The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 234

   

He recoiled, and the shock of it got him on his feet, with no memory of having stood up. Lillywhite’s back was to him, the linen of his shirt wet and sticking to his flesh. He lunged, grunting, then flung back, beat, riposted . . .

Roger shook his head, trying to clear it of the idiotic terms of swordsmanship, then stopped, gasping with pain. Jamie’s face was set in a maniac half-grin, teeth bared with effort as he followed his opponent’s weapon. He’d seen Roger, though.

“Roger!” he shouted, breathless with the fight. “Roger, a charaid!”

Lillywhite didn’t turn, but flung himself forward, feinting, beating away, lunging back in tierce.

“Not . . . stupid . . .” he gasped.

Roger realized dimly that Lillywhite thought Jamie was bluffing, trying to make him turn around. His vision was flickering round the edges again, and he grabbed for a tree, gripping hard to stay upright. The foliage was wet; his grip was slipping.

“Hey . . .” he called hoarsely, unable to think of any words. He raised his sword, the tip trembling. “Hey!”

Lillywhite stepped back and whirled around, eyes wide with shock. Roger lunged blindly, with no aim, but with all the power left in his body behind it.

The sword went into Lillywhite’s eye, and a slithering crunch ran up Roger’s arm, as metal scraped bone and went through to something softer, where it stuck. He tried to let go, but his hand was trapped in the basket-hilt. Lillywhite went stiff, and Roger could feel the man’s life run straight down the sword, through his hand, and up his arm, swift and shocking as an electric current.

Panicked, he jerked and twisted, trying to get the sword free. Lillywhite spasmed, went limp, and fell toward him, flopping like a huge dead fish as Roger wrenched and yanked, vainly trying to free himself from the sword.

Then Jamie seized him by the wrist and got him loose, got an arm around him, and led him away, stumbling and blind with panic and pain. Held his head and rubbed his back, murmuring nonsense in Gaelic while he puked and heaved. Wiped his face and neck with handsful of wet leaves, wiped the snot from his nose with the wet sleeve of his shirt.

“You okay?” Roger mumbled, somewhere in the midst of this.

“Aye, fine,” Jamie said, and patted him again. “You’re fine, too, all right?”

At length he was on his feet again. His head had gone past the point of pain; it still hurt, but the pain seemed a separate thing from himself, hovering somewhere nearby, but not actually touching him.

Lillywhite lay face-up in the leaves. Roger closed his eyes and swallowed. He heard Jamie mutter something under his breath, and then a grunt, a rustling of leaves, and a small thud. When Roger opened his eyes, Lillywhite was lying face-down, the back of his shirt smeared with sand and acorn hulls.

“Come on.” Jamie got him under the arm, pulled the arm over his shoulder. Roger lifted his free hand, waved it vaguely toward the bodies.

“Them. What should we do with . . . them?”

“Leave them for the pigs.”

Roger could walk by himself by the time they left the wood, though he had a tendency to drift to one side or the other, unable to steer quite straight as yet. Wylie’s house lay before them, a handsome construction in red brick. They picked their way across the lawn, ignoring the stares of several house-servants, who clustered at the upstairs windows, pointing down at them and murmuring to one another.

“Why?” Roger asked, stopping for a moment to shake some of the leaves from his shirt. “Did they say?”

“No.” Jamie pulled a soggy wad of cloth that had once been a handkerchief from his sleeve and swished it in the ornamental fountain. He used it to mop his face, looked critically at the resultant streaks of filth, and soused it in the fountain again.

“The first I knew was the thud when Anstruther clubbed ye—here, your head’s still bleedin’. I turned round to see ye lyin’ on the ground, and the next instant, a sword came at me out o’ nowhere, right across my ribs. Look at that, will ye?” He poked his fingers through a large rent in his shirt, wiggling them. “I ducked behind a tree, and barely got my own blade out in time. But neither of them said a word at all.”

Roger pressed the proffered handkerchief gingerly to the back of his head. He sucked air through his teeth with a hiss as the cold water touched the wound.

“Shit. Is it only that my head’s cracked, or does that make no sense? Why in Christ’s name try so hard to kill us?”

“Because they wanted us dead,” Jamie said logically, turning up his sleeves to wash his hands in the fountain. “Or someone else does.”

The pain had decided to take up residence in Roger’s head again. He was feeling sick again.

“Stephen Bonnet?”

“If I were a gambling man, I’d put good odds on it.”

Roger closed one eye in order to correct a tendency for there to be two of Jamie.

“You are a gambling man. I’ve seen ye do it.”

“Well, there ye are, then.”

Jamie ran a hand absently through his matted hair, and turned toward the house. Karina and her sisters had appeared at the window, and were waving ecstatically.

“What I want verra much to know just now is, where is Stephen Bonnet?”

“Wilmington.”

Jamie swung round, frowning at him.

“What?”

“Wilmington,” Roger repeated. He cautiously opened the other eye, but it seemed all right. Only one Jamie. “That’s what Lillywhite said—but I thought he was joking.”

Jamie stared at him for a moment.

“I hope to Christ he was,” he said.

103

AMONG THE MYRTLES

Wilmington

BY CONTRAST WITH FRASER’S RIDGE, Wilmington was a giddy metropolis, and under normal circumstances, the girls and I should have fully enjoyed its delights. Given the absence of Roger and Jamie, and the nature of the errand they were bound upon, though, we were able to find little distraction.

Not that we didn’t try. We lived through the creeping minutes of nights broken by crying children and haunted by imaginations worse than nightmare might be. I was sorry that Brianna had seen as much as she had, after the battle at Alamance; vague imaginings based on fear were bad enough; those based on close acquaintance with the look of ruined flesh, of smashed bone and staring eyes, were a good deal worse.

Rising heavy-eyed amid a crumple of discarded clothes and stale linen, we fed and dressed the children and went out to seek what mental respite might be found during the day in the distractions of horse-racing, shopping, or the competing musicales hosted once a week—on successive evenings—by Mrs. Crawford and Mrs. Dunning, the two most prominent hostesses in town.

Mrs. Dunning’s evening had taken place the day after Roger and Jamie left. Performances upon the harp, violin, harpsichord, and flute were interspersed with recitations of poetry—at least it was referred to as poetry—and “Songs, both Comick and Tragick,” sung by Mr. Angus McCaskill, the popular and courteous proprietor of the largest ordinary in Wilmington.

The Tragick songs were actually much funnier than the Comick ones, owing to Mr. McCaskill’s habit of rolling his eyes up into his head during the more lugubrious passages, as though he had the lyrics written on the inside of his skull. I adopted a suitably solemn expression of appreciation, though, biting the inside of my cheek throughout.

Brianna required no such aid to courtesy. She sat staring at all the performances with a countenance of such brooding intensity that it seemed to disconcert a few of the musicians, who eyed her nervously, and edged toward the other side of the room, getting the harpsichord safely between her and them. Her attitude had nothing to do with the performance, I knew, but rather with a reliving of the arguments that had preceded the men’s departure.

These had been prolonged, vigorous, and conducted in low voices, as the four of us walked up and down the quay at sunset. Brianna had been impassioned, eloquent, and ferocious. Jamie had been patient, cool, and immovable. I had kept my mouth shut, for once more stubborn than either of them. I could not in conscience side with Bree; I knew what Stephen Bonnet was. I would not side with Jamie; I knew what Stephen Bonnet was.

I knew what Jamie was, too, and while the thought of his going to deal with Stephen Bonnet was enough to make me feel as though I were hanging from a fraying rope over a bottomless pit, I did know that there were few men better equipped for such a task. For beyond the question of deadly skill, which he certainly had, there was the question of conscience.

Jamie was a Highlander. While the Lord might insist that vengeance was His, no male Highlander of my acquaintance had ever thought it right that the Lord should be left to handle such things without assistance. God had made man for a reason, and high on the list of those reasons was the protection of a family and the defense of its honor—whatever the cost.

What Bonnet had done to Brianna was not a crime that Jamie would ever forgive, let alone forget. And beyond simple vengeance, and the continuing threat that Bonnet might pose to Bree or Jemmy, there was the fact that Jamie felt himself responsible, at least in part, for such harm as Bonnet might do in the world—to our family, or to others. He had helped Bonnet to escape the gallows once; he would not be at peace until he had amended that mistake—and said so.

“Fine!” Brianna had hissed at him, fists clenched at her sides. “So you’ll be at peace. Just fine! And how peaceful do you think Mama and I will be, if you or Roger is dead?”

“Ye’d prefer me to be a coward? Or your husband?”

“Yes!”

“No, ye wouldn’t,” he said with certainty. “Ye only think so now, because ye’re afraid.”

“Of course I’m afraid! So is Mama, only she won’t say so, because she thinks you’ll go anyway!”

“If she does think so, she’s right,” Jamie said, giving me a sidelong look, with a hint of a smile. “She’s known me a long time, aye?”

I glanced at him, but shook my head and turned away, sealing my lips and staring out at the masts of the ships anchored in the harbor while the argument raged on.

Roger had finally put a stop to it.

“Brianna,” he said softly, when she paused for breath. She turned toward him, face anguished, and he touched her shoulder. “I willna have this man in the same world as my children,” he said, still softly, “or my wife. Do we go then with your blessing—or without it?”

She had sucked in her breath, bitten her lip, and turned away. I saw the tears brimming in her eyes, and the working of her throat as she swallowed them. She said no more.

Whatever word of blessing she had given him had been spoken in the night, in the quiet of their bed. I had given Jamie blessing and farewell in that same darkness—still without speaking a word. I couldn’t. He would go, no matter what I said.

Neither of us slept that night; we lay in each other’s arms, silently aware of each breath and shift of body, and when the shutters began to show cracks of gray light, we rose—he to make his preparations, I because I could not lie still and watch him go.

As he left, I stood on tiptoe to kiss him, and whispered the only important thing.

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