The fight happened fast, after the long, hard flight.
John landed at the bottom of the stairs in a heap. The metal plate at the crown of his head still rang with the force of the blow, and his brain juddered madly like the clapper of a discordant bell. The slamming of the cellar door thundered between his ears, and he blinked fruitlessly, squinting through a shower of stars into darkness. Someone was breathing there, unseen.
"Willie?" he said, though he knew it was not Willie here with him. He'd been far on the other side of the kitchen, swinging like an accomplished brawler, when one of the brigands had taken an iron skillet to the back of John's head.
"Nae," said a muffled, nasal voice out of the darkness to his left. "I'm nae Willie."
Jamie was alive then - the last John had seen of him he'd been going down under four attackers in a whirling mass of arms and legs and flying hair. It was very quiet above them, he realized with a sudden, sick lurch. But no sooner did the thought occur than there came a great, metallic screeching sound that drove vicious blades of pain through his skull.
"That will be the door, then," said Jamie matter-of-factly. "They've pushed the stove up against it."
"Oh," said John faintly. He could feel each pulse of blood in his temples, fast like his heart, working in time to the helpless racing of his thoughts. Willie, Willie, Willie. It was quiet upstairs again, all sounds of battle vanished.
He heard Jamie stirring, the clink and rustle of his various accoutrements. Then there was a flare of light, small but powerful. Jamie held up one of his daughter's clever matches between them, and they blinked at each other in its small, brave light. Jamie looked dreadful - hair unbound, lip split, face already swelling. Beneath all that it was difficult to see any other changes that the past six years might have wrought.
"Er, good morning," said John.
"Oh, is it?" asked Jamie dryly. "I hadna noticed. Ye're looking in two different directions at once," he added, eyeing John thoughtfully.
"Oh?" said John. "I hadn't noticed."
Jamie snorted, winced, and turned his head to spit. John couldn't see, but he thought he heard a tooth strike the hard-packed cellar floor. "Well now," Jamie said, "it's no that it isna veruh nice to see ye -" he hesitated minutely "-and yer son, but ye'll forgive me if I ask what in blazes ye're doing here?" He reached up, probing cautiously at his nose. "Broken again," he added to himself, in tones of weary resignation. "Claire will be callin' me many a horrid name when she mends it." The prospect seemed to cheer him.
"We were on our way to see you, as it happens," John said. The match was burning down rapidly, and Jamie rose to his knees, lifting it high to survey their prison. John tried to rise, making it to his elbows before the floor lurched beneath him. He held very still, breathing through his nose.
Jamie made it to his feet, one arm clutched protectively about his ribs. He shook out the stub of the match, plunging them back into darkness. John lay still, listening to him move about, investigating by feel. "I canna budge it," he said, after climbing the stairs and applying his shoulder to the door, to judge by the effortful grunts.
"I can assist-" began John.
"Nae," said Jamie. "Ye're heid is half caved in, man. Why were you after me?"
"Oh," said John, sinking gratefully back to the floor. "I was hoping that you - that is, my son is with me, as you doubtless observed. I was hoping to leave him in your capable custody for a time, while I deal with a few troublesome matters."
There was an imperceptible change in the attitude of the unseen figure on the stairs. "There's a threat to the lad?" Jamie asked.
"Oh yes," said John, and coughed a bitter, half-hysterical laugh. He took a careful breath, schooling his disordered thoughts. Willie, Willie, Willie. Did he lie, even now, dead in the kitchen just above them? Was the dark, chestnut hair matted with blood, were the impudent blue eyes forever closed? No, please. I cannot have failed in this, the greatest thing.
He told the story slowly, trying to gather the scattered details from the whirlwind of the past weeks, recollecting fragments that had been shaken loose in the blow and then the fall.
"I have the charge of William's holdings, until he comes of age next year," he began. "They are substantial, as I'm sure you can imagine."
"Aye," said Jamie, encouragingly.
"I inherited the task after William's maternal grandfather passed on four years ago, he having taken it upon the death of the eighth - of William's father, as I'm sure you recall." He essayed another attempt to rise, pleased when he propped himself on his braced hands without undue hardship. "And I found when I reviewed the disbursement of the estate, that there existed a small irregularity."
"Mmmph?" said Jamie inquiringly. He was doing something that produced a series of strange, wet noises, culminating in a sharp pop. It took John a moment to realize that he was resetting the broken nose by feel.
"There was a small expenditure, an annuity paid out for nearly two decades through a London bank. I . . . thought it best not to investigate further, after my initial inquiries." He paused, delicately, waiting for Jamie to draw his own conclusions.
There was a brief silence, and then Jamie said, sounding both startled and indignant, "Why, the sneaky bugger."
"Quite," said John, who had said something very similar there in his study, over the account books and the letter from the bank. Said it, and then promptly decided never to speak of it again, and to continue paying the annuity. So much the better for Willie, who could not be threatened by some unacknowledged by-blow, but all the same John would prefer the issue not arise in the first place. Ever. All well and good, until the amount was abruptly cut in half, with only a terse notification from the bank, and shortly thereafter, things began to happen.
"It was a horse first, and a fall," said John, reliving the first moment of dizzied, retroactive shock when he'd opened the letter. Willie was fine - John would swear sometimes that the boy bounced like India rubber. The horse, a previously well-mannered creature, had shied, bolted, and broken a foreleg in a stumble.
"Mmm," said Jamie. And then, very casually, "But the lad kens how to sit a mount, aye?"
"Oh yes," said John, smiling. "He is an excellent rider." As Jamie himself had begun to teach him. Yes, Jamie, the mark of you is everywhere on him - must you ask to know? "Two weeks after the horse, the axel of my mother's carriage snapped." He swallowed. "She was there - Willie is not in the habit of taking the carriage on his own account, preferring to ride. The driver was quick and clever, and saved them from a wreck."
"And then?" said Jamie, with little inflection.
"A boating accident at school. And then a small avalanche, when he was out riding again. I . . . decided it best to remove him from England immediately." And so Willie had come, spirits only a little darkened by the repeated close calls. And John had kept a watchful flame burning, stoked with fear and wariness, beneath his pleasure at regaining the boy's company. "I don't know what conclusions he drew for himself," he said. "We have not directly discussed the matter, though he has been surprisingly tractable to certain of my more recent restrictions upon his activities."
"He kens a thing or two now," said Jamie definitely. "He wasna surprised to see yon thugs coming for him there, at the last." Yes, John thought, Jamie would know that. There had only passed the span of a few minutes from the time they arrived at River Run and found Jamie in the kitchen to the time when the brigands had burst in upon them, but Jamie's eyes had been fastened on the face of his son, avaricious and hungry, all that short span. John, at Willie's shoulder, had thrilled to the unexpected sight of him there, prickling with the unprepared flush of awareness. There was only time for him to say Jamie's name, to possess the shape of the syllables on his tongue, and wonder at the extraordinary intimacy of it after committing them only to pen for so long. And then the brigands had thundered in on their heels, and Jamie had taken not a moment to ask who or where or why before flinging himself into the fray, broad shoulders turned to deflect a blow aimed for Willie's head.
"Well yes," was all John said. "Willie is young, but he is also no fool. He went hunting without me just this week past." Gone in high good spirits, and come back pale and shaken, with a flattened rifle slug in his saddle bags which he had dug from the bark of a tree mere inches from his tender, unprotected skull. "I've been conducting certain investigations, of course," said John. "And as it happens, London banks are not as incorruptible as you might expect, given the right inducement." He had followed the trail from the bank to a lawyer, and then another, and finally to a small Northumberland town and a nest of old secrets. "She was married, you see, and it seems there was quite the contretemps. I suspect, though I do not know for a certainty, that the Earl was, ah, damaged in the fracas."
"Marrit, and a commoner to boot," Jamie hazarded. "So he left his son to be raised by another man." There was a current of tension there, subtle like the glints of copper in Jamie's own hair under the sun.
"His daughter, but essentially yes," John said evenly. "And upon the death of her mother and the discovery of her, ahem, origins, it seems the young lady has set out on an ill-advised course. I am afraid I rather underestimated her reach." Her reach, and her brutality, until Willie had opened up his big, square-cut hand and shown him the flattened slug. From that moment on all other considerations, calculations, complications had vanished, and he had determined to escort Willie safely into the hands of the only other person in the world he trusted to defend him well and true. Willie could be tucked safely away at Fraser's Ridge, possible consequences be damned, leaving John free to . . . deal with the matter. He huffed out a breath, surprised yet again to find that core of cold, ruthless purpose inside of him. He had been a soldier, yes, had seen men die and killed them himself, felt the red madness sweep down over his brain like a cataract, the senseless drive to kill survive, kill survive. But he had never fully lost himself, never shaken loose from the clutches of the quiet observer in his mind, the man who watched and cataloged and was appalled and sick. And he had certainly never known that he possessed this potential, this blood cold capacity to want a woman dead if he must hunt her down like a dog, brutal and exact.
And so they had set off for Fraser's Ridge, intending to pause at Jamie's aunt's plantation to beg fresh horses. It had turned into a mad nightmare chase the last morning, a pack of half a dozen riders on their heels, the horses staggering with weariness by the end, Willie white lipped and silent, riding head down with one hand clutching convulsively at his pistol as they raced for sanctuary at River Run. Only to find, upon arrival, the plantation oddly silent, most of the slaves gone, the house partly shuttered, and Jamie Fraser's own demon horse simmering in the stable.
"What has happened here?" John asked, though he could guess.
"My aunt," Jamie said shortly. "She passed this month gone. Her husband retains the estate, of course, but he chooses to obey my aunt's wishes and keep it in trust for my grandson. We've stayed - my daughter and I - to see to things."
"My sincere condolences on your loss," said John, truthfully. Jocasta Cameron - Innes -- had been an extraordinary woman. His stomach turned, twisting over the familiar, bitter knot. In previous times the news of a death in the family would have come in one of the frequent letters from Fraser's Ridge, and John might perhaps have contrived to come to the funeral, without Willie of course. But the mail had been silent for nearly a year now, after Jamie's last, regretful, incontrovertible letter. He bit his lip, feeling a betraying hot flush, luckily hidden by the enfolding darkness. His first instinct, upon being led to the ineluctable conclusion that there was no error, and that Jamie did in fact intend to ally himself with the Whigs, had been to capsize his own life in concert, to follow Jamie down whatever twisting path of madness or passion he had set foot upon. He had done nothing of the sort, of course, pinioned by reason and ironically by the one thing that bound their two lives most closely - Jamie's son, and his. Besides which, when this small rebellion was crushed and the dust settled, Jamie might very well be in need of the support of a loyalist patron, for whatever good it might do his case. If he survived.
He tilted his head up, listening. He heard nothing, all sound but Jamie's breathing and his own swallowed up by the earthen walls. The wine cellar was little more than a narrow hole burrowed down beneath the kitchen, packed walls braced with timber. It was barely wider than the precipitous set of steps, simply a narrow aisle with sturdy racks running along either side. John worked his way laboriously upright, back braced against one rack. His head swam, but he breathed slowly and the pain receded to a dull roar. Sitting like this, he could prop his feet against the opposite rack. Jamie, who had several more inches of height, was probably very uncomfortable.
"Shall we try the door together?" he asked. "I believe I can manage now."
They did, to no avail - there was not the smallest give from whatever obstruction blocked the door.
"There wasna anyone in the house," said Jamie, voice moving as he turned and sat at the top of the steps, back to the door. John copied him, several steps down. "We're closing it, d'ye see. Duncan hasna the inclination to keep it up, so we're to leave some of the slaves to him and close up the house. It's for wee Jemmy to decide what to do, when the time comes."
"So no one knows we're here," said John. "You said your daughter was with you?"
"Gone the week," said Jamie. "Off to paint for some folk down river."
"Damn," said John, and then hastily, "not that I would wish her here, now, of course." He turned his head, straining, longing. Had they taken him away with them, or killed him on the spot?
Time was a strange, tricksome creature there, down in the dark. Eleven precipitous steps led from the door. The ceiling was low, forcing John to tuck his chin, and doubtless leaving Jamie hunched and awkward. Ten paces took them from the bottom of the steps to the end of the short corridor. Jamie had seven more matches in his sporran, one of which they used to discover that no lamp hung ready at the stairs. John paced for a time, until the dizziness of the turn and turn about was indistinguishable from the dizziness of the blow. Careful probing revealed a noticeable dent in the metal plate, which now seemed to sit rather crooked beneath the skin. Jamie, much more accustomed to imprisonment, though certainly no more resigned, perched out of the way on the stairs and did not reprove John's fruitless expenditure of energy.
He came to rest at last, head in hands, the thought only now permeating that there were other concerns here, aside from Willie's whereabouts. If Brianna MacKenzie was gone for a week, and if the brigands had no intention of coming back for them . . .
They amused themselves for a time with a succession of verbal games. Jamie had quite the repertoire of guessing tricks and outrageous jokes. It wasn't until they began swapping recitations of poetry and quotation in attempts to confound the other as to the author that it occurred to John why Jamie knew all these tricks, that he had doubtless worn them down to the bone in Ardsmuir. His jaw clenched. For a time, a very brief space in the dark, the sound of that voice above him had lulled him to calmness, had sent him back through the years to the evenings of talk and chess they had shared by the fire in his rooms. Why must it always be, he wondered bleakly, this constraint upon them? Why could there never have been just one evening spent in companionship, for no other reason than they wished it? He turned aside that march of thought, tiredly. Jamie, untamed creature that he was, would never come to light on any man's wrist purely of his own will, unconstrained. Except for hers.
"Is it evening yet, do you think?" he asked abruptly, into a small silence.
"Just gone mid afternoon," said Jamie promptly. John puffed out a breath, unsurprised to find that an accurate time piece ticked away in that coppery head. "'Eternity!'" added Jamie, suddenly. "'Thou pleasing, dreadful thought'."
"Addison," said John, after a moment to recollect. "'Time and tide wait for no man.'"
Jamie snorted. "Chaucer. We talked that through, not two years past, dinna ye remember?"
"Yes," said John, who did not want to admit that he recollected perfectly but that he was rather rattled by the sudden, looming awareness that they might be here for a long, long while.
He did not ask the time again, but he could make his own mark by the griping of his belly. They stopped talking, and eventually John slept, curled half in a ball on his side. He dreamt of the sea, which was odd as he had no particular affinity for her. When he woke Jamie still slumbered, breathing steady like the waves on the shore.
The second day went much the same, though they were both slightly less inclined to conversation. Jamie took his turn at pacing, the sound of his boots strangely soothing to John's half-dozing mind, a muted rhythm as if he were a child safe here in the dark womb, and the sound his mother's beating heart.
By evening they were hungry, though more importantly in John's estimation, his mouth was parched and dry. Jamie had a small store of stale bread in his sporran, which they shared, choking down the dry crumbs.
He slept long but fitfully that night, and when he woke Jamie told him it was mid-morning. He responded with mechanical civility, rolled over and dozed again, dreaming of Ardsmuir, where he had, for the briefest of times, imagined that he held Jamie Fraser under his thumb, and that he desired it so. Events had shown his assumptions to be entirely inaccurate, and it was he, not Jamie, who had been caught from the very first. And now here they were together beneath the hand of fate, fingers poised casually to strike.
He roused again an indeterminate time later, thinking distantly that he should not be sleeping so much. Somehow the tenor of the pain in his skull was different; it had shifted from the agony of injury to the greedy throb of dry, thirsty blood. The small, enclosed space began to stink that day; by evening John's nose was deadened to the closeness of unwashed bodies and their byproducts. That night, or before the next sleep, Jamie opened the first bottle of wine.
"We can't," said John, when he properly identified the mysterious creaking sounds as Jamie whittling out a cork with his belt knife, entirely by touch. "If they are to come back to us, we mustn't be intoxicated."
"John," said Jamie, very gently. "They're no coming back."
"Ah," said John. "Quite."
The wine made the parched tissues of his tongue and mouth pucker and smart. He swallowed, his throat clicking agonizingly over the small sip. Then he tilted his head back, gulping until Jamie took the bottle away, laughing.
"Who was it," said John muzzily, "who said drinking is only a sin because the headache comes after; if the headache came before it would be medicine."
"I dinna ken," said Jamie, settling down next to him at the bottom of the stairs, "but it's already by way of medicine, aye?"
"Surely," said John, and applied himself with a will.
They laughed some that night, and Jamie was even compelled to sing - more of a rhythmic humming, rather, to John's muzzy ear. He did not know quite what they spoke of, but it was easy and comfortably clever.
The next time John woke, the thirst was far worse. He should have remembered, he thought through a haze of pain, the other reason why they oughtn't have touched the wine. He crawled to the end of the cellar they were using for such things, got quietly sick, and staggered back to the stairs, tripping over Jamie in the process. He huddled miserably for a time, then decided to hell with it and opened another bottle. Jamie, once roused, was easily persuaded to follow his lead.
"To Willie," said John, lifting the bottle into the dark. "Beg pardon - to William. He does not wish me to call him Willie anymore - it's not proper and fitting for a young man of his rank and station."
"Aye?" said Jamie, the alcohol stripping away his usual casual interest in the topic and leaving only the naked longing beneath.
"He's taller than me, now," said John, helpless to do naught but feed that hunger. "About on a height with you, I believe," he added, reckless.
"To William," said Jamie quietly. "May he be well, wherever he is."
"Yes," said John. Please. I am not accustomed to begging, but-
"Does he show any inclinations as yet?" Jamie asked, voice oddly small. "D'ye think he intends . . ."
He trailed off uncertainly, and John squinted, too intoxicated to follow his thought to its private completion. "He has a strong head for numbers," he said, when it seemed Jamie was not going to complete his sentence. "He could manage his own affairs now, if he liked, though he does not have a passion for finances." John smiled, thinking of his son. Willie's was the sort of agile mind which grasped new ideas with effortless, cheerful brilliance, before flitting on to the next new discovery. John could only hope that age and experience would serve to temper the wilder flights of his fancy, would settle him steady on one course or another, as he chose.
"Will he be a soldier, then?" Jamie asked abruptly.
Oh. He sucked a breath between his teeth, reaching for the noncommittal words of a diplomat. "The question has arisen," he said. "And I have prevailed upon him not to become a servant of His Majesty in that manner until he achieves his majority, and perhaps for a time after." For which concession John had employed every trick he possessed, every parental wile of persuasion and guilt and blackmail to keep his son out of a red coat. Which, of course, was the heart of the matter. Jamie would not, could not object to his son's pursuit of a soldiering life. But he could be struck by the horror, as John immediately had been, of being forced to face his own child in battle one day.
"Oh," said Jamie, quietly. And then, "I'm surprised that ye would trust him to me, now, not being a servant of His Majesty, myself."
John let himself laugh, long and loud, harder than he had laughed in years. "Don't be ridiculous," he said, at last. There was a silence then, uncertain and roiling with the tension which had lain unresolved between them for this year passed. At last John could not restrain himself any more. "Why?" he burst out abruptly. "Jamie, for God's sake, why must you do such a thing? Think of your family, your wife." Your son, and me, God help all of us.
"For my family, and my wife," said Jamie quietly. "For my grandchildren, and theirs. For my tenants." He hesitated, and then spoke again, sounding almost surprised. "And for the right of it. That is extraordinary, John, to fight for a thing ye come to believe is just and right. I ken that now, though it wasna always so. But for all, to keep them well and safe and alive. Always for that."
"And I don't know the right of it?" said John, bitterly, rhetorically. He didn't, and hadn't since he was seventeen.
"Of course ye ken," said Jamie at once. "Ye brought young William to me, aye? With the lot of 'em, makin' to slit yer throat for ye."
"It was all I could think to do," said John. "I'm sorry for entangling you in our affairs. But I thought - I believe you trustworthy, despite the differences we find between us." I knew you would die for him, as I would. I want him well and safe and alive, beyond all things, beyond all reason. He took another sip. The cellar was performing slow, periodic loops beneath him. "You will not be persuaded?" he asked, though he knew the answer. "You will not change course?" Sooner divert a charging army than turn a Fraser from his chosen path.
"No," said Jamie gently. "I am sorry, as well. I didna expect this, aye? But for them, for my family and my people, there can be no other way."
"I cannot say I do not understand," said John, who had watched Jamie Fraser whipped at his order and who had not understood why, down to the soul, until the first time Willie had come to him, bloody from a fall, and called him Papa. It was very strange, he thought, that their paths could diverge so precipitously, though they followed the same star.
"I canna change my mind," said Jamie. "But ye may. We will win, John, and I would not see ye destroyed for it. It isna irrevocable. Nothing is, save the ones it is our charge to keep and to love."
"I think that highly unlikely," said John. He spoke dryly, but something thrilled down his spine, the small hairs on his forearms standing on end. Jamie spoke as if he knew, as if he had read the future like a history. It was more than a little discomposing.
"All the same," said Jamie. "My hearth is always open to ye." He hesitated. "And yers."
"Thank you," said John, after rejecting a number of other responses.
They did not speak much after that. John had lost all sense of time, but he knew he slept and woke at least once more. It was cold there, the chill of the earth creeping into their bones, and neither of them had the wherewithal to pace anymore. When John next woke out of a doze he found himself pressed against Jamie's broad back, the two of them curled together like puppies. It would not be long now, he thought. He was not hungry any more, and the thirst had passed beyond pain, beyond obsession, into a state of absolute soul yearning. If it must be now, and it must be like this, at least it is with you.
"He is well," said Jamie, sounding very tired. "William. He is a clever lad, aye?"
"Yes," said John, for he must believe it so.
There was a small silence, and then, "Thank ye," said Jamie, voice cracking dryly on a sigh. "For my son. Ye have done veruh well. Thank ye."
"Strange," said John, as the cold was swept away. "I was about to say something quite similar to you."
He only halfheartedly approached consciousness when the door above them opened, just enough to duck his head and shield his eyes against the glare of astounding light. He listened, distracted and unconcerned, to the rushing of feet, the dueling of two strident voices. It wasn't until something was forced into his mouth and he swallowed a few drops of sweet, ambrosial wet that he tried again to open his eyes. They hovered above the two of them, one red head and one glossy brown, damn Fraser cat eyes wide with fright. They were looking at each other, two: she astounded and calculating, he confused but thoughtful. They were exactly of a height, he thought, the bones of their faces like the same song, played in two different keys. Ah, thought John, swallowing again and again as Jamie heaved and coughed beside him. This might well be irrevocable.