He lay back in his chair now, still smiling. But exhaustion was evident in the slump of his bony shoulders, the droop of his eyelids, the clear effort it took to keep smiling.
I looked away and found Jenny looking at me. She glanced away at once, but I had seen speculation in her eyes, and doubt. Yes, we’d have to talk.
THEY SLEPT WARM that first night, tired to the point of collapse, close together and enfolded by Lallybroch. But Jamie heard the wind on the edge of waking. It had come back in the night, a cold moan around the eaves of the house.
He sat up in bed in the dark, hands wrapped around his knees, listening. The storm would be coming; he could hear snow in the wind.
Claire lay beside him, half curled in sleep, her hair a dark smudge across the white pillow. He listened to her breathe, thanking God for the sound, feeling guilt at the soft, unhindered flow of it. He’d been hearing Ian’s cough all evening and gone to sleep with the sound of that labored breathing in his mind, if not his ears.
He’d managed from sheer exhaustion to put aside the matter of Ian’s illness, but it was there with the waking, heavy as a stone in his chest.
Claire shifted in her sleep, turning half onto her back, and desire for her welled up in him like water. He hesitated, aching for Ian, guilty for what Ian had already lost and he still had, reluctant to wake her.
“I feel maybe like you did,” he whispered to her, too low to wake her. “When ye came through the stones. Like the world is still there—but it’s no the world ye had.”
He’d swear she hadn’t wakened, but a hand came out from the sheets, groping, and he took it. She sighed, long and sleep-laden, and pulled him down beside her. Took him in her arms and cradled him, warm on her soft br**sts.
“You’re the world I have,” she murmured, and then her breathing changed, and she took him down with her into safety.
THEY’D BEEN EATING breakfast in the kitchen, just the two Ians, for his father had waked coughing before dawn and fallen back into such a deep sleep afterward that his mother hadn’t wanted to waken him, and he himself had been hunting over the hills with his brother and nephews all night. They had stopped on the way back at Kitty’s house, and Young Jamie had declared they would stay to eat and sleep a bit, but Ian had been restless, wanting to come home, though he couldn’t have said why.
Perhaps for this, he thought, watching his father shake salt over his porridge in the same way he’d seen him do it for fifteen years, before he’d left Scotland. He’d never once thought of it, in all his time away, but now that he saw it again, it was as though he’d never left, as though he’d spent every morning of his life here at this table, watching his father eat porridge.
He was possessed of a sudden desire to memorize this moment, to know and to sense every last thing about it, from the worn-smooth wood under his elbows to the stained granite of the countertop and the way the light fell through the tattered curtains at the window, lighting the bulge of muscle at the corner of his father’s jaw as he chewed a bit of sausage.
The elder Ian glanced up suddenly, as though feeling his son’s eyes on him.
“Shall we go out on the moor?” he said. “I’ve a fancy to see if the red deer are calving yet.”
He was surprised at his father’s strength. They walked for several miles, talking of nothing—and everything. He knew it was so they could grow easy with each other again and say the things that had to be said—but he dreaded the saying.
They stopped at last far up on a high stretch of moorland, where they could see the roll of the great smooth mountains and a few wee lochs, glittering like fish under a pale high sun. They found a saint’s spring, a tiny pool with an ancient stone cross, and drank from the water, saying the prayer of respect for the saint, and then sat down to rest a little way beyond.
“It was a place like this where I died the first time,” his father said casually, running a wet hand over his sweating face. He looked rosy and healthy, though so thin. That bothered Young Ian, knowing he was dying yet seeing him like this.
“Aye?” he said. “When was that, then?”
“Oh, in France. When I lost my leg.” The elder Ian glanced down at his wooden peg, indifferent. “One minute I was standing up to fire my musket, and the next I was lyin’ on my back. I didna even ken I’d been hit. Ye’d think ye’d notice being hit by a six-pound iron ball, wouldn’t ye?”
His father grinned at him, and he smiled grudgingly back.
“I would. Surely ye thought something must ha’ happened, though.”
“Oh, aye, I did. And after a moment or two, it came to me that I must ha’ been shot. But I couldna feel any pain at all.”
“Well, that was good,” Young Ian said encouragingly.
“I kent then I was dying, aye?” His father’s eyes were on him but looked beyond him, at that far-off battlefield. “I wasna really bothered, though. And I wasna alone.” His gaze focused then on his son, and he smiled a little. Reaching out, he took hold of Ian’s hand—his own wasted to the bone, the joints of it swollen and knobbled, but the span of his grasp still as big as his son’s.
“Ian,” he said, and paused, his eyes crinkling. “D’ye ken how odd it is, to say someone’s name when it’s yours, as well? Ian,” he repeated, more gently, “dinna fash. I wasna afraid then. I’m not afraid now.”
I am, Ian thought, but he couldn’t say that.
“Tell me about the dog,” his father said then, smiling. And so he told his father about Rollo. About the sea battle where he’d thought Rollo drowned or dead, how it had all come about that they’d gone to Ticonderoga and been at the terrible battles of Saratoga.
And told him, without thinking about it, for thinking would have frozen the words in his throat, about Emily. About Iseabaìl. And about the Swiftest of Lizards.
“I—havena told anyone else about that,” he said, suddenly shy. “About the wee lad, I mean.”
His father breathed deep, looking happy. Then coughed, whipped out a handkerchief, and coughed some more, but eventually stopped. Ian tried not to look at the handkerchief, in case it should be stained with blood.
“Ye should—” the elder Ian croaked, then cleared his throat and spat into the handkerchief with a muffled grunt. “Ye should tell your mother,” he said, his voice clear again. “She’d be happy to ken ye’ve got a son, no matter the circumstances.”
“Aye, well. Maybe I will.”
It was early for bugs, but the moor birds were out, poking about, taking flight past their heads and calling out in alarm. He listened to the sounds of home for a bit and then said, “Da. I’ve got to tell ye something bad.”
And sitting by a saint’s pool, in the peace of the early spring day, Ian told him what had happened to Murdina Bug.
His father listened with a grave attention, head bowed. Young Ian could see the heavy streaks of gray in his hair and found the sight both moving and paradoxically comforting. At least he’s lived a good life, he thought. But maybe Mrs. Bug did, too. Would I feel worse about it if she’d been a young girl? He thought he would, but he felt badly enough as it was. A little better for the telling, though.
The elder Ian rocked back on his haunches, arms clasped about his good knee, thinking.
“It wasna your fault, of course,” he said, with a sidelong look at his son. “D’ye ken that, in your heart?”
“No,” Ian admitted. “But I’m trying.”
His father smiled at that, but then grew grave again.
“Ye’ll manage. If ye’ve lived with it this long, ye’ll be all right in the end. But this matter of old Arch Bug, now. He must be as old as the hills, if he’s the same one I kent—a tacksman for Malcolm Grant, he was.”
“That’s the man. I keep thinking that—he’s old, he’ll die—but what if he dies and I dinna ken he’s dead?” He made a gesture of frustration. “I dinna want to kill the man, but how can I not, and him wandering about, set to do harm to Ra—to my—well, if I should ever have a wife…” He was floundering, and his father put a stop to it, grasping his arm.
“Who is she?” he asked, interest bright in his face. “Tell me about her.”
And so he told about Rachel. He was surprised that there was so much to tell, in fact, considering that he’d known her only a few weeks and kissed her just the once.
His father sighed—he sighed all the time, it was the only way he got enough breath, but this one was a sigh of happiness.
“Ah, Ian,” he said fondly. “I’m happy for ye. I canna say how happy. It’s what your mother and I have prayed for, these many years, that ye’d have a good woman to love and a family by her.”
“Well, it’s soon to be speaking of my family,” Young Ian pointed out. “Considering she’s a Quaker and likely won’t wed me. And considering I’m in Scotland and she’s wi’ the Continental army in America, probably bein’ shot at or infected wi’ plague right this minute.”
He’d meant it seriously and was somewhat offended when his father laughed. But then the elder Ian leaned forward and said with utter seriousness, “Ye needna wait for me to die. Ye need to go and find your young woman.”
“Aye, ye can. Young Jamie’s got Lallybroch, the girls are well wed, and Michael—” He grinned at the thought of Michael. “Michael will do well enough, I think. A man needs a wife, and a good one is the greatest gift God has for a man. I’d go much easier, a bhailach, if I kent ye were well fettled in that way.”
“Aye, well,” Young Ian murmured. “Maybe so. But I’ll not go just yet.”
JAMIE SWALLOWED THE last bite of porridge and took a deep breath, laying down his spoon.
“O’ course there’s more,” she said, reaching for his bowl. Then she caught sight of his face and stopped, eyes narrowing. “Or is that not what ye had need of?”
“I wouldna say it’s a need, precisely. But…” He glanced up at the ceiling to avoid her gaze and commended his soul to God. “What d’ye ken of Laoghaire MacKenzie?”
He risked a quick glance at his sister and saw that her eyes had gone round, bright with interest.
“Laoghaire, is it?” She sat back down and began to tap her fingers thoughtfully on the tabletop. Her hands were good for her age, he thought: work-worn, but the fingers still slim and lively.
“She’s not wed,” Jenny said. “But ye’ll ken that, I imagine.”
He nodded shortly.
“What is it ye want to know about her?”
“Well… how she fares, I suppose. And …”
“And who’s sharing her bed?”
He gave his sister a look.
“Ye’re a lewd woman, Janet Murray.”
“Oh, aye? Well, awa’ wi’ ye, then, and ask the cat.” Blue eyes just like his own glittered at him for an instant, and the dimple showed in her cheek. He knew that look and yielded with what grace was possible.
“No,” she said promptly.
He raised one brow in disbelief. “Oh, aye. Pull the other one.”
She shook her head and ran a finger round the edge of the honey jar, wiping off a golden bead. “I swear on St. Fouthad’s toenails.”
He hadn’t heard that one since he was ten and laughed out loud, despite the situation.
“Well, then, no more to be said, is there?” He leaned back in his chair, affecting indifference. She made a small huffing noise, got up, and began busily to clear the table. He watched her with narrowed eyes, not sure whether she was messing him about only for the sake of mischief—in which case, she’d yield in a moment—or whether there was something more to it.
“Why is it ye want to know?” she asked suddenly, eyes on the stack of sticky bowls. That brought him up short.
“I didna say I did want to know,” he pointed out. “But since ye mentioned it—anyone would be curious, no?”
“They would,” she agreed. She straightened up and looked at him, a long, searching sort of look that made him wonder whether he’d washed behind his ears.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “And that’s the truth. I only heard from her that once that I wrote ye.”
Aye, and just why did ye write me about it? he wondered, but didn’t say so out loud.
“Mmphm,” he said. “And ye expect me to believe that ye left it there?”
HE REMEMBERED IT. Standing here in his old room at Lallybroch, the one he’d had as a boy, on the morning of his wedding to Laoghaire.
He’d had a new shirt for the occasion. There wasn’t money for much beyond the barest essentials, and sometimes not that—but Jenny had contrived him a shirt; he suspected she’d sacrificed the best of her two shifts for it. He remembered shaving in the reflection in his washbasin, seeing the gaunt, stern face of a stranger emerge beneath his razor, thinking that he must remember to smile when he met Laoghaire. He didn’t want to frighten her, and what he saw in the water was enough to frighten him.
He thought suddenly of sharing her bed. He resolutely put aside the thought of Claire’s body—he had a great deal of practice in that—which caused him instead to think suddenly that it had been years—aye, years! He’d lain with a woman only twice in the last fifteen years, and it was five, six, maybe seven years since the last time….
He’d suffered a moment’s panic at the thought that he might find himself unable and touched his member gingerly through his kilt, only to find that it had already begun to stiffen at the mere thought of bedding.