I laid down my cloth. The nasty part was done; now all we needed was a poultice of some kind—lacking iodine or penicillin, it was the best I could do for infection—and a good tight dressing. Eyes still closed, the young man did not appear to notice.
“I came down toward the house from behind, meaning to fetch a piece of harness from the barn, and heard the shouting and my sister screaming inside the house.”
“Oh?” I tried to make my voice as quiet and unintrusive as I could. I wanted very much to know about this Captain Randall; so far, this story had done little to dispel my original impression of him.
“I went in through the kitchen and found two of ’em riflin’ the pantry, stuffin’ their sacks wi’ flour and bacon. I punched one of them in the head, and threw the other out the window, sack and all. Then I burst into the parlor, where I found two of the redcoats with my sister, Jenny. Her dress was torn a bit, and one of them had a scratched face.”
He opened his eyes and smiled, a bit grimly. “I didna stop to ask questions. We were going round and about, and I wasna doing too poorly, for all there were two of them, when Randall came in.”
Randall had stopped the fight by the simple expedient of holding a pistol to Jenny’s head. Forced to surrender, Jamie had quickly been seized and bound by the two soldiers. Randall had smiled charmingly at his captive and said, “Well, well. Two spitfire scratchcats here, have we? A taste of hard labor’ll cure your temper, I trow, and if it doesn’t, well, there’s another cat you’ll meet, name of nine-tails. But there’s other cures for other cats, aren’t there, my sweet p**sy?”
Jamie stopped for a moment, jaw working. “He was holdin’ Jenny’s arm behind her back, but he let go then, to bring his hand round and put it down her dress, round her breast, like.” Remembering the scene, he smiled unexpectedly. “So,” he resumed, “Jenny stamped down on his foot and gave him her elbow deep in the belly. And as he was bent over choking, she whirled round and gave him a good root in the stones wi’ her knee.” He snorted briefly with amusement.
“Weel, at that he dropped the pistol, and she went for it, but one of the dragoons holding me got to it first.”
I had finished the bandaging and stood quiet behind him, a hand resting on his good shoulder. It seemed important he should tell me everything, but I was afraid he would stop if he were reminded of my presence.
“When he’d got back enough breath to talk with, Randall had his men haul us both outside. They stripped off my shirt, bound me to the wagon tongue, and Randall beat me across the back with the flat of his saber. He was in a black fury, but a wee bit the worse for wear, ye might say. It stung me a bit, but he couldna keep it up for long.”
The brief spurt of amusement had vanished now, and the shoulder under my hand was hard with tension. “When he stopped, he turned to Jenny—one of the dragoons had hold of her—and asked her did she want to see more, or would she rather go into the house with him, and offer him better entertainment?” The shoulder twitched uneasily.
“I couldna move much, but I shouted to her that I wasna hurt—and I wasn’t, too much—and that she was not to go with him, not if they cut my throat before her eyes.”
“They were holding her behind me, so I couldna see, but from the sound of it, she spat in his face. She must have done, because next thing I knew, he’d grabbed a handful of my hair, pulled my head back, and set his knife against my throat.”
“I’ve a mind to take you at your suggestion,” Randall had said through his teeth, and dug the point just beneath the skin, far enough to draw blood.
“I could see the dagger close to my face,” Jamie said, “and the pattern of spots my blood was making in the dust under the wagon.” His tone was almost dreamy, and I realized that, from fatigue and pain, he had lapsed into something like a hypnotic state. He might not even remember that I was there.
“I made to call out to my sister, to tell her that I’d much prefer to die than have her dishonor herself wi’ such scum. Randall took the dagger from my throat, though, and thrust the blade betwixt my teeth, so I couldna call out.” He rubbed at his mouth, as though still tasting bitter steel. He stopped talking, staring straight ahead.
“But what happened then?” I shouldn’t have spoken, but I had to know.
He shook himself, like a man rousing from sleep, and rubbed a large hand tiredly across the back of his neck.
“She went with him,” he said abruptly. “She thought he would kill me, and perhaps she was right. After that, I dinna ken what happened. One of the dragoons hit me in the head wi’ the stock of his musket. When I woke, I was trussed up in the wagon wi’ the chickens, jolting down the road toward Fort William.”
“I see,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry. It must have been terrible for you.”
He smiled suddenly, the haze of fatigue gone. “Oh, aye. Chickens are verra poor company, especially on a long journey.” Realizing that the dressing was completed, he hunched the shoulder experimentally, wincing as he did so.
“Don’t do that!” I said in alarm. “You really mustn’t move it. In fact,” I glanced at the table, to be sure there were some strips of dry fabric left. “I’m going to strap that arm to your side. Hold still.”
He didn’t speak further, but relaxed a bit under my hands when he realized that it wasn’t going to hurt. I felt an odd sense of intimacy with this young Scottish stranger, due in part, I thought, to the dreadful story he had just told me, and in part to our long ride through the dark, pressed together in drowsy silence. I had not slept with many men other than my husband, but I had noticed before that to sleep, actually sleep with someone did give this sense of intimacy, as though your dreams had flowed out of you to mingle with his and fold you both in a blanket of unconscious knowing. A throwback of some kind, I thought. In older, more primitive times (like these? asked another part of my mind), it was an act of trust to sleep in the presence of another person. If the trust was mutual, simple sleep could bring you closer together than the joining of bodies.
The strapping finished, I helped him on with the rough linen shirt, easing it over the bad shoulder. He stood up to tuck it one-handed into his kilt, and smiled down at me.
“I thank ye, Claire. You’ve a good touch.” His hand reached out as though to touch my face, but he seemed to think better of it; the hand wavered and dropped to his side. Apparently he had felt that odd surge of intimacy too. I looked hastily away, flipping a hand in a think-nothing-of-it gesture.
My gaze traveled around the room, taking in the smoke-blacked fireplace, the narrow, unglazed windows, and the solid oak furnishings. No electrical fittings. No carpeting. No shiny brass knobs on the bedstead.
It looked, in fact, like an eighteenth-century castle. But what about Frank? The man I had met in the wood looked disturbingly like him, but Jamie’s description of Captain Randall was completely foreign to everything I knew about my gentle, peace-loving husband. But then, if it were true—and I was beginning to admit, even to myself, that it might be—then he could in fact be almost anything. A man I knew only from a genealogical chart was not necessarily bound to resemble his descendants in conduct.
But it was Frank himself I was concerned with at the moment. If I was, in fact, in the eighteenth century, where was he? What would he do when I failed to return to Mrs. Baird’s? Would I ever see him again? Thinking about Frank was the last straw. Since the moment I stepped into the rock and ordinary life ceased to exist, I had been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped and jostled. I had not eaten or slept properly for more than twenty-four hours. I tried to control myself, but my lip wobbled and my eyes filled in spite of myself.
I turned to the fire to hide my face, but too late. Jamie took my hand, asking in a gentle voice what was wrong. The firelight glinted on my gold wedding band, and I began to sniffle in earnest.
“Oh, I’ll…I’ll be all right, it’s all right, really, it’s…just my…my husband…I don’t—”
“Ah lass, are ye widowed, then?” His voice was so full of sympathetic concern that I lost control entirely.
“No…yes…I mean, I don’t…yes, I suppose I am!” Overcome with emotion and tiredness, I collapsed against him, sobbing hysterically.
The lad had nice feelings. Instead of calling for help or retreating in confusion, he sat down, gathered me firmly onto his lap with his good arm and sat rocking me gently, muttering soft Gaelic in my ear and smoothing my hair with one hand. I wept bitterly, surrendering momentarily to my fear and heartbroken confusion, but slowly I began to quiet a bit, as Jamie stroked my neck and back, offering me the comfort of his broad, warm chest. My sobs lessened and I began to calm myself, leaning tiredly into the curve of his shoulder. No wonder he was so good with horses, I thought blearily, feeling his fingers rubbing gently behind my ears, listening to the soothing, incomprehensible speech. If I were a horse, I’d let him ride me anywhere.
This absurd thought coincided unfortunately with my dawning realization that the young man was not completely exhausted after all. In fact, it was becoming embarrassingly obvious to both of us. I coughed and cleared my throat, wiping my eyes with my sleeve as I slid off his lap.
“I’m so sorry…that is, I mean, thank you for…but I…” I was babbling, backing away from him with my face flaming. He was a bit flushed, too, but not disconcerted. He reached for my hand and pulled me back. Careful not to touch me otherwise, he put a hand under my chin and forced my head up to face him.
“Ye need not be scairt of me,” he said softly. “Nor of anyone here, so long as I’m with ye.” He let go and turned to the fire.
“You need somethin’ hot, lass,” he said matter-of-factly, “and a bit to eat as well. Something in your belly will help more than anything.” I laughed shakily at his attempts to pour broth one-handed, and went to help. He was right; food did help. We sipped broth and ate bread in a companionable silence, sharing the growing comfort of warmth and fullness.
Finally, he stood up, picking up the fallen quilt from the floor. He dropped it back on the bed, and motioned me toward it. “Do ye sleep a bit, Claire. You’re worn out, and likely someone will want to talk wi’ ye before too long.”
This was a sinister reminder of my precarious position, but I was too exhausted to care much. I uttered no more than a pro forma protest at taking the bed; I had never seen anything so enticing. Jamie assured me that he could find a bed elsewhere. I fell headfirst into the pile of quilts and was asleep before he reached the door.
I woke in a state of complete confusion. I vaguely remembered that something was very wrong, but couldn’t remember what. In fact, I had been sleeping so soundly that I couldn’t remember for a moment who I was, much less where. I was warm, and the surrounding room was piercingly cold. I tried to burrow back into my cocoon of quilts, but the voice that had wakened me was still nagging.
“Come then, lass! Come now, ye must get up!” The voice was deep and genially hectoring, like the barking of a sheepdog. I pried one reluctant eye open far enough to see the mountain of brown homespun.
Mistress FitzGibbons! The sight of her shocked me back to full consciousness, and memory returned. It was still true, then.
Wrapping a blanket about me against the chill, I staggered out of bed and headed for the fire as fast as possible. Mistress FitzGibbons had a cup of hot broth waiting; I sipped it, feeling like the survivor of some major bombing raid, as she laid out a pile of garments on the bed. There was a long yellowish linen chemise, with a thin edging of lace, a petticoat of fine cotton, two overskirts in shades of brown, and a pale lemon-yellow bodice. Brown-striped stockings of wool and a pair of yellow slippers completed the ensemble.
Brooking no protests, the dame bustled me out of my inadequate garments and oversaw my dressing from the skin out. She stood back, surveying her handiwork with satisfaction.
“The yellow suits ye, lass; I thought it would. Goes well wi’ that brown hair, and it brings out the gold in your eyes. Stay, though, ye’ll need a wee bit o’ ribbon.” Turning out a pocket like a gunnysack, she produced a handful of ribbons and bits of jewelry.
Too stunned to resist, I allowed her to dress my hair, tying back the sidelocks with primrose ribbon, clucking over the unfeminine unbecomingness of my shoulder-length bob.
“Goodness, me dear, whatever were ye thinkin’, to cut your hair so short? Were ye in disguise, like? I’ve heard o’ some lasses doin’ so, to hide their sex when travelin’, same as to be safe from they dratted redcoats. ’Tis a fine day, says I, when leddies canna travel the roads in safety.” She ran on, patting me here and there, tucking in a curl or arranging a fold. Finally I was arrayed to her satisfaction.
“Weel now, that’s verra gude. Now, ye’ve just time for a wee bite, then I must take you to himself.”
“Himself?” I said. I didn’t care for the sound of this. Whoever Himself was, he was likely to ask difficult questions.
“Why, the MacKenzie to be sure. Whoever else?”
Who else indeed? Castle Leoch, I dimly recalled, was in the middle of the clan MacKenzie lands. Plainly the clan chieftain was still the MacKenzie. I began to understand why our little band of horsemen had ridden through the night to reach the castle; this would be a place of impregnable safety to men pursued by the Crown’s men. No English officer with a grain of sense would lead his men so deeply into the clan lands. To do so was to risk death by ambush at the first clump of trees. And only a good-sized army would come as far as the castle gates. I was trying to remember whether in fact the English army ever had come so far, when I suddenly realized that the eventual fate of the castle was much less relevant than my immediate future.
I had no appetite for the bannocks and parritch that Mrs. FitzGibbons had brought for my breakfast, but crumbled a bit and pretended to eat, in order to gain some time for thought. By the time Mrs. Fitz came back to conduct me to the MacKenzie, I had cobbled together a rough plan.
The laird received me in a room at the top of a flight of stone steps. It was a tower room, round, and rich with paintings and tapestries hung against the sloping walls. While the rest of the castle seemed comfortable enough, if somewhat bare, this room was luxuriously crowded, crammed with furniture, bristling with ornaments, and warmly lit by fire and candle against the drizzle of the day outside. While the outer walls of the castle had only the high slit windows suited to resisting attack, this inner wall had been more recently furnished with long casement windows that let in what daylight there was.
As I entered, my attention was drawn at once by an enormous metal cage, cleverly engineered to fit the curve of the wall from floor to ceiling, filled with dozens of tiny birds: finches, buntings, tits, and several kinds of warblers. Drawing near, my eye was filled with plump smooth bodies and bead-bright eyes, set like jewels in a background of velvet green, darting among the leaves of oak, elm, and chestnut, carefully tended trees rooted in mulched pots set on the floor of the cage. The cheerful racket of conversing birds was punctuated by the whir of wings and rustle of leaves as the inhabitants flitted and hopped about their business.
“Busy wee things, are they no?” A deep, pleasant voice spoke from behind me, and I turned with a smile that froze on my face.
Colum MacKenzie shared the broad planes and high forehead of his brother Dougal, though the vital force that gave Dougal an air of intimidation was here mellowed into something more welcoming, though no less vibrant. Darker, with dove-grey rather than hazel eyes, Colum gave that same impression of intensity, of standing just slightly closer to you than was quite comfortable. At the moment, though, my discomfort arose from the fact that the beautifully modeled head and long torso ended in shockingly bowed and stumpy legs. The man who should have topped six feet came barely to my shoulder.
He kept his eyes on the birds, tactfully allowing me a much-needed moment to gain control of my features. Of course, he must be used to the reactions of people meeting him for the first time. It occurred to me, glancing around the room, to wonder how often he did meet new people. This was clearly a sanctuary; the self-constructed world of a man to whom the outer world was unwelcome—or unavailable.
“I welcome ye, mistress,” he said, with a slight bow. “My name is Colum ban Campbell MacKenzie, laird of this castle. I understand from my brother that he, er, encountered you some distance from here.”
“He kidnapped me, if you want to know,” I said. I would have liked to keep the conversation cordial, but I wanted even more to get away from this castle and back to the hill with the standing stone circle. Whatever had happened to me, the answer lay there—if anywhere.
The laird’s thick brows rose slightly, and a smile curved the fine-cut lips.
“Well, perhaps,” he agreed. “Dougal is sometimes a wee bit…impetuous.”
“Well.” I waved a hand, indicating gracious dismissal of the matter. “I’m prepared to admit that a misunderstanding might have arisen. But I would greatly appreciate being returned to…the place he took me from.”
“Mm.” Brows still raised, Colum gestured toward a chair. I sat, reluctantly, and he nodded toward one of the attendants, who vanished through the door.
“I’ve sent for some refreshment, Mistress…Beauchamp, was it? I understand that my brother and his men found ye in…er, some apparent distress.” He seemed to be hiding a smile, and I wondered just how my supposed state of undress had been described to him.
I took a deep breath. Now it was time for the explanation I had devised. Thinking this out, I had recalled Frank’s telling me, during his officer’s training, about a course he had taken in withstanding interrogation. The basic principle, insofar as I remembered it, was to stick to the truth as much as humanly possible, altering only those details that must be kept secret. Less chance, the instructor explained, of slipping up in the minor aspects of one’s cover story. Well, we’d have to see how effective that was.
“Well, yes. I had been attacked, you see.”
He nodded, face alight with interest. “Aye? Attacked by whom?”
Tell the truth. “By English soldiers. In particular, by a man named Randall.”
The patrician face changed suddenly at the name. Though Colum continued to look interested, there was an increased intensity in the line of the mouth, and a deepening of the creases that bracketed it. Clearly that name was familiar. The MacKenzie chief sat back a bit, and steepled his fingers, regarding me carefully over them.