“Rather a dull color, brown, I’ve always thought,” I said practically, trying to delay things a bit. I kept having the feeling of being whirled along much faster than I intended.
Jamie shook his head, still smiling.
“No, I’d not say that, Sassenach. Not dull at all.” He lifted the mass of my hair with both hands and fanned it out. “It’s like the water in a burn, where it ruffles over the stones. Dark in the wavy spots, with bits of silver on the surface where the sun catches it.”
Nervous and a little breathless, I pulled away in order to pick up the comb I had dropped on the floor. I came up to find Jamie eyeing me steadily.
“I said I wouldna ask for anything you did not wish to tell me,” he said, “and I won’t, but I draw my own conclusions. Colum thought perhaps you were an English spy, though he couldna imagine in that case why you’d no Gaelic. Dougal thinks you’re likely a French spy, maybe looking for support for King James. But in that case, he canna imagine why you were alone.”
“And what about you?” I asked, pulling hard at a stubborn tangle. “What do you think I am?”
He tilted his head appraisingly, looking me over carefully.
“To look at, you could be French. You’ve that fine-boned look through the face that some of the Angevin ladies have. Frenchwomen are usually sallow-faced, though, and you have skin like an opal.” He traced a finger slowly across the curve of my collarbone, and I felt the skin glow beneath his touch.
The finger moved to my face, drawing from temple to cheek, smoothing the hair back behind my ear. I remained immobile under his scrutiny, trying not to move as his hand passed behind my neck, thumb gently stroking my earlobe.
“Golden eyes; I’ve seen a pair like that once before—on a leopard.” He shook his head. “Nay, lass. Ye could be French, but you’re not.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve talked with you a good deal; and listened to you besides. Dougal thinks you’re French because you speak French well—verra well.”
“Thank you,” I said sarcastically. “And the fact that I speak French well proves I’m not French?”
He smiled and tightened his grip on my neck. “Vous parlez très bien—but not quite as well as I do,” he added, dropping back into English. He released me suddenly. “I spent a year in France, after I left the castle, and two more later on with the army. I know a native speaker of French when I hear one. And French is not your mother tongue.” He shook his head slowly.
“Spanish? Perhaps, but why? Spain’s no interests in the Highlands. German? Surely not.” He shrugged. “Whoever you are, the English would want to find out. They canna afford to have unknown quantities at large, with the clans restless and Prince Charlie waiting to set sail from France. And their methods of finding out are not very gentle. I’ve reason to know.”
“And how do you know I’m not an English spy, then? Dougal thought I was, you said so.”
“It’s possible, though your spoken English is more than a little odd too. If you were, though, why would you choose to wed me, rather than go back to your own folk? That was another reason for Dougal’s makin’ ye wed me—to see would ye bolt last night, when it came to the point.”
“And I didn’t bolt. So what does that prove?”
He laughed and lay back down on the bed, an arm over his eyes to shield them from the lamp.
“Damned if I know, Sassenach. Damned if I know. There isna any reason able explanation I can think of for you. You might be one of the Wee Folk, for all I know”—he peeked sideways from under his arm—“no, I suppose not. You’re too big.”
“Aren’t you afraid. I might kill you in your sleep some night, if you don’t know who I am?”
He didn’t answer, but took his arm away from his eyes, and his smile widened. His eyes must be from the Fraser side, I thought. Not deepset like the MacKenzies’, they were set at an odd angle, so that the high cheekbones made them look almost slanted.
Without troubling to lift his head, he opened the front of his shirt and spread the cloth aside, laying his chest bare to the waist. He drew the dirk from its sheath and tossed it toward me. It thunked on the boards at my feet.
He put his arm back over his eyes and stretched his head back, showing the place where the dark stubble of his sprouting beard stopped abruptly, just below the jaw.
“Straight up, just under the breastbone,” he advised. “Quick and neat, though it takes a bit of strength. The throat-cutting’s easier, but it’s verra messy.”
I bent to pick up the dirk.
“Serve you right if I did,” I remarked. “Cocky bastard.”
The grin visible beneath the crook of his arm widened still further.
I stopped, dirk still in my hand.
“I’ll die a happy man.”
WE MEET A BEGGAR
We slept fairly late the next morning, and the sun was high as we left the inn, heading south this time. Most of the horses were gone from the paddock, and none of the men from our party seemed to be about. I wondered aloud where they had gone.
Jamie grinned. “I canna say for sure, but I could guess. The Watch went that way yesterday”—he pointed west—“so I should say Rupert and the others have gone that way.” Pointing east.
“Cattle,” he explained, seeing that I still didn’t understand. “The estate-holders and tacksmen pay the Watch to keep an eye out, and get back their cattle, if they’re stolen in a raid. But if the Watch is riding west toward Lag Cruime, any herds to the east are helpless—for a bit, anyway. It’s the Grants’ lands down that way, and Rupert’s one of the best cattle-lifters I’ve ever seen. Beasts will follow him anywhere, wi’ scarcely a bleat amongst them. And since there’s no more entertainment to be had here, most likely he’s got restless.”
Jamie himself seemed rather restless, and set a good pace. There was a deer trail through the heather, and the going was fairly easy, so I kept up with no difficulty. After a bit, we came out onto a stretch of moorland, where we could walk side by side.
“What about Horrocks?” I asked suddenly. Hearing him mention the town of Lag Cruime, I had remembered the English deserter and his possible news. “You were supposed to meet him in Lag Cruime, weren’t you?”
He nodded. “Aye. But I canna go there now, wi’ both Randall and the Watch headed that way. Too dangerous.”
“Could someone go for you? Or do you trust anyone enough?”
He glanced down at me and smiled. “Well, there’s you. Since ye didna kill me last night after all, I suppose I may trust you. But I’m afraid you couldna go to Lag Cruime alone. No, if necessary, Murtagh will go for me. But I may be able to arrange something else—we’ll see.”
“You trust Murtagh?” I asked curiously. I had no very friendly feelings toward the scruffy little man, since he was more or less responsible for my present predicament, having kidnapped me in the first place. Still, there was clearly a friendship of some kind between him and Jamie.
“Oh, aye.” He glanced at me, surprised. “Murtagh’s known me all my life—a second cousin of my father’s, I think. His father was my—”
“He’s a Fraser, you mean,” I interrupted hastily. “I thought he was one of the MacKenzies. He was with Dougal when I met you.”
Jamie nodded. “Aye. When I decided to come over from France I sent word to him, asking him to meet me at the coast.” He smiled wryly. “I didna ken, ye see, whether it was Dougal had tried to kill me earlier. And I did not quite like the idea of meeting several MacKenzies alone, just in case. Didna want to end up washing about in the surf off Skye, if that’s what they had in mind.”
“I see. So Dougal isn’t the only one who believes in witnesses.”
He nodded. “Very handy things, witnesses.”
On the other side of the moorland was a stretch of twisted rocks, pitted and gouged by the advance and retreat of glaciers long gone. Rainwater filled the deeper pits, and thistle and tansy and meadowsweet surrounded these tarns with thick growth, the flowers reflected in the still water.
Sterile and fishless, these pools dotted the landscape and formed traps for unwary travelers, who might easily stumble into one in darkness and be forced to spend a wet and uncomfortable night on the moor. We sat down beside one pool to eat our morning meal of bread and cheese.
This tarn at least had birds; swallows dipped low over the water to drink, and plovers and curlews poked long bills into the muddy earth at its edges, digging for insects.
I tossed crumbs of bread onto the mud for the birds. A curlew eyed one suspiciously, but while it was still making up its mind, a quick swallow zoomed in under its bill and made off with the treat. The curlew ruffled its feathers and went back to its industrious digging.
Jamie called my attention to a plover, calling and dragging a seemingly broken wing near us.
“She’s a nest somewhere near,” I said.
“Over there.” He had to point it out several times before I finally spotted it; a shallow depression, quite out in the open, but with its four spotted eggs so close in appearance to the leaf-speckled bank that when I blinked I lost sight of the nest again.
Picking up a stick, Jamie gently poked the nest, pushing one egg out of place. The mother plover, excited, ran up almost in front of him. He sat on his heels, quite motionless, letting the bird dart back and forth, squalling. There was a flash of movement and he held the bird in his hand, suddenly still.
He spoke to the bird in Gaelic, a quiet, hissing sort of speech, as he stroked the soft mottled plumage with one finger. The bird crouched in his hand, completely motionless, even the reflections frozen in its round black eyes.
He set it gently on the ground, but the bird did not move away until he said a few more words, and waved his hand slowly back and forth behind it. It gave a short jerk and darted away into the weeds. He watched it go, and, quite unconscious, crossed himself.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, curious.
“What?” He was momentarily startled; I think he had forgotten I was there.
“You crossed yourself when the bird flew off; I wondered why.”
He shrugged, mildly embarrassed.
“Ah, well. It’s an old tale, is all. Why plovers cry as they do, and run keening about their nests like that.” He motioned to the far side of the tarn, where another plover was doing exactly that. He watched the bird for a few moments, abstracted.
“Plovers have the souls of young mothers dead in childbirth,” he said. He glanced aside at me, shyly. “The story goes that they cry and run about their nests because they canna believe the young are safe hatched; they’re mourning always for the lost one—or looking for a child left behind.” He squatted by the nest and nudged the oblong egg with his stick, turning it bit by bit until the pointed end faced in, like the others. He stayed squatting, even after the egg had been replaced, balancing the stick across his thighs, staring out over the still waters of the tarn.
“It’s only habit, I suppose,” he said. “I did it first when I was much younger, when I first heard that story. I didna really believe they have souls, of course, even then, but, ye ken, just as a bit of respect…” He looked up at me and smiled suddenly. “Done it so often now, I’d not even notice. There’s quite a few plovers in Scotland, ye ken.” He rose and tossed the stick aside. “Let’s go on, now; there’s a place I want to show you, near the top of the hill yon.” He took my elbow to help me out of the declivity, and we set off up the slope.
I had heard what he said to the plover he released. Though I had only a few words of Gaelic, I had heard the old salutation often enough to be familiar with it. ‘God go with ye, Mother,’ he had said.
A young mother, dead in childbirth. And a child left behind. I touched his arm and he looked down at me.
“How old were you?” I asked.
He gave me a half-smile. “Eight,” he answered. “Weaned, at least.”
He spoke no more, but led me uphill. We were in sloping foothills, now, thick with heather. Just beyond, the countryside changed abruptly, with huge heaps of granite rearing up from the earth, surrounded by clusters of sycamore and larch. We came over the crest of the hill, and left the plovers crying by the tarns behind us.
The sun was growing hot, and after an hour of shoving through thick foliage—even with Jamie doing most of the shoving—I was ready for a rest.
We found a shady spot at the foot of one of the granite outcrops. The spot reminded me a bit of the place where I had first met Murtagh—and parted company with Captain Randall. Still, it was pleasant here. Jamie told me that we were alone, because of the constant birdsong all around. If anyone came near, most birds would stop singing, though the jays and the jackdaws would screech and call in alarm.
“Always hide in a forest, Sassenach,” he advised me. “If ye dinna move too much yourself, the birds will tell you in plenty of time if anyone’s near.”
Looking back from pointing out a squawking jay in the tree overhead, his eyes caught mine. And we sat as though frozen, within hand’s reach but not touching, barely breathing. After a time, the jay grew bored with us and left. It was Jamie who looked away first, with an almost imperceptible shiver, as though he were cold.
The heads of shaggy-cap mushrooms poked whitely through the mold beneath the ferns. Jamie’s blunt forefinger flipped one off its stem, and traced the spokes of the basidium as he marshaled his next words. When he spoke carefully, as now, he all but lost the slight Scots accent that usually marked his speech.
“I do not wish to…that is.…I do not mean to imply.…” He looked up suddenly and smiled, with a helpless gesture. “I dinna want to insult you by sounding as though I think you’ve a vast experience of men, is all. But it would be foolish to pretend that ye don’t know more than I do about such matters. What I meant to ask is, is this…usual? What it is between us, when I touch you, when you…lie with me? Is it always so between a man and a woman?”
In spite of his difficulties, I knew exactly what he meant. His gaze was direct, holding my eyes as he waited my answer. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t.
“There’s often something like it,” I said, and had to stop and clear my throat. “But no. No, it isn’t—usual. I have no idea why, but no. This is…different.”
He relaxed a bit, as though I had confirmed something about which he had been anxious.
“I thought perhaps not. I’ve not lain with a woman before, but I’ve…ah, had my hands on a few.” He smiled shyly, and shook his head. “It wasna the same. I mean, I’ve held women in my arms before, and kissed them, and…well.” He waved a hand, dismissing the and. “It was verra pleasant indeed. Made my heart pound and my breath come short, and all that. But it wasna at all as it is when I take you in my arms and kiss you.” His eyes, I thought, were the color of lakes and skies, and as fathomless as either.
He reached out and touched my lower lip, barely brushing the edge. “It starts out the same, but then, after a moment,” he said, speaking softly, “suddenly it’s as though I’ve a living flame in my arms.” His touch grew firmer, outlining my lips and caressing the line of my jaw. “And I want only to throw myself into it and be consumed.”
I thought of telling him that his own touch seared my skin and filled my veins with fire. But I was already alight and glowing like a brand. I closed my eyes and felt the kindling touch move to cheek and temple, ear and neck, and shuddered as his hands dropped to my waist and drew me close.
Jamie seemed to have a definite idea where we were going. At length he stopped at the foot of a huge rock, some twenty feet high, warty with lumps and jagged cracks. Tansy and eglantine had taken root in the cracks, and waved in precarious yellow flags against the stone. He took my hand and nodded at the rock face before us.
“D’ye see the steps, there, Sassenach? Think ye can manage it?” There were, in fact, faintly marked protuberances in the stone, rising at an angle across the face of the rock. Some were bona fide ledges, and others merely a foothold for lichens. I couldn’t tell whether they were natural, or perhaps had known some assistance in their forming, but I thought it might just be possible to climb them, even in a full-length skirt and tight bodice.
With some slippages and scares, and with Jamie pushing helpfully from the rear on occasion, I made it to the top of the rock, and paused to look around. The view was spectacular. The dark bulk of a mountain rose to the east, while far below to the south the foothills ran out into a vast, barren moorland. The top of the rock sloped inward from all sides, forming a shallow dish. In the center of the dish was a blackened circle, with the sooty remnants of charred sticks. We were not the first visitors, then.
“You knew this place?” Jamie stood to one side a little, observing me and taking pleasure in my raptness. He shrugged, deprecating.
“Oh, aye. I know most places through this part of the Highlands. Come here, there’s a spot ye can sit, and see down to where the road comes past the hill.” The inn also was visible from here, reduced from doll-house to child’s building-block by the distance. A few tethered horses were clustered under the trees by the road, small blobs of brown and black from here.
No trees grew on the top of the rock, and the sun was hot on my back. We sat side by side, legs dangling over the edge, and companionably shared one of the bottles of ale that Jamie had thoughtfully lifted from the well in the inn yard as we left.
There were no trees atop the rock, but the smaller plants, the ones that could gain a foothold in the precarious cracks and root themselves in meager soil, sprouted here and there, raising their faces bravely to the hot spring sun. There was a small clump of daisies sheltering in the lee of an outcrop near my hand, and I reached to pluck one.
There was a faint whir, and the daisy leaped off its stem and landed on my knee. I stared stupidly, my mind unable to make sense of this bizarre behavior. Jamie, a good deal faster than I in his apprehensions, had flung himself flat on the rock.
“Get down!” he said. A large hand fastened on my elbow and jerked me flat beside him. As I hit the spongy moss, I saw the shaft of the arrow, still quivering above my face, where it had struck home in a cleft of the outcrop.