Roger had thought killing a man would be harder.
They approach the clearing on silent feet, Roger as always amazed at the stealth the huge Highlanders are capable of when called upon. Jaime, in front of him, is practically a wraith as he flits from tree to tree, the bandit’s fire glinting every so often off his flaming hair.
Hair so much like his daughter’s. Roger feels his heart clench painfully in his chest. He’d seen what could happen to people set upon by bandits. He had held that little girl’s hand, felt the breath leave her as she died. The thought of Claire, sightless eyes searching for a sky she’d never see again…
Jaime stopped; his fist raised. On either side of him, Ian and Fergus knelt, sighting the camp. Roger waited, barely breathing. Ian’s hands flashed a pattern, and a moment later, Fergus’s single-handed sign flashed back. Jaime nodded at them. They rose, drawing closer to him. Roger echoed them; his weapon held tight.
Jaime’s hand dropped.
Roger had often heard the expression ‘all hell broke loose’, but it had never been as apt a descriptor as it was today.
The unearthly shrieks rose at once from all directions, Highland cries of battle. Ian and Fergus added their own screams, Mohawk and French merely increasing the confusion as they rushed the camp. Soon gunfire, the clash of steel, and the wails of the dying layered into the noise.
Roger’s heart was drumming in his chest, a beat he had never heard before, and yet he knew it. An ancient call to arms, to war. Scotland, singing in his blood.
A man rises in front of him, sudden in the darkness, and Roger is grateful for what training Jaime had tried to give him as he blocks the other’s blade. There is little technique to his wild slashes, but the man goes down easily enough. He is no trained soldier, either, no matter what he was pretending to be.
The whole fight lasts less than five minutes, those of the Brown gang still alive captured and kneeling by the fire, watched over by the fierce men of Jaime’s command.
Jaime himself is missing from the clearing, as are Fergus and Ian. Roger turns to search the surrounding trees and spots the two younger men returning, the firelight catching the fresh blood on their clothes and skin.
Ian’s painted face is grave and set. Beside him, the typical irrepressible Frenchman is silent, his eyes gutted. Dread coils in Roger’s stomach, and he catches his breath.
Ian must hear him, because he glances at Roger as they pass. His face softens slightly, and he gives a tiny nod. Roger feels weak with the rush of relief that floods his system.
Claire is alive.
Still, something is still wrong. The very air is tense with meaning as Fergus and Ian step up to the captive men, one on each side of the line. Fergus glances at the men guarding the prisoners, and Roger suddenly understands what’s about to happen as the guards each grab a prisoner, holding them still.
He opens his mouth, but before he can even decide what he would say, it is done. The screams are still ringing off the trees as Ian and Fergus stalk away, leaving a pool of spreading blood behind them.
Roger feels sick.
He had known, intellectually, that justice in this time bore a different guise than in his own. Still, to see the brutality of this first-hand, to have been a participant, however small, well. He suspects this night will haunt him for a long time to come.
Jaime steps into the firelight, Claire cradled in his arms.
All other thoughts go out of his mind as he takes her in. She’s bruised and bloodied and trembling, wrapped in a tartan that swallows her whole. Claire, for all she’s been through and all the turmoil Roger has paid witness to thus far in her life, has never looked small before. Now, as Jaime sets her gently on her feet, she appears as no more than a hollow, clear shell.
As for Jaime, Roger can’t bear to look at him. The mix of rage and heartbreak and love on his face was so raw it tore something deep in Roger’s chest.
They stand for a moment, Claire coolly assessing the carnage done in her honor. Roger wonders, again, what it takes to be both soldier and healer, to look upon a bloody battlefield without flinching. Claire is at peace with death in a way that Roger knows he will never be.
The discover of Lionel Brown, clinging to life, is a somewhat mixed surprise. Jaime doesn’t kill him, not yet, though for a moment Roger can see just how much he wants to. Looking at Claire, Roger can’t even blame him for the urge.
Passing responsibility for Lionel to Josiah, Jaime picks up his wife and walks away, Ian and Fergus flanking him. Roger feels suddenly terribly other, outside of this macabre play. He falls in with the rest of the men, his eyes following Jaime’s straight, unyielding back as they leave that miserable place behind.
As he crosses from the light of the fire into the shadow of the woods, he sees him. The man he killed, sprawled facedown in the mud. The blood is dark and still in the remaining glow, an echo of the same blood smeared across Roger’s hands.
He pauses for only a moment before walking away.
He knows, now, the price for killing a man. Knows the sound he makes as he falls, the amount of force it takes to pierce skin and muscle. Knows how it feels when the life leaves the body, the last gasp of the spirit as it flees. Knows, too, that he would do it again. For Claire. For Brianna, for Jemmy, for the Ridge and all it’s inhabitants. For the safety of those he holds dear, the cost is cheap.
Roger had thought killing a man would be harder.