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I flushed hotly and turned away so he wouldn’t see it. After Jamie’s obnoxious remarks, I had resolved to keep my mouth firmly shut through the whole ordeal. However, when it came to the event, I would have challenged the Sphinx itself to keep a shut mouth while on the receiving end of a strap wielded by Jamie Fraser.
Dougal turned to call to Jamie, seated at the table eating bread and cheese. “Hey now, Jamie, it wasna necessary to half-kill the lass. A gentle reminder would ha’ sufficed.” He patted me firmly on the posterior in illustration, making me wince. I glowered at him.
“A blistered bum never did anyone no permanent harm,” said Murtagh, through a mouthful of bread.
“No, indeed,” said Ned, grinning. “Come have a seat, lassie.”
“I’ll stand, thank you,” I said with dignity, making them all roar with laughter. Jamie was careful not to meet my eyes, as he studiously cut up a bit of cheese.
There was a bit more good-natured chaff during the day, and each of the men made some excuse to pat my rump in mock sympathy. On the whole, though, it was bearable, and I grudgingly began to consider that Jamie might have been right, though I still wanted to strangle him.
Since sitting down was completely out of the question, I busied myself during the morning with small chores such as hemming and button-sewing, which could be done at the window sill, with the excuse of needing the light to sew by. After lunch, which I ate standing, we all went to our rooms to rest. Dougal had decided that we would wait ’til full dark to set out for Bargrennan, the next stop on our journey. Jamie followed me to our room, but I shut the door firmly in his face. Let him sleep on the floor again.
He had been fairly tactful last night, buckling his belt back on and leaving the room without speaking immediately after he’d finished. He had come back an hour later, after I’d put out the light and gone to bed, but had had sense enough not to try to come into bed with me. After peering into the darkness where I lay unmoving, he had sighed deeply, wrapped himself in his plaid, and gone to sleep on the floor near the door.
Too angry, upset, and physically uncomfortable to sleep, I had lain awake most of the night, alternately thinking over what Jamie had said with wanting to get up and kick him in some sensitive spot.
Were I being objective, which I was in no mood to be, I might admit that he was right when he said that I didn’t take things with the proper seriousness. He was wrong, though, when he said it was because things were less precarious in my own place—wherever that was. In fact, I thought, it was more likely the opposite was true.
This time was in many ways still unreal to me; something from a play or a fancy-dress pageant. Compared to the sights of mechanized mass warfare I had come from, the small pitched battles I had seen—a few men armed with swords and muskets—seemed picturesque rather than threatening to me.
I was having trouble with the scale of things. A man killed with a musket was just as dead as one killed with a mortar. It was just that the mortar killed impersonally, destroying dozens of men, while the musket was fired by one man who could see the eyes of the one he killed. That made it murder, it seemed to me, not war. How many men to make a war? Enough, perhaps, so they didn’t really have to see each other? And yet this plainly was war—or serious business at least—to Dougal, Jamie, Rupert, and Ned. Even little rat-faced Murtagh had a reason for violence beyond his natural inclinations.
And what about those reasons? One king rather than another? Hanovers and Stuarts? To me, these were still no more than names on a chart on the schoolroom wall. What were they, compared with an unthinkable evil like Hitler’s Reich? It made a difference to those who lived under the kings, I supposed, though the differences might seem trivial to me. Still, when had the right to live as one wished ever been considered trivial? Was a struggle to choose one’s own destiny less worthwhile than the necessity to stop a great evil? I shifted irritably, gingerly rubbing my sore bottom. I glared at Jamie, curled into a ball by the door. He was breathing evenly, but lightly; perhaps he couldn’t sleep either. I hoped not.
I had been inclined at first to take this whole remarkable misadventure as melodrama; such things just did not happen in real life. I had had many shocks since I stepped through the rock, but the worst to date had been this afternoon.
Jack Randall, so like and so horribly unlike Frank. His touch on my breasts had suddenly forged a link between my old life and this one, bringing my separate realities together with a bang like a thunderclap. And then there was Jamie: his face, stark with fear in the window of Randall’s room, contorted with rage by the roadside, tight with pain at my insults.
Jamie. Jamie was real, all right, more real than anything had ever been to me, even Frank and my life in 1945. Jamie, tender lover and perfidious black-guard.
Perhaps that was part of the problem. Jamie filled my senses so completely that his surroundings seemed almost irrelevant. But I could no longer afford to ignore them. My recklessness had almost killed him this afternoon, and my stomach turned over at the thought of losing him. I sat up suddenly, intending to go and wake him to tell him to come to bed with me. As my weight fell full on the results of his handiwork, I just as suddenly changed my mind and flounced angrily back onto my stomach.
A night spent thus torn between fits of rage and philosophy had left me worn out. I slept all afternoon, and stumbled blearily down for a light supper when Rupert roused me just before dark.
Dougal, no doubt writhing at the expense, had procured another horse for me. A sound beast, if inelegantly built, with a kindly eye and a short, bristly mane; at once I named it Thistle.
I had not reckoned on the effects of a long horseback ride following a severe beating. I eyed Thistle’s hard saddle dubiously, suddenly realizing what I was in for. A thick cloak plopped across the saddle, and Murtagh’s shiny black rat-eye winked conspiratorially at me from the opposite side. I determined that I would at least suffer in dignified silence, and grimly set my jaw as I hoisted myself into the saddle.
There seemed to be an unspoken conspiracy of gallantry among the men; they took turns stopping at frequent intervals to relieve themselves, allowing me to dismount for a few minutes and surreptitiously rub my aching fundament. Now and again, one would suggest stopping for a drink, which necessitated my stopping as well, since Thistle carried the water bottles.
We jolted along for a couple of hours in this manner, but the pain grew steadily worse, keeping me shifting in the saddle incessantly. Finally I decided to hell with dignified suffering, I simply must get off for a while.
“Whoa!” I said to Thistle, and swung down. I pretended to examine her front left foot, as the other horses came to a milling stop around us.
“I’m afraid she’s had a stone in her shoe,” I lied. “I’ve got it out, but I’d better walk her a bit; don’t want her to go lame.”
“No, we can’t have that,” said Dougal. “All right, walk for a bit, then, but someone must stay wi’ ye. ’Tis a quiet enough road, but I canna have ye walkin’ alone.” Jamie immediately swung down.
“I’ll walk with her,” he said quietly.
“Good. Dinna tarry too long; we must be in Bargrennan before dawn. The sign of the Red Boar; landlord’s a friend.” With a wave, he gathered the others and they set off at a brisk trot, leaving us, in the dust.
* * *
Several hours of torture by saddle had not improved my temper. Let him walk with me. I was damned if I’d speak to him, the sadistic, violent brute.
He didn’t look particularly brutish in the light of the half-moon rising, but I hardened my heart and limped along, carefully not looking at him.
My abused muscles at first protested the unaccustomed exercise, but after a half hour or so I began to move much more easily.
“You’ll feel much better by tomorrow,” Jamie observed casually. “Though you won’t sit easy ’til the next day.”
“And what makes you such an expert?” I flared at him. “Do you beat people all that frequently?”
“Well, no,” he said, undisturbed by my attitude. “This is the first time I’ve tried it. I’ve considerable experience on the other end, though.”
“You?” I gaped at him. The thought of anyone taking a strap to this towering mass of muscle and sinew was completely untenable.
He laughed at my expression. “When I was a bit smaller, Sassenach. I’ve had my backside leathered more times than I could count, between the ages of eight and thirteen. That’s when I got taller than my father, and it got unhandy for him to bend me over a fence rail.”
“Your father beat you?”
“Aye, mostly. The schoolmaster, too, of course, and Dougal or one of the other uncles now and then, depending on where I was and what I’d been doing.”
I was growing interested, in spite of my determination to ignore him.
“What did you do?”
He laughed again, a quiet but infectious sound in the still night air.
“Well, I canna remember everything. I will say I generally deserved it. I don’t think my Da ever beat me unfairly, at least.” He paced without speaking for a minute, thinking.
“Mm. Let’s see, there was once for stoning the chickens, and once for riding the cows and getting them too excited for milking, and then for eating all of the jam out of the cakes and leaving the cakes behind. Ah, and letting the horses out of the barn by leaving the gate unlatched, and setting the thatch of the dovecote on fire—that was an accident, I didna do it on purpose—and losing my schoolbooks—I did do that on purpose—and…” He broke off, shrugging, as I laughed despite myself.
“The usual sorts of things. Most often, though, it was for opening my mouth when I should ha’ kept it closed.”
He snorted at some memory. “Once my sister Jenny broke a pitcher; I made her angry, teasing, and she lost her temper and threw it at me. When my Da came in and demanded to know who’d done it, she was too scared to speak up, and she just looked at me, with her eyes all wide and frightened—she’s got blue eyes, like mine, but prettier, wi’ black lashes all around.” Jamie shrugged again. “Anyway, I told my father I’d done it.”
“That was very noble of you,” I said, sarcastically. “Your sister must have been grateful.”
“Aye, well, she might have been. Only my father’d been on, the other side of the open door all along, and he’d seen what really happened. So she got whipped for losing her temper and breaking the pitcher, and I got whipped twice; once for teasing her and again for lying.”
“That’s not fair!” I said indignantly.
“My father wasna always gentle, but he was usually fair,” Jamie said imperturbably. “He said the truth is the truth, and people should take responsibility for their own actions, which is right.” He shot me a sidelong glance.
“But he said it was good-hearted of me to take the blame, so while he’d have to punish me, I could take my choice between being thrashed or going to bed without my supper.” He laughed ruefully, shaking his head. “Father knew me pretty well. I took the thrashing with no questions.”
“You’re nothing but a walking appetite, Jamie,” I said.
“Aye,” he agreed without rancor, “always have been. You too, glutton,” he said to his mount. “Wait a bit, ’til we stop for a rest.” He twitched the rein, pulling his horse’s questing nose from the tempting tufts of grass along the roadside.
“Aye, Father was fair,” he went on, “and considerate about it, though I certainly didna appreciate that at the time. He wouldn’t make me wait for a beating; if I did something wrong, I got punished at once—or as soon as he found out about it. He always made sure I knew what I was about to get walloped for, and if I wanted to argue my side of it, I could.”
Oh, so that’s what you’re up to, I thought. You disarming schemer. I doubted he could charm me out of my set intention of disemboweling him at the first opportunity, but he was welcome to try.
“Did you ever win an argument?” I asked.
“No. It was generally a straightforward-enough case, with the accused convicted out of his own mouth. But sometimes I got the sentence reduced a bit.” He rubbed his nose.
“Once I told him I thought beating your son was a most uncivilized method of getting your own way. He said I’d about as much sense as the post I was standing next to, if as much. He said respect for your elders was one of the cornerstones of civilized behavior, and until I learned that, I’d better get used to looking at my toes while one of my barbaric elders thrashed my arse off.”
This time I laughed along with him. It was peaceful on the road, with that sort of absolute quiet that comes when you are miles from any other person. The sort of quiet so hard to come by in my own more crowded time, when machines spread the influence of man, so that a single person could make as much noise as a crowd. The only sounds here were the stirrings of plants, the occasional skreek of a nightbird, and the soft thudding steps of the horses.
I was walking a little easier now, as my cramped muscles began to stretch freely with the exercise. My prickly feelings began to relax a little, too, listening to Jamie’s stories, all humorous and self-deprecating.
“I didna like being beaten at all, of course, but if I had a choice, I’d rather my Da than the schoolmaster. We’d mostly get it across the palm of the hand with a tawse, in the schoolhouse, instead of on the backside. Father said if he whipped me on the hand, I’d not be able to do any work, whereas if he whipped my arse, I’d at least not be tempted to sit down and be idle.”
“We had a different schoolmaster each year, usually; they didna last long—usually turned farmer or moved on to richer parts. Schoolmasters are paid so little, they’re always skinny and starving. Had a fat one once, and I could never believe he was a real schoolmaster; he looked like a parson in disguise.” I thought of plump little Father Bain and smiled in agreement.
“One I remember especially, because he’d make ye stand out in the front of the schoolroom with your hand out, and then he’d lecture ye at great length about your faults before he started, and again in between strokes. I’d stand there wi’ my hand out, smarting, just praying he’d stop yammering and get on with the job before I lost all my courage and started crying.”
“I imagine that’s what he wanted you to do,” I said, feeling some sympathy in spite of myself.
“Oh, aye,” he replied matter-of-factly. “It took some time for me to realize that, though. And once I did, as usual I couldna keep my mouth shut.” He sighed.
“What happened?” I had all but forgotten to be furious by this time.
“Well, he had me up one day—I got it a lot because I couldna write properly with my right hand, kept doing it with my left. He’d smacked me three times—takin’ nearly five minutes to do it, the bastard—and he was goin’ on at me for being a stupid, idle, stubborn young lout before givin’ me the next. My hand burned something fierce, because it was the second time that day, and I was scared because I knew I’d get an awful thrashing when I got home—that was the rule; if I got a beating at school, I’d get another directly I came home, for my father thought schooling important—anyway, I lost my temper.” His left hand curled involuntarily around the rein, as though protecting the sensitive palm.
He paused and glanced at me. “I seldom lose my temper, Sassenach, and generally regret it when I do.” And that, I thought, was likely to be as close to an apology as I’d get.
“Did you regret it that time?”
“Well, I doubled up my fists and glared up at him—he was a tall, scrawny fellow, maybe twenty, I suppose, though he looked quite old to me—and I said ‘I’m not afraid o’ you, and ye can’t make me cry, no matter how hard you hit me!’ ” He drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “I suppose it was a bit of a mistake in judgment to tell him that while he was still holding the strap.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “He tried to prove you were wrong?”
“Oh, aye, he tried.” Jamie nodded, head dark against the cloud-lit sky. His voice held a certain grim satisfaction on the word “tried.”
“He didn’t succeed, then?”
The shaggy head shook back and forth. “No. At least he couldna make me cry. He surely made me regret not keeping quiet, though.”
He paused for a moment, turning his own face toward me. The cloud cover had parted for a moment and the light touched the edges of jaw and cheek, making him look gilded, like one of Donatello’s archangels.
“When Dougal was describing my character to ye, before we wed, did he by chance mention that I’m sometimes a bit stubborn?” The slanted eyes glinted, much more Lucifer than Michael.
I laughed. “That’s putting it mildly. As I recall, what he said is that all the Frasers are stubborn as rocks, and you’re the worst of the lot. Actually,” I said, a little dryly, “I’d noticed something of the kind myself.”
He smiled as he reined the horse around a deep puddle in the road, leading mine by the checkrein after him.
“Mmph, well, I’ll no just say Dougal’s wrong,” he said, once the hazard had been negotiated. “But if I’m stubborn, I come by it honest. My father was just the same, and we’d get in wrangles from time to time that we couldna get out of without the application of force, usually wi’ me bent over the fence rail.”
Suddenly, he put out a hand to grab my horse’s rein, as the beast reared and snorted. “Hey now! Hush! Stad, mo dhu!” His own, less spooked, only jerked and tossed its head nervously.
“What is it?” I could see nothing, despite the patches of moonlight that mottled road and field. There was a pine grove up ahead, and the horses seemed disinclined to go any nearer to it.
“I don’t know. Stay here and keep quiet. Mount your horse and hold mine. If I call to ye, drop the checkrein and run for it.” Jamie’s voice was low and casual, calming me as well as the horses. With a muttered “Sguir!” to the horse and a slap on the neck to urge it closer to me, he faded into the heather, hand on his dirk.
I strained eyes and ears to discern whatever it was still troubling the horses; they shifted and stamped, ears and tails twitching in agitation. The clouds by now had shredded and flown on the nightwind, leaving only scattered trails across the face of a brilliant half moon. In spite of the brightness, I could see nothing on the road ahead, or in the menacing grove.
It seemed a late hour and an unprofitable road for highwaymen, scarce as these were anywhere in the Highlands; there were too few travelers to make an ambush worthwhile.
The grove was dark, but not still. The pines roared softly to themselves, millions of needles scouring in the wind. Very ancient trees, pines, and eerie in the gloom. Gymnosperms, cone-bearers, winged-seed scatterers, older and sterner by far than the soft-leaved, frail-limbed oaks and aspens. A suitable home for Rupert’s ghosts and evil spirits.
Only you, I thought crossly to myself, could work yourself up into being afraid of a lot of trees. Where was Jamie, though?
The hand gripping my thigh made me squeak like a startled bat; a natural consequence of trying to scream with your heart in your mouth. With the unreasonable fury of the irrationally afraid, I struck out at him, kicking him in the chest.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“Hush,” he said, “come with me.” Tugging me unceremoniously from the saddle, he swung me down and hastily tethered the horses, who whickered uneasily after us as he led me into the tall grass.
“What is it?” I hissed, stumbling blindly over roots and rocks.
“Quiet. Don’t speak. Look down and watch my feet. Step where I step, and stop when I touch you.”
Slowly and more or less silently, we made our way into the edges of the pine grove. It was dark under the trees, with only crumbs of light falling through to the needle litter underfoot. Even Jamie couldn’t walk silently on that, but the rustle of dry needles was lost in that of the green ones overhead.
There was a rift in the litter, a mass of granite rising from the forest floor. Here Jamie put me in front of him, guiding my hands and feet to climb the sloping crumble of the mound. At the top, there was enough room to lie belly-flat, side by side. Jamie put his mouth next to my ear, barely breathing. “Thirty feet ahead, to the right. In the clearing. See them?”
Once I saw them, I could hear as well. Wolves, a small pack, eight or ten animals, perhaps. No howling, not these. The kill lay in the shadow, a blob of dark with an upthrust leg, stick-thin and vibrating under the impact of teeth yanking at the carcass. There was only the occasional soft growl and yip as a cub was batted away from an adult’s morsel, and the contented sounds of feeding, crunching, and the crack of a bone.
As my eyes grew more accustomed to the moon-flecked scene, I could pick out several shaggy forms stretched under the trees, glutted and peaceful. Bits of grey fur shone here and there, as those still at the carcass pushed and rooted for tender bits overlooked by the earlier diners.
A broad, yellow-eyed head thrust suddenly up into a blotch of light, ears pricked. The wolf made a soft, urgent noise, something between a whine and a growl, and there was a sudden stillness under the trees below.
The saffron eyes seemed fixed on my own. There was no fear in the animal’s posture, nor curiosity, only a wary acknowledgment. Jamie’s hand on my back warned me not to move, though I felt no desire to run. I could have stayed locked in the wolf’s eyes for hours, I think, but she—I was sure it was a female, though I didn’t know how I knew—flicked her ears once, as though dismissing me, and bent once more to her meal.
We watched them for a few minutes, peaceful in the scattered light. At last, Jamie signaled that it was time to go, with a touch on my arm.
He kept the hand on my arm to support me as we made our way back through the trees to the road. It was the first time I had willingly allowed him to touch me since he had rescued me from Fort William. Still charmed by the sight of the wolves, we did not speak much, but began to feel comfortable with each other again.
As we walked, considering the stories he had told me, I couldn’t help but admire the job he had done. Without one word of direct explanation or apology, he had given me the message he intended. I gave you justice, it said, as I was taught it. And I gave you mercy, too, so far as I could. While I could not spare you pain and humiliation, I make you a gift of my own pains and humiliations, that yours might be easier to bear.
“Did you mind a lot?” I said abruptly. “Being beaten, I mean. Did you get over it easily?”
He squeezed my hand lightly before letting it go.
“Mostly I forgot it as soon as it was over. Except for the last time; that took awhile.”
“Ah, well. I was sixteen, for one thing, and a man grown…I thought. For another, it hurt like hell.”