“…in contravention of the Diskilting Act, passed by His Majesty’s Parliament, for which crime the sentence of sixty lashes shall be inflicted.”
Grey glanced with professional detachment at the sergeant-farrier designated to give the punishment; this was not the first time for any of them. He didn’t nod this time; the rain was still falling. A half-closing of the eyes instead, as he spoke the usual words:
“Mr. Fraser, you will take your punishment.”
And he stood, eyes front and steady, watching, and hearing the thud of the landing flails and the grunt of the prisoner’s breath, forced past the gag by the blow.
The man’s muscles tightened in resistance to the pain. Again and again, until each separate muscle stood hard under the skin. His own muscles ached with tension, and he shifted inconspicuously from one leg to another, as the brutal tedium continued. Thin streams of red ran down the prisoner’s spine, blood mixed with water, staining the cloth of his breeches.
Grey could feel the men behind him, soldiers and prisoners both, all eyes fixed on the platform and its central figure. Even the coughing was silenced.
And over it all like a sticky coat of varnish sealing off Grey’s feelings was a thin layer of self-disgust, as he realized that his eyes were fixed on the scene not out of duty, but from sheer inability to look away from the sheen of mingled rain and blood that gleamed on muscle, tightened in anguish to a curve of wrenching beauty.
The sergeant-farrier paused only briefly between blows. He was hurrying it slightly; everyone wanted to get it over and get out of the rain. Grissom counted each stroke in a loud voice, noting it on his sheet as he did so. The farrier checked the lash, running the strands with their hard-waxed knots between his fingers to free them of blood and bits of flesh, then raised the cat once more, swung it slowly twice round his head, and struck again. “Thirty!” said the sergeant.
Major Grey pulled out the lowest drawer of his desk, and was neatly sick, all over a stack of requisitions.
His fingers were dug hard into his palms, but the shaking wouldn’t stop. It was deep in his bones, like the winter cold.
“Put a blanket over him; I’ll tend him in a moment.”
The English surgeon’s voice seemed to come from a long way off; he felt no connection between the voice and the hands that gripped him firmly by both arms. He cried out as they shifted him, the torsion splitting the barely clotted wounds on his back. The trickle of warm blood across his ribs made the shaking worse, despite the rough blanket they laid over his shoulders.
He gripped the edges of the bench on which he lay, cheek pressed against the wood, eyes closed, struggling against the shaking. There was a stir and a shuffle somewhere in the room, but he couldn’t take notice, couldn’t take his attention from the clenching of his teeth and the tightness of his joints.
The door closed, and the room grew quiet. Had they left him alone?
No, there were footsteps near his head, and the blanket over him lifted, folded back to his waist.
“Mm. Made a mess of you, didn’t he, boy?”
He didn’t answer; no answer seemed expected, in any case. The surgeon turned away for a moment; then he felt a hand beneath his cheek, lifting his head. A towel slid beneath his face, cushioning it from the rough wood.
“I’m going to cleanse the wounds now,” the voice said. It was impersonal, but not unfriendly.
He drew in his breath through his teeth as a hand touched his back. There was an odd whimpering noise. He realized he had made it, and was ashamed.
“How old are you, boy?”
“Nineteen.” He barely got the word out, before biting down hard on a moan.
The doctor touched his back gently here and there, then stood up. He heard the sound of the bolt being shot to, then the doctor’s steps returning.
“No one will come in now,” the voice said kindly. “Go ahead and cry.”
“Hey!” the voice was saying. “Wake up, man!”
He came slowly to consciousness; the roughness of wood beneath his cheek brought dream and waking together for a moment, and he couldn’t remember where he was. A hand came out of the darkness, touching him tentatively on the cheek.
“Ye were greetin’ in your sleep, man,” the voice whispered. “Does it pain ye much?”
“A bit.” He realized the other link between dreaming and waking as he tried to raise himself and the pain crackled over his back like sheet lightning. He let out his breath in an involuntary grunt and dropped back on the bench.
He had been lucky; he had drawn Dawes, a stout, middle-aged soldier who didn’t really like flogging prisoners, and did it only because it was part of his job. Still, sixty lashes did damage, even if applied without enthusiasm.
“Nah, then, that’s too hot by half. Want to scald him, do ye?” It was Morrison’s voice, scolding. It would be Morrison, of course.
Odd, he thought dimly. How whenever you had a group of men, they seemed to find their proper jobs, no matter whether it was a thing they’d done before. Morrison had been a cottar, like most of them. Likely a good hand with his beasts, but not thinking much about it. Now he was the natural healer for the men, the one they turned to with a griping belly or a broken thumb. Morrison knew little more than the rest, but the men turned to him when they were hurt, as they turned to Seumus Mac Dubh for reassurance and direction. And for justice.
The steaming cloth was laid across his back and he grunted with the sting of it, pressing his lips tight to keep from crying out. He could feel the shape of Morrison’s small hand, lightly laid in the center of his back.
“Bide ye, man,’til the heat passes.”
As the nightmare faded, he blinked for a moment, adjusting himself to the nearby voices and the perception of company. He was in the large cell, in the shadowy nook by the chimney breast. Steam rose from the fire; there must be a cauldron boiling. He saw Walter MacLeod lower a fresh armful of rags into its depths, the fire touching MacLeod’s dark beard and brows with red. Then, as the heated rags on his back cooled to a soothing warmth, he closed his eyes and sank back into a half-doze, lulled by the soft conversation of the men nearby.
It was familiar, this state of dreamy detachment. He had felt much the same ever since the moment when he had reached over young Angus’s shoulder and closed his fist on the scrap of tartan cloth. As though with that choice, some curtain had come down between him and the men around him; as though he were alone, in some quiet place of infinite remoteness.
He had followed the guard who took him, stripped himself when told, but all without feeling as though he had truly waked. Taken his place on the platform and heard the words of crime and sentence pronounced, without really listening. Not even the rough bite of the rope on his wrists or the cold rain on his naked back had roused him. These seemed all things that had happened before; nothing he said or did could change a thing; it was all fated.
As for the flogging, he had borne it. There was no room then for thought or regret, or for anything beyond the stubborn, desperate struggle such bodily insult required.
“Still, now, still.” Morrison’s hand rested on his neck, to prevent his moving as the sodden rags were taken off and a fresh, hot poultice applied, momentarily rousing all the dormant nerves to fresh startlement.
One consequence of his odd state of mind was that all sensations seemed of equal intensity. He could, if he tried, feel each separate stripe across his back, see each one in his mind’s eye as a vivid streak of color across the dark of imagination. But the pain of the gash that ran from ribs to shoulder was of no more weight or consequence than the almost pleasant feeling of heaviness in his legs, the soreness in his arms, or the soft tickling brush of his hair across his cheek.
His pulse beat slow and regular in his ears; the sigh of his breath was a thing apart from the heave of his chest as he breathed. He existed only as a collection of fragments, each small piece with its own sensations, and none of them of any particular concern to the central intelligence.
“Here, Mac Dubh,” said Morrison’s voice, next to his ear. “Lift your head, and drink this.”
The sharp scent of whisky struck him, and he tried to turn his head away.
“I don’t need it,” he said.
“That ye do,” Morrison said, with that firm matter-of-factness that all healers seemed to have, as though they always knew better than you did what you felt like or what you required. Lacking strength or will to argue, he opened his mouth and sipped the whisky, feeling his neck muscles quiver under the strain of holding his head up.
The whisky added its own bit to the chorus of sensations that filled him. A burn in throat and belly, sharp tingle up the back of the nose, and a sort of whirling in his head that told him he had drunk too much, too fast.
“A bit more, now, aye, that’s it,” Morrison said, coaxing. “Good lad. Aye, that’ll be better, won’t it?” Morrison’s thick body moved, so his vision of the darkened room was obscured. A draft blew from the high window, but there seemed more stir about him than was accounted for by the wind.
“Now, how’s the back? Ye’ll be stiff as a cornstook by the morrow, but I think it’s maybe no so bad as it might be. Here, man, ye’ll have a sup more.” The rim of the horn cup pressed insistently against his mouth.
Morrison was still talking, rather loudly, of nothing in particular. There was something wrong about that. Morrison was not a talkative man. Something was happening, but he couldn’t see. He lifted his head, searching for what was wrong, but Morrison pressed it down again.
“Dinna trouble yourself, Mac Dubh,” he said softly. “Ye canna stop it, anyway.”
Surreptitious sounds were coming from the far corner of the cell, the sounds Morrison had tried to keep him from hearing. Scraping noises, brief mutters, a thud. Then the muffled sound of blows, slow and regular, and a heavy gasping of fright and pain, punctuated with a small whimpering sound of indrawn breath.
They were beating young Angus MacKenzie. He braced his hands beneath his chest, but the effort made his back blaze and his head swim. Morrison’s hand was back, forcing him down.
“Be still, Mac Dubh,” he said. His tone was a mixture of authority and resignation.
A wave of dizziness washed through him, and his hands slipped off the bench. Morrison was right in any case, he realized. He couldn’t stop them.
He lay still then under Morrison’s hand, eyes closed, and waited for the sounds to stop. Despite himself, he wondered who it was, that administrator of blind justice in the dark. Sinclair. His mind supplied the answer without hesitation. And Hayes and Lindsay helping, no doubt.
They could no more help themselves than he could, or Morrison. Men did as they were born to. One man a healer, another a bully.
The sounds had stopped, except for a muffled, sobbing gasp. His shoulders relaxed, and he didn’t move as Morrison took away the last wet poultice and gently blotted him dry, the draft from the window making him shiver in sudden chill. He pressed his lips tight, to make no noise. They had gagged him this afternoon, and he was glad of it; the first time he had been flogged, years ago, he had bitten his lower lip nearly in two.