Queen of Swords, p.21Sara Donati
She gave him what he wanted, helping him take small sips from the tin cup. Then he closed his eyes.
“Yokoke.” Thank you.
The doorway filled again, a tall militiaman in the nut-brown homespun coat of the Battalion of Free Men of Color. Another limp form hung over his shoulder.
To Dr. Rousseau he said, “Pris un dans l’estomac.”
“Mousquet?” Hannah asked. “Carabine?”
The soldier looked at her for the first time. “Baïonnette.”
In a firm voice, one she had not had to use now for a very long time, Hannah replied, “We will take care of him now. You can go.”
“You understand soldiers,” Dr. Rousseau said to her later. “All they want are clear orders.”
When the buglers called retreat some three or four hours later, Hannah went out into the night to lean against a rough wall and clear her head. She stayed there for a half hour, watching the troops pulling back, gathering what information she could by listening to scraps of conversation.
Jackson’s offensive had taken the British completely by surprise, and he had pressed his advantage. Now, with the fog so heavy, the fighting had been suspended and he withdrew his men to the Rodriquez Canal—Hannah tried to remember if Dr. Rousseau had pointed that landmark out to her—and would dig in there for the next battle.
Some of the troops were going back to the city. They drifted down the Levee Road, their voices warping and weaving together in the fog, loud and soft. Now and then a bit of rough laughter, or a shout as friends caught sight of each other. The men were exhausted but too satisfied to give in to it, in the way of men who had won a battle they had been expected to lose. Telling each other jokes at the expense of the British, who had been caught looking the other way and pounded to dust by the Carolina.
If not for the fog, Hannah heard more than once. If not for the fog we would have sent the Rosbeefs back to the Gulf once and for all.
Dr. Rousseau had gone back to the city with one of the wounded, and in the cabin Père Tomaso sat beside a still form, the young man who had taken a bayonet to his belly and bled to death before they could do anything for him. Giles Hermange, the son of a barber, twenty-one years old. Père Tomaso knew the family well, and he would take the boy home to them.
Of the six men they had treated, three had been able to walk away once their wounds were cleaned and bound. To Hannah’s relief and surprise, they had not done a single amputation, and the only serious wound left was the young Choctaw. She wondered about the other troops, if they had come away so easily.
There had been no word of Luke or Ben.
Hannah went to the water barrel in the corner and drank from her cupped hands, splashed her face and rubbed her eyes. She offered the dipper to Père Tomaso and watched him drink, thinking that she could go back to the city now, and sleep in her own bed. In Ben Savard’s bed. She wondered how much Ben had told the priest, and found the idea irritated her more than it should have.
She turned at a sound. Juzan and the Choctaws crowded into the cabin, all of them at once, to stand around the table. The war chief looked at Hannah.
“He will live?”
Hannah believed he would, and said so. If the Choctaw could carry their brother to the little clinic, she would look after him there tonight. Tomorrow he would likely be well enough to rejoin them.
Two of the warriors picked him up at a flick of the war chief’s finger. They filed out, one by one, leaving Captain Juzan behind for a moment. He studied Hannah for a moment, as if he wasn’t sure what to say.
“You’re taking him back to your camp,” volunteered the priest.
Juzan gave a weary grin, and nodded.
Hannah said, “I thought you might. Bring him to me if he gets worse.” And: “What of Ben and Luke?”
Juzan looked over his shoulder. “They’ll be along,” he said. “Soon. Père Tomaso, Dr. Bonner. Thank you.” He touched his cap and disappeared into the fog.
The jangling of a harness announced the arrival of a mule cart. The priest went out to greet the driver, and together they moved Giles Hermange to the wagon bed.
Père Tomaso gave Hannah a kind smile. “I fear we’ll see each other again.” Because of course this had only been the beginning. There would be another battle, and another, until one side or the other surrendered. He had been an excellent assistant, quick to understand, nimble in his reactions, and able to stay out of the way.
She said, “You were a great help. Thank you.”
“I go where I’m needed,” he said. “Of course that’s not always where I’m wanted.”
Hannah felt herself flush. She turned her face away and then back again. “I would be glad to have you assist at any time.”
He studied her for a moment, and nodded. Then Hannah stood in the doorway and watched the mule cart go. When the sound of its wheels on the gravel path had faded away, she found the fur-lined cape that she had cast aside when she had been hard at work and hot, and pulled it around herself. She thought of Ben’s mother, who had worn these clothes. Spattered with dirt and blood, the fine beadwork on the moccasins obscured by mud. She would scrape the fine doeskin clean, dry and brush the moccasins, and then she would fold all of it neatly and return everything to Ben Savard.
Unless he didn’t come. In that case she could sleep right here on the pallet, if the slaves had no objection to her staying the rest of the night. She wondered where Mose had gone, if he was asleep somewhere.
Hannah went to the door and then out into the night, still heavy with fog.
She walked first down the slave row to the point where the fields started. The lantern that hung from a nail on the wall of the last cabin still burned, casting a solid oval of light sharply defined at its edges by the fog. The fields rolled away from where she stood, like waves from a ship. Hannah turned and walked in the other direction until she came to the levee, where she stood in the shadows and watched the troops withdrawing.
These men were quieter, and moved with a certain weariness that made little sense until Hannah realized that these were prisoners being marched back to the city under guard. The guard that walked with them held weapons at the ready, and more soldiers on horseback before and after. A half dozen men carried torches to light the way. In that flickering light she caught a flash of color now and then, a faded red coat or an epaulette that sparked in the firelight, half torn from a shoulder. A bloody cloth pressed to a cheek, muddy boots, forage caps. She stood and watched for a quarter hour until the last of the men had disappeared from sight, and caught not one glimpse of a blond head.
When she turned, Ben Savard and her brother were coming toward her, moving out of the fog into the feeble light of the lantern she had left outside the cabin as a guide. They moved easily, long strides, heads swiveling as they went, still alert and aware and, above all, alive.
Ben was looking at her, his eyes tracing her shape as if she were the one who had just fought a battle and might be injured. As if she were his to worry about. The way she was looking at him, taking his measure: no obvious wounds, his face and hands blackened by gunpowder, his smile all the brighter by contrast.
No blood shed. A man back from battle full of life.
They stopped in front of her.
“I see you managed to keep out of trouble,” she said. Her voice trembled a little.
Luke said, “I’m off away home, or Jennet will have my skin for letting her worry. Do you have your things?”
Hannah glanced at the cabin. “Not quite—”
“I’ll go ahead, then,” Luke said, casting a quick sidelong glance at Ben. “You two take your time.”
And he disappeared into the fog and dark at a trot. Hannah had the sense he would run all the way back to the city and Jennet.
To Ben she said, “How—” and stopped, because he caught her up against him with one strong movement, his arm curling around her waist as hard and certain as a grappling hook. She was pressed against his chest and Ben had lowered his head
“I was hoping you’d wait.”
He kissed her then, both arms closing around her, pulling her up against his chest, lifting her off the ground. Hannah kissed him back, drawing in his smells, gunpowder and grease and ciprière, a faint tinge of blood, and the oils on his skin. She had forgot how it was, how a man came off the battlefield smelling like this, as if in the rush and tumult he must sweat out his very essence. I am alive.
In the cabin, with the door closed, she said, “Let me see your shoulder,” and he laughed at her. There was some blood and a tear in his shirt, but he laughed like a boy without worries or responsibilities. What he wanted from her had nothing to do with medicine.
She could stop him with a word, but could not think of what that word might be. Hannah let herself be drawn down to the pallet, where she might have been frightened or anxious, but she could only laugh herself, caught up in this surplus of energy, the promise of relief.
He was so alive, so full of motion, so intent, as if she were a lesson he had set himself to learn. The texture of the skin below her ear, the taste of her sweat. Her blood ran cold and hot and cold again, fear getting the upper hand.
Ben took her head between his palms and pressed his forehead to hers and whispered.
“We’re here together, Hannah. Walks-Ahead. You and me and nobody else. You,” his mouth moved against her skin. “You and me and nobody else. You take what you want, and leave the rest.”
That made her laugh out loud. “And if I want nothing at all?” He was hugely aroused, as hard as hickory, bursting with need.
“Then we sleep,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek, the kiss of a solicitous friend, a proper older brother. But he was not her brother, and Hannah could not pretend he was, had no wish to force that role on him or on herself. She turned her head so that their mouths met, and she kissed him the way she wanted to be kissed. He was a man who could take direction and turn it to his advantage.
Her body responded, and her mind followed along. Ben Savard had come from a battle where he had fought for his life, where he had killed in order to come back to her. And hadn’t she done the same, the very same thing, come back from a place where she might have died, from that night when a different man had tried to break her.
The kiss deepened, turned, flexed, flowed back and forth between them. She had missed kisses like this, she had missed this man’s touch.
Ben pulled away, his gaze sharpening as he examined her face. Then he kissed her again, the kiss she didn’t want, brotherly, chaste. He rolled over onto his back so that only their hands touched.
He said, “I felt the memory come back to you. Your whole body went cold.”
Hannah tried to gather the words that might make him understand. In the end she gave him the simplest truth.
“I am glad,” she said. “I’m glad that he never kissed me.”
Ben was very silent, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. Then he turned on his side toward her, and cupped her face with his hand.
“I’m glad, too,” he said. He let one hand rest on the plane of her belly, his fingers lightly curled. And: “When you are ready,” he said. “I am here. I will be here until you send me away.”
In the minutes it took her to fall asleep Hannah thought about that, about the idea of sending Ben Savard away. How such a thing might be done, and what the world would be without him.
At first light, Hannah and Ben walked back to the city to be greeted at the clinic door with the news that Luke was in the little clinic.
“He left the battlefield without a scratch,” Hannah said, her alarm making her voice rise.
Paul Savard said, “Someone took a shot at him just as he was coming into the city. He never saw who it was.”
He exchanged a glance with his brother, one that wasn’t lost on Hannah but would have to be examined later.
“Tell me,” she said.
“He was lucky,” the doctor told her. “Either the gun misfired or it was poorly loaded, and the bullet deflected off a wagon before it struck him. He’s got a back full of splinters. Nothing life-threatening.” And: “Unless Jennet’s temper gets the best of her.”
Hannah took leave of Ben with a flutter of her hand and went to the surgery, where Luke lay prone on the table, his back bared for treatment. Julia stood at one side with tweezers and a scalpel, and Jennet on the other with a bowl of water. Julia said, “This isn’t as bad as it looks.”
“Or as it feels,” Julia added. “Would you like to take over?”
“Please no,” said Luke. “She’ll torture me to death.”
Jennet snorted. “Listen to him whinging like a babe in arms. For splinters and a wee bit of blood.”
Hannah cast Jennet a sidelong glance. Her fright had given way to anger, and now Luke must bear the brunt of it.
It took Hannah a moment to take full measure of the wounds, but when she was satisfied that Paul Savard hadn’t been minimizing the damage, she went to Jennet directly and put a hand on her shoulder.
“There will be scarring, but nothing here is very deep. If there’s another battle tomorrow he’ll probably insist on rushing off to join it. I will take over if you like, Julia.”
Julia left to see to other patients, and Hannah settled at Luke’s side with the tray of instruments.
“One of you should just hit me on the head with the hammer,” Luke said. “Get it over with.”
“What would be the fun in that?” Jennet asked.
There was silence while Hannah worked. A clink as a bit of shot was deposited in a basin, and then Jennet washed away the blood. Luke drew in a hissing breath, and the process repeated itself. Hannah pulled a half dozen long splinters that had dug into the muscle, and a few bits of shot. When she was almost finished, Luke roused himself.
“Not tomorrow.” His voice came muffled, because he had buried his head in his arms. “No battle tomorrow.”
“Is that so?” Jennet said dryly. “You made your wishes clear to both sides, then?”
He turned his head very slightly and shot her an aggravated look. “The English are still bringing in troops and artillery—”
“By all means, let’s wait for the Sassenach to get themselves organized,” Jennet said.
“—and our fortifications are weak. Jackson’s got every slave in a hundred-mile radius and most of the free men, too, militia and regular army, out there on the Rodriquez Canal.”
Jennet made a humming noise deep in her throat. Hannah dug for a splinter and Luke jerked.
To distract Jennet, Hannah asked her about the rest of the wounded. It turned out that there had been twenty-four killed in battle and just over a hundred wounded, only half of those seriously, and that the army surgeons and the city hospital had absorbed them all. Even the captured British—and there were many—had been easily accommodated, the officers taken in by the first families.
“There are many hundreds dead on the other side,” Jennet said. “The Carolina did serious damage. And then there are those who managed to survive the battles and come home wounded nonetheless.”
Luke pushed out a sigh that gave way to a low yip as Hannah got hold of the splinter and pulled. When she had finished he turned his head toward Jennet, reached out, and grabbed her by the wrist.
“Oi,” said Jennet, but she let herself be drawn down so she was face-to-face with her husband. Luke looked her directly in the eye for a long moment.
“Now listen to me,” he said in a soft and dangerous voice. “I am not badly wounded. I will not die. I’m not going to recount every step I took in battle so you can torture yourself with what might have happened, but didn’t. So stop asking.”
Then he darted forward to kiss her firmly before he let her go.
He turned his upper body so he could see Hannah more directly, and he gave her a grim smile.
“Good,” Luke said, and turned onto his stomach again.
Hannah said, “I need some water, Jennet, if you would.”
“Of course.” She took the ewer and paused at the door. “Would you care for tea?” Her tone had turned conciliatory, and a bit shy.
“I’d prefer whisky, but tea will do,” Luke said.
“Well, then,” Jennet said. “I’ll see to it.” And she closed the door after herself quietly.
After a moment Hannah said, “She’s been coping with a lot, Luke. She’s terrified at the idea of you going back into battle.”
He gave a soft grunt. “It’s not so easy for me, either. For all I know she’ll go out and find another infant to adopt while I’m gone.”
Hannah paused. She hadn’t been in the room when Jennet told Luke about Jacinthe and the child, and this was the first mention he made of it to her.
“You don’t want the boy?”
He jerked impatiently. “I didn’t say that.”
“I’m uneasy about it.”
Hannah sat down next to him on a low stool so she could look him in the face. “Why?”
“Because,” Luke said, “I intend to kill the boy’s father just as soon as I can track him down.”
Hannah kept losing sight of the fact that it was Christmas Eve, but Clémentine did not. There was a goose for dinner, and potatoes and peppered turnips mashed with cream, and greens cooked with bacon and onions, and bread warm from the oven.
She found she had an appetite. They all did, crowded around the Savards’ table. Everyone was here but Ben, who had gone back to his company after seeing Hannah to the clinic.
“He didn’t like to go,” Rachel said, looking directly at Hannah. “He had no choice.”
Hannah tried to look as if this news were of no particular importance to her. She was not so sure of Ben Savard or her own feelings and loath to have the subject raised, even in the company of such good friends and family.
“I could come with you next time,” young Henry was saying. “I would be a great help in the field hospital.”
Queen of Swords by Sara Donati / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes