An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 96

   

“A blot on his record,” Jamie said, with an evenness that betrayed his anger. “He canna bear to have it said that he lost Ticonderoga.”

“But he will lose it,” I said. “He must, mustn’t he?”

“He will. But if he fights and loses it, that’s one thing. To fight and lose it to a superior force is honorable. To abandon it to the enemy without a fight? He canna reconcile himself to it. Though he’s no a wicked man,” he added thoughtfully. “I’ll talk to him again. We all will.”

“All” being the militia officers, who could afford to be outspoken. A number of the regular army officers shared the militia’s feelings, but discipline prevented most of them from speaking bluntly to St. Clair.

I didn’t think Arthur St. Clair was a wicked man, either—nor yet a stupid one. He knew—must know—what the cost of fighting would be. Or the cost of surrender.

“He’s waiting for Whitcomb, ken,” Jamie said conversationally. “Hoping he’ll tell him Burgoyne hasna got any artillery to speak of.” The fort could indeed hold out against standard siege tactics; forage and provisions had been coming in from the surrounding countryside in abundance, and Ticonderoga still had some artillery defenses and the small wooden fort on Mount Independence, as well as a substantial garrison decently supplied with muskets and powder. It could not hold out against major artillery placed on Mount Defiance, though. Jamie had been up there, and told me that the entire interior of the fort was visible—and thus subject to enfiladement at the enemy’s discretion.

“He can’t really think that, surely?”

“No, but until he knows for sure, he hasna got to make up his mind for sure, either. And none of the scouts has yet brought him anything certain.”

I sighed and pressed a hand to my bosom, blotting a tickle of sweat.

“I can’t sleep in there,” I said abruptly. “It’s like sleeping in hell.”

That took him by surprise and made him laugh.

“All right for you,” I said, rather cross. “You get to go sleep under canvas tomorrow.” Half the garrison was being moved to tents outside the fort, the better to be out and maneuverable, ready in case of Burgoyne’s approach.

The British were coming; how close they were, how many men they had, and how well armed they were was unknown.

Benjamin Whitcomb had gone to find out. Whitcomb was a lanky, pockmarked man in his thirties, one of the men known as the Long Hunters, men who could—and did—spend weeks in the wilderness, living off the land. Such men were not sociable, having no use for civilization, but they were valuable. Whitcomb was the best of St. Clair’s scouts; he had taken five men to go and find Burgoyne’s main force. I hoped they would return before the enlistment period was up; Jamie wanted to be gone—so did I, badly—but plainly we couldn’t go without Ian.

Jamie moved abruptly, turning and going back into our room.

“What do you need?” He was digging in the small blanket chest that contained our few spare clothes and the other oddments we’d picked up since coming to the fort.

“My kilt. If I’m going to make representations to St. Clair, I’d best be formal about it.”

I helped him to dress and brushed and plaited his hair for him. He had no proper coat, but he had clean linen, at least, and his dirk, and even in shirtsleeves he looked impressive.

“I haven’t seen you in your kilt in weeks,” I said, admiring him. “I’m sure you’ll make an impression on the general, even without a pink sash.”

He smiled and kissed me.

“It’ll do no good,” he said, “but it wouldna be right not to try.”

I walked with him across the parade ground to St. Clair’s house. There were thunderheads rising out on the lake, charcoal black against the blazing sky, and I could smell ozone in the air. It seemed a suitable portent.

SOON. EVERYTHING said, Soon. The fragmentary reports and rumors that flew like pigeons through the fort, the closeness of the sultry air, the occasional boom of cannon in the distance, fired for practice—we hoped it was only practice—from the distant picket position called the Old French Lines.

Everyone was restless, unable to sleep in the heat unless drunk. I wasn’t drunk, and I was restless. Jamie had been gone for more than two hours, and I wanted him. Not because I cared what St. Clair had had to say to the militia. But between heat and exhaustion, we hadn’t made love in more than a week, and I was beginning to suspect that time was growing short. If we were obliged either to fight or to flee in the next few days, heaven only knew how long it might be before we had a private moment again.

I had been strolling round the parade ground, keeping an eye on St. Clair’s house, and when at last I saw him come out, I made my way toward him, walking slowly to allow him to take leave of the other officers who had come out with him. They stood for a moment close together, the slump of shoulders and angry tilt of heads telling me that the effect of their protests had been exactly what Jamie had predicted.

He walked slowly away, hands behind him, head bent in thought. I came quietly alongside and tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow, and he looked down at me, surprised but smiling.

“Ye’re out late, Sassenach. Is aught amiss?”

“Not at all,” I said. “It just seemed like a nice evening for a walk in a garden.”

“In a garden,” he repeated, giving me a sideways glance.

“The commandant’s garden, to be exact,” I said, and touched the pocket of my apron. “I, um, have the key.” There were a number of small gardens inside the fort, most of them practical plots meant for the production of vegetables. The formal garden behind the commandant’s quarters had been designed by the French many years before, though, and while it had since been neglected and overrun by the seeds of airborne weeds, it had one rather interesting aspect—a high wall surrounding it, with a gate that locked. I’d thoughtfully abstracted the key earlier in the day from General St. Clair’s cook, who had come to me for a throat wash. I would put it back when I called on him the next day to check his sore throat.

“Ah,” said Jamie thoughtfully, and turned obligingly back toward the commandant’s house.

The gate was round the back, out of view, and we slipped hastily down the alley that led past the garden wall, while the guard outside St. Clair’s house was talking to a passerby. I closed the gate quietly behind us, locked it, and pocketed the key, then went to Jamie’s arms.

He kissed me slowly, then raised his head, eyeing me.

“I might need a bit of help, mind.”

“That can be arranged,” I assured him. I laid a hand on his knee, where the kilt had folded up, exposing flesh. I moved a thumb lightly, liking the soft, wiry feel of the hairs on his leg. “Um … did you have any particular sort of help in mind?”

I could smell him in spite of his careful washing, the dried sweat of his labor on his skin spiced with dust and wood chips. He’d taste of it, too, sweet and salt and musk.

I slid my hand up his thigh beneath the kilt, feeling him shift and flex, the sudden groove of muscle smooth beneath my fingers. To my surprise, though, he stopped me, grasping my hand through the fabric.

“Thought you wanted help,” I said.

“Touch yourself, a nighean,” he said softly.

That was a trifle disconcerting, particularly given that we were standing in an overgrown garden no more than twenty feet from an alleyway much patronized by militiamen looking for a place to get quietly drunk. Still… I leaned back against the wall and obligingly pulled the shift above my knee. I held it there, gently stroking the skin of my inner thigh—which was, in fact, very soft. I drew the other hand up the line of my stays, to the top, where my br**sts swelled out against the thin, damp cotton.

His eyes were heavy; he was still half drunk with fatigue but becoming more alert by the moment. He made a small interrogative sound.

“Ever hear the one about sauce for the gander?” I said, twiddling thoughtfully with the string that held the neckline of my shift.

“What?” That had brought him out of the haze; he was starkly awake, bloodshot eyes wide open.

“You heard me.”

“Ye want me to … to—”

“I do.”

“I couldna do that! In front of you?”

“If I can do it in front of you, you can certainly return the favor. Of course, if you’d rather I stopped…” I let my hand fall—slowly—from the string. Paused, thumb very lightly ticking to and fro, to and fro, over my breast like the hand of a metronome. I could feel my nipple, round and hard as a musket ball; it must be visible through the fabric, even in this light.

He swallowed; I heard it.

I smiled and let my hand fall farther, taking hold of the hem of my skirt. And paused, one eyebrow raised.

As though hypnotized, he reached down and took hold of the hem of his kilt.

“That’s a good lad,” I murmured, leaning back on one hand. I raised one knee and set my foot on the wall, letting the skirt fall away, baring my thigh. Reached down.

He said something under his breath in Gaelic. I couldn’t tell if it was an observation on the imminent prospect before him or whether he was commending his soul to God. In either case, he lifted his kilt.

“What do you mean, you need help?” I asked, eyeing him.

He made a small, urgent noise indicating that I should continue, so I did.

“What are you thinking?” I asked after a moment, fascinated.

“I’m not thinking.”

“Yes, you are; I can see it on your face.”

“Ye don’t want to know.” Sweat was beginning to gleam across his cheekbones, and his eyes had gone to slits.

“Oh, yes, I do—oh, wait. If you’re thinking about someone other than me, I don’t want to know.”

He opened his eyes at that, and fixed me with a look that ran straight up between my quivering legs. He didn’t stop.

“Oh,” I said, a little breathless myself. “Well… when you can talk again, I do want to know, then.”

He went on looking at me, with a gaze that now struck me as markedly akin to that of a wolf eyeing a fat sheep. I shifted a little against the wall and waved away a cloud of gnats. He was breathing fast, and I could smell his sweat, musky and acrid.

“You,” he said, and I saw his throat move as he swallowed. He crooked the index finger of his free hand at me.

“Come here.”

“I—”

“Now.”

Mesmerized, I slid away from the wall and took two steps toward him. Before I could say or do anything else, there was a flurry of kilt and a large, hot hand was gripping me by the scruff of the neck. Then I was lying on my back in long grass and wild tobacco, Jamie solidly inside me, and the hand was over my mouth—a good thing, I realized dimly, as there were voices coming toward us along the alley on the other side of the garden wall.

“Play wi’ fire and ye may get singed, Sassenach,” he whispered in my ear. He had me pinned like a butterfly and, with a solid grip on my wrists, kept me from moving, even though I was jerking and writhing under him, slippery and desperate. Very slowly, he lowered himself so his full weight rested on me.

“Ye want to know what I was thinking, do ye?” he murmured in my ear.

“Mmp!”

“Well, I’ll tell ye, a nighean, but—” He paused in order to lick my earlobe.

“NNG!”

The hand tightened warningly over my mouth. The voices were near enough to make out words now: a small party of young militiamen, half drunk and in search of whores. Jamie’s teeth closed delicately on my ear, and he began to nibble thoughtfully, his breath warm and tickling. I wriggled madly, but he wasn’t budging.

He gave the same thorough treatment to the other ear before the men had moved out of earshot, then kissed the end of my nose, taking his hand off my mouth at last.

“Ah. Now, where was I? Oh, aye—ye wanted to hear what I was thinking of.”

“I’ve changed my mind.” I was panting shallowly, as much from the weight on my chest as from desire. Both were considerable.

He made a Scottish noise indicating deep amusement and tightened his grip on my wrists.

“You started it, Sassenach—but I’ll finish it.” Whereupon he put his lips to my wet ear and told me in a slow whisper exactly what he’d been thinking. Not moving an inch while he did so, save to put his hand back over my mouth when I began to call him names.

Every muscle in my body was jumping like a snapped rubber band when he finally moved. In one sudden motion, he raised himself and slid back, then forward hard.

When I could see and hear again, I realized that he was laughing, still balanced above me.

“Put ye out of your misery, did I, Sassenach?”

“You…” I croaked. Words failed me, but two could play at this game. He hadn’t moved, in part to torture me—but in equal part because he couldn’t; not without ending it at once. I flexed my soft, slick muscles once around him, slowly, gently—then did it three times, fast. He made a gratifying noise and lost it, jerking and groaning, the pulse of it exciting an echo in my own flesh. Very slowly, he lowered himself, sighing like a deflated bladder, and lay beside me, breathing slowly, eyes closed.

“Now you can sleep,” I said, stroking his hair. He smiled without opening his eyes, breathed deep, and his body relaxed, settling into the earth.

“And next time, you bloody Scot,” I whispered in his ear, “I’ll tell you what I was thinking.”

“Oh, God,” he said, and laughed without making a sound. “D’ye remember the first time I kissed ye, Sassenach?”

I lay there for some time, feeling the bloom of sweat on my skin and the reassuring weight of him curled asleep in the grass beside me, before I finally remembered.

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