Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 148

   

“I’m an honest man—for a pirate,” he said behind her, and laughed. He stamped once on the deck to settle his foot in its shoe, then brushed past her and lifted the bolt easily with one hand.

“Help yourself, sweetheart,” he said, with another casual wave toward the desk as he went out. “You were worth it.”

She heard his footsteps going away down the companionway, a burst of laughter and a muffled remark as he met someone, then a shift of his voice, suddenly clear and harsh, shouting orders to someone above, and the tramp and scurry of feet overhead, rushing to obey. Back to business.

It was sitting in a bowl made of cowhorn, jumbled with a collection of bone buttons, string, and other bits of rubbish. Like him, she thought, with a cold clarity. Acquisition for its own sake; a reckless and savage delight in the taking, with no knowledge at all of the value of what he stole.

Her hand was shaking; she saw it with a vague sense of surprise. She tried to grasp the ring, failed, gave up. She scooped up the bowl and emptied its contents into her pocket. She walked down the dark companionway, her fist wrapped tight around the pocket, holding it like a talisman. There were seamen all around, too busy about their tasks to spare her more than a glance of lewd speculation. Her shoes were perched on the end of the mess table, bows perky in a shaft of light from the grating overhead.

She put them on, and with an even tread walked up the ladder, across the deck and gangplank, onto the dock. Tasting blood.

“I thought at first I could just pretend it didn’t happen.” She took a deep breath, and looked at me. Her hands folded over her stomach, as though to hide it. “But I guess that won’t work, will it?”

I was silent for a moment, thinking. It was no time for delicacy.

“When?” I said. “How long after…um, after Roger?”

“Two days.”

My eyebrows lifted at that.

“Why are you so sure it isn’t Roger’s, then? You weren’t using pills, obviously, and I’ll bet my life Roger didn’t use what passes for condoms in these times.”

She half smiled at that, and a small flush rose in her cheeks.

“No. He…um…he…ah…”

“Oh, coitus interruptus?”

She nodded.

I took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips.

“There is a word,” I said, “for people who depend on that particular method of birth control.”

“What’s that?” she asked, looking wary.

“Parents,” I said.

46

COMES A STRANGER

Roger bent his head and drank from cupped hands. A piece of luck, that flash of green, pointed out by a finger of sunlight stabbing down through the trees. Without it, he would never have seen the spring, so far off the trail as it was.

A clear trickle bubbled through a crack in the rock, cooling his hands and face. The rock itself was a smooth blackish green, and the ground all round was boggy, rumpled by tree roots and furred with a moss that grew brilliant as emeralds in the fleeting patch of sun.

The knowledge that he would see Brianna shortly—perhaps within the hour—soothed his annoyance as effectively as the cool water eased his dry throat. If he’d had to have his horse stolen, it was some consolation that he’d been close enough to reach his destination on foot.

The horse itself had been an ancient nag, barely worth stealing. At least he’d had the sense to keep his valuables on his person, not in the saddlebags. He clapped a hand against the side seam of his breeches, reassured to feel the small hardness snuggled against his thigh.

Beyond the horse itself, he hadn’t lost much more than a pistol—nearly as ancient as the horse and not half so reliable—a bit of food, and a leather water flask. The loss of the flask had troubled him for the last few miles of hot, dusty walking, but now that minor inconvenience was remedied.

His feet sank into the damp ground as he stood up, leaving dark streaks in the emerald moss. He stepped back and wiped the mud from his shoe soles on the carpet of dry leaves and crusted needles. Then he dusted down the skirts of his coat as well as he could, and straightened the grimy stock at his throat. His knuckles rasped the stubble on his jaw; his razor had been in the saddlebag.

He looked a right villain, he thought ruefully. No way to meet your in-laws. In truth, though, he wasn’t much concerned with what Claire and Jamie Fraser might think of him. His thoughts were all on Brianna.

She’d found her parents now; he could only hope that the reunion had been so satisfactory that she’d be in a mood to forgive his betrayal. Christ, he’d been stupid!

He made his way back toward the path, feet sinking in the soft leaf-layer. Stupid in underestimating her stubbornness, stupid not to have been honest with her, he amended. Stupid to have bullied her into secrecy. Trying to keep her safely in the future—no, that hadn’t been stupid at all, he thought, with a grimace at the things he’d seen and heard in the last few months.

He pushed aside an overhanging limb of loblolly pine, then ducked with an exclamation of alarm, as something black shot past his head.

A hoarse craawk! announced that his assailant was a raven. Similar cries gave notice of the arrival of reinforcements in the trees nearby, and within seconds, another black missile whizzed past, within inches of his ear.

“Hey, bugger off!” he exclaimed, ducking away from yet another croaking buzz bomb. He was plainly near a nest, and the ravens didn’t like it.

The first raven sailed back for another try. This pass knocked his hat into the dirt. The mobbing was unnerving, the sense of hostility out of all proportion to the size of his adversaries. Another came in, zooming low, and struck him a glancing blow as its claws ripped at the shoulder of his coat. Roger snatched up his hat and ran.

A hundred yards up the trail, he slowed to a walk and looked round. The birds were nowhere in sight; he’d passed their nesting place, then.

“And where’s Alfred Hitchcock when you need him?” he muttered to himself, trying to shake off the sense of danger.

His voice was damped at once by the thick vegetation; it was like talking into a pillow. He was breathing heavily, and his face felt flushed. All at once, it seemed very quiet in the forest. With the ceasing of the ravens’ racket, all the other birds seemed to have stopped as well. It was no wonder the old Scots thought ravens birds of bad omen; spend much longer here, and all the old ways that had been no more than curiosities would be flourishing away in his mind.

Dangerous, dirty, and uncomfortable as it was, he had to admit the fascination of being here—of experiencing at firsthand things he’d read about, seeing objects he knew as museum artifacts being casually used in daily life. If it wasn’t for Brianna, he might not regret the adventure, in spite of Stephen Bonnet and the things he had seen aboard the Gloriana.

Once more his hand went to his thigh. He had been luckier than he’d dared hope; Bonnet had had not one gemstone, but two. Would they really work? He ducked again, having to walk half crouched for several steps before the branches opened up again. Hard to believe that people lived up here, save that someone had cut this trail, and it must lead somewhere.

“You can’t miss it,” the girl at the mill had assured him, and he could see why. There wasn’t anyplace else to go.

He shaded his eyes, looking up the trail, but the drooping branches of pine and maple hid everything, presenting only a shadowy, mysterious tunnel through the trees. No telling how far it might be to the top of the ridge.

“You’ll make it by sundown, easy,” the girl had told him, and it was late midafternoon now. But that had been when he had a horse. Not wanting to be caught on the mountainside in the dark, he picked up his pace, straining his eyes for sunlight ahead that would show him the openness of the ridge at the end of the trail.

As he walked, his thoughts ran inevitably ahead of him, quick with speculation.

And how had it gone, Brianna’s reunion with her parents? What had she thought of Jamie Fraser? Was he the man she’d been imagining for the last year, or only a pale reflection of the image she had built up from her mother’s stories?

At least she had a father to know, he thought, with a queer little pang at the memory of Midsummer’s Eve, and that burst of light in the passage through the stones.

There it was! A lightening of the dense green shadow ahead; a brightening as tongues of sun struck autumn leaves in a flare of orange and yellow.

The sun dazzled him for a moment as he came out of the tunnel of greenery. He blinked once, and found himself not on the ridge, as he had expected, but in a small natural clearing, edged with scarlet maples and yellow scrub oak. It held the sunlight like a cup, dark forest spreading beyond on all sides.

As he turned about, searching for the continuation of the trail, he heard a horse’s whicker and whirled to find his own elderly mount, jerking its head against the pull of a rein tied to a tree at the edge of the clearing.

“Well, I’ll be buggered!” he exclaimed in astonishment. “How the hell did you get up here?”

“The same way you did,” a voice answered him. A tall young man emerged from the wood beside the horse, and stood pointing a pistol at Roger; his own, he saw, with a sense of outrage as well as apprehension. He took a deep breath and choked down his fear.

“You’ve got my horse and my gun,” Roger said coolly. “What else d’you want? My hat?” He held out the battered tricorne in invitation. The robber couldn’t possibly know what else he carried; he hadn’t shown them to anyone.

The young man—couldn’t be more than in his teens, in spite of his size, Roger thought—didn’t smile.

“A bit more than that, I expect.” For the first time, the young man took his eyes off Roger, shifting his glance to one side. Following the direction of his gaze, Roger felt a jolt like an electric shock.

He hadn’t seen the man at the edge of the clearing, though he must have been there all the time, standing motionless. He wore a faded hunting kilt whose browns and greens blended into the grass and brush, as his flaming hair blended with the brilliant leaves. He looked as if he’d grown out of the forest.

Beyond the sheer unexpectedness of his appearance, it was his looks that stunned Roger into speechlessness. It was one thing to have been told that Jamie Fraser resembled his daughter. It was another to see Brianna’s bold features transmuted into power by the stamp of years, and fronting a personality not only thoroughly masculine, but fierce in aspect.

It was like lifting his hand from the fur of a handsome ginger cat, only to find himself staring into the unblinking gaze of a tiger. Roger barely kept himself from taking an involuntary step backward, thinking as he did so that Claire had not exaggerated a single thing in her descriptions of Jamie Fraser.

“You’ll be Mr. MacKenzie,” the man said. It wasn’t a question. The voice was deep but not loud, barely lifted above the sound of the rustling leaves, but Roger had no difficulty hearing him.

“I am,” he said, taking a step forward. “And you’ll be…ah…Jamie Fraser?” He stretched out a hand, but quickly let it drop. Two pairs of eyes rested coldly on him.

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