A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 97

   

“Can you fix it?” I heard the tremor in Brianna’s voice, and went at once to put my arms around her. Her head was bent over Amanda, and I saw the tears fall, one, then another, darkening the wispy curls on top of the baby’s head.

“No,” I whispered, holding them both. Despair washed over me, but I tightened my hold, as though I could keep time and blood both at bay. “No, I can’t.”

“WELL, THERE’S NO choice, is there?” Roger felt preternaturally calm, recognizing it as the artificial calm produced by shock but wishing to cling to it as long as possible. “You’ve got to go.”

Brianna leveled a look at him, but didn’t reply. Her hand roamed over the baby, sleeping in her lap, smoothing the woolly blanket over and over again.

Claire had explained it all to him, more than once, patiently, seeing that he could not take it in. He still did not believe it—but the sight of those tiny fingernails, turning blue as Amanda strove to suck, had sunk into him like an owl’s talons.

It was, she had said, a simple operation—in a modern operating room.

“You can’t . . . ?” he’d asked, with a vague motion toward her surgery. “With the ether?”

She’d closed her eyes and shaken her head, looking nearly as ill as he felt.

“No. I can do very simple things—hernias, appendixes, tonsils—and even those are a risk. But something so invasive, on such a tiny body . . . no,” she repeated, and he saw resignation in her face when she met his eyes. “No. If she’s to live—you have to take her back.”

And so they had begun to discuss the unthinkable. Because there were choices—and decisions to be made. But the unalterable basic fact was clear. Amanda must go through the stones—if she could.

JAMIE FRASER took his father’s ruby ring, and held it over the face of his granddaughter. Amanda’s eyes fixed on it at once, and she stuck out her tongue with interest. He smiled, despite the heaviness of his heart, and lowered the ring for her to grab at.

“She likes that well enough,” he said, skillfully removing it from her grip before she could get it into her mouth. “Let’s try the other.”

The other was Claire’s amulet—the tiny, battered leather pouch given to her by an Indian wisewoman years before. It contained assorted bits and bobs, herbs, he thought, and feathers, perhaps the tiny bones of a bat. But in among them was a lump of stone—nothing much to look at, but a true gemstone, a raw sapphire.

Amanda turned her head at once, more interested in the pouch than she had been in the shiny ring. She made cooing noises and batted wildly with both hands, trying to reach it.

Brianna took a deep, half-strangled breath.

“Maybe,” she said, in the voice of one who fears as much as hopes. “But we can’t tell for sure. What if I—take her, and I go through, but she can’t?”

They all looked at one another in silence, envisioning the possibility.

“You’d come back,” Roger said gruffly, and put a hand on Bree’s shoulder. “You’d come right back.”

The tension in her body eased a little at his touch. “I’d try,” she said, and attempted a smile.

Jamie cleared his throat.

“Is wee Jem about?”

Of course he was; he never went far from home or Brianna these days, seeming to sense that something was wrong. He was retrieved from Jamie’s study, where he had been spelling out words in—

“Jesus Christ on a piece of toast!” his grandmother blurted, snatching the book from him. “Jamie! How could you?”

Jamie felt a deep blush rise over him. How could he, indeed? He’d taken the battered copy of Fanny Hill in trade, part of a parcel of used books bought from a tinker. He hadn’t looked at the books before buying them, and when he did come to look them over . . . Well, it was quite against his instincts to throw away a book—any book.

“What’s P-H-A-L-L-U-S?” Jemmy was asking his father.

“Another word for prick,” Roger said briefly. “Don’t bloody use it. Listen—can ye hear anything, when ye listen to that stone?” He indicated Jamie’s ring lying on the table. Jem’s face lighted at sight of it.

“Sure,” he said.

“What, from there?” Brianna said, incredulous. Jem looked around the circle of parents and grandparents, surprised at their interest. “Sure,” he repeated. “It sings.”

“Do ye think wee Mandy can hear it sing, too?” Jamie asked carefully. His heart was beating heavily, afraid to know, either way.

Jemmy picked up the ring and leaned over Mandy’s basket, holding it directly over her face. She kicked energetically and made noises—but whether because of the ring, or merely at the sight of her brother . . .

“She can hear it,” Jem said, smiling into his sister’s face.

“How do you know?” Claire asked, curious. Jem looked up at her, surprised.

“She says so.”

NOTHING WAS SETTLED. At the same time, everything was settled. I was in no doubt as to what my ears and my fingers told me—Amanda’s condition was slowly worsening. Very slowly—it might take a year, two years, before serious damage began to show—but it was coming.

Jem might be right; he might not be. But we had to proceed on the assumption that he was.

There were arguments, discussions—tears. Not yet any decision as to who should attempt the journey through the stones. Brianna and Amanda must go; that was certain. But ought Roger to go with them? Or Jemmy?

“I will not let you go without me,” Roger said through his teeth.

“I don’t want to go without you!” Bree cried, looking exasperated. “But how can we leave Jemmy here, without us? And how can we make him go? A baby—we think that can work, because of the legends, but Jem—how will he make it? We can’t let him risk being killed!”

I looked at the stones on the table—Jamie’s ring, my pouch with the sapphire.

“I think,” I said carefully, “that we need to find two more stones. Just in case.”

And so, in late June, we came down from the mountain, into turmoil.

PART TWELVE

Time Will Not Be

Ours Forever

115

NOSEPICKER

July 4, 1776

IT WAS CLOSE AND HOT IN THE INN ROOM, but I couldn’t go out; little Amanda had finally fussed herself to sleep—she had a rash on her bottom, poor thing—and was curled in her basket, tiny thumb in her mouth and a frown on her face.

I unfolded the gauze mosquito netting and draped it carefully over the basket, then opened the window. The air outside was hot, too, but fresh, and moving. I pulled off my cap—without it, Mandy was fond of clutching my hair in both her hands and yanking; she had an amazing amount of strength, for a child with a heart defect. For the millionth time, I wondered whether I could have been wrong.

But I wasn’t. She was asleep now, with the delicate rose bloom of a healthy baby on her cheeks; awake and kicking, that soft flush faded, and an equally beautiful but unearthly blue tinge showed now and then in her lips, in the beds of her tiny nails. She was still lively—but tiny. Bree and Roger were both large people; Jemmy had put on weight like a small hippopotamus through his first several years of life. Mandy weighed scarcely more than she had at birth.

No, I wasn’t wrong. I moved her basket to the table, where the warm breeze could play over her, and sat down beside it, laying my fingers gently on her chest.

I could feel it. Just as I had in the beginning, but stronger now that I knew what it was. If I had had a proper operating suite, the blood transfusions, the calibrated and carefully administered anesthesia, the oxygen mask, the swift, trained nurses . . . No surgery on the heart is a minor thing, and surgery on an infant is always a great risk—but I could have done it. Could feel in the tips of my fingers exactly what needed to be done, could see in the back of my eyes the heart, smaller than my fist, the slippery, pumping, rubbery muscle and the blood washing through the ductus arteriosus, a small vessel, no bigger than an eighth of an inch in circumference. A small nick in the axillary vessel, a quick ligation of the ductus itself with a number-8 silk ligature. Done.

I knew. But knowledge is not, alas, always power. Nor is desire. It wouldn’t be me who would save this precious granddaughter.

Would anyone? I wondered, giving way momentarily to the dark thoughts I fought to keep at bay when anyone else was near. Jemmy might not be right. Any baby might grab at a brightly colored shiny thing like a ruby ring—but then I remembered her cooing, batting at my decrepit leather amulet pouch with the raw sapphire inside.

Perhaps. I didn’t want to think about the dangers of the passage—or the certainty of permanent separation, no matter whether the journey through the stones was successful or not.

There were noises outside; I looked toward the harbor, and saw the masts of a large ship, far out to sea. Another, still farther out. My heart skipped a beat.

They were oceangoing ships, not the little packet boats and fishing smacks that sailed up and down the coast. Could they be part of the fleet, sent in answer to Governor Martin’s plea for help to suppress, subdue, and reclaim the colony? The first ship of that fleet had arrived at Cape Fear in late April—but the troops it carried had been lying low, waiting for the rest.

I watched for some time, but the ships didn’t come in closer. Perhaps they were hanging off, waiting for the rest of the fleet? Perhaps they weren’t British ships at all, but Americans, escaping the British blockade of New England by sailing south.

I was distracted from my thoughts by the clumping of male feet on the stairs, accompanied by snorts and that peculiarly Scottish sort of giggling usually depicted in print—but by no means adequately—as “Heuch, heuch, heuch!”

It was clearly Jamie and Ian, though I couldn’t understand what was giving rise to so much hilarity, since when last seen they had been bound for the docks, charged with dispatching a shipment of tobacco leaves, obtaining pepper, salt, sugar, cinnamon—if findable—and pins—somewhat rarer than cinnamon—for Mrs. Bug, and procuring a large fish of some edible sort for our supper.

They’d got the fish, at least: a large king mackerel. Jamie was carrying it by the tail, whatever it had been wrapped in having evidently been lost in some accident. His queue had come undone, so that long red strands frayed out over the shoulder of his coat, which in turn had a sleeve half wrenched off, a fold of white shirt protruding through the torn seam. He was covered with dust, as was the fish, and while the latter’s eyes both bulged accusingly, one of his own was swollen nearly shut.

“Oh, God,” I said, burying my face in one hand. I looked up at him through splayed fingers. “Don’t tell me. Neil Forbes?”

“Ach, no,” he said, dropping the fish with a splat on the table in front of me. “A wee difference of opinion wi’ the Wilmington Chowder and Marching Society.”

“A difference of opinion,” I repeated.

“Aye, they thought they’d throw us in the harbor, and we thought they wouldn’t.” He slung a chair round with his boot and sat down on it backward, arms crossed on its back. He looked indecently cheerful, face flushed with sun and laughter.

“I don’t want to know,” I said, though of course I did. I glanced at Ian, who was still sniggering quietly to himself, and observed that while he was slightly less battered than Jamie, he had one forefinger lodged in his nose up to the knuckle.

“Have you got a bloody nose, Ian?”

He shook his head, still giggling. “No, Auntie. Some o’ the Society do, though.”

“Well, why have you got your finger up your nose, then? Have you picked up a tick or something?”

“No, he’s keepin’ his brains from falling out,” Jamie said, and went off into another fit. I glanced at the basket, but Mandy slept peacefully on, quite used to racket.

“Well, maybe you’d best stick both your own fingers up your nose, then,” I suggested. “Keep you out of trouble for a moment or two, at least.” I tilted up Jamie’s chin to get a better look at the eye. “You hit someone with that fish, didn’t you?”

The giggling had died down to a subterranean vibration between them, but threatened at this to break out anew.

“Gilbert Butler,” Jamie said with a masterful effort at self-control. “Smack across the face. Sent him straight across the quay and into the water.”

Ian’s shoulders shook with remembered ecstasy.

“Bride, what a splash! Oh, it was a braw fight, Auntie! I thought I’d broke my hand on a fellow’s jaw, but it’s all right now the deadness has worn off. Just a bit numb and tingly.” He wiggled the free fingers of his hand at me in illustration, wincing only slightly as he did so.

“Do take your finger out of your nose, Ian,” I said, anxiety over their condition fading into annoyance at how they’d got that way. “You look like a half-wit.”

For some reason, they both found that hysterically funny and laughed like loons. Ian did, however, eventually withdraw the finger, with an expression of wary cautiousness, as though he truly expected his brains to follow in its wake. Nothing did emerge, though, not even the ordinary bits of unsavory excreta one might expect from such a maneuver.

Ian looked puzzled, then mildly alarmed. He sniffed, prodding experimentally at his nose, then stuck the finger back into his nostril, rooting vigorously.

Jamie went on grinning, but his amusement began to fade as Ian’s explorations became more frantic.

“What? Ye’ve not lost it, have ye, lad?”

Ian shook his head, frowning.

“Nay, I feel it. It’s . . .” He stopped, giving Jamie a panic-stricken look over the embedded finger. “It’s stuck, Uncle Jamie! I canna get it out!”

Jamie was on his feet at once. He pulled the finger from its resting-place with a moist, sucking noise, then tilted back Ian’s head, peering urgently up his nose with his one good eye.

“Bring a light, Sassenach, will ye?”

There was a candlestick on the table, but I knew from experience that the only likely effect of using a candle to look up someone’s nose was to set their nose hairs on fire. Instead, I bent and pulled my medical kit out from under the settle where I had stowed it.

“I’ll get it,” I said, with the confidence of one who has removed everything from cherry pits to live insects from the nasal cavities of small children. I drew out my longest pair of thin forceps, and clicked the slender blades together in token of assurance. “Whatever it is. Just keep quite still, Ian.”

The whites of Ian’s eyes showed briefly in alarm as he looked at the shining metal of the forceps, and he looked pleadingly at Jamie.

“Wait. I’ve a better idea.” Jamie laid a quelling hand on my arm for an instant, then disappeared out the door. He thundered downstairs, and I heard a sudden burst of laughter from below, as the door to the taproom opened. The sound was as suddenly cut off as the door closed, like the valve on a faucet.

“Are you all right, Ian?” There was a smear of red on his upper lip; his nose was beginning to bleed, aggravated by his jabbings and pokings.

“Well, I do hope so, Auntie.” His original jubilation was beginning to be replaced by a certain expression of worry. “Ye dinna think I can have pushed it into my brain, do ye?”

“I think it very unlikely. What on earth—”

But the door below had opened and closed again, spilling another brief spurt of talk and laughter into the stairwell. Jamie took the stairs two at a time and popped back into the room, smelling of hot bread and ale, and holding a small, battered snuffbox in his hand.

Ian seized on this with gratitude and, sprinkling a quick pinch of black, dusty grains on the back of his hand, hastily inhaled it.

For an instant, all three of us held breathless—and then it came, a sneeze of gargantuan proportions that rocked Ian’s body back on its stool, even as his head flew forward—and a small, hard object struck the table with a ping! and bounced off into the hearth.

Ian went on sneezing, in a fusillade of hapless snorts and explosions, but Jamie and I were both on our knees, scrabbling in the ashes, heedless of filth.

“I’ve got it! I think,” I added, sitting back on my heels and peering at the handful of ashes I held, in the midst of which was a small, round, dust-covered object.

“Aye, that’s it.” Jamie seized my neglected forceps from the table, plucked the object delicately from my hand, and dropped it into my glass of water. A delicate plume of ash and soot floated up through the water to form a dusty gray film on the surface. Below, the object glittered up at us, serene and glowing, its beauty at last revealed. A faceted clear stone, the color of golden sherry, half the size of my thumbnail.

“Chrysoberyl,” Jamie said softly, a hand on my back. He looked at Mandy’s basket, the silky black curls lifting gently in the breeze. “D’ye think it will serve?”

Ian, still wheezing and watery-eyed, and with a red-stained handkerchief pressed to his much-abused proboscis, came to look over my other shoulder.

“Half-wit, is it?” he said in tones of deep satisfaction. “Ha!”

“Wherever did you get that? Or rather,” I corrected myself, “who did you steal it from?”

“Neil Forbes.” Jamie picked the gem up, turning it gently over in his fingers. “There were a good deal more o’ the Chowder Society than there were of us, so we ran down the street and round the corner, down between the warehouses there.”

“I kent Forbes’s place, aye, because I’d been there before,” Ian put in. One of Mandy’s feet was sticking up out of the basket; he touched the sole of it with a fingertip, and smiled to see her toes extend in reflex. “There was a great hole in the back where someone had broken down the wall, just covered over with a sheet of canvas, nailed over it, like. So we pulled it loose and ducked inside.”

Where they had found themselves standing next to the small enclosed space Forbes used for an office—and for the moment, deserted.

“It was sitting in a bittie wee box on the desk,” Ian said, coming to look proprietorially at the chrysoberyl. “Just sitting there! I’d just picked it up to look at, when we hear the watchman coming. So—” He shrugged and smiled at me, happiness momentarily transforming his homely features.

“And you think the watchman won’t tell him you were there?” I asked skeptically. The two of them could scarcely be more conspicuous.

“Oh, I imagine he will.” Jamie bent over Mandy’s basket, holding the chrysoberyl between thumb and forefinger. “Look what Grandda and Uncle Ian have brought ye, a muirninn,” he said softly.

“We decided that it was a small enough ransom to pay for what he did to Brianna,” Ian said, sobering somewhat. “I expect Mr. Forbes may feel it reasonable, too. And if not—” He smiled again, though not with happiness, and put his hand to his knife. “He’s got another ear, after all.”

Very slowly, a tiny fist rose through the netting, fingers flexing as they grasped at the stone.

“Is she still asleep?” I whispered. Jamie nodded, and gently withdrew the stone.

On the far side of the table, the fish stared austerely at the ceiling, ignoring everything.

116

THE NINTH EARL

OF ELLESMERE

July 9, 1776

THE WATER WON’T BE COLD.”

She’d spoken automatically, without thinking.

“I shouldn’t think that will matter much.” A nerve jumped in Roger’s cheek, and he turned away abruptly. She reached out, touching him delicately, as though he were a bomb that might explode if jarred. He glanced at her, hesitated, then took the hand she offered him, with a small, crooked smile.

“Sorry,” he said.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said softly. They stood close together, fingers knotted, watching the tide recede across the narrow beach, a fraction of an inch uncovered with each lap of the tiny waves.

The flats were gray and bleak in the evening light, pebble-strewn and rust-stained from the peaty waters of the river. With the tide going out, the harbor water was brown and feculent, the stain reaching past the ships at anchor, nearly to the open sea. When it turned, the clear gray water of the ocean would flow in, sweeping up the Cape Fear, obliterating the mudflats and everything on them.

“Over there,” she said, still softly, though there was no one near enough to hear them. She tilted her head, indicating a group of weathered mooring posts driven deep into the mud. A skiff was tied to one; two of the pirettas, the four-oared “dragonflies” that plied the harbor, to another.

“You’re sure?” He shifted his weight, glancing up and down the shore.

The narrow beach fell away into cold pebbles, exposed and gleaming with the leaving of the tide. Small crabs skittered hastily among them, not to waste a moment’s gleaning.

“I’m sure. People in the Blue Boar were talking about it. A traveler asked where, and Mrs. Smoots said it was the old mooring posts, near the warehouses.” A torn flounder lay dead among the rocks, white flesh washed clean and bloodless. The small busy claws picked and shredded, tiny maws gaped and gulped, pinching at morsels. She felt her gorge rise at the sight, and swallowed hard. It wouldn’t matter what came after; she knew that. But still . . .

Roger nodded absently. His eyes narrowed against the harbor wind, calculating distances.

“There’ll be quite a crowd, I expect.”

There already was one; the turn of the tide wouldn’t be for an hour or more, but people were drifting down to the harbor in twos and threes and fours, standing in the lee of the chandlery to smoke their pipes, sitting on the barrels of salt fish to talk and gesture. Mrs. Smoots had been right; several were pointing out the mooring posts to their less knowledgeable companions.

Roger shook his head.

“It’ll have to be from that side; the best view is from there.” He nodded across the inner arc of the harbor toward the three ships that rocked at the main quay. “From one of the ships? What do you think?”

Brianna fumbled in the pocket tied at her waist, and pulled out her small brass telescope. She frowned in concentration, lips pursed as she surveyed the ships—a fishing ketch, Mr. Chester’s brig, and a larger ship, part of the British fleet, that had come in in the early afternoon.

“Whoa, Nellie,” she murmured, arresting the sweep of her gaze as the pale blotch of a head filled the lens. “Is that who I think . . . hot dog, it is!” A tiny flame of delight flared in her bosom, warming her.

“Is who?” Roger squinted, straining to see unaided.

“It’s John! Lord John!”

“Lord John Grey? You’re sure?”

“Yes! On the brig—he must have come down from Virginia. Woops, he’s gone now—but he’s there, I saw him!” She turned to Roger, excited, folding her telescope as she gripped him by the arm.

“Come on! Let’s go and find him. He’ll help.”

Roger followed, though with considerably less enthusiasm.

“You’re going to tell him? Do you think that’s wise?”

“No, but it doesn’t matter. He knows me.”

Roger looked sharply at her, but the dark look on his face thawed into a reluctant smile.

“You mean he knows better than to try stopping you doing whatever you’ve made up your bloody-minded mind to do?”

She smiled back at him, thanking him with her eyes. He didn’t like it—in fact, he hated it, and she didn’t blame him—but he wouldn’t try to stop her, either. He knew her, too.

“Yes. Come on, before he disappears!”

It was a slow slog round the curve of the harbor, pushing through the knots of gathering sightseers. Outside The Breakers, the crowd grew abruptly thicker. A cluster of red-coated soldiers stood and sat in disarray on the pavement, seabags and chests scattered round them, their number too great to fit inside the tavern. Ale pots and pints of cider were being passed from hand to hand from the interior of the public house, slopping freely on the heads of those over whom they passed.

A sergeant, harrassed but competent, was leaning against the timbered wall of the inn, riffling through a sheaf of papers, issuing orders and eating a meat pie, simultaneously. Brianna wrinkled her nose as they stepped carefully through the obstacle course of scattered men and luggage; a reek of seasickness and unclean flesh rose from the serried ranks.

A few onlookers muttered under their breath at sight of the soldiers; several more cheered and waved as they passed, to receive genial shouts in return. Newly liberated from the bowels of the Scorpion, the soldiers were too thrilled with their freedom and the taste of fresh food and drink to care who did or said anything whatever.

Roger stepped in front of her, thrusting a way through the crowd with shoulders and elbows. Appreciative shouts and whistles rose from the soldiers as they saw her, but she kept her head down, eyes fixed on Roger’s feet as he shoved ahead.

She heaved a sigh of relief as they emerged from the press at the head of the quay. The soldiers’ equipment was being unloaded from the Scorpion at the far side of the dock, but there was little foot traffic near the brig. She paused, looking to and fro for a glimpse of Lord John’s distinctive fair head.

“There he is!” Roger tugged at her arm, and she swung in the direction he was pointing, only to collide heavily with him as he stepped abruptly back.

“What—” she began crossly, but then stopped, feeling as though she had been punched in the chest.

“Who in God’s holy name is that?” Roger spoke softly, echoing her thoughts.

Lord John Grey stood near the far end of the quay, in animated conversation with one of the red-coated soldiers. An officer; gold braid gleamed on his shoulder and he carried a laced tricorne beneath one arm. It wasn’t the man’s uniform that caught her attention, though.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she whispered, feeling numb around the lips.

He was tall—very tall—with a breadth of shoulder and a stretch of white-stockinged calf that were attracting admiring glances from a cluster of oyster girls. It was something more than height or build that made gooseflesh ripple down the length of her spine, though; it was the fact of his carriage, his outline, a c*ck of the head and an air of physical self-confidence that drew eyes like a magnet.

“It’s Da,” she said, knowing even as she spoke that this was ridiculous. Even had Jamie Fraser for some unimaginable reason chosen to disguise himself in a soldier’s uniform and come down to the docks, this man was different. As he turned to look at something across the harbor, she saw that he was different—lean, like her father, and muscular, but still with the slenderness of boyishness. Graceful—like Jamie—but with the slight hesitancy of teenaged awkwardness not long past.

He turned further, backlit by the glow of light off the water, and she felt her knees go weak. A long, straight nose, rising to a high forehead . . . the sudden curve of a broad Viking cheekbone . . . Roger gripped her tightly by the arm, but his attention was as riveted on the young man as hers was.

“I . . . will . . . be . . . damned,” he said.

She gulped air, trying to get enough breath.

“You and me both. And him.”

“Him?”

“Him, him, and him!” Lord John, the mysterious young soldier—and most of all, her father. “Come on.” She pulled free and strode down the quay, feeling oddly disembodied, as though she watched herself from a distance.

It was like watching herself come toward a fun-house mirror, seeing herself—her face, her height, her gestures—suddenly transposed inside a red coat and doeskin breeches. His hair was dark, chestnut-brown, not red, but it was thick like hers, with the same slight wave to it, the same cowlick that lifted it off his brow.

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