A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 6

   

“So maybe I’ll make a little Cherry Bounce,” she said aloud. Then she looked at the two small forms slumbering in the hay, and contemplated the prospect of waking up alongside three hangovers, come morning. “Well, maybe not.”

She bunched up enough hay for a pillow, spread her folded kerchief over it—they’d be picking hay out of their clothes most of tomorrow—and lay down, curling her body round Jem’s. If either boy stirred or vomited in his sleep, she’d feel it and rouse.

The bonfire had burned down; only a ragged fringe of flames now flickered over the bed of glowing embers, and the lanterns set around the yard had all gone out or been thriftily extinguished. Guitar and singer had ceased. Without light and noise to keep it at bay, the night came in, spreading wings of cold silence over the mountain. The stars burned bright above, but they were pinpricks, millennia away. She closed her eyes against the immensity of the night, bowing to put her lips against Jem’s head, cradling his warmth.

She tried to compose her mind for sleep, but without the distractions of company, and with the scent of burning timber strong in the air, memory stole back, and her normal prayers of blessing became pleas for mercy and protection.

“He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintance are verily estranged from me. My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.”

I won’t forget you, she said silently to the dead. It seemed so pitiful a thing to say—so small and futile. And yet the only thing in her power.

She shivered briefly, tightening her grip on Jemmy.

A sudden rustle of the hay, and Roger slid in behind her. He fumbled a bit, spreading his own cloak over her, then sighed with relief, his body relaxing heavily against hers as his arm came round her waist.

“Been a bloody long day, hasn’t it?”

She groaned faintly in agreement. Now that everything was quiet, with no more need to talk, watch, pay attention, every fiber of her muscles seemed about to dissolve with fatigue. There was no more than a thin layer of hay between her and cold, hard ground, but she felt sleep lapping at her like the waves of the tide creeping up a sandy shore, soothing and inexorable.

“‘Did you get something to eat?” She put a hand on his leg, and his arm tightened in reflex, holding her close.

“Aye, if ye think beer’s food. Many folk do.” He laughed, a warm fog of hops on his breath. “I’m fine.” The warmth of his body was beginning to seep through the layers of cloth between them, dispelling the night’s chill.

Jem always gave off heat when he slept; it was like holding a clay firepot, with him curled against her. Roger was putting out even more heat, though. Well, her mother did say that an alcohol lamp burned hotter than oil.

She sighed and snuggled back against him, feeling warm, protected. The cold immensity of the night had lifted, now that she had her family close, together again, and safe.

Roger was humming. She realized it quite suddenly. There was no tune to it, but she felt the vibration of his chest against her back. She didn’t want to chance stopping him; surely that was good for his vocal cords. He stopped on his own, though, after a moment. Hoping to start him again, she reached back to stroke his leg, essaying a small questioning hum of her own.

“Hmmm-mmmm?”

His hands cupped her buttocks and fastened tight.

“Mmm-hmmm,” he said, in what sounded like a combination of invitation and satisfaction.

She didn’t reply, but made a slight dissentient motion of the behind. Under normal conditions, this would have caused him to let go. He did let go, but only with one hand, and this in order to slide it down her leg, evidently meaning to get hold of her skirt and ruckle it up.

She reached back hastily and grabbed the roving hand, bringing it round and placing it on her breast, as an indication that while she appreciated the notion and under other circumstances would be thrilled to oblige, just this moment she thought—

Roger was usually very good at reading her body language, but evidently this skill had dissolved in whisky. That, or—the thought came suddenly to her—he simply didn’t care whether she wanted—

“Roger!” she hissed.

He had started humming again, the sound now interspersed with the low, bumping noises a teakettle makes, just before the boil. He’d got his hand down her leg and up her skirt, hot on the flesh of her thigh, groping swiftly upward—and inward. Jemmy coughed, jerking in her arms, and she made an attempt to kick Roger in the shin, as a signal of discouragement.

“God, you’re beautiful,” he murmured into the curve of her neck. “Oh, God, so beautiful. So beautiful . . . so . . . hmmm . . .” The next words were a mumble against her skin, but she thought he’d said “slippery.” His fingers had reached their goal, and she arched her back, trying to squirm away.

“Roger,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Roger, there are people around!” And a snoring toddler wedged like a doorstop in front of her.

He mumbled something in which the words “dark” and “nobody’ll see” were distinguishable, and then the groping hand retreated—only to grab a handful of her skirts and start shoving them out of the way.

He had resumed the humming, pausing momentarily to murmur, “Love you, love you so much. . . .”

“I love you, too,” she said, reaching back and trying to catch his hand. “Roger, stop that!”

He did, but immediately reached around her, and grasped her by the shoulder. A quick heave, and she was lying on her back staring up at the distant stars, which were at once blotted out by Roger’s head and shoulders as he rolled on top of her in a tremendous rustling of hay and loosened clothing.

“Jem—” She flung out a hand toward Jemmy, who appeared not to have been disturbed by the sudden disappearance of his backstop, but was still curled up in the hay like a hibernating hedgehog.

Roger was, of all things, singing now, if one could call it that. Or chanting, at least, the words to a very bawdy Scottish song, about a miller who is pestered by a young woman wanting him to grind her corn. Whereupon he does.

“He flung her down upon the sacks, and there she got her corn ground, her corn ground. . . .” Roger was chanting hotly in her ear, his full weight pinning her to the ground and the stars spinning madly far above.

She’d thought his description of Ronnie as “reeking wi’ lust” merely a figure of speech, but evidently not. Bare flesh met bare flesh, and then some. She gasped. So did Roger.

“Oh, God,” he said. He paused, frozen for an instant against the sky above her, then sighed in an ecstasy of whisky fumes and began to move with her, humming. It was dark, thank God, though not nearly dark enough. The remnants of the fire cast an eerie glow over his face, and he looked for an instant the bonny big, black devil Inga had called him.

Lie back and enjoy it, she thought. The hay made a tremendous rustling—but there were other rustlings nearby, and the sound of the wind soughing through the trees in the cove was nearly enough to drown them all in sibilance.

She had managed to suppress her embarrassment and was indeed beginning to enjoy it, when Roger got his hands under her, lifting.

“Wrap your legs round me,” he whispered, and nipped her earlobe with his teeth. “Wrap them round my back and hammer my arse wi’ your heels.”

Moved partly by an answering wantonness, and partly by a desire to squeeze the breath out of him like an accordion, she flung her legs apart and swung them high, scissoring them tight across his heaving back. He gave an ecstatic groan and redoubled his efforts. Wantonness was winning; she had nearly forgotten where they were.

Hanging on for dear life and thrilled by the ride, she arched her back and jerked, shuddering against the heat of him, the night wind’s touch cool and electric on thighs and buttocks, bared to the dark. Trembling and moaning, she melted back against the hay, her legs still locked around his hips. Boneless and nerveless, she let her head roll to the side, and slowly, languidly, opened her eyes.

Someone was there; she saw movement in the dark, and froze. It was Fergus, come to fetch his son. She heard the murmur of his voice, speaking French to Germain, and the quiet rustle of his footsteps in the hay, moving off.

She lay still, heart pounding, legs still locked in place. Roger, meanwhile, had reached his own quietus. Head hanging so that his long hair brushed her face like cobwebs in the dark, he murmured, “Love you . . . God, I love you,” and lowered himself, slowly and gently. Whereupon he breathed, “Thank you,” in her ear and lapsed into warm half-consciousness on top of her, breathing heavily.

“Oh,” she said, looking up to the peaceful stars. “Don’t mention it.” She unlocked her stiff legs, and with some difficulty, got herself and Roger disentangled, more or less covered, and restored to blessed anonymity in their hay-lined nest, Jemmy safely stowed between them.

“Hey,” she said suddenly, and Roger stirred.

“Mm?”

“What sort of monster was Eigger?”

He laughed, and the sound was low and clear.

“Oh, Eigger was a giant sponge cake. With chocolate icing. He’d fall on the other monsters, and smother them wi’ sweetness.” He laughed again, hiccuped, and subsided in the hay.

“Roger?” she said softly, a moment later. There was no answer, and she stretched a hand across the slumbering body of her son, to rest light on Roger’s arm.

“Sing to me,” she whispered, though she knew that he already was asleep.

7

JAMES FRASER, INDIAN AGENT

JAMES FRASER, Indian Agent,” I said, closing one eye as though reading it off a screen. “It sounds like a Wild West television show.”

Jamie paused in the act of pulling off his stockings, and eyed me warily.

“It does? Is that good?”

“Insofar as the hero of a television show never dies, yes.”

“In that case, I’m in favor of it,” he said, examining the stocking he’d just pulled off. He sniffed it suspiciously, rubbed a thumb over a thin patch on the heel, shook his head, and tossed it into the laundry basket. “Must I sing?”

“Si—oh,” I said, recollecting that the last time I had tried to explain television to him, my descriptions had focused largely on The Ed Sullivan Show. “No, I don’t think so. Nor yet swing from a trapeze.”

“Well, that’s a comfort. I’m none sae young as I was, ken.” He stood up and stretched himself, groaning. The house had been built with eight-foot ceilings, to accommodate him, but his fists brushed the pine beams, even so. “Christ, but it’s been a long day!”

“Well, it’s nearly over,” I said, sniffing in turn at the bodice of the gown I’d just shed. It smelled strongly, though not disagreeably, of horse and woodsmoke. Air it a bit, I decided, and see whether it could go another little while without washing. “I couldn’t have swung on a trapeze even when I was young.”

“I’d pay money to see ye try,” he said, grinning.

“What is an Indian agent?” I inquired. “MacDonald seemed to think he was doing you a signal favor by suggesting you for the job.”

He shrugged, unbuckling his kilt.

“Nay doubt he thinks he is.” He shook the garment experimentally, and a fine sifting of dust and horsehair bloomed on the floor beneath it. He went to the window, opened the shutters, and, thrusting the kilt outside, shook it harder.

“He would be”—his voice came faintly from the night outside, then more strongly, as he turned round again—“were it not for this war of yours.”

“Of mine?” I said, indignant. “You sound as though you think I’m proposing to start it, single-handed.”

He made a small gesture of dismissal.

“Ye ken what I mean. An Indian agent, Sassenach, is what it sounds like—a fellow who goes out and parleys wi’ the local Indians, giving them gifts and talking them round, in hopes that they’ll be inclined to ally themselves with the Crown’s interests, whatever those might happen to be.”

“Oh? And what’s this Southern Department that MacDonald mentioned?” I glanced involuntarily toward the closed door of our room, but muffled snoring from across the hall indicated that our guest had already collapsed into the arms of Morpheus.

“Mmphm. There’s a Southern Department and a Northern Department that deal wi’ Indian affairs in the colonies. The Southern Department is under John Stuart, who’s an Inverness man. Turn round, I’ll do it.”

I turned my back gratefully to him. With expertise born of long experience, he had the lacing of my stays undone in seconds. I sighed deeply as they loosened and fell. He plucked the shift away from my body, massaging my ribs where the boning had pressed the damp fabric into my skin.

“Thank you.” I sighed in bliss and leaned back against him. “And being an Inverness man, MacDonald thinks this Stuart will have a natural predisposition to employ other Highlanders?”

“That might depend upon whether Stuart’s ever met any of my kin,” Jamie said dryly. “But MacDonald thinks so, aye.” He kissed the top of my head in absent affection, then withdrew his hands and began untying the lace that bound his hair.

“Sit,” I said, stepping out of my fallen stays. “I’ll do it.”

He sat on the stool in his shirt, closing his eyes in momentary relaxation as I unbraided his hair. He’d worn it clubbed in a tight queue for riding, bound up for the last three days; I ran my hands up into the warm fiery mass as it unraveled from its plait, and the loosened waves of it spilled cinnamon and gold and silver in the firelight as I rubbed the pads of my fingers gently into his scalp.

“Gifts, you said. Does the Crown supply these gifts?” The Crown, I had noticed, had a bad habit of “honoring” men of substance with offices that required them to come up with large amounts of their own money.

“Theoretically.” He yawned hugely, broad shoulders slumping comfortably as I took up my hair brush and set about tidying him. “Oh, that’s nice. That’s why MacDonald thinks it a favor; there’s the possibility of doing well in trade.”

“Besides generally excellent opportunities for corruption. Yes, I see.” I worked for a few minutes before asking, “Will you do it?”

“I dinna ken. I must think a bit. Ye were mentioning Wild West—Brianna’s said such a thing, telling me about cowherds—”

“Cowboys.”

He waved off the correction. “And the Indians. That’s true, is it—what she says about the Indians?”

“If what she says is that they’ll be largely exterminated over the next century or so—yes, she’s right.” I smoothed his hair, then sat down on the bed facing him and set about brushing my own. “Does that trouble you?”

His brows drew together a little as he considered it, and he scratched absently at his chest, where the curly red-gold hairs showed at the open neck of his shirt.

“No,” he said slowly. “Not precisely. It’s not as though I should be doing them to death wi’ my own hands. But . . . we’re coming to it, are we not? The time when I must tread wi’ some care, if I’m to walk betwixt the fires.”

“I’m afraid we are,” I said, an uneasy tightness hovering between my shoulder blades. I saw what he meant, all too clearly. The battle lines were not clear yet—but they were being drawn. To become an Indian agent for the Crown was to appear to be a Loyalist—all very well for the moment, when the Rebel movement was no more than a radical fringe, with pockets of disaffection. But very, very dangerous, as we grew closer to the point where the disaffected seized power, and independence was declared.

Knowing the eventual outcome, Jamie dare not wait too long to ally himself to the Rebel side—but to do so too early was to risk arrest for treason. Not a good prospect for a man who was already a pardoned traitor.

“Of course,” I said diffidently, “if you were to be an Indian agent I suppose you might actually persuade some of the Indian tribes into supporting the American side—or staying neutral, at least.”

“I might,” he agreed, with a certain note of bleakness in his voice. “But putting aside any question as to the honor of such a course—that would help condemn them, no? Would the same thing happen to them in the end, d’ye think, if the English were to win?”

“They won’t,” I said, with a slight edge.

He glanced sharply at me.

“I do believe ye,” he said, with a similar edge. “I’ve reason to, aye?”

I nodded, my lips pressed together. I didn’t want to talk about the earlier Rising. I didn’t want to talk about the oncoming Revolution, either, but there was little choice about that.

“I don’t know,” I said, and took a deep breath. “No one can say—since it didn’t happen—but if I were to guess . . . then I think the Indians might quite possibly do better under British rule.” I smiled at him, a little ruefully.

“Believe it or not, the British Empire did—or will, I should say—generally manage to run its colonies without entirely exterminating the native people in them.”

“Bar the Hieland folk,” he said, very dryly. “Aye, I’ll take your word for it, Sassenach.”

He stood up, running a hand back through his hair, and I caught a glimpse of the tiny streak of white that ran through it, legacy of a bullet wound.

“You should talk to Roger about it,” I said. “He knows a great deal more than I do.”

He nodded, but didn’t reply, beyond a faint grimace.

“Where do you suppose Roger and Bree went, speaking of Roger?”

“To the MacGillivrays’, I suppose,” he replied, surprised. “To fetch wee Jem.”

“How do you know that?” I asked, equally surprised.

“When there’s mischief abroad, a man wants his family safe under his eye, ken?” He raised one brow at me, and reaching to the top of the wardrobe, took down his sword. He drew it halfway from its scabbard, then put it back and set the scabbard gently back in place, the sword loosened, hilt ready to hand.

He’d brought a loaded pistol upstairs with him; that was placed on the washstand by the window. The rifle and fowling piece too had been left loaded and primed, hanging from their hooks above the hearth downstairs. And, with a small ironic flourish, he drew the dirk from its belt sheath and slid it neatly under our pillow.

“Sometimes I forget,” I said a little wistfully, watching this. There had been a dirk under the pillow of our wedding couch—and under many a one since then.

“Do ye?” He smiled at that; a little lopsidedly, but he smiled.

“Don’t you? Ever?”

He shook his head, still smiling, though it had a rueful tinge.

“Sometimes I wish I did.”

This colloquy was interrupted by a spluttering snort across the hall, followed at once by a thrashing of bedclothes, violent oaths, and a sharp thump! as something—likely a shoe—struck the wall.

“Fucking cat!” bellowed Major MacDonald. I sat, hand pressed across my mouth, as the stomp of bare feet vibrated through the floorboards, succeeded briefly by the crash of the Major’s door, which flung open, then shut with a bang.

Jamie too had stood frozen for an instant. Now he moved, very delicately, and soundlessly eased our own door open. Adso, tail arrogantly S-shaped, strolled in. Magnificently ignoring us, he crossed the room, leapt lightly onto the washstand, and sat in the basin, where he stuck a back leg into the air and began calmly licking his testicles.

“I saw a man once in Paris who could do that,” Jamie remarked, observing this performance with interest.

“Are there people willing to pay to watch such things?” I assumed that no one was likely to engage in a public exhibition of that sort merely for the fun of it. Not in Paris, anyway.

“Well, it wasna the man, so much. More his female companion, who was likewise flexible.” He grinned at me, his eyes glinting blue in the candlelight. “Like watching worms mate, aye?”

“How fascinating,” I murmured. I glanced at the washstand, where Adso was now doing something even more indelicate. “You’re lucky the Major doesn’t sleep armed, cat. He might have potted you like a jugged hare.”

“Oh, I doubt that. Our Donald likely sleeps with a blade—but he kens well enough which side of his bread’s buttered. Ye wouldna be likely to give him breakfast, and he’d skewered your cat.”

I glanced toward the door. The mattress-heaving and muttered curses across the hall had died down; the Major, with the practiced ease of a professional soldier, was already well on his way back to dreamland.

“I suppose not. You were right about his worming his way into a position with the new governor. Which is the real reason for his desire for your political advancement, I imagine?”

Jamie nodded, but had plainly lost interest in discussing MacDonald’s machinations.

“I was right, no? That means ye owe me a forfeit, Sassenach.”

He eyed me with an air of dawning speculation, which I hoped had not been too much inspired by his memories of the wormlike Parisians.

“Oh?” I regarded him warily. “And, um, what precisely . . . ?”

“Well, I havena quite worked out all the details as yet, but I think ye should maybe lie on the bed, to begin with.”

That sounded like a reasonable start to the matter. I piled up the pillows at the head of the bed—pausing to remove the dirk—then began to climb onto it. I paused again, though, and instead bent to wind the bedkey, tightening the ropes that supported the mattress until the bedstead groaned and the ropes gave a creaking twang.

“Verra canny, Sassenach,” Jamie said behind me, sounding amused.

“Experience,” I informed him, clambering over the newly tautened bed on hands and knees. “I’ve waked up often enough after a night with you, with the mattress folded up round my ears and my arse no more than an inch off the ground.”

“Oh, I expect your arse will end up somewhat higher than that,” he assured me.

“Oh, you’re going to let me be on top?” I had mixed feelings about that. I was desperately tired, and while I enjoyed riding Jamie, all right, I’d been riding a beastly horse for more than ten hours, and the thigh muscles required for both activities were trembling spasmodically.

“Perhaps later,” he said, eyes narrowed in thought. “Lie back, Sassenach, and ruckle up your shift. Then open your legs for me, there’s a good lass no, a bit wider, aye?” He began—with deliberate slowness—to remove his shirt.

I sighed and shifted my buttocks a little, looking for a position that wouldn’t give me cramp if I had to hold it for long.

“If you have in mind what I think you have in mind, you’ll regret it. I haven’t even bathed properly,” I said reproachfully. “I’m desperately filthy and I smell like a horse.”

Naked, he raised one arm and sniffed appraisingly.

“Oh? Well, so do I. That’s no matter; I’m fond of horses.” He’d abandoned any pretense of delay, but paused to survey his arrangements, looking me over with approval.

“Aye, verra good. Now then, if ye’ll just put your hands above your head and seize the bedstead—”

“You wouldn’t!” I said, and then lowered my voice, with an involuntary glance toward the door. “Not with MacDonald just across the hall!”

“Oh, I would,” he assured me, “and the devil wi’ MacDonald and a dozen more like him.” He paused, though, studying me thoughtfully, and after a moment, sighed and shook his head.

“No,” he said quietly. “Not tonight. Ye’re still thinking of that poor Dutch bastard and his family, no?”

“Yes. Aren’t you?”

He sat down beside me on the bed with a sigh.

“I’ve been trying verra hard not to,” he said frankly. “But the new dead dinna lie easy in their graves, do they?”

I laid a hand on his arm, relieved that he felt the same. The night air seemed restless with the passage of spirits, and I had felt the dragging melancholy of that desolate garden, that row of graves, all through the events and alarums of the evening.

It was a night to be securely locked inside, with a good fire on the hearth, and people nearby. The house stirred, shutters creaking in the wind.

“I do want ye, Claire,” Jamie said softly. “I need . . . if ye will?”

And had they spent the night before their deaths like this, I wondered? Peaceful and snug betwixt their walls, husband and wife whispering together, lying close in their bed, having no notion what the future held. I saw in memory her long white thighs as the wind blew over her, and the glimpse I’d had of the small curly mat between them, the pudenda beneath its nimbus of brown hair pale as carved marble, the seam of it sealed like a virgin’s statue.

“I need, too,” I said, just as softly. “Come here.”

He leaned close, and pulled the drawstring neatly from the neck of my shift, so the worn linen wilted off my shoulders. I made a grab for the fabric, but he caught my hand, and held it down by my side. One-fingered, he brushed the shift lower, then put out the candle, and in a dark that smelled of wax and honey and the sweat of horses, kissed my forehead, eyes, the corners of my cheeks, my lips and chin, and so continued, slow and soft-lipped, to the arches of my feet.

He raised himself then, and suckled my br**sts for a long time, and I ran my hand up his back and cupped his buttocks, nak*d and vulnerable in the dark.

Afterward, we lay in a pleasantly vermiform tangle, the only light in the room a faint glow from the banked hearth. I was so tired that I could feel my body sinking into the mattress, and desired nothing more than to keep going down, down, into the welcoming dark of oblivion.

“Sassenach?”

“Um?”

A moment’s hesitation, then his hand found mine, curling round it.

“Ye wouldna do what she did, would ye?”

“Who?”

“Her. The Dutchwoman.”

Snatched back from the edge of sleep, I was muzzy and confused, sufficiently so that even the image of the dead woman, shrouded in her apron, seemed unreal, no more disturbing than the random fragments of reality my brain tossed overboard in a vain effort to keep afloat as I sank down into the depths of sleep.

“What? Fall into the fire? I’ll try not,” I assured him, yawning. “Good night.”

“No. Wake up.” He shook my arm gently. “Talk to me, Sassenach.”

“Ng.” It was a considerable effort, but I pushed away the enticing arms of Morpheus, and flounced over onto my side, facing him. “Mm. Talk to you. About . . . ?”

“The Dutchwoman,” he repeated patiently. “If I were to be killed, ye wouldna go and kill your whole family, would ye?”

“What?” I rubbed my free hand over my face, trying to make some sense of this, amid the drifting shreds of sleep. “Whose whole—oh. You think she did it on purpose? Poisoned them?”

“I think maybe so.”

His words were no more than a whisper, but they brought me back to full consciousness. I lay silent for a moment, then reached out, wanting to be sure he was really there.

He was; a large, solid object, the smooth bone of his hip warm and live under my hand.

“It might as well have been an accident,” I said, voice pitched low. “You can’t know for sure.”

“No,” he admitted. “But I canna keep from seeing it.” He turned restlessly onto his back.

“The men came,” he said softly, to the beams overhead. “He fought them, and they killed him there, on his own threshold. And when she saw her man was gone I think she told the men she must feed the weans first, before . . . and then she put toadstools into the stew, and fed it to the bairns and her mother. She took the two men with them, but I think it was that that was the accident. She only meant to follow him. She wouldna leave him there, alone.”

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