A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 79

   

I took it, but didn’t eat it immediately. There was no sound outside, save the buzzing of cicadas, though the air had a sultry thickness to it that often presaged rain. It was early in the summer for storms, but one could only hope.

“You’ve thought of it, too, haven’t you?” I said quietly.

He made no pretense of misunderstanding me.

“Well, it is the twenty-first o’ the month,” he said.

“It’s June, for heaven’s sake! And the wrong year, as well. That newspaper clipping said January, of 1776!” I was absurdly indignant, as though I had somehow been cheated.

He found that funny.

“I was a printer myself, Sassenach,” he said, laughing through a mouthful of sweet roll. “Ye dinna want to believe everything ye read in the newspapers, aye?”

When I looked out again, only a few men were visible under the chestnut trees. One of them saw my movement; he waved his arm slowly to and fro above his head—then drew the edge of his hand flat across his throat.

The sun was just above the treetops; two hours, perhaps, to nightfall. Two hours surely was enough time for Mrs. Bug to have summoned help, though—always assuming she had found anyone who would come. Arch might have gone to Cross Creek—he went once a month; Kenny might be hunting. As for the newer tenants . . . without Roger to keep them in order, their suspicion and dislike of me had become blatant. I had the feeling that they might come if summoned—but only to cheer as I was dragged away.

If anyone did come—what then? I didn’t want to be dragged away, much less shot or burnt alive in the ashes of my house—but I didn’t want anyone else injured or killed in an effort to prevent it, either.

“Come away from the window, Sassenach,” Jamie said. He held out a hand to me, and I went, sitting on the bed beside him. I felt all at once exhausted, the adrenaline of emergency having burned away, leaving my muscles feeling like heat-softened rubber.

“Lie down, a Sorcha,” he said softly. “Lay your head in my lap.”

Hot as it was, I did so, finding it a comfort to stretch out, even more to hear his heart, thumping slow and solid above my ear, and feel his hand, light on my head.

All the weapons were laid out, ranged on the floor beside the window, all loaded, primed, and ready for use. He’d taken his sword down from the armoire; it stood by the door, a last resort.

“There’s nothing we can do now, is there?” I said after a little. “Nothing but wait.”

His fingers moved idly through the damp curls of my hair; it fell to just above my shoulders now, long enough—barely—to tie back or pin up.

“Well, we might say an Act of Contrition,” he said. “We did that, always, the night before a battle. Just in case,” he added, smiling down at me.

“All right,” I said after a pause. “Just in case.”

I reached up and his good hand closed round mine.

“Mon Dieu, je regrette . . .” he began, and I remembered that he said this prayer in French, harking back to those days as a mercenary in France; how often had he said it then, a necessary precaution, cleansing the soul at night in expectation of the possibility of death in the morning?

I said it, too, in English, and we fell silent. The cicadas had stopped. Far, far away, I thought I heard a sound that might be thunder.

“Do you know,” I said after a long while, “I’m sorry for a great many things and people. Rupert, Murtagh, Dougal . . . Frank. Malva,” I added softly, with a catch in my throat. “But speaking only for myself . . .” I cleared my throat.

“I don’t regret anything,” I said, watching the shadows creep in from the corners of the room. “Not one bloody thing.”

“Nor do I, mo nighean donn,” he said, and his fingers stilled, warm against my skin. “Nor do I.”

I WOKE FROM A DOZE with the smell of smoke in my nostrils. Being in a state of grace is all very well, but I imagine even Joan of Arc had qualms when they lit the first brand. I sat bolt upright, heart pounding, to see Jamie at the window.

It wasn’t quite dark yet; streaks of orange and gold and rose lit the sky to the west, and touched his face with a fiery light. He looked long-nosed and fierce, the lines of strain cut deep.

“Folk are coming,” he said. His voice was matter-of-fact, but his good hand was clenched hard round the edge of the shutter, as though he would have liked to slam and bolt it.

I came to stand by him, combing my fingers hastily through my hair. I could still make out figures under the chestnut trees, though they now were no more than silhouettes. They’d built a bonfire there, at the far edge of the dooryard; that’s what I’d smelled. There were more people coming into the dooryard, though; I was sure I made out the squat figure of Mrs. Bug among them. The sound of voices floated up, but they weren’t talking loudly enough to make out words.

“Will ye plait my hair, Sassenach? I canna manage, wi’ this.” He gave his broken finger a cursory glance.

I lit a candle, and he moved a stool to the window, so he could keep watch while I combed his hair and braided it into a tight, thick queue, which I clubbed at the base of his neck and tied with a neat black ribbon.

I knew his reasons were twofold: not only to appear well-groomed and gentlemanly, but to be ready to fight if he had to. I was less worried about someone seizing me by the hair as I attempted to cleave them in half with a sword, but supposed that if this were my last appearance as the lady of the Ridge, I should not appear unkempt.

I heard him mutter something under his breath, as I brushed my own hair by candlelight, and turned on my stool to look at him.

“Hiram’s come,” he informed me. “I hear his voice. That’s good.”

“If you say so,” I said dubiously, recollecting Hiram Crombie’s denunciations in church a week before—thinly veiled remarks clearly aimed at us. Roger hadn’t mentioned them; Amy McCallum had told me.

Jamie turned his head to look at me, and smiled, an expression of extraordinary sweetness coming over his face.

“Ye’re verra lovely, Sassenach,” he said as though surprised. “But, aye, it’s good. Whatever he thinks, he wouldna countenance Brown hanging us in the dooryard, nor yet setting the house afire to drive us out.”

There were more voices outside; the crowd was growing quickly.

“Mr. Fraser!”

He took a deep breath, took the candle from the table, and threw open the shutter, holding the candle near his face so they could see him.

It was almost full dark, but several of the crowd were holding torches, which gave me uneasy visions of the mob coming to burn Dr. Frankenstein’s monster—but did at least allow me to make out the faces below. There were at least thirty men—and not a few women—there, in addition to Brown and his thugs. Hiram Crombie was indeed there, standing beside Richard Brown, and looking like something out of the Old Testament.

“We require ye to come down, Mr. Fraser,” he called. “And your wife—if ye please.”

I caught sight of Mrs. Bug, plump and clearly terrified, her face streaked with tears. Then Jamie closed the shutters, gently, and offered me his arm.

JAMIE HAD WORN BOTH dirk and sword, and had not changed his clothes. He stood on the porch, bloodstained and battered, and dared them to harm us further.

“Ye’ll take my wife over my dead body,” he said, raising his powerful voice enough to be heard across the clearing. I was rather afraid they would. He’d been right—so far—about Hiram not countenancing lynching, but it was clear that public opinion was not in our favor.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” someone shouted from the back of the crowd, and a stone whistled through the air, bouncing off the front of the house with a sharp report, like a gunshot. It struck no more than a foot from my head, and I flinched, instantly regretting it.

Angry murmurs had risen from the moment Jamie had opened the door, and this encouraged them. There were shouts of “Murderers!” and “Heartless! Heartless!” and a number of Gaelic insults that I didn’t try to understand.

“If she didn’t do it, breugaire, who did?” someone bellowed. “Liar” it meant.

The man Jamie had slashed across the face with his dirk was in the forefront of the crowd; the open wound gaped, still oozing, and his face was a mask of dried blood.

“If ’twasn’t her, ’twas him!” he shouted, pointing at Jamie. “Fear-siûrsachd!” Lecher.

There was an ugly rumble of agreement at that, and I saw Jamie shift his weight and set his hand to his sword, ready to draw if they charged him.

“Be still!” Hiram’s voice was rather shrill, but penetrating. “Be still, I tell ye!” He pushed Brown aside and came up the steps, very deliberately. At the top, he gave me a look of revulsion, but then turned to the crowd.

“Justice!” one of Brown’s men yelled, before he could speak. “We want justice!”

“Aye, we do!” Hiram shouted back. “And justice we shall have, for the puir raped lass and her bairn unborn!”

A satisfied growl greeted this, and icy terror ran down my legs, so that I feared my knees would give way.

“Justice! Justice!” Various people were taking up the chant, but Hiram stopped them, raising both hands as though he were bloody Moses parting the Red Sea.

“Justice is mine, sayeth the Lord,” Jamie remarked, in a voice just loud enough to be generally heard. Hiram, who had evidently been about to say the same thing, gave him a furious look, but couldn’t very well contradict him.

“And justice you’ll have, Mister Fraser!” Brown said very loudly. He lifted his face, narrow-eyed and malicious with triumph. “I wish to take her for trial. Anyone accused is entitled to that, nay? If she is innocent—if you are innocent—how can you refuse?”

“Certainly a point,” Hiram observed, very dry. “If your wife be clean o’ the crime, she’s naught to fear. How say ye, sir?”

“I say that should I surrender her to the hands of this man, she willna live to stand a trial,” Jamie replied hotly. “He holds me to blame for the death of his brother—and some of ye here will ken well enough the truth o’ that affair!” he added, lifting his chin to the crowd.

Here and there, heads nodded—but they were few. No more than a dozen of his Ardsmuir men had been on the expedition that rescued me; in the wake of gossip following it, many of the new tenants would have known only that I had been abducted, assaulted in some scandalous fashion, and that men had died on my account. The mind of the times being what it was, I was well aware that an obscure sense of blame attached to the victim of any sexual crime—unless the woman died, in which case she became at once a spotless angel.

“He will slaughter her out of hand, for the sake of revenge upon me,” Jamie said, raising his voice. He changed abruptly to Gaelic, pointing at Brown. “Look at yon man, and see the truth of the matter writ upon his face! He has no more to do with justice than with honor, and he would not recognize honor by the smell of its arse!”

That made a few of them laugh, in sheer surprise. Brown, disconcerted, looked round to see what they were laughing at, which made more of them laugh.

The mood of the assembly was still against us, but they were not yet with Brown—who was, after all, a stranger. Hiram’s narrow brow creased in consideration.

“What would ye offer by way of guarantee for the woman’s safety?” Hiram asked Brown.

“A dozen hogsheads of beer and three dozen prime hides,” Brown replied promptly. “Four dozen!” His eagerness gleamed in his eyes, and it was all he could do to keep his voice from shaking with the lust to take me. I had a sudden, unpleasant conviction that while my death was his ultimate goal, he didn’t intend that it should be a quick one, unless circumstances demanded it.

“It would be worth far more than that to ye, breugaire, to have your revenge upon me with her death,” Jamie said evenly.

Hiram glanced from one to the other, unsure what to do. I looked out into the crowd, keeping my face impassive. In truth, it was not difficult to do; I felt completely numb.

There were a few friendly faces, glancing anxiously to Jamie, to see what to do. Kenny and his brothers, Murdo and Evan, stood in a tight group, hands on their dirks and faces set. I didn’t know whether Richard Brown had chosen his timing, or merely been lucky. Ian was gone, hunting with his Cherokee friends. Arch was plainly gone, as well, or he would be visible—Arch and his ax would be uncommonly handy just now, I thought.

Fergus and Marsali were gone—they, too, would have helped to stem the tide. But the most important absence was Roger’s. He alone had been keeping the Presbyterians more or less under control since the day of Malva’s accusation, or at least keeping a lid on the simmering pot of gossip and animosity. He might have cowed them now—had he been here.

The conversation had devolved from high drama to a three-way wrangle among Jamie, Brown, and Hiram, the former two adamant in their positions, and poor Hiram, quite unsuited to the task, trying to adjudicate. Insofar as I had feelings to spare, I felt rather sorry for him.

“Take him!” a voice called suddenly. Allan Christie pushed his way to the front of the crowd, and pointed at Jamie. His voice trembled and broke with emotion. “It’s him debauched my sister, him that kilt her! If ye’ll put someone to the trial, take him!”

There was a subterranean rumble of agreement at that, and I saw John MacNeill and young Hugh Abernathy draw close together, glancing uneasily from Jamie to the three Lindsay brothers, and back again.

“Nay, it’s her!” a woman’s voice called in contradiction, high and shrill. One of the fishers’ wives; she stabbed a finger at me, face pinched with malevolence. “A man might kill a lass he’d got wi’ child—but no man would do sich wickedness as to steal a babe unborn frae the womb! No but a witch would do that—and she found wi’ the puir wee corpse in her hands!”

A higher susurrus of condemnation greeted that. The men might possibly give me the benefit of doubt—no woman would.

“By the name of the Almighty!” Hiram was losing his grip on the situation, and becoming panicky. The situation was perilously close to degenerating into riot; anyone could feel the currents of hysteria and violence in the air. He cast his eyes up to heaven, looking for inspiration—and found some.

“Take them both!” he said suddenly. He looked at Brown, then Jamie. “Take them both,” he repeated, testing the notion and finding it good. “Ye’ll go along, to see that nay harm comes to your wife,” he said reasonably to Jamie. “And if it should be proved that she is innocent . . .” His voice died away on that, as it dawned on him that what he was saying was that if I were proven innocent, Jamie must be guilty, and what a good idea it would be to have him on the spot to be hanged instead.

“She is innocent; so am I.” Jamie spoke without heat, doggedly repeating it. He had no real hope of convincing anyone; the only doubt among the crowd was whether he or I was the guilty party—or whether we had plotted together to destroy Malva Christie.

He turned suddenly to face the crowd, and cried out to them in Gaelic.

“If you will deliver us into the stranger’s hand, then our blood be upon your heads, and you will answer for our lives upon the Day of Judgment!”

A sudden hush fell on the crowd at that. Men glanced uncertainly at their neighbors, measured Brown and his cohort with doubtful eyes.

They were known to the community, but strangers—Sassenachs—in the Scottish sense. So was I, and a witch, to boot. Lecher, rapist, and Papist murderer he might be—but Jamie at least was not a stranger.

The man I had shot was grinning at me evilly over Brown’s shoulder; evidently, I had no more than grazed him, worse luck. I gave him stare for stare, sweat gathering between my br**sts, moisture slick and hot beneath the veil of my hair.

A murmur was rising among the crowd; argument and disputation, and I could see the Ardsmuir men begin to make their way slowly toward the porch, pushing through the mob. Kenny Lindsay’s eyes were fixed on Jamie’s face, and I felt Jamie take a deep breath beside me.

They would fight for him, if he called them. But there were too few of them, and poorly armed, by contrast with Brown’s mob. They would not win—and there were women and children in the crowd. To call his men would provoke only bloody riot, and leave the deaths of innocents upon his conscience. That was not a burden he could bear; not now.

I saw him come to this conclusion, and his mouth tighten. I had no idea what he might be about to do, but he was forestalled. There was a disturbance at the edge of the crowd; people turned to look, then froze, stricken silent.

Thomas Christie came through the crowd; in spite of the darkness and wavering torchlight, I knew at once it was him. He walked like an old man, hunched and halting, looking at no one. The crowd gave way before him at once, deeply respectful of his grief.

The grief was plainly marked on his face. He had let his beard and hair go untrimmed, uncombed, and both were matted. His eyes were pouched and bloodshot, the lines from nose to mouth black furrows through his beard. His eyes were alive, though, alert and intelligent. He walked through the crowd, past his son, as though he were alone, and came up the steps onto the porch.

“I will go with them to Hillsboro,” he said quietly to Hiram Crombie. “Let them both be taken, if ye will—but I will travel with them, as surety that no further evil may be done. Surely justice is mine, if it be anyone’s.”

Brown looked much taken aback by this declaration; plainly it wasn’t what he’d had in mind at all. But the crowd was in instant sympathy, murmuring agreement at the proposed solution. Everyone had the greatest compassion and respect for Tom Christie in the wake of his daughter’s murder, and the general feeling seemed to be that this gesture was one of the greatest magnanimity.

It was, too, as he had in all likelihood just saved our lives—at least for the moment. From the look in his eye, Jamie would strongly have preferred simply to take his chances on killing Richard Brown, but realized that beggars could not be choosers, and acquiesced as gracefully as possible, with a nod of the head.

Christie’s gaze rested on me for a moment, then turned to Jamie.

“If it will suit your convenience, Mr. Fraser, perhaps we will leave in the morning? There is no reason why you and your wife should not rest in your own beds.”

Jamie bowed to him.

“I thank ye, sir,” he said with great formality. Christie nodded back, then turned and went back down the steps, completely ignoring Richard Brown, who was looking at once irritated and confounded.

I saw Kenny Lindsay close his eyes, shoulders slumping in relief. Then Jamie put his hand under my elbow, and we turned, going into our house for what might be the final night spent under its roof.

88

IN THE WAKE OF SCANDAL

THE RAIN THAT HAD THREATENED arrived in the night, and the day dawned gray, bleak, and wet. Mrs. Bug was in a similar state, sniffling into her apron and repeating over and over, “Oh, if only Arch had been here! But I couldna find anyone save Kenny Lindsay, and by the time he’d run for MacNeill and Abernathy—”

“Dinna fash yourself for it, a leannan,” Jamie said, and kissed her affectionately on the brow. “It may be for the best. No one was damaged, the house is still standing”—he cast a wistful eye toward the rafters, every beam shaped by his own hand—“and it may be we’ll have this wretched matter settled soon, God willing.”

“God willing,” she echoed fervently, crossing herself. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “And I’ve packed a wee bit of food, that ye shouldna starve on the way, sir.”

Richard Brown and his men had sheltered under the trees as best they could; no one had offered them hospitality, which was as damning an indication of their unpopularity as could be imagined, Highland standards being what they were in such matters. And as clear an indication of our own unpopularity, that Brown should be permitted to take us into custody.

In consequence, Brown’s men were soaking wet, ill-fed, sleepless, and short-tempered. I hadn’t slept, either, but I was at least full of breakfast, warm, and—for the moment—dry, which made me feel a little better, though my heart felt hollow and my bones filled with lead as we reached the head of the trail and I looked back across the clearing at the house, with Mrs. Bug standing waving on the porch. I waved back, and then my horse plunged into the darkness of the dripping trees.

It was a grim journey, and silent for the most part. Jamie and I rode close together, but couldn’t speak of anything important, in hearing of Brown’s men. As for Richard Brown, he was seriously out of countenance.

It was reasonably clear that he had never intended to take me anywhere for trial, but had merely seized upon the pretext as a means of revenging himself on Jamie for Lionel’s death—and God knew what he would have done, I reflected, had he known what had really happened to his brother, and Mrs. Bug there within arm’s length of him. With Tom Christie along, though, there was nothing he could do; he was obliged to take us to Hillsboro, and he did so with bad grace.

Tom Christie rode like a man in a dream—a bad dream—his face closed and inward-looking, speaking to no one.

The man Jamie had slashed was not there; I supposed he had gone home to Brownsville. The gentleman I had shot was still with us, though.

I couldn’t tell how bad the wound was, nor yet whether the bullet had gone into him or merely grazed his side. He wasn’t incapacitated, but it was plain from the way he hunched to one side, his face contorting now and then, that he was in pain.

I hesitated for some time. I had brought a small medical kit with me, as well as saddlebags and bedroll. Under the circumstances, I felt relatively little sense of compassion for the man. On the other hand, instinct was strong—and as I said to Jamie in an undertone when we stopped to make camp for the evening, it wouldn’t help matters if he died of infection.

I steeled myself to offer to examine and dress the wound, as soon as the opportunity should occur. The man—his name seemed to be Ezra, though under the circumstances, no formal introductions had been made—was in charge of distributing bowls of food at supper, and I waited under the pine where Jamie and I had taken shelter, intending to speak kindly to him when he brought our food.

He came over, a bowl in each hand, shoulders hunched under a leather coat against the rain. Before I could speak, though, he grinned nastily, spat thickly in one bowl, and handed it to me. The other he dropped at Jamie’s feet, spattering his legs with dried-venison stew.

“Oops,” he said mildly, and turned on his heel.

Jamie contracted sharply, like a big snake coiling, but I got hold of his arm before he could strike.

“Never mind,” I said, and raising my voice just a little, said, “Let him rot.”

The man’s head snapped round, wide-eyed.

“Let him rot,” I repeated, staring at him. I’d seen the flush of fever in his face when he came near, and smelled the faint sweet scent of pus.

Ezra looked completely taken back. He hurried back to the sputtering fire, and refused to look in my direction.

I was still holding the bowl he’d given me, and was startled to have it taken from my hand. Tom Christie threw the contents of the bowl into a bush, and handed me his own, then turned away without speaking.

“But—” I started after him, meaning to give it back. We wouldn’t starve, thanks to Mrs. Bug’s “wee bit of food,” which filled one entire saddlebag. Jamie’s hand on my arm stopped me, though.

“Eat it, Sassenach,” he said softly. “It’s kindly meant.”

More than kind, I thought. I was aware of hostile eyes upon me, from the group around the fire. My throat was tight, and I had no appetite, but I took my spoon from my pocket and ate.

Beneath a nearby hemlock tree, Tom Christie had wrapped himself in a blanket and lain down alone, his hat pulled down over his face.

IT RAINED ALL THE WAY to Salisbury. We found shelter in an inn there, and seldom had a fire seemed so welcome. Jamie had brought what cash we had, and in consequence, we could afford a room to ourselves. Brown posted a guard on the stair, but that was merely for show; after all, where would we go?

I stood in front of the fire in my shift, my wet cloak and gown spread over a bench to dry.

“You know,” I observed, “Richard Brown hasn’t thought this out at all.” Not surprising, that, since he hadn’t actually intended to take me or us to trial. “Who, exactly, does he mean to hand us over to?”

“The sheriff of the county,” Jamie replied, untying his hair and shaking it out over the hearth, so that droplets of water sizzled and popped in the fire. “Or failing that, a justice of the peace, perhaps.”

“Yes, but what then? He’s got no evidence—no witnesses. How can there be any semblance of a trial?”

Jamie looked at me curiously.

“Ye’ve never been tried for anything, have ye, Sassenach?”

“You know I haven’t.”

He nodded.

“I have. For treason.”

“Yes? And what happened?”

He ran a hand through his damp hair, considering.

“They made me stand up, and asked my name. I gave it, the judge muttered to his friend for a bit, and then he said, ‘Condemned. Imprisonment for life. Put him in irons.’ And they took me out to the courtyard and had a blacksmith hammer fetters onto my wrists. The next day we began walking to Ardsmuir.”

“They made you walk there? From Inverness?”

“I wasna in any great hurry, Sassenach.”

I took a deep breath, trying to stem the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“I see. Well . . . but surely—wouldn’t m-murder”—I could just about say it without stammering, but not quite, yet—“be a matter for a jury trial?”

“It might, and certainly I shall insist upon it—if things go so far. Mr. Brown seems to think they may; he’s telling everyone in the taproom the story, making us out to be monsters of depravity. Which I must say is no great feat,” he added ruefully, “considering the circumstances.”

I pressed my lips tight together, to avoid giving a hasty answer. I knew he knew that I had had no choice—he knew that I knew he had had nothing to do with Malva in the first place—but I could not help but feel a sense of blame in both directions, for this desperate muddle in which we found ourselves. Both for what had happened afterward, and for Malva’s death itself—though God knew I would give anything to have her alive again.

He was right about Brown, I realized. Cold and wet, I’d paid little attention to the noises from the taproom below, but I could hear Brown’s voice, echoing up the chimney, and from the random words that came through, it was apparent that he was doing exactly what Jamie said—blackening our characters, making it out that he and his Committee of Safety had undertaken the ignoble but necessary job of apprehending us and committing us to justice. And, just incidentally, carefully prejudicing any potential jury members by making sure the story spread abroad in all its scandalous detail.

“Is there anything to be done?” I asked, having listened to as much of this nonsense as I could stomach.

He nodded, and pulled a clean shirt from his saddlebag.

“Go down for supper, and look as little like depraved murderers as possible, a nighean.”

“Right,” I said, and with a sigh, withdrew the ribbon-trimmed cap I had packed.

I SHOULDN’T HAVE been surprised. I had lived long enough to have a fairly cynical view of human nature—and lived long enough in this time to know how directly public opinion expressed itself. And yet I was still shocked, when the first stone hit me in the thigh.

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