Niece. I felt a small shiver run down my spine, in spite of the warm weather. Niece to the MacKenzie chieftain. Not to mention to the war chieftain of clan MacKenzie, riding so nonchalantly by my side. And on the other side, I was now presumably linked with Lord Lovat, chief of clan Fraser, with the abbot of a powerful French abbey, and with who knew how many other assorted Frasers. No, perhaps John Randall wouldn’t think it worthwhile to pursue me. And that, after all, had been the point of this ridiculous arrangement.
I stole a glance at Jamie, riding ahead now. His back was straight as an alder sapling and his hair shone under the sun like a helmet of burnished metal.
Dougal followed my glance.
“Could have been worse, no?” he said, with an ironic lift of his brow.
Two nights later, we were encamped on a stretch of moorland, near one of those strange outcroppings of glacier-pocked granite. It had been a long day’s travel, with only a hasty meal eaten in the saddle, and everyone was pleased to stop for a cooked dinner. I had tried early on to assist with the cooking, but my help had been more or less politely rejected by the taciturn clansman whose job it apparently was.
One of the men had killed a deer that morning, and a portion of the fresh meat, cooked with turnips, onions, and whatever else he could find, had made a delicious dinner. Bursting with food and contentment, we all sprawled around the fire, listening to stories and songs. Surprisingly enough, little Murtagh, who seldom opened his mouth to speak, had a beautiful, clear tenor voice. While it was difficult to persuade him to sing, the results were worth it.
I nestled closer to Jamie, trying to find a comfortable spot to sit on the hard granite. We had camped at the edge of the rocky outcrop, where a broad shelf of reddish granite gave us a natural hearth, and the towering jumble of rocks behind made a place to hide the horses. When I asked why we did not sleep more comfortably on the springy grass of the moor, Ned Gowan had informed me that we were now near the southern border of the MacKenzie lands. And thus near the territory of both Grants and Chisholms.
“Dougal’s scouts say there’s no sign of anyone nearabouts,” he had said, standing on a large boulder to peer into the sunset himself, “but ye can never tell. Better safe than sorry, ye ken.”
When Murtagh called it quits, Rupert began to tell stories. While he lacked Gwyllyn’s elegant way with words, he had an inexhaustible fund of stories, about fairies, ghosts, the tannasg or evil spirits, and other inhabitants of the Highlands, such as the waterhorses. These beings, I was given to understand, inhabited almost all bodies of water, being especially common at fords and crossings, though many lived in the depths of the lochs.
“There’s a spot at the eastern end of Loch Garve, ye ken,” he said, rolling his eyes around the gathering to be sure everyone was listening, “that never freezes. It’s always black water there, even when the rest o’ the loch is frozen solid, for that’s the waterhorse’s chimney.”
The waterhorse of Loch Garve, like so many of his kind, had stolen a young girl who came to the loch to draw water, and carried her away to live in the depths of the loch and be his wife. Woe betide any maiden, or any man, for that matter, who met a fine horse by the water’s side and thought to ride upon him, for a rider once mounted could not dismount, and the horse would step into the water, turn into a fish, and swim to his home with the hapless rider still stuck fast to his back.
“Now, a waterhorse beneath the waves has but fish’s teeth,” said Rupert, wiggling his palm like an undulating fish, “and feeds on snails and waterweeds and cold, wet things. His blood runs cold as the water, and he’s no need of fire, d’ye ken, but a human woman’s a wee bit warmer than that.” Here he winked at me and leered outrageously, to the enjoyment of the listeners.
“So the waterhorse’s wife was sad and cold and hungry in her new home beneath the waves, not caring owermuch for snails and waterweed for her supper. So, the waterhorse being a kindly sort, takes himself to the bank of the loch near the house of a man with the reputation of a builder. And when the man came down to the river, and saw the fine golden horse with his silver bridle, shining in the sun, he couldna resist seizing the bridle and mounting.
“Sure enough, the waterhorse carries him straight into the water, and down through the depths to his own cold, fishy home. And there he tells the builder if he would be free, he must build a fine hearth, and a chimney as well, that the waterhorse’s wife might have a fire to warm her hands and fry her fish.”
I had been resting my head on Jamie’s shoulder, feeling pleasantly drowsy and looking forward to bed, even if that was only a blanket spread over granite. Suddenly I felt his body tense. He put a hand on my neck, warning me to keep still. I looked around the campsite, and could see nothing amiss, but I caught the air of tension, running from man to man as though transmitted by wireless.
Looking in Rupert’s direction, I saw him nod fractionally as he caught Dougal’s eye, though he went on with the story imperturbably.
“So the builder, havin’ little choice, did as he was bid. And so the waterhorse kept his word, and returned the man to the bank near his home. And the waterhorse’s wife was warm, then, and happy, and full of the fish she fried for her supper. And the water never freezes over the east end of Loch Garve because the heat from the waterhorse’s chimney melts the ice.”
Rupert was seated on a rock, his right side toward me. As he spoke, he bent down as though casually to scratch his leg. Without the slightest hitch in his movements, he grasped the knife that lay on the ground near his foot and transferred it smoothly to his lap, where it lay hidden in the folds of his kilt.
I wriggled closer and pulled Jamie’s head down as though overcome by amorousness. “What is it?” I whispered in his ear.
He seized my earlobe between his teeth and whispered back. “The horses are restless. Someone’s near.”
One man got up and strolled to the edge of the rock to relieve himself. When he returned, he sat down in a new spot, next to one of the drovers. Another man rose and peered into the cook-pot, helping himself to a morsel of venison. All around the campsite, there was a subtle shifting and moving, while Rupert kept on talking.
Watching carefully, with Jamie’s arm tight around me, I finally realized that the men were moving closer to wherever their weapons had been placed. All of them slept with their dirks, but generally left swords, pistols, and the round leather shields called targes in small, neat heaps near the edge of the campsite. Jamie’s own pair of pistols lay on the ground with his sword, just a few feet away.
I could see the firelight dancing on the damascened blade. While his pistols were no more than the customary horn-handled “dags” worn by most of the men, both broadsword and claymore were something special. He had showed them to me with pride at one of our stops, turning the gleaming blades over lovingly in his hands.
The claymore was wrapped inside his blanket roll; I could see the enormous T-shaped hilt, the grip roughened for battle by careful sanding. I had lifted it, and nearly dropped it. It weighed close to fifteen pounds, Jamie told me.
If the claymore was somber and lethal-looking, the broadsword was beautiful. Two-thirds the weight of the larger weapon, it was a deadly, gleaming thing with Islamic tracery snaking its way up the blue steel blade to the spiraled basket hilt, enameled in reds and blues. I had seen Jamie use it in playful practice, first right-handed with one of the men-at-arms, later left-handed with Dougal. He was a glory to watch under those conditions, swift and sure, with a grace made the more impressive by his size. But my mouth grew dry at the thought of seeing that skill used in earnest.
He bent toward me, planting a tender kiss under the edge of my jaw, and taking the opportunity to turn me slightly, so that I faced one of the jumbled piles of rocks.
“Soon, I think,” he murmured, kissing me industriously. “D’ye see the small opening in the rock?” I did; a space less than three feet high, formed by two large slabs fallen together.
He clasped my face and nuzzled me lovingly. “When I say go, get into it and stay there. Have ye the dirk?”
He had insisted I keep the dirk he had tossed to me that night at the inn, despite my own insistence that I had neither the skill nor the inclination to use it. And when it came to insisting, Dougal had been right; Jamie was stubborn.
Consequently, the dirk was in one of the deep pockets of my gown. After a day of uncomfortable awareness of its weight against my thigh, I had grown almost oblivious to it. He ran a hand playfully down my leg, checking to make certain of its presence.
He lifted his head then, like a cat scenting the breeze. Looking up, I could see him glance at Murtagh, then down at me. The little man gave no outward sign, but rose and stretched himself thoroughly. When he sat down again, he was several feet nearer to me.
A horse whickered nervously behind us. As though it had been a signal, they came screaming over the rocks. Not English, as I had feared, nor bandits. Highlanders, shrieking like banshees. Grants, I supposed. Or Campbells.
On hands and knees, I made for the rocks. I banged my head and scraped my knees, but managed to wedge myself into the small crevice. Heart hammering, I fumbled for the dirk in my pocket, almost jabbing myself in the process. I had no idea what to do with the long, wicked knife, but felt slightly better for having it. There was a moonstone set in the hilt and it was comforting to feel the small bulge against my palm; at least I knew I had hold of the right end in the darkness.
The fighting was so confused that at first I had no idea what was going on. The small clearing was filled with yelling bodies, heaving to and fro, rolling on the ground, and running back and forth. My sanctuary was luckily to one side of the main combat, so I was in no danger for the moment. Glancing around, I saw a small, crouching figure close by, pressed against my rock in the shadow. I took a firmer grip on my dirk, but realized almost at once that it was Murtagh.
So that was the purpose of Jamie’s glance. Murtagh had been told off to guard me. I couldn’t see Jamie himself anywhere. Most of the fighting was taking place in the rocks and shadows near the wagons.
Of course, that must be the object of the raid; the wagons and the horses. The attackers were an organized band, well armed and decently fed, from the little I could see of them in the light of the dying fire. If these were Grants, then, perhaps they were seeking either booty or revenge for the cattle Rupert and friends had pilfered a few days before. Confronted with the results of that impromptu raid, Dougal had been mildly annoyed—not with the fact of the raid, but only concerned that the cattle would slow our progress. He had managed to dispose of them almost at once, though, at a small market in one of the villages.
It was soon clear that the attackers were not much concerned with inflicting harm on our party; only with getting to the horses and wagons. One or two succeeded. I crouched low as a barebacked horse leaped the fire and disappeared into the darkness of the moor, a caterwauling man clinging to its mane.
Two or three more raced away on foot, clutching bags of Colum’s grain, pursued by furious MacKenzies shouting Gaelic imprecations. From the sound of it, the raid was dying down. Then a large group of men staggered out into the firelight and the action picked up again.
This seemed to be serious fighting, an impression borne out by the flashing of blades and the fact that the participants were grunting a good deal, but not yelling. At length I got it sorted out. Jamie and Dougal were at the center of it, fighting back to back. Each of them held his broadsword in the left hand, dirk in the right, and both of them were putting the arms to good use, so far as I could see.
They were surrounded by four men—or five; I lost count in the shadows—armed with short swords, though one man had a broadsword hung on his belt and at least two more carried undrawn pistols.
It must be Dougal, or Jamie, or both, that they wanted. Alive, for preference. For ransom, I supposed. Thus the deliberate use of smallswords, which might merely wound, rather than the more lethal broadsword or pistols.
Dougal and Jamie suffered from no such scruples, and were attending to business with considerable grim efficiency. Back to back, they formed a complete circle of threat, each man covering the other’s weaker side. When Dougal drove his dirk hand upward with considerable force, I thought that “weaker” might not be precisely the term.
The whole roiling, grunting, cursing mess was staggering toward me. I pressed myself back as far as I could, but the crevice was barely two feet deep. I caught a stir of movement from the corner of my eye. Murtagh had decided to take a more active part in affairs.
I could scarcely pull my horrified gaze away from Jamie, but saw the little clansman draw his pistol, so far unfired, in a leisurely manner. He checked the firing mechanism carefully, rubbed the weapon on his sleeve, braced it on his forearm and waited.
And waited. I was shivering with fear for Jamie, who had given up finesse and was slashing savagely from side to side, beating back the two men who now faced him with sheer bloody-mindedness. Why in hell didn’t the man fire? I thought furiously. And then I realized why not. Both Jamie and Dougal were in the line of fire. I seemed to recall that flintlock pistols sometimes lacked a bit in the way of accuracy.
This supposition was borne out in the next minute, as an unexpected lunge by one of Dougal’s opponents caught him at the wrist. The blade ripped up the length of his forearm and he sank to one knee. Feeling his uncle fall, Jamie pulled back his own blade and took two quick steps backward. This put his back near a rock face, Dougal crouched to one side, within reach of the protection of his single blade. It also brought the attackers side-on to my hiding-place and Murtagh’s pistol.
Close at hand, the report of the pistol was startlingly loud. It took the attackers by surprise, particularly the one who was hit. The man stood still for a moment, shook his head in a confused way, then very slowly sat down, fell limply backward, and rolled down a slight decline into the dying embers of the fire.
Taking advantage of the surprise, Jamie knocked the sword from the hand of one attacker. Dougal was on his feet again, and Jamie moved to the side to give him room for swordplay. One of the fighters had abandoned the fray and run down the hill to drag his wounded companion out of the hot ashes. Still, that left three of the raiders, and Dougal wounded. I could see dark drops splashing against the rock face as he wielded the sword.
They were close enough now that I could see Jamie’s face, calm and intent, absorbed with the exultancy of battle. Suddenly Dougal shouted something to him. Jamie tore his eyes from his opponent’s face for a split second and glanced down. Glancing back just in time to avoid being skewered, he ducked to one side and threw his sword.
His opponent gazed in considerable surprise at the sword sticking in his leg. He touched the blade in some bemusement, then grasped it and pulled.
From the ease with which it came out, I assumed the wound was not deep. The man still seemed slightly bewildered, and glanced up as though to ask the purpose of this unorthodox behavior.
He uttered a scream, dropped the sword, and ran, limping heavily. Startled by the noise, the other two attackers looked over, turned, and likewise fled, pursued by Jamie, moving like an avalanche. He had succeeded in yanking the huge claymore out of the blanket roll, and was swinging it in a murderous, two handed arc. Backing him up came Murtagh, shouting something highly uncomplimentary in Gaelic and brandishing both sword and reloaded pistol.
Things mopped up quite quickly after that, and it was only a quarter of an hour or so before the MacKenzie party had reassembled and assessed its damages.
These had been slight; two horses had been taken, and three bags of grain, but the drovers, who slept with their loads, had prevented further depredations on the wagons, while the men-at-arms had succeeded in driving off the would-be horse thieves. The major loss seemed to be one of the men.
I thought when he was missed at first that he must have been wounded or killed in the scrimmage, but a thorough search of the area failed to turn him up.
“Kidnapped,” said Dougal grimly. “Blast, he’ll cost me a month’s income in ransom.”
“Could ha’ been worse, Dougal,” said Jamie, mopping his face on his sleeve. “Think what Colum would say if they’d taken you!”
“If they’d taken you, lad, I’d ha’ let them keep ye, and ye could change your name to Grant,” Dougal retorted, but the mood of the party lightened substantially.
I unearthed the small box of medical supplies I had packed, and lined up the injured in order of severity. Nothing really bad, I was pleased to see. The wound on Dougal’s arm was likely the worst.
Ned Gowan was bright-eyed and fizzing with vitality, apparently so intoxicated with the thrill of the fight as hardly to notice the tooth that had been knocked out by an ill-aimed dagger hilt. He had, however, retained sufficient presence of mind to keep it carefully held under his tongue.
“Just on the off-chance, d’ye see,” he explained, spitting it into the palm of his hand. The root was not broken, and the socket still bled slightly, so I took the chance and pressed the tooth firmly back into place. The little man went quite white, but didn’t utter a sound. He gratefully swished his mouth with whisky for disinfectant purposes, though, and thriftily swallowed it.
I had bound Dougal’s wound at once with a pressure bandage, and was glad to see that the bleeding had all but stopped by the time I unwrapped it. It was a clean slash, but a deep one. A tiny rim of yellow fat showed at the edge of the gaping cut, which went at least an inch deep into the muscle. No major vessels severed, thank goodness, but it would have to be stitched.
The only needle available turned out to be a sturdy thing like a slender awl, used by the drovers to mend harness. I eyed it dubiously, but Dougal merely held out his arm and looked away.
“I dinna mind blood in general,” he explained, “but I’ve some objection to seein’ my own.” He sat on a rock as I worked, teeth clenched hard enough to make his jaw muscles quiver. The night was turning cold, but sweat stood out on the high forehead in beads. At one point, he asked me politely to stop for a moment, turned aside and was neatly sick behind a rock, then turned back and braced his arm on his knee again.
By good luck, one tavern owner had chosen to remit his rent this quarter in the form of a small keg of whisky, and it came in quite handily. I used it to disinfect some of the open wounds, and then let my patients self-medicate as they liked. I even accepted a cupful myself, at the conclusion of the doctoring. I drained it with pleasure and sank thankfully onto my blanket. The moon was sinking, and I was shivering, half with reaction and half with cold. It was a wonderful feeling to have Jamie lie down and firmly gather me in, next to his large, warm body.