“Hail Mary, full of grace,” he muttered, “blessed art thou amongst women.”
He hadn’t much hope. That wee yellow-haired fiend of a major had seen, damn his soul—he knew just how terrible the fetters had been.
“Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…”
The wee Major had made him a bargain, and he had kept it. The major would not be thinking so, though.
He had kept his oath, had done as he promised. Had relayed the words spoken to him, one by one, just as he had heard them from the wandering man. It was no part of his bargain to tell the Englishman that he knew the man—or what conclusions he had drawn from the muttered words.
He had recognized Duncan Kerr at once, changed though he was by time and mortal illness. Before Culloden, he had been a tacksman of Colum MacKenzie, Jamie’s uncle. After, he had escaped to France, to eke out what living might be made there.
“Be still, a charaid; bi sàmhach,” he had said softly in Gaelic, dropping to his knees by the bed where the sick man lay. Duncan was an elderly man, his worn face wasted by illness and fatigue, and his eyes were bright with fever. At first he had thought Duncan too far gone to know him, but the wasted hand had gripped his with surprising strength, and the man had repeated through his rasping breath, “mo charaid.” My kinsman.
The innkeeper was watching, from his place near the door, peering over Major Grey’s shoulder. Jamie had bent his head and whispered in Duncan’s ear, “All you say will be told to the English. Speak wary.” The landlord’s eyes narrowed, but the distance between them was too far; Jamie was sure he hadn’t heard. Then the Major had turned and ordered the innkeeper out, and he was safe.
He couldn’t tell whether it was the effect of his warning, or only the derangement of fever, but Duncan’s speech wandered with his mind, often incoherent, images of the past overlapping with those of the present. Sometimes he had called Jamie “Dougal,” the name of Colum’s brother, Jamie’s other uncle. Sometimes he dropped into poetry, sometimes he simply raved. And within the ravings and the scattered words, sometimes there was a grain of sense—or more than sense.
“It is cursed,” Duncan whispered. “The gold is cursed. Do ye be warned, lad. It was given by the white witch, given for the King’s son. But the Cause is lost, and the King’s son fled, and she will not let the gold be given to a coward.”
“Who is she?” Jamie asked. His heart had sprung up and choked him at Duncan’s words, and it beat madly as he asked. “The white witch—who is she?”
“She seeks a brave man. A MacKenzie, it is for Himself. MacKenzie. It is theirs, she says it, for the sake of him who is dead.”
“Who is the witch?” Jamie asked again. The word Duncan used was ban-druidh—a witch, a wisewoman, a white lady. They had called his wife that, once. Claire—his own white lady. He squeezed Duncan’s hand tight in his own, willing him to keep his senses.
“Who?” he said again. “Who is the witch?”
“The witch,” Duncan muttered, his eyes closing. “The witch. She is a soul-eater. She is death. He is dead, the MacKenzie, he is dead.”
“Who is dead? Colum MacKenzie?”
“All of them, all of them. All dead. All dead!” cried the sick man, clutching tight to his hand. “Colum, and Dougal, and Ellen, too.”
Suddenly his eyes opened, and fixed on Jamie’s. The fever had dilated his pupils, so his gaze seemed a pool of drowning black.
“Folk do say,” he said, with surprising clarity, “as how Ellen MacKenzie did leave her brothers and her home, and go to wed with a silkie from the sea. She heard them, aye?” Duncan smiled dreamily, the black stare swimming with distant vision. “She heard the silkies singing, there upon the rocks, one, and two, and three of them, and she saw from her tower, one and two, and three of them, and so she came down, and went to the sea, and so under it, to live wi’ the silkies. Aye? Did she no?”
“So folk say,” Jamie had answered, mouth gone dry. Ellen had been his mother’s name. And that was what folk had said, when she had left her home, to elope with Brian Dubh Fraser, a man with the shining black hair of a silkie. The man for whose sake he was himself now called Mac Dubh—Black Brian’s son.
Major Grey stood close, on the other side of the bed, brow furrowed as he watched Duncan’s face. The Englishman had no Gaelic, but Jamie would have been willing to wager that he knew the word for gold. He caught the Major’s eye, and nodded, bending again to speak to the sick man.
“The gold, man,” he said, in French, loud enough for Grey to hear. “Where is the gold?” He squeezed Duncan’s hand as hard as he could, hoping to convey some warning.
Duncan’s eyes closed, and he rolled his head restlessly, to and fro upon the pillow. He muttered something, but the words were too faint to catch.
“What did he say?” the Major demanded sharply. “What?”
“I don’t know.” Jamie patted Duncan’s hand to rouse him. “Speak to me, man, tell me again.”
There was no response save more muttering. Duncan’s eyes had rolled back in his head, so that only a thin line of gleaming white showed beneath the wrinkled lids. Impatient, the Major leaned forward and shook him by one shoulder.
“Wake up!” he said. “Speak to us!”
At once Duncan Kerr’s eyes flew open. He stared up, up, past the two faces bending over him, seeing something far beyond them.
“She will tell you,” he said, in Gaelic. “She will come for you.” For a split second, his attention seemed to return to the inn room where he lay, and his eyes focused on the men with him. “For both of you,” he said distinctly.
Then he closed his eyes, and spoke no more, but clung ever tighter to Jamie’s hand. Then after a time, his grip relaxed, his hand slid free, and it was over. The guardianship of the gold had passed.
And so, Jamie Fraser had kept his word to the Englishman—and his obligation to his countrymen. He had told the Major all that Duncan had said, and the devil of a help to him that had been! And when the opportunity of escape offered, he had taken it—gone to the heather and sought the sea, and done what he could with Duncan Kerr’s legacy. And now he must pay the price of his actions, whatever that turned out to be.
There were footsteps coming down the corridor outside. He clutched his knees harder, trying to quell the shivering. At least it would be decided now, either way.
“…pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death, amen.”
The door swung open, letting in a shaft of light that made him blink. It was dark in the corridor, but the guard standing over him held a torch.
“On your feet.” The man reached down and pulled him up against the stiffness of his joints. He was pushed toward the door, stumbling. “You’re wanted upstairs.”
“Upstairs? Where?” He was startled at that—the smith’s forge was downstairs from where he was, off the courtyard. And they wouldn’t flog him so late in the evening.
The man’s face twisted, fierce and ruddy in the torchlight. “To the Major’s quarters,” the guard said, grinning. “And may God have mercy on your soul, Mac Dubh.”
“No, sir, I will not say where I have been.” He repeated it firmly, trying not to let his teeth chatter. He had been brought not to the office, but to Grey’s private sitting room. There was a fire on the hearth, but Grey was standing in front of it, blocking most of the warmth.
“Nor why you chose to escape?” Grey’s voice was cool and formal.
Jamie’s face tightened. He had been placed near the bookshelf, where the light of a triple-branched candlestick fell on his face; Grey himself was no more than a silhouette, black against the fire’s glow.
“That is my private affair,” he said.
“Private affair?” Grey echoed incredulously. “Did you say your private affair?”
The Governor inhaled strongly through his nose.
“That is possibly the most outrageous thing I have heard in my life!”
“Your life has been rather brief, then, Major,” Fraser said. “If you will pardon my saying so.” There was no point in dragging it out or trying to placate the man. Better to provoke a decision at once and get it over with. He had certainly provoked something; Grey’s fists clenched tight at his sides, and he took a step toward him, away from the fire.
“Have you any notion what I could do to you for this?” Grey inquired, his voice low and very much controlled.
“Aye, I have. Major.” More than a notion. He knew from experience what they might do to him, and he wasn’t looking forward to it. It wasn’t as though he’d a choice about it, though.
Grey breathed heavily for a moment, then jerked his head.
“Come here, Mr. Fraser,” he ordered. Jamie stared at him, puzzled.
“Here!” he said peremptorily, pointing to a spot directly before him on the hearthrug. “Stand here, sir!”
“I am not a dog, Major!” Jamie snapped. “Ye’ll do as ye like wi’ me, but I’ll no come when ye call me to heel!”
Taken by surprise, Grey uttered a short, involuntary laugh.
“My apologies, Mr. Fraser,” he said dryly. “I meant no offense by the address. I merely wish you to approach nearer. If you will?” He stepped aside and bowed elaborately, gesturing to the hearth.
Jamie hesitated, but then stepped warily onto the patterned rug. Grey stepped close to him, nostrils flared. So close, the fine bones and fair skin of his face made him look almost girlish. The Major put a hand on his sleeve, and the long-lashed eyes sprang wide in shock.
“Yes, I am wet,” Jamie said, with elaborate patience. He was also freezing. A fine, continuous shiver ran through him, even this close to the fire.
“Why?” Jamie echoed, astonished. “Did you not order the guards to douse me wi’ water before leaving me in a freezing cell?”
“I did not, no.” It was clear enough that the Major was telling the truth; his face was pale under the ruddy flush of the firelight, and he looked angry. His lips thinned to a fine line.
“I apologize for this, Mr. Fraser.”
“Accepted, Major.” Small wisps of steam were beginning to rise from his clothes, but the warmth was seeping through the damp cloth. His muscles ached from the shivering, and he wished he could lie down on the hearthrug, dog or not.
“Did your escape have anything to do with the matter of which you learned at the Lime Tree Inn?”
Jamie stood silent. The ends of his hair were drying, and small wisps floated across his face.
“Will you swear to me that your escape had nothing to do with that matter?”
Jamie stood silent. There seemed no point in saying anything, now.
The little Major was pacing up and down the hearth before him, hands locked behind his back. Now and then, the Major glanced up at him, and then resumed his pacing.