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.”
“Whatever do you want a drawing of me for?”
Percy looked up from his work, brown eyes warm but serious in the candlelight.
“I want something of you to keep,” he said. “Just in case.”
Grey stopped, then set down his cup.
“I don’t mean to leave you,” he said quietly. “Did you think I would?”
Percy held his eyes, a faint smile on his lips.
“No,” he said softly. “But you are a soldier, John, and we are going to war. Does it never occur to you that you might be killed?”
Grey rubbed a knuckle over his mouth, disconcerted.
“Well…I suppose so. But I—to tell you the truth, I seldom think about it. After all, I might be run down in the street, or take a chill and die of pleurisy.” He put out a finger and lifted his soggy shirt, hung over a stool to dry before the fire.
“Yes, you might,” Percy said dryly, resuming his work. “The regimental surgeon told me that ten times more men die of the flux or plague or infection than ever are killed by an enemy. No reason you shouldn’t be one of them, now, is there?”
Grey opened his mouth to reply to this, but in fact, there was no good answer.
“I know,” Percy said, head bent over the paper. “You don’t think about that, either.”
Grey sighed, shifting a little.
“No,” he admitted. “Are you worrying?”
Percy’s teeth were set in his lip, his fingers making short, quick lines. After a moment, without looking up, he said suddenly, “I don’t want you to think me a coward.”
Oh, that was it. He ought to have known.
He was inclined to offer a simple reassurance, but hesitated. He had asked the same question, or something very like it, once. And Hector, his first lover, four years older and a seasoned soldier, had not given him the reassurance he’d asked for, but rather the honesty he’d needed. He couldn’t offer Percy less.
“It’s sometimes not so bad,” he said, slowly, “and sometimes it’s very terrible. And the truth is that you’ll never know what it’s going to be like—and you never know what you’ll do.”
Percy glanced up at him, eyes bright with interest.
“Have you ever run away?”
“Yes, of course. Doing your duty doesn’t mean standing in front of a battery and being killed. Usually,” he added as an afterthought. “And you must try to save your men, above all. If that means retreat, then you do—unless ordered to stand. If you do run, though, don’t drop your weapon. Firstly, you’ll likely bloody need it—and secondly, the quartermaster will stop the cost of it from your pay.”
Percy flipped open his sketchbook and set his pencil to the page, frowning intently.
“Wait, let me get that down. Primum: save…men. Secundo: do not…drop…weapon. Tertio—what’s the third thing on this list?”
“Suck my prick,” Grey said rudely. “Ass.”
Percy promptly flipped the sketchbook shut and came toward him, eyes brighter still.
“Wait! I didn’t mean it!”
“Just following orders,” Percy murmured, pinning him to the bed with a deft knee on his thigh, and getting a hand on his flies. “Sir.”
The brief and undignified struggle that followed—filled with muffled accusations of insubordination, high-handedness, disobedience, arrogance, contumacy, despotism, mutiny, and tyranny—ended in a truce that left the respective parties on the floor, breathless, flushed, disheveled, panting, and entirely satisfied with the negotiated terms of surrender.
Feeling boneless but peaceful, Grey struggled up from the floor and crawled onto the bed, where he lay half dozing as Percy tidied up the scattered remnants of their supper.
“Are you brave, John?” Percy drew a blanket over him, and kissed his forehead.
“No,” he said, without hesitation. “The only time I ever did act from what I thought was courage ended in disaster.”
He was astonished to hear his own voice saying this.
He’d told the whole story—perforce—to Hal at the time, though he would infinitely have preferred to be shot for desertion or flogged at the triangle than do so. He could still remember Hal’s face during that telling: relief, dismay, fury, laughter, renewed fury, and—damn him—sympathy, all shifting through his fine-boned face like water over rocks. And the rocks beneath—the deep-cut lines and smudges of exhaustion, signs of the sleepless night Hal had spent searching for him.
He’d never told anyone else, and felt for an instant as though he were on a sled, about to plunge down a steep, snowy slope with an icy abyss at its foot. But Percy’s weight sank the mattress beside him, and his hand was warm on Grey’s back.
“It was my first campaign,” he said, with a deep breath. “The Stuart Rising. I hadn’t got my commission yet; Hal took me with the regiment into Scotland, to have a taste of soldiering.”
Which he’d taken to like a duck to water. He’d loved the rough camp life, the routines and drills, the intoxicating scents of steel and black powder. The exciting sense of danger as they marched upward, pressed on into the bleak crags and dark pines of the Highlands, the men drawing closer, becoming more watchful, as civilization faded behind them. Most of all, the simple pleasure of the company of men, and the sense of himself as one of them.
He was quick, eager, and comfortable with weapons; had been taught to use a sword nearly as soon as he could stand, and to hunt with both gun and bow. He’d quickly made a place for himself as a forager and scout, and the men’s wary regard of him as the colonel’s younger brother ripened into a casual respect for him as a man. For a sixteen-year-old on his first campaign, it was more intoxicating than Holland gin.
He went out regularly with the other scouts, casting about in the evening to be sure there was no lurking threat as camp was made.
“Usually, we went out in pairs; I’d been out with a soldier named Jenks that evening. Decent fellow, but built like an ox. He’d get out of breath easily, and didn’t care much for climbing in the steep mountains.” And so when Grey had thought he’d seen smoke, a half mile high above them in the Carryarick Pass, Jenks had assured him he hadn’t.
“He might have been right; the light was going, and I couldn’t be sure. We turned back to camp. But it niggled at me—what if I had seen it?”
And so he’d slipped out of camp after supper. Should have told someone, but didn’t. He wasn’t afraid of getting lost. And if it was nothing, he didn’t want to be mocked for making a fuss or seeing shadows. He might have told Hector—but Hector had gone to the rear with a message for the captain of the Royal Artillery company that was traveling with them, bringing cannon for General Cope.
He did see shadows. Nearly three-quarters of a mile up the side of one of Scotland’s crags, the wind brought him the scent of smoke. And creeping through brush and bracken, stealthy as a fox in the gathering gloom, he’d seen at last the flicker of a small fire and the movement of shadows against the trees of a clearing.
“And then I heard her voice. A woman’s voice. An Englishwoman’s voice.”
“What, on a mountainside in the Highlands?” Percy’s voice reflected his own incredulity at the time. Even now, a decade and more past the Rising, the barbarian clansmen crushed or removed, the Highlands of Scotland remained a desolate wilderness. No one in his right mind would go there now—save soldiers, whose duty it was. But a woman? Then?
He’d crept closer, sure his ears were deceiving him.
“It couldn’t be Jacobite troops, in any case, I thought. It was only a single tiny fire. And when I got close enough to see…”
His heart had given such a lurch of excitement that he nearly choked on it. There was a man in the clearing, sitting on a log, relaxed.
He could so vividly recall his first sight of Jamie Fraser, and the fierce rush of emotions involved—alarm, panic, dizzying excitement. The hair, of course, first of all, the hair. Bound back loosely, not ginger but a deep red, a red like a stag’s coat, but a red that glinted in the firelight as the man bent to push another stick into the fire.