“Your brain’s like to burst, Major, and ye dinna give over thinking so much,” he said, not unkindly. He shoved the pitchfork under a mound of manure-matted straw and heaved the muck out through the open door. “Ye ken well enough that the terms of my parole dinna permit any such thing.”
That was quite true; Grey had written those terms, and Fraser had signed them. He recalled the occasion vividly; it was the first—but not the last—occasion on which he had been sure that only the presence of armed guards kept Fraser from breaking his neck.
It was apparent from the Scot’s ironic expression that he recalled the occasion, too.
“And if I wasna sufficiently honorable as to abide by those terms, Major,” he added evenly, “I should have been in France a week after setting foot in this place.”
Grey forbore to take issue with the notion of someone of Fraser’s striking appearance being able to travel the roads without being noticed, or to cross fifty miles of open fell on foot, without cloak, food, or shelter—not least because he was convinced that the man quite possibly could have done so.
“I would never suggest a breach of honor on your part, Mr. Fraser,” Grey said, and was mildly surprised to find that true. “I apologize if my question might have implied any such suggestion.”
“Accepted, Major,” he said, a little gruffly. He paused, gripping the fork as though about to return to his work, but then the muscles of his shoulders relaxed.
“I said that the Stuart court leaks like a sieve, Major, because both King James and his son are still alive, and the same men still surround them. So far as I am in a position to know,” he added, with a glint of dry humor.
“You don’t think they’ve given up?” Grey asked curiously, choosing not to notice that “King James.” “Surely they have no hope—”
“No, they have nay hope, and no, they’ve not given up,” Fraser interrupted him, the dry note more pronounced. “They’re Scots, for all they live their lives in the shadow of St. Peter’s. They’ll cease plotting when they’re dead.”
“I see.” He did. Eighteen months as governor of Ardsmuir was enough to have given him a useful estimation of the Scottish character. The Emperor Hadrian had known what he was about, he thought; pity later rulers of England had been less prudent.
With that thought in mind, he chose his words carefully.
“May I ask you a question, Mr. Fraser?”
“I see no way to stop ye, Major.” But there was no rancor in Fraser’s voice, and the light in his eye was the same that appeared when they played chess. Wariness, interest—and readiness.
“If I were to release you explicitly from that provision of your parole—and were to forward any letter you cared to send, wherever you chose to send it, without question—would you be able to contact someone who would know the names of prominent Jacobites in England? It would have been someone active in 1741.”
He’d never seen Fraser drop-jawed, and didn’t now, but the Scot plainly couldn’t have been more taken aback had Grey suddenly kissed him on the mouth.
“That—” he began, then broke off and shook his head. “Do you—” He paused again, so patently appalled at the suggestion that words failed him.
“Do I know what I ask? Yes, I do, and I am sorry for it.” Silence hung between them for a moment, broken by the champing of horses and the call of an early lark in the meadow beyond the stable.
“Please believe that I would not seek to make use of you in this fashion, were there any other choice,” Grey said quietly.
Fraser stared at him for a moment, then pushed the fork into the heap of soggy straw, turned, and went out. He walked off into the growing dusk, to the paddock, and there stood, his back turned to Grey, gripping the upper rail of the fence as though trying to reestablish his grip on reality.
Grey didn’t blame him. He felt completely unreal himself.
“Why?” Fraser asked bluntly, turning round at last.
“For my father’s honor.”
Fraser was silent for a moment.
“Do ye describe my own present situation as honorable, sir?”
Fraser cast him an angry glance.
“Defeat—aye, that’s honorable enough, if nothing to be sought. But I am not merely defeated, not only imprisoned by right of conquest. I am exiled, and made slave to an English lord, forced to do the will of my captors.
“And each day, I rise with the thought of my perished brothers, my men taken from my care and thrown to the mercies of sea and savages—and I lay myself down at night knowing that I am preserved from death only by the accident that my body rouses your unholy lust.”
Grey’s face was numb; he could not feel his lips move, and was surprised to hear the words come clearly nonetheless.
“It was never my intent to bring you dishonor.”
He could see the Scot check his rising anger, with an effort of will.
“No, I dinna suppose that it was,” he replied evenly.
“I don’t suppose you wish to kill me?” Grey asked, as lightly as possible. “That would solve my immediate dilemma—and if you dislike your life as much as you appear to, the process would relieve you of that burden, as well. Two birds with one stone.”
With startling swiftness, Fraser plucked a stone from the ground, and in the same motion, hurled it. There was a sickening thump, and jerking round, Grey saw a fallen rabbit, legs kicking in frantic spasm beneath a bush.
Without haste, Fraser walked over, picked it up, and broke its neck with a neat snap. Returning, he dropped the limp body at Grey’s feet.
“Dead is dead, Major,” he said quietly. “It is not a romantic notion. And whatever my own feelings in the matter, my family would not prefer my death to my dishonor. While there is anyone alive with a claim upon my protection, my life is not my own.”
He walked off then, into the chilly twilight, and did not look back.
Grey left Helwater the next day. He did not see Fraser again—did not plan to—but carried a note to the stable at mid-morning. It was deserted, most of the horses gone, and the three grooms with them, as he’d expected.
He had taken some pains with the composition of the note, keeping it as formal and dispassionate as possible. He had, he wrote, informed Lord Dunsany that if Fraser chose to write any letters, to anyone whomsoever (that phrase underlined; he knew that Fraser wrote secretly to his family in the Highlands when he could), he was to be provided with paper and ink, and the letters dispatched under Dunsany’s seal, without question. The letters would not, he added delicately, be read by any save their intended recipients.
He had thought to leave the note, addressed to Fraser, pinned to a railing or stall where it would be easily found. But now he reconsidered; he didn’t know whether the other grooms could read, nor whether their respect for Fraser might restrain their curiosity—but neither he nor Fraser would want the matter to be generally known and talked about.
Ought he to leave the note with Dunsany, to be delivered personally? He felt some delicacy about that; he did not wish Fraser to feel any pressure of Dunsany’s expectations—only yours, he thought grimly. He hesitated for an instant, but then climbed the ladder to the loft where he knew Fraser slept, heart beating like a drum.
The loft was dim, but even in the poor light, it was apparent at once which spot was Fraser’s. There were three striped mattress tickings on the floor, each with a lidded wooden crate beside it for clothes and personal belongings. Two of these were scattered with pipes, tobacco pouches, stray buttons, dirty handkerchiefs, empty beer jugs, and the like. The one on the left, a little distance from the others, was starkly bare, save for a tiny wooden statue of the Virgin and a rush dip, presently extinguished.
He found himself holding his breath, and forced himself to walk normally, footsteps echoing on the boards.
There was a single blanket on the ticking, neatly spread, but speckled with straw. Heaps of matted straw lay around each mattress like a nest; the grooms must pull hay over themselves for extra warmth. No wonder; his breath was white, and the chill of the place numbed his fingers.
The impulse to lift the lid of the box and see what lay within was nearly irresistible. But he had done enough to Jamie Fraser; to intrude into this last small bastion of his privacy would be unforgivable.
With this realization came another; it wouldn’t do. Even to leave the note atop the crate, or discreetly placed beneath the blanket, which had been his first thought, would let Fraser know that Grey had been here—an intimacy in itself that the man would find an unwelcome violation.
“Well, damn it all anyway,” he muttered to himself, and going down the ladder, found a bucket to stand on and pinned the note above the lintel of the tack room, in plain sight, but high enough that only Fraser would be able to reach it easily.
He looked up toward the fells as he left the stable, searching for horsemen, but nothing showed save rags of drifting fog.
The sailing had been put back two weeks because all of the necessary food and equipment had not yet arrived. Grey arrived at Percy’s rooms at nightfall, soaking wet and chilled to the bone from a day spent shivering in the rain on the docks, negotiating the terms under which the goddamned chandler from Liverpool would actually deliver the barrels of salt pork for which he had been contracted, and the terms under which the ship’s crew—contracted to carry said barrels—would actually load the goddamned barrels into the goddamned hold of the goddamned ship and batten down the goddamned hatches on top of them.
Percy rubbed him dry, gave him fresh clothes, made him lie on the bed, listened to his grievances, and poured him a brandy, which made him think that perhaps he wouldn’t die just yet.
“Do you suppose fighting will be easier than the struggle to get to the battlefield?” Percy asked.
“Yes,” Grey said, with conviction, and sneezed. “Much easier.”
Percy laughed, and went down to fetch supper from the tavern on the corner, returning with bread, cheese, ale, and a pot of something purporting to be oyster stew, which was at least hot.
Grey began to emerge from his condition of sodden misery, enough to talk a little and take note of his surroundings. To his surprise, he saw that Percy had been drawing; a cheap artist’s block and charcoal had been pushed to one side, the top sheet showing the view from the window, roughed in, but rendered with considerable skill and delicacy.
“This is very good,” he said, picking it up. “I didn’t know you could draw.”
Percy shrugged, nonchalant, but clearly pleased by his praise.
“One of my mother’s friends was an artist. He showed me a few things—though warning me that to become an artist was the only certain way to starve.”
Grey laughed, and mellowed by fire, hot food, and ale, made no demur when Percy turned to a clean sheet of paper and began to sketch Grey’s features.
“Go ahead and talk,” Percy murmured. “I’ll tell you if I need you to be still.”