“A loud whooping came from behind the corner of the stable, and Jamie stopped short, just in time to avoid Fergus, who shot out in front of us as though fired from a slingshot, hotly pursued by two stable-lads, both a good deal bigger. A dirty green streak of fresh manure down the side of the first boy’s face gave some clue as to the cause of the altercation.
With considerable presence of mind, Fergus doubled on his tracks, shot past his pursuers, and whizzed into the middle of the party, whence he took refuge behind the bulwark of Jamie’s kilted hips. Seeing their prey thus safely gone to earth, his pursuers glanced fearfully at the oncoming phalanx of courtiers and gowns, exchanged a look of decision, and, as one, turned and loped off.
Seeing them go, Fergus stuck his head out from behind my skirt and yelled something in gutter French that earned him a sharp cuff on the ear from Jamie.
“Off wi’ ye,” he said brusquely. “And for God’s sake, dinna be throwin’ horse apples at people bigger than you are. Now, go and keep out of trouble.” He followed up this advice with a healthy smack on the seat of the breeches that sent Fergus staggering off in the opposite direction to that taken by his erstwhile assailants.
I had been of two minds as to the wisdom of taking Fergus with us on this expedition, but Jamie had wanted to show the lad a bit of country, feeling that he’d earned a holiday. All well and good, except that Fergus, who had never been outside Paris in his life, had got the exhilaration of air, light, and beautiful huge animals right up his nose, and, demented with excitement, had been in constant trouble since our arrival.
“God knows what he’ll do next,” I said darkly, looking after Fergus’s retreating form. “Set one of the hayricks on fire, I expect.” Jamie was unperturbed at the suggestion. “He’ll be all right. All lads get into manure fights.”
A horse was coming toward us, up the narrow alley between the main stable and the long, open shed that held the forge. A Percheron colt, and a young one, no more than two or three, judging from the dappling of his hide. Even young Percherons are big, and the colt seemed huge, as he blundered to and fro at a slow trot, tail lashing from side to side. Plainly the colt was not yet broken to a saddle; the massive shoulders twitched in an effort to dislodge the small form that straddled his neck, both hands buried deep in the thick black mane.
“Bloody hell, it’s Fergus!” The ladies, disturbed by the shouting, had all gotten to their feet by now, and were peering interestedly at the sight. I didn’t realize that the men had joined us until one woman said, “But how dangerous it seems! Surely the boy will be injured if he falls!” “Well, if he doesna hurt himself falling off, I’ll attend to it directly, once I’ve got my hands on the wee bugger,” said a grim voice behind me. I turned to see Jamie peering over my head at the rapidly approaching horse.
“Should you get him off?” I asked. He shook his head. “No, let the horse take care of it.”
“As for Fergus, his legs were stretched nearly at right angles across the Percheron’s broad back; clearly the only hold he had on the horse was his death-grip on the mane. At that, he might have managed to slide down or at least tumble off unscathed, had the victims of the manure fight not completed their plan to exact a measure of revenge.
The effect was much like a bomb going off. There was an explosion of hay where Fergus had been, and the colt gave a panicked whinny, got its hindquarters under it, and took off like a Derby winner, heading straight for the little knot of courtiers, who scattered to the four winds, screeching like geese. Jamie had flung himself on me, pushing me out of the way and knocking me to the ground in the process. Now he rose off my supine form, cursing fluently in Gaelic. Without pausing to inquire after my welfare, he raced off in the direction taken by Fergus.
The horse was rearing and twisting, altogether spooked, churning forelegs keeping at bay a small gang of grooms and stable-lads, all of whom were rapidly losing their professional calm at the thought of one of the King’s valuable horses damaging itself before their eyes.
By some miracle of stubbornness or fear, Fergus was still in place, skinny legs flailing as he slithered and bounced on the heaving back. The grooms were all shouting at him to let go, but he ignored this advice, eyes squeezed tight shut as he clung to the two handfuls of horsehair like a lifeline.
I caught a glimpse of red tartan among the greenery, and then there was a flash of red as Jamie launched himself from the shelter of a tree. His body struck the colt a glancing blow and he tumbled to the ground in a flurry of plaid and bare legs that would have revealed to a discerning observer that this particular Scotsman wasn’t wearing anything under his kilt at the moment.
The party of courtiers rushed up as one, concentrating on the fallen Lord Broch Tuarach, as the grooms pursued the disappearing horse on the other side of the trees.
Jamie lay flat on his back under the beech trees, his face a dead greenish-white, both eyes and mouth wide open. Both arms were locked tight around Fergus, who clung to his chest like a leech. Jamie blinked at me as I dashed up to him, and made a faint effort at a smile. The faint wheezings from his open mouth deepened into a shallow panting, and I relaxed in relief; he’d only had his wind knocked out.
Finally realizing that he was no longer moving, Fergus raised a cautious head. Then he sat bolt upright on his employer’s stomach and said enthusiastically, “That was fun, milord! Can we do it again?”