Jonathan Wolverton Randall, Captain of His Majesty’s 8th Dragoons and lately Terror of the Traitorous Highlanders, lolled in the back of a stagecoach as the pale sun rose ahead of him. Groaning queasily into the weathered wood to his left, his empty stomach heaving, he closed his eyes and tried to let the motion lull him back into oblivion. The pink streaks on the horizon, soft and hazy and so unlike the penetrating grey of the country he had left behind, put him in mind of the blood, diluted by the mud and damp of Culloden, which had deluged his uniform and finally his consciousness. He had a dim vision of Fraser, running towards him, and then somehow falling away from him, away from his outstretched sword arm, before he could deliver the death blow. The next thing he knew, he was unable to move, lying helpless as some unknown highlander, his kilt revealing far too much, stampeded over him towards an enemy beyond, before toppling himself, face forward, into the mud.
It had been with considerable consternation that he gradually found himself, rising out of the heat of fever, to be lying on a rough camp bed at Fort William, surrounded by the stench of those whose wounds had gone bad slowly rotting to death around him. More irksome still was the surgeon who proclaimed him destined for either a slow demise or an even slower recovery, depending on which way he went himself. All of his strength seemed to have fled him, and he was for a long time powerless against the sick ministrations of those around him.
One particular incident stayed with him; a lieutenant, barely more than a boy, had somehow discerned the strength of Randall’s constitution and his promising chances of survival from his place on the other side of the room. The captain awoke one night to find the boy clasping his hand, rambling some nonsense about his sister and a letter, the stench of his gangrenous flesh hot in Randall’s nostrils. Somehow, he had not been able to muster the strength to push the boy away or even to reprimand him, and he lay there for the rest of the night in abject disgust until the boy finally disgorged his soul and his bodily fluids with it. When the whole mess was discovered next morning, Randall, his guts still roiling from the stench, had barely managed to grind out ‘…must send word of his demise only to his uncle…’ before he was violently sick all over himself, disgusted by both the corpse on top of him and the feebleminded idiocy of his attempted ‘revenge’.
He had not, of course, much wanted to survive the battle in the first place. Be that as it may, however, he had. An actual wish for self-destruction was alien to a man such as himself, and it was mainly with indifference that he stared at the ceiling and pieced together the increasingly hopeful trajectory of his condition from the surgeon’s prattle. When he finally staggered out of the makeshift ward after being given leave to convalesce at home, and joined the supply wagon which was to take him as far as Edinburgh, he consoled himself that by coming home to his young wife he would at least be thoroughly disappointing that bitch Claire Fraser, who had planned with such certainty for the date of his death and the best use of his pension.
As the view outside the coach coalesced into the familiar road which would take them out of Bath, Jonathan Randall reflected on the sublime absurdity of a world which would bring a man such as himself home to a wife less than half his age, especially as he was now; still convalescent, if not actually crippled. The whole thing was so ridiculous, he couldn’t help chuckling aloud even as he winced, the sutures which were no longer there causing a phantom pull at the flesh in his stomach.
He must have nodded off again, for the sun was higher in the sky when the coachman woke him, and the village of Chippenham floated into view in the distance. With some effort, he hoisted himself out of the coach while that fool, much too eager for the tip he would not now receive, liberated his trunk from the pile on top of the coach and, with a grossly ingratiating smile, deposited it on the steps of Randall’s modest country house.