The Scottish Prisoner

Page 11

“How should I know? Meat pies. Leftover joint. Roast peacock, for God’s sake. Go ask Cook; go ask your mistress!”

“Yes, Your Grace!”

Pardloe shook his head, then looked at Jamie again.

“Got your bearings now?” he inquired in a perfectly normal tone of voice, as though resuming an interrupted conversation. “I mean—you recall me?”

“I do.”

He did, and the recollection jarred him almost as much as finding Pardloe instead of the Duke of Cumberland. He clutched the seat of the chair, steadying himself against the memory.

Two days past the battle, and the smoke of burning bodies swirled thick over the moor, a greasy fog that seeped into the cottage where the wounded Jacobite officers had taken refuge. They’d crossed the carnage of the field together, bleeding, frozen, stumbling … helping one another, dragging one another to a temporary—and totally illusory—safety.

He’d felt the whole of it an illusion. Had waked on the field, convinced he was dead, relieved it was over, the pain, the heartbreak, the struggle. Then had truly waked, to find Jack Randall lying dead on top of him, the captain’s dead weight having cut off circulation to his wounded leg and saved him from bleeding to death—one final ill turn, one last indignity.

His friends had found him, forced him to his feet, brought him to the cottage. He hadn’t protested; he’d seen what was left of his leg and knew it wouldn’t be long.

Longer than he’d thought; it had been two days of pain and fever. Then Melton had come, and his friends had been taken out and shot, one by one. He’d been sent home, to Lallybroch.

He looked at Harold, Lord Melton—now Duke of Pardloe—with no great friendliness.

“I mind ye.”

PARDLOE ROSE FROM the desk and, with a twitch of the shoulder, summoned him to a pair of wing chairs near the hearth, motioning him into one. Jamie lowered himself gingerly onto the pink-striped satin damask, but the thing was sturdily built and bore his weight without creaking.

The duke turned toward the open door to the library and bellowed, “Pilcock! Where the devil are you?”

It wasn’t a footman or butler who appeared, though. The woman whose face he had glimpsed in the hall downstairs came in, skirts whispering. He had a much better look at her face now and thought his heart might stop.

“Pilcock’s busy,” she told the duke. “What do you want?” She was visibly older but still pretty, with a soft flush to her cheeks.

“Busy? Doing what?”

“I sent him up to the attics,” the woman replied composedly. “If you’re sending poor John to Ireland, he’ll need a portmanteau, at least.” She gave Jamie the briefest of glances before her gaze flicked back to the duke, and Jamie saw one neat eyebrow arch in question.

Jesus. They’re married, then, he thought, seeing the instant communication in the gesture and the duke’s grimace of acknowledgment. She’s his wife. The green-printed wallpaper behind the duke suddenly began to flicker, and the sides of his jaws went cold. With a remote sense of shock, he realized that he was about to faint.

The duke uttered an exclamation and the woman swung round toward him. Spots flickered and grew thick before his eyes, but not thick enough that he failed to see the expression on her face. Alarm—and warning.

“Are you quite well, Mr. Fraser?” The duke’s cool voice penetrated through the buzzing in his ears, and he felt a hand on the back of his neck, forcing his head down. “Put your head between your knees. Minnie, my dear—”

“I’ve got it. Here.” The woman’s voice was breathless, and he heard the clink of glass, smelled the hot scent of brandy.

“Not that, not yet. My snuffbox—it’s on the mantelpiece.” The duke was holding him by the shoulders, he realized, bracing him to keep him from falling. The blood was slowly coming back into his head, but his vision was still dark and his face and fingers cold.

The sound of quick light footsteps came to him—hearing was always the last sense to go, he thought dimly—clicking on the parquet, muffled on the rug, a pause, then coming swiftly back. An urgent murmur from the duke, another click, a small, soft pop! and the stinging rush of ammonia shot up his nose.

He gasped and jerked, trying to turn away, but a firm hand held his head, obliging him to breathe, then finally let go and allowed him to sit up, coughing and spluttering, eyes watering so badly that he could barely make out the woman’s form hovering over him, the vial of smelling salts in her hand.

“Poor man,” she said. “You must be half dead with travel, and hungry, to boot—it’s past teatime, and I’ll wager you’ve not had a bite in hours. Really, Hal—”

“I sent for food. I was just about to send again when he turned white and keeled over,” the duke protested, indignant.

“Well, go and tell Cook, then,” his wife ordered. “I’ll give Mr.…” She turned toward Jamie, expectant.

“Fraser,” Jamie managed, wiping his streaming face on his sleeve. “James Fraser.” The name felt strange on his lips; he hadn’t spoken it in years.

“Yes, of course. I’ll give Mr. Fraser some brandy. Tell Cook we want sandwiches and cake and a pot of strong hot tea, and we want it quickly.”

The duke said something vulgar in French, but went. The woman had a cup of brandy ready and held it to his lips. He took it from her, though, and looked at her over the rim.

The soft flush had gone from her cheeks. She was pale, and her gentle lips were pressed in a grim line.

“For the sake of the cause we once shared,” she said very quietly, “I pray you, say nothing. Not yet.”

HE WAS DEEPLY EMBARRASSED—and even more deeply unsettled. He’d fainted before, from pain or shock. But not often, and not in front of an enemy. Now here he sat, drinking tea from a porcelain cup with a gold rim, sharing sandwiches and cakes from a similarly adorned platter, with that very enemy. He was confused, annoyed, and at a considerable disadvantage. He didn’t like it.

On the other hand, the food was excellent and he was, in fact, starved. His wame had been clenched in a ball since they came in sight of London, so he’d taken no breakfast.

To his credit, Pardloe made no move to take advantage of his guest’s weakness. He said nothing beyond an occasional “More ham?” or “Pass the mustard, if you please,” and ate in the businesslike manner of a soldier, not seeking Jamie’s eye but not avoiding it, either.

The woman had left without another word and hadn’t come back. That was one thing to be thankful for.

He’d known her as Mina Rennie; God knew what her real name was. She’d been the seventeen-year-old daughter of a bookseller in Paris who dealt in information and more than once had carried messages between her father and Jamie, during his days of intrigue there before the Rising. Paris seemed as distant as the planet Jupiter. The distance between a young spy and a duchess seemed even greater.

“For the sake of the cause we once shared.” Had they? He’d been under no illusions about old Rennie; his only loyalty had been to gold. Had his daughter really considered herself a Jacobite? He ate a slice of cake, absently enjoying the crunch of walnuts and the richly exotic taste of cocoa. He hadn’t tasted chocolate since Paris.

He supposed it was possible. The Cause had attracted people of romantic temperament; doomed causes usually did. That made him think abruptly of Quinn, and the thought raised the hairs on his forearms. Christ. He’d nearly forgotten the bloody Irishman and his harebrained schemes, in the alarms of the last few days. What would Quinn think, hearing he’d been dragged off by English soldiers?

Well, he could do nothing about either Quinn or the Duchess of Pardloe just now. One thing at a time. He drained his cup, leaned forward, and set it on its saucer with a deliberate clink that indicated he was now ready to talk.

The duke likewise put down his cup, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and said without preamble, “Do you consider yourself in my debt, Mr. Fraser?”

“No,” he said, without hesitation. “I didna ask ye to save my life.”

“No, you didn’t,” Pardloe said dryly. “In fact, you demanded that I shoot you, if my recollection is correct.”

“It is.”

“Do you hold it against me that I didn’t?” It was asked seriously, and Jamie answered it the same way.

“I did. But I don’t now, no.”

Pardloe nodded.

“Well, then.” He held up both hands and folded down one thumb. “You spared my brother’s life.” The other thumb folded. “I spared yours.” An index finger. “You objected to this action.” The other index finger. “But have upon consideration withdrawn your objection?” He raised both eyebrows, and Jamie quelled a reluctant impulse to smile. He inclined his head half an inch instead, and Pardloe nodded, lowering his hands.

“So you agree that there is no debt between us? No lingering sense of injury?”

“I wouldna go that far,” Jamie replied, very dry indeed. “Ye’ve got three fingers left. But there’s nay debt, no. Not between us.”

The man was sharp; he caught the faint emphasis on “us.”

“Whatever disagreements you may have with my brother do not concern me,” Pardloe said. “So long as they don’t interfere with the business I am about to lay before you.”

Jamie wondered just what John Grey had told his brother concerning the disagreements between them—but if it wasn’t Pardloe’s concern, it wasn’t his, either.

“Speak, then,” he said, and felt a sudden knotting in his belly. They were the same words he’d said to John Grey, which had unleashed that final disastrous conversation. He had a strong foreboding that this one wasn’t going to end well, either.

Pardloe took a deep breath, as though readying himself for something, then stood up.

“Come with me.”

THEY WENT TO A small study down the hall. Unlike the gracious library they had just left, the study was dark, cramped, and littered with books, papers, small random objects, and a scatter of ratty quills that looked as if they’d been chewed. Clearly, this was the duke’s personal lair, and no servant’s intrusion was often tolerated. Tidy himself by default rather than inclination, Jamie found the place oddly appealing.

Pardloe gestured briefly at a chair, then bent to unlock the lower drawer of the desk. What could be sufficiently delicate or important that it required such precautions?

The duke withdrew a bundle of papers bound with ribbon, untied it, and, pushing things impatiently aside to make a clear space, laid a single sheet of paper on the desk in front of Jamie.

He frowned a bit, picked up the sheet, and, tilting it toward the small window for a better light, read slowly through it.

“Can you read it?” The duke was looking at him, intent.

“More or less, aye.” He set it down, baffled, and looked at the duke. “Ye want to know what it says, is that it?”

“It is. Is it Erse? The speech of the Scottish Highlands?”

Jamie shook his head.

“Nay, though something close. It’s Gaeilge. Irish. Some call that Erse, too,” he added, with a tinge of contempt for ignorance.

“Irish! You’re sure?” The duke stood up, his lean face positively eager.

“Yes. I wouldna claim to be fluent, but it’s close enough to the Gàidhlig—that would be my own tongue,” he said pointedly, “that I can follow it. It’s a poem—or part o’ one.”

Pardloe’s face went blank for an instant but then resumed its expression of concentration.

“What poem? What does it say?”

Jamie rubbed a forefinger slowly down the bridge of his nose, scanning the page.

“It’s no a particular poem—not a proper one, wi’ a name to it, I mean—or not one I know. But it’s a tale o’ the Wild Hunt. Ken that, do ye?”

The duke’s face was a study.

“The Wild Hunt?” he said carefully. “I … have heard of it. In Germany. Not Ireland.”

Jamie shrugged, and pushed the page away. The little study had a faintly familiar smell to it—a sweet fuggy aroma that made him want to cough.

“Do ye not find ghost stories everywhere? Or faerie tales?”

“Ghosts?” Pardloe glanced at the page, frowning, then picked it up, scowling as though he’d force it to talk to him.

Jamie waited, wondering whether this sheet of Irish poetry had aught to do with what the woman had said. “If you’re sending poor John to Ireland …” John Grey might go to the devil with his blessing, let alone Ireland, but what with the memory of Quinn and his schemes lurking in his mind, the repeated mention of the place was beginning to give Jamie Fraser the creeps.

Pardloe suddenly crumpled the paper in his hand and threw the resulting ball at the wall with a rude exclamation in Greek.

“And what has that to do with Siverly?” he demanded, glaring at Jamie.

“Siverly?” he replied, startled. “Who, Gerald Siverly?” Then could have bitten his tongue, as he saw the duke’s face change yet again.

“You do know him,” Pardloe said. He spoke quietly, as a hunter might do to a companion, sighting game.

There was little point in denying it. Jamie lifted one shoulder.

“I kent a man by that name once, aye. What of it?”

The duke leaned back, eyeing Jamie. “What, indeed. Will you tell me the circumstances in which you knew a Gerald Siverly?”

Jamie considered whether to answer or not. But he owed Siverly nothing, and it was perhaps over-early to be obstructive, given that he had no idea why Pardloe had brought him here. He might need to be offensive later, but no point in it now. And the duke had fed him.

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