Keith Windham's blood was warm and sticky on Ewen's hands, the battlefield smell of it sending him for an instant back to Culloden. It was running slower now, merely seeping into the uniform. Windham's eyes had drifted shut, perhaps in their final sleep – yet Ewen suddenly stilled his own breathing, and bent his head closer yet.
A thread of sound. Windham was still alive.
Ewen dropped his friend's hand, and pressed his own once more over that soaked cloth. He suppressed all his wild emotion, and looked up. The faces of his companions were indistinct in the moonlight; yet he could still see that they wanted him away, for from the river came the shouts of Windham's patrol as they crossed the ford. He forced himself to think. Morar, Arisaig – small fishing villages, both of them. It was all but certain that there was no doctor in either – and the journey even to Morar, close by as it was, might kill Windham. And out there on the bay was the French privateer and safety; and, please God, a surgeon.
Windham was still and heavy in his arms.
“Duncan,” he said to the big crofter, close at his shoulder. “Your plaid. We'll carry him.”
“Mac 'ic Ailein - ”
“Hurry! They'll be here soon!”
Duncan growled in frustration, unpinned his plaid and spread it hastily on the sand, one eye all the time on the dunes and the thin woodland above.
“Now, carefully, all of you. Lachlan!” Ewen shouted over his shoulder. “Here. We need you.”
Lachlan wailed, but came to heel like a dog obedient to its master. Ewen slid his arm more closely under Keith's head, keeping his other hand pressed over the wound. “Lift,” he ordered, and his men lifted.
It was done in an instant; there was a soft moan from Keith. “All right. I'm here. Hold on,” whispered Ewen, though he was sure Keith would not know he had spoken. He struggled into a crouch, his wounded thigh searing with pain. “Lift,” he said again.
The four men raised the plaid, and the Englishman on it. At a shambling run they went down the beach, the sand clawing at their feet. Ewen was half bent over, keeping his hand on the wound and trying to steady the swaying body.
They reached the boat, beached at the water's edge. Ewen leaned closer. Yes, there was still a thread of breath, laboured enough to rive his own heart. “In,” he gasped, and they had Keith over the gunwale and onto the bottom-boards in an instant. Ewen lowered his head with utmost care; and then was startled by the roar of a musket behind them. If more were to be harmed by Lachlan's murderous intentions! – Ewen, hands slippery with blood, took hold of the gunwale and flung his weight against the boat to heave it forward.
There were shouts in English behind him. “One of them's wounded!”
“Is it Charlie-boy?”
A volley of musket shots. He heard one or two bounce off the water, while the rest went into the sand. They had been right to run... And the boat was feeling the sea now. Ewen, panting, shoved harder, the wavelets pulling at his legs. The others swore, or prayed, heaving likewise at the boat. She was free of the beach at last. MacDonald, the fisherman, jumped neatly in. Ewen was after him in a flash, and to the devil with waiting for his men to go first. He did not even spare a glance for the patrol, but scrambled low to hold his friend in the uncomfortable space in the bottom of the boat, his hand already back in place on the wound.
“Keith. Keith. Don't go. I'm here.”
That angular face was gaunt, but the lips moved just slightly. Ewen bent low, and heard his own name, and “Where..?”
Thank God. “To the ship.” He sat up and pulled his own plaid loose, and spread it, one-handed, over Keith to keep him warm. Someone shoved a bundle of cloth into his vision; Angus had pulled a shirt from Ewen's own bag and wadded it up. Ewen twitched down the plaid and pressed it to Keith's breast.
The first real wave took the boat. He glanced up, startled to see how far they had already come. They were perhaps halfway to their destination; there were faint voices from the white shore, one of them raised, giving orders, but no more musket-shots. And God be praised, theirs was the only boat on the beach that night! Duncan and the fisherman were at the oars, pulling, pulling; there was Angus, a hand on his dirk, sitting tensely between the pair in the stern and a wild and despairing figure in the bows.
Ewen spared his foster-brother perhaps one second's glance before turning back to Keith, taking his hand, which lay limp on the bottom-boards. He risked lifting the bundled-up shirt for the briefest instant. There was not so much blood – was that good or bad? He bent lower, and there was a breath, and another breath, faint on his cheek. “Hold on. Hold on.”
“Yes. Keep trying.”
There was, unbelievably, the faintest ghost of a laugh. Ewen could not but agree that it was a ridiculous thing to say. Then there was a lurch as a bigger wave took the boat, and he heard the fragment of a gasp of pain and Keith's hand tightened, just for a moment, on Ewen's; who responded with a frightened grip.
“Not long now.” Not long until they reached the ship, or..? Should he have left Keith for his patrol to find? But he might have died while waiting alone – and Ewen's men would never have abandoned their chieftain to stay with the redcoat. No, this was the only way.
Keith was still now, eyes closed – but it was not the limp stillness that Ewen so dreaded... and finally the waves were diminished and a dark bulk reared high over them. Ewen spared a glance upwards. They were in the lee of the ship.
A rope came down, straight to the fisherman's hand. He heaved on it, and the fender made contact with the hull. Peering upwards, Ewen could make out faces, dim in the moonlight, looking down on the boat – and among them, the one face above all others that he had been praying he would see.
Dr Cameron was on his way down into the boat on the instant, while one of the crew was sent running for his bag. Ewen's men crowded back to give him room, and the fisherman made the boat secure with another line. Archie, arriving with a rush in the boat, cast an eye on the redcoat lying in Ewen's arms - “'Major Windham, is it?” he asked curtly, and without waiting for Ewen's desperate nod, began his examination: pulse, eyes, and a glance under the bloodied mass that was Ewen's shirt. Then his bag arrived among them on the end of a line, and he had a dressing over the wound, and directed Ewen to lift the heavy form while he bound it in place.
“He took it on the breastbone,” he muttered. “That was fortunate. We must get him on board. Get rid of this - ” and he tapped the sword in its scabbard at Keith's side. Ewen attacked the belt with hasty fingers and handed the sword to Angus, while Archie called out to the privateer's officer of the watch, who was looking curiously over the rail.
They waited for an eternal couple of minutes, while Duncan hustled Lachlan up the ladder, and then a board came swaying down to them on ropes, and Angus and the fisherman steadied it between them. “Now, carefully,” said Archie, and shifted back while Ewen and his men lifted Keith in the plaid, and pulled the board under him. The fisherman scrambled aft and tied him to it. It was all awkward, in that small heaving boat, but they managed it, no light weight though he was.
The board lifted, Archie, back on the ladder, keeping pace with it as it was raised. Ewen, though in a fever to follow, waited while Angus went after, and turned to the fisherman. “The patrol -” he said. The MacDonald had risked much for them and although Ewen had paid him well, the danger had turned out to be greater than any of them had anticipated.
“I'll to my sister on Skye,” he replied. “She's away past the Cuillin and they'll never follow me there. I'm often away for weeks at this time of year. If the ship's going that way, I'll get a tow. If not, the Curr can take me well enough!”
The Curr. The Heron. Ewen stared at him for an astonished moment, wondering dizzily if the man was indeed flesh and blood, or a messenger from Old Angus' shadow-world. In his current state of mind, that seemed entirely possible to him. But he caught himself up: there were other matters that demanded his attention.
“You'll need more money than you've got on you, perhaps,” he said quickly, and fetched out another gold piece. “You've had a narrower escape than you'd bargained for tonight.”
“For Lochiel's kinsman, I'd do much – but you're as generous as he,” said MacDonald. “I thank you, Mac 'ic Ailein. And you should go now – I think your friend -” he stumbled on the word - “is almost aboard. I'll follow, and ask about the tow.”
Ewen had been more than conscious of the board's steady progress up the ship's side, swinging in a little arc as the privateer lifted and dropped in the swell. Only with the firmest self-discipline had he refrained from glancing up during his brief conversation with MacDonald. Now he nodded and shook the man's hand. “In case you make your own way: thank-you,” he said. “I will not forget,” and he lunged for the ladder up the side of L'Herault.
It was a painful climb, since his thigh had received so much ill-usage in the last half-hour, and he gripped the steps with a hard determination; but he gained the deck in the end, with the aid of young Angus who reached over and hauled him up with a desperate strength. And even then he could not rest; he stumbled straight to the hatch-cover on which Keith had been laid down. Archie was beside him.
“Is he -” he could not finish the sentence.
“He's still with us. The dirk went sideways after the first strike. Cut off his coat and waistcoat.”
Ewen drew his knife, and began slicing through the uniform coat. All colour was washed out of it in the silver moonlight, but the bloodstains were still wet under his hands, and plain enough to see: a dark blotch across the waistcoat, and the shirt and lace were a sodden mess. But there was Archie, bent over him at Ewen's side, holding his wrist and counting with an inward look. Ewen continued to cut through the thick cloth, having a little trouble at the cuffs; he was desperately careful not nick the flesh beneath, even just a little; which was difficult, for his hands chose this moment to begin to shake.
There was a smell of spirits; Archie called for a lantern, and was bending close over a long jagged gash which ran around Keith's side. “This is where the main damage is,” he muttered. “It caught a vein. Needle, and clean your hands first,” and he gestured at a bucket of sea-water which was standing ready next to the hatch-cover, and Ewen washed Keith's blood off his hands, and threaded the needle with fingers that barely obeyed him. Then he stood behind Keith, took hold of his shoulders and waited in tense silence while Archie stitched and tied.
And all the while Ewen was peripherally aware of his men, a few paces away; Duncan holding grimly on to the stricken Lachlan; Angus on Ewen's other side; MacDonald, who had been last up the ladder, speaking in fragmentary English to one of the privateer's officers, and the crew, scanning the shore in case the redcoats were coming off. A few of them were watching the drama in their midst, and not one of them with indifference, for they were all fighting men too. But for the most part, Ewen stared at Archie's bent head and sure hands, and let him do his work. Now he asked for a dressing, then, with Ewen's help to lift the still body, secured it in place with bandages, and at last straightened his back with a grunt, and looked at his young cousin.
“I've done my best for him, Ewen.”
“I know that,” interjected Ewen swiftly: but Archie continued straight on.
“I've tied off the vein that was cut, so there should be no more blood. Since the worst of the blow was on the breastbone, that stopped the dirk from going further in, though it cut a muscle too. But he's strong and healthy. He has a good chance.”
“Thank-you,” and now, suddenly, there were a few tears. He spared a moment to brush them away. “What next?”
“Cover him and get him below. There's a sick-berth – it's small, but sufficient. And then you can tell me what happened.”
What happened. Ewen looked up, and met Lachlan's wild gaze from where he was standing at the rail. “Mac 'ic Ailein, I did not know!” he pleaded.
“You attempted murder,” said Ewen coldly. “I cannot speak to you yet. Duncan – keep him under guard. Don't let him alone. Angus -” Angus was Lachlan's nephew. “Find my things and bring them to me in the sick-berth.” He turned away. “Which way, Archie?”
With the help of a couple of the crew, they got Keith below, and into the tiny sick-berth. And there, once they had settled him into a cot which swayed gently with the movement of the ship, they retreated to just outside the cabin and, speaking softly in Gaelic, talked of what had happened; both of them meanwhile watching, through the half-open door, the man lying still and quiet under the Cameron plaid.
After Ewen's brief account of his escape and the drama on the beach, he finished by saying, “I hoped against hope that I would find you on board. I know you said it would be unlikely – but since you knew of this ship -”
“Yes, and there's a reason why I am here. I took a message to the Prince. We are expecting him at any hour.”
“The Prince!” Ewen took his eyes from his friend in astonishment. Archie was smiling at the reception to his news, for his young cousin had been grim, preoccupied, worried half out of his mind: but now he too was smiling. “Where is he now?”
“Coming off Moidart, I hope. He was waiting until it was safe – and maybe Major Windham's misfortune will give the Prince the chance he needs to get away.”
“Yes.” Ewen's face sobered again. “Archie -”
“He has a better chance than most men in his situation. It is not as though he was on a battlefield, like you were. You brought him to me quickly, and that counts for much. Now -” his voice became brisker - “you must think of yourself. Go and wash,” and Ewen glanced down at the bloodstains on his hands, his arms, and his shirt. “Find something to eat. Then you can come back here for the night. Don't worry, I will watch him while you're gone. And I'll sleep in the doctor's cabin next door; the poor man was taken ill on the voyage here, and is gone from this world.”
“Ah...” Ewen sighed suddenly. “God rest his soul. Archie, I don't know what I would have done without you.”
“Fortunately for Major Windham, it didn't come to that. Go on.” And as Ewen prepared to leave him, he added, “I would advise you not to see Lachlan again until morning. Make sure he is well-guarded, for his own safety as well as the Major's – but don't go near him until you have a clear head.”
“I might be tempted to break his neck, you mean?”
“Or his heart.”
“He tried to murder a man!”
“In the morning, Ewen.”
Ewen nodded grimly, and left to go in search of food, finding Angus and his baggage on the way, and with relief, changed his shirt. Then he saw Keith's clothes, lying sliced open and bloody beside the hatch-cover, and told Angus to clean them as best he could: for whether living or dead, Keith would need his uniform coat.
Then he went back to the sick-berth, and after a brief word with Archie, sent him off to his rest, and himself struggled into a second cot which, unoccupied by any crewman, provided an ideal bed for him.
He could not sleep for a long while, though he refrained from tossing and turning. He relived, time and again, those last few minutes on the beach, with Keith's blood flowing hot across his hands and his mind on the knife-edge of fear. And all the while he was listening, listening, for faint sounds of breathing above the creak and working of the ship. But after what seemed like hours, these sounds faded and became distant.
There was a mild commotion some hours later; his mind provided the information that it must be the Prince, making good his escape in the confusion following Keith's wounding and disappearance. Ewen briefly considered going on deck, but rejected the idea as quickly; to scramble out of the cot and essay the ladder again seemed beyond him at present. But he sat half-up, propping himself on one elbow, and in the light of the shielded lantern, glanced into the cot next to him. There was a slight movement therein, as if Keith had heard Ewen raise himself, unconscious though he was.
“It's all right, Keith. Go back to sleep,” mumbled Ewen. He lay down again, and went back to sleep himself.
Archie woke him the next morning – the pale light of a Northern dawn, creeping in through the skylight – by coming into the sick-berth, at once quiet and brisk. Ewen blinked up at his cousin for a moment, then woke in a rush.
“Is he -”
“Yes, he's with us still.” Archie released Keith's wrist, and gently pulled down the plaid which covered him. He bent over the site of the wound for a moment, then straightened and pulled the plaid up again, and motioned Ewen to the further corner of the cabin. He was smiling.
“The Prince is aboard.”
So good was this news that Ewen forgot even Keith for a moment. He reached up and gripped Archie's forearm. “He's well? Alone? With friends?”
“Yes, he's well – indeed, I think his travels agreed with him. He's sleeping now; he has Captain LeBlanc's cabin, and his companions are fitted into the stateroom. You can pay your devoirs later. But meanwhile, you must eat. Have one of your men watch here for a while. And I think you should speak to Lachlan soon; he's confined, and he's in black despair.”
“Then I will, though I hardly know what to say to him. Archie, will you wait here while I eat, and confront Lachlan? I will try not to be long.”
In the galley - deserted except for the cook, its surfaces wiped down and everything neat and orderly – he begged a little stir-about and ate it there. Then he found Duncan, braced his shoulders and asked to be taken to Lachlan.
His foster-brother was fettered in a corner of the ship's gun-deck, staring at the bulkhead. He had not slept, that was plain enough, nor had he eaten the food that lay on a plate within his reach. Nor, Ewen was sure, had he drunk the water from the jug close by.
Ewen drew a deep breath. “Duncan, go to the sick-berth; you'll find Dr. Cameron there.” And then, as the crofter departed: “Lachlan.”
The huddled figure stirred, then subsided into stillness once more.
“You do yourself no good by this. Look at me.”
Lachlan lifted his ruined face; the flesh on one side was red and ridged, and in places stained black with gunpowder. Ewen did his best to call up pity and forgiveness, and after a brief struggle, succeeded.
“You must eat, Lachlan. Or drink, at the very least.”
“Why?” burst out Lachlan. “You hate me – you, my brother! and the sun is taken from my sky.”
“If you continue to talk like this, I will go. Drink.” Ewen was implacable, and waited until Lachlan picked up the jug and drank, the water spilling from his mouth and into his tangled beard. “Now. Speak. You did your best to murder an unprepared man. Explain yourself.” He was being cold, cold; but the alternative was red rage.
“He betrayed you – and murdered my brother! I found Neil lying dead on Ben Laoigh – and you gone, captured! And when I hid myself and listened around the camps, I heard that Windham had done both. So I swore on the iron that I would avenge you and Neil – and I have not rested since. Mac 'ic Ailein -”
“Yet you must also have heard the true story – that Major Windham risked his life to save mine, and that Neil – God rest his soul - was shot before he ever arrived. You must have heard that Major Guthrie, not Major Windham, was responsible.”
“You had not spared Guthrie's life! He had not betrayed you!”
Guthrie had not ridden at his back for the space of several days; had not needled him, and laughed with him once or twice; had not slept beside him; had not become something a little more than a prisoner.
“This is the last time I will say it. Major Windham saved me from being shot.” And no doubt Lachlan was jealous of that, too. “He did not kill poor Neil, nor order his killing. He saved my life in the only way he could – by conniving at my capture. He's saved me again since then. And he has no ties of kinship with me. He did it because he was my guest - and latterly, my friend.” He stopped, before his anger took root again.
Lachlan gave a wordless cry of despair, then: “Give me my dirk back, and I will end it!”
“I will do no such thing – and neither will you. My cousin tells me that the Major may yet live. I will have your oath that you will neither harm him, nor seek to bring harm on him. And then you will eat and drink – and pray forgiveness from a higher authority than mine.”
Ewen waited while Lachlan gave the oath, then, without further delay, turned his back and departed the cell. He knew Lachlan was turning in on himself once more, but could not bring himself to stay a moment longer.
He climbed, with difficulty, straight up onto the main-deck, for he felt in need of the clean fresh air of the Outer Isles; but once there his seething thoughts were diverted. For promenading on the quarter-deck was the Prince himself, and such of his entourage as had cleaved to him during all his wanderings. There was Strickland, and O'Sullivan... Ewen climbed the ladder, and waited to be noticed, and dropped to one knee. “Your Royal Highness...”
“Ardroy! My friend!” The Prince greeted him with pleasure, raised him up and kissed him on both cheeks, then held him at arm's length. “Well met!”
Ewen gazed at him in astonishment. For all that he was dressed in the roughest of clothes, his hair untidy and his face tanned nut-brown - “Your Highness, you look – splendid!”
That charming smile hovered around the Prince's mouth. “Nay, you flatter me. I look like a hedge-dweller.”
“You look like a true Prince.” He looked like a man, not the sulky boy Charles had become in the fall and fail of his fortunes. His wanderings had suited him. He would be running up the rigging next...
The rigging. Ewen realised that they were truly under way now, setting course westwards to Ireland and beyond; and there, away on his right hand, was a little boat under sail. The Curr, on her way to Skye... And meanwhile, L'Herault was standing out into the grey Atlantic, beyond reach of their enemies – save for the one who lay below decks, in danger of his life.
But the Prince was speaking again. He turned to lean on the leeward rail – over which spray burst now and again, for they were crossing a current and the waves were choppy – “Alas, I have not lived like a prince these last few months! I've wandered all across the Highlands, and out to the Isles, and been given the best hospitality by the poorest folk, and all at their own peril! I have seen more loyalty among those people than many a fine Chief has shown me – your own gallant Lochiel excepted, of course! I'll tell the tale of my Odyssey tonight at dinner, when you'll tell me yours, I hope.”
“It's a dull enough story compared to Your Royal Highness's!” Rescue, capture, torture, a friendship made and rejected and re-forged stronger, and, ultimately, escape. But before the Prince could enquire more closely, some of the his companions came up. Sir Francis Strickland was among them, and in a few words their prickly acquaintance was renewed. Ewen forgot, for a few minutes, the grim interview with Lachlan; and, when released by his prince, made his way back to the sick-berth in a happier frame of mind.
He was greeted by the sight of Archie laying Keith's head back on its pillow. Ewen checked for a moment in the doorway, in sudden fear, then crossing the threshold, enquired, “Archie?”
“Ah, Ewen!” Dr Cameron moved away from his patient, and to his joy, Ewen saw that Keith's eyes were half-open. He was across the intervening space with alacrity, and his hands went out – but of course, he could not grasp those of his friend, for they were under his coverings. “Keith!”
“Yes.” That was the faintest of responses. Did Keith even recognise him?
Ewen cast an anxious glance at Archie, who smiled and held out a cup of water, laced with spirits by the smell of it. “He needs to drink. Give him this.”
With extreme care, Ewen slid a hand under Keith's head, to be greeted with the whispered remark, “I'm not going to break.” That made him laugh; Keith was still himself, even though he had so nearly broken. He held the cup to Keith's lips, and waited patiently for it to be drunk down; then looked round for more, and Archie refilled the cup.
“That's good. Ewen, I must get back to the Prince, and you must let the Major drink – and rest.”
“Yes, the Prince. I've spoken to him,” said Ewen distractedly.
“Good; then you'll not need to go in search of him for now. Major, drink as much as you can. Ewen, try to take care of yourself as well as him!”
The door swung closed, shutting out the sounds of ship and sea; Ewen found himself smiling foolishly at his friend while anxiety gnawed behind his eyes. But he asked, “Are you ready for more water?” and at his nod, held out the cup once more.
A few minutes later, Keith was sleeping again. Young Angus came quietly in with Keith's waistcoat, now cleaned and almost dry. “The brother of Mac Dhomnuill Dubh said that you might wish to repair this,” he said, and pulled a packet from his coat, which proved to hold a needle and thread; and Ewen, really glad of employment, spread the waistcoat quietly on the sick-berth bench and examined the cuts at the shoulders where, only last night, he had sliced it off Keith's unconscious body. The stains on the front were very faint; someone, probably Angus, had put considerable effort into removing them. Ewen pinned the shoulders, then sat down and began to sew them up, with inexpert but careful stitches, and then looked at the cut in the breast of the waistcoat. So small a thing, to let out a man's lifeblood! But he put that idea from him, and after a little thought, cut a piece from one of the bandages with with the sick-berth was abundantly provided, placed it as a backing, and began his repair-work anew.
It was inevitable that he should feel that he was mending his friend's body, as well as his clothing, while under his hands was the puncture where the dirk had entered. Its initial murderous force had cut straight through the thick cloth, and there was a jagged tear of two or three inches, where the point had skidded before finding its way in. The ghostly bloodstains were clearest here. Ewen stitched up to the tacking thread, turned the waistcoat on his knee, and stitched again.
“What are you doing? Sail-making?”
He glanced up. Keith's eyes were open a little way; his voice was not much above a whisper, and indeed he still looked half-asleep.
“No. It's your waistcoat.” He held it up for inspection. “I fear your shirt was beyond repair. What we could save of it is bandages now. But your coat is drying. I'll do that next.”
“How did you get them off me? I don't remember -”
“We had to cut them off. You can have my spare shirt when you're able to sit up.” Ewen had some idea of distracting Keith, but of course it came to nothing.
“I remember being attacked -”
“Don't think of that now!”
“- and being carried. How did you do that?”
“On Duncan's plaid.” It had been restored to Duncan last night; Ewen's no longer served as a coverlet for Keith, for Dubois, the burly sick-berth attendant, had replaced it with blankets while Ewen was with Lachlan. “They are a useful garment. You English should adopt them.”
The faintest of laughs. “I did, once. At Fassefern. I had no idea how to manage it.”
“Yes, I remember. If you wish it, I'll teach you how to wear one,” said Ewen.
And indeed his mouth quirked. “I'd like that... What happened after we got to the ship?”
Ewen sighed inwardly. “Dr. Cameron was already on board the ship, as I'd hoped. He came down into the boat, and examined you and had you brought aboard. Then he put you onto a hatch-cover and tied off the vein. He said the blow landed on your breast-bone, and that if it hadn't -” He stopped suddenly.
“Yes. I knew it was my only chance.”
That brought Ewen's head up. He stared at Keith's face, dim in the light of lantern and skylight. “Your only chance? Do you mean you took it there deliberately?”
“I had but a second... I couldn't break away in time, so that was the only thing I could do.”
Ewen had no words for moment, but he bent reached forward, the waistcoat sliding unnoticed off his knee as he did so, and gripped Keith's upper arm through the blanket: not hard, for he had the absurd feeling that he would crush the breath out of Keith if he did so, but with great gentleness. “I always knew you were brave, but that...”
“And you should not be talking so much, I'm sure. Can you drink some more water?” And Keith deciding that he could, Ewen raised his head again and let him sip slowly until the cup was empty.
At least they had not approached the question of who had attacked Keith. There would be time enough for that later, when he had regained some measure of strength.
L'Herault was heeling over on the starboard tack, driving hard out of the southern end of the Minch. The last low cape of the Long Island was just visible through the haze far away on his right. And over Ewen's head was his Prince, almost at the main-top and climbing steadily.
This sight drove everything else from his mind. He had seen the transformation wrought in the Prince by his wanderings, though he was at a loss to account for it; with his dream shattered and his cause lost, Charles Edward had, apparently, enjoyed the game of catch-as-catch-can with his pursuers. And now he was almost unfailingly cheerful, and indeed occupying himself with learning the working of the ship.
Ewen suppressed a shudder as he saw the heir to three kingdoms start out onto the futtock shrouds. He could not watch any longer; instead, he went up to the quarter-deck and found himself a seat in the best light possible. Here he laid Keith's coat, which he had been carrying, on his lap, then took out the soldier's sash and picked carefully at it until he had drawn out a strong scarlet thread. This would be a long task; both sleeves of the coat were slit right down to the cuffs. But by the time he had finished, Keith might be able to come up on deck himself. Archie had said so; and if the soldier came into company, he would need his uniform. For Keith had stated in no uncertain terms that he felt naked without it, no matter how warmly dressed in a grey fustian coat, and a hat, from the ship's stores (his own hat and wig having been lost in the fight on the beach) and Ewen's own plaid - even though he still insisted that there was far too much of the latter to be called a garment at all. So Ewen sewed, and sewed, and fell into a meditative state which was abruptly ended by the arrival of the Prince on the quarterdeck, stepping nimbly down from ratlines to rail to deck.
“Good morning, Ardroy! How does Major Windham?”
Ewen got hastily to his feet, and made a slight bow. “Well enough, Your Royal Highness. My cousin believes that we may have him on deck in a few days.”
“That's good to hear!” Charles Edward, wind-blown and bright-eyed, was in the best of moods. “He and I can talk of old times at Glenfinnan – yes, I remember seeing him there, our intractable redcoat -” the “r's” were rolled with some relish “- and I would like to hear of his attempt to capture me at Edinburgh. I could almost have wished to be with him on that adventure!”
It was as bizarre a situation as Ewen had ever heard of, but he bowed again and watched as the Prince turned away to his other companions, some of whom had accompanied him high into the rigging and were now clambering down onto the quarterdeck - but none at all with his gay insouciance.
Mid-morning of the next day, they were on the opposite tack, and Ewen had shifted his position accordingly. Now and then a wave broke over the bows; they were well into the Atlantic, and warm though the air was, with a mild sky crowning the indigo sea, Ewen preferred to be out of reach of the fine spray that reached so far aft now and then. He was starting on the second sleeve.
Archie appeared at his side. Without preamble, he said, “I do not mean to worry you, Ewen, but the wound's infected.”
Ewen's hands dropped to his lap, the coat lying crumpled and forgotten. “He's been doing so well.”
“Yes, I'm afraid so. But don't look like that; I'm not entirely without skill, you know.”
“I know.” But despite Archie's reassurance, he could not say any more.
“He's strong, as I've told you more than once. So I've put maggots on the wound – the purser found some for me -”
Ewen grimaced. He knew of the practice, and he trusted Archie utterly, but still they made his skin crawl.
“Don't look like that! I caught it early, but he is developing a fever.” Ewen suppressed an urge to jump to his feet, preparatory to hastening down into the sick-berth. “I have treated fever before.”
“Yes, I know. I beg your pardon, Archie.”
“I should think so.” This was spoken with mock-reproof. “So let us talk of other things. What will you do about Lachlan? You have had much to think of, Ewen - but he's your responsibility.”
They both glanced at a dejected figure in the waist of the ship, with Duncan sitting not far away.
“I think it depends on Windham. He is the injured party, after all... When the MacMartins attacked him last year, he would not have them apologise, but this time I believe it's necessary. I would like to consult with Donald, but he's far away, and the only other authority is the Prince – and he has his own concerns!”
“Indeed.” Archie did not mention that the Prince would have no interest in the matter at all.
Neither did Ewen. “So this is what I have decided. If Windham agrees, and when we reach port, I will give Lachlan a letter for Aunt Margaret. He can take ship immediately, for there's no attainder on him. My aunt will be glad of another hand about the place – and his father would surely wish to have him home again.” He stopped suddenly; when would he himself see his home next? But then he continued, “Indeed, Old Angus told me that he'd 'seen' Lachlan there through the fire, and I cannot deny him the reality of that.”
Archie considered this. “You'll make a good laird yet, Ewen; that's making the best of a bad business. When will you tell him?”
“If Windham agrees to it, I will tell him then. Let us hope your maggots do their work well!” Then, since he found that he needed to be doing, he folded up the coat, stood, and left it on his seat, adding, “I'll speak to Lachlan now, since you are so good as to endorse my plan for him.”
He clambered down the ladder leading down to the main-deck, and meanwhile Archie fetched a small sigh of relief, while unobtrusively keeping an eye on proceedings.
That night, when they were ready to settle down, Archie came to check on his patient, ejecting Ewen from the sick-berth while he did so. Ewen retreated to the gun-deck, where the crew were hanging their hammocks with practised efficiency. He peered through a half-open gun-port at the darkening sea, his thoughts shifting about with the fluidity of the waves, coming to himself only when he realised that he was interfering with the slinging of the last hammocks. Thereupon he repaired to wait outside the door of the sick berth, and when Archie opened it, looked anxiously at his cousin.
“He's getting feverish, Ewen. 'Tis for you to say: will you stay with him, or shall I?”
“I will stay. Unless you feel..?”
“No, 'tis not so bad that I need to be on hand. Fetch me if you need me. I've given him a draught for the pain. You know the rest – keep him comfortable and wait for the fever to run its course.”
Ewen nodded dumbly, and was through the door to the sick-berth before Archie had turned to go back through the gun-deck.
In the light of the lantern that swung easily with the motion of the ship, he saw Keith watching him with unfocussed eyes; then his glance shifted to the skylight, now showing little but ink-coloured sky, then to the lantern. Keith's face was slack, the stubble showing dark upon it, and there were dark circles under his eyes. Archie had got him into his grey fustian coat, open to show a white shirt; and beneath that, he knew, were the maggots.
“Do you need anything?” he asked quietly.
“Drink. That cordial was foul,” muttered Keith; and after assisting him to drink, Ewen straightened his sheets, before shielding the lantern and climbing into his own cot.
“Wake me if you need anything,” said Ewen.
“Mm.” Keith was shivering now and pulled his blanket up. Ewen lay quiet, and prepared for a long night.
He got up once to re-fill the lantern, and listened to Keith's murmured scraps of speech – something about holding formation, something about guns, and a remark about the Duke of Cumberland with which Ewen entirely agreed. Then, after a long pause, a quick and anxious whisper - “Ewen!”
“Yes, I'm here.” He was responding even before he had fully emerged from his doze.
“Get away!” And even as Ewen snatched back the hand that he had half-extended, Keith continued, “The patrol!”
He must be imagining himself back on the beach at Morar, Ewen realised in a sleepy and confused fashion. But his answer came pat; “We're safe. On the ship. We're going to France.”
“He's going to France? Thank God...”
“We escaped the patrol. Dr. Cameron is with us, and the Prince. It's all right...” and with this inadequate reassurance, he reached out again, and this time found Keith's arm – which flinched under his hand.
“He's got a knife!”
Ewen gentled his hold, and then released the arm. “He's a prisoner. We're all safe. Go back to sleep.”
The strange words of Old Angus' prediction were vivid in his mind... A thread of one colour and a thread of another. In just such a way had Ewen distrusted Keith in the hut on Beinn Laoigh, while Keith cared for him and watched over him. Each had been captured, each had almost died a violent death; each had fought fever and delirium. Ewen got up again, and sat on a low chair with his back against the bulkhead, and through watch after watch wiped Keith's face, or held his hand when it was apparent that this would be permitted.
“Yes.” But Keith did not seem to know him. Was he talking to Ewen, or about him? Again he took the sweat-slippery hand in a clasp which he hoped conveyed comfort and reassurance, and said, “Always,” to which Keith replied with another grunt.
Ewen must have dozed off in the end, for a while later the bell sounded again and there was a sudden upheaval on the gun-deck, as dozens of bare feet alighted on the planking. More footsteps rushed past the sky-light; which, Ewen now saw, was showing grey instead of black through the glass. His arm was asleep; he turned his neck, which was made reluctant by its unusual posture, and saw Keith sleeping quietly, the soft movement of his chest quelling a sudden apprehension.
The door opened. Ewen blinked round to see Archie entering, unshaven and sketchily dressed.
“How is he?”
“Resting. He had a disturbed night.”
“So did you, I can see. Go and get some fresh air.”
Ewen slung on his plaid and shambled up to the fore-deck, not being in the mood for conversation with the other passengers, however illustrious, on the quarter-deck. He watched the sun lift over the sea, away on the port bow, until it was obscured by the staysail. Then, when his head had cleared somewhat, he went in search of food, and now felt capable of answering, along the way, a query or two about his friend's progress.
His friend. He felt again the warmth of Keith's hand in his, and knew that this was the friendship of a lifetime.
He found he could not stay away for long; so he descended to the sick-berth once more, where Archie was, in his turn, occupying that low chair.
“How is he?”
“Over the worst for now.” And as Ewen slumped a little in relief, “There will be more to come, though. He's had another draught and I've put fresh maggots on the wound. Get some rest, Ewen. I don't want you collapsing too.”
Ewen did not argue. “Thank-you, Archie,” he said, and Archie nodded briskly and left. Ewen scrambled back into his cot, and, with Archie's reassurance in mind, fell asleep in five minutes.
Two mornings later, they were tacking southwards, the slow grey rollers lifting and dipping L'Herault's prow, and passing under her on the last stage of their long journey to the Irish coast, which showed distantly on the horizon in the form of tall black cliffs. It was a quiet day, all sails set, and in the sick-berth Keith, now recovered from his fever and free of his maggots, was fully dressed and out of bed for the first time since he had arrived on board. Ewen had requested that he see Lachlan; Keith had grimaced but acquiesced. But: “I'll be damned if I play the invalid in front of him, Ewen!” So, wearing the repaired coat, he was now waiting to receive a most unlikely visitor.
“Lachlan,” prompted Ewen, and stood aside.
“Mac 'ic Ailein tells me that I should not have stabbed you,” said Lachlan, speaking with extreme reluctance. “I am sorry for it.”
“There is no lasting harm done,” began his victim.
No lasting harm! Ewen had a sudden memory of blood pouring through his fingers like a burn in spate, the hot smell of it, the mad scramble down to the boat, the desperate hours following. He must have made some movement, because both men glanced at him.
Then Lachlan continued doggedly, “I overheard that you had betrayed my foster-brother. I saw Neil's body, and believed that you had killed him.”
“Well, Ardroy has no doubt told you the truth of what happened to him – and to Neil. I am sorry for Neil's death. I have a brother too – and if I thought anyone had harmed him -”
The two men exchanged a look. “Maybe you understand why I did what I did, then?” asked Lachlan
“Maybe I do. I would ask that you do not do it again.”
“I have given Mac 'ic Ailein my promise that I will not.”
“Then all's well. We will not speak of it again.”
They would never achieve a state other than daggers-drawn, but it was enough. Keith gave a brief nod, as of dismissal, and Ewen gripped Lachlan's shoulder in approbation, feeling it set like iron. He opened the door to hand him over to Duncan, and having closed it, turned back to see Keith slumping on the chair. “I need to lie down.”
He sprang to assist; there was a brief half-minute of wrestling Keith's near-helpless weight back into the cot, but this achieved, they regarded each other ruefully, their faces a foot or so apart. “I should not have asked it of you,” said Ewen, with remorse.
“Necessary. It's done now.”
“Are you bleeding? Archie -”
“I don't think so.”
Ewen's fingers were nevertheless busy about the buttons of Keith's waistcoat, and he pulled down the shirt too. The dressing was clean.
“I think you're right. Is there anything -”
“Drink.” So they were back to the first hours on L'Herault for an hour or two, but Keith recovered apace, and Ewen's remorseful anxiety subsided.
“Your brother,” he said after a while. “ I have never heard you mention him before.”
“He's younger than me by more than a dozen years. In truth he's my half-brother; my mother remarried after my father's death. Francis is Viscount Aveling, son of the Earl of Stowe. He'll never have to take to soldiering, I'm glad to say.”
“You're on good terms with him, then.”
“Yes, I'm fond of him. He takes after my step-father, who is a kind man.”
There were no words of Keith's mother. Had she, too, died? Was she not kind? Ewen would discover these things in time; or not, as Keith wished.
“Do you remember your father? I never saw mine; he died in the Low Countries soon after the '19.”
The talk meandered down slightly melancholic paths for a while. Then it took a more cheerful turn as Keith told of games with his brother at Stowe Hall, that white Palladian mansion set among the old trees of the park; and Ewen was very glad to see him smile now and then as he did so.
They had rounded the south-western cape of Ireland, and turned south east by east towards Brittany. Now L'Herault was reaching, running easily across the massive swells that lifted in from the Atlantic. The toe of Cornwall lay far off beyond the port bow. And Keith had improved so far that he was able to contemplate going up on deck.
Ewen helped him into his coat, and he and Archie and Dubois stood ready to assist... “You will oblige me by not attempting to capture the Prince,” said Ewen.
Keith replied, “The thought had not occurred to me – until now,” said with that half-smile which was Keith's challenge to further passages of arms. They negotiated the gun-deck without disaster; indeed, one of the sailors called out something in French, to which Keith replied fluently, if idiomatically, in the same language. Laughter rippled round the sailor's mates, lounging off-duty, at his discomfiture, and as if buoyed up by it, and with Ewen close at his side, Keith took the ladder to the main-deck at a rush.
He stopped for breath once he had gained the deck. “Ah, that's better.”
It was a dancing-day: sunny, the wind snatching at the waves, coming steady off L'Herault's starboard quarter, filling the topsails and snapping the pennants. It could have been a pleasure-cruise.
“Major Windham, you are with us at last! Allow me to assist you!” The Prince, leaning over the quarter-deck rail, addressed Keith with all his habitual charm. He ran down the ladder and extended an arm. Ewen fairly blinked at the sight.
“You will excuse me, sir, if I do not bow,” stated Keith. “The wound still troubles me.” The wound had nothing to do with it: Keith was simply immune to the Prince's charm and unswervingly loyal to the Elector. Ewen caught Archie's eye and they both repressed smiles.
“Of course, and all the more reason to assist so gallant an enemy.” Still the Prince stood ready to help Keith, his arm crooked at the elbow, and thus prompted Keith took it; and did not forbear to rest a considerable portion of his weight upon it, to judge by the Prince's sudden slight lurch.
They made their way slowly up to the quarter-deck, Ewen and Archie following decorously behind, and the Prince installed Keith in the chair he himself had been using. Then he stayed a good ten minutes, questioning Keith about his year in the Highlands - “We have both seen more mountains than we are likely to forget!” At last he extended a gracious invitation to dinner that evening, before leaving them to take a spell at the wheel.
Keith glanced at the two Camerons. “I feel old,” he remarked.
“He once told me that I had an old head on young shoulders. I believe you got off lightly,” said Ewen.
“An old head on young shoulders,” repeated Keith gravely. “I have often noticed it,” at which Archie had some ado to control the twitch of his lip.
The dinner that evening was surprisingly successful. The Prince had insisted that Keith sit in the only high-backed chair, since he was so lately recovered from such a severe injury. Keith inevitably wore full uniform, and Ewen, sitting on his right, was glad to see that the repairs over which he had laboured so long and so carefully were hardly visible in the candle-light. Keith was on his best behaviour. He had, after all, been brought up in one of the first households in the land.
They spoke mostly in French, out of courtesy to Captain LeBlanc and such of his officers as sat at the table. “You speak French very well, Major Windham!” said the captain, surprised.
“I had the opportunity to practise it while on campaign in Flanders.”
“No doubt that explains the Flemish accent,” murmured Strickland, sotto voce, at the further end of the table. Ewen gave him a measuring look, and he subsided.
For a while the business of eating the excellent meal occupied them all, but when that was mostly done, the Prince turned to Keith and gaily said, “Now, Major, we have met twice, once at my landing and again at my departure. But there was another time that we almost met – indeed, you almost captured me then! And were it not that I was the quarry, I would fain have joined you on that adventure. So tell me, I beg, of that night in Edinburgh.”
“Sir, Ardroy will already have told you of that night in the West Bow – and the story is a great deal more to his credit than to mine.”
Ewen glanced down involuntarily at the ring on his hand, the gift of the Prince after that little affair. He had left it in Aunt Margaret's keeping before the last desperate march to Culloden, and taken it up again after the escape that Keith had bought him at the cost of his career.
“He has indeed, and your part in it was memorable,” said Charles Edward. and here it was Keith's turn to glance at Ewen's hand, and their eyes met for the briefest of moments before Keith smiled ruefully and turned his attention back to the Prince. “But it must have been an adventure equal to our own, to make that foray from the Castle into the city. Let us have the story, I beg.”
Keith was no story-teller, but he was, of course, accustomed to making reports. And Ewen listened to that report, and from his own recollections filled in what Keith did not say.
Ewen remembered that chilly, gusty night last October well enough; the sound of the gaiety at Holyrood House diminishing in the dark behind them, and the Castle's dragon bulk rearing into the night sky over the Grassmarket. From that fortress, dark except for windows gleaming like eyes here and there, Keith had issued forth into present danger, the men at his back unused to him and ready to start at shadows, each of which might conceal a murderous Highlander.
It was only a few hundred yards that Keith had marched, down from the Rock and into one of the narrow wynds with which Edinburgh was threaded, between close-packed buildings, his senses preternaturally sharp for all that he'd been woken but fifteen minutes earlier. Their guide brought them between the sleeping houses, past a church, its spire soaring up on their left, round a sharp corner, under a bridge of masonry, and, beyond a short stairway, pointed at a door set back in deep shadow. And then Ewen listened, smiling slightly, to the tale of the subsequent debâcle, and extended his scarred hand as proof of Keith's sudden (and as Ewen freely admitted) thoroughly provoked attack; and was then amused to hear Keith and the Prince and Strickland amiably discuss the inadequacies of the passage which had taken them all to safety.
“Five minutes more and you would have caught me!” The Prince was at his most ruefully charming.
“It is my eternal regret that I did not,” replied Keith, with utmost sincerity.
“And your further travels that night? For we were safe enough once we were back across the Grassmarket, but you had to avoid our patrols on your return.”
“They were diverted by the commotion in the house, and after that it was simply a matter of keeping my uniform covered under Ardroy's cloak.”
“Here I must confess,” put in Ewen, “that it was not my cloak.”
“My favourite,” said the Prince dolefully. “From Rome.”
“It was yours, sir?” said Keith, with a laugh. “Well, I have it still – or at least, it's in Arisaig, or wherever my effects may be. The spoils of war, and of the finest quality. It did me good service that night.”
“May I say that I am glad it did? Sir, my compliments to a brave man.” The Prince lifted his glass to Keith, and the others perforce followed suit, and none more heartily than Ewen. Keith acknowledged their toasts with an inclination of the head, and raised his own glass in reply; but only Ewen received the benefit of his sidelong sardonic glance, and indeed the situation was incongruous in the extreme. “To a brave man,” repeated Ewen firmly, drank and set his glass down with finality.
About ten minutes later, Keith became very still, and Archie on his other side murmured something to him.
“Yes, I think I should,” was the quiet reply, and Archie rose and made his excuses for his patient, and departed with him. Archie was reassuring on his return, but Ewen sat through the remainder of the evening in a state of concern, unable to attend fully to what was being said.
When the party broke up, Ewen repaired to the small cabin which he now shared with Keith, the two of them having vacated the sick-berth the day before. On entering it, he found that Keith was already undressed and installed in his cot, so had no task except to do the same himself; which he carried out in worried silence.
“Are you ready to sleep?”
Ewen blew out the lantern, and settled back into his cot. “We should not have gone to the meal tonight -”
“No,” cut in Keith, “but politeness dictates. Nor, as a soldier of King George, do I wish to show weakness. Surely you must see that.”
“Of course I do,” said Ewen, though by those words Keith had displayed absolute vulnerability to him. “Good night. Wake me if you need anything.”
A grunt. “Good night.”
Two days later the voyage was over. L'Herault anchored in the port of St-Malo, and the guns of the town boomed out in royal salute to the Prince; who, springing up onto the quay with his friends in train, was in happy mood. Ewen watched him from the boat and quietly remarked on this, with some bafflement, to Archie. “The Cause is lost and he's returning to France defeated. Why is he so merry?”
“He's an adventurer, when all's said and done, and this was a great adventure for him.”
Keith, waiting beside them, made no comment, but Ewen could feel the effort it cost him to remain politely silent.
They made their unsteady way up the damp and barnacled steps of the quay, and surveyed the strong walls and towers of the defences. Within was a tangle of houses old and new. Somewhere there would be a place to stay; and meanwhile, the Prince was being welcomed by the great folk of the town, in a burst of talk and laughter and good cheer.
After two nights in an inn close under the walls, and by which time the world had ceased to sway under their feet, they took up residence in a little house further up the hill. This belonged to Captain LeBlanc, and it was situated next door to its owner's residence. Their number was diminished by Lachlan, who had been promptly dispatched to Ardroy with Ewen's letter to Aunt Margaret, and Keith insisted on sending word to his regiment in Flanders via the usual channels in Paris; though Archie had strongly advised against any immediate attempt at travel.
“They will notify my step-father and brother – who will be glad of the news, for they will have heard by now that I am gone from Morar.”
Still no mention of his mother, but it was, after all, for Keith to bring up that subject; and Ewen himself was distracted, for L'Herault's sister ship, the Fleur-de-Lys, dropped anchor a week after they had arrived, and on board was Lochiel.
A scattering of exiles waited on the quay for each ship that came in, watching the small craft that crossed the harbour, and it was there that Ewen embraced his cousin, in turn after Archie, and did his best not to reveal his concern about Lochiel's appearance. For he was thin, and worn, and pale, though his first words after their greeting were, “Ewen, my dear boy, you should not be standing around in the cold with that leg!”
“Oh this, 'tis nothing, Donald, and Archie has a surgeon in mind for me,” said Ewen. “Do you come home with us; we've taken a fine little house, and we're very snug there until we decide what to do.”
Keith, though he was now taking short walks around the town, had declined to come and welcome the ship new-in from Scotland, with its cargo of Jacobite refugees. So the Camerons walked slowly up the main street of the town, and then onto a smaller street, and turned into a narrow close. A swarm of Captain LeBlanc's children erupted from his house, next door to theirs; Ewen, very much at sea as he always was in this situation, allowed Archie to deal expertly with them, and gained the doorway of their own home with some relief. Here Céline, the oldest of the LeBlanc brood, who held sway over the Cameron household with benevolent despotism, dispersed her siblings with a few fierce words.
There was a dim hallway, with stairs leading up to the main accommodation; there was room there for both Archie and Donald, and their families should they join them, over the adjoining shop. Above, in the attics, were housed Duncan and Angus, and now Lochiel's men too. And on the ground floor, there was a parlour and a little annexe which housed kitchen and scullery, and a further small room. This room Ewen had appropriated for himself and Keith. There was space for two narrow beds, and a window looked out onto Madame LeBlanc's kitchen garden, with its rows of beans, looking rather the worse for the recent cold weather, and its cabbages and root vegetables; and a beehive, which no doubt accounted for much of its productivity. Beyond the garden, there was even a glimpse of the harbour between the houses of the town, and the masts and yards of the ships moored there.
It was all comfortable enough that Ewen could call it a home without much difficulty. And here Keith, who had been reading in the parlour, rose to greet Lochiel, and bowed with none of that difficulty which he had claimed for the Prince... Céline marched in with a tray of coffee, which she deposited on the table, and thus began a period of domestic comfort.