Son of the Morning (Chapter 19)
The noise was steadily growing louder. The din became annoying, and she struggled to open her eyes, to gain control of her body so she could sit up and tell whoever was yelling like that to shut up. Then the smell hit her, and she gagged.
That involuntary reaction seemed to complete the transition from unconsciousness to complete awareness. The noise exploded into a roar, a horrifying din of what seemed like hundreds of men yelling in battle, screaming in pain. The discordant clash of metal against metal hurt her ears. Horses thudded the ground with steel-shod hooves, neighing shrilly. And the smell was an unholy combination of hot, fresh blood, urine, and emptied bowels.
She sat up, then gasped and hurled herself to the side as two dirty, long-haired, plaid-wrapped Scotsmen clashed almost on top of her. A bloodstained blade swiped through the air, barely missing her.
Dear God. She had landed in the middle of a battle. Her breath caught. She had seen Black Niall in a battle, focused on him, and the procedure carried her directly to the place in her mind.
He washere. Somewhere. An almost painful excitement seized her insides.
Clutching her bag, she scrambled farther away from the clash of bodies. She stumbled over something soft and heavy and pitched hard onto her back. Winded, she sat up and saw that her legs were draped over a bloody dead man. A shriek caught in her throat, hung there unvoiced. Instead she hastily jerked herself away and came to her feet, swaying unsteadily as she swiveled her head, trying to orient herself.
They were in the glen, just below the rocks where she had gone through the procedure. The scene was madness, some men on horseback but most were running, attacking, pivoting, slashing. Panic seized her. she couldn't see Black Niall anywhere, couldn't find a big man with a flowing mane of black hair, who effortlessly swung a huge sword with one hand. God, oh God, was he lying somewhere in the middle of this carnage, his own blood adding to the red flow?
Reality asserted itself with a thud. Despite her dreams and imaginings, she had no idea what he really looked like. The Guardian wouldn't glow like an archangel with a fiery sword; he would look just like everyone else. He could have been one of the grimy combatants who had almost steppe4 on her and she wouldn't have known him.
So how was she to find him? Climb the hill and scream "Black Niall!" at the top of her lungs?
"Niall Dhu! Niall Dhu!" She heard the screaming, the sudden roar from one end of the battlefield, and all the seething bodies seemed to surge in that direction. Grace backed up, climbing a little way up the hill so she could have a better view.
"Niall Dhu!" She started, the hoarsely screamed words suddenly making sense.Dhu meant "black." They were yelling his name.
Blood drained from her head. Had he fallen under a sword? She stumbled forward, her feet slipping in the red mud created by many feet churning a blood-soaked ground, driven by an insane need to reach his side. He couldn't be dead. No. Not Niall. He was invincible, the most fearsome warrior in Christendom.
The surge abruptly reversed, coming back to her. Grace halted, transfixed by the sight of all those screaming, dirty, long-haired men, bare legs flashing as they ran toward her. Hard reality slapped her. She was in the middle of a fourteenth-century battle, and if any of these men got their hands on her she would likely be raped and killed.
She turned and ran. It was like waving a cape at a bull. They were already in a blood lust, and a collective roar burst from a hundred throats when they saw her. Grace pulled up her skirts and hurdled bodies, the bag she clutched in one hand banging heavily against her legs. She struggled to draw breath but panic clutched her throat, squeezing, threatening to cut off her breathing altogether.
The ground shook under a horse's thundering impact and a beefy, bloodstained arm swept around her. Grace shrieked as the world abruptly whirled off kilter and she was jerked into the air, flailing, to land heavily across a stinking, wool covered lap. The man roared with laughter, roughly fondled her rump, then kneed the horse around. He yelled something, his tone obviously gloating, but she couldn't understand anything he said except "Niall Dhu."
Helpless, upside-down over a horse, all she could do was hang on to the bag and hope against hope that the ruffian who had captured her was Niall himself. She had caught a glimpse of a beefy face with a dirty beard, a dreadful disappointment compared to her dreams, but if he were Niall at least that would save her the trouble of hunting him down.
She didn't think she was that lucky. The bastard was in high spirits, laughing and yelling as he rode. Others on horseback were around them, but most of the men were afoot. There was a great deal of activity in a group just out of her limited view, more yelling and laughter.
The man holding her put his hand between her legs, roughly feeling her through her skirts. Fury swept over Grace in an abrupt, unthinking tide, and swift as a snake she turned her head and sank her teeth into his bare, dirty calf. He roared in surprised pain and jerked on the reins. The horse half reared, neighing, and its hooves hit the ground again with a bone-jarring thud, jerking her teeth out of the man's leg. She gagged at the taste, and nausea overwhelmed her. She began to heave, and vomited over his foot.
Laughter rose around them, men pointing and howling with glee. Her captor seized her and furiously jerked her upright, his fetid breath hitting her full in the face as he roared at her. She couldn't understand a word he said, but his breath made her gag again. Hastily he pushed her off the horse and she sprawled in the dirt, landing with the bag under her stomach and knocking the air out of her.
She was jerked upright, held then while she swayed and gasped for breath, and a rope wastied around her waist. The beefy man tied the other end around his own waist and kicked his heels to the horse's sides, and she had to walk or be dragged. She walked, wheezing, desperately clutching her bag in both hands.
She expected the bag to be taken from her at any moment, but the men evidently didn't see any need to carry anything extra when she could do it. She wasn't going anywhere, and they could relieve her of her possessions whenever they reached their destination.
At least now she could look around. She didn't know if it was morning or afternoon, so she had no way of telling in what direction they were traveling. Not north or south, though, because the sun was behind them. If it was morning, they were traveling west; if afternoon, they were going east.
Behind her, a group of men were carrying a long bundle, completely wrapped and tied in a motley collection of dirty plaids. The bundle heaved occasionally, and was rewarded by a thump from one or more of the men. She looked around and one of the men met her gaze, grinning to display a few remaining teeth, the rest rotted to mere stumps. " "Niall Dhu," he said proudly, indicating the bundle.
Aghast, she stopped walking, and was jerked forward when the slack was taken out of the rope. Niall! She looked over her shoulder at the bundle, struggling to make sense of the situation. These couldn't be his men, or they wouldn't be hitting him. Obviously he had been captured, and his own men hadn't been able to pursue for fear he would be killed.
Her mind buzzed with possibilities. He might be ransomed, or his captors might take pleasure in torturing and killing him. If he were held for ransom, he would likely be well taken care of; she thought she remembered reading that medieval Scots had practiced kidnapping as a fairly normal means of income, which of course would work only so long as the captive was returned unharmed. If killing them had been routine, obviously no one would have been willing to pay their hard-earned gold to no avail. The Scots were too practical for that. '
But if they intended to kill him… She had to find some way to help him. The problem was that she was a captive herself, and whenever they reached their destination she was likely to find herself in much more dire straits than she was in now. She was a captured woman, vulnerable, nothing more than a piece of meat to these men. Grace knew she was facing rape, probably multiple rapes, unless she could come up with some miraculous plan. Fear chilled her, but she forced it away. She was here. She had actually traveled through time. The circumstances weren't good, but she had found Black Niall almost immediately. Whatever happened later, she had to keep her mind focused on her objective. If necessary, she would endure. She would survive. She washere. The amazement of it suddenly pushed out all other concerns, and her head swiveled from left to right, trying to take everything in. Her heart pounded in her chest. There was nothing really different to see; odd how little theHighlands had changed. Even in the twentieth century they were still mostly deserted, as if time had passed them by. The craggy mountains looked the same, perhaps a bit rougher, with patches of mist clinging to them.
She looked around her at the men, curiously examining their faces. Even under tangled thatches of dirty, uncombed hair, and sometimes an equally dirty, untidy beard, they looked so identifiably Scottish. She saw a long, thin nose here, high slanted cheekbones there, over there a cheerfully round cheek.
The men weren't in a good mood, despite their success in capturing Black Niall. Their losses had been heavy, and none of them had escaped completely unscathed. They laughed whenever one of them punched Niall, but the laughter was mean.
They talked among themselves, but she couldn't understand them. Learning to read Gaelic was a far cry from speaking it, and she doubted any of them could read even if they were inclined to let her write notes to communicate.
The bearded beast who had captured her looked around and scowled at her, and snapped something in Gaelic. Grace started to shrug her shoulders, but a risky plan popped into her head. She didn't give herself time to think about it. She found herself smiling a d saying, "I'm sorry, I can't understand you," in the soft, sweetest voice she possessed.
His eyes popped wide open. The men around her gave her startled looks. Until then they had probably thought she was one of Black Niall's crofters, perhaps his woman or belonging to one of his men, but when she spoke in a foreign language they all realized she wasn't what they had assumed.
The beast's small, piggy eyes roamed over her clothes, and for the first time he noticed she wasn't wearing the rough, shapeless clothing of a crofter. He reined his horse to a stop and said something else. Everyone was watching her now. Even the bundle that held Black Niall had stopped wriggling. Grace didn't stop, but walked up beside the horse and gave the beast, the mounted one, another smile. She hadn't smiled in so long that the movement of her face felt strange, but if the beast noticed how false it was his stupefied expression didn't change.
"You stink as if you haven't bathed in your entire life," Grace said pleasantly. "And your breath would knock this horse down if he got a good whiff of it. But you seem to be the leader of this war party, so if being nice to you will protect me from them, I'll take my chances with just one man instead of a crowd any day of the week." She accompanied this with the sweetest smile she could manage, and held her arms up to him.
He was so startled that he automatically leaned down and lifted her onto the horse in front of him. The beast was strong as an ox, she thought, daintily settling herself in a proper position and arranging her skirts. She tried not to breathe through her nose so she wouldn't smell either his body stench or his breath, but she didn't let herself flinch. She acted as if it were her right to ride instead of walk, gave him a regal nod, and said, "Thank you."
They were all gaping at her, and they began gabbling excitedly among themselves, pointing at her clothes. She hadn't realized what good quality her plain cotton and wool garments were, until she compared them to the rough woven fabric the men wore.
The beast lifted her hand, fingering her rings, and Grace held her breath. She expected him to tear them off her fingers, but instead he grunted and turned her hand over to look at her palm. She looked down, and saw the difference in their hands. His was thick and beefy, callused, the ragged nails black with encrusted dirt. In contrast her hand was soft and pale, the skin smooth, her nails well shaped. Her hands didn't look as if she did any physical labor; in this age, that meant she was at least nobility. She could almost see the ponderous thoughts forming in his brain. She was foreign, and wealthy, and of value to someone somewhere. Perhaps he didn't intend to ransom Black Niall, but here was a little godsend who could add considerable weight to his purse.
He prodded her bag and said something. Guessing he wanted to know what was in the bag, Grace obligingly opened it. The men crowded close, craning their necks in curiosity. She took out one of the books she had brought, flipping the pages to show him the paper and words, then shoving it back into the bag. She hoped no one would be very interested in it, because books didn't exist yet. Priests and monks did illuminated manuscripts, but the printing press wouldn't be invented for another hundred years or so.
The beast wasn't interested in the book, waving his beefy hand in dismissal. She pulled out the velvet surcoat, just enough to let him see the fabric. He murmured in pleasure, rubbing his dirty hand over the plush texture, and grinned in anticipation of riches. Next she showed him a larger book, hoping he wouldn't want her to flip the pages in it too, because this book had photographs. He grunted, shaking his head, and she shoved it back into the bag.
She had brought several books, chosen with care. There were also several kinds of drugs in the bag, but she didn't want to display the pills. She had gotten prescriptions for them and gone through customs without any problem, but the beast would either eat them or scatter them on the ground. So she pulled out another book, and he looked impatient. He probably wanted to see something he recognized as valuable.
Perplexed, she pulled out the length of wool. Again, he fingered the fine weave, then shoved it aside. She pulled out another book. He said something rude, causing the men to laugh. She shrugged, and brought out still another one, hoping that would allay any suspicions he might have about the weight of the bag, should he investigate. Abruptly he decided to do just that, grabbing the bag and shoving his hand inside. Grace held her breath. The pills were carefully rolled in a handkerchief, then placed in a small wooden box to keep them from getting crushed, and the box secured in a pocket she had sewn into the inside of the bag.
He didn't notice the pocket or the box. His searching fingers found the Swiss Army knife, and he pulled it out with a triumphant expression that swiftly changed to puzzlement as he stared at it. With all the blades and utensils folded in, it didn't look like much. She didn't want to lose the knife, but if he figured out the blades she knew she would. She drew a quick breath and reached for the knife.
He drew it back, scowling. Grace made her expression impatient. She untied the scarf from her head and unbound her hair, letting it fall free. He blinked at the long, thick mass. She reached for the knife again and this time he let her have it. She closed her hand around it so the blades didn't show, and turned it so he could see the head of the small tweezers. Delicately she plucked it out, and he blinked in astonishment. She held the tweezers in the palm of her hand, letting him look at it, then she quickly gathered her hair and began rolling it up around the knife, forming an oblong bun. When the roll was tight against her nape, she stuck the tweezers into her hair to secure it, and gave the beast a beatific smile.
He looked at her, then at her hair. He blinked again. Then he evidently decided ladies' hairstyles were beyond him, and turned his attention back to the bag.
Next he found a small penlight, luckily the kind that came on when the top was twisted instead of one with a button. Grace sighed, pulled the tweezers out of her hair, and started to unroll the bun, but he got the idea and dropped the penlight back into the bag without examining it very closely. He missed the book of matches, but it had probably gotten stuck between the pages of one of the books.
Next he found an extra pair of stockings, rolled into a ball. To her relief, she didn't have to put them in her hair. He found her comb, and exclaimed over how well made it was. She had searched for a wooden one that wouldn't cause comment, then carefully scratched off the maker's name. The comb was one thing he really could have used, but he dropped it back into the bag without further interest. A few more half-heartedpawings , and he decided she didn't have any valuables hidden from him. He gathered the horse's reins, and with a click of his tongue and a touch of his heels they rode on, with her held carefully in front of him like a queen-a queen with a Swiss Army knife rolled up in her hair."