Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 2

   

“If ye can go, be going,” said a man from the floor. He grimaced toward his own leg, wrapped in the remains of a tattered quilt. “Dinna linger on our account.”

Duncan MacDonald turned from the window with a grim smile, shaking his head. The window’s light shone off the rough planes of his face, deepening the lines of fatigue.

“Nay, we’ll bide,” he said. “For one thing, the English are thick as lice on the ground; ye can see them swarm from the window. There’s no man would get away whole from Drumossie now.”

“Even those that fled the field yesterday will no get far,” MacKinnon put in softly. “Did ye no hear the English troops passing in the night at the quick-march? D’ye think it will be hard for them to hunt down our ragtag lot?”

There was no response to this; all of them knew the answer too well. Many of the Highlanders had been barely able to stand on the field before the battle, weakened as they were by cold, fatigue, and hunger.

Jamie turned his face to the wall, praying that his men had started early enough. Lallybroch was remote; if they could get far enough from Culloden, it was unlikely they would be caught. And yet Claire had told him that Cumberland’s troops would ravage the Highlands, ranging far afield in their thirst for revenge.

The thought of her this time caused only a wave of terrible longing. God, to have her here, to lay her hands on him, to tend his wounds and cradle his head in her lap. But she was gone—gone away two hundred years from him—and thank the Lord that she was! Tears trickled slowly from under his closed lids, and he rolled painfully onto his side, to hide them from the others.

Lord, that she might be safe, he prayed. She and the child.

Toward midafternoon, the smell of burning came suddenly on the air, wafting through the glassless window. It was thicker than the smell of blackpowder smoke, pungent, with an underlying odor that was faintly horrible in its reminiscent smell of roasting meat.

“They are burning the dead,” said MacDonald. He had scarcely moved from his seat by the window in all the time they had been in the cottage. He looked like a death’s-head himself, hair coal-black and matted with dirt, scraped back from a face in which every bone showed.

Here and there, a small, flat crack sounded on the moor. Gunshots. The coups de grace, administered by those English officers with a sense of compassion, before a tartan-clad wretch should be stacked on the pyre with his luckier fellows. When Jamie looked up, Duncan MacDonald still sat by the window, but his eyes were closed.

Next to him, Ewan Cameron crossed himself. “May we find as much mercy,” he whispered.

They did. It was just past noon on the second day when booted feet at last approached the farmhouse, and the door swung open on silent leather hinges.

“Christ.” It was a muttered exclamation at the sight within the farmhouse. The draft from the door stirred the fetid air over grimed, bedraggled, bloodstained bodies that lay or sat huddled on the packed-dirt floor.

There had been no discussion of the possibility of armed resistance; they had no heart and there was no point. The Jacobites simply sat, waiting the pleasure of their visitor.

He was a major, all fresh and new in an uncreased uniform, with polished boots. After a moment’s hesitation to survey the inhabitants, he stepped inside, his lieutenant close behind.

“I am Lord Melton,” he said, glancing around as though seeking the leader of these men, to whom his remarks might most properly be addressed.

Duncan MacDonald, after a glance of his own, stood slowly, and inclined his head. “Duncan MacDonald, of Glen Richie,” he said. “And others”—he waved a hand—“late of the forces of His Majesty, King James.”

“So I surmised,” the Englishman said dryly. He was young, in his early thirties, but he carried himself with a seasoned soldier’s confidence. He looked deliberately from man to man, then reached into his coat and produced a folded sheet of paper.

“I have here an order from His Grace, the Duke of Cumberland,” he said. “Authorizing the immediate execution of any man found to have engaged in the treasonous rebellion just past.” He glanced around the confines of the cottage once more. “Is there any man here who claims innocence of treason?”

There was the faintest breath of laughter from the Scots. Innocence, with the smoke of battle still black on their faces, here on the edge of the slaughter-field?

“No, my lord,” said MacDonald, the faintest of smiles on his lips. “Traitors all. Shall we be hanged, then?”

Melton’s face twitched in a small grimace of distaste, then settled back into impassivity. He was a slight man, with small, fine bones, but carried his authority well, nonetheless.

“You will be shot,” he said. “You have an hour, in which to prepare yourselves.” He hesitated, shooting a glance at his lieutenant, as though afraid to sound overgenerous before his subordinate, but continued. “If any of you wish writing materials—to compose a letter, perhaps—the clerk of my company will attend you.” He nodded briefly to MacDonald, turned on his heel, and left.

It was a grim hour. A few men availed themselves of the offer of pen and ink, and scribbled doggedly, paper held against the slanted wooden chimney for lack of another firm writing surface. Others prayed quietly, or simply sat, waiting.

MacDonald had begged mercy for Giles McMartin and Frederick Murray, arguing that they were barely seventeen, and should not be held to the same account as their elders. This request was denied, and the boys sat together, white-faced against the wall, holding each other’s hands.

For them, Jamie felt a piercing sorrow—and for the others here, loyal friends and gallant soldiers. For himself, he felt only relief. No more to worry, nothing more to do. He had done all he could for his men, his wife, his unborn child. Now let this bodily misery be ended, and he would go grateful for the peace of it.

More for form’s sake than because he felt the need of it, he closed his eyes and began the Act of Contrition, in French, as he always said it. Mon Dieu, je regrette…And yet he didn’t; it was much too late for any sort of regret.

Would he find Claire at once when he died, he wondered? Or perhaps, as he expected, be condemned to separation for a time? In any case, he would see her again; he clung to the conviction much more firmly than he embraced the tenets of the Church. God had given her to him; He would restore her.

Forgetting to pray, he instead began to conjure her face behind his eyelids, the curve of cheek and temple, a broad fair brow that always moved him to kiss it, just there, in that small smooth spot between her eyebrows, just at the top of her nose, between clear amber eyes. He fixed his attention on the shape of her mouth, carefully imagining the full, sweet curve of it, and the taste and the feel and the joy of it. The sounds of praying, the pen-scratching and the small, choked sobs of Giles McMartin faded from his ears.

It was midafternoon when Melton returned, this time with six soldiers in attendance, as well as the Lieutenant and the clerk. Again, he paused in the doorway, but MacDonald rose before he could speak.

“I’ll go first,” he said, and walked steadily across the cottage. As he bent his head to go through the door, though, Lord Melton laid a hand on his sleeve.

“Will you give your full name, sir? My clerk will make note of it.”

MacDonald glanced at the clerk, a small bitter smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“A trophy list, is it? Aye, well.” He shrugged and drew himself upright. “Duncan William MacLeod MacDonald, of Glen Richie.” He bowed politely to Lord Melton. “At your service—sir.” He passed through the door, and shortly there came the sound of a single pistol-shot from near at hand.

The boys were allowed to go together, hands still clutched tightly as they passed through the door. The rest were taken one by one, each asked for his name, that the clerk might make a record of it. The clerk sat on a stool by the door, head bent to the papers in his lap, not looking up as the men passed by.

When it came Ewan’s turn, Jamie struggled to prop himself on his elbows, and grasped his friend’s hand, as hard as he could.

“I shall see ye soon again,” he whispered.

Ewan’s hand shook in his, but the Cameron only smiled. Then he leaned across simply and kissed Jamie’s mouth, and rose to go.

They left the six who could not walk to the last.

“James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser,” he said, speaking slowly to allow the clerk time to get it down right. “Laird of Broch Tuarach.” Patiently, he spelled it, then glanced up at Melton.

“I must ask your courtesy, my lord, to give me help to stand.”

Melton didn’t answer him, but stared down at him, his expression of remote distaste altering to one of mingled astonishment and something like dawning horror.

“Fraser?” he said. “Of Broch Tuarach?”

“I am,” Jamie said patiently. Would the man not hurry a bit? Being resigned to being shot was one thing, but listening to your friends being killed in your hearing was another, and not just calculated to settle the nerves. His arms were trembling with the strain of propping him, and his bowels, not sharing the resignation of his higher faculties, were twitching with a gurgling dread.

“Bloody hell,” the Englishman muttered. He bent and peered at Jamie where he lay in the shadow of the wall, then turned and beckoned to his lieutenant.

“Help me get him into the light,” he ordered. They weren’t gentle about it, and Jamie grunted as the movement sent a bolt of pain from his leg right up through the top of his head. It made him dizzy for a moment, and he missed what Melton was saying to him.

“Are you the Jacobite they call ‘Red Jamie’?” he asked again, impatiently.

A streak of fear went through Jamie at that; let them know he was the notorious Red Jamie, and they wouldn’t shoot him. They’d take him in chains to London to be tried—a prize of war. And after that, it would be the hangman’s rope, and lying half strangled on the gallows platform while they slit his belly and ripped out his bowels. His bowels gave another long, rumbling gurgle; they didn’t think much of the notion either.

“No,” he said, with as much firmness as he could manage. “Just get on wi’ it, eh?”

Ignoring this, Melton dropped to his knees, and ripped open the throat of Jamie’s shirt. He gripped Jamie’s hair and jerked back his head.

“Damn!” Melton said. Melton’s finger prodded him in the throat, just above the collarbone. There was a small triangular scar there, and this appeared to be what was causing his interrogator’s concern.

“James Fraser of Broch Tuarach; red hair and a three-cornered scar on his throat.” Melton let go of the hair and sat back on his heels, rubbing his chin in a distracted sort of way. Then he pulled himself together and turned to the lieutenant, gesturing at the five men remaining in the farm cottage.

“Take the rest,” he ordered. His fair brows were knitted together in a deep frown. He stood over Jamie, scowling, while the other Scottish prisoners were removed.

“I have to think,” he muttered. “Damme, I must think!”

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