A Trail of Fire (Page 33)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(33)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Grey lay awake for a little, fighting tiredness, his mind reaching upward. He had worn uniform, though not full-dress, so that his identity would be apparent. And his gambit so far had been accepted; they had not been challenged, let alone attacked. Apparently Captain Accompong would receive him.

Then what? He wasn’t sure. He did hope that he might recover his men – the two sentries who had disappeared on the night of Governor Warren’s murder. Their bodies had not been discovered, nor had any of their uniform or equipment turned up – and Captain Cherry had had the whole of Spanish Town and King’s Town turned over in the search. If they had been taken alive, though, that reinforced his impression of Accompong – and gave him some hope that this rebellion might be resolved in some manner not involving a prolonged military campaign fought through jungles and rocks, and ending in chains and executions. But if . . . Sleep overcame him, and he lapsed into incongruous dreams of bright birds, whose feathers brushed his cheeks as they flew silently past.

Grey woke in the morning to the feel of sun on his face. He blinked for a moment, confused, and then sat up. He was alone. Truly alone.

He scrambled to his feet, heart thumping, reaching for his dagger. It was there in his belt, but that was the only thing still where it should be. His horse – all the horses – were gone. So was his tent. So was the pack-mule and its panniers. And so were Tom and Rodrigo.

He saw this at once – the blankets in which they’d lain the night before were still there, tumbled into the bushes – but he called for them anyway, again and again, until his throat was raw with shouting.

From somewhere high above him, he heard one of the horns, a long-drawn-out hoot that sounded mocking to his ears.

He understood the present message instantly. You took two of ours; we have taken two of yours.

‘And you don’t think I’ll come and get them?’ he shouted upward into the dizzying sea of swaying green. ‘Tell Captain Accompong I’m coming! I’ll have my young men back, and back safe – or I’ll have his head!’

Blood rose in his face, and he thought he might burst, but had better sense than to punch something, which was his very strong urge. He was alone; he couldn’t afford to damage himself. He had to arrive among the maroons with everything that still remained to him, if he meant to rescue Tom and resolve the rebellion – and he did mean to rescue Tom, no matter what. It didn’t matter that this might be a trap; he was going.

He calmed himself with an effort of will, stamping round in a circle in his stockinged feet until he had worked off most of his anger. That’s when he saw them, sitting neatly side-by-side under a thorny bush.

They’d left him his boots. They did expect him to come.

He walked for three days. He didn’t bother trying to follow a trail; he wasn’t a particularly skilled tracker, and finding any trace among the rocks and dense growth was a vain hope in any case. He simply climbed, and listened for the horns.

The maroons hadn’t left him any supplies, but that didn’t matter. There were numerous small streams and pools, and while he was hungry, he didn’t starve. Here and there he found trees of the sort he had seen at Twelvetrees, festooned with small yellowish fruits. If the parrots ate them, he reasoned, the fruits must be at least minimally comestible. They were mouth-puckeringly sour, but they didn’t poison him.

The horns had increased in frequency since dawn. There were now three or four of them, signalling back and forth. Clearly, he was getting close. To what, he didn’t know, but close.

He paused, looking upward. The ground had begun to level out here; there were open spots in the jungle, and in one of these small clearings, he saw what were plainly crops: mounds of curling vines that might be yams, bean-poles, the big yellow flowers of squash or gourds. At the far edge of the field, a tiny curl of smoke rose against the green. Close.

He took off the crude hat he had woven from palm leaves against the strong sun, and wiped his face on the tail of his shirt. That was as much preparation as it was possible to make. The gaudy, gold-laced hat he’d brought was presumably still in its box – wherever that was. He put his palm-leaf hat back on and limped toward the curl of smoke.

As he walked, he became aware of people, fading slowly into view. Dark-skinned people, dressed in ragged clothing, coming out of the jungle to watch him with big, curious eyes. He’d found the maroons.

A small group of men took him further upward. It was just before sunset, and the sunlight slanted gold and lavender through the trees, when they led him into a large clearing, where there was a compound consisting of a number of huts. One of the men accompanying Grey shouted, and from the largest hut emerged a man who announced himself with no particular ceremony as Captain Accompong.

Captain Accompong was a surprise. He was very short, very fat, and hunchbacked, his body so distorted that he did not so much walk as proceed by a sort of sideways lurching. He was attired in the remnants of a splendid coat, now buttonless, and with its gold lace half missing, the cuffs filthy with wear.

He peered from under the drooping brim of a ragged felt hat, eyes bright in its shadow. His face was round and much creased, lacking a good many teeth – but giving the impression of great shrewdness, and perhaps good humour. Grey hoped so.

‘Who are you?’ Accompong asked, peering up at Grey like a toad under a rock.

Everyone in the clearing very plainly knew his identity; they shifted from foot to foot and nudged each other, grinning. He paid no attention to them, though, and bowed very correctly to Accompong.

‘I am the man responsible for the two young men who were taken on the mountain. I have come to get them back – along with my soldiers.’

A certain amount of scornful hooting ensued, and Accompong let it go on for a few moments, before lifting his hand.

‘You say so? Why you think I have anything to do with these young men?’

‘I do not say that you do. But I know a great leader when I see one – and I know that you can help me to find my young men. If you will.’

‘Phu!’ Accompong’s face creased into a gap-toothed smile. ‘You think you flatter me, and I help?’

Grey could feel some of the smaller children stealing up behind him; he heard muffled giggles, but didn’t turn round.

‘I ask for your help. But I do not offer you only my good opinion in return.’

A small hand reached under his coat and rudely tweaked his buttock. There was an explosion of laughter, and mad scampering behind him. He didn’t move.

Accompong chewed slowly at something in the back of his capacious mouth, one eye narrowed.

‘Yes? What do you offer, then? Gold?’ One corner of his thick lips turned up.

‘Do you have any need of gold?’ Grey asked. The children were whispering and giggling again behind him, but he also heard shushing noises from some of the women – they were getting interested. Maybe.

Accompong thought for a moment, then shook his head.

‘No. What else you offer?’

‘What do you want?’ Grey parried.

‘Captain Cresswell’s head!’ said a woman’s voice, very clearly. There was a shuffle and smack, a man’s voice rebuking in Spanish, a heated crackle of women’s voices in return. Accompong let it go on for a minute or two, then raised one hand. Silence fell abruptly.

It lengthened. Grey could feel the pulse beating in his temples, slow and labouring. Ought he to speak? He came as a suppliant already; to speak now would be to lose face, as the Chinese put it. He waited.

‘The governor is dead?’ Accompong asked at last.

‘Yes. How do you know of it?’

‘You mean, did I kill him?’ The bulbous yellowed eyes creased.

‘No,’ Grey said patiently. ‘I mean – do you know how he died?’

‘The zombies kill him.’ The answer came readily – and seriously. There was no hint of humour in those eyes now.

‘Do you know who made the zombies?’

A most extraordinary shudder ran through Accompong, from his ragged hat to the horny soles of his bare feet.

‘You do know,’ Grey said softly, raising a hand to prevent the automatic denial. ‘But it wasn’t you, was it? Tell me.’

The captain shifted uneasily from one buttock to the other, but didn’t reply. His eyes darted toward one of the huts, and after a moment, he raised his voice, calling something in the maroons’ patois, wherein Grey thought he caught the word ‘Azeel’. He was puzzled momentarily, finding the word familiar, but not knowing why. Then the young woman emerged from the hut, ducking under the low doorway, and he remembered.

Azeel. The young slave-woman whom the governor had taken and misused, whose flight from King’s House had presaged the plague of serpents.

Seeing her as she came forward, he couldn’t help but see what had inspired the governor’s lust, though it was not a beauty that spoke to him. She was small, but not inconsequential. Perfectly proportioned, she stood like a queen, and her eyes burned as she turned her face to Grey. There was anger in her face – but also something like a terrible despair.

‘Captain Accompong says that I will tell you what I know – what happened.’

Grey bowed to her.

‘I should be most grateful to hear it, madam.’

She looked hard at him, obviously suspecting mockery, but he’d meant it, and she saw that. She gave a brief, nearly imperceptible nod.

‘Well, then. You know that beast—’ she spat neatly on the ground, ‘—forced me? And I left his house?’

‘Yes. Whereupon you sought out an Obeah-man, who invoked a curse of snakes upon Governor Warren, am I correct?’

She glared at him, and gave a short nod. ‘The snake is wisdom, and that man had none. None!’

‘I think you’re quite right about that. But the zombies?’

There was a general intake of breath among the crowd. Fear, distaste – and something else. The girl’s lips pressed together, and tears glimmered in her large dark eyes.

‘Rodrigo,’ she said, and choked on the name. ‘He— and I—’ Her jaw clamped hard; she couldn’t speak without weeping, and would not weep in front of him. He cast down his gaze to the ground, to give her what privacy he could. He could hear her breathing through her nose, a soft, snuffling noise. Finally, she heaved a deep breath.

‘He was not satisfied. He went to a houngan. The Obeah-man warned him, but—’ Her entire face contorted with the effort to hold in her feelings. ‘The houngan. He had zombies. Rodrigo paid him to kill the beast.’

Grey felt as though he had been punched in the chest. Rodrigo. Rodrigo, hiding in the garden shed at the sound of shuffling bare feet in the night – or Rodrigo, warning his fellow servants to leave, then unbolting the doors, following a silent horde of ruined men in clotted rags up the stairs . . . or running up before them, in apparent alarm, summoning the sentries, drawing them outside, where they could be taken.

‘And where is Rodrigo now?’ Grey asked sharply. There was a deep silence in the clearing. None of the people even glanced at each other; every eye was fixed on the ground. He took a step toward Accompong. ‘Captain?’