“Mr. Fraser is ill? I am sorry to hear it.” The unfamiliar soft voice came from behind, startling him, and he turned to find Malva Christie looking up at him in question. He hadn’t taken much notice of her, but was now struck by the beauty of her eyes—an odd light gray, almond-shaped and luminous, and thickly fringed with long black lashes. Perhaps sooner than the spring planting, he thought, and coughed.
“Bitten by a snake,” he said abruptly. “Not to worry, though; he’s mending.”
He thrust out a hand to Christie, ready this time for the secret grip.
“Welcome to Fraser’s Ridge,” he said. “I hope you and your family will be happy here.”
JAMIE WAS SITTING UP in bed, attended hand and foot by devoted women, and looking desperate in consequence. His face relaxed a little at sight of a fellow man, and he waved away his handmaidens. Lizzie, Marsali, and Mrs. Bug left reluctantly, but Claire remained, busy with her bottles and blades.
Roger moved to sit down on the bed-foot, only to be shooed off by Claire, who motioned him firmly to a stool before lifting the sheet to check matters beneath and be sure that his ill-advised gesture had caused no damage.
“All right,” she said at last, poking at the white cheesecloth dressing with an air of satisfaction. The maggots were back, evidently earning their keep. She straightened up and nodded to Roger—like the Grand Vizier granting an audience with the Caliph of Baghdad, Roger thought, amused. He glanced at Jamie, who rolled his eyes upward, then gave Roger a small, wry smile of greeting.
“How is it?” both of them said at once. Roger smiled, and the corner of Jamie’s mouth turned up. He gave a brief shrug.
“I’m alive,” he said. “Mind, that doesna prove ye were right. Ye’re not.”
“Right about what?” Claire asked, glancing up with curiosity from the bowl in her hands.
“Oh, a wee point of philosophy,” Jamie told her. “Regarding choice, and chance.”
“I don’t want to hear a word about it.”
“Just as well. I’m no inclined to discuss such matters on nothing but bread and milk.” Jamie glanced with mild distaste at a bowl of that nourishing but squashy substance, sitting half-finished on the table at his side. “So, have ye seen to the ulcer on the mule’s leg, then, Roger Mac?”
“I did,” Claire told him. “It’s healing very well. Roger’s been busy, interviewing new tenants.”
“Oh, aye?” Fraser’s brows went up in interest.
“Aye, a man named Tom Christie and his family. He said he was at Ardsmuir with you.”
For a split second, Roger felt as though all the air in the room had been removed by a vacuum, freezing everything. Fraser stared at him, expressionless. Then he nodded, his expression of pleasant interest restored as though by magic, and normal time resumed.
“Aye, I mind Tom Christie fine. Where has he been in the last twenty years?”
Roger explained both Tom Christie’s account of his wanderings, and what accommodations had been reached for his tenancy.
“That will do verra well,” Jamie said approvingly, hearing of Christie’s willingness to be schoolmaster. “Tell him he may use any of the books here—and ask him to make up a list of others he might need. I’ll tell Fergus to look about, next time he’s in Cross Creek or Wilmington.”
The conversation moved on to more mundane affairs, and after a few minutes, Roger got up to take his leave.
Everything seemed perfectly all right, and yet he felt obscurely uneasy. Surely he hadn’t imagined that instant? Turning to close the door behind him, he saw that Jamie had folded his hands neatly on his chest and closed his eyes; if not yet asleep, effectively forbidding conversation. Claire was looking at her husband, her yellow hawk-eyes narrowed in speculation. No, she’d seen it, too.
So he hadn’t imagined it. What on earth was the matter with Tom Christie?
THE SUMMER DIM
THE NEXT DAY Roger closed the door behind him and stood on the porch for a moment, breathing the cold bright air of the late morning—late, Christ, it couldn’t be more than half seven, but it was a good deal later than he was accustomed to start the day. The sun had already drifted into the chestnut trees on the highest ridge, the curve of its flaming disk visible in silhouette through the last of the yellow leaves.
The air still held the tang of blood, but there was no trace of the buffalo left, beyond a dark patch in the flattened pumpkin vines. He glanced around, taking stock as he mentally made his list of chores for the day. Chickens scratched in the fall-shabby yard, and he could hear a small group of hogs rooting for mast in the chestnut grove.
He had the odd feeling that he had left his work months, or even years, before, not days. The feeling of dislocation—so strong at first—had left him for quite a long time, but now it had come back again, stronger than before. If he closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, surely he would find himself on the Broad Street in Oxford, the smell of auto exhaust in his nostrils and the prospect of a peaceful morning’s work among the dusty books of the Bodleian ahead.
He smacked a hand against one thigh, to dispel the feeling. Not today. This was the Ridge, not Oxford, and the work might be peaceful, but it would be done with hands, not head. There were trees to be girdled and hay to be gathered; not the field hay, but the small wild patches scattered through the hills that would yield an armload here, an armload there—enough to allow the keeping of an extra cow through the winter.
A hole in the roof of the smoke-shed, made by a falling tree branch. The roof to be mended and re-shingled and the branch itself to be chopped for wood. A fresh privy-hole to be dug, before the ground froze or turned to mud. Flax to be chopped. Fence rails to split. Lizzie’s spinning wheel to mend . . .
He felt groggy and stupid, incapable of simple choice, let alone complex thought. He had slept enough—more than enough—to be physically recovered from the exhaustion of the last few days, but Thomas Christie and his family, coming on the heels of the desperate business of getting Jamie safely home, had taken all the mental energy he had.
He glanced at the sky; a low sweep of mare’s tails, sketched against the sky. No rain for a bit, the roof could wait. He shrugged and scratched his scalp. Hay, then, and tree-girdling. He stuffed a stone jar of ale and the packet of sandwiches Bree had made for him into his bag, and went to fetch the hand-scythe and hatchet.
Walking began to rouse him. It was cold in the shadows under the pines, but the sun was now high enough to make itself felt whenever he walked through the bright patches. His muscles warmed and loosened with the exercise, and by the time he had climbed to the first of the high meadows, he had begun to feel himself again, solidly embedded in the physical world of mountain and forest. The future had gone back to the world of dreams and memory, and he was once more present and accounted for.
“Good thing, too,” he muttered to himself. “Don’t want to be cutting off your foot.” He dropped the ax under a tree, and bent to cut hay.
It wasn’t the soothingly monotonous labor of regular haying, where the big two-handed scythe laid the dry, rich grass in pleasing swathes across a field. This was at once rougher but easier work, that involved grasping a clump of sprouting muhly or blue-stem with one hand, slicing the stalks near the root, and stuffing the handful of wild hay into the burlap sack he had brought.
It took no great strength, but required attention, rather than the mindless muscular effort of field-haying. The grass clumps grew thickly all over this small break in the trees, but were interspersed with outcrops of granite, small bushes, decaying snags, and brambles.
It was soothing labor, and while it did require some watchfulness, soon enough his mind began to stray to other things. The things Jamie had told him, out on the black mountainside, under the stars.
Some he had known; that there was bad feeling between Alex MacNeill and Nelson McIver, and the cause of it; that one of Patrick Neary’s sons was likely a thief, and what should be done about it. Which land to sell, when, and to whom. Others, he had had no inkling of. He pressed his lips tight together, thinking of Stephen Bonnet.
And what should be done about Claire.
“If I am dead, she must leave,” Jamie had said, rousing suddenly from a feverish stupor. He had gripped Roger’s arm with surprising strength, his eyes burning dark. “Send her. Make her go. Ye should all go, if the bairn can pass. But she must go. Make her go to the stones.”
“Why?” Roger had asked quietly. “Why should she go?” It was possible that Jamie was deranged by fever, not thinking clearly. “It’s a dangerous thing, to go through the stones.”
“It is dangerous for her here, without me.” Fraser’s eyes had momentarily lost their sharp focus; the lines of his face relaxed in exhaustion. His eyes half-closed and he sagged back. Then, suddenly, his eyes opened again.
“She is an Old One,” he said. “They will kill her, if they know.” Then his eyes had closed again, and he had not spoken again until the others had found them at daylight.
Viewed now in the clear light of an autumn morning, safely removed from the whining wind and dancing flames of that lost night on the mountain, Roger was reasonably sure that Fraser had only been wandering in the mists of his fever, concern for his wife muddled by phantoms that sprang from the poison in his blood. Still, Roger couldn’t help but take notice.
“She is an Old One.” Fraser had been speaking in English, which was too bad. Had it been Gaelic, his meaning would have been clearer. Had he said “She is ban-sidhe,” Roger would have known whether Jamie truly thought his wife was one of the faery-folk, or only a thoroughly human wisewoman.
Surely he couldn’t . . . but he might. Even in Roger’s own time, the belief in “the others” ran strongly, if less widely admitted, in the blood of the Highlands. Now? Fraser believed quite openly in ghosts—to say nothing of saints and angels. To Roger’s cynical Presbyterian mind, there wasn’t a great deal of difference between lighting candles to St. Genevieve and putting out a pan of milk for the faeries.
On the other hand, he was uneasily aware that he would himself never have disturbed milk meant for the Others, nor touched a charm hung over cow-byre or door lintel—and not only from respect for the person who had placed it there.
The work had warmed him thoroughly; his shirt was beginning to stick to his shoulders, and sweat trickled down his neck. He paused for a moment, to drink from his water gourd and tie a rag round his brow as a sweatband.
Fraser might just have a point, he thought. While the notion of himself or Brianna—even of Claire—as being sìdheanach was laughable on the face of it . . . there was more than one face to it, wasn’t there? They were different; not everyone could travel through the stones, let alone did.
And there were others. Geillis Duncan. The unknown traveler she had mentioned to Claire. The gentleman whose severed head Claire had found in the wilderness, silver fillings intact. The thought of that one made the hairs prickle on his forearms, sweat or no.