Chapter One: Observations
I’ll be so glad when this bloody assignment is over.
Dr. Mary Malone knew the name of the pretty redhead who stood bent over the table, her white bottom bared and awaiting the thick leather strap. She’d been observing her domestic situation for over a fortnight now. The woman’s name was Agnes, or Aggie to her brute of a husband. His name was Ewan.
She also knew what was about to happen. This wasn’t the first time that Ewan had spanked his wife or—as Ewan termed it—skelped. Mary had grown to hate that word. She hated everything about it, and about the act itself—the subjugation of the woman, the dominance of the male, the sound of leather on flesh, the shrieks. It had become all too familiar, and at the moment—with Aggie’s bare bottom offered up for correction—the observing scientist wished she were anywhere else but in this room, or in this time period.
When the elite Einstein-Rosen Institute for Scientific Historians had hired her straight out of the graduating class of 2647, Mary had felt privileged. Only select applicants were accepted for the small team of time-traveling researchers who specialized in confirming documented historical accounts through direct observation.
That had been two years earlier, and at the time she’d envisioned going back 858 years to witness the fall of Versailles, unseen, from a parallel dimension, or even just 350 years back to witness the earthquake that finally destroyed Tokyo. But in recent years, more pressure had been put on the institute to study cultural life. So rather than witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette, she was sitting unseen in the corner of a thatch-roofed cottage in eighteenth-century Scotland, watching a man physically chastise his wife.
Mary sought to swallow her distaste as Ewan doubled the leather strap in his large hand. The other he rested on the raised bottom still bearing faint stripe marks from an earlier punishment.
“Ye know why you find yourself here, lass?” Ewan slapped one white buttock as he asked the question, and then stilled the jiggling mound with a rough grasp that made his wife hiss.
“My battles are no cause for your concern!” Aggie responded through gritted teeth, but her defiant tone was edged with worry. “I dinna ken why ye even take an interest in my row with Colleen!”
“I take interest because Alastair McDonald takes an interest, wife,” came the response.
“Ach… always bowing and scraping to your betters. Must you always live by his leave?”
This time the grasp on her buttock was hard enough to make Aggie squeal. Ewan leaned down until the ends of his shaggy red mane grazed his wife’s back. The anger flashing in his blue eyes was unmistakable now. Aggie could see it. And from across the room, Mary could see it, too, and held her breath and told herself—as she always did—that she was simply watching a scene from the past, that the people involved had lived and died centuries ago, that it wasn’t happening. Not really.
But the sounds of Ewan’s low voice made it all too real again.
“Alastair is our chieftain, second in command only to the laird himself,” he said. “He’s expected to keep order and grows weary of the daily tales of strife among our womenfolk, and with you so often as the ringleader. Work goes undone while you hens quarrel and pick, and with winter fast upon us.”
Aggie looked back at him, eyes flashing now. “And the fact that Colleen is his sister has nothing to do with this, I ken?”
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, lass,” Ewan said. “Sister or no, Alastair is skelping her as well. And by the storm I saw in his eyes, I wager she’ll have a sorer arse even than yours.” He stood back. “But enough. It matters not where blame falls. All that matters now is where the strap does, and that’s on two fair bottoms that will soon know better.”
There was no more talk. The next sound was of leather against soft flesh, and the keening wail of a pained Aggie McDonald as her husband began to do just as he’d threatened.
The muscular arm wielding the implement was unflagging, and a fresh layer of ruddy, raised welts soon covered the fading marks left a week earlier. Mary, who had never been struck a day in her life, shifted in her chair as she wondered again how Aggie could bear it. And not just bear it—already the scientist felt growing unease as she forced herself to record not just the punished woman’s pained reactions, but evidence of a completely contrary one as well.
It was something she’d also noticed on earlier occasions, and even though as a scientist she knew she was supposed to remain objective, the obvious sexual excitement Aggie exhibited during punishment angered Mary. But there it was, again, the inner labia glistening and visible through the plump outer lips spread by those ruddy folds.
And she wasn’t the only one noticing.
“Ah, ye wee strumpet,” Ewan was saying. “Sometimes I wonder if ye like this more than ye hate it.”
“It hurts like the devil!” Aggie looked back again through a cloud of hair as red as her mate’s, her green eyes swollen and red-rimmed, her response hoarse through her tears. But she could not deny the moisture that now dripped from her gaping slit to coat the inside of her spread white thighs.
“Please stop!” she cried as the strap now targeted the lower portion of her buttocks, the force of the blow lifting them to fall with a ripple. Behind her, Ewan licked his lips in an expression that could have been determination or lust. Or both.
He tossed the strap aside as he stepped behind his sobbing wife.
“Ye forget who your master is, wife,” he said. “Will ye be shaming me again with your scrapping?”
“No,” Aggie sobbed, looking back, and her eyes grew wide when Ewan lifted his kilt to expose his large cock. She moaned in need.
“Take a care that ye mind me,” he said. “For next time, I’ll skelp you from waist to knees, and deny ye this.” He punctuated the threat with a hard thrust of his cock into the pussy that was more than ready to receive him. Aggie screamed and pushed back against her punisher with obvious abandon.
Mary’s face flamed. Even though she could not be seen from her parallel dimension, she felt exposed by the scene playing out before her, even as she jotted down the notes.
Subjects once again engaged in copulation following the physical chastisement of the wife, who appeared physically receptive to her husband’s sexual aggression…
She struck the word ‘aggression,’ knowing it was misleading. Aggie was hardly playing the victim, and Mary would not want another observer of the same scene to accuse her of skewing the data. She revised the sentence.
…to her husband’s sexual advances.
She paused before continuing to record amid the sound of cries that had gone from pain to pleasure.
The observer cannot account for the contradiction between the female subject’s arousal and her husband’s chastisement.
She shut her notebook and shifted in her seat, grateful that her own reactions were not on record, for between her legs she could feel her own rhythmic pulse and could not square it with the umbrage she felt at such primitive behavior.
Ewan was backing up, his now spent cock having slipped from his wife’s body. A mixture of milky cum and clear fluid slipped from her pussy to collect on the red curls of her pubic mound before dripping onto the floor between her legs. After a moment Aggie stood and turned to her husband, who tilted her chin up with his finger.
“No more fighting?” he asked.
She sniffled. “Not if it means we’ll be denied what we just did.”
“You’ll be denied,” he corrected. “I’ll not go without getting my cock wet on account of your disobedience.”
The green eyes widened. “Ye’d bed another?”
“I’d nae bed another, Aggie. Ye know that. But I’ll pleasure myself while ye watch. Can ye image watching as I spill seed that could have been yours?” The tone was gentle, regretful.
“Then I’ll fight no more,” the redhead replied. It was a promise Mary had heard her make before. But this time there was sincerity in Aggie McDonald’s tone. A spanking she could take. But denial of her husband’s attentions was obviously her breaking point.
“Then best ye be mindful.” He turned his wife to the door and sent her toward it with a swat. “Go then, and seek out Colleen. I’m sure someone will be wanting ye to make amends.” A smile lit up the bearded face. “Ach, speak of the devil!”
A man was entering, so tall as to stoop to enter the door. His complexion was darker than the couple’s, his hair darker, too. It was black, nearly as black as Mary’s, and curled in waves at the collar of his shirt. His jaw was square, but his Roman nose added a sharpness to his profile. And his body. He was as broad a man as Mary had ever seen. Mary almost laughed. In her time, this kilted savage would have graced the male fashion magazines.
Once inside he stood to his full height, which was nearly half a head taller than the burly Ewan McDonald and a good foot taller than Aggie. From her vantage point, Mary could only stare. She herself was short of stature and figured this dark-haired stranger was probably two feet taller than she. She wondered if this visitor was who she thought he was. It was Aggie who confirmed her suspicion.
“Alastair,” she said. “If I go to yer place, will Colleen be about?”
So this is the chieftain, Mary thought. She’d heard him mentioned on numerous occasions, but this was the first time she’d seen him.
“About and rubbing a sore arse.” Alastair seemed to be suppressing a smile as he answered Aggie’s question. “I’m surprised ye didn’t hear her screaming. Her bum’s a-blistered, but in the absence of a husband or parents to correct her, the task falls to me.”
“But it’s good practice for when ye get a wife, Alastair.” Ewan winked.
“That it is, for I’ll not have disobedience when I do find a lass to suit me.” He jerked his head toward the door. “Run along, wee spitfire. You’ll find my sister more than ready to mend the breach in your friendship.”
Aggie all but raced out the door, the chuckles of the two large men following her.
“Is that quim I smell?” the taller of the two asked when she was gone.
“You’re too bold, Alastair McDonald.” But Ewan was smiling as he fetched a tankard and two cups and put them on the very table over which he’d just fucked his wife. “Were it any other man, I’d take ye to task fer it.”
“But I’m not any other man, cousin,” chuckled Alastair. “And so long as your little warrior wife minds her temper, I’ll not begrudge you a good fuck to soothe the hardship of correction.”
“Tis hardly a hardship, Alastair. In truth, it puts me in the mood to rut. Her, too, if truth be told.” He paused. “You’ll find out one day.”
“Ach, if I can ever find time to marry.” A frown clouded the handsome features. “I find myself feeling wedded to the clan, more often than nae. And a troubled union it is when you worry you’re too taxed with duties to care for a mate.”
Ewan tipped his tankard toward his friend. “Out with it, Alastair. I know you’re not the kind to say such things unless vexed.”
Alastair, who’d sunk down into a nearby chair, looked up at his cousin. “We’ve more cattle reaved.”
“Where?” Ewan clunked his empty cup onto the table.
“In the hills out back of Duncan’s place.”
“Again? Hmm…” Ewan dropped his eyes.
“I know what you’re thinking, Ewan. And I’ll not hear it.”
“And why not?” his cousin protested. “Duncan’s a spiteful man, and a gambler to boot. He makes his own trouble and blames others, and the company he keeps in his wife’s brother is nae better. Any man with Duncan as a neighbor who doesn’t count his cattle is unwise.”
“Stop it.” Alastair barked the order then sighed. When he spoke again, his tone was weary. “We’ve no need to blame the owners. It’s the tinkers we need to focus on, not one another. Didn’t we just today skelp the women for such?”
“Aye, Alastair.” Ewan nodded. “I suppose I find it easier to admit to anger than worry. But that old hag down the way says a killing frost will come early this year, and that means as hard a winter as last.”
“Harder,” Alastair corrected, and stood. “And that means we need to stop the thieving and make an example of the thieves, and hope the reaved cattle aren’t already slaughtered but are laying up in some warm pocket getting fat for a market the reavers will never make it to.”
“Indeed, Alastair.” Ewan nodded. “And come spring we’ll all have endured, and maybe you’ll have a wife of your own to bother with, instead of all these woes.”
The chieftain chuckled. “It will take a lass who knows her place, Ewan. If not, she’ll spend the first year of marriage standing up at supper.”
“Or flat on her back instead,” his cousin laughed.
Mary decided she’d heard enough chauvinism for one day. Standing, she stretched as she looked down at her UpLink. Departure was still set for an hour away. Good. She’d have time to walk a bit before leaving. It would give her a chance to pick some more wild mint since the last bit she was chewing had almost lost its potency.
Picking up her bag, she moved toward the door. Alastair McDonald was standing right in front of the threshold. Although she was on another plane and could walk right through the people she was observing, Mary made it a habit of walking around them anyway. It felt like courtesy, like respect for her subjects. Even if they don’t deserve it, she thought wryly as she made to move by the tall clan chieftain. But just as she was level with him, she found herself looking up and stopped short by the most intense gray eyes she’d ever seen.
“Peppermint,” he said.
She gasped as a chill ran through her.
“What?” Ewan asked.
“Peppermint,” he repeated. “I just caught a whiff of it. Did you?”
“Not in here,” Ewan replied. “And there’s nary a patch of it to be seen until you get over the rise.”
Mary stood rooted in her tracks, looking up at the dark-haired man who was now gazing around the room, no doubt searching for the source of the scent. She could still taste the lingering remnants of the herb on her tongue. An uneasy feeling prickled the hairs on the back of her neck as she held her ground, looking up the profile of the man, his square jaw, those dark curly locks, the shoulders nearly as large as cannonballs.
“Likely my imagination,” he finally said, adjusting the top of his kilt. “Later, Ewan.”
Mary waited for him to leave before exiting herself, and made it a point to walk in the opposite direction, away from him, away from the huddle of cottages that dotted the green hillside. She was still feeling unnerved by what had happened. The man had not seen her, but she’d felt something she’d never felt in her years of observing—a closeness, as if she could almost touch him.
She reminded herself again of the first principle of observation: you are observing what has already happened, a replay. It is over with and done. Do not let yourself get emotionally invested. The past is the past. Remember that nothing can be altered; nothing can be changed.
The advice had helped her remain detached. But the perceived closeness—even from another plane—of this man, had left Mary somehow shaken. And his comment about the peppermint had only deepened that feeling.
Still, there had to be an explanation. A breeze caught her hair, lifting it. A breeze. She smiled, and then laughed. Of course! It had blown the smell from outside to the cabin. Fragrant mint from over the hill had scented the wind. He’d caught that scent not from her warm mouth, but on a breeze in his own time space.
Mary quickened her step as she looking around as she walked. The next observation would be her last before a month of writing her findings for the paper to be published in the spring. As always, she sought to drink in the breathtaking view in hopes of committing it to memory.
All around her were swells and valleys, the face of the land morphing from shades of greens, golds, and blues as the clouds passed over the afternoon sun. Beyond the hills, a loch glittered like diamonds before a backdrop of mountains. In her time, the mountains were smaller, more ancient, the peaked hills rounded by centuries of wind. Some of the land surrounding the lochs that led to the sea was now underwater thanks to global warming that had caused sea levels to rise. Mary always felt a sense of helplessness when she went back in time, knowing how so much of what she was seeing would change.
She continued on toward the patch of wild mint she remembered seeing by a rocky outcrop between the cluster of cottages she’d left and another to the north. But where was it?
Just up ahead was the trio of rocks. She headed for it, but then stopped when she heard voices—one low, and one high. For a moment, Mary considered ducking behind another rock for cover. But again she reminded herself that she could not be seen. She pushed on, expecting to find two lovers perhaps. She hoped they weren’t lying on a bed of mint she’d hoped to pick.
But it was not a man and a woman she found, but two men. One was tall, older and burly with a sparse grizzled beard. The other was small and lean, with thick blond hair and shifty blue eyes. Both wore the McDonald plaid, but unlike the usual bold demeanor of their clansmen, they seemed unusually secretive.
“It’s a risky thing we do, Duncan, and if it goes sour…” The older man was rubbing his stubbled chin and shaking his head. “Already that Ewan is sniffing around like a hound.”
The smaller man narrowed his already narrow eyes. “In what way? What’s he said of it?”
“Nothin’ in particular,” the older man said. “But when I made report of the cattle on my watch gone missing, he was short on sympathy and long on questions.”
The man called Duncan closed the short space between them. “What kind of questions?”
“You know… askin’ me if I were drunk. Suggestin’ that I wasna keepin’ watch.”
“And what did I tell you, Rob? If it comes to it…?”
The other man’s voice took on a reluctant tone.
“To say I passed out from drink.”
“Aye.” Duncan nodded. “Better to say the cattle belonging to ourselves and our neighbors were reaved when you were laid out cold from ale than to have them suspecting us.” The shifty eyes moved about, scanning. They moved right past Mary, who breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now you listen to me, Rob. You stick to our story, understand? If anyone is made an example of, ‘twill be the tinkers and not us. I’ve nae desire to feel my neck stretch. And if all goes well, we’ll be rich men with enough money to buy transport to the New World.”
“Aye… but at what cost? This is our kin…”
“Kin?” Duncan spat on the ground. “Are we the McDonalds in fine houses? No. My roof leaks as does yours, and wind blows through the chinks in my stones. But up on the hill, Ewan and Alastair and their lot are warm as birds in a nest.” He glared in that direction, right through Mary who was intently listening now. “My da was as able as any man, but it was Alastair who became leader. And now Alastair McDonald acts the great lord with his airs and orders.” He turned back to Rob. “There’s nothing for us here. And even if ye are my wife’s brother, I’ll put my dirk through ye if ye don’t keep to the plan.”
“Aye,” Rob conceded, and then looked up at the sky. “But enough of this talk. The back of me neck’s grown cold. I feel we’re being watched.”
Duncan barked a laugh at this. “Perhaps it’s spirits, this time from outside the bottle?”
But Rob shook his head and he looked now in Mary’s direction.
“No. I feel something. Canna explain it, though.”
“Well, I feel something, too. Cold.” Duncan stood and inclined his head toward a small grouping of cottages on another hill. “Let’s go back to your place for a bumper of ale. Then after dark we’ll take the ponies to where the cattle lie. We should move them to the forest by the Widow Stones. There’s browse there. I want them to market by week’s end. You and my sons can keep watch over them until we come for the drive. Too much risk otherwise.”
“Aye… too much risk,” Rob repeated. The men walked off, but as they did, Rob looked back over his shoulder and Mary got the same odd feeling she’d had earlier in the house with Alastair and Ewan—that her presence had not gone entirely undetected.
Walking quickly to the vacated patch of mint, she plucked some and inhaled deeply. Then she chewed a sprig, smiling as the sharp, sweet taste suffused her mouth. In her time, everything was grown hydroponically, and despite the abundance, nothing matched the flavor of fresh vegetables. Or mint.
Hearing a series of pings, she looked down at her UpLink bracelet. The marching green lights indicating the holding pattern had changed to the words, ‘Preparing Transport.’ Pressing the ‘Accept’ button, Mary waited for the transmutation. There was a crackle and the strong smell of ozone just as everything disappeared in an instantaneous blur of blue-white light visible behind her closed eyes. When she opened them again, she found herself on the padded floor of the reentry chamber specifically designed to catch travelers projected back through the plane.
She sat up, blinking as she looked at the camera on the ceiling. She knew her coworker was at the controls, observing her reentry.
“Welcome back, Dr. Malone,” a voice said.
Mary raised a weary hand.
“Thanks, Celeste,” she replied. “It’s good to be home.” She sucked in a deep breath, the taste of mint still strong on her tongue.