“For Stephen Bonnet? How can he possibly think I blame him for that? I’ve never said such a thing to him!” And I had been too busy thinking that he blamed me, to even consider it.
Ian scratched a hand through his hair.
“Well…do ye not see, Auntie? He blames himself for it. He has, ever since the man robbed us on the river; and now wi’ what he’s done to my cousin…” He shrugged, looking mildly embarrassed. “He’s fair eaten up with it, and knowing that you’re angry wi’ him—”
“But I’m not angry with him! I thought he was angry with me, because I didn’t tell him Bonnet’s name right away.”
“Och.” Ian looked as though he didn’t know whether to laugh or look distressed. “Well, I daresay it would ha’ saved us a bit of trouble if ye had, but no, I’m sure it’s not that, Auntie. After all, by the time Cousin Brianna told ye, we’d already met yon MacKenzie on the mountainside and done him a bit of no good.”
I took in a deep breath and blew it out again.
“But you think he thinks I’m angry at him?”
“Oh, anyone could see ye are, Auntie,” he assured me earnestly. “Ye dinna look at him or speak to him save for what ye must—and,” he said, clearing his throat delicately, “I havena seen ye go to his bed, anytime this month past.”
“Well, he hasn’t come to mine, either!” I said hotly, before reflecting that this was scarcely a suitable conversation to be having with a seventeen year-old boy.
Ian hunched his shoulders and gave me an owlish look.
“Well, he’s his pride, hasn’t he?”
“God knows he has,” I said, rubbing a hand over my face. “I—look, Ian, thank you for saying something to me.”
He gave me one of the rare sweet smiles that transformed his long, homely face.
“Well, I do hate to see him suffer. I’m fond of Uncle Jamie, aye?”
“So am I,” I said, and swallowed the small lump in my throat. “Good night, Ian.”
I walked softly down the length of the house, past cubicles in which whole families slept together, the sound of their mingled breathing a peaceful descant to the anxious beating of my heart. It was raining outside; water dripped from the smokeholes, sizzling in the embers.
Why had I not seen what Ian had? That was easy to answer; it wasn’t anger, but my own sense of guilt that had blinded me. I had kept back my knowledge of Bonnet’s involvement as much because of the gold wedding ring as because Brianna had asked me to; I could have persuaded her to tell Jamie, had I tried.
She was right; he would undoubtedly go after Stephen Bonnet sooner or later. I had somewhat more confidence in Jamie’s success than she did, though. No, it had been the ring that had made me keep silence.
And why should I feel guilty over that? There was no sensible answer; it had been instinct, not conscious thought, to hide the ring. I had not wanted to show it to Jamie, to put it back on my finger in front of him. And yet I had wanted—needed—to keep it.
My heart squeezed small, thinking of the past few weeks, of Jamie, going grimly about the necessities of reparation in loneliness and guilt. That was why I had come with him, after all—because I was afraid that if he went alone, he might not come back. Spurred by guilt and courage, he might go to reckless lengths; with me to consider, I knew he would be careful. And all the time he had thought himself not only alone but bitterly reproached by the one person who could—and should—have offered him comfort.
“Eaten up with it” indeed.
I paused by the cubicle. The shelf was some eight feet wide, and he lay well back; I could see little more of him than a humped shape under a blanket made of rabbit skins. He lay very still, but I knew he wasn’t asleep.
I climbed onto the platform, and once safe within the shadows of the cubicle, slipped out of my clothes. It was fairly warm in the longhouse, but my bare skin prickled and my n**ples tightened. My eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness; I could see that he lay on his side facing me. I caught the shine of his eyes in the dark, open and watching me.
I knelt down and slid under the blanket, the fur soft against my skin. Without stopping to think too much, I rolled to face him, pressing my nak*dness against him, face buried in his shoulder.
“Jamie,” I whispered to him. “I’m cold. Come and warm me. Please?”
He turned to me, wordless, with a quiet ferocity that I might have thought the hunger of desire long stifled—but knew now for simple desperation. I sought no pleasure for myself; I wanted only to give him comfort. But opening to him, urging him, some deep wellspring opened too, and I cleaved to him in a sudden need as blind and desperate as his own.
We clung tight together, shuddering, heads buried in each other’s hair, unable to look at each other, unable to let go. Slowly, as the spasms died away, I became aware of things outside our own small mortal coil, and realized that we lay in the midst of strangers, nak*d and helpless, shielded only by darkness.
And yet we were alone, completely. We had the privacy of Babel; there was a conversation going on at the far end of the longhouse, but its words held no meaning. It might as well have been the hum of bees.
Smoke from the banked fire wavered up outside the sanctuary of our bed, fragrant and insubstantial as incense. It was dark as a confessional inside the cubicle; I could see no more of Jamie than the faint curve of light that rimmed his shoulder, a transient gleam in the locks of his hair.
“Jamie, I’m sorry,” I said softly. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Who else?” he said, with some bleakness.
“Everyone. No one. Stephen Bonnet, himself. But not you.”
“Bonnet?” His voice was blank with surprise. “What has he to do with it?”
“Well…everything,” I said, taken aback. “Er…doesn’t he?”
He rolled halfway off me, brushing hair out of his face.
“Stephen Bonnet is a wicked creature,” he said precisely, “and I shall kill him at the first opportunity I have. But I dinna see how I can blame him for my own failings as a man.”
“What on earth are you talking about? What failings?”
He didn’t answer right away, but bent his head, a humped shadow in the dark. His legs were still entangled with mine; I could feel the tension of his body, knotted in his joints, rigid in the hollows of his thighs.
“I hadna thought ever to be so jealous of a dead man,” he whispered at last. “I shouldna have thought it possible.”
“Of a dead man?” My own voice rose slightly, with astonishment, as it finally dawned on me. “Of Frank?”
He lay still, half on top of me. His hand touched the bones of my face, hesitant.
“Who else? I have been worm-eaten wi’ it, all these days of riding. I see his face in my mind, waking and sleeping. Ye did say he looked like Jack Randall, no?”
I gathered him tight against myself, pressing his head down so that his ear was near my mouth. Thank God I hadn’t mentioned the ring to him—but had my face, my traitorous, transparent face, somehow given away that I thought of it?
“How?” I whispered to him, squeezing hard. “How could you think of such a thing?”
He broke loose, rising on one elbow, his hair falling down over my face in a mass of flaming shadows, the firelight sparking gold and crimson through it.
“How could I not?” he demanded. “Ye heard her, Claire; ye ken well what she said to me!”
“She said she would gladly see me in hell, and sell her own soul to have her father back—her real father.” He swallowed; I heard the sound of it, above the murmur of distant voices.
“I keep thinking he would not have made such a mistake. He would have trusted her; he would have known that she…I keep thinking that Frank Randall was a better man than I am. She thinks so.” His hand faltered, then settled on my shoulder, squeezing tight. “I thought…perhaps ye felt the same, Sassenach.”
“Fool,” I whispered, and didn’t mean him. I ran my hands down the long slope of his back, digging my fingers into the firmness of his buttocks. “Wee idiot. Come here.”
He dropped his head, and made a small sound against my shoulder that might have been a laugh.
“Aye, I am. Ye dinna mind it so much, though?”
“No.” His hair smelt of smoke and pinesap. There were still bits of needles caught in it; one pricked smooth and sharp against my lips.
“She didn’t mean it,” I said.
“Aye, she did,” he said, and I felt him swallow the thickness in his throat. “I heard her.”
“I heard you both.” I rubbed slowly between his shoulder blades, feeling the faint traces of the old scars, the thicker, more recent welts left by the bear’s claws. “She’s just like you; she’ll say things in a temper she’d never say in cold blood. You didn’t mean all the things you said to her, did you?”
“No.” I could feel the tightness in him lessening, the joints of his body loosening, yielding reluctantly to the persuasion of my fingers. “No, I didna mean it. Not all of it.”
“Neither did she.”
I waited a moment, stroking him as I had stroked Brianna, when she was small, and afraid.
“You can believe me,” I whispered. “I love you both.”
He sighed, deeply, and was quiet for a moment.
“If I can find the man and bring him back to her. If I do—d’ye think she’ll forgive me one day?”
“Yes,” I said. “I know it.”
On the other side of the partition, I heard the small sounds of lovemaking begin; the shift and sigh, the murmured words that have no language.
“You have to go.” Brianna had said to me. “You’re the only one who can bring him back.”
It occurred to me for the first time that perhaps she hadn’t been speaking of Roger.
It was a long trek through the mountains, made longer by the winter weather. There were days when it was impossible to travel; when we crouched all day under rocky overhangs or in the shelter of a grove of trees, huddled against the wind.
Once we were through the mountains, the traveling was somewhat easier, though the temperatures grew colder as we headed north. Some nights we ate cold food, unable to keep a fire alight in snow and wind. But each night I lay with Jamie, closely huddled together within a single cocoon of furs and blankets, sharing our warmth.
I kept close count of the days, marking them by means of a length of knotted twine. We had left River Run in early January; it was mid-February before Onakara pointed out to us the smoke rising in the distance that marked the Mohawk village where he and his companions had taken Roger Wakefield. “Snake-town,” he said it was called.
Six weeks, and Brianna would be nearly six months gone. If we could get Roger back quickly—and if he was capable of travel, I added grimly to myself—we should be back well before the child was due. If Roger wasn’t here, though—if the Mohawk had sold him elsewhere…or if he was dead—said a small cold voice inside my head, we would return without delay.