I froze, afraid even to look around, and tried to press myself still flatter against the ground. Jamie was motionless at my side, so still that he might have been a stone himself. Even the birds and insects seemed to have paused in their song, and the air hung breathless and waiting. Suddenly Jamie began to laugh.
He sat up, and grasping the arrow by the shaft, twisted it carefully out of the rock. It was fletched with the split tail-feathers of a woodpecker, I saw, and banded with blue thread, wrapped in a line half an inch wide below the quills.
Laying the arrow aside, Jamie cupped his hands around his mouth and gave a remarkably good imitation of the call of a green woodpecker. He lowered his hands and waited. In a moment, the call was answered from the grove below, and a broad smile spread across his face.
“A friend of yours?” I guessed. He nodded, eyes intent on the narrow path up the rock-face.
“Hugh Munro, unless someone else has taken to making arrows in his style.”
We waited a moment longer, but no one appeared on the path below.
“Ah,” said Jamie softly, and whirled around, just in time to confront a head, rising slowly above the edge of the rock behind us.
The head burst into a jack-o’-lantern grin, snaggle-toothed and jolly, beaming with pleasure at surprising us. The head itself was roughly pumpkin-shaped, the impression enhanced by the orange-brown, leathery skin that covered not only the face but the round, bald crown of the head as well. Few pumpkins, however, could boast such a luxuriant growth of beard, nor such a pair of bright blue eyes. Stubby hands with filthy nails planted themselves beneath the beard and swiftly hoisted the remainder of the jack-o’-lantern up into view.
The body rather matched the head, having a distinct look of the Halloween goblin about it. The shoulders were very broad, but hunched and slanted, one being considerably higher than the other. One leg, too, seemed somewhat shorter than its fellow, giving the man a rather hopping, hitching sort of gait.
Munro, if this was indeed Jamie’s friend, was clad in what appeared to be multiple layers of rags, the faded colors of berry-dyed fabric peeking out through rents in a shapeless garment that might once have been a woman’s smock.
He carried no sporran at his belt—which was in any case no more than a frayed length of rope, from which two furry carcasses swung, head-down. Instead, he had a fat leather wallet slung across his chest, of surprisingly good quality, considering the rest of his outfit. A collection of small metal oddments dangled from the strap of the wallet: religious medals, military decorations, what looked to be old uniform buttons, worn coins, pierced and sewn on, and three or four small rectangular bits of metal, dull grey and with cryptic marks incised in their surfaces.
Jamie rose as the creature hopped nimbly over the intervening protrusions of rock, and the two men embraced warmly, thumping each other hard on the back in the odd fashion of manly greeting.
“And how goes it then, with the house of Munro?” inquired Jamie, standing back at length and surveying his old companion.
Munro ducked his head and made an odd gobbling noise, grinning. Then, raising his eyebrows, he nodded in my direction and waved his stubby hands in a strangely graceful interrogatory gesture.
“My wife,” said Jamie, reddening slightly with a mixture of shyness and pride at the new introduction. “Married but the two days.”
Munro smiled more broadly still at this information, and executed a remarkably complex and graceful bow, involving the rapid touching of head, heart, and lips and ending up in a near-horizontal position on the ground at my feet. Having executed this striking maneuver, he sprang to his feet with the grace of an acrobat and thumped Jamie again, this time in apparent congratulation.
Munro then began an extraordinary ballet of the hands, motioning to himself, away down toward the forest, at me, and back to himself, with such an array of gestures and wavings that I could hardly follow his flying hands. I had seen deaf-mute talk before, but never executed so swiftly and gracefully.
“Is that so, then?” Jamie exclaimed. It was his turn to buffet the other man in congratulation. No wonder men got impervious to superficial pain, I thought. It came from this habit of hammering each other incessantly.
“He’s married as well,” Jamie explained, turning to me. “Six months since, to a widow—oh, all right, to a fat widow,” he amended, in response to an emphatic gesture from Munro, “with six children, down in the village of Dubhlairn.”
“How nice,” I said politely. “It looks as though they’ll eat well, at least.” I motioned to the rabbits hanging from his belt.
Munro at once unfastened one of the corpses and handed it to me, with such an expression of beaming goodwill that I felt obliged to accept it, smiling back and hoping privately that it didn’t harbor fleas.
“A wedding gift,” said Jamie. “And most welcome, Munro. Ye must allow us to return the favor.” With which, he extracted one of the bottles of ale from its mossy bed and handed it across.
The courtesies attended to in this manner, we all sat down again to a companionable sharing of the third bottle. Jamie and Munro carried on an exchange of news, gossip, and conversation which seemed no less free for the fact that only one of them spoke.
I took little part in the conversation, being unable to read Munro’s hand-signs, though Jamie did his best to include me by translation and reference.
At one point, Jamie jabbed a thumb at the rectangular bits of lead that adorned Munro’s strap.
“Gone official, have ye?” he asked. “Or is that just for when the game is scarce?” Munro bobbed his head and nodded like a jack-in-the-box.
“What are they?” I asked curiously.
“Oh, to be sure,” I said. “Pardon my asking.”
“A gaberlunzie is a license to beg, Sassenach,” Jamie explained. “It’s good within the borders of the parish, and only on the one day a week when begging’s allowed. Each parish has its own, so the beggars from one parish canna take overmuch advantage of the charity of the next.”
“A system with a certain amount of elasticity, I see,” I said, eyeing Munro’s stock of four lead seals.
“Ah, well, Munro’s a special case, d’ye see. He was captured by the Turks at sea. Spent a good many years rowing up and down in a galley, and a few more as a slave in Algiers. That’s where he lost his tongue.”
“They…cut it out?” I felt a bit faint.
Jamie seemed undisturbed by the thought, but then he had apparently known Munro for some time.
“Oh, aye. And broke his leg for him, as well. The back, too, Munro? No,” he amended, at a series of signs from Munro, “the back was an accident, something that happened jumping off a wall in Alexandria. The feet, though; that was the Turks’ doing.”
I didn’t really want to know, but both Munro and Jamie seemed dying to tell me. “All right,” I said, resigned. “What happened to his feet?”
With something approaching pride, Munro stripped off his battered clogs and hose, exposing broad, splayed feet on which the skin was thickened and roughened, white shiny patches alternating with angry red areas.
“Boiling oil,” said Jamie. “It’s how they force captive Christians to convert to the Mussulman religion.”
“It looks a very effective means of persuasion,” I said. “So that’s why several parishes will give him leave to beg? To make up for his trials on behalf of Christendom?”
“Aye, exactly.” Jamie was evidently pleased with my swift appreciation of the situation. Munro also expressed his admiration with another deep salaam, followed by a very expressive if indelicate sequence of hand movements which I gathered were meant to be praising my physical appearance as well.
“Thank ye, man. Aye, she’ll do me proud, I reckon.” Jamie, seeing my uplifted brows, tactfully turned Munro so that his back was to me and the flying fingers hidden. “Now, tell me what’s doing in the villages?”
The two men drew closer together, continuing their lopsided conversation with an increased intensity. Since Jamie’s part seemed to be limited mainly to grunts and exclamations of interest, I could glean little of the content, and busied myself instead with a survey of the strange little rock plants sprouting from the surfaces of our perch.
I had collected a pocketful of eyebright and dittany by the time they finished talking and Hugh Munro rose to go. With a final bow to me and a thump on the back for Jamie, he shuffled to the edge of the rock and disappeared as quickly as one of the rabbits he poached might vanish into its hole.
“What fascinating friends you have,” I said.
“Oh, aye. Nice fellow, Hugh. I hunted wi’ him and some others, last year. He’s on his own, now that he’s an official beggar, but his work keeps him moving about the parishes; he’ll know everything that goes on within the borders of Ardagh and Chesthill.”
“Including the whereabouts of Horrocks?” I guessed.
Jamie nodded. “Aye. And he’ll carry a message for me, to change the meeting place.”
“Which foxes Dougal rather neatly,” I observed. “If he had any ideas about holding you to ransom over Horrocks.”
He nodded, and a smile creased one corner of his mouth.
“Aye, there’s that about it.”
It was near supper-time again as we reached the inn. This time, though, Dougal’s big black and its five companions were standing in the inn yard, contentedly munching hay.
Dougal himself was inside, washing the road dust from his throat with sour ale. He nodded to me and swung round to greet his nephew. Instead of speaking, though, he just stood there, head on one side, eyeing Jamie quizzically.
“Ah, that’s it,” he said finally, in the satisfied tones of a man who has solved a difficult puzzle. “Now I know what ye mind me of, lad.” He turned to me.
“Ever seen a red stag near the end of the rutting season, lass?” he said confidentially. “The poor beasts dinna sleep nor eat for several weeks, because they canna spare the time, between fightin’ off the other stags and serving the does. By the end o’ the season, they’re naught but skin and bones. Their eyes are deep-sunk in their heads, and the only part o’ them that doesna shake wi’ palsy is their—”
The last of this was lost in a chorus of laughter as Jamie pulled me up the stairs. We did not come down to supper.
Much later, on the edge of sleep, I felt Jamie’s arm around my waist, and felt his breath warm against my neck.
“Does it ever stop? The wanting you?” His hand came around to caress my breast. “Even when I’ve just left ye, I want you so much my chest feels tight and my fingers ache with wanting to touch ye again.”
He cupped my face in the dark, thumbs stroking the arcs of my eyebrows. “When I hold ye between my two hands and feel you quiver like that, waitin’ for me to take you…Lord, I want to pleasure you ’til ye cry out under me and open yourself to me. And when I take my own pleasure from you, I feel as though I’ve given ye my soul along with my cock.”
He rolled above me and I opened my legs, wincing slightly as he entered me. He laughed softly. “Aye, I’m a bit sore, too. Do ye want me to stop?” I wrapped my legs around his h*ps in answer and pulled him closer.
“Would you stop?” I asked.
“No. I can’t.”
We laughed together, and rocked slowly, lips and fingers exploring in the dark.
“I see why the Church says it is a sacrament,” Jamie said dreamily.
“This?” I said, startled. “Why?”
“Or at least holy,” he said. “I feel like God himself when I’m in you.”
I laughed so hard he nearly came out. He stopped and gripped my shoulders to steady me.
“What’s so funny?”
“It’s hard to imagine God doing this.”
Jamie resumed his movements. “Well, if God made man in His own image, I should imagine He’s got a cock.” He started to laugh as well, losing his rhythm again. “Though ye dinna remind me much of the Blessed Virgin, Sassenach.”
We shook in each other’s arms, laughing until we came uncoupled and rolled apart.
Recovering, Jamie slapped my hip. “Get on your knees, Sassenach.”
“If you’ll not let me be spiritual about it, you’ll have to put up wi’ my baser nature. I’m going to be a beast.” He bit my neck. “Do ye want me to be a horse, a bear, or a dog?”
“A hedgehog? And just how does a hedgehog make love?” he demanded.
No, I thought. I won’t. I will not. But I did. “Very carefully,” I replied, giggling helplessly. So now we know just how old that one is, I thought.
Jamie collapsed in a ball, wheezing with laughter. At last he rolled over and got to his knees, groping for the flint box on the table. He glowed like red amber against the room’s darkness as the wick caught and the light swelled behind him.
He flopped back on the foot of the bed, grinning down at me, where I still shook on the pillow with spasms of giggles. He rubbed the back of his hand across his face and assumed a mock-stern expression.
“All right, woman. I see the time has come when I shall have to exert my authority as your husband.”
“Oh, you will?”
“Aye.” He dived forward, grabbing my thighs and spreading them. I squeaked and tried to wriggle upward.
“No, don’t do that!”
“Why not?” He lay full-length between my legs, squinting up at me. He kept a firm hold on my thighs, preventing my struggles to close them.
“Tell me, Sassenach. Why don’t ye want me to do that?” He rubbed his cheek against the inside of one thigh, ferocious young beard rasping the tender skin. “Be honest. Why not?” He rasped the other side, making me kick and squirm wildly to get away, to no avail.
I turned my face into the pillow, which felt cool against my flushed cheek. “Well, if you must know,” I muttered, “I don’t think—well, I’m afraid that it doesn’t—I mean, the smell…” My voice faded off into an embarrassed silence. There was a sudden movement between my legs, as Jamie heaved himself up. He put his arms around my hips, laid his cheek on my thigh, and laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks.
“Jesus God, Sassenach,” he said at last, snorting with mirth, “don’t ye know what’s the first thing you do when you’re getting acquainted with a new horse?”
“No,” I said, completely baffled.
He raised one arm, displaying a soft tuft of cinnamon-colored hair. “You rub your oxter over the beast’s nose a few times, to give him your scent and get him accustomed to you, so he won’t be nervous of ye.” He raised himself on his elbows, peering up over the slope of belly and breast.
“That’s what you should have done wi’ me, Sassenach. You should ha’ rubbed my face between your legs first thing. Then I wouldn’t have been skittish.”
He lowered his face and rubbed it deliberately back and forth, snorting and blowing in imitation of a nuzzling horse. I writhed and kicked him in the ribs, with exactly as much effect as kicking a brick wall. Finally he pressed my thighs flat again and looked up.
“Now,” he said, in a tone that brooked no opposition, “lie still.”
I felt exposed, invaded, helpless—and as though I were about to disintegrate. Jamie’s breath was alternately warm and cool on my skin.
“Please,” I said, not knowing whether I meant “please stop” or “please go on.” It didn’t matter; he didn’t mean to stop.
Consciousness fragmented into a number of small separate sensations: the roughness of the linen pillow, nubbled with embroidered flowers; the oily reek of the lamp, mingled with the fainter scent of roast beef and ale and the still fainter wisps of freshness from the wilting flowers in the glass; the cool timber of the wall against my left foot, the firm hands on my hips. The sensations swirled and coalesced behind my closed eyelids into a glowing sun that swelled and shrank and finally exploded with a soundless pop that left me in a warm and pulsing darkness.
Dimly, from a long way away, I heard Jamie sit up.
“Well, that’s a bit better,” said a voice, gasping between words. “Takes a bit of effort to make you properly submissive, doesn’t it?” The bed creaked with a shifting of weight and I felt my knees being nudged further apart.
“Not as dead as you look, I hope?” said the voice, coming nearer. I arched upward with an inarticulate sound as exquisitely sensitive tissues were firmly parted in a fresh assault.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. There was a faint chuckle near my ear.
“I only said I felt like God, Sassenach,” he murmured, “I never said I was.”
And later, as the rising sun began to dim the glow of the lamp, I roused from a drifting sleep to hear Jamie murmur once more, “Does it ever stop, Claire? The wanting?”
My head fell back onto his shoulder. “I don’t know, Jamie. I really don’t.”
RAIDERS IN THE ROCKS
What did Captain Randall say?” I asked.
With Dougal on one side and Jamie on the other, there was barely room for the three horses to ride abreast down the narrow road. Here and there, one or both of my companions would have to drop back or spur up, in order to avoid becoming entangled in the overgrowth that threatened to reclaim the crude track.
Dougal glanced at me, then back at the road, in order to guide his horse around a large rock. A wicked grin spread slowly across his features.
“He wasna best pleased about it,” he said circumspectly. “Though I am not sure I should tell ye what he actually said; there’s likely limits even to your tolerance for bad language, Mistress Fraser.”
I overlooked his sardonic use of my new title, as well as the implied insult, though I saw Jamie stiffen in his saddle.
“I, er, don’t suppose he means to take any steps about it?” I asked. Despite Jamie’s assurances, I had visions of scarlet-coated dragoons bursting out of the bushes, slaughtering the Scots and dragging me away to Randall’s lair for questioning. I had an uneasy feeling that Randall’s ideas of interrogation might be creative, to say the least.
“Shouldn’t think so,” Dougal answered casually. “He’s more to worry about than one stray Sassenach wench, no matter how pretty.” He raised an eyebrow and half-bowed toward me, as though the compliment were meant in apology. “He’s also better sense than to rile Colum by kidnapping his niece,” he said, more matter-of-factly.