His hands were shaking; it was hard to tie the stocking round his head. Still, the small action made him feel better. Now, then. He’d climbed countless Munros in Scotland, those endless craggy peaks, and more than once had helped to find day-trippers lost among the rocks and heather.
If you were lost in the wilderness, the usual caution was to stay put; wait for someone to find you. That would seem not to apply, he thought, if the only people looking for you were ones you didn’t want to be found by.
He looked upward, through the snarl of branches. He could see small patches of sky, but the rhododendrons rose nearly twelve feet over his head. There was no way to stand up; he could barely sit upright under the interlacing branches.
There was no way of telling how big this particular hell was; on their journey through the mountains, he had seen entire slopes covered with heath balds, valleys filled with the deep green of rhododendron, only a few ambitious trees protruding above the waving sea of leaves. Then again, they had detoured round small tangles of the stuff, no more than a hundred feet square. He knew he was fairly close to one edge of the thing, but that knowledge was useless, with no idea in which direction the edge lay.
He became aware that he was very cold, his hands still shaking. Shock, he thought dimly. What did you do for shock? Hot liquids, blankets. Brandy. Yeah, right. Elevate the feet. That much, he could do.
He scooped a shallow, awkward little depression and eased himself into it, scraping the clammy, half-rotted leaves over his chest and shoulders. He propped his heels in the fork of a stem and closed his eyes, shivering.
They wouldn’t come in after him. Why should they? A lot better to wait, if they were in no hurry. He’d have to come out eventually—if he still could.
Any movement here below would shake the leaves above, and pinpoint his movements to the watchers. That was a cold thought; they undoubtedly knew where he was now, and were simply waiting for his next move. The patches of sky were the deep blue of sapphires; it was still afternoon. He would wait till dark before he moved, then.
Hands clasped together on his chest, he willed himself to rest, to think of something beyond his present situation. Brianna. Let him think of her. Without the rage or bewilderment, now; there was no time for that.
Let him pretend that all was still between them as it had been on that night, their night. Warm against him in the dark. Her hands, so frank and curious, eager on his body. The generosity of her nak*dness, freely given. And his momentary, mistaken conviction that all was forever right with the world. Gradually, the shivering eased, and he slept.
He woke sometime after moonrise; he could see brightness suffusing the sky, though not the moon itself. He was stiff and cold, and very sore. Hungry, too, and with a desperate thirst. Well, if he got himself out of this bloody tangle, at least he could find water; streams were everywhere in these mountains. Feeling awkward as a turtle on its back, he turned slowly over.
One direction was as good as another. On hands and knees, he started off, pushing through crevices, breaking branches, trying his best to go in a straight line. One fear haunted him more than thought of the Indians; he could so easily lose his bearings, moving blindly through this maze. He could end by going in endless circles, trapped forever. The stories of the hunting dogs had lost any element of exaggeration.
Some small animal ran over his hand and he jerked, hitting his head on the branches overhead. He gritted his teeth and kept on, a few inches at a time. Crickets chirped all around him, and countless small rustlings let him know that the inhabitants of this particular hell didn’t appreciate his intrusion. He couldn’t see anything at all; it was almost pitch-black here below. There was the one good thing, though: The constant effort heated him; sweat stung the gouge in his scalp and dripped from his chin.
Whenever he had to stop for breath, he listened for some clue—to either his location or his pursuers’—but he heard nothing beyond the occasional night bird’s call and the rustle of the leaves all around. He wiped his sweating face on his sleeve and pushed on.
He didn’t know how long he had been going when he found the rock. Or not so much found it as ran headfirst into it. He reeled back, clutching his head and gritting his teeth to keep from crying out.
Blinking from the pain, he put out a hand and found what he had struck. Not a boulder; a flat-faced rock. A tall one, too; the hard surface extended up as high as he could reach.
He groped to the side, and made his way around the rock. There was a thick stem growing near it; his shoulders stuck in the narrow space between. He wrenched and heaved, squirming, and finally shot forward, losing his balance and landing on his face.
Doggedly, he rose up onto his hands again—and realized that he could see his hands. He looked up, and around, in complete amazement.
His head and shoulders protruded into a clear space. Not merely clear, but empty. Eagerly, he wriggled forward, out of the claustrophobic grip of the rhododendrons.
He was standing in an open space, facing a cliff wall that rose on the far side of a small clearing. It really was a clearing, too; nothing at all grew in the soft dirt beneath his feet. Astonished, he turned slowly round, gulping great lungfuls of cold, sharp air.
“My God in heaven,” he said softly, aloud. The clearing was roughly oval in shape, ringed by standing stones, with one end of the oval closed by the cliff face. The stones were evenly spaced around the ring, a few of them fallen, a couple more dislodged from their places by the press of roots and stems behind them. He could see the dense black mass of the rhododendrons, showing between and above the stones—but not one plant grew within the perimeter of the ring.
Feeling gooseflesh ripple over his body, he walked softly toward the center of the ring. It couldn’t be—but it was. And why not, after all? If Geillis Duncan had been right…he turned and saw in the moonlight the scratchings on the cliff face.
He walked closer to look at them. There were several petroglyphs, some the size of his hand, others nearly as tall as he was; spiral shapes, and what might be a bent man, dancing—or dying. A nearly closed circle, that looked like a snake chasing its tail. Warning signs.
He shuddered again, and his hand went to the seam of his breeches. They were still there: the two gems he had risked his life to get, tiny passports to safety—he hoped—for him and for Brianna.
He could hear nothing; no humming, no buzzing. The autumn air was cold, a light wind stirring the rhododendron leaves. Damn, what was the date? He didn’t know, had lost track long since. He thought it had been near the beginning of September, though, when he left Brianna in Wilmington. It had taken much longer than he’d thought, to track Bonnet and find an opportunity to steal the gems. It must be nearly the end of October now—the feast of Samhain, the Eve of All Hallows, was nearly come, or only recently past.
Would this ring follow the same dates, though? He supposed that it would; if the Earth’s lines of force shifted with its revolution around the sun, then all the passages should stand open or closed with the shift.
He stepped closer to the cliff and saw it; an opening near the base of the cliff, a split in the rock, perhaps a cave. A chill ran over him that had nothing to do with the cold night wind. His fingers closed tightly over the small round hardness of the gems. He heard nothing; was it open? If so…
Escape. It would be that. Escape to when, though? And how? The words of Geilie’s spell chanted in his mind. Garnets rest in love about my neck; I will be faithful.
Faithful. To try that avenue of escape was to abandon Brianna. And hasn’t she abandoned you?
“No, I’m damned if she has!” he whispered to himself. There was some reason for what she’d done, he knew it.
She’s found her parents; she’ll be safe enough. “And for this reason, a woman shall leave her parents, and cleave to her husband.” Safety wasn’t what mattered; love was. If he’d cared for safety, he wouldn’t have crossed that desperate void to begin with.
His hands were sweating; he could feel the damp grain of the rough cloth under his fingers, and his torn fingertips burned and throbbed. He took one more step toward the split in the cliff face, his eyes fixed on the pitch-black inside. If he didn’t step inside…there were only two things to do. Go back to the suffocating grip of the rhododendrons, or try to scale the cliff before him.
He tilted his head back to gauge its height. A face was looking down at him, featureless in the dark, silhouetted against the moon-bright sky. He hadn’t time to move or think before the rope noose settled gently over his head and tightened, pressing his arms against his body.
River Run, December 1769
It had been raining, and soon would be again. Drops of water hung trembling under the petals of the marble Jacobite roses on Hector Cameron’s tomb, and the brick walk was dark with wet.
Semper Fidelis, it said, beneath his name and dates. Semper Fi. She had dated a Marine cadet once; he’d had it carved on the ring he had tried to give her. Always faithful. And who had Hector Cameron been faithful to? His wife? His prince?
She hadn’t spoken to Jamie Fraser since that night. Nor he to her. Not since the final moment, when in a fury of fear and outrage, she had screamed at him, “My father would never have said such a thing!”
She could still see what his face had looked like when she spoke her final words to him; she wished she could forget. He had turned without a word and left the cabin. Ian had risen, and quietly gone after him; neither of them had come back that night.
Her mother had stayed with her, comforting, petting, stroking her head and murmuring small soothing things as she alternately raged and sobbed. But even as her mother held Brianna’s head in her lap and wiped her face with cool cloths, Bree could feel a part of her yearning toward that man, wanting to follow him, wanting to comfort him. And she blamed him for that as well.
Her head throbbed with the effort of staying stone-faced. She didn’t dare relax the muscles of eyes and jaw until she was sure they had left; it would be too easy to break down.
She hadn’t; not since that night. Once she had pulled herself together, she had assured her mother that she was all right, insisted that Claire go to bed. She had herself sat up till dawn, eyes burning from rage and woodsmoke, with the drawing of Roger on the table before her.
He had come back at dawn, called her mother to him, not looking at Brianna. Murmured a bit in the dooryard, and sent her mother back, face hollow-eyed with worry, to pack her things.
He had brought her here, down the mountain to River Run. She had wanted to go with them, had wanted to go at once to find Roger, without a moment’s delay. But he had been obdurate, and so had her mother.
It was late December, and the winter snows lay thick on the mountainside. She was nearly four months gone; the taut curve of her belly was tightly rounded now. There was no telling how long the journey might take, and she was reluctantly compelled to admit that she didn’t want to give birth on a raw mountainside. She might have overridden her mother’s opinion, but not when it was buttressed by his stubbornness.
She leaned her forehead against the cool marble of the mausoleum; it was a cold day, spitting rain, but her face felt hot and swollen, as though she were coming down with a fever.