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Queen of swords, p.20
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       Queen of Swords, p.20

           Sara Donati
 
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  Hannah didn’t know what to say to this, and so she only squeezed her brother’s arm and turned back to the other men.

  One of the warriors, older than the rest, was talking to Ben. Most probably this was some relative of his, but she would have to wait for an explanation: In many ways the southern tribes were no different from her own people; it would be rude to interrupt the exchange of information that was part of such a reunion.

  And so she took the opportunity to study the older man, taking in the graying hair that hung down from the rough linen turban he wore wrapped around his head like many of the others in the company. Juzan might be the man Jackson had appointed to lead these men into battle, but Hannah knew she was looking at a Choctaw war chief, the only man whose word would count with the warriors who waited quietly, watching the growing shadows and keeping track of every living being within hearing.

  Finally he turned away from Ben and went directly to Dr. Rousseau. The two men were clearly acquainted but formal with each other, each reserved and respectful. They spoke a language that was mostly the local French but studded with words in other languages, Spanish and the Indian tongues. She had been favorably disposed toward Dr. Rousseau, and she saw that her instincts had been right. This was a man who could work side by side with Indians and Redbones.

  When he finally turned to her, Hannah learned that the chief’s name was David Fairweather. He had a name in his own language as well, but that was not offered to her. Later she would have to ask Ben Savard what it meant that the war chief denied her his name. She feared it couldn’t be anything good, but then she saw no evidence of disapproval in his face, nor could she hear it in his voice.

  David Fairweather was a full-blood Choctaw who wore tribal tattoos on his cheeks and forehead. His brow had been purposely flattened by means of a board pressed to his head when he was an infant, but his clothing was the usual mixture of native and white: doeskin and homespun. He wore a long, dull blue shirt without a collar, a scarf knotted around his neck, loose leggings and winter moccasins, everything embroidered and beaded. Across his chest was a broad wampum string with a pattern Hannah didn’t recognize, and he carried so many weapons—including war club, long rifle, and bow and arrows—that he might have been setting out to turn back the whole English army single-handed.

  No doubt the Choctaw were divided, as was every other tribe, on the matter of traditions. There would still be Choctaw women who bound boards against the soft foreheads of their newborns to force their skulls into this particular version of beauty, just as there would be others who despised those mothers for their inability to leave the old ways behind.

  The men talked among themselves for a while, Juzan explaining the orders they had been given. At one point she felt gazes shift toward her and away again, and she realized that they were talking about her. She heard healer and woman and friend. When Ben came over she saw relief and satisfaction in his expression.

  She said, “They didn’t know you asked me to come?”

  “Juzan knew.”

  Later, Hannah told herself, she would ask more questions. There would be a lot of them.

  Ben was saying, “Dr. Rousseau, you know the DuPré slave alley? Mose is waiting for you there; he’ll get you what you need.”

  “I know it,” said Dr. Rousseau.

  Hannah’s throat was very dry, but she made herself speak. “Watch out for yourself, Jean-Benoît Savard. And for my brother.”

  He grinned at her, sure of himself. Sure of her. His easy smile was more comfort than any empty promise.

  In the gathering dusk, Hannah studied the countryside and the plantations stacked along the river like layers of a cake. As large farms went, the plantations were not much different from their counterparts in the north. Main houses, some simple and single-storied, others ornate and sprawling; barns and stables, warehouses and outbuildings. Sugar-works. Chicken pens, cattle and sheep grazing, hayricks and cotton bales stacked in pyramids and covered over with tarpaulin. Ditches, fences, canals, and in the distance, the ciprière, a wall of shadows. Bats danced overhead, quick shapes against the darkening sky, and the smell of night rose out of the stubble in the fields as the color seeped out of the world.

  They passed through a marshy half acre of reeds and cypress and came out on another plantation, this time directly among the cabins that housed the slaves. They were screened from the main house by a grove of pecan trees so that they seemed almost like a small and isolated village.

  The cabins were arranged in two long lanes that intersected at a right angle. Between the cabins, small gardens had been dug under for the winter. A flock of geese waddled by, followed by two boys who looked more surprised than alarmed to see the strangers.

  Women were coming to their doors to call to children and nod to Dr. Rousseau, though most of them did not meet his eye. Out of respect or fear it was impossible to say, and, Hannah told herself, unimportant.

  “Where are the men?”

  The doctor glanced at her. “Jackson’s engineers have put every male slave over the age of ten to work for the last three weeks, mostly digging ditches and blocking bayous.”

  It had been a naïve question, just as it would be naïve to ask why these women and children had not been sent away to safety.

  There was one older man left, at least. Mose met them at the door of the cabin they were to have as their field hospital. And with him was Père Tomaso. Hannah had last seen him at her bedside in the long days of her last illness, when she had been so badly beaten that she could hardly breathe for pain. He had come to sit beside her every afternoon for two weeks or more, often to tell her stories about Ben that made her laugh in spite of the pain. Sometimes he read to her aloud. What he had been reading—a newspaper or the Bible or poetry—that Hannah could not recall, but his voice had steadied her, something calm and soothing to focus on in the worst time.

  Hannah wondered what other surprises Ben had waiting for them, even while she greeted the man. She was glad to see him; another pair of hands were always welcome in a field hospital.

  He saw the question on her face and answered it. “The man who owns this plantation is my brother-in-law. My sister offered us the use of the cabin.”

  “You are good to come and help,” Hannah said. “I don’t know why Ben didn’t mention it to me.”

  “Ben likes to set plans in motion, but rarely talks about them until he sees how they work out,” the priest said.

  “I’m learning that about him,” Hannah said dryly.

  Dr. Rousseau ducked his head, too old and wise to make any comment.

  They went inside together. The cabin was small, with walls that had been recently whitewashed, and a swept hard-packed earth floor. There was a hearth with firewood stacked beside it, and two water buckets. The only furniture was a table, three stools, and two pallets on the ground, each covered with a clean blanket. An unlit lantern stood on the table.

  Hannah had the sense that these things were the best the people had to offer, gathered from each of the cabins for their use. She was thinking this as she saw Père Tomaso take a dozen fat candles out of the sack he had with him.

  “From the church,” he said. “I thought you’d need them.”

  Dr. Rousseau was unpacking his own bag. He said to Hannah, “Tomaso is half a doctor himself. He’ll be a big help.” He glanced at her over his shoulder, a smile cutting a sickle through his close-cropped beard.

  “Now there’s nothing to do but wait,” said Hannah.

  “I’ve got another idea,” said Dr. Rousseau. “There’s still enough light; let’s go to the levee, have a look and see what the English are up to.”

  Père Tomaso declined to join them, for reasons that were unclear to Hannah. But she followed Dr. Rousseau readily to the levee and up to the road that ran along it. And there was the river, as always, bending one way and then another like a fat old serpent, the water fast-moving and muddy.

  The doctor pointed out the main house on the McCarty pla
ntation, where Jackson had his headquarters.

  “And the field hospital,” Hannah guessed aloud.

  “Oh, yes,” said Dr. Rousseau. “Three or four doctors from the city and Jackson’s own surgeons, all set up there.”

  He talked about the plantations that lined the river, who owned them and what they grew, which owners had joined the militia, which had gone away to safety and left the protection of their private property to the army.

  “And just down there, you should be able to see the Carolina,” said the doctor.

  “It’s two and a half miles,” Hannah said. “You give my eyesight far too much credit.”

  It was full dark now, and the shapes of trees and bushes and wide expanses of empty field had melded together into the shadowy expanse of the ciprière. She thought of what it would be like to have to travel through an unfamiliar ciprière in the dark. There was no reason to worry about the Choctaws, who were more at home in these watery backwoods than any white man, but the English were another matter entirely. She wondered what they made of it all. This place was as different from the battlefields of Spain and France as fire was from water. The Choctaw would move through the ciprière without hesitation, as hard to pin down as smoke, and just as disabling. Kit Wyndham and his like, for all their strength and bravery and battle experience, could not hope to match them. She was confident of that much, at least.

  Out here, on the fields between the ciprière and the river, there was far more to worry about. The American troops were there, advancing on the canal that separated the Villeré and LaCoste plantations and marked the British line. No doubt Jackson had sent his best, most seasoned men, but still: The British advance had had a day of good weather to situate themselves and dig in.

  Hannah gave in to her curiosity. Paul Savard had lent her a telescope, and now she took it from the loop on her belt. At first it showed her nothing but the darkened fields, and that was a good thing. If the American troops could not approach the British silently in such optimal conditions, there was little hope they might prevail.

  What Hannah could see with her telescope was so unexpected that it took a moment to make sense of it. The British encampment was lit up by a half dozen bonfires, as if the troops were trying to advertise their position and strength. She began to doubt her own eyesight, and so Hannah handed the telescope over to Dr. Rousseau.

  For a long moment the telescope moved back and forth as he studied the encampment.

  He said, “They’ve settled in like long-lost cousins sure of a warm welcome.” He handed her back the telescope.

  “They are very sure of themselves,” Hannah agreed. “But then, they defeated Napoleon.”

  Hannah observed men walking from the main house to the outbuildings, from the levee back to the fires.

  “They’ll have slaughtered most of the Villerés’ livestock for their cook pots,” the doctor said. And then, in a rougher tone: “They are in for a rude surprise.”

  “You think there’s a chance, then,” Hannah said.

  But instead of answering her, the doctor turned his face toward the river where he had supposed the Carolina must sit in darkness. At that same moment, a rocket shot into the sky from the fields about a half mile farther on, trailing white and red and blue. Before the last of it had sputtered out, a world of sound and light erupted from the dark on the far side of the river. Long tracers of light followed the first volleys as grapeshot arced over the water and tore directly into the very center of the British camp.

  Through the telescope, Hannah watched the British camp seethe and roil like an anthill kicked in by a bad-tempered boy. There was a mad rushing, frantic action; fires were doused, and then she could catch only glimpses of what was happening when powder flashed from muzzles and shell after shell crashed into the camp. Even from so far away she could smell the black powder smoke. And added to all this, a misting rain and a fog rising off the river.

  And then the shelling stopped as suddenly as it had started. Another signal rocket, and following it, the bugles called out to the troops waiting in the dark, from the ciprière to the levee.

  “Here now,” said Dr. Rousseau. “Here it starts.” He was as calm as an elder telling a story of a battle fought generations before. Hannah was not surprised. She thought of her father, who might be here tomorrow or the day after, of her uncle, who had come to take them home, but who would first fling themselves into this cauldron in the blind faith that they could climb out again whole. She thought of Ben Savard, who had taken up arms for the O’seronni without hesitation.

  Men liked battle, that was the truth of it. And another truth: She could do no less than offer her help, once they had purged themselves of the need to draw blood.

  The doctor had turned again, this time toward the fields, where sputterings of light and sound, gunfire and wild shouting, made it clear that the infantry had engaged the British. And then the Carolina began again with her bombardment of the British camp.

  He said, “We had best get out of the open.”

  When Hannah thought of battle, it was the noise she remembered most clearly, the pounding that made the eardrums ache and the whole world tremble. And still it took her by surprise. The relentless battering of sound that shook the ground and the walls and made it impossible to speak. The Carolina gave no quarter. As long as she had munitions, she would give none.

  In the makeshift field hospital, they waited in the dark for their work to begin, reluctant to waste lantern or candlelight until it was most needed. Now and then Père Tomaso would go out and speak a few words to Mose, or someone else out of Hannah’s line of sight. He would come in again, and in the next pause in the shelling he would give them what news he had heard: The British three-pounders were not of a caliber to reach the Carolina, moored as she was on the far side of the river. They seemed not to have any bigger guns, which was good luck that could not last; no doubt the artillery was on its way, and unless the supply lines could be cut, the one-sided nature of the battle would not last long.

  “The infantry?” Hannah asked.

  “The fog is worse, and they are hampered for it.”

  “Wounded?”

  “A handful. At the other field hospital.”

  Hannah could make out shouts now and then, in the pauses between shells, a shout for ammunition, a muffled scream. A child wailed nearby, and was hushed. Horses thundered by on the Levee Road from the city and then back again.

  She sat with her back to the wall and her forehead pressed to her knees, and reached for calm. Memories of other battles rose and fell or were pushed away. She felt Strikes-the-Sky close by, the shape and scent of him. He rarely spoke to her anymore and she found it harder, now, to know what he was thinking. How he felt about her being here, looking after men who fought for Jackson and the O’seronni. If he would understand, if he would forgive her.

  If he would disapprove of Ben Savard as he had disapproved of Kit Wyndham.

  She remembered the new wound on Ben’s side, neatly stitched by some woman who lived in the Disputed Territories, a woman he called a friend.

  He hadn’t come to her bed last night, and she had slept badly, and now he was out in the night and the fog, killing men who had stepped onto American land in the hope of claiming it for themselves. Something he would never be able to do, even if he lived through this battle, and the next one, and the one after that. Ben Savard might be among the dead already. He might die before her father and uncle arrived, an idea that struck her like a fist. He could die fighting this white man’s war, and then all the things she wanted to ask him, all the things unsettled between them, would stay that way forever.

  She had asked him one question, in the moment before he went off with Juzan and the Choctaw.

  “Why are you fighting this war, really?”

  Maybe he knew her better than she believed, because he seemed to have been waiting for the question. He said, “Because when the dust settles, this place will be American. In another fifty or a hundred year
s the whole damn continent will be American. There won’t be anywhere to hide.”

  Hannah said, “So your plan is to become your enemy.”

  “Do you see any alternative?”

  “No,” Hannah had said. “None at all.”

  The air heavy and wet, cold hanging gauzy white in the night sky. The stink of gunpowder and blood.

  Dr. Rousseau stood at the open door, his mouth drawn down at the corners while he watched two Choctaw carry in the wounded man and put him on the scrubbed table. Père Tomaso was speaking to them in their own language, asking questions and getting short answers in response. Then they slipped away, back into the night.

  “This one is no stranger to battle,” Dr. Rousseau said.

  “His name is Nittakechi, he’s the son of Pushmataha. A chief closely allied to Jackson.” Père Tomaso said the name as if he believed they must be familiar with it.

  “We’ll do what we can for him,” said Hannah. “No matter who he is allied to.”

  “Of course,” said the priest, inclining his head in apology.

  The chief’s son was no more than seventeen years old, but his nose and cheeks were a mass of fading scars, and there was an indentation in his skull that made it clear he had survived a blow with a war club sometime in the last year or so. Spider legs of blood ran over his forehead and eyelids from a bullet wound that had plowed through his scalp and along the skull. He was concussed and would not fight again this night, but he would most likely survive.

  His eyes fluttered open. Hannah leaned over him with a candle to look at his pupils, and was glad to see that they were equal in size and that they reacted to the light.

  He muttered something she couldn’t make out, and she dredged up the bit of his language that she had.

  “Ak akostinincho.” I don’t understand. The priest was waiting to be asked to translate, but she didn’t look at him.

  The boy’s throat worked. “Water.”

 
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