I rubbed my nose and looked at Jamie.
“It’s probably rather valuable,” I said.
“Ah.” The two of them stood in contemplation for a moment, torn between superstition and pragmatism.
“Aye well,” Jamie said finally, “I suppose it will do no harm to keep it for a bit.” One side of his mouth lifted in a smile. “Let me carry it, Sassenach; if I’m struck by lightning on the way home, ye can put it back.”
I got awkwardly to my feet, holding on to Jamie’s arm to keep my balance. I blinked and swayed, but stayed upright. Jamie took the stone from my hand and slipped it back into his sporran.
“I’ll show it to Nayawenne,” I said. “She might know what the carving means, at least.”
“A good thought, Sassenach,” Jamie approved. “And if Prince Charming should be her kinsman, she can have him, with my blessing.” He nodded toward a small stand of maple trees a hundred yards away, their green barely tinged with yellow.
“The horses are tied just yonder. Can ye walk, Sassenach?”
I looked down at my feet, considering. They seemed a lot farther away than I was used to.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “I think I’m really rather drunk.”
“Och, no, Auntie,” Ian assured me kindly. “My Da says you’re never drunk, so long as ye can hold on to the floor.”
Jamie laughed at this, and threw the end of his plaid over his shoulder.
“My Da used to say ye werena drunk, so long as ye could find your arse with both hands.” He eyed my backside with a lifted brow, but wisely thought better of whatever else he might have been going to say.
Ian choked on a giggle and coughed, recovering himself.
“Aye, well. It’s no much farther, Auntie. Are ye sure ye canna walk?”
“Well, I’m no going to pick her up again, I’ll tell ye,” Jamie said, not waiting for my answer. “I dinna want to rupture my back.” He took the skull from Ian, holding it between the tips of his fingers, and placed it delicately in my lap. “Wait here wi’ your wee friend, Sassenach,” he said. “Ian and I will fetch the horses.”
By the time we reached Fraser’s Ridge, it was early afternoon. I had been cold, wet, and without food for nearly two days, and was feeling distinctly light-headed; a feeling exaggerated both by more infusions of brandywine and by my efforts to explain the events of the night before to Ian and Jamie. Viewed in the light of day, the entire night seemed unreal.
But then, almost everything seemed unreal, viewed through a haze of exhaustion, hunger, and mild drunkenness. Consequently, when we turned into the clearing, I thought at first that the smoke from the chimney was a hallucination—until the tang of burning hickory wood struck my nose.
“I thought you said you smoored the fire,” I said to Jamie. “Lucky you didn’t burn down the house.” Such accidents were common; I had heard of more than one wooden cabin burned to the ground as the result of a poorly tended hearth.
“I did smoor it,” he said briefly, swinging down from the saddle. “Someone’s here. D’ye ken the horse, Ian?”
Ian stood in his stirrups to look down into the penfold.
“Why, it’s Auntie’s wicked beast!” he said in surprise. “And a big dapple with him!”
Sure enough, the newly named Judas was standing in the penfold, unsaddled, companionably switching flies head to tail with a thick-barreled gray gelding.
“Do you know who owns him?” I asked. I hadn’t got down yet; small waves of dizziness had been washing over me every few minutes, forcing me to cling to the saddle. The ground under the horse seemed to be heaving gently up and down, like ocean billows.
“No, but it’s a friend,” Jamie said. “He’s fed my beasts for me, and milked the goat.” He nodded from the horses’ hay-filled manger to the door, where a pail of milk stood on the bench, neatly covered with a square of cloth to prevent flies falling in.
“Come along, Sassenach.” He reached up and took me by the waist. “We’ll tuck ye in bed and brew ye a dish of tea.”
Our arrival had been heard; the door of the cabin opened, and Duncan Innes looked out.
“Ah, you’re there, Mac Dubh,” he said. “What’s amiss, then? Your goat was carryin’ on fit to wake the dead, wi’ her bag like to burst, when I came up the trail this morning.” Then he saw me, and his long, mournful face went blank with surprise.
“Mrs. Claire!” he said, taking in my mud-stained and battered appearance. “Ye’ll have had an accident, then? I was a bit worrit when I found the horse loose on the mountainside as I came up, and your wee box on the saddle. I looked about and called for ye, but I couldna find any sign of ye, so I brought the beast along to the house.”
“Yes, I had an accident,” I said, trying to stand upright by myself and not succeeding very well. “I’m all right, though.” I wasn’t altogether sure about that. My head felt three times its normal size.
“Bed,” Jamie said firmly, grabbing me by the arms before I could fall over. “Now.”
“Bath,” I said. “First.”
He glanced in the direction of the creek.
“You’ll freeze or drown. Or both. For God’s sake, Sassenach, eat and go to bed; ye can wash tomorrow.”
“Now. Hot water. Kettle.” I hadn’t the energy to waste on prolonged argument, but I was determined. I wasn’t going to bed dirty, and I wasn’t going to wash filthy sheets later.
Jamie looked at me in exasperation, then rolled his eyes in surrender.
“Hot water, kettle, now, then,” he said. “Ian, fetch some wood, and then take Duncan and see to the pigs. I’m going to scrub your auntie.”
“I can scrub myself!”
“The hell ye can.”
He was right; my fingers were so stiff, they couldn’t undo the hooks of my bodice. He undressed me as though I were a small child, tossing the ripped skirt and mud-caked petticoats carelessly into the corner, and stripping off the chemise and stays, worn so long that the cloth folds had made deep red ridges in my flesh. I groaned with a voluptuous combination of pain and pleasure, rubbing the red marks as blood coursed back through my constricted torso.
“Sit,” he said, pushing a stool under me as I collapsed. He wrapped a quilt around my shoulders, put a plate containing one and a half stale bannocks in front of me, and went to rootle in the cupboard after soap, washcloth, and linen towels.
“Find the green bottle, please,” I said, nibbling at the dry oatcake. “I’ll need to wash my hair.”
“Mmphm.” More clinking, and he emerged at last with his hands full of things, including a towel and the bottle full of the shampoo I had made—not wishing to wash my hair with lye soap—from soaproot, lupin oil, walnut leaves and calendula flowers. He set these on the table, along with my largest mixing bowl, and carefully filled it with hot water from the cauldron.
Leaving this to cool a bit, Jamie dipped a rag into the water, and knelt down to wash my feet.
The feeling of warmth on my sore, half-frozen feet was as close to ecstasy as I expected to get this side of heaven. Tired and half-drunk as I was, I felt as though I were dissolving from the feet up, as he gently but thoroughly washed me from toe to head.
“Where did ye get this, Sassenach?” Recalled from a state as close to sleep as to waking, I glanced down muzzily at my left knee. It was swollen, and the inner side had gone the deep purplish-blue of a gentian.
“Oh…that happened when I fell off the horse.”
“That was verra careless,” he said sharply. “Have I not told ye time and again to be careful, especially with a new horse? Ye canna trust them at all until ye’ve known them a good while. And you’re not strong enough to deal with one that’s headstrong or skittish.”
“It wasn’t a matter of trusting him,” I said. I rather dimly admired the broad spread of his bent shoulders, flexing smoothly under his linen shirt as he sponged my bruised knee. “The lightning scared him, and I fell off a thirty-foot ledge.”
“Ye could have broken your neck!”
“Thought I had, for a bit.” I closed my eyes, swaying slightly.
“Ye should have taken better thought, Sassenach; ye should never have been on that side of the ridge to begin with, let alone—”
“I couldn’t help it,” I said, opening my eyes. “The trail was washed out; I had to go around.”
He was glaring at me, slanted eyes narrowed into dark blue slits.
“Ye ought not to have left the Muellers’ in the first place, and it raining like that! Did ye not have sense enough to know what the ground would be like?”
I straightened up with some effort, holding the quilt against my br**sts. It occurred to me, with a faint sense of surprise, that he was more than slightly annoyed.
“Well…no,” I said, trying to marshal what wits I had. “How could I know something like that? Besides—”
He interrupted me by slapping the washrag into the bowl, spattering water all over the table.
“Be quiet!” he said. “I dinna mean to argue with you!”
I stared up at him.
“What the hell do you mean to do? And where do you get off shouting at me? I haven’t done anything wrong!”
He inhaled strongly through his nose. Then he stood up, picked the rag from the bowl, and carefully wrung it out. He let out his breath, knelt down in front of me, and deftly swabbed my face clean.
“No. Ye haven’t,” he agreed. One corner of his long mouth quirked wryly. “But ye scairt hell out of me, Sassenach, and it makes me want to give ye a terrible scolding, whether ye deserve it or no.”
“Oh,” I said. I wanted at first to laugh, but felt a stab of remorse as I saw how drawn his face was. His shirt sleeve was daubed with mud, and there were burrs and foxtails in his stockings, left from a night of searching for me through the dark mountains, not knowing where I was; if I were alive or dead. I had scared hell out of him, whether I meant to or not.
I groped for some means of apology, finding my tongue nearly as thick as my wits. Finally I reached out and picked a fuzzy yellow catkin from his hair.
“Why don’t you scold me in Gaelic?” I said. “It will ease your feelings just as much, and I’ll only understand half of what you say.”
He made a Scottish noise of derision, and shoved my head into the bowl with a firm hand on my neck. When I reemerged, dripping, though, he dropped a towel on my head and started in, rubbing my hair with large, firm hands and speaking in the formally menacing tones of a minister denouncing sin from the pulpit.
“Silly woman,” he said in Gaelic. “You have not the brain of a fly!” I caught the words for “foolish,” and “clumsy,” in the subsequent remarks, but quickly stopped listening. I closed my eyes and lost myself instead in the dreamy pleasure of having my hair rubbed dry and then combed out.
He had a sure and gentle touch, probably gained from handling horses’ tails. I had seen him talk to horses while he groomed them, much as he was talking to me now, the Gaelic a soothing descant to the whisk of curry comb or brush. I imagined he was more complimentary to the horses, though.