Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 75

   

Leading Woodsworth aside, he acquainted him with the change of commander for the morning, but assured him that this would make no real difference to the militia companies under Jamie’s command; they would receive their orders in the normal way.

He thought privately that it wouldn’t make a difference in how the companies operated—it might well make a difference as to whether they met battle on the morrow or not, and whether they survived if they did—but there was no telling whether the better odds lay with La Fayette or Lee. Chances were that sheer accident, Fate, or, just possibly, God, would decide.

“Now, sir,” he said. “Ye wished to speak wi’ me?”

“Oh.” Woodsworth inhaled through his nose and straightened himself, hastily retrieving the words of whatever speech he’d composed. “Yes, sir. I wished to inquire after the—er—the disposition made of Bertram Armstrong.”

“Bertram . . . what?”

“The man you took from my—er, from the lines earlier today, with the little boy.”

Jamie didn’t know whether to laugh or be annoyed. Bertram?

“The man is well enough disposed for the present, sir. My wife’s seen to his eye, and he’s been fed.”

“Oh.” Woodsworth shuffled his feet, but stood his ground. “I’m glad of that, sir. But what I meant—I am concerned for him. There is talk about him.”

“I’m sure there is,” Jamie said, not bothering to hide the edge in his voice. “And what is your concern, sir?”

“They are saying—the men from Dunning’s company—that Armstrong is a government spy, that he is a British officer who concealed himself among us. That they found a commission upon him, and correspondence. I—” He paused and gulped breath, the next words coming out in a rush. “I cannot believe it of him, sir, nor can any of us. We feel that some mistake must have been made, and we—we wish to say that we hope nothing . . . hasty will be done.”

“No one has suggested anything of the sort, Captain,” Jamie assured him, alarm running down his spine like quicksilver. Only because they haven’t had time. He’d been able to ignore the thorny problem Grey presented as a prisoner, in the fierce rush of preparation and the fiercer rush of his own feelings, but he couldn’t ignore it much longer. He should have notified La Fayette, Lee, and Washington of Grey’s presence immediately, but had gambled on the confusion of imminent battle to disguise his delay.

His eyes had grown used to the scattered light of stars and fire; he could see Woodsworth’s long face, apologetic but determined.

“Yes. I hesitate to speak so frankly, sir, but the sorry fact is that when men’s passions run high, regrettable actions—irretrievable actions—may be taken.” Woodsworth swallowed audibly. “I should not like to see that.”

“Ye think someone might see fit to take such action? Now?” He glanced round at the encircling fires. He could see bodies moving, restless as the flames, dark shadows in the woods—but he caught no sense of riot, no pulse of anger. A murmur of talk, to be sure, voices raised in excitement, bursts of laughter and even singing, but it was the nervous spirit of anticipation, expectation, not the sullen rumble of a mob.

“I am a clergyman, sir.” Woodsworth’s voice was stronger now, urgent. “I know how men may turn to evil conversation and how quickly such conversation may turn to action. One drink too many, a careless word . . .”

“Aye, ye’re right about that,” Jamie said. He cursed himself for not having thought of this possibility; he’d let his own feelings cloud his mind. Of course, he’d had no idea when he left Grey that he’d been carrying a commission—but that was no excuse. “I’ve sent word to General Lee about . . . Mr. Armstrong. Should ye hear any more talk about the man, ye might let it be known that the matter is in official hands. That might prevent anything . . . regrettably informal happening.”

Woodsworth’s sigh of relief was palpable.

“Yes, sir,” he said, with gratitude. “I shall certainly let that be known.” He stepped aside, bobbing his head, but then stopped, struck by a thought. “Oh.”

“Aye?” Jamie spoke impatiently; he felt assailed from all sides by swarms of tiny, stinging troubles, and was inclined to swat this one.

“I trust you will forgive my persistence, General. But I just thought—the boy who was with Armstrong. Bobby Higgins, he’s called.”

All Jamie’s senses were instantly alert.

“What about him?”

“He—I mean Armstrong—the boy said he was in search of his grandfather, and Armstrong said he knew the man—and that his name was James Fraser. . . .”

Jamie shut his eyes. If no one lynched John Grey before dawn, he might throttle the man himself.

“The boy is indeed my grandson, Captain,” he said, as evenly as he could, opening his eyes. Which means, aye, I ken bloody Bert Armstrong. And if that small bit of information became generally known, there were going to be a lot of very awkward questions asked, by people in a position to demand answers. “My wife is caring for him.”

“Oh. Good. I just wished to—”

“To make known your concern. Aye, Captain. I thank ye. Good night.”

Woodsworth bowed and stepped back, murmuring, “Good night,” in his turn, and disappeared into a night that was far from good and getting worse by the moment.

Jamie jerked his coat straight and strode on. Three hundred men to inform and command, to rouse, lead, and control. Three hundred lives in his hands.

Three hundred and bloody one.

MOSQUITOES

JAMIE WALKED INTO the light of the fire quite late, smiled at me, and sat down suddenly.

“Is there food?” he asked.

“There is, sir,” said the woman who was stirring it. “And you’ll have some, too, ma’am,” she added firmly, giving me a look that strongly suggested that I was not looking my very best. I wasn’t disposed to care, but accepted with thanks a wooden bowl of something hot and a chunk of bread to eat it with.

I barely noticed what I ate, though I was ravenous. The day had been so filled with activity that I hadn’t had time to eat—would not have eaten at all, in fact, had I not brought food for John, at which point he insisted that I sit down for ten minutes and eat with him. Percy Beauchamp had not come back; that was something on the plus side of the ledger, I supposed.

There had been a couple of dozen men from Jamie’s companies that I rejected by reason of disfirmity—crippled, asthmatic, collapsed with age—and perhaps three dozen more who were essentially sound but sporting some injury requiring attention, these mostly the result of fistfights or falling down while under the influence of drink. Several of them were still under the influence of drink and had been sent off under guard to sleep it off.

I did wonder for a moment how many men normally went into battle drunk. In all honesty, I’d be strongly tempted to do it myself, were I required to do what these men were about to do.

There was still a tremendous bustle, but the earlier sense of exhilaration had transmuted into something more concentrated, more focused and sober. Preparations were being made in earnest.

I’d finished my own, or hoped I had. A small tent for shelter from the blazing sun, packs of medical supplies, surgical kits, each equipped with a jar of wet sutures, a wad of lint for mopping up blood, and a bottle of dilute alcohol—I’d run out of salt and couldn’t summon the will to badger or beg more from the commissary officer; I’d try to do it in the morning. And the emergency kit that I carried over my shoulder, no matter what.

I sat close to the fire, but despite that and in spite of the warmth of the night itself, I began to feel chilled and heavy, as though I were slowly ossifying, and only then realized how tired I was. The camp hadn’t gone to sleep entirely—there was still talk around the fires, and the occasional rasp of a scythe or a sword being sharpened, but the volume had dropped. The atmosphere had settled with the sinking of the moon, even those souls most excited at the prospect of imminent battle succumbing to sleep.

“Come and lie down,” I said softly to Jamie, and rose from my seat with a muffled groan. “It won’t be for long, but you need some rest—and so do I.”

“Aye, all right, but I canna be under canvas,” he said, low-voiced, following me. “I feel half smothered; couldna breathe in a tent.”

“Well, plenty of room outside,” I said, nobly suppressing a twinge at the thought of sleeping on the ground. Fetching a couple of blankets, I followed him, yawning, a little way along the riverbank, until we found a private spot behind the scrim of willows that dragged their leaves in the water.

In fact, it was surprisingly comfortable; there was a thick growth of springy grass on which to spread the blankets, and, so close to the water, the air was at least moving, cool on my skin. I shucked out of my petticoats and took my stays completely off, with a blissful shiver of relief as the coolness stirred gently through my damp shift.

Jamie had stripped to his shirt and was rubbing his face and legs with mosquito ointment, the presence of hordes of these insects accounting for the lack of company near the water. I sat down beside him and helped myself to a small scoop of the mint-smelling grease. Mosquitoes seldom bit me, but that didn’t stop them whining past my ears and poking inquisitively into my mouth and nostrils, which I found disconcerting in the extreme.

I lay back, watching as he finished his more thorough anointing. I could feel the distant approach of morning, but longed all the more for whatever brief oblivion I could get before the sun rose and all hell broke loose.

Jamie closed the tin and stretched out beside me with a low groan, black leaf shadows trembling over the paleness of his shirt. I rolled toward him just as he rolled toward me, and we met with a blind and groping kiss, smiling against each other’s mouth, wriggling and squirming to find a good way of lying together. Warm as it was, I wanted to be touching him.

He wanted to be touching me, too.

“Really?” I said, astonished. “How can you possibly—you’ve been up for hours!”

“No, only the last minute or two,” he assured me. “I’m sorry, Sassenach. I ken ye’re tired and I wouldna ask—but I’m desperate.” He let go of my bottom long enough to pull up his shirt, and I rather resignedly started disentangling my shift from my legs.

“I dinna mind if ye fall asleep while I’m about my business,” he said in my ear, feeling his way one-handed. “I willna take long about it. I just—”

“The mosquitoes will bite your arse,” I said, wiggling my own arse into a better position and opening my legs. “Hadn’t I best put some—oh!”

“Oh?” he said, sounding pleased. “Well, it’s all right if ye want to stay awake, of course . . .”

I pinched his buttock, hard, and he gave a small yelp, laughed, and licked my ear. The fit was a bit dry, and he fumbled for the tin of mosquito ointment.

“Are you sure—” I began dubiously. “Oh!” He was already applying the half-liquid ointment, with more enthusiasm than dexterity, but the fact of his enthusiasm was more arousing than skill might have been. Having a small amount of oil of peppermint vigorously applied to one’s private parts was a rather novel sensation, too.

“Make that noise again,” he said, breathing heavily in my ear. “I like it.”

He was right; it didn’t take long. He lay half on and half off me, panting, his heart beating slow and hard against my breast. I had my legs wrapped round him—I could feel the flutter of tiny insects on my ankles and bare feet as they swarmed, avid for his unprotected bare flesh—and didn’t mean to let him go. I squeezed him close, rocking gently, slippery and tingling and . . . I didn’t take long, either. My quivering legs relaxed, releasing him.

“Shall I tell you something?” I said, after a bit of mint-scented heavy breathing. “The mosquitoes won’t bite your cock.”

“I dinna mind if they carry me off to their lair to feed to their bairns,” he murmured. “Come here, Sassenach.”

I pushed damp hair out of my face and settled contentedly in the hollow of his shoulder, his arm around me. By now, I had reached that sense of accommodation with the humid atmosphere in which I stopped trying to keep track of my own body’s boundaries and simply melted into sleep.

I slept without dreaming and without moving, until a touch of cramp in my left foot roused me enough to shift a little. Jamie raised his arm a bit, then replaced it as I settled again, and I became aware that he wasn’t asleep.

“You . . . all right?” I murmured, thick-tongued with drowsiness.

“Aye, fine,” he whispered, and his hand smoothed the hair from my cheek. “Go back to sleep, Sassenach. I’ll wake ye when it’s time.”

My mouth was sticky, and it took a moment to locate any words.

“You need to sleep, too.”

“No,” he said, soft but definite. “No, I dinna mean to sleep. So close to the battle . . . I have dreams. I’ve had them the last three nights, and they get worse.”

My own arm was lying across his midsection; at this, I reached up involuntarily, putting my hand over his heart. I knew he’d dreamed—and I had a very good idea what he’d dreamed about, from the things he’d said in his sleep. And the way he’d wakened, trembling. “They get worse.”

“Shh,” he said, and bent his head to kiss my hair. “Dinna fash, a nighean. I want only to lie here wi’ you in my arms, to keep ye safe and watch ye sleep. I can rise then with a clear mind . . . and go to do what must be done.”

WAR PAINT

“NESSUN DORMA.” None shall sleep. It was a song—an aria, Brianna had called it—from an opera she knew; she’d played a part in it at her university, dressed up in Chinese robes. Ian smiled at thought of his cousin, taller than most men, striding up and down on a stage, swishing her silk robes about her; he wished he’d seen that.

Loading...