A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 23

   

It was easy to pick out the man called Tebbe; his height aside, he was a mulatto. There was another man of mixed blood—black and Indian, I thought—but he was short and squat. Tebbe didn’t glance in my direction, but went about his business with head lowered, scowling.

That was a disappointment; I didn’t know what had passed among the men during the night, but evidently Tebbe’s insistence that I be released was no longer so insistent. A rust-spotted kerchief bound his wrist; that might have something to do with it.

The young man who had guided my horse the night before was also easy to pick out, by way of his long, bushy hair, but he didn’t come near, and avoided looking at me, too. Rather to my surprise, he was an Indian—not Cherokee; perhaps a Tuscarora? I hadn’t expected that from his speech, nor his curly hair. Clearly he was mixed-blood, too.

The rest of the gang were more or less white, but a motley crew, nonetheless. Three of them were no more than half-bearded boys in their mid-teens, scruffy and gangling. They did look at me, goggling drop-jawed, and nudging one another. I stared at one of them until he met my eye; he went bright scarlet beneath his sparse whiskers, and looked away.

Fortunately, the shift I was wearing was one with sleeves; the thing covered me decently enough from drawstring neck to the hem at mid-calf, but there was no denying that I felt uncomfortably exposed. The shift was damp and clung limply to the curve of my br**sts—a sensation I was uncomfortably aware of. I wished I had kept hold of the blanket.

The men swirled slowly round me, loading the horses, and I had the distinct and unpleasant sense of being the center of the mass—in much the same way a bull’s-eye lies at the center of a target. I could only hope that I looked aged and cronelike enough for my state of untidiness to be repellent, rather than interesting; my hair was loose, wild, and tangled as witch’s moss around my shoulders, and I certainly felt as though I had been crumpled up like an old paper bag.

I held myself bolt upright in the saddle, giving an unfriendly glare to anyone who so much as glanced in my direction. One man blinked blearily at my bare leg with a faint look of speculation—only to recoil noticeably when he met my eye.

That gave me a momentary feeling of grim satisfaction—superseded almost immediately by shock. The horses had begun to move, and as mine obediently followed the man in front of me, two more men came into view, standing under a big oak. I knew them both.

Harley Boble was tying the strings on a packsaddle, scowling as he said something to another, larger man. Harley Boble was an erstwhile thieftaker, now evidently turned thief. A thoroughly nasty little man, he was unlikely to be well-disposed toward me, owing to an occurrence at a Gathering some time before.

I wasn’t at all pleased to see him here, though I was by no means surprised to find him in such company. But it was the sight of his companion that caused my empty stomach to contract, and my skin to twitch like a horse with flies.

Mr. Lionel Brown, of Brownsville.

He looked up, caught sight of me, and turned hastily away again, shoulders hunching. He must have realized that I had seen him, though, for he turned back to face me, thin features set in a sort of weary defiance. His nose was swollen and discolored, a dark red bulb visible even in the grayish light. He stared at me for a moment, then nodded as though making some reluctant acknowledgment, and turned away again.

I risked a glance back over my shoulder as we entered the trees, but couldn’t see him anymore. What was he doing here? I hadn’t recognized his voice at the time, but clearly it had been he who had argued with Hodgepile about the wisdom of taking me. Little wonder! He wasn’t the only one disturbed by our mutual recognition.

Lionel Brown and his brother, Richard, were traders; the founders and patriarchs of Brownsville, a tiny settlement in the hills some forty miles from the Ridge. It was one thing for freebooters like Boble or Hodgepile to roam the countryside, robbing and burning; quite another for the Browns of Brownsville to be providing a base for their depredations. The very last thing in the world Mr. Lionel Brown could wish would be for me to reach Jamie with word of what he had been up to.

And I rather thought he would take steps to prevent me doing so. The sun was coming up, beginning to warm the air, but I felt suddenly cold, as though I had been dropped in a well.

Rays of light shone through the branches, gilding the remnants of the night mist that veiled the trees and silvering the dripping edges of their leaves. The trees were alive with birdsong, and a towhee hopped and scratched in a patch of sun, oblivious of the passing men and horses. It was too early yet for flies and mosquitoes, and the soft morning breeze caressed my face. Definitely one of those prospects where only man was vile.

The morning passed quietly enough, but I was aware of the constant state of tension among the men—though no more tense than I was.

Jamie Fraser, where are you? I thought, concentrating fiercely on the forest around us. Every distant rustle or snap of twig might presage rescue, and my nerves began to be distinctly frayed in anticipation.

Where? When? How? I had neither reins nor weapons; if—when—an attack was made on the group, my best—well, the only possible—strategy was to fling myself off the horse and run. As we rode I constantly evaluated each patch of witch-hazel and stand of spruce, spotting footholds, plotting a zigzag path through saplings and boulders.

It wasn’t only an attack by Jamie and his men that I was preparing for; I couldn’t see Lionel Brown, but I knew he was somewhere nearby. A spot between my shoulder blades clenched in a knot, anticipating a knife.

I kept an eye out for potential weapons: rocks of a useful size, branches that might be seized from the ground. If and when I ran, I meant to let no one stop me. But we pushed on, moving as quickly as the horses’ footing allowed, men glancing back constantly over their shoulders, hands on their guns. As for me, I was obliged to relinquish my imaginary grasp on each possible weapon in turn as it slid past, out of sight.

To my intense disappointment, we reached the gorge near midday, without incident.

I had visited the gorge once with Jamie. The cataract fell sixty feet down a granite cliff face, sparkling with rainbows and roaring with a voice like the archangel Michael. Fronds of red chokeberry and wild indigo fringed the falls, and yellow poplars overhung the river below the cataract’s pool, so thick that no more than a fugitive gleam from the water’s surface showed between the banks of lush vegetation. Hodgepile, of course, had not been drawn by the scenic beauty of the spot.

“Get off.” A gruff voice spoke near my elbow, and I looked down to see Tebbe. “We will swim the horses across. You come with me.”

“I’ll take her.” My heart sprang up into my throat at the sound of a thickly nasal voice. It was Lionel Brown, pushing his way past an overhanging rope of creeper, dark eyes intent on me.

“Not you.” Tebbe rounded on Brown, fist closed.

“Not you,” I repeated firmly. “I’m going with him.” I slid off the horse and promptly took shelter behind the big mulatto’s menacing frame, peering out at Brown from beneath the bigger man’s arm.

I wasn’t under the slightest illusion about Brown’s intent. He wouldn’t risk assassinating me under Hodgepile’s eye, but he could—and would—drown me easily, and claim it was an accident. The river was shallow here, but still fast; I could hear it whooshing past the rocks near shore.

Brown’s eyes darted right, then left, thinking whether to try it on—but Tebbe hunched his massive shoulders, and Brown gave it up as a bad job. He snorted, spat to one side, and stamped away, snapping branches.

I might never have a better chance. Not waiting for the sounds of Brown’s huffy exit to subside, I slipped a hand over the big man’s elbow and squeezed his arm.

“Thank you,” I said, low-voiced. “For what you did last night. Are you badly hurt?”

He glanced down at me, apprehension clear in his face. My touching him plainly disconcerted him; I could feel the tension in his arm as he tried to decide whether to pull away from me or not.

“No,” he said at last. “I am all right.” He hesitated a moment, but then smiled uncertainly.

It was obvious what Hodgepile intended; the horses were being led, one at a time, down a narrow deer trail that edged the escarpment. We were more than a mile from the cataract, but the air was still loud with its noise. The sides of the gorge plunged steeply down to the water, more than fifty feet below, and the opposite bank was equally steep and overgrown.

A thick fringe of bushes hid the edge of the bank, but I could see that the river spread out here, becoming slower as it shallowed. With no dangerous currents, the horses could be taken downstream, to come out at some random point on the opposite shore. Anyone who had succeeded in tracking us to the gorge would lose the trail here, and have no little difficulty in picking it up on the opposite side.

With an effort, I stopped myself looking back over my shoulder for signs of imminent pursuit. My heart was beating fast. If Jamie was nearby, he would wait and attack the group when they entered the water, when they were most vulnerable. Even if he were not yet near, it would be a confusing business, crossing the river. If there were ever a time to attempt an escape . . .

“You shouldn’t go with them,” I said conversationally to Tebbe. “You’ll die, too.”

The arm under my hand jerked convulsively. He glanced down at me, wide-eyed. The sclera of his eyes were yellow with jaundice, and the irises broken, giving him an odd, smudgy stare.

“I told him the truth, you know.” I lifted my chin toward Hodgepile, visible in the distance. “He’ll die. So will all those with him. There’s no need for you to die, though.”

He muttered something under his breath, and pressed a fist against his chest. He had something on a string there, hanging beneath his shirt. I didn’t know whether it might be a cross or some more pagan amulet, but he seemed to be responding well to suggestion so far.

So close to the river, the air was thick with moisture, live with the smell of green things and water.

“The water is my friend,” I said, trying for an air of mystery suitable to a conjure woman. I was not a good liar, but I was lying for my life. “When we go into the river, let go your hold. A water horse will rise up to carry me away.”

His eyes couldn’t get any wider. Evidently, he’d heard of kelpies, or something like them. Even this far from the cataract, the roar of the water had voices in it—if one chose to listen.

“I am not going away with a water horse,” he said with conviction. “I know about them. They take you down, drown you, and eat you.”

“It won’t eat me,” I assured him. “You needn’t go near it. Just stand clear, once we’re in the water. Keep well away.”

And if he did, I’d be under the water and swimming for my life before he could say Jack Robinson. I would be willing to bet that most of Hodgepile’s bandits couldn’t swim; few people in the mountains could. I flexed my leg muscles, readying myself, aches and stiffness dissolved in a flood of adrenaline.

Half the men were over the edge with the horses already—I could delay Tebbe, I thought, until the rest were safely in the water. Even if he wouldn’t deliberately connive at my escape, if I slipped his grasp, I thought he wouldn’t try to catch me.

He pulled halfheartedly at my arm, and I stopped abruptly.

“Ouch! Wait, I’ve stepped on a bur.”

I lifted one foot, peering at the sole. Given the dirt and resin stains adhering to it, no one could possibly have told whether I had picked up cockleburs, bramble thorns, or even a horseshoe nail.

“We need to go, woman.” I didn’t know whether it was my proximity, the roar of the water, or the thought of water horses that was disturbing Tebbe, but he was sweating with nerves; his odor had changed from simple musk to something sharp and pungent.

“Just a moment,” I said, pretending to pick at my foot. “Nearly got it.”

“Leave it. I will carry you.”

Tebbe was breathing heavily, looking back and forth from me to the edge of the gorge, where the deer trail disappeared into the growth, as though fearing the reappearance of Hodgepile.

It wasn’t Hodgepile who popped out of the bushes, though. It was Lionel Brown, his face set with purpose, two younger men behind him, looking equally determined.

“I’ll take her,” he said without preamble, grabbing my arm.

“No!” By reflex, Tebbe clutched my other arm and pulled.

An undignified tug-of-war ensued, with Tebbe and Mr. Brown each jerking one of my arms. Before I could be split like a wishbone, Tebbe fortunately changed tactics. Releasing my arm, he seized me instead about the body and clutched me to himself, kicking out with one foot at Mr. Brown.

The result of this maneuver was to cause Tebbe and myself to fall backward into an untidy pile of arms and legs, while Brown also lost his balance, though I didn’t realize at first that he had. All I was aware of was a loud yell and stumbling noises, followed by a crash and the rattle of dislodged stones bounding down a rocky slope.

Disengaging myself from Tebbe, I crawled out, to discover the rest of the men grouped round an ominously flattened spot in the bushes fringing the gorge. One or two were hurriedly fetching ropes and yelling contradictory orders, from which I deduced that Mr. Brown had indeed fallen into the gorge, but was not yet certifiably dead.

I rapidly reversed directions, meaning to dive headfirst into the vegetation, but came up instead against a pair of cracked boots, belonging to Hodgepile. He seized me by the hair and yanked, causing me to shriek and lash out at him in reflex. I caught him across the midriff. He oomphed and went open-mouthed, gasping for air, but didn’t let go his iron grip on my hair.

Making furious faces in my direction, he let go then, and boosted me toward the edge of the gorge with a knee. One of the younger men was clinging to the bushes, feeling gingerly for footholds on the slope below, one rope tied round his waist and another slung in a coil over his shoulder.

“Frigging mort!” Hodgepile yelled, digging his fingers into my arm as he leaned through the broken bushes. “What d’ye mean by this, you bitch?”

He capered on the edge of the gorge like Rumpelstiltskin, shaking his fist and hurling abuse impartially at his damaged business partner and at me, while the rescue operations commenced. Tebbe had withdrawn to a safe distance, where he stood looking offended.

At length, Brown was hauled up, groaning loudly, and laid out on the grass. Those men not already in the river gathered round, looking hot and flustered.

“You mean to mend him, conjure woman?” Tebbe asked, glancing skeptically at me. I didn’t know whether he meant to cast doubt upon my abilities, or only on the wisdom of my helping Brown, but I nodded, a little uncertainly, and came forward.

“I suppose so.” An oath was an oath, though I rather wondered if Hippocrates ever ran into this sort of situation himself. Possibly he did; the ancient Greeks were a violent lot, too.

The men gave way to me easily enough; once having got Brown out of the gorge, it was obvious that they had no notion what to do about him.

I did a hasty triage. Aside from multiple cuts, contusions, and a thick coating of dust and mud, Mr. Lionel Brown had fractured his left leg in at least two places, broken his left wrist, and probably crushed a couple of ribs. Only one of the leg fractures was compound, but it was nasty, the jagged end of the broken thighbone poking through skin and breeches, surrounded by a steadily widening patch of red.

He had unfortunately not severed his femoral artery, since if he had, he would have been dead already. Still, Mr. Brown had probably ceased to be a personal threat to me for the moment, which was all to the good.

Lacking any equipment or medication, bar several filthy neckcloths, a pine branch, and some whisky from a canteen, my ministrations were necessarily limited. I managed—with no little difficulty and quite a lot of whisky—to get the femur roughly straightened and splinted without having Brown die of shock, which I thought no small accomplishment under the circumstances.

It was a difficult job, though, and I was muttering to myself under my breath—something I hadn’t realized I was doing, until I glanced up to find Tebbe crouched on his heels on the other side of Brown’s body, regarding me with interest.

“Oh, you curse him,” he said approvingly. “Yes, that is a good idea.”

Mr. Brown’s eyes sprang open and bugged out. He was half off his head with pain, and thoroughly drunk by now, but not quite so drunk as to overlook this.

“Make her stop,” he said hoarsely. “Here, Hodgepile—make her stop! Make her take it back!”

“‘Ere, what’s this? What did you say, woman?” Hodgepile had simmered down a bit, but his animus was instantly rekindled by this. He reached down and grabbed my wrist just as I was feeling my way over Brown’s injured torso. It was the wrist he had twisted so viciously the day before, and a stab of pain shot up my forearm.

“If you must know, I expect I said ‘Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ’!” I snapped. “Let go of me!”

“That’s what she said when she cursed you! Get her away from me! Don’t let her touch me!” Panicked, Brown made to squirm away from me, a very bad idea for a man with freshly broken bones. He went dead-white under the smears of mud, and his eyes rolled back in his head.

“Look at that! He’s dead!” one of the onlookers exclaimed. “She’s done it! She witched him!”

This caused no little uproar, between the vocal approbation of Tebbe and his supporters, my own protests, and outcries of concern from Mr. Brown’s friends and relations, one of whom squatted down by the body, putting an ear to the chest.

“He’s alive!” this man exclaimed. “Uncle Lionel! You all right?”

Lionel Brown groaned loudly and opened his eyes, causing further commotion. The young man who had called him Uncle drew a large knife from his belt and pointed it at me. His eyes were open so wide that the whites showed all around.

“You get back!” he said. “Don’t you touch him!”

I raised my hands, palms out, in gesture of abnegation.

“Fine!” I snapped. “I won’t!” There was, in fact, little more I could do for Brown. He should be kept warm, dry, and well-hydrated, but something told me that Hodgepile would not be open to any such suggestions.

He wasn’t. By means of furious and repeated bellows, he quelled the incipient riot, then declared that we were crossing the gorge, and right quickly, too.

“Put ’im on a stretcher, then,” he said impatiently, in reply to protests from Brown’s nephew. “And as for you—” He rounded on me, glaring. “Did I tell you? No tricks, I said!”

“Kill her,” Brown said hoarsely from the ground. “Kill her now.”

“Kill her? Not bloody likely, oul’ son.” Hodgepile’s eyes gleamed with malice. “She’s no more risk to me alive than dead—and a good bit more profit alive. But I’ll keep her in line.”

The knife was never far from his grasp. He had it out in an instant, and had seized my hand. Before I could so much as draw breath, I felt the blade press down, cutting partway into the base of my forefinger.

“Remember what I told you, do you?” He breathed it, his face was soft with anticipation. “I don’t need you whole.”

I did remember, and my belly hollowed, my throat dried to silence. My skin burned where he cut, and pain spread in a flash through my nerves; the need to jerk away from the blade was so strong that the muscles of my arm cramped with it.

I could imagine vividly the spurting stump, the shock of broken bone, ripped flesh, the horror of irrevocable loss.

But behind Hodgepile, Tebbe had risen to his feet. His odd, smudgy stare was fixed on me, with an expression of fascinated dread. I saw his hand close in a fist, his throat move as he swallowed, and felt the saliva return to my own. If I was to keep his protection, I must keep his belief.

I fixed my eyes on Hodgepile’s, and made myself lean toward him. My skin quivered and jumped, and the blood roared louder in my ears than the voice of the cataract—but I opened my eyes wide. A witch’s eyes—or so some said.

Very, very slowly, I lifted my free hand, still wet with Brown’s blood. I reached the bloody fingers toward Hodgepile’s face.

“I remember,” I said, my voice a hoarse whisper. “Do you remember what I said?”

He would have done it. I saw the decision flash in his eyes, but before he could press the knife blade down, the bushy-haired young Indian leaped forward, grabbing at his arm with a cry of horror. Distracted, Hodgepile let go his grip, and I pulled free.

In an instant, Tebbe and two more men surged forward, hands on knives and pistol grips.

Hodgepile’s thin face was pinched with fury, but the moment of incipient violence had passed. He lowered his own knife, the menace receding.

I opened my mouth to say something that might help defuse the situation further, but was forestalled by a panicked cry from Brown’s nephew.

“Don’t let her talk! She’ll curse us all!”

“Oh, bleedin’ ’ell,” said Hodgepile, fury transmuted to mere crossness.

I had used several neckcloths to bind Brown’s splint. Hodgepile stooped and snatched one from the ground, wadded it into a ball, and stepped forward.

“Open your mouth,” he said tersely, and seizing my jaw with one hand, he forced open my mouth and crammed the wadded fabric into it. He glared at Tebbe, who had made a jerky move forward.

“I shan’t kill her. But she says not a word more. Not to ’im”—he nodded at Brown, then Tebbe—“not to you. Nor me.” He glanced back at me, and to my surprise, I saw a lurking uneasiness in his eyes. “Not to anyone.”

Tebbe looked uncertain, but Hodgepile was already tying his own neckcloth round my head, effectively gagging me.

“Not a word,” Hodgepile repeated, glaring round at the company. “Now, let’s go!”

WE CROSSED THE river. To my surprise, Lionel Brown survived, but it was a lengthy business, and the sun was low by the time we made camp, two miles past the gorge on the farther side.

Everyone was wet, and a fire was kindled without discussion. The currents of dissension and distrust were still there, but had been damped by the river and exhaustion. Everyone was simply too tired for further strife.

They had tied my hands loosely, but left my feet unbound; I made my way to a fallen log near the fire and sank down, utterly drained. I was damp and chilled, my muscles trembling with exhaustion—I had been forced to walk from the river—and for the first time, I began to wonder whether Jamie would in fact find me. Ever.

Perhaps he had followed the wrong group of bandits. Perhaps he had found and attacked them—and been wounded or killed in the fight. I had closed my eyes, but opened them again, seeking to avoid the visions this thought had conjured up. I still worried about Marsali—but either they had found her in time or they hadn’t; either way, her fate had been decided.

The fire was burning well, at least; cold, wet, and eager for hot food, the men had brought an immense pile of wood. A short, silent black man was stoking the fire, while a couple of the teenagers rifled the packs for food. A pot of water was set on the fire with a chunk of salt beef, and the lion-haired young Indian poured cornmeal into a bowl with a lump of lard.

Another bit of lard sizzled on an iron girdle, melting into grease. It smelled wonderful.

Saliva flooded my mouth, absorbed at once into the wad of fabric, and despite discomfort, the smell of food bolstered my spirits a little. My stays, loosened by the travel of the last twenty-four hours, had tightened again as the wet laces dried and shrank. My skin itched beneath the fabric, but the thin ribs of the boning did give me a sense of support, more than welcome at the moment.

Mr. Brown’s two nephews—Aaron and Moses, I had learned—limped slowly into camp, a makeshift stretcher sagging between them. They set it gratefully down beside the fire, evoking a loud yell from the contents.

Mr. Brown had survived the river crossing, but it hadn’t done him any good. Of course, I had told them he should be kept well-hydrated. The thought undid me, tired as I was, and I made a muffled snorting sound behind my gag.

One of the young lads nearby heard me, and reached tentatively for the knot of my gag, but dropped his hand at once when Hodgepile barked at him.

“Leave her!”

“But—don’t she need to eat, Hodge?” The boy glanced uneasily at me.

“Not just yet she doesn’t.” Hodgepile squatted down in front of me, looking me over. “Learned your lesson yet, ’ave you?”

I didn’t move. Just sat and looked at him, infusing my gaze with as much scorn as possible. The cut on my finger burned; my palms had begun to sweat—but I stared. He tried to stare back, but couldn’t do it—his eyes kept slipping away.

That made him even angrier; a flush burned high on his bony cheeks.

“Stop looking at me!”

I blinked slowly, once, and kept looking, with what I hoped appeared to be interested dispassion. He was looking rather strained, our Mr. Hodgepile was. Dark circles under the eyes, muscle fibers bracketing his mouth like lines carved in wood. Sweat stains wet and hot beneath the armpits. Constant browbeating must take it out of one.

All at once, he stood up, grabbed me by the arm, and yanked me to my feet.

“I’ll put you where you can’t stare, bitch,” he muttered, and marched me past the fire, shoving me ahead of him. A little way outside the camp, he found a tree to his liking. He untied my hands and rebound my wrists, with a loop of line wrapped round my waist and my hands fastened to it. Then he pushed me down into a seated position, fashioned a crude noose with a slipknot, and put it round my neck, tying the free end to the tree.

“So as you won’t wander away,” he said, pulling the rough hemp snug around my neck. “Shouldn’t want you to get lost. Might be eaten by a bear, and then what, eh?” This had quite restored his humor; he laughed immoderately, and was still chuckling when he left. He turned, though, to glance back at me. I sat upright, staring, and the humor abruptly left his face. He turned and strode off, shoulders stiff as wood.

In spite of hunger, thirst, and general discomfort, I actually felt a sense of profound, if momentary, relief. If I was not strictly speaking alone, I was at least unobserved, and even this modicum of privacy was balm.

I was a good twenty yards from the fire ring, out of sight of all the men. I sagged against the tree trunk, the muscles of face and body giving way all at once, and a shiver seized me, though it wasn’t cold.

Soon. Surely Jamie would find me soon. Unless—I pushed the dubious thought aside as though it were a venomous scorpion. Likewise any thought of what had happened to Marsali, or might happen if and when—no, when—he did find us. I didn’t know how he’d manage, but he would. He just would.

The sun was nearly down; shadows were pooling under the trees and the light faded slowly from the air, making colors fugitive and solid objects lose their depth. There was rushing water somewhere nearby, and the calling of the occasional bird in the distant trees. These began to fall silent as the evening cooled, replaced by the rising chirp of crickets near at hand. My eye caught the flicker of movement, and I saw a rabbit, gray as the dusk, sitting up on its hind legs under a bush a few feet distant, nose twitching.

The sheer normalcy of it all made my eyes sting. I blinked away the tears, and the rabbit was gone.

The sight of it had restored my nerve a little; I essayed a few experiments, to see the limits of my present bondage. My legs were free—that was good. I could rise up into a sort of ungainly squat, and duck-waddle round the tree. Even better; I would be able to relieve myself in privacy on the far side.

Loading...