The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 128

   

“Well, starting wi’ that,” he said dryly. “I havena let my pride get the better of me in some time, but I couldna seem to stop myself, what with wee Phillip Wylie preenin’ about, smirkin’ at your br**sts, and—”

“He was?” I hadn’t noticed that part.

“He was,” Jamie said, glowering momentarily at the thought. Then he dismissed Phillip Wylie, returning to the catalogue of his own sins.

“And then, draggin’ ye out of the house in your shift and going after ye like a ravening beast—” He gently touched my neck, where I could still feel the tingling soreness of a bite mark.

“Oh. Well, I quite liked that part, actually.”

“You did?” His eyes flicked wide and blue in momentary startlement.

“Yes. Though I rather think I have bruises on my bottom.”

“Oh.” He looked down, apparently abashed, though the corner of his mouth twitched slightly. “I’m sorry for that. When I’d finished—at the whist, I mean—I couldna think of anything but finding ye, Sassenach. I went up and down that stair a dozen times, going to your door, and back away again.”

“Oh, you did?” I was pleased to hear this, as it seemed to increase the odds that he had in fact been my midnight visitor.

He picked up a hank of my rumpled hair and ran his fingers gently through it.

“I kent I couldna sleep, and thought, well, I shall go out and walk in the night for a time, and I would, but then I should find myself again outside your room, not knowing how I’d come there, but only trying to think how I might get to ye—trying to will ye to come out to me, I suppose.”

Well, that explained my dreams of wild stallions, I thought. The place where he had bitten my neck throbbed slightly. And where had he brought me? A stable. King of Ireland, forsooth.

He squeezed my hands lightly.

“I thought the force of my wanting must wake ye, surely. And then ye did come. . . .” He stopped, looking at me with eyes gone soft and dark. “Christ, Claire, ye were so beautiful, there on the stair, wi’ your hair down and the shadow of your body with the light behind ye. . . .” He shook his head slowly.

“I did think I should die, if I didna have ye,” he said softly. “Just then.”

I reached up to stroke his face, his beard a soft bristle on my palm.

“Wouldn’t want you to die,” I whispered, tucking back a lock of hair behind his ear.

We smiled at each other then, but whatever else we might have said was interrupted by a loud whinny from one of the horses, followed by stamping noises. We were interfering with their breakfast.

I dropped my hand and Jamie bent to pick up his coat, which lay half-buried in the straw. He didn’t lose his balance as he bent, but I saw him wince as the blood went suddenly to his head.

“Did you have a terrible lot to drink last night?” I asked, recognizing the symptoms.

He straightened up with a small grunt of amusement.

“Aye, quarts,” he said, ruefully. “Ye can tell?”

A person with much less experience than I had could have told at a distance of roughly half a mile; putting aside the more obvious indications of recent intoxication, he smelled like a distillery.

“It didn’t impair your card playing, evidently,” I said, being tactful. “Or was Phillip Wylie similarly affected?”

He looked surprised, and slightly affronted.

“Ye dinna think I’d get besotted whilst I was playing, do ye? And with your rings at stake? No, that was after—MacDonald fetched a bottle of champagne and another of whisky, and insisted that we must celebrate our winnings in proper style.”

“MacDonald? Donald MacDonald? He was playing with you?”

“Aye, he and I were partnered against Wylie and Stanhope.” He shook the coat, sending bits of straw flying. “I couldna say what sort of soldier he was, but the man’s a fine hand at the whist, to be sure.”

Mention of the words “fine hand” reminded me. He’d come to the door of my room, he said; he hadn’t mentioned coming in. Had he, and been too far gone between liquor and longing to recall doing it? Had I, dazed with dreams of equine lust, imagined the whole thing? Surely not, I thought, but shook off the sense of vague disquiet engendered by the memory, in favor of another word from his remark.

“You said winnings?” In the stress of the moment, it had only seemed important that he had kept my rings, but it occurred to me belatedly that those were only his stake. “What did you take off Phillip Wylie?” I asked, laughing. “His embroidered coat buttons? Or his silver shoe buckles?”

His face had an odd expression as he glanced at me.

“Well, no,” he said. “I took his horse.”

HE SWUNG HIS COAT round my shoulders, put an arm round my waist, and led me down the main aisle of the stable block, past the loose-boxes and stalls.

Joshua had come in quietly, through the other door, and was working at the far end of the stable, silhouetted against the light from the open double-doors as he pitchforked hay into the end stall. As we reached him, he glanced at us and nodded in greeting, his face carefully neutral at the sight of us, bedraggled, barefoot, and prickled with straw. Even in a household with a blind mistress, a slave knew what not to see.

No business of his, his downcast countenance said clearly. He looked nearly as tired as I felt, eyes heavy and bloodshot.

“How is he?” Jamie asked, lifting his chin toward the stall. Josh perked up a bit at the inquiry, putting down his pitchfork.

“Oh, he’s bonnie,” he said, with an air of satisfaction. “A bonnie lad, Mr. Wylie’s Lucas.”

“Indeed he is,” Jamie agreed. “Only he’s mine now.”

“He’s what?” Josh goggled at him, openmouthed.

“He’s mine.” Jamie went to the railing and reached out a hand to scratch the ears of the big stallion, busily engaged in eating hay from his manger.

“Seas,” he murmured to the horse. “Ciamar a tha thu, a ghille mhoir?”

I followed him, peering over his arm at the horse, who lifted his head for a moment, regarded us with a genial eye, snorted, tossed his veil-like mane out of his face, and went back to his breakfast with single-minded intent.

“A lovely creature, is he no?” Jamie was admiring Lucas, a look of distant speculation in his eyes.

“Well, yes, he is, but—” My own admiration was substantially tinged with dismay. If Jamie had set out to avenge his own pride at the cost of Wylie’s, he’d done it in spades. Despite my irritation with Wylie, I couldn’t help a small pang at the thought of how he must be feeling at the loss of his magnificent Friesian.

“But what, Sassenach?”

“Well, just—” I fumbled awkwardly for words. I could scarcely say I felt sorry for Phillip Wylie, under the circumstances. “Just—well, what do you mean to do with him?”

Even I could see that Lucas was totally unsuited to life on Fraser’s Ridge. The thought of plowing or hauling with him seemed sacrilegious, and while I supposed Jamie could use him only for riding . . . I frowned dubiously, envisioning the boggy bottoms and rocky trails that would threaten those well-turned legs and splinter the glossy hooves; the hanging boughs and undergrowth that would tangle in mane and tail. Gideon the Man-eater was a thousand times better suited to such rough environs.

“Oh, I dinna mean to keep him,” Jamie assured me. He looked at the horse and sighed regretfully. “Though I should dearly love to. But ye’re right; he wouldna do for the Ridge. No, I mean to sell him.”

“Oh, good.” I was relieved to hear this. Wylie would undoubtedly buy Lucas back, no matter what the cost. I found that a comforting thought. And we could certainly use the money.

Joshua had gone out while we were talking. At this point, he reappeared in the doorway, a sack of grain on his shoulder. His previous sluggish air had disappeared, though; his eyes were still bloodshot, but he looked alert, and mildly alarmed.

“Mrs. Claire?” he said. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but I met Teresa by the barn just now; she’s says as how there’s summat gone amiss wi’ Betty. I thought ye’d maybe want to know.”

50

BLOOD IN THE ATTIC

THE ATTIC ROOM looked like the scene of a murder, and a brutal one, at that. Betty was struggling on the floor beside her overturned bed, knees drawn up and fists doubled into her abdomen, the muslin of her shift torn and saturated with blood. Fentiman was on the floor with her, dwarfed by her bulk but vainly grappling with her spasming body, nearly as smeared with gore as she was.

The sun was fully up now, and pouring in through the tiny windows in brilliant shafts that spotlighted parts of the chaos, leaving the rest in shadowed confusion. Cots were pushed aside and upset, bedding tangled in mounds, worn shoes and bits of clothing scattered like debris among the splotches of fresh blood on the wooden floor.

I hurried across the attic, but before I could reach her, Betty gave a deep, gurgling cough, and more blood gushed from her mouth and nose. She curled forward, arched back, doubled hard again . . . and went limp.

I fell to my knees beside her, though it was apparent from a glance that her limbs had relaxed into that final stillness from which there could be no hope of revival. I lifted her head and pressed my fingers under her jaw; her eyes had rolled back, only the whites showing. No breath, no sign of a pulse in the clammy neck.

From the quantities of blood spread round the room, I thought there could be very little left in her body. Her lips were blue, and her skin had gone the color of ashes. Fentiman knelt behind her, wigless and white-faced, skinny arms still locked about her heavy torso, holding her slumped body half off the floor.

He was in his nightshirt, I saw, a pair of blue satin breeches hastily pulled on beneath it. The air reeked of blood, bile, and feces, and he was smeared with all those substances. He looked up at me, though he showed no sign of recognition, his eyes wide and blank with shock.

“Dr. Fentiman.” I spoke softly; with the noise of struggle ceased, the attic was stricken with that absolute silence that often follows in the wake of death, and it seemed sacrilege to break it.

He blinked, and his mouth worked a little, but he seemed to have no notion how to reply. He didn’t move, though the spreading pool of blood had soaked through the knees of his breeches. I put a hand on his shoulder; it was bird-boned, but rigid with denial. I knew the feeling; to lose a patient you have fought for is a terrible thing—and yet one all doctors know.

“You have done all you can,” I said, still softly, and tightened my grip. “It is not your fault.” What had happened the day before wasn’t important. He was a colleague, and I owed him what absolution lay in my power to give.

He licked dry lips, and nodded once, then bent to lay the body gently down. A shaft of light skimmed the top of his head, glowing through the scanty bristles of cropped gray hair, and making the bones of his skull seem thin and fragile. He seemed suddenly frail altogether, and let me help him to his feet without protest.

A low moan made me turn, still holding his arm. A knot of female slaves huddled in the shadowed corner of the room, faces stark and dark hands fluttering with distress against the pale muslin of their shifts. There were male voices on the stair outside, muted and anxious. I could hear Jamie, low-voiced and calm, explaining.

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