He’d come face-to-face with death often enough—and remembered those encounters with sufficient vividness—to realize that there were indeed worse things. Much better to die than be left to mourn.
He had still a dreadful feeling of something worse than sorrow when he looked at his sister, small and solitary, and heard the word “widow” in his mind. It was wrong. She could not be that, couldn’t be severed in that brutal way. It was like watching her be cut in pieces, and he helpless to do anything.
He turned from that thought to his memories of Claire, his longing for her, the flame of her his candle in the dark. Her touch a comfort and a warmth beyond that of the body. He remembered the last evening before she’d left, holding hands on the bench outside the broch, feeling her heartbeat in her fingers, his own steadying to that warm, quick pulse.
Odd how the presence of death seemed to bring with it so many attendants, shades long-forgotten, glimpsed briefly in the gathering shadow. The thought of Claire, and how he had sworn to protect her from the first time he held her, brought back to him the nameless girl.
She’d died in France, on the far side of the void in his head that had been made by the blow of an ax. He hadn’t thought of her in years, but suddenly she was there again. She’d been in his mind when he’d held Claire at Leoch, and he’d felt that his marriage might be some small atonement. He’d learned—slowly—to forgive himself for what had not been his fault and, in loving Claire, gave the girl’s shade some peace, he hoped.
He had felt obscurely that he owed God a life and had paid that debt by taking Claire to wife—though God knew he would have taken her in any case, he thought, and smiled wryly. But he’d kept faith with the promise to protect her. The protection of my name, my clan—and the protection of my body, he’d said.
The protection of my body. There was an irony in that that made him squirm, as he glimpsed another face among the shades. Narrow, mocking, long-eyed—so young.
Geneva. One more young woman dead as the result of his lust. Not his fault, precisely—he’d fought that through, in the long days and nights following her death, alone in his cold bed above the stables, taking what comfort he could in the solid, voiceless presence of the horses shifting and champing in their stalls below. But had he not lain with her, she would not have died; that was inescapable.
Did he owe God another life? he wondered. He had thought it was Willie, the life he’d been given to protect with his own, in exchange for Geneva’s. But that trust had had to be handed to another.
Well, he had his sister now and assured Ian silently that he would keep her safe. As long as I live, he thought. And that should be some time yet. He thought he’d used only five of the deaths the fortune-teller in Paris had promised him.
“You’ll die nine times before you rest in your grave,” she’d said. Did it take so many tries to get it right? he wondered.
I LET MY HAND fall back, exposing my wrist, and placed the tip of the knife midway up my forearm. I’d seen many unsuccessful suicides, those who slashed their wrists from side to side, the wounds small mouths that cried for help. I’d seen those who meant it. The proper way was to slit the veins lengthwise, deep, sure cuts that would drain me of blood in minutes, assure unconsciousness in seconds.
The mark was still visible on the mound at the base of my thumb. A faint white “J,” the mark he’d left on me on the eve of Culloden, when we first faced the stark knowledge of death and separation.
I traced the thin white line with the tip of the knife and felt the seductive whisper of metal on my skin. I’d wanted to die with him then, and he had sent me on with a firm hand. I carried his child; I could not die.
I carried her no longer—but she was still there. Perhaps reachable. I sat motionless for what seemed a long time, then sighed and put the knife back on the table carefully.
Perhaps it was the habit of years, a bent of mind that held life sacred for its own sake, or a superstitious awe of extinguishing a spark kindled by a hand not my own. Perhaps it was obligation. There were those who needed me—or at least to whom I could be useful. Perhaps it was the stubbornness of the body, with its inexorable insistence on never-ending process.
I could slow my heart, slow enough to count the beats… slow the flowing of my blood ’til my heart echoed in my ears with the doom of distant drums.
There were pathways in the dark. I knew; I had seen people die. Despite physical decay, there was no dying until the pathway was found. I couldn’t—yet—find mine.
THE NEW MEDICAL CHEST sat on the table in my room, gleaming softly in the candlelight. Beside it were the gauze bags of dried herbs I had bought during the morning, the fresh bottles of the tinctures I had brewed in the afternoon, much to Mrs. Figg’s displeasure at having her kitchen’s purity so perverted. Her slitted eyes said that she knew me for a rebel and thought me likely a witch; she’d retreated to the doorway of the cookhouse while I worked but wouldn’t leave altogether, instead keeping silent suspicious watch over me and my cauldron.
A large decanter of plum brandy was keeping me company. Over the course of the last week, I had found that a glass of it at night would let me find surcease in sleep, at least for a little. It wasn’t working tonight. I heard the clock on the mantelpiece downstairs chime softly, once.
I stooped to pick up a box of dried chamomile that had spilled, sweeping the scattered leaves carefully back into their container. A bottle of syrup of poppies had fallen over, too, lying on its side, the aromatic liquid oozing round the cork. I set it upright, wiped the golden droplets from its neck with my kerchief, blotted up the tiny puddle from the floor. A root, a stone, a leaf. One by one, I picked them up, set them straight, put them away, the accoutrements of my calling, the pieces of my destiny.
The cool glass seemed somehow remote, the gleaming wood an illusion. Heart beating slowly, erratically, I put a hand flat on the box, trying to steady myself, to fix myself in space and time. It was becoming more difficult by the day.
I remembered, with sudden, painful vividness, a day on the retreat from Ticonderoga. We had reached a village, found momentary refuge in a barn. I’d worked all day then, doing what could be done with no supplies, no medicines, no instruments, no bandages save what I made from the sweat-sodden, filthy clothes of the wounded. Feeling the world recede further and further as I worked, hearing my voice as though it belonged to someone else. Seeing the bodies under my hands, only bodies. Limbs. Wounds. Losing touch.
Darkness fell. Someone came, pulled me to my feet, and sent me out of the barn, into the little tavern. It was crowded, overwhelmed with people. Someone—Ian?—said that Jamie had food for me outside.
He was alone there, in the empty woodshed, dimly lit by a distant lantern.
I’d stood in the doorway, swaying. Or perhaps it was the room that swayed.
I could see my fingers dug into the wood of the doorjamb, nails gone white.
A movement in the dimness. He rose fast, seeing me, came toward me. What was his—
“Jamie.” I’d felt a distant sense of relief at finding his name.
He’d seized me, drawn me into the shed, and I wondered for an instant whether I was walking or whether he was carrying me; I heard the scrape of the dirt floor under my feet but didn’t feel my weight or the shift of it.
He was talking to me, the sound of it soothing. It seemed a dreadful effort to distinguish words. I knew what he must be saying, though, and managed to say, “All right. Just… tired,” wondering even as I spoke them whether these sounds were words at all, let alone the right ones.
“Will ye sleep, then, lass?” he’d said, worried eyes fixed on me. “Or can ye eat a bit first?” He let go of me, to reach for the bread, and I put out a hand to the wall to support myself, surprised to find it solid.
The sense of cold numbness had returned.
“Bed,” I said. My lips felt blue and bloodless. “With you. Right now.”
He’d cupped my cheek, calloused palm warm on my skin. Big hand. Solid. Above all, solid.
“Are ye sure, a nighean?” he’d said, a note of surprise in his voice. “Ye look as though—”
I’d laid a hand on his arm, half fearing that it would go through his flesh.
“Hard,” I’d whispered. “Bruise me.”
My glass was empty, the decanter halfway full. I poured another and took hold of the glass carefully, not wanting to spill it, determined to find oblivion, no matter how temporary.
Could I separate entirely? I wondered. Could my soul actually leave my body without my dying first? Or had it done so already?
I drank the glass slowly, one sip at a time. Another. One sip at a time.
There must have been some sound that made me look up, but I wasn’t aware of having raised my head. John Grey was standing in the doorway of my room. His neckcloth was missing and his shirt hung limp on his shoulders, wine spilled down the front of it. His hair was loose and tangled, and his eyes as red as mine.
I stood up, slow, as though I were underwater.
“I will not mourn him alone tonight,” he said roughly, and closed the door.
I WAS SURPRISED to wake up. I hadn’t really expected to and lay for a bit trying to fit reality back into place around me. I had only a slight headache, which was almost more surprising than the fact that I was still alive.
Both those things paled in significance beside the fact of the man in bed beside me.
“How long has it been since you last slept with a woman, if you don’t mind my asking?”
He didn’t appear to mind. He frowned a little and scratched his chest thoughtfully.
“Oh… fifteen years? At least that.” He glanced at me, his expression altering to one of concern. “Oh. I do apologize.”
“You do? For what?” I arched one brow. I could think of a number of things he might apologize for, but probably none of those was what he had in mind.
“I am afraid I was perhaps not…” he hesitated. “Very gentlemanly.”
“Oh, you weren’t,” I said, rather tartly. “But I assure you that I wasn’t being at all ladylike myself.”
He looked at me, and his mouth worked a bit, as though trying to frame some response to that, but after a moment or two he shook his head and gave it up.
“Besides, it wasn’t me you were making love to,” I said, “and both of us know it.”
He looked up, startled, his eyes very blue. Then the shadow of a smile crossed his face, and he looked down at the quilted coverlet.
“No,” he said softly. “Nor were you, I think, making love to me. Were you?”
“No,” I said. The grief of the night before had softened, but the weight of it was still there. My voice was low and husky, because my throat was halfway closed, where the hand of sorrow clutched me unawares.
John sat up and reached to the table, where a carafe stood along with a bottle and a glass. He poured something out of the bottle and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said, and lifted it to my lips. “Good grief, is that beer?”
“Yes, and very good beer, too,” he said, tilting back the bottle. He took several hearty gulps, eyes half closed, then lowered it with a sigh of satisfaction. “Clears the palate, freshens the breath, and prepares the stomach for digestion.”
Despite myself, I was amused—and shocked.
“Do you mean to tell me that you are in the habit of drinking beer for breakfast every day?”
“Of course not. I have food with it.”
“I am amazed that you have a single tooth in your head,” I said severely—but risked a small sip. It was good beer: heavy-bodied and sweet, with just the right sour edge.
At this point, I noticed a certain tenseness in his posture, which the content of the conversation didn’t account for. Slow-witted as I was, it took a moment for me to realize what was amiss.
“Oh. If you need to fart,” I said, “don’t trouble on my account. Go ahead.”
He was sufficiently startled by my observation that he did.
“I do beg your pardon, madam!” he said, his fair skin flushing up to the hairline.
I tried not to laugh, but suppressed amusement jiggled the bed, and he went redder still.
“Would you have any hesitation about it were you in bed with a man?” I asked, out of idle curiosity.
He rubbed his knuckles against his mouth, the color fading a bit from his cheeks.
“Ah. Well, that would depend upon the man. By and large, though, no.”
The man. I knew that Jamie was the man in his mind—just as he was in mine. At the moment, I wasn’t disposed to resent it.
He knew what I was thinking, too.
“He offered me his body once. You knew that?” His voice was dry.
“I take it you didn’t accept.” I knew he hadn’t but was more than curious to hear his side of that encounter.
“No. What I wanted from him was not that—or not entirely that,” he added, with honesty. “I wanted all of it—and was young and proud enough to think that if I could not have that, then I would accept no less. And that, of course, he couldn’t give me.”
I was silent for a time, thinking. The window was open, and the long muslin curtains moved in the breeze.
“Did you regret it?” I asked. “Not taking him up on his offer, I mean?”
“Ten thousand times, at the very least,” he assured me, breaking into a rueful grin. “At the same time… refusing him was one of the few acts of true nobility to which I would lay claim for myself. It’s true, you know,” he added, “selflessness does carry its own reward—for if I had taken him, that would have destroyed forever what did exist between us.
“To have given him instead the gift of my understanding, hard come by as it was,” he added ironically, “left me with his friendship. So I am left with momentary regret on the one hand, but satisfaction on the other. And in the end it was the friendship that I valued most.”