I looked back over the camp. The men were clustering at the small building, milling and shouting. Off to one side, I spotted a small wooden platform, set three or four feet high, with steps leading up. A heavy wooden post rose out of the center, cross-beamed, with rope manacles dangling from the arms of the cross.
Suddenly Jamie gave a whistle; looking over the wall, I saw Rupert, mounted and leading Jamie’s horse. He looked up at the sound of the whistle and maneuvered the horses close to the wall below us.
Jamie was cutting the halyard from the flagpole. The heavy red and blue folds of the flag drooped and slid down, landing with a swishing thud next to me. Twisting a rope end rapidly around one of the struts, Jamie tossed the rest down the outside of the wall.
“Come on!” he said. “Hold tight with both hands, brace your feet against the wall! Go!” I went, bracing my feet and paying out rope; the thin cordage slipped and burned in my hands. I dropped next to the horses and hurried to mount. Jamie vaulted into the saddle behind me a moment later, and we took off at a gallop.
We slowed our pace a mile or two from the camp, when it became apparent that we had lost any pursuers. After a short conference, Dougal decided that we had better make for the border of the Mackintosh lands, as being the closest safe clan territory.
“Doonesbury’s within riding distance by tonight, and likely to be safe enough. There’ll be word out on us tomorrow, but we’ll be across the border before it reaches there.” It was mid-afternoon by then; we set off at a steady pace, our horse with its double load lagging slightly behind the others. My horse, I supposed, was still happily eating grass in the copse, waiting to be led home by whoever was lucky enough to find it.
“How did you find me?” I asked. I was beginning to shake in reaction, and folded my arms around myself to still the quivering. My clothes had dried completely by this time, but I felt a chill that went bone-deep.
“I thought better of leaving ye alone, and sent a man back to stay wi’ ye. He didna see ye leave, but he saw the English soldiers cross the ford, and you wi’ them.” Jamie’s voice was cold. I couldn’t blame him, I supposed. My teeth were beginning to chatter.
“I’m s-surprised that you didn’t just think I was an English spy and l-leave me there.”
“Dougal wanted to. But the man who saw ye with the soldiers said you were struggling. I had to go and see, at least.” He glanced down at me, not changing expression.
“You’re lucky, Sassenach, that I saw what I did in that room. At least Dougal must admit that you’re not in league wi’ the English.”
“D-Dougal, eh? And what about you? Wh-what do you think?” I demanded.
He did not reply, but only snorted briefly. He did at last take pity on me to the extent of jerking off his plaid and flinging it over my shoulders, but he would not put his arm around me nor touch me more than strictly necessary. He rode in grim silence, handling the reins with an angry jerkiness quite unlike his usual smooth grace.
Upset and unsettled myself, I was in no frame of mind to put up with moods.
“Well, what is it, then? What’s the matter?” I asked impatiently. “Don’t sulk, for heaven’s sake!” I spoke more sharply than I intended, and I felt him stiffen still further. Suddenly he turned the horse’s head aside and reined up at the side of the road. Before I knew what was happening, he had dismounted and jerked me from the saddle as well. I landed awkwardly, staggering to keep my balance as my feet hit the ground.
Dougal and the others paused, seeing us stop. Jamie made a short, sharp gesture, sending them on, and Dougal waved in acknowledgment. “Don’t take too long,” he called, and they set off again.
Jamie waited until they were out of earshot. Then he yanked me around to face him. He was clearly furious, on the verge of explosion. I felt my own wrath rising; what right did he have to treat me like this?
“Sulking!” he said. “Sulking, is it? I’m using all the self-control I’ve got, to keep from shakin’ ye ’til your teeth rattle, and you tell me not to sulk!”
“What in the name of God is the matter with you?” I asked angrily. I tried to shake off his grip, but his fingers dug into my upper arms like the teeth of a trap.
“What’s the matter wi’ me? I’ll tell ye what the matter is, since ye want to know!” he said through clenched teeth. “I’m tired of having to prove over and over that you’re no an English spy. I’m tired of having to watch ye very minute, for fear of what foolishness you’ll try next. And I’m verra tired of people trying to make me watch while they rape you! I dinna enjoy it a bit!”
“And you think I enjoy it?” I yelled. “Are you trying to make out it’s my fault?!” At this, he did shake me slightly.
“It is your fault! Did ye stay put where I ordered ye to stay this mornin’, this would never have happened! But no, ye won’t listen to me, I’m no but your husband, why mind me? You take it into your mind to do as ye damn please, and next I ken, I find ye flat on your back wi’ your skirts up, an’ the worst scum in the land between your legs, on the point of takin’ ye before my eyes!” His Scots accent, usually slight, was growing broader by the second, sure sign that he was upset, had I needed any further indication.
We were almost nose to nose by this time, shouting into each other’s face. Jamie was flushed with fury, and I felt the blood rising in my own face.
“It’s your own fault, for ignoring me and suspecting me all the time! I told you the truth about who I am! And I told you there was no danger in my going with you, but would you listen to me? No! I’m only a woman, why should you pay any attention to what I say? Women are only fit to do as they’re told, and follow orders, and sit meekly around with their hands folded, waiting for the men to come back and tell them what to do!”
He shook me again, unable to control himself.
“And if ye’d done that, we wouldna be on the run, with a hundred Redcoats on our tail! God, woman, I dinna know whether to strangle ye or throw ye on the ground and hammer ye senseless, but by Jesus, I want to do something to you.”
At this, I made a determined effort to kick him in the balls. He dodged, and jammed his own knee between my legs, effectively preventing any further attempts.
“Try that again and I’ll slap you ’til your ears ring,” he growled.
“You’re a brute and a fool,” I panted, struggling to escape his grip on my shoulders. “Do you think I went out and got captured by the English on purpose?”
“I do think ye did it on purpose, to get back at me for what happened in the glade!”
My mouth fell open.
“In the glade? With the English deserters?”
“Aye! Ye think I should ha’ been able to protect ye there, an’ you’re right. But I couldna do it; you had to do it yourself, and now you’re tryin’ to make me pay for it by deliberately putting yourself, my wife, in the hands of a man that’s shed my blood!”
“Your wife! Your wife! You don’t care a thing about me! I’m just your property; it only matters to you because you think I belong to you, and you can’t stand to have someone take something that belongs to you!”
“Ye do belong to me,” he roared, digging his fingers into my shoulders like spikes. “And you are my wife, whether ye like it or no!”
“I don’t like it! I don’t like it a bit! But that doesn’t matter either, does it? As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel! That’s all a wife is to you—something to stick your c*ck into when you feel the urge!”
At this, his face went dead white and he began to shake me in earnest. My head jerked violently and my teeth clacked together, making me bite my tongue painfully.
“Let go of me!” I shouted. “Let go, you”—I deliberately used the words of Harry the deserter, trying to hurt him—“you rutting bastard!” He did let go, and fell back a pace, eyes blazing.
“Ye foul-tongued bitch! Ye’ll no speak to me that way!”
“I’ll speak any way I want to! You can’t tell me what to do!”
“Seems I can’t! Ye’ll do as ye wish, no matter who ye hurt by it, won’t ye? Ye selfish, willful—”
“It’s your bloody pride that’s hurt!” I shouted. “I saved us both from those deserters in the glade, and you can’t stand it, can you? You just stood there! If I hadn’t had a knife, we’d both be dead now!”
Until I spoke the words, I had had no idea that I had been angry with him for failing to protect me from the English deserters. In a more rational mood, the thought would never have entered my mind. It wasn’t his fault, I would have said. It was just luck that I had the knife, I would have said. But now I realized that fair or not, rational or not, I did somehow feel that it was his responsibility to protect me, and that he had failed me. Perhaps because he so clearly felt that way.
He stood glaring at me, panting with emotion. When he spoke again, his voice was low and ragged with passion.
“You saw that post in the yard of the fort?” I nodded shortly.
“Well, I was tied to that post, tied like an animal, and whipped ’til my blood ran! I’ll carry the scars from it ’til I die. If I’d not been lucky as the devil this afternoon, that’s the least as would have happened to me. Likely they’d have flogged me, then hanged me.” He swallowed hard, and went on.
“I knew that, and I didna hesitate for one second to go into that place after you, even thinking that Dougal might be right! Do ye know where I got the gun I used?” I shook my head numbly, my own anger beginning to fade. “I killed a guard near the wall. He fired at me; that’s why it was empty. He missed and I killed him wi’ my dirk; left it sticking in his wishbone when I heard you cry out. I would have killed a dozen men to get to you, Claire.” His voice cracked.
“And when ye screamed, I went to you, armed wi’ nothing but an empty gun and my two hands.” Jamie was speaking a little more calmly now, but his eyes were still wild with pain and rage. I was silent. Unsettled by the horror of my encounter with Randall, I had not at all appreciated the desperate courage it had taken for him to come into the fort after me.
He turned away suddenly, shoulders slumping.
“You’re right,” he said quietly. “Aye, you’re quite right.” Suddenly the rage was gone from his voice, replaced by a tone I had never heard in him before, even in the extremities of physical pain.
“My pride is hurt. And my pride is about all I’ve got left to me.” He leaned his forearms against a rough-barked pine and let his head drop onto them, exhausted. His voice was so low I could barely hear him.
“You’re tearin’ my guts out, Claire.”
Something very similar was happening to my own. Tentatively, I came up behind him. He didn’t move, even when I slipped my arms around his waist. I rested my cheek on his bowed back. His shirt was damp, sweated through with the intensity of his passion, and he was trembling.
“I’m sorry,” I said, simply. “Please forgive me.” He turned then, to hold me tightly. I felt his trembling ease bit by bit.
“Forgiven, lass,” he murmured at last into my hair. Releasing me, he looked down at me, sober and formal.
“I’m sorry too,” he said. “I’ll ask your pardon for what I said; I was sore, and I said more nor I meant. Will ye forgive me too?” After his last speech, I hardly felt that there was anything for me to forgive, but I nodded and pressed his hands.
In an easier silence, we mounted again. The road was straight for a long way here, and far ahead I could see a small cloud of dust that must be Dougal and the other men.
Jamie was back with me again; he held me with one arm as we rode, and I felt safer. But there was still a vague sense of injury and constraint; things were not yet healed between us. We had forgiven each other, but our words still hung in memory, not to be forgotten.
We reached Doonesbury well after dark. It was a fair-sized coach-stop with an inn, fortunately. Dougal closed his eyes briefly in pain as he paid the innkeeper; it would take quite a bit of extra silver to insure his silence as to our presence.
The silver, however, also insured a hearty supper, with plenty of ale. Despite the food, supper was a grim affair, eaten mostly in silence. Sitting there in my ruined gown, modestly covered by Jamie’s extra shirt, I was plainly in disgrace. Except for Jamie, the men behaved as though I were completely invisible, and even Jamie did no more than shove bread and meat in my direction from time to time. It was a relief at last to go up to our chamber, small and cramped though it was.
I sank on the bed with a sigh, disregarding the state of the bedclothes.
“I’m done in. It’s been a long day.”
“Aye, it has that.” Jamie unfastened his collar and cuffs and unbuckled his sword belt, but made no move to undress further. He pulled the strap from the scabbard and doubled it, flexing the leather meditatively.
“Come to bed, Jamie. What are you waiting for?”
He came to stand by the bed, swinging the belt gently back and forth.
“Well, lass, I’m afraid we’ve a matter still to settle between us before we sleep tonight.” I felt a sudden stab of apprehension.
“What is it?”
He didn’t answer at once. Deliberately not sitting down on the bed by me, he pulled up a stool and sat facing me instead.
“Do ye realize, Claire,” he said quietly, “that all of us came close to bein’ killed this afternoon?”
I looked down at the quilt, shamefaced. “Yes, I know. My fault. I’m sorry.”
“Aye, so ye realize,” he said. “Do ye know that if a man among us had done such a thing, to put the rest in danger, he would ha’ likely had his ears cropped, or been flogged, if not killed outright?” I blanched at this.
“No, I didn’t know.”
“Well, I know as you’re not yet familiar wi’ our ways, and it’s some excuse. Still I did tell ye to stay hid, and had ye done so, it would never have happened. Now the English will be lookin’ high and low for us; we shall have to lie hid during the days and travel at night now.”
He paused. “And as for Captain Randall…aye, that’s something else again.”
“He’ll be looking for you especially, you mean, now that he knows you’re here?” He nodded absently, looking off into the fire.
“Aye. He…it’s personal, with him, ye know?”
“I’m so sorry, Jamie,” I said. Jamie dismissed this with a wave of the hand.
“Eh, if it were only me ye’d hurt by it, I wouldna say more about it. Though since we’re talkin’,” he shot me a sharp glance, “I’ll tell ye that it near killed me to see that animal with his hands on you.” He looked off into the fire, grim-faced, as though reliving the afternoon’s events.
I thought of telling him about Randall’s…difficulties, but was afraid it would do more harm than good. I desperately wanted to hold Jamie and beg him to forgive me, but I didn’t dare to touch him. After a long moment of silence, he sighed and stood up, slapping the belt lightly against his thigh.
“Well, then,” he said. “Best get on wi’ it. You’ve done considerable damage by crossing my orders, and I’m going to punish ye for it, Claire. Ye’ll recall what I told ye when I left ye this morning?” I recalled all right, and I hastily flung myself across the bed so my back was pressed to the wall.
“What do you mean?”
“Ye know quite well what I mean,” he said firmly. “Kneel down by the bed and lift your skirts, lass.”
“I’ll do no such thing!” I took a good hold on the bedpost with both hands and wormed my way further into the corner.
Jamie watched me through narrowed eyes for a moment, debating what to do next. It occurred to me that there was nothing whatever to stop him doing anything he liked to me; he outweighed me by a good five stone. He at last decided on talk rather than action, though, and carefully laid the strap aside before crawling over the bedclothes to sit beside me.
“Now, Claire—” he began.
“I’ve said I’m sorry!” I burst out. “And I am. I’ll never do such a thing again!”
“Well, that’s the point,” he said slowly. “Ye might. And it’s because ye dinna take things as serious as they are. Ye come from a place where things are easier, I think. ’Tis not a matter of life or death where ye come from, to disobey orders or take matters into your own hands. At worst, ye might cause someone discomfort, or be a bit of a nuisance, but it isna likely to get someone killed.” I watched his fingers pleating the brownish plaid of his kilt as he arranged his thoughts.
“It’s the hard truth that a light action can have verra serious consequences in places and times like these—especially for a man like me.” He patted my shoulder, seeing that I was close to tears.
“I know ye would never endanger me or anyone else on purpose. But ye might easily do so without meanin’ it, like ye did today, because ye do not really believe me yet when I tell ye that some things are dangerous. You’re accustomed to think for yourself, and I know,” he glanced sidewise at me, “that you’re not accustomed to lettin’ a man tell ye what to do. But you must learn to do so, for all our sakes.”
“All right,” I said slowly. “I understand. You’re right, of course. All right; I’ll follow your orders, even if I don’t agree with them.”
“Good.” He stood up, and picked up the belt. “Now then, get off the bed, and we’ll get it over with.”
My mouth dropped open in outrage. “What?! I said I’d follow your orders!”
He sighed, exasperated, then sat down again on the stool. He looked at me levelly.
“Now, listen. Ye understand me, ye say, and I believe it. But there’s a difference between understandin’ something with your mind and really knowing it, deep down.” I nodded, reluctantly.
“All right. Now, I will have to punish you, and for two reasons: first, so that ye will know.” He smiled suddenly. “I can tell ye from my own experience that a good hiding makes ye consider things in a more serious light.” I took a tighter hold on the bedpost.