Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 35

   

“The gold,” he said flatly. “That’s it, aye?” So long as there remained the slightest chance of his revealing what he knew about that half-mythical hoard, the English Crown would take no chance of having him lost to the sea demons or the savages of the Colonies.

The Major still would not look at him, but gave a small shrug, as good as assent.

“Where am I to go, then?” His own voice had sounded rusty to his ears, slightly hoarse as he began to recover from the shock of the news.

Grey had busied himself putting away his records. It was early September, and a warm breeze blew through the half-open window, fluttering the papers.

“It’s called Helwater. In the Lake District of England. You will be quartered with Lord Dunsany, to serve in whatever menial capacity he may require.” Grey did look up then, the expression in his light blue eyes unreadable. “I shall visit you there once each quarter—to ensure your welfare.”

He eyed the Major’s red-coated back now, as they rode single-file through the narrow lanes, seeking refuge from his miseries in a satisfying vision of those wide blue eyes, bloodshot and popping in amazement as Jamie’s hands tightened on that slender throat, thumbs digging into the sun-reddened flesh until the Major’s small, muscular body should go limp as a killed rabbit in his grasp.

His Majesty’s pleasure, was it? He was not deceived. This had been Grey’s doing; the gold only an excuse. He was to be sold as a servant, and kept in a place where Grey could see it, and gloat. This was the Major’s revenge.

He had lain before the inn hearth each night, aching in every limb, acutely aware of every twitch and rustle and breath of the man in the bed behind him, and deeply resentful of that awareness. By the pale gray of dawn, he was keyed to fury once more, longing for the man to rise from his bed and make some disgraceful gesture toward him, so that he might release his fury in the passion of murder. But Grey had only snored.

Over Helvellyn Bridge and past another of the strange grassy tarns, the red and yellow leaves of maple and larch whirling down in showers past the lightly sweated quarters of his horse, striking his face and sliding past him with a papery, whispering caress.

Grey had stopped just ahead, and turned in the saddle, waiting. They had arrived, then. The land sloped steeply down into a valley, where the manor house lay half-concealed in a welter of autumn-bright trees.

Helwater lay before him, and with it, the prospect of a life of shameful servitude. He stiffened his back and kicked his horse, harder than he intended.

Grey was received in the main drawing room, Lord Dunsany being cordially dismissive of his disheveled clothes and filthy boots, and Lady Dunsany, a small round woman with faded fair hair, fulsomely hospitable.

“A drink, Johnny, you must have a drink! And Louisa, my dear, perhaps you should fetch the girls down to greet our guest.”

As Lady Dunsany turned to give orders to a footman, his Lordship leaned close over the glass to murmur to him. “The Scottish prisoner—you’ve brought him with you?”

“Yes,” Grey said. Lady Dunsany, now in animated conversation with the butler about the altered dispositions for dinner, was unlikely to overhear, but he thought it best to keep his own voice low. “I left him in the front hall—I wasn’t sure quite what you meant to do with him.”

“You said the fellow’s good with horses, eh? Best make him a groom then, as you suggested.” Lord Dunsany glanced at his wife, and carefully turned so that his lean back was to her, further guarding their conversation. “I haven’t told Louisa who he is,” the baronet muttered. “All that scare about the Highlanders during the Rising—country was quite paralyzed with fear, you know? And she’s never got over Gordon’s death.”

“I quite see.” Grey patted the old man’s arm reassuringly. He didn’t think Dunsany himself had got over the death of his son, though he had rallied himself gamely for the sake of his wife and daughters.

“I’ll just tell her the man’s a servant you’ve recommended to me. Er…he’s safe, of course? I mean…well, the girls…” Lord Dunsany cast an uneasy eye toward his wife.

“Quite safe,” Grey assured his host. “He’s an honorable man, and he’s given his parole. He’ll neither enter the house, nor leave the boundaries of your property, save with your express permission.” Helwater covered more than six hundred acres, he knew. It was a long way from freedom, and from Scotland as well, but perhaps something better either than the narrow stones of Ardsmuir or the distant hardships of the Colonies.

A sound from the doorway swung Dunsany around, restored to beaming joviality by the appearance of his two daughters.

“You’ll remember Geneva, Johnny?” he asked, urging his guest forward. “Isobel was still in the nursery last time you came—how time does fly, does it not?” And he shook his head in mild dismay.

Isobel was fourteen, small and round and bubbly and blond, like her mother. Grey didn’t, in fact, remember Geneva—or rather he did, but the scrawny schoolgirl of years past bore little resemblance to the graceful seventeen-year-old who now offered him her hand. If Isobel resembled their mother, Geneva rather took after her father, at least in the matter of height and leanness. Lord Dunsany’s grizzled hair might once have been that shining chestnut, and the girl had Dunsany’s clear gray eyes.

The girls greeted the visitor with politeness, but were clearly more interested in something else.

“Daddy,” said Isobel, tugging on her father’s sleeve. “There’s a huge man in the hall! He watched us all the time we were coming down the stairs! He’s scary-looking!”

“Who is he, Daddy?” Geneva asked. She was more reserved than her sister, but clearly also interested.

“Er…why, that must be the new groom John’s brought us,” Lord Dunsany said, obviously flustered. “I’ll have one of the footmen take him—” The baronet was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a footman in the doorway.

“Sir,” he said, looking shocked at the news he bore, “there is a Scotchman in the hall!” Lest this outrageous statement not be believed, he turned and gestured widely at the tall, silent figure standing cloaked behind him.

At this cue, the stranger took a step forward, and spotting Lord Dunsany, politely inclined his head.

“My name is Alex MacKenzie,” he said, in a soft Highland accent. He bowed toward Lord Dunsany, with no hint of mockery in his manner. “Your servant, my lord.”

For one accustomed to the strenuous life of a Highland farm or a labor prison, the work of a groom on a Lake District stud farm was no great strain. For a man who had been mewed up in a cell for two months—since the others had left for the Colonies—it was the hell of a sweat. For the first week, while his muscles reaccustomed themselves to the sudden demands of constant movement, Jamie Fraser fell into his hayloft pallet each evening too tired even to dream.

He had arrived at Helwater in such a state of exhaustion and mental turmoil that he had at first seen it only as another prison—and one among strangers, far away from the Highlands. Now that he was ensconced here, imprisoned as securely by his word as by bars, he found both body and mind growing easier, as the days passed by. His body toughened, his feelings calmed in the quiet company of horses, and gradually he found it possible to think rationally again.

If he had no true freedom, he did at least have air, and light, space to stretch his limbs, and the sight of mountains and the lovely horses that Dunsany bred. The other grooms and servants were understandably suspicious of him, but inclined to leave him alone, out of respect for his size and forbidding countenance. It was a lonely life—but he had long since accepted the fact that for him, life was unlikely ever to be otherwise.

The soft snows came down upon Helwater, and even Major Grey’s official visit at Christmas—a tense, awkward occasion—passed without disturbing his growing feelings of content.

Very quietly, he made such arrangements as could be managed, to communicate with Jenny and Ian in the Highlands. Aside from the infrequent letters that reached him by indirect means, which he read and then destroyed for safety’s sake, his only reminder of home was the beechwood rosary he wore about his neck, concealed beneath his shirt.

A dozen times a day he touched the small cross that lay over his heart, conjuring each time the face of a loved one, with a brief word of prayer—for his sister, Jenny; for Ian and the children—his namesake, Young Jamie, Maggie, and Katherine Mary, for the twins Michael and Janet, and for Baby Ian. For the tenants of Lallybroch, the men of Ardsmuir. And always, the first prayer at morning, the last at night—and many between—for Claire. Lord, that she may be safe. She and the child.

As the snow passed and the year brightened into spring, Jamie Fraser was aware of only one fly in the ointment of his daily existence—the presence of the Lady Geneva Dunsany.

Pretty, spoilt, and autocratic, the Lady Geneva was accustomed to get what she wanted when she wanted it, and damn the convenience of anyone standing in her way. She was a good horsewoman—Jamie would give her that—but so sharp-tongued and whim-ridden that the grooms were given to drawing straws to determine who would have the misfortune of accompanying her on her daily ride.

Of late, though, the Lady Geneva had been making her own choice of companion—Alex MacKenzie.

“Nonsense,” she said, when he pleaded first discretion, and then temporary indisposition, to avoid accompanying her into the secluded mist of the foothills above Helwater; a place she was forbidden to ride, because of the treacherous footing and dangerous fogs. “Don’t be silly. Nobody’s going to see us. Come on!” And kicking her mare brutally in the ribs, was off before he could stop her, laughing back over her shoulder at him.

Her infatuation with him was sufficiently obvious as to make the other grooms grin sidelong and make low-voiced remarks to each other when she entered the stable. He had a strong urge, when in her company, to boot her swiftly where it would do most good, but so far had settled for maintaining a strict silence when in her company, replying to all overtures with a mumpish grunt.

He trusted that she would get tired of this taciturn treatment sooner or later, and transfer her annoying attentions to another of the grooms. Or—pray God—she would soon be married, and well away from both Helwater and him.

It was a rare sunny day for the Lake Country, where the difference between the clouds and the ground is often imperceptible, in terms of damp. Still, on this May afternoon it was warm, warm enough for Jamie to have found it comfortable to remove his shirt. It was safe enough up here in the high field, with no likelihood of company beyond Bess and Blossom, the two stolid drayhorses pulling the roller.

It was a big field, and the horses old and well-trained to the task, which they liked; all he need do was twitch the reins occasionally, to keep their noses heading straight. The roller was made of wood, rather than the older kind of stone or metal, and constructed with a narrow slit between each board, so that the interior could be filled with well-rotted manure, which dribbled out in a steady stream as the roller turned, lightening the heavy contrivance as it drained.

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