Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 183

   

MacKenzie was sitting hunched across the fire, heedless of the growing chill. His arms were wrapped about his knees, head bent in thought. He was half turned away, unaware of Jamie’s eye on him.

He grudged to admit it, but the man was decently made. Long shanks and a good breadth through the shoulders; he’d have a fair reach with a sword. He was tall as the MacKenzies of Leoch—and why not? he thought suddenly. The man was Dougal’s get, if a few generations onward.

He found that notion both disturbing and oddly comforting. He’d killed men when he must, and mostly their ghosts let him sleep at night with no great rattling of bones. Dougal’s death, though, was one that he had lived through more than once, and woke from sweating, with the sound of those last silent words of Dougal’s ringing in his ears; words mouthed in blood.

There’d been not the slightest choice; it was kill or be killed, and a near thing either way. And yet…Dougal MacKenzie had been his foster father, and if he was honest, a part of him had loved the man.

Yes, it was some comfort to know that a small part of Dougal was left. The other part of this MacKenzie’s heritage was a wee bit more troubling. He’d seen the man’s eyes first thing when he woke, bright green and intent, and for one second his wame had shriveled up into a ball, thinking of Geillis Duncan.

Did he much want his daughter linked with a witch’s spawn? He eyed the man covertly. Perhaps it was as well if Brianna’s child was not of this man’s blood.

“Brianna,” MacKenzie said, lifting his head suddenly from his knees. “Where is she?”

Jamie jerked, and a hot knife-blade seared his arm, leaving him sweating.

“Where?” he said. “At River Run, with her aunt. She’s safe.” His heart was thundering in his ears. Christ, was the man able to read thoughts? Or had he the Sight?

The green eyes were steady, dark in the dim light.

“Why did you bring Claire, and not Brianna? Why did she not come with you?”

Jamie returned the man’s cool look. They’d see if it was a matter of mind reading or not. If not, the last thing he meant to tell MacKenzie now was the truth; time enough for that when—if—they were safely away.

“I should have left Claire as well, if I thought I could. She’s a stubborn wee besom. Short of tying her hand and foot, I couldna prevent her coming.”

Something dark flickered in MacKenzie’s eyes—doubt, or pain?

“I should not have thought Brianna the kind of lass to mind her father’s word overmuch,” he said. His voice had an edge to it—yes, pain, and a sort of jealousy.

Jamie relaxed slightly. No mind reading.

“Did ye no? Well, and perhaps ye dinna ken her so well as all that,” he said. Pleasantly enough, but with a jeering undertone that would make one sort of man go for his throat.

MacKenzie wasn’t that sort. He sat up straight, and drew a deep breath.

“I know her well,” he said levelly. “She is my wife.”

Jamie sat up straight in turn, and clenched his teeth on a hiss of pain.

“The hell she is.”

MacKenzie’s black brows drew down at that.

“We are handfast, she and I. Did she not tell you that?”

She hadn’t—but he hadn’t given her much chance to tell him, either. Too furious at the thought of her willing to bed a man, stung at thinking she’d made a fool of him, proud as Lucifer and suffering the Devil’s pains for it, in wishing her perfect and finding her only as human as himself.

“When?” Jamie asked.

“Early September, in Wilmington. When I—just before I left her.” The admission came unwillingly, and through the black veil of his own guilt he saw a reflection of it on MacKenzie’s face. As well deserved as his own, he thought viciously. If the coward had not left her…

“She didna tell me.”

He saw the doubt and the pain in MacKenzie’s eyes quite clearly now. The man worried that Brianna did not want him—for if she did, she would have come. He knew well enough that no power on earth or below it would keep Claire from his side if she thought him in danger—and felt a jolt of fear renewed at that thought; for where was she?

“I suppose she thought you wouldn’t see handfasting as a legal form of marriage,” MacKenzie said quietly.

“Or perhaps she didna see it so herself,” Jamie suggested cruelly. He could relieve the man’s mind by telling him a part of the truth—that Brianna had not come because she was with child—but he was in no charitable mood.

It was getting quite dark, but even so he could see MacKenzie’s face flush at that, and his hands clench on the ragged deerskin.

“I saw it so,” was all he said.

Jamie closed his eyes, and said no more. The last coals in the fire died slowly, leaving them in darkness.

61

THE OFFICE OF A PRIEST

The smell of burnt things hung in the air. We passed close by the pit and I couldn’t help seeing from the corner of my eye the heap of charred fragments, shattered ends frosted white with ash. I hoped it was wood. I was afraid to look directly.

I stumbled on the frozen ground, and my escort caught me by the arm. Pulled me up without comment and pushed me toward a longhouse where two men stood on guard, huddled against a cold wind that filled the air with drifting ashes.

I had not slept and had not eaten, though food was offered. My feet and my fingers were cold. There was keening from a longhouse at the far end of the village, and over it the louder formal chant of a death song. Was it for the girl that they sang, or someone else? I shivered.

The guards glanced at me and stood aside. I lifted the hide flap at the door and went in.

It was dark; the fire inside as dead as the one outside. Gray light from the smokehole gave me enough illumination to see an untidy heap of skins and cloth on the floor, though. A patch of red tartan showed amid the jumble, and I felt a surge of relief.

“Jamie!”

The pile heaved and came apart. Jamie’s rumpled head popped up, alert but looking a good deal the worse for wear. Next to him was a dark, bearded man who seemed oddly familiar. Then he moved into the light, and I caught the flash of green eyes above the shrubbery.

“Roger!” I exclaimed.

Without a word he rose out of the blankets and clasped me in his arms. He held so tight, I could hardly breathe.

He was terribly thin; I could feel every one of his ribs. Not starved, though; he stank, but with the normal scents of dirt and stale sweat, not the yeasty effluvium of starvation.

“Roger, are you all right?” He let go, and I looked him up and down, searching for any signs of injury.

“Yes,” he said. His voice was husky, from sleep and emotion. “Bree? She’s all right?”

“She’s fine,” I assured him. “What’s happened to your foot?” He wore nothing but a tattered shirt and a stained rag wrapped around one foot.

“A cut. Nothing. Where is she?” He clutched my arm, anxious.

“At a place called River Run, with her great-aunt. Didn’t Jamie tell you? She’s—”

I was interrupted by Jamie clutching my other arm.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?”

“Yes, of course I—my God, what happened to you?” My attention was momentarily distracted from Roger by the sight of Jamie. It wasn’t the nasty contusion on his temple or the dried blood on his shirt that struck my notice, so much as the unnatural way he held his right arm.

“My arm’s maybe broken,” he said. “Hurts like a bugger. Will ye come and tend to it?”

Without waiting for an answer he turned and walked away, sitting down heavily near the broken bed frame. I gave Roger a brief pat and went after him, wondering what the hell. Jamie wouldn’t admit to being in pain in front of Roger Wakefield, if splintered raw bone were sticking out of his flesh.

“What are you up to?” I muttered, kneeling beside him. I felt the arm gingerly through his shirt—no compound fractures. I rolled it carefully up for a better look.

“I havena told him about Brianna,” he said, very softly. “And I think it better you do not.”

I stared at him.

“We can’t do that! He has to know.”

“Keep your voice down. Aye, he maybe should know about the bairn—but not the other, not Bonnet.”

I bit my lip, feeling gingerly down the swell of his biceps. He had one of the worst bruises I had ever seen; a huge mottled splotch of purple-blue—but I was fairly sure the arm wasn’t broken.

I wasn’t so sure about his suggestion.

He could see the doubt on my face; he squeezed my hand hard.

“Not yet; not here. Let it wait, at least until we’re safe away.”

I thought for a moment, as I ripped the sleeve of his shirt and used it to make a rough sling. Learning that Brianna was pregnant was going to be a shock by itself. Perhaps Jamie was right; there was no telling how Roger would react to the news of the rape, and we were a long way from being home free yet. Better he should have his head clear. At last I nodded, reluctantly.

“All right,” I said aloud, getting up. “I don’t think it’s broken, but the sling will help.”

I left Jamie sitting on the ground and went to Roger, feeling like a Ping-Pong ball.

“How’s the foot?” I knelt to unwrap the unsanitary-looking rag around it, but he stopped me with an urgent hand on my shoulder.

“Brianna. I know there’s something wrong. Is she—”

“She’s pregnant.”

Whatever possibilities he had been turning over in his mind, that hadn’t been among them. It isn’t possible to mistake sheer amazement. He blinked, looking as though I’d hit him on the head with an ax.

“Are you sure?”

“She’ll be seven months gone by now; it’s noticeable.” Jamie had come up so quietly that neither of us had heard him. He spoke coldly, and looked even colder, but Roger was well beyond noticing subtleties.

Excitement brightened his eyes, and his shocked face came alive beneath the black whiskers.

“Pregnant. My God, but how?”

Jamie made a derisive noise in the back of his throat. Roger glanced at him, then quickly away.

“That is, I never thought—”

“How? Aye, ye didna think, and it’s my daughter left to pay the price of your pleasure!”

Roger’s head snapped round at that, and he glared at Jamie.

“She is not left, in any way! I told you she is my wife!”

“She is?” I said, startled in the midst of my unwrapping.

“They’re handfast,” Jamie said, very grudgingly. “Why could the lass not have told us, though?”

I thought I could answer that one—in more than one way. The second answer wasn’t one I could suggest in front of Roger, though.

She hadn’t said, because she was with child, and thought it was Bonnet’s. Believing that, she might have thought it better not to reveal their handfasting, so as to leave Roger an escape—if he wanted it.

“Most likely because she thought you wouldn’t see that as a true marriage,” I said. “I’d told her about our wedding; about the contract and how you insisted on marrying me in church, with a priest. She wouldn’t want to tell you anything she thought you might not approve of—she wanted so badly to please you.”

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