The question seemed so preposterous that it took me a minute to think.
“I’m twenty-seven…or maybe twenty-eight,” I added. That rattled him for a moment. At twenty-eight, women in this time were usually on the verge of middle-age.
“Oh,” he said. He took a deep breath. “I thought ye were about my age—or younger.”
He didn’t move for a second. But then he looked down and smiled faintly at me. “Happy Birthday, Sassenach,” he said.
It took me completely by surprise and I just stared stupidly at him for a moment. “What?” I managed at last.
“I said ‘Happy Birthday.’ It’s the twentieth of October today.”
“Is it?” I said dumbly. “I’d lost track.” I was shaking again, from cold and shock and the force of my tirade. He drew me close against him and held me, smoothing his big hands lightly over my hair, cradling my head against his chest. I began to cry again, but this time with relief. In my state of upheaval, it seemed logical that if he knew my real age and still wanted me, then everything would be all right.
Jamie picked me up, and holding me carefully against his shoulder, carried me to the side of the fire, where he had laid the horse’s saddle. He sat down, leaning against the saddle, and held me, light and close.
A long time later, he spoke.
“All right. Tell me now.”
I told him. Told him everything, haltingly but coherently. I felt numb from exhaustion, but content, like a rabbit that has outrun a fox, and found temporary shelter under a log. It isn’t sanctuary, but at least it is respite. And I told him about Frank.
“Frank,” he said softly. “Then he isna dead, after all.”
“He isn’t born.” I felt another small wave of hysteria break against my ribs, but managed to keep myself under control. “Neither am I.”
He stroked and patted me back into silence, making his small murmuring Gaelic sounds.
“When I took ye from Randall at Fort William,” he said suddenly, “you were trying to get back. Back to the stones. And…Frank. That’s why ye left the grove.”
“And I beat you for it.” His voice was soft with regret.
“You couldn’t know. I couldn’t tell you.” I was beginning to feel very drowsy indeed.
“No, I dinna suppose ye could.” He pulled the plaid closer around me, tucking it gently around my shoulders. “Do ye sleep now, mo duinne. No one shall harm ye; I’m here.”
I burrowed into the warm curve of his shoulder, letting my tired mind fall through the layers of oblivion. I forced myself to the surface long enough to ask, “Do you really believe me, Jamie?”
He sighed, and smiled ruefully down at me.
“Aye, I believe ye, Sassenach. But it would ha’ been a good deal easier if you’d only been a witch.”
I slept like the dead, awakening sometime after dawn with a terrible headache, stiff in every muscle. Jamie had a few handfuls of oats in a small bag in his sporran, and forced me to eat drammach—oats mixed with cold water. It stuck in my throat, but I choked it down.
He was slow and gentle with me, but spoke very little. After breakfast, he quickly packed up the small campsite and saddled Donas.
Numb with the shock of recent events, I didn’t even ask where we were going. Mounted behind him, I was content to rest my face against the broad slope of his back, feeling the motion of the horse rock me into a state of mindless trance.
We came down from the braes near Loch Madoch, pressing through the chilly dawn mist to the edge of a still sheet of grey. Wild ducks began to rise from the reeds in untidy flocks that circled the marshes, quacking and calling to rouse late sleepers below. By contrast, a well-disciplined wedge of geese passed over us, calling of heartbreak and desolation.
The grey fog lifted near midday on the second day, and a weak sun lighted the meadows filled with yellow gorse and broom. A few miles past the loch, we came out onto a narrow road and turned northwest. The way took us up again, rising into low rolling hills that gave way gradually to granite tors and crags. We met few travelers on the road, and prudently turned aside into the brush whenever hoofbeats were heard ahead.
The vegetation turned to pine forest. I sniffed deeply, enjoying the crisp resinous air, though it was turning chill toward dusk. We stopped for the night in a small clearing some way from the path. We scooped together a nestlike wallow of pine needles and blankets and huddled close together for warmth, covered by Jamie’s plaid and blanket.
He woke me sometime in the darkness and made love to me, slowly and tenderly, not speaking. I watched stars winking through the lattice of black branches overhead, and fell asleep again with his comforting weight still warm on top of me.
In the morning Jamie seemed more cheerful, or at least more peaceful, as though a difficult decision had been reached. He promised me hot tea for supper, which was small comfort then in the frigid air. Sleepily I followed him back to the path, brushing pine needles and small spiders from my skirt. The narrow path faded during the morning to no more than a faint trace through rough sheep’s fescue, zigzagging around the more prominent rocks.
I had been paying little attention to our surroundings, as I dreamily enjoyed the growing warmth of the sun, but suddenly my eye struck a familiar rock formation and I started out of my torpor. I knew where we were. And why.
He turned at my exclamation.
“You didna know?” he asked curiously.
“That we were coming here? No, of course not.” I felt mildly sick. The hill of Craigh na Dun was no more than a mile away; I could see the hump-backed shape of it through the last shreds of the morning mist.
I swallowed hard. I had tried for nearly six months to reach this place. Now that I was here at last, I wanted to be anywhere else. The standing stones on the hilltop were invisible from below, but they seemed to emanate a subtle terror that reached out for me.
Well below the summit, the footing grew too uncertain for Donas. We dismounted and tethered him to a scrubby pine, continuing on foot.
I was panting and sweating by the time we reached the granite ledge; Jamie showed no signs of exertion, save a faint flush rising from the neck of his shirt. It was quiet here above the pines, but with a steady wind whining faintly in the crevices of the rock. Swallows shot past the ledge, rising abruptly on the air currents in pursuit of insects, dropping like dive bombers, slender wings outspread.
Jamie took my hand to pull me up the last step to the wide flat ledge at the base of the cleft rock. He didn’t release it, but drew me close, looking carefully at me, as though memorizing my features. “Why—?” I began, gasping for breath.
“It’s your place,” he said roughly. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I stared as though hypnotized at the stone circle. “It looks just the same.”
Jamie followed me into the circle. Taking me by the arm, he marched firmly up to the split rock.
“Is it this one?” he demanded.
“Yes.” I tried to pull away. “Careful! Don’t go too near it!” He glanced from me to the rock, clearly skeptical. Perhaps he was right to be. I felt suddenly doubtful of the truth of my own story.
“I—I don’t know anything about it. Perhaps the…whatever it is…closed behind me. Maybe it only works at certain times of the year. It was near Beltane when I came through last.”
Jamie glanced over his shoulder at the sun, a flat disc hanging in mid-sky behind a thin screen of cloud.
“It’s almost Samhain now,” he said. “All Hallows’ Eve. Seems suitable, no?” He shivered involuntarily, in spite of the joke. “When you…came through. What did ye do?”
I tried to remember. I felt ice-cold, and I folded my hands under my armpits.
“I walked round the circle, looking at things. Just randomly, though; there was no pattern. And then I came near to the split rock, and I heard a buzzing, like bees—”
It was still like bees. I drew back as though it had been the rattle of a snake.
“It’s still here!” I reared in panic, throwing my arms around Jamie, but he set me firmly away from him, his face white, and turned me once again toward the stone.
“What then?” The keening wind was sharp in my ears, but his voice was sharper still.
“I put my hand on the rock.”
“Do it, then.” He pushed me closer, and when I did not respond, he grasped my wrist and planted my hand firmly against the brindled surface.
Chaos reached out and grabbed me.
The sun stopped whirling behind my eyes at last, and the shriek faded out of my ears. There was another persistent noise, Jamie calling my name.
I felt too sick to sit up or open my eyes, but I flapped my hand weakly, to let him know I was still alive.
“I’m all right,” I said.
“Are ye then? Oh, God, Claire!” He clasped me against his chest then, holding me tightly. “Jesus, Claire. I thought ye were dead, sure. You…you began to…go, somehow. You had the most awful look on your face, like ye were frightened to death. I—I pulled ye back from the stone. I stopped ye, I shouldna have done so—I’m sorry, lassie.”
My eyes were open enough now to see his face above me, shocked and frightened.
“It’s all right.” It was still an effort to speak, and I felt heavy and disoriented, but things were coming clearer. I tried to smile, but felt nothing more than a twitch.
“At least…we know…it still works.”
“Oh, God. Aye, it works.” He cast a glance of fearful loathing at the stone.
He left me long enough to wet a kerchief in a puddle of rainwater that stood in one of the stony depressions. He wet my face, still muttering reassurances and apologies. At last I felt well enough to sit up.
“You didn’t believe me after all, did you?” Groggy as I was, I felt somehow vindicated. “It’s true, though.”
“Aye, it’s true.” He sat next to me, staring at the stone for several minutes. I rubbed the wet cloth over my face, feeling still faint and dizzy. Suddenly he sprang to his feet, walked to the rock and slapped his hand against it.
Nothing whatsoever happened, and after a minute his shoulders slumped and he came back to me.
“Maybe it’s only women it works on,” I said fuzzily. “It’s always women in the legends. Or maybe it’s only me.”
“Well, it isna me,” he said. “Better make sure, though.”
“Jamie! Be careful!” I shouted, to no avail. He marched to the stone, slapped it again, threw himself against it, walked through the split and back again, but it remained no more than a solid stone monolith. As for myself, I shuddered at the thought of even approaching that door to madness once again.
And yet. Yet when I had begun to pass into the realm of chaos this time, I had been thinking of Frank. And I had felt him, I was sure of it. Somewhere in the void had been a tiny pinprick of light, and he was in it. I knew. I knew also that there had been another point of light, one that sat still beside me, staring at the stone, cheeks gleaming with sweat in spite of the chill of the day.
At last he turned to me and grasped both my hands. He raised them to his lips and kissed each one formally.
“My lady,” he said softly. “My…Claire. It’s no use in waiting. I must part wi’ ye now.”
My lips were too stiff to speak, but the expression on my face must have been as easily readable as usual.
“Claire,” he said urgently, “it’s your own time on the other side of…that thing. You’ve a home there, a place. The things that you’re used to. And…and Frank.”
“Yes,” I said, “there’s Frank.”
Jamie caught me by the shoulders, pulling me to my feet and shaking me gently in supplication.
“There’s nothing for ye on this side, lass! Nothing save violence and danger. Go!” He pushed me slightly, turning me toward the stone circle. I turned back to him, catching his hands.
“Is there really nothing for me here, Jamie?” I held his eyes, not letting him turn away from me.
He pulled himself gently from my grasp without answering and stood back, suddenly a figure from another time, seen in relief upon a background of hazy hills, the life in his face a trick of the shadowing rock, as if flattened beneath layers of paint, an artist’s reminiscence of forgotten places and passions turned to dust.
I looked into his eyes, filled with pain and yearning, and he was flesh again, real and immediate, lover, husband, man.
The anguish I felt must have been reflected in my face, for he hesitated, then turned to the east and pointed down the slope. “Do ye see behind the small clump of oak down there? About halfway.”
I saw the clump, and saw what he was pointing at, the half-ruined crofter’s cottage, abandoned on the haunted hill.
“I shall go down to the house, and I shall stay there ’til the evening. To make sure—to be sure that you’re safe.” He looked at me, but made no move to touch me. He closed his eyes, as though he could no longer bear to look at me.
“Goodbye,” he said, and turned to go.
I watched him, numb, and then remembered. There was something that I had to tell him. I called after him.
He stopped and stood motionless for a moment, fighting to control his face. It was white and strained and his lips were bloodless when he turned back to me.
“There’s something…I mean, I have to tell you something before…before I go.”
He closed his eyes briefly, and I thought he swayed, but it might have been only the wind tugging at his kilts.
“There’s no need,” he said. “No. Do ye go, lass. Ye shouldna tarry. Go.” He made to turn away, but I clutched him by the sleeve.
“Jamie, listen to me! You must!” He shook his head helplessly, lifting a hand as though to push me away.
“Claire…no. I can’t.” The wind was bringing the moisture to his eyes.
“It’s the Rising,” I said urgently, shaking his arm. “Jamie, listen. Prince Charlie—his army. Colum is right! Do you hear me, Jamie? Colum is right, not Dougal.”
“Eh? What d’ye mean, lass?” I had his attention now. He rubbed his sleeve across his face and the eyes that looked down at me were sharp and clear. The wind sang in my ears.
“Prince Charlie. There will be a Rising, Dougal’s right about that, but it won’t succeed. Charlie’s army will do well for a bit, but it will end in slaughter. At Culloden, that’s where it will end. The—the clans…” In my mind’s eye I saw the clanstones, the grey boulders that would lie scattered on the field, each stone bearing the single clan name of the butchered men who lay under it. I took a breath and gripped his hand to steady myself. It was cold as a corpse’s. I shuddered and closed my eyes to concentrate on what I was saying.
“The Highlanders—all the clans that follow Charlie—will be wiped out. Hundreds and hundreds of the clansmen will die at Culloden; those that are left will be hunted and killed. The clans will be crushed…and they’ll not rise again. Not in your time—not even in mine.”
I opened my eyes to find him staring at me, expressionless.
“Jamie, stay out of it!” I begged him. “Keep your people out of it if you can, but for the Lord’s sake…Jamie, if you—” I broke off. I had been going to say “Jamie, if you love me.” But I couldn’t. I was going to lose him forever, and if I could not speak of love to him before, I could not do it now.
“Don’t go to France,” I said, softly. “Go to America, or to Spain, to Italy. But for the sake of the people who love you, Jamie, don’t set foot on Culloden Field.”
He went on staring at me. I wondered if he had heard.
“Jamie? Did you hear me? Do you understand?”
After a moment, he nodded numbly.
“Aye,” he said quietly, so quietly I could hardly hear him, beneath the whining of the wind. “Aye, I hear.” He dropped my hand.
“Go wi’ God…mo duinne.”
He stepped off the ledge and made his way down the steep incline, bracing his feet against tufts of grass, catching at branches to keep his balance, not looking back. I watched him until he disappeared into the oak clump, walking slowly, like a man wounded, who knows he must keep moving, but feels his life ebbing slowly away through the fingers he has clenched over the wound.
My knees were trembling. Slowly, I lowered myself to the granite shelf and sat cross-legged, watching the swallows about their business. Below, I could just see the roof of the cottage that now held my past. At my back loomed the cleft stone. And my future.
I sat without moving through the afternoon. I tried to force all emotion from my mind and use reason. Jamie certainly had logic on his side when he argued that I should go back: home, safety, Frank; even the small amenities of life that I sorely missed from time to time, like hot baths and indoor plumbing, to say nothing of larger considerations such as proper medical care and convenient travel.
And yet, while I would certainly admit the inconveniences and outright dangers of this place, I would have also to admit that I had enjoyed many aspects of it. If travel was inconvenient, there were no enormous stretches of concrete blanketing the countryside, nor any noisy, stinking autos—contrivances with their own dangers, I reminded myself. Life was much simpler, and so were the people. Not less intelligent, but much more direct—with a few sterling exceptions like Colum ban Campbell MacKenzie, I thought grimly.
Because of Uncle Lamb’s work, I had lived in a great many places, many even cruder and more lacking in amenities than this one. I adapted quite easily to rough conditions, and did not really miss “civilization” when away from it, though I adapted just as easily to the presence of niceties like electric cookers and hot-water geysers. I shivered in the cold wind, hugging myself as I stared at the rock.
Rationality did not appear to be helping much. I turned to emotion, and began, shrinking from the task, to reconstruct the details of my married lives—first with Frank, then with Jamie. The only result of this was to leave me shattered and weeping, the tears forming icy trails on my face.
Well, if not reason nor emotion, what of duty? I had given Frank a wedding vow, and had meant it with all my heart. I had given Jamie the same, meaning to betray it as soon as possible. And which of them would I betray now? I continued to sit, as the sun sank lower in the sky and the swallows disappeared to their nests.