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Excerpt 3 – A Breath of Snow and Ashes – Jaybirds

Copyright 2005 Diana Gabaldon

It was late when they left Bird’s house for the small guest-house.  He thought it was well past moon-rise, but there was no moon to be seen; the sky glowed thick with cloud, and the scent of rain was live on the wind.

“Oh, God,” Ian said, yawning and stumbling.  “My bum’s gone asleep.”

Jamie yawned too, finding it contagious, but then blinked and laughed.  “Aye, well.  Dinna bother waking it up; the rest of ye can join it.”

Ian made a derisive noise with his lips.

“Just because Bird says ye’re a funny man, uncle Jamie, I wouldna go believing it.  He’s only being polite, ken?”

Jamie ignored this, murmuring thanks in Tsilagi to the young woman who had shown them the way to their quarters.  She handed him a small basket–filled with cornbread and dried apples, from the smell–then wished them a soft “[Good night/Sleep well]” before vanishing into the damp, restless night.

The small hut seemed stuffy after the cool freshness of the air, and he stood in the doorway for a moment, enjoying the movement of the wind through the trees, watching it snake through the pine boughs like a huge, invisible serpent.  A spatter of moisture bloomed on his face, and he experienced the deep pleasure of a man who realizes that it’s going to rain and he isn’t going to have to spend the night out in it.

“Ask about, Ian, when ye’re gossiping tomorrow,” he said, ducking inside.  “Let it be known–tactfully–that the King would be pleased to know exactly who in hell’s been burning cabins–and might be pleased enough to cough up a few guns in reward.  They’ll not tell ye if it’s them that’s been doing it–but if it’s another band, they might.”

Ian nodded, yawning again.  A small fire burned in a stone ring, the smoke of it wisping up toward a smoke-hole in the roof overhead, and by its light, a fur-piled sleeping platform was visible across one side of the hut, with another stack of furs and blankets on the floor.

“Toss ye for the bed, Uncle Jamie,” he said, digging in the pouch at his waist and coming out with a battered shilling.  “Call it.”

“Tails,” Jamie said, setting down the basket and unbelting his plaid.  It fell in a warm puddle of fabric round his legs and he shook out his shirt.  The linen was creased and grimy against his skin, and he could smell himself; thank God this was the last of the villages.  One more night, perhaps, two at the most, and they could go home.

Ian swore, picking up the coin.

“How d’ye do that?  Every night ye’ve said ‘tails,’ and every night, tails it is!”

“Well, it’s your shilling, Ian.  Dinna blame me.”  He sat down on the bed-platform and stretched himself pleasurably, then relented.  “Look at Geordie’s nose.”

Ian flipped the shilling over in his fingers and held it to the light of the fire, squinting, then swore again.  A tiny splotch of beeswax, so thin as to be invisible unless you were looking, ornamented the aristocratically prominent nose of George III, Rex Britannia.

“How did that get there?”  Ian narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his uncle, but Jamie merely laughed and lay down.

“When ye were showing wee Jem how to spin a coin.  Remember, he knocked the candlestick over; hot wax went everywhere.”

“Oh.”  Ian sat looking at the coin in his hand for a moment, then shook his head, scraped the wax away with a thumbnail and put the shilling away.

“Good night, Uncle Jamie,” he said, sliding into the furs on the ground with a sigh.

“[Good night, nephew].”

He’d been ignoring his tiredness, holding it like Gideon, on a short rein.  Now he dropped the reins and gave it leave to carry him off, his body relaxing into the comfort of the bed.

MacDonald, he reflected cynically, would be delighted.  Jamie had planned on visits only to the two Cherokee villages closest to the Treaty Line, there to announce his new position, distribute modest gifts of whisky and tobacco–this last hastily borrowed from Tom Christie, who had fortunately purchased a hogshead of the weed on a seed-buying trip to Cross Creek–and inform the Cherokee that further largesse might be expected when he undertook ambassage to the more distant villages in the autumn.

He had been most cordially received in both villages–but in the second, Pigtown, several strangers had been visiting; young men in search of wives.  They were from a separate band of Cherokee, called [ ], the Snowbird band, whose large village lay higher in the mountains.

One of the young men had been the nephew of Bird-who-sings-in-the-morning, headman of the Snowbird band, and had been exigent in pressing Jamie to return with him and his companions to their home village.  Taking a hasty private inventory of his remaining whisky and tobacco, Jamie had agreed, and he and Ian had been most royally received there, as agents of His Majesty.  The Snowbird had never been visited by an Indian agent before, and appeared most sensible of the honor–and prompt about seeing what advantages might accrue to themselves in consequence.

He thought Bird was the sort of man with whom he could do business, though–on various fronts.

That thought led him to belated recollection of Roger Mac and the new tenants.  He’d had no time over the last few days to spare much worry there–but he doubted there was any cause for concern.  Roger Mac was capable enough, though his shattered voice made him less certain than he should be.  With Christie and Arch Bug, though…

He closed his eyes, the bliss of absolute fatigue stealing over him as his thoughts grew more disjointed.

A day more, maybe, then home in time to make the hay.  Another malting, two maybe, before the cold weather.  Slaughtering…could it be time at last to kill the damned white sow?  No…the vicious creature was unbelievably fecund.  What kind of boar had the balls to mate with her?  he wondered dimly, and did she eat him, after?  Wild boar.  Smoked hams, blood pudding…

He was just drifting down through the first layers of sleep when he felt a hand on his privates.  Jerked out of drowsiness like a salmon out of a sea-loch, he clapped a hand to the intruder’s, gripping tight.  And elicited a faint giggle from his visitor.

Feminine fingers wiggled gently in his grasp, and the hand’s fellow promptly took up operations in its stead.  His first  coherent thought was that the lassie would be an excellent baker, so good as she was at kneading.

Other thoughts followed rapidly on the heels of this absurdity, and he tried to grab the second hand.  It playfully eluded him in the dark, poking and tweaking.

He groped for a polite protest in Cherokee, but came up with nothing but a handful of random phrases in English and Gaelic, none of them faintly suitable to the occasion.

The first hand was purposefully wriggling out of his grasp, eel-like.  Reluctant to crush her fingers, he let go for an instant, and made a successful grab for her wrist.

“Ian!” he hissed, in desperation.  “Ian, are you there?”

He couldn’t see his nephew in the pool of darkness that filled the cabin, nor tell if he slept.  There were no windows, and only the faintest light came from the dying coals.

“Ian!”

There was a stirring on the floor, bodies shifting, and he heard Rollo sneeze.

“What is it, uncle?”  He’d spoken in Gaelic, and Ian answered in the same language. The lad sounded calm, and not as though he’d just come awake.

“Ian, there is a woman in my bed,” he said in Gaelic, trying to match his nephew’s calm tone.

“There are two of them, Uncle Jamie.”  Ian sounded amused, damn him!  “The other will be down by your feet.  Waiting her turn.”

That unnerved him, and he nearly lost his grip on the captive hand.

“Two of them!  What do they think I am?”

The girl giggled again, leaned over and bit him lightly on the chest.

“Christ!”

“Well, no, uncle, they don’t think you’re Him,” Ian said, obviously suppressing his own mirth.  “They think you’re the King.  So to speak.  You’re his agent, so they’re doing honor to His Majesty by sending you his women, aye?”

The second woman had uncovered his feet and was slowly stroking his soles with one finger.  He was ticklish and would have found this bothersome, were he not so distracted by the first woman, with whom he was being compelled into a most undignified game of hide-the-sausage.

“Talk to them, Ian,” he said between clenched teeth, fumbling madly with his free hand, meanwhile forcing back the questing fingers of the captive hand–which were languidly stroking his ear–and wiggling his feet in a frantic effort to discourage the second lady’s attentions, which were growing bolder.

“Erm…what d’ye want me to say?”  Ian inquired, switching back to English.  His voice quivered slightly.

“Tell them I’m deeply sensible of the honor, but–gk!”  Further diplomatic evasions were cut off by the sudden intrusion of someone’s tongue into his mouth, tasting strongly of onions and beer.

In the midst of his subsequent struggles, he was dimly aware that Ian had lost any sense of self-control and was lying on the floor giggling helplessly.  It was filicide if you killed a son, he thought grimly; what was the word for assassinating a nephew?

“Madame!” he said, disengaging his mouth with difficulty.  He seized the lady by the shoulders and rolled her off his body with enough force that she whooped with surprise, bare legs flying–Jesus, was she naked?

She was.  Both of them were; his eyes adapted to the faint glow of the embers, he caught the shimmer of light from shoulders, breasts, and rounded thighs.

He sat up, gathering furs and blankets round him in a sort of hasty redoubt.

“Cease, the two of you!” he said severely in Cherokee.  “You are beautiful, but I cannot lie with you.”

“No?” said one, sounding puzzled.

“Why not?” said the other.

“Ah…because there is an oath upon me,” he said, necessity producing inspiration. “I have sworn…sworn…” He groped for the proper word, but didn’t find it.  Luckily, Ian leaped in at this point, with a stream of fluent Tsilagi, too fast to follow.

“Ooo,” breathed one girl, impressed.  Jamie felt a distinct qualm.

“What in God’s name did ye tell them, Ian?”

“I told them the Great Spirit came to ye in a dream, uncle, and told ye that ye mustn’t go with a woman until ye’d brought guns to all the Tsilagi.”

“Until I what?!”

“Well, it was the best I could think of in a hurry, uncle,” Ian said defensively.

Hair-raising as the notion was, he had to admit it was effective; the two women were huddled together, whispering in awed tones, and had quite left off pestering him.

“Aye, well,” he said grudgingly.  “I suppose it could be worse.”  After all, even if the Crown were persuaded to provide guns, there were a damn lot of Tsilagi.

“Ye’re welcome, uncle Jamie.”  The laughter was gurgling just below the surface of his nephew’s voice, and emerged in a stifled snort.

“What?” he said testily.

“The one lady is saying it’s a disappointment to her, uncle, because you’re verra nicely equipped.  The other is more philosophical about it, though.  She says they might have borne ye children, and the…the bairns might have red hair.”  His nephew’s voice quivered.

“What’s wrong wi’ red hair, for God’s sake?”

“I dinna ken, quite, but I gather it’s not something ye want your bairn to be marked with, and ye can help it.”

“Well, fine,” he snapped.  “No danger of it, is there?  Can they not go home now?”

“It’s raining, uncle Jamie,” Ian pointed out logically.  It was; the wind had brought a patter of rain, and now the main shower arrived, beating on the roof with a steady thrum, drops hissing into the hot embers through the smoke hole.  “Ye wouldna send them out in the wet, would ye?  Besides, ye just said ye couldna lie wi’ them, not that ye meant them to go.”

He broke off to say something interrogative to the ladies, who replied with eager confidence.  Jamie thought they’d said–they had.  Rising with the grace of young cranes, the two of them clambered naked as jaybirds back into his bed, patting and stroking him with murmurs of admiration–though sedulously avoiding his private parts–pressed him down into the furs and snuggled down on either side of him, warm bare flesh pressed cozily against him.

He opened his mouth, then shut it again, finding absolutely nothing to say in any of the languages he knew.