Wearily I turned to see where the sound had come from. I was in the open away from the prison by this time; no wall to brace my back against, and no weapon to hand. It had been luck as much as anything that helped me with the first wolf; there was not a chance in a thousand that I could kill another animal bare-handed—and how many more might there be? The pack I had seen feeding in the moonlight in the summer had had at least ten wolves. I could hear in memory the sounds of their teeth scraping, and the crack of breaking bones. The only question now was whether I bothered to fight at all, or whether I would rather just lie down in the snow and give up. That option seemed remarkably attractive, all things considered.
Still, Jamie had given up his life, and considerably more than that, to get me out of the prison. I owed it to him at least to try.
Once more I backed slowly away, moving farther down the ditch. The light was fading; soon the ravine would be filled with shadow. I doubted that that would help me. The wolves undoubtedly had better night-sight than I did.
The first of the hunters appeared on the rim of the ditch as the other had; a shaggy figure, standing motionless and alert. It was with something of a shock that I realized two more were already in the ravine with me, trotting slowly, almost in step with each other. They were almost the same color as the snow in the twilight—dirty grey—and almost invisible, though they moved with no attempt at concealment.
I stopped moving. Flight was clearly useless. Bending, I freed a dead pine branch from the snow. The bark was black with the wet, and rough even through my gloves. I waved the branch around my head and shouted. The animals stopped moving toward me, but did not retreat. The closest one flattened its ears, as though objecting to the noise.
“Don’t like it?” I screeched. “Too bloody bad! Back off, you f**king sod!” Scooping up a half-buried rock, I hurled it at the wolf. It missed, but the beast scooted to one side. Encouraged, I began to fling missiles wildly; rocks, twigs, handfuls of snow, anything I could grab one-handed. I shrieked until my throat was raw with cold air, howling like the wolves themselves.
At first I thought one of my missiles had scored a hit. The nearest wolf yelped and seemed to convulse. The second arrow passed within a foot of me and I caught the tiny blur of motion before it thudded home in the chest of the second wolf. That animal died where it stood. The first, struck less vitally, kicked and struggled in the snow, no more than a heaving lump in the growing dusk.
I stood stupidly staring at it for some time, then looked up by instinct to the lip of the ravine. The third wolf, wisely choosing discretion, had vanished back into the trees, from whence a shivering howl went up.
I was still looking up at the dark trees when a hand clutched my elbow. I whirled with a gasp to find myself looking up into the face of a stranger. Narrow-jawed and with a weak chin ill-disguised by a scabby beard, he was a stranger indeed, but his plaid and his dirk marked him a Scot.
“Help,” I said, and fell forward into his arms.
It was dark in the cottage and there was a bear in the corner of the room. In panic, I recoiled against my escort, wanting nothing more to do with wild beasts. He shoved me strongly forward, into the cottage. As I staggered toward the fire, the hulking shape turned toward me, and I realized belatedly that it was merely a large man in a bearskin.
A bearskin cloak, to be exact, fastened at the neck with a silver-gilt brooch as large as the palm of my hand. It was made in the shape of two leaping stags, backs arched and heads meeting to form a circle. The locking pin was a short, tapered fan, the head of it shaped like the tail of a fleeing deer.
I noticed the brooch in detail because it was directly in front of my nose. Looking up, I briefly considered the possibility that I had been wrong; perhaps it really was a bear.
Still, bears presumably did not wear brooches or have eyes like blueberries; small, round, and a dark, shiny blue. They were sunk in heavy cheeks whose lower slopes were forested with silver-shot black hair. Similar hair cascaded over thickset shoulders to mingle with the hair of the cloak, which, in spite of its new use, was still pungently redolent of its former owner.
The shrewd little eyes flickered over me, evaluating both the bedraggled state of my attire, and the good basic quality of it, including the two wedding rings, gold and silver. The bear’s address was formulated accordingly.
“You seem to have had some difficulty, Mistress,” he said formally, inclining a massive head still spangled with melting snow. “Perhaps we might assist ye?”
I hesitated over what to say. I desperately needed this man’s help, yet I would be suspect immediately my speech revealed me to be English. The archer who had brought me here forestalled me.
“Found her near Wentworth,” he said laconically. “Fightin’ wolves. An English lassie,” he added, with an emphasis that made my host’s blueberry eyes fix on me with a rather unpleasant speculation in their depths. I pulled myself up to my full height and summoned as much of the Matron attitude as I could.
“English by birth, Scots by marriage,” I said firmly. “My name is Claire Fraser. My husband is a prisoner in Wentworth.”
“I see,” said the bear, slowly. “Weel, my own name is MacRannoch, and ye’re presently on my land. I can see by your dress as you’re a woman of some family; how come ye to be alone in Eldridge Wood on a winter night?”
I caught at the opening; here was some chance to establish my bona fides, as well as to find Murtagh and Rupert.
“I came to Wentworth with some clansmen of my husband’s. As I was English, we thought I could gain entrance to the prison, and perhaps find some way of, er, removing him. However, I—I left the prison by another way. I was looking for my friends when I was set upon by wolves—from which this gentleman kindly rescued me.” I tried a grateful smile on the raw-boned archer, who received it in stony silence.
“Ye’ve certainly met something wi’ teeth,” MacRannoch agreed, eyeing the gaping rents in my skirt. Suspicion yielded temporarily to the demands of hospitality.
“Are ye hurt, then? Just a bit scratched? Weel, you’re cold, nae doubt, and a wee bit shaken, I imagine. Sit here by the fire. Hector will fetch ye a sup of something, and then ye can tell me a bit more about these friends of yours.” He pulled a rough three-legged stool up with one foot, and sat me firmly on it with a massive hand on my shoulder.
Peat fires give little light but are comfortingly hot. I shuddered involuntarily as the blood started to flow back into my frozen hands. A couple of gulps from the leather flask grudgingly provided by Hector started the blood flowing internally again as well.
I explained my situation as well as I could, which was not particularly well. My brief description of my exit from the prison and subsequent hand-to-hand encounter with the wolf was received with particular skepticism.
“Given that ye did manage to get into Wentworth, it doesna seem likely that Sir Fletcher would allow ye to wander about the place. Nor if this Captain Randall had found ye in the dungeons, he would merely ha’ shown ye the back door.”
“He—he had reasons for letting me go.”
“Which were?” The blueberry eyes were implacable.
I gave up and put the matter baldly; I was much too tired for delicacy or circumlocutions.
MacRannoch appeared semiconvinced, but still reluctant to take any action.
“Aye, I see your concern,” he argued, “still, that may not be so bad.”
“Not so bad!” I sprang to my feet in outrage.
He shook his head as though plagued by deerflies. “What I mean,” he explained, “is that if it’s the lad’s arse he’s after, he’s none so likely to hurt him badly. And, savin’ your presence, ma’am”—he cocked a bushy eyebrow in my direction—“bein’ buggered has seldom killed anyone.” He held up placating hands the size of soup plates.
“Now, I’m no sayin’ he’ll enjoy it, mind, but I do say it’s not worth a major set-to with Sir Fletcher Gordon, just to save the lad a sore arse. I’ve a precarious position here, ye know, verra precarious.” And he puffed out his cheeks and beetled his brows at me.
Not for the first time, I regretted the fact that there were no real witches. Had I been one, I would have turned him into a toad on the spot. A big fat one, with warts.
I choked down my rage and tried reason yet again.
“I rather think his arse is beyond saving by this time; it’s his neck I’m concerned with. The English mean to hang him in the morning.”
MacRannoch was muttering to himself, twisting back and forth like a bear in a too-small cage. He stopped abruptly in front of me and thrust his nose to within an inch of my own. I would have recoiled, had I not been so exhausted. As it was, I merely blinked.
“And if I said I’d help ye, what good would that do?” he roared. He resumed his turning and pacing, two steps to one wall, hurling around in a fling of fur, and two steps to the other. He spoke as he paced, words keeping time to the steps, pausing to puff as he turned.
“If I were to go to Sir Fletcher myself, what would I say? Ye’ve a captain on your staff who’s engaged in torturin’ the prisoners in his spare time? And when he asks how I know that, I tell him a stray Sassenach wench my men found wanderin’ in the dark told me this man’s been makin’ indecent advances to her husband, who’s an outlaw wi’ a price on his head, and a condemned murderer, to boot?”
MacRannoch stopped and thumped one paw on the flimsy table. “And as for takin’ men into the place! If, and mind ye, I say if we could get in—”
“You could get in,” I interrupted. “I can show you the way.”
“Mmmphm. That’s as may be. If we could get in, what happens when Sir Fletcher finds my men wanderin’ about his fortress? He sends Captain Randall round next mornin’ with a brace of cannon and levels Eldridge Hall to the ground, that’s what!” He shook his head again, making the black locks fly.
“Nay, lass, I canna see—”
He was interrupted by the sudden flinging open of the cottage door to admit another bowman, this one pushing Murtagh in front of him at knife-point. MacRannoch stopped and stared in amazement.
“What is this?” he demanded. “Ye’d think ’twas May Day, and the lads and lassies all out gatherin’ flowers in the wood, not the dead o’ winter and snow comin’ on!”
“This is my husband’s clansman,” I said. “As I told you—”
Murtagh, undisturbed by the less than cordial greeting, was eyeing the bear-clad figure closely, as though mentally stripping hair and years away.
“MacRannoch, is it no?” he said, in a tone almost accusing. “Ye’ll have been at a Gathering, I think, some time ago at Castle Leoch?”
MacRannoch was more than startled. “Some time ago, I should say! Why, that must ha’ been near on thirty year ago. How d’ye know that, man?”
Murtagh nodded, satisfied. “Och, I thought so. I was there. And I remember that Gathering, likely for the same reason ye do yourself.”
MacRannoch was studying the wizened little man, trying to subtract thirty years from the seamed countenance.
“Aye, I know ye,” he said at last. “Or not the name, but you. Ye killed a wounded boar single-handed with a dagger, during the tynchal. A gallant beast too. That’s right, the MacKenzie gave ye the tushes—a bonny set, almost a complete double curve. Lovely work that, man.” A look perilously close to gratification creased Murtagh’s pitted cheek momentarily.
I started, remembering the magnificent, barbaric bracelets I had seen at Lallybroch. My mother’s, Jenny had said, given to her by an admirer. I stared at Murtagh in disbelief. Even allowing for the passage of thirty years, he did not seem a likely candidate for the tender passion.
Thinking of Ellen MacKenzie, I remembered her pearls, which I was still carrying, sewn into the seam of my pocket. I groped for the free end, pulling them out into the firelight.
“I can pay you,” I said. “I wouldn’t expect your men to risk themselves for nothing.”
Moving a good deal faster than I would have thought possible, he snatched the pearls from my hand. He stared at them disbelievingly.
“Where did ye get these, woman?” he demanded. “Fraser, did ye say your name is?”
“Yes.” Tired as I was, I drew myself up straight. “And the pearls are mine. My husband gave them to me on our wedding day.”
“Did he, then?” The hoarse voice was suddenly hushed. He turned to Murtagh, still holding the pearls.
“Ellen’s son? Is this lass’s husband Ellen’s son?”
“Aye,” Murtagh said, unemphatic as ever. “As ye’d ken at once if ye saw him; he’s the spit of her.”
Mindful at last of the pearls he was clutching, MacRannoch unfolded his hand and gently stroked the shining gems.
“I gave these to Ellen MacKenzie,” he said. “For a wedding gift. I would ha’ given them to her as my wife, but as she’d chosen elsewhere—well, I’d thought of them so often, around her bonny throat, I told her I couldna see them elsewhere. So I bade her keep them, and only think of me when she wore them. Hm!” He snorted briefly at some memory, then handed the pearls carefully back to me.
“So they’re yours now. Well, wear them in good health, lassie.”
“I’ll stand a much better chance of doing so,” I said, trying to control my impatience at these sentimental displays, “if you’ll help me to get my husband back.”
The small rosy mouth, which had been smiling slightly at its owner’s thought, tightened suddenly.
“Ah,” said Sir Marcus, pulling at his beard. “I see. But I’ve told ye, lassie, I canna see how it can be done. I’ve a wife and three weans at home. Aye, I’d do a bit for Ellen’s lad. But it’s a bit much ye’re askin’.”
Suddenly my legs gave way altogether, and I sat down with a thump, letting my shoulders sag and my head droop. Despair dragged at me like an anchor, pulling me down. I closed my eyes and retreated to some dim place within, where there was nothing but an aching grey blankness, and where the sound of Murtagh’s voice, still arguing, was no more than a faint yapping.
It was the bawling of cattle that roused me from my stupor. I looked up to see MacRannoch swirl out of the cottage. As he opened the door, a blast of winter air came in, thick with the lowing of cattle and yelling of men. The door thumped shut behind the vast hairy figure, and I turned to ask Murtagh what he thought we should do next.
The look on his face stopped me, wordless. I had seldom seen him with anything more than a sort of patient dourness showing on his features, but now he positively glowed with suppressed excitement.
I caught at his arm. “What is it? Tell me quickly!”
He had time only to say, “The kine! They’re MacRannoch’s!” before MacRannoch himself plunged back into the cottage, pushing a lanky young man before him.
With a last shove, he brought the young man flat up against the plastered wall of the cottage. Apparently MacRannoch found confrontation effective; he tried the same nose-to-nose technique he had used on me earlier. Less poised, or less tired, than I, the young man hunched nervously back against the wall as far as he could go.
MacRannoch started out being sweetly reasonable. “Absalom, man, I sent ye out three hours ago to bring in forty head of cattle. I told ye it was important to find them, because there’s about to be a damn awfu’ snowstorm.” The nicely modulated voice was rising. “And when I heard the sound of kine bellowin’ outside, I said to meself, Ah, Marcus, there’s Absalom gone and found all the cattle, what a good lad, now we can all go home and thaw ourselves by the fire, with the kine safe in their barns.”
One ham-fist had fastened itself onto Absalom’s jacket. The material, gathered between those stubby fingers, began to twist.
“And then I go out to congratulate you on a good job done, and begin to count the beasts. And how many do I count, Absalom, me bonny wee lad?” The voice had risen to a full-powered roar. While not possessed of a particularly deep voice, Marcus MacRannoch had enough lung-power for three ordinary-sized men.
“Fifteen!” he shouted, jerking the unfortunate Absalom to his tiptoes. “Fifteen beasts he finds, out of forty! And where are the rest o’ them? Where? Out loose in the snow, to freeze to death!”
Murtagh had faded quietly back into the shadows in the corner while all this was going on. I was watching his face, though, and saw the sudden gleam of amusement in his eyes at these words. Suddenly I realized what he had started to tell me, and I knew where Rupert was now. Or, if not precisely where he was, at least what he was doing. And I began to hope a little.
It was full dark. The prison’s lights below shone weakly through the snow like the lamps of a drowned ship. Waiting under the trees with my two companions, I mentally reviewed for the thousandth time everything that could go wrong.
Would MacRannoch carry out his part of the bargain? He’d have to, if he expected to get his prized purebred Highland cattle back. Would Sir Fletcher believe MacRannoch and order a search of the basement dungeons at once? Likely—the baronet wasn’t a man to be taken lightly.
I had seen the cattle disappear, one shaggy beast at a time, down the ditch that led to the hidden postern door, under the expert driving of Rupert and his men. But would they be able to force the cattle through that door, singly or not? And if so, what would they do once inside; half-wild cattle, trapped suddenly in a stone corridor lit with glaring torchlight? Well, perhaps it would work. The corridor itself would be not unlike their stone-floored barn, including torches and the scent of humans. If they got so far, the plan might succeed. Randall himself was unlikely to call for help in the face of the invasion, for fear of having his own little games uncovered.
The handlers were to get away from the prison as fast as possible, once the beasts were well and truly launched on their chaotic path, and then to ride hell-for-leather for the MacKenzie lands. Randall didn’t matter; what could he do alone, in the circumstances? But what if the noise attracted the rest of the prison garrison too soon? If Dougal had been reluctant to try to break his nephew out of Wentworth, I could imagine his choler if several MacKenzies were arrested for breaking into the place. I didn’t want to be responsible for that, either, though Rupert had been more than willing to take the risk. I bit my thumb and tried to comfort myself, thinking of the tons of solid, sound-muffling granite that separated the dungeons from the prison quarters above.