Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 169


Roger hesitated, not really knowing how to answer.

“I was betrayed,” he said at last. “Sold.”

The priest nodded sympathetically.

“Is there anyone who might ransom you? They will take care to keep you alive if they have some hope of ransom.”

Roger shook his head, feeling hollow as a drum.

“There’s no one.”

Conversation ceased as the light from the smokehole dimmed into dusk, leaving them in darkness below. There was a firepit, but no wood; the fire died out. The hut seemed to have been abandoned; there was a bed frame built of poles, but nothing else in the hut save a couple of tattered deerskins and a small heap of domestic debris in one corner.

“Have you been here—in this hut—long?” Roger asked at last, breaking the silence. He could barely see the other man, though the last remnants of twilight were visible through the smokehole.

“No. They brought me here today—shortly before you came.” The priest coughed, shifting uneasily on the packed dirt floor.

That seemed sinister, but Roger thought it more tactful—and less frightening—not to mention it. It was no doubt as obvious to the priest as to himself that the line between “guest” and “prisoner” had been crossed. What had the man done?

“You are a Christian?” Alexandre broke the silence abruptly.

“Yes. My father was a minister.”

“Ah. May I ask—if they take me away, will you pray for me?”

Roger felt a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the cheerless surroundings.

“Yes,” he said awkwardly. “Of course. If you like.”

The priest rose and began to walk restlessly about the confines of the hut, unable to keep still.

“It may be all right,” he said, but it was the voice of a man trying to convince himself. “They are still deciding.”

“Deciding what?”

He felt rather than saw the priest’s shrug.

“Whether I live.”

There seemed no good response to that, and they fell once more into silence. Roger sat huddled by the cold firepit, resting his lame foot, while the priest paced to and fro, finally settling beside him. Without comment, the two moved close together, pooling their warmth; it was going to be a cold night.

Roger had dozed off, one of the deerskins pulled over him, when there was a sudden noise at the door. He sat up, blinking, to a blaze of fire.

There were four Mohawk warriors in the hut; one dumped a load of wood into the firepit and thrust the brand he held into the pile. Ignoring Roger, the others pulled Père Ferigault to his feet and roughly stripped him of his clothes.

Roger moved instinctively, half rising, and was knocked flat. The priest gave him a quick, open-eyed look that begged him not to interfere.

One of the warriors held his own brand close to Père Ferigault’s face. He said something that sounded like a question, then, receiving no answer, passed his brand downward, so close to the priest’s body that the white skin glowed red.

Sweat stood out on Alexandre’s face as the fire hovered near his gen**als, but his face remained carefully blank. The warrior with the brand poked it suddenly at the priest, who could not keep from flinching. The Indians laughed, and did it again. This time he was prepared; Roger smelled singed hair, but the priest didn’t move.

Tiring of this sport, two of the warriors seized the priest by the arms, and dragged him out of the hut.

If they take me away—pray for me. Roger sat up slowly, the hairs on his body prickling with dread. He could hear the voices of the Indians, talking among themselves, receding in the distance; no sound from the priest.

Alexandre’s discarded clothes were flung around the hut; Roger picked them up, carefully beating the dust from them and folding them. His hands were shaking.

He tried to pray, but found it hard to focus his mind upon devotion. Over and around the words of his prayer, he could hear a small, cold voice, saying, And when they come to take me away—who will pray for me?

They had left him a fire; he tried to believe that meant that they did not mean to kill him right away. The granting of comforts to a condemned prisoner was not the Mohawk way, either. After a time he lay down under the deerskins, curled on his side, and watched the flames until he fell asleep, worn out by terror.

He was roused from uneasy sleep by the shuffle of feet and many voices. He sprang awake, rolled away from the fire and crouched, looking frantically for some means of defense.

The door flap lifted, and the nak*d body of the priest fell into the hut. The noises outside moved away.

Alexandre stirred and moaned. Roger came quickly and knelt by him. He could smell fresh blood, a hot-copper smell he recognized from the slaughtering of the moose.

“Are you hurt? What have they done?”

The answer to that was quick in coming. He turned the half-conscious priest over, to see blood streaming over face and neck in a shiny red glaze. He snatched the priest’s discarded robe to stanch the wound, pushed back the matted blond hair, and found that the priest’s right ear was missing. Something sharp had taken a patch of skin some three inches square from just behind the jaw, removing both ear and a section of scalp.

Roger clenched his stomach muscles and pressed the cloth tight against the raw wound. Holding it in place, he dragged the limp body to the fire, and piled the remnants of clothes and both deerskins on top of Père Ferigault.

The man was moaning now. Roger washed his face, made him drink a little water.

“It’s all right,” he muttered, over and over, though he was uncertain whether the other could hear him. “It’s all right, they didn’t kill you.” He couldn’t help wondering whether it might have been better if they had; did they mean this only as a warning to the priest, or was it only the preliminary to greater tortures?

The fire had burned itself to coals; in the reddish light, the seeping blood was black.

Father Alexandre moved constantly in small jerks, the restlessness of his body at once caused and constrained by the pain of his wound. He could not by any means settle to sleep, and consequently neither could Roger, nearly as aware as the priest of each interminably passing minute.

Roger cursed himself for helplessness; he would have given anything to assuage the other man’s pain, even for a moment. It wasn’t merely sympathy, and he knew it; Father Alexandre’s small, breathless sounds kept the knowledge of the mutilation fresh in Roger’s mind, and terror alive in his blood. If the priest could only sleep, the sounds would stop—and perhaps in the darkness, the horror would recede a bit.

For the first time, he thought he understood what it was that made Claire Randall tick; made her walk onto battlefields, to lay her hands on wounded men. To ease pain and death in another was to soothe the fear of it in oneself—and to soothe his own fear, he would do almost anything.

At last, unable to bear the whispered prayers and stifled whimpering any longer, he lay down beside the priest, and took Alexandre in his arms.

“Hush,” he said, his lips close to Père Alexandre’s head. He hoped he had the side with the ear. “Be still now. Reposez-vous.”

The priest’s lean body quivered against his own, the muscles knotted with cold and agony. Roger rubbed the man’s back briskly, chafed his palms over the chilled limbs, and pulled both tattered deerskins over them.

“You’ll be all right.” Roger spoke in English, aware that it didn’t matter what he said, only that he said something. “Here now, it’s all right. Yes, go on, then.” He talked as much to distract himself as the other man; the feel of Alexandre’s nak*d body was vaguely shocking—as much because it didn’t feel unnatural as because it did.

The priest clung to him, head pressed into his shoulder. He said nothing, but Roger could feel the wetness of tears against his skin. He made himself hug the priest tightly, rubbing up and down the spine with its small lumps of knobby bone, forcing himself to think only of stopping the terrible shaking.

“You could be a dog,” Roger said. “A mistreated stray of some kind. I’d do it if you were a dog, of course I would. No, I wouldn’t,” he muttered to himself. “Call the ruddy RSPCA, I expect.”

He patted Alexandre’s head, careful where his fingers went, cold with gooseflesh at the thought of touching that raw, bloody patch by inadvertence. The hair at the priest’s nape was lank with sweat, though the flesh of his neck and shoulders was like ice. His lower body was warmer, but not by much.

“Nobody’d treat a dog like this,” he muttered. “Fucking savages. Set the police onto them. Put their bloody pictures in the Times. Complain to my MP.”

A small ripple of something too frightened to be called laughter went through him. He gripped the priest fiercely, and rocked him to and fro in darkness.

“Reposez-vous, mon ami. C’est bien, là, c’est bien.”



River Run, March 1770

Brianna rolled the wet brush along the edge of the palette, squeezing out the excess turps to form a good point. She touched the point briefly to the viridian-cobalt mix and added a fine line of shadow to the river’s edge.

There were footsteps on the path behind her, coming from the house. She recognized the arrythmic double step; it was the Deadly Duo. She tensed slightly, fighting the urge to snatch the wet canvas and put it out of sight behind Hector Cameron’s mausoleum. She didn’t mind Jocasta, who often came to sit with her while she painted in the mornings, to discuss techniques of painting, grinding pigments, and the like. In fact, she welcomed her great-aunt’s company and treasured the older woman’s stories of her girlhood in Scotland, of Brianna’s grandmother, and of the other MacKenzies of Leoch. But when Jocasta brought her faithful Seeing-eye Dog along, it was a different matter.

“Good morning, Niece! Is it not too cold for you the morn?”

Jocasta halted, her own cloak drawn around her, and smiled at Brianna. If she hadn’t known better, she wouldn’t have realized her aunt’s blindness.

“No, it’s fine here; the…er…tomb blocks the wind. I’m finished for now, though.” She wasn’t, but stabbed her brush into the turpentine jar and began to scrape the palette. Damned if she’d paint with Ulysses describing her every brushstroke out loud.

“Ah? Well, leave your things, then; Ulysses will take them up for you.”

Reluctantly abandoning her easel, Brianna picked up her private sketchbook and tucked it under one arm, giving her other to Jocasta. She wasn’t leaving that for Mr. Sees-all, Tells-all to flip through.

“We have company today,” Jocasta said, turning back toward the house. “Judge Alderdyce, from Cross Creek, and his mother. I thought perhaps ye’d wish time to change, before luncheon.” Brianna bit the inside of her cheek, to prevent any rejoinder to this less than subtle hint. More visitors.

Under the circumstances, she could scarcely refuse to meet her aunt’s guests—or even to change clothes for them—but she could have wished that Jocasta were a good deal less sociable. There was a constant stream of visitors; for luncheon, for tea, for supper, overnight, for breakfast, come to buy horses, sell cows, trade lumber, borrow books, bring gifts, play music. They came from neighboring plantations, from Cross Creek, and from as far away as Edenton and New Bern.