The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 166


Jamie ignored me. He’d picked up Bree’s sketching-box on his way upstairs; laying a sheet of paper on it, he put it on Roger’s lap, then extended one of the sticks of hardened charcoal to him.

“Will ye try again?” He had been trying to get Roger to communicate on paper ever since he had regained full consciousness, but Roger’s hands had been too swollen even to close around a pen. They were still puffed and bruised, but repeated leeching and gentle massage had improved them to the point that they did at least look vaguely like hands again.

Roger’s lips pressed together momentarily, but he wrapped his hand clumsily around the charcoal. The first two fingers on that hand were broken; the splints stuck out in a crude “V” sign—which I thought rather appropriate, under the circumstances.

Roger frowned in concentration, and began to scrawl something slowly. Jamie watched intently, holding the paper flat with both hands to keep it from sliding.

The stick of charcoal snapped in two, the fragments flying off across the floor. I went to pick them up, while Jamie leaned frowning over the smeared sheet of paper. There was a sprawling “W” and an “M,” then a space, and an awkward “MAC.”

“William?” He looked up at Roger for verification. Sweat shone on Roger’s cheekbones, but he nodded, very briefly.

“William Mac,” I said, peering over Jamie’s shoulder. “A Scotsman, then—or a Scottish name, at least?” Not that that narrowed down the possibilities a great deal: MacLeod, MacPherson, MacDonald, MacDonnel, Mac . . . Quiston?

Roger raised his hand and thumped it against his chest. He thumped it again, and mouthed a word. Recalling television shows based on charades, I was for once quicker than Jamie.

“MacKenzie?” I asked, and was rewarded with a quick flash of green eyes, and a nod.

“MacKenzie. William MacKenzie.” Jamie was frowning, obviously running through his mental roster of names and faces, but not turning up a match.

I was watching Roger’s face. Still heavily bruised, it too was beginning to look more normal, despite the livid weal under his jaw, and I thought there was something odd about his expression. I could see physical pain in his eyes, helplessness, and frustration at his immediate inability to tell Jamie what he wanted to know, but I thought there was something else there, too. Anger, certainly, but something like bafflement, as well.

“Do you know any William MacKenzies?” I asked Jamie, who was tapping his fingers lightly on the table as he thought.

“Aye, four or five,” he replied, brows still knotted in concentration. “In Scotland. But none here, and none that—”

Roger’s hand lifted abruptly at the word “Scotland,” and Jamie stopped, fixed on Roger’s face like a pointing bird dog.

“Scotland,” he said. “Something about Scotland? The man is a new immigrant?”

Roger shook his head violently, then stopped abruptly, grimacing in pain. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them, and waved urgently at the bits of charcoal I still held in my hand.

It took several tries, and at the end of it Roger lay back exhausted on the pillow, the neck of his nightshirt damp with sweat and spotted with blood from his throat. The result of his effort was smeared and straggling, but I could read the word clearly.

Dougal, it said. Jamie’s look of interest sharpened into something like wariness.

“Dougal,” he repeated carefully. He knew several Dougals as well; a few of them resident in North Carolina. “Dougal Chisholm? Dougal O’Neill?”

Roger shook his head and the tube in his throat wheezed with his exhalation. He lifted his hand and pointed emphatically at Jamie, the splinted fingers jabbing. Getting only a blank look in response, he fumbled for the bit of charcoal again, but it rolled off the sketch-box and shattered on the floor.

His fingers were smeared with charcoal dust. Grimacing, he pressed the tip of his ring finger against the page, and by dint of using all the fingers in turn, produced a faint and ghostly scrawl that sent a small electric shock shooting up from the base of my spine.

Geilie, it said.

Jamie stared at the name for a moment. Then I saw a small shiver move over him, and he crossed himself.

“A Dhia,” he said softly, and looked at me. Awareness thickened between us; Roger saw it and fell back on his pillow, exhaling loudly through his breathing-tube.

“Dougal’s son by Geillis Duncan,” Jamie said, turning to Roger with incredulity writ large on his face. “He was named William, I think. Ye mean it? Ye’re sure of it?”

A brief nod, and Roger’s eyes closed. Then they opened again; one splinted finger rose wavering, and pointed to his own eye—a deep, clear green, the color of moss. He was white as the linen he lay on, and his charcoal-smeared fingers were trembling. His mouth was twitching; he wanted badly to talk, to explain—but further explanations were going to have to wait, for a little while, at least.

His hand dropped, and his eyes closed again.

THE REVELATION of William Buccleigh MacKenzie’s identity didn’t alter Jamie’s urgent desire to find the man, but it did change his intention of murdering him immediately, once found. On the whole, I was grateful for small favors.

Brianna, summoned from her painting to consult, arrived in my room in her smock, smelling strongly of turpentine and linseed oil, with a smear of cobalt blue on one earlobe.

“Yes,” she said, bewildered by Jamie’s abrupt questions. “I’ve heard of him. William Buccleigh MacKenzie. The changeling.”

“The what?” Jamie’s brows shot up toward his hairline.

“That’s what I called him,” I said. “When I saw Roger’s family tree, and realized who William Buccleigh MacKenzie must be. Dougal gave the child to William and Sarah MacKenzie, remember? And they gave him the name of the child they’d lost two months before.”

“Roger mentioned that he’d seen William MacKenzie and his wife, on board the Gloriana, when he sailed from Scotland to North Carolina,” Bree put in. “But he said he didn’t realize who the man was until later, and didn’t have a chance to talk to him. So he is here—William, I mean—but why on earth would he try to kill Roger—and why that way?” She shuddered briefly, though the room was very warm. It was early summer, and even with the windows open, the air was hot and liquid with humidity.

“He’s the witch’s get,” Jamie said shortly, as though that was sufficient answer—as perhaps it was.

“They thought I was a witch, too,” I reminded him, a little tartly. That got me a sideways blue glance, and a curve of the mouth.

“So they did,” he said. He cleared his throat, and wiped a sleeve across his sweating brow. “Aye, well. I suppose we must just wait and find out. And having a name helps. I shall send to Duncan and Farquard; have them put out word.” He drew a deep breath of exasperation, and blew it out again.

“What am I to do when I find him, though? Witch-son or no, he’s my own blood; I canna kill him. Not after Dougal—” He caught himself in time, and coughed. “I mean, he’s Dougal’s son. He’s my own cousin, for God’s sake.”

I knew what he really meant. Four people knew what had happened in that attic room at Culloden House, the day before that distant battle. One of those was dead, the other disappeared and almost certainly dead too, in the tumult of the Rising. Only I was left as the witness to Dougal’s blood and the hand that had spilled it. No matter what crime William Buccleigh MacKenzie had committed, Jamie would not kill him, for his father’s sake.

“You were going to kill him? Before you found out who he was?” Bree didn’t look shocked at the thought. She had a stained paint-rag in her hands, and was twisting it slowly.

Jamie turned to look at her.

“Roger Mac is your man, the son of my house,” he said, very seriously. “Of course I would avenge him.”

Brianna flicked a glance at me, then looked away. She looked thoughtful, with a certain intentness that gave me a slight chill to see.

“Good,” she said, very softly. “When you find William Buccleigh MacKenzie, I want to know about it.” She folded up the rag, thrust it into the pocket of her smock, and went back to her work.

BRIANNA SCRAPED a tiny blob of viridian onto the edge of her palette, and feathered a touch of it into the big smear of pale gray she had created. She hesitated a moment, tilting the palette back and forth in the light from the window to judge the color, then added the faintest dab of cobalt to the other side of the smear, producing a range of subtle tones that ran from blue-gray to green-gray, all so faint as scarcely to be distinguishable from white by the uneducated eye.

She took one of the short, thick brushes, and worked the gray tones along the curve of the jaw on her canvas with tiny overlapping strokes. Yes, that was just about right; pale as fired porcelain, but with a vivid shadow under it—something both delicate and earthy.

She painted with a deep absorption that shut out her surroundings, engrossed in an artist’s double vision, comparing the evolving image on the canvas with the one so immutably etched in her memory. It wasn’t that she had never seen a dead person before. Her father—Frank—had had an open-casket funeral, and she had been to the obsequies of older family friends in her own time, as well. But the colors of the embalmer’s art were crude, almost coarse by comparison with those of a fresh corpse. She had been staggered by the contrast.

It was the blood, she thought, taking a fine two-haired brush to add a dot of pure viridian in the deep curve of the eye socket. Blood and bone—but death didn’t alter the curves of the bones, nor the shadows they cast. Blood, though, colored those shadows. In life, you got the blues and reds and pinks and lavenders of moving blood beneath the skin; in death, the blood stilled and pooled and darkened . . . clay-blue, violet, indigo, purple-brown . . . and something new: that delicate, transient green, barely there, that her artist’s mind classified with brutal clarity as “early rot.”

Unfamiliar voices came from the hall, and she looked up, wary. Phoebe Sherston was fond of bringing in visitors to admire the painting in progress. Normally, Brianna didn’t mind being watched, or talking about what she was doing, but this was a tricky job, and one with limited time; she couldn’t work with such subtle colors save for a short period just before sunset, when the light was clear but diffuse.

The voices passed on to the parlor, though, and she relaxed, taking up the thicker brush again.

She resummoned the vision in her mind; the dead man they had laid under a tree at Alamance, near her mother’s makeshift field hospital. She had expected to be shocked by battle-wounds and death—and was instead shocked by her own fascination. She had seen terrible things, but it wasn’t like attending at her mother’s normal surgeries, where there was time to empathize with the patients, to take note of all the small indignities and nastinesses of weak flesh. Things happened too fast on a battlefield; there was too much to be done for squeamishness to take hold.

And in spite of the haste and urgency, each time she had passed near that tree, she had paused for an instant. Bent to turn back the blanket over the corpse and look at the man’s face; appalled at her own fascination but making no effort to resist it—committing to memory the amazing, inexorable change of color and shadow, the stiffening of muscle and shifting of shape, as skin settled and clung to bone, and the processes of death and decay began to work their awful magic.