The day was hot, muggy, and still. Not a breeze stirred in the fields, where the dry stalks of harvested corn and sunflowers lay like scattered pick-up sticks. No breath of air moved the dust in the village street. If one was going to set something on fire, I thought, it was a good day for the job. For myself, I was pleased to take refuge in the cool, shadowy interior of Sungi’s cabin.
In the course of the day’s conversation, I thought to ask about the components of the amulet that Nayawenne had made for me. Granted, she had been a Tuscaroran medicine-woman, so the underlying beliefs might not be the same—but I was curious about the bat.
“There is a story about bats,” Sungi began, and I hid a smile. The Cherokee were in fact a great deal like the Scottish Highlanders, particularly in terms of liking stories. I had heard several already, in the few days we had spent in the village.
“The animals and the birds decided to play a ball game,” Anna said, translating smoothly as Sungi talked. “At this time, bats walked on four feet, like the other animals. But when they came to play in the ball game, the other animals said no, they couldn’t play; they were too small, and would surely be crushed. The bats didn’t like this.” Sungi frowned, with a grimace indicating a displeased bat.
“So the bats went to the birds, and offered to play on their side, instead. The birds accepted this offer, and so they took leaves and sticks, and they made wings for the bats. The birds won the ball game, and the bats liked their wings so much that—”
Sungi stopped talking abruptly. Her head lifted, and she sniffed the air. All around us, the women stopped talking. Sungi rose swiftly and went to the door, hand braced on the doorframe as she looked out.
I could smell the smoke—had been smelling it for the last hour as it came floating in on the wind—but I realized that the reek of burning had indeed gotten much stronger now. Sungi stepped outside; I got up and followed her with the other women, small prickles of unease beginning to nip at the backs of my knees.
The sky was beginning to darken with rain clouds, but the cloud of smoke was darker still, a roiling black smudge that rose above the distant trees. A wind had come up, riding on the edge of the approaching storm, and flurries of dry leaves rolled past us with a sound like small, skittering feet.
Most languages have a few monosyllables suitable for use in situations of sudden dismay, and so does Cherokee. Sungi said something I didn’t catch, but the meaning was clear. One of the younger women licked a finger and held it up, but the gesture was unnecessary—I could feel the wind on my face, strong enough to lift the hair from my shoulders, cool on my neck. It was blowing straight toward the village.
Anna drew a long, deep breath; I could see her inflate herself, shoulders squaring to deal with the situation. Then all at once, the women were in motion, hurrying down the street toward their houses, calling for children, stopping to sweep the contents of a rack of drying jerky into a skirt or snatch a string of onions or squash from the eaves in passing.
I wasn’t sure where Jemmy was; one of the older Indian girls had taken him to play with, but in the flurry, I couldn’t be sure which one it was. I picked up my skirts and hurried down the street, ducking into each house without invitation, looking for him. There was a strong feeling of urgency in the air, but not panic. The sound of the dry leaves seemed constant, though, a faint rustling that followed at my heels.
I found him in the fifth house, sound asleep with several other children of different ages, all nestled like puppies in the folds of a buffalo robe. I would never have spotted him, save for his bright hair, shining like a beacon in the midst of the soft darkness. I woke them as gently as possible, and extricated Jemmy. He came awake at once, though, and was looking round, blinking in confusion.
“Come with Grannie, sweetheart,” I said. “We’re going to go now.”
“Go horsie?” he asked, brightening at once.
“An excellent idea,” I replied, hoisting him onto one hip. “Let’s go find the horsie, shall we?”
The smell of smoke was much stronger when we emerged into the street. Jemmy coughed, and I could taste something acrid and bitter at the back of my mouth as I breathed. The evacuation was in full progress; people—mostly women—were hurrying in and out of the houses, pushing children before them, carrying hastily wrapped bundles of belongings. Still, there was no sense of panic or alarm in the exodus; everyone seemed concerned, but fairly matter-of-fact about it all. It occurred to me that a wooden village located in a deep forest must now and then be exposed to the risk of fire. No doubt the inhabitants had faced at least the possibility of a forest fire before, and were prepared to deal with it.
That realization calmed me a little—though the further realization that the constant dry-leaf rustling that I was hearing was in fact the crackle of the approaching fire wasn’t calming at all.
Most of the horses had gone with the hunters. When I reached the brush pen, there were only three left. One of the older men of the village was mounted on one, and had Judas and the other horse on tethers, ready to lead away. Judas was saddled, and wore his saddlebags, and a rope halter. When the old man saw me, he grinned and called something, gesturing to Judas.
“Thank you!” I called back. The man leaned down and scooped Jemmy deftly from my arms, allowing me to mount Judas and get proper hold of the reins before handing Jemmy carefully back.
The horses were all restless, stamping and shifting. They knew as well as we did what fire was—and liked it even less. I took a firm hold on the halter with one hand, and a firmer hold on Jemmy with the other.
“Right, beast,” I said to Judas, with an assumption of authority. “We’re going now.”
Judas was all in favor of this suggestion; he headed for the open gap in the brush fence as though it were the finish line of a race, snagging my skirts on the thorns of the fence as we passed. I managed to hold him back a little, long enough for the old man and his two horses to emerge from the brushy paddock and catch us up.
The man shouted something to me, and pointed toward the mountain, away from the fire. The wind had picked up; it blew his long gray hair across his face, muffling his words. He shook it away, but didn’t bother to repeat himself, instead merely wheeling his mount in the direction he had pointed.
I kneed Judas in the side, turning him to follow, but kept a close rein, hesitating. I looked back over my shoulder toward the village, to see small streams of people trickling out from between the houses, all heading in the general direction the old man had indicated. No one was running, though they were all walking with great purpose.
Bree would be coming for Jemmy, as soon as she realized that the village was in danger. I knew she trusted me to see him safe, but no mother in such circumstances would rest until reunited with her child. We were not in any immediate peril, so I held back, waiting, in spite of Judas’s increasing agitation.
The wind was lashing through the trees now, ripping loose billows of green and red and yellow leaves that pelted past us, plastering my skirt and Judas’s hide in autumn patchwork. The whole sky had gone a violet-black, and I heard the first grumbles of thunder under the whistle of wind and rustle of fire. I could smell the tang of coming rain, even through the smoke, and felt a sudden hope. A good hard drench seemed just what the situation called for, and the sooner the better.
Jemmy was wildly excited by the atmospherics, and beat his fat little hands on the pommel, shouting a personal war chant toward the heavens that sounded something like “Oogie-oogie-oogie!”
Judas didn’t care for this sort of behavior at all. I was having an increasingly hard time keeping him under any sort of control; he kept jerking at the halter while executing a sort of corkscrew maneuver that carried us in erratic circles. The wrapped rope was cutting hard into my hand, and Jemmy’s bare heels were drumming a tattoo against my thighs.
I had just decided to give up and let the horse have his head, when he suddenly swung round and flung the head in question up, neighing loudly toward the village.
Sure enough, there were riders coming; I saw several horses coming out of the forest on the far side of the village at a trot. Judas, overjoyed to see other horses, was more than willing to go back into the village, even though it was in the direction of the fire.
I met Brianna and Jamie in the middle of the village, both looking anxiously round as they rode down the street. Jemmy shrieked with delight at sight of his mother, and lunged across into her arms, narrowly missing being dropped under the horses’ nervous hooves.
“Did you get the bear?” I called to Jamie.
“No!” he shouted back, over the rising wind. “Come away, Sassenach!”
Bree was already off, heading for the forest, where the last of the villagers were disappearing into the trees. Relieved of my responsibility for Jemmy, though, I had thought of something else.
“Just a minute!” I shouted. I pulled up, and slid off Judas’s back, throwing the reins toward Jamie. He leaned out to catch them, and yelled something after me, but I didn’t catch it.
We were outside Sungi’s house, and I had caught sight of the skins of sunflower oil, piled under the eaves. I risked a glance back in the direction of the canebrake. The fire was definitely coming closer; there were visible wisps of smoke swirling past me, and I thought I could see the glimmer of distant flame among the lashing trees. Still, I was fairly sure that we could outrun the fire on horseback—and that was a year’s honey-profit lying about on the ground; I wasn’t leaving it for the fire to take.
I dashed into the house, ignoring Jamie’s infuriated bellows, and scrabbled madly through the scattered baskets, hoping against hope that Sungi hadn’t taken . . . she hadn’t. I seized a handful of rawhide strips and ran back outside.
Kneeling amid the swirling dust and smoke, I whipped strips of hide around the necks of two of the skin bags, and knotted the long ends of the two strips together, pulling the leather as tight as I could. Gathering the unwieldy pair up into my arms, I staggered back to the horses.
Jamie, seeing what I was about, gathered both sets of reins up one-handed, leaned out, and grabbed the makeshift handle that joined the skins, heaving the contraption over Gideon’s withers so that the bags hung on either side.
“Come on!” he shouted.
“One more!” I called back, already running back to the house. From the corner of my eye, I could see him fighting the horses, who were plunging and snorting, anxious to be away. He was yelling uncomplimentary things about me in Gaelic, but I sensed a certain resignation in his tone, and couldn’t help smiling to myself, in spite of the anxiety that tightened my chest and made me fumble with the slippery hide strips.
Judas was snorting and rolling his eyes, baring his teeth intermittently with fear, but Jamie pulled him up close, holding his head tightly while I managed to fling the second pair of oil-filled bags across his saddle, and then mount myself.
The moment Jamie’s iron grip on his halter relaxed, Judas was off. The rope was in my hands, but realizing its uselessness, I merely clung to the saddle for dear life, the oil bags bouncing madly against my legs as we hightailed it for the safety of the rising ground.