Something stirred in the grass, and I saw a small gopher snake slide through, hunting. The sight of something live comforted me, little as I cared for snakes, and I smiled as I lifted my eyes and saw that bees were humming to and fro from one of the old bee gums that still stood at the foot of the garden.
I looked last at the spot where I had planted salad greens; that’s where she had died. In memory, I’d always seen the spreading blood, imagined it still there, a permanent stain soaked dark into the earth among the churned wreckage of uprooted lettuces and wilting leaves. But it was gone; nothing marked the spot save a fairy ring of mushrooms, tiny white heads poking out of the wild grass.
“I will arise and go now,” I said softly, “and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, and live alone in the bee-loud glade.” I paused for a moment, and as I turned away, added in a whisper, “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.”
I made my way briskly down the path then; no need to apostrophize the ruins of the house, nor yet the white sow. I’d remember them without effort. As for the corncrib and hen coop—if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
I could see the little gathering of horses, mules, and people moving in the slow chaos of imminent departure in front of the cabin. I wasn’t quite ready yet for goodbyes, though, and stepped into the wood to pull myself together.
The grass was long beside the trail, soft and feathery against the hem of my weighted skirts. Something heavier than grass brushed them, and I looked down to see Adso. I’d been looking for him most of yesterday; typical of him to show up at the last minute.
“So there you are,” I said, accusing. He looked at me with his huge calm eyes of celadon green, and licked a paw. On impulse, I scooped him up and held him against me, feeling the rumble of his purr and the soft, thick fur of his silvery belly.
He’d be all right; I knew that. The woods were his private game preserve, and Amy Higgins liked him and had promised me to see him right for milk and a warm spot by the fire in bad weather. I knew that.
“Go on, then,” I said, and set him on the ground. He stood for a moment, tail waving slowly, head raised in search of food or interesting smells, then stepped into the grass and vanished.
I bent, very slowly, arms crossed, and shook, weeping silently, violently.
I cried until my throat hurt and I couldn’t breathe, then sat in the grass, curled into myself like a dried leaf, tears that I couldn’t stop dropping on my knees like the first fat drops of a coming storm. Oh, God. It was only the beginning.
I rubbed my hands hard over my eyes, smearing the wetness, trying to scrub away grief. A soft cloth touched my face, and I looked up, sniffing, to find Jamie kneeling in front of me, handkerchief in hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said, very softly.
“It’s not—don’t worry, I’m … He’s only a cat,” I said, and a small fresh grief tightened like a band round my chest.
“Aye, I know.” He moved beside me and put an arm round my shoulders, pulling my head to his chest, while he gently wiped my face. “But ye couldna weep for the bairns. Or the house. Or your wee garden. Or the poor dead lass and her bairn. But if ye weep for your cheetie, ye know ye can stop.”
“How do you know that?” My voice was thick, but the band round my chest was not quite so tight.
He made a small, rueful sound.
“Because I canna weep for those things, either, Sassenach. And I havena got a cat.”
I sniffled, wiped my face one last time, and blew my nose before giving him back the handkerchief, which he stuffed into his sporran without grimace or thought.
Lord, he’d said. Let me be enough. That prayer had lodged in my heart like an arrow when I’d heard it and thought he asked for help in doing what had to be done. But that wasn’t what he’d meant at all—and the realization of what he had meant split my heart in two.
I took his face between my hands, and wished so much that I had his own gift, the ability to say what lay in my heart, in such a way that he would know. But I hadn’t.
“Jamie,” I said at last. “Oh, Jamie. You’re … everything. Always.”
An hour later, we left the Ridge.
I AN LAY DOWN WITH a sack of rice under his head for a pillow. It was hard, but he liked the whisper of the small grains when he turned his head and the faint starched smell of it. Rollo rooted under the plaid with his snout, snorting as he worked his way close against Ian’s body, ending with his nose cozily buried in Ian’s armpit. Ian scratched the dog’s ears gently, then lay back, watching the stars.
It was a sliver moon, thin as a nail paring, and the stars were big and brilliant in the purple-black of the sky. He traced the constellations overhead. Would he see the same stars in Scotland? he wondered. He’d not paid much mind to the stars when he was home in the Highlands, and you couldn’t see stars at all in Edinburgh, for the smoke of the reeking lums.
His aunt and uncle lay on the other side of the smoored fire, close enough together as to look like one log, sharing warmth. He saw the blankets twitch, settle, twitch again, and then a stillness, waiting. He heard a whisper, too low to make out the words but the intent behind them clear enough.
He kept his breathing regular, a little louder than usual. A moment, and then the stealthy movements began again. It was hard to fool Uncle Jamie, but there are times when a man wants to be fooled.
His hand rested gently on the dog’s head, and Rollo sighed, the huge body going limp, warm and heavy against him. If not for the dog, he would never be able to sleep out of doors. Not that he ever slept soundly, or for long—but at least he could surrender now and then to bodily need, trusting that Rollo would hear any footstep long before he did.
“Ye’re safe enough,” his uncle Jamie had told him, their first night on the road. He’d been unable to fall asleep then for nerviness, even with Rollo’s head on his chest, and had got up to sit by the fire, poking sticks into the embers until the flames rose up into the night, pure and vivid.
He was well aware that he was perfectly visible to anyone who might be watching, but there was nothing to be done about that. And if he had a target painted on his chest, lighting it up wouldn’t make a deal of difference.
Rollo, lying watchful beside the growing fire, had lifted his big head suddenly, but only turned it toward a faint sound in the dark. That meant someone familiar, and Ian wasn’t bothered, nor yet surprised when his uncle came out of the wood where he’d gone to relieve himself and sat down beside him.
“He doesna want ye dead, ken,” Uncle Jamie had said without preamble. “You’re safe enough.”
“I dinna ken if I want to be safe,” he’d blurted, and his uncle had glanced at him, his face troubled—but not surprised. Uncle Jamie had only nodded, though.
He knew what his uncle meant; Arch Bug didn’t want him to die, because that would end his guilt, and thus his suffering. Ian had looked into those ancient eyes, the whites of them yellowed and threaded with red, watering with cold and grief, and seen something there that had frozen the core of his soul. No, Arch Bug wouldn’t kill him—yet.
His uncle was staring into the fire, the light of it warm on the broad bones of his face, and the sight gave Ian both comfort and panic.
Does it not occur to you? he’d thought, anguished, but did not say. He said he’d take what I love. And there ye sit beside me, clear as day.
The first time the thought had come to him, he’d pushed it away; old Arch owed Uncle Jamie, for what he’d done for the Bugs, and he was a man to acknowledge a debt—though perhaps more ready to claim one. And he had nay doubt Bug respected his uncle as a man, too. For a time, that had seemed to settle the matter.
But other thoughts had come to him, uneasy, many-legged things that crept out of the sleepless nights since he’d killed Murdina Bug.
Arch was an old man. Tough as a fire-hardened spear, and twice as dangerous—but old. He’d fought at Sheriffmuir; he had to be rising eighty. Revenge might keep him alive for a time, but all flesh came to an end. He might well think that he hadn’t time to wait for Ian to acquire “something worth taking.” If he meant to keep his threat, he’d need to act soon.
Ian could hear the subtle shifts and rustlings from the other side of the fire, and swallowed, his mouth dry. Old Arch might try to take his aunt, for surely Ian loved her, and she would be much easier to kill than Uncle Jamie. But no—Arch might be half crazed with grief and rage, but he wasn’t insane. He’d know that to touch Auntie Claire—without killing Uncle Jamie at the same time—would be suicide.
Maybe he wouldn’t care. That was another thought that walked over his belly with small, cold feet.
He should leave them; he knew that. He’d meant to—he still meant to. Wait ’til they’d fallen asleep, then rise and steal away. They’d be safe then.
But his heart had failed him, that first night. He’d been trying to gather his courage, there by the fire, to go—but his uncle had forestalled him, coming out of the wood and sitting by him, silent but companionable, until Ian had felt able to lie down again.
Tomorrow, he’d thought. After all, there was no sign of Arch Bug; hadn’t been, since his wife’s funeral. And maybe he’s dead. He was an old man, and alone.
And there was the consideration that if he left without a word, Uncle Jamie would come after him. He’d made it clear that Ian was going back to Scotland, whether he did it willingly or tied in a sack. Ian grinned, despite his thoughts, and Rollo made a small grunt as the chest under him moved in a silent laugh.
He’d barely spared a thought for Scotland and what might await him there.
Perhaps it was the noises from the other side of the fire that made him think it—a sudden high-pitched intake of breath and the deep twin sighs that followed it, his familiarity providing a vivid physical memory of the action that had caused that sigh—but he wondered suddenly whether he might find a wife in Scotland.
He couldn’t. Could he? Would Bug be able to follow him so far? Maybe he’s already dead, he thought again, and shifted a bit. Rollo grumbled in his throat but, recognizing the signs, shuffled off him and curled up a little distance away.
His family would be there. Surrounded by the Murrays, surely he—and a wife—would be safe. It was simple to lurk and steal through the dense woods here in the mountains—not nearly so simple in the Highlands, where every eye was sharp and no stranger passed unnoticed.
He didn’t know quite what his mother would do when she saw him—but once she got used to it, maybe she could think of a girl who wouldn’t be too frightened of him.
A suck of breath and a sound not quite a moan from his uncle—he did that when she put her mouth on his nipple; Ian had seen her do it once or twice, by the glow of embers from the cabin’s hearth, her eyes closed, a quick wet gleam of teeth, and her hair falling back from naked shoulders in a cloud of light and shadow.
He put a hand on his cock, tempted. He had a private collection of images that he cherished for the purpose—and not a few of them were of his cousin, though it shamed him a little. She was Roger Mac’s wife, after all. But he’d thought at one point that he’d need to marry her himself, and while terrified at the prospect—he’d been only seventeen and she considerably older—had been emboldened at the thought of having her to bed.
He’d watched her close for several days, seeing her arse round and solid, the dark shadow of her red-haired quim under the thin muslin of her shift when she went to bathe, imagining the thrill of seeing it plain on the night when she’d lie down and open her legs for him.
What was he doing? He couldn’t be thinking of Brianna like that, not lying a dozen feet from her father!
He grimaced and squinched his eyes tight shut, hand slowing as he summoned up a different image from his private library. Not the witch—not tonight. Her memory aroused him with great urgency, often painfully, but was tinged with a sense of helplessness. Malva … No, he was afraid to summon her; he often thought her spirit was not yet so very far away.
Wee Mary. Aye, her. His hand settled at once into its rhythm and he sighed, escaping with relief to the small pink br**sts and encouraging smile of the first lass he’d ever lain with.
Hovering moments later on the edge of a dream of a wee blond girl who was his wife, he thought drowsily, Aye, maybe he’s already dead.
Rollo made a deep, dissentient noise in his throat, and rolled over with his paws in the air.
THERE WERE MANY compensations to growing older, Lord John thought. Wisdom, perspective, position in life, the sense of accomplishment, of time well spent, a richness of affection for friends and family … and the fact that he needn’t keep his back pressed against a wall when talking to Lord George Germain. While both his looking glass and his valet assured him that he continued to be presentable, he was at least twenty years too old to appeal to the secretary of state, who liked them young and tender-skinned.
The clerk who had shown him in met this description, being equipped also with long dark lashes and a soft pout. Grey spared him no more than a glance; his own tastes were harder-edged.
It was not early—knowing Germain’s habits, he had waited until one o’clock—but the man still showed the effects of a long night. Deep blue pouches cupped eyes like soft-boiled eggs, which surveyed Grey with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Still, Germain made an effort at courtesy, bidding Grey sit and sending the doe-eyed clerk for brandy and biscuits.
Grey seldom took strong drink before teatime, and wanted a clear head now. He therefore barely sipped his own brandy, excellent though it was, but Germain dipped the famous Sackville nose—sharply protrusive as a letter opener—into his glass, inhaled deeply, then drained it and poured another. The liquid appeared to have some restorative effect, for he emerged from his second glass looking somewhat happier and inquired of Grey how he did.