Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 79

   

It was instinct more than reason; the instinct that leads a man to want to clear up the remains of an accident, to lay a decent covering over the bodies, to obliterate the visible traces of disaster, even though the tragedy itself remains.

With the folded page lying hidden in his pocket like a severed thumb, he left the library, to walk the rainy streets of Oxford.

The walking calmed him, made it possible to think rationally again, to force his own feelings back long enough to plan what he must do, how to protect Brianna from a grief that would be more profound and longer felt than his own.

He had checked the bibliographic information in the front of the book; published in 1906 by a small British press. It wouldn’t be widely available, then; but still something Brianna might stumble over in her own researches.

It wasn’t a logical place to look for information of the sort she was seeking, but the book was titled Songs and Ballads of the Eighteenth Century. He knew well enough that historian’s curiosity that led to impulsive pokings in unlikely places; she would know enough to do that too. Still more, he knew the child’s hunger for knowledge—any knowledge—that might lead her to look at anything dealing with the period, in an effort to imagine her parents’ surroundings, to build a vision of lives she could neither see nor share.

Long odds, but not long enough. Someone jostled him in passing, and he realized that he had been leaning on the bridge railing for several minutes, watching raindrops patter on the surface of the river without seeing them. Slowly, he turned down the street, oblivious of the shops and the mushroom herds of umbrellas.

There was no way to ensure that she would never see a copy of that book; this might be the only copy, or there might be hundreds, lying like time bombs in libraries all over the U.S.

The ache in his guts was getting worse. He was soaked through by now, and freezing. Inside, he felt a deeper cold spreading from a new thought: What might Brianna do, if she found out?

She would be devastated, grief-stricken. But then? He was himself convinced that the past could not be changed; the things Claire had told him had made him sure of it. She and Jamie Fraser had tried to avert the slaughter at Culloden, to no avail. She had tried to save her future husband, Frank, by saving his ancestor, Jack Randall—and failed, only to find that Jack had never been Frank’s ancestor after all, but had married his younger brother’s pregnant lover in order to legitimize the child when the brother died.

No, the past might twist on itself like a writhing snake, but it could not be changed. He wasn’t at all sure that Brianna shared his conviction, though.

How do you mourn a time-traveler? she’d asked him. If he showed her the notice, she could mourn truly; she would know. The knowledge would wound her terribly, but she would heal, and could put the past behind her. If.

If it wasn’t for the stones on Craigh na Dun. The stone circle and its dreadful promise of possibility.

Claire had gone through the stones of Craigh na Dun on the ancient fire feast of Samhain, on the first day of November, nearly two years before.

Roger shivered, and not from the cold. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck whenever he thought of it. It had been a clear, mild fall morning, that dawn of the Feast of All Saints, with nothing to disturb the grassy peace of the hill where the circle of stones stood sentinel: Nothing until Claire had touched the great cleft stone, and vanished into the past.

Then the earth had seemed to dissolve under his own feet, and the air had ripped away with a roar that echoed inside his head like cannon fire. He had gone blind in a blast of light and dark; only his memories of the last time had kept him from utter panic.

He’d had hold of Brianna’s hand. Reflex closed his grip, even as all senses disappeared. It was like being dropped from a thousand feet into ice-cold water; terrible vertigo and a shock so intense, he could feel no sensation but the shock itself. Blind and deaf, bereft of sense and senses, he had been conscious of two last thoughts, the remnants of his consciousness flicking out like a candleflame in a hurricane. I’m dying, he had thought, with great calmness. And then, Don’t let go.

The dawning sun had fallen in a bright path through the cleft stone; Claire had walked along it. When Roger stirred at last and raised his head, the sun of late afternoon glowed gold and lavender behind the great stone, leaving it black against the sky.

He was lying on Brianna, sheltering her with his body. She was unconscious but breathing, her face desperately pale against the dark red of her hair. Weak as he was, there was no question of his being able to carry her down the steep hillside to the car below; her father’s daughter, she was nearly six feet tall, only a few inches shorter than Roger himself.

He had huddled over her, holding her head in his lap, stroking her face and shivering, until just before sunset. She had opened her eyes then, as dark a blue as the fading sky, and whispered, “She’s gone?”

“It’s all right,” Roger had whispered back. He bent and kissed her cold forehead. “It’s all right; I’ll take care of you.”

He’d meant it. But how?

It was getting dark by the time he returned to his rooms. He could hear a clatter from the dining hall as he passed, and he smelled boiled ham and baked beans, but supper was the farthest thing from his mind.

He squelched up to his rooms and dropped his wet things in a heap on the floor. He dried himself, then sat nak*d on the bed, towel forgotten in his hand, staring at the desk and at the wooden box that held Brianna’s letters.

He would do anything to save her from grief. He would do much more to save her from the threat of the stones.

Claire had gone back—he hoped—from 1968 to 1766. And then died in 1776. Now it was 1970. A person going back now would—might—end in 1768. There would be time. That was the hell of it; there would be time.

Even if Brianna thought as he did—or if he could convince her—that the past could not be changed, could she live through the next seven years, knowing that the window of opportunity was closing, that her only chance ever to know her father, see her mother again, was disappearing day by day? It was one thing to let them go, not knowing where they were or what had happened to them; it was another to know explicitly, and to do nothing.

He had known Brianna for more than two years, yet been with her for only a few months of that time. And yet, they knew each other very well in some respects. How could they not, having shared such an experience? Then there had been the letters—dozens, two or three or four each week—and the rare brief holidays, spent between enchantment and frustration, that left him aching with need of her.

Yes, he knew her. She was quiet, but possessed of a fierce determination that he thought would not submit to grief without a fight. And while she was cautious, once her mind was made up, she acted with hair-raising dispatch. If she decided to risk the passage, he couldn’t stop her.

His hands closed tight on the wadded towel, and his stomach dropped, remembering the chasm of the circle and the void that had nearly swallowed them. The only thing more terrifying was the thought of losing Brianna before he had ever truly had her.

He’d never lied to her. But the impact of shock and grief was slowly receding as the rudiments of a plan formed in his mind. He stood up and wrapped the towel around his waist.

One letter wouldn’t do it. It would have to be slow, a process of suggestion, of gentle discouragement. He thought it wouldn’t be difficult; he had found almost nothing in a year of searching in Scotland, beyond the report of the burning of Fraser’s print shop in Edinburgh—he shuddered involuntarily at the thought of flames. Now he knew why, of course; they must have emigrated soon after, though he had found no trace of them on the ship’s rolls he had searched.

Time to give up, he would suggest. Let the past rest—and the dead bury the dead. To keep on looking, in the face of no evidence, would border on obsession. He would suggest, very subtly, that it was unhealthy, this looking back—now it was time to look forward, lest she waste her life in futile searching. Neither of her parents would have wanted that.

The room was chilly, but he barely noticed.

I’ll take care of you, he’d said, and meant it. Was suppressing a dangerous truth the same as lying? Well, if it was, then he’d lie. To give consent to do wrong was a sin, he’d heard that from his early days. That was all right, he’d risk his soul for her, and willingly.

He rummaged in the drawer for a pen. Then he stopped, bent, and reached two fingers into the pocket of his sopping jeans. The paper was frayed and soggy, half disintegrating already. With steady fingers, he tore it into tiny pieces, disregarding the cold sweat that ran in trickles from his face.

23

THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN

I had told Jamie that I didn’t mind being far from civilization; wherever there were people, there would be work for a healer.

Duncan had been good as his word, returning in the spring of 1768 with eight former Ardsmuir men and their families, ready to take up homesteading on Fraser’s Ridge, as the place was now known. With some thirty souls to hand, there was an immediate call on my mildly rusty services, to stitch up wounds and treat fevers, to lance abscessed boils and scrape infected gums. Two of the women were pregnant, and it was my joy to deliver healthy children, a boy and a girl, both born in early spring.

My fame—if that’s the word—as a healer soon spread outside our tiny settlement, and I found myself called farther and farther afield, to tend the ills of folk on isolated hill farms scattered over thirty miles of wild mountain terrain. In addition, I made rare visits with Ian to Anna Ooka to see Nayawenne, returning with baskets and jars of useful herbs.

At first, Jamie had insisted that he or Ian must go with me to the farther places, but it was soon apparent that neither of them could be spared; it was time for the first planting, with ground to break and harrow, corn and barley to be planted, to say nothing of the usual chores required to keep a small farm running. In addition to the horses and mules, we had acquired a small flock of chickens, a depraved-looking black boar to meet the social needs of the pig, and—luxury of luxuries—a milch goat, all of whom required to be fed and watered and generally kept from killing themselves or being eaten by bears or panthers.

So more and more often I went alone when some stranger appeared suddenly in the dooryard, asking for healer or midwife. Daniel Rawlings’s casebook began to acquire new entries, and the larder was enriched by the gifts of hams and venison haunches, bags of grain and bushels of apples, with which my patients repaid my attentions. I never asked for payment, but something was always offered—and poor as we were, anything at all was welcome.

My backcountry patients came from many places, and many spoke neither English nor French; there were German Lutherans, Quakers, Scots and Scotch-Irish, and a large settlement of Moravian brethren at Salem, who spoke a peculiar dialect of what I thought was Czechoslovakian. I usually managed, though; in most cases, someone could interpret for me, and at the worst, I could fall back on the language of hand and body—“Where does it hurt?” is easy to understand in any tongue.

August 1768

I was chilled to the bone. Despite my best efforts to keep the cloak wrapped tightly round me, the wind ripped it from my body, and sent it billowing like sail canvas. It beat round the head of the boy walking next to me, and jerked me sideways in my saddle with the force of the gale. The rain drove in beneath the flapping folds like frozen needles, and I was soaked through gown and petticoats before we reached Mueller’s Creek.

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