Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 32

   

Grey reached out and moved his queen’s bishop. It was no more than a delaying move, he knew; still, it put Fraser’s queen in danger, and might force the exchange of a rook.

Grey got up to put a brick of peat on the fire. Rising, he stretched himself, and strolled behind his opponent to view the situation from this angle.

The firelight shimmered as the big Scot leaned forward to study the board, picking up the deep red tones of James Fraser’s hair, echoing the glow of the light in the crystalline sherry.

Fraser had bound his hair back with a thin black cord, tied in a bow. It would take no more than a slight tug to loosen it. John Grey could imagine running his hand up under that thick, glossy mass, to touch the smooth, warm nape beneath. To touch…

His palm closed abruptly, imagining sensation.

“It is your move, Major.” The soft Scots voice brought him to himself again, and he took his seat, viewing the chessboard through sightless eyes.

Without really looking, he was intensely aware of the other’s movements, his presence. There was a disturbance of the air around Fraser; it was impossible not to look at him. To cover his glance, he picked up his sherry glass and sipped, barely noticing the liquid gold taste of it.

Fraser sat still as a statue of cinnabar, only the deep blue eyes alive in his face as he studied the board. The fire had burned down, and the lines of his body were limned with shadow. His hand, all gold and black with the light of the fire on it, rested on the table, still and exquisite as the captured pawn beside it.

The blue stone in John Grey’s ring glinted as he reached for his queen’s bishop. Is it wrong, Hector? he thought. That I should love a man who might have killed you? Or was it a way at last to put things right; to heal the wounds of Culloden for them both?

The bishop made a soft thump as he set the felted base down with precision. Without stopping, his hand rose, as though it moved without his volition. The hand traveled the short distance through the air, looking as though it knew precisely what it wanted, and set itself on Fraser’s, palm tingling, curved fingers gently imploring.

The hand under his was warm—so warm—but hard, and motionless as marble. Nothing moved on the table but the shimmer of the flame in the heart of the sherry. He lifted his eyes then, to meet Fraser’s.

“Take your hand off me,” Fraser said, very, very softly. “Or I will kill you.”

The hand under Grey’s did not move, nor did the face above, but he could feel the shiver of revulsion, a spasm of hatred and disgust that rose from the man’s core, radiating through his flesh.

Quite suddenly, he heard once more the memory of Quarry’s warning, as clearly as though the man spoke in his ear this moment.

If you dine with him alone—don’t turn your back on him.

There was no chance of that; he could not turn away. Could not even look away or blink, to break the dark blue gaze that held him frozen. Moving as slowly as though he stood atop an unexploded mine, he drew back his hand.

There was a moment’s silence, broken only by the rain’s patter and the hissing of the peat fire, when neither of them seemed to breathe. Then Fraser rose without a sound, and left the room.

12

SACRIFICE

The rain of late November pattered down on the stones of the courtyard, and on the sullen rows of men, standing huddled under the downpour. The Redcoats who stood on guard over them didn’t look much happier than the sodden prisoners.

Major Grey stood under the overhang of the roof, waiting. It wasn’t the best weather for conducting a search and cleaning of the prisoners’ cells, but at this time of year, it was futile to wait for good weather. And with more than two hundred prisoners in Ardsmuir, it was necessary to swab the cells at least monthly in order to prevent major outbreaks of illness.

The doors to the main cell block swung back, and a small file of prisoners emerged; the trustys who did the actual cleaning, closely watched by the guards. At the end of the line, Corporal Dunstable came out, his hands full of the small bits of contraband a search of this sort usually turned up.

“The usual rubbish, sir,” he reported, dumping the collection of pitiful relics and anonymous junk onto the top of a cask that stood near the Major’s elbow. “Just this, you might take notice of.”

“This” was a small strip of cloth, perhaps six inches by four, in a green tartan check. Dunstable glanced quickly at the lines of standing prisoners, as if intending to catch someone in a telltale action.

Grey sighed, then straightened his shoulders. “Yes, I suppose so.” The possession of any Scottish tartan was strictly forbidden by the Diskilting Act that had likewise disarmed the Highlanders and prevented the wearing of their native dress. He stepped in front of the rows of men, as Corporal Dunstable gave a sharp shout to attract their attention.

“Whose is this?” The corporal raised the scrap high, and raised his voice as well. Grey glanced from the scrap of bright cloth to the row of prisoners, mentally ticking off the names, trying to match them to his imperfect knowledge of tartans. Even within a single clan, the patterns varied so wildly that a given pattern couldn’t be assigned with any certainty, but there were general patterns of color and design.

MacAlester, Hayes, Innes, Graham, MacMurtry, MacKenzie, MacDonald…stop. MacKenzie. That one. It was more an officer’s knowledge of men than any identification of the plaid with a particular clan that made him sure. MacKenzie was a young prisoner, and his face was a shade too controlled, too expressionless.

“It’s yours, MacKenzie. Isn’t it?” Grey demanded. He snatched the scrap of cloth from the corporal and thrust it under the young man’s nose. The prisoner was white-faced under the blotches of dirt. His jaw was clamped hard, and he was breathing hard through his nose with a faint whistling sound.

Grey fixed the young man with a hard, triumphant stare. The young Scot had that core of implacable hate that they all had, but he hadn’t managed to build the wall of stoic indifference that held it in. Grey could feel the fear building in the lad; another second and he would break.

“It’s mine.” The voice was calm, almost bored, and spoke with such flat indifference that neither MacKenzie nor Grey registered it at once. They stood locked in each other’s eyes, until a large hand reached over Angus MacKenzie’s shoulder and gently plucked the scrap of cloth from the officer’s hand.

John Grey stepped back, feeling the words like a blow in the pit of his stomach. MacKenzie forgotten, he lifted his eyes the several inches necessary to look Jamie Fraser in the face.

“It isn’t a Fraser tartan,” he said, feeling the words force their way past wooden lips. His whole face felt numb, a fact for which he was dimly grateful; at least his expression couldn’t betray him before the ranks of the watching prisoners.

Fraser’s mouth widened slightly. Grey kept his gaze fastened on it, afraid to meet the dark blue eyes above.

“No, it isn’t,” Fraser agreed. “It’s MacKenzie. My mother’s clan.”

In some far-off corner of his mind, Grey stored away another tiny scrap of information with the small hoard of facts kept in the jeweled coffer labeled “Jamie”—his mother was a MacKenzie. He knew that was true, just as he knew that the tartan didn’t belong to Fraser.

He heard his voice, cool and steady, saying “Possession of clan tartans is illegal. You know the penalty, of course?”

The wide mouth curled in a one-sided smile.

“I do.”

There was a shifting and a muttering among the ranks of the prisoners; there was little actual movement, but Grey could feel the alignment changing, as though they were in fact drawing toward Fraser, circling him, embracing him. The circle had broken and re-formed, and he was alone outside it. Jamie Fraser had gone back to his own.

With an effort of will, Grey forced his gaze away from the soft, smooth lips, slightly chapped from exposure to sun and wind. The look in the eyes above them was what he had been afraid of; neither fear nor anger—but indifference.

He motioned to a guard.

“Take him.”

Major John William Grey bent his head over the work on his desk, signing requisitions without reading them. He seldom worked so late at night, but there had not been time during the day, and the paperwork was piling up. The requisitions must be sent to London this week.

“Two hundred pound wheat flowr,” he wrote, trying to concentrate on the neatness of the black squiggles under his quill. The trouble with such routine paperwork was that it occupied his attention but not his mind, allowing memories of the day to creep in unawares.

“Six hogsheds ale, for use of barracks.” He set down the quill and rubbed his hands briskly together. He could still feel the chill that had settled in his bones in the courtyard that morning. There was a hot fire, but it didn’t seem to be helping. He didn’t go nearer; he had tried that once, and stood mesmerized, seeing the images of the afternoon in the flames, roused only when the cloth of his breeches began to scorch.

He picked up the quill and tried again to banish the sights of the courtyard from his mind.

It was better not to delay execution of sentences of this kind; the prisoners became restless and nervy in anticipation and there was considerable difficulty in controlling them. Executed at once, though, such discipline often had a salutary effect, showing the prisoners that retribution would be swift and dire, enhancing their respect for those who held their guardianship. Somehow John Grey suspected that this particular occasion had not much enhanced his prisoners’ respect—for him, at least.

Feeling little more than the trickle of ice water through his veins, he had given his orders, swift and composed, and they had been obeyed with equal competence.

The prisoners had been drawn up in ranks around the four sides of the courtyard square, with shorter lines of guards arranged facing them, bayonets fixed to the ready, to prevent any unseemly outbreak.

But there had been no outbreak, seemly or otherwise. The prisoners had waited in a chill silence in the light rain that misted the stones of the courtyard, with little sound other than the normal coughs and throat-clearings of any assemblage of men. It was the beginning of winter, and catarrh was almost as common a scourge in the barracks as it was in the damp cells.

He had stood watching impassively, hands folded behind his back, as the prisoner was led to the platform. Watched, feeling the rain seep into the shoulders of his coat and run in tiny rivulets down the neck of his shirt, as Jamie Fraser stood on the platform a yard away and stripped to the waist, moving without haste or hesitation, as though this were something he had done before, an accustomed task, of no importance in itself.

He had nodded to the two privates, who seized the prisoner’s unresisting hands and raised them, binding them to the arms of the whipping post. They gagged him, and Fraser stood upright, the rain running down his raised arms, and down the deep seam of his backbone, to soak the thin cloth of his breeches.

Another nod, to the sergeant who held the charge sheet, and a small surge of annoyance as the gesture caused a cascade of collected rain from one side of his hat. He straightened his hat and sodden wig, and resumed his stance of authority in time to hear the charge and sentence read.

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