A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 22

   

I couldn’t breathe, save in shallow gasps, and was being jolted unmercifully with each step—but I had no attention to spare for physical discomfort. Was Marsali dead? She had looked it, surely, but I’d seen no blood, and I clung to that small fact for the slim—and temporary—comfort that it was.

Even if she wasn’t dead yet, she soon might be. Whether from injury, shock, a sudden miscarriage—oh, God, oh, God, poor little Monsieur L’Oeuf—

My hands clenched helpless on the stirrup leathers, desperate. Who might find her—and when?

It had lacked little more than an hour to suppertime when I had arrived at the malting shed. How late was it now? I caught glimpses of the ground juddering past below, but my hair had come loose and streamed across my face whenever I tried to raise my head. There was a growing chill to the air, though, and a still look to the light that told me the sun was near the horizon. Within a few minutes, the light would start to fade.

And then what? How long before a search began? Fergus would notice Marsali’s absence when she didn’t appear to cook supper—but would he go to look for her, with the little girls in his care? No, he’d send Germain. That caused my heart to lurch and catch in my throat. For a five-year-old boy to find his mother . . .

I could still smell burning. I sniffed, once, twice, again, hoping that I was imagining it. But above the dust and sweat of horse, the tang of stirrup leather, and the whiff of crushed plants, I could distinctly smell the reek of smoke. The clearing, the shed—or both—were well and truly alight now. Someone would see the smoke, and come. But in time?

I shut my eyes tight, trying to stop thinking, seeking any distraction to keep from seeing in my mind’s eye the scene that must be taking place behind me.

There were still voices near. The man they called Hodge again. It must be his horse I rode; he was walking near its head, on the far side of the animal. Someone else was expostulating with him, but to no more effect than the first man.

“Spread them out,” he was saying tersely. “Divide the men in two groups—you’ll ’ave one, the rest go with me. Join again in three days’ time at Brownsville.”

Bloody hell. He expected pursuit, and meant to frustrate it by splitting his group and confusing the trail. Frantically, I tried to think of something to drop; surely I had something to leave as a means of telling Jamie which way I had been taken.

But I wore nothing save shift, stays, and stockings—my shoes had been lost when they dragged me to the horse. The stockings seemed the only possibility; though the garters, with extreme perversity, were for once snugly tied, and quite out of my reach at the moment.

All around me I could hear the noise of men and horses moving, calling and shoving as the main body split. Hodge chirruped to the horse, and we began to move faster.

My floating hair snagged on a twig as we brushed past a bush, held for a second, then broke free with a painful ping! as the twig snapped, ricocheting off my cheekbone and narrowly missing my eye. I said something very rude, and someone—Hodge, for a guess—dealt me a censorious smack across the bottom.

I said something much, much ruder, but under my breath and through clenched teeth. My sole comfort was the thought that it would be no great trick to follow a band such as this, leaving as they were a wide trail of broken branches, hoofprints, and overturned stones.

I’d seen Jamie track things small and sly, as well as large and lumbering—and had seen him check the bark of trees and the twigs of bushes as he went, for scratched bark and betraying tufts of . . . hair.

No one was walking on the side of the horse where my head hung down. Hastily, I began to pluck hairs from my head. Three, four, five—was that enough? I stretched out my hand and dragged it through a yaupon bush; the long, curly hairs drifted on the breeze of the horse’s passing, but stayed safely tangled in the jagged foliage.

I did the same thing four times more. Surely he would see at least one of the signs, and would know which trail to follow—if he didn’t waste time following the other first. There was nothing I could do about that save pray—and I set in to do that in good earnest, beginning first with a plea for Marsali and Monsieur le Oeuf, whose need was plainly much greater than mine.

We continued upward for quite some time; it was full dark before we reached what seemed to be the summit of a ridge, and I was nearly unconscious, my head throbbing with blood and my stays pushed so hard into my body that I felt each strip of whalebone like a brand against my skin.

I had just enough energy left to push myself backward when the horse stopped. I hit the ground and crumpled at once into a heap, where I sat light-headed and gasping, rubbing my hands, which had swollen from hanging down for so long.

The men were gathered in a small knot, occupied in low-voiced conversation, but too near for me to think of trying to creep away into the shrubbery. One man stood only a few feet away, keeping a steady eye on me.

I looked back the way we had come, half-fearing, half-hoping to see the glow of fire far below. The fire would have drawn attention from someone—someone would know by now what had happened, be even now spreading the alarm, organizing pursuit. And yet . . . Marsali.

Was she already dead, and the baby with her?

I swallowed hard, straining my eyes at the dark, as much to prevent tears as in hopes of seeing anything. As it was, though, the trees grew thick around us, and I could see nothing at all, save variations on inky blackness.

There was no light; the moon had not yet risen, and the stars were still faint—but my eyes had had more than enough time to adapt, and while I was no cat to see in the dark, I could distinguish enough to make a rough count. They were arguing, glancing at me now and then. Perhaps a dozen men . . . How many had there been, originally? Twenty? Thirty?

I flexed my fingers, trembling. My wrist was badly bruised, but that wasn’t what was troubling me at present.

It was clear to me—and therefore presumably to them, as well—that they couldn’t head directly for the whisky cache, even were I able to find it at night. Whether Marsali survived to talk or not—I felt my throat close at the thought—Jamie would likely realize that the whisky was the intruders’ goal, and have it guarded.

Had things not fallen out as they did, the men would ideally have forced me to lead them to the cache, taken the whisky, and fled, hoping to escape before the theft was discovered. Leaving me and Marsali alive to raise the alarm and describe them? I wondered. Perhaps; perhaps not.

In the panic following Marsali’s attack, though, the original plan had fallen apart. Now what?

The knot of men was breaking up, though the argument continued. Footsteps approached.

“I tell you, it won’t do,” one man was saying heatedly. From the thickened voice, I assumed it was the gentleman with the broken nose, undeterred by his injury. “Kill her now. Leave her here; no one’ll find her before the beasts have scattered her bones.”

“Aye? And if no one finds her, they’ll think she’s still with us, won’t they?”

“But if Fraser catches up to us, and she’s not, who shall he blame . . .”

They stopped, four or five of them surrounding me. I scrambled to my feet, my hand closing by reflex around the nearest thing approaching a weapon—an unfortunately small rock.

“How far are we from the whisky?” Hodge demanded. He had taken off his hat, and his eyes gleamed, ratlike in the shadow.

“I don’t know,” I said, keeping a firm grip on my nerves—and the rock. My lip was still tender, puffed from the blow he had dealt me, and I had to form the words carefully. “I don’t know where we are.”

This was true, though I could have made a reasonable guess. We had traveled for a few hours, mostly upward, and the trees nearby were fir and balsam; I could smell their resin, sharp and clean. We were on the upper slopes, and probably near a small pass that crossed the shoulder of the mountain.

“Kill her,” urged one of the others. “She’s no good to us, and if Fraser finds her with us—”

“Shut your face!” Hodge rounded on the speaker with such violence that the man, much larger, stepped back involuntarily. That threat disposed of, Hodge ignored him and seized me by the arm.

“Don’t play coy with me, woman. You’ll tell me what I want to know.” He didn’t bother with the “or else”—something cold passed across the top of my breast, and the hot sting of the cut followed a second later, as blood began to bloom from it.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I said, more from surprise than pain. I jerked my arm out of his grasp. “I told you, I don’t even know where we are, you idiot! How do you expect me to tell you where anything else is?”

He blinked, startled, and brought the knife up by reflex, wary, as though he thought I might attack him. Realizing that I wasn’t about to, he scowled at me.

“I’ll tell you what I do know,” I said, and was distantly pleased to hear that my voice was sharp and steady. “The whisky cache is about half a mile from the malting shed, roughly northwest. It’s in a cave, well-hidden. I could take you there—if we began from the spring where you took me—but that’s all I can tell you in the way of direction.”

This was true, too. I could find it easily enough—but to give directions? “Go through a gap in the brush a little way, until you see the cluster of oak where Brianna shot a possum, bear left to a squarish rock with a bunch of adder’s-tongue growing over it. . . .” The fact that the need for my services as a guide was probably all that kept them from killing me on the spot was, of course, a secondary consideration.

It was a very shallow cut; I wasn’t bleeding badly at all. My face and hands were ice-cold, though, and small flashing lights came and went at the edges of my vision. Nothing was keeping me upright save a vague conviction that if it came to that, I preferred to die on my feet.

“I tell you, Hodge, you don’t want nothing to do with that one—nothing.” A larger man had joined the small group round me. He leaned over Hodge’s shoulder, looking at me, and nodded. They were all black in the shadow, but this man had a voice tinged with the lilt of Africa—an ex-slave, or perhaps a slave-trader. “That woman—I hear about her. She is a conjure woman. I know them. They are like serpents, conjure wives. You don’t touch that one, hear me? She will curse you!”

I managed to give a rather nasty-sounding laugh in answer to this, and the man closest to me took a half-step back. I was vaguely surprised; where had that come from?

But I was breathing better now, and the flashing lights were gone.

The tall man stretched his neck, seeing the dark line of blood on my shift.

“You draw her blood? Damn you, Hodge, you done it now.” There was a distinct note of alarm in his voice, and he drew back a little, making some sort of sign toward me with one hand.

Without the slightest notion as to what moved me to do it, I dropped the rock, ran the fingers of my right hand across the cut, and in one swift motion, reached out and drew them down the thin man’s cheek. I repeated the nasty laugh.

“Curse, is it?” I said. “How’s this? Touch me again, and you’ll die within twenty-four hours.”

The streaks of blood showed dark on the white of his face. He was close enough that I could smell the sourness of his breath, and see the fury gather on his face.

What on earth do you think you are doing, Beauchamp? I thought, utterly surprised at myself. Hodge drew back his fist to strike me, but the large man caught him by the wrist with a cry of fear.

“Don’t you do that! You will kill us all!”

“I’ll friggin’ kill you right now, arsebite!”

Hodge was still holding the knife in his other hand; he stabbed awkwardly at the larger man, grunting with rage. The big man gasped at the impact, but wasn’t badly stricken—he wrenched at the wrist he held and Hodge gave a high, squealing cry, like a rabbit seized by a fox.

Then the others were all in it, pushing and shouting, grappling for weapons. I turned and ran, but got no more than a few steps before one of them grabbed me, flinging his arms round me and jerking me hard against himself.

“You’re not going anywhere, lady,” he said, panting in my ear.

I wasn’t. He was no taller than I, but a good deal stronger. I lunged against his grip, but he had both arms wrapped tight around me, and squeezed tighter. I stood stiff then, heart pounding with anger and fear, not wanting to give him an excuse to maul me. He was excited; I could feel his heart pounding, too, and smell the reek of fresh sweat over the fetor of stale clothes and body.

I couldn’t see what was going on, but I didn’t think they were fighting so much as merely shouting at each other now. My captor shifted his weight and cleared his throat.

“Ahh . . . where do you come from, ma’am?” he asked, quite politely.

“What?” I said, no end startled. “Come from? Er . . . ah . . . England. Oxfordshire, originally. Then Boston.”

“Oh? I’m from the north myself.”

I repressed the automatic urge to reply, “Pleased to meet you,” since I wasn’t, and the conversation languished.

The fight had stopped, abruptly as it had started. With a lot of token snarling and growling, the rest of them backed down in the face of Hodge’s bellowed assertions that he was in command here, and they’d bleedin’ well do as he said or take the consequences.

“He means it, too,” muttered my captor, still pressing me firmly to his filthy bosom. “You don’t want to cross him, lady, believe me.”

“Hmph,” I said, though I assumed the advice was well-meant. I had been hoping the conflict would be noisy and prolonged, thus increasing the chances of Jamie catching up to us.

“And where is this Hodge from, speaking of origins?” I asked. He still seemed remarkably familiar to me; I was sure I had seen him somewhere—but where?

“Hodgepile? Ahhh . . . England, I reckon,” said the young man gripping me. He sounded surprised. “Don’t he sound like it?”

Hodge? Hodgepile? That rang a bell, certainly, but . . .

There was a good deal of muttering and milling round, but in much too little time, we were off again. This time, thank God, I was allowed to ride astride, though my hands were tied and bound to the saddle.

We moved very slowly; there was a trail of sorts, but even with the faint light shed by a rising moon, the going was difficult. Hodgepile no longer led the horse I rode; the young man who had recaptured me held the bridle, tugging and coaxing the increasingly reluctant horse through the thickets of brush. I could glimpse him now and then, slender, with thick, wild hair that hung past his shoulders and rendered him lion-maned in silhouette.

The threat of immediate death had receded a little, but my stomach was still knotted and the muscles of my back stiff with apprehension. Hodgepile had his way for the moment, but there had been no real agreement among the men; one of those in favor of killing me and leaving my corpse for the skunks and weasels might easily decide to put a quick end to the controversy with a lunge out of the dark.

I could hear Hodgepile’s voice, sharp and hectoring, somewhere up ahead. He seemed to be passing up and down the column, bullying, nagging, nipping like a sheepdog, trying to keep his flock on the move.

They were moving, though it was clear even to me that the horses were tired. The one I rode was shambling, jerking her head with irritation. God knew where the marauders had come from, or how long they had traveled before reaching the whisky clearing. The men were slowing, too, a gradual fog of fatigue settling on them as the adrenaline of flight and conflict receded. I could feel lassitude stealing upon me, too, and fought against it, struggling to stay alert.

It was still early autumn, but I was wearing only my shift and stays, and we were high enough that the air chilled rapidly after dark. I shivered constantly, and the cut on my chest burned as the tiny muscles flexed beneath the skin. It wasn’t at all serious, but what if it became infected? I could only hope that I would live long enough for that to be a problem.

Hard as I tried, I could not keep from thinking of Marsali, nor keep my mind from making medical speculations, envisioning everything from concussion with intracranial swelling to burns with smoke inhalation. I could do something—perhaps even an emergency C-section—if I were there. No one else could.

I clenched my hands hard on the edge of the saddle, straining against the rope that bound them. I needed to be there!

But I was not, and might never be.

The quarreling and muttering had all but ceased as the darkness of the forest closed in upon us, but a lingering sense of unease lay heavy on the group. In part, I thought it was apprehension and fear of pursuit, but in much greater part, a sense of internal discord. The fight had not been settled, merely postponed to a more convenient season. A sense of simmering conflict was sharp in the air.

A conflict focused squarely on me. Unable to see clearly during the argument, I couldn’t be sure which men held which opinions, but the division was clear: one party, headed by Hodgepile, was in favor of keeping me alive, at least long enough to lead them to the whisky. A second group was for cutting their losses, and my throat. And a minority opinion, voiced by the gentleman with the African speech, was for turning me loose, the sooner the better.

Obviously, it would behoove me to cultivate this gentleman, and try to turn his beliefs to my advantage. How? I’d made a start by cursing Hodgepile—and I was still quite startled that I’d done that. I didn’t think it would be advisable to start cursing them wholesale, though—ruin the effect.

I shifted in the saddle, which was beginning to chafe me badly. This wasn’t the first time I’d had men recoil from me in fear of what they thought I was. Superstitious fear could be an effective weapon—but it was a very dangerous one to use. If I truly frightened them, they’d kill me without a moment’s hesitation.

We had crossed into the pass. There were few trees among the boulders here, and as we emerged onto the far side of the mountain, the sky opened out before me, vast and glowing, fiery with a multitude of stars.

I must have let out a gasp at the sight, for the young man leading my horse paused, lifting his own head skyward.

“Oh,” he said softly. He stared for a moment, then was pulled back to earth by the passage of another horse that brushed past us, its rider turning to peer closely at me as it did so.

“Did you have stars like this—where you came from?” my escort asked.

“No,” I said, still slightly under the spell of the silent grandeur overhead. “Not so bright.”

“No, they weren’t,” he said, shaking his head, and pulled at the rein. That seemed an odd remark, but I could make nothing of it. I might have engaged him in further conversation—God knew I needed all the allies I could get—but there was a shout from up ahead; evidently, we were making camp.

I was untied and pulled off the horse. Hodgepile pushed his way through the scrum and grasped me by the shoulder.

“You try to run, woman, and you’ll wish you ’adn’t.” He squeezed viciously, fingers digging into my flesh. “I need you alive—I don’t need you ’ole.”

Still gripping my shoulder, he lifted his knife and pressed the flat of the blade against my lips, jammed the tip of it up my nose, then leaned close enough that I felt the moist warmth of his very repugnant breath on my face.

“The one thing I won’t cut off is your tongue,” he whispered. The knife blade drew slowly out of my nose, down my chin, along the line of my neck, and circled round the curve of my breast. “You take my meaning, do you?”

He waited until I managed a nod, then released me and disappeared into the darkness.

If he meant to unnerve me, he’d managed nicely. I was sweating despite the chill, and still shaking when a tall shadow loomed up beside me, took one of my hands, and pressed something into it.

“My name is Tebbe,” he murmured. “You remember that—Tebbe. Remember I was good to you. Tell your spirits they don’t hurt Tebbe, he was good to you.”

I nodded once more, astonished, and was left again, this time with a lump of bread in my hand. I ate it hastily, observing that while very stale, it had originally been good dark rye bread, of the sort the German women of Salem made. Had the men attacked some house near there, or merely bought the bread?

A horse’s saddle had been flung down on the ground near me; a canteen hung from the pommel, and I sank down on my knees to drink from it. The bread and the water—tasting of canvas and wood—tasted better than anything I’d eaten in a long while. I’d noticed before that standing very close to death improves the appetite remarkably. Still, I did hope for something more elaborate as a last meal.

Hodgepile returned a few minutes later, with rope. He didn’t bother with further threats, evidently feeling that he’d made his point. He merely tied me hand and foot, and pushed me down on the ground. No one spoke to me, but someone, with a kindly impulse, threw a blanket over me.

The camp settled quickly. No fire was lit, and so no supper was cooked; the men presumably refreshed themselves in the same makeshift way I had, then scattered into the wood to seek their rest, leaving the horses tethered a little way off.

I waited until the comings and goings died down, then took the blanket in my teeth and wriggled carefully away from the spot where I had been placed, making my way inchworm fashion to another tree, a dozen yards away.

I had no thought of escape in doing this; but if one of the bandits in favor of disposing of me should think to take advantage of the darkness in order to achieve their aims, I didn’t mean to be lying there like a staked goat. With luck, if anyone came skulking round the spot where I’d been, I would have enough warning to scream for help.

I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jamie would come. My job was to survive until he did.

Panting, sweating, covered with crumbled leaves and with my stockings in rags, I curled up under a big hornbeam, and burrowed back under the blanket. Thus concealed, I had a try at undoing the knots in the rope around my wrists with my teeth. Hodgepile had tied them, though, and had done so with military thoroughness. Short of gnawing gopherlike through the ropes themselves, I was going nowhere.

Military. It was that thought that recalled suddenly to me who he was, and where I had seen him before. Arvin Hodgepile! He had been the clerk at the Crown’s warehouse in Cross Creek. I had met him briefly, three years before, when Jamie and I brought the body of a murdered girl to the sergeant of the garrison there.

Sergeant Murchison was dead—and I’d thought Hodgepile was, as well, killed in the conflagration that had destroyed the warehouse and its contents. So, a deserter, then. Either he had had time to escape the warehouse before it went up in flames, or had simply not been there at the time. In either case, he’d been clever enough to realize that he could take this opportunity to disappear from His Majesty’s army, leaving his death to be assumed.

What he had been doing since then was clear, too. Wandering the countryside, stealing, robbing, and killing—and collecting a number of like-minded companions along the way.

Not that they appeared to be of one mind just at present. While Hodgepile might be the self-proclaimed leader of this gang at the moment, it was plain to see that he hadn’t held the position for long. He wasn’t accustomed to command, didn’t know how to manage men, save by threat. I’d seen many military commanders in my time, good and bad, and recognized the difference.

I could hear Hodgepile even now, voice raised in distant argument with someone. I’d seen his sort before, vicious men who could temporarily cow those near them by outbursts of unpredictable violence. They seldom lasted long—and I doubted that Hodgepile was going to last much longer.

He wasn’t going to last any longer than it took for Jamie to find us. That thought calmed me like a slug of good whisky. Jamie would surely be looking for me by now.

I curled tighter under my blanket, shivering a little. Jamie would need light to track at night—torches. That would make him and his party visible—and vulnerable—if they came within sight of the camp. The camp itself wouldn’t be visible; there was no fire lit, and the horses and men were scattered through the wood. I knew sentries had been posted; I could hear them moving in the wood now and then, talking low-voiced.

But Jamie was no fool, I told myself, trying to drive away visions of ambush and massacre. He would know, from the freshness of the horses’ dung, if he were drawing close, and certainly wouldn’t be marching right up to the camp, torches blazing. If he had tracked the party this far, he would—

The sound of quiet footsteps froze me. They were coming from the direction of my original resting place, and I cowered under my blanket like a field mouse with a weasel in sight.

The steps shuffled slowly to and fro, as though someone was poking his way through the dried leaves and pine needles, looking for me. I held my breath, though surely no one could hear that, with the night wind sighing through the branches overhead.

I strained my eyes at the darkness, but could make out nothing more than a faint blur moving among the tree trunks, a dozen yards away. A sudden thought struck me—could it be Jamie? If he had come close enough to locate the camp, he would very likely steal in on foot, looking for me.

I drew breath at the thought, straining against my bonds. I wanted urgently to call out, but didn’t dare. If it should be Jamie, calling to him would expose his presence to the bandits. If I could hear the sentries, they could certainly hear me.

But if it were not Jamie, but one of the bandits, seeking to kill me quietly . . .

I let my breath out very slowly, every muscle in my body clenched and trembling. It was cool enough, but I was bathed in sweat; I could smell my own body, the reek of fear mingling with the colder smells of earth and vegetation.

The blur had vanished, the footsteps gone, and my heart was pounding like a kettledrum. The tears I had held back for hours seeped out, hot on my face, and I wept, shaking silently.

The night was immense around me, the darkness filled with threat. Overhead, the stars hung bright and watchful in the sky, and at some point, I slept.

28

CURSES

I WOKE JUST BEFORE DAWN, in a muck sweat and with a throbbing headache. The men were already moving, grumbling about the lack of coffee or breakfast.

Hodgepile stopped beside me, looking down with narrowed eyes. He glanced toward the tree beneath which he had left me the night before and the deep furrow of disturbed leaf mold I had created in worm-crawling toward my present spot. He had very little in the way of lips, but his lower jaw compressed in displeasure.

He pulled the knife from his belt, and I felt the blood drain from my face. However, he merely knelt and cut my bonds, rather than slicing off a finger by way of expressing his emotions.

“We leave in five minutes,” he said, and stalked off. I was quivering and faintly nauseated with fear, and so stiff that I could barely stand. I managed to get to my feet, though, and staggered the short distance to a small stream.

The air was damp and I was now chilly in my sweat-soaked shift, but cold water splashed on my hands and face seemed to help a little, soothing the throb behind my right eye. I had just time to make a hasty toilet, removing the rags of my stockings and running wet fingers through my hair, before Hodgepile reappeared to march me off again.

This time, I was put on a horse, but not tied, thank God. I wasn’t allowed to hold the reins, though; my mount was on a leading rein, held by one of the bandits.

It was my first chance to get a good look at my captors, as they came out of the wood and shook themselves into rough order, coughing, spitting, and urinating on trees without reference to my presence. Beyond Hodgepile, I counted twelve more men—a baker’s dozen of villains.

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