[Excerpt from GO TELL THE BEES THAT I AM GONE Copyright © 2020 by Diana Gabaldon.]
William examined his handkerchief critically. There wasn’t much left of it; they’d tried to bind his wrists with it and he’d ripped it to shreds, getting it off. Still… He blew his nose on it, very gently. Still bloody, and he dabbed the seepage gingerly. Footsteps were coming up the tavern’s stairs toward the room where he sat, guarded by two wary privates.
“He says he’s who?” said an annoyed voice outside the room. Someone said something in reply, but it was lost in the scraping of the door across the uneven floor as it opened. He rose slowly to his feet and drew himself up to his full height, facing the officer—a major of dragoons—who had just come in. The major stopped abruptly, forcing the two men behind him to stop as well.
“He says he’s the fncking ninth Earl of Ellesmere,” William said in a hoarse, menacing tone, and fixed the major with the eye that he could still open.
“Actually, he is,” said a lighter voice, sounding both amused—and familiar. William blinked at the man who now stepped into the room, a slender, dark-haired figure in the uniform of a captain of infantry. “Captain Lord Ellesmere, in fact. Hallo, William.”
“I’ve resigned my commission,” William said flatly. “Hallo, Denys.”
“But not your title.” Denys Randall looked him up and down, but forebore to comment on his appearance.
“Resigned your commission, have you?” The major, a youngish, thick-set fellow who looked as though his breeches were too tight, gave William an unpleasant look. “In order to turn your coat and join the rebels, I take it?”
William breathed, twice, in order to avoid saying anything rash.
“No,” he said, in an unfriendly voice.
“Naturally not,” Denys said, gently rebuking the major. He turned back to William. “And naturally, you would have been traveling with a company of American militia because….?”
“I was not traveling with them,” William said, successfully not adding ‘you nit’ to this statement. “I encountered the gentlemen in question last night at a tavern, and won a substantial amount from them at cards. I left the tavern early this morning and resumed my journey, but they followed me, with the obvious intent of taking back the money by force.”
“Obvious intent?” echoed the major skeptically. “How did you discern such intent? Sir,” he added reluctantly.
“I’d imagine that being pursued and beaten to a pulp might have been a fairly unambiguous indication,” Denys said. “Sit down, Ellesmere; you’re dripping on the floor. Did they in fact take back the money?” He pulled a large, snowy-white handkerchief from his sleeve and handed it to William.
“Yes. Along with everything else in my pockets. I don‘t know what‘s become of my horse.” He dabbed the handkerchief against his split lip. He could smell Randall’s cologne on it, despite his swollen nose—the real Eau de Cologne, smelling of Italy and sandalwood. Lord John used it now and then, and the scent comforted him a little.
“So you claim to know nothing of the men with whom we found you?” said the other officer, this one a lieutenant, a man of about William’s own age, eager as a terrier. The major gave him a look of dislike, indicating that he didn’t think he needed any assistance in questioning William, but the lieutenant wasn’t attending. “Surely if you were playing cards with them, you must have gleaned some information?”
“I know a few of their names,” William said, feeling suddenly very tired. “That’s all.”
That was actually not all, by a long chalk, but he didn’t want to talk about the things he’d learned—that Abbot was a blacksmith and had a clever dog who helped him at his forge, fetching small tools or faggots for the fire when asked. Justin Martineau had a new wife, to whose bed he longed to return. Geoffrey Garland’s wife made the best beer in the village, and his daughter’s was nearly as good, though she was but twelve years old. Garland was one of the men the captain had chosen to hang. He swallowed, his throat thick with dust and unspoken words.
He’d escaped the noose largely because of his skill at cursing in Latin, which had disconcerted the captain long enough for William to identify himself, his ex-regiment, and a list of prominent army officers who would vouch for him, beginning with General Clinton (God, where was Clinton now?).
Denys Randall was murmuring to the major, who still looked displeased, but had dropped from a full boil to a disgruntled simmer. The lieutenant was watching William intently, through narrowed eyes, obviously expecting him to leap from the bench and make a run for it. The man kept unconsciously touching his cartridge box and then his holstered pistol, clearly imagining the wonderful possibility that he could shoot William dead as he ran for the door. William yawned, hugely and unexpectedly, and sat blinking, sudden exhaustion washing through him like the tide.
Right this moment, he really didn’t care what happened next.
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Many thanks to Beve Danforth Miller for the wonderful bee photo!
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