A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 24

   

I could not, however, rise entirely to my feet, nor could I reach the knot of the line that circled the tree trunk; the rope either slid or caught on the bark, but in either case, the knot remained frustratingly on the opposite side of the trunk—which had to measure nearly three feet in diameter.

I had about two feet of line between the trunk and the noose about my neck; enough to allow me to lie down, or to turn from side to side. Hodgepile was rather obviously well-acquainted with convenient methods of restraining captives; I thought of the O’Brians’ homestead, and the two bodies there. The two elder children missing. A small shudder passed over me again.

Where were they? Sold to one of the Indian tribes as slaves? Taken to a sailors’ brothel in one of the coastal towns? Or onto a ship, to be pressed into use on the sugar plantations of the Indies?

I was under no illusions that any of these picturesquely unpleasant fates lay in store for me. I was much too old, much too obstreperous—and much too notorious. No, the only value I held for Hodgepile was my knowledge of the whisky cache. Once he had got within sniffing distance of that, he would slit my throat without a moment’s compunction.

The smell of roasting meat floated through the air, flooding my mouth with fresh saliva—a welcome relief, in spite of the growling of my stomach, since the gag dried my mouth unpleasantly.

A tiny jolt of panic tensed my muscles. I didn’t want to think about the gag. Or the ropes around my wrists and neck. It would be too easy to succumb to the panic of confinement, and exhaust myself in futile struggle. I had to preserve my strength; I didn’t know when or how I would need it, but need it I surely would. Soon, I prayed. Let it be soon.

The men had settled to their supper, the contentions of the day sunk in appetite. They were far enough away that I couldn’t hear the particulars of their conversation, but only the stray word or phrase borne on the evening breeze. I turned my head to let the breeze smooth the hair from my face, and found that I could see a long, narrow swath of sky above the distant gorge, gone a deep, unearthly blue, as though the fragile layer of atmosphere that covered the earth grew thinner still, and the darkness of space beyond shone through.

The stars began to prick out, one by one, and I managed to lose myself in watching, counting them as they appeared, one by one by one . . . touching them as I might the beads of a rosary, and saying to myself such astronomical names as I knew, comforting in their sound, even though I had no idea whether such names bore any relation to the celestial bodies I saw. Alpha Centauri, Deneb, Sirius, Betelgeuse, the Pleiades, Orion . . .

I succeeded in soothing myself to the extent that I dozed off, only to rouse some time later to find it now full dark. The light of the fire sent a flickering glow through the underbrush, painting my feet, which lay in an open spot, with rosy shadows. I stirred and stretched myself as well as I could, trying to relieve the stiffness in my back, and wondered whether Hodgepile thought himself safe now, to be allowing such a large fire?

A loud groan came to me on the wind—Lionel Brown. I grimaced, but there was nothing I could do for him in my present condition.

I heard shuffling and a murmur of voices; someone was attending to him.

“. . . hot as a pistol . . .” one voice said, sounding only mildly concerned.

“. . . fetch the woman? . . .”

“No,” said a definite voice. Hodgepile. I sighed.

“. . . water. No help for that . . .”

I was listening so intently, in hopes of hearing what was happening by the fire, that it was some time before I became aware of noises in the brush nearby. Not animals; only bears would make that much noise, and bears didn’t giggle. The giggling was subdued, not only muffled but repeatedly interrupted.

There was whispering, too, though I couldn’t make out most of the words. The overall atmosphere was so much one of excited juvenile conspiracy, though, that I knew it must be some of the younger members of the gang.

“. . . go on, then!” I caught, spoken in a vehement tone, and accompanied by a crashing noise, indicating that someone had been pushed into a tree. Another crash, indicating retaliation.

More rustling. Whisper, whisper, snigger, snort. I sat up straight, wondering what in God’s name they were up to.

Then I heard, “Her legs aren’t tied . . .” and my heart gave a small jump.

“But what if she . . .” mumble, mumble.

“Won’t matter. She can’t scream.”

That came through very clearly, and I jerked my feet back to scramble up—only to be brought up short by the noose around my neck. It felt like an iron bar across my windpipe, and I fell back, seeing blood-red blotches at the corners of my eyes.

I shook my head and gulped air, trying to shake off the dizziness, adrenaline racing through my blood. I felt a hand on my ankle, and kicked out sharply.

“Hey!” he said out loud, sounding surprised. He took his hand off my ankle and sat back a little. My vision was clearing; I could see him now, but the firelight was behind him; it was one of the young lads, but no more than a faceless, hunched silhouette in front of me.

“Shh,” he said, and giggled nervously, reaching out a hand toward me. I made a deep growling noise behind my gag, and he stopped, frozen in mid-reach. There was a rustling in the brush behind him.

This seemed to remind him that his friend—or friends—were watching, and he reached out with renewed resolution, patting me on the thigh.

“Don’t you worry, ma’am,” he whispered, duck-walking closer on his heels, “I don’t mean you no harm.”

I snorted, and he hesitated again—but then another rustle from the bush seemed to stiffen his resolve, and he grasped me by the shoulders, trying to make me lie down. I struggled hard, kicking and kneeing at him, and he lost his grip, lost his balance, and fell on his backside.

A muffled explosion of sniggering from the bush brought him up on his feet like a jack-in-the-box. He reached down with decision, seized my ankles, and yanked, jerking me flat. Then he flung himself on top of me, pinning me with his weight.

“Hush!” he said urgently into my ear. His hands were grappling for my throat, and I squirmed and thrashed under his weight, trying to buck him off. His hands closed tight on my neck, though, and I stopped, my vision going black and bloody once again.

“Hush, now,” he said more quietly. “You just hush, ma’am, all right?” I was making small choking noises, which he must have taken for assent, for his grip slackened.

“I ain’t gonna hurt you, ma’am, I really ain’t,” he whispered, trying to hold me down with one hand while fumbling about between us with the other. “Would you just be still, please?”

I wouldn’t, and he finally put a forearm across my throat and leaned on it. Not hard enough to make me black out again, but hard enough to take some of the fight out of me. He was thin and wiry, but very strong, and by dint of simple determination, succeeded in pushing up my shift and wedging his knee between my thighs.

He was breathing nearly as hard as I was, and I could smell the goaty reek of his excitement. His hands had left my throat, and were feverishly grasping at my br**sts, in a manner that made it reasonably clear that the only other breast he’d ever touched was likely his mother’s.

“Hush, now, don’t you be scared, ma’am, it’s all right, I ain’t . . . oh. Oh, my. I . . . uh . . . oh.” His hand was poking about between my thighs, then left off momentarily as he raised himself briefly and wriggled down his breeches.

He collapsed heavily on top of me, h*ps pumping frantically as he thrust madly away—making no contact save that of friction, as he very obviously had no idea of the way in which female anatomy was constructed. I lay still, astonished into immobility, then felt a warm pulse of liquid under my thighs as he lost himself in panting ecstasy.

All the wiry tension went out of him in a rush, and he subsided on my chest like a limp balloon. I could feel his young heart pounding like a steam hammer, and his temple was pressed against my cheek, damp with sweat.

I found the intimacy of this contact quite as objectionable as the softening presence wedged between my thighs, and rolled abruptly to the side, dumping him off. He came to life suddenly, and scrambled to his knees, yanking at his drooping breeches.

He swayed to and fro for a moment, then dropped to his hands and knees and crawled up close beside me.

“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” he whispered.

I made no move, and after a moment, he reached out a tentative hand and patted me gently on the shoulder.

“I’m real sorry,” he repeated, still whispering, and then was gone, leaving me lying on my back in a puddle, wondering whether such an incompetent assault could legitimately be termed rape.

Distant rustling in the bushes, accompanied by muffled whoops of young male delight, decided me firmly that it could. Christ, the rest of the obnoxious little beasts would be at me in no time. Panicked, I sat up, mindful of the noose.

The glow from the fire was irregular and flickering, barely enough to make out the trunks of trees and the pale layer of needles and leaf mold on the ground. Enough to see the protrusions of granite boulders through the leaf layer, and the occasional hump of a fallen twig. Not that the lack of potential weapons mattered, given that my hands were still firmly tied.

The weight of the young assailant had made things worse; the knots had pulled tighter during my struggles, and my hands throbbed with lack of circulation. My fingers were beginning to go numb at the tips. Bloody hell. Was I about to lose several fingers to gangrene, as a result of this absurdity?

For an instant, I contemplated the wisdom of behaving compliantly with the next horrible little boy, in hopes that he would remove the gag. If he would, I could at least beg him to loosen the ropes—and then scream for help, in hopes that Tebbe would come and stop further assault, out of fear of my eventual supernatural revenge.

Here he came, a stealthy rustling in the bushes. I gritted my teeth on the gag and looked up, but the shadowy form in front of me wasn’t one of the young boys.

The only thought that came to mind when I realized who the new visitor was was, Jamie Fraser, you bastard, where are you?

I froze, as though not moving might somehow render me invisible. The man moved in front of me, squatting down so as to look into my face.

“Not laughin’ so much now, are you?” he said conversationally. It was Boble, the erstwhile thieftaker. “You and your husband thought it was damn funny, didn’t you, what them German women did to me? And then Mr. Fraser tellin’ me as they meant to make sausage meat of me, and him with a face like a Christian readin’ the Bible. Thought that was funny, too, didn’t you?”

To be perfectly honest, it had been funny. He was quite correct, though; I wasn’t laughing now. He drew back his arm and slapped me.

The blow made my eyes water, but the fire lit him from the side; I could still see the smile on his pudgy face. A cold qualm ran through me, making me shudder. He saw that, and the smile broadened. His canine teeth were short and blunt, so the incisors stood out by contrast, long and yellowed, rodentlike.

“Reckon you’ll think this is even funnier,” he said, rising to his feet and reaching for his flies. “Hope Hodge don’t kill you right away, so you get to tell your husband about it. Bet you he’ll enjoy the joke, man with a sense of humor like he’s got.”

The boy’s sem*n was still damp and sticky on my thighs. I jerked back by reflex, trying to scramble to my feet, but was brought up short by the noose round my neck. My vision went dark for an instant as the rope tightened on my carotids, then cleared, and I found Boble’s face inches from mine, his breath hot on my skin.

He seized my chin in his hand and rubbed his face over mine, biting at my lips and rasping the stubble of his beard hard across my cheeks. Then he drew back, leaving my face wet with his saliva, pushed me flat, and climbed on top of me.

I could feel the violence in him, pulsing like an exposed heart, thin-walled and ready to burst. I knew I couldn’t escape or prevent him—knew he would hurt me, given the slightest excuse. The only thing to do was be still and endure him.

I couldn’t. I heaved under him and rolled to the side, bringing up my knee as he pushed my shift aside. It hit him a glancing blow in the thigh, and he drew back his fist by reflex and punched me in the face, sharp and quick.

Red-black pain bloomed sudden from the center of my face, filled my head, and I went blind, shocked into momentary immobility. You utter fool, I thought, with total clarity. Now he’ll kill you. The second blow struck my cheek and snapped my head to the side. Perhaps I moved again in blind resistance, perhaps I didn’t.

Suddenly he was kneeling astride me, punching and slapping, blows dull and heavy as the thump of ocean waves on sand, too remote as yet for pain. I twisted, curling, bringing up my shoulder and trying to shield my face against the ground, and then his weight was gone.

He was standing. He was kicking me and cursing, panting and half-sobbing as his boot thudded into sides and back and thighs and buttocks. I panted in short gasps, trying to breathe. My body jerked and quivered with each blow, skidding on the leaf-strewn ground, and I clung to the sense of the ground below me, trying so hard to sink down, be swallowed by the earth.

Then it stopped. I could hear him panting, trying to speak. “Goddamn . . . goddamn . . . oh, goddamn . . . frig . . . friggin’ . . . bitch. . .”

I lay inert, trying to disappear into the darkness that enveloped me, knowing that he was going to kick me in the head. I could feel my teeth shatter, the fragile bones of my skull splinter and collapse into the wet soft pulp of my brain, and I trembled, clenching my teeth in futile resistance against the impact. It would sound like a melon being smashed, dull, sticky-hollow. Would I hear it?

It didn’t come. There was another sound, a fast, hard rustling that made no sense. A faintly meaty sound, flesh on flesh in a soft smacking rhythm, and then he gave a groan and warm gouts of fluid fell wet on my face and shoulders, splattering on bare skin where the cloth of my shift had torn away.

I was frozen. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the detached observer wondered aloud whether this was in fact the single most disgusting thing I had ever encountered. Well, no, it wasn’t. Some of the things I had seen at L’Hôpital des Anges, to say nothing of Father Alexandre’s death, or the Beardsleys’ attic . . . the field hospital at Amiens . . . heavens, no, this wasn’t even close.

I lay rigid, eyes shut, recalling various nasty experiences of my past and wishing I were in fact in attendance at one of those events, instead of here.

He leaned over, seized my hair, and banged my head several times against the tree, wheezing as he did so.

“Show you . . .” he muttered, then dropped his hand and I heard shuffling noises as he staggered away.

When I finally opened my eyes again, I was alone.

I REMAINED ALONE, a small mercy. Boble’s violent attack seemed to have frightened away the boys.

I rolled onto my side and lay still, breathing. I felt very tired, and utterly forlorn.

Jamie, I thought, where are you?

I wasn’t afraid of what might happen next; I couldn’t see any further than the moment I was in, a single breath, a single heartbeat. I didn’t think, and wouldn’t feel. Not yet. I just lay still, and breathed.

Very slowly I began to notice small things. A fragment of bark caught in my hair, scratchy on my cheek. The give of the thick dead leaves beneath me, cradling my body. The sense of effort as my chest lifted. Increasing effort.

A tiny nerve began to twitch near one eye.

I realized quite suddenly that with the gag in my mouth and my nasal tissues being rapidly congested by blood and swelling, I was in some actual danger of suffocation. I twisted as far onto my side as I could get without strangling, and rubbed my face first against the ground, then—with increasing desperation—dug my heels into the ground and wriggled upward, scraping my face hard against the bark of the tree, trying without success to loosen or dislodge the gag.

The bark rasped lip and cheek, but the kerchief tied round my head was so tight that it cut hard into the corners of my mouth, forcing it open so that saliva leaked constantly into the wad of fabric in my mouth. I gagged at the tickle of sodden cloth in my throat, and felt vomit burn the back of my nose.

You aren’t, you aren’t, you aren’tyouaren’tyou aren’t going to vomit! I dragged air bubbling through my bloody nose, tasted thick copper as it slimed down my throat, gagged harder, doubled up—and saw white light at the edge of vision, as the noose went tight around my throat.

I fell back, my head hitting hard against the tree. I hardly noticed; the noose loosened again, thank God, and I managed one, two, three precious breaths of blood-clogged air.

My nose was puffed from cheekbone to cheekbone, and swelling fast. I clenched my teeth on the gag and blew outward through my nose, trying to clear it, if only for a moment. Blood tinged with bile sprayed warm across my chin and splattered on my chest—and I sucked air fast, getting a bit.

Blow, inhale. Blow, inhale. Blow . . . but my nasal passages were almost swollen shut by now, and I nearly sobbed in panic and frustration, as no air came.

Christ, don’t cry! You’re dead if you cry, for God’s sake don’t cry!

Blow . . . blow . . . I snorted with the last reserve of stale air in my lungs, and got a hair of clearance, enough to fill them once more.

I held my breath, trying to stay conscious long enough to discover a way to breathe—there had to be a way to breathe.

I would not let a wretch like Harley Boble kill me by simple inadvertence. That wasn’t right; it couldn’t be.

I pressed myself, half-sitting, up against the tree to ease the strain on the noose around my neck as much as possible, and let my head fall forward, so that the blood from my nose ran down, dripping. That helped, a little. Not for long, though.

My eyelids began to feel tight; my nose was definitely broken, and the flesh all round the upper part of my face was puffing now, swelling with the blood and lymph of capillary trauma, squeezing my eyes shut, further constricting my thread of air.

I bit the gag in an agony of frustration, then, seized by desperation, began to chew at it, grinding the fabric between my teeth, trying to smash it down, compress it, shift it somehow inside my mouth. . . . I bit the inside of my cheek and felt the pain but didn’t mind, it wasn’t important, nothing mattered but breath, oh, God, I couldn’t breathe, please help me breathe, please. . . .

I bit my tongue, gasped in pain—and realized that I had succeeded in thrusting my tongue past the gag, reaching the tip of it to the corner of my mouth. By poking as hard as I could with my tongue tip, I had made a tiny channel of air. No more than a wisp of oxygen could ooze through it—but it was air, and that was all that mattered.

I had my head canted painfully to one side, forehead pressed against the tree, but was afraid to move at all, for fear of losing my slender lifeline of air, if the gag should shift when I moved my head. I sat still, hands clenched, drawing long, gurgling, horribly shallow breaths, and wondering how long I could stay this way; the muscles of my neck were already quivering from strain.

My hands were throbbing again—they hadn’t ever stopped, I supposed, but I hadn’t had attention to spare for them. Now I did, and momentarily welcomed the shooting pains that outlined each nail with liquid fire, for distraction from the deadly stiffness spreading down my neck and through my shoulder.

The muscles of my neck jumped and spasmed; I gasped, lost my air, and arched my body bowlike, fingers dug into the binding ropes as I fought to get it back.

A hand came down on my arm. I hadn’t heard him approach. I turned blindly, butting at him with my head. I didn’t care who he was or what he wanted, provided he would remove the gag. Rape seemed a perfectly reasonable exchange for survival, at least at the moment.

I made desperate noises, whimpering, snorting, and spewing gouts of blood and snot as I shook my head violently, trying to indicate that I was choking—given the level of sexual incompetence so far demonstrated, he might not even realize that I couldn’t breathe, and simply proceed about his business, unaware that simple rape was becoming necrophilia.

He was fumbling round my head. Thank God, thank God! I held myself still with superhuman effort, head swimming as little bursts of fire went off inside my eyeballs. Then the strip of fabric came away and I thrust the wad of cloth out of my mouth by reflex, instantly gagged, and threw up, whooping air and retching simultaneously.

I hadn’t eaten; no more than a thread of bile seared my throat and ran down my chin. I choked and swallowed and breathed, sucking air in huge, greedy, lung-bursting gulps.

He was saying something, whispering urgently. I didn’t care, couldn’t listen. All I heard was the grateful wheeze of my own breathing, and the thump of my heart. Finally slowing from its frantic race to keep oxygen moving round my starved tissues, it pounded hard enough to shake my body.

Then a word or two got through to me, and I lifted my head, staring at him.

“Whad?” I said thickly. I coughed, shaking my head to try to clear it. It hurt very much. “What did you say?”

He was visible only as a ragged, lion-haired silhouette, bony-shouldered in the faint glow from the fire.

“I said,” he whispered, leaning close, “does the name ‘Ringo Starr’ mean anything to you?”

I WAS BY THIS TIME well beyond shock. I merely wiped my split lip gingerly on my shoulder, and said, very calmly, “Yes.”

He had been holding his breath; I realized it only when I heard the sigh as he released it, and saw his shoulders slump.

“Oh, God,” he said, half under his breath. “Oh, God.”

He lunged forward suddenly and caught me against him in a hard embrace. I recoiled, choking as the noose round my neck tightened once again, but he didn’t notice, absorbed in his own emotion.

“Oh, God,” he said, and buried his face in my shoulder, nearly sobbing. “Oh, God. I knew, I knew you hadda be, I knew it, but I couldn’t believe it, oh, God, oh, God, oh, God! I didn’t think I’d ever find another one, not ever—”

“Kk,” I said. I arched my back, urgently.

“Wha—oh, shit!” He let go and grabbed for the rope around my neck. He scrabbled hold of it and yanked the noose over my head, nearly tearing my ear off in the process, but I didn’t mind. “Shit, you okay?”

“Yes,” I croaked. “Un . . . tie me.”

He sniffed, wiping his nose on his sleeve, and glanced back over his shoulder.

“I can’t,” he whispered. “The next guy who comes along’ll see.”

“The next guy?” I screamed, as well as I could scream in a strangled whisper. “What do you mean, the next—”

“Well, you know. . . .” It seemed suddenly to dawn on him that I might have objections to waiting tamely like a trussed turkey for the next would-be r**ist in the lineup. “Er . . . I mean . . . well, never mind. Who are you?”

“You know damn well who I am,” I croaked furiously, shoving him with my bound hands. “I’m Claire Fraser. Who in bloody hell are you, what are you doing here, and if you want one more word out of me, you’ll bloody well untie me this minute!”

He turned again to glance apprehensively over his shoulder, and it occurred to me vaguely that he was afraid of his so-called comrades. So was I. I could see his profile in silhouette; it was indeed the bushy-haired young Indian, the one I had thought might be a Tuscaroran. Indian . . . some connection clicked into place, deep in the tangled synapses.

“Bloody hell,” I said, and dabbed at a trickle of blood that ran from the raw corner of my mouth. “Otter-Toof. Tooth. You’re one of his.”

“What?!” His head swung back to face me, eyes so wide the whites showed briefly. “Who?”

“Oh, what in hell was his real name? Robert . . . Robert th-something . . .” I was trembling with fury, terror, shock, and exhaustion, groping through the muddled remnants of what used to be my mind. Wreck though I might be, I remembered Otter-Tooth, all right. I had a sudden vivid memory of being alone in the dark, on a night like this, wet with rain and all alone, a long-buried skull cupped in my hands.

“Springer,” he said, and gripped my arm eagerly. “Springer—was that it? Robert Springer?”

I had just enough presence of mind to clamp my jaw, thrust out my chin, and hold up my bound hands in front of him. Not another word until he cut me loose.

“Shit,” he muttered again, and with another hasty glance behind him, fumbled for his knife. He wasn’t skillful with it. If I had needed any evidence that he wasn’t a real Indian of the time . . . but he got my hands free without cutting me, and I doubled up with a groan, hands tucked under my armpits as the blood surged into them. They felt like balloons filled and stretched to the point of bursting.

“When?” he demanded, paying no attention to my distress. “When did you come? Where did you find Bob? Where is he?”

“1946,” I said, squeezing my arms down tight on my throbbing hands. “The first time. 1968, the second. As for Mr. Springer—”

“The second—did you say the second time?” His voice rose in astonishment. He choked it off, looking guiltily back, but the sounds of the men dicing and arguing round the fire were more than loud enough to drown out a simple exclamation.

“Second time,” he repeated more softly. “So you did it? You went back?”

I nodded, pressing my lips together and rocking back and forth a little. I thought my fingernails would pop off with each heartbeat.

“What about you?” I asked, though I was fairly sure that I already knew.

“1968,” he said, confirming it.

“What year did you turn up in?” I asked. “I mean—how long have you been here? Er . . . now, I mean.”

“Oh, God.” He sat back on his heels, running a hand back through his long, tangled hair. “I been here six years, as near as I can tell. But you said—second time. If you made it home, why in hell’d you come back? Oh—wait. You didn’t make it home, you went to another time, but not the one you came from? Where’d you start from?”

“Scotland, 1946. And no, I made it home,” I said, not wanting to go into details. “My husband was here, though. I came back on purpose, to be with him.” A decision whose wisdom seemed presently in severe doubt.

“And speaking of my husband,” I added, beginning to feel as though I might possess a few shreds of sanity after all, “I was not joking. He’s coming. You don’t want him to find you keeping me captive, I assure you. But if you—”

He disregarded this, leaning eagerly toward me.

“But that means you know how it works! You can steer!”

“Something like that,” I said, impatient. “I take it that you and your companions didn’t know how to steer, as you put it?” I massaged one hand with the other, gritting my teeth against the throb of blood. I could feel the furrows the rope had left in my flesh.

“We thought we did.” Bitterness tinged his voice. “Singing stones. Gemstones. That’s what we used. Raymond said . . . It didn’t work, though. Or maybe . . . maybe it did.” He was making deductions; I could hear the excitement rising again in his tone.

“You met Bob Springer—Otter-Tooth, I mean. So he did make it! And if he made it, maybe the others did, too. See, I thought they were all dead. I thought—thought I was alone.” There was a catch in his voice, and despite the urgency of the situation and my annoyance at him, I felt a pang of sympathy. I knew very well what it felt like to be alone in that way, marooned in time.

In a way, I hated to disillusion him, but there was no point in keeping the truth from him.

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