A clump of snow fell from the framework of our cage, landing on my head with a little plop! and making me start. The movement loosened more snow, which poured inward in a glittering cascade, dusting Jamie’s head and shoulders with fine white powder.
His fingers were gripping my leg hard enough to leave bruises, but I didn’t move or make a sound. A patch of snow had fallen from the latticework of hemlock branches, leaving numerous small spaces through which I could see out between the needles, peering over Jamie’s shoulder.
The ground sloped a little away from us, falling a few feet to the level of the grove where I had cut branches the night before. Everything was thick with snow; a good four inches must have fallen during the night. It was just past dawn, and the rising sun painted the black trees with coruscations of red and gold, striking white glare from the icy sweep of snow below. The wind had come up in the wake of the storm; loose snow blew off the branches in drifting clouds, like smoke.
The Indians were on the other side of the grove; I could hear the voices plainly now; arguing about something, from the sound of it. A sudden thought raised gooseflesh on my arms; if they came through the grove, they might see the hacked branches where I had chopped limbs from the hemlocks. I hadn’t been neat; there would be needles and bits of bark scattered all over the ground. Would enough snow have trickled through the branches to cover my awkward spoor?
A flash of movement showed in the trees, then another, and suddenly they were there, materializing out of the hemlock grove like dragon’s teeth sprung from the snow.
They were dressed for winter travel, in fur and leather, some with cloaks or cloth coats atop their leggings and soft boots. They all carried bundles of blankets and provisions, had headpieces made of fur, and most had snowshoes slung across their shoulders; evidently the snow here was not deep enough to render them necessary.
They were armed; I could see a few muskets, and tomahawks or war clubs hung at every belt. Six, seven, eight…I counted silently as they came out of the trees in single file, each man treading in the prints of the one before him. One near the back called out something, half laughing, and a man near the front replied over his shoulder, his words lost in the blowing veil of snow and wind.
I drew a deep breath. I could smell Jamie’s scent, a sharp tinge of fresh sweat above his normal musky sleep-smell. I was sweating, too, in spite of the cold. Did they have dogs? Could they sniff us out, hidden as we were beneath the sharp reek of spruce and hemlock?
Then I realized that the wind must be toward us, carrying the sound of their voices. No, even dogs wouldn’t scent us. But would they see the branches that framed our den? Even as I wondered this, a large patch of snow slid off with a rush, landing with a soft flump! outside.
Jamie drew in his breath sharply, and I leaned over his shoulder, staring. The last man had come out of the gap in the trees, an arm across his face to shield it from the blowing snow.
He was a Jesuit. He wore a short cape of bearskin over his habit, leather leggings and moccasins under it—but he had black skirts, kilted up for walking in the snow, and a wide, flat black priest’s hat, held on with one hand against the wind. His face, when he showed it, was blond-bearded, and so fair-skinned that I could see the redness of his cheeks and nose even at such a distance.
“Call them!” I whispered, leaning close to Jamie’s ear. “They’re Christians, they must be, to have a priest with them. They won’t hurt us.”
He shook his head slowly, not taking his eyes off the file of men, now vanishing from our view behind a snow-topped outcropping.
“No,” he said, half under his breath. “No. Christians they may be, but…” He shook his head again, more decidedly. “No.”
There was no use arguing with him. I rolled my eyes in mingled frustration and resignation.
“How’s your back?”
He stretched gingerly, and halted abruptly in mid-motion, with a strangled cry as though he’d been skewered.
“Not so good, hm?” I said, sympathy well laced with sarcasm. He gave me a dirty look, eased himself very slowly back into his bed of crushed leaves, and shut his eyes with a sigh.
“You have of course thought of some ingenious way of getting down the mountain, I imagine?” I said politely.
He opened one eye.
“No,” he said, and shut it again. He breathed quietly, his chest rising and falling gently under his fringed hunting shirt, giving a brilliant impression of a man with nothing on his mind but his hair.
It was a cold day, but a bright one, and the sun was jabbing brilliant fingers of light into our erstwhile sanctum, making little blobs of snow drop like falling sugarplums around us. I scooped up one of these and gently decanted it into the neck of his shirt.
He drew in his breath through his teeth with a sharp hiss, opened his eyes, and regarded me coldly.
“I was thinking,” he informed me.
“Oh. Sorry to interrupt, then.” I eased myself down beside him, pulling the tangled cloaks up over us. The wind was beginning to lace through the holes in our shelter, and it occurred to me that he’d been quite right about the sheltering effects of snow. Only there wasn’t going to be any snow falling tonight, I didn’t think.
Then there was the little matter of food to be considered. My stomach had been making subdued protests for some time, and Jamie’s now voiced its much louder objections. He squinted censoriously down his long, straight nose at the offender.
“Hush,” he said reprovingly in Gaelic, and cast his eyes upward. At last he sighed and looked at me.
“Well, then,” he said. “Ye’d best wait a bit, to be sure yon savages are well away. Then ye’ll go down to the cabin—”
“I don’t know where it is.”
He made a small noise of exasperation.
“How did ye find me?”
“Tracked you,” I said, with a certain amount of pride. I glanced through the needles at the blowing wilderness outside. “I don’t suppose I can do it in reverse, though.”
“Oh.” He looked mildly impressed. “Well, that was verra resourceful of ye, Sassenach. Dinna worry, though; I can tell ye how to go, to find your way back.”
“Right. And then what?”
He shrugged one shoulder. The bit of snow had melted, running down his chest, dampening his shirt and leaving a tiny pool of clear water standing in the hollow of his throat.
“Bring me back a bit of food, and a blanket. I should be able to move in a few days.”
“Leave you here?” I glared at him, my turn to be exasperated.
“I’ll be all right,” he said mildly.
“You’ll be eaten by wolves!”
“Oh, I shouldna think so,” he said casually. “They’ll be busy with the elk, most likely.”
He nodded toward the hemlock grove.
“The one I shot yesterday. I took it in the neck, but the shot didna quite kill it at once. It ran through there. I was following it, when I hurt myself.” He rubbed a hand over the copper and silver bristles on his chin.
“I canna think it went far. I suppose the snow must have covered the carcass, else our wee friends would have seen it, coming from that direction.”
“So you’ve shot an elk, which is going to draw wolves like flies, and you propose to lie here in the freezing cold waiting for them? I suppose you think by the time they get round to the second course, you’ll be so numb you won’t notice when they start gnawing on your feet?”
“Don’t shout,” he said. “The savages might not be so far away, yet.”
I was drawing breath for further remarks on the subject, when he stopped me, putting his hand up to caress my cheek.
“Claire,” he said gently. “Ye canna move me. There’s nothing else to do.”
“There is,” I said, repressing a quaver in my voice. “I’ll stay with you. I’ll bring you blankets and food, but I’m not leaving you up here alone. I’ll bring wood, and we’ll make a fire.”
“There’s no need. I can manage,” he insisted.
“I can’t,” I said, between my teeth. I remembered all too well what it had been like in the cabin, during those empty, suffocating hours of waiting. Freezing my arse off in the snow for several days wasn’t at all an appealing prospect, but it was better than the alternative.
He saw I meant it, and smiled.
“Well, then. Ye might bring some whisky, too, if there’s any left.”
“There’s half a bottle,” I said, feeling happier. “I’ll bring it.”
He got an arm around me, and pulled me into the curve of his shoulder. In spite of the howling wind outside, it was actually reasonably cozy under the cloaks, snuggled tight against him. His skin smelled warm and slightly salty, and I couldn’t resist raising my head and putting my lips to the damp hollow of his throat.
“Aah,” he said, shivering. “Don’t do that!”
“You don’t like it?”
“No, I dinna like it! How could I? It makes my skin crawl!”
“Well, I like it,” I protested.
He looked at me in amazement.
“Oh, yes,” I assured him. “I dearly love to have you nibble on my neck.”
He narrowed one eye and squinted dubiously at me. Then he reached up, took me delicately by the ear, and drew my head down, turning my face to the side. He flicked his tongue gently at the base of my throat, then lifted his head and set his teeth very softly in the tender flesh at the side of my neck.
“Eeeee,” I said, and shivered uncontrollably.
He let go, looking at me in astonishment.
“I will be damned,” he said. “Ye do like it; ye’ve gone all gooseflesh and your n**ples are hard as spring cherries.” He passed a hand lightly over my breast; I hadn’t bothered with my makeshift brassiere when I dressed for my impromptu expedition.
“Told you,” I said, blushing slightly. “I suppose one of my ancestresses was bitten by a vampire or something.”
“A what?” He looked quite blank.
There was time to kill, so I gave him a thumbnail sketch of the life and times of Count Dracula. He looked bemused and appalled, but his hand carried on with its machinations, having now moved under my buckskin shirt and found its way beneath the cutty sark as well. His fingers were chilly, but I didn’t mind.
“Some people find the notion terribly erotic,” I ended.
“That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard!”
“I don’t care,” I said, stretching out at full length beside him and putting my head back, throat invitingly exposed. “Do it some more.”
He muttered something under his breath in Gaelic, but managed to get onto one elbow and roll toward me.
His mouth was warm and soft, and whether he approved of what he was doing or not, he did it awfully well.
“Ooooh,” I said, and shuddered ecstatically as his teeth sank delicately into my earlobe.
“Oh, well, if it’s like that,” he said in resignation, and taking my hand, pressed it firmly between his thighs.