Author: P Hana

Page 24


He had seen Fraser several times, of course, standing in the courtyard with the other prisoners, red head and shoulders above most of the other men, but never close enough to see his face clearly.

He looked different. That was both shock and relief; for so long, he had seen a clean-shaven face in memory, dark with threat or alight with mocking laughter. This man was short-bearded, his face calm and wary, and while the deep blue eyes were the same, they gave no sign of recognition. The man stood quietly before the desk, waiting.

Grey cleared his throat. His heart was still beating too fast, but at least he could speak calmly.

“Mr. Fraser,” he said. “I thank you for coming.”

The Scot bent his head courteously, but did not answer that he had had no choice in the matter; his eyes said that.

“Doubtless you wonder why I have sent for you,” Grey said. He sounded insufferably pompous to his own ears, but was unable to remedy it. “I find that a situation has arisen in which I require your assistance.”

“What is that, Major?” The voice was the same—deep and precise, marked with a soft Highland burr.

He took a deep breath, bracing himself on the desk. He would rather have done anything but ask help of this particular man, but there was no bloody choice. Fraser was the only possibility.

“A man has been found wandering the moor near the coast,” he said carefully. “He appears to be seriously ill, and his speech is deranged. However, certain…matters to which he refers appear to be of…substantial interest to the Crown. I require to talk with him, and discover as much as I can of his identity, and the matters of which he speaks.”

He paused, but Fraser merely stood there, waiting.

“Unfortunately,” Grey said, taking another breath, “the man in question has been heard to speak in a mixture of Gaelic and French, with no more than a word or two of English.”

One of the Scot’s ruddy eyebrows stirred. His face didn’t change in any appreciable way, but it was evident that he had grasped the implications of the situation.

“I see, Major.” The Scot’s soft voice was full of irony. “And you would like my assistance to interpret for ye what this man might have to say.”

Grey couldn’t trust himself to speak, but merely jerked his head in a short nod.

“I fear I must decline, Major.” Fraser spoke respectfully, but with a glint in his eye that was anything but respectful. Grey’s hand curled tight around the brass letter-opener on his blotter.

“You decline?” he said. He tightened his grasp on the letter-opener in order to keep his voice steady. “Might I inquire why, Mr. Fraser?”

“I am a prisoner, Major,” the Scot said politely. “Not an interpreter.”

“Your assistance would be—appreciated,” Grey said, trying to infuse the word with significance without offering outright bribery. “Conversely,” his tone hardened, “a failure to render legitimate assistance—”

“It is not legitimate for ye either to extort my services or to threaten me, Major.” Fraser’s voice was a good deal harder than Grey’s.

“I did not threaten you!” The edge of the letter-opener was cutting into his hand; he was forced to loosen his grip.

“Did ye no? Well, and I’m pleased to hear it.” Fraser turned toward the door. “In that case, Major, I shall bid ye good night.”

Grey would have given a great deal simply to have let him go. Unfortunately, duty called.

“Mr. Fraser!” The Scot stopped, a few feet from the door, but didn’t turn.

Grey took a deep breath, steeling himself to it.

“If you do what I ask, I will have your irons struck off,” he said.

Fraser stood quite still. Young and inexperienced Grey might be, but he was not unobservant. Neither was he a poor judge of men. Grey watched the rise of his prisoner’s head, the increased tension of his shoulders, and felt a small relaxation of the anxiety that had gripped him since the news of the wanderer had come.

“Mr. Fraser?” he said.

Very slowly, the Scot turned around. His face was quite expressionless.

“You have a bargain, Major,” he said softly.

It was well past midnight when they arrived in the village of Ardsmuir. No lights showed in the cottages they passed, and Grey found himself wondering what the inhabitants thought, as the sound of hooves and the jingle of arms passed by their windows late at night, a faint echo of the English troops who had swept through the Highlands ten years before.

The wanderer had been taken to the Lime Tree, an inn so called because for many years, it had boasted a huge lime tree in the yard; the only tree of any size for thirty miles. There was nothing left now but a broad stump—the tree, like so many other things, had perished in the aftermath of Culloden, burned for firewood by Cumberland’s troops—but the name remained.

At the door, Grey paused and turned to Fraser.

“You will recall the terms of our agreement?”

“I will,” Fraser answered shortly, and brushed past him.

In return for having the irons removed, Grey had required three things: firstly, that Fraser would not attempt to escape during the journey to or from the village. Secondly, Fraser would undertake to give a full and true account of all that the vagrant should say. And thirdly, Fraser would give his word as a gentleman to speak to no one but Grey of what he learned.

There was a murmur of Gaelic voices inside; a sound of surprise as the innkeeper saw Fraser, and deference at the sight of the red coat behind him. The goodwife stood on the stair, an oil-dip in her hand making the shadows dance around her.

Grey laid a hand on the innkeeper’s arm, startled.

“Who is that?” There was another figure on the stairs, an apparition, clothed all in black.

“That is the priest,” Fraser said quietly, beside him. “The man will be dying, then.”

Grey took a deep breath, trying to steady himself for what might come.

“Then there is little time to waste,” he said firmly, setting a booted foot on the stair. “Let us proceed.”

The man died just before dawn, Fraser holding one of his hands, the priest the other. As the priest leaned over the bed, mumbling in Gaelic and Latin, making Popish signs over the body, Fraser sat back on his stool, eyes closed, still holding the small, frail hand in his own.

The big Scot had sat by the man’s side all night, listening, encouraging, comforting. Grey had stood by the door, not wishing to frighten the man by the sight of his uniform, both surprised and oddly touched at Fraser’s gentleness.

Now Fraser laid the thin weathered hand gently across the still chest, and made the same sign as the priest had, touching forehead, heart, and both shoulders in turn, in the sign of a cross. He opened his eyes, and rose to his feet, his head nearly brushing the low rafters. He nodded briefly to Grey, and preceded him down the narrow stair.

“In here.” Grey motioned to the door of the taproom, empty at this hour. A sleepy-eyed barmaid laid the fire for them and brought bread and ale, then went out, leaving them alone.

He waited for Fraser to refresh himself before asking.

“Well, Mr. Fraser?”

The Scot set down his pewter mug and wiped a hand across his mouth. Already bearded, with his long hair neatly plaited, he didn’t look disheveled by the long night watch, but there were dark smudges of tiredness under his eyes.

“All right,” he said. “It doesna make a great deal of sense, Major,” he added warningly, “but this is all he said.” And he spoke carefully, pausing now and then to recall a word, stopping again to explain some Gaelic reference. Grey sat listening in deepening disappointment; Fraser had been correct—it didn’t make much sense.

“The white witch?” Grey interrupted. “He spoke of a white witch? And seals?” It scarcely seemed more farfetched than the rest of it, but still he spoke disbelievingly.

“Aye, he did.”

“Say it to me again,” Grey commanded. “As best you remember. If you please,” he added.

He felt oddly comfortable with the man, he realized, with a feeling of surprise. Part of it was sheer fatigue, of course; all his usual reactions and feelings were numbed by the long night and the strain of watching a man die by inches.

The entire night had seemed unreal to Grey; not least was this odd conclusion, wherein he found himself sitting in the dim dawn light of a country tavern, sharing a pitcher of ale with Red Jamie Fraser.

Fraser obeyed, speaking slowly, stopping now and then to recall. With the difference of a word here or there, it was identical to the first account—and those parts of it that Grey himself had been able to understand were faithfully translated.

He shook his head, discouraged. Gibberish. The man’s ravings had been precisely that—ravings. If the man had ever seen any gold—and it did sound as though he had, at one time—there was no telling where or when from this hodgepodge of delusion and feverish delirium.

“You are quite positive that is all he said?” Grey grasped at the slim hope that Fraser might have omitted some small phrase, some statement that would yield a clue to the lost gold.

Fraser’s sleeve fell back as he lifted his cup; Grey could see the deep band of raw flesh about his wrist, dark in the gray early light of the taproom. Fraser saw him looking at it, and set down the cup, the frail illusion of companionship shattered.

“I keep my bargains, Major,” Fraser said, with cold formality. He rose to his feet. “Shall we be going back now?”

They rode in silence for some time. Fraser was lost in his own thoughts, Grey sunk in fatigue and disappointment. They stopped at a small spring to refresh themselves, just as the sun topped the small hills to the north.

Grey drank cold water, then splashed it on his face, feeling the shock of it revive him momentarily. He had been awake for more than twenty-four hours, and was feeling slow and stupid.

Fraser had been awake for the same twenty-four hours, but gave no apparent sign of being troubled by the fact. He was crawling busily around the spring on his hands and knees, evidently plucking some sort of weed from the water.

“What are you doing, Mr. Fraser?” Grey asked, in some bewilderment.

Fraser looked up, mildly surprised, but not embarrassed in the slightest.

“I am picking watercress, Major.”

“I see that,” Grey said testily. “What for?”

“To eat, Major,” Fraser replied evenly. He took the stained cloth bag from his belt and dropped the dripping green mass into it.

“Indeed? Are you not fed sufficiently?” Grey asked blankly. “I have never heard of people eating watercress.”

“It’s green, Major.”

In his fatigued state, the Major had suspicions that he was being practiced upon.

“What in damnation other color ought a weed to be?” he demanded.

Fraser’s mouth twitched slightly, and he seemed to be debating something with himself. At last he shrugged slightly, wiping his wet hands on the sides of his breeks.

“I only meant, Major, that eating green plants will stop ye getting scurvy and loose teeth. My men eat such greens as I take them, and cress is better-tasting than most things I can pick on the moor.”