Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
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.
“Will they come back, do you think?” I asked, but he shook his head.
“Nay, it was Malcolm Grant and his two boys—it was the oldest I stuck in the leg. They’ll be home in their own beds by now,” he replied. He stroked my hair and said, in softer tones, “Ye did a braw bit o’ work tonight, lass. I was proud of ye.”
I rolled over and put my arms about his neck.
“Not as proud as I was. You were wonderful, Jamie. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
He snorted deprecatingly, but I thought he was pleased, nonetheless.
“Only a raid, Sassenach. I’ve been doin’ that since I was fourteen. It’s only in fun, ye see; it’s different when you’re up against someone who really means to kill ye.”
“Fun,” I said, a little faintly. “Yes, quite.”
His arms tightened around me, and one of the stroking hands dipped lower, beginning to inch my skirt upward. Clearly the thrill of the fight was being transmuted into a different kind of excitement.
“Jamie! Not here!” I said, squirming away and pushing my skirt down again.
“Are ye tired, Sassenach?” he asked with concern. “Dinna worry, I won’t take long.” Now both hands were at it, rucking the heavy fabric up in front.
“No!” I replied, all too mindful of the twenty men lying a few feet away. “I’m not tired, it’s just—” I gasped as his groping hand found its way between my legs.
“Lord,” he said softly. “It’s slippery as waterweed.”
“Jamie! There are twenty men sleeping right next to us!” I shouted in a whisper.
“They wilna be sleeping long, if you keep talking.” He rolled on top of me, pinning me to the rock. His knee wedged between my thighs and began to work gently back and forth. Despite myself, my legs were beginning to loosen. Twenty-seven years of propriety were no match for several hundred thousand years of instinct. While my mind might object to being taken on a bare rock next to several sleeping soldiers, my body plainly considered itself the spoils of war and was eager to complete the formalities of surrender. He kissed me, long and deep, his tongue sweet and restless in my mouth.
“Jamie,” I panted. He pushed his kilt out of the way and pressed my hand against him.
“Bloody Christ,” I said, impressed despite myself. My sense of propriety slipped another notch.
“Fighting gives ye a terrible cockstand, after. Ye want me, do ye no?” he said, pulling back a little to look at me. It seemed pointless to deny it, what with all the evidence to hand. He was hard as a brass rod against my bared thigh.
He took a firm grip on my shoulders with both hands.
“Be quiet, Sassenach,” he said with authority. “It isna going to take verra long.”
It didn’t. I began to climax with the first powerful thrust, in long, racking spasms. I dug my fingers hard into his back and held on, biting the fabric of his shirt to muffle any sounds. In less than a dozen strokes, I felt his testicles contract, tight against his body, and the warm flood of his own release. He lowered himself slowly to the side and lay trembling.
The blood was still beating heavily in my ears, echoing the fading pulse between my legs. Jamie’s hand lay on my breast, limp and heavy. Turning my head, I could see the dim figure of the sentry, leaning against a rock on the far side of the fire. He had his back tactfully turned. I was mildly shocked to realize that I was not even embarrassed. I wondered rather dimly whether I would be in the morning, and then wondered no more.
* * *
In the morning, everyone behaved as usual, if moving a little more stiffly from the effects of fighting and sleeping on rocks. Everyone was in a cheerful humor, even those with minor wounds.
The general humor was improved still further when Dougal announced that we would travel only as far as the clump of woods we could see from the edge of our rocky platform. There we could water and graze the horses, and rest a bit ourselves. I wondered whether this change of plan would affect Jamie’s rendezvous with the mysterious Horrocks, but he seemed undisturbed at the announcement.
The day was overcast but not drizzling, and the air was warm. Once the new camp was made, the horses taken care of, and the wounded all rechecked everyone was left to his own devices, to sleep in the grass, to hunt or fish, or merely to stretch legs after several days in the saddle.
I was sitting under a tree talking to Jamie and Ned Gowan, when one of the men-at-arms came up and flipped something into Jamie’s lap. It was the dirk with the moonstone hilt.
“Yours, lad?” he asked. “Found it in the rocks this morning.”
“I must have dropped it, in all the excitement,” I said. “Just as well; I’ve no idea what to do with it. I’d likely have stabbed myself if I’d tried to use it.”
Ned eyed Jamie censoriously over his half-spectacles.
“Ye gave her a knife and didn’t teach her to use it?”
“There wasna time, under the circumstances,” Jamie defended himself. “But Ned’s right, Sassenach. Ye should learn how to handle arms. There’s no tellin’ what may happen on the road, as ye saw last night.”
So I was marched out into the center of a clearing and the lessons began. Seeing the activity, several of the MacKenzie men came by to investigate, and stayed to offer advice. In no time, I had half a dozen instructors, all arguing the fine points of technique. After a good deal of amiable discussion, they agreed that Rupert was likely the best among them at dirks, and he took over the lesson.
He found a reasonably flat spot, free of rocks and pine cones, in which to demonstrate the art of dagger-wielding.
“Look, lass,” he said. He held the dagger balanced on his middle finger, resting an inch or so below the haft. “The balance point, that’s where ye want to hold it, so it fits comfortable in yer hand.” I tried it with my dagger. When I had it comfortably fitted, he showed me the difference between an overhand strike and an underhanded stab.
“Generally, ye want to use the underhand; overhand is only good when ye’re comin’ down on someone wi’ a considerable force from above.” He eyed me speculatively, then shook his head.
“Nay, you’re tall for a woman, but even if ye could reach as high as the neck, ye wouldna have the force to penetrate, unless he’s sittin’. Best stick to underhand.” He pulled up his shirt, revealing a substantial furry paunch, already glistening with sweat.
“Now, here,” he said, pointing to the center, just under the breastbone, “is the spot to aim for, if ye’re killin’ face to face. Aim straight up and in, as hard as ye can. That’ll go into the heart, and it kills wi’in a minute or two. The only problem is to avoid the breastbone; it goes down lower than ye think, and if ye get yer knife stuck in that soft bit on the tip, it will hardly harm yer victim at all, but ye’ll be wi’out a knife, and he’ll ha’ you. Murtagh! Ye ha’ a skinny back; come ’ere and we’ll show the lass how to stick from the back.” Spinning a reluctant Murtagh around, he yanked up the grubby shirt to show a knobbly spine and prominent ribs. He poked a blunt forefinger under the lower rib on the right, making Murtagh squeak in surprise.
“This is the spot in back—either side. See, wi’ all the ribs and such, ’tis verra difficult to hit anythin’ vital when ye stab in the back. If ye can slip the knife between the ribs, that’s one thing, but that’s harder to do than ye might think. But here, under the last rib, ye stab upward into the kidney. Get him straight up, and hell drop like a stone.”
Rupert then set me to try stabbing in various positions and postures. As he grew winded, all the men took it in turns to act as victim, obviously finding my efforts hilarious. They obligingly lay on the grass or turned their backs so I could ambush them, or leaped at me from behind, or pretended to choke me so I could try to stab them in the belly.
The spectators urged me on with cries of encouragement, and Rupert instructed me firmly not to pull back at the last moment.
“Thrust as though ye meant it, lass,” he said. “Ye canna pull back if it’s in earnest. And if any o’ these laggards canna get themselves out of the way in time, they deserve what they get.”
I was timid and extremely clumsy at first, but Rupert was a good teacher, very patient and good about demonstrating moves, over and over. He rolled his eyes in mock lewdness when he moved behind me and put his arm about my waist, but he was quite businesslike about taking hold of my wrist to show me the way of ripping an enemy across the eyes.
Dougal sat under a tree, minding his wounded arm and making sardonic comments on the training as it progressed. It was he, though, who suggested the dummy.
“Give her something she can sink her dirk into,” he said, when I had begun to show some facility at lunging and jabbing. “It’s a shock, the first time.”
“So it is,” Jamie agreed. “Rest a bit, Sassenach, while I manage something.”
He went off to the wagons with two of the men-at-arms, and I could see them standing heads together, gesticulating and pulling bits of things from the wagon bed. Thoroughly winded, I collapsed under the tree next to Dougal.
He nodded, a slight smile on his face. Like most of the men, he had not bothered to shave while traveling, and a heavy growth of dark brown beard framed his mouth, accentuating the full lower lip.
“How is it, then?” he asked, not meaning my skill with small arms.
“Well enough,” I answered warily, not meaning knives either. Dougal’s gaze flicked toward Jamie, busy with something by the wagons.