A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 21

   

“Non,” he said airily. “They are at home; that’s where women belong.”

“Oh, really? And who told you that?”

“I forget.” Thoroughly recovered, he hopped ahead of me, singing a song, the refrain of which seemed to be “Na tuit, na tuit, na tuit, Germain!”

Marsali was indeed at the whisky clearing; her cap, cloak, and gown hung from a branch of the yellow-leaved persimmon, and a clay firepot full of coals sat nearby, smoking in readiness.

The malting floor had been enclosed now by proper walls, making a shed in which the damp grain could be heaped, first to germinate and then to be gently toasted by a low-burning fire under the floor. The ash and charcoal had been scraped out and oak wood for a new fire laid in the space beneath the stilted floor, but it wasn’t yet lit. Even without a fire, the shed was warm; I felt it from several feet away. As the grain germinated, it gave off such heat that the shed fairly glowed with it.

A rhythmic shush and scrape came from within; Marsali was turning the grain with a wooden shovel, making sure it was evenly spread before lighting the malting fire. The door of the shed was open, but there were of course no windows; from a distance, I could see only a dim shadow moving within.

The shushing of the grain had masked our footsteps; Marsali looked up, startled, when my body blocked the light from the doorway.

“Mother Claire!”

“Hallo,” I said cheerfully. “Germain said you were here. I thought I’d just—”

“Maman! Look, look, see what I have!” Germain pushed past me with single-minded eagerness, thrusting out his prize. Marsali smiled at him, and pushed a damp strand of fair hair back behind her ear.

“Oh, aye? Well, that’s grand, no? Let’s take it out to the light, shall we, so I can have a proper look.”

She stepped out of the shed, sighing in pleasure at the touch of the cool air. She was stripped to her shift, the muslin so wet with sweat that I could see not only the dark rounds of her areolae, but even the tiny bulge of her popped-out navel, where the cloth clung to the massive curves of her belly.

Marsali sat down with another huge sigh of relief, stretching her legs out, bare toes pointed. Her feet were somewhat swollen, and blue veins showed, distended, beneath the transparent skin of her legs.

“Ah, it’s good to sit! So then, a chuisle, show me what ye’ve got.”

I took the opportunity to circle round behind her, as Germain displayed his prize, and covertly check for bruises or other sinister signs.

She was thin—but Marsali simply was thin, bar the bulge of her pregnancy, and always had been. Her arms were slender, but hard with muscle, as were her legs. There were smudges of tiredness beneath her eyes—but she had three small children, after all, besides the discomforts of pregnancy to keep her awake. Her face was rosy and damp, thoroughly healthy-looking.

There were a couple of small bruises on her lower legs, but I dismissed those; pregnant women did bruise easily, and with all the obstructions presented by living in a log cabin and traversing wild mountains, there were few people on the Ridge—male or female—not sporting the odd contusion.

Or was I only seeking excuses, not wanting to admit the possibility of what Brianna had suggested?

“One for me,” Germain was explaining, touching the eggs, “and one for Joan, and one for Félicité, and one for Monsieur L’Oeuf.” He pointed at the melonlike swell of her stomach.

“Ah, now, what a sweet lad,” Marsali said, pulling him close and kissing his smudged forehead. “Ye’re my wee nestling, to be sure.”

Germain’s beam of pleasure faded into a look of speculation as he came in contact with his mother’s protruding belly. He patted it cautiously.

“When the egg hatches inside, what do you do with the shell?” he inquired. “Can I have it?”

Marsali went pink with suppressed laughter.

“People dinna come in shells,” she said. “Thank God.”

“You are sure, Maman?” He eyed her belly dubiously, then poked it gently. “It feels like an egg.”

“Well, so it does, but it’s not. That’s only what Papa and I call a wee one before it’s born. You were ‘Monsieur L’Oeuf’ once, aye?”

“I was?” Germain looked thunderstruck at this revelation.

“Ye were. So were your sisters.”

Germain frowned, shaggy blond fringe almost touching his nose.

“No, they weren’t. They are Mademoiselles L’Oeufs.”

“Oui, certainement,” Marsali said, laughing at him. “And perhaps this one is, too—but Monsieur is easier to say. Here, look.” She leaned back a little and pushed a hand firmly into the side of her mound. Then she seized Germain’s hand and put it on the spot. Even from where I stood, I could see the surge of flesh as the baby kicked vigorously in response to being poked.

Germain jerked his hand away, startled, then put it back, looking fascinated, and pushed.

“Hello!” he said loudly, putting his face close to his mother’s belly. “Comment ça va in there, Monsieur L’Oeuf?”

“He’s fine,” his mother assured him. “Or she. But babies dinna talk right at first. Ye ken that much. Félicité doesna say anything but ‘Mama’ yet.”

“Oh, aye.” Losing interest in his impending sibling, he stooped to pick up an interesting-looking stone.

Marsali lifted her head, squinting at the sun.

“Ye should go home, Germain. Mirabel will be wanting milked, and I’ve a bit to do here yet. Go and help Papa, aye?” Mirabel was a goat, and a sufficiently new addition to the household as still to be interesting, for Germain brightened at the suggestion.

“Oui, Maman. Au’voir, Grandmère!” He took aim and flipped his rock at the shed, missing it, then turned and scampered toward the path.

“Germain!” Marsali called after him. “Na tuit!”

“What does that mean?” I asked curiously. “It’s Gaelic, is it—or French?”

“It’s the Gaelic,” she said, smiling. “It means ‘Don’t fall!’” She shook her head in mock dismay. “That laddie canna stay out of trees to save his life.” Germain had left the nest with its eggs; she set it gently on the ground, and I saw then the faint yellowed ovals on the underside of her forearm—faded, but just as Brianna had described them.

“And how is Fergus?” I asked, as though it had anything to do with the conversation.

“He’s well enough,” she replied, a look of wariness closing over her features.

“Really?” I glanced deliberately at her arm, then into her eyes. She flushed, and turned her arm quickly, hiding the marks.

“Aye, he’s fine!” she said. “He’s no verra good at the milking just yet, but he’ll have the way of it soon enough. It’s awkward wi’ the one hand, to be sure, but he’s—”

I sat down on the log beside her, and took hold of her wrist, turning it over.

“Brianna told me,” I said. “Did Fergus do this?”

“Oh.” She seemed embarrassed, and pulled her wrist away, pressing the forearm against her belly to hide the marks. “Well, aye. Aye, he did.”

“Do you want me to speak to Jamie about it?”

A rich tide of color surged into her face, and she sat up in alarm.

“Christ, no! Da would break Fergus’s neck! And it wasna his fault, really.”

“Certainly it was his fault,” I said firmly. I had seen all too many beaten women in Boston emergency rooms, all of whom claimed that it wasn’t really their husband’s or boyfriend’s fault. Granted, the women often did have something to do with it, but still—

“But it wasn’t!” Marsali insisted. The color had not gone from her face; if anything, it intensified. “I—he—I mean, he grabbed my arm, aye, but ’twas only because I . . . er . . . well, I was tryin’ to brain him wi’ a stick of wood at the time.” She glanced away, blushing fiercely.

“Oh.” I rubbed my nose, a little taken aback. “I see. And why were you trying to do that? Was he . . . attacking you?”

She sighed, shoulders slumping a little.

“Oh. No. Weel, it was because Joanie spilled the milk, and he shouted at her, and she cried, and . . .” She shrugged a little, looking uncomfortable. “I just had a wee de’il sittin’ on my shoulder, I suppose.”

“It’s not like Fergus to shout at the children, is it?”

“Oh, no, it’s not!” she said quickly. “He hardly ever . . . well, he didna used to, but with so many . . . well, I couldna blame him, this time. It took him a terrible time to milk the goat, and then to have it all spilt and wasted—I would ha’ shouted, too, I expect.”

Her eyes were fixed on the ground, avoiding mine, and she was fingering the seam of her shift, running a thumb over and over the stitching.

“Small children can certainly be trying,” I agreed, with vivid memories of an incident involving a two-year-old Brianna, a phone call that had distracted me, a large bowl of spaghetti with meatballs, and Frank’s open briefcase. Frank normally exhibited a saintly degree of patience with Bree—if somewhat less with me—but on that particular occasion his bellows of outrage had rattled the windows.

And now that I recalled the occasion, I actually had thrown a meatball at him in a fury verging on hysteria. So had Bree, though she had done it out of glee, rather than vindictiveness. Had I been standing by the stove at the time, it might easily have been the pot I threw. I rubbed a finger under my nose, not sure whether to regret the memory or to laugh at it. I never did get the stains out of the rug.

It was a shame that I couldn’t share the memory with Marsali, as she was in ignorance not only of spaghetti and briefcases, but also of Frank. She was still looking down, scuffing at the dead oak leaves with a pointed toe.

“’Twas all my fault, really,” she said, and bit her lip.

“No, it wasn’t.” I squeezed her arm in reassurance. “Things like that are no one’s fault; accidents happen, people get upset . . . but it all comes right in the end.” So it did, I thought—though often not in any expected way.

She nodded, but the shadow still lay on her face, her lower lip tucked in.

“Aye, it’s only . . .” she began, then trailed off.

I sat patiently, careful not to push her. She wanted—needed—to talk. And I needed to hear it, before deciding what—or if—to tell Jamie. There was something going on between her and Fergus, that was sure.

“I . . . was just thinking of it now, whilst I was shoveling. I wouldna have done it, I don’t think, only it minded me so much . . . it was only I felt as though it was the same again. . . .”

“The same as what?” I asked, when it became clear that she had trailed off.

“I spilt the milk,” she said, all in a rush. “When I was a wean. I was hungry, and I reached to pull the jug, and it spilled.”

“Oh?”

“Aye. And he shouted.” Her shoulders hunched a little, as though in memory of a blow.

“Who shouted?”

“I dinna ken, for sure. It might ha’ been my father, Hugh—but it might have been Simon—Mam’s second husband. I dinna really remember—only bein’ so scairt that I wet myself, and that made him angrier.” Color flamed in her face, and her toes curled with shame.

“My mother cried, for it was all the food there was, a bit o’ bread and milk, and now the milk was gone—but he shouted that he couldna bear the noise, for Joan and I were both howling, too . . . and then he slapped my face, and Mam went for him bald-heided, and he pushed her so she fell against the hearth and smacked her face on the chimney—I could see the blood running from her nose.”

She sniffed and brushed a knuckle under her own nose, blinking, her eyes still fixed on the leaves.

“He stamped out, then, slammin’ the door, and Joanie and I rushed up to Mam, both shriekin’ our heids off, for we thought she was deid . . . but she got up onto her hands and knees and told us it was all right, it would be all right—and her swayin’ to and fro, with her cap fallen off and strings of bloody snot dripping from her face onto the floor . . . I’d forgot that. But when Fergus started shouting at poor wee Joanie . . . ’twas like he was Simon. Or maybe Hugh. Him, whoever he was.” She closed her eyes and heaved a deep sigh, leaning forward so her arms cradled the burden of her pregnancy.

I reached out and smoothed the damp strings of hair out of her face, brushing them back from her rounded brow.

“You miss your mother, don’t you?” I said softly. For the first time, I felt some sympathy for her mother, Laoghaire, as well as for Marsali.

“Oh, aye,” Marsali said simply. “Something terrible.” She sighed again, closing her eyes as she leaned her cheek against my hand. I drew her head against me, holding her, and stroked her hair in silence.

It was late afternoon, and the shadows lay long, cold in the oak wood. The heat had left her now, and she shivered briefly in the cooling air, a stipple of gooseflesh coming up on her fine-boned arms.

“Here,” I said, standing up and swinging the cloak off my shoulders. “Put this on. You don’t want to take a chill.”

“Ah, no, it’s all right.” She straightened up, shaking back her hair, and wiped her face with the back of a hand. “There’s no but a bit more to do here, and then I’ve got to be going home and making up the supper—”

“I’ll do it,” I said firmly, and tucked the cloak around her shoulders. “You rest a bit.”

The air inside the tiny shed was ripe enough to make one light-headed, all by itself, thick with the fecund musk of sprouting grain and the fine sharp dust of barley hulls. The warmth was welcoming after the chill of the air outside, but within moments, my skin was damp beneath dress and shift, and I pulled the gown off over my head and hung it on a nail by the door.

No matter; she was right, there wasn’t much to be done. The work would keep me warm, and then I would walk home with Marsali straightaway. I would make supper for the family, letting her rest—and while I was about it, I’d perhaps have a word with Fergus and discover more about what was going on.

Fergus could have been making the supper, I thought, frowning as I dug into the dim heaps of sticky grain. Not that he would think of such a thing, the little French layabout. Milking the goat was as far as he was likely to go in the direction of “women’s work.”

Then I thought of Joan and Félicité, and felt more charitable toward Fergus. Joan was three, Félicité one and a half—and anyone alone in a house with those two had my complete sympathy, no matter what kind of work they were doing.

Joan was outwardly a sweet brown wren of a child, and by herself was even-tempered and biddable—to a point. Félicité was the spitting image of her father, dark, fine-boned, and given to alternate bouts of languishing charm and intemperate passion. Together . . . Jamie referred to them casually as the hell-kits, and if they were at home, it was no wonder that Germain was out wandering in the woods—nor that Marsali found it a relief to be out here by herself, doing heavy labor.

“Heavy” was the operative term, I thought, thrusting the shovel in again and heaving. Sprouting grain was damp grain, and each shovelful weighed pounds. The turned grain was patchy, splotched dark with moisture from the underlying layers. The unturned grain was paler in color, even in the failing light. Only a few mounds of pale grain remained, in the far corner.

I attacked them with a will, realizing as I did so that I was trying very hard not to think of the story Marsali had told me. I didn’t want to like Laoghaire—and I didn’t. But I didn’t want to feel sympathy for her, either, and that was proving harder to avoid.

It hadn’t been an easy life for her, apparently. Well, nor had it been for anyone else living in the Highlands then, I thought, grunting as I flung a shovelful of grain to the side. Being a mother was not that easy anywhere—but it seemed she had made a good job of it.

I sneezed from the grain dust, paused to wipe my nose on my sleeve, then went back to shoveling.

It wasn’t as though she had tried to steal Jamie from me, after all, I told myself, striving for compassion and high-minded objectivity. Rather the reverse, in fact—or at least she might well see it that way.

The edge of the shovel gritted hard against the floor as I scraped up the last of the grain. I sent the grain flying to the side, then used the flat of the blade to shove some of the new-turned grain into the empty corner and smooth down the highest hillocks.

I knew all the reasons why he said he’d married her—and I believed him. However, the fact remained that the mention of her name conjured up assorted visions—starting with Jamie kissing her ardently in an alcove at Castle Leoch, and ending with him fumbling up her nightgown in the darkness of their marriage bed, hands warm and eager on her thighs—that made me snort like a grampus and feel the blood throb hotly in my temples.

Perhaps, I reflected, I was not really a very high-minded sort of person. Occasionally quite low-minded and grudge-bearing, in fact.

This bout of self-criticism was cut short by the sound of voices and movement outside. I stepped to the door of the shed, squinting against the dazzle of the late afternoon sun.

I couldn’t see their faces, nor even tell for sure how many there might be. Some were on horseback, some on foot, black silhouettes with the sinking sun behind them. I caught a movement in the corner of my eye; Marsali was on her feet, backing toward the shed.

“Who are ye, sirs?” she said, chin high.

“Thirsty travelers, mistress,” said one of the black forms, edging his horse ahead of the others. “In search of hospitality.”

The words were courteous enough; the voice wasn’t. I stepped out of the shed, still gripping the shovel.

“Welcome,” I said, making no effort to sound welcoming. “Stay where you are, gentlemen; we’ll be pleased to bring you a drink. Marsali, will you fetch the keg?”

There was a small keg of raw whisky kept nearby for just such occasions. My heartbeat was loud in my ears, and I was clutching the wooden handle of the shovel so tightly that I could feel the grain of the wood.

It was more than unusual to see so many strangers in the mountains at one time. Now and then, we would see a hunting party of Cherokee—but these men were not Indians.

“No bother, mistress,” said another of the men, swinging down off his horse. “I’ll help her fetch it. I do think we shall be needing more than one keg, though.”

The voice was English, and oddly familiar. Not a cultivated accent, but with a careful diction.

“We have only one keg ready,” I said, slowly moving sideways and keeping my eyes on the man who had spoken. He was short and very slender, and moved with a stiff, jerky gait, like a marionette.

He was moving toward me; so were the others. Marsali had reached the woodpile, and was fumbling behind the chunks of oak and hickory. I could hear her breath, harsh in her throat. The keg was hidden in the woodpile. There was an ax lying next to the wood, too, I knew.

“Marsali,” I said. “Stay there. I’ll come and help you.”

An ax was a better weapon than a shovel—but two women against . . . how many men? Ten . . . a dozen . . . more? I blinked, eyes watering against the sun, and saw several more walk out of the wood. I could see these clearly; one grinned at me and I had to steel myself not to look away. His grin broadened.

The short man was coming closer, too. I glanced at him, and a brief itch of recognition tickled me. Who the hell was he? I knew him; I’d seen him before—and yet I hadn’t any name to attach to the lantern jaws and narrow brow.

He stank of long-dried sweat, dirt ground into the skin, and the tang of dribbled urine; they all did, and the odor of them floated on the wind, feral as the stink of weasels.

He saw me recognize him; thin lips pulled in for a moment, then relaxed.

“Mrs. Fraser,” he said, and the feeling of apprehension deepened sharply as I saw the look in his small, clever eyes.

“I think you have the advantage of me, sir,” I said, putting as bold a face on it as I might. “Have we met?”

He didn’t answer that. One side of his mouth turned up a little, but his attention was distracted by the two men who had lunged forward to take the keg as Marsali rolled it out of its hiding place. One had already seized the ax I had my eye on, and was about to stave in the top of the cask, when the thin man shouted at him.

“Leave it!”

The man looked up at him, mouth open in heavy incomprehension.

“I said leave it!” the thin man snapped, as the other glanced from the cask to the ax and back in confusion. “We’ll take it with us; I’ll not have you all befuddled with drink now!”

Turning to me, as though continuing a conversation, he said, “Where’s the rest of it?”

“That’s all there is,” Marsali said, before I could answer. She was frowning at him, wary of him, but also angry. “Take it, then, and ye must.”

The thin man’s attention shifted to her for the first time, but he gave her no more than a casual glance before turning back to me.

“Don’t trouble lying to me, Mrs. Fraser. I know well enough there’s more, and I’ll have it.”

“There is not. Give me that, ye great oaf!” Marsali snatched the ax neatly from the man holding it, and scowled at the thin man. “This is how ye repay proper welcome, is it—by thieving? Well, take what ye came for and leave, then!”

I had no choice but to follow her lead, though alarm bells were ringing in my brain every time I looked at the thin little man.

“She’s right,” I said. “See for yourselves.” I pointed at the shed, the mash tubs and the pot still that stood nearby, unsealed and patently empty. “We’re only beginning the malting. It will be weeks yet before there’s a new batch of whisky.”

Without the slightest change of expression, he took a quick step forward and slapped me hard across the face.

The blow wasn’t hard enough to knock me down, but it snapped my head back and left my eyes watering. I was more shocked than hurt, though there was a sharp taste of blood in my mouth, and I could already feel my lip beginning to puff.

Marsali uttered a sharp cry of shock and outrage, and I heard some of the men murmur in interested surprise. They had drawn in, surrounding us.

I put the back of my hand to my bleeding mouth, noticing in a detached sort of way that it was trembling. My brain, though, had withdrawn to a safe distance and was making and discarding suppositions so quickly that they fluttered past, fast as shuffling cards.

Who were these men? How dangerous were they? What were they prepared to do? The sun was setting—how long before Marsali or I was missed and someone came looking for us? Would it be Fergus, or Jamie? Even Jamie, if he came alone . . .

I had no doubt that these men were the same who had burned Tige O’Brian’s house, and were likely responsible for the attacks inside the Treaty Line, as well. Vicious, then—but with theft as their major purpose.

There was a copper taste in my mouth; the metal tang of blood and fear. No more than a second had passed in these calculations, but as I lowered my hand, I had concluded that it would be best to give them what they wanted, and hope that they left with the whisky at once.

I had no chance to say so, though. The thin man seized my wrist and twisted viciously. I felt the bones shift and crack with a tearing pain, and sank to my knees in the leaves, unable to make more than a small, breathless sound.

Marsali made a louder sound and moved like a striking snake. She swung the ax from the shoulder with all the power of her bulk behind it, and the blade sank deep in the shoulder of the man beside her. She wrenched it free and blood sprayed warm across my face, pattering like rain upon the leaves.

She screamed, high and thin, and the man screamed, too, and then the whole clearing was in motion, men surging inward with a roar like collapsing surf. I lunged forward and seized the thin man’s knees, butted my head hard upward into his crotch. He made a choking wheeze and fell on top of me, flattening me to the ground.

I squirmed out from under his knotted body, knowing only that I had to get to Marsali, get between her and the men—but they were upon her. A scream cut in half by the sound of fists on flesh, and a dull boom as bodies fell hard against the wall of the malting shed.

The clay firepot was in reach. I seized it, heedless of its searing heat, and flung it straight into the group of men. It struck one hard in the back and shattered, hot coals spraying. Men yelled and jumped back, and I saw Marsali slumped against the shed, neck canted over on one shoulder and her eyes rolled back white in her head, legs splayed wide and the shift torn down from her neck, leaving her heavy br**sts bare on the bulge of her belly.

Then someone struck me in the side of the head and I flew sideways, skidding through the leaves and ending boneless, flat on the ground, unable to rise or move or think or speak.

A great calm came over me and my vision narrowed—it seemed very slowly—the closing of some great iris, spiraling shut. Before me, I saw the nest on the ground, inches from my nose, its interwoven sticks slender, clever, the four greenish eggs round and fragile, perfect in its cup. Then a heel smashed down on the eggs and the iris closed.

THE SMELL OF BURNING roused me. I could have been unconscious for no more than moments; the clump of dry grass near my face was barely beginning to smoke. A hot coal glowed in a nest of char, shot with sparks. Threads of incandescence shot up the withered grass blades and the clump burst into flame, just as hands seized me by arm and shoulder, dragging me up.

Still dazed, I flailed at my captor as he lifted me, but was hustled unceremoniously to one of the horses, heaved up, and flung across the saddle with a force that knocked the wind out of me. I had barely the presence of mind to grab at the stirrup leather, as someone smacked the horse’s rump and we set off at a bruising trot.

Between dizziness and jostling, everything I saw was fractured, crazed like broken glass—but I caught one last glimpse of Marsali, now lying limp as a rag doll among a dozen tiny fires, as the scattered coals began to catch and burn.

I made some strangled noise, trying to call to her, but it was lost in the clatter of harness and men’s voices, speaking urgently, near at hand.

“You crazed, Hodge? You don’t want that woman. Put her back!”

“I shan’t.” The small man’s voice sounded cross, but controlled, somewhere near at hand. “She’ll show us to the whisky.”

“Whisky’ll do us no good if we’re dead, Hodge! That’s Jamie Fraser’s wife, for Christ’s sake!”

“I know who she is. Get on with you!”

“But he—you don’t know the man, Hodge! I see him one time—”

“Spare me your memories. Get on, I said!”

This last was punctuated by a sudden vicious thunk, and a startled sound of pain. A pistol butt, I thought. Square across the face, I added mentally, swallowing as I heard the wet, wheezing gasps of a man with a broken nose.

A hand seized me by the hair and jerked my head round painfully. The thin man’s face stared down at me, eyes narrowed in calculation. He seemed only to want to assure himself that I was indeed alive, for he said nothing, and dropped my head again, indifferent as though it were a pinecone he had picked up along the way.

Someone was leading the horse I was on; there were several men on foot, as well. I heard them, calling to one another, half-running to keep up as the horses lurched up a rise, crashing and grunting like pigs through the undergrowth.

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