Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 96

   

He got to his feet and went away, careful not to look at the boy. By the time he came back from the stream with the kettle filled, Willie had got his nose blown and his face wiped, and was sitting with his knees drawn up, his head resting on them.

He couldn’t keep himself from touching the boy’s head as he passed. Familiarity be damned. The dark hair was soft to his touch, warm and slightly damp with sweat.

“A griping in your guts, is it?” he said pleasantly, kneeling and putting the kettle to boil.

“Mm-hm.” Willie’s voice was muffled in the blanket over his knees.

“That passes soon enough,” he said. He reached for his sporran, and sorted through the proliferation of small items in it, coming up eventually with the small cloth bag that held the dried mixture of leaves and flowers Claire had given him. He didn’t know how she’d known it would be needed, but he was long past the point of questioning anything she did in the way of healing—whether of heart or of body.

He felt a moment’s passionate gratitude to her. He’d seen her look at the boy, and knew how she must feel. She’d known about the lad, of course, but seeing the flesh-and-blood proof that her husband had shared another woman’s bed wasn’t something a wife should be asked to put up with. Little wonder if she was inclined to stick pins in John, him pushing the lad under her nose as he had.

“It willna take more than a moment to brew up,” he assured the boy, rubbing the fragrant mixture between his hands into a wooden cup, as he’d seen Claire do.

She’d not reproached him. Not with that at least, he thought, suddenly remembering how she’d acted when she’d found out about Laoghaire. She’d gone for him like a fiend, then, and yet when later she’d learned about Geneva Dunsany…perhaps it was only that the boy’s mother was dead?

The realization went through him like a sword thrust. The boy’s mother was dead. Not just his real mother, who’d died the same day he was born—but the woman he’d called mother all his life since. And now his father—or the man he called father, Jamie thought with an unconscious twist of his mouth—was lying sick of an illness that had killed another man before the lad’s eyes no more than days before.

No, it wasn’t fright that made the lad greet by himself in the dark. It was grief, and Jamie Fraser, who’d lost a mother in childhood himself, ought to have known that from the beginning.

It wasn’t stubbornness, nor even loyalty, that had made Willie insist on staying at the Ridge. It was love of John Grey, and fear of his loss. And it was the same love that made the boy weep in the night, desperate with worry for his father.

An unaccustomed weed of jealousy sprang up in Jamie’s heart, stinging like nettles. He stamped firmly on it; he was fortunate indeed to know that his son enjoyed a loving relationship with his stepfather. There, that was the weed stamped out. The stamping, though, seemed to have left a small bruised spot on his heart; he could feel it when he breathed.

The water was beginning to rumble in the kettle. He poured it carefully over the herb mixture, and a sweet fragrance rose up in the steam. Valerian, she’d said, and catmint. The root of a passionflower, soaked in honey and finely ground. And the sweet, half-musky smell of lavender, coming as an afterscent.

“Don’t drink it yourself,” she’d said, casual in giving it to him. “There’s lavender in it.”

In fact, it didn’t trouble him, if he was warned of it. It was only that now and then a whiff of lavender took him unawares, and sent a sudden surge of sickness through his wame. Claire had seen the effects on him once too often to be unwary of it.

“Here.” He leaned forward and handed the cup to the boy, wondering whether forever after, the lad too would feel troubled by the scent of lavender, or if he would find in it a memory of comfort. That, he supposed, might well depend on whether John Grey lived or died.

The respite had given Willie back his outward composure, but his face was still marked with grief. Jamie smiled at the boy, hiding his own concern. Knowing both John and Claire as he did, he was less fearful than the boy—but the dread was still there, persistent as a thorn in the sole of his foot.

“That will ease ye,” he said, nodding at the cup. “My wife made it; she’s a verra fine healer.”

“Is she?” The boy took a deep, trembling breath of the steam, and touched a cautious tongue to the hot liquid. “I saw her—do things. With the Indian who died.” The accusation there was clear; she’d done things, and the man had died anyway.

Neither Claire nor Ian had spoken much of that, nor had he been able to ask her what had happened—she had given him a lifted brow and a brief gold look, to say that he should not speak of it before Willie, who had come back with her from the corncrib, white-faced and clammy.

“Aye?” he said curiously. “What sort of—things?”

What the hell had she done? he wondered. Nothing to cause the man’s death, surely; he would have seen that in her at once. Nor did she feel herself at fault, or helpless—he had held her in his arms more than once, comforting her as she wept for those she could not save. This time she had been quiet, subdued—as had Ian—but not deeply upset. She had seemed vaguely puzzled.

“She had mud on her face. And she sang to him. I think she was singing a Papist song; it was in Latin, and it had something to do with sacraments.”

“Indeed?” Jamie suppressed his own astonishment at this description. “Aye, well. Perhaps she meant only to give the man a bit of comfort, if she saw she couldna save him. The Indians are much more sensible of the effects of measles, ye ken; an infection that will kill one of them wouldna cause a white man to blink twice. I’ve had the measle myself, as a wee lad, and took no harm from it at all.” He smiled and stretched, demonstrating his evident health.

The tense lines of the boy’s face relaxed a little, and he took a cautious sip of the hot tea.

“That’s what Mrs. Fraser said. She said Papa would be all right. She—she gave me her word upon it.”

“Then ye may depend upon it that he will,” Jamie said firmly. “Mrs. Fraser is an honorable woman.” He coughed, and hitched the plaid up around his shoulders; it wasn’t a cold night, but there was a breeze coming down the hill. “Is the drink helping a bit?”

Willie looked blank, then looked down at the cup in his hand.

“Oh! Yes. Yes, thank you; it’s very good. I feel very much improved. Perhaps it was not the dried apples, after all.”

“Perhaps not,” Jamie agreed, bending his head to hide a smile. “Still, I think we’ll manage better for our supper tomorrow; if luck is with us, we’ll have trout.”

This attempt at distraction was successful; Willie’s head popped up from his cup, an expression of deep interest on his face.

“Trout? We can fish?”

“Have ye done much fishing in England? I canna think that the trout streams would compare with these, but I know there is good fishing to be had in the Lake District—or so your father tells me.”

He held his breath. What in God’s name had made him ask that? He had himself taken a five-year-old William fishing for char on the lake near Ellesmere, when he had served his indenture there. Did he want the boy to remember?

“Oh…yes. It’s pleasant on the lakes, surely—but nothing like this.” Willie waved in the vague direction of the creek. The lines in the boy’s face had smoothed themselves, and a small flicker of life had come back into his eyes. “I have never seen such a place. It’s not at all like England!”

“That it is not,” Jamie agreed, amused. “Will ye not miss England, though?”

Willie thought about it for a moment, as he slurped the rest of his tea.

“I don’t think so,” he said, with a decided shake of his head. “I miss Grandmamma sometimes, and my horses, but nothing else. It was all tutors and dancing lessons and Latin and Greek—ugh!” He wrinkled his nose, and Jamie laughed.

“Ye dinna care for the dancing, then?”

“No. You have to do it with girls.” He shot Jamie a look under his fine, dark brows. “Do you care for music, Mr. Fraser?”

“No,” Jamie said, smiling. “I like the girls fine, though.” The girls were going to like this wee laddie just fine, too, he thought, covertly noting the youngster’s breadth of shoulder and long shanks, and the long, dark lashes that hid his bonny blue eyes.

“Yes. Well, Mrs. Fraser is very pretty,” the Earl said politely. His mouth curled suddenly up on one side. “Though she did look funny, with the mud on her face.”

“I daresay. Will ye have another cup, my lord?”

Claire had said the mixture was for calming; it seemed to be working. As they talked desultorily of the Indians and their strange beliefs, William’s eyelids began to droop, and he yawned more than once. At last, Jamie reached over and took the empty cup from his unresisting hand.

“The night is cold, my lord,” he said. “Will ye choose to lie next to me, that we may share our coverings?”

The night was chilly, but a long way from cold. He had guessed right, though; Willie seized the excuse with alacrity. He could not take a lord in his arms to comfort him, nor could a young earl admit to wanting such comfort. Two men could lie close together without shame, though, for the sake of warmth.

Willie fell asleep at once, nestled close against his side. Jamie lay awake for a long time, one arm laid lightly across the sleeping body of his son.

“Now the wee speckled one. Just on top, and hold it with your finger, aye?” He wrapped the thread tightly around the tiny roll of white wool, just missing Willie’s finger but catching the end of the woodpecker’s down feather, so the fluffy barbs rose up pertly, quivering in the light air.

“You see? It looks like a wee bug taking flight.”

Willie nodded, intent on the fly. Two tiny yellow tail feathers lay smooth under the down feather, simulating the spread wing casings of a beetle.

“I see. Is it the color that matters, or the shape?”

“Both, but more the shape, I think.” Jamie smiled at the boy. “What matters most is how hungry the fish are. Choose your time right, and they’ll strike anything—even a bare hook. Choose it wrong, and ye might as well be fishing wi’ lint from your navel. Dinna tell that to a fly fisherman, though; they’ll be taking all the credit, and none left to the fish.”

Willie didn’t laugh—the boy didn’t laugh much—but he smiled and took the willow pole with its newly tied fly.

“Is it the right time, now, do you think, Mr. Fraser?” He shaded his eyes and looked out over the water. They stood in the cool shadow of a grove of black willow, but the sun was still above the horizon, and the water of the stream glittered like metal.

“Aye, trout feed at sunset. D’ye see the prickles on the water? This pool’s waking.”

The surface of the pool was restless; the water itself lay calm, but dozens of tiny ripples spread and overlapped, rings of light and shadow spreading and breaking in endless profusion.

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