A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 2

   

As we left the desolate clearing, though, I could not free my mind of one vivid image. Not the burned cabin, the pitiful bodies, the pathetic dead garden. The image that haunted me was one I had seen some years before—a gravestone in the ruins of Beauly Priory, high in the Scottish Highlands.

It was the tomb of a noble lady, her name surmounted by the carving of a grinning skull—very like the one beneath the Dutchwoman’s apron. Beneath the skull was her motto:

Hodie mihi cras tibi—sic transit gloria mundi.

My turn today—yours tomorrow. Thus passes the glory of the world.

3

KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE

WE RETURNED TO FRASER’S RIDGE just before sunset the next day, to discover a visitor waiting. Major Donald MacDonald, late of His Majesty’s army, and even more lately of Governor Tryon’s personal light-horse guard, was sitting on the front stoop, my cat in his lap and a jug of beer beside him.

“Mrs. Fraser! Your servant, mum,” he called genially, seeing me approach. He tried to stand up, but then let out a gasp as Adso, objecting to the loss of his cozy nest, dug his claws into the Major’s thighs.

“Do sit, Major,” I said, waving him hastily back. He subsided with a grimace, but nobly refrained from flinging Adso into the bushes. I came up onto the stoop beside him and sat down, sighing with relief.

“My husband is just seeing to the horses; he’ll be down directly. I see that someone’s made you welcome?” I nodded at the beer, which he promptly offered to me with a courtly gesture, wiping the neck of the jug on his sleeve.

“Oh, yes, mum,” he assured me. “Mrs. Bug has been most assiduous of my welfare.”

Not to seem uncordial, I accepted the beer, which in all truth went down very well. Jamie had been anxious to get back, and we’d been in the saddle since dawn, with only a brief break for refreshment at midday.

“It is a most excellent brew,” the Major said, smiling as I exhaled after swallowing, my eyes half-closing. “Your own making, perhaps?”

I shook my head and took another swallow, before handing the jug back to him. “No, it’s Lizzie’s. Lizzie Wemyss.”

“Oh, your bondmaid; yes, of course. Will you give her my compliments?”

“Isn’t she here?” I glanced toward the open door behind him, rather surprised. At this time of day, I would have expected Lizzie to be in the kitchen, making supper, but she would surely have heard our arrival and come out. There was no smell of cooking, now that I noticed. She wouldn’t have known when to expect us, of course, but . . .

“Mm, no. She is . . .” The Major knitted his brows in the effort of recall, and I wondered how full the jug had been before he got at it; there were no more than a couple of inches left now. “Ah, yes. She went to the McGillivrays’ with her father, Mrs. Bug said. To visit her affianced, I believe?”

“Yes, she’s engaged to Manfred McGillivray. But Mrs. Bug—”

“—is in the springhoose,” he said, with a nod up the hill toward the small shed. “A matter of cheese, I believe she said. An omelette was most graciously proposed for my supper.”

“Ah . . .” I relaxed a bit more, the dust of the ride settling with the beer. It was wonderful to come home, though my sense of peace was uneasy, tainted by the memory of the burned cabin.

I supposed that Mrs. Bug would have told him our errand, but he made no reference to it—nor to whatever had brought him up to the Ridge. Naturally not; all business would wait appropriately for Jamie. Being female, I would get impeccable courtesy and small bits of social gossip in the meantime.

I could do social gossip, but needed to be prepared for it; I hadn’t a natural knack.

“Ah . . . Your relations with my cat seem somewhat improved,” I hazarded. I glanced involuntarily at his head, but his wig had been expertly mended.

“It is an accepted principle of politics, I believe,” he said, ruffling his fingers through the thick silver fur on Adso’s belly. “Keep your friends close—but your enemies closer.”

“Very sound,” I said, smiling. “Er . . . I hope you haven’t been waiting long?”

He shrugged, intimating that any wait was irrelevant—which it generally was. The mountains had their own time, and a wise man did not try to hurry them. MacDonald was a seasoned soldier, and well-traveled—but he had been born in Pitlochry, close enough to the Highland peaks to know their ways.

“I came this morning,” he said. “From New Bern.”

Small warning bells went off in the back of my mind. It would have taken him a good ten days to travel from New Bern, if he had come directly—and the state of his creased and mud-stained uniform suggested that he had.

New Bern was where the new royal governor of the colony, Josiah Martin, had taken up his residence. And for MacDonald to have said, “From New Bern,” rather than mentioning some later stop on his journey, made it reasonably plain to me that whatever business had impelled this visit, it had originated in New Bern. I was wary of governors.

I glanced toward the path that led to the paddock, but Jamie wasn’t visible yet. Mrs. Bug was, emerging from the springhouse; I waved to her and she gestured enthusiastically in welcome, though hampered by a pail of milk in one hand, a bucket of eggs in the other, a crock of butter under one arm, and a large chunk of cheese tucked neatly underneath her chin. She negotiated the steep descent with success, and disappeared round the back of the house, toward the kitchen.

“Omelettes all round, it looks like,” I remarked, turning back to the Major. “Did you happen to come through Cross Creek, by chance?”

“I did indeed, mum. Your husband’s aunt sends you her kind regards—and a quantity of books and newspapers, which I have brought with me.”

I was wary of newspapers these days, too—though such events as they reported had undoubtedly taken place several weeks—or months—previously. I made appreciative noises, though, wishing Jamie would hurry up, so I could excuse myself. My hair smelled of burning and my hands still remembered the touch of cold flesh; I wanted a wash, badly.

“I beg your pardon?” I had missed something MacDonald was saying. He bent politely closer to repeat it, then jerked suddenly, eyes bulging.

“Frigging cat!”

Adso, who had been doing a splendid imitation of a limp dishcloth, had sprung bolt upright in the Major’s lap, eyes glowing and tail like a bottlebrush, hissing like a teakettle as he flexed his claws hard into the Major’s legs. I hadn’t time to react before he had leapt over MacDonald’s shoulder and swarmed through the open surgery window behind him, ripping the Major’s ruffle and knocking his wig askew in the process.

MacDonald was cursing freely, but I hadn’t attention to spare for him. Rollo was coming up the path toward the house, wolflike and sinister in the gloaming, but acting so oddly that I was standing before conscious thought could bring me to my feet.

The dog would run a few steps toward the house, circle once or twice as though unable to decide what to do next, then run back into the wood, turn, and run again toward the house, all the while whining with agitation, tail low and wavering.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said. “Bloody Timmy’s in the well!” I flew down the steps and ran for the path, barely registering the Major’s startled oath behind me.

I found Ian a few hundred yards down the path, conscious, but groggy. He was sitting on the ground, eyes closed and both hands holding his head, as though to keep the bones of his skull from coming apart. He opened his eyes as I dropped to my knees beside him, and gave me an unfocused smile.

“Auntie,” he said hoarsely. He seemed to want to say something else, but couldn’t quite decide what; his mouth opened, but then simply hung that way, tongue moving thoughtfully to and fro.

“Look at me, Ian,” I said, as calmly as possible. He did—that was good. It was too dark to see whether his pupils were unnaturally dilated, but even in the evening shadow of the pines that edged the trail, I could see the pallor of his face, and the dark trail of bloodstains down his shirt.

Hurried steps were coming after me down the trail; Jamie, followed closely by MacDonald.

“How is it, lad?”

Jamie gripped him by one arm, and Ian swayed very gently toward him, then dropped his hands, closed his eyes, and relaxed into Jamie’s arms with a sigh.

“Is he bad?” Jamie spoke anxiously over Ian’s shoulder, holding him up as I frisked him for damage. The back of his shirt was saturated with dried blood—but it was dried. The tail of his hair was stiff with it, too, and I found the head wound quickly.

“I don’t think so. Something’s hit him hard on the head and taken out a chunk of his scalp, but—”

“A tomahawk, do you think?”

MacDonald leaned over us, intent.

“No,” said Ian drowsily, his face muffled in Jamie’s shirt. “A ball.”

“Go away, dog,” Jamie said briefly to Rollo, who had stuck his nose in Ian’s ear, eliciting a stifled squawk from the patient and an involuntary lifting of his shoulders.

“I’ll have a look in the light, but it may not be too bad,” I said, observing this. “He walked some way, after all. Let’s get him up to the house.”

The men made shift to get him up the trail, Ian’s arms over their shoulders, and within minutes, had him laid facedown on the table in my surgery. Here, he told us the story of his adventures, in a disjoint fashion punctuated by small yelps as I cleaned the injury, clipped bits of clotted hair away, and put five or six stitches into his scalp.

“I thought I was dead,” Ian said, and sucked air through his teeth as I drew the coarse thread through the edges of the ragged wound. “Christ, Auntie Claire! I woke in the morning, though, and I wasna dead after all—though I thought my head was split open, and my brains spilling down my neck.”

“Very nearly was,” I murmured, concentrating on my work. “I don’t think it was a bullet, though.”

That got everyone’s attention.

“I’m not shot?” Ian sounded mildly indignant. One big hand lifted, straying toward the back of his head, and I slapped it lightly away.

“Keep still. No, you aren’t shot, no credit to you. There was a deal of dirt in the wound, and shreds of wood and tree bark. If I had to guess, one of the shots knocked a dead branch loose from a tree, and it hit you in the head when it fell.”

“You’re quite sure as it wasn’t a tomahawk, are ye?” The Major seemed disappointed, too.

I tied the final knot and clipped the thread, shaking my head.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a tomahawk wound, but I don’t think so. See how jagged the edges are? And the scalp’s torn badly, but I don’t believe the bone is fractured.”

“It was pitch-dark, the lad said,” Jamie put in logically. “No sensible person would fling a tomahawk into a dark wood at something he couldna see.” He was holding the spirit lamp for me to work by; he moved it closer, so we could see not only the ragged line of stitches, but the spreading bruise around it, revealed by the hair I had clipped off.

“Aye, see?” Jamie’s finger spread the remaining bristles gently apart, tracing several deep scratches that scored the bruised area. “Your auntie’s right, Ian; ye’ve been attacked by a tree.”

Ian opened one eye a slit.

“Has anyone ever told ye what a comical fellow ye are, Uncle Jamie?”

“No.”

Ian closed the eye.

“That’s as well, because ye’re not.”

Jamie smiled, and squeezed Ian’s shoulder.

“Feeling a bit better then, are ye?”

“No.”

“Aye, well, the thing is,” Major MacDonald interrupted, “that the lad did meet with some sort of banditti, no? Had ye reason to think they might be Indians?”

“No,” said Ian again, but this time he opened the eye all the way. It was bloodshot. “They weren’t.”

MacDonald didn’t appear pleased with this answer.

“How could ye be sure, lad?” he asked, rather sharply. “If it was dark, as ye say.”

I saw Jamie glance quizzically at the Major, but he didn’t interrupt. Ian moaned a little, then heaved a sigh and answered.

“I smelt them,” he said, adding almost immediately, “I think I’m going to puke.”

He raised himself on one elbow and promptly did so. This effectively put an end to any further questions, and Jamie took Major MacDonald off to the kitchen, leaving me to clean Ian up and settle him as comfortably as I could.

“Can you open both eyes?” I asked, having got him tidied and resting on his side, with a pillow under his head.

He did, blinking a little at the light. The small blue flame of the spirit lamp was reflected twice over in the darkness of his eyes, but the pupils shrank at once—and together.

“That’s good,” I said, and put down the lamp on the table. “Leave it, dog,” I said to Rollo, who was nosing at the strange smell of the lamp—it was burning a mix of low-grade brandy and turpentine. “Take hold of my fingers, Ian.”

I held out my index fingers and he slowly wrapped a large, bony hand round each of them. I put him through the drill for neurological damage, having him squeeze, pull, push, and then concluded by listening to his heart, which was thumping along reassuringly.

“Slight concussion,” I announced, straightening up and smiling at him.

“Oh, aye?” he asked, squinting up at me.

“It means your head aches and you feel sick. You’ll feel better in a few days.”

“I could ha’ told ye that,” he muttered, settling back.

“So you could,” I agreed. “But ‘concussion’ sounds so much more important than ‘cracked heid,’ doesn’t it?”

He didn’t laugh, but smiled faintly in response. “Will ye feed Rollo, Auntie? He wouldna leave me on the way; he’ll be hungry.”

Rollo pricked his ears at the sound of his name, and shoved his muzzle into Ian’s groping hand, whining softly.

“He’s fine,” I said to the dog. “Don’t worry. And yes,” I added to Ian, “I’ll bring something. Do you think you could manage a bit of bread and milk, yourself?”

“No,” he said definitely. “A dram o’ whisky, maybe?”

“No,” I said, just as definitely, and blew out the spirit lamp.

“Auntie,” he said, as I turned to the door.

“Yes?” I’d left a single candlestick to light him, and he looked very young and pale in the wavering yellow glow.

“Why d’ye suppose Major MacDonald wants it to be Indians I met in the wood?”

“I don’t know. But I imagine Jamie does. Or will, by now.”

4

SERPENT IN EDEN

BRIANNA PUSHED OPEN the door to her cabin, listening warily for the scamper of rodent feet or the dry whisper of scales across the floor. She’d once walked in in the dark and stepped within inches of a small rattlesnake; while the snake had been nearly as startled as she was, and slithered madly away between the hearthstones, she’d learned her lesson.

There was no scuttle of fleeing mice or voles this time, but something larger had been and gone, pushing its way through the oiled skin tacked over the window. The sun was just setting, and there was enough daylight left to show her the woven-grass basket in which she kept roasted peanuts, knocked from its shelf onto the floor and the contents cracked and eaten, a litter of shells scattered over the floor.

A loud rustling noise froze her momentarily, listening. It came again, followed by a loud clang as something fell to the ground, on the other side of the back wall.

“You little bastard!” she said. “You’re in my pantry!”

Fired with righteous indignation, she seized the broom and charged into the lean-to with a banshee yell. An enormous raccoon, tranquilly munching a smoked trout, dropped its prey at sight of her, dashed between her legs, and made off like a fat banker in flight from creditors, making loud birring noises of alarm.

Nerves pulsing with adrenaline, she put aside the broom and bent to salvage what she could of the mess, cursing under her breath. Raccoons were less destructive than squirrels, who would chew and shred with hapless abandon—but they had bigger appetites.

God knew how long he’d been in here, she thought. Long enough to lick all the butter out of its mold, pull down a cluster of smoked fish from the rafters—and how something so fat had managed the acrobatic feat required for that . . . Luckily, the honeycomb had been stored in three separate jars, and only one had been despoiled. But the root vegetables had been dumped on the floor, a fresh cheese mostly devoured, and the precious jug of maple syrup had been overturned, draining into a sticky puddle in the dirt. The sight of this loss enraged her afresh, and she squeezed the potato she had just picked up so hard that her nails sank through its skin.

“Bloody, bloody, beastly, horrible, bloody beast!”

“Who?” said a voice behind her. Startled, she whirled and fired the potato at the intruder, who proved to be Roger. It struck him squarely in the forehead and he staggered, clutching the door frame.

“Ow! Christ! Ow! What the hell’s going on in here?”

“Raccoon,” she said shortly, and stepped back, letting the waning light from the door illuminate the damage.

“He got the maple syrup? Bugger! Did you get the bastard?” Hand pressed to his forehead, Roger ducked inside the lean-to pantry, glancing about for furry bodies.

Seeing that her husband shared both her priorities and her sense of outrage soothed her somewhat.

“No,” she said. “He ran. Are you bleeding? And where’s Jem?”

“I don’t think so,” he said, taking the hand gingerly from his forehead and glancing at it. “Ow. You’ve a wicked arm, girl. Jem’s at the McGillivrays’. Lizzie and Mr. Wemyss took him along to celebrate Senga’s engagement.”

“Really? Who did she pick?” Both outrage and remorse were immediately subsumed in interest. Ute McGillivray, with German thoroughness, had carefully selected partners for her son and three daughters according to her own criteria—land, money, and respectability ranking highest, with age, personal appearance, and charm coming well down the list. Not surprisingly, her children had other ideas—though such was the force of Frau Ute’s personality that both Inga and Hilda had married men that she approved of.

Senga, though, was her mother’s daughter—meaning that she possessed similarly strong opinions and a similar lack of inhibition in expressing them. For months, she had been hovering between two suitors: Heinrich Strasse, a dashing but poor young man—and a Lutheran!—from Bethania, and Ronnie Sinclair, the cooper. A well-off man, by the standards of the Ridge, and to Ute, the fact that Ronnie was thirty years Senga’s senior was no bar.

The business of Senga McGillivray’s marriage had been a topic of intense speculation on the Ridge for the last several months, and Brianna was aware of several substantial wagers riding on the outcome.

“So who’s the lucky man?” she repeated.

“Mrs. Bug doesn’t know, and it’s driving her mad,” Roger replied, breaking into a grin. “Manfred McGillivray came to fetch them yesterday morning, but Mrs. Bug hadn’t come down to the Big House yet, so Lizzie left a note pinned to the back door to say where they’d gone—but she didn’t think to say who the fortunate bridegroom is.”

Brianna glanced at the setting sun; the orb itself had sunk out of sight, though the blazing light through the chestnut trees still lit the dooryard, making the spring grass look deep and soft as emerald velvet.

“I suppose we’ll have to wait ’til tomorrow to find out,” she said, with some regret. The McGillivrays’ place was a good five miles; it would be full dark long before they reached it, and even past the thaw, one didn’t wander the mountains at night without a good reason—or at least a better reason than mere curiosity.

“Aye. D’ye want to go up to the Big House for supper? Major MacDonald’s come.”

“Oh, him.” She considered for a moment. She would like to hear any news the Major had brought—and there was something to be said for having Mrs. Bug make supper. On the other hand, she was really in no mood to be sociable, after a grim three days, a long ride, and the desecration of her pantry.

She became aware that Roger was carefully not contributing an opinion. One arm leaning on the shelf where the dwindling stock of winter apples was spread, he idly caressed one of the fruits, a forefinger slowly stroking the round yellow cheek of it. Faint, familiar vibrations were coming off him, suggesting silently that there might be advantages to an evening at home, sans parents, acquaintances—or baby.

She smiled at Roger.

“How’s your poor head?”

He glanced at her briefly, the waning rays of the sun gilding the bridge of his nose and striking a flash of green from one eye. He cleared his throat.

“I suppose ye might kiss it,” he suggested diffidently. “If ye liked.”

She obligingly rose on her tiptoes and did so, gently, brushing back the thick black hair from his brow. There was a noticeable lump, though it hadn’t begun to bruise yet.

“Is that better?”

“Not yet. Better try again. Maybe a bit lower?”

His hands settled on the swell of her hips, drawing her in. She was nearly as tall as he was; she’d noticed before what an advantage of fit this was, but the impression struck her forcibly anew. She wriggled slightly, enjoying it, and Roger drew a deep, rasping breath.

“Not quite that low,” he said. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Picky, picky,” she said tolerantly, and kissed him on the mouth. His lips were warm, but the scent of bitter ash and damp earth clung to him—as it did to her—and she shivered a little, drawing back.

He kept a hand lightly on her back, but leaned past her, running a finger along the edge of the shelf where the jug of maple syrup had been overturned. He ran the finger lightly along her lower lip, then his own, and bent again to kiss her, sweetness rising up between them.

“I CAN’T REMEMBER how long it’s been since I’ve seen ye nak*d.”

She closed one eye and looked at him skeptically.

“About three days. I guess it wasn’t all that memorable.” It had been a great relief to shed the clothes she’d been wearing for the last three days and nights. Even nak*d and hastily washed, though, she still smelled dust in her hair and felt the grime of the journey between her toes.

“Oh, well, aye. That’s not what I mean, though—I mean, it’s been a long while since we’ve made love in the daylight.” He lay on his side, facing her, and smiled as he passed a light hand over the deep curve of her waist and the swell of buttock. “Ye’ve no idea how lovely ye look, stark nak*d, wi’ the sun behind you. All gold, like ye were dipped in it.”

He closed one eye, as though the sight dazzled him. She moved, and the sun shone in his face, making the open eye glow like an emerald in the split second before he blinked.

“Mmm.” She put out a lazy hand and drew his head in close to kiss him.

She did know what he meant. It felt strange—almost wicked, in a pleasant sort of way. Most often, they made love at night, after Jem was asleep, whispering to each other in the hearth-lit shadows, finding each other among the rustling, secret layers of quilts and nightclothes. And while Jem normally slept as though he’d been poleaxed, they were always half-conscious of the small, heavy-breathing mound beneath the quilt of his trundle bed nearby.

She was oddly just as conscious of Jem now, in his absence. It felt strange to be apart from him; not constantly aware of where he was, not feeling his body as a small, very mobile extension of her own. The freedom was exhilarating, but left her feeling uneasy, as though she had misplaced something valuable.

They’d left the door open, the better to enjoy the flood of light and air on their skins. The sun was nearly down now, though, and while the air still glowed like honey, there was a shadow of chill in it.

A sudden gust of wind rattled the hide tacked over the window and blew across the room, slamming the door and leaving them abruptly in the dark.

Brianna gasped. Roger grunted in surprise and swung off the bed, going to open the door. He flung it wide, and she gulped in the freshet of air and sunshine, only then aware that she had held her breath when the door closed, feeling momentarily entombed.

Roger seemed to feel the same. He stood in the doorway, bracing himself against the frame, letting the wind stir the dark, curling hairs of his body. His hair was still bound in a tail; he hadn’t bothered undoing it, and she had a sudden desire to come behind him, untie the leather thong and run her fingers through the soft, glossy black of it, the legacy of some ancient Spaniard, shipwrecked among the Celts.

She was up and doing it before she had consciously decided to, combing tiny yellow catkins and twigs from his locks with her fingers. He shivered, from her touch or that of the wind, but his body was warm.

“You have a farmer’s tan,” she said, lifting the hair off his neck and kissing him on the bone at the base of his nape.

“Well, so. Am I not a farmer, then?” His skin twitched under her lips, like a horse’s hide. His face, neck, and forearms had paled over the winter, but were still darker than the flesh of back and shoulders—and a faint line still lingered round his waist, demarcating the soft buckskin color of his torso from the startling paleness of his backside.

She cupped his buttocks, enjoying the high, round solidity of them, and he breathed deeply, leaning back a little toward her, so her br**sts pressed against his back and her chin rested on his shoulder, looking out.

It was still daylight, but barely. The last long shafts of the sinking sun burst through the chestnut trees, so the tender spring green of their leaves burned with cool fire, brilliant above the lengthening shadows. It was near evening, but it was spring; the birds were still at it, chattering and courting. A mockingbird sang from the forest nearby, in a medley of trills, liquid runs, and odd yowls, which she thought it must have learned from her mother’s cat.

The air was growing nippy, and gooseflesh stippled her arms and thighs—but Roger’s body against her own was very warm. She wrapped her arms around his waist, the fingers of one hand playing idly with the thicket of his short and curlies.

“What are you looking at?” she asked softly, for his eyes were fixed on the far side of the dooryard, where the trail emerged from the forest. The trailhead was dim, shadowed by a growth of dark pines—but empty.

“I’m watching out for a snake bearing apples,” he said, and laughed, then cleared his throat. “Are ye hungry, Eve?” His hand came down to twine with hers.

“Getting there. Are you?” He must be starving; they had had only a hasty snack at midday.

“Aye, I am, but—” He broke off, hesitating, and his fingers tightened in hers. “Ye’ll think I’m mad, but—would ye mind if I went to fetch wee Jem tonight, instead of waiting for the morning? It’s only, I’d feel a bit better to have him back.”

She squeezed his hand in return, her heart lifting.

“We’ll both go. It’s a great idea.”

“Maybe so, but it’s five miles to McGillivrays’, too. It’ll be long dark before we’re there.” He was smiling, though, and his body brushed against her br**sts as he turned to face her.

Something moved by her face, and she drew back sharply. A tiny caterpillar, green as the leaves on which it fed and vibrant against Roger’s dark hair, reared itself into an S-shape, looking vainly for sanctuary.

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