The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 56

   

He laughed at that, eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Tennis? At an Inverness grammar school? Soft Southron sport, we’d have called it; game for poofters. But I take your point—no, you’re right, I was fine at the football, but not much at rounders. Why?”

“You don’t have any binocular vision,” I said. “Chances are that someone noticed it when you were a child, and made an effort to correct it with prismatic lenses—but it’s likely that it would have been too late by the time you were seven or eight,” I added hastily, seeing his face go blank. “If that’s going to work, it needs to be done very young—before the age of five.”

“I don’t . . . binocular vision? But doesn’t everyone? . . . I mean, both my eyes do work, don’t they?” He looked mildly bewildered. He looked down into the palm of his hand, closing one eye, then the other, as though some answer might be found among the lines there.

“Your eyes are fine,” I assured him. “It’s just that they don’t work together. It’s really a fairly common condition—and many people who have it don’t realize it. It’s just that in some people, for one reason or another, the brain never learns to merge the images coming in from both eyes in order to make a three-dimensional image.”

“I don’t see in three dimensions?” He looked at me, now, squinting hard, as though expecting me suddenly to flatten out against the wall.

“Well, I haven’t quite got a trained oculist’s kit”—I waved a hand at the burned-out candle, the wooden spoon, the drawn figures, and a couple of sticks I had been using—“nor yet an oculist’s training. But I’m reasonably sure, yes.”

He listened quietly as I explained what I could. His vision seemed fairly normal, in terms of acuity. But since his brain was not fusing the information from his eyes, he must be estimating the distance and relative location of objects simply by unconscious comparison of their sizes, rather than by forming a real 3-D image. Which meant . . .

“You can see perfectly well for almost anything you want to do,” I assured him. “And you very likely can learn to shoot all right; most of the men I see shooting close one eye when they fire, anyway. But you might have trouble hitting moving targets. You can see what you’re aiming at, all right—but without binocular vision, you may not be able to tell precisely where it is in order to hit it.”

“I see,” he said. “So, if it comes to a fight, I’d best rely on straightforward bashing, is that it?”

“In my humble experience of Scottish conflicts,” I said, “most fights amount to no more than bashing, anyway. You only use a gun or arrow if your goal is murder—and in that case, a blade is usually the weapon of preference. So much surer, Jamie tells me.”

He gave a small grunt of amusement at that, but said nothing else. He sat quietly, considering what I’d told him, while I tidied up the disorder left by the day’s surgery. I could hear thumping and clanging from the kitchen, and the pop and sizzle of fat that went with the tantalizing aroma of frying onions and bacon that floated down the corridor.

It was going to be a hasty meal; Mrs. Bug had been busy all day with the preparations for the militia expedition. Still, even Mrs. Bug’s least elaborate spreads were well worth the eating.

Muffled voices came through the wall—Jemmy’s sudden wail, a brief exclamation from Brianna, another from Lizzie, then Jamie’s deep voice, evidently comforting the baby while Bree and Lizzie dealt with dinner.

Roger heard them, too; I saw his head turn toward the sound.

“Quite a woman,” he said, with a slow smile. “She can kill it and cook it. Which looks like being a good thing, under the circumstances,” he added ruefully. “Evidently I won’t be putting much meat on the table.”

“Pah,” I said briskly, wishing to forestall any attempt on his part to feel sorry for himself. “I’ve never shot a thing in my life, and I put food on this table every day. If you really feel you must kill things, you know, there are plenty of chickens and geese and pigs. And if you can catch that damnable white sow before she undermines the foundation entirely, you’ll be a local hero.”

That made him smile, though with a wry twist to it nonetheless.

“I expect my self-respect will recover, with or without the pigs,” he said. “The worst of it will be telling the sharpshooters”—he jerked his head toward the wall, where Brianna’s voice mingled with Jamie’s in muffled conversation—“what the problem is. They’ll be very kind—like one is to somebody who’s missing a foot.”

I laughed, finished swabbing out my mortar, and reached up to put it away in the cupboard.

“Bree’s only worrying about you, because of this Regulation trouble. But Jamie thinks it won’t amount to anything; the chances of you needing to shoot someone are very small. Besides, birds of prey haven’t got binocular vision, either,” I added, as an afterthought. “Except for owls. Hawks and eagles can’t have; their eyes are on either side of their heads. Just tell Bree and Jamie I said you have eyes like a hawk.”

He laughed outright at that, and stood up, dusting off the skirts of his coat.

“Right, I will.” He waited for me, opening the door to the hall for me. As I reached it, though, he put a hand on my arm, stopping me.

“This binocular thing,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward his eyes. “I was born with it, I suppose?”

I nodded.

“Yes, almost certainly.”

He hesitated, clearly not knowing quite how to put what he wanted to say.

“Is it . . . inherited, then? My father was in the RAF; he can’t have had it, surely—but my mother wore spectacles. She kept them on a chain round her neck; I remember playing with it. I might have gotten the eye thing from her, I mean.”

I pursed my lips, trying to recall what—if anything—I had ever read on the subject of inherited eye disorders, but nothing concrete came to mind.

“I don’t know,” I said at last. “It might be. But it might not, too. I really don’t know. Are you worried about Jemmy?”

“Oh.” A faint look of disappointment crossed his features, though he blotted it out almost at once. He gave me an awkward smile, and opened the door, holding it for me to pass through.

“No, not worried. I was just thinking—if it was inherited, and if the little fella should have it, too . . . then I’d know.”

The corridor was full of the savory scents of squirrel stew and fresh bread, and I was starving, but I stood still, staring up at him.

“I wouldn’t wish it on him,” Roger said hastily, seeing my expression. “Not at all! Just, if it should be that way—” He broke off and looked away, swallowing. “Look, don’t tell Bree I thought of it, please.”

I touched his arm lightly.

“I think she’d understand. Your wanting to know—for sure.”

He glanced at the kitchen door, from which Bree’s voice rose, singing “Clementine,” to Jemmy’s raucous pleasure.

“She might understand,” he said. “That doesn’t mean she wants to hear it.”

22

THE FIERY CROSS

THE MEN WERE GONE. Jamie, Roger, Mr. Chisholm and his sons, the MacLeod brothers . . . they had all disappeared before daybreak, leaving no trace behind save the jumbled remains of a hasty breakfast, and a collection of muddy bootprints on the doorsill.

Jamie moved so quietly that he seldom woke me when he left our bed to dress in the dark predawn. He did usually bend to kiss me goodbye, though, murmuring a quick endearment in my ear and leaving me to carry the touch and scent of him back into dreams.

He hadn’t wakened me this morning.

That job had been left to the tender offices of the junior Chisholms and MacLeods, several of whom had held a pitched battle directly under my window, just after dawn.

I had sprung into wakefulness, momentarily confused by the shouts and screams, my hands reaching automatically for sponge and oxygen, syringe and alcohol, visions of a hospital emergency room vivid around me. Then I drew breath, and smelled woodsmoke, not ethanol. I shook my head, blinking at the sight of a rumpled blue and yellow quilt, the peaceful row of clothes on their pegs, and the wash of pure, pale light streaming through half-opened shutters. Home. I was home, on the Ridge.

A door banged open below, and the racket died abruptly, succeeded by a scuffle of flight, accompanied by muffled giggling.

“Mmmphm!” said Mrs. Bug’s voice, grimly satisfied at having routed the rioters. The door closed, and the clank of wood and clang of metal from below announced the commencement of the day’s activities.

When I went down a few moments later, I found that good lady engaged simultaneously in toasting bread, boiling coffee, making parritch, and complaining as she tidied up the men’s leavings. Not about the untidiness—what else could be expected of men?—but rather that Jamie had not waked her to provide a proper breakfast for them.

“And how’s Himself to manage, then?” she demanded, brandishing the toasting-fork at me in reproach. “A fine, big man like that, and him out and doing wi’ no more to line his wame than a wee sup of milk and a stale bannock?”

Casting a bleary eye over the assorted crumbs and dirty crockery, it appeared to me that Himself and his companions had probably accounted for at least two dozen corn muffins and an entire loaf of salt-rising bread, accompanied by a pound or so of fresh butter, a jar of honey, a bowl of raisins, and all of the first milking.

“I don’t think he’ll starve,” I murmured, dabbing up a crumb with a moistened forefinger. “Is the coffee ready?”

The older Chisholm and MacLeod children had mostly been sleeping by the kitchen hearth at night, rolled in rags or blankets. They were up and out now, their coverings heaped behind the settle. As the smell of food began to permeate the house, murmurous sounds of rising began to come through the walls and down the stairs, as the women dressed and tended the babies and toddlers. Small faces began to reappear from outside, peeking hungrily round the edge of the door.

“Have ye washed your filthy paws, wee heathens?” Mrs. Bug demanded, seeing them. She waved a porridge spoon at the benches along the table. “If ye have, come in and set yourselves doon. Mind ye wipe your muddy feet!”

Within moments, the benches and stools were filled, Mrs. Chisholm, Mrs. MacLeod, and Mrs. Aberfeldy yawning and blinking among their offspring, nodding and murmuring “Good morn” to me and each other, straightening a kerchief here and a shirttail there, using a thumb wet with spittle to plaster down the spiked hair on a little boy’s head or wipe a smudge from a little girl’s cheek.

Faced with a dozen gaping mouths to feed, Mrs. Bug was in her element, hopping back and forth between hearth and table. Watching her bustle to and fro, I thought she must have been a chickadee in a former life.

“Did you see Jamie when he left?” I asked, as she paused momentarily to refill all the coffee cups, a large uncooked sausage in her other hand.

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