Jamie kicked Gideon ungently in the ribs, urging him past the rest of the slow-moving travelers at a speed fast enough to keep the brute from biting, kicking, trampling stray bairns, or otherwise causing trouble. After a week’s journey, he was all too well acquainted with the stallion’s proclivities. He passed Brianna and Marsali, halfway up the column, at a slow trot; by the time he passed Claire and Roger, riding at the head, he was moving too fast to do more than flourish his hat at them in salute.
“A mhic an dhiobhail,” he said, clapping the hat back on and leaning low over the horse’s neck. “Ye’re a deal too lively for your own good, let alone mine. See how long ye last in the rough, eh?”
He pulled hard left, off the trail, and down the slope, trampling dry grass and brushing leafless dogwood out of the way with a gunshot snapping of twigs. What the seven-sided son of a bitch needed was flat country, where Jamie could gallop the bejesus out of him and bring him back blowing. Given that there wasn’t a flat spot in twenty miles, he’d have to do the next best thing.
He gathered up the reins, clicked his tongue, jabbed both heels into the horse’s ribs, and they charged up the shrubby hillside as though they had been fired from a cannon.
Gideon was large-boned, well-nourished, and sound of wind, which was why Jamie had bought him. He was also a hard-mouthed, bad-tempered reester of a horse, which was why he hadn’t cost much. More than Jamie could easily afford, even so.
As they sailed over a small creek, jumped a fallen log, and hared up an almost vertical hillside littered with scrub oak and persimmon, Jamie found himself wondering whether he’d got a bargain or committed suicide. That was the last coherent thought he had before Gideon veered sideways, crushing Jamie’s leg against a tree, then gathered his hindquarters and charged down the other side of the hill into a thicket of brush, sending coveys of quail exploding from under his huge flat hooves.
Half an hour of dodging low branches, lurching through streams, and galloping straight up as many hillsides as Jamie could point them at, and Gideon was, if not precisely tractable, at least exhausted enough to be manageable. Jamie was soaked to the thighs, bruised, bleeding from half a dozen scratches, and breathing nearly as hard as the horse. He was, however, still in the saddle, and still in charge.
He turned the horse’s head toward the sinking sun and clicked his tongue again.
“Come on, then,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
They had exerted themselves mightily, but given the rugged shape of the land, had not covered so much ground as to lose themselves entirely. He turned Gideon’s head upward, and within a quarter hour, had come out onto a small ridge he recognized.
They picked their way along the ridge, searching for a safe way down through the tangles of chinkapin, poplar, and spruce. The party was not far away, he knew, but it could take some time to cross to them, and he would as soon rejoin them before they reached the Ridge. Not that Claire or MacKenzie could not guide them—but he admitted to himself that he wished very much to return to Fraser’s Ridge at the head of the party, leading his people home.
“Christ, man, ye’d think ye were Moses,” he muttered, shaking his head in mock dismay at his own pretensions.
The horse was lathered, and when the trees opened out for a space, Jamie halted for a moment’s rest—relaxing the reins, but keeping a sufficient grip as to discourage any notions the outheidie creature might still be entertaining. They stood among a grove of silver birch, at the lip of a small rocky outcrop above a forty-foot drop; he thought the horse held much too high an opinion of himself to contemplate self-destruction, but best to be careful, in case he had any thought of flinging his rider off into the laurels below.
The breeze was from the west. Jamie lifted his chin, enjoying the cold touch of it on his heated skin. The land fell away in undulating waves of brown and green, kindled here and there with patches of color, lighting the mist in the hollows like the glow of campfire smoke. He felt a peace come over him at the sight, and breathed deep, his body relaxing.
Gideon relaxed, too, all the feistiness draining slowly out of him like water from a leaky bucket. Slowly, Jamie let his hands drop lightly on the horse’s neck, and the horse stayed still, ears forward. Ah, he thought, and the realization stole over him that this was a Place.
He thought of such places in a way that had no words, only recognizing one when he came to it. He might have called it holy, save that the feel of such a place had nothing to do with church or saint. It was simply a place he belonged to be, and that was sufficient, though he preferred to be alone when he found one. He let the reins go slack across the horse’s neck. Not even a thrawn-minded creature like Gideon would give trouble here, he felt.
Sure enough, the horse stood quiet, massive dark withers steaming in the chill. They could not tarry long, but he was deeply glad of the momentary respite—not from the battle with Gideon, but from the press of people.
He had learned early on the trick of living separately in a crowd, private in his mind when his body could not be. But he was born a mountain-dweller, and had learned early, too, the enchantment of solitude, and the healing of quiet places.
Quite suddenly, he had a vision of his mother, one of the small vivid portraits that his mind hoarded, producing them unexpectedly in response to God knew what—a sound, a smell, some passing freak of memory.
He had been snaring for rabbits on a hillside then, hot and sweaty, his fingers pricked with gorse and his shirt stuck to him with mud and damp. He had seen a small grove of trees and gone to them for shade. His mother was there, sitting in the greenish shadow, on the ground beside a tiny spring. She sat quite motionless—which was unlike her—long hands folded in her lap.
She had not spoken, but smiled at him, and he had gone to her, not speaking either, but filled with a great sense of peace and contentment, resting his head against her shoulder, feeling her arm go about him and knowing he stood at the center of the world. He had been five, maybe, or six.
As suddenly as it had come, the vision disappeared, like a bright trout vanishing into dark water. It left behind it the same deep sense of peace, though—as though someone had briefly embraced him, a soft hand touched his hair.
He swung himself down from the saddle, needing the feel of the pine needles under his boots, some physical connection with this place. Caution made him tie the reins to a stout pine, though Gideon seemed calm enough; the stallion had dropped his head and was nuzzling for tufts of dried grass. Jamie stood still for a moment, then turned himself carefully to the right, facing the north.
He no longer recalled who had taught him this—whether it was Mother, Father, or Auld John, Ian’s father. He spoke the words, though, as he turned himself sunwise, murmuring the brief prayer to each of the four airts in turn, and ended facing west, into the setting sun. He cupped his empty hands and the light filled them, spilling from his palms.
“May God make safe to me each step,
May God make open to me each pass,
May God make clear to me each road,
And may He take me in the clasp of His own two hands.”
With an instinct older than the prayer, he took the flask from his belt and poured a few drops on the ground.
Scraps of sound reached him on the breeze; laughter and calling, the sound of animals making their way through brush. The caravan was not far away, only across a small hollow, coming slowly round the curve of the hillside opposite. He should go now, to join them on the last push upward to the Ridge.
Still he hesitated for a moment, loath to break the spell of the Place. Some tiny movement caught the corner of his eye, and he bent down, squinting as he peered into the deepening shadows beneath a holly bush.
It sat frozen, blending perfectly with its dusky background. He would never have seen it had his hunter’s eye not caught its movement. A tiny kitten, its gray fur puffed out like a ripe milkweed head, enormous eyes wide open and unblinking, almost colorless in the gloom beneath the bush.
“A Chait,” he whispered, putting out a slow finger toward it. “Whatever are ye doing here?”
A feral cat, no doubt; born of a wild mother, fled from some settlers’ cabin, and long free of the trap of domesticity. He brushed the wispy fur of its breast, and it sank its tiny teeth suddenly into his thumb.
“Ow!” He jerked away, and examined the drop of blood welling from a small puncture wound. He glowered at the cat for a moment, but it merely stared back at him, and made no move to run. He paused, then made up his mind. He shook the blood drop from his finger onto the leaves, an offering to join the dram he had spilled, a gift to the spirits of this Place—who had evidently made up their minds to offer him a gift, themselves.
“All right, then,” he said under his breath. He knelt, and stretched out his hand, palm up. Very slowly, he moved one finger, then the next, and the next and the next, then again, in the undulant motion of seaweed in the water. The big pale eyes fixed on the movement, watching as though hypnotized. He could see the tip of the miniature tail twitch, very slightly, and smiled at the sight.
If he could guddle a trout—and he could—why not a cat?
He made a small noise through his teeth, a whistling hiss, like the distant chittering of birds. The kitten stared, mesmerized, as the gently swaying fingers moved invisibly closer. When at last he touched its fur again, it made no move to escape. One finger edged beneath the fur, another slid under the cold wee pads of one paw, and it let him scoop it gently into his hand and lift it from the ground.
He held it for a moment against his chest, stroking it with one finger, tracing the silken jawline, the delicate ears. The tiny cat closed its eyes and began to purr in ecstasy, rumbling in his palm like distant thunder.
“Oh, so ye’ll come away wi’ me, will you?” Receiving no demur from the cat, he opened the neck of his shirt and tucked the tiny thing inside, where it poked and prodded at his ribs for a bit before curling up against his skin, purr reduced to a silent but pleasant vibration.
Gideon seemed pleased by the rest; he set off willingly enough, and within a quarter hour, they had caught up with the others. The stallion’s momentary docility evaporated, though, under the strain of the final upward climb.
Not that the horse could not master the steep trail; what he couldn’t abide was following another horse. It didn’t matter whether Jamie wished to lead them home or not—if Gideon had anything to do with the matter, they would be not only in the lead, but several furlongs ahead.
The column of travelers was strung out over half a mile, each family party traveling at its own speed: Frasers, MacKenzies, Chisholms, MacLeods, and Aberfeldys. At every space and widening of the trail, Gideon shouldered his way rudely ahead, shoving past pack mules, sheep, foot-travelers, and mares; he even scattered the three pigs trudging slowly behind Grannie Chisholm. The pigs bolted into the brush in a chorus of panicked oinks as Gideon bore down upon them.
Jamie found himself more in sympathy with the horse than not; eager to be home and working hard to get there, irritated by anything that threatened to hold him back. At the moment, the main impediment to progress was Claire, who had—blast the woman—halted her mare in front of him and slid off in order to gather yet another bit of herbage from the trailside. As though the entire house was not filled from doorstep to rooftree with plants already, and her saddlebags a-bulge with more!