Fiery Cross

.. spoke. He flung the reins toward MacKenzie, not waiting to see whether he caught them, and ran back toward the trail, shouting, Claire! Where are ye? Just here! she called cheerfully. She emerged from the shadow of the poplars, limping slightly but looking otherwise undamaged. Are you all right? she asked, cocking one eyebrow at him.

Aye, fine. I’m going to shoot that horse. He gathered her in briefly, wanting to assure himself that she was in fact whole. She was breathing heavily, but felt reassuringly solid, and kissed him on the nose. Well, don’t shoot him until we get home.

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I don’t want to walk the last mile or so in my bare feet. Hey! Let that alone, ye bugger! He let go of Claire and turned to find Roger snatching a fistful of ragged-looking plants away from Gideon’s questing nose. More plants–what was this mania for gathering? Claire was still panting from the accident, but leaned forward to see them, looking interested. What’s that you’ve got, Roger? For Bree, he said, holding them up for her inspection. Are they the right kind? To Jamie’s jaundiced eye, they looked like the yellowed tops of carrots gone to seed and left too long in the ground, but Claire fingered the mangy foliage, and nodded approval.

Oh, yes, she said. Very romantic! Jamie made a small tactful noise, indicating that they ought perhaps to be making their way, since Bree and the slower-moving party of Chisholms would be catching them up soon. Yes, all right, Claire said, patting his shoulder in what he assumed she meant to be a soothing gesture. Don’t snort; we’re going. Mmphm, he said, and bent to put a hand under her foot.

Tossing her up into the saddle, he gave Gideon a Don’t try it on, you bastard glare and swung up behind her. You’ll wait for the others, then, and bring them up? Without waiting for Roger’s nod, he reined around and set Gideon upon the trail again. Temper momentarily expended, and mollified at being in the lead, Gideon settled down to the job at hand, climbing steadily through the thickets of chinkapin and poplar, chestnut and spruce. Even so late in the year, some leaves still clung to the trees, and small bits of brown and yellow floated down upon them like a gentle rain, catching in the horse’s mane, resting in the loose, thick waves of Claire’s hair. It had come down in her precipitous descent, and she hadn’t bothered to put it up again.

His own equanimity returned with the sense of progress, and was quite restored by the fortuitous finding of his hat, hanging from a white oak by the trail, as though placed there by some kindly hand. Still, he remained uneasy in his mind, and could not quite grasp tranquility, though the mountain lay at peace all round him, the air hazed with blue and smelling of wood-damp and evergreens. Then he realized, with a sudden jolt in the pit of his stomach, that the kitten was gone. There were itching furrows in the skin of his chest and abdomen, where it had climbed him in a frantic effort to escape, but it must have popped out the neck of his shirt and been flung off his shoulder in the mad career down the slope. He glanced from side to side, searching in the shadows under bushes and trees, but it was a vain hope. It was nearly dark, and they were on the main trail now, while he and Gideon had torn through the wood.

[.a Dhia], he murmured, and crossed himself briefly. Go with God. What’s that? Claire asked, half-turning in the saddle. Nothing, he said. After all, it was a wild cat, though a small one.

Doubtless it would manage. Gideon worked the bit, pecking and bobbing. Jamie realized that the tension in his hands was running through the reins once more, and consciously slackened his grip. He loosened his grip on Claire, too, and she took a sudden deep breath. His heart was beating fast. It was impossible for him ever to come home after an absence without a certain sense of apprehension.

For years after the Rising, he had lived in a cave, approaching his own house only rarely, after dark and with great caution, never knowing what he might find there. More than one Highland man had come home to his place to find it burnt and black, his family gone. Or worse, still there. Well enough to tell himself not to imagine horrors; the difficulty was that he had no need of imagination–memory sufficed. The horse dug with his haunches, pushing hard. No use to tell himself this was a new place; it was, with its own dangers. If there were no English soldiers in these mountains, there were still marauders. Those too shiftless to take root and fend for themselves, but who wandered the backcountry, robbing and plundering.

Raiding Indians. Wild animals. And fire. Always fire. He hadn’t realized that Claire was tensed, too, until she suddenly relaxed against him, a hand on his leg.

It’s all right, she said. I smell chimney-smoke. He lifted his head to catch the air. She was right; the tang of burning hickory floated on the breeze. Not the stink of remembered conflagration, but a homely whiff redolent with the promise of warmth and food.

They rounded the last turn of the trail and saw it, then, the high fieldstone chimney rising above the trees on the ridge, its fat plume of smoke curling over the rooftree. The house stood. He breathed deep in relief, noticing now the other smells of home; the faint rich scent of manure from the stable, of meat smoked and hanging in the shed, and the breath of the forest nearby–damp wood and leaf-rot, rock and rushing water, the touch of it cold and loving on his cheek. They came out of the chestnut grove and into the large clearing where the house stood, solid and neat, its windows glazed gold with the last of the sun. It was a modest frame house, white-washed and shingle-roofed, clean in its lines, and soundly built, but impressive only by comparison with the crude cabins of most settlers. His own first cabin still stood, dark and sturdy, a little way down the hill. Smoke was curling from that chimney, too.

Someone’s made a fire for Bree and Roger, Claire said, nodding at it. That’s good, he said. He tightened his arm about her waist, and she made a small, contented noise in her throat, wriggling her bottom into his lap. Gideon was happy, too; he stretched out his neck and whinnied to the two horses in the penfold, who trotted to and fro in the enclosure, calling greetings. Claire’s mare was standing by the fence, reins dangling; she curled her lip in what looked like derision, the wee besom. From somewhere far down the trail behind them came a deep, joyous bray; Clarence, hearing the racket and delighted to be coming home.

The door flew open, and Mrs. Bug popped out, round and flustered as a tumble-turd. He smiled at sight of her, and gave Claire an arm to slide down before dismounting himself. All’s well, all’s well, and how’s yourself, sir? Mrs. Bug was reassuring him before his boots struck ground.

She had a pewter cup in one hand, a polishing cloth in the other, and didn’t cease her polishing for an instant, even as she turned up her face to accept his kiss on her withered round cheek. She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned at once and stood a-tiptoe to kiss Claire, beaming. Oh, it’s grand that you’re home, Ma’am, you and Himself, and I’ve the supper all made, so you’ll not be worrit a bit with it, Ma’am, but come inside, come inside, and be takin’ off them dusty cloots, and I’ll send old Arch along to the mash-hoose for a bit of the lively, and we’ll.. She had Claire by one hand, towing her helplessly into the house, talking and talking, the other hand still polishing briskly away, her stubby fingers dextrously rubbing the cloth inside the cup. Claire gave him a helpless glance over one shoulder, and he grinned at her as she disappeared inside the house.

Mrs. Bug would not blink an eye, once informed that supper would be for ten more than expected. Gideon shoved an impatient nose under his arm and bumped his elbow. Oh, aye, he said, recalled to his chores. Come along then, ye prickly wee bastard. By the time he had the big bay and the mare unsaddled, wiped down with a wisp of dry hay and turned out to their feed, Claire had escaped from Mrs.

Bug; coming back from the paddock, he saw the door of the house swing open and Claire slip out, looking guiltily over her shoulder as though fearing pursuit. Where was she bound? She didn’t see him; she turned and hurried toward the far corner of the house, disappearing in a swish of homespun. He followed, curious. Ah. She had seen to her surgery; now she was going to her garden before it got completely dark; he caught a glimpse of her against the sky on the upward path behind the house, the last of the daylight caught like cobwebs in her hair.

There would be little growing now, only the overwintering things like carrots and onions and garlic, but it made no difference; she always went to see how things were, no matter how short a time she had been gone. He understood the urge; he would not feel entirely home himself until he had checked all the stock and buildings, and made sure of matters up at the still. The evening breeze brought him an acrid hint from the distant privy, suggesting that matters there were shortly going to require his attention, speaking of buildings. Then he bethought him of the new tenants coming, and relaxed; digging a new privy would be just the thing for Chisholm’s eldest two boys. He and Ian had dug this one, when they first came to the Ridge.

God, he missed the lad. A Micheal.., he murmured. Blessed Michael, protect him. He liked MacKenzie well enough, but had it been his choice, he would not have exchanged Ian for the man. It had been Ian’s choice, though, not his, and no more to be said about it.

Pushing away the ache of Ian’s loss, he stepped behind a tree, loosened his breeks and relieved himself. If she saw him, Claire would doubtless make what she considered witty remarks about dogs and wolves marking their home-ground as they returned to it. Nothing of the sort, he replied to her mentally, why walk up the hill, only to make matters worse in the privy? Still, if you came down to it, it was his place, and if he chose to piss on it..he tidied his clothes, feeling more settled. He raised his head and saw her coming down the path from the garden, her apron bulging with carrots and turnips. A gust of wind sent the last of the leaves from the chestnut grove swirling round her in a yellow dance, sparked with light. Moved by sudden impulse, he stepped deeper into the trees and began to look about.

Normally, he paid attention only to such vegetation as was immediately comestible by horse or man, sufficiently straight-grained to serve for planks and timbers, or so covered with thorns as to pose difficulty in passage. Once he began looking with an eye to aesthetics, though, he found himself surprised at the variety to hand. Stalks of half-ripe barley, the seeds laid in rows like a woman’s plait. A dry, fragile weed that looked like the lace-edging on a petticoat. A stem of blue spruce, unearthly green and cool among the dry bits, leaving its fragrant sap on his hand as he tore it from the tree.

A branch of glossy oak-leaves, that reminded him of her hair, in shades of gold and brown and gray. And a bit of scarlet creeper, snatched for color. Just in time; she was coming round the corner of the house. Lost in thought, she passed within a foot or two of him, not seeing him. Sorcha, he called softly, and she turned, eyes narrowed against the rays of the sinking sun, then wide and gold with surprise at the sight of him.

Welcome home, he said, and held out the small bouquet of leaves and twigs. Oh, she said. She looked at the bits of leaf and stick again, and then at him, and the corners of her mouth trembled, as though she might laugh or cry, but wasn’t sure which. She reached then, and took the plants from him, her fingers small and cold as they brushed his hand. Oh, Jamie–they’re wonderful.

She came up on her toes and kissed him, warm and salty, and he wanted more, but she was hurrying away into the house, the silly wee things clasped to her breast as though they were gold. He felt pleasantly foolish, and foolishly pleased with himself. The taste of her was still on his mouth. Sorcha, he whispered, and realized that he had called her so a moment before. Now that was odd; no wonder she had been surprised.

It was her name in the Gaelic, but he never called her by it. He liked the strangeness of her, the Englishness. She was his Sassenach. And yet in the moment when she passed him, she was Sorcha. Not only Claire, it meant–but light. He breathed deep, contented. He was suddenly ravenous, both for food and for her, but he made no move to hasten inside. Some kinds of hunger were sweet in themselves, the anticipation of satisfaction as keen a pleasure as the slaking.

Hoofsteps and voices; the others were coming up the trail into the clearing. He had a sudden urge to keep his peaceful solitude a moment longer, but too late–in seconds, he was surrounded by confusion, the shrill cries of excited children and calls of distracted mothers, the welcoming of the newcomers, the bustle and rush of unloading, turning out the horses and mules, fetching feed and water..and yet in the midst of this Babel, he moved as though he were still alone, peaceful and quiet in the setting sun. He had come home. [next morning] Drugged with fatigue, languid with love, and lulled by the comforts of a soft, clean bed and Jamie’s warm body, I slept like the dead. Somewhere toward dawn, I began to dream–pleasant dreams of touch and color, without form.

Small hands touched my hair, patted my face; I turned on my side, half-conscious, dreaming of nursing a child in my sleep. Tiny soft fingers kneaded my breast, and my hand came up to cup the child’s head. It bit me. I shrieked, shot bolt upright in bed, and saw a gray form race across the quilt and disappear over the end of the bed. I shrieked again, louder.

Jamie shot sideways out of bed, rolled on the floor and came up standing, shoulders braced and fists half-clenched. What? he demanded, glaring wildly round in search of marauders. Who? What? A rat! I said, pointing a trembling finger at the spot where the gray shape had vanished into the crevice between bed-foot and wall. Oh. His shoulders relaxed.

He scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair, blinking. A rat, aye? A rat in our bed, I said, not disposed to view the event with any degree of calm. It bit me! I peered closely at my injured breast. No blood; only a couple of tiny puncture-marks that stung slightly. I did hope it wasn’t rabid. Dinna fash.

I’ll deal with it. Social Issues.