The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 114


“No need, a muirninn. It’s none so bad as that.” She rubbed at her temple, careful of the hairdressing, the gesture belying her words.

Jemmy’s mouth released its hold with a small, milky pop! and his head lolled back. The crook of Brianna’s elbow was hot and sweaty, where his head had rested; his tiny ear was crumpled and crimson. She lifted his inert body and sighed with relief as the cool air struck her skin. A soft belch bubbled out of him with a dribble of excess milk, and he subsided against her shoulder like a half-filled water balloon.

“Full, is he?” Jocasta smiled, blind eyes turned toward them at the faint sound.

“As a drum,” Brianna assured her. She patted his small back, to be sure, but heard no more than the soft sigh of sleep-filled breathing. She rose, wiped the milk from his chin, and laid the baby on his stomach in his makeshift cradle, a drawer from Jocasta’s mahogany chiffonier, laid on the floor and thickly padded with pillows and quilts.

Brianna hung the shawl over the back of the chair, shivering slightly in a draft that leaked around the window frame. Not wanting to risk her new dress being stained with spit-up milk, she’d been nursing Jemmy in shift and stockings, and her bare forearms were pebbled with gooseflesh.

Jocasta turned her head in answer to the creak of wood and rustle of fabric, as Brianna opened the big armoire and took out two linen petticoats and her dress, smoothing the panels of soft, pale blue wool with satisfaction. She had woven the cloth and engineered the design of the gown herself—though Mrs. Bug had spun the thread, Claire had dyed it with indigo and saxifrage, and Marsali had helped with the sewing.

“Shall I call Phaedre back to dress ye, lass?”

“No, that’s all right, I can manage—if you’ll help me with the laces?” She didn’t like to call on the services of the slaves, any more than could be helped. The petticoats were no problem; she simply stepped into them, one at a time, and fastened the drawstrings round her waist. The stays needed to be laced up the back, though, and so did the gown itself.

Jocasta’s brows were still dark, bronze against the pale apricot hue of her skin. They rose a little at the suggestion that she help to dress her niece, but she nodded, with no more than a brief hesitation. She turned her blind eyes toward the hearth, frowning a little.

“I suppose I can. The laddie’s not too near the fire, is he? Sparks can jump, aye?”

Brianna wriggled into the stays, scooping her br**sts up into the scalloped hollows that supported them, then pulled the gown on over them.

“No, he’s not too near the fire,” she said patiently. She’d made the bodice with light boning in the front and sides. Brianna turned slightly to and fro, admiring the effect in Jocasta’s looking glass. Catching sight in the mirror of her aunt’s slight frown behind her, she rolled her eyes at herself, then bent and pulled the drawer a little farther from the hearth, just in case.

“Thanks to ye for humoring an auld woman,” Jocasta said dryly, hearing the scrape of wood.

“You’re welcome, Aunt,” Brianna replied, letting both warmth and apology show in her voice. She laid a hand on her great-aunt’s shoulder, and Jocasta put her own long hand over it, squeezing gently.

“It’s no that I think ye’re a neglectful mother, aye?” Jocasta said. “But when ye’ve lived so long as I have, ye may be cautious, too, lass. I have seen dreadful things happen to bairns, ye ken?” she said, more softly. “And I should rather be set afire myself, than see harm come to our bonnie lad.”

She moved behind Brianna and ran her hands lightly down her niece’s back, finding the lacings without trouble.

“Ye’ve regained your figure, I see,” the old woman said with approval, her hands skimming the sides of Brianna’s waist. “What is this—crewelwork? What color is it?”

“Dark indigo blue. Flowering vines done in heavy cotton, to contrast with the pale blue wool.” She took one of Jocasta’s hands and guided the fingertips lightly over the vines that covered each bone in the bodice, running from the scalloped neck to the V of the waist, dropped sharply in front to show off the trim figure Jocasta had remarked upon.

Brianna drew in her breath as the laces tightened, glancing from her reflection to her son’s small head, round as a cantaloupe and heartbreakingly perfect. Not for the first time, she wondered about her great-aunt’s life. Jocasta had had children, or at least Jamie thought so—but she never spoke of them, and Brianna hesitated to ask. Perhaps lost in infancy; so many were. Her chest tightened at the thought.

“Dinna fash yourself,” her aunt said. Jocasta’s face readjusted itself into determined cheerfulness in the mirror. “Yon laddie’s born for great things; nay harm will come to him, I’m sure.”

She turned, the green silk of her dressing gown rustling over her petticoats, leaving Bree freshly startled at her aunt’s ability to divine people’s feelings, even without seeing their faces.

“Phaedre!” Jocasta called. “Phaedre! Bring my case—the black one.”

Phaedre was nearby, as always, and a brief rustling in the drawers of the armoire produced the black case. Jocasta sat down with it at her secretary.

The black leather case was old and worn, a narrow box covered in weathered hide, unadorned save for its silver hasp. Jocasta kept her best jewels in a much grander case of velvet-lined cedarwood, Brianna knew. What could be in this one?

She moved to stand beside her aunt as Jocasta put back the lid. Inside the case was a short length of turned wood, the thickness of a finger, and on it were ranged three rings: a plain band of gold set with a beryl, another with a large cabochon emerald, and the last with three diamonds, surrounded by smaller stones that caught the light and threw it back in rainbows that danced across the walls and beams.

“What a lovely ring!” Bree exclaimed involuntarily.

“Oh, the diamond one? Well, Hector Cameron was aye a rich man,” said Jocasta, absently touching the biggest ring. Her long fingers—unadorned—sorted deftly through a small heap of trinkets that lay in the box beside the rings, and came out with something small and dull.

She handed the tiny object to Brianna, who discovered it to be a small pierced-work tin brooch, rather tarnished, made in the shape of a heart.

“That’s a deasil charm, a muirninn,” Jocasta said, with a satisfied nod. “Put it on the wean’s skirts, behind.”

“A charm?” Brianna glanced at Jemmy’s huddled form. “What kind of charm?”

“Against the fairies,” Jocasta said. “Keep it pinned to the lad’s smock—always to the back, mind—and naught born of the Auld Folk will trouble him.”

The hair on Brianna’s forearms prickled slightly at the matter-of-factness in the old woman’s voice.

“Your mother should ha’ told ye,” Jocasta went on, with a hint of reproval in her voice. “But I ken as she’s a Sassenach, and your father likely wouldna think of it. Men don’t,” she added, with a hint of bitterness. “It’s a woman’s job to see to the weans, to keep them from harm.”

Jocasta stooped to the kindling basket and groped among the bits of debris, coming up with a long pine twig in her hand, the bark still on it.

“Take that,” she commanded, holding it out toward Brianna. “Light the end of it from the hearth, and walk ye round the bairn three times. Sunwise, mind!”

Mystified, Brianna took the stick and thrust it into the fire, then did as she was bid, holding the flaming twig well away from both the makeshift cradle and her blue wool skirts. Jocasta tapped her foot rhythmically on the floor, and chanted, half under her breath.

She spoke in Gaelic, but slowly enough that Brianna could make out most of the words.

“Wisdom of serpent be thine,

Wisdom of raven be thine,

Wisdom of valiant eagle.

Voice of swan be thine,

Voice of honey be thine,

Voice of the Son of the stars.

Sain of the fairy-woman be thine,

Sain of the elf-dart be thine,

Sain of the red dog be thine.

Bounty of sea be thine,

Bounty of land be thine,

Bounty of the Father of Heaven.

Be each day glad for thee,

No day ill for thee,

A life joyful, satisfied.”

Jocasta paused for a moment, a slight frown on her face, as though listening for any backtalk from Fairyland. Evidently satisfied, she motioned toward the hearth.

“Throw it into the fire. Then the wean will be safe from burning.”

Brianna obeyed, finding to her fascination that she did not find any of this even faintly ridiculous. Odd, but very satisfying to think that she was protecting Jem from harm—even harm from fairies, which she didn’t personally believe in. Or she hadn’t, before this.

A thread of music drifted up from below; the screek of a fiddle, and the sound of a voice, deep and mellow. She couldn’t make out any words, but knew the sound of the song.

Jocasta cocked her head, listening, and smiled.

“He’s a good voice, your young man.”

Brianna listened, too. Very faintly, she heard the familiar rise and fall of “My Love Is in America,” somewhere below. When I sing, it’s always for you. Her br**sts were soft now, drained of milk, but they tingled slightly at the memory.

“You have good ears, Auntie,” she said, tucking the thought away with a smile.

“Are ye pleased in your marriage?” Jocasta asked abruptly. “D’ye find yourself well-suited wi’ the lad?”

“Yes,” Brianna said, a little startled. “Yes—very much.”

“That’s good.” Her great-aunt stood still, head tilted to the side, still listening. “Aye, that’s good,” she repeated, softly.

Seized by impulse, Brianna laid a hand on the older woman’s wrist.

“And you, Auntie?” she asked. “Are you . . . pleased?”

“Happy” seemed not quite the word, in view of that row of rings in the case. “Well-suited” seemed not quite right, either, with her memory of Duncan, skulking in the corner of the drawing room the night before, shy and wordless whenever anyone but Jamie spoke to him, sweating and nervous this morning.

“Pleased?” Jocasta sounded puzzled. “Oh—to be married, ye mean!” To Brianna’s relief, her aunt laughed, the lines of her face drawing up in genuine amusement.

“Oh, aye, surely,” she said. “Why, it’s the first time I shall ha’ changed my name in fifty years!”

With a small snort of amusement, the old lady turned toward the window and pressed her palm against the glass.

“It’s a fine day out, lass,” she said. “Why not take your cloak and have a bit of air and company?”

She was right; the distant river gleamed silver through a lacework of green branches, and the air inside, so cozy a few moments ago, seemed now suddenly stale and frowsty.

“I think I will.” Brianna glanced toward the makeshift cradle. “Shall I call Phaedre to watch the baby?”

Jocasta waved a hand at her, shooing.