Outlander, p.5
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       Outlander, p.5
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  “Wonderful!” enthused Frank. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” He slipped out of the bush like a snake, leaving me to disentangle myself while he cast about the interior of the circle, nose to the ground like a bloodhound.

  “Whatever are you looking for?” I asked. I entered the circle with some hesitation, but day was fully come, and the stones, while still impressive, had lost a good deal of the brooding menace of dawn light.

  “Marks,” he replied, crawling about on hands and knees, eyes intent on the short turf. “How did they know where to start and stop?”

  “Good question. I don’t see anything.” Casting an eye over the ground, though, I did see an interesting plant growing near the base of one of the tall stones. Myosotis? No, probably not; this had orange centers to the deep blue flowers. Intrigued, I started toward it. Frank, with keener hearing than I, leaped to his feet and seized my arm, hurrying me out of the circle a moment before one of the morning’s dancers entered from the other side.

  It was Miss Grant, the tubby little woman who, suitably enough in view of her figure, ran the sweets and pastries shop in the town’s High Street. She peered nearsightedly around, then fumbled in her pocket for her spectacles. Jamming these on her nose, she strolled about the circle, at last pouncing on the lost hair-clip for which she had returned. Having restored it to its place in her thick, glossy locks, she seemed in no hurry to return to business. Instead, she seated herself on a boulder, leaned back against one of the stone giants in comradely fashion and lighted a leisurely cigarette.

  Frank gave a muted sigh of exasperation beside me. “Well,” he said, resigned, “we’d best go. She could sit there all morning, by the looks of her. And I didn’t see any obvious markings in any case.”

  “Perhaps we could come back later,” I suggested, still curious about the blue-flowered vine.

  “Yes, all right.” But he had plainly lost interest in the circle itself, being now absorbed in the details of the ceremony. He quizzed me relentlessly on the way down the path, urging me to remember as closely as I could the exact wording of the calls, and the timing of the dance.

  “Norse,” he said at last, with satisfaction. “The root words are Ancient Norse, I’m almost sure of it. But the dance,” he shook his head, pondering. “No, the dance is very much older. Not that there aren’t Viking circle dances,” he said, raising his brows censoriously, as though I had suggested there weren’t. “But that shifting pattern with the double-line business, that’s…hmm, it’s like…well, some of the patterns on the Beaker Folk glazeware show a pattern rather like that, but then again…hmm.”

  He dropped into one of his scholarly trances, muttering to himself from time to time. The trance was broken only when he stumbled unexpectedly over an obstacle near the bottom of the hill. He flung his arms out with a startled cry as his feet went out from under him and he rolled untidily down the last few feet of the path, fetching up in a clump of cow parsley.

  I dashed down the hill after him, but found him already sitting up among the quivering stems by the time I reached the bottom.

  “Are you all right?” I asked, though I could see that he was.

  “I think so.” He passed a hand dazedly over his brow, smoothing back the dark hair. “What did I trip over?”

  “This.” I held up a sardine tin, discarded by some earlier visitor. “One of the menaces of civilization.”

  “Ah.” He took it from me, peered inside, then tossed it over one shoulder. “Pity it’s empty. I’m feeling rather hungry after that excursion. Shall we see what Mrs. Baird can provide in the way of a late breakfast?”

  “We might,” I said, smoothing the last strands of hair for him. “And then again, we might make it an early lunch instead.” My eyes met his.

  “Ah,” he said again, with a completely different tone. He ran a hand slowly up my arm and up the side of my neck, his thumb gently tickling the lobe of my ear. “So we might.”

  “If you aren’t too hungry,” I said. The other hand found its way behind my back. Palm spread, it pressed me gently toward him, fingers stroking lower and lower. His mouth opened slightly and he breathed, ever so lightly, down the neck of my dress, his warm breath tickling the tops of my breasts.

  He laid me carefully back in the grass, the feathery blossoms of the cow parsley seeming to float in the air around his head. He bent forward and kissed me, softly, and kept on kissing me as he unbuttoned my dress, one button at a time, teasing, pausing to reach a hand inside and play with the swelling tips of my breasts. At last he had the dress laid open from neck to waist.

  “Ah,” he said again, in yet another tone. “Like white velvet.” He spoke hoarsely, and his hair had fallen forward again, but he made no attempt to brush it back.

  He sprang the clasp of my brassiere with one accomplished flick of the thumb, and bent to pay a skilled homage to my breasts. Then he drew back, and cupping my breasts with both hands, drew his palms slowly down to meet between the rising mounds, and without stopping, drew them softly outward again, tracing the line of my rib cage clear to the back. Up and again, down and around, until I moaned and turned toward him. He sank his lips onto mine, and pressed me toward him until our hips fitted tightly together. He bent his head to mine, nibbling softly around the rim of my ear.

  The hand stroking my back slipped lower and lower, stopping suddenly in surprise. It felt again, then Frank raised his head and looked down at me, grinning.

  “What’s all this, then?” he asked, in imitation of a village bobby. “Or rather, what’s not all this?”

  “Just being prepared,” I said primly. “Nurses are taught to anticipate contingencies.”

  “Really, Claire,” he murmured, sliding his hand under my skirt and up my thigh to the soft, unprotected warmth between my legs, “you are the most terrifyingly practical person I have ever known.”

  * * *

  Frank came up behind me as I sat in the parlor chair that evening, a large book spread out on my lap.

  “What are you doing?” he asked. His hands rested gently on my shoulders.

  “Looking for that plant,” I answered, sticking a finger between the pages to mind my place. “The one I saw in the stone circle. See…” I flipped the book open. “It could be in the Campanulaceae, or the Gentianaceae, the Polemoniaceae, the Boraginaceae—that’s most likely, I think, forget-me-nots—but it could even be a variant of this one, the Anemone patens.” I pointed out a full color illustration of a pasqueflower. “I don’t think it was a gentian of any kind; the petals weren’t really rounded, but—”

  “Well, why not go back and get it?” he suggested. “Mr. Crook would lend you his old banger, perhaps, or—no, I’ve a better idea. Borrow Mrs. Baird’s car, it’s safer. It’s a short walk from the road to the foot of the hill.”

  “And then about a thousand yards, straight up,” I said. “Why are you so interested in that plant?” I swiveled around to look up at him. The parlor lamp outlined his head with a thin gold line, like a medieval engraving of a saint.

  “It’s not the plant I care about. But if you’re going up there anyway, I wish you’d have a quick look around the outside of the stone circle.”

  “All right,” I said obligingly. “What for?”

  “Traces of fire,” he said. “In all the things I’ve been able to read about Beltane, fire is always mentioned in the rituals, yet the women we saw this morning weren’t using any. I wondered if perhaps they’d set the Beltane fire the night before, then come back in the morning for the dance. Though historically it’s the cow herds who were supposed to set the fire. There wasn’t any trace of fire inside the circle,” he added. “But we left before I thought of checking the outside.”

  “All right,” I said again, and yawned. Two early risings in two days were taking their toll. I shut the book and stood up. “Provided I don’t have to get up before nine.”

  It was in fact nearly eleven before I reached the stone circle. It was drizzling, and I was soaked t
hrough, not having thought to bring a mac. I made a cursory examination of the outside of the circle, but if there had ever been a fire there, someone had taken pains to remove its traces.

  The plant was easier to find. It was where I remembered it, near the foot of the tallest stone. I took several clippings of the vine and stowed them temporarily in my handkerchief, meaning to deal with them properly when I got back to Mrs. Baird’s tiny car, where I had left the heavy plant presses.

  The tallest stone of the circle was cleft, with a vertical split dividing the two massive pieces. Oddly, the pieces had been drawn apart by some means. Though you could see that the facing surfaces matched, they were separated by a gap of two or three feet.

  There was a deep humming noise coming from somewhere near at hand. I thought there might be a beehive lodged in some crevice of the rock, and placed a hand on the stone in order to lean into the cleft.

  The stone screamed.

  I backed away as fast as I could, moving so quickly that I tripped on the short turf and sat down hard. I stared at the stone, sweating.

  I had never heard such a sound from anything living. There is no way to describe it, except to say that it was the sort of scream you might expect from a stone. It was horrible.

  The other stones began to shout. There was a noise of battle, and the cries of dying men and shattered horses.

  I shook my head violently to clear it, but the noise went on. I stumbled to my feet and staggered toward the edge of the circle. The sounds were all around me, making my teeth ache and my head spin. My vision began to blur.

  I do not know now whether I went toward the cleft in the main stone, or whether it was accidental, a blind drifting through the fog of noise.

  Once, traveling at night, I fell asleep in the passenger seat of a moving car, lulled by the noise and motion into an illusion of serene weightlessness. The driver of the car took a bridge too fast and lost control, and I woke from my floating dream straight into the glare of headlights and the sickening sensation of falling at high speed. That abrupt transition is as close as I can come to describing the feeling I experienced, but it falls woefully short.

  I could say that my field of vision contracted to a single dark spot, then disappeared altogether, leaving not darkness, but a bright void. I could say that I felt as though I were spinning, or as though I were being pulled inside out. All these things are true, yet none of them conveys the sense I had of complete disruption, of being slammed very hard against something that wasn’t there.

  The truth is that nothing moved, nothing changed, nothing whatever appeared to happen and yet I experienced a feeling of elemental terror so great that I lost all sense of who, or what, or where I was. I was in the heart of chaos, and no power of mind or body was of use against it.

  I cannot really say I lost consciousness, but I was certainly not aware of myself for some time. I “woke,” if that’s the word, when I stumbled on a rock near the bottom of the hill. I half slid the remaining few feet and fetched up on the thick tufted grass at the foot.

  I felt sick and dizzy. I crawled toward a stand of oak saplings and leaned against one to steady myself. There was a confused noise of shouting nearby, which reminded me of the sounds I had heard, and felt, in the stone circle. The ring of inhuman violence was lacking, though; this was the normal sound of human conflict, and I turned toward it.

  3

  THE MAN IN THE WOOD

  The men were some distance away when I saw them. Two or three, dressed in kilts, running like the dickens across a small clearing. There was a far-off banging noise that I rather dazedly identified as gunshots.

  I was quite sure I was still hallucinating when the sound of shots was followed by the appearance of five or six men dressed in red coats and knee breeches, waving muskets. I blinked and stared. I moved my hand before my face and held up two fingers. I saw two fingers, all present and correct. No blurring of vision. I sniffed the air cautiously. The pungent odor of trees in spring and a faint whiff of clover from a clump near my feet. No olfactory delusions.

  I felt my head. No soreness anywhere. Concussion unlikely then. Pulse a little fast, but steady.

  The sound of distant yelling changed abruptly. There was a thunder of hooves, and several horses came charging in my direction, kilted Scots atop them, yodeling in Gaelic. I dodged out of the way with an agility that seemed to prove I had not been physically damaged, whatever my mental state.

  And then it came to me, as one of the redcoats, knocked flat by a fleeing Scot, rose and shook his fist theatrically after the horses. Of course. A film! I shook my head at my own slowness. They were shooting a costume drama of some sort, that was all. One of those Bonnie-Prince-in-the-heather sorts of things, no doubt.

  Well. Regardless of artistic merit, the film crew wouldn’t thank me for introducing a note of historic inauthenticity into their shots. I doubled back into the wood, meaning to make a wide circle around the clearing and come out on the road where I had left the car. The going was more difficult than I had expected, though. The wood was a young one, and dense with underbrush that snagged my clothes. I had to go carefully through the spindly saplings, disentangling my skirts from the brambles as I went.

  Had he been a snake, I would have stepped on him. He stood so quietly among the saplings as almost to have been one of them, and I did not see him until a hand shot out and gripped me by the arm.

  Its companion clapped over my mouth as I was dragged backward into the oak grove, thrashing wildly in panic. My captor, whoever he was, seemed not much taller than I, but rather noticeably strong in the forearms. I smelled a faint flowery scent, as of lavender water, and something more spicy, mingled with the sharper reek of male perspiration. As the leaves whipped back into place in the path of our passage, though, I noticed something familiar about the hand and forearm clasped about my waist.

  I shook my head free of the restraint over my mouth.

  “Frank!” I burst out. “What in heaven’s name are you playing at?” I was torn between relief at finding him here and irritation at the horseplay. Unsettled as I was by my experience among the stones, I was in no mood for rough games.

  The hands released me, but even as I turned to him, I sensed something wrong. It was not only the unfamiliar cologne, but something more subtle. I stood stock-still, feeling the hair prickle on my neck.

  “You aren’t Frank,” I whispered.

  “I am not,” he agreed, surveying me with considerable interest. “Though I’ve a cousin of that name. I doubt, though, that it’s he you have confused me with, madam. We do not resemble one another greatly.”

  Whatever this man’s cousin looked like, the man himself might have been Frank’s brother. There was the same lithe, spare build and fine-drawn bones; the same chiseled lines of the face; the level brows and wide hazel eyes; and the same dark hair, curved smooth across the brow.

  But this man’s hair was long, tied back from his face with a leather thong. And the gypsy skin showed the deep-baked tan of months, no, years, of exposure to the weather, not the light golden color Frank’s had attained during our Scottish holiday.

  “Just who are you?” I demanded, feeling most uneasy. While Frank had numerous relatives and connections, I thought I knew all the British branch of the family. Certainly, there was no one who looked like this man among them. And surely Frank would have mentioned any near relative living in the Highlands? Not only mentioned him but insisted upon visiting him as well, armed with the usual collection of genealogical charts and notebooks, eager for any tidbits of family history about the famous Black Jack Randall.

  The stranger raised his brows at my question.

  “Who am I? I might ask the same question, madam, and with considerably more justification.” His eyes raked me slowly from head to toe, traveling with a sort of insolent appreciation over the thin peony-sprigged cotton dress I wore, and lingering with an odd look of amusement on my legs. I did not at all understand the look, but it made me extremely nervo
us, and I backed up a step or two, until I was brought up sharp by bumping into a tree.

  The man finally removed his gaze and turned aside. It was as though he had taken a constraining hand off me, and I let out my breath in relief, not realizing until then that I had been holding it.

  He had turned to pick up his coat, thrown across the lowest branch of an oak sapling. He brushed some scattered leaves from it and began to put it on.

  I must have gasped, because he looked up again. The coat was a deep scarlet, long-tailed and without lapels, frogged down the front. The buff linings of the turned-back cuffs extended a good six inches up the sleeve, and a small coil of gold braid gleamed from one epaulet. It was a dragoon’s coat, an officer’s coat. Then it occurred to me—of course, he was an actor, from the company I had seen on the other side of the wood. Though the short sword he proceeded to strap on seemed remarkably more realistic than any prop I had ever seen.

  I pressed myself against the bark of the tree behind me, and found it reassuringly solid. I crossed my arms protectively in front of me.

  “Who the bloody hell are you?” I demanded again. The question this time came out in a croak that sounded frightened even to my ears.

  As though not hearing me, he ignored the question, taking his time in the fastening of the frogs down the front of his coat. Only when he finished did he turn his attention to me once more. He bowed sardonically, hand over his heart.

  “I am, madam, Jonathan Randall, Esquire, Captain of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons. At your service, madam.”

  I broke and ran. My breath rasped in my chest as I tore through the screen of oak and alder, ignoring brambles, nettles, stones, fallen logs, everything in my path. I heard a shout behind me, but was much too panicked to determine its direction.

  I fled blindly, branches scratching my face and arms, ankles turning as I stepped in holes and stumbled on rocks. I had no room in my mind for any form of rational thought; I wanted only to get away from him.

  A heavy weight struck me hard in the lower back and I pitched forward at full length, landing with a thud that knocked the wind out of me. Rough hands flipped me onto my back, and Captain Jonathan Randall rose to his knees above me. He was breathing heavily and had lost his sword in the chase. He looked disheveled, dirty, and thoroughly annoyed.

  “What the devil do you mean by running away like that?” he demanded. A thick lock of dark-brown hair had come loose and curved across his brow, making him look even more disconcertingly like Frank.

  He leaned down and grasped me by the arms. Still gasping for breath, I struggled to get free, but succeeded only in dragging him down on top of me.

  He lost his balance and collapsed at full length on me, flattening me once more. Surprisingly enough, this seemed to make his annoyance vanish.

  “Oh, like that, is it?” he said, with a chuckle. “Well, I’d be most willing to oblige you, Chuckie, but it happens you’ve chosen a rather inopportune moment.” His weight pressed my hips to the ground, and a small rock was digging painfully into the small of my back. I squirmed to dislodge it. He ground his hips hard against mine, and his hands pinned my shoulders to the earth. My mouth fell open in outrage.

  “What do you…” I began, but he ducked his head and kissed me, cutting short my expostulations. His tongue thrust into my mouth and explored me with a bold familiarity, roving and plunging, retreating and lunging again. Then, just as suddenly as he had begun, he pulled back.

  He patted my cheek. “Quite nice, Chuck. Perhaps later, when I’ve the leisure to attend to you properly.”

  I had by this time recovered my breath, and I used it. I screamed directly into his earhole, and he jerked as though I had run a hot wire into it. I took advantage of the movement to get my knee up, and jabbed it into his exposed side, sending him sprawling into the leaf mold.

  I scrambled awkwardly to my feet. He rolled expertly, and came up alongside me. I glanced wildly around, looking for a way out, but we were flush up against the foot of one of those towering granite cliffs that just so abruptly from the soil of the Scottish Highlands. He had caught me at a point where the rock face broke inward, forming a shallow stony box. He blocked the entrance to the declivity, arms spread and braced between the rock walls, an expression of mingled anger and curiosity on his handsome dark face.

  “Who were you with?” he demanded. “Frank, whoever he is? I’ve no man by that name among my company. Or is it some man who lives nearby?” He smiled derisively. “You haven’t the smell of dung on your skin, so you haven’t been with a cottar. For that matter, you look a bit more expensive than the local farmers could afford.”

  I clenched my fists and set my chin. Whatever this joker had in mind, I was having none of it.

  “I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about, and I’ll thank you to let me pass at once!” I said, adopting my very best ward-sister’s tone. This generally had a good effect on recalcitrant orderlies and young interns, but appeared merely to amuse Captain Randall. I was resolutely repressing the feelings of fear and disorientation that were flapping under my ribs like a panicked flock of hens.

  He shook his head slowly, examining me once more in detail.

  “Not just at present, Chuckie. I’m asking myself,” he said, conversationally, “just why a whore abroad in her shift would be wearing her shoes? And quite fine ones, at that,” he added, glancing at my plain brown loafers.

  “A what!” I exclaimed.

  He ignored me completely. His gaze had returned to my face, and he suddenly stepped forward and gripped my chin in his hand. I grabbed his wrist and yanked.

  “Let go of me!” He had fingers like steel. Disregarding my efforts to free myself, he turned my face from one side to the other, so the fading afternoon light shone on it.

  “The skin of a lady, I’ll swear,” he murmured to himself. He leaned forward and sniffed. “And a French scent in your hair.” He let go then, and I rubbed my jaw indignantly, as though to erase the touch I still felt on my skin.

  “The rest might be managed with money from your patron,” he mused, “but you’ve the speech of a lady too.”

  “Thanks so much!” I snapped. “Get out of my way. My husband is expecting me; if I’m not back in ten minutes, he’ll come looking for me.”

  “Oh, your husband?” The derisively admiring expression retreated somewhat, but did not disappear completely. “And what is your husband’s name, pray? Where is he? And why does he allow his wife to wander alone through deserted woods in a state of undress?”

 
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