Dark eyes twinkled up at him from a network of deep wrinkles, and he couldn’t help smiling back.

“I shouldna like to think myself a threat to your vow o’ chastity, Sister.”

She laughed outright at that, wheezing gently, then coughed, pounding her chest with one hand.

“I dinna want to be responsible for your death, either, Sister,” he said, eyeing her with concern. Her lips were faintly blue. “Should I not fetch someone for ye? Or at least tell someone to bring ye a bit of brandy?”

“You should not,” she said definitely, and reached into a capacious pocket at her waist, withdrawing a small bottle. “I haven’t drunk spirits in more than fifty years, but the doctor says I must have a drop for the sake of my health, and who am I to say him nay? Sit down, young man.” She motioned him to the bench beside her with such a firmly authoritative air that he obeyed, after a furtive look round to see that they were not observed.

She sipped from the bottle, then offered it to him, to his surprise. He shook his head, but she pushed it into his hand.

“I insist, young man—what is your name? I cannot go on calling you ‘young man.’ ”

“Alex MacKenzie, Sister,” he said, and took a token sip of what was clearly excellent brandy, before handing back the bottle. “Sister, I must go back to my work. Let me fetch someone—”

“No,” she said firmly. “You’ve done me a service, Mr. MacKenzie, in seeing me to my fridstool, but you will do me a much greater service by not informing the people in the house that I am here.” She saw his puzzlement and smiled, exposing three or four very worn and yellowed teeth. It was an engaging smile, for all that.

“Are you not familiar with the term? Ah. I see. You are Scotch, and yet you knew to call me ‘Sister,’ from which I deduce that you are a Papist. Perhaps Papists do not have fridstools in their churches?”

“Perhaps not in Scottish kirks, Sister,” he said cautiously. He’d thought at first it might be a sort of closestool or private privy, but probably not if you found them in churches.

“Well, everyone should have one,” she said firmly, “whether Papist or not. A fridstool is a seat of refuge, of sanctuary. Churches—English churches—often have one, for the use of persons seeking sanctuary, though I must say, they aren’t used as often these days as in former centuries.” She waved a hand knobbed with rheumatism and took another drink.

“As I no longer have my cell as a place of private retirement, I was obliged to find a fridstool. And I think I have chosen well,” she added, with a look of complacency about the folly.

She had, if privacy was what she wanted. The folly, a miniature Greek temple, had been erected by some forgotten architect, and while the site had much to recommend it in summer, being surrounded by copper beeches and with a view of the lake, it was an inconvenient distance from the house, and no one had visited it in months. Dead leaves lay in drifts in the corners, one of the wooden lattices hung from a corner nail, having been torn loose in a winter storm, and the white pillars that framed the opening were thick with abandoned cobwebs and spattered with dirt.

“It’s a bit chilly, Sister,” he said, as tactfully as possible. The place was cold as a tomb, and he didn’t want her death on his conscience—let alone laid at his door.

“At my age, Mr. MacKenzie, cold is the natural state of being,” she said tranquilly. “Perhaps it is nature’s way of easing us toward the final chill of the grave. Nor would dying of pleurisy be that much more unpleasant—nor much faster—than dying of the dropsy, as I am. But I did bring a warm cloak, as well as the brandy.”

He gave up arguing; he’d known enough strong-minded women to recognize futility when he met it. But he did wish Claire were here, to give her opinion on the old sister’s health, perhaps to give her a helpful draught of something. He felt helpless himself—and surprised at the strength of his desire to help the old nun.

“You may go now, Mr. MacKenzie,” she said, quite gently, and laid a hand on his, light as a moth’s touch. “I won’t tell anyone you brought me here.”

Reluctantly, he rose.

“I’ll come back for ye, how’s that?” he said. He didn’t want her trying to stagger back to the house by herself. She’d likely fall into the ha-ha and break her neck, if she didn’t freeze to death out here.

She’d pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him, but he’d folded his arms and loomed over her, looking stern, and she laughed.

“Very well, then. Just before teatime, if you can manage it conveniently. Now go away, Alex MacKenzie, and may God bless you and help you find peace.”

He crossed himself now, thinking of her—and caught a look of horror from one of the kitchen maids, coming through the back gate of Argus House with a long paper-wrapped parcel that undoubtedly contained fish. Not only a Hielandman in the house, but a Papist, too! He smiled at her, gave her a tranquil “Good day,” and turned to the left. There were a couple of small sheds near the big glasshouse, probably for the gardeners’ use, but it was late enough in the day that the gardeners had gone off for their tea. It might do …

He paused for an instant outside the shed, but heard nothing from within and boldly pushed open the door.

A wave of disappointment passed through him. No, not here. There was a pile of burlap sacks stacked in one corner, the imprint of a body clear upon them, and a jug of beer standing beside it. This was someone’s refuge already. He stepped out and closed the door, then on impulse went round behind the shed.

There was a space about two feet wide between the back wall of the shed and the garden wall. Discarded bits of rubbish, broken rakes and hoes, burlap bags of manure filled most of the space—but just within the shelter of the shed, just out of sight of the garden, was an upturned bucket. He sat down on it and let his shoulders slump, feeling truly and blessedly alone for the first time in a week. He’d found his fridstool.

He spent a moment in mindless relief, then said a brief prayer for the repose of Sister Eudoxia’s soul. He thought she would not mind a Papist prayer.

She’d died two days after his conversation with her, and he’d spent a wretched night after hearing the news, convinced she’d taken a chill from the cold marble of the folly. He was infinitely relieved to learn from the kitchen gossip next day that she’d died peacefully in her sleep, and he tried to remember her in his regular prayers. It had been some time since he had, though, and he was soothed now to imagine her presence near him. Her peaceful spirit didn’t intrude upon his necessary solitude.

Would it be all right, he wondered suddenly, to ask her to look after Willie while he was gone from Helwater?

ark eyes twinkled up at him from a network of deep wrinkles, and he couldn’t help smiling back.

“I shouldna like to think myself a threat to your vow o’ chastity, Sister.”

She laughed outright at that, wheezing gently, then coughed, pounding her chest with one hand.

“I dinna want to be responsible for your death, either, Sister,” he said, eyeing her with concern. Her lips were faintly blue. “Should I not fetch someone for ye? Or at least tell someone to bring ye a bit of brandy?”

“You should not,” she said definitely, and reached into a capacious pocket at her waist, withdrawing a small bottle. “I haven’t drunk spirits in more than fifty years, but the doctor says I must have a drop for the sake of my health, and who am I to say him nay? Sit down, young man.” She motioned him to the bench beside her with such a firmly authoritative air that he obeyed, after a furtive look round to see that they were not observed.

She sipped from the bottle, then offered it to him, to his surprise. He shook his head, but she pushed it into his hand.

“I insist, young man—what is your name? I cannot go on calling you ‘young man.’ ”

“Alex MacKenzie, Sister,” he said, and took a token sip of what was clearly excellent brandy, before handing back the bottle. “Sister, I must go back to my work. Let me fetch someone—”

“No,” she said firmly. “You’ve done me a service, Mr. MacKenzie, in seeing me to my fridstool, but you will do me a much greater service by not informing the people in the house that I am here.” She saw his puzzlement and smiled, exposing three or four very worn and yellowed teeth. It was an engaging smile, for all that.

“Are you not familiar with the term? Ah. I see. You are Scotch, and yet you knew to call me ‘Sister,’ from which I deduce that you are a Papist. Perhaps Papists do not have fridstools in their churches?”

“Perhaps not in Scottish kirks, Sister,” he said cautiously. He’d thought at first it might be a sort of closestool or private privy, but probably not if you found them in churches.

“Well, everyone should have one,” she said firmly, “whether Papist or not. A fridstool is a seat of refuge, of sanctuary. Churches—English churches—often have one, for the use of persons seeking sanctuary, though I must say, they aren’t used as often these days as in former centuries.” She waved a hand knobbed with rheumatism and took another drink.

“As I no longer have my cell as a place of private retirement, I was obliged to find a fridstool. And I think I have chosen well,” she added, with a look of complacency about the folly.

She had, if privacy was what she wanted. The folly, a miniature Greek temple, had been erected by some forgotten architect, and while the site had much to recommend it in summer, being surrounded by copper beeches and with a view of the lake, it was an inconvenient distance from the house, and no one had visited it in months. Dead leaves lay in drifts in the corners, one of the wooden lattices hung from a corner nail, having been torn loose in a winter storm, and the white pillars that framed the opening were thick with abandoned cobwebs and spattered with dirt.

“It’s a bit chilly, Sister,” he said, as tactfully as possible. The place was cold as a tomb, and he didn’t want her death on his conscience—let alone laid at his door.

“At my age, Mr. MacKenzie, cold is the natural state of being,” she said tranquilly. “Perhaps it is nature’s way of easing us toward the final chill of the grave. Nor would dying of pleurisy be that much more unpleasant—nor much faster—than dying of the dropsy, as I am. But I did bring a warm cloak, as well as the brandy.”

He gave up arguing; he’d known enough strong-minded women to recognize futility when he met it. But he did wish Claire were here, to give her opinion on the old sister’s health, perhaps to give her a helpful draught of something. He felt helpless himself—and surprised at the strength of his desire to help the old nun.

“You may go now, Mr. MacKenzie,” she said, quite gently, and laid a hand on his, light as a moth’s touch. “I won’t tell anyone you brought me here.”

Reluctantly, he rose.

“I’ll come back for ye, how’s that?” he said. He didn’t want her trying to stagger back to the house by herself. She’d likely fall into the ha-ha and break her neck, if she didn’t freeze to death out here.

She’d pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him, but he’d folded his arms and loomed over her, looking stern, and she laughed.

“Very well, then. Just before teatime, if you can manage it conveniently. Now go away, Alex MacKenzie, and may God bless you and help you find peace.”

He crossed himself now, thinking of her—and caught a look of horror from one of the kitchen maids, coming through the back gate of Argus House with a long paper-wrapped parcel that undoubtedly contained fish. Not only a Hielandman in the house, but a Papist, too! He smiled at her, gave her a tranquil “Good day,” and turned to the left. There were a couple of small sheds near the big glasshouse, probably for the gardeners’ use, but it was late enough in the day that the gardeners had gone off for their tea. It might do …

He paused for an instant outside the shed, but heard nothing from within and boldly pushed open the door.

A wave of disappointment passed through him. No, not here. There was a pile of burlap sacks stacked in one corner, the imprint of a body clear upon them, and a jug of beer standing beside it. This was someone’s refuge already. He stepped out and closed the door, then on impulse went round behind the shed.

There was a space about two feet wide between the back wall of the shed and the garden wall. Discarded bits of rubbish, broken rakes and hoes, burlap bags of manure filled most of the space—but just within the shelter of the shed, just out of sight of the garden, was an upturned bucket. He sat down on it and let his shoulders slump, feeling truly and blessedly alone for the first time in a week. He’d found his fridstool.

He spent a moment in mindless relief, then said a brief prayer for the repose of Sister Eudoxia’s soul. He thought she would not mind a Papist prayer.

She’d died two days after his conversation with her, and he’d spent a wretched night after hearing the news, convinced she’d taken a chill from the cold marble of the folly. He was infinitely relieved to learn from the kitchen gossip next day that she’d died peacefully in her sleep, and he tried to remember her in his regular prayers. It had been some time since he had, though, and he was soothed now to imagine her presence near him. Her peaceful spirit didn’t intrude upon his necessary solitude.

Would it be all right, he wondered suddenly, to ask her to look after Willie while he was gone from Helwater?

It seemed a mildly heretical thought. And yet the thought felt answered at once; it gave him a feeling of … what? Trust? Confidence? Relief at the sharing of his burden?

He shook his head, half in dismay. Here he sat in an Englishman’s rubbish, talking to a dead Protestant nun with whom he’d had two minutes’ real conversation, asking her to look after a child who had grandparents, an aunt, and servants by the score, all anxious to keep him from the slightest harm. He himself couldn’t have done a thing for William had he been still at Helwater. And yet he felt absurdly better at the notion that someone else knew about William and would help to watch over him.

He sat a few moments, letting his mind relax, and slowly it dawned upon him that the only truly important thing in this imbroglio was William. The complications and suspicions and possible dangers of the present situation mattered only insofar as they might prevent his returning to Helwater—no further.

He took a deep breath, feeling better. Aye, with that made clear, it became possible to think logically about the rest. Well, then.

Major Siverly was the ostensible root of this tangle. He was a wicked man, if half what Captain Carruthers had written about him was true, but wicked men of that sort were far from unusual, he thought. Why did the Greys want so badly to get at the man?

John Grey, by his own words, because he felt a sense of obligation to his dead friend Carruthers. Jamie might have doubted that, but given his own conversations with the dead, he was obliged to admit that John Grey might hear his own voices and have his own debts to pay.

What about Pardloe, though? It wasn’t Lord John who’d dragged Jamie to London and was forcing him to go to Ireland after Siverly. Did Pardloe feel such impersonal outrage at Siverly’s corruption as to explain his actions? Was it part of his ideal of the army, of his own profession, that he could not bear such a man to be tolerated in it? Or was he doing it primarily to support his brother’s quixotic quest?

Jamie admitted reluctantly that it might be all these things. He didn’t pretend to understand the complexities of Pardloe’s character, but he had strong evidence of the man’s sense of family honor. He himself was alive only because of it.

But why him? Why did the Greys need him?

For the poem, first. The Wild Hunt, in Erse. That much, he could see. For while the Greys might have found someone among the Scottish or Irish regiments who had the Gàidhlig, it would be indiscreet—and possibly dangerous, given that they hadn’t known what the document contained—to put knowledge of it in the hands of someone they couldn’t control as they did Lally and him.

He grimaced at the thought of their control but put it aside.

So. Having brought him to London to translate the verse, was it then merely economical to make further use of him? That made sense only if Lord John actually required assistance to apprehend Siverly, and Jamie was not sure that he did. Whatever else you liked to say about the man, he was a competent soldier.

If it was a straight matter of showing Siverly the order to appear at a court-martial and escorting him there, John Grey could plainly do that without Jamie Fraser’s help. Likewise, if it were a matter of arresting the man, a detachment of soldiers would accomplish it fine.

Ergo, it wasn’t a straightforward matter. What the devil did they expect to happen? He closed his eyes and breathed slowly, letting the warm sweet fumes of well-rotted manure help to focus his mind.

Siverly might well simply refuse to come back with Lord John to England. Rather than face a court-martial, he might resign his commission and either stay in Ireland or depart—as so many had—to take service with a foreign army or to live abroad; peculation on the scale Pardloe had shown him must have given Siverly the means for that.

Should he so refuse—or hear of the matter beforehand and escape—then Jamie might be of use in finding or taking the man, yes. With a bit of practice, he’d likely get along in the Gaeilge well enough; he could make inquiries—and his way—in places where the Greys couldn’t. And then there was the matter of connections. There were Jacobites in Ireland and in France who would show him courtesy for the sake of the Stuarts, as well as his own name, but who would turn a closed face and a deaf ear to the Greys, no matter what the virtue of their quest. Despite himself, his brain began to compile a list of names, and he shook his head violently to stop it.

Yes, he might be useful. But was the possibility of Siverly’s flight enough?

He remembered what Lord John had said about Quebec. Siverly had saved John Grey’s life during the battle there. He supposed Lord John might find it an embarrassment to arrest Siverly and thus prefer Jamie to haul him back to England. He would have thought that notion funny, had he not had firsthand experience with the Grey family’s sense of honor.

Even that … but there was a third possibility, wasn’t there?

Siverly might fight. And Siverly might be killed.

“Jesus, Lord,” he said softly.

What if Pardloe wanted Siverly killed? The possibility once named seemed as sure to him as if he’d seen it written down in rhymed couplets. Whatever the duchess had seemed to be saying to him in her nocturnal visit, there was something in the Siverly affair that touched her deeply—and what touched her, touched the duke.

He’d no idea what the connection was between the duchess and Edward Twelvetrees, but he was sure it was there. And the duchess had told him that Edward Twelvetrees was an intimate of Siverly’s. Something moved in the web surrounding him, and he could feel the warning twitch of the sticky strand wrapped round his foot.

He took a long breath and let it out slowly.

In the cold light of logic, the answer was obvious—one answer, at least. Jamie was here because he was expendable. Better: because he could be made not to exist.

No one cared what became of a prisoner of war, especially not one held for so long, in such remote circumstances. The Dunsanys would not complain if he never came back, nor ask what had happened to him. His sister and Ian might—well, they would—make inquiries, but it would be a simple matter merely to inform them that he’d died of the flux or something, and leave it at that. They’d have no way of pursuing the matter or discovering the truth, even if they suspected they’d been lied to.

And if he were obliged to kill Siverly—or if it could be made to look as though he had—he shivered. He could be tried and hanged for it, if they cared to make the matter public; what would his word count for? Or John Grey could simply cut his throat and leave him sunk in an Irish bog, once he’d served his purpose, and tell the world what he liked.

He felt hot and cold together and found that he must make a conscious effort to keep breathing.

He’d thought that it would be a simple if annoying matter: do what Pardloe demanded, and be then returned to Helwater and William. But if it came to this …

Some sound made him open his eyes, to see John Grey standing in front of him, openmouthed.

“I … beg your pardon,” Grey said, recovering himself with some effort. “I did not mean to disturb—”


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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