The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 70

   

“I did, aye.” He swallowed, with evident difficulty.

“Mmphm. But ye came earlier, no? You were in the wood just after sundown. Why wait ’til past moonrise to make yourself known?”

“I didn’t . . . I wasn’t . . .”

“Oh, indeed ye were.” Jamie’s voice was still friendly, but firm. He put out a hand and grasped Josiah’s shirtfront, forcing the boy to look at him.

“Look ye, man. There’s a bargain between us. You’re my tenant; it’s agreed. That means you’ve a right to my protection. It means also that I’ve a right to hear the truth.”

Josiah looked back, and while there was fear and wariness in the look, there was also a sense of self-possession that seemed far older than fourteen. He made no effort to look away, and there was a look of deep calculation in the clever black eyes.

This child—if one could regard him as a child; plainly Jamie didn’t—was used to relying on himself alone.

“I said to you, sir, that I would come to your place by the New Year, and so I mean to. What I do in the meantime is my own affair.”

Jamie’s brows shot up, but he nodded slowly, and released his grip.

“True enough. You’ll admit, though, that one might be curious.”

The boy opened his mouth as though to speak, but changed his mind and buried his nose instead in his cup of coffee.

Jamie tried again.

“May we offer you help in your business? Will ye travel a ways with us, at least?”

Josiah shook his head.

“No. I am obliged to you, sir, but the business is best managed by myself alone.”

Roger had not gone to sleep, but sat a little behind Jamie, watching silently. He leaned forward now, green eyes intent on the boy.

“This business of yours,” he said. “It’s not by any means connected with that mark on your thumb?”

The cup hit the ground and coffee splashed up, spattering my face and bodice. The boy was out of his blankets and halfway across the clearing before I could blink my eyes to see what was happening—and by then, Jamie was up and after him. The boy had circled the fire; Jamie leaped over it. They disappeared into the wood like fox and hound, leaving Roger and myself gaping after them.

For the second time that night, men erupted from their bedrolls, grabbing for their guns. I began to think the Governor would be pleased with his militia; they were certainly ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.

“What in hell . . . ?” I said to Roger, wiping coffee from my eyebrows.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it so suddenly,” he said.

“Wha? Wha? What’s amiss, then?” bellowed Murdo Lindsay, glaring round as he swept his musket barrel past the shadowed trees.

“Are we attacked? Where’s the bastards?” Kenny popped up on hands and knees beside me, peering out from under the band of his knitted cap like a toad beneath a watering pot.

“Nobody. Nothing’s happened. I mean—it’s really quite all right!”

My efforts to calm and explain went largely unnoticed in the racket. Roger, however, being much larger and much louder, succeeded at last in quelling the disturbance and explaining matters—so far as they could be explained. What did a lad more or less matter? With considerable grumbling, the men settled down once more, leaving Roger and me staring at each other over the coffeepot.

“What was it, then?” I asked, a little testily.

“The mark? I’m pretty sure it was the letter ‘T’—I saw it when you made him take the coffee and he wrapped his hand round the cup.”

My stomach tightened. I knew what that meant; I’d seen it before.

“Thief,” Roger said, eyes on my face. “He’s been branded.”

“Yes,” I said unhappily. “Oh, dear.”

“Would the folk on the Ridge not accept him, if they knew?” Roger asked.

“I doubt most of them would be much bothered,” I said. “It’s not that; it’s that he ran when you mentioned it. He isn’t just a convicted thief—I’m afraid he may be a fugitive. And Jamie called him, at the Gathering.”

“Ah.” Roger scratched absently at his whiskers. “Earbsachd. Jamie will feel obliged to him in some way, then?”

“Something like that.”

Roger was a Scot, and—technically, at least—a Highlander. But he had been born long after the death of the clans, and neither history nor heritage could ever have taught him the strength of the ancient bonds between laird and tenant, between chief and clansman. Most likely, Josiah himself had no idea of the importance of the earbsachd—of what had been promised and accepted on both sides. Jamie had.

“Do you think Jamie will catch him?” Roger asked.

“I expect he already has. He can’t be tracking the boy in the dark, and if he’d lost him, he would have come back already.”

There were other possibilities—that Jamie had fallen over a precipice in the dark, tripped on a stone and broken his leg, or met with a catamount or a bear, for instance—but I preferred not to dwell on those.

I stood up, stretching my cramped limbs, and looked into the woods, where Jamie and his prey had disappeared. Josiah might be a good woodsman and hunter; Jamie had been one much longer. Josiah was small, quick, and impelled by fear; Jamie had a considerable advantage in size, strength, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Roger stood up beside me. His lean face was slightly troubled, as he peered into the encircling trees.

“It’s taking a long time. If he’s caught the lad, what’s he doing with him?”

“Extracting the truth from him, I imagine,” I said. I bit my lip at the thought. “Jamie doesn’t like being lied to.”

Roger looked down at me, mildly startled.

“How?”

I shrugged.

“However he can.” I’d seen him do it by reason, by guile, with charm, with threats—and on occasion, by means of brute force. I hoped he hadn’t had to use force—though more for his sake than Josiah’s.

“I see,” Roger said quietly. “Well, then.”

The coffeepot was empty; I bundled my cloak round me and went down to the stream to rinse and fill it, hung it to brew once more above the fire, and sat down to wait.

“You should go to sleep,” I said to Roger, after a few minutes. He merely smiled at me, wiped his nose, and hunched deeper into his cloak.

“So should you,” he said.

There was no wind, but it was very late, and the cold had settled well into the hollow, lying damp and heavy on the ground. The men’s blankets had grown limp with condensation, and I could feel the dense chill of the ground seeping through the folds of my skirt. I thought about retrieving my breeches, but couldn’t muster the energy to search for them. The excitement of Josiah’s appearance and escape had faded, and the lethargy of cold and fatigue was setting in.

Roger poked up the fire a bit, and added a few small chunks of wood. I tucked another fold of skirt beneath my thighs and pulled cloak and shawl close around me, burying my hands in the folds of fabric. The coffeepot hung steaming, the hiss of occasional droplets falling into the fire punctuating the phlegm-filled snores of the sleeping men.

I wasn’t seeing the blanket-rolled shapes, though, or hearing the sough of dark pines. I heard the crackle of dried leaves in a Scottish oak wood, in the hills above Carryarrick. We had camped there, two days before Prestonpans, with thirty men from Lallybroch—on our way to join Charles Stuart’s army. And a young boy had come suddenly out of the dark; a knife had glinted in the light of a fire.

A different place, a different time. I shook myself, trying to dispel the sudden memories: a thin white face and a boy’s eyes huge with shock and pain. The blade of a dirk, darkening and glowing in the embers of the fire. The smell of gunpowder, sweat, and burning flesh.

“I mean to shoot you,” he had told John Grey. “Head, or heart?” By threat, by guile—by brute force.

That was then; this was now, I told myself. But Jamie would do what he thought he must.

Roger sat quietly, watching the dancing flames and the wood beyond. His eyes were hooded, and I wondered what he was thinking.

“D’you worry for him?” he asked softly, not looking at me.

“What, now? Or ever?” I smiled, though without much humor. “If I did, I’d never rest.”

He turned his head toward me, and a faint smile touched his lips.

“You’re resting now, are you?”

I smiled again, a real one in spite of myself.

“I’m not pacing to and fro,” I answered. “Nor yet wringing my hands.”

One dark eyebrow flicked up.

“Might help keep them warm.”

One of the men stirred, muttering in his wrappings, and we ceased talking for a moment. The coffeepot was boiling; I could hear the soft rumble of the liquid inside.

Whatever could be keeping him? He couldn’t be taking all this time to question Josiah Beardsley—he would either have gotten what answers he required in short order, or he would have let the boy go. No matter what the boy had stolen, it was no concern of Jamie’s—save for the promise of the earbsachd.

The flames were mildly hypnotic; I could look into the wavering glow and see in memory the great fire of the Gathering, the figures dark around it, and the sound of distant fiddles. . . .

“Should I go to look for him?” Roger asked suddenly, low-voiced.

I jerked, startled out of sleepy hypnosis. I rubbed a hand over my face and shook my head to clear it.

“No. It’s dangerous to go into strange woods in the dark, and you couldn’t find him anyway. If he isn’t back by the morning—that will be time enough.”

As the moments wore slowly on, I began to think that the dawn might come before Jamie did. I was worried for Jamie—but there was in fact nothing that could be done before the morning. Disquieting thoughts tried to push their way in; did Josiah have a knife? Surely he did. But even if the boy was desperate enough to use it, could he possibly take Jamie by surprise? I pushed aside these anxious speculations, trying to occupy my mind instead with counting the number of coughs from the men around the fire.

Number eight was Roger; a deep, loose cough that shook his shoulders. Was he worried for Bree and Jemmy? I wondered. Or did he wonder whether Bree worried about him? I could have told him that, but it wouldn’t have helped him to know. Men fighting—or preparing to fight—needed the idea of home as a place of utter safety; the conviction that all was well there kept them in good heart and on their feet, marching, enduring. Other things would make them fight, but fighting is such a small part of warfare. . . .

A damned important part, Sassenach, said Jamie’s voice in the back of my head.

I began at last to nod off, waking repeatedly as my head jerked sharply on my neck. The last time, it was the feel of hands on my shoulders that wakened me, but only briefly. Roger eased me to the ground, wadding half my shawl beneath my head for a pillow, tucking the rest of it snug about my shoulders. I caught a brief glimpse of him in silhouette against the fire, black and bearlike in his cloak, and then I knew no more.

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