The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 251

   

“Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques. . . .”

Roger looked up at Bree, and something seemed to pass through the air between them. He reached down and took hold of Jem’s other hand, momentarily interrupting his song.

“So, a bhalaich, can ye do it, then?”

“FRÈRE . . . do whats?”

“Look at Grand-da.” Roger nodded at Jamie, who took a deep breath and quickly put out his tongue, rolled into a cylinder.

“Can ye do that?” Roger asked.

“Chure.” Jemmy beamed and put out his tongue. Flat. “Bleah!”

A collective sigh gusted through the room. Jemmy, oblivious, swung his legs up, his weight suspended momentarily from Roger’s and Jamie’s hands, then stomped his feet down on the floor again, recalling his original question.

“Grand-da gots balls?” he asked, pulling on the men’s hands and tilting his head far back to look up at Jamie.

“Aye, lad, I have,” Jamie said dryly. “But your Da’s are bigger. Come on, then.”

And to the sound of Jemmy’s tuneless chanting, the men trundled him outside, hanging like a gibbon between them, his knees drawn up to his chin.

110

MAN OF BLOOD

I CRUMBLED DRY SAGE LEAVES in my hands, letting the gray-green flakes fall into the burning coals. The sun hung low in the sky above the chestnut trees, but the small burying-ground lay already in shadow, and the fire was bright.

The five of us stood in a circle around the chunk of granite with which Jamie had marked the stranger’s grave. There were five of us, and so we laid the circle with five points. By common consent, this was not only for the man with the silver fillings, but for his four unknown companions—and for Daniel Rawlings, whose fresh and final grave lay under a mountain-ash, nearby.

The smoke rose up from the small iron fire-pot, pale and fragrant. I had brought other herbs as well, but I knew that for the Tuscarora, for the Cherokee, and for the Mohawk, sage was holy, the smoke of it cleansing.

I rubbed juniper needles between my hands into the fire, and followed them with rue, called herb-of-grace, and rosemary—that’s for remembrance, after all.

The leaves of the trees nearby rustled gently in the evening breeze, and the twilight lit the drifting smoke, turning it from gray to gold as it rose up and up into heaven’s vault, where the faint stars waited.

Jamie lifted his head, touched with fire as bright as the blaze by his feet, and looked toward the west, where the souls of the dead fly away. He spoke softly, in Gaelic, but all of us knew enough by now to follow.

“Thou goest home this night to thy home of winter,

To thy home of autumn, of spring, and of summer;

Thou goest home this night to thy perpetual home,

To thine eternal bed, to thine eternal slumber.

The sleep of the seven lights be thine, O brother,

The sleep of the seven joys be thine, O brother,

The sleep of the seven slumbers be thine, O brother,

On the arm of the Jesus of blessings, the Christ of grace.

The shade of death lies upon thy face, beloved,

But the Jesus of Grace has His hand round about thee;

In nearness to the Trinity farewell to thy pains,

Christ stands before thee and peace is in His mind.”

Ian stood by him, close, but not touching. The fading light touched his face, fierce upon his scars. He said it first in the Mohawk tongue, but then in English, for the rest of us.

“Be the hunt successful,

Be your enemies destroyed before your eyes,

Be your heart ever joyful in the lodge of your brothers.”

“Ye’re meant to say it over and over again, a good many times,” he added, ducking his head apologetically. “Wi’ the drums, aye? But I thought once would do, for now.”

“That will do fine, Ian,” Jamie assured him, and looked then toward Roger.

Roger coughed and cleared his throat, then spoke, the husk of his voice as transparent and as penetrating as the smoke.

“Lord, make me to know mine end,

And the measure of my days, what it is;

That I may know how frail I am.

Behold, Thou has made my days as an hand-breadth;

And mine age is as nothing before Thee.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry;

Hold not Thy peace at my tears:

For I am a stranger with Thee,

And a sojourner, as all my fathers were.”

We stood in silence then, as the darkness came quietly around us. As the last of the light faded and the leaves overhead lost their brilliance, Brianna picked up the pitcher of water, and poured it over the pot of coals. Smoke and steam rose up in a ghostly cloud, and the scent of remembrance drifted through the trees.

IT WAS NEARLY DARK as we came down the narrow trail back to the house. I could see Brianna in front of me, though, leading the way; the men were a little behind us. The fireflies were out in great profusion, drifting through the trees, and lighting the grass near my feet. One of the little bugs lighted briefly in Brianna’s hair and clung there for a moment, blinking.

A wood at twilight holds a deep hush, that bids the heart be still, the foot step lightly on the earth.

“Have ye thought, then, a cliamhuinn?” Jamie said, behind me. His voice was low, the tone of it friendly enough—but the formal address made it clear that the question was seriously meant.

“Of what?” Roger’s voice was calm, hushed from the service, the rasp of it barely audible.

“Of what ye shall do—you and your family. Now that ye ken both that the wee lad can travel—and what it might mean, if ye stay.”

What it might mean to them all. I drew breath, uneasy. War. Battle. Uncertainty, save for the certainty of danger. The danger of illness or accident, for Brianna and Jem. The danger of death in the toils of childbirth, if she was again with child. And for Roger—danger both of body and soul. His head had healed, but I saw the stillness at the back of his eyes, when he thought of Randall Lillywhite.

“Oh, aye,” Roger said, softly, invisible behind me. “I have thought—and am still thinking . . . m’ athair-cèile.”

I smiled a little, to hear him call Jamie “father-in-law,” but the tone of his voice was altogether serious.

“Shall I tell ye what I think? And you will tell me?”

“Aye, do that. There is time still, for thinking.”

“I have been thinking, lately, of Hermon Husband.”

“The Quaker?” Jamie sounded surprised. Husband had left the colony with his family, after the battle of Alamance. I thought I heard that they had gone to Maryland.

“Aye, him. What d’ye think might have happened, had he not been a Quaker? Had he gone ahead, and led the Regulators to their war?”

Jamie grunted slightly, thinking.

“I dinna ken,” he said, though he sounded interested. “Ye mean they might have succeeded, with a proper leader?”

“Aye. Or maybe not—they’d no weapons, after all—but they would have done better than they did. And if so—”

We had come within sight of the house, now. Light was glowing in the back windows as the hearth-fire was stoked up for the evening, the candles lit for supper.

“What’s going to happen here—I am thinking, had the Regulation been properly led, perhaps it would have started here and then; not three years from now, in Massachusetts.”

“Aye? And if so, what then?”

Roger gave a brief snort, the verbal equivalent of a shrug.

“Who knows? I know what’s going on in England now—they are not ready, they’ve no notion of what they’re risking here. If war were to break out suddenly, with little warning—if it had broken out, at Alamance—it might spread quickly. It might be over before the English had a clue what was happening. It might have saved years of warfare, thousands of lives.”

“Or not,” Jamie said dryly, and Roger laughed.

“Or not,” he agreed. “But the point there is this; I think there are times for men of peace—and a time for men of blood, as well.”

Brianna had reached the house, but turned and waited for the rest of us. She had been listening to the conversation, too.

Roger stopped beside her, looking up. Bright sparks flew from the chimney in a firework shower, lighting his face by their glow.

“Ye called me,” he said at last, still looking up into the blazing dark. “At the Gathering, at the fire.”

“Seas vi mo lâmh, Roger an t’oranaiche, mac Jeremiah mac Choinneich,” Jamie said quietly. “Aye, I did. Stand by my side, Roger the singer, son of Jeremiah.”

“Seas vi mo lâmh, a mhic mo thaighe,” Roger said. “Stand by my side—son of my house. Did ye mean that?”

“Ye know that I did.”

“Then I mean it, too.” He reached out and rested his hand on Jamie’s shoulder, and I saw the knuckles whiten as he squeezed.

“I will stand by you. We will stay.”

Beside me, Brianna let out the breath she had been holding, in a sigh like the twilight wind.

111

AND YET GO OUT

TO MEET IT

THE BIG CLOCK CANDLE had burned down a little, but there were still a good many of the black rings that marked the hours. Jamie dropped the stones back into the pool of melted wax around the flame: one, two, three—and blew it out. The fourth stone, the big topaz, was ensconced in a small wooden box, which I had sewn up in oiled cloth. It was bound for Edinburgh, consigned to Mrs. Bug’s cousin’s husband, who, with his banking connections, would manage the sale of the stone, and—with the deduction of a suitable commission for his help—would see the funds transmitted to Ned Gowan.

The accompanying letter, lying sealed in the box with the stone, charged Ned to determine whether one Laoghaire MacKenzie was living with a man in a state tantamount to marriage—and if so, further charged him to declare the contract between one Laoghaire MacKenzie and one James Fraser to be fulfilled, whereupon the funds from the sale of the stone were to be placed on deposit in a bank, to be used for the dowry of one Joan MacKenzie Fraser, daughter of the aforesaid Laoghaire, when she should marry.

“You’re sure you don’t want to ask Ned particularly to tell you who the man is?” I asked.

He shook his head firmly.

“If he chooses to tell me, that’s fine. And if he doesna, that’s fine, as well.” He looked up at me with a faint, wry look. Unsatisfied curiosity was to be his penance, evidently.

Down the hall, I could hear Brianna simultaneously talking to Mrs. Bug and admonishing Jemmy, then Roger’s voice, interrupting, and Jemmy’s excited squeal as Roger swept him up into the air.

“Do you think Roger chose well?” I asked quietly. I was very glad of Roger’s decision—and knew that Jamie was, as well. But in spite of the peculiar perspective that Brianna, Roger, and I had on coming events, I knew that Jamie had far better an idea of what was truly coming. And if the stone passage had its dangers, so did war.

He paused, thinking, then leaned past me, reaching for a small volume at the end of the bookcase. It was bound cheaply in cloth, and much used; an edition of Thucydides he had acquired in the wildly optimistic hope that Germain and Jemmy might eventually learn sufficient Greek to read it.

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