An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 4

   

He felt as though every hair on his body was standing on end like an insect’s antennae, alert for danger.

“We would require something more than the suggestion, of course,” he said, very cool. “The name of the officer in question, for example.”

“Not mine to share, at the moment. But once a negotiation in good faith is opened …”

Grey was already wondering to whom he should take this offer. Not Sir George Germain. Lord North’s office? That could wait, though.

“And your personal interests?” he asked, with an edge. He knew Percy Wainwright well enough to know that there would be some aspect of the affair to Percy’s personal benefit.

“Ah, that.” Percy sipped at his wine, then lowered the glass and gazed limpidly at Grey across it. “Very simple, really. I am commissioned to find a man. Do you know a Scottish gentleman named James Fraser?”

Grey felt the stem of his glass crack. He went on holding it, though, and sipped the wine carefully, thanking God, firstly, that he had never told Percy Jamie Fraser’s name and, secondly, that Fraser had left Wilmington that afternoon.

“No,” he said calmly. “What do you want with this Mr. Fraser?”

Percy shrugged, and smiled.

“Only a question or two.”

Grey could feel blood seeping from his lacerated palm. Holding the cracked glass carefully together, he drank the rest of his wine. Percy was quiet, drinking with him.

“My condolences upon the loss of your wife,” Percy said quietly. “I know that she—”

“You know nothing,” Grey said roughly. He leaned over and set the broken glass on the table; the bowl rolled crazily, the lees of wine washing the glass. “Not one thing. About my wife, or about me.”

Percy lifted his shoulders in the faintest of Gallic shrugs. As you like, it said. And yet his eyes—they were still beautiful, damn him, dark and soft—rested on Grey with what seemed a genuine sympathy.

Grey sighed. Doubtless it was genuine. Percy could not be trusted—not ever—but what he’d done had been done from weakness, not from malice, or even lack of feeling.

“What do you want?” he repeated.

“Your son—” Percy began, and Grey turned suddenly on him. He gripped Percy’s shoulder, hard enough that the man gave a little gasp and stiffened. Grey leaned down, looking into Wainwright’s—sorry, Beauchamp’s—face, so close that he felt the warmth of the man’s breath on his cheek and smelled his cologne. He was getting blood on Wainwright’s coat.

“The last time I saw you,” Grey said, very quietly, “I came within an inch of putting a bullet through your head. Don’t give me cause to regret my restraint.”

He let go and stood up.

“Stay away from my son—stay away from me. And if you will take a well-meant bit of advice—go back to France. Quickly.”

Turning on his heel, he went out, shutting the door firmly behind him. He was halfway down the street before he realized that he had left Percy in his own room.

“The devil with it,” he muttered, and stamped off to beg a billet for the night from Sergeant Cutter. In the morning, he would make sure that the Fraser family and William were all safely out of Wilmington.

AND SOMETIMES THEY AREN’T

Lallybroch

Inverness-shire, Scotland

September 1980

WE ARE ALIVE,” Brianna MacKenzie repeated, her voice tremulous. She looked up at Roger, the paper pressed to her chest with both hands. Her face streamed with tears, but a glorious light glowed in her blue eyes. “Alive!”

“Let me see.” His heart was hammering so hard in his chest that he could barely hear his own words. He reached out a hand, and reluctantly she surrendered the paper to him, coming at once to press herself against him, clinging to his arm as he read, unable to take her eyes off the bit of ancient paper.

It was pleasantly rough under his fingers, handmade paper with the ghosts of leaves and flowers pressed into its fibers. Yellowed with age, but still tough and surprisingly flexible. Bree had made it herself—more than two hundred years before.

Roger became aware that his hands were trembling, the paper shaking so that the sprawling, difficult hand was hard to read, faded as the ink was.

December 31, 1776

My dear daughter,

As you will see if ever you receive this, we are alive …

His own eyes blurred, and he wiped the back of his hand across them, even as he told himself that it didn’t matter, for they were surely dead now, Jamie Fraser and his wife, Claire—but he felt such joy at those words on the page that it was as though the two of them stood smiling before him.

It was the two of them, too, he discovered. While the letter began in Jamie’s hand—and voice—the second page took up in Claire’s crisply slanted writing.

Your father’s hand won’t stand much more. And it’s a bloody long story. He’s been chopping wood all day, and can barely uncurl his fingers—but he insisted on telling you himself that we haven’t—yet—been burnt to ashes. Not but what we may be at any moment; there are fourteen people crammed into the old cabin, and I’m writing this more or less sitting in the hearth, with old Grannie MacLeod wheezing away on her pallet by my feet so that if she suddenly begins to die, I can pour more whisky down her throat.

“My God, I can hear her,” he said, amazed.

“So can I.” Tears were still coursing down Bree’s face, but it was a sun-shower; she wiped at them, laughing and sniffing. “Read more. Why are they in our cabin? What’s happened to the Big House?”

Roger ran his finger down the page to find his place and resumed reading.

“Oh, Jesus!” he said.

You recall that idiot, Donner?

Gooseflesh ran up his arms at the name. A time-traveler, Donner. And one of the most feckless individuals he’d ever met or heard of—but nonetheless dangerous for that.

Well, he surpassed himself by getting together a gang of thugs from Brownsville to come and steal the treasure in gems he’d convinced them we had. Only we hadn’t, of course.

They hadn’t—because he, Brianna, Jemmy, and Amanda had taken the small hoard of remaining gemstones to safeguard their flight through the stones.

They held us hostage and rubbished the house, damn them—breaking, amongst other things, the carboy of ether in my surgery. The fumes nearly gassed all of us on the spot …

He read rapidly through the rest of the letter, Brianna peering over his shoulder and making small squeaks of alarm and dismay. Finished, he laid the pages down and turned to her, his insides quivering.

“So you did it,” he said, aware that he shouldn’t say it, but unable not to, unable not to snort with laughter. “You and your bloody matches—you burned the house down!”

Her face was a study, features shifting between horror, indignation—and, yes, a hysterical hilarity that matched his own.

“Oh, it was not! It was Mama’s ether. Any kind of spark could have set off the explosion—”

“But it wasn’t any kind of spark,” Roger pointed out. “Your cousin Ian lit one of your matches.”

“Well, so it was Ian’s fault, then!”

“No, it was you and your mother. Scientific women,” Roger said, shaking his head. “The eighteenth century is lucky to have survived you.”

She huffed a little.

“Well, the whole thing would never have happened if it weren’t for that bozo Donner!”

“True,” Roger conceded. “But he was a troublemaker from the future, too, wasn’t he? Though admittedly neither a woman nor very scientific.”

“Hmph.” She took the letter, handling it gently, but unable to forbear rubbing the pages between her fingers. “Well, he didn’t survive the eighteenth century, did he?” Her eyes were downcast, their lids still reddened.

“You aren’t feeling sorry for him, are you?” Roger demanded, incredulous.

She shook her head, but her fingers still moved lightly over the thick, soft page.

“Not … him, so much. It’s just—the idea of anybody dying like that. Alone, I mean. So far from home.”

No, it wasn’t Donner she was thinking of. He put an arm round her and laid his head against her own. She smelled of Prell shampoo and fresh cabbages; she’d been in the kailyard. The words on the page faded and strengthened with the dip of the pen that had written them, but nonetheless were sharp and clear—a surgeon’s writing.

“She isn’t alone,” he whispered, and putting out a finger, traced the postscript, again in Jamie’s sprawling hand. “Neither of them is. And whether they’ve a roof above their heads or not—both of them are home.”

I PUT BY THE LETTER. Time enough to finish it later, I thought. I’d been working on it as time allowed over the last few days; not as though there was any rush to catch the outgoing mail, after all. I smiled a little at that, and folded the sheets carefully, putting them in my new workbag for safekeeping. I wiped the quill and put it aside, then rubbed my aching fingers, savoring for a little longer the sweet sense of connection the writing gave me. I could write much more easily than Jamie could, but flesh and blood had its limits, and it had been a very long day.

I looked over at the pallet on the far side of the fire, as I had been doing every few minutes, but she was still quiet. I could hear her breath, a wheezing gurgle that came at intervals so long that I could swear she had died between each one. She hadn’t, though, and from my estimation wouldn’t for a while. I was hoping that she would, before my limited supply of laudanum gave out.

I didn’t know how old she was; she looked a hundred or so, but might be younger than I. Her two grandsons, boys in their teens, had brought her in two days before. They had been traveling down from the mountains, meaning to take their grandmother to relatives in Cross Creek before heading to Wilmington to join the militia there, but the grandmother had “been took bad,” as they put it, and someone had told them there was a conjure-woman on the Ridge nearby. So they had brought her to me.

Grannie MacLeod—I had no other name for her; the boys had not thought to tell me before departing, and she was in no condition to do so herself—almost certainly was in the terminal stages of a cancer of some kind. Her flesh had wasted, her face pinched with pain even while unconscious, and I could see it in the grayness of her skin.

The fire was burning low; I should stir it, and add another stick of pine. Jamie’s head was resting against my knee, though. Could I reach the woodpile without disturbing him? I put a light hand on his shoulder for balance and stretched, just getting my fingers on the end of a small log. I wiggled this gently free, teeth set in my lower lip, and managed by leaning to poke it into the hearth, breaking up the drifts of red-black embers and raising clouds of sparks.

Jamie stirred under my hand and murmured something unintelligible, but when I thrust the log into the freshened fire and sat back in my chair, he sighed, resettled himself, and fell back into sleep.

I glanced at the door, listening, but heard nothing save the rustle of trees in the wind. Of course, I thought, I would hear nothing, given that it was Young Ian I was waiting for.

He and Jamie had been taking it in turns to watch, hiding in the trees above the burnt ruins of the Big House. Ian had been out for more than two hours; it was nearly time for him to come in for food and a turn at the fire.

“Someone’s been trying to kill the white sow,” he’d announced at breakfast three days ago, looking bemused.

“What?” I handed him a bowl of porridge, garnished with a lump of melting butter and a drizzle of honey—luckily my kegs of honey and boxes of honeycomb had been in the springhouse when the fire happened. “Are you sure?”

He nodded, taking the bowl and inhaling its steam in beatific fashion.

“Aye, she’s got a slash in her flank. Not deep, and it’s healing, Auntie,” he added, with a nod in my direction, evidently feeling that I would regard the sow’s medical well-being with the same interest as that of any other resident of the Ridge.

“Oh? Good,” I said—though there was precious little I could have done if she weren’t healing. I could—and did—doctor horses, cows, goats, stoats, and even the occasional non-laying chicken, but that particular pig was on her own.

Amy Higgins crossed herself at mention of the sow.

“Likely ’twas a bear,” she said. “Nothing else would dare. Aidan, mind what Mr. Ian says, here! Dinna be wandering far from the place, and mind your brother outside.”

“Bears sleep in winter, Mam,” Aidan said absently. His attention was fixed on a new top that Bobby, his new stepfather, had carved for him, and which he hadn’t yet got to spin properly. Giving it a cross-eyed glare, he set it gingerly on the table, held the string for a breathless moment, and yanked. The top shot across the table, ricocheted off the honey jar with a sharp crack!, and headed for the milk at a high rate of speed.

Ian reached out and snatched the top in the nick of time. Chewing toast, he motioned to Aidan for the string, rewound it, and with a practiced flick of the wrist, sent the top whizzing straight down the center of the table. Aidan watched it, openmouthed, then dived under the table as the top fell off the end.

“No, it wasna an animal,” Ian said, finally succeeding in swallowing. “It was a clean slash. Someone went for her wi’ a knife or a sword.”

Jamie looked up from the burnt piece of toast he had been examining.

“Did ye find his body?”

Ian grinned briefly, but shook his head.

“Nay, if she killed him, she ate him—and I didna find any leavings.”

“Pigs are messy eaters,” Jamie observed. He essayed a cautious bite of the burnt toast, grimaced, and ate it anyway.

“An Indian, d’ye think?” Bobby asked. Little Orrie was struggling to get down from Bobby’s lap; his new stepfather obligingly set him down in his favorite spot under the table.

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