A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 102

   

The snow had stopped during the night, but there were two or three inches on the ground. I put Adso down under the eaves, where the ground was clear, and then—with a deep breath to steady myself—turned to look at the house.

Steam rose from the charred remains, which stood inkblot black and stark against the white-furred trees behind it. Only about half the house had burned completely; the west wall was still standing, as were the stone chimney stacks. The rest was a mass of charred timbers and mounded ash, already turning gray. The upper story was completely gone, and as for my surgery . . .

I turned away, hearing voices behind the house. Jamie and Arch were in the woodshed, but the door was open; I could see them inside, face to face. Jamie saw me hovering, and beckoned me in with a nod.

“Good morning, Arch,” I said, peering at our erstwhile factor. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better, a nighean, thank ye kindly,” he said, and coughed. His voice was little more than a harsh whisper, damaged by smoke, and there were enormous, fluid-filled blisters on both hands and face. Bar the loss of his hair and eyebrows, though, I thought he was otherwise all right.

“Arch was just about to explain this to me, Sassenach.” Jamie pointed a toe at the gleaming metal of the gold ingot lying in the sawdust and wood chips at his feet. “Were ye not, Arch?”

His voice was outwardly pleasant, but I heard the steel in it as clearly as Arch did. Arch Bug was no pushover, though, eyebrows or no eyebrows.

“I owe ye nay explanations of anything, Seaumais mac Brian,” he said with equal pleasantness.

“I give ye the chance of explanation, man, not the choice.” He’d dropped the pleasant tone. Jamie was smudged with soot, and scorched round the edges, but his eyebrows were intact and being put to good use. He turned to me, gesturing to the gold.

“Ye’ve seen it before, aye?”

“Of course.” The last time I’d seen it, it had been gleaming in the lantern light, packed solid with its fellows in the bottom of a coffin in Hector Cameron’s mausoleum, but the shape of the ingots and the fleur-de-lis stamp were unmistakable. “Unless Louis of France has been sending someone else vast quantities of gold, it’s part of Jocasta’s hoard.”

“That it is not, and never was,” Arch corrected me firmly.

“Aye?” Jamie cocked a thick brow at him. “To whom does it belong, then, if not to Jocasta Cameron? D’ye claim it as your own?”

“I do not.” He hesitated, but the urge to speak was powerful. “It is the property of the King,” he said, and his old mouth closed tight on the last word.

“What, the King of—oh,” I said, realizing at long last. “That king.”

“Le roi, c’est mort,” Jamie said softly, as though to himself, but Arch turned fiercely to him.

“Is Scotland dead?”

Jamie drew breath, but didn’t speak at once. Instead, he gestured me to a seat on the stack of chopped cordwood, and nodded at Arch to take another, before sitting down beside me.

“Scotland will die when her last son does, a charaid,” he said, and waved a hand toward the door, taking in the mountains and hollows around us—and all the people therein. “How many are here? How many will be? Scotland lives—but not in Italy.” In Rome, he meant, where Charles Stuart eked out what remained to him of a life, drowning his disappointed dreams of a crown in drink.

Arch narrowed his eyes at this, but kept a stubborn silence.

“Ye were the third man, were ye not?” Jamie asked, disregarding this. “When the gold was brought ashore from France. Dougal MacKenzie took one-third, and Hector Cameron another. I couldna say what Dougal did with his—gave it to Charles Stuart, most likely, and may God have mercy on his soul for that. You were tacksman to Malcolm Grant; he sent ye, did he not? You took one-third of the gold on his behalf. Did ye give it to him?”

Arch nodded, slowly.

“It was given in trust,” he said, and his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and spat, the mucus tinged with black. “To me, and then to the Grant—who should have given it in turn to the King’s son.”

“Did he?” Jamie asked, interested. “Or did he think, like Hector Cameron, that it was too late?”

It had been; the cause was already lost at that point—no gold could have made a difference. Arch’s lips pressed so tightly together as almost to be invisible.

“He did what he did,” he said shortly. “What he thought right. That money was spent for the welfare of the clan. But Hector Cameron was a traitor, and his wife with him.”

“It was you who spoke to Jocasta in her tent,” I said suddenly, realizing. “At the Gathering where you met Jamie. You’d come there to find her, hadn’t you?”

Arch seemed surprised that I had spoken, but inclined his head an inch or so in acknowledgment. I wondered whether he had accepted—had sought?—a place with Jamie on account of his relationship with Jocasta.

“And that”—I poked a toe at the shaved ingot—“you found in Jocasta’s house, when you went with Roger and Duncan to bring back the fisher-folk.” Proof—if he had needed it—that Jocasta did indeed still have Hector’s share of the French gold.

“What I am wondering, myself,” Jamie said, rubbing a finger down the long, straight bridge of his nose, “is how the devil ye found the rest of it, and then got it away.”

Arch’s lips pursed for a moment, then reluctantly unsealed themselves.

“’Twas no great feat. I saw the salt at Hector’s tomb—the way the black slaves kept awa’. If he didna rest easy, it was nay wonder—but where would the gold better be, save wi’ him?” A wintry light shone in his faded eyes. “I kent Hector Cameron, a bit. He wasna the man to give up anything, only by reason of bein’ dead.”

Arch made frequent trips to Cross Creek as factor, to buy and trade. He was not usually a guest at River Run, but had been there often enough to be familiar with the property. If anyone saw a figure near the mausoleum at night—well, everyone knew that Hector Cameron’s ghost “walked,” confined to one spot only by the lines of salt; no one would ever go close enough to investigate.

And so he had simply abstracted one ingot on each trip—and not on every trip—eventually removing the whole hoard, before Duncan Innes discovered the loss.

“I shouldna have kept out that first ingot, I see that,” he said, ruefully nodding at it. “At the first, though, I thought we might have need of it—Murdina and I. And then, when she was obliged to kill yon Brown—”

Jamie’s head jerked up, and we both stared at him. He coughed.

“The wicked creature grew well enough to poke about the cabin when she was oot; he found that”—he nodded again at the ingot—“in her workbag, where she’d hidden it. He couldna ken, of course, what it was—but he kent well enough that ragged folk such as we ought not to have such a thing.” His thin mouth pressed tight again, and I remembered that he had been chief tacksman for the Grant of clan Grant—a man of worth. Once.

“He asked about it, and she wouldna tell him anything, of course. But then, when he made his way to your house, she feared he would tell what he’d seen. And so she made an end to him.”

It was said calmly; after all, what else could she do? Not for the first time, I wondered just what other things the Bugs had done—or been forced to do—in the years after Culloden.

“Well, ye kept the gold out of King George’s hands, at least,” Jamie said, a certain note of bleakness in his voice. I thought he was thinking of the battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge. If Hugh MacDonald had had that gold, with which to buy powder and arms, the victory there would not have been so easily won. Nor would the Highlanders have been slaughtered—again—charging sword in hand into the mouths of cannon.

“Arch,” I said, when the silence threatened to become oppressive, “what, exactly, did you plan to do with it?”

He blinked at that, and looked down at the ingot.

“I . . . I meant at first only to see if it was true what I’d heard—that Hector Cameron had taken his part of the gold away with him, used it for his own ends. Then I found Hector dead, but ’twas clear from the way his wife lived that he had indeed taken it. So I wondered—was there any left?”

One hand crept up, massaging his withered throat.

“To tell ye the truth, mistress—I wished mostly to take it back from Jocasta Cameron. Having done that, though . . .” His voice died away, but then he shook himself.

“I am a man of my word, Seaumais mac Brian. I swore an oath to my chief—and kept it, ’til he died. I swore my oath to the King across the water”—James Stuart, he meant—“but he is dead, now, too. And then—I swore loyalty to George of England when I came upon this shore. So tell me now where my duty lies?”

“Ye swore an oath to me, too, Archibald mac Donagh,” Jamie said.

Arch smiled at that, a wry expression, but a smile nonetheless.

“And by reason of that oath, ye’re still alive, Seaumais mac Brian,” he said. “I could have killed ye last night in your sleep and been well awa’.”

Jamie’s mouth twisted in a look that expressed considerable doubt of this statement, but he forbore to contradict.

“You are free of your oath to me,” he said formally in Gaelic. “Take your life from my hand.” And inclining his head toward the ingot, said, “Take that—and go.”

Arch regarded him for a moment, unblinking. Then stooped, picked up the ingot, and went.

“You didn’t ask him where the gold is now,” I observed, watching the tall old man make his way round the cabin to rouse his wife.

“Ye think he would ha’ told me?” He stood up then, and stretched himself. Then he shook himself like a dog, and went to stand in the doorway of the shed, arms braced in the door frame, looking out. It was beginning to snow again.

“I see it’s not only the Frasers who are stubborn as rocks,” I said, coming to stand beside him. “Scotland lives, all right.” That made him laugh.

He put one arm around me, and I rested my head on his shoulder.

“Your hair smells of smoke, Sassenach,” he said softly.

“Everything smells of smoke,” I replied just as softly.

The burned ruins of the house were still too warm for snow to stick, but that would pass. If it went on snowing, by tomorrow the house would be obliterated, white as the rocks and trees. We, too—eventually.

I thought of Jocasta and Duncan, gone to the safety of Canada, the welcome of kinfolk. Where would the Bugs go—back to Scotland? For an instant, I longed to go, too. Away from loss and desolation. Home.

But then I remembered.

“So long as one hundred of us remain alive . . . ,” I quoted.

Jamie tilted his head against mine for a moment, then raised it and turned to look down at me.

“And when ye go to a sick man’s bed, Sassenach—to a wounding or a birth—how is it, then, that ye can rise from your own bed, even from mortal weariness, and go in the dark, alone? Why is it that ye willna wait, that ye dinna say no, ever? Why is it that ye willna forbear, even when ye know the case to be hopeless?”

“I can’t.” I kept my gaze on the ruin of the house, its ashes growing cold before my eyes. I knew what he meant, the unwelcome truth he would force me to speak—but the truth lay between us, and must be told. “I cannot . . . can not . . . admit . . . that there is anything to do but win.”

He cupped my chin and tilted my face upward, so that I was obliged to meet his eyes. His own face was worn with tiredness, the lines cut deep by eyes and mouth, but the eyes themselves were clear, cool, and fathomless as the waters of a hidden spring.

“Nor can I,” he said.

“I know.”

“Ye can at least promise me the victory,” he said, but his voice held the whisper of a question.

“Yes,” I said, and touched his face. I sounded choked, and my vision blurred. “Yes, I can promise that. This time.” No mention made of what that promise spared, of the things I could not guarantee. Not life, not safety. Not home, nor family; not law nor legacy. Just the one thing—or maybe two.

“The victory,” I said. “And that I will be with you ’til the end.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. Snowflakes pelted down, melting as they struck his face, sticking for an instant, white on his lashes. Then he opened his eyes and looked at me.

“That is enough,” he said softly. “I ask no more.”

He reached forward then and took me in his arms, held me close for a moment, the breath of snow and ashes cold around us. Then he kissed me, released me, and I took a deep breath of cold air, harsh with the scent of burning. I brushed a floating smut off my arm.

“Well . . . good. Bloody good. Er . . .” I hesitated. “What do you suggest we do next?”

He stood looking at the charred ruin, eyes narrowed, then lifted his shoulders and let them fall.

“I think,” he said slowly, “we shall go—” He stopped suddenly, frowning. “What in God’s name . . . ?”

Something was moving at the side of the house. I blinked away the snowflakes, standing on tiptoe to see better.

“Oh, it can’t be!” I said—but it was. With a tremendous upheaval of snow, dirt, and charred wood, the white sow thrust her way into daylight. Fully emerged, she shook her massive shoulders, then, pink snout twitching irritably, moved purposefully off toward the wood. A moment later, a smaller version likewise emerged—and another, and another . . . and eight half-grown piglets, some white, some spotted, and one as black as the timbers of the house, trotted off in a line, following their mother.

“Scotland lives,” I said again, giggling uncontrollably. “Er—where did you say we were going?”

“To Scotland,” he said as though this were obvious. “To fetch my printing press.”

He was still looking at the house, but his eyes were fixed somewhere beyond the ashes, far beyond the present moment. An owl hooted deep in the distant wood, startled from its sleep. He stood silent for a bit, then shook off his reverie, and smiled at me, snow melting in his hair.

“And then,” he said simply, “we shall come back to fight.”

He took my hand and turned away from the house, toward the barn where the horses stood waiting, patient in the cold.

EPILOGUE I

LALLYBROCH

THE PENLIGHT’S BEAM MOVED SLOWLY across the heavy oak rafter, paused at a suspicious hole, then passed on. The heavyset man wore a frown of scrupulous concentration, lips pursed like one momentarily expecting some unpleasant surprise.

Brianna stood beside him, looking up at the shadowed recesses of the ceiling in the entry hall, wearing a similar frown of concentration. She would not recognize woodworm or termites unless a rafter actually fell on her, she thought, but it seemed polite to behave as though she were paying attention.

In fact, only half her attention was focused on the heavyset gentleman’s murmured remarks to his helot, a small young woman in an overall too big for her, with pink streaks in her hair. The other half was focused on the noises from upstairs, where the children were theoretically playing hide ’n seek among the jumble of packing boxes. Fiona had brought over her brood of three small fiends, and then craftily abandoned them, running off to do an errand of some sort, promising to return by teatime.

Brianna glanced at her wristwatch, still surprised at seeing it there. Half an hour yet to go. If they could avoid bloodshed until—

A piercing scream from upstairs made her grimace. The helot, less hardened, dropped her clipboard with a yelp.

“MAMA!” Jem, in tattling mode.

“WHAT?” she roared in answer. “I’m BUSY!”

“But Mama! Mandy hit me!” came an indignant report from the top of the stairs. Looking up, she could see the top of his head, the light from the window glowing on his hair.

“She did? Well—”

“With a stick!”

“What sort of—”

“On purpose!”

“Well, I don’t think—”

“AND . . .”—a pause before the damning denouement—“SHE DIDN’T SAY SHE WAS SORRY!”

The builder and his helot had given up looking for woodworm, in favor of following this gripping narrative, and now both of them looked at Brianna, doubtless in expectation of some Solomonic decree.

Brianna closed her eyes momentarily.

“MANDY,” she bellowed. “Say you’re sorry!”

“Non’t!” came a high-pitched refusal from above.

“Aye, ye will!” came Jem’s voice, followed by scuffling. Brianna headed for the stair, blood in her eye. Just as she set her foot on the tread, Jem uttered a piercing squeal.

“She BIT me!”

“Jeremiah MacKenzie, don’t you dare bite her back!” she shouted. “Both of you stop it this instant!”

Jem thrust a disheveled head through the banister, hair sticking up on end. He was wearing bright blue eye shadow, and someone had applied pink lipstick in a crude mouth-shape from one ear to the other.

“She’s a feisty wee baggage,” he ferociously informed the fascinated spectators below. “My grandda said so.”

Brianna wasn’t sure whether to laugh, cry, or utter a loud shriek, but with a hasty wave at the builder and his assistant, she ran up the stairs to sort them out.

The sorting took rather more time than expected, since she discovered in the process that Fiona’s three little girls, so notably quiet during the latest squabble, had been quiet because—having decorated Jem, Mandy, and themselves—they were busily engaged in painting faces on the bathroom walls with Brianna’s new makeup.

Coming back down a quarter of an hour later, she discovered the builder sitting peaceably on an upturned coal scuttle, having his tea break, while the helot wandered open-mouthed about the entry hall, a half-eaten scone in one hand.

“All those kids yours?” she asked Brianna, with a sympathetic quirk of one pierced brow.

“No, thank God. Does everything look all right down here?”

“Touch o’ damp,” the builder said cheerfully. “Only to be expected, though, old place like this. When’s it built, then, hen, d’ye know?”

“1721, thickie,” the helot said, with comfortable scorn. “Did ye not see it carved in the lintel, there, where we came in?”

“Nah, then, is it?” The builder looked interested, but not enough to get up and look for himself. “Cost a fortune to put back in shape, won’t it?” He nodded at the wall, where one of the oak panels showed the damage of boots and sabers, crisscrossed with slashes whose rawness had darkened with the years, but still showed clear.

“No, we won’t fix that,” Brianna said, a lump in her throat. “That was done right after the ’45. It’ll stay that way.” We keep it so, her uncle had told her, to remember always what the English are.

“Oh, historic-like. Right you are, then,” the builder said, nodding wisely. “Americans don’t often mind about the history so much, do they? Wanting all mod cons, electric cookers, effing automatic thisses and thats. Central heating!”

“I’ll settle for toilets that flush,” she assured him. “That, and hot water. Speaking of which, will you have a look at the boiler? It’s in a shed in the yard, and it’s fifty years old if it’s a day. And we’ll want to replace the geyser in the upstairs bath, too.”

“Oh, aye.” The builder brushed crumbs from his shirt, corked his Thermos flask, and rose ponderously to his feet. “Come on, Angie, let’s have a look, then.”

Brianna hovered suspiciously at the foot of the stair, listening for any sounds of riot before following, but all was well above; she could hear the crash of building blocks, evidently being thrown at the walls, but no yells of outrage. She turned to follow, just in time to see the builder, who had paused to look up at the lintel.

“The ’45, eh? Ever think what it’d be like?” he was saying. “If Bonnie Prince Charlie had won, I mean.”

“Oh, in your dreams, Stan! He’d never a chance, bloody Eyetalian ponce.”

“Naw, naw, he’d have done it, sure, was it no for the effing Campbells. Traitors, aye? To a man. And a woman, too, I expect,” he added, laughing—from which Brianna gathered that the helot’s last name was very likely Campbell.

They passed on toward the shed, their argument growing more heated, but she stopped, not wanting to go after them until she had herself under control.

Oh, God, she prayed passionately, oh, God—that they might be safe! Please, please, let them be safe. It didn’t matter how ridiculous it might be to pray for the safety of people who had been—who had to be—dead for more than two hundred years. It was the only thing she could do, and did it several times each day, whenever she thought of them. Much more often, now that they had come to Lallybroch.

She blinked back tears, and saw Roger’s Mini Cooper come down the winding drive. The backseat was piled high with boxes; he was finally clearing out the last bits of rubbish from the Reverend’s garage, salvaging those items that might have value to someone—a dismayingly high proportion of the contents.

“Just in time,” she said, a little shaky, as he came up the walk smiling, a large box under his arm. She still found him startling with short hair. “Ten minutes more, and I’d kill somebody, for sure. Probably Fiona, for starters.”

“Oh, aye?” He bent and kissed her with particular enthusiasm, indicating that he probably hadn’t heard what she’d said. “I’ve got something.”

“So I see. What—”

“Damned if I know.”

The box he laid on the ancient dining table was wood, as well; a sizable casket made of maple, darkened by years, soot, and handling, but with the workmanship still apparent to her practiced eye. It was beautifully made, the joints perfectly dovetailed, with a sliding top—but the top didn’t slide, having been at some point sealed with a thick bead of what looked like melted beeswax, gone black with age.

The most striking thing about it, though, was the top. Burned into the wood was a name: Jeremiah Alexander Ian Fraser MacKenzie.

She felt a clenching in her lower belly at the sight of it, and glanced up at Roger, who was tense with some suppressed feeling; she could feel it vibrating through him.

“What?” she whispered. “Who is that?”

Roger shook his head, and pulled a filthy envelope from his pocket.

“This was with it, taped to the side. It’s the Reverend’s handwriting, one of the little notes he’d sometimes put with something to explain its significance, just in case. But I can’t say this is an explanation, exactly.”

The note was brief, stating merely that the box had come from a defunct banking house in Edinburgh. Instructions had been stored with the box, stating that it was not to be opened, save by the person whose name was inscribed thereon. The original instructions had perished, but were passed on verbally by the person from whom he obtained the box.

“And who was that?” she asked.

“No idea. Do you have a knife?”

“Do I have a knife,” she muttered, digging in the pocket of her jeans. “Do I ever not have a knife?”

“That was a rhetorical question,” he said, kissing her hand and taking the bright red Swiss Army knife she offered him.

The beeswax cracked and split away easily; the lid of the box, though, was unwilling to yield after so many years. It took both of them—one clutching the box, the other pushing and pulling on the lid—but finally, it came free with a small squealing noise.

The ghost of a scent floated out; something indistinguishable, but plantlike in origin.

“Mama,” she said involuntarily. Roger glanced at her, startled, but she gestured at him urgently to go on. He reached carefully into the box and removed its contents: a stack of letters, folded and sealed with wax, two books—and a small snake made of cherrywood, heavily polished by long handling.

She made a small, inarticulate sound and seized the top letter, pressing it so hard against her chest that the paper crackled and the wax seal split and fell away. The thick, soft paper, whose fibers showed the faint stains of what had once been flowers.

Tears were falling down her face, and Roger was saying something, but she didn’t attend the words, and the children were making an uproar upstairs, the builders were still arguing outside, and the only thing in the world she could see were the faded words on the page, written in a sprawling, difficult hand.

December 31, 1776

My dear daughter,

As you will see if ever you receive this, we are alive. . . .

EPILOGUE II

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

WHAT’S THIS, THEN?” Amos Crupp squinted at the page laid out in the bed of the press, reading it backward with the ease of long experience.

“It is with grief that the news is received of the deaths by fire . . . Where’d that come from?”

“Note from a subscriber,” said Sampson, his new printer’s devil, shrugging as he inked the plate. “Good for a bit of filler, there, I thought; General Washington’s address to the troops run short of the page.”

“Hmph. I s’pose. Very old news, though,” Crupp said, glancing at the date. “January?”

“Well, no,” the devil admitted, heaving down on the lever that lowered the page onto the plate of inked type. The press sprang up again, the letters wet and black on the paper, and he picked the sheet off with nimble fingertips, hanging it up to dry. “’Twas December, by the notice. But I’d set the page in Baskerville twelve-point, and the slugs for November and December are missing in that font. Not room to do it in separate letters, and not worth the labor to reset the whole page.”

“To be sure,” said Amos, losing interest in the matter, as he perused the last paragraphs of Washington’s speech. “Scarcely signifies, anyway. After all, they’re all dead, aren’t they?”

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