“Sassenach.” My heart nearly stopped at the sound of Jamie’s voice. I spun toward it, relief being rapidly overcome by annoyance. What did he think he—
For a split second, I thought I was seeing double. They were sitting on the bench outside the door, side by side, the afternoon sun igniting their hair like matchheads.
My eyes focused on Jamie’s face, alight with joy—then shifted right.
“Mama.” It was the same expression; eagerness and joy and longing all together. I had no time even to think before she was in my arms, and I was in the air, knocked off my feet both literally and figuratively.
I hadn’t any breath; what hadn’t been taken away by shock was being squeezed out by a rib-crushing hug.
“Bree!” I managed to gasp, and she put me down, though she didn’t let go. I looked disbelievingly up, but she was real. I looked for Jamie, and found him standing beside her. He said nothing, but gave me an face-splitting grin, his ears bright pink with delight.
“I, ah, I wasn’t expecting—” I said idiotically.
Brianna gave me a grin to match her father’s, eyes bright as stars and damp with happiness.
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
“What?” said Jamie blankly.
She woke from a dreamless sleep, a hand on her shoulder. She jerked and started up on one elbow, blinking. Jamie’s face was barely distinguishable above her in the gloom; the fire had burned down to nothing more than a glow, and it was nearly pitch-black in the cabin.
“I shall be hunting up the mountain, lass; will ye come wi’ me?” he whispered.
She rubbed her eyes, trying to reassemble her sleep-scattered thoughts, and nodded.
“Good. Wear your breeks.” He rose silently and went out, letting in a breath of piercing-sweet cold air as the door opened.
By the time she had pulled on breeks and stockings, he was back, moving just as silently, despite the armload of firewood he carried. He nodded to her and knelt to rekindle the fire; she thrust her arms into her coat and went out herself, in search of the privy.
The world outside was black and dreamlike; if not for the chill, she might have thought herself still asleep. Stars burned coldly bright, but seemed to hang low, as though they might fall from the sky any minute and be extinguished, sizzling, in the mist-damp trees on the ridges beyond.
What time was it? she wondered, shivering at the touch of damp wood on her sleep-warmed thighs. Somewhere in the small hours; surely it was a long time until dawn. Everything was hushed; no insects hummed yet in her mother’s garden, and there were no rustlings, even from the dry corn-stooks propped in the field.
When she pushed open the door of the cabin, the air inside seemed almost solid; a block of stale smoke, fried food, and the smell of sleeping bodies. By contrast, the air outside was sweet but thin—she kept taking large gulps, to get enough.
He was ready; a leather bag was tied at his belt with ax and powder horn, a bigger canvas sack slung over his shoulder. She didn’t come in, but stood in the doorway watching as he bent quickly and kissed her mother in the bed.
He knew she was there, of course—and it was no more than a light kiss on the forehead—but she felt like an intruder, a voyeur. The more so when Claire’s long, pale hand floated up from the quilts and touched his face with a tenderness that squeezed her heart. Claire murmured something, but Brianna didn’t hear it.
She turned away quickly, face hot in spite of the chilly air, and was standing by the edge of the clearing when he came out. He shut the door behind him, waiting for the clunk within as it was barred. He had a gun, a long-barreled thing that seemed nearly as tall as she was.
He didn’t speak, but smiled at her and cocked his head toward the wood. She followed, keeping up easily as he took a faint trail that led through groves of spruce and chestnut. His feet knocked the dew from clumps of grass, and left a dark trail through tussocks of shimmering silver.
The trail wound to and fro, nearly level for a long time, but then began to head uphill. She felt the shift, rather than saw it. It was still very dark, but suddenly the silence was gone. In the next breath, a bird began to call from the wood nearby.
Then the whole mountainside was alive with birdsong, screeches and trills and whirrs. Under the calling was a sense of movement, of fluttering and scratching just below the threshold of hearing. He stopped, listening.
She stopped, too, looking at him. The light had changed so slowly that she was scarcely aware of it; her eyes adapted to the dark, she could see easily by the starlight, and knew the change to daylight only when she glanced from the ground and saw the vivid color of her father’s hair.
He had food in his bag; they sat on a log and shared apples and bread. Then she drank from a trickle that dropped from a ledge, filling her hands with cold crystal. Looking back, she could no longer see any trace of the small settlement; houses and fields were gone, as though the mountain had silently drawn her forests together, swallowing them up.
She wiped her hands on the skirts of her coat, feeling the prickly shape of the conker in her pocket. No horse chestnuts on these wooded slopes; that was an English tree, planted by some expatriate in the hope of creating a memory of home; a living link to another life. She curled her hand around it briefly, wondering whether her own links had been severed for good, then let it go, and turned to follow her father uphill.
At first her heart had pounded and her thigh muscles strained at the unaccustomed labor of climbing, but then her body had found the rhythm of the ground. With the coming of light, she no long stumbled. By the time they emerged at the top of a steep slope, her feet trod so lightly on the spongy leaves that she felt she might float off into the sky that seemed so near, cut free of the earth.
For a single moment, she wished that she could. But the links still held in the chain that bound her to the earth—her mother, her father, Lizzie…and Roger. The morning sun was rising, a great ball of flame above the mountains. She had to shut her eyes for a moment, not to be blinded.
Here it was; the place he had meant to bring her. At the foot of a towering escarpment, part of the rock had fallen into a loose tumble, overgrown by moss and lichen, small saplings jutting drunkenly from cracks in the rock. He tilted his head, gesturing her to follow him. There was a way through the huge boulders, hard to see, but there. He felt her hesitate behind him, and looked back.
She smiled and waved a hand at the rock. A huge piece of limestone had fallen and split in two; he stood between the pieces.
“It’s all right,” she said softly. “It just reminded me.”
That reminded him, and raised the hairs on his forearms. He had to stop and watch as she stepped through, only to be sure. But it was fine; she stepped through carefully, and joined him. He felt the need to touch her, though, only to be sure; he held out a hand, and felt reassured by the solid clasp of his fingers around hers.
He had judged it right; the sun was just coming over the farthest ridge as they came out into the open space at the top of the slope. Below them spread ridges and valleys, so full of mist that it looked like smoke boiling through the hollows. From the mountain opposite, the waterfall arched out and down in a thin white plume, falling into the mist.
“Here,” he said, stopping at a place where the rocks lay scattered, surrounded by thick grass. “Let’s rest for a bit.” Chilly as the early mornings were, the climb had heated him; he sat on a flat rock, legs stretched out to let the air come under his kilt, and pushed the plaid off his shoulders.
“It feels so different here,” she said, brushing back a lock of the soft red hair whose flames warmed him more than the sun. She glanced back at him, smiling. “Do you know what I mean? I rode from Inverness to Lallybroch, through the Great Glen, and that was wild enough”—she shivered slightly at the recollection—“but it wasn’t like this at all.”
“No,” he said. He knew exactly what she meant; the wildness of the glens and the moors was inhabited, in a way that this place of forests and rushing waters was not.
“I think—” he began, then stopped. Would she think him daft? But she was looking up at him, wanting him to say. “The spirits that live there,” he said, a little awkwardly. “They are auld, and they’ve seen men for thousands on thousands of years; they ken us weel, and they’re none so wary of showing themselves. What lives here”—he laid a hand on the trunk of a chestnut tree that rose a hundred feet above them, whose girth measured more than thirty feet around—“they havena seen our like before.”
She nodded, seeming not at all taken back.
“They’re curious, though, aren’t they,” she said, “some of them?” and tipped back her head to look up into the dizzy spiral of the branches overhead. “Don’t you feel them watching, now and then?”
“Now and then.”
He sat on the rock beside her and watched the light spread, spilling over the edge of the mountain, lighting the distant falls the way kindling catches from a spark, filling the mist with a glow like pearls, then burning it away altogether. Together they saw the slope of the mountain come to the light of day, and he said a quiet word to the spirit of this place, in thanks. If it had no Gaelic, still it might catch his meaning.
She stretched her long legs, breathing in the scent of the morning.
“You didn’t really mind, did you?” Her voice was soft, and she kept her eyes on the valley below, careful not to look at him. “Living in the cave near Broch Mhorda.”
“No,” he said. The sun was warm on his breast and face, and filled him with a sense of peace. “No, I didna mind it.”
“Only hearing about it—I thought it must have been terrible. Cold and dirty and lonely, I mean.” She did look at him then, and the morning sky lived in her eyes.
“It was,” he said, and smiled a little.
“Ian—Uncle Ian—took me there to show me.”
“Did he, then? It’s none so bleak, in the summertime, when the yellow’s on the broom.”
“No. But even when it was—” She hesitated.
“No, I didna mind it.” He closed his eyes and let the sun heat his eyelids.
At first he had thought the loneliness would kill him, but once he had learned it would not, he came to value the solitude of the mountainside. He could see the sun clear, though his eyes were closed; a great red ball, flaming round the edges. Was that how Jocasta saw it behind her blind eyes?
She was silent for a long time, and so was he, content to listen. There were wee birds working in the spruce nearby, hanging upside down from the branches, hunting the bugs that they ate and talking to themselves about what they found.
“Roger—” she said suddenly, and his heart was struck by a dart of jealousy, the more painful for being unexpected. Was he not to have her to himself, even for so short a time? He opened his eyes and did his best to look interested.
“I tried to tell him, once, about being alone. That I thought it maybe wasn’t a bad thing.” She sighed, the heavy brows drawn down. “I don’t think he understood.”