“Where ye’ll never find it,” Ian said bluntly. He was thinking furiously. He’d a knife in his belt—but it was a good deal too far to throw it, and if he missed …
“What d’ye want wi’ that wean?” he asked, moving a little closer. “He’s naught to do wi’ you.”
“No, but he seems somewhat to do wi’ you.” Herman was making rasping squeaks, and his feet, while still kicking, were slowing.
“No, he’s naught to me, either,” Ian said, striving for casualness. “I’m only helping him to find his people. Ye plan to cut his throat if I dinna tell ye where the gold is? Go ahead; I’m no telling ye.”
He didn’t see Arch pull the knife, but it was there, suddenly, in his right hand, held awkwardly because of the missing fingers, but doubtless useful enough.
“All right,” Arch said calmly, and put the point of the knife under Herman’s chin.
A scream burst from behind Ian, and Vermin half-ran, half-fell down the last few feet of the trail. Arch Bug looked up, startled, and Ian crouched to rush him, but was forestalled by Vermin.
The little boy rushed at Arch Bug and gave him a tremendous kick in the shin, shouting, “You bad old man! You let her go right now!”
Arch seemed as startled by the speech as by the kick, but didn’t let go.
“Her?” he said, and looked down at the child in his grasp, who promptly turned her—her?—head and bit him fiercely in the wrist. Ian, seizing the moment, lunged at him, but was impeded by Vermin, who had now seized Arch by the thigh and was clinging like grim death, trying to punch the old man in the balls with one small clenched fist.
With a ferocious grunt, Arch jerked the little girl—if that’s what she was—up and flung her staggering into Ian. He then brought one big fist down on top of Vermin’s head, stunning him. He shook the child off his leg, kicked the boy in the ribs as he staggered back, then turned and ran.
“Trudy, Trudy!” Herman ran for his—no, her—brother, who was lying in the leaf mold, mouth opening and closing like a landed trout.
Ian hesitated, wanting to pursue Arch, worried that Vermin might be badly hurt—but Arch was already gone, vanished into the wood. Gritting his teeth, he crouched and passed his hands rapidly over Vermin. No blood, and the wean was getting back his breath now, gulping and wheezing like a leaky bellows.
“Trudy?” Ian said to Herman, who was clinging tightly to Vermin’s neck. Not waiting for an answer, he pulled up Vermin’s ragged shirt, pulled out the waistband of his too-big breeches, and peeked inside. He let go hastily.
Herman leapt up, eyes bugged and hands clasped protectively over her—yes, her!—crotch.
“No!” she said. “I won’t let you stick your nasty prick in me!”
“Ye couldna pay me to,” Ian assured her. “If this is Trudy”—he nodded at Vermin, who had rolled up onto his—no, her—hands and knees and was vomiting into the grass—“what the devil’s your name?”
“Hermione,” the lassie said, sullen. “She’s Ermintrude.”
Ian ran a hand over his face, trying to adjust to this information. Now he looked … well, no, they still looked like filthy wee demons rather than little girls, their slitted eyes burning through the greasy, matted underbrush of their hair. They’d have to have their heads shaved, he supposed, and hoped he was nowhere in the neighborhood when it was done.
“Aye,” he said, for lack of anything sensible. “Well, then.”
“You’ve got gold?” said Ermintrude, having stopped her retching. She sat up, wiped a small hand over her mouth, and spat expertly. “Where?”
“If I wouldna tell him, why would I tell you? And ye can just forget that notion right now,” he assured her, seeing her eyes dart to the knife in his belt.
Damn. What was he to do now? He pushed away the shock of Arch Bug’s appearance—time to think of that later—and ran a hand slowly through his hair, considering. The fact that they were girls didn’t change anything, really, but the fact that they knew he had gold hidden did. He didn’t dare leave them with anyone now, because if he did …
“If you leave us, we’ll tell about the gold,” Hermione said promptly. “We don’t want to live in a stinky cabin. We want to go to London.”
“What?” He stared at her, incredulous. “What d’ye ken of London, for God’s sake?”
“Our mam came from there,” Herman—no, Hermione—said, and bit her lip to stop it trembling at mention of her mother. It was the first time she had spoken of her mother, Ian noted with interest. Let alone displayed any sign of vulnerability. “She told us about it.”
“Mmphm. And why would I no just kill ye myself?” he demanded, exasperated. To his astonishment, Herman smiled at him, the first halfway-pleasant expression he’d ever seen on her face.
“The dog likes you,” she said. “He wouldn’t like you if you killed people.”
“That’s all you know,” he muttered, and stood up. Rollo, who had been off about his own business, chose this opportune moment to saunter out of the underbrush, sniffing busily.
“And where were you when I needed ye?” Ian demanded. Rollo smelled carefully round the spot where Arch Bug had stood, then lifted his leg and urinated on a bush.
“Would that bad old man have killed Hermie?” the little one asked suddenly, as he boosted her onto the mule behind her sister.
“No,” he said, with certainty. But as he swung up into his own saddle, he wondered. He had the very uncomfortable feeling that Arch Bug understood the nature of guilt much too well. Enough to kill an innocent child, only because her death would make Ian feel guilty for it? And Ian would; Arch knew that.
“No,” he repeated more strongly. Arch Bug was both vengeful and vindictive—and had a right to be, he’d admit that. But Ian had nay grounds to think the man a monster.
Still, he made the little girls ride in front of him, until they made camp that night.
THERE WAS NO further sign of Arch Bug, though Ian felt now and then the crawling sensation of being watched, when they camped. Was the man following him? Very likely he was, Ian thought—for surely it wasn’t accident that had made him appear so suddenly.
So. He’d gone back to the ruins of the Big House, then, thinking to retrieve the gold after Uncle Jamie had left, only to find it gone. He wondered briefly whether Arch had managed to kill the white sow, but dismissed that notion; his uncle said the creature was plainly from the infernal regions and thus indestructible, and he was himself inclined to believe it.
He glanced at Rollo, who was dozing by his feet, but the dog gave no sign that anyone was near, though his ears were half cocked. Ian relaxed a little, though he kept the knife on his person, even while sleeping.
Not entirely in respect of Arch Bug, marauders, or wild beasts, either. He looked across the fire, to where Hermione and Trudy lay rolled up together in his blank—only they weren’t. The blanket was cunningly wadded so as to appear to contain bodies, but a gust of wind had pulled a corner loose, and he could see that it lay flat.
He closed his eyes in exasperation, then opened them and glanced down at the dog.
“Why did ye no say something?” he demanded. “Surely ye saw them leave!”
“We ain’t gone,” said a gruff, small voice behind him, and he whirled to find the two of them crouched on either side of his open saddlebag, busily rifling it for food.
“We ’uz hungry,” said Trudy, matter-of-factly stuffing the remains of a journeycake into her face.
“I fed ye!” He’d shot a few quail and baked them in mud. Granted, it wasn’t a feast, but—
“We’s still hungry,” Hermione said, with impeccable logic. She licked her fingers and burped.
“Have ye drunk all the beer?” he demanded, snatching up a stone bottle rolling near her feet.
“Mmm-hmm,” she said dreamily, and sat down, quite suddenly.
“Ye canna be thieving food,” he said severely, taking the depleted saddlebag from Trudy. “If ye eat it all now, we’ll be starving before I get ye to—wherever we’re going,” he ended, rather weakly.
“If we don’t eat it, we’ll starve now,” Trudy said logically. “Best starve later.”
“Where are we going?” Hermione was swaying gently to and fro, like a small filthy flower in the wind.
“To Cross Creek,” he said. “It’s the first good-sized town we’ll come to, and I ken folk there.” Whether he knew anyone who might be of help in this present circumstance … too bad about his great-auntie Jocasta. Were she still at River Run, he could easily have left the girls there, but as it was, Jocasta and her husband, Duncan, had immigrated to Nova Scotia. There was Jocasta’s body slave, Phaedre … He thought she was employed as a barmaid in Wilmington. But, no, she couldn’t—
“Is it as big as London?” Hermione collapsed gently onto her back and lay with her arms spread out. Rollo got up and came and sniffed her; she giggled—the first innocent sound he’d heard from her.
“You all right, Hermie?” Trudy scampered over to her sister and squatted next to her in concern. Rollo, having smelled Hermione thoroughly, turned his attention to Trudy, who merely pushed aside his inquisitive nose. Hermione was now humming tunelessly to herself.
“She’s fine,” Ian said, after a quick glance. “She’s no but a bit drunk. It’ll pass.”
“Oh.” Reassured, Trudy sat down next to her sister, hugging her knees. “Pap used to get drunk. He hollered and broke things, though.”
“Uh-huh. He broke my mam’s nose once.”
“Oh,” Ian said, having no idea how to answer this. “Too bad.”
“You think he’s dead?”
“I hope so.”
“Me, too,” she said, satisfied. She yawned hugely—he could smell her rotting teeth from where he sat—and then curled herself on the ground, cuddling close to Hermione.
Sighing, Ian got up and fetched the blanket, and covered them both, tucking it gently round their small, limp bodies.
Now what? He wondered. The recent exchange was the closest thing he’d had yet to an actual conversation with the girls, and he was under no illusions that their brief foray into amiability would last past daylight. Where would he find someone willing and able to deal with them?
A tiny snore, like the buzzing of a bee’s wings, came from the blanket, and he smiled involuntarily. Wee Mandy, Bree’s daughter, had made a noise like that when she slept.
He’d held Mandy, sleeping, now and then—once for more than an hour, not wanting to surrender the tiny, warm weight, watching the flicker of the pulse in her throat. Imagining, with longing and a pain tempered by distance, his own daughter. Stillborn, her face a mystery to him. Yeksa’a, the Mohawk had called her—“little girl,” too young to have a name. But she did have a name. Iseabaìl. That’s what he’d called her.
He wrapped himself in the ragged plaid Uncle Jamie had given him when he’d chosen to be a Mohawk and lay down by the fire.
Pray. That’s what his uncle, his parents, would have advised. He was unsure who to pray to, really, or what to say. Should he speak to Christ, or His mother, or perhaps one of the saints? The spirit of the red cedar that stood sentinel beyond the fire, or the life that moved in the wood, whispering on the night breeze?
“A Dhia,” he whispered at last to the open sky, “cuidich mi,” and slept.
Whether it was God or the night itself who answered him, at dawn he woke with a notion.
HE’D BEEN EXPECTING the walleyed maid, but Mrs. Sylvie came to the door herself. She recalled him; he saw a flicker of recognition and—he thought—pleasure in her eyes, though it didn’t go so far as a smile, of course.
“Mr. Murray,” she said, cool and calm. She looked down then, and lost a trifle of her composure. She pushed the wire-rimmed spectacles up on her nose for a better look at what accompanied him, then raised her head and fixed him with suspicion.
He’d been expecting this reaction and was ready for it. Without answering, he held up the fat wee pouch he’d made ready and shook it, so she could hear the metal clink inside.
Her face changed at that, and she stood back to let them in, though she went on looking wary.
Not so wary as the little heathens—he still had trouble thinking of them as girls—who hung back until he took them each by a scrawny neck and propelled them firmly into Mrs. Sylvie’s parlor. They sat—under compulsion—but looked as though they had something in mind, and he kept a beady gaze on them, even as he talked with the proprietor of the establishment.
“Maids?” she said, in open disbelief, looking at the girls. He’d washed them in their clothes—forcibly, and had several bites to show for it, though luckily none had festered yet—but there had been nothing to do about their hair save chop it off, and he wasn’t about to come near either one with a knife, for fear of injuring them or himself in the subsequent struggle. They sat and glared through the mats of their hair like gargoyles, red-eyed and malignant.
“Well, they dinna want to be whores,” he said mildly. “And I dinna want them to be, either. Not that I’ve any objection to the profession personally,” he added for the sake of politeness.
A muscle twitched by her mouth and she shot him a sharp glance—tinged with amusement—through her spectacles.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said dryly. And dropped her eyes to his feet and raised them slowly, almost appraisingly, up the length of his body in a way that made him feel suddenly as though he’d been dipped in hot water. The eyes came to rest on his face again, and the look of amusement had intensified considerably.