A Trail of Fire (Page 7)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(7)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘I don’t want a man,’ Marjorie said loudly. Her mother turned round, squat, solid, implacable.

‘You need a man, Marjorie. And little Rog needs a father.’

‘He has a father,’ she said through her teeth. ‘Captain Randall has a wife. And I don’t need anyone.’

Anyone but Jerry.

Northumbria

He licked his lips at the smell. Hot pastry, steaming, juicy meat. There was a row of fat little pasties ranged along the sill, covered with a clean cloth in case of birds, but showing plump and rounded through it, the odd spot of gravy soaking through the napkin.

His mouth watered so fiercely that his salivary glands ached and he had to massage the underside of his jaw to ease the pain.

It was the first house he’d seen in two days. Once he’d got out of the ravine, he’d circled well away from the mile-castle and eventually struck a small cluster of cottages, where the people were no more understandable, but did give him some food. That had lasted him a little while; beyond that, he’d been surviving on what he could glean from hedges and the odd vegetable patch. He’d found another hamlet, but the folk there had driven him away.

Once he’d got enough of a grip of himself to think clearly, it became obvious that he needed to go back to the standing stones. Whatever had happened to him had happened there, and if he really was somewhere in the past – and hard as he’d tried to find some alternative explanation, none was forthcoming – then his only chance of getting back where he belonged seemed to lie there, too.

He’d come well away from the drover’s track, though, seeking food, and as the few people he met didn’t understand him any more than he understood them, he’d had some difficulty in finding his way back to the wall. He thought he was quite close, now, though – the ragged country was beginning to seem familiar, though perhaps that was only delusion.

Everything else had faded into unimportance, though, when he smelt food.

He circled the house at a cautious distance, checking for dogs. No dog. Aye, fine, then. He chose an approach from the side, out of view of any of the few windows. Darted swiftly from bush to ploughshare to midden to house, and plastered himself against the grey stone wall, breathing hard – and breathing in that delicious, savoury aroma. Shite, he was drooling. He wiped his sleeve hastily across his mouth, slithered round the corner, and reached out a hand.

As it happened, the farmstead did boast a dog, which had been attending its absent master in the barn. Both these worthies returning unexpectedly at this point, the dog at once spotted what it assumed to be jiggery-pokery taking place, and gave tongue in an altogether proper manner. Alerted in turn to felonious activity on his premises, the householder instantly joined the affray, armed with a wooden spade, with which he batted Jerry over the head.

As he staggered back against the wall of the house, he had just wit enough left to notice that the farmwife – now sticking out of her window and shrieking like the Glasgow Express – had knocked one of the pasties to the ground, where it was being devoured by the dog, who wore an expression of piety and rewarded virtue that Jerry found really offensive.

Then the farmer hit him again, and he stopped being offended.

It was a well-built byre, the stones fitted carefully and mortared. He wore himself out with shouting and kicking at the door until his gammy leg gave way and he collapsed onto the earthen floor.

‘Now bloody what?’ he muttered. He was damp with sweat from his effort, but it was cold in the byre, with that penetrating damp cold peculiar to the British Isles, that seeps into your bones and makes the joints ache. His knee would give him fits in the morning. The air was saturated with the scent of manure and chilled urine. ‘Why would the bloody Jerries want the damn place?’ he said, and sitting up, huddled into his shirt. It was going to be a frigging long night.

He got up onto his hands and knees and felt carefully round inside the byre, but there was nothing even faintly edible – only a scurf of mouldy hay. Not even the rats would have that; the inside of the place was empty as a drum and silent as a church.

What had happened to the cows? he wondered. Dead of a plague, eaten, sold? Or maybe just not yet back from the summer pastures – though it was late in the year for that, surely.

He sat down again, back against the door, as the wood was marginally less cold than the stone walls. He’d thought about being captured in battle, made prisoner by the Germans – they all had, now and then, though chaps mostly didn’t talk about it. He thought about POW camps, and those camps in Poland, the ones he’d been meant to photograph. Were they as bleak as this? Stupid thing to think of, really.

But he’d got to pass the time ’til morning one way or another, and there were lots of things he’d rather not think about just now. Like what would happen once morning came. He didn’t think breakfast in bed was going to be part of it.

The wind was rising. Whining past the corners of the cow-byre with a keening noise that set his teeth on edge. He still had his silk scarf; it had slipped down inside his shirt when the bandits in the mile-castle had attacked him. He fished it out now and wrapped it round his neck, for comfort, if not warmth.

He’d brought Dolly breakfast in bed now and then. She woke up slow and sleepy, and he loved the way she scooped her tangled curly black hair off her face, peering out slit-eyed, like a small, sweet mole blinking in the light. He’d sit her up and put the tray on the table beside her, and then he’d shuck his own clothes and crawl in bed, too, cuddling close to her soft warm skin. Sometimes sliding down in the bed, and her pretending not to notice, sipping tea or putting marmite on her toast while he burrowed under the covers and found his way up through the cottony layers of sheets and nightie. He loved the smell of her, always, but especially when he’d made love to her the night before, and she bore the strong musky scent of him between her legs.

He shifted a little, roused by the memory, but the subsequent thought – that he might never see her again – quelled him at once.

Still thinking of Dolly, though, he put his hand automatically to his pocket, and was alarmed to find no lump there. He slapped at his thigh, but failed to find the small hard bulge of the sapphire. Could he have put it in the other pocket by mistake? He delved urgently, shoving both hands deep into his pockets. No stone – but there was something in his right-hand pocket. Something powdery, almost greasy . . . what the devil?

He brought his fingers out, peering as closely at them as he could, but it was too dark to see more than a vague outline of his hand, let alone anything on it. He rubbed his fingers gingerly together; it felt something like the thick soot that builds up inside a chimney.

‘Jesus,’ he whispered, and put his fingers to his nose. There was a distinct smell of combustion. Not petrol-ish, at all, but a scent of burning so intense he could taste it on the back of his tongue. Like something out of a volcano. What in the name of God Almighty could burn a rock and leave the man who carried it alive?

The sort of thing he’d met among the standing stones, that was what.

He’d been doing all right with the not feeling too afraid until now, but . . . he swallowed hard, and sat down again, quietly.

‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ he whispered to the knees of his trousers. ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep . . .’

He did in fact sleep eventually, in spite of the cold, from simple exhaustion. He was dreaming about wee Roger, who for some reason was a grown man now, but still holding his tiny blue bear, minuscule in a broad-palmed grasp. His son was speaking to him in Gaelic, saying something urgent that he couldn’t understand, and he was growing frustrated, telling Roger over and over for Christ’s sake to speak English, couldn’t he?

Then he heard another voice through the fog of sleep and realised that someone was in fact talking somewhere close by.

He jerked awake, struggling to grasp what was being said, and failing utterly. It took him several seconds to realise that whoever was speaking – there seemed to be two voices, hissing and muttering in argument – really was speaking in Gaelic.

He had only a smattering of it himself; his mother had had it, but— he was moving before he could complete the thought, panicked at the notion that potential assistance might get away.

‘Hoy!’ he bellowed, scrambling – or trying to scramble – to his feet. His much-abused knee wasn’t having any, though, and gave way the instant he put weight on it, catapulting him face-first toward the door.

He twisted as he fell and hit it with his shoulder. The booming thud put paid to the argument; the voices fell silent at once.

‘Help! Help me!’ he shouted, pounding on the door. ‘Help!’

‘Will ye for God’s sake hush your noise?’ said a low, annoyed voice on the other side of the door. ‘Ye want to have them all down on us? Here, then, bring the light closer.’

This last seemed to be addressed to the voice’s companion, for a faint glow shone through the gap at the bottom of the door. There was a scraping noise as the bolt was drawn, and a faint grunt of effort, then a thunk! as the bolt was set down against the wall. The door swung open, and Jerry blinked in a sudden shaft of light as the slide of a lantern grated open.

He turned his head aside and closed his eyes for an instant, deliberate, as he would if flying at night and momentarily blinded by a flare or by the glow of his own exhaust. When he opened them again, the two men were in the cow-byre with him, looking him over with open curiosity.

Biggish buggers, both of them, taller and broader than he was. One fair, one black-haired as Lucifer. They didn’t look much alike, and yet he had the feeling that they might be related – some fleeting glimpse of bone, a similarity of expression, maybe.

‘What’s your name, mate?’ said the dark chap, softly. Jerry felt the nip of wariness at his nape, even as he felt a thrill in the pit of his stomach. It was regular speech, perfectly understandable. A Scots accent, but—

‘MacKenzie, J.W.,’ he said, straightening up to attention. ‘Lieutenant, Royal Air Force. Service number—’

An indescribable expression flitted across the dark bloke’s face. An urge to laugh, of all bloody things, and a flare of excitement in his eyes – really striking eyes, a vivid green that flashed sudden in the light. None of that mattered to Jerry; what was important was that the man plainly knew. He knew.

‘Who are you?’ he asked, urgent. ‘Where d’ye come from?’

The two exchanged an unfathomable glance, and the other answered.

‘Inverness.’

‘Ye know what I mean!’ He took a deep breath. ‘When?’

The two strangers were much of an age, but the fair one had plainly had a harder life; his face was deeply weathered and lined.

‘A lang way from you,’ he said quietly, and despite his own agitation, Jerry heard the note of desolation in his voice. ‘From now. Lost.’

Lost. Oh, God. But still—

‘Jesus. And where are we now? Wh-when?’

‘Northumbria,’ the dark man answered briefly, ‘and I don’t bloody know for sure. Look, there’s no time. If anyone hears us—’