Copyright 2010 Diana Gabaldon
“Stay,” he said sternly to Rollo, turning back for an instant. The dog, who had not stirred from his comfortable spot at Rachel’s feet, twitched one ear.
William was standing by the roadside, looking hot, tired, disheveled, and thoroughly unhappy. As well he might, Ian thought with some sympathy. William was likely bound for England—if he was lucky—or for parole in some rough lodging somewhere far to the south. In either case, his active role as a soldier was over for some time.
His face changed abruptly at sight of Ian. Surprise, the beginnings of indignation, then a quick glance round, decision clamping down upon his features. Ian was surprised for a moment that he could read William’s face so easily, but then remembered why. Uncle Jamie guarded his own expression in company—but not with Ian. Ian’s own face didn’t show his knowledge, though, anymore than William’s now showed more than an irritable acknowledgement.
“Scout,” William said, with the briefest of nods. The officer to whom he had been talking gave Ian a brief, incurious look, then saluted William and plunged back into the trudging stream.
“What the bloody hell do you want?” William drew a grubby sleeve across his sweating face. Ian was mildly surprised at this evident hostility; they’d parted on good terms the last time they had seen each other—though there had been little conversation at the time, William having just put a pistol-ball through the brain of a madman trying to kill Rachel, Ian, or both, with an axe. Ian’s left arm had healed enough to dispense with a sling, but it was still stiff.
“There’s a lady who’d like to speak with ye,” he said, ignoring William’s narrowed eyes. The eyes relaxed a little.
“Miss Hunter?” A small gleam of pleasure lit William’s eyes, and Ian’s own narrowed slightly. Aye, well, he thought, let her tell him, then.
William waved to a corporal down the line, who waved back, then stepped off the road after Ian. A few soldiers glanced at Ian, but he was unremarkable, the double line of dotted tattooing on his cheeks, his buckskin breeches, and his sun-browned skin marking him as an Indian scout—a good many of these had deserted the British army, but there were still a good many left, mostly Loyalists like Joseph Brant who held land in Pennysylvania and New York, though there were still some ranging parties from the Iroquois nations who had come down to fight at Saratoga.
“William!” Rachel flew across the little clearing and clasped the tall captain’s hands, beaming up at him with such joy that he smiled back at her, all irritability vanished. Ian hung back a little, to give her time. There hadn’t been any, really, what with Rollo roaring and tearing at Arch Bug’s miserable auld carcass, Rachel sprawled on the floor, frozen with horror, himself lying on the floor pouring blood, and half the street outside screaming bloody murder.
William had pulled Rachel to her feet and thrust her into the arms of the first woman available, who as it happened, was Marsali.
“Get her out of here!” William had snapped. But Rachel, Ian’s nut-brown maiden—her brownness much splattered with blood—had pulled herself together in an instant, and gritting her teeth—he’d seen her do it, bemused by shock as he lay on the floor, watching things happen as though in a dream—as she stepped over auld Arch’s body, had fallen to her knees in the mess of brains and blood, wrapped her apron tight about his wounded arm and tied it with her kerchief, and then with Marsali, had dragged him bodily out of the print-shop and into the street, where he’d promptly passed out, waking only when Auntie Claire began stitching his arm.
Ian hadn’t had time to thank William, even had he been able to speak, and he meant to convey his own thanks as soon as he might. But clearly Rachel wanted to talk to him first, and he waited, thinking how beautiful she looked, her eyes the clouded hazel of thicket and green-brier, face clever and quick as flame.
“But thee is tired, William, and thin,” she was saying, drawing a finger disapprovingly down the side of his face. “Do they not feed thee? I’d thought it was only the Continentals who went short of rations.”
“Oh. I—I haven’t had time of late.” The happiness that had lit William’s face while he talked with Rachel faded noticeably. “We—well, you see.” He waved an arm toward the invisible road, where the hoarse chants of the sergeants rang like the calling of disgruntled crows above the shuffle of feet.
“I do see. Where is thee going?”
William rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, and glanced at Ian.
“I suppose he oughtn’t to say,” Ian said, coming across and touching Rachel’s arm, smiling at William in apology. “We’re the enemy, a nighean donn.”
William looked sharply at Ian, catching the tone of his voice, then back at Rachel, whose hand he was still holding.
“We are betrothed, William—Ian and I,” she said, gently pulling her hand out of his and putting it on Ian’s.
William’s face changed abruptly, losing its look of happiness altogether. He eyed Ian with something remarkably close to dislike.
“Are you,” he said flatly. “I suppose I must wish you every happiness, then. Good day.” He turned on his heel, and Ian, surprised, reached out to pull him back.
“Wait—“ he said, and then William turned and hit him in the mouth.
He was lying on his back in the leaves, blinking in disbelief, as Rollo hurtled over him and sank his teeth in some soft part of William, judging by the yelp and the brief cry of startlement from Rachel.
“Rollo! Bad dog—and thee is a bad dog, too, William Ransom! What the devil does thee mean by this?”
Ian sat up, tenderly fingering his lip, which was bleeding. Rollo had retreated a little under Rachel’s scolding, but kept a yellow eye fixed on William and a curled lip raised over bared teeth, the faintest rumble of a growl coming from his huge chest.
“Sheas,” Ian said to him briefly, and got to his feet. William had sat down and was examining the calf of his leg, which was bleeding through his torn silk hose, though not badly. When he saw Ian, he scrambled to his feet. His face was bright red and he looked as though he meant either to do murder or burst into tears. Maybe both, Ian thought in surprise.
He was careful not to touch William again, but stood back a bit—in front of Rachel, just in case the man meant to go off again. He was armed, after all; there was a pistol and sword at his belt.
“Are ye all right, man?” he asked, in the same tone of mild concern he’d heard his Da use now and then on his Mam or Uncle Jamie. Evidently it was in fact the right tone to take with a Fraser about to go berserk, for William breathed like a grampus for a moment or two, then got himself under control.
“I ask your pardon, sir,” he said, back stiff as a stick of rock-maple. “That was unforgiveable. I shall…leave you. I—Miss Hunter…I--” He turned, stumbling a little, and that gave Rachel time to dart round in front of him.
“William!” Her face was full of distress. “What is it? Have I—“
He looked down at her, his face contorted, but shook his head.
“You haven’t done anything,” he said, with an obvious effort. “You…you could never do anything that…” He swung round toward Ian, fist clenched on his sword. “But you, you fucking bas— you son-of-a-bitch! Cousin!”
“Oh,” said Ian, stupidly. “Ye know, then.”
“Yes, I bloody know! You could have fucking told me!”
“Know what?” Rachel stepped round Ian, looking from him to William and back again.
“Don’t you bloody tell her!” William snapped.
“Don’t be silly,” Rachel said reasonably. “Of course he’ll tell me, the minute we’re alone. Does thee not wish to tell me thyself? I think perhaps thee might not trust Ian to say it aright.” Her eye rested on Ian’s lip, and her own mouth twitched. Ian might have taken offense at this, save that William’s distress was so apparent.
“It isna really a disgrace…” he began, but then stepped hastily back as William’s clenched fist drew back.
“You think not?” William was so furious, his voice was nearly inaudible. “To discover that I am—am—the…the get of a Scottish criminal? That I am a fucking bastard?”
Despite his resolve to be patient, Ian felt his own dander start to rise.
“Criminal, forbye!” he snapped. “Any man might be proud to be the son of Jamie Fraser!”
“Oh,” said Rachel, forestalling William’s next heated remark. “That.”
“What?” He glared down at her. “What the devil do you mean, ‘that’?”
“We thought it must be the case, Denny and I.” She lifted one shoulder, though keeping a close watch on William, who looked as though he was about to go off like a twelve-pound mortar. “But we supposed that thee didn’t wish the matter talked about. I didn’t know that thee—how could thee not have known?” she asked curiously. “The resemblance—“
“Fuck the resemblance!”