A shadow fell across the floor in front of me and I looked up. Jamie was standing there with a most peculiar look on his face.
“What?” I said, startled. “Has something happened?”
“No,” he said, and advancing into the study, leaned down and put his hands on the desk, bringing his face within a foot of mine.
“Have ye ever been in the slightest doubt that I need ye?” he demanded.
It took roughly half a second of thought to answer this.
“No,” I replied promptly. “To the best of my knowledge, you needed me urgently the moment I saw you. And I haven’t had reason to think you’ve got any more self-sufficient since. What on earth happened to your forehead? Those look like tooth—” He lunged across the desk and kissed me before I could finish the observation.
“Thank ye,” he said fervently, and, un-lunging, whirled and went out, evidently in the highest of spirits.
“What’s amiss wi’ Uncle Jamie?” Ian demanded, coming in on Jamie’s heels. He glanced back toward the open door into the hall, from the depths of which a loud, tuneless humming was coming, like that of a trapped bumblebee. “Is he drunk?”
“I don’t think so,” I said dubiously, running my tongue across my lips. “He didn’t taste of anything alcoholic.”
“Aye, well.” Ian lifted a shoulder, dismissing his uncle’s eccentricities. “I was just up beyond Broch Mordha, and Mr. MacAllister said to me that his wife’s mother was taken bad in the night, and would ye maybe think of coming by, if it wasn’t a trouble to ye?”
“No trouble at all,” I assured him, rising with alacrity. “Just let me get my bag.”
FOR ALL IT was spring, a cold, treacherous season, the tenants and neighbors seemed remarkably healthy. With some caution, I had resumed my doctoring, tentatively offering advice and medicine where it might be accepted. After all, I was no longer the lady of Lallybroch, and many of the folk who’d known me before were now dead. Those who weren’t seemed generally glad to see me, but there was a wariness in their eyes that hadn’t been there before. It saddened me to see it, but I understood it, all too well.
I had left Lallybroch, left Himself. Left them. And while they affected to believe the story Jamie put about, about my having thought him dead and fled to France, they couldn’t help but feel I had betrayed them by going. I felt I had betrayed them.
The easiness that had once existed between us was gone, and so I didn’t routinely visit as I once had; I waited to be called. And in the meantime, when I had to get out of the house, I went foraging on my own or walked with Jamie—who also had to get out of the house now and then.
One day, when the weather was windy but fine, he took me farther than usual, saying that he would show me his cave, if I liked.
“I would, very much,” I said. I put my hand above my eyes to shield them from the sun as I looked up a steep hill. “Is it up there?”
“Aye. Can ye see it?”
I shook my head. Aside from the big white rock the people called Leap o’ the Cask, it could have been any Highland hillside, clustered with gorse, broom, and heather, what ground showed in between only rocks.
“Come on, then,” Jamie said, and setting foot on an invisible foothold, smiled and reached a hand to help me up.
It was a hard climb, and I was panting and damp with perspiration by the time he pushed aside a screen of gorse to show me the narrow mouth of the cave.
“I WANT TO go in.”
“No, ye don’t,” he assured her. “It’s cold and it’s dirty.”
She gave him an odd look and half a smile.
“I’d never have guessed,” she said, very dry. “I still want to go in.”
There was no point in arguing with her. He shrugged and took off his coat to save its getting filthy, hanging it on a rowan sapling that had sprouted near the entrance. He put up his hands to the stones on either side of the entrance, but then was unsure; was it there he had always grasped the stone, or not? Christ, does it matter? he chided himself, and, taking firm hold of the rock, stepped in and swung down.
It was just as cold as he’d known it would be. It was out of the wind, at least—not a biting cold, but a dank chill that sank through the skin and gnawed at the bone ends.
He turned and reached up his hands, and she leaned to him, tried to climb down, but lost her footing and half-fell, landing in his arms in a fluster of clothes and loose hair. He laughed and turned her round to look, but kept his arms around her. He was loath to surrender the warmth of her and held her like a shield against cold memory.
She was still, leaning back against him, only her head moving as she looked from one end of the cave to the other. It was barely eight feet long, but the far end was lost in shadow. She lifted her chin, seeing the soft black stains that coated the rock to one side by the entrance.
“That’s where my fire was—when I dared have one.” His voice sounded strange, small and muffled, and he cleared his throat.
“Where was your bed?”
“Just there by your left foot.”
“Did you sleep with your head at this end?” She tapped her foot on the graveled dirt of the floor.
“Aye. I could see the stars, if the night was clear. I turned the other way if it rained.” She heard the smile in his voice and put her hand along his thigh, squeezing.
“I hoped that,” she said, her own voice a little choked. “When we learned about the Dunbonnet, and the cave… I thought about you, alone here—and I hoped you could see the stars at night.”
“I could,” he whispered, and bent his head to put his lips to her hair. The shawl she’d pulled over her head had slipped off, and her hair smelled of lemon balm and what she said was catmint.
She made a small hmp noise in her throat and folded her own arms over his, warming him through his shirt.
“I feel as though I’ve seen it before,” she said, sounding a little surprised. “Though I suppose one cave probably looks a good deal like any other cave, unless you have stalactites hanging from the ceiling or mammoths painted on the walls.”
“I’ve never had a talent for decoration,” he said, and she hmp’ed again, amused. “As for being here… ye’ve been here many nights wi’ me, Sassenach. You and the wee lass, both.” Though I didna ken then she was a lassie, he added silently, remembering with a small odd pang that now and then he had sat there on the flat rock by the entrance, imagining sometimes a daughter warm in his arms, but now and then feeling a tiny son on his knee and pointing out the stars to travel by, explaining to him how the hunting was done and the prayer ye must say when ye killed for food.
But he’d told those things to Brianna later—and to Jem. The knowledge wouldn’t be lost. Would it be of use, though? he wondered suddenly.
“Do folk still hunt?” he asked. “Then?”
“Oh, yes,” she assured him. “Every fall, we’d have a rash of hunters coming in to the hospital—mostly idiots who’d got drunk and shot each other by mistake, though once I had a gentleman who’d been badly trampled by a deer he thought was dead.”
He laughed, both shocked and comforted. The notion of hunting while drunken… though he’d seen fools do it. But at least men still did hunt. Jem would hunt.
“I’m sure Roger Mac wouldna let Jem take too much drink before hunting,” he said. “Even if the other lads do.”
Her head tilted a little to and fro, in the way it did when she was wondering whether to tell him something, and he tightened his arms a little.
“I was just imagining a gang of second-graders having a tot of whisky all round before setting off home from school in the rain,” she said, snorting briefly. “Children don’t drink alcohol then—at all. Or at least they aren’t meant to, and it’s scandalous child neglect if they’re allowed.”
“Aye?” That seemed odd; he’d been given ale or beer with his food since… well, as far back as he recalled. And certainly a dram of whisky against the cold, or if his liver were chilled or he had the earache or… It was true, though, that Brianna made Jem drink milk, even after he was out of smocks.
The rattle of stones on the hillside below startled him, and he let go of Claire, turning toward the entrance. He doubted it was trouble but nonetheless motioned to her to stay, hoisting himself out of the cave mouth and reaching for his coat and the knife in its pocket even before he looked to see who had come.
There was a woman some way below, a tall figure in cloak and shawl, down by the big rock where Fergus had lost his hand. She was looking up, though, and saw him come out of the cave. She waved to him and beckoned, and with a quick glance round that assured him she was alone, he made his way half-sliding down the slope to the trail where she stood.
“Feasgar math,” he greeted her, shrugging into the coat. She was fairly young, perhaps in her early twenties, but he didn’t know her. Or thought he didn’t, until she spoke.
“Ciamar a tha thu, mo athair,” she said formally. How do you do, Father?
He blinked, startled, but then leaned forward, peering at her.
“Joanie?” he said, incredulous. “Wee Joanie?” Her long, rather solemn face broke into a smile at that, but it was brief.
“Ye know me, then?”
“Aye, I do, now I come to see—” He put out a hand, wanting to embrace her, but she stood a bit away from him, stiff, and he let the hand drop, clearing his throat to cover the moment. “It’s been some time, lass. Ye’ve grown,” he added lamely.
“Bairns mostly do,” she said, dry. “Is it your wife ye’ve got with you? The first one, I mean.”
“It is,” he replied, the shock of her appearance replaced by wariness. He gave her a quick look-over, in case she might be armed, but couldn’t tell; her cloak was wrapped round her against the wind.
“Perhaps ye’d summon her down,” Joan suggested. “I should like to meet her.”
He rather doubted that. Still, she seemed composed, and he could scarcely refuse to let her meet Claire, if she wished it. Claire would be watching; he turned and gestured toward the cave, beckoning her, then turned back to Joan.
“How d’ye come to be here, lass?” he asked, turning back to her. It was a good eight miles to Balriggan from here, and there was nothing near the cave to draw anyone.
“I was coming to Lallybroch to see ye—I missed your visit when ye came to the house,” she added, with a brief flash of what might have been amusement. “But I saw you and … your wife … walking, so I came after ye.”
It warmed him, to think she’d wanted to see him. At the same time, he was cautious. It had been twelve years, and she’d been a child when he left. And she’d spent those years with Laoghaire, doubtless hearing no good opinions of him in that time.
He looked searchingly into her face, seeing only the vaguest memory of the childish features he recalled. She was not beautiful, or even pretty, but had a certain dignity about her that was attractive; she met his gaze straight on, not seeming to care what he thought of what he saw. She had the shape of Laoghaire’s eyes and nose, though little else from her mother, being tall, dark, and rawboned, heavy-browed, with a long, thin face and a mouth that was not much used to smiling, he thought.
He heard Claire making her way down the slope behind him and turned to help her, though keeping one eye on Joanie, just in case.
“Dinna fash,” Joan said calmly behind him. “I dinna mean to shoot her.”
“Och? Well, that’s good.” Discomposed, he tried to remember—had she been in the house when Laoghaire shot him? He thought not, though he’d been in no condition to notice. She’d certainly known about it, though.
Claire took his hand and hopped down onto the trail, not pausing to settle herself but coming forward at once and taking Joan’s hands in both her own, smiling.
“I’m happy to meet you,” she said, sounding as though she meant it. “Marsali said I was to give you this.” And, leaning forward, she kissed Joan on the cheek.
For the first time, he saw the girl taken aback. She flushed and pulled her hands away, turning aside and rubbing a fold of her cloak under her nose as though taken by an itch, lest anyone see her eyes well up.
“I—thank you,” she said, with a hasty dab at her eyes. “You—my sister’s written of you.” She cleared her throat and blinked hard, then stared at Claire with open interest—an interest that was being returned in full.
“Félicité looks like you,” Claire said. “So does Henri-Christian, just a bit—but Félicité very much.”
“Poor child,” Joan murmured, but couldn’t repress the smile that had lit her face at this.
“Will ye not come down to the house, Joanie? Ye’d be welcome.”
She shook her head.
“Later, maybe. I wanted to speak to ye, mo athair, where no one could hear. Save your wife,” she added, with a glance at Claire. “As she’s doubtless something to say on the matter.”
That sounded mildly sinister, but then she added, “It’s about my dowry.”
“Oh, aye? Well, come away out o’ the wind, at least.” He led them toward the lee of the big rock, wondering what was afoot. Was the lass wanting to wed someone unsuitable and her mother was refusing to give her her dowry? Had something happened to the money? He doubted that; old Ned Gowan had devised the documents, and the money was safe in a bank in Inverness. And whatever he thought of Laoghaire, he was sure she’d never do anything to the hurt of her daughters.
A huge gust of wind came up the track, whirling up the women’s petticoats like flying leaves and pelting them all with clouds of dust and dry heather. They darted into the shelter of the rock and stood smiling and laughing a little with the intoxication of the weather, brushing off the dirt and settling their clothes.