Ian Murray knew from the moment he saw his best friend’s face that something terrible had happened. The fact that he was seeing Jamie Fraser’s face at all was evidence enough of that, never mind the look of the man.
Jamie was standing by the armorer’s wagon, his arms full of the bits and pieces Armand had just given him, white as milk and swaying back and forth like a reed on Loch Awe. Ian reached him in three paces and took him by the arm before he could fall over.
“Ian.” Jamie looked so relieved at seeing him that Ian thought he might break into tears. “God, Ian.”
Ian seized Jamie in embrace, and felt him stiffen and draw in his breath at the same instant he felt the bandages beneath Jamie’s shirt.
“Jesus!” he began, startled, but then coughed and said, “Jesus, man, it’s good to see ye.” He patted Jamie’s back gently and let go. “Ye’ll need a bit to eat, aye? Come on, then.”
Plainly they couldn’t talk now, but he gave Jamie a quick private nod, took half the equipment from him, and then led him to the fire, to be introduced to the others.
Jamie’d picked a good time of day to turn up, Ian thought. Everyone was tired, but happy to sit down, looking forward to their supper and the daily ration of whatever was going in the way of drink. Ready for the possibilities a new fish offered for entertainment, but without the energy to include the more physical sorts of entertainment.
“That’s Big Georges over there,” Ian said, dropping Jamie’s gear and gesturing toward the far side of the fire. “Next to him, the wee fellow wi’ the warts is Juanito; doesna speak much French and nay English at all.”
“Do any of them speak English?” Jamie likewise dropped his gear, and sat heavily on his bedroll, tucking his kilt absently down between his knees. His eyes flicked round the circle, and he nodded, half-smiling in a shy sort of way.
“I do.” The captain leaned past the man next to him, extending a hand to Jamie. “I’m le capitaine—Richard D’Eglise. You’ll call me Captain. You look big enough to be useful—your friend says your name is Fraser?”
“Jamie Fraser, aye.” Ian was pleased to see that Jamie knew to meet the captain’s eye square, and had summoned the strength to return the handshake with due force.
“Know what to do with a sword?”
“I do. And a bow, forbye.” Jamie glanced at the unstrung bow by his feet, and the short-handled ax beside it. “Havena had much to do wi’ an ax before, save chopping wood.”
“That’s good,” one of the other men put in, in French. “That’s what you’ll use it for.” Several of the others laughed, indicating that they at least understood English, whether they chose to speak it or not.
“Did I join a troop of soldiers, then, or charcoal-burners?” Jamie asked, raising one brow. He said that in French—very good French, with a faint Parisian accent—and a number of eyes widened. Ian bent his head to hide a smile, in spite of his anxiety. The wean might be about to fall face-first into the fire, but nobody—save maybe Ian—was going to know it, if it killed him.
Ian did know it, though, and kept a covert eye on Jamie, pushing bread into his hand so the others wouldn’t see it shake, sitting close enough to catch him if he should in fact pass out. The light was fading into gray now, and the clouds hung low and soft, pink-bellied. Going to rain, likely, by the morning. He saw Jamie close his eyes just for an instant, saw his throat move as he swallowed, and felt the trembling of Jamie’s thigh near his own.
What the devil’s happened? he thought in anguish. Why are ye here?
It wasn’t until everyone had settled for the night that Ian got an answer.
“I’ll lay out your gear,” he whispered to Jamie, rising. “You stay by the fire that wee bit longer—rest a bit, aye?” The firelight cast a ruddy glow on Jamie’s face, but he thought his friend was likely still white as a sheet; he hadn’t eaten much.
Coming back, he saw the dark spots on the back of Jamie’s shirt, blotches where fresh blood had seeped through the bandages. The sight filled him with fury as well as fear. He’d seen such things; the wean had been flogged. Badly, and recently. Who? How?
“Come on, then,” he said roughly, and, bending, got an arm under Jamie’s and got him to his feet and away from the fire and the other men. He was alarmed to feel the clamminess of Jamie’s hand and hear his shallow breath.
“What?” he demanded, the moment they were out of earshot. “What happened?”
Jamie sat down abruptly.
“I thought one joined a band of mercenaries because they didna ask ye questions.”
“Virgins” is included in DANGEROUS WOMEN, an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, which was released in hardcover on December 3, 2013.
This page was last updated on Thurday, December 5, 2013 at 2:50 p.m. (PDT)