“There was another episode on The Petrel yesterday. They keep getting worse. The crew grows afraid, even though we come back each time with a good catch.”
Naomi turned away. Tag watched her try and hide obvious pain.
“I am afraid.” His voice dropped when he acknowledged his own vulnerability. “What if I am mad? Can you understand how I feel? Inside me a fist is clenched tight. White knuckle tight. I dare not relax for a heartbeat. In case…I don’t even know what threat I avoid. I don’t want to put you through nights when I am as useless as a frightened child.”
“Do you think I care? Do you think I count the hours?” She turned to face him. The candlelight danced on vibrant curls and glinted in moist eyes. Her chin quivered while frantic hands searched for support. “I care about you. I die every moment you are away from my side. Those nights when you turn to me are more than precious.”
“Don’t be a fool, woman. I am not worthy of your care.” Tag hated the way his gut wrenched when he spoke. He wanted to hold Naomi but instead he lashed out. Every day he remained in the village he stifled an urgent and desperate need to leave.
Brasheer never let him forget the debt he owed for forcing the locals and the crew to accept his presence without question. Despite calling him ‘touched’, Brasheer believed his presence and strange fits brought good luck. Even so, the captain never increased Tag’s share of the profit and made certain he couldn’t gain employment elsewhere.
“There is nothing here for me, but you. I am able to offer you nothing worthwhile. You should find yourself a free man who would worship you. The way you deserve.”
“What if you are the only man I want? You can’t think of leaving me. The goats are about to kid, the barley is ripe.” She lifted her chin and looked into his eyes. “I am carrying your child. We are going to have a baby.”
“A baby?” Tag swallowed and shook his head. Emotions warred within him. He couldn’t resist the urge to hold her now. She rested her head on his shoulder and spoke of her plans.
Listening but not hearing, waves of dread chilled the marrow in his bones. The arrival of a child should evoke joy and anticipation. Instead, Tag wanted to weep. Desperate grief rose to overpower him.
Images of a baby flashed before his eyes. She appeared a perfect newborn with cupid lips and china blue eyes. However, this infant lay dead in his arms. Tears ran down his cheeks. In a distant past, he buried a daughter. Grief threatened to break him.
Incorporeal hands dripping with ghostly blood rested on Naomi’s shoulders. Tag recoiled and cried out. When he stepped away, Death’s specter placed a transparent hand over Naomi’s flat belly.
“This time your child is mine, Deathbringer.” The specter turned and grimaced as Tag cringed in fear.
“Take me, Death,” Tag wept. “I have nothing to lose. Leave the child. The babe is innocent.”
“Since you will soon return to my service I shall consider your plea. I do not see you raising this child, Deathbringer. Even if I do not accept the child’s life as your gift, for the sake of this child you must strike the cobra’s heart. Ahh, how I miss your offerings.”
“Leave the child. Take me.”
“You and I are timeless, Deathbringer. What have they done to you? I grow impatient. Too many try to take your place, but I prefer your legacies.” Death grinned and rose through the ceiling of the hut. Tag covered his face and wept.
“Tag?” Naomi reached for him. “To whom do you speak? What strange words you speak. You are frightening me. Don’t weep. I am afraid.”
“You must see the witch woman, Naomi. You can’t carry my child. Death has touched him.” Afraid of the images he witnessed, Tag brushed aside Naomi’s discomfort. “I am sorry, so very sorry. Sweet mercy, why didn’t she take me instead?”
“I don’t understand.” Naomi paled and sank to the floor. “What did you see? To whom did you speak?”
“Why does Death know me and call me by an accursed name?” Tag’s vision blurred with tears. He took a deep breath and knelt to embrace Naomi.
“You have seen Death? You are frightening me.”
“Naomi, I beg you, let me go.” Lifting her chin, he wiped away her tears.
“Is this a trick to make me say I want you to leave?” Naomi straightened. “It’s not going to work.”
“I made a mistake letting you chip away the walls around my heart.” Tag shook his head. “We always knew there would be a risk. If there is a chance to find my past life, I must take it. I never want you to hurt as much as I ache right now.”
“A mistake? You and I are not a mistake. Whatever evil draws you away, whatever lies in your past, can’t you turn your back on it?” Naomi beat her hands against his chest. “You know nothing good comes from looking into nightmares.”
“As much as you mean to me, what if I have other family? Why is Death aware of my existence? What if someone else suffers because they are involved in my life?”
“Then I envy them.” Naomi sniffed and wiped her eyes. “If you go, will you promise to return? When you know who you are and your nightmares are explained, will you come back to me?”
“I swear. On my life, I shall come back to you.” Tag breathed sweet heather, goat, and lye soap in her hair and never wanted to let her out of his arms. “Whatever happens, I shall return.”