The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 61

   

“Mo chridhe,” he said softly, smiling, and bent to kiss me. His beard stubble was rough and his skin still chilled, fresh with water.

“You’d better put your trousers on,” I said. “You’ll freeze.”

“I’ll do. Ciamar a tha thu, an gille ruaidh?”

To my surprise, Jemmy was awake and drooling, eyes wide blue in a rose-leaf face, all hint of temper gone without a trace. He leaned, twisting to reach for Jamie, who lifted him gently from my arms and cradled him against a shoulder, pulling the woolly cap down snugly over his ears.

“We’re starting a tooth,” I told Jamie. “He wasn’t very comfortable, so I thought perhaps a bit of whisky on his gums . . . there wasn’t any in the house.”

“Oh, aye. We can manage that, I think. There’s a bit in my flask.” Carrying the baby to the spot where his clothes lay, he bent and rummaged one-handed, coming up with the dented pewter flask he carried on his belt.

He sat on a rock, balancing Jemmy on his knee, and handed me the flask to open.

“I went to the mash house,” I said, pulling the cork with a soft pop, “but the cask was gone.”

“Aye, Fergus has it. Here, I’ll do it; my hands are clean.” He held out his left index finger, and I dribbled a bit of the spirit onto it.

“What’s Fergus doing with it?” I asked, settling myself on the rock beside him.

“Keeping it,” he said, uninformatively. He stuck the finger in Jemmy’s mouth, gently rubbing at the swollen gum. “Oh, there it is. Aye, that hurts a bit, doesn’t it? Ouch!” He reached down and gingerly disentangled Jemmy’s fingers from their grip on the hairs of his chest.

“Speaking of that . . .” I said, and reached out to take his right hand. Shifting his other arm to keep hold of Jemmy, he let me take the hand and turn his fingers upward.

It was a very shallow cut, just across the tips of the first three fingers—the fingers with which he had crossed himself. The blood had already clotted, but I dribbled a bit more of the whisky over the cuts and cleaned the smears of blood from his palm with my handkerchief.

He let me tend him in silence, but when I finished and looked up at him, he met my eyes with a faint smile.

“It’s all right, Sassenach,” he said.

“Is it?” I said. I searched his face; he looked tired, but tranquil. The slight frown I had seen between his brows for the last few days was gone. Whatever he was about, he had begun it.

“Ye saw, then?” he asked quietly, reading my own face.

“Yes. Is it—it’s to do with the cross in the dooryard, is it?”

“Oh, in a way, I suppose.”

“What is it for?” I asked bluntly.

He pursed his lips, rubbing gently at Jemmy’s sore gum. At last he said, “Ye never saw Dougal MacKenzie call the clan, did you?”

I was more than startled at this, but answered cautiously.

“No. I saw Colum do it once—at the oath-taking at Leoch.”

He nodded, the memory of that long-ago night of torches deep in his eyes.

“Aye,” he said softly. “I mind that. Colum was chief, and the men would come when he summoned them, surely. But it was Dougal who led them to war.”

He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts.

“There were raids, now and again. That was a different thing, and often no more than a fancy that took Dougal or Rupert, maybe an urge born of drink or boredom—a small band out for the fun of it, as much as for cattle or grain. But to gather the clan for war, all the fighting men—that was a rarer thing. I only saw it the once, myself, but it’s no a sight ye would forget.”

The cross of pinewood had been there when he woke one morning at the castle, surprising him as he crossed the courtyard. The inhabitants of Leoch were up and about their business as usual, but no one glanced at the cross or referred to it in any way. Even so, there were undercurrents of excitement running through the castle.

The men stood here and there in knots, talking in undertones, but when he joined a group, the talk shifted at once to desultory conversation.

“I was Colum’s nephew, aye, but newly come to the castle, and they kent my sire and grandsire.” Jamie’s paternal grandfather had been Simon, Lord Lovat—chief of the Frasers of Lovat, and no great friend of the MacKenzies of Leoch.

“I couldna tell what was afoot, but something was; the hair on my arms prickled whenever I caught someone’s eye.” At last, he had made his way to the stable, and found Old Alec, Colum’s Master of Horse. The old man had been fond of Ellen MacKenzie, and was kind to the son for his mother’s sake, as well as his own.

“’Tis the fiery cross, lad,” he’d told Jamie, tossing him a currycomb and jerking his head toward the stalls. “Ye’ll not ha’ seen it before?”

It was auld, he’d said, one of the ways that had been followed for hundreds of years, no one quite knowing where it had started, who had done it first or why.

“When a Hielan’ chief will call his men to war,” the old man had said, deftly running his gnarled hand through a knotted mane, “he has a cross made, and sets it afire. It’s put out at once, ken, wi’ blood or wi’ water—but still it’s called the fiery cross, and it will be carried through the glens and corries, a sign to the men of the clan to fetch their weapons and come to the gathering place, prepared for battle.”

“Aye?” Jamie had said, feeling excitement hollow his belly. “And who do we fight, then? Where do we ride?”

The old man’s grizzled brow had crinkled in amused approval at that “we.”

“Ye follow where your chieftain leads ye, lad. But tonight, it will be the Grants we go against.”

“It was, too,” Jamie said. “Though not that night. When darkness came, Dougal lit the cross and called the clan. He doused the burnin’ wood wi’ sheep’s blood—and two men rode out of the courtyard wi’ the fiery cross, to take it through the mountains. Four days later, there were three hundred men in that courtyard, armed wi’ swords, pistols, and dirks—and at dawn on the fifth day, we rode to make war on the Grants.”

His finger was still in the baby’s mouth, his eyes distant as he remembered.

“That was the first time I used my sword against another man,” he said. “I mind it well.”

“I expect you do,” I murmured. Jemmy was beginning to squirm and fuss again; I reached across and lifted him into my own lap to check—sure enough, his clout was wet. Luckily, I had another, tucked into my belt for convenience. I laid him out across my knee to change.

“And so this cross in our dooryard . . .” I said delicately, eyes on my work. “To do with the militia, is it?”

Jamie sighed, and I could see the shadows of memory moving behind his eyes.

“Aye,” he said. “Once, I could have called, and the men would come without question—because they were mine. Men of my blood, men of my land.”

His eyes were hooded, looking out over the mountainside that rose up before us. I thought he did not see the wooded heights of the Carolina wilderness, though; rather, the scoured mountains and rocky crofts of Lallybroch. I laid my free hand on his wrist; the skin was cold, but I could feel the heat of him, just below the surface, like a fever rising.

“They came for you—but you came for them, Jamie. You came for them at Culloden. You took them there—and you brought them back.”

Ironic, I thought, that the men who had come then to serve at his summons were for the most part still safe at home in Scotland. No part of the Highlands had been untouched by war—but Lallybroch and its people were for the most part still whole—because of Jamie.

“Aye, that’s so.” He turned to look at me, and a rueful smile touched his face. His hand tightened on mine for a moment, then relaxed, and the line deepened again between his brows. He waved a hand toward the mountains around us.

“But these men—there is no debt of blood between them and me. They are not Frasers; I am not born either laird or chief to them. If they come to fight at my call, it will be of their own will.”

“Well, that,” I said dryly, “and Governor Tryon’s.”

He shook his head at that.

“Nay, not that. Will the Governor ken which men are here, or which ones come to meet his summons?” He grimaced slightly. “He kens me—and that will do nicely.”

I had to admit the truth of this. Tryon would neither know nor care whom Jamie brought—only that he appeared, with a satisfactory number of men behind him, ready to do the Governor’s dirty work.

I pondered that for a moment, patting Jemmy’s bottom dry with the hem of my skirt. All I knew of the American Revolution were the things I had heard at second hand from Brianna’s schoolbooks—and I, of all people, knew just how great the gap could be between written history and the reality.

Also, we had lived in Boston, and the schoolbooks naturally reflected local history. The general impression one got from reading about Lexington and Concord and the like was that the militia involved every able-bodied man in the community, all of whom sprang into action at the first hint of alarm, eager to perform their civic duty. Perhaps they did, perhaps not—but the Carolina backcountry wasn’t Boston, not by a long chalk.

“. . . ready to ride and spread the alarm,” I said, half under my breath, “to every Middlesex village and farm.”

“What?” Jamie’s brows shot up. “Where’s Middlesex?”

“Well, you’d think it was halfway between male and female,” I said, “but it’s really just the area round Boston. Though of course that’s named after the one in England.”

“Yes?” he said, looking bewildered. “Aye, if ye say so, Sassenach. But—”

“Militia.” I lifted Jemmy, who was bucking and squirming like a landed fish, making noises of extreme protest at being forcibly diapered. He kicked me in the stomach. “Oh, give over, child, do.”

Jamie reached over and took the baby under the arms, hoisting him from my lap.

“Here, I’ll have him. Does he need more whisky?”

“I don’t know, but at least he can’t squawk if your finger’s in his mouth.” I relinquished Jemmy with some relief, returning to my train of thought.

“Boston’s been settled for more than a hundred years, even now,” I said. “It has villages and farms—and the farms aren’t all that far from the villages. People have been living there for a long time; everyone knows each other.”

Jamie was nodding patiently at each of these startling revelations, trusting that I would eventually come to some point. Which I did, only to discover that it was the same point he’d been making to me.

“So when someone musters militia there,” I said, suddenly seeing what he’d been telling me all along, “they come, because they’re accustomed to fighting together to defend their towns and because no man would want to be thought a coward by his neighbors. But here . . .” I bit my lip, contemplating the soaring mountains all around us.

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