A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 64

   

“No, I ken what you mean by that—Roger Mac showed me the wee picture ye drew for Jem, all tiny things like dragonflies, prinking in the flowers. . . .” He made an uncouth noise in the back of his throat. “Nay. These things are . . .” He made a helpless gesture with one big hand, frowning at the grass.

“Vitamins,” he said suddenly, looking up.

“Vitamins,” she said, and rubbed a hand between her brows. It had been a long day; they had likely walked fifteen or twenty miles and fatigue had settled like water in her legs and back. The bruises from her battle with the beavers were beginning to throb.

“I see. Ian . . . are you sure that your head isn’t still a bit cracked?” She said it lightly, but her real anxiety lest it be true must have shown in her voice, for he gave a low, rueful chuckle.

“No. Or at least—I dinna think so. I was only—well, d’ye see, it’s like that. Ye canna see the vitamins, but you and Auntie Claire ken weel that they’re there, and Uncle Jamie and I must take it on faith that ye’re right about it. I ken as much about the—the Old Ones. Can ye no believe me about that?”

“Well, I—” She had begun to agree, for the sake of peace between them—but a feeling swept over her, sudden and cold as a cloud-shadow, that she wished to say nothing to acknowledge the notion. Not out loud. And not here.

“Oh,” he said, catching sight of her face. “So ye do know.”

“I don’t know, no,” she said. “But I don’t know it’s not, either. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about things like that, in a wood at night, a million miles away from civilization. All right?”

He smiled a little at that, and nodded in acceptance.

“Aye. And it’s no what I meant to say, really. It’s more . . .” His feathery brows knitted in concentration. “When I was a bairn, I’d wake in my bed, and I’d ken at once where I was, aye? There was the window”—he flung out a hand—“and there was the basin and ewer on the table, wi’ a blue band round the top, and there”—he pointed toward a laurel bush—“was the big bed where Janet and Michael were sleepin’, and Jocky the dog at the bed fit, farting like a beetle, and the smell of peat smoke from the fire and . . . well, even if I should wake at midnight and the house all still around me, I should ken at once where I was.”

She nodded, the memory of her own old room in the house on Furey Street rising around her, vivid as a vision in the smoke. The striped wool blanket, itchy under her chin, and the mattress with the indentation of her body in the middle, cupping her like a huge, warm hand. Angus, the stuffed Scottie with the ragged tam-o-shanter who shared her bed, and the comforting hum of her parents’ conversation from the living room below, punctuated by the baritone sax of the theme music from Perry Mason.

Most of all, the sense of absolute security.

She had to close her eyes, and swallow twice before answering.

“Yes. I know what you mean.”

“Aye. Well. For some time after I left home, I might find myself sleeping rough, wi’ Uncle Jamie in the heather, or here and there in inns and pothouses. I’d wake wi’ no notion where I was—and still, I’d ken I was in Scotland. It was all right.” He paused, lower lip caught between his teeth as he struggled to find the right words.

“Then . . . things happened. I wasna in Scotland any longer, and home was . . . gone.” His voice was soft, but she could hear the echo of loss in it.

“I would wake, with no idea where I might be—or who.”

He was hunched over now, big hands hanging loose between his thighs as he gazed into the fire.

“But when I lay wi’ Emily—from the first time. I knew. Kent who I was again.” He looked up at her then, eyes dark and shadowed by loss. “My soul didna wander while I slept—when I slept wi’ her.”

“And now it does?” she asked quietly, after a moment.

He nodded, wordless. The wind whispered in the trees above. She tried to ignore it, obscurely afraid that if she listened closely, she might hear words.

“Ian,” she said, and touched his arm, very lightly. “Is Emily dead?”

He sat quite still for a minute, then took a deep, shuddering breath, and shook his head.

“I dinna think so.” He sounded very doubtful, though, and she could see the trouble in his face.

“Ian,” she said very softly. “Come here.”

He didn’t move, but when she scooted close and put her arms around him, he didn’t resist. She pulled him down with her, insisting that he lie beside her, his head pillowed in the curve between shoulder and breast, her arm around him.

Mother instinct, she thought, wryly amused. Whatever’s wrong, the first thing you do is pick them up and cuddle them. And if they’re too big to lift . . . and if his warm weight and the sound of his breathing in her ear kept the voices in the wind at bay, so much the better.

She had a fragmentary memory, a brief vivid image of her mother standing behind her father in the kitchen of their house in Boston. He lay back in a straight chair, his head against her mother’s stomach, eyes closed in pain or exhaustion, as she rubbed his temples. What had it been? A headache? But her mother’s face had been gentle, the lines of her own day’s stress smoothed away by what she was doing.

“I feel a fool,” Ian said, sounding shy—but didn’t pull away.

“No, you don’t.”

He took a deep breath, squirmed a little, and settled cautiously into the grass, his body barely touching hers.

“Aye, well. I suppose not, then,” he murmured. He relaxed by wary degrees, his head growing heavier on her shoulder, the muscles of his back yielding slowly, their tension subsiding under her hand. Very tentatively, as though expecting her to slap him away, he lifted one arm and laid it over her.

It seemed the wind had died. The firelight shone on his face, the dark dotted lines of his tattoos standing out against the young skin. His hair smelled of woodsmoke and dust, soft against her cheek.

“Tell me,” she said.

He sighed, deeply.

“Not yet,” he said. “When we get there, aye?”

He would not say more, and they lay together, quiet in the grass, and safe.

Brianna felt sleep come, the waves of it gentle, lifting her toward peace, and did not resist. The last thing she recalled was Ian’s face, cheek heavy on her shoulder, his eyes still open, watching the fire.

WALKING ELK WAS telling a story. It was one of his best stories, but Ian wasn’t paying proper attention. He sat across the fire from Walking Elk, but it was the flames he was watching, not his friend’s face.

Very odd, he thought. He’d been watching fires all his life, and never seen the woman in them, until these winter months. Of course, peat fires had no great flame to speak of, though they had a good heat and a lovely smell . . . oh. Aye, so she was there, after all, the woman. He nodded slightly, smiling. Walking Elk took this as an expression of approval at his performance and became even more dramatic in his gestures, scowling horrendously and lurching to and fro with bared teeth, growling in illustration of the glutton he had carefully tracked to its lair.

The noise distracted Ian from the fire, drawing his attention to the story again. Just in time, for Walking Elk had reached the cli**x, and the young men nudged each other in anticipation. Walking Elk was short and heavily built—not so much unlike a glutton himself, which made his imitations that much more entertaining.

He turned his head, wrinkling up his nose and growling through his teeth, as the glutton caught the hunter’s scent. Then he changed in a flash, became the hunter, creeping carefully through the brush, pausing, squatting low—and springing upward with a sharp yelp, as his buttock encountered a thorny plant.

The men around the fire whooped as Walking Elk became the glutton, who looked at first astonished at the noise, and then thrilled to have seen its prey. It leaped from its lair, uttering growls and sharp yips of rage. The hunter fell back, horrified, and turned to run. Walking Elk’s stubby legs churned the pounded earth of the longhouse, running in place. Then he threw up his arms and sprawled forward with a despairing “Ay-YIIIIII!” as the glutton struck him in the back.

The men shouted encouragement, slapping their palms on their thighs, as the beleaguered hunter managed to roll onto his back, thrashing and cursing, grappling with the glutton that sought to tear out his throat.

The firelight gleamed on the scars that decorated Walking Elk’s chest and shoulders—thick white gouges that showed briefly at the gaping neck of his shirt as he writhed picturesquely, arms straining upward against his invisible enemy. Ian found himself leaning forward, his breath short and his own shoulders knotted with effort, though he knew what was coming next.

Walking Elk had done it many times, but it never failed. Ian had tried it himself, but couldn’t do it at all. The hunter dug his heels and shoulders into the dirt, his body arched like a bow at full stretch. His legs trembled, his arms shook—surely they would give way at any moment. The men by the fire held their breath.

Then it came: a soft, sudden click. Distinct and somehow muffled, it was exactly the sound made by the breaking of a neck. The snap of bone and ligament, muffled in flesh and fur. The hunter stayed arched a moment, unbelieving, and then slowly, slowly, lowered himself to the ground and sat up, staring at the body of his enemy, clutched limp in his hands.

He cast up his eyes in prayerful thanks, then stopped, wrinkling his nose. He glanced down, face screwed into a grimace, and rubbed fastidiously at his leggings, soiled by the odorous voidings of the glutton. The hearth rocked with laughter.

A small bucket of spruce beer was making the rounds; Walking Elk beamed, his face shining with sweat, and accepted it. His short, thick throat worked industriously, sucking the sharp drink down as though it was water. He lowered the bucket at last and looked about in dreamy satisfaction.

“You, Wolf’s Brother. Tell us a story!” He threw the half-empty bucket across the fire; Ian caught it, only sloshing a little over his wrist. He sucked the liquid from his sleeve, laughed, and shook his head. He took a quick mouthful of beer and passed the bucket to Sleeps with Snakes, beside him.

Eats Turtles, on his other side, poked Ian in the ribs, wanting him to talk, but he shook his head again and shrugged, jerking his chin toward Snake.

Snake, nothing loath, set the bucket neatly before him and leaned forward, the firelight dancing on his face as he began to talk. He was no actor like Walking Elk, but he was an older man—perhaps thirty—and had traveled much in his youth. He had lived with the Assiniboin and the Cayuga, and had many stories from them, which he told with great skill—if less sweat.

“Will you talk later, then?” Turtle said in Ian’s ear. “I want to hear more tales of the great sea and the woman with green eyes.”

Ian nodded, a little reluctant. He had been very drunk the first time, or he would never have spoken of Geillis Abernathy. It was only that they had been drinking trader’s rum, and the spinning sensation it caused in his head was very like that caused by the stuff she’d given him to drink, though the taste was different. That caused a giddiness that made his eyes blur, so candle flames streaked and ran like water, and the flames of the fire seemed to overflow and leap the hearthstones, glimmering all round her lavish room, small separate blazes springing up in all the rounded surfaces of silver and glass, gems and polished wood—flickering brightest behind green eyes.

He glanced around. There were no shining surfaces here. Clay pots, rough firewood, and the smooth poles of bed frames, grinding stones and woven baskets; even the cloth and furs of their clothes were soft dull colors that drowned the light. It must have been only the memory of those times of light-glazed dizziness that had brought her to mind.

He seldom thought of the Mistress—that was how the slaves and the other boys spoke of her; she needed no more name than that, for no one could imagine another of her sort. He did not value his memories of her, but Uncle Jamie had told him not to hide from them, and he obeyed, finding it good counsel.

He stared intently into the fire, only half-hearing Snake’s recounting of the story about Goose and how he had outwitted the Evil One to bring tobacco to the People and save Old Man’s life. Was it her, then, the witch Geillis, that he saw in the fire?

He thought it was not. The woman in the fire gave him a warm feeling when he saw her that ran from his heated face down through his chest and curled up low and hot in his belly. The woman in the fire had no face; he saw her limbs, her curving back, a sweep of long, smooth hair, twisting toward him, gone in a flicker; he heard her laugh, soft and breathy, far away—and it was not Geillis Abernathy’s laugh.

Still, Turtle’s words had brought her to his mind, and he could see her there. He sighed to himself and thought what story he might tell, when it came his turn. Perhaps he would tell about Mrs. Abernathy’s twin slaves, the huge black men who did her every bidding; he had once seen them kill a crocodile, and carry it up from the river between them to lay it at her feet.

He didn’t mind so much. He had found—after that first drunken telling—that to speak of her in such a way caused him to think of her in the same way—as though she was a story, interesting but unreal. Perhaps she had happened, as perhaps Goose had brought tobacco to Old Man—but it did not seem so much as though she had happened to him.

And after all, he had no scars, like Walking Elk’s, that would remind either his hearers or himself that he spoke truth.

In truth, he was growing bored with drinking and stories. The real truth was that he longed to escape to the furs and cool darkness of his bed platform, shed his clothes, and curl his hot nak*dness around his wife. Her name meant “Works with Her Hands,” but in the privacy of bed, he called her Emily.

Their time was growing short; in two moons more, she would leave, to go to the women’s house, and he would not see her. Another moon before the child came, one more after that for cleansing . . . The thought of two months spent cold and alone, without her next to him at night, was enough to make him reach for the beer as it came around, and drink deep.

Only the bucket was empty. His friends giggled as he held it upside down above his open mouth, a single amber drop splattering on his surprised nose.

A small hand reached over his shoulder and took the bucket from his grasp, as its partner reached over his other shoulder, holding a full one.

He took the bucket and twisted, smiling up at her. Works with Her Hands smiled smugly back; it gave her great pleasure to anticipate his wants. She knelt behind him, the curve of her belly pressing warm against his back, and swatted away Turtle’s hand as he reached for the beer.

“No, let my husband have it! He tells much better stories when he’s drunk.”

Turtle closed one eye, fixing her with the other. He was swaying slightly.

“Is it that he tells better stories when he’s drunk?” he asked. “Or do we just think they’re better, because we’re drunk?”

Works with Her Hands ignored this philosophical inquiry and proceeded to make room for herself at the hearth, swinging her solid little bum deftly back and forth like a battering ram. She settled comfortably next to Ian, folding her arms atop her mound.

Other young women had come in with her, bringing more beer. They nudged their way in among the young men, murmuring, poking, and laughing. He’d been wrong, Ian thought, watching them. The firelight shone on their faces, glanced from their teeth, caught the moist shine of eyes and the soft dark flesh inside their mouths as they laughed. The fire gleamed on their faces more than it had ever shone from the crystal and silver of Rose Hall.

“So, husband,” Emily said, lowering her eyelids demurely. “Tell us about this woman with green eyes.”

He took a thoughtful swallow of beer, then another.

“Oh,” he said. “She was a witch, and a very wicked woman—but she did make good beer.”

Emily’s eyes flew open wide, and everyone laughed. He looked into her eyes and saw it, clearly; the image of the fire behind him, tiny and perfect—welcoming him in.

“But not as good as yours,” he said. He lifted the bucket in salute, and drank deep.

70

EMILY

BRIANNA WOKE IN THE MORNING stiff and sore, but with one clear thought in mind. Okay. I know who I am. She had no clear idea where she was, but that didn’t matter. She lay still for a moment, feeling oddly peaceful, despite the urge to get up and pee.

How long had it been, she wondered, since she had wakened alone and peaceful, with no company but her own thoughts? Really, not since she had stepped through the stones, she thought, in search of her family. And found them.

“In spades,” she murmured, stretching gingerly. She groaned, staggered to her feet, and shuffled into the brush to pee and change back into her own clothes before returning to the blackened fire ring.

She unplaited her draggled hair, and began groggily combing her fingers through it. There was no sign of Ian or the dog nearby, but she wasn’t concerned. The wood around her was filled with the racket of birds, but not alarm calls, just the daily business of flutter and feeding, a cheerful chatter that didn’t alter when she rose. The birds had been watching her for hours; they weren’t concerned, either.

She never woke easily, but the simple pleasure of not being dragged from sleep by the insistent demands of those who did made the morning air seem particularly sweet, in spite of the bitter tang of ashes from the dead fire.

Mostly awake, she wiped a handful of dew-wet poplar leaves over her face by way of a morning toilette, then squatted by the fire ring and began the chore of fire-starting. They had no coffee to boil, but Ian would be hunting. With luck, there’d be something to cook; they’d eaten everything in the knapsack, save a heel of bread.

“Heck with this,” she muttered, whacking flint and steel together for the dozenth time, and seeing the spatter of sparks wink out without catching. If Ian had only told her they were camping, she would have brought her fire-striker, or some matches—though on second thought, she was not sure that would be safe. The things could easily burst into flame in her pocket.

“How did the Greeks do it?” she said aloud, scowling at the tiny mat of charred cloth on which she was attempting to catch a spark. “They must have had a way.”

“The Greeks had what?”

Ian and Rollo were back, having captured, respectively, half a dozen yams and a blue-gray waterbird of some kind—a small heron? Rollo refused to allow her to look at it, and took his prey off to devour under a bush, its long, limp yellow legs dragging on the ground.

“The Greeks had what?” Ian repeated, turning out a pocket full of chestnuts, red-brown skins gleaming from the remnants of their prickly hulls.

“Had stuff called phosphorus. You ever heard of it?”

Ian looked blank, and shook his head.

“No. What is it?”

“Stuff,” she said, finding no better word to hand. “Lord John sent me some, so I could make matches.”

“Matches between whom?” Ian inquired, regarding her warily.

She stared at him for a moment, her morning-sodden mind making slow sense of the conversation.

“Oh,” she said, having at last discovered the difficulty. “Not that kind of match. Those fire-starters I made. Phosphorus burns by itself. I’ll show you, when we get home.” She yawned, and gestured vaguely at the small pile of unlit kindling in the fire ring.

Ian made a tolerant Scottish noise and took up the flint and steel himself.

“I’ll do it. Do the nuts, aye?”

“Okay. Here, you should put your shirt back on.” Her own clothes had dried, and while she missed the comfort of Ian’s buckskin, the worn thick wool of her fringed hunting shirt was warm and soft on her skin. It was a bright day, but chilly so early in the morning. Ian had discarded his blanket while starting the fire, and his bare shoulders were pebbled with gooseflesh.

He shook his head slightly, though, indicating that he’d put on his shirt in a bit. For now . . . his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth in concentration as he struck flint and steel again, then disappeared as he muttered something under his breath.

“What did you say?” She paused, a half-hulled nut in her fingers.

“Oh, it’s no but a—” He’d struck once more and caught a spark, glowing like a tiny star on the square of char. Hastily, he touched a wisp of dry grass to it, then another, and as a tendril of smoke rose up, added a bark chip, more grass, a handful of chips, and finally a careful crisscross of pine twigs.

“No but a fire charm,” he finished, grinning at her over the infant blaze that had sprung up before him.

She applauded briefly, then proceeded to cut the skin of the chestnut she was holding, crosswise, so it wouldn’t burst in the fire.

“I haven’t heard that one,” she said. “Tell me the words.”

“Oh.” He didn’t blush easily, but the skin of his throat darkened a little. “It’s . . . it’s no the Gaelic, that one. It’s the Kahnyen’kehaka.”

Her brows went up, as much at the easy sound of the word on his tongue as at what he’d said.

“Do you ever think in Mohawk, Ian?” she asked curiously.

He shot her a glance of surprise, almost, she thought, of fright.

“No,” he said tersely, and rose off his heels. “I’ll fetch a bit of wood.”

“I have some,” she said, holding him with a stare. She reached behind her and thrust a fallen pine bough into the kindling fire. The dry needles burst in a puff of sparks and were gone, but the ragged bark began to catch and burn at the edges.

“What is it?” she said. “What I said, about thinking in Mohawk?”

His lips pressed tight together, not wanting to answer.

“You asked me to come,” she said, not sharp with him, but firm.

“So I did.” He took a deep breath, then looked down at the yams he was burying in the heating ashes to bake.

She worked on the nuts slowly, watching him make up his mind. Loud chewing sounds and intermittent puffs of blue-gray feathers drifted out from under Rollo’s bush, behind him.

“Did ye dream last night, Brianna?” he asked suddenly, his eyes still on what he was doing.

She wished he had brought something coffeelike to boil, but still, she was sufficiently awake by now as to be able to think and respond coherently.

“Yes,” she said. “I dream a lot.”

“Aye, I ken that. Roger Mac told me ye write them down sometimes.”

“He did?” That was a jolt, and one bigger than a cup of coffee. She’d never hidden her dreambook from Roger, but they didn’t really discuss it, either. How much of it had he read?

“He didna tell me anything about them,” Ian assured her, catching the tone of her voice. “Only that ye wrote things down, sometimes. So I thought, maybe, those would be important.”

“Only to me,” she said, but cautiously. “Why . . . ?”

“Well, d’ye see—the Kahnyen’kehaka set great store by dreams. More even than Highlanders.” He glanced up with a brief smile, then back at the ashes where he had buried the yams. “What did ye dream of last night, then?”

“Birds,” she said, trying to recall. “Lots of birds.” Reasonable enough, she thought. The forest around her had been live with birdsong since well before dawn; of course it would seep into her dreams.

“Aye?” Ian seemed interested. “Were the birds alive, then?”

“Yes,” she said, puzzled. “Why?”

He nodded, and picked up a chestnut to help her.

“That’s good, to dream of live birds, especially if they sing. Dead birds are a bad thing, in a dream.”

“They were definitely alive, and singing,” she assured him, with a glance up at the branch above him, where some bird with a bright yellow breast and black wings had lighted, viewing their breakfast preparations with interest.

“Did any of them talk to ye?”

She stared at him, but he was clearly serious. And after all, she thought, why wouldn’t a bird talk to you, in a dream?

She shook her head, though.

“No. They were—oh.” She laughed, unexpectedly recalling. “They were building a nest out of toilet paper. I dream about toilet paper all the time. That’s a thin, soft kind of paper that you use to wipe your, er, behind with,” she explained, seeing his incomprehension.

“Ye wipe your arse with paper?” He stared at her, jaw dropped in horror. “Jesus God, Brianna!”

“Well.” She rubbed a hand under her nose, trying not to laugh at his expression. He might well be horrified; there were no paper mills in the Colonies, and aside from tiny amounts of handmade paper such as she made herself, every sheet had to be imported from England. Paper was hoarded and treasured; her father, who wrote frequently to his sister in Scotland, would write a letter in the normal fashion—but then would turn the paper sideways, and write additional lines perpendicularly, to save space. Little wonder that Ian was shocked!

“It’s very cheap then,” she assured him. “Really.”

“Not as cheap as a cob o’ maize, I’ll warrant,” he said, narrow-eyed with suspicion.

“Believe it or not, most people then won’t have cornfields to hand,” she said, still amused. “And I tell you what, Ian—toilet paper is much nicer than a dry corncob.”

“‘Nicer,’” he muttered, obviously still shaken to the core. “Nicer. Jesus, Mary, and Bride!”

“You were asking me about dreams,” she reminded him. “Did you dream last night?”

“Oh. Ah . . . no.” He turned his attention from the scandalous notion of toilet paper with some difficulty. “Or at least if I did, I dinna recall it.”

It came to her suddenly, looking at his hollowed face, that one reason for his sleeplessness might be that he was afraid of what dreams might come to him.

In fact, he seemed afraid now that she might press him on the subject. Not meeting her eye, he picked up the empty beer jug and clicked his tongue for Rollo, who followed him, blue-gray feathers sticking to his jaws.

She had cut the last of the chestnut skins and buried the gleaming marrons in the ashes to bake with the yams, by the time he came back.

“Just in time,” she called, seeing him. “The yams are ready.”

“Just in time, forbye,” he answered, smiling. “See what I’ve got?”

What he had was a chunk of honeycomb, thieved from a bee tree and still chilled enough that the honey ran slow and thick, drizzled over the hot yams in glorious blobs of gold sweetness. Garnished with roasted, peeled, sweet chestnuts and washed down with cold creek water, she thought it was possibly the best breakfast she’d eaten since leaving her own time.

She said as much, and Ian lifted one feathery brow in derision.

“Oh, aye? And what would ye eat then that’s better?”

“Oooh . . . chocolate donuts, maybe. Or hot chocolate, with marshmallows in it. I really miss chocolate.” Though it was hard to miss it much at the moment, licking honey off her fingers.

“Och, get on wi’ ye! I’ve had chocolate.” He squinched his eyes and pinched his lips in exaggerated distaste. “Bitter, nasty stuff. Though they did charge a terrible lot of money just for a wee cup of it, in Edinburgh,” he added practically, unsquinching.

She laughed.

“They put sugar in it, where I come from,” she assured him. “It’s sweet.”

“Sugar in your chocolate? That’s the most decadent thing I’ve ever heard of,” he said severely. “Even worse than the arse-wiping paper, aye?” She saw the teasing glint in his eye, though, and merely snorted, nibbling the last shreds of orange yam flesh from the blackened skin.

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