The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 41

   

“Thig a seo, a bhean uasa,” he said, smiling at me. Come, lady. He turned and raised his chin, summoning the others. Roger put down his guitar at once, covering it carefully with a canvas, then held out a hand to Bree.

“Thig a seo, a bhean,” he said, grinning. With a look of surprise, she got to her feet, Jemmy in her arms.

Jamie stood still, waiting, and little by little, the others rose, brushing away pine needles and sand from hems and seats, laughing and murmuring in puzzlement. The dancers, too, paused in their whirling, and came to see what was to do, the fiddle music dying away in the rustle of curiosity.

Jamie led me down the dark trail toward the leaping flames of the great bonfire below, the others following in a murmur of speculation. At the end of the main clearing he stopped and waited. Dark figures flitted through the shadows; a man’s shape stood in silhouette before the fire, arm raised.

“The Menzies are here!” the man called, and flung the branch that he carried into the fire. Faint cheers went up, from those of his clan and sept within hearing.

Another took his place—MacBean—and another—Ogilvie. Then it was our turn.

Jamie walked forward alone, into the light of the leaping flames. The fire was built of oak and pinewood, and it burned higher than a tall man, tongues of transparent yellow so pure and ardent as almost to burn white against the blackened sky. The light of it shone on his upturned face, on his head and shoulders, and threw a long shadow that stretched halfway across the open ground behind him.

“We are gathered here to welcome old friends,” he said in Gaelic. “And meet new ones—in hopes that they may join us in forging a new life in this new country.”

His voice was deep and carrying; the last scraps of conversation ceased as the folk pushing and crowding around the fire hushed and craned to listen.

“We have all suffered much hardship on the road here.” He turned slowly, looking from face to face around the fire. Many of the men of Ardsmuir were here: I saw the Lindsay brothers, homely as a trio of toads; Ronnie Sinclair’s fox-eyed face, ginger hair slicked up in horns; the Roman-coin features of Robin McGillivray. All looked out from the shadows, ridge of brow and bridge of nose shining in the glow, each face crossed by fire.

Under the influence of brandy and emotion, I could easily see too the ranks of ghosts who stood behind them; the families and friends who remained still in Scotland, whether on the earth . . . or under it.

Jamie’s own face was lined with shadow, the firelight showing the mark of time and struggle on his flesh as wind and rain mark stone.

“Many of us died in battle,” he said, his voice scarcely audible above the rustle of the fire. “Many died of burning. Many of us starved. Many died at sea, many died of wounds and illness.” He paused. “Many died of sorrow.”

His eyes looked beyond the firelit circle for a moment, and I thought perhaps he was searching for the face of Abel MacLennan. He lifted his cup then, and held it high in salute for a moment.

“Slàinte!” murmured a dozen voices, rising like the wind.

“Slàinte!” he echoed them—then tipped the cup, so that a little of the brandy fell into the flames, where it hissed and burned blue for an instant’s time.

He lowered the cup, and paused for a moment, head bent. He lifted his head then, and raised the cup toward Archie Hayes, who stood across the fire from him, round face unreadable, fire sparking from his silver gorget and his father’s brooch.

“While we mourn the loss of those who died, we must also pay tribute to you who fought and suffered with equal valor—and survived.”

“Slàinte!” came the salute, louder this time with the rumble of male voices.

Jamie closed his eyes for an instant, then opened them, looking toward Brianna, who stood with Lizzie and Marsali, Jemmy in her arms. The rawness and strength of his features stood out by contrast with the round-faced innocence of the children, the gentleness of the young mothers—though even in their delicacy, I thought, the firelight showed the seams of Scottish granite in their bones.

“We pay tribute to our women,” he said, lifting the cup in turn to Brianna, to Marsali, and then, turning, to me. A brief smile touched his lips. “For they are our strength. And our revenge upon our enemies will be at the last the revenge of the cradle. Slàinte!”

Amid the shouts of the crowd, he drained the wooden cup, and threw it into the fire, where it lay dark and round for a moment, then burst all at once into brilliant flame.

“Thig a seo!” he called, putting out his right hand to me. “Thig a seo, a Shorcha, nighean Eanruig, neart mo chridhe.” Come to me, he said. Come to me, Claire, daughter of Henry, strength of my heart. Scarcely feeling my feet or those I stumbled over, I made my way to him, and clasped his hand, his grip cold but strong on my fingers.

I saw him turn his head; was he looking for Bree? But no—he stretched out his other hand toward Roger.

“Seas ri mo làmh, Roger an t’òranaiche, mac Jeremiah MacChoinneich!” Stand by my hand, Roger the singer, son of Jeremiah MacKenzie. Roger stood stock-still for a moment, eyes dark on Jamie, then moved toward him, like one sleepwalking. The crowd was still excited, but the shouting had died down, and people craned to hear what was said.

“Stand by me in battle,” he said in Gaelic, his eyes fixed on Roger, left hand extended. He spoke slowly and clearly, to be sure of understanding. “Be a shield for my family—and for yours, son of my house.”

Roger’s expression seemed suddenly to dissolve, like a face seen in water when a stone is tossed into it. Then it solidified once more, and he clasped Jamie’s hand, squeezing hard.

Jamie turned to the crowd then, and began the calling. This was something I had seen him do before, many years before, in Scotland. A formal invitation and identification of tenants by a laird, it was a small ceremony often done on a quarter-day or after the harvest. Faces lighted here and there with recognition; many of the Highland Scots knew the custom, though they would not have seen it in this land before tonight.

“Come to me, Geordie Chisholm, son of Walter, son of Connaught the Red!”

“Stand with me, a Choinneich, Evan, Murdo, you sons of Alexander Lindsay of the Glen!”

“Come to my side, Joseph Wemyss, son of Donald, son of Robert!” I smiled to see Mr. Wemyss, flustered but terribly pleased at this public inclusion, make his way toward us, head proudly raised, fair hair flying wild in the wind of the great fire.

“Stand by me, Josiah the hunter!”

Was Josiah Beardsley here? Yes, he was; a slight, dark form slid out of the shadows, to take up a shy place in the group near Jamie. I caught his eye and smiled at him; he looked hastily away, but a small, embarrassed smile clung to his lips, as though he had forgotten it was there.

It was an impressive group by the time he had finished—nearly forty men, gathered shoulder-close and flushed as much with pride as with whisky. I saw Roger exchange a long look with Brianna, who was beaming across the fire at him. She bent her head to whisper something to Jemmy, who was submerged in his blankets, half-asleep in her arms. She picked up one of his wee paws and waved it limply toward Roger, who laughed.

“. . . Air mo mhionnan . . .” Distracted, I had missed Jamie’s final statement, catching only the last few words. Whatever he had said met with approval, though; there was a low rumble of solemn assent from the men around us, and a moment’s silence.

Then he let go my hand, stooped, and picked up a branch from the ground. Lighting this, he held it aloft, then threw the blazing brand high into the air. It tumbled end over end as it fell straight down, into the heart of the fire.

“The Frasers of the Ridge are here!” he bellowed, and the clearing erupted in a massive cheer.

As we made our way back up the slope to resume the interrupted festivities, I found myself next to Roger, who was humming something cheerful under his breath. I put a hand on his sleeve, and he looked down at me, smiling.

“Congratulations,” I said, smiling back. “Welcome to the family—son of the house.”

He grinned enormously.

“Thanks,” he said. “Mum.”

We came to a level spot, and walked side by side for a moment, not speaking. Then he said, in a quite different tone, “That was . . . something quite special, wasn’t it?”

I didn’t know whether he meant historically special, or special in personal terms. In either case, he was right, and I nodded.

“I didn’t catch all of the last bit, though,” I said. “And I don’t know what earbsachd means—do you?”

“Oh . . . aye. I know.” It was quite dark here between the fires; I could see no more of him than a darker smudge against the black of shrub and tree. There was an odd note in his voice, though. He cleared his throat.

“It’s an oath—of a sort. He—Jamie—he swore an oath to us, to his family and tenants. Support, protection, that kind of thing.”

“Oh, yes?” I said, mildly puzzled. “What do you mean, ‘of a sort’?”

“Ah, well.” He was silent for a moment, evidently marshaling his words. “It means a word of honor, rather than just an oath,” he said carefully. “Earbsachd”—he pronounced it YARB-sochk—“was once said to be the distinguishing characteristic of the MacCrimmons of Skye, and meant basically that their word once given must unfailingly be acted upon at no matter what cost. If a MacCrimmon said he would do something”—he paused and drew breath—“he would do it, though he should burn to death in the doing.”

His hand came up under my elbow, surprisingly firm.

“Here,” he said quietly. “Let me help; it’s slippery underfoot.”

16

ON THE NIGHT THAT OUR

WEDDING IS ON US

WILL YOU SING FOR ME, Roger?”

She stood in the opening of the borrowed tent, facing outward. From the back, he could see no more than her silhouette against the gray of the clouded sky, her long hair drifting in the rainy wind. She had worn it unbound to be married—maiden’s hair, though she had a child.

It was cold tonight, quite different from that first night together, that hot, gorgeous night that had ended in anger and betrayal. Months of other nights lay between that one and this—months of loneliness, months of joy. And yet his heart beat as fast now as it had on their first wedding night.

“I always sing for you, hen.” He came behind her, drew her back against him, so that her head rested on his shoulder, her hair cool and live against his face. His arm curled round her waist, holding her secure. He bent his head, nuzzling for the curve of her ear.

“No matter what,” he whispered, “no matter where. No matter whether you’re there to hear or not—I’ll always sing for you.”

She turned into his arms then, with a small hum of content in her throat, and her mouth found his, tasting of barbecued meat and spiced wine.

The rain pattered on the canvas above, and the cold of late autumn curled up from the ground around their feet. The first time, the air had smelled of hops and mudflats; their bower had had the earthy tang of hay and donkeys. Now the air was live with pine and juniper, spiced with the smoke of smoldering fires—and the faint, sweet note of baby shit.

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