The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 249

   

I saw goosebumps rise suddenly on Brianna’s arms, and caught the look she sent me—one of sudden understanding. She had abruptly imagined just how it might be, to arrive suddenly out of one’s own time . . . alone.

I gave her a small smile, and put my hand on Jamie’s arm. Absentmindedly, he put his own hand over mine, and squeezed it gently.

“Aye. He nearly despaired, as he says, when he realized that it had all gone wrong. He thought of going back—but he didna have a gemstone anymore, and this Raymond had said ye must have one, for protection.”

“He did find one eventually, though,” I said. Getting up, I reached to the top shelf and brought down the big raw opal, its inner fire flickering through the carved spiral on its surface.

“That is—I’m assuming there can’t have been multiple Indians named Otter-Tooth, associated with Snaketown.” Tewaktenyonh, an elderly Mohawk woman, and leader of the Council of Mothers, had given me the stone when we went to the village of Snaketown to rescue Roger from captivity. She had also told me the story of Otter-Tooth, and how he met his death—and I shivered, though it was warm in the room.

The big smooth stone felt warm in my hand, too; I rubbed a thumb gingerly over the spiral. The snake that eats its tail, he’d said.

“Aye. He doesna mention that, though.” Jamie sat back, running both hands through his loosened hair, then rubbing a hand over his face. “The story ends with him deciding that there’s no help for it; whatever year it may be—and he had no notion—and whether he was alone or not, he would carry out his plan.”

Everyone was silent for a moment, regarding the enormity—and the futility—of such a plan.

“He can’t have thought it would work,” Roger said, the rasping husk of his voice giving the words a sense of finality.

Jamie shook his head, looking down at the book, though his eyes were clearly looking through it, dark blue and remote.

“Nor he did,” he said softly. “What he said, here at the last”—his fingers touched the page, very gently—“was that thousands of his people had died for their freedom, thousands more would die in years to come. He would walk the path they walked, for the honor of his blood, and to die fighting was no more than a warrior of the Mohawk should ask.”

I heard Ian draw breath behind me in a sigh, and Brianna bent her head, so the bright hair hid her face. Roger’s own face was turned toward her, grave in profile—but it was none of them I saw. I saw a man with his face painted black for death, walking through a dripping forest at night, holding a torch that burned with cold fire.

A yank on my skirt pulled me away from this vision, and I glanced down to find Jemmy standing beside me, pulling on my hand.

“Watsat?”

“What—oh! It’s a rock, sweetheart; a pretty rock, see?” I held out the opal, and he seized it with both hands, plumping down on his bottom to look at it.

Brianna wiped a hand underneath her nose, and Roger cleared his throat with a noise like ripping cloth.

“What I want to know,” he said gruffly, gesturing toward the journal, “is why in hell did he write that in Latin?”

“Oh. He says that. He’d learnt Latin in school—perhaps that was what turned him against Europeans”—Jamie grinned at Young Ian, who grimaced—“and he thought if he wrote in Latin, anyone who happened to see it would think it only a priest’s book of prayers, and pay it no heed.”

“They did think that—the Kahnyen’kehaka,” Ian put in. “Old Tewaktenyonh kept the book, though. And when I—left, she gave me the wee book, and said as I must bring it back wi’ me, and give it to you, Auntie Claire.”

“To me?” I felt a sense of hesitation at touching the book, but nonetheless reached out a hand and touched the open pages. The ink, I saw, had begun to run dry toward the end—the letters skipped and stuttered, and some words were no more than indentations on the paper. Had he thrown the empty pen away, I wondered, or kept it, a useless reminder of his vanished future?

“Do you think she knew what was in the book?” I asked. Ian’s face was impassive, but his soft hazel eyes held a hint of trouble. When he had been a Scot, he hadn’t been one to hide his feelings.

“I dinna ken,” he said. “She kent something, but I couldna say what. She didna tell me—only that I must bring ye the book.” He hesitated, glancing from me to Brianna and Roger, then back. “Is it true?” he asked. “What ye said, cousin—about what will happen to the Indians?”

She looked up, meeting his eyes squarely, and nodded.

“I’m afraid so,” she said softly. “I’m sorry, Ian.”

He only nodded, rubbing a knuckle down the bridge of his nose, but I wondered.

He hadn’t forsaken his own people, I knew, but the Kahnyen’kehaka were his as well. No matter what had happened to cause him to leave.

I was opening my mouth to ask Ian about his wife, when I heard Jemmy. He had retired back under the table with his prize, and had been talking to it in a genially conversational—if unintelligible—manner for several minutes. His voice had suddenly changed, though, to a tone of alarm.

“Hot,” he said, “Mummy, HOT!”

Brianna was already rising from her stool, a look of concern on her face, when I heard the noise. It was a high-pitched ringing sound, like the weird singing of a crystal goblet when you run a wet finger round and round the rim. Roger sat up straight, looking startled.

Brianna bent and snatched Jemmy out from under the table, and as she straightened with him, there was a sudden pow! like a gunshot, and the ringing noise abruptly stopped.

“Holy God,” said Jamie, rather mildly under the circumstances.

Splinters of glimmering fire protruded from the bookshelf, the books, the walls, and the thick folds of Brianna’s skirts. One had whizzed past Roger’s head, barely nicking his ear; a thin trickle of blood was running down his neck, though he didn’t seem to have noticed yet.

A stipple of brilliant pinpoints glinted on the table—a shower of the sharp needles had been thrust upward through the inch-thick wood. I heard Ian exclaim sharply, and bend to pull a tiny shaft from the flesh of his calf. Jemmy began to cry. Outside, Rollo the dog was barking furiously.

The opal had exploded.

IT WAS STILL broad daylight; the candleflame was nearly invisible, no more than a waver of heat in the late afternoon light from the window. Jamie blew out the taper he had used to light it, and sat down behind his desk.

“Ye didna sense anything odd about yon stone when ye gave it to the lad, Sassenach?”

“No.” I still felt shaken by the explosion, the echoes of that eerie noise still chiming in my inner ear. “It felt warm—but everything in the room is warm. And it certainly wasn’t making that noise.”

“Noise?” He looked at me queerly. “When it went bang, d’ye mean?”

Now it was my turn to look askance.

“No—before that. Didn’t you hear it?” He shook his head, a small frown between his brows, and I glanced round at the others. Bree and Roger nodded—both of them looked pale and ill—but Ian shook his head, looking interested, but puzzled.

“I didna hear a thing,” he said. “What did it sound like?”

Brianna opened her mouth to answer, but Jamie raised a hand to stop her.

“A moment, a nighean. Jem, a ruradh—did ye hear a noise before the bang?”

Jemmy had settled down from his fright, but was still crouching in his mother’s lap, thumb in his mouth. He looked at his grandfather out of wide blue eyes that had already begun to show a definite slant, and slowly nodded, not removing the thumb.

“And the stone Grannie gave ye—it was hot?”

Jemmy cast a glare of intense accusation in my direction and nodded again. I felt a small surge of guilt—followed by a much larger one, when I thought of what might have happened, had Bree not snatched him up at once.

We had picked most of the splinters out of the woodwork; they lay on the desk in a small heap of brittle fire. One had sliced a tiny flap of skin from my knuckle; I put it in my mouth, tasting silver blood.

“My God, those things are sharp as broken glass.”

“They are broken glass.” Brianna clutched Jem a little closer.

“Glass? You mean it wasn’t a real opal?” Roger raised his brows, leaning forward to pick up one of the needlelike shards.

“Sure it is—but opals are glass. Really hard volcanic glass. Gemstones are gemstones because they have a crystalline structure that makes them pretty; opals just have a really brittle structure, compared to most.” The color was beginning to come back into Brianna’s face, though she kept her arms wrapped tightly round her son.

“I knew you could break one if you hit with a hammer or something, but I never heard of one doing that.” She nodded at the pile of glimmering fragments.

Jamie picked a large shard out of the pile with finger and thumb and held it out to me.

“Put it in your hand, Sassenach. Does it feel warm to you?”

I accepted the jagged piece of stone gingerly. It was thin, nearly weightless, and translucent, sparkling with vivid blues and oranges.

“Yes,” I said, tilting my palm cautiously to and fro. “Not remarkably hot—just about skin temperature.”

“It felt cool to me,” Jamie said. “Give it to Ian.”

I transferred the bit of opal to Ian, who put it in the palm of his hand and stroked it cautiously with a fingertip, as though it were some small animal that might bite him if annoyed.

“It feels cool,” he reported. “Like a bit of glass, like Cousin Brianna says.”

A bit more experimentation established that the stone felt warm—though not strikingly so—to Brianna, Roger, and me—but not to Jamie or Ian. By this time, the wax had melted in the top of the big clock candle, allowing Jamie to extract the gemstones hidden there. He fished them out, rubbed the last of the hot wax off on his handkerchief, and laid them out in a row along the edge of the desk to cool.

Jemmy watched this with great interest, his misadventure apparently forgotten.

“D’ye like these, a ghille ruaidh?” Jamie asked him, and he nodded eagerly, leaning out of his mother’s lap, reaching toward the stones.

“Hot,” he said, then, remembering, shrank back a little, a look of doubt crossing his small, blunt features. “Hot?”

“Well, I do hope not,” his grandfather said. He took a deep breath and picked up the emerald, a crudely faceted stone the size of his thumbnail. “Put out your hand, a bhalaich.”

Brianna looked as though she wanted to protest, but bit her lower lip, and encouraged Jemmy to do as his grandfather asked. He took the stone, still looking suspicious, but then the look of wariness faded into a smile as he looked down at the stone.

“Pretty rock!”

“Is it hot?” Brianna asked, poised to snatch it out of his hand.

“Yes, hot,” he said, with satisfaction, holding it against his stomach.

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