Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 39

   

“Here I am, Mummy,” said a small voice behind her. Convinced she was hallucinating, she lifted a restraining hand toward the police officers and pivoted slowly round. Jem was standing on the drive six feet away, dripping wet, plastered with dead leaves, and swaying like a drunk.

Then she was sitting splay-legged on the gravel, a child clutched in each arm, trying hard not to shake, so they wouldn’t notice. She didn’t start to sob, though, until Jemmy lifted a tearstained face from her shoulder and said, “Where’s Daddy?”

THE SHINE OF A ROCKING HORSE’S EYES

FRASER DIDN’T ASK BUT poured them each a dram of whisky, warm-smelling and smoke-tinged. There was something comfortable in drinking whisky in company, no matter how bad the whisky. Or the company, for that matter. This particular bottle was something special, and Roger was grateful, both to the bottle and its giver, for the sense of comfort that rose from the glass, beckoning him, a genie from the bottle.

“Slàinte,” he said, lifting the glass, and saw Fraser glance at him in sudden interest. Lord, what had he said? “Slàinte” was one of the words that had a distinct pronunciation, depending on where you came from—men from Harris and Lewis said “Slàn-ya,” while far north it was more like “Slànj.” He’d used the form he’d grown up with in Inverness; was it strikingly wrong for where he’d said he came from? He didn’t want Fraser to think him a liar.

“What is it ye do for yourself, a chompanaich?” Fraser asked, having taken a sip, closing his eyes in momentary respect to the drink, then opening them to regard Roger with a kind curiosity—tinged perhaps with a little wariness, lest his visitor be unhinged. “I’m accustomed to know a man’s work at once by his dress and manner—not that ye find many folk truly unusual up here.” He smiled a bit at that. “And drovers, tinkers, and gypsies dinna take much effort to descry. Clearly you’re none of those.”

“I have a bit of land,” Roger replied. It was an expected question; he was ready with an answer—but found himself longing to say more. To tell the truth—so far as he himself understood it.

“I’ve left my wife wi’ the running of things whilst I came to search for our lad. Beyond that—” He lifted one shoulder briefly. “I was trained as a minister.”

“Oh, aye?” Fraser leaned back, surveying him with interest. “I could see ye’re an educated man. I was thinkin’ maybe a schoolmaster or a clerk—perhaps a lawyer.”

“I’ve been both schoolmaster and clerk,” Roger said, smiling. “Havena quite risen—or fallen, maybe—to the practice of law yet.”

“And a good thing, too.” Fraser sipped, half-smiling.

Roger shrugged. “Law’s a corrupt power but one acceptable to men by reason of having arisen from men—it’s a way of getting on wi’ things, is the best ye can say for it.”

“And not a mean thing to say for it, either,” Fraser agreed. “The law’s a necessary evil—we canna be doing without it—but do ye not think it a poor substitute for conscience? Speakin’ as a minister, I mean?”

“Well . . . aye. I do,” Roger said, somewhat surprised. “It would be best for men to deal decently with one another in accordance with—well, with God’s principles, if ye’ll pardon my putting it that way. But what are ye to do, first, if ye have men to whom God is of no account, and, second, if ye have men—and you do, always—who own no power greater than their own?”

Fraser nodded, interested.

“Aye, well, it’s true that the best conscience willna avail a man who willna mind it. But what d’ye do when conscience speaks differently to men of goodwill?”

“As in political disputes, you mean? Supporters of the Stuarts versus those of the . . . the House of Hanover?” It was a reckless thing to say, but it might help him to figure out when he was, and he meant to say nothing that might make it look as though he had a personal stake on either side.

Fraser’s face underwent a surprising flow of expression, from being taken aback to mild distate, this then ending in a look of half-amused ruefulness.

“Like that,” he agreed. “I fought for the House of Stuart in my youth, and while I’d not say that conscience didna come into it, it didna come very far onto the field wi’ me.” His mouth quirked at the corner, and Roger felt again the tiny plop! of a stone tossed into his depths, the ripples of recognition spreading through him. Jamie did that. Brianna didn’t. Jem did.

He couldn’t stop to think about it, though; the conversation was teetering delicately on the precipice of an invitation to political disclosure, and that, he couldn’t do.

“Was it Sheriffmuir?” he asked, making no effort to disguise his interest.

“It was,” Fraser said, openly surprised. He eyed Roger dubiously. “Ye canna have gone yourself, surely . . . did your faither maybe tell ye?”

“No,” said Roger, with the momentary twinge that thought of his father always brought. In fact, Fraser was only a few years older than himself, but he knew the other man doubtless took him for a decade younger than he was.

“I . . . heard a song about it. ’Twas two shepherds met on a hillside, talking about the great fight—and arguing who’d won it.”

That made Fraser laugh.

“Well they might! We were arguing that before we finished pickin’ up the wounded.” He took a sip of whisky and washed it meditatively round his mouth, clearly reminiscing. “So, then, how does the song go?”

Roger breathed deep, ready to sing, and then remembered. Fraser had seen his rope scar and been tactful enough not to remark on it, but no need to make the damage obvious. Instead, he chanted the first few lines, tapping his fingers on the desk, echoing the rhythm of the big bodhran that was the song’s only accompaniment.

“O cam ye here the fight to shun,

Or herd the sheep wi’ me, man?

Or were ye at the Sherra-moor,

Or did the battle see, man?”

I saw the battle, sair and teugh,

And reekin-red ran mony a sheugh;

My heart, for fear, gaed sough for sough,

To hear the thuds, and see the cluds

O’ clans frae woods, in tartan duds,

Wha glaum’d at kingdoms three, man.

It went better than he’d thought; the song really was more chanted than sung, and he managed the whole of it with no more than the odd choke or cough. Fraser was rapt, glass forgotten in his hand.

“Oh, that’s braw, man!” Fraser exclaimed. “Though yon poet’s got the devil of an accent. Where’s he come from, d’ye ken?”

“Er . . . Ayrshire, I think.”

Fraser shook his head in admiration and sat back.

“Could ye maybe write it down for me?” he asked, almost shyly. “I wouldna put ye to the trouble of singin’ it again, but I’d dearly love to learn the whole of it.”

“I—sure,” Roger said, taken aback. Well, what harm could it do to let Robert Burns’s poem loose in the world some years in advance of Burns himself? “Ken anyone who can play a bodhran? It’s best wi’ the drum rattlin’ in the background.” He tapped his fingers in illustration.

“Oh, aye.” Fraser was rustling about in the drawer of his desk; he came out with several sheets of foolscap, most with writing on them. Frowning, he flicked through the papers, picked one, and pulled it from the sheaf, placing it facedown in front of Roger, offering him the blank back side.

There were goose quills, rather tattered from use but well trimmed, in a jar on the desk, and a brass inkstand, which Fraser offered him with a generous sweep of one broad hand.

“My son’s friend plays well—he’s gone for a soldier, though, more’s the pity.” A shadow crossed Fraser’s face.

“Ach.” Roger clicked his tongue in sympathy; he was trying to make out the writing that showed faintly through the sheet. “Joined a Highland regiment, did he?”

“No,” Fraser said, sounding a little startled. Christ, were there Highland regiments yet? “He’s gone to France as a mercenary soldier. Better pay, fewer floggings than the army, he tells his da.”

Roger’s heart lifted; yes! It was a letter or maybe a journal entry—whatever it was, there was a date on it: 17 . . . was that a 3? Had to be, couldn’t be an 8. 173 . . . it might be a 9 or a 0, couldn’t tell for sure through the paper—no, it had to be a 9, so 1739. He breathed a sigh of relief. Something October, 1739.

“Probably safer,” he said, only half attending to the conversation as he began to scratch out the lines. It was some time since he’d written with a quill, and he was awkward.

“Safer?”

“Aye,” he said, “from the point of view of disease, mostly. Most men that die in the army die of some sickness, ken. Comes from the crowding, having to live in barracks, eat army rations. I’d think mercenaries might have a bit more freedom.”

Fraser muttered something about “freedom to starve,” but it was half under his breath. He was tapping his own fingers on the desk, trying to catch the rhythm as Roger wrote. He was surprisingly rather good; by the time the song was finished, he was singing it softly in a pleasant low tenor and had the drumming down pretty well.

Roger’s mind was divided between the task in front of him and the feel of the letter under his hand. The feel of the paper and the look of the ink reminded him vividly of the wooden box, filled with Jamie’s and Claire’s letters. He had to stop himself from glancing at the shelf where it would be kept when this room was his.

They’d been rationing the letters, reading them slowly—but when Jem was taken, all bets were off. They’d rushed through the whole of the box, looking for any mention of Jem, any indication that he might have escaped from Cameron and found his way to the safety of his grandparents. Not a word about Jem. Not one.

They’d been so distraught that they’d scarcely noticed anything else the letters said, but occasional phrases and images floated up in his mind, quite randomly—some of them distinctly disturbing—Brianna’s uncle Ian had died—but scarcely noticeable at the time.

They weren’t anything he wanted to think about now, either.

“Will your son be studying the law, then, in Paris?” Roger asked abruptly. He picked up the fresh dram Brian had poured for him and took a sip.

“Aye, well, he’d maybe make a decent lawyer,” Fraser admitted. “He could argue ye into the ground, I’ll say that for him. But I think he hasna got the patience for law or politics.” He smiled suddenly. “Jamie sees at once what he thinks should be done and canna understand why anyone else should think otherwise. And he’d rather pound someone than persuade them, if it comes to that.”

Roger laughed ruefully.

“I understand the urge,” he said.

“Oh, indeed.” Fraser nodded, leaning back a little in his chair. “And I’ll no say as that’s not a necessary thing to do on occasion. Especially in the Highlands.” He grimaced but not without humor.

“So, then. Why do ye think this Cameron has stolen your lad?” Fraser asked bluntly.

Roger wasn’t surprised. As well as they’d been getting on together, he’d known Fraser had to be wondering just how much Roger was telling and how truthful he was. Well, he’d been ready for that question—and the answer was at least a version of the truth.

“We lived for a time in America,” he said, and felt a pang with the saying of it. For an instant, their snug cabin on the Ridge was around him, Brianna asleep with her hair loose on the pillow beside him and the children’s breath a sweet fog above them.

“America!” Fraser exclaimed in astonishment. “Where, then?”

“The colony of North Carolina. A good place,” Roger hastened to add, “but not without its dangers.”

“Name me one that is,” Fraser said, but waved that aside. “And these dangers made ye come back?”

Roger shook his head, a tightness in his throat at the memory.

“No, it was our wee lass—Mandy, Amanda, she’s called. She was born with a thing wrong with her heart, and there was no physician there who could treat it. So we came . . . back, and while we were in Scotland, my wife inherited some land, and so we stayed. But . . .” He hesitated, thinking how to put the rest, but knowing what he did of Fraser’s antecedents and his history with the MacKenzies of Leoch, the man probably wouldn’t be overly disturbed at his story.

“My wife’s father,” he said carefully, “is a good man—a very good man—but the sort who . . . draws attention. A leader of men, and one that other men . . . Well, he told me once that his own father had said to him that, since he was a large man, other men would try him—and they do.”

He watched Brian Fraser’s face carefully at this, but, beyond the twitch of an eyebrow, there was no apparent response.

“I’ll not go into all the history of it”—since it hasn’t happened yet—“but the long and the short of it is that my father-in-law was left in possession of a large sum in gold. He doesna regard it as his own property but as something held in trust. Still, there it is. And while it’s been kept secret so far as possible . . .”

Fraser made a sympathetic sound, acknowledging the difficulties of secrecy in such conditions.

“So this Cameron learned of the treasure, did he? And thought to extort it from your father-in-law by taking the bairn captive?” Fraser’s dark brow lowered at the thought.

“That may be in his mind. But beyond that—my son kens where the gold is hidden. He was with his grandfather when it was put away safe. Only the two of them ken the whereabouts—but Cameron learned that my son knew the place.”

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