The smoke was thicker; he had to stop and cough, bending nearly double and clutching at his throat, as though he could keep the tissue intact, keep it from tearing with his hands. Eyes streaming, he straightened up to find that the trail had disappeared. A thrill of panic squeezed his insides as he saw a wisp of drifting smoke, nosing its way slowly through the undergrowth, delicately questing.
He clenched his fists hard enough to feel the short nails bite into his palms, using the pain to focus his mind. He turned slowly round, eyes closed to concentrate, listening, turning his face from side to side, searching for a draft of fresh air, a sense of heat—anything that would tell him which way to go, away from the fire.
Nothing. Or rather, everything. Smoke was everywhere now, in thickening clouds that crept low across the ground, rolled black out of thickets, choking. He could hear the fire now, a chuckling noise, like someone laughing, low down in a scar-choked throat.
Willows. His mind clung to the notion of willows; he could see a growth of them in the distance, barely visible above the waving canes. Willows grow near water; that was where the river was.
A small red and black snake slid across his foot as he reached the water, but he scarcely noticed. There was no time for any fear but the fear of fire. He splashed into the center of the stream and dropped to his knees, bending to get his face as close to the water as he could.
There was moving air, there, cool from the water, and he gulped it, deep enough to make him cough again, shaking his body with a series of racking, tearing spasms. Which way, which way? The stream wound to and fro through acres of cane and river thicket. To follow it one way would lead him toward the bottomland—perhaps, out of the fire, or at least to open country—a place where he could see again to run. To go the other way might take him straight to the heart of the fire. But there was nothing overhead but cloudy darkness, and no way of knowing.
He pressed his arms tight against his body, trying to stifle the coughing, and felt the bulge of his leather bag. The records. Goddamn it, he could countenance the possibility of his own death, but not the loss of those records, made over so many laborious days. Floundering and stumbling, he made his way to the river’s edge. He dug frantically with his hands, scrabbling in the soft mud, ripping out handsful of the long, tough grass, yanking horsetails up by the roots. They came apart in his hands and he flung the segments heedless over his shoulder, breath sobbing in his chest as he gasped and dug.
The air was hot all round him, searing in his lungs. He crammed the leather bag into the damp hole he had made, reached out his arms and grasped the dirt, pulling it to him, the mud a comfort on his skin as he scooped it in.
He stopped, panting. He should be sweating, but the sweat dried before it reached the surface of his skin. The fire was close. Rocks, he needed rocks to mark the place—they wouldn’t burn. He splashed back into the creek, groped beneath the surface, oh God it was cold, it was wet, thank God, grasped a boulder slick with green slime and threw it toward the bank. Another, a handful of smaller rocks, grasped in desperation, another big one, a flat one, another—enough, it would have to be enough, the fire was coming.
He piled his rocks into a hasty cairn, and commending his soul to the mercy of God, plunged back into the river and fled, stumbling and choking, rocks rolling and sliding under his feet, fled for as long as his trembling legs would carry him, before the smoke seized him by the throat, filled head and nose and chest, and choked him, the band of scarring a hand that squeezed out air and life, and left only blackness behind his eyes, lit by the flickering redness of fire.
HE WAS FIGHTING. Fighting the noose, fighting the bonds on his wrists, fighting most of all the black void that crushed his chest and sealed his throat, fighting for one final sip of precious air. He bucked, straining with every ounce of force, and then was rolling on the ground, arms flying free.
He struck something with one flailing hand. It was soft, and yelped in surprise.
Then there were hands on his shoulders, his legs, and he was sitting up, vision fractured and chest heaving in the effort to breathe. Something struck him hard in the middle of the back. He choked, coughed, gulped enough air to cough down deep in the charred center of himself, and a huge gobbet of black phlegm rolled up out of his chest, warm and slimy as a rotten oyster on his tongue.
He spat it out, choked and heaved as the bile rose up burning through the raw squeezed channel of his throat. Then spat again, gulped, and sat up, gasping.
He had no attention to spare for anything, lost in the miracle of air and breath. There were voices around him, and vague faces in the dark; everything smelled of burning. Nothing mattered but the oxygen flooding through his chest, plumping up his shriveled cells like raisins soaked in water.
Water touched his mouth, and he looked up, eyes blinking and watering in the effort to see. His eyeballs felt seared; light and shadow smeared together, and he blinked hard, warm tears a balm to the rawness of his eyes, cooling his skin as they ran down his cheeks. Someone held a cup to his lips; a woman, face blackened with soot. No, not soot. He blinked, squinted, blinked. She was black of herself. Slave?
He took a brief gulp of water, unwilling to interrupt his breathing even for the pleasure of the coolness on his ravaged throat. It was good, though—very good. His hands rose and wrapped around the cup, surprising him. He had expected the pain of broken fingers, long-numbed flesh . . . but his hands were whole and serviceable. He reached automatically for the hollow of his neck, expecting pain and the whistle of amber—and prodded unbelievingly at the solid flesh there. He breathed, and the air whistled through his nose and down the back of his throat. The world shifted around him, and realigned itself.
He was sitting in a ramshackle hut of some sort. There were several people in the hut, and more peering in at the door. Most of them were black, all were in rags, and none of the faces looked even faintly friendly.
The woman who had given him water looked scared. He tried a smile at her, and coughed again. She looked up at him under the ragged cloth tied round her brows, and he saw that the whites of her eyes were scarlet, the lids red-rimmed and swollen. His must look the same, from the feel of them. The air was still thick with smoke, and he could hear the distant cracks and pops of heat-split cane, the dying rumble of the fire. Somewhere nearby, a bird called once in alarm, then fell abruptly silent.
There was a conversation going on near the door, conducted in sibilant whispers. The men who were talking—no, arguing—glanced at him now and then, their faces masks of fear and distrust. It had begun to rain outside; he couldn’t smell it, but cool air struck his face, and he heard the patter of drops on the roof, on the trees outside.
He drained the rest of the water, then offered the woman back the cup. She shrank back, as though he might be contaminated. He set the cup on the ground, nodding to her, and swiped at his eyes with the back of his wrist. The hair on his arm was singed; it crumbled to dust at a touch.
He strained to pick out words, but heard nothing but gabble. The men weren’t speaking English, nor yet French or Gaelic. He had heard some of the fresh blackbirds brought up from Charleston for sale in the Wilmington market, talking among themselves in just that sort of husky, secretive murmur. Some African tongue—or more than one.
His skin was blistered, hot and painful in several places, and the air in the hut was so thickly warm that sweat ran down his face with the water from his eyes, but a chill touched the base of his spine at the realization. He was not on a plantation—there were none, so far into the mountains. Such isolated homesteads as there were up here would be too poor to have slaves, let alone such a number. Some of the Indians kept slaves—but not black ones.
Only one answer possible, one confirmed by their behavior. They were maroons, then, his captors—his saviors? Escaped slaves, living here in secrecy.
Their freedom—and perhaps their lives—depended on that secrecy. And here he sat, a living threat to it. His insides gelled as he realized just how tenuous his position was. Had they saved him from the fire? If so, they must now be regretting it, judging from the looks of the men by the door.
One of the arguants broke away from the group, came and squatted down before him, pushing the woman out of the way. Narrow black eyes darted over him, from face to chest, then back. “Who you?”
He didn’t think the pugnacious questioner wanted his name. Rather, he wanted to know Roger’s purpose. Possibilities flickered through Roger’s mind—what would be most likely to keep him alive?
Not “hunter”—if they thought him English and alone, they’d kill him for sure. Could he pretend to be French? A Frenchman wouldn’t seem so dangerous to them. Perhaps.
He blinked hard to clear his vision, and was opening his mouth to say, “Je suis Francais—un voyageur,” when he felt a sharp pain in the center of his chest that made him suck breath.
The metal of the astrolabe had seared him in the fire, and quick blisters had risen and burst beneath it, gluing the thing to him with their sticky fluid. As he moved now, the weight of it had torn free, ripping the ragged shreds of skin away, and leaving a throbbing raw patch in the center of his chest.
He dipped two fingers into the neck of his shirt, and carefully pulled up the leather thong.
“Sur . . . vey . . . or,” he croaked, forcing the syllables past the knot of soot and scar in his throat.
His questioner stared at the golden disk, eyes bulging. The men by the door pushed and shoved each other, trying to get close enough to see.
One reached out and snatched the astrolabe, dragging it off over his head. He made no attempt to keep it, but sat back, taking advantage of their preoccupation with the gaudy thing to gather his feet slowly under him. He strained to keep his eyes open, against the nearly irresistible urge to squeeze them shut; even the soft daylight from the door was painful.
One of the men glanced at him, and said something sharp. Two of them moved at once between him and the door, bloodshot eyes fixed on him like basilisks. The man holding the astrolabe called out something, a name, he thought, and there was a movement at the door, someone pushing through the bodies there.
The woman who came in looked much like the others; dressed in a ragged shift, damp with rain, with a square of cloth tied round her head, hiding her hair. One major difference, though; the thin arms and legs protruding from the shift were the weathered, freckled brown of a white person. She stared at Roger, keeping her eyes fixed on him as she moved into the center of the hut. Only the weight of the astrolabe in her hand pulled her gaze away from him.
A tall, rawboned man with one eye shoved forward. He moved close to the woman, poked a finger at the astrolabe, and said something that sounded like a question. She shook her head slowly, tracing the markings round the edge of the disk with puzzled fascination. Then she turned it over.
Roger saw her shoulders stiffen when she saw the engraved letters, and a flicker of hope sprang up in his chest; she knew it. She recognized the name.
He had been gambling that they might know what a surveyor was, might realize that the word implied that there were people awaiting his results—people who would come looking for him, if he did not return. From their point of view, there could be no gain in killing him, if others would come searching. But if the woman knew the name “James Fraser” . . .