“No,” I said with a finality meant to demand that she be wrong.
“Now Gilly …”
“No. No, no, no. She … Cor needs … He … He told me to take care of … Oh God …”
The Captain expression of anger had turned to shock at Lollie’s words but somehow turned to even greater shock when he looked at me. My knees were trying to buckle and I heard buzzing in my head. No, it just couldn’t be true. Cor needed this baby, wanted this baby. He’d told me to take care of Francine and the baby and this happens.
I kept trying to hold it together and asked Lollie, “Francine? Oh no … nothing has happened to Francine?! Cor won’t be able to stand it!”
Lollie looked as stunned as the Captain by my reaction. Here I was the hard and heartless Outlander coming undone. I’d just killed five men, practically in cold blood, and yet now I was in an emotional panic.
“Easy Gilly,” she said like some would talk to a half wild horse. “Miss Francie is resting.” Under her breath I heard her mutter to Jonah who had come up, “Calmer than when that Lathrop rider got here with his news.”
A look passed between them at the time I couldn’t even begin to decipher. All I could wonder is what was Cor going to say. What if something happened to Francine too? What would it do to Cor?
I started to go in the house to pay my respects to Francine’s grief but Lollie held me back. “She’s resting I told yer. I’ve given her something to slow the loss of blood and while she’s not out o’ the woods she isn’t in any immediate danger. She needs quiet. I’ll let you know when she can have visitors.”
“Tell her … tell her …” I looked at Lollie and felt lost. “I don’t know what to tell her. I … I don’t know what I’m going to tell Cor.”
Jonah took that moment and stepped in. “Cap’n?” Whatever look passed between them meant something too but I was passed knowing or caring.
The Captain, using the handrail to come down the stairs, told me, “Fel, go to the kitchen and let Mrs. Wiley see to you. When the time comes I’ll tell Cor …”
“But it was my job to watch ‘em and take care of ‘em! Cor told me to …”
In a stronger, more authoritative voice, “Fel, go inside. You’re exhausted and as distraught over what has happened as the rest of us. Let Mrs. Wiley get you something to eat.”
Then one of the older boys that Topher used to follow around ran up and speaking to Jonah while trying to ignore me said, “We can’t find Mickey or Topher. We’ve looked everywhere you told us to Jonah.”
My heart added a layer of ice and threatened to crack. I croaked, “I sent Topher to the house!”
Quietly Jonah said, “He was sent to fetch arrows Gilly. No one has seen him since.”
As if to hold back the next terrible truth I said, “No! He shouldn’t have gone missing between the house and the weapons shed!”
“Calm down Gilly,” Jonah told me sharply but not unkindly.
“You aren’t listening. If they made it through that side they came through the forest. They …”
Jonah took me from the Captain who was beginning to look at me with a great deal of concern. “They did Gilly but my men did for ‘em all. They didn’t get to the food or water and weren’t able to set the backfires they planned.”
Trying to grab my threads that threatened to unravel I put my brain in gear and muttered, “The front attack was a feint. The real attack was supposed to come from behind and be too subtle to detect until it was too late.”
Jonah nodded. The Captain cursed and started calling for reports from the men under his command. He was beginning to remind me more of the man that had fetched me from the Outlands. Guess in Kipling they think they can take their warrior on and off at will rather than wearing it all the time. Da used to tell me that it was the same where he came from and for those men – and women – that couldn’t do that, life could be uncomfortable.
For the rest of the night I roamed as far from the house as Jonah and the Captain would permit. And when they thought I’d gone to sleep at the cabin, also under their orders, I slipped out of the tunnel I had dug – the real reason I had been digging out the old root cellar – and went tracking farther afield. Most of my forest traps had been effective though some had been sprung without doing any harm; all but two had blood on them and several still had an occupant. They must have turned cautious though because I found a spot where a large group had stopped while a smaller one had broken off and headed to the house.
They must have milled in that spot for a while given the evidence and how trampled the area was and then left the way they had come. I continued tracking their path and was deep into the forest when I found Mickey’s body.
Mickey was older than Topher but not much bigger. His body carried two arrow wounds but they wouldn’t have been fatal unless they became infected. The fatal wound was at his throat. I surmised he’d been taken but had slowed them down too much or become too troublesome so they had disposed of him. Tucked in Mickey’s hand was a piece of leather fringe that had been dipped in walnut stain to darken the end. I knew for a fact that it had come from the moccasins I had made for Topher. The only hope it gave me was that the boy was still alive at that point. But it also depressed me. I knew the kind of painful indoctrination he was in for. They’d wipe his memory of any life he had before they captured him or they’d turn those memories to their own purpose of hatred so he’d never want to return even should he have the chance.
I carried Mickey’s body back. I couldn’t bear to leave it for the animals until the men could collect it. The sun had been up for a few hours by the time I met one of Jonah’s patrols and turned the body over to them.
One of the men told me quietly, “Better get back to the house Mistress Fel. The Cap’n be white hot mad and Jonah ain’t much better. They’s be needin’ you.” My concern over the men’s anger was only a distant thing. The ice that had coated my heart had grown and expanded to cover the whole of me; mind, body, and spirit.
I stumbled into the yard, heading towards my punishment for disobedience but a voice from the porch stopped me. It was Winnine. “Fel, leave the men to it for a while yet. They are overset. You need to come hear it from Francine herself.”
I sighed, knowing she was right. I turned my feet to the house feeling Francine had greater cause to berate me and that I owed it to her to take it.
Strangely Winnie put her arm around me and drew me into a hug. “You have to be strong Fel.”
“She’ll get her pound of flesh Winnie,” I assured her. “I won’t deny her that.”
Surprise and then concern crossed her face. “That’s not what I mean.” After looking me over she asked, “Fel, are you all right? I realize this is all very difficult but … but you don’t seem yourself.”
I hung my head in shame. “I failed Winnie. I failed to protect Cor’s child. I failed you and the Captain by almost letting the Captain get killed. I failed Topher … he’s gone and I won’t ever see the boy again. Worst of all – as if it could be worse – I failed Cor.” I shook her off and climbed the stairs leaving her staring after me in shock.
I reluctantly faced Francine’s door and then went in. Immediately the hysterical woman on the bed started screaming at me, “You! This is your fault!”
Lollie bustled briskly about the room and said, “No Francine it is not.” She stepped between me and Francine and guided me back out of arm’s reach of the bed. She gave Francine a sharp glance and she at once stopped carrying on. A strange sensation filled the room. Normally caregivers are all kindness and understanding toward the grieving woman in such a situation but there was none of that that as far as I could feel. Lollie was not being unkind, nor were the other two women who were there – one cleaning the hearth, the other sitting by the bed – but their objectivity and lack of emotion was unnerving.
I kept waiting for Francine to continue her diatribe but all she did was glare at me. There was no doubt she was suffering. In addition to her emotional imbalance her hair was limp and lifeless, her complexion the color of paste. Great dark circles nearly swallowed her eyes and she grimaced often in pain. I turned to Lolli who pointed to the bundle of sticks that lay on a small table.
I stared at the bundle and then, after realizing what they were, it clicked. “No,” I denied. “No, she wouldn’t have.”
Lollie sighed and said, “She did and freely admitted to it.”
I shook my head still in disbelief. “She couldn’t have. I checked her room over myself several times.”
A shrug was my answer until Lollie added, “She didn’t need to keep them in her room when she had the keys to the pantry from her housekeeping ring. The only reason I found these half used things is because no fire had been laid in her sitting room yet. They were hidden in the tender.”
I continued to shake my head at the horror of it. Lollie saw I was struggling with shock and denial and she put her arm around me once again. “It isn’t just the sassafrass. We found the mugwort’s been gotten into plus several other things. But I think it’s the combination of the sassafrass and mugwort that did the damage.”
From the bed Francine cried, “It’s her fault. She wouldn’t leave me in peace, wouldn’t help me get what I needed. And then she turned everyone against me. No one would listen. Not Winnie, not the Captain … not even Cor!” Looking me and blatting like a sick goat she croaked, “You even turned my aunts against me. Every letter … EVERY LETTER … Aunt Muriel and Aunt Hazel would lecture me. They wouldn’t send me any comfort what so ever. They wouldn’t come to me no matter how I begged and no one would take me to them either!!”
She was quickly getting out of control and was struggling up off the bed. I ran over with Lollie to help hold her down. Lollie told me, “Hold her Fel or she’s liable to do herself worse harm. I’ll fix another sedative.”
Holding her without injuring her wasn’t easy. I almost had to put my full weight on her. She was screaming and crying, “Your fault! Your fault!!”
Suddenly I was wrenched backwards and ripped off the bed. I tripped and fell. I quickly got up but stopped in horror.
He had Francine in his arms and she was crying into his chest while he rocked her. Then she pointed at me alike a shamaness and shouted, “She killed my baby. She’s a jealous huzzy and poisoned me. That wicked girl has killed our baby!”
Cor turned his shocked eyes to me. I could see the pain in them. I knew he was confused and grieving and likely had come straight up upon hearing the news. And my guilt tore at me, making me feel some of what he had to be feeling. His words though tore me wide open. “I asked you to keep them safe!”
I felt pummeled. So few words yet they left deeper marks than even the Headman could ever make even when he tried his hardest. But I wasn’t going to defend myself. I had failed. I had let him down.
I jumped when I felt Winnie put her arm around me and pull me to the door. As we stepped across the portal she turned to Lollie and said, “Explain things to him.”