“Claire? Are you all right, love?”
“Am I all right? My God, Jamie!” Tears stung my eyelids and I blinked hard, sniffing. He raised his good hand slowly, as though it were weighted with chains, and stroked my hair. He drew me toward him, but I pulled away, conscious for the first time what I must look like, face scratched and covered with tree sap, hair stiff with blotches of various unmentionable substances.
“Come here,” he said. “I want to hold ye a moment.”
“But I’m covered with blood and vomit,” I protested, making a vain effort to tidy my hair.
He wheezed, the faint exhalation that was all his broken ribs would permit in the way of laughter. “Mother of God, Sassenach, it’s my blood and my vomit. Come here.”
His arm was comforting around my shoulders. I rested my head on the pillow next to his, and we sat in silence by the fire, drawing strength and peace from one another. His fingers gently touched the small wound under my jaw.
“I did not think ever to see ye again, Sassenach.” His voice was low and a bit hoarse from whisky and screaming. “I’m glad you’re here.”
I sat up. “Not see me again! Why? Did you think I wouldn’t get you out?”
He smiled, one-sided. “Weel, no, I didn’t expect ye would. I thought if I said so, though, ye might get stubborn and refuse to go.”
“Me get stubborn!” I said indignantly. “Look who’s talking!”
There was a pause, which grew slightly awkward. There were things I should ask, necessary from the medical point of view, but rather touchy from the personal aspect. Finally, I settled for “How do you feel?”
His eyes were closed, shadowed and sunken in the candlelight, but the lines of the broad back were tense under the bandages. The wide, bruised mouth twitched, somewhere between a smile and a grimace.
“I don’t know, Sassenach. I’ve never felt like this. I seem to want to do a number of things, all at once, but my mind’s at war wi’ me, and my body’s turned traitor. I want to get out of here at once, and run as fast and as far as I can. I want to hit someone. God, I want to hit someone! I want to burn Wentworth Prison to the ground. I want to sleep.”
“Stone doesn’t burn,” I said practically. “Maybe you’d better sleep, instead.”
His good hand groped for mine and found it, and the mouth relaxed somewhat, though his eyes stayed closed.
“I want to hold you hard to me and kiss you, and never let you go. I want to take you to my bed and use you like a whore, ’til I forget that I exist. And I want to put my head in your lap and weep like a child.”
The mouth turned up at one corner, and a blue eye opened slitwise.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “I can’t do any but the last of those without fainting or being sick again.”
“Well, then, I suppose you’ll just have to settle for that, and put the rest under the heading of future business,” I said, laughing a little.
It took a bit of shifting, and he nearly was sick again, but at last I was seated on his cot, my back against the wall, and his head resting on my thigh.
“What was it Sir Marcus cut from your breast?” I asked. “A brand?” I said softly, as he gave me no reply. The bright head moved slightly in affirmation.
“A signet, with his initials.” Jamie laughed shortly. “It’s enough I’ll carry his marks for the rest of my life, without letting him sign me, like a bloody painting.”
His head lay heavy on my thigh and his breathing eased at last in drowsy exhalations. The white bandages on his hand were ghostly against the dark blanket. I gently traced a burn mark on his shoulder, gleaming faintly with sweet oil.
“Are you badly hurt?” Awake, he glanced from his bandaged hand to my face. His eyes closed and he began to shake. Alarmed, I thought I had triggered some unbearable memory, until I realized that he was laughing, hard enough to force tears from the corners of his eyes.
“Sassenach,” he said at length, gasping, “I’ve maybe six square inches of skin left that are not bruised, burned, or cut. Am I hurt?” And he shook again, making the felted mattress rustle and squeak.
Somewhat crossly, I said, “I meant—” but he stopped me by putting his good hand over mine and bringing it to his lips.
“I know what ye meant, Sassenach,” he said, turning his head to look up at me. “Never worry, the six inches that are left are all between my legs.”
I appreciated the effort it took to make the joke, feeble as it was. I slapped his mouth lightly. “You’re drunk, James Fraser,” I said. I paused a moment. “Six, eh?”
“Aye, well. Maybe seven, then. Oh, God, Sassenach, dinna make me laugh again, my ribs won’t stand it.” I wiped his eyes with a fold of my skirt and fed him a sip of water, holding his head up with my knee.
“That isn’t what I meant, anyway,” I said.
Serious then, he reached for my hand again and squeezed it.
“I know,” he said. “Ye needna be delicate about it.” He drew a cautious breath, and winced at the results. “I was right, it did hurt less than flogging.” He closed his eyes. “But it was much less enjoyable.” A quick flash of bitter humor stirred one corner of his mouth. “At least I’ll not be costive for a bit.” I flinched, and he gritted his teeth, breathing in short, reedy gasps.
“I’m sorry, Sassenach. I…didna think I’d mind it so much. What you mean—that—it’s all right. I’m not damaged.”
I made an effort to keep my own voice steady and matter-of-fact. “You don’t have to tell me about it, if you don’t want to. If it might ease you, though…” My voice trailed off in embarrassed silence.
“I don’t want to.” His voice was suddenly bitter and emphatic. “I don’t want ever to think about it again, but short of cutting my throat, I think I have not got a choice about it. Nay, lass, I dinna want to tell ye about it, any more than ye want to hear it…but I think I am going to have to drag it all out before it chokes me.” The words came out now in a burst of bitterness.
“He wanted me to crawl and beg, and by Christ, I did so. I told ye once, Sassenach, ye can break anyone if you’re willing to hurt them enough. Well, he was willing. He made me crawl, and he made me beg; he made me do worse things than that, and before the end he made me want verra badly to be dead.”
He was silent for a long moment, looking into the fire, then heaved a deep sigh, grimacing at the pain.
“I wish ye could ease me, Sassenach, I do wish it most fervently, for I’ve little of ease in me now. But it’s not like a poisoned thorn, where if ye found the right grip, ye could draw it clean out.” His good hand rested on my knee. He flexed the fingers and spread them flat, ruddy in the firelight. “It’s not even like a brokenness anywhere. If ye could mend it bit by bit, like ye did my hand, I’d stand the pain gladly.” He bunched the fingers into a fist and rested it on my leg, frowning at it.
“It’s…difficult to explain. It’s…it’s like…I think it’s as though everyone has a small place inside themselves, maybe, a private bit that they keep to themselves. It’s like a little fortress, where the most private part of you lives—maybe it’s your soul, maybe just that bit that makes you yourself and not anyone else.” His tongue probed his swollen lip unconsciously as he thought.
“You don’t show that bit of yourself to anyone, usually, unless sometimes to someone that ye love greatly.” The hand relaxed, curling around my knee. Jamie’s eyes were closed again, lids sealed against the light.
“Now, it’s like…like my own fortress has been blown up with gunpowder—there’s nothing left of it but ashes and a smoking rooftree, and the little nak*d thing that lived there once is out in the open, squeaking and whimpering in fear, tryin’ to hide itself under a blade of grass or a bit o’ leaf, but…but not…makin’ m-much of a job of it.” His voice broke, and he turned his head so that his face was hidden in my skirt. Helpless, I could do nothing but stroke his hair.
He suddenly raised his head, face strained as though it would break apart along the seams of the bones. “I’ve been close to death a few times, Claire, but I’ve never really wanted to die. This time I did. I…” His voice cracked and he stopped speaking, clutching my knee hard. When he spoke again, his voice was high and oddly breathless, as though he had been running a long way.
“Claire, will you—I just—Claire, hold on to me. If I start to shake again now, I canna stop it. Claire, hold me!” He was in fact beginning to tremble violently, the shivering making him moan as it caught the splintered ribs. I was afraid to hurt him, but more afraid to let the shaking go on.
I crouched over him, wrapped my arms around his shoulders and held on as tightly as I could, rocking to and fro as though the comforting rhythm might break the racking spasms. I got one hand on the back of his neck and dug my fingers deep into the pillared muscles, willing the clenching to relax as I massaged the deep groove at the base of the skull. Finally the trembling eased, and his head fell forward onto my thigh, exhausted.
“I’m sorry,” he said a minute later, in his normal voice. “I didna mean to go on so. The truth is I do hurt verra bad, and I am most awfully damn drunk. I’m no in much control of mysel’.” For a Scot to admit, even privately, to being drunk, was some indication, I thought, of just how badly he did hurt.
“You need sleep,” I said softly, still rubbing the back of his neck. “You need it badly.” I used my fingers as best I could, gentling and pressing as Old Alec had showed me, and managed to ease him back into drowsiness.
“I’m cold,” he murmured. There was a good fire, and several blankets on the bed, but his fingers were chilly to the touch.
“You’re in shock,” I said practically. “You’ve lost the hell of a lot of blood.” I looked around, but MacRannochs and servants alike had all disappeared to their own beds. Murtagh, I assumed, was still out in the snow, keeping an eye out in the direction of Wentworth in case of pursuit. With a mental shrug for anyone’s opinion of the proprieties, I stood up, stripped off the nightdress, and crawled under the blankets.
As gently as possible, I eased against him, giving him my warmth. He turned his face into my shoulder like a small boy. I stroked his hair, gentling him, rubbing the ridged columns of muscle at the back of his neck, avoiding the raw places. “Lay your head, then, man,” I said, remembering Jenny and her boy.
Jamie gave a small grunt of amusement. “That’s what my mother used to say to me,” he murmured. “When I was a bairn.”
“Sassenach,” he said against my shoulder, a moment later.
“Who in God’s name is John Wayne?”
“You are,” I said. “Go to sleep.”
His color was better in the morning, though the bruises had darkened through the night and now mottled a good part of his face. He sighed deeply, then stiffened with a groan and let his breath out much more cautiously.
“How do you feel?” I laid a hand on his head. Cool and damp. No fever, thank God.
He grimaced, eyes still closed. “Sassenach, if I’ve got one, it hurts.” He extended his good hand, groping. “Help me up; I’m stiff as pudding.”
The snow stopped at mid-morning. The sky was still grey as wool, threatening further flurries, but the threat of search from Wentworth was greater yet, so we set out from Eldridge Manor just before noon, heavily cloaked against the weather. Murtagh and Jamie bristled with arms beneath their cloaks. I carried nothing but my dagger, and that well hidden. Much against my own will, I was to pose as a kidnapped English hostage, should the worst happen.
“But they’ve seen me at the prison,” I had argued. “Sir Fletcher already knows who I am.”
“Aye.” Murtagh was carefully loading the pistols, an array of balls, wadding, powder, patches, rods, and pouches neatly spread on Lady Annabelle’s polished table, but looked up to nail me with a black glance. “That’s just the point, lass. We must keep ye out o’ Wentworth, no matter what. Do no one any good to have ye in there along wi’ us.”
He rammed a short rod down the mouth of a scroll-butted dag, punching the wad into place with hard, economical strokes. “Sir Fletcher willna be doin’ his own huntin’, not on a day like this. Any Redcoats we meet will likely not know ye. If we’re found out, ye mun say we forced ye along wi’ us unwillin’, and convince the Redcoats ye’ve nothin’ to do wi’ a pair o’ Scottish scalawags like me an’ yon ragtag.” He nodded at Jamie, balancing gingerly on a stool with a bowl of warm bread and milk.
Sir Marcus and I had padded Jamie’s h*ps and thighs as thickly as we could with linen bandages under a pair of worn breeches and hose, dark in color to hide any telltale blood spots that might seep through. Lady Annabelle had split one of her husband’s shirts down the back to accommodate the breadth of Jamie’s shoulders and the thickness of the bandage across them. Even so, the shirt would not meet across the front, and the ends of the strapping around his chest peeked through. He had refused to comb his hair, on grounds that even his scalp was sore, and he looked a wild and woolly sight, red spikes sticking up above a swollen purple face with one eye squeezed disreputably shut.
“If ye’re taken,” Sir Marcus chipped in, “tell them ye’re a guest of mine, kidnapped while riding near the estate. Make them bring ye to Eldridge for me to identify. That should convince ’em. We’ll tell ’em you’re a friend of Annabelle’s, from London.”
“And then get you safely out of here before Sir Fletcher comes round to offer his regards,” Annabelle added, practically.
Sir Marcus had offered us Hector and Absalom as escorts, but Murtagh pointed out that this would certainly implicate Eldridge, should we meet any English soldiers. So there were only the three of us, bundled against the cold, on the road toward Dingwall. I carried a fat purse and a note from the Master of Eldridge, one or both of which should insure our passage across the Channel.
It was hard going through the snow. Less than a foot deep, the treacherous white stuff hid rocks, holes, and other obstacles, making footing for the horses slippery and dangerous. Clods of snow and mud flew up with each step, spattering bellies and hocks, and clouds of horse-breath vanished steaming into the frozen air.
Murtagh led the way, following the faint depression that marked the road. I rode beside Jamie, to help if he should lose consciousness, though he was, at his own insistence, tied to his horse. Only his left hand was free, resting on the pistol looped to the saddle bow, concealed under his cloak.
We passed a few scattered bothies, smoke rising from the thatched roofs, but the inhabitants and their beasts seemed all within, secured against the cold. Here and there a lone man passed from cot to shed, carrying buckets or hay, but the road was deserted for the most part.
Two miles from Eldridge we passed under the shadow of Wentworth Castle, a grim bulk set in the hillside. The road was trampled here; traffic in and out did not cease even in the worst of weathers.
Our passage had been timed to coincide with the midday meal, in hopes that the sentries would be immersed in their pasties and ale. We plodded slowly past the short road that led to the gate, just a party of travelers with the ill-luck to be abroad on such a miserable day.
Once past the prison, we paused to rest the horses for a moment, in the shelter of a small pine grove. Murtagh bent to peer under the slouch hat that masked Jamie’s telltale hair.
“All right, lad? Ye’re quiet.”
Jamie lifted his head. His face was pale, and trickles of sweat ran down his neck, despite the icy wind, but he managed a half-hearted grin.
“How do you feel?” I asked, anxious. He sat slumped in the saddle, without much sign of his usual erect grace. I got the other half of the grin.
“I’ve been trying to decide which hurts worst—my ribs, my hand, or my arse. Tryin’ to choose among them keeps my mind off my back.” He took a deep pull from the flask which Sir Marcus had thoughtfully provided, shuddered, and passed it to me. It was a good deal better than the raw spirit I had drunk on the road to Leoch, but every bit as potent. We rode on, a small cheerful fire burning in my stomach.
The horses were laboring up a modest slope, snow spurting from their hooves, when I saw Murtagh’s head jerk up. Following the direction of his gaze, I saw the Redcoat soldiers, four of them, mounted, at the top of the slope.
There was no help for it. We had been seen, and a shouted challenge echoed down the hill. There was no place to run. We were going to have to try to bluff it out. Without a backward glance, Murtagh spurred forward to meet them.
The corporal with the group was a middle-aged career soldier, erect in his winter greatcoat. He bowed politely to me, then turned his attention to Jamie.
“Your pardon, sir, madame. We have orders to stop all parties traveling this road, to inquire for details of prisoners lately escaped from Wentworth Prison.”
Prisoners. So I had managed to release more than Jamie yesterday. I was glad of it, on various grounds. For one, they would dilute the search somewhat. Four against three was better odds than we might have expected.
Jamie didn’t reply, but slouched farther forward, letting his head loll. I could see the gleam of his eyes beneath the hat brim; he wasn’t unconscious. These must be men he knew; his voice would be recognized. Murtagh was edging his horse forward, between me and the soldiers.
“Aye, the master’s a bit the worse for illness, sir, as ye can see,” he said, obsequiously tugging his forelock. “Perhaps ye could point out the road toward Ballagh to me? I’m no convinced that we’re headed right.”
I wondered what on earth he was up to, until I caught his eye. His glance flickered back and down, then back to the soldier, so fast that the soldier would assume him to have been listening with rapt attention all the time. Was Jamie in danger of falling from the saddle? Pretending to adjust my bonnet, I glanced casually over my shoulder in the direction he had indicated, and nearly froze with shock.
Jamie was sitting upright, head bent to shadow his face. But blood was dripping gently from the tip of the stirrup under his foot, pocking the snow with gently steaming red pits.