A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 61

   

This was no more than the truth, and Jamie was reasonably sure that half the backcountry knew it; MacDonald made no effort to hide either his appearance nor his errands. To deny the fact was to ask them to believe Jamie a dunce, duplicitous, or both.

There was a stirring among the men now, glances exchanged, and the smallest of motions, hands touching knife hilts and pistol grips.

Very fine, Jamie thought. Not satisfied with the irony of the situation, God had now decided that he should fight to the death against the allies he had declared himself to moments earlier, in defense of an officer of the Crown he had just declared himself against.

As his son-in-law was fond of remarking—great.

“Bring him out,” Brown ordered, nudging his horse to the forefront. “We’ll see what he has to say for himself, this friend of yours.”

“And then might be we’ll learn him a lesson he can carry back to the Governor, eh?” One of the strangers took off his hat and tucked it carefully beneath the edge of his saddle, preparing.

“Wait!” Wherry drew himself up, trying to quell them with a hand, though Jamie could have told him he was several minutes past the point where such an attempt might have had any effect. “You cannot lay violent hands upon—”

“Can’t we, though?” Brown grinned like a death’s head, eyes fixed on Jamie, and began to undo the leather quirt coiled and fastened to his saddle. “No tar to hand, alas. But a good beating, say, and send ’em both squealing home to the Governor stark nak*d—that’d answer.”

The second stranger laughed, and spat again, so the gob landed juicily at Jamie’s feet.

“Aye, that’ll do. Hear you held off a mob by yourself in Cross Creek, Fraser—only five to two now, how you like them odds?”

Jamie liked them fine. Dropping the reins he held, he turned and flung himself between the two horses, screeching and slapping hard at their flanks, then dived headlong into the brush at the roadside, scrabbling through roots and stones on hands and knees as fast as he could.

Behind him, the horses were rearing and wheeling, whinnying loudly and spreading confusion and fright through the other men’s mounts; he could hear cries of anger and alarm, as they tried to gain control of the plunging horses.

He slid down a short slope, dirt and uprooted plants spraying up around his feet, lost his balance and fell at the bottom, bounded up and dashed into an oak copse, where he plastered himself behind a screen of saplings, breathing hard.

Someone had had wit—or fury—enough to jump off his horse and follow on foot; he could hear crashing and cursing near at hand, over the fainter cries of the commotion on the road. Glancing cautiously through the leaves, he saw Richard Brown, disheveled and hatless, looking wildly round, pistol in hand.

Any thought he might have had of confrontation vanished; he was unarmed, save a small knife in his stocking, and it was clear to him that Brown would shoot him instantly, claiming self-defense when the others eventually caught up.

Up the slope, toward the road, he caught a glimpse of red. Brown, turning in the same direction, saw it, too, and fired. Whereupon Donald MacDonald, having thoughtfully hung up his coat in a tree, stepped out of cover behind Richard Brown in his shirtsleeves, and hit Brown over the head with a solid length of tree branch.

Brown fell on his knees, momentarily stunned, and Jamie slipped out of the copse, beckoning to MacDonald, who ran heavily to meet him. Together they made their way deeper into the forest, waiting by a stream until prolonged silence from the road indicated that it might be safe to go back for a look.

The men were gone. So was MacDonald’s horse. Gideon, the whites of his eyes showing and ears laid flat, rolled back his upper lip and squealed fiercely at them, big yellow teeth bared and slobber flying. Brown and company had wisely thought twice about stealing a rabid horse, but had tied him up to a tree and managed to spoil his harness, which hung in bits around his neck. MacDonald’s sword lay in the dust, torn from its scabbard, blade broken in two.

MacDonald picked up the pieces, viewed them for a moment, then, shaking his head, tucked them through his belt.

“D’ye think Jones could mend it?” he asked. “Or better to go down to Salisbury?”

“Wilmington or New Bern,” Jamie said, wiping a hand across his mouth. “Dai Jones hasna the skill to mend a sword, but ye’ll find few friends in Salisbury, from what I hear.” Salisbury had been at the heart of the Regulation, and antigovernment sentiment still ran high there. His own heart had gone back to its usual way of beating, but he still felt weak-kneed in the aftermath of flight and anger.

MacDonald nodded bleakly, then glanced at Gideon.

“Is yon thing safe to ride?”

“No.”

In Gideon’s present state of agitation, Jamie wouldn’t risk riding him alone, let alone double-mounted and with no bridle. They’d left the rope on his saddle, at least. He got a loop over the stallion’s head without being bitten, and they set off without comment, returning to the Ridge on foot.

“Verra unfortunate,” MacDonald observed thoughtfully at one point. “That they should have met us together. D’ye think it’s dished your chances of worming your way into their councils? I should give my left ball to have an eye and an ear in that meeting they spoke of, I’ll tell ye that for nothing!”

With a dim sense of wonder, Jamie realized that having made his momentous declaration, overheard by the man whose cause he sought to betray, and then nearly killed by the new allies whose side he sought to uphold—neither side had believed him.

“D’ye ever wonder what it sounds like when God laughs, Donald?” he asked thoughtfully.

MacDonald pursed his lips and glanced at the horizon, where dark clouds swelled just beyond the shoulder of the mountain.

“Like thunder, I imagine,” he said. “D’ye not think so?”

Jamie shook his head.

“No. I think it’s a verra small, wee sound indeed.”

66

THE DARK RISES

I HEARD ALL THE SOUNDS OF the household below, and the rumble of Jamie’s voice outside, and felt entirely peaceful. I was watching the sun shift and glow on the yellowing chestnut trees outside, when the sound of feet came marching up the stairs, steady and determined.

The door flung open and Brianna came in, wind-tousled and bright-faced, wearing a steely expression. She halted at the foot of my bed, leveled a long forefinger at me, and said, “You are not allowed to die.”

“Oh?” I said, blinking. “I didn’t think I was going to.”

“You tried!” she said, accusing. “You know you did!”

“Well, not to say tried, exactly . . .” I began weakly. If I hadn’t exactly tried to die, though, it was true that I hadn’t quite tried not to, and I must have looked guilty, for her eyes narrowed into blue slits.

“Don’t you dare do that again!” she said, and wheeling in a sweep of blue cloak, stomped out, pausing at the door to say, “BecauseIloveyouandIcan’tdowithoutyou,” in a strangled voice, before running down the stairs.

“I love you too, darling!” I called, the always-ready tears coming to my eyes, but there was no reply, save the sound of the front door closing.

Adso, drowsing in a puddle of sun on the counterpane at my feet, opened his eyes a fraction of an inch at the noise, then sank his head back into his shoulders, purring louder.

I lay back on the pillow, feeling a good deal less peaceful, but somewhat more alive. A moment later, I sat up, put back the quilts, and swung my legs out of bed. Adso abruptly quit purring. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’m not going to keel over; your supply of milk and scraps is perfectly safe. Keep the bed warm for me.”

I had been up, of course, and even allowed on short, intensely supervised excursions outside. But no one had let me try to go anywhere alone since before I fell ill, and I was reasonably sure they wouldn’t let me do it now.

I therefore stole downstairs in stockinged feet, shoes in hand, and instead of going through the front door, whose hinges squeaked, or through the kitchen, where Mrs. Bug was working, I slipped into my surgery, opened the window, and—having checked to be sure the white sow was not hanging about below—climbed carefully out.

I felt quite giddy at my escape, a rush of spirits that sustained me for a little way down the path. Thereafter, I was obliged to stop every few hundred feet, sit down, and gasp a bit while my legs recovered their strength. I persevered, though, and at last came to the Christie cabin.

No one was in sight, nor was there any response to my tentative “Hallo!”, but when I knocked at the door, I heard Tom Christie’s voice, gruff and dispirited, bid me enter.

He was at the table, writing, but from the looks of him, ought still to have been in bed. His eyes widened in surprise at sight of me, and he hastily tried to straighten the grubby shawl round his shoulders.

“Mrs. Fraser! Are you—that is—what in the name of God . . .” Deprived of speech, he pointed at me, eyes round as saucers. I had taken off my broad-brimmed hat when I entered, forgetting momentarily that I looked like nothing so much as an excited bottle brush.

“Oh,” I said, passing a self-conscious hand over my head. “That. You ought to be pleased; I’m not going about outraging the public by a wanton display of my flowing locks.”

“You look like a convict,” he said bluntly. “Sit down.”

I did, being rather in need of the stool he offered me, owing to the exertions of the walk.

“How are you?” I inquired, peering at him. The light in the cabin was very bad; he had been writing with a candle, and had put it out upon my appearance.

“How am I?” He seemed both astonished and rather put out at the inquiry. “You have walked all the way here, in a dangerously enfeebled condition, to ask after my health?”

“If you care to put it that way,” I replied, rather nettled by that “dangerously enfeebled.” “I don’t suppose you would care to step out into the light, so that I can get a decent look at you, would you?”

He drew the ends of the shawl protectively across his chest.

“Why?” He frowned at me, peaked brows drawing together so that he looked like an irritable owl.

“Because I want to know a few things regarding your state of health,” I replied patiently, “and examining you is likely the best way of finding them out, since you don’t seem able to tell me anything.”

“You are most unaccountable, madam!”

“No, I am a doctor,” I countered. “And I want to know—” A brief wave of giddiness came over me, and I leaned on the table, holding on ’til it passed.

“You are insane,” he stated, having scrutinized me for a moment. “You are also still ill, I believe. Stay there; I shall call my son to go and fetch your husband.”

I flapped a hand at him and took a deep breath. My heart was racing, and I was a trifle pale and sweaty, but essentially all right.

“The fact of the matter, Mr. Christie, is that while I’ve certainly been ill, I wasn’t ill with the same sickness that’s been afflicting people on the Ridge—and from what Malva was able to tell me, I don’t think you were, either.”

He had risen to go and call Allan; at this, he froze, staring at me with his mouth open. Then he slowly lowered himself back into his chair.

“What do you mean?”

Having finally got his attention, I was pleased to lay out the facts before him; I had them neatly to hand, having given them considerable thought over the last few days.

While several families on the Ridge had suffered the depredations of amoebic dysentery, I hadn’t. I had had a dangerously high fever, accompanied by dreadful headache and—so far as I could tell from Malva’s excited account—convulsions. But it certainly wasn’t dysentery.

“Are you certain of this?” He was twiddling his discarded quill, frowning.

“It’s rather hard to mistake bloody flux for headache and fever,” I said tartly. “Now—did you have flux?”

He hesitated a moment, but curiosity got the better of him.

“No,” he said. “It was as you say—a headache fit to split the skull, and fever. A terrible weakness, and . . . and extraordinarily unpleasant dreams. I had no notion that it was not the same illness afflicting the others.”

“No reason you should, I suppose. You didn’t see any of them. Unless—did Malva describe the illness to you?” I asked only from curiosity, but he shook his head.

“I do not wish to hear of such things; she does not tell me. Still, why have you come?” He tilted his head to one side, narrowing his eyes. “What difference does it make whether you and I suffered an ague, rather than a flux? Or anyone else, for that matter?” He seemed rather agitated, and got up, moving about the cabin in an unfocused, bumbling sort of way, quite unlike his usual decisive movements.

I sighed, rubbing a hand over my forehead. I’d got the basic information I came for; explaining why I’d wanted it was going to be uphill work. I had enough trouble getting Jamie, Young Ian, and Malva to accept the germ theory of disease, and that was with the evidence visible through a microscope to hand.

“Disease is catching,” I said a little tiredly. “It passes from one person to another—sometimes directly, sometimes by means of food or water shared between a sick person and a healthy one. All of the people who had the flux lived near a particular small spring; I have some reason to think that it was the water of that spring that carried the amoeba—that made them ill.

“You and I, though—I haven’t seen you in weeks. Nor have I been near anyone else who’s had the ague. How is it that we should both fall ill of the same thing?”

He stared at me, baffled and still frowning.

“I do not see why two persons cannot fall ill without seeing each other. Certainly I have known such illnesses as you describe: gaol fever, for instance, spreads in close quarters—but surely not all illnesses behave in the same fashion?”

“No, they don’t,” I admitted. I wasn’t in a fit state to try to get across the basic notions of epidemiology or public health, either. “It’s possible, for instance, for some diseases to be spread by mosquitoes. Malaria, for one.” Some forms of viral meningitis, for another—my best guess as to the illness I’d just recovered from.

“Do you recall being bitten by a mosquito any time recently?”

He stared at me, then uttered a brief sort of bark I took for laughter.

“My dear woman, everyone in this festering climate is bitten repeatedly during the hot weather.” He scratched at his beard, as though by reflex.

That was true. Everyone but me and Roger. Now and then, some desperate insect would have a go, but for the most part, we escaped unbitten, even when there were absolute plagues of the creatures and everyone around us was scratching. As a theory, I suspected that blood-drinking mosquitoes had evolved so closely with mankind through the years that Roger and I simply didn’t smell right to them, having come from too far away in time. Brianna and Jemmy, who shared my genetic material but also Jamie’s, were bitten, but not as frequently as most people.

I didn’t recall having been bitten any time recently, but it was possible that I had been and had simply been too busy to notice.

“Why does it matter?” Christie asked, seeming now merely baffled.

“I don’t know. I just—need to find things out.” I’d also needed both to get away from the house and to make some move to reclaim my life by the most direct means I knew—the practice of medicine. But that wasn’t anything I meant to share with Tom Christie.

“Hmph,” he said. He stood looking down at me, frowning and undecided, then suddenly extended a hand—the one I had operated on, I saw; the “Z” of the incision had faded to a healthy pale pink, and the fingers lay straight.

“Come outside, then,” he said, resigned. “I will see you home, and if ye insist upon asking intrusive and bothersome questions regarding my health along the way, I suppose I cannot stop you.”

Startled, I took his hand, and found his grip solid and steady, despite the haggard look of his face and the slump of his shoulders.

“You needn’t walk me home,” I protested. “You ought to be in bed, by the looks of you!”

“So should you,” he said, leading me to the door with a hand beneath my elbow. “But if ye choose to risk your health and your life by undertaking such inappropriate exertion—why, so can I. Though you must,” he added sternly, “put on your hat before we go.”

WE MADE IT BACK to the house, stopping frequently for rest, and arrived panting, dripping with sweat, and generally exhilarated by the adventure. No one had missed me, but Mr. Christie insisted upon delivering me inside, which meant that everyone observed my absence ex post facto, and in the irrational way of people, at once became very annoyed.

I was scolded by everyone in sight, including Young Ian, frog-marched upstairs virtually by the scruff of the neck, and thrust forcibly back into bed, where, I was given to understand, I should be lucky to be given bread and milk for my supper. The most annoying aspect of the whole situation was Thomas Christie, standing at the foot of the stairs with a mug of beer in his hand, watching as I was led off, and wearing the only grin I had ever seen on his hairy face.

“What in the name of God possessed ye, Sassenach?” Jamie jerked back the quilt and gestured peremptorily at the sheets.

“Well, I felt quite well, and—”

“Well! Ye’re the color of bad buttermilk, and trembling so ye can scarcely—here, let me do that.” Making snorting noises, he pushed my hands away from the laces of my petticoats, and had them off me in a trice.

“Have ye lost your mind?” he demanded. “And to sneak off like that without telling anyone, too! What if ye’d fallen? What if ye got ill again?”

“If I’d told anyone, they wouldn’t have let me go out,” I said mildly. “And I am a physician, you know. Surely I can judge my own state of health.”

He gave me a look, strongly suggesting that he wouldn’t trust me to judge a flower show, but merely gave a louder than usual snort in reply.

He then picked me up bodily, carried me to the bed, and placed me gently into it—but with enough demonstration of restrained strength as to let me know that he would have preferred to drop me from a height.

He then straightened up, giving me a baleful look.

“If ye didna look as though ye were about to faint, Sassenach, I swear I would turn ye over and smack your bum for ye.”

“You can’t,” I said, rather faintly. “I haven’t got one.” I was in fact a little tired . . . well, to be honest, my heart was beating like a kettledrum, my ears were ringing, and if I didn’t lie down flat at once, I likely would faint. I did lie down, and lay with my eyes closed, feeling the room spin gently round me, like a merry-go-round, complete with flashing lights and hurdy-gurdy music.

Through this confusion of sensations, I dimly sensed hands on my legs, then a pleasant coolness on my heated body. Then something warm and cloudlike enveloped my head, and I flailed my hands about wildly, trying to get it off before I smothered.

I emerged, blinking and panting, to discover that I was nak*d. I glanced at my pallid, sagging, skeletal remains, and snatched the sheet up over myself. Jamie was bending to collect my discarded gown, petticoat, and jacket from the floor, adding these to the shift he had folded over his arm. He picked up my shoes and stockings and added these to his bag.

“You,” he said, pointing a long accusatory finger at me, “are going nowhere. You are not allowed to kill yourself, do I make myself clear?”

“Oh, so that’s where Bree gets it,” I murmured, trying to stop my head from swimming. I closed my eyes again.

“I seem to recall,” I said, “a certain abbey in France. And a very stubborn young man in ill health. And his friend Murtagh, who took his clothes in order to prevent his getting up and wandering off before he was fit.”

Silence. I opened one eye. He was standing stock still, the fading light from the window striking sparks in his hair.

“Whereupon,” I said conversationally, “if memory serves, you promptly climbed out a window and decamped. Naked. In the middle of winter.”

The stiff fingers of his right hand tapped twice against his leg.

“I was four-and-twenty,” he said at last, sounding gruff. “I wasna meant to have any sense.”

“I wouldn’t argue with that for an instant,” I assured him. I opened the other eye and fixed him with both. “But you do know why I did it. I had to.”

He drew a very deep breath, sighed, and set down my clothes. He came and sat down on the bed beside me, making the wooden frame creak and groan beneath his weight.

He picked up my hand, and held it as though it were something precious and fragile. It was, too—or at least it looked fragile, a delicate construct of transparent skin and the shadow of the bones within it. He ran his thumb gently down the back of my hand, tracing the bones from phalange to ulna, and I felt an odd, small tingle of distant memory; the vision of my own bones, glowing blue through the skin, and Master Raymond’s hands, cupping my inflamed and empty womb, saying to me through the mists of fever, “Call him. Call the red man.”

“Jamie,” I said very softly. Sunlight flashed on the metal of my silver wedding ring. He took hold of it between thumb and forefinger, and slid the little metal circlet gently up and down my finger, so loose that it didn’t even catch on the bony knuckle.

“Be careful,” I said. “I don’t want to lose it.”

“Ye won’t.” He folded my fingers closed, his own hand closing large and warm around mine.

He sat silent for a time, and we watched the bar of sun creep slowly across the counterpane. Adso had moved with it, to stay in its warmth, and the light tipped his fur with a soft silver glow, the fine hairs that edged his ears tiny and distinct.

“It’s a great comfort,” he said at last, “to see the sun come up and go down. When I dwelt in the cave, when I was in prison, it gave me hope, to see the light come and go, and know that the world went about its business.”

He was looking out the window, toward the blue distance where the sky darkened toward infinity. His throat moved a little as he swallowed.

“It gives me the same feeling, Sassenach,” he said, “to hear ye rustling about in your surgery, rattling things and swearin’ to yourself.” He turned his head, then, to look at me, and his eyes held the depths of the coming night.

“If ye were no longer there—or somewhere—” he said very softly, “then the sun would no longer come up or go down.” He lifted my hand and kissed it, very gently. He laid it, closed around my ring, upon my chest, rose, and left.

I SLEPT LIGHTLY NOW, no longer flung into the agitated world of fever dreams, nor sucked down into the deep well of oblivion as my body sought the healing of sleep. I didn’t know what had wakened me, but I was awake, quite suddenly, alert and fresh-eyed, with no interval of drowsiness.

The shutters were closed, but the moon was full; soft light striped the bed. I ran a hand over the sheet beside me, lifted my hand far above my head. My arm was a slender pale stem, bloodless and fragile as a toadstool’s stalk; my fingers flexed gently and spread, a web, a net to catch the dark.

I could hear Jamie breathing, in his accustomed spot on the floor beside the bed.

I brought my arm down, stroked my body lightly with both hands, assessing. A tiny swell of breast, ribs I could count, one, two, three, four, five, and the smooth concavity of my stomach, slung like a hammock between the uprights of my hipbones. Skin, and bones. Not much else.

“Claire?” There was a stirring in the dark beside the bed, and Jamie’s head rose up, a presence more sensed than seen, so dark was the shadow there by contrast with the moonlight.

A large dark hand groped across the quilt, touched my hip.

“Are ye well, a nighean?” he whispered. “D’ye need anything?”

He was tired; his head lay on the bed beside me, his breath warm through my shift. If he hadn’t been warm, his touch, his breath, perhaps I wouldn’t have had the courage, but I felt cold and bodiless as the moonlight itself, and so I closed my spectral hand on his and whispered, “I need you.”

He was quite still for a moment, slowly making sense of what I’d said.

“I’ll not trouble your sleep?” he said, sounding doubtful. I pulled on his wrist in answer, and he came, rising up from the pool of dark on the floor, the thin lines of moonlight rippling over him like water.

“Kelpie,” I said softly.

He snorted briefly in answer, and awkwardly, gingerly, eased himself beneath the quilt, the mattress giving under his weight.

We lay very shyly together, barely touching. He was breathing shallowly, clearly trying to make as little obtrusion of his presence as possible. Aside from a faint rustling of sheets, the house was silent.

Finally, I felt one large finger nudge gently against my thigh.

“I missed ye, Sassenach,” he whispered.

I rolled onto my side facing him, and kissed his arm in answer. I wanted to move closer, lay my head in the curve of his shoulder, and lie in the circle of his arm—but the idea of my short, bristly hair against his skin kept me from it.

“I missed you, too,” I said, into the dark solidness of his arm.

“Will I take ye, then?” he said softly. “D’ye want it, truly?” One hand caressed my arm; the other went downward, starting the slow, steady rhythm to ready himself.

“Let me,” I whispered, stilling his hand with my own. “Lie still.”

I made love to him at first like a sneak thief, hasty strokes and tiny kisses, stealing scent and touch and warmth and salty taste. Then he put a hand on the back of my neck, pressing me closer, deeper.

“Dinna hurry yourself, lass,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “I’m no going anywhere.”

I let a quiver of silent amusement pass through me and he drew in a deep, deep breath as I closed my teeth very gently round him and slid my hand up under the warm, musky weight of his balls.

Then I rose up over him, light-headed at the sudden movement, needing urgently. We both sighed deeply as it happened, and I felt the breath of his laughter on my br**sts as I bent over him.

“I missed ye, Sassenach,” he whispered again.

I was shy of his touching me, changed as I was, and leaned with my hands on his shoulders, keeping him from pulling me down to him. He didn’t try, but slid his hand curled between us.

I felt a brief pang at the thought that the hair on my privates was longer than that on my head—but the thought was driven out by the slow pressure of the big knuckle pressing deep between my legs, rocking gently back and forth.

I seized his other hand and brought it to my mouth, sucked his fingers hard, one by one, and shuddered, gripping his hand with all my strength.

I was still gripping it sometime later, as I lay beside him. Or rather, holding it, admiring the unseen shapes of it, complex and graceful in the dark, and the hard, smooth layer of callus on palms and knuckles.

“I’ve the hands of a bricklayer,” he said, laughing a little as I passed my lips lightly over the roughened knuckles and the still-sensitive tips of his long fingers.

“Calluses on a man’s hands are deeply erotic,” I assured him.

“Are they, so?” His free hand passed lightly over my shorn head and down the length of my back. I shivered and pressed closer to him, self-consciousness beginning to be forgotten. My own free hand roamed down the length of his body, toying with the soft, wiry bush of his hair, and the damply tender, half-hard cock.

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