Outlander, p.31
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       Outlander, p.31
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  “Marriage seems to suit the lad,” he observed.

  “Rather healthy for him—under the circumstances,” I agreed, somewhat coldly. His lips curved at my tone.

  “And you, lass, as well. A good arrangement for everyone, it seems.”

  “Particularly for you and your brother. And speaking of him, just what do you think Colum’s going to say when he hears about it?”

  The smile widened. “Colum? Ah, well. I should think he’d be only too pleased to welcome such a niece to the family.”

  The dummy was ready, and I went back into training. It proved to be a large bag of wool, about the size of a man’s torso, with a piece of tanned bull’s hide wrapped around it, secured with rope. This I was to practice stabbing, first as it was tied to a tree at man-height, later as it was thrown or rolled past me.

  What Jamie hadn’t mentioned was that they had inserted several flat pieces of wood between the wool sack and the hide; to simulate bones, as he later explained.

  The first few stabs were uneventful, though it took several tries to get through the bull-hide. It was tougher than it looked. So is the skin on a man’s belly, I was informed. On the next try, I tried a direct overhand strike, and hit one of the wood pieces.

  I thought for a moment that my arm had suddenly fallen off. The shock of impact reverberated all the way to my shoulder, and the dirk dropped from my nerveless fingers. Everything below the elbow was numb, but an ominous tingling warned me that it wouldn’t be for long.

  “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said. I stood gripping my elbow and listening to the general hilarity. Finally Jamie took me by the shoulder and massaged some feeling back into the arm, pressing the tendon at the back of the elbow, and digging his thumb into the hollow at the base of my wrist.

  “All right,” I said through my teeth, gingerly flexing my tingling right hand. “What do you do when you hit a bone and lose your knife? Is there a standard operating procedure for that?”

  “Oh, aye,” said Rupert, grinning. “Draw your pistol wi’ the left hand and shoot the bastard dead.” This resulted in more howls of laughter, which I ignored.

  “All right,” I said, more or less calmly. I gestured at the long claw-handled pistol Jamie wore on his left hip. “Are you going to show me how to load and shoot that, then?”

  “I am not.” He was firm.

  I bristled a bit at this. “Why not?”

  “Because you’re a woman, Sassenach.”

  I felt my face flush at this. “Oh?” I said sarcastically. “You think women aren’t bright enough to understand the workings of a gun?”

  He looked levelly at me, mouth twisting a bit as he thought over various replies.

  “I’ve a mind to let ye try it,” he said at last. “It would serve ye right.”

  Rupert clicked his tongue in annoyance at us both. “Dinna be daft, Jamie. As for you, lass,” turning to me, “it’s not that women are stupid, though sure enough some o’ ’em are; it’s that they’re small.”

  “Eh?” I gaped stupidly at him for a moment. Jamie snorted and drew the pistol from its loop. Seen up close, it was enormous; a full eighteen inches of silvered weapon measured from stock to muzzle.

  “Look,” he said, holding it in front of me. “Ye hold it here, ye brace it on your forearm, and ye sight along here. And when ye pull the trigger, it kicks like a mule. I’m near a foot taller than you, four stone heavier, and I know what I’m doin’. It gives me a wicked bruise when I fire it; it might knock you flat on your back, if it didna catch ye in the face.” He twirled the pistol and slid it back into its loop.

  “I’d let ye see for yourself,” he said, raising one eyebrow, “but I like ye better wi’ all of your teeth. You’ve a nice smile, Sassenach, even if ye are a bit feisty.”

  Slightly chastened by this episode, I accepted without argument the men’s judgment that even the lighter smallsword was too heavy for me to wield efficiently. The tiny sgian dhu, the sock dagger, was deemed acceptable, and I was provided with one of those, a wicked-looking, needle-sharp piece of black iron about three inches long, with a short hilt. I practiced drawing it from its place of concealment over and over while the men watched critically, until I could sweep up my skirt, grab the knife from its place and come up in the proper crouch all in one smooth move, ending up with the knife held underhand, ready to slash across an adversary’s throat.

  Finally I was passed as a novice knife-wielder, and allowed to sit down to dinner, amid general congratulations—with one exception. Murtagh shook his head dubiously.

  “I still say the only good weapon for a woman is poison.”

  “Perhaps,” replied Dougal, “but it has its deficiencies in face-to-face combat.”

  19

  THE WATERHORSE

  We camped the next night on the banks above Loch Ness. It gave me an odd feeling to see the place again; so little had changed. Or would change, I should say. The larches and alders were a deeper green, because it was now midsummer, not late spring. The flowers had changed from the fragile pinks and whites of May blossom and violets to the warmer golds and yellows of gorse and broom. The sky above was a deeper blue, but the surface of the loch was the same; a flat blue-black that caught the reflections from the bank above and held them trapped, colors muted under smoked glass.

  There were even a few sailboats visible, far up the loch. Though when one drew near, I saw it was a coracle, a rough half-shell of tanned leather on a frame, not the sleek wooden shape I was used to.

  The same pungent scent that pervades all watercourses was there; a sharp mix of tangy greenness and rotted leaf, fresh water, dead fish, and warm mud. Above all, there was that same feeling of lurking strangeness about the place. The men as well as the horses seemed to feel it, and the air of the camp was subdued.

  Having found a comfortable place for my own bedroll and Jamie’s, I wandered down to the edge of the loch to wash my face and hands before supper.

  The bank sloped sharply down until it broke in a jumble of large rock slabs that formed a sort of irregular jetty. It was very peaceful under the bank, out of sight and sound of the camp, and I sat down beneath a tree to enjoy a moment’s privacy. Since my hasty marriage to Jamie, I was no longer followed every moment; that much had been accomplished.

  I was idly plucking the clusters of winged seeds from a low-hanging branch and tossing them out into the loch when I noticed the tiny waves against the rocks growing stronger, as though pushed by an oncoming wind.

  A great flat head broke the surface not ten feet away. I could see the water purling away from keeled scales that ran in a crest down the sinuous neck. The water was agitated for some considerable distance, and I caught a glimpse here and there of dark and massive movement beneath the surface of the loch, though the head itself stayed relatively still.

  I stood quite still myself. Oddly enough, I was not really afraid. I felt some faint kinship with it, a creature further from its own time than I, the flat eyes old as its ancient Eocene seas, eyes grown dim in the murky depths of its shrunken refuge. And there was a sense of familiarity mingled with its unreality. The sleek skin was a smooth, deep blue, with a vivid slash of green shining with brilliant iridescence beneath the jaw. And the strange, pupilless eyes were a deep and glowing amber. So very beautiful.

  And so very different from the smaller, mud-colored replica I remembered, adorning the fifth-floor diorama in the British Museum. But the shape was unmistakable. The colors of living things begin to fade with the last breath, and the soft, springy skin and supple muscle rot within weeks. But the bones sometimes remain, faithful echoes of the shape, to bear some last faint witness to the glory of what was.

  Valved nostrils opened suddenly with a startling hiss of breath; a moment of suspended motion, and the creature sank again, a churning roil of waters the only testimony to its passage.

  I had risen to my feet when it appeared. And unconsciously I must have moved closer in order to watch it, for I found myself standing on on
e of the rock slabs that jutted out into the water, watching the dying waves fall back into the smoothness of the loch.

  I stood there for a moment, looking out across the fathomless loch. “Goodbye,” I said at last to the empty water. I shook myself and turned back to the bank.

  A man was standing at the top of the slope. I was startled at first, then recognized him as one of the drovers from our party. His name was Peter, I recalled, and the bucket in his hand gave the reason for his presence. I was about to ask him whether he had seen the beast, but the expression on his face as I drew near was more than sufficient answer. His face was paler than the daisies at his feet, and tiny droplets of sweat trickled down into his beard. His eyes showed white all around like those of a terrified horse, and his hand shook so that the bucket bumped against his leg.

  “It’s all right,” I said, as I came up to him. “It’s gone.”

  Instead of finding this statement reassuring, it seemed occasion for fresh alarm. He dropped the bucket, fell to his knees before me and crossed himself.

  “Ha-have mercy, lady,” he stammered. To my extreme embarrassment, he then flung himself flat on his face and clutched at the hem of my dress.

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said with some asperity. “Get up.” I prodded him gently with my toe, but he only quivered and stayed pressed to the ground like a flattened fungus. “Get up,” I repeated. “Stupid man, it’s only a…” I paused, trying to think. Telling him its Latin name was unlikely to help.

  “It’s only a wee monster,” I said at last, and grabbing his hand, tugged him to his feet. I had to fill the bucket, as he would (not unreasonably) not go near the water’s edge again. He followed me back to the camp, keeping a careful distance, and scuttled off at once to tend to his mules, casting apprehensive glances over his shoulder at me as he went.

  As he seemed undisposed to mention the creature to anyone else, I thought perhaps I should keep quiet as well. While Dougal, Jamie, and Ned were educated men, the rest were largely illiterate Highlanders from the remote crags and glens of the MacKenzie lands. They were courageous fighters and dauntless warriors, but they were also as superstitious as any primitive tribesmen from Africa or the Middle East.

  So I ate my supper quietly and went to bed, conscious all the time of the wary gaze of the drover Peter.

  20

  DESERTED GLADES

  Two days after the raid, we turned again to the north. We were drawing closer to the rendezvous with Horrocks, and Jamie seemed abstracted from time to time, perhaps considering what importance the English deserter’s news might have.

  I had not seen Hugh Munro again, but I had wakened in darkness the night before to find Jamie gone from the blanket beside me. I tried to stay awake, waiting for him to return, but fell asleep as the moon began to sink. In the morning, he was sound asleep beside me, and on my blanket rested a small parcel, done up in a sheet of thin paper, fastened with the tail-feather of a woodpecker thrust through the sheet. Unfolding it carefully, I found a large chunk of rough amber. One face of the chunk had been smoothed off and polished, and in this window could be seen the delicate dark form of a tiny dragonfly, suspended in eternal flight.

  I smoothed out the wrapping. A message was incised on the grimy white surface, written in small and surprisingly elegant lettering.

  “What does it say?” I asked Jamie, squinting at the odd letters and marks. “I think it’s in Gaelic.”

  He raised up on one elbow squinting at the paper.

  “Not Gaelic. Latin. Munro was a schoolmaster once, before the Turks took him. It’s a bit from Catullus,” he said.

  …da mi basia mille, diende centum,

  dein mille altera, dein secunda centum…

  A faint blush pinkened his earlobes as he translated:

  Then let amorous kisses dwell

  On our lips, begin and tell

  A Thousand and a Hundred score

  A Hundred, and a Thousand more.

  “Well, that’s a bit more high-class than your usual fortune cookie,” I observed, amused.

  “What?” Jamie looked startled.

  “Never mind,” I said hastily. “Did Munro find Horrocks for you?”

  “Oh, aye. It’s arranged. I’ll meet him in a small place I know in the hills, a mile or two above Lag Cruime. In four days’ time, if nothing goes wrong meanwhile.”

  The mention of things going wrong made me a bit nervous.

  “Do you think it’s safe? I mean, do you trust Horrocks?”

  He sat up, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes and blinking.

  “An English deserter? God, no. I imagine he’d sell me to Randall as soon as he’d spit, except that he canna very well go to the English himself. They hang deserters. No, I dinna trust him. That’s why I came wi’ Dougal on this journey, instead of seeking out Horrocks alone. If the man’s up to anything, at least I’ll have company.”

  “Oh.” I wasn’t sure that Dougal’s presence was all that reassuring, given the apparent state of affairs between Jamie and his two scheming uncles.

  “Well, if you think so,” I said doubtfully. “I don’t suppose Dougal would take the opportunity to shoot you, at least.”

  “He did shoot me,” Jamie said cheerfully, buttoning his shirt. “You should know, ye dressed the wound.”

  I dropped the comb I had been using.

  “Dougal! I thought the English shot you!”

  “Well, the English shot at me,” he corrected. “And I shouldna say it was Dougal shot me; in fact, it was probably Rupert—he’s the best marksman among Dougal’s men. No, when we were running from the English, I realized we were near the edge of the Fraser lands, and I thought I’d take my chances there. So I spurred up and cut to the left, around Dougal and the rest. There was a good deal of shooting goin’ on, mind ye, but the ball that hit me came from behind. Dougal, Rupert, and Murtagh were back of me then. And the English were all in front—in fact, when I fell off the horse, I rolled down the hill and ended almost in their laps.” He bent over the bucket of water I had brought, splashing cold handfuls over his face. He shook his head to clear his eyes, then blinked at me, grinning, glistening drops clinging to his thick lashes and brows.

  “Come to that, Dougal had a sore fight to get me back. I was lyin’ on the ground, not fit for much, and he was standing over me, pulling on my belt with one hand to get me up and his sword in the other, going hand-to-hand with a dragoon who thought he had a certain cure for my ills. Dougal killed the man and got me on his own horse.” He shook his head. “Everything was a bit dim to me then; all I could think of was how hard it must be on the horse, tryin’ to make it up a hill like that with four hundred pounds on his back.”

  I sat back, a little stunned.

  “But…if he’d wanted to, Dougal could have killed you then.”

  Jamie shook his head, taking out the straight razor he had borrowed from Dougal. He moved the bucket slightly, so the surface formed a reflecting pool, and pulling his face into the tortuous grimace men use when they shave, began to scrape his cheeks.

  “No, not in front of the men. Besides, Dougal and Colum didna necessarily want me dead—especially not Dougal.”

  “But—” My head was beginning to whirl again, as it seemed to do whenever I encountered the complexities of Scottish family life.

  Jamie’s words were a little muffled, as he stuck out his chin, tilting his head to reach the bit of stubble beneath his jaw.

  “It’s Lallybroch,” he explained, feeling with his free hand for stray whiskers. “Besides being a rich bit of ground, the estate sits at the head of a mountain pass, d’ye see. The only good pass into the Highlands for ten miles in either direction. Come to another Rising, it would be a valuable bit of land to control. And if I were to die before wedding, chances are the land would go back to the Frasers.”

  He grinned, stroking his neck. “No, I’m a pretty problem to the brothers MacKenzie. On the one hand, if I’m a threat to young Hamish’s chieftain
ship, they want me safely dead. On the other, if I’m not, they want me—and my property—securely on their side if it comes to war—not wi’ the Frasers. That’s why they’re willing to help me wi’ Horrocks, ye see. I canna do that much wi’ Lallybroch while I’m outlawed, even though the land’s still mine.”

  I rolled up the blankets, shaking my head in bewilderment over the intricate—and dangerous—circumstances through which Jamie seemed to move so nonchalantly. And it struck me suddenly that not only Jamie was involved now. I looked up.

  “You said that if you died before wedding, the land would go back to the Frasers,” I said. “But you’re married now. So who—”

  “That’s right,” he said, nodding at me with a lopsided grin. The morning sun lit his hair with flames of gold and copper. “If I’m killed now, Sassenach, Lallybroch is yours.”

  * * *

  It was a beautiful sunny morning, once the mist had risen. Birds were busy in the heather, and the road was wide here, for a change, and softly dusty under the horses’ hooves.

  Jamie rode up close beside me as we crested a small hill. He nodded to the right.

  “See that wee glade down below there?”

  “Yes.” It was a small green patchwork of pines, oaks, and aspens, set back some distance from the road.

  “There’s a spring with a pool there, under the trees, and smooth grass. A very bonny place.”

  I looked over at him quizzically.

  “A little early for lunch, isn’t it?”

  “That’s not precisely what I had in mind.” Jamie, I had found out by accident a few days previously, had never mastered the art of winking one eye. Instead, he blinked solemnly, like a large red owl.

  “And just what did you have in mind?” I inquired. My suspicious look met an innocent, childlike gaze of blue.

  “I was just wondering what you’d look like…on the grass…under the trees…by the water…with your skirts up around your ears.”

  “Er—” I said.

  “I’ll tell Dougal we’re going to fetch water.” He spurred up ahead, returning in a moment with the water bottles from the other horses. I heard Rupert shout something after us in Gaelic as we rode down the hill, but couldn’t make out the words.

  I reached the glade first. Sliding down, I relaxed on the grass and shut my eyes against the glare of the sun. Jamie reined up beside me a moment later, and swung down from the saddle. He slapped the horse and sent it away, reins dangling, to graze with mine, before dropping to his knees on the grass. I reached up and pulled him down to me.

  It was a warm day, redolent with grass and flower scents. Jamie himself smelled like a fresh-plucked grass blade, sharp and sweet.

  “We’ll have to be quick,” I said. “They’ll be wondering why it’s taking so long to get water.”

  “They won’t wonder,” he said, undoing my laces with a practiced ease. “They know.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Did ye no hear what Rupert said as we left?”

  “I heard him, but I couldn’t tell what he said.” My Gaelic was improving to the point that I could understand the more common words, but conversation was still far beyond me.

  “Good. It wasna fit for your ears.” Having freed my breasts, he buried his face in them, sucking and biting gently until I could stand it no more and slid down beneath him, tucking my skirts up out of the way. Feeling absurdly self-conscious after that fierce and primitive encounter on the rock, I had been shy about letting him make love to me near the camp, and the woods were too thick to safely move very far from the campsite. Both of us were feeling the mild and pleasant strain of abstinence, and now, safely removed from curious eyes and ears, we came together with an impact that made my lips and fingers tingle with a rush of blood.

  We were both nearing the end when Jamie froze abruptly. Opening my eyes, I saw his face dark against the sun, wearing a perfectly indescribable expression. There was something black pressed against his head. My eyes at last adjusting to the glare, I saw it was a musket barrel.

  “Get up, you rutting bastard.” The barrel moved sharply, jarring against
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