A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 99





July 10, 1776

THE TIDE TURNED FROM THE EBB just before five o’clock in the morning. The sky was fully light, a clear pale color without clouds, and the mudflats beyond the quay stretched gray and shining, their smoothness marred here and there by weed and stubborn sea grass, sprouting from the mud like clumps of hair.

Everyone rose with the dawn; there were plenty of people on the quay to see the small procession go out, two officers from the Wilmington Committee of Safety, a representative from the Merchants Association, a minister carrying a Bible, and the prisoner, a tall, wide-shouldered figure, walking bare-headed across the stinking mud. Behind them all came a slave, carrying the ropes.

“I don’t want to watch this,” Brianna said under her breath. She was very pale, her arms folded over her middle as though she had a stomachache.

“Let’s go, then.” Roger took her arm, but she pulled back.

“No. I have to.”

She dropped her arms and stood straight, watching. People around them were jostling for a better view, jeering and catcalling so loudly that whatever was said out there was inaudible. It didn’t take long. The slave, a big man, grabbed the mooring post and shook it, testing for steadfastness. Then stood back, while the two officers backed Stephen Bonnet up to the stake and wrapped his body with rope from chest to knees. The bastard wasn’t going anywhere.

Roger thought he should be searching his heart for compassion, praying for the man. He couldn’t. Tried to ask forgiveness, and couldn’t do that, either. Something like a ball of worms churned in his belly. He felt as though he were himself tied to a stake, waiting to drown.

The black-coated minister leaned close, his hair whipping in the early morning breeze, mouth moving. Roger didn’t think that Bonnet made any reply, but couldn’t tell for sure. After a few moments, the men doffed their hats, stood while the minister prayed, then put them on again and headed back toward shore, their boots squelching, ankle-deep in the sandy mud.

The moment the officials had disappeared, a stream of people poured out onto the mud: sightseers, hopping children—and a man with a notebook and pencil, who Roger recognized as Amos Crupp, the current proprietor of the Wilmington Gazette.

“Well, that’ll be a scoop, won’t it?” Roger muttered. No matter what Bonnet actually said—or didn’t—there would undoubtedly be a broadsheet hawked through the streets tomorrow, containing either a lurid confession or mawkish reports of remorse—perhaps both.

“Okay, I really can’t watch this.” Abruptly, Brianna turned, taking his arm.

She made it past the row of warehouses before turning abruptly to him, burying her face in his chest and bursting into tears.

“Ssh. It’s okay—it’s going to be all right.” He patted her, tried to infuse some conviction into the words, but his own throat had a lump in it the size of a lemon. He finally took her by the shoulders and held her away from him, so that he could look into her eyes.

“Ye don’t have to do it,” he said.

She stopped crying and sniffed, wiping her nose on her sleeve like Jemmy—but wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“It’s—I’m okay It’s not even him. It’s just—just everything. M-Mandy”—her voice wavered on the word—“and meeting my brother—Oh, Roger, if I can’t tell him, he’ll never know, and I’ll never see him or Lord John again. Or Mama—” Fresh tears overwhelmed her, welling up in her eyes, but she gulped and swallowed, forcing them back.

“It’s not him,” she said in a choked, exhausted voice.

“Maybe it’s not,” he said softly. “But ye still don’t have to do it.” His stomach still churned, and his hands felt shaky, but resolution filled him.

“I should have killed him on Ocracoke,” she said, closing her eyes and brushing back strands of loosened hair. The sun was higher now, and bright. “I was a coward. I th-thought it would be easier to let—let the law do it.” She opened her eyes, and now did meet his gaze, her eyes reddened but clear. “I can’t let it happen this way, even if I hadn’t given my word.”

Roger understood that; he felt the terror of the tide coming in, that inexorable creep of water, rising in his bones. It would be nearly nine hours before the water reached Bonnet’s chin; he was a tall man.

“I’ll do it,” he said very firmly.

She made a small attempt at a smile, but abandoned it.

“No,” she said. “You won’t.” She looked—and sounded—absolutely drained; neither of them had slept much the night before. But she also sounded determined, and he recognized Jamie Fraser’s stubborn blood.

Well, what the hell—he had some of that blood, too.

“I told ye,” he said. “What your father said, that time. ‘It is myself who kills for her.’ If it has to be done”—and he was obliged to agree with her; he couldn’t stand it, either—“then I’ll do it.”

She was getting a grip on herself. She wiped her face with a fold of her skirt, and took a deep breath before meeting his eyes again. Hers were deep and vivid blue, much darker than the sky.

“You told me. And you told me why he said that, too—what he said to Arch Bug: ‘There is a vow upon her.’ She’s a doctor; she doesn’t kill people.”

The hell she doesn’t, Roger thought, but better judgment prevented his saying so. Before he could think of something more tactful, she went on, placing her hands flat on his chest.

“You have one, too,” she said. That stopped him cold.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Oh, yes, you do.” She was quietly emphatic. “Maybe it isn’t official yet—but it doesn’t need to be. Maybe it doesn’t even have words, the vow that you took—but you did it, and I know it.”

He couldn’t deny it, and was moved that she did know it.

“Aye, well . . .” He put his hands over hers, clasping her long, strong fingers. “And I made one to you, too, when I told ye. I said I would never put God before my—my love for you.” Love. He couldn’t believe that he was discussing such a thing in terms of love. And yet, he had the queerest feeling that that was exactly how she saw it.

“I don’t have that sort of vow,” she said firmly, and pulled her hands out of his. “And I gave my word.”

She had gone with Jamie after dark the night before, to the place where the pirate was being held. Roger had no idea what sort of bribery or force of personality had been employed, but they had been admitted. Jamie had brought her back to their room very late, white-faced, with a sheaf of papers that she handed over to her father. Affidavits, she said; sworn statements of Stephen Bonnet’s business dealings with various merchants up and down the coast.

Roger had given Jamie a murderous look, and got the same back, with interest. This is war, Fraser’s narrowed eyes had said. And I will use any weapon I can. But all he had said was, “Good night, then, a nighean,” and touched her hair with tenderness before departing.

Brianna had sat down with Mandy and nursed her, eyes closed, refusing to speak. After a time, her face eased from its white, strained lines, and she burped the baby and laid her sleeping in her basket. Then she came to bed, and made love to him with a silent fierceness that surprised him. But not as much as she surprised him now.

“And there’s one other thing,” she said, sober and slightly sad. “I’m the only person in the world for whom this isn’t murder.”

With that, she turned and walked away fast, toward the inn where Mandy waited to be fed. Out on the mudflats, he could still hear the sound of excited voices, raucous as gulls.

AT TWO O’CLOCK in the afternoon, Roger helped his wife into a small rowboat, tied to the quay near the row of warehouses. The tide had been coming in all day; the water was more than five feet deep. Out in the midst of the shining gray stood the cluster of mooring posts—and the small dark head of the pirate.

Brianna was remote as a pagan statue, her face expressionless. She lifted her skirts to step into the boat, and sat down, the weight in her pocket clunking against the wooden slat as she did so.

Roger took up the oars and rowed, heading toward the posts. They would arouse no particular interest; boats had been going out ever since noon, carrying sightseers who wished to look upon the condemned man’s face, shout taunts, or clip a strand of his hair for a souvenir.

He couldn’t see where he was going; Brianna directed him left or right with a silent tilt of her head. She could see; she sat straight and tall, her right hand hidden in her skirt.

Then she lifted her left hand suddenly, and Roger lay on the oars, digging with one to slew the tiny craft around.

Bonnet’s lips were cracked, his face chapped and crusted with salt, his lids so reddened that he could barely open his eyes. But his head lifted as they drew near, and Roger saw a man ravished, helpless and dreading a coming embrace—so much that he half welcomes its seductive touch, yielding his flesh to cold fingers and the overwhelming kiss that steals his breath.

“Ye’ve left it late enough, darlin’,” he said to Brianna, and the cracked lips parted in a grin that split them and left blood on his teeth. “I knew ye’d come, though.”

Roger paddled with one oar, working the boat close, then closer. He was looking over his shoulder when Brianna drew the gilt-handled pistol from her pocket, and put the barrel to Stephen Bonnet’s ear.

“Go with God, Stephen,” she said clearly, in Gaelic, and pulled the trigger. Then she dropped the gun into the water and turned round to face her husband.

“Take us home,” she said.



LORD JOHN STEPPED INTO HIS ROOM at the inn, and was surprised—astonished, in fact—to discover that he had a visitor.

“John.” Jamie Fraser turned from the window, and gave him a small smile.

“Jamie.” He returned it, trying to control the sudden sense of elation he felt. He had used Jamie Fraser’s Christian name perhaps three times in the last twenty-five years; the intimacy of it was exhilarating, but he mustn’t let it show.

“Will I order us refreshment?” he asked politely. Jamie had not moved from the window; he glanced out, then back at John and shook his head, still smiling faintly.

“I thank ye, no. We are enemies, are we not?”

“We find ourselves regrettably upon opposing sides of what I trust will be a short-lived conflict,” Lord John corrected.

Fraser looked down at him, with an odd, regretful sort of expression.

“Not short,” he said. “But regrettable, aye.”

“Indeed.” Lord John cleared his throat, and moved to the window, careful not to brush against his visitor. He looked out, and saw the likely reason for Fraser’s visit.

“Ah,” he said, seeing Brianna Fraser MacKenzie on the wooden sidewalk below. “Oh!” he said, in a different tone. For William Clarence Henry George Ransom, ninth Earl of Ellesmere, had just come out of the inn and bowed to her.

“Sweet Jesus,” he said, apprehension making his scalp prickle. “Will she tell him?”

Fraser shook his head, his eyes on the two young people below.

“She will not,” he said quietly. “She gave me her word.”

Relief coursed through his veins like water.

“Thank you,” he said. Fraser shrugged slightly, dismissing it. It was, after all, what he desired, as well—or so Lord John assumed.

The two of them were talking together—William said something and Brianna laughed, throwing back her hair. Jamie watched in fascination. Dear God, they were alike! The small tricks of expression, of posture, of gesture . . . It must be apparent to the most casual observer. In fact, he saw a couple pass them and the woman smile, pleased at the sight of the handsome matched pair.

“She will not tell him,” Lord John repeated, somewhat dismayed by the sight. “But she displays herself to him. Will he not—but no. I don’t suppose he will.”

“I hope not,” Jamie said, eyes still fixed on them. “But if he does—he still will not know. And she insisted she must see him once more—that was the price of her silence.”

John nodded, silent. Brianna’s husband was coming now, their little boy held by one hand, his hair as vivid as his mother’s in the bright summer sun. He held a baby in the crook of his arm—Brianna took it from him, turning back the blanket to display the child to William, who inspected it with every indication of politeness.

He realized suddenly that every fragment of Fraser’s being was focused on the scene outside. Of course; he had not seen Willie since the boy was twelve. And to see the two together—his daughter and the son he could never speak to or acknowledge. He would have touched Fraser, put a hand on his arm in sympathy, but knowing the probable effect of his touch, forbore to do it.

“I have come,” Fraser said suddenly, “to ask a favor of you.”

“I am your servant, sir,” Lord John said, terribly pleased, but taking refuge in formality.

“Not for myself,” Fraser said with a glance at him. “For Brianna.”

“My pleasure will be the greater,” John assured him. “I am exceeding fond of your daughter, her temperamental resemblances to her sire notwithstanding.”

The corner of Fraser’s mouth lifted, and he returned his gaze to the scene below.

“Indeed,” he said. “Well, then. I canna tell ye why I require this—but I need a jewel.”

“A jewel?” Lord John’s voice sounded blank, even to his own ears. “What sort of jewel?”

“Any sort.” Fraser shrugged, impatient. “It doesna matter—so long as it should be some precious gem. I once gave ye such a stone—” His mouth twitched at that; he had handed over the stone, a sapphire, under duress, as a prisoner of the Crown. “Though I dinna suppose ye’d have that by ye, still.”

In point of fact, he did. That particular sapphire had traveled with him for the last twenty-five years, and was at this moment in the pocket of his waistcoat.

He glanced at his left hand, which bore a broad gold band, set with a brilliant, faceted sapphire. Hector’s ring. Given to him by his first lover at the age of sixteen. Hector had died at Culloden—the day after John had met James Fraser, in the dark of a Scottish mountain pass.

Without hesitation, but with some difficulty—the ring had been worn a long time, and had sunk a little way into the flesh of his finger—he twisted it off and dropped it into Jamie’s hand.

Fraser’s brows rose in astonishment.

“This? Are ye sur—”

“Take it.” He reached out then, and closed Jamie’s fingers around it with his own. The contact was fleeting, but his hand tingled, and he closed his own fist, hoping to keep the sensation.

“Thank you,” Jamie said again, quietly.

“It is—my very great pleasure.” The party below was breaking up—Brianna was taking her leave, the baby held in her arms, her husband and son already halfway down the walk. William bowed, hat off, the shape of his chestnut head so perfectly echoing that of the red—

Suddenly, Lord John could not bear to see them part. He wished to keep that, too—the sight of them together. He closed his eyes and stood, hands on the sill, feeling the movement of the breeze past his face. Something touched his shoulder, very briefly, and he felt a sense of movement in the air beside him.

When he opened his eyes again, all three of them were gone.



September 1776

ROGER WAS LAYING THE LAST OF the water pipes when Aidan and Jemmy popped up beside him, sudden as a pair of jack-in-the-boxes.

“Daddy, Daddy, Bobby’s here!”

“What, Bobby Higgins?” Roger straightened up, feeling his back muscles protest, and looked toward the Big House, but saw no sign of a horse. “Where is he?”

“He went up to the graveyard,” Aidan said, looking important. “D’ye think he’s gone to look for the ghost?”

“I doubt it,” Roger said calmly. “What ghost?”

“Malva Christie’s,” Aidan said promptly. “She walks. Everybody says so.” He spoke bravely, but wrapped his arms about himself. Jemmy, who plainly hadn’t heard that bit of news before, looked wide-eyed.

“Why does she walk? Where’s she going?”

“Because she was murrrrderrred, silly,” Aidan said. “Folk what are murdered always walk. They’re lookin’ for the one who killed them.”

“Nonsense,” Roger said firmly, seeing the uneasy look on Jemmy’s face. Jem had known Malva Christie was dead, of course; he’d gone to her funeral, along with all the other children on the Ridge. But he and Brianna had simply told the boy that Malva had died, not that she had been murdered.

Well, Roger thought grimly, little hope of keeping something like that secret. He hoped Jem wouldn’t have nightmares.

“Malva’s not walking about looking for anyone,” he said, with as much conviction as he could infuse into his voice. “Her soul is in heaven with Jesus, where she’s happy and peaceful—and her body . . . well, when people die, they don’t need their bodies anymore, and so we bury them, and there they stay, all tidy in their graves, until the Last Day.”

Aidan looked patently unconvinced by this.

“Joey McLaughlin saw her, two weeks ago Friday,” he said, bobbing up and down on his toes. “A-flittin’ through the wood, he said, all dressed in black—and howlin’ most mournful!”

Jemmy was beginning to look truly upset. Roger laid down the spade, and picked Jem up in his arms.

“I expect Joey McLaughlin was a bit the worse for a dram too much,” he said. Both boys were entirely familiar with the concept of drunkenness. “If it was flitting through the wood howling, it was most likely Rollo he saw. Come on, though, we’ll go find Bobby, and ye’ll see Malva’s grave for yourselves.”

He put out a hand to Aidan, who took it happily and chattered like a magpie all the way up the hill.

And what was Aidan going to do, when he left? he wondered. The idea of leaving, at first so abrupt as to seem completely unreal, unthinkable, had been filtering into his consciousness, day by day. As he worked at the chores, dug the trenches for Brianna’s water pipes, carried hay, chopped wood, he would try to think: “Not much longer.” And yet it seemed impossible that one day he would not be on the Ridge, would not push open the door to the cabin and find Brianna involved in some fiendish experiment on the kitchen table, Jem and Aidan madly vrooming around her feet.

The feeling of unreality was even more pronounced when he preached of a Sunday or went round as minister—if yet without portfolio—to visit the sick or counsel the troubled. Looking into all those faces—attentive, excited, bored, dour, or preoccupied—he simply couldn’t believe that he meant to go, callously to abandon them all. How would he tell them? he wondered, with a sort of anguish at the thought. Especially the ones he felt most responsible for—Aidan and his mother.

He’d prayed about it, looking for strength, for guidance.

And yet . . . and yet the vision of Amanda’s tiny blue fingernails, the faint wheeze of her breathing, never left him. And the looming stones by the creek on Ocracoke seemed to grow nearer, more solid, day by day.

Bobby Higgins was indeed in the graveyard, his horse tethered under the pines. He was sitting by Malva’s grave, head bowed in contemplation, though he looked up at once when Roger and the boys appeared. He looked pale and somber, but scrambled to his feet and shook Roger’s hand.

“I’m glad to see ye back, Bobby. Here, you lot go and play, aye?” He set Jemmy down, and was pleased to see that after one suspicious glance at Malva’s grave—adorned with a wilted bunch of wildflowers—Jemmy went off quite happily with Aidan to hunt for squirrels and chipmunks in the wood.

“I—er—wasn’t expecting to see you again,” he added a little awkwardly. Bobby looked down, slowly dusting pine needles from his breeches.

“Well, zur . . . the fact of the matter is, I’ve come to stay. If so be as that’s agreeable,” he added hastily.

“To stay? But—of course it’s fine,” Roger said, recovering from his surprise. “Have you—that is—you’ve not had a falling-out with his Lordship, I hope?”

Bobby looked astonished at the thought, and shook his head decidedly.

“Oh, no, zur! His Lordship’s been proper kind to me, ever since he took me on.” He hesitated, biting his lower lip. “It’s only—well, ye see, zur, there’s a deal of folk what come to stay with his Lordship these days. Politicals, and—and army folk.”

Despite himself, he touched the brand on his cheek, which had faded now to a pinkish scar but was still apparent—and always would be. Roger understood.

“You weren’t comfortable there any longer, I suppose?”

“That’s it, zur.” Bobby gave him a grateful look. “Time was, ’twas just his Lordship and me and Manoke the cook. Sometimes a guest would come for dinner or to stay a few days, but ’twas all easy and what ye might call simple. When I went for to run messages or errands for his Lordship, folk would stare, but only for the first time or two; after that, they’d be used to this”—he touched his face again—“and it was all right. But now . . .” He trailed off unhappily, leaving Roger to imagine the probable response of British army officers, starched, polished, and either openly disapproving of this blot on the service—or painfully polite.

“His Lordship saw the difficulty; he’s good that way. And he said as how he would miss me, but if I chose to seek my fortune elsewhere, he would give me ten pounds and his best wishes.”

Roger whistled respectfully. Ten pounds was a very respectable sum. Not a fortune, but quite enough to set Bobby on his road.

“Very nice,” he said. “Did he know ye meant to come here?”

Bobby shook his head.

“I wasn’t sure myself,” he admitted. “Once, I should—” He cut himself off abruptly, with a glance at Malva’s grave, then turned back to Roger, clearing his throat.

“I thought I best talk to Mr. Fraser, before I was to make up my mind. Could be there’s naught for me here any longer, either.” This was phrased as a statement, but the question was clear. Everyone on the Ridge knew Bobby and accepted him; that wasn’t the difficulty. But with Lizzie married and Malva gone . . . Bobby wanted a wife.

“Oh . . . I think ye might find yourself welcome,” Roger said with a thoughtful look at Aidan, hanging upside down by his knees from a tree branch, while Jemmy pegged pinecones at him. A most peculiar feeling went through him—something between gratitude and jealousy—but he pushed the latter feeling firmly down.

“Aidan!” he shouted. “Jem! Time to go!” And turned casually back to Bobby, saying, “I think ye’ll maybe not have met Aidan’s mother, Amy McCallum—a young widow, aye, with a house and a bit of land. She’s come to work at the Big House; if ye’ll come sit down to supper there . . .”

“I’VE THOUGHT OF IT now and then,” Jamie admitted. “Wondered, ye ken? What if I could? How would it be?”

He glanced at Brianna, smiling, but a little helpless, and shrugged.

“What d’ye think, lass? What should I do there? How would it be?”

“Well, it—” she began, and stopped, trying to envision him in that world—behind the wheel of a car? Going to an office, in a three-piece suit? That idea was so ludicrous, she laughed. Or sitting in a darkened theater, watching Godzilla films with Jem and Roger?

“What’s Jamie spelled backward?” she asked.

“Eimaj, I suppose,” he replied, bewildered. “Why?”

“I think you’d do fine,” she said, smiling. “Never mind. You’d—well, I suppose you could . . . publish newspapers. The printing presses are bigger and faster, and it takes a lot more people to gather the news, but otherwise—I don’t think it’s so different then from what it is now. You know how to do that.”

He nodded, a crease of concentration forming between the thick brows that were so like hers.

“I suppose so,” he said a little dubiously. “Could I be a farmer, d’ye think? Surely folk still eat; someone must feed them.”

“You could.” She looked round, taking fresh note of all the homely details of the place: the chickens scratching peaceably in the dirt; the soft, weathered boards of the stable; the thrown-up dirt near the foundation of the house where the white pig had burrowed in. “There are people then who still farm just this way; small places, way up in the mountains. It’s a hard life—” She saw him smile, and laughed in return. “All right, it’s not any harder than it is now—but it’s a lot easier in the cities.”

She paused, thinking.

“You wouldn’t have to fight,” she said finally.

He seemed surprised at that.

“No? But ye did say there are wars.”

“There certainly are,” she said, needles of ice piercing her belly, as the images pierced her mind: fields of poppies, fields of white crosses—a man on fire, a nak*d child running with burned skin, the contorted face of a man in the instant before the bullet entered his brain. “But—but then it’s only the young men who fight. And not all of them; only some.”

“Mmphm.” He thought for a bit, his brow furrowed, then looked up searching her face.

“This world of yours, this America,” he said finally, matter-of-factly. “The freedom that ye go to. There will be a fearful price to be paid. Will it be worth it, do ye think?”

It was her turn then to be silent and think. At last she put her hand on his arm—solid, warm, steady as iron.

“Almost nothing would be worth losing you,” she whispered. “But maybe that comes close.”

AS THE WORLD turns toward winter and the nights grow long, people begin to wake in the dark. Lying in bed too long cramps the limbs, and dreams dreamt too long turn inward on themselves, grotesque as a Mandarin’s fingernails. By and large, the human body isn’t adapted for more than seven or eight hours’ sleep—but what happens when the nights are longer than that?

What happens is the second sleep. You fall asleep from tiredness, soon after dark—but then wake again, rising toward the surface of your dreams like a trout coming up to feed. And should your sleeping partner also wake then—and people who have slept together for a good many years know at once when each other wakes—you have a small, private place to share, deep in the night. A place in which to rise, to stretch, to bring a juicy apple back to bed, to share slice by slice, fingers brushing lips. To have the luxury of conversation, uninterrupted by the business of the day. To make love slowly in the light of an autumn moon.

And then, to lie close, and let a lover’s dreams caress your skin as you begin to sink once more beneath the waves of consciousness, blissful in the knowledge that dawn is far off—that’s second sleep.

I came very slowly to the surface of my first sleep, to find that the highly erotic dream I had been having had some basis in reality.

“I’d never thought myself the sort who’d molest a corpse, Sassenach.” Jamie’s voice tickled the tender flesh below my ear, murmuring. “But I will say the notion has more appeal than I’d thought.”