Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 22

   

“Mac Dubh,” said a soft voice beside him. “A word in your ear, if I might?” He opened his eyes to see Ronnie Sutherland perched alongside, pointed face intent and foxlike in the faint glow from the fire.

“Aye, Ronnie, of course.” He pushed himself upright, and put both his irons and the thought of the new Governor firmly from his mind.

Dearest mother, John Grey wrote, later that night.

I am arrived safely at my new post, and find it comfortable. Colonel Quarry, my predecessor—he is the Duke of Clarence’s nephew, you recall?—made me welcome and acquainted with my charge. I am provided with a most excellent servant, and while I am bound to find many things about Scotland strange at first, I am sure I will find the experience interesting. I was served an object for my supper which the steward told me was called a “haggis.” Upon inquiry, this proved to be the interior organ of a sheep, filled with a mixture of ground oats and a quantity of unidentifiable cooked flesh. Though I am assured the inhabitants of Scotland esteem this dish a particular delicacy, I sent it to the kitchens and requested a plain boiled saddle of mutton in its place. Having thus made my first—humble!—meal here, and being somewhat fatigued by the long journey—of whose details I shall inform you in a subsequent missive—I believe I shall now retire, leaving further descriptions of my surroundings—with which I am imperfectly acquainted at present, as it is dark—for a future communication.

He paused, tapping the quill on the blotter. The point left small dots of ink, and he abstractedly drew lines connecting these, making the outlines of a jagged object.

Dared he ask about George? Not a direct inquiry, that wouldn’t do, but a reference to the family, asking whether his mother had happened to encounter Lady Everett lately, and might he ask to be remembered to her son?

He sighed and drew another point on his object. No. His widowed mother was ignorant of the situation, but Lady Everett’s husband moved in military circles. His brother’s influence would keep the gossip to a minimum, but Lord Everett might catch a whiff of it, nonetheless, and be quick enough to put two and two together. Let him drop an injudicious word to his wife about George, and the word pass on from Lady Everett to his mother…the Dowager Countess Melton was not a fool.

She knew quite well that he was in disgrace; promising young officers in the good graces of their superiors were not sent to the arse-end of Scotland to oversee the renovation of small and unimportant prison-fortresses. But his brother Harold had told her that the trouble was an unfortunate affair of the heart, implying sufficient indelicacy to stop her questioning him about it. She likely thought he had been caught with his colonel’s wife, or keeping a whore in his quarters.

An unfortunate affair of the heart! He smiled grimly, dipping his pen. Perhaps Hal had a greater sensitivity than he’d thought, in so describing it. But then, all his affairs had been unfortunate, since Hector’s death at Culloden.

With the thought of Culloden, the thought of Fraser came back to him; something he had been avoiding all day. He looked from the blotter to the folder which held the prisoners’ roll, biting his lip. He was tempted to open it, and look to see the name, but what point was there in that? There might be scores of men in the Highlands named James Fraser, but only one known also as Red Jamie.

He felt himself flush as waves of heat rolled over him, but it was not nearness to the fire. In spite of that, he rose and went to the window, drawing in great lungfuls of air as though the cold draft could cleanse him of memory.

“Pardon, sir, but will ye be wantin’ your bed warmed now?” The Scottish speech behind him startled him, and he whirled round to find the tousled head of the prisoner assigned to tend his quarters poking through the door that led to his private rooms.

“Oh! Er, yes. Thank you…MacDonell?” he said doubtfully.

“MacKay, my lord,” the man corrected, without apparent resentment, and the head vanished.

Grey sighed. There was nothing that could be done tonight. He came back to the desk and gathered up the folders, to put them away. The jagged object he had drawn on the blotter looked like one of those spiked maces, with which ancient knights had crushed the heads of their foes. He felt as though he had swallowed one, though perhaps this was no more than indigestion occasioned by half-cooked mutton.

He shook his head, pulled the letter to him and signed it hastily.

With all affection, your obt. son, John Wm. Grey. He shook sand over the signature, sealed the missive with his ring and set it aside to be posted in the morning.

He rose and stood hesitating, surveying the shadowy reaches of the office. It was a great, cold, barren room, with little in it bar the huge desk and a couple of chairs. He shivered; the sullen glow of the peat bricks on the hearth did little to warm its vast spaces, particularly with the freezing wet air coming in at the window.

He glanced once more at the prisoners’ roll. Then he bent, opened the lower drawer of the desk, and drew out the brown glass bottle. He pinched out the candle, and made his way toward his bed by the dull glow of the hearth.

The mingled effects of exhaustion and whisky should have sent him to sleep at once, but sleep kept its distance, hovering over his bed like a bat, but never lighting. Every time he felt himself sinking into dreams, a vision of the wood at Carryarrick came before his eyes, and he found himself lying once more wide-awake and sweating, his heart thundering in his ears.

He had been sixteen then, excited beyond bearing by his first campaign. He had not got his commission then, but his brother Hal had taken him along with the regiment, so that he might get a taste of soldiering.

Camped at night near a dark Scottish wood, on their way to join General Cope at Prestonpans, John had found himself too nervous to sleep. What would the battle be like? Cope was a great general, all Hal’s friends said so, but the men around the fires told frightful stories of the fierce Highlanders and their bloody broadswords. Would he have the courage to face the dreadful Highland charge?

He couldn’t bring himself to mention his fears even to Hector. Hector loved him, but Hector was twenty, tall and muscular and fearless, with a lieutenant’s commission and dashing stories of battles fought in France.

He didn’t know, even now, whether it had been an urge to emulate Hector, or merely to impress him, that had led him to do it. In either case, when he saw the Highlander in the wood, and recognized him from the broadsheets as the notorious Red Jamie Fraser, he had determined to kill or capture him.

The notion of returning to camp for help had occurred to him, but the man was alone—at least John had thought he was alone—and evidently unawares, seated quietly upon a log, eating a bit of bread.

And so he had drawn his knife from his belt and crept quietly through the wood toward that shining red head, the haft slippery in his grasp, his mind filled with visions of glory and Hector’s praise.

Instead, there had been a glancing blow as his knife flashed down, his arm locked tight round the Scot’s neck to choke him, and then—

Lord John Grey flung himself over in his bed, hot with remembrance. They had fallen back, rolling together in the crackling oak-leaf dark, grappling for the knife, thrashing and fighting—for his life, he had thought.

First the Scot had been under him, then twisting, somehow over. He had touched a great snake once, a python that a friend of his uncle’s had brought from the Indies, and that was what it had been like, Fraser’s touch, lithe and smooth and horribly powerful, moving like the muscular coils, never where you expected it to be.

He had been flung ignominiously on his face in the leaves, his wrist twisted painfully behind his back. In a frenzy of terror, convinced he was about to be slain, he had wrenched with all his strength at his trapped arm, and the bone had snapped, with a red-black burst of pain that rendered him momentarily senseless.

He had come to himself moments later, slumped against a tree, facing a circle of ferocious-looking Highlanders, all in their plaids. In the midst of them stood Red Jamie Fraser—and the woman.

Grey clenched his teeth. Curse that woman! If it hadn’t been for her—well, God knew what might have happened. What had happened was that she had spoken. She was English, a lady by her speech, and he—idiot that he was!—had leapt at once to the conclusion that she was a hostage of the vicious Highlanders, no doubt kidnapped for the purpose of ravishment. Everyone said that Highlanders indulged in rapine at every opportunity, and took delight in dishonoring Englishwomen; how should he have known otherwise!

And Lord John William Grey, aged sixteen and filled to the brim with regimental notions of gallantry and noble purpose, bruised, shaken, and fighting the pain of his broken arm, had tried to bargain, to save her from her fate. Fraser, tall and mocking, had played him like a salmon, stripping the woman half-naked before him to force from him information about the position and strength of his brother’s regiment. And then, when he had told all he could, Fraser had laughingly revealed that the woman was his wife. They’d all laughed; he could hear the ribald Scottish voices now, hilarious in memory.

Grey rolled over, shifting his weight irritably on the unaccustomed mattress. And to make it all worse, Fraser had not even had the decency to kill him, but instead had tied him to a tree, where he would be found by his friends in the morning. By which time Fraser’s men had visited the camp and—with the information he had given them!—had immobilized the cannon they were bringing to Cope.

Everyone had found out, of course, and while excuses were made because of his age and his noncommissioned status, he had been a pariah and an object of scorn. No one would speak to him, save his brother—and Hector. Loyal Hector.

He sighed, rubbing his cheek against the pillow. He could see Hector still, in his mind’s eye. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, tender-mouthed, always smiling. It had been ten years since Hector had died at Culloden, hacked to pieces by a Highland broadsword, and still John woke in the dawn sometimes, body arched in clutching spasm, feeling Hector’s touch.

And now this. He had dreaded this posting, being surrounded by Scots, by their grating voices, overwhelmed with the memory of what they had done to Hector. But never, in the most dismal moments of anticipation, had he thought he would ever meet James Fraser again.

The peat fire on the hearth died gradually to hot ash, then cold, and the window paled from deep black to the sullen gray of a rainy Scottish dawn. And still John Grey lay sleepless, burning eyes fixed on the smoke-blackened beams above him.

Grey rose in the morning unrested, but with his mind made up. He was here. Fraser was here. And neither could leave, for the foreseeable future. So. He must see the man now and again—he would be speaking to the assembled prisoners in an hour, and must inspect them regularly thereafter—but he would not see him privately. If he kept the man himself at a distance, perhaps he could also keep at bay the memories he stirred. And the feelings.

For while it was the memory of his past rage and humiliation that had kept him awake to begin with, it was the other side of the present situation that had left him still wakeful at dawn. The slowly dawning realization that Fraser was now his prisoner; no longer his tormentor, but a prisoner, like the others, entirely at his mercy.

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