A Trail of Fire (Page 26)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(26)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Finished, he put down the tin and touched his rising prick. He didn’t suppose he’d ever see Manoke again. But he did remember. Vividly.

A little later, he lay gasping on the bed under his netting, heart thumping slowly in counterpoint to the echoes of his flesh. He opened his eyes, feeling pleasantly relaxed, his head finally clear. The room was close; the servants had shut the windows, of course, to keep out the dangerous night air, and sweat misted his body. He felt too slack to get up and open the French doors onto the terrace, though; in a moment would do.

He closed his eyes again – then opened them abruptly and leapt out of bed, reaching for the dagger he’d laid on the table. The servant called Rodrigo stood pressed against the door, the whites of his eyes showing in his black face.

‘What do you want?’ Grey put the dagger down, but kept his hand on it, his heart still racing.

‘I have a message for you, sah,’ the young man said. He swallowed audibly.

‘Yes? Come into the light, where I can see you.’ Grey reached for his banyan and slid into it, still keeping an eye on the man.

Rodrigo peeled himself off the door with evident reluctance, but he’d come to say something, and say it he would. He advanced into the dim circle of candlelight, hands at his sides, nervously clutching air.

‘Do you know, sah, what an Obeah-man is?’

‘No.’

That disconcerted Rodrigo visibly. He blinked, and twisted his lips, obviously at a loss as how to describe this entity. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders helplessly and gave up.

‘He says to you, beware.’

‘Does he?’ Grey says dryly. ‘Of anything specific?’

That seemed to help; Rodrigo nodded vigorously.

‘You don’t be close to the governor. Stay right away, as far as you can. He’s going to – I mean . . . something bad might happen. Soon. He—’ The servant broke off suddenly, apparently realising that he could be dismissed – if not worse – for talking about the governor in this loose fashion. Grey was more than curious, though, and sat down, motioning to Rodrigo to take the stool, which he did with obvious reluctance.

Whatever an Obeah-man was, Grey thought, he clearly had considerable power, to force Rodrigo to do something he so plainly didn’t want to do. The young man’s face shone with sweat and his hands clenched mindlessly on the fabric of his coat.

‘Tell me what the Obeah-man said,’ Grey said, leaning forward, intent. ‘I promise you, I will tell no one.’

Rodrigo gulped, but nodded. He bent his head, looking at the table as though he might find the right words written in the grain of the wood.

‘Zombie,’ he muttered, almost inaudibly. ‘The zombie come for him. For the governor.’

Grey had no notion what a zombie might be, but the word was spoken in such a tone as to make a chill flicker over his skin, sudden as distant lightning.

‘Zombie,’ he said carefully. Mindful of the governor’s reaction earlier, he asked, ‘Is a zombie perhaps a snake of some kind?’

Rodrigo gasped, but then seemed to relax a little.

‘No, sah,’ he said seriously. ‘Zombie are dead people.’ He stood up then, bowed abruptly and left, his message delivered.

Not surprisingly, Grey did not fall asleep immediately in the wake of this visit.

Having encountered German night-hags, Indian ghosts, and having spent a year or two in the Scottish Highlands, he had more acquaintance than most with picturesque superstition. While he wasn’t inclined to give instant credence to local custom and belief, neither was he inclined to discount such belief out of hand. Belief made people do things that they otherwise wouldn’t – and whether the belief had substance or not, the consequent actions certainly did.

Obeah-men and zombies notwithstanding, plainly there was some threat to Governor Warren – and he rather thought the governor knew what it was.

How exigent was the threat, though? He pinched out the candle-flame and sat in darkness for a moment, letting his eyes adjust themselves, then rose and went soft-footed to the French doors through which Rodrigo had vanished.

The guest bedchambers of King’s House were merely a string of boxes, all facing onto the long terrace, and each opening directly on to it through a pair of French doors. These had been curtained for the night, long pale drapes of muslin drawn across them. He paused for a moment, hand on the drape; if anyone was watching his room, they would see the curtain being drawn aside.

Instead, he turned and went to the inner door of the room. This opened onto a narrow service corridor, completely dark at the moment – and completely empty, if his senses could be trusted. He closed the door quietly. It was interesting, he thought, that Rodrigo had come to the front door, so to speak, when he could have approached Grey unseen.

But he’d said the Obeah-man had sent him. Plainly he wanted it to be seen that he had obeyed his order. Which in turn meant that someone was likely watching to see that he had.

The logical conclusion would be that the same someone – or someones – was watching to see what Grey might do next.

His body had reached its own conclusions already, and was reaching for breeches and shirt before he had quite decided that if something was about to happen to Warren, it was clearly his duty to stop it, zombies or not. He stepped out of the French doors onto the terrace, moving quite openly.

There was an infantryman posted at either end of the terrace, as he’d expected; Robert Cherry was nothing if not meticulous. On the other hand, the bloody sentries had plainly not seen Rodrigo entering his room, and he wasn’t at all pleased about that. Recriminations could wait, though; the nearer sentry saw him and challenged him with a sharp, ‘Who goes there?’

‘It’s me,’ Grey said briefly, and without ceremony, dispatched the sentry with orders to alert the other soldiers posted around the house, then send two men into the house, where they should wait in the hall until summoned.

Grey himself then went back into his room, through the inner door, and down the dark service corridor. He found a dozing black servant behind a door at the end of it, minding the fire under the row of huge coppers that supplied hot water to the household.

The man blinked and stared when shaken awake, but eventually nodded in response to Grey’s demand to be taken to the governor’s bedchamber, and led him into the main part of the house and up a darkened stair lit only by the moonlight streaming through the tall casements. Everything was quiet on the upper floor, save for slow, regular snoring coming from what the slave said was the governor’s room.

The man was swaying with weariness; Grey dismissed him, with orders to let in the soldiers who should now be at the door, and send them up. The man yawned hugely, and Grey watched him stumble down the stairs into the murk of the hall below, hoping he would not fall and break his neck. The house was very quiet. He was beginning to feel somewhat foolish. And yet . . .

The house seemed to breathe around him, almost as though it were a sentient thing, and aware of him. He found the fancy unsettling.

Ought he to wake Warren? he wondered. Warn him? Question him? No, he decided. There was no point in disturbing the man’s rest. Questions could wait for the morning.

The sound of feet coming up the stair dispelled his sense of uneasiness, and he gave his orders quietly. The sentries were to keep guard on this door until relieved in the morning; at any sound of disturbance within, they were to enter at once. Otherwise—

‘Stay alert. If you see or hear anything, I wish to know about it.’

He paused, but Warren continued to snore, so he shrugged and made his way downstairs, out into the silken night, and back to his own room.

He smelled it first. For an instant, he thought he had left the tin of bear-grease ointment uncovered – and then the reek of sweet decay took him by the throat, followed instantly by a pair of hands that came out of the dark and fastened on said throat.

He fought back in blind panic, striking and kicking wildly, but the grip on his windpipe didn’t loosen, and bright lights began to flicker at the corners of what would have been his vision if he’d had any. With a tremendous effort of will, he made himself go limp. The sudden weight surprised his assailant, and jerked Grey free of the throttling grasp as he fell. He hit the floor and rolled.

Bloody hell, where was the man? If it was a man. For even as his mind reasserted its claim to reason, his more visceral faculties were recalling Rodrigo’s parting statement: Zombie are dead people, sah. And whatever was here in the dark with him seemed to have been dead for several days, judging from its smell.

He could hear the rustling of something moving quietly toward him. Was it breathing? He couldn’t tell, for the rasp of his own breath, harsh in his throat, and the blood-thick hammering of his heart in his ears.

He was lying at the foot of a wall, his legs half under the dressing table’s bench. There was light in the room, now his eyes were accustomed; the French doors were pale rectangles in the dark, and he could make out the shape of the thing that was hunting him. It was man-shaped, but oddly hunched, and swung its head and shoulders from side to side, almost as though it meant to smell him out. Which wouldn’t take it more than two more seconds, at most.

He sat up abruptly, seized the small padded bench, and threw it as hard as he could at the thing’s legs. It made a startled Oof ! noise that was undeniably human and staggered, waving its arms to keep its balance. The noise reassured him, and he rolled up onto one knee and launched himself at the creature, bellowing incoherent abuse.

He butted it around chest-height, felt it fall backward, then lunged for the pool of shadow where he thought the table was. It was there, and feeling frantically over the surface, he found his dagger, still where he’d left it. He snatched it up, and turned just in time to face the thing, which closed with him at once, reeking and making a disagreeable gobbling noise. He slashed at it, and felt his knife skitter down the creature’s forearm, bouncing off bone. It screamed, releasing a blast of foul breath directly into his face, then turned and rushed for the French doors, bursting them open in a shower of glass and flying muslin.

Grey charged after it, onto the terrace, shouting for the sentries. But the sentries, as he recalled belatedly, were in the main house, keeping watch over the governor, lest that worthy’s rest be disturbed by . . . whatever sort of thing this was. Zombie?

Whatever it was, it was gone.

He sat down abruptly on the stones of the terrace, shaking with reaction. No one had come out in response to the noise. Surely no one could have slept through that; perhaps no one else was housed on this side of the mansion.

He felt ill and breathless, and rested his head for a moment on his knees, before jerking it up to look round, lest something else be stealing up on him. But the night was still and balmy. The only noise was an agitated rustling of leaves in a nearby tree, which he thought for a shocked moment might be the creature, climbing from branch to branch in search of refuge. Then he heard soft chitterings and hissing squeaks. Bats, said the calmly rational part of his mind – what was left of it.

He gulped and breathed, trying to get clean air into his lungs, to replace the disgusting stench of the creature. He’d been a soldier most of his life; he’d seen the dead on battlefields, and smelled them, too. Had buried fallen comrades in trenches and burned the bodies of his enemies. He knew what graves smelled like, and rotting flesh. And the thing that had had its hands round his throat had almost certainly come from a recent grave.