“Who, you mean,” I said. “I don’t know. Nice chap, though. Don’t let Rollo at him; he wouldn’t like it.” Rollo was sniffing the skull with intense concentration, wet black nostrils flaring with interest.
Jamie peered down into my face, frowning slightly.
“Are ye sure you’re quite all right, Sassenach?”
“No,” I said, though in fact my wits were coming back as I woke up all the way. “I’m cold and I’m starving. You didn’t happen to bring any breakfast, did you?” I asked longingly. “I could murder a plateful of eggs.”
“No,” he said, setting me down while he groped in his sporran. “I hadna time to trouble for food, but I’ve got some brandywine. Here, Sassenach; it’ll do you good. And then,” he added, raising one eyebrow, “you can tell me how the devil ye came to be out in the middle of nowhere, aye?”
I collapsed on a rock and sipped the brandywine gratefully. The flask trembled in my hands, but the shivering began to ease as the dark amber stuff made its way directly through the walls of my empty stomach and into my bloodstream.
Jamie stood behind me, his hand on my shoulder.
“How long have ye been here, Sassenach?” he asked, his voice gentle.
“All night,” I said, shivering again. “Since just before noon yesterday, when the bloody horse—I think his name’s Judas—dropped me off that ledge up there.”
I nodded at the ledge. The middle of nowhere was a good description of the place, I thought. It could have been any of a thousand anonymous hollows in these hills. A thought struck me—one that should have occurred to me long before, had I not been so chilled and groggy.
“How the hell did you find me?” I asked. “Did one of the Muellers follow me, or—don’t tell me the bloody horse led you to me, like Lassie?”
“It’s a gelding, Auntie,” Ian put in reprovingly. “No a lassie. But we havena seen your horse at all. No, Rollo led us to ye.” He beamed proudly at the dog, who contrived to look blandly dignified, as though he did this sort of thing all the time.
“But if you haven’t seen the horse,” I began, bewildered, “how did you even know I’d left Muellers’? And how could Rollo—” I broke off, seeing the two men eyeing each other.
Ian shrugged slightly and nodded, yielding to Jamie. Jamie hunkered down on the ground beside me, and lifting the hem of my dress, took my bare feet into his big, warm hands.
“Your feet are frozen, Sassenach,” he said quietly. “Where did ye lose your shoes?”
“Back there,” I said, with a nod toward the uprooted tree. “They must still be there. I took them off to cross a stream, then put them down and couldn’t find them in the dark.”
“They’re not there, Auntie,” said Ian. He sounded so queer that I looked up at him in surprise. He was still holding the skull, turning it gingerly over in his hands.
“No, they’re not.” Jamie’s head was bent as he chafed my feet, and I could see the early light glint copper off his hair, which lay tumbled loose over his shoulders, disheveled as though he had just risen from his bed.
“I was in bed, asleep,” he said, echoing my thought. “When yon beast suddenly went mad.” He jerked his chin at Rollo, without looking up. “Barking and howling and flingin’ his carcass at the door as though the Devil was outside.”
“I shouted at him, and tried to get hold of his scruff and shake him quiet,” Ian put in, “but he wouldna stop, no matter what I did.”
“Aye, he carried on so that the spittle flew from his jaws and I was sure he’d gone truly mad. I thought he’d do us an injury, so I bade Ian unbolt the door and let him be gone.” Jamie sat back on his heels and frowned at my foot, then picked a dead leaf off my instep.
“Well, and was the Devil outside?” I asked flippantly.
Jamie shook his head.
“We searched the clearing, from the penfold to the spring, and didna find a thing—except these.” He reached into his sporran and drew out my shoes. He looked up into my face, his own quite expressionless.
“They were sitting on the doorstep, side by side.”
Every hair on my body rose. I lifted the flask and drained the last of the brandywine.
“Rollo tore off, bayin’ like a hound,” Ian said, eagerly taking up the story. “But then he came back a moment later, and began to sniff at your shoes and whinge and cry.”
“I felt rather like doing that myself, aye?” Jamie’s mouth lifted slightly at one corner, but I could see the fear still dark in his eyes.
I swallowed, but my mouth was too dry to talk, despite the brandywine.
Jamie slipped one shoe onto my foot, and then the other. They were damp, but faintly warm from his body.
“I did think ye were maybe dead, Cinderella,” he said softly, head bent to hide his face.
Ian didn’t notice, caught up in the enthusiasm of the story.
“My clever wee dog was for dashing off, the same as when he’s smelt a rabbit, so we caught up our plaids and came away after him, only stopping to snatch a brand from the hearth and smoor the fire. He led us a good chase, too, did ye no, laddie?” He rubbed Rollo’s ears with affectionate pride. “And here ye were!”
The brandywine was buzzing in my ears, swaddling my wits in a warm, sweet blanket, but I had enough sense left to tell me that for Rollo to have followed a trail back to me…someone had walked all that way in my shoes.
I had recovered some remnants of my voice by this time, and managed to talk with only a little hoarseness.
“Did you—see anything—along the way?” I asked.
“No, Auntie,” Ian said, suddenly sober. “Did you?”
Jamie lifted his head, and I could see how worry and exhaustion had hollowed his face, leaving the broad cheekbones sharp beneath his skin. I wasn’t the only one who had had a long, hard night.
“Yes,” I said, “but I’ll tell you later. Right now, I believe I’ve turned into a pumpkin. Let’s go home.”
Jamie had brought horses, but there was no way to get them down into the hollow; we were forced to make our way down the banks of the flooded stream, splashing through the shallows, then to clamber laboriously up a rocky slope to the ledge above, where the animals were tethered. Rubber-legged and flimsy after my ordeal, I wasn’t a great deal of help in this endeavor, but Jamie and Ian coped matter-of-factly, boosting me over obstructions and handing me back and forth like a large, unwieldy package.
“You really aren’t supposed to give alcohol to people suffering from hypothermia,” I said feebly as Jamie put the flask to my lips again during one pause for rest.
“I dinna care what you’re suffering from, you’ll feel it less with the drink in your belly,” he said. It was still chilly from the rain, but his face was flushed from the climb. “Besides,” he added, mopping his brow with a fold of his plaid, “if ye pass out, you’ll be less trouble to hoik about. Christ, it’s like hauling a newborn calf out of a bog.”
“Sorry,” I said. I lay flat on the ground and closed my eyes, hoping I wouldn’t throw up. The sky was spinning in one direction, my stomach in the other.
“Away, dog!” Ian said.
I opened one eye to see what was going on, and saw Ian firmly shooing Rollo away from the skull, which I had insisted he bring with us.
Seen in daylight, it was hardly a prepossessing object. Stained and discolored by the soil in which it had been buried, from a distance it resembled a smooth stone, scooped and gouged by wind and weather. Several of the teeth had been chipped or broken, though the skull showed no other damage.
“Just what do ye mean to do wi’ Prince Charming there?” Jamie asked, eyeing my acquisition rather critically. His color had faded, and he had got his breath back. He glanced down at me, reached over and smoothed the hair out of my eyes, smiling.
“All right, Sassenach?”
“Better,” I assured him, sitting up. The countryside had not quite stopped moving round me, but the brandy sloshing through my veins now gave the movement a rather pleasant quality, like the soothing rush of trees past the window of a railway carriage.
“I suppose we ought to take him home and give him Christian burial, at least?” Ian eyed the skull dubiously.
“I shouldn’t think he’d appreciate it; I don’t believe he was a Christian.” I fought back a vivid recollection of the man I had seen in the hollow. While it was true that some Indians had been converted by missionaries, this particular nak*d gentleman, with his black-painted face and feathered hair, had given me the impression that he was about as pagan as they come.
I fumbled in the pocket of my skirt, my fingers numb and stiff.
“This was buried with him.”
I drew out the flat stone I had unearthed. It was dirty brown in color, an irregular oval half the size of my palm. It was flattened on one side, rounded on the other, and smooth as though it had come from a streambed. I turned it over on my palm and gasped.
The flattened face was indeed incised with a carving, as I had thought. It was a glyph in the shape of a spiral, coiling in on itself. But it wasn’t the carving that brought both Jamie and Ian to peer into my hand, heads nearly touching.
Where the smooth surface had been chipped away, the rock within glowed with a lambent fire, little flames of green and orange and red all fighting fiercely for the light.
“My God, what is it?” Ian asked, sounding awed.
“It’s an opal—and a damned big one, at that,” Jamie said. He poked the stone with a large, blunt forefinger, as though checking to ensure that it was real. It was.
He rubbed a hand through his hair, thinking, then glanced at me.
“They do say that opals are unlucky stones, Sassenach.” I thought he was joking, but he looked uneasy. A widely traveled, well-educated man, still he had been born a Highlander, and I knew he had a deeply superstitious streak, though it didn’t often show.
Ha, I thought to myself. You’ve spent the night with a ghost and you think he’s superstitious?
“Nonsense,” I said, with rather more conviction than I felt. “It’s only a rock.”
“Well, it’s no so much they’re unlucky, Uncle Jamie,” Ian put in. “My Mam has a wee opal ring her mother left her—though it’s nothing like this!” Ian touched the stone reverently. “She did say as how an opal takes on something of its owner, though—so if ye had an opal that belonged to a good person before ye, then all was well, and you’d have good luck of it. But if not—” He shrugged.
“Aye, well,” Jamie said dryly. He jerked his head toward the skull, pointing with his chin. “If it belonged to this fellow, it doesna seem as if it was ower-lucky for him.”
“At least we know nobody killed him for it,” I pointed out.
“Perhaps they didna want it because they kent it was bad luck,” Ian suggested. He was frowning at the stone, a worried line between his eyes. “Maybe we should put it back, Auntie.”