A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 26

   

Lionel Brown.

Quite without meaning to, Roger had found himself striding across the clearing. He took up his place at Jamie’s right without conscious thought, his attention similarly fixed on the man on the ground.

Brown’s eyes were shut, but he wasn’t asleep. His face was bruised and swollen, as well as patched with fever, but the expression of barely suppressed panic was plain on his battered features. Fully justified, too, so far as Roger could see.

The sole survivor of the night’s work, Brown was still alive only because Arch Bug had stopped young Ian Murray inches away from smashing his skull with a tomahawk. Not from any hesitation about killing an injured man, from cold pragmatism.

“Your uncle will have questions,” Arch had said, narrowed eyes on Brown. “Let this one live long enough to answer them.”

Ian had said nothing, but pulled his arm from Arch Bug’s grasp and turned on his heel, disappearing into the shadows of the forest like smoke.

Jamie’s face was much less expressive than his captive’s, Roger thought. He himself could tell nothing of Fraser’s thoughts from his expression—but scarcely needed to. The man was still as stone, but seemed nonetheless to throb with something slow and inexorable. Merely to stand near him was terrifying.

“How say you, O, friend?” Fraser said at last, turning to Arch, who stood on the far side of the pallet, white-haired and blood-streaked. “Can he be traveling further, or will the journey kill him?”

Bug leaned forward, peering dispassionately at the supine Brown.

“I say he will live. His face is red, not white, and he is awake. You wish to take him with us, or ask your questions now?”

For a brief instant the mask lifted, and Roger, who had been watching Jamie’s face, saw in his eyes precisely what he wished to do. Had Lionel Brown seen it, too, he would have leaped off his pallet and run, broken leg or no. But his eyes stayed stubbornly shut, and as Jamie and old Arch were speaking in Gaelic, Brown remained in ignorance.

Without answering Arch’s question, Jamie knelt and put his hand on Brown’s chest. Roger could see the pulse hammering in Brown’s neck and the man’s breathing, quick and shallow. Still, he kept his lids squeezed tight shut, though the eyeballs rolled to and fro, frantic beneath them.

Jamie stayed motionless for what seemed a long time—and must have been an eternity to Brown. Then he made a small sound that might have been either a contemptuous laugh or a snort of disgust, and rose.

“We take him. See that he lives, then,” he said in English. “For now.”

Brown had continued to play possum through the journey to the Ridge, in spite of the bloodthirsty speculations various of the party had made within his hearing on the way. Roger had helped to unstrap him from the travois at journey’s end. His garments and wrappings were soaked with sweat, the smell of fear a palpable miasma round him.

Claire had made a movement toward the injured man, frowning, but Jamie had stopped her with a hand on her arm. Roger hadn’t heard what he murmured to her, but she nodded and went with him into the Big House. A moment later, Mrs. Bug had appeared, uncharacteristically silent, and taken charge of Lionel Brown.

Murdina Bug was not like Jamie, nor old Arch; her thoughts were plain to see in the bloodless seam of her mouth and the thunderous brow. But Lionel Brown took water from her hand and, open-eyed, watched her as though she were the light of his salvation. She would, Roger thought, have been pleased to kill Brown like one of the cockroaches she ruthlessly exterminated from her kitchen. But Jamie wished him kept alive, so alive he would stay.

For now.

A sound at the door jerked Roger’s attention back to the present. Brianna!

It wasn’t, though, when he opened the door; only the rattle of wind-tossed twigs and acorn caps. He looked down the dark path, hoping to see her, but there was no sign of her yet. Of course, he told himself, Claire would likely need her.

So do I.

He squashed the thought, but stayed at the door, looking out, wind whining in his ears. She’d gone up to the Big House at once, the moment he came to tell her that her mother was safe. He hadn’t said much more, but she had seen something of how matters stood—there was blood on his clothes—and had barely paused to assure herself that none of it was his before rushing out.

He closed the door carefully, looking to see that the draft hadn’t wakened Jemmy. He had an immense urge to pick the boy up, and in spite of long-ingrained parental wariness about disturbing a sleeping child, scooped Jem out of his trundle; he had to.

Jem was heavy in his arms, and groggy. He stirred, lifted his head, and blinked, blue eyes glassy with sleep.

“It’s okay,” Roger whispered, patting his back. “Daddy’s here.”

Jem sighed like a punctured tire and dropped his head on Roger’s shoulder with the force of a spent cannonball. He seemed to inflate again for a moment, but then put his thumb in his mouth and subsided into that peculiarly boneless state common to sleeping children. His flesh seemed to melt comfortably into Roger’s own, his trust so complete that it was not necessary even to maintain the boundaries of his body—Daddy would do that.

Roger closed his eyes against starting tears, and pressed his mouth against the soft warmth of Jemmy’s hair.

The firelight made black and red shadows on the insides of his lids; by looking at them, he could keep the tears at bay. It didn’t matter what he saw there. He had a small collection of grisly moments, vivid from the dawn, but he could look at those unmoved—for now. It was the sleeping trust in his arms that moved him, and the echo of his own whispered words.

Was it even a memory? Perhaps it was no more than a wish—that he had once been roused from sleep, only to sleep again in strong arms, hearing, “Daddy’s here.”

He took deep breaths, slowing to the rhythm of Jem’s breathing, calming himself. It seemed important not to weep, even though there was no one to see or care.

Jamie had looked at him, as they moved from Brown’s pallet, the question clear in his eyes.

“Ye dinna think I mind only for myself, I hope?” he had said, low-voiced. His eyes had turned toward the gap in the brush where Claire had gone, half-squinting as though he could not bear to look, but couldn’t keep his eyes away.

“For her,” he said, so low that Roger scarcely heard. “Would she rather . . . have the doubt, d’ye think? If it came to that.”

Roger took a deep breath of his son’s hair, and hoped to God he’d said the right thing, there among the trees.

“I don’t know,” he’d said. “But for you—if there’s room for doubt—I say, take it.”

If Jamie were disposed to follow that advice, Bree should be home soon.

“I’M FINE,” I said firmly. “Perfectly fine.”

Bree narrowed her eyes at me.

“Sure you are,” she said. “You look like you’ve been run over by a locomotive. Two locomotives.”

“Yes,” I said, and touched my split lip gingerly. “Well. Yes. Other than that, though . . .”

“Are you hungry? Sit down, Mama, I’ll make you some tea, then maybe a little supper.”

I wasn’t hungry, didn’t want tea, and particularly didn’t want to sit down—not after a long day on horseback. Brianna was already taking down the teapot from its shelf above the sideboard, though, and I couldn’t find the proper words to stop her. All of a sudden, I seemed to have no words at all. I turned toward Jamie, helpless.

He somehow divined my feeling, though he couldn’t have read much of anything on my face, given its current state. He stepped forward, though, and took the teapot from her, murmuring something too low for me to catch. She frowned at him, glanced at me, then back, still frowning. Then her face changed a little, and she came toward me, looking searchingly into my face.

“A bath?” she asked quietly. “Shampoo?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, and my shoulders sagged in grateful relief. “Please.”

I did sit down then, after all, and let her sponge my hands and feet, and wash my hair in a basin of warm water drawn from the cauldron in the hearth. She did it quietly, humming under her breath, and I began to relax under the soothing scrub of her long, strong fingers.

I’d slept—from sheer exhaustion—part of the way, leaning on Jamie’s chest. There’s no way of achieving real rest on horseback, though, and I found myself now close to nodding off, noticing only in a dreamy, detached sort of way that the water in the basin had turned a grubby, cloudy red, full of grit and leaf fragments.

I’d changed to a clean shift; the feel of the worn linen on my skin was sheer luxury, cool and smooth.

Bree was humming softly, under her breath. What was it . . . “Mr. Tambourine Man,” I thought. One of those sweetly silly songs of the sixt—

1968.

I gasped, and Bree’s hands gripped my head, steadying me.

“Mama? Are you all right? Did I touch something—”

“No! No, I’m fine,” I said, looking down into the swirls of dirt and blood. I took a deep breath, heart pounding. “Perfectly fine. Just—began to doze off, that’s all.”

She snorted, but took her hands away and went to fetch a pitcher of water for rinsing, leaving me gripping the edge of the table and trying not to shudder.

You don’t act afraid of men. You oughta act more afraid. That particularly ironic echo came to me clearly, along with the outline of the young man’s head, leonine hair seen silhouetted by the firelight. I couldn’t recall his face clearly—but surely I would have noticed that hair?

Jamie had taken my arm, afterward, and led me out from under my sheltering tree, into the clearing. The fire had been scattered during the fight; there were blackened rocks and patches of singed and flattened grass here and there—among the bodies. He had led me slowly from one to another. At the last, he had paused, and said quietly, “Ye see that they are dead?”

I did, and knew why he had shown me—so I need not fear their return, or their vengeance. But I had not thought to count them. Or to look closely at their faces. Even had I been sure how many there were . . . another shiver struck me, and Bree wrapped a warm towel around my shoulders, murmuring words I didn’t hear for the questions clamoring in my head.

Was Donner among the dead? Or had he heeded me, when I’d told him that if he were wise, he’d run? He hadn’t struck me as a wise young man.

He had struck me as a coward, though.

Warm water sluiced around my ears, drowning out the sound of Jamie’s and Brianna’s voices overhead; I caught only a word or two, but when I sat back up, with water dripping down my neck, clutching a towel to my hair, Bree was reluctantly moving toward her cloak, hung on the peg by the door.

“Are you sure you’re all right, Mama?” The worried frown was back between her brows, but this time I could muster a few words of reassurance.

“Thank you, darling; that was wonderful,” I said, with complete sincerity. “All I want just now is sleep,” I added with somewhat less.

I was still terribly tired, but now completely wakeful. What I did want was . . . well, I didn’t know quite what I did want, but a general absence of solicitous company was on the list. Besides, I’d caught a glimpse of Roger earlier, bloodstained, white, and swaying with weariness; I wasn’t the only victim of the recent unpleasantness.

“Go home, lass,” Jamie said softly. He swung the cloak from its peg and over her shoulders, patting her gently. “Feed your man. Take him to bed, and say a prayer for him. I’ll mind your mother, aye?”

Bree’s gaze swung between us, blue and troubled, but I put on what I hoped was a reassuring expression—it hurt to do it, rather—and after a moment’s hesitation, she hugged me tight, kissed my forehead very gently, and left.

Jamie shut the door and stood with his back against it, hands behind him. I was used to the impassive facade he normally used to shield his thoughts when troubled or angry; he wasn’t using it, and the expression on his face troubled me no end.

“You mustn’t worry about me,” I said, as reassuringly as I could. “I’m not traumatized, or anything of that sort.”

“I mustn’t?” he asked guardedly. “Well . . . perhaps I wouldna, if I kent what ye meant by it.”

“Oh.” I blotted my damp face gingerly, and patted at my neck with the towel. “Well. It means . . . very much injured—or dreadfully shocked. It’s Greek, I think—the root word, I mean, ‘trauma.’”

“Oh, aye? And you’re not . . . shocked. Ye say.”

His eyes narrowed, as he examined me with the sort of critical attention usually employed when contemplating the purchase of expensive bloodstock.

“I’m fine,” I said, backing away a little. “Just—I’m all right. Only a bit . . . shaken.”

He took a step toward me, and I backed up abruptly, aware belatedly that I was clutching the towel to my bosom as though it were a shield. I forced myself to lower it, and felt blood prickle unpleasantly in patches over face and neck.

He stood very still, regarding me with that same narrow look. Then his gaze dropped to the floor between us. He stood as though deep in thought, and then his big hands flexed. Once, twice. Very slowly. And I heard—heard clearly—the sound of Arvin Hodgepile’s vertebrae parting one from another.

Jamie’s head jerked up, startled, and I realized that I was standing on the other side of the chair from him, the towel wadded and pressed against my mouth. My elbows moved like rusty hinges, stiff and slow, but I got the towel down. My lips were nearly as stiff, but I spoke, too.

“I am a little shaken, yes,” I said very clearly. “I’ll be all right. Don’t worry. I don’t want you to worry.”

The troubled scrutiny in his eyes wavered suddenly, like the glass of a window struck by a stone, in the split second before it shatters, and he shut his eyes. He swallowed once, and opened them again.

“Claire,” he said very softly, and the smashed and splintered fragments showed clear, sharp and jagged in his eyes. “I have been raped. And ye say I must not worry for ye?”

“Oh, God damn it!” I flung the towel on the floor, and immediately wished I had it back again. I felt nak*d, standing in my shift, and hated the crawling of my skin with a sudden passion that made me slap my thigh to kill it.

“Damn, damn, damn it! I don’t want you to have to think of that again. I don’t!” And yet I had known from the first that this would happen.

I took hold of the chairback with both hands and held tight, and tried to force my own gaze into his, wanting so badly to throw myself upon those glittering shards, to shield him from them.

“Look,” I said, steadying my voice. “I don’t want—I don’t want to make you recall things better left forgotten.”

The corner of his mouth actually twitched at that.

“God,” he said, in something like wonder. “Ye think I’d forgot any of it?”

“Maybe not,” I said, surrendering. I looked at him through swimming eyes. “But—oh, Jamie, I so wanted you to forget!”

He put out a hand, very delicately, and touched the tip of his index finger to the tip of mine, where I clutched the chair.

“Dinna mind it,” he said softly, and withdrew the finger. “It’s no matter now. Will ye rest a bit, Sassenach? Or eat, maybe?”

“No. I don’t want . . . no.” In fact, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do anything at all. Other than unzip my skin, climb out, and run—and that didn’t seem feasible. I took a few deep breaths, hoping to settle myself and go back to that nice sense of utter exhaustion.

Should I ask him about Donner? But what was there to ask? “Did you happen to kill a man with long, tangled hair?” They’d all looked like that, to some extent. Donner had been—or possibly still was—an Indian, but no one would have noticed that in the dark, in the heat of fighting.

“How—how is Roger?” I asked, for lack of anything better to say. “And Ian? Fergus?”

He looked a little startled, as though he had forgotten their existence.

“Them? The lads are well enough. No one took any hurt in the fight. We had luck.”

He hesitated, then took a careful step toward me, watching my face. I didn’t scream or bolt, and he took another, coming close enough that I could feel the warmth of his body. Not startled this time, and chilly in my damp shift, I relaxed a little, swaying toward him, and saw the tension in his own shoulders let go slightly, seeing it.

He touched my face, very gently. The blood throbbed just below the surface, tender, and I had to brace myself not to flinch away from his touch. He saw it, and drew back his hand a little, so that it hovered just above my skin—I could feel the heat of his palm.

“Will it heal?” he asked, fingertips moving over the split in my left brow, then down the minefield of my cheek to the scrape on my jaw where Harley Boble’s boot had just missed making a solid connection that would have broken my neck.

“Of course it will. You know that; you’ve seen worse on battlefields.” I would have smiled in reassurance, but didn’t want to open the deep split in my lip again, and so made a sort of pouting goldfish mouth, which took him by surprise and made him smile.

“Aye, I know.” He ducked his head a little, shy. “It’s only . . .” His hand still hovered near my face, an expression of troubled anxiety on his own. “Oh, God, mo nighean donn,” he said softly. “Oh, Christ, your lovely face.”

“Can you not bear to look at it?” I asked, turning my own eyes away and feeling a sharp little pang at the thought, but trying to convince myself that it didn’t matter. It would heal, after all.

His fingers touched my chin, gently but firmly, and drew it up, so that I faced him again. His mouth tightened a little as his gaze moved slowly over my battered face, taking inventory. His eyes were soft and dark in the candlelight, the corners tight with pain.

“No,” he said quietly, “I cannot bear it. The sight of ye tears my heart. And it fills me with such rage I think I must kill someone or burst. But by the God who made ye, Sassenach, I’ll not lie with ye and be unable to look ye in the face.”

“Lie with me?” I said blankly. “What . . . you mean now?”

His hand dropped from my chin, but he looked steadily at me, not blinking.

“Well . . . aye. I do.”

Had my jaw not been so swollen, my mouth would have dropped open in pure astonishment.

“Ah . . . why?”

“Why?” he repeated. He dropped his gaze then, and made the odd shrugging motion that he made when embarrassed or discomposed. “I—well—it seems . . . necessary.”

I had a thoroughly unsuitable urge to laugh.

“Necessary? Do you think it’s like being thrown by a horse? I ought to get straight back on?”

His head jerked up and he shot me an angry glance.

“No,” he said, between clenched teeth. He swallowed hard and visibly, obviously reining in strong feelings. “Are ye—are ye badly damaged, then?”

I stared at him as best I could, through my swollen lids.

“Is that a joke of some—oh,” I said, it finally dawning on me what he meant. I felt heat rise in my face, and my bruises throbbed.

I took a deep breath, to be sure of being able to speak steadily.

“I have been beaten to a bloody pulp, Jamie, and abused in several nasty ways. But only one . . . there was only the one who actually . . . He—he wasn’t . . . rough.” I swallowed, but the hard knot in my throat didn’t budge perceptibly. Tears made the candlelight blur so that I couldn’t see his face, and I looked away, blinking.

“No!” I said, my voice sounding rather louder than I intended. “I’m not . . . damaged.”

He said something in Gaelic under his breath, short and explosive, and shoved himself away from the table. His stool fell over with a loud crash, and he kicked it. Then he kicked it again, and again, and stamped on it with such violence that bits of wood flew across the kitchen and struck the pie safe with little pinging sounds.

I sat completely still, too shocked and numb to feel distress. Should I not have told him? I wondered vaguely. But he knew, surely. He had asked, when he found me. “How many?” he had demanded. And then had said, “Kill them all.”

But then . . . to know something was one thing, and to be told the details another. I did know that, and watched with a dim sense of guilty sorrow as he kicked away the splinters of the stool and flung himself at the window. It was shuttered, but he stood, hands braced on the sill and his back turned to me, shoulders heaving. I couldn’t tell if he was crying.

The wind was rising; there was a squall coming in from the west. The shutters rattled, and the night-smoored fire spouted puffs of soot as the wind came down the chimney. Then the gust passed, and there was no sound but the small sudden crack! of an ember in the hearth.

“I’m sorry,” I said at last, in a small voice.

Jamie swiveled on his heel at once and glared at me. He wasn’t crying, but he had been; his cheeks were wet.

“Don’t you dare be sorry!” he roared. “I willna have it, d’ye hear?” He took a giant step toward the table and crashed his fist down on it, hard enough to make the saltcellar jump and fall over. “Don’t be sorry!”

I had closed my eyes in reflex, but forced myself to open them again.

“All right,” I said. I felt terribly, terribly tired again, and very much like crying myself. “I won’t.”

There was a charged silence. I could hear chestnuts falling in the grove behind the house, dislodged by the wind. One, and then another, and another, a rain of muffled tiny thumps. Then Jamie drew a deep, shuddering breath, and wiped a sleeve across his face.

I put my elbows on the table and leaned my head on my hands; it seemed much too heavy to hold up anymore.

“Necessary,” I said, more or less calmly to the tabletop. “What did you mean, necessary?”

“Does it not occur to you that ye might be with child?” He’d got himself back under control, and said this as calmly as he might have asked whether I planned to serve bacon with the breakfast porridge.

Startled, I looked up at him.

“I’m not.” But my hands had gone by reflex to my belly.

“I’m not,” I repeated more strongly. “I can’t be.” I could, though—just possibly. The chance was a remote one, but it existed. I normally used some form of contraception, just to be certain—but obviously . . .

“I am not,” I said. “I’d know.”

He merely stared at me, eyebrows raised. I wouldn’t; not so soon. So soon—soon enough that if it were so, and if there were more than one man . . . there would be doubt. The benefit of the doubt; that’s what he offered me—and himself.

A deep shudder started in the depths of my womb and spread instantly through my body, making goose bumps break out on my skin, despite the warmth of the room.

“Martha,” the man had whispered, the weight of him pressing me into the leaves.

“Bloody, bloody hell,” I said very quietly. I spread my hands out flat on the table, trying to think.

“Martha.” And the stale smell of him, the meaty press of damp bare thighs, rasping with hair—

“No!” My legs and buttocks pressed together so tightly in revulsion that I rose an inch or two on the bench.

“You might—” Jamie began stubbornly.

“I’m not,” I repeated, just as stubbornly. “But even if—you can’t, Jamie.”

He looked at me, and I caught the flicker of fear in his eyes. That, I realized with a jolt, was exactly what he was afraid of. Or one of the things.

“I mean we can’t,” I said quickly. “I’m almost sure that I’m not pregnant—but I’m not at all sure that I haven’t been exposed to some disgusting disease.” That was something else I hadn’t thought of until now, and the goose bumps were back in full force. Pregnancy was unlikely; gonorrhea or syphilis weren’t. “We—we can’t. Not until I’ve had a course of penicillin.”

I was rising from the bench even as I spoke.

“Where are ye going?” he asked, startled.

“The surgery!”

The hallway was dark, and the fire out in my surgery, but that didn’t stop me. I flung open the door of the cupboard, and began groping hastily about. A light fell over my shoulder, illuminating the shimmering row of bottles. Jamie had lit a taper and come after me.

“What in the name of God are ye doing, Sassenach?”

“Penicillin,” I said, seizing one of the bottles and the leather pouch in which I kept my snake-fang syringes.

“Now?”

“Yes, bloody now! Light the candle, will you?”

He did, and the light wavered and grew into a globe of warm yellow, gleaming off the leather tubes of my homemade syringes. I had a good bit of penicillin mixture to hand, luckily. The liquid in the bottle was pink; many of the Penicillium colonies from this batch had been grown in stale wine.

“Are ye sure it will work?” Jamie asked quietly, from the shadows.

“No,” I said, tight-lipped. “But it’s what I have.” The thought of spirochetes, multiplying silently in my bloodstream, second by second, was making my hand shake. I choked down the fear that the penicillin might be defective. It had worked miracles on gross superficial infections. There was no reason why—

“Let me do it, Sassenach.” Jamie took the syringe from my hand; my fingers were slippery and fumbling. His were steady, his face calm in candlelight as he filled the syringe.

“Do me first, then,” he said, handing it back.

“What—you? But you don’t need to—I mean—you hate injections,” I ended feebly.

He snorted briefly and lowered his brows at me.

“Listen, Sassenach. If I mean to fight my own fears, and yours—and I do—then I shallna boggle at pinpricks, aye? Do it!” He turned his side to me and bent over, one elbow braced on the counter, and hitched up the side of his kilt, baring one muscular buttock.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I might have argued further with him, but a glance at him, standing there bare-arsed and stubborn as Black Mountain, decided me of the futility of that. He’d made up his mind, and we were both going to live with the consequences.

Feeling suddenly and oddly calm, I lifted the syringe, squeezing gently to remove any air bubbles.

“Shift your weight, then,” I said, nudging him rudely. “Relax this side; I don’t want to break the needle.”

He drew in his breath with a hiss; the needle was thick, and there was enough alcohol from the wine to make it sting badly, as I discovered when I took my own injection a minute later.

“Ouch! Ow! Oh, Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I exclaimed, gritting my teeth as I withdrew the needle from my thigh. “Christ, that hurts!”

Jamie gave me a lopsided smile, still rubbing his backside.

“Aye, well. The rest of it won’t be worse than this, I expect.”

The rest of it. I felt suddenly hollow, and light-headed with it, as though I hadn’t eaten for a week.

“You—you’re sure?” I asked, putting down the syringe.

“No,” he said. “I’m not.” He took a deep breath then, and looked at me, his face uncertain in the wavering candlelight. “But I mean to try. I must.”

I smoothed the linen night rail down over my punctured thigh, looking at him as I did it. He’d dropped all his masks long since; the doubt, the anger, and the fear were all there, etched plain in the desperate lines of his face. For once, I thought, my own countenance was less easy to read, masked behind its bruises.

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