The Scottish Prisoner (Page 30)

The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3)(30)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

They found the well, marked by a rough circle of stones, just within the tower’s walls. Jamie Fraser had tied a string to his canteen and dropped it down to the dark water six feet below, then brought it up and sniffed at it with a long, suspicious nose before taking a cautious sip.

“I think nothing’s died in it lately.”

“Well and good,” said Quinn. “We’ll say a prayer, then, and slake our thirst, shall we?”

To Grey’s surprise, both his companions promptly bowed their heads over the crude well coping and murmured something. The words weren’t the same—they appeared each to be speaking his own language—but the rhythm was similar. Grey was unsure whether this was a prayer of thanksgiving for the provision of water or some ceremonial invocation against being poisoned by it, but he obligingly fixed his eyes on the ground and waited in silence until it was done.

They’d hobbled the horses and set them to graze on the lush grass, then supped themselves, decently if not luxuriously, on bread and cheese and dried apples. There hadn’t been much talk over the food; it had been a long day in the saddle, and they sought their beds soon after.

He’d fallen promptly asleep; the ability to sleep anywhere, instantly, was a soldier’s talent, and one he’d acquired very early in his career. And then had wakened some unknown time later, heart thumping and hairs erect, clutching for the dagger in his belt.

He had no idea what had wakened him and lay quite still, listening for all he was worth. Then there was a rustling of the grass nearby, quite loud, and he tensed himself to roll away and spring to his feet. Before he could move, though, there came the swish of moving feet and the hiss of a Scottish whisper.

“Are ye mad? Drop it, or I break your arm.”

There was a startled huff of air and the faint thump of something hitting the ground. Grey lay frozen, waiting.

“Hush, man.” Quinn’s voice came to him, barely louder than the sigh of the wind. “Ye don’t want to wake him.”

“Oh, that I do, if ye were doing what I think ye were.”

“Not here. Come away, for God’s sake!”

The sound of breathing, hesitance, then the quiet sough of feet through thick grass as they moved off.

Very quietly, Grey rolled onto his knees, shucking off his cloak. He took the pistol from the bag he’d been using for a pillow, rose, and followed, matching the rhythm of his movements to theirs. The moon had set, but he could see them by starlight, twenty yards ahead: Fraser a looming mass against the paler ground, Quinn so close beside him that he thought Fraser might be grasping the Irishman by the arm, pulling him along.

They went around the ruined tower and essentially disappeared, no longer visible against the dark bulk of its stone. He stood still, not breathing, until he heard them again.

“Now, then.” Fraser’s voice came clearly to him, soft but with the anger clear in it. “What the devil d’ye mean by this?”

“We don’t need him.” Grey noted with interest that Quinn didn’t sound frightened—merely persuasive. “You don’t need him, Mo chara.”

“There are a good many folk in the world I don’t need, including you, ye wee gomerel. If I thought it right to kill them on that account, I’d have done awa’ wi’ you before we left London.”

Grey blinked at that and felt a cold finger down his back. So Quinn had been in touch with Jamie in London? How? Had Jamie sought him out? What had Fraser told him—and why had he joined their company? And why had Fraser not told Grey that he knew Quinn before? He swallowed bile and moved a little closer, fingering the pistol. It was loaded but not primed, because of the damp.

“If he’s dead, ye could disappear, Mac Dubh. Nothing easier. Ye’re safe out of England now; I’ve more than one place in Ireland where ye could lie hidden for a bit, or ye could go across to France should ye feel the need—but who would hunt ye?”

“That man’s brother, for one,” Fraser said coldly. “Ye’ve not had the benefit of meeting His Grace the Duke of Pardloe, but I’d sooner be hunted by the fiend himself. Did it never occur to you to ask if I thought it a good idea to kill the Englishman?”

“Thought I’d save ye the trouble, Mac Dubh.” Quinn sounded amused, damn him!

“Dinna be calling me Mac Dubh.”

“I know ye’ve a tender conscience, so ye have. Another minute and I’d have had him taken care of and tucked away safe down the well. Ye’d have no call to worry yourself.”

“Oh, aye? And what then? Did ye mean to tell me, or just give it out that he’d changed his mind and gone off on foot?”

“Oh, I’d have told you, sure. What d’ye take me for, Mac Dubh?”

There was a moment of marked silence.

“What d’ye owe him?” Quinn demanded, breaking it. “Him or his brother? The swarthy-johns have imprisoned ye, enslaved ye! Taken your land, killed your kin and your comrades—”

“After saving my life, aye.” Fraser’s voice had grown dry; he was losing the edge of his anger, Grey thought, and wondered whether that was a good thing.

He wasn’t really concerned that Quinn would talk Fraser round; he knew Fraser’s innate stubbornness much too well. He was a trifle worried that Fraser might not talk the Irishman round, though—he didn’t fancy lying sleepless night after night, expecting a knife in the back or his throat cut at any moment. He felt in the pocket of his coat for the small brass powder horn he carried … just in case.

Fraser gave a deep, exasperated sigh.

“Look ye,” he said, in a low, firm voice. “I’ve given my word in this. If ye dare to dishonor me by killing the Englishman, I tell ye flat, Quinn—it’ll be you joining him at the bottom of a well.”

Well, that was some relief. Fraser might or might not want him dead—certainly he had, at various points of their acquaintance with each other—but he wasn’t willing to have him assassinated. Grey supposed he should be affronted by the implication that it was only Fraser’s fear of dishonor or Hal that was keeping Grey alive, but under the circumstances …

Quinn muttered something sulky that Grey didn’t catch, but his submission was clear. Grey didn’t let go of the powder horn but didn’t take it out of his pocket, either; his thumb rubbed back and forth, restless on the line of engraving round the rim.

Acta non verba, it said: action, not words. The breeze had changed direction, and he could no longer hear clearly. Mumbling, disconnected words, and he edged a little closer, pressing near the dank stones of the wall.

“… he’s in the way of our business.” Those words came clear, and Grey stopped abruptly. He was still clutching the powder horn in his pocket.

“You and I have nay business. I’ve told ye that a dozen times.”

“Ye think so, do ye?” Quinn’s voice was rising; he was striving for the effect of anger, Grey thought with interest, but was not truly angry. “It’s the business of every true Catholic, every true man!”

“Ye’ll gang your own way, Quinn, and I shallna hinder ye. But I’ve my own business to see to, and ye’ll not stand in my way, either. D’ye hear me?”

Quinn snorted, but had obviously heard.

“Oidhche mhath,” Fraser said quietly, and Grey heard footsteps come in his direction. He pressed flat against the tower, hoping that the Scot would not pass downwind of him; he harbored a sudden irrational conviction that Fraser could smell his sweat—for despite the cool of the night, drops ran tickling down his ribs and matted the hair to the back of his neck—and would hunt him like a Highland stag.

But Fraser sheered off and went into the tower, muttering under his breath in the Scottish sort of Gaelic, and a moment later Grey heard splashing sounds. Presumably Fraser dashing water in his face to cool his anger.

He heard nothing from the other direction and could not see Quinn among the shadows. Perhaps the man had gone off to settle his own pique or was simply sitting there brooding. In any case, he seized the opportunity to peel himself off the wall and make his way back to his sleeping place, lest either of the irascible Gaels come looking for him.

Only as he approached the dark puddle of his discarded cloak did he become aware that he was still clutching the pistol in one hand, the other still clenched, aching, round the powder horn in his pocket. Letting go, he put away the pistol and sat down, rubbing his thumb across the palm of his hand, where he could clearly feel the word “Acta” embossed in the flesh.

HE LAY AWAKE until dawn, watching the hazy stars fade from the sky, but no one disturbed him. His thoughts, though, were another matter.

He clung to the minor reassurance provided by his recollection that Jamie Fraser had tried to prevent Quinn from accompanying them—and that he, Grey, had airily overridden his objections. That meant that whatever Quinn had in mind, Fraser presumably was not part of it.

But he knows what it is. And had refrained from telling Grey about it. But that might be innocent, if Fraser hadn’t expected Quinn to attack Grey.

“He’s in the way of our business,” the Irishman had said, apparently meaning Grey himself. What the devil was the “business,” and how was his presence an interference with it?

Well, there were clues. Quinn’s reference to “every true Catholic, every true man,” for instance. That had the smell of Jacobitism about it. And while the Stuarts’ cause had been decisively crushed in the Highlands fifteen years before, Grey did know that there were sputtering plots still smoldering in Ireland—all over the Continent, for that matter: France, Italy, Spain … One of them now and then erupted into brief flame before being stamped out, but it had been a year or two since he’d heard of anything active.

Thomas Lally came suddenly to mind, as did what Minnie had said about that bloody verse. A white rose, the Jacobite symbol. Fraser hadn’t mentioned the white rose, nor had Lally. And Lally had been one of Charles Stuart’s officers before going off to involve himself with the French. What had Lally and Fraser said to each other in those brief sentences of stilted Erse?

Grey closed his eyes briefly in dismay. More bloody Jacobites? Would they never give up?

By what Fraser said, he had met Quinn in London. So much for Hal’s insistence that Fraser be treated as a gentleman and not a prisoner, allowed to walk out freely as he liked!

“Serve you right if that Irish blackguard had cut my throat,” he muttered to his absent brother.

Still, this was beside the point. The important thing, he reminded himself, was that Jamie didn’t want him dead—a warming thought—and had stopped Quinn from killing him.

Would that continue to be the case, if he spoke directly to Fraser about the matter?

As he saw it, he had only two alternatives: say nothing, watch them, and do his best never to sleep … or talk to Jamie Fraser. He scratched his chest meditatively. He could go one night without sleep, possibly two. That would bring them within reach of Siverly. But he didn’t wish to face Gerald Siverly exhausted and fuzzy-minded.