The sentry near the trees paced slowly up and down, musket carried at the ready, a wistful eye on the cool green shadows. He passed close enough on one circuit for me to see the dark, greasy curls dangling down his neck, and the pockmarks on his plump cheeks. He creaked and jingled as he walked. The rowel was missing from one of his spurs. He looked hot, and fairly cross.
It was a long wait, and the inquisitiveness of the forest midges made it longer still. After what seemed forever, though, I saw Jamie give a nod to one of the guards, and come from the beach toward the trees. I signed to Marsali to wait, and ducking under branches, ignoring the thick brush, I dodged madly toward the place where he had disappeared.
I popped breathlessly out from behind a bush, just as he was doing up the laces of his flies. His head jerked up at the sound, his eyes widened, and he let out a yell that would have summoned Arabella the sheep back from the dead, let alone the waiting sentry.
I dodged back into hiding, as crashing boots and shouts of inquiry headed in our direction.
“C’est bien!” Jamie shouted. He sounded a trifle shaken. “Ce n’est qu’un serpent!”
The sentry spoke an odd dialect of French, but appeared to be asking rather nervously whether the serpent was dangerous.
“Non, c’est innocent,” Jamie answered. He waved at the sentry, whose inquiring head I could just see, peering reluctantly over the bush. The sentry, who seemed unenthusiastic about snakes, however innocent, disappeared promptly back to his duty.
Without hesitation, Jamie plunged into the bush.
“Claire!” He crushed me tight against his chest. Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, hard.
“Damn you!” he said, in a piercing whisper. “I thought ye were dead for sure! How dare ye do something harebrained like jump off a ship in the middle of the night! Have ye no sense at all?”
“Let go!” I hissed. The shaking had made me bite my lip. “Let go, I say! What do you mean, how dare I do something harebrained? You idiot, what possessed you to follow me?”
His face was darkened by the sun; now a deep red began to darken it further, washing up from the edges of his new beard.
“What possessed me?” he repeated. “You’re my wife, for the Lord’s sake! Of course I would follow ye; why did ye not wait for me? Christ, if I had time, I’d—” The mention of time evidently reminded him that we hadn’t much, and with a noticeable effort, he choked back any further remarks, which was just as well, because I had a number of things to say in that vein myself. I swallowed them, with some difficulty.
“What in bloody hell are you doing here?” I asked instead.
The deep flush subsided slightly, succeeded by the merest hint of a smile amid the unfamiliar foliage.
“I’m the captain,” he said. “Did ye not notice?”
“Yes, I noticed! Captain Alessandro, my foot! What do you mean to do?”
Instead of answering, he gave me a final, gentle shake and divided a glare between me and Marsali, who had poked an inquiring head out.
“Stay here, the both of ye, and dinna stir a foot or I swear I’ll beat ye senseless.”
Without pausing for a response, he whirled and strode back through the trees, toward the beach.
Marsali and I exchanged stares, which were interrupted a second later, when Jamie, breathless, hurtled back into the small clearing. He grabbed me by both arms, and kissed me briefly but thoroughly.
“I forgot. I love you,” he said, giving me another shake for emphasis. “And I’m glad you’re no dead. Dinna do that again!” Letting go, he crashed back into the brush and disappeared.
I felt breathless, myself, and more than a little rattled, but undeniably happy.
Marsali’s eyes were round as saucers.
“What shall we do?” she asked. “What’s Da going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. My cheeks were flushed, and I could still feel the touch of his mouth on mine, and the unfamiliar tingling left by the brush of beard and mustache. My tongue touched the small stinging place where I had bitten my lip. “I don’t know what he’s going to do,” I repeated. “I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.”
It was a long wait. I was dozing against the trunk of a huge tree, near dusk, when Marsali’s hand on my shoulder brought me awake.
“They’re launching the ship!” she said in an excited whisper.
They were; under the eyes of the sentries, the remaining soldiers and the crew of the Artemis were all manning the ropes and rollers that would move her down the beach into the waters of the inlet. Even Fergus, Innes, and Murphy joined in the labor, missing limbs notwithstanding.
The sun was going down; its disc shone huge and orange-gold, blinding above a sea gone the purple of whelks. The men were no more than black silhouettes against the light, anonymous as the slaves of an Egyptian wall-painting, tethered by ropes to their massive burden.
The monotonous “Heave!” of the bosun’s shout was succeeded by a weak cheer as the hull slid the last few feet, drawn away from the shore by tow-ropes from the Artemis’s jolly boat and cutter.
I saw the flash of red hair as Jamie moved up the side and swung aboard, then the gleam of metal as one of the soldiers followed him. They stood guard together, red hair and black no more than dots at the head of the rope ladder, as the crew of the Artemis entered the jolly boat, rowed out and came up the ladder, interspersed with the rest of the French soldiers.
The last man disappeared up the ladder. The men in the boats sat on their oars, looking up, tense and alert. Nothing happened.
Next to me, I heard Marsali exhale noisily, and realized I had been holding my own breath much too long.
“What are they doing?” she said, in exasperation.
As though in answer to this, there was one loud, angry shout from the Artemis. The men in the boats jerked up, ready to lunge aboard. No other signal came, though. The Artemis floated serenely on the rising waters of the inlet, perfect as an oil painting.
“I’ve had enough,” I said suddenly to Marsali. “Whatever those bloody men are doing, they’ve done it. Come on.”
I drew in a fresh gulp of the cool evening air, and walked out of the trees, Marsali behind me. As we came down the beach, a slim black figure dropped over the ship’s side and galloped through the shallows, gleaming gouts of green and purple seawater spouting from his footsteps.
“Mo chridhe chèrie!” Fergus ran dripping toward us, face beaming, and seizing Marsali, swung her off her feet with exuberance and whirled her round.
“Done!” he crowed. “Done without a shot fired! Trussed like geese and packed like salted herrings in the hold!” He kissed Marsali heartily, then set her down on the sand, and turning to me, bowed ceremoniously, with the elaborate flourish of an imaginary hat.
“Milady, the captain of the Artemis desires you will honor him with your company over supper.”
The new captain of the Artemis was standing in the middle of his cabin, eyes closed and completely naked, blissfully scratching his testicles.
“Er,” I said, confronted with this sight. His eyes popped open and his face lit with joy. The next moment, I was enfolded in his embrace, face pressed against the red-gold curls of his chest.
We didn’t say anything for quite some time. I could hear the thrum of footsteps on the deck overhead, the shouts of the crew, ringing with joy at the imminence of escape, and the creak and flap of sails being rigged. The Artemis was coming back to life around us.
My face was warm, tingling from the rasp of his beard. I felt suddenly strange and shy holding him, he naked as a jay and myself as bare under the remnants of Father Fogden’s tattered robe.
The body that pressed against my own with mounting urgency was the same from the neck down, but the face was a stranger’s, a Viking marauder’s. Besides the beard that transformed his face, he smelled unfamiliar, his own sweat overlaid with rancid cooking oil, spilled beer, and the reek of harsh perfume and unfamiliar spices.
I let go, and took a step back.
“Shouldn’t you dress?” I asked. “Not that I don’t enjoy the scenery,” I added, blushing despite myself. “I—er…I think I like the beard. Maybe,” I added doubtfully, scrutinizing him.
“I don’t,” he said frankly, scratching his jaw. “I’m crawling wi’ lice, and it itches like a fiend.”
“Eew!” While I was entirely familiar with Pediculus humanus, the common body louse, acquaintance had not endeared me. I rubbed a hand nervously through my own hair, already imagining the prickle of feet on my scalp, as tiny sestets gamboled through the thickets of my curls.
He grinned at me, white teeth startling in the auburn beard.
“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach,” he assured me. “I’ve already sent for a razor and hot water.”
“Really? It seems rather a pity to shave it off right away.” Despite the lice, I leaned forward to peer at his hirsute adornment. “It’s like your hair, all different colors. Rather pretty, really.”
I touched it, warily. The hairs were odd; thick and wiry, very curly, in contrast to the soft thick smoothness of the hair on his head. They sprang exuberantly from his skin in a profusion of colors; copper, gold, amber, cinnamon, a roan so deep as almost to be black. Most startling of all was a thick streak of silver that ran from his lower lip to the line of his jaw.
“That’s funny,” I said, tracing it. “You haven’t any white hairs on your head, but you have right here.”
“I have?” He put a hand to his jaw, looking startled, and I suddenly realized that he likely had no idea what he looked like. Then he smiled wryly, and bent to pick up the pile of discarded clothes from the floor.
“Aye, well, little wonder if I have; I wonder I’ve not gone white-haired altogether from the things I’ve been through this month.” He paused, eyeing me over the wadded white breeches.
“And speaking of that, Sassenach, as I was saying to ye in the trees—”
“Yes, speaking of that,” I interrupted. “What in the name of God did you do?”
“Oh, the soldiers, ye mean?” He scratched his chin meditatively. “Well, it was simple enough. I told the soldiers that as soon as the ship was launched, we’d gather everyone on deck, and at my signal, they were to fall on the crew and push them into the hold.” A broad grin blossomed through the foliage. “Only Fergus had mentioned it to the crew, ye see; so when each soldier came aboard, two of the crewmen snatched him by the arms while a third gagged him, bound his arms, and took away his weapons. Then we pushed all of them into the hold. That’s all.” He shrugged, modestly nonchalant.
“Right,” I said, exhaling. “And as for just how you happened to be here in the first place…”
At this juncture we were interrupted by a discreet knock on the cabin’s door.
“Mr. Fraser? Er…Captain, I mean?” Maitland’s angular young face peered round the jamb, cautious over a steaming bowl. “Mr. Murphy’s got the galley fire going, and here’s your hot water, with his compliments.”