Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 154

   

Brianna felt a slight tingle in her own br**sts; they seemed suddenly heavier than usual, resting on her folded forearms as she leaned on the fence.

It wasn’t a particularly aesthetic picture of motherhood—not exactly Madonna and Child—but there was something vaguely reassuring about the sow’s nonchalant maternal torpor, nonetheless—a sort of careless confidence, a blind trust in natural processes.

Jamie had another look at the brindled cow, and came to stand beside Brianna by the pigpen.

“That’s a good wee lass,” he said approvingly, with a nod at the sow. As though in reply, the sow released a long, rumbling fart, and shifted a bit, stretching out in the straw with a voluptuous sigh.

“Well, she does look as though she knows what she’s doing,” Brianna agreed, biting her lip.

“That she does. She’s a wicked temper, but she’s an able mother, for-bye. This will be her fourth litter, and not one lost or a runt weaned yet.” He nodded approvingly at the sow, then glanced at the brindled heifer. “I could hope that one does half so well.”

She took a deep breath.

“What if she doesn’t?”

He didn’t answer at once, but stood leaning on the fence, looking down at the gently squirming litter. Then his shoulders rose slightly.

“If she canna bring forth the calf alone, and I canna pull it for her, then I shall have to slaughter her,” he said, matter-of-factly. “If I can save the calf, I can maybe foster it on Magdalen.”

Her insides clenched tight, making lumps and knots of the food she’d eaten. She’d seen the dirk at his belt, of course, but it was so much a part of his normal costume, she hadn’t thought to question its presence in this pastoral setting. The small round presence in her belly lay still and heavy, like a time bomb waiting.

He crouched beside the brindled heifer, and ran a light hand over the bulging flank. Evidently satisfied for the moment, he scratched the cow between the ears, muttering in Gaelic.

How could he murmur endearments to it, she thought, knowing that within hours he might be slicing into its living flesh? It seemed cold-blooded; did a butcher whisper “Sweet lass” to his victims? A small icy doubt dropped into her stomach, to join the other cold weights that lay there, like a collection of ball bearings.

He stood up and stretched himself, groaning as his spine crackled. He shifted his shoulders, settled, blinked, and smiled at her.

“Will I walk ye to the house, lassie? It will be some time before aught happens here.”

She looked up at him, hesitating, but then made up her mind.

“No, I’ll wait with you a little while. If you don’t mind?”

Now, she decided on impulse. She would ask now. She had been waiting for days for the right time, but when could a time possibly be right for something like this? At least they would be alone now, with no chance of disturbance.

“As ye like. I shall be glad of the company.”

Not for long, she thought, as he turned away to rummage in the basket she had brought. She would much have preferred darkness. It would have been a lot easier to ask what she needed to know, on the dark trail to the house. But words wouldn’t be enough; she had to see his face.

Her mouth was dry; she accepted gratefully when he offered her a cup of cider. It was strong and rich, and the slight buzz of alcohol seemed to lighten the weight in her belly a little.

She gave him the cup but didn’t wait for him to drink, afraid the momentary heartening effect of the cider would desert her before she could get the words out.

“Da—”

“Aye, lass?” He was pouring more cider, his eyes fixed on the cloudy golden stream.

“I need to ask you something.”

“Mm?”

She took a deep breath and got it out in a rush.

“Did you kill Jack Randall?”

He froze for a moment, the jug still tilted over the cup. Then he turned the jug carefully upright, and set it down on the floor.

“And where will ye have heard that name?” he asked. He looked at her straight on, his voice as level as his eyes. “From your father, maybe? From Frank Randall?”

“Mother told me about him.”

A muscle twitched near the corner of his mouth, the only outward indication of shock.

“Did she.”

It wasn’t a question, but she answered it anyway.

“She told me what—what happened. What he d-did to you. At Wentworth.”

Her small spurt of courage was exhausted, but it didn’t matter; she was in too deep to go back now. He simply sat and looked at her, the gourd cup forgotten in his hand. She longed to take it and drain it herself, but didn’t dare.

It occurred to her, much too late, that he might think it a betrayal that Claire had told anyone, let alone her. She rushed ahead, babbling in her nervousness.

“It wasn’t now; it was before—I didn’t know you—she thought I’d never meet you. I mean—I don’t think—I know she didn’t mean to—” He raised one eyebrow at her.

“Be still, aye?”

She was only too glad to stop talking. She couldn’t look at him, but sat staring down at her lap, her fingers pleating the russet cloth of her skirt. The silence lengthened, broken only by the shiftings and muffled squeals of the piglets, and an occasional digestive rumbling from Magdalen.

Why hadn’t she found some other way? she wondered, in an agony of embarrassment. Thou shalt not uncover they father’s nak*dness. To invoke Jack Randall’s name was to invoke the images of what he had done—and that was not something she could bear even to think about. She should have asked her mother, let Claire ask him…but no. There hadn’t been any choice, not really. She had to find out from him…

Her racing thoughts were interrupted by his words, calmly spoken.

“Why are ye asking, lass?”

She jerked her head up, to find him watching her over his undrunk cider. He didn’t look upset, and the jelly in her backbone stiffened a little. She clenched her fists on her knees to steady herself, and met his eyes, straight on.

“I need to know whether it will help. I want to kill…him. The man who—” She made a vague gesture at her belly, and swallowed hard. “But if I do, and it doesn’t help—” She couldn’t go on.

He didn’t seem shocked; abstracted, rather. He raised the cup to his mouth and took a sip, slowly.

“Mmphm. And will ye have killed a man before?” He phrased it as a question, but she knew it wasn’t. The muscle quivered near his mouth again—with amusement, she thought, not shock—and she felt a quick spurt of anger.

“You think I can’t, don’t you? I can. You’d better believe me, I can!” Her hands spread out, gripping her knees, broad and capable. She thought she could do it; though her image of how it might happen wavered. In cold blood, shooting seemed the best, perhaps the only certain way. But trying to imagine this, she had realized vividly the truth of the old saying “Shooting’s too good for him.”

It might be too good for Bonnet; it wouldn’t be nearly good enough for her. In the night when she flung off her blankets, unable to bear even this slight weight and its reminder of restraint, she didn’t just want him dead—she wanted to kill him, purely and passionately—kill him with her hands, taking back by the flesh what had been taken from her by that means.

And yet…what good would it be to murder him, if he would still haunt her? There was no way to know—unless her father could tell her.

“Will you tell me?” she blurted. “Did you kill him, finally—and did it help?”

He seemed to be thinking it over, his eyes traveling slowly over her, narrowed in assessment.

“And what would be helped by your doing murder?” he asked. “It willna take the child from your belly—or give ye back your maidenheid.”

“I know that!” She felt her face flush hot, and turned away, irritated both with him and herself. They spoke of rape and murder, and she was embarrassed to have him mention her lost virginity? She forced herself to look back at him.

“Mama said you tried to kill Jack Randall in Paris, in a duel. What did you think you’d get back?”

He rubbed his chin hard, then drew in his breath through his nose and let it out slowly, eyes fixed on the stained rock of the ceiling.

“I meant to take back my manhood,” he said softly. “My honor.”

“You think my honor isn’t worth taking back? Or do you figure it’s the same thing as my maidenheid?” She mocked his accent nastily.

Sharp blue eyes swung back to hers.

“Is it the same thing to you?”

“No, it is not,” she said, through clenched teeth.

“Good,” he said, shortly.

“Then answer me, damn it!” She struck a fist on the straw, finding no satisfaction in the soundless blow. “Did killing him give you back your honor? Did it help? Tell me the truth!”

She stopped, breathing heavily. She glared at him, and he met her eyes with a cold stare. Then he raised the cup abruptly to his mouth, swallowed the cider in one gulp, and set the cup down on the hay beside him.

“The truth? The truth is that I dinna ken whether I killed him or no.”

Her mouth dropped open in surprise.

“You don’t know whether you killed him?”

“I said so.” A slight jerk of the shoulders betrayed his impatience. He stood up abruptly, as if unable to sit any longer.

“He died at Culloden, and I was there. I woke on the moor after the battle, with Randall’s corpse on top of me. I ken that much—and not much more.” He paused as though thinking, then, mind made up, he thrust one knee forward, pulled up his kilt and nodded downward. “Look.”

It was an old scar, but no less impressive for its age. It ran up the inner side of his thigh, nearly a foot in length, its lower end starred and knotted like the head of a mace, the rest of it a cleaner line, though thick and twisted.

“A bayonet, I expect,” he said, looking at it dispassionately. He dropped the kilt, hiding the scar once more.

“I remember the feel of the blade strikin’ bone, and no more. Not what came after—or before.”

He took a deep, audible breath, and for the first time she realized that his apparent calmness was taking a good deal of effort to maintain.

“I thought it a blessing—that I couldna remember,” he said at last. He wasn’t looking at her, but into the shadows at the end of the stable. “There were gallant men who died there; men I loved well. If I didna know their deaths; if I couldna recall them or see them in my mind—then I didna have to think of them as dead. Maybe that was cowardice, maybe not. Perhaps I chose not to remember that day; perhaps I cannot if I would.” He looked down at her, his eyes gone softer, but then turned away, plaid swinging, not waiting for an answer.

“Afterward—aye, well. Vengeance didna seem important, then. There were a thousand dead men on that field, and I thought I should be one of them in hours. Jack Randall…” He made an odd, impatient gesture, brushing aside the thought of Jack Randall as he might a biting deerfly. “He was one of them. I thought I could leave him to God. Then.”

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