“No, I didna fight,” he said quietly. “I gave my word—for your mother’s life.” His eyes met hers squarely, neither ice nor sapphire now, but clear as water. “I dinna regret it.”
He took her by the shoulders, and eased her down onto the piled hay.
“Do ye rest a bit, a leannan.”
She lay down, but reached up to touch him as he knelt by her.
“Is it true—that I won’t forget?”
He paused for a moment, hand on her hair.
“Aye, that’s true,” he said softly. “But it’s true, too, that it willna matter after a time.”
“Won’t it?” She was too tired even to wonder what he might mean by this. She felt almost weightless; strangely remote, as though she no longer inhabited her troublesome body. “Even if I’m not strong enough to kill him?”
A clear cold draft from the open door cut through the warm fog of smoke, making all the animals stir. The brindled cow shifted her weight in sudden irritation and let out a low-throated mwaaah, not of distress so much as of querulous complaint.
She felt her father glance at the cow before turning back to her.
“You’re a verra strong woman, a bheanachd,” he said at last, very softly.
“I’m not strong. You just proved I’m not—”
His hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“That’s not what I mean.” He stopped, thinking, his hand smoothing her hair, over and over.
“She was ten when our mother died, Jenny was,” he said at last. “It was the day after the funeral when I came into the kitchen and found her kneeling on a stool, to be tall enough to stir the bowl on the table.
“She was wearing my mother’s apron,” he said softly, “folded up under the arms, and the strings wrapped twice about her waist. I could see she’d been weepin’, like I had, for her face was all stained and her eyes red. But she just went on stirring, staring down into the bowl, and she said to me, ‘Go and wash, Jamie; I’ll have supper for you and Da directly.’ ”
His eyes closed altogether, and he swallowed once. Then he opened them, and looked down at her again.
“Aye, I ken fine how strong women are,” he said quietly. “And you’re strong enough for what must be done, m’ annsachd—believe me.”
He stood up then, and went to the cow. It had risen to its feet and was moving restlessly in a small circle, swaying and shuffling on its tether. He caught it by the tether rope, gentled it with hands and words, made his way behind the heifer, frowning in concentration. She saw him turn his head and look, to check his dirk, then turn back, murmuring.
Not a loving butcher, no. A surgeon in his way, like her mother. From this odd plateau of remoteness, she could see how much her parents—so wildly different in temperament and manner—were alike in this one respect; that odd ability to mingle compassion with sheer ruthlessness.
But they were different even in that, she thought; Claire could hold life and death together in her hands, and yet preserve herself, hold aloof; a doctor must go on living, for the sake of her patients, if not for her own sake. Jamie would be ruthless toward himself, as much as—or more than—he would be to anyone else.
He had thrown off his plaid; now he unfastened his shirt, with no haste but neither with any wasted motion. He pulled the pale linen over his head and laid it neatly aside, returning to his watching post at the heifer’s tail, ready to assist.
A long ripple ran down the cow’s rounded side, and the torchlight glimmered white on the tiny knot of a scar over his heart. Uncover his nak*dness? He would strip himself to the bone, if he thought it necessary. And—a much less comforting thought—if he thought it necessary, he would do the same to her, without a moment’s hesitation.
He had a hand at the base of the cow’s tail, speaking to it in Gaelic, soothing, encouraging. She felt as though she could almost grasp the sense of his words—but not quite.
All might be well, or it might not. But whatever happened, Jamie Fraser would be there, fighting. It was a comfort.
Jamie paused by the upper fence of the cowpen, on the rise above the house. It was late, and he was more than tired, but his mind kept him wakeful. The calving completed, he had carried Brianna down to the cabin—she sleeping sound as a babe in his arms—and then gone out again, to seek relief in the solitude of the night.
His shins ached where she had kicked him, and there were deep bruises on his thighs; she was amazingly powerful for a woman. None of that troubled him in the least; in fact, he felt an odd and unexpected pride in this evidence of her strength. She will be all right, he thought. Surely she will.
There was more hope than confidence behind this thought. Yet it was on his own account that he was wakeful, and he felt at once troubled and foolish at the knowledge. He had thought himself thoroughly healed, old hurts so far behind him that they could safely be dismissed from mind. He had been wrong about that, and it unsettled him to find just how close to the surface the buried memories lay.
If he were to find rest tonight, they would have to be exhumed; the ghosts raised in order to lay them. Well, he had told the lass it took strength. He stopped, gripping the fence.
The rustle of night sounds faded slowly from his mind as he waited, listening for the voice. He had not heard it for years, had thought never to hear it again—but he had already heard its echo once tonight; seen the blaze of anger’s phantom in his daughter’s eyes, and felt its flames singe his own heart.
Better to call it forth and face it boldly than let it lie in ambush. If he could not face his own demons, he could not conquer hers. He touched a bruise on his thigh, finding an odd comfort in the soreness.
No one dies of it, he’d said. Not you; not me.
The voice did not come at first; for a moment he hoped it would not—perhaps it had been long enough…but then it was there again, whispering in his ear as though it had never left, its insinuations a caress that burned his memory as once they had burned his skin.
“Gently at first,” it breathed. “Softly. Tender as though you were my infant son. Gently, but for so long you will forget there was a time I did not own your body.”
The night stood still around him, paused as time had paused so long before, poised on the edge of a gulf of dread, waiting. Waiting for the next words, known beforehand and expected, but nonetheless…
“And then,” the voice said, loving, “then I’ll hurt you very badly. And you will thank me, and ask for more.”
He stood quite still, face turned upward to the stars. Fought back the surge of fury as it murmured in his ear, the pulse of memory in his blood. Then made himself surrender, let it come. He trembled with remembered helplessness, and clenched his teeth in rage—but stared unblinking at the brightness of heaven overhead, invoking the names of the stars as the words of a prayer, abandoning himself to the vastness overhead as he sought to lose himself below.
Betelgeuse. Sirius. Orion. Antares. The sky is very large, and you are very small. Let the words wash through him, the voice and its memories pass over him, shivering his skin like the touch of a ghost, vanishing into darkness.
The Pleiades. Cassiopeia. Taurus. Heaven is wide, and you are very small. Dead, but none the less powerful for being dead. He spread his hands wide, gripping the fence—those were powerful, too. Enough to beat a man to death, enough to choke out a life. But even death was not enough to loose the bands of rage.
With great effort, he let go. Turned his hands palm upward, in gesture of surrender. He reached beyond the stars, searching. The words formed themselves quietly in his mind, by habit, so quietly he was not aware of them until he found them echoed in a whisper on his lips.
“ ‘…Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ ”
He breathed slowly, deeply. Seeking, struggling; struggling to let go. “ ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ ”
Waited, in emptiness, in faith. And then grace came; the necessary vision; the memory of Jack Randall’s face in Edinburgh, stricken to bare bone by the knowledge of his brother’s death. And he felt once more the gift of pity, calm in its descent as the landing of a dove.
He closed his eyes, feeling the wounds bleed clean again as the succubus drew its claws from his heart.
He sighed, and turned his hands over, the rough wood of the fence comforting and solid under his palms. The demon was gone. He had been a man, Jack Randall; nothing more. And in the recognition of that common frail humanity, all power of past fear and pain vanished like smoke.
His shoulders slumped, relieved of their burden.
“Go in peace,” he whispered, to the dead man and himself. “You are forgiven.”
The night sounds had returned; the cry of a hunting cat rose sharp on the air, and rotting leaves crunched soft underfoot as he made his way back toward the house. The oiled hide that covered the window glowed golden in the dark, with the flame of the candle he had left burning in the hope of Claire’s return. His sanctuary.
He thought that he should perhaps have told Brianna all this, too—but no. She couldn’t understand what he had told her; he had had to show her, instead. How to tell her in words, then, what he had learned himself by pain and grace? That only by forgiveness could she forget—and that forgiveness was not a single act, but a matter of constant practice.
Perhaps she would find such grace herself; perhaps this unknown Roger Wakefield could be her sanctuary, as Claire had been his. He found his natural jealousy of the man dissolved in a passionate wish that Wakefield could indeed give her what he himself could not. Pray God he would come soon; pray God he would prove a decent man.
In the meantime, there were other matters to be dealt with. He walked slowly down the hill, oblivious to the wind that blew the kilt about his knees and billowed through his shirt and plaid. Things must be done here; winter was coming, and he could not leave his women here alone with only Ian to hunt for them and defend them. He couldn’t leave to search for Wakefield.
But if Wakefield did not come? Well, there were other ways; he would see Brianna and the child protected, one way or another. And at least his daughter was safe from the man who had harmed her. Permanently safe. He rubbed a hand across his face, smelling blood still on his skin from the calving.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Yes, but what of those who trespass against the ones we love? He could not forgive on another’s behalf—and would not, if he could. But if not…how should he expect forgiveness in return?
Educated in the universities of Paris, confidant of kings and friend to philosophers, still he was a Highlander, born to blood and honor. The body of a warrior and the mind of a gentleman—and the soul of a barbarian, he thought wryly, to whom neither God’s nor mortal law stood more sacred than the ties of blood.
Yes, there was forgiveness; she must find a way to forgive the man, for her own sake. But he was a different matter.
“ ‘Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’ ” He whispered it to himself. Then he looked up, away from the safe small glow of hearth and home, to the flaming glory of the stars above.