The Scottish Prisoner

Page 38

Bloody hell. He simply didn’t know enough. But he did know that he had to get out of here, and he had to go back to Glastuig, as soon as possible. There was nothing he could do but wait for Jamie Fraser.

THE SOUND OF FEET on the paving stones outside waked him. He blinked and squinted at the barred window, in an attempt to judge the time. The sky was overcast, but from the feel of things, he thought it was well past midnight—and the footsteps he heard weren’t those of the regular midnight guard, in any case. There were several men.

He was on his feet, shod, and buttoning his waistcoat before the key grated in the lock. The door swung open, revealing the sergeant of the guard, lantern in one hand and a look of apoplectic fury on his face. Behind him loomed Jamie Fraser.

“I see ye were expecting us.” Fraser sounded mildly amused. “Have ye got something to quiet this gentleman’s humors?” He prodded the sergeant, a small, rawboned man, in the back with a large horse pistol, sending him stumbling into the cell.

“You filthy cur!” the sergeant exclaimed, the aubergine hue of his face deepening in the lantern light. “Your soul to the devil, ye wicked Scotch dog! And you—” He turned toward Grey, only to be interrupted by Grey’s handkerchief, balled up and stuffed into his mouth.

Tom Byrd darted into the cell, seized the blanket, and, with a huge grin at Grey, drew Grey’s dagger from his own belt and efficiently ripped off several strips, these being used at once to secure the sergeant. Tom then thrust the dagger into his employer’s hand, and with a hoarsely whispered “Good to see you looking well, me lord!” he darted out again, presumably to scout for wandering guards.

“Thank you, Mr. Fraser,” Grey murmured, shrugging into his coat as he headed for the door in his turn. In truth, he hadn’t expected rescue, had only half-hoped for it, and his chest filled with a breathless excitement.

Fraser handed Grey the lantern, then waved the pistol, ushering him out. With a cordial nod at the sergeant, he pulled the door softly to behind them and locked it. He took back the lantern then and turned to the left. Near the corner, he paused, considering which way to go.

“I shouldn’t have addressed you by name,” Grey said, low-voiced. “I’m sorry.”

Fraser shrugged, eyes squinted against the gloom that cloaked the courtyard. It was not quite drizzling, but the slates gleamed dully with wet where the lantern light reached them.

“Nay bother. There’re none sae many redheided Scotsmen o’ my size abroad in County Roscommon. It wouldna take them long to learn my name—and they wouldna require one to shoot me, in any case. Come on, wee Byrd,” he said under his breath, “where are ye?”

As though the remark had conjured him, a dim figure appeared suddenly on the far side of the old bailey, waving. They walked—at a normal pace, lantern swinging low at Fraser’s side—to the archway where Tom was waiting, his round face pale with excitement.

“This way,” he breathed, and directed them to a set of shallow stone steps leading up to the walkway lined with arrow slits. “There’s another stair at the far end, as goes down to the river gate,” he whispered to John as he passed. “I didn’t see any guards, but I hear voices.”

John nodded, taking hold of his dagger. He hoped, for assorted reasons, that they weren’t going to have to fight their way out.

“Should you leave the lantern?” he whispered, climbing close behind Jamie. Jamie shook his head.

“Better not,” he said. “I may need it.” Jamie stepped out onto the walkway and strode at what Grey considered an agonizingly slow pace. Grey and Tom Byrd followed like goslings. As they approached the bend of the wall, Grey heard voices from somewhere below and half-halted, only to be prodded on by Tom.

“Go on, me lord! We daren’t stop,” he whispered.

Feeling desperately exposed, Grey matched his step to Fraser’s slow stride. He glanced quickly down and saw an open doorway across the courtyard, light spilling from it. The guardroom, it must be; he glimpsed several soldiers and could tell from the sudden hush, followed by laughter, groans, and exclamations, that they were dicing.

Just let someone throw a double six, he prayed.

Around another bend, out of sight, and he breathed again, blood hammering in his ears. The dark below was silent, though he could still hear the guards behind them.

Fraser’s plait hung down his back, unclubbed. It swung gently between his shoulder blades, a snakelet of gold light from the lantern vanishing up the smooth auburn strands into darkness. Suddenly Fraser stopped, and Grey nearly ran into him.

He heard the Scot draw a long, deep breath and saw him cross himself. Jamie turned toward Grey, bending to bring his mouth near Grey’s ear.

“There’s someone below, at the gate,” he said very quietly, his breath warm on Grey’s cheek. “We’ll have to take him. Try not to kill him, aye?”

And with that, he threw the lantern into the courtyard. It landed with a loud clank and went out.

“Fumble-fingers,” said a sarcastic voice from below. “That you, Ferguson? Drop something, didja?” A man came out from the niche at the foot of the stair; Grey saw him as a squat, thick shape against the dark stones. Fraser took in a great lungful of air, vaulted the low wall, and leapt feetfirst from the walkway, startling Grey so badly that he nearly followed inadvertently.

Fraser had struck the man a glancing blow in falling on him but enough to stop his wind for a moment; the two of them writhed on the stones, no more than gasps and grunts to mark their struggle. Grey rushed down the steps, heedless of the clatter.

“Tom, get the gate!” He rushed to the struggling figures and, seeing that the shorter man had momentarily got astride Fraser and was punching him vigorously in the head, picked his moment as well as he might in the dark and kicked the short figure with great force in the balls from behind.

The man rolled off Fraser with a horrible noise, and the Scot got to his knees, breathing like a grampus. Grey was already on his own knees, groping the guard’s clothing for anything usable. The man had neither pistol nor shot but sported a sort of short sword, rather like a Roman gladius. Grey wondered at this unorthodox choice of weapon but took it anyway, pausing to administer a silencing kick in the belly before following Fraser into the niche.

Tom had got the gate unbolted. The Shannon lay just within bow shot, its sullen waters dark as pitch.

Fraser was limping badly; the fall hadn’t done his bruised arse any good. He was also cursing roundly under his breath in Gàidhlig, by which Grey deduced the object of his wrath.

“Bloody hell,” said Tom, moved either by excitement or example. “Where is he? He’s not left us, has he?”

“If he has, he’s a dead man,” Fraser muttered briefly, and vanished into the dark, casting upstream. Grey deduced that “he” was likely Quinn and that Fraser had gone to find him.

“Are we waiting for a boat?” Grey asked Tom, keeping one eye on the bulk of the castle above them. They were no more than twenty yards from the wall, and every instinct urged him to leg it as fast as possible.

“Yes, me lord. Quinn said he could find a boat, and he was to meet us here at”—he glanced round, helpless—“well, at whatever time it was Mr. Fraser said. Which I think it’s just now.” He, too, glanced back at the castle, his face a pale splotch in the darkness. There was no light in the town nearby, not even a watchman’s lantern in the streets.

Grey clutched the gladius in one hand, his dagger in the other—and precious little use either one would be to him if they were fired upon from the ramparts. Not much if the whole garrison suddenly poured out of the gate, eith—

“Hold these!” He shoved the weapons into Tom’s startled hands and, crouching, moved fast along the riverbank, scrabbling his hands through the edge of the water, searching for an appropriate bit of flotsam. He stubbed toes and fingers, floundering in the dark, but found what he wanted: a chunk of wood—a shattered plank. He tugged it free of the mud and ran back to the river gate, where he thrust his prize beneath the edge of the door. It slid under easily; no good, he needed—

Tom, bless him, had divined his need and was just behind him, his arms full of rubbish, sticks, and stones. Grey rummaged feverishly through this pile of dripping rejecta and crammed as much as he could beneath the free end of the plank, driving the wad in with his foot. His toes were going to be as blue as Fraser’s arse, he thought, giving his improvised door jam a final, vicious kick.

Final, because there was no time to do more. There were shouts coming from inside the castle. Seizing Tom by the arm, Grey ran up the bank in the direction Fraser had gone.

The ground was muddy and uneven, and they lurched and stumbled, gasping as they went. Grey’s foot skidded in the mud, then shot suddenly downward, and he fell sideways with a tremendous splash; he’d stepped into a reedbed. Gasping, he surfaced on his back, waving arms and legs in a vain attempt to stand up and catch his breath at the same time.

“Me lord!” Tom splashed in after him, though more carefully, wading out knee-deep, the reeds creaking and rasping as he pushed his way through them.

There was a sudden rattle, like pebbles thrown against glass. Shots, Grey thought, and flung himself over in a heavy swash of awkward, sopping clothes, able at last to get a purchase and crawl toward shore on hands and knees.

Single shots now, an irregular pop-pop! Pop! Could they see Tom and him, or were they firing at random to make a show? He thought suddenly of the arrow slits, and his shoulders hunched instinctively. Tom got him by the arm and hoisted him onto the shore like a harpooned turtle.

“Let’s—” Tom said, and stopped suddenly, with a choked grunt of surprise.

“What—Tom!” Tom’s knees were buckling. Grey caught him halfway down and eased him to the ground. “Where?” he said. “Where are you hit?” He’d heard that sound before: sheer astonishment—and, all too often, a man’s final comment on life.

“Arm,” Tom said, quite breathless but still more astonished than alarmed. “Something hit my arm. Like a hammer.”

It was dark as the inside of a coal mine, but Grey could make out a black smudge on the left arm of Tom’s coat. Spreading fast. He swore under his breath, scrabbled through the wet mass of his hair, and came away with a mangled ribbon between his fingers.

“Above the elbow? Below?” he asked rapidly, prodding the arm.

“Ow! Just there—ow!” A little above. He wrapped the ribbon round Tom’s arm, regretting the loss of his handkerchief, and pulled it tight. It snapped.

A moment’s panic, when the night blurred round him and the sound of shots hitting water sounded harmless, like the early drops of rain from a passing cloud. Then things clicked back into focus, and he found—to his vague surprise—that some part of his mind had kept on working; he was sitting on the ground, one shoe off, pulling the sopping stocking off his foot.

This, with the other balled up to use as a wad, made an admirable tourniquet.

“I shall have something to say to the coves at Jennings and Brown,” Tom said, in a voice that quavered only a little. “That’s where I bought that ribbon.”

“You do that, Tom,” Grey said, smiling in spite of himself as he shoved his bare feet back into wet shoes. His mind was working through the possibilities. If Tom was seriously hurt, then he needed care at once. And the only place to get it was the castle. If it was no more than a flesh wound, though … “Do you think you can walk? Can you sit up?”

“Oh, yes, me … ohhh …” Tom, halfway up, suddenly sagged and subsided onto the ground. “Oh,” he murmured. “Me head’s not half spinnnn …” His voice trailed off into silence. Grey felt frantically for a heartbeat, ripping Tom’s shirt out of his breeches and rummaging up under it, feeling here and there on the cold, wet skin of his chest. He found one, thank God, and, with a gasp of relief, pulled his hand out of Tom’s shirt and looked round.

The river gate was opening, in slow jerks as men hit it from behind, forcing loose his improvised jam. He could see the light of their lanterns, rimming the door in a fiery nimbus.

“Shit,” he said, and, seizing Tom under the arms, waded back into the reeds, dragging his senseless valet.

THE BOAT BOBBED as Jamie shifted his weight, bringing his heart into his mouth.

“Be still, ye great galoot.” Quinn’s voice came from behind, just audible over the lapping of the water against the sides, and the water uneasily close to the top of the boat, if you asked Jamie. “Ye’ll have us over, if ye don’t give over your squirming, and you like a tiger in a sack. Are ye like to be sick again?”

“Dinna even mention it,” Jamie said, and swallowed, closing his eyes. He’d tried convincing himself that if he couldn’t see the water, his stomach would be oblivious, but he was morbidly aware that less than an inch of wood separated his cringing buttocks from the cold black water of the Shannon, and that wood leaking like a sieve. His feet were wet, and as for squirming, he was convinced that the wicked wee boat was doing just that, even drifting down the current as they were.

“Should we not row?” he whispered back over his shoulder—having been warned that sound travels over water.

“We shall not,” Quinn said decidedly. “It’s a bloody flat calm, so it is, and if ye think I mean to go splashing past Castle Athlone, hallooing and cryin’ out for your friends … Hist!”

Jamie jerked his head round to see the bulk of the castle rise up on his right, black as hell against the drizzling sky. The intimation of hell was the more pronounced as he saw the river gate from which they had escaped now burst open, spilling red light and black, shouting figures capered, demonlike, on the bank of the river.

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