A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 27


Something soft brushed past my leg with a small mirp! and I looked down to see that Adso had brought me a dead vole, no doubt by way of sympathy. I started to smile, felt my lip tingle, and then looked up at Jamie and let it split as I did smile, the taste of blood warm silver on my tongue.

“Well . . . you’ve come whenever I’ve needed you; I rather think you’ll do it this time, too.”

He looked completely blank for an instant, not grasping the feeble joke. Then it struck him, and blood rushed to his face. His lip twitched, and twitched again, unable to decide between shock and laughter.

I thought he turned his back then to hide his face, but in fact, he had only turned to search the cupboard. He found what he was looking for, and turned round again with a bottle of my best muscat wine in his hand, shining dark. He held it to his body with his elbow, and took down another.

“Aye, I will,” he said, reaching out his free hand to me. “But if ye think either one of us is going to do this sober, Sassenach, ye’re verra much mistaken.”

A GUST OF WIND from the open door roused Roger from uneasy sleep. He had fallen asleep on the settle, his legs trailing on the floor, Jemmy snuggled warmly heavy on his chest.

He looked up, blinking and disoriented, as Brianna stooped to take the little boy from his arms.

“Is it raining out?” he said, catching a whiff of damp and ozone from her cloak. He sat up and rubbed a hand over his face to rouse himself, feeling the scruff of a four-day beard.

“No, but it’s going to.” She laid Jemmy back in his trundle, covered him, and hung up the cloak before coming to Roger. She smelled of the night, and her hand was cold on his flushed cheek. He put his arms round her waist and leaned his head against her, sighing.

He would have been happy to stay that way forever—or at least the next hour or two. She stroked his head gently for a moment, though, then moved away, stooping to light the candle from the hearth.

“You must be starved. Shall I fix you something?”

“No. I mean . . . yes. Please.” As the last remnants of grogginess fell away, he realized that he was, in fact, starving. After their stop at the stream in the morning, they hadn’t stopped again, Jamie anxious to get home. He couldn’t recall when he’d last eaten, but hadn’t felt any sense of hunger at all until this minute.

He fell on the bread and butter and jam she brought him, ravenous. He ate single-mindedly, and it was several minutes before he thought to ask, swallowing a final thick, buttery, sweet bite, “How’s your mother?”

“Fine,” she said, with an excellent imitation of Claire with her stiffest English upper lip. “Perfectly fine.” She grimaced at him, and he laughed, though quietly, with an automatic glance at the trundle.

“Is she, then?”

Bree raised an eyebrow at him.

“Do you think so?”

“No,” he admitted, sobering. “But I don’t think she’s going to tell you if she’s not. She’ll not want ye worrying.”

She made a rather rude glottal noise in response to this notion, and turned her back on him, lifting the long veil of hair off her neck.

“Will you do my laces?”

“You sound just like your father when ye make that noise—only higher-pitched. Have ye been practicing?” He stood up and pulled the laces loose. Undid her stays as well, then on impulse, slid his hands inside the opened gown, resting them on the warm swell of her hips.

“Every day. Have you?” She leaned back against him, and his hands came up, cupping her br**sts by reflex.

“No,” he admitted. “It hurts.” It was Claire’s suggestion—that he try to sing, pitching his voice both higher and lower than normal, in hopes of loosening his vocal cords, perhaps restoring a bit of his original resonance.

“Coward,” she said, but her voice was nearly as soft as the hair that brushed his cheek.

“Aye, I am,” he said as softly. It did hurt, but it wasn’t the physical pain that he minded. It was feeling the echo of his old voice in his bones—the ease and power of it—and then hearing the uncouth noises that emerged with such difficulty now from his throat—croaks and grunts and squeals. Like a pig choking to death on a crow, he thought disparagingly.

“It’s them that are cowards,” Bree said, still speaking softly, but with steel in her voice. She tensed a little in his arms. “Her face—her poor face! How could they? How could anybody do something like that?”

He had a sudden vision of Claire, nak*d by the pool, silent as the rocks, her br**sts streaked with the blood from her newly set nose. He drew back, nearly jerking his hands away.

“What?” Brianna said, startled. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” He pulled his hands out of her gown and stepped back. “I—er, is there maybe a bit of milk?”

She looked at him oddly, but went out to the lean-to at the back and brought in a jug of milk. He drank it thirstily, aware of her eyes on him, watchful as a cat’s, as she undressed and changed into her night rail.

She sat down on the bed and began to brush out her hair, preparing to plait it for sleep. On impulse, he reached out and took the brush from her. Without speaking, he ran one hand through the thickness of her hair, lifting it, smoothing it back from her face.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered, and felt tears come to his eyes again.

“So are you.” She lifted her hands to his shoulders and brought him slowly down to his knees before her. She looked searchingly into his eyes—he did his best to look back. She smiled a little, then, and reached to untie the thong that held his own hair back.

It fell around his shoulders in a dusty black tangle, smelling of burned things, stale sweat, and horses. He protested when she took up her hairbrush, but she ignored him, and made him bend his head over her lap, while she picked pine straw and sandburs from his head, slowly working out the snarls. His head bent lower, and lower still, and he found himself at last with his forehead pressed into her lap, breathing in the close scent of her.

He was reminded of medieval paintings, sinners kneeling, heads bowed in confession and remorse. Presbyterians did not confess on their knees—Catholics still did, he thought. In darkness, like this—in anonymity.

“Ye’ve not asked me what happened,” he whispered at last, to the shadows of her thighs. “Did your father tell ye?”

He heard her draw breath, but her voice was calm when she replied.


She said no more, and the room was quiet, save for the sound of the brush through his hair, and the rising rush of the wind outside.

How would it be for Jamie? Roger wondered suddenly. Would he really do it? Try to . . . He shied away from the thought, unable to contemplate it. Seeing instead a picture of Claire, coming out of the dawn, her face a swollen mask. Still herself, but remote as a distant planet on an orbit departing for the outer reaches of deep space—when might it come in sight again? Stooping to touch the dead, at Jamie’s urging, to see for herself the price of her honor.

It wasn’t the possibility of a child, he thought suddenly. It was fear—but not of that. It was Jamie’s fear that he would lose her—that she would go, swing out into a dark and solitary space without him, unless he could somehow bind her to him, keep her with him. But, Christ, what a risk to take—with a woman so shocked and brutalized, how could he risk it?

How could he not?

Brianna laid down the brush, though she kept a hand gently on his head, stroking it. He knew that fear too well himself—remembered the gulf that once had lain between them, and the courage it had taken to leap over it. For both of them.

He was some kind of a coward, maybe—but not that kind.

“Brianna,” he said, and felt the lump in his throat, the scar of the rope. She heard the need in his voice and looked at him as he raised his head, hand lifting toward his face, and he seized it hard, pressing the palm of it against his cheek, rubbing against it.

“Brianna,” he said again.

“What? What is it?” Her voice was soft, not to wake the bairn, but full of urgency.

“Brianna, will ye hear me?”

“You know I will. What is it?” Her body was against him, wanting to tend him, and he desired the comfort of her so badly that he would have lain down there on the rug before the fire and buried his head between her br**sts—but not yet.

“Only—listen to what I must say. And then—please God—tell me I have done right.” Tell me that you love me, still, he meant, but could not say it.

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” she whispered. Her eyes were dark and soft, bottomless with forgiveness not yet earned. And somewhere beyond them, he saw another pair of eyes, staring up at him in drunken bewilderment, changing abruptly into fear as he raised his arm for the killing blow.

“Yes, I do,” he said softly. “Put out the candle, aye?”

NOT THE KITCHEN, still strewn with emotional wreckage. Not the surgery, with all its sharp-edged memories. Jamie hesitated, but then nodded toward the stair, raising one eyebrow. I nodded, and followed him up to our bedroom.

It seemed both familiar and strange, as places do when one is away for a time. Perhaps it was only my injured nose that made it smell strange, too; perhaps I only imagined that I could smell it—cold and somehow stale, though everything was swept and dusted. Jamie poked up the fire and light sprang up, wavering in bright swaths over the wooden walls, the scents of smoke and hot resin helping to fill the sense of emptiness in the room.

Neither of us glanced toward the bed. He lit the candlestick on the washstand, then set our two stools near the window, and opened the shutters to the restless night. He’d brought two pewter cups; he filled these and set them on the broad sill, along with the bottles.

I stood just inside the doorway, watching his preparations, feeling thoroughly peculiar.

I was suffering the oddest contradiction of feelings. On the one hand, I felt as though he were a complete stranger. I could not even imagine, let alone recall, a sense of ease in touching him. His body was no longer the comfortable extension of my own, but something foreign, unapproachable.

At the same time, alarming surges of lust ripped through me without warning. It had been happening all day. This was nothing like the slow burn of accustomed desire, nor yet the instant spark of passion. Not even that cyclic and mindless womb-yearning sense of a need to mate that belonged entirely to the body. This was frightening.

He stooped to put another stick on the fire, and I nearly staggered, as all the blood left my head. The light shone on the hair of his arms, the dark hollows of his face—

It was the sheer impersonal sense of a voracious appetite—something that possessed me, but was not part of me—that terrified me. It was fear of it that made me avoid his touch, more than the feeling of estrangement.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?” He had caught sight of my face, and stepped toward me, frowning. I held up a hand to stop him.

“Fine,” I said, feeling breathless. I sat down hastily, my knees weak, and picked up one of the cups he had just filled. “Um . . . cheers.”

Both his brows went up, but he moved to take his own seat opposite me.

“Cheers,” he said quietly, and touched his cup to mine, the wine heavy and sweet-smelling in my hand.

My fingers were cold; so were my toes, and the tip of my nose. That changed, too, without warning. Another minute, and I might be suffused with heat, sweating and flushed. But for the moment, I was cold, and shivered in the rainy breeze from the window.

The wine’s aroma was strong enough to make an impact, even on my damaged membranes, and the sweetness was a comfort to nerves and stomach alike. I drank the first cup quickly, and poured another, urgently wanting a small layer of oblivion between reality and myself.

Jamie drank more slowly, but refilled his own cup when I did. The cedar blanket chest, warmed by the fire, was beginning to spread its own familiar fragrance through the room. He glanced at me now and then, but said nothing. The silence between us was not awkward, precisely, but it was charged.

I should say something, I thought. But what? I sipped the second cup, racking my brain.

At last, I reached out slowly and touched his nose, where the thin line of the long-healed break pressed white against the skin.

“Do you know,” I said, “you’ve never told me how you came to break your nose. Who set it for you?”

“Och, that? No one.” He smiled, touching his nose a little self-consciously. “’Twas only luck that the break was a clean one, for I didna pay it the slightest heed at the time.”

“I suppose not. You said—” I broke off, suddenly recalling what he had said. When I had found him again, in his printer’s shop in Edinburgh, I’d asked him when he’d broken it. He’d answered, “About three minutes after I last saw ye, Sassenach.” On the eve of Culloden, then—on that rocky Scottish hill, below the ring of standing stones.

“I’m sorry,” I said a little weakly. “You probably don’t want to think about that, do you?”

He seized my free hand, hard, and looked down at me.

“You may have it,” he said. His voice was very low, but he met my eyes straight on. “All of it. Anything that was ever done to me. If ye wish it, if it helps ye, I will live it through again.”

“Oh, God, Jamie,” I said softly. “No. I don’t need to know; all I need is to know that you did live through it. That you’re all right. But . . .” I hesitated. “Will I tell you?” What was done to me, I meant, and he knew it. He did glance away then, though he held my hand in both of his, cradling it and rubbing his palm gently over my bruised knuckles.

“Must you?”

“I think so. Sometime. But not now—not unless you . . . you need to hear.” I swallowed. “First.”

He shook his head, very slightly, but still didn’t look at me.

“Not now,” he whispered. “Not now.”

I took my hand away, and swallowed the rest of the wine in my cup, rough and warm and musky with the tang of grape skins. I had stopped going hot and cold by turns; now I was only warm throughout, and grateful for it.

“Your nose,” I said, and poured another cup. “Tell me, then. Please.”

He shrugged slightly.

“Aye, well. There were two English soldiers, come scouting up the hill. I think they didna expect to find anyone—neither had his musket loaded, or I should ha’ died there.”

He spoke quite casually. A small shiver went over me, but not from cold.

“They saw me, ken, and then one of them saw you, up above. He shouted, and made to go after ye, so I threw myself on him. I didna care at all what happened, so long as ye were safe away, so I went for him bald-heided; plunged my dirk into his side. But his bullet box swung into my way and the knife stuck in it, and—” He smiled, lopsided. “And while I was trying to get it free and keep from bein’ killed, his friend came up and swung the stock of his musket into my face.”

His free hand had curled up as he spoke, grasping the hilt of a remembered dirk.

I flinched, knowing now exactly what that had felt like. Just hearing about it made my own nose throb. I sniffed, dabbed cautiously at it with the back of my hand, and poured more wine.

“How did you get away?”

“I took the musket from him and clubbed them both to death with it.”

He spoke quietly, almost colorlessly, but there was an odd resonance to his voice that made my stomach shift uneasily. It was too fresh, that sight of the blood drops gleaming by dawn light in the hairs of his arm. Too fresh, that undertone of—what was it? satisfaction?—in his voice.

I was suddenly too restless to sit still. A moment before I had been so exhausted that my bones were melting; now I had to move. I stood up, leaning out over the sill. The storm was coming; the wind was freshening, blowing back my new-washed hair, and lightning flickered in the distance.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” Jamie said, sounding worried. “I shouldna have told ye. Are ye bothered by it?”

“Bothered? No, not by that.”

I spoke a little tersely. Why had I asked him about his nose, of all things? Why now, when I had been content to live in ignorance for the last several years?

“What bothers ye, then?” he asked quietly.

What was bothering me was that the wine had been doing its job of anesthetizing me nicely; now I had ruined it. All the images of the night before were back inside my head, thrown into vivid Technicolor by that simple statement, that oh-so-matter-of-fact, “I took the musket from him and clubbed them both to death with it.” And its unspoken echo, It is myself who kills for her.

I wanted to throw up. Instead, I gulped more wine, not even tasting it, swallowing it down as fast as I could. I dimly heard Jamie ask again what bothered me, and swung round to glare at him.

“What bothers me—bothers! What a stupid word! What drives me absolutely mad is that I might have been anyone, anything—a convenient warm spot with spongy bits to squeeze—God, I was no more than a hole to them!”

I struck the sill with my fist, then, angered by the impotent little thump of it, picked up my cup, turned round, and hurled it against the wall.

“It wasn’t that way with Black Jack Randall, was it?” I demanded. “He knew you, didn’t he? He saw you when he used you; it wouldn’t have been the same if you were anyone—he wanted you.”

“My God, ye think that was better?” he blurted, and stared at me, eyes wide.

I stopped, panting for breath and feeling dizzy.

“No.” I dropped onto the stool and closed my eyes, feeling the room go round and round me, colored lights like a carousel behind my eyes. “No. I don’t. I think Jack Randall was a bloody sociopathic, grade-A pervert, and these—these”—I flipped a hand, unable to think of a suitable word—“they were just . . . men.”

I spoke the last word with a sense of loathing evident even to me.

“Men,” Jamie said, his voice sounding odd.

“Men,” I said. I opened my eyes and looked at him. My eyes felt hot, and I thought they must glow red, like a possum’s in torchlight.

“I have lived through a f**king world war,” I said, my voice low and venomous. “I have lost a child. I have lost two husbands. I have starved with an army, been beaten and wounded, been patronized, betrayed, imprisoned, and attacked. And I have f**king survived!” My voice was rising, but I was helpless to stop it. “And now should I be shattered because some wretched, pathetic excuses for men stuck their nasty little appendages between my legs and wiggled them?!” I stood up, seized the edge of the washstand and heaved it over, sending everything flying with a crash—basin, ewer, and lighted candlestick, which promptly went out.

“Well, I won’t,” I said quite calmly.

“Nasty little appendages?” he said, looking rather stunned.

“Not yours,” I said. “I didn’t mean yours. I’m rather fond of yours.” Then I sat down and burst into tears.

His arms came round me, slowly and gently. I didn’t startle or jerk away, and he pressed my head against him, smoothing my damp, tangled hair, his fingers catching in the mass of it.

“Christ, ye are a brave wee thing,” he murmured.

“Not,” I said, eyes closed. “I’m not.” I grabbed his hand and brought it to my lips, closing my eyes as I did so.

I brushed my battered mouth across his knuckles, blind. They were swollen, as bruised as mine; I touched my tongue to his flesh, tasted soap and dust and the silver taste of scrapes and gashes—marks left by bones and broken teeth. Pressed my fingers to the veins beneath the skin of wrist and arm, softly resilient, and the solid lines of the bones beneath. I felt the tributaries of his veins, wished to enter into his bloodstream, travel there, dissolved and bodiless, to take refuge in the thick-walled chambers of his heart. But I couldn’t.

I ran my hand up his sleeve, exploring, clinging, relearning his body. I touched the hair in his oxter and stroked it, surprised at the soft, silky feel of it.

“Do you know,” I said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever touched you there before?”

“I dinna believe ye have,” he said, with a hint of nervous laughter in his voice. “I would ha’ remembered. Oh!” A stipple of gooseflesh burst out over the soft skin there, and I pressed my forehead to his chest.

“The worst of it is,” I said, into his shirt, “that I knew them. Each one of them. And I’ll remember them. And feel guilty that they’re dead, because of me.”

“No,” he said softly, but very firmly. “They are dead because of me, Sassenach. And because of their own wickedness. If there is guilt, let it rest upon them. Or on me.”

“Not on you alone,” I said, my eyes still closed. It was dark in there, and soothing. I could hear my voice, distant but clear, and wondered dimly where the words were coming from. “You’re blood of my blood, bone of my bone. You said so. What you do rests on me, as well.”

“Then may your vow redeem me,” he whispered.

He lifted me to my feet and gathered me to him, like a tailor gathering up a length of fragile, heavy silk—slowly, long-fingered, fold upon fold. He carried me then across the room, and laid me gently on the bed, in the light from the flickering fire.

HE’D MEANT TO be gentle. Very gentle. Had planned it with care, worrying each step of the long way home. She was broken; he must go canny, take his time. Be careful in gluing back her shattered bits.

And then he came to her and discovered that she wished no part of gentleness, of courting. She wished directness. Brevity and violence. If she was broken, she would slash him with her jagged edges, reckless as a drunkard with a shattered bottle.

For a moment, two moments, he struggled, trying to hold her close and kiss her tenderly. She squirmed like an eel in his arms, then rolled over him, wriggling and biting.

He’d thought to ease her—both of them—with the wine. He’d known she lost all sense of restraint when in drink; he simply hadn’t realized what she was restraining, he thought grimly, trying to seize her without hurting.

He, of all people, should have known. Not fear or grief or pain—but rage.

She raked his back; he felt the scrape of broken nails, and thought dimly that was good—she’d fought. That was the last of his thought; his own fury took him then, rage and a lust that came on him like black thunder on a mountain, a cloud that hid all from him and him from all, so that kind familiarity was lost and he was alone, strange in darkness.

It might be her neck he grasped, or anyone’s. The feel of small bones came to him, knobbled in the dark, and the screams of rabbits, killed in his hand. He rose up in a whirlwind, choked with dirt and the scourings of blood.

Wrath boiled and curdled in his balls, and he rode to her spurs. Let his lightning blaze and sear all trace of the intruder from her womb, and if it burnt them both to bone and ash—then let it be.

WHEN SENSE CAME back to him, he lay with his weight full on her, crushing her into the bed. Breath sobbed in his lungs; his hands clenched her arms so hard he felt the bones like sticks about to snap within his grasp.

He had lost himself. Was not sure where his body ended. His mind flailed for a moment, panicked lest it have been unseated altogether—no. He felt a drop of cold, sudden on his shoulder, and the scattered parts of him drew at once together like shattered bits of quicksilver, to leave him quaking and appalled.

He was still joined to her. He wanted to bolt like a startled quail, but managed to move slowly, loosening his fingers one by one from their death grip on her arms, lifting his body gently away, though the effort of it seemed immense, as though his weight were that of moons and planets. He half-expected to see her crushed and flattened, lifeless on the sheet. But the springy arch of her ribs rose and fell and rose again, roundly reassuring.

Another drop struck him in the back of his neck, and he hunched his shoulders in surprise. Caught by his movement, she looked up, and he met her eyes with shock. She shared it; the shock of strangers meeting one another nak*d. Her eyes flicked away from his, up toward the ceiling.

“The roof’s leaking,” she whispered. “There’s a wet patch.”

“Oh.” He had not even realized that it was raining. The room was dark with rainlight, though, and the roof thrummed overhead. The sound of it seemed inside his blood, like the beat of the bodhrana inside the night, like the beat of his heart in the forest.

He shuddered, and for lack of any other notion, kissed her forehead. Her arms came up sudden as a snare and held him fiercely, pulling him down onto her again and he seized her, too, crushing her to him hard enough to feel the breath go out of her, unable to let go. He thought vaguely of Brianna’s talk of giant orbs that whirled through space, the thing called gravity—and what was grave about it? He saw that well enough just now: a force so great as to balance some body unthinkably immense in thin air, unsupported—or send two such bodies crashing into each other, in an explosion of destruction and the smoke of stars.

He’d bruised her; there were dark red marks on her arms where his fingers had been. They would be black within the day. The marks of other men bloomed black and purple, blue and yellow, clouded petals trapped beneath the whiteness of her skin.

His thighs and buttocks were strained with effort, and a cramp took him hard, making him groan and twist to ease it. His skin was wet; so was hers, and they slid apart with slow reluctance.

Eyes puffed and bruised, clouded like wild honey, inches from his own.

“How do you feel?” she asked softly.

“Terrible,” he replied with complete honesty. He was hoarse, as though he had been screaming—God, perhaps he had been. Her mouth had bled again; there was a red smear on her chin, and the taste of metal from it in his own mouth.

He cleared his throat, wanting to look away from her eyes, but unable to do it. He rubbed a thumb over the smear of blood, clumsily erasing it.

“You?” he asked, and the words were like a rasp in his throat. “How do ye feel?”

She had drawn back a little at his touch, but her eyes were still fixed on his. He had the feeling that she was looking far beyond him, through him—but then the focus of her gaze came back, and she looked directly at him, for the first time since he had brought her home.

“Safe,” she whispered, and closed her eyes. She took one huge breath and her body relaxed all at once, going limp and heavy like a dying hare.

He held her, both arms wrapped around her as though to save her from drowning, but felt her sink away all the same. He wished to call out to her not to go, not to leave him alone. She vanished into the depths of sleep, and he yearned after her, wishing her healed, fearing her flight, and bent his head, burying his face in her hair and her scent.

The wind banged the open shutters as it passed, and in the dark outside, one owl hooted and another answered, hiding from the rain.

Then he cried, soundless, muscles strained to aching that he might not shake with it, that she might not wake to know it. He wept to emptiness and ragged breath, the pillow wet beneath his face. Then lay exhausted beyond the thought of tiredness, too far from sleep even to recall what it was like. His only comfort was the small, so fragile weight that lay warm upon his heart, breathing.

Then her hands rose and rested on him, the tears cool on his face, congealing, the white of her clean as the silent snow that covers char and blood and breathes peace upon the world.



IT WAS A STILL, WARM morning; the last of the Indian summer. A woodpecker hammered in the wood nearby, and some insect was making a noise like rasping metal in the tall grass beyond the house. I came downstairs slowly, feeling mildly disembodied—and wishing I were, since the body I had hurt almost everywhere.