have any clean clothes?" He expected rejection, Blackman's shoving him away, but to his surprise, that did not come ... nor did a reply. "Are you addled, Will? Do you have any clean clothes?" He tried to unbutton the shirt Blackman was wearing but the cloth was so rotten with age and grime and old food and drink,that the cloth fell apart in his hands. "Will?"
"In the chest."
"You can finish removing these ... things ... and get in. I've brought soap."
"Aren't you afraid of me?" Blackman demanded bitterly.
"I could put a curse on you! A death hex, a spell of bad luck ... "
"No you can't. You might fool those silly villagers, but I know better."
"I'm stronger than you. I can hurt you."
"You can, but you won't." When Blackman's lips twisted in scorn, Harper said sharply, "Did you hurt me a little while ago? If you really wanted to harm me, you would have done it then. Now get those rags off; they need to be burned." Blackman simply huddled on the floor, appearing confused. "Kettle gave us strawberry tarts." He watched Blackman's eyes dart to the baskets. "You'll have to bathe first. I'll not eat with you stinking like this. You make me ill. Harper's calm, green eyes conquered the wrathful, blue ones. He studied Blackman face. "How long has it been since you bathed?" Blackman shrugged. "Please?" Blackman's head shot upward. "How long?" There was no expression in the blue eyes but his body was rigid. "The water will get cool; a warm bath is better than a cold one."
"Leave the cottage then." Harper's brow lifted in question. "I'll not bathe while you're watching."
"I'll take these blankets outside and try to wash them. Call me when you're through." Blackman simply lifted his shoulders in a non-caring manner again.
"Make sure you wash your hair!" Again, Blackman simply used a swift movement of his body as acknowledgment. Resisting both the urge to sigh and the one to shake his old friend, Harper went outside. It was only when the door was safely shut and the room was silent that Blackman disrobed. There were old whip marks on his backs and buttocks. Some of those dated from his early years at sea; some had been put there by Hemispot.
Half an hour later, they were sitting at table. Harper had scrubbed it as carefully as he could but he knew it would have to be burned and a new one bought. The food was cold but good. Harper did his best to hide his dismay as Blackman wolfed down his food, eating as though he hadn't eaten in a long time.
'How many days has it been, Billy?' Harper's heart ached for his friend.
"There's a chicken leg left. Would you like it?" Blackman grabbed it without saying anything and tore into his fried flesh. "No!" Harper said sharply minutes later when Blackman went to wipe his greasy hands on his clean clothing. "Don't you dare. Here ..." He thrust a napkin at his friend. "... Use this." Scowling fiercely, Blackman did. "Now, let's get this mess cleaned up and then I'll cut your hair."
"You can go now."
"You always were an irritating bastard."
"And you were always the best friend I've ever had."
Blackman's throat worked convulsively. He rose and went back to sit on the floor by the fire. "The books are still in Hemispot's cellar. The fire destroyed the upper floors but didn't harm anything below ground."
"Sorcery, necromancy ... black magic ... "
"I see. Do you still go there and read them?"
A few seconds of silence passed, then: "No."
"Do you plan to?"
"I might ... some day."
"You don't need them." Blackman did not reply. "Let me cut your hair. I don't suppose you still have your mother's scissors do you?"
"I don't know."
Harper hunted for the small object but could not find it. "Maybe I could borrow a pair." A knock sounded at the door. "I wonder who that is?"
"The devil, " Blackman said wearily. "He's come to claim his own. Run for your life, fair Raymond."
"Don't be an ignoramus." Harper opened the door.
It was Kettle with clean bedding. "I thought you could use these. I would have sent my man but he was averse to come here. Can you use them?"
"We can. I tried washing what was here, but they're just tatters, not fit for use." He took the small mountain of blankets and sheets, placed them carefully on a chair. "I could make use of a pair of scissors as well, if I may."
"Aye, I have a pair I can lend. Hello, Billy; how are you?" Blackman turned his head, faced the brightly burning fire. "Och, well, at least you look like a human being again. You'll look even better when that hair has been cut. I'll bring the scissors tomorrow, Ray. Will you be needing anything else?"
"Not for awhile. Thank you, Mr. Kettle."
"Call me George."
Harper smiled. "Thank you."
"I'll be going but if you need anything, just ask."
"I will, and thank you, again." Kettle left. Harper turned to Blackman and said in a hard voice. "You were very rude to him."
"I hate him."
"No, you don't."
Blackman's eyes were wild. "I do! And I hate you! You bloody, interfering bastard!" Panic rang in his voice.
"If you say it enough, you might just begin to believe it." He made two make-shift beds on the floor close to the fireplace. When Blackman refused to budge, Harper settled a heavy blanket around his friend's shoulder. "You'll get cold. I've made a bed for you. It won't be a soft one but at least it's clean."
It was over an hour later before Blackman lay down. A tired sigh escaped as he turned over onto his side.
"You wouldn't understand, Ray."
"I could try."
"Have you ever hated someone so much you wanted to kill him?"
"No, " Blackman said in mild contempt, "you wouldn't."
Harper waited a moment then asked, "Who did you hate?"
"It was more than one person, Ray, more than one. There was always someone who's stronger than me, always someone there to hurt me." Blackman turned over and refused to answer any more questions.
Next week, the conclusion of The Power of Friendship.