An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 162

   

Jamie’s reflexes brought his hand up automatically, and the wooden rosary smacked into it, the beads swinging, tangled in his fingers.

“God damn you, sir,” Willie said, voice trembling. “God damn you to hell!” He half-turned blindly, then spun on his heel to face John. “And you! You knew, didn’t you? God damn you, too!”

“William—” John reached out a hand to him, helpless, but before he could say anything more, there was a sound of voices in the hall below and heavy feet on the stair.

“Sassenach—keep him back!” Jamie’s voice reached me through the hubbub, sharp and clear. By sheer reflex, I obeyed and seized Willie by the arm. He glanced at me, mouth open, completely nonplused.

“What—” His voice was drowned by the thunder of feet on the stairs and a triumphant whoop from the redcoat in front.

“There he is!”

Suddenly the landing was thronged with bodies pushing and shoving, trying to get past Willie and me into the hallway. I clung like grim death, despite the jostling and despite Willie’s own belated efforts to free himself.

All at once the shouting stopped, and the press of bodies relaxed just a bit. My cap had been knocked over my eyes in the struggle, and I let go of Willie’s arm with one hand in order to pull it off. I dropped it on the floor. I had a feeling that my status as a respectable woman wasn’t going to be important for much longer.

Brushing disheveled hair out of my eyes with a forearm, I resumed my grip on Willie, though this was largely unnecessary, as he seemed turned to stone. The redcoats were shifting on their feet, clearly ready to charge but inhibited by something. I turned a little and saw Jamie, one arm wrapped around John Grey’s throat, holding a pistol to John’s temple.

“One step more,” he said, calmly but loud enough to be easily heard, “and I put a ball through his brain. D’ye think I’ve anything to lose?”

Actually, given that Willie and myself were standing right in front of him, I rather thought he did—but the soldiers didn’t know that, and judging from the expression on Willie’s face, he would have torn his tongue out by the roots rather than blurt out the truth. I also thought he didn’t particularly care at the moment if Jamie did kill John and then die in a fusillade of bullets. His arm was like iron under my grip; he’d have killed them both himself, if he could.

There was a murmur of menace from the men around me and a shifting of bodies, men readying themselves—but no one moved.

Jamie glanced once at me, face unreadable, then moved toward the back stair, half-dragging John with him. They vanished from view, and the corporal next to me sprang into action, turning and gesturing to his men on the stair.

“Round back! Hurry!”

“Hold!” Willie had come abruptly to life. Jerking his arm away from my slackened grip, he turned on the corporal. “Have you men posted at the back of the house?”

The corporal, noticing Willie’s uniform for the first time, straightened himself and saluted.

“No, sir. I didn’t think—”

“Idiot,” Willie said shortly.

“Yes, sir. But we can catch them if we hurry, sir.” He was rocking up onto his toes as he spoke, in an agony to be gone.

Willie’s fists were clenched, and so were his teeth. I could see the thoughts crossing his face, as clearly as if they’d been printed on his forehead in movable type.

He didn’t think Jamie would shoot Lord John but wasn’t sure of it. If he sent men after them, there was a decent chance that the soldiers would catch up to them—which in turn meant some chance that one or both would die. And if neither died but Jamie was captured—there was no telling what he might say or to whom. Too much risk.

With a faint sense of déjà vu, I saw him make these calculations, then turn to the corporal.

“Return to your commander,” he said calmly. “Let him know that Colonel Grey has been taken hostage by … by the rebels, and ask him to notify all guard posts. I am to be informed at once of any news.”

There was a displeased murmur from the soldiers on the landing but nothing that could actually be called insubordination, and even this died away in the face of William’s glare. The corporal’s teeth set briefly in his lip, but he saluted.

“Yes, sir.” He turned smartly on his heel, with a peremptory gesture that sent the soldiers clumping heavily down the stair.

Willie watched them go. Then, as though suddenly noticing it, he bent and picked up my cap from the floor. Kneading it between his hands, he gave me a long, speculative look. The next little while was going to be interesting, I saw.

I didn’t care. While I was quite sure that Jamie wouldn’t shoot John under any circumstances, I was under no misapprehensions about the danger to either of them. I could smell it; the scent of sweat and gunpowder hung thick in the air on the landing, and the soles of my feet still vibrated from the slam of the heavy door below. None of it mattered.

He was alive.

So was I.

GREY WAS STILL IN his shirtsleeves; the rain had cut through the cloth to his flesh.

Jamie went to the shed’s wall and put his eye to a crack between the boards. He raised a hand, adjuring silence, and John stood waiting, shivering, as the sound of hooves and voices went past. Who might it be? Not soldiers; there was no sound of brass, no jingling spurs or arms. The sounds faded, and Jamie turned back. He frowned, noticing for the first time that Grey was wet through, and, taking the cloak from his shoulders, wrapped it round him.

The cloak was damp, too, but made of wool, and Jamie’s body heat lingered in it. Grey closed his eyes for an instant, embraced.

“May I know what it is that you’ve been doing?” Grey inquired, opening them.

“When?” Jamie gave him a half smile. “Just now, or since I saw ye last?”

“Just now.”

“Ah.” Jamie sat down on a barrel and leaned back—gingerly—against the wall.

Grey noted with interest that the sound was nearly “ach,” and deduced that Fraser had spent much of his time of late with Scots. He also observed that Fraser’s lips were pursed in thought. The slanted blue eyes cut in his direction.

“Ye’re sure ye want to know? It’s likely better if ye don’t.”

“I put considerable trust in your judgment and discretion, Mr. Fraser,” Grey said politely, “but somewhat more in my own. I’m sure you will forgive me.”

Fraser appeared to find that funny; the wide mouth twitched, but he nodded and produced a small packet, sewn in oilskin, from inside his shirt.

“I was observed in the act of accepting this from my foster son,” he said. “The person who saw me followed me to an ordinary, then went to fetch the nearest company of soldiers whilst I was refreshing myself. Or so I assume. I saw them coming down the street, supposed that it might be myself they sought, and… left.”

“You are familiar, I suppose, with the trope regarding the guilty who flee when no man pursues? How do you know they were after you to begin with and not merely interested by your abrupt departure?”

The half smile flickered again, this time tinged with rue.

“Call it the instinct of the hunted.”

“Indeed. I am surprised that you allowed yourself to be cornered, as it were, your instincts being what they are.”

“Aye, well, even foxes grow old, do they not?” Fraser said dryly.

“Why the devil did you come to my house?” Grey demanded, suddenly irritable. “Why did you not run for the edge of town?”

Fraser looked surprised.

“My wife,” he said simply, and it occurred to Grey, with a pang, that it had not been inadvertence or lack of caution that had impelled Jamie Fraser to come to his house, even with soldiers on his heels. He’d come for her. For Claire.

Jesus! He thought with sudden panic. Claire!

But there was no time to say anything, even could he have thought what to say. Jamie rose and, taking the pistol from his belt, beckoned him to come.

They went down an alleyway, then through the backyard of a pub, squeezing past the open brew tub, its surface pocked by falling rain. Smelling faintly of hops, they emerged into a street and slowed down. Jamie had gripped his wrist throughout this journey, and Lord John felt his hand beginning to go numb but said nothing. They passed two or three groups of soldiers, but he walked with Jamie, matching him stride for stride, keeping his eyes front. There was no conflict of heart and duty here: to shout for help might result in Jamie’s death; it almost surely would result in the death of at least one soldier.

Jamie kept his pistol out of sight, half hidden in his coat but in his hand, putting it back into his belt only when they reached the place where he had left his horse. It was a private house; he left Grey by himself on the porch for a moment with a muttered “Stay here,” while he disappeared inside.

A strong sense of self-preservation urged Lord John to run, but he didn’t and was rewarded when Jamie emerged again and smiled a little, seeing him. So you weren’t sure I’d stay? Fair enough, Grey thought. He hadn’t been sure, either.

“Come on, then,” Jamie said, and with a jerk of his head beckoned Grey to follow him to the stable, where he quickly saddled and bridled a second horse, handing the reins to Grey before mounting his own.

“Pro forma,” he said politely to Grey, and, drawing the pistol, pointed it at him. “Should anyone ask later. Ye’ll come with me, and I will shoot you, should ye make any move to give me away before we’re out of the city. We are understood, I hope?”

“We are,” Grey replied briefly, and swung up into the saddle.

He rode a little ahead of Jamie, conscious of the small round spot between his shoulder blades. Pro forma or not, he’d meant it.

He wondered whether Jamie would shoot him in the chest or simply break his neck when he found out. Likely bare hands, he thought. It was a visceral sort of thing, sex.

The idea of concealing the truth hadn’t seriously occurred to him. He didn’t know Claire Fraser nearly as well as Jamie did—but he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she couldn’t keep secrets. Not from anyone. And certainly not from Jamie, restored to her from the dead.

Of course, it might be some time before Jamie was able to speak to her again. But he knew Jamie Fraser infinitely better than he knew Claire—and the one thing he was certain of was that nothing whatever would stand long between Jamie and his wife.

The rain had passed, and the sun shone on the puddles as they splashed through the streets. There was a sense of movement all around, agitation in the air. The army was quartered in Germantown, but there were always soldiers in the city, and their knowledge of imminent departure, anticipation of the return to campaigning, infected the city like a plague, a fever passing invisibly from man to man.

A patrol on the road out of the city stopped them but waved them on when Grey gave his name and rank. His companion he introduced as Mr. Alexander MacKenzie and thought he felt a vibration of humor from said companion. Alex MacKenzie was the name Jamie had used at Helwater—as Grey’s prisoner.

Oh, God, Grey thought suddenly, leading the way out of sight of the patrol. William. In the shock of the confrontation and their abrupt departure, he hadn’t had time to think. If Grey were dead, what would William do?

His thoughts buzzed like a swarm of hiving bees, crawling over one another in a seething mass; impossible to focus on one for more than an instant before it was lost in the deafening hum. Denys Randall-Isaacs. Richardson. With Grey gone, he would almost certainly move to arrest Claire. William would try to stop him, if he knew. But William didn’t know what Richardson was…. Grey didn’t know, either, not for sure. Henry and his Negro lover—Grey knew they were lovers now, had seen it in both their faces—Dottie and her Quaker: if the twin shocks didn’t kill Hal, he’d be on a ship bound for America in nothing flat, and that would certainly kill him. Percy. Oh, Jesus, Percy.

Jamie was in front of him now, leading the way. There were little groups of people on the road: mostly farmers coming in with wagonloads of supplies for the army. They looked curiously at Jamie, much more so at Grey. But no one stopped or challenged them, and an hour later Jamie led them down a trace off the main road and into a small woodland dripping and steaming from the recent rain. There was a stream; Jamie swung down off his horse and left it to drink, and Grey did likewise, feeling strangely unreal, as though the leather of saddle and reins was foreign to his skin, as though rain-chilled air passed through him, body and bones, rather than around him.

Jamie crouched by the stream and drank, then splashed water over his head and face and stood up, shaking himself like a dog.

“Thank ye, John,” he said. “I hadna time to say it earlier. I’m verra grateful to ye.”

“Thank me? It was hardly my choice. You abducted me at gunpoint.”

Jamie smiled; the tension of the last hour had eased, and with it the lines of his face.

“Not that. For taking care of Claire, I mean.”

“Claire,” he repeated. “Ah. Yes. That.”

“Aye, that,” Jamie said patiently, and bent a little to peer at him in concern. “Are ye quite well, John? Ye look a wee bit peaked.”

“Peaked,” Grey muttered. His heart was beating very erratically; perhaps it would conveniently stop. He waited for a moment to allow it to do this if it liked, but it went on cheerfully thumping away. No help, then. Jamie was still looking quizzically at him. Best to get it over quickly.

He took a deep breath, shut his eyes, and commended his soul to God.

“I have had carnal knowledge of your wife,” he blurted.

He had expected to die more or less instantaneously upon this utterance, but everything continued just as usual. Birds continued chirping in the trees, and the rip and slobber of the horses champing grass was the only sound above that of the rushing water. He opened one eye to find Jamie Fraser standing there regarding him, head to one side.

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