A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 63

   

“He eats pap,” Germain said, but with some uncertainty to his tone. “We would mash up biscuits for him with milk.”

“Henri-Christian needs his mother,” Roger repeated firmly, “and your mother needs you. Ye dinna expect her to manage a wagon and two mules and your sisters, all the way to New Bern alone, do ye?”

“But Papa can help,” Germain protested. “The girls mind him, when they mind no one else!”

“Your papa’s gone already,” Ian informed him. “He’s ridden ahead, to find a place for ye all to live, once ye’ve got there. Your mother’s to follow on, wi’ all your things. Roger Mac’s right, a bhailach—your mother needs ye.”

Germain’s small face paled a little. He looked helplessly down at Jemmy, still clinging to him, then up the hill at Aidan, and gulped. The wind had come up, and blew his blond fringe back from his face, making him look very small and fragile.

“Well, then,” he said, and stopped, swallowing. Very gently, he put his arms round Jemmy’s shoulders and kissed the top of his round red head.

“I’ll come back, cousin,” he said. “And you will come and visit me by the sea. You’ll come, too,” he assured Aidan, looking up. Aidan sniffed, nodding, and made his way slowly down the slope.

Roger reached out a free hand and gently detached Jemmy. “Get on my back, mo chuisle,” he said. “It’s a steep slope; I’ll take ye down pick-a-back.”

Not waiting to be asked, Ian leaned down and picked up Aidan, who wrapped his legs round Ian’s middle, hiding his tear-streaked face in Ian’s buckskin shirt.

“D’ye want to ride, too?” Roger asked Germain, standing up carefully under the weight of his double burden. “Ian can carry ye, if ye like.”

Ian nodded and held out a hand, but Germain shook his head, blond hair flying.

“Non, Uncle Roger,” he said, almost too softly to hear. “I’ll walk.” And turning round, began to make his way gingerly down the precipitous slope.

69

A STAMPEDE OF BEAVERS

October 25, 1774

THEY HAD BEEN WALKING for an hour before Brianna began to realize that they weren’t after game. They’d cut the trail of a small herd of deer, with droppings so fresh that the pellets were still patchy with moisture, but Ian ignored the sign, pushing up the slope in single-minded determination.

Rollo had come with them, but after several fruitless attempts to draw his master’s attention to promising scents, abandoned them in disgust and bounded off through the flurrying leaves to do his own hunting.

The climb was too steep to permit conversation, even had Ian seemed inclined. With a mental shrug, she followed, but kept gun in hand and an eye on the brush, just in case.

They had left the Ridge at dawn; it was well past noon when they paused at last, on the bank of some small and nameless stream. A wild grapevine wrapped itself round the trunk of a persimmon that overhung the bank; animals had taken most of the grapes, but a few bunches still hung out over the water, out of reach for any but the most daring of squirrels—or a tall woman.

She shucked her moccasins and waded into the stream, gasping at the icy shock of the water on her calves. The grapes were ripe to bursting, so purple as to be nearly black, and sticky with juice. The squirrels hadn’t got to them, but the wasps had, and she kept a cautious eye on the dagger-bellied foragers as she twisted the tough stem of a particularly succulent bunch.

“So, do you want to tell me what we’re really looking for?” she asked, back turned to her cousin.

“No,” he said, a smile in his voice.

“Oh, a surprise, is it?” She popped the stem, and turned to toss the grapes to him.

He caught the bunch one-handed, and set them down on the bank beside the ragged knapsack in which he carried provisions.

“Something o’ the sort.”

“As long as we aren’t just out for a walk, then.” She twisted off another bunch, and sloshed ashore, to sit down beside him.

“No, not that.” He flipped two grapes into his mouth, crushed them, and spat the skins and pips with the ease of long custom. She nibbled hers more daintily, biting one in half and flicking the seeds out with a fingernail.

“You ought to eat the skins, Ian; they have vitamins.”

He raised one shoulder in skepticism, but said nothing. Both she and her mother had explained the concept of vitamins—numerous times—to little or no effect. Jamie and Ian had reluctantly been obliged to admit the existence of germs, because Claire could show them teeming seas of microorganisms in her microscope. Vitamins, however, were unfortunately invisible and thus could be safely ignored.

“Is it much farther, this surprise?” The grape skins were, in fact, very bitter. Her mouth puckered involuntarily as she bit into one. Ian, industriously eating and spitting, noticed and grinned at her.

“Aye, a bit farther.”

She cast an eye at the horizon; the sun was coming down the sky. If they were to turn back now, it would be dark before they reached home.

“How much farther?” She spit the mangled grape skin into her palm and flicked it away into the grass.

Ian glanced at the sun, too, and pursed his lips.

“Well . . . I should think we’ll reach it by midday tomorrow.”

“We’ll what? Ian!” He looked abashed, and ducked his head.

“I’m sorry, coz. I ken I should have told ye before—but I thought ye maybe wouldn’t come, if I said how far.”

A wasp lighted on the bunch of grapes in her hand, and she slapped it irritably away.

“You know I wouldn’t. Ian, what were you thinking? Roger will have a fit!”

Her cousin seemed to find the notion funny; his mouth turned up at the corner.

“A fit? Roger Mac? I shouldna think so.”

“Well, all right, he won’t throw a fit—but he’ll be worried. And Jemmy will miss me!”

“No, they’ll be all right,” Ian assured her. “I told Uncle Jamie we’d be gone three days, and he said he’d bring the wean up to the Big House. With your Mam and Lizzie and Mrs. Bug to fuss him, wee Jem won’t even notice you’re gone.”

This was likely true, but did nothing to assuage her annoyance.

“You told Da? And he just said fine, and both of you thought it was perfectly all right to—to—lug me off into the woods for three days, without telling me what was going on? You—you—”

“High-handed, insufferable, beastly Scots,” Ian said, in such a perfect imitation of her mother’s English accent that she burst out laughing, despite her annoyance.

“Yes,” she said, wiping spluttered grape juice off her chin. “Exactly!”

He was still smiling, but his expression had changed; he wasn’t teasing anymore.

“Brianna,” he said softly, with that Highland lilt that made of her name something strange and graceful. “It’s important, aye?”

He wasn’t smiling at all now. His eyes were fixed on hers, warm, but serious. His hazel eyes were the only feature of any beauty about Ian Murray’s face, but they held a gaze of such frank, sweet openness that you felt he had let you look inside his soul, just for an instant. She had had occasion before to wonder whether he was aware of this particular effect—but even if he was, it was difficult to resist.

“All right,” she said, and waved away a circling wasp, still cross but resigned. “All right. But you still should have told me. And you won’t tell me, even now?”

He shook his head, looking down at the grape he was thumbing loose from its stem.

“I can’t,” he said simply. He flipped the grape into his mouth and turned to open his bag—which, now that she noticed, bulged suspiciously. “D’ye want some bread, coz, or a bit of cheese?”

“No. Let’s go.” She stood up and brushed dead leaves from her breeches. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll be back.”

THEY STOPPED AN HOUR before sunset, while enough light remained to gather wood. The bulging knapsack had proved to contain two blankets, as well as food and a jug of beer—welcome, after the day’s walking, which had been mostly uphill.

“Oh, this is a good batch,” she said approvingly, sniffing at the neck of the jug after a long, aromatic, hop-edged swallow. “Who made it?”

“Lizzie. She caught the knack of it from Frau Ute. Before the . . . er . . . mphm.” A delicate Scottish noise encompassed the painful circumstances surrounding the dissolution of Lizzie’s betrothal.

“Mmm. That was too bad, wasn’t it?” She lowered her lashes, watching him covertly to see whether he would say anything further about Lizzie. Lizzie and Ian had seemed fond of each other once—but first he had gone to the Iroquois, and then she had been engaged to Manfred McGillivray when he returned. Now that both of them were free once more . . .

He dismissed her comment about Lizzie with nothing more than a shrug of agreement, though, concentrating on the tedious process of fire-making. The day had been warm and an hour of daylight remained, but the shadows under the trees were already blue; the night would be chilly.

“I’m going to have a look at the stream,” she announced, plucking a coiled line and hook from the small pile of effects Ian had unloaded from his bag. “It looked like there’s a trout pool just below the bend, and the flies will be rising.”

“Oh, aye.” He nodded, but paid her little attention, patiently scraping the pile of kindling a little higher before striking the next shower of sparks from his flint.

As she made her way around the bend of the little creek, she saw that it wasn’t merely a trout pool—it was a beaver pond. The humped mound of the lodge was reflected in still water, and on the far bank she could see the agitated judderings of a couple of willow saplings, evidently in the process of being consumed.

She moved slowly, a wary eye out. Beavers wouldn’t trouble her, but they would make a dash for the water if they saw her, not only splashing, but smacking the water with their tails in alarm. She’d heard it before; it was amazingly loud, sounding like a fusillade of gunshots, and guaranteed to scare every fish within miles into hiding.

Gnawed sticks littered the near bank, the white inner wood chiseled as neatly as any carpenter could do, but none was fresh, and she heard nothing nearby but the sigh of wind in the trees. Beavers were not stealthy; none was close.

With a cautious eye on the far bank, she baited the hook with a small chunk of cheese, whirled it slowly overhead, picked up speed as she let the line out, then let it fly. The hook landed with a small plop! in the middle of the pond, but the noise wasn’t sufficient to alarm the beavers; the willow saplings on the far bank continued to shake and heave under the assault of industrious teeth.

The evening hatch was rising, just as she’d told Ian. The air was soft, cool on her face, and the surface of the water dimpled and glimmered like gray silk shaken in light. Small clouds of gnats drifted in the still air under the trees, prey for the rising of the carnivorous caddis flies, stone flies, and damselflies breaking free of the surface, new-hatched and ravenous.

It was a pity that she hadn’t a casting rod or tied flies—but still worth a try. Caddis flies weren’t the only things that rose hungry at twilight, and voracious trout had been known to strike at almost anything that floated in front of them—her father had once taken one with a hook adorned with nothing more than a few knotted strands of his own bright hair.

That was a thought. She smiled to herself, brushing back a wisp of hair that had escaped from its plait, and began to draw the line slowly back toward shore. But there were likely more than trout here, and cheese was—

A strong tug came on the line, and she jerked in surprise. A snag? The line jerked back, and a thrill from the depths shot up her arm like electricity.

The next half hour passed without conscious thought, in the single-minded pursuit of finny prey. She was wet to mid-thigh, rashed with mosquito bites, and her wrist and shoulder ached, but she had three fat fish gleaming in the grass at her feet, a hunter’s sense of profound satisfaction—and a few more crumbs of cheese left in her pocket.

She was drawing back her arm to throw the hook again, when a sudden chorus of squeaks and hisses shattered the evening calm, and a stampede of beavers broke from cover, trundling down the opposite bank of the pond like a platoon of small, furry tanks. She stared at them open-mouthed, and took a step back in reflex.

Then something big and dark appeared among the trees behind the beavers, and further reflex shot adrenaline through her limbs as she whirled to flee. She would have been into the trees and away in an instant, had she not stepped on one of her fish, which slid under her foot like greased butter and dumped her unceremoniously on her backside. From which position she was ideally placed to see Rollo race from the trees in a long, low streak and launch himself in an arching parabola from the top of the bank. Graceful as a comet, he soared through the air and landed in the pond among the beavers, with a splash like a fallen meteor.

IAN LOOKED UP AT HER, open-mouthed. Slowly, his eyes traveled from her dripping hair, over her sopping, mud-smeared clothes, and down to the fish—one slightly squashed—that dangled from a leather string in her hand.

“The fish put up a good fight, did they?” he asked, nodding at the string. The corners of his mouth began to twitch.

“Yes,” she said, and dropped them on the ground in front of him. “But not nearly as good a fight as the beavers.”

“Beavers,” he said. He rubbed a knuckle meditatively down the bridge of his long, bony nose. “Aye, I heard them slapping. Ye’ve been fighting beavers?”

“I’ve been rescuing your wretched dog from beavers,” she said, and sneezed. She sank to her knees in front of the new-made fire and closed her eyes in momentary bliss at the touch of heat on her shivering body.

“Oh, Rollo’s back, then? Rollo! Where are ye, hound?” The big dog slunk reluctantly out of the shrubbery, tail barely twitching in response to his master’s call.

“What’s this I hear about beavers, then, a madadh?” Ian said sternly. In response, Rollo shook himself, though no more than a fine mist of water droplets rose from his coat. He sighed, dropped to his belly, and put his nose morosely on his paws.

“Maybe he was only after fish, but the beavers didn’t see it that way. They ran from him on shore, but once he was in the water—” Brianna shook her head, and wrung out the soggy tail of her hunting shirt. “I tell you what, Ian—you clean those damn fish.”

He was already doing so, gutting one with a single neat slice up the belly and a scoop of the thumb. He tossed the entrails toward Rollo, who merely let out another sigh, and seemed to flatten against the dead leaves, ignoring the treat.

“He’s no hurt, is he?” Ian asked, frowning at his dog.

She glared at him.

“No, he isn’t. I expect he’s embarrassed. You could ask whether I’m hurt. Do you have any idea what kind of teeth beavers have?”

The light was nearly gone, but she could see his lean shoulders shaking.

“Aye,” he said, sounding rather strangled. “I have. They, um, didna bite ye, did they? I mean—I should think it would be noticeable, if ye’d been gnawed.” A small wheeze of amusement escaped him, and he tried to cover it with a cough.

“No,” she said, rather coldly. The fire was going well, but not nearly well enough. The evening breeze had come up, and was reaching through the soaked fabric of shirt and breeches to fondle her backside with ice-cold fingers.

“It wasn’t so much the teeth as the tails,” she said, shuffling round on her knees to present her back to the fire. She rubbed a hand gingerly over her right arm, where one of the muscular paddles had struck flat on her forearm, leaving a reddened bruise that stretched from wrist to elbow. For a few moments, she’d thought the bone was broken.

“It was like being hit with a baseball bat—er . . . with a club, I mean,” she amended. The beavers hadn’t attacked her directly, of course, but being in the water with a panicked wolf-dog and half a dozen sixty-pound rodents in a state of extreme agitation had been rather like walking through an automated car wash on foot—a maelstrom of blinding spray and thrashing objects. A chill struck her and she wrapped both arms around herself, shivering.

“Here, coz.” Ian stood up and skinned the buckskin shirt off over his head. “Put this on.”

She was much too cold and battered to refuse the offer. Retiring modestly behind a bush, she stripped off the wet things and emerged a moment later, clad in Ian’s buckskin, one of the blankets wrapped around her waist sarong-style.

“You don’t eat enough, Ian,” she said, sitting down by the fire again, and eyeing him critically. “All your ribs show.”

They did. He’d always been lean to the point of thinness, but in his younger years, his teenage scrawniness had seemed quite normal, merely the result of his bones outstripping the growth of the rest of him.

Now he had reached his full growth and had had a year or two to let his muscles catch up. They had—she could see every sinew in his arms and shoulders—but the knobs of his spine bulged against the tanned skin of his back, and she could see the shadows of his ribs like rippled sand underwater.

He raised a shoulder, but made no reply, intent on skewering the cleaned fish on peeled willow twigs for broiling.

“And you don’t sleep very well, either.” She narrowed her eyes at him across the fire. Even in this light, the shadows and hollows in his face were obvious, despite the distraction of the Mohawk tattoos that looped across his cheekbones. The shadows had been obvious to everyone for months; her mother had wanted to say something to Ian, but Jamie had told her to let the lad be; he would speak when he was ready.

“Oh, well enough,” he murmured, not looking up.

Whether he was ready now or not, she couldn’t say. But he’d brought her here. If he wasn’t ready, he could bloody well get that way fast.

She had—of course—wondered all day about the mysterious goal of their journey, and why she was his necessary companion. For a matter of hunting, Ian would have taken one of the men; good as she was with a gun, several of the men on the Ridge were better, including her father. And any one of them would be better suited than she to something like digging out a bear’s den or packing home meat or hides.

They were in the Cherokee lands at the moment; she knew Ian visited the Indians frequently, and was on good terms with several villages. But if it had been a matter of some formal arrangement to be made, surely he would have asked Jamie to accompany him, or Peter Bewlie, with his Cherokee wife to interpret.

“Ian,” she said, with the tone in her voice that could bring almost any man up short. “Look at me.”

His head jerked up, and he blinked at her.

“Ian,” she said, a little more gently, “is this to do with your wife?”

He stayed frozen for a moment, eyes dark and unfathomable. Rollo, in the shadows behind him, suddenly raised his head and let out a small whine of inquiry. That seemed to rouse Ian; he blinked and looked down.

“Aye,” he said, sounding quite matter-of-fact. “It is.”

He adjusted the angle of the stick he had driven into the earth by the fire; the pale flesh of the fish curled and sizzled, browning on the green wood.

She waited for him to say more, but he didn’t speak—just broke off the edge of a piece of half-cooked fish and held it out to the dog, clicking his tongue in invitation. Rollo rose and sniffed Ian’s ear in concern, but then deigned to take the fish, and lay down again, licking the hot tidbit delicately before scooping it up with his tongue, gathering enough spirit then to engulf the discarded heads and fish guts as well.

Ian pursed his lips a little, and she could see the thoughts flickering half-formed across his face, before he made up his mind to speak.

“I did once think of marrying you, ye ken.”

He gave her a quick, direct glance, and she felt an odd little jolt of realization. He’d thought about it, all right. And while she had no doubt that his offer then had been made from the purest of motives . . . he was a young man. She hadn’t until this moment realized that he would of course have contemplated every detail of what that offer entailed.

His eyes held hers in wry acknowledgment of the fact that he had indeed imagined the physical details of sharing her bed—and had not found the prospect in any way objectionable. She resisted the impulse to blush and look away; that would discredit them both.

She was suddenly—and for the first time—aware of him as a man, rather than as an endearing young cousin. And aware of the heat of his body that had lingered in the soft buckskin when she pulled it on.

“It wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world,” she said, striving to match his matter-of-fact tone. He laughed, and the stippled lines of his tattoos lost their grimness.

“No,” he said. “Maybe not the best—that would be Roger Mac, aye? But I’m glad to hear I wouldna have been the worst, either. Better than Ronnie Sinclair, d’ye think? Or worse than Forbes the lawyer?”

“Ha, bloody ha.” She refused to be discomposed by his teasing. “You would have been at least third on the list.”

“Third?” That got his attention. “What? Who was second?” He actually seemed miffed at the notion that someone might precede him, and she laughed.

“Lord John Grey.”

“Oh? Oh, well. Aye, I suppose he’d do,” Ian admitted grudgingly. “Though of course, he—” He stopped abruptly, and darted a cautious look in her direction.

She felt an answering stab of caution. Did Ian know about John Grey’s private tastes? She thought he must, from the odd expression on his face—but if not, it was no place of hers to be revealing Lord John’s secrets.

“Have you met him?” she asked curiously. Ian had gone with her parents to rescue Roger from the Iroquois, before Lord John had appeared at her aunt’s plantation, where she had met the nobleman herself.

“Oh, aye.” He was still looking wary, though he had relaxed a little. “Some years ago. Him and his . . . son. Stepson, I mean. They came to the Ridge, traveling through to Virginia, and stopped a bit. I gave him the measle.” He grinned, quite suddenly. “Or at least he had the measle. Auntie Claire nursed him through it. Ye’ve met the man yourself, though?”

“Yes, at River Run. Ian, the fish is on fire.”

It was, and he snatched the stick from the flames with a small Gaelic exclamation, waving scorched fingers to cool them. Extinguished in the grass, the fish proved to be quite edible, if a little crispy round the edges, and a tolerably good supper, with the addition of bread and beer.

“Did ye meet Lord John’s son, then, at River Run?” he asked, resuming their conversation. “Willie, his name is. A nice wee lad. He fell into the privy,” he added thoughtfully.

“Fell in the privy?” she said, laughing. “He sounds like an idiot. Or was he just quite small?”

“No, a decent size for his age. And sensible enough, for an Englishman. See, it wasna quite his fault, ken. We were looking at a snake, and it came up the branch toward us, and . . . well, it was an accident,” he concluded, handing Rollo another piece of fish. “Ye’ve not seen the lad yourself, though?”

“No, and I think you are deliberately changing the subject.”

“Aye, I am. D’ye want a bit more beer?”

She raised an eyebrow at him—he needn’t think he was going to escape that easily—but nodded, accepting the jug.

They were quiet for a bit, drinking beer and watching the last of the light fade into darkness as the stars came out. The scent of the pine trees strengthened, their sap warmed from the day, and in the distance she heard the occasional gunshot warning slap of a beaver’s tail on the pond—evidently the beavers had posted sentries, in case she or Rollo should sneak back after dark, she thought wryly.

Ian had wrapped his own blanket round his shoulders against the growing chill, and was lying flat in the grass, staring upward into the vault of heaven overhead.

She didn’t make any pretense of not watching him, and was quite sure he was aware of it. His face was quiet for the moment, minus its usual animation—but not guarded. He was thinking, and she was content to let him take his time; it was autumn now and night would be long enough for many things.

She wished she had thought to ask her mother more about the girl Ian called Emily—the Mohawk name was something multisyllabic and unpronounceable. Small, her mother had said. Pretty, in a neat, small-boned sort of way, and very clever.

Was she dead, Emily the small and clever? She thought not. She’d been in this time long enough to have seen many men deal with the death of wives. They showed loss and grief—but they didn’t do what Ian had been doing.

Could he be taking her to meet Emily? That was a staggering thought, but one she rejected almost immediately. It would be a month’s journey, at least, to reach the Mohawks’ territory—probably more. But then . . .

“I wondered, ken?” he said suddenly, still looking up at the sky. “D’ye feel sometimes . . . wrong?” He glanced at her helplessly, not sure whether he’d said what he meant—but she understood him perfectly.

“Yes, all the time.” She felt a sense of instant, unexpected relief at the admission. He saw the slump of her shoulders, and smiled a little, crookedly.

“Well . . . maybe not all the time,” she amended. “When I’m out in the woods, alone, it’s fine. Or with Roger, by ourselves. Though even then . . .” She saw Ian’s eyebrow lift, and hurried to explain. “Not that. Not being with him. It’s just that we . . . we talk about what was.”

He gave her a look in which sympathy was mingled with interest. Plainly, he would like to know about “what was,” but put that aside for the moment.

“The woods, aye?” he said. “I see that. When I’m awake, at least. Sleeping, though . . .” He turned his face back toward the empty sky and the brightening stars.

“Are you afraid—when the dark comes on?” She’d felt that now and then; a moment of deep fear at twilight—a sense of abandonment and elemental loneliness as night rose from the earth. A feeling that sometimes remained, even when she had gone inside the cabin, the bolted door secure behind her.

“No,” he said, frowning a little at her. “You are?”

“Just a little,” she said, waving it away. “Not all the time. Not now. But what is it about sleeping in the woods?”

He sat up, and rocked back a little, big hands linked around one knee, thinking.

“Aye, well . . .” he said slowly. “Sometimes I think of the auld tales— from Scotland, aye? And ones I’ve heard now and then, living wi’ the Kahnyen’kehaka. About . . . things that may come upon a man while he sleeps. To lure away his soul.”

“Things?” Despite the beauty of the stars and the peace of the evening, she felt something small and cold slide down her back. “What things?”

He took a deep breath and blew it out, brows puckered.

“Ye call them sidhe in the Gaelic. The Cherokee call them the Nunnahee. And the Mohawk have names for them, too—more than one. But when I heard Eats Turtles tell of them, I kent at once what they were. It’s the same—the Old Folk.”

“Fairies?” she said, and her incredulity must have been clear in her voice, for he glanced up sharply at her, a glint of irritation in his eyes.

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