A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 28

   

Mrs. Bug hadn’t come this morning; perhaps she wasn’t feeling well. Or perhaps she wasn’t sure yet how to deal with seeing me, or what to say to me when she did. My mouth tightened a little, something I realized only because the partially healed split in my lip stung when I did it.

I very consciously relaxed my face and went about getting down the coffee things from the kitchen shelf. There was a trail of tiny black ants running along the edge of the shelf, and a swarm of them over the small tin box in which I kept lump sugar. I flicked them off with a few stern swipes of my apron, and made a mental note to see about finding some avens root for repellant.

That resolve, small as it was, made me feel better and steadier at once. Ever since Hodgepile and his men had turned up at the malting shed, I had been completely at the mercy of someone else, prevented from any sort of independent action. For the first time in days—it seemed much longer—I was able to decide what I was going to do. It seemed a precious liberty.

Very well, I thought. What would I do, then? I would . . . drink some coffee. Eat a bit of toast? No. I felt gingerly with my tongue; several teeth on one side were loose, and my jaw muscles so sore that serious chewing was out of the question. Just coffee, then, and while I drank it, I would decide upon the shape of my day.

Feeling pleased with this plan, I put back the plain wooden cup, and instead ceremoniously set out my sole china cup and saucer, a delicate bit of porcelain Jocasta had given me, hand-painted with violets.

Jamie had poked up the fire earlier and the kettle was boiling; I dipped out enough water to warm the pot, swished it round, and opened the back door in order to toss it out. Fortunately, I looked first.

Ian was sitting cross-legged on the back porch, a small whetstone in one hand, knife in the other.

“Good morn to ye, Auntie,” he said cheerfully, and drew the knife across the stone, making the thin, monotonous rasping noise I had heard earlier. “Feeling better, then?”

“Yes, fine,” I assured him. He raised one eyebrow dubiously, looking me over.

“Well, better than ye look, I hope.”

“Not that good,” I said tartly, and he laughed. He put down the knife and stone and got to his feet. He was much taller than I; nearly Jamie’s height, though thinner. He’d inherited his father’s whipcord leanness, as well as the elder Ian’s sense of humor—and his toughness.

He took me by the shoulders and turned me into the sunlight, pursing his lips a little as he inspected me at close range. I blinked up at him, imagining what I must look like. I hadn’t had the nerve to look into a mirror yet, but I knew the bruising must be going from blacks and reds to a colorful assortment of blues, greens, and yellows. Add in assorted knobbly swellings, flecks of crusty black for the split lip and the scabby bits, and I was undoubtedly quite the picture of health.

Ian’s soft hazel eyes peered intently into my face with no apparent surprise or distress, though. At last he let go, and patted my shoulder gently.

“Ye’ll do, Auntie,” he said. “It’s still you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. And with no warning at all, tears welled up and overflowed. I knew exactly what he’d meant, and why he’d said it—and it was true.

I felt as though my center had turned unexpectedly to liquid and was gushing out, not from grief, but from relief. I was still me. Fragile, battered, sore, and wary—but myself. Only when I recognized that, did I realize how much I had feared that I might not be—that I might emerge from shock and find myself irrevocably altered, some vital part forever missing.

“I’m all right,” I assured Ian, hastily wiping my eyes with the edge of my apron. “Just a bit—”

“Aye, I know,” he said, and took the pot from me, tossing the water into the grass by the path. “It’s a bit strange, aye? Coming back.”

I took the coffeepot from him, squeezing his hand hard as I did so. He had come back twice from captivity: rescued from Geillis Duncan’s strange compound on Jamaica, only to choose later exile with the Mohawk. He had come to manhood on that journey, and I did wonder what parts of himself might have been left behind on the way.

“Do you want breakfast, Ian?” I asked, sniffing and dabbing gingerly at my swollen nose.

“Of course I do,” he said, grinning. “Come and sit yourself down, Auntie—I’ll fetch it.”

I followed him inside, filled the coffeepot and set it to brew, then sat at the table, the sun on my back through the open door, and watched as Ian rummaged the pantry. My mind felt soggy and incapable of thought, but a sense of peace crept over me, gentle as the wavering light through the chestnut trees. Even the small throbbings here and there seemed pleasant, a sense of healing being quietly accomplished.

Ian spread an armload of random foodstuffs on the table and sat down across from me.

“All right, Auntie?” he asked again, raising one of his father’s feathery eyebrows.

“Yes. It’s rather like sitting on a soap bubble, though. Isn’t it?” I glanced at him as I poured the coffee, but he looked down at the chunk of bread he was buttering. I thought a slight smile touched his lips, but couldn’t tell for sure.

“Something like,” he said quietly.

The heat of the coffee warmed my hands through the china, and soothed the raw membranes of my nose and palate. I felt as though I had been screaming for hours, but didn’t recall actually doing any such thing. Had I, with Jamie the night before?

I didn’t quite want to think about the night before; it was part of the soap-bubble feeling. Jamie had been gone when I woke, and I wasn’t sure whether I was glad or sorry about that.

Ian didn’t talk, but ate his way in a businesslike manner through half a loaf with butter and honey, three raisin muffins, two thick slices of ham, and a jug of milk. Jamie had done the milking, I saw; he always used the blue jug, while Mr. Wemyss used the white one. I wondered vaguely where Mr. Wemyss was—I hadn’t seen him, and the house felt empty—but didn’t really care. It occurred to me that perhaps Jamie had told both Mr. Wemyss and Mrs. Bug to stay away for a bit, feeling that I might need a little time alone.

“More coffee, Auntie?”

At my nod, Ian rose from the table, reached down the decanter from the shelf, and poured a large slug of whisky into my cup before refilling it.

“Mam always said it’s good for what ails ye,” he said.

“Your mother is right. Do you want some?”

He sniffed at the aromatic fumes, but shook his head.

“No, I think not, Auntie. I must have a clear head this morning.”

“Really? Why?” The porridge in the pot wasn’t nine days old—quite—but it had been there for three or four. Of course; no one had been here to eat it. I eyed the cementlike glob adhering to my spoon critically, then decided that it was still soft enough to eat, and doused it with honey.

Ian was dealing with a mouthful of the same substance, and took a moment to clear it from his palate before replying.

“Uncle Jamie means to ask his questions,” he answered, giving me a cautious glance as he reached for the bread.

“Does he?” I said, rather blankly, but before I could inquire what he meant by that, the sound of footsteps on the path announced the arrival of Fergus.

He looked as though he had been sleeping in the woods—well, of course, I thought, he had been. Or rather, not sleeping; the men had barely stopped to rest in their pursuit of Hodgepile’s gang. Fergus had shaved, but his normally fastidious grooming was sadly lacking, and his handsome face was gaunt, the deep eyes shadowed.

“Milady,” he murmured, and unexpectedly bent to kiss my cheek, hand on my shoulder. “Comment ça va?”

“Tres bien, merci,” I replied, smiling gingerly. “How are Marsali and the children? And our hero, Germain?” I had asked Jamie about Marsali on the way back, and had been assured that she was all right. Germain, monkey that he was, had gone straight up a tree when he heard Hodgepile’s men approaching. He had seen everything from his perch, and as soon as the men departed, had scrambled down, dragged his semiconscious mother away from the fire, and run for help.

“Ah, Germain,” Fergus said, a faint smile momentarily lifting the shadows of fatigue. “Nous p’tit guerrier. He says Grandpère has promised him a pistol of his own, to shoot bad people with.”

Grandpère undoubtedly meant it, I reflected. Germain couldn’t manage a musket, being somewhat shorter than the gun itself—but a pistol would do. In my present state of mind, the fact that Germain was only six didn’t seem particularly important.

“Have you had breakfast, Fergus?” I pushed the pot toward him.

“Non. Merci.” He helped himself to cold biscuit, ham, and coffee, though I noticed that he ate without much appetite.

We all sat quietly, sipping coffee and listening to the birds. Carolina wrens had built a late nest under the eaves of the house and the parent birds swooped in and out, just above our heads. I could hear the high-pitched cheeping of the nestlings begging, and saw a scatter of twigs and a bit of empty eggshell on the floorboards of the porch. They were nearly ready to fledge; just in time, before the real cold weather came.

The sight of the brown-speckled eggshell reminded me of Monsieur le Oeuf. Yes, that’s what I would do, I decided, with a small sense of relief at having something firm in mind. I would go and see Marsali later. And perhaps Mrs. Bug, as well.

“Did you see Mrs. Bug this morning?” I asked, turning to Ian. His cabin—little more than a brush-roofed lean-to—lay just beyond the Bugs’; he would have passed them on his way to the house.

“Oh, aye,” he said, looking a little surprised. “She was sweeping out as I went by. Offered me breakfast, but I said I’d eat here. I kent Uncle Jamie had a ham, aye?” He grinned, lifting his fourth ham biscuit in illustration.

“So she’s all right? I thought she might be ill; she usually comes quite early.”

Ian nodded, and took an enormous bite of the biscuit.

“Aye, I expect she’s busy, minding the ciomach.”

My fragile sense of well-being cracked like the wrens’ eggs. A ciomach was a captive. In my soggy-minded euphoria, I had somehow managed to forget Lionel Brown’s existence.

Ian’s remark that Jamie meant to ask questions this morning dropped suddenly into context—as did Fergus’s presence. And the knife Ian had been sharpening.

“Where is Jamie?” I asked, rather faintly. “Have you seen him?”

“Oh, aye,” Ian said, looking surprised. He swallowed, and gestured toward the door with his chin. “He’s just out in the woodshed, makin’ new shingles. He says the roof’s sprung a leak.”

No sooner had he said this than the sound of hammering came from the roof, far above. Of course, I thought. First things first. But then, I supposed Lionel Brown wasn’t going anywhere, after all.

“Perhaps . . . I should go and see Mr. Brown,” I said, swallowing.

Ian and Fergus exchanged glances.

“No, Auntie, ye shouldn’t,” Ian said quite calmly, but with an air of authority I wasn’t accustomed to seeing in him.

“Whatever do you mean?” I stared at him, but he merely went on eating, though a trifle more slowly.

“Milord says you should not,” Fergus amplified, drizzling a spoonful of honey into his coffee.

“He says what?” I asked incredulously.

Neither of them would look at me, but they seemed to draw together, emanating a reluctant sort of stubborn resistance. Either one would do anything I asked, I knew—except defy Jamie. If Jamie thought I ought not to see Mr. Brown, I wasn’t going to do it with the assistance of either Ian or Fergus.

I dropped the spoon back into my bowl of porridge, uneaten lumps still adhering to it.

“Did he happen to mention why he thinks I ought not to visit Mr. Brown?” I asked calmly, under the circumstances.

Both men looked surprised, then exchanged another look, this one longer.

“No, milady,” Fergus said, his voice carefully neutral.

There was a brief silence, during which both of them seemed to be considering. Then Fergus glanced at Ian, deferring to him with a shrug.

“Well, d’ye see, Auntie,” Ian said carefully, “we do mean to question the fellow.”

“And we will have answers,” Fergus said, eyes on the spoon with which he was stirring his coffee.

“And when Uncle Jamie is satisfied that he has told us what he can . . .”

Ian had laid his newly sharpened knife on the table beside his plate. He picked it up, and thoughtfully drew it down the length of a cold sausage, which promptly split open, with an aromatic burst of sage and garlic. He looked up then, and met my eyes directly. And I realized that while I might still be me—Ian was no longer the boy he used to be. Not at all.

“You’ll kill him, then?” I said, my lips feeling numb in spite of the hot coffee.

“Oh, yes,” Fergus said very softly. “I expect that we shall.” He met my eyes now, too. There was a bleak, grim look about him, and his deep-set eyes were hard as stone.

“He—it—I mean . . . it wasn’t him,” I said. “It couldn’t have been. He’d already broken his leg when—” I didn’t seem to have enough air to finish my sentences. “And Marsali. It wasn’t—I don’t think he . . .”

Something behind Ian’s eyes changed, as he grasped my meaning. His lips pressed tight for a moment, and he nodded.

“As well for him, then,” he said shortly.

“As well,” Fergus echoed, “but I think it will not matter in the end. We killed the others—why should he live?” He pushed back from the table, leaving his coffee undrunk. “I think I will go, cousin.”

“Aye? I’ll come too, then.” Ian shoved his plate away, nodding to me. “Will ye tell Uncle Jamie we’ve gone ahead, Auntie?”

I nodded numbly, and watched them go, vanishing one after the other under the big chestnut tree that overhung the trail leading to the Bugs’ cabin. Mechanically, I got up and began slowly to clear away the remains of the makeshift breakfast.

I really wasn’t sure whether I minded a lot about Mr. Brown or not. On the one hand, I did disapprove on principle of torture and cold-blooded murder. On the other . . . while it was true enough that Brown had not personally violated or injured me, and he had tried to make Hodgepile release me—he’d been all in favor of killing me, later. And I hadn’t the slightest doubt that he would have drowned me in the gorge, had Tebbe not intervened.

No, I thought, carefully rinsing my cup and drying it on my apron, perhaps I didn’t really mind terribly about Mr. Brown.

Still, I felt uneasy and upset. What I did mind about, I realized, were Ian and Fergus. And Jamie. The fact was, killing someone in the heat of battle is a quite different thing from executing a man, and I knew that. Did they?

Well, Jamie did.

“And may your vow redeem me.” He had whispered that to me, the night before. It was just about the last thing I recalled him saying, in fact. Well, all right; but I would greatly prefer that he didn’t feel in need of redemption to start with. And as for Ian and Fergus . . .

Fergus had fought in the Battle of Prestonpans, at the age of ten. I still remembered the face of the small French orphan, soot-smeared and dazed with shock and exhaustion, looking down at me from his perch atop a captured cannon. “I killed an English soldier, madame,” he’d said to me. “He fell down and I stuck him with my knife.”

And Ian, a fifteen-year-old, weeping in remorse because he thought he had accidentally killed an intruder to Jamie’s Edinburgh print shop. God knew what he had done, since; he wasn’t talking. I had a sudden vision of Fergus’s hook, dark with blood, and Ian, silhouetted in the dark. “And I,” he’d said, echoing Jamie. “It is myself who kills for her.”

It was 1773. And on the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five . . . the shot heard round the world was already being loaded. The room was warm, but I shuddered convulsively. What in the name of God did I think I could shield them from? Any of them.

A sudden roar from the roof above startled me out of my thoughts.

I walked out into the dooryard and looked up, shading my eyes against the morning sun. Jamie was sitting astride the rooftree, rocking to and fro over one hand, which he held curled into his belly.

“What’s going on up there?” I called.

“I’ve got a splinter,” came the terse answer, obviously spoken through clenched teeth.

I wanted to laugh, if only as small escape from tension, but didn’t.

“Well, come down, then. I’ll pull it out.”

“I’m no finished!”

“I don’t care!” I said, suddenly impatient with him. “Come down this minute. I want to talk to you.”

A bag of nails hit the grass with a sudden clank, followed instantly by the hammer.

First things first, then.

TECHNICALLY, I SUPPOSED, it was a splinter. It was a two-inch sliver of cedarwood, and he’d driven it completely under the nail of his middle finger, nearly to the first joint.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!”

“Aye,” he agreed, looking a little pale. “Ye might say that.”

The protruding stub was too short to grip with my fingers. I hauled him into the surgery and jerked the sliver out with forceps, before one could say Jack Robinson. Jamie was saying a good deal more than Jack Robinson—mostly in French, which is an excellent language for swearing.

“You’re going to lose that nail,” I observed, submerging the offended digit in a small bowl of alcohol and water. Blood bloomed from it like ink from a squid.

“To hell wi’ the nail,” he said, gritting his teeth. “Cut the whole bloody finger off and ha’ done with it! Merde d’chevre!”

“The Chinese used to—well, no, I suppose they still do, come to think of it—shove splinters of bamboo under people’s fingernails to make them talk.”

“Christ! Tu me casses les couilles!”

“Obviously a very effective technique,” I said, lifting his hand out of the bowl and wrapping the finger tightly in a strip of linen. “Were you trying it out, before using it on Lionel Brown?” I tried to speak lightly, keeping my eyes on his hand. I felt his own gaze fix on me, and he snorted.

“What in the name of saints and archangels was wee Ian telling ye, Sassenach?”

“That you meant to question the man—and get answers.”

“I do, and I shall,” he said shortly. “So?”

“Fergus and Ian seemed to think that—you might be moved to use any means necessary,” I said with some delicacy. “They’re more than willing to help.”

“I imagine they are.” The first agony had abated somewhat. He breathed more deeply, and color was beginning to come back into his face. “Fergus has a right. It was his wife attacked.”

“Ian seemed . . .” I hesitated, searching for the right word. Ian had seemed so calm as to be terrifying. “You didn’t call Roger to help with the—the questioning?”

“No. Not yet.” One corner of his mouth tucked in. “Roger Mac’s a good fighter, but no the sort to scare a man, save he’s truly roused. He’s no deceit in him at all.”

“Whereas you, Ian, and Fergus . . .”

“Oh, aye,” he said dryly. “Wily as snakes, the lot of us. Ye’ve only to look at Roger Mac to see how safe their time must be, him and the lass. A bit of a comfort, that,” he added, the tuck growing deeper. “To ken things will get better, I mean.”

I could see that he was trying to change the subject, which was not a good sign. I made a small snorting noise, but it hurt my nose.

“And you’re not truly roused, is that what you’re telling me?”

He made a much more successful snorting noise, but didn’t reply. He tilted his head to one side, watching as I laid out a square of gauze and began to rub dried leaves of comfrey into it. I didn’t know how to say what was troubling me, but he plainly saw that something was.

“Will you kill him?” I asked baldly, keeping my eyes on the jar of honey. It was made of brown glass, and the light glowed through it as though it were a huge ball of clear amber.

Jamie sat still, watching me. I could feel his speculative gaze, though I didn’t look up.

“I think so,” he said.

My hands had started to tremble, and I pressed them on the surface of the table to still them.

“Not today,” he added. “If I kill him, I shall do it properly.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what constituted a proper killing, in his opinion, but he told me anyway.

“If he dies at my hand, it will be in the open, before witnesses who ken the truth of the matter, and him standing upright. I willna have it said that I killed a helpless man, whatever his crime.”

“Oh.” I swallowed, feeling mildly ill, and took a pinch of powdered bloodroot to add to the salve I was making. It had a faint, astringent smell, which seemed to help. “But—you might let him live?”

“Perhaps. I suppose I might ransom him to his brother—depending.”

“Do you know, you sound quite like your uncle Colum. He would have thought it through like that.”

“Do I?” The corner of his mouth turned up slightly. “Shall I take that as compliment, Sassenach?”

“I suppose you might as well.”

“Aye, well,” he said thoughtfully. The stiff fingers tapped on the tabletop, and he winced slightly as the movement jarred the injured one. “Colum had a castle. And armed clansmen at his beck. I should have some difficulty in defending this house against a raid, perhaps.”

“That’s what you mean by ‘depending’?” I felt quite uneasy at this; the thought of armed raiders attacking the house had not occurred to me—and I saw that Jamie’s forethought in storing Mr. Brown off our premises had perhaps not been entirely for the purpose of sparing my sensibilities.

“One of the things.”

I mixed a bit of honey with my powdered herbs, then scooped a small dollop of purified bear grease into the mortar.

“I suppose,” I said, eyes on my mixing, “that there’s no point in turning Lionel Brown over to the—the authorities?”

“Which authorities did ye have in mind, Sassenach?” he asked dryly.

A good question. This part of the backcountry had not yet formed nor joined a county, though a movement was afoot to that purpose. Were Jamie to deliver Mr. Brown to the sheriff of the nearest county for trial . . . well, no, perhaps not a good idea. Brownsville lay just within the borders of the nearest county, and the current sheriff was in fact named Brown.

I bit my lip, considering. In times of stress, I tended still to respond as what I was—a civilized Englishwoman, accustomed to rely on the sureties of government and law. Well, all right, Jamie had a point; the twentieth century had its own dangers, but some things had improved. This was nearly 1774, though, and the colonial government was already showing cracks and fault lines, signs of the collapse to come.

“I suppose we could take him to Cross Creek.” Farquard Campbell was a justice of the peace there—and a friend to Jamie’s aunt, Jocasta Cameron. “Or to New Bern.” Governor Martin and the bulk of the Royal Council were in New Bern—three hundred miles away. “Maybe Hillsborough?” That was the center of the Circuit Court.

“Mmphm.”

This noise denoted a marked disinclination to lose several weeks’ work in order to haul Mr. Brown before any of these seats of justice, let alone entrust a matter of importance to the highly unreliable—and frequently corrupt—judicial system. I looked up and met his eye, humorous but bleak. If I responded as what I was, so did Jamie.

And Jamie was a Highland laird, accustomed to follow his own laws, and fight his own battles.

“But—” I began.

“Sassenach,” he said quite gently. “What of the others?”

The others. I stopped moving, paralyzed by the sudden memory: a large band of black figures, coming out of the wood with the sun behind them. But that group had split in two, intending to meet again in Brownsville, in three days’ time—today, in fact.

For the moment, presumably no one from Brownsville yet knew what had happened—that Hodgepile and his men were dead, or that Lionel Brown was now a captive on the Ridge. Given the speed with which news spread in the mountains, though, it would be public knowledge within a week.

In the aftermath of shock, I had somehow overlooked the fact that there were still a number of bandits at large—and while I didn’t know who they were, they knew both who I was and where I was. Would they realize that I could not identify them? Or be willing to take that risk?

Obviously, Jamie was not willing to take the risk of leaving the Ridge to escort Lionel Brown anywhere, whether or not he decided to let the man live.

The thought of the others had brought something important back to me, though. It might not be the best time to mention it, but then again, there wasn’t going to be a good one.

I took a deep breath, squaring myself for it.

“Jamie.”

The tone of my voice jerked him immediately from whatever he’d been thinking; he looked sharply at me, one eyebrow raised.

“I—I have to tell you something.”

He paled a little, but reached out at once, grasping my hand. He took a deep breath of his own, and nodded.

“Aye.”

“Oh,” I said, realizing that he thought I meant that I had suddenly arrived at a point where I needed to tell him the grisly details of my experiences. “Not—not that. Not exactly.” I squeezed his hand, though, and held on, while I told him about Donner.

“Another,” he said. He sounded slightly stunned. “Another one?”

“Another,” I confirmed. “The thing is . . . I, um, I don’t remember seeing him . . . seeing him dead.” The eerie sense of that dawn returned to me. I had very sharp, distinct memories—but they were disjointed, so fractured as to bear no relation to the whole. An ear. I remembered an ear, thick and cup-shaped as a woodland fungus. It was shaded in the most exquisite tones of purple, brown, and indigo, shadowed in the carved whorls of the inner parts, nearly translucent at the rim; perfect in the light of a sunbeam that cut through the fronds of a hemlock to touch it.

I recalled that ear so perfectly that I could almost reach into my memory and touch it myself—but I had no idea whose ear it had been. Was the hair that lay behind it brown, black, reddish, straight, wavy, gray? And the face . . . I didn’t know. If I had looked, I hadn’t seen.

He shot me a sharp look.

“And ye think he’s maybe not.”

“Maybe not.” I swallowed the taste of dust, pine needles, and blood, and breathed the comforting fresh scent of buttermilk. “I warned him, you see. I told him you were coming, and that he didn’t want you to find him with me. When you attacked the camp—he might have run. He struck me as a coward, certainly. But I don’t know.”

He nodded, and sighed heavily.

“Can you . . . recall, do you think?” I asked hesitantly. “When you showed me the dead. Did you look at them?”

“No,” he said softly. “I wasna looking at anything save you.”

His eyes had been on our linked hands. He raised them now, and looked at my face, troubled and searching. I lifted his hand and laid my cheek against his knuckles, closing my eyes for an instant.

“I’ll be all right,” I said. “The thing is—” I said, and stopped.

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