“So he could prove that it wasn’t you!” This sounded good news, and I said so. Jamie nodded.
“Well, yes. Though the word of a deserter would likely not count for much. Still, it’s a start. At least I’d know myself who it was. And while I…well, I dinna see how I can go back to Lallybroch; still it would be as well if I could walk the soil of Scotland without the risk of being hanged.”
“Yes, that seems a good idea,” I said dryly. “But where do the MacKenzies come into it?”
There followed a certain amount of complicated analysis of family relationships and clan alliances, but when the smoke cleared away, it appeared that Francis MacLean was some connection with the MacKenzie side, and had sent word of Horrocks to Colum, who had sent Dougal to make contact with Jamie.
“Which is how he came to be nearby when I was wounded,” Jamie finished up. He paused, squinting into the sun. “I wondered, afterward, ye know, whether perhaps he’d done it.”
“Hit you with an ax? Your own uncle? Why on earth!?”
He frowned as though weighing how much to tell me, then shrugged.
“I dinna ken how much ye know about the clan MacKenzie,” he said, “though I imagine ye canna have ridden wi’ old Ned Gowan for days without hearin’ something of it. He canna keep off the subject for long.”
He nodded at my answering smile. “Well, you’ve seen Colum for yourself. Anyone can see that he’ll not make old bones. And wee Hamish is barely eight; he’ll no be able to lead a clan for ten years yet. So what happens if Colum dies before Hamish is ready?” He looked at me, prompting.
“Well, Dougal would be laird, I suppose,” I said slowly, “at least until Hamish is old enough.”
“Aye, that’s true.” Jamie nodded. “But Dougal’s not the man Colum is, and there are those in the clan that wouldna follow him so gladly—if there were an alternative.”
“I see,” I said slowly, “and you are the alternative.”
I looked him over carefully, and had to admit that there was a certain amount of possibility there. He was old Jacob’s grandson; a MacKenzie by blood, if only on his mother’s side. A big, comely, well-made lad, plainly intelligent, and with the family knack for managing people. He had fought in France and proved his ability to lead men in battle; an important consideration. Even the price on his head might not be an insurmountable obstacle—if he were laird.
The English had enough trouble in the Highlands, between the constant small rebellions, the border raids and the warring clans, not to risk a major uprising by accusing the chieftain of a major clan of murder—which would seem no murder at all to the clansmen.
To hang an unimportant Fraser clansman was one thing; to storm Castle Leoch and drag out the laird of the clan MacKenzie to face English justice was something else again.
“Do you mean to be laird, if Colum dies?” It was one way out of his difficulties, after all, though I suspected it was a way hedged with its own considerable obstacles.
He smiled briefly at the thought. “No. Even if I felt myself entitled to it—which I don’t—it would split the clan, Dougal’s men against those that might follow me. I havena the taste for power at the cost of other men’s blood. But Dougal and Colum couldna be sure of that, could they? So they might think it safer just to kill me than to take the risk.”
My brow was furrowed, thinking it all out. “But surely you could tell Dougal and Colum that you don’t intend…oh.” I looked up at him with considerable respect. “But you did. At the oath-taking.”
I had thought already how well he had handled a dangerous situation there; now I saw just how dangerous it had been. The clansmen had certainly wanted him to take his oath; just as certainly Colum had not. To swear such an oath was to declare himself a member of the clan MacKenzie, and as such, a potential candidate for chieftain of the clan. He risked open violence or death for refusal; he risked the same—more privately—for compliance.
Seeing the danger, he had taken the prudent course of staying away from the ceremony. And when I, by my botched escape attempt, had led him straight back to the edge of the abyss, he had set a sure and certain foot on a very narrow tightrope, and walked it to the other side. Je suis prest, indeed.
He nodded, seeing the thoughts cross my face.
“Aye. If I had sworn my oath that night, chances are I wouldna have seen the dawn.”
I felt a little shaky at the thought, as well as at the knowledge that I had unwittingly exposed him to such danger. The knife over his bed suddenly seemed nothing more than a sensible precaution. I wondered how many nights he had slept armed at Leoch, expecting death to come visiting.
“I always sleep armed, Sassenach,” he said, though I had not spoken. “Except for the monastery, last night is the first time in months I’ve not slept wi’ my dirk in my fist.” He grinned, plainly remembering what had been in his fist, instead.
“How the bloody hell did you know what I was thinking?” I demanded, ignoring the grin. He shook his head good-naturedly.
“You’d make a verra poor spy, Sassenach. Everything ye think shows on your face, plain as day. You looked at my dirk and then ye blushed.” He studied me appraisingly, bright head on one side. “I asked ye for honesty last night, but it wasna really necessary; it isna in you to lie.”
“Just as well, since I’m apparently so bad at it,” I observed with some asperity. “Am I to take it that at least you don’t think I’m a spy, then?”
He didn’t answer. He was looking over my shoulder toward the inn, body suddenly tense as a bowstring. I was startled for a moment, but then heard the sounds that had attracted his attention. The thud of hooves and jangle of harness; a large group of mounted men was coming down the road toward the inn.
Moving cautiously, Jamie crouched behind the screen of bushes, at a spot commanding a view of the road. I tucked my skirts up and crawled after him as silently as I could.
The road hooked sharply past a rocky outcrop, then curved more gently down to the hollow where the inn lay. The morning breeze carried the sounds of the approaching group in our direction, but it was a minute or two before the first horse poked its nose into sight.
It was a group of some twenty or thirty men, mostly wearing leather trews and tartan-clad, but in a variety of colors and patterns. All, without exception, were well armed. Each horse bore at least one musket strapped to the saddle, and there was an abundance of pistols, dirks, and swords on view, plus whatever further armament might be concealed in the capacious saddlebags of the four packhorses. Six of the men also led extra mounts, unburdened and saddleless.
Despite their warlike accoutrements, the men seemed relaxed; they were chatting and laughing in small groups as they rode, though here and there a head raised, watchful of the surroundings. I fought back the urge to duck as one man’s gaze passed over the spot where we lay hidden; it seemed as though that searching look must surely discover some random movement or the gleam of the sun off Jamie’s hair.
Glancing up at this thought, I discovered that it had occurred to him as well; he had pulled a fold of his plaid up over his head and shoulders, so that the dull hunting pattern made him effectively part of the shrubbery. As the last of the men wound down into the innyard, Jamie dropped the plaid and motioned back toward the path up the hill.
“Do you know who they are?” I panted, as I followed him up into the heather.
“Oh, aye.” Jamie took the steep path like a mountain goat, with no loss of breath or composure. Glancing back, he noticed my labored progress and stopped, reaching down a hand to help me.
“It’s the Watch,” he said, nodding back in the direction of the inn. “We’re safe enough, but I thought we’d as soon be a bit further away.”
I had heard of the famous Black Watch, that informal police force that kept order in the Highlands, and heard also that there were other Watches, each patrolling its own area, collecting “subscriptions” from clients for the safeguarding of cattle and property. Clients in arrears might well wake one morning to find their livestock vanished in the night, and none to tell where they had gone— certainly not the men of the Watch. I was seized by a sudden irrational terror.
“They’re not looking for you, are they?”
Startled, he looked back as though expecting to see men scrambling up the hill in pursuit, but there was no one, and he looked back at me with a relieved smile and put an arm about my waist to help me along.
“Nay, I doubt it. Ten pound sterling is not enough to make me worth the hunting by a pack like that. And if they kent I was at the inn, they wouldna have come as they did, traipsing up to the door all of a piece.” He shook his head decisively. “No, were they hunting anyone, they’d send men to guard the back and the windows before coming in the front door. They’ve but stopped there for refreshment, likely.”
We continued to climb, past the spot where the, rude path petered out in clumps of gorse and heather. We were among foothills here, and the granite rocks rose higher than Jamie’s head, reminding me uncomfortably of the standing stones of Craigh na Dun.
We emerged then, onto the top of a small dun, and the hills sloped away in a breathtaking fall of rocks and green on all sides. Most places in the Highlands gave me a feeling of being surrounded by trees or rocks or mountains, but here we were exposed to the fresh drafts of the wind and the rays of the sun, which had come out as though in celebration of our unorthodox marriage.
I experienced a heady sense of freedom at being out from under Dougal’s influence and the claustrophobic company of so many men. I was tempted to urge Jamie to run away, and to take me with him, but common sense prevailed. We had neither of us any money nor any food beyond the bit of lunch that he carried in his sporran. We would certainly be pursued if we did not return to the inn by sundown. And while Jamie could plainly climb rocks all day without breaking a sweat or getting out of breath, I was in no such training. Noticing my red face, he led me to a rock and sat beside me, contentedly gazing out over the hills while he waited for me to regain my breath. We were certainly safe here.
Thinking of the Watch, I laid a hand impulsively on Jamie’s arm.
“I’m awfully glad you’re not worth very much,” I said.
He regarded me for a moment, rubbing his nose, which was beginning to redden.
“Well, I might take that several ways, Sassenach, but under the circumstances,” he said, “thank you.”
“I should thank you,” I said, “for marrying me. I must say that I’d rather be here than in Fort William.”
“I thank ye for the compliment, lady,” he said, with a slight bow. “So would I. And while we’re busy thanking each other,” he added, “I should thank you for marrying me, as well.”
“Er, well…” I blushed once more.
“Not only for that, Sassenach,” he said, his grin widening. “Though certainly for that as well. But I imagine you’ve also saved my life for me, at least so far as the MacKenzies are concerned.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Being half MacKenzie is one thing,” he explained. “Being half MacKenzie wi’ an English wife is quite another. There isna much chance of a Sassenach wench ever becoming lady of Leoch, whatever the clansmen might think of me alone. That’s why Dougal picked me to wed ye to, ye ken.”
He lifted one brow, reddish-gold in the morning sun. “I hope ye wouldna have preferred Rupert, after all?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” I said with emphasis.
He laughed and got up, brushing pine needles from his kilts.
“Well, my mother told me I’d be some lassie’s choice one fine day.” He reached down a hand and helped me up.
“I told her,” he continued, “that I thought it was the man’s part to choose.”
“And what did she say to that?” I asked.
“She rolled her eyes and said ‘You’ll find out, my fine wee cockerel, you’ll find out.’ ” He laughed. “And so I have.”
He looked upward, to where the sun was now seeping through the pine needles in lemon threads.
“And it is a fine day, at that. Come along, Sassenach. I’ll take ye fishin’.”
We went further up into the hills. This time Jamie turned to the north, and over a jumble of stone and through a crevice, into the head of a tiny glen, rock-walled and leafy, filled with the gurgling of water from the burn that spilled from a dozen wee falls among the rocks and plunged roistering down the length of the canyon into a series of rills and pools below.
We dangled our feet in the water, moving from shade to sun and back to shade as we grew too warm, talking of this and that and not much of anything, both aware of each other’s smallest movement, both content to wait until chance should bring us to that moment when a glance should linger, and a touch should signal more.
Above one dark speckled pool, Jamie showed me how to tickle trout. Crouched to avoid the low-growing branches overhead, he duck-walked along an overhanging ledge, arms outstretched for balance. Halfway along, he turned carefully on the rock and stretched out his hand, urging me to follow.
I had my skirts tucked up already, for walking through rough country, and managed well enough. We stretched full-length on the cool rock, head to head, peering down into the water, willow branches brushing our backs.
“All it is,” he said, “is to pick a good spot, and then wait.” He dipped one hand below the surface, smoothly, no splashing, and let it lie on the sandy bottom, just outside the line of shadow made by the rocky overhang. The long fingers curled delicately toward the palm, distorted by the water so that they seemed to wave gently to and fro in unison, like the leaves of a water plant, though I saw from the still muscling of his forearm that he was not moving his hand at all. The column of his arm bent abruptly at the surface, seeming as disjointed as it had been when I had met him, little more than a month—my God, only a month?—before.
Met one month, married one day. Bound by vows and by blood. And by friendship as well. When the time came to leave, I hoped that I would not hurt him too badly. I found myself glad that for the moment, I need not think about it; we were far from Craigh na Dun, and not a chance in the world of escape from Dougal for the present.
“There he is.” Jamie’s voice was low, hardly more than a breath; he had told me that trout have sensitive ears.
From my angle of view, the trout was little more than a stirring of the speckled sand. Deep in the rock shadow, there was no telltale gleam of scales. Speckles moved on speckles, shifted by the fanning of transparent fins, invisible but for their motion. The minnows that had gathered to pluck curiously at the hairs on Jamie’s wrist fled away into the brightness of the pool.
One finger bent slowly, so slowly it was hard to see the movement. I could tell it moved only by its changing position, relative to the other fingers. Another finger, slowly bent. And after a long, long moment, another.
I scarcely dared breathe, and my heart beat against the cold rock with a rhythm faster than the breathing of the fish. Sluggishly the fingers bent back, lying open, one by one, and the slow hypnotic wave began again, one finger, one finger, one finger more, the movement a smooth ripple like the edge of a fish’s fin.
As though drawn by the slow-motion beckoning, the trout’s nose pressed outward, a delicate gasping of mouth and gills, busy in the rhythm of breathing, pink lining showing, not showing, showing, not showing, as the opercula beat like a heart.
The chewing mouth groped and bit water. Most of the body was clear of the rock now, hanging weightless in the water, still in the shadow. I could see one eye, twitching to and fro in a blank, directionless stare.
An inch more would bring the flapping gill-covers right over the treacherous beckoning fingers. I found that I was gripping the rock with both hands, pressing my cheek hard against the granite, as though I could make myself still more inconspicuous.
There was a sudden explosion of motion. Everything happened so fast I couldn’t see what actually did take place. There was a heavy splatter of water that sluiced across the rock an inch from my face, and a flurry of plaid as Jamie rolled across the rock above me, and a heavy splat as the fish’s body sailed through the air and struck the leaf-strewn bank.
Jamie surged off the ledge and into the shallows of the side pool, splashing across to retrieve his prize before the stunned fish could succeed in flapping its way back to the sanctuary of the water. Seizing it by the tail, he slapped it expertly against a rock, killing it at once, then waded back to show it to me.
“A good size,” he said proudly, holding out a solid fourteen-incher. “Do nicely for breakfast.” He grinned up at me, wet to the thighs, hair hanging in his face, shirt splotched with water and dead leaves. “I told you I’d not let ye go hungry.”
He wrapped the trout in layers of burdock leaves and cool mud. Then he rinsed his fingers in the cold water of the burn, and clambering up onto the rock, handed me the neatly wrapped parcel.
“An odd wedding present, may be,” he nodded at the trout, “but not without precedent, as Ned Gowan might say.”
“There are precedents for giving a new wife a fish?” I asked, entertained.
He stripped off his stockings to dry and laid them on the rock to lie in the sun. His long bare toes wiggled in enjoyment of the warmth.
“It’s an old love song, from the Isles. D’ye want to hear it?”
“Yes, of course. Er, in English, if you can,” I added.
“Oh, aye. I’ve no voice for music, but I’ll give you the words.” And fingering the hair back out of his eyes, he recited,
“Thou daughter of the King of bright-lit mansions
On the night that our wedding is on us,
If living man I be in Duntulm,
I will go bounding to thee with gifts.
Thou wilt get a hundred badgers, dwellers in banks,
A hundred brown otters, natives of streams,
A hundred silver trout, rising from their pools…”
And on through a remarkable list of the flora and fauna of the Isles. I had time, watching him declaim, to reflect on the oddity of sitting on a rock in a Scottish pool, listening to Gaelic love songs, with a large dead fish in my lap. And the greater oddity that I was enjoying myself very much indeed.
When he finished, I applauded, keeping hold of the trout by gripping it between my knees.
“Oh, I like that one! Especially the ‘I will go bounding to thee with gifts.’ He sounds a most enthusiastic lover.”