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Actions & Adventure
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recalled me at once to the here and now.
There was a little slack in the rope that bound my wrists; enough to let me make a lunge that brought me clear around, facing the mob. My sudden escape disconcerted the locksman, who brought his lash down on empty air, stumbled forward off-balance, and knocked his head against a limb. This had a very good effect on the mob, who roared insults and started jeering at him.
My hair was in my eyes, stuck to my face with sweat, tears, and the filth of confinement. I shook my head to free it, and managed at least a sidelong glance that confirmed what my ears had heard.
Jamie was shoving his way through the hindering crowd, face like thunder, ruthlessly taking advantage of his size and muscle.
I felt very much like General MacAuliffe at Bastogne, sighting Patton’s Third Army in the offing. In spite of the horrible danger to Geilie, to me, and now to Jamie himself, I had never been so happy to see anyone.
“The witch’s man!” “Her husband, it is!” “Stinkin’ Fraser! Crowner!” and similar epithets began to be heard among the more general abuse aimed at me and Geilie. “Take him too!” “Burn ’em! Burn ’em all!” The crowd’s hysteria, temporarily dispersed by the locksman’s accident, was rising to fever pitch once more.
Hampered by the clinging forms of the locksman’s assistants, who were trying to restrain him, Jamie had come to a dead halt. A man hanging from each arm, he struggled to force his hand toward his belt. Thinking him reaching for a knife, one man punched him hard in the belly.
Jamie doubled slightly, then came up, smashing an elbow to the nose of the man who’d hit him. One arm temporarily freed, he ignored the frantic pawings of the man on the other side. He dipped a hand into his sporran, raised his arm and threw. His shout reached me as the object left his hand.
“Claire! Stand still!”
Not much place for me to go, I thought dazedly. There was a dark blur headed straight for my face, and I started to flinch backward, but stopped in time. The blur struck my face with a clattering sting and the black beads fell on my shoulders as the jet rosary, flung bola-style, neatly ringed my neck. Or not quite neatly; the strand had caught on my right ear. I shook my head, eyes watering from the blow, and the circlet settled into place, crucifix swinging jauntily between my naked breasts.
The faces in the front row were staring at it in a kind of horrified bemusement. Their sudden silence affected those further back, and the roaring seethe of noise subsided. Jamie’s voice, customarily soft-spoken, even in anger, rang out in the silence. There was nothing soft about it now.
“Cut her down!”
The hangers-on had dropped away, and the waves of the crowd parted before him as he strode forward. The locksman watched him come, standing gape-jawed and frozen.
“I said, cut her down! Now!” The locksman, freed from his trance by the apocalyptic vision of red-haired death bearing down on him, stirred himself and fumbled hastily for his dirk. The rope, sawn through, let go with a shuddering snap and my arms dropped like bolsters, aching with released strain. I staggered and would have fallen, but a strong, familiar hand caught my elbow and pulled me upright. Then my face was against Jamie’s chest, and nothing mattered to me anymore.
I may have lost consciousness for a few moments, or only been so overcome with relief that it seemed that way. Jamie’s arm was hard around my waist, holding me up, and his plaid had been thrown over me, hiding me at last from the stare of the villagers. There was a confusion of voices all around, but it was no longer the crazed and gleeful blood-lust of the mob.
The voice of Mutt—or was it Jeff?—cut through the confusion.
“Who are you? How dare ye to interfere wi’ the investigations of the court?”
I could feel, rather than see, the crowd pushing forward. Jamie was large, and he was armed, but he was only one man. I cowered against him under the folds of the plaid. His right arm tightened around me, but his left hand went to the sheath on his hip. The silver-blue blade hissed with menace as it came half out of its scabbard, and those in the forefront of the crowd came to a sudden stop.
The judges were made of somewhat tougher fabric. Peering out from my hiding place, I could see Jeff glaring at Jamie. Mutt appeared more bemused than annoyed at this sudden intrusion.
“Do ye dare to draw arms against the justice of God?” snapped the tubby little judge.
Jamie drew the sword completely, with a flash of steel, then thrust it point-first into the ground, leaving the hilt quivering with the force of the blow.
“I draw it in defense of this woman, and the truth,” he said. “If any here be against those two, they’ll answer to me, and then God, in that order.”
The judge blinked once or twice, as though unable to credit this behavior, then surged to the attack once more.
“You have no place in the workings o’ this court, sir! I’ll demand that ye surrender the prisoner at once. Your own behavior will be dealt with presently!”
Jamie looked the judges over coolly. I could feel his heart hammering beneath my cheek as I clung to him, but his hands were rock-steady, one resting on the hilt of his sword, the other on the dirk at his belt.
“As to that, sir, I swore an oath before the altar of God to protect this woman. And if you’re tellin’ me that ye consider your own authority to be greater than that of the Almighty, then I must inform ye that I’m no of that opinion, myself.”
The silence that followed this was broken by an embarrassed titter, echoed here and there by a nervous laugh. While the sympathies of the crowd had not shifted to our side, still the momentum carrying us to disaster had been broken.
Jamie turned me with a hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t bear to face the crowd, but I knew I must. I kept my chin as high as I could, and my eyes focused beyond the faces, to a small boat in the center of the loch. I stared at it ’til my eyes watered.
Jamie turned back the plaid, holding it around me, but letting it drop far enough to show my neck and shoulders. He touched the black rosary and set it swinging gently to and fro.
“Jet will burn a witch’s skin, no?” he demanded of the judges. “Still more, I should think, would the cross of our Lord. But look.” He dipped a finger under the beads and lifted up the crucifix. My skin beneath was pure white, unmarked save for the smudges of captivity, and there was a gasp and murmur from the crowd.
Raw courage, an ice-cold presence of mind, and that instinct for showmanship. Colum MacKenzie had been right to be apprehensive of Jamie’s ambitions. And given his fear that I might reveal Hamish’s parentage, or what he thought I knew of it, what he had done to me was understandable too. Understandable, but not forgivable.
The mood of the crowd now swayed to and fro, uncertain. The bloodlust that had driven it earlier was dissipating, but it might still tilt like a cresting wave and crush us. Mutt and Jeff glanced at each other, undecided; taken aback by this last development, the judges had momentarily lost control of the situation.
Geillis Duncan stepped forward into the breach. I do not know whether there was hope for her at that point or not. In any case, she now tossed her fair hair defiantly over one shoulder, and threw her life away.
“This woman is no witch,” she said simply. “But I am.”
Jamie’s show, good as it was, was no match for this. The resulting uproar drowned completely the voices of the judges, questioning and exclaiming.
There was no clue to what she thought or felt, no more than there ever was; her high white brow was clear, the big green eyes gleaming in what might be amusement. She stood straight in her ragged garments, daubed with filth, and stared down her accusers. When the tumult had quieted a bit, she began to speak, not deigning to raise her voice, but forcing them to quiet themselves to hear her.
“I, Geillis Duncan, do confess that I am a witch, and the mistress of Satan.” This caused another outcry, and she waited again with perfect patience for them to quiet.
“In obedience to my Master, I do confess that I killed my husband, Arthur Duncan, by means of witchcraft.” At this, she glanced aside, catching my eye, and the hint of a smile touched her lips. Her eyes rested on the woman in the yellow shawl, but did not soften. “Of malice, I placed a spell upon the changeling child, that it might die, and the human child it replaced remain with the fairies.” She turned and gestured in my direction.
“I took advantage of the ignorance of Claire Fraser, using her for my purposes. But she had neither part nor knowledge in my doings, nor does she serve my Master.”
The crowd was muttering again, people jostling to get a better look, pushing nearer. She stretched out both hands toward them, palm outward.
“Stay back!” The clear voice cracked like a whip, to much the same effect. She tilted back her head to the skies and froze, like one listening.
“Hear!” she said. “Hear the wind of his coming! Beware, ye people of Cranesmuir! For my Master comes on the wings o’ the wind!” She lowered her head and screamed, a high, eerie sound of triumph. The large green eyes were fixed and staring, trancelike.
The wind was rising; I could see the clouds of the storm rolling across the far side of the loch. People began to look uneasily around; a few souls dropped back from the edge of the crowd.
Geilie began to spin, twirling round and round, hair whipping in the wind, hand gracefully overhead like a maypole dancer’s. I watched her in stunned disbelief.
As she turned, her hair hid her face. On the last turn, though, she snapped her head to throw the fair mane to one side and I saw her face clearly, looking at me. The mask of trance had vanished momentarily, and her mouth formed a single word. Then her turn took her around to face the crowd once more, and she began her eerie screaming again.
The word had been “Run!”
She stopped her spinning suddenly, and with a look of mad exultation, gripped the remnants of her bodice with both hands and tore it down the front. Tore it far enough to show the crowd the secret I had learned, huddled close beside her in the cold filth of the thieves’ hole. The secret Arthur Duncan had learned, in the hour before his death. The secret for which he had died. The shreds of her loose gown dropped away, exposing the swelling bulge of a six-month pregnancy.
I still stood like a rock, staring. Jamie had no such hesitations. Seizing me with one hand and his sword with the other, he flung himself into the crowd, knocking people out of the way with elbows, knees, and sword hilt, bulling his way toward the edge of the loch. He let out a piercing whistle through his teeth.
Intent on the spectacle under the oak, few people at first realized what was happening. Then, as individuals began to shout and grab at us, there was the sound of galloping hooves on the hard-packed dirt above the shore.
Donas still didn’t care much for people, and was all too willing to show it. He bit the first hand reaching for his bridle, and a man dropped back, crying out and dripping blood. The horse reared, squealing and pawing the air, and the few bold souls still intent on stopping him suddenly lost interest.
Jamie flung me over the saddle like a sack of meal and swung up himself in one fluid motion. Clearing a path with vicious swipes of his sword, he turned Donas through the hindering mass of the crowd. As people fell back from the onslaught of teeth, hooves, and blade, we picked up speed, leaving the loch, the village, and Leoch behind. Breath knocked out of me by the impact, I struggled to speak, to scream to Jamie.
For I hadn’t stood frozen at the revelation of Geilie’s pregnancy. It was something else I had seen that chilled me to the marrow of my bones. As Geilie had spun, white arms stretched aloft, I saw what she had seen when my own clothes were stripped away. A mark on one arm like the one I bore. Here, in this time, the mark of sorcery, the mark of a magus. The small, homely scar of a smallpox vaccination.
* * *
Rain pattered on the water, soothing my swollen face and the rope burns on my wrists. I dipped a handful of water from the stream and sipped it slowly, feeling the cold liquid trickle down my throat with gratitude.
Jamie disappeared for a few minutes. He came back with a handful of dark green oblate leaves, chewing something. He spat a glob of macerated green into the palm of his hand, stuffed another wad of leaves into his mouth and turned me away from him. He rubbed the chewed leaves gently over my back, and the stinging eased considerably.
“What is that?” I asked, making an effort to control myself. I was still shaky and snuffling, but the helpless tears were beginning to ebb.
“Watercress,” he answered, voice slightly muffled by the leaves in his mouth. He spat them out and applied them to my back. “You’re no the only one knows a bit about grass-cures, Sassenach,” he said, a bit clearer.
“How—how does it taste?” I asked, gulping back the sobs.
“Fair nasty,” he replied laconically. He finished his application and laid the plaid softly back across my shoulders.
“It won’t—” he began, then hesitated, “I mean, the cuts are not deep. I—I think you’ll no be…marked.” He spoke gruffly, but his touch was very gentle, and reduced me to tears once more.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, dabbling my nose on a corner of the plaid. “I—I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying.”
He shrugged. “I dinna suppose anyone’s tried to hurt ye on purpose before, Sassenach,” he said. “It’s likely the shock of that, so much as the pain.” He paused, picking up a plaid-end.
“I did just the same, lass,” he said matter-of-factly. “Puked after, and cried while they cleansed the cuts. Then I shook.” He wiped my face carefully with the plaid, then put a hand under my chin and tilted my face up to his.
“And when I stopped shaking, Sassenach,” he said quietly, “I thanked God for the pain, because it meant I was still alive.” He let go, nodding at me. “When ye get to that point, lassie, tell me; for I’ve a thing or two I want to be sayin’ to ye then.”
He got up and went down to the edge of the burn, to wash out the bloodstained handkerchief in cold water.
“What brought you back?” I asked, when he returned. I had managed to stop crying, but I still shook, and huddled deeper into the folds of the plaid.
“Alec MacMahon,” he said, smiling. “I told him to watch over ye while I was gone. When the villagers took you and Mrs. Duncan, he rode all night and the next day to find me. And then I rode like the devil himself comin’ back. Lord, that’s a good horse.” He looked approvingly up the slope to Donas, tethered to a tree at the top of the bank, his wet coat gleaming like copper.
“I’ll have to move him,” he said, thoughtfully. “I doubt anyone will follow, but it isna that far from Cranesmuir. Can ye walk now?”
I followed him up the steep slope with some difficulty, small rocks rolling under my feet and bracken and bramble catching my shift. Near the top of the slope was a grove of young alders, grown so close together that the lower branches interlaced, forming a green roof over the bracken beneath. Jamie shoved the branches up far enough for me to crawl into the narrow space, then carefully rearranged the crushed bracken before the entrance. He stood back and surveyed the hiding place critically, nodding in satisfaction.
“Aye, that’s good. No one will find ye there.” He turned to go, then turned back. “Try to sleep, if ye can, and don’t worry if I’m not back at once. I’ll hunt a bit on the way back; we’ve no food with us, and I dinna want to attract attention by stopping at a croft. Pull the tartan up over your head, and make sure it covers your shift; the white shows for a long way.”
Food seemed irrelevant; I felt as though I would never want to eat again. Sleep was something else again. My back and arms still ached, the rope burns on my wrists were raw, and I felt sore and bruised all over; but worn out with fear, pain, and simple exhaustion, I fell asleep almost at once, the pungent scent of ferns rising around me like incense.
I awoke with something gripping my foot. Startled, I sat up straight, crashing into the springy branches overhead. Leaves and sticks showered down around me, and I flailed my arms wildly, trying to disentangle my hair from the snagging twigs. Scratched, disheveled, and irritated, I crawled out of my sanctuary to find an amused Jamie squatting nearby, watching my emergence. It was near sunset; the sun had dropped below the lip of the burn, leaving the rocky canyon in shadow. The smell of roasting meat rose from a small fire burning among the rocks near the stream, where two rabbits browned on a makeshift spit made of sharpened green sticks.
Jamie held out a hand to help me down the slope. I haughtily declined and swept down myself, tripping only once on the trailing ends of the plaid. My earlier nausea had vanished, and I fell ravenously on the meat.
“We’ll move up into the forest after supper, Sassenach,” Jamie said, tearing a joint from the rabbit carcass. “I dinna want to sleep near the burn; I canna hear anyone coming over the noise of the water.”
There was not much conversation as we ate. The horror of the morning, and the thought of what we had left behind, oppressed us both. And for me there was a profound sense of mourning. I had lost not only the chance of finding out more about the why and wherefore of my presence here, but a friend as well. My only friend. I was often in doubt as to Geilie’s motives, but I had no doubt at all that she had saved my life that morning. Knowing herself doomed, she had done her best to give me a chance of escape. The fire, almost invisible in daylight, was growing brighter now as darkness filled the burn. I looked into the flames, seeing the crisp skin and browned bones of the rabbits on their spits. A drop of blood from a broken bone fell into the fire, hissing into nothing. Suddenly the meat stuck in my throat. I set it down hastily and turned away, retching.
Still without speaking much, we moved out of the burn and found a comfortable place near the edge of a clearing in the forest. Hills rose in undulant mounds all around us, but Jamie had chosen a high spot, with a good view of the road from the village. The dusk momentarily heightened all the colors of the countryside, lighting the land with jewels; a glowing emerald in the hollows, a lovely shadowed amethyst among the clumps of heather, and burning rubies on the red-berried rowan trees that crowned the hills. Rowan berries, a specific against witchcraft. Far in the distance, the outline of Castle Leoch was still visible at the foot of Ben Aden. It faded quickly as the light died.
Jamie made a fire in a sheltered spot, and sat down next to it. The rain had eased to a faint drizzle that misted the air and spangled my eyelashes with rainbows when I looked at the flames.
He sat staring into the fire for a long time. Finally he looked up at me, hands clasped around his knees.
“I said before that I’d not ask ye things ye had no wish to tell me. And I’d not ask ye now; but I must know, for your safety as well as mine.” He paused, hesitating.
“Claire, if you’ve never been honest wi’ me, be so now, for I must know the truth. Claire, are ye a witch?”
I gaped at him. “A witch? You—you can really ask that?” I thought he must be joking. He wasn’t.
He took me by the shoulders and gripped me hard, staring into my eyes as though willing me to answer him.
“I must ask it, Claire! And you must tell me!”
“And if I were?” I asked through dry lips. “If you had thought I were a witch? Would you still have fought for me?”
“I would have gone to the stake with you!” he said violently. “And to hell beyond, if I must. But may the Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul and on yours, tell me the truth!”
The strain of it all caught up with me. I tore myself out of his grasp and ran across the clearing. Not far, only to the edge of the trees; I could not bear the exposure of the open space. I clutched a tree; put my arms around it and dug my fingers hard into the bark, pressed my face to it and shrieked with hysterical laughter.
Jamie’s face, white and shocked, loomed up on the other side of the tree. With the dim realization that what I was doing must sound unnervingly like cackling, I made a terrific effort and stopped. Panting, I stared at him for a moment.
“Yes,” I said, backing away, still heaving with gasps of unhinged laughter. “Yes, I am a witch! To you, I must be. I’ve never had smallpox, but I can walk through a room full of dying men and never catch it. I can nurse the sick and breathe their air and touch their bodies, and the sickness can’t touch me. I can’t catch cholera, either, or lockjaw, or the morbid sore throat. And you must think it’s an enchantment, because you’ve never heard of vaccine, and there’s no other way you can explain it.”
“The things I know—” I stopped backing away and stood still, breathing heavily, trying to control myself. “I know about John Randall because I was told about him. I know when he was born and when he’ll die, I know about what he’s done and what he’ll do, I know about Sandringham because…, because Frank told me. He knew about Randall because he…he…oh, God!” I felt as though I might be sick, and closed my eyes to shut out the spinning stars overhead.
“And Colum…he thinks I’m a witch, because I know Hamish isn’t his own son. I know…he can’t sire children. But he thought I knew who Hamish’s father is…I thought maybe it was you, but then I knew it couldn’t be, and…” I was talking faster and faster, trying to keep the vertigo at bay with the sound of my own voice.
“Everything I’ve ever told you about myself was true,” I said, nodding madly as though to reassure myself. “Everything. I haven’t any people, I haven’t any history, because I haven’t happened yet.”
“Do you know when I was born?” I asked, looking up. I knew my hair was wild and my eyes staring, and I didn’t care. “On the twentieth of October, in the Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and eighteen. Do you hear me?” I demanded, for he was blinking at me unmoving, as though paying no attention to a word I said. “I said nineteen eighteen! Nearly two hundred years from now! Do you hear?”
I was shouting now, and he nodded slowly.
“I hear,” he said softly.
“Yes, you hear!” I blazed. “And you think I’m raving mad. Don’t you? Admit it! That’s what you think. You have to think so, there isn’t any other way you can explain me to yourself. You can’t believe me, you can’t dare to. Oh, Jamie…” I felt my face start to crumple. All this time spent hiding the truth, realizing that I could never tell anyone, and now I realized that I could tell Jamie, my beloved husband, the man I trusted beyond all others, and he wouldn’t—he couldn’t believe me either.
“It was the rocks—the fairy hill. The standing stones. Merlin’s stones. That’s where I came through.” I was gasping, half-sobbing, becoming less coherent by the second. “Once upon a time, but it’s really two hundred years. It’s always two hundred years, in the stories.…But in the stories, the people always get back. I couldn’t get back.” I turned away, staggering, grasping for support. I sank down on a rock, shoulders slumped, and put my head in my hands. There was a long silence in the wood. It went on long enough for the small night birds to recover their courage and start their noises once again, calling to each other with a thin, high zeek! as they hawked for the last insects of the summer.
I looked up at last, thinking that perhaps he had simply risen and left me, overcome by my revelations. He was still there, though, still sitting, hands braced on his knees, head bowed as though in thought.
The hairs on his arms shone stiff as copper wires in the firelight, though,