Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 59

   

As the evening star began to glow among the black pines’ branches, I concluded that in this situation reason was of little use. I would have to rely on something else; just what, I wasn’t sure. I turned toward the split rock and took a step, then another, and another. Pausing, I faced around and tried it in the other direction. A step, then another, and another, and before I even knew that I had decided, I was halfway down the slope, scrabbling wildly at grass clumps, slipping and falling through the patches of granite scree.

When I reached the cottage, breathless with fear lest he had left already, I was reassured to see Donas hobbled and grazing nearby. The horse raised his head and eyed me unpleasantly. Walking softly, I pushed the door open.

He was in the front room, asleep on a narrow oak settle. He slept on his back, as he usually did, hands crossed on his stomach, mouth slightly open. The last rays of daylight from the window behind me limned his face like a metal mask; the silver tracks of dried tears glinted on golden skin, and the copper stubble of his beard gleamed dully.

I stood watching him for a moment, filled with an unutterable tenderness. Moving as quietly as I could, I lay down beside him on the narrow settle and nestled close. He turned to me in sleep as he so often did, gathering me spoon-fashion against his chest and resting his cheek against my hair. Half-conscious, he reached to smooth my hair away from his nose; I felt the sudden jerk as he came awake to realize that I was there, and then we overbalanced and crashed together onto the floor, Jamie on top of me.

I didn’t have the slightest doubt that he was solid flesh. I pushed a knee into his abdomen, grunting.

“Get off! I can’t breathe!”

Instead, he aggravated my breathless condition by kissing me thoroughly. I ignored the lack of oxygen temporarily in order to concentrate on more important things.

We held each other for a long time without speaking. At last he murmured “Why?”—his mouth muffled in my hair.

I kissed his cheek, damp and salty. I could feel his heart beating against my ribs, and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever, not moving, not making love, just breathing the same air.

“I had to,” I said. I laughed, a little shakily. “You don’t know how close it was. The hot baths nearly won.” And I wept then, and shook a little, because the choice was so freshly made, and because my joy for the man I held in my arms was mingled with a tearing grief for the man I would never see again.

Jamie held me tightly, pressing me down with his weight, as though to protect me, to save me from being swept away by the roaring pull of the stone circle. At length my tears were spent, and I lay exhausted, head against his comforting chest. It had grown altogether dark by this time, but still he held me, murmuring softly as though I were a child afraid of the night. We clung to each other, unwilling to let go even long enough to start a fire or light a candle.

At length Jamie rose, and picking me up, carried me to the settle, where he sat with me cradled on his lap. The door of the cottage still hung open, and we could see the stars beginning to burn over the valley below.

“Do you know,” I said drowsily, “that it takes thousands and thousands of years for the light of those stars to reach us? In fact, some of the stars we see may be dead by now, but we won’t know it, because we still see the light.”

“Is that so?” he answered, stroking my back. “I didna know that.”

I must have fallen asleep, head on his shoulder, but roused briefly when he laid me gently on the floor, on a makeshift bed of blankets from the horse’s saddleroll. He lay down beside me, and drew me close again.

“Lay your head, lass,” he whispered. “In the morning, I’ll take ye home.”

We rose just before dawn, and were on the downward trail when the sun rose, eager to leave Craigh na Dun.

“Where are we going, Jamie?” I asked, rejoicing that I could look forward into a future that held him, even as I left behind the last chance of returning to the man who had—who would? once love me.

Jamie reined in the horse, pausing to look over his shoulder for a moment. The forbidding circle of standing stones was invisible from here, but the rocky hillside seemed to rise impassable behind us, bristling with boulders and gorse bushes. From here, the crumbling husk of the cottage looked like one more crag, a bony knuckle jutting from the granite fist of the hill.

“I wish I could have fought him for you,” he said abruptly, looking back at me. His blue eyes were dark and earnest.

I smiled at him, touched.

“It wasn’t your fight, it was mine. But you won it anyway.” I reached out a hand, and he squeezed it.

“Aye, but that’s not what I meant. If I’d fought him man to man and won, ye’d not need to feel any regret over it.” He hesitated. “If ever—”

“There aren’t any more ifs,” I said firmly. “I thought of every one of them yesterday, and here I still am.”

“Thank God,” he said, smiling, “and God help you.” Then he added, “Though I’ll never understand why.”

I put my arms around his waist and held on as the horse slithered down the last steep slope.

“Because,” I said, “I bloody well can’t do without you, Jamie Fraser, and that’s all about it. Now, where are you taking me?”

Jamie twisted in his saddle, to look back up the slope.

“I prayed all the way up that hill yesterday,” he said softly. “Not for you to stay; I didna think that would be right. I prayed I’d be strong enough to send ye away.” He shook his head, still gazing up the hill, a faraway look in his eyes.

“I said ‘Lord, if I’ve never had courage in my life before, let me have it now. Let me be brave enough not to fall on my knees and beg her to stay.’ ” He pulled his eyes away from the cottage and smiled briefly at me.

“Hardest thing I ever did, Sassenach.” He turned in the saddle, and reined the horse’s head toward the east. It was a rare bright morning, and the early sun gilded everything, drawing a thin line of fire along the edge of the reins, the curve of the horse’s neck, and the broad planes of Jamie’s face and shoulders.

He took a deep breath and nodded across the moor, toward a distant pass between two crags.

“So now I suppose I can do the second-hardest thing.” He kicked the horse gently, clicking his tongue. “We’re going home, Sassenach. To Lallybroch.”

PART FIVE

Lallybroch

26

THE LAIRD’S RETURN

At first, we were so happy only to be with each other and away from Leoch than we didn’t talk much. Across the flat of the moor, Donas could carry us both without strain, and I rode with my arms about Jamie’s waist, glorying in the feel of the sun-warmed muscle shifting under my cheek. Whatever problems we might be facing—and I knew there were plenty—we were together. Forever. And that was enough.

As the first shock of happiness mellowed into the glow of companionship, we began to talk again. About the countryside through which we were passing, at first. Then, cautiously, about me, and where I had come from. He was fascinated by my descriptions of modern life, though I could tell that most of my stories seemed like fairy tales to him. He loved especially the descriptions of automobiles, tanks, and airplanes, and made me describe them over and over, as minutely as I could. By tacit agreement, we avoided any mention of Frank.

As we covered more countryside, the conversation turned back to our present time; Colum, the Castle, then the stag hunt and the Duke.

“He seems a nice chap,” Jamie remarked. As the going became rougher, he had dismounted and walked alongside, which made conversation easier.

“I thought so too,” I answered. “But—”

“Oh, aye, ye canna put too much faith in what a man seems these days,” he agreed. “Still, we got on, he and I. We’d sit together and talk of an evening, found the fire in the hunting lodge. He’s a good bit brighter than he seems, for the one thing; he knows how that voice makes him seem, and I think he uses it to make himself look a bit of a fool, while all the time the mind is there, workin’ behind his eyes.”

“Mmm. That’s what I’m afraid of. Did you…tell him?”

He shrugged. “A bit. He knew my name, of course, from that time before, at the castle.”

I laughed at the memory of his account of that time. “Did you, er, reminisce about old times?”

He grinned, the ends of his hair floating about his face in the autumn breeze.

“Oh, just a bit. He asked me once whether I still suffered from stomach trouble. I kept my face straight and answered that as a rule, no, but I thought perhaps I felt a bit of griping coming on just now. He laughed, and said he hoped it did not discommode my beautiful wife.”

I laughed myself. Right now, what the Duke might or mightn’t do didn’t seem of overwhelming importance. Nevertheless, he might one day be of use.

“I told him a little,” Jamie went on. “That I was outlawed, but not guilty of the charge, though I’d have precious little chance of proving it. He seemed sympathetic, but I was cautious about telling him the circumstances—let alone the fact that there’s a price on my head. I hadna yet made up my mind whether to trust him with the rest of it, when…well, when Old Alec came tearing into the camp like the devil himself was on his tail, and Murtagh and I left the same way.”

This reminded me. “Where is Murtagh?” I asked. “He came back with you to Leoch?” I hoped the little clansman hadn’t fallen afoul of either Colum or the villagers of Cranesmuir.

“He started back wi’ me, but the beast he was riding was no match for Donas. Aye, a bonny wee lad ye are, Donas mo buidheag.” He slapped the shimmering sorrel neck, and Donas snorted and ruffled his mane. Jamie glanced up at me and smiled.

“Dinna worry for Murtagh. There’s a canty wee bird can mind for himself.”

“Canty? Murtagh?” I knew the word meant “cheerful,” which seemed incongruous to a degree. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile. Have you?”

“Oh, aye. At least twice.”

“How long have you known him?”

“Twenty-three years. He’s my godfather.”

“Oh. Well, that explains a bit. I didn’t think he’d bother on my account.”

Jamie patted my leg. “Of course he would. He likes you.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Having thus approached the subject of recent events, I took a deep breath and asked something I badly wanted to know.

“Jamie?”

“Aye?”

“Geillis Duncan. Will they…will they really burn her?”

He glanced up at me, frowning slightly, and nodded.

“I expect so. Not ’til after the child is born, though. Is that what troubles ye?”

“One of the things. Jamie, look at this.” I tried to push up the voluminous sleeve, failed, and settled for pulling the neck of the shirt off my shoulder to display my vaccination scar.

“God in heaven,” he said slowly, after I had explained. He looked sharply at me. “So that’s why…is she from your own time then?”

I shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. All I can say is that she was likely born sometime after 1920; that’s when public inoculation came in.” I looked over my shoulder, but low-lying clouds hid the crags that now separated us from Leoch. “I don’t suppose I ever will know…now.”

Jamie took Donas’s reins and led him aside, under a small pine grove, on the banks of a small stream. He grasped me around the waist and lifted me down.

“Dinna grieve for her,” he said firmly, holding me. “She’s a wicked woman; a murderer, if not a witch. She did kill her husband, no?”

“Yes,” I said, with a shudder, remembering Arthur Duncan’s glazed eyes.

“I still dinna understand why she should kill him, though,” he said, shaking his head in puzzlement. “He had money, a good position. And I doubt he beat her.”

I looked at him in exasperated amazement.

“And that’s your definition of a good husband?”

“Well…yes,” he said, frowning. “What else might she want?”

“What else?” I was so taken aback, I just looked at him for a moment, then slid down on the grass and started to laugh.

“What’s funny? I thought this was murder.” He smiled, though, and put an arm around me.

“I was just thinking,” I said, still snorting a bit, “if your definition of a good husband is one with money and position who doesn’t beat his wife…what does that make you?”

“Oh,” he said. He grinned. “Well, Sassenach, I never said I was a good husband. Neither did you. ‘Sadist,’ I think ye called me, and a few other things that I wouldna repeat for the sake of decency. But not a good husband.”

“Good. Then I won’t feel obliged to poison you with cyanide.”

“Cyanide?” He looked down curiously at me. “What’s that?”

“The thing that killed Arthur Duncan. It’s a bloody fast, powerful poison. Fairly common in my time, but not here.” I licked my lips meditatively.

“I tasted it on his lips, and just that tiny bit was enough to make my whole face go numb. It acts almost instantly, as you saw. I should have known then—about Geilie, I mean. I imagine she made it from crushed peach pits or cherry stones, though it must have been the devil of a job.”

“Did she tell ye why she did it, then?”

I sighed and rubbed my feet. My shoes had been lost in the struggle at the loch, and I tended to pick up stickers and cockleburs, my feet not being hardened as Jamie’s were.

“That and a good deal more. If there’s anything to eat in your saddlebags, why don’t you fetch it, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

We entered the valley of Broch Tuarach the next day. As we came down out of the foothills, I spotted a solitary rider, some distance away, heading roughly in our direction. He was the first person I had seen since we had left Cranesmuir.

The man approaching us was stout and prosperous-looking, with a snowy stock showing at the neck of a serviceable grey serge coat, its long tails covering all but an inch or two of his breeches.

We had been traveling for the best part of a week, sleeping out-of-doors, washing in the cold, fresh water of the burns, and living quite well off such rabbits and fish as Jamie could catch, and such edible plants and berries as I could find. Between our efforts, our diet was better than that in the Castle, fresher, and certainly more varied, if a little unpredictable.

But if nutrition was well served by an outdoor life, appearance was another thing, and I took hasty stock of our looks as the gentleman on horseback hesitated, frowning, then changed direction and trotted slowly toward us to investigate.

Jamie, who had insisted on walking most of the way to spare the horse, was a disreputable sight indeed, hose stained to the knees with reddish dust, spare shirt torn by brambles and a week’s growth of beard bristling fiercely from cheek and jaw.

His hair had grown long enough in the last months to reach his shoulders. Usually clubbed into a queue or laced back, it was free now, thick and unruly, with small bits of leaf and stick caught in the disordered coppery locks. Face burned a deep ruddy bronze, boots cracked from walking, dirk and sword thrust through his belt, he looked a wild Highlander indeed.

I was hardly better. Covered modestly enough in the billows of Jamie’s best shirt and the remnants of my shirt, barefoot, and shawled in his plaid, I looked a right ragamuffin. Encouraged by the misty dampness and lacking any restraint in the form of comb or brush, my hair rioted all over my head. It had grown as well during my sojourn at the Castle, and floated in clouds and tangles about my shoulders, drifting into my eyes whenever the wind was behind us, as it was now.

Shoving the wayward locks out of my eyes, I watched the cautious approach of the gentleman in grey. Jamie, seeing him, brought our own horse to a stop and waited for him to draw near enough for speech.

“It’s Jock Graham,” he said to me, “from up the way at Murch Nardagh.”

The man came within a few yards, reined up and sat looking us over carefully. His eyes, pouched with fat, crinkled and rested suspiciously on Jamie, then suddenly sprang wide.

“Lallybroch?” he said unbelievingly.

Jamie nodded benignly. With a completely unfounded air of proprietorial pride, he laid a hand on my thigh and said, “and my lady Lallybroch.”

Jock Graham’s mouth dropped an inch or two, then was hastily drawn up again into an expression of flustered respect.

“Ah…my…lady,” he said, belatedly doffing his hat and bowing in my direction. “You’ll be, er, going home, then?” he asked, trying to keep his fascinated gaze from resting on my leg, bared to the knee by a rent in my shift, and stained with elderberry juice.

“Aye.” Jamie glanced over his shoulder, toward the rift in the hill he had told me was the entrance to Broch Tuarach. “You’ll have been there lately, Jock?”

Graham pulled his eyes away from me and looked at Jamie. “Och? Oh, aye. Aye, I’ve been there. They’re all well. Be pleased to see ye, I expect. Go well, then, Fraser.” And with a hasty dig into his horse’s ribs, he turned aside and headed up the valley.

We watched him go. Suddenly, a hundred yards away, he paused. Turning in the saddle, he rose in his stirrups and cupped his mouth to shout. The sound, borne by the wind, reached us thin but distinct.

“Welcome home!”

And he disappeared over a rise.

Broch Tuarach means “the north-facing tower.” From the side of the mountain above, the broch that gave the small estate its name was no more than another mound of rocks, much like those that lay at the foot of the hills we had been traveling through.

We came down through a narrow, rocky gap between two crags, leading the horse between boulders. Then the going was easier, the land sloping more gently down through the fields and scattered cottages, until at last we struck a small winding road that led to the house.

It was larger than I had expected; a handsome three-story manor of harled white stone, windows outlined in the natural grey stone, a high slate roof with multiple chimneys, and several smaller whitewashed buildings clustered about it, like chicks about a hen. The old stone broch, situated on a small rise to the rear of the house, rose sixty feet above the ground, cone-topped like a witch’s hat, girdled with three rows of tiny arrow-slits.

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