Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 188

   

She thought briefly of her mother’s penicillin farm, less briefly of her mother, and her throat closed tight. Then they were there, and she could no longer distract herself from the realization of what she was doing.

Hodgepile struggled with the key, and the panic she had been suppressing all day swept over her. She had no idea what to say, what to do. What was she doing here?

Lord John squeezed her arm in encouragement. She took a deep breath of the dank wet air, ducked her head, and stepped inside.

He sat on a bench at the far side of the cell, eyes fixed on the door. He’d clearly been expecting someone—he’d heard the footsteps outside—but it wasn’t her. He jerked in startlement, and his eyes flashed briefly green as the light swept over him.

She heard a faint metallic clink; of course, they’d said he was in chains. The thought gave her a little courage. She took the lantern from Hodgepile, and shut the door behind her.

She leaned against the wooden door, studying him in silence. He seemed smaller than she remembered. Perhaps it was only that she was now so much bigger.

“Do you know who I am?” It was a tiny cell, low-ceilinged, with no echo. Her voice sounded small, but clear.

He cocked his head to one side, considering. His eyes traveled slowly over her.

“I don’t think ye were after tellin’ me your name, sweetheart.”

“Don’t call me that!” The spurt of rage took her by surprise, and she choked it back, clenching her fists behind her. If she had come here to administer forgiveness, it wasn’t a good start.

He shrugged, good-natured but cool.

“As ye will. No, I don’t know who you are. I’ll know your face—and a few other things”—his teeth gleamed briefly in the blond stubble of his beard—“but not your name. I suppose you’ll mean to tell me, though?”

“You do recognize me?”

He drew in air and blew it out through pursed lips, looking her over carefully. He was a good bit the worse for wear, but it hadn’t impaired his assurance.

“Oh, indeed I do.” He seemed amused, and she wanted to cross the room and slap him, hard. Instead, she took a deep breath. That was a mistake—she could smell him.

Without warning, her gorge rose suddenly and violently. She hadn’t been sick before, but the stench of him brought up everything in her. She had barely time to turn away before the flood of bile and half-digested food came hurtling up, splattering the damp brick floor.

She leaned her forehead against the wall, waves of hot and cold running over her. Finally, she wiped her mouth and turned around.

He was still sitting there, watching her. She’d set the lantern on the floor. It threw a yellow flicker upward, carving his face from the shadows behind him. He might have a been a beast, chained in its den; only wariness showed in the pale green eyes.

“My name is Brianna Fraser.”

He nodded, repeating it.

“Brianna Fraser. A lovely name, sure.” He smiled briefly, lips together. “And?”

“My parents are James and Claire Fraser. They saved your life, and you robbed them.”

“Yes.”

He said it with complete matter-of-factness, and she stared at him. He stared back.

She felt a wild urge to laugh, as unexpected as the surge of nausea had been. What had she expected? Remorse? Excuses? From a man who took things because he wanted them?

“If ye’ve come in the hopes of getting back the jewels, I’m afraid you’ve left it too late,” he said pleasantly. “I sold the first to buy a ship, and the other two were stolen from me. Perhaps you’ll find that justice; I should think it cold comfort, myself.”

She swallowed, tasting bile.

“Stolen. When?”

Don’t trouble yourself over the man who’s got it, Roger had said. It’s odds-on he stole it from someone else.

Bonnet shifted on the wooden bench and shrugged.

“Some four months gone. Why?”

“No reason.” So Roger had made it; had got them—the gems that might have been safe transport for them both. Cold comfort.

“I recall there was a trinket, too—a ring, was it? But you got that back.” He smiled, showing his teeth this time.

“I paid for it.” One hand went unthinking to her belly, gone round and tight as a basketball under her cloak.

His gaze stayed on her face, mildly curious.

“Have we business still to do then, darlin’?”

She took a deep breath—through her mouth, this time.

“They told me you’re going to hang.”

“They told me the same thing.” He shifted again on the hard wooden bench. He stretched his head to one side, to ease the muscles of his neck, and peered up sidelong at her. “You’ll not have come from pity, though, I shouldn’t think.”

“No,” she said, watching him thoughtfully. “To be honest, I’ll rest a lot easier once you’re dead.”

He stared at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. He laughed hard enough that tears came to his eyes; he wiped them carelessly, bending his head to swipe his face against a shrugged shoulder, then straightened up, the marks of his laughter still on his face.

“What is it you want from me, then?”

She opened her mouth to reply, and quite suddenly, the link between them dissolved. She had not moved, but felt as though she had taken one step across an impassable abyss. She stood now safe on the other side, alone. Blessedly alone. He could no longer touch her.

“Nothing,” she said, her voice clear in her own ears. “I don’t want anything at all from you. I came to give you something.”

She opened her cloak, and ran her hands over the swell of her abdomen. The small inhabitant stretched and rolled, its touch a blind caress of hand and womb, both intimate and abstract.

“Yours,” she said.

He looked at the bulge, and then at her.

“I’ve had whores try to foist their spawn on me before,” he said. But he spoke without viciousness, and she thought there was a new stillness behind the wary eyes.

“Do you think I’m a whore?” She didn’t care if he did or not, though she doubted he did. “I’ve no reason to lie. I already told you, I don’t want anything from you.”

She drew the cloak back together, covering herself. She drew herself up then, feeling the ache in her back ease with the movement. It was done. She was ready to go.

“You’re going to die,” she said to him, and she who had not come for pity’s sake was surprised to find she had some. “If it makes the dying easier for you, to know there’s something of you left on earth—then you’re welcome to the knowledge. But I’ve finished with you, now.”

She turned to pick up the lantern, and was surprised to see the door half cracked ajar. She had no time to feel anger at Lord John for eavesdropping, when the door swung fully open.

“Well, ’twas a gracious speech, ma’am,” Sergeant Murchison said judiciously. He smiled broadly then, and brought the butt of his musket up even with her belly. “But I can’t say I’ve finished, quite, with you.”

She took a quick step back, and swung the lantern at his head in a reflex of defense. He ducked with a yelp of alarm, and a grip of iron seized her wrist before she could dash the lamp at him again.

“Christ, that was close! You’re fast, girl, if not quite so fast as the good Sergeant.” Bonnet took the lantern from her and released her wrist.

“You’re not chained after all,” she said stupidly, staring at him. Then her wits caught up with the situation, and she whirled, plunging for the door. Murchison shoved his musket in front of her, blocking her way, but not before she had seen the darkened corridor through the doorway—and the dim form sprawled facedown on the bricks outside.

“You’ve killed him,” she whispered. Her lips were numb with shock, and a dread deeper than nausea sickened her to the bone. “Oh, God, you’ve killed him.”

“Killed who?” Bonnet held the lantern up, peering at the spill of butter-yellow hair, blotched with blood. “Who the hell is that?”

“A busybody,” Murchison snapped. “Hurry, man! There’s no time to waste. I’ve taken care of Hodgepile and the fuses are lit.”

“Wait!” Bonnet glanced from the Sergeant to Brianna, frowning.

“There’s no time, I said.” The Sergeant brought up his gun and checked the priming. “Don’t worry; no one will find them.”

Brianna could smell the brimstone scent of the gunpowder in the priming pan. The Sergeant swung the stock of the gun to his shoulder, and turned toward her, but the quarters were too cramped; with her belly in the way, there was no room to raise the long muzzle.

The Sergeant grunted with irritation, reversed the gun, and raised it high, to club her with the butt.

Her hand was clenched around the barrel before she knew she had reached for it. Everything seemed to be moving very slowly, Murchison and Bonnet both standing frozen. She herself felt quite detached, as though she stood to one side, watching.

She plucked the musket from Murchison’s grip as though it were a broomstraw, swung it high, and smashed it down. The jolt of it vibrated up her arms, into her body, her whole body charged as though someone had thrown a switch and sent a white-hot current pulsing through her.

She saw so clearly the man’s face hanging drop-jawed in the air before her, eyes passing from astonishment through horror to the dullness of unconsciousness, so slowly that she saw the change. Had time to see the vivid colors in his face. A plum lip caught on a yellow tooth, half lifted in a sneer. Slow tiny blossoms of brilliant red unfolding in a graceful curve across his temple, Japanese water flowers blooming on a field of fresh-bruised blue.

She was entirely calm, no more than a conduit for the ancient savagery that men call motherhood, who mistake its tenderness for weakness. She saw her own hands, knuckles stark and tendons etched, felt the surge of power up her legs and back, through wrists and arms and shoulders, swung again, so slowly, it seemed so slowly, and yet the man was still falling, had not quite reached the floor when the gun butt struck again.

A voice was calling her name. Dimly, it penetrated through the crystal hum around her.

“Stop, for God’s sake! Woman—Brianna—stop!”

There were hands on her shoulders, dragging, shaking. She pulled free of the grip and turned, the gun still in hand.

“Don’t touch me,” she said, and he took a quick step back, his eyes filled with surprise and wariness—perhaps a touch of fear. Afraid of her? Why would anyone be afraid of her? she thought dimly. He was talking; she saw his mouth moving, but she couldn’t catch the words, it was just noise. The current in her was dying, making her dizzy.

Then time readjusted itself, began to move normally again. Her muscles quivered, all their fibers turned to jelly. She set the stained butt of the gun against the floor to balance herself.

“What did you say?”

Impatience flickered across his face.

“I said, it’s no time we have to be wasting! Did ye not hear your man sayin’ that the fuses are lit?”

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