"Past Prologue" is a short work of collaborative fiction, co-written by Diana Gabaldon and Steve Berry and featuring Diana's Outlander Series leading man Jamie Fraser with the title character from Steve's Cotton Malone Series. It was published in the anthology Matchup, edited by Lee Child.
Harold Earl "Cotton" Malone, a retired covert agent from the U.S. Justice Department, attends a book auction at an old castle in the Scottish Highlands, hosted by an old acquaintance, Malcolm Chubb. Cotton is intrigued by one tome in particular—a 15th-century grimoire, an incunabulum allegedly penned by the infamous Comte de St. Germain.
Dressed in traditional Highland garb for the evening, Cotton mingles with other interested parties, striking up a conversation with a woman named Eleanor LeBlanc. Eleanor reveals that she, too, is keen on the incunabulum, as it had once been in her ancestors' possession.
The following morning, Cotton rises early only to find out over breakfast that the 15th-century grimoire has vanished in the night, and their host has an investigation of the castle underway. Cotton thinks of the gun packed with his belongings, and decides to keep it on his person rather than risk its being discovered by the staff, which would draw undue scrutiny. In the interest of avoiding the investigation altogether, Cotton leaves the castle to walk about the grounds, though a servant warns him that the moor is uneven and easy to get lost on, and that he had best stay on the footpath.
About an hour into his walk, Cotton spots a cluster of stones some distance from the path, and feels compelled to approach them. There he finds the missing incunabulum, wrapped in plastic. Before he can think further, one of the other guests, a Russian named Kuznyetsov, pulls a gun on him and tells him to put it back. Cotton throws the book at him and dives behind the largest stone; when he grasps the stone for balance, he feels an elemental force that turns everything topsy-turvy.
Some time later, he wakes up to find that Kuznyetsov has vanished and left the grimoire, and that his own wristwatch has imploded while his gun has likewise been ruined. Cotton, hiding the grimoire beneath his shirt, decides to return to the castle, only to find that the building in question looks quite different from the last time he saw it. Further, a crew of prisoners is led out of the castle by a horse-drawn wagon and escorted by three red-coated soldiers—who are armed with muskets.
Hidden behind a gorse bush, Cotton witnesses one of the prisoners falling over, and another–a large redheaded man wearing shackles–pronounces the man dead. One of the soldiers orders the removal of the dead man from the road, but the redheaded prisoner insists on taking the body in the wagon to be buried later on the moor.
Recalling the presence of a village nearby, Cotton strikes out towards it, but after two hours finds no sign of it. He then sees two riders approaching: a man half falling out of his saddle with weakness, and an attractive woman with green eyes. The woman, who introduces herself as Melisande Robicheaux, makes him an offer: in exchange for his help in rowing out to an island offshore, she will direct him how to reach his destination. Cotton gets a strong sense that this woman is trouble, but agrees.
Melisande leads them to the cliff's edge; they make their way down and she bargains with a man in Gaelic for the use of a rowboat. Cotton rows them through the rough waters to an island, where Melisande withdraws a box that sounds like it is filled with coins, leaves the boat and picks her way over the rocks and out of sight. Cotton rummages through her bag and finds food, as well as a book that resembles the grimoire from the auction. Withdrawing the latter from its hiding place beneath his shirt, he compares them and finds they are remarkably similar—nearly identical. He also finds a pistol, and removes the cartridge and wad, disarming it, then replaces it before Melisande returns.
Once they reach mainland again, Melisande turns the gun on Cotton and fires, stymied momentarily by its failure to hit her mark. Cotton realizes he has dropped his copy of the grimoire, but cannot spare more than a moment to its loss before Melisande comes at him with a knife. He strikes a blow to her face, knocking her down, and she screams for help to the fishermen, whose attention has been drawn by their altercation. Cotton runs for his life, several men in pursuit behind him, but after some time and distance, he finds he is no longer followed, and lays down on the damp moor to sleep.
In the morning, he walks for several hours until he comes upon another work crew from the prison, already cutting peats on the moor. The redheaded prisoner from the day before approaches him, and asks him why he is wearing tartan, which is outlawed. The man directs Cotton to hide with him in a small hole in the ground, and introduces himself as Jamie Fraser. Cotton explains that he's looking for a circle of stones; Fraser seems to understand something about this strange quest, and asks whether he knows of the year 1948. Cotton, still wary but now hopeful, says that he does, and asks what year it is now. Fraser tells him it is 1755.
After promising to tell Cotton the way to the stones, he hesitates, as though he cannot decide whether or not to speak. Cotton encourages him, and Fraser requests that Cotton, should he meet a woman named Claire Randall, offer Fraser's blessings to her and her child, and tell her that her husband misses her. Fraser asks Cotton if he has a woman, wherever he comes from; Cotton says he does, and Fraser advises him to think of her when he reaches the stones. In parting, Cotton asks why Fraser and the other prisoners never try to escape. Fraser replies simply:
- "Where should we go? All that we knew is gone, and all that we have is each other."
That night, Cotton finds the stones and touches them, keeping Fraser's final advice in mind.
When he awakens the next day, Cotton finds himself being transported by van back to the castle. His rescuers inform him that Kuznyetsov was found dead, with jewels in his pockets. Back at the castle, the police interrogate Cotton, and he decides to leave out the entire story of his journey into the past.
Chubb asks after him, offering food and rest, and they sit and talk while Cotton eats. Chubb describes the chaos of the past couple of days, and expresses his relief that the missing grimoire turned out to be in its case all along. Cotton, who had definitely lost the grimoire during his 262-year journey, is baffled, but keeps his musings to himself. Thinking the whole experience may have been one vivid, elaborate dream, he remembers the wad and load from the flintlock pistol, and finds they are still in his sporran. He contents himself with sipping his whisky and pondering what might have become of his broken watch and gun.
- Cotton Malone
- Jamie Fraser
- Melisande Robicheaux
- Duncan Kerr
- Malcolm Chubb
- Eleanor LeBlanc
- John MacRae
- Archie McAndres