Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 135

   

How would it be? she wondered. She had wondered the same thing a hundred times, and a hundred times imagined different scenes: what she would say, what he would say—would he be glad to see her? She hoped so; and yet he would be a stranger. Likely he would bear no resemblance at all to the man of her imagination. With some difficulty, she fought back the memory of Laoghaire’s voice: A liar and a cheat…Her mother hadn’t thought so.

“ ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ ” she murmured to herself. She had come into the town of Cross Creek itself; the scattered houses thickened, and the dirt track widened into a cobbled street, lined with shops and larger houses. There were people about, but it was the hottest part of the afternoon, when the air lay still and heavy on the town. Those who could be, were inside in the shade.

The road curved out, following the riverbank. A small sawmill stood by itself on a point of land, and near it, a tavern. She’d ask there, she decided. Hot as it was, she could use something to drink.

She patted the pocket of her coat, to be sure she had money. She felt instead the prickly outline of a horse chestnut’s hull, and pulled her hand away as though she’d been burned.

She felt hollow again, in spite of the food she’d eaten. Lips pressed tight together, she tethered the mule and ducked into the dark refuge of the tavern.

The room was empty save for the landlord, perched in somnolence on his stool. He roused himself at her step, and after the usual goggle of surprise at her appearance, served her beer and gave her courteous directions to the courthouse.

“Thank you.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with a coat sleeve—even inside, the heat was stifling.

“You’ll have come for the trial, then?” the landlord ventured, still looking at her curiously.

“Yes—well, not really. Whose trial is it?” she asked, belatedly realizing that she had no idea.

“Oh, it’ll be Fergus Fraser,” the man said, as though assuming that naturally everyone knew who Fergus Fraser was. “Assault on an officer of the Crown is the charge. He’ll be acquitted, though,” the landlord went on matter-of-factly. “Jamie Fraser’s come down from the mountain for him.”

Brianna choked on her beer.

“You know Jamie Fraser?” she asked breathlessly, swabbing at the spilled foam on her sleeve.

The landlord’s brows went up.

“Wait but a moment and you’ll know him, too.” He nodded at a pewter tankard full of beer, sitting on the nearby table. She hadn’t noticed it when she came in. “He went out the back, just as you came in. He—hey!” He fell back with a cry of surprise as she dropped her own tankard on the floor, and shot out the back door like a bat out of hell.

The light outside was dazzling after the taproom’s gloom. Brianna blinked, eyes tearing at the shafts of sun that stabbed through the shifting greens of a screen of maples. Then a movement caught her eye, below the flickering leaves.

He stood in the shade of the maples, half turned away from her, head bent in absorption. A tall man, long-legged, lean and graceful, with his shoulders broad under a white shirt. He wore a faded kilt in pale greens and browns, casually rucked up in front as he urinated against a tree.

He finished and, letting the kilt fall, turned toward the post house. He saw her then, standing there staring at him, and tensed slightly, hands half curling. Then he saw past her men’s clothes, and the look of wary suspicion changed at once to surprise as he realized that she was a woman.

There was no doubt in her mind, from the first glimpse. She was at once surprised and not surprised at all; he was not quite what she had imagined—he seemed smaller, only man-sized—but his face had the lines of her own; the long, straight nose and stubborn jaw, and the slanted cat-eyes, set in a frame of solid bone.

He moved toward her out of the maples’ shadow, and the sun struck his hair with a spray of copper sparks. Half consciously she raised a hand and pushed a strand of hair back from her face, seeing from the corner of her eye the matching gleam of thick red-gold.

“What d’ye want here, lassie?” he asked. Sharp, but not unkind. His voice was deeper than she had imagined; the Highland burr slight but distinct.

“You,” she blurted. Her heart seemed to have wedged itself in her throat; she had trouble forcing any words past it.

He was close enough that she caught the faint whiff of his sweat and the fresh smell of sawn wood; there was a golden scatter of sawdust caught in the rolled sleeves of his linen shirt. His eyes narrowed with amusement as he looked her up and down, taking in her costume. One reddish eyebrow rose, and he shook his head.

“Sorry, lass,” he said, with a half-smile. “I’m a marrit man.”

He made to pass by, and she made a small incoherent sound, putting out a hand to stop him, but not quite daring to touch his sleeve. He stopped and looked at her more closely.

“No, I meant it; I’ve a wife at home, and home’s not far,” he said, evidently wishing to be courteous. “But—” He stopped, close enough now to take in the grubbiness of her clothes, the hole in the sleeve of her coat and the tattered ends of her stock.

“Och,” he said in a different tone, and reached for the small leather purse he wore tied at his waist. “Will ye be starved, then, lass? I’ve money, if you must eat.”

She could scarcely breathe. His eyes were dark blue, soft with kindness. Her eyes fixed on the open collar of his shirt, where the curly hairs showed, bleached gold against his sunburnt skin.

“Are you—you’re Jamie Fraser, aren’t you?”

He glanced sharply at her face.

“I am,” he said. The wariness had returned to his face; his eyes narrowed against the sun. He glanced quickly behind him, toward the tavern, but nothing stirred in the open doorway. He took a step closer to her.

“Who asks?” he said softly. “Have you a message for me, lass?”

She felt an absurd desire to laugh welling up in her throat. Did she have a message?

“My name is Brianna,” she said. He frowned, uncertain, and something flickered in his eyes. He knew it! He’d heard the name and it meant something to him. She swallowed hard, feeling her cheeks blaze as though they’d been seared by a candle flame.

“I’m your daughter,” she said, her voice sounding choked to her own ears. “Brianna.”

He stood stock-still, not changing expression in the slightest. He had heard her, though; he went pale, and then a deep, painful red washed up his throat and into his face, sudden as a brushfire, matching her own vivid color.

She felt a deep flash of joy at the sight, a rush through her midsection that echoed that blaze of blood, recognition of their fair-skinned kinship. Did it trouble him to blush so strongly? she wondered suddenly. Had he schooled his face to immobility, as she had learned to do, to mask that telltale surge?

Her own face felt stiff, but she gave him a tentative smile.

He blinked, and his eyes moved at last from her face, slowly taking in her appearance, and—with what seemed to her a new and horrified awareness—her height.

“My God,” he croaked. “You’re huge.”

Her own blush had subsided, but now came back with a vengeance.

“And whose fault is that, do you think?” she snapped. She drew herself up straight and squared her shoulders, glaring. So close, at her full height, she could look him right in the eye, and did.

He jerked back, and his face did change then, mask shattering in surprise. Without it, he looked younger; underneath were shock, surprise, and a dawning expression of half-painful eagerness.

“Och, no, lassie!” he exclaimed. “I didna mean it that way, at all! It’s only—” He broke off, staring at her in fascination. His hand lifted, as though despite himself, and traced the air, outlining her cheek, her jaw and neck and shoulder, afraid to touch her directly.

“It’s true?” he whispered. “It is you, Brianna?” He spoke her name with a queer accent—Breeanah—and she shivered at the sound.

“It’s me,” she said, a little huskily. She made another attempt at a smile. “Can’t you tell?”

His mouth was wide and full-lipped, but not like hers; wider, a bolder shape, that seemed to hide a smile in the corners of it, even in repose. It was twitching now, not certain what to do.

“Aye,” he said. “Aye, I can.”

He did touch her then, his fingers drawing lightly down her face, brushing back the waves of ruddy hair from temple and ear, tracing the delicate line of her jaw. She shivered again, though his touch was noticeably warm; she could feel the heat of his palm against her cheek.

“I hadna thought of you as grown,” he said, letting his hand fall reluctantly away. “I saw the pictures, but still—I had ye in my mind somehow as a wee bairn always—as my babe. I never expected…” His voice trailed off as he stared at her, the eyes like her own, deep blue and thick-lashed, wide in fascination.

“Pictures,” she said, feeling breathless with happiness. “You’ve seen pictures of me? Mama found you, didn’t she? When you said you had a wife at home—”

“Claire,” he interrupted. The wide mouth had made its decision; it split into a smile that lit his eyes like the sun in the dancing tree leaves. He grabbed her arms, tight enough to startle her.

“You’ll not have seen her, then? Christ, she’ll be mad wi’ joy!”

The thought of her mother was overwhelming. Her face cracked, and the tears she had been holding back for days spilled down her cheeks in a flood of relief, half choking her as she laughed and cried together.

“Here, lassie, dinna weep!” he exclaimed in alarm. He let go of her arm and snatched a large, crumpled handkerchief from his sleeve. He patted tentatively at her cheeks, looking worried.

“Dinna weep, a leannan, dinna be troubled,” he murmured. “It’s all right, m’ annsachd; it’s all right.”

“I’m all right; everything’s all right. I’m just—happy,” she said. She took the handkerchief, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “What does that mean—a leannan? And the other thing you said?”

“You’ll not have the Gaelic, then?” he asked, and shook his head. “No, of course she wouldna have been taught,” he murmured, as though to himself.

“I’ll learn,” she said firmly, giving her nose a last wipe. “A leannan?”

A slight smile reappeared on his face as he looked at her.

“It means ‘darling,’ ” he said softly. “M’ annsachd—my blessing.”

The words hung in the air between them, shimmering like the leaves. They stood still, both stricken suddenly with shyness by the endearment, unable to look away from each other, unable to find more words.

“Fa—” Brianna started to speak, then stopped, suddenly seized with doubt. What should she call him? Not Daddy. Frank Randall had been Daddy to her all her life; it would be a betrayal to use that name to another man—any other man. Jamie? No, she couldn’t possibly; rattled as he was by her appearance, he had still a formidable dignity that forbade such casual use. “Father” seemed remote and stern—and whatever Jamie Fraser might be, he wasn’t that; not to her.

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