Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 182

   

Fraser grimaced at whatever he saw. Letting the flap swing back in place, he returned and sat down, putting the knife away in his stocking.

“A good dozen of them just outside. Is that water?” He put out a hand, and Roger silently scooped a gourdful of water and handed it to him. He drank deeply, splashed water in his face, then poured the rest of it over his head.

Fraser wiped a hand over his battered face, then opened bloodshot eyes and looked at Roger.

“Wakefield, is it?”

“I go by my own name, these days. MacKenzie.”

Fraser gave a brief, humorless snort.

“So I’ve heard.” He had a wide, expressive mouth—like Bree’s. His lips compressed briefly, then relaxed.

“I’ve done wrong to ye, MacKenzie, as ye’ll know. I’ve come to put it right, so far as may be, but it may be as I’ll not have the chance.” He gestured briefly toward the door. “For now, you’ve my apology. For what satisfaction ye may want of me later—I’ll bide your will. But I’d ask ye to let it wait until we’re safe out of this.”

Roger stared at him for a moment. Satisfaction for the last months of torment and uncertainty seemed as farfetched a notion as the thought of safety. He nodded.

“Done,” he said.

They sat in silence for several moments. The fire in the hut was burning low, but the wood to feed it was outside; the guards kept charge of anything that might be used as a weapon.

“What happened?” Roger asked at last. He nodded toward the door. “Out there?”

Fraser took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. For the first time, Roger noticed that he held the elbow of his right arm cradled in his left palm, the arm itself held close to the body.

“I will be damned if I know,” he said.

“They did burn the priest? He’s dead?” There could be no doubt of it after what he’d seen, but still Roger felt compelled to ask.

“He was a priest?” Thick reddish brows rose in surprise, then fell. “Aye, he’s dead. And not only him.” An involuntary shudder went over the Highlander’s big frame.

Fraser hadn’t known what they meant to do when the drums began to sound, and everyone went out to gather by the great fire. There was plenty of talk, but his knowledge of the Mohawk tongue was insufficient to make out what was happening, and his nephew, who spoke the tongue, was nowhere to be found.

The whites had not been invited, but no one made any move to keep them away. And so it was that he and Claire had come to be standing on the edge of the crowd, curious onlookers, when the sachem and the Council came out and the old man began to speak. Another man had spoken, too, very angrily.

“Then they brought the man out, nak*d as a tadpole, bound him to a stake, and started in upon him.” He paused, eyes shadowed, and glanced at Roger.

“I’ll tell ye, man, I’ve seen French executioners keep a man alive who wished he weren’t. It wasna worse than that—but no a great deal better.” Fraser drank again, thirstily, and lowered the cup.

“I tried to take Claire away— I didna ken but what they meant to attack us next.” The crowd was pressed so tight around them, though, that movement was impossible; there was no choice but to go on watching.

Roger’s mouth felt dry, and he reached for the cup. He didn’t want to ask, but he felt a perverse need to know—whether for Alexandre’s sake or for his own.

“Did he—cry out at all?”

Fraser gave him another glance of surprise, then something like understanding crossed his face.

“No,” he said slowly. “He died verra well—by their lights. Ye will have been knowing the man?”

Roger nodded, wordless. It was difficult to believe Alexandre was gone, even hearing this. And where had he gone? Surely he could not have been right. I will not be forgiven. Surely not. No just God—

Roger shook his head hard, pushing the thought away. It was plain that Fraser had no more than half his mind on his story, horrific as it was. He kept glancing at the door, a look of anxious expectation on his face. Was he expecting rescue?

“How many men did you bring with you?”

The blue eyes flashed, surprised.

“My nephew Ian.”

“That’s all?” Roger tried to keep the stunned disbelief out of his voice, but patently failed.

“Ye were expecting the 78th Hieland regiment?” Fraser asked sarcastically. He got to his feet, swaying slightly, arm pressed to his side. “I brought whisky.”

“Whisky? Did that have anything to do with the fighting?” Remembering the reek of the man who had fallen over him, Roger nodded toward the wall of the longhouse.

“It may have.”

Fraser went to the wall with the cracked panel, and pressed an eye against the opening, staring out at the clearing for some time before returning to the dwindling fire. Things had gone quiet outside.

The big Highlander was looking more than unwell. His face was white and sheened with sweat under the streaks of dried blood. Roger silently poured more water; it was as silently accepted. He knew well enough what was wrong with Fraser, and it wasn’t the effects of injury.

“When you last saw her—”

“When the fighting broke out.” Unable to stay seated, Fraser set down the cup and got to his feet again, prowling the confines of the longhouse like a restless bear. He paused, glancing at Roger.

“Will ye maybe ken a bit what happened there?”

“I could guess.” He acquainted Fraser with the priest’s story, finding some small respite from worry in the telling.

“They wouldn’t have harmed her,” he said, trying to reassure himself as much as Fraser. “She’d nothing to do with it.”

Fraser gave a derisory snort.

“Aye, she did.” Without warning, he smashed a fist against the ground, in a muffled thump of fury. “Damn the woman!”

“She’ll be all right,” Roger repeated stubbornly. He couldn’t bear to think otherwise, but he knew what Fraser plainly knew as well—if Claire Fraser was alive, unhurt, and free, nothing could have kept her from her husband’s side. And as for the unknown nephew…

“I heard your nephew—in the fight. I heard him call out to you. He sounded all right.” Even as he offered this bit of information, he knew how feeble it was as reassurance. Fraser nodded, though, head bent on his knees.

“He’s a good lad, Ian,” he murmured. “And he has friends among the Mohawk. God send they will protect him.”

Roger’s curiosity was coming back, as the shock of the evening began to fade.

“Your wife,” he said. “What did she do? How could she possibly have been involved in this?”

Fraser sighed. He scrubbed his good hand over his face and through his hair, rubbing until the loose red locks stood up in knots and snarls.

“I shouldna have said so,” he said. “It wasna her fault in the least. It’s only—she’ll not be killed, but God, if they’ve harmed her…”

“They won’t,” Roger said firmly. “What happened?”

Fraser shrugged and closed his eyes. Head tilted back, he described the scene as though he could still see it, engraved on the inside of his eyelids. Perhaps he could.

“I didna take heed of the girl, in such a crowd. I couldna even say what she looked like. It was only at the last that I saw her.”

Claire had been by his side, white-faced and rigid in the press of shouting, swaying bodies. When the Indians had nearly finished with the priest, they untied him from the stake and fastened his hands instead to a long pole, held above his head, from which to suspend him in the flames.

Fraser glanced at him, wiping the back of a hand across his lips.

“I’ve seen a man’s heart pulled beating from his chest before,” he said. “But I hadna seen it eaten before his eyes.” He spoke almost shyly, as though apologizing for his squeamishness. Shocked, he had looked to Claire. It was then that he had seen the Indian girl standing on Claire’s other side, with a cradleboard in her arms.

With great calmness, the girl had handed the board to Claire, then turned and slipped through the crowd.

“She didna look to left or right, but walked straight into the fire.”

“What?” Roger’s throat closed with shock, the exclamation emerging in a strangled croak.

The flames had embraced the girl in moments. A head taller than the folk near him, Jamie had seen everything clearly.

“Her clothes caught, and then her hair. By the time she reached him, she was burning like a torch.” Still, he had seen the dark silhouette of her arms, raised to embrace the empty body of the priest. Within moments, it was no longer possible to distinguish man or woman; there was only the one figure, black amid the towering flames.

“It was then everything went mad.” Fraser’s wide shoulders slumped a little, and he touched the gash in his temple. “All I ken is one woman set up a howl, and then there was the hell of a screech, and of a sudden, everyone was either fleeing or fighting.”

He had himself tried to do both, shielding Claire and her burden while fighting his way out of the thrashing press of bodies. There were too many of them, though. Unable to escape, he had pushed Claire against the wall of a longhouse, seized a stick of wood with which to defend them, and shouted for Ian, while wielding his makeshift club on anyone reckless enough to come near.

“Then a wee fiend leapt out o’ the smoke, and struck me with his club.” He shrugged, one-shouldered. “I turned to fight him off, and then there were three of them on me.” Something had caught him in the temple, and he had known no more till waking in the longhouse with Roger.

“I havena seen Claire since. Nor Ian.”

The fire had burned itself to coals, and it was growing cold in the longhouse. Jamie unfastened his brooch and pulled the plaid around his shoulders as well as he could, one-handed, and leaned gingerly back against the wall.

His right arm might be broken; he’d taken a blow from one of the war clubs just below the shoulder, and the stricken spot went from numbness to blinding pain with no warning. That was of no moment, though, compared with his worry for Claire and wee Ian.

It was very late. If Claire hadn’t been hurt in the fighting, she was likely safe enough, he told himself. The old woman wouldn’t countenance harm done to her. As for Ian, though—he felt a moment’s pride in the lad, in spite of his fear. Ian was a bonny fighter, and a credit to the uncle who’d taught him.

If he should have been overcome, though…there had been so many of the savages, and with the fighting so hot…

He shifted restlessly, trying not to think of facing his sister with ill news of her youngest boy. Christ, he’d rather have his own heart torn from his breast and eaten before his eyes; it would feel much the same.

Seeking distraction—any distraction—from his fears, he shifted again, taking random stock of the shadowy insides of the house. Bare as a Skyeman’s cupboard, for the most part. A jug of water, a broken bed frame, and one or two tattered skins for bedding lying crumpled on the earthen floor.

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