The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 63

   

“Let’s go,” I said. “It’s nearly night.”

23

THE BARD

IT WAS FULL DARK when Roger finally reached his own door, but the windows glowed welcomingly, and sparks showered from the chimney, promising warmth and food. He was tired, chilled, and very hungry, and he felt a deep and thankful appreciation for his home—substantially sharpened by the knowledge that he would leave it on the morrow.

“Brianna?” He stepped inside, squinting in the dim glow, looking for his wife.

“There you are! You’re so late! Where have you been?” She popped out of the small back room, the baby balanced on her hip and a heap of tartan cloth clutched to her chest. She leaned over it to kiss him briefly, leaving him with a tantalizing taste of plum jam.

“I’ve been riding up hill and down dale for the last ten hours,” he said, taking the cloth from her and tossing it onto the bed. “Looking for a mythical family of Dutchmen. Come here and kiss me properly, aye?”

She obligingly wrapped her free arm round his waist and gave him a lingering, plum-scented kiss that made him think that hungry as he was, dinner could perhaps wait for a bit. The baby, however, had other ideas, and set up a loud wail that made Brianna hastily detach herself, grimacing at the racket.

“Still teething?” Roger said, observing his offspring’s red and swollen countenance, covered with a shiny coating of snot, saliva, and tears.

“How did you guess?” she said caustically. “Here, can you take him, just for a minute?” She thrust Jemmy, writhing, into his father’s arms, and tugged at her bodice, the green linen damply creased and stained with pale splotches of spit-up milk. One of her br**sts bobbed into view, and she reached out for Jemmy, sitting down with him in the nursing chair by the fire.

“He’s been fussing all day,” she said, shaking her head as the baby squirmed and whined, batting at the proffered nourishment with a fretful hand. “He won’t nurse for more than a few minutes, and when he does, he spits it up again. He whines when you pick him up, but he screams if you set him down.” She shoved a hand tiredly through her hair. “I feel like I’ve been wrestling alligators all day.”

“Oh, mm. That’s too bad.” Roger rubbed his aching lower back, trying not to be ostentatious about it. He pointed toward the bed with his chin. “Ah . . . what’s the tartan for?”

“Oh, I forgot—that’s yours.” Attention momentarily distracted from the struggling child, she glanced up at Roger, taking in for the first time his disheveled appearance. “Da brought it down for you to wear tonight. You have a big smudge of mud on your face, by the way—did you fall off?”

“Several times.” He moved to the washstand, limping only slightly. One sleeve of his coat and the knee of his breeches were plastered with mud, and he rubbed at his chest, trying to dislodge bits of dry leaf that had got down the neck of his shirt.

“Oh? That’s too bad. Shh, shh, shh,” she crooned to the child, rocking him to and fro. “Did you hurt yourself?”

“Ah, no. It’s fine.” He shed the coat and turned his back, pouring water from the pitcher into the bowl. He splashed cold water over his face, listening to Jemmy’s squeals and privately calculating the odds of being able to make love to Brianna sometime before having to leave next morning. Between Jemmy’s teeth and his grandfather’s plans, the chances seemed slight, but hope sprang eternal.

He blotted his face with the towel, glancing covertly around in hopes of food. Both table and hearth were empty, though there was a strong vinegar scent in the air.

“Sauerkraut?” he guessed, sniffing audibly. “The Muellers?”

“They brought two big jars of it,” Brianna said, gesturing toward the corner where a stone crock stood in the shadows. “That one’s ours. Did you get anything to eat while you were out?”

“No.” His belly rumbled loudly, evidently willing to consider cold sauerkraut, if that was all that was on offer. Presumably there would be food at the big house, though. Cheered by this thought, he pulled off his breeches and began the awkward business of pleating up the tartan cloth to make a belted plaid.

Jemmy had quieted a little, now making no more than intermittent yips of discomfort as his mother rocked him to and fro.

“What was that about mythical Dutchmen?” Brianna asked, still rocking, but now with a moment’s attention to spare.

“Jamie sent me up to the northeast to look for a family of Dutchmen he’d heard had settled near Boiling Creek—to tell the men about the militia summons and have them come back with me, if they would.” He frowned at the cloth laid out on the bed. He’d worn a plaid like this only twice before, and both times, had had help to put the thing on. “Is it important for me to wear this, do you think?”

Brianna snorted behind him with brief amusement.

“I think you’d better wear something. You can’t go up to the big house in nothing but your shirt. You couldn’t find the Dutchmen, then?”

“Not so much as a wooden shoe.” He had found what he thought was Boiling Creek, and had ridden up the bank for miles, dodging—or not—overhanging branches, bramble patches, and thickets of witch hazel, but hadn’t found a sign of anything larger than a fox that had slipped across his path, disappearing into the brush like a flame suddenly extinguished.

“Maybe they moved on. Went up to Virginia, or Pennsylvania.” Brianna spoke with sympathy. It had been a long, exhausting day, with failure at the end of it. Not a terrible failure; Jamie had said only, “Find them if ye can”—and if he had found them, they might not have understood his rudimentary Dutch, gained on brief holidays to the Amsterdam of the 1960s. Or might not have come, in any case. Still, the small failure nagged at him, like a stone in his shoe.

He glanced at Brianna, who grinned widely at him in anticipation.

“All right,” he said with resignation. “Laugh if ye must.” Getting into a belted plaid wasn’t the most dignified thing a man could do, given that the most efficient method was to lie down on the pleated fabric and roll like a sausage on a girdle. Jamie could do it standing up, but then, the man had had practice.

His struggles—rather deliberately exaggerated—were rewarded by Brianna’s giggling, which in turn seemed to have a calming effect on the baby. By the time Roger made the final adjustments to his pleats and drapes, mother and child were both flushed, but happy.

Roger made a leg to them, flourishing, and Bree patted her own leg in one-handed applause.

“Terrific,” she said, her eyes traveling appreciatively over him. “See Daddy? Pretty Daddy!” She turned Jemmy, who stared openmouthed at the vision of male glory before him and blossomed into a wide, slow smile, a trickle of drool hanging from the pouting curve of his lip.

Roger was still hungry, sore, and tired, but it didn’t seem so important. He grinned, and held out his arms toward the baby.

“Do you need to change? If he’s full and dry, I’ll take him up to the house—give you a bit of time to fix up.”

“You think I need fixing up, do you?” Brianna gave him an austere look down her long, straight nose. Her hair had come down in wisps and straggles, her dress looked as though she’d been sleeping in it for weeks, and there was a dark smear of jam on the upper curve of one breast.

“You look great,” he said, bending and swinging Jemmy deftly up. “Hush, a bhalaich. You’ve had enough of Mummy, and she’s definitely had enough of you for a bit. Come along with me.”

“Don’t forget your guitar!” Bree called after him as he headed for the door. He glanced back at her, surprised.

“What?”

“Da wants you to sing. Wait, he gave me a list.”

“A list? Of what?” To the best of Roger’s knowledge, Jamie Fraser paid no attention whatever to music. It rankled him a bit, in fact, though he seldom admitted it—that his own greatest skill was one that Fraser didn’t value.

“Songs, of course.” She furrowed her brow, conjuring up the memorized list. “He wants you to do ‘Ho Ro!’ and ‘Birniebouzle,’ and ‘The Great Silkie’—you can do other stuff in between, he said, but he wants those—and then get into the warmongering stuff. That’s not what he called it, but you know what I mean—‘Killiecrankie’ and ‘The Haughs of Cromdale,’ and ‘The Sherrifsmuir Fight.’ Just the older stuff, though; he says don’t do the songs from the ’45, except for ‘Johnnie Cope’—he wants that one for sure, but toward the end. And—”

Roger stared at her, disentangling Jemmy’s foot from the folds of his plaid.

“I wouldn’t have thought your father so much as knew the names of songs, let alone had preferences.”

Brianna had stood up and was reaching for the long wooden pin that held her hair in place. She pulled it out and let the thick red shimmer cascade over shoulders and face. She ran both hands through the ruddy mass and pushed it back, shaking her head.

“He doesn’t. Have preferences, I mean. Da’s completely tone-deaf. Mama says he has a good sense of rhythm, but he can’t tell one note from another.”

“That’s what I thought. But why—”

“He may not listen to music, Roger, but he listens.” She glanced at him, snigging the comb through the tangles of her hair. “And he watches. He knows how people act—and how they feel—when they hear you do those songs.”

“Does he?” Roger murmured. He felt an odd spark of pleasure at the thought that Fraser had indeed noticed the effect of his music, even if he didn’t appreciate it personally. “So—he means me to soften them up, is that it? Get them in the mood before he goes on for his own bit?”

“That’s it.” She nodded, busy untying the laces of her bodice. Escaped from confinement, her br**sts bobbed suddenly free, round and loose under the thin muslin shift.

Roger shifted his weight, easing the fit of his plaid. She caught the slight movement and looked at him. Slowly, she drew her hands up, cupping her br**sts and lifting them, her eyes on his and a slight smile on her lips. Just for a moment, he felt as though he had stopped breathing, though his chest continued to rise and fall.

She was the first to break the moment, dropping her hands and turning to delve into the chest where she kept her linen.

“Do you know exactly what he’s up to?” she asked, her voice muffled in the depths of the chest. “Did he have that cross up when you left?”

“Aye, I know about it.” Jemmy was making small huffing noises, like a toy engine struggling up a hill. Roger tucked him under one arm, his hand cradling the fat little belly. “It’s a fiery cross. D’ye ken what that is?”

She emerged from the chest, a fresh shift in her hands, looking mildly disturbed.

“A fiery cross? You mean he’s going to burn a cross in the yard?”

“Well, not burn it all the way, no.” Taking down his bodhran with his free hand and flicking a finger against the drum head to check the tautness, he explained briefly the tradition of the fiery cross. “It’s a rare thing,” he concluded, moving the drum out of Jemmy’s grasping reach. “I don’t think it was ever done in the Highlands again, after the Rising. Your father told me he’d seen it once, though—it’s something really special, to see it done here.”

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