“The other reason,” he went on, “is because of the other men. Ye’ll have noticed how they were tonight?” I had; it had been so uncomfortable at dinner that I was glad to escape to the room.
“There’s such a thing as justice, Claire. You’ve done wrong to them all, and you’ll have to suffer for it.” He took a deep breath. “I’m your husband; it’s my duty to attend to it, and I mean to do it.”
I had strong objections to this proposal on several levels. Whatever the justice of the situation—and I had to admit that at least some of it lay on his side—my sense of amour-propre was deeply offended at the thought of being beaten, by whomever and for whatever reason.
I felt deeply betrayed that the man I depended on as friend, protector, and lover intended to do such a thing to me. And my sense of self-preservation was quietly terrified at the thought of submitting myself to the mercies of someone who handled a fifteen-pound claymore as though it were a flywhisk.
“I will not allow you to beat me,” I said firmly, keeping a tight hold on the bedpost.
“Oh, you won’t?” He raised sandy brows. “Well, I’ll tell ye, lass, I doubt you’ve much to say about it. You’re my wife, like it or not. Did I want to break your arm, or feed ye naught but bread and water, or lock ye in a closet for days—and don’t think ye don’t tempt me, either—I could do that, let alone warm your bum for you.”
“Likely. If not before, certainly during. I expect they’ll hear ye at the next farm; you’ve got good lungs.” He grinned odiously and came across the bed after me.
He pried my fingers loose with some difficulty, and pulled firmly, hauling me to the side of the bed. I kicked him in the shins, but did no damage, not having shoes on. Grunting slightly, he managed to turn me facedown on the bed, twisting my arm to hold me there.
“I mean to do it, Claire! Now, if you’ll cooperate wi’ me, we’ll call the account square with a dozen strokes.”
“And if not?” I quavered. He picked up the strap and slapped it against his leg with a nasty thwapping sound.
“Then I shall put a knee in your back and beat you ’til my arm tires, and I warn ye, you’ll tire of it long before I do.”
I bounced off the bed and whirled to face him, fists clenched.
“You barbarian! You…you sadist!” I hissed furiously. “You’re doing this for your own pleasure! I’ll never forgive you for this!” Jamie paused, twisting the belt.
He replied levelly, “I dinna know what’s a sadist. And if I forgive you for this afternoon, I reckon you’ll forgive me, too, as soon as ye can sit down again.”
“As for my pleasure…” His lip twitched. “I said I would have to punish you. I did not say I wasna going to enjoy it.” He crooked a finger at me.
I was reluctant to leave the sanctuary of the room next morning, and fiddled about, tying and untying ribbons and brushing my hair. I had not spoken to Jamie since the night before, but he noticed my hesitation and urged me to come out with him to breakfast.
“You dinna need to fear meetin’ the others, Claire. They’ll chaff ye a bit, likely, but it won’t be bad. Chin up.” He chucked me under the chin, and I bit his hand, sharply but not deep.
“Ooh!” He snatched his fingers back. “Be careful, lass; you don’t know where they’ve been.” He left me, chuckling, and went in to breakfast.
He might well be in a good mood, I thought bitterly. If it were revenge he’d wanted the night before, he’d had it.
It had been a most unpleasant night. My reluctant acquiescence had lasted precisely as far as the first searing crack of leather on flesh. This was followed by a short, violent struggle, which left Jamie with a bloody nose, three lovely gouges down one cheek, and a deeply bitten wrist. Not surprisingly, it left me half smothered in the greasy quilts with a knee in my back, being beaten within an inch of my life.
Jamie, damn his black Scottish soul, turned out to be right. The men were restrained in their greetings, but friendly enough; the hostility and contempt of the night before had vanished.
As I was dishing eggs at the sideboard, Dougal came up and slipped a fatherly arm around my shoulders. His beard tickled my ear as he spoke in a confidential rumble.
“I hope Jamie wasna too harsh wi’ ye last night, lass. It sounded as though ye were bein’ murderrt, at least.”
I flushed hotly and turned away so he wouldn’t see it. After Jamie’s obnoxious remarks, I had resolved to keep my mouth firmly shut through the whole ordeal. However, when it came to the event, I would have challenged the Sphinx itself to keep a shut mouth while on the receiving end of a strap wielded by Jamie Fraser.
Dougal turned to call to Jamie, seated at the table eating bread and cheese. “Hey now, Jamie, it wasna necessary to half-kill the lass. A gentle reminder would ha’ sufficed.” He patted me firmly on the posterior in illustration, making me wince. I glowered at him.
“A blistered bum never did anyone no permanent harm,” said Murtagh, through a mouthful of bread.
“No, indeed,” said Ned, grinning. “Come have a seat, lassie.”
“I’ll stand, thank you,” I said with dignity, making them all roar with laughter. Jamie was careful not to meet my eyes, as he studiously cut up a bit of cheese.
There was a bit more good-natured chaff during the day, and each of the men made some excuse to pat my rump in mock sympathy. On the whole, though, it was bearable, and I grudgingly began to consider that Jamie might have been right, though I still wanted to strangle him.
Since sitting down was completely out of the question, I busied myself during the morning with small chores such as hemming and button-sewing, which could be done at the window sill, with the excuse of needing the light to sew by. After lunch, which I ate standing, we all went to our rooms to rest. Dougal had decided that we would wait ’til full dark to set out for Bargrennan, the next stop on our journey. Jamie followed me to our room, but I shut the door firmly in his face. Let him sleep on the floor again.
He had been fairly tactful last night, buckling his belt back on and leaving the room without speaking immediately after he’d finished. He had come back an hour later, after I’d put out the light and gone to bed, but had had sense enough not to try to come into bed with me. After peering into the darkness where I lay unmoving, he had sighed deeply, wrapped himself in his plaid, and gone to sleep on the floor near the door.
Too angry, upset, and physically uncomfortable to sleep, I had lain awake most of the night, alternately thinking over what Jamie had said with wanting to get up and kick him in some sensitive spot.
Were I being objective, which I was in no mood to be, I might admit that he was right when he said that I didn’t take things with the proper seriousness. He was wrong, though, when he said it was because things were less precarious in my own place—wherever that was. In fact, I thought, it was more likely the opposite was true.
This time was in many ways still unreal to me; something from a play or a fancy-dress pageant. Compared to the sights of mechanized mass warfare I had come from, the small pitched battles I had seen—a few men armed with swords and muskets—seemed picturesque rather than threatening to me.
I was having trouble with the scale of things. A man killed with a musket was just as dead as one killed with a mortar. It was just that the mortar killed impersonally, destroying dozens of men, while the musket was fired by one man who could see the eyes of the one he killed. That made it murder, it seemed to me, not war. How many men to make a war? Enough, perhaps, so they didn’t really have to see each other? And yet this plainly was war—or serious business at least—to Dougal, Jamie, Rupert, and Ned. Even little rat-faced Murtagh had a reason for violence beyond his natural inclinations.
And what about those reasons? One king rather than another? Hanovers and Stuarts? To me, these were still no more than names on a chart on the schoolroom wall. What were they, compared with an unthinkable evil like Hitler’s Reich? It made a difference to those who lived under the kings, I supposed, though the differences might seem trivial to me. Still, when had the right to live as one wished ever been considered trivial? Was a struggle to choose one’s own destiny less worthwhile than the necessity to stop a great evil? I shifted irritably, gingerly rubbing my sore bottom. I glared at Jamie, curled into a ball by the door. He was breathing evenly, but lightly; perhaps he couldn’t sleep either. I hoped not.
I had been inclined at first to take this whole remarkable misadventure as melodrama; such things just did not happen in real life. I had had many shocks since I stepped through the rock, but the worst to date had been this afternoon.
Jack Randall, so like and so horribly unlike Frank. His touch on my br**sts had suddenly forged a link between my old life and this one, bringing my separate realities together with a bang like a thunderclap. And then there was Jamie: his face, stark with fear in the window of Randall’s room, contorted with rage by the roadside, tight with pain at my insults.
Jamie. Jamie was real, all right, more real than anything had ever been to me, even Frank and my life in 1945. Jamie, tender lover and perfidious black-guard.
Perhaps that was part of the problem. Jamie filled my senses so completely that his surroundings seemed almost irrelevant. But I could no longer afford to ignore them. My recklessness had almost killed him this afternoon, and my stomach turned over at the thought of losing him. I sat up suddenly, intending to go and wake him to tell him to come to bed with me. As my weight fell full on the results of his handiwork, I just as suddenly changed my mind and flounced angrily back onto my stomach.
A night spent thus torn between fits of rage and philosophy had left me worn out. I slept all afternoon, and stumbled blearily down for a light supper when Rupert roused me just before dark.
Dougal, no doubt writhing at the expense, had procured another horse for me. A sound beast, if inelegantly built, with a kindly eye and a short, bristly mane; at once I named it Thistle.
I had not reckoned on the effects of a long horseback ride following a severe beating. I eyed Thistle’s hard saddle dubiously, suddenly realizing what I was in for. A thick cloak plopped across the saddle, and Murtagh’s shiny black rat-eye winked conspiratorially at me from the opposite side. I determined that I would at least suffer in dignified silence, and grimly set my jaw as I hoisted myself into the saddle.
There seemed to be an unspoken conspiracy of gallantry among the men; they took turns stopping at frequent intervals to relieve themselves, allowing me to dismount for a few minutes and surreptitiously rub my aching fundament. Now and again, one would suggest stopping for a drink, which necessitated my stopping as well, since Thistle carried the water bottles.
We jolted along for a couple of hours in this manner, but the pain grew steadily worse, keeping me shifting in the saddle incessantly. Finally I decided to hell with dignified suffering, I simply must get off for a while.
“Whoa!” I said to Thistle, and swung down. I pretended to examine her front left foot, as the other horses came to a milling stop around us.
“I’m afraid she’s had a stone in her shoe,” I lied. “I’ve got it out, but I’d better walk her a bit; don’t want her to go lame.”
“No, we can’t have that,” said Dougal. “All right, walk for a bit, then, but someone must stay wi’ ye. ’Tis a quiet enough road, but I canna have ye walkin’ alone.” Jamie immediately swung down.
“I’ll walk with her,” he said quietly.
“Good. Dinna tarry too long; we must be in Bargrennan before dawn. The sign of the Red Boar; landlord’s a friend.” With a wave, he gathered the others and they set off at a brisk trot, leaving us, in the dust.
Several hours of torture by saddle had not improved my temper. Let him walk with me. I was damned if I’d speak to him, the sadistic, violent brute.
He didn’t look particularly brutish in the light of the half-moon rising, but I hardened my heart and limped along, carefully not looking at him.
My abused muscles at first protested the unaccustomed exercise, but after a half hour or so I began to move much more easily.
“You’ll feel much better by tomorrow,” Jamie observed casually. “Though you won’t sit easy ’til the next day.”
“And what makes you such an expert?” I flared at him. “Do you beat people all that frequently?”
“Well, no,” he said, undisturbed by my attitude. “This is the first time I’ve tried it. I’ve considerable experience on the other end, though.”
“You?” I gaped at him. The thought of anyone taking a strap to this towering mass of muscle and sinew was completely untenable.
He laughed at my expression. “When I was a bit smaller, Sassenach. I’ve had my backside leathered more times than I could count, between the ages of eight and thirteen. That’s when I got taller than my father, and it got unhandy for him to bend me over a fence rail.”
“Your father beat you?”
“Aye, mostly. The schoolmaster, too, of course, and Dougal or one of the other uncles now and then, depending on where I was and what I’d been doing.”
I was growing interested, in spite of my determination to ignore him.
“What did you do?”
He laughed again, a quiet but infectious sound in the still night air.
“Well, I canna remember everything. I will say I generally deserved it. I don’t think my Da ever beat me unfairly, at least.” He paced without speaking for a minute, thinking.
“Mm. Let’s see, there was once for stoning the chickens, and once for riding the cows and getting them too excited for milking, and then for eating all of the jam out of the cakes and leaving the cakes behind. Ah, and letting the horses out of the barn by leaving the gate unlatched, and setting the thatch of the dovecote on fire—that was an accident, I didna do it on purpose—and losing my schoolbooks—I did do that on purpose—and…” He broke off, shrugging, as I laughed despite myself.
“The usual sorts of things. Most often, though, it was for opening my mouth when I should ha’ kept it closed.”
He snorted at some memory. “Once my sister Jenny broke a pitcher; I made her angry, teasing, and she lost her temper and threw it at me. When my Da came in and demanded to know who’d done it, she was too scared to speak up, and she just looked at me, with her eyes all wide and frightened—she’s got blue eyes, like mine, but prettier, wi’ black lashes all around.” Jamie shrugged again. “Anyway, I told my father I’d done it.”
“That was very noble of you,” I said, sarcastically. “Your sister must have been grateful.”
“Aye, well, she might have been. Only my father’d been on, the other side of the open door all along, and he’d seen what really happened. So she got whipped for losing her temper and breaking the pitcher, and I got whipped twice; once for teasing her and again for lying.”
“That’s not fair!” I said indignantly.
“My father wasna always gentle, but he was usually fair,” Jamie said imperturbably. “He said the truth is the truth, and people should take responsibility for their own actions, which is right.” He shot me a sidelong glance.
“But he said it was good-hearted of me to take the blame, so while he’d have to punish me, I could take my choice between being thrashed or going to bed without my supper.” He laughed ruefully, shaking his head. “Father knew me pretty well. I took the thrashing with no questions.”
“You’re nothing but a walking appetite, Jamie,” I said.
“Aye,” he agreed without rancor, “always have been. You too, glutton,” he said to his mount. “Wait a bit, ’til we stop for a rest.” He twitched the rein, pulling his horse’s questing nose from the tempting tufts of grass along the roadside.
“Aye, Father was fair,” he went on, “and considerate about it, though I certainly didna appreciate that at the time. He wouldn’t make me wait for a beating; if I did something wrong, I got punished at once—or as soon as he found out about it. He always made sure I knew what I was about to get walloped for, and if I wanted to argue my side of it, I could.”
Oh, so that’s what you’re up to, I thought. You disarming schemer. I doubted he could charm me out of my set intention of disemboweling him at the first opportunity, but he was welcome to try.
“Did you ever win an argument?” I asked.
“No. It was generally a straightforward-enough case, with the accused convicted out of his own mouth. But sometimes I got the sentence reduced a bit.” He rubbed his nose.
“Once I told him I thought beating your son was a most uncivilized method of getting your own way. He said I’d about as much sense as the post I was standing next to, if as much. He said respect for your elders was one of the cornerstones of civilized behavior, and until I learned that, I’d better get used to looking at my toes while one of my barbaric elders thrashed my arse off.”
This time I laughed along with him. It was peaceful on the road, with that sort of absolute quiet that comes when you are miles from any other person. The sort of quiet so hard to come by in my own more crowded time, when machines spread the influence of man, so that a single person could make as much noise as a crowd. The only sounds here were the stirrings of plants, the occasional skreek of a nightbird, and the soft thudding steps of the horses.
I was walking a little easier now, as my cramped muscles began to stretch freely with the exercise. My prickly feelings began to relax a little, too, listening to Jamie’s stories, all humorous and self-deprecating.
“I didna like being beaten at all, of course, but if I had a choice, I’d rather my Da than the schoolmaster. We’d mostly get it across the palm of the hand with a tawse, in the schoolhouse, instead of on the backside. Father said if he whipped me on the hand, I’d not be able to do any work, whereas if he whipped my arse, I’d at least not be tempted to sit down and be idle.”
“We had a different schoolmaster each year, usually; they didna last long—usually turned farmer or moved on to richer parts. Schoolmasters are paid so little, they’re always skinny and starving. Had a fat one once, and I could never believe he was a real schoolmaster; he looked like a parson in disguise.” I thought of plump little Father Bain and smiled in agreement.