He had risked his life for me. That much he might do for the sake of his marriage vow; he would, he said, protect me to the last drop of his blood, and I believed he meant it.
I was more touched by the events of the last twenty-four hours, when he had suddenly admitted me to his emotions and his personal life, warts and all. If he felt as much for me as I thought perhaps he did, what would he feel if I suddenly disappeared? The remnants of physical discomfort receded as I grappled with these uncomfortable thoughts.
We were within three miles of Bargrennan when Jamie suddenly broke the silence.
“I havena told you how my father died,” he said abruptly.
“Dougal said he had a stroke—an apoplexy, I mean,” I said, startled. I supposed that Jamie, alone with his thoughts as well, had found them dwelling on his father as a result of our earlier conversation, but I could not imagine what led him to this particular subject.
“That’s right. But it…he…” He paused, considering his words, then shrugged, abandoning carefulness. He drew a deep breath and let it out. “You should know about it. It’s to do with…things.” The road here was wide enough to ride easily abreast, provided only that we kept a sharp eye out for protruding rocks; my excuse to Dougal about my horse had not been chosen at random.
“It was at the Fort,” Jamie said, picking his way around a bad patch, “where we were yesterday. Where Randall and his men took me from Lallybroch. Where they flogged me. Two days after the first time, Randall summoned me to his office—two soldiers came for me, and took me from the cells up to his room—the same where I found you; it’s how I knew where to go.”
“Just outside, we met my father in the courtyard. He’d found out where they’d taken me, and come to see if he could get me out some way—or at least to see for himself that I was all right.”
Jamie kicked a heel gently into his horse’s ribs, urging it on with a soft click of his tongue. There was no trace of daylight yet, but the look of the night had changed. Dawn could be no more than an hour away.
“I hadna realized until I saw him just how alone I’d felt there—or how scairt. The soldiers would not give us any time alone together, but at least they let me greet him.” He swallowed and went on.
“I told him I was sorry—about Jenny, I meant, and the whole sorry mess. He told me to hush, though, and hugged me tight to him. He asked me was I hurt badly—he knew about the flogging—and I said I’d be all right. The soldiers said I must go then, so he squeezed my arms tight, and told me to remember to pray. He said he would stand by me, no matter what happened, and I must just keep my head up and try not to worrit myself. He kissed my cheek and the soldiers took me away. That was the last time I ever saw him.”
His voice was steady, but a little thick. My own throat felt tight, and I would have touched him if I could, but the road narrowed through a small glen and I was forced to fall back behind him for a moment. By the time I came alongside again he had composed himself.
“So,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I went in to see Captain Randall. He sent the soldiers out, so we were alone, and offered me a stool. He said my father had offered security for my bond, to have me released, but that my charge was a serious one, and I could not be bonded without a written clearance signed by the Duke of Argyll, whose boundaries we were under. I reckoned that was where my father was headed, then, to see Argyll.
“In the meantime, Randall went on, there was the matter of this second flogging I was sentenced to.” He stopped a minute, as though uncertain how to go on.
“He…was strange in his manner, I thought. Verra cordial, but with something under it I didna understand. He kept watching me, as though he expected me to do something, though I was just sitting still.
“He half-apologized to me, saying he was sorry that our relations had been so difficult to the present, and that he wished the circumstances had been different, and so on.” Jamie shook his head. “I couldna imagine what he was talking about; two days earlier, he’d been trying his best to beat me to death. When he finally got down to it, though, he was blunt enough.”
“What did he want, then?” I asked. Jamie glanced at me, then away. The dark hid his features, but I thought he seemed embarrassed.
“Me,” he said baldly.
I started so violently that the horse tossed its head and whickered reproachfully. Jamie shrugged again.
“He was quite plain about it. If I would…ah, make him free of my body, he’d cancel the second flogging. If I would not—then I’d wish I’d never been born, he said.”
I felt quite sick.
“I was already wishing something of the sort,” he said, with a glint of humor. “My belly felt as though I’d swallowed broken glass, and if I hadna been sitting, my knees would have knocked together.”
“But what…” My voice was hoarse, and I cleared my throat and started over. “But what did you do?”
He sighed. “Well, I’ll no lie to ye, Sassenach. I considered it. The first stripes were still so raw on my back I could scarce bear a shirt, and I felt giddy whenever I stood up. The thought of going through that again—being bound and helpless, waiting for the next lash…” He shuddered involuntarily.
“I’d no real idea,” he said wryly, “but I rather thought being buggered would be at least a bit less painful. Men have died under the lash sometimes, Sassenach, and from the look on his face, I thought he meant me to be one of them, were that my choice.” He sighed again.
“But…well, I could still feel my father’s kiss on my cheek, and thought of what he’d say, and…well, I couldna do it, that’s all. I did not stop to think what my death might mean to my father.” He snorted, as though finding something faintly amusing. “Then, too, I thought, the man’s already raped my sister—damned if he’ll have me too.”
I didn’t find this amusing. I was seeing Jack Randall again, in a new and revolting light. Jamie rubbed the back of his neck, then dropped his hand to the pommel.
“So, I took what little courage I had left by then, and said no. I said it loud, too, and added whatever filthy names I could think of to call him, all at the top of my lungs.”
He grimaced. “I was afraid I’d change my mind if I thought about it; I wanted to make sure there was no chance of going back. Though I dinna suppose,” he added thoughtfully, “that there’s any really tactful way to refuse an offer like that.”
“No,” I agreed dryly. “I don’t suppose he’d have been pleased, no matter what you said.”
“He wasn’t. He backhanded me across the mouth, to shut me up. I fell down—I was still a bit weak—and he stood over me, just staring down at me. I’d better sense than to try and get up, so I just lay there until he called the soldiers to take me back to my cell.” He shook his head. “He didna change expression at all; just said as I left, ‘I’ll see you on Friday,’ as though we had an appointment to discuss business or somesuch.”
The soldiers had not returned Jamie to the cell he had shared with three other prisoners. Instead, he was put into a small room by himself, to await Friday’s reckoning with no distractions save the daily visit of the garrison’s physician, who came to dress his back.
“He wasna much of a doctor,” Jamie said, “but he was kindly enough. The second day he came, along wi’ the goose grease and charcoal, he brought me a small Bible that belonged to a prisoner who’d died. Said he understood I was a Papist, and whether I found the word of God any comfort or not, at least I could compare my troubles with Job’s.” He laughed.
“Oddly enough, it was some comfort. Our Lord had to put up wi’ being scourged too; and I could reflect that at least I wasna going to be hauled out and crucified afterward. On the other hand,” he said judiciously, “Our Lord wasna forced to listen to indecent proposals from Pontius Pilate, either.”
Jamie had kept the small Bible. He rummaged in his saddlebag, and handed it across now for me to look at. It was a worn, leather-covered volume, about five inches long, printed on paper so flimsy the print showed through from one side of each page to the other. On the flyleaf was written ALEXANDER WILLIAM RODERICK MACGREGOR, 1733. The ink was faded and blurred, and the covers warped as though the book had gotten wet on more than one occasion.
I turned the little book over curiously. Small as it was, it must have cost something in effort to keep it by him, through the travels and adventures of the last four years.
“I’ve never seen you read it,” I handed it back.
“No, that’s not why I keep it,” he said. He tucked it away, stroking the edge of the worn cover with a thumb as he did so. He patted the saddlebag absently.
“There’s a debt owing to Alex MacGregor; I mean to collect it sometime.
“Anyway,” he continued, returning to his story, “Friday came at last, and I don’t know whether I was glad or sorry to see it. The waiting and the fear were almost worse than I thought the pain would be. When it came, though…” He made that odd half-shrugging gesture of his, easing the shirt across his back. “Well, you’ve seen the marks. You know what it was like.”
“Only because Dougal told me. He said he was there.”
Jamie nodded. “Aye, he was there. And my father as well, though I didna know it at the time. I’d no mind for anything much beyond my own problems, then.”
“Oh,” I said slowly, “and your father—”
“Mmm. That’s when it happened. Some of the men there told me after that they thought I was dead, halfway through, and I reckon my father thought so too.” He hesitated, and his voice was thick when he resumed. “When I fell, Dougal told me, my father made a small sound and put his hand to his head. Then he dropped like a rock. And did not get up again.”
The birds were moving in the heather, trilling and calling from the still-dark leaves of the trees. Jamie’s head was bowed, face still invisible.
“I did not know he was dead,” he said softly. “They didna tell me until a month later—when they thought I was strong enough to bear it. So I did not bury him, as his son should have done. And I have never seen his grave—because I am afraid to go home.”
“Jamie,” I said. “Oh, Jamie, dear.”
After what seemed a long silence, I said, “But you don’t—you can’t—feel responsible. Jamie, there was nothing you could have done; or done differently.”
“No?” he said. “No, maybe not; though I wonder would it still have happened, had I chosen the other way. But to know that does not much help the way I feel—and I feel as though I had done him to death with my own hands.”
“Jamie—” I said again, and stopped, helpless. He rode silently for a bit, then straightened up and squared his shoulders once more.
“I’ve not told anyone about it,” he said abruptly. “But I thought that now ye should know—about Randall, I mean. You’ve a right to know what it is that lies between him and me.”
What it is that lies between him and me. The life of a good man, the honor of a girl, and an indecent lust that found its vent in blood and fear. And, I supposed, with a lurch of the stomach, that there was now one more item weighting the scales. Me. For the first time, I began to realize what Jamie had felt, crouching in the window of Randall’s room, with an empty gun in his hand. And I began to forgive him for what he had done to me.
As though reading my mind, he said, not looking at me, “Do you know…I mean, can ye understand, maybe, why I thought it needful to beat you?”
I waited a moment before answering. I understood, all right, but that was not quite all there was to it.
“I understand,” I said. “And so far as that goes, I forgive you. What I can’t forgive,” I said, my voice rising slightly in spite of myself, “is that you enjoyed it!”
He bent forward in the saddle, clasping the pommel, and laughed for a long time. He reveled in the release of tension before finally tossing his head back and turning to me. The sky was noticeably lighter now, and I could see his face, lined with exhaustion, strain, and mirth. The scratches down his cheek were black in the dim light.
“Enjoyed it! Sassenach,” he said, gasping, “you don’t know just how much I enjoyed it. You were so…God, you looked lovely. I was so angry, and you fought me so fierce. I hated to hurt you, but I wanted to do it at the same time…Jesus,” he said, breaking off and wiping his nose, “yes. Yes, I did enjoy it.
“Though come to that,” he said, “you might give me some credit for exercising restraint.”
I was getting rather angry again. I could feel my cheeks flushing hotly against the cool dawn air.
“Restraint, was it? I was under the impression that what you were exercising was your good left arm. You almost crippled me, you arrogant Scottish bastard!”
“Did I want to cripple ye, Sassenach, you’d know it,” he answered dryly. “I meant afterward. I slept on the floor, if ye recall.”
I eyed him narrowly, breathing through my nose. “Oh, so that was restraint, was it?”
“Well, I didna think it right to roger you in that state, however fierce I wanted to. And I did want to,” he added, laughing again. “Terrible strain on my natural instincts.”
“Roger me?” I said, diverted by the expression.
“I would hardly call it ‘love-making’ under the circumstances, would you?”
“Whatever you might call it,” I said evenly, “it’s a good thing you didn’t try it, or you’d now be missing a few valued bits of your anatomy.”
“That thought occurred to me.”
“And if you think you deserve applause for nobly refraining from committing rape on top of assault—” I choked on my choler.
We rode a half-mile or so in silence. Then he heaved a sigh. “I can see I should not have started this conversation. What I was tryin’ to do was to work up to asking ye would you allow me to share your bed again, once we get to Bargrennan.” He paused shyly. “It’s a bit cold on the floor.”
I rode for a good five minutes before answering. When I had decided what to say, I reined in, turning across the road, so as to force Jamie to stop as well. Bargrennan was in sight, rooftops just visible in the dawning light.
I urged my horse parallel with the other, so that I was no more than a foot away from Jamie. I looked him in the eye for a minute before speaking.
“Will you do me the honor of sharing my bed, O lord and master?” I asked politely.
Obviously suspecting something, he considered a moment, then nodded, just as formally. “I will. Thank you.” He was raising the reins to go when I stopped him.
“There’s just one more thing, master,” I said, still polite.
I whipped my hand from the concealed pocket in my skirt, and the dawn light struck sparks from the blade of the dagger pressed against his chest.
“If,” I said through my teeth, “you ever raise a hand to me again, James Fraser, I’ll cut out your heart and fry it for breakfast!”
There was a long silence, broken only by the shiftings and creakings of horses and harness. Then he held out his hand, palm up.
“Give it to me.” When I hesitated, he said impatiently, “I’m no going to use it on ye. Give it to me!”
He held the dirk by the blade, upright so that the rising sun caught the moonstone in the hilt and made it glow. Holding the dagger like a crucifix, he recited something in Gaelic. I recognized it from the oath-taking ceremony in Colum’s hall, but he followed it with the English translation for my benefit:
“I swear on the cross of my Lord Jesus, and by the holy iron which I hold, that I give ye my fealty and pledge ye my loyalty. If ever my hand is raised against you in rebellion or in anger, then I ask that this holy iron may pierce my heart.” He kissed the dirk at the juncture of haft and tang, and handed it back to me.
“I don’t make idle threats, Sassenach,” he said, raising one brow, “and I don’t take frivolous vows. Now, can we go to bed?”
RETURN TO LEOCH
Dougal was waiting for us at the sign of the Red Boar, impatiently pacing to and fro outside.
“Made it, did ye?” he asked, watching with approval as I dismounted without assistance, staggering only slightly. “Gallant lass—ten miles without a whimper. Get up to your bed then; ye’ve earned it. Jamie and I will stable the horses.” He patted me, very gently, on the rump in dismissal. I was only too glad to follow his suggestion, and was asleep almost before my head touched the pillow.
I didn’t stir when Jamie crawled in beside me, but woke suddenly in the late afternoon, convinced that there was something important I had forgotten.
“Horrocks!” I exclaimed suddenly, sitting bolt upright in bed.
“Hah?” Jamie, startled out of a sound sleep, shot sideways out of bed, ending on the floor in a crouch, hand on the dirk he had left on top of his piled clothes. “What?” he demanded, staring wildly around the room. “What is it?”
I stifled a giggle at the sight of him, crouched nak*d on the floor, red hair standing on end like quills.
“You look like a fretful porpentine,” I said.
He gave me a dirty look and rose to his feet, replacing the dirk on the stool that held his clothes.
“You couldna wait ’til I woke to tell me that?” he inquired. “You thought it would make more impression if ye woke me out of a sound sleep by shouting ‘Hedgehog!’ in my ear?”
“Not ‘hedgehog,’ ” I explained. “Horrocks. I remembered all at once that I’d forgotten to ask you about him. Did you find him?”
He sat down on the bed and sank his head in his hands. He rubbed his face vigorously, as though to restore circulation.
“Oh, aye,” he said through the muffling fingers. “Aye, I found him.”
I could tell from the tone of voice that the deserter’s information had not been good.
“Would he not tell you anything after all?” I asked sympathetically. That had always been a possibility, though Jamie had gone prepared to part with not only his own money, and some provided by Dougal and Colum, but even his father’s ring if necessary.