Some small echo stirred in his mind, a soft voice far back in the shadows of his memory.
“. . . what I was born does not matter, only what I will make of myself, only what I will become.”
Who’d written that? he wondered. Montaigne? Locke? One of the bloody Enlightenment lads, them and their notions of destiny and the individual? He’d like to see what they had to say about time traveling! Then he remembered where he’d read it, and the marrow of his spine went cold.
“This is the grimoire of the witch, Geillis. It is a witch’s name, and I take it for my own; what I was born does not matter, only what I will make of myself, only what I will become.”
“Right!” he said aloud, defiant. “Right, and you couldn’t change things either, could you, Grandma?”
A sound came from the forest behind him, and the hair rose on the back of his neck before he recognized it; it wasn’t laughter, as he’d thought at first—only a panther’s distant cry.
She had, though, he thought suddenly. True, she’d not managed to make a king of Charles Stuart—but she’d done a good number of other things. And now he came to think on the matter . . . She and Claire had both done something guaranteed to change things; they’d borne children, to men of another time. Brianna . . . William Buccleigh—and when he thought of the effect those two births had had on his own life, let alone anything else . . .
That had to change things, didn’t it? He sat down slowly on a fallen log, feeling the bark cold and damp under him. Yes, it did. To name one minor effect, his own bloody existence was the result of Geilie Duncan’s taking charge of her destiny. If Geilie hadn’t borne a child to Dougal MacKenzie . . . of course, she hadn’t chosen to do that.
Did intention make any difference, though? Or was that exactly the point he’d been arguing with Jamie Fraser?
He got up and circled the fire quietly, peering into the shadows. Fraser was lying down, a humped shape in the darkness, very still.
He walked lightly, but his feet crunched on the needles. Fraser didn’t twitch. His eyes were closed. The blotchiness had spread to his face. Roger thought his features had a thick, congested look, lips and eyelids slightly swollen. In the wavering light, it was impossible to tell whether he was still breathing.
Roger knelt and shook him, hard.
“Hey! Are ye still alive?” He’d meant to say it jokingly, but the fear in his voice was apparent to his own ears.
Fraser didn’t move. Then one eye cracked open.
“Aye,” he muttered. “But I’m no enjoying it.”
Roger didn’t leave again. He wiped Jamie’s face with a wet cloth, offered more whisky—which was refused—then sat beside the recumbent form, listening for each rasping breath.
Much against his will, he found himself making plans, proceeding from one unwelcome assumption to the next. What if the worst happened? Against his will, he thought it possible; he had seen several people die who didn’t look nearly as bad as Fraser did just now.
If the worst should happen, and the others not have returned, he would have to bury Jamie. He could neither carry the body nor leave it exposed; not with panthers or other animals nearby.
His eye roamed uneasily over the surroundings. Rocks, trees, brush—everything looked alien, the shapes half-masked by darkness, outlines seeming to waver and change in the flickering glow, the wind moaning past like a prowling beast.
There, maybe; the end of a half-fallen tree loomed jagged in the darkness, leaning at an angle. He could scrape a shallow trench, perhaps, then lever the tree and let it fall to cover the temporary grave . . .
He pressed his head hard against his knees.
“No!” he whispered. “Please, no!”
The thought of telling Bree, telling Claire, was a physical pain, stabbing him in chest and throat. It wasn’t only them, either—what about Jem? What about Fergus and Marsali, Lizzie and her father, the Bugs, the Lindsays, the other families on the Ridge? They all looked to Fraser for confidence and direction; what would they do without him?
Fraser shifted, and groaned with the movement. Roger laid a hand on his shoulder, and he stilled.
Don’t go, he thought, the unspoken words balled tight in his throat. Stay with us. Stay with me.
He sat for a long time, his hand resting on Fraser’s shoulder. He had the absurd thought that he was somehow holding Fraser, keeping him anchored to the earth. If he held on ’til the sunrise, all would be well; if he lifted his hand, that would be the end.
The fire was burning low now, but he put off from moment to moment the necessity of tending it, unwilling to let go.
“MacKenzie?” It was no more than a murmur, but he bent at once.
“Aye, I’m here. Ye want water? A drop of whisky?” He was reaching for the cup even as he spoke, spilling water in his anxiety. Fraser took two swallows, then waved the cup away with a twitch of his hand.
“I dinna ken yet if ye’re right or you’re wrong,” Fraser said. His voice was soft and hoarse, but distinct. “But if you’re wrong, wee Roger, and I’m dying, there are things I must say to ye. I dinna want to leave it too late.”
“I’m here,” Roger repeated, not knowing what else to say.
Fraser closed his eyes, gathering strength, then brought his hands beneath him and rolled halfway over, ponderous and clumsy. He grimaced, and took a moment to catch his breath.
“Bonnet. I must tell ye what I’ve put in train.”
“Aye?” For the first time, Roger felt something other than simple worry for Fraser’s welfare.
“There is a man named Lyon—Duncan Innes will ken best how to find him. He works on the coast, buying from the smugglers who run the Outer Banks. He sought me out at the wedding, to see would I deal with him, over the whisky.”
The plan in outline was simple enough; Jamie meant to send word—by what route, Roger had no notion—to this Lyon, indicating that he was willing to enter into business, provided that Lyon would bring Stephen Bonnet to a meeting, to prove that he had a man of the necessary reputation and skill to manage the transport up and down the coast.
“Necessary reputation,” Roger echoed under his breath. “Aye, he’s got that.”
Fraser made a sound that might have been a laugh.
“He’ll not agree that easily—he’ll bargain and set terms—but he’ll agree. Tell him ye’ve got enough whisky to make it worth his while—give him a barrel of the two-year-old to try, if ye must. When he sees what folk will pay for it, he’ll be eager enough. The place—” He stopped, frowning, and breathed for a moment before going on.
“I’d thought to make it Wylie’s Landing—but if it’s you, ye should choose a place to your liking. Take the Lindsays with ye to guard your back, if they’ll go. If not, find someone else; dinna go alone. And go ready to kill him at the first shot.”
Roger nodded, swallowing heavily. Jamie’s eyelids were swollen, but he looked up under them, his eyes glinting sharp in the firelight.
“Dinna let him get close enough to take ye with a sword,” he said. “Ye’ve done well—but ye’re not good enough to meet a man like Bonnet.”
“And you are?” Roger couldn’t stop himself from saying. He thought Fraser was smiling, but it was difficult to tell.
“Oh, aye,” he said softly. “If I live.” He coughed then, and lifted a hand, dismissing Bonnet for the moment.
“For the rest . . . watch Sinclair. He’s a man to be used—he kens everything that passes in the district—but no a man to turn your back on, ever.”
He paused, brow furrowed in thought.
“Ye can trust Duncan Innes and Farquard Campbell,” he said. “And Fergus—Fergus will help ye, if he can. For the rest—” He shifted again and winced. “Go wary of Obadiah Henderson; he’ll try ye. A-many of them will, and ye let them—but dinna let Henderson. Take him at the first chance—ye willna get another.”
Slowly, with frequent pauses to rest, he went down the list of the names of the men on the Ridge, the inhabitants of Cross Creek, the prominent men of the Cape Fear valley. Characters, leanings, secrets, obligations.
Roger fought down panic, struggling to listen carefully, commit it all to memory, wanting to reassure Fraser, tell him to stop, to rest, that none of this was necessary—at the same time knowing it was more than necessary. There was war coming; it didn’t take a time traveler to know it. If the welfare of the Ridge—of Brianna and Jemmy, of Claire—were to be left in Roger’s inexperienced hands, he must take heed of every scrap of information that Fraser could give him.
Fraser’s voice trailed off in hoarseness. Had he lost consciousness? The shoulder under Roger’s hand was slack, inert. He sat quietly, not daring to move.
It wouldn’t be enough, he thought, and a dull fear settled in the pit of his stomach, an aching dread that underlay the sharper pangs of grief. He couldn’t do it. Christ, he couldn’t even shoot a thing the size of a house! And now he was meant to step into Jamie Fraser’s shoes? Keep order with fists and brain, feed a family with gun and knife, tread the tightrope of politics over a lighted powderkeg, tenants and family all balanced on his shoulders? Replace the man they called Himself? Not f**king likely, he thought bleakly.
Fraser’s hand twitched suddenly. The fingers were swollen like sausages, the skin stretched red and shiny. Roger laid his free hand over it, and felt the fingers move, trying to curl around his own.
“Tell Brianna I’m glad of her,” Fraser whispered. “Give my sword to the bairn.”
Roger nodded, unable to speak. Then, realizing that Fraser couldn’t see him, cleared his throat.
“Aye,” he said gruffly. “I’ll tell her.” He waited, but Fraser said no more. The fire had burned very low, but the hand in his burned hot as embers. A gust of wind knifed past, whipping strands of his hair against his cheek, sending up a spray of sudden sparks from the fire.
He waited as long as he thought he dared, the cold night creeping past in lonely minutes. Then leaned close, so Fraser could hear him.
“Claire?” he asked quietly. “Is there anything ye’d have me tell her?”
He thought he’d waited too long; Fraser lay motionless for several minutes. Then the big hand stirred, half-closing swollen fingers; the ghost of a motion, grasping after time that slipped away.
“Tell her . . . I meant it.”
I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING like that in my entire life.” I leaned closer, peering. “That is absolutely bizarre.”
“And you a healer half your life,” Jamie muttered crossly. “Ye canna tell me they’ve no got snakes in your time.”
“They haven’t got many in downtown Boston. Besides, they wouldn’t call out a surgeon to deal with a case of snakebite. Closest I came was when a keeper at the zoo was bitten by a king cobra—a friend of mine did the autopsy, and invited me to come and watch.”
I refrained from saying that Jamie looked a lot worse at present than the subject of the autopsy had.