France was the most likely. We both spoke French fluently. While Jamie could do as well in Spanish, German, or Italian, I was not so linguistically blessed. Also, the Fraser family was rich in connections here; perhaps we could find a place on an estate owned by a relative or friend, and live peacefully in the country. The idea held considerable attractions.
But there remained, as always, the question of time. It was the beginning of 1744—the New Year was but two weeks past. And in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie would take ship from France to Scotland, the Young Pretender come to claim his father’s throne. With him would come disaster; war and slaughter, the crushing of the Highland clans, and with them, the butchery of all that Jamie—and I—held dear.
And between now and then, there lay one year. One year, when things might happen. When steps might be taken to prevent disaster. How, and by what means? I had no idea, but neither had I any doubts about the consequences of inaction.
Could events be changed? Perhaps. My fingers stole to my left hand and idly caressed the gold ring on my fourth finger. I thought of what I had said to Jonathan Randall, burning with rage and horror in the dungeons under Wentworth Prison.
“I curse you,” I had said, “with the hour of your death.” And I had told him when he would die. Had told him the date written on the genealogical chart, in Frank’s fine black calligraphic script—April 16, 1745. Jonathan Randall was to die at the battle of Culloden, caught up in the slaughter that the English would create. But he didn’t. He had died instead a few hours later, trampled beneath the hooves of my revenge.
And he had died a childless bachelor. Or at least I thought so. The chart—that cursed chart!—had given the date of his marriage, sometime in 1744. And the birth of his son, Frank’s five-times-great-grandfather, soon after. If Jack Randall was dead and childless, how would Frank be born? And yet his ring was still upon my hand. He had existed, would exist. I comforted myself with the thought, rubbing the ring in the darkness, as though it contained a jinni that could advise me.
I woke out of a sound sleep sometime later with a half-scream.
“Ssh. ’Tis only me.” The large hand lifted from my mouth. With the candle out, the room was pitch-black. I groped blindly until my hand struck something solid.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed!” I exclaimed, still groggy with sleep. My fingers slid over smooth cold flesh. “You’re freezing!”
“Well, of course I am,” he said, somewhat crossly. “I havena got any clothes on, and it’s perishing in the corridor. Will ye let me in bed?”
I wriggled as far over as I could in the narrow cot, and he slid in nak*d beside me, clutching me for warmth. His breathing was uneven, and I thought his trembling was from weakness as much as from cold.
“God, you’re warm.” He snuggled closer, sighing. “It feels good to hold ye, Sassenach.”
I didn’t bother asking what he was doing there; that was becoming quite plain. Nor did I ask whether he was sure. I had my own doubts, but would not voice them for fear of making self-fulfilling prophecies. I rolled to face him, mindful of the injured hand.
There was that sudden startling moment of joining, that quick gliding strangeness that at once becomes familiar. Jamie sighed deeply, with satisfaction and, perhaps, relief. We lay still for a moment, as though afraid to disturb our fragile link by moving. Jamie’s good hand caressed me slowly, feeling its way in the dark, fingers spread like a cat’s whiskers, sensitive to vibration. He moved against me, once, as though asking a question, and I answered him in the same language.
We began a delicate game of slow movements, a balancing act between his desire and his weakness, between pain and the growing pleasure of the body. Somewhere in the dark, I thought to myself that I must tell Anselm that there was another way to make time stop, but then thought perhaps not, as it was not a way open to a priest.
I held Jamie steady, with a light hand on his scarred back. He set our rhythm, but let me carry the force of our movement. We were both silent save our breathing, until the end. Feeling him tiring, I grasped him firmly and pulled him to me, rocking my h*ps to take him deeper, forcing him toward the cli**x. “Now,” I said softly, “come to me. Now!” He put his forehead hard against mine and yielded himself to me with a quivering sigh.
The Victorians called it “the little death,” and with good reason. He lay so limp and heavy that I would have thought him dead, if not for the slow thump of his heart against my ribs. It seemed a long time before he stirred and mumbled something against my shoulder.
“What did you say?”
He turned his head so his mouth was just below my ear. I felt warm breath on my neck. “I said,” he answered softly, “my hand doesna hurt at all just now.”
The good hand gently explored my face, smoothing away the wetness on my cheeks.
“Were ye afraid for me?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I thought it was too soon.”
He laughed softly in the dark. “It was; I almost killed myself. Aye, I was afraid too. But I woke with my hand painin’ me and couldna go back to sleep. I was tossing about, feeling lonely for ye. The more I thought about ye, the more I wanted ye, and I was halfway down the corridor before I thought to worry about what I was going to do when I got here. And once I thought…” He paused, stroking my cheek. “Well, I’m no verra good, Sassenach, but I’m maybe not a coward, after all.”
I turned my head to meet his kiss. His stomach rumbled loudly.
“Don’t laugh, you,” he grumbled. “It’s your fault, starving me. It’s a wonder I could manage at all, on nothing but beef broth and ale.”
“All right,” I said, still laughing. “You win. You can have an egg for your breakfast tomorrow.”
“Ha,” he said, in tones of deep satisfaction. “I knew ye’d feed me, if I offered ye a suitable inducement.”
We fell asleep face to face, locked in each other’s arms.
FROM THE WOMB OF THE EARTH
Over the next two weeks, Jamie continued to heal, and I continued to wonder. Some days I would feel that we must go to Rome, where the Pretender’s court held sway, and do…what? Other times, I wanted with all my heart only to find a safe and isolated spot, to live our lives in peace.
It was a warm, bright day, and the icicles hanging from the gargoyles’ noses dripped incessantly, leaving deep ragged pits in the snow beneath the eaves. The door of Jamie’s room had been left ajar and the window uncovered, to clear out some of the lingering vapors of smoke and illness.
I poked my head cautiously around the jamb, not wishing to wake him if he was asleep, but the narrow cot was empty. He was seated by the open window, turned half away from the door so that his face was mostly hidden.
He was desperately thin still, but the shoulders were broad and straight beneath the rough fabric of the novice’s habit, and the grace of his strength was returning; he sat solidly without a tremor, back straight and legs curled back beneath the stool, the lines of his body firm and harmonious. He was holding his right wrist with his sound left hand, slowly turning the right hand in the sunlight.
There was a small pile of cloth strips on the table. He had removed the bandages from the injured hand and was examining it closely. I stood in the doorway, not moving. From here, I could see the hand clearly as he turned it back and forth, probing gingerly.
The stigma of the nail wound in the palm of the hand was quite small, and well healed, I was glad to see; no more than a small pink knot of scar tissue that would gradually fade. On the back of the hand, the situation was not so favorable. Eroded by infection, the wound there covered an area the size of sixpence, still patched with scabs and the rawness of a new scar.
The middle finger, too, showed a jagged ridge of pink scar tissue, running from just below the first joint almost to the knuckle. Released from their splints, the thumb and index finger were straight, but the little finger was badly twisted; that one had had three separate fractures, I remembered, and apparently I had not been able to set them all properly. The ring finger was set oddly, so that it protruded slightly upward when he laid the hand flat on the table, as he did now.
Turning the hand palm upward, he began to manipulate the fingers gently. None would bend more than an inch or two; the ring finger not at all. As I had feared, the second joint was likely permanently frozen.
He turned the hand to and fro, holding it before his face, watching the stiff, twisted fingers and the ugly scars, mercilessly vivid in the sunlight. Then he suddenly bent his head, clutching the injured hand to his chest, covering it protectively with the sound one. He made no sound, but the wide shoulders trembled briefly.
“Jamie.” I crossed the room swiftly and knelt beside him, putting my hand softly on his knee.
“Jamie, I’m sorry,” I said. “I did the best I could.”
He looked down at me in astonishment. The thick auburn lashes sparkled with tears in the sunlight, and he dashed them hastily away with the back of his hand.
“What?” he said, gulping, clearly taken aback by my sudden appearance. “Sorry? For what, Sassenach?”
“Your hand.” I reached out and took it, lightly tracing the crooked lines of the fingers, touching the sunken scar on the back.
“It will get better,” I assured him anxiously. “Really it will. I know it seems stiff and useless right now, but that’s only because it’s been splinted so long, and the bones haven’t fully knitted yet. I can show you how to exercise, and massage. You’ll get back a good deal of the use of it, honestly—”
He stopped me by laying his good hand along my cheek.
“Did you mean…?” He started, then stopped, shaking his head in disbelief. “You thought…?” He stopped once more and started over.
“Sassenach,” he said, “ye didna think that I was grieving for a stiff finger and a few more scars?” He smiled, a little crookedly. “I’m a vain man, maybe, but it doesna go that deep, I hope.”
“But you—” I began. He took both my hands in both of his and stood up, drawing me to my feet. I reached up and smoothed away the single tear that had rolled down his cheek. The tiny smear of moisture was warm on my thumb.
“I was crying for joy, my Sassenach,” he said softly. He reached out slowly and took my face between his hands. “And thanking God that I have two hands. That I have two hands to hold you with. To serve you with, to love you with. Thanking God that I am a whole man still, because of you.”
I put my own hands up, cupping his.
“But why wouldn’t you be?” I asked. And then I remembered the butcherous assortment of saws and knives I seen among Beaton’s implements at Leoch, and I knew. Knew what I had forgotten when I had been faced with the emergency. That in the days before antibiotics, the usual—the only—cure for an infected extremity was amputation of the limb.
“Oh, Jamie,” I said. I was weak-kneed at the thought, and sat down on the stool rather abruptly.
“I never thought of it,” I said, still stunned. “I honestly never thought of it.” I looked up at him. “Jamie. If I’d thought of it, I probably would have done it. To save your life.”
“It’s not how…they don’t do it that way, then, in…your time?”
I shook my head. “No. There are drugs to stop infections. So I didn’t even think of it,” I marveled. I looked up suddenly. “Did you?”
He nodded. “I was expecting it. It’s why I asked you to let me die, that once. I was thinking of it, in between the bouts of muzzy-headedness, and—just for that one moment—I didna think I could bear to live like that. It’s what happened to Ian, ye know.”
“No, really?” I was shocked. “He told me he’d lost it by grape shot, but I didn’t think to ask about the details.”
“Aye, a grape-shot wound in the leg went bad. The surgeons took it off to keep it from poisoning his blood.” He paused.
“Ian does verra well, all things considered. But”—he hesitated, pulling on the stiff ring finger—“I knew him before. He’s as good as he is only because of Jenny. She…keeps him whole.” He smiled sheepishly at me. “As ye did for me. I canna think why women bother.”
“Well,” I said softly, “women like to do that.”
He laughed quietly and drew me close. “Aye. God knows why.”
We stood entwined for a bit, not moving. My forehead rested on his chest, my arms around his back, and I could feel his heart beating, slow and strong. Finally he stirred and released me.
“I’ve something to show ye,” he said. He turned and opened the small drawer of the table, removing a folded letter which he handed to me.
It was a letter of introduction, from Abbot Alexander, commending his nephew, James Fraser, to the attention of the Chevalier-St. George—otherwise known as His Majesty King James of Scotland—as a most proficient linguist and translator.
“It’s a place,” Jamie said, watching as I folded the letter. “And we’ll need a place to go, soon. But what ye told me on the hill at Craigh na Dun—that was true, no?”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “It’s true.”
He took the letter from me and tapped it thoughtfully on his knee.
“Then this”—he waved the letter—“is not without a bit of danger.”
“It could be.”
He tossed the parchment into the drawer and sat staring after it for a moment. Then he looked up and the dark blue eyes held mine. He laid a hand along my cheek.
“I meant it, Claire,” he said quietly. “My life is yours. And it’s yours to decide what we shall do, where we go next. To France, to Italy, even back to Scotland. My heart has been yours since first I saw ye, and you’ve held my soul and body between your two hands here, and kept them safe. We shall go as ye say.”
There was a light knock at the door, and we sprang apart like guilty lovers. I dabbed hastily at my hair, thinking that a monastery, while an excellent convalescent home, lacked something as a romantic retreat.
A lay brother came in at Jamie’s bidding, and dumped a large leather saddlebag on the table. “From MacRannoch of Eldridge Manor,” he said with a grin. “For my lady Broch Tuarach.” He bowed then and left, leaving a faint breath of seawater and cold air behind.
I unbuckled the leather straps, curious to see what MacRannoch might have sent. Inside were three things: a note, unaddressed and unsigned, a small package addressed to Jamie, and the cured skin of a wolf, smelling strongly of the tanner’s arts.
The note read: “For a virtuous woman is a pearl of great price, and her value is greater than rubies.”
Jamie had opened the other parcel. He held something small and glimmering in one hand and was quizzically regarding the wolf pelt.
“A bit odd, that. Sir Marcus has sent ye a wolf pelt, Sassenach, and me a pearl bracelet. Perhaps he’s got his labels mixed?”
The bracelet was a lovely thing, a single row of large baroque pearls, set between twisted gold chains.
“No,” I said, admiring it. “He’s got it right. The bracelet goes with the necklace you gave me when we wed. He gave that to your mother; did you know?”
“No, I didn’t,” he answered softly, touching the pearls. “Father gave them to me for my wife, whoever she was to be”—and a quick smile tugged at his mouth—“but he didna tell me where they came from.”
I remembered Sir Marcus’s help on the night we had burst so unceremoniously into his house, and the look on his face when we had left him next day. I could see from Jamie’s face that he also was remembering the baronet who might have been his father. He reached out and took my hand, fastening the bracelet about my wrist.
“But it’s not for me!” I protested.
“Aye, it is,” he said firmly. “It isna suitable for a man to send jewelry to a respectable married woman, so he gave it to me. But clearly it’s for you.” He looked at me and grinned. “For one thing, it won’t go round my wrist, even scrawny as I am.”
He turned to the bundled wolfskin and shook it out.
“Whyever did MacRannoch send ye this, though?” He draped the shaggy wolfhide about his shoulders and I recoiled with a sharp cry. The head had been carefully skinned and cured as well, and equipped with a pair of yellow glass eyes, it was glaring nastily at me from Jamie’s left shoulder.
“Ugh!” I said. “It looks just like it did when it was alive!”
Jamie, following the direction of my glance, turned his head and found himself suddenly face-to-face with the snarling countenance. With a startled exclamation, he jerked the skin off and flung it across the room.
“Jesus God,” he said, and crossed himself. The skin lay on the floor, glowering balefully in the candlelight.
“What d’ye mean, ‘when it was alive,’ Sassenach? A personal friend, was it?” Jamie asked, eyeing it narrowly.
I told him then the things I had had no chance to tell him; about the wolf, and the other wolves, and Hector, and the snow, and the cottage with the bear, and the argument with Sir Marcus, and the appearance of Murtagh, and the cattle, and the long wait on the hillside in the pink mist of the snow-swept night, waiting to see whether he was dead or alive.
Thin or not, his chest was broad and his arms warm and strong. He pressed my face into his shoulder and rocked me while I sobbed. I tried for a bit to control myself, but he only hugged me harder, and said small and gentle things into the cloud of my hair, and I finally gave up and cried with the complete abandon of a child, until I was worn to utter limpness and hiccupping exhaustion.
“Come to think of it, I’ve a wee giftie for ye, myself, Sassenach,” he said, smoothing my hair. I sniffed and wiped my nose on my skirt, having nothing else handy.
“I’m sorry I haven’t got anything to give you,” I said, watching as he stood up and began to dig through the tumbled bedclothes. Probably looking for a handkerchief, I thought, sniffing some more.
“Aside from such minor gifts as my life, my manhood, and my right hand?” he asked dryly. “They’ll do nicely, mo duinne.” He straightened up with a novice’s robe in one hand. “Undress.”
My mouth fell open. “What?”
“Undress, Sassenach, and put this on.” He handed me the robe, grinning. “Or do ye want me to turn my back first?”