The wind tore through the clouds, whipping down to gouge out roots too spare even for sheep, down and across the vista, rustling with each gust, pounding at implacable rock. At first there was no sound beyond the wind, its moan raising and falling almost to silence. Then cracked the thunder. Lightening sliced the sky into jagged halves bisected by a Vulcan-crooked spar of yellow which shattered again, again, building a splintered gold lattice highlighting the brooding night sky. The dry thunder cracked again.
In the center of this night, atop this mountaintop stood the defiant shape of a man. About his shoulders a plaid cape of many colors snapped and roiled, buffeted in the force of the upcoming storm. Though the wind pummeled, he stood as one with the mountain beneath his feet. He did not move from his mountain pedestal; he stood as though he were rooted, unflinching against the crackings of the angry sky. He raised his hands as it were he conducting the storm. His eyes drifted closed as he reached upwards, the cape falling away from his shoulders, baring powerful ridges of muscle to the first fat drops of rain. His dark hair, a windblown tumble, was quickly sodden.
He did not notice the slip of a woman tucked into a crease of mountain. But she noticed him.
She was not looking at the sky but at the quality of the pagan’s arms slickened by rain. He was imposing. That he did not seem to be frightened by the gale made him appear all the more threatening. She tucked herself deeper into her crevice, feeling safe as long as he didn’t notice her. He was still absorbed in the storm, now leaning into the wind, which jerked back the plaid again so that she saw tantalizing glimpses of a rough hewn face, thickly covered with several days growth of beard. His hair was too wet to determine its color, now plastered against his skull as he seemed to come back to himself. He looked down at his body, attending to his wet skin and clothes, then gazed around for shelter.
She tucked herself farther into her cold, haven. It now seemed inevitable that he find her; there was nowhere else to get away from the torrent. She’d certainly looked over this caveless stretch of coastline enough to know. It wasn’t as though she’d chosen to be marooned here, where ever here was. The smugglers who had been heading for Durness, had figured out they had a stowaway. Her only way to avoid discovery had been to jump ship, and swim to the land. Thank St. Andrew, she was half eel or so her father had teased her. In fact, the swim in the treacherous North sea had been easier than the climb up this godforsaken hunk of mountain. But what choice had she? There was no point in waiting in the desolate cove completely ringed in by rock. She had so hoped to find some sort of civilization. She had thought she was close to her destination. Had felt it in her bones. But there was nothing here.
The man was definitely coming this way. Her stomach shrank into itself. She’d seen more of men’s evil since she’d run away. If she had known then what she knew now, she would not have put herself in such a helpless position. No--she would have done this anyway. For her father’s sake; for her mother’s, her little brothers’. For her family honor. She wished she had brought with her the small dirk rather than leaving it, in a panic, aboard the ship. Thoughts of honor were little defense against flesh and blood men., or so she suspected. She’d been lucky so far. Perhaps her luck would hold. She cringed back as far as she could go, flattened against the cave’s wall trying to still her ragged breath. Fortunately the rain was loud, the wind whistling.
He hunkered down beneath the ledge of rock, but his body was too tall to fit upright, and so thick with muscle she doubted he could squeeze into the shallow space. He managed to jam most of himself beneath an overhang, which brought him so close that his sharp male scent filled her nose. At least he was facing out. When he turned, he would surely see her. Her heart was pounding. She needed more air but was afraid to inhale lest he hear.
He turned his head sharply in her direction. He knew she was here! He knew, so there was no point hiding any longer. Besides, if she could smell him, he could smell her. She smelled of the sea. Well, that was all right; so did the cave. She was shivering from the cold and wet. Did he yet see her? He was a dark blur, and behind him, the water still fell in torrents. Did he hear her? His hand moved toward a metal glint at his waist--his claymore, no doubt. He swung it easily into his hands. A fearsome weapon but a familiar one, just like the crossed set of claymores mounted on the wall of Da’s study. This blade sideswiped her arm with the flat and instead of impaling her, scraped against rock. She squeezed into a tighter ball. Lord help her, if he was going to continue poking about the darkness with that thing, she’d be spitted like a rabbit. She gulped audibly. In for a ha’penny . . . .
“You’re a loony to be standing in the rain like that.” she said in her mother’s Gaelic, the language of the Highlands, “but I’d rather you not spit me. A braw hunter like yourself can find meatier game, I am sure.”
He betrayed neither startlement nor curiosity at her voice, but rather a smug satisfaction that his instincts had been right. She sighed with relief as the dangerous claymore retreated into woolen folds. She saw a glint of light against his lean cheek as he turned his face from her toward the cave’s opening. Outside the rain pounded in glassy black sheets. Now she only worried that the smugglers would luck on to her hiding place. Was he one of them? She thought not. He adjusted his position. His bulk filled the opening of the cave, pressing close. The loony Scot who had wallowed in the rain said nothing, but the way he kept his back to her seemed as if he were standing in a defense position guarding her against the storm, his silence more of a comfort than words. It was a fine brawny back he had, too. His body gave off a great moist heat, and warmed the niche -- or perhaps it was only that her clothes had dried, at last. In spite of the rocks, the itchy salt film on her skin, and her cramped position, she fell asleep.
Along her jawbone, a sensation like the end of a hunk of bark scratched annoyingly. It was perhaps her little brother, disturbing her rest, coming into her chamber as he always did a’morning, before nurse roused from her bed and dragged him away by his ear. Heather tried to turn on her side and reached for the goosedown comforter on her bed. The little wretch . . . .
She was warm. She curled herself into the warmth of her mattress, which seemed accommodating, shifting slightly beneath her. Her arm flailed about her hips, reaching for her comforter. “Derry, you little monster!” She said hoarsely without opening her eyes, “Hand me back my covers or I’ll be telling nurse that. . .” She grazed her knuckles against cold, hard rock. What the dickens was going on? What had Derry done to her bed?
At that moment, the hard stroking along her jaw recommenced. Heather opened her eyes and saw not the green stare of her little brother but a vast chest and impish eyes so blue that her mouth fell open in shock. She blinked twice before she had the sense to close her jaw.
“You’re not Derry.”
It was the Scot. Nestled between enviable black lashes and hawkish brows, those eyes regarded her from just above her head. The surrounding tanned skin was creased slightly from squinting into the sun. His face was closer than decency permitted, yet Heather had more sense than to ask him to back away. He didn’t look like the sort who follows orders. She took note of the narrow, oft broken nose, the jutting cheekbones, the lean, shaven jaw. Her eyes drifted shut and cuddled deeper into her warm, living mattress, but shot open again at the sound of a passionate, male groan.
“Who are you?” she asked. Conscious, she spoke Gaelic.
His brow wrinkled at the sound of her voice, then smoothed flat.
"One thing is for certain,” he said in a Scots burr but in the King’s English. “I’m not Derry, English.”
“E--E. . English?” She stuttered, squeaking. “Me?” Cousin James, rest his soul, had sent her father into English exile, but that did not make her a Sassenach. “Not I.”
She pressed her hands flat against the cave floor and pushed until she was sitting upright. Her palms hurt from the surface and she brushed away sand and tiny pebbles before moving her hands to her hair, which was knotted at her neck in the remains of a coil. She rubbed her closed eyelids with her fingertips, running her hands over her face.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, English.” he repeated.
“Stubborn Scot.I am not English,” she said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “What are you doing under me?”
“Excuse me English, but why are you on me? Are ye asking for a wee tussle?”
Why was she was straddling the hips of the Scot who had invaded her shelter last night? He ran a big hand up her thigh.
“Oh, excuse me.” Heather squeaked, trying to climb off of him. She could feel his heat, his hardness pressing intimately against her. He released his grip on her thigh, but would not let her move away. The calloused fingers pressed into her mandible almost painfully, the thumb gripping firmly then falling away. The man seemed intense, angry perhaps, but laughed harshly.
“You’re just a bairn, English, aren’t ye?”
She was twenty-two, but she wasn’t about to argue.
He pushed her rudely off of him onto the rocky floor, stepped free of the cave and regarded her.
“Where are ye from?” He looked around as if she had left clues. A boat perhaps, down below on the inaccessible beach. A traveling coach. A coach and four with a driver and footman in full livery.
“I’m from here,” she said. Heather did not know what he expected to see. There hadn’t been a farmhouse or croft anywhere yesterday, and there wouldn’t be one out there today. At least the smugglers were gone. She hoped. She squinted against the light.
She carefully watched the man, as she surreptitiously tested the knotted cloth she’d bound at her hip. Its hard contours curled against her hand, bound too tightly to jingle. She’d gotten away, she was in Scotland and she wasn’t penniless.
“What are ye looking so smug about?” he asked. “You look like the cat who ate the cream.”
She groaned as he pulled her stiff limbs out of the shelter, shoving away from him, then just as suddenly grabbing at him when she looked down.
“Good St. Andrew! We’re in the clouds!”
Beneath her a craggy shelf of rock dropped almost straight down to mists rising from a cold gray sea. How had she ever managed to climb that? No wonder it had been so difficult. Beneath her feet a carpet of brilliant green lichens and tussocky grass seemed to be the only foliage adhering to the cliffside. The green seemed too bright, for everything else was cast in muted shades. Sea birds squawked around peaks and gullies that dipped into the white of the mist, and in places, the gray of the sea. In the distance she saw a bizarre, isolated pillar of rock rising from the sea. It was like she had climbed to a rocky heaven.
“Am Buachaille.” The man said. Fascinated, she watched his nostrils twitch as he turned into the wind. His lean cheek folded into a satisfied smile.
“Yes, of course. The herdsman.”
How many times had she heard her mother speak of this place? Somewhere close there was a beach where her mother had swum. She was closer than she had ever been the land she had been torn from fifteen years before. Yet a stark and barren place, this. A touch of fear coursed through her. Isolated, a beautiful, treacherous wasteland, and she was alone with this man.
“Are you looking perhaps for your friends?” The Scot said harshly, “There’s a party of unwashed men heading in this direction, though I’d wager they’ve not spotted us up here. Yet. I’ll be leaving ye to their attentions, if ye’re so inclined.”
“No.” The word barely escaped her throat. “Help me.”
They must have discovered that she’d stolen their gold! She had to hide, had to . . . . Unconsciously she took a step backward toward the tiny cave. It seemed her only hope.
“Ye’re not thinking to hide there?”
“It’s funny, you look an intelligent lass.”
It took a moment for her to catch the slur. She puffed up like pigeon, insulted.
The man regarded her for an instant, sighed and took her hand, pulling her toward the edge of the cliff. She shook her head fiercely, feeling more of her hair escape its knot, and she jerked and tried to squirm away. Her leather slippers had no purchase on the slippery lichens, and she knew he was going to push her over the edge, but didn’t dare screaming lest she alert the smugglers. The stranger frowned darkly at her, tucked her under his arm and slid on his buttocks over the edge.
She yelled with all of her might but, like in a dream where everything is frozen, all that came out was a breathy squeak. He was completely insane. Gray and green flashed before her eyes as they shot down the cliff. Heather’s stomach cramped as they slid down on his backside, like a pair of otters. She grabbed his neck and buried her face in his hard shoulder, and clutched at him, whimpering. His hand smoothed her hair from her face. She heard him whisper, “Shhh.” but his face was exhilarated. She realized they were no longer moving. Heather unclenched from his his plaid seeing they had come to rest on a bridge of rock actually suspended over the waves. One of his arms was wrapped around her; the other fumbling at a length of hemp strung around his waist.
What was he doing with the damned rope? She pushed at him, but he was as solid and as immobile as the rock they were straddling. He swung the rope over the edge, again and again, swinging it, until the rope looped back to him. Then he knotted it and grabbed her about her waist.
Not again! she thought, but there was nothing she could do to stop him from drowning them both.
As if he were ignorant of her fists battering his chest, he said grinning, “Hang on.”
She had no choice but to grab around his neck again, as he took hold of the coil and shimmied, hand under hand, down the rock bridge. The water slapping at the rocks threw up a plume of spray that shot high, then fell, soaking the hem of her gown. Her leather slippers slid off of her feet into the water; but all she was aware of was the waves brushing the soles of her feet. Nothing between her and that cold, wet death but a crazy man’s hands gripping a rope. She looked at that surf disbelieving. How ever had she managed to swim through that!
She whimpered. His body listed to the side, listed again, and she looked up to see he was slowly making his way into a dark hollow in the rock. He swung closer. Heather knew no mortal man could reach it. Except maybe her father. They were about to fall into the water and be dashed against the rocks. He swung his body again; his feet barely missed safety of the cave. Heather leaned into the swing of his body, hoping she was wrong.
“That’s my English. I knew ye looked an intelligent lass,” he panted under his breath, “Here we go.”
With a gasp of horror, they swung hard one last time. She realized his long legs could not reach safety. In the fraction of an instant, she felt his hands release the rope. The gray of rock and water flashed before her eyes, the cool rush of the air stroked her, water spewed over them both, and then they hit rock, jarring hard, then rolling, on and on, but thankfully into the darkness, away from that treacherous water.
“We made it!” she said, exultantly, “We made it!”
“Aye.” he said, “I canna see why you’re so pleased. A bit of a dousing might do ye some good. We’d best climb quick, or the tide’ll drown us.”
All she could see of his face was harsh shadows and touches of light. She was too itchy with salt to take offense at his words. “The little swim I took last night is what’s wrong with me now.” Then she realized what he had said about climbing. “I climbed up that bloody mountain once already, in the dark.”
“You can stay here and drown then, but I’m for higher ground.”
“The tide?” she said, stupidly, “Climb?”
“Aye.” he said, “The passage goes up. There are rooms above. Chambers to wait in.” He walked toward the opening.
“Wait!” Heather said in a panic, fearing to go toward the edge, but terrified that she should be alone here. She’d never felt so helpless. “Where are you going? You’re not leaving me here, are you?”
He did not answer her but took a running jump up toward his rope, which was still wrapped around the rock bridge. He tugged at the slack, using his body weight so that the knot inched toward him. He took a deep breath, winked at her and pulled the knot loose. He fell, disappearing with his rope into the churning sea.
Heather inched toward the opening, searching the water for him, fearing his drowning. Stranger he might be, and crazy, but he had tried to help her. At least, she thought he had tried to help her. Where was he? No one could survive in that terrible surf. His body would be pounded into mush. Had he left her to drown? Without him, she’d never be able to clamber out, but would drown in the tide or be lost in the caves. She must do something. She knew how to swim, maybe she could . . . “Are you all right? Where are you?” she called.
That’s when she saw him burst up, spitting water from his mouth, trailing his precious rope behind him. He wiped casually at his face, ignoring the wave which hit him roughly at chest level. He only had to clamber up a few feet of rock.
She felt a red rage pump through her. “I thought we were in danger. I thought ye were hanging over death itself.”
“Well,” he glanced over his shoulder before he walked toward her squooshing as he moved, “That’s a fine fierce current if you’re wanting to go out to sea. Come, we’d best be climbing to higher ground. These lower caverns flood at high tide.”
The water had indeed risen since when he’d reached for his rope, and she felt a fresh panic.
He directed her in front of him.
“Go ahead. From here, it’s just the one passage.”
It moved steeply up, but there were steps cut into the rock, so the climb was easier than she had imagined. Easier except for her fear of the men following. Except for the dark weight of the rock hanging over her. Except for being trapped here, with this strange man. She felt dizzy and disoriented. She couldn’t tell which way was up.
“I’m afraid I’m going to faint.” she whispered. Even at that, her voice sounded loud.
“No, it’s just the dark, the close of the cave and your weak Sassenach blood, English. Ye’ll grow accustomed. Watch your head English. The ceiling drops.” She reached a plateau and put ran her hands along the walls, feeling the narrow contour, the low roof. She could just barely sit, if she bowed her head. How would they both fit?
“Lie flat.” he said, as if he read her mind. “If the tide gets up this high, we can climb farther up. ‘Course, the next batch of caves are not so roomy as this. We can move on up to cozier quarters, if you wish.”
“No thank you.” she said primly.
He laughed, his voice a big warm sound filling the small space.
Heather’s face heated with embarrassment, and she was grateful for the darkness. The Scot was rustling wetly, seemingly having a hard time arranging his big body comfortably. She leaned hard against the wall, trying to take as little room as possible, wondering if she were going to survive to see another dawn.
Overhead, a noise! A trick of the acoustics. She practically leaped out of her skin. She remembered the comforting strength of the man beside her and reached for him. His arm came up around her, and he arranged his wet plaid beneath her, cushioning the rock. His skin felt hot and slick against her bare arms, his skin felt awfully naked.
“What was that?” an English voice asked, just overhead. Heather squeaked, forgetting the man’s state of dress. The smugglers had found them. And they were trapped!
The Scot put his hand over her mouth. She tried to pull it loose and glared at him. Stubborn Scot.
“Bloody creepy place this is.” The voices continued.
“There’s no hide nor hair of your thief, cap’n. Who ever was here is gone.”
“P’raps we’d best try the other direction, sir?”
“It’s just a bit of gold, cap’n.”
“It’s my gold.” The voice said, “And I want it back, and I want to flay the skin of the one who took it. I’m going to catch hell from the Duke as it is.”
Heather trembled--but it had been her money! The scoundrel had taken her passage money, then refused to transport her without her parent’s consent. “Sorry there ladyship,” he’d said, yelling from the deck of his ship. “We cast off tomorrow, an’ you’ll not be aboard. I’ll not have the Duke coming after my hide!”
“Then give me my money back.” She’d yelled back at him, knowing even then it was futile.
“Not a chance.” Captain Greer had said, guessing accurately that this trip was not one that her father had approved. So she’d had to wait until dark, until a dozen drunken crew members had come back to their ship; she’d had to wait until the revelry had quieted to drunken snores. She’d climbed the cat-walk, and found a stack of comfy flour sacks nicely hidden behind lashed-down barrels of trade goods. It had been easy, until that crewman had come down for a keg of ale, surprising her at her dinner. All he’d spotted had been a crust of hard tack with her exact bite etched into it, which she’d left behind in her flight to the flour sacks. She’d seen him pick it up and climb above decks. It had taken all her bravery to follow him quickly, before he raised a hue and cry. She ducked into the first cabin she saw when the captain came striding across the deck, and disappeared into the hold. Inside the cabin -- the captain’s cabin, she’d seen her own pouch of coins, grabbed them, tied them into her skirt. Then she’d looked ashore and something had moved her. It was like bone-deep recognition. Her mother had always told her to trust her instincts when she had feelings like that, though her mother would not have approved of the next thing she did. She slipped into the water and swam for land. It had been farther than it looked but she swam like an eel.
“Cap’n Greer, your thief ain’t here, he ain’t here, I tell ya.”
“She.” The Captain said. “The Duke is going to bloody kill me.”
Heather felt the Scot’s muscles tense, his naked flesh so close, so hot. He drew his hand off her mouth and pulled back as if he didn’t want to sully his skin touching the likes of her. Those instincts her mother had told her to trust were now telling her loud and clear that this was one seriously angry man. She could feel the anger come off of him in waves. She could practically see it.
“I’ll post a lookout here. You Smith, get some men up here.”
“What about the cargo sir?”
“We’re not to put into Kinlochbervie Harbour for a day or two. We can wait out the little wench. She can’t have gone far. . . unless she drowned.”
“So ye’re naught but a thief.” The Scot said later, crossing his arms over his chest. “And I thought you were a damsel in distress. A lady.”
“Shhh.” she whispered frantically, hands folding over his mouth. He pulled her fingers away.
“I’ll not shelter a thief,” he said.
“Please!” Heather whimpered, “I’m no thief. Please be quiet. They’ll hear you.” She tried to push away from him, to find a corner where she could sit, but the tiny cavern was close, his arm was draped over her, and he would not let her go.
She listened intently to the sound of water lapping into the lower cave, trying not to notice his naked chest. Was that the sound of boots coming or going?
“They’re gone, English. Thief. ”
Mutely she shook her head. “They’ve posted guards.”
“Aye. And if they hear our voices, they’ll be scared spitless.” He laughed. The booming echoed hollowly.
“Kully, what the bloody hell was that? Did you hear that Kully?” A cockney voice asked.
“It’s haunted here, I tell ya.” Up above, glass shattered against rock.
“Shaddup and give me the other bottle.” Kully said. “I’m takin’ a bit of shut-eye.”
Heather tried to push away from the man, but he pulled her closer.
“We’d best be catching a bit of shut-eye too.” he said. Heather leaned as far away from him as she was able.
“It appears that we will be sharing this little chamber for quite a while. Let’s get something straight. I’ve laid my plaid out so we don’t have to lie on bare rock.”
“It’s not bare rock. I felt something like moss.”
“Aye, ye’re a quick one, I’ll give ye that. There’s a few inches of moss beneath us. I’ve slept here many a night. It’s my own old bedding. But there’s insects too.”
“We’d be warmer if ye’d take off your dress.”
“I’m sure we would.” Heather said, “But I’m not taking anything off. And you can keep your hands to yourself. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. You just keep your hands on that side of your plaid, and I’ll be on my way as soon as those men are gone.”
“And where do ye think ye’ll be going? We’re several days walk from the nearest port, and ye’ll never make it.”
“I’m not going to a port.” she said.
“Ye dinna ken where ye’re goin’.”
“That I do.” she repeated adamantly, “I know very well where I’m going.”
“Where?” he asked.
She said nothing, confident that he could not make her give away her secret. He did not say or do anything for a long while. In the near darkness, he regarded her, silently.
She pushed away from him, craning her neck behind her. The only light reflected from the water which still pooled in the lower part of the cave. She seemed to be caught by the strange sight - like looking into a well that was lit from below. Sunlight rippled in the softly lapping water. Sooner or later the water would recede, the men would leave. She would be on her way. She could feel him wondering where she was from. He knew of this place; he probably knew every nook and cranny of this locale. There was no croft for miles. Yet here she was, like a kelpie.
She felt the raspy brush of his fingertips against the nape of her neck -- then his hand encircled the back of her head pulling her face down to his shoulder.
“Ye can cease digging at me with your pointy little elbows, English” He gave her no choice. He pulled her arms from under her, holding her flat against him.
She didn’t fight it. Maybe it was easier to talk to his pectorals than face those keen eyes.
“Highlander, will you guide me? It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been home.”
“I’ll not be carting you to London, Sassenach.”
“Home, Highlander, not London. I can pay you.”
He gave a short bark of laughter at that. “I’ll not take ill-gotten gold. But,” he said, sounding troubled, “I would hate to abandon a naïve little Sassenach like yourself to the unkind fates. Where exactly do you want to go?”
“That burned out ruin? It’s been destroyed these fifteen years.” his eyes narrowed. He turned to assess her. “Just who exactly are you?”