A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 91

   

Four of them. Crude stone pillars, pale in the shadow of the trees. One stood actually in the channel itself, tilted drunkenly by the action of the water. Another, on the bank, had carvings on its face, abstract symbols that he didn’t recognize. He stood frozen, as though they were live things that might see him if he moved.

It seemed abnormally silent; even the insects seemed temporarily to have deserted him. He had no doubt that this was the circle the man Donner had described to Brianna. Here, the five men had chanted, walked their pattern, and turned, passing to the left of the inscribed stone. And here at least one of them had died. A profound shiver ran through him, despite the oppressive heat.

He moved at last, very carefully, backing away, as though the stones might wake, but did not turn his back on them until he was a good distance away—so far away that the stones were lost to sight, buried in the heavy growth. Then he turned and walked back toward the sea, fast, and then faster, ’til the breath burned in his throat, feeling as though invisible eyes bored into his back.

I SAT IN THE SHADE of the forecastle, sipping cool beer and watching the shore. Just like bloody men, I thought, frowning at the tranquil stretch of sand. Charge in pigheaded, leaving the women to mind the store. Still . . . I wasn’t so sure that I would have wanted to slog the length of the beastly island on foot myself. By repute, Blackbeard and a number of his confederates had used the place as a lair, and the reason why was obvious. A less hospitable shore I’d seldom seen.

The chance of finding anything in that secretive, wooded place by randomly poking into holes was low. Still, sitting on my bum in a boat while Brianna was dealing with Stephen Bonnet was making me twitch with anxiety and the urgent desire to do something.

But there was nothing to do, and the afternoon wore slowly away. I watched the shore steadily; now and then, I would see Roger or Ian pop out of the undergrowth, then the two of them would confer briefly before popping back in. Now and then, I looked to the north—but there was no sign of Jamie.

Captain Roarke, who was in fact a misbegotten son of a poxed whore, as he cheerfully admitted himself, sat down with me for a time and accepted a bottle of beer. I congratulated myself on my forethought in having brought a few dozen, a few of which I’d put over the side in a net to keep cool; the beer was doing a lot to soothe my impatience, though my stomach was still knotted with worry.

“None o’ your men are what ye might call sailing men, are they?” Captain Roarke observed, after a thoughtful silence.

“Well, Mr. MacKenzie’s spent a bit of time on fishing boats in Scotland,” I said, dropping an empty bottle into the net. “But I wouldn’t say he’s an able seaman, no.”

“Ah.” He drank a bit more.

“All right,” I said finally. “Why?”

He lowered his bottle and belched loudly, then blinked.

“Oh. Well, ma’am—I believe I did hear one o’ the young men say as how there was a rondayvooz to occur, at dark o’ moon?”

“Yes,” I said a little guardedly. We had told the captain as little as possible, not knowing whether he might have some association with Bonnet. “The dark of the moon is tomorrow night, isn’t it?”

“It is,” he agreed. “But what I mean to say is—when one says ‘dark o’ moon,’ most likely one does mean nighttime, aye?” He peered into the empty neck of his bottle, then lifted it and blew thoughtfully across it, making a deep woooog sound.

I took the hint and handed him another.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he said, looking happy. “See, the tide turns about half-eleven, this time o’ month—and it’s going out,” he added with emphasis.

I gave him a blank look.

“Well, if you look careful, ma’am, you’ll see the tide is half out now”—he pointed toward the south—“yet there’s middling deep water close to shore all along o’ here. Come the nighttime, though, it won’t be.”

“Yes?” I was still missing his point, but he was patient.

“Well, with the tide out, it’s easier to see the bars and inlets, sure—and were you coming in with a boat with a shallow draft, that would be the time to choose. But was the rondayvooz to be with something bigger, maybe anything that draws more than four feet . . . well, then.” He took a gulp, and pointed the bottom of his bottle toward a spot far down the shore. “The water there is deep, ma’am—see the color of it? Was I a ship of any size, that would be the safest place to anchor, when the tide is on the ebb.”

I regarded the spot he’d indicated. The water was distinctly darker there, a deeper blue-gray than the waves surrounding it.

“You could have told us that earlier,” I said with a certain note of reproach.

“So I could, ma’am,” he agreed cordially, “save for not knowin’ as you’d like to hear it.” He got up then and wandered toward the stern, an empty bottle in hand, absently going woog-woog-woog, like a distant foghorn.

As the sun sank into the sea, Roger and Ian appeared on the shore, and Captain Roarke’s hand, Moses, rowed ashore to fetch them off. Then we hoisted sail and made our way slowly up the coast of Ocracoke, until we found Jamie, waving from a tiny spit of sand.

Anchored offshore for the night, we exchanged notes of our findings—or lack of them. All the men were drained, exhausted from heat and searching and with little appetite for supper, despite their exertions. Roger, in particular, looked drawn and pale, and said almost nothing.

The last sliver of the waning moon rose in the sky. With a minimum of conversation, the men took their blankets and lay down on deck, asleep within minutes.

Quantities of beer notwithstanding, I was wide awake. I sat beside Jamie, my own blanket wrapped about my shoulders against the coolness of the night wind, watching the low black mystery of the island. The anchorage Captain Roarke had pointed out to me was invisible in the darkness. Would we know, I wondered, if a ship were to come tomorrow night?

IN FACT, it came that night. I woke in the very early morning, dreaming of corpses. I sat up, heart pounding, to see Roarke and Moses at the rail, and a dreadful smell in the air. It wasn’t a smell one would ever forget, and when I got to my feet and went to the rail to look, I was not at all surprised to hear Roarke murmur, “Slaver,” nodding toward the south.

The ship was anchored half a mile or so away, its masts black against the paling sky. Not a huge ship, but definitely too big to make its way into the small channels of the island. I watched a long time, joined by Jamie, Roger, and Ian as they woke—but no boats were lowered.

“What d’ye suppose it’s doing there?” Ian said. He spoke in a low voice; the slave ship made everyone nervous.

Roarke shook his head; he didn’t like it, either.

“Damned if I know,” he said. “Wouldn’t expect such a thing in such a place. Not at all.”

Jamie rubbed a hand across his unshaven chin. He hadn’t shaved in days, and, green-faced and hollow-eyed beneath the stubble—he’d vomited over the rail within minutes of rising, though the swell was very gentle—looked even more disreputable than Roarke himself.

“Can ye lay us alongside her, Mr. Roarke?” he said, eyes on the slave ship. Roger glanced at him sharply.

“Ye don’t suppose Brianna’s aboard?”

“If she is, we’ll find out. If she’s not—we’ll maybe find out who yon ship has come to see.”

It was full daylight by the time we came along the ship, and there were a number of hands on deck, all of whom peered curiously down over the rail at us.

Roarke hallooed up, asking permission to come aboard. There was no immediate response to this, but after a few minutes, a large man with an air of authority and an ill-tempered face appeared.

“What d’ye want?” he called down.

“To come aboard,” Roarke bellowed back.

“No. Shove off.”

“We are in search of a young woman!” Roger called up. “We should like to ask you a few questions!”

“Any young women on this ship are mine,” the captain—if that’s what he was—said definitely. “Bugger off, I said.” He turned and gestured to his hands, who scattered at once, reappearing in moments with muskets.

Roger cupped his hands to his mouth.

“BRIANNA!” he bellowed. “BRIANNAAAA!”

One man raised his gun and fired, the ball whistling safely over our heads, and ripping through the mainsail.

“Oi!” shouted Roarke, incensed. “What’s the matter of you?”

The only answer to this was a fusillade of further shots, followed by the opening of the port lids nearest us, and the sudden appearance of the long black noses of several cannon, along with a more intense gust of stink.

“Jesus God,” said Roarke, astonished. “Well, if that’s how you feel about—well, God damn you!” he shouted, brandishing a fist. “God damn you, I say!”

Moses, less interested in rhetoric, had made sail with the first shot and was already at the tiller; we slid past the slave ship and into clean water within moments.

“Well, something’s going on,” I remarked, looking back at the ship. “Whether it’s to do with Bonnet or not.”

Roger was clinging to the rail, his knuckles white.

“It is,” Jamie said. He wiped a hand across his mouth, and grimaced. “Can ye keep in sight of her, but out of range, Mr. Roarke?” A fresh wave of the smell of sewage, corruption, and hopelessness hit us, and he turned the color of rancid suet. “And maybe upwind, too?”

We were obliged to sail well out into the ocean and tack to and fro in order to meet these various conditions, but at length had beaten our way back and anchored a safe distance away, the slave ship barely visible. Here we lay through the rest of the day, taking it in turns to keep an eye on the strange ship through Captain Roarke’s telescope.

Nothing happened, though; no boats came from the ship, nor from the shore. And as we all sat silent on deck, watching the stars come out in a moonless sky, the ship was swallowed by the dark.

107

THE DARK OF THE MOON

THEY ANCHORED LONG BEFORE DAWN, and a small boat took them ashore.

“Where is this?” she asked, voice rusty with disuse—Bonnet had wakened her in the dark. They had made three stops along the way, at nameless coves where mysterious men came out of the shrubbery, rolling barrels or carrying bales, but she had not been taken off at any of them. This was a long, low island, thick with scrub forest and hazy with mist, looking haunted under a dying moon.

“Ocracoke,” he answered, leaning forward to peer into the fog. “A bit farther to port, Denys.” The seaman at the oars leaned harder to the side, and the nose of the boat turned slowly, drawing nearer to the shore.

It was cold on the water; she was grateful for the thick cloak he had wrapped around her before handing her into the boat. Even so, the chill of the night and the open sea had little to do with the small, constant shiver that made her hands tremble and numbed her feet and fingers.

Soft murmurs between the pirates, further direction. Bonnet jumped off into waist-deep, muddy water, and waded into the shadows, pushing aside the heavy growth so that the water of the hidden inlet showed suddenly, a smooth dark gleam before them. The boat nosed its way under the overhanging trees, then paused, so that Bonnet could pull himself over the gunwales, splashing and dripping.

A shattering cry sounded near them, so close that she jerked, heart pounding, before realizing that it was only a bird somewhere in the swamp around them. Otherwise, the night was quiet, save for the muted, regular splash of the oars.

They had put Josh and the Fulani men into the boat, too; Josh sat at her feet, a hunched black form. He was shivering; she could feel it. Disengaging a fold of the cloak, she put it over him, and put a hand on his shoulder under it, meaning to give him what encouragement she could. A hand rose and settled softly over hers, squeezing, and thus linked, they sailed slowly into the dark unknown beneath the dripping trees.

The sky was lightening by the time the boat reached a small landing, and streaks of rose-tinted cloud reached across the horizon. Bonnet hopped out, and reached down to take her hand. Reluctantly, she let go of Josh, and stood up.

There was a house, half-hidden in the trees. Made of gray clapboards, it seemed to sink into the remnants of fog, as though it weren’t quite real and might disappear at any moment.

The wind-borne stink, though, was real enough. She’d never smelled it before herself, but had heard her mother’s vivid description of it, and recognized it instantly—the smell of a slaver, anchored offshore. Josh recognized it, too; she heard his sudden gasp, and then a hasty murmur—he was saying the Hail Mary in Gaelic, as fast as he could.

“Take these to the barracoon,” Bonnet said to the seaman, pushing Josh in his direction and waving at the Fulani. “Then go back to the ship. Tell Mr. Orden we sail for England in four days’ time; he’ll see to the rest of the provisioning. Come for me Saturday, an hour before high tide.”

“Josh!” She called after him, and he looked back, eyes white with fear, but the seaman hustled him along, and Bonnet dragged her in the other direction, up the path toward the house.

“Wait! Where is he taking him? What are you going to do with him?” She dug her feet into the mud, and grabbed hold of a mangrove, refusing to move.

“Sell him, what else?” Bonnet was matter-of-fact about that, and also about her refusal to move. “Come along, darlin’. Ye know I can make ye, and ye know ye won’t like it if I do.” He reached out, flipped back the edge of her cloak, and pinched her nipple, hard, in illustration.

Burning with anger, she snatched the cloak back and wrapped it tight around her, as though that might soothe the pain. He had already turned, and was making his way up the path, quite certain that she would follow. To her everlasting shame, she did.

THE DOOR WAS OPENED by a black man, nearly as tall as Bonnet himself, and even wider through the chest and shoulder. A thick vertical scar between his eyes ran nearly from his hairline to the bridge of his nose, but it had the clean look of a deliberate tribal scar, not the result of accident.

“Emmanuel, me man!” Bonnet greeted the man cheerfully, and pushed Brianna ahead of him into the house. “Look what the cat dragged in, will ya?”

The black man looked her up and down with an expression of doubt.

“She damn tall,” he said, in a voice that held an African lilt. He took her by the shoulder and turned her round, running a hand down her back and cupping her buttocks briefly through the cloak. “Nice fat arse, though,” he admitted grudgingly.

“Isn’t it, though? Well, be seeing to her, then come tell me how it is here. The hold’s near full—oh, and I’ve picked up four—no, five—more blacks. The men can go to Captain Jackson, but the women—ah, now, those are somethin’ special.” He winked at Emmanuel. “Twins.”

The black man’s face went rigid.

“Twins?” he said in a tone of horror. “You bring them in the house?”

“I will,” Bonnet said firmly. “Fulani, and gorgeous things they are, too. No English, no training—but they’ll go for fancies, sure. Speakin’ of which, have we word from Signor Ricasoli?”

Emmanuel nodded, though his brow was furrowed; the scar pulled the frown lines into a deep “V.”

“He be here on Thursday. Monsieur Houvener comes then, too. Mister Howard be here tomorrow, though.”

“Splendid. I’m wanting me breakfast now—and I imagine you’re hungry as well, aren’t ye, darlin’?” he asked, turning to Brianna.

She nodded, torn between fear, outrage, and morning sickness. She had to eat something, and fast.

“Fine, then. Take her somewhere”—he flipped a hand toward the ceiling, indicating rooms upstairs—“and feed her. I’ll eat in me office; come find me there.”

Without acknowledgment of the order, Emmanuel clamped a hand like a vise on the back of her neck, and shoved her toward the stairs.

THE BUTLER —if one could describe something like Emmanuel with such a domestic term—pushed her into a small room and shut the door behind her. It was furnished, but sparsely: a bed frame with a bare mattress, one woolen blanket, and a chamber pot. She made use of the latter object with relief, then made a rapid reconnaissance of the room itself.

There was only one window, a small one, set with metal bars. There was no glass, only inside shutters, and the breath of sea and scrub forest filled the room, vying with dust and the stale smell of the stained mattress. Emmanuel might be a factotum, but he wasn’t much of a housekeeper, she thought, trying to keep her spirits up.

A familiar sound came to her, and she craned her neck to see. Not much was visible from the window—only the white crushed shells and sandy mud that surrounded the house, and the tops of stunted pines. If she pressed her face to the side of the window, though, she could see a small slice of a distant beach, with white breakers rolling in. As she watched, three horses galloped across it, vanishing out of her view—but with the wind-borne sound of neighing, then came five more, and then another group of seven or eight. Wild horses, the descendants of Spanish ponies left here a century ago.

The sight of them charmed her, and she watched for a long time, hoping they would come back, but they didn’t; only a flight of pelicans passed by, and a few gulls, diving for fish.

The sight of the horses had made her feel less alone for a few moments, but no less empty. She had been in the room for half an hour, at least, and there were no sounds of footsteps in the hall outside, bringing food. Cautiously, she tried the door, and was surprised to find it unlocked.

There were sounds downstairs; someone was here. And the warm, grainy aromas of porridge and baking bread were faint in the air.

Swallowing to keep her stomach down, she moved soft-footed through the house and down the stairs. There were male voices in a room at the front of the house—Bonnet and Emmanuel. The sound of them made her diaphragm tighten, but the door was closed, and she tiptoed past.

The kitchen was a cookshack, a separate small building outside, connected to the house by a short breezeway and surrounded by a fenced yard that also enclosed the back of the house. She gave the fence—very tall, and spiked—a glance, but first things first: she had to have food.

There was someone in the kitchen; she could hear the movements of pots, and a woman’s voice, muttering something. The smell of food was strong enough to lean against. She pushed open the door and went in, pausing to let the cook see her. Then she saw the cook.

She was so battered by circumstance at this point that she only blinked, certain she was seeing things.

“Phaedre?” she said uncertainly.

The girl swung around, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with shock.

“Oh, sweet Jesus!” She glanced wildly behind Brianna, then, seeing that she was alone, grabbed Brianna’s arm and pulled her out into the yard.

“What you doing here?” she demanded, sounding fierce. “How do you come to be here?”

“Stephen Bonnet,” Brianna said briefly. “How on earth did you—did he kidnap you? From River Run?” She couldn’t think how—or why—but everything from the moment she had learned she was pregnant had had the surreal feel of hallucination, and how much of this was due to pregnancy alone she had no real idea.

Phaedre was shaking her head, though.

“No, miss. That Bonnet, he got me a month ago. From a man name Butler,” she added, mouth twisting in an expression that made clear her loathing of Butler.

The name seemed vaguely familiar to Brianna. She thought it was the name of a smuggler; she had never met him, but had heard the name now and then. He wasn’t the smuggler who provided her aunt with tea and other contraband luxuries, though—she had met that man, a disconcertingly effete and dainty gentleman named Wilbraham Jones.

“I don’t understand. But—wait, is there anything to eat?” she asked, the floor of her stomach dropping suddenly.

“Oh. Surely. You wait here.” Phaedre vanished back into the kitchen, light-footed, and was back in an instant with half a loaf of bread and a crock of butter.

“Thank you.” She grabbed the bread and ate some hastily, not bothering to butter it, then put down her head between her knees and breathed for a few minutes, until the nausea subsided.

“Sorry,” she said, raising her head at last. “I’m pregnant.”

Phaedre nodded, plainly unsurprised.

“Who by?” she asked.

“My husband,” Brianna answered. She’d spoken tartly, but then realized, with a small lurch of her unsettled innards, that it could so easily be otherwise. Phaedre had been gone from River Run for months—God only knew what had happened to her in that span of time.

“He’s not had you long, then.” Phaedre glanced at the house.

“No. You said a month—have you tried to get away?”

“Once.” The girl’s mouth twisted again. “You see that man Emmanuel?”

Brianna nodded.

“He an Ibo. Track a haunt through a cypress swamp, and make it sorry when he catch it.” She wrapped her arms around herself, though the day was warm.

The yard was fenced with eight-foot pointed pine stakes, laced with rope. She might get over them, with a foot up from Phaedre . . . but then she saw the shadow of a man pass by on the other side, a gun across his shoulder.

She would have guessed as much, had she been capable of organized thought. This was Bonnet’s hideaway—and judging from the piles of boxes, bundles, and casks stacked haphazardly in the yard, it was also where he kept valuable cargo before selling it. Naturally, it would be guarded.

A faint breeze wafted through the pickets of the fence, carrying the same vile stench she had smelled when they came ashore. She took another quick bite of bread, forcing it down as ballast for her queasy stomach.

Phaedre’s nostrils flared, then pinched at the reek.

“Be a slave ship, anchored past the breakers,” she said very quietly, and swallowed. “Captain come in yesterday, see if Mr. Bonnet have something for him, but he ain’t back yet. Captain Jackson say he come again tomorrow.”

Brianna could feel Phaedre’s fear, like a pale yellow miasma wavering over her skin, and took another bite of bread.

“He won’t—he wouldn’t sell you to this Jackson?” She wouldn’t put anything at all past Bonnet. But she did by now understand things about slavery. Phaedre was a prime item: light-skinned, young, and pretty—and trained as a body servant. Bonnet could get a very good price for her almost anywhere, and from what little she knew of slavers, they dealt in raw slaves from Africa.

Phaedre shook her head, her lips gone pale.

“I don’t think so. He say I’m what he call a ‘fancy.’ That’s why he’s kept me so long; he got some men he know, come up from the Indies this week. Planters.” She swallowed again, looking ill. “They buy pretty women.”

The bread Brianna had eaten melted suddenly into a soggy, slimy mass in her stomach, and with a certain feeling of fatality, she got up and took a few steps away before throwing up over a bale of raw cotton.

Stephen Bonnet’s voice echoed in her head, cheerfully jovial.

“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.”

“They buy pretty women,” she whispered, leaning against the palisades, waiting for the sense of clamminess to fade. But white women?

Why not? said the coldly logical part of her brain. Women are property, black or white. If you can be owned, you can be sold. She herself had owned Lizzie, for a time.

She wiped her sleeve over her mouth, and went back to Phaedre, who was sitting on a roll of copper, her fine-boned face thin and drawn with worry.

“Josh—he took Josh, too. When we came ashore, he told them to take Josh to the barracoon.”

“Joshua?” Phaedre sat up straight, eyes huge. “Joshua, Miss Jo’s groom? He’s here?”

“Yes. Where’s the barracoon, do you know?”

Phaedre had hopped to her feet and was striding to and fro, agitated.

“I ain’t knowing for sure. I cook up food for the slaves there, but be one of the seamen takes it. Can’t be far from the house, though.”

“Is it a big one?”

Phaedre shook her head emphatically at that.

“No’m. Mr. Bonnet, he ain’t really in the slaving business. He pick up a few, here and there—and then he got his ‘fancies’”—she grimaced at that—“but can’t be more’n a dozen here, amount of food they eat. Three girls in the house—five, counting they Fulani he say he’s bringing.”

Feeling better, Brianna began to cast about the yard, searching for anything that might be of use. It was a hodgepodge of valuable things—everything from bolts of Chinese silk, wrapped in linen and oiled cloth, and crates of porcelain dishes, to rolls of copper, casks of brandy, bottles of wine packed in straw, and chests of tea. She opened one of these, breathing in the soft perfume of the leaves and finding it wonderfully soothing to her internal distress. She’d give almost anything for a hot cup of tea just now.

Even more interesting, though, were a number of small barrels, thick-walled and tightly sealed, containing gunpowder.

“If only I had a few matches,” she muttered to herself, looking at them longingly. “Or even a striker.” But fire was fire, and there was certainly one in the kitchen. She looked at the house carefully, thinking exactly where to place the barrels—but she couldn’t blow the place up, not with the other slaves inside, and not without knowing what she’d do next.

The sound of the door opening galvanized her; by the time Emmanuel looked out, she had jumped away from the gunpowder, and was examining an enormous box enclosing a grandfather clock, the gilded face—decorated with three animated sailing ships on a sea of silver—peeping out behind the protective laths nailed over it.

“You, girl,” he said to Brianna, and jerked his chin. “You come wash yourself.” He gave Phaedre a hard look—Brianna saw that she wouldn’t meet his eyes, but hastily began to pick up sticks of kindling from the ground.

The hand clamped hard on her neck again, and she was marched ignominiously back into the house.

THIS TIME, Emmanuel did lock the door. He brought her a basin and ewer, a towel, and a clean shift. Much, much later, he came back, bringing a tray of food. But he ignored all questions, and locked the door again upon leaving.

She pulled the bed over to the window and knelt on it, elbows wedged between the bars. There was nothing to do but think—and that was something she would as soon put off a little longer. She watched the forest and the distant beach, the shadows of the scrub pines creeping over the sand, the oldest of sundials, marking the snaillike progress of the hours.

After a long time, her knees grew numb and her elbows hurt, and she spread the cloak over the nasty mattress, trying not to consider the various stains on it, nor the smell. Lying on her side, she watched the sky through the window, the infinitesimal changes of the light from one moment to the next, and considered in detail the specific pigments and the exact brushstrokes she would use to paint it. Then she got up and began pacing to and fro, counting her steps, estimating distance.

The room was about eight feet by ten; 5,280 feet in a mile. Five hundred and twenty-eight laps. She really hoped Bonnet’s office was underneath her.

Nothing, though, was enough, and as the room darkened and she reached two miles, she found Roger in her mind—where he had been all along, unacknowledged.

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