A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 88

   

“And you meant to give him the gold—or no,” she corrected herself. “You meant to give him arms and powder.”

He nodded and chewed his mustaches, looking unhappy.

“A man named Dunkling; Alexander knows him. Lord Dunsmore is gathering a great store of powder and arms in Virginia, and Dunkling is one of his lieutenants—and willing to give up some of that store, in return for gold.”

“Which is now gone.” She took a deep breath, feeling sweat trickle down between her br**sts, further dampening her shift.

“Which is now gone,” he agreed bleakly. “And I’m left to wonder what about this ghost of wee Jem’s, aye?”

Ghost, indeed. For someone to have entered a place like River Run, teeming with people, and to have moved several hundred pounds by weight of gold, completely unnoticed . . .

The sound of feet on the stairs caused Duncan to jerk his head sharply toward the door, but it was only Josh, one of the black grooms, his hat in his hand.

“Best we be going, Miss Bree,” he said, bowing respectfully. “If ye be wanting the light, like?”

For her drawings, he meant. It was a good hour’s trip into Cross Creek to lawyer Forbes’s house, and the sun was rising fast toward noon.

She glanced at her green-smeared fingers, and recalled the hair straggling untidily down from its makeshift bun; she’d have to tidy herself a bit first.

“Go, lass.” Duncan waved her toward the door, his lean face still creased with worry but lightened a little by having shared it.

She kissed him affectionately on the forehead and went down after Josh. She was worried, and not only about missing gold and prowling ghosts. General MacDonald, indeed. For if he meant to raise fighting men among the Highlanders, one of the natural places for him to go was to her father.

As Roger had noted to her sometime earlier, “Jamie can walk the tightrope between Whigs and Tories better than any man I know—but when push comes to shove . . . he’ll have to jump.”

The push had come at Mecklenberg. But shove, she thought, was named MacDonald.

100

A TRIP TO THE SEASIDE

NEIL FORBES, thinking it prudent to be absent from his usual haunts for a time, had removed to Edenton, with the excuse of taking his aged mother to visit her even more aged sister. He had enjoyed the long journey, in spite of his mother’s complaints about the clouds of dust raised by another carriage that preceded them.

He had been loath to sacrifice his sight of that carriage—a small, well-sprung affair, whose windows were sealed and heavily curtained. But he had always been a devoted son, and at the next post stop, he went to speak to the driver. The other coach obligingly dropped back, following them at a convenient distance.

“Whatever are ye lookin’ at, Neil?” his mother demanded, looking up from fastening her favorite garnet brooch. “That’s the third time ye’ve had a peek out thon window.”

“Not a thing, Mam,” he said, inhaling deeply. “Only taking pleasure in the day. Such beautiful weather, is it not?”

Mrs. Forbes sniffed, but obligingly settled her spectacles on her nose and leaned to peer out.

“Aye, weel, it’s fair enough,” she admitted dubiously. “Hot, though, and damp enough to wring buckets from your shirt.”

“Never mind, a leannan,” he said, patting her black-clad shoulder. “We’ll be in Edenton afore ye know. It’ll be cooler there. Nothing like a sea-breeze, so they say, to put the roses in your cheeks!”

101

NIGHTWATCH

Edenton

THE REVEREND MCMILLAN’S HOUSE was on the water. A blessing in the hot, muggy weather. The offshore breeze in the evening swept everything away—heat, hearth smoke, mosquitoes. The men sat on the big porch after supper, smoking their pipes and enjoying the respite.

Roger’s enjoyment was spiced by the guilty awareness that Mrs. Reverend McMillan and her three daughters were sweating to and fro, washing dishes, clearing away, sweeping floors, boiling up the leftover ham bones from supper with lentils for tomorrow’s soup, putting children to bed, and generally slaving away in the stuffy, sweltering confines of the house. At home, he would have felt obliged to help with such work, or face Brianna’s wrath; here, such an offer would have been received with drop-jawed incredulity, followed by deep suspicion. Instead, he sat peacefully in the cool evening breeze, watching fishing boats come in across the water of the sound and sipping something that passed for coffee, engaged in pleasant male conversation.

There was, he thought, occasionally something to be said for the eighteenth-century model of sexual roles.

They were talking over the news from the south: the flight of Governor Martin from New Bern, the burning of Fort Johnston. The political climate of Edenton was strongly Whiggish, and the company was largely clerical—the Reverend Doctor McCorkle, his secretary Warren Lee, the Reverend Jay McMillan, Reverend Patrick Dugan, and four “inquirers” awaiting ordination besides Roger—but there were still currents of political disagreement flowing beneath the outwardly cordial surface of the conversation.

Roger himself said little; he didn’t wish to offend McMillan’s hospitality by contributing to any argument—and something inside him wished for quiet, to contemplate tomorrow.

Then the conversation took a new turn, though, and he found himself paying rapt attention. The Continental Congress had met in Philadelphia two months before, and given General Washington command of the Continental army. Warren Lee had been in Philadelphia at the time, and was giving the company a vivid account of the battle at Breed’s Hill, at which he had been present.

“General Putnam, he brought up wagonloads of dirt and brush, to the neck of the Charlestown peninsula—you said you knew it, sir?” he asked, courteously turning toward Roger. “Well, Colonel Prescott, he’s there already, with two militia comp’nies from Massachusetts, and parts of another from Connecticut—was mebbe a thousand men in all, and dear Lord, was they a stench from the camps!”

His soft Southern accent—Lee was a Virginian—held a slight touch of amusement, but this faded as he went on.

“General Ward, he’d give orders to fortify this one hill, Bunker Hill, they call it, for an old redoubt atop. But Colonel Prescott, he goes up it and don’t care so much for the looks, him and Mr. Gridley, the engineer. So they leave a detachment there, and go on to Breed’s Hill, what they think is maybe better to the purpose, bein’ closer to the harbor.

“Now, this is all at night, mind. I was with one of the Massachusetts companies, and we marched right smart, then spent the whole night through, ’twixt midnight and dawn, diggin’ trenches and raising up six-foot walls about the perimeter.

“Come the dawn, and we skulked down behind our fortifications, and just in time, too, for there’s a British ship in the harbor—the Lively, they said—and she opens fire the minute the sun’s up. Looked right pretty, for the fog was still on the water and the cannon lit it up in red flashes. Did no harm, though; most all the balls fell short into the harbor—did see one whaleboat at the docks hit, though; stove it like kindling. The crew, they’d hopped out like fleas when the Lively took to firing. From where I was, I could just see ’em, hoppin’ up and down on the dock, a-shakin’ their fists—then the Lively let off another broadside, and they all fell flat or run like rabbits.”

The light was nearly gone, and Lee’s young face invisible in the shadows, but the amusement in his voice made a small rumble of laughter run among the other men.

“They was some firin’ from a little battery up on Copp’s Hill, and one or two of the other ships, they let off a pop or two, but they could see ’twan’t no earthly use and ceased. Then come in some fellows from New Hampshire to join up with us, and that was purely heartening. But General Putnam, he sends a good many men back to work on the fortifications at Bunker, and the New Hampshire folk, they’re crouched way down on the left, where they’s got no cover beyond rail fences stuffed with mown grass. Lookin’ at ’em down there, I was pleased as punch to have four feet of solid earthwork in front of me, I tell you, gentlemen.”

The British troops had set out across the Charles River, bold as brass under the midday sun, with the warships behind them and the batteries on shore all providing covering fire.

“We didn’t fire back, of course. Had no cannon,” Lee said with an audible shrug.

Roger, listening intently, couldn’t keep from asking a question at this point.

“Is it true that Colonel Stark said, ‘Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes’?”

Lee coughed discreetly.

“Well, sir. I couldn’t say for sure as no one said that, but I didn’t hear it myself. Mind, I did hear one colonel call out, ‘Any whoreson fool wastes his powder afore the bastards are close enough to kill is gonna get his musket shoved up his arse butt-first!’”

The assembly erupted into laughter. An inquiry from Mrs. McMillan, who had come out to offer further refreshment, as to the source of this merriment shut them all up sharp, though, and they listened with a fair assumption of sober attention to the rest of Lee’s account.

“Well, so, then, on they come, and I will say ’twas a daunting sight. They’d several regiments, and all in their different colors, fusiliers and grenadiers, Royal Marines, and a proper boiling of light infantry, all comin’ on over the ground like a horde of ants, and just as mean.

“I wouldn’t make great claim to bravery myself, gentlemen, but I would say the fellows standin’ with me had some nerve. We did let ’em come, and the first ranks weren’t no more than ten feet away when our volley cut into them.

“They rallied, came back on, and we cut them down again—like ninepins. And the officers—there was a powerful lot of the officers went; they were on their horses, see? I—I shot one such. He keeled over, but he didn’t fall off—his horse carried him away. Kind of lolling, with his head loose. But he didn’t fall.”

Lee’s voice had lost some of its color, and Roger saw the burly form of the Reverend Doctor McCorkle lean toward his secretary, touching his shoulder.

“They rallied a third time, and came on. And . . . we were most of us out of ammunition. They came on over the earthworks and through the fences. With their bayonets fixed.”

Roger was sitting on the steps of the porch, Lee above him and several feet away, but could hear the young man swallow.

“We fell back. That’s how they say it. We ran, is what we did. So’d they.”

He swallowed again.

“A bayonet—it makes a terrible sound, goin’ into a man. Just—terrible. I can’t say how it is, describe it properly. Heard it, though, and more’n once. Was a good many run straight through the body that day—skewered and then the steel pulled out, and they left to die on the ground, floppin’ like fish.”

Roger had seen—handled—eighteenth-century bayonets, often. A seventeen-inch triangular blade, heavy and brutal, with a blood groove down one side. He thought, quite suddenly, of the furrowed scar that ran up Jamie Fraser’s thigh, and rose to his feet. Murmuring a brief excuse, he left the porch, and walked down the shore, pausing only for a moment to shed his shoes and stockings.

The tide was going out; sand and shingle were wet and cool under his bare feet. The breeze rattled faintly among palmetto leaves behind him, and a line of pelicans flew down the shore, solemn against the last of the light. He walked a little way into the surf, small rippling waves that tugged at his heels, sucking the sand away beneath him, making him shift and sway to keep his balance.

Far out on the water of Albemarle Sound, he could see lights; fishing boats, with small fires built in sandboxes aboard, to light the torches the fishermen swung over the side. These seemed to float in the air, swinging to and fro, their reflections in the water winking slowly in and out like fireflies.

The stars were coming out. He stood looking up, trying to empty his mind, his heart, open himself to the love of God.

Tomorrow, he would be a minister. Thou art a priest forever, said the ordination service, quoting from the Bible, after the order of Melchizedek.

“Are you afraid?” Brianna had asked him, when he’d told her.

“Yeah,” he said softly, aloud.

He stood until the tide left him, then followed it, walking into the water, wanting the rhythmic touch of the waves.

“Will you do it anyway?”

“Yeah,” he said, more softly still. He had no idea what he was agreeing to, but said it, anyway. Far down the beach behind him, the breeze brought him now and then a snatch of laughter, a few words from the Reverend McMillan’s porch. They had moved on, then, from the talk of war and death.

Had any of them ever killed a man? Lee, perhaps. The Reverend Doctor McCorkle? He snorted a little at the thought, but did not dismiss it. He turned and walked a little further, until the only sounds were those of the waves and the offshore wind.

Soul-searching. It was what squires used to do, he thought, smiling a little wryly at the thought. The night before he became a knight, a young man would keep vigil in church or chapel, watching through the dark hours, lighted only by the glow of a sanctuary lamp, praying.

For what? he wondered. Purity of mind, singleness of purpose. Courage? Or perhaps forgiveness?

He hadn’t meant to kill Randall Lillington; that had been almost accident, and what wasn’t had been self-defense. But he had been hunting when he did it, had gone out looking for Stephen Bonnet, meaning to kill him in cold blood. And Harley Boble; he could still see the shine of the thieftaker’s eyes, feel the echo of the blow, the shards of the man’s skull reverberating through the bones of his own arm. He’d meant that, yes. Could have stopped. Didn’t.

Tomorrow, he would swear before God that he believed in the doctrine of predestination, that he had been meant to do what he had done. Perhaps.

Maybe I don’t believe that, so much, he thought, doubt stealing in. But maybe I do. Christ—oh, sorry—he apologized mentally—can I be a proper minister, with doubts? I think everyone’s got them, but if I’ve got too many—maybe ye’d best let me know now, before it’s too late.

His feet had gone numb, and the sky was ablaze with a glory of stars, thick in the black velvet night. He heard the crunch of footsteps among the shingle and the sea wrack nearby.

It was Warren Lee—tall and gangly by starlight, the Reverend Doctor McCorkle’s secretary, erstwhile militiaman.

“Thought I’d take a bit of air,” Lee said, his voice hardly audible above the hiss of the sea.

“Aye, well, there’s a lot of it, and it’s free,” Roger said as amiably as he could. Lee chuckled briefly in response, but luckily didn’t seem disposed to talk.

They stood for some time, watching the fishing boats. Then, by unspoken consent, turned to go back. The house was dark, the porch deserted. A single candle burned in the window, though, lighting them home.

“That officer, the one I shot,” Lee blurted suddenly. “I pray for him. Every night.”

Lee shut up abruptly, embarrassed. Roger breathed slow and deep, feeling the jerk of his own heart. Had he ever prayed for Lillington, or Boble?

“I will, too,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Lee very softly, and side by side, they made their way back up the beach, pausing to pick up their shoes, going back barefooted, sand drying on their feet.

They had sat down on the steps to brush it off before going in, when the door behind them opened.

“Mr. MacKenzie?” said the Reverend McMillan, and something in his voice pulled Roger to his feet, heart pounding. “You have a visitor.”

He saw the tall silhouette behind McMillan, and knew, even before Jamie Fraser’s pale, fierce face appeared, eyes black in the candlelight.

“He’s taken Brianna,” Jamie said without preamble. “Ye’ll come.”

102

Anemone

FEET TRAMPLED BACK AND FORTH OVERHEAD, and she could hear voices, but most of the words were too muffled to make out. There was a chorus of jovial shouts on the side nearest shore, and cordial feminine shrieks in reply.

The cabin had a wide, paned window—did you call it a window on a ship, she wondered, or had it some special nautical name?—that ran behind the bunk, raked back with the angle of the stern. It was made in small, thick panes, set in leading. No hope there of escape, but it did offer the possibility of air, and perhaps information regarding their whereabouts.

Repressing a qualm of nauseated distaste, she clambered across the stained and rumpled sheets of the bed. She pressed close to the window and pushed her face into one of the open panes, taking deep breaths to dispel the aromas of the cabin, though the smell of the harbor was no great improvement, rife as it was with the smell of dead fish, sewage, and baking mud.

She could see a small dock, and moving figures on it. A fire was burning on the shore outside a low, whitewashed building roofed with palmetto leaves. It was too dark to see what, if anything, lay beyond the building. There must be at least a small town, though, judging from the noise of the people on the dock.

There were voices outside the cabin door, coming closer. “. . . meet him on Ocracoke, the dark o’ the moon,” said one, to which the other replied in an indistinct mumble, before the door flew open.

“Care to join the party, sweetheart? Or have ye started without me?”

She whirled on her knees, heart hammering in her throat. Stephen Bonnet stood inside the door to the cabin, a bottle in one hand and a slight smile on his face. She took a deep breath to quell the shock, and nearly gagged on the stale scent of sex that wafted from the sheets under her knees. She scrambled off the bed, heedless of her clothes, and felt a rip at the waist as her knee caught in her skirt.

“Where are we?” she demanded. Her voice sounded shrill, panicked to her own ears.

“On the Anemone,” he said patiently, still smiling.

“You know that isn’t what I mean!” The neck of her gown and chemise had torn in the struggle when the men pulled her from her horse, and most of one breast was exposed; she put up a hand, pushing the fabric back in place.

“Do I?” He set the bottle on the desk, and reached to unfasten the stock from his neck. “Ah, that’s better.” He rubbed at the dark red line across his throat, and she had a sudden, piercing vision of Roger’s throat, with its ragged scar.

“I wish to know what this town is called,” she said, deepening her voice and fixing him with a gimlet eye. She didn’t expect that what worked on her father’s tenants would work on him, but the assumption of an air of command helped to steady her a bit.

“Well, that’s an easily gratified wish, to be sure.” He waved a casual hand toward the shore. “Roanoke.” He shucked his coat, tossing it carelessly over the stool. The linen of his shirt was crumpled, and clung damply to his chest and shoulders.

“Ye’d best take off the gown, darlin’; it’s hot.”

He reached for the strings that tied his shirt, and she moved abruptly away from the bed, glancing round the cabin, searching the shadows for something that could be used as a weapon. Stool, lamp, logbook, bottle . . . there. A piece of wood showed among the rubble on the desk, the blunt end of a marlinespike.

He frowned, attention fastened momentarily on a knot in the string. She took two long steps and seized the marlinespike, yanking it off the desk in a shower of rubbish and clanging oddments.

“Stand back.” She held the thing like a baseball bat, gripped in both hands. Sweat streamed down the hollow of her back, but her hands felt cold and her face went hot and cold and hot again, ripples of heat and terror rolling down her skin.

Bonnet looked at her as though she had gone mad.

“Whatever will ye be after doing with that, woman?” He left off fiddling with his shirt and took a step toward her. She took one back, raising the club.

“Don’t f**king touch me!”

He stared at her, eyes fixed wide, pale green and unblinking above a small, odd smile. Still smiling, he took another step toward her. Then another, and the fear boiled off in a surge of rage. Her shoulders bunched and lifted, ready.

“I mean it! Stand back or I’ll kill you. I’ll know who this baby’s father is, if I die for it!”

He had raised a hand, as though to grasp the club and jerk it away from her, but at this, he stopped abruptly.

“Baby? You are with child?”

She swallowed, her breath still thick in her throat. The blood hammered in her ears, and the smooth wood was slick with sweat from her palms. She tightened her grip, trying to keep the rage alive, but it was already dying.

“Yes. I think so. I’ll know for sure in two weeks.”

His sandy eyebrows lifted.

“Hm!” With a short grunt, he stepped back, surveying her with interest. Slowly, his eyes traveled over her, appraising her one bared breast.

The sudden spurt of rage had drained away, leaving her breathless and empty-bellied. She kept hold of the marlinespike, but her wrists quivered, and she lowered it.

“Is that the way of it, then?”

He leaned forward and reached out, quite without lascivious intent now. Startled, she froze for an instant, and he weighed the breast in one hand, kneading thoughtfully, as though it were a grapefruit he meant to buy at market. She gasped and hit at him one-handed with the club, but she had lost what readiness she had, and the blow bounced off his shoulder, rocking him but having little other effect. He grunted and stepped back, rubbing at his shoulder.

“Could be. Well, then.” He frowned, and tugged at the front of his breeches, adjusting himself without the slightest embarrassment. “Lucky we’re in port, I suppose.”

She made no sense whatever of this remark, but didn’t care; apparently he had changed his mind upon hearing her revelation, and the feeling of relief made her knees go weak and her skin prickle with sweat. She sat down, quite suddenly, upon the stool, the club clanking to the floor beside her.

Bonnet had put his head out into the corridor, and was bellowing for someone named Orden. Whoever Orden was, he didn’t come into the cabin, but within a few moments, a voice mumbled interrogatively outside.

“Fetch me down a whore from the docks,” Bonnet said, in the casual tone of one ordering a fresh pint of bitter. “Clean, mind, and fairly young.”

He shut the door then, and turned to the table, scrabbling through the debris until he unearthed a pewter cup. He poured a drink, quaffed half of it, and then—seeming belatedly to realize that she was still there—offered her the bottle with a vague “Eh?” of invitation.

She shook her head, wordless. A faint hope had sprung up in the back of her mind. He did have some faint streak of gallantry, or at least decency; he had come back to rescue her from the burning warehouse, and he had left her the stone for what he assumed to be his child. Now he had abandoned his advances, upon hearing that she was with child again. Perhaps he would let her go, then, particularly if she was of no immediate use to him.

“So . . . you don’t want me?” she said, edging her feet under her, ready to leap up and run, as soon as the door opened to admit her replacement. She hoped she could run; her knees were still trembling with reaction.

Bonnet glanced at her, surprised.

“I’ve split your quim once already, sweetheart,” he said, and grinned. “I recall the red hair—a lovely sight, sure—but it wasn’t so memorable an experience otherwise that I can’t be waitin’ to repeat it. Time enough, darlin’, time enough.” He chucked her negligently under the chin, and gulped more of his drink. “For now, though, LeRoi’s needing a bit of a gallop.”

“Why am I here?” she demanded.

Distracted, he pulled once more at the crotch of his breeches, quite unself-conscious of her presence.

“Here? Why, because a gentleman paid me to take ye to London-town, darlin’. Didn’t ye know?”

She felt as though someone had hit her in the stomach, and sat down on the bed, folding her arms protectively across her midsection.

“What gentleman? And for God’s sake—why?”

He considered for a moment, but evidently concluded that there was no reason not to tell her.

“A man named Forbes,” he said, and threw back the rest of his drink. “Know him, do you?”

“I most certainly do,” she said, amazement vying with fury. “That bloody bastard!” So they were Forbes’s men, the masked bandits that had stopped her and Josh, dragged them from their horses, and shoved them both into a sealed carriage, bumping over unseen roads for days on end, until they reached the coast, and then been pulled out, disheveled and reeking, and bundled aboard the ship.

“Where’s Joshua?” she asked abruptly. “The young black man who was with me?”

“Was there?” Bonnet looked quizzical. “If they brought him aboard, I imagine they’ve put him in the hold with the other cargo. A bonus, I suppose,” he added, and laughed.

Her fury at Forbes had been tinged with relief at finding out he was the motive behind her abduction; Forbes might be a low-down, sneaking scoundrel, but he wouldn’t be intending to murder her. That laugh of Stephen Bonnet’s, though, made a cold qualm run through her, and she felt suddenly light-headed.

“What do you mean, a bonus?”

Bonnet scratched his cheek, gooseberry eyes roaming over her in approval.

“Oh, well, then. Mr. Forbes only wanted ye out of the way, he said. Whatever did ye do to the man, darlin’? But he’s paid your fare already, and I’ve the impression that he’s no great interest in where ye end up.”

“Where I end up?” Her mouth had been dry; now saliva was pouring from her membranes, and she had to swallow repeatedly.

“Well, after all, darlin’, why bother takin’ ye all the way to London, where ye’d be of no particular use to anyone? Besides, it rains quite a bit in London; I’m sure ye wouldn’t like it.”

Before she could draw breath to ask any more questions, the door opened, and a young woman slid through, closing it behind her.

She was likely in her twenties, though with a missing molar that showed when she smiled. She was plump and plain-faced, brown-haired, and clean by local standards, though the scent of her sweat and waves of freshly applied cheap cologne wafted across the cabin, making Brianna want to throw up again.

“Hallo, Stephen,” the newcomer said, standing on tiptoe to kiss Bonnet’s cheek. “Give us a drink to be starting with, eh?”

Bonnet grabbed her, gave her a deep and lingering kiss, then let her go and reached for the bottle.

Coming down onto her heels, she looked at Brianna with detached professional interest, then back at Bonnet, and scratched at her neck.

“You’ll have the two of us, Stephen, or shall it be me and her to start? It’s a quid more, either way.”

Bonnet didn’t bother answering, but thrust the bottle into her hand, whipped off the kerchief that hid the swell of her heavy br**sts, and began at once to undo his flies. He dropped the breeches on the floor, and without ado, seized the woman by the h*ps and pressed her against the door.

Guzzling from the bottle she held in one hand, the young woman snatched up her skirts with the other, whisking skirt and petticoat out of the way with a practiced motion that bared her to the waist. Brianna caught a glimpse of sturdy thighs and a patch of dark hair, before they were obscured by Bonnet’s buttocks, blond-furred and clenched with effort.

She turned her head away, cheeks burning, but morbid fascination compelled her to glance back. The whore was standing balanced on her toes, squatting slightly to accommodate him, gazing placidly over his shoulder as he thrust and grunted. One hand still held the bottle; the other stroked Bonnet’s shoulders in a practiced way. She caught Brianna’s eye on her, and winked, still saying, “Ooh, yes . . . oh, YES! That’s good, love, so good . . .” in her client’s ear.

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