The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 188

   

“She’s all . . . right. They’ll take . . . good care of her.” He groped, wanting to offer something else. “She’s . . . pretty,” he said at last. His voice was nearly gone, no more than a whisper. “A pretty . . . girl.”

The man’s face shifted, caught between embarrassment, dismay, and pleasure.

“Oh,” he said. “Dat be from de mama, sure.” He patted Fanny Beardsley’s back, very gently. She had stopped sobbing, but stood with her face pressed against his chest, still and silent. It was nearly full dark; in the deep dusk, all color was leached away; her skin seemed the same color as his.

The man wore nothing but a tattered shirt, wet through, so that his dark skin showed in patches through it. He had a rope belt, though, with a rough cloth bag strung on it. He groped one-handed in this, and drew out the astrolabe, which he extended toward Roger.

“You don’t mean . . . to keep that?” Roger asked. He felt as though he was standing inside a cloud; everything was beginning to feel far away and hazy, and words reached him as though filtered through cotton wool.

The ex-slave shook his head.

“No, man, what I do wid dat? Beside,” he added, with a wry lift of the mouth, “maybe no one come look you, man, but de masta what own dat ting—he come look, maybe.”

Roger took the heavy disk, and put the thong over his neck. It took two tries; his arms felt like lead.

“Nobody . . . will come looking,” he said. He turned and walked away, with no idea where he was, or where he might be going. After a few steps, he turned and looked back, but the night had already swallowed them.

84

BURNT TO BONES

THE HORSES SETTLED SLIGHTLY, but were still uneasy, pawing, stamping, and jerking at their tethers, as the thunder rumbled hollowly in the distance. Jamie sighed, kissed the top of my head, and pushed his way back through the conifers to the tiny clearing where they stood.

“Well, if ye dinna like it up here,” I heard him say to them, “why did ye come?” He spoke tolerantly, though, and I heard Gideon whinny briefly in pleasure at seeing him. I was turning to go and help with the reassuring, when a flicker of movement caught my eye below.

I leaned out to see it, keeping a tight grip on one of the hemlock’s branches for safety, but it had moved. A horse, I thought, but coming from a different direction than that in which the refugees had come. I wove my way down the line of conifers, peeking through the branches, and reached a spot near the end of the narrow ledge where I had a clear view of the river valley below.

Not a horse, quite—it was—

“It’s Clarence!” I shouted.

“Who?” Jamie’s voice came back from the far end of the ledge, half-drowned by the rustle of the branches overhead. The wind was still rising, damp with returning rain.

“Clarence! Roger’s mule!” Not waiting for a reply, I ducked beneath an overhanging branch and balanced myself precariously on the lip of the ledge, clinging to a rocky outcrop that jutted from the cliff where it met the ledge. There were serried ranks of trees below, marching down the slope, their tops no more than a few inches below the level of my feet, but I didn’t want to risk falling down into them.

It was Clarence, I was sure of it. I was by no means expert enough to recognize any quadruped by its distinctive gait, but Clarence had suffered some form of mange or other skin disease in his youth, and the hair had grown in white over the healed patches, leaving him peculiarly piebald over the rump.

He was lolloping over the stubbled corn fields, ears pointed forward and obviously happy to be rejoining society. He was also saddled and riderless, and I said a very bad word under my breath when I saw it.

“He’s broken his hobbles and run.” Jamie had appeared at my shoulder, peering down at the small figure of the mule. He pointed. “See?” I hadn’t noticed, in my alarm, but there was a small rag of cloth tied round one of his forelegs, flapping as he ran.

“I suppose that’s better,” I said. My hands had gone sweaty, and I wiped my palms on the elbows of my sleeves, unable to look away. “I mean—if he was hobbled, then Roger wasn’t on him. Roger wasn’t thrown, or knocked off and hurt.”

“Ah, no.” Jamie seemed concerned, but not alarmed. “He’ll have a long walk back, is all.” Still, I saw his gaze shift out, over the narrow river valley, now nearly filled with smoke. He shook his head slightly, and said something under his breath—no doubt a cousin to my own bad word.

“I wonder if this is how the Lord feels,” he said aloud, and gave me a wry glance. “Able to see what foolishness men are up to, but canna do a bloody thing about it.”

Before I could answer him, lightning flashed, and the thunder cracked on its heels with a clap so loud and sudden that I jumped, nearly losing my grip. Jamie seized my arm to stop me falling, and pulled me back from the edge. The horses were throwing fits again, at the far end of the ledge, and he turned toward them, but stopped suddenly, his hand still on my arm.

“What?” I looked where he was looking, and saw nothing but the wall of the cliff, some ten feet away, festooned with small rock plants.

He let go my arm, and without answering, walked toward the cliff. And, I saw, toward an old fire-blasted snag that stood near it. Very delicately, he reached out and tweaked something from the dead tree’s bark. I reached his side and peered into the palm of his hand, where he cradled several long, coarse hairs. White hairs.

Rain began to fall again, settling down in a businesslike way to the job of soaking everything in sight. A piercing pair of whinnies came from the horses, who didn’t like being abandoned one bit.

I looked at the trunk of the tree; there were white hairs all over it, caught in the cracks of the ragged bark. A bear has special scratching trees, I could hear Josiah saying. He’ll come back to one, again and again. I swallowed, hard.

“Perhaps,” Jamie said very thoughtfully, “it’s no just the thunder that troubles the horses.”

Perhaps not, but it wasn’t helping. Lightning flashed into the trees far down the slope and the thunder sounded with it. Another flash-bang following on its heels, and another, as though an ack-ack gun were going off beneath our feet. The horses were having hysterics, and I felt rather like joining them.

I had put on my hooded cloak when I left the village, but both hood and hair were matted to my skull, the rain pounding down on my head like a shower of nails. Jamie’s hair was plastered to his head as well, and he grimaced through the rain.

He made a “stay here” gesture, but I shook my head and followed him. The horses were in a complete state, saturated manes dangling over rolling eyes. Judas had succeeded in half-uprooting the small tree I had tied him to, and Gideon had his ears laid flat, flexing his lip repeatedly over his big yellow teeth, looking for someone or something to bite.

Seeing this, Jamie’s lips tightened. He glanced back toward the place where we had found the scratching-tree, invisible from our present position. The lightning flashed, the thunder shuddered through the rock, and the horses both screamed and lunged. Jamie shook his head, making the decision, and grabbed Judas’s reins, holding him steady. Evidently we were getting off the mountain, slippery trail or not.

I got into the saddle in a swash of wet skirts, and took a firm grip, trying to shout soothing words into Judas’s ear as he skittered and danced, eager to be gone. We were dangerously close to the conifers at the edge, and I leaned hard inward, trying to get him toward the cliff side of the ledge.

An extraordinary prickling sensation ran over my body, as though I were being bitten from head to toe by thousands of tiny ants. I looked at my hands and saw them glowing, limned in blue light. The hairs on my forearms stood straight out, each one glowing blue. My hood had fallen back, and I felt the hair on my head rise all at once, as though a giant hand had gently lifted it.

The air smelled suddenly of brimstone, and I looked about in alarm. Trees, rocks, the ground itself was bathed in blue light. Tiny snakes of brilliant white electricity hissed across the surface of the cliff, a few yards away.

I turned, calling for Jamie, and saw him on Gideon, turning toward me, his mouth open as he shouted, all words lost in the reverberation of the air around us.

Gideon’s mane began to rise, as though by magic. Jamie’s hair floated up from his shoulders, shot with wires of crackling blue. Horse and rider glowed with hell-light, each muscle of face and limb outlined. I felt a rush of air over my skin, and then Jamie flung himself from his saddle and into me, hurling us both into emptiness.

The lightning struck before we hit the ground.

I came to, smelling burned flesh and the throat-searing sting of ozone. I felt as though I had been turned inside out; all of my organs seemed to be exposed.

It was still raining. I lay still for a while, letting the rain run over my face and soak my hair, while the neurons of my nervous system slowly began to work again. My finger twitched, by itself. I tried to do it on purpose, and succeeded. I flexed my fingers—not so good. A few more minutes, though, and enough circuits were working to allow me to sit up.

Jamie was lying near me, sprawled on his back like a rag doll among a patch of sumac. I crawled over to him, and found that his eyes were open. He blinked at me, and a muscle twitched at the side of his mouth in an attempt at a smile.

I couldn’t see any blood, and while his limbs were thrown awry, they were all straight. The rain pooled in his eye sockets, running into his eyes. He blinked violently, then turned his head to let the water drain off his face. I put a hand on his stomach, and felt the big abdominal pulse beneath my fingers, very slow, but steady.

I didn’t know how long we had been unconscious, but this storm too had moved away. Sheet lightning flashed beyond the distant mountains, throwing the peaks into sharp relief.

“Thunder is good,” I quoted, watching it in a sort of dreamy stupor, “thunder is impressive; but it is the lightning that does the work.”

“It’s done a job of work on me. Are ye all right, Sassenach?”

“Splendid,” I said, still feeling pleasantly remote. “And you?”

He glanced at me curiously, but seemed to conclude that it was all right. He grasped a sumac bush and dragged himself laboriously to his feet.

“I canna feel my toes just yet,” he told me, “but the rest is all right. The horses, though—” He glanced upward, and I saw his throat move as he swallowed.

The horses were silent.

We were some twenty feet below the ledge, among the firs and balsams. I could move, but didn’t seem able to summon the will to do so. I sat still, taking stock, while Jamie shook himself, then began the climb back up to the mankiller’s ledge.

It seemed very quiet; I wondered whether I had been deafened by the blast. My foot was cold. I looked down and discovered that my left shoe was gone—whether knocked off by the lightning or lost in the fall, I had no idea, but I didn’t see it anywhere nearby. The stocking was gone, too; there was a small dark starburst of veins, just below the anklebone—a legacy of my second pregnancy. I sat staring at it as though it were the key to the secrets of the universe.

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