JOHN GREY EASED his battered feet into the pan, teeth gritted against the expected sensation, but to his surprise found that it caused him little pain, in spite of the torn skin and ruptured blisters.
“What—that’s not hot water, is it?” he asked, leaning forward to look.
“Sweet oil,” his brother said, his worn face relaxing a little. “And it had better be warm, not hot, or my orderly will be crucified at dawn.”
“I’m sure the man trembles in his boots. Thank you, by the way,” he added, gingerly dabbling. He was sitting on Hal’s cot, his brother perched on the campaign chest, pouring something out of a canteen into one of the scarred pewter cups that had accompanied him for decades.
“You’re welcome,” Hal said, handing him the cup. “What the devil happened to your eye? And is your arm broken? I’ve called for a surgeon, but it may be some time.” He waved a hand, encompassing the camp, the recent battle, and the stream of the returning wounded and sun-stricken.
“I don’t need one. At first I thought my arm was broken, but I’m fairly sure it’s just badly bruised. As for the eye . . . Jamie Fraser.”
“Really?” Hal looked surprised and bent forward to peer at Grey’s eye, now unwrapped from the bandages and—so far as Grey himself could tell—much improved. The constant watering had stopped, the swelling had gone down quite a bit, and he could, with caution, move it. From the look on Hal’s face, though, the redness and bruising had perhaps not quite disappeared.
“Well, first Jamie, and then his wife.” He touched the eye lightly. “He punched me, and then she did something excruciating to fix it and put honey in it.”
“Having been subject to the lady’s notions of medical treatment, I am not even faintly surprised to hear that.” Hal lifted his cup in brief salute; Grey did the same and they drank. It was cider, and a dim recollection of applejack and Colonel Watson Smith floated through Grey’s mind. Both seemed remote, as though they’d happened years ago rather than days.
“Mrs. Fraser doctored you?” Grey grinned at his brother. “What did she do to you?”
“Well . . . saved my life, to be perfectly frank.” It was hard to tell in the lantern light, but Grey thought his brother was blushing slightly.
“Oh. In that case, I’m doubly obliged to her.” He raised the cup again ceremoniously, then drained it. The cider went down gratefully after a hot day with no food. “How the hell did you fall into her clutches?” he asked curiously, extending the cup for more.
“I was looking for you,” Hal said pointedly. “If you’d been where you were supposed to be . . .”
“You think I’m supposed to be sitting somewhere waiting for you to turn up without warning and involve me in—do you know you nearly got me hanged? Besides, I was busy being kidnapped by James Fraser at the time.”
Hal raised one eyebrow and poured more cider. “Yes, you did say he’d punched you. What for?”
Grey rubbed two fingers between his brows. He hadn’t really noticed the headache before, only because he’d had it all day. Hal was definitely making it worse, though.
“I couldn’t begin to explain it, Hal,” he said tiredly. “Can you find me a bed? I think I’m going to die, and if by some unfortunate chance I don’t, I’ll have to speak to Willie tomorrow about . . . well, never mind.” He drank the last of the cider and set down the cup, preparing reluctantly to lift his feet from the soothing oil.
“I know about William,” Hal said.
Grey stopped abruptly, looking dubiously at his brother, who shrugged.
“I saw Fraser,” he said simply. “In Philadelphia. And when I said something to William this afternoon, he confirmed it.”
“Did he?” Grey murmured. He was surprised but somewhat heartened by that. If Willie had calmed down sufficiently as to talk to Hal about the matter, Grey’s own conversation with his son might be a trifle less fraught than he’d feared.
“How long have you known?” Hal asked curiously.
“For certain? Since Willie was two or three.” He suddenly gave an enormous yawn, then sat blinking stupidly. “Oh—meant to ask. How did the battle go?”
Hal looked at him with something between affront and amusement. “You were bloody in it, weren’t you?”
“My part of it didn’t go that well. But my perspective was somewhat limited by circumstance. That, and having only one working eye,” he added, gently prodding the bad one. A good night’s sleep . . . Longing for bed made him sway, narrowly catching himself before simply falling into Hal’s cot.
“Hard to tell.” Hal fished a crumpled towel out of a basket of laundry lurking disreputably in a corner and, kneeling down, lifted Grey’s feet out of the oil and blotted them gently. “Hell of a mess. Terrible ground, chopped up by creeks, either farmland or half covered in trees . . . Sir Henry got away with the baggage train and refugees all safe. But as for Washington . . .” He shrugged. “So far as I can tell from what I saw and heard, his troops acquitted themselves well. Remarkably well,” he added thoughtfully. He rose to his feet. “Lie down, John. I’ll find a bed somewhere else.”
Grey was much too tired to argue. He simply fell over and rolled onto his back, not bothering to undress. The bad eye felt gritty, and he wondered dimly whether to ask Hal to find some honey but decided that could wait ’til morning.
Hal took the lantern from its hook and turned toward the tent flap, but paused for an instant, turning back.
“Do you think Mrs. Fraser—by the way, tomorrow I want to know how on earth she came to marry you—do you think she knows about William and James Fraser?”
“Anyone with eyes who’d seen the two of them would know,” Grey murmured, eyes half closed. “She never mentioned it, though.”
Hal grunted. “Apparently everyone knew—save William. Little wonder he’s . . .”
“That’s one word for it.”
“I hadn’t found one yet.”
“Does it matter?” Grey’s eyes closed all the way. Through the drifting mists of sleep, he heard Hal’s quiet voice, by the tent flap.
“I’ve had word of Ben. They say he’s dead.”
LONG ROAD HOME
JAMIE SAT BY THE tiny window in his shirt and breeches, watching his wife’s hair dry.
It was hot as a forge in the tiny spare room Mrs. Macken had given them, and his sweat lay on him in a heavy dew that broke under its own weight and ran down his sides with any movement, but he was careful not to block any faint breath of air that might seep into the room; the air reeked of Roquefort cheese and blood.
He’d soaked her hair with water from the ewer Mrs. Macken had brought and wetted her shift; it clung to her body, the round of her buttock showing pink through the fabric as it dried. It showed the thick wad of the dressing, too, and the bloody stain that spread slow upon the cloth.
Slow. His lips formed the word and he thought it passionately but didn’t speak aloud. Slow! Stopping altogether would be much better, but he’d settle for slow just now.
Eight pints. That’s how much blood she said a human body had. It must vary some, though; clearly a man his size had more than a woman of hers. Single hairs were beginning to rise from the soaking mass, curling as they dried, delicate as an ant’s feelers.
He wished he might give her some of his blood; he had plenty. She’d said it was possible, but not in this time. Something to do with things in the blood that mightn’t match.
Her hair was a dozen colors, brown, molasses, cream and butter, sugar, sable . . . gleams of gold and silver where the dying light touched it. A broad streak of pure white at her temple, nearly the shade of her skin. She lay on her side facing him, one hand curled against her bosom, the other loose, upturned, so the inside of her wrist showed pure white, too, the blue veins heartbreaking.
She’d said she thought of cutting her wrists when she believed him dead. He didn’t think he’d do it that way, if she died. He’d seen it: Toby Quinn with his wrist cut to the bone and all his blood run out across the floor, the room stinking of butchery and the word “teind” written on the wall above him in blood, his confession. A tithe to hell, it meant, and he shuddered in spite of the heat and crossed himself.
She’d said it was maybe the blood that had made Young Ian’s bairns all die—the blood not matching betwixt him and his Mohawk wife—and that maybe it would be different with Rachel. He said a quick Ave, that it might be so, and crossed himself again.
The hair that lay upon her shoulders was coiling now, sinuous, slow as rising bread. Ought he rouse her to drink again? She needed the water, to help make more blood, to cool her with sweat. But while she slept, the pain was less. A few moments longer, then.
Not now. Please, not now.
She shifted, moaning, and he saw that she was different; restless now. The stain on her bandage had changed color, darkened from scarlet to rust as it dried. He laid a hand softly on her arm and felt the heat.
The bleeding had stopped. The fever had begun.
NOW THE TREES were talking to him. He wished they’d stop. The only thing Ian Murray wanted just now was silence. He was alone for the moment, but his ears buzzed and his head still throbbed with noise.
That always happened for a bit after a fight. You were listening so hard, to start with, for the sounds of the enemy, the direction of the wind, the voice of a saint behind you . . . you began to hear the voices of the forest, like you did hunting. And then you heard the shots and shouting, and when there were moments when that stopped, you heard the blood pounding round your body and beating in your ears, and, all in all, it took some time for the racket to die down afterward.
He had brief flashes of things that had happened during the day—milling soldiers; the thud of the arrow that struck him; the face of the Abenaki he’d killed by the fire; the look of George Washington on his big white horse, racing up the road, waving his hat—but these came and went in a fog of confusion, appearing as though revealed to him by a stroke of lightning, then disappearing into a buzzing mist.
A wind went whispering through the branches over him, and he felt it on his skin as though he’d been brushed with sandpaper. What might Rachel say, when he told her what he’d done?
He could still hear the sound when the tomahawk caved in the Abenaki’s skull. He could still feel it, too, in the bones of his arms, in the bursting pain of his wound.
Dimly, he realized that his feet were no longer keeping to the road; he was stumbling over clumps of grass, stubbing his moccasin-clad toes on rocks. He looked back to find his path—he saw it, plain, a wavering line of black . . . Why was it wavering?
He didn’t want silence, after all. He wanted Rachel’s voice, no matter what she might say to him.
It came to him dimly that he couldn’t go any farther. He was aware of a faint sense of surprise but was not afraid.
He didn’t remember falling but found himself on the ground, his hot cheek pressed against the cool prickle of pine needles. Laboriously, he got to his knees and scraped away the thick layer of fallen needles. Then he was lying with his body on damp earth, the blanket of needles half pulled over him; he could do no more and said a brief prayer to the tree, that it might protect him through the night.
And as he fell headlong into darkness, he did hear Rachel’s voice, in memory.
“Thy life’s journey lies along its own path, Ian,” she said, “and I cannot share thy journey—but I can walk beside thee. And I will.”
His last thought was that he hoped she’d still mean it when he told her what he’d done.
IN WHICH ROSY-FINGERED DAWN SHOWS UP MOB-HANDED
GREY WOKE TO THE drums of reveille, not startled by the accustomed rattle but with no clear idea where he was. In camp. Well, that much was obvious. He swung his legs out of the cot and sat up slowly, taking stock. His left arm hurt a lot, one of his eyes was stuck shut, and his mouth was so dry he could barely swallow. He’d slept in his clothes, smelled rank, and needed badly to piss.
He groped under the cot, found a utensil, and used it, noting in a rather dreamy way that his urine smelled of apples. That brought back the taste of cider and, with it, full recollection of the day and night before. Honey and flies. Artillery. Jamie, blood down his face. Rifle butt and the crack of bone. William . . . Hal . . .
Almost full recollection. He sat down and remained quite still for a moment, trying to decide whether Hal had really told him that his eldest son, Benjamin, was dead. Surely not. It must have been a shred of nightmare, lingering in his mind. And yet he had the dreadful feeling of doomed certainty that comes down like a curtain on the mind, smothering disbelief.
He stood up, staggering a little, determined to go and find his brother. He hadn’t yet found his shoes, though, when the flap was thrown back and Hal came in, followed by an orderly with a basin, a steaming pitcher, and shaving implements.
“Sit down,” Hal said, in a completely ordinary voice. “You’ll have to wear one of my uniforms, and you’re not doing it smelling like that. What the devil happened to your hair?”
Grey had forgotten his hair and flattened a palm on top of his head, surprised at the bristly stubble there.
“Oh. A ruse de guerre.” He sat down slowly, eyes on his brother. The bad eye had come open, though it was unpleasantly crusty, and so far as Grey could see, Hal looked much as he usually did. Tired, of course, worn, and a little haunted, but everyone looked like that the day after a battle. Surely if it were true, he’d look different. Worse, somehow.
He would have asked, but Hal didn’t linger, going off and leaving John in the hands of the orderly. Before the ablutions were complete, a young Scottish surgeon with freckles appeared, yawning as though he hadn’t slept all night, and blinked blearily at Grey’s arm. He prodded this in a professional manner, pronounced the bone cracked but not broken, and put it in a sling.