Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 133

   

“No? But then…” her voice died away. Fogged with sleep and the exhaustions of pleasure, Roger paid no attention, only snuggling closer with a luxurious moan. A moment later, her voice sliced through his personal fog like a knife through butter.

“How did you know where I was?” she said.

“Hm?”

She twisted suddenly, leaving him with empty arms, and a pair of dark eyes a few inches from his own, slanted with suspicion.

“How did you know where I was?” she repeated slowly, each word a splinter of ice. “How did you know I’d gone to the Colonies?”

“Ah…I…why…” Much too late, he woke to the realization of his danger.

“You didn’t have any way of knowing I’d left Scotland,” she said, “unless you went to Lallybroch, and they told you where I was going. But you’ve never been to Lallybroch.”

“I…” He groped frantically for an explanation—any explanation—but there was none, other than the truth. And from the stiffening of her body, she had deduced that too.

“You knew,” she said. Her voice wasn’t much above a whisper, but the effect was as great as if she’d shouted in his ear. “You knew, didn’t you?”

She was sitting up now, looming over him like one of the Erinyes.

“You saw that death notice! You already knew, you knew all the time, didn’t you?”

“No,” he said, trying to gather his scattered wits. “I mean yes, but—”

“How long have you known? Why didn’t you tell me?” she cried. She stood up and snatched at the pile of clothes under them.

“Wait,” he pleaded. “Bree—let me explain—”

“Yeah, explain! I want to hear you explain!” Her voice was ragged with fury, but she did stop her rummaging for a moment, waiting to hear.

“Look.” He was up himself by now. “I did find it. Last spring. But I—” He took a deep breath, searching desperately for words that might make her understand.

“I knew it would hurt you. I didn’t want to show it to you because I knew there was nothing you could do—there was no point in you breaking your heart for the sake of—”

“What do you mean there’s nothing I could do?” She jerked a shirt over her head, and glared toward him, fists clenched.

“You can’t change things, Bree! Don’t you know that? Your parents tried—they knew about Culloden, and they did everything they possibly could have, to stop Charles Stuart—but they couldn’t, could they? They failed! Geillis Duncan tried to make Stuart a king. She failed! They all failed!” He risked a hand on her arm; she was stiff as a statue.

“You can’t help them, Bree,” he said, more quietly. “It’s part of history, it’s part of the past—you’re not from this time; you can’t change what’s going to happen.”

“You don’t know that.” She was still rigid, but he thought he heard a hint of doubt in her voice.

“I do!” He wiped a bead of sweat from his jaw. “Listen—if I’d thought there was the slightest chance—but I didn’t. I—God, Bree, I couldn’t stand the thought of you being hurt!”

She stood still, breathing heavily through her nose. If she’d had the choice, he was sure it would have been fire and brimstone rather than air.

“It wasn’t your business to make up my mind for me,” she said, speaking through clenched teeth. “No matter what you thought. And about something so important—Roger, how could you do something like that!?”

The tone of betrayal in her voice was too much.

“Damn it, I was afraid if I told you, ye’d do just what you did!” he burst out. “You’d leave me! You’d try to go through the stones by yourself. And now look what you’ve done—here’s the both of us in this godforsaken—”

“You’re trying to blame me for you being here? When I did everything I possibly could to keep you from being such an idiot as to follow me?”

Months of toil and terror, days of worry and fruitless searching caught up with Roger in a scorching blast.

“An idiot? That’s the thanks I get for killing myself to find you? For risking my f**king life to try to protect you?” He rose from the straw, meaning to get hold of her, not sure if he meant to shake her or bed her again. He had the chance to do neither; a hard shove caught him off balance, square in the chest, and he went sprawling into the hay.

She was hopping on one foot, cursing incoherently as she struggled into her breeches.

“You—bloody—arrogant—damn you, Roger!—damn you!” She jerked up the breeches and, leaning down, snatched up her shoes and stockings.

“Go!” she said. “Damn you, go! Go and get hanged if you want to! I’m going to find my parents! And I’m going to save them, too!”

She whirled away, reached the door and jerked it open before he could reach her. She stood for a moment, silhouetted in the paler square of the doorway, dark strands of hair afloat in the wind, live as the strands of Medusa’s mane.

“I’m going. Come, or don’t come, I don’t care. Go back to Scotland—go back through the stones by yourself, for all I care! But by God, you can’t stop me!”

And then she was gone.

Lizzie’s eyes shot wide as the door banged open against the wall. She hadn’t been asleep—how could she sleep?—but had been lying with her eyes closed. She struggled up out of the bedclothes and fumbled for the tinderbox.

“Are ye all right, Miss Bree?”

It didn’t sound like it; Brianna was stamping to and fro, hissing through her teeth like a snake, stopping to kick the wardrobe with a resounding thud. There were two more thuds in succession; by the wavering light of the newly lit candle, Lizzie could see that these were caused by Brianna’s shoes, which had hit the wall and fallen to the floor.

“Are ye all right?” she repeated, uncertainly.

“Fine!” said Brianna.

From the black air beyond the window a voice roared, “Brianna! I shall come for you! Do ye hear me! I will come!”

Her mistress made no answer, but strode to the window, seized the shutters and crashed them shut with a bang that made the room echo. Then she turned like a panther striking, and dashed the candlestick to the floor, plunging the room in suffocating dark.

Lizzie eased herself back into bed and lay frozen, afraid to move or speak. She could hear Brianna tearing off her clothes in silent frenzy, the hiss of indrawn breath punctuating the rustle of cloth and the stamp of bare feet on the wooden floor. Through the shutter, she heard outside the muffled sound of cursing, then nothing.

She had seen Brianna’s face for a moment in the light; white as paper and hard as bone, with the eyes black holes. Her gentle, kindly mistress had vanished like smoke, taken over by a deamhan, a she-devil. Lizzie was a town lass, born long after Culloden. She had never seen the wild clansmen of the glens, or a Highlander in the grip of blood fury—but she’d heard the auld stories, and now she knew them true. A person who looked like that might do anything at all.

She tried to breathe as though she were sleeping, but the air came through her mouth in strangled gasps. Brianna seemed not to notice, though; she walked about the room in quick, hard steps, poured water in the bowl and splashed it on her face, then slid between the quilts and lay flat, rigid as a board.

Summoning all her courage, she turned her head toward her mistress.

“Are ye…all right, a bann-sielbheadair?” she asked, in a voice so low that her mistress could pretend not to have heard it if she wanted.

For a moment she thought that Brianna meant to ignore her. Then, “Yes” came the answer, in a voice so flat and expressionless, it didn’t sound like Brianna’s at all. “Go to sleep.”

She didn’t, of course. A body didn’t sleep, lying next to someone who might turn into a ursiq next thing. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark again, but she was afraid to look, in case the red hair lying on the pillow next to her should suddenly be a mane, and the delicate straight nose changed to a curved, soft muzzle, over teeth that would rend and devour.

It was a few moments before Lizzie realized that her mistress was trembling. Not weeping; there was no sound—but shaking hard enough to make the bedclothes rustle.

Fool, she scolded herself. It’s no but your friend and your lady, with something terrible that’s happened to her—and you lyin’ here sniveling over fancies!

On impulse she rolled toward Brianna, reaching for the other girl’s hand.

“Bree,” she said softly. “Can I be helpin’ ye at all, then?”

Brianna’s hand curled round hers and squeezed, quick and hard, then let go.

“No,” Brianna said, very softly. “Go to sleep, Lizzie; everything will be all right.”

Lizzie took leave to doubt that, but said no more, lying back down and breathing quietly. It was a very long time, but at last Brianna’s long body shuddered gently and relaxed into sleep. Lizzie couldn’t sleep—with the fever gone again, she was alert and restless. The single quilt lay heavy and damp on her, and with the shutters closed, the air in the tiny room was like breathing hot molasses.

Finally, unable to stand it any longer, Lizzie slid quietly out of bed. Keeping an ear out for any sound from the bed, she crept to the window and eased open the shutters.

The air was still hot and muggy outside, but it had begun to move a little; the dawn breeze was coming, with the turn of the air from sea to land. It was still dark, but the sky had begun to lighten as well; she could make out the line of the road below, blessedly empty.

Not knowing what else to do, she did what she always did when troubled or confused; set about to make things tidy. Moving quietly about the room, she picked up the clothes Brianna had so violently discarded, and shook them out.

They were filthy; covered with streaks of leaf stain and dirt, riddled with bits of straw; she could see it even in the dim light from the window. What had Brianna been doing, rolling about on the ground? The instant the thought came into her head, she saw it in her mind, so plain that the notion froze her with shock—Brianna pinned to the ground, struggling with the black devil who had taken her away.

Her mistress was a fine big woman, but yon MacKenzie was a great tall brute of a man; he could have—she stopped herself abruptly, not wanting to imagine. She couldn’t help it, though; her mind had gone too far already.

With great reluctance, she brought the shirt to her nose and sniffed. Yes, there it was, the reek of a man, strong and sour as the smell of a rutting goat. The thought of the wicked creature with his body pressed to Brianna’s, rubbing against her, leaving his scent on her like a dog who marks his ground—she shuddered in revulsion.

Trembling, she snatched up the breeches and stockings, and bore all the clothes to the basin. She would wash them out, rinse away the reminder of MacKenzie with the dirt and the grass stains. And if the clothes were too wet for her mistress to wear in the morning…well, so much the better for that.

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