Copyright 2009 Diana Gabaldon
Brant’s house stood by itself in large grounds, but near enough the village to be still part of it. The village was much as any other, save that many of the houses had two or three grindstones by the step; each woman ground meal for her family, rather than take it to a mill.
There were dogs in the street, dozing in the shadows of wagons and walls. Every one sat up, startled, when Rollo came within scenting distance. A few growled or barked, but none offered to fight.
The men were another matter. There were several men leaning on a fence, watching another with a horse in a field. All of them cast glances at him, half-curious, half-wary. He didn’t know most of them. One of them, though, was a man named Eats Turtles, whom he had known in Snake-town. Another was Sun-Elk.
The man blinked at him, startled as any of the dogs, and then stepped out into the road to face him.
“What are you doing here?”
He considered for a split second telling the truth–but it wasn’t a truth that could be told quickly, if at all, and certainly not before strangers.
“None of your business,” he answered calmly.
Sun-Elk had spoken to him in Mohawk, and he’d answered in the same language. He saw eyebrows rise, and Turtle made to greet him, clearly hoping to avert whatever storm was in the offing, by making it clear that he was Kahnyen’kehaka himself. He returned Turtle’s greeting, and the others drew back a little, puzzled–and interested–but not hostile.
Sun-Elk, on the other hand…well, he hadn’t expected the man to fall on his neck, after all. He’d hoped–insofar as he thought about Sun-Elk, which was very little–that he’d be elsewhere, but here he was, and Ian smiled wryly to himself, thinking of old Grannie Wilson, who had once described her son-in-law Hiram as looking “like he wouldn’t give the road to a bear.”
It was an apt description, and Sun-Elk’s disposition was not improved, either by Ian’s reply, nor by the subsequent smile.
“What do you want?” Sun-Elk demanded.
“Nothing that’s yours,” Ian replied, as mildly as possible.
Sun-Elk’s eyes narrowed, but before he could say anything else, Turtle intervened, inviting Ian to come into his house, to eat, to drink.
He should. It wasn’t polite to refuse. And he could ask, later, privately, where Emily was. But the need that had brought him over three hundred miles of wilderness acknowledged no requirements of civility. Neither would it brook delay.
Besides, he reflected, readying himself. He’d known it would come to this. No point in putting it off.
“I wish to speak with her who was once my wife,” he said. “Where is she?”
Several of the men blinked at that, interested or taken back–but he saw Turtle’s eyes flick toward the gates of the large house at the end of the road.
Sun-Elk, to his credit, merely drew himself up and planted himself more solidly in the road, ready to defy two bears, if necessary. Rollo didn’t care for this, and lifted his lip in a growl that made one or two of the men step back sharply. Sun-Elk, who had better reason than most of them to know just what Rollo was capable of, didn’t move an inch.
“Do you mean to set your demon on me?” he asked.
“Of course not. Sheas, a choin,” he said quietly to Rollo. The dog stood his ground for a moment longer–just long enough to indicate that it was his idea–and then turned aside and lay down, though he kept up a low grumble, like distant thunder.
“I have not come to take her from you,” Ian said to Sun-Elk. He’d meant to be conciliatory, but he hadn’t really expected it to work, and it didn’t.
“You think you could?”
“If I dinna want to, does it matter?” Ian said testily, lapsing into English.
“She wouldn’t go with you, even if you killed me!”
“How many times must I say that I dinna want to take her away from ye?”
Sun-Elk stared at him for a minute, his eyes quite black.
“Often enough for your face to say the same thing,” he whispered, and clenched his fists.
An interested murmur rose from the other men, but there was an intangible drawing-away. They wouldn’t interfere in a fight over a woman. That was a blessing, Ian thought vaguely, watching Sun-Elk’s hands. The man was right-handed, he remembered that. There was a knife on his belt, but his hand wasn’t hovering near it.
Ian spread his own hands peaceably.
“I wish only to talk with her.”
“Why?” Sun-Elk barked. He was close enough for Ian to feel the spray of spittle on his face, but he didn’t wipe it away. He didn’t back away, either, and dropped his hands.
“That’s between me and her,” he said quietly. “I daresay she’ll tell ye, later.” The thought of it gave him a pang. The statement didn’t seem to reassure Sun-Elk, who without warning hit him in the nose.
The crunch echoed through his upper teeth and Sun-Elk’s other fist struck him a glancing blow on the cheekbone. He shook his head to clear it, saw the blur of movement through watering eyes and kicked Sun-Elk in the crotch.
He stood breathing heavily, dripping blood on the roadway. Six pairs of eyes went from him to Sun-Elk, curled in the dust and making small, urgent noises. Rollo got up, walked over to the fallen man and smelled him with interest. All the eyes came back to Ian.
He made a small motion of the hand that brought Rollo to heel, and walked up the road toward Brant’s house, six pairs of eyes fixed on his back.