A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 86

   

My pulse was beating fast, and so was Major’s; I could see it throbbing in his neck. Definitely a pair of threes. Obviously, MacDonald hadn’t had time to tell the Governor—or hadn’t known—just how widespread and acrimonious the response had been to Malva Christie’s death. There were still men on the Ridge who would follow Jamie, I was sure—but many more who would not, or who would, but only if he repudiated me.

I was trying to think logically about the situation, as a means of distracting myself from the crushing disappointment of realizing that the Governor was not going to let me go. Jamie must go without me, leave me here. For an overwhelming instant, I thought I could not bear it; I would run mad, scream and leap across the desk to claw Josiah Martin’s eyes out.

He glanced up, caught a glimpse of my face, and started back, half-rising from his chair.

Jamie put back a hand and gripped my forearm, hard.

“Be still, a nighean,” he said softly.

I had been holding my breath without realizing it. Now I let it out in a gasp, and made myself breathe slowly.

Just as slowly, the Governor—a wary gaze still fixed on me—lowered himself back into his seat. Clearly, the accusation against me had just become a lot more likely, in his mind. Fine, I thought fiercely, to keep from crying. See how easily you sleep, with me never more than a few feet away from you.

Jamie drew a long, deep breath, and his shoulders squared beneath his tattered coat.

“You will give me leave, sir, to consider your proposal,” he said formally, and letting go of my arm, rose to his feet.

“Do not despair, mo chridhe,” he said to me in Gaelic. “I will see you when the morning comes.”

He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it, then, with the barest of nods to the Governor, strode out, without looking back.

There was an instant’s silence in the cabin, and I heard his feet going away, climbing the ladder of the companionway. I didn’t pause to consider, but reached down into my stays and withdrew the small knife I had taken from the surgeon’s kit.

I jabbed it down with all my strength, so that it stuck in the wood of the desk and stood there, quivering before the Governor’s astonished eyes.

“You f**king bastard,” I said evenly, and left.

97

FOR THE SAKE OF

ONE WHO IS

I WAS WAITING AT THE RAIL again before dawn the next day. The smell of ashes was strong and acrid on the wind, but the smoke had gone. An early-morning haze still shrouded the shore, though, and I felt a small thrill of déjà vu, mingled with hope, as I saw the small boat come out of the mist, pulling slowly toward the ship.

As it grew closer, though, my hands tightened on the rail. It wasn’t Jamie. For a few moments, I tried to convince myself that it was, that he had merely changed his coat—but with each stroke of the oars, it became more certain. I closed my eyes, stinging with tears, all the while telling myself that it was absurd to be so upset; it meant nothing.

Jamie would be here; he’d said so. The fact that someone else was coming early to the ship had nothing to do with him or me.

It did, though. Opening my eyes and wiping them on my wrist, I looked again at the rowboat, and felt a start of disbelief. It couldn’t be. It was, though. He looked up at the watch’s hail, and saw me at the rail. Our eyes met for an instant, then he bowed his head, reaching to the oars. Tom Christie.

The Governor was not amused at being roused from his bed at dawn for the third day running; I could hear him below, ordering one of the Marines to tell the fellow, whoever he was, to wait to a more reasonable hour—this followed by a peremptory slam of the cabin door.

I was not amused, either, and in no mood to wait. The Marine at the head of the companionway refused to allow me below, though. Heart pounding, then, I turned and made my way to the stern, where they had put Christie to wait the Governor’s pleasure.

The Marine there hesitated, but after all, there were no orders to prevent me speaking with visitors; he let me pass.

“Mr. Christie.” He was standing at the rail, staring back at the coast, but turned at my words.

“Mrs. Fraser.” He was very pale; his grizzled beard stood out nearly black. He had trimmed it, though, and his hair, as well. While he still looked like a lightning-blasted tree, there was life in his eyes once more when he looked at me.

“My husband—” I began, but he cut me off.

“He is well. He awaits you on the shore; you will see him presently.”

“Oh?” The boil of fear and fury inside me reduced itself slightly, as though someone had turned down the flame, but a sense of impatience was still steaming. “Well, what in bloody hell is going on, will you tell me that?”

He looked at me for a long moment in silence, then licked his lips briefly, and turned to look over the rail at the smooth gray swell. He glanced back at me and drew a deep breath, obviously bracing himself for something.

“I have come to confess to the murder of my daughter.”

I simply stared at him, unable to make sense of his words. Then I assembled them into a sentence, read it from the tablet of my mind, and finally grasped it.

“No, you haven’t,” I said.

The faintest shadow of a smile seemed to stir in his beard, though it vanished almost before I had seen it.

“You remain contrary, I see,” he said dryly.

“Never mind what I remain,” I said, rather rudely. “Are you insane? Or is this Jamie’s latest plan? Because if so—”

He stopped me with a hand on my wrist; I started at the touch, not expecting it.

“It is the truth,” he said very softly. “And I will swear to it by the Holy Scriptures.”

I stood looking at him, not moving. He looked back, directly, and I realized suddenly how seldom he had ever met my eyes; all through our acquaintance, he had glanced away, avoided my gaze, as though he sought to escape any real acknowledgment of me, even when obliged to speak to me.

Now that was gone, and the look in his eyes was nothing I had ever seen before. The lines of pain and suffering cut deep around them, and the lids were heavy with sorrow—but the eyes themselves were deep and calm as the sea beneath us. That sense he had carried through our nightmare journey south, that atmosphere of mute horror, numb pain, had left him, replaced by resolve and something else—something that burned, far down in his depths.

“Why?” I said at last, and he let go his grip on my wrist, stepping back a pace.

“D’ye remember once”—from the reminiscent tone of his voice, it might have been decades before—“ye asked me, did I think ye a witch?”

“I remember,” I replied guardedly. “You said—” Now I remembered that conversation, all right, and something small and icy fluttered at the base of my spine. “You said that you believed in witches, all right—but you didn’t think I was one.”

He nodded, dark gray eyes fixed on me. I wondered whether he was about to revise that opinion, but apparently not.

“I believe in witches,” he said with complete matter-of-fact seriousness. “For I’ve kent them. The girl was one, as was her mother before her.” The icy flutter grew stronger.

“The girl,” I said. “You mean your daughter? Malva?”

He shook his head a little, and his eyes took on a darker hue. “No daughter of mine,” he said.

“Not—not yours? But—her eyes. She had your eyes.” I heard myself say it, and could have bitten my tongue. He only smiled, though, grimly.

“And my brother’s.” He turned to the rail, put his hands on it, and looked across the stretch of sea, toward land. “Edgar was his name. When the Rising came, and I declared for the Stuarts, he would have none of it, saying ’twas folly. He begged me not to go.” He shook his head slowly, seeing something in memory, that I knew was not the wooded shore.

“I thought—well, it doesna matter what I thought, but I went. And asked him, would he mind my wife, and the wee lad.” He drew a deep breath, let it slowly out. “And he did.”

“I see,” I said very quietly. He turned his head sharply at the tone of my voice, gray eyes piercing.

“It was not his fault! Mona was a witch—an enchantress.” His lips compressed at the expression on my face. “Ye don’t believe me, I see. It is the truth; more than once, I caught her at it—working her charms, observing times—I came once to the roof o’ the house at midnight, searching for her. I saw her there, stark nak*d and staring at the stars, standing in the center of a pentacle she’d drawn wi’ the blood of a strangled dove, and her hair flying loose, mad in the wind.”

“Her hair,” I said, looking for some thread to grasp in this, and suddenly realizing. “She had hair like mine, didn’t she?”

He nodded, looking away, and I saw his throat move as he swallowed.

“She was . . . what she was,” he said softly. “I tried to save her—by prayer, by love. I could not.”

“What happened to her?” I asked, keeping my voice as low as his. With the wind as it was, there was little chance of our being overheard here, but this was not the sort of thing I thought anyone should hear.

He sighed, and swallowed again.

“She was hangit,” he said, sounding almost matter-of-fact about it. “For the murder of my brother.”

This, it seemed, had happened while Tom was imprisoned at Ardsmuir; she had sent him word, before her execution, telling him of Malva’s birth, and that she was confiding care of the children to Edgar’s wife.

“I suppose she thought that funny,” he said, sounding abstracted. “She’d the oddest sense of humor, Mona had.”

I felt cold, beyond the chill of the early-morning breeze, and hugged my elbows.

“But you got them back—Allan and Malva.”

He nodded; he had been transported, but had the good fortune to have his indenture bought by a kind and wealthy man, who had given him the money for the children’s passage to the Colonies. But then both his employer and the wife he had taken here had died in an epidemic of the yellow fever, and casting about for some new opportunity, he had heard of Jamie Fraser’s settling in North Carolina and that he would help those men he had known in Ardsmuir to land of their own.

“I would to God I had cut my own throat before I came,” he said, turning back abruptly to me. “Believe me in that.”

He seemed entirely sincere. I didn’t know what to say in response, but he seemed to require none, and went on.

“The girl . . . she was nay more than five years old when I first saw her, but already she had it—the same slyness, the charm—the same darkness of soul.”

He had tried to the best of his ability to save Malva, as well—to beat the wickedness out of her, to constrain the streak of wildness, above all, to keep her from working her wiles upon men.

“Her mither had that, too.” His lips tightened at the thought. “Any man. It was the curse of Lilith that they had, the both of them.”

I felt a hollowness in the pit of my stomach, as he came back now to the matter of Malva.

“But she was with child . . .” I said.

His face paled further, but his voice was firm.

“Aye, she was. I do not think it wrong to prevent yet another witch from entering the world.”

Seeing my face, he went on before I could interrupt.

“Ye ken she tried to kill ye? You and me, both.”

“What do you mean? Tried to kill me, how?”

“When ye told her about the invisible things, the—the germs. She took great interest in that. She told me, when I caught her wi’ the bones.”

“What bones?” I asked, a sliver of ice running down my back.

“The bones she took from Ephraim’s grave, to work her charms upon your husband. She didna use them all, and I found them in her workbasket later. I beat her, badly, and she told me then.”

Accustomed to wander alone in the woods in search of food plants and herbs, she had been doing so during the height of the dysentery epidemic. And in her wanderings, had come upon the isolated cabin of the sin-eater, that strange, damaged man. She had found him near death, burning with fever and sunk in coma, and while she stood there undecided whether to run for help, or only run, he had in fact died.

Whereupon, seized by inspiration—and bearing my careful teachings in mind—she had taken mucus and blood from the body and put it into a little bottle with a bit of broth from the kettle on the hearth, nurturing it inside her stays with the warmth of her own body.

And had slipped a few drops of this deadly infusion into my food, and that of her father, in the hope that if we fell sick, our deaths would be seen as no more than a part of the sickness that plagued the Ridge.

My lips felt stiff and bloodless.

“You’re sure of this?” I whispered. He nodded, making no effort to convince me, and that alone gave me conviction that he spoke the truth.

“She wanted—Jamie?” I asked.

He closed his eyes for a moment; the sun was coming up, and while the brilliance of it was behind us, the gleam off the water was bright as silver plate.

“She . . . wanted,” he said at last. “She lusted. Lusted for wealth, for position, for what she saw as freedom, not seeing it as license—never seeing!” He spoke with sudden violence, and I thought it was not Malva alone who had never seen things as he did.

But she had wanted Jamie, whether for himself or only for his property. And when her love charm failed, and the epidemic of sickness came, had taken a more direct way toward what she wanted. I could not yet find a way to grasp that—and yet I knew it was true.

And then, finding herself inconveniently with child, she had come up with a new scheme.

“Do you know who the father really was?” I asked, my throat tightening again—I thought it always would—at the memory of the sunlit garden and the two neat, small bodies, ruined and wasted. Such a waste.

He shook his head, but would not look at me, and I knew that he had some idea, at least. He would not tell me, though, and I supposed it didn’t matter just now. And the Governor would be up soon, ready to receive him.

He, too, heard the stirrings down below, and took a deep breath.

“I could not let her destroy so many lives; could not let her go on. For she was a witch, make no mistake; that she failed to kill either you or me was no more than luck. She would have killed someone, before she finished. Perhaps you, if your husband clung to you. Perhaps him, in the hope of inheriting his property for the child.” He took a ragged, painful breath.

“She was not born of my loins, and yet—she was my daughter, my blood. I could not . . . could not allow . . . I was responsible.” He stopped, unable to finish. In this, I thought, he told the truth. And yet . . .

“Thomas,” I said firmly, “this is twaddle, and you know it.”

He looked at me, surprised, and I saw that tears stood in his eyes. He blinked them back and answered fiercely.

“Say you so? You know nothing, nothing!”

He saw me flinch, and looked down. Then, awkwardly, he reached out and took my hand. I felt the scars of the surgery I had done, the flexible strength of his gripping fingers.

“I have waited all my life, in a search . . .” He waved his free hand vaguely, then closed his fingers, as though grasping the thought, and continued more surely, “No. In hope. In hope of a thing I could not name, but that I knew must exist.”

His eyes searched my face, intent, as though he memorized my features. I raised a hand, uncomfortable under this scrutiny, intending, I suppose, to tidy my mad hair—but he caught my hand and held it, surprising me.

“Leave it,” he said.

Standing with both hands in his, I had no choice.

“Thomas,” I said, uncertain. “Mr. Christie . . .”

“I became convinced that it was God I sought. Perhaps it was. But God is not flesh and blood, and the love of God alone could not sustain me.

“I have written down my confession.” He let go, and poked a hand into his pocket, fumbling a little, and pulled out a folded paper, which he clutched in his short, solid fingers.

“I have sworn here that it was I who killed my daughter, for the shame she had brought upon me by her wantonness.” He spoke firmly enough, but I could see the working of his throat above the wilted stock.

“You didn’t,” I said positively. “I know you didn’t.”

He blinked, gazing at me.

“No,” he said, quite matter-of-fact. “But perhaps I should have.

“I have written a copy of this confession,” he said, tucking the document back into his coat, “and have left it with the newspaper in New Bern. They will publish it. The Governor will accept it—how can he not?—and you will go free.”

Those last four words struck me dumb. He was still gripping my right hand; his thumb stroked gently over my knuckles. I wanted to pull away, but forced myself to keep still, compelled by the look in his eyes, clear gray and nak*d now, without disguise.

“I have yearned always,” he said softly, “for love given and returned; have spent my life in the attempt to give my love to those who were not worthy of it. Allow me this: to give my life for the sake of one who is.”

I felt as though someone had knocked the wind from me. I hadn’t any breath, but struggled to form words.

“Mr. Chr—Tom,” I said. “You mustn’t. Your life has—has value. You can’t throw it away like this!”

He nodded, patient.

“I know that. If it did not, this would not matter.”

Feet were coming up the companionway, and I heard the Governor’s voice below, in cheerful conversation with the Captain of Marines.

“Thomas! Don’t do this!”

He only looked at me, and smiled—had I ever seen him smile?—but did not speak. He raised my hand and bent over it; I felt the prickle of his beard and the warmth of his breath, the softness of his lips.

“I am your servant, madam,” he said very softly. He squeezed my hand and released it, then turned and glanced toward the shore. A small boat was coming, dark against the glitter of the silver sea. “Your husband is coming for you. Adieu, Mrs. Fraser.”

He turned and walked away, back steady in spite of the swell that rose and fell beneath us.

PART ELEVEN

In the Day of Vengeance

98

TO KEEP A GHOST AT BAY

JAMIE GROANED, STRETCHED, and sat down heavily on the bed.

“I feel as though someone’s stepped on my cock.”

“Oh?” I opened one eye to look at him. “Who?”

He gave me a bloodshot look.

“I dinna ken, but it feels as though it was someone heavy.”

“Lie down,” I said, yawning. “We haven’t got to leave right away; you can rest a bit more.”

He shook his head.

“Nay, I want to be home. We’ve been gone too long as it is.” Nonetheless, he didn’t get up and finish dressing, but continued to sit on the swaybacked inn bed in his shirt, big hands hanging idle between his thighs.

He looked tired to death, in spite of just having risen, and no wonder. I didn’t think he could have slept at all for several days, what with his search for me, the burning of Fort Johnston, and the events attending my release from the Cruizer. Remembering, I felt a pall settle over my own spirits, in spite of the joy in which I had wakened, realizing that I was free, on land, and with Jamie.

“Lie down,” I repeated. I rolled toward him, and put a hand on his back. “It’s barely dawn. At least wait for breakfast; you can’t travel without rest or food.”

He glanced at the window, still shuttered; the cracks had begun to pale with the growing light, but I was right; there was no sound below of fires being stoked or pots banged in preparation. Capitulating suddenly, he collapsed slowly sideways, unable to repress a sigh as his head settled back on the pillow.

He didn’t protest when I flung the ratty quilt over him, nor yet when I curved my body to fit round him, wrapping an arm about his waist and laying my cheek against his back. He still smelled of smoke, though both of us had washed hastily the night before, before falling into bed and a dearly bought oblivion.

I could feel how tired he was. My own joints still ached with fatigue—and from the lumps in the flattened, wool-stuffed mattress. Ian had been waiting with horses when we came ashore, and we had ridden as far as we could before darkness fell, finally fetching up at a ramshackle inn in the middle of nowhere, a crude roadside accommodation for wagoneers on their way to the coast.

“Malcolm,” he’d said, with the slightest of hesitations, when the innkeeper had asked his name. “Alexander Malcolm.”

“And Murray,” Ian had said, yawning and scratching his ribs. “John Murray.”

The innkeeper had nodded, not particularly caring. There was no reason why he should associate three nondescript, bedraggled travelers with a notorious case of murder—and yet I had felt panic well up under my diaphragm when he glanced at me.

I had sensed Jamie’s hesitation in giving the name, his distaste for reassuming one of the many aliases he had once lived under. More than most men, he valued his name—I only hoped that given time, it would once more have value.

Roger might help. He would be a full-fledged minister by now, I thought, smiling at the thought. He had a true gift for soothing the divisions among the inhabitants of the Ridge, easing acrimony—and having the additional authority of being an ordained minister, his influence would be increased.

It would be good to have him back. And to see Bree and Jemmy again—I had a moment’s longing for them, though we would see them soon; we meant to go through Cross Creek and collect them on the way. But of course, neither Bree nor Roger had any notion what had happened in the last three weeks—nor what life might now be like, in the wake of it.

The birds were in full voice in the trees outside; after the constant screeching of gulls and terns that formed the background of life on the Cruizer, the sound of them was tender, a homely conversation that made me long suddenly for the Ridge. I understood Jamie’s strong urge to be home—even knowing that what we would find there was not the same life we had left. The Christies would be gone, for one thing.

I hadn’t had the chance to ask Jamie about the circumstances of my rescue; I had finally been put ashore just before sunset, and we had ridden off at once, Jamie wanting to put as much distance as possible between me and Governor Martin—and, perhaps, Tom Christie.

“Jamie,” I said softly, my breath warm in the folds of his shirt. “Did you make him do it? Tom?”

“No.” His voice was soft, too. “He came to Fergus’s printshop, the day after ye left the palace. He’d heard that the gaol had burned—”

I sat up in bed, shocked.

“What? Sheriff Tolliver’s house? No one told me that!”

He rolled onto his back, looking up at me.

“I dinna suppose anyone ye’ve spoken to in the last week or two would know,” he said mildly. “No one was killed, Sassenach—I asked.”

“You’re sure of it?” I asked with uneasy thoughts of Sadie Ferguson. “How did it happen? A mob?”

“No,” he said, yawning. “From what I hear, Mrs. Tolliver got stinking drunk, stoked her laundry fire too high, then lay down in the shade and fell asleep. The wood collapsed, the embers set fire to the grass, it spread to the house, and . . .” He flipped a hand in dismissal. “The neighbor smelt smoke, though, and rushed over in time to drag Mrs. Tolliver and the bairn safe away. He said there was no one else in the place.”

“Oh. Well . . .” I let him persuade me to lie down again, my head resting in the hollow of his shoulder. I couldn’t feel strange with him, not after spending the night pressed close against him in the narrow bed, each of us aware of the other’s every small movement. Still, I was very conscious of him.

And he of me; his arm was round me, his fingers unconsciously exploring the length of my back, lightly reading the shapes of me like braille as he talked.

“So, then, Tom. He kent about L’Onion, of course, and so went there, when he found ye’d disappeared from the gaol. By then, of course, ye’d gone from the palace, as well—it had taken him some time to part company wi’ Richard Brown, without rousing their suspicions.

“But he found us there, and he told me what he meant to do.” His fingers stroked the back of my neck, and I felt the tightness there begin to relax. “I told him to bide; I should have a go at getting ye back on my own—but if I could not . . .”

“So you know he didn’t do it.” I spoke with certainty. “Did he tell you he had?”

“He only said that he had kept silent while there was any chance of ye being tried and acquitted—but that had ye ever seemed in urgent danger, then he’d meant to speak up at once; that’s why he insisted upon coming with us. I, ah, didna wish to ask him questions,” he said delicately.

“But he didn’t do it.” I prodded, insistent. “Jamie, you know he didn’t!”

I felt the rise of his chest under my cheek as he breathed.

“I know,” he said softly.

We were silent for a bit. There was a sudden, muffled rapping outside, and I jerked—but it was only a woodpecker, hunting insects in the wormy timbers of the inn.

“Will they hang him, do you think?” I asked at last, staring up at the splintered beams above.

“I expect they will, aye.” His fingers had resumed their half-unconscious motion, smoothing strands of my hair behind my ear. I lay still, listening to the slow thump of his heart, not wanting to ask what came next. But I had to.

“Jamie—tell me that he didn’t do it—that he didn’t make that confession—for me. Please.” I didn’t think I could bear that, not on top of everything else.

His fingers stilled, just touching my ear.

“He loves you. Ye ken that, aye?” He spoke very quietly; I heard the reverberation of the words in his chest, as much as the words themselves.

“He said he did.” I felt a tightness in the throat, recalling that very direct gray look. Tom Christie was a man who said what he meant, and meant what he said—a man like Jamie, in that regard at least.

Jamie was quiet for what seemed a long time. Then he sighed, and turned his head so his cheek rested against my hair; I heard the faint rasp of his whiskers.

“Sassenach—I would have done the same, and counted my life well lost, if it saved ye. If he feels the same, then ye’ve done nay wrong to him, to take your life from his hand.”

“Oh, dear,” I said. “Oh, dear.” I didn’t want to think of any of it—not Tom’s clear gray look and the calling of gulls, not the lines of affliction that carved his face into pieces, not the thought of what he had suffered, in loss, in guilt, in suspicion—in fear. Nor did I want to think of Malva, going unwitting to that death among the lettuces, her son heavy and peaceful in her womb. Nor the dark rusty blood drying in gouts and splashes among the leaves of the grapevines.

Above all, I didn’t want to think that I had had any part in this tragedy—but that was inescapable.

I swallowed, hard.

“Jamie—can it ever be made right?”

He held my hand now, in his other hand, stroking his thumb gently back and forth under my fingers.

“The lass is dead, mo chridhe.”

I closed my hand on his thumb, stilling it.

“Yes, and someone killed her—and it wasn’t Tom. Oh, God, Jamie—who? Who was it?”

“I dinna ken,” he said, and his eyes grew deep with sadness. “She was a lass who craved love, I think—and took it. But she didna ken how to give it back again.”

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