Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 77

   

“It’s a long story,” he said, struggling for patience. “And it’s not your business. Now, look. I appreciate the thought, but I told you: you’re not a whore, at least not for the time being. And you’re not my whore.” Though his imagination was busy with images of what might have happened had she stolen into his cot and taken hold of him before he was fully awake . . . He put the thought firmly aside and, taking her by the shoulders, turned her round.

“Go back to your own bed now,” he said, but couldn’t stop himself from patting her very nice arse in farewell. She turned her head and glared at him over her shoulder.

“Coward!” she said. “A man that won’t f**k won’t fight.”

“What?” For an instant, he didn’t think she’d really said it, but she had.

“You heard me. Good—fucking—night!”

He reached her in two strides, seized her shoulder, and whirled her round to face him.

“And who gave you that bit of wisdom, may I ask? Your good friend Captain Harkness?” He wasn’t truly angry, but the shock of her unexpected arrival was still reverberating in his blood and he was annoyed. “Did I save you from buggery so you could throw my circumstances in my face?”

Her chin drew back, and she breathed hard, but not in apparent distress.

“What circumstances?” she demanded.

“I told you—bloody hell. Do you know what the Convention army is?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s the long story, and I’m not telling you it standing in my shirt in the middle of camp. Now, bugger off and take care of your sister and the lads. That’s your job; I’ll take care of myself.”

She exhaled sharply, with a puh! sound.

“Doubtless you will,” she said, with the maximum of sarcasm and a pointed glance at his cock, which was poking absurdly at his shirt, making its own urgent preferences known.

“Scheisse,” he said again, briefly, then grabbed her in a bear hug that pressed her body against his all the way down and kissed her. She struggled, but after the first moment he realized that the struggle was not meant to procure her release but to provoke him further. He tightened his grip until she stopped, but didn’t quit kissing her for some time thereafter.

He finally let go, panting and bedewed with perspiration; the air was like breathing hot tar. She was panting, too. He could take her. Wanted to. Push her down on her knees in the grass beside the tent, pull up her shift, and have her from behind—it wouldn’t take more than seconds.

“No,” he said, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “No,” he said again, more positively. Every nerve in his body wanted her, and had he been sixteen, it would have been long over by this time. But he wasn’t, and he had just enough self-control to turn her round again. He gripped her by scruff and buttock to keep her from turning back and held her immobile.

“When we get to New York,” he whispered, bending to speak in her ear, “I’ll think again.”

She stiffened, her buttock rounding hard in his hand, but didn’t pull away or try to bite him, which he’d half-expected.

“Why?” she said, in a calm voice.

“That’s a long story, too,” he said. “Good night, Jane.” And, releasing her, stalked away into the dark. Nearby, the drums of reveille began.

PART FOUR

Day of Battle

GO OUT IN DARKNESS

IAN HAD BEEN OVER the land briefly the day before, scouting. “And a good thing, too,” he said, under his breath. It was the dark of the moon, and he must go canny and keep the road. He wasn’t risking his horse’s legs over the rough land before he had to, and Bride grant him the sky would be fully light by then.

Still, he was glad of the dark, and the solitude. Not that the land was still; the woods lived at night, and many things came out in the strange dawn hour when the light began to swell. But neither the rustle of hares and voles nor the sleepy call of waking birds demanded his notice or took any notice of him. He had finished his own prayers after Uncle Jamie left him, then departed alone in silence, and the peace of his preparations was still on him.

When he had lived with the Mohawk—particularly when things had gone wrong with Emily—he would leave the longhouse for days, hunting alone with Rollo, until the wilderness had eased his spirit enough to go back, strengthened. He glanced down by reflex, but Rollo had been left behind with Rachel. The wound from the deadfall trap was clean; Auntie Claire had put something on it that helped—but he wouldn’t have let Rollo come to a battle like this one offered to be, even had he been whole and a good deal younger than he was.

There was no doubt of the coming battle. He could smell it. His body was rising toward the fight; he could feel the tingling of it—but he treasured this momentary stillness the more for that.

“Won’t last long, mind,” he said softly to the horse, who ignored him. He touched the white dove on his shoulder and rode on, still quiet but not alone.

THE MEN HAD lain on their arms all night, by Sir Henry’s orders. While one didn’t actually lie on a musket and cartridge box, there was something about sleeping with a gun touching your body that kept you alert, ready to rouse from sleep in nothing flat.

William had no arms to lie on, and hadn’t needed rousing, as he hadn’t slept, but was no less alert for the lack. He wouldn’t be fighting, and deeply regretted that—but he would be out in it, by God.

The camp was a-bustle, drums rattling up and down the aisles of tents, summoning the soldiers, and the air was full of the smells of baking bread, pork, and hot pease porridge.

There was no visible sign of dawn yet, but he could feel the sun there, just below the horizon, rising with the slow inevitability of its daily dominion. The thought reminded him, vividly, of the whale he had seen on the voyage to America: a dark shadow below the ship’s side, easily dismissed as the change of light on the waves—and then, slowly, the growing bulk, the realization and the breathless wonder of seeing it rise, so close, so huge—and suddenly there.

He fastened his garters and tugged them tight before buckling his knee bands and pulling on his Hessian boots. At least he had his gorget back, to lend a touch of ceremony to the mundane task of getting dressed. The gorget, of course, reminded him of Jane—was he ever going to be able to wear it without thinking of the damned girl?—and of recent events.

He’d regretted not accepting her offer, and still did. He could still smell her scent, musky and soft, like putting his face in thick fur. Her remark still rankled, too, and he snorted, settling his coat on his shoulders. Perhaps he’d think again before they reached New York.

These idle thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of another of Sir Henry’s aides, Captain Crosbie, who popped his head through the tent flap, clearly in a great flurry.

“Oh, there you are, Ellesmere. Hoped I’d catch you—here.” He tossed a folded note in William’s general direction and vanished.

William snorted again and picked it up off the ground. Evans and Merbling had both left, they having actual troops to inspect and command; he envied them bitterly.

It was from General Sir Henry Clinton, and hit him in the stomach like a blow: . . . in view of your peculiar status, I think it best that you remain with the clerical staff today . . .

“Stercus!” he said, finding German insufficient to his feelings. “Excrementum obscaenum! Filius mulieris prostabilis!”

His chest was tight, blood was pounding in his ears, and he wanted to hit something. It would be useless to appeal to Sir Henry, he knew that much. But to spend the day essentially kicking his heels in the clerks’ tent—for what was there for him to do, if he wasn’t allowed to carry dispatches or even do the lowly but necessary work of shepherding the camp followers and Loyalists? What—was he to fetch the clerks’ dinner in, or hold a torch in each hand when it got dark, like a f**king candelabra?

He was about to crumple the note into a wad, when yet another unwelcome head intruded itself, followed by an elegant body: Captain André, dressed for battle, sword at his side and pistols in his belt. William eyed him with dislike, though in fact he was an amiable fellow.

“Oh, there you are, Ellesmere,” André said, pleased. “Hoped you hadn’t gone off yet. I need you to run me a dispatch, quickly. To Colonel Tarleton—with the British Legion, the new Provincials, green chaps—you know him?”

“I do, yes.” William accepted the sealed dispatch, feeling odd. “Certainly, Captain.”

“Good man.” André smiled and squeezed his shoulder, then strode out, ebullient with the promise of imminent action.

William drew a deep breath, carefully folded Sir Henry’s note back into its original shape, and placed it on his cot. Who was to say that he hadn’t met André first and, owing to the urgency of his request, left immediately, without reading Sir Henry’s note?

He doubted he’d be missed, in any case.

SPARROW-FART

IT WAS PERHAPS four o’clock ack emma. Or before sparrow-fart, as the British armed forces of my own time used to put it. That sense of temporal dislocation was back again, memories of another war coming like a sudden fog between me and my work, then disappearing in an instant, leaving the present sharp and vivid as Kodachrome. The army was moving.

No fog obscured Jamie. He was big and solid, his outlines clearly visible against the shredding night. I was awake and alert, dressed and ready, but the chill of sleep still lay upon me, making my fingers clumsy. I could feel his warmth and drew close to him, as I might to a campfire. He was leading Clarence, who was even warmer, though much less alert, ears sagging in sleepy annoyance.

“You’ll have Clarence,” Jamie told me, putting the mule’s reins in my hand. “And these, to make sure ye keep him, if ye should find yourself on your own.” “These” were a heavy pair of horse pistols, holstered and strung on a thick leather belt that also held a shot bag and powder horn.

“Thank you,” I said, swallowing as I wrapped the reins around a sapling in order to belt the pistols on. The guns were amazingly heavy—but I wouldn’t deny that the weight of them on my hips was amazingly comforting, too.

“All right,” I said, glancing toward the tent where John was. “What about—”

“I’ve seen to that,” he said, cutting me off. “Gather the rest of your things, Sassenach; I’ve nay more than a quarter hour, at most, and I need ye with me when we go.”

I watched him stride off into the mêlée, tall and resolute, and wondered—as I had so often before—Will it be today? Will this be the last sight I remember of him? I stood very still, watching as hard as I could.

When I’d lost him the first time, before Culloden, I’d remembered. Every moment of our last night together. Tiny things would come back to me through the years: the taste of salt on his temple and the curve of his skull as I cupped his head; the soft fine hair at the base of his neck, thick and damp in my fingers . . . the sudden, magical well of his blood in dawning light when I’d cut his hand and marked him forever as my own. Those things had kept him by me.

And when I’d lost him this time, to the sea, I’d remembered the sense of him beside me, warm and solid in my bed, and the rhythm of his breathing. The light across the bones of his face in moonlight and the flush of his skin in the rising sun. I could hear him breathe when I lay in bed alone in my room at Chestnut Street—slow, regular, never stopping—even though I knew it had stopped. The sound would comfort me, then drive me mad with the knowledge of loss, so I pulled the pillow hard over my head in a futile attempt to shut it out—only to emerge into the night of the room, thick with woodsmoke and candle wax and vanished light, and be comforted to hear it once more.

If this time—but he had turned, quite suddenly, as though I’d called his name. He came swiftly up to me, grasped me by the arms, and said in a low, strong voice, “It willna be today, either.”

Then he put his arms around me and drew me up on tiptoe into a deep, soft kiss. I heard brief cheers from a few of the men nearby, but it didn’t matter. Even if it should be today, I would remember.

JAMIE STRODE toward his waiting companies, loosely assembled near the river. The breath of the water and the mist rising from it comforted him, keeping him wrapped for a little while longer in the peace of the night and the deep sense of his kin, there at his shoulder. He’d told Ian Mòr to stay with Ian Òg, as was right, but had the odd sense that there were three men with him, still.

He’d need the strength of his dead. Three hundred men, and he’d known them for only days. Always before, when he’d taken men into battle, they were men of his blood, of his clan, men who knew him, trusted him—as he knew and trusted them. These men were strangers to him, and yet their lives were in his hands.

He wasn’t worried by their lack of training; they were rough and undisciplined, a mere rabble by contrast with the Continental regulars who’d drilled all winter under von Steuben—the thought of the little barrel-shaped Prussian made him smile—but his troops had always been this kind of men: farmers and hunters, pulled from their daily occupations, armed with scythes and hoes as often as with muskets or swords. They’d fight like fiends for him—with him—if they trusted him.

“How is it, then, Reverend?” he said softly to the minister, who had just blessed his flock of volunteers and was hunched among them in his black coat, arms still half spread like a scarecrow protecting his misty field at dawn. The man’s face, always rather stern in aspect, lightened upon seeing him, and he realized that the sky itself had begun to glow.

“All well, sir,” Woodsworth said gruffly. “We are ready.” He didn’t, thank God, mention Bertram Armstrong.

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