Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 162

   

“I did regret it,” he said, very quietly. “When I came that night, and saw ye, I was sorry then that I hadna killed him. I held ye in my arms—and I felt my heart go sma’ wi’ shame, that I should doubt my daughter’s virtue.” He looked down, and I could see the mark where he had bitten his lip.

“Now my heart is shrunk altogether. Not only that ye should be impure but that ye should lie to me.”

“Lie to you?” Her voice was no more than whisper. “Lie to you?”

“Aye, lie to me!” With sudden violence, he turned back to her. “That ye should bed a man from lust, and cry rape when ye find ye’re with child! Do ye not realize that it’s only chance I have not the sin of murder on my soul, and you the cause of it?”

She was too furious to speak; I saw her throat swell with words, and knew I had to do something, at once, before either of them had the opportunity to say more.

I couldn’t speak, either. Blindly, I fumbled in the pocket of my gown, feeling for the ring. I found it, pulled it out, and dropped it on the table. It chimed against the wood; spun, and rattled to a stop, the gold of the tiny circlet gleaming red in the firelight.

From F. to C. with love. Always.

Jamie looked at it, his face gone completely blank. Brianna drew in her breath with a sob.

“That’s your ring, Auntie,” Ian said. He sounded dazed, and bent close to look, as though he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Your gold ring. The one that Bonnet took from ye, on the river.”

“Yes,” I said. My knees felt weak. I sat down at the table, and laid my hand over the telltale ring as though to take it back, deny its presence.

Jamie took my wrist and lifted it. Like a man handling a dangerous insect, he picked the ring up gingerly between thumb and forefinger.

“Where did ye get this?” he asked, his voice almost casual. He looked at me, and a bolt of terror shot through me at the look in his eyes.

“I brought it to her.” Brianna’s tears had dried, evaporated by the heat of her fury. She stood behind me and gripped me by the shoulders. “Don’t you look at her that way, don’t you dare!”

He shifted the look to her, but she didn’t flinch; only held on to me harder, her fingers digging into my shoulders.

“Where did ye get it?” he asked again, his voice no more than a whisper. “Where?”

“From him. From Stephen Bonnet.” Her voice was shaking, but from rage, not fear. “When…he…raped…me.”

Jamie’s face cracked suddenly, as though some explosion had burst him from within. I made an incoherent sound of distress, and reached out for him, but he whirled away and stood rigid, back turned to us, in the middle of the room.

I felt Brianna draw herself upright, heard Ian say, rather stupidly, “Bonnet?” I heard the ticking of the clock on the sideboard, felt the draft from the door. I was dimly aware of all these things, but had no eyes for anything but Jamie.

I pushed back the bench, stumbled to my feet. He stood as though rooted into the floor, fists clenched into his belly like a man gut-shot, trying to hold back the inevitable fatal spill of his insides.

I should be able to do something, to say something. I should be able to help them, to take care of them. But I could do nothing. I could not help one without betraying the other—had already betrayed them both. I had sold Jamie’s honor to keep him safe, and the doing of it had taken Roger and destroyed Bree’s happiness.

I could go to neither of them now. All I could do was to stand there, feeling my heart crumble into small, jagged chunks.

Bree left me, and walked quietly around the table, across the room, around Jamie. She stood in front of him, looking up into his face, her own set like marble, cold as a saint’s.

“Damn you,” she said, scarcely audible. “Damn you very much, you bastard. I’m sorry I ever saw you.”

PART ELEVEN

Pas du Tout

51

BETRAYAL

October 1769

Roger opened his eyes and threw up. Or rather, down. It didn’t matter; The burning rush of bile through his nose and the trickle of vomitus that ran into his hair were unimportant by comparison with the agony in head and groin.

A thumping swerve of movement jarred him, shooting kaleidoscopic colors from crotch to brain. A damp smell of canvas filled his nose. Then a voice spoke somewhere near, and formless panic took sudden, jagged shape among the colors.

Gloriana! They’d got him! He lurched in reflex, brought up short by a searing jolt through his temples—but brought up a split-second earlier by something round his wrists. Tied, he was tied up in the hold.

The shape of panic blew up bold and black against his mind. Bonnet. They’d caught him, taken back the stones. And now they’d kill him.

He jerked convulsively, yanking at his wrists, teeth clenched against the pain. The deck dropped beneath him with a startled snort, and he slammed down hard.

He vomited again, but his stomach was empty. He retched, ribs grating with each spasm against the canvas-wrapped bundles he lay across. Not sails; not a hold. Not the Gloriana, not a ship at all. A horse. He was tied hand and foot, belly down across a f**king horse!

The horse jolted on a few more steps, then stopped. Voices muttered, hands fumbled at him, then he was pulled off roughly and dropped on his feet. He fell down at once, unable either to stand or to break his fall.

He lay half doubled on the ground, concentrating on breathing. Without the jouncing, it was easier. Nobody troubled him, and gradually he began to be aware of his surroundings.

Awareness didn’t help much. There were damp leaves under his cheek, cool and smelling of sweet rot. He cracked a cautious eye. Sky above, an impossible deep color, between blue and purple. The sound of trees, the rush of nearby water.

Everything seemed to be revolving slowly around him, painfully vivid. He closed his eyes and pressed his hands flat against the ground.

Jesus, where am I? The voices were talking casually, words half lost in the stamping and whickering of nearby horses. He listened intently but couldn’t make out the words. He felt a moment’s panic at the inability; he couldn’t even put a name to the language.

There was a large, tender lump behind one ear, another on the back of his head, and a pain that made his temples throb; he’d been hit hard—but when? Had the blows ruptured vessels in his brain, deprived him of language? He opened his eyes all the way, and—with infinite caution—rolled onto his back.

A square brown face glanced down at him, with no particular expression of interest, then looked back to the horse the man was tending.

Indians. The shock was so great that he forgot momentarily about his pain, and sat up abruptly. He gasped and put his face on his knees, eyes closed as he fought to keep from passing out again, blood pounding through a splitting head.

Where was he? He bit his knee, grinding the cloth savagely between his teeth, fighting for memory. Fragments of images came back to him, in mocking bits that stubbornly refused to fit together into sense.

The creak of boards and the smell of bilges. Blinding sun through panes of glass. Bonnet’s face, and the breathing of whales in the mist, and a little boy named…named…

Hands clasped in dark and the tang of hops. I thee wed, with my body I thee worship…

Bree. Brianna. Cold sweat rolled down his cheek and his jaw muscles ached with clenching. The images hopped around in his mind like fleas. Her face, her face, he must not let it go!

Not gentle, not a gentle face. A nose dead straight and cold blue eyes…no, not cold…

A hand on his shoulder yanked him from the tortured pursuit of memory into the all too immediate present. It was an Indian, knife in hand. Numb with confusion, Roger simply looked at the man.

The Indian, a middle-aged man with a bone in his roached hair, and an air of no-nonsense about him, took Roger by his own hair and tilted his head back and forth with a critical air. Confusion evaporated, as it occurred to Roger that he was about to be scalped as he sat there.

He flung himself backward and lashed out with his feet, catching the Indian in the knees. The man went down with a cry of surprise, and Roger rolled, lurching and stumbling to his feet, running for his life.

He ran like a drunken spider, spraddle-legged, staggering toward the trees. Shadows, refuge. There were shouts behind him, and the sound of quick feet scattering leaves. Then something jerked his feet from under him and he fell headlong with a bone-shaking thud.

They had him on his feet before he had his breath back. No good to struggle; there were four of them, including the one Roger had knocked down. That one came toward them, limping, still holding the knife.

“Not hurt you!” he said crossly. He slapped Roger briskly across the face, then leaned over and sawed through the leather thong that bound Roger’s wrists. With a loud snort, he turned on his heel and went back to the horses.

The two men holding Roger promptly let go of him and walked off, too, leaving him swaying like a sapling in a high wind.

Great, he thought blankly, I’m not dead. What the bloody hell?

No answer to this presenting itself, he rubbed a hand gingerly over his face, discovering several bruises he’d missed earlier, and looked around.

He stood in a small clearing, surrounded by huge oaks and half-shed hickory trees; the ground was thick with brown and yellow leaves, and the squirrels had left heaps of acorn caps and nut hulls scattered over the ground. He stood on a mountain; the slope of the ground told him that, as the chill air and jewel-deep sky told him the time was near sunset.

The Indians—there were four, all men—ignored him completely, going about the business of camp-building without a glance in Roger’s direction. He licked dry lips and took a cautious step toward the small stream that burbled over algae-furred rocks a few yards away.

He drank his fill, though the cold water made his teeth ache; nearly all the teeth were loose on one side of his mouth, and the lining of his cheek was badly cut. He rinsed his face gingerly, with a feeling of déjà vu. Sometime earlier, he had washed and drunk like this, cold water running over emerald rocks…

Fraser’s Ridge. He sat back on his heels, memory dropping back in place, in large, ugly chunks.

Brianna, and Claire…and Jamie Fraser. Suddenly the confusing image he had sought so desperately came back unbidden; Brianna’s face, with its broad, clean bones, blue eyes set slantwise above a long, straight nose. But Brianna’s face grown older, weathered to bronze, rough-cut and toughened by masculinity and experience, blue eyes gone black with a murderous rage. Jamie Fraser.

“You bloody sod,” Roger said softly. “You bloody, f**king sod. You tried to kill me.”

His initial feeling was one of astonishment—but anger wasn’t far behind.

He remembered everything now; the meeting in the clearing, the autumn leaves like fire and honey and the blazing man among them; the brown-haired youth—and who the hell was he? The fight—he touched a sore spot under his ribs with a grimace—and the end of it, lying flat in the leaves, sure that he was about to be killed.

Well, he hadn’t been. He had a dim memory of hearing the man and the boy arguing somewhere over him—one of them had been for killing him on the spot, the other said no—but damned if he knew which one. Then one of them had hit him again, and he remembered nothing more until now.

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