The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 68

   

I ate slowly, enjoying the heat of the wooden bowl in my chilly hands, as well as the soothing warmth of food in my stomach. The cacophony of sneezing and hacking behind me did nothing to impair the momentary sense of well-being engendered by food and the prospect of rest after a long day in the saddle. Even the sight of the woods around us, bone-cold and black under growing starlight, failed to disturb me.

My own nose had begun to run rather freely, but I hoped it was merely the result of eating hot food. I swallowed experimentally, but there was no sign of sore throat, nor rattling of congestion in my chest. Jamie rattled; he had finished eating and come to stand beside me, warming his backside at the blaze.

“All right, Sassenach?” he asked hoarsely.

“Just vasomotor rhinitis,” I replied, dabbing at my nose with a handkerchief.

“Where?” He cast a suspicious look at the forest. “Here? I thought ye said they lived in Africa.”

“What—oh, rhinoceroses. Yes, they do. I just meant my nose is running, but I haven’t got la grippe.”

“Oh, aye? That’s good. I have,” he added unnecessarily, and sneezed three times in succession. He handed me his emptied bowl, in order to use both hands to blow his nose, which he did with a series of vicious honks. I winced slightly, seeing the reddened, raw look of his nostrils. I had a bit of camphorated bear grease in my saddlebag, but I was sure he wouldn’t let me anoint him in public.

“Are you sure we oughtn’t to push on?” I asked, watching him. “Geordie says the village isn’t far, and there is a road—of sorts.”

I knew the answer to that; he wasn’t one to alter strategy for the sake of personal comfort. Besides, camp was already made and a good fire going. Still, beyond my own longing for a warm, clean bed—well, any bed, I wasn’t fussy—I was worried for Jamie. Close to, the sigh in his breath had a deeper, wheezing note to it that troubled me.

He knew what I meant. He smiled, tucking away the sodden kerchief in his sleeve.

“I’ll do, Sassenach,” he said. “It’s no but a wee cold in the neb. I’ve been a deal worse than this, many times.”

Paul Mueller heaved another log onto the fire; a big ember broke and roared up with a flare that made us step away in order to avoid the spray of sparks. Well baked in the rear by this time, I turned to face the fire. Jamie, though, stayed facing outward, a slight frown on his face as he surveyed the shadows of the looming wood.

The frown relaxed, and I turned to see two men emerging from the woods, shaking needles and bits of bark from their clothes. Jack Parker, and a new man—I didn’t yet know his name, but he was plainly a recent immigrant from somewhere near Glasgow, judging from his speech.

“All quiet, sir,” said Parker, touching his hat in brief salute. “Cold as charity, though.”

“Aye, Ah hivny felt ma privates anytime since dinner,” the Glaswegian chimed in, grimacing and rubbing himself as he headed for the fire. “Might as well be gone aetegither!”

“I take your meaning, man,” Jamie said, grinning. “Went for a piss a moment ago, but I couldna find it.” He turned amid the laughter and went to check the horses, a half-finished second bowl of stew in one hand.

The other men were already making ready their bedrolls, debating the wisdom of sleeping with feet or head near the fire.

“It’ll scorch the soles o’ your boots, and ye get too close,” argued Evan Lindsay. “See? Charred the pegs right out, and now look!” He lifted one large foot, exhibiting a battered shoe with a wrapping of rough twine tied round it to hold it together. The leather soles and heels were sometimes stitched, but more often fastened with tiny whittled pegs of wood or leather, glued with pine gum or some other adhesive. The pine gum in particular was flammable; I’d seen occasional sparks burst from the feet of men who slept with their feet too near the fire, when a shoe peg suddenly ignited from the heat.

“Better than settin’ your hair on fire,” Ronnie Sinclair argued.

“I dinna think the Lindsays need worry about that owermuch.” Kenny grinned at his elder brother, and tugged down the knit cap he wore—like his two brothers—over a balding head.

“Aye, headfirst every time,” Murdo agreed. “Ye dinna want to chill your scalp; it’ll go right to your liver, and then you’re a dead man.” Murdo was tenderly solicitous of his exposed scalp, being seldom seen without either his knitted nightcap or a peculiar hat made from the hairy skin of a possum, lined and rakishly trimmed with skunk fur. He glanced enviously at Roger, who was tying back his own thick black hair with a bit of leather string.

“MacKenzie needna worry; he’s furred like a bear!”

Roger grinned in response. Like the others, he had stopped shaving when we left the Ridge; now, eight days later, a thick scurf of dark stubble did give him a fiercely ursine look. It occurred to me that beyond convenience, a heavy beard undoubtedly kept the face warm on nights like this; I tucked my own bare and vulnerable chin down into the sheltering folds of my shawl.

Returning from the horses in time to hear this, Jamie laughed, too, but it ended in a spasm of coughing. Evan waited ’til it ended.

“How say ye, Mac Dubh? Heads or tails?”

Jamie wiped his mouth on his sleeve and smiled. Hairy as the rest, he looked a proper Viking, with the fire glinting red, gold, and silver from his sprouting beard and loosened hair.

“Nay bother, lads,” he said. “I’ll sleep warm enough nay matter how I’m laid.” He tilted his head in my direction, and there was a general rumble of laughter, with a spattering of mildly crude remarks in Scots and Gaelic from the Ridge men.

One or two of the new recruits eyed me with a brief, instinctive speculation, quickly abandoned after a glance at Jamie’s height, breadth, and air of genial ferocity. I met one man’s eyes and smiled; he looked startled, but then smiled back, ducking his head in shyness.

How the hell did Jamie do that? One brief, crude joke, and he’d laid public claim to me, removed me from any threat of unwanted advances, and reasserted his position as leader.

“Just like a bloody baboon troop,” I muttered under my breath. “And I’m sleeping with the head baboon!”

“Baboons are the monkeys with no tails?” Fergus asked, turning from an exchange with Ewald about the horses.

“You know quite well they are.” I caught Jamie’s eye, and his mouth curled up on one side. I knew what he was thinking, and he knew I did; the smile widened.

Louis of France kept a private zoo at Versailles, among the inhabitants of which were a small troop of mandrill baboons. One of the most popular Court activities on spring afternoons was to visit the baboon quarters, there to admire both the sexual prowess of the male, and his splendidly multicolored bottom.

One M. de Ruvel had offered—in my hearing—to have his posterior similarly tattooed, if it would result in such a favorable reception by the ladies of the Court. He had, however, been firmly informed by Madame de la Tourelle that his physique was in every way inferior to that of the mandrill, and coloring it was unlikely to improve matters.

The firelight made it difficult to tell, but I was reasonably sure that Jamie’s own rich color owed as much to suppressed amusement as to heat.

“Speakin’ of tails,” he murmured in my ear. “Have ye got those infernal breeks on?”

“Yes.”

“Take them off.”

“What, here?” I gave him a wide-eyed look of mock innocence. “You want me to freeze my arse off?”

His eyes narrowed slightly, with a blue cat-gleam in the depths.

“Oh, it wilna freeze,” he said softly. “I’ll warrant ye that.”

He moved behind me, and the fierce shimmer of the blaze on my flesh was replaced by the cool solidness of his body. No less fierce, though, as I discovered when he put his arms round my waist and drew me back against him.

“Oh, you found it,” I said. “How nice.”

“Found what? Had you lost something?” Roger paused, coming from the horses with a lumpy roll of blankets under one arm, his bodhran under the other.

“Oh, just a pair of auld breeks,” Jamie said blandly. Under cover of my shawl, one hand slid inside the waistband of my skirt. “D’ye mean to give us a song, then?”

“If anyone likes, sure.” Roger smiled, the firelight ruddy on his features. “Actually, I’m meaning to learn one; Evan’s promised to sing me a silkie-song his grannie knew.”

Jamie laughed.

“Oh, I ken that one, I think.”

One of Roger’s eyebrows shot up, and I twisted slightly round, to look up at Jamie in surprise.

“Well, I couldna sing it,” he said mildly, seeing our amazement. “I ken the words, though. Evan sang it often and again, in the prison at Ardsmuir. It’s a bit bawdy,” he added, with that faintly prim tone that Highlanders often adopt, just before telling you something truly shocking.

Roger recognized it, and laughed.

“I’ll maybe write it down, then,” he said. “For the benefit of future generations.”

Jamie’s fingers had been working skillfully away, and at this point, the breeks—which were his, and thus about six sizes too large for me—came loose and dropped silently to the ground. A cold draft whooshed up under my skirt and struck my newly bared nether portions. I drew in my breath with a faint gasp.

“Cold, isn’t it?” Roger hunched his shoulders, smiling as he shivered exaggeratedly in sympathy.

“Yes, indeed,” I said. “Freeze the balls off a brass monkey, wouldn’t it?”

Jamie and Roger burst into simultaneous coughing fits.

SENTRY IN PLACE and horses bedded down, we retired to our own resting place, a discreet distance from the circle by the fire. I had dug the largest rocks and twigs out of the leaf mold, cut spruce branches, and spread our blankets over them by the time Jamie finished his last round of the camp. The warmth of food and fire had faded, but I didn’t begin to shiver in earnest until he touched me.

I would have moved at once to get under the blankets, but Jamie still held me. His original intent appeared intact—to say the least—but his attention was momentarily distracted. His arms were still clasped round me, but he was standing quite still, head up as though listening, looking into the murk of the wood. It was full dark; no more showed of the trees than the glow of fire reflected from the few trunks that stood nearest the camp—the last shadow of twilight had faded, and everything beyond was a depthless black.

“What is it?” I drew back a little, pressing instinctively against him, and his arms tightened round me.

“I dinna ken. But I do feel something, Sassenach.” He moved a little, lifting his head in restless query, like a wolf scenting the wind, but no message reached us save a distant rattling of leafless branches.

“If it’s no rhinoceroses, it’s something,” he said softly, and a whisper of unease raised the hairs on the back of my neck. “A moment, lass.”

He left me, the wind blowing suddenly cold about me with the loss of his presence, and went to speak quietly with a couple of the men.

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