Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 111

   

Her lips pressed tight together, deepening the lines that bracketed her mouth.

“That money’s mine,” she snapped, “and well ye know it! It was agreed to; you witnessed the paper.”

Ian sighed; evidently this wasn’t the first he had heard of the matter today.

“I did,” he said patiently. “And ye’ll have your money—so soon as Jamie’s able to send it. He’s promised, and he’s an honorable man. But—”

“Honorable, is it?” Laoghaire produced an unladylike snort. “Is it honorable to commit bigamy, then? Desert his wife and children? Steal away my daughter and ruin her? Honorable!” She looked at Brianna, eyes bright and hard as fresh-rolled steel.

“I’ll ask again, lass—what’s your mother’s name?”

Brianna simply stared at her, overwhelmed. The stock around her throat was choking her, and her hands felt icy, despite Ian’s grasp.

“Your mother,” Laoghaire repeated, impatient. “Who was she?”

“It doesna matter who—” Jenny began, but Laoghaire rounded on her, face flushed with fury.

“Oh, it matters! If he got her on some army whore, or some slut of a maidservant when he was in England—that’s one thing. But if she’s—”

“Laoghaire!”

“Sister!”

“Ye foul-tongued besom!”

Brianna put a stop to the outcry simply by standing up. She was as tall as any of the men, and towered over the women. Laoghaire took one quick step back. Every face in the room was turned to her, marked with hostility, sympathy, or merely curiosity.

With a coolness that she didn’t feel, Brianna reached for the inner pocket of her coat, the secret pocket she had sewed into the seam only a week before. It seemed like a century.

“My mother’s name is Claire,” she said, and dropped the necklace on the table.

There was utter silence in the room, save for the soft hissing of the peat fire, burning low on the hearth. The pearl necklace lay gleaming, the spring sun from the window picking out the gold pierced-work roundels like sparks.

It was Jenny who spoke first. Moving like a sleepwalker, she reached out a slender finger and touched one of the pearls. Freshwater pearls, the kind called baroque because of their singular, irregular, unmistakable shapes.

“Oh, my,” Jenny said softly. She lifted her head and looked Brianna in the face, the slanted blue eyes shimmering with what looked like tears. “I am so very glad to see ye—Niece.”

“Where is my mother? Do you know?” Brianna glanced from face to face, her heart beating heavily in her ears. Laoghaire was not looking at her; her gaze was fastened to the pearls, face gone cold and frozen.

Jenny and Ian exchanged a quick glance, then Ian stood up, moving awkwardly to bring his leg under him.

“She’s with your Da,” he said quietly, touching Brianna’s arm. “Dinna fash yourself, lassie; they’re both safe.”

Brianna resisted the impulse to collapse with relief. Instead, she let out her breath very carefully, feeling the knot of anxiety loosen slowly in her belly.

“Thank you,” she said. She tried to smile at Ian, but her face felt slack and rubbery. Safe. And together. Oh, thank you! she thought, in wordless gratitude.

“Those are mine, by rights.” Laoghaire nodded at the pearls. She wasn’t angry now, but coldly self-possessed. Without the distortions of fury, Brianna could see that she had once been very pretty, and was still a handsome woman—tall for a Scot, and graceful in her movements. She had the kind of delicate fair coloring that fades quickly, and had thickened through the middle, but her figure was still erect and firm, and her face still showed the pride of a woman who has known herself beautiful.

“That they’re not!” said Jenny, with a quick flash of temper. “They were my mother’s jewels, that my father gave to Jamie for his wife, and—”

“And his wife I am,” Laoghaire interrupted. She looked at Brianna then, a cold, gauging look.

“I am his wife,” she repeated. “I married him in good faith, and he promised me payment for the wrong he did me.” She turned her cold gaze on Jenny. “It’s been more than a year since I’ve seen a penny. Am I to sell my shoes to feed my daughter—the one he’s left to me?”

She lifted her chin and looked at Brianna.

“If you’re his daughter, then his debts are yours as well. Tell her, Hobart!”

Hobart looked mildly embarrassed.

“Ah, now, Sister,” he said, putting a hand on her arm in an attempt to be soothing. “I dinna think—”

“No, ye don’t, and haven’t since ye were born!” She shook him off in irritation, and stretched out a hand toward the pearls. “They’re mine!”

It was pure reflex; the pearls were clutched tight in Brianna’s hand before she had made the decision to snatch them. The gold roundels were cool against her skin, but the pearls were warm—the sign of a genuine pearl, her mother had told her.

“You wait just one minute here.” The strength and coldness of her own voice surprised her. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what happened between you and my father, but—”

“I am Laoghaire MacKenzie, and your bastard of a father married me four years ago—under false pretenses, I might add.” Laoghaire’s anger had not disappeared but seemed to have submerged; her face had a tight, stretched look, but she was not shouting, and the red had faded from her soft, plump cheeks.

Brianna took a deep breath, striving for calmness.

“Yes? But if my mother is with my father now—”

“He left me.”

The words were spoken without heat, but they fell with the weight of stones in still water, spreading endless ripples of pain and betrayal. Young Jamie had been opening his mouth to speak; he shut it again, watching Laoghaire.

“He said that he could not bear it longer—to dwell in the same house with me, to share my bed.” She spoke calmly, as though reciting a piece she had learned by heart, her eyes still fixed on the empty spot where the pearls had rested.

“So he left. And then he came back—with the witch. Flaunted her in my face; bedded her under my nose.” Slowly, she raised her eyes to Brianna’s, studying her with quiet intensity, searching out the mysteries of her face. Slowly, she nodded.

“It was she,” she said, with a certainty that was faintly eerie in its calmness. “She cast her spells on him from the day she came to Leoch—and on me. She made me invisible. From the day she came, he could not see me.”

Brianna felt a small shiver run up her spine, despite the hissing peat fire on the hearth.

“And then she was gone. Dead, they said. Killed in the Rising. And him come home again from England, free at long last.” She shook her head very slightly; her eyes still rested on Brianna’s face, but Brianna knew Laoghaire didn’t see her any longer.

“But she wasna dead at all,” Laoghaire said softly. “And he was not free. I knew that; I always knew that. Ye canna kill a witch with steel— they must burn.” Laoghaire’s pale blue eyes turned to Jenny.

“You saw her—at my wedding. Her fetch standing there, between me and him. Ye saw her, but ye didna say. I only heard it later, when ye told Maisri the seer. You should ha’ told me, then.” It was a not so much an accusation as a statement of fact.

Jenny’s face had gone pale again, the slanted blue eyes dark with something—perhaps fear. She licked her lips and started to reply, but Laoghaire’s attention had shifted to Ian.

“Ye’d best be wary, Ian Murray,” she said, her tone now matter-of-fact. She nodded toward Brianna. “Look at her weel, man. Is a right woman made so? Taller than most men, dressed as a man, wi’ hands as broad as a dinner plate, fit to choke the life from one o’ your weans, should she choose.”

Ian didn’t answer, though his long, homely face looked troubled. Young Jamie’s fists clenched, though, and his jaw set tight. Laoghaire saw it, and a small smile touched the corners of her mouth.

“She is a witch’s child,” she said. “And ye know it, all of you!” She glanced around the room, challenging each uncomfortable face. “They should have burned her mother in Cranesmuir, save for the lovespell she’d put on Jamie Fraser. Aye, I say be wary of what ye’ve brought into your house!”

Brianna brought the flat of her hand down on the table with a thump, startling everyone.

“Hogwash,” she said loudly. She could feel the blood rushing to her face, and didn’t care. All the faces were gawking, mouths open, but she had no attention to spare for anyone but Laoghaire MacKenzie.

“Hogwash,” she said again, and pointed a finger at the woman. “If they ought to be wary of anybody, it’s you, you f**king murderess!”

Laoghaire’s mouth was open wider than anyone’s, but no sound came out.

“You didn’t tell them all about Cranesmuir, did you? My mother should have, but she didn’t. She thought you were too young to know what you were doing. You weren’t, though, were you?”

“What…?” said Jenny, in a faint voice.

Young Jamie looked wildly at his father, who stood as though poleaxed, staring at Brianna.

“She tried to kill my mother.” Brianna was having trouble controlling her voice; it cracked and trembled, but she got the words out. “You did, didn’t you? You told her Geillis Duncan was ill and calling for her—you knew she’d go, she always went to anybody sick, she’s a doctor! You knew they were going to arrest Geilie Duncan for witchcraft, and if my mother was there, they’d take her, too! You thought they’d burn her, and then you could have him—have Jamie Fraser.”

Laoghaire was white to the lips, her face set like stone. Even her eyes had no life; they were blank and dull as marbles.

“I could feel her hand on him,” she whispered. “In our bed. Lying there between us, wi’ her hand on him, so he would stiffen and cry out to her in his sleep. She was a witch. I always knew.”

The room was silent, save for the hissing of the fire, and the tender singing of a small bird outside the window. Hobart MacKenzie stirred at last, coming forward to take his sister by the arm.

“Come away, a leannan,” he said quietly. “I’ll see ye safe home now.” He nodded to Ian, who returned the nod, with a small gesture that somehow conveyed both sympathy and regret.

Laoghaire allowed her brother to lead her away, unresisting, but at the door she stopped and turned back. Brianna stood still; she didn’t think she could move if she tried.

“If you’re Jamie Fraser’s daughter,” Laoghaire said, in a cold clear voice, “and ye may be, given your looks—know this. Your father is a liar and a whoremaster, a cheat and a pander. I wish ye well of each other.” She gave in then to Hobart’s tugging at her sleeve, and the door swung to behind her.

The rage that had filled her drained suddenly away, and Brianna leaned forward, resting her weight on the palms of her hands, the necklace hard and lumpy under her hand. Her hair had come loose, and a thick strand fell over her face.

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