“I dinna think that’s how Quakers work,” Ian said, a little ruefully. “And good luck to them if they do. I think the power o’ prayer must have limits.”
That made his uncle snort with amusement, but Jamie shook his head. “Never think it, laddie,” he advised. “If wee Rachel sets her mind to it, she’ll have your sword beaten into a plowshare before ye can say Peter Piper picked a peck o’ pickled peppers. Well, twice,” he added. “Or maybe three times.”
Ian made a dissentient noise through his nose. “Aye, and if I were to try bein’ a Friend, who would there be to protect the lot of ’em? Rachel and her brother and Dottie, I mean. Ye ken that, don’t ye? That they can only be what they are because you and I are what we are?”
Jamie leaned back a little, purse-lipped, then gave him the ghost of a wry smile.
“I ken that fine. And so does Denzell Hunter; it’s why he’s here, though it’s cost him his home and his meeting. But, mind, they’re worth protecting—beyond you bein’ in love wi’ Rachel, I mean.”
“Mmphm.” Ian wasn’t in the mood to discuss philosophy, and he doubted his uncle was, either. The light was in that long hour before darkfall, when the things of the forest pause and draw breath, slowing for the night. It was a good time to hunt, because the trees slowed first, so you saw the animals still moving among them.
Uncle Jamie kent that. He sat, relaxed, nothing moving save his eyes. Ian saw his gaze flick up and turned his own head to see. Sure enough, a squirrel clung to the trunk of a sycamore, ten feet away. He’d not have seen it, had he not caught the last flick of its tail as it stilled there. He met Jamie’s eyes, and they both smiled and sat silent for a while, listening to the racket of the camp, even this beginning to mute itself.
Denzell and Dottie hadn’t come back; perhaps the birth was more complicated than Denny had thought. Rachel would be going to Jamie’s tent soon, for the meeting.
He wondered about that. You needed a meeting, to counsel the two of you, then to approve and witness the marriage. Might Denny have it in his mind to establish a new Friends meeting, within which he could marry Dottie—and Rachel might wed Ian?
Jamie sighed and stirred, getting ready to rise.
“Ahh . . . Uncle,” Ian said, in a casual tone that made his uncle instantly focus attention on him.
“What?” said his uncle warily. “Ye havena got your lass wi’ child, have ye?”
“I have not,” Ian said, offended—and wondering vaguely how his uncle had known he was thinking of Rachel. “And why would ye think a thing like that, ye evil-minded auld mumper?”
“Because I ken well enough what ‘Ahh . . . Uncle’ usually means,” Jamie informed him cynically. “It means ye’ve got yourself into some confusion involving a lass and want advice. And I canna think what ye could be confused about wi’ regard to wee Rachel. A more straightforward lass I’ve never met—bar your auntie Claire, that is,” he added, with a brief grin.
“Mmphm,” Ian said, not best pleased by his uncle’s acuity, but obliged to admit the truth of it. “Well, then. It’s only . . .” Despite the completely benign intent—the innocence, even—of the question that had come into his mind, he felt his face go hot.
Jamie raised his brows.
“Well, if ye must know, then—I’ve never lain wi’ a virgin.” Once he’d got it out, he relaxed a little, though his uncle’s brows nearly met his hairline. “And, aye, I’m sure Rachel is one,” he added defensively.
“I’m sure, too,” his uncle assured him. “Most men wouldna consider it a problem.”
Ian gave him a look. “Ye ken what I mean. I want her to like it.”
“Verra commendable. Have ye had complaints from women before?”
“Ye’re in a rare mood, Uncle,” Ian said coldly. “Ye ken verra well what I mean.”
“Aye, ye mean if ye’re paying a woman to bed ye, ye’re no likely to hear anything ye dinna like regarding your own performance.” Jamie rocked back a little, eyeing him. “Did ye tell Rachel ye’re in the habit of consorting wi’ whores?”
Ian felt the blood rush to his ears and was obliged to breathe evenly for a moment before replying.
“I told her everything,” he said between clenched teeth. “And I wouldna call it a ‘habit.’” He did know better than to go on with, “It’s no more than other men do,” because he kent fine what sort of answer he’d get to that.
Fortunately, Jamie seemed to have reined in his jocularity for the moment and was considering the question.
“Your Mohawk wife,” he said delicately. “She, er . . .”
“No,” Ian said. “The Indians see bedding a bit differently.” And, seizing the opportunity to get a bit of his own back, added, “D’ye not recall the time we went to visit the Snowbird Cherokee and Bird sent a couple of maidens to warm your bed?”
Jamie gave him an old-fashioned sort of look that made him laugh.
“Tell me, Ian,” he said, after a pause, “would ye be having this conversation with your da?”
“I’m flattered,” Jamie said dryly.
“Well, see . . .” Ian had answered by reflex and found himself fumbling for an explanation. “It—I mean . . . it’s no that I wouldna talk to Da about things, but if he’d told me anything about . . . it would ha’ been to do with him and Mam, wouldn’t it? And I couldna . . . well, I couldn’t, that’s all.”
Ian narrowed his eyes at his uncle.
“Ye’re no going to try and tell me that my mother—”
“Who’s my sister, aye? No, I wouldna tell ye anything like that. I see your point. I’m only thinkin’ . . .” He trailed off and Ian gave him a pointed look. The light was fading, but there was still plenty. Jamie shrugged.
“Aye, well. It’s only—your auntie Claire was widowed when I wed her, aye?”
“So it was me that was virgin on our wedding night.”
Ian hadn’t thought he’d moved, but Rollo jerked his head up and looked at him, startled. Ian cleared his throat.
“Aye,” said his uncle, wry as a lemon. “And I was given any amount of advice beforehand, too, by my uncle Dougal and his men.”
Dougal MacKenzie had died before Ian was born, but he’d heard a good bit about the man, one way and another. His mouth twitched.
“Would ye care to pass on any of it?”
“God, no.” Jamie stood up and brushed bits of bark from the tails of his coat. “I think ye already ken ye should be gentle about it, aye?”
“Aye, I’d thought of that,” Ian assured him. “Nothing else?”
“Aye, well.” Jamie stood still, considering. “The only useful thing was what my wife told me on the night. ‘Go slowly and pay attention.’ I think ye canna go far wrong wi’ that.” He settled his coat on his shoulders. “Oidhche mhath, Ian. I’ll see ye at first light—if not somewhat before.”
“Oidhche mhath, Uncle Jamie.”
As Jamie reached the edge of the clearing, Ian called after him.
Jamie turned to look over his shoulder.
“And was she gentle with ye?”
“God, no,” Jamie said, and grinned broadly.
THE SUN WAS LOW in the sky by the time William reached Clinton’s camp, and lower still before he’d turned Goth over to Sutherland’s grooms. Zeb was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he was with Colenso.
He delivered his cartouche of dispatches to Captain von Munchausen, saw the company clerk, and found the tent he shared with two other young captains, both of the 27th Foot. Randolph Merbling was sitting outside, reading by the last of the sun, but there was no sign of Thomas Evans—nor of Colenso Baragwanath. Nor of Zebedee Jeffers. Nor of William’s baggage.
He breathed for a moment, then shook himself like a dog shedding water. He was so tired of being angry that he just couldn’t be arsed anymore. He shrugged, borrowed a towel from Merbling, washed his face, and went to find a bite to eat.
He’d made up his mind not to think about anything whatever until he’d had some food and largely succeeded, letting roast chicken, bread, cheese, and beer fill at least some of his empty spaces. As he finished, though, a sudden sharp image punctured his pleasant digestive reverie. A flushed, pretty face, with wary eyes the exact color of the cider he was drinking.
Jane. Bloody hell! What with one thing and another, he’d quite forgotten the whore and her sister. He’d told them to meet him at the surgeon’s tent at sundown. . . . Well, the sun wasn’t down yet. He was on his feet and on his way, but then had a second thought and, going back to the cook, wangled a couple of loaves and some cheese, just in case.
Castrametation was the science of laying out a proper military camp. Drainage, sanitary trenches, where to put the powder depot to avoid flooding if it rained . . . He’d had a brief course in it once. He’d likely never need to do it himself, but it did help in locating things, if you knew where they were supposed to be. And when in camp, the hospital was meant to be on the opposite side from command headquarters, close to water but on a height, if one was available.
One was, and he found the large green-canvas tent without difficulty. Could have found it with his eyes closed. Surgeons carried the smell of their work around with them, and the whiff of dried blood and the uneasy tang of sickness and recent death were perceptible at a hundred yards. It was worse—much worse—after a battle, but there was always illness and accident, and the stink lingered even on peaceful days, aggravated now by the muggy heat that lay like a wet blanket over the camp.
There were men, and not a few women, clustered round the tent, waiting for attention. He gave them a quick glance, but didn’t see Jane. His heart had sped up a little at thought of seeing her, and he felt unaccountably disappointed. No reason why, he told himself. She and her sister would be nothing but trouble to him. They must have grown tired waiting, and—
“You’re very late, my lord,” said an accusatory voice at his elbow, and he whirled round to see her looking down her nose at him—as well as someone who was shorter than he could do, which wasn’t very well. He found himself smiling down at her, absurdly.
“I said sundown,” he replied mildly, nodding toward the west, where a thin slice of brilliance still glowed through the trees. “Not down yet, is it?”
“The sun takes a bloody long time to go down out here.” She switched her disapproval to the orb in question. “It’s much faster in the city.”
Before he could argue with this ridiculous assertion, she’d glanced back at him, frowning.
“Why aren’t you wearing your gorget?” she demanded, hands on her hips. “I went to a deal of trouble to get it back for you!”
“I’m exceedingly grateful to you, ma’am,” he said, striving for gravity. “I thought it might provoke inquiries, though, should I turn up suddenly in the midst of camp wearing it, and I thought you and your sister might just possibly wish to avoid . . . tedious explanations?”
She sniffed, but not without amusement.
“How thoughtful. Not quite so thoughtful of your servants, though, are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come with me.” She linked her arm with his and towed him off toward the wood before he could protest. She led him to a small lean-to shelter in the undergrowth, which seemed to have been constructed of an unstuffed army bed sack and two petticoats. Bending down at her invitation, he discovered her sister, Fanny, within, sitting next to a bed sack that had been stuffed with fresh grass, upon which crouched both Colenso and Zeb, both looking bewildered. On sight of him, they crouched further.
“What the devil are you doing here?” he demanded. “And where is my dunnage, Zeb?”
“Back there, sir,” Zeb quavered, jerking a thumb toward the growth behind the lean-to. “I couldn’t find your tent and I didn’t want to leave it, see.”
“But I told you—and what about you, Baragwanath? Are you still ill?” William demanded, kneeling down suddenly and thrusting his head into the shelter. Colenso looked bad, pale as a cup of soured milk, and plainly in pain, curled up into himself.
“Oh . . . ’tisn’t nothin’, sir,” he said, swallowing heavily. “Just must have . . . ate . . . something.”
“Did you see the surgeon?”
Colenso turned his face into the bed sack, shoulders hunched. Zeb was edging away, apparently thinking of making a run for it.
William grabbed him by the arm; the little groom yelped and he let go. “What’s wrong? Did you not have that arm seen to?”
“They’re afraid of the surgeons,” Jane said sharply.
William drew himself up to his full height and glared down at her.
“Oh? Who told them they should be afraid of the surgeons? And how do they come to be in your care, may I ask?”
Her lips pressed tight together, and she glanced involuntarily into the shelter. Fanny was looking out at them, doe eyes huge in the fading light. She swallowed and put a protective hand on Colenso’s shoulder. Jane sighed deeply and took William’s arm again.
“Come with me.”
She led him away a short distance, still within sight of the little shelter but out of earshot.
“Fanny and I were waiting for you when those boys came along together. The bigger one—what did you say his name is?”
“Colenso Baragwanath. He’s Cornish,” William added shortly, seeing a look of amusement flit across her face.