Highland Fire

By: Elizabeth Thornton

In that moment, as the Randal closed in upon her, it seemed the veneer of civilization, all his English breeding, had been stripped away. He was like a wild man, an offshoot of some Viking raider who centuries before had raped and pillaged his way along the shores of western Scotland.

It was unthinkable to use her dirk against him, not only because he was chief of Clan Randal, but also because he was David’s cousin. Moreover, she was beginning to see that she had made a blunder by pulling a dagger on him. His eyes were trained on it. Nothing was more certain than that he was going to take it away from her. At the very least, he was going to break her arm. From the savage look on his face, he might well decide to use it to slit her throat.

When he lunged for her, she let out a yelp and, dodging away, went haring into the quarry. She didn’t get very far before he caught up with her. Grabbing her by the scruff of the neck, he shook her with enough force to loosen every tooth in her jaws. One kick from his booted foot sent the dirk flying out of her grasp to fall harmlessly among a clump of heather.

Like a terrified, half-crazed wild thing, she went for him. She didn’t wish to do him any harm, she just wanted to get away from him. With humiliating ease, he immobilized her. Kicking, arms flailing, she was dragged by the scruff of the neck and the seat of her trews to one of the many smooth-faced granite boulders which dotted the entrance to the quarry. Holding her face down, with one knee planted firmly in the small of her back, he brought the riding crop down smartly on the fleshiest part of her posterior.

The scream which erupted from the boy’s throat at the first stroke was eminently gratifying to Rand’s ears. The thought that the boy had tried to lure him to his death had unleashed a murderous rage. Nothing loath, Rand wielded the crop till the screams of pain and outrage had diminished to muffled snuffles and whimpers. When he was satisfied that he had whipped the boy into submission, he removed his knee from her back and straightened.

“And now,” he said, tapping the crop threateningly against one booted leg, “we are going to talk. You, boy, are going to give me your name and the names of your comrades, or I shall give you more of the same. Do you understand?”

The boy rolled from the boulder onto his knees and stared wordlessly up at his captor. As Rand made a slow inspection of that pathetic, tear-streaked face with its huge frightened eyes glimmering with reproach and something else, something indefinable, against all logic, his anger softened and gradually melted away. He did not know what prompted him to stretch out a hand offering a belated comfort, he only knew he wanted to banish that hurt look from the boy’s face.

He succeeded. Snarling, spitting in helpless fury, the boy cowered away. Rand edged closer.

“Look,” he said, “perhaps I made a mistake. Perhaps you didn’t realize the danger. I’m not really a hard man. I’ll listen to what you have to say for yourself.”

He did not know why it mattered to him, but suddenly he wanted to think well of the boy, wanted the boy to think well of him. Again, he stretched out his hand, but let it drop away when the boy began to tremble.

For a long moment, he simply stared at the lad, wondering how they were going to communicate. It was evident to him that the boy did not understand English. When he made a move to go down on his haunches, the boy sucked in his breath and touched a shaking hand to his cap as though reassuring himself that it was still in place.

Rand wondered about that cap. Not once in their struggles had it slipped from the lad’s head. As he reached out a hand to pluck it off, he became aware of something else—shapes materializing out of the shadows, from the dim recesses of the quarry. Someone called out something in Gaelic, and the boy eagerly replied. A dog barked. Rand was debating what his next move should be when a roar went up and four burly men came charging out of the darkness and fell upon him.

He knew at once that his assailants were not bent on doing him a serious injury. They were not armed, nor were they disciplined. These were not the young men who had attacked his coach, but yokels, tinkers by the stench of them. Their aim was merely to subdue him or keep him away from the boy. It took very little effort on Rand’s part to throw them off. Even so, by the time he managed to hold them at bay with his pistol, the boy was already making good his escape. One shrill whistle had brought the lad’s pony to his hand, and within minutes, horse and rider were disappearing into the trees.

There was an interval when Rand might have got off one good shot. He never seriously considered it, not even when it occurred to him that the boy had made a fool of him. The boy’s every move had been executed with forethought and precision from the moment he had become aware that Rand was in hot pursuit. The leap at the top of the quarry, this nest of foul-smelling vagrants, that hurt, frozen look, the delaying tactics—all designed to elude capture and punishment, whatever the cost to the man who hunted him.

Furious now that he had softened toward the boy, Rand rounded on the tinkers who had abetted his escape. Only the women remained, the men having judiciously melted away into the cavernous shadows. There was no satisfaction to be had here. They spoke only Gaelic, or so they let on, and though Rand did not know the language, he grasped their sentiments. Shaking their fists at him, gesturing, yelling, they made no bones about their contempt for the spectacle that had roused them from their beds—a grown man terrorizing a wee lad only half his size and weight.