An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 127

   

He won’t get back, she thought, and the ice rose up around her heart.

LOCH ERROCHTY LAY dull as pewter under a lowering sky. They were standing on the footbridge across Alt Ruighe nan Saorach, the river that fed the loch, looking down to where the man-made loch spread itself between the smooth hills. Buck—he’d said that was what folk called him in America, and he’d got used to it—looked and looked, his face a study in amazement and dismay.

“Down there,” he said softly, pointing. “See where that wee burn comes down into it? That’s where my auntie Ross’s house stood. About a hundred feet below the burn.”

About thirty feet below the surface of the loch now.

“I imagine it’s something of a wrench,” Brianna said, not without sympathy. “To see things so changed.”

“It is that.” He glanced at her, those eyes, so unsettlingly like Roger’s, quick in his face. “It’s maybe more that so much hasna changed. Up there, aye?” He lifted his chin toward the distant mountains. “Just like they always were. And the wee birds in the grass, and the salmon jumping in the river. I could set foot on yon shore”—he nodded toward the end of the footbridge— “and feel as though I had walked there yesterday. I did walk there yesterday! And yet… all the people are gone.

“All of them,” he ended softly. “Morag. My children. They’re all dead. Unless I can go back.”

She hadn’t planned to ask him anything; better to wait until she and Roger could talk to him together in the evening after the kids were down. But the opportunity offered itself. Roger had driven Buck around the Highlands near Lallybroch, down the Great Glen along Loch Ness, and finally dropped him off at the Loch Errochty dam, where she was working today; she’d drive him back with her for supper.

They’d argued—in whispers—about it the night before. Not about what to say about him; he’d be Daddy’s relative, come for a short visit. That was the truth, after all. But whether to take him into the tunnel. Roger had been in favor of this, she very much against, remembering the shock of the… timeline?… cutting through her like a sharpened wire. She still hadn’t decided.

But now he’d brought up the subject of going back, on his own.

“When you came to yourself after you… came through, and realized what had happened,” she asked curiously, “why didn’t you go back into the circle right then?”

He shrugged.

“I did. Though I canna say that I realized straight off what had happened. I didna come to that for some days. But I kent something terrible had happened and the stones were to do wi’ it. So I was wary of them, as I imagine ye can understand.” He quirked an eyebrow at her, and she nodded reluctantly.

She could understand. She wouldn’t go within a mile of a standing stone herself, unless it was to save some member of her family from a horrible fate. And even then she might think twice. She dismissed the thought, though, and returned to her interrogation.

“But you did go back, you said. What happened?”

He looked helplessly at her, spreading his hands.

“I dinna ken how to describe it to ye. Nothing like that’s ever happened to me before.”

“Try,” she suggested, hardening her voice, and he sighed.

“Aye. Well, I walked up to the circle, and this time I could hear them—the stones. Talking to themselves, like, buzzing like a hive of bees, and with a sound in it made the hairs stand up on my nape.”

He’d wanted to turn and run then, but with thought of Morag and Jemmy in his mind, had determined to push on. He’d walked into the center of the circle, where the sound assailed him from all sides.

“I thought I’d lose my mind from it,” he said frankly. “Putting my fingers in my ears did nay good at all; it was inside me, like as if ’twas comin’ from my bones. Was it like that for you?” he asked suddenly, peering at her curiously.

“Yes, it was,” she answered shortly. “Or close enough. Go on. What did you do then?”

He’d seen the big cleft stone he’d gone through the first time and, taking as deep a breath as he could hold, had lunged through it.

“And ye can skin me for a liar if ye like,” he assured her. “I canna for the life of me tell ye what happened next, but after it did, I was lyin’ on the grass in the midst of the stones, and I was on fire.”

She looked at him, startled.

“Literally? I mean, were your clothes burning, or was it just—”

“I ken what ‘literally’ means,” he said, with an edge in his voice. “I may not be what you are, but I was educated.”

“Sorry.” She made a small apologetic nod and gestured to him to go on.

“Anyway, aye, I was literally on fire. My shirt was in flames. Here—” He unzipped his wind-cheater and fumbled with the buttons of Roger’s blue cambric shirt, pulling the edges apart to show her the sprawling reddish mark of a healing burn on his chest. He would have buttoned it again at once, but she motioned him not to and bent to look closer. It seemed to be centered on his heart. Was that significant? she wondered.

“Thank you,” she said, straightening up. “What—what were you thinking about when you went through?”

He stared at her.

“I was thinking I wanted to get back, what else?”

“Yes, of course. But were you thinking of someone in particular? Of Morag, I mean, or your Jem?”

The most extraordinary expression—shame? embarrassment?—crossed his face, and he looked away.

“I was,” he said briefly, and she knew he lied but couldn’t think why. He coughed and went on hurriedly.

“Well, so. I rolled upon the grass to put it out, and then I was sick. I lay there for a good while, not having the strength to rise. I dinna ken how long, but a long time. Ye ken what it’s like here, close to Midsummer Day? That milky light when ye canna see the sun, but it’s not really set?”

“The summer dim,” she murmured. “Aye—I mean, yes, I know. So did you try again?”

It was shame now. The sun was low and the clouds glowed a dull orange that washed loch and hills and bridge in a sullen flush, but it was still possible to make out the darker flush that spread across his broad cheekbones.

“No,” he muttered. “I was afraid.”

Despite her distrust of him and her lingering anger over what he’d done to Roger, she felt an involuntary spurt of sympathy at the admission. After all, both she and Roger had known, more or less, what they were getting into. He hadn’t expected what happened at all and still knew almost nothing.

“I would have been, too,” she said. “Did you—”

A shout from behind interrupted her, and she turned to see Rob Cameron bounding along the riverbank. He waved and came up onto the bridge, puffing a little from the run.

“Hi, boss,” he said, grinning at her. “Saw ye on my way out. If ye’re off the clock, I thought would ye fancy a drink on the way home? And your friend, too, of course,” he added, with a friendly nod toward William Buccleigh.

With that, of course, she had no alternative but to introduce them, passing Buck off with their agreed-on story: Roger’s relative, staying with them, just in town briefly. She politely declined the offer of a drink, saying that she must get home for the kids’ supper.

“Another time, then,” Rob said lightly. “Nice to meet ye, pal.” He bounded off again, light-footed as a gazelle, and she turned to find William Buccleigh looking after him with narrowed eye.

“What?” she demanded.

“Yon man’s got a hot eye for you,” he said abruptly, turning to her. “Does your husband know?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, just as abruptly. Her heart had sped up at his words, and she didn’t like it. “I work with him. He’s in the lodge with Roger, and they talk about old songs. That’s all.”

He made one of those Scottish noises that can convey all manner of indelicate meaning and shook his head.

“I may not be what you are,” he repeated, smiling unpleasantly. “But I’m no a fool, either.”

ONE EWE LAMB RETURNS TO THE FOLD

November 24, 1777

Philadelphia

LORD JOHN GREY desperately needed a valet. He had employed a person so described but found the man worse than useless, and a thief to boot. He had discovered the erstwhile valet slipping teaspoons down his breeches and had—after forcibly extracting the spoons—dismissed him. He should, he supposed, have had the man arrested, but really was not sure what the local constable would do if summoned by a British officer.

Most of the British prisoners of war had been taken out of the city as Howe’s army advanced, the Americans wishing to keep them for exchange. Henry had not.

He brushed his own uniform, grimly considering. He wore it daily now, as protection for Dottie and Henry. He had not been an actively serving officer for years but, unlike most men in that position, had not resigned his lieutenant-colonel’s commission, either. He wasn’t sure what Hal would have done had he tried to resign, but since it was a commission in Hal’s own regiment and Grey didn’t need to sell it, the point was moot.

One of the buttons was loose. He took the hussif out of his kit, threaded a needle without squinting, and whipped the button tightly to the coat. The action gave him a small feeling of satisfaction, though acknowledging it made him admit just how little he felt he could control these days—so little that sewing on a button should seem cause for satisfaction.

He frowned at himself in the glass and twitched irritably at the gold lace on his coat, which was tarnished in places. He did know what to do about that, but damned if he was going to sit polishing it up with a lump of urine-soaked bread. Knowing General Sir William Howe as he did, he doubted that his own appearance would affect his reception, even should he roll up to Howe’s headquarters in a sedan chair with his head wrapped in a Turkish turban. Howe frequently didn’t bathe or change his linen for a month or more—and not only when in the field.

Still. It would have to be an army surgeon, and Grey wanted his pick of them. He grimaced at the thought. He had known too many army surgeons, some of them at unpleasantly close range. But Howe’s army had come into the city in late September. It was mid-November now, the occupation was well established, and with it a general animus among the citizenry.

Those physicians of a rebellious bent had either left the city or would have nothing to do with a British officer. Those with Loyalist sympathies would have been more than happy to oblige him—he was invited to many parties given by the wealthy Loyalists of the city and had been introduced to two or three physicians there—but he had found none with any reputation for surgery. One dealt mostly with cases of venereal disease, another was an accoucheur, and the third was plainly a quacksalver of the worst sort.

So he was bound for Howe’s headquarters, to beg assistance. He couldn’t wait any longer; Henry had held his own and even seemed to gain a bit of strength with the cooling of the weather. Better it was done now, to give him a chance to heal a little before the winter came with its chill and the fetid squalor of closed houses.

Ready, he buckled on his sword and stepped out into the street. There was a soldier, half bowed under a heavy rucksack, walking slowly along the street toward him, looking at the houses. He barely glanced at the man as he came down the steps—but a glance was enough. He looked again, incredulous, and then ran down the street, heedless of hat, gold lace, sword, or dignity, and seized the tall young soldier in his arms.

“Willie!”

“Papa!”

His heart overflowed in a most remarkable way; he could seldom remember being so happy but did his best to contain it, not wanting to embarrass Willie with unmanly excesses of emotion. He didn’t let go of his son but stood back a little, looking him up and down.

“You’re… dirty,” he said, unable to repress a large, foolish grin. “Very dirty indeed.” He was. Also tattered and threadbare. He still wore his officer’s gorget, but his stock was missing, as were several buttons, and one cuff of his coat was torn quite away.

“I have lice, too,” Willie assured him, scratching. “Is there any food?”

“Yes, of course. Come in, come in.” He took the rucksack off Willie’s shoulder and beckoned him to follow. “Dottie!” he shouted up the stairs as he pushed open the door. “Dottie! Come down!”

“I am down,” his niece said behind him, coming out of the day parlor, where she was accustomed to breakfast. She had a piece of buttered toast in her hand. “What do you—oh, Willie!”

Disregarding questions of filth and lice, William swept her up in his arms, and she dropped the toast on the carpet and squeezed him round the body, laughing and crying, until he protested that she had cracked all his ribs and he should never breathe easy again.

Grey stood watching this with the utmost benevolence, even though they had quite trampled the buttered toast into the rented carpet. They really did appear to love each other, he reflected. Maybe he’d been wrong. He coughed politely, which did not disentangle them but did at least make Dottie look blankly over her shoulder at him.

“I’ll go and order some breakfast for William, shall I?” he said. “Take him into the parlor, why don’t you, my dear, and give him a dish of tea.”

“Tea,” Willie breathed, his face assuming the beatific air of one beholding—or being told about—some prodigious miracle. “I haven’t had tea in weeks. Months!”

Grey went out to the cookhouse, this standing at a little distance behind the house proper so that the latter should not be destroyed when—not if—something caught fire and burned the cookhouse to the ground. Appetizing smells of fried meat and stewed fruit and fresh bread floated out of this ramshackle structure.

Loading...