“One I remember especially, because he’d make ye stand out in the front of the schoolroom with your hand out, and then he’d lecture ye at great length about your faults before he started, and again in between strokes. I’d stand there wi’ my hand out, smarting, just praying he’d stop yammering and get on with the job before I lost all my courage and started crying.”
“I imagine that’s what he wanted you to do,” I said, feeling some sympathy in spite of myself.
“Oh, aye,” he replied matter-of-factly. “It took some time for me to realize that, though. And once I did, as usual I couldna keep my mouth shut.” He sighed.
“What happened?” I had all but forgotten to be furious by this time.
“Well, he had me up one day—I got it a lot because I couldna write properly with my right hand, kept doing it with my left. He’d smacked me three times—takin’ nearly five minutes to do it, the bastard—and he was goin’ on at me for being a stupid, idle, stubborn young lout before givin’ me the next. My hand burned something fierce, because it was the second time that day, and I was scared because I knew I’d get an awful thrashing when I got home—that was the rule; if I got a beating at school, I’d get another directly I came home, for my father thought schooling important—anyway, I lost my temper.” His left hand curled involuntarily around the rein, as though protecting the sensitive palm.
He paused and glanced at me. “I seldom lose my temper, Sassenach, and generally regret it when I do.” And that, I thought, was likely to be as close to an apology as I’d get.
“Did you regret it that time?”
“Well, I doubled up my fists and glared up at him—he was a tall, scrawny fellow, maybe twenty, I suppose, though he looked quite old to me—and I said ‘I’m not afraid o’ you, and ye can’t make me cry, no matter how hard you hit me!’ ” He drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “I suppose it was a bit of a mistake in judgment to tell him that while he was still holding the strap.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “He tried to prove you were wrong?”
“Oh, aye, he tried.” Jamie nodded, head dark against the cloud-lit sky. His voice held a certain grim satisfaction on the word “tried.”
“He didn’t succeed, then?”
The shaggy head shook back and forth. “No. At least he couldna make me cry. He surely made me regret not keeping quiet, though.”
He paused for a moment, turning his own face toward me. The cloud cover had parted for a moment and the light touched the edges of jaw and cheek, making him look gilded, like one of Donatello’s archangels.
“When Dougal was describing my character to ye, before we wed, did he by chance mention that I’m sometimes a bit stubborn?” The slanted eyes glinted, much more Lucifer than Michael.
I laughed. “That’s putting it mildly. As I recall, what he said is that all the Frasers are stubborn as rocks, and you’re the worst of the lot. Actually,” I said, a little dryly, “I’d noticed something of the kind myself.”
He smiled as he reined the horse around a deep puddle in the road, leading mine by the checkrein after him.
“Mmph, well, I’ll no just say Dougal’s wrong,” he said, once the hazard had been negotiated. “But if I’m stubborn, I come by it honest. My father was just the same, and we’d get in wrangles from time to time that we couldna get out of without the application of force, usually wi’ me bent over the fence rail.”
Suddenly, he put out a hand to grab my horse’s rein, as the beast reared and snorted. “Hey now! Hush! Stad, mo dhu!” His own, less spooked, only jerked and tossed its head nervously.
“What is it?” I could see nothing, despite the patches of moonlight that mottled road and field. There was a pine grove up ahead, and the horses seemed disinclined to go any nearer to it.
“I don’t know. Stay here and keep quiet. Mount your horse and hold mine. If I call to ye, drop the checkrein and run for it.” Jamie’s voice was low and casual, calming me as well as the horses. With a muttered “Sguir!” to the horse and a slap on the neck to urge it closer to me, he faded into the heather, hand on his dirk.
I strained eyes and ears to discern whatever it was still troubling the horses; they shifted and stamped, ears and tails twitching in agitation. The clouds by now had shredded and flown on the nightwind, leaving only scattered trails across the face of a brilliant half moon. In spite of the brightness, I could see nothing on the road ahead, or in the menacing grove.
It seemed a late hour and an unprofitable road for highwaymen, scarce as these were anywhere in the Highlands; there were too few travelers to make an ambush worthwhile.
The grove was dark, but not still. The pines roared softly to themselves, millions of needles scouring in the wind. Very ancient trees, pines, and eerie in the gloom. Gymnosperms, cone-bearers, winged-seed scatterers, older and sterner by far than the soft-leaved, frail-limbed oaks and aspens. A suitable home for Rupert’s ghosts and evil spirits.
Only you, I thought crossly to myself, could work yourself up into being afraid of a lot of trees. Where was Jamie, though?
The hand gripping my thigh made me squeak like a startled bat; a natural consequence of trying to scream with your heart in your mouth. With the unreasonable fury of the irrationally afraid, I struck out at him, kicking him in the chest.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“Hush,” he said, “come with me.” Tugging me unceremoniously from the saddle, he swung me down and hastily tethered the horses, who whickered uneasily after us as he led me into the tall grass.
“What is it?” I hissed, stumbling blindly over roots and rocks.
“Quiet. Don’t speak. Look down and watch my feet. Step where I step, and stop when I touch you.”
Slowly and more or less silently, we made our way into the edges of the pine grove. It was dark under the trees, with only crumbs of light falling through to the needle litter underfoot. Even Jamie couldn’t walk silently on that, but the rustle of dry needles was lost in that of the green ones overhead.
There was a rift in the litter, a mass of granite rising from the forest floor. Here Jamie put me in front of him, guiding my hands and feet to climb the sloping crumble of the mound. At the top, there was enough room to lie belly-flat, side by side. Jamie put his mouth next to my ear, barely breathing. “Thirty feet ahead, to the right. In the clearing. See them?”
Once I saw them, I could hear as well. Wolves, a small pack, eight or ten animals, perhaps. No howling, not these. The kill lay in the shadow, a blob of dark with an upthrust leg, stick-thin and vibrating under the impact of teeth yanking at the carcass. There was only the occasional soft growl and yip as a cub was batted away from an adult’s morsel, and the contented sounds of feeding, crunching, and the crack of a bone.
As my eyes grew more accustomed to the moon-flecked scene, I could pick out several shaggy forms stretched under the trees, glutted and peaceful. Bits of grey fur shone here and there, as those still at the carcass pushed and rooted for tender bits overlooked by the earlier diners.
A broad, yellow-eyed head thrust suddenly up into a blotch of light, ears pricked. The wolf made a soft, urgent noise, something between a whine and a growl, and there was a sudden stillness under the trees below.
The saffron eyes seemed fixed on my own. There was no fear in the animal’s posture, nor curiosity, only a wary acknowledgment. Jamie’s hand on my back warned me not to move, though I felt no desire to run. I could have stayed locked in the wolf’s eyes for hours, I think, but she—I was sure it was a female, though I didn’t know how I knew—flicked her ears once, as though dismissing me, and bent once more to her meal.
We watched them for a few minutes, peaceful in the scattered light. At last, Jamie signaled that it was time to go, with a touch on my arm.
He kept the hand on my arm to support me as we made our way back through the trees to the road. It was the first time I had willingly allowed him to touch me since he had rescued me from Fort William. Still charmed by the sight of the wolves, we did not speak much, but began to feel comfortable with each other again.
As we walked, considering the stories he had told me, I couldn’t help but admire the job he had done. Without one word of direct explanation or apology, he had given me the message he intended. I gave you justice, it said, as I was taught it. And I gave you mercy, too, so far as I could. While I could not spare you pain and humiliation, I make you a gift of my own pains and humiliations, that yours might be easier to bear.
“Did you mind a lot?” I said abruptly. “Being beaten, I mean. Did you get over it easily?”
He squeezed my hand lightly before letting it go.
“Mostly I forgot it as soon as it was over. Except for the last time; that took awhile.”
“Ah, well. I was sixteen, for one thing, and a man grown…I thought. For another, it hurt like hell.”
“You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to,” I said, sensing his hesitation. “Is it a painful story?”
“Not nearly as painful as the beating,” he said, laughing. “No, I don’t mind tellin’ ye. It’s a long story, is all.”
“It’s a long way to Bargrennan yet.”
“So it is. Well, then. You recall I told ye I spent a year at Castle Leoch when I was sixteen? It was an agreement between Colum and my father—so I’d be familiar wi’ my mother’s clan. I fostered wi’ Dougal for two years, and then went to the Castle for a year, to learn manners, and Latin and such.”
“Oh. I wondered how you’d come to be there.”
“Aye, that was the way of it. I was big for my age, or tall at least; a good swordsman even then, and a better horseman than most.”
“Modest, too,” I said.
“Not very. Cocky as hell, and even faster with my tongue than I am now.”
“The mind boggles,” I said, amused.
“Well it might, Sassenach. I found I could make people laugh wi’ my remarks, and I made them more frequent, without carin’ much what I said, or to whom. I was cruel sometimes, to the other lads, not meanin’ it, just not able to resist if I thought of something clever to say.”
He looked up at the sky, to gauge the time. Blacker still, now that the moon had gone down. I recognized Orion floating near the horizon, and was strangely comforted by the familiar sight.
“So, one day I went too far. I was with a couple of the other lads, going down a corridor when I saw Mistress FitzGibbons at the other end. She was carryin’ a big basket, near as big as she was, and bumping to and fro as she walked. You know what she looks like now; she wasna much smaller then.” He rubbed his nose, embarrassed.
“Well, I made a number of ungallant remarks concerning her appearance. Funny, but most ungallant. They amused my companions considerably. I didna realize she could hear me as well.”
I recalled the massive dame of Castle Leoch. While I had never seen her other than good-humored, she did not appear to be the sort of person to be insulted with impunity.
“What did she do?”
“Nothing—then. I didna know she’d heard, until she got up at the Hall gathering next day and told Colum all about it.”
“Oh, dear.” I knew how highly Colum regarded Mrs. Fitz, and didn’t think he would take any irreverence directed at her lightly. “What happened?”
“The same thing that happened to Laoghaire—or almost.” He chuckled.
“I got verra bold though, and I stood up and said I chose to take my beating wi’ fists. I was tryin’ to be verra calm and grown-up about it all, though my heart was going like a blacksmith’s hammer, and I felt a bit sick when I looked at Angus’s hands; they looked like stones, and big ones at that. There were a few laughs from the folk gathered in the Hall; I wasna so tall then as I am now, and I weighed less than half as much. Wee Angus could ha’ torn my head off with one blow.
“Anyway, Colum and Dougal both frowned at me, though I thought they were really a bit pleased I’d had the nerve to ask it. Then Colum said no, if I was goin’ to behave like a child, I’d to be punished like one. He gave a nod, and before I could move, Angus bent me across his knee, turned up the edge of my kilt and blistered me with his strap, in front of the entire Hall.”
“Mmmphm. You’ll have noticed Angus is verra professional about his work? He gave me fifteen strokes, and to this day I could tell ye exactly where each one landed.” He shuddered reminiscently. “I had the marks for a week.”
He reached out and broke a clump of pine needles from the nearest tree, spreading them like a fan between thumb and fingers. The scent of turpentine was suddenly sharper.
“Well, I wasna allowed just to go quietly away and tend to my wounds, either. When Angus finished wi’ me, Dougal took me by the scruff of the neck and marched me to the far end of the Hall. Then I was made to come all the way back on my knees, across the stones. I had to kneel before Colum’s seat and beg Mrs. Fitz’s pardon, then Colum’s, then apologize to everyone in the Hall for my rudeness, and finally, I’d to thank Angus for the strapping. I nearly choked over that, but he was verra gracious about it; he reached down and gave me a hand to get up. Then I was plunked down on a stool next to Colum, and bid to sit there ’til Hall was ended.”
He hunched his shoulders protectively. “That was the worst hour I ever had. My face was on fire, and so was my arse, my knees were skinned and I couldna look anywhere but at my feet, but the worst of it was that I had to piss something awful. I almost died; I’d ha’ burst before I wet myself in front of everyone on top of it all, but it was a near thing. I sweated right through my shirt.”
I suppressed my urge to laugh. “Couldn’t you have told Colum what was the matter?” I asked.
“He knew perfectly well what was the matter; so did everyone else in the Hall, the way I was squirming on that stool. People were making wagers as to whether I’d last or not.” He shrugged.
“Colum would, have let me go, if I’d asked. But—well, I got stubborn about it.” He grinned a bit sheepishly, teeth white in a dark face. “Thought I’d rather die than ask, and nearly did. When at last Colum said I could go, I made it out of the Hall, but only as far as the nearest door. Threw myself behind the wall and spurted streams; I thought I’d never stop.
“So,” he spread his hands deprecatingly, dropping the clump of pine needles, now you know the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
I couldn’t help it; I laughed until I had to sit down at the side of the road. Jamie waited patiently for a minute, then sank down on his knees.
“What are you laughing for?” he demanded. “It wasna funny at all.” But he was smiling himself.
I shook my head, still laughing. “No, it isn’t. It’s an awful story. It’s just…I can see you sitting there, being stubborn about it, with your jaw clenched and steam coming out of your ears.”
Jamie snorted, but laughed a little too. “Aye. It’s no verra easy to be sixteen, is it?”
“So you did help that girl Laoghaire because you felt sorry for her,” I said, when I had recovered my composure. “You knew what it was like.”
He was surprised. “Aye, I said so. It’s a lot easier to get punched in the face at three-and-twenty than to have your bum strapped in public at sixteen. Bruised pride hurts worse than anything, and it bruises easy then.”
“I wondered. I’d never seen anyone grin in anticipation of being punched in the mouth.”
“Couldna very well do it afterward.”
“Mmh.” I nodded agreement. “I thought—” I said, then stopped in embarrassment.
“Ye thought what? Oh, about me and Laoghaire, ye mean,” he said, divining my thought. “You and Alec and everyone else, including Laoghaire. I’d have done the same if she’d been plain.” He nudged me in the ribs. “Though I dinna expect you’ll believe that.”
“Well, I did see you together that day in the alcove,” I defended myself, “and somebody certainly taught you how to kiss.”
Jamie shuffled his feet in the dust, embarrassed. He ducked his head shyly. “Well now, Sassenach, I’m no better than most men. Sometimes I try, but I dinna always manage. Ye know that bit in St. Paul, where he says ’tis better to marry than burn? Well, I was burnin’ quite badly there.”
I laughed again, feeling light-hearted as a sixteen-year-old myself. “So you married me,” I teased, “to avoid the occasion of sin?”
“Aye. That’s what marriage is good for; it makes a sacrament out of things ye’d otherwise have to confess.”
I collapsed again.
“Oh, Jamie, I do love you!”
This time it was his turn to laugh. He doubled over, then sat down at the roadside, fizzing with mirth. He slowly fell over backward and lay in the long grass, wheezing and choking.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” I demanded, staring at him. At long last, he sat up, wiping his streaming eyes. He shook his head, gasping.
“Murtagh was right about women. Sassenach, I risked my life for ye, committing theft, arson, assault, and murder into the bargain. In return for which ye call me names, insult my manhood, kick me in the ballocks and claw my face. Then I beat you half to death and tell ye all the most humiliating things have ever happened to me, and you say ye love me.” He laid his head on his knees and laughed some more. Finally he rose and held out a hand to me, wiping his eyes with the other.
“You’re no verra sensible, Sassenach, but I like ye fine. Let’s go.”
It was getting late—or early, depending on your viewpoint, and it was necessary to ride, if we were to make Bargrennan by dawn. I was enough recovered by this time to bear sitting, though the effects were still noticeable.
We rode in a companionable silence for some way. Left to my own thoughts, I considered for the first time at leisure what would happen if and when I ever managed to find my way back to the circle of standing stones. Married to him by coercion and dependent on him from necessity, I had undeniably grown very fond of Jamie.
More to the point, perhaps, were his feelings about me. Linked at first by circumstance, then by friendship, and finally by a startlingly deep bodily passion, still he had never made even a casual statement to me about his feelings. And yet.