An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 161

   

“A standing c**k is quite blind, my dear,” he said at last, eyes still shut. “Surely you know that, physician that you are.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do know that.” And taking him gently but firmly in hand, I dealt with him in tender silence, avoiding any thought of whom he might see in his mind’s eye.

COLENSO BARAGWANATH ran as though his boot heels were on fire. He burst into the Fox tavern near the foot of State Street, and barreled through the taproom into the cardroom at the back.

“They found him,” he panted. “The ol’ man. Ax. With the ax.”

Captain Lord Ellesmere was already rising to his feet. To Colenso, he looked some eight feet tall, and awful in aspect. The place where the doctor had stitched his head was bristly with new hair, but the black stitching still showed. His eyes might have been shooting flames, but Colenso was afraid to look too closely. His chest heaved from running and he was out of breath, but he couldn’t have thought of a thing to say, even so.

“Where?” said the captain. He spoke very softly, but Colenso heard him and backed toward the door, pointing. The captain picked up the pair of pistols he had laid aside, and putting them in his belt, came toward him.

“Show me,” he said.

RACHEL SAT ON the tall stool behind the printshop’s counter, head on her hand. She’d wakened with a sense of pressure in her head, probably from the impending storm, and it had ripened into a throbbing headache. She would rather have gone back to Friend John’s house, to see if Claire might have a tea that would help, but she’d promised Marsali that she would come and mind the shop while her friend took the children to the cobbler to have their shoes mended and Henri-Christian fitted for a pair of boots, for his feet were too short and wide to fit his sisters’ outgrown shoes.

At least the shop was quiet. Only one or two folk had come in, and only one of those had spoken to her—asking the way to Slip Alley. She rubbed her stiff neck, sighing, and let her eyes close. Marsali would be back soon. Then she could go and lie down with a wet rag on her head, and—

The bell above the printshop door went ting! and she straightened up, a welcoming smile forming on her face. She saw the visitor and the smile died.

“Leave,” she said, scrambling off the stool, measuring the distance between her and the door into the house. “Leave this minute.” If she could get through, and out the back—

“Stand still,” said Arch Bug, in a voice like rusty iron.

“I know what thee means to do,” she said, backing up a step. “And I do not blame thee for thy grief, thy rage. But thee must know it is not right what thee intend, the Lord cannot wish thee to—”

“Be quiet, lass,” he said, and his eyes rested on her with an odd sort of gentleness. “Not yet. We’ll wait for him.”

“For … him?”

“Aye, him.” With that, he lunged across the counter and seized her arm. She screamed and struggled but could not get loose, and he flipped up the flap in the counter and dragged her through, pushing her hard against the table of books so that the stacks wobbled and fell with papery thumps.

“Thee cannot hope to—”

“I have nay hope,” he interrupted, quite calm. The ax was in his belt; she saw it, bare and silver. “I need none.”

“Thee will surely die,” she said, and made no effort to keep her voice from trembling. “The soldiers will take thee.”

“Oh, aye, they will.” His face softened a little then, surprisingly. “I shall see my wife again.”

“I could not counsel suicide,” she said, edging as far away as she could get. “But if thee does intend to die in any case, why does thee insist upon—upon staining thy death, thy soul, with violence?”

“Ye think vengeance a stain?” The beetling white brows lifted. “It is a glory, lass. My glory, my duty to my wife.”

“Well, certainly not mine,” she said heatedly. “Why should I be forced to serve thy beastly vengeance? I have done nothing to thee or thine!”

He wasn’t listening. Not to her, at least. He had turned a little, his hand going to his ax, and smiled at the sound of racing footsteps.

“Ian!” she shrieked. “Don’t come in!!”

He came in, of course. She grasped a book and flung it at the old man’s head, but he dodged it easily and grabbed her by the wrist once more, his ax in hand.

“Let her go,” said Ian, hoarse with running. His chest heaved and sweat was running down his face; she could smell him, even above the old man’s musty reek. She jerked her hand out of Arch Bug’s clasp, speechless with horror.

“Don’t kill him,” she said, to both of them. Neither of them listened.

“I told ye, did I not?” Arch said to Ian. He sounded reasonable, a teacher pointing out the proof of a theorem. Quod erat demonstrandum. Q.E.D.

“Get away from her,” Ian said.

His hand hovered above his knife, and Rachel, choking on the words, said, “Ian! Don’t. Thee must not. Please!”

Ian gave her a look of furious confusion, but she held his eyes, and his hand dropped away. He took a deep breath and then a quick step to the side. Bug whirled to keep him in range of the ax, and Ian slid fast in front of Rachel, screening her with his body.

“Kill me, then,” he said deliberately to Bug. “Do it.”

“No!” Rachel said. “That is not what I—no!”

“Come here, lass,” Arch said, and put out his good hand, beckoning. “Dinna be afraid. I’ll make it fast.”

Ian shoved her hard, so she slammed into the wall and knocked her head, and braced himself before her, crouched and waiting. Unarmed, because she’d asked it.

“Ye’ll f**king kill me first,” he said, in a conversational tone.

“No,” said Arch Bug. “Ye’ll wait your turn.” The old eyes measured him, cold and clever, and the ax moved a little, eager.

Rachel shut her eyes and prayed, finding no words but praying all the same, in a frenzy of fear. She heard a sound and opened them.

A long gray blur shot through the air, and in an instant, Arch Bug was on the ground, Rollo on top of him, snarling and snapping at the old man’s throat. Old he might be but still hale, and he had the strength of desperation. His good hand seized the dog’s throat, pushing back, holding off the slavering jaws, and a long, sinewy arm flung out, ax gripped in a maimed fist, and rose.

“No!” Ian dove forward, knocking Rollo aside, grappling for the hand that held the ax, but it was too late; the blade came down with a chunk! that made Rachel’s vision go white, and Ian screamed.

She was moving before she could see, and screamed herself when a hand suddenly seized her shoulder and hurled her backward. She hit the wall and slid down it, landing winded and openmouthed. There was a writhing ball of limbs, fur, clothes, and blood on the floor before her. A random shoe cracked against her ankle and she scuttled away crabwise, staring.

There seemed to be blood everywhere. Spattered against the counter and the wall, smeared on the floor, and the back of Ian’s shirt was soaked with red and clinging so she saw the muscles of his back straining beneath it. He was kneeling half atop a struggling Arch Bug, grappling one-handed for the ax, his left arm hanging limp, and Arch was stabbing at his face with stiffened fingers, trying to blind him, while Rollo darted eellike and bristling into the mass of straining limbs, growling and snapping. Fixed on this spectacle, she was only dimly aware of someone standing behind her but looked up, uncomprehending, when his foot touched her bum.

“Is there something about you that attracts men with axes?” William asked crossly. He sighted carefully along his pistol’s barrel, and fired.

REDIVIVUS

I WAS PINNING up my hair for tea when there was a scratch at the bedroom door.

“Come,” John called, in the act of pulling on his boots. The door opened cautiously, revealing the odd little Cornish boy who sometimes served as William’s orderly. He said something to John, in what I assumed to be English, and handed him a note. John nodded kindly and dismissed him.

“Could you understand what he said?” I asked curiously, as he broke the seal with his thumb.

“Who? Oh, Colenso? No, not a word,” he said absently, and pursed his lips in a soundless whistle at whatever he was reading.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A note from Colonel Graves,” he said, carefully refolding it. I wonder if—”

There was another knock at the door, and John frowned at it.

“Not now,” he said. “Come back later.”

“Well, I would,” said a polite voice in a Scottish accent. “But there’s some urgency, ken?”

The door opened, and Jamie stepped in, closing it behind him. He saw me, stood stock-still for an instant, and then I was in his arms, the overwhelming warmth and size of him blotting out in an instant everything around me.

I didn’t know where my blood had gone. Every drop had left my head, and flickering lights danced before my eyes—but none of it was supplying my legs, which had abruptly dissolved under me.

Jamie was holding me up and kissing me, tasting of beer and his beard stubble rasping my face, his fingers buried in my hair, and my br**sts warmed and swelled against his chest.

“Oh, there it is,” I murmured.

“What?” he asked, breaking off for a moment.

“My blood.” I touched my tingling lips. “Do that again.”

“Oh, I will,” he assured me. “But there are a number of English soldiers in the neighborhood, and I think—”

The sound of pounding came from below, and reality snapped back into place like a rubber band. I stared at him and sat down very suddenly, my heart pounding like a drum.

“Why the bloody hell aren’t you dead?”

He lifted one shoulder in a brief shrug, the corner of his mouth turning up. He was very thin, brown-faced, and dirty; I could smell his sweat and the grime of long-worn clothes. And the faint whiff of vomit—he’d not been long off a boat.

“Delay for a few seconds longer, Mr. Fraser, and you may well go back to being dead.” John had gone to the window, peering down into the street. He turned, and I saw that his face was pale but glowing like a candle.

“Aye? They were a bit faster than I thought, then,” Jamie said ruefully, going to look out. He turned from the window and smiled. “It’s good to see ye, John—if only for the moment.”

John’s answering smile lit his eyes. He reached out a hand and touched Jamie’s arm, very briefly, as though wishing to assure himself that he was in fact solid.

“Yes,” he said, reaching then for the door. “But come. Down the back stair. Or there’s a hatchway to the attic—if you can get onto the roof—”

Jamie looked at me, his heart in his eyes.

“I’ll come back,” he said. “When I can.” He lifted a hand toward me but stopped with a grimace, turned abruptly to follow John, and they were gone, the sound of their footsteps nearly drowned by the noises from downstairs. I heard the door open below and a rough male voice demanding entrance. Mrs. Figg, bless her intransigent little heart, was having none of it.

I’d been sitting like Lot’s wife, shocked into immobility, but at the sound of Mrs. Figg’s rich expletives was galvanized into action.

My mind was so stunned by the events of the last five minutes that it was, paradoxically, quite clear. There was simply no room in it for thoughts, speculations, relief, joy, or even worry—the only mental faculty I still possessed, apparently, was the ability to respond to an emergency. I snatched my cap, crammed it on my head, and started for the door, stuffing my hair up into it as I went. Mrs. Figg and I together could surely delay the soldiers long enough…

This scheme would probably have worked, save that, as I rushed out onto the landing, I ran into Willie—literally, as he came bounding up the stair and collided heavily with me.

“Mother Claire! Where’s Papa? There are—” He had seized me by the arms as I reeled backward, but his concern for me was superseded by a sound from the hall beyond the landing. He glanced toward the sound—then let go of me, his eyes bulging.

Jamie stood at the end of the hall, some ten feet away; John stood beside him, white as a sheet, and his eyes bulging as much as Willie’s were. This resemblance to Willie, striking as it was, was completely overwhelmed by Jamie’s own resemblance to the Ninth Earl of Ellesmere. William’s face had hardened and matured, losing all trace of childish softness, and from both ends of the short hall, deep blue Fraser cat-eyes stared out of the bold, solid bones of the MacKenzies. And Willie was old enough to shave on a daily basis; he knew what he looked like.

Willie’s mouth worked, soundless with shock. He looked wildly at me, back at Jamie, back at me—and saw the truth in my face.

“Who are you?” he said hoarsely, wheeling on Jamie.

I saw Jamie draw himself slowly upright, ignoring the noise below.

“James Fraser,” he said. His eyes were fixed on William with a burning intensity, as though to absorb every vestige of a sight he would not see again. “Ye kent me once as Alex MacKenzie. At Helwater.”

William blinked, blinked again, and his gaze shifted momentarily to John.

“And who—who the bloody hell am I?” he demanded, the end of the question rising in a squeak.

John opened his mouth, but it was Jamie who answered.

“You are a stinking Papist,” he said, very precisely, “and your baptismal name is James.” The ghost of regret crossed his face and then was gone. “It was the only name I had a right to give ye,” he said quietly, eyes on his son. “I’m sorry.”

Willie’s left hand slapped at his hip, reflexively looking for a sword. Finding nothing, he slapped at his chest. His hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t manage buttons; he simply seized the fabric and ripped open his shirt, reached in and fumbled for something. He pulled it over his head and, in the same motion, hurled the object at Jamie.

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