Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 181

   

In the last of the twilight, he spoke, finally.

“There is not much time,” he said softly. “I asked you once before to pray for me. I did not know then what I would have you pray for—for the preservation of my life, or my soul. Now I know that neither is possible.”

Roger moved to speak, but the priest twitched a hand, stopping him.

“There is only the only thing I can ask for. Pray for me, brother—that I might die well. Pray that I may die in silence.” He looked at Roger for the first time, then, his eyes glinting with moisture. “I would not shame her by crying out.”

It was some time after dark that the drums began. Roger had not heard them in his time in the village. Impossible to say how many there were; the sound seemed to come from everywhere. He felt it in the marrow of his bones and the soles of his feet.

The Mohawks returned. When they came in, the priest stood up at once. He undressed himself, and walked out, nak*d, without a backward glance.

Roger sat staring at the hide-covered doorway, praying—and listening. He knew what a drum could do; had done it himself—evoked awe and fury with the beating of a stretched hide, calling to the deep and hidden instincts of the listener. Knowing what was happening, though, didn’t make it any less frightening.

He could not have said how long he sat there listening to the drums, hearing other sounds—voices, footsteps, the noises of a large assembly—trying not to listen for Alexandre’s voice.

Suddenly the drumming stopped. It started again, no more than a few tentative thumps, and then quit altogether. There were shouts, and then a sudden cacophany of yells. Roger started up, and hobbled toward the door. The guard was still there, though; he thrust his head through the flap and gestured menacingly, one hand on his war club.

Roger stopped, but couldn’t return to the fire. He stood in the half-dark, sweat rolling down his ribs, listening to the sounds outside.

It sounded like all the devils in hell had been let loose. What in God’s name was going on out there? A terrific fight, obviously. But who, and why?

After the first salvo of shrieks, the vocal part of it had lessened, but there were still individual high-pitched yelps and ululations from every part of the central clearing. There were thuds, too; moans, and other noises indicative of violent combat. Something struck the wall of the longhouse; the wall shivered and a bark panel cracked down the middle.

Roger glanced at the door flap; no, the guard wasn’t looking. He dashed across to the panel and tore at it with his fingers. No good; the wood fibers shredded away beneath his nails and wouldn’t give him purchase. In desperation, he pressed his eye to the hole he had made, trying to see what was happening outside.

No more than a narrow slice of the central clearing was visible. He could see the longhouse opposite, a strip of churned earth between, and over everything, the flickering light of an enormous fire. Red and yellow shadows fought with black ones, peopling the air with fiery demons.

Some of the demons were real; two dark figures reeled past and out of sight, locked in violent embrace. More figures streaked across his line of sight, running toward the fire.

Then he stiffened, pressing his face against the wood. Among the incomprehensible Mohawk yells, he could have sworn he had heard someone bellowing in Gaelic.

He had.

“Caisteal Dhuni!” somebody shouted nearby, followed by a hair-raising screech. Scots—white men! He had to get to them! Roger smashed his fists on the shattered wood in a frenzy, trying to batter his way through the panel by main force. The Gaelic voice broke loose again.

“Caisteal Dhuni!” No, wait—God, it was another voice! And the first one, answering. “Do mi! Do mi!” To me! To me! And then a fresh wave of Mohawk shrieks rose up and drowned the voices—women, it was women screaming now, their voices even louder than the men’s.

Roger flung himself at the panel, shoulder first; it cracked and splintered further, but would not give way. He tried again, and a third time, with no result. There was nothing in the longhouse that could be used as a weapon, nothing. In desperation he seized the lashings of one of the bed cubicles and tore at it with hands and teeth, ripping until he had loosened part of the frame.

He grabbed the wood, heaved; shook it and heaved again, until with a rending crack it came free in his hands, leaving him panting, holding a six-foot pole with a shattered, sharpened end. He tucked the butt end under his arm and charged the doorway, pointed end aimed like a spear at the hide flap.

He shot out into dark and flame, cold air and smoke, into noise that singed his blood. He saw a figure ahead of him, and charged it. The man danced aside, and raised a war club. Roger couldn’t stop, couldn’t turn, but threw himself flat, and the club smashed down inches from his head.

He rolled to the side and swung his pole wildly. It crashed against the Indian’s head, and the man stumbled and went down, falling over Roger.

Whisky. The man reeked of whisky. Not stopping to wonder, Roger wriggled out from under the squirming body, staggering to his feet, pole still in his hand.

A scream came from behind him and he whirled, stabbing with all his strength as he pivoted on the ball of his foot. The shock of impact shuddered up his arms and through his chest. The man he had struck was clawing at the pole; it jerked and quivered, then was wrenched from his grasp as the man fell over.

He staggered, caught himself, then whirled toward the fire. It was an immense pyre; flames billowing in a wall of pure and ardent scarlet, vivid against the night. Through the bobbing heads of the watchers, he saw the black figure in the heart of the flame, arms spread in a gesture of benediction, lashed to the pole from which he hung. Long hair fluttered up, strands catching fire with a burst of flame, surrounding the head with a halo of gold, like Christ in a missal. Then something crashed down on Roger’s head, and he dropped like a rock.

He didn’t quite lose consciousness. He couldn’t see or move, but he could still hear, dimly. There were voices near him. The yelling was still there, but fainter, almost a background noise, like the roar of the ocean.

He felt himself rise in the air, and the crackle of the flames got louder, it matched the roar in his ears…Christ, they were going to throw him into the fire! His head spun with effort and light blazed behind his shut lids, but his stubborn body wouldn’t move.

The roar diminished, but paradoxically he felt warm air brush his face. He struck the ground, half bounced, and rolled, ending up on his face, his arms flung out. Cool earth was under his fingers.

He breathed. Mechanically, one breath at a time. Very slowly, the spinning sensation began to ebb.

There was noise, a long way away, but he couldn’t hear anything near him but his own loud breathing. Very slowly, he opened one eye. Firelight flickered on poles and bark panels, a dim echo of the brilliance outside. Longhouse. He was inside again.

His breathing was loud and ragged in his ears. He tried to hold his breath, but couldn’t. Then he realized that he was holding his breath; the gasping noise was coming from someone else.

It was behind him. With immense effort, he got his hands under him, and rose onto hands and knees, swaying, eyes squinted against the pain in his head.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered to himself. He rubbed a hand hard over his face and blinked, but the man was still there, six feet away.

Jamie Fraser. He was lying on his side in a huddle of limbs, a crimson plaid tangled round his body. Half his face was obscured with blood, but there wasn’t any mistaking him.

For a moment, Roger just looked at him blankly. For months the greater part of his waking moments had been devoted to imagining a meeting with this man. Now it had happened, and it seemed simply impossible. There was room for no feeling beyond a sort of dull amazement.

He rubbed his face again, harder, forcing aside the fog of fear and adrenaline. What…what was Fraser doing here?

When thought and feeling connected again, his first recognizable feeling was neither fury nor alarm, but an absurd burst of joyful relief.

“She didn’t,” he muttered, and the words sounded queer and hoarse to his ears, after so long without spoken English. “Oh, God, she didn’t do it!”

Jamie Fraser could be here for only one reason—to rescue him. And if that was so, it was because Brianna had made her father come. Whether it was misunderstanding or malevolence that had put him through the hell of the last few months, it had not been hers.

“Didn’t,” he said again. “She didn’t.” He shuddered, both with nausea from the blow and with relief.

He had thought he would be hollow forever, but suddenly there was something there; something small, but very solid. Something he could hold in the cup of his heart. Brianna. He had her back.

There was another set of high-pitched screams from just outside; ululations that went on and on, sticking into his flesh like a thousand pins. He jerked, and shuddered again, all other feelings subsumed in renewed realization.

Dying with the reassurance that Brianna loved him was better than dying without it—but he hadn’t wanted to die in the first place. He remembered what he had seen outside, felt his gorge rise, and choked it down.

With a trembling hand he began the unfamiliar sign of the Cross. “In the name of the Father,” he whispered, and then the words failed him. “Please,” he whispered instead. “Please, don’t let him have been right.”

He crawled shakily to Fraser’s body, hoping that the man was still alive. He was; blood was flowing from a gash on Fraser’s temple, and when he thrust his fingers under the man’s jaw, he could feel the steady bump of a pulse.

There was water in one of the pots under the shattered bed frame; luckily it hadn’t spilled. He dipped the end of the plaid in water and used it to mop Fraser’s face. After a few minutes of this ministration, the man’s eyelids began to flutter.

Fraser coughed, gagged heavily, turned his head to one side, and threw up. Then his eyes shot open, and before Roger could speak or move, Fraser had rolled up onto one knee, his hand on the sgian dhu in his stocking.

Blue eyes glared at him, and Roger raised an arm in instinctive defense. Then Fraser blinked, shook his head, groaned, and sat down heavily on the earthen floor.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said. He closed his eyes and groaned again. Then his head snapped up, eyes blue and piercing, but this time with alarm rather than fury.

“Claire!” he exclaimed. “My wife, where is she?”

Roger felt his jaw drop.

“Claire? You brought her here? You brought a woman into this?”

Fraser gave him a glance of extreme dislike, but wasted no words. Palming the knife from his stocking, he glanced at the doorway. The flap was down; no one was visible. The noise outside had died down, though the rumble of voices was still audible. Now and then one stood out, shouting or raised in exhortation.

“There’s a guard,” Roger said.

Fraser glanced at him and rose to his feet, smooth as a panther. Blood was still running down the side of his face, but it didn’t seem to trouble him. Silently, he flattened himself along the wall, glided to the edge of the door flap, and eased the flap aside with the tip of the tiny dagger.

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