Outlander, p.36
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       Outlander, p.36
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  “You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to,” I said, sensing his hesitation. “Is it a painful story?”

  “Not nearly as painful as the beating,” he said, laughing. “No, I don’t mind tellin’ ye. It’s a long story, is all.”

  “It’s a long way to Bargrennan yet.”

  “So it is. Well, then. You recall I told ye I spent a year at Castle Leoch when I was sixteen? It was an agreement between Colum and my father—so I’d be familiar wi’ my mother’s clan. I fostered wi’ Dougal for two years, and then went to the Castle for a year, to learn manners, and Latin and such.”

  “Oh. I wondered how you’d come to be there.”

  “Aye, that was the way of it. I was big for my age, or tall at least; a good swordsman even then, and a better horseman than most.”

  “Modest, too,” I said.

  “Not very. Cocky as hell, and even faster with my tongue than I am now.”

  “The mind boggles,” I said, amused.

  “Well it might, Sassenach. I found I could make people laugh wi’ my remarks, and I made them more frequent, without carin’ much what I said, or to whom. I was cruel sometimes, to the other lads, not meanin’ it, just not able to resist if I thought of something clever to say.”

  He looked up at the sky, to gauge the time. Blacker still, now that the moon had gone down. I recognized Orion floating near the horizon, and was strangely comforted by the familiar sight.

  “So, one day I went too far. I was with a couple of the other lads, going down a corridor when I saw Mistress FitzGibbons at the other end. She was carryin’ a big basket, near as big as she was, and bumping to and fro as she walked. You know what she looks like now; she wasna much smaller then.” He rubbed his nose, embarrassed.

  “Well, I made a number of ungallant remarks concerning her appearance. Funny, but most ungallant. They amused my companions considerably. I didna realize she could hear me as well.”

  I recalled the massive dame of Castle Leoch. While I had never seen her other than good-humored, she did not appear to be the sort of person to be insulted with impunity.

  “What did she do?”

  “Nothing—then. I didna know she’d heard, until she got up at the Hall gathering next day and told Colum all about it.”

  “Oh, dear.” I knew how highly Colum regarded Mrs. Fitz, and didn’t think he would take any irreverence directed at her lightly. “What happened?”

  “The same thing that happened to Laoghaire—or almost.” He chuckled.

  “I got verra bold though, and I stood up and said I chose to take my beating wi’ fists. I was tryin’ to be verra calm and grown-up about it all, though my heart was going like a blacksmith’s hammer, and I felt a bit sick when I looked at Angus’s hands; they looked like stones, and big ones at that. There were a few laughs from the folk gathered in the Hall; I wasna so tall then as I am now, and I weighed less than half as much. Wee Angus could ha’ torn my head off with one blow.

  “Anyway, Colum and Dougal both frowned at me, though I thought they were really a bit pleased I’d had the nerve to ask it. Then Colum said no, if I was goin’ to behave like a child, I’d to be punished like one. He gave a nod, and before I could move, Angus bent me across his knee, turned up the edge of my kilt and blistered me with his strap, in front of the entire Hall.”

  “Oh, Jamie!”

  “Mmmphm. You’ll have noticed Angus is verra professional about his work? He gave me fifteen strokes, and to this day I could tell ye exactly where each one landed.” He shuddered reminiscently. “I had the marks for a week.”

  He reached out and broke a clump of pine needles from the nearest tree, spreading them like a fan between thumb and fingers. The scent of turpentine was suddenly sharper.

  “Well, I wasna allowed just to go quietly away and tend to my wounds, either. When Angus finished wi’ me, Dougal took me by the scruff of the neck and marched me to the far end of the Hall. Then I was made to come all the way back on my knees, across the stones. I had to kneel before Colum’s seat and beg Mrs. Fitz’s pardon, then Colum’s, then apologize to everyone in the Hall for my rudeness, and finally, I’d to thank Angus for the strapping. I nearly choked over that, but he was verra gracious about it; he reached down and gave me a hand to get up. Then I was plunked down on a stool next to Colum, and bid to sit there ’til Hall was ended.”

  He hunched his shoulders protectively. “That was the worst hour I ever had. My face was on fire, and so was my arse, my knees were skinned and I couldna look anywhere but at my feet, but the worst of it was that I had to piss something awful. I almost died; I’d ha’ burst before I wet myself in front of everyone on top of it all, but it was a near thing. I sweated right through my shirt.”

  I suppressed my urge to laugh. “Couldn’t you have told Colum what was the matter?” I asked.

  “He knew perfectly well what was the matter; so did everyone else in the Hall, the way I was squirming on that stool. People were making wagers as to whether I’d last or not.” He shrugged.

  “Colum would, have let me go, if I’d asked. But—well, I got stubborn about it.” He grinned a bit sheepishly, teeth white in a dark face. “Thought I’d rather die than ask, and nearly did. When at last Colum said I could go, I made it out of the Hall, but only as far as the nearest door. Threw myself behind the wall and spurted streams; I thought I’d never stop.

  “So,” he spread his hands deprecatingly, dropping the clump of pine needles, now you know the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

  I couldn’t help it; I laughed until I had to sit down at the side of the road. Jamie waited patiently for a minute, then sank down on his knees.

  “What are you laughing for?” he demanded. “It wasna funny at all.” But he was smiling himself.

  I shook my head, still laughing. “No, it isn’t. It’s an awful story. It’s just…I can see you sitting there, being stubborn about it, with your jaw clenched and steam coming out of your ears.”

  Jamie snorted, but laughed a little too. “Aye. It’s no verra easy to be sixteen, is it?”

  “So you did help that girl Laoghaire because you felt sorry for her,” I said, when I had recovered my composure. “You knew what it was like.”

  He was surprised. “Aye, I said so. It’s a lot easier to get punched in the face at three-and-twenty than to have your bum strapped in public at sixteen. Bruised pride hurts worse than anything, and it bruises easy then.”

  “I wondered. I’d never seen anyone grin in anticipation of being punched in the mouth.”

  “Couldna very well do it afterward.”

  “Mmh.” I nodded agreement. “I thought—” I said, then stopped in embarrassment.

  “Ye thought what? Oh, about me and Laoghaire, ye mean,” he said, divining my thought. “You and Alec and everyone else, including Laoghaire. I’d have done the same if she’d been plain.” He nudged me in the ribs. “Though I dinna expect you’ll believe that.”

  “Well, I did see you together that day in the alcove,” I defended myself, “and somebody certainly taught you how to kiss.”

  Jamie shuffled his feet in the dust, embarrassed. He ducked his head shyly. “Well now, Sassenach, I’m no better than most men. Sometimes I try, but I dinna always manage. Ye know that bit in St. Paul, where he says ’tis better to marry than burn? Well, I was burnin’ quite badly there.”

  I laughed again, feeling light-hearted as a sixteen-year-old myself. “So you married me,” I teased, “to avoid the occasion of sin?”

  “Aye. That’s what marriage is good for; it makes a sacrament out of things ye’d otherwise have to confess.”

  I collapsed again.

  “Oh, Jamie, I do love you!”

  This time it was his turn to laugh. He doubled over, then sat down at the roadside, fizzing with mirth. He slowly fell over backward and lay in the long grass, wheezing and choking.

  “What on earth is the matter with you?” I demanded, staring at him. At long last, he sat up
, wiping his streaming eyes. He shook his head, gasping.

  “Murtagh was right about women. Sassenach, I risked my life for ye, committing theft, arson, assault, and murder into the bargain. In return for which ye call me names, insult my manhood, kick me in the ballocks and claw my face. Then I beat you half to death and tell ye all the most humiliating things have ever happened to me, and you say ye love me.” He laid his head on his knees and laughed some more. Finally he rose and held out a hand to me, wiping his eyes with the other.

  “You’re no verra sensible, Sassenach, but I like ye fine. Let’s go.”

  * * *

  It was getting late—or early, depending on your viewpoint, and it was necessary to ride, if we were to make Bargrennan by dawn. I was enough recovered by this time to bear sitting, though the effects were still noticeable.

  We rode in a companionable silence for some way. Left to my own thoughts, I considered for the first time at leisure what would happen if and when I ever managed to find my way back to the circle of standing stones. Married to him by coercion and dependent on him from necessity, I had undeniably grown very fond of Jamie.

  More to the point, perhaps, were his feelings about me. Linked at first by circumstance, then by friendship, and finally by a startlingly deep bodily passion, still he had never made even a casual statement to me about his feelings. And yet.

  He had risked his life for me. That much he might do for the sake of his marriage vow; he would, he said, protect me to the last drop of his blood, and I believed he meant it.

  I was more touched by the events of the last twenty-four hours, when he had suddenly admitted me to his emotions and his personal life, warts and all. If he felt as much for me as I thought perhaps he did, what would he feel if I suddenly disappeared? The remnants of physical discomfort receded as I grappled with these uncomfortable thoughts.

  We were within three miles of Bargrennan when Jamie suddenly broke the silence.

  “I havena told you how my father died,” he said abruptly.

  “Dougal said he had a stroke—an apoplexy, I mean,” I said, startled. I supposed that Jamie, alone with his thoughts as well, had found them dwelling on his father as a result of our earlier conversation, but I could not imagine what led him to this particular subject.

  “That’s right. But it…he…” He paused, considering his words, then shrugged, abandoning carefulness. He drew a deep breath and let it out. “You should know about it. It’s to do with…things.” The road here was wide enough to ride easily abreast, provided only that we kept a sharp eye out for protruding rocks; my excuse to Dougal about my horse had not been chosen at random.

  “It was at the Fort,” Jamie said, picking his way around a bad patch, “where we were yesterday. Where Randall and his men took me from Lallybroch. Where they flogged me. Two days after the first time, Randall summoned me to his office—two soldiers came for me, and took me from the cells up to his room—the same where I found you; it’s how I knew where to go.”

  “Just outside, we met my father in the courtyard. He’d found out where they’d taken me, and come to see if he could get me out some way—or at least to see for himself that I was all right.”

  Jamie kicked a heel gently into his horse’s ribs, urging it on with a soft click of his tongue. There was no trace of daylight yet, but the look of the night had changed. Dawn could be no more than an hour away.

  “I hadna realized until I saw him just how alone I’d felt there—or how scairt. The soldiers would not give us any time alone together, but at least they let me greet him.” He swallowed and went on.

  “I told him I was sorry—about Jenny, I meant, and the whole sorry mess. He told me to hush, though, and hugged me tight to him. He asked me was I hurt badly—he knew about the flogging—and I said I’d be all right. The soldiers said I must go then, so he squeezed my arms tight, and told me to remember to pray. He said he would stand by me, no matter what happened, and I must just keep my head up and try not to worrit myself. He kissed my cheek and the soldiers took me away. That was the last time I ever saw him.”

  His voice was steady, but a little thick. My own throat felt tight, and I would have touched him if I could, but the road narrowed through a small glen and I was forced to fall back behind him for a moment. By the time I came alongside again he had composed himself.

  “So,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I went in to see Captain Randall. He sent the soldiers out, so we were alone, and offered me a stool. He said my father had offered security for my bond, to have me released, but that my charge was a serious one, and I could not be bonded without a written clearance signed by the Duke of Argyll, whose boundaries we were under. I reckoned that was where my father was headed, then, to see Argyll.

  “In the meantime, Randall went on, there was the matter of this second flogging I was sentenced to.” He stopped a minute, as though uncertain how to go on.

  “He…was strange in his manner, I thought. Verra cordial, but with something under it I didna understand. He kept watching me, as though he expected me to do something, though I was just sitting still.

  “He half-apologized to me, saying he was sorry that our relations had been so difficult to the present, and that he wished the circumstances had been different, and so on.” Jamie shook his head. “I couldna imagine what he was talking about; two days earlier, he’d been trying his best to beat me to death. When he finally got down to it, though, he was blunt enough.”

  “What did he want, then?” I asked. Jamie glanced at me, then away. The dark hid his features, but I thought he seemed embarrassed.

  “Me,” he said baldly.

  I started so violently that the horse tossed its head and whickered reproachfully. Jamie shrugged again.

  “He was quite plain about it. If I would…ah, make him free of my body, he’d cancel the second flogging. If I would not—then I’d wish I’d never been born, he said.”

  I felt quite sick.

  “I was already wishing something of the sort,” he said, with a glint of humor. “My belly felt as though I’d swallowed broken glass, and if I hadna been sitting, my knees would have knocked together.”

  “But what…” My voice was hoarse, and I cleared my throat and started over. “But what did you do?”

  He sighed. “Well, I’ll no lie to ye, Sassenach. I considered it. The first stripes were still so raw on my back I could scarce bear a shirt, and I felt giddy whenever I stood up. The thought of going through that again—being bound and helpless, waiting for the next lash…” He shuddered involuntarily.

  “I’d no real idea,” he said wryly, “but I rather thought being buggered would be at least a bit less painful. Men have died under the lash sometimes, Sassenach, and from the look on his face, I thought he meant me to be one of them, were that my choice.” He sighed again.

  “But…well, I could still feel my father’s kiss on my cheek, and thought of what he’d say, and…well, I couldna do it, that’s all. I did not stop to think what my death might mean to my father.” He snorted, as though finding something faintly amusing. “Then, too, I thought, the man’s already raped my sister—damned if he’ll have me too.”

  I didn’t find this amusing. I was seeing Jack Randall again, in a new and revolting light. Jamie rubbed the back of his neck, then dropped his hand to the pommel.

  “So, I took what little courage I had left by then, and said no. I said it loud, too, and added whatever filthy names I could think of to call him, all at the top of my lungs.”

  He grimaced. “I was afraid I’d change my mind if I thought about it; I wanted to make sure there was no chance of going back. Though I dinna suppose,” he added thoughtfully, “that there’s any really tactful way to refuse an offer like that.”

  “No,” I agreed dryly. “I don’t suppose he’d have been pleased, no matter what you said.”

  “He wasn’t. He backhanded me across the mouth, to shut me up. I fell down—I was still a bit weak—and he stood over me, just stari
ng down at me. I’d better sense than to try and get up, so I just lay there until he called the soldiers to take me back to my cell.” He shook his head. “He didna change expression at all; just said as I left, ‘I’ll see you on Friday,’ as though we had an appointment to discuss business or somesuch.”

  The soldiers had not returned Jamie to the cell he had shared with three other prisoners. Instead, he was put into a small room by himself, to await Friday’s reckoning with no distractions save the daily visit of the garrison’s physician, who came to dress his back.

  “He wasna much of a doctor,” Jamie said, “but he was kindly enough. The second day he came, along wi’ the goose grease and charcoal, he brought me a small Bible that belonged to a prisoner who’d died. Said he understood I was a Papist, and whether I found the word of God any comfort or not, at least I could compare my troubles with Job’s.” He laughed.

  “Oddly enough, it was some comfort. Our Lord had to put up wi’ being scourged too; and I could reflect that at least I wasna going to be hauled out and crucified afterward. On the other hand,” he said judiciously, “Our Lord wasna forced to listen to indecent proposals from Pontius Pilate, either.”

  Jamie had kept the small Bible. He rummaged in his saddlebag, and handed it across now for me to look at. It was a worn, leather-covered volume, about five inches long, printed on paper so flimsy the print showed through from one side of each page to the other. On the flyleaf was written ALEXANDER WILLIAM RODERICK MACGREGOR, 1733. The ink was faded and blurred, and the covers warped as though the book had gotten wet on more than one occasion.

  I turned the little book over curiously. Small as it was, it must have cost something in effort to keep it by him, through the travels and adventures of the last four years.

  “I’ve never seen you read it,” I handed it back.

  “No, that’s not why I keep it,” he said. He tucked it away, stroking the edge of the worn cover with a thumb as he did so. He patted the saddlebag absently.

  “There’s a debt owing to Alex MacGregor; I mean to collect it sometime.

  “Anyway,” he continued, returning to his story, “Friday came at last, and I don’t know whether I was glad or sorry to see it. The waiting and the fear were almost worse than I thought the pain would be. When it came, though…” He made that odd half-shrugging gesture of his, easing the shirt across his back. “Well, you’ve seen the marks. You know what it was like.”

  “Only because Dougal told me. He said he was there.”

  Jamie nodded. “Aye, he was there. And my father as well, though I didna know it at the time. I’d no mind for anything much beyond my own problems, then.”

  “Oh,” I said slowly, “and your father—”

  “Mmm. That’s when it happened. Some of the men there told me after that they thought I was dead, halfway through, and I reckon my father thought so too.” He hesitated, and his voice was thick when he resumed. “When I fell, Dougal told me, my father made a small sound and put his hand to his head. Then he dropped like a rock. And did not get up again.”

  The birds were moving in the heather, trilling and calling from the still-dark leaves of the trees. Jamie’s head was bowed, face still invisible.

  “I did not know he was dead,” he said softly. “They didna tell me until a month later—when they thought I was strong enough to bear it. So I did not bury him, as his son should have done. And I have never seen his grave—because I am afraid to go home.”

  “Jamie,” I said. “Oh, Jamie, dear.”

  After what seemed a long silence, I said, “But you don’t—you can’t—feel responsible. Jamie, there was nothing you could have done; or done differently.”

  “No?” he said. “No, maybe not; though I wonder would it still have happened, had I chosen the other way. But to know that does not much help the way I feel—and I feel as though I had done him to death with my own hands.”

  “Jamie—” I said again, and stopped, helpless. He rode silently for a bit, then straightened up and squared his shoulders once more.

  “I’ve not told anyone about it,” he said abruptly. “But I thought that now ye should know—about Randall, I mean. You’ve a right to know what it is that lies between him and me.”

  What it is that lies between him and me. The life of a good man, the honor of a girl, and an indecent lust that found its vent in blood and fear. And, I supposed, with a lurch of the stomach, that there was now one more item weighting the scales. Me. For the first time, I began to realize what Jamie had felt, crouching in the window of Randall’s room, with an empty gun in his hand. And I began to forgive him for what he had done to me.

  As though reading my mind, he said, not looking at me, “Do you know…I mean, can ye understand, maybe, why I thought it needful to beat you?”

  I waited a moment before answering. I understood, all right, but that was not quite all there was to it.

  “I understand,” I said. “And so far as that goes, I forgive you. What I can’t forgive,” I said, my voice rising slightly in spite of myself, “is that you enjoyed it!”

  He bent forward in the saddle, clasping the pommel, and laughed for a long time. He reveled in the release of tension before finally tossing his head back and turning to me. The sky was noticeably lighter now, and I could see his face, lined with exhaustion, strain, and mirth. The scratches down his cheek were black in the dim light.

  “Enjoyed it! Sassenach,” he said, gasping, “you don’t know just how much I enjoyed it. You were so…God, you looked lovely. I was so angry, and you fought me so fierce. I hated to hurt you, but I wanted to do it at the same time…Jesus,” he said, breaking off and wiping his nose, “yes. Yes, I did enjoy it.

  “Though come to that,” he said, “you might give me some credit for exercising restraint.”

  I was getting rather angry again. I could feel my cheeks flushing hotly against the cool dawn air.

  “Restraint, was it? I was under the impression that what you were exercising was your good left arm. You almost crippled me, you arrogant Scottish bastard!”

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