“When ye were little, eh?” Amused, Ian cast an eye over her length. “I’ve seldom seen a lass sae braw. I’d say your mother kent her business, aye?”
She smiled back and gave him back the bottle.
“She knew enough to marry a tall man, at least,” she said wryly.
Ian laughed and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He gazed affectionately at her, brown eyes warm.
“Ah, it’s fine to see ye, lassie. You’re verra much like him, it’s true. Christ, what I wouldna give to be there when Jamie sees you!”
She looked down at the ground, biting her lip. The ground was thick with bracken, and their path up the hill showed plain, where the green fronds that had overgrown the track had been crushed and knocked aside.
“I don’t know whether he knows or not,” she blurted. “About me.” She glanced up at him. “He didn’t tell you.”
Ian rocked back a little, frowning.
“No, that’s true,” he said slowly. “But I am thinking he maybe hadna time to say, even if he knew. He’ll not have been here long, that last time he came, with Claire. And then, it was such a moil, wi’ all that happened—” He stopped, pursing his lips, and glanced at her.
“Your auntie’s been troubled about that,” he said. “Thinking that ye might blame her.”
“Blame her for what?” She stared at him, puzzled.
“For Laoghaire.” The brown eyes held hers, intent.
A faint chill came over Brianna at the memory of those pale eyes, cold as marbles, and the woman’s hateful words. She had dismissed them as simple malice, but the echoes of “whoremaster” and “cheat” lingered unpleasantly in her ear.
“What did Aunt Jenny have to do with Laoghaire?”
Ian sighed, brushing back a thick lock of brown hair that fell down across his face.
“It was her doing that Jamie married the woman. She meant it well, mind,” he said warningly. “We did think Claire was dead these many years.”
His tone held a question, but Brianna merely nodded, looking down and smoothing the fabric across her knee. This was dangerous ground; better to say nothing, if she could. After a moment, Ian went on.
“It was after he’d come home from England—he was a prisoner there for some years after the Rising—”
Ian’s brows shot up in surprise, but he said nothing; simply shook his head.
“Aye, well. When he came back, he was—different. Well, he would be, aye?” He smiled briefly, then dropped his eyes, pleating the fabric of his kilt between his fingers.
“It was like talking to a ghost,” he said quietly. “He would look at me, and smile, and answer—but he wasna really there.” He took a deep breath, and she could see the lines between his brows, carved deep in concentration.
“Before—after Culloden—it was different, then. He was sair wounded—and he’d lost Claire—” He glanced briefly at her, but she kept still, and he went on.
“But it was a desperate time then. A great many folk died; of the fighting, of sickness or of starving. There were English soldiers in the country, burning, killing. When it’s like that, ye canna even think of dying, only because the struggle to live and keep your family takes all your time.”
A small smile touched Ian’s lips, the rue of memory oddly lightened with a private amusement.
“Jamie hid,” he said, with an abrupt gesture toward the hillside above them. “There. There’s a wee cave behind that big gorse bush, halfway up. It’s what I brought ye here to show ye.”
She looked where he pointed, up the tangled slope of rock and heather, the hillside a riot of tiny flowers. There was no sign of a cave, but the gorse bush stood out in a blaze of yellow blossom, brilliant as a torch.
“I came up to bring him food once, when he was sick of the ague. I told him he must come down to the house wi’ me; that Jenny was scairt he’d die up here, all alone. He opened one eye, all bright with the fever, and his voice was sae hoarse I could scarcely hear him. He said Jenny needna be worrit; even though everything in the world seemed set on killin’ him, he didna mean to make it easy for them. Then he closed his eye and went to sleep.”
Ian gave her a wry glance. “I wasna so sure he had that much to say about whether he was going to die or no, so I stayed with him through the night. But he was right, after all; he’s verra stubborn, ye ken?” His tone held a note of a mild apology.
Brianna nodded, but her throat felt too tight to speak. Instead she stood up abruptly, and headed up the hill. Ian made no protest, but stayed on his rock, watching her.
It was a steep climb, and small thorny plants caught at her stockings. Near the cave, she had to scramble upward on all fours, to keep her balance on the steep granite slope.
The cave mouth was little more than a crack in the rock, the opening widening into a small triangle at the bottom. She knelt down and thrust her head and shoulders inside.
The chill was immediate; she could feel dampness condense on her cheeks. It took a moment for her sight to adapt to the dark, but enough light trickled into the cave past her shoulders for her to see.
It was perhaps eight feet long and six feet wide, a dim, dirt-floored cavity, with a ceiling so low that one could stand upright only near the entrance. To stay inside for any length of time would be like being entombed.
She pulled her head out quickly, breathing in deep gulps of the fresh spring air. Her heart was beating heavily.
Seven years! Seven years to have lived here, in cold grime and gnawing hunger. I wouldn’t last seven days, she thought.
Wouldn’t you? said another part of her mind. And then it came again, that tiny click of recognition that she had felt when she had looked at Ellen’s portrait, and felt her fingers close on an invisible brush.
She turned around slowly and sat down, the cave behind her. It was very quiet here on the mountainside, but quiet in the way of hills and forests, a quiet that was not silent at all, but composed of constant tiny sounds.
There were small buzzings in the gorse bush nearby, of bees working the yellow flowers, dusty with pollen. Far below was the rushing of the burn, a low note echoing the rush of the wind above, stirring leaves and rattling twigs, sighing past the jutting boulders.
She sat still, and listened, and thought she knew what Jamie Fraser had found here.
Not loneliness, but solitude. Not suffering, but endurance, the discovery of grim kinship with the rocks and sky. And the finding here of a harsh peace that would transcend bodily discomfort, a healing instead of the wounds of the soul.
He had perhaps found the cave not a tomb, but a refuge; drawn strength from its rocks, like Antaeus thrown to earth. For this place was part of him, who had been born here, as it was part of her, who had never seen it before.
Ian was still sitting patiently below; hands clasped about his knees, looking out over the valley. She reached up and carefully broke off a bit of the gorse-bush, mindful of its spines. She laid it at the entrance of the cave, weighted with a small stone, then stood and made her way precariously down the hill.
Ian must have heard her approach, but didn’t turn around. She sat down beside him.
“It’s safe for you to wear that, now?” she said abruptly, with a nod at his kilt.
“Oh, aye,” he said. He glanced down, his fingers rubbing the soft, worn wool. “It’s been some years now since the soldiers last came. After all, what’s left?” He gestured over the valley below.
“They carried away all they could find of value. Ruined what they couldna carry. There’s no much left, save the land, is there? And I think they hadna much interest in that.” She could see he was disturbed in some way; his wasn’t a face that hid its owner’s feelings.
She watched him for a moment, then said quietly, “You’re still here. You and Jenny.”
His hand stilled, and lay against the plaid. His eyelids were closed, his homely, weathered face raised to the sun.
“Aye, that’s true,” he said at last. He opened his eyes again, and turned to look at her. “And so are you. We talked a bit last night, your auntie and I. When ye see Jamie, and all’s well between ye—then ask him, if ye will, what would he have us do.”
“Do? About what?”
“About Lallybroch.” He waved, taking in the valley and the house below. He turned to her, eyes troubled.
“You’ll maybe know—maybe not—that your father made a deed of sassine before Culloden, to give over the place to Young Jamie, should it all come to smash and he be killed or condemned as a traitor. But that would be before you were born; before he kent that he’d have a bairn of his own.”
“Yes, I did know that.” She had a sudden awareness of what he was leading up to, and put her hand on his arm, startling him with the touch.
“I didn’t come for that, Uncle,” she said softly. “Lallybroch isn’t mine—and I don’t want it. All I want is to see my father—and my mother.”
Ian’s long face relaxed, and he put his hand over hers where it lay on his arm. He didn’t say anything for a moment; then squeezed her hand gently and let it go.
“Aye, well. You’ll tell him, nonetheless; if he wishes it—”
“He won’t,” she interrupted firmly.
Ian looked at her, a faint smile at the back of his eyes.
“Ye ken a lot about what he’ll do, for a lass that’s never met him.”
She smiled at him, the spring sun warm on her shoulders.
“Maybe I do.”
The smile broke through to Ian’s face.
“Aye, your mother will ha’ told ye, I suppose. And she did know him, for all she was a Sassenach. But then, she was always…special, your mother.”
“Yes.” She hesitated for a moment, wanting to hear more about the topic of Laoghaire, but unsure how to ask. Before she could think of something, he stood, brushed down his kilt, and started down the track, forcing her to rise and follow.
“What’s a fetch, Uncle Ian?” she asked the back of his head. Preoccupied with the difficulties of descent, he didn’t turn, but she saw him lurch slightly, wooden leg sinking into the loose earth. At the bottom of the hill he waited for her, leaning on his stick.
“You’ll be thinking of what Laoghaire said?” he asked. Without waiting for her nod, he turned and began making his way along the bottom of the hill, toward the small stream that flowed down through the rocks.
“A fetch is the sight of a person, when the person himself is far awa’,” he said. “Sometimes it will be a person that’s died, far from home. It’s ill luck to see one, but worse luck to meet your own—for if you do, ye die.”
It was the absolute matter-of-factness of his tone that made a shiver run down her spine.
“I hope I don’t,” she said. “But she said—Laoghaire—” She stumbled on the name.
“L’heery,” Ian corrected. “Aye, well. It was at her wedding to Jamie that Jenny saw your mother’s fetch, that’s true. She kent then that it was a bad match, but it was too late to be undone.”