Drums of Autumn(9)By: Diana Gabaldon
Jamie shifted himself slightly, plucking to ease the fit of his breeches.
“Damn,” he said softly. He lowered his eyes and turned away, mouth barely touched by a rueful smile.
I hadn’t expected it, but I recognized it, all right. A sudden surge of lust was a common, if peculiar, response to the presence of death. Soldiers feel it in the lull after battle; so do healers who deal in blood and struggle. Perhaps Ian had been more right than I thought about the ghoulishness of doctors.
Jamie’s hand touched my back and I started, showering sparks from the blazing torch. He took it from me and nodded toward a nearby gravestone.
“Sit down, Sassenach,” he said. “Ye shouldna be standing so long.” I had cracked the tibia of my left leg in the shipwreck, and while it had healed quickly, the leg still ached sometimes.
“I’m all right.” Still, I moved toward the stone, brushing against him as I passed. He radiated heat, but his naked flesh was cool to the touch, the sweat evaporating on his skin. I could smell him.
I glanced at him, and saw goose bumps rise on the fair flesh where I’d touched him. I swallowed, fighting back a sudden vision of tumbling in the dark, to a fierce blind coupling amid crushed grass and raw earth.
His hand lingered on my elbow as he helped me to a seat on the stone. Rollo was lying by its side, drops of saliva gleaming in the torchlight as he panted. The slanted yellow eyes narrowed at me.
“Don’t even think about it,” I said, narrowing my own eyes back at him. “Bite me, and I’ll cram my shoe down your throat so far you’ll choke.”
“Wuff!” Rollo said, quite softly. He laid his muzzle on his paws, but the hairy ears were pricked, turned to catch the slightest sound.
The spade chunked softly into the earth at Ian’s feet, and he straightened up, slicking sweat off his face with a palm swipe that left black smears along his jaw. He blew out a deep breath and glanced up at Jamie, miming exhaustion, tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth.
“Aye, I expect it’s deep enough.” Jamie answered the wordless plea with a nod. “I’ll fetch Gavin along, then.”
Fergus frowned uneasily, his features sharp in the torchlight.
“Will you not need help to carry the corpse?” His reluctance was evident; still, he had offered. Jamie gave him a faint, wry smile.
“I’ll manage well enough,” he said. “Gavin was a wee man. Still, ye might bring the torch to see by.”
“I’ll come too, Uncle!” Young Ian scrambled hastily out of the pit, skinny shoulders gleaming with sweat. “Just in case you need help,” he added breathlessly.
“Afraid to be left in the dark?” Fergus asked sarcastically. I thought that the surroundings must be making him uneasy; though he occasionally teased Ian, whom he regarded as a younger brother, he was seldom cruel about it.
“Aye, I am,” Ian said simply. “Aren’t you?”
Fergus opened his mouth, brows arched skyward, then shut it again and turned without a word toward the black opening of the lych-gate, whence Jamie had disappeared.
“D’ye not think this is a terrible place, Auntie?” Ian murmured uneasily at my elbow, sticking close as we made our way through the looming stones, following the flicker of Fergus’s torch. “I keep thinking of that story Uncle Jamie told. And thinking now Gavin’s dead, maybe the cold thing … I mean, do you think would it maybe … come for him?” There was an audible swallow punctuating this question, and I felt an icy finger touch me, just at the base of my spine.
“No,” I said, a little too loudly. I grabbed Ian’s arm, less for support than for the reassurance of his solidity. “Certainly not.”
His skin was clammy with evaporating sweat, but the skinny muscularity of the arm under my hand was comforting. His half-visible presence reminded me faintly of Jamie; he was nearly as tall as his uncle, and very nearly as strong, though still lean and gangling with adolescence.
We emerged with gratitude into the little pool of light thrown by Fergus’s torch. The flickering light shone through the wagon wheels, throwing shadows that lay like spiderwebs in the dust. It was as hot in the road as it was in the churchyard, but the air seemed somehow freer, easier to breathe, out from under the suffocating trees.
Rather to my surprise, Duncan was still awake, perched drooping on the wagon’s seat like a sleepy owl, shoulders hunched about his ears. He was crooning under his breath, but stopped when he saw us. The long wait seemed to have sobered him a bit; he got down from the seat steadily enough and came round to the rear of the wagon to help Jamie.
I smothered a yawn. I would be glad to be done with this melancholy duty and on our way to rest, even if the only bed to look forward to was one of piled leaves.
“Ifrinn an Diabhuil! A Dhia, thoir cobhair!”
My head snapped up. Everyone was shouting, and the horses, startled, were neighing and jerking frantically against their hobbles, making the wagon hop and lurch like a drunken beetle.
“Wuff!” Rollo said next to me.
“Jesus!” said Ian, goggling at the wagon. “Jesus Christ!”
I swung in the direction he was looking, and screamed. A pale figure loomed out of the wagon bed, swaying with the wagon’s jerking. I had no time to see more before all hell broke loose.
Rollo bunched his hindquarters and launched himself through the dark with a roar, to the accompaniment of shouts from Jamie and Ian, and a terrible scream from the ghost. Behind me, I could hear the sound of French cursing as Fergus ran back into the churchyard, stumbling and crashing over tombstones in the dark.
Jamie had dropped the torch; it flickered and hissed on the dusty road, threatening to go out. I fell to my knees and grabbed it, blowing on it, desperate to keep it alight.
The chorus of shouts and growling grew to a crescendo, and I rose up, torch in hand, to find Ian struggling with Rollo, trying to keep him away from the dim figures wrestling together in a cloud of dust.
“Arrêtes, espèce de cochon!” Fergus galloped out of the dark, brandishing the spade he had gone to fetch. Finding his injunction disregarded, he stepped forward and brought it down one-handed on the intruder’s head with a dull clong! Then he swung toward Ian and Rollo.
“You be quiet, too!” Fergus said to the dog, threatening him with the shovel. “Shut up this minute, foul beast, or I brain you!”
Rollo snarled, with a show of impressive teeth that I interpreted roughly to mean “You and who else?” but was prevented from mayhem by Ian, who wrapped his arm about the dog’s throat and choked off any further remarks.
“Where did he come from?” Ian asked in amazement. He craned his neck, trying to get a look at the fallen figure without letting go of Rollo.
“From hell,” Fergus said briefly. “And I invite him to go back there at once.” He was trembling with shock and exertion; the light gleamed dully from his hook as he brushed a thick lock of black hair out of his eyes.
“Not from hell; from the gallows. Do ye not know him?”
Jamie rose slowly to his feet, dusting his breeches. He was breathing heavily, and smeared with dirt, but seemed unhurt. He picked up his fallen kerchief and glanced about, wiping his face. “Where’s Duncan?”
“Here, Mac Dubh,” said a gruff voice from the front of the wagon. “The beasts werena likin’ Gavin much to start with, and they’re proper upset to think he was a-resurrectin’. Not,” he added fairly, “but what I was a wee bit startled myself.” He eyed the figure on the ground with disfavor, and patted one skittish horse firmly on the neck. “Ah, it’s no but a silly bugger, luaidh, hush your noise now, aye?”
I had handed Ian the torch and knelt to inspect the damage to our visitor. This seemed to be slight; the man was already stirring. Jamie was right; it was the man who had escaped hanging earlier in the day. He was young, about thirty, muscular and powerfully built, his fair hair matted with sweat and stiff with filth. He reeked of prison, and the musky-sharp smell of prolonged fear. Little wonder.
I got a hand under his arm and helped him to sit up. He grunted and put his hand to his head, squinting in the torchlight.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Thankin’ ye kindly, ma’am, I will have been better.” He had a faint Irish accent and a soft, deep voice.
Rollo, upper lip lifted just enough to show a menacing eyetooth, shoved his nose into the visitor’s armpit, sniffed, then jerked back his head and sneezed explosively. A small tremor of laughter ran round the circle, and the tension relaxed momentarily.
“How long have ye been in the wagon?” Duncan demanded.
“Since midafternoon.” The man rose awkwardly onto his knees, swaying a bit from the effects of the blow. He touched his head again and winced. “Oh, Jaysus! I crawled in there just after the Frenchie loaded up poor old Gavin.”
“Where were you before that?” Ian asked.
“Hidin’ under the gallows cart. It was the only place I thought they wouldn’t be looking.” He rose laboriously to his feet, closed his eyes to get his balance, then opened them. They were a pale green in the torchlight, the color of shallow seas. I saw them flick from face to face, then settle on Jamie. The man bowed, careful of his head.