Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 75

   

“You can’t take me alone, one-handed or no.” Jamie shook his head slowly, appraising Randall’s size and strength. “No. I’m bigger, and far the better fighter, hand to hand. Did ye not have the woman there, I would take that wee knife from ye and cram it down your throat. And you know it, which is why you’ve not harmed her.”

“But I do have her. You could leave yourself, of course. There’s a way out, quite near. That would leave your wife—you did say she’s your wife?—to die, of course.”

Jamie shrugged. “And myself as well. I’d not get far, with the whole garrison hunting me. To be shot in the open might be preferable to being hanged in here, but not enough to make a difference.” A brief grimace of pain crossed his face and he held his breath for a moment. When he breathed again, it was in shallow, panting gulps. Whatever shock had been protecting him from the worst of the pain, it was apparently wearing off.

“So we seem to be at an impasse.” Randall’s well-bred English tones were casual. “Unless you have a suggestion?”

“I have. You want me.” The cool Scottish voice was matter-of-fact. “Let the woman go, and ye can have me.” The knifepoint moved slightly, nicking my ear. I felt a sting and the warm ooze of blood.

“Do what ye wish to me. I’ll not struggle, though I’ll allow you to bind me if ye think it needful. And I’ll not speak of it, come tomorrow. But first you’ll see the woman safe from the prison.” My eyes were on Jamie’s ruined hand. A small pool of blood under the middle finger was growing, and I realized with a shock that he was deliberately pressing the finger into the table, using the pain as a spur to stay conscious. He was bargaining for my life using the only thing he had left—himself. If he fainted now, that single chance was gone.

Randall had relaxed completely; the knife lay carelessly on my right shoulder as he thought it through. I was there before him. Jamie was meant to hang in the morning. Sooner or later, he would be missed, and the Castle would be searched. While a certain amount of brutality might be tolerated among officers and gentlemen—I was sure it would extend to a broken hand or a flayed back—Randall’s other inclinations were not so likely to be overlooked. No matter what Jamie’s status as a condemned prisoner, if he stood at the foot of the gallows come morning and claimed abuse at the hands of Randall, his claims would be investigated. And if physical examination proved them true, Randall’s career was at an end, and possibly his life as well. But with Jamie sworn to silence.…

“You’ll give me your word?”

Jamie’s eyes were like blue matchflames in the parchment of his face. After a moment, he nodded slowly. “In return for yours.”

The attraction of a victim at once completely unwilling and completely compliant was irresistible.

“Done.” The knife left my shoulder and I heard the susurrus of sheathed metal. Randall walked slowly past me, around the table, picking up the mallet as he went. He held it up, ironically questioning. “You’ll allow me a brief test of your sincerity?”

“Aye.” Jamie’s voice was as steady as his hands, flat and motionless on the table. I tried to speak, to utter some protest, but my throat had dried to a sticky silence.

Moving without haste, Randall leaned past Jamie to pluck a ha’penny nail delicately from the reed basket. He positioned the point with care and brought the mallet down, driving the nail through Jamie’s right hand into the table with four solid blows. The broken fingers twitched and sprang straight, like the legs of a spider pinned to a collection board.

Jamie groaned, his eyes wide and blank with shock. Randall set the mallet down with care. He took Jamie’s chin in his hand and turned his face up. “Now kiss me,” he said softly, and lowered his head to Jamie’s unresisting mouth.

Randall’s face when he rose was dreamy, eyes gentle and faraway, long mouth quirked in a smile. Once upon a time, I had loved a smile like that, and that dreamy look had roused me in anticipation. Now it sickened me. Tears ran into the corner of my mouth, though I didn’t remember starting to cry. Randall stood a moment in his trance, gazing down at Jamie. Then he stirred, remembering, and drew the knife once more from its sheath.

The blade slashed carelessly through the binding around my wrists, grazing the skin. I hardly had time to rub the circulation back into my hands before he was urging me up with a hand beneath my elbow, pushing me toward the door.

“Wait!” Jamie spoke behind us, and Randall turned impatiently.

“You’ll allow me to say goodbye?” It was a statement more than a question, and Randall hesitated only briefly before nodding and giving me a shove back toward the motionless figure at the table.

Jamie’s good arm was tight around my shoulders and my wet face was buried in his neck.

“You can’t,” I whispered. “You can’t. I won’t let you.”

His mouth was warm against my ear. “Claire, I’m to hang in the morning. What happens to me between now and then doesna matter to anyone.” I drew back and stared at him.

“It matters to me !” The strained lips quivered in what was almost a smile, and he raised his free hand and laid it against my wet cheek.

“I know it does, mo duinne. And that’s why you’ll go now. So I’ll know there is someone still who minds for me.” He drew me close again, kissed me gently and whispered in Gaelic, “He will let you go because he thinks you are helpless. I know you are not.” Releasing me, he said in English, “I love you. Go now.”

Randall paused as he ushered me out the door. “I’ll be back very shortly.” It was the voice of a man taking reluctant leave of his lover, and my stomach heaved.

Silhouetted in red by the torch behind him, Jamie inclined his head gracefully toward the pinioned hand. “I expect you’ll find me here.”

Black Jack. A common name for rogues and scoundrels in the eighteenth century. A staple of romantic fiction, the name conjured up charming highwaymen, dashing blades in plumed hats. The reality walked at my side.

One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling, and voil?! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh. My blood was running fast, all right, and never maiden sighed like Jamie, cradling his mangled hand.

“This way.” It was the first time Randall had spoken since we had left the cell. He indicated a narrow alcove in the wall, unlighted by torches. The way out, of which he had spoken to Jamie.

By now I had sufficient command of myself to speak, and I did so. I stepped back a pace, so that the torchlight fell full on me, for I wanted him to remember my face.

“You asked me, Captain, if I were a witch,” I said, my voice low and steady. “I’ll answer you now. Witch I am. Witch, and I curse you. You will marry, Captain, and your wife will bear a child, but you shall not live to see your firstborn. I curse you with knowledge, Jack Randall—I give you the hour of your death.”

His face was in shadow, but the gleam of his eyes told me he believed me. And why should he not? For I spoke the truth, and I knew it. I could see the lines of Frank’s genealogical chart as though they were drawn on the mortar lines between the stones of the wall, and the names listed by them. “Jonathan Wolverton Randall,” I said softly, reading it from the stones. “Born, September the 3rd, 1705. Died—” He made a convulsive movement toward me, but not fast enough to prevent me from speaking.

A narrow door at the back of the alcove crashed open with a squeal of hinges. Expecting further darkness, my eyes were dazzled by a blinding flash of light on snow. A quick shove from behind sent me staggering headlong into the drifts, and the door slammed to behind me.

I was lying in a ditch of sorts, behind the prison. The drifts around me covered heaps of something—the prison’s refuse, most likely. There was something hard beneath the drift I had fallen into; wood, perhaps. Looking up at the sheering wall above me, I could see streaks and runnels down the stone, marking the path of garbage tipped from a sliding door forty feet above. That must be the kitchen quarters.

I rolled over, bracing myself to rise, and found myself looking into a pair of wide blue eyes. The face was nearly as blue as the eyes, and hard as the log of wood I had mistaken him for. I stumbled to my feet, choking, and staggered back against the prison wall.

Head down, breathe deep, I told myself firmly. You are not going to faint, you have seen dead men before, lots of them, you are not going to faint—God, he has blue eyes like—you are not going to faint, damn it!

My breathing slowed at last, and with it my racing pulse. As the panic receded, I forced myself back to that pathetic figure, wiping my hands convulsively on my skirt. I don’t know whether it was pity, curiosity, or simple shock that made me look again. Seen without the suddenness of surprise, there was nothing frightening about the dead man; there never is. No matter how ugly the manner in which a man dies, it’s only the presence of a suffering human soul that is horrifying; once gone, what is left is only an object.

The blue-eyed stranger had been hanged. He was not the only inhabitant of the ditch. I didn’t bother to excavate the drift, but now that I knew what it contained, I could plainly see the outline of frozen limbs and the softly rounded heads under the snow. At least a dozen men lay here, waiting either for a thaw that would make their burial easier, or for a cruder disposal by the beasts of the nearby forest.

The thought startled me out of my pensive immobility. I had no time to waste in graveside meditation, or one more pair of blue eyes would stare sightless up into falling snow.

I had to find Murtagh and Rupert. That hidden postern door could be used, perhaps. Clearly it was not fortified or guarded like the main gates and other entrances to the prison. But I needed help, and I needed it quickly.

I glanced up at the rim of the ditch. The sun was quite low, burning through a haze of cloud just above the treetops. The air felt heavy with moisture. Likely it would snow again by nightfall; the haze was thick across the sky in the east. There was perhaps an hour of light left.

I began to follow the ditch, not wanting to climb the steep rocky sides until I had to. The ravine curved away from the prison quite soon, and looked as though it would lead down toward the river; presumably the runoff of melting snow carried the prison’s refuse away. I was nearly to the corner of the soaring wall when I heard a faint sound behind me. I whirled. The sound had been made by a rock falling from the lip of the ditch, dislodged by the foot of a large grey wolf.

As an alternative to the items under the snow, I had certain desirable characteristics, from a wolf’s point of view. On the one hand, I was mobile, harder to catch, and posed the possibility of resistance. On the other, I was slow, clumsy, and above all, not frozen stiff, thus offering no danger of broken teeth. I also smelled of fresh blood, temptingly warm in this frozen waste. Were I a wolf, I thought, I wouldn’t hesitate. The animal made up its mind at the same time I came to my own decision regarding our future relations.

There had been a Yank at Pembroke Hospital, name of Charlie Marshall. He was a pleasant chap, friendly as all the Yanks were, and most entertaining on his pet subject. His pet subject was dogs; Charlie was a sergeant in the K-9 Corps. He had been blown up, along with two of his dogs, by an antipersonnel mine outside a small village near Arles. He grieved for his dogs, and often told me stories about them when I would sit with him during the odd slack moments in my shift.

More to the immediate point, he had also once told me what to do, and not do, should I ever be attacked by a dog. I felt it was stretching a point to call the eerie creature picking its delicate way down the rocks a dog, but hoped that it might yet share a few basic character traits with its tame descendants.

“Bad dog,” I said firmly, staring it in one yellow eyeball. “In fact,” I said, backing very slowly toward the prison wall, “you are a perfectly horrible dog.” (Speak firmly and loudly, I heard Charlie saying.) “Probably the worst I’ve ever seen,” I said, firmly and loudly. I continued to back up, one hand feeling behind me for the stones of the wall, and once there, I sidled toward the corner, some ten yards away.

I pulled the ties at my throat and began to fumble at the brooch fastening my cloak, still telling the wolf firmly and loudly what I thought of him, his ancestors, and his immediate family. The beast seemed interested in the diatribe, tongue lolling in a doggy grin. He was in no hurry; he limped slightly, I could see, as he drew nearer, and was thin and mangy. Perhaps he had trouble hunting, and infirmity was what drew him to the prison midden to scavenge. I certainly hoped so; the more infirm, the better.

I found my leather gloves in the pocket of my cloak and put them on. Then I wrapped the heavy cloak several times around my right forearm, blessing the weight of the velvet. “They’ll go for the throat,” Charlie had instructed me, “unless their trainer tells them otherwise. Keep looking him in the eye; you’ll see it when he makes up his mind to jump. That’s your moment.”

I could see a number of things in that wicked yellow orb, including hunger, curiosity, and speculation, but not yet a decision to leap.

“You disgusting creature,” I told it, “don’t you dare leap at my throat!” I had other ideas. I had wrapped the cloak in several loose folds about my right arm, leaving the bulk of it dangling, but providing enough padding, I hoped, to keep the beast’s teeth from sinking through.

The wolf was thin, but not emaciated. I judged it to weigh perhaps eighty or ninety pounds; less than me, but not enough to give me any great advantage. The leverage was definitely in the animal’s favor; four legs against two gave better balance on the slippery crust of snow. I hoped bracing my back against the wall would help.

A certain feeling of emptiness at my back told me I had reached the corner. The wolf was some twenty feet away. This was it. I scraped enough snow from under my feet to give good footing and waited.

I didn’t even see the wolf leave the ground. I could swear I had been watching its eyes, but if the decision to leap had registered there, it had been followed by action too swiftly to note. It was instinct, not thought, that raised my arm as a whitish-grey blur hurtled toward me.

The teeth sank into the padding with a force that bruised my arm. It was heavier than I thought; I was unprepared for the weight, and my arm sagged. I had planned to try to throw the beast against the wall, perhaps stunning it. Instead, I heaved myself at the wall, squashing the wolf between the stone blocks and my hip. I struggled to wrap the loose cloak around it. Claws shredded my skirt and scraped my thigh. I drove a knee viciously into its chest, eliciting a strangled yelp. Only then did I realize that the odd, growling whimpers were coming from me and not the wolf.

Strangely enough, I was not at all frightened now, though I had been terrified watching the wolf stalk me. There was room in my mind for only one thought: I would kill this animal, or it would kill me. Therefore, I was going to kill it.

There comes a turning point in intense physical struggle where one abandons oneself to a profligate usage of strength and bodily resource, ignoring the costs until the struggle is over. Women find this point in childbirth; men in battle.

Past that certain point, you lose all fear of pain or injury. Life becomes very simple at that point; you will do what you are trying to do, or die in the attempt, and it does not really matter much which.

I had seen this sort of struggle during my training on the wards, but never had I experienced it before. Now all my concentration was focused on the jaws locked around my forearm and the writhing demon tearing at my body.

I managed to bang the beast’s head against the wall, but not hard enough to do much good. I was growing tired rapidly; had the wolf been in good condition, I would have had no chance. I hadn’t much now, but took what there was. I fell on the animal, pinning it under me and knocking the wind from it in a gust of carrion breath. It recovered almost immediately and began squirming beneath me, but the second’s relaxation enabled me to get it off my arm, one hand clamped under its wet muzzle.

By forcing my fingers back into the corners of its mouth, I managed to keep them out from between the scissoring carnassial teeth. Saliva drizzled down my arm. I was lying flat on top of the wolf. The corner of the prison wall was perhaps eighteen inches ahead of me. Somehow I must get there, without releasing the fury that heaved and squirmed under me.

Scrabbling with my feet, pressing down with all my might, I pushed myself forward inch by inch, constantly straining to keep the fangs from my throat. It cannot have taken more than a few minutes to move those eighteen inches, but it seemed I had lain there most of my life, locked in battle with this beast whose hind claws raked my legs, seeking a good ripping purchase in my belly.

At last I could see around the corner. The blunt angle of stone was directly in front of my face. Now was the tricky part. I must maneuver the wolf’s body to allow me to get both hands under the muzzle; I would never be able to exert the necessary force with one.

I rolled abruptly away, and the wolf slithered at once into the small clear space between my body and the wall. Before it could rise to its feet, I brought my knee up as hard as I could. The wolf grunted as my knee drove into its side, pinning it, however fleetingly, against the wall.

I had both hands beneath its jaw now. The fingers of one hand were actually in its mouth. I could feel a crushing sting across my gloved knuckles, but ignored it as I forced the hairy head back, and back, and back again, using the angle of the wall as a fulcrum for the lever of the beast’s body. I thought my arms would break, but this was the only chance.

There was no audible noise, but I felt the reverberation through the whole body as the neck snapped. The straining limbs—and the bladder—at once relaxed. The intolerable strain on my arms now released, I dropped, as limp as the dying wolf. I could feel the beast’s heart fibrillating beneath my cheek, the only part still capable of a death struggle. The stringy fur stank of ammonia and soggy hair. I wanted to move away, but could not.

I think I must have slept for a moment, odd as that sounds, cheek pillowed on the corpse. I opened my eyes to see the greenish stone of the prison a few inches in front of my nose. Only the thought of what was transpiring on the other side of that wall got me to my feet.

I stumbled down the ditch, cloak dragged over one shoulder, tripping on stones hidden in the snow, banging my shins painfully on half-buried tree branches. Subconsciously, I must have been aware that wolves usually run in packs, because I do not recall being surprised by the howl that wavered out of the forest above and behind me. If I felt anything, it was black rage at what seemed a conspiracy to thwart and delay me.

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