The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 246


“Has Ian brought friends? Or—his family, perhaps?” He had said his wife was expecting, and that was nearly two years back. The child—if all had gone well—must be nearly old enough to walk.

Jamie’s smile dimmed a little at that.

“No,” he said. “He’s alone. Save for the dog, of course,” he added, with a nod at Rollo, who was lying on his back, paws in the air, squirming happily under Jemmy’s onslaught.

“Oh. Well.” I smoothed down my hair and re-tied the ribbon, beginning to think what ought to be done regarding the quilters, the fresh hog, and some sort of celebratory supper—though I supposed Mrs. Bug would deal with that.

“How long is he staying, did he say?”

Jamie took a deep breath, putting a hand on my back.

“For good,” he said, and his voice was full of joy—but with an odd tinge of sadness that made me look up at him in puzzlement. “He’s come home.”

IT WAS VERY LATE indeed before the butchering, the quilting, and the supper were all finished, and the visitors finally left, charged with gossip. Though not so much gossip as all that; Ian had been friendly to everyone, but reticent, saying very little about his journey from the north—and nothing at all about the reasons behind it.

“Did Ian tell you anything?” I asked Jamie, finding him temporarily alone in his study before dinner. He shook his head.

“Verra little. Only that he had come back to stay.”

“Do you suppose something dreadful happened to his wife? And the baby?” I felt a deep pang of distress, both for Ian, and for the slight, pretty Mohawk girl called Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa—Works With Her Hands. Ian had called her Emily. Death in childbirth was not uncommon, even among the Indians.

Jamie shook his head again, looking sober.

“I dinna ken, but I think it must be something of the kind. He hasna spoken of them at all—and the lad’s eyes are a great deal older than he is.”

Lizzie had appeared at the door then, with an urgent message from Mrs. Bug regarding dispositions for supper, and I had to go. Following Lizzie toward the kitchen, though, I couldn’t help wondering just what Ian’s return might mean to her—particularly if we were right in our suppositions about Ian’s Mohawk wife.

Lizzie had been half in love with Ian, before he had left, and had pined for months following his decision to stay with the Kahnyen’kehaka. But that was more than two years ago, and two years can be a very long time, especially in a young person’s life.

I knew what Jamie meant about Ian’s eyes, and knew for certain that he wasn’t the same impulsive, cheerful lad we had left with the Mohawk. Lizzie wasn’t quite the timidly adoring girl-mouse she had been, either.

What she was, though, was Manfred McGillivray’s betrothed. I could only be thankful that neither Ute McGillivray nor any of her daughters had been present at this afternoon’s quilting circle. With luck, the glamor of Ian’s return would be short-lived.

“Will you be all right down here?” I asked Ian, dubiously. I had put several quilts and a goose-down pillow on the surgery table for him, he having politely rejected Mr. Wemyss’s offer of his own bed and Mrs. Bug’s desire to make him a comfortable pallet before the kitchen hearth.

“Oh, aye, Auntie,” he said, and grinned at me. “Ye wouldna credit the places Rollo and I have been sleeping.” He stretched, yawning and blinking. “Christ—I’ve no been up past sunset anytime this month or more.”

“And up at dawn, too, I expect. That’s why I thought you might be better in here; no one will disturb you, if you’d like to sleep late in the morning.”

He laughed at that.

“Only if I leave the window open, so Rollo can come and go as he likes. Though he seems to think the huntin’ might be good enough inside.”

Rollo was seated in the middle of the floor, muzzle lifted in anticipation, his yellow wolf-eyes fixed unwaveringly on the upper cupboard door. A low rumbling noise, like water bumping in a kettle, issued from behind the door.

“I’ll gie ye odds on the cat, Ian,” Jamie observed, coming into the surgery. “He’s a verra high opinion of himself, has wee Adso. I saw him chase a fox, last week.”

“The fact that you were behind him with a gun had nothing to do with the fox’s running away, of course,” I said.

“Well, not so far as yon cheetie’s concerned,” Jamie agreed, grinning.

“Cheetie,” Ian repeated softly. “It feels . . . verra good to speak Scots again, Uncle Jamie.”

Jamie’s hand brushed Ian’s arm lightly.

“I suppose it does, a mhic a pheathar,” he said, just as softly. “Will ye have forgot all your Gaelic, then?”

“’S beag ’tha fhios aig fear a bhaile mar ’tha fear na mara bèo,” Ian replied, without hesitation. It was a well-known saying: “Little does the landsman know how the seaman lives.”

Jamie laughed in gratified surprise, and Ian grinned broadly back. His face was weathered to a deep brown, and the dotted lines of his Mohawk tattoos ran in fierce crescents from nose to cheekbones—but for a moment, I saw his hazel eyes dance with mischief, and saw again the lad we had known.

“I used to say things over in my mind,” he said, the grin fading a little. “I’d look at things, and say the words in my mind—‘Avbhar,’ ‘Coire,’ ‘Skirlie’—so as not to forget.” He glanced shyly at Jamie. “Ye did tell me to remember, Uncle.”

Jamie blinked, and cleared his throat.

“So I did, Ian,” he murmured. “I’m glad of it.” He squeezed Ian’s shoulder hard—and then they were embracing fiercely, thumping each other’s backs with wordless emotion.

By the time I had wiped my own eyes and blown my nose, they had separated and resumed an air of elaborate casualness, affecting to ignore my descent into female sentiment.

“I kept hold of the Scots and the Gaelic, Uncle,” Ian said, clearing his own throat. “The Latin was a bit beyond me, though.”

“I canna think ye’d have much occasion to practice your Latin,” Jamie said. He wiped his shirtsleeve under his nose, smiling. “Unless a wandering Jesuit happened by.”

Ian looked a little queer at that. He glanced from Jamie to me, then at the door to the surgery, to be sure no one was coming.

“Well, it wasna exactly that, Uncle,” he said.

He walked quietly to the door, peeked out into the hallway, then closed the door softly, and came back to the table. He had worn a small leather bag tied at his waist, which—aside from knife, bow, and quiver—appeared to contain the whole of his worldly possessions. He had put this aside earlier, but now picked it up and rummaged briefly in it, withdrawing a small book, bound in black leather. He handed this to Jamie, who took it, looking puzzled.

“When I—that is, just before I left Snaketown—the old lady, Tewaktenyonh, gave me that wee book. I’d seen it before; Emily”—he stopped, clearing his throat hard, then went on steadily—“Emily begged a page of it for me, to send ye a note to say all was well. Did ye get that?”

“Yes, we did,” I assured him. “Jamie sent it to your mother, later.”

“Oh, aye?” Ian’s expression lightened at thought of his mother. “That’s good. She’ll be pleased to hear I’ve come back, I hope.”

“I’ll lay ye any odds ye like on that one,” Jamie assured him. “But what’s this?” He lifted the book, raising a brow in question. “It looks like a priest’s breviary.”

“So it does.” Ian nodded, scratching at a mosquito bite on his neck. “That’s not what it is, though. Look at it, aye?”

I moved close to Jamie, looking over his elbow as he opened the book. There was a ragged edge of paper, where the flyleaf had been torn out. There was no title page, though, nor printing. The book appeared to be a journal of some sort; the pages were filled with writing in black ink.

Two words stood alone at the top of the first page, scrawled in large, shaky letters.

Ego sum, they said. I am.

“Are you, then?” said Jamie, half under his breath. “Aye, and who will ye be?” Half down the page, the writing continued. Here the writing was smaller, more controlled, though something seemed odd-looking about it.

“Prima cogitatio est . . .”

“This is the first thing that comes into my head,” Jamie read softly, translating aloud.

“I am; I still exist. Did I, in that place between? I must have, for I remember it. I will try later to describe it. Now I have no words. I feel very ill.”

The letters were small and rounded, each printed singly. The work of a neat and careful writer, but they staggered drunkenly, words slanting up the page. He did feel ill, if the writing were any indication.

When the tidy printing resumed on the next page, it had steadied, along with the writer’s nerve.

“Ibi denum locus . . .

It is the place. Of course it would be. But it is the proper time as well, I know it. The trees, the bushes are different. There was a clearing to the west and now it is completely filled with laurels. I was looking at a big magnolia tree when I stepped into the circle, and now it is gone; there is an oak sapling there. The sound is different. There is no noise of highway and vehicles in the distance. Only birds, singing very loudly. Wind.

I am still dizzy. My legs are weak. I cannot stand yet. I woke under the wall where the snake eats its tail, but some distance from the cavity where we laid the circle. I must have crawled, there are dirt and scratches on my hands and clothes. I lay for some time after waking, too ill to rise. I am better now. Still weak and sick, but I am exultant nonetheless. It worked. We have succeeded.”

“We?” I said, looking at Jamie with both eyebrows raised. He shrugged and turned the page.

“The stone is gone. Only a smear of soot in my pocket. Raymond was right, then. It was a small unpolished sapphire. I must remember to put down everything, for the sake of others who may come after me.”

A small, cold shudder of premonition flowed up my back and over me, making my scalp tingle as the hair on my head began to stand. Others who may come after me. Not meaning to, I reached out and touched the book; an irresistible impulse. I needed to touch him somehow, make some contact with the vanished writer of these words.

Jamie glanced curiously at me. With some effort, I took my hand away, curling my fingers into a fist. He hesitated for a moment, but then looked back at the book, as though the neat black writing compelled his gaze as it did my own.

I knew now what had struck me about that writing. It had not been written with a quill. Quill-writing, even the best, was uneven in color, dark where the quill was freshly dipped, fading slowly through a line of writing. Every word of this was the same—written in a thin, hard line of black ink that slightly dented the fibers of the page. Quills never did that.

“Ball point,” I said. “He wrote it with a ball-point pen. My God.”

Jamie glanced back at me. I must have looked pale, for he moved as though to close the book, but I shook my head, motioning to him to go on reading. He frowned dubiously, but with one eye still on me, looked back. Then his attention shifted wholly to the book, and his brows rose as he looked at the writing on the next page.