“Oh, so that’s what they were doing!” I exclaimed. “I wondered,” I added lamely.
Captain Randall breathed heavily, then decided against whatever he had been going to say, in favor of continuing his story.
“In the midst of this lawful pursuit,” he went on, in measured tones, “I encounter a half-dressed Englishwoman—in a place where no Englishwoman should be, even with a proper escort—who resists my inquiries, assaults my person—”
“You assaulted mine first!” I said hotly.
“Whose accomplice renders me unconscious by a cowardly attack, and who then flees the area, plainly with some assistance. My men and I searched that area most thoroughly, and I assure you, Madam, there was no trace of your murdered servant, your plundered baggage, your discarded gown, nor the merest sign that there is the slightest truth to your story!”
“Oh?” I said, a little weakly.
“Yes. Furthermore, there have been no reports of bandits in that area within the last four months. And now, Madam, you turn up in company with the war chieftain of clan MacKenzie, who tells me that his brother Colum is convinced you are a spy, presumably working for me!”
“Well, I’m not, am I?” I said, reasonably. “You know that, at least.”
“Yes, I know that,” he said with exaggerated patience. “What I don’t know is who the devil you are! But I mean to find out, Madam, have no doubts as to that. I am the commander of this garrison. As such, I am empowered to take certain steps in order to secure the safety of this area against traitors, spies, and any other persons whose behavior I consider suspicious. And those steps, Madam, I am fully prepared to take.”
“And just what might those steps be?” I inquired. I honestly wanted to know, though I suppose the tone of my question must have sounded rather baiting.
He stood up, looked down at me consideringly for a moment, then walked around the table, extended his hand, and drew me to my feet.
“Corporal Hawkins,” he said, still staring at me, “I shall require your assistance for a moment.”
The youth by the wall looked profoundly uneasy, but sidled over to us.
“Stand behind the lady, please, Corporal,” Randall said, sounding bored. “And take her firmly by both elbows.”
He drew back his arm and hit me in the pit of the stomach.
I made no noise, because I had no breath. I sat on the floor, doubled over, struggling to draw air into my lungs. I was shocked far beyond the actual pain of the blow, which was beginning to make itself felt, along with a wave of giddy sickness. In a fairly eventful life, no one had ever purposely struck me before.
The Captain squatted down in front of me. His wig was slightly awry, but aside from that and a certain brightness to his eyes, he showed no change from his normal controlled elegance.
“I trust you are not with child, Madam,” he said in a conversational tone, “because if you are, you won’t be for long.”
I was beginning to make a rather odd wheezing noise, as the first wisps of oxygen found their way painfully into my throat. I rolled onto my hands and knees and groped feebly for the edge of the table. The corporal, after a nervous glance at the captain, reached down to help me up.
Waves of blackness seemed to ripple over the room. I sank onto the stool and closed my eyes.
“Look at me.” The voice was as light and calm as though he were about to offer me tea. I opened my eyes and looked up at him through a slight fog. His hands were braced on his exquisitely tailored hips.
“Have you anything to say to me now, Madam?” he demanded.
“Your wig is crooked,” I said, and closed my eyes again.
A MARRIAGE IS ANNOUNCED
I sat at a table in the taproom below, gazing into a cup of milk and fighting off waves of nausea.
Dougal had taken one look at my face as I came downstairs, supported by the beefy young corporal, and strode purposefully past me, up the stairs to Randall’s room. The floors and doors of the inn were stout and well constructed, but I could still hear the sound of raised voices upstairs.
I raised the cup of milk, but my hands were still shaking too badly to drink it.
I was gradually recovering from the physical effects of the blow, but not from the shock of it. I knew the man was not my husband, but the resemblance was so strong and my habits so ingrained, that I had been half-inclined to trust him, and had spoken to him as I would have to Frank, expecting civility, if not active sympathy. To have those feelings abruptly turned inside out by his vicious attack was what was making me ill now.
Ill, and frightened as well. I had seen his eyes as he crouched next to me on the floor. Something had moved in their depths, just for a moment. It was gone in a flash, but I did not want ever to see it again.
The sound of a door opening above brought me out of my reverie. The thud of heavy footsteps was succeeded by the rapid appearance of Dougal, followed closely by Captain Randall. So closely indeed, that the Captain appeared to be in pursuit of the Scot, and was brought up short when Dougal, catching sight of me, halted suddenly at the foot of the stairs.
With a glare over his shoulder at Captain Randall, Dougal came swiftly over to where I was seated, tossed a small coin on the table in payment, and jerked me to my feet without a word. He was hustling me out the door before I had time to do more than register the extraordinary look of speculative acquisitiveness on the face of the redcoat officer.
We were mounted and moving before I had even tucked the voluminous skirts around my legs, and the material billowed around me like a settling parachute. Dougal was silent, but the horses seemed to pick up his sense of urgency; we were all but galloping by the time we hit the main road.
Near a crossroads marked with a Pictish cross, Dougal abruptly reined to a halt. Dismounting, he seized the bridles of both horses and tied them loosely to a sapling. He helped me down, then abruptly disappeared into the bushes, beckoning me to follow.
I followed the swing of his kilt up the hillside, ducking as the branches he pushed out of the way snapped back across the path over my head. The hillside was overgrown with oak and scrubby pine. I could hear titmice in the copse to the left, and a flock of jays calling out to each other as they fed, further on. The grass was the fresh green of early summer, clumps of sturdy growth shooting out of the rocks and furring the ground under the oaks. Nothing grew under the pines, of course; the needles lay inches thick, affording protection for the small crawling things that hid there from sunlight and predators.
The sharp scents made my throat ache. I had been up such hillsides before, and smelled these same spring scents. But then the pine and grass scent had been diluted with the smell of petrol fumes from the road below and the voices of day trippers replaced those of the jays. Last time I walked such a path, the ground was littered with sandwich wrappers and cigarette butts instead of mallow blossoms and violets. Sandwich wrappers seemed a reasonable enough price to pay, I supposed, for such blessings of civilization as antibiotics and telephones, but just for the moment, I was willing to settle for the violets. I badly needed a little peace, and I felt it here.
Dougal turned suddenly aside just below the crest of the hill and disappeared into a thick growth of broom. Shoving my way in after him with some difficulty, I found him seated on the flat stone edging of a small pool. A weathered block of stone stood askew behind him, with a dim and vaguely human figure etched in the stained surface. It must be a saint’s pool, I realized. These small shrines to one saint or another dotted the Highlands, and were often to be found in such secluded spots, though even up here, tattered remnants of fabric flapped from the branches of a rowan tree that overhung the water; pledges from visitors who petitioned the saint, for health or a safe journey, perhaps.
Dougal greeted my appearance with a nod. He crossed himself, bent his head, and scooped up a double handful of water. The water had an odd dark color, and a worse smell—likely a sulfur spring, I thought. The day was hot and I was thirsty, though, so I followed Dougal’s example. The water was faintly bitter, but cold, and not unpalatable. I drank some, then splashed my face. The road had been dusty.
I looked up, face dripping, to find him watching me with a very odd expression. Something between curiosity and calculation, I thought.
“Bit of a climb for a drink, isn’t it?” I asked lightly. There were water bottles on the horses. And I doubted that Dougal meant to petition the patron of the spring for our safe journey back to the inn. He struck me as a believer in more worldly methods.
“How well d’ye know the Captain?” he asked abruptly.
“Less well than you,” I snapped back. “I’ve met him once before today, and that by accident. We didn’t get on.”
Surprisingly, the stern face lightened a bit.
“Well,” he admitted, “I canna say as I care for the man much myself.” He drummed his fingers on the well coping, considering something. “He’s well-thought of by some, though,” he said, eyeing me. “A brave soldier and a bonny fighter, by what I hear.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Not being an English general, I am not impressed.” He laughed, showing startlingly white teeth. The sound disturbed three rooks in the tree overhead, who flapped off, full of hoarse complaint.
“Are ye a spy for the English or the French?” he asked, with another bewildering change of subject. At least he was being direct, for a change.
“Certainly not,” I said crossly. “I’m plain Claire Beauchamp, and nothing more.” I soaked my handkerchief in the water and used it to wipe my neck. Small refreshing trickles ran down my back under the grey serge of my traveling gown. I pressed the wet cloth to my bosom and squeezed, producing a similar effect.
Dougal was silent for several minutes, watching me intently as I conducted my haphazard ablutions.
“You’ve seen Jamie’s back,” he said suddenly.
“I could hardly help doing so,” I said a little coldly. I had given up wondering what he was up to with these disconnected questions. Presumably he would tell me when he was ready.
“You mean did I know Randall did it, then? Or did you know that yourself?”
“Aye, I kent it well enough,” he answered, calmly appraising me, “but I wasna aware that you did.”
I shrugged, implying that what I knew and what I didn’t were hardly his concern.
“I was there, ye ken,” he said, casually.
“At Fort William. I had a bit of business there, with the garrison. The clerk there knew Jamie was some kin to me, and sent me word when they arrested him. So I went along to see could aught be done for him.”
“Apparently you weren’t very successful,” I said, with an edge.
Dougal shrugged. “Unfortunately not. Had it been the regular sergeant-major in charge, I might ha’ saved Jamie at least the second go-round, but as it was, Randall was new in command. He didna know me, and was indisposed to listen much to what I said. I thought at the time, it was only he meant to make an example of Jamie, to show everyone at the start that there’d be no softness from him.” He tapped the short sword he wore at his belt. “It’s a sound enough principle, when you’re in command of men. Earn their respect before ye do aught else. And if you canna do that, earn their fear.”
I remembered the expression on the face of Randall’s corporal, and thought I knew which route the captain had taken.
Dougal’s deepset eyes were on my face, interested.
“You knew it was Randall. Did Jamie tell ye about it?”
“A bit,” I said cautiously.
“He must think well of ye,” he said musingly. “He doesna generally speak of it to anyone.”
“I can’t imagine why not,” I said, provoked. I still held my breath each time we came to a new tavern or inn, until it was clear that the company had settled for an evening of drinking and gossip by the fire. Dougal smiled sardonically, clearly knowing what was in my mind.
“Well, it wasna necessary to tell me, was it? Since I kent it already.” He swished a hand idly through the strange dark water, stirring up brimstone fumes.
“I’d not know how it goes in Oxfordshire,” he said, with a sarcastic emphasis that made me squirm slightly, “but hereabouts, ladies are generally not exposed to such sights as floggings. Have ye ever seen one?”
“No, nor do I much want to,” I responded sharply. “I can imagine what it would take to make marks like the ones on Jamie’s back, though.”
Dougal shook his head, flipping water out of the pool at a curious jay that ventured close.
“Now, there you’re wrong, lass, and you’ll pardon my saying so. Imagination is all verra well, but it isna equal to the sight of a man having his back laid open. A verra nasty thing—it’s meant to break a man, and most often it succeeds.”
“Not with Jamie.” I spoke rather more sharply than I had intended. Jamie was my patient, and to some extent, my friend as well. I had no wish to discuss his personal history with Dougal, though I would, if pressed, admit to a certain morbid curiosity. I had never met anyone more open and at the same time more mysterious than the tall young MacTavish.
Dougal laughed shortly and wiped his wet hand through his hair, pasting back the strands that had escaped during our flight—for so I thought of it—from the tavern.
“Weel, Jamie’s as stubborn as the rest of his family—like rocks, the lot of them, and he’s the worst.” But there was a definite tone of respect in his voice, grudging though it was.
“Jamie told ye he was flogged for escape?”
“Aye, he went over the wall of the camp just after dark, same day as the dragoons brought him in. That was a fairly frequent occurrence there, the prisoners’ accommodations not bein’ as secure as might be wished, so the English ran patrols near the walls every night. The garrison clerk told me Jamie put up a good fight, from the look of him when he came back, but it was six against one, and the six all wi’ muskets, so it didna last long. Jamie spent the night in chains, and went to the whipping post first thing in the morning.” He paused, checking me for signs of faintness or nausea, I supposed.
“Floggings were done right after assembly, so as to start everyone off in the proper frame of mind for the day. There were three to be flogged that day, and Jamie was the last of them.”
“You actually saw it?”
“Oh, aye. And I’ll tell ye, lass, watchin’ men bein’ flogged is not pleasant. I’ve had the good fortune never to experience it, but I expect bein’ flogged is not verra pleasant, either. Watching it happen to someone else while waitin’ for it yourself is probably least pleasant of all.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I murmured.
Dougal nodded. “Jamie looked grim enough, but he didna turn a hair, even listening to the screams and the other noises—did ye know ye can hear the flesh being torn?”
“So I thought myself, lass,” he said, grimacing in memory of it. “To say nothing of the blood and bruises. Ech!” He spat, carefully avoiding the pool and its coping. “Turned my stomach to see, and I’m no a squeamish man by any means.”
Dougal went on with his ghastly story.
“Come Jamie’s turn, he walks up to the post—some men have to be dragged, but not him—and holds out his hands so the corporal can unlock the manacles he’s wearing. The corporal goes to pull his arm, like, to haul him into place, but Jamie shakes him off and steps back a pace. I was half expectin’ him to make a dash for it, but instead he just pulls off his shirt. It’s torn here and there and filthy as a clout, but he folds it up careful like it was his Sunday best, and lays it on the ground. Then he walks over to the post steady as a soldier and puts his hands up to be bound.”
Dougal shook his head, marveling. The sunlight filtering through the rowan leaves dappled him with lacy shadows, so he looked like a man seen through a doily. I smiled at the thought, and he nodded approvingly at me, thinking my response due to his story.
“Aye, lass, courage like that is uncommon rare. It wasna ignorance, mind; he’d just seen two men flogged and he knew the same was coming to him. It’s just he had made up his mind there was no help for it. Boldness in battle is nothing out of the way for a Scotsman, ye ken, but to face down fear in cold blood is rare in any man. He was but nineteen at the time,” Dougal added as an afterthought.
“Must have been rather gruesome to watch,” I said ironically. “I wonder you weren’t sick.”
Dougal saw the irony, and let it lie. “I nearly was, lass,” he said, lifting his dark brows. “The first lash drew blood, and the lad’s back was half red and half blue within a minute. He didna scream, though, or beg for mercy, or twist round to try and save himself. He just set his forehead hard against the post and stood there. He flinched when the lash hit, of course, but nothin’ more. I doubt I could do that,” he admitted, “nor are there many that could. He fainted half through it, and they roused him wi’ water from a jug and finished it.”
“Very nasty indeed,” I observed. “Why are you telling me about it?”
“I havena finished telling ye about it.” Dougal pulled the dirk from his belt and began to clean his fingernails with the point. He was a fastidious man, in spite of the difficulties of keeping clean on the road.
“Jamie was slumped in the ropes, with the blood running down and staining his kilt. I dinna think he’d fainted, he was just too wambly to stand for the moment. But just then Captain Randall came down into the yard. I don’t know why he’d not been there to begin with; had business that delayed him, perhaps. Anyway, Jamie saw him coming, and had the presence o’ mind left to close his eyes and let his head flop, like as if he were unconscious.”
Dougal knitted his brows, concentrating fiercely on a recalcitrant hangnail.
“The Captain was fair put out that they’d flogged Jamie already; seems that was a pleasure he’d meant to have for himself. Still, not much to be done about it at the moment. But then he thought to make inquiries about how Jamie came to escape in the first place.”
He held up the dirk, examining it for nicks, then began to sharpen the edge against the stone he sat on. “Had several soldiers shaking in their boots before he was done—the man’s a way wi’ words, I’ll say that for him.”