A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 44

   

My brain was engaged in indignant rebuttal of all kinds of things, including at least half of everything he’d said in the course of the last few minutes.

At the same time, the other end of my spinal cord was not merely shamefully aroused at the thought of physical possession; it was bloody deliriously weak-kneed with desire at the notion, and was causing my h*ps to sway outward, brushing his.

He was still ignoring the dig of my nails. His other hand came up and took my free hand before I could do anything violent with it; he folded his fingers around mine and held them captive, down at my side.

“If ye asked me, Sassenach, to free ye—” he whispered, “d’ye think I’d do so?”

I took a deep breath; deep enough that my br**sts brushed his chest, he stood so close, and realization welled up in me. I stood still, breathing, watching his eyes, and felt my agitation fade slowly away, mutating into a sense of conviction, heavy and warm in the pit of my belly.

I had thought my body swayed in answer to his—and it did. But his moved unconsciously with mine; the rhythm of the pulse I saw in his throat was the pounding of the heartbeat that echoed in my wrist, and the sway of his body followed mine, barely touching, moving scarcely more than the leaves above, sighing on the breeze.

“I wouldn’t ask,” I whispered. “I’d tell you. And you’d do it. You’d do as I said.”

“Would I?” His grip on my wrist was still firm, and his face so close to mine that I felt his smile, rather than saw it.

“Yes,” I said. I had stopped pulling at my trapped wrist; instead, I pulled my other hand from his—he made no move to stop me—and brushed a thumb from the lobe of his ear down the side of his neck. He took a short, sharp breath, and a tiny shudder ran through him, stippling his skin with goosebumps in the wake of my touch.

“Yes, you would,” I said again very softly. “Because I own you, too . . . man. Don’t I?”

His hand released its grip abruptly and slid upward, long fingers intertwining with mine, his palm large and warm and hard against my own.

“Oh, aye,” he said, just as softly. “Ye do.” He lowered his head the last half-inch and his lips brushed mine, whispering, so that I felt the words as much as heard them.

“And I ken that verra well indeed, mo nighean donn.”

48

WOODEARS

DESPITE HIS DISMISSAL of her worries, Jamie had promised his wife to look into the matter, and found opportunity to speak with Malva Christie a few days later.

Coming back from Kenny Lindsay’s place, he met a snake curled up in the dust of the path before him. It was a largish creature, but gaily striped—not one of the venomous vipers. Still, he couldn’t help it; snakes gave him the grue, and he did not wish to pick it up with his hands, nor yet to step over it. It might not be disposed to lunge up his kilt—but then again, it might. For its part, the snake remained stubbornly curled among the leaves, not budging in response to his “Shoo!” or the stamping of his foot.

He took a step to the side, found an alder, and cut a good stick from it, with which he firmly escorted the wee beastie off the path and into the wood. Affronted, the snake writhed off at a good rate of speed into a hobble-bush, and next thing, a loud shriek came from the other side of the bush.

He darted round it to find Malva Christie, making an urgent, though unsuccessful, effort to squash the agitated snake with a large basket.

“It’s all right, lass, let him go.” He seized her arm, causing a number of mushrooms to cascade out of her basket, and the snake decamped indignantly in search of quieter surroundings.

He crouched and scooped up the mushrooms for her, while she gasped and fanned herself with the end of her apron.

“Oh, thank ye, sir,” she said, bosom heaving. “I’m that terrified o’ snakes.”

“Och, well, that’s no but a wee king snake,” he said, affecting nonchalance. “Great ratters—or so I’m told.”

“Maybe so, but they’ve a wicked bite.” She shuddered briefly.

“Ye’ve no been bitten, have ye?” He stood up and dumped a final handful of fungus into her basket, and she curtsied in thanks.

“No, sir.” She straightened her cap “But Mr. Crombie was. Gully Dornan brought one of those things in a box, to Sunday meeting last, just for mischief, for he kent the text was For they shall take up poisonous serpents and suffer no harm. I think he meant to let it out in the midst of the prayin’.” She grinned at the telling, clearly reliving the event.

“But Mr. Crombie saw him with the box, and took it from him, not knowing what was in it. Well, so—Gully was shaking of the box, to keep the snake awake, and when Mr. Crombie opened it, the snake came out like a jack-i’-the-box and bit Mr. Crombie on the lip.”

Jamie couldn’t help smiling in turn.

“Did it, then? I dinna recall hearing about that.”

“Well, Mr. Crombie was that furious,” she said, trying for tact. “I imagine no one wanted to spread the story, sir, for fear he’d maybe pop with rage.”

“Aye, I see,” he said dryly. “And that’s why he wouldna come to have my wife see to the wound, I suppose.”

“Oh, he wouldna do that, sir,” she assured him, shaking her head. “Not if he was to have cut off his nose by mistake.”

“No?”

She picked up the basket, glancing shyly up at him.

“Well . . . no. Some say may be as your wife’s a witch, did ye ken that?”

He felt an unpleasant tightness in his wame, though he was not surprised to hear it.

“She is a Sassenach,” he answered, calm. “Folk will always say such things of a stranger, especially a woman.” He glanced sideways at her, but her eyes were modestly cast down to the contents of her basket. “Think so yourself, do ye?”

She looked up at that, gray eyes wide.

“Oh, no, sir! Never!”

She spoke with such earnestness that he smiled, despite the seriousness of his errand.

“Well, I suppose ye’d have noticed, so much time as ye spend in her surgery.”

“Oh, I should wish nothing but to be just like her, sir!” she assured him, clutching the handle of her basket in worshipful enthusiasm. “She is so kind and lovely, and she kens so much! I want to know all she can teach me, sir.”

“Aye, well. She’s said often how good it is to have such a pupil as yourself, lass. Ye’re a great help to her.” He cleared his throat, wondering how best to work round from these cordialities to a rude inquiry as to whether her father was interfering with her. “Ah . . . your Da doesna mind that ye spend so much time with my wife?”

A cloud fell upon her countenance at that, and her long black lashes swept down, hiding the dove-gray eyes.

“Oh. Well. He . . . he doesna say I mustna go.”

Jamie made a noncommittal sound in his throat, and gestured her ahead of him back to the path, where he strode along for a bit without further question, allowing her to regain her composure.

“What d’ye think your father will do,” he inquired, swishing his stick casually through a patch of toadflax, “once ye’ve wed and left his house? Is there a woman he might consider? He’d need someone to do for him, I expect.”

Her lips tightened at that, to his interest, and a faint flush rose in her cheeks.

“I dinna mean to be wed anytime soon, sir. We’ll manage well enough.”

Her answer was short enough to cause him to probe a bit.

“No? Surely ye’ve suitors, lass—the lads swoon after ye in droves; I’ve seen them.”

The flush on her skin bloomed brighter.

“Please, sir, ye’ll say no such thing to my faither!”

That rang a small alarm bell in him—but then, she might mean only that Tom Christie was a strict parent, vigilant of his daughter’s virtue. And he would have been astonished to the marrow to learn that Christie was soft, indulgent, or in any way delinquent in such responsibilities.

“I shall not,” he said mildly. “I was only teasin’, lass. Is your father sae fierce, then?”

She did look at him then, very direct.

“Thought ye kent him, sir.”

He burst out laughing at that, and after a moment’s hesitation, she joined him, with a small titter like the sound of the wee birds in the trees above.

“I do,” he said, recovering. “He’s a good man, Tom—if a bit dour.”

He looked to see the effect of this. Her face was still flushed, but there was a tiny residual smile on her lips. That was good.

“Well, so,” he resumed casually, “have ye enough of the woodears there?” He nodded at her basket. “I saw a good many yesterday, up near the Green Spring.”

“Oh, did ye?” She glanced up, interested. “Where?”

“I’m headed that way,” he said “Come if ye like, I’ll show ye.”

They made their way along the Ridge, talking of inconsequent things. He led her now and then back to the subject of her father, and noted that she seemed to have no reservations concerning him—only a prudent regard for his foibles and temper.

“Your brother, then,” he said thoughtfully, at one point. “Is he content, d’ye think? Or will he be wanting to leave, maybe go down to the coast? I ken he’s no really a farmer at heart, is he?”

She snorted a bit, but shook her head.

“No, sir, that he’s not.”

“What did he do, then? I mean, he grew up on a plantation, did he not?”

“Oh, no, sir.” She looked up at him, surprised. “He grew up in Edinburgh. We both did.”

He was taken back a bit at that. It was true, both she and Allan had an educated accent, but he had thought it only that Christie was a schoolmaster, and strict of such things.

“How is that, lass? Tom said he’d married here, in the Colonies.”

“Oh, so he did, sir,” she assured him hastily. “But his wife was not a bond servant; she went back to Scotland.”

“I see,” he said mildly, seeing her face grow much pinker and her lips press tight. Tom had said his wife had died—well, and he supposed she had, but in Scotland, after she’d left him. Proud as Christie was, he could hardly wonder that the man hadn’t confessed to his wife’s desertion. But—

“Is it true, sir, that your grandsire was Lord Lovat? Him they called the Old Fox?”

“Oh, aye,” he said, smiling. “I come from a long line of traitors, thieves, and bastards, ken?”

She laughed at that, and very prettily urged him to tell her more of his sordid family history—quite obviously, as a means of avoiding his asking more questions regarding hers.

The “but” lingered in his mind, though, even as they talked, with increasing desultoriness as they climbed through the dark, scented forest.

But. Tom Christie had been arrested two or three days after the Battle of Culloden, and imprisoned for the next ten years, before being transported to America. He did not know Malva’s exact age, but he thought she must be eighteen or so—though she often seemed older, her manner was so poised.

She must have been conceived, then, quite soon after Christie’s arrival in the Colonies. No great wonder, if the man had seized the first chance he had to marry, after living without a woman for so long. And then the wife had thought better of her bargain, and gone. Christie had told Roger Mac his wife had died of influenza—well, a man had his pride, and God knew Tom Christie had more than most.

But Allan Christie . . . where had he come from? The young man was somewhere in his twenties; it was possible that he had been conceived before Culloden. But if so—who was his mother?

“You and your brother,” he said abruptly, at the next break in conversation. “Did ye have the same mother?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, looking startled.

“Ah,” he said, and let the subject drop. Well, now. So Christie had been wed before Culloden. And then the woman, whoever she was, had come to find him in the Colonies. That argued a high degree of determination and devotion, and made him regard Christie with a good deal more interest. But that devotion had not been proof against the hardships of the Colonies—or else she found Tom so changed by time and circumstance that the devotion had been drowned in disappointment, and she had left again.

He could see that, easily—and felt an unexpected bond of sympathy with Tom Christie. He recalled his own feelings, all too well, when Claire came back to find him. The disbelieving joy of her presence—and the bone-deep fear that she would not recognize the man she had known, in the man who stood before her.

Worse, if she had discovered something that made her flee—and well as he knew Claire, he still was not sure that she would have stayed, if he’d told her at once about his marriage to Laoghaire. For that matter, if Laoghaire hadn’t shot him and nearly killed him, Claire might well have run away, and been lost for good. The thought of it was a black pit, gaping at his feet.

Of course, had she gone, he would have died, he reflected. And never come to this place and got his land, nor seen his daughter, nor held his grandson in his arms. Come to think, perhaps being nearly killed wasn’t always a misfortune—so long as you didn’t actually die of it.

“Does your arm trouble ye, sir?” He was jerked back from his thoughts to realize that he was standing like a fool, one hand clutching the spot on his upper arm where Laoghaire’s pistol ball had gone through and Malva squinting at him in concern.

“Ah, no,” he said hastily, dropping his hand. “A midgie bite. The bittie things are out early. Tell me”—he groped for some neutral topic of conversation—“d’ye like it here in the mountains?”

Inane as the question was, she appeared to consider it seriously.

“It’s lonely, sometimes,” she said, and glanced into the forest, where falling shafts of sunlight splintered on leaves and needles, shrubs and rocks, filling the air with a shattered green light. “But it is . . .” she groped for a word. “Pretty,” she said, with a small smile at him, acknowledging the inadequacy of the word.

They had reached the small clearing where the water bubbled out over a ledge of what his daughter said was serpentine—the rock whose soft green gave the spring its name; that, and the thick layer of vivid moss that grew around it.

He gestured to her to kneel and drink first. She did, cupping her hands to her face and closing her eyes in bliss at the taste of the cold, sweet water. She gulped, cupped her hands and drank again, almost greedily. She was very pretty herself, he thought in amusement, and the word was much more appropriate to the wee lassie, with that delicate chin and the lobes of her tender pink ears peeping from her cap, than to the spirit of the mountains. Her mother must have been lovely, he thought—and it was fortunate for the lass that she had not taken much of her father’s grim looks, save those gray eyes.

She sat back on her heels, breathing deep, and scooted to the side, nodding at him to kneel and take his turn. The day wasn’t hot, but it was a steep climb to the spring, and the cold water went down gratefully.

“I’ve never seen the Highlands,” Malva said, dabbing the end of her kerchief over her wet face. “Some say this place is like it, though. D’ye think so yourself, sir?”

He shook the water from his fingers and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.

“Something like. Some parts. The Great Glen, and the forest—aye, that’s verra like this.” He pointed his chin up at the trees surrounding them, murmurous and resin-scented. “But there’s nay bracken here. And nay peat, of course. And nay heather; that’s the biggest difference.”

“Ye hear the stories—of men hiding in the heather. Did ye ever do so yourself, sir?” She dimpled slightly, and he didn’t know whether she meant to tease, or was only making conversation.

“Now and then,” he said, and smiled at her as he rose, brushing pine needles from his kilt. “Stalking the deer, aye? Here, I’ll show ye the woodears.”

The fungus grew in thick shelves at the foot of an oak, no more than ten feet from the spring. Some of the things had opened their gills already, begun to darken and curl; the ground nearby was scattered with the spores, a dark brown powder that lay upon the glossy crackle of last year’s dry leaves. The fresher fungi were still bright, though, deep orange and meaty.

He left her there with a cordial word, and went back down the narrow trail, wondering about the woman who had loved and left Tom Christie.

49

THE VENOM OF THE

NORTH WIND

July 1774

BRIANNA DROVE THE SHARP end of the spade into the muddy bank and pulled out a chunk of clay the color of chocolate fudge. She could have done without the reminder of food, she thought, flinging it aside into the current with a grunt. She hitched up her soggy shift and wiped a forearm across her brow. She hadn’t eaten since mid-morning, and it was nearly teatime. Not that she meant to stop until supper. Roger was up the mountain, helping Amy McCallum rebuild her chimney stack, and the little boys had gone up to the Big House to be fed bread and butter and honey and generally spoiled by Mrs. Bug. She’d wait to eat; there was too much to do here.

“D’ye need help, lass?”

She squinted, shading her eyes against the sun. Her father was standing on the bank above, viewing her efforts with what looked like amusement.

“Do I look like I need help?” she asked irritably, swiping the back of a mud-streaked hand across her jaw.

“Ye do, aye.”

He’d been fishing; barefoot and wet to mid-thigh. He laid his rod against a tree and swung the creel from his shoulder, woven reeds creaking with the weight of the catch. Then he grasped a sapling for balance, and started to edge down the slippery bank, bare toes squelching in the mud.

“Wait—take your shirt off!” She realized her mistake an instant too late. A startled look flitted across his face, only for a moment, and then was gone.

“I mean . . . the mud . . .” she said, knowing it was too late. “The washing.”

“Oh, aye, to be sure.” Without hesitation, he pulled the shirt over his head and turned his back to her, hunting for a convenient branch from which to hang it.

His scars were not really shocking. She’d glimpsed them before, imagined them many times, and the reality was much less vivid. The scars were old, a faint silvered net, moving easily over the shadows of his ribs as he reached upward. He moved naturally. Only the tension in his shoulders suggested otherwise.

Her hand closed involuntarily, feeling for an absent pencil, feeling the stroke of the line that would capture that tiny sense of unease, the jarring note that would draw the observer closer, closer still, wondering what it was about this scene of pastoral grace. . . .

Thou shalt not uncover thy father’s nak*dness, she thought, and spread her hand flat, pressing it hard against her thigh. But he had turned back and was coming down the bank, eyes on the tangled rushes and protruding stones underfoot.

He slid the last two feet and arrived beside her with a splash, arms flailing to keep his balance. She laughed, as he’d intended, and he smiled. She’d thought for an instant to speak of it, make some apology—but he would not meet her eyes.

“So, then, move it, or go round?” His attention focused on the boulder embedded in the bank, he leaned his weight against it and shoved experimentally.

“Can we move it, do you think?” She waded up beside him, retucking the hem of her shift, which she had pulled between her legs and fastened with a belt. “Going round would mean digging another ten feet of ditch.”

“That much?” He glanced at her in surprise.

“Yes. I want to cut a notch here, to cut through to that bend—then I can put a small water-wheel here and get a good fall.” She leaned past him, pointing downstream. “The next-best place would be down there—see where the banks rise?—but this is better.”

“Aye, all right. Wait a bit, then.” He made his way back to the bank, scrambled up, and disappeared into the wood, from whence he returned with several stout lengths of fresh oak sapling, still sporting the remnants of their glossy leaves.

“We dinna need to get it out of the creekbed, aye?” he asked. “Only move it a few feet, so ye can cut through the bank beyond it?”

“That’s it.” Rivulets of sweat, trapped by her thick eyebrows, ran tickling down the sides of her face. She’d been digging for the best part of an hour; her arms ached from heaving shovelsful of heavy mud, and her hands were blistered. With a sense of profound gratitude, she surrendered the spade and stepped back in the creek, stooping to splash cold water on her scratched arms and flushed face.

“Heavy work,” her father observed, grunting a little as he briskly finished undermining the boulder. “Could ye not have asked Roger Mac to do it?”

“He’s busy,” she said, perceiving the shortness of her tone, but not inclined to disguise it.

Her father darted a sharp glance at her, but said no more, merely busying himself with the proper placement of his oak staves. Attracted like iron filings to the magnetism of their grandfather’s presence, Jemmy and Germain appeared like magic, loudly wanting to help.

She’d asked them to help, and they’d helped—for a few minutes, before being drawn away by the glimpse of a porcupine high up in the trees. With Jamie in charge, of course, they leaped to the task, madly scooping dirt from the bank with flat bits of wood, giggling, pushing, getting in the way, and stuffing handsful of mud down the back of each other’s breeches.

Jamie being Jamie, he ignored the nuisance, merely directing their efforts and finally ordering them out of the creek, so as not to be crushed.

“All right, lass,” he said, turning to her. “Take a grip there.” The boulder had been loosened from the confining clay, and now protruded from the bank, oak staves thrust into the mud beneath, sticking up on either side, and another behind.

She seized the one he indicated, while he took the other two.

“On the count of three . . . one . . . two . . . heave!”

Jem and Germain, perched above, chimed in, chanting “One . . . two . . . heave!” like a small Greek chorus. There was a splinter in her thumb and the wood rasped against the waterlogged creases of her skin, but she felt suddenly like laughing.

“One . . . two . . . hea—” With a sudden shift, a swirl of mud, and a cascade of loose dirt from the bank above, the boulder gave way, falling into the stream with a splash that soaked them both to the chest and made both little boys shriek with joy.

Jamie was grinning ear-to-ear and so was she, wet shift and muddy children notwithstanding. The boulder now lay near the opposite bank of the stream, and—just as she had calculated—the diverted current was already eating into the newly created hollow in the near bank, a strong eddy eating away the fine-grained clay in streams and spirals.

“See that?” She nodded at it, dabbing her mud-spattered face on the shoulder of her shift. “I don’t know how far it will erode, but if I let it go for a day or two, there won’t be much digging left to do.”

“Ye kent that would happen?” Her father glanced at her, face alight, and laughed. “Why, ye clever, bonnie wee thing!”

The glow of recognized achievement did quite a bit to dampen her resentment of Roger’s absence. The presence of a bottle of cider in Jamie’s creel, keeping cold amongst the dead trout, did a lot more. They sat companionably on the bank, passing the bottle back and forth, admiring the industry of the new eddy pool at work.

“This looks like good clay,” she observed, leaning forward to scoop a little of the wet stuff out of the crumbling bank. She squeezed it in her hand, letting grayish water run down her arm, and opened her hand to show him how it kept its shape, showing clearly the prints of her fingers.

“Good for your kiln?” he asked, peering dutifully at it.

“Worth a try.” She had made several less-than-successful experiments with the kiln so far, producing a succession of malformed plates and bowls, most of which had either exploded in the kiln or shattered immediately upon removal. One or two survivals, deformed and scorched round the edges, had been pressed into dubious service, but it was precious little reward for the effort of stoking the kiln and minding it for days.

What she needed was advice from someone who knew about kilns and making earthenware. But with the strained relations now existent between the Ridge and Salem, she couldn’t seek it. It had been awkward enough, her speaking directly to Brother Mordecai about his ceramic processes—a Popish woman, and speaking to a man she wasn’t married to, the scandal!

“Damn wee Manfred,” her father agreed, hearing her complaint. He’d heard it before, but didn’t mention it. He hesitated. “Would it maybe help was I to go and ask? A few o’ the Brethren will still speak to me, and it might be that they’d let me talk wi’ Mordecai. If ye were to tell me what it is ye need to know . . . ? Ye could maybe write it down.”

“Oh, Da, I love you!” Grateful, she leaned to kiss him, and he laughed, clearly gratified to be doing her a service.

Elated, she took another drink of cider, and rosy visions of hardened clay pipes began to dance in her brain. She had a wooden cistern already built, with a lot of complaint and obstruction from Ronnie Sinclair. She needed help to heave that into place. Then, if she could get only twenty feet of reliable pipe . . .

“Mama, come look!” Jem’s impatient voice cut through the fog of calculation. With a mental sigh, she made a hasty note of where she had been, and pushed the process carefully into a corner of her mind, where it would perhaps helpfully ferment.

She handed the bottle back to her father, and made her way down the bank to where the boys squatted, expecting to be shown frog spawn, a drowned skunk, or some other wonder of nature appealing to small boys.

“What is it?” she called.

“Look, look!” Jemmy spotted her and popped upright, pointing to the rock at his feet.

They were standing on the Flat Rock, a prominent feature of the creek. As the name suggested, it was a flat shelf of granite, large enough for three men to occupy at once, undercut by the water so that it jutted out over the boiling stream. It was a favorite spot for fishing.

Someone had built a small fire; there was a blackened smudge on the rock, with what looked like the remnants of charred sticks in the center. It was much too small for a cooking fire, but still, she would have thought nothing of it. Her father was frowning at the fire site, though, in a way that made her walk out onto the rock and stand beside him, looking.

The objects in the ashes weren’t sticks.

“Bones,” she said at once, and squatted down to look closer. “What kind of animal are those from?” Even as she said it, her mind was analyzing and rejecting—squirrel, possum, rabbit, deer, pig—unable to make sense of the shapes.

“They’re finger bones, lass,” he said, lowering his voice as he glanced at Jemmy—who had lost interest in the fire and was now sliding down the muddy bank, to the further detriment of his breeches. “Dinna touch them,” he added—unnecessarily, as she had drawn back her hand in instant revulsion.

“From a human, you mean?” Instinctively, she wiped her hand on the side of her thigh, though she had touched nothing.

He nodded, and squatted beside her, studying the charred remains. There were blackened lumps there, too—though she thought these were the remains of some plant material; one was greenish, maybe a stem of something, incompletely burned.

Jamie bent low, sniffing at the burned remains. Instinctively, Brianna drew a deep breath through her nose in imitation—then snorted, trying to get rid of the smell. It was disconcerting: a reek of char, overlaid with something bitter and chalky—and that in turn overlaid with a sort of pungent scent that reminded her of medicine.

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