• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
    —ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

Excerpt 5 – A Breath of Snow and Ashes – The Eighteenth of April

Copyright 2005 Diana Gabaldon

Roger came awake quite suddenly, with no notion what had wakened him.  It was full dark, but the air had the still, inward feel of the small hours; the world holding its breath, before dawn comes on a rising wind.

He turned his head on the pillow and saw that Brianna was awake, too; she lay looking upward, and he caught the brief flicker of her eyelids as she blinked.

He moved a hand to touch her, and hers closed over it.  An adjuration to silence?  He lay very still, listening, but heard nothing.  An ember broke in the hearth with a muffled crack and her hand tightened.  Jemmy flung himself over in bed with a rustle of quilts, let out a small yelp, and fell silent.  The night was undisturbed.

“What is it?” he said, low-voiced.

She didn’t turn to look at him; her eyes were fixed now on the window, a dark gray rectangle, barely visible.

“Yesterday was the eighteenth of April,” she said.  “It’s here.”  Her voice was calm, but there was something in it that made him move closer, so they lay side by side, touching from shoulder to foot.

Somewhere to the north of them, men were gathering in the cold.  Eight hundred British troops, groaning and cursing as they dressed by candlelight.  Those who had gone to bed rousing to the beat of the drum passing by the houses and warehouses and churches where they quartered, those who hadn’t stumbling from dice and drink, the warm hearths of taverns, the warm arms of women, hunting lost boots and seizing weapons, turning out by twos and threes and fours, clanking and mumbling through the streets of frozen mud to the muster point.

“I grew up in Boston,” she said, her voice softly conversational.  “Every kid in Boston learned that poem, somewhere along the line.  I learned it in fifth grade.”

Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”?  Roger smiled, envisioning her in the uniform of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parochial school, blue overall jumper, white blouse and knee-socks.  He’d seen her fifth-grade school photograph once; she looked like a small, fierce, disheveled tiger that some maniac had dressed in doll’s clothes.

“That’s the one. On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five/Hardly a man is now alive/Who remembers that famous day and year…”

“Hardly a man,” Roger echoed softly.  Someone–who?  A householder, eavesdropping on the British commanders quartered in his house?  A barmaid, bringing mugs of pokered hot rum to a couple of sergeants?  There was no keeping of secrets, not with eight hundred men on the move.  It was all a matter of time.  Someone had sent word from the occupied city, word that the British meant to seize Hancock and Adams [ck], the founder of the Committee of Safety, the inflammatory letter-writing lawyer, the leaders of ‘this treasonous rebellion.’  Eight hundred men to capture two?  Good odds.  And a silversmith and his friends, alarmed at the news, had set out into that cold night.

“He said to his friend, “If the British march

By land or sea from the town tonight,

Hand a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower, as a signal light–

One, if by land, and two, if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country-folk to be up and to arm.

“They don’t write poems like that anymore,” Roger said.  But in spite of his cynicism, he couldn’t bloody help seeing it; the steam of a horse’s breath, white in darkness, and across the black water, the tiny star of a lantern, high above the sleeping town.  And then another.

“What happened next?” he said.

“Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar

Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,

Just as the moon rose over the bay,

Where swinging wide at her moorings lay

The Somerset, British man-of-war;

A phantom ship, with each mast and spar

Across the moon like a prison bar,

And a huge black hulk, that was magnified

By its own reflection in the tide.”

“Well, that’s not too bad,” he said, judiciously.  “I like the bit about the Somerset.  Rather a painterly description.”

“Shut up.”  She kicked him, though without real violence.  “It goes on about his friend, who ‘wanders and watches with eager ears’–” Roger snorted, and she kicked him again. “Till in the silence around him he hears/ The muster of men at the barrack door/The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet/And the measured tread of the grenadiers,/Marching down to their boats on the shore.”

He had visited her in Boston in the spring.  In mid-April, the trees would have no more than a haze of green, their branches still mostly bare against pale skies.  The nights were still frigid, but the cold was somehow touched with life, a freshness moving through the icy air.

“Then there’s a boring part about the friend climbing the stairs of the church tower, but I like the next verse.”  Her voice, already soft, dropped a little, whispering.

“Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,

In their night-encampment on the hill,

Wrapped in silence so deep and still

That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,

The watchful night-wind, as it went

Creeping along from tent to tent,

And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”

A moment only he feels the spell

Of the place and the hour, the secret dread

Of the lonely belfry and the dead;

For suddenly all his thoughts are bent

On a shadowy something far away,

Where the river widens to meet the bay–

A line of black, that bends and floats

On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.”

“Then there’s a lot of stuff with old Paul killing time waiting for the signal,” she said, abandoning the dramatic whisper for a more normal tone of voice.  “But it finally shows up, and then…”

“A hurry of hoofs in a village street,

A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,

And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark

Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet:

That was all!  And yet, through the gloom and the light,

The fate of a nation was riding that night;

And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,

Kindled the land into flame with its heat.”

“That’s actually pretty good.”  His hand curved over her thigh, just above the knee, in case she might kick him again, but she didn’t.  “Do you remember the rest?”

“Of course I do.”

“So he goes along by the Mystic river,” Brianna said, ignoring him, “and then there are three verses, as he passes through the townships:

“It was twelve by the village clock

When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.

He heard the crowing of the cock,

And the barking of the farmer’s dog,

And felt the damp of the river fog,

That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,

When he galloped into Lexington.

He saw the gilded weathercock

Swim in the moonlight as he passed,

And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,

Gaze at him with a spectral glare,

As if they already stood aghast

At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock–and yes, I hear the clock chiming in the first lines, be quiet!”  He had in fact drawn breath, but not to interrupt; only because he’d suddenly realized he’d been holding it.

“It was two by the village clock, she repeated,

When he came to the bridge in Concord town.

He heard the bleating of the flock,

And the twitter of birds among the trees,

And felt the breath of the morning breeze

Blowing over the meadows brown.

And one was safe and asleep in his bed

Who at the bridge would be first to fall,

Who that day would be lying dead,

Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest.“  She stopped abruptly, her hand tight on his.

From one moment to the next, the character of the night had changed.  The stillness of the small hours had ceased, and a breath of wind moved through the trees outside.  All of a sudden, the night was alive again, but dying now, rushing toward dawn.

If not actively twittering, the birds were wakeful; something called, over and over, in the nearby wood, high and sweet.  And above the stale, heavy scent of the fire, he breathed the wild clean air of morning, and felt his heart beat with sudden urgency.

“Tell me the rest,” he whispered.

He saw the shadows of men in the trees, the stealthy knocking on doors, the low-voiced, excited conferences–and all the while, the light growing in the east.  The lap of water and creak of oars, the sound of restless kine lowing to be milked, and on the rising breeze the smell of men, stale with sleep and empty of food, harsh with black powder and the scent of steel.

And without thinking, pulled his hand from his wife’s grasp, rolled over her, and pulling up the shift from her thighs, took her hard and fast, in vicarious sharing of that mindless urge to spawn that attended the imminent presence of death.

Lay on her trembling, the sweat drying on his back in the breeze from the window, heart thumping in his ears.  For the one, he thought.  The one who would be the first to fall.  The poor sod who maybe hadn’t swived his wife in the dark and taken the chance to leave her with child, because he had no notion what was coming with the dawn.  This dawn.

Brianna lay still under him; he could feel the rise and fall of her breath, powerful ribs that lifted even under his weight.

“You know the rest,” she whispered.

“Bree,” he said, very softly.  “I would sell my soul to be there now.”

“Shh,” she said, but her hand rose, and settled on his back in what might be benediction.  They lay still, watching the light grow by degrees, keeping silence.