An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 10

   

“It was by my hand that this”—Ian swallowed—“that this woman of great worth has died. I didna take her life by malice, or of purpose, and it is sorrow to me. But she died by my hand.”

Rollo whined softly by Ian’s side, feeling his master’s distress, but Ian laid a hand on his head, and he stilled. Ian drew the knife from his belt and laid it on the coffin in front of Arch Bug, then straightened and looked him in the eye.

“Ye swore once to my uncle, in a time of great wrong, and offered life for life, for this woman. I swear by my iron, and I offer the same.” His lips pressed together for an instant, and his throat moved, his eyes dark and sober. “I think ye maybe didna mean it, sir—but I do.”

I found that I was holding my breath, and forced myself to breathe. Was this Jamie’s plan? I wondered. Ian plainly meant what he said. Still, the chances of Arch accepting that offer on the spot and cutting Ian’s throat in front of a dozen witnesses were slim, no matter how exigent his feelings. But if he publicly declined the offer—then the possibility of a more formal and less bloody recompense was opened, yet young Ian would be relieved of at least a measure of his guilt. Bloody Highlander, I thought, glancing up at Jamie—not without a certain admiration.

I could feel small jolts of energy running through him, though, every few seconds, each one suppressed. He wouldn’t interfere with Ian’s attempt at atonement—but neither would he see him injured, if by chance old Arch did opt for blood. And evidently he thought it a possibility. I glanced at Arch, and thought so, too.

The old man looked at Ian for a moment, heavy brows wild with curling iron-gray old-man hairs—and the eyes beneath them iron-gray, too, and cold as steel.

“Too easy, boy,” he said at last, in a voice like rusty iron.

He looked down at Rollo, who was standing next to Ian, ears pricked and wolf eyes wary.

“Will ye give me your hound to kill?”

Ian’s mask broke in an instant, shock and horror making him suddenly young. I heard him gulp air and steady himself, but his voice was cracked in reply.

“No,” he said. “He’s done nothing. It’s my—my crime, not his.”

Arch smiled then, very slightly, though it did not touch his eyes.

“Aye. Ye see, then. And he’s no but a flea-ridden beast. Not a wife.” “Wife” was spoken in barely a whisper. His throat worked as he cleared it. Then he looked carefully from Ian to Jamie, and then at me.

“Not a wife,” he said softly. I’d thought my blood ran cold already; that froze my heart.

In no hurry, Arch turned his gaze deliberately upon each man in turn; Jamie, then Ian, whom he regarded for an instant that seemed a lifetime.

“When you’ve something worth taking, boy—you’ll see me again,” he said quietly, then turned upon his heel and walked into the trees.

MORALITY FOR TIME-TRAVELERS

THERE WAS AN electric desk lamp in his study, but Roger often preferred to work by candlelight in the evening. He took a match from the box, and struck it with one soft scratch. After Claire’s letter, he didn’t think he’d ever light a match again without thinking of her story of the burning of the Big House. God, he wished he’d been there.

The match flame shrank as he touched it to the wick, and the translucent wax of the candle went a dim, unearthly blue for an instant, then brightened into its normal glow. He glanced at Mandy, singing to a collection of stuffed toys on the sofa; she’d had her bath and was meant to be keeping out of trouble while Jem had his. Keeping one eye on her, he sat down at his desk and opened his notebook.

He’d begun it half as a joke. The other half as the only thing he could think of to combat paralyzing fear.

“You can teach kids not to cross the street alone,” Bree had pointed out. “Surely you can teach them to stay the heck away from standing stones.”

He’d agreed, but with substantial mental reservations. Small kids, yes; you could brainwash them into not sticking forks in the electric outlets. But as they became teenagers, with all that inchoate yearning for self-discovery and things unknown? He recalled his own teenaged self much too vividly. Tell a teenaged boy not to stick forks in the outlet, and he’d be off rifling the silverware drawer the minute your back was turned. Girls might be different, but he doubted it.

He glanced again at the sofa, where Amanda was now lying on her back, legs thrust into the air and a large, ratty-looking stuffed bear balanced on her feet, to which she was singing “Frère Jacques.” Mandy had been so young that she wouldn’t remember. Jem would. He did; Roger could tell, when the little boy woke up from nightmares, eyes huge and staring at nothing, and could not describe his dream. Thank God, it didn’t happen often.

He still broke out in a cold sweat whenever he remembered it himself. That last passage. He’d clutched Jemmy to his chest and stepped into … God, there was no name for it, because humanity at large had never experienced it, and lucky for them they hadn’t. It wasn’t even like anything to which it could be compared.

None of the senses worked there—and at the same time, all of them did, in such a state of hypersensitivity that you’d die of it if it lasted any longer than it did. A howling void, where sound seemed to batter you, pulsing through your body, trying to separate each cell from the next. Absolute blindness, but the blindness of looking into the sun. And the impact of … bodies? Ghosts? Unseen others who brushed past like moth wings or seemed to hurtle right through you in a colliding thump of entangling bones. A constant sense of screaming.

Did it smell? He paused, frowning, trying to remember. Yes, it damned well did. And oddly enough, it was a describable smell: the scent of air burnt by lightning—ozone.

It smells strongly of ozone, he wrote, feeling remarkably relieved to have even this small foothold of reference to the normal world.

This relief disappeared in the next instant, as he returned to the struggle of memory.

He’d felt as though nothing save his own will held them together, nothing but raw determination to survive held him together. Knowing what to expect hadn’t helped in the slightest; it was different—and much worse—than his previous experiences.

He did know not to look at them. The ghosts, if that’s what they were. “Look” wasn’t the right word … pay attention to them? Again, there wasn’t a word, and he sighed in exasperation.

“Sonnez le matines, sonnez le matines …”

“Din dan don,” he sang softly with her chorus. “Din dan don.”

He tapped the pen on the paper for a minute, thinking, then shook his head and bent over the paper again, trying to explain his first attempt, the occasion on which he’d come within … moments? inches? Some unthinkably small degree of separation of meeting his father—and destruction.

I think you cannot cross your own lifeline, he wrote slowly. Both Bree and Claire—the scientific women—had assured him that two objects cannot exist in the same space, whether said objects were subatomic particles or elephants. That being true, it would explain why one couldn’t exist twice in the same time period, he supposed.

He assumed it was that phenomenon that had come so close to killing him on his first attempt. He had been thinking of his father when he entered the stones, and—presumably—of his father as he, Roger, had known him. Which was, of course, during the period of his own life.

He tapped the pen on the page again, thinking, but could not bring himself just now to write about that encounter. Later. Instead, he flipped back to the rudimentary outline in the front of the book.

A Practical Guide for Time-Travelers

I. Physical Phenomena

Known Locations (Ley Lines?)

Genetic Inheritance

Mortality

The Influence and Properties of Gemstones

Blood?

He’d scratched through that last one, but hesitated, looking at it. Did he have an obligation to tell everything he knew, believed, or suspected? Claire thought that the notion of a blood sacrifice being required or useful was nonsense—a pagan superstition without real validity. She might be right; she was the scientist, after all. But he had the uneasy memory of the night Geillis Duncan had gone through the stones.

Long blond hair, flying in the rising wind of a fire, the whipping locks silhouetted for an instant against the face of a standing stone. The gagging scent of petrol mingled with roasting flesh, and the log that was not a log lying charred in the center of the circle. And Geillis Duncan had gone too far.

“It’s always two hundred years, in the old fairy tales,” Claire had told him. Literal fairy tales; stories of people stolen by the fairies, “taken through the stones” of faerie hills. It was a time, two hundred years ago, such tales often began. Or the people were returned to their own place—but two hundred years past the time they had left. Two hundred years.

Claire, Bree, himself—each time they had traveled, the span of time was the same: two hundred and two years, close enough to the two hundred years of the ancient tales. But Geillis Duncan had gone too far.

With great reluctance, he slowly wrote Blood again, and added a parenthetical (Fire??), but nothing beneath it. Not now; later.

For reassurance, he glanced at the spot on the bookshelf where the letter lay, weighted down by a small snake carved of cherrywood. We are alive….

He wanted suddenly to go and fetch the wooden box, pull out the other letters, rip them open and read. Curiosity, sure, but something more—wanting to touch them, Claire and Jamie, press the evidence of their lives against his face, his heart, erase the space and time between them.

He forced back the impulse, though. They’d decided—or rather, Bree had, and they were her parents.

“I don’t want to read them all at once,” she’d said, turning over the contents of the box with long, gentle fingers. “It’s … it’s like once I’ve read them all, then they’ll be … really gone.”

He’d understood. As long as one letter remained unread, they were alive. In spite of his historian’s curiosity, he shared her sentiment. Besides …

Brianna’s parents had not written those letters as journal entries, meant for the eventual eyes of a vaguely imagined posterity. They’d been written with the definite and specific intent of communication—with Bree, with him. Which meant that they might well contain unsettling things; both his in-laws had a talent for such revelation.

Despite himself, he rose, took down the letter and unfolded it, and read the postscript once more, just to assure himself he hadn’t been imagining it.

He hadn’t. With the word “blood” ringing faintly in his ears, he sat back down. An Italian gentleman. That was Charles Stuart; couldn’t be anyone else. Christ. After staring off into space for a bit—Mandy had now started in on “Jingle Bells”—he shook himself, flipped over a few pages and started in again, doggedly.

II. Morality

A. Murder and Wrongful Death

Naturally, we assume that the killing of someone for any reason short of self-defense, the protection of another, or the legitimate use of force in wartime is completely indefensible.

He looked at that for a moment, muttered, “Pompous ass,” and ripped the page out of the notebook, crumpling it.

Ignoring Mandy’s warbling rendition of “Gingle bells, Bamman smells, Wobin waid enegg!” he scooped up the notebook and stomped across the hall to Brianna’s study.

“Who am I to be gassing on about morality?” he demanded. She looked up from a sheet showing the disassembled components of a hydroelectric turbine, with the rather blank look that indicated she was aware of being spoken to, but had not detached her mind sufficiently from the subject matter as to realize who was speaking or what they were saying. Familiar with this phenomenon, he waited with mild impatience for her mind to let go of the turbine and focus on him.

“ … gassing on … ?” she said, frowning. She blinked at him and her gaze sharpened. “Who are you gassing on to?”

“Well …” He lifted the scribbled notebook, feeling suddenly shy. “The kids, sort of.”

“You’re supposed to gas on to your kids about morality,” she said reasonably. “You’re their father; it’s your job.”

“Oh,” he said, rather at a loss. “But—I’ve done a lot of the things I’m telling them not to.” Blood. Yeah, maybe it was protection of another. Maybe it wasn’t.

She raised a thick, ruddy brow at him.

“You never heard of benign hypocrisy? I thought they teach you stuff like that when you go to minister school. Since you mention gassing away about morality. That’s a minister’s job, too, isn’t it?”

She stared at him, blue-eyed and waiting. He took a good, deep breath. Trust Bree, he thought wryly, to walk straight up to the elephant in the room and grab it by the trunk. She hadn’t said a word since their return about his near-ordination, or what he proposed to do now about his calling. Not a word, during their year in America, Mandy’s surgery, their decision to move to Scotland, the months of renovation after they’d bought Lallybroch—not until he’d opened the door. Once opened, of course, she’d walked straight through it, knocked him over, and planted a foot on his chest.

“Yeah,” he said evenly. “It is,” and stared back.

“Okay.” She smiled, very gently, at him. “So what’s the problem?”

“Bree,” he said, and felt his heart stick in his scarred throat. “If I knew, I’d tell you.”

She stood up then and put her hand on his arm, but before either of them could say more, the thump of small, bare feet came hop-skipping down the hall, and Jem’s voice came from the door of Roger’s study, saying, “Daddy?”

“Here, pal,” he called back, but Brianna was already moving toward the door. Following, he found Jem—in his blue Superman pajamas, wet hair standing up in spikes—standing by his desk, examining the letter with interest.

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