The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 20

   

“It will be a great affair, surely!” put in one of the younger men, the son of the first speaker, by his resemblance to the former.

“Oh, it’s a wedding?” said Roger, in slow, formal Gaelic. “We’ll have an extra herring, then!”

The two older men burst into laughter at the joke, but their sons merely looked bewildered.

“Ah, the lads would not be knowing a herring, was it slapped wet against their cheeks,” said the bonneted man, shaking his head. “Born here, the two of them.”

“And where was your home in Scotland, sir?” The man jerked, surprised at the question, put in clear-voiced Gaelic. He stared at Brianna for a moment, then his face changed as he answered her.

“Skye,” he said softly. “Skeabost, near the foot of the Cuillins. I am Angus MacLeod, and Skye is the land of my sires and my grandsires. But my sons were born here.”

He spoke quietly, but there was a tone in his voice that quelled the hilarity in the younger men as though a damp blanket had been thrown over them. The man in the slouch hat looked at Brianna with interest.

“And were you born in Scotland, a nighean?”

She shook her head mutely, drawing the cloak higher on her shoulders.

“I was,” said Roger, answering a look of inquiry. “In Kyle of Lochalsh.”

“Ah,” said MacLeod, satisfaction spreading itself across his weathered features. “It is so, then, that you know all the songs of the Highlands and the Isles?”

“Not all,” said Roger, smiling. “But many—and I will learn more.”

“Do that,” said MacLeod, nodding slowly. “Do that, Singer—and teach them to your sons.” His eye lighted on Brianna, and a faint smile curled on his lips. “Let them sing to my sons, that they will know the place they came from—though they will never see it.”

One of the younger men stepped forward, bashfully holding out a string of fish, which he presented to Brianna.

“For you,” he said. “A gift for your wedding.”

Roger could see one corner of her mouth twitch slightly—with humor or incipient hysteria? he wondered—but she stretched out a hand and took the dripping string with grave dignity. She picked up the edge of her cloak with one hand, and swept them all a deep curtsy.

“Chaneil facal agam dhuibh ach taing,” she said, in her slow, strangely accented Gaelic. I have no words to say to you but thanks.

The young men went pink, and the older men looked deeply pleased.

“It is good, a nighean,” said MacLeod. “Let your husband teach you, then—and teach the Gaidhlig to your sons. May you have many!” He swept off his bonnet and bowed extravagantly to her, bare toes squelching in the mud to keep his balance.

“Many sons, strong and healthy!” chimed in his companion, and the two lads smiled and nodded, murmuring shyly. “Many sons to you, mistress!”

Roger made the arrangements for the ceilidh automatically, not daring to look at Brianna. They stood in silence, a foot or two apart, as the men left, casting curious looks behind them. Brianna stared down into the mud and grass where they stood, arms crossed in front of her. The burning feeling was still in Roger’s chest, but now it was different. He wanted to touch her, to apologize again, but he thought that would only make things worse.

In the end, she moved first. She came to him and laid her head on his chest, the coolness of her wet hair brushing the wound in his throat. Her br**sts were huge, hard as rocks against his chest, pushing against him, pushing him away.

“I need Jemmy,” she said softly. “I need my baby.”

The words jammed in his throat, caught between apology and anger. He had not realized how much it would hurt to think of Jemmy as belonging to someone else—not his, but Bonnet’s.

“I need him, too,” he whispered at last, and kissed her briefly on the forehead before taking her hand to cross the meadow once again. The mountain above lay shrouded in mist, invisible, though shouts and murmurs, scraps of speech and music drifted down, like echoes from Olympus.

7

SHRAPNEL

THE DRIZZLE HAD STOPPED by mid-morning, and brief glimpses of pale blue sky showed through the clouds, giving me some hope that it might clear by evening. Proverbs and omens quite aside, I didn’t want the wedding ceremonies dampened for Brianna’s sake. It wouldn’t be St. James’s with rice and white satin, but it could at least be dry.

I rubbed my right hand, working out the cramp from the tooth-pulling pliers; Mr. Goodwin’s broken tooth had been more troublesome to extract than I expected, but I had managed to get it out, roots and all, sending him away with a small bottle of raw whisky, and instructions to swish it round his mouth once an hour to prevent infection. Swallowing was optional.

I stretched, feeling the pocket under my skirt swing against my leg with a small but gratifying chink. Mr. Goodwin had indeed paid cash; I wondered whether it was enough for an astrolabe, and what on earth Jamie wanted with one. My speculations were disturbed, though, by a small but official-sounding cough behind me.

I turned around to find Archie Hayes, looking mildly quizzical.

“Oh!” I said. “Ah—can I help you, Lieutenant?”

“Weel, that’s as may be, Mistress Fraser,” he said, looking me over with a slight smile. “Farquard Campbell said his slaves are convinced that ye can raise the dead, so it might be as a bit of stray metal would pose no great trial to your skills as a surgeon?”

Murray MacLeod, overhearing, uttered a loud snort at this, and turned away to his own waiting patients.

“Oh,” I said again, and rubbed a finger under my nose, embarrassed. One of Campbell’s slaves had suffered an epileptic seizure four days before, happening to recover abruptly from it just as I laid an exploratory hand on his chest. In vain had I tried to explain what had happened; my fame had spread like wildfire over the mountain.

Even now, a small group of slaves squatted near the edge of the clearing, playing at knucklebones and waiting ’til the other patients should be attended to. I gave them a narrow eye, just in case; if one of them were dying or dangerously ill, I knew they would make no effort to tell me—both from deference to my white patients, and from their confident conviction that if anything drastic should happen while they were waiting, I would simply resurrect the corpse at my own convenience and deal with the problem then.

All of them seemed safely vertical at the moment, though, and likely to remain so for the immediate future. I turned back to Hayes, wiping muddy hands on my apron.

“Well . . . let me see the bit of metal, why don’t you, and I’ll see what can be done.”

Nothing loath, Hayes stripped off bonnet, coat, waistcoat, stock, and shirt, together with the silver gorget of his office. He handed his garments to the aide who accompanied him, and sat down on my stool, his placid dignity quite unimpaired by partial nak*dness, by the gooseflesh that stippled his back and shoulders, or by the murmur of awed surprise that went up from the waiting slaves at sight of him.

His torso was nearly hairless, with the pale, suety color of skin that had gone years with no exposure to sunlight, in sharp contrast to the weathered brown of his hands, face, and knees. The contrasts went further than that, though.

Over the milky skin of his left breast was a huge patch of bluish-black that covered him from ribs to clavicle. And while the nipple on the right was a normal brownish-pink, the one on the left was a startling white. I blinked at the sight, and heard a soft “A Dhia!” behind me.

“A Dhia, tha e ’tionndadh dubh!” said another voice, somewhat louder. By God, he is turning black!

Hayes appeared not to hear any of this, but sat back to let me make my examination. Close inspection revealed that the dark coloration was not natural pigmentation but a mottling caused by the presence of innumerable small dark granules embedded in the skin. The nipple was gone altogether, replaced by a patch of shiny white scar tissue the size of a sixpence.

“Gunpowder,” I said, running my fingertips lightly over the darkened area. I’d seen such things before; caused by a misfire or shot at close range, which drove particles of powder—and often bits of wadding and cloth—into the deeper layers of the skin. Sure enough, there were small bumps beneath the skin, evident to my fingertips, dark fragments of whatever garment he had been wearing when shot.

“Is the ball still in you?” I could see where it had entered; I touched the white patch, trying to envision the path the bullet might have taken thereafter.

“Half of it is,” he replied tranquilly. “It shattered. When the surgeon went to dig it out, he gave me the bits of it. When I fitted them together after, I couldna make but half a ball, so the rest of it must have stayed.”

“Shattered? A wonder the pieces didn’t go through your heart or your lung,” I said, squatting down in order to squint more closely at the injury.

“Oh, it did,” he informed me. “At least, I suppose that it must, for it came in at my breest as ye see—but it’s keekin’ out from my back just now.”

To the astonishment of the multitudes—as well as my own—he was right. I could not only feel a small lump, just under the outer border of his left scapula, I could actually see it; a darkish swelling pressing against the soft white skin.

“I will be damned,” I said, and he gave a small grunt of amusement, whether at my surprise or my language, I couldn’t tell.

Odd as it was, the bit of shrapnel presented no surgical difficulty. I dipped a cloth into my bowl of distilled alcohol, wiped the area carefully, sterilized a scalpel, and cut quickly into the skin. Hayes sat quite still as I did it; he was a soldier and a Scot, and as the markings on his breast bore witness, he had endured much worse than this.

I spread two fingers and pressed them on either side of the incision; the lips of the small slit pouted, then a dark, jagged bit of metal suddenly protruded like a stuck-out tongue—far enough for me to grasp it with forceps and pull it free. I dropped the discolored lump into Hayes’s hand, with a small exclamation of triumph, then clapped a pad soaked with alcohol against his back.

He expelled a long breath between pursed lips, and smiled over his shoulder at me.

“I thank ye, Mrs. Fraser. This wee fellow has been wi’ me for some time now, but I canna say as I’m grieved to part company with him.” He cupped his blood-smeared palm, peering at the bit of fractured metal in it with great interest.

“How long ago did it happen?” I asked curiously. I didn’t think the bit of shrapnel had actually passed completely through his body, though it certainly gave the illusion of having done so. More likely, I thought, it had remained near the surface of the original wound, and traveled slowly round the torso, propelled between skin and muscle by Hayes’s movements, until reaching its present location.

“Oh, twenty year and more, mistress,” he said. He touched the patch of tough, numbed white that had once been one of the most sensitive spots on his body. “That happened at Culloden.”

He spoke casually, but I felt gooseflesh ripple over my arms at the name. Twenty years and more . . . twenty-five, more like. At which point . . .

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