Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 8

   

With no more than a faint chinking of bridles, we moved off into the starlit night. There was no conversation among the men, only a general wary watchfulness. The horses broke into a trot as soon as we reached the road, and I was jostled too uncomfortably to want to talk myself, even assuming that anyone was willing to listen.

My companion seemed to be having little trouble, in spite of being unable to use his right hand. I could feel his thighs behind mine, shifting and pressing occasionally to guide the horse. I clutched the edge of the short saddle in order to stay seated; I had been on horses before, but was by no means the horseman this Jamie was.

After a time, we reached a crossroads, where we stopped a moment while the bald man and the leader conferred in low tones. Jamie dropped the reins over the horse’s neck and let it wander to the verge to crop grass, while he began twisting and turning behind me.

“Careful!” I said. “Don’t twist like that, or your dressing will come off! What are you trying to do?”

“Get my plaid loose to cover you,” he replied. “You’re shivering. But I canna do it one-handed. Can ye reach the clasp of my brooch for me?”

With a good deal of tugging and awkward shifting, we got the plaid loosened. With a surprisingly dexterous swirl, he twirled the cloth out and let it settle, shawllike, around his shoulders. He then put the ends over my shoulders and tucked them neatly under the saddle edge, so that we were both warmly wrapped.

“There!” he said. “We dinna want ye to freeze before we get there.”

“Thank you,” I said, grateful for the shelter. “But where are we going?”

I couldn’t see his face, behind and above me, but he paused a moment before answering.

At last he laughed shortly. “Tell ye the truth, lassie, I don’t know. Reckon we’ll both find out when we get there, eh?”

Something seemed faintly familiar about the section of countryside through which we were passing. Surely I knew that large rock formation ahead, the one shaped like a rooster’s tail?

“Cocknammon Rock!” I exclaimed.

“Aye, reckon,” said my escort, unexcited by this revelation.

“Didn’t the English use it for ambushes?” I asked, trying to remember the dreary details of local history Frank had spent hours regaling me with over the last week. “If there is an English patrol in the neighborhood…” I hesitated. If there was an English patrol in the neighborhood, perhaps I was wrong to draw attention to it. And yet, in case of an ambush, I would be quite indistinguishable from my companion, shrouded as we were in one plaid. And I thought again of Captain Jonathan Randall, and shuddered involuntarily. Everything I had seen since I had stepped through the cleft stone pointed toward the completely irrational conclusion that the man I had met in the wood was in fact Frank’s six-times-great-grandfather. I fought stubbornly against this conclusion, but was unable to formulate another that met the facts.

I had at first imagined that I was merely dreaming more vividly than usual, but Randall’s kiss, rudely familiar and immediately physical, had dispelled that impression. Neither did I imagine that I had dreamed being knocked on the head by Murtagh; the soreness on my scalp was being matched by a chafing of my inner thighs against the saddle, which seemed most undreamlike. And the blood; yes, I was familiar enough with blood to have dreamed of it before. But never had I dreamed the scent of blood; that warm, coppery tang that I could still smell on the man behind me.

“Tck.” He clucked to our horse and urged it up alongside the leader’s, engaging the burly shadow in quiet Gaelic conversation. The horses slowed to a walk.

At a signal from the leader, Jamie, Murtagh, and the small bald man dropped back, while the other two spurred up and galloped toward the rock, a quartermile ahead to the right. A half-moon had come up, and the light was bright enough to pick out the leaves of the mallow plants growing on the roadside, but the shadows in the clefts of the rock could hide anything.

Just as the galloping shapes passed the rock, a flash of musket fire sparked from a hollow. There was a bloodcurdling shriek from directly behind me, and the horse leaped forward as though jabbed with a sharp stick. We were suddenly racing toward the rock across the heather, Murtagh and the other man alongside, hair-raising screams and bellows splitting the night air.

I hung onto the pommel for dear life. Suddenly reining up next to a large gorse bush, Jamie grabbed me round the waist and unceremoniously dumped me into it. The horse whirled sharply and sprinted off again, circling the rock to come along the south side. I could see the rider crouching low in the saddle as the horse vanished into the rock’s shadow. When it emerged, still galloping, the saddle was empty.

The rock surfaces were cratered with shadow; I could hear shouts and occasional musket shots, but couldn’t tell if the movements I saw were those of men, or only the shades of the stunted oaks that sprouted from cracks in the rock.

I extricated myself from the bush with some difficulty, picking bits of prickly gorse from my skirt and hair. I licked a scratch on my hand, wondering what on earth I was to do now. I could wait for the battle at the rock to be decided. If the Scots won, or at least survived, I supposed they would come back looking for me. If they did not, I could approach the English, who might well assume that if I were traveling with the Scots I was in league with them. In league to do what, I had no idea, but it was quite plain from the men’s behavior at the cottage that they were up to something which they expected the English strongly to disapprove of.

Perhaps it would be better to avoid both sides in this conflict. After all, now that I knew where I was, I stood some chance of getting back to a town or village that I knew, even if I had to walk all the way. I set off with decision toward the road, tripping over innumerable lumps of granite, the bastard offspring of Cocknammon Rock.

The moonlight made walking deceptive; though I could see every detail of the ground, I had no depth perception; flat plants and jagged stones looked the same height, causing me to lift my feet absurdly high over nonexistent obstacles and stub my toes on protruding rocks. I walked as fast as I could, listening for sounds of pursuit behind me.

The noises of battle had faded by the time I reached the road. I realized that I was too visible on the road itself, but I needed to follow it, if I were to find my way to a town. I had no sense of direction in the dark, and had never learned from Frank his trick of navigation by the stars. Thinking of Frank made me want to cry, so I tried to distract myself by trying to make sense of the afternoon’s events.

It seemed inconceivable, but all appearances pointed to my being someplace where the customs and politics of the late eighteenth century still held sway. I would have thought the whole thing a fancy-dress show of some type, had it not been for the injuries of the young man they called Jamie. That wound had indeed been made by something very like a musket ball, judging from the evidence it left behind. The behavior of the men in the cottage was not consistent with any sort of play-acting, either. They were serious men, and the dirks and swords were real.

Could it be some secluded enclave, perhaps, where the villagers reenacted part of their history periodically? I had heard of such things in Germany, though never in Scotland. You’ve never heard of the actors shooting each other with muskets, either, have you? jeered the uncomfortably rational part of my mind.

I looked back at the rock to check my position, then ahead to the skyline, and my blood ran cold. There was nothing there but the feathered needles of pine trees, impenetrably black against the spread of stars. Where were the lights of Inverness? If that was Cocknammon Rock behind me, as I knew it was, then Inverness must be less than three miles to the southwest. At this distance, I should be able to see the glow of the town against the sky. If it was there.

I shook myself irritably, hugging my elbows against the chill. Even admitting for a moment the completely implausible idea that I was in another time than my own, Inverness had stood in its present location for some six hundred years. It was there. But, apparently, it had no lights. Under the circumstances, this strongly suggested that there were no electric lights to be had. Yet another piece of evidence, if I needed it. But evidence of what, exactly?

A shape stepped out of the dark so close in front of me that I nearly bumped into it. Stifling a scream, I turned to run, but a large hand gripped my arm, preventing escape.

“Dinna worry, lass. ’Tis me.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” I said crossly, though in fact I was relieved that it was Jamie. I was not so afraid of him as of the other men, though he looked just as dangerous. Still, he was young, even younger than I, I judged. And it was difficult for me to be afraid of someone I had so recently treated as a patient.

“I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder,” I said in the rebuking voice of a hospital Matron. If I could establish a sufficient tone of authority, perhaps I could persuade him into letting me go.

“Yon wee stramash didna do it any good,” he admitted, massaging the shoulder with his free hand.

Just then, he moved into a patch of moonlight, and I saw the huge spread of blood on his shirt front. Arterial bleeding, I thought at once; but then, why is he still standing?

“You’re hurt!” I exclaimed. “Have you broken open your shoulder wound, or is it fresh? Sit down and let me see!” I pushed him toward a pile of boulders, rapidly reviewing procedures for emergency field treatment. No supplies to hand, save what I was wearing. I was reaching for the remains of my slip, intending to use it to stanch the flow, when he laughed.

“Nay, pay it no mind, lass. This lot isna my blood. Not much of it, anyway,” he added, plucking the soaked fabric gingerly away from his body.

I swallowed, feeling a bit queasy. “Oh,” I said weakly.

“Dougal and the others will be waiting by the road. Let’s go.” He took me by the arm, less as a gallant gesture than a means of forcing me to accompany him. I decided to take a chance and dug in my heels.

“No! I’m not going with you!”

He stopped, surprised at my resistance. “Yes, you are.” He didn’t seem upset by my refusal; in fact, he seemed slightly amused that I had any objection to being kidnapped again.

“And what if I won’t? Are you going to cut my throat?” I demanded, forcing the issue. He considered the alternatives and answered calmly.

“Why, no. You don’t look heavy. If ye won’t walk, I shall pick you up and sling ye over my shoulder. Do ye want me to do that?” He took a step toward me, and I hastily retreated. I hadn’t the slightest doubt he would do it, injury or no.

“No! You can’t do that; you’ll damage your shoulder again.”

His features were indistinct, but the moonlight caught the gleam of teeth as he grinned.

“Well then, since ye don’t want me to hurt myself, I suppose that means as you’re comin’ with me?” I struggled for an answer, but failed to find one in time. He took my arm again, firmly, and we set off toward the road.

Jamie kept a tight hold on my arm, hauling me upright when I stumbled over rocks and plants. He himself walked as though the stubbled heath were a paved road in broad daylight. He has cat blood, I reflected sourly, no doubt that was how he managed to sneak up on me in the darkness.

The other men were, as advertised, waiting with the horses at no great distance; apparently there had been no losses or injuries, for they were all present. Scrambling up in an undignified scuffle, I plopped down in the saddle again. My head gave Jamie’s bad shoulder an unintentional thump, and he drew in his breath with a hiss.

I tried to cover my resentment at being recaptured and my remorse at having hurt him with an air of bullying officiousness.

“Serves you right, brawling round the countryside and chasing through bushes and rocks. I told you not to move that joint; now you’ve probably got torn muscles as well as bruises.”

He seemed amused by my scolding. “Well, it wasna much of a choice. If I’d not moved my shoulder, I wouldna have ever moved anything else again. I can handle a single redcoat wi’ one hand—maybe even two of them,” he said, a bit boastfully, “but not three.”

“Besides,” he said, drawing me against his blood-encrusted shirt, “ye can fix it for me again when we get where we’re going.”

“That’s what you think,” I said coldly, squirming away from the sticky fabric. He clucked to the horse, and we set off again. The men were in ferocious good spirits after the fight, and there was a good deal of laughter and joking. My minor part in thwarting the ambush was much praised, and toasts were drunk in my honor from the flasks that several of the men carried.

I was offered some of the contents, but declined at first on grounds that I found it hard enough to stay in the saddle sober. From the men’s discussion, I gathered it had been a small patrol of some ten English soldiers, armed with muskets and sabers.

Someone passed a flask to Jamie, and I could smell the hot, burnt-smelling liquor as he drank. I wasn’t at all thirsty, but the faint scent of honey reminded me that I was starving, and had been for some time. My stomach gave an embarrassingly loud growl, protesting my neglect.

“Hey, then, Jamie-lad! Hungry, are ye? Or have ye a set of bagpipes with ye?” shouted Rupert, mistaking the source of the noise.

“Hungry enough to eat a set of pipes, I reckon,” called Jamie, gallantly assuming the blame. A moment later, a hand with a flask came around in front of me again.

“Better have a wee nip,” he whispered to me. “It willna fill your belly, but it will make ye forget you’re hungry.”

And a number of other things as well, I hoped. I tilted the flask and swallowed.

My escort had been correct; the whisky built a small warm fire that burned comfortably in my stomach, obscuring the hunger pangs. We managed without incident for several miles, taking turns with both reins and whisky flask. Near a ruined cottage, though, the breathing of my escort gradually changed to a ragged gasping. Our precarious balance, heretofore contained in a staid wobble, suddenly became much more erratic. I was confused; if I wasn’t drunk, it seemed rather unlikely that he was.

“Stop! Help!” I yelled. “He’s going over!” I remembered my last unrehearsed descent and had no inclination to repeat it.

Dark shapes swirled and crowded around us, with a confused muttering of voices. Jamie slid off headfirst like a sack of stones, luckily landing in someone’s arms. The rest of the men were off their horses and had him laid in a field by the time I had scrambled down.

“He’s breathin’,” said one.

“Well, how very helpful,” I snapped, groping frantically for a pulse in the blackness. I found one at last, rapid but fairly strong. Putting a hand on his chest and an ear to his mouth, I could feel a regular rise and fall, with less of that gasping note. I straightened up.

“I think he’s just fainted,” I said. “Put a saddle-bag under his feet and if there’s water, bring me some.” I was surprised to find that my orders were instantly obeyed. Apparently the young man was important to them. He groaned and opened his eyes, black holes in the starlight. In the faint, light his face looked like a skull, white skin stretched tight over the angled bones around the orbits.

“I’m all right,” he said, trying to sit up. “Just a bit dizzy is all.” I put a hand on his chest and pushed him flat.

“Lie still,” I ordered. I carried out a rapid inspection by touch, then rose on my knees and turned to a looming shape that I deduced from its size to be the leader, Dougal.

“The gunshot wound has been bleeding again, and the idiot’s been knifed as well. I think it’s not serious, but he’s lost quite a lot of blood. His shirt is soaked through, but I don’t know how much of it is his. He needs rest and quiet; we should camp here at least until morning.” The shape made a negative motion.

“Nay. We’re farther than the garrison will venture, but there’s still the Watch to be mindful of. We’ve a good fifteen miles yet to go.” The featureless head tilted back, gauging the movement of the stars.

“Five hours, at the least, and more likely seven. We can stay long enough for ye to stop the bleeding and dress the wound again; no much more than that.”

I set to work, muttering to myself, while Dougal, with a soft word, dispatched one of the other shadows to stand guard with the horses by the road. The other men relaxed for the moment, drinking from flasks and chatting in low voices. The ferret-faced Murtagh helped me, tearing strips of linen, fetching more water, and lifting the patient up to have the dressing tied on, Jamie being strictly forbidden to move himself, despite his grumbling that he was perfectly all right.

“You are not all right, and it’s no wonder,” I snapped, venting my fear and irritation. “What sort of idiot gets himself knifed and doesn’t even stop to take care of it? Couldn’t you tell how badly you were bleeding? You’re lucky you’re not dead, tearing around the countryside all night, brawling and fighting and throwing yourself off horses…hold still, you bloody fool.” The rayon and linen strips I was working with were irritatingly elusive in the dark. They slipped away, eluding my grasp, like fish darting away into the depths with a mocking flash of white bellies. Despite the chill, sweat sprang out on my neck. I finally finished tying one end and reached for another, which persisted in slithering away behind the patient’s back. “Come back here, you…oh, you goddamned bloody bastard!” Jamie had moved and the original end had come untied.

There was a moment of shocked silence. “Christ,” said the fat man named Rupert. “I’ve ne’er heard a woman use such language in me life.”

“Then ye’ve ne’er met my auntie Grisel,” said another voice, to laughter.

“Your husband should tan ye, woman,” said an austere voice from the blackness under a tree. “St. Paul says ‘Let a woman be silent, and—’ ”

“You can mind your own bloody business,” I snarled, sweat dripping behind my ears, “and so can St. Paul.” I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. “Turn him to the left. And if you,” addressing my patient, “move so much as one single muscle while I’m tying this bandage, I’ll throttle you.”

“Och, aye,” he answered meekly.

I pulled too hard on the last bandage, and the entire dressing scooted off.

“Goddamn it all to hell!” I bellowed, striking my hand on the ground in frustration. There was a moment of shocked silence, then, as I fumbled in the dark for the loose ends of the bandages, further comment on my unwomanly language.

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