Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 24)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(24)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Percy’s mouth fell open, and Signor Berculi burst into sardonic laughter. Percy turned the sword slowly round in his hands, not taking his eyes off Grey.

“Shall I?”

Grey’s pulse was still hammering in his ears, and something exhilarating ran up his spine like champagne bubbles rising in a glass.

“Of course, if you like. You needn’t worry,” he said, and bowed deep to Percy, rapier politely extended. “I’ll be gentle.”

An hour later, Grey and Wainwright bade farewell to Signor Berculi and the salle des armes, and turned toward Neal’s Yard, where one of Grey’s favorite chophouses did a bloody steak with roast potatoes and the proprietor’s special mushroom catsup—an appealing prospect to ravenous appetites.

Grey was entirely aware that more than one appetite had been stimulated by the recent exercise. The art of swordsmanship obliged one to pay the closest attention to the body of one’s opponent, reading intent in the shift of weight, the narrowing of an eye, looking for a weakness that might be taken advantage of. He’d been attuned to every breath Percy Wainwright had taken for the last hour, and he knew damned well where Percy’s weakness was—and his own.

Blood thrummed pleasantly through his veins, still hot from the exercise. The day was sunny, with a chilly breeze that dried the sweat and felt good on his heated skin, and the afternoon lay alluringly before them, empty of obligation. He was meant to be taking Percy on a tour of the barracks, the storerooms, the parade ground, and introducing him to such officers and men as they ran across in the course of it. The devil with that, he thought. Time enough.

“Did you really have a sword in your cradle?” Percy asked, with a sidelong smile.

“Of course not. No good having a sword if you haven’t got any sense of balance,” Grey said mildly. “I believe I had reached the advanced age of three years before my father trusted me to stay solidly on my feet.”

He was gratified by the disbelieving look Percy gave him, but raised his hand in affirmation.

“Truly. If you ever become intimate with my—with our brother,” he corrected with a smile, “ask him to show you the scar on his left leg. Hal was very kind in teaching little brother to use a sword, but carelessly gave me his own rapier to try. It wasn’t buttoned, and I ran him through the calf with it. He bled buckets, and limped for a month.”

Percy hooted with laughter, but quickly sobered.

“Is it terribly important, do you think? That I know how to use a sword, I mean. Signor Berculi seemed to think I lack any natural ability whatever, and I must say I’m forced to agree with him.”

This was patently true, but Grey did not say so, merely moving a gloved hand in equivocation.

“It’s always a good thing to be adept with weapons, especially if the fighting is close, but I know any number of officers who aren’t. Much more important to act like an officer.”

“How do you do that?” Percy seemed sincerely interested, which was the first step, and Grey told him so.

“Have a care for your men—but also for their purpose. They will look to you in battle, and in some cases, your strength of will may be the only thing enabling them to go on fighting. At that point, their physical welfare ceases to be a concern, either to them or to you. All that matters is to hold them together and see them through. They must trust you to do that.”

Seeing the look of concern knitting Percy’s dark brows, he altered his plan for the afternoon.

“After luncheon, we’ll go to the parade ground, and I’ll explain the general order of drills. That’s why you have drills and discipline; the men must be in the habit of looking to you at all times, of following your orders without hesitation. And then,” he said, rather diffidently, “perhaps we might take a little supper. Your rooms are convenient to the parade ground, I believe. If you did not mind…we might fetch a bit of bread and cheese and eat there.”

Percy’s face lightened, the frown of concern replaced by a slow smile.

“I should like it of all things,” he said. He coughed then, and took up another subject.

“What was Melton saying to you during your bout? About a conspiracy of sodomites?” There was a hint of incredulity in his voice. “A conspiracy to do what?”

“Oh…create scandal, subvert the public morality, seduce children, bugger horses”—he smiled blandly into the face of an elderly gentleman passing, who had caught this and was staring at him, pop-eyed—“you know the sort of thing.”

Percy made snorting noises and pulled him along by the arm.

“I do,” he said, still snorting. “I grew up Methodist, remember.”

“I didn’t think Methodists even admitted the possibility of such things.”

“Not out loud, certainly,” Percy said dryly. “But why is your brother concerned with this particular affair?”

“Because—” he said, and got no further. A man jostled him rudely, shoving him into a wall so hard that he staggered.

“What the devil do you—” He put a hand to his bruised shoulder, indignant, then saw the look on the man’s face and dodged. He hadn’t seen the knife, but heard the scrape of it as it dragged across the brick wall where he had been standing an instant before.

The man was already recovering, turning. He kicked at the footpad, aiming for the knee, but got him square in the shin, hurting his own foot. The man yowled nonetheless, and drew back. Grey seized Percy by the sleeve.

“Run!”

Percy ran, Grey after him, and they pelted down the street, ducking hot-chestnut stands, orange sellers, and a throng of slow-moving women who shrieked and scattered as the men plowed through them. Footsteps rang on the pavement behind; he glanced back over his shoulder and saw two men, burly and determined, pursuing.

He’d left his rapier at the salle des armes, God damn it. He had his dagger, though, and ducking aside into an alley, ripped open his waistcoat and scrabbled frantically to get hold of it. He had no more than a second before the first of the men rushed in after him, reaching for him with a gap-toothed grin. Too late, the footpad saw the dagger and dodged aside; the point scored his abdomen, ripping his shirt and the flesh beneath. Grey glimpsed blood, and pressed the attack, shouting and jabbing.

The man danced backward, looking alarmed, and shouted, “Jed!”

Jed arrived promptly, popping up behind his fellow with a blackthorn walking stick. He slammed this across Grey’s forearm, numbing it, than bashed it at his hand. The dagger spun away into the piles of refuse. Grey didn’t wait to look for it.

He dodged another blow, and ran down the alley, looking for egress or shelter and finding neither.

They were both after him. He’d no time to wonder where Percy was. The brick wall of a building loomed up in front of him. Dead end.

A door—there was a door, and he threw himself against it, but it didn’t yield. He banged on it, kicked it, shouting for help. A hand grabbed his shoulder, and he swung round with it, striking out with a fist. The footpad grimaced, drew back, slapping at him like a baited bear.

Jed and his frigging stick were back, wheezing with the run.

“Do ’im,” said the first footpad, falling back to make room, and Jed promptly seized the blackthorn in both hands and drove the head of it into Grey’s ribs.

The next blow got him in the balls and the world went white. He dropped like a bag of tossed rubbish and curled up on himself, barely conscious of the wet cobbles under his face. He realized dimly that he was about to die, but was unable to do anything about it. Kicks and blows from the stick thudded into his flesh; he barely felt them through the fog of agony.

Then it stopped, and for a moment of blessed relief, he thought he’d died. He breathed, though, and discovered he hadn’t, as pain shot through him, sudden and searing as the spark from a Leyden jar.

“It is you,” said a gruff Scottish voice from somewhere above. “Thought so. Are ye hurt bad, then?”

He couldn’t answer. Enormous hands grabbed him beneath the armpits and sat him up against the wall. He made a thin breathy noise, which was all he could manage in the way of a scream, and felt bile flood his throat.

“Oh, like that, is it?” said the voice, sounding resigned, as Grey bent to the side and vomited. “Aye, well, bide a wee, then. I’ll fetch my jo wi’ the chair.”

The very young apothecary squinted earnestly at Grey’s forearm and prodded it gingerly.

“Oh, bad, is it?” he said sympathetically, at the resulting hiss of breath.

“Well, it’s not good,” Grey said, ungritting his teeth with some effort. “But I doubt it’s broken.” He turned his wrist very slowly, tensed against the possible grating of bone ends, but everything moved as it should. It hurt, but it moved.

“Tellt ye it wasnae more than bruises.” Rab MacNab shifted his bulk, uncrossing his arms and leaning forward from his post against the wall. “Agnes wouldnae have it but we get a doctor to ye, though. Tellt her ’twas a waste of money, aye?”

Despite his words, the big chairman cast a fond glance at his diminutive wife, who sniffed at him.

“I dinna mean to have his lordship die on my premises,” she said briskly. “Bad for business, aye?” She nudged the apothecary aside, and bent to peer earnestly at Grey’s face. Bright brown eyes scanned his battered features, then creased with her grin.

“Enjoy the ride, did ye?”

“I was much obliged to your husband, ma’am,” he said. While he was naturally relieved to have been discovered and rescued by an acquaintance, being thrown into MacNab’s sedan chair and carried at the trot for a mile had been very nearly as excruciating as the original injury.

“My congratulations on your new premises,” he added, wishing to change the subject. He struggled upright and swung his legs off the divan, forcing the young apothecary—the boy couldn’t be fifteen, surely—to let go of his arm.

“Thank ye kindly,” Nessie said, looking gratified. He couldn’t help but think of her as “Nessie,” as he had first met her under this name, before her apotheocis from whore to madam—and wife. She patted the respectable white kerch that bound her mass of curly dark hair, and looked contentedly round the tiny salon. It was furnished with a few bits of ramshackle furniture, all showing signs of heavy use—but it was scrupulously clean, and a good wax candle burned in a solid brass chamber stick.

“Small it is, but a good place. Three girls, all clean and willing. Ye’ll recommend us to your friends, I hope. Not but what we’d be pleased to accommodate your friend here gratis,” she added, turning graciously to Percy. “If ye’d care to pass the time, until his lordship’s fettled? Janie will be free in no time.”

Percy, who had been listening to the noises behind the wall—presumably involving Janie, as the gentleman with her was panting that name repeatedly—with patent interest, bowed to Nessie with grave decorum.

“I do appreciate the offer, ma’am. I’d not wish to tire Mistress Jane unduly, though. Surely she must have some rest.”