Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 172

   

“Aye, there’s a chance. They want the whisky, but they’re wary of it. Some of the older men will be against the bargain, for fear of the damage liquor might do to the folk; the younger men are all for it. Some in the middle say aye, take it; they can use the liquor in trade if they’re fearful of using it.”

“Wakatihsnore told you all that?” I was surprised. The sachem, Acts Fast, seemed much too cool and wily a customer for such openness.

“Not him: wee Ian.” Jamie smiled briefly. “The lad shows great promise as a spy, I will say. He’s eaten at every hearth in the village, and he’s found a lassie who’s taken a great liking to him. She tells Ian what the Council of Mothers is thinking.”

I hunched my shoulders and pulled my cloak tight around them; our perch on the rocks outside the village made us safe from interruption, but the price of visibility was exposure to the bitter wind.

“And what does the Council of Mothers say?” A week spent in a longhouse had given me some idea of the importance of the women’s opinions in the scheme of things; though they didn’t make direct decisions about general affairs, very little would be done without their approval.

“They could wish I offered some ransom other than whisky, and they’re none so sure about giving up the man; more than one lady has a small fancy for him. They wouldna mind adopting him into the tribe.” Jamie’s mouth twisted at that, and I laughed despite my worry.

“Roger’s a nice-looking lad,” I said.

“I’ve seen him,” Jamie said shortly. “Most of the men think he’s an ugly, hairy bastard. Of course, they think that of me, too.” One side of his mouth lifted reluctantly, as he brushed a hand over his jaw; knowing the Indians’ dislike of facial hair, he was careful to shave every morning.

“As it is, that may be what makes the difference.”

“What, Roger’s looks? Or yours?”

“The fact that more than one lady wants the bugger. Ian says his lassie says her aunt thinks it will make trouble to keep him; she’s thinking better to give him back to us than to have ill-feeling amongst the women over him.”

I rubbed my cold-reddened knuckles over my lips, trying to keep from laughing.

“Has the men’s Council any idea that some of the women are interested in Roger?”

“I dinna ken. Why?”

“Because if they knew, they’d give him to you for free.”

Jamie snorted at that, but gave me a reluctant lift of one eyebrow.

“Aye, maybe. I’ll have Ian mention the matter among the young men. It canna hurt.”

“You said the women wished you would offer something instead of whisky. Did you mention the opal to Acts Fast?”

He sat up straight at that, interested.

“Aye, I did. They couldna have been taken more aback had I pulled a snake from my sporran. They got verra excited—angry and fearful both, and I think they might well have done me harm, save I’d already mentioned the whisky.”

He reached into the breast of his coat and drew out the opal, dropping it into my hand.

“Best you take it, Sassenach. But I think you’ll maybe not want to show it to anyone.”

“How odd.” I looked down at the stone, its spiral petroglyph shimmering with color. “So it did mean something to them.”

“Oh, that it did,” he assured me. “I couldna say what, but whatever it was, they didna like it a bit. The war chief demanded to know where I’d got it, and I told them ye’d found it. That made them back off a bit, but they were like a kettle on the boil over it.”

“Why are you wanting me to take it?” The stone was warm from his body, and felt smooth and comfortable in my hand. Instinctively, my thumb ran round and round the spiraled carving.

“They were shocked when they saw it, as I said—and then angry. One or two of them made as though to strike me, but they held back. I watched for a bit, wi’ the stone in my hand, and I realized that they were afraid of it; they wouldna touch me while I held it.”

He reached out and closed my fist around the stone.

“Keep it by ye. If there should be danger, bring it out.”

“You’re more likely to be in danger than I am,” I protested, trying to hand it back.

He shook his head, though, the ends of his hair lifting in the wind.

“No, not now they ken about the whisky. They’d not harm me until they’ve heard where it is.”

“But why should I be in any danger?” The thought was disquieting; the women had been cautious but not hostile, and the men of the village had largely ignored me.

He frowned, and looked down toward the village. From here, little was visible save the outer palisades, with trails of smoke drifting above them from the unseen longhouses beyond.

“I canna say, Sassenach. Only that I have been a hunter— and I have been hunted. Ye ken how when something strange is near, the birds stop singing, and there is a stillness in the wood?”

He nodded toward the village, eyes fixed on the swirl of smoke as though some shape might emerge from it.

“There is a stillness there. Something is happening that I canna see. I dinna think it is to do with us—and yet…I am uneasy,” he said abruptly. “And I have lived too long to dismiss such a feeling.”

Ian, who joined us shortly at the rendezvous, seconded this opinion.

“Aye, it’s like holding the edge of a fishing net that’s underwater,” he said, frowning. “Ye can feel the wriggling through your hands, and ye ken there’s fish there—but ye canna see where.” The wind ruffled his thick brown hair; as usual, it was half plaited, with strands coming loose. He thumbed one absently behind an ear.

“There’s something happening among the people; some disagreement, I think. And something happened last night, in the Council house. Emily willna answer me when I ask about it; she only looks away and tells me it’s naught to do with us. But I think it is, somehow.”

“Emily?” Jamie lifted one eyebrow, and Ian grinned.

“It’s what I call her for short,” he said. “Her own name’s Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa; it means Works with Her Hands. She’s a rare carver, is wee Emily. See what she’s made for me?” He reached into his pouch and proudly displayed a tiny otter carved in white soapstone. The animal stood alert, head up and ready for mischief; just to look at it made me smile.

“Verra nice.” Jamie examined the carving with approval, stroking the sinuous curve of the body. “The lassie must like ye fine, Ian.”

“Aye, well, I like her too, Uncle.” Ian was very casual, but his lean cheeks were slightly redder than the cold wind could account for. He coughed and changed the subject slightly.

“She said to me that she thinks the Council might be swayed a bit in our favor, if ye were to give some of them a taste of the whisky, Uncle Jamie. If it’s all right wi’ you, I’ll fetch up a cask and we’ll have a wee ceilidh tonight. Emily will manage it.”

Jamie lifted both eyebrows at that, but nodded after a moment.

“I’ll trust your judgment, Ian,” he said. “In the Council House?”

Ian shook his head.

“Nay. Emily says it will be better if it’s done at the longhouse of her aunt—auld Tewaktenyonh is the Pretty Woman.”

“Is what?” I asked, startled.

“The Pretty Woman,” he explained, wiping his running nose on his sleeve. “One woman of influence in the village has it in her power to decide what’s done wi’ captives; they call her the Pretty Woman, no matter what she looks like. So ye ken, it’s to our advantage if Tewaktenyonh can be convinced the bargain we offer is a good one.”

“I suppose to a captive that’s been freed, the woman would seem beautiful, regardless,” Jamie said wryly. “Aye, I see. Go ahead then; can ye fetch the whisky by yourself?”

Ian nodded and turned to go.

“Wait a minute, Ian,” I said, and held out the opal as he turned back to me. “Could you ask Emily if she knows anything about this?”

“Aye, Auntie Claire, I’ll mention it. Rollo!” He whistled sharply through his teeth, and Rollo, who had been nosing suspiciously under a rock shelf, left off and bounded after his master. Jamie watched them go, a slight frown between his eyebrows.

“D’ye ken where Ian’s spending his nights, Sassenach?”

“If you mean in which longhouse, yes. If you mean in whose bed, no. I could guess, though.”

“Mmphm.” He stretched and shook his hair back. “Come on, Sassenach, I’ll see ye back to the village.”

Ian’s ceilidh got underway soon after dark; the invited guests included the most prominent members of the Council, who came one at a time to Tewaktenyonh’s longhouse, paying their respects to the sachem, Two Spears, who sat at the main hearth with Jamie and Ian flanking him. A slight, pretty girl, who I assumed must be Ian’s Emily, sat quietly behind him, on the keg of whisky.

With the exception of Emily, women were not involved in the whisky-tasting. I had come along, though, to watch, and sat at one of the smaller hearths, keeping an eye on the proceedings while helping two of the women to braid onions, exchanging occasional politenesses in a halting mixture of Tuscarora, English, and French.

The woman at whose hearth I sat offered me a gourd of spruce beer and some kind of cornmeal mush as refreshment. I did my best to accept with cordiality, but my stomach was knotted too tightly to make more than a token attempt at eating.

Too much depended on this impromptu party. Roger was here; somewhere in the village, I knew it. He was alive; I could only hope he was well—well enough to travel, at least. I glanced at the far end of the longhouse, at the largest hearth. I could see no more of Tewaktenyonh than the curve of a white-streaked head; a queer jolt went through me at the sight, and I touched the small lump of Nayawenne’s amulet, where it hung beneath my shirt.

Once the guests were assembled, a rough circle was formed around the hearth, and the opened keg of whisky brought into the center of it. To my surprise, the girl also came into the circle, and took a place beside the keg, a dipping gourd in her hand.

After some words from Two Spears, the festivities commenced, with the girl measuring out portions of the whisky. She did this not by pouring the whisky into the cups, but by taking mouthfuls from the gourd, carefully spitting three mouthfuls into each cup before passing it to one of the men in the circle. I glanced at Jamie, who looked momentarily taken aback, but who politely accepted his cup and drank without hesitation.

I rather wondered just how much whisky the girl was absorbing through the lining of her mouth. Not nearly as much as the men, though I thought it might take quite a bit to lubricate Two Spears, who was a taciturn old bastard with a face like a dyspeptic prune. Before the party had got well underway, though, I was distracted by the arrival of a young boy, the offspring of one of my companions. He came in silently and sat down by his mother, leaning heavily against her. She looked sharply at him, then set down her onions and rose with an exclamation of concern.

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