A Trail of Fire (Page 34)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(34)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Accompong stirred. He raised his misshapen face to Grey, and a hand toward one of the huts.

‘We do not like zombies, colonel,’ he said. ‘They are unclean. And to kill a man using them . . . this is a great wrong. You understand this?’

‘I do, yes.’

‘This man, Rodrigo—’ Accompong hesitated, searching out words. ‘He is not one of us. He comes from Hispaniola. They . . . do such things there.’

‘Such things as make zombies? But presumably it happens here as well.’ Grey spoke automatically; his mind was working furiously in light of these revelations. The thing that had attacked him in his room – it would be no great trick for a man to smear himself with grave-dirt and wear rotted clothing . . .

‘Not among us,’ Accompong said, very firmly. ‘Before I say more, my colonel – do you believe what you have heard so far? Do you believe that we – that I – had nothing to do with the death of your governor?’

Grey considered that one for a moment. There was no evidence, only the story of the slave-girl. Still . . . he did have evidence. The evidence of his own observations and conclusions, regarding the nature of the man who sat before him.

‘Yes,’ he said abruptly. ‘So?’

‘Will your king believe it?’

Well, not as baldly stated, no, Grey thought. The matter would need a little tactful handling . . . Accompong snorted faintly, seeing the thoughts cross his face.

‘This man, Rodrigo. He has done us great harm, by taking his private revenge in a way that . . . that . . .’ He groped for the word.

‘That incriminates you,’ Grey finished for him. ‘Yes, I see that. What have you done with him?’

‘I cannot give this man to you,’ Accompong said at last. His thick lips pressed together briefly, but he met Grey’s eye. ‘He is dead.’

The shock hit Grey like a musket ball. A thump that knocked him off-balance, and the sickening knowledge of irrevocable damage done.

‘How?’ he said, short and sharp. ‘What happened to him?’

The clearing was still silent. Accompong stared at the ground in front of him. After a long moment, a sigh, a whisper, drifted from the crowd.


‘Where?’ he barked. ‘Where is he? Bring him to me. Now!’

The crowd shrank away from the hut, and a sort of moan ran through them. Women snatched up their children, pushed back so hastily that they stepped on the feet of their companions. The door opened.

‘Anda!’ said a voice from inside. ‘Walk,’ it meant, in Spanish. Grey’s numbed mind had barely registered this when the darkness inside the hut changed, and a form appeared at the door.

It was Rodrigo. But then again – it wasn’t. The glowing skin had gone pale and muddy, almost waxen. The firm, soft mouth hung loose, and the eyes – oh, God, the eyes! They were sunken, glassy, and showed no comprehension, no movement, not the least sense of awareness. They were a dead man’s eyes. And yet . . . he walked.

This was the worst of all. Gone was every trace of Rodrigo’s springy grace, his elegance. This creature moved stiffly, shambling, feet dragging, almost lurching from foot to foot. Its clothing hung upon its bones like a scarecrow’s rags, smeared with clay and stained with dreadful liquids. The odour of putrefaction reached Grey’s nostrils, and he gagged.

‘Alto,’ said the voice, softly, and Rodrigo stopped abruptly, arms hanging like a marionette’s. Grey looked up, then, at the hut. A tall, dark man stood in the doorway, burning eyes fixed on Grey.

The sun was all but down; the clearing lay in deep shadow, and Grey felt a convulsive shiver go through him. He lifted his chin, and ignoring the horrid thing standing stiff before him, addressed the tall man.

‘Who are you, sir?’

‘Call me Ishmael,’ said the man, in an odd, lilting accent. He stepped out of the hut, and Grey was conscious of a general shrinking, everyone pulling away from the man, as though he suffered from some deadly contagion. Grey wanted to step back, too, but didn’t.

‘You did . . . this?’ Grey asked, flicking a hand at the remnant of Rodrigo.

‘I was paid to do it, yes.’ Ishmael’s eyes flicked toward Accompong, then back to Grey.

‘And Governor Warren – you were paid to kill him as well, were you? By this man?’ A brief nod at Rodrigo; he could not bear to look directly at him.

The zombies think they’re dead, and so does everyone else.

A frown drew Ishmael’s brows together, and with the change of expression, Grey noticed that the man’s faced was scarred, with apparent deliberation, long channels cut in cheeks and forehead. He shook his head.

‘No. This—’ he nodded at Rodrigo, ‘—paid me to bring my zombies. He says to me that he wishes to terrify a man. And zombies will do that,’ he added, with a wolfish smile. ‘But when I brought them into the room and the buckra turned to flee, this one—’ the flick of a hand toward Rodrigo, ‘he sprang upon him and stabbed him. The man fell dead, and Rodrigo then ordered me—’ his tone of voice made it clear what he thought of anyone ordering him to do anything, ‘to make my zombies feed upon him. And I did,’ he ended abruptly.

Grey swung round to Captain Accompong, who had sat silently through this testimony.

‘And then you paid this— this—’

‘Houngan,’ Ishmael put in helpfully.

‘—to do that?!’ He pointed at Rodrigo, and his voice shook with outraged horror.

‘Justice,’ said Accompong, with simple dignity. ‘Don’t you think so?’

Grey found himself temporarily bereft of speech. While he groped for something possible to say, the headman turned to a lieutenant and said, ‘Bring the other one.’

‘The other—’ Grey began, but before he could speak further, there was another stir among the crowd, and from one of the huts, a maroon emerged, leading another man by a rope around his neck. The man was wild-eyed and filthy, his hands bound behind him, but his clothes had originally been very fine. Grey shook his head, trying to dispel the remnants of horror that clung to his mind.

‘Captain Cresswell, I presume?’ he said.

‘Save me!’ the man panted, and collapsed on his knees at Grey’s feet. ‘I beg you, sir— whoever you are – save me!’

Grey rubbed a hand wearily over his face, and looked down at the erstwhile superintendent, then at Accompong.

‘Does he need saving?’ he asked. ‘I don’t want to – I know what he’s done – but it is my duty.’

Accompong pursed his lips, thinking.

‘You know what he is, you say. If I give him to you, what would you do with him?’

At least there was an answer to that one.

‘Charge him with his crimes, and send him to England for trial. If he is convicted, he would be imprisoned – or possibly hang. What would happen to him here?’ he asked curiously.

Accompong turned his head, looking thoughtfully at the houngan, who grinned unpleasantly.

‘No!’ gasped Cresswell. ‘No, please! Don’t let him take me! I can’t— I can’t— oh, GOD!’ He glanced, appalled, at the stiff figure of Rodrigo, then fell face-first onto the ground at Grey’s feet, weeping convulsively.

Numbed with shock, Grey thought for an instant that it would probably resolve the rebellion . . . but no. Cresswell couldn’t, and neither could he.

‘Right,’ said Grey, and swallowed before turning to Accompong. ‘He is an Englishman, and as I said, it’s my duty to see that he’s subject to English laws. I must therefore ask that you give him into my custody, and take my word that I will see he receives justice. Our sort of justice,’ he added, giving the evil look back to the houngan.

‘And if I don’t?’ Accompong asked, blinking genially at him.

‘Well, I suppose I’ll have to fight you for him,’ Grey said. ‘But I’m bloody tired and I really don’t want to.’ Accompong laughed at this, and Grey followed swiftly up with, ‘I will, of course, appoint a new superintendent – and given the importance of the office, I will bring the new superintendent here, so that you may meet him and approve of him.’

‘If I don’t approve?’

‘There are a bloody lot of Englishmen on Jamaica,’ Grey said, impatient. ‘You’re bound to like one of them.’

Accompong laughed out loud, his little round belly jiggling under his coat.

‘I like you, colonel,’ he said. ‘You want to be superintendent?’

Grey suppressed the natural answer to this and instead said, ‘Alas, I have a duty to the army which prevents my accepting the offer, amazingly generous though it is.’ He coughed. ‘You have my word that I will find you a suitable candidate, though.’

The tall lieutenant who stood behind Captain Accompong lifted his voice and said something sceptical in a patois that Grey didn’t understand – but from the man’s attitude, his glance at Cresswell, and the murmur of agreement that greeted his remark, he had no trouble in deducing what had been said.

What is the word of an Englishman worth?

Grey gave Cresswell, grovelling and snivelling at his feet, a look of profound disfavour. It would serve the man right if— then he caught the faint reek of corruption wafting from Rodrigo’s still form, and shuddered. No, nobody deserved that.

Putting aside the question of Cresswell’s fate for the moment, Grey turned to the question that had been in the forefront of his mind since he’d come in sight of that first curl of smoke.

‘My men,’ he said. ‘I want to see my men. Bring them out to me, please. At once.’ He didn’t raise his voice, but he knew how to make a command sound like one.

Accompong tilted his head a little to one side, as though considering, but then waved a hand, casually. There was a stirring in the crowd, an expectation. A turning of heads, then bodies, and Grey looked toward the rocks where their focus lay. An explosion of shouts, cat-calls, and laughter, and the two soldiers and Tom Byrd came out of the defile. They were roped together by the necks, their ankles hobbled and hands tied, and they shuffled awkwardly, bumping into one another, turning their heads to and fro like chickens, in a vain effort to avoid the spitting and the small clods of earth thrown at them.

Grey’s outrage at this treatment was overwhelmed by his relief at seeing Tom and his young soldiers, all plainly scared, but uninjured. He stepped forward at once, so they could see him, and his heart was wrung by the pathetic relief that lighted their faces.

‘Now, then,’ he said, smiling. ‘You didn’t think I would leave you, surely?’

‘I didn’t, me lord,’ Tom said stoutly, already yanking at the rope about his neck. ‘I told ’em you’d be right along, the minute you got your boots on!’ He glared at the little boys, nak*d but for shirts, who were dancing round him and the soldiers, shouting, ‘Buckra! Buckra!’ and making not-quite-pretend jabs at the men’s gen**als with sticks. ‘Can you make ’em leave off that filthy row, me lord? They been at it ever since we got here.’