“Fuirich,” Ian said to him briefly, and got to his feet. William had sat down and was examining the calf of his leg, which was bleeding through his torn silk hose, though not badly. When he saw Ian, he scrambled to his feet. His face was bright red and he looked as though he meant to either do murder or burst into tears. Maybe both, Ian thought in surprise.
He was careful not to touch William again but stood back a bit—in front of Rachel, just in case the man meant to go off again. He was armed, after all; there was a pistol and knife at his belt.
“Are ye all right, man?” Ian asked, in the same tone of mild concern he’d heard his da use now and then on his mam or Uncle Jamie. Evidently it was in fact the right tone to take with a Fraser about to go berserk, for William breathed like a grampus for a moment or two, then got himself under control.
“I ask your pardon, sir,” he said, back stiff as a stick of rock maple. “That was unforgivable. I shall . . . leave you. I—Miss Hunter . . . I—” He turned, stumbling a little, and that gave Rachel time to dart round in front of Ian.
“William!” Her face was full of distress. “What is it? Have I—”
He looked down at her, his face contorted, but shook his head.
“You haven’t done anything,” he said, with an obvious effort. “You . . . you could never do anything that—” He swung round toward Ian, fist clenched on his sword. “But you, you f**king bas—you son of a bitch! Cousin!”
“Oh,” said Ian stupidly. “Ye know, then.”
“Yes, I bloody know! You could have f**king told me!”
“Know what?” Rachel looked from him to William and back again.
“Don’t you bloody tell her!” William snapped.
“Don’t be silly,” Rachel said reasonably. “Of course he’ll tell me, the minute we’re alone. Does thee not wish to tell me thyself? I think perhaps thee might not trust Ian to say it aright.” Her eye rested on Ian’s lip, and her own mouth twitched. Ian might have taken offense at this, save that William’s distress was so apparent.
“It isna really a disgrace—” he began, but then stepped hastily back as William’s clenched fist drew back.
“You think not?” William was so furious, his voice was nearly inaudible. “To discover that I am—am—the . . . the get of a Scottish criminal? That I am a f**king bastard?”
Despite his resolve to be patient, Ian felt his own dander start to rise.
“Criminal, forbye!” he snapped. “Any man might be proud to be the son of Jamie Fraser!”
“Oh,” said Rachel, forestalling William’s next heated remark. “That.”
“What?” He glared down at her. “What the devil do you mean, ‘that’?”
“We thought it must be the case, Denny and I.” She lifted one shoulder, though keeping a close watch on William, who looked as if he were about to go off like a twelve-pound mortar. “But we supposed that thee didn’t wish the matter talked about. I didn’t know that thee—how could thee not have known?” she asked curiously. “The resemblance—”
“Fuck the resemblance!”
Ian forgot Rachel and hit William on the head with a double-fisted thump that knocked him to his knees, then kicked him in the stomach. Had the kick landed where he’d meant it to, it would have finished the matter right there, but William was a good deal faster than Ian expected him to be. He twisted sideways, caught Ian’s foot, and yanked. Ian hit the ground on one elbow, rolled up, and got hold of William’s ear. He was dimly aware of Rachel screaming and was momentarily sorry for it, but the relief of fighting was too great to think of anything else, and she disappeared as his fury surged.
There was blood in his mouth and his ears were ringing, but he had one hand on William’s throat and the other stabbing forked for his eyes, when hands seized him by the shoulders and jerked him off his cousin’s squirming body.
He shook his head to clear it, panting and pulling at whoever was holding him—there were two of the villains. That earned him a thump in the ribs that knocked out what little breath he had.
William wasn’t doing much better. He got to his feet, wiping the back of his hand under his nose, which was bleeding profusely. He glanced at the result and grimaced in disgust, wiping the hand on his coat.
“Take him,” he said, half breathless but in control of himself. One of his eyes was swelling shut, but the other gave Ian a look of straightforward bloodlust—and, despite the circumstances, Ian was once more startled at seeing one of Uncle Jamie’s expressions on another face.
There was a thunderous growl from Rollo. Rachel had the big dog’s scruff twisted tight, but Ian kent well enough that she couldn’t hold him if he decided to savage William. “Fuirich, a cu!” he said, with all the authority he could summon. The soldiers would kill Rollo without a second thought if he lunged for William’s throat. The dog eased back down on his haunches but stayed tensed, his lips drawn back from saliva-dripping fangs and a deep, constant growl echoing through his body.
William glanced at Rollo, then turned his back on the dog. He sniffed, hawked, and spat blood to one side, then continued, still breathing heavily. “Take him to the head of the column, to Colonel Prescott. He’s under arrest for assaulting an officer; he’ll be dealt with at camp this evening.”
“What does thee mean, ‘dealt with’?” Rachel demanded, pushing her way past the two soldiers holding Ian. “And how dare thee, William Ransom? How—how . . . how dare thee?!” She was white-faced with fury, small fists clenched and shaking at her sides, and Ian grinned at her, licking fresh blood from his split lip. She was paying no attention to him, though, all her ire focused on William, who drew himself up to his full height and glared down the steep bridge of his nose at her.
“This is no longer your concern, madam,” he said, as coldly as a man who was red as a piece of flannel and shooting sparks out of his ears could manage.
Ian thought Rachel might actually kick William in the shins, and would have paid good money to see that, but her Quaker principles got the better of the situation and she drew herself up to her own not insignificant height—she was as tall as Auntie Claire—and thrust her chin pugnaciously up at William.
“Thee is a coward and a brute,” she declared at the top of her voice. Swinging round toward the men holding Ian, she added, “And so are you brutes and cowards, to be following an order so lacking in justice!”
One of the soldiers sniggered, then coughed as he caught William’s bloodshot eye upon him.
“Take him,” William repeated. “Now.” And, turning on his heel, stalked off. There was a broad stripe of pale road dust down the back of his coat and a good deal of it in his hair.
“Best bugger off, miss,” one of the soldiers advised Rachel, not unkindly. “You don’t want to be down amongst the troops, like, not on your own.”
“I will not bugger off,” Rachel said, narrowing her eyes at the man in a way that reminded Ian of a panther about to spring. “What does thee intend to do to this man?” She gestured at Ian, who was getting his own breath back by now.
“Rachel,” he began, but was interrupted by the other soldier.
“Assaulting an officer? Probably five hundred lashes. Wouldn’t hang him, I don’t s’pose,” the man added dispassionately. “Seeing as young Galahad’s not maimed, I mean.”
Rachel went even whiter at this, and Ian jerked hard at his arms, getting his feet solidly under him.
“It’ll be all right, a nighean,” he said, hoping he sounded reassuring. “Rollo! Sheas! But he’s right—the camp’s nay place for ye, and ye canna do me any good by coming. Go back to the city, aye? Tell Auntie Claire what’s happened—she can speak to L—ungk!” A third soldier, coming out of nowhere, had hit him in the pit of the stomach with a musket butt.
“What are you lot hangin’ about for? Get on! And you— ” The soldier turned on Rachel and the dog, glowering. “Shoo.” He jerked his head at Ian’s captors, who obligingly hauled Ian around.
Ian tried to turn his head to give Rachel a final word, but they jerked him back and firmly down the road.
He stumbled along, in preference to being dragged, thinking furiously. Auntie Claire was his best chance—likely his only one. If she could make Lord John take a hand, either speaking to Willie or directly to this Colonel Prescott . . . He glanced up at the sun. Noon, more or less. And the British on the march carried out routine flogging and other punishment after the evening meal; he’d seen it now and then, and he’d seen his uncle’s back now and then, too. A cold worm crawled through his sore belly.
Six hours. Maybe.
He risked another quick glance back. Rachel was running, Rollo loping alongside.
WILLIAM SWABBED HIS face with what was left of his handkerchief. His features felt foreign to him, lumped and swollen, and he explored the inside of his mouth gingerly with his tongue: no teeth missing, a couple maybe loose, and a stinging cut inside his cheek. Not bad. He thought he’d done worse to Murray and was glad of it.
He was still trembling—not with shock but with the urge to rip someone limb from limb. At the same time, he was beginning to feel shock, though conscious thought still came in fleeting snatches. What the devil had he done?
A short column of soldiers marched past, a few of them openly staring at him. He gave them a vicious look, and their heads snapped forward so fast he could hear the leather of their stocks creak.
He hadn’t done it. Murray had attacked him. Where did Rachel Hunter get off, calling him a coward and a brute? He felt the tickle of blood crawling down from one nostril and stanched it, snorting into the filthy rag. He saw someone approaching, coming up the road, accompanied by a large dog. He straightened, stuffing the handkerchief into his pocket.
“Speak of the bloody she-devil,” he muttered, and coughed, his throat raw with the iron taste of blood.
Rachel Hunter was pale with rage. Apparently she hadn’t turned round to apologize for her insults. She had snatched off her cap and held it clutched in one hand—did she mean to throw it at him? he wondered in fogged amazement.
“Miss Hunter—” he began in a rasping voice, and would have bowed, save he was afraid the motion would make his nose bleed again.
“Thee cannot mean it, William!”
“Mean what?” he said, and she gave him a look that might have singed the small hairs off his body, had he not still been hot himself.
“Do not be obtuse!” she snapped. “What possessed thee, to—”
“What possessed your—your fiancé?” he snapped back. “Did I attack him? No!”
“Yes, you did! You struck him in the mouth, without the slightest provocation—”
“And he hit me on the head, without the least warning! If anyone is a coward—”
“Don’t you dare call Ian Murray coward, you—you—”
“I’ll call him what I bloody like—what he bloody is. Just like his goddamned uncle, goddamned Scottish bastard fu—I mean . . .”
“His uncle? Thy father?”
“Shut up!” he bellowed, and felt the blood surge into his face, stinging all the raw places. “Don’t call him my father!”
She breathed stertorously through her nose for a moment, glaring up at him.
“If thee allow this to be done, William Ransom, I will—I will—”
William could feel the blood pool in his belly and thought he might faint, but not because of her threats.
“You’ll what?” he asked, half breathless. “You’re a Quaker. You don’t believe in violence. Ergo, you can’t—or at least won’t”—he corrected himself, seeing the dangerous look in her eye—“stab me. You probably won’t even strike me. So what did you have in mind?”
She did strike him. Her hand whipped out like a snake and slapped him across the face hard enough to make him stagger.
“So now thee has doomed thy kinsman, repudiated thy father, and caused me to betray my principles. What next?!”
“Oh, bloody hell,” he said, and grabbed her arms, pulled her roughly to him, and kissed her. He let go and stepped back quickly, leaving her bug-eyed and gasping.
The dog growled at him. She glared at him, spat on the ground at his feet, then wiped her lips on her sleeve and, turning away, marched off, the dog at her heels casting a red-eyed look at William.
“Is spitting on people a part of your bloody principles?” he shouted after her.
She swung round, fists clenched at her sides.
“Is assaulting women part of thine?” she bellowed back, to the amusement of the infantrymen who had been standing still by the road, leaning on their weapons and gaping at the show provided.
Flinging her cap on the ground at his feet, she whirled on her heel and stamped away, before he could say more.
JAMIE CAUGHT SIGHT of a small group of redcoats coming down the road and slumped on the wagon’s seat, hat pulled down over his eyes. No one would be looking for him, with the British army on the move, and even were he recognized, probably no one would bother trying to detain or question him in the midst of such an exodus—but the sight of British soldiers would likely put a knot in his tailbone for the rest of his life, and today was no exception.
He turned his head casually away toward the far side of the road as the soldiers passed, but then heard a loud “Ifrinn!” in a very familiar voice, and jerked round in reflex to find himself staring straight into his nephew Ian’s startled, horrified face.
He was equally startled—and nearly as horrified—to see Ian, hands tied behind his back, smeared with dirt and blood and obviously the worse for wear, being shoved along by two cross-looking British privates, red-faced and sweating in their heavy uniforms.