“Jamie hadn’t told ye about her, nor her about you. I could see why, maybe, but I kent if I brought her here, he’d have nay choice then but to take the bull by the horns and clear up the matter.”
“She nearly cleared him up,” I said, beginning to get somewhat hot myself. “She shot him, for God’s sake!”
“Well, I didna give her the gun, did I?” she snapped. “I didna mean him to say whatever he said to her, nor her to take up a pistol and put a ball in him.”
“No, but you told me to go away!”
“Why wouldn’t I? Ye’d broken his heart once already, and I thought ye’d do it again! And you wi’ the nerve to come prancing back here, fine and blooming, when we’d been … we’d been—it was that that gave Ian the cough!”
“When they took him away and put him in the Tolbooth. But you werena here when that happened! Ye werena here when we starved and froze and feared for the lives of our men and our bairns! Not for any of it! You were in France, warm and safe!”
“I was in Boston, two hundred years from now, thinking Jamie was dead,” I said coldly. “And I can’t help Ian.” I struggled to subdue my own feelings, uncorked with a rush by this ripping of scabs off the past, and found compassion in the look of her, her fine-boned face gaunt and harrowed with worry, her hands clenched so hard that the nails bit into the flesh.
“Jenny,” I said more quietly. “Please believe me. If I could do anything for Ian, I’d give my soul to do it. But I’m not magic; I haven’t any power. Only a little knowledge, and not enough. I’d give my soul to do it,” I repeated, more strongly, leaning toward her. “But I can’t. Jenny… I can’t.”
She stared at me in silence. A silence that lengthened past bearing, and finally I stepped around her and walked toward the house. She didn’t turn around, and I didn’t look back. But behind me, I heard her whisper.
“You have nay soul.”
WHEN IAN FELT WELL enough, he came out walking with Jamie. Sometimes only as far as the yard or the barn, to lean on the fence and make remarks to Jenny’s sheep. Sometimes he felt well enough to walk miles, which amazed—and alarmed—Jamie. Still, he thought, it was good to walk side by side through the moors and the forest and down beside the loch, not talking much but side by side. It didn’t matter that they walked slowly; they always had, since Ian had come back from France with a wooden leg.
“I’m lookin’ forward to having back my leg,” Ian had remarked casually once, when they sat in the shelter of the big rock where Fergus had lost his hand, looking out over the small burn that ran down at the foot of the hill, watching for the stray flash of a leaping trout.
“Aye, that’ll be good,” Jamie had said, smiling a little—and a little wry about it, too, recalling when he’d waked after Culloden and thought his own leg missing. He’d been upset and tried to comfort himself with the thought that he’d get it back eventually, if he made it out of purgatory and into heaven. Of course, he’d thought he was dead, too, but that hadn’t seemed nearly as bad as the imagined loss of his leg.
“I dinna suppose ye’ll have to wait,” he said idly, and Ian blinked at him.
“Wait for what?”
“Your leg.” He realized suddenly that Ian had no notion what he’d been thinking, and hastened to explain.
“So I was only thinking, ye wouldna spend much time in purgatory—if at all—so ye’ll have it back soon.”
Ian grinned at him. “What makes ye sae sure I willna spend a thousand years in purgatory? I might be a terrible sinner, aye?”
“Well, aye, ye might be,” Jamie admitted. “Though if so, ye must think the devil of a lot of wicked thoughts, because if ye’d been doing anything, I’d know about it.”
“Oh, ye think so?” Ian seemed to find this funny. “Ye havena seen me in years. I might ha’ been doing anything, and ye’d never ken a thing about it!”
“Of course I would,” Jamie said logically. “Jenny would tell me. And ye dinna mean to suggest she wouldna ken if ye had a mistress and six bastard bairns, or ye’d taken to the highways and been robbing folk in a black silk mask?”
“Well, possibly she would,” Ian admitted. “Though come on, man, there’s nothing ye could call a highway within a hundred miles. And I’d freeze to death long before I came across anyone worth robbin’ in one o’ the passes.” He paused, eyes narrowed against the wind, contemplating the criminal possibilities open to him.
“I could ha’ been stealing cattle,” he offered. “Though there’re sae few beasts these days, the whole parish would ken it at once should one go missing. And I doubt I could hide it amongst Jenny’s sheep wi’ any hope of its not bein’ noticed.”
He thought further, chin in hand, then reluctantly shook his head.
“The sad truth is, Jamie, no one’s had a thing worth stealin’ in the Highlands these twenty years past. Nay, theft’s right out, I’m afraid. So is fornication, because Jenny would ha’ killed me already. What does that leave? There’s no really anything to covet…. I suppose lying and murder is all that’s left, and while I’ve met the odd man I would ha’ liked to kill, I never did.” He shook his head regretfully, and Jamie laughed.
“Oh, aye? Ye told me ye killed men in France.”
“Well, aye, I did, but that was a matter of war—or business,” he added fairly. “I was bein’ paid to kill them; I didna do it out o’ spite.”
“Well, then, I’m right,” Jamie pointed out. “Ye’ll sail straight through purgatory like a rising cloud, for I canna think of a single lie ye’ve ever told me.”
Ian smiled with great affection.
“Aye, well, I may ha’ told lies now and then, Jamie—but no, not to you.”
He looked down at the worn wooden peg stretched before him and scratched at the knee on that side.
“I wonder, will it feel different?”
“How could it not?”
“Well, the thing is,” Ian said, wiggling his sound foot to and fro, “I can still feel my missing foot. Always have been able to, ever since it went. Not all the time, mind,” he added, looking up. “But I do feel it. A verra strange thing. Do ye feel your finger?” he asked curiously, raising his chin at Jamie’s right hand.
“Well… aye, I do. Not all the time, but now and then—and the nasty thing is that even though it’s gone, it still hurts like damnation, which doesna seem really fair.”
He could have bitten his tongue at that, for here Ian was dying, and him complaining that the loss of his finger wasn’t fair. Ian wheezed with amusement, though, and leaned back, shaking his head.
“If life was fair, then what?”
They sat in companionable silence for a while, watching the wind move through the pines on the hillside opposite. Then Jamie reached into his sporran and brought out the tiny white-wrapped package. It was a bit grubby from being in his sporran but had been tidily preserved and tightly wrapped.
Ian eyed the little bundle in his palm.
“My finger,” Jamie said. “I—well… I wondered whether ye’d maybe not mind to have it buried with ye.”
Ian looked at him for a moment. Then his shoulders started to shake.
“God, don’t laugh!” Jamie said, alarmed. “I didna mean to make ye laugh! Christ, Jenny will kill me if ye cough up a lung and die out here!”
Ian was coughing, fits of it interspersed with long-drawn-out wheezes of laughter. Tears of mirth stood in his eyes, and he pressed both fists into his chest, struggling to breathe. At last, though, he left off and straightened slowly up, making a sound like a bellows. He sniffed deep and casually spat a glob of horrifying scarlet into the rocks.
“I’d rather die out here laughin’ at you than in my bed wi’ six priests say-in’ prayers,” he said. “Doubt I’ll get the chance, though.” He put out a hand, palm up. “Aye, give it here.”
Jamie laid the little white-wrapped cylinder in his hand, and Ian tucked the finger casually into his own sporran.
“I’ll keep it safe ’til ye catch me up.”
HE CAME DOWN through the trees and made his way toward the edge of the moorland that lay below the cave. It was sharply cold, with a stiff breeze blowing, and the light changed over the land like the flicker of a bird’s wings as the clouds slid overhead, long and fleeting. He’d picked up a deer trail through the heather earlier in the morning, but it had disappeared in a stony fall near a brae, and now he was coming back toward the house; he was behind the hill on which the broch stood, this side of it thick with a little wood of beech and pine. He’d not seen a deer or even a coney this morning, but wasn’t bothered.
With so many in the house, they could use a deer, to be sure—but he was happy only to be out of the house, even if he came back with nothing.
He couldn’t look at Ian without wanting to stare at his face, to commit him to memory, to impress these last bits of his brother-in-law upon his mind in the way that he recalled special vivid moments, there to be taken out and lived through again at need. But at the same time, he didn’t want to remember Ian as he was now; much better to keep what he had of him: firelight on the side of Ian’s face, laughing fit to burst as he’d forced Jamie’s arm over in a wrestling match, his own wiry strength surprising them both. Ian’s long, knob-jointed hands on the gralloch knife, the wrench and the hot metal smell of the blood that smeared his fingers, the look of his brown hair ruffling in the wind off the loch, the narrow back, bent and springy as a bow as he stooped to snatch one of his toddling bairns or grandchildren off their feet and throw them up giggling into the air.
It was good they’d come, he thought. Better than good that they’d brought the lad back in time to speak to his father as a man, to comfort Ian’s mind and take his leave properly. But to live in the same house with a beloved brother dying by inches under your nose wore sadly on the nerves.
With so many women in the house, squabbling was inevitable. With so many of the women Frasers, it was like walking through a gunpowder mill with a lit candle. Everyone tried so hard to manage, to keep in countenance, to accommodate—but that only made it worse when some spark finally set the powder keg off. He wasn’t only out hunting because they needed meat.
He spared a sympathetic thought for Claire. After Jenny’s anguished request, Claire had taken to hiding in their room or in Ian’s study—he had invited her to use it, and Jamie thought that aggravated Jenny still more—writing busily, making the book Andy Bell had put in her mind. She had great powers of concentration and could stay inside her mind for hours—but she had to come out to eat. And it was always there, the knowledge that Ian was dying, grinding like a quern, slow but relentless, wearing away the nerves.
Ian’s nerves, too.
He and Ian had been walking—slowly—by the side of the loch two days before, when Ian stopped suddenly, curling in on himself like an autumn leaf. Jamie hurried to take him by the arm before he could fall, and he lowered him to the ground, finding a boulder to brace his back, pulling the shawl high around the wasted shoulders, looking for anything, anything at all he could do.
“What is it, a charaid?” he said, anxious, crouching beside his brother-in-law, his friend.
Ian was coughing, almost silently, his body shaking with the force of it. At last the spasm eased and he could draw breath, his face bright with the consumptive flush, that terrible illusion of health.
“It hurts, Jamie.” The words were spoken simply, but Ian’s eyelids were closed, as though he didn’t want to look at Jamie while he spoke.
“I’ll carry ye back. We’ll get ye a bit of laudanum, maybe, and—”
Ian waved a hand, quelling his anxious promises. He breathed shallowly for a moment before shaking his head.
“Aye, my chest feels like there’s a knife in it,” he said finally. “But that’s no what I meant. I’m no bothered so much about dying—but Christ, the slowness of it is killing me.” He did open his eyes then, meeting Jamie’s, and laughed as silently as he’d coughed, the barest breath of sound as his body shook with it.
“This dying hurts me, Dougal. I’d have it over.” The words came into his mind as clearly as if they’d been spoken just now in front of him, rather than thirty years before in a dark church, ruined by cannon fire. Rupert had said that, dying slow. “You’re my chief, man,” he’d said to Dougal, imploring. “It’s your job.” And Dougal MacKenzie had done what love and duty called for.
He had been holding Ian’s hand, clasping hard, trying to force some notion of well-being from his own calloused palm into Ian’s thin gray skin. His thumb slid upward now, pressing on the wrist where he had seen Claire grip, searching out the truth of a patient’s health.
He felt the skin give, sliding across the bones of Ian’s wrist. He thought suddenly of the blood vow given at his marriage, the sting of the blade and Claire’s cold wrist pressed to his and the blood slick between them. Ian’s wrist was cold, too, but not from fear.
He glanced at his own wrist, but there was no trace of a scar, either from vows or fetters; those wounds were fleeting, long-healed.
“D’ye remember when we gave each other blood for blood?” Ian’s eyes were closed, but he smiled. Jamie’s hand tightened on the bony wrist, a little startled but not truly surprised that Ian had reached into his mind and caught the echo of his thoughts.