Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 4

   

Jamie took another drink and nodded at Duncan.

“I must say I’m of your mind, Duncan.” He leaned back against the wall of the tavern, glancing casually around the crowded room. “D’ye no feel the eyes on your back?”

A chill ran down my own back, despite the trickle of sweat doing likewise. Duncan’s eyes widened fractionally, then narrowed, but he didn’t turn around.

“Ah,” he said.

“Whose eyes?” I asked, looking rather nervously around. I didn’t see anyone taking particular notice of us, though anyone might be watching surreptitiously; the tavern was seething with alcohol-soaked humanity, and the babble of voices was loud enough to drown out all but the closest conversation.

“Anyone’s, Sassenach,” Jamie answered. He glanced sideways at me, and smiled. “Dinna look so scairt about it, aye? We’re in no danger. Not here.”

“Not yet,” Innes said. He leaned forward to pour another cup of ale. “Mac Dubh called out to Gavin on the gallows, d’ye see? There will be those who took notice—Mac Dubh bein’ the bittie wee fellow he is,” he added dryly.

“And the farmers who came with us from Georgia will have sold their stores by now, and be takin’ their ease in places like this,” Jamie said, evidently absorbed in studying the pattern of his cup. “All of them are honest men—but they’ll talk, Sassenach. It makes a good story, no? The folk cast away by the hurricane? And what are the chances that at least one of them kens a bit about what we carry?”

“I see,” I murmured, and did. We had attracted public interest by our association with a criminal, and could no longer pass as inconspicuous travelers. If finding a buyer took some time, as was likely, we risked inviting robbery from unscrupulous persons, or scrutiny from the English authorities. Neither pros-pect was appealing.

Jamie lifted his cup and drank deeply, then set it down with a sigh.

“No. I think it’s perhaps not wise to linger in the city. We’ll see Gavin buried decently, and then we’ll find a safe spot in the woods outside the town to sleep. Tomorrow we can decide whether to stay or go.”

The thought of spending several more nights in the woods—with or without skunks—was not appealing. I hadn’t taken my dress off in eight days, merely rinsing the outlying portions of my anatomy whenever we paused in the vicinity of a stream.

I had been looking forward to a real bed, even if flea-infested, and a chance to scrub off the grime of the last week’s travel. Still, he had a point. I sighed, ruefully eyeing the hem of my sleeve, gray and grubby with wear.

The tavern door flung suddenly open at this point, distracting me from my contemplation, and four red-coated soldiers shoved their way into the crowded room. They wore full uniform, held muskets with bayonets fixed, and were obviously not in pursuit of ale or dice.

Two of the soldiers made a rapid circuit of the room, glancing under tables, while another disappeared into the kitchen beyond. The fourth remained on watch by the door, pale eyes flicking over the crowd. His gaze lighted on our table, and rested on us for a moment, full of speculation, but then passed on, restlessly seeking.

Jamie was outwardly tranquil, sipping his ale in apparent obliviousness, but I saw the hand in his lap clench slowly into a fist. Duncan, less able to control his feelings, bent his head to hide his expression. Neither man would ever feel at ease in the presence of a red coat, and for good reason.

No one else appeared much perturbed by the soldiers’ presence. The little knot of singers in the chimney corner went on with an interminable version of “Fill Every Glass,” and a loud argument broke out between the barmaid and a pair of apprentices.

The soldier returned from the kitchen, having evidently found nothing. Stepping rudely through a dice game on the hearth, he rejoined his fellows by the door. As the soldiers shoved their way out of the tavern, Fergus’s slight figure squeezed in, pressing against the doorjamb to avoid swinging elbows and musket butts.

I saw one soldier’s eyes catch the glint of metal and fasten with interest on the hook Fergus wore in replacement of his missing left hand. He glanced sharply at Fergus, but then shouldered his musket and hurried after his companions.

Fergus shoved through the crowd and plopped down on the bench beside Ian. He looked hot and irritated.

“Blood-sucking salaud,” he said, without preamble.

Jamie’s brows went up.

“The priest,” Fergus elaborated. He took the mug Ian pushed in his direction and drained it, lean throat glugging until the cup was empty. He lowered it, exhaled heavily, and sat blinking, looking noticeably happier. He sighed and wiped his mouth.

“He wants ten shillings to bury the man in the churchyard,” he said. “An Anglican church, of course; there are no Catholic churches here. Wretched usurer! He knows we have no choice about it. The body will scarcely keep till sunset, as it is.” He ran a finger inside his stock, pulling the sweat-wilted cotton away from his neck, then banged his fist several times on the table to attract the attention of the serving maid, who was being run off her feet by the press of patrons.

“I told the super-fatted son of a pig that you would decide whether to pay or not. We could just bury him in the wood, after all. Though we should have to purchase a shovel,” he added, frowning. “These grasping townsfolk know we are strangers; they’ll take our last coin if they can.”

Last coin was perilously close to the truth. I had enough to pay for a decent meal here and to buy food for the journey north; perhaps enough to pay for a couple of nights’ lodging. That was all. I saw Jamie’s eyes flick round the room, assessing the possibilities of picking up a little money at hazard or loo.

Soldiers and sailors were the best prospects for gambling, but there were few of either in the taproom—likely most of the garrison was still searching the town for the fugitive. In one corner, a small group of men was being loudly convivial over several pitchers of brandywine; two of them were singing, or trying to, their attempts causing great hilarity among their comrades. Jamie gave an almost imperceptible nod at sight of them, and turned back to Fergus.

“What have ye done with Gavin for the time being?” Jamie asked. Fergus hunched one shoulder.

“Put him in the wagon. I traded the clothes he was wearing to a ragwoman for a shroud, and she agreed to wash the body as part of the bargain.” He gave Jamie a faint smile. “Don’t worry, milord; he’s seemly. For now,” he added, lifting the fresh mug of ale to his lips.

“Poor Gavin.” Duncan Innes lifted his own mug in a half salute to his fallen comrade.

“Slàinte,” Jamie replied, and lifted his own mug in reply. He set it down and sighed.

“He wouldna like being buried in the wood,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked, curious. “I shouldn’t think it would matter to him one way or the other.”

“Oh, no, we couldna do that, Mrs. Claire.” Duncan was shaking his head emphatically. Duncan was normally a most reserved man, and I was surprised at so much apparent feeling.

“He was afraid of the dark,” Jamie said softly. I turned to stare at him, and he gave me a lopsided smile. “I lived wi’ Gavin Hayes nearly as long as I’ve lived with you, Sassenach—and in much closer quarters. I kent him well.”

“Aye, he was afraid of being alone in the dark,” Duncan chimed in. “He was most mortally scairt of tannagach—of spirits, aye?”

His long, mournful face bore an inward look, and I knew he was seeing in memory the prison cell that he and Jamie had shared with Gavin Hayes—and with forty other men—for three long years. “D’ye recall, Mac Dubh, how he told us one night of the tannasq he met?”

“I do, Duncan, and could wish I did not.” Jamie shuddered despite the heat. “I kept awake myself half the night after he told us that one.”

“What was it, Uncle?” Ian was leaning over his cup of ale, round-eyed. His cheeks were flushed and streaming, and his stock crumpled with sweat.

Jamie rubbed a hand across his mouth, thinking.

“Ah. Well, it was a time in the late, cold autumn in the Highlands, just when the season turns, and the feel of the air tells ye the ground will be shivered wi’ frost come dawn,” he said. He settled himself in his seat and sat back, alecup in hand. He smiled wryly, plucking at his own throat. “Not like now, aye?

“Well, Gavin’s son brought back the kine that night, but there was one beast missing—the lad had hunted up the hills and down the corries, but couldna find it anywhere. So Gavin set the lad to milk the two others, and set out himself to look for the lost cow.”

He rolled the pewter cup slowly between his hands, staring down into the dark ale as though seeing in it the bulk of the night-black Scottish peaks and the mist that floats in the autumn glens.

“He went some distance, and the cot behind him disappeared. When he looked back, he couldna see the light from the window anymore, and there was no sound but the keening of the wind. It was cold, but he went on, tramping through the mud and the heather, hearing the crackle of ice under his boots.

“He saw a small grove through the mist, and thinking the cow might have taken shelter beneath the trees, he went toward it. He said the trees were birches, standing there all leafless, but with their branches grown together so he must bend his head to squeeze beneath the boughs.

“He came into the grove and saw it was not a grove at all, but a circle of trees. There were great tall trees, spaced verra evenly, all around him, and smaller ones, saplings, grown up between to make a wall of branches. And in the center of the circle stood a cairn.”

Hot as it was in the tavern, I felt as though a sliver of ice had slid melting down my spine. I had seen ancient cairns in the Highlands myself, and found them eerie enough in the broad light of day.

Jamie took a sip of ale, and wiped away a trickle of sweat that ran down his temple.

“He felt quite queer, did Gavin. For he kent the place—everyone did, and kept well away from it. It was a strange place. And it seemed even worse in the dark and the cold, from what it did in the light of day. It was an auld cairn, the kind laid wi’ slabs of rock, all heaped round with stones, and he could see before him the black opening of the tomb.

“He knew it was a place no man should come, and he without a powerful charm. Gavin had naught but a wooden cross about his neck. So he crossed himself with it and turned to go.”

Jamie paused to sip his ale.

“But as Gavin went from the grove,” he said softly, “he heard footsteps behind him.”

I saw the Adam’s apple bob in Ian’s throat as he swallowed. He reached mechanically for his own cup, eyes fixed on his uncle.

“He didna turn to see,” Jamie went on, “but kept walking. And the steps kept pace wi’ him, step by step, always following. And he came through the peat where the water seeps up, and it was crusted with ice, the weather bein’ so cold. He could hear the peat crackle under his feet, and behind him the crack! crack! of breaking ice.

“He walked and he walked, through the cold, dark night, watching ahead for the light of his own window, where his wife had set the candle. But the light never showed, and he began to fear he had lost his way among the heather and the dark hills. And all the time, the steps kept pace with him, loud in his ears.

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