The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 170


“Can he write, Sassenach?” Jamie had paused by the wagon, and noticed the impasse in progress.

“Write? Write what?” I asked in surprise, but he was already reaching past me, digging out the battered portable writing-desk he carried when traveling.

“Love letters?” Jamie suggested, grinning down at me. “Or sonnets, maybe?” He tossed the lap-desk to Roger, who caught it neatly in his arms, even as I yelped in protest. “But perhaps before ye compose an epic in William Tryon’s honor, Roger Mac, ye might oblige me wi’ the tale of how our mutual kinsman came to try and murder ye, aye?”

Roger stood stock-still for a moment, clutching the desk, but then gave Jamie a lopsided smile, and nodded slowly.

He had begun while the camp was set up, paused to eat supper, and then taken up the task again. It was tiresome work, and very slow; the fractures were mostly healed, but his hands were very stiff, sore, and awkward. He had dropped the quill a dozen times. It made my own finger-joints ache just to watch him.

“Ow! Will you stop that?” I looked up from scouring out a pan with a handful of rushes and sand, to find Brianna locked in mortal combat with her son, who was arched backward like a bow over her arm, kicking, squirming, and making the sort of nerve-wracking fuss that makes even devoted parents momentarily contemplate infanticide. I saw Roger’s shoulders draw up toward his ears at the racket, but he went doggedly on with his writing.

“What is the matter with you?” Bree demanded crossly. She knelt and wrestled Jemmy into a semi-sitting position, evidently trying to make him lie down so she could change his clout for the night.

The diaper in question was much in need of attention, being wet, grimy, and hanging halfway down the little boy’s legs. Jem, having slept most of the afternoon in the wagon, had wakened sun-dazed, cranky, and in no mood to be trifled with, let alone changed and put to bed.

“Perhaps he isn’t tired yet,” I suggested. “He’s eaten, though, hasn’t he?” This was a rhetorical question; Jemmy’s face was smeared with hasty pudding, and he had bits of eggy toast in his hair.

“Yes.” Bree ran a hand through her own hair, which was cleaner, but no less disheveled. Jem wasn’t the only cranky one in the MacKenzie family. “Maybe he’s not tired, but I am.” She was; she had walked beside the wagon most of the day, to spare the horses on the steepening slopes. So had I.

“Leave him here and go have a wash, why don’t you?” I said, nobly suppressing a yawn. I picked up a large wooden spoon and waggled it alluringly toward Jem, who was oscillating backward and forward on his hands and knees, emitting horrible whining noises. Spotting the spoon, he stopped making the noise, but crouched in place, glaring suspiciously.

I added an empty tin cup to the lure, setting it on the ground near him. That was enough; he rolled onto his bottom with a squish, picked up the spoon with both hands and began trying to pound the cup into the dirt with it.

Bree cast me a look of profound gratitude, scrambled to her feet, and disappeared into the woods, heading down the slope to the small creek. A quick rinse in cold water, surrounded by dark forest, wasn’t quite the sybaritic escape that a fragrant bubble-bath by candlelight might be—but “escape” was the important word here. A little solitude worked wonders for a mother, as I knew from experience. And if cleanliness was not quite next to godliness, having clean feet, face, and hands definitely improved one’s outlook on the universe, particularly after a day of sweat, grime, and dirty diapers.

I examined my own hands critically; between horse-leading, fire-starting, cooking, and pot-scouring, my own outlook on the universe could stand a bit of improvement, too.

Still, water was not the only liquid capable of lifting one’s spirits. Jamie reached over my shoulder, put a cup of something into my hands, and sat down beside me, his own cup in hand.

“Slàinte, mo nighean donn,” he said softly, smiling at me as he lifted his cup in salute.

“Mmm.” I closed my eyes, inhaling the fragrant fumes. “Is it proper to say ‘Slàinte,’ if it isn’t whisky you’re drinking?” The liquid in the cup was wine—and a nice one, too, rough but with a good round flavor, redolent of sun and grape leaves.

“I canna see why not,” Jamie said logically. “It’s only to wish ye good health, after all.”

“True, but I think ‘Good Health’ may be more a practical wish than a figurative one, at least with some whiskies—that you hope the person you’re toasting survives the experience of drinking it, I mean.”

He laughed, eyes creasing in amusement.

“I havena killed anyone wi’ my distilling yet, Sassenach.”

“I didn’t mean yours,” I assured him, pausing for another sip. “Oh, that’s nice. I was thinking of those three militiamen from Colonel Ashe’s regiment.” The three in question had been found blind-drunk—in one case, literally blind—by a sentry, after having indulged in a bottle of so-called whisky, obtained from God knew where.

As Ashe’s Company had no surgeon, and we were camped next to them, I had been summoned in the middle of the night to deal with the matter, as best I could. All three men had survived, but one had lost the sight in one eye and another plainly had minor brain-damage—though privately, I had my doubts as to how intelligent he could have been to start with.

Jamie shrugged. Drunkenness was a simple fact of life, and bad brewing was another.

“Thig a seo, a chuisle!” he called, seeing Jemmy, who had lost interest in spoon and cup, making off on hands and knees toward the coffeepot, which had been left to keep hot between the stones of the fire-ring. Jemmy ignored the summons, but was snatched away from danger by Tom Findlay, who snagged him neatly round the waist and delivered him, kicking, to Jamie.

“Sit,” Jamie said firmly to him, and without waiting for a response, parked the child on the ground and handed him his ball of rags. Jemmy clutched this, looking craftily from his grandfather to the fire.

“Throw that in the fire, a chuisle, and I’ll smack your bum,” Jamie informed him pleasantly. Jemmy’s brow contorted and his lower lip protruded, quivering dramatically. He didn’t throw the ball into the fire, though.

“A chuisle?” I said, trying out the pronunciation. “That’s a new one. What’s it mean?”

“Oh.” Jamie rubbed a finger across the bridge of his nose, considering. “It means ‘my blood.’”

“I thought that was mo fuil.”

“Aye, it is, but that’s blood like what comes out when ye wound yourself. A chuisle is more like . . . ‘O, thou in whose veins runs my very blood.’ Ye only say it to a wee bairn, mostly—one ye’re related to, of course.”

“That’s lovely.” I set my empty wine-cup on the ground and leaned against Jamie’s shoulder. I still felt tired, but the magic of the wine had smoothed the rough edges of exhaustion, leaving me pleasantly muzzy.

“Would you call Germain that, do you think, or Joan? Or is it meant very literally, a chuisle?”

“I should be more inclined to call Germain un petit emmerdeur,” he said, with a faint snort of amusement. “But Joan—aye, I would call wee Joanie a chuisle. It’s blood of the heart, ken, not only the body.”

Jemmy had let his rag-ball fall to the ground and was staring in open-mouthed enchantment at the fireflies, which had begun to blink in the grass as darkness fell. With our stomachs full and cool rest at hand, everyone was beginning to feel the soothing effects of the gathering night.

The men were sprawled in the grassy dark under a sycamore tree, passing the wine bottle from hand to hand and exchanging talk in the easy, half-connected fashion of men who know each other well. The Findlay boys were on the wagon-track, that being the only really clear space, throwing something back and forth, missing half their catches as darkness fell, and exchanging genial shouted insults.

There was a loud rustling of bushes beyond the fire, and Brianna emerged, looking damp, but much more cheerful. She paused by Roger, a hand light on his back, and looked over his shoulder at what he was writing. He glanced up at her, then, with a shrug of resignation, withdrew the finished pages of his opus and handed them to her. She knelt down beside him and began to read, brushing back wet strands of hair and frowning to make out the letters by firelight.

A firefly landed on Jamie’s shirt, glowing cool green in the shadowed folds of cloth. I moved a finger toward it, and it flew away, spiraling above the fire like a runaway spark.

“It was a good idea, making Roger write,” I said, looking across the fire with approval. “I can’t wait to find out what actually happened to him.”

“Nor I,” Jamie agreed. “Though wi’ William Buccleigh vanished, what’s happened to Roger Mac is maybe no so important as what will happen to him.”

I didn’t have to ask what he meant by that. More than anyone, he knew what it meant, to have a life kicked out from under one—and what strength was required to rebuild it. I reached for his right hand, and he let me take it. Under cover of darkness, I stroked his crippled fingers, tracing the thickened ridges of the scars.

“So it doesn’t matter to you, to find out whether your cousin is a cold-blooded murderer or not?” I asked lightly, to cover the more serious conversation going on silently between our hands.

He made a small, gruff sound that might have been a laugh. His fingers curled over mine, smooth with callus, pressing in acknowledgment.

“He’s a MacKenzie, Sassenach. A MacKenzie of Leoch.”

“Hm.” The Frasers were stubborn as rocks, I’d been told. And Jamie himself had described the MacKenzies of Leoch—charming as larks in the field—and sly as foxes, with it. That had certainly been true of his uncles, Colum and Dougal. I hadn’t heard anything to indicate that his mother, Ellen, had shared that particular family characteristic—but then, Jamie had been only eight when she died. His aunt Jocasta? No one’s fool, certainly, but with a good deal less scope for plotting and scheming than her brothers had had, I thought.

“You what?” Brianna’s exclamation drew my attention back to the other side of the fire. She was looking at Roger, the pages in her hand, an expression of mingled amusement and dismay on her face. I couldn’t see Roger’s face; he was turned toward her. One hand rose in a shushing gesture, though, and he turned his head toward the tree where the men sat drinking, to be sure no one had heard her exclamation.

I caught a glimpse of firelight shining on the bones of his face, and then his expression changed in an instant, from wariness to horror. He lunged to his feet, mouth open.

“STOKH!” he roared.

It was a terrible cry, loud and harsh, but with a ghastly strangled quality to it, like a shout forced out around a fist shoved down his throat. It froze everyone in earshot—including Jemmy, who had abandoned the fireflies and stealthily returned to an investigation of the coffeepot. He stared up at his father, his hand six inches from the hot metal. Then his face crumpled, and he began to wail in fright.