He stopped in his tirade to stare incredulously at me, rolling on the grass in hysterics. Jamie, red as a beetroot, led Dougal to the other side of the aspen screen, explaining in a subdued voice. I continued to whoop and giggle uncontrollably, finally stuffing a handkerchief in my mouth to muffle the noise. The sudden release of emotions, coupled with Dougal’s words, had evoked a picture of Jamie’s face, caught in the act as it were, that I found totally hilarious in my unhinged state. I laughed and moaned until my sides ached. Finally, I sat up, wiping my eyes on my kerchief, to see Dougal and Jamie standing over me, wearing identical expressions of disapproval. Jamie hoisted me to my feet and led me, still hiccuping and snorting occasionally, to where the rest of the men were waiting with the horses.
Except for a lingering tendency to laugh hysterically over nothing, I seemed to suffer no ill effects from our encounter with the deserters, though I became very cautious about leaving the campsite. Dougal assured me that bandits were not, in fact, that common on the Highland roads, only because there were not many travelers worth robbing, but I found myself starting nervously at sounds in the wood, and hastening back from routine chores like fetching wood and water, eager for the sight and sound of the MacKenzie men. I also found new reassurance in the sound of their snoring around me at night, and lost whatever self-consciousness I might have had about the discreet writhings that took place under our blankets.
I was still somewhat fearful of being alone when, a few days later, the time for the meeting with Horrocks arrived.
“Stay here?” I said in disbelief. “No! I’m going with you.”
“You can’t,” said Jamie patiently, once more. “The bulk of the men will go on to Lag Cruime wi’ Ned, to collect the rents as expected. Dougal and a few of the others are coming wi’ me to the meeting, in case of any treachery by Horrocks. You can’t be seen in the open near Lag Cruime, though; Randall’s men may be about, and I wouldna put it past him to take ye by force. And as for the meeting wi’ Horrocks, I’ve no idea what may happen. No, there’s a small copse near the bend of the road—it’s thick and grassy, and there’s water nearby. You’ll be comfortable there, until I come back for ye.”
“No,” I said stubbornly. “I’m coming with you.” Some sense of pride made me unwilling to tell him that I was frightened of being away from him. But I was willing to tell him that I was frightened for him.
“You said yourself you don’t know what will happen with Horrocks,” I argued. “I don’t want to wait here, wondering all day what’s happening to you. Let me come with you,” I coaxed. “I promise I’ll stay out of sight during the meeting. But I don’t want to stay here alone, worrying all day.”
He sighed impatiently, but didn’t argue further. When we reached the copse, though, he leaned over and seized my horse’s bridle, forcing me off the road into the grass. He slid off his horse, tying both sets of reins to a bush. Ignoring my vociferous objections, he disappeared into the trees. Stubbornly, I refused to dismount. He couldn’t make me stay, I thought.
He came down at last to the road. The others had gone on before, but Jamie, mindful of our last experience with deserted glades, wouldn’t leave until he had thoroughly searched the copse, quartering methodically through the trees and swishing the tall grass with a stick. Coming back, he untied the horses, and swung up into his saddle.
“It’s safe,” he said. “Ride up well into the thicket, Claire, and hide yourself and the horse. I’ll be back for ye, as soon as our business is done. I canna tell how long, but surely by sunset.”
“No! I’m coming with you.” I couldn’t stand the thought of stewing in a forest, not knowing what was happening. I would far rather be in active danger than be left for anxious hours, waiting and wondering. And alone.
Jamie curbed his impatience to be gone. He reached over and grasped my shoulder.
“Did ye no promise to obey me?” he asked, shaking me gently.
“Yes, but—” But only because I had to, I was going to say, but he was already urging my horse’s head around toward the thicket.
“It’s verra dangerous, and I’ll not have ye there, Claire. I shall be busy, and if it comes to it, I can’t fight and protect you at the same time.” Seeing my mutinous look, he dropped his hand to the saddlebag and began rummaging.
“What are you looking for?”
“Rope. If ye wilna do as I say, I shall tie ye to a tree until I come back.”
“Aye, I would!” Plainly he meant it. I gave in with bad grace, and reluctantly reined in my horse. Jamie leaned to kiss me glancingly on the cheek, already turning to go.
“Take care, Sassenach. You’ve your dirk? Good. I shall come back as soon as I can. Oh, one more thing.”
“What’s that?” I said sullenly.
“If you leave that copse before I come for ye, I’ll tan your bare arse wi’ my sword belt. Ye wouldna enjoy walking all the way to Bargrennan. Remember,” he said, pinching my cheek gently, “I dinna make idle threats.” He didn’t, either. I rode slowly toward the grove, looking back to watch him racing away, bent low over the saddle, one with the horse, the ends of his plaid flying behind.
It was cool under the trees; the horse and I both exhaled with relief as we entered the shade. It was one of those rare hot days in Scotland, when the sun blazes out of a bleached muslin sky and the early haze is burnt away by eight o’clock. The copse was loud with birds; a gang of titmice was foraging in the oak clump to the left, and I could hear what I thought was a thrasher in the near distance.
I had always been an enthusiastic amateur birder. If I were marooned here ’til it suited my overbearing, domineering, pig-headed jackass of a husband to finish risking his stupid neck, I’d use the time to see what I could spot.
I hobbled the gelding and turned him loose to graze in the lush grass at the edge of the copse, knowing he wouldn’t go far. The grass ceased abruptly a few feet from the trees, smothered by the encroaching heather.
It was a glade of mixed conifers and oak saplings, perfect for bird-watching. I wandered through it, still mentally fuming at Jamie, but growing gradually calmer as I listened for the distinctive tsee of a flycatcher and the harsh chatter of the mistle thrush.
The glade ended quite suddenly on the far side, on the edge of a small precipice. I thrust my way through the saplings and the sound of bird song was drowned in rushing water. I stood on the lip of a small burn, a steep rocky canyon with waterfalls bounding down the jagged walls to splash in the brown and silver pools below. I sat down on the edge of the bank and let my feet dangle over the water, enjoying the sun on my face.
A crow shot past overhead, closely pursued by a pair of redstarts. The bulky black body zigzagged through the air, trying to avoid the tiny dive-bombers. I smiled, watching the furious small parents chivying the crow to and fro, and wondered whether crows, left to their own devices, really did fly in a straight line. That one, if it kept to a straight path, would head straight for…
I stopped dead.
I had been so intent on arguing with Jamie that it had not until this minute dawned on me that the situation I had been vainly trying to bring about for two months had finally occurred. I was alone. And I knew where I was.
Looking across the burn, my eyes were dazzled by the morning sun blazing through the red ash trees on the far bank. So that was east. My heart began to beat faster. East was over there, Lag Cruime was directly behind me. Lag Cruime was four miles to the north of Fort William. And Fort William was no more than three miles due west of the hill of Craigh na Dun.
So, for the first time since my meeting with Murtagh, I knew approximately where I was—no more than seven miles from that bloody hill and its accursed stone circle. Seven miles—perhaps—from home. From Frank.
I started back into the copse, but changed my mind. I dared not take the road. This close to Fort William and the several small villages that surrounded it, there was too much risk of meeting someone. And I could not take a horse down the precipitous course of the burn. In fact, I had some doubt that it could be managed on foot; the rock walls were sheer in some spots, plunging directly into the foaming water of the stream, with no real footing save the tops of scattered rocks sticking out of the rushing water.
But it was by far the most direct path in the direction I wanted. And I did not dare to take too circuitous a route; I might easily lose my way in the wild growth or be overtaken by Jamie and Dougal, returning.
My stomach gave a sudden lurch as I thought of Jamie. God, how could I do it? Leave him without a word of explanation or apology? Disappear without a trace, after what he had done for me?
With that thought I finally decided to leave the horse. At least he would think I had not left him willingly; he might believe I had been killed by wild beasts—I touched the dagger in my pocket—or possibly kidnapped by outlaws. And finding no trace of me, eventually he would forget me, and wed again. Perhaps the lovely young Laoghaire, back at Leoch.
Absurdly enough, I found that the thought of Jamie sharing Laoghaire’s bed upset me as much as the thought of leaving him. I cursed myself for idiocy, but I couldn’t help imagining her sweet round face, flushed with ardent longing, and his big hands burying themselves in that moonbeam hair…
I unclenched my teeth and resolutely wiped the tears off my cheeks. I hadn’t time nor energy for senseless reflections. I must go, and now, while I could. It might be the best chance I would get. I hoped that Jamie would forget me. I knew that I would never be able to forget him. But for now, I must put him out of my mind, or I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the job at hand, which was tricky enough.
Cautiously, I picked my way down the steep bank to the edge of the water. The noise of the rushing stream drowned out the birds in the copse above. The going was rough, but there was at least room to walk by the water’s edge here. The bank was muddy, and strewn with rocks, but passable. Further down, I saw that I would have to step out actually into the water, and make my way precariously from rock to rock, balancing above the flood, until the bank widened enough to go ashore again.
I picked my way painfully along, estimating how much time I might have. Jamie had said only that they would return before sundown. Three or four miles to Lag Cruime, but I had no way of knowing what the roads were like, nor how long the business with Horrocks might take. If he was there. But he would be, I argued with myself. Hugh Munro had said so, and outlandish as that grotesque figure had been, Jamie plainly considered him a reliable source of information.
My foot slipped off the first rock in the stream, plunging me into icy water to the knee and soaking my skirt. I withdrew to the bank, tucked my skirts as high as I could and removed both shoes and stockings. I slipped these into the pocket made by my tucked-up skirt and set my foot again on the rock.
I found that by gripping with my toes, I could manage to step from rock to rock without slipping. The bunches of my skirt made it difficult to see where I was going to step next, though, and more than once I found myself sliding into the water. My legs were chilled, and as my feet grew numb, it got harder to maintain my grip.
Luckily the bank widened again, and I stepped gratefully ashore into warm, sticky mud. Short periods of more or less comfortable squelching alternated with much longer periods of precarious rock-hopping through the freezing rapids, and I found to my relief that I was much too busy to think very much about Jamie.
After a time, I had the routine worked out. Step, grip, pause, look around, locate next step. Step, grip, pause, and so on. I must have become over-confident, or perhaps only tired, because I got careless, and undershot my goal. My foot skidded helplessly down the near side of the slime-coated rock. I waved my arms wildly, trying to move back to the rock I had been on, but my balance had shifted too far. Skirts, petticoats, dagger and all, I plunged into the water.
And kept on plunging. While the stream overall was only a foot or two deep, there were intermittent deep pools, where the scouring water had scooped out deep depressions in the rock. The one on which I’d lost my footing was perched on the edge of one such pool, and when I hit the water, I sank like a rock myself.
I was so stunned by the shock of the icy water rushing into my nose and mouth that I didn’t cry out. Silvery bubbles shot out of the bodice of my dress and rushed past my face toward the surface above. The cotton fabric soaked through almost at once, and the freezing grip of the water paralyzed my breathing.
I began almost at once to fight my way up to the surface, but the weight of my garments pulled me down. I yanked frantically at the laces of my bodice, but there was no hope of getting everything off before I drowned. I made a number of savage and uncharitable silent observations about dressmakers, women’s fashions, and the stupidity of long skirts, while kicking frenziedly to keep the entangling folds away from my legs.
The water was crystal clear. My fingers brushed the rock wall, sliding through the dark slick streamers of duckweed and algae. Slippery as waterweed, that’s what Jamie said about my…
The thought jarred me out of my panic. Suddenly I realized that I shouldn’t be exhausting myself trying to kick to the surface. The pool couldn’t be more than eight or nine feet deep; what I needed to do was relax, float down to the bottom, brace my feet and spring upward. With luck, that would get my head clear for a breath, and even if I went down again, I could continue bouncing off the bottom until I worked my way close enough to the edge to get a decent grip on a rock.
The descent was agonizingly slow. As I was no longer fighting upward, my skirts rose round me in billows, floating in front of my face. I batted them away; I must keep my face clear. My lungs were bursting and there were dark spots behind my eyes by the time my feet touched the smooth bottom of the pool. I let my knees bend slightly, pressing my skirts down around me, then shoved upward with all my might.
It worked, just barely. My face broke the surface at the top of my leap, and I had just time for the briefest of life-saving gulps before the water closed over me again. But it was enough. I knew I could do it again. I pressed my arms down to my sides to streamline myself and make the descent more rapid. Once more, Beauchamp, I thought. Bend your knees, brace yourself, jump!
I shot upward, arms extended overhead. I had seen a flash of red overhead when I broke water last; there must be a rowan tree overhanging the water. Perhaps I could get hold of a branch.
As my face broke water, something seized my outstretched hand. Something hard, warm, and reassuringly solid. Another hand.
Coughing and spluttering, I groped blindly with my free hand, too glad of rescue to regret the interruption of my escape attempt. Glad, at least until, wiping the hair out of my eyes, I looked up into the beefy, anxious Lancashire face of young Corporal Hawkins.
UNE MAUVAIS QUART D’HEURE AFTER ANOTHER
I delicately removed a strand of still-damp waterweed from my sleeve and placed it squarely in the center of the blotter. Then, seeing the inkstand handy, I picked up the weed and dipped it in, using the result to paint interesting patterns on the thick blotting paper. Getting fully into the spirit of the thing, I finished off my masterpiece with a rude word, carefully sprinkled it with sand and blotted it before propping it up against the bank of pigeon-holes.
I stepped back to admire the effect, then looked around for any other diversions that might take my mind off the impending advent of Captain Randall.
Not bad for the private office of a captain, I thought, eyeing the paintings on the wall, the silver desk fittings, and the thick carpet on the floor. I moved back onto the carpet, in order to drip more effectively. The ride to Fort William had dried my outer garments fairly well, but the underlying layers of petticoat were still wringing wet.
I opened a small cupboard behind the desk and discovered the Captain’s spare wig, neatly bestowed on one of a pair of wrought-iron stands, with a matched silverbacked set of looking glass, military brushes, and tortoiseshell comb laid out in orderly ranks before it. Carrying the wig stand over to the desk, I gently sifted the remaining contents of the sander over it before replacing it in the cupboard.
I was seated behind the desk, comb in hand, studying my reflection in the looking glass, when the Captain came in. He gave me a glance that took in my disheveled appearance, the rifled cupboard, and the disfigured blotter.
Without blinking, he drew up a chair and sat down across from me, lounging casually with one booted foot resting on the opposite knee. A riding crop dangled from one fine, aristocratic hand. I watched the braided tip, black and scarlet, as it swung slowly back and forth over the carpet.
“The idea has its attractions,” he said, watching my eyes follow the sweep of the whip. “But I could probably think of something better, given a few moments to collect myself.”
“I daresay you could,” I said, fingering a thick sheaf of hair out of my eyes. “But you aren’t allowed to flog women, are you?”
“Only under certain circumstances,” he said politely. “Which your situation doesn’t meet—yet. That’s rather public, though. I had thought we might get better acquainted in private, first.” He reached to the sideboard behind him for a decanter.
We sipped the claret in silence, eyeing each other over the wine.
“I had forgotten to offer you felicitations on your marriage,” he said suddenly. “Forgive my lack of manners.”
“Think nothing of it,” I said graciously. “I’m sure my husband’s family will be most obliged to you for offering me hospitality.”
“Oh, I rather doubt it,” he said, with an engaging smile. “But then, I didn’t think I’d tell them you were here.”
“What makes you think they don’t know?” I asked, beginning to feel rather hollow, despite my earlier resolve to brazen it out. I cast a quick glance at the window, but it was on the wrong side of the building. The sun wasn’t visible, but the light looked yellow; perhaps mid-afternoon? How long before Jamie found my abandoned horse? And how long after that before he followed my trail into the stream—and promptly lost it? Disappearing without a trace had its drawbacks. In fact, unless Randall decided to send word of my whereabouts to Dougal, there was no way on earth the Scots could know where I had gone.
“If they knew,” the Captain said, arching one elegantly shaped brow, “they would presumably be calling on me already. Considering the sorts of names Dougal MacKenzie applied to me on the occasion of our last meeting, I scarcely think he feels me a suitable chaperon for a kinswoman. And the clan MacKenzie seems to think you’re of such value that they’d rather adopt you as one of their own than see you fall into my hands. I can hardly imagine they would allow you to languish in durance vile here.”