I moved closer to him, and his hand rose up from the shadows to take mine.
“Men fell to either side of me, and I could hear the grapeshot and the musket balls hum past my head like bumblebees. But I wasna touched.”
He had reached the British lines unscathed, one of very few Highlanders to have completed the charge across Culloden Moor. An English gun crew looked up, startled, at the tall Highlander who burst from the smoke like a demon, the blade of his broadsword gleaming with rain and then dull with blood.
“There was a small part of my mind that asked why I should be killin’ them,” he said reflectively. “For surely I knew that we were lost; there was no gain to it. But there is a lust to killing—you’ll know that?” His fingers tightened on mine, questioning, and I squeezed back in affirmation.
“I couldna stop—or I would not.” His voice was quiet, without bitterness or recrimination. “It’s a verra old feeling, I think; the wish to take an enemy with ye to the grave. I could feel it there, a hot red thing in my chest and belly, and…I gave myself to it,” he ended simply.
There were four men tending the cannon, none armed with more than a pistol and knife, none expecting attack at such close quarters. They stood helpless against the berserk strength of his despair, and he killed them all.
“The ground shook under my feet,” he said, “and I was near deafened by the noise. I couldna think. And then it came to me that I was behind the English guns.” A soft chuckle came from below. “A verra poor place to try to be killed, no?”
So he had started back across the moor, to join the Highland dead.
“He was sitting against a tussock near the middle of the field—Murtagh. He’d been struck a dozen times at least, and there was a dreadful wound in his head—I knew he was dead.”
He hadn’t been, though; when Jamie had fallen to his knees beside his godfather and taken the small body in his arms, Murtagh’s eyes had opened. “He saw me. And he smiled.” And then the older man’s hand had touched his cheek briefly. “Dinna be afraid, a bhalaich,” Murtagh had said, using the endearment for a small, beloved boy. “It doesna hurt a bit to die.”
I stood quietly for a long time, holding Jamie’s hand. Then he sighed, and his other hand closed very, very gently about my wounded arm.
“Too many folk have died, Sassenach, because they knew me—or suffered for the knowing. I would give my own body to save ye a moment’s pain—and yet I could wish to close my hand just now, that I might hear ye cry out and know for sure that I havena killed you, too.”
I leaned forward, pressing a kiss on the skin of his chest. He slept naked in the heat.
“You haven’t killed me. You didn’t kill Murtagh. And we’ll find Ian. Take me back to bed, Jamie.”
Sometime later, as I drowsed on the edge of sleep, he spoke from the floor beside my bed.
“Ye know, I seldom wanted to go home to Laoghaire,” he said contemplatively. “And yet, at least when I did, I’d find her where I’d left her.”
I turned my head to the side, where his soft breathing came from the darkened floor. “Oh? And is that the kind of wife you want? The sort who stays put?”
He made a small sound between a chuckle and a cough, but didn’t answer, and after a few moments, the sound of his breathing changed to a soft, rhythmic snore.
I slept restlessly, and woke up late and feverish, with a throbbing headache just behind my eyes. I felt ill enough not to protest when Marsali insisted on bathing my forehead, but relaxed gratefully, eyes closed, enjoying the cool touch of the vinegar-soaked cloth on my pounding temples.
It was so soothing, in fact, that I drifted off to sleep again after she left. I was dreaming uneasily of dark mine shafts and the chalk of charred bones, when I was suddenly roused by a crash that brought me bolt upright and sent a shaft of pure white pain ripping through my head.
“What?” I exclaimed, clutching my head in both hands, as though this might prevent it falling off. “What is it?” The window had been covered to keep the light from disturbing me, and it took a moment for my stunned vision to adapt to the dimness.
On the opposite side of the cabin, a large figure was mimicking me, clutching its own head in apparent agony. Then it spoke, releasing a volley of very bad language, in a mixture of Chinese, French, and Gaelic.
“Damn!” it said, the exclamations tapering off into milder English. “Goddamn it to hell!” Jamie staggered to the window, still rubbing the head he had smashed on the edge of my cupboard. He shoved aside the covering and pushed the window open, bringing a welcome draft of fresh air in along with a dazzle of light.
“What in the name of bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded, with considerable asperity. The light jabbed my tender eyeballs like needles, and the movement involved in clutching my head had done the stitches in my arm no good at all.
“I was looking for your medicine box,” he replied, wincing as he felt the crown of his head. “Damn, I’ve caved in my skull. Look at that!” He thrust two fingers, slightly smeared with blood, under my nose. I dropped the vinegar-soaked cloth over the fingers and collapsed back on my pillow.
“Why do you need the medicine box, and why didn’t you ask me in the first place, instead of bumping around like a bee in a bottle?” I said irritably.
“I didna want to wake ye from your sleep,” he said, sheepishly enough that I laughed, despite the various throbbings going on in my anatomy.
“That’s all right; I wasn’t enjoying it,” I assured him. “Why do you need the box? Is someone hurt?”
“Aye. I am,” he said, dabbing gingerly at the top of his head with the cloth and scowling at the result. “Ye dinna want to look at my head?”
The answer to this was “Not especially,” but I obligingly motioned to him to bend over, presenting the top of his head for inspection. There was a reasonably impressive lump under the thick hair, with a small cut from the edge of the shelf, but the damage seemed a bit short of concussion.
“It’s not fractured,” I assured him. “You have the thickest skull I’ve ever seen.” Moved by an instinct as old as motherhood, I leaned forward and kissed the bump gently. He lifted his head, eyes wide with surprise.
“That’s supposed to make it feel better,” I explained. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“Oh. Well, then.” He bent down and gently kissed the bandage on my wounded arm.
“Better?” he inquired, straightening up.
He laughed, and reaching for the decanter, poured out a tot of whisky, which he handed to me.
“I wanted that stuff ye use to wash out scrapes and such,” he explained, pouring another for himself.
“Hawthorn lotion. I haven’t got any ready-made, because it doesn’t keep,” I said, pushing myself upright. “If it’s urgent, though, I can brew some; it doesn’t take long.” The thought of getting up and walking to the galley was daunting, but perhaps I’d feel better once I was moving.
“Not urgent,” he assured me. “It’s only there’s a prisoner in the hold who’s a bit bashed about.”
I lowered my cup, blinking at him.
“A prisoner? Where did we get a prisoner?”
“From the pirate ship.” He frowned at his whisky. “Though I dinna think he’s a pirate.”
“What is he?”
He tossed off the whisky neatly, in one gulp, and shook his head.
“Damned if I know. From the scars on his back, likely a runaway slave, but in that case, I canna think why he did what he did.”
“What did he do?”
“Dived off the Bruja into the sea. MacGregor saw him go, and then after the Bruja made sail, he saw the man bobbing about in the waves and threw him a rope.”
“Well, that is funny; why should he do that?” I asked. I was becoming interested, and the throbbing in my head seemed to be lessening as I sipped my whisky.
Jamie ran his fingers through his hair, and stopped, wincing.
“I dinna ken, Sassenach,” he said, gingerly smoothing the hair on his crown flat. “It wouldna be likely for a crew like ours to try to board the pirate—any merchant would just fight them off; there’s no reason to try to take them. But if he didna mean to escape from us—perhaps he meant to escape from them, aye?”
The last golden drops of the whisky ran down my throat. It was Jared’s special blend, the next-to-last bottle, and thoroughly justified the name he had given it—Ceò Gheasacach. “Magic Mist.” Feeling somewhat restored, I pushed myself upright.
“If he’s hurt, perhaps I should take a look at him,” I suggested, swinging my feet out of the berth.
Given Jamie’s behavior of the day before, I fully expected him to press me flat and call for Marsali to come and sit on my chest. Instead, he looked at me thoughtfully, and nodded.
“Aye, well. If ye’re sure ye can stand, Sassenach?”
I wasn’t all that sure, but gave it a try. The room tilted when I stood up, and black and yellow spots danced before my eyes, but I stayed upright, clinging to Jamie’s arm. After a moment, a small amount of blood reluctantly consented to reenter my head, and the spots went away, showing Jamie’s face looking anxiously down at me.
“All right,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Carry on.”
The prisoner was below in what the crew called the orlop, a lower-deck space full of miscellaneous cargo. There was a small timbered area, walled off at the bow of the ship, that sometimes housed drunk or unruly seamen, and here he had been secured.
It was dark and airless down in the bowels of the ship, and I felt myself becoming dizzy again as I made my way slowly along the companionway behind Jamie and the glow of his lantern.
When he unlocked the door, at first I saw nothing at all in the makeshift brig. Then, as Jamie stooped to enter with his lantern, the shine of the man’s eyes betrayed his presence. “Black as the ace of spades” was the first thought that popped into my slightly addled mind, as the edges of face and form took shape against the darkness of the timbers.
No wonder Jamie had thought him a runaway slave. The man looked African, not island-born. Besides the deep red-black of his skin, his demeanor wasn’t that of a man raised as a slave. He was sitting on a cask, hands bound behind his back and feet tied together, but I saw his head rise and his shoulders straighten as Jamie ducked under the lintel of the tiny space. He was very thin, but very muscular, clad in nothing but a ragged pair of trousers. The lines of his body were clear; he was tensed for attack or defense, but not submission.
Jamie saw it, too, and motioned me to stay well back against the wall. He placed the lantern on a cask, and squatted down before the captive, at eye-level.
“Amiki,” he said, spreading out his empty hands, palm up. “Amiki. Bene-bene.” Friend. Is good. It was taki-taki, the all-purpose pidgin polyglot that the traders from Barbados to Trinidad spoke in the ports.