The size of the man, and the sense of power in him. Plainly a Scot, by his dress, by his speech. He’d heard stories of Red Jamie Fraser—surely there couldn’t be two like him. But was it, could it be, really?
He’d realized that he was holding his breath only when spots began to swim before his eyes. And, trying to breathe silently, had seen the woman come into view on the far side of the fire.
She was an Englishwoman, he could see it at once. More than that, a lady. A tall woman, crudely dressed, but with the skin, the carriage, the refined features of a noblewoman. And certainly the voice. She was addressing the man crossly; he laughed.
She called him by name—by God, it was Jamie Fraser! And through his haze of panic and excitement, Grey made out the man’s reply and realized with horror that he was making indecent insinuations to the woman, stating a plain intent to take her to his bed. He had kidnapped her, then—and dragged her to this distant spot in order to dishonor her without the possibility of rescue or interference.
Grey’s first impulse had been to retire quietly through the brush, then tear down the mountain as fast as possible and run back to camp to fetch some men to apprehend Fraser. But the presence of the Englishwoman altered everything. He dare not leave her in the Scot’s grasp. He had so far had one experience in a brothel, and knew just how quickly immoral transactions could be accomplished. By the time he got back with help, it would be far too late.
He was sure his heartbeat must be audible at a distance, hard as it was hammering in his own ears.
“I’d come armed, of course.” He kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling, as though the egg-and-dart molding told some gripping tale. “A pistol and a dagger in my belt.”
But he hadn’t loaded the pistol. Cursing himself silently, he’d grappled for a moment with the problem: risk the delay of loading, the sound of the shot, plus the possibility of missing, or use the dagger?
“You didn’t think of taking him prisoner?” Percy asked curiously. “Rather than trying to kill him?”
“I did, yes,” Grey said, a slight edge to his voice. “But I was reasonably sure that his own men were somewhere nearby. He was well known, one of the Scottish chiefs; the clans were gathering—he wouldn’t be alone at all, if it weren’t for the woman.
“And it was dark, and the clearing was completely surrounded by forest. You’ve never seen a Scottish pine forest—two steps into the trees, and a man has vanished from sight. If I tried to take him prisoner, he might either shout for help—and I certainly couldn’t take on a horde of clansmen—or simply dive into the brush and be gone. Which would leave me and the woman as sitting ducks; his men would be on us long before I could get her down off the bloody mountain. But if I could kill him quietly, I thought, then I could get her away to safety before anyone knew. So I drew my dagger.”
“That’s what you meant about courage.” Percy’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “My God, I wouldn’t have had the nerve even to think of doing something like that!”
“Well, you would have been a good deal more intelligent than I was, then,” Grey said dryly.
His face felt hot, flushed both with embarrassment at the memory and with the memory itself, of blood pounding through his body at the prospect of his first kill.
He’d marked out the distance carefully—three paces, to be covered at a bound. Then fling his arm round the man’s head and pull it back, rip the dagger hard across the stretched throat. That’s what Sergeant O’Connell had instructed them to do, taking an enemy unawares in close quarters. They’d practiced, he and several of the younger soldiers, taking it in turn to play victim or killer. He knew just what to do.
“So I did it,” he said, with a sigh. “I flung my arm round his head—and it wasn’t there anymore. Next thing I knew, I was somersaulting through the air.”
The dagger went flying from his sweating fingers. He slammed hard into the earth and something fell on him. He’d fought back by instinct, dazed and breathless, but knowing that he fought for his life. Kicked, punched, clawed, bit—and for the most part, encountered only empty air.
Meanwhile, some elemental force had set about him, and a bone-cracking blow to the ribs drove the rest of the breath out of him. He reached out blindly, something grabbed his arm with a grip of steel and twisted it up his back. He lunged upward in panic, and his arm had snapped like a stick.
“Well…the long and the short of it is that the Englishwoman turned out to be Fraser’s wife, curse her. And I, for my pains, ended up tied to a tree and left for my brother’s men to find in the morning.”
“Jesus! All night, you were there? With your arm broken? You must have been in torment!”
“Well, yes,” Grey admitted reluctantly. “It was more the biting midges, though. And needing desperately to have a pee. I didn’t really notice the arm much.” He didn’t mention the searing pain of the burn along the edge of his jaw, where Fraser had laid the hot blade of his dirk—or his raw back, where he’d rubbed most of the skin off, trying to free himself. None of this bodily discomfort had seemed important, by contrast with the agony of mind occasioned by the realization of the depth of the betrayal he had been led into.
“Meanwhile—” He cleared his throat, determined to finish. “Meanwhile, Fraser and his men had crept round behind the camp, to the artillery park, taken all the wheels off the cannon, and burnt them. Using information I’d given them.”
Percy had been looking at him with sympathy. At this last confession, his mouth fell open. For an instant, shock showed in his eyes. Then he reached over and took Grey’s left arm in both hands, feeling gently through the shirt. The bone was lumpy, where it had healed.
“What did he do to you?” Percy asked quietly. “This Fraser?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Grey said, a little gruffly. “I should have let him kill me.” He had in fact been convinced that Fraser did mean to kill him—and hadn’t spoken. The truth…well, he’d told Hal. He shut his eyes, but didn’t pull his arm away. Percy’s hands were warm, his thumbs gently stroking along the bone.
“It was the woman,” he said, resigned to complete humiliation. “He threatened her. And I—idiot that I was—spoke, in order to save her.”
“Well, what else could you do?” Percy said, his tone so reasonable that Grey opened his eyes and stared at him. Percy smiled a little.
“Of course you would protect the woman,” he said. “You protect everyone, John—I don’t suppose you can help it.”
Astonished, Grey opened his mouth to contest this absurd statement, but was forestalled when Percy leaned forward and kissed him softly.
“You are the bravest man I know,” Percy said, his breath warm on Grey’s cheek. “And you will not convince me otherwise. Still…” He sat back, surveying Grey with interest. “I admit to surprise that you did become a soldier, after that experience.”
“My father was a soldier, so was Hal. I never thought of being anything else,” Grey said, truthfully. He managed a crooked smile. “And you do see the world.”
Percy’s face lighted at that.
“I’ve never been outside the British Isles. I’ve always wanted to see Italy—pity there’s no fighting there. Shall I like Germany, do you think?”
Grey recognized Percy’s attempt to leave the subject of his humiliation, and gave him a look saying as much—but accepted it, nonetheless.
“Probably, if you don’t catch the flux. The beer is very good. But as to Italy—perhaps we will go there. In the winter, when the campaigning is done. I should like very much to show you Rome.”
“Oh, I should like that of all things! You have been there—what do you recall most vividly?”
Grey blinked. In truth, his impressions of Rome were largely jumbles of ancient stone: the flat black paviors of the Appian Way, the marble baths of Caracalla, the dark, grease-smelling pits of the catacombs, their heaps of dusty brown skulls seeming as much a part of the cave as the rock itself.
“The seagulls on the Tiber,” he said suddenly. “They call all night long, in Rome. You hear their cries ringing from the stones of the streets. It’s strangely moving.”
“Seagulls?” Percy looked incredulous. “There are seagulls on the Thames, for God’s sake.” Grey glanced at the window, dark now, and streaked with rain.
“Yes. It’s…different in Rome. You’ll see,” he said, and rising on his elbow, kissed Percy back.
Life, as was its wont, became still busier. After their impromptu supper, Grey did not see Percy again for nearly a week, save for brief glimpses across the parade ground or a quick exchange of smiles as they passed in a corridor. He had no time to wish for more. The pressure of events was increasing, day by day, and he could feel responsibility wrapped like a strangling vine about his spinal cord, reaching eager fingers into the base of his skull.
He hadn’t been home in three days, and was living exclusively on stale coffee, Cornish pasties, and the odd gulp of brandy. Something, he thought, was going to snap. He hoped it would be only his temper, when the time came, and not someone else’s neck.
The tension was not limited to Grey, nor even to the officers. In the men, it was manifested as anticipation and exuberance, but with a nervous edge that gave rise to quarrels and petty conflicts, fights over misplaced equipment and borrowed whores. These were for the most part ignored, dealt with summarily by the sergeants, or settled privately between the aggrieved parties. But some things necessarily became public matters.
Two days before they began the march to Gravesend for embarkation, four companies were summoned to the square to witness a punishment. Crime, theft. Sentence, a hundred lashes—sentence reduced to fifty by the commanding officer, to insure that the man would be fit to march out with his companions.
Percy Wainwright was the lieutenant in charge, the commanding officer, though punishment was attended, as usual, by several senior officers—Grey among them.
He disliked the process, but understood its necessity. Usually, he simply stood, face impassive and eyes focused somewhere beyond what was happening. This time, though, he watched Percy.
Everything went smoothly. Percy seemed well in control of his men, the situation, and himself. And if he was white to the lips and openly sweating, that was nothing remarkable in a young commander performing this office for the first time.
Percy’s eyes were fixed on the process, and despite himself, Grey could not help following them. It was not severe, as such things went, though the man’s back was welted and bloody after a dozen strokes. Grey watched the rhythmic swing of the cat, heard the sergeant’s chanted count, and began, with a sudden sense of disorientation, to feel the impact of each blow in the pit of his stomach.
He fought the impulse to close his eyes.
He began to feel ill, the residue of his black-coffee breakfast churning inside him, rising up at the back of his throat. He was sweating, and fighting the sudden illusion that it was rain that ran down his face and neck.
His eyes were still open, but it was no longer the spring sunshine of the parade ground he saw, nor the stocky young soldier, groaning and flinching at each blow. He stood in the gray stone yard of Ardsmuir Prison, and saw rain run gleaming over straining shoulders, run mixed with blood down the deep groove of Jamie Fraser’s back.
He swallowed back bile and looked at his boots. Stood quietly, breathing, until it was finished.
The man was taken down from the triangle, helped away by his friends to the surgeon for a lathering of goose-grease and charcoal. Companies dismissed, leaving in an orderly fashion, quiet, as men tended to be after witnessing punishment. But when Grey turned to look for Percy, he had vanished.
Supposing that he required a moment’s privacy—he’d looked as though he were about to vomit, too—Grey returned to his own work, but made a point of coming back later, to inquire casually how Percy did, perhaps offer a drink or advice, as needed.
He did not find Percy in any of the places a second lieutenant would normally be. Surely he had not simply left and gone home to his rooms in Audley Street? Not without telling anyone, Grey thought, and no one recalled seeing him after the flogging.
It took quite a bit of casual wandering about, poking into this and that, before he finally found Percy, in one of the storage sheds behind the parade ground, where spare equipment was kept.
“All right?” he inquired, seeing Percy sitting on a mounting-block. It was a bright day, and sunlight fell through the boards of the shed, striping him with red where the light caught his uniform coat.
“Yes. Just thinking.” Percy’s face was in shadow, but his voice was calm.
“Ah. Don’t let me interrupt, then.” Grey reached for the door, but wasn’t surprised when Percy stood up.
“No, don’t go. It was good of you to come look for me.” He put his arms round Grey for a moment, bending his head so that their cheeks brushed.
Grey stiffened for an instant, surprised and half-alarmed—but it was quiet outside; the parade ground was empty, everyone bustling to finalize their preparations for departure. He returned the embrace, comforted by the touch, arousal stimulated by the sense of danger—but then stepped back.
“Quite sure you’re all right?” Percy had stopped sweating, and was no longer white, but was plainly still disturbed in mind. He nodded, though.
“That—reducing the sentence—was that all right?” he asked.
“Under the circumstances.” Grey paused, hand on the jamb. “Do you need a moment?”