A Trail of Fire (Page 30)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(30)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Do they?’ he murmured. The creature – well, the man, he was now sure of that – who had attacked him had not been stiff and slow, by any means. Ergo . . .

‘I’m told, madam, that most of your slaves are Ashanti. Would any of them know more about this process?’

‘No,’ she said abruptly, sitting up a little. ‘I learnt what I ken from a houngan – that would be a sort of . . . practitioner, I suppose ye’d say. He wasna one of my slaves, though.’

‘A practitioner of what, exactly?’

Her tongue passed slowly over the tips of her sharp teeth, yellowed, but still sound.

‘Of magic,’ she said, and laughed softly, as though to herself. ‘Aye, magic. African magic. Slave magic.’

‘You believe in magic?’ He asked it as much from curiosity as anything else.

‘Don’t you?’ Her brows rose, but he shook his head.

‘I do not. And in fact, from what you have just told me yourself, the process of creating – if that’s the word – a zombie is not in fact magic, but merely the administration of poison over a period of time, added to the power of suggestion.’ Another thought struck him. ‘Can a person recover from such poisoning? You say it does not kill them.’

She shook her head.

‘The poison doesn’t, no. But they always die. They starve, for one thing. They lose all notion of will, and canna do anything save what the houngan tells them to do. Gradually, they waste away to nothing, and—’ Her fingers snapped silently.

‘Even were they to survive,’ she went on practically, ‘the people would kill them. Once a person’s been made a zombie, there’s nay way back.’

Throughout the conversation, Grey had been becoming aware that Mrs Abernathy spoke from what seemed a much closer acquaintance with the notion than one might acquire from an idle interest in natural philosophy. He wanted to get away from her, but obliged himself to sit still and ask one more question.

‘Do you know of any particular significance attributed to snakes, madam? In African magic, I mean.’

She blinked, somewhat taken aback by that.

‘Snakes,’ she repeated slowly. ‘Aye. Well . . . snakes ha’ wisdom, they say. And some o’ the loas are snakes.’

‘Loas?’

She rubbed absently at her forehead, and he saw, with a small prickle of revulsion, the faint stippling of a rash. He’d seen that before; the sign of advanced syphilitic infection.

‘I suppose ye’d call them spirits,’ she said, and eyed him appraisingly. ‘D’ye see snakes in your dreams, colonel?’

‘Do I— no. I don’t.’ He didn’t, but the suggestion was unspeakably disturbing. She smiled.

‘A loa rides a person, aye? Speaks through them. And I see a great huge snake, lyin’ on your shoulders, colonel.’ She heaved herself abruptly to her feet.

‘I’d be careful what ye eat, Colonel Grey.’

They returned to Spanish Town two days later. The ride back gave Grey time for thought, from which he drew certain conclusions. Among these conclusions was the conviction that maroons had not, in fact, attacked Rose Hall. He had spoken to Mrs Abernathy’s overseer, who seemed reluctant and shifty, very vague on the details of the presumed attack. And later . . .

After his conversations with the overseer and several slaves, he had gone back to the house to take formal leave of Mrs Abernathy. No one had answered his knock, and he had walked round the house in search of a servant. What he had found instead was a path leading downward from the house, with a glimpse of water at the bottom.

Out of curiosity, he had followed this path, and found the infamous spring in which Mrs Abernathy had presumably sought refuge from the murdering intruders. Mrs Abernathy was in the spring, nak*d, swimming with slow composure from one side to the other, white-streaked fair hair streaming out behind her.

The water was crystalline; he could see the fleshy pumping of her buttocks, moving like a bellows that propelled her movements – and glimpse the purplish hollow of her sex, exposed by the flexion. There were no banks of concealing reeds or other vegetation; no one could have failed to see the woman if she’d been in the spring – and plainly, the temperature of the water was no dissuasion to her.

So she’d lied about the maroons. He had a cold certainty that Mrs Abernathy had murdered her husband, or arranged it – but there was little he was equipped to do with that conclusion. Arrest her? There were no witnesses – or none who could legally testify against her, even if they wanted to. And he rather thought that none of her slaves would want to; those he had spoken with had displayed extreme reticence with regard to their mistress. Whether that was the result of loyalty or fear, the effect would be the same.

What the conclusion did mean to him was that the maroons were in fact likely not guilty of murder, and that was important. So far, all reports of mischief involved only property damage – and that, only to fields and equipment. No houses had been burnt, and while several plantation owners had claimed that their slaves had been taken, there was no proof of this; the slaves in question might simply have taken advantage of the chaos of an attack to run.

This spoke to him of a certain amount of care on the part of whoever led the maroons. Who did? he wondered. What sort of man? The impression he was gaining was not that of a rebellion – there had been no declaration, and he would have expected that – but of the boiling over of a long-simmering frustration. He had to speak with Captain Cresswell. And he hoped that bloody secretary had managed to find the superintendent by the time he reached King’s House.

In the event, he reached King’s House long after dark, and was informed by the governor’s butler – appearing like a black ghost in his nightshirt – that the household were asleep.

‘All right,’ he said wearily. ‘Call my valet, if you will. And tell the governor’s servant in the morning that I will require to speak to his Excellency after breakfast, no matter what his state of health may be.’

Tom was sufficiently pleased to see Grey in one piece as to make no protest at being awakened, and had him washed, nightshirted, and tucked up beneath his mosquito-netting before the church-bells of Spanish Town tolled midnight. The doors of his room had been repaired, but Grey made Tom leave the window open, and fell asleep with a silken wind caressing his cheeks and no thought of what the morning might bring.

He was roused from an unusually vivid erotic dream by an agitated banging. He pulled his head out from under the pillow, the feel of rasping red hairs still rough on his lips, and shook his head violently, trying to reorient himself in space and time. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! Bloody hell . . . ? Oh. Door.

‘What? Come in, for God’s sake! What the devil— oh. Wait a moment, then.’ He struggled out of the tangle of bedclothes and discarded nightshirt – good Christ, had he really been doing what he’d been dreaming about doing? – and flung his banyan over his rapidly detumescing flesh.

‘What?’ he demanded, finally getting the door open. To his surprise, Tom stood there, saucer-eyed and trembling, next to Major Fettes.

‘Are you all right, me lord?’ Tom burst out, cutting off Major Fettes’s first words.

‘Do I appear to be spurting blood or missing any necessary appendages?’ Grey demanded, rather irritably. ‘What’s happened, Fettes?’

Now that he’d got his eyes properly open, he saw that Fettes looked almost as disturbed as Tom. The major – veteran of a dozen major campaigns, decorated for valour, and known for his coolness – swallowed visibly and braced his shoulders.

‘It’s the governor, sir. I think you’d best come and see.’

‘Where are the men who were assigned to guard him?’ Grey asked calmly, stepping out of the governor’s bedroom and closing the door gently behind him. The doorknob slid out of his fingers, slick under his hand. He knew the slickness was his own sweat, and not blood, but his stomach gave a lurch and he rubbed his fingers convulsively against the leg of his breeches.

‘They’re gone, sir.’ Fettes had got his voice, if not quite his face, back under control. ‘I’ve sent men to search the grounds.’

‘Good. Would you please call the servants together? I’ll need to question them.’

Fettes took a deep breath.

‘They’re gone, too.’

‘What? All of them?’

‘Yes, sir.’

He took a deep breath himself – and let it out again, fast. Even outside the room, the stench was gagging. He could feel the smell, thick on his skin, and rubbed his fingers on his breeches once again, hard. He swallowed, and holding his breath, jerked his head to Fettes – and Cherry, who had joined them, shaking his head mutely in answer to Grey’s raised brow. No sign of the vanished sentries, then. God damn it; a search would have to be made for their bodies. The thought made him cold, despite the growing warmth of the morning.

He went down the stairs, his officers only too glad to follow. By the time he reached the foot, he had decided where to begin, at least. He stopped and turned to Fettes and Cherry.

‘Right. The island is under military law as of this moment. Notify the officers, but tell them there is to be no public announcement yet. And don’t tell them why.’ Given the flight of the servants, it was more than likely that news of the governor’s death would reach the inhabitants of Spanish Town within hours – if it hadn’t already. But if there was the slightest chance that the populace might remain in ignorance of the fact that Governor Warren had been killed and partially devoured in his own residence, while under the guard of His Majesty’s army . . . Grey was taking it.

‘What about the secretary?’ he asked abruptly, suddenly remembering. ‘Dawes. Is he gone, too? Or dead?’

Fettes and Cherry exchanged a guilty look.

‘Don’t know, sir,’ Cherry said gruffly. ‘I’ll go and look.’

‘Do that, if you please.’

He nodded in return to their salutes, and went outside, shuddering in relief at the touch of the sun on his face, the warmth of it through the thin linen of his shirt. He walked slowly toward his room, where Tom had doubtless already managed to assemble and clean his uniform.

Now what? Dawes, if the man was still alive – and he hoped to God he was . . . A sudden surge of saliva choked him, and he spat several times on the terrace, unable to swallow for the memory of that throat-clenching smell.

‘Tom,’ he said urgently, coming into the room. ‘Did you have an opportunity to speak to the other servants? To Rodrigo?’

‘Yes, me lord.’ Tom waved him onto the stool and knelt to put his stockings on. ‘They all knew about zombies – said they were dead people, just like Rodrigo said. A houngan – that’s a . . . well, I don’t quite know, but folk are right scared of ’em. Anyway, one of those who takes against somebody – or what’s paid to do so, I reckon – will take the somebody, and kill them, then raise ’em up again, to be his servant, and that’s a zombie. They were all dead scared of the notion, me lord,’ he said earnestly, looking up.