A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 25

   

“Otter-Tooth is dead, I’m afraid.”

He suddenly stopped moving and sat very still. The faint glow of firelight through the trees outlined him; I could see his face. A few long hairs lifted in the breeze. They were the only thing that moved.

“How?” he said at last, in a small, choked voice.

“Killed by the Iroquois,” I said. “The Mohawk.” My mind was beginning, very slowly, to work again. Six years ago, this man—whoever he was—had come. 1767, that would be. And yet Otter-Tooth, the man who had once been Robert Springer, had died more than a generation earlier. They’d started out together, but ended in different times.

“Shit,” he said, though the obvious distress in his voice was mingled with something like awe. “That would have been a real bummer, especially for Bob. He, like, idolized those guys.”

“Yes, I expect he was most put out about it,” I replied, rather dryly. My eyelids felt thick and heavy. It was an effort to force them open, but I could still see. I glanced at the fire glow, but couldn’t see anything beyond the faint movement of shadows in the distance. If there actually was a lineup of men waiting for my services, at least they were tactfully keeping out of sight. I doubted it, and gave silent thanks that I wasn’t twenty years younger—there might have been.

“I met some Iroquois—Christ, I went looking for ’em, if you can believe that! That was the whole point, see, to find the Iroquois tribes and get them to—”

“Yes, I know what you had in mind,” I interrupted. “Look, this is not really the time or place for a long discussion. I think that—”

“Those Iroquois are some nasty tumblers, I tell you, man,” he said, jabbing me in the chest with a finger for emphasis. “You wouldn’t believe what they do to—”

“I know. So is my husband.” I gave him a glare, which—judging from the way he flinched—was probably rendered highly effective by the state of my face. I hoped so; it hurt a lot to do it.

“Now, what you want to do,” I said, mustering as much authority into my voice as I could, “is to go back to the fire, wait for a bit, then leave casually, sneak round, and get two horses. I hear a stream down there—” I waved briefly to the right. “I’ll meet you there. Once we’re safely away, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

In fact, I probably couldn’t tell him anything very helpful, but he didn’t know that. I heard him swallow.

“I don’t know . . .” he said uncertainly, glancing round again. “Hodge, he’s kind of gnarly. He shot one guy, a few days ago. Didn’t even say anything, just walked up to him, pulled his gun, and boom!”

“What for?”

He shrugged, shaking his head.

“I don’t even know, man. Just . . . boom, you know?”

“I know,” I assured him, holding on to temper and sanity by a thread. “Look, let’s not trouble with the horses, then. Let’s just go.” I lurched awkwardly onto one knee, hoping that I would be able to rise in a few moments, let alone walk. The big muscles in my thighs were knotted hard in the spots where Boble had kicked me; trying to stand made the muscles jump and quiver in spasms that effectively hamstrung me.

“Shit, not now!” In his agitation, the young man seized my arm and jerked me down beside him. I hit the ground hard on one hip and let out a cry of pain.

“You all right there, Donner?” The voice came out of the darkness somewhere behind me. It was casual—obviously one of the men had merely stepped out of camp to relieve himself—but the effect on the young Indian was galvanizing. He flung himself full-length upon me, banging my head on the ground and knocking all the breath out of me.

“Fine . . . really . . . great,” he called to his companion, gasping in an exaggerated manner, evidently trying to sound like a man in the throes of half-completed lust. He sounded like someone dying of asthma, but I wasn’t complaining. I couldn’t.

I’d been knocked on the head a few times, and generally saw nothing but blackness as a result. This time I honestly did see colored stars, and lay limp and bemused, feeling as though I sat tranquilly some distance above my battered body. Then Donner laid a hand on my breast and I came instantly back to earth.

“Let go of me this instant!” I hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Hey, hey, nothing, nothing, sorry,” he assured me hastily. He removed the hand, but didn’t get off me. He squirmed a bit, and I realized that he was aroused by the contact, whether intended or not.

“Get off!” I said, in a furious whisper.

“Hey, I don’t mean anything, I mean I wouldn’t hurt you or nothing. It’s just I haven’t had a woman in—”

I grabbed a handful of his hair, lifted my head, and bit his ear, hard. He shrieked and rolled off me.

The other man had gone back toward the fire. At this, though, he turned and called back, “Christ, Donner, is she that good? I’ll have to give her a try!” This got a laugh from the men by the fire, but luckily it died away and they returned to their own concerns. I returned to mine, which was escape.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Donner whined in an undertone, holding his ear. “I wasn’t going to do anything! Christ, you got nice tits, but you’re like old enough to be my mother!”

“Shut up!” I said, pushing myself to a sitting position. The effort made my head spin; tiny colored lights flickered like Christmas-tree bulbs at the edge of my vision. In spite of this, some part of my mind was actively working again.

He was at least partly right. We couldn’t leave immediately. After drawing so much attention to himself, the others would be expecting him to come back within a few minutes; if he didn’t, they’d start looking for him—and we needed more than a few minutes’ start.

“We can’t go now,” he whispered, rubbing his ear reproachfully. “They’ll notice. Wait ’til they go to sleep. I’ll come get you then.”

I hesitated. I was in mortal danger every moment that I spent within reach of Hodgepile and his feral gang. If I had needed any convincing, the encounters of the last two hours had demonstrated that. This Donner needed to go back to the fire and show himself—but I could steal away. Was it worth the risk that someone would come and find me gone, before I had got beyond pursuit? It would be more certain to wait until they slept. But did I dare wait that long?

And then there was Donner himself. If he wanted to talk to me, I certainly wanted to talk to him. The chance of stumbling on another time-traveler . . .

Donner read my hesitation, but misunderstood it.

“You’re not going without me!” He grabbed my wrist in sudden alarm, and before I could jerk away, had whipped a bit of the cut line around it. I fought and pulled away, hissing to try to make him understand, but he was panicked at the thought that I might slip away without him, and wouldn’t listen. Hampered by my injuries, and unwilling to make enough noise to draw attention, I could only delay but not prevent his determined efforts to tie me up again.

“Okay.” He was sweating; a drop fell warm on my face as he leaned over me to check the bindings. At least he hadn’t put the noose round my neck again, instead tethering me to the tree with a rope around my waist.

“I shoulda known what you are,” he murmured, intent on his job. “Even before you said ‘Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.’”

“What the hell do you mean by that?” I snapped, squirming away from his hand. “Don’t bloody do that—I’ll suffocate!” He was trying to put the cloth strip back in my mouth, but seemed to pick up the note of panic in my voice, because he hesitated.

“Oh,” he said uncertainly. “Well. I guess—” Once again, he looked back over his shoulder, but then made up his mind and dropped the gag on the ground. “Okay. But you be quiet, all right? What I meant—you don’t act afraid of men. Most of the women from now do. You oughta act more afraid.”

And with that parting shot, he rose and brushed dead leaves from his clothes before heading back to the fire.

THERE COMES A POINT when the body has simply had enough. It snatches at sleep, no matter what menace the future may hold. I’d seen that happen: the Jacobite soldiers who slept in the ditches where they fell, the British pilots who slept in their planes while mechanics fueled them, only to leap to full alert again in time to take off. For that matter, women in long labor routinely sleep between contractions.

In the same manner, I slept.

That kind of sleep is neither deep nor peaceful, though. I came out of it with a hand across my mouth.

The fourth man was neither incompetent nor brutal. He was large and soft-bodied, and he had loved his dead wife. I knew that, because he wept into my hair, and called me by her name at the end. It was Martha.

I CAME OUT of sleep again sometime later. Instantly, fully conscious, heart pounding. But it wasn’t my heart—it was a drum.

Sounds of startlement came from the direction of the fire, men rousing in alarm from sleep.

“Indians!” someone shouted, and the light broke and flared, as someone kicked at the fire to scatter it.

It wasn’t an Indian drum. I sat up, listening hard. It was a drum with a sound like a beating heart, slow and rhythmic, then trip-hammer fast, like the frantic surge of a hunted beast.

I could have told them that Indians never used drums as weapons; Celts did. It was the sound of a bodhran.

What next? I thought, a trifle hysterically, bagpipes?

It was Roger, certainly; only he could make a drum talk like that. It was Roger, and Jamie was nearby. I scrambled to my feet, wanting, needing urgently to move. I jerked at the rope around my waist in a frenzy of impatience, but I was going nowhere.

Another drum began, slower, less skilled, but equally menacing. The sound seemed to move—it was moving. Fading, coming back full force. A third drum began, and now the thumping seemed to come from everywhere, fast, slow, mocking.

Someone fired a gun into the forest, panicked.

“Hold, there!” Hodgepile’s voice came, loud and furious, but to no avail; there was a popcorn rattle of gunfire, nearly drowned by the sound of the drums. I heard a snick near my head, and a cluster of needles brushed past me as it fell. It dawned on me that standing upright while guns were blindly fired all round me was a dangerous strategy, and I promptly fell flat, burrowing into the dead needles, trying to keep the trunk of the tree betwixt me and the main body of men.

The drums were weaving, now closer, now farther, the sound unnerving even to one who knew what it was. They were circling the camp, or so it seemed. Should I call out, if they came near enough?

I was saved from the agony of decision; the men were making so much noise round the campfire that I couldn’t have been heard if I’d screamed myself hoarse. They were calling out in alarm, shouting questions, bellowing orders—which apparently went ignored, judging from the ongoing sounds of confusion.

Someone blundered through the brush nearby, running from the drums. One, two more—the sound of gasping breath and crunching footsteps. Donner? The thought came to me suddenly and I sat up, then fell flat again as another shot whistled past overhead.

The drums stopped abruptly. Chaos reigned around the fire, though I could hear Hodgepile trying to get his men in order, yelling and threatening, nasal voice raised above the rest. Then the drums began again—much closer.

They were drawing in, drawing together, somewhere out in the forest on my left, and the mocking tip-tap-tip-tap beating had changed. They were thundering now. No skill, just menace. Coming closer.

Guns fired wildly, close enough for me to see the muzzle flash and smell the smoke, thick and hot on the air. The faggots of the fire had been scattered, but still burned, making a muted glow through the trees.

“There they are! I see ’em!” someone yelled from the fire, and there was another burst of musket-fire, toward the drums.

Then the most unearthly howl rose out of the dark to my right. I’d heard Scots scream going into battle before, but that particular Highland shriek made the hairs on my body prickle from tailbone to nape. Jamie. Despite my fears, I sat bolt upright and peered round my sheltering tree, in time to see demons boil out of the wood.

I knew them—knew I knew them—but cowered back at sight of them, blackened with soot and shrieking with the madness of hell, firelight red on the blades of knives and axes.

The drums had stopped abruptly, with the first scream, and now another set of howls broke out to the left, the drummers racing in to the kill. I pressed myself flat back against the tree, heart chokingly huge in my throat, petrified for fear the blades would strike at any random movement in the shadows.

Someone crashed toward me, blundering in the dark—Donner? I croaked his name, hoping to attract his attention, and the slight form turned toward me, hesitated, then spotted me and lunged.

It wasn’t Donner, but Hodgepile. He seized my arm, dragging me up, even as he slashed at the rope that bound me to the tree. He was panting hard with exertion, or fear.

I realized at once what he was about; he knew his chances of escape were slight—having me to hostage was his only hope. But I was damned if I’d be his hostage. No more.

I kicked at him, hard, and caught him on the side of the knee. It didn’t knock him over, but distracted him for a second. I charged him, head down, butted him square in the chest, and sent him flying.

The impact hurt badly, and I staggered, eyes watering from the pain. He was up, and at me again. I kicked, missed, fell heavily on my backside.

“Come on, damn you!” he hissed, jerking hard at my bound hands. I ducked my head, pulled back, and yanked him down with me. I rolled and scrabbled in the leaf mold, trying as hard as I could to wrap my legs around him, meaning to get a grip on his ribs and crush the life out of the filthy little worm, but he squirmed free and rolled atop me, punching at my head, trying to subdue me.

He struck me in one ear and I flinched, eyes shutting in reflex. Then the weight of him was suddenly gone, and I opened my eyes to see Jamie holding Hodgepile several inches off the ground. Hodgepile’s spindly legs churned madly in a futile effort at escape, and I felt an insane desire to laugh.

In fact, I must actually have laughed, for Jamie’s head jerked round to look at me; I caught a glimpse of the whites of his eyes before he turned his attention to Hodgepile again. He was silhouetted against a faint glow from the embers; I saw him in profile for a second, then his body flexed with effort as he bent his head.

He held Hodgepile close against his chest, one arm bent. I blinked; my eyes were swollen half-shut, and I wasn’t sure what he was doing. Then I heard a small grunt of effort, and a strangled shriek from Hodgepile, and saw Jamie’s bent elbow go sharply down.

The dark curve of Hodgepile’s head moved back—and back. I glimpsed the marionette-sharp nose and angled jaw—angled impossibly high, the heel of Jamie’s hand wedged hard beneath it. There was a muffled pop! that I felt in the pit of my stomach as Hodgepile’s neckbones parted, and the marionette went limp.

Jamie flung the puppet body down, reached for me, and pulled me to my feet.

“You are alive, you are whole, mo nighean donn?” he said urgently in Gaelic. He was groping, hands flying over me, trying at the same time to hold me upright—my knees seemed suddenly to have turned to water—and to locate the rope that bound my hands.

I was crying and laughing, snuffing tears and blood, bumping at him with my bound hands, trying awkwardly to thrust them at him so that he could cut the rope.

He quit grappling, and clutched me so hard against him that I yelped in pain as my face was pressed against his plaid.

He was saying something else, urgently, but I couldn’t manage to translate it. Energy pulsed through him, hot and violent, like the current in a live wire, and I vaguely realized that he was still almost berserk; he had no English.

“I’m all right,” I gasped, and he let me go. The light flared up in the clearing beyond the trees; someone had collected the scattered embers, and thrown more kindling on them. His face was black, his eyes picked out blue in a sudden blaze as he turned his head and the light struck his face.

There was still some struggle going on; no screaming now, but I could hear the grunt and thud of bodies locked in combat. Jamie raised my hands, drew his dirk, and sawed through the rope; my hands dropped like lead weights. He stared at me for an instant, as though trying to find words, then shook his head, cupped a hand for an instant to my face, and disappeared, back in the direction of the fight.

I sank down on the ground, dazed. Hodgepile’s body lay nearby, limbs askew. I glanced at it, the picture clear in my mind of a necklace Bree had had as a child, made of linked plastic beads that came apart when you pulled them. Pop-It pearls, they were called. I wished vaguely that I didn’t remember that.

The face was lantern-jawed and hollow-cheeked; he looked surprised, eyes wide open to the flickering light. Something seemed oddly wrong, though, and I squinted, trying to make it out. Then I realized that his head was on backward.

It may have been seconds or minutes that I sat there staring at him, arms round my knees and my mind a total blank. Then the sound of soft footsteps made me look up.

Arch Bug came out of the dark, tall and thin and black against the flicker of a growing fire. I saw that he had an ax gripped hard in his left hand; it too was black, and the smell of blood came strong and rich as he leaned near.

“There are some left still alive,” he said, and I felt something cold and hard touch my hand. “Will ye have your vengeance now upon them, a bana-mhaighistear?”

I looked down and found that he was offering me a dirk, hilt-first. I had stood up, but couldn’t remember rising.

I couldn’t speak, and couldn’t move—and yet my fingers curled without my willing them to, my hand rising up to take the knife as I watched it, faintly curious. Then Jamie’s hand came down upon the dirk, snatching it away, and I saw as from a great distance that the light fell on his hand, gleaming wet with blood smeared past the wrist. Random drops shone red, dark jewels glowing, caught in the curly hairs of his arm.

“There is an oath upon her,” he said to Arch, and I realized dimly that he was still speaking in Gaelic, though I understood him clearly. “She may not kill, save it is for mercy or her life. It is myself who kills for her.”

“And I,” said a tall figure behind him, softly. Ian.

Arch nodded understanding, though his face was still in darkness. Someone else was there beside him—Fergus. I knew him at once, but it took a moment’s struggle for me to put a name to the streaked pale face and wiry figure.

“Madame,” he said, and his voice was thin with shock. “Milady.”

Then Jamie looked at me, and his own face changed, awareness coming back into his eyes. I saw his nostrils flare, as he caught the scent of sweat and sem*n on my clothes.

“Which of them?” he said. “How many?” He spoke in English now, and his voice was remarkably matter-of-fact, as it might be if he were inquiring as to the number of guests expected for dinner, and I found the simple tone of it steadying.

“I don’t know,” I said. “They—it was dark.”

He nodded, squeezed my arm hard, and turned.

“Kill them all,” he said to Fergus, his voice still calm. Fergus’s eyes were huge and dark, sunk into his head, burning. He merely nodded, and took hold of the hatchet in his belt. The front of his shirt was splashed, and the end of his hook looked dark and sticky.

In a distant sort of way, I thought I should say something. But I didn’t. I stood up straight with the tree against my back and said nothing at all.

Jamie glanced at the dirk he held as though to ensure that it was in good order—it was not; he wiped the blade on his thigh, ignoring the drying blood that gummed the wooden hilt—and went back to the clearing.

I stood quite still. There were more sounds, but I paid no more heed to them than to the rush of wind through the needles overhead; it was a balsam tree, and the breath of it was clean and fresh, falling over me in a wash of fragrant resins, powerful enough to taste on my palate, though little penetrated the clotted membranes of my nose. Beneath the gentle veil of the tree’s perfume, I tasted blood, and sodden rags, and the stink of my own weary skin.

Dawn had broken. Birds sang in the distant wood, and light lay soft as wood ash on the ground.

I stood quite still, and thought of nothing but how pleasant it would be to stand neck-deep in hot water, to scrub the skin quite away from my flesh, and let the blood run red and clean down my legs, billowing out in soft clouds that would hide me.

29

PERFECTLY FINE

THEY’D RIDDEN AWAY then. Left them, without burial or word of consecration. In a way, that was more shocking than the killing. Roger had gone with the Reverend to more than one deathbed or scene of accident, helped comfort the bereaved, stood by as the spirit fled and the old man said the words of grace. It was what you did when someone died; turned toward God and at least acknowledged the fact.

And yet . . . how could you stand over the body of a man you’d killed, and look God in the face?

He couldn’t sit. The tiredness filled him like wet sand, but he couldn’t sit.

He stood, picked up the poker, but stood with it in hand, staring at the banked fire on his hearth. It was perfect, satin-black embers crusted with ash, the red heat smothered just beneath. To touch it would break the embers, make the flame leap up—only to die at once, without fuel. A waste of wood, to throw more on, so late at night.

He put the poker down, wandered from one wall to another, an exhausted bee in a bottle, still buzzing, though his wings hung tattered and forlorn.

It hadn’t troubled Fraser. But then, Fraser had ceased even to think of the bandits, directly they were dead; all his thought had been for Claire, and that was surely understandable.

He’d led her through the morning light in that clearing, a blood-soaked Adam, a battered Eve, looking upon the knowledge of good and evil. And then he had wrapped her in his plaid, picked her up, and walked away to his horse.

The men had followed, silent, leading the bandits’ horses behind their own. An hour later, with the sun warm on their backs, Fraser had turned his horse’s head downhill, and led them to a stream. He had dismounted, helped Claire down, then vanished with her through the trees.

The men had exchanged puzzled looks, though no one spoke. Then old Arch Bug had swung down from his mule, saying matter-of-factly, “Well, she’ll want to wash then, no?”

A sigh of comprehension went over the group, and the tension lessened at once, dissolving into the small homely businesses of dismounting, hobbling, girth-checking, spitting, having a piss. Slowly, they sought each other, looking for something to say, searching for relief in commonplace.

He caught Ian’s eye, but they were yet too stiff with each other for this; Ian turned, clapped a hand round Fergus’s shoulder, and hugged him, then pushed him away with a small rude joke about his stink. The Frenchman gave him a tiny smile and lifted the darkened hook in salute.

Kenny Lindsay and old Arch Bug were sharing out tobacco, stuffing their pipes in apparent tranquillity. Tom Christie wandered over to them, pale as a ghost, but pipe in hand. Not for the first time, Roger realized the valuable social aspects of smoking.

Arch had seen him, though, standing aimless near his horse, and come to talk to him, the old man’s voice calm and steadying. He had no real idea what Arch said, let alone what he replied; the simple act of conversation seemed to let him breathe again and still the tremors that ran over him like breaking waves.

Suddenly, the old man broke off what he was saying, and nodded over Roger’s shoulder.

“Go on, lad. He needs ye.”

Roger had turned to see Jamie standing at the far side of the clearing, half-turned away and leaning on a tree, his head bowed in thought. Had he made some sign to Arch? Then Jamie glanced round, and met Roger’s eye. Yes, he wanted him, and Roger found himself standing beside Fraser, with no clear memory of having crossed the ground between them.

Jamie reached out and squeezed his hand, hard, and he held on, squeezing back.

“A word, a cliamhuinn,” Jamie said, and let go. “I wouldna speak so now, but there may be no good time later, and there’s little time to bide.” He sounded calm, too, but not like Arch. There were broken things in his voice; Roger felt the hairy bite of the rope, hearing it, and cleared his own throat.

“Say, then.”

Jamie took a deep breath, and shrugged a bit, as though his shirt were too tight.

“The bairn. It’s no right to ask ye, but I must. Would ye feel the same for him, and ye kent for sure he wasna your own?”

“What?” Roger simply blinked, making no sense whatever of this. “Bai—ye mean Jem?”

Jamie nodded, eyes intent on Roger’s.

“Well, I . . . I dinna ken, quite,” Roger said, baffled as to what this was about. Why? And why now, of all times?

“Think.”

He was thinking, wondering what the hell? Evidently this thought showed, for Fraser ducked his head in acknowledgment of the need to explain himself further.

“I ken . . . it’s no likely, aye? But it’s possible. She might be wi’ child by the night’s work, d’ye see?”

He did see, with a blow like a fist under the breastbone. Before he could get breath to speak, Fraser went on.

“There’s a day or two, perhaps, when I might—” He glanced away, and a dull flush showed through the streaks of soot with which he had painted his face. “There could be doubt, aye? As there is for you. But . . .” He swallowed, that “but” hanging eloquent.

Jamie glanced away, involuntarily, and Roger’s eyes followed the direction of his gaze. Beyond a screen of bush and red-tinged creeper, there was an eddy pool, and Claire knelt on the far side, nak*d, studying her reflection. The blood thundered in Roger’s ears, and he jerked his eyes away, but the image was seared on his mind.

She did not look human, was the first thing he thought. Her body mottled black with bruises, her face unrecognizable, she looked like something strange and primal, an exotic creature of the forest pool. Beyond appearance, though, it was her attitude that struck him. She was remote, somehow, and still, in the way that a tree is still, even as the air stirs its leaves.

He glanced back, unable not to. She bent over the water, studying her face. Her hair hung wet and tangled down her back, and she skimmed it back with the palm of a hand, holding it out of the way as she surveyed her battered features with dispassionate intentness.

She prodded gently here and there, opening and closing her jaw as her fingertips explored the contours of her face. Testing, he supposed, for loose teeth and broken bones. She closed her eyes and traced the lines of brow and nose, jaw and lip, hand as sure and delicate as a painter’s. Then she seized the end of her nose with determination and pulled hard.

Roger cringed in reflex, as blood and tears poured down her face, but she made no sound. His stomach was already knotted into a small, painful ball; it rose up into his throat, pressing against the rope scar.

She sat back on her heels, breathing deeply, eyes closed, hands cupped over the center of her face.

He became suddenly aware that she was nak*d, and he was still staring. He jerked away, blood hot in his face, and glanced surreptitiously toward Jamie in hopes that Fraser had not noticed. He hadn’t—he was no longer there.

Roger looked wildly round, but spotted him almost at once. His relief at not being caught staring was superseded at once by a jolt of adrenaline, when he saw what Fraser was doing.

He was standing beside a body on the ground.

Fraser’s gaze flicked briefly round, taking note of his men, and Roger could almost feel the effort with which Jamie suppressed his own feelings. Then Fraser’s bright blue eyes fastened on the man at his feet, and Roger saw him breathe in, very slowly.

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