A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 10

   

“And it worked?” He glanced up at the ceiling. Mr. Wemyss and Lizzie shared the smaller room upstairs, but all was quiet above.

“I think so,” I said, swallowing. “The fever finally broke, at least, and she’s asleep. We’ll keep using it; if the fever doesn’t come back in two days, we’ll know it works.”

“That’s good, then.”

“Well, and then there was Bobby and his hookworms. Fortunately, I have some ipecacuanha and turpentine.”

“Fortunately for the worms, or for Bobby?”

“Well, neither, really,” I said, and yawned. “It will probably work, though.”

He smiled faintly, and uncorked a bottle of beer, passing it automatically under his nose. Finding it all right, he poured some for me.

“Aye, well, it’s a comfort to know I’m leaving things in your capable hands, Sassenach. Ill-smelling,” he added, wrinkling his long nose in my direction, “but capable.”

“Thanks so much.” The beer was better than good; must be one of Mrs. Bug’s batches. We sipped companionably for a bit, both too tired to get up and serve the stew. I watched him beneath my lashes; I always did, when he was about to leave on a journey, storing up small memories of him against his return.

He looked tired, and there were small twin lines between his heavy brows, betokening slight worry. The candlelight glowed on the broad bones of his face, though, and cast his shadow clear on the plastered wall behind him, strong and bold. I watched the shadow raise its spectral beer glass, the light making an amber glow in the shadow glass.

“Sassenach,” he said suddenly, putting down the glass, “how many times, would ye say, have I come close to dying?”

I stared at him for a moment, but then shrugged and began to reckon, mustering my synapses into reluctant activity.

“Well . . . I don’t know what horrible things happened to you before I met you, but after . . . well, you were dreadfully ill at the abbey.” I glanced covertly at him, but he seemed not to be bothered at the thought of Wentworth prison, and what had been done to him there that had caused the illness. “Hmm. And after Culloden—you said you had a terrible fever then, from your wounds, and thought you might die, only Jenny forced you—I mean, nursed you through it.”

“And then Laoghaire shot me,” he said wryly. “And you forced me through it. Likewise, when the snake bit me.” He considered for a moment.

“I had the smallpox when I was a wean, but I think I wasna in danger of dying then; they said it was a light case. So only four times, then.”

“What about the day I first met you?” I objected. “You nearly bled to death.”

“Oh, I did not,” he protested. “That was no but a wee scratch.”

I lifted one brow at him, and leaning over to the hearth, scooped a ladle of aromatic stew into a bowl. It was rich with the juices of rabbit and venison, swimming in a thick gravy spiced with rosemary, garlic, and onion. So far as my tastebuds were concerned, all was forgiven.

“Have it your way,” I said. “But wait—what about your head? When Dougal tried to kill you with an ax. Surely that’s five?”

He frowned, accepting the bowl.

“Aye, I suppose you’re right,” he said, seeming displeased. “Five, then.”

I regarded him gently over my own bowl of stew. He was very large, solid, and beautifully formed. And if he was a bit battered by circumstance, that merely added to his charm.

“You’re a very hard person to kill, I think,” I said. “That’s a great comfort to me.”

He smiled, reluctant, but then reached out and lifted his glass in salute, touching it first to his own lips, then to mine.

“We’ll drink to that, Sassenach, shall we?”

14

PEOPLE OF THE

SNOWBIRD

GUNS,” Bird-who-sings-in-the-morning said. “Tell your King we want guns.”

Jamie suppressed the urge to reply, “Who doesn’t?” for a moment, but then gave in to it, surprising the war chief into a blink of startlement, followed by a grin.

“Who, indeed?” Bird was a short man, shaped like a barrel, and young for his office—but shrewd, his affability no disguise to his intelligence. “They all tell you this, all the village war chiefs, eh? Of course they do. What do you tell them?”

“What I can.” Jamie lifted one shoulder, let it fall. “Trade goods are certain, knives are likely—guns are possible, but I cannot yet promise them.”

They were speaking a slightly unfamiliar dialect of Cherokee, and he hoped he had got right the manner of indicating probability. He did well enough with the usual tongue in casual matters of trade and hunting, but the matters he dealt in here would not be casual. He glanced briefly at Ian, who was listening closely, but evidently what he’d said was all right. Ian visited the villages near the Ridge frequently, and hunted with the young men; he shifted into the tongue of the Tsalagi as easily as he did into his native Gaelic.

“So, well enough.” Bird settled himself more comfortably. The pewter badge Jamie had given him as a present glinted on his breast, firelight flickering over the broadly amiable planes of his face. “Tell your King about the guns—and tell him why we need them, eh?”

“You wish me to tell him that, do you? Do you think he will be willing to send you guns with which to kill his own people?” Jamie asked dryly. The incursion of white settlers across the Treaty Line into the Cherokee lands was a sore point, and he risked something by alluding to it directly, rather than addressing Bird’s other needs for guns: to defend his village from raiders—or to go raiding himself.

Bird shrugged in reply.

“We can kill them without guns, if we want to.” One eyebrow lifted a little, and Bird’s lips pursed, waiting to see what Jamie made of this statement.

He supposed Bird meant to shock him. He merely nodded.

“Of course you can. You are wise enough not to.”

“Not yet.” Bird’s lips relaxed into a charming smile. “You tell the King—not yet.”

“His Majesty will be pleased to hear that you value his friendship so much.”

Bird burst into laughter at that, rocking back and forth, and his brother Still Water, who sat beside him, grinned broadly.

“I like you, Bear-Killer,” he said, recovering. “You’re a funny man.”

“I may be,” Jamie said in English, smiling. “Give it time.”

Ian gave a small snort of amusement at that, causing Bird to look sharply at him, then away, clearing his throat. Jamie raised one brow at his nephew, who replied with a bland smile.

Still Water was watching Ian narrowly. The Cherokee welcomed them both with respect, but Jamie had noticed at once a particular edge in their response to Ian. They perceived Ian to be Mohawk—and he made them wary. In all honesty, he himself sometimes thought there was some part of Ian that had not come back from Snaketown, and perhaps never would.

Bird had given him an avenue to inquire about something, though.

“You have been much troubled by persons who come into your lands to settle,” he said, nodding sympathetically. “You of course do not kill these persons, being wise. But not everyone is wise, are they?”

Bird’s eyes narrowed briefly.

“What do you mean, Bear-Killer?”

“I hear of burning, Tsisqua.” He held the other man’s eyes with his own, careful to give no hint of accusation. “The King hears of houses burning, men killed and women taken. This does not please him.”

“Hmp,” Bird said, and pressed his lips together. He did not, however, say he had not heard of such things himself, which was interesting.

“Enough of such stories, and the King may send soldiers to protect his people. If he should do that, he will hardly wish to have them face guns that he himself has given,” Jamie pointed out logically.

“And what should we do, then?” Still Water broke in hotly. “They come across the Treaty Line, build houses, plant fields, and take the game. If your King cannot keep his people where they belong, how can he protest if we defend our lands?”

Bird made a small flattening gesture with one hand, not looking at his brother, and Still Water subsided, though with bad grace.

“So, Bear-Killer. You will tell the King these things, will you?”

Jamie inclined his head gravely.

“That is my office. I speak of the King to you, and I will take your words to the King.”

Bird nodded thoughtfully, then waved a hand for food and beer, and the talk changed firmly to neutral matters. No more business would be done tonight.

IT WAS LATE when they left Tsisqua’s house for the small guesthouse. He thought it was well past moonrise, but there was no moon to be seen; the sky glowed thick with cloud, and the scent of rain was live on the wind.

“Oh, God,” Ian said, yawning and stumbling. “My bum’s gone asleep.”

Jamie yawned, too, finding it contagious, but then blinked and laughed. “Aye, well. Dinna bother waking it up; the rest of ye can join it.”

Ian made a derisive noise with his lips.

“Just because Bird says ye’re a funny man, Uncle Jamie, I wouldna go believing it. He’s only being polite, ken?”

Jamie ignored this, murmuring thanks in Tsalagi to the young woman who had shown them the way to their quarters. She handed him a small basket—filled with corn bread and dried apples, from the smell—then wished them a soft “Good night, sleep well,” before vanishing into the damp, restless night.

The small hut seemed stuffy after the cool freshness of the air, and he stood in the doorway for a moment, enjoying the movement of the wind through the trees, watching it snake through the pine boughs like a huge, invisible serpent. A spatter of moisture bloomed on his face, and he experienced the deep pleasure of a man who realizes that it’s going to rain and he isn’t going to have to spend the night out in it.

“Ask about, Ian, when ye’re gossiping tomorrow,” he said, ducking inside. “Let it be known—tactfully—that the King would be pleased to know exactly who in hell’s been burning cabins—and might be pleased enough to cough up a few guns in reward. They’ll not tell ye if it’s them that’s been doing it—but if it’s another band, they might.”

Ian nodded, yawning again. A small fire burned in a stone ring, the smoke of it wisping up toward a smoke hole in the roof overhead, and by its light, a fur-piled sleeping platform was visible across one side of the hut, with another stack of furs and blankets on the floor.

“Toss ye for the bed, Uncle Jamie,” he said, digging in the pouch at his waist and coming out with a battered shilling. “Call it.”

“Tails,” Jamie said, setting down the basket and unbelting his plaid. It fell in a warm puddle of fabric round his legs and he shook out his shirt. The linen was creased and grimy against his skin, and he could smell himself; thank God this was the last of the villages. One more night, perhaps, two at the most, and they could go home.

Ian swore, picking up the coin.

“How d’ye do that? Every night ye’ve said ‘tails,’ and every night, tails it is!”

“Well, it’s your shilling, Ian. Dinna blame me.” He sat down on the bed platform and stretched himself pleasurably, then relented. “Look at Geordie’s nose.”

Ian flipped the shilling over in his fingers and held it to the light of the fire, squinting, then swore again. A tiny splotch of beeswax, so thin as to be invisible unless you were looking, ornamented the aristocratically prominent nose of George III, Rex Britannia.

“How did that get there?” Ian narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his uncle, but Jamie merely laughed and lay down.

“When ye were showing wee Jem how to spin a coin. Remember, he knocked the candlestick over; hot wax went everywhere.”

“Oh.” Ian sat looking at the coin in his hand for a moment, then shook his head, scraped the wax away with a thumbnail, and put the shilling away.

“Good night, Uncle Jamie,” he said, sliding into the furs on the ground with a sigh.

“Good night, Ian.”

He’d been ignoring his tiredness, holding it like Gideon, on a short rein. Now he dropped the reins and gave it leave to carry him off, his body relaxing into the comfort of the bed.

MacDonald, he reflected cynically, would be delighted. Jamie had planned on visits only to the two Cherokee villages closest to the Treaty Line, there to announce his new position, distribute modest gifts of whisky and tobacco—this last hastily borrowed from Tom Christie, who had fortunately purchased a hogshead of the weed on a seed-buying trip to Cross Creek—and inform the Cherokee that further largesse might be expected when he undertook ambassage to the more distant villages in the autumn.

He had been most cordially received in both villages—but in the second, Pigtown, several strangers had been visiting; young men in search of wives. They were from a separate band of Cherokee, called the Snowbird band, whose large village lay higher in the mountains.

One of the young men had been the nephew of Bird-who-sings-in-the-morning, headman of the Snowbird band, and had been exigent in pressing Jamie to return with him and his companions to their home village. Taking a hasty private inventory of his remaining whisky and tobacco, Jamie had agreed, and he and Ian had been most royally received there, as agents of His Majesty. The Snowbird had never been visited by an Indian agent before, and appeared most sensible of the honor—and prompt about seeing what advantages might accrue to themselves in consequence.

He thought Bird was the sort of man with whom he could do business, though—on various fronts.

That thought led him to belated recollection of Roger Mac and the new tenants. He’d had no time over the last few days to spare much worry there—but he doubted there was any cause for concern. Roger Mac was capable enough, though his shattered voice made him less certain than he should be. With Christie and Arch Bug, though. . .

He closed his eyes, the bliss of absolute fatigue stealing over him as his thoughts grew more disjointed.

A day more, maybe, then home in time to make the hay. Another malting, two maybe, before the cold weather. Slaughtering . . . could it be time at last to kill the damned white sow? No . . . the vicious creature was unbelievably fecund. What kind of boar had the balls to mate with her? he wondered dimly, and did she eat him, after? Wild boar . . . smoked hams, blood pudding . . .

He was just drifting down through the first layers of sleep when he felt a hand on his privates. Jerked out of drowsiness like a salmon out of a sea-loch, he clapped a hand to the intruder’s, gripping tight. And elicited a faint giggle from his visitor.

Feminine fingers wiggled gently in his grasp, and the hand’s fellow promptly took up operations in its stead. His first coherent thought was that the lassie would be an excellent baker, so good as she was at kneading.

Other thoughts followed rapidly on the heels of this absurdity, and he tried to grab the second hand. It playfully eluded him in the dark, poking and tweaking.

He groped for a polite protest in Cherokee, but came up with nothing but a handful of random phrases in English and Gaelic, none of them faintly suitable to the occasion.

The first hand was purposefully wriggling out of his grasp, eel-like. Reluctant to crush her fingers, he let go for an instant, and made a successful grab for her wrist.

“Ian!” he hissed, in desperation. “Ian, are ye there?” He couldn’t see his nephew in the pool of darkness that filled the cabin, nor tell if he slept. There were no windows, and only the faintest light came from the dying coals.

“Ian!”

There was a stirring on the floor, bodies shifting, and he heard Rollo sneeze.

“What is it, Uncle?” He’d spoken in Gaelic, and Ian answered in the same language. The lad sounded calm, and not as though he’d just come awake.

“Ian, there is a woman in my bed,” he said in Gaelic, trying to match his nephew’s calm tone.

“There are two of them, Uncle Jamie.” Ian sounded amused, damn him! “The other will be down by your feet. Waiting her turn.”

That unnerved him, and he nearly lost his grip on the captive hand.

“Two of them! What do they think I am?”

The girl giggled again, leaned over, and bit him lightly on the chest.

“Christ!”

“Well, no, Uncle, they don’t think you’re Him,” Ian said, obviously suppressing his own mirth. “They think you’re the King. So to speak. You’re his agent, so they’re doing honor to His Majesty by sending you his women, aye?”

The second woman had uncovered his feet and was slowly stroking his soles with one finger. He was ticklish and would have found this bothersome, were he not so distracted by the first woman, with whom he was being compelled into a most undignified game of hide-the-sausage.

“Talk to them, Ian,” he said between clenched teeth, fumbling madly with his free hand, meanwhile forcing back the questing fingers of the captive hand—which were languidly stroking his ear—and wiggling his feet in a frantic effort to discourage the second lady’s attentions, which were growing bolder.

“Erm . . . what d’ye want me to say?” Ian inquired, switching back to English. His voice quivered slightly.

“Tell them I’m deeply sensible of the honor, but—gk!” Further diplomatic evasions were cut off by the sudden intrusion of someone’s tongue into his mouth, tasting strongly of onions and beer.

In the midst of his subsequent struggles, he was dimly aware that Ian had lost any sense of self-control and was lying on the floor giggling helplessly. It was filicide if you killed a son, he thought grimly; what was the word for assassinating a nephew?

“Madam!” he said, disengaging his mouth with difficulty. He seized the lady by the shoulders and rolled her off his body with enough force that she whooped with surprise, bare legs flying—Jesus, was she nak*d?

She was. Both of them were; his eyes adapted to the faint glow of the embers, he caught the shimmer of light from shoulders, br**sts, and rounded thighs.

He sat up, gathering furs and blankets round him in a sort of hasty redoubt.

“Cease, the two of you!” he said severely in Cherokee. “You are beautiful, but I cannot lie with you.”

“No?” said one, sounding puzzled.

“Why not?” said the other.

“Ah . . . because there is an oath upon me,” he said, necessity producing inspiration. “I have sworn . . . sworn . . .” He groped for the proper word, but didn’t find it. Luckily, Ian leaped in at this point, with a stream of fluent Tsalagi, too fast to follow.

“Ooo,” breathed one girl, impressed. Jamie felt a distinct qualm.

“What in God’s name did ye tell them, Ian?”

“I told them the Great Spirit came to ye in a dream, Uncle, and told ye that ye mustn’t go with a woman until ye’d brought guns to all the Tsalagi.”

“Until I what?!”

“Well, it was the best I could think of in a hurry, Uncle,” Ian said defensively.

Hair-raising as the notion was, he had to admit it was effective; the two women were huddled together, whispering in awed tones, and had quite left off pestering him.

“Aye, well,” he said grudgingly. “I suppose it could be worse.” After all, even if the Crown were persuaded to provide guns, there were a damn lot of Tsalagi.

“Ye’re welcome, Uncle Jamie.” The laughter was gurgling just below the surface of his nephew’s voice, and emerged in a stifled snort.

“What?” he said testily.

“The one lady is saying it’s a disappointment to her, Uncle, because you’re verra nicely equipped. The other is more philosophical about it, though. She says they might have borne ye children, and the bairns might have red hair.” His nephew’s voice quivered.

“What’s wrong wi’ red hair, for God’s sake?”

“I dinna ken, quite, but I gather it’s not something ye want your bairn to be marked with, and ye can help it.”

“Well, fine,” he snapped. “No danger of it, is there? Can they not go home now?”

“It’s raining, Uncle Jamie,” Ian pointed out logically. It was; the wind had brought a patter of rain, and now the main shower arrived, beating on the roof with a steady thrum, drops hissing into the hot embers through the smoke hole. “Ye wouldna send them out in the wet, would ye? Besides, ye just said ye couldna lie wi’ them, not that ye meant them to go.”

He broke off to say something interrogative to the ladies, who replied with eager confidence. Jamie thought they’d said—they had. Rising with the grace of young cranes, the two of them clambered nak*d as jaybirds back into his bed, patting and stroking him with murmurs of admiration—though sedulously avoiding his private parts—pressed him down into the furs, and snuggled down on either side of him, warm bare flesh pressed cozily against him.

He opened his mouth, then shut it again, finding absolutely nothing to say in any of the languages he knew.

He lay on his back, rigid and breathing shallowly. His c*ck throbbed indignantly, clearly meaning to stay up and torment him all night in revenge for its abuse. Small chortling noises came from the pile of furs on the ground, interspersed with hiccuping snorts. He thought it was maybe the first time he’d heard Ian truly laugh since his return.

Praying for fortitude, he drew a long, slow breath, and closed his eyes, hands folded firmly across his ribs, elbows pressed to his sides.

15

STAKIT TO DROON

ROGER WALKED OUT ONTO the terrace at River Run, feeling pleasantly exhausted. After three weeks of strenuous work, he’d gathered the new tenants from the highways and byways of Cross Creek and Campbelton, become acquainted with all the heads of households, managed to equip them at least minimally for the journey, in terms of food, blankets, and shoes—and got them all collected in one place, firmly overcoming their tendency to panic and stray. They’d start in the morning for Fraser’s Ridge, and not a moment too soon.

He looked out over the terrace in satisfaction, toward the meadow that lay beyond Jocasta Cameron Innes’s stables. They were all bedded down in a temporary camp there: twenty-two families, with seventy-six individual souls, four mules, two ponies, fourteen dogs, three pigs, and God only knew how many chickens, kittens, and pet birds, bundled into wicker cages for carrying. He had all the names on a list—animals excluded—dog-eared and crumpled in his pocket. He had several other lists there, as well, scribbled over, crossed out, and amended to the point of illegibility. He felt like a walking Book of Deuteronomy. He also felt like a very large drink.

This was luckily forthcoming; Duncan Innes, Jocasta’s husband, had returned from his own day’s labor and was sitting on the terrace, in company with a cut-glass decanter, from which the rays of the sinking sun struck a mellow amber glow.

“How is it, then, a charaid?” Duncan greeted him genially, gesturing toward one of the basketwork chairs. “Ye’ll take a dram, perhaps?”

“I will, and thanks.”

He sank gratefully into the chair, which creaked amiably beneath his weight. He accepted the glass Duncan handed him, and tossed it back with a brief “Slàinte.”

The whisky burned through the strictures that bound his throat, making him cough, but seeming suddenly to open things, so that the constant faint sense of choking began to leave him. He sipped, grateful.

“Ready to go, are they?” Duncan nodded toward the meadow, where the smoke of campfires hung in a low golden haze.

“Ready as they’ll ever be. Poor things,” Roger added with some sympathy.

Duncan raised one shaggy brow.

“Fish out of water,” Roger amplified, holding out his glass to accept the proffered refill. “The women are terrified, and so are the men, but they hide it better. Ye’d think I was taking them all to be slaves on a sugar plantation.”

Duncan nodded. “Or sell them to Rome to clean the Pope’s shoon,” he said wryly. “I misdoubt most of them had ever smelt a Catholic before embarking. And from the wrinkled noses, they dinna care so much for the scent now, I think. Do they so much as tak’ a dram now and then, d’ye ken?”

“Only medicinally, and only if in actual danger of death, I think.” Roger took a slow, ambrosial swallow and closed his eyes, feeling the whisky warm his throat and curl in his chest like a purring cat. “Meet Hiram yet, did you? Hiram Crombie, the head man of this lot.”

“The wee sour-drap wi’ the stick up his arse? Aye, I met him.” Duncan grinned, his drooping mustache lifting at the end. “He’ll be at supper with us. Best have another.”

“I will, thanks,” said Roger, extending his glass. “Though they’re none of them much for hedonistic pleasure, so far as I can tell. Ye’d think they were all still Covenanters to the bone. The Frozen Chosen, aye?”

Duncan laughed immoderately at that.

“Well, it’s no like it was in my grandsire’s day,” he said, recovering and reaching across for the decanter. “And thank the Lord for that.” He rolled his eyes, grimacing.

“Your grandsire was a Covenanter, then?”

“God, yes.” Shaking his head, Duncan poured a goodly measure, first for Roger, then himself. “A fierce auld bastard, he was. Not that he’d no cause, mind. His sister was stakit to droon, ken?”

“Was—Christ.” He bit his tongue in penance, but was too interested to pay it much mind. “Ye mean—executed by drowning?”

Duncan nodded, eyes on his glass, then took a good gulp and held it for a moment in his mouth before swallowing.

“Margaret,” he said. “Her name was Margaret. Eighteen she was, at the time. Her father and her brother—my grandfather, aye?—they’d fled, after the battle at Dunbar; hid in the hills. The troops came a-hunting them, but she wouldna say where they’d gone—and she had a Bible by her. They tried to make her recant then, but she wouldna do that, either—the women on that side o’ the family, ye might as well talk to a stone,” he said, shaking his head. “There’s no moving them. But they dragged her doon to the shore, her and an auld Covenanter woman from the village, stripped them, and tied them both to stakes at the tide line. Waited there, the crowd o’ them, for the water to come in.”

He took another swallow, not waiting for the taste of it.

“The auld woman went under first; they’d tied her closer to the water—I suppose thinking Margaret would give in, if she saw the auld woman die.” He grunted, shaking his head. “But nay, not a bit of it. The tide rose, and the waves came up ower her. She choked, and she coughed, and her hair loose, hanging over her face, plastered doon like kelp, when the water went out.

“My mither saw it,” he explained, lifting his glass. “She was but seven at the time, but she never forgot. After the first wave, she said, there was the space of three breaths, and the wave came ower Margaret again. And then out . . . three breaths . . . and in again once more. And ye couldna see anything then but the swirl of her hair, floating on the tide.”

He raised his glass an inch higher, and Roger lifted his own in involuntary toast. “Jesus,” he said, and it was no blasphemy.

The whisky burned his throat as it went down and he breathed deep, giving thanks to God for the gift of air. Three breaths. It was the single malt of Islay, and the iodine taste of sea and kelp was strong and smoky in his lungs.

“May God give her peace,” he said, his voice rasping.

Duncan nodded, and reached again for the decanter.

“I would suppose she earned it,” he said. “Though they”—he pointed with his chin toward the meadow—“they’d say ’twas none of her doing at all; God chose her for salvation and chose the English to be damned; nay more to be said on the matter.”

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