A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 93

   

Quite obviously, neither of them had the slightest qualms about the business, nor the least hesitation in asking God to aid their efforts. He envied them.

And sat in stubborn silence, the gates of heaven closed against him, his hand on the hilt of his knife and a loaded pistol in his belt, planning murder.

A little past noon, the burly captain of the slaver came back, footsteps crunching indifferently on the layer of dried pine needles. They let him pass, waiting.

Late in the afternoon, it began to rain.

SHE HAD DOZED off again, from sheer boredom. It began to rain; the sound roused her briefly, then drove her more deeply into slumber, drops pattering softly on the palmetto thatch above. She woke abruptly when one of the drops fell cold on her face, followed quickly by a few of its fellows.

She jerked upright, blinking with momentary disorientation. She rubbed a hand over her face and looked up; there was a small wet patch on the plaster ceiling, surrounded by a much larger stain from previous leaks, and drops were forming in its center like magic, each perfect bead falling one after another after another to splat on the mattress ticking.

She got up to push the bed out from under the leak, and then stopped. Slowly she straightened up, and put up a hand to the wet patch. The ceiling was a normal one for the time, less than seven feet; she could reach it easily.

“She damn tall,” she said aloud. “Damn right she is.”

She put her hand flat on the wet patch and pushed as hard as she could. The wet plaster gave way at once, and so did the rotten laths behind it. She jerked back her hand, scratching her arm on the jagged edges of lath, and a small cascade of dirty water, centipedes, mouse droppings, and fragments of palmetto leaf poured in through the hole she’d made.

She wiped her hand on her shift, reached up, seized the edge of the hole, and pulled, ripping down chunks of lath and plaster, until she’d made a hole that would accommodate her head and shoulders.

“Okay,” she whispered to the baby, or herself. She glanced around the room, put on her stays over her shift, then tucked the sharpened busk down the front.

Then, standing on the bed, she took a deep breath, shoved her steepled hands upward as though about to dive, and grabbed for anything solid enough to provide leverage. Little by little, she hauled herself, sweating and grunting, up into the steaming thatch of sharp-edged leaves, teeth gritted and eyes closed against the dirt and dead insects.

Her head thrust into moist open air and she gasped for breath. She had an elbow hooked over a beam and, using that for leverage, pulled farther up. Her legs kicked vainly in empty air, trying to propel her upward, and she felt the wrench of shoulder muscles, but sheer desperation propelled her upward—that, and the nightmare vision of Emmanuel coming into the room and seeing the bottom half of her hanging out of the ceiling.

With a rending shower of leaves, she hauled herself out, to lie flat on the rain-wet thatch of the roof. The rain was still coming down heavily, and she was soaked in moments. A little way away, she saw some sort of structure sticking up amid the palmetto leaves of the thatch, and wriggled her way cautiously toward it, constantly fearful lest the roof give way beneath her weight, probing with hands and elbows for the firmness of the roof beams below the thatched leaves.

The structure proved to be a small platform, firmly set on the beams, with a railing on one side. She scrambled onto this and crouched, panting. It was still raining onshore, but out to sea, the sky was mostly clear, and the setting sun behind her spilled a burnt, bloody orange over sky and water through black streaks of shattered cloud. It looked like the end of the world, she thought, her ribs heaving against the lacing of her stays.

From the vantage point of the roof, she could see over the scrub forest; the slice of beach she had glimpsed from her window was clearly visible—and beyond it, two ships, lying close offshore.

Two boats were pulled up on shore, though well separated from each other—probably one from each ship, she thought. One of the ships must be the slaver, the other likely Howard’s. A wash of humiliated rage ran over her—she was surprised that the rain didn’t steam off her skin. There was no time to dwell on that, though.

Voices came faintly through the patter of rain, and she ducked down, then realized that no one was likely to look up and see her. Raising her head to peer through the railing, she saw figures come out of the trees onto the beach—a single file of chained men, with two or three guards.

“Josh!” She strained her eyes to see, but in the eerie twilight, the figures were no more than silhouettes. She thought she made out the tall, slender figures of the two Fulani men—perhaps the shorter one behind them was Josh, but she couldn’t tell.

Her fingers curled tight around the railing, impotent. She couldn’t help, she knew it, but to be obliged simply to watch . . . As she watched, a thin scream came from the beach, and a smaller figure ran out of the wood, skirts flying. The guards turned, startled; one of them seized Phaedre—it had to be her; Brianna could hear her screaming “Josh! Josh!”, the sound of it harsh as the cry of a distant gull.

She was struggling with the guard—some of the chained men turned abruptly, lunging at the other. A struggling knot of men fell to the sand. Someone was running toward them from the boat, something in his hand . . .

The vibration in her feet jerked her attention from the scene on the beach.

“Crap!” she said involuntarily. Emmanuel’s head poked up over the edge of the roof, staring in disbelief. Then his face contorted, and he heaved himself up—there must be a ladder attached to the side of the house, she thought, well, of course there would be, you wouldn’t have a lookout platform and no way to get up to it. . . .

While her mind was busying itself with that nonsense, her body was taking more concrete steps. She had drawn the sharpened busk and was crouched against the platform, hand low as Ian had taught her.

Emmanuel made a derisive face at the thing in her hand and grabbed at her.

THEY COULD HEAR the gentleman coming well before they saw him. He was singing softly to himself, a French air of some kind. He was alone; the servant must have gone back to the ship while they were making their way through the woods.

Roger got softly to his feet, crouched behind his chosen bush. His limbs were stiff, and he stretched inconspicuously.

As the gentleman drew even with him, Jamie stepped out into the path in front of him. The man—a small, foppish-looking sort—uttered a girlish shriek of alarm. Before he could flee, though, Jamie had stepped forward and grasped his arm, smiling pleasantly.

“Your servant, sir,” he said courteously. “Have ye been calling upon Mr. Bonnet, by chance?”

The man blinked at him, confused.

“Bonnet? Why, why . . . yes.”

Roger felt a tightness in his chest ease suddenly. Thank God. They’d found the right place.

“Who are you, sir?” the small man was demanding, trying to draw his forearm out of Jamie’s grip, to no avail.

There was no need to keep hidden now; Roger and Ian stepped out of the bushes, and the gentleman gasped at sight of Ian in his war paint, then glanced wildly back and forth between Jamie and Roger.

Evidently settling on Roger as the most civilized-looking person present, the gentleman appealed to him.

“I beg you, sir—who are you, and what do you want?”

“We are in search of an abducted young woman,” Roger said. “A very tall young woman with red hair. Have you—” Before he could finish, he saw the man’s eyes dilate with panic. Jamie saw it, too, and twisted the man’s wrist, sending him to his knees, mouth awry with pain.

“I think, sir,” Jamie said, with impeccable courtesy, holding tight, “we must oblige you to tell us what ye know.”

SHE COULDN’T LET him get hold of her. That was her only conscious thought. He grabbed at her weaponless arm and she yanked free, skin slippery with rain, and struck at him in the same motion. The point of the busk skidded up his arm, leaving a reddening furrow, but he ignored this and lunged at her. She fell backward over the railing, landing awkwardly on her hands and knees in the leaves, but he hadn’t got her; he’d fallen on his own knees on the platform, with a thud that shook the whole roof.

She scrabbled madly to the edge of the roof, hands and knees poking randomly through the thatch, and threw her legs over the edge into space, kicking frantically for the rungs of the ladder.

He was after her, had her wrist in a grip like an eel’s bite, was hauling her back onto the roof. She drew back her free hand and lashed him hard across the face with the busk. He roared and his grip loosened; she wrenched free and dropped.

She hit the sand flat on her back with a bone-shaking thump! and lay paralyzed, unable to breathe, the rain pelting down on her face. A hoot of triumph came from the roof, and then a growl of exasperated dismay. He thought he’d killed her.

Great, she thought muzzily. Keep thinking that. The shock of impact was beginning to wear off, her diaphragm lurched into motion, and glorious air rushed into her lungs. Could she move?

She didn’t know, and didn’t dare to try. Through rain-clotted lashes, she saw Emmanuel’s bulk ease over the edge of the roof, foot groping for the crude ladder rungs she could now see, nailed to the wall.

She’d lost the busk when she fell, but saw it gleaming dully, a foot from her head. With Emmanuel’s back momentarily turned, she whipped her hand up and grabbed it, then lay still, playing possum.

THEY HAD NEARLY reached the house when sounds from the nearby forest stopped them. Roger froze, then ducked off the path. Jamie and Ian had already melted into the wood. The sounds weren’t coming from the path, though, but from somewhere off to the left—voices, men’s voices, shouting orders, and the shuffling of feet, the clink of chains.

A thrill of panic shot through him. Were they taking her away? He was already soaked with rain, but felt the bloom of cold sweat over his body, colder than the rain.

Howard, the man they’d apprehended in the wood, had assured them Brianna was safe in the house, but what would he know? He listened, straining his ears for the sound of a woman’s voice, and heard it, a high, thin scream.

He jerked toward it, only to find Jamie beside him, gripping his arm.

“That’s not Brianna,” his father-in-law said urgently. “Ian will go. You and I—for the house!”

There was no time for argument. The sounds of violence on the beach came faintly—shouts and cries—but Jamie was right, that voice wasn’t Brianna’s. Ian was running toward the beach, making no effort now to be silent.

An instant’s hesitation, instinct urging him to go after Ian, then Roger was on the path, following Jamie toward the house at the run.

EMMANUEL BENT OVER HER; she felt his bulk and lunged upward like a striking snake, sharpened busk like a fang. She’d aimed for his head, hoping for eye or throat, but counting at least on his jerking reflexively back, putting him at a disadvantage.

He jerked, all right, up and away, but was much faster than she’d thought. She struck with all her force, and the sharpened busk drove under his arm with a rubbery shock. He froze for a moment, mouth open in incredulity, looking at the ivory rod that stuck out of his armpit. Then he wrenched it out, and lunged for her with an outraged bellow.

She was already on her feet, though, and running for the woods. From somewhere ahead, she heard more yelling—and a bloodcurdling scream. Another, and then more, these coming from the front of the house.

Dazed and terrified, she kept running, her mind only slowly grasping that some of the screams had words.

“Casteal DHUUUUUUUIN!”

Da, she thought, in absolute astonishment, then tripped over a branch on the ground and fell arse over teakettle, landing in a disheveled heap.

She struggled to her feet, thinking absurdly, This can’t be good for the baby, and groping for another weapon.

Her fingers were trembling, wouldn’t work. She scrabbled the ground, vainly. Then Emmanuel popped up beside her like the Demon King, grabbing her arm with a gloating, “HA!”

The shock made her sway, her vision going gray at the edges. She could still hear bloodcurdling screams on the distant beach, but no more yelling at the house. Emmanuel was saying something, full of satisfaction and threat, but she wasn’t listening.

There seemed to be something wrong with his face; it went in and out of focus, and she blinked hard, shaking her head to clear her sight. It wasn’t her eyes, though—it was him. His face melted slowly from bare-toothed menace to a look of faint astonishment. He frowned, lips pursing so she saw the pink lining of his mouth, and blinked two or three times. Then he made a small choked noise, put a hand to his chest, and dropped to his knees, still gripping her arm.

He fell over, and she landed on top of him. She pulled away—his fingers came away easily, all their strength suddenly gone—and stumbled to her feet, panting and shaking.

Emmanuel was lying on his back, legs bent under him at what would have been an excruciating angle, had he been alive. She gulped for air, trembling, afraid to believe it. But he was dead; there was no mistaking the look of it.

Her breath was coming better now, and she began to be conscious of the cuts and bruises on her bare feet. She still felt stunned, unable to decide what to do next.

The decision was made for her in the next instant, as Stephen Bonnet came dashing toward her through the wood.

SHE JERKED TO instant alertness, and spun on her heel to flee. She made it no more than six paces before he had an arm about her throat, dragging her off her feet.

“Hush, now, darlin’,” he said in her ear, sounding breathless. He was hot, and his stubble rasped her cheek. “I mean ye no harm. I’ll leave ye safe on the shore. But ye’re the only thing I’ve got right now will keep your men from killin’ me.”

He ignored the body of Emmanuel entirely. The heavy forearm left her throat and he grabbed her arm, trying to drag her in the direction away from the beach—evidently, he meant to make for the hidden inlet on the opposite side of the island, where they had landed the day before. “Move, darlin’. Now.”

“Let go!” She dug her feet in hard, yanking on her trapped arm. “I’m not going anywhere with you. HELP!” she shrieked as loudly as she could. “HELP! ROGER!”

He looked startled, and raised his free arm to wipe the streaming rain out of his eyes. There was something in his hand; the last of the light gleamed orange on glass. Holy Lord, he’d brought his testicle.

“Bree! Brianna! Where are you?” Roger’s voice, frantic, and a jolt of adrenaline shot through her at the sound, giving her the strength to jerk her arm from Bonnet’s grasp.

“Here! Here I am! Roger!” she shouted at the top of her voice.

Bonnet glanced over his shoulder; the bushes were shaking, two men at least coming through them. He wasted no time, but darted into the forest, bending low to avoid a branch, and was gone.

In the next instant, Roger crashed out of the brush and seized her, crushing her against him.

“You’re all right? Has he hurt you?” He’d dropped his knife, and held her by the arms, eyes trying to look everywhere at once—her face, her body, into her eyes. . . .

“I’m fine,” she said, feeling dizzy. “Roger, I’m—”

“Where has he gone?” It was her father, soaking wet and grim as death, dirk in his hand.

“That—” She turned to point, but he was already gone, running wolflike. She saw the marks of Bonnet’s passage now, the scuffed footmarks clear in the muddy sand. Before she could turn round again, Roger was after him.

“Wait!” she shrieked, but no answer came save the rapidly receding rustle of brush as heavy bodies flung themselves heedlessly through.

She stood still for a moment, head hanging as she breathed. The rain was pooling in the sockets of Emmanuel’s open eyes; the orange light glowed in them, making them look like the eyes of a Japanese movie monster.

That random thought passed across her mind, then vanished, leaving her blank and numb. She wasn’t sure what to do at this point. There were no sounds from the beach anymore; the noises of Bonnet’s flight had long since faded.

The rain was still falling, but the last of the sun shone through the wood, the long rays nearly horizontal, filling the space between the shadows with an odd, shifting light that seemed to waver as she watched, as though the world around her were about to disappear.

In the midst of it, dreamlike, she saw the women appear, the Fulani twins. They turned the identical faces of fawns to her, huge eyes black with fear, and ran into the wood. She called out to them, but they disappeared. Feeling unutterably tired, she trudged after them.

She didn’t find them. Nor was there a sign of anyone else. The light began to die, and she turned back, limping, toward the house. She ached everywhere, and began to suffer from the illusion that there was no one left in the world but her. Nothing but the burning light, fading to ashes moment by moment.

Then she remembered the baby in her womb, and felt better. No matter what, she wasn’t alone. Nonetheless, she gave a wide berth to the place where she thought Emmanuel’s body lay. She had meant to circle back toward the house, but went too far. As she turned to go back, she caught a glimpse of them, standing together in the shelter of the trees on the other side of a stream.

The wild horses, tranquil as the trees around them, flanks gleaming bay and chestnut and black with the wet. They raised their heads, scenting her, but didn’t run, only stood regarding her with big, gentle eyes.

THE RAIN HAD stopped when she reached the house. Ian sat on the stoop, wringing water out of his long hair.

“You have mud on your face, Ian,” she said, sinking down beside him.

“Oh, have I?” he said, giving her a half-smile. “How is it, then, coz?”

“Oh. I’m . . . I think I’m fine. What—?” She gestured at his shirt, stained with watery blood. Something seemed to have hit him in the face; besides the smudges of mud, his nose was puffed, there was a swelling just above his brow, and his clothes were torn, as well as wet.

He drew a deep, deep breath and sighed, as though he were as tired as she was.

“I got back the wee black lass,” he said. “Phaedre.”

That pierced the dreamlike fugue that filled her mind, but only a little.

“Phaedre,” she said, the name feeling like that of someone she had once known, long ago. “Is she all right? Where—”

“In there.” Ian nodded back toward the house, and she became aware that what she had thought the sound of the sea was in fact someone weeping, the small sobs of someone who has already wept herself to exhaustion, but cannot stop.

“Nay, leave her to herself, coz.” Ian’s hand on her arm stopped her from rising. “Ye canna help.”

“But—”

He stopped her, reaching into his shirt. From around his neck, he took a battered wooden rosary, and handed it to her.

“She’ll maybe want this—later. I picked it up from the sand, after the ship . . . left.”

For the first time since her escape, the nausea was back, a sense of vertigo that threatened to pull her down into blackness.

“Josh,” she whispered. Ian nodded silently, though it hadn’t been a question.

“I’m sorry, coz,” he said very softly.

IT WAS NEARLY DARK when Roger appeared at the edge of the wood. She hadn’t been worrying, only because she was in a state of shock too deep even to think of what was happening. At sight of him, though, she was on her feet and flying toward him, all the fears she had suppressed erupting at last into tears, running down her face like the rain.

“Da,” she said, choking and sniffling into his wet shirt. “He’s—is he—”

“He’s all right. Bree—can ye come with me? Are ye strong enough—just for a bit?”

Gulping and wiping her nose on the soggy arm of her shift, she nodded, and leaning on his arm, limped into the darkness under the trees.

Bonnet was lying against a tree, head lolling to one side. There was blood on his face, running down onto his shirt. She felt no sense of victory at sight of him, only an infinitely weary distaste.

Her father was standing silently under the same tree. When he saw her, he stepped forward and folded her wordlessly into his arms. She closed her eyes for one blissful moment, wanting nothing more than to abandon everything, let him pick her up like a child and carry her home. But they had brought her here for a reason; with immense effort, she lifted her head and looked at Bonnet.

Did they want congratulations? she wondered fuzzily. But then she remembered what Roger had told her, describing her father leading her mother through the scene of butchery, making her look, so that she would know her tormentors were dead.

“Okay,” she said, swaying a little. “All right, I mean. I—I see. He’s dead.”

“Well . . . no. Actually, he isn’t.” Roger’s voice held an odd note of strain, and he coughed, with a look that shot daggers at her father.

“D’ye want him dead, lass?” Her father touched her shoulder, gently. “It is your right.”

“Do I—” She looked wildly from one to the other of the grave, shadowed faces, then at Bonnet, realizing for the first time that blood was running down his face. Dead men, as her mother had often explained, don’t bleed.

They had found Bonnet, Jamie said, run him to earth like a fox, and set about him. It had been an ugly fight, close-to, with knives, as their pistols were useless in the wet. Knowing that he fought for his life, Bonnet had struck viciously—there was a red-stained gash in the shoulder of Jamie’s coat, a scratch high on Roger’s throat, where a knife blade had passed within a fraction of slashing his jugular. But Bonnet had fought to escape, and not to kill—retreating into a space between trees where only one could come at him, he had grappled with Jamie, thrown him off, then bolted.

Roger had given chase, and boiling with adrenaline, had thrown himself at Bonnet bodily, knocking the pirate headfirst into the tree he now lay against.

“So there he lies,” Jamie said, giving Bonnet a bleak eye. “I had hoped he’d broken his neck, but no such thing, alas.”

“But he is unconscious,” Roger said, and swallowed.

She understood, and in her present mood, this particular male quirk of honor seemed reasonable. To kill a man in fair fight—or even an unfair fight—was one thing; to cut his throat while he lay unconscious at your feet was another.

But she hadn’t understood at all. Her father wiped his dirk on his breeches and handed it to her, hilt first.

“What . . . me?” She was too shocked even to feel astonishment. The knife was heavy in her hand.

“If ye wish it,” her father said, with grave courtesy. “If not, Roger Mac or I will do it. But it is your choice, a nighean.”

Now she understood Roger’s look—they had been arguing about it, before he had come to fetch her. And she understood exactly why her father offered her the choice. Whether it was vengeance or forgiveness, she held the man’s life in her hand. She took a deep breath, the awareness that it would not be vengeance coming over her with something like relief.

“Brianna,” Roger said softly, touching her arm. “Say the word if ye’ll have him dead; I’ll do it.”

She nodded, and took a deep breath. She could hear the savage longing in his voice—he did. She could hear the choked sound of his voice in memory, too, when he had told her of killing Boble—when he woke from dreams of it, drenched in sweat.

She glanced at her father’s face, nearly drowned in shadow. Her mother had said only a little of the violent dreams that haunted him since Culloden—but that little was enough. She could hardly ask her father to do this—to spare Roger what he suffered himself.

Jamie raised his head, feeling her eyes on him, and met her gaze, straight on. Jamie Fraser had never turned from a fight he saw as his—but this was not his fight, and he knew it. She had a sudden flash of awareness; it wasn’t Roger’s fight, either, though he would take the weight of it from her shoulders, and gladly.

“If you—if we—if we don’t kill him here and now—” Her chest was tight, and she stopped for breath. “What will we do with him?”

“Take him to Wilmington,” her father said matter-of-factly. “The Committee of Safety there is strong, and they know him for a pirate; they’ll deal with him by law—or what passes for it now.”

They’d hang him; he would be just as dead—but his blood wouldn’t be on Roger’s hands, or in his heart.

The light was gone. Bonnet was no more than a lumpen shape, dark against the sandy ground. He might die of his wounds, she thought, and dimly hoped so—it would save trouble. But if they took him to her mother, Claire would be compelled to try to save him. She never turned from a fight that was hers, either, Brianna thought wryly, and was surprised to feel a small lightening of spirit at the thought.

“Let him live to be hanged, then,” she said quietly, and touched Roger’s arm. “Not for his sake. For yours and mine. For your baby.”

For an instant, she was sorry that she’d told him now, in the night-dark wood. She would so much have liked to see his face.

109

ALL THE NEWS THAT’S

FIT TO PRINT

FROM L’Oignon–Intelligencer, September 25, 1775

A ROYAL PROCLAMATION—

A Proclamation was issued in London upon the 23rd of August, in which His Majesty George III proclaims the American Colonies to be “in a State of open and avowed Rebellion.”

“NOTHING BUT OUR OWN EXERTIONS MAY DEFEAT THE MINISTERIAL SENTENCE OF DEATH OR ABJECT SUBMISSION”—The Continental Congress in Philadelphia has now rejected the Objectionable Proposals put forth by Lord North, intended to promote the Object of Reconciliation. The Delegates to this Congress state unequivocally the Right of the American Colonies to raise Appropriations and to have a say in the Disbursement of Same. The Statement of the Delegates reads in Part: “As the British Ministry has pursued its Ends and prosecuted Hostilities with great Armaments and Cruelty, can the World be deceived into an Opinion that we are Unreasonable, or can it hesitate to believe with us that Nothing but our own Exertions may defeat the Ministerial Sentence of Death or Abject Submission?”

A FALCON STOOPS BUT IS DEPRIVED OF HER PREY—Upon the 9th of August, HMS Falcon, commanded by Captain John Linzee, gave Chase to two American Schooners, returning from the West Indies to Salem, Massachusetts. One Schooner was captured by Captain Linzee, who then pursued the other into Gloucester Harbor. Troops upon the Shore fired upon the Falcon, which did return this Fire, but was then forced to withdraw, losing both Schooners, two Barges, and Thirty-Five Men.

A NOTORIOUS PIRATE CONDEM’D—One Stephen Bonnet, known as a Pirate and Infamous Smuggler, was tryed before the Wilmington Committee of Safety, and upon Testimony of his Crimes having been presented by a Number of Persons, was convicted of them and sentenced to Death by Drowning.

AN ALARM is raised regarding prowling Bands of Negroes, who have despoiled a number of Farms near Wilmington and Brunswick. Unarmed save for Clubs, the Ruffians have stolen Livestock, Food, and four Hogsheads of Rum.

CONGRESS CONCEIVES A PLAN FOR CURRENCY REDEMPTION—Two Million Spanish Dollars in Bills of Credit now issue forth from the Presses, with One Million Dollars more authorized by Congress, which now announces a Plan for the Redemption of this Currency, viz., that each Colony must assume Responsibility for its Portion of the Debt and must redeem the Same in four Installments, these to be paid upon the last Day of November in the Years 1779, 1780, 1781, and 1782. . . .

110

THE SMELL OF LIGHT

October 2, 1775

IT WAS NOT THINKABLE TO RETURN Phaedre to River Run, even though she technically remained the property of Duncan Cameron. We had discussed the matter at some length, and finally decided not to tell Jocasta that her slave had been recovered, though we did send brief word with Ian, when he went to collect Jemmy, telling of Brianna’s safe return and regretting the loss of Joshua—omitting a good bit of detail regarding the whole affair.

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