I flapped my hand, dismissing the matter of outlawry as a minor consideration, compared to the whole monstrous idea. I had one last try.
“Does it bother you that I’m not a virgin?” He hesitated a moment before answering.
“Well, no,” he said slowly, “so long as it doesna bother you that I am.” He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed toward the door.
“Reckon one of us should know what they’re doing,” he said. The door closed softly behind him; clearly the courtship was over.
The papers duly signed, I made my way cautiously down the inn’s steep stairs and over to the bar table in the taproom.
“Whisky,” I said to the rumpled old creature behind it. He glared rheumily, but a nod from Dougal made him oblige with a bottle and glass. The latter was thick and greenish, a bit smeared, with a chip out of the rim, but it had a hole in the top, and that was all that mattered at the moment.
Once the searing effect of swallowing the stuff had passed, it did induce a certain spurious calmness. I felt detached, noticing details of my surroundings with a peculiar intensity: the small stained-glass inset over the bar, casting colored shadows over the ruffianly proprietor and his wares, the curve of the handle on a copper-bottomed dipper that hung on the wall next to me, a greenbellied fly struggling on the edges of a sticky puddle on the table. With a certain amount of fellow-feeling, I nudged it out of danger with the edge of my glass.
I gradually became aware of raised voices behind the closed door on the far side of the room. Dougal had disappeared there after the conclusion of his business with me, presumably to firm up arrangements with the other contracting party. I was pleased to hear that, judging from the sound of it, my intended bridegroom was cutting up rough, despite his apparent lack of objection earlier. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to offend me.
“Stick to it, lad,” I murmured, and took another gulp.
Sometime later, I was dimly conscious of a hand prying my fingers open in order to remove the greenish glass. Another hand was steadyingly under my elbow.
“Christ, she’s drunk as an auld besom in a bothy,” said a voice in my ear. The voice rasped unpleasantly, I thought, as though its owner had been eating sandpaper. I giggled softly at the thought.
“Quiet yerself, woman!” said the unpleasant rasping voice. It grew fainter as the owner turned to talk to someone else. “Drunk as a laird and screechin’ like a parrot—what do ye expect—”
Another voice interrupted the first, but I couldn’t tell what it said; the words were blurred and indistinguishable. It was a pleasanter sound, though, deep and somehow reassuring. It came nearer, and I could make out a few words. I made an effort to focus, but my attention had begun to wander again.
The fly had found its way back to the puddle, and was floundering in the middle, hopelessly mired. The light from the stained-glass window fell on it, glittering like sparks on the straining green belly. My gaze fixed on the tiny green spot, which seemed to pulsate as the fly twitched and struggled.
“Brother…you haven’t a shance,” I said, and the spark went out.
A MARRIAGE TAKES PLACE
There was a low, beamed ceiling over me when I woke, and a thick quilt tucked tidily under my chin. I seemed to be clad only in my shift. I started to sit up to look for my clothes, but thought better of it halfway up. I eased myself very carefully back down, closed my eyes and held onto my head to prevent it from rolling off the pillow and bouncing on the floor.
I woke again, sometime later, when the door of the room opened. I cracked one eye cautiously. A wavering outline resolved itself into the dour figure of Murtagh, staring disapprovingly down at me from the foot of the bed. I closed the eye. I heard a muffled Scottish noise, presumably indicating appalled disgust, but when I looked again he was gone.
I was just sinking thankfully back into unconsciousness when the door opened again, this time to reveal a middle-aged woman I took to be the publican’s wife, carrying a ewer and basin. She bustled cheerily into the room and banged the shutters open with a crash that reverberated through my head like a tank collision. Advancing on the bed like a Panzer division, she ripped the quilt from my feeble grasp and tossed it aside, leaving me quaking and exposed.
“Come along then, me love,” she said. “We mun get ye ready now.” She put a hefty forearm behind my shoulders and levered me into a sitting position. I clutched my head with one hand, my stomach with the other.
“Ready?” I said, through a mouth filled with decayed moss.
The woman began briskly washing my face. “Och, aye,” she said. “Ye dinna want to miss yer own wedding, now, do ye?”
“Yes,” I said, but was ignored as she unceremoniously stripped off my shift and stood me in the middle of the floor for further intimate attentions.
A bit later I sat on the bed, fully dressed, feeling dazed and belligerent, but thanks to a glass of port supplied by the goodwife, at least functional. I sipped carefully at a second glass, as the woman tugged a comb through the thickets of my hair.
I jumped and shuddered, spilling the port, as the door crashed open once more. One damn thing after another, I thought balefully. This time it was a double visitation, Murtagh and Ned Gowan, wearing similar looks of disapprobation. I exchanged glares with Ned while Murtagh came into the room and walked slowly around the bed, surveying me from every angle. He returned to Ned and muttered something in a tone too low for me to hear. With a final glance of despair in my direction, he pulled the door shut behind them.
At last my hair was dressed to the woman’s satisfaction, swept back and pulled high in a knot at the crown, curls picked loose to tumble to the back, and ringlets in front of my ears. It felt as though my scalp were going to pop off from the tension of the strained-back hair, but the effect in the looking glass the woman provided was undeniably becoming. I began to feel slightly more human, and even brought myself to thank her for her efforts. She left me the looking glass, and departed, remarking that it was so lucky to be married in summer, wasn’t it, as I’d have plenty of flowers for my hair.
“We who are about to die,” I said to my reflection, sketching a salute in the glass. I collapsed on the bed, plastered a wet cloth over my face, and went back to sleep.
I was having a rather nice dream, something to do with grassy fields and wildflowers, when I became aware that what I had thought a playful breeze tugging at my sleeves was a pair of none-too-gentle hands. I sat up with a jerk, blindly flailing.
When I got my eyes open, I saw that my small chamber now resembled a Tube station, with faces wall-to-wall: Ned Gowan, Murtagh, the innkeeper, the innkeeper’s wife, and a lanky young man, who turned out to be the innkeeper’s son, with his arms full of assorted flowers, which accounted for the scents in my dream. There was also a young woman, armed with a round wicker basket, who smiled amiably at me, displaying the lack of several rather important teeth.
This person, it developed, was the village sempstress, recruited to repair the deficiencies of my wardrobe by adjusting the fit of a dress, obtained on short notice from some local connection of the innkeeper’s. Ned was carrying the dress in question, hanging from one hand like a dead animal. Smoothed out on the bed, it proved to be a low-necked gown of heavy cream-colored satin, with a separate bodice that buttoned with dozens of tiny cloth-covered buttons, each embroidered with a gold fleur-de-lis. The neckline and the belled sleeves were heavily ruched with lace, as was the embroidered overskirt of chocolate-brown velvet. The innkeeper was half-buried in the petticoats he carried, his bristling whiskers barely visible over the foamy layers.
I looked at the port-wine stain on my grey serge skirt and vanity won out. If I were in fact to be married, I didn’t want to do it looking like the village drudge.
After a short spell of frenetic activity, with me standing like a dressmaker’s dummy and everyone else racing about fetching, carrying, criticizing, and tripping over each other, the final product was ready, complete to white asters and yellow roses pinned in my hair and a heart pounding madly away beneath the lacy bodice. The fit was not quite perfect, and the gown smelled rather strongly of its previous owner, but the satin was weighty and swished rather fascinatingly about my feet, over the layers of petticoats. I felt quite regal, and not a little lovely.
“You can’t make me do this, you know,” I hissed threateningly at Murtagh’s back as I followed him downstairs, but he and I both knew my words were empty bravado. If I had ever had the strength of character to defy Dougal and take my chances with the English, it had drained away with the whisky.
Dougal, Ned, and the rest were in the main taproom at the foot of the stair, drinking and exchanging pleasantries with a few villagers who seemed to have nothing better to do with their afternoon than hang about getting sloshed.
Dougal caught sight of me slowly descending, and abruptly stopped talking. The others fell silent as well, and I floated down in a most gratifying cloud of reverent admiration. Dougal’s deepset eyes covered me slowly from head to foot and returned to my face with a completely ungrudging nod of acknowledgment.
What with one thing and another, it was some time since a man had looked at me that way, and I nodded quite graciously back.
After the first silence, the rest of those in the taproom became vocal in their admiration, and even Murtagh allowed himself a small smile, nodding in satisfaction at the results of his efforts. And who appointed you fashion editor? I thought disagreeably. Still, I had to admit that he was responsible for my not marrying in grey serge.
Marrying. Oh, God. Buoyed temporarily by port wine and cream lace, I had momentarily managed to ignore the significance of the occasion. I gripped the banister as fresh realization hit like a blow in the stomach.
Looking over the throng, though, I noticed one glaring omission. My groom was nowhere in sight. Heartened by the thought that he might have succeeded in escaping out of a window, and be miles away by now, I accepted a parting cup of wine from the innkeeper before following Dougal outside.
Ned and Rupert went to fetch the horses. Murtagh had disappeared somewhere, perhaps to search for traces of Jamie.
Dougal held me by one arm; ostensibly to support me lest I stumble in my satin slippers, in reality to prevent any last-minute breaks for freedom.
It was a “warm” Scottish day, meaning that the mist wasn’t quite heavy enough to qualify as a drizzle, but not far off, either. Suddenly the inn door opened, and the sun came out, in the person of James. If I was a radiant bride, the groom was positively resplendent. My mouth fell open and stayed that way.
A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight—any Highlander, no matter how old, ill-favored, or crabbed in appearance. A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored young Highlander at close range is breath-taking.
The thick red-gold hair had been brushed to a smooth gleam that swept the collar of a fine lawn shirt with tucked front, belled sleeves, and lace-trimmed wrist frills that matched the cascade of the starched jabot at the throat, decorated with a ruby stickpin.
His tartan was a brilliant crimson and black that blazed among the more sedate MacKenzies in their green and white. The flaming wool, fastened by a circular silver brooch, fell from his right shoulder in a graceful drape, caught by a silver-studded sword belt before continuing its sweep past neat calves clothed in woolen hose and stopping just short of the silver-buckled black leather boots. Sword, dirk, and badger-skin sporran completed the ensemble.
Well over six feet tall, broad in proportion, and striking of feature, he was a far cry from the grubby horse-handler I was accustomed to—and he knew it. Making a leg in courtly fashion, he swept me a bow of impeccable grace, murmuring “Your servant, Ma’am,” eyes glinting with mischief.
“Oh,” I said faintly.
I had seldom seen the taciturn Dougal at a loss for words before. Thick brows knotted over a suffused face, he seemed in his way as taken aback by this apparition as I was.
“Are ye mad, man?” he said at last. “What if someone’s to see ye!”
Jamie cocked a sardonic eyebrow at the older man. “Why, uncle,” he said. “Insults? And on my wedding day too. You wouldna have me shame my wife, now, would ye? Besides,” he added, with a malicious gleam, “I hardly think it would be legal, did I not marry in my own name. And you do want it legal, now, don’t you?”
With an apparent effort, Dougal recovered his self-possession. “If ye’re quite finished, Jamie, we’ll get on wi’ it,” he said.
But Jamie was not quite finished, it seemed. Ignoring Dougal’s fuming, he drew a short string of white beads from his sporran. He stepped forward and fastened the necklace around my neck. Looking down, I could see it was a string of small baroque pearls, those irregularly shaped productions of freshwater mussels, interspersed with tiny pierced-work gold roundels. Smaller pearls dangled from the gold beads.
“They’re only Scotch pearls,” he said, apologetically, “but they look bonny on you.” His fingers lingered a moment on my neck.
“Those were your mother’s pearls!” said Dougal, glowering at the necklace.
“Aye,” said Jamie calmly, “and now they’re my wife’s. Shall we go?”
Wherever we were going, it was some distance from the village. We made a rather morose wedding party, the bridal pair encircled by the others like convicts being escorted toward some distant prison. The only conversation was a muted apology from Jamie for being late, explaining that there had been some difficulty in finding a clean shirt and coat large enough to fit him.
“I think this one belongs to the local squire’s son,” he said, flipping the lacy jabot. “Bit of a dandy, it looks like.”
We dismounted and left the horses at the foot of a small hill. A footpath led upward through the heather.
“Ye’ve made the arrangements?” I heard Dougal say in an undertone to Rupert, as they tethered the beasts.
“Och, aye.” There was a flash of teeth in the black beard. “Was a bit o’ trouble to, persuade the padre, but we showed him the special license.” He patted his sporran, which clinked musically, giving me some idea of the nature of the special license.
Through the drizzle and mist, I saw the chapel jutting out of the heather. With a sense of complete disbelief, I saw the round-shouldered roof and the odd little many-paned windows, which I had last seen on the bright sunny morning of my marriage to Frank Randall.
“No!” I exclaimed. “Not here! I can’t!”
“Hst, now, hst. Dinna worry, lass, dinna worry. It will be all right.” Dougal put a large paw on my shoulder, making soothing Scottish noises, as if I were a skittish horse. “ ’Tis natural to be a bit nervous,” he said, to all of us. A firm hand in the small of my back urged me on up the path. My shoes sank moistly in the damp layer of fallen leaves.
Jamie and Dougal walked close on either side of me, preventing escape. Their looming plaid presences were unnerving, and I felt a mounting sense of hysteria. Two hundred years ahead, more or less, I had been married in this chapel, charmed then by its ancient picturesqueness. The chapel now was creaking with newness, its boards not yet settled into charm, and I was about to marry a twenty-three-year-old Scottish Catholic virgin with a price on his head, whose—
I turned to Jamie in sudden panic. “I can’t marry you! I don’t even know your last name!”
He looked down at me and cocked a ruddy eyebrow. “Oh. It’s Fraser. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.” He pronounced it formally, each name slow and distinct.
Completely flustered, I said “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp,” and stuck out my hand idiotically. Apparently taking this as a plea for support, he took the hand and tucked it firmly into the crook of his elbow. Thus inescapably pinioned, I squelched up the path to my wedding.
Rupert and Murtagh were waiting for us in the chapel, keeping guard over a captive cleric, a spindly young priest with a red nose and a justifiably terrified expression. Rupert was idly slicing a willow twig with a large knife, and while he had laid aside his horn-handled pistols on entering the church, they remained in easy reach on the rim of the baptismal font.
The other men also disarmed, as was suitable in the house of God, leaving an impressively bristling pile of lethality in the back pew. Only Jamie kept his dagger and sword, presumably as a ceremonial part of his dress.
We knelt before the wooden altar, Murtagh and Dougal took their places as witnesses, and the ceremony began.
The form of the Catholic marriage service has not changed appreciably in several hundred years, and the words linking me with the red-headed young stranger at my side were much the same as those that had consecrated my wedding to Frank. I felt like a cold, hollow shell. The young priest’s stammering words echoed somewhere in the empty pit of my stomach.
I stood automatically when it came time for the vows, watching in a sort of numbed fascination as my chilly fingers disappeared into my bridegroom’s substantial grasp. His fingers were as cold as my own, and it occurred to me for the first time that despite his outwardly cool demeanor, he might be as nervous as I was.
I had so far avoided looking at him, but now glanced up to find him staring down at me. His face was white and carefully expressionless; he looked as he had when I dressed the wound in his shoulder. I tried to smile at him, but the corners of my mouth wobbled precariously. The pressure of his fingers on mine increased. I had the impression that we were holding each other up; if either of us let go or looked away, we would both fall down. Oddly, the feeling was mildly reassuring. Whatever we were in for, at least there were two of us.
“I take thee, Claire, to be my wife…” His voice didn’t shake, but his hand did. I tightened my grip. Our stiff fingers clenched together like boards in a vise. “…to love, honor and protect…for better and for worse…” The words came from far away. The blood was draining from my head. The boned bodice was infernally tight, and though I felt cold, sweat ran down my sides beneath the satin. I hoped I wouldn’t faint.
There was a small stained-glass window set high in the wall at the side of the sanctuary, a crude rendering of John the Baptist in his bearskin. Green and blue shadows flowed over my sleeve, reminding me of the tavern’s public room, and I wished fervently for a drink.
My turn. I stuttered slightly, to my fury. “I t-take thee, James…” I stiffened my spine. Jamie had got through his half creditably enough; I could try to do as well. “…to have and to hold, from this day forth…” My voice came stronger now.