Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 25

   

Grey felt his brows shoot up.

“Green plants stop scurvy?” he blurted. “Wherever did you get that notion?”

“From my wife!” Fraser snapped. He turned away abruptly, and stood, tying the neck of his sack with hard, quick movements.

Grey could not prevent himself asking.

“Your wife, sir—where is she?”

The answer was a sudden blaze of dark blue that seared him to the backbone, so shocking was its intensity.

Perhaps you are too young to know the power of hate and despair. Quarry’s voice spoke in Grey’s memory. He was not; he recognized them at once in the depths of Fraser’s eyes.

Only for a moment, though; then the man’s normal veil of cool politeness was back in place.

“My wife is gone,” Fraser said, and turned away again, so abruptly that the movement verged on rudeness.

Grey felt himself shaken by an unexpected feeling. In part it was relief. The woman who had been both cause of and party to his humiliation was dead. In part, it was regret.

Neither of them spoke again on the journey back to Ardsmuir.

Three days later, Jamie Fraser escaped. It had never been a difficult matter for prisoners to escape from Ardsmuir; no one ever did, simply because there was no place for a man to go. Three miles from the prison, the coast of Scotland dropped into the ocean in a spill of crumbled granite. On the other three sides, nothing but empty moorland stretched for miles.

Once, a man might take to the heather, depending on clan and kinsmen for support and protection. But the clans were crushed, the kin dead, the Scottish prisoners removed far away from their own clan lands. Starving on the bleak moor was little improvement on a prison cell. Escape was not worth it—to anyone but Jamie Fraser, who evidently had a reason.

The dragoons’ horses kept to the road; while the surrounding moor looked smooth as a velvet counterpane, the purpling heather was a thin layer, deceptively spread over a foot or more of wet, spongy peat moss. Even the red deer didn’t walk at random in that boggy mass—Grey could see four of the animals now, stick figures a mile away, the line of their track through the heather seeming no wider than a thread.

Fraser, of course, was not mounted. That meant that the escaped prisoner might be anywhere on the moor, free to follow the red deer’s paths.

It was John Grey’s duty to pursue his prisoner and attempt his recapture. It was something more than duty that had made him strip the garrison for his search party, and urge them on with only the briefest of stops for rest and food. Duty, yes, and an urgent desire to find the French gold and win approval from his masters—and reprieve from this desolate Scottish exile. But there was anger, too, and an odd sense of personal betrayal.

Grey wasn’t sure whether he was more angry at Fraser for breaking his word, or at himself, for having been fool enough to believe that a Highlander—gentleman or not—held a sense of honor equal to his own. But angry he was, and determined to search every deer path on this moor if necessary, in order to lay James Fraser by the heels.

They reached the coast the next night, well after dark, after a laborious day of combing the moor. The fog had thinned away over the rocks, swept out by the offshore wind, and the sea spread out before them, cradled by cliffs and strewn with tiny barren islets.

John Grey stood beside his horse on the clifftops, looking down at the wild black sea. It was a clear night on the coast, thank God, and the moon was at the half; its gleam painted the spray-wet rocks, making them stand out hard and shining as silver ingots against black velvet shadows.

It was the most desolate place he had ever seen, though it had a sort of terrible beauty about it that made the blood run cold in his veins. There was no sign of James Fraser. No sign of life at all.

One of the men with him gave a sudden exclamation of surprise, and drew his pistol.

“There!” he said. “On the rocks!”

“Hold your fire, fool,” said another of the soldiers, grabbing his companion’s arm. He made no effort to disguise his contempt. “Have you ne’er seen seals?”

“Ah…no,” said the first man, rather sheepishly. He lowered his pistol, staring out at the small dark forms on the rocks below.

Grey had never seen seals, either, and he watched them with fascination. They looked like black slugs from this distance, the moonlight gleaming wetly on their coats as they raised restless heads, seeming to roll and weave unsteadily as they made their awkward way on land.

His mother had had a cloak made of sealskin, when he was a boy. He had been allowed to touch it once, marveling at the feel of it, dark and warm as a moonless summer night. Amazing that such thick, soft fur came from these slick, wet creatures.

“The Scots call them silkies,” said the soldier who had recognized them. He nodded at the seals with the proprietary air of special knowledge.

“Silkies?” Grey’s attention was caught; he stared at the man with interest. “What else do you know about them, Sykes?”

The soldier shrugged, enjoying his momentary importance. “Not a great deal, sir. The folk hereabout have stories about them, though; they say sometimes one of them will come ashore and leave off its skin, and inside is a beautiful woman. If a man should find the skin, and hide it, so she can’t go back, why then—she’ll be forced to stay and be his wife. They make good wives, sir, or so I’m told.”

“At least they’d always be wet,” murmured the first soldier, and the men erupted in guffaws that echoed among the cliffs, raucous as seabirds.

“That’s enough!” Grey had to raise his voice, to be heard above the rash of laughter and crude suggestions.

“Spread out!” Grey ordered. “I want the cliffs searched in both directions—and keep an eye out for boats below; God knows there’s room enough to hide a sloop behind some of those islands.”

Abashed, the men went without comment. They returned an hour later, wet from spray and disheveled with climbing, but with no sign of Jamie Fraser—or the Frenchman’s Gold.

At dawn, as the light stained the slippery rocks red and gold, small parties of dragoons were sent off to search the cliffs in both directions, making their way carefully down the rocky clefts and tumbled piles of stone.

Nothing was found. Grey stood by a fire on the clifftop, keeping an eye on the search. He was swathed in his greatcoat against the biting wind, and fortified periodically by hot coffee, supplied by his servant.

The man at the Lime Tree had come from the sea, his clothes soaked in saltwater. Whether Fraser had learned something from the man’s words that he had not told, or had decided only to take the chance of looking for himself, surely he also would have gone to the sea. And yet there was no sign of James Fraser, anywhere along this stretch of coast. Worse yet, there was no sign of the gold.

“If he went in anywhere along this stretch, Major, you’ll have seen the last of him, I’m thinking.” It was Sergeant Grissom, standing beside him, gazing down at the crash and whirl of water through the jagged rocks below. He nodded at the furious water.

“They call this spot the Devil’s Cauldron, because of the way it boils all the time. Fishermen drowned off this coast are seldom found; there are wicked currents to blame for it, of course, but folk say the Devil seizes them and pulls them below.”

“Do they?” Grey said bleakly. He stared down into the smash and spume forty feet below. “I wouldn’t doubt it, Sergeant.”

He turned back toward the campfire.

“Give orders to search until nightfall, Sergeant. If nothing is found, we’ll start back in the morning.”

Grey lifted his gaze from his horse’s neck, squinting through the dim early light. His eyes felt swollen from peat smoke and lack of sleep, and his bones ached from several nights spent lying on damp ground.

The ride back to Ardsmuir would take no more than a day. The thought of a soft bed and a hot supper was delightful—but then he would have to write the official dispatch to London, confessing Fraser’s escape—the reason for it—and his own shameful failure to recapture the man.

The feeling of bleakness at this prospect was reinforced by a deep griping in the major’s lower abdomen. He raised a hand, signaling a halt, and slid wearily to the ground.

“Wait here,” he said to his men. There was a small hillock a few hundred feet away; it would afford him sufficient privacy for the relief he sorely needed; his bowels, unaccustomed to Scottish parritch and oatcake, had rebelled altogether at the exigencies of a field diet.

The birds were singing in the heather. Away from the noise of hooves and harness, he could hear all the tiny sounds of the waking moor. The wind had changed with the dawn, and the scent of the sea came inland now, whispering through the grass. Some small animal made a rustling noise on the other side of a gorse bush. It was all very peaceful.

Straightening up from what too late struck him as a most undignified posture, Grey raised his head and looked straight into the face of James Fraser.

He was no more than six feet away. He stood still as one of the red deer, the moor wind brushing over him, with the rising sun tangled in his hair.

They stood frozen, staring at each other. The smell of the sea came faintly on the wind. There was no sound but the sea wind and the singing of meadowlarks for a moment. Then Grey drew himself up, swallowing to bring his heart down from his throat.

“I fear you take me at a disadvantage, Mr. Fraser,” he said coolly, fastening his breeches with as much self-possession as he could muster.

The Scot’s eyes were the only part of him to move, down over Grey and slowly back up. Looked over his shoulder, to where six armed soldiers stood, pointing their muskets. Dark blue eyes met his, straight on. At last, the edge of Fraser’s mouth twitched, and he said, “I think ye take me at the same, Major.”

10

WHITE WITCH’S CURSE

Jamie Fraser sat shivering on the stone floor of the empty storeroom, clutching his knees and trying to get warm. He thought he likely would never be warm again. The chill of the sea had seeped into his bones, and he could still feel the churn of the crashing breakers, deep in his belly.

He wished for the presence of the other prisoners—Morrison, Hayes, Sinclair, Sutherland. Not only for company, but for the heat of their bodies. On bitter nights, the men would huddle close together for warmth, breathing each other’s stale breath, tolerating the bump and knock of close quarters for the sake of warmth.

He was alone, though. Likely they would not return him to the large cell with the other men until after they had done whatever they meant to do to him as punishment for escaping. He leaned back against the wall with a sigh, morbidly aware of the bones of his spine pressing against the stone, and the fragility of the flesh covering them.

He was very much afraid of being flogged, and yet he hoped that would be his punishment. It would be horrible, but it would be soon over—and infinitely more bearable than being put back in irons. He could feel in his flesh the crash of the smith’s hammer, echoing through the bones of his arm as the smith pounded the fetters firmly into place, holding his wrist steady on the anvil.

His fingers sought the rosary around his neck. His sister had given it to him when he left Lallybroch; the English had let him keep it, as the string of beechwood beads had no value.

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