“Will they come back, do you think?” I asked, but he shook his head.
“Nay, it was Malcolm Grant and his two boys—it was the oldest I stuck in the leg. They’ll be home in their own beds by now,” he replied. He stroked my hair and said, in softer tones, “Ye did a braw bit o’ work tonight, lass. I was proud of ye.”
I rolled over and put my arms about his neck.
“Not as proud as I was. You were wonderful, Jamie. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
He snorted deprecatingly, but I thought he was pleased, nonetheless.
“Only a raid, Sassenach. I’ve been doin’ that since I was fourteen. It’s only in fun, ye see; it’s different when you’re up against someone who really means to kill ye.”
“Fun,” I said, a little faintly. “Yes, quite.”
His arms tightened around me, and one of the stroking hands dipped lower, beginning to inch my skirt upward. Clearly the thrill of the fight was being transmuted into a different kind of excitement.
“Jamie! Not here!” I said, squirming away and pushing my skirt down again.
“Are ye tired, Sassenach?” he asked with concern. “Dinna worry, I won’t take long.” Now both hands were at it, rucking the heavy fabric up in front.
“No!” I replied, all too mindful of the twenty men lying a few feet away. “I’m not tired, it’s just—” I gasped as his groping hand found its way between my legs.
“Lord,” he said softly. “It’s slippery as waterweed.”
“Jamie! There are twenty men sleeping right next to us!” I shouted in a whisper.
“They wilna be sleeping long, if you keep talking.” He rolled on top of me, pinning me to the rock. His knee wedged between my thighs and began to work gently back and forth. Despite myself, my legs were beginning to loosen. Twenty-seven years of propriety were no match for several hundred thousand years of instinct. While my mind might object to being taken on a bare rock next to several sleeping soldiers, my body plainly considered itself the spoils of war and was eager to complete the formalities of surrender. He kissed me, long and deep, his tongue sweet and restless in my mouth.
“Jamie,” I panted. He pushed his kilt out of the way and pressed my hand against him.
“Bloody Christ,” I said, impressed despite myself. My sense of propriety slipped another notch.
“Fighting gives ye a terrible cockstand, after. Ye want me, do ye no?” he said, pulling back a little to look at me. It seemed pointless to deny it, what with all the evidence to hand. He was hard as a brass rod against my bared thigh.
He took a firm grip on my shoulders with both hands.
“Be quiet, Sassenach,” he said with authority. “It isna going to take verra long.”
It didn’t. I began to cli**x with the first powerful thrust, in long, racking spasms. I dug my fingers hard into his back and held on, biting the fabric of his shirt to muffle any sounds. In less than a dozen strokes, I felt his testicles contract, tight against his body, and the warm flood of his own release. He lowered himself slowly to the side and lay trembling.
The blood was still beating heavily in my ears, echoing the fading pulse between my legs. Jamie’s hand lay on my breast, limp and heavy. Turning my head, I could see the dim figure of the sentry, leaning against a rock on the far side of the fire. He had his back tactfully turned. I was mildly shocked to realize that I was not even embarrassed. I wondered rather dimly whether I would be in the morning, and then wondered no more.
In the morning, everyone behaved as usual, if moving a little more stiffly from the effects of fighting and sleeping on rocks. Everyone was in a cheerful humor, even those with minor wounds.
The general humor was improved still further when Dougal announced that we would travel only as far as the clump of woods we could see from the edge of our rocky platform. There we could water and graze the horses, and rest a bit ourselves. I wondered whether this change of plan would affect Jamie’s rendezvous with the mysterious Horrocks, but he seemed undisturbed at the announcement.
The day was overcast but not drizzling, and the air was warm. Once the new camp was made, the horses taken care of, and the wounded all rechecked everyone was left to his own devices, to sleep in the grass, to hunt or fish, or merely to stretch legs after several days in the saddle.
I was sitting under a tree talking to Jamie and Ned Gowan, when one of the men-at-arms came up and flipped something into Jamie’s lap. It was the dirk with the moonstone hilt.
“Yours, lad?” he asked. “Found it in the rocks this morning.”
“I must have dropped it, in all the excitement,” I said. “Just as well; I’ve no idea what to do with it. I’d likely have stabbed myself if I’d tried to use it.”
Ned eyed Jamie censoriously over his half-spectacles.
“Ye gave her a knife and didn’t teach her to use it?”
“There wasna time, under the circumstances,” Jamie defended himself. “But Ned’s right, Sassenach. Ye should learn how to handle arms. There’s no tellin’ what may happen on the road, as ye saw last night.”
So I was marched out into the center of a clearing and the lessons began. Seeing the activity, several of the MacKenzie men came by to investigate, and stayed to offer advice. In no time, I had half a dozen instructors, all arguing the fine points of technique. After a good deal of amiable discussion, they agreed that Rupert was likely the best among them at dirks, and he took over the lesson.
He found a reasonably flat spot, free of rocks and pine cones, in which to demonstrate the art of dagger-wielding.
“Look, lass,” he said. He held the dagger balanced on his middle finger, resting an inch or so below the haft. “The balance point, that’s where ye want to hold it, so it fits comfortable in yer hand.” I tried it with my dagger. When I had it comfortably fitted, he showed me the difference between an overhand strike and an underhanded stab.
“Generally, ye want to use the underhand; overhand is only good when ye’re comin’ down on someone wi’ a considerable force from above.” He eyed me speculatively, then shook his head.
“Nay, you’re tall for a woman, but even if ye could reach as high as the neck, ye wouldna have the force to penetrate, unless he’s sittin’. Best stick to underhand.” He pulled up his shirt, revealing a substantial furry paunch, already glistening with sweat.
“Now, here,” he said, pointing to the center, just under the breastbone, “is the spot to aim for, if ye’re killin’ face to face. Aim straight up and in, as hard as ye can. That’ll go into the heart, and it kills wi’in a minute or two. The only problem is to avoid the breastbone; it goes down lower than ye think, and if ye get yer knife stuck in that soft bit on the tip, it will hardly harm yer victim at all, but ye’ll be wi’out a knife, and he’ll ha’ you. Murtagh! Ye ha’ a skinny back; come ’ere and we’ll show the lass how to stick from the back.” Spinning a reluctant Murtagh around, he yanked up the grubby shirt to show a knobbly spine and prominent ribs. He poked a blunt forefinger under the lower rib on the right, making Murtagh squeak in surprise.
“This is the spot in back—either side. See, wi’ all the ribs and such, ’tis verra difficult to hit anythin’ vital when ye stab in the back. If ye can slip the knife between the ribs, that’s one thing, but that’s harder to do than ye might think. But here, under the last rib, ye stab upward into the kidney. Get him straight up, and hell drop like a stone.”
Rupert then set me to try stabbing in various positions and postures. As he grew winded, all the men took it in turns to act as victim, obviously finding my efforts hilarious. They obligingly lay on the grass or turned their backs so I could ambush them, or leaped at me from behind, or pretended to choke me so I could try to stab them in the belly.
The spectators urged me on with cries of encouragement, and Rupert instructed me firmly not to pull back at the last moment.
“Thrust as though ye meant it, lass,” he said. “Ye canna pull back if it’s in earnest. And if any o’ these laggards canna get themselves out of the way in time, they deserve what they get.”
I was timid and extremely clumsy at first, but Rupert was a good teacher, very patient and good about demonstrating moves, over and over. He rolled his eyes in mock lewdness when he moved behind me and put his arm about my waist, but he was quite businesslike about taking hold of my wrist to show me the way of ripping an enemy across the eyes.
Dougal sat under a tree, minding his wounded arm and making sardonic comments on the training as it progressed. It was he, though, who suggested the dummy.
“Give her something she can sink her dirk into,” he said, when I had begun to show some facility at lunging and jabbing. “It’s a shock, the first time.”
“So it is,” Jamie agreed. “Rest a bit, Sassenach, while I manage something.”
He went off to the wagons with two of the men-at-arms, and I could see them standing heads together, gesticulating and pulling bits of things from the wagon bed. Thoroughly winded, I collapsed under the tree next to Dougal.
He nodded, a slight smile on his face. Like most of the men, he had not bothered to shave while traveling, and a heavy growth of dark brown beard framed his mouth, accentuating the full lower lip.
“How is it, then?” he asked, not meaning my skill with small arms.
“Well enough,” I answered warily, not meaning knives either. Dougal’s gaze flicked toward Jamie, busy with something by the wagons.
“Marriage seems to suit the lad,” he observed.
“Rather healthy for him—under the circumstances,” I agreed, somewhat coldly. His lips curved at my tone.
“And you, lass, as well. A good arrangement for everyone, it seems.”
“Particularly for you and your brother. And speaking of him, just what do you think Colum’s going to say when he hears about it?”
The smile widened. “Colum? Ah, well. I should think he’d be only too pleased to welcome such a niece to the family.”
The dummy was ready, and I went back into training. It proved to be a large bag of wool, about the size of a man’s torso, with a piece of tanned bull’s hide wrapped around it, secured with rope. This I was to practice stabbing, first as it was tied to a tree at man-height, later as it was thrown or rolled past me.
What Jamie hadn’t mentioned was that they had inserted several flat pieces of wood between the wool sack and the hide; to simulate bones, as he later explained.
The first few stabs were uneventful, though it took several tries to get through the bull-hide. It was tougher than it looked. So is the skin on a man’s belly, I was informed. On the next try, I tried a direct overhand strike, and hit one of the wood pieces.
I thought for a moment that my arm had suddenly fallen off. The shock of impact reverberated all the way to my shoulder, and the dirk dropped from my nerveless fingers. Everything below the elbow was numb, but an ominous tingling warned me that it wouldn’t be for long.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said. I stood gripping my elbow and listening to the general hilarity. Finally Jamie took me by the shoulder and massaged some feeling back into the arm, pressing the tendon at the back of the elbow, and digging his thumb into the hollow at the base of my wrist.
“All right,” I said through my teeth, gingerly flexing my tingling right hand. “What do you do when you hit a bone and lose your knife? Is there a standard operating procedure for that?”
“Oh, aye,” said Rupert, grinning. “Draw your pistol wi’ the left hand and shoot the bastard dead.” This resulted in more howls of laughter, which I ignored.
“All right,” I said, more or less calmly. I gestured at the long claw-handled pistol Jamie wore on his left hip. “Are you going to show me how to load and shoot that, then?”
“I am not.” He was firm.
I bristled a bit at this. “Why not?”
“Because you’re a woman, Sassenach.”
I felt my face flush at this. “Oh?” I said sarcastically. “You think women aren’t bright enough to understand the workings of a gun?”
He looked levelly at me, mouth twisting a bit as he thought over various replies.
“I’ve a mind to let ye try it,” he said at last. “It would serve ye right.”
Rupert clicked his tongue in annoyance at us both. “Dinna be daft, Jamie. As for you, lass,” turning to me, “it’s not that women are stupid, though sure enough some o’ ’em are; it’s that they’re small.”
“Eh?” I gaped stupidly at him for a moment. Jamie snorted and drew the pistol from its loop. Seen up close, it was enormous; a full eighteen inches of silvered weapon measured from stock to muzzle.
“Look,” he said, holding it in front of me. “Ye hold it here, ye brace it on your forearm, and ye sight along here. And when ye pull the trigger, it kicks like a mule. I’m near a foot taller than you, four stone heavier, and I know what I’m doin’. It gives me a wicked bruise when I fire it; it might knock you flat on your back, if it didna catch ye in the face.” He twirled the pistol and slid it back into its loop.
“I’d let ye see for yourself,” he said, raising one eyebrow, “but I like ye better wi’ all of your teeth. You’ve a nice smile, Sassenach, even if ye are a bit feisty.”
Slightly chastened by this episode, I accepted without argument the men’s judgment that even the lighter smallsword was too heavy for me to wield efficiently. The tiny sgian dhu, the sock dagger, was deemed acceptable, and I was provided with one of those, a wicked-looking, needle-sharp piece of black iron about three inches long, with a short hilt. I practiced drawing it from its place of concealment over and over while the men watched critically, until I could sweep up my skirt, grab the knife from its place and come up in the proper crouch all in one smooth move, ending up with the knife held underhand, ready to slash across an adversary’s throat.
Finally I was passed as a novice knife-wielder, and allowed to sit down to dinner, amid general congratulations—with one exception. Murtagh shook his head dubiously.
“I still say the only good weapon for a woman is poison.”
“Perhaps,” replied Dougal, “but it has its deficiencies in face-to-face combat.”
We camped the next night on the banks above Loch Ness. It gave me an odd feeling to see the place again; so little had changed. Or would change, I should say. The larches and alders were a deeper green, because it was now midsummer, not late spring. The flowers had changed from the fragile pinks and whites of May blossom and violets to the warmer golds and yellows of gorse and broom. The sky above was a deeper blue, but the surface of the loch was the same; a flat blue-black that caught the reflections from the bank above and held them trapped, colors muted under smoked glass.
There were even a few sailboats visible, far up the loch. Though when one drew near, I saw it was a coracle, a rough half-shell of tanned leather on a frame, not the sleek wooden shape I was used to.
The same pungent scent that pervades all watercourses was there; a sharp mix of tangy greenness and rotted leaf, fresh water, dead fish, and warm mud. Above all, there was that same feeling of lurking strangeness about the place. The men as well as the horses seemed to feel it, and the air of the camp was subdued.
Having found a comfortable place for my own bedroll and Jamie’s, I wandered down to the edge of the loch to wash my face and hands before supper.
The bank sloped sharply down until it broke in a jumble of large rock slabs that formed a sort of irregular jetty. It was very peaceful under the bank, out of sight and sound of the camp, and I sat down beneath a tree to enjoy a moment’s privacy. Since my hasty marriage to Jamie, I was no longer followed every moment; that much had been accomplished.
I was idly plucking the clusters of winged seeds from a low-hanging branch and tossing them out into the loch when I noticed the tiny waves against the rocks growing stronger, as though pushed by an oncoming wind.
A great flat head broke the surface not ten feet away. I could see the water purling away from keeled scales that ran in a crest down the sinuous neck. The water was agitated for some considerable distance, and I caught a glimpse here and there of dark and massive movement beneath the surface of the loch, though the head itself stayed relatively still.
I stood quite still myself. Oddly enough, I was not really afraid. I felt some faint kinship with it, a creature further from its own time than I, the flat eyes old as its ancient Eocene seas, eyes grown dim in the murky depths of its shrunken refuge. And there was a sense of familiarity mingled with its unreality. The sleek skin was a smooth, deep blue, with a vivid slash of green shining with brilliant iridescence beneath the jaw. And the strange, pupilless eyes were a deep and glowing amber. So very beautiful.
And so very different from the smaller, mud-colored replica I remembered, adorning the fifth-floor diorama in the British Museum. But the shape was unmistakable. The colors of living things begin to fade with the last breath, and the soft, springy skin and supple muscle rot within weeks. But the bones sometimes remain, faithful echoes of the shape, to bear some last faint witness to the glory of what was.
Valved nostrils opened suddenly with a startling hiss of breath; a moment of suspended motion, and the creature sank again, a churning roil of waters the only testimony to its passage.
I had risen to my feet when it appeared. And unconsciously I must have moved closer in order to watch it, for I found myself standing on one of the rock slabs that jutted out into the water, watching the dying waves fall back into the smoothness of the loch.
I stood there for a moment, looking out across the fathomless loch. “Goodbye,” I said at last to the empty water. I shook myself and turned back to the bank.
A man was standing at the top of the slope. I was startled at first, then recognized him as one of the drovers from our party. His name was Peter, I recalled, and the bucket in his hand gave the reason for his presence. I was about to ask him whether he had seen the beast, but the expression on his face as I drew near was more than sufficient answer. His face was paler than the daisies at his feet, and tiny droplets of sweat trickled down into his beard. His eyes showed white all around like those of a terrified horse, and his hand shook so that the bucket bumped against his leg.