The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 204

   

“No,” he said, sounding drowsy. “I dinna fancy anything.”

“You should eat a bit of soup, if you can, before you fall asleep.” I turned and smoothed the hair off his face, frowning a little as I looked at him. The flush had faded a bit, I thought—hard to tell for sure in the uncertain light of fire and candle. We had got enough honey-water and herb tea into him so that his eyes were no longer sunken with dehydration, but the bones of cheek and jaw were still prominent; he hadn’t eaten in more than forty-eight hours, and the fever was consuming an immense amount of energy, consuming his tissues.

“D’ye need more hot water, ma’am?” Lizzie appeared in the doorway, looking more disheveled than usual, Jemmy clutched in her arms. She had lost her kerch and her fine, fair hair had escaped from its bun; Jemmy had a good handful of it in his chubby fist, and was yanking fretfully at it, making her squint with each yank.

“Mama-mama-mama,” he said, in an escalating whine that made it obvious that he’d been saying the same thing for quite some time. “Mama-mama-MAMA!”

“No, I have enough; thank you, Lizzie. Stop that, young man,” I said, getting hold of Jemmy’s hand and forcibly unpeeling his fat little fingers. “We don’t pull hair.” There was a small chuckle from the nest of blankets on the table behind me.

“Ye’d never ken it to look at ye, Sassenach.”

“Mm?” I turned my head and stared blankly at him for a moment, then followed the direction of his glance with my hand. Sure enough, my own cap had somehow disappeared, and my hair was standing out like a bramblebush. Attracted by the word “hair,” Jemmy abandoned Lizzie’s fine locks, leaned over, and grabbed a fistful of mine.

“Mama-mama-mama-mama . . .”

“Foo,” I said, crossly, reaching to disentangle him. “Let go, you little fiend. And why aren’t you in bed, anyway?”

“MAMA-MAMA-MAMA . . .”

“He wants his mother,” Lizzie explained, rather redundantly. “I’ve put him in his cot a dozen times, but he’ll be climbin’ out again, the instant my back’s turned. I couldna keep him—”

The outer door opened, letting in a strong draft that made the embers in the brazier glow and smoke, and I heard the pad of bare feet on the oak boards in the hall.

I’d heard the expression, “blood to the eyebrows” before, but I hadn’t seen it all that often, at least not outside the confines of a battlefield. Brianna’s eyebrows were invisible, being red enough to have blended into the mask of gore over her face. Jemmy took a good look at her, and turned down his mouth in an expression of doubtful distress, just this side of outright wails.

“It’s me, baby,” she reassured him. She reached a hand toward him, but stopped short of touching him. He didn’t cry, but burrowed his face into Lizzie’s shoulder, rejecting the notion that this apocalyptic vision had anything at all to do with the mother he’d been fussing for a few minutes earlier.

Brianna ignored both her son’s rejection and the fact that she was leaving footprints composed in equal parts of mud and blood all over the floor.

“Look,” she said, holding out a closed fist to me. Her hands were caked with dried blood, her fingernails crescents of black. She reverently uncurled her fingers to show me her treasure; a handful of tiny, wriggling white worms that made my heart give a quick bump of excitement.

“Are they the right kind?” she asked anxiously.

“I think so; let me check.” I hastily dumped the wet leaves from the herb tea onto a small plate, to give the worms a temporary refuge. Brianna gently deposited them on the mangled foliage and carried the plate to the counter where my microscope stood, as though the plate bore specks of gold dust, rather than maggots.

I picked up one of the worms with the edge of a fingernail, and deposited it on a glass slide, where it writhed unhappily in a futile search for nourishment. I beckoned to Bree to bring me another candle.

“Nothing but a mouth and a gut,” I muttered, tilting the mirror to catch the light. It was much too dim for microscopic work, but might just be sufficient for this. “Voracious little buggers.”

I held my breath, peering through the fragile eyepiece, straining to see. Ordinary blow-fly and flesh-fly larvae had one line visible on the body; screw-worm larvae had two. The lines were faint, invisible to the nak*d eye, but very important. Blow-fly maggots ate carrion, and only carrion—dead, decaying flesh. Screw-worm larvae burrowed into the living flesh, and consumed the live muscle and blood of their host. Nothing I wanted to insert into a fresh wound!

I closed one eye, to let the other adapt to the moving shadows in the eyepiece. The dark cylinder of the maggot’s body writhed, twisting in all directions at once. One line was clearly visible. Was that another? I squinted until my eye began to water, but could see no more. Letting out the breath I’d been holding, I relaxed.

“Congratulations, Da,” Brianna said, moving to Jamie’s side. He opened one eye, which passed with a marked lack of enthusiasm down Brianna’s figure. Stripped to a knee-length shift for butchering, she was splotched from head to toe with gouts of dark blood, and the muslin had stuck to her in random patches.

“Oh, aye?” he said. “For what?”

“The maggots. You did it,” she explained. She opened her other hand, revealing a misshapen blob of metal—a squashed rifle-ball. “The maggots were in a wound in the hindquarters—I dug this out of the hole behind them.”

I laughed, as much from relief as from amusement.

“Jamie! You shot it in the arse?”

Jamie’s mouth twitched a little.

“I didna think I’d hit it at all,” he said. “I was only trying to turn the herd toward Fergus.” He reached up a slow hand and took the ball, rolling it gently between his fingers.

“Maybe you should keep it for good luck,” Brianna said. She spoke lightly, but I could see the furrow between her invisible brows. “Or to bite on while Mama’s working on your leg.”

“Too late,” he said, with a very faint smile.

It was then she caught sight of the small leather strip that lay on the table near his head, marked with overlapping crescents—the deep imprints of Jamie’s teeth. She glanced at me, appalled. I lifted one shoulder slightly. I had spent more than an hour cleaning the wound in his leg, and it hadn’t been easy on either of us.

I cleared my throat, and turned back to the maggots. From the corner of my eye, I saw Bree lay the back of her hand gently against Jamie’s cheek. He turned his head and kissed her knuckles, blood notwithstanding.

“Dinna fash, lassie,” he said. His voice was faint, but steady. “I’m fine.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but caught sight of Bree’s face and bit my tongue instead. She’d been working hard, and still had Jemmy and Roger to care for; she needn’t worry for Jamie, too—not yet.

I dropped the maggots into a small bowl of sterile water and swished them rapidly round, then dumped them back on the bed of wet leaves.

“It won’t hurt,” I said to Jamie, trying to reassure myself as much as him.

“Oh, aye,” he said, with an unbecoming cynicism. “I’ve heard that one before.”

“Actually, she’s right,” said a soft, rasping voice behind me. Roger had already had a quick wash; his dark hair lay damp against his collar, and his clothes were clean. Jemmy, half asleep, lay against his father’s shoulder, dreamily sucking his thumb. Roger came over to the table to look down at Jamie.

“How is it, man?” he said quietly.

Jamie moved his head on the pillow, dismissive of discomfort.

“I’ll do.”

“That’s good.” To my surprise, Roger grasped Jamie’s shoulder in a brief gesture of comfort. I’d never seen him do that before, and once more I wondered just what had passed between them on the mountain.

“Marsali’s bringing up some beef tea—or rather, buffalo tea—for him,” Roger said, frowning slightly as he looked at me. “Maybe you’d best be having some, too.”

“Good idea,” I said. I closed my eyes briefly and took a deep breath.

Only when I sat down did I realize that I had been on my feet since the early morning. Pain outlined every bone in my feet and legs, and I could feel the ache where I had broken my left tibia, a few years before. Duty called, though.

“Well, time and tide wait for no maggot,” I said, struggling back to my feet. “Best get on with it.”

Jamie gave a small snort and stretched, then relaxed, his long body reluctantly readying itself. He watched with resignation while I fetched the plate of maggots and my forceps, then reached for the leather strip by his head.

“You’ll not need that,” Roger said. He pulled up another stool and sat down. “It’s true what she said, the wee beasts don’t hurt.”

Jamie snorted again, and Roger grinned at him.

“Mind,” he said, “they tickle something fierce. That’s only if ye think about it, though. If ye can keep all thought of them out of your mind, why, there’s nothing to it.”

Jamie eyed him.

“Ye’re a great comfort, MacKenzie,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Roger, with a husk of a laugh. “Here, I brought ye something.” He leaned forward and deposited a drowsy Jemmy into Jamie’s arms. The little boy uttered a small squawk of surprise, then relaxed as Jamie’s arms tightened about him in reflex. One chubby hand swung free, seeking anchorage, then found it.

“Hot,” he murmured, smiling beatifically. Fist twined in Jamie’s ruddy hair, he sighed deeply and went soundly to sleep on his grandfather’s fever-warm chest.

Jamie narrowed his eyes at me as I picked up the forceps. Then he gave a slight shrug, laid his stubbled cheek gently against Jemmy’s silk-bright hair, and closed his own eyes, though the tenseness in his features was a marked contrast to the rounded peace of Jemmy’s.

It couldn’t have been easier; I simply lifted away the fresh onion poultice, and tucked the maggots one by one into the ulcerated slashmarks on Jamie’s calf. Roger circled behind me to watch.

“It looks almost like a leg again,” he said, sounding surprised. “I never thought it would.”

I smiled, though I didn’t look round at him, too intent on my delicate work. “Leeches are very effective,” I said. “Though your rather crude knifework may have been useful, too—you left big enough holes that the pus and fluid were able to drain; that helped.”

It was true; while the limb was still hot and grossly discolored, the swelling had subsided markedly. The long stretch of shinbone and the delicate arch of foot and ankle were once more visible. I was under no illusion about the dangers still remaining—infection, gangrene, sloughing—but nonetheless, my heart grew lighter. It was recognizably Jamie’s leg.

I pinched another maggot just behind the head with my forceps, careful not to crush it. I lifted the edge of the skin with the slender probe I held in my other hand, and deftly inserted the tiny, wiggling thing into the small pocket thus provided—trying to ignore the nastily spongy feel of the flesh under my fingers, and my memory of Aaron Beardsley’s foot.

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