TIME IS A LOT OF THE THINGS people say that God is.
There’s the always preexisting, and having no end. There’s the notion of being all powerful—because nothing can stand against time, can it? Not mountains, not armies.
And time is, of course, all-healing. Give anything enough time, and everything is taken care of: all pain encompassed, all hardship erased, all loss subsumed.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember, man, that thou art dust; and unto dust thou shalt return.
And if Time is anything akin to God, I suppose that Memory must be the Devil.
Rumors of War
THE DOG SENSED THEM FIRST. Dark as it was, Ian Murray felt rather than saw Rollo’s head lift suddenly near his thigh, ears pricking. He put a hand on the dog’s neck, and felt the hair there ridged with warning.
So attuned as they were to each other, he did not even think consciously, “Men,” but put his other hand to his knife and lay still, breathing. Listening.
The forest was quiet. It was hours ’til dawn and the air was still as that in a church, with a mist like incense rising slowly up from the ground. He had lain down to rest on the fallen trunk of a giant tulip tree, preferring the tickle of wood-lice to seeping damp. He kept his hand on the dog, waiting.
Rollo was growling, a low, constant rumble that Ian could barely hear but felt easily, the vibration of it traveling up his arm, arousing all the nerves of his body. He hadn’t been asleep—he rarely slept at night anymore—but had been quiet, looking up into the vault of the sky, engrossed in his usual argument with God. Quietness had vanished with Rollo’s movement. He sat up slowly, swinging his legs over the side of the half-rotted log, heart beating fast now.
Rollo’s warning hadn’t changed, but the great head swiveled, following something unseen. It was a moonless night; Ian could see the faint silhouettes of trees and the moving shadows of the night, but nothing more.
Then he heard them. Sounds of passage. A good distance away, but coming nearer by the moment. He stood and stepped softly into the pool of black under a balsam fir. A click of the tongue, and Rollo left off his growling and followed, silent as the wolf who had been his father.
Ian’s resting-place overlooked a game trail. The men who followed it were not hunting.
White men. Now that was odd, and more than odd. He couldn’t see them, but didn’t need to; the noise they made was unmistakable. Indians traveling were not silent, and many of the Highlanders he lived among could move like ghosts in the wood—but he had no doubt whatever. Metal, that was it. He was hearing the jingle of harness, the clink of buttons and buckles—and gun barrels.
A lot of them. So close, he began to smell them. He leaned forward a little, eyes closed, the better to snuff up what clue he could.
They carried pelts; now he picked up the dried-blood cold-fur smell that had probably waked Rollo—but not trappers, surely; too many. Trappers moved in ones and twos.
Poor men, and dirty. Not trappers, and not hunters. Game was easy to come by at this season, but they smelled of hunger. And the sweat of bad drink.
Close by now, perhaps ten feet from the place where he stood. Rollo made a tiny snorting sound, and Ian closed his hand once more on the dog’s ruff, but the men made too much noise to hear it. He counted the passing footsteps, the bumping of canteens and bullet boxes, foot-sore grunts and sighs of weariness.
Twenty-three men, he made it, and there was a mule—no, two mules with them; he could hear the creak of laden panniers and that querulous heavy breathing, the way a loaded mule did, always on the verge of complaint.
The men would never have detected them, but some freak of the air bore Rollo’s scent to the mules. A deafening bray shattered the dark, and the forest erupted in front of him with a clishmaclaver of crashing and startled shouts. Ian was already running when pistol shots crashed behind him.
“A Dhia!” Something struck him in the head and he fell headlong. Was he killed?
No. Rollo was pushing a worried wet nose into his ear. His head buzzed like a hive and he saw bright flashes of light before his eyes.
“Run! Ruith!” he gasped, pushing at the dog. “Run out! Go!” The dog hesitated, whining deep in his throat. He couldn’t see, but felt the big body lunge and turn, turn back, undecided.
“Ruith!” He got himself up onto hands and knees, urging, and the dog at last obeyed, running as he had been trained.
There was no time to run himself, even could he have gained his feet. He fell facedown, thrust hands and feet deep into the leaf mold, and wriggled madly, burrowing in.
A foot struck between his shoulder blades, but the breath it drove out of him was muffled in wet leaves. It didn’t matter, they were making so much noise. Whoever had stepped on him didn’t notice; it was a glancing blow as the man ran over him in panic, doubtless thinking him a rotted log.
The shooting ceased. The shouting didn’t, but he made no sense of it. He knew he was lying flat on his face, cold damp on his cheeks and the tang of dead leaves in his nose—but felt as though very drunk, the world revolving slowly round him. His head didn’t hurt much, past the first burst of pain, but he didn’t seem able to lift it.
He had the dim thought that if he died here, no one would know. His mother would mind, he thought, not knowing what had become of him.
The noises grew fainter, more orderly. Someone was still bellowing, but it had the sound of command. They were leaving. It occurred to him dimly that he might call out. If they knew he was white, they might help him. And they might not.
He kept quiet. Either he was dying or he wasn’t. If he was, no help was possible. If he wasn’t, none was needed.
Well, I asked then, didn’t I? he thought, resuming his conversation with God, calm as though he lay still on the trunk of the tulip tree, looking up into the depths of heaven above. A sign, I said. I didna quite expect Ye to be so prompt about it, though.
NO ONE HAD KNOWN the cabin was there, until Kenny Lindsay had seen the flames, on his way up the creek.
“I wouldna ha’ seen at all,” he said, for perhaps the sixth time. “Save for the dark comin’ on. Had it been daylight, I’d never ha’ kent it, never.” He wiped a trembling hand over his face, unable to take his eyes off the line of bodies that lay at the edge of the forest. “Was it savages, Mac Dubh? They’re no scalped, but maybe—”
“No.” Jamie laid the soot-smeared handkerchief gently back over the staring blue face of a small girl. “None of them is wounded. Surely ye saw as much when ye brought them out?”
Lindsay shook his head, eyes closed, and shivered convulsively. It was late afternoon, and a chilly spring day, but the men were all sweating.
“I didna look,” he said simply.
My own hands were like ice; as numb and unfeeling as the rubbery flesh of the dead woman I was examining. They had been dead for more than a day; the rigor of death had passed off, leaving them limp and chilled, but the cold weather of the mountain spring had preserved them so far from the grosser indignities of putrefaction.
Still, I breathed shallowly; the air was bitter with the scent of burning. Wisps of steam rose now and then from the charred ruin of the tiny cabin. From the corner of my eye, I saw Roger kick at a nearby log, then bend and pick up something from the ground beneath.
Kenny had pounded on our door long before daylight, summoning us from warm beds. We had come in haste, even knowing that we were far too late to offer aid. Some of the tenants from the homesteads on Fraser’s Ridge had come, too; Kenny’s brother Evan stood with Fergus and Ronnie Sinclair in a small knot under the trees, talking together in low-voiced Gaelic.
“D’ye ken what did for them, Sassenach?” Jamie squatted beside me, face troubled. “The ones under the trees, that is.” He nodded at the corpse in front of me. “I ken what killed this puir woman.”
The woman’s long skirt stirred in the wind, lifting to show long, slender feet shod in leather clogs. A pair of long hands to match lay still at her sides. She had been tall—though not so tall as Brianna, I thought, and looked automatically for my daughter’s bright hair, bobbing among the branches on the far side of the clearing.
I had turned the woman’s apron up to cover her head and upper body. Her hands were red, rough-knuckled with work, and with callused palms, but from the firmness of her thighs and the slenderness of her body, I thought she was no more than thirty—likely much younger. No one could say whether she had been pretty.
I shook my head at his remark.
“I don’t think she died of the burning,” I said. “See, her legs and feet aren’t touched. She must have fallen into the hearth. Her hair caught fire, and it spread to the shoulders of her gown. She must have lain near enough to the wall or the chimney hood for the flames to touch; that caught, and then the whole bloody place went up.”
Jamie nodded slowly, eyes on the dead woman.
“Aye, that makes sense. But what was it killed them, Sassenach? The others are singed a bit, though none are burned like this. But they must have been dead before the cabin caught alight, for none o’ them ran out. Was it a deadly illness, perhaps?”
“I don’t think so. Let me look at the others again.”
I walked slowly down the row of still bodies with their cloth-covered faces, stooping over each one to peer again beneath the makeshift shrouds. There were any number of illnesses that could be quickly fatal in these days—with no antibiotics to hand, and no way of administering fluids save by mouth or rectum, a simple case of diarrhea could kill within twenty-four hours.
I saw such things often enough to recognize them easily; any doctor does, and I had been a doctor for more than twenty years. I saw things now and then in this century that I had never encountered in my own—particularly horrible parasitical diseases, brought with the slave trade from the tropics—but it was no parasite that had done for these poor souls, and no illness that I knew, to leave such traces on its victims.
All the bodies—the burned woman, a much older woman, and three children—had been found inside the walls of the flaming house. Kenny had pulled them out, just before the roof fell in, then ridden for help. All dead before the fire started; all dead virtually at the same time, then, for surely the fire had begun to smolder soon after the woman fell dead on her hearth?
The victims had been laid out neatly under the branches of a giant red spruce, while the men began to dig a grave nearby. Brianna stood by the smallest girl, her head bent. I came to kneel by the little body, and she knelt down across from me.
“What was it?” she asked quietly. “Poison?”
I glanced up at her in surprise.
“I think so. What gave you that idea?”
She nodded at the blue-tinged face below us. She had tried to close the eyes, but they bulged beneath the lids, giving the little girl a look of startled horror. The small, blunt features were twisted in a rictus of agony, and there were traces of vomit in the corners of the mouth.
“Girl Scout handbook,” Brianna said. She glanced at the men, but no one was near enough to hear. Her mouth twitched, and she looked away from the body, holding out her open hand. “Never eat any strange mushroom,” she quoted. “There are many poisonous varieties, and distinguishing one from another is a job for an expert. Roger found these, growing in a ring by that log over there.”
Moist, fleshy caps, a pale brown with white warty spots, the open gills and slender stems so pale as to look almost phosphorescent in the spruce shadows. They had a pleasant, earthy look to them that belied their deadliness.
“Panther toadstools,” I said, half to myself, and picked one gingerly from her palm. “Agaricus pantherinus—or that’s what they will be called, once somebody gets round to naming them properly. Pantherinus, because they kill so swiftly—like a striking cat.”
I could see the gooseflesh ripple on Brianna’s forearm, raising the soft, red-gold hairs. She tilted her hand and spilled the rest of the deadly fungus on the ground.
“Who in their right mind would eat toadstools?” she asked, wiping her hand on her skirt with a slight shudder.
“People who didn’t know better. People who were hungry, perhaps,” I answered softly. I picked up the little girl’s hand, and traced the delicate bones of the forearm. The small belly showed signs of bloat, whether from malnutrition or postmortem changes I couldn’t tell—but the collarbones were sharp as scythe blades. All of the bodies were thin, though not to the point of emaciation.
I looked up, into the deep blue shadows of the mountainside above the cabin. It was early in the year for foraging, but there was food in abundance in the forest—for those who could recognize it.
Jamie came and knelt down beside me, a big hand lightly on my back. Cold as it was, a trickle of sweat streaked his neck, and his thick auburn hair was dark at the temples.
“The grave is ready,” he said, speaking low, as though he might alarm the child. “Is that what’s killed the bairn?” He nodded at the scattered fungi.
“I think so—and the rest of them, too. Have you had a look around? Does anyone know who they were?”
He shook his head.
“Not English; the clothes are wrong. Germans would have gone to Salem, surely; they’re clannish souls, and no inclined to settle on their own. These were maybe Dutchmen.” He nodded toward the carved wooden clogs on the old woman’s feet, cracked and stained with long use. “No books nor writing left, if there was any to begin with. Nothing that might tell their name. But—”
“They hadn’t been here long.” A low, cracked voice made me look up. Roger had come; he squatted next to Brianna, nodding toward the smoldering remains of the cabin. A small garden plot had been scratched into the earth nearby, but the few plants showing were no more than sprouts, the tender leaves limp and blackened with late frost. There were no sheds, no sign of livestock, no mule or pig.
“New emigrants,” Roger said softly. “Not bond servants; this was a family. They weren’t used to outdoor labor, either; the women’s hands have blisters and fresh scars.” His own broad hand rubbed unconsciously over a homespun knee; his palms were as smoothly callused as Jamie’s now, but he had once been a tender-skinned scholar; he remembered the pain of his seasoning.
“I wonder if they left people behind—in Europe,” Brianna murmured. She smoothed blond hair off the little girl’s forehead, and laid the kerchief back over her face. I saw her throat move as she swallowed. “They’ll never know what happened to them.”
“No.” Jamie stood abruptly. “They do say that God protects fools—but I think even the Almighty will lose patience now and then.” He turned away, motioning to Lindsay and Sinclair.
“Look for the man,” he said to Lindsay. Every head jerked up to look at him.
“Man?” Roger said, and then glanced sharply at the burned remnants of the cabin, realization dawning. “Aye—who built the cabin for them?”
“The women could have done it,” Bree said, lifting her chin.
“You could, aye,” he said, mouth twitching slightly as he cast a sidelong look at his wife. Brianna resembled Jamie in more than coloring; she stood six feet in her stockings and had her father’s clean-limbed strength.
“Perhaps they could, but they didn’t,” Jamie said shortly. He nodded toward the shell of the cabin, where a few bits of furniture still held their fragile shapes. As I watched, the evening wind came down, scouring the ruin, and the shadow of a stool collapsed noiselessly into ash, flurries of soot and char moving ghostlike over the ground.
“What do you mean?” I stood and moved beside him, looking into the house. There was virtually nothing left inside, though the chimney stack still stood, and jagged bits of the walls remained, their logs fallen like jackstraws.
“There’s no metal,” he said, nodding at the blackened hearth, where the remnants of a cauldron lay, cracked in two from the heat, its contents vaporized. “No pots, save that—and that’s too heavy to carry away. Nay tools. Not a knife, not an ax—and ye see whoever built it had that.”
I did; the logs were unpeeled, but the notches and ends bore the clear marks of an ax.
Frowning, Roger picked up a long pine branch and began to poke through the piles of ash and rubble, looking to be sure. Kenny Lindsay and Sinclair didn’t bother; Jamie had told them to look for a man, and they promptly went to do so, disappearing into the forest. Fergus went with them; Evan Lindsay, his brother Murdo, and the McGillivrays began the chore of collecting stones for a cairn.
“If there was a man—did he leave them?” Brianna murmured to me, glancing from her father to the row of bodies. “Did this woman maybe think they wouldn’t survive on their own?”
And thus take her own life, and those of her children, to avoid a long-drawn-out death from cold and starvation?
“Leave them and take all their tools? God, I hope not.” I crossed myself at the thought, though even as I did so, I doubted it. “Wouldn’t they have walked out, looking for help? Even with children . . . the snow’s mostly gone.” Only the highest mountain passes were still packed with snow, and while the trails and slopes were wet and muddy with runoff, they’d been passable for a month, at least.
“I’ve found the man,” Roger said, interrupting my thoughts. He spoke very calmly, but paused to clear his throat. “Just—just here.”
The daylight was beginning to fade, but I could see that he had gone pale. No wonder; the curled form he had unearthed beneath the charred timbers of a fallen wall was sufficiently gruesome as to give anyone pause. Charred to blackness, hands upraised in the boxer’s pose so common to those dead by fire, it was difficult even to be sure that it was a man—though I thought it was, from what I could see.
Speculation about this new body was interrupted by a shout from the forest’s edge.
“We’ve found them, milord!”
Everyone looked up from contemplation of this new corpse, to see Fergus waving from the edge of the wood.
“Them,” indeed. Two men, this time. Sprawled on the ground within the shadow of the trees, found not together, but not far apart, only a short distance from the house. And both, so far as I could tell, probably dead of mushroom poisoning.
“That’s no Dutchman,” Sinclair said, for probably the fourth time, shaking his head over one body.
“He might be,” said Fergus dubiously. He scratched his nose with the tip of the hook he wore in replacement of his left hand. “From the Indies, non?”
One of the unknown bodies was in fact that of a black man. The other was white, and both wore nondescript clothes of worn homespun—shirts and breeches; no jackets, despite the cold weather. And both were barefoot.
“No.” Jamie shook his head, rubbing one hand unconsciously on his own breeches, as though to rid himself of the touch of the dead. “The Dutch keep slaves on Barbuda, aye—but these are better fed than the folk from the cabin.” He lifted his chin toward the silent row of women and children. “They didna live here. Besides . . .” I saw his eyes fix on the dead men’s feet.
The feet were grubby about the ankles and heavily callused, but basically clean. The soles of the black man’s feet showed yellowish pink, with no smears of mud or random leaves stuck between the toes. These men hadn’t been walking through the muddy forest barefoot, that much was sure.
“So there were perhaps more men? And when these died, their companions took their shoes—and anything else of value”—Fergus added practically, gesturing from the burned cabin to the stripped bodies—“and fled.”
“Aye, maybe.” Jamie pursed his lips, his gaze traveling slowly over the earth of the yard—but the ground was churned with footsteps, clumps of grass uprooted and the whole of the yard dusted with ash and bits of charred wood. It looked as though the place had been ravaged by rampaging hippopotami.
“I could wish that Young Ian was here. He’s the best of the trackers; he could maybe tell what happened there, at least.” He nodded into the wood, where the men had been found. “How many there were, maybe, and which way they’ve gone.”
Jamie himself was no mean tracker. But the light was going fast now; even in the clearing where the burned cabin stood, the dark was rising, pooling under the trees, creeping like oil across the shattered earth.
His eyes went to the horizon, where streamers of cloud were beginning to blaze with gold and pink as the sun set behind them, and he shook his head.
“Bury them. Then we’ll go.”
One more grim discovery remained. Alone among the dead, the burned man had not died of fire or poison. When they lifted the charred corpse from the ashes to bear him to his grave, something fell free of the body, landing with a small, heavy thunk on the ground. Brianna picked it up, and rubbed at it with the corner of her apron.
“I guess they overlooked this,” she said a little bleakly, holding it out. It was a knife, or the blade of one. The wooden hilt had burned entirely away, and the blade itself was warped with heat.
Steeling myself against the thick, acrid stench of burned fat and flesh, I bent over the corpse, poking gingerly at the midsection. Fire destroys a great deal, but preserves the strangest things. The triangular wound was quite clear, seared in the hollow beneath his ribs.
“They stabbed him,” I said, and wiped my sweating hands on my own apron.
“They killed him,” Bree said, watching my face. “And then his wife—” She glanced at the young woman on the ground, the concealing apron over her head. “She made a stew with the mushrooms, and they all ate it. The children, too.”
The clearing was silent, save for the distant calls of birds on the mountain. I could hear my own heart, beating painfully in my chest. Vengeance? Or simple despair?
“Aye, maybe,” Jamie said quietly. He stooped to pick up an end of the sheet of canvas they had placed the dead man on. “We’ll call it accident.”
The Dutchman and his family were laid in one grave, the two strangers in another.
A cold wind had sprung up as the sun went down; the apron fluttered away from the woman’s face as they lifted her. Sinclair gave a strangled cry of shock, and nearly dropped her.
She had neither face nor hair anymore; the slender waist narrowed abruptly into charred ruin. The flesh of her head had burned away completely, leaving an oddly tiny, blackened skull, from which her teeth grinned in disconcerting levity.
They lowered her hastily into the shallow grave, her children and mother beside her, and left Brianna and me to build a small cairn over them, in the ancient Scottish way, to mark the place and provide protection from wild beasts, while a more rudimentary resting place was dug for the two barefoot men.
The work finally done, everyone gathered, white-faced and silent, around the new-made mounds. I saw Roger stand close beside Brianna, his arm protectively about her waist. A small shudder went through her, which I thought had nothing to do with the cold. Their child, Jemmy, was a year or so younger than the smallest girl.
“Will ye speak a word, Mac Dubh?” Kenny Lindsay glanced inquiringly at Jamie, pulling his knitted bonnet down over his ears against the growing chill.
It was nearly nightfall, and no one wanted to linger. We would have to make camp, somewhere well away from the stink of burning, and that would be hard enough, in the dark. But Kenny was right; we couldn’t leave without at least some token of ceremony, some farewell for the strangers.
Jamie shook his head.
“Nay, let Roger Mac speak. If these were Dutchmen, belike they were Protestant.”
Dim as the light was, I saw the sharp glance Brianna shot at her father. It was true that Roger was a Presbyterian; so was Tom Christie, a much older man whose dour face reflected his opinion of the proceedings. The question of religion was no more than a pretext, though, and everyone knew it, including Roger.
Roger cleared his throat with a noise like tearing calico. It was always a painful sound; there was anger in it now as well. He didn’t protest, though, and he met Jamie’s eyes straight on, as he took his place at the head of the grave.
I had thought he would simply say the Lord’s Prayer, or perhaps one of the gentler psalms. Other words came to him, though.
“Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard: I cry aloud, but there is no judgment. He hath fenced up my way that I cannot pass, and He hath set darkness in my paths.”
His voice had once been powerful, and beautiful. It was choked now, no more than a rasping shadow of its former beauty—but there was sufficient power in the passion with which he spoke to make all those who heard him bow their heads, faces lost in shadow.
“He hath stripped me of my glory, and taken the crown from my head. He hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone: and my hope hath He removed like a tree.” His face was set, but his eyes rested for a bleak moment on the charred stump that had served the Dutch family for a chopping block.
“He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintance are verily estranged from me. My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.” I saw the three Lindsay brothers exchange glances, and everyone drew a little closer together, against the rising wind.
“Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends,” he said, and his voice softened, so that it was difficult to hear him, above the sighing of the trees. “For the hand of God has touched me.”
Brianna made a slight movement beside him, and he cleared his throat once more, explosively, stretching his neck so that I caught a glimpse of the rope scar that marred it.
“Oh, that my words were now written! Oh, that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever!”
He looked slowly round from face to face, his own expressionless, then took a deep breath to continue, voice cracking on the words.
“For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body”—Brianna shuddered convulsively, and looked away from the raw mound of dirt—“yet in my flesh shall I see God. Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold.”
He stopped, and there was a brief collective sigh, as everyone let out the breath they had been holding. He wasn’t quite finished, though. He had reached out, half-unconsciously, for Bree’s hand, and held it tightly. He spoke the last words almost to himself, I thought, with little thought for his listeners.
“Be ye afraid of the sword: for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment.”
I shivered, and Jamie’s hand curled round my own, cold but strong. He looked down at me, and I met his eyes. I knew what he was thinking.
He was thinking, as I was, not of the present, but the future. Of a small item that would appear three years hence, in the pages of the Wilmington Gazette, dated February 13, 1776.
It is with grief that the news is received of the deaths by fire of James MacKenzie Fraser and his wife, Claire Fraser, in a conflagration that destroyed their house in the settlement of Fraser’s Ridge, on the night of January 21 last. Mr. Fraser, a nephew of the late Hector Cameron of River Run Plantation, was born at Broch Tuarach in Scotland. He was widely known in the Colony and deeply respected; he leaves no surviving children.
It had been easy, so far, not to think too much of it. So far in the future, and surely not an unchangeable future—after all, forewarned was forearmed . . . wasn’t it?
I glanced at the shallow cairn, and a deeper chill passed through me. I stepped closer to Jamie, and put my other hand on his arm. He covered my hand with his, and squeezed tight in reassurance. No, he said to me silently. No, I will not let it happen.