Page 26

“That he has,” I said dryly.

The dirk scraped rhythmically against the stone. Every so often, a faint spark leapt from the metal as it struck a rough patch in the rock.

“Weel, in the course of this inquiry, it came out that Jamie’d had the heel of a loaf and a bit of cheese with him when they caught him—taken it along when he went over the wall. Whereupon the Captain thinks for a moment, then smiles a smile I should hate to see on my grandmother’s face. He declares that theft bein’ a serious offense, the penalty should be commensurate, and sentences Jamie on the spot to another hundred lashes.”

I flinched in spite of myself. “That would kill him!”

Dougal nodded. “Aye, that’s what the garrison doctor said. He said as he’d permit no such thing; in good conscience, the prisoner must be allowed a week to heal before receiving the second flogging.”

“Well, how humanitarian of him,” I said. “Good conscience, my aunt Fanny! And what did Captain Randall think of this?”

“He was none too pleased at first, but he reconciled himself. Once he did, the sergeant-major, who knew a real faint when he saw one, had Jamie untied. The lad staggered a bit, but he kept to his feet, and a few of the men there cheered, which didna go ower a treat wi’ the Captain. He wasna best pleased when the sergeant picked up Jamie’s shirt and handed it back to the lad, either, though it was quite a popular move with the men.”

Dougal twisted the blade back and forth, examining it critically. Then he laid it across his knee and gave me a direct look.

“Ye know, lass, it’s fairly easy to be brave, sittin’ in a warm tavern ower a glass of ale. ’Tis not so easy, squatting in a cold field, wi’ musket balls going past your head and heather ticklin’ your arse. And it’s still less easy when you’re standing face to face wi’ your enemy, wi’ your own blood running down your legs.”

“I wouldn’t suppose so,” I said. I did feel a little faint, in spite of everything. I plunged both hands into the water, letting the dark liquid chill my wrists.

“I did go back to see Randall, later in the week,” Dougal said defensively, as though he felt some need to justify the action. “We talked a good bit, and I even offered him compensation—”

“Oh, I am impressed,” I murmured, but desisted in the face of his glare. “No, I mean it. It was kind of you. I gather Randall declined your offer, though?”

“Aye, he did. And I still dinna ken why, for I’ve not found English officers on the whole to be ower-scrupulous when it comes to their purses, and clothes such as the Captain’s come a bit dear.”

“Perhaps he has-other sources of income,” I suggested.

“He does, for a fact,” Dougal confirmed, but with a sharp glance at me. “Still…” he hesitated, then proceeded, more slowly.

“I went back, then, to be there for Jamie when he came up again, though there wasna much I could do for him at that point, poor lad.”

The second time, Jamie had been the only prisoner up for flogging. The guards had removed his shirt before bringing him out, just after sunup on a cold October morning.

“I could see the lad was dead scairt,” said Dougal, “though he was walking by himself and wouldna let the guard touch him. I could see him shaking, as much wi’ the cold as wi’ nerves, and the gooseflesh thick on his arms and chest, but the sweat was standing on his face as well.”

A few minutes later, Randall came out, the whip tucked under his arm, and the lead plummets at the tips of the lashes clicking softly together as he walked. He had surveyed Jamie coolly, then motioned to the sergeant-major to turn the prisoner around to show his back.

Dougal grimaced. “A pitiful sight, it was, too—still raw, no more than half-healed, wi’ the weals turned black and the rest yellow wi’ bruises. The thought of a whip comin’ down on that soreness was enough to make me blench, along wi’ most of those watching.”

Randall then turned to the sergeant-major and said, “A pretty job, Sergeant Wilkes. I must see if I can do as well.” With considerable punctilio, he then called for the garrison doctor, and had him certify officially that Jamie was fit enough to be flogged.

“You’ve seen a cat play wi’ a wee mousie?” Dougal asked. “ ’Twas like that. Randall strolled round the lad, making one kind of remark and another, none of them what ye’d call pleasant. And Jamie stood there like an oak tree, sayin’ nothing and keeping his eyes fixed on the post, not lookin’ at Randall at all. I could see the lad was hugging his elbows to try to stop the shivering, and ye could tell Randall saw it too.

“His mouth tightened up and he says, ‘I thought this was the young man who only a week past was shouting that he wasn’t afraid to die. Surely a man who’s not afraid to die isn’t afraid of a few lashes?’ and he gives Jamie a poke in the belly wi’ the handle of the whip.

“Jamie met Randall’s eye straight on then, and said, ‘No, but I’m afraid I’ll freeze stiff before ye’re done talking.’ ”

Dougal sighed. “Well. It was a braw speech, but damn reckless, for a’ that. Now, scourging a man is never a pretty business, but there’s ways to make it worse than it might be; strikin’ sideways to cut deep, or steppin’ in wi’ a hard blow ower the kidneys, for instance.” He shook his head. “Verra ugly.”

He frowned, choosing his words slowly.

“Randall’s face was—intent, I suppose ye’d say—and sort o’ lighted up, like when a man is lookin’ at a lass he’s soft on, if ye know what I mean. ’Twas as though he were doin’ somethin’ much worse to Jamie than just skinning him alive. The blood was running down the lad’s legs by the fifteenth stroke, and the tears running down his face wi’ the sweat.”

I swayed a little, and put out a hand to the stone of the coping.

Well,” he said abruptly, catching sight of my expression, “I’ll say no more except that he lived through it. When the corporal untied his hands, he nearly fell, but the corporal and sergeant-major each caught him by an arm and kind o’ steadied him ’til he could keep his feet. He was shakin’ worse than ever from shock and cold, but his head was up and his eyes blazin’—I could see it from twenty feet away. He keeps his eyes fixed on Randall while they help him off the platform, leavin’ bloody footprints—it’s like watchin’ Randall is the only thing keeping him on his feet. Randall’s face was almost as white as Jamie’s, and his eyes were locked wi’ the lad’s—as though either of them would fall if he took his eyes away.” Dougal’s own eyes were fixed, still seeing the eerie scene.

Everything was quiet in the small glade except for the faint rush of wind through the leaves of the rowan tree. I closed my eyes and listened to it for some time.

“Why?” I asked finally, eyes still closed. “Why did you tell me?”

Dougal was watching me intently when I opened my eyes. I dipped a hand in the spring again, and applied the cool water to my temples.

“I thought it might serve as what ye may call a character illustration,” he said.

“Of Randall?” I uttered a short, mirthless laugh. “I don’t need any further evidence as to his character, thank you.”

“Of Randall,” he agreed, “and Jamie too.”

I looked at him, suddenly ill at ease.

“Ye see, I have orders,” he emphasized the word sarcastically, “from the good captain.”

“Orders to do what?” I asked, the agitated feeling increasing.

“To produce the person of an English subject, one Claire Beauchamp by name, at Fort William on Monday, the 18th of June. For questioning.”

I must have looked truly alarming, for he jumped to his feet and came over to me.

“Put your head between your knees, lass,” he instructed, pushing on the back of my neck, “ ’til the faintness passes off.”

“I know what to do,” I said irritably, doing it nonetheless. I closed my eyes, feeling the ebbing blood begin to throb in my temples again. The clammy sensation around my face and ears began to disappear, though my hands were still icy. I concentrated on breathing properly, counting in -one-two-three-four, out-one-two, in -one-two-three-four.…

At length I sat up, feeling more or less in possession of all my faculties. Dougal had resumed his seat on the stone coping, and was waiting patiently, watching to be sure that I didn’t fall backward into the spring.

“There’s a way out of it,” he said abruptly. “The only one I can see.”

“Lead me to it,” I said, with an unconvincing attempt at a smile.

“Verra well, then.” He sat forward, leaning toward me to explain. “Randall’s the right to take ye for questioning because you’re a subject of the English crown. Well, then, we must change that.”

I stared at him, uncomprehending. “What do you mean? You’re a subject of the crown as well, aren’t you? How would you change such a thing?”

“Scots law and English law are verra similar,” he said, frowning, “but no the same. And an English officer canna compel the person of a Scot, unless he’s firm evidence of a crime committed, or grounds for serious suspicions. Even with suspicion, he could no remove a Scottish subject from clan lands without the permission of the laird concerned.”

“You’ve been talking to Ned Gowan,” I said, beginning to feel a little dizzy again.

He nodded. “Aye, I have. I thought it might come to this, ye ken. And what he told me is what I thought myself; the only way I can legally refuse to give ye to Randall is to change ye from an Englishwoman into a Scot.”

“Into a Scot?” I said, the dazed feeling quickly being replaced by a horrible suspicion.

This was confirmed by his next words.

“Aye,” he said, nodding at my expression. “Ye must marry a Scot. Young Jamie.”

“I couldn’t do that!”

“Weel,” he frowned, considering. “I suppose ye could take Rupert, instead. He’s a widower, and he’s the lease of a small farm. Still, he’s a good bit older, and—”

“I don’t want to marry Rupert, either! That’s the…the most absurd…” Words failed me. Springing to my feet in agitation, I paced around the small clearing, fallen rowan berries crunching under my feet.

“Jamie’s a goodly lad,” Dougal argued, still sitting on the coping. “He’s not much in the way of property just now, true, but he’s a kind-hearted lad. He’d not be cruel to ye. And he’s a bonny fighter, with verra good reason to hate Randall. Nay, marry him, and he’ll fight to his last breath to protect ye.”

“But…but I can’t marry anyone!” I burst out.

Dougal’s eyes were suddenly sharp. “Why not, lass? Do ye have a husband living still?”

“No. It’s just…it’s ridiculous! Such things don’t happen!”

Dougal had relaxed when I said “No.” Now he glanced up at the sun and rose to go.

“Best get moving, lass. There are things we’ll have to attend to. There’ll have to be a special dispensation,” he murmured, as though to himself. “But Ned can manage that.”

He took my arm, still muttering to himself. I wrenched it away.

“I will not marry anyone,” I said firmly.

He seemed undisturbed by this, merely raising his brows.

“You want me to take you to Randall?”

“No!” Something occurred to me. “So at least you believe me when I say I’m not an English spy?”

“I do now.” He spoke with some emphasis.

“Why now and not before?”

He nodded at the spring, and at the worn figure etched in the rock. It must be hundreds of years old, much older even than the giant rowan tree that shaded the spring and cast its white flowers into the black water.

“St. Ninian’s spring. Ye drank the water before I asked ye.”

I was thoroughly bewildered by this time.

“What does that have to do with it?”

He looked surprised, then his mouth twisted in a smile. “Ye didna know? They call it the liar’s spring, as well. The water smells o’ the fumes of hell. Anyone who drinks the water and then tells untruth will ha’ the gizzard burnt out of him.”

“I see.” I spoke between my teeth. “Well, my gizzard is quite intact. So you can believe me when I say I’m not a spy, English or French. And you can believe something else, Dougal MacKenzie. I’m not marrying anyone!”

He wasn’t listening. In fact, he had already pushed his way through the bushes that screened the spring. Only a quivering oak branch marked his passage. Seething, I followed him.

I remonstrated at some length further on the ride back to the inn. Dougal advised me finally to save my breath to cool my parritch with, and after that we rode in silence.

Reaching the inn, I flung my reins to the ground and stamped upstairs to the refuge of my room.

The whole idea was not only outrageous, but unthinkable. I paced around and around the narrow room, feeling increasingly like a rat in a trap. Why in hell hadn’t I had the nerve to steal away from the Scots earlier, whatever the risk?

I sat down on the bed and tried to think calmly. Considered strictly from Dougal’s point of view, no doubt the idea had merit. If he refused point-blank to hand me over to Randall, with no excuse, the Captain might easily try to take me by force. And whether he believed me or not, Dougal might understandably not want to engage in a skirmish with a lot of English dragoons for my sake.

And, viewed in cold blood, the idea had some merit from my side as well. If I were married to a Scot, I would presumably no longer be watched and guarded. It would be that much easier to get away when the time came. And if it were Jamie—well, he liked me, clearly. And he knew the Highlands like the backs of his hands. He would perhaps take me to Craigh na Dun, or at least in the general direction. Yes, possibly marriage was the best way to gain my goal.

That was the cold-blooded way to look at it. My blood, however, was anything but cold. I was hot with fury and agitation, and could not keep still, pacing and fuming, looking for a way out. Any way. After an hour of this, my face was flushed and my head throbbing. I got up and threw open the shutters, sticking my head out into the cooling breeze.

There was a peremptory rap on the door behind me. Dougal entered as I pulled my head in. He bore a sheaf of stiff paper like a salver and was followed by Rupert and the immaculate Ned Gowan, bringing up the rear like royal equerries.

“Please do come in,” I said courteously.

Ignoring me as usual, Dougal removed a chamber pot from its resting place on the table and fanned the sheets of paper out ceremoniously on the rough oak surface.

“All done,” he said, with the pride of one who has shepherded a difficult project to a successful conclusion. “Ned’s drawn up the papers; nothing like a lawyer—so long as he’s on your side, eh, Ned?”

The men all laughed, evidently in good humor.

“Not really difficult, ye ken,” Ned said modestly. “It’s but a simple contract.” He riffled the pages with a proprietary forefinger, then paused, wrinkling his brow at a sudden thought.

“You’ve no property in France, have ye?” he asked, peering worriedly at me over the half-spectacles he wore for close work. I shook my head, and he relaxed, shuffling the papers back into a pile and tapping the edges neatly together.

“That’s that, then. You’ll only need to sign here at the foot, and Dougal and Rupert to witness.”

The lawyer set down the inkpot he had brought in, and whipping a clean quill from his pocket, presented it ceremoniously to me.

“And just what is this?” I asked. This was in the nature of a rhetorical question, for the top page of the bundle said CONTRACT OF MARRIAGE in a clear calligraphic hand, the letters two inches high and starkly black across the page.

Dougal suppressed a sigh of impatience at my recalcitrance.

“Ye ken quite weel what it is,” he said shortly. “And unless you’ve had another bright thought for keeping yourself out of Randall’s hands, you’ll sign it and have done with it. Time’s short.”

Bright thoughts were in particularly short supply at the moment, despite the hour I had spent hammering away at the problem. It really began to seem that this incredible alternative was the best I could do, struggle as I might.

“But I don’t want to marry!” I said stubbornly. It occurred to me as well that mine was not the only point of view involved. I remembered the girl with blond hair I had seen kissing Jamie in the alcove at the castle.

“And maybe Jamie doesn’t want to marry me!” I said. “What about that?” Dougal dismissed this as unimportant.

“Jamie’s a soldier; he’ll do as he’s told. So will you,” he said pointedly, “unless, of course, ye’d prefer an English prison.”

I glared at him, breathing heavily. I had been in a stir ever since our abrupt removal from Randall’s office, and my level of agitation had now increased substantially, confronted with the choice in black and white, as it were.

“I want to talk to him,” I said abruptly. Dougal’s eyebrows shot up.

“Jamie? Why?”

“Why? Because you’re forcing me to marry him, and so far as I can see, you haven’t even told him!”

Plainly this was an irrelevancy, as far as Dougal was concerned, but he eventually gave in and, accompanied by his minions, went to fetch Jamie from the taproom below.

Jamie appeared shortly, looking understandably bewildered.

“Did you know that Dougal wants us to marry?” I demanded bluntly.

His expression cleared. “Oh, aye. I knew that.”

“But surely,” I said, “a young man like yourself; I mean, isn’t there anyone else you’re, ah, interested in?” He looked blank for a moment, then understanding dawned.

“Oh, am I promised? Nay, I’m no much of a prospect for a girl.” He hurried on, as though feeling this might sound insulting. “I mean, I’ve no property to speak of, and nothing more than a soldier’s pay to live on.”

He rubbed his chin, eyeing me dubiously. “Then there’s the minor difficulty that I’ve a price on my head. No father much wants his daughter married to a man as may be arrested and hanged any time. Did ye think of that?”

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