“I take it back—I don’t want to know what you’re thinking!”
“You asked,” he pointed out logically. “And I can see the sweet wee crease of your arse, too—and once I’ve got ye pinned under me and ye canna get away… d’ye want it lying on your back, Sassenach, or bent over on your knees, wi’ me behind? I could take a good hold either way, and—”
“I am not going into a freezing loch in order to gratify your perverted desires!”
“All right,” he said, grinning. Stretching himself out beside me, he reached round behind and took a generous handful. “Ye can gratify them here, if ye like, where it’s warm.”
LALLYBROCH WAS A working farm. Nothing on a farm can stop for very long, even for grief. Which is how it came to be that I was the only person in the front of the house when the door opened in the middle of the afternoon.
I heard the sound and poked my head out of Ian’s study to see who had come in. A strange young man was standing in the foyer, gazing round appraisingly. He heard my step and turned, looking at me curiously.
“Who are you?” we said simultaneously, and laughed.
“I’m Michael,” he said, in a soft, husky voice with the trace of a French accent. “And ye’ll be Uncle Jamie’s faery-woman, I suppose.”
He was examining me with frank interest, and I felt therefore free to do the same.
“Is that what the family’s been calling me?” I asked, looking him over.
He was a slight man, lacking either Young Jamie’s burly strength or Young Ian’s wiry height. Michael was Janet’s twin but did not resemble her at all, either. This was the son who had gone to France, to become a junior partner in Jared Fraser’s wine business, Fraser et Cie. As he took off his traveling cloak, I saw that he was dressed very fashionably for the Highlands, though his suit was sober in both color and cut—and he wore a black crepe band around his upper arm.
“That, or the witch,” he said, smiling faintly. “Depending whether it’s Da or Mam who’s talking.”
“Indeed,” I said, with an edge—but couldn’t help smiling back. He was quiet but an engaging young man—well, relatively young. He must be near thirty, I thought.
“I’m sorry for your… loss,” I said, with a nod toward the crepe band. “May I ask—”
“My wife,” he said simply. “She died two weeks ago. I should have come sooner, else.”
That took me aback considerably.
“Oh. I … see. But your parents, your brothers and sisters—they don’t know this yet?”
He shook his head and came forward a little, so the light from the fanshaped window above the door fell on his face, and I saw the dark circles under his eyes and the marks of the bone-deep exhaustion that is grief’s only consolation.
“I am so sorry,” I said, and, moved by impulse, put my arms around him. He leaned toward me, under the same impulse. His body yielded for an instant to my touch, and there was an extraordinary moment in which I sensed the deep numbness within him, the unacknowledged war of acknowledgment and denial. He knew what had happened, what was happening—but could not feel it. Not yet.
“Oh, dear,” I said, stepping back from the brief embrace. I touched his cheek lightly, and he stared at me, blinking.
“I will be damned,” he said mildly. “They’re right.”
A DOOR OPENED and closed above, I heard a foot on the stair—and an instant later, Lallybroch awoke to the knowledge that the last child had come home.
The swirl of women and children wafted us into the kitchen, where the men appeared, by ones and twos through the back door to embrace Michael or clap him on the shoulder.
There were outpourings of sympathy, the same questions and answers repeated several times—how had Michael’s wife, Lillie, died? She had died of the influenza; so had her grandmother; no, he himself had not caught it; her father sent his prayers and concerns for Michael’s father—and eventually the preparations for washing and supper and the putting of children to bed began, and Michael slipped out of the maelstrom.
Coming out of the kitchen myself to fetch my shawl from the study, I saw him at the foot of the stair with Jenny, talking quietly. She touched his face, just as I had, asking him something in a low voice. He half-smiled, shook his head, and, squaring his shoulders, went upstairs alone to see Ian, who was feeling too poorly to come down to supper.
ALONE AMONG THE Murrays, Michael had inherited the fugitive gene for red hair, and burned among his darker siblings like a coal. He had inherited an exact copy of his father’s soft brown eyes, though. “And a good thing, too,” Jenny said to me privately, “else his da would likely be sure I’d been at it wi’ the goatherd, for God knows, he doesna look like anyone else in the family.”
I’d mentioned this to Jamie, who looked surprised but then smiled.
“Aye. She wouldna ken it, for she never met Colum MacKenzie face-to-face.”
“Colum? Are you sure?” I looked over my shoulder.
“Oh, aye. The coloring’s different—but allowing for age and good health … There was a painting at Leoch, done of Colum when he was maybe fifteen, before his first fall. Recall it, do ye? It hung in the solar on the third floor.”
I closed my eyes, frowning in concentration, trying to reconstruct the floor plan of the castle.
“Walk me there,” I said. He made a small amused noise in his throat but took my hand, tracing a delicate line on my palm.
“Aye, here’s the entrance, wi’ the big double door. Ye’d cross the courtyard, once inside, and then …”
He walked me unerringly to the exact spot in my mind, and sure enough, there was a painting there of a young man with a thin, clever face and look of far-seeing in his eyes.
“Yes, I think you’re right,” I said, opening my eyes. “If he is as intelligent as Colum, then… I have to tell him.”
Jamie’s eyes, dark with thought, searched my face.
“We couldna change things, earlier,” he said, a note of warning in my voice. “Ye likely canna change what’s to come in France.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “But what I knew—what I told you, before Culloden. It didn’t stop Charles Stuart, but you lived.”
“Not on purpose,” he said dryly.
“No, but your men lived, too—and that was on purpose. So maybe—just maybe—it might help. And I can’t live with myself if I don’t.”
He nodded, sober.
“Aye, then. I’ll call them.”
THE CORK EASED free with a soft pop!, and Michael’s face eased, too. He sniffed the darkened cork, then passed the bottle delicately under his nose, eyes half closing in appreciation.
“Well, what d’ye say, lad?” his father asked. “Will it poison us or no?”
He opened his eyes and gave his father a mildly dirty look.
“You said it was important, aye? So we’ll have the negroamaro. From Apulia,” he added, with a note of satisfaction, and turned to me. “Will that do, Aunt?”
“Er… certainly,” I said, taken back somewhat. “Why ask me? You’re the wine expert.”
Michael glanced at me, surprised.
“Ian said—” he began, but stopped and smiled at me. “My apologies, Aunt. I must have misunderstood.”
Everyone turned and looked at Young Ian, who reddened at this scrutiny.
“What exactly did ye say, Ian?” Young Jamie asked. Young Ian narrowed his eyes at his brother, who seemed to be finding something funny in the situation.
“I said,” Young Ian replied, straightening himself defiantly, “that Auntie Claire had something of importance to say to Michael, and that he must listen, because she’s a… a…”
“Ban-sidhe, he said,” Michael ended helpfully. He didn’t grin at me, but a deep humor glowed in his eyes, and for the first time I saw what Jamie had meant by comparing him to Colum MacKenzie. “I wasn’t sure whether he meant that, Auntie, or if it’s only you’re a conjure-woman—or a witch.”
Jenny gasped at the word, and even the elder Ian blinked. Both of them turned and looked at Young Ian, who hunched his shoulders defensively.
“Well, I dinna ken exactly what she is,” he said. “But she’s an Auld One, isn’t she, Uncle Jamie?”
Something odd seemed to pass through the air of the room; a sudden live, fresh wind moaned down the chimney, exploding the banked fire and showering sparks and embers onto the hearth. Jenny got up with a small exclamation and beat them out with the broom.
Jamie was sitting beside me; he took my hand and fixed Michael with a firm sort of look.
“There’s no real word for what she is—but she has knowledge of things that will come to pass. Listen to her.”
That settled them all to attention, and I cleared my throat, deeply embarrassed by my role as prophet but obliged to speak nonetheless. For the first time, I had a sudden sense of kinship with some of the more reluctant Old Testament prophets. I thought I knew just what Jeremiah felt like when told to go and prophesy the destruction of Nineveh. I just hoped I’d get a better reception; I seemed to recall that the inhabitants of Nineveh had thrown him into a well.
“You’ll know more than I do about the politics in France,” I said, looking directly at Michael. “I can’t tell you anything in terms of specific events for the next ten or fifteen years. But after that… things are going to go downhill fast. There’s going to be a revolution. Inspired by the one that’s happening now in America, but not the same. The King and Queen will be imprisoned with their family, and both of them will be beheaded.”
A general gasp went up from the table, and Michael blinked.
“There will be a movement called the Terror, and people will be pulled out of their homes and denounced, all the aristocrats will either be killed or have to flee the country, and it won’t be too good for rich people in general. Jared may be dead by then, but you won’t be. And if you’re half as talented as I think, you will be rich.”
He snorted a little at that, and there was a breath of laughter in the room, but it didn’t last long.
“They’ll build a machine called the guillotine—perhaps it already exists, I don’t know. It was originally made as a humane method of execution, I think, but it will be used so often that it will be a symbol of the Terror, and of the revolution in general. You don’t want to be in France when that happens.”
“I—how do ye know this?” Michael demanded. He looked pale and half belligerent. Well, here was the rub. I took a firm grip of Jamie’s hand under the table and told them how I knew.
There was a dead silence. Only Young Ian didn’t look dumbfounded—but he knew already, and more or less believed me. I could tell that most of those around the table didn’t. At the same time, they couldn’t really call me a liar.
“That’s what I know,” I said, speaking straight to Michael. “And that’s how I know it. You have a few years to get ready. Move the business to Spain, or Portugal. Sell out and emigrate to America. Do anything you like—but don’t stay in France for more than ten years more. That’s all,” I said abruptly. I got up and went out, leaving utter silence in my wake.
I SHOULDN’T HAVE been surprised, but I was. I was in the hen coop, collecting eggs, when I heard the excited squawk and flutter of the hens outside that announced someone had come into their yard. I fixed the last hen with a steely glare that dared her to peck me, snatched an egg out from under her, and came out to see who was there.
It was Jenny, with an apronful of corn. That was odd; I knew the hens had already been fed, for I’d seen one of Maggie’s daughters doing it an hour earlier.
She nodded to me and tossed the corn in handfuls. I tucked the last warm egg into my basket and waited. Obviously she wanted to talk to me and had made an excuse to do so in private. I had a deep feeling of foreboding.
Entirely justified, too, for she dropped the last handful of cracked corn and, with it, all pretense.
“I want to beg a favor,” she said to me, but she avoided my eye, and I could see the pulse in her temple going like a ticking clock.
“Jenny,” I said, helpless either to stop her or to answer her. “I know—”
“Will ye cure Ian?” she blurted, lifting her eyes to mine. I’d been right about what she meant to ask, but wrong about her emotion. Worry and fear lay behind her eyes, but there was no shyness, no embarrassment; she had the eyes of a hawk, and I knew she would rip my flesh like one if I denied her.
“Jenny,” I said again. “I can’t.”
“Ye can’t, or ye won’t?” she said sharply.
“I can’t. For God’s sake, do you think I wouldn’t have done it already if I had the power?”
“Ye might not, for the sake of the grudge ye hold against me. If that’s it—I’ll say I’m sorry, and I do mean it, though I meant what I did for the best.”
“You… what?” I was honestly confused, but this seemed to anger her.
“Dinna pretend ye’ve no notion what I mean! When ye came back before, and I sent for Laoghaire!”
“Oh.” I hadn’t quite forgotten that, but it hadn’t seemed important, in light of everything else. “That’s … all right. I don’t hold it against you. Why did you send for her, though?” I asked, both out of curiosity and in hopes of diffusing the intensity of her emotion a little. I’d seen a great number of people on the ragged edge of exhaustion, grief, and terror, and she was firmly in the grip of all three.
She made a jerky, impatient motion and seemed as though she would turn away but didn’t.