Murtagh, pretending vast stupidity, had succeeded in drawing the soldiers ahead to the crest of the hill, so that they could point out that the road to Dingwall was the only road in sight, which ran down the other side of the hill. It ran through Ballagh, and straight toward the coast, still three miles away.
I slid hastily to the ground, yanking feverishly at my horse’s girth strap. Floundering through the drifts, I kicked enough snow under the belly of Jamie’s horse to obliterate the telltale drops. A quick look showed the soldiers apparently still engaged in argument with Murtagh, though one of them glanced down the hill at us, as though to insure that we had not wandered off. I gave a cheery wave, then as soon as the soldier turned his head, stooped and ripped off one of the three petticoats I was wearing. I whipped Jamie’s cloak aside and stuffed the wadded petticoat under his thigh, ignoring his exclamation of pain. The cloak flipped back in place just in time for me to dash back to my own horse and be discovered fiddling with the girth when Murtagh and the Englishmen arrived.
“It seems to have worked its way loose,” I explained guilelessly, batting my eyes at the nearest redcoat.
“Oh? And why are you not helping the lady?” he said to Jamie.
“My husband’s not well,” I said. “I can manage it myself, thank you.”
The corporal seemed interested. “Sick, eh? What’s the matter with you, then?” He urged his beast forward, staring closely under the slouch hat at Jamie’s pale face. “Don’t look well, I’ll say that much. Take your hat off, fellow. What’s the matter with your face?”
Jamie shot him through the folds of his cloak. The redcoat was no more than six feet away, and he toppled sideways out of the saddle before the stain on his chest grew bigger than my hand.
Murtagh had a pistol in each hand before the corporal hit the ground. One bullet went wild as his horse shied away from the sudden noise and movement. The second found its mark, ripping through a soldier’s upper arm leaving a tuft of shredded fabric flapping from a rapidly reddening sleeve. The man kept his saddle, though, and was tugging at his saber, one-handed, as Murtagh plunged beneath his cloak for fresh weapons.
One of the two remaining soldiers turned his horse, slipping in the snow, and spurred away, back toward the prison, presumably in search of help.
“Claire!” The shout came from above. I looked up, startled, to see Jamie waving after the fleeing figure. “Stop him!” He had time to toss me a second pistol, then turned back, drawing his sword to meet the charge of the fourth soldier.
My horse was battle-trained; his ears were laid flat against his head and he stamped and pawed at the noise, but he hadn’t run at the sound of gunshots, and he stood his ground as I groped for the saddle iron. Glad to be leaving the fight behind, he dug in as soon as I was mounted, and we made off at good speed after the fleeing figure.
The snow hampered our going nearly as much as his, but mine was the better horse, and we had the advantage of the rough path the soldier’s flight had plowed through the fresh snow. We gained slowly on him, but I could see that it wouldn’t be enough. He had a rise ahead of him, though; if I cut to the right, perhaps I could make better time on the flat and meet him coming down the other side. I jerked the rein and leaned hard to keep my seat as the horse slithered into a messy turn, found his feet and plunged ahead.
I didn’t quite catch him up, but I had cut the distance between us to no more than ten yards. Given unlimited distance, I could likely catch him, but I didn’t have that luxury; the prison wall loomed less than a mile ahead. Much closer, and we would be seen from the walls.
I pulled up and slid off. Battle-trained or not, I didn’t know what the horse would do if I fired a pistol from his back. Even if he stood like a statue, I didn’t think my own aim was up to it. I knelt in the snow, bracing my elbow on my knee, the gun across my forearm as Jamie had shown me. “Brace it here, aim there, fire it here,” he had said. I did.
Much to my amazement, I hit the fleeing horse. It went into a skid, went to one knee and rolled in a flurry of snow and legs. My arm was numb from the pistol’s recoil; I stood rubbing it, watching the fallen soldier.
He was injured; he struggled to rise, then fell back in the snow. His horse, bleeding from the shoulder, stumbled away, reins dangling.
I didn’t realize until later what I had been thinking, but I knew when I approached him that I could not let him live. Near as we were to the prison, and with other patrols out seeking escaped prisoners, he was sure to be found before too long. And if he were found alive, he could not only describe us—so much for our hostage story in that case!—but tell which way we were traveling. We had still three miles to go to the coast; two hours’ travel in the heavy snow. And a boat to find, once there. I simply could not take the chance of allowing him to tell anyone about us.
He struggled to his elbows as I approached. His eyes widened in surprise as he saw me, then relaxed. I was a woman. He wasn’t afraid of me.
A more experienced man might have been apprehensive, my sex notwithstanding, but this was a boy. No more than sixteen, I thought, with a sense of sick shock. His spotty cheeks still held the last round curves of childhood, though his upper lip sported the fuzz of a hopeful mustache.
He opened his mouth, but only groaned in pain. He pressed his hand to his side, and I could see blood soaking through his tunic and coat. Internal injuries, then; the horse must have rolled on him.
It was possible, I thought, that he would die in any case. But that wasn’t something I could count on.
The dirk in my right hand was hidden under my cloak. I laid my left hand on his head. Just so I had touched the heads of hundreds of men, comforting, examining, steadying them for whatever lay ahead. And they had looked up at me much as this boy did; with hope and trust.
I couldn’t cut his throat. I sank to my knees beside him, and turned his head gently away from me. Rupert’s techniques for swift killing had all assumed resistance. There was no resistance as I bent his head forward, as far as I could, and plunged the dirk into his neck at the base of his skull.
I left him lying facedown in the snow and went to join the others.
Our unwieldy cargo stowed under blankets on a bench below, Murtagh and I met on the Cristabel’s deck to survey the storm-tossed skies.
“Looks like a fair, steady wind,” I said hopefully, holding a wet finger aloft.
Murtagh gloomily scanned the clouds, hanging black-bellied over the harbor, their freight of snow wastefully melting into the frigid waves. “Aye, well. We’ll hope for a smooth crossing. If not, we’ll likely get there wi’ a corpse on our hands.”
Half an hour later, launched on the choppy waters of the English Channel, I discovered what he had meant by this remark.
“Seasick?” I said incredulously. “Scotsmen aren’t seasick!”
Murtagh was testy. “Then mayhap he’s a red-heided Hottentot. All I know is he’s green as a rotten fish and pukin’ his guts out. Are ye goin’ to come down and help me stop him puttin’ his ribs out through his chest?”
“Damn it,” I said to Murtagh, as we hung over the rail for fresh air during a brief hiatus in the unpleasantness belowdecks, “if he knows he’s seasick, why in the name of God did he insist on a boat?”
The basilisk stare was unwinking. “Because he knows bluidy well we’d never make it overland wi’ him in the state he’s in, and he’d no stay at Eldridge for fear o’ bringin’ the English down on MacRannoch.”
“So he’s going to kill himself quietly at sea, instead,” I said bitterly.
“Aye. He figures this way he’ll only kill himself, and no take anyone else along wi’ him. Unselfish, see. Nothin’ quiet about it, though,” added Murtagh, heading for the companionway in response to unmistakable sounds from below.
“Congratulations,” I said to Jamie an hour or two later, pushing dank wisps away from my cheeks and forehead. “I believe you’re going to make medical history by being the only documented person ever actually to die of seasickness.”
“Oh, good,” he mumbled into the wreck of pillows and blankets, “I’d hate to think it was all a waste.” He heaved himself suddenly to one side. “God, here it comes again.” Murtagh and I sprang once more to our stations. The job of holding a large man immobile while he succumbs to merciless spasms of retching is not one for the weak.
Afterward, I took his pulse yet again, and rested a hand briefly on the clammy forehead. Murtagh read my face, and followed me unspeaking up the gangway to the top deck. “He’s no doin’ verra weel, is he?” he said quietly.
“I don’t know,” I said helplessly, shaking out my sweat-drenched hair in the sharp wind. “I’ve honestly never heard of anyone dying of seasickness, but he’s bringing up blood now.” The little man’s hands tightened on the rail, knuckles knifing through the sun-speckled skin. “I don’t know if he’s damaged himself internally with the sharp rib ends, or if it’s just that his stomach is raw with the vomiting. Either way, it’s not a good sign. And his pulse is much weaker, and irregular. It’s a strain on his heart, you know.”
“He’s a heart like a lion.” It was quietly said, and I wasn’t sure I’d heard it at first. It might only have been the salt wind making the tears stand in his eyes. He turned abruptly to me. “And a heid like an ox. Have ye any o’ that laudanum left that Lady Annabelle gave ye?”
“Yes, all of it. He wouldn’t take it; doesn’t want to sleep, he said.”
“Aye, well. For most folk, what they want and what they get are no the same thing; I dinna see why he should be any different. Come on.”
I followed him anxiously back belowdecks. “I don’t think he can keep it down.”
“Leave that to me. Get the bottle and help me sit him up.”
Jamie was half-unconscious as it was, an unwieldy burden who protested being manhandled upright against the bulkhead. “I’m going to die,” he said weakly but precisely, “and the sooner the better. Go away and let me do it in peace.”
Taking firm hold of Jamie’s blazing hair, Murtagh forced his head up and applied the flask to his lips. “Swallow this, me bonny wee dormouse, or I’ll break yer neck. And forbye ye’ll keep it down, too. I’m goin’ to hold shut yer nose and yer mouth; if ye bring it up, it comes out yer ears.”
By the concerted force of our wills, we transferred the contents of the flask slowly but inexorably into the young laird of Lallybroch. Choking and gagging, Jamie manfully drank as much as he could manage before subsiding, green-faced and gasping, against the bulkhead. Murtagh forestalled each threatened explosion of nausea by vicious nose-pinching, an expedient not uniformly successful, but one which allowed a gradual accumulation of the opiate in the patient’s bloodstream. At length we laid him slack on the bed, the vivid flames of hair, brows, and lashes the only color on the pillow.
Murtagh came up beside me on deck a bit later. “Look,” I said pointing. The dim light of sunset, shining in fugitive rays beneath the clouds, gilded the rocks of the French coast ahead. “The master says we’ll be ashore in three or four hours.”
“And not before time,” said my companion, wiping lank brown hair out of his eyes. He turned to me, and gave me the closest thing I had ever seen to a smile on his dour countenance.
And so at length, following the prostrate body of our charge, laid on a board between two stout monks, we passed through the looming gates of the Abbey of Ste. Anne de Beaupré.
The abbey was an enormous twelfth-century edifice, walled to resist both the smashing of sea storms and the onslaughts of land-based invaders. Now, in more peaceful times, its gates stood open to allow easy traffic with the nearby village, and the small stone cells of its guest wing had been softened by the addition of tapestries and comfortable furniture.
I rose from the padded chair in my own chamber, not sure exactly how one greeted an abbot; did one kneel and kiss his ring, or was that only for Popes? I settled for a respectful curtsy.
Jamie’s slanted cat-eyes did come from the Fraser side. Likewise the solid jaw, though the one facing me was somewhat obscured by black beard.
Abbot Alexander had his nephew’s wide mouth as well, though he looked as though he smiled somewhat less with it. The slanted blue eyes remained cool and speculative as he greeted me with a pleasant, warm smile. He was a good deal shorter than Jamie, about my height, and stocky. He wore the robe of a priest, but walked with a warrior’s stride. I thought it likely he had been both in his time.
“You are welcome, ma nièce,” he said, inclining his head. I was a little startled at the greeting, but bowed back.
“I’m grateful for your hospitality,” I said, meaning it. “Have—have you seen Jamie?” The monks had taken Jamie away to be bathed, a process in which I thought I had better not assist.
The Abbot nodded. “Oh, aye,” he said, a faint Scots accent showing through the cultured English. “I’ve seen him. I’ve set Brother Ambrose to tend his wounds.” I must have looked dubious at this, for he said, a bit dryly, “Do not worry, Madame; Brother Ambrose is most competent.” He looked me over with an air of frank appraisal disturbingly like that of his nephew.
“Murtagh said that you are an accomplished physician yourself.”
“I am,” I said bluntly.
This provoked a real smile. “I see that you do not suffer from the sin of false modesty,” he observed.
“I have others,” I said, smiling back.
“So do we all,” he said. “Brother Ambrose will be eager to converse with you, I’m sure.”
“Has Murtagh told you…what happened?” I asked hesitantly.
The wide mouth tightened. “He has. So far as he knows what happened.” He waited, as though expecting further contributions from me, but I stayed silent.
It was clear that he would have liked to ask questions, but he was kind enough not to press me. Instead, he raised his hand in a gesture of benediction and dismissal.
“You are welcome,” he said once more. “I will send a serving brother to bring you some food.” He looked me over once more. “And some facilities for washing.” He made the sign of the Cross over me, in farewell or possibly as an exorcism of filth, and left in a swirl of brown skirts.
Suddenly realizing how tired I was, I sank down on the bed, wondering whether I could stay awake long enough to both eat and wash. I was still wondering when my head hit the pillow.
I was having a dreadful nightmare. Jamie was on the other side of a solid stone wall without a door. I could hear him screaming, over and over, but couldn’t reach him. I pounded desperately on the wall, only to see my hands sink into the stone as if it were water.
“Ouch!” I sat up in the narrow cot, clutching the hand I had smashed against the unyielding wall next to my bed. I rocked back and forth, squeezing the throbbing hand between my thighs, then realized that the screaming was still going on.
It stopped abruptly as I ran into the hall. The door to Jamie’s room was open, flickering lamplight flooding the corridor.
A monk I had not seen before was with Jamie, holding him tightly. A seepage of fresh blood stained the bandages on Jamie’s back, and his shoulders shook as though with chill.
“A nightmare,” the monk said in explanation, seeing me in the doorway. He relinquished Jamie into my arms, and went to the table for a cloth and the water jug.
Jamie was still trembling, and his face was glossy with sweat. His eyes were closed, and he breathed heavily, with a hoarse, gasping sound. The monk sat down beside me and began to swab his face with a gentle hand, smoothing the heavy, wet hair away from his temples.
“You would be his wife, of course,” he said to me. “I think he’ll be better presently.”
The trembling did begin to ease within a minute or two, and Jamie opened his eyes with a sigh.
“I’m all right,” he said. “Claire, I’m all right, now. But for God’s sake, get rid of that stink!”
It was only then that I consciously noticed the scent in the room—a light, spicy, floral smell, so common a perfume that I had thought nothing of it. Lavender. A scent for soaps and toilet waters. I had last smelled it in the dungeons of Wentworth Prison, where it anointed the linen or the person of Captain Jonathan Randall.
The source of the scent was a small metal cup filled with herb-scented oil, suspended from a heavy, rose-bossed iron base and hung over a candle flame.
Meant to soothe the mind, its effects were plainly not as intended. Jamie was breathing more easily, sitting up by himself and holding the cup of water the monk had given him. But his face was still white, and the corner of his mouth twitched uneasily.
I nodded at the Franciscan to do as he said, and the monk quickly muffled the hot cup of oil in a folded towel, then carried it away down the hall.
Jamie heaved a long sigh of relief, then winced, ribs hurting.
“You’ve opened up your back a bit,” I said, turning him slightly to get at the bandages. “Not bad, though.”
“I know. I must have rolled onto my back in my sleep.” The thick wedge of folded blanket meant to keep him propped on one side had slipped to the floor. I retrieved it and laid it on the bed beside him.
“That’s what made me dream, I think. I dreamt of being flogged.” He shuddered, took a sip of the water, then handed me the cup. “I need something a bit stronger, if it’s handy.”
As though on cue, our helpful visitor came through the door with a jug of wine in one hand and a small flask of poppy syrup in the other.
“Alcohol or opium?” he asked Jamie with a smile, holding up the two flasks. “You may have your choice of oblivions.”
“I’ll have the wine, if ye please. I’ve had enough of dreams for one night,” Jamie said, with a lopsided answering smile. He drank the wine slowly, as the Franciscan helped me to change the stained bandages, smoothing fresh marigold ointment over the wounds. Not until I had resettled Jamie for sleep, back firmly propped and coverlet drawn up, did the visitor turn to go.
Passing the bed, he bent over Jamie and sketched the sign of the Cross above his head. “Rest well,” he said.
“Thank ye, Father.” Jamie answered drowsily, clearly half-asleep already. Seeing that Jamie would likely not need me now until morning, I touched him on the shoulder in farewell and followed the visitor out into the corridor.