Authors: Jane Feather
Benedict Clare sprang off the bed and strode naked to the door. At the creek, he swam vigorously, as he had swum in the rivers of his boyhood, cold, clear, pure Irish waters that drove the devils from the soul and the bleakest memories from the mind. But the devils and memories of boyhood had not the power of those that bedeviled maturity, and a Virginia creek was no Irish river.
She stood on the bank, watching him, waiting for him, feeling his pain across the distance that separated them, not understanding its whys or wherefores, but pierced by his agony, nonetheless. When he came out, his soul bared in his eyes, as naked as his body, as scarred as his back, she went to him, enfolding him in her arms, the soft white folds of her gown billowing, clinging to his dampness; and as he had used his body to create a whole out of the fragments of her self, she used hers to heal, offering the essence of her womanhood to enclose and nurture.
Afterward, as they lay entwined on the bank, still wrapped in the magic of their union, she caressed his ruined back, learning each scar with her fingertips as her
lips pressed into his neck, nipping and nuzzling like a foal against the salt-sweet skin. This time, she asked no questions, knowing with an age-old wisdom that the answers would emerge in their own good time and in the place of their choosing.
“You have unmanned me, sweeting,” he whispered at last, breaking the spell. “Destroyed my resolve, decimated my defenses.”
“Did you imagine I intended otherwise?” she returned in soft teasing, taking the free end of the strap that was still attached to her wrist and drawing it around his neck, pulling his head down to hers, tasting his lips with the tip of her tongue as a bee sips nectar. “I
prisoner now, do I not?”
“I fear so.” His hands reached up to grasp her wrists. “And it is a pretty tangle in which we are enmeshed, lass.” She felt the languor leave the hard body, the muscles tauten in thigh and belly as he prepared himself to move away from her. She pulled the strap tighter.
“Tell me, Ben. Tell me why it is such a tangle.”
“Were I to do that, my sweet Bryony, I should not ’scape hanging.” His voice was very sober, and the hands imprisoning her wrists gripped tighter, then broke her hold as if he were prying loose the little fingers of a baby, and slipped the strap from her wrist. He rolled off her and stood up. A glint of laughter in the black eyes chased away the somber expression.
“For a wood nymph, you are shockingly disheveled!” Bending, he caught her beneath the arms and pulled her upright, picking moss and twigs from the shining mass of black hair, brushing off dirt and grass that stuck to her sweat-slick skin. He shook his head in mock defeat. “I fear that it will have to be the creek again.” She
protested, laughing, as he scooped her up and waded into the water. Still holding her, he dipped her beneath the surface, and she relaxed into his hold, lying heavy in his arms as she gave herself to the cool water lapping silkily over her skin.
“What an indolent creature you are,” he murmured, smiling down at her peaceful face, eyes closed in lazy pleasure, the raven’s hair streaming on the surface of the water. “It seems you cannot even take a bath for yourself.”
Her eyes shot open at the mischievous note, but the alert came too late to save herself. Before she could grab on to him, Ben dropped her. Chuckling, mightily pleased with himself, he left her floundering and sputtering in laughing indignation and waded to the bank.
“Bully!” Bryony accused, standing, hands on hips, in the waist-deep water.
“Not at all,” he denied, sounding hurt. “I am going to prepare your breakfast. I look after you very well.”
Which was undeniably true, Bryony reflected, watching him stride, wonderfully naked, through the trees. There was much softness in the man. Why would he not trust her with the truth?
She made her own way to the bank and picked up the soft lawn nightshirt that had been discarded in such haste during those wondrous moments when their bodies and minds had touched. The garment was much the worse for wear, she thought ruefully, shaking out the folds. Then her eye caught something she had not noticed before—two letters embroidered in white at the back of the collar:
That was easy enough. What did the
stand for? And, more to the point, did she dare ask? It
would be a perfectly understandable question, quite natural, under the circumstances. She dropped the shirt over her head, rolled up the now grubby sleeves, and fastened the limp cravat at her waist. Her hair dripped chilly water onto her shoulders, and she shivered uncomfortably. High summer it might be, but water was still wet and tended to be cold when it clung to the skin.
She ran through the trees back to the clearing, her bare feet now hardly noticing the prick of the pine needles. There was no sign of Ben, but a fire had been lit in the stone ring, and she sat down beside it, holding her wet hair to the warmth.
“It seems to me you need something a little more practical to wear.” Ben’s voice came from the cabin door, and she turned curiously. “Put this on.” He dropped something creamy and soft into her lap.
Bryony made haste to obey. It was a tunic of doeskin, the kind worn by Indian women, and it was the most comfortable garment Bryony could remember having worn. “It’s lovely. Where did it come from?” She smoothed the butter-soft hide over her hips. It came to just below her knees and seemed to accentuate the slimness of her calves and the neat turn of her ankles, she thought with complacent vanity, tossing back her hair and smiling at him.
Benedict laughed. “You vain creature! However, it does suit you quite admirably.”
Bryony flushed both at the accurate accusation and the compliment. “But where did it come from?” she asked again.
He shrugged. “A friend of mine. I acquired it last night.” He took a kettle from the fire and poured boiling
water onto coffee in a pewter jug. “How does fried hominy appeal?”
Bryony frowned. “I don’t know. I don’t think I have ever had it.”
“Not a sufficiently refined dish, presumably,” he observed with a dry smile. “Pour the coffee.”
“I do not see why you should make mock in that manner,” she retorted, stung. “I would imagine that in your past life, you were too refined to eat it, also.”
If she had hoped for a reaction, she was disappointed. He merely shrugged and said, “Possibly.”
“What do the initials
stand for?” There seemed little to be lost by the question, but Benedict sighed wearily.
“If you are going to persist in this inquisition, lass, we are going to have another falling out. I have told you that my private affairs are just that. It is for your safety as much as mine.” He spooned a mess of maize porridge onto a wooden trencher and handed it to her, advising, “Use your mouth for something other than questions.”
Bryony scowled but accepted the inevitable. The hominy was quite palatable, particularly when one was ravenous. She cleared the plates and utensils afterward without Ben’s prompting, but when she returned to the glade, it was to find him slinging a musket over his shoulder, counting bullets in the palm of his hand before dropping them into the deep pocket of his coat.
She felt a sudden flash of apprehensive premonition. “Where are you going?”
“Business,” he said shortly, and it was as if the morning by the creek had happened to two other people. “Do we have to go through the lesson of last night again?”
She bit her lip, hating to give in, yet knowing she had
little choice. Reluctantly, she shook her head. “I will stay by the cabin.”
Benedict’s face cleared with relief. “I know it’s hard for you to accept, lass, but just trust me.”
“Oh, I do,” she replied with complete truth. “I trust you implicitly, which is why I don’t understand why you will not trust me.”
“It is not a question of trust,” he said quietly. “I do not know exactly how long I will be. If you become hungry, you will find bread and cheese in the stores.”
“But it is dangerous, what you are going to do, isn’t it?” She looked at him, the blue eyes clear and determined, showing no fear of the answer.
Slowly, he nodded. “But no more than usual.”
With that, Bryony must be satisfied, and she turned back to the cabin, strangely unwilling to see him out of sight. It was while she was putting away the dishes from their breakfast that she remembered something. It was nothing that seemed to have any direct relevance to herself; at least, it turned no keys in the locked area of her mind. But it seemed to have relevance to a great many other things. Bryony remembered the war.
It had been going on for just over four years, ever since British troops had arrived on a military exercise in Lexington, Massachusetts, where they had come across some seventy American minutemen gathered on the common in the mist of early morning. A series of blundered orders and misunderstandings, a volley of musket fire from each side, and eight minutemen lay dead in the dawn. At least, that was how she had heard it had begun, and in the years following, the fighting continued in the North, neither side winning a decisive victory.
There had been no fighting south of Delaware. No, that was wrong. Something had been said….
She frowned, struggling to place the echo of a voice, to grasp elusive threads, knowing that they were somehow important. All she had were the bare bones of a story, but she could not find the flesh. She could not even remember why there was fighting. Benedict could tell her about the war. There could be nothing secret about that. Or could there? Was this dangerous business that he pursued tied up with the struggle?
She went to the door, intending to sit in the sun and worry at those facts she had, in the hope of elucidation. But at the door, she froze, her heart thudding against her ribs. An Indian brave stood in the trees at the edge of the clearing. He carried a musket and was clad in a pair of britches made of the same doeskin as her tunic. He was standing quite motionless, almost as if his body were an insect’s antenna picking up signals from the warm, summer air. A low whistle sounded as Bryony ducked behind the door, peering through the crack. Two more braves slid out of the trees.
There had been no Indian trouble for years, she told herself in an effort to quiet her pulse. But there were always renegades. She crept to the window at the back of the hut, stood on tiptoe to peer through. She could see no sign of life in the trees from here. But that didn’t mean that the Indians weren’t there. The forest was their home, an environment in which they blended without trace. Perhaps they were not interested in the cabin. Perhaps they would just disappear as soundlessly as they had come. And perhaps pigs could fly.
Bryony had climbed through the unglazed aperture and dropped to the ground beneath almost before this
thought had come and gone. As she cowered against the back wall, she heard the squeak of the door and then the slight shuffle of a moccasined foot on the earthen floor. Her tunic, she noticed, seemed to blend into the earth as she wormed toward the trees on her belly, expecting any second to hear a shout or feel a clutch at her ankle. But she reached the green, shady refuge safely. She did not get to her feet, however, until she had crawled on pine needles several yards farther. Trembling, filthy, and wearied by that unaccustomed mode of progression, she stood up and set off on tiptoe through the trees.
“Tod, you will take your men to the right wing.” Benedict’s forefinger jabbed at the spot on the map spread out on the long oak table in the farmhouse kitchen. “Joe, to the left. I will take the front. There are sentries posted at each entrance, shifts changing every four hours. We make the raid one hour into the night shift, at one o’clock. That should give us time enough to be well away before the shift change.” He glanced up at a dour, heavyset farmer whose corncob pipe filled the already stuffy atmosphere with acrid fumes. “You’re responsible for the wagons Joshua.”
“Aye.” Joshua nodded phlegmatically. “Three of ’em should do it.” Sun poured through the two glazed windows that pierced the walls whose plaster of oyster-shell lime shone dazzling white under this illumination.
“Knives only?” said Tod, upending a rum bottle into his tankard.
Benedict nodded bleakly. “Absolute silence, or we’re lost.” He sliced into the raised crust of a giblet pie and
carried the pewter spoon to his lips. “My compliments to your lady, Joshua. This is a fine pie.”
“We’ll all be lost if the British take Charleston,” muttered a young man with a shock of bright red hair and an educated voice. “Georgia was lost as soon as they took Savannah. South Carolina’ll go the same way, you mark my words. And what’s the South to do without its major seaport?”
“Don’t be such a pessimist, Dick.” Benedict spoke briskly, pushing the pie toward the young man. “If Lincoln fails to hold Charleston, General Washington will send reinforcements from the North. And we’ll be ready to welcome them with an entire armory and a band of Patriot soldiers well trained in the underbelly of this war.” A smile lit his eyes, and he helped himself to the rum bottle. “Every weapon we take, my friends, is one less for the Tories.”
“And every dead sentry, one less to fight,” someone growled.
“True enough,” Ben said without expression. He looked at the grandfather clock and pushed back his chair. He’d been away from the cabin for three hours, and it would take him an hour to return, on foot and by way of the little-known trails. “Rendezvous in the usual place, the first night of the new moon.” He waited until they had all gone, except Joshua, whose house it was. Farmers, gentlemen, laborers—a diverse group with a shared aim. They would drive the British occupation from American soil and fulfill the goal of independence asserted with such magnificence three years earlier. Benedict Clare would help them, avenging his own wrongs and those of his friends as he fought the same enemy he had fought in his homeland, fighting for the
same cause. He had lost once, but he would not do so again. Next time, he would die first.
With a gesture of farewell to his monosyllabic host, he slipped out into the July afternoon. The farm was isolated, set well back from the river and the main thoroughfares on land. It could be approached from any number of directions and, as such, provided the ideal meeting place for men who did not wish to be seen traveling in one another’s company. Benedict made for the trees, seemingly uncharted to the ignorant eye, but for one who knew them they were a positive maze of intersecting trails easy enough for the educated eye to read.