“You are!” I punched him in the chest. Now he was laughing. I punched him again, harder, and before I knew it, was hammering him in earnest, my fists making small dull thumps against his plaid. He grabbed for my hand, but I ducked my head and bit him on the thumb. He let out a cry and jerked his hand away.
He examined the toothmarks for a moment, then looked at me, one eyebrow raised. The humor lingered in his eyes, but at least he’d stopped laughing, the bastard.
“Sassenach, ye’ve seen me damn near dead a dozen times, and not turned a hair. Whyever are ye takin’ on so now, and me not even ill?”
“Never turned a hair?” I gawked at him in furious amazement. “You think I wasn’t upset?”
He rubbed a knuckle across his upper lip, eyeing me in some amusement.
“Oh. Well, I did think ye cared, of course. But I never thought of it in just that way, I admit.”
“Of course you didn’t! And if you had, it wouldn’t make any difference. You—you—Scot!” It was the worst thing I could think of to call him. Finding no more words, I turned and stomped away.
Unfortunately, stomping has relatively little effect when executed in bare feet on a grassy meadow. I stepped on something sharp, uttered a small cry, and limped a few more steps before having to stop.
I had stepped on some sort of cocklebur; half a dozen vicious caltrops were stuck in my bare sole, blood drops welling from the tiny punctures. Precariously balanced on one foot, I tried to pick them out, cursing under my breath.
I wobbled and nearly fell. A strong hand caught me under the elbow and steadied me. I set my teeth and finished jerking out the spiny burs. I pulled my elbow out of his grasp and turning on my heel, walked—with a good deal more care—back to where I had left my clothing.
Dropping the cloak on the ground, I proceeded to dress, with what dignity was possible. Jamie stood, arms folded, watching me without comment.
“When God threw Adam out of Paradise, at least Eve went with him,” I said, talking to my fingers as I fastened the drawstring of my trousers.
“Aye, that’s true,” he agreed, after a cautious pause. He gave me a sidelong glance, to see whether I was about to hit him again.
“Ah—ye havena been eating any o’ the plants ye picked this morning, have ye, Sassenach? No, I didna think so,” he added hastily, seeing my expression. “I only wondered. Myers says some things here give ye the nightmare something fierce.”
“I am not having nightmares,” I said, with more force than strictly necessary had I been telling the truth. I was having waking nightmares, though ingestion of hallucinogenic plant substances had nothing to do with it.
“D’ye mean to tell me straight out what ye’re talkin’ about, Sassenach, or do ye mean me to suffer a bit first?”
I glared at him, caught as usual between the urge to laugh and the urge to hit him with a blunt object. Then a wave of despair overcame both laughter and anger. My shoulders slumped in surrender.
“I’m talking about you,” I said.
“Because you’re a bloody Highlander, and you’re all about honor and courage and constancy, and I know you can’t help it, and I wouldn’t want you to, only—only damn it, it’s going to take you to Scotland and get you killed, and there’s nothing I can do about it!”
He gave me a look of incredulity.
“Scotland?” he said, as though I’d said something completely mad.
“Scotland! Where your bloody grave is!”
He rubbed a hand slowly through his hair, looking down the bridge of his nose at me.
“Oh,” he said at last. “I see, then. Ye think if I go to Scotland, I must die there, since that’s where I’ll be buried. Is that it?”
I nodded, too upset to speak.
“Mmphm. And just why is it ye think I’m going to Scotland?” he asked carefully.
I glared at him in exasperation, and waved an arm at the expanse of wilderness around us.
“Where the hell else are you going to get settlers for this land? Of course you’re going to Scotland!”
He looked at me, exasperated in turn.
“How in the name of God d’ye think I should do that, Sassenach? I might have, when I had the gems, but now? I’ve maybe ten pound to my name, and that’s borrowed. Shall I fly to Scotland like a bird, then? And lead folk back behind me, walkin’ on the water?”
“You’ll think of something,” I said miserably. “You always do.”
He gave me a queer look, then looked away and paused for several moments before answering.
“I hadna realized ye thought I was God Almighty, Sassenach,” he said at last.
“I don’t,” I said. “Moses, maybe.” The words were facetious, but neither one of us was joking.
He walked away a bit, hands clasped behind his back.
“Watch out for the burs,” I called after him, seeing him heading for the location of my recent mishap. He altered his path in response, but said nothing. He walked to and fro across the clearing, head bent in thought. At last he came back, to stand in front of me.
“I canna do it alone,” he said quietly. “You’re right about that. But I dinna think I need go to Scotland for my settlers.”
“My men—the men who were wi’ me in Ardsmuir,” he said. “They’re here already.”
“But you haven’t any idea where they are,” I protested. “And besides, they were transported years ago! They’ll be settled; they won’t want to pull up stakes and come to the ends of the bloody earth with you!”
He smiled, a little wryly.
“You did, Sassenach.”
I took a deep breath. The nagging weight of fear that had burdened my heart for the last weeks had eased. With that concern lifted, though, there was now room in my mind to contemplate the staggering difficulty of the task he was setting himself. Track down men scattered over three colonies, persuade them to come with him, and simultaneously find sufficient capital to finance the clearing of land and planting of crops. To say nothing of the sheer enormity of labor involved in carving some small foothold out of this virgin wilderness.
“I’ll think of something,” he said, smiling slightly as he watched doubts and uncertainties flit across my face. “I always do, aye?”
All of my breath went out in a long sigh.
“You do,” I said. “Jamie—are you sure? Your aunt Jocasta—”
He dismissed that possibility with a flick of his hand.
“No,” he said. “Never.”
I still hesitated, feeling guilty.
“You wouldn’t—it’s not just because of me? What I said about keeping slaves?”
“No,” he said. He paused, and I saw the two twisted fingers of his right hand twitch. He saw it, too, and stopped the movement abruptly.
“I have lived as a slave, Claire,” he said quietly, head bent. “And I couldna live, knowing there was a man on earth who felt toward me as I have felt toward those who thought they owned me.”
I reached out and covered his crippled hand with my own. Tears ran down my cheeks, warm and soothing as summer rain.
“You won’t leave me?” I asked at last. “You won’t die?”
He shook his head, and squeezed my hand tight.
“You are my courage, as I am your conscience,” he whispered. “You are my heart—and I your compassion. We are neither of us whole, alone. Do ye not know that, Sassenach?”
“I do know that,” I said, and my voice shook. “That’s why I’m so afraid. I don’t want to be half a person again, I can’t bear it.”
He thumbed a lock of hair off my wet cheek, and pulled me into his arms, so close that I could feel the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. He was so solid, so alive, ruddy hair curling gold against bare skin. And yet I had held him so before—and lost him.
His hand touched my cheek, warm despite the dampness of my skin.
“But do ye not see how verra small a thing is the notion of death, between us two, Claire?” he whispered.
My hands curled into fists against his chest. No, I didn’t think it a small thing at all.
“All the time after ye left me, after Culloden—I was dead then, was I not?”
“I thought you were. That’s why I—oh.” I took a deep, tremulous breath, and he nodded.
“Two hundred years from now, I shall most certainly be dead, Sassenach,” he said. He smiled crookedly. “Be it Indians, wild beasts, a plague, the hangman’s rope, or only the blessing of auld age—I will be dead.”
“And while ye were there—in your own time—I was dead, no?”
I nodded, wordless. Even now, I could look back and see the abyss of despair into which that parting had dropped me, and from which I had climbed, one painful inch at a time.
Now I stood with him again upon the summit of life, and could not contemplate descent. He reached down and plucked a stalk of grass, spreading the soft green beards between his fingers.
“ ‘Man is like the grass of the field,’ ” he quoted softly, brushing the slender stem over my knuckles, where they rested against his chest. “ ‘Today it blooms; tomorrow it withers and is cast into the oven.’ ”
He lifted the silky green tuft to his lips and kissed it, then touched it gently to my mouth.
“I was dead, my Sassenach—and yet all that time, I loved you.”
I closed my eyes, feeling the tickle of the grass on my lips, light as the touch of sun and air.
“I loved you, too,” I whispered. “I always will.”
The grass fell away. Eyes still closed, I felt him lean toward me, and his mouth on mine, warm as sun, light as air.
“So long as my body lives, and yours—we are one flesh,” he whispered. His fingers touched me, hair and chin and neck and breast, and I breathed his breath and felt him solid under my hand. Then I lay with my head on his shoulder, the strength of him supporting me, the words deep and soft in his chest.
“And when my body shall cease, my soul will still be yours. Claire—I swear by my hope of heaven, I will not be parted from you.”
The wind stirred the leaves of the chestnut trees nearby, and the scents of late summer rose up rich around us; pine and grass and strawberries, sunwarmed stone and cool water, and the sharp, musky smell of his body next to mine.
“Nothing is lost, Sassenach; only changed.”
“That’s the first law of thermodynamics,” I said, wiping my nose.
“No,” he said. “That’s faith.”
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Inverness, Scotland, December 23, 1969
He checked the train schedule for the dozenth time, then prowled around the manse’s living room, too restless to settle. An hour yet to wait.
The room was half dismantled, with piles of cartons lying higgledy-piggledy on every surface. He’d promised to have the place cleared out by the New Year, except for the pieces Fiona wanted to keep.