A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 34

   

Leaving them with refreshment, I escaped to my surgery and spent a pleasant quarter of an hour alone with the herbs, decanting infusions and separating a heap of rosemary to dry, surrounded by pungent scent and the peacefulness of plants. Such solitude was hard to come by these days, with children popping up underfoot like mushrooms. Marsali was anxious to go back to her own home, I knew—but I was loath to let her go without Fergus there to provide some help.

“Bloody man,” I muttered under my breath. “Selfish little beast.”

Evidently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. As I came back down the hall, reeking of rosemary and ginseng root, I overheard Marsali expressing a similar opinion to Ian.

“Aye, I ken he’s taken back, who wouldna be?” she was saying, her voice full of hurt. “But why must he run awa, and leave us alone? Did ye speak to him, Ian? Did he say anything?”

So that was it. Ian had been gone on one of his mysterious journeys; he must have encountered Fergus somewhere, and told Marsali about it.

“Aye,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. “Just a bit.” I hung back, not wanting to interrupt them, but I could see his face, the ferocity of his tattoos at odds with the sympathy that clouded his eyes. He leaned across the table, holding out his arms. “Can I hold him, coz? Please?”

Marsali’s back stiffened with surprise, but she handed over the baby, who squirmed and kicked a little in his wrappings, but quickly settled against Ian’s shoulder, making little smacking noises. Ian bent his head, smiling, and brushed his lips across Henri-Christian’s big round head.

He said something soft to the baby, in what I thought was Mohawk.

“What’s that ye said?” Marsali asked, curious.

“A sort of blessing, ye’d call it.” He patted Henri-Christian’s back, very softly. “Ye call upon the wind to welcome him, the sky to give him shelter, and the water and the earth to yield him food.”

“Oh.” Marsali’s voice was soft. “That’s so nice, Ian.” But then she squared her shoulders, unwilling to be distracted. “Ye spoke wi’ Fergus, ye said.”

Ian nodded, eyes closed. His cheek rested lightly on the baby’s head. He didn’t speak for a moment, but I saw his throat move, the big Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.

“I had a child, cousin,” he whispered, so softly that I barely heard him.

Marsali heard him. She froze, the needle she had picked up glinting in her hand. Then, moving very slowly, put it down again.

“Did ye, then?” she said just as softly. And rising, went round the table in a quiet rustle of skirts to sit beside him on the bench, close enough that he could feel her there, and laid a small hand against his elbow.

He didn’t open his eyes, but drew breath, and with the baby nestled against his heart, began to talk, in a voice hardly louder than the crackle of the fire.

HE WOKE OUT OF SLEEP, knowing that something was deeply wrong. He rolled toward the back of the bed platform, where his weapons lay at hand, but before he could seize knife or spear, he heard again the sound that must have wakened him. It came from behind him; no more than a slight catch of breath, but he heard both pain and fear in it.

The fire burned very low; he saw no more than the dark top of Wako’teqehsnonhsa’s head, a red glow outlining it, and the double mound of shoulder and hip beneath the furs. She didn’t move or make the sound again, but something in those still dark curves cleft through his heart like a tomahawk striking home.

He gripped her shoulder fiercely, willing her to be all right. Her bones were small and hard through her flesh. He could find no proper words; all the Kahnyen’kehaka had fled out of his head, and so he spoke in the first words that came to him.

“Lass—love—are ye all right, then? Blessed Michael defend us, are ye well?”

She knew he was there, but didn’t turn to him. Something—a strange ripple, like a stone thrown in water—went through her, and the breath caught in her throat again, a small dry sound.

He didn’t wait, but scrambled nak*d from the furs, calling for help. People came tumbling out into the dim light of the longhouse, bulky shapes hurrying toward him in a fog of questions. He couldn’t speak; didn’t need to. Within moments, Tewaktenyonh was there, her strong old face set in grim calm, and the women of the longhouse rushed past him, pushing him aside as they carried Emily away, wrapped in a deer’s hide.

He followed them outside, but they ignored him, disappearing into the women’s house at the end of the village. Two or three men came out, looked after them, then shrugged, turned, and went back inside. It was cold, and very late, and plainly women’s business.

He went inside himself, after a few moments, but only long enough to pull on a few clothes. He couldn’t stay in the longhouse, not with the bed empty of her and smelling of blood. There was blood on his skin as well, but he didn’t pause to wash.

Outside, the stars had faded, but the sky was still black. It was bone-cold, and very still.

The hide that hung over the door of his longhouse moved, and Rollo slipped through, gray as a ghost. The big dog extended his paws and stretched, groaning with the stiffness of the hour and the cold. Then he shook his heavy ruff, snorted out a puff of white breath, and ambled slowly to his master’s side. He sat down heavily, with a resigned sigh, and leaned against Ian’s leg.

Ian stood a moment longer, looking toward the house where his Emily was. His face was hot, fevered with urgency. He burned harsh and bright, like a coal, but he could feel the heat seeping out of him into the cold sky, and his heart turning slowly black. Finally, he slapped his palm against his thigh and turned away into the forest, walking fast, the dog padding big and soundless by his side.

“Hail Mary, full of grace . . .” He paid no attention to where he was going, praying under his breath, but aloud, for the comfort of his own voice in the silent dark.

Ought he to be praying to one of the Mohawk spirits, he wondered? Would they be angry that he spoke to his old God, to God’s mother? Might they take revenge for such a slight, on his wife and child?

The child is dead already. He had no notion where that knowledge came from, but he knew it was so, as surely as if someone had spoken the words to him aloud. The knowledge was dispassionate, not yet food for grief; only a fact he knew to be true—and was appalled to know it.

On he went into the woods, walking, then running, slowing only when he must, to draw breath. The air was knife-cold and still, smelling of rot and turpentine, but the trees whispered just a little as he passed. Emily could hear them talk; she knew their secret voices.

“Aye, and what good is that?” he muttered, face turned up to the starless void between the branches. “Ye dinna say anything worth knowing. Ye dinna ken how it is with her now, do ye?”

He could hear the dog’s feet now and then, rustling among the dead leaves just behind him, thudding softly on patches of bare ground. He stumbled now and then, feet lost in the darkness, fell once bruisingly, stumbled to his feet, and ran clumsily on. He had stopped praying; his mind wouldn’t form words any longer, couldn’t choose among the fractured syllables of his different tongues, and his breath burned thick in his throat as he ran.

He felt her body against him in the cold, her full br**sts in his hands, her small round buttocks thrusting back, heavy and eager as he rammed her, oh, God, he knew he ought not, he knew! And yet he’d done it, night after night, mad for the slippery tight clutch of her, long past the day when he knew he should stop, selfish, mindless, mad and wicked with lust. . . .

He ran, and her trees murmured condemnation above him as he went.

He had to stop, sobbing for breath. The sky had turned from black to the color that comes before the light. The dog nosed at him, whining softly in his throat, amber eyes gone blank and dark in the no-light of the hour.

Sweat poured down his body under the leather shirt, soaked the draggled breechclout between his legs. His privates were chilled, shriveled against his body, and he could smell himself, a rank, bitter scent of fear and loss.

Rollo’s ears pricked, and the dog whined again, moving a step away, back, away again, tail twitching nervously. Come, he was saying, as clearly as words. Come now!

For himself, Ian could have lain down on the frozen leaves, buried his face in the earth, and stayed. But habit pulled at him; he was accustomed to heed the dog.

“What?” he muttered, dragging a sleeve across his wet face. “What is it, then?”

Rollo growled, deep in his throat. He was standing rigid, the hackles slowly rising on his neck. Ian saw it, and some distant tremor of alarm made itself felt through the fog of exhausted despair. His hand went to his belt, found emptiness there, and slapped at it, unbelieving. Christ, he had not so much as a skinning knife!

Rollo growled again, louder. A warning, meant to be heard. Ian turned, looking, but saw only the dark trunks of cedar and pine, the ground beneath them a mass of shadows, the air between them filled with mist.

A French trader who had come to their fire had called such a time, such a light, l’heure du loup—the hour of the wolf. And for good reason: it was a hunting time, when the night grows dim, and the faint breeze that comes before the light begins to rise, carrying the scent of prey.

His hand went to the other side of his belt, where the pouch of taseng should hang: bear grease steeped with mint leaves, to hide a man’s scent while hunting—or hunted. But that side too was empty, and he felt his heart beat quick and hard, as the cold wind dried the sweat from his body.

Rollo’s teeth were bared, the growl a continuous rolling thunder. Ian stooped and seized a fallen pine branch from the ground. It was a good length, though flimsier than he would have liked, and unwieldy, clawed with long twigs.

“Home,” he whispered to the dog. He had no notion where he was, or where the village lay, but Rollo did. The dog backed slowly, eyes still fixed on the gray shadows—did they move, those shadows?

He was walking faster now, still backward, feeling the slope of the ground through the soles of his moccasins, sensing Rollo’s presence from the rustle of the dog’s feet, the faint whine that came now and then behind him. There. Yes, a shadow had moved! A gray shape, far away and seen too briefly to recognize, but there all the same—and recognizable by its presence alone.

If there was one, there were more. They did not hunt alone. They weren’t near yet, though; he turned, beginning almost to run. Not in panic now, despite the fear in the pit of his stomach. A quick, steady lope, the hill-walker’s gait that his uncle had shown him, that would devour the steep, endless miles of the Scottish mountains, steady effort without exhaustion. He must save strength to fight.

He observed that thought with a wry twist of the mouth, snapping off the brittle pine twigs from his club as he went. A moment ago, he had wanted to die, and perhaps he would again, if Emily— But not now. If Emily . . . and besides, there was the dog. Rollo wouldn’t leave him; they must defend each other.

There was water near; he heard it gurgling under the wind. But carried on the wind came another sound, a long, unearthly howl that brought the sweat out cold on his face again. Another answered it, to the west. Still far away, but they were hunting now, calling to one another. Her blood was on him.

He turned, seeking the water. It was a small creek, no more than a few feet across. He splashed into it without hesitation, splintering the skin of ice that clung to the banks, feeling the cold bite into his legs and feet as it soaked his leggings and filled his moccasins. He stopped for a split second, pulling off the moccasins, lest they be carried away in the current; Emily had made them for him, of moose hide.

Rollo had crossed the stream in two gigantic bounds, and paused on the opposite bank to shake a freezing spray of water from his coat before going on. He held to the bank, though; Ian stayed in the water, splashing shin-deep, staying as long as might be managed. Wolves hunted by wind as much as by ground scent, but no need to make it easy for them.

He had thrust the wet moccasins down the neck of his shirt, and icy trickles ran down chest and belly, soaking his breechclout. His feet were numb; he couldn’t feel the rounded stones of the streambed, but now and then his foot slid on one, slippery with algae, and he lurched and stumbled to keep his balance.

He could hear the wolves more clearly; that was good, though—the wind had changed, was toward him now, carrying their voices. Or was it only that they were closer now?

Closer. Rollo was wild, darting to and fro on the far bank, whining and growling, urging him on with brief yips. A deer’s path came down to the stream on that side; he stumbled out of the water onto it, panting and shaking. It took several tries to get the moccasins on again. The soaked leather was stiff, and his hands and feet refused to work. He had to put down his club and use both hands.

He had just managed the second one when Rollo suddenly charged down the bank, roaring a challenge. He whirled on the frozen mud, catching up his club, in time to see a gray shape, nearly Rollo’s size, on the far side of the water, its pale eyes startlingly near.

He screeched and flung the club in reflex. It sailed across the stream and struck the ground near the wolf’s feet, and the thing vanished as though by magic. He stood stock-still for an instant, staring. He had not imagined it, surely?

No, Rollo was raving, bellowing and teeth bared, flecks of foam flying from his muzzle. There were stones at the stream’s edge; Ian seized one, another, scraped up a handful, another, stubbing his fingers in haste on the rocks and frozen soil, holding up the front of his shirt to make a bag.

The more-distant wolf howled again; the near one answered, so close that the hairs rose up straight on the back of his neck. He heaved a rock in the direction of the call, turned, and ran, the bundle of rocks clutched hard against his belly.

The sky had lightened into dawn. Heart and lungs strained for blood and air, and yet it seemed as though he ran so slowly that he floated over the forest floor, passing like a drifting cloud, unable to go faster. He could see each tree, each separate needle of a spruce he passed, short and thick, soft silver-green in the light.

His breath came hard, his vision blurred and cleared, as tears of effort clouded his eyes, were blinked away, welled back again. A tree branch lashed his face and blinded him, the scent of it sharp in his nose.

“Red Cedar, help me!” he gasped, the Kahnyen’kehaka coming to his lips as though he had never spoken English or called upon Christ and His mother.

Behind you. It was a small voice, quiet, perhaps no more than the voice of his own instinct, but he whirled at once, stone in hand, and slung it with all his force. Another, and another, and another, as fast as he could fling. There was a crack, a thump, and a yelp, and Rollo slewed and skidded, eager to turn and attack.

“Come-come-come!” He seized the big dog’s ruff as he ran, dragging him round, forcing him along.

He could hear them now, or thought he could. The wind that comes at dawn rustled through the trees, and they whispered overhead, calling him this way, then that, guiding him as he ran. He saw nothing but color, half-blind with effort, but felt their embrace, cool in his mind; a prickling touch of spruce and fir, the skin of white aspen, smooth as a woman’s, sticky with blood.

Go here, come this way, he thought he heard, and followed the sound of the wind.

A howl came from behind them, followed by short yips, and another of acknowledgment. Close, too close! He flung stones behind him as he ran, not looking, no time to turn and aim.

Then there were no more stones and he dropped the empty flap of shirt, arms pumping as he ran, a harsh panting in his ears that might have been his own breath, or the dog’s—or the sound of the beasts behind him.

How many of them? How far to go? He was beginning to stagger, streaks of black and red shooting through his vision. If the village was not nearby, he had no chance.

He lurched sideways, hit the yielding branch of a tree that bent under his weight, then pushed him upright, setting him roughly back on his feet. He had lost his impetus, though, and his sense of direction.

“Where?” he gasped to the trees. “Which way?”

If there was an answer, he didn’t hear it. There was a roar and a thud behind him, a mad scuffle punctuated with the growls and yelps of dogs fighting.

“Rollo!” He turned and flung himself through a growth of dead vines, to find dog and wolf squirming and biting in a writhing ball of fur and flashing teeth.

He dashed forward, kicking and shouting, punching wildly, glad at last to have something to hit, to be fighting back, even if it was the last fight. Something ripped across his leg, but he felt only the jar of impact as he rammed his knee hard into the wolf’s side. It squealed and rolled away, rounding on him at once.

It leaped, and its paws struck him in the chest. He fell back, struck his head glancingly on something, lost breath for an instant, and came to himself to find his hand braced beneath the slavering jaws, straining to keep them from his throat.

Rollo sprang onto the wolf’s back, and Ian lost his grip, collapsing under the weight of reeking fur and squirming flesh. He flung out a hand, seeking anything—a weapon, a tool, a grip to pull himself free—and gripped something hard.

He wrenched it from its bed in the moss and smashed it against the wolf’s head. Fragments of bloody teeth flew through the air and struck his face. He struck again, sobbing, and again.

Rollo was whining, a high keening noise—no, it was him. He bashed the rock down once more on the battered skull, but the wolf had stopped fighting; it lay across his thighs, legs twitching, eyes glazing as it died. He pushed it off in a frenzy of revulsion. Rollo’s teeth sank into the wolf’s outstretched throat, and ripped it out, in a final spray of blood and warm flesh.

Ian closed his eyes and sat still. It didn’t seem possible to move, or to think.

After a time, it seemed possible to open his eyes, and to breathe, at least. There was a large tree at his back; he had fallen against the trunk when the wolf struck him; it supported him now. Among the twisted roots was a muddy hole, from which he had wrenched the stone.

He was still holding the stone; it felt as though it had grown to his skin; he couldn’t open his hand. When he looked he saw that this was because the stone had shattered; sharp fragments had cut his hand, and the pieces of the stone were glued to his hand by drying blood. Using the fingers of his other hand, he bent back the clenched fingers, and pushed the broken pieces of the stone off his palm. He scraped moss from the tree roots, made a wad of it in his hand, then let the curled fingers close over it again.

A wolf howled, in the middle distance. Rollo, who had lain down by Ian, lifted his head with a soft wuff! The howl came again, and seemed to hold a question, a worried tone.

For the first time, he looked at the body of the wolf. For an instant, he thought it moved, and shook his head to clear his vision. Then he looked again.

It was moving. The distended belly rose gently, subsided. It was full light now, and he could see the tiny nubs of pink n**ples, showing through the belly fur. Not a pack. A pair. But a pair no more. The wolf in the distance howled again, and Ian leaned to one side and vomited.

Eats Turtles came upon him a little later, sitting with his back against the red-cedar tree by the dead wolf, Rollo’s bulk pressed close against him. Turtle squatted down, a short distance away, balanced on his heels, and watched.

“Good hunting, Wolf’s Brother,” he said finally, in greeting. Ian felt the knot between his shoulder blades relax just a little. Turtle’s voice held a quiet tone, but no sorrow. She lived, then.

“She whose hearth I share,” he said, careful to avoid speaking her name. To speak it aloud might expose her to evil spirits nearby. “She is well?”

Turtle closed his eyes and raised both brows and shoulders. She was alive, and not in danger. Still, it was not for a man to say what might happen. Ian didn’t mention the child. Neither did Turtle.

Turtle had brought a gun, a bow, and his knife, of course. He took the knife from his belt and handed it to Ian, matter-of-factly.

“You will want the skins,” he said. “To wrap your son, when he shall be born.”

A shock went through Ian, like the shock of sudden rain on bare skin. Eats Turtles saw his face, and turned his head aside, avoiding his eyes.

“This child was a daughter,” Turtle said matter-of-factly. “Tewaktenyonh told my wife, when she came for a rabbit skin to wrap the body.”

The muscles in his belly tightened and quivered; he thought that perhaps his own skin would burst, but it didn’t. His throat was dry, and he swallowed once, painfully, then shook the moss away and held out his wounded hand for the knife. He bent slowly to skin the wolf.

Eats Turtles was poking with interest at the bloodstained remnants of the shattered stone, when the howl of a wolf brought him upright, staring.

It echoed through the forest, that howl, and the trees moved above them, murmuring uneasily at the sound of loss and desolation. The knife drew swiftly down the pale fur of the belly, dividing the two rows of pink n**ples.

“Her husband will be nearby,” Wolf’s Brother said, not looking up. “Go and kill him.”

MARSALI STARED at him, scarcely breathing. The sadness in her eyes was still there, but had somehow diminished, overwhelmed with compassion. The anger had left her; she had taken back Henri-Christian, and held the fat bundle of her baby with both arms against her breast, her cheek against the bold round curve of his head.

“Ah, Ian,” she said softly. “Mo charaid, mo chridhe.”

He sat looking down at his hands, clasped loosely in his lap, and seemed not to have heard her. Finally, though, he stirred, like a statue waking. Without looking up, he reached into his shirt and drew out a small, rolled bundle, bound with hair twine, and decorated with a wampum bead.

He undid this, and leaning over, spread the cured skin of an unborn wolf over the baby’s shoulders. His big, bony hand smoothed the pale fur, cupping for a moment over Marsali’s hand where it held the child.

“Believe me, cousin,” he said, very softly, “your husband grieves. But he will come back.” Then he rose and left, silent as an Indian.

37

LE MAîTRE DES

CHAMPIGNONS

THE SMALL LIMESTONE CAVE we used for a stable was home at the moment only to a nanny goat with two brand-new kids. All the animals born in the spring were now large enough to be turned out to forage in the wood with their mothers. The goat was still getting room service, though, in the form of kitchen scraps and a little cracked corn.

It had been raining for several days, and the morning broke cloudy and damp, every leaf dripping and the air thick with the scents of resin and soggy leaf mulch. Luckily, the cloudiness kept the birds subdued; the jays and mockingbirds were quick to learn, and kept a beady eye on the comings and goings of people with food—they dive-bombed me regularly as I made my way up the hill with my basin.

I was on my guard, but even so, a bold jay dropped from a branch in a flash of blue and landed in the basin, startling me. Before I could react, it had seized a fragment of corn muffin and darted off, so quickly that I could scarcely believe I’d seen it, save for the racing of my heart. Luckily I hadn’t dropped the basin; I heard a triumphant screech from the trees, and hurried to get inside the stable before the jay’s friends should try the same tactic.

I was surprised to find that the Dutch door was unbolted at the top and stood an inch or two ajar. There was no danger of the goats escaping, of course, but foxes and raccoons were more than capable of climbing over the lower door, and so both doors were normally bolted at night. Perhaps Mr. Wemyss had forgotten; it was his job to muck out the used straw and settle the stock for the night.

As soon as I pushed open the door, though, I saw that Mr. Wemyss was not to blame. There was a tremendous rustle of straw at my feet, and something big moved in the darkness.

I uttered a sharp yelp of alarm, and this time did drop the basin, which fell with a clang, scattering food across the floor and rousing the nanny goat, who started blatting her head off.

“Pardon, milady!”

Hand to my thumping heart, I stepped out of the doorway, so the light fell on Fergus, crouched on the floor, with straws sticking out of his hair like the Madwoman of Chaillot.

“Oh, so there you are,” I said quite coldly.

He blinked and swallowed, rubbing his hand over a face dark with sprouting whiskers.

“I—yes,” he said. He seemed to have nothing further to add to this. I stood glaring down at him for a moment, then shook my head and stooped to retrieve the potato peelings and other fragments that had fallen from the basin. He moved as though to help me, but I stopped him with a shooing gesture.

He sat still, watching me, hands around his knees. It was dim inside the stable, and water dripped steadily from the plants growing out of the cliffside above, making a curtain of falling drops across the open door.

The goat had stopped making noise, having recognized me, but was now stretching her neck through the railing of her pen, blueberry-colored tongue extended like an anteater’s, in an effort to reach an apple core that had rolled near the pen. I picked it up and handed it to her, trying to think where to start, and what to say when I did.

“Henri-Christian’s doing well,” I said, for lack of anything else. “Putting on weight.”

I let the remark trail off, bending over the rail to pour corn and scraps into the wooden feed trough.

Dead silence. I waited a moment, then turned round, one hand on my hip.

“He’s a very sweet little baby,” I said.

I could hear him breathing, but he said nothing. With an audible snort, I went and pushed the bottom half of the door open wide, so that the cloudy light outside streamed in, exposing Fergus. He sat with his face turned stubbornly away. I could smell him at a goodly distance; he reeked of bitter sweat and hunger.

I sighed.

“Dwarves of this sort have got quite normal intelligence. I’ve checked him thoroughly, and he has all the usual reflexes and responses that he should have. There’s no reason why he can’t be educated, be able to work—at something.”

“Something,” Fergus echoed, the word holding both despair and derision. “Something.” At last, he turned his face toward me, and I saw the hollowness of his eyes. “With respect, milady—you have never seen the life of a dwarf.”

“And you have?” I asked, not so much in challenge as curiosity.

He closed his eyes against the morning light, nodding.

“Yes,” he whispered, and swallowed. “In Paris.”

The brothel where he had grown up in Paris was a large one, with a varied clientele, famous for being able to offer something for almost any taste.

“The house itself had les filles, naturellement, and les enfants. They are of course the bread and butter of the establishment. But there are always those who desire . . . the exotic, and will pay. And so now and then the madame would send for those who dealt in such things. La Maîtresse des Scorpions—avec les flagellantes, tu comprends? Ou Le Maître des Champignons.”

“The Master of Mushrooms?” I blurted.

“Oui. The Dwarf Master.”

His eyes had sunk into his head, his gaze turned inward and his face haggard. He was seeing in memory sights and people who had been absent from his thoughts for many years—and was not enjoying the recollection.

“Les chanterelles, we called them,” he said softly. “The females. The males, they were les morels.” Exotic fungi, valued for the rarity of their twisted shapes, the strange savor of their flesh.

“They were not badly treated, les champignons,” he said, abstracted. “They were of value, you see. Le Maître would buy such infants from their parents—there was one born in the brothel, once, and the madame was delighted at her good fortune—or collect them from the streets.”

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