Outlander, p.64
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       Outlander, p.64
 

         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  * * *

  Black Jack. A common name for rogues and scoundrels in the eighteenth century. A staple of romantic fiction, the name conjured up charming highwaymen, dashing blades in plumed hats. The reality walked at my side.

  One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling, and voil?! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh. My blood was running fast, all right, and never maiden sighed like Jamie, cradling his mangled hand.

  “This way.” It was the first time Randall had spoken since we had left the cell. He indicated a narrow alcove in the wall, unlighted by torches. The way out, of which he had spoken to Jamie.

  By now I had sufficient command of myself to speak, and I did so. I stepped back a pace, so that the torchlight fell full on me, for I wanted him to remember my face.

  “You asked me, Captain, if I were a witch,” I said, my voice low and steady. “I’ll answer you now. Witch I am. Witch, and I curse you. You will marry, Captain, and your wife will bear a child, but you shall not live to see your firstborn. I curse you with knowledge, Jack Randall—I give you the hour of your death.”

  His face was in shadow, but the gleam of his eyes told me he believed me. And why should he not? For I spoke the truth, and I knew it. I could see the lines of Frank’s genealogical chart as though they were drawn on the mortar lines between the stones of the wall, and the names listed by them. “Jonathan Wolverton Randall,” I said softly, reading it from the stones. “Born, September the 3rd, 1705. Died—” He made a convulsive movement toward me, but not fast enough to prevent me from speaking.

  A narrow door at the back of the alcove crashed open with a squeal of hinges. Expecting further darkness, my eyes were dazzled by a blinding flash of light on snow. A quick shove from behind sent me staggering headlong into the drifts, and the door slammed to behind me.

  I was lying in a ditch of sorts, behind the prison. The drifts around me covered heaps of something—the prison’s refuse, most likely. There was something hard beneath the drift I had fallen into; wood, perhaps. Looking up at the sheering wall above me, I could see streaks and runnels down the stone, marking the path of garbage tipped from a sliding door forty feet above. That must be the kitchen quarters.

  I rolled over, bracing myself to rise, and found myself looking into a pair of wide blue eyes. The face was nearly as blue as the eyes, and hard as the log of wood I had mistaken him for. I stumbled to my feet, choking, and staggered back against the prison wall.

  Head down, breathe deep, I told myself firmly. You are not going to faint, you have seen dead men before, lots of them, you are not going to faint—God, he has blue eyes like—you are not going to faint, damn it!

  My breathing slowed at last, and with it my racing pulse. As the panic receded, I forced myself back to that pathetic figure, wiping my hands convulsively on my skirt. I don’t know whether it was pity, curiosity, or simple shock that made me look again. Seen without the suddenness of surprise, there was nothing frightening about the dead man; there never is. No matter how ugly the manner in which a man dies, it’s only the presence of a suffering human soul that is horrifying; once gone, what is left is only an object.

  The blue-eyed stranger had been hanged. He was not the only inhabitant of the ditch. I didn’t bother to excavate the drift, but now that I knew what it contained, I could plainly see the outline of frozen limbs and the softly rounded heads under the snow. At least a dozen men lay here, waiting either for a thaw that would make their burial easier, or for a cruder disposal by the beasts of the nearby forest.

  The thought startled me out of my pensive immobility. I had no time to waste in graveside meditation, or one more pair of blue eyes would stare sightless up into falling snow.

  I had to find Murtagh and Rupert. That hidden postern door could be used, perhaps. Clearly it was not fortified or guarded like the main gates and other entrances to the prison. But I needed help, and I needed it quickly.

  I glanced up at the rim of the ditch. The sun was quite low, burning through a haze of cloud just above the treetops. The air felt heavy with moisture. Likely it would snow again by nightfall; the haze was thick across the sky in the east. There was perhaps an hour of light left.

  I began to follow the ditch, not wanting to climb the steep rocky sides until I had to. The ravine curved away from the prison quite soon, and looked as though it would lead down toward the river; presumably the runoff of melting snow carried the prison’s refuse away. I was nearly to the corner of the soaring wall when I heard a faint sound behind me. I whirled. The sound had been made by a rock falling from the lip of the ditch, dislodged by the foot of a large grey wolf.

  As an alternative to the items under the snow, I had certain desirable characteristics, from a wolf’s point of view. On the one hand, I was mobile, harder to catch, and posed the possibility of resistance. On the other, I was slow, clumsy, and above all, not frozen stiff, thus offering no danger of broken teeth. I also smelled of fresh blood, temptingly warm in this frozen waste. Were I a wolf, I thought, I wouldn’t hesitate. The animal made up its mind at the same time I came to my own decision regarding our future relations.

  There had been a Yank at Pembroke Hospital, name of Charlie Marshall. He was a pleasant chap, friendly as all the Yanks were, and most entertaining on his pet subject. His pet subject was dogs; Charlie was a sergeant in the K-9 Corps. He had been blown up, along with two of his dogs, by an antipersonnel mine outside a small village near Arles. He grieved for his dogs, and often told me stories about them when I would sit with him during the odd slack moments in my shift.

  More to the immediate point, he had also once told me what to do, and not do, should I ever be attacked by a dog. I felt it was stretching a point to call the eerie creature picking its delicate way down the rocks a dog, but hoped that it might yet share a few basic character traits with its tame descendants.

  “Bad dog,” I said firmly, staring it in one yellow eyeball. “In fact,” I said, backing very slowly toward the prison wall, “you are a perfectly horrible dog.” (Speak firmly and loudly, I heard Charlie saying.) “Probably the worst I’ve ever seen,” I said, firmly and loudly. I continued to back up, one hand feeling behind me for the stones of the wall, and once there, I sidled toward the corner, some ten yards away.

  I pulled the ties at my throat and began to fumble at the brooch fastening my cloak, still telling the wolf firmly and loudly what I thought of him, his ancestors, and his immediate family. The beast seemed interested in the diatribe, tongue lolling in a doggy grin. He was in no hurry; he limped slightly, I could see, as he drew nearer, and was thin and mangy. Perhaps he had trouble hunting, and infirmity was what drew him to the prison midden to scavenge. I certainly hoped so; the more infirm, the better.

  I found my leather gloves in the pocket of my cloak and put them on. Then I wrapped the heavy cloak several times around my right forearm, blessing the weight of the velvet. “They’ll go for the throat,” Charlie had instructed me, “unless their trainer tells them otherwise. Keep looking him in the eye; you’ll see it when he makes up his mind to jump. That’s your moment.”

  I could see a number of things in that wicked yellow orb, including hunger, curiosity, and speculation, but not yet a decision to leap.

  “You disgusting creature,” I told it, “don’t you dare leap at my throat!” I had other ideas. I had wrapped the cloak in several loose folds about my right arm, leaving the bulk of it dangling, but providing enough padding, I hoped, to keep the beast’s teeth from sinking through.

  The wolf was thin, but not emaciated. I judged it to weigh perhaps eighty or ninety pounds; less than me, but not enough to give me any great advantage. The leverage was definitely in the animal’s favor; four legs against two gave better balance on the slippery crust of snow. I hoped bracing my back against the wall would help.

  A certain feeling of emptiness at my back told me I had reached the corner. The wolf wa
s some twenty feet away. This was it. I scraped enough snow from under my feet to give good footing and waited.

  I didn’t even see the wolf leave the ground. I could swear I had been watching its eyes, but if the decision to leap had registered there, it had been followed by action too swiftly to note. It was instinct, not thought, that raised my arm as a whitish-grey blur hurtled toward me.

  The teeth sank into the padding with a force that bruised my arm. It was heavier than I thought; I was unprepared for the weight, and my arm sagged. I had planned to try to throw the beast against the wall, perhaps stunning it. Instead, I heaved myself at the wall, squashing the wolf between the stone blocks and my hip. I struggled to wrap the loose cloak around it. Claws shredded my skirt and scraped my thigh. I drove a knee viciously into its chest, eliciting a strangled yelp. Only then did I realize that the odd, growling whimpers were coming from me and not the wolf.

  Strangely enough, I was not at all frightened now, though I had been terrified watching the wolf stalk me. There was room in my mind for only one thought: I would kill this animal, or it would kill me. Therefore, I was going to kill it.

  There comes a turning point in intense physical struggle where one abandons oneself to a profligate usage of strength and bodily resource, ignoring the costs until the struggle is over. Women find this point in childbirth; men in battle.

  Past that certain point, you lose all fear of pain or injury. Life becomes very simple at that point; you will do what you are trying to do, or die in the attempt, and it does not really matter much which.

  I had seen this sort of struggle during my training on the wards, but never had I experienced it before. Now all my concentration was focused on the jaws locked around my forearm and the writhing demon tearing at my body.

  I managed to bang the beast’s head against the wall, but not hard enough to do much good. I was growing tired rapidly; had the wolf been in good condition, I would have had no chance. I hadn’t much now, but took what there was. I fell on the animal, pinning it under me and knocking the wind from it in a gust of carrion breath. It recovered almost immediately and began squirming beneath me, but the second’s relaxation enabled me to get it off my arm, one hand clamped under its wet muzzle.

  By forcing my fingers back into the corners of its mouth, I managed to keep them out from between the scissoring carnassial teeth. Saliva drizzled down my arm. I was lying flat on top of the wolf. The corner of the prison wall was perhaps eighteen inches ahead of me. Somehow I must get there, without releasing the fury that heaved and squirmed under me.

  Scrabbling with my feet, pressing down with all my might, I pushed myself forward inch by inch, constantly straining to keep the fangs from my throat. It cannot have taken more than a few minutes to move those eighteen inches, but it seemed I had lain there most of my life, locked in battle with this beast whose hind claws raked my legs, seeking a good ripping purchase in my belly.

  At last I could see around the corner. The blunt angle of stone was directly in front of my face. Now was the tricky part. I must maneuver the wolf’s body to allow me to get both hands under the muzzle; I would never be able to exert the necessary force with one.

  I rolled abruptly away, and the wolf slithered at once into the small clear space between my body and the wall. Before it could rise to its feet, I brought my knee up as hard as I could. The wolf grunted as my knee drove into its side, pinning it, however fleetingly, against the wall.

  I had both hands beneath its jaw now. The fingers of one hand were actually in its mouth. I could feel a crushing sting across my gloved knuckles, but ignored it as I forced the hairy head back, and back, and back again, using the angle of the wall as a fulcrum for the lever of the beast’s body. I thought my arms would break, but this was the only chance.

  There was no audible noise, but I felt the reverberation through the whole body as the neck snapped. The straining limbs—and the bladder—at once relaxed. The intolerable strain on my arms now released, I dropped, as limp as the dying wolf. I could feel the beast’s heart fibrillating beneath my cheek, the only part still capable of a death struggle. The stringy fur stank of ammonia and soggy hair. I wanted to move away, but could not.

  I think I must have slept for a moment, odd as that sounds, cheek pillowed on the corpse. I opened my eyes to see the greenish stone of the prison a few inches in front of my nose. Only the thought of what was transpiring on the other side of that wall got me to my feet.

  I stumbled down the ditch, cloak dragged over one shoulder, tripping on stones hidden in the snow, banging my shins painfully on half-buried tree branches. Subconsciously, I must have been aware that wolves usually run in packs, because I do not recall being surprised by the howl that wavered out of the forest above and behind me. If I felt anything, it was black rage at what seemed a conspiracy to thwart and delay me.

  Wearily I turned to see where the sound had come from. I was in the open away from the prison by this time; no wall to brace my back against, and no weapon to hand. It had been luck as much as anything that helped me with the first wolf; there was not a chance in a thousand that I could kill another animal bare-handed—and how many more might there be? The pack I had seen feeding in the moonlight in the summer had had at least ten wolves. I could hear in memory the sounds of their teeth scraping, and the crack of breaking bones. The only question now was whether I bothered to fight at all, or whether I would rather just lie down in the snow and give up. That option seemed remarkably attractive, all things considered.

  Still, Jamie had given up his life, and considerably more than that, to get me out of the prison. I owed it to him at least to try.

  Once more I backed slowly away, moving farther down the ditch. The light was fading; soon the ravine would be filled with shadow. I doubted that that would help me. The wolves undoubtedly had better night-sight than I did.

  The first of the hunters appeared on the rim of the ditch as the other had; a shaggy figure, standing motionless and alert. It was with something of a shock that I realized two more were already in the ravine with me, trotting slowly, almost in step with each other. They were almost the same color as the snow in the twilight—dirty grey—and almost invisible, though they moved with no attempt at concealment.

  I stopped moving. Flight was clearly useless. Bending, I freed a dead pine branch from the snow. The bark was black with the wet, and rough even through my gloves. I waved the branch around my head and shouted. The animals stopped moving toward me, but did not retreat. The closest one flattened its ears, as though objecting to the noise.

  “Don’t like it?” I screeched. “Too bloody bad! Back off, you fucking sod!” Scooping up a half-buried rock, I hurled it at the wolf. It missed, but the beast scooted to one side. Encouraged, I began to fling missiles wildly; rocks, twigs, handfuls of snow, anything I could grab one-handed. I shrieked until my throat was raw with cold air, howling like the wolves themselves.

  At first I thought one of my missiles had scored a hit. The nearest wolf yelped and seemed to convulse. The second arrow passed within a foot of me and I caught the tiny blur of motion before it thudded home in the chest of the second wolf. That animal died where it stood. The first, struck less vitally, kicked and struggled in the snow, no more than a heaving lump in the growing dusk.

  I stood stupidly staring at it for some time, then looked up by instinct to the lip of the ravine. The third wolf, wisely choosing discretion, had vanished back into the trees, from whence a shivering howl went up.

  I was still looking up at the dark trees when a hand clutched my elbow. I whirled with a gasp to find myself looking up into the face of a stranger. Narrow-jawed and with a weak chin ill-disguised by a scabby beard, he was a stranger indeed, but his plaid and his dirk marked him a Scot.

  “Help,” I said, and fell forward into his arms.

  36

  MACRANNOCH

  It was dark in the cottage and there was a bear in the corner of the room. In panic, I recoiled against my escort, want
ing nothing more to do with wild beasts. He shoved me strongly forward, into the cottage. As I staggered toward the fire, the hulking shape turned toward me, and I realized belatedly that it was merely a large man in a bearskin.

  A bearskin cloak, to be exact, fastened at the neck with a silver-gilt brooch as large as the palm of my hand. It was made in the shape of two leaping stags, backs arched and heads meeting to form a circle. The locking pin was a short, tapered fan, the head of it shaped like the tail of a fleeing deer.

  I noticed the brooch in detail because it was directly in front of my nose. Looking up, I briefly considered the possibility that I had been wrong; perhaps it really was a bear.

  Still, bears presumably did not wear brooches or have eyes like blueberries; small, round, and a dark, shiny blue. They were sunk in heavy cheeks whose lower slopes were forested with silver-shot black hair. Similar hair cascaded over thickset shoulders to mingle with the hair of the cloak, which, in spite of its new use, was still pungently redolent of its former owner.

  The shrewd little eyes flickered over me, evaluating both the bedraggled state of my attire, and the good basic quality of it, including the two wedding rings, gold and silver. The bear’s address was formulated accordingly.

  “You seem to have had some difficulty, Mistress,” he said formally, inclining a massive head still spangled with melting snow. “Perhaps we might assist ye?”

  I hesitated over what to say. I desperately needed this man’s help, yet I would be suspect immediately my speech revealed me to be English. The archer who had brought me here forestalled me.

  “Found her near Wentworth,” he said laconically. “Fightin’ wolves. An English lassie,” he added, with an emphasis that made my host’s blueberry eyes fix on me with a rather unpleasant speculation in their depths. I pulled myself up to my full height and summoned as much of the Matron attitude as I could.

  “English by birth, Scots by marriage,” I said firmly. “My name is Claire Fraser. My husband is a prisoner in Wentworth.”

  “I see,” said the bear, slowly. “Weel, my own name is MacRannoch, and ye’re presently on my land. I can see by your dress as you’re a woman of some family; how come ye to be alone in Eldridge Wood on a winter night?”

  I caught at the opening; here was some chance to establish my bona fides, as well as to find Murtagh and Rupert.

  “I came to Wentworth with some clansmen of my husband’s. As I was English, we thought I could gain entrance to the prison, and perhaps find some way of, er, removing him. However, I—I left the prison by another way. I was looking for my friends when I was set upon by wolves—from which this gentleman kindly rescued me.” I tried a grateful smile on the raw-boned archer, who received it in stony silence.

  “Ye’ve certainly met something wi’ teeth,” MacRannoch agreed, eyeing the gaping rents in my skirt. Suspicion yielded temporarily to the demands of hospitality.

  “Are ye hurt, then? Just a bit scratched? Weel, you’re cold, nae doubt, and a wee bit shaken, I imagine. Sit here by the fire. Hector will fetch ye a sup of something, and then ye can tell me a bit more about these friends of yours.” He pulled a rough three-legged stool up with one foot, and sat me firmly on it with a massive hand on my shoulder.

  Peat fires give little light but are comfortingly hot. I shuddered involuntarily as the blood started to flow back into my frozen hands. A couple of gulps from the leather flask grudgingly provided by Hector started the blood flowing internally again as well.

  I explained my situation as well as I could, which was not particularly well. My brief description of my exit from the prison and subsequent hand-to-hand encounter with the wolf was received with particular skepticism.

  “Given that ye did manage to get into Wentworth, it doesna seem likely that Sir Fletcher would allow ye to wander about the place. Nor if this Captain Randall had found ye in the dungeons, he would merely ha’ shown ye the back door.”

  “He—he had reasons for letting me go.”

  “Which were?” The blueberry eyes were implacable.

  I gave up and put the matter baldly; I was much too tired for delicacy or circumlocutions.

  MacRannoch appeared semiconvinced, but still reluctant to take any action.

  “Aye, I see your concern,” he argued, “still, that may not be so bad.”

  “Not so bad!” I sprang to my feet in outrage.

  He shook his head as though plagued by deerflies. “What I mean,” he explained, “is that if it’s the lad’s arse he’s after, he’s none so likely to hurt him badly. And, savin’ your presence, ma’am”—he cocked a bushy eyebrow in my direction—“bein’ buggered has seldom killed anyone.” He held up placating hands the size of soup plates.

  “Now, I’m no sayin’ he’ll enjoy it, mind, but I do say it’s not worth a major set-to with Sir Fletcher Gordon, just to save the lad a sore arse. I’ve a precarious position here, ye know, verra precarious.” And he puffed out his cheeks and beetled his brows at me.

  Not for the first time, I regretted the fact that there were no real witches. Had I been one, I would have turned him into a toad on the spot. A big fat one, with warts.

  I choked down my rage and tried reason yet again.

  “I rather think his arse is beyond saving by this time; it’s his neck I’m concerned with. The English mean to hang him in the morning.”

  MacRannoch was muttering to himself, twisting back and forth like a bear in a too-small cage. He stopped abruptly in front of me and thrust his nose to within an inch of my own. I would have recoiled, had I not been so exhausted. As it was, I merely blinked.

  “And if I said I’d help ye, what good would that do?” he roared. He resumed his turning and pacing, two steps to one wall, hurling around in a fling of fur, and two steps to the other. He spoke as he paced, words keeping time to the steps, pausing to puff as he turned.

  “If I were to go to Sir Fletcher myself, what would I say? Ye’ve a captain on your staff who’s engaged in torturin’ the prisoners in his spare time? And when he asks how I know that, I tell him a stray Sassenach wench my men found wanderin’ in the dark told me this man’s been makin’ indecent advances to her husband, who’s an outlaw wi’ a price on his head, and a condemned murderer, to boot?”

  MacRannoch stopped and thumped one paw on the flimsy table. “And as for takin’ men into the place! If, and mind ye, I say if we could get in—”

  “You could get in,” I interrupted. “I can show you the way.”

  “Mmmphm. That’s as may be. If we could get in, what happens when Sir Fletcher finds my men wanderin’ about his fortress? He sends Captain Randall round next mornin’ with a brace of cannon and levels Eldridge Hall to the ground, that’s what!” He shook his head again, making the black locks fly.

  “Nay, lass, I canna see—”

  He was interrupted by the sudden flinging open of the cottage door to admit another bowman, this one pushing Murtagh in front of him at knife-point. MacRannoch stopped and stared in amazement.

  “What is this?” he demanded. “Ye’d think ’twas May Day, and the lads and lassies all out gatherin’ flowers in the wood, not the dead o’ winter and snow comin’ on!”

  “This is my husband’s clansman,” I said. “As I told you—”

 
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