The storm was a lot closer now; the wind had dropped, but the thunder sounded in a loud clap overhead, which made Judas dig in his heels and bound over the open ground like a jackrabbit. Judas hated thunder. Remembering what had happened the last time I’d ridden him in a rainstorm, I flattened myself along his back and clung like a cocklebur, grimly determined not to be thrown or scraped off in his mad career.
Then we were into the wood, and leafless branches lashed at me like whips. I pressed myself lower against the horse’s neck, closing my eyes to avoid having one poked out. Judas was moving more slowly now, by necessity, but was clearly still panicked; I could feel the churn of his hindquarters, driving us upward, and hear the breath whistling through his nostrils.
The thunder came again, and he lost his footing on the slippery leaves, slewing sideways and smashing into a stand of saplings. The springy wood saved us major damage, though, and we stumbled and staggered back upright, still moving upward. Opening one eye cautiously, I could tell that Judas had somehow found a trail—I could see the faint line of it, zigging through the dense growth in front of us.
Then the trees closed in again, and I could see nothing but a claustrophobic array of interwoven trunks and branches, twined with the yellowing remnants of wild honeysuckle and the flash of scarlet creepers. The thick growth slowed the horse still further, and I was at last able to draw a deep breath and wonder where Jamie was.
The thunder cracked again, and in its wake, I heard a high-pitched neigh, not far behind me. Of course—Judas hated thunder, but Gideon hated to follow another horse. He would be close behind, pushing to catch up.
A heavy drop of rain struck me between the shoulder blades, and I heard the rustle of the beginning rain, striking drop by drop by drop on leaves and wood and ground around me. The scent of ozone was sharp in my nostrils, and the whole wood seemed to give a green sigh, opening itself to the rain.
I gave a deep sigh, too, of relief.
Judas took a few steps further, and lurched to a halt, panting and blowing. Not waiting for another clap of thunder to set him off again, I hastily slid to the ground, and seizing his halter-rope, tied him to a small tree—no easy task, with my hands stiff and shaking.
Just in time. The thunder crashed again, a clap so loud that I could feel it on my skin. Judas screamed and reared, jerking at his rope, but I had wrapped it round the tree trunk. I stumbled back to get away from his panic, and Jamie caught me from behind. He started to say something, but the thunder boomed again, drowning him out.
I turned and clung to him, shaking with the adrenaline of delayed shock. The rain began to fall in good earnest now, drops cool on my face. He kissed my forehead, then let go and led me under the overhang of a big hemlock, whose fans of needles broke the rain, providing a fragrant, almost-dry cave beneath.
As the adrenaline surging through my body began to die down, I had a moment to look around, and realized that we were not the first inhabitants of this refuge.
“Look,” I said, pointing into the shadows. The traces were slight, but obvious; someone had eaten here, discarding a tidy pile of small bones. Animals were not so tidy. Animals didn’t scrape up dead needles into a comfy pillow, either.
Jamie winced at another bang of thunder, but nodded.
“Aye, it’s a mankiller’s spot, though I dinna think it’s been used lately.”
“Mankiller,” he repeated. The lightning flashed behind him, a vivid sheet that left his silhouette imprinted on my retina. “It’s what they call the sentries; the warriors who stay outside the village, to keep watch and stop anyone coming in unaware. D’ye see?”
“I can’t see a thing, just yet.” I put out a hand, groping, and touched his coatsleeve, moving blindly into the shelter of his arm. I closed my eyes, in hopes of restoring my vision, but even against my sealed lids, I could see the flash and burst of lightning.
The thunder seemed to be moving off a little, or at least growing less frequent. I blinked, and found that I could see again. Jamie moved aside, gesturing, and I saw that we were standing on a sort of ledge, with the face of the mountain rising steeply behind us. Screened from view from below by a row of conifers, there was a narrow clearing—obviously man-made, as that was the only sort of clearing that occurred in these mountains. Looking out through the conifer branches, though, I had a breathtaking view over the small valley where Ravenstown lay.
The rain had slackened. Looking out from this high vantage point, though, I could see that the clouds were not one storm, but several; patches of dark rain hung randomly from the clouds like veils of gray velvet, and silent, jagged forks of lightning lanced suddenly across the black sky above the distant peaks, thunder grumbling in their wake.
Smoke still bloomed from the canebrake, a low flat crown of pale gray, almost white against the darkened sky. Even as high as we were, the smell of burning stung the nose, mingling oddly with the scent of rain. Here and there I could see flame-licks, still burning in the cane, but it was apparent that the fire was mostly out; the next shower of rain would quench it entirely. I could see, too, the people returning to the village, small groups making their way from the wood, bundles and children in tow.
I looked for riders, but saw none, let alone any with red hair. Surely Brianna and Jemmy were safe, though? I shivered suddenly; with the changeableness of mountain weather, the air had gone from smothering blanket to chill within less than an hour.
“All right, Sassenach?” Jamie’s hand settled warmly on my neck, fingers rubbing gently along the tense ridge of my shoulders. I took a deep breath and let them relax, as much as I could.
“Yes. Do you think it’s safe to ride down?” My only impression of the trail was that it was both narrow and steep; it would be muddy now, and slippery with wet, dead leaves.
“No,” he said, “but I dinna think—” He stopped abruptly, frowning in thought as he gauged the sky. He glanced behind us; I could barely make out the outline of the horses, standing close together under the shelter of the tree where I had tied Judas.
“I was going to say I didna think it particularly safe to stay here,” he said at last. His fingers tapped gently on my shoulder as he thought, pattering like raindrops.
“But yon storm is moving fast; ye can see the lightning come across the mountain, and the thunder . . .” With melodramatic timing, a sharp boom of thunder rolled across the valley. I heard a shrill whinny of protest from one of the horses, and the rattle of foliage as he tugged at his halter. Jamie glanced over his shoulder, expression bleak.
“Your mount’s got a strong mislike of thunder, Sassenach.”
“Yes, I noticed that,” I said, huddling closer to him for warmth. The wind was picking up again, as the next storm rolled in.
“Aye, he’ll likely break his neck, and yours, too, if ye’re so misfortunate as to be on that trail when it—” Another boom of thunder drowned his words, but I took his meaning.
“We’ll wait,” he said, positively.
He pulled me in front of him, and put his arms round me, sighing as he rested his chin on the top of my head. We stood together in the shelter of the hemlock, waiting for the storm to come.
Far below, the canebrake seethed and hissed, the smoke of the burning beginning to rise and fly with the wind. Away from the village, this time, toward the river. I wondered suddenly where Roger was—somewhere under that murky sky. Had he found safe refuge from the storm?
“I wonder where that bear is, too,” I said, voicing half my thoughts. Jamie’s chest moved in a rueful laugh, but the thunder drowned his voice.
ROGER HALF-WOKE with the smell of smoke burning in his throat. He coughed and sank back into sleep, fragmented images of a sooty hearth and burnt sausages fading into mist. Tired from a morning of shoving his way through impenetrable thickets of brush and cane, he had eaten a sparse lunch and lain down for an hour’s rest in the shade of a black willow on the river bank.
Lulled by the rushing water, he might have sunk back into solid slumber, but a distant shriek pulled him upright, blinking. The shriek was repeated, far off but loud. The mule!
He was on his feet, stumbling toward the sound, before he remembered the leather bag that held his ink and quills, the half-chain, and the precious surveying records. He lunged back to snatch it, then splashed across the shallows toward Clarence’s hysterical braying, the weight of the astrolabe swinging on its thong against his chest. He crammed it inside his shirt to stop it catching on branches, looking desperately for the way by which he had come.
Smoke—he did smell smoke. He coughed, half choking as he tried to stifle it. Coughing hurt his throat, with a searing pain as the scar tissue inside seemed to tear.
“Coming,” he breathed, in Clarence’s direction. It wouldn’t have mattered if he could have shouted; even when he’d had a voice, it hadn’t the carrying quality of Clarence’s. He’d left the mule hobbled in a grassy patch on the edge of the canebrake, but he hadn’t come in very far.
“Again,” he muttered, throwing his weight against a stand of young cane to force his way through. “Yell . . . again . . . dammit.” The sky was dark. Springing from sleep and blundering off as he had, he had no sense of where he was, save for Clarence.
Shit, what was happening? The smell of smoke was noticeably stronger; as his mind cleared from the muddle of sleep and panic, he realized that something was drastically wrong. The birds, normally somnolent in mid-day, were agitated, fluttering and calling with loud, disjointed screeches past his head. Air moved restless through the canes, fluttering their ragged leaves, and he caught a touch of warmth on his face—not the moist, clinging, all-embracing warmth of the muggy canebrake, but a dry, hot touch that brushed his cheek and sent a paradoxical chill right down his back. Holy Christ, the place was on fire.
He took a deep breath, calming himself deliberately. The canebrake was alive around him; a hot wind was moving, rattling dry canes, driving flocks of songbirds and parakeets before it, flung like handsful of bright confetti through the leaves. The smoke crept into his chest and gripped his lungs, burning, keeping him from drawing a full breath.
“Clarence,” he rasped, as loudly as he could. No good; he could scarcely hear himself above the rising agitation of the canebrake. He couldn’t hear the mule at all. Surely the fat-headed animal hadn’t been burned to a crisp already? No, more likely, he’d broken his rag hobbles and galloped off to safety.
Something brushed his leg and he looked down in time to see the nak*d, scaly tail of a possum, scampering into the brush. That was as good a direction as any, he thought, and plunged into the growth of buttonbush after it.
There was a grunting somewhere near; a small pig burst out of a patch of yaupon and crossed his path, heading to the left. Pig, possum—was either known to have a good sense of direction? He hesitated for a moment, then followed the pig; it was big enough to help break a path.
A path there seemed to be; small patches of bare earth showed here and there, trampled between the tussocks of grass. Wild orchids winked among them, vivid as small jewels, and he wondered at the delicacy of them—how could he notice such things, at such a time?