Early on, Elliot had watched one poor fellow prisoner struggle out into the light and air, only to hear the crack of a rifle and the man’s muffled scream. The gunshot hadn’t killed him instantly. He’d lain under the baking sun and slowly bled to death over the next full day, begging for water or, for God’s sake, for the guard to shoot him again.
His had been the last human face Elliot had seen for weeks after that. His captors ignored him, occasionally remembering to throw in bread and some fetid piece of goat meat to keep him alive.
The head tribesman wanted Elliot alive, though, because he wanted to play with him. The head man hated all Europeans, blaming them for any and all chaos he could see from his mountain perch.
Elliot had found places to hide in their own tunnels, holes so tiny and foul that no one but the desperate could live in them. They knew he was in there, trapped like a fox in his den, and they knew he couldn’t get out. They’d hunt for him when they wanted him, and they were hunting him now. Elliot heard them calling, passing above his hiding place, their voices filling the spaces.
He crouched into the hole, feeling no glee at evading them, wanting only peace. But the pain kept knocking at him. His kilt warmed him, but his fingers were cold, bloody cold.
They’d pulled off his nails, one by one, for the enjoyment of it. Elliot had refused to scream or make a sound, which had disappointed them, so they’d thrown him back into the cell and taken away his water.
Thirsty, he was so thirsty.
The search went on above, until the voices trailed off. They’d leave him alone now. Alone to heal until thirst and hunger drove him out again. But until then, Elliot would have days of darkness and silence to himself.
Juliana’s worry when Mahindar and Hamish emerged from the cellars the next morning without finding Elliot rose to near panic.
Morning had dawned fine and fair. Elliot had dropped into bed beside her very late last night and very drunk, having helped Mr. McGregor “sample” much of the whiskey. He’d gathered Juliana into his arms for a whiskey-flavored kiss, then snuggled beside her and dropped into a limp sleep.
She’d left him asleep when she’d risen and gone down to breakfast, having enough experience with Scotsmen and whiskey to know he would remain in bed awhile. Likewise, thankfully, there was no more noise from Mr. McGregor.
As she ate the breakfast of eggs and more naan brought by a cheerful Mahindar, Juliana planned her calls.
She’d questioned Hamish about her neighbors, the lad knowing everything about them down to the last detail. The Englishman Mr. Terrell, who’d purchased McGregor’s brewery, and his wife were gentlefolk, Hamish told her, the man being the son of a gentleman. They would be near the top of her visiting list, but heading them would be the Highlander in the neighboring estate, Ewan McPherson, a crony of Mr. McGregor’s.
Mrs. Rossmoran, while not as wealthy as the Terrells, was a daughter of Scotland, whose family, according to Hamish, had been in this area longer than anyone. Juliana would be sure to visit her among the first as well.
When she finished breakfast she went in search of Hamish again. She had no luck finding him until she went down the flagstone passage, calling his name.
He popped out of the kitchen, looking worried, but Hamish generally looked worried, so Juliana thought nothing of it at first. “Hamish, please spread the word that builders are desperately needed. Any kind of builder, plumbers, glaziers, and drapers. They may begin assembling here today, and Mr. McBride will speak to them.”
Hamish listened in all seriousness then said, “Aye. If we can find him.”
Juliana stopped. “If you can find who? Mr. McBride?”
“Aye.” Hamish nodded, his worried look becoming more pronounced. “He’s gone, m’lady, and there’s no trace of him.”
“What do you mean, no trace of him?” Juliana stared at Hamish, cold fear wiping out any plans of calls or house rebuilding. “He likely went for a walk. He and Mr. McGregor did imbibe fairly heavily last night, and Mr. McBride no doubt needs to clear his head.”
“No, m’lady. We thought of that, but he’s not gone for a walk. Mahindar says he’s gone into hiding.”
“Into hiding? What on earth does that mean?”
“Mahindar says that sometimes, when it all gets too much for him, he disappears. Mahindar says he sometimes can’t find Mr. McBride for days. But he says he hasn’t done it in a long time now.”
“Where is Mahindar?” Juliana demanded. “I want to speak to him.”
“He’s out looking. He and his wife and Nandita and the little girl are all hunting high and low for Himself. I was too, except you called me.”
What did Elliot fear? This was the Highlands, his home. He was safe here.
Juliana pushed past Hamish and dashed to the kitchen, never mind her strictures of the lady of the house never entering the servants’ quarters. “Mahindar?”
Mahindar popped out of a darkened corner so quickly that Juliana squeaked. He began an apology, but Juliana cut through it. “Have you found him?”
“No, memsahib. But we are looking. You should go out and make your visits. I will find him. I always do. Eventually.”
“Don’t be silly. I cannot tamely sip tea and talk of the weather while wondering if Elliot is all right. He might be hurt. I’m not leaving until we know he’s safe.”
Mahindar spread his hands. “Very well, but it might be days.”