Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 48

   

The silence inside had a body to it. At first I thought it like the eerie quiet of dead battlefields, but then I realized the difference. This silence was alive. And whatever lived in the silence here, it wasn’t lying quiet. I thought I could still smell the blood, thick on the air.

Then I breathed deeply and thought again, cold horror rippling up my spine. I could smell blood. Fresh blood.

I gripped Jamie’s arm, but he had smelled it himself; his arm had gone hard under my hand, muscles tensed in wariness. Without a word, he detached himself from my grip, and vanished.

For a moment, I thought he truly had vanished, and nearly panicked, groping for him, my hand closing on the empty air where he’d stood. Then I realized that he had merely flung the dark plaid over his head, instantly hiding the paleness of face and linen shirt. I heard his step, quick and light on the dirt floor, and then that was gone too.

The air was hot and still, and thick with blood. A rank, sweet smell, with a metal taste on the back of the tongue. Exactly the same as it had been a week ago, conjuring hallucination. Still in the grip of a cold grue, I swung around and strained my eyes toward the far side of the cavernous room, half expecting to see the scene engraved on my memory materialize again out of darkness. The rope stretched tight from the lumber crane, the huge hook swaying with its groaning burden…

A groan rent the air, and I nearly bit my lip in two. My throat swelled with a swallowed scream; only the fear of drawing something to me kept me silent.

Where was Jamie? I longed to call out for him, but didn’t dare. My eyes had grown enough accustomed to the dark to make out the shadow of the saw blade, an amorphous blob ten feet away, but the far side of the room was a wall of blackness. I strained my eyes to see, realizing belatedly that in my pale dress, I was undoubtedly visible to anyone in the room with me.

The groan came again, and I started convulsively. My palms were sweating. It’s not! I told myself fiercely. It isn’t, it can’t be!

I was paralyzed with fear, and it took some moments for me to realize what my ears had told me. The sound hadn’t come from the blackness across the room, where the crane stood with its hook. It had come from somewhere behind me.

I whirled. The door we had come through was still open, a pale rectangle in the pitch-black. Nothing showed, nothing moved between me and the door. I took a quick step toward it and stopped. Every muscle in my legs strained to run like hell—but I couldn’t leave Jamie.

Again the sound, that same sobbing gasp of physical anguish; pain past the point of crying out. With it, a new thought popped into my mind; what if it was Jamie making the sound?

Shocked out of caution, I turned toward the sound and shouted his name, raising echoes from the roof high above.

“Jamie!” I cried again. “Where are you?”

“Here, Sassenach.” Jamie’s muffled voice came from somewhere to my left, calm but somehow urgent. “Come to me, will ye?”

It wasn’t him. Nearly shaking with relief at the sound of his voice, I blundered through the dark, not caring now what had made the sound, as long as it wasn’t Jamie.

My hand struck a wooden wall, groped blindly, and finally found a door, standing open. He was inside the overseer’s quarters.

I stepped through the door, and felt the change at once. The air was even closer, and much hotter, than that in the mill proper. The floor here was of wood, but there was no echo to my step; the air was dead still, suffocating. And the smell of blood was even stronger.

“Where are you?” I called again, low-voiced this time.

“Here,” came the reply, startlingly near at hand. “By the bed. Come and help me; it’s a lass.”

He was in the tiny bedroom. The small room was windowless, and lightless too. I found them by feel, Jamie kneeling on the wooden floor beside a narrow bed, and in the bed, a body.

It was a female, as he’d said; touch told me that at once. Touch told me also that she was exsanguinating. The cheek I brushed was cool and clammy. Everything else I touched was warm and wet; her clothing, the bedclothes, the mattress beneath her. I could feel wetness soaking through my skirt where I knelt on the floor.

I felt for a pulse in the throat and couldn’t find it. The chest moved slightly under my hand, the only sign of life beyond the faint sigh that went with it.

“It’s all right now,” I heard myself saying, and my voice was soothing, all trace of panic gone, though in truth there was more reason for it now. “We’re here, you’re not alone. What’s happened to you, can you tell me?”

All the time my hands were darting over head and throat and chest and stomach, pushing sodden clothes aside, searching blindly, frantically, for a wound to stanch. Nothing, no spurt of artery, no raw gash. And all the time, there was a faint but steady pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat, like the sound of tiny feet running.

“Tell…” It was not so much a word as the articulation of a sigh. Then a catch, a sobbing breath indrawn.

“Who has done this to ye, lass?” Jamie’s disembodied voice came low and urgent. “Tell me, who?”

“Tell…”

I touched all the places where the great vessels lie close beneath the skin and found them whole. Seized her by an unresisting arm and lifted, thrust a hand beneath to feel her back. All the heat of her body was there; the bodice was damp with sweat, but not blood-soaked.

“It will be all right,” I said again. “You’re not alone. Jamie, hold her hand.” Hopelessness came down on me; I knew what it must be.

“I already have it,” he said to me, and “Dinna trouble, lass,” to her. “It will be all right, d’ye hear me?” Pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat. The tiny feet were slowing.

“Tell…”

I could not help, but nonetheless slid my hand beneath her skirt again, this time letting my fingers curve between the limp splayed thighs. She was still warm here, very warm. Blood flowed gently over my hand and through my fingers, hot and wet as the air around us, unstoppable as the water that flowed down the mill’s sluice.

“I…die…”

“I think ye are murdered, lass,” Jamie said to her, very gently. “Will ye not say who has killed you?”

Her breath came louder now, a soft rattle in her throat. Pit. Pat. Pit. Pat. The feet were tiptoeing softly now.

“Ser…geant. Tell…him…”

I drew my hand out from between her thighs and took her other hand in mine, heedless of the blood. It scarcely mattered now, after all.

“…tell…” came with sudden intensity, and then silence. A long silence, and then, another long, sighing breath. A silence, even longer. And a breath.

“I will,” said Jamie. His voice was no more than a whisper in the dark. “I will do it. I promise ye.”

Pit.

Pat.

They called it the “death drop,” in the Highlands; the sound of dripping water, heard in a house when one of the inhabitants was about to die. Not water dripping here, but a sure sign, nonetheless.

There was no more sound from the darkness. I couldn’t see Jamie, but felt the slight movement of the bed against my thighs as he leaned forward.

“God will forgive ye,” he whispered to the silence. “Go in peace.”

I could hear the buzzing the moment we stepped into the overseer’s quarters the next morning. In the huge, dusty silence of the mill, everything had been muffled in space and sawdust. But in this small, partitioned area the walls caught every sound and threw it back; our footsteps echoed from wooden floor to wooden ceiling. I felt like a fly sealed inside a snare drum, and suffered a moment’s claustrophobia, trapped as I was in the narrow passage between the two men.

There were only two rooms, separated by a short passage that led from the outdoors into the mill proper. On our right lay the larger room that had served the Byrneses for living and cooking, and on the left, the smaller bedroom, from which the noise was coming. Jamie took a deep breath, clasped his plaid to his face, and pulled open the bedroom door.

It looked like a blanket covering the bed, a blanket of gunmetal blue sparked with green. Then Jamie took a step into the room and the flies rose buzzing from their clotted meal in a swarm of gluttonous protest.

I bit back a cry of abhorrence and ducked, flailing at them. Bloated, slow-moving bodies hit my face and arms and bounced away, circling lazily through the thick air. Farquard Campbell made a Scottish noise of overpowering disgust that sounded like “Heuch!” then lowered his head and pushed past me, eyes slitted and lips pressed tight together, nostrils pinched to whiteness.

The tiny bedroom was hardly bigger than the coffin it had become. There were no windows, only cracks between the boards that let in a dim uncertain light. The atmosphere was hot and humid as a tropical greenhouse, thick with the rotting-sweet smell of death. I could feel the sweat snaking down my sides, ticklish as flies’ feet, and tried to breathe only through my mouth.

She had not been large; her body made only the slightest mound beneath the blanket we had laid over her the night before, for decency’s sake. Her head seemed big by contrast to the shrunken body, like a child’s stick figure with a round ball stuck on toothpick limbs.

Brushing away several flies too glutted to move, Jamie pulled back the blanket. The blanket, like everything else, was blotched and crusted, sodden at the foot. The human body, on average, contains eight pints of blood, but it seems a lot more when you spread it around.

I had seen her face briefly the night before, dead features lent an artificial glow by the light of the pine splinter Jamie held above her. Now she lay pallid and dank as a mushroom, blunt features emerging from a web of fine brown hair. It was impossible to tell her age, save that she was not old. Neither could I tell whether she had been attractive; there was no beauty of bone, but animation might have flushed the round cheeks and lent her deepset eyes a sparkle men might have found pretty. One man had, I thought. Pretty enough, anyway.

The men were murmuring together, bent over the still form. Mr. Campbell turned now to me, wearing a slight frown beneath his formal wig.

“You are reasonably sure, Mrs. Fraser, of the cause of death?”

“Yes.” Trying not to breathe the fetid air, I picked up the edge of the blanket, and turned it back, exposing the corpse’s legs. The feet were faintly blue and beginning to swell.

“I drew her skirt down, but I left everything else as it was,” I explained, pulling it up again.

My stomach muscles tightened automatically as I touched her. I had seen dead bodies before, and this was far from the most gruesome, but the hot climate and closed atmosphere had prevented the body from cooling much; the flesh of her thigh was as warm as mine, but unpleasantly flaccid.

I had left it where we found it, in the bed between her legs. A kitchen skewer, more than a foot long. It was covered in dried blood as well, but clearly visible.

“I…um…found no wound on the body,” I said, putting it as delicately as possible.

“Aye, I see.” Mr. Campbell’s frown seemed to lessen slightly. “Ah, well, at least ’tis likely not a case of deliberate murder, then.”

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