The Scottish Prisoner (Page 51)

The Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3)(51)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“Sidhe,” Fraser said softly. Sheee, the word sounded like, to Grey; much like the sigh of the wind.

“It’s the same word, in the Gàidhlig and the Gaeilge. It means the creatures of the other world. But sometimes when they come forth out o’ the stony duns where they live—they dinna go back alone.”

He had run for a nearby burn, out of some half-heard, half-recollected notion that the sidhe could not cross running water, thrown himself over a high bank, and crouched among the boulders at its foot, staggering against the force of water that surged to mid-thigh, half-drowned in the spray, blind in the dark but keeping his eyes tight shut nonetheless.

“Ye dinna want to look upon them,” he said. “If ye do, they can call ye to them. Cast their glamour upon you. And then ye’re lost.”

“Do they kill people?”

Fraser shook his head.

“They take people,” he corrected. “Lure them. Take them back into the rocks, down to their ain world. Sometimes”—he cleared his throat—“sometimes, the stolen ones come back. But they come back two hundred years later. And all—all they knew and loved—are dead.”

“How terrible,” John said quietly. He could hear Fraser’s breathing, heavy, like a man struggling against tears, and wondered why this aspect of the tale should move him so.

Fraser cleared his throat again, explosively.

“Aye, well,” he said, voice steady once more. “So I spent the rest o’ the night in the burn and nearly froze to death. If it hadna been near dawn when I went in, I shouldna have come out again. I could barely move when I did, and had to wait for the sun to rise high enough to warm me, before I could make my way back to where I’d left my deer.”

“Was it still there?” Grey asked with interest. “As you’d left it?”

“Most of it was. Something—someone,” he corrected himself, “had gralloched it neat as a tailor’s seam and taken away the head and the entrails and one of the haunches.”

“The huntsman’s share,” Grey murmured under his breath, but Fraser heard him.

“Aye.”

“And were there tracks around it? Other than your own, I mean.”

“There were not,” Fraser said, the words clipped and precise. And he would know, Grey thought. Anyone who could hunt a deer like that could certainly discern the traces. Despite Grey’s attempt at logic, a brief shiver went over him, visualizing the headless carcass, clean and butchered, the blood-soaked ground left trackless in the mist of dawn, save for the deep-gouged prints of the fleeing deer and the man who had felled it.

“Did you—take the rest?”

Fraser raised one shoulder and let it fall.

“I couldna leave it,” he said simply. “I had a family to feed.”

They walked on then in silence, each alone with his thoughts.

THE MOON HAD BEGUN to sink before they reached Glastuig, and exertion had calmed Grey’s rush of spirits somewhat. These revived abruptly, though, when they found the gate shut but not locked and, passing through, saw a glimmer of light on the distant lawn. It was coming from one of the windows on the right.

“Do you know which room that is?” he murmured to Jamie, nodding toward the lighted window.

“Aye, it’s the library,” Fraser replied, equally low-voiced. “What do ye want to do?”

Grey took a deep breath, considering. Then touched Jamie’s elbow, inclining his head toward the house.

“We’ll go in. Come with me.”

They approached the house cautiously, skirting the lawn and keeping to the shrubberies, but there was no sign of any servants or watchmen being on the premises. At one point, Fraser lifted his head and sniffed the air, taking two or three deep breaths before gesturing toward an outbuilding and whispering, “The stable is that way. The horses are gone.”

Jamie’s cautious researches had indicated as much; word in the village was that all the servants had left, unwilling to remain in a house where murder had been done. The livestock would have been taken away to the village, too, Grey supposed.

Could this nocturnal visitor be the executor? Grey could think of no reason why a legitimate executor of the estate would need to make a surreptitious visit—but then, perhaps the man had come in daylight, as was proper, but then lingered at his work? He glanced up at the moon; it was past midnight. Surely that argued more dedication to duty than he was accustomed to find among lawyers. Perhaps the man was just staying in the house and, finding himself wakeful, had come down in search of a book, Grey thought with a mental shrug. Occam’s razor worked more often than not.

They were within pistol shot of the house now. Grey glanced to and fro, and then, feeling self-consciously dramatic, stepped out onto the lawn. It was lit like a stage, and his shadow puddled dark at his feet, the bright moon almost overhead. No dog barked, no voice called out demanding to know his purpose, but still he walked gingerly, footfalls soundless on the untidy lawn.

The casements were well above eye level. Well above his eye level, at least. With some irritation, he saw that Fraser, who had come silently out behind him, was able by standing on his toes to see into the house. The big Scot shifted to and fro, craning to see—and then froze. He said something out loud, in bloody Gaelic. Grey thought from the tone and the clearly visible expression on his face that it must be a curse.

“What do you see?” he hissed, plucking impatiently at Fraser’s sleeve. The Scot thumped down on his heels and stared down at him.

“It’s that wee arse-wipe, Twelvetrees,” he said. “He’s going through Siverly’s papers.”

Grey barely heard the second part of this; he was already headed for the front door and quite ready to break it down, should it offer him the least resistance.

It didn’t. It was unlocked, and he heaved it open with such force that it crashed into the wall of the foyer. The sound coincided with a startled yelp from the library, and Grey charged toward the open door through which light was streaming, barely aware of Fraser, at his heels, saying urgently, “I’m no going to break ye out of that bloody castle again, just you remember that!”

There was a louder yelp as he burst into the library to find Edward Twelvetrees crouched beside the mantelpiece, the poker clutched in both hands and poised like a cricket bat.

“Put that down, you bloody nit,” Grey said, halting just short of striking range. “What the devil are you doing here?”

Twelvetrees straightened up, his expression going from alarm to outrage.

“What the devil are you doing here, you infamous fiend?”

Fraser laughed, and both Grey and Twelvetrees glared at him.

“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” he said mildly, though his broad face still bore a look of amusement. He waved his fingers, in the manner of one urging a small child to go and say hello to an aged relative. “Be going on wi’ your business. Dinna mind me.”

Jamie looked around, picked up a small wing chair that Grey had knocked over in his precipitous entry, and sat in it, leaning back with an air of pleased expectation.

Twelvetrees glared back and forth between Grey and Fraser, but an air of uncertainty had entered his expression. He looked like a rat baffled of its cheese rind, and Grey suppressed an urge to laugh, too, despite his anger.

“I repeat,” he said more mildly, “what are you doing here?”

Twelvetrees laid down his weapon but didn’t alter his attitude of hostility.

“And I repeat—what are you doing here? How dare you enter the house of the man you have so foully murdered!?”

Grey blinked. For the last little while, taken up by the magic of the moonlit night, he had quite forgotten that he was an outlaw.

“I didn’t murder Major Siverly,” he said. “I should very much like to know who did, though. Was it you?”

Twelvetrees’s mouth dropped open. “You … cur!” he said, and, seizing the poker up, made to brain Grey with it.

Grey caught his wrist with both hands and managed to pull him off balance as he lunged, so that Twelvetrees lurched and staggered, but he kept his feet sufficiently as to elbow Grey in the face with his free arm.

Eyes watering, Grey dodged a reckless swipe with the poker, leapt backward, and caught his bootheel in the edge of a rug. He staggered in his turn, and Twelvetrees, with a triumphant grunt, swung the poker at his midsection.

It was a glancing blow but knocked the wind out of him briefly, and he doubled over and sat down hard on the floor. Unable to breathe, he rolled to the side, avoiding another blow that clanged off the slates of the hearth, and, seizing Twelvetrees by the ankle, jerked as hard as he could. The other man went over backward with a whoop and the poker flew through the air, crashing into one of the casement windows.

Twelvetrees appeared to have stunned himself momentarily, having knocked his head against the battered mantelpiece. He lay sprawled on the hearth, his outflung hand dangerously close to the unshielded fire. With a relieving gasp, Grey rediscovered how to breathe, and lay still, doing it. He felt the vibration of a large body through the floorboards and, wiping a sleeve across his streaming face—God damn it, the bastard had bloodied his nose; he hoped it wasn’t broken—saw Fraser reach down delicately and haul Twelvetrees clear of the fire. Then, frowning, Fraser rose swiftly and, grabbing the ash shovel, scraped a smoking mass of papers out of the hearth, scattering them hastily over the floor, seizing chunks that had not yet quite caught fire, and separating them from the baulk of burning pages. He ripped off his coat and flung it over the half-charred papers to smother the sparks.

Twelvetrees uttered a strangled protest, reaching for the papers, but Fraser hauled him to his feet and deposited him with some force on a settee upholstered in blue- and white-striped silk. He glanced back at Grey, as though inquiring whether he required some similar service.

Grey shook his head and, wheezing gently, one hand to his bruised ribs, got awkwardly to his feet and hobbled to the wing chair.

“You could … have helped,” he said to Fraser.

“Ye managed brawly on your own,” Fraser assured him gravely, and to his mortification, Grey found that this word of praise gratified him exceedingly. He coughed and wiped his nose gingerly on his sleeve, leaving a long streak of blood.

Twelvetrees groaned and raised his head, looking dazed.

“I’ll … take that … as a no, … shall I?” Grey managed. “You say you did not kill Major Siverly?”

“No,” Twelvetrees answered, looking rather blank. Then his wits returned and his eyes focused on Grey with a profound expression of dislike.

“No,” he repeated, more sharply. “Of course I did not kill Gerald Siverly. What kind of flapdoodle is that?”

Grey thought briefly of inquiring whether there was more than one sort of flapdoodle and, if so, what the categories might be, but thought better of it and ignored the question as rhetorical. Before he could formulate another question, he noticed that Fraser was calmly engaged in going through the piles of paper on the desk.

“Put those down!” Twelvetrees barked, staggering to his feet. “Stop that at once!”