The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 69


And what might he feel, out there in the dark? I had the greatest respect for Jamie’s sense of danger. He had lived too long as hunter and as hunted, not to sense the edgy awareness that lay between the two—invisible or not.

He returned a moment later, and squatted beside me as I burrowed shivering into the blankets.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ve said we’ll have two guards tonight, and each man to keep his piece loaded and to hand. But I think it’s all right.” He looked beyond me, into the wood, but his face now was merely thoughtful.

“It’s all right,” he repeated again, more certainly.

“Is it gone?”

He turned his head, his lips curling slightly. His mouth looked soft, tender and vulnerable amid the stiff, ruddy wires of his starting beard.

“I dinna ken if it was ever there, Sassenach,” he said. “I thought I felt eyes upon me, but it could have been a passing wolf, an owl—or nay more than a restless spiorad, a-roaming in the wood. But aye, it’s gone now.”

He smiled at me; I saw the flicker of the light that rimmed his head and shoulders as he turned, silhouetted by the fire. Beyond, the sound of Roger’s voice drifted to me above the crackle of the fire, as he learned the melody of the silkie-song, following Evan’s voice, hoarse but confident. Jamie slid into the blankets beside me and I turned to him, cold hands fumbling to return the favor he had done me earlier.

We shivered convulsively, urgent for each other’s warmth. I found him, and he turned me, ruffling up the layers of fabric between us, so that he lay behind me, his arm secure around me, the small secret patches of our nak*dness joined in warmth beneath the blankets. I lay facing the darkness of the wood, watching the firelight dance among the trees, as Jamie moved behind me—behind, between, within—warm and big, and so slowly as scarcely to rustle the branches beneath us. Roger’s voice rose strong and sweet above the murmur of the men, and the shivering slowly stopped.

I WOKE MUCH LATER beneath a blue-black sky, dry-mouthed, the rasping sigh of Jamie’s breath in my ear. I had been dreaming; one of those pointless dreams of uneasy repetition, that fades at once with the waking but leaves a nasty taste in mouth and mind. Needing both water and relief of my bladder, I squirmed carefully out from under Jamie’s arm, and slid out from between the blankets. He stirred and groaned slightly, snuffling in his sleep, but didn’t wake.

I paused to lay a hand lightly on his forehead. Cool, no fever. Perhaps he was right, then—just a bad cold. I stood up, reluctant to leave the warm sanctuary of our nest, but knowing I couldn’t wait until morning.

The songs were stilled, the fire smaller now, but still burning, kept up by the sentry on duty. It was Murdo Lindsay; I could see the white fur of his possum-skin cap, perched atop what looked like a huddled pile of clothing and blankets. The anonymous Glaswegian crouched on the other side of the clearing, musket on his knees; he nodded to me, face shadowed by the brim of his slouch hat. The white cap turned in my direction too, at the sound of my step. I sketched a wave, and Murdo nodded toward me, then turned back toward the wood.

The men lay in a shrouded circle, buried in their blankets. I felt a sudden qualm as I walked between them. With the spell of night and dreams still on me, I shivered at sight of the silent forms, lying so still, side by side. Just so had they laid the bodies at Amiens. At Preston. Still and shrouded, side by side, faces covered and anonymous. War seldom looks on the faces of its dead.

And why should I wake from love’s embrace, thinking of war and the sleeping ranks of dead men? I wondered, stepping lightly past the shrouded line of bodies. Well, that was simple enough, given our errand. We were headed for battle—if not now, then soon enough.

One blanket-wrapped form grunted, coughed, and turned over, face invisible, indistinguishable from the others. The movement startled me, but then one big foot thrust free of the blanket, revealing Evan Lindsay’s twine-wrapped shoe. I felt the anxious burden of imagination ease, with this evidence of life, of individuality.

It’s the anonymity of war that makes the killing possible. When the nameless dead are named again on tombstone and on cenotaph, then they regain the identity they lost as soldiers, and take their place in grief and memory, the ghosts of sons and lovers. Perhaps this journey would end in peace. The conflict that was coming, though . . . the world would hear of that, and I stepped past the last of the sleeping men, as though walking through an evil dream not fully waked from.

I picked up a canteen from the ground near the saddlebags and drank deep. The water was piercingly cold, and my somber thoughts began to dissipate, washed away by the sweet, clean taste of it. I paused, gasping from the coldness, and wiped my mouth.

Best take some back to Jamie; if he wasn’t wakened by my absence, he would be by my return, and I knew his mouth would be dry as well, since he was completely unable to breathe through his nose at the moment. I slung the strap of the canteen over my shoulder and stepped into the shelter of the wood.

It was cold under the trees, but the air was still and crystal clear. The shadows that had seemed sinister viewed from the fireside were oddly reassuring, seen from the shelter of the wood. Turned away from the fire’s glow and crackle, my eyes and ears began to adapt to the dark. I heard the rustle of something small in the dried grass nearby, and the unexpected distant hooting of an owl.

Finished, I stood still for a few minutes, enjoying the momentary solitude. It was very cold, but very peaceful. Jamie had been right, I thought; whatever might or might not have been here earlier, the wood held nothing inimical now.

As though my thought of him had summoned him, I heard a cautious footfall, and the slow, wheezing rasp of his breath. He coughed, a muffled, strangled noise that I didn’t like at all.

“Here I am,” I said softly. “How’s the chest?”

The cough choked off in a sudden wheeze of panic, and there was a crunch and flurry among the leaves. I saw Murdo start up by the fire, musket in hand, and then a dark shape darted past me.

“Hoy!” I said, startled rather than frightened. The shape stumbled, and by reflex, I swung the canteen off my shoulder and whirled it by the strap. It struck the figure in the back with a hollow thunk! and whoever it was—certainly not Jamie—fell to his knees, coughing.

There followed a short period of chaos, with men exploding out of their blankets like startled jack-in-the-boxes, incoherent shouting, and general mayhem. The Glaswegian leaped over several struggling bodies and charged into the wood, musket over his head, bellowing. Barreling into the darkness, he charged the first shape he saw, which happened to be me. I went flying headlong into the leaves, where I ended inelegantly sprawled and windless, the Glaswegian kneeling on my stomach.

I must have given a sufficiently feminine grunt as I fell, for he paused, narrowly checking himself as he was about to club me in the head.

“Eh?” He put down his free hand and felt cautiously. Feeling what was unmistakably a breast, he jerked back as though burned, and slowly edged off me.

“Err . . . hmm!” he said.

“Whoof,” I replied, as cordially as possible. The stars were spinning overhead, shining brightly through the leafless branches. The Glaswegian disappeared, with a small Scottish noise of embarrassment. There was a lot of shouting and crashing, off to my left, but I hadn’t attention for anything at the moment bar getting my wind back.

By the time I made it back onto my feet, the intruder had been captured and dragged into the light of the fire.

Had he not been coughing when I hit him, he likely would have gotten away. As it was, though, he was hacking and wheezing so badly that he could barely stand upright, and his face was dark with the effort to snatch a breath in passing. The veins on his forehead stood out like worms, and he made an eerie whistling noise as he breathed—or tried to.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Jamie demanded hoarsely, then paused to cough in sympathy.

This was a purely rhetorical question, since the boy plainly couldn’t talk. It was Josiah Beardsley, my potential tonsillectomy patient, and whatever he’d been doing since the Gathering, it hadn’t improved his health to any marked extent.

I hurried to the fire, where the coffeepot sat in the embers. I seized it in a fold of my shawl and shook it. Good, there was some left, and since it had been brewing since supper, it would be strong as Hades.

“Sit him down, loosen his clothes, bring me cold water!” I shoved my way into the circle of men around the captive, forcing them aside with the hot coffeepot.

Within a moment or two, I had a mug of strong coffee at his lips, black and tarry, diluted with no more than a splash of cold water to keep it from burning his mouth.

“Breathe out slowly to the count of four, breathe in to the count of two, breathe out and take a drink,” I said. The whites of his eyes showed all round the iris, and spittle had collected at the corners of his mouth. I put a firm hand on his shoulder though, urging him to breathe, to count, to breathe—and the desperate straining eased a little.

One sip, one breath, one sip, one breath, and by the time the coffee was all inside him, his face had faded from its alarming crimson hue to something more approximating fish belly, with a couple of faint reddish marks where the men had hit him. The air still whistled in his lungs, but he was breathing, which was a substantial improvement.

The men stood about murmuring and watching with interest, but it was cold, it was late, and as the excitement of the capture faded, they began to droop and yawn. It was, after all, only a lad, and a scrawny, ill-favored one at that. They departed willingly enough to their blankets when Jamie dispatched them, leaving Jamie and me to attend to our unexpected guest.

I had him swaddled in spare blankets, larded with camphorated bear grease, and provided with another cup of coffee in his hands, before I would let Jamie question him. The boy seemed deeply embarrassed at my attentions, shoulders hunched and eyes on the ground, but I didn’t know whether he was simply unused to being fussed over, or whether it was the looming presence of Jamie, arms crossed, that discomfited him.

He was small for fourteen, and thin to the point of emaciation; I could have counted his ribs when I opened his shirt to listen to his heart. No beauty otherwise; his black hair had been chopped short, and stood on his head in matted spikes, thick with dirt, grease, and sweat, and his general aspect was that of a flea-ridden monkey, eyes large and black in a face pinched with worry and suspicion.

At last having done all I could, I was satisfied with the look of him. At my nod, Jamie lowered himself to the ground beside the boy.

“So, Mr. Beardsley,” he said pleasantly. “Have ye come to join our troop of militia, then?”

“Ah . . . no.” Josiah rolled the wooden cup between his hands, not looking up. “I . . . uh . . . my business chanced to take me this way, that’s all.” He spoke so hoarsely that I winced in sympathy, imagining the soreness of his inflamed throat.

“I see.” Jamie’s voice was low and friendly. “So ye saw our fire by chance, and thought to come and seek shelter and a meal?”