The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 43

   

It was early days, she thought. They had all their lives before them. The time of surrender would surely come.

17

WATCHFIRE

FROM WHERE THEY LAY, he could see down through a gap in the rocks, all the way to the watch fire that burned before Hayes’s tent. The great fire of the Gathering had burned itself to embers, the glow of it faint memory of the towering flames of declaration, but the smaller fire burned steady as a star against the cold night. Now and then a dark, kilted figure rose to tend it, stood stark for a moment against the brightness, then faded back again into the night.

He was faintly conscious of the racing clouds that dimmed the moon, the heavy flutter of the canvas overhead, and the rock-black shadows of the mountain slope, but he had no eyes for anything save the fire below, and the white patch of the tent behind it, shapeless as a ghost.

He had slowed his breath, relaxed the muscles of arms and chest, back, buttocks, legs. Not in an attempt to sleep; sleep was far from him, and he had no mind to seek it.

Nor was it an attempt to fool Claire into thinking he slept. So close against his body, so close to his mind as she was, she would know him wakeful. No, it was only a signal to her; an acknowledged pretense that freed her from any need to pay heed to him. She might sleep, knowing him occupied within the walnut shell of his mind, having no immediate demand to make of her.

Few slept on the mountain tonight, he thought. The sound of the wind masked the murmur of voices, the shuffle of movement, but his hunter’s senses registered a dozen small stirrings, identifying things half-heard, putting names to moving shadows. A scrape of shoe leather on rock, the flap of a blanket shaken out. That would be Hobson and Fowles, making a quiet departure alone in the dark, fearful of waiting for the morning, lest they be betrayed in the night.

A few notes of music came down on a gust of wind from above; concertina and fiddle. Jocasta’s slaves, unwilling to surrender this rare celebration to the needs of sleep or the imperatives of weather.

An infant’s thin wail. Wee Jemmy? No, from behind. Tiny Joan, then, and Marsali’s voice, low and sweet, singing in French.

“. . . Alouette, gentil Alouette . . .”

There, a sound he had expected; footsteps passing on the far side of the rocks that bordered his family’s sanctuary. Quick and light, headed downhill. He waited, eyes open, and in a few moments heard the faint hail of a sentry near the tent. No figure showed in the firelight below, but the tent flap beyond it stirred, gaped open, then fell unbroken.

As he had thought, then; sentiment lay strong against the rioters. It was not held a betrayal of friends, but rather the necessary giving up of criminals for the protection of those who chose to live by law. It might be reluctant—the witnesses had waited for the dark—but not secretive.

“. . . j’ante plumerai la tête . . .”

It occurred to him to wonder why the songs sung to bairns were so often gruesome, and no thought given to the words they took in with their mothers’ milk. The music of the songs was no more to him than tuneless chanting—perhaps that was why he paid more mind than most to the words.

Even Brianna, who came from what was presumably a more peaceable time, sang songs of fearsome death and tragic loss to wee Jem, all with a look on her face as tender as the Virgin nursing the Christ Child. That verse about the miner’s daughter who drowned amidst her ducklings . . .

It occurred to him perversely to wonder what awful things the Blessed Mother might have counted in her own repertoire of cradle songs; judging from the Bible, the Holy Land had been no more peaceful than France or Scotland.

He would have crossed himself in penance for the notion, but Claire was lying on his right arm.

“Were they wrong?” Claire’s voice came softly from beneath his chin, startling him.

“Who?” He bent his head to hers, and kissed the thick softness of her curls. Her hair smelt of woodsmoke and the sharp, clear tang of juniper berries.

“The men in Hillsborough.”

“Aye, I think so.”

“What would you have done?”

He sighed, moved one shoulder in a shrug.

“Can I say? Aye, if it was me that was cheated, and no hope of redress, I might have laid hands on the man who’d done it. But what was done there—ye heard it. Houses torn down and set afire, men dragged out and beaten senseless only for cause of the office they held . . . no, Sassenach. I canna say what I might have done—but not that.”

She turned her head a little, so he saw the high curve of her cheekbone, rimmed in light, and the flexing of the muscle that ran in front of her ear as she smiled.

“I didn’t think you would. Can’t see you as part of a mob.”

He kissed her ear, not to reply directly. He could see himself as part of a mob, all too easily. That was what frightened him. He knew much too well the strength of it.

One Highlander was a warrior, but the mightiest man was only a man. It was the madness that took men together that had ruled the glens for a thousand years; that thrill of the blood, when you heard the shrieks of your companions, felt the strength of the whole bear you up like wings, and knew immortality—for if you should fall of yourself, still you would be carried on, your spirit shrieking in the mouths of those who ran beside you. It was only later, when the blood lay cold in limp veins, and deaf ears heard the women weeping . . .

“And if it wasn’t a man who cheated you? If it was the Crown, or the Court? No one person, I mean, but an institution.”

He knew where she meant to lead him. He tightened his arm around her, her breath warm on the knuckles of his hand, curled just under her chin.

“It isna that. Not here. Not now.” The rioters had lashed out in response to the crimes of men, of individuals; the price of those crimes might be paid in blood, but not requited by war—not yet.

“It isn’t,” she said quietly. “But it will be.”

“Not now,” he said again.

The piece of paper was safely hidden in his saddlebag, its damnable summons concealed. He must deal with it, and soon, but for tonight he would pretend it wasn’t there. One final night of peace, with his wife in his arms, his family around him.

Another shadow by the fire. Another hail by the sentry, one more to pass through the traitor’s gate.

“And are they wrong?” A slight tilt of her head toward the tent below. “The ones going to turn in their acquaintances?”

“Aye,” he said, after a moment. “They’re wrong as well.”

A mob might rule, but it was single men would pay the price for what was done. Part of the price was the breaking of trust, the turning of neighbor against neighbor, fear a noose squeezing tight until there was no longer any breath of mercy or forgiveness.

It had come on to rain; the light spatter of drops on the canvas overhead turned to a regular thrum, and the air grew live with the rush of water. It was a winter storm; no lightning lit the sky, and the looming mountains were invisible.

He held Claire close, curving his free hand low over her belly. She sighed, a small sound of pain in it, and settled herself, her arse nesting round as an egg in the cup of his thighs. He could feel the melting begin as she relaxed, that odd merging of his flesh with hers.

At first it had happened only when he took her, and only at the last. Then sooner and sooner, until her hand upon him was both invitation and completion, a surrender inevitable, offered and accepted. He had resisted now and then, only to be sure he could, suddenly fearful of the loss of himself. He had thought it a treacherous passion, like the one that swept a mob of men, linking them in mindless fury.

Now he trusted it was right, though. The Bible did say it, Thou shalt be one flesh, and What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.

He had survived such a sundering once; he could not stand it twice, and live. The sentries had put up a canvas lean-to near their fire to shelter them from the rain. The flames sputtered as the rain blew in, though, and lit the pale cloth with a flicker that pulsed like a heartbeat. He was not afraid to die with her, by fire or any other way—only to live without her.

The wind changed, carrying with it the faint sound of laughter from the tiny tent where the newlyweds slept—or didn’t. He smiled to himself, hearing it. He could only hope that his daughter would find such joy in her marriage as he had—but so far, so good. The lad’s face lit when he looked at her.

“What will you do?” Claire said quietly, her words almost lost in the pattering of the rain.

“What I must.”

It was no answer, but the only one.

There was no world outside this small confine, he told himself. Scotland was gone, the Colonies were going—what lay ahead he could only dimly imagine from the things Brianna told him. The only reality was the woman held fast in his arms; his children and grandchildren, his tenants and servants—these were the gifts that God had given to him; his to harbor, his to protect.

The mountainside lay dark and quiet, but he could feel them there all round him, trusting him to see them safe. If God had given him this trust, surely He would also grant the strength to keep it.

He was becoming aroused by the habit of close contact, his rising c*ck uncomfortably trapped. He wanted her, had been wanting for days, the urge pushed aside in the bustle of the Gathering. The dull ache in his balls echoed what he thought must be the ache in her womb.

He had taken her in the midst of her courses now and then, when the two of them had wanted too urgently for waiting. He had found it messy and disturbing, but exciting too, leaving him with a faint sense of shame that was not entirely unpleasant. Now was not the time or place for it, of course, but the memory of other times and other places made him shift, twisting away from her, not to trouble her with the bodily evidence of his thoughts.

Yet what he felt now was not lust—not quite. Nor was it even the need of her, the wanting of soul’s company. He wished to cover her with his body, possess her—for if he could do that, he could pretend to himself that she was safe. Covering her so, joined in one body, he might protect her. Or so he felt, even knowing how senseless the feeling was.

He had stiffened, his body tensing involuntarily with his thoughts. Claire stirred, and reached back with one hand. She laid it on his leg, let it lie for a moment, then reached gently farther up, in drowsy question.

He bent his head, put his lips behind her ear. Said what he was thinking, without thought.

“Nothing will harm ye while there is breath in my body, a nighean donn. Nothing.”

“I know,” she said. Her limbs went slowly slack, her breathing eased, and the soft round of her belly swelled under his palm as she melted into sleep. Her hand stayed on him, covering him. He lay stiff and wide awake, long after the watch fire had been quenched by the rain.

PART TWO

The Chieftain’s Call

18

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

GIDEON DARTED OUT his head like a snake, aiming for the leg of the rider just ahead.

“Seas!” Jamie wrenched the big bay’s head around before he could take a bite. “Evil-minded whoreson,” he muttered under his breath. Geordie Chisholm, unaware of his narrow escape from Gideon’s teeth, caught the remark, and looked back over his shoulder, startled. Jamie smiled and touched his slouch hat apologetically, nudging the horse past Chisholm’s long-legged mule.

Loading...