Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 74

   

I was puzzled by his condition. He was clearly dazed and every line of his body was eloquent with pain, but I could see no obvious damage. There was no blood and no wound visible. I dropped to my knees and began methodically to try the keys of my ring on the manacle around his ankle.

“What has he done to you?” I asked, keeping my voice low for fear of Randall’s return.

Jamie swayed where he sat, eyes closed, the sweat beading in hundreds of tiny pearls on his skin. Plainly he was near to fainting, but opened his eyes for a moment at my voice. Moving with exquisite care, he used his left hand to lift the object he had been cradling in his lap. It was his right hand, almost unrecognizable as a human appendage. Grotesquely swollen, it was now a bloated bag, blotched with red and purple, the fingers dangling at crazy angles. A white shard of bone poked through the torn skin of the middle finger, and a trickle of blood stained the knuckles, puffed into shapeless dimples.

The human hand is a delicate marvel of engineering, an intricate system of joints and pulleys, served and controlled by a network of millions of tiny nerves, exquisitely sensitive to touch. A single broken finger is enough to sink a strong man to his knees with nauseated pain.

“Payment,” Jamie said, “for his nose—with interest.” I stared at the sight for a moment, then said in a voice that I didn’t recognize as mine, “I’m going to kill him for this.”

Jamie’s mouth twitched slightly as a flicker of humor forced its way through the mask of pain and dizziness. “I’ll hold your cloak, Sassenach,” he whispered. His eyes closed again and he sagged against the wall, too far gone to protest my presence further.

I went back to work on the lock, glad to see that my hands were no longer shaking. The fear was gone, replaced by a glorious rage.

I had gone through the complete ring of keys twice, and still found none that would turn the lock. My hands were growing sweaty and the keys slid through my fingers like minnows as I began to try the most likely ones again. My muttered cursing roused Jamie from his stupor, and he leaned down slowly to look at what I was doing.

“Ye needn’t find a key will turn it,” he said, bracing a shoulder on the wall to keep upright. “If one will fit to the length of the barrel, you can spring the lock wi’ a good bash on the head of it.”

“You’ve seen this kind of lock before?” I wanted to keep him awake and talking; he was going to have to walk if we were to leave here.

“I’ve been in one. When they brought me here, they chained me in a big cell with a lot of others. A lad named Reilly was chained next to me; a Leinsterman—said he’d been in most of the jails in Ireland and decided to try Scotland for a change o’ scenery.” Jamie was struggling to talk; he realized as well as I that he must rouse himself. He managed a feeble smile. “He told me a good bit about locks and such, and showed me how we could break the ones we were wearing, if we’d had a spare bit of straight metal, which we didn’t.”

“Tell me, then.” The effort of talking was making him sweat freely, but he seemed more alert. Concentrating on the problem of the lock seemed to help.

Following his directions, I found a suitable key and thrust it in as far as it would go. According to Reilly, a solid blow straight in on the end of the key would force the other end hard against the tumblers and spring them loose. I looked around for a suitable instrument for bashing.

“Use the mallet on the table, Sassenach,” said Jamie. Caught by a grim note in his voice, I glanced from his face to the table, where a medium-sized wooden mallet lay, the handle wrapped with tarred twine.

“Is that what—” I began, aghast.

“Aye. Brace the manacle against the wall, lass, before ye hit it.”

Grasping the handle gingerly, I picked up the mallet. It was awkward to get the iron manacle correctly positioned so that one side was braced by the wall, as this required that Jamie cross the manacled leg under the other and press his knee to the wall on the far side.

My first two blows were too weak and timorous. Gathering determination about me like a cloak, I smashed the rounded end of the key as hard as I could. The mallet slipped off the key and caught Jamie a glancing but hard blow on the ankle. Recoiling, he lost his precarious balance and fell, instinctively reaching out his right hand to save himself. He let out an unearthly moan as his right arm crumpled beneath him and his shoulder hit the floor.

“Oh, damn,” I said wearily. Jamie had fainted, not that I could blame him. Taking advantage of his momentary immobility, I turned his ankle so that the manacle was well braced, and banged doggedly on the embedded key, with little apparent effect. I was thinking grim thoughts about Irish locksmiths, when the door beside me swung suddenly open.

Randall’s face, like Frank’s, seldom showed what he was thinking, presenting instead a bland and impenetrable facade. At the moment, though, the Captain’s customary poise had deserted him, and he stood in the doorway with his jaw agape, looking not unlike the man who accompanied him. A very large man in a stained and ragged uniform, this assistant had the sloping brow, flat nose, and loose prominent lips characteristic of some types of mental retardation. His expression did not change as he peered over Randall’s shoulder, showing no particular interest either in me or the unconscious man on the floor.

Recovering, Randall walked into the room and reached down to prod the manacle around Jamie’s ankle. “Been damaging the Crown’s property, I see, my girl. That’s an offense punishable by law, you know. To say nothing of attempting to aid a dangerous prisoner in escaping.” His pale grey eyes held a spark of amusement. “We’ll have to arrange something suitable for you. In the meantime…” He jerked me to my feet and pulled my arms behind me, twisting his stock around my wrists.

Struggle was plainly fruitless, but I stamped on his toes as hard as I could, purely to vent some of my own frustration.

“Ouch!” He turned me and gave me a hard shove, so that my legs hit the bed and I fell, half-lying on the rough blankets. Randall surveyed me with grim satisfaction, rubbing the scuffed toe of his boot with a linen handkerchief. I glared back at him, and he gave a short laugh.

“You’re no coward, I’ll give you that. In fact, you’re a fit match for him,” he nodded at Jamie, who was beginning to stir a bit, “and I can’t give you a better compliment than that.” He tenderly fingered his throat, where a darkening bruise showed in the open neck of his shirt. “He tried to kill me, one-handed, when I untied him. And damned near managed it too. Pity I didn’t realize he was left-handed.”

“How unreasonable of him,” I said.

“Quite,” said Randall, with a nod. “I don’t suppose you’d be so impolite, do you? Still, on the off-chance…” He turned to the large servant, who was simply standing in the doorframe, shoulders sloped, waiting for orders.

“Marley,” said Randall, “come here and search this woman for weapons.” He watched with some amusement as the man groped clumsily about my person, eventually coming upon and extracting my dirk.

“You don’t care for Marley?” asked the Captain, watching me try to avoid the thick fingers that prodded me all too intimately. “Rather a pity; I’m sure he’s quite taken with you.”

“Poor Marley hasn’t much luck with women,” the Captain went on, a malicious gleam in his eye. “Have you, Marley? Even the whores won’t have him.” He fixed me with a designing sort of look, smiling wolfishly. “Too big, they say.” He raised one eyebrow. “Which is quite a judgment, coming from a whore, is it not?” He raised the other brow, making his meaning quite clear.

Marley, who had begun to pant rather heavily during the search, stopped and wiped a thread of saliva from the side of his mouth. I moved as far away as I could manage, disgusted.

Randall, watching me, said, “I imagine Marley would like to entertain you privately in his quarters, once we’ve finished our conversation. Of course, he might decide later on to share his good fortune with his friends, but that’s up to him.”

“Oh, you don’t want to watch?” I asked sarcastically.

Randall laughed, truly amused.

“I may have what are called ‘unnatural tastes’ myself, as I imagine you know by this time. But give me credit for some aesthetic principles.” He glanced at the immense orderly, slouched in his filthy clothes, paunch straining over his belt. The loose, blubbery lips chewed and mumbled constantly, as though seeking some fragment of food, and the short, thick fingers worked nervously against the crotch of the stained breeches. Randall shuddered delicately.

“No,” he said. “You’re a very lovely woman, shrewish tongue notwithstanding. To see you with Marley—no, I don’t believe I want to watch that. Appearance aside, Marley’s personal habits leave quite a lot to be desired.”

“So do yours,” I said.

“That’s as may be. At any rate, they’ll not concern you much longer.” He paused, looking down at me. “I would still like to know who you are, you know. A Jacobite, plainly, but whose? Marischal’s? Seaforth’s? Lovat’s, most likely, since you’re with the Frasers.” Randall nudged Jamie gently with a polished boot-toe, but he still lay inert. I could see his chest rising and falling regularly; perhaps he had merely slipped from unconsciousness into sleep. The smudges under his eyes gave evidence that he had had little rest of late.

“I’ve even heard from some that you’re a witch,” the Captain went on. His tone was light, but he watched me closely, as though I might suddenly turn myself into an owl and flap away. “There was some kind of trouble at Cranesmuir, wasn’t there? A death of some kind? But no doubt that’s all superstitious nonsense.”

Randall eyed me speculatively. “I might be persuaded to make a bargain with you,” he said abruptly. He leaned back, half-sitting on the table, inviting me.

I laughed bitterly. “I can’t say I’m in either a position or a mood to bargain at the moment. What can you offer me?”

Randall glanced at Marley. The idiot’s eyes were fixed on me, and he was mumbling under his breath.

“A choice, at least. Tell me—and convince me—who you are and who sent you to Scotland. What you’re doing and what information you’ve sent to whom. Tell me that, and I’ll take you to Sir Fletcher, instead of giving you to Marley.”

I kept my eyes firmly away from Marley. I had seen the rotting stumps of teeth embedded in pustulant gums, and the thought of him kissing me, let alone—I choked the thought off. Randall was right; I wasn’t a coward. But neither was I a fool.

“You can’t take me to Sir Fletcher,” I said, “and I know it as well as you do. Take me to him and risk my telling him about this?” My nod took in the snug little room, the cozy fire, the bed I sat on, and Jamie lying at my feet. “Whatever his own shortcomings, I don’t imagine Sir Fletcher would stand, officially, for his officers torturing prisoners. Even the English army must have some standards.”

Randall raised both eyebrows. “Torture? Oh, that.” He waved negligently at Jamie’s hand. “An accident. He fell in his cell and was trampled by the other prisoners. It’s rather crowded in those cells, you know.” He smiled derisively.

I was silent. While Sir Fletcher might or might not believe the damage to Jamie’s hand was an accident, he was most unlikely to believe anything I said, once I was unmasked as an English spy.

Randall was watching me, eyes alert for any signs of weakening. “Well? The choice is yours.”

I sighed and closed my eyes, tired of looking at him. The choice wasn’t mine, but I could hardly tell him why not.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said wearily. “I can’t tell you anything.”

“Think it over for a moment.” He stood up, and stepped carefully over Jamie’s unconscious form, taking a key from his pocket. “I may need Marley’s help for a bit, but then I’ll send him back to his quarters—and you with him, if you don’t mean to cooperate.” He stooped, unlocked the manacle, and heaved the inert body up with an impressive display of strength for one so slightly built. The muscles of his forearms ridged the cloth of his snowy shirt as he carried Jamie, head lolling, to a stool in the corner. He nodded at the bucket standing nearby.

“Rouse him,” he directed the silent hulk curtly. Cold water splashed from the stones in the corner and puddled on the floor, making a filthy pool underneath. “Once more,” Randall said, inspecting Jamie, who was moaning slightly, head stirring against the stones of the wall. He flinched and coughed under the second drenching shower.

Randall strode forward and took him by the hair, yanking his head back, shaking it like a drowned animal, so that drops of fetid water spattered the walls. Jamie’s eyes were dull slits. Randall threw Jamie’s head back in disgust, wiping his hand down the side of his trousers as he turned away. His eye must have caught the flicker of movement, because he began to turn back, but not in time to brace himself against the big Scot’s sudden lunge.

Jamie’s arms went around Randall’s neck. Lacking the use of his right hand, he gripped his right wrist with the able left and pulled, forearm braced on the Englishman’s windpipe. As Randall turned purple and began to sag, he let go his left hand long enough to drive it into the captain’s kidney. Even weakened as Jamie was, the blow was enough to make Randall give at the knees.

Dropping the limp captain, Jamie whirled to face the hulking orderly, who had been watching events so far without the slightest flicker of interest on his slack-jawed face. Although his expression remained rather inert, he did move, picking up the mallet from the table as Jamie came toward him, holding the stool by one leg in his good left hand. A certain dull wariness came into the orderly’s face as the two men circled each other slowly, looking for an opening.

Better-armed, Marley tried first, swinging the mallet at Jamie’s ribs. Jamie whirled away and feinted with the stool, forcing the orderly back toward the door. The next attempt, a murderous blow downward, would have split Jamie’s skull had it landed on target. As it was, the stool split instead, one leg and the seat sheared away.

Impatiently, Jamie smashed the stool against the wall with his next swing, reducing it to a smaller but more manageable club; a two-foot length of wood with a ragged, splintered end.

The air in the cell, made stifling with smoke from the torches, was still except for the gasping breath of the two men and the occasional bruising thud of wood on flesh. Afraid to speak for fear of disturbing Jamie’s precarious concentration, I pulled my feet up onto the bed and shrank back against the wall, trying to stay out of the way.

It was plain to me—and by his faint smile of anticipation, to the orderly also—that Jamie was tiring rapidly. Amazing enough that he was on his feet at all, let alone fighting. It was clear to all three of us that the fight couldn’t last much longer; if he was to have any chance at all, he must move soon. With short, hard jabs of the stool-leg, he advanced cautiously on Marley, forcing the bigger man into the corner where the arc of his swing would be restricted. Realizing this by some instinct, the orderly came out with a vicious horizontal swing, expecting to force Jamie back.

Instead of stepping back, Jamie stepped forward into the swing, taking the full brunt of the blow in the left side as he brought his club down full-force on Marley’s temple. Intent on the scene before me, I had paid no attention to Randall’s prone body on the floor near the door. But as the orderly tottered, eyes glazing, I heard the scraping sounds of boots on stone, and a labored breathing rasped in my ear.

“Nicely fought, Fraser.” Randall’s voice was hoarse from the choking, but as composed as ever. “Cost you a few ribs, though, didn’t it?”

Jamie leaned against the wall, breathing in sobbing gasps, still holding the club, elbow pressed hard to his side. His eyes dropped to the floor, measuring the distance.

“Don’t try it, Fraser.” The light voice was bland. “She’ll be dead before you get two steps.” The thin cool knife blade slid past my ear; I could feel the point gently pricking the corner of my jaw.

Jamie surveyed the scene with dispassionate eyes for a moment, still braced by the wall. With a sudden effort, he straightened painfully and stood swaying. The club clanked hollowly on the stone floor. The knifepoint pricked infinitesimally harder, but otherwise Randall stood motionless as Jamie slowly crossed the few feet to the table, stooping carefully on the way to pick up the twine-wrapped mallet. He held it dangling in two fingers in front of him, his nonoffensive intent apparent.

The mallet clattered on the table in front of me, the handle spinning hard enough to carry the weighty head nearly to the edge. It lay dark and heavy on the oak, a homely, solid tool. A reed basket of ha’penny nails to go with it lay in the jumble of objects at the far end of the table; something perhaps left behind by the carpenters who had furnished the room. Jamie’s good hand, the fine straight fingers rimmed with gold in the light, gripped the table-edge hard. With an effort I could only guess at, he lowered himself slowly into a chair and deliberately spread both hands flat before him on the scarred wood surface, the mallet within easy reach.

His gaze had been locked with Randall’s during the painful trip across the room, and did not waver now. He nodded briefly in my direction without looking at me and said, “Let her go.”

The knife-hand seemed to relax a trifle. Randall’s voice was amused and curious. “Why should I?”

Jamie seemed now in complete command of himself, despite his white face and the sweat that ran unregarded down his face like tears.

“You cannot hold a knife on two people at once. Kill the woman or leave her side, and I’ll kill you.” He spoke softly, a steely thread beneath the quiet Scots accent.

“And what’s to stop me killing both of you, one at a time?”

I would have called the expression on Jamie’s face a smile only because his teeth were showing. “What, and cheat the hangsman? Bit hard to explain, come morning, no?” He nodded briefly at the unconscious hulk on the floor. “You’ll recall that ye had to have your wee helper bind me wi’ rope before ye broke my hand.”

“So?” The knife stayed steady at my ear.

“Your helper is no going to be much good to ye awhile yet.” This was undeniably true; the monstrous orderly was lying on his face in the corner, breathing in ragged, stertorous snores. Severe concussion, I thought, mechanically. Possible cerebral hemorrhage. I couldn’t care less if he died before my eyes.

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