Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 80

   

MORASSES AND IMBROGLIOS

THERE WERE THREE CREEKS running through the land, cutting it up. Where the earth was soft, the water had cut deep and the creek ran at the bottom of a steep ravine, the banks of it thick with saplings and underbrush. A farmer he’d spoken to while scouting the day before had told him the names of them—Dividing Brook, Spotswood Middle Brook, and Spotswood North Brook—but Ian wasn’t at all sure he kent for sure which this one was.

The ground here was wide and low; the creek ran out into a sunken, marshy sort of place, and he turned away; bad footing for either man or horse. One of the farmers had called the ravines “morasses,” and he thought that a good word. He looked up the creek, searching for good watering places, but the ravine fell too steeply. A man could make shift to scramble down to the water, maybe, but not horses or mules.

Ian felt them before he saw them. The sense of a hunting animal, lying concealed in the wood, waiting for prey to come down to drink. He turned his horse sharply and rode along the creek bank, watching the trees on the other side.

Movement, a horse’s head tossing against flies. A glimpse of a face—faces—painted, like his own.

A thrill of alarm shot up his spine and instinct flattened him against the horse’s neck, as the arrow whizzed over his head. It stuck, quivering, in a nearby sycamore.

He straightened, his own bow in hand, nocked an arrow in the same movement, and sent it back, aiming blind for the spot where he’d seen them. The arrow shredded leaves as it went but struck nothing—he hadn’t expected it to.

“Mohawk!” came a derisory shout from the other side, and a few words in a language he didn’t understand but whose intended meaning was clear enough. He made a very Scottish gesture, whose meaning was also clear, and left them laughing.

He paused to yank the arrow out of the sycamore. Fletched with a yaffle’s tail feathers, but not a pattern he knew. Whatever they’d been speaking wasn’t an Algonquian tongue. Might be something northern like Assiniboine—he’d know, if he got a clear look at them—but might equally be something from nearer to hand.

Very likely working for the British army, though. He kent most of the Indian scouts presently with the Rebels. And while they hadn’t been trying to kill him—they could have done so, easily, if they’d really wanted to—this was rougher teasing than might be expected. Perhaps only because they’d recognized him for what he was.

Mohawk! To an English speaker, it was just easier to say than “Kahnyen’kehaka.” To any of the tribes who lived within knowledge of the Kahnyen’kehaka, it was either a word to scare children with or a calculated insult. “Man-eater,” it meant, for the Kahnyen’kehaka were known to roast their enemies alive and devour the flesh.

Ian had never seen such a thing, but he knew men—old men—who had and would tell you about it with pleasure. He didn’t care to think about it. It brought back much too vividly the night the priest had died in Snaketown, mutilated and burned alive—the night that had inadvertently taken Ian from his family and made him a Mohawk.

The bridge lay upstream, perhaps sixty yards from where he was. He paused, but the woods on the other side were silent, and he ventured across, his horse’s hooves a careful clopping on the boards. If there were British scouts here, the army was not too far beyond.

There were broad meadows past the woods on the far side, and beyond these the fields of a good-sized farm; he could see a snatch of the buildings through the trees—and the movement of men. He turned hastily, circling a copse and coming out into ground open enough to see.

There were green-coated soldiers on the ridgeline beyond the farm buildings, and he could smell the sulfur of their slow match on the heavy air. Grenadiers.

He wheeled his horse and headed back, to find someone to tell.

WILLIAM FINALLY discovered the cavalry detachment of the British Legion, filling their canteens from a well in the yard of a farmhouse. They had a picket out, though, who gave a warning shout at sight of a lone horseman, and half the company swung round, on the alert. A well-trained company; Banastre Tarleton was a good, energetic officer.

Tarleton himself was standing relaxed in the shade of a big tree, his ornately plumed helmet cradled in one arm, mopping his face with a green silk kerchief. William rolled his eyes briefly at this bit of affectation, but not so Tarleton could see. He came to a walk and rode up beside Tarleton, leaning down to give him the dispatch.

“From Captain André,” he said. “Been busy?” The men had been fighting; he could smell the smoke on them, and a couple of men with what looked like minor wounds were sitting against the barn, uniforms streaked with blood. The barn doors hung open on emptiness, and the yard was trampled and spotted with dung; he wondered for a moment whether the farmer had driven his own stock away, or whether one or another of the armies had taken the animals.

“Not nearly busy enough,” Tarleton replied, reading the note. “This may help, though. We’re to go reinforce my lord Cornwallis.” His face was flushed with the heat, and his leather stock was clearly cutting into his thick, muscular neck, but he looked exceedingly cheerful at the prospect.

“Good,” said William, reining up to turn and go, but Tarleton stopped him with a raised hand. He tucked the dispatch away in his pocket, along with the green kerchief.

“Since I see you, Ellesmere—saw a tasty piece last night in camp, in the bread line,” he said. Tarleton sucked his lower lip for an instant and released it, red and wet. “Very tasty, and a sweet little sister with her, too, though that one’s not quite ripe enough for me.” William raised his brows, but felt himself tense in thighs and shoulders.

“Made her an offer,” Tarleton said, overtly careless but with a swift glance at William’s hands. William relaxed them with an effort. “She declined, though—said she was yours?” This last was not quite a question, but not quite not.

“If her name is Jane,” William said shortly, “she and her sister are traveling under my protection.”

Tarleton’s quizzical look flowered into open amusement.

“Your protection,” he repeated. His full lips twitched. “I believe she told me that her name was Arabella, though—perhaps we’re thinking of different girls.”

“No, we’re not.” William did not want to be having this conversation, and gathered up his reins. “Don’t f**king touch her.”

That was a mistake; Tarleton never passed up a challenge. His eyes sparkled and William saw him set himself, legs spread.

“Fight you for her,” he said.

“What, here? Are you insane?” There were bugles in the distance, and not a very far distance, either. To say nothing of Tarleton’s troops, many of them clearly listening to this exchange.

“Wouldn’t take long,” Tarleton said softly, rocking back on his heels. His left fist was loosely curled and he rubbed his right hand flat on the side of his breeches, coat pushed back. He glanced over his shoulder, to the empty barn. “My men wouldn’t interfere, but we could go in there, if you’re shy.” “Shy” said with that particular intonation that made it clear that cowardice was meant.

It had been on the tip of William’s tongue to say, “I don’t own the girl”—but to make that admission was to give Tarleton license to go after her. He’d seen Ban with girls often enough; he wasn’t violent with them, but he was insistent. Never left without getting what he wanted, one way or another.

And after Harkness . . . His thoughts hadn’t caught up with his body; he was on the ground, shucking his coat, before he’d made a conscious decision.

Ban laid his helmet on the ground, grinning, and took off his own coat in a leisurely fashion. The motion attracted all his men at once, and in seconds they were surrounded by a circle of dragoons, whistling and hooting encouragement. The only dissenter was Ban’s lieutenant, who had gone a sickly shade of gray.

“Colonel!” he said, and William realized that the man’s fear had all to do with taking issue with Ban and not the consequences of what might happen if he didn’t. He meant to do his duty, though, and reached out a hand to grip Tarleton’s arm. “Sir. You—”

“Let go,” Ban said, not taking his eyes off William. “And shut up.” The lieutenant’s hand dropped away as though someone had punched him in the shoulder.

William felt at once detached, as though he were watching this from somewhere outside himself, above it all—and that part of him wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. And some very tiny remnant of conscience was appalled. But the fleshly part of him was grimly exultant, and very much in charge.

He’d seen Ban fight before, and didn’t make the mistake of waiting for any sort of signal. The moment the green coat hit the ground, William launched himself and—ignoring a ferocious hook that slammed into his ribs—grabbed Tarleton by both shoulders, jerked him forward, and butted him in the face with a horrid sound of cracking bone.

He let go, pushed Ban hard in the chest, and sent him staggering backward, blood flying from his broken nose and a surprised look on his face that turned immediately to berserk fury. Tarleton dug in his heels and leapt at William like a rabid dog.

William had six inches and forty pounds on Ban, and three older cousins who had taught him to fight. Banastre Tarleton had an unshakable conviction that he was going to win any fight he started.

They were struggling on the ground, so locked that neither was actually able to hit the other effectively, when William dimly heard the lieutenant’s voice, full of panic, and a rush all round them. Hands seized him and dragged him away from Tarleton; more hands pushed him frantically toward his horse. There were drums coming down the lane and the sound of marching feet.

He mounted in a daze, a taste of blood in his mouth, and spat by reflex. His coat was thrown across his lap, and someone slapped his horse with a sharp “T’cha!” that nearly unseated William, whose feet were nowhere near the stirrups.

He pressed knees and calves into the horse’s sides, urging Goth into a gallop, and burst from the lane directly in front of an infantry column, whose sergeant recoiled with a shout of alarm. Scots. He saw the checkered trews and caps, and heard a few uncouth shouts in what might be Scots or Gaelic, but didn’t care. They belonged to a regiment he didn’t know—and so their officers wouldn’t know him.

Tarleton could give what explanations he liked. William’s left ear was ringing, and he shook his head and pressed the flat of his hand against the ear to quiet it.

When he took the hand away, the ringing had eased, and a number of people were singing “Yankee Doodle” instead. He glanced over his shoulder, incredulous, and saw a number of blue-coated Continentals, dragging a number of cannon, making for the distant ridgeline.

Go back and tell the Scots infantry and Tarleton’s men? Head south to Cornwallis?

“Hey, redcoat!” A shout from his left made him look in that direction, and just in time. A group of ten or fifteen men in hunting shirts was bearing down on him, most of them armed with scythes and hoes. One man was aiming a musket at him; apparently he was the one who had shouted, for he did so again: “Drop your reins and get off!”

“The devil I will,” William replied, and booted Goth, who took off as though his tail were on fire. William heard the boom of the musket, but crouched low over the horse’s neck and kept going.

PECULIAR BEHAVIOR OF A TENT

WHILE NOT EAGER to be removed to a prison of some sort, John Grey was beginning to wish at least for solitude. Fergus Fraser and his son had insisted on remaining with him until someone came for him. Presumably so they could tell Jamie how he had been disposed of.

He was peculiarly disinterested in the method and means of that disposal, content to await developments. What he wanted solitude for was a contemplation of Percy Wainwright’s presence, motives, and possible action. With La Fayette, he’d said. Adviser. John shuddered to think what sort of advice might be given by that . . . and what about his interests in Fergus Fraser?

He glanced at said printer, presently engaged in argument with his precocious offspring.

“You did it!” Germain glowered up at his father, face flushed red with righteous indignation. “Ye told me so yourself, a dozen times or more! How you went to war with Grand-père, and stabbed a man in the leg, and rode on a cannon when the soldiers dragged it back from Prestonpans—and ye weren’t even as old as I am now when ye did all that!”

Fergus paused for an instant, regarding his offspring through narrowed eyes, obviously regretting his previous prolixity. He breathed steadily through his nose for a moment, then nodded.

“That was different,” he said evenly. “I was milord’s employee at the time, not his son. I had a duty to attend him; he had no responsibility to prevent me doing so.”

Germain blinked, frowning uncertainly.

“You weren’t his son?”

“Of course not,” Fergus said, exasperated. “If I told you about Prestonpans, surely I have told you that I was an orphan in Paris when I met your grand-père. He hired me to pick pockets for him.”

“He did?” John hadn’t meant to interrupt, but couldn’t help it. Fergus glanced at him, startled; evidently he hadn’t really noticed John’s presence, focused as he was on Germain. He bowed.

“He did, my lord. We were Jacobites, you understand. He required information. Letters.”

“Oh, indeed,” John murmured, and took a sip from his flask. Then, recalling his manners, offered it to Fergus, who blinked in surprise, but then accepted it with another bow and took a healthy gulp. Well, it must be thirsty work, pursuing an errant child through an army. He thought briefly of Willie, and thanked God his son was safe—or was he?

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