The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 243

   

He chuckled softly.

“That’s true. He stinks worse than you do.”

“I do not stink!” I said indignantly.

“Mmphm.” He took my hand and lifted it to his nose, sniffing delicately. “Onions,” he said, “and garlic. Something hot . . . peppercorns. Aye, and clove. Squirrel-blood and meat-juice.” His tongue flicked out like a snake’s, touching my knuckles. “Starch—potatoes—and something woody. Toadstools.”

“Not fair at all,” I said, trying to get my hand back. “You know perfectly well what we had for dinner. And they weren’t toadstools, they were woodears.”

“Mm?” He turned my hand over and sniffed at my palm, then my wrist and up my forearm. “Vinegar and dill; ye’ve been making cucumber pickles, aye? Good, I like those. Mm, oh, and soured milk here in the fine hairs on your arm—were ye splashed churning butter, or skimming cream?”

“You guess, since you’re so good at it.”

“Butter.”

“Damn.” I was still trying to pull away, but only because the stubble on his face tickled the sensitive skin of my upper arm. He smelled his way up my arm into the hollow of my shoulder, making me squeak as the strands of his hair drifted across my skin.

He lifted my arm a bit, touched the damp silky hair there, and ran his fingers under his nose. “Eau de femme,” he murmured, and I heard the laughter in his voice. “Ma petite fleur.”

“And I bathed, too,” I said ruefully.

“Aye, with the sunflower soap,” he said, a slight tone of surprise in his voice as he sniffed at the hollow of my collarbone. I gave a small, high-pitched yelp, and he reached up to lay a large, warm hand across my mouth. He smelt of gunpowder, hay, and manure, but I couldn’t say so, what with him muffling me.

He straightened a little, and leaned close, so the roughness of his whiskers brushed my cheek. His hand fell away, and I felt the softness of his lips against my temple, the butterfly touch of his tongue on my skin.

“And salt,” he said, very softly, his breath warm on my face. “There is salt on your face, and your lashes are wet. D’ye weep, Sassenach?”

“No,” I said, though I had a sudden, irrational urge to do just that. “No, I sweat. I was . . . hot.”

I wasn’t any longer; my skin was cool; cold where the night-draft from the window chilled my backside.

“Ah, but here . . . mm.” He was on his knees now, one arm about my waist to hold me still, his nose buried in the hollow between my br**sts. “Oh,” he said, and his voice had changed again.

I didn’t normally wear perfume, but I had a special oil, sent from the Indies, made with orange flowers, jasmine, vanilla beans, and cinnamon. I had only a tiny vial, and wore a small dab infrequently—for occasions that I thought might perhaps be special.

“Ye wanted me,” he said ruefully. “And I fell asleep without even touching you. I’m sorry, Sassenach. Ye should have said.”

“You were tired.” His hand had left my mouth; I stroked his hair, smoothing the long dark strands behind his ear. He laughed, and I felt the warmth of his breath on my bare stomach.

“Ye could raise me from the dead for that, Sassenach, and I wouldna mind it.”

He stood up then, facing me, and even in the dim light I could see that no such desperate measures on my part would be required.

“It’s hot,” I said. “I’m sweating.”

“Ye think I’m not?”

His hands closed on my waist and he lifted me suddenly, setting me down on the broad windowsill. I gasped at contact with the cool wood, reflexively grasping the window frame on either side.

“What on earth are you doing?”

He didn’t bother answering; it was an entirely rhetorical question, in any case.

“Eau de femme,” he murmured, his soft hair brushing across my thighs as he knelt. The floorboards creaked under his weight. “Parfum d’amor, mm?”

The cool breeze lifted my hair, drew it tickling across my back like the lightest of lover’s touches. Jamie’s hands were firm on the curve of my hips; I was in no danger of falling, and yet I felt the dizzy drop behind me, the clear and endless night, with its star-strewn empty sky into which I might fall and go on falling, a tiny speck, blazing hotter and hotter with the friction of my passage, bursting finally into the incandescence of a shooting . . . star.

“Ssh,” Jamie murmured, far off. He was standing now, his hands on my waist, and the moaning noise might have been the wind, or me. His fingers brushed my lips. They might have been matches, striking flames against my skin. Heat danced over me, belly and breast, neck and face, burning in front, cool behind, like St. Lawrence on his gridiron.

I wrapped my legs around him, one heel settled in the cleft of his buttocks, the solid strength of his h*ps between my legs my only anchor.

“Let go,” he said in my ear. “I’ll hold you.” I did let go, and leaned back on the air, safe in his hands.

“YOU DID START OUT to tell me something about Laurence Sterne,” I murmured drowsily, much later.

“So I did.” Jamie stretched and settled himself, a hand curved proprietorially over my buttock. My knuckles brushed the hairs on his thigh. It was too hot to lie pressed together, but we didn’t want to separate entirely.

“We were talking of birds; he bein’ uncommon fond of them. I asked him why it was that in the late summer, the birds sing at night—the nights are shorter then, ye’d think they’d want their rest, but no. There’s rustling and twittering and all manner o’ carryings-on, all the night long in the hedges and the trees.”

“Are there? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Ye’re no in the habit of sleeping in the forest, Sassenach,” he said tolerantly. “I have been, and so had Sterne. He’d noticed the same thing, he said, and wondered why.”

“And did he have an answer?”

“Not an answer—but a theory, at least.”

“Oh, even better,” I said, in sleepy amusement.

He gave a soft grunt of agreement and rolled slightly to one side, admitting a little welcome air between our salty skins. I could see the gleam of moisture over the slope of his shoulder, and the prickle of sweat among the dark curly hairs of his chest. He scratched gently at it, with a softly agreeable rasping sound.

“What he did was to capture a number of the birds, and shut them up in cages lined with blotting paper.”

“What?” That waked me up a bit, if only to laugh. “Whatever for?”

“Well, not lined entirely, only on the floor,” he explained. “He put out a wee plate on the floor filled with ink and a cup of seed in the middle, so that they couldna feed without getting the ink on their feet. Then as they hopped to and fro, their footprints would show on the blotting paper.”

“Umm. And what, precisely, did that show—other than black footprints?”

The insects were beginning to find us, drawn by the musk of our heated flesh. A tiny zeeeeee by my ear prompted me to slap at the invisible mosquito, then reach for the gauze-cloth that Jamie had pushed back when he rose to find me. This was fastened to an ingenious mechanism—Brianna’s invention—fixed to the beam above the bed, so that when unrolled, the cloth fell down on all sides, shielding us from the bloodthirsty hordes of the summer nights.

I pulled it into place with some regret, for while it excluded mosquitoes, gnats, and the unnervingly large mosquito-hawk moths, it also unavoidably shut out some of the air and all sight of the luminous night sky beyond the window. I lay down again at a little distance on the bed; while Jamie’s natural furnace was a great boon on winter nights, it had its drawbacks in the summer. I didn’t mind melting in an inferno of blazing desire, if it came to that, but I had no more clean shifts.

“There were a great many footprints, Sassenach—but most of them were on one side of the cage. In all the cages.”

“Oh, really? And what did Sterne think that signified?”

“Well, he had the bright thought of putting down a compass by the cages. And it seems that all the night through, the birds were hopping and striving toward the southeast—which is the direction in which they migrate, come the fall.”

“That’s very interesting.” I pulled my hair back into a tail, lifting it off my neck for coolness. “But it’s not quite the time to migrate, is it, in late summer? And they don’t fly at night, do they, even when they migrate?”

“No. It was as though they felt the imminence of flight, and the pull of it—and that disturbed their rest. The stranger it was, because most of the birds that he had were young ones, who had never yet made the journey; they hadna seen the place where they were bound, and yet they felt it there—calling to them, perhaps, rousing them from sleep.”

I moved slightly, and Jamie lifted his hand from my leg.

“Zugunruhe,” he said softly, tracing with a fingertip the damp mark he had left on my skin.

“What’s that?”

“It’s what Sterne called it—the wakefulness of the wee birds, getting ready to leave on their long flight.”

“Does it mean something in particular?”

“Aye. ‘Ruhe’ is stillness, rest. And ‘zug’ is a journey of some sort. So ‘zugunruhe’ is a restlessness—the uneasiness before a long journey.”

I rolled toward him, butting my forehead affectionately against his shoulder. I inhaled, in the style of one savoring the delicate aroma of a fine cigar.

“Eau de homme?”

He raised his head and sniffed dubiously, wrinkling up his nose.

“Eau de chevre, I think,” he said. “Though it might be something worse. Is there a French word for skunk, I wonder?”

“Le Pew.” I suggested, giggling.

The birds sang all night.

108

TULACH ARD

October, 1772

JAMIE NODDED at something behind him, smiling.

“I see we’ve help today.”

Roger looked back to see Jemmy stumping along behind them, his small fair brow furrowed in fierce concentration, a fist-sized rock clutched to his chest with both hands. Roger wanted to laugh at the sight, but instead turned and squatted down, waiting for the boy to catch them up.

“Is that for the new hogpen, a ghille ruaidh?” he said.

Jemmy nodded solemnly. The morning was still cool, but the little boy’s cheeks glowed with effort.

“Thank you,” Roger said gravely. He held out his hand. “Shall I take it, then?”

Jemmy shook his head violently, heavy fringe flying.

“Me do!”

“It’s a long walk, a ghille ruaidh,” Jamie said. “And your mother will miss ye, no?”

“No!”

“Grand-da’s right, a bhalaich, Mummy needs you,” Roger said, reaching for the rock. “Here, let me take . . .”

“No!” Jemmy clutched the rock protectively against his smock, mouth set in a stubborn line.

“But ye can’t . . .” Jamie began.

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