“No.” I lay back in the grass beside him, feeling the warm damp of the grass mold the buckskin to my body. The air was thick and cool under the trees, like the air in a church, dim and fragrant with remembered incense.
“Do you remember Father Anselm at the abbey?” I looked up; the color was going from the oak leaves overhead, leaving the soft silver undersides gray as mouse fur. “He said there was always an hour in the day when time seems to stop—but that it was different for everyone. He thought it might be the hour when one was born.”
I turned my head to look at him.
“Do you know when you were born?” I asked. “The time of day, I mean?”
He glanced at me and smiled, rolling over to face me.
“Aye, I do. Perhaps he was right, then, for I was born at suppertime—just at twilight on the first of May.” He brushed away a floating firefly and grinned at me.
“Have I never told ye that story? How my mother had put on a pot of brose to cook, and then her pains came on so fast she’d no time to think of it, and no one else remembered either until they smelled the burning, and it ruined the supper and the pot as well? There was nothing else in the house to eat save a great gooseberry pie. So they all ate that, but there was a new kitchenmaid and the gooseberries were green, and all of them—except my mother and me, of course—spent the night writhing wi’ the indigestion.”
He shook his head, still smiling. “My father said it was months before he could look at me without feeling his bowels cramp.”
I laughed, and he reached to pick a last-year’s leaf from my hair.
“And what hour were you born, Sassenach?”
“I don’t know,” I said, with the usual pang of faint regret for my vanished family. “It wasn’t on my birth certificate, and if Uncle Lamb knew, he never told me. I know when Brianna was born, though,” I added, more cheerfully. “She was born at three minutes past three in the morning. There was a huge clock on the wall of the delivery room, and I saw it.”
Dim as the light was, I could see his look of surprise clearly.
“You were awake? I thought ye told me women are drugged then, so as not to feel the pain.”
“They mostly were, then. I wouldn’t let them give me anything, though.” I stared upward. The shadows were thick around us now, but the sky was still clear and light above, a soft, brilliant blue.
“Why the hell not?” he demanded, incredulous. “I’ve never seen a woman give birth, but I’ve heard it more than once, I’ll tell ye. And damned if I can see why a woman in her right mind would do it, and there was any choice about it.”
“Well…” I paused, not wanting to seem melodramatic. It was the truth, though. “Well,” I said, rather defiantly, “I thought I was going to die, and I didn’t want to die in my sleep.”
He wasn’t shocked. He only raised one brow, and snorted faintly with amusement.
“Would ye no?”
“No, would you?” I twisted my head to look at him. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, still amused at the question.
“Aye, well, perhaps. I’ve come close to death by hanging, and I didna like the waiting a bit. I’ve nearly been killed in battle a few times; I canna say I was much concerned about the dying then, though, bein’ too busy to think of it. And then I’ve nearly died of wounds and fever, and that was misery enough that I was looking forward verra keenly to being dead. But on the whole, given my choice about it, I think perhaps I wouldna mind dying in my sleep, no.”
He leaned over and kissed me lightly. “Preferably in bed, next to you. At a verra advanced age, mind.” He touched his tongue delicately to my lips, then rose to his feet, brushing dried oak leaves from his breeks.
“Best make a fire while there’s light enough to strike a flint,” he said. “Ye’ll fetch the wee fish?”
I left him to deal with flints and kindling while I went down the little hill to the stream, where we had left the fresh-caught trout dangling from stringers in the icy current. As I came back up the hill it had grown dark enough that I could see him only in outline, crouched over a tiny pile of smoldering kindling. A wisp of smoke rose up like incense, pale between his hands.
I set the gutted fish down in the long grass and sat back on my heels beside him, watching as he laid fresh sticks on the fire, building it patiently, a barricade against the coming night.
“What do you think it will be like?” I asked suddenly. “To die.”
He stared into the fire, thinking. A burning twig snapped with heat, spurting sparks into the air, which drifted down, blinking out before they touched the ground.
“ ‘Man is like the grass that withers and is thrown into the fire; he is like the sparks that fly upward…and his place will know him no more,’ ” I quoted softly. “Is there nothing after, do you think?”
He shook his head, looking into the fire. I saw his eyes shift beyond it, to where the cool bright sparks of the fireflies blinked in and out among the dark stems.
“I canna say,” he said at last, softly. His shoulder touched mine and I leaned my head toward him. “There’s what the Church says, but—” His eyes were still fixed on the fireflies, winking through the grass stems, their light unquenchable. “No, I canna say. But I think it will maybe be all right.”
He tilted his head, pressing his cheek against my hair for a moment, then stood up, reaching for his dirk.
“The fire’s well started now.”
The heavy air of the afternoon had lifted with the coming of twilight, and a soft evening breeze blew the damp tendrils of hair off my face. I sat with my face lifted, eyes closed, enjoying the coolness after the sweaty heat of the day.
I could hear Jamie rustling around the fire, and the quick, soft whisht of his knife as he skinned green oak twigs for broiling the fish.
I think it will maybe be all right. I thought so, too. There was no telling what lay on the other side of life, but I had sat many times through an hour where time stops, empty of thought, soothed of soul, looking into…what? Into something that had neither name nor face, but which seemed good to me, and full of peace. If death lay there…
Jamie’s hand touched my shoulder lightly in passing, and I smiled, not opening my eyes.
“Ouch!” he muttered, on the other side of the fire. “Nicked myself, clumsy clot.”
I opened my eyes. He was a good eight feet away, head bent as he sucked a small cut on the knuckle of his thumb. A ripple of gooseflesh rose straight up my back.
“Jamie,” I said. My voice sounded peculiar, even to me. I felt a small round cold spot, centered like a target on the back of my neck.
“Is there—” I swallowed, feeling the hair rise on my forearms. “Jamie, is there…someone…behind me?”
His eyes shifted to the shadows over my shoulder, and sprang wide. I didn’t wait to look round, but flung myself flat on the ground, an action that likely saved my life.
There was a loud whuff! and a sudden strong smell of ammonia and fish. Something struck me in the back with an impact that knocked the breath out of me, and then stepped heavily on my head, driving my face into the ground.
I jerked up, gasping for breath, shaking leaf mold out of my eyes. A large black bear, squalling like a cat, was lurching round the clearing, its feet scattering burning sticks.
For a moment, half blinded by dirt, I couldn’t see Jamie at all. Then I spotted him. He was under the bear, one arm locked around its neck, his head tucked into the joint of the shoulder just under the drooling jaws.
One foot shot out from under the bear, kicking frantically, stabbing at the ground for traction. He had taken his boots and stockings off when we made camp; I gasped as one bare foot slewed through the remnants of the fire, raising showers of sparks.
His forearm was ridged with effort, half buried in thick fur. His free arm thrust and jabbed; he had kept hold of his dirk, at least. At the same time, he hauled with all his strength on the bear’s neck, pulling it down.
The bear was lunging, batting with one paw, trying to shake off the clinging weight around its neck. It seemed to lose its balance, and fell heavily forward, with a loud squall of rage. I heard a muffled whoof! that didn’t seem to come from the bear, and looked frantically around for something to use as a weapon.
The bear struggled back to its feet, shaking itself violently.
I caught a brief glimpse of Jamie’s face, contorted with effort. One bulging eye widened at sight of me, and he shook his mouth clear of the bristling fur.
“Run!” he shouted. Then the bear fell on him again, and he disappeared under three hundred pounds of hair and muscle.
With vague thoughts of Mowgli and the Red Flower, I scrabbled madly over the damp earth in the clearing, finding nothing but small pieces of charred stick and glowing embers that blistered my fingers but were too small to grip.
I had always thought that bears roared when annoyed. This one was making a lot of noise, but it sounded more like a very large pig, with piercing squeals and blatting noises interspersed with hair-raising growls. Jamie was making a lot of noise, too, which was reassuring under the circumstances.
My hand fell on something cold and clammy; the fish, tossed aside at the edge of the fire clearing.
“To hell with the Red Flower,” I muttered. I seized one of the trout by the tail, ran forward, and belted the bear across the nose with it as hard as I could.
The bear shut its mouth and looked surprised. Then its head slewed toward me and it lunged, moving faster than I would have thought possible. I fell backward, landing on my bottom, and essayed a final, valiant blow with my fish before the bear charged me, Jamie still clinging to its neck like grim death.
It was like being caught in a meat grinder; a brief moment of total chaos, punctuated by random hard blows to the body and the sensation of being suffocated in a large, reeking hairy blanket. Then it was gone, leaving me lying bruised in the grass on my back, smelling strongly of bear piss and blinking up at the evening star, which was shining serenely overhead.
Things were a good deal less serene on the ground. I rolled onto all fours, shouting “Jamie!” at the trees, where a large, amorphous mass rolled to and fro, smashing down the oak saplings and emitting a cacophony of growls and Gaelic screeches.
It was full dark on the ground by now, but there was enough light from the sky for me to make things out. The bear had fallen over again, but instead of rising and lunging, this time was rolling on its back, hind feet churning in an effort to gain a ripping purchase. One front paw landed in a heavy, rending slap and there was an explosive grunt that didn’t sound like the bear’s. The smell of blood was heavy on the air.
“Jamie!” I shrieked.
There was no answer, but the writhing pile rolled and tilted slowly sideways into the deeper black shadows under the trees. The mingled noises subsided to heavy grunts and gasps, punctuated by small whimpering moans.
The thrashing and branch-cracking died away into softer rustlings. Something was moving under the branches, swaying heavily from side to side, on all fours.