“Do ye, then? Hmm.” He replaced the dirk and resumed his pacing, stopping to demand, “How much money have ye, lass?”
I fumbled in the pocket of my gown. I had Dougal’s purse, the money Jenny had forced me to take, and my string of pearls. Rupert rejected the pearls, but took the purse, pouring a stream of coins into the palm of one capacious hand.
“That’ll do,” he said, jingling them experimentally. He cocked an eye at the Coulter twins. “You twa laddies and Willie—come wi’ me. John and Murtagh can stay here wi’ the lassie.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
He poured the coins into his sporran, keeping back one, which he tossed meditatively in the air.
“Och,” he said vaguely. “Happen there’s another inn, the other side of the town. The guards from the prison go there when they’re off duty, for it’s closer, and the drink’s a penny cheaper.” He flipped the coin with his thumb, and turning his hand, caught it between two knuckles.
I watched it, with a growing idea of what he intended.
“Is that so?” I said. “I wouldn’t suppose they play cards there, too, would you?”
“I wouldna ken, lassie, wouldna ken,” he answered. He tossed the coin once more and clapped his hands together, trapping it, then spread his hands apart, to show nothing but thin air. He smiled, teeth white in the black beard.
“But we might go and see, no?” He snapped his fingers, and the coin appeared once more between them.
Shortly past one o’clock on the following afternoon, I passed again beneath the spiked portcullis that had guarded the gate of Wentworth since its construction in the late sixteenth century. It had lost very little of its forbidding aspect in the succeeding two hundred years, and I touched the dagger in my pocket for courage.
Sir Fletcher should now be well dug in at his midday repast, according to the information Rupert and his assistant spies had extracted from the prison guards during their foray the evening before. They had staggered in, red-eyed and reeking of ale, just before dawn. All Rupert would say in response to my questions was “Och, lassie, all it takes to win is luck. It takes skill to lose!” He curled up in the corner then and went soundly to sleep, leaving me to pace the floor in frustration, as I had been doing all night.
He woke an hour later, though, clear-eyed and clear-headed, and laid out the rudiments of the plan I was about to put into execution.
“Sir Fletcher doesna allow anyone or anything to disturb his meals,” he said. “Anyone wantin’ him then must just go on wantin’ until he’s done wi’ his food and drink. And after the midday meal, it’s his habit to retire to his quarters for a wee sleep.”
Murtagh, in the character of my groom, had arrived a quarter of an hour previously, and been admitted without difficulty. Presumably, he would be shown to Sir Fletcher’s office and asked to wait. While there, he was to search the office, first for a plan of the west wing, and then, on the off-chance, for keys that might open the cells.
I hung back a bit, glancing at the sky to judge the time. If I arrived before he had sat down, I might be invited to join Sir Fletcher for luncheon, which would be highly inconvenient. But Rupert’s card-playing acquaintances among the guards had assured him that the governor’s habits were invariable; the bell for dinner was rung promptly at one, and the soup served five minutes later.
The guard on duty at the entrance was the same as the day before. He looked surprised, but greeted me courteously.
“So vexing,” I said, “I had meant my groom to bring a small present for Sir Fletcher, as some return for his kindness to me yesterday. But I found that the silly man had ridden off without it, and so I was obliged to follow with it myself, hoping to catch him up. Has he arrived already?” I displayed the small package I carried and smiled, thinking that it would help if I had dimples. Since I hadn’t, I settled for a brilliant display of teeth.
It seemed to be sufficient. I was admitted and led through the corridors of the prison toward the governor’s office. Though this part of the castle was decently furnished, there was little mistaking the place for anything other than a prison. There was a smell about the place, which I imagined as the smell of misery and fear, though I supposed it was no more than the niff of ancient squalor and an absence of drains.
The guard allowed me to precede him down the hall, following discreetly so as not to step on my cloak. And a damn good thing he did, for I rounded the corner toward Sir Fletcher’s office a few feet ahead of him, just in time to see Murtagh through the open door, dragging the unconscious form of the office guard behind the enormous desk.
I took one step back and dropped my package onto the stone floor. There was a shattering of glass, and the air was filled with the smothering aroma of peach brandy.
“Oh, dear,” I said, “what have I done?”
While the guard was calling for a prisoner to clear up the mess, I tactfully murmured something about waiting for Sir Fletcher in his private office, slipped in, and hastily shut the door behind me.
“What the bloody hell have you done?” I snapped at Murtagh. He looked up from his rummaging of the body, unconcerned at my tone.
“Sir Fletcher doesna keep keys in his office,” he informed me in a low voice, “but this wee laddie has a set.” He pulled the huge ring free of the man’s coat, careful to keep the keys from jingling.
I dropped to my knees behind him. “Oh, good show!” I said. I cast an eye over the prostrate soldier; still breathing, at least. “What about a plan of the prison?”
He shook his head. “Not that either, but my friend here told me a bit while we waited. The condemned cells are on the same floor as this, in the middle of the west corridor. There’re three cells, though, and I couldna ask more than that—he was a bit suspicious as it was.”
“It’s enough—I hope. All right, give me the keys and get out.”
“Me? It’s you should leave, lassie, and right smart too.” He glanced at the door, but there was no sound on the other side.
“No, it has to be me,” I said, reaching again for the keys. “Listen,” I said impatiently. “If they find you wandering round the prison with a bunch of keys, and the guard here laid out like a mackerel, we’re both done for, because why didn’t I cry out for help?” I snatched the keys and crammed them in my pocket, with some difficulty.
Murtagh was still skeptical, but had risen to his feet.
“And if you’re caught?” he demanded.
“I swoon,” I said crisply. “And when I recover—eventually—I say that I saw you apparently murdering the guard and fled in terror, with no idea where I was going. I lost my way looking for help.”
He nodded slowly. “Aye, all right.” He moved toward the door, then stopped.
“But why did I—oh.” He crossed swiftly to the desk and pulled out one drawer after another, stirring the contents with one hand and tossing items onto the floor with the other.
“Theft,” he explained, coming back to the door. He opened it a crack, looking out.
“If it’s theft, shouldn’t you take something?” I suggested, looking about for something small and portable. I picked up an enameled snuffbox. “This, perhaps?”
He made an impatient gesture to me to put it down, still peering through the crack.
“Nay, lass! If I’m found wi’ Sir Fletcher’s property, that’s a hanging offense. Attempted theft is only flogging or mutilation.”
“Oh.” I put the snuffbox down hastily and stood behind him, peering over his shoulder. The hall seemed empty.
“I go first,” he said. “If I meet anyone, I’ll draw ’em off. Wait to the count of thirty, then follow. We’ll meet ye in the small wood to the north.” He opened the door, then paused and turned back.
“If you’re caught, mind ye throw the keys awa’.” Before I could speak, he was through the door like an eel and down the corridor, moving silently as a shadow.
It seemed to take an eternity to find the west wing, dodging through the corridors of the old castle, peering around corners and hiding behind columns. I saw only one guard on my way, though, and managed to avoid him by diving back around a corner, pressing myself to the wall with hammering heart until he passed.
Once I found the west wing, though, I had little doubt that I was in the right place. There were three large doors in the corridor, each with a tiny barred window from which I could catch no more than a frustrating glimpse of the room behind it.
“Eenie, meenie, minie, mo,” I muttered to myself, and headed for the center cell. The keys on the ring were unlabeled, but of different sizes. Clearly only one of three big ones would fit the lock before me. Naturally, it was the third one. I took a deep breath as the lock clicked, then wiped my sweating hands on my skirt and shoved the door open.
I sorted frantically through the stinking mass of men in the cell, stepping over outstretched feet and legs, pushing past heavy bodies that moved with maddening sluggishness out of my way. The stir occasioned by my abrupt entrance had spread; those who had been asleep amid the filth on the floor began to sit up, roused by the rippling murmur of astonishment. Some were manacled to the walls; the chains grated and clanked in the half-light as they moved. I grabbed one of the standing men, a brown-bearded clansman in ragged yellow-and-green tartan. The bones of his arm under my hand were frighteningly near the skin; the English wasted little extra food on their prisoners.
“James Fraser! A big, redheaded man! Is he in this cell? Where is he?”
He was already moving toward the door with the others who were not chained, but paused a moment to glance down at me. The prisoners by now had seized the idea, and were pouring through the open door in a shuffling flood, peering and murmuring to each other.
“Who? Fraser? Och, they took him awa’ this mornin’.” The man shrugged, and pushed at my hands, trying to shake me off.
“I took hold of his belt with a grip that halted him in his tracks. “Where did they take him? Who took him?”
“I dinna ken where; was yon Captain Randall took ’im—a pinch-faced snark, he is.” With an impatient wrench, he freed himself and headed for the door with a step born of long-nourished purpose.
Randall. I stood stunned for a moment, jostled by the escaping men, deaf to the shouts of the chained. Finally I shook myself from my stupor and tried to think. Geordie had watched the castle since dawn. No one had left in the morning save a small kitchen party going to fetch supplies. So they were still here, somewhere.
Randall was a captain; likely no one ranked higher in a prison garrison, save Sir Fletcher himself. Presumably Randall could thus command the castle’s resources so as to provide him with some suitable spot in which to torture a prisoner at his leisure.
And torture it surely was. Even if it was meant to end in hanging, the man I had seen at Fort William was a cat by nature. He could no more resist the chance to play with this particular mouse than he could alter his height or the color of his eyes.
I took a deep breath, resolutely shoving aside thoughts of what might have happened since morning, and charged out the door myself, colliding full force with an English Redcoat rushing in. The man reeled backward, staggering with tiny running steps to keep his balance. Thrown off balance myself, I crashed heavily into the doorjamb, numbing my left side and banging my head. I clutched the doorpost for support, the ringing in my ears chiming with the echoes of Rupert’s voice: Ye have a moment of surprise, lass. Use it!
It was open to question, I thought dizzily, who was more surprised. I groped madly for the pocket that held my dagger, cursing my stupidity for not having entered the cell with it already drawn.
The English soldier, balance recovered, was staring at me with his mouth agape, but I could feel my precious moment of surprise already slipping away. Abandoning the elusive pocket, I stooped and drew the dagger from my stocking in a move that continued upward with all the force I could muster. The knifepoint took the advancing soldier just under the chin as he reached for his belt. His hands rose halfway to his throat, then, with a look of surprise, he staggered back against the wall, and slid down it in slow motion, as the life drained away from him. Like me, he had come to investigate without bothering to draw his weapon first, and that small oversight had just cost him his life. The grace of God had saved me from this mistake; I could afford no more. Feeling very cold, I stepped over the twitching body, careful not to look.
I dashed back the way I had come, as far as the turning by the stairs. There was a spot here by the wall where I would be sheltered from view from both directions. I leaned against the wall and indulged myself in a moment of trembling nausea.
Wiping my sweaty hands on my skirt, I dredged the dirk from its hidden pocket. It was now my only weapon; I had neither time nor stomach enough to retrieve my sock-knife. Perhaps that was as well, I thought, rubbing my fingers on my bodice; there had been surprisingly little blood, and I shrank from the thought of the gush that would follow if I pulled the knife free.
Dagger now safely in hand, I peered cautiously out into the corridor. The prisoners I had inadvertently released had gone to the left. I had no idea what they were set on doing, but they would likely occupy the English while they were doing it. With no reason to pick one direction over another for my search, it made sense to move away from whatever commotion they caused.
The light from the high slit windows fell aslant behind me; this was the west side of the castle, then. I must keep my bearings as I moved, since Rupert would be waiting for me near the south gate.
Stairs. I forced my numbed mind to think, trying to reason my way to the spot I was looking for. If you wanted to torture someone, presumably you wanted both privacy and soundproofing. Both considerations pointed to an isolated dungeon as the most likely spot. And the dungeons in castles such as this were customarily underground, where tons of earth muffled any cries, and darkness hid all cruelty from the eyes of those responsible.
The wall rounded into a curve at the end of the corridor; I had reached one of the four corner towers—and the towers had stairs.
The spiral stair opened around another curve, the wedge-shaped steps plunging down in dizzying flights that deceived the eye and twisted the ankles. The plunge from the relative light of the corridor into the gloom of the stairwell made it even harder to judge the distance from one stair to the next, and I slipped several times, barking my knuckles and skinning my palms on the stone walls as I caught myself.
The stairway yielded one benefit. From a narrow window let in to save the stairwell from total darkness, I could see the main courtyard. At least I could now orient myself. A small group of soldiers was drawn up in neat red lines for inspection, but not, apparently, to witness the summary punishment of a Scottish rebel. There was a gibbet in the courtyard, black and foreboding, but unoccupied. The sight of it was like a blow in the stomach. Tomorrow morning. I clattered down the stairs, heedless of scraped elbows and stubbed toes.
Hitting the bottom in a swish of skirts, I stopped to listen. Dead silence all around, but at least this part of the castle was in use; there were torches in the wall sconces, dyeing the granite blocks in pools of flickering red, each pool ebbing into darkness at its edges before the pool of the next torch leached into light again. Smoke from the torches hung in grey swirls along the vaulted roof of the corridor.
There was only one way to go from this point. I went, dagger still gripped at the ready. It was eerie to be pacing softly down this corridor. I had seen similar dungeons before, as a day-tripper, visiting historic castles with Frank. But then the massive granite blocks had been stripped of their menace by the glare of fluorescent tubes hung from the arches of the cavernous ceiling. I remembered recoiling from the small, dank chambers, even in those days, when they had been in disuse for over a century. Seeing the remnants of old and horrible ways, the thick doors and the rusting manacles on the wall, I had been able, I thought, to imagine the torments of those imprisoned in these forbidding cells. I would have laughed now at my naivete. There were some things, as Dougal said, that the imagination was simply not equal to.
I tiptoed past bolted doors three inches thick; thick enough to smother any sound from inside. Bending close to the floor, I checked for a strip of light at the base of each door. Prisoners might be left to rot in darkness, but Randall would need to see what he was doing. The floor here was gummy with ancient dirt, covered with a thick layer of loose dust. Apparently this part of the prison was not in current use. But the torches showed that someone was down here.
The fourth door in the corridor showed the light I was looking for. I listened, kneeling on the floor with my ear pressed against the crack, but heard nothing more than the thin crackle of a fire.
The door was unlocked. I pushed it open a small crack and peered cautiously within. Jamie was there, sitting on the floor against one wall, curled into himself with his head between his knees. He was alone.
The room was small, but well lit, with a rather homely looking brazier in which burned a cheery fire. For a dungeon, it was remarkably cozy; the stone flags were halfway clean, and a small camp bed leaned against one wall. The room was further furnished with two chairs and a table, on which sat a number of objects, including a large pewter flask and horn cups. It was an astonishing sight, after my visions of dripping walls and scuttling rats. It occurred to me that perhaps the garrison officers had furnished this snuggery as a refuge in which to entertain such female companionship as they could induce to visit them within the prison; clearly it had the advantage of privacy over the barracks.
“Jamie!” I called softly. He didn’t raise his head or answer me, and I felt a thrill of fear. Pausing only long enough to shut the door behind me, I crossed rapidly to him and touched his shoulder.
He looked up then; his face was dead-white, unshaven and sheened with a cold sweat that had soaked his hair and shirt. The room stank of fear and vomit.
“Claire!” he said, speaking hoarsely through lips cracked with dryness. “How did you—ye must get out of here at once. He’ll be back soon.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I was assessing the situation as rapidly as I could, hoping that concentration on the job at hand would ease the choking sensation and help melt the large ball of ice in the pit of my stomach.
He was chained by the ankle to a bolt in the wall, but otherwise unfettered. A coil of rope among the rubble of objects on the table had plainly been used, though; there were raw marks on his wrists and elbows.