“Should we . . . move?” Germain asked doubtfully.
“Nay, see how big it is first,” Ian said, fingering the long knife at his belt. He was wearing a breechclout, and his bare legs were long and steady as a heron’s, standing mid-calf in the muddy water.
The four of them watched with great concentration as the ripple came on, paused, came on a little more, slowly.
“Are they stunned by light, Ian?” Jamie asked, low-voiced. Frogs were; they had maybe two dozen bullfrogs in their sack, surprised in the water and killed before they kent what hit them.
“I dinna think so,” Ian whispered back. “I’ve not hunted one before, though.”
There was a sudden gleam in the water, a scatter of ripples, and the glow of two small burning orbs, a demon’s eyes.
“A Dhia!” Jamie said, making a convulsive sign against evil. Fergus pulled Germain back farther, making a clumsy sign of the cross with his hook. Even Ian seemed taken back a bit; his hand fell from his knife and he stepped back toward the mud, not taking his eyes off the thing.
“It’s a wee one, I think,” he said, reaching safety. “See, its eyes are nay bigger than my thumbnail.”
“Does that matter, if it’s possessed?” Fergus asked, suspicious. “Even if we were to kill it, we might be poisoned.”
“Oh, I dinna think so,” Jamie said. He could see it now as it hung motionless in the water, stubby clawed feet halfway drawn up. It was perhaps two feet long—the toothy jaw maybe six inches. It could give you a nasty bite, nay more. But it wasn’t close enough to reach.
“Ken what a wolf’s eyes look like in the dark? Or a possum’s?” He’d taken Fergus hunting, of course, when he was young, but seldom at night—and such things as you’d hunt at night in the Highlands were usually running from you, not looking at you.
Ian nodded, not taking his eyes off the small reptile.
“Aye, that’s true. Wolves’ eyes are usually green or yellow, but I’ve seen them red like that sometimes, by torchlight.”
“I would suppose that a wolf could be possessed by an evil spirit as easily as an alligator could,” Fergus said, a little testily. It was clear, though, that he wasn’t afraid of the thing, either, now that he’d got a good look; they were all beginning to relax.
“He thinks we’re stealing his frogs,” Germain said, giggling. He was still holding the spear, and even as he spoke, he spotted something and slammed the three-tined sapling into the water with a whoop.
“I got it, I got it!” he shouted, and splashed into the water, heedless of the alligator. He bent to see that his prey was firmly transfixed, let out another small whoop, and pulled up his spear, displaying a catfish of no mean size, belly showing white in its frantic flapping, blood running in trickles from the holes made by the tines.
“More meat on that than on yon wee lizard there, aye?” Ian took the spear, pulled the fish off, and bashed its head with the hilt of his knife to kill it.
Everyone looked, but the alligator had departed, alarmed by the kerfuffle.
“Aye, that’s us fettled, I think.” Jamie picked up both bags—one half full of bullfrogs, and the other still squirming slightly from the inclusion of a number of shrimp and crayfish netted from the shallows. He held open the one with the frogs for Ian to toss the fish inside, saying a verse from the Hunting Blessing, for Germain: “Thou shalt not eat fallen fish nor fallen flesh/ Nor one bird that thy hand shall not bring down/Be thou thankful for the one/ Though nine should be swimming.”
Germain was not paying attention, though; he was standing quite still, fair hair lifting in the breeze, his head turned.
“Look, Grand-père,” he said, voice urgent. “Look!”
They all looked and saw the ships, far out beyond the marsh but coming in, heading for the small headland to the south. Seven, eight, nine . . . a dozen at least, with red lanterns at their masts, blue ones at the stern. Jamie felt the hair rise on his body and his blood go cold.
“British men-of-war,” Fergus said, his voice empty with shock.
“They are,” Jamie said. “We’d best get home.”
IT WAS ALMOST dawn before I felt Jamie slide into bed behind me, bringing chilled skin and the smell of brine, cold mud, and marsh plants with him. Also . . .
“What’s that smell?” I asked drowsily, kissing the arm he’d put round me.
“Frogs, I expect. God, ye’re warm, Sassenach.” He cuddled closer, pressing his body into mine, and I felt him pull loose the bow of the ribbon that gathered the neck of my shift.
“Good hunting, then?” I obligingly wiggled my bottom into the hollow of his thighs and he sighed in appreciation, his breath warm on my ear, and slipped a cold hand inside my shift. “Ooh.”
“Aye. Germain caught a fine big catfish, and we brought back a sack of crawfish and shrimps—the wee gray ones.”
“Mmm. We’ll have a good supper, then.” His temperature was quickly equalizing with mine, and I was drifting pleasantly back down toward sleep—though quite willing to be roused for the right reasons.
“We saw a wee alligator. And a snake—a water moccasin.”
“You didn’t catch those, I hope.” I knew that snakes and alligators were technically edible, but I didn’t think we were quite hungry enough to make the challenges of cooking one worthwhile.
“No. Oh—and a dozen British ships full of soldiers turned up, too.”
“That’s ni—What?” I flipped over in his arms, ending face-to-face.
“British soldiers,” he repeated gently. “Dinna fash, Sassenach. I expect it will be all right. Fergus and I already hid the press, and we havena got any silver to bury. That’s one thing to be said for poverty,” he added reflectively, stroking my bottom. “Ye dinna need to fear bein’ plundered.”
“That—what the bloody hell are they doing here?” I rolled over and sat straight up in bed, pulling my shift up round my shoulders.
“Well, ye did say Pardloe told ye they meant to cut off the southern colonies, aye? I imagine they decided to start here.”
“Why here? Why not . . . Charleston? Or Norfolk?”
“Well, I couldna say, not being privy to the British councils of war,” he said mildly. “But if I was to guess, I’d say it’s maybe that there are a good many troops already in Florida, and they’ll be marching up to join this new lot. The Loyalists are thick as fleas on a dog all along the coast of the Carolinas; if the army’s secured Florida and Georgia, they’d be well placed to advance northward, picking up local support.”
“You have it all figured out, I see.” I pressed my back against the wall—there was no headboard—and finished retying the ribbon of my shift. I didn’t feel equal to meeting an invasion with my bosom uncovered.
“No,” he admitted. “But there are only two things to do, Sassenach: stay or flee. It’s the dead of winter in the mountains; we canna get through the passes ’til March, and I’d rather not be stravaiging about the countryside with three bairns, two pregnant women, and nay money. And I doubt they’ll burn the city, not if they mean it to be a base for invading the rest of the South.” He reached up and ran a soothing hand down my shoulder and arm. “It’s not as though ye’ve not lived in an occupied city before.”
“Hmm,” I said dubiously, but he did have a point. There were some advantages to the situation, the chief one being that if an army already held a city, they wouldn’t be attacking it: no fighting in the streets. But, then . . . they didn’t hold it yet.
“Dinna fash yourself, lass,” he said softly, and twined a finger in my ribbon. “Did I not tell ye when we wed, ye’d have the protection of my body?”
“You did,” I admitted, and laid a hand over his. It was big, strong, and capable.
“Then come lie wi’ me, mo nighean donn, and let me prove it,” he said, and pulled the ribbon loose.
FROG LEGS OF that size really did look quite like chicken drumsticks. And tasted very like, too, dredged in flour and egg with a little salt and pepper and fried.
“Why is it that the meat of strange animals is so often described as tasting like chicken?” Rachel asked, neatly snaring another leg out from under her husband’s reaching hand. “I’ve heard people say that of everything from catamount to alligator.”
“Because it does,” Ian answered, raising a brow at her and stabbing his fork into a platter of catfish chunks, similarly coated and fried.
“Well, if you want to be technical about it,” I began, to a chorus of mingled groans and laughter. Before I could launch into an explanation of the biochemistry of muscle fiber, though, there was a rap on the door. We had been making so much noise over supper that I hadn’t heard footsteps on the stair and was taken by surprise.
Germain popped up to open the door and gazed up in surprise at two Continental officers, in full uniform.
There was a general scraping of chairs as the men stood up, and Jamie stepped out from behind the table. He’d been working in the warehouse all day, after hunting in the marshes half the night, and was not only barefoot but wearing a badly stained, grimy shirt and a faded plaid so worn that it was thin in spots. Still, no one would have doubted that he was the master of the house. When he inclined his head and said, “Gentlemen? Be welcome,” both officers took off their hats, bowed, and came in, murmuring, “Your servant, sir.”
“General Fraser,” the senior officer said, the title not quite a question, as he eyed Jamie’s attire. “I am Major General Robert Howe.”
I’d never seen Major General Howe before, but I knew his companion, and my hand tightened on the bread knife. He was wearing a colonel’s uniform now, and his face was as blandly forgettable as ever, but I wasn’t likely to forget Captain Ezekiel Richardson—lately a captain in His Majesty’s army, last seen in Clinton’s headquarters in Philadelphia.
“Your humble servant, sir,” Jamie said, in a tone quite belying the usual compliment. “I am James Fraser but no longer an officer in any army. I have resigned my commission.”
“So I understand, sir.” Howe’s rather bulging eyes scanned the table, flicking past Jenny, Rachel, Marsali, and the little girls before settling on me. He gave a small nod of inward conviction and bowed to me. “Mrs. Fraser? I trust I see you well, ma’am.” Obviously, he’d heard the story behind Jamie’s dramatic resignation.
“You do, thank you,” I said. “Do watch out for the crayfish there, Colonel.” For Richardson was standing just in front of the tin tub in which I’d set the crayfish, covered with water and supplied with a few handfuls of cornmeal, with which they’d purge their nasty little entrails over the next twenty-four hours and become safe to eat.
“Your pardon, ma’am,” he said politely, moving aside. Unlike Howe, he was chiefly concerned with the men; I saw his eyes touch for an instant on Fergus’s hook, dismiss him, then rest on Ian, with an air of satisfaction. What Jamie called a cold grue went down my back. I knew already what they wanted; this was a high-level press gang.
Jamie recognized their purpose, too.
“My wife is well, thanks be to God, General. I expect she would like her husband to remain in that condition, too.”
Well, that was fairly blunt. Howe evidently decided there was no point in further civilities and waded in directly.
“Are you aware, sir, that a number of British troops have disembarked just outside the city and doubtless mean to invade and capture it?”
“I am,” Jamie said patiently. “I watched their ships come in last night. As for capturing the city, I think they’re verra well placed to do just that. And if I were you, General—and I thank the Lord that I’m not—I should be gatherin’ my men this minute and marching out of the city wi’ them. Ken the proverb about livin’ to fight another day, do ye? I recommend it as a strategy.”
“Do I understand you aright, sir?” Richardson put in, his tone edgy. “You decline to join in the defense of your own city?”
“Aye, we do,” Ian put in before Jamie could answer. He eyed the visitors in an unfriendly way, and I saw his right hand drop to his side, reaching for Rollo’s head, then his fingers curl up tight, missing it. “It’s no our city and we’re no disposed to die for it.”
I was sitting next to Rachel and felt her shoulders lose a little of their tension. Across the table, Marsali’s eyes slid sideways, meeting Fergus’s, and I saw a moment of silent marital communication and accord. “If they don’t know who we are, don’t tell them.”
Howe, a rather thickset man, opened and closed his mouth several times before finding words.
“I am appalled, sir,” he managed finally, his face quite red. “Appalled,” he repeated, his second chin quivering with outrage—and, I thought, no little desperation. “That a man known for his bravery in battle, his constancy to the cause of freedom, would cravenly submit to the rule of the bloody tyrant!”
“A choice little short of treason,” Richardson put in, nodding severely. I raised my eyebrows at this and stared at him, but he sedulously avoided my eye.
Jamie stood looking at them for a moment, rubbing a forefinger down the bridge of his nose.
“Mr. Howe,” he said at last, dropping his hand. “How many men have ye in your command?”
“Why . . . nearly a thousand!”
“Six hundred,” Richardson said, at the same moment that Howe exclaimed, “Nine hundred, sir!”
“Aye,” said Jamie, clearly unimpressed. “Those transports carry three thousand men, easily—well armed, with artillery—and they’ve an entire Highland regiment wi’ them, too; I heard their pipes as they came ashore.”