A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 30

   

My lips felt numb, and not only from the cider.

“How long?” I said, appalled. “How many?” Children, young men, young women, wrenched from their homes and sold cold-bloodedly into slavery. No one to follow. Even if they were somehow to escape eventually, there would be no place—no one—to return to.

Jamie sighed. He looked unutterably tired.

“Brown doesna ken,” Ian said quietly. “He says . . . He says he’d nothing to do with it.”

“Like bloody hell he hadn’t,” I said, a flash of fury momentarily eclipsing horror. “He was with Hodgepile when they came here. He knew they meant to take the whisky. And he must have been with them before, when they—did other things.”

Jamie nodded.

“He claims he tried to stop them from taking you.”

“He did,” I said shortly. “And then he tried to make them kill me, to stop me telling you he’d been there. And then he bloody meant to drown me himself! I don’t suppose he told you that.”

“No, he didn’t.” Ian exchanged a brief look with Jamie, and I saw some unspoken agreement pass between them. It occurred to me that I might possibly just have sealed Lionel Brown’s fate. If so, I was not sure I felt guilty about it.

“What—what do you mean to do with him?” I asked.

“I think perhaps I will hang him,” Jamie replied, after a moment’s pause. “But I’ve more questions I want answered. And I must think about how best to manage the matter. Dinna bother about it, Sassenach; ye’ll not see him again.”

With that, he stood and stretched, muscles cracking, then shifted his shoulders, settling himself with a sigh. He gave me a hand and helped me to my feet.

“Go up to bed, Sassenach, and I’ll be up directly. I must just have a wee word with Ian first.”

HOT BUTTERED TOAST, cider, and conversation had made me feel momentarily better. I found myself so tired, though, that I could barely drag myself up the stairs, and was obliged to sit on the bed, swaying blearily, in hopes of getting up the strength to take off my clothes. It was a few moments before I noticed that Jamie was hovering in the doorway.

“Erm . . . ?” I said vaguely.

“I didna ken, did ye want me to stay with ye tonight?” he asked diffidently. “If ye’d rest better alone, I could take Joseph’s bed. Or if ye’d like, I could sleep beside ye, on the floor.”

“Oh,” I said blankly, trying to weigh these alternatives. “No. Stay. Sleep with me, I mean.” From the bottom of a well of fatigue, I summoned something like a smile. “You can warm the bed, at least.”

A most peculiar expression flitted across his face at that, and I blinked, not sure I’d seen it. I had, though; his face was caught between embarrassment and dismayed amusement—with somewhere behind all that the sort of look he might have worn if going to the stake: heroically resigned.

“What on earth have you been doing?” I asked, sufficiently surprised as to be shaken out of my torpor.

Embarrassment was getting the upper hand; the tips of his ears were going red, and a flush was visible in his cheeks, even by the dim light of the taper I’d set on the table.

“I wasna going to tell ye,” he muttered, avoiding my gaze. “I swore wee Ian and Roger Mac to silence.”

“Oh, they’ve been silent as the grave,” I assured him. Though this statement did perhaps explain the occasional odd look on Roger’s face, of late. “What’s been going on?”

He sighed, scraping the edge of his boot across the floor.

“Aye, well. It’s Tsisqua, d’ye see? He meant it as hospitality, the first time, but then when Ian told him . . . well, it wasna the best thing to have said, under the circumstances, only . . . And then the next time we came, and there they were again, only a different pair, and when I tried to make them leave, they said Bird said to say that it was honor to my vow, for what good was a vow that cost nothing to keep? And I will be damned if I ken does he mean that, or is he only thinking that either I’ll crack and he’ll have the upper hand of me for good, or that I’ll get him the guns he wants to put an end to it one way or the other—or is he only having a joke at my expense? Even Ian says he canna tell which it is, and if he—”

“Jamie,” I said. “What are you talking about?”

He stole a quick glance at me, then looked away again.

“Ah . . . nak*d women,” he blurted, and went red as a piece of new flannel.

I stared at him for a moment. My ears still buzzed slightly, but there wasn’t anything wrong with my hearing. I pointed a finger at him—carefully, because all my fingers were swollen and bruised.

“You,” I said, in measured tones, “come here right now. Sit down right there”—I pointed at the bed beside me—“and tell me in words of one syllable exactly what you’ve been doing.”

He did, with the result that five minutes later I was lying flat on the bed, wheezing with laughter, moaning with the pain to my cracked ribs, and with helpless tears running down my temples and into my ears.

“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God,” I gasped. “I can’t stand it, I really can’t. Help me sit up.” I extended a hand, yelped with pain as his fingers closed on my lacerated wrist, but got upright at last, bent over with a pillow clutched to my middle, and clutched it tighter each time a gust of recurrent laughter struck me.

“I’m glad ye think it’s sae funny, Sassenach,” Jamie said very dryly. He’d recovered himself to some extent, though his face was still flushed. “Ye’re sure ye’re no hysterical?”

“No, not at all.” I sniffed, dabbing at my eyes with a damp linen hankie, then snorted with uncontainable mirth. “Oh! Ow, God, that hurts.”

Sighing, he poured a cup of water from the flask on the bedside table, and held it for me to drink. It was cool, but flat and rather stale; I thought perhaps it had been standing since before . . .

“All right,” I said, waving the cup away and dabbing moisture very carefully from my lips. “I’m fine.” I breathed shallowly, feeling my heart begin to slow down. “Well. So. At least now I know why you’ve been coming back from the Cherokee villages in such a state of—of—” I felt an unhinged giggle rising, and bent over, moaning as I stifled it. “Oh, Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ. And here I thought it was thoughts of me, driving you mad with lust.”

He snorted then himself, though mildly. He put down the cup, rose, and turned back the coverlet. Then he looked at me, and his eyes were clear, unguarded.

“Claire,” he said, quite gently, “it was you. It’s always been you, and it always will be. Get into bed, and put the candle out. As soon as I’ve fastened the shutters, smoored the hearth, and barred the door, I’ll come and keep ye warm.”

“KILL ME.” Randall’s eyes were fever-bright. “Kill me,” he said. “My heart’s desire.”

He jerked awake, hearing the words echo in his head, seeing the eyes, seeing the rain-matted hair, Randall’s face, wet as that of a drowned man.

He rubbed a hand hard over his own face, surprised to feel his skin dry, his beard no more than a shadow. The sense of wet, the itching scurf of a month’s whiskers, was still so strong that he got up, moving quietly by instinct, and went to the window, where moonlight shone through the cracks in the shutter. He poured a little water into the basin, moved the bowl into a shaft of light, and looked in, to rid himself of that lingering sense of being someone else, somewhere else.

The face in the water was no more than a featureless oval, but smooth-shaven, and the hair lay loose on his shoulders, not bound up for battle. And yet it seemed the face of a stranger.

Unsettled, he left the water in the bowl, and after a moment, padded softly back to the bed.

She was asleep. He had not even thought of her when he woke, but now the sight of her steadied him. That face he knew, even battered and swollen as it was.

He set his hand on the bedstead, comforted by the solid wood. Sometimes when he woke, the dream stayed with him, and he felt the real world ghostly, faint around him. Sometimes he feared he was a ghost.

But the sheets were cool on his skin, and Claire’s warmth a reassurance. He reached for her, and she rolled over, curled herself backward into his arms with a small moan of content, her bum roundly solid against him.

She fell asleep again at once; she hadn’t really waked. He had an urge to rouse her, make her talk to him—only to be quite sure she could see him, hear him. He only held her tight, though, and over her curly head he watched the door, as though it might open and Jack Randall stand there, soaked and streaming.

Kill me, he’d said. My heart’s desire.

His heart beat slow, echoing in the ear he pressed against the pillow. Some nights, he would fall asleep listening to it, comforted by the fleshy, monotonous thump. Other times, like now, he would hear instead the mortal silence in between the beats—that silence that patiently awaits all men.

He had drawn the quilts up, but now put them back, so that Claire was covered but his own back lay bare, open to the chill of the room, that he might not slip warmly into sleep and risk returning to the dream. Let sleep struggle for him in the cold, and at last pull him off the precipice of consciousness, down to the deeps of black oblivion.

For he did not wish to know what Randall had meant by what he said.

32

HANGING’S TOO GOOD

IN THE MORNING, Mrs. Bug was back in the kitchen, and the air was warm and fragrant with the smells of cooking. She seemed quite as usual, and beyond a brief glance at my face and a “tsk!”, not inclined to fuss. Either she had more sensitivity than I’d thought, or Jamie had had a word.

“Here, a muirninn, have it while it’s hot.” Mrs. Bug slid a heap of turkey hash from the platter onto my plate, and deftly topped it with a fried egg.

I nodded thanks and picked up my fork, with a certain lack of enthusiasm. My jaw was still so sore that eating was a slow and painful business.

The egg went down all right, but the smell of burned onion seemed very strong, oily in my nostrils. I separated a small bite of potato and mashed it against the roof of my mouth, squashing it with my tongue in lieu of chewing it, then washing it down with a sip of coffee.

More in hopes of distracting myself than because I truly wanted to know, I asked, “And how is Mr. Brown this morning?”

Her lips tightened, and she smacked down a spatula of fried potatoes as though they were Brown’s brains.

“Nowhere near sae badly off as he ought to be,” she said. “Hanging’s too good for him, and him nay more than a wretched dungheap, crawling wi’ maggots.”

I spit out the bit of potato I’d been mangling, and took another hasty gulp of coffee. It hit bottom and started back up. I pushed back the bench and ran for the door, reaching it just in time to throw up into the blackberry bush, retching coffee, bile, and fried egg.

I was dimly aware of Mrs. Bug, hovering anxiously in the doorway, and waved her away with one hand. She hesitated for a moment, but then went in again, as I stood up and started toward the well.

The entire inside of my head tasted of coffee and bile, and the back of my nose stung terribly. I felt as though my nose were bleeding again, but when I touched it gingerly, discovered that it wasn’t. Careful swilling with water cleansed my mouth, and did a bit to remedy the nasty taste—but nothing to drown the panic that had come in the wake of the nausea.

I had the sudden, distinct, and thoroughly bizarre impression that my skin was missing. My legs felt shaky, and I sat down on the stump where we split kindling, heedless of splinters.

I can’t, I thought. I simply can’t.

I sat on the chopping block, lacking the will to rise. I could feel my womb, very distinctly. A small, round weight at the base of my abdomen, feeling slightly swollen, very tender.

Nothing, I thought, with what determination I could muster. Entirely normal. It always feels that way, at a particular point of my cycle. And after what we had done, Jamie and I . . . well, no bloody wonder if I were still conscious of my interior workings. Granted, we hadn’t, the night before; I’d wanted nothing but to be held. On the other hand, I’d nearly ruptured myself, laughing. A small laugh escaped me now, remembering Jamie’s confession. It hurt, and I clutched my ribs, but felt a little better.

“Well, bloody hell anyway,” I said aloud, and got up. “I’ve things to do.”

Propelled by this bold statement, I fetched my basket and foraging knife, told Mrs. Bug I was off, and set out toward the Christies’.

I’d check Tom’s hand, then invite Malva to come out with me in search of ginseng root, and any other useful things we might come across. She was an apt pupil, observant and quick, with a good memory for plants. And I’d meant to teach her how to prepare penicillin colonies. Picking through a collection of damp, moldy garbage would be soothing. I ignored a slight tendency of my gorge to rise at the thought, and lifted my battered face to the morning sun.

And I wasn’t going to worry about what Jamie meant to do with Lionel Brown, either.

33

IN WHICH MRS. BUG

TAKES A HAND

BY THE NEXT MORNING, I had recovered quite a bit. My stomach had settled, and I felt much more resilient, emotionally; a good thing, as whatever warnings Jamie had given Mrs. Bug about fussing over me had plainly worn off.

Everything hurt less, and my hands had nearly returned to normal, but I was still desperately tired, and it was in fact rather comforting to put my feet up on the settle and be brought cups of coffee—the tea was running very low, and no chance of more likely for several years—and dishes of rice pudding with raisins in.

“And ye’re quite sure as your face will go back to lookin’ like a face, are ye?” Mrs. Bug handed me a fresh muffin, dripping with butter and honey, and peered dubiously at me, lips pursed.

I was tempted to ask her what the thing on the front of my head looked like now, but was fairly sure I didn’t want to hear the answer. Instead, I contented myself with a brief “Yes” and a request for more coffee.

“I kent a wumman up in Kirkcaldy once, as was kicked in the face by a cow,” she said, still eyeing me critically as she dished up the coffee. “Lost her front teeth, puir creature, and ever after, her nose pointed off to the side, like that.” She pushed her own small round nose sharply to the side with an index finger in illustration, simultaneously tucking her upper lip under the lower one to simulate toothlessness.

I touched the bridge of my own nose carefully, but it was reassuringly straight, if still puffy.

“And then there was WIlliam McCrea of Balgownie, him who fought at Sheriffsmuir with my Arch. Got in the way of an English pike, and cleaved off half his jaw, and the best part of his nose! Arch said ye could see straight into his gullet and his brain-box both—but he lived. On parritch, mostly,” she added. “And whisky.”

“What a very good idea,” I said, putting down the nibbled muffin. “I believe I’ll go and get some.”

Carrying my cup, I escaped as quickly as I could down the hall to my surgery, followed by shouted reminiscences of Dominic Mulroney, an Irishman who’d walked face-first into a church door in Edinburgh and him sober as a sheep at the time. . . .

I shut the door of the surgery behind me, opened the window, and tossed the remains of the coffee out, then took down the bottle from the shelf and filled my cup to the brim.

I had intended to ask Mrs. Bug about Lionel Brown’s state of health, but . . . perhaps that could wait. I found that my hands were trembling again, and had to press them flat on the table for a moment to steady them before I could pick up the cup.

I took a deep breath, and a swallow of whisky. Another. Yes, that was better.

Small waves of pointless panic tended still to seize me unawares. I hadn’t had one this morning, and had rather hoped they’d gone away. Not quite yet, apparently.

I sipped whisky, dabbed cold sweat from my temples, and looked round for something useful to do. Malva and I had started some fresh penicillin the day before, and had made up fresh tinctures of boneset and troutlilly, and some fresh gentian salve, as well. I ended up thumbing slowly through my big black casebook, sipping whisky and dwelling on pages recounting various horrible complications of childbirth.

I realized what I was doing, but didn’t seem able to stop doing it. I was not pregnant. I was sure of it. And yet my womb felt tender, inflamed, and my whole being disturbed.

Oh, there was a jolly one; one of Daniel Rawlings’s entries, describing a slave woman of middle age, suffering from a recto-vag**al fistula that caused her to leak a constant small stream of fecal matter through the vag**a.

Such fistulas were caused by battering during childbirth, and were more common in very young girls, where the strain of prolonged labor often caused such tears—or in older women, where the tissues had grown less elastic. Of course, in older women, the damage was quite likely to be accompanied by complete perineal collapse, allowing uterus, urethra—and possibly the anus for good measure—to sag through the pelvic floor.

“How extremely fortunate that I am not pregnant,” I said aloud, closing the book firmly. Perhaps I’d have another go at Don Quixote.

On the whole, it was a considerable relief when Malva Christie came and tapped on the door, just before noon.

She gave my face a quick glance, but as she had the day before, merely accepted my appearance without comment.

“How’s your father’s hand?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s fine, ma’am,” she replied quickly. “I looked just as ye said, but no red streaks, no pus, and just that tiny bit of redness near where the skin is cut. I made him wiggle his fingers like ye said,” she added, a dimple showing briefly in her cheek. “He didna want to, and carried on like I was poking thorns into him—but he did it.”

“Oh, well done!” I said, and patted her on the shoulder, which made her pinken with pleasure.

“I think that deserves a biscuit with honey,” I added, having noted the delectable aroma of baking that had been wafting down the hall from the kitchen for the last hour. “Come along.”

As we entered the hallway and turned toward the kitchen, though, I heard an odd sort of noise from behind us. A peculiar kind of thumping or dragging outside, as though some large animal was lumbering across the hollow boards of the front stoop.

“What’s that?” Malva said, looking over her shoulder in alarm.

A loud groan answered her, and a thud! that shook the front door as something fell against it.

“Mary, Joseph, and Bride!” Mrs. Bug had popped out of the kitchen, crossing herself. “What’s that?”

My heart had begun to race at the noises, and my mouth went dry. Something large and dark blocked the line of light beneath the door, and stertorous breathing was clearly audible, interspersed with groans.

“Well, whatever it is, it’s sick or injured,” I said. “Stand back.” I wiped my hands on my apron, swallowed, walked forward, and pulled open the door.

For a moment, I didn’t recognize him; he was no more than a heap of flesh, wild hair, and disheveled garments smeared with dirt. But then he struggled up onto one knee and raised his head, panting, showing me a dead-white face, marked with bruises and glossy with sweat.

“Mr. Brown?” I said, incredulous.

His eyes were glazed; I wasn’t sure that he saw me at all, but clearly he recognized my voice, for he lunged forward, nearly knocking me over. I stepped smartly back, but he caught me by the foot and held on, crying, “Mercy! Mistress, have mercy on me, I pray you!”

“What in the name of—let go. Let go, I say!” I shook my foot, trying to dislodge him, but he clung like a limpet, and went on shouting, “Mercy!” in a sort of hoarse, desperate chant.

“Oh, shut your noise, man,” Mrs. Bug said crossly. Recovered from the shock of his entrance, she appeared not at all discomposed by his appearance, though substantially annoyed by it.

Lionel Brown did not shut up, but went on imploring me for mercy, despite my attempts to placate him. These were interrupted by Mrs. Bug leaning past me, a large meat-mallet in her hand, and dotting Mr. Brown smartly on the head with it. His eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped on his face without another word.

“I’m that sorry, Mrs. Fraser,” Mrs. Bug said, apologetic. “I canna think how he got out, let alone came all this way!”

I didn’t know how he’d got out, either, but it was quite clear how he’d come—he’d crawled, dragging his broken leg. His hands and legs were scratched and bloody, his breeches in tatters, and the whole of him covered with smears of mud, stuck full of grass and leaves.

I leaned down and plucked an elm leaf from his hair, trying to think what on earth to do with him. The obvious, I supposed.

“Help me get him into the surgery,” I said, sighing as I bent to get him under the arms.

“Ye canna be doing that, Mrs. Fraser!” Mrs. Bug was scandalized. “Himself was verra fierce about it; ye mustna be troubled by this scoundrel, he said, nor even catch sight of the man!”

“Well, I’m afraid it’s a bit late not to catch sight of him,” I said, tugging at the inert body. “We can’t just let him lie on the porch, can we? Help me!”

Mrs. Bug appeared to see no good reason why Mr. Brown ought not to continue lying on the porch, but when Malva—who had been pressed flat against the wall, wide-eyed, during the uproar—came to help, Mrs. Bug gave in with a sigh, laying down her weapon and lending a hand.

He had recovered consciousness by the time we got him man-handled onto the surgery table, and was moaning, “Don’t let him kill me . . . please don’t let him kill me!”

“Would you be quiet?” I said, thoroughly irritated. “Let me look at your leg.”

No one had improved on my original rough splinting job, and his journey from the Bugs’ cabin hadn’t done it any good; blood was seeping through the bandages. I was frankly amazed that he had made it, considering his other injuries. His flesh was clammy and his breath shallow, but he wasn’t badly fevered.

“Will you bring me some hot water, please, Mrs. Bug?” I asked, gingerly prodding the fractured limb. “And perhaps a little whisky? He’ll need something for shock.”

“I will not,” Mrs. Bug said, giving the patient a look of intense dislike. “We should just be saving Mr. Fraser the trouble of dealing wi’ the gobshite, if he hasna got the courtesy to die by himself.” She was still holding her mallet, and raised it in a threatening manner, causing Mr. Brown to cower and cry out, as the movement hurt his broken wrist.

“I’ll fetch the water,” Malva said, and disappeared.

Ignoring my attempts to deal with his injuries, Mr. Brown seized my wrist with his one good hand, his grip surprisingly strong.

“Don’t let him kill me,” he said hoarsely, fixing me with bloodshot eyes. “Please, I beg you!”

I hesitated. I hadn’t exactly forgotten Mr. Brown’s existence, but I had more or less suppressed the knowledge of it over the last day or so. I had been only too glad not to think of him.

He saw my hesitation, and licked his lips, trying again.

“Save me, Mrs. Fraser—I implore you! You are the only one he will listen to!”

With some difficulty, I detached his hand from my wrist.

“Why, exactly, do you think anyone wants to kill you?” I asked carefully.

Brown didn’t laugh, but his mouth twisted bitterly at that.

“He says that he will. I don’t doubt him.” He seemed a little calmer now, and took a deep, shuddering breath. “Please, Mrs. Fraser,” he said more softly. “I beg you—save me.”

I glanced up at Mrs. Bug, and read the truth in her folded arms and tight lips. She knew.

At this point, Malva hurried in, a beaker of hot water in one hand, the whisky jug in the other.

“What shall I do?” she asked breathlessly.

“Er . . . in the cupboard,” I said, trying to focus my mind. “Do you know what comfrey looks like—boneset?” I had hold of Brown’s wrist, automatically checking his pulse. It was galloping.

“Aye, ma’am. Shall I put some to steep, then?” She had set down the jug and beaker and was already hunting through the cupboard.

I met Brown’s eyes, trying for dispassion.

“You would have killed me, if you could,” I said very quietly. My own pulse was going nearly as fast as his.

“No,” he said, but his eyes slid away from mine. Only a fraction, but away. “No, I never would!”

“You told H-Hodgepile to kill me.” My voice shook on the name and a flush of anger burgeoned suddenly inside me. “You know you did!”

His left wrist was likely broken, and no one had set it; the flesh was puffy, dark with bruising. Even so, he pressed his free hand over mine, urgent with the need to convince me. The smell of him was rank, hot, and feral, like—

I ripped my hand free, revulsion crawling over my skin like a swarm of centipedes. I rubbed my palm hard on my apron, trying not to throw up.

It hadn’t been him. I knew that much. Of all the men, it couldn’t have been him; he had broken his leg in the afternoon. There was no way in which he could have been that heavy, inexorable presence in the night, shoving, stinking. And yet I felt he was, and swallowed bile, my head going suddenly light.

“Mrs. Fraser? Mrs. Fraser!” Malva and Mrs. Bug both spoke together, and before I knew quite what was happening, Mrs. Bug had eased me onto a stool, holding me upright, and Malva was pressing a cup of whisky urgently against my mouth.

I drank, eyes closed, trying to lose myself momentarily in the clean, pungent scent and the searing taste of it.

I remembered Jamie’s fury, the night he had brought me home. Had Brown been in the room with us then, there was no doubt he would have killed the man. Would he do so now, in colder blood? I didn’t know. Brown clearly thought so.

I could hear Brown crying, a low, hopeless sound. I swallowed the last of the whisky, pushed the cup away, and sat up, opening my eyes. To my vague surprise, I was crying, too.

I stood up, and wiped my face on my apron. It smelled comfortingly of butter and cinnamon and fresh applesauce, and the scent of it calmed my nausea.

“The tea’s ready, Mrs. Fraser,” Malva whispered, touching my sleeve. Her eyes were fixed on Brown, huddled miserably on the table. “Will ye drink it?”

“No,” I said. “Give it to him. Then fetch me some bandages—and go home.”

I had no idea what Jamie meant to do; I had no idea what I might do, when I discovered his intent. I didn’t know what to think, or how to feel. The only thing I did know for certain was that I had an injured man before me. For the moment, that would have to be enough.

FOR A LITTLE WHILE, I managed to forget who he was. Forbidding him to speak, I gritted my teeth and became absorbed in the tasks before me. He sniveled, but kept still. I cleaned, bandaged, tidied, administering impersonal comfort. But as the tasks ended, I was still left with the man, and was conscious of increasing distaste each time I touched him.

At last, I was finished, and went to wash, meticulously wiping my hands with a cloth soaked in turpentine and alcohol, cleaning under each fingernail despite the soreness. I was, I realized, behaving as though he harbored some vile contagion. But I couldn’t stop myself.

Lionel Brown watched me apprehensively.

“What d’ye mean to do?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” This was more or less true. It hadn’t been a process of conscious decision, though my course of action—or lack of it—had been determined. Jamie—damn him—had been right. I saw no reason to tell Lionel Brown that, though. Not yet.

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