He touched my hand, lifted his own and touched my hair, my face, looking into my eyes as though to capture my image in this moment—just in case it should be his last glimpse of me.
“There may come a day when you and I shall part again,” he said softly, at last, and his fingers brushed my lips, light as the touch of a falling leaf. He smiled faintly. “But it willna be today.”
The notes of a bugle came through the trees, far away, but piercing as a woodpecker’s call. I turned, looking. Brianna sat still as a statue on her rock, looking toward the wood.
SIGNAL FOR ACTION
Note, when on the March the discharge of three Pieces of Cannon will be the signal to form the line of Battle, and five the signal for Action.
—Order of Battle, Wm. Tryon
ROGER WALKED SLOWLY away from the Regulators’ camp, willing himself neither to run nor to look back. A few shouted insults and half-meant threats were hurled in his direction, but by the time he was well into the trees, the crowd had lost interest in him, drawn back into its buzzing controversy. It was past noon, and a hot day for May, but he found his shirt sweat-soaked and clinging to him in a manner more befitting July.
He stopped as soon as he was out of sight. He was breathing fast, and felt dizzy, slightly sick with the aftereffects of adrenaline. In the center of that ring of hostile faces, he hadn’t felt a thing—not a thing. Safely away, though, the muscles of his legs were trembling and his fists ached from clenching. He uncurled them, flexed his stiff fingers, and tried to slow his breathing.
Maybe a bit more like the night-time Channel and the anti-aircraft guns than he’d thought, after all.
He’d made it back, though; would be going home to his wife and son. The thought gave him a queer pang; bone-deep relief, and an even deeper grief, quite unexpected, for his father, who hadn’t been so lucky.
A slight breeze played about him, lifting the damp hairs on his neck with a breath of welcome coolness. He’d sweated through shirt and coat together, and his damp stock felt suddenly as though it would strangle him. He shucked his coat and pawed at the neckband, jerking it off with shaking fingers, then stood with his eyes closed and the piece of cloth dangling from his hand, breathing great draughts of air, until the momentary sense of nausea subsided.
He called to mind his last sight of Brianna, framed in the doorway, Jemmy in her arms. He saw her lashes wet with tears and the baby’s round solemn eyes, and felt a deep echo of the feeling he had experienced in the cabin with Husband; a vision of beauty, a conviction of joy that soothed his mind and eased his soul. He would go back to them; that was all that mattered.
After a moment, he opened his eyes, picked up his coat, and set off, beginning to feel more settled in body, if not in mind, as he made his way slowly back toward the creek.
He hadn’t brought back Husband to Jamie, but he had achieved as much as Jamie himself might have. It was possible that the mob—they were no army, whatever Tryon thought of them—would in fact fall apart, disperse now and go home, deprived of even the faint semblance of leadership Husband had provided. He hoped so.
Or they might not. Another man might rise out of that seething mob, one fit to take command. A thought struck him, with a phrase recalled from the confusion near the cabin.
“D’ye come to offer different terms than Caldwell has?” The man with the black beard had asked him that. And earlier, dimly heard through the pounding at the door of the cabin, as he stood in prayer with Husband—“There’s no time for this!” someone had shouted. “Caldwell’s come back from the Governor—” and someone else had added, in tones of desperation, “An hour, Hermon! He’s given us an hour, no more!”
“Shit,” he said, aloud. David Caldwell, the Presbyterian minister who had married him and Bree. It must be. Evidently the man had gone to speak with Tryon on the Regulators’ behalf—and been rebuffed, with a warning.
“An hour, no more.” An hour to disperse, to leave peaceably? Or an hour to reply to some ultimatum?
He glanced up; the sun stood overhead, just a bit past noon. He pulled on his coat and stuffed the discarded stock in his pocket, next to the unused flag of truce. Whatever it meant, that hour’s grace, it was clearly time to be going.
The day was still bright and hot, the smell of grass and tree-leaves pungent with rising sap. Now, though, his sense of urgency and his memory of the Regulators, buzzing like hornets, deprived him of any appreciation of the beauties of nature. Even so, some trace of peace remained deep within him as he made his way quickly toward the creek; a faint echo of what he had felt in the cabin.
That odd sense of awe had stayed with him, hidden but accessible, like a smooth stone in his pocket. He turned it over in his mind as he made his way toward the creek, largely oblivious to clutching brambles and brush in his path.
How peculiar, he thought. Nothing whatever had happened, and in fact the entire experience had felt quite ordinary—nothing otherworldly or supernatural about it. And yet, having seen by that particular clear light, he could not forget it. Could he explain it to Brianna? he wondered.
A trailing branch brushed past his face and he reached to push it aside, feeling even as he did so a faint surprise at the cool green gloss of the leaves, the odd delicacy of their edges, jagged as knives but paper-light. An echo, faint but recognizable, of what he had seen before, that piercing beauty. Did Claire see that? he thought suddenly. Did she see the touch of beauty in the bodies beneath her hands? Was that perhaps how—and why—she was a healer?
Husband had seen it, too, he knew; had shared that perception. And seeing it, had been confirmed in his Quaker principles, and had left the field, unable either to do violence or to countenance it.
And what of his own principles? He supposed they were unchanged; if he hadn’t meant to shoot anyone before, he could mean it still less, now.
The scents of spring still hung in the air, and a small blue butterfly floated past his knee with no apparent sense of care. It was still a fine spring day, but all illusion of tranquillity had vanished. The smell of sweat, of dirt and fear and anger, that seemed to hang in the air of the encampment, was still in his nostrils, mingling with the cleaner scents of trillium and water.
What about Jamie Fraser’s principles? he wondered, turning past the thicket of willow that marked the ford. He often wondered what made Fraser tick, drawn both by a personal liking for the man, and by his colder historian’s curiosity. Roger had made his own decision regarding this conflict—or had it made for him. He couldn’t in conscience intend harm to anyone, though he supposed he could defend his own life, if needful. But Jamie?
He was fairly sure that Jamie’s sympathies, as such, lay with the Regulators. He thought it likely also that his father-in-law had no sense of personal loyalty to the Crown; oath or no oath, surely no man could have lived through Culloden and its aftermath and emerged with any notion that he owed the King of England fealty, let alone anything more substantial. No, not to the Crown, but perhaps to William Tryon?
No loyalty of a personal nature there, either—but there was definitely an obligation felt. Tryon had summoned Jamie Fraser, and he had come. Given conditions as they stood, he had had little choice about that. Having come, though—would he fight?
How could he not? He must lead his men, and if it came to a battle—Roger glanced over his shoulder, as though the cloud of anger that hung over the Regulators’ army might be now visible, swelling dark above the treetops—yes, he would have to fight, no matter what his private feelings on the matter might be.
Roger tried to envision himself aiming a musket at a man with whom he had no quarrel and pulling the trigger. Or worse, riding down a neighbor, sword in hand. Smashing in Kenny Lindsay’s head, for instance? Imagination failed completely. No wonder that Jamie had sought to enlist Husband’s help in ending the conflict before it began!
Still, Claire had told him once that Jamie had fought in France as a mercenary, as a young man. He had presumably killed men with whom he had no quarrel. How—
He pushed through the willows, and heard their voices before he saw them. A group of women were working on the far side of the stream; camp-followers. Some crouched bare-legged in the shallows, washing, others were carrying wet laundry up the bank, to be hung from trees and bushes. His eye passed casually beyond them, then jerked back, caught by . . . what? What was it?
There. He couldn’t say why he had spotted her at all—there was nothing even faintly distinctive about her. And yet she stood out among the other women as though she had been outlined, drawn with black ink to stand out against the backdrop of stream and budding foliage.
“Morag,” he whispered, and his heart thumped suddenly with a small shock of joy. She was alive.
He was halfway through the screen of willows before it occurred to him to wonder what he was doing, let alone why he was doing it. It was too late by then, though; he was already out on the bank, walking openly toward them.
Several of the women glanced at him; a few half-froze, watchful. But he was only one man, unarmed. There were more than twenty women by the river, their own men nearby. They watched him, curious, but not alarmed, as he splashed across the shallow creek.
She stood stock-still, knee-deep in the water, her skirts kirtled high, and watched him come. She knew him, he could see, but she gave him no sign of acknowledgment.
The other women fell back slightly, wary of him. She stood among the darting dragonflies, strands of brown hair poking out from her cap, a wet smock held forgotten in her hands. He stepped up out of the water and stood before her, wet to the knees.
“Mrs. MacKenzie,” he said softly. “Well met.”
A tiny smile touched the corner of her mouth. Her eyes were brown; he hadn’t noticed that before.
“Mr. MacKenzie,” she said, and gave him a small nod. His mind was working, thinking what to do. He must warn her, but how? Not before all the other women.
He stood helpless and awkward for a moment, not knowing what to do, then, inspired, he stooped and seized an armload of dripping laundry where it swirled in the water near her legs. He turned and clambered up the bank with it, Morag following in sudden haste.
“What are ye doing?” she demanded. “Here, come back wi’ my clothes!”
He carried the wad of wet clothes a short way into the trees, then dropped them casually into a bush, mindful enough of the effort of washing not to let them drag in the dirt. Morag was right behind him, face flushed with indignation.
“What d’ye think you’re about, ye thievin’ clotheid?” she demanded heatedly. “Give those back!”
“I’m not stealing them,” Roger assured her. “I only wanted to talk to you alone for a bit.”
“Oh, aye?” She gave him a suspicious glance. “What about, then?”
He smiled at her; she was still thin, he saw, but her arms were brown and her small face a healthy color—she was clean, and she had lost the pallid, bruised look she had had on board the Gloriana.
“I wished to ask if you are well,” he said softly. “And your child—Jemmy?” To speak the name gave him an odd frisson, and for a split second he saw the image of Brianna in the doorway, her son in her arms, laid over his memory of Morag, holding her baby in the dimness of the hold, ready to kill or die to keep him.