The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 224

   

“Laid sideways, the babe was, and the size of a six-month shoat . . .”

“Ha, Germain had a head like a cannonball, the midwife said, and he was facing backward, the wee rattan—”

“Jemmy had a huge head, but it was his shoulders that were the problem. . . .”

“. . . le bourse . . . the lady’s ‘purse,’ of course, is her—”

“Her means of making a living, aye, I see. Then the next bit, where her customer puts his fingers in her purse—”

“No, ye dinna get to move yet, it’s still my turn, for I’ve jumped your man there, and so I can go here—”

“Merde!”

“Germain!” Marsali bellowed. She glared at her offspring, who hunched his shoulders, scowling at the draughtboard, lower lip thrust out.

“Dinna fash yourself, man, for see? Now it’s your turn, ye can go there, and there, and there—”

“. . . Avez-vous ête a la selle aujourd’hui? . . . and what he is asking the whore, of course—”

“‘Have you—been in the saddle today?’ Or would it be, ‘Have you had a ride today?’ ”

Fergus laughed, the end of his aristocratic nose pinkening with amusement.

“Well, that is one translation, surely.”

Roger lifted a brow at him, half-smiling.

“Aye?”

“That particular expression is also what a French doctor says,” I put in, seeing his incomprehension. “Colloquially speaking, it means, ‘Have you had a bowel movement today?’ ”

“The lady in question being perhaps une specialiste,” Fergus explained cheerfully. “I used to know one who—”

“Fergus!” Marsali’s whole face was pink, though she seemed more amused than outraged.

“I see,” Roger murmured, eyebrows still raised as he struggled with the nuances of this bit of sophisticated translation. I did wonder how one would set it to music.

“Comment sont vos selles, grandpere?” Germain inquired chummily, evidently familiar with this line of social inquiry. And how are your stools, grandfather?

“Free and easy,” his grandfather assured him. “Eat up your parritch every morning, and ye’ll never have piles.”

“Da!”

“Well, it’s true,” Jamie protested.

Brianna was bright red, and emitting small fizzing noises. Jemmy stirred in her lap.

“Le petit rouge eats parritch,” Germain observed, frowning narrowly at Jemmy, who was nursing contentedly at his mother’s breast, eyes closed. “He shits stones.”

“Germain!” all the women shouted in unison.

“Well, it’s true,” he said, in perfect imitation of his grandfather. Looking dignified, he turned his back on the women and began building towers with the draughts-men.

“He doesna seem to want to give up the teat,” Marsali observed, nodding at Jemmy. “Neither did Germain, but he’d no choice—nor did poor wee Joanie.” She glanced ruefully down at her stomach, which was barely beginning to swell with Number Three.

I caught the barest flicker of a glance between Roger and Bree, followed by a Mona Lisa smile on Brianna’s face. She settled herself more comfortably, and stroked Jemmy’s head. Enjoy it while you can, sweetheart, her actions said, more vividly than words.

I felt my own eyebrows rise, and glanced toward Jamie. He’d seen that little byplay, too, and gave me the male equivalent of Brianna’s smile, before turning back to the draughtsboard.

“I like parritch,” Lizzie put in shyly, in a minor attempt to change the subject. “Specially with honey and milk.”

“Ah,” said Fergus, reminded of his original task. He turned back to Roger, lifting a finger. “Honeypots. The refrain, you see, where les abeilles come buzzing—”

“Aye, aye, that’s so,” Mrs. Bug neatly recaptured the conversation, when he paused to draw breath, “parritch wi’ honey is the best thing for the bowels, though sometimes even that fails. Why, I kent a man once, who couldna move his bowels for more than a month!”

“Indeed. Did he try a pellet of wax rolled in goose-grease? Or a tisane of grape leaves?” Fergus was instantly diverted. French to the core, he was a great connoisseur of purges, laxatives, and suppositories.

“Everything,” Mrs. Bug assured him. “Parritch, dried apples, wine mixed wi’ an ox’s gall, water drunk at the dark o’ the moon at midnight . . . nothing at all would shift him. ’Twas the talk of the village, wi’ folk placing wagers, and the poor man gone quite gray in the face. Nervous spasms, it was, and his bowels tied up like garter strings, so that—”

“Did he explode?” Germain asked, interested.

Mrs. Bug shook briefly with laughter.

“No, that he didna, laddie. Though I did hear as how it was a near thing.”

“What was it finally shifted him, then?” Jamie asked.

“She finally said she’d marry me, and not the other fellow.” Mr. Bug, who had been dozing in the corner of the settle through the evening, stood up and stretched himself, then put a hand on his wife’s shoulder, smiling tenderly down at her upturned face. “’Twas a great relief, to be sure.”

IT WAS LATE when we went to bed, after a convivial evening that ended with Fergus singing the prostitute’s ballad in its lengthy entirety to general applause, Jamie and German beating time on the table with their hands.

Jamie lay back against the pillow, hands crossed behind his head, chuckling to himself now and then as bits of the song came back to him. It was cold enough that the windowpanes were misted with our breath, but he wore no nightshirt, and I admired the sight of him as I sat brushing my hair.

He had recovered well from the snakebite, but was still thinner than usual, so that the graceful arch of his collarbone was visible, and the long muscles of his arms roped from bone to bone, distinct beneath his skin. The skin of his chest was bronze where his shirt usually lay open, but the tender skin on the underside of his arms was white as milk, a tracery of blue veins showing. The light shadowed the prominent bones of his face and glimmered from his hair, cinnamon and amber where it lay across his shoulders, dark auburn and red-gold where it dusted his bared body.

“The candlelight becomes ye, Sassenach,” he said, smiling, and I saw that he was watching me, blue eyes the color of bottomless ocean.

“I was just thinking the same of you,” I said, standing up and putting aside my brush. My hair floated in a cloud round my shoulders, clean, soft, and shining. It smelled of marigolds and sunflowers and so did my skin. Bathing and shampooing in winter was a major undertaking, but I had been determined not to go to bed smelling of pig shit.

“Let it burn, then,” he said, reaching out to stop me as I bent to blow the candle out. His hand curled round my wrist, urging me toward him.

“Come to bed, and let me watch ye. I like the way the light moves in your eyes; like whisky, when ye pour it on a haggis, and then set it on fire.”

“How poetic,” I murmured, but made no demur as he made room for me, pulled loose the drawstring of my shift, and slipped it off me. The air of the room was cold enough to make my n**ples draw up tight, but the skin of his chest was delightfully warm on my br**sts as he gathered me into him, sighing with pleasure.

“It’s Fergus’s song inspiring me, I expect,” he said, cupping one of my br**sts in his hand and weighing it with a nice balance between admiration and appraisal. “God, ye’ve the loveliest br**sts. Ye recall that one verse, where he says the lady’s tits were so enormous, she could wrap them round his ears? Yours aren’t so big as that, of course, but d’ye think ye maybe could wrap them round—”

“I don’t think they need to be enormous to do that,” I assured him. “Move up. Besides, I don’t believe it’s actually wrapping round, so much as it is squashing together, and they’re certainly large enough for . . . see?”

“Oh,” he said, sounding deeply gratified and a little breathless. “Aye, ye’re right. That’s . . . oh, that looks verra beautiful, Sassenach—at least from here.”

“It looks very interesting from here, too,” I assured him, trying neither to laugh nor go cross-eyed. “Which one of us moves, do you think?”

“Me, for now. I’m no chafing ye, Sassenach?” he inquired.

“Well, just a bit. Wait, though—” I reached out a hand, feeling blindly over the table by the bed. I got hold of the little pot of creamy almond ointment I used for hand lotion, flicked the lid off, and dug a finger into it.

“Yes, that’s much better,” I said. “Isn’t it?”

“Oh. Oh. Aye.”

“And then there’s that other verse, isn’t there?” I said thoughtfully, letting go for a moment, and drawing a slippery finger slowly round the curve of his buttock. “About what the prostitute did to the choirboy?”

“Oh, Christ!”

“Yes, that’s what he said. According to the song.”

MUCH LATER, in the dark, I roused from sleep to feel his hands on me again. Still pleasantly adrift in dreams, I didn’t move, but lay inert, letting him do what he would.

My mind was loosely tethered to reality, and it took some time for me to come to the slow realization that something wasn’t quite right. It took even longer to focus my mind and struggle toward the surface of wakefulness, but at last I got my eyes open, blinking away clouds of sleep.

He was crouched half over me, his face half-lit by the dim glow from the smoored hearth. His eyes were closed, and he was frowning a little, his breath coming through half-opened lips. He moved almost mechanically, and I wondered, muzzily astonished, whether he could possibly be doing it in his sleep?

A thin film of sweat gleamed on the high cheekbones, the long straight bridge of his nose, on the slopes and curves of his nak*d body.

He was stroking me in an odd, monotonous sort of way, like a man working at some repetitive task. The touch was more than intimate, but weirdly impersonal; I might have been anybody—or anything—I thought.

Then he moved, and eyes still closed, flipped back the quilt covering me and moved between my legs, spreading them apart in a brusque fashion that was quite unlike him. His brows were drawn together, knotted in a frown of concentration. I moved instinctively to close my legs, squirming away. His hands clamped down on my shoulders then, his knee thrust my thighs apart, and he entered me roughly.

I made a high-pitched sound of startled protest, and his eyes popped open. He stared at me, his eyes no more than an inch from mine, unfocused, then sharpening into abrupt awareness. He froze.

“Who the bloody hell do you think I am?” I said, low-voiced and furious.

He wrenched himself away and flung himself off the bed, leaving the covers hanging to the floor in disarray. He seized his clothes from the peg, reached the door in two strides, opened it, and disappeared, slamming it behind him.

I sat up, feeling thoroughly rattled. I scrabbled the quilts back up around myself, feeling dazed, angry—and halfway disbelieving. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to wake up all the way. Surely I hadn’t been dreaming?

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