There was a brief flash of light that glistened across the wet rocks and was gone. Young Ian’s hand was tense on my arm. We waited, breaths held, to the count of thirty. Ian’s hand squeezed my arm, just as another flash lit the foam on the sand.
“What was that?” I said.
“What?” Jamie wasn’t looking at me, but out at the ship.
“On the shore; when the light flashed, I thought I saw something half-buried in the sand. It looked like—”
The third flash came, and a moment later, an answering light shone from the ship—a blue lantern, an eerie dot that hung from the mast, doubling itself in reflection in the dark water below.
I forgot the glimpse of what appeared to be a rumpled heap of clothing, carelessly buried in the sand, in the excitement of watching the ship. Some movement was evident now, and a faint splash reached our ears as something was thrown over the side.
“The tide’s coming in,” Jamie muttered in my ear. “The ankers float; the current will carry them ashore in a few minutes.”
That solved the problem of the ship’s anchorage—it didn’t need one. But how then was the payment made? I was about to ask when there was a sudden shout, and all hell broke loose below.
Jamie thrust his way at once through the gorse bushes, followed in short order by me and Young Ian. Little could be seen distinctly, but there was a considerable turmoil taking place on the sandy beach. Dark shapes were stumbling and rolling over the sand, to the accompaniment of shouting. I caught the words “Halt, in the King’s name!” and my blood froze.
“Excisemen!” Young Ian had caught it, too.
Jamie said something crude in Gaelic, then threw back his head and shouted himself, his voice carrying easily across the beach below.
“Éirich ’illean!” he bellowed. “Suas am bearrach is teich!”
Then he turned to Young Ian and me. “Go!” he said.
The noise suddenly increased as the clatter of falling rocks joined the shouting. Suddenly a dark figure shot out of the gorse by my feet and made off through the dark at high speed. Another followed, a few feet away.
A high-pitched scream came from the dark below, high enough to be heard over the other noises.
“That’s Willoughby!” Young Ian exclaimed. “They’ve got him!”
Ignoring Jamie’s order to go, we both crowded forward to peer through the screen of gorse. The dark-lantern had fallen atilt and the slide had come open, shooting a beam of light like a spotlight over the beach, where the shallow graves in which the Customs men had buried themselves gaped in the sand. Black figures swayed and struggled and shouted through the wet heaps of seaweed. A dim glow of light around the lantern was sufficient to show two figures clasped together, the smaller kicking wildly as it was lifted off its feet.
“I’ll get him!” Young Ian sprang forward, only to be pulled up with a jerk as Jamie caught him by the collar.
“Do as you’re told and see my wife safe!”
Gasping for breath, Young Ian turned to me, but I wasn’t going anywhere, and set my feet firmly in the dirt, resisting his tug on my arm.
Ignoring us both, Jamie turned and ran along the clifftop, stopping several yards away. I could see him clearly in silhouette against the sky, as he dropped to one knee and readied the pistol, bracing it on his forearm to sight downward.
The sound of the shot was no more than a small cracking noise, lost amid the tumult. The result of it, though, was spectacular. The lantern exploded in a shower of burning oil, abruptly darkening the beach and silencing the shouting.
The silence was broken within seconds by a howl of mingled pain and indignation. My eyes, momentarily blinded by the flash of the lantern, adapted quickly, and I saw another glow—the light of several small flames, which seemed to be moving erratically up and down. As my night vision cleared, I saw that the flames rose from the coat sleeve of a man, who was dancing up and down as he howled, beating ineffectually at the fire started by the burning oil that had splashed him.
The gorse bushes quivered violently as Jamie plunged over the cliffside and was lost to view below.
Roused by my cry, Young Ian yanked harder, pulling me half off my feet and forcibly dragging me away from the cliff.
“Come on, Auntie! They’ll be up here, next thing!”
This was undeniably true; I could hear the shouts on the beach coming closer, as the men swarmed up the rocks. I picked up my skirts and went, following the boy as fast as we could go through the rough marrow-grass of the clifftop.
I didn’t know where we were going, but Young Ian seemed to. He had taken off his coat and the white of his shirt was easily visible before me, floating like a ghost through the thickets of alder and birch that grew farther inland.
“Where are we?” I panted, coming up alongside him when he slowed at the bank of a tiny stream.
“The road to Arbroath’s just ahead,” he said. He was breathing heavily, and a dark smudge of mud showed down the side of his shirt. “It’ll be easier going in a moment. Are ye all right, Auntie? Shall I carry ye across?”
I politely declined this gallant offer, privately noting that I undoubtedly weighed as much as he did. I took off my shoes and stockings, and splashed my way knee-deep across the streamlet, feeling icy mud well up between my toes.
I was shivering violently when I emerged, and did accept Ian’s offer of his coat—excited as he was, and heated by the exercise, he was clearly in no need of it. I was chilled not only by the water and the cold November wind, but by fear of what might be happening behind us.
We emerged panting onto the road, the wind blowing cold in our faces. My nose and lips were numb in no time, and my hair blew loose behind me, heavy on my neck. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, though; it carried the sound of voices to us, moments before we would have walked into them.
“Any signal from the cliff?” a deep male voice asked. Ian stopped so abruptly in his tracks that I bumped into him.
“Not yet,” came the reply. “I thought I heard a bit of shouting that way, but then the wind turned.”
“Well, get up that tree again then, heavy-arse,” the first voice said impatiently. “If any o’ the whoresons get past the beach, we’ll nibble ’em here. Better us get the headmoney than the buggers on the beach.”
“It’s cold,” grumbled the second voice. “Out in the open where the wind gnaws your bones. Wish we’d drawn the watch at the abbey—at least it would be warm there.”
Young Ian’s hand was clutching my upper arm tight enough to leave bruises. I pulled, trying to loosen his grip, but he paid no attention.
“Aye, but less chance o’ catching the big fish,” the first voice said. “Ah, and what I might do with fifty pound!”
“Awright,” said the second voice, resigned. “Though how we’re to see red hair in the dark, I’ve no notion.”
“Just lay ’em by the heels, Oakie; we’ll look at their heads later.”
Young Ian was finally roused from his trance by my tugging, and stumbled after me off the road and into the bushes.
“What do they mean by the watch at the abbey?” I demanded, as soon as I thought we were out of earshot of the watchers on the road. “Do you know?”
Young Ian’s dark thatch bobbed up and down. “I think so, Auntie. It must be Arbroath abbey. That’s the meeting point, aye?”
“If something should go wrong,” he explained. “Then it’s every man for himself, all to meet at the abbey as soon as they can.”
“Well, it couldn’t go more wrong,” I observed. “What was it your uncle shouted when the Customs men popped up?”
Young Ian had half-turned to listen for pursuit from the road;now the pale oval of his face turned back to me. “Oh—he said, ‘Up, lads! Over the cliff and run!’”
“Sound advice,” I said dryly. “So if they followed it, most of the men may have gotten away.”
“Except Uncle Jamie and Mr. Willoughby.” Young Ian was running one hand nervously through his hair; it reminded me forcibly of Jamie, and I wished he would stop.
“Yes.” I took a deep breath. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about them just now. The other men, though—if they’re headed for the abbey—”
“Aye,” he broke in, “that’s what I was tryin’ to decide; ought I do as Uncle Jamie said, and take ye to Lallybroch, or had I best try to get to the abbey quick and warn the others as they come?”
“Get to the abbey,” I said, “as fast as you can.”
“Well, but—I shouldna like to leave ye out here by yourself, Auntie, and Uncle Jamie said—”
“There’s a time to follow orders, Young Ian, and a time to think for yourself,” I said firmly, tactfully ignoring the fact that I was in fact doing the thinking for him. “Does this road lead to the abbey?”
“Aye, it does. No more than a mile and a quarter.” Already he was shifting to and fro on the balls of his feet, eager to be gone.
“Good. You cut round the road and head for the abbey. I’ll walk straight along the road, and see if I can distract the excisemen until you’re safely past. I’ll meet you at the abbey. Oh, wait—you’d best take your coat.”
I surrendered the coat reluctantly; besides being loath to part with its warmth, it felt like giving up my last link with a friendly human presence. Once Young Ian was away, I would be completely alone in the cold dark of the Scottish night.
“Ian?” I held his arm, to keep him a moment longer.
“Be careful, won’t you?” On impulse, I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cold cheek. I was near enough to see his brows arch in surprise. He smiled, and then he was gone, an alder branch snapping back into place behind him.
It was very cold. The only sounds were the whish of the wind through the bushes and the distant murmur of the surf. I pulled the woolen shawl tightly round my shoulders, shivering, and headed back toward the road.
Ought I to make a noise? I wondered. If not, I might be attacked without warning, since the waiting men might hear my footsteps but couldn’t see that I wasn’t an escaping smuggler. On the other hand, if I strolled through singing a jaunty tune to indicate that I was a harmless woman, they might just lie hidden in silence, not wanting to give away their presence—and giving away their presence was exactly what I had in mind. I bent and picked up a rock from the side of the road. Then, feeling even colder than before, I stepped out onto the road and walked straight on, without a word.
The wind was high enough to keep the trees and bushes in a constant stir, masking the sound of my footsteps on the road—and those of anyone who might be stalking me, too. Less than a fortnight past the feast of Samhain, it was the sort of wild night that made one easily believe that spirits and evil might well be abroad.
It wasn’t a spirit that grabbed me suddenly from behind, hand clamped tight across my mouth. Had I not been prepared for just such an eventuality, I would have been startled senseless. As it was, my heart gave a great leap and I jerked convulsively in my captor’s grasp.