Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 161


Ian gave a small start, and looked up from his grooming.

“Yes,” I said, sitting down on the bench next to Brianna. “But you can maybe do better than just the written description. Bree’s a good hand with a likeness,” I explained to Jamie. “Can you draw Roger from memory, do you think, Bree?”

“Yes!” She reached for the quill, eager to try. “Yes, I’m sure I can—I’ve drawn him before.”

Jamie surrendered the quill and paper, the vertical lines between his brows showing in a slight frown.

“Can the printer work from an ink sketch?” I asked, seeing it.

“Oh—aye, I expect so. It’s no great matter to make a woodblock, if the lines are clear.” He spoke abstractedly, eyes fixed on the paper in front of Brianna.

Ian pushed Rollo’s head off his knee and came to stand by the table, looking over Bree’s shoulder in what seemed a rather exaggerated curiosity.

Lower lip fixed between her teeth, she drew clean and swiftly. High forehead, with a thick lock of black hair that rose from an invisible cowlick, then dipped almost to the strongly marked black brows. She drew him in profile; a bold nose, not quite beaky, a clean-lined, sensitive mouth and a wide, slanted jaw. Thick-lashed eyes, deepset, with lines of good humor marking a strong, appealing face. She added a neat, flat ear, then turned her attention to the elegant curve of the skull, drawing thick, wavy dark hair pulled back in a short tail.

Ian made a small, strangled noise in his throat.

“Are you all right, Ian?” I looked up at him, but he wasn’t looking at the drawing—he was looking across the table, at Jamie. He was wearing a glazed sort of expression, like a pig on a spit.

I turned, to find precisely the same expression on Jamie’s face.

“What on earth is the matter?” I asked.

“Oh…nothing.” The muscles of his throat moved in a convulsive swallow. The corner of his mouth twitched, and twitched again, as though he couldn’t control it.

“Like hell it is!” Alarmed, I leaned across the table, seizing his wrist and groping for his pulse. “Jamie, what is it? Are you having chest pains? Do you feel ill?”

“I do.” Ian was leaning over the table, looking as though he might be going to throw up any minute. “Coz—d’ye mean honestly to tell me that…this”—he gestured feebly at the sketch—“is Roger Wakefield?”

“Yes,” she said, looking up at him in puzzlement. “Ian, are you all right? Did you eat something funny?”

He didn’t answer, but dropped heavily onto the bench beside her, put his head in his hands, and groaned.

Jamie gently detached his hand from my grip. Even in the red of the firelight, I could see that he was white and strained. The hand on the table curled around the quill jar, as though seeking support.

“Mr. Wakefield,” he said carefully to Brianna. “Has he by any chance…another name?”

“Yes,” Brianna and I said in unison. I stopped and let her explain as I rose and went hurriedly to fetch a bottle of brandy from the pantry. I didn’t know what was going on, but had the horrible feeling that it was about to be called for.

“—adopted. MacKenzie was his own family name,” she was saying as I emerged with the bottle in hand. She glanced from father to cousin, frowning. “Why? You haven’t heard of a Roger MacKenzie, have you?”

Jamie and Ian exchanged an appalled glance. Ian cleared his throat. So did Jamie.

“What?” Brianna demanded, leaning forward, glancing anxiously from one to the other. “What is it? Have you seen him? Where?”

I saw Jamie’s jaw tighten as he summoned up words.

“Aye,” he said carefully. “We have. On the mountain.”

“What—here? On this mountain?” She stood up, pushing back the bench. Alarm and excitement played over her face like flames. “Where is he? What happened?”

“Well,” Ian said defensively, “he did say as he’d taken your maidenheid, after all.”

“He WHAT?” Brianna’s eyes sprang open so far that a rim of white showed all around the iris.

“Well, your Da asked him, just to be sure, and he admitted that he’d—”

“You what?” Brianna rounded on Jamie, clenched fists on the table.

“Aye, well. It—was a mistake,” Jamie said. He looked utterly wretched.

“You bet it was! What in the name of—what have you done?” Her own cheeks had blanched, and blue sparks glinted in her eyes, hot as the heart of a flame.

Jamie took a deep breath. He looked up, straight into her face, and set his jaw.

“The wee lassie,” he said. “Lizzie. She told me that ye were with child, and that the man who’d got it on ye was a wicked brute called MacKenzie.”

Brianna’s mouth opened and shut, but no words came out. Jamie looked at her steadily.

“Ye did say to me that ye’d been violated, did ye no?”

She nodded, jerky as a badly sprung puppet.

“So, then. Ian and the lassie were at the mill, when MacKenzie came askin’ for ye. They rode to fetch me, and Ian and I met him in the clearing just above the green spring.”

Brianna had got her voice working, though only barely.

“What did you do to him?” she asked hoarsely. “What?”

“It was a fair fight,” Ian said, still defensive. “I wanted to shoot him on sight, but Uncle Jamie said no, he meant to have his hands on the—the man.”

“You hit him?”

“Aye, I did!” Jamie said, stung at last. “For God’s sake, woman, what would ye have me do to the man who’d used ye that way? It was you wanting to do murder, aye?”

“Besides, he hit Uncle Jamie, too,” Ian put in helpfully. “It was a fair fight. I said.”

“Be quiet, Ian, there’s a good lad,” I said. I poured two fingers, neat, and pushed the cup in front of Jamie.

“But it was—he wasn’t—” Brianna was sputtering, like a firecracker with a short fuse lit. Then she caught fire, and slammed one fist on the table, going off like a rocket.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HIM?” she screamed.

Jamie blinked and Ian flinched. They exchanged haunted glances.

I put a hand on Jamie’s arm, squeezing tight. I couldn’t keep the quaver out of my own voice as I asked the necessary question.

“Jamie—did you kill him?”

He glanced at me, and the tension in his face relaxed, if only marginally.

“Ah…no,” he said. “I gave him to the Iroquois.”

“Och, now, Coz, it could have been worse.” Ian patted Brianna tentatively on the back. “We didna kill him, after all.”

Brianna made a small choking sound, and pulled her head up off her knees. Her face was white and damp as the inside of an oyster shell, her hair in a tangle round it. She hadn’t vomited or fainted, but looked as though she still might do either.

“We did mean to,” Ian went on, looking at her a little nervously. “I’d my pistol pressed behind his ear, but then I thought it was really Uncle Jamie’s right to blow his brains out, but then he—”

Brianna choked again, and I hastily placed an ashet on the table in front of her, just in case.

“Ian, I really think she doesn’t need to hear this just now,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him.

“Yes, I do.” Brianna pushed herself upright, hands gripping the edge of the table. “I have to hear it all, I have to.” She turned her head slowly, as though her neck was stiff, toward Jamie.

“Why?” she said. “WHY?”

He was as white and ill-looking as she was. He had pushed away from the table and gone to the chimney corner, as though trying to get as far away as possible from the drawing, with its damning likeness of Roger MacKenzie Wakefield.

He looked as though he would have done anything rather than answer, but answer he did, his eyes steady on hers.

“I meant to kill him. I stopped Ian because shooting the prick seemed too easy a death—too quick for what he’d done.” He took a deep breath, and I could see that the hand gripping his writing shelf was clenched so tight that the knuckles stood out white against his skin.

“I stopped to think, how it should be; what I must do. I left Ian with him, and I walked away.” He swallowed; I could see the muscles move in his throat, but he didn’t look away.

“I walked into the forest a wee way, and leaned my back against a tree to let my heart slow. It seemed best he should be awake, to know—but I didna think I could bear to hear him speak again. He’d said too much already. But then I began to hear it, over again, what he’d said.”

“What? What did he say?” Even her lips were white.

So were Jamie’s.

“He said…that ye’d asked him to your bed. That you—” He stopped and bit his lip, savagely.

“He said ye wanted him; that ye’d asked him to take your maidenheid,” Ian said. He spoke coolly, his eyes on Brianna.

She drew in breath with a ragged sound, like paper being torn.

“I did.”

I glanced involuntarily at Jamie. His eyes were closed, his teeth fixed in his lip.

Ian made a shocked sound, and Brianna drew back a hand like lightning and slapped him across the face.

He jerked back, lost his balance, and half fell off the bench. He grabbed the edge of the table and staggered to his feet.

“How?” he shouted, his face contorted in sudden anger. “How could ye do such a thing? I told Uncle Jamie that ye’d never play the whore, never! But it’s true, isn’t it?”

She was on her feet like a leopard, her cheeks gone from white to blazing fury in a second.

“Well, damn you for a self-righteous prig, Ian! Who gave you the right to call me a whore?”

“Right?” He sputtered for a moment, at a loss for words. “I—you—he—”

Before I could intervene, she drew back a fist and punched him hard in the pit of the stomach. With a look of intense surprise, he sat down hard on the floor, mouth open like a suckling pig.

I moved, but Jamie was faster. In less than a second he was beside her, gripping her arm. She whirled, meaning to hit him, too, I think, but then froze. Her mouth was working soundlessly, tears of shock and fury running down her cheeks.

“Be still,” he said, and his voice was very cold. I saw his fingers dig into her flesh, and I made a small sound of protest. He paid no attention, too intent on Brianna.

“I didna want to believe it,” he said, in a voice like ice. “I told myself he was only saying so to save himself, it wasna true. But if it was—” He seemed to become aware at last that he was hurting her. He let go of her arm.

“I couldna take the man’s life, without being sure,” he said, and paused, his eyes searching her face. For regret? I wondered. Or remorse? Whatever he might be looking for, all he found was a smoldering rage. Her face was the echo of his own, her blue eyes hot as his.

His own face changed, and he looked away.