Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 112

   

“Flimsy sort of jewel,” his host said, with a shrug. “And t’old woman said she wouldn’t have it in t’house, all those numbers might be to do with magic, aye? Her not holdin’ with sorcery and t’like.”

The old woman in question was possibly twenty-five, Roger thought, a tiny, dark-eyed creature like a vole, who—summoned to provide tea—sized them up with a shrewd glance and proceeded to sell them a small, flabby-looking cheese, four turnips, and a large raisin tart, at an extortionate price. But the price included her own observations on her husband’s transaction—well worth it, so far as Roger was concerned.

“That ornament—strange thing, no?” she said, narrowing her eyes at the pocket where Roger had replaced it. “Man what sold it to Anthony said he’d had it from a hairy man, one of them as lives on the wall.”

“Which wall would this be, missus?” Buck asked, draining his cup and holding it out for more. She gave him a look from her bead-bright eyes, obviously thinking him a simpleton, but they were paying customers, after all. . . .

“Why, the Roman one, to be sure,” she said. “They say the old king o’ the Romes put it up, so as to keep the Scots from coming into England.” The thought made her grin, small teeth gleaming. “As though anybody’d want to be a-going there in t’first place!”

Further questions elicited nothing more; Mrs. Cumberpatch had no idea what was meant by “a hairy man”; that was what the man said, and she hadn’t wondered about it. Declining an offer from Mr. Cumberpatch for his knife, Roger and Buck took their leave, the food wrapped in the bed sack. But as they did so, Roger saw a pottery dish containing a tangle of chains and tarnished bracelets, and a stray gleam of rainy light struck a tiny red glow.

It must have been Cumberpatch’s description of the disks as a jewel—a common way to refer to a pendant ornament—that had made his mind sensitive. He stopped and, stirring the dish with a forefinger, drew out a small pendant, blackened, cracked, and with a broken chain—it looked as though it had been in a fire—but set with a fairly large garnet, caked with grime but faceted.

“How much for this?” he said.

IT WAS DARK by four o’clock, and long cold nights to be sleeping out of doors, but Roger’s sense of urgency drove them on, and they found themselves benighted on a lonely road, with nothing but a wind-gnarled Caledonian pine for shelter. Starting a fire with tinder and damp pine needles was no joke, but after all, Roger reflected, grimly bashing steel and flint for the hundredth time—and his finger for the twentieth—they had nothing but time.

Buck had, with a forethought born of painful experience, brought a sack of peats, and after a quarter hour of frantic blowing on sparks and thrusting grass-stems and pine needles into the infant flame, they succeeded in getting two of these miserable objects to burn with sufficient heat as to roast—or at least sear—the turnips and warm their fingers, if not the rest of them.

There hadn’t been any conversation since they’d left the Cumberpatch establishment: impossible to talk with the cold wind whistling past their ears as they rode, and no breath with which to do it during the struggle with fire and food.

“What’ll you do if we find him?” Buck asked suddenly, mid-turnip. “If J. W. MacKenzie really is your father, I mean.”

“I’ve speg”—Roger’s throat was clogged from the cold and he coughed and spat, resuming hoarsely—“spent the last three days wondering that, and the answer is, I don’t know.”

Buck grunted and unwrapped the raisin tart from the bed sack, divided it carefully, and handed Roger half.

It wasn’t bad, though Mrs. Cumberpatch couldn’t be said to have a light hand with pastry.

“Filling,” Roger remarked, thriftily dabbing crumbs off his coat and eating them. “D’ye not want to go, then?”

Buck shook his head. “Nay, I canna think of anything better to do. As ye say—it’s the only clue there is, even if it doesna seem to have aught to do with the wee lad.”

“Mmphm. And there’s the one good thing—we can head straight south to the wall; we needn’t waste time looking for the man Cumberpatch got the disks from.”

“Aye,” Buck said dubiously. “And then what? Walk the length of it, askin’ after a hairy man? How many o’ those do ye think there might be? Nay great shortage of hair in Scotland, I mean.”

“If we have to,” Roger said shortly. “But if J. W. MacKenzie—and not just his identity disks—was anywhere in the neighborhood, I’m thinking he would have caused a good bit of talk.”

“Mmphm. And how long’s this wall, d’ye know?”

“I do, yes. Or, rather,” Roger corrected, “I know how long it was when it was built: eighty Roman miles. A Roman mile being just slightly shorter than an English one. No idea how much of it’s still there now, though. Most of it, likely.”

Buck grimaced. “Well, say we can walk fifteen, twenty miles in a day—the walkin’ will be easy, if it’s along a bloody wall—that’s only four days to cover the lot. Though . . .” A thought struck him and he frowned, pushing his damp forelock back. “That’s if we could walk from end to end. If we hit it midway, though, what then? We might cover half and find nothing, and then have to go all the way back to where we started.” He looked accusingly at Roger.

Roger rubbed a hand over his face. It was coming on to rain, and the mizzle was misting on his skin.

“I’ll think about it tomorrow, aye?” he said. “We’ll have plenty of time to make plans on our way.” He reached for the canvas bed sack, shook out a limp turnip frond and ate it, then pulled the sack over his head and shoulders. “Want to join me under this, or are ye for bed?”

“Nay, I’m all right.” Buck pulled his slouch hat lower and sat hunched, toes as close to the remnants of the fire as he could get.

Roger drew his knees up and tucked in the ends of the bed sack. The rain made a gentle pittering on the canvas, and in the fatigue of exhaustion and cold, but with the comfort of a full stomach, he allowed himself the further comfort of imagining Bree. He did this only at night but looked forward to it with a greater anticipation than he did supper.

He envisioned her in his arms, sitting between his knees, her head lying back on his shoulder, snug under the canvas with him and her soft hair span-gled with raindrops that caught the faint light of the fire. Warm, solid, breathing against his chest, his heart slowing to beat with hers . . .

“I wonder what I’d say to my own father,” Buck said suddenly. “Had I ever kent him, I mean.” He blinked at Roger from under the shadowed brim of his hat. “Did yours—does he, I mean—know about you?”

Roger suppressed his annoyance at being disturbed in his fantasy, but answered shortly. “Yes. I was born before he disappeared.”

“Oh.” Buck rocked back a little, looking meditative, but said no more. Roger found, though, that the interruption had made his wife vanish. He concentrated, trying to bring her back, imagining her in the kitchen at Lallybroch, the steam of cooking rising up around her, making wisps of red hair curl round her face and moisture gleam on the long straight bridge of her nose . . .

What he was hearing, though, was her arguing with him about whether he should tell Buck the truth of his begetting.

“Don’t you think he has a right to know?” she’d said. “Wouldn’t you want to know something like that?”

“Actually, I don’t think I would,” he’d said at the time. But now . . .

“Do you know who your father was?” Roger asked suddenly. The question had been in his mind for months, he unsure whether he had any right to ask it.

Buck gave him a baffled, faintly hostile glance.

“What the devil d’ye mean by that? Of course I do—or did. He’s dead now.” His face twisted suddenly, realizing. “Or—”

“Or maybe he’s not, since ye’re not born yet. Aye, it gets to ye after a bit, doesn’t it?”

Apparently, it had just gotten to Buck. He stood up abruptly and stalked off. He stayed gone for a good ten minutes, giving Roger time to regret saying anything. But at last Buck came out of the dark and sat down again by the smoldering peat. He sat with his knees pulled up, arms locked round them.

“What did ye mean by that?” he asked abruptly. “Did I ken my father, and that.”

Roger took in a deep breath of damp grass, pine needles, and peat smoke. “I mean ye werena born to the house ye grew up in. Did ye ken that?”

Buck looked wary and slightly bewildered. “Aye,” he said slowly. “Or— not kent it straight out, I mean. My parents didna have any bairns besides me, so I thought there was maybe—well, I thought I was likely a bastard born to my father’s sister. She died, they said, about the time I was born, and she wasna marrit, so . . .” He shrugged, one-shouldered. “So, no.” He turned his head and looked at Roger, expressionless. “How d’ye come to know, yourself?”

“Brianna’s mother.” He felt a sharp, sudden longing for Claire and was surprised at it. “She was a traveler. But she was at Leoch, about that time. And she told us what happened.” He had the hollow-bellied feel of one about to jump off a precipice into water of unknown depth, but there was no way to stop now.

“Your father was Dougal MacKenzie of Castle Leoch—war chieftain of the clan MacKenzie. And your mother was a witch named Geillis.”

Buck’s face was absolutely blank, the faint firelight shimmering on the broad cheekbones that were his father’s legacy. Roger wanted suddenly to go and take the man in his arms, smooth the hair back from his face, comfort him like a child—like the child he could so plainly see in those wide, stunned green eyes. Instead, he got up and went off into the night, giving his four-times great-grandfather what privacy he could in which to deal with the news.

IT HADN’T HURT. Roger woke coughing, and drops of moisture rolled tickling down his temples, dislodged by the motion. He was sleeping under the empty canvas bed sack rather than on it, valuing its water-resilience more than its potential comfort when stuffed with grass, but he hadn’t been able to bear having it over his head.

He put a hand cautiously to his throat, feeling the thickened line of the rope scar cutting across the lower swell of his larynx. He rolled over, lifted himself on one elbow, and cleared his throat experimentally. It didn’t hurt this time, either.

“Do you know what a hyoid bone is?” He did; as a result of a number of medical consultations about his damaged voice, he understood the anatomy of his throat quite well. And thus had known what Dr. McEwan meant; his own hyoid was placed slightly higher and farther back than the usual, a fortunate circumstance that had saved his life when he was hanged, as the crushing of that wee bone would have suffocated him.

Had he been dreaming of McEwan? Or of being hanged? Yes, that. He’d had dreams like that often in the months afterward, though they’d grown less frequent in later years. But he remembered looking up through the lacy branches of the tree, seeing—in the dream—the rope tied to the branch above him, and the desperate struggle to scream a protest through the gag in his mouth. Then the ineluctable sliding under him as the horse he sat on was led away . . . but this time it hadn’t hurt. His feet had struck the ground and he waked—but waked without the choking or the burning, stabbing sensations that left him gasping and gritting his teeth.

He glanced across; yes, Buck was still there, huddled up under the ragged plaid he’d bought from Cumberpatch. Wise purchase.

He lay back down on his side, hauling the canvas up to shield his face while still allowing him to breathe. He’d admit to a feeling of relief at seeing Buck; he’d half-expected the man to decamp and head straight back to Castle Leoch after hearing the truth about his own family. Though, in justice to Buck, he wasn’t a sneak. If he’d made up his mind to do that, he’d likely say so—after punching Roger in the nose for not telling him sooner.

As it was, he’d been there, staring into the ashes of the fire when Roger came back. He hadn’t looked up, and Roger hadn’t said anything to him but had sat down and taken out needle and thread to mend a rip in the seam of his coat.

After a bit, though, Buck had stirred himself.

“Why wait to tell me now?” he’d asked quietly. His voice held no particular note of accusation. “Why not tell me while we were still near Leoch and Cranesmuir?”

“I hadn’t made up my mind to tell ye at all,” Roger had said bluntly. “It was just thinking about—well, about what we’re doing and what might happen. I thought of a sudden that maybe ye should know. And . . .” He hesitated for a moment. “I didn’t plan it, but it’s maybe better so. Ye’ll have time to think, maybe, whether ye want to find your parents before we go back.”

Buck had merely grunted in reply to that and said no more. But it wasn’t Buck’s response that was occupying Roger’s mind at the moment.

It hadn’t hurt when he’d cleared his throat while talking to Buck, though he hadn’t noticed consciously at the time.

McEwan—was it what he’d done, his touch? Roger wished he’d been able to see whether McEwan’s hand shed blue light when he’d touched Roger’s damaged throat.

And what about that light? He thought that Claire had mentioned something like it once—oh, yes, describing how Master Raymond had healed her, following the miscarriage she’d had in Paris. Seeing her bones glow blue inside her body was how she’d put it, he thought.

Now, that was a staggering thought—was it a familial trait, common to time travelers? He yawned hugely and swallowed once more, experimentally. No pain.

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