There was a deep humming noise coming from somewhere near at hand. I thought there might be a beehive lodged in some crevice of the rock, and placed a hand on the stone in order to lean into the cleft.
The stone screamed.
I backed away as fast as I could, moving so quickly that I tripped on the short turf and sat down hard. I stared at the stone, sweating.
I had never heard such a sound from anything living. There is no way to describe it, except to say that it was the sort of scream you might expect from a stone. It was horrible.
The other stones began to shout. There was a noise of battle, and the cries of dying men and shattered horses.
I shook my head violently to clear it, but the noise went on. I stumbled to my feet and staggered toward the edge of the circle. The sounds were all around me, making my teeth ache and my head spin. My vision began to blur.
I do not know now whether I went toward the cleft in the main stone, or whether it was accidental, a blind drifting through the fog of noise.
Once, traveling at night, I fell asleep in the passenger seat of a moving car, lulled by the noise and motion into an illusion of serene weightlessness. The driver of the car took a bridge too fast and lost control, and I woke from my floating dream straight into the glare of headlights and the sickening sensation of falling at high speed. That abrupt transition is as close as I can come to describing the feeling I experienced, but it falls woefully short.
I could say that my field of vision contracted to a single dark spot, then disappeared altogether, leaving not darkness, but a bright void. I could say that I felt as though I were spinning, or as though I were being pulled inside out. All these things are true, yet none of them conveys the sense I had of complete disruption, of being slammed very hard against something that wasn’t there.
The truth is that nothing moved, nothing changed, nothing whatever appeared to happen and yet I experienced a feeling of elemental terror so great that I lost all sense of who, or what, or where I was. I was in the heart of chaos, and no power of mind or body was of use against it.
I cannot really say I lost consciousness, but I was certainly not aware of myself for some time. I “woke,” if that’s the word, when I stumbled on a rock near the bottom of the hill. I half slid the remaining few feet and fetched up on the thick tufted grass at the foot.
I felt sick and dizzy. I crawled toward a stand of oak saplings and leaned against one to steady myself. There was a confused noise of shouting nearby, which reminded me of the sounds I had heard, and felt, in the stone circle. The ring of inhuman violence was lacking, though; this was the normal sound of human conflict, and I turned toward it.
THE MAN IN THE WOOD
The men were some distance away when I saw them. Two or three, dressed in kilts, running like the dickens across a small clearing. There was a far-off banging noise that I rather dazedly identified as gunshots.
I was quite sure I was still hallucinating when the sound of shots was followed by the appearance of five or six men dressed in red coats and knee breeches, waving muskets. I blinked and stared. I moved my hand before my face and held up two fingers. I saw two fingers, all present and correct. No blurring of vision. I sniffed the air cautiously. The pungent odor of trees in spring and a faint whiff of clover from a clump near my feet. No olfactory delusions.
I felt my head. No soreness anywhere. Concussion unlikely then. Pulse a little fast, but steady.
The sound of distant yelling changed abruptly. There was a thunder of hooves, and several horses came charging in my direction, kilted Scots atop them, yodeling in Gaelic. I dodged out of the way with an agility that seemed to prove I had not been physically damaged, whatever my mental state.
And then it came to me, as one of the redcoats, knocked flat by a fleeing Scot, rose and shook his fist theatrically after the horses. Of course. A film! I shook my head at my own slowness. They were shooting a costume drama of some sort, that was all. One of those Bonnie-Prince-in-the-heather sorts of things, no doubt.
Well. Regardless of artistic merit, the film crew wouldn’t thank me for introducing a note of historic inauthenticity into their shots. I doubled back into the wood, meaning to make a wide circle around the clearing and come out on the road where I had left the car. The going was more difficult than I had expected, though. The wood was a young one, and dense with underbrush that snagged my clothes. I had to go carefully through the spindly saplings, disentangling my skirts from the brambles as I went.
Had he been a snake, I would have stepped on him. He stood so quietly among the saplings as almost to have been one of them, and I did not see him until a hand shot out and gripped me by the arm.
Its companion clapped over my mouth as I was dragged backward into the oak grove, thrashing wildly in panic. My captor, whoever he was, seemed not much taller than I, but rather noticeably strong in the forearms. I smelled a faint flowery scent, as of lavender water, and something more spicy, mingled with the sharper reek of male perspiration. As the leaves whipped back into place in the path of our passage, though, I noticed something familiar about the hand and forearm clasped about my waist.
I shook my head free of the restraint over my mouth.
“Frank!” I burst out. “What in heaven’s name are you playing at?” I was torn between relief at finding him here and irritation at the horseplay. Unsettled as I was by my experience among the stones, I was in no mood for rough games.
The hands released me, but even as I turned to him, I sensed something wrong. It was not only the unfamiliar cologne, but something more subtle. I stood stock-still, feeling the hair prickle on my neck.
“You aren’t Frank,” I whispered.
“I am not,” he agreed, surveying me with considerable interest. “Though I’ve a cousin of that name. I doubt, though, that it’s he you have confused me with, madam. We do not resemble one another greatly.”
Whatever this man’s cousin looked like, the man himself might have been Frank’s brother. There was the same lithe, spare build and fine-drawn bones; the same chiseled lines of the face; the level brows and wide hazel eyes; and the same dark hair, curved smooth across the brow.
But this man’s hair was long, tied back from his face with a leather thong. And the gypsy skin showed the deep-baked tan of months, no, years, of exposure to the weather, not the light golden color Frank’s had attained during our Scottish holiday.
“Just who are you?” I demanded, feeling most uneasy. While Frank had numerous relatives and connections, I thought I knew all the British branch of the family. Certainly, there was no one who looked like this man among them. And surely Frank would have mentioned any near relative living in the Highlands? Not only mentioned him but insisted upon visiting him as well, armed with the usual collection of genealogical charts and notebooks, eager for any tidbits of family history about the famous Black Jack Randall.
The stranger raised his brows at my question.
“Who am I? I might ask the same question, madam, and with considerably more justification.” His eyes raked me slowly from head to toe, traveling with a sort of insolent appreciation over the thin peony-sprigged cotton dress I wore, and lingering with an odd look of amusement on my legs. I did not at all understand the look, but it made me extremely nervous, and I backed up a step or two, until I was brought up sharp by bumping into a tree.
The man finally removed his gaze and turned aside. It was as though he had taken a constraining hand off me, and I let out my breath in relief, not realizing until then that I had been holding it.
He had turned to pick up his coat, thrown across the lowest branch of an oak sapling. He brushed some scattered leaves from it and began to put it on.
I must have gasped, because he looked up again. The coat was a deep scarlet, long-tailed and without lapels, frogged down the front. The buff linings of the turned-back cuffs extended a good six inches up the sleeve, and a small coil of gold braid gleamed from one epaulet. It was a dragoon’s coat, an officer’s coat. Then it occurred to me—of course, he was an actor, from the company I had seen on the other side of the wood. Though the short sword he proceeded to strap on seemed remarkably more realistic than any prop I had ever seen.
I pressed myself against the bark of the tree behind me, and found it reassuringly solid. I crossed my arms protectively in front of me.
“Who the bloody hell are you?” I demanded again. The question this time came out in a croak that sounded frightened even to my ears.
As though not hearing me, he ignored the question, taking his time in the fastening of the frogs down the front of his coat. Only when he finished did he turn his attention to me once more. He bowed sardonically, hand over his heart.
“I am, madam, Jonathan Randall, Esquire, Captain of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons. At your service, madam.”
I broke and ran. My breath rasped in my chest as I tore through the screen of oak and alder, ignoring brambles, nettles, stones, fallen logs, everything in my path. I heard a shout behind me, but was much too panicked to determine its direction.
I fled blindly, branches scratching my face and arms, ankles turning as I stepped in holes and stumbled on rocks. I had no room in my mind for any form of rational thought; I wanted only to get away from him.
A heavy weight struck me hard in the lower back and I pitched forward at full length, landing with a thud that knocked the wind out of me. Rough hands flipped me onto my back, and Captain Jonathan Randall rose to his knees above me. He was breathing heavily and had lost his sword in the chase. He looked disheveled, dirty, and thoroughly annoyed.
“What the devil do you mean by running away like that?” he demanded. A thick lock of dark-brown hair had come loose and curved across his brow, making him look even more disconcertingly like Frank.
He leaned down and grasped me by the arms. Still gasping for breath, I struggled to get free, but succeeded only in dragging him down on top of me.
He lost his balance and collapsed at full length on me, flattening me once more. Surprisingly enough, this seemed to make his annoyance vanish.
“Oh, like that, is it?” he said, with a chuckle. “Well, I’d be most willing to oblige you, Chuckie, but it happens you’ve chosen a rather inopportune moment.” His weight pressed my h*ps to the ground, and a small rock was digging painfully into the small of my back. I squirmed to dislodge it. He ground his h*ps hard against mine, and his hands pinned my shoulders to the earth. My mouth fell open in outrage.
“What do you…” I began, but he ducked his head and kissed me, cutting short my expostulations. His tongue thrust into my mouth and explored me with a bold familiarity, roving and plunging, retreating and lunging again. Then, just as suddenly as he had begun, he pulled back.
He patted my cheek. “Quite nice, Chuck. Perhaps later, when I’ve the leisure to attend to you properly.”
I had by this time recovered my breath, and I used it. I screamed directly into his earhole, and he jerked as though I had run a hot wire into it. I took advantage of the movement to get my knee up, and jabbed it into his exposed side, sending him sprawling into the leaf mold.
I scrambled awkwardly to my feet. He rolled expertly, and came up alongside me. I glanced wildly around, looking for a way out, but we were flush up against the foot of one of those towering granite cliffs that just so abruptly from the soil of the Scottish Highlands. He had caught me at a point where the rock face broke inward, forming a shallow stony box. He blocked the entrance to the declivity, arms spread and braced between the rock walls, an expression of mingled anger and curiosity on his handsome dark face.
“Who were you with?” he demanded. “Frank, whoever he is? I’ve no man by that name among my company. Or is it some man who lives nearby?” He smiled derisively. “You haven’t the smell of dung on your skin, so you haven’t been with a cottar. For that matter, you look a bit more expensive than the local farmers could afford.”
I clenched my fists and set my chin. Whatever this joker had in mind, I was having none of it.
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about, and I’ll thank you to let me pass at once!” I said, adopting my very best ward-sister’s tone. This generally had a good effect on recalcitrant orderlies and young interns, but appeared merely to amuse Captain Randall. I was resolutely repressing the feelings of fear and disorientation that were flapping under my ribs like a panicked flock of hens.
He shook his head slowly, examining me once more in detail.
“Not just at present, Chuckie. I’m asking myself,” he said, conversationally, “just why a whore abroad in her shift would be wearing her shoes? And quite fine ones, at that,” he added, glancing at my plain brown loafers.
“A what!” I exclaimed.
He ignored me completely. His gaze had returned to my face, and he suddenly stepped forward and gripped my chin in his hand. I grabbed his wrist and yanked.
“Let go of me!” He had fingers like steel. Disregarding my efforts to free myself, he turned my face from one side to the other, so the fading afternoon light shone on it.
“The skin of a lady, I’ll swear,” he murmured to himself. He leaned forward and sniffed. “And a French scent in your hair.” He let go then, and I rubbed my jaw indignantly, as though to erase the touch I still felt on my skin.
“The rest might be managed with money from your patron,” he mused, “but you’ve the speech of a lady too.”
“Thanks so much!” I snapped. “Get out of my way. My husband is expecting me; if I’m not back in ten minutes, he’ll come looking for me.”
“Oh, your husband?” The derisively admiring expression retreated somewhat, but did not disappear completely. “And what is your husband’s name, pray? Where is he? And why does he allow his wife to wander alone through deserted woods in a state of undress?”
I had been throttling that part of my brain that was beating itself to pieces trying to make sense of the whole afternoon. It now managed to break through long enough to tell me that however absurd I thought its conjectures, giving this man Frank’s name, the same as his own, was only likely to lead to further trouble. Disdaining therefore to answer him, I made to push past him. He blocked my passage with a muscular arm, and reached for me with his other hand.
There was a sudden whoosh from above, followed immediately by a blur before my eyes and a dull thud. Captain Randall was on the ground at my feet, under a heaving mass that looked like a bundle of old plaid rags. A brown, rocklike fist rose out of the mass and descended with considerable force, meeting decisively with some bony protuberance, by the sound of the resultant crack. The Captain’s struggling legs, shiny in tall brown boots, relaxed quite suddenly.
I found myself staring into a pair of sharp black eyes. The sinewy hand that had temporarily distracted the Captain’s unwelcome attentions was attached like a limpet to my forearm.
“And who the hell are you?” I said in astonishment. My rescuer, if I cared to call him that, was some inches shorter than I and sparely built, but the bare arms protruding from the ragged shirt were knotted with muscle and his whole frame gave the impression of being made of some resilient material such as bedsprings. No beauty, either, with a pockmarked skin, low brow, and narrow jaw.
“This way.” He jerked on my arm, and I, stupefied by the rush of recent events, obediently followed.
My new companion pushed his way rapidly through a scrim of alder, made an abrupt turn around a large rock, and suddenly we were on a path. Overgrown with gorse and heather, and zigzagging so that it was never visible for more than six feet ahead, it was still unmistakably a path, leading steeply up toward the crest of a hill.
Not until we were picking our way cautiously down the far side of the hill did I gather breath and wit enough to ask where we were going. Receiving no answer from my companion, I repeated “Where on earth are we going?” in a louder tone.
To my considerable surprise, he rounded on me, face contorted, and pushed me off the path. As I opened my mouth to protest, he clapped a hand over it and dragged me to the ground, rolling on top of me.
Not again! I thought, and was heaving desperately to and fro to free myself when I heard what he had heard, and suddenly lay still. Voices called back and forth, accompanied by trampling and splashing sounds. They were unmistakably English voices. I struggled violently to get my mouth free. I sank my teeth into his hand, and had time only to register the fact that he had been eating pickled herring with his fingers, before something crashed against the back of my skull, and everything went dark.
The stone cottage loomed up suddenly through a haze of night mist. The shutters were bolted tight, showing no more than a thread of light. Having no idea how long I had been unconscious, I couldn’t tell how far this place was from the hill of Craigh na Dun or the town of Inverness. We were on horseback, myself mounted before my captor, with hands tied to the pommel, but there was no road, so progress was still rather slow.
I thought I had not been out for long; I showed no symptoms of concussion or other ill effects from the blow, save a sore patch on the base of my skull. My captor, a man of few words, had responded to my questions, demands and acerbic remarks alike with the all-purpose Scottish noise which can best be rendered phonetically as “Mmmmphm.” Had I been in any doubt as to his nationality, that sound alone would have been sufficient to remove it.
My eyes had gradually adapted to the dwindling light outside as the horse stumbled through the stones and gorse, so it was a shock to step from near-dark into what seemed a blaze of light inside. As the dazzle receded, I could see that in fact the single room was lit only by a fire, several candlesticks, and a dangerously old-fashioned-looking oil lamp.
“What is it ye have there, Murtagh?”
The weasel-faced man grabbed me by the arm and urged me blinking into the firelight.
“A Sassenach wench, Dougal, by her speech.” There were several men in the room, all apparently staring at me, some in curiosity, some with unmistakable leers. My dress had been torn in various spots during the afternoon’s activities, and I hastily took stock of the damage. Looking down, I could see the curve of one breast clearly through a rip, and I was sure the assembled men could too. I decided that making an attempt to pull the torn edges together would only draw further attention to the prospect; instead I chose a face at random and stared boldly at him, in hopes of distracting either the man or myself.
“Eh, a bonny one, Sassenach or no,” said the man, a fat, greasy-looking sort, seated by the fire. He was holding a chunk of bread and didn’t bother to set it down as he rose and came over to me. He pushed my chin up with the back of his hand, shoving the hair out of my face. A few breadcrumbs fell down the neck of my dress. The other men clustered close around, a mass of plaid and whiskers, smelling strongly of sweat and alcohol. It was only then that I saw they were all kilted—odd, even for this part of the Highlands. Had I stumbled into the meeting of a clan society, or perhaps a regimental reunion?