The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 192

   

Roger was wringing wet; more than the effort of lifting accounted for. There was a big smudge of brownish blood over his chest and stomach. He rubbed the heel of his hand over the knot in his belly, smearing the blood with sweat. He glanced casually round once more. Nothing moved among the trees.

“The women will be pleased,” he said.

Jamie laughed, taking the dirk from his belt.

“I shouldna think so. They’ll be up half the night, butchering and salting.” He nodded in the direction of Roger’s glance.

“Even if it’s near, it willna trouble us. Cats dinna hunt large prey unless they’re hungry.” He looked wryly at the torn flank of the dangling pig. “A half-stone of prime bacon will ha’ satisfied it for the moment, I should think. Though if not—” He glanced at his long rifle, leaning loaded against the trunk of a nearby hickory.

He held the pig while Jamie gutted it, then wrapped the stinking mass of intestines in the cloth from their lunch, while Jamie patiently worked at kindling a fire of green sticks that would keep the flies away from the hanging carcass. Streaked and reeking with blood, waste, and sweat, Roger walked across the field to the small stream that ran by the woods.

He knelt and splashed, arms and face and torso, trying to rid himself of the feeling of being watched. More than once, he had crossed an empty moor in Scotland, only to have a full-grown stag erupt from nowhere in front of him, springing by apparent magic from the heather at his feet. Despite Jamie’s words, he was all too aware that some piece of quiet landscape could abruptly detach itself and take life in a thunder of hooves or a snarl of sudden teeth.

He rinsed his mouth, spat, and drank deep, forcing water past the lingering tightness in his throat. He could still feel the stiff coldness of the pig’s carcass, see the caked dirt in the nostrils, the raw sockets where crows had pecked out the eyes. Gooseflesh prickled over his shoulders, chilled as much by his thoughts as by the cold stream-water.

No great difference between a pig and a man. Flesh to flesh, dust to dust. One stroke, that’s all it took. Slowly, he stretched, savoring the last soreness in his muscles.

There was a raucous croaking from the chestnut overhead. The crows, black blotches in the yellow leaves, voicing their displeasure at the robbery of their feast.

“Whaur . . . shall we gang and . . . dine the day?” he murmured under his breath, looking up at them. “Not here . . . you bastards. Get along!” Seized by revulsion, he scooped a stone from the bank and hurled it into the tree with all his might. The crows erupted into shrieking flight, and he turned back to the field, grimly satisfied.

But his belly was still knotted, and the words of the corbies’ mocking song echoed in his ears: “Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane/and I’ll pick oot his bonny blue e’en. Wi’ ae lock o’ his golden hair/we’ll theek oor nest when it grows bare.”

Jamie glanced at his face when he came back, but said nothing. Beyond the field, the pig’s carcass hung above the fire, its outlines hidden in wreaths of smoke.

They had cut the fencerails already, made from pine saplings they’d uprooted; the rough-barked logs lay ready by the edge of the forest. The fence would have drystone pillars to join the wooden rails, though; not one of the simple rick-rack fences meant to keep out deer or mark boundaries, but one solid enough to withstand the jostling of three- and four-hundred-pound hogs.

Within the month, it would be time to drive in the pigs that had been turned out to live wild in the forest, fattening themselves on the chestnut mast that lay thick on the ground. Some would have fallen prey to wild animals or accident, but there would likely be fifty or sixty left to slaughter or sell.

They worked well together, he and Jamie. Much of a size, each had an instinct for the other’s moves. When a hand was needed, it was there. No need for it just now, though—this part of the job was the worst, for there was no interest to soften the tedium, no skill to ease the labor. Only rocks, hundreds of rocks, to be hoisted from the loamy soil and carried, dragged, wrestled to the field, to be piled and fitted into place.

Often they talked as they worked, but not this morning. Each man worked alone with his thoughts, tramping to and fro with the endless load. The morning passed in silence, broken only by the far-off calling of the disgruntled crows, and by the thunk and grate of stones, dropped on the growing pile.

It had to be done. There was no choice. He’d known that for a long time, but now that the dim prospect had hardened into reality . . . Roger eyed his father-in-law covertly. Would Jamie agree to it, though?

From a distance, the scars on his back were barely visible, masked by the gleam of sweat. Constant hard work kept a man trim and taut, and no one seeing Fraser in outline—or close enough to see the deep groove of his backbone, the flat belly and long clean lines of arm and thigh—would have taken him for a man in middle age.

Jamie had showed him the scars, though, the first day they went out to work together, after he had come back from the surveying. Standing by the half-built dairy-shed, Jamie had pulled the shirt off and turned his back, saying casually, “Have a keek, then.”

Up close, the scars were old and well-healed, thin white crescents and lines for the most part, with here and there a silvery net or a shiny lump, where a whipstroke had flayed the skin in too wide a patch for the edges of the wound to draw cleanly together. There was some skin untouched, showing fair and smooth among the weals—but not much.

And what was he to say? Roger had wondered. I’m sorry for it? Thanks for the viewing privileges?

In the event, he had said nothing. Jamie had merely turned around, handed Roger an ax with complete matter-of-factness, and they had begun their work, bare-chested. But he had noticed that Jamie never stripped to work, if the other men were with them.

All right. Of all men, Jamie would understand the need, the necessity—the burden of Brianna’s dreaming, that lay in Roger’s belly like a stone. Certainly he would help. But would he consent to allow Roger to finish it alone? Jamie, after all, had some stake in the matter, too.

The crows were still calling, but farther off, their cries thin and desperate, like those of lost souls. Perhaps he was foolish even to think of acting alone. He flung an armload of stones onto the pile; small rocks clacked and rolled away.

“Preacher’s lad.” That’s what the other lads at school had called him, and that’s what he was, with all the ambiguity the term implied. The initial urge to prove himself manly by means of force, the later awareness of the ultimate moral weakness of violence. But that was in another country—

He choked off the rest of the quotation, grimly bending to lever a chunk of rock free of moss and dirt. Orphaned by war, raised by a man of peace—how was he to set his mind to murder? He trundled the stone down toward the field, rolling it slowly end over end.

“You’ve never killed anything but fish,” he muttered to himself. “What makes you think . . .” But he knew all too well what made him think.

BY MID-MORNING, there were enough rocks collected to begin the first pillar; with a nod and a murmur, they set to work, dragging and heaving, stacking and fitting, with now and then a muffled exclamation at a smashed finger or bruised toes.

Jamie heaved a big stone into place, then straightened up, gasping for breath.

Roger drew his own deep breath. It might as well be now; no better opportunity was likely to come.

“I’ve a favor to ask,” he said abruptly.

Jamie glanced up, breathing heavily, one eyebrow raised. He nodded, waiting for the request.

“Teach me to fight.”

Jamie wiped an arm across his streaming face, and blew out a deep breath.

“Ye ken well enough how to fight,” he said. One corner of his mouth quirked up. “D’ye mean will I teach ye to handle a sword without cutting off your foot?”

Roger kicked a stone back into the pile.

“That will do, to start.”

Jamie stood for a moment, looking him over. It was a thoroughly dispassionate examination, much as he would have given a bullock he thought to buy. Roger stood still, feeling the sweat stream down the groove of his back, and thought that once more, he was being compared—to his disadvantage—with the absent Ian Murray.

“You’re auld for it, mind,” Jamie said at last. “Most swordsmen start when they’re boys.” He paused. “I had my first sword at five.”

Roger had had a train when he was five. With a red engine that tooted its whistle when you pulled the cord. He met Jamie’s eye, and smiled pleasantly.

“Old for it, maybe,” he said. “But not dead.”

“Ye could be,” Fraser answered. “A little learning is a dangerous thing—a fool wi’ a blade by his side in a scabbard is safer than a fool who thinks he kens what to do with it.”

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Roger quoted. “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. Do you think me a fool?”

Jamie laughed, surprised into amusement.

“There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,” he replied, finishing the verse. “And drinking largely sobers us again. As for foolish—ye’ll no just be drunk on the thought of it, I suppose?”

Roger smiled slightly in reply; he had given up being surprised by the breadth of Jamie’s reading.

“I’ll drink deep enough to stay sober,” he said. “Will ye teach me?”

Jamie squinted, then lifted one shoulder slightly. “Ye’ve size to your credit, and a good reach, forbye.” He looked Roger head to toe once more and nodded. “Aye, ye’ll maybe do.”

He turned and walked away, toward the next heap of stones. Roger followed, feeling oddly gratified, as though he had passed some small but important test.

The test hadn’t yet begun, though. It was only partway through the building of the new pillar that Jamie spoke again.

“Why?” he asked, eyes on the huge stone he was slowly heaving into place. It was too heavy to lift, the size of a whisky keg. Knotted clumps of grass roots stuck out from under it, ripped out of the earth by the stone’s slow and brutal passage across the ground.

Roger bent to lend his own weight to the task. The lichens on the rock’s surface were rough under his palms, green and scabby with age.

“I’ve a family to protect,” he said. The rock moved grudgingly, sliding a few inches across the uneven ground. Jamie nodded, once, twice; on the silent “three,” they shoved together, with an echoed grunt of effort. The monster half-rose, paused, rose altogether and overbalanced, chunking down into place with a thunk! that quivered through the ground at their feet.

“Protect from what?” Jamie stood and wiped a wrist across his jaw. He glanced up and away, gesturing with his chin at the hanging pig. “I shouldna care to take on a panther wi’ a sword, myself.”

“Oh, aye?” Roger bent his knees and maneuvered another large rock into his arms. “I hear you’ve killed two bears—one with a dirk.”

“Aye, well,” Jamie said dryly. “A dirk’s what I had. As for the other—if it was a sword, it was Saint Michael’s, not mine.”

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