There was a faint flicker near Fraser’s mouth, much too faint to be called a smile. He inclined his head briefly, in acknowledgment.
“There were those who fought for love of Charles Stuart—or from loyalty to his father’s right of kingship. But you are right; I wasna one of those.”
He didn’t explain further. Grey took a deep breath, keeping his eyes fixed on the board.
“I said that I felt much as you did, at the time. I—lost a particular friend at Culloden,” he said. With half his mind he wondered why he should speak of Hector to this man, of all men; a Scottish warrior who had slashed his way across that deadly field, whose sword might well have been the one…At the same time, he could not help but speak; there was no one to whom he could speak of Hector, save this man, this prisoner who could speak to no one else, whose words could do him no damage.
“He made me go and look at the body—Hal did, my brother,” Grey blurted. He looked down at his hand, where the deep blue of Hector’s sapphire burned against his skin, a smaller version of the one Fraser had reluctantly given him.
“He said that I must; that unless I saw him dead, I should never really believe it. That unless I knew Hector—my friend—was really gone, I would grieve forever. If I saw, and knew, I would grieve, but then I should heal—and forget.” He looked up, with a painful attempt at a smile. “Hal is generally right, but not always.”
Perhaps he had healed, but he would never forget. Certainly he would not forget his last sight of Hector, lying wax-faced and still in the early morning light, long dark lashes resting delicately on his cheeks as they did when he slept. And the gaping wound that had half-severed his head from his body, leaving the windpipe and large vessels of the neck exposed in butchery.
They sat silent for a moment. Fraser said nothing, but picked up his glass and drained it. Without asking, Grey refilled both glasses for the third time.
He leaned back in his chair, looking curiously at his guest.
“Do you find your life greatly burdensome, Mr. Fraser?”
The Scot looked up then, and met his eyes with a long, level gaze. Evidently, Fraser found nothing in his own face save curiosity, for the broad shoulders across the board relaxed their tension somewhat, and the wide mouth softened its grim line. The Scot leaned back, and flexed his right hand slowly, opening and closing it to stretch the muscles. Grey saw that the hand had been damaged at one time; small scars were visible in the firelight, and two of the fingers were set stiffly.
“Perhaps not greatly so,” the Scot replied slowly. He met Grey’s eyes with dispassion. “I think perhaps the greatest burden lies in caring for those we cannot help.”
“Not in having no one for whom to care?”
Fraser paused before answering; he might have been weighing the position of the pieces on the table.
“That is emptiness,” he said at last, softly. “But no great burden.”
It was late; there was no sound from the fortress around them save the occasional step of the soldier on sentry in the courtyard below.
“Your wife—she was a healer, you said?”
“She was. She…her name was Claire.” Fraser swallowed, then lifted his cup and drank, as though trying to dislodge something stuck in his throat.
“You cared very much for her, I think?” Grey said softly.
He recognized in the Scot the same compulsion he had had a few moments earlier—the need to speak a name kept hidden, to bring back for a moment the ghost of a love.
“I had meant to thank you sometime, Major,” the Scot said softly.
Grey was startled.
“Thank me? For what?”
The Scot looked up, eyes dark over the finished game.
“For that night at Carryarrick where we first met.” His eyes were steady on Grey’s. “For what ye did for my wife.”
“You remembered,” Grey said hoarsely.
“I hadna forgotten,” Fraser said simply. Grey steeled himself to look across the table, but when he did so, he found no hint of laughter in the slanted blue eyes.
Fraser nodded at him, gravely formal. “Ye were a worthy foe, Major; I wouldna forget you.”
John Grey laughed bitterly. Oddly enough, he felt less upset than he had thought he would, at having the shameful memory so explicitly recalled.
“If you found a sixteen-year-old shitting himself with fear a worthy foe, Mr. Fraser, then it is little wonder that the Highland army was defeated!”
Fraser smiled faintly.
“A man that doesna shit himself with a pistol held to his head, Major, has either no bowels, or no brains.”
Despite himself, Grey laughed. One edge of Fraser’s mouth turned slightly up.
“Ye wouldna speak to save your own life, but ye would do it to save a lady’s honor. The honor of my own lady,” Fraser said softly. “That doesna seem like cowardice to me.”
The ring of truth was too evident in the Scot’s voice to mistake or ignore.
“I did nothing for your wife,” Grey said, rather bitterly. “She was in no danger, after all!”
“Ye didna ken that, aye?” Fraser pointed out. “Ye thought to save her life and virtue, at the risk of your own. Ye did her honor by the notion—and I have thought of it now and again, since I—since I lost her.” The hesitation in Fraser’s voice was slight; only the tightening of the muscles in his throat betrayed his emotion.
“I see.” Grey breathed deep, and let it out slowly. “I am sorry for your loss,” he added formally.
They were both quiet for a moment, alone with their ghosts. Then Fraser looked up and drew in his breath.
“Your brother was right, Major,” he said. “I thank ye, and I’ll bid ye good e’en.” He rose, set down his cup and left the room.
It reminded him in some ways of his years in the cave, with his visits to the house, those oases of life and warmth in the desert of solitude. Here, it was the reverse, going from the crowded, cold squalor of the cells up to the Major’s glowing suite, able for a few hours to stretch both mind and body, to relax in warmth and conversation and the abundance of food.
It gave him the same odd sense of dislocation, though; that sense of losing some valuable part of himself that could not survive the passage back to daily life. Each time, the passage became more difficult.
He stood in the drafty passageway, waiting for the turnkey to unlock the cell door. The sounds of sleeping men buzzed in his ears and the smell of them wafted out as the door opened, pungent as a fart.
He filled his lungs with a quick deep breath, and ducked his head to enter.
There was a stir among the bodies on the floor as he stepped into the room, his shadow falling black across the prone and bundled shapes. The door swung closed behind him, leaving the cell in darkness, but there was a ripple of awareness through the room, as men stirred awake to his coming.
“You’re back late, Mac Dubh,” said Murdo Lindsay, voice rusty with sleep. “Ye’ll be sair tuckered tomorrow.”
“I’ll manage, Murdo,” he whispered, stepping over bodies. He pulled off his coat and laid it carefully over the bench, then took up the rough blanket and sought his space on the floor, his long shadow flickering across the moon-barred window.
Ronnie Sinclair turned over as Mac Dubh lay down beside him. He blinked sleepily, sandy lashes nearly invisible in the moonlight.
“Did Wee Goldie feed ye decent, Mac Dubh?”
“He did, Ronnie, thank ye.” He shifted on the stones, seeking a comfortable position.
“Ye’ll tell us about it tomorrow?” The prisoners took an odd pleasure in hearing what he had been served for dinner, taking it as an honor that their chief should be well fed.
“Aye, I will, Ronnie,” Mac Dubh promised. “But I must sleep now, aye?”
“Sleep well, Mac Dubh,” came a whisper from the corner where Hayes was rolled up, curled like a set of teaspoons with MacLeod, Innes, and Keith, who all liked to sleep warm.
“Sweet dreams, Gavin,” Mac Dubh whispered back, and little by little, the cell settled back into silence.
He dreamed of Claire that night. She lay in his arms, heavy-limbed and fragrant. She was with child; her belly round and smooth as a muskmelon, her br**sts rich and full, the ni**les dark as wine, urging him to taste them.
Her hand cupped itself between his legs, and he reached to return the favor, the small, fat softness of her filling his hand, pressing against him as she moved. She rose over him, smiling, her hair falling down around her face, and threw her leg across him.
“Give me your mouth,” he whispered, not knowing whether he meant to kiss her or to have her take him between her lips, only knowing he must have her somehow.
“Give me yours,” she said. She laughed and leaned down to him, hands on his shoulders, her hair brushing his face with the scent of moss and sunlight, and he felt the prickle of dry leaves against his back and knew they lay in the glen near Lallybroch, and her the color of the copper beeches all around; beech leaves and beechwood, gold eyes and a smooth white skin, skimmed with shadows.
Then her breast pressed against his mouth, and he took it eagerly, drawing her body tight against him as he suckled her. Her milk was hot and sweet, with a faint taste of silver, like a deer’s blood.
“Harder,” she whispered to him, and put her hand behind his head, gripping the back of his neck, pressing him to her. “Harder.”
She lay at her length upon him, his hands holding for dear life to the sweet flesh of her bu**ocks, feeling the small solid weight of the child upon his own belly, as though they shared it now, protecting the small round thing between their bodies.
He flung his arms about her, tight, and she held him tight as he jerked and shuddered, her hair in his face, her hands in his hair and the child between them, not knowing where any of the three of them began or ended.
He came awake suddenly, panting and sweating, half-curled on his side beneath one of the benches in the cell. It was not yet quite light, but he could see the shapes of the men who lay near him, and hoped he had not cried out. He closed his eyes at once, but the dream was gone. He lay quite still, his heart slowing, and waited for the dawn.
June 18, 1755
John Grey had dressed carefully this evening, with fresh linen and silk stockings. He wore his own hair, simply plaited, rinsed with a tonic of lemon-verbena. He had hesitated for a moment over Hector’s ring, but at last had put it on, too. The dinner had been good; a pheasant he had shot himself, and a salad of greens, in deference to Fraser’s odd tastes for such things. Now they sat over the chessboard, lighter topics of conversation set aside in the concentration of the midgame.
“Will you have sherry?” He set down his bishop, and leaned back, stretching.
Fraser nodded, absorbed in the new position.
“I thank ye.”
Grey rose and crossed the room, leaving Fraser by the fire. He reached into the cupboard for the bottle, and felt a thin trickle of sweat run down his ribs as he did so. Not from the fire, simmering across the room; from sheer nervousness.
He brought the bottle back to the table, holding the goblets in his other hand; the Waterford crystal his mother had sent. The liquid purled into the glasses, shimmering amber and rose in the firelight. Fraser’s eyes were fixed on the cup, watching the rising sherry, but with an abstraction that showed he was deep in his thoughts. The dark blue eyes were hooded. Grey wondered what he was thinking; not about the game—the outcome of that was certain.