He’d thought of her from the moment he’d opened the little deerskin bag that held his paints. She was a painter, Bree, and a good one. She ground her own pigments, and she’d made his red ochre for him, and the black and white from charcoal and dried clay—and made for him, too, a deep green from ground malachite, and a brilliant yellow from the gall of the buffalo she and her mother had killed; no other man had such deep colors to his paint, and he wished for a moment that Eats Turtles and some of his other Mohawk clan brothers could be with him to admire them.
The noise of the distant camp was like the singing of cicadas in the trees near a river: a buzz too loud to think through, but one that went away as you got used to it. None shall sleep . . . The women and children, they might sleep—but the whores surely didn’t. Not tonight.
He felt a twitch at the thought, but dismissed it. Thought of Rachel, and dismissed her, too, but reluctantly.
He opened the willow-bark box of deer fat and anointed his face and chest and shoulders with it, slowly, focusing his mind. Normally he’d speak to the spirits of the earth as he did this, and then to his own particular saints, Michael and Bride. But he wasn’t seeing Michael or Bride; Brianna was still faintly with him, but what he was feeling was a strong sense of his da, which was disconcerting.
It didn’t seem respectful to be dismissing his own father. He stopped what he was doing and closed his eyes instead, waiting to see if maybe Da had a thing to tell him.
“I hope ye’re no bringing me word of my death, aye?” he said aloud. “Because I dinna mean to die until I’ve lain wi’ Rachel, at least.”
“Well, there’s a noble goal, to be sure.” The dry voice was Uncle Jamie’s, and Ian’s eyes popped open. His uncle was standing among the trailing fronds of a river willow, dressed in nothing but his shirt.
“Out of uniform, are ye not, Uncle?” he said, though his heart had leapt in his chest like a startled deer mouse. “General Washington willna be pleased.” Washington was a great stickler for proper uniform. Officers must be dressed suitably at all times; he said the Continentals couldn’t be taken seriously as an army, did they come to the field looking and acting like a rabble in arms.
“I’m sorry to interrupt ye, Ian,” Uncle Jamie said, stepping out from the willow. The moon was nearly down; he was nay more than a ghost, bare-legged in his floating sark. “Who were ye speaking to, though?”
“Oh. My da. He was just . . . there in my mind, ken? I mean, I think of him often, but it’s not sae often I feel him with me. So I wondered had he come to tell me I’d die this day.”
Jamie nodded, not seeming bothered at the thought.
“I doubt it,” he said. “Ye’re putting on your paint, aye? Getting ready, I mean.”
“Aye, I was about to. Ye want some, too?” It was only half said in jest, and Jamie took it that way.
“I would, Ian. But I think General Washington might have me strung up by the thumbs and flogged, should I come before him wi’ my troops all marshaled and me wi’ war paint on.”
Ian made a small sound of amusement and scooped two fingers into the dish of red ochre, which he began to rub on his chest.
“And what are ye doin’ out here in your sark, then?”
“Washing,” Jamie said, but in a tone indicating that that wasn’t all of it. “And . . . talkin’ to my ain dead.”
“Mmphm. Anyone in particular?”
“My uncle Dougal, and Murtagh, him who was my godfather. They’re the two I’d most want with me, in battle.” Jamie made a small restless movement. “If I can, I make a wee moment to be alone before a fight. To wash, ken, and pray a bit, and then . . . to just ask if they’ll bide with me as I go.”
Ian thought this interesting; he hadn’t known either man himself—they’d both died at Culloden—but he’d heard stories.
“Bonnie fighters,” he said. “Did ye ask my da, too? To go with ye, I mean. Perhaps that’s why he’s about.”
Jamie turned his head sharply toward Ian, surprised. Then relaxed, shaking his head.
“I never had to ask Ian Mòr,” he said softly. “He was always . . . just with me.” He gestured briefly to the darkness on his right.
Ian’s eyes stung and his throat closed. But it was dark; it didn’t matter.
He cleared his throat and held out one of the tiny dishes. “Will ye help me, Uncle Jamie?”
“Oh? Aye, surely. How d’ye want it?”
“Red across my forehead—I can do that bit. But black from the wee dots to the chin.” He drew a finger across the line of tattooed dots that curved under his cheekbones. “Black’s for strength, aye? It declares ye’re a warrior. And yellow means ye’re no afraid to die.”
“Och, aye. Are ye wantin’ the yellow today?”
“No.” He let the smile show in his voice, and Jamie laughed.
“Mmphm.” Jamie dabbed with the rabbit-foot brush, then spread the color evenly with his thumb. Ian closed his eyes, feeling strength come into him with the touch.
“Do ye usually do this alone, Ian? Seems hard, save ye’ve a looking glass.”
“Mostly. Or sometimes we’d do it together, and a clan brother would paint ye. If it’s an important thing—a big raid, say, or going to make war on someone—then the medicine man would paint us, and sing.”
“Tell me ye dinna want me to sing, Ian,” his uncle murmured. “I mean, I’d try, but . . .”
“I’ll do without, thanks.”
Black for the lower face, red on the forehead, and a band of the malachite green following the line of his tattoos, from ear to ear, across the bridge of his nose.
Ian peered at the small dishes of pigment; it was easy to spot the white, and he pointed to it.
“Can ye maybe draw a wee arrow, Uncle? Across my forehead.” He drew a finger from left to right, showing where.
“I can, aye.” Jamie’s head was bent over the paint dishes, hand hovering. “Did ye not tell me once the white is for peace, though?”
“Aye, should ye be going to parley or trade, ye use a good deal of white. But it’s for the mourning, too—so if ye go to avenge someone, ye’d maybe wear white.”
Jamie’s head came up at that, staring at him.
“This one’s no for vengeance,” Ian said. “It’s for Flying Arrow. The dead man whose place I took, when I was adopted.” He spoke as casually as he could, but he felt his uncle tighten and look down. Neither one of them was ever going to forget that day of parting, when he’d gone to the Kahnyen’kehaka, and both of them had thought it was forever. He leaned over and put a hand on Jamie’s arm.
“That day, ye said to me, ‘Cuimhnich,’ Uncle Jamie. And I did.” Remember.
“So did I, Ian,” Jamie said softly, and drew the arrow on his forehead, his touch like a priest’s on Ash Wednesday, marking Ian with the sign of the cross. “So did we all. Is that it?”
Ian touched the green stripe gingerly, to be sure it was dry enough.
“Aye, I think so. Ken Brianna made me the paints? I was thinking of her, but then I thought I maybe shouldna take her with me that way.”
He felt Jamie’s breath on his skin as his uncle gave a small snort and then sat back.
“Ye always carry your women wi’ ye into battle, Ian Òg. They’re the root of your strength, man.”
“Oh, aye?” That made sense—and was a relief to him. Still . . . “I was thinkin’ it maybe wasna right to think of Rachel in such a place, though. Her being Quaker and all.”
Jamie dipped his middle finger into the deer fat, then delicately into the white clay powder, and drew a wide, swooping “V” near the crest of Ian’s right shoulder. Even in the dark, it showed vividly.
“White dove,” he said with a nod. He sounded pleased. “There’s Rachel for ye.”
He wiped his fingers on the rock, then rose and stretched. Ian saw him turn to look toward the east. It was still night, but the air had changed, just in the few minutes they’d sat. His uncle’s tall figure was distinct against the sky, where a little before he’d seemed part of the night.
“An hour, nay more,” Jamie said. “Eat first, aye?” And, with that, turned and walked away to the stream and his own interrupted prayers.
REACHING FOR THINGS THAT AREN’T THERE
WILLIAM WISHED he could stop reaching for things that weren’t there. A dozen times today—oftener!—he’d reached for the dagger that should have been on his belt. Once or twice, for one of his pistols. Slapped an impotent hand against his hip, missing his sword, missing the small, solid weight of his shot pouch, the swing of his cartridge box.
And now he lay sweating naked on his cot, hand slapped flat on his chest where he’d reached without thinking for the wooden rosary. The rosary that, if he’d had it, would no longer be the comfort it had been for so many years. The rosary that, if he’d had it, no longer said “Mac” to him. If he did still have it, he’d have snatched it off and thrown it into the nearest fire. That’s likely what James Fraser had done with it after William had thrown the rosary in the bastard’s face. But, then, Fraser wasn’t the bastard here, was he?
He muttered “Scheisse!” and flung himself irritably over. Three feet away, Evans stirred and farted in his sleep, a sudden, muffled sound like distant cannon. On his other side, Merbling went on snoring.
Tomorrow. He’d gone to bed late after an exhausting day and would be up in an hour, maybe, but he lay wide awake, eyes so adapted to the dark that he could see the pale blur of the tent canvas overhead. No chance of sleep, he knew. Even if he’d see no action himself—and he wouldn’t—the proximity of battle had him so keyed up that he could have leapt from bed and gone straight for the enemy right now, sword in hand.
There’d be a battle. Maybe not a big one, but the Rebels were yapping at their heels, and tomorrow—today—there would be a meeting. It might put paid to Washington’s ambitions, though Sir Henry was firm that this was not his goal. He meant to get his army and the people under its protection to New York; that was all that mattered—though if his officers should choose to demonstrate their military superiority while doing so, he had no great objection.
William had stood at attention behind Sir Henry’s chair at dinner, his back against the tent wall, listening attentively while the plans were drawn up. Had in fact had the honor of carrying the formal written orders to von Knyphausen, whose troops were to march to Middletown, while Clinton’s brigade would form up at the rear, to engage the Rebels while my lord Cornwallis’s escorted the baggage train on to safety. That’s why he’d been so late getting to bed.
He yawned suddenly, surprising himself, and settled back, blinking. Maybe he could sleep a bit, after all. Thinking of dinner and orders and such mundanities as the color of von Knyphausen’s nightshirt—it was pink silk, with purple pansies embroidered round the neck—rather than the oncoming battle had calmed his mind amazingly. Distraction. That’s what he needed.
Worth a try, he supposed. . . . He squirmed into the most comfortable attitude he could manage, closed his eyes, and began mentally extracting the square roots of numbers greater than one hundred.
He’d got to the square root of 117 and was muzzily groping for the product of 12 and 6 when he felt the sudden stir of air on his damp skin. He sighed and opened his eyes, thinking that Merbling had got up for a piss, but it wasn’t Merbling. A dark figure stood just inside the tent flap. The flap wasn’t closed, and the figure was clearly visible against the faint glow from the banked campfires outside. A girl.
He sat up fast, groping one-handed for the shirt he’d tossed to the foot of his cot.
“What the devil are you doing here?” he whispered, as softly as he could.
She’d been hovering, uncertain. But hearing him speak, she came straight for him, and next thing he knew, her hands were on his shoulders, her hair brushing his face. He put up his own hands in reflex and found that she was in her shift, her br**sts free and warm under it, a few inches from his face.
She pulled back, and in what seemed like the same motion, skimmed the shift off over her head, shook out her hair, and straddled him, her moist round thighs pressing his.
“Get off!” He grabbed her by the arms, pushing her away. Merbling stopped snoring. Evans’s bedclothes rustled.
William stood up, snatched up her shift and his shirt, and, taking her by the arm, marched her out of the tent, as quietly as he could.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing? Here, put that on!” He thrust the shift unceremoniously into her arms and hastily pulled his shirt on. They were not in full view of anyone, but might be at any moment.
Her head emerged from the shift like a flower popping out of a snowbank. A rather angry flower.
“Well, what do you think I was doing?” she said. She pulled her hair free of the shift and fluffed it violently. “I was trying to do you a kindness!”
“You’re going to fight tomorrow, aren’t you?” There was enough light to see the shine of her eyes as she glared at him. “Soldiers always want to f**k before a fight! They need it.”
He rubbed a hand hard over his face, palm rasping on his sprouting whiskers, then took a deep breath.
“I see. Yes. Very kind of you.” He suddenly wanted to laugh. He also—very suddenly—wanted to take advantage of her offer. But not enough to do it with Merbling on one side and Evans on the other, ears flapping.
“I’m not going to fight tomorrow,” he said, and the pang it caused him to say that out loud startled him.
“You’re not? Why not?” She sounded startled, too, and more than a little disapproving.