Wonders sprang up by my feet, small orchids and brilliant fungi, trembling and shiny as jellies, shimmering red and black on fallen tree trunks. Dragonflies hung over the water, jewels immobile in the air, vanishing in mist.
I felt dazed with abundance, ravished by beauty. Jamie’s face bore the dream-stunned look of a man who knows himself sleeping, but does not wish to wake. Paradoxically, the better I felt, the worse I felt, too; desperately happy—and desperately afraid. This was his place, and surely he felt it as well as I.
In early afternoon we stopped to rest and drink from a small spring at the edge of a natural clearing. The ground beneath the maple trees was covered with a thick carpet of dark green leaves, among which I caught a sudden telltale flash of red.
“Wild strawberries!” I said with delight.
The berries were dark red and tiny, about the size of my thumb joint. By the standards of modern horticulture, they would have been too tart, nearly bitter, but eaten with a meal consisting of half-cooked cold bear meat and rock-hard corn dodgers, they were delicious—fresh explosions of flavor in my mouth; pinpricks of sweetness on my tongue.
I gathered handfuls in my cloak, not caring for stains—what was a little strawberry juice among the stains of pine pitch, soot, leaf smudges and simple dirt? By the time I had finished, my fingers were sticky and pungent with juice, my stomach was comfortably full, and the inside of my mouth felt as though it had been sandpapered, from the tartly acid taste of the berries. Still, I couldn’t resist reaching for just one more.
Jamie leaned his back against a sycamore, eyelids half lowered against the dazzle of afternoon sun. The little clearing held light like a cup, still and limpid.
“What d’ye think of this place, Sassenach?” he asked.
“I think it’s beautiful. Don’t you?”
He nodded, looking down between the trees, where a gentle slope full of wild hay and timothy fell away and rose again in a line of willows that fringed the distant river.
“I am thinking,” Jamie said, a little awkwardly. “There is the spring here in the wood. That meadow below—” He waved a hand toward the scrim of alders that screened the ridge from the grassy slope. “It would do for a few beasts at first, and then the land nearer the river might be cleared and put in crops. The rise of the land here is good for drainage. And here, see…” Caught by visions, he rose to his feet, pointing.
I looked carefully; to me, the place seemed little different from any of the steep wooded slopes and grassy coves through which we had wandered for the last couple of days. But to Jamie, with his farmer’s eye, houses and stock pens and fields sprang up like fairy mushrooms in the shadows of the trees.
Happiness was sticking out all over him, like porcupine quills. My heart felt like lead in my chest.
“You’re thinking we might settle here, then? Take the Governor’s offer?”
He looked at me, stopping abruptly in his speculations.
“We might,” he said. “If—”
He broke off and looked sideways at me. Sun-reddened as he was, I couldn’t tell whether he was flushed with sun or shyness.
“D’ye believe in signs at all, Sassenach?”
“What sorts of signs?” I asked guardedly.
In answer, he bent, plucked a sprig from the ground, and dropped it into my hand—the dark green leaves like small round Chinese fans, a pure white flower on a slender stem, and on another a half-ripe berry, its shoulders pale with shade, blushing crimson at the tip.
“This. It’s ours, d’ye see?” he said.
“The Frasers’, I mean,” he explained. One large, blunt finger gently prodded the berry. “Strawberries ha’ always been the emblem of the clan—it’s what the name meant, to start with, when a Monsieur Fréselière came across from France wi’ King William that was—and took hold of land in the Scottish mountains for his trouble.”
King William that was. William the Conqueror, that was. Perhaps not the oldest of the Highland clans, the Frasers had still a distinguished heritage.
“Warriors from the start, were you?”
“And farmers, too.” The doubt in his eyes was fading into a smile.
I didn’t say what I was thinking, but I knew well enough that the thought must lie in his mind as well. There was no more of clan Fraser save scattered fragments, those who had survived by flight, by stratagem or luck. The clans had been smashed at Culloden, their chieftains slaughtered in battle or murdered by law.
Yet here he stood, tall and straight in his plaid, the dark steel of a Highland dirk by his side. Warrior and farmer both. And if the soil beneath his feet was not that of Scotland, it was free air that he breathed—and a mountain wind that stirred his hair, lifting copper strands to the summer sun.
I smiled up at him, fighting back my growing dismay.
“Fréselière, eh? Mr. Strawberry? He grew them, did he, or was he only fond of eating them?”
“Either or both,” he said dryly, “or it was maybe only that he was redheided, aye?”
I laughed, and he hunkered down beside me, unpinning his plaid.
“It’s a rare plant,” he said, touching the sprig in my open hand. “Flowers, fruit and leaves all together at the one time. The white flowers are for honor, and red fruit for courage—and the green leaves are for constancy.”
My throat felt tight as I looked at him.
“They got that one right,” I said.
He caught my hand in his own, squeezing my fingers around the tiny stem.
“And the fruit is the shape of a heart,” he said softly, and bent to kiss me.
The tears were near the surface; at least I had a good excuse for the one that oozed free. He dabbed it away, then stood up and pulled his belt loose, letting the plaid fall in folds around his feet. Then he stripped off shirt and breeks and smiled down at me, nak*d.
“There’s no one here,” he said. “No one but us.”
I would have said this seemed no reason, but I felt what it was he meant. We had been for days surrounded by vastness and threat, the wilderness no farther away than the pale circle of our fire. Yet here, we were alone together, part and parcel of the place, with no need in broad daylight to hold the wilderness at bay.
“In the old days, men would do this, to give fertility to the fields,” he said, giving me a hand to rise.
“I don’t see any fields.” And wasn’t sure whether to hope I never would. Nonetheless, I skimmed off my buckskin shirt, and pulled loose the knot of my makeshift brassiere. He eyed me with appreciation.
“Well, no doubt I shall have to cut down a few trees first, but that can wait, aye?”
We made a bed of plaid and cloaks, and lay down upon it nak*d, skin to skin among the yellow grasses and the scent of balsam and wild strawberries.
We touched each other for what might have been a very long time or no time at all, together in the garden of earthly delight. I forced away the thoughts that had plagued me up the mountain, determined only to share his joy for as long as it lasted. I grasped him tight and he breathed in deep and pressed himself hard into my hand.
“And what would Eden be without a serpent?” I murmured, fingers stroking.
His eyes creased into blue triangles, so close I could see the black of his pupils.
“And will ye eat wi’ me, then, mo chridhe? Of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil?”
I put out the tip of my tongue and drew it along his lower lip in answer. He shivered under my fingers, though the air was warm and sweet.
“Je suis prest,” I said. “Monsieur Fréselière.”
His head bent and his mouth fastened on my nipple, swollen as one of the tiny ripe berries.
“Madame Fréselière,” he whispered back. “Je suis à votre service.”
And then we shared the fruit and flowers, and the green leaves covering all.
We lay tangled in drowsiness, stirring only to bat away inquisitive insects, until the first shadows touched our feet. Jamie rose quietly, and covered me with a cloak, thinking me asleep. I heard the stealthy rustle as he dressed himself, and then the soft swish of his passage through the grass.
I rolled over, and saw him a little distance away, standing at the edge of the wood, looking out over the fall of land toward the river.
He wore nothing but his plaid, crumpled and blood-stained, belted round his waist. With his hair unbound and tangled round his shoulders, he looked the wild Highlander he was. What I had thought a trap for him—his family, his clan—was his strength. And what I had thought my strength—my solitude, my lack of ties—was my weakness.
Having known closeness, both its good and its bad, he had the strength to leave it, to step away from all notions of safety and venture out alone. And I—so proud of self-sufficiency at one time—could not bear the thought of loneliness again.
I had resolved to say nothing, to live in the moment, to accept whatever came. But the moment was here, and I could not accept it. I saw his head lift in decision, and at the same moment, saw his name carved in cold stone. Terror and despair washed over me.
As though he had heard the echo of my unspoken cry, he turned his head toward me. Whatever he saw in my face brought him swiftly to my side.
“What is it, Sassenach?”
There was no point in lying; not when he could see me.
“I’m afraid,” I blurted out.
He glanced quickly round for danger, one hand reaching for his knife, but I stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“Not that. Jamie—hold me. Please.”
He gathered me close against him, wrapping the cloak around me. I was shivering, though the air was still warm.
“It’s all right, a nighean donn,” he murmured. “I’m here. What’s frightened ye, then?”
“You,” I said, and clung tight. His heart thumped just under my ear, strong and steady. “Here. It makes me afraid to think of you here, of us coming here—”
“Afraid?” he asked. “Of what, Sassenach?” His arms tightened around me. “I did say when we were wed that I would always see ye fed, no?” He pulled me closer, tucking my head into the curve of his shoulder.
“I gave ye three things that day,” he said softly. “My name, my family, and the protection of my body. You’ll have those things always, Sassenach— so long as we both shall live. No matter where we may be. I willna let ye go hungry or cold; I’ll let nothing harm ye, ever.”
“I’m not afraid of any of that,” I blurted. “I’m afraid you’ll die, and I can’t stand it if you do, Jamie, I really can’t!”
He jerked back a little, surprised, and looked down into my face.
“Well, I’ll do my best to oblige ye, Sassenach,” he said, “but ye ken I may not have all the say in the matter.” His face was serious, but one corner of his mouth curled up irrepressibly.
The sight did me in utterly.
“Don’t you laugh!” I said furiously. “Don’t you dare laugh!”
“Oh, I’m not,” he assured me, trying to straighten his face.