The horses must be dead; I knew that. Why weren’t we? I breathed in the stink of burning flesh, and a tiny shudder arose, somewhere deep inside me. Were we alive now, only because we were doomed to die in four years? When it came our turn, would we lie in the burnt ruins of our house, shells of charred and reeking flesh?
Burnt to bones, whispered the voice of my memory. Tears ran down my face with the rain, but they were distant tears—for the horses, for my mother—not for myself. Not yet.
There were blue veins beneath the surface of my skin, more prominent than before. On the backs of my hands, they traced a roadmap . . . in the tender flesh behind my knee, they showed in webs and traceries; along my shin, one large vein swelled snakelike, distended. I pressed a finger on it; it was soft and disappeared, but came back the instant I removed the finger.
The inner workings of my body were becoming slowly more visible, the taut skin thinning, leaving me vulnerable, with everything outside, exposed to the elements, that once was safely sheltered in the snug casing of the body. Bone and blood push through . . . there was an oozing graze on the top of my foot.
Jamie was back, drenched to the skin and breathless from the climb. Both his shoes were gone, I saw.
“Judas is dead,” he said, sitting down beside me. He took my cold hand in his own cold hand and pressed it hard.
“Poor thing,” I said, and the tears ran faster, warm streams mingling with cold rain. “He knew, didn’t he? He always hated thunder and lightning, always.”
Jamie put an arm round my shoulders and pressed my head against his chest, making little soothing noises.
“And Gideon?” I asked at last, raising my head and making an effort to wipe my nose on a fold of sodden cloak. Jamie shook his head, with a small, incredulous smile.
“He’s alive,” he said. “He’s burnt down the side of his right shoulder and foreleg and his mane’s singed off entirely.” He picked up a fold of his own tattered cloak and tried to wipe my face, with no better results than I had had myself. “I expect it will do wonders for his temper,” he said, trying to make a joke of it.
“I suppose so.” I was too worn out and shaken to laugh, but I managed a small smile, and it felt good. “Can you lead him down, do you think? I—I have some ointment. It’s good for burns.”
“Aye, I think so.” He gave me a hand and helped me stand up. I turned to brush down my crumpled skirts, and as I did so, caught sight of something.
“Look,” I said, my voice no more than a whisper. “Jamie—look.”
Ten feet away, up the slope from us, stood a big balsam fir, its top sheared cleanly away and half its remaining branches charred and smoking. Wedged between one branch and the stump of the trunk was a huge, rounded mass. It was half black, the tissues turned to carbon—but the hair on the other half lay in sodden white spikes, the cream-white color of trilliums.
Jamie stood looking up at the corpse of the bear, his mouth half open. Slowly he closed it, and shook his head. He turned to me, then, and looked past me, toward the distant mountains, where the retreating lightning flashed silently.
“They do say,” he said softly, “that a great storm portends the death of a king.”
He touched my face, very gently.
“Wait here, Sassenach, while I fetch the horse. We’ll go home.”
THE SEASON CHANGED, from one hour to the next. She had gone to sleep in the cool balm of an Indian summer evening, and wakened in the middle of the night to the sharp bite of autumn, her feet freezing under the single quilt. Still drowsy, she couldn’t fall sleep again, not without more covers.
She dragged slit-eyed out of bed, padded over the icy floor to check Jemmy. He was warm enough, sunk deep into his tiny featherbed, the quilt drawn up around his small pink ears. She laid a gentle hand on his back, waiting for the reassurance of the rise and fall of his breath. Once, twice, once more.
She rummaged for an extra quilt and spread it on the bed, reached for a cup of water to ease her dry throat, and realized with a grunt of annoyance that it was empty. She thought with longing of crawling back into bed, sinking into deep, warm slumber—but not dying of thirst.
There was a bucket of well water by the stoop. Yawning and grimacing, she slid the bolt from its brackets and set it gently down—though Jem slept so soundly at night, there wasn’t much danger of waking him.
Still, she opened the door with care and stepped out, shivering slightly as the cold air twitched the shift about her legs. She bent and groped in the darkness. No bucket. Where—
She saw a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye and whirled. For an instant, she thought it was Obadiah Henderson, sitting on the bench beside her door, and her heart clenched like a fist as he stood up. Then she realized, and was in Roger’s arms before her mind could consciously sort out the details of him.
Pressed against him, speechless, she had time to notice things: the arch of his collarbone against her face, the smell of clothes gone so long worn, so long unwashed that they didn’t smell even of sweat any longer, but of the wood he walked through and the earth he slept upon, and mostly of the bitter smoke he breathed. The strength of his arm about her and the rasp of his beard on her skin. The cracked cold leather of his shoes beneath her bare toes, and the shape of the bones of his feet within them.
“It’s you,” she said, and was crying. “You’re home!”
“Aye, I’m home,” he whispered in her ear. “You’re well? Jem’s well?”
She relaxed her hold on his ribs and he smiled at her, so strange to see his smile through a growth of thick black beard, the curve of his lips familiar in the moonlight.
“We’re fine. You’re all right?” She sniffed, eyes overflowing as she looked at him. “What are you doing out here, for heaven’s sake? Why didn’t you knock?”
“Aye. I’m fine. I didn’t want to scare ye. Thought I’d sleep out here, knock in the morning. Why are ye crying?”
She realized then that he wasn’t whispering from any desire to avoid waking Jem; what voice he had was a ragged husk, warped and breathless. And yet he spoke clearly, the words unforced, without the painful hesitation he had had.
“You can talk,” she said, wiping hastily at her eyes with the back of a wrist. “I mean—better.” Once, she would have hesitated to touch his throat, fearful of his feelings, but instinct knew better than to waste the sudden intimacy of shock. The strain might come again, and they be strangers, but for a moment, for this moment in the dark, she could say anything, do anything, and she put her fingers on the warm ragged scar, touched the incision that had saved his life, a clean white line through the whiskers.
“Does it still hurt to talk?”
“It hurts,” he said, in the faint croaking rasp, and his eyes met hers, dark and soft in the moonlight. “But I can. I will—Brianna.”
She stepped back, one hand on his arm, unwilling to let go.
“Come in,” she said. “It’s cold out here.”
I HAD ANY NUMBER of objections to hearthfire, ranging from splinters under the fingernails and pitch on the hands to blisters, burns, and the sheer infuriating contrariness of the element. I would, however, say two things in its favor: it was undeniably warm, and it cast the act of love in a light of such dim beauty that all the hesitations of nak*dness could safely be forgotten.
Our mingled shadows flowed together on the wall, here a limb, there the curve of back or haunch showed clean, some part of an undulating beast. Jamie’s head rose clear, a great maned creature looming over me, back arched in his extremity.
I reached up across the stretch of glowing skin and trembling muscle, brushed the sparking hairs of arms and chest, to bury my hands in the warmth of his hair and pull him down gasping to the dark hollow of my br**sts.
I kept my eyes half-closed, my legs as well, unwilling to surrender his body, to give up the illusion of oneness—if illusion it was. How many more times might I hold him so, even in the enchantment of firelight?
I clung with all my might to him, and to the dying pulse of my own flesh. But joy grasped is joy vanished, and within moments I was no more than myself. The dark starburst on my ankle showed clearly, even in firelight.
I slackened my grip on his shoulders and touched the rough whorls of his hair with tenderness. He turned his head and kissed my breast, then stirred and sighed and slid sideways.
“And they say hen’s teeth are rare,” he said, gingerly touching a deep bite-mark on one shoulder.
I laughed, in spite of myself.
“As rare as a rooster’s cock, I suppose.” I raised myself on one elbow and peered toward the hearth.
“What is it, wee hen?”
“Just making sure my clothes won’t catch fire.” What with one thing and another, I hadn’t much noticed where he’d thrown my garments, but they seemed to be a safe distance from the flames; the skirt was in a small heap by the bed, the bodice and shift somehow had ended up in separate corners of the room. My brassiere-strip was nowhere to be seen.
Light flickered on the whitewashed walls, and the bed was full of shadows.
“You are beautiful,” he whispered to me.
“If you say so.”
“Do ye not believe me? Have I ever lied to you?”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean—if you say it, then it’s true. You make it true.”
He sighed and shifted, easing us into comfort. A log cracked suddenly in the hearth, sending up a spray of gold sparks, and subsided, hissing as the heat struck a hidden seam of damp. I watched the new wood turn black, then red, blazing into white-hot light.
“Do ye say it of me, Sassenach?” he asked suddenly. He sounded shy, and I turned my head to look up at him in surprise.
“Do I say what? That you’re beautiful?” My mouth curved involuntarily, and he smiled in return.
“Well . . . not that. But that ye can bear my looks, at least.”
I traced the faint white line of the scar across his ribs, left by a sword, long ago. The longer, thicker scar of the bayonet that had ripped the length of one thigh. The arm that held me, browned and roughened, the hairs of it bleached white-gold with long days of sun and work. Near my hand, his c*ck curled between his thighs, gone soft and small and tender now, in its nest of auburn hair.
“You’re beautiful to me, Jamie,” I said softly, at last. “So beautiful, you break my heart.”
His hand traced the knobs of my backbone, one at a time.
“But I am an auld man,” he said, smiling. “Or should be. I’ve white hairs in my head; my beard’s gone gray.”
“Silver,” I said, brushing the soft stubble on his chin, parti-colored as a quilt. “In bits.”
“Gray,” he said firmly. “And scabbit-looking with it. And yet . . .” His eyes softened as he looked at me. “Yet I burn when I come to ye, Sassenach—and will, I think, ’til we two be burned to ashes.”
“Is that poetry?” I asked cautiously. “Or do you mean it literally?”