The job complete, Jamie extended the stick toward the budding fire and nearly dropped it. Roger grabbed for it, and felt through the stick the tremor that shook Jamie’s hand and arm.
“You all right?” he said, and reached automatically to feel Jamie’s forehead. Fraser jerked back, surprised and mildly affronted.
“Aye,” he said, but then paused. “Aye, well . . . I do feel a bit queer,” he admitted.
It was hard to tell in the uncertain light, but Roger thought he looked a good bit more than queer.
“Lie down for a bit, why don’t you?” he suggested, trying to sound casual. “Sleep if ye can; I’ll wake ye when the food’s ready.”
Jamie didn’t argue, which alarmed Roger more than anything else so far. He curled himself into a drift of leaves, moving his wounded leg with a care that told Roger just how painful it was.
The snakemeat dripped and sizzled, and in spite of a slight distaste at the notion of eating snake, Roger felt his stomach rumble in anticipation; damned if it didn’t smell like roasting chicken! Not for the first time, he reflected on the thin line that separated appetite from starvation; give the most finicky gourmand a day or two without food, and he’d be eating slugs and lizards without the least hesitation; Roger had, on the journey back from his surveying trip.
He kept an eye on Jamie; he didn’t move, but Roger could see him shiver now and then, in spite of the now-leaping flames. His eyes were closed. His face looked red, but that might be only firelight—no telling his real color.
By the time the meat had cooked through, it was full dark. Roger fetched water, then heaped armloads of dried grass and wood on the fire, making the flames dance and crackle, higher than his head; if the other men were anywhere within a mile, they should see it.
Fraser roused himself with difficulty to eat. It was clear that he had no appetite, but he forced himself to chew and swallow, each bite a dogged effort. What was it? Roger wondered. Simple stubbornness? A notion of vengeance against the snake? Or perhaps some Highland superstition, the idea that consuming the reptile’s flesh might be a cure for its bite?
“Did the Indians ken aught to do for snakebite?” Jamie asked abruptly, lending some credence to the last guess.
“Yes,” Roger answered cautiously. “They had roots and herbs that they mixed with dung or hot cornmeal, to make a poultice.”
“Did it work?” Fraser held a bit of meat in his hand, wrist drooping as though too tired to raise it to his mouth.
“I only saw it done twice. Once, it seemed to work perfectly—no swelling, no pain; the little girl was quite all right by evening of the same day. The other time—it didn’t work.” He had only seen the hide-wrapped body taken from the longhouse, not witnessed the grisly details of the death. Evidently he was going to get another chance to see the effects of snakebite up close, though.
“And what would they do in your time?”
“Give you an injection of something called antivenin.”
“An injection, aye?” Jamie looked unenthusiastic. “Claire did that to me, once. I didna like it a bit.”
“Did it work?”
Jamie merely grunted in reply, and tore off another small morsel of meat between his teeth.
In spite of his worry, Roger wolfed his share of the meat, and the uneaten part of Jamie’s meal as well. The sky spread black and starry overhead, and a cold wind moved through the trees, chilling hands and face.
He buried the remnants of the snake—all they needed now was for some large carnivore to show up, drawn by the smell of blood—and tended the fire, all the time listening for a shout from the darkness. No sound came but the moaning of wind and cracking of branches; they were alone.
Fraser had pulled off his hunting shirt in spite of the chill, and was sitting with his eyes closed, swaying slightly. Roger squatted next to him and touched his arm. Jesus! The man was blazing hot to the touch.
He opened his eyes, though, and smiled faintly. Roger held up a cup of water; Jamie nodded and took the cup, fumbling. The leg was grotesquely swollen below the knee, nearly twice its normal size. The skin showed irregular dark red blotches, as though some succubus had come to place its hungry mouth upon the flesh, then left unsatisfied.
Roger wondered uneasily whether he might, perhaps, be wrong. He’d been convinced that the past couldn’t be changed; ergo, the time and manner of Fraser’s death was set—some four years in the future. If it weren’t for that certainty, though, he thought, he’d be bloody worried by the look of the man. Just how certain was he, after all?
“Ye could be wrong.” Jamie had put down the cup and was regarding him with a steady blue gaze.
“About what?” he asked, startled to hear his thought spoken aloud. Had he been muttering to himself, not realizing it?
“About the changing. Ye thought it wasna possible to change history, ye said. But what if ye’re wrong?”
Roger bent to poke the fire.
“I’m not wrong,” he said firmly, as much to himself as to Fraser. “Think, man. You and Claire—you tried to stop Charles Stuart—change what he did—and ye couldn’t. It can’t be done.”
“That’s no quite right,” Fraser objected. He leaned back, eyes half-hooded against the fire’s brightness.
“What’s not right?”
“It’s true we failed to keep him from the Rising—but that didna depend only on us and on him; there were a good many other folk had to do wi’ that. The chiefs who followed him, the damn Irishmen who flattered him—even Louis; him and his gold.”
He waved a hand, dismissing it. “But that’s neither here nor there. Ye said Claire and I couldna stop him—and it’s true, we couldna stop the beginning. But we might have stopped the end.”
“Culloden, you mean?” Roger stared into the fire, remembering dimly that long-ago day when Claire had first told him and Brianna the story of the stones—and Jamie Fraser. Yes, she had spoken of a last opportunity—the chance to prevent that final slaughter of the clans . . .
He glanced up at Fraser.
“By killing Charles Stuart?”
“Aye. If we had done so—but neither she nor I could bring ourselves to it.” His eyes were nearly closed, but he turned his head restlessly, clearly uncomfortable. “I have wondered many times since, if that was decency—or cowardice.”
“Or maybe something else,” Roger said abruptly. “You don’t know. If Claire had tried to poison him, I’m betting something would have happened; the dish would have spilled, a dog would have eaten it, someone else would have died—it wouldn’t have made a difference!”
Fraser’s eyes opened slowly.
“So ye think it’s all destined, do ye? A man has no free choice at all?” He rubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand. “And when ye chose to come back, for Brianna, and then again, for her and the wean—it wasna your choice at all, aye? Ye were meant to do it?”
“I—” Roger stopped, hands clenched on his thighs. The smell of the Gloriana’s bilges seemed suddenly to rise above the scent of burning wood. Then he relaxed, and gave a short laugh. “Hell of a time to get philosophical, isn’t it?”
“Aye, well,” Fraser spoke quite mildly. “It’s only that I may not have another time.” Before Roger could expostulate, he went on. “If there is nay free choice . . . then there is neither sin nor redemption, aye?”
“Jesus,” Roger muttered, shoving the hair back from his forehead. “Come out with Hawkeye and end up under a tree with bloody Augustine of Hippo!”
Jamie ignored him, intent on his point.
“We chose—Claire and I. We wouldna do murder. We wouldna shed the blood of one man; but does the blood of Culloden then rest on us? We wouldna commit the sin—but does the sin find us, still?”
“Of course not.” Roger rose to his feet, restless, and stood poking the fire. “What happened at Culloden—it wasn’t your fault, how could it be? All the men who took part in that—Murray, Cumberland, all the chiefs . . . it was not any one man’s doing!”
“So ye think it is all meant? We’re doomed or saved from the moment of birth, and not a thing can change it? And you a minister’s son!” Fraser gave a dry sort of chuckle.
“Yes,” Roger said, feeling at once awkward and unaccountably angry. “I mean no, I don’t think that. It’s only . . . well, if something’s already happened one way, how can it happen another way?”
“It’s only you that thinks it’s happened,” Fraser pointed out.
“I don’t think it, I know!”
“Mmphm. Aye, because ye’ve come from the other side of it; it’s behind you. So perhaps you couldna change something—but I could, because it’s still ahead of me?”
Roger rubbed a hand hard over his face.
“That makes—” he began, and then stopped. How could he say it made no sense? Sometimes he thought nothing in the world made sense anymore.
“Maybe,” he said wearily. “God knows; I don’t.”
“Aye. Well, I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.”
Roger glanced sharply at him, hearing a strange note in his voice.
“What d’ye mean by that?”
“Ye think ye ken that I died three years from now,” Fraser said calmly. “If I die tonight, then you’re wrong, aye? What ye think happened won’t have happened—so the past can be changed, aye?”
“You’re not going to die!” Roger snapped. He glowered at Fraser, daring him to contradict.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” Fraser said. “But I think I’ll take a bit o’ the whisky now. Draw the cork for me, aye? My fingers willna grasp it.”
Roger’s own hands were far from steady. Perhaps it was only the heat of Fraser’s fever that made his own skin feel cold as he held the flask for his father-in-law to drink. He doubted that whisky was recommended for snakebite, but it didn’t seem likely to make much difference now.
“Lie down,” he said gruffly, when Jamie had finished. “I’ll fetch a bit more wood.”
He was unable to keep still; there was plenty of wood to hand, yet still he prowled the darkness, keeping just within sight of the blazing fire.
He had had a lot of nights like this; alone under a sweep of sky so vast that it made him dizzy to look up, chilled to the bone, moving to keep warm. The nights when he had wrestled with choice, too restless to lie in a comforting burrow of leaves, too tormented to sleep.
The choice had been clear then, but far from easy to make: Brianna on the one hand, and all that came with her; love and danger, doubt and fear. And on the other, surety. The knowledge of who and what he was—a certainty he had forsaken, for the sake of the woman who was his . . . and the child who might be.
He had chosen. Dammit, he had chosen! Nothing had forced him, he had made the choice himself. And if it meant remaking himself from the ground up, then he’d bloody well chosen that, too! And he’d chosen to kiss Morag, too. His mouth twisted at the thought; he’d had even less notion of the consequences of that small act.