“It’s all right,” I said, as I came up to him. “It’s gone.”
Instead of finding this statement reassuring, it seemed occasion for fresh alarm. He dropped the bucket, fell to his knees before me and crossed himself.
“Ha-have mercy, lady,” he stammered. To my extreme embarrassment, he then flung himself flat on his face and clutched at the hem of my dress.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said with some asperity. “Get up.” I prodded him gently with my toe, but he only quivered and stayed pressed to the ground like a flattened fungus. “Get up,” I repeated. “Stupid man, it’s only a…” I paused, trying to think. Telling him its Latin name was unlikely to help.
“It’s only a wee monster,” I said at last, and grabbing his hand, tugged him to his feet. I had to fill the bucket, as he would (not unreasonably) not go near the water’s edge again. He followed me back to the camp, keeping a careful distance, and scuttled off at once to tend to his mules, casting apprehensive glances over his shoulder at me as he went.
As he seemed undisposed to mention the creature to anyone else, I thought perhaps I should keep quiet as well. While Dougal, Jamie, and Ned were educated men, the rest were largely illiterate Highlanders from the remote crags and glens of the MacKenzie lands. They were courageous fighters and dauntless warriors, but they were also as superstitious as any primitive tribesmen from Africa or the Middle East.
So I ate my supper quietly and went to bed, conscious all the time of the wary gaze of the drover Peter.
Two days after the raid, we turned again to the north. We were drawing closer to the rendezvous with Horrocks, and Jamie seemed abstracted from time to time, perhaps considering what importance the English deserter’s news might have.
I had not seen Hugh Munro again, but I had wakened in darkness the night before to find Jamie gone from the blanket beside me. I tried to stay awake, waiting for him to return, but fell asleep as the moon began to sink. In the morning, he was sound asleep beside me, and on my blanket rested a small parcel, done up in a sheet of thin paper, fastened with the tail-feather of a woodpecker thrust through the sheet. Unfolding it carefully, I found a large chunk of rough amber. One face of the chunk had been smoothed off and polished, and in this window could be seen the delicate dark form of a tiny dragonfly, suspended in eternal flight.
I smoothed out the wrapping. A message was incised on the grimy white surface, written in small and surprisingly elegant lettering.
“What does it say?” I asked Jamie, squinting at the odd letters and marks. “I think it’s in Gaelic.”
He raised up on one elbow squinting at the paper.
“Not Gaelic. Latin. Munro was a schoolmaster once, before the Turks took him. It’s a bit from Catullus,” he said.
…da mi basia mille, diende centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum…
A faint blush pinkened his earlobes as he translated:
Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips, begin and tell
A Thousand and a Hundred score
A Hundred, and a Thousand more.
“Well, that’s a bit more high-class than your usual fortune cookie,” I observed, amused.
“What?” Jamie looked startled.
“Never mind,” I said hastily. “Did Munro find Horrocks for you?”
“Oh, aye. It’s arranged. I’ll meet him in a small place I know in the hills, a mile or two above Lag Cruime. In four days’ time, if nothing goes wrong meanwhile.”
The mention of things going wrong made me a bit nervous.
“Do you think it’s safe? I mean, do you trust Horrocks?”
He sat up, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes and blinking.
“An English deserter? God, no. I imagine he’d sell me to Randall as soon as he’d spit, except that he canna very well go to the English himself. They hang deserters. No, I dinna trust him. That’s why I came wi’ Dougal on this journey, instead of seeking out Horrocks alone. If the man’s up to anything, at least I’ll have company.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure that Dougal’s presence was all that reassuring, given the apparent state of affairs between Jamie and his two scheming uncles.
“Well, if you think so,” I said doubtfully. “I don’t suppose Dougal would take the opportunity to shoot you, at least.”
“He did shoot me,” Jamie said cheerfully, buttoning his shirt. “You should know, ye dressed the wound.”
I dropped the comb I had been using.
“Dougal! I thought the English shot you!”
“Well, the English shot at me,” he corrected. “And I shouldna say it was Dougal shot me; in fact, it was probably Rupert—he’s the best marksman among Dougal’s men. No, when we were running from the English, I realized we were near the edge of the Fraser lands, and I thought I’d take my chances there. So I spurred up and cut to the left, around Dougal and the rest. There was a good deal of shooting goin’ on, mind ye, but the ball that hit me came from behind. Dougal, Rupert, and Murtagh were back of me then. And the English were all in front—in fact, when I fell off the horse, I rolled down the hill and ended almost in their laps.” He bent over the bucket of water I had brought, splashing cold handfuls over his face. He shook his head to clear his eyes, then blinked at me, grinning, glistening drops clinging to his thick lashes and brows.
“Come to that, Dougal had a sore fight to get me back. I was lyin’ on the ground, not fit for much, and he was standing over me, pulling on my belt with one hand to get me up and his sword in the other, going hand-to-hand with a dragoon who thought he had a certain cure for my ills. Dougal killed the man and got me on his own horse.” He shook his head. “Everything was a bit dim to me then; all I could think of was how hard it must be on the horse, tryin’ to make it up a hill like that with four hundred pounds on his back.”
I sat back, a little stunned.
“But…if he’d wanted to, Dougal could have killed you then.”
Jamie shook his head, taking out the straight razor he had borrowed from Dougal. He moved the bucket slightly, so the surface formed a reflecting pool, and pulling his face into the tortuous grimace men use when they shave, began to scrape his cheeks.
“No, not in front of the men. Besides, Dougal and Colum didna necessarily want me dead—especially not Dougal.”
“But—” My head was beginning to whirl again, as it seemed to do whenever I encountered the complexities of Scottish family life.
Jamie’s words were a little muffled, as he stuck out his chin, tilting his head to reach the bit of stubble beneath his jaw.
“It’s Lallybroch,” he explained, feeling with his free hand for stray whiskers. “Besides being a rich bit of ground, the estate sits at the head of a mountain pass, d’ye see. The only good pass into the Highlands for ten miles in either direction. Come to another Rising, it would be a valuable bit of land to control. And if I were to die before wedding, chances are the land would go back to the Frasers.”
He grinned, stroking his neck. “No, I’m a pretty problem to the brothers MacKenzie. On the one hand, if I’m a threat to young Hamish’s chieftainship, they want me safely dead. On the other, if I’m not, they want me—and my property—securely on their side if it comes to war—not wi’ the Frasers. That’s why they’re willing to help me wi’ Horrocks, ye see. I canna do that much wi’ Lallybroch while I’m outlawed, even though the land’s still mine.”
I rolled up the blankets, shaking my head in bewilderment over the intricate—and dangerous—circumstances through which Jamie seemed to move so nonchalantly. And it struck me suddenly that not only Jamie was involved now. I looked up.
“You said that if you died before wedding, the land would go back to the Frasers,” I said. “But you’re married now. So who—”
“That’s right,” he said, nodding at me with a lopsided grin. The morning sun lit his hair with flames of gold and copper. “If I’m killed now, Sassenach, Lallybroch is yours.”
It was a beautiful sunny morning, once the mist had risen. Birds were busy in the heather, and the road was wide here, for a change, and softly dusty under the horses’ hooves.
Jamie rode up close beside me as we crested a small hill. He nodded to the right.
“See that wee glade down below there?”
“Yes.” It was a small green patchwork of pines, oaks, and aspens, set back some distance from the road.
“There’s a spring with a pool there, under the trees, and smooth grass. A very bonny place.”
I looked over at him quizzically.
“A little early for lunch, isn’t it?”
“That’s not precisely what I had in mind.” Jamie, I had found out by accident a few days previously, had never mastered the art of winking one eye. Instead, he blinked solemnly, like a large red owl.
“And just what did you have in mind?” I inquired. My suspicious look met an innocent, childlike gaze of blue.
“I was just wondering what you’d look like…on the grass…under the trees…by the water…with your skirts up around your ears.”
“Er—” I said.
“I’ll tell Dougal we’re going to fetch water.” He spurred up ahead, returning in a moment with the water bottles from the other horses. I heard Rupert shout something after us in Gaelic as we rode down the hill, but couldn’t make out the words.
I reached the glade first. Sliding down, I relaxed on the grass and shut my eyes against the glare of the sun. Jamie reined up beside me a moment later, and swung down from the saddle. He slapped the horse and sent it away, reins dangling, to graze with mine, before dropping to his knees on the grass. I reached up and pulled him down to me.
It was a warm day, redolent with grass and flower scents. Jamie himself smelled like a fresh-plucked grass blade, sharp and sweet.
“We’ll have to be quick,” I said. “They’ll be wondering why it’s taking so long to get water.”
“They won’t wonder,” he said, undoing my laces with a practiced ease. “They know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did ye no hear what Rupert said as we left?”
“I heard him, but I couldn’t tell what he said.” My Gaelic was improving to the point that I could understand the more common words, but conversation was still far beyond me.
“Good. It wasna fit for your ears.” Having freed my br**sts, he buried his face in them, sucking and biting gently until I could stand it no more and slid down beneath him, tucking my skirts up out of the way. Feeling absurdly self-conscious after that fierce and primitive encounter on the rock, I had been shy about letting him make love to me near the camp, and the woods were too thick to safely move very far from the campsite. Both of us were feeling the mild and pleasant strain of abstinence, and now, safely removed from curious eyes and ears, we came together with an impact that made my lips and fingers tingle with a rush of blood.
We were both nearing the end when Jamie froze abruptly. Opening my eyes, I saw his face dark against the sun, wearing a perfectly indescribable expression. There was something black pressed against his head. My eyes at last adjusting to the glare, I saw it was a musket barrel.
“Get up, you rutting bastard.” The barrel moved sharply, jarring against Jamie’s temple. Very slowly, he rose to his feet. A drop of blood began to well from the graze, dark against his white face.
There were two of them; Redcoat deserters from the look of their ragtag remnants of uniform. Both were armed with muskets and pistols, and looked very much amused by what chance had delivered into their hands. Jamie stood with his hands raised, the barrel of a musket pressed against his chest, face carefully expressionless.
“You might ha’ let ’im finish, ’Arry,” said one of the men. He grinned broadly, with a fine display of rotting teeth. “Stoppin’ in the middle like that’s bad for a man’s ’ealth.”
His fellow prodded Jamie in the chest with the musket.
“ ’Is ’ealth’s no concern o’ mine. An’ it won’t be any concern to ’im for much longer. I’ve a mind to take a piece o’ that,” he nodded briefly in my direction, “an’ I don’t care to come second to any man, let alone a Scottish whoreson like this.”
Rotten-teeth laughed. “I bain’t so bloody particular. Kill ’im, then, and get on wi’ it.”
Harry, a short, stout man with a squint, considered a moment, eyeing me speculatively. I still sat on the ground, knees drawn up and skirts pressed firmly around my ankles. I had made some effort to close my bodice, but a good deal was still exposed. Finally the short man laughed and beckoned to his companion.
“No, let ’im watch. Come ower ’ere, Arnold, and ’old your musket on ’im.” Arnold obeyed, still grinning widely. Harry set his musket down on the ground and dropped his pistol belt beside it in preparation.
Pressing my skirts down, I became aware of a hard object in the right-hand pocket. The dagger Jamie had given me. Could I bring myself to use it? Yes, I decided, looking at Harry’s pimpled, leering face, I definitely could.
I would have to wait ’til the last possible second, though, and I had my doubts as to whether Jamie could control himself that long. I could see the urge to kill marked strong on his features; soon consideration of the consequences would no longer be enough to hold him back.
I didn’t dare let too much show on my face, but narrowed my eyes and glared at him as hard as I could, willing him not to move. The cords stood out in his neck, and his face was suffused with dark blood, but I saw an infinitesimal nod in acknowledgment of my message.
I struggled as Harry pressed me to the ground and tried to pull up my skirts, more in order to get my hand on the dagger hilt than in actual resistance. He slapped me hard across the face, ordering me to be still. My cheek burned and my eyes watered, but the dagger was now in my hand, concealed under the folds of my skirt.
I lay back, breathing heavily. I concentrated on my objective, trying to erase everything else from my mind. It would have to be in the back; the quarters were too close to try for the throat.
The filthy fingers were digging into my thighs now, wrenching them apart. In my mind, I could see Rupert’s blunt finger stabbing at Murtagh’s ribs, and hear his voice, “Here, lass, up under the lowest ribs, close to the backbone. Stab hard, upward into the kidney, and he’ll drop like a stone.”
It was almost time; Harry’s foul breath was disgustingly warm on my face, and he was fumbling between my bared legs, intent on his goal.
“Take a good look, laddie-buck, and see how it’s done,” he panted, “I’ll ’ave your slut moaning for more before—”
I whipped my left arm around his neck to hold him close; holding the knife hand high, I plunged it in as hard as I could. The shock of impact reverberated up my arm, and I nearly lost my hold on the dagger. Harry yelped and squirmed, twisting to get away. Unable to see, I had aimed too high, and the knife had skittered off a rib.
I couldn’t let go now. Luckily, my legs were free of the entangling skirts. I wrapped them tightly around Harry’s sweating hips, holding him down for the precious seconds I needed for another try. I stabbed again, with a desperate strength, and this time found the spot.
Rupert had been right. Harry bucked in a hideous parody of the act of love, then collapsed without a sound in a limp heap on top of me, blood jetting in diminishing spurts from the wound in his back.
Arnold’s attention had been distracted for an instant by the spectacle on the ground, and an instant was more than long enough for the maddened Scotsman he held at bay. By the time I had gathered my wits sufficiently to wriggle out from under the defunct Harry, Arnold had joined his companion in death, throat neatly cut from ear to ear by the sgian dhu that Jamie carried in his stocking.
Jamie knelt beside me, pulling me out from under the corpse. We were both shaking with nerves and shock, and we clung together without speaking for minutes. Still without speaking, he picked me up and carried me away from the two bodies, to a grassy space behind a screen of aspen.
He lowered me to the ground and sat down awkwardly beside me, collapsing as though his knees had suddenly given way. I felt a chilly isolation, as though the winter wind blew through my bones, and reached for him. He raised his head from his knees, face haggard, and stared at me as though he had never seen me before. When I put my hands on his shoulders, he pulled me hard against his chest with a sound midway between a groan and a sob.
We took each other then, in a savage, urgent silence, thrusting fiercely and finishing within moments, driven by a compulsion I didn’t understand, but knew we must obey, or be lost to each other forever. It was not an act of love, but one of necessity, as though we knew that left alone, neither of us could stand. Our only strength lay in fusion, drowning the memories of death and near-rape in the flooding of the senses.
We clung together on the grass then, disheveled, blood-stained, and shivering in the sunshine. Jamie muttered something, his voice so low that I caught only the word “sorry.”
“Not your fault,” I muttered, stroking his hair. “It’s all right, we’re both all right.” I felt dreamlike, as though nothing whatever was real around me, and I dimly recognized the symptoms of delayed shock.
“Not that,” he said. “Not that. It was my fault.…So foolish to come here without taking proper heed. And to let you be…I didna mean that, though. I meant…I’m sorry for using ye as I did just now. To take you like that, so soon after…like some sort of animal. I’m sorry, Claire…I don’t know what…I couldna help it, but…Lord, you’re so cold, mo duinne, your hands are ice, Come then, let me warm ye.”
Shock, too, I thought fuzzily. Funny how it takes some people in talk. Others just shake quietly. Like me. I pressed his mouth against my shoulder to quiet him.
“It’s all right,” I said, over and over. “It’s all right.”
Suddenly a shadow fell across us, making us both jump. Dougal stood glowering down at us, arms folded. He courteously averted his eyes while I hastily did up my laces, frowning instead at Jamie.
“Now look ye, lad, takin’ your pleasure wi’ your wife is all verra weel, but when it comes to leavin’ us all waiting for more than an hour, and being so taen up wi’ each other that ye dinna even hear me comin’—that kind o’ behavior will get ye in trouble one day, laddie. Why, someone could come up behind ye and clap a pistol to your head before ye knew—”