Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 105

   

“Thee is awake, I see,” she said softly, her eyes searching his face. “But still much fevered, from the heat of thy skin. How does thee feel?”

“Better for seein’ ye, lass.” He tried to lick his dry lips. “Is there maybe water?”

She made a small sound of distress that he’d had to ask, and hurried to bring a cup to his lips. It was perhaps the best thing he’d ever tasted, made better by her holding his head in her hand as he drank—he was very dizzy. He didn’t want to stop, but she took the cup away.

“More presently,” she promised. “Thee must not drink too much, too fast, or thee will vomit. And between the dirt and the blood, thee has made enough mess already,” she said, smiling.

“Mmphm,” he said, lying back. He was mostly clean, he discovered. Someone had washed away the last of the deer fat and paint, and a good deal of sweat and blood with it. His shoulder was bound up with a poultice of some kind; it smelled tangy and familiar, but his hazy mind was a long way yet from allowing him to think of the name of the herb.

“Did Auntie Claire bind my arm?” he asked. Rachel glanced at him, her brows furrowing.

“Thy aunt is ill,” she said carefully. “Thee remembers I told thee that she was wounded—shot—in the battle?”

“No,” he said, feeling blank and confused. He had no recollection of the last couple of days or of battle. “No. What—is she all right, then?”

“Denny removed the ball, and thy uncle Jamie is with her. Both of them say very firmly that she will be well.” Her mouth twitched a bit, halfway between a smile and worry. He did his best to smile back.

“Then she’ll be fine,” he said. “Uncle Jamie’s a verra stubborn man. Can I have more water?”

This time he drank more slowly and got more down before she took it away. There was a regular clanging noise somewhere; for a time he had taken it for some phantom of hearing left over from the dreams, but now it ceased for a moment, punctuated by a loud curse.

“What—where are we?” he asked, beginning to be able to look at things again. His wavering sight convinced him that he was indeed in a tiny cow byre; it was new hay he’d been smelling, and the warm scent of fresh cow dung. He was lying on a blanket spread over a mound of hay, but the cow was absent for the moment.

“A place called Freehold. The battle was fought nearby; Washington and the army have withdrawn to Englishtown, but a good many wounded soldiers have been given refuge by the inhabitants here. We currently enjoy the hospitality of the local smith, a gentleman named Heughan.”

“Oh.” The forge. That was the source of the clanging and cursing. He closed his eyes; that helped with the dizziness, but he could see shadows of his dreams on the inside of his eyelids and opened them again. Rachel was still there; that was good.

“Who won the battle?” he asked.

She shrugged, impatient. “So far as anyone has said anything sensible about it, no one. The Americans are cock-a-hoop at not having been defeated, to be sure—but the British army surely wasn’t, either. All I care about is thee. And thee will be fine,” she said, and laid her hand gently on his forehead. “I say so. And I am as stubborn as any Scot thee cares to name—including thyself.”

“I need to tell ye something, lass.” He hadn’t meant to say that, but the words felt familiar in his mouth, as though he’d said them before.

“Something different?” She had been turning away but paused now, looking wary.

“Different? Did I tell ye things while I was . . .” He tried to wave a hand in illustration, but even his good arm was heavy as lead.

Rachel caught her upper lip between her teeth, regarding him.

“Who is Geillis?” she asked abruptly. “And what in the name of—of goodness did she do to thee?”

He blinked, startled and yet relieved to hear the name. Yes, that was what he’d been dreaming—oh, Jesus. The relief departed at once.

“What did I say?” he asked warily.

“If thee doesn’t recall it, I don’t wish to bring it back to thee.” She knelt down by him, skirts rustling.

“I remember what happened—I just want to ken what I said about it.”

“What happened,” she repeated slowly, watching his face. “In thy dreams, thee means? Or—” She broke off, and he saw her throat move as she swallowed.

“Likely both, lass,” he said softly, and managed to reach for her hand. “I spoke of Geillis Abernathy, though?”

“Thee only said ‘Geillis,’” she said, and covered his hand with both of hers, holding fast. “Thee was afraid. And thee called out in pain—but of course thee was in pain, so . . . but then . . . it—whatever thee saw, it—”

Color rose slowly up her neck and washed her face, and with a slight relapse into the dream, he saw her for an instant as an orchid with a dusky throat into which he could plunge his—He cut that vision off and found that he was breathing fast.

“It seemed that thee experienced something other than pain,” she said, frowning.

“Aye, I did,” he said, and swallowed. “Can I have a bit more water?”

She gave it to him, but with a fixed look indicating that she didn’t mean to be distracted from his story by his physical needs.

He sighed and lay back again. “It was a long time agone, a nighean, and nothing to fash about now. I was taken—kidnapped—for a brief time, when I was maybe fourteen or so. I stayed wi’ a woman named Geillis Abernathy, on Jamaica, until my uncle found me. It wasna very pleasant, but I wasna damaged, either.”

Rachel raised an elegant brow. He loved to watch her do that, but sometimes more than others.

“There were other lads there,” he said, “and they were not so lucky.” For a long time afterward, he’d been afraid to close his eyes at night, because he saw their faces. But they’d faded away, little by little—and now he felt a spasm of guilt because he’d let them go into darkness.

“Ian,” Rachel said softly, and her hand stroked his cheek. He felt the rasp of his beard stubble as she touched him, and a pleasant gooseflesh ran down his jaw and shoulder. “Thee needn’t speak of it. I would not bring it back to thee.”

“It’s all right,” he said, and swallowed a little easier. “I’ll tell ye—but later. It’s an old story, and one ye dinna need to hear just now. But—” He stopped short and she raised the other brow.

“But what I do have to tell ye, lass . . .” And he told her. Much of the previous two days’ events was still a blur, but he recalled vividly the two Abenaki who had hunted him. And what he’d finally done, in the British camp.

She was silent for so long that he began to wonder whether he’d really waked and had this conversation or was still dreaming.

“Rachel?” he said, shifting uneasily on his bed of prickly hay. The door of the byre was open and there was light enough, but he couldn’t read her face at all. Her gaze rested on his own face, though, hazel-eyed and distant, as though she were looking through him. He was afraid she was.

He could hear Heughan the smith outside, walking to and fro and making clanking sounds, pausing to apostrophize some uncooperative implement in coarse terms. He could hear his own heart beating, too, an uncomfortable, jerky thump.

Finally a shiver went over Rachel, as though she shook herself awake, and she put a hand on his forehead, smoothing back his hair as she looked into his eyes, her own now soft and fathomless. Her thumb came down and traced the tattooed line across his cheekbones, very slowly.

“I think we can’t wait any longer to be married, Ian,” she said softly. “I will not have thee face such things alone. These are bad times, and we must be together.”

He closed his eyes and all the air went out of him. When he drew breath again, it tasted of peace.

“When?” he whispered.

“As soon as thee can walk without help,” she said, and kissed him, lightly as a falling leaf.

THE HOUSE ON CHESTNUT STREET

THE HOUSE WAS occupied; there was smoke drifting from the west chimney. The door was locked, though, and bolted to boot.

“I wonder what happened to the old door?” John said to Hal, trying the knob again, just in case. “It used to be green.”

“If you knock on this one, you might conceivably get someone to come out and tell you,” Hal suggested. They weren’t in uniform, but Hal was noticeably on edge, and had been since their call on General Arnold.

The general had been understandably reserved, but civil, and after reading Fraser’s letter over three or four times, had agreed to give them passes to remain in the city and to make such inquiries as they saw fit.

“With the understanding,” Arnold had said, a flash of his reputed arrogance showing through the façade of governorship, “that if I hear of anything untoward, I’ll have you both arrested and ridden out of the city on a rail.”

“On a what?” Hal had said incredulously, he having not encountered this peculiarly American method of making guests feel unwelcome.

“A rail,” Arnold had repeated, smiling genially. “Long piece of wood? Used for fences, I believe?”

Hal had turned to John, one eyebrow raised, as though inviting him to translate the speech of some Hottentot randomly encountered. John sighed internally, but did so.

“An undesirable person is mounted on the object in question,” he said, “straddling it. Whereupon a party of men lift either end and set off through the streets with it, decanting the rider outside the city. I believe tar and feathers are sometimes applied as a preliminary gesture, though the physical effects of the rail are generally presumed to be sufficient.”

“Flatten your ball sac like a horse stepped on it,” Arnold said, still smiling. “Won’t do your arse any good, either.”

“I should imagine not,” Hal said politely. His color was somewhat higher than usual, but he gave no other indication of offense, which Grey thought a reasonable indication—not that he needed one—of the importance of their mission to Hal.

The sound of the bolt grating free interrupted his recollection. The door swung open, revealing his housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Figg, fowling piece in hand.

“Lord John!” she exclaimed, dropping the gun with a clatter.

“Well, yes,” he said, stepping in and picking it up. He smiled, feeling affection well up in his bosom at sight of her—substantial, tidy, and beribboned as always. “It’s very good to see you again, Mrs. Figg. Allow me to make you acquainted with my brother, the—”

“We’ve met,” Hal said, a wry edge to his voice. “How do you do, madam?”

“Better than Your Grace, by the looks of you,” Mrs. Figg replied, narrowing her eyes at him. “Still breathing, though, I see.” She sounded as though this was not entirely a desirable state of affairs, but Hal smiled broadly at her.

“Did you manage to bury the silver in time?” he asked.

“Certainly,” she replied with dignity, and, turning to John, asked, “You come to get it, my lord? I can have it dug up right smart.”

“Perhaps not just yet,” John said. He looked round, noting the missing banister railing on the upper landing, the smudged and pockmarked wall by the staircase, and—“What’s happened to the chandelier?”

Mrs. Figg sighed and shook her head darkly.

“That’d be Master William,” she said. “How is he, my lord?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Mrs. Figg. I was in some hopes that he might have been here—but I gather not?”

She looked disturbed at this.

“No, sir. We’ve not seen him since—well, since the day you went away yourself.” She looked hard at him, taking in everything from the cropped hair to the fading bruises and the undistinguished suit, shook her head and sighed, but then straightened her broad shoulders, determined to be cheerful. “And glad we are to see you, sir! And Your Grace,” she added as a definite afterthought. “Go sit yourselves down and I’ll have you up a nice cup of tea in two minutes.”

“You have tea?” Hal said, brightening.

“We buried the tea chest first thing,” she informed him. “But I just brought in a brick for Miss Dottie, so—”

“Dottie’s here?”

“To be sure,” said Mrs. Figg, pleased to be the bearer of good news. “I’ll just step out to the kitchen and fetch her.”

This proved to be unnecessary, as the sound of the back door opening betokened Dottie’s entrance, carrying an apronful of lumpy objects. These proved to be vegetable marrows from the kitchen garden, which cascaded over the floor in a bouncing flood of green and yellow as she let go the apron in order to leap at her father and embrace him.

“Papa!”

For an instant, Hal’s face changed entirely, soft with love, and Grey was surprised and disconcerted to feel tears come to his own eyes. He turned away, blinking, and wandered over to the sideboard, meaning to give them a private moment.

The silver tea service was gone, of course, but his Meissen porcelain plates were in their accustomed spots on the plate rail. He touched the cool gilt-ribboned border of one, feeling oddly disembodied. And his place shall know him no more.

But Dottie was talking now to both of them; Grey turned round to her, smiling.

“I’m so glad you’re both safe and both here!” Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes sparkling—and Grey’s heart misgave him at the knowledge that this state of happiness would be quenched within the next minute, as soon as Hal told her the reason for their presence. Before any such doom could fall, though, Dottie had seized the reins of the conversation and driven it off in another direction entirely.

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