Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 132

   

“Is thee afraid of me, Rachel?” he whispered.

“I am,” she whispered back, and closed her hand on his wounded shoulder, lightly but hard enough for him to feel the hurt of it. “And I am afraid for thee, as well. But there are things I fear much more than death—and to be without thee is what I fear most.”

RACHEL REMADE the bed by candlelight and left the candle burning for a bit, saying that she wanted to read, to settle her mind. Ian had nodded, kissed her, and curled up like a dog beside her—the bedstead was too short for him. She glanced at the corner where Rollo slept; he was stretched out straight as a knife, head between his paws.

Ian put a hand on her leg and sank into sleep. She could see him doing it, his face going slack and peaceful, the muscles of his shoulders easing. It was why she’d kept the candle lit, so she might watch him sleep for a little and let the sight of him bring her peace, as well.

She’d put on her shift, feeling obscurely exposed, and though it was hot enough to lie above the sheet, she’d pulled it over her legs, too, wanting to be able to feel Ian when she moved in her sleep. She moved a leg toward him now, slowly, and felt the touch of his knee against her calf. His long lashes cast shadows on his cheeks in the candlelight, just above the looping line of his tattoos.

“Thee is my wolf,” she’d said to him. “And if thee hunts at night, thee will come home.”

“And sleep at thy feet,” he’d replied.

She sighed, but felt better, and opened her Bible, to read a psalm before blowing out the candle, only to discover that she had absently picked up Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, from the bedside table. She gave a small snort of amusement and, all sense of distress now driven from her mind, closed the book, put out the candle, and snuggled down beside her sleeping wolf.

Sometime much later, in the empty hours before dawn, she opened her eyes. Not asleep, but certainly not awake, she had a sense of perfect consciousness without thought. And a distinct and vivid sense that she was not alone.

Ian was beside her; his breath touched her face, but she felt quite apart from him. It was only when it happened again that she realized what had wakened her: a tiny, sharp pain in her belly. Like the pain that sometimes came when she started her monthly, but smaller, less an ache than a . . . stab. A stab of awareness.

She blinked and put her hands over her stomach. The rafters were just barely visible overhead, shadowed with the distant coming of the light.

The pain had stopped, but the sense of . . . company? Of presence, rather. That hadn’t gone away. It seemed very odd and completely natural—and of course it was, she thought. Natural as the beating of her own heart and the breath in her lungs.

She had a faint impulse to wake Ian, but that passed almost at once. She wanted to keep this for now, be alone with the knowledge—but not alone, she corrected herself, and sank peacefully back to sleep, hands still crossed over her lively womb.

IAN USUALLY WOKE before her, but she always felt him stir and would rise to the edge of wakefulness to enjoy his sleepy warm smell, the small male sounds he made, and the feel of his legs brushing hers as he swung them out of bed and sat up. He’d sit there on the edge for a moment, rubbing his hands through his hair and getting his bearings on the day, and if she cracked her eyes open, she could see his long, lovely back just in front of her, columnar muscles tanned by the sun and sloping gently down to his neat, tight bu**ocks, white as milk in contrast.

Sometimes he would emit a small, popping fart and look guiltily over his shoulder. She’d shut her eyes instantly and pretend to be still asleep, thinking that she must be completely besotted to find this adorable—but she did.

This morning, though, he sat up, rubbed a hand through his hair, and stiffened. She opened her eyes all the way, instantly alarmed by something in his posture.

“Ian?” she whispered, but he didn’t attend.

“A Dhia,” he said, very softly. “Ah, no, a charaid . . .”

She knew at once. Should have known from the instant she woke. Because Rollo woke when Ian did, stretching and yawning with a groaning creak of jaw muscles and a lazy thump of tail against the wall, before coming to poke a cold nose into his master’s hand.

This morning there was only stillness, and the curled form of what used to be Rollo.

Ian rose and went to him swiftly, knelt on the floor beside the body of his dog, and laid a gentle hand on the big furry head. He didn’t say anything, or weep, but she heard the sound he made when he breathed, as of something tearing in his chest.

She got out of bed and came to Ian, kneeling beside him, arm about his waist, and she was weeping, quite without meaning to.

“Mo chù,” Ian said, running his hand lightly over the soft, thick fur. “Mo chuilean.” There was a catch in his voice when he said, “Beannachd leat, a charaid.” Goodbye, old friend.

Then he sat back on his heels, took a deep breath, and clasped Rachel’s hand very hard. “He waited, I think. Until he kent ye were here for me.” He swallowed audibly, and his voice was steady when he spoke again.

“I’ll need to bury him. I ken a place, but it’s some way. I’ll be back by midafternoon, though.”

“I’ll come with thee.” Her nose was running. She reached for the towel by the ewer and blew her nose on one end.

“Ye needn’t, mo ghràidh,” he said gently, and passed a hand over her hair to smooth it. “It’s a long way.”

She drew breath and stood up.

“Then we’d best get started.” She touched her husband on the shoulder, as lightly as he’d touched Rollo’s fur. “I married him, as well as thee.”

A-HUNTING WE WILL GO

September 15, 1778

First Watchung Mountain

THERE WAS A NEAT mound of droppings by the path, dark and glistening as coffee beans and much the same size. William was leading his mare, owing to her stoutness and the steep nature of the trail, so took the opportunity to stop for a moment and let her breathe. This she did, with an explosive snort and a shake of her mane.

He squatted and scooped up a few of the pellets, sniffing. Very fresh, though not warm, and with the faint oaky tang that meant the deer had been browsing on green acorns. Glancing to his left, he saw the broken brush that marked the animal’s passage, and his hand twitched, wanting to wrap itself round his rifle. He could leave the mare tethered . . .

“What about it, owd lass?” he asked the mare, in the accents of the Lake District, where he’d grown up. “Would ’ee carry a carcass, if I shot ’un?”

The mare was maybe fourteen, old enough to be steady; in fact, it would be hard to imagine a steadier mount. She was more like riding a sofa than a horse, with her broad back and sides curved like a hogshead of beer. But he hadn’t thought to ask, when he bought her, whether she was used to hunting. Steadiness of gait and a mild temper didn’t necessarily mean she’d be fine if he heaved a deer across her back, leaking blood. Still . . .

He lifted his face to the breeze. Perfect. It was straight across the mountainside, toward him, and he imagined he could actually smell the—

Something moved in the wood, snapping twigs, and he heard the unmistakable rustling: the sound of a large herbivorous creature, wrenching mouthfuls of leaves off a tree.

Before he could think twice, he’d got to his feet, slipped the rifle from its sheath as silently as he could, and shucked his boots. Soft-footed as a ferret, he slid into the brush . . .

And, five minutes later, grasped the thrashing stubby antlers of a yearling buck with one hand as he slit the deer’s throat with the other, the sound of his shot still echoing off the rocky escarpment above him.

It had happened so fast, it scarcely seemed real, despite the warm-cold feel of the blood soaking into his stockings and the thick smell of it. There was a tick hanging just under the deer’s glazing eye, round as a tiny muscat grape. Would it let go at once, he wondered? Or would there be enough blood left for it to go on feeding for some time?

The deer shuddered violently, shoving its antlers hard into his chest, bunched its legs convulsively as though about to make one final leap, and died.

He held it for a few moments, the shredded velvet still on the antlers like rough suede under his sweating palm, the weight of the coarse-haired shoulders growing heavy on his knee.

“Thank you,” he whispered, and let go. He remembered that it had been Mac the groom who’d told him that you always thanked a creature that gave you its life—and that it had been James Fraser, some years later, who had killed a huge wapiti in front of him and spoken what he said was a “gralloch prayer” in Gaelic before butchering the beast. But with the deer’s blood on his skin and the breeze moving in the wood around him, for once he didn’t push those memories away.

He went to check the mare, who was fortunately close to where he’d left her, having merely moved a few yards in order to crop weeds, and who looked at him with tranquil eyes, yellow wildflowers dangling from the corners of her mouth, as though gunshots and the smell of blood were commonplace in her life. Perhaps they were, he thought, and slapped her shoulder companionably.

Here’s for you, Ben, he thought a few minutes later, slitting the belly skin. His cousin, nearly six years older than himself, had taken him hunting now and then in the forest near Earlingden, with Viscount Almerding, a friend of Ben’s whose preserve it was.

He’d tried not to think of his cousin too much as he’d made his preparations. The greater part of him truly believed that Ben was dead. Gaol fever, according to what Richardson had told his uncle. Not an unusual thing to happen to a prisoner, by any means. And while he was convinced—reluctantly, for it made him burn with shame to have been such a flat as to have been gulled by the man—that Richardson was probably a villain, that didn’t necessarily mean that every word from the man’s mouth was a lie. Granted, he’d found no other trace of Ben in several weeks of searching.

But there was the small part of his heart that wouldn’t give up. And a larger part that would do anything he could to ease the grief of his uncle and father, whatever the truth might prove to be.

“And if you bloody come down to it, what the hell else is there for me to do?” he muttered, reaching into the steaming heat of the body and groping for the heart.

At least he’d be welcome when he walked into Middlebrook Encampment, as they called it. A man bearing fresh meat was always welcome.

A half hour later, he’d gutted the carcass and wrapped his canvas bed sack around it to keep off flies. The horse flared her nostrils and snorted in disgust at the smell, but made no great objection when he wrestled it onto her back.

It was late in the afternoon, but this late in the summer it would stay light for some time. Better, he thought, to make his first approach at suppertime. Chances were good that he’d be invited to sit down with someone, and conversation was much easier over food and drink.

He’d gone up to the rocky summit in order to survey the terrain and had to admit that Washington and his engineers had chosen well. From the top of First Watchung Mountain, which he was standing on, the plains before New Brunswick lay clear below. The Continentals could easily keep a beady eye on the British army from their aerie and swoop down to interfere with their movements—and had.

The armies were gone now, though: both of them. The British to New York, Washington’s troops to . . . well, wherever they might be at the moment. They weren’t here, and that was all to the good. But there were people, still, who lived near the encampment.

Ben had been—was, he corrected himself fiercely—an officer; an infantry captain, like himself. And captured officers were often billeted upon local householders, under parole. That was the place to begin his inquiries.

“Come on, then, lass,” he said to the mare, untying the reins from the sapling he’d wrapped them round. “Let’s go and make ourselves welcome.”

INTO THE BRIAR PATCH

September 16, 1778

Philadelphia

WE’D JUST FINISHED supper and I was wiping Henri-Christian’s face with the hem of my apron, when a knock came at the alley door. Jenny, sitting next to me with Félicité on her lap, gave me a quick glance, brows raised. Was this cause for alarm?

I hadn’t time to shrug or shake my head; all conversation had ceased on the instant, the children’s chatter quelled as though someone had dropped a candle snuffer over them. It was first dark and the door was bolted. Fergus and Jamie exchanged looks and, without a word, both of them rose.

Jamie stood to one side, hand on his dirk—I hadn’t realized until this moment that he wore it all the time now, even at table. I heard the shuffle of feet in the alley. There was more than one man out there, and the hair stirred on my nape. Jamie stood relaxed but watchful, weight on his back foot, ready as Fergus lifted the bar.

“Bonsoir,” Fergus said calmly, with an interrogative lift at the end of the phrase. A face hovered pale in the dark, not close enough to recognize.

“Bonsoir, Monsieur Fraser.” I blinked in surprise; I knew the voice, but had never heard Benedict Arnold speak French. But of course he could, I thought, recovering. He’d led more than one campaign in Quebec. It was a soldier’s French he spoke: rough but serviceable.

“Madame Fraser est ici, monsieur?” he said. “Votre mère?”

Fergus glanced reflexively over his shoulder at Jenny, astonished. I coughed and eased Henri-Christian off my lap, smoothing his rumpled hair.

“I rather think the governor means me,” I said. The governor turned aside and murmured something to his aide, who nodded and retired into the shadows.

“Mrs. Fraser,” Arnold said, sounding relieved. Fergus stood aside, and the governor came in, bowing to Marsali and Jenny, nodding to Jamie, before fixing his attention on me. “Yes, I do mean you, ma’am. I beg pardon for my untimely intrusion, sir,” he added, turning to Fergus. “I wasn’t sure where Mrs. Fraser was residing and was obliged to make inquiries.”

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