“Aye,” he said, nodding, seeing the realization dawn in my face. “It’s different here.”
There was no settlement large enough to be called a town within a hundred miles, save the German Lutherans at Salem. Bar that, there was nothing in the backcountry but scattered homesteads; sometimes a place where a family had settled and spread, brothers or cousins building houses within sight of one another. Small settlements and distant cabins, some hidden in the mountain hollows, screened by laurels, where the residents might not see another white face for months—or years—at a time.
The sun had sunk below the angled slope of the mountain, but the light still lingered, a brief wash of color that stained the trees and rocks gold around us and flushed the distant peaks with blue and violet. There were living creatures in that cold, brilliant landscape, I knew, habitations nearby and warm bodies stirring; but so far as the eye could see, nothing moved.
Mountain settlers would go without question to help a neighbor—because they might as easily require such help themselves at any moment. There was, after all, no one else to turn to.
But they had never fought for a common purpose, had nothing in common to defend. And to abandon their homesteads and leave their families without defense, in order to serve the whim of a distant governor? A vague notion of duty might compel a few; a few would go from curiosity, from restlessness, or in the vague hope of gain. But most would go only if they were called by a man they respected; a man that they trusted.
I am not born either laird or chief to them, he’d said. Not born to them, no—but born to it, nonetheless. He could, if he wished, make himself chief.
“Why?” I asked softly. “Why will you do it?” The shadows were rising from the rocks, slowly drowning the light.
“Do you not see?” One eyebrow lifted as he turned his head to me. “Ye told me what would happen at Culloden—and I believed ye, Sassenach, fearful as it was. The men of Lallybroch came home safe as much because of you as because of me.”
That was not entirely true; any man who had marched to Nairn with the Highland army would have known that disaster lay somewhere ahead. Still . . . I had been able to help in some small way, to make sure that Lallybroch was prepared, not only for the battle, but its aftermath. The small weight of guilt that I always felt when I thought of the Rising lifted slightly, easing my heart.
“Well, perhaps. But what—”
“Ye’ve told me what will happen here, Sassenach. You and Brianna and MacKenzie, all three. Rebellion, and war—and this time . . . victory.”
Victory. I nodded numbly, remembering what I knew of wars and the cost of victory. It was, however, better than defeat.
“Well, then.” He stooped to pick up his dirk, and gestured with it to the mountains around us. “I have sworn an oath to the Crown; if I break it in time of war, I am a traitor. My land is forfeit—and my life—and those who follow me will share my fate. True?”
“True.” I swallowed, hugging my arms tight around me, wishing I still held Jemmy. Jamie turned to face me, his eyes hard and bright.
“But the Crown willna prevail, this time. Ye’ve told me. And if the King is overthrown—what then of my oath? If I have kept it, then I am traitor to the rebel cause.”
“Oh,” I said, rather faintly.
“Ye see? At some point, Tryon and the King will lose their power over me—but I dinna ken when that may be. At some point, the rebels will hold power—but I dinna ken when that may be. And in between . . .” He tilted the point of his dirk downward.
“I do see. A very tidy little cleft stick,” I said, feeling somewhat hollow as I realized just how precarious our situation was.
To follow Tryon’s orders now was plainly the only choice. Later, however . . . for Jamie to continue as the Governor’s man into the early stages of the Revolution was to declare himself a Loyalist—which would be fatal, in the long run. In the short run, though, to break with Tryon, forswear his oath to the King, and declare for the rebels . . . that would cost him his land, and quite possibly his life.
He shrugged, with a wry twist of the mouth, and sat back a little, easing Jemmy on his lap.
“Well, it’s no as though I’ve never found myself walking between two fires before, Sassenach. I may come out of it a bit scorched round the edges, but I dinna think I’ll fry.” He gave a faint snort of what might be amusement. “It’s in my blood, no?”
I managed a short laugh.
“If you’re thinking of your grandfather,” I said, “I admit he was good at it. Caught up with him in the end, though, didn’t it?”
He tilted his head from one side to the other, equivocating.
“Aye, maybe so. But do ye not think things perhaps fell out as he wished?”
The late Lord Lovat had been notorious for the deviousness of his mind, but I couldn’t quite see the benefit in planning to have his head chopped off, and said so.
Jamie smiled, despite the seriousness of the discussion.
“Well, perhaps beheading wasna quite what he’d planned, but still—ye saw what he did; he sent Young Simon to battle, and he stayed home. But which of them was it who paid the price on Tower Hill?”
I nodded slowly, beginning to see his point. Young Simon, who was in fact close to Jamie’s own age, had not suffered physically for his part in the Rising, overt though it had been. He had not been imprisoned or exiled, like many of the Jacobites, and while he had lost most of his lands, he had in fact regained quite a bit of his property since, by means of repeated and tenacious lawsuits brought against the Crown.
“And Old Simon could have blamed his son, and Young Simon would have ended up on the scaffold—but he didn’t. Well, I suppose even an old viper like that might hesitate to put his own son and heir under the ax.”
“Would ye let someone chop off your head, Sassenach, if it was a choice betwixt you and Brianna?”
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation. I was reluctant to admit that Old Simon might have possessed such a virtue as family feeling, but I supposed even vipers had some concern for their children’s welfare.
Jemmy had abandoned the proffered finger in favor of his grandfather’s dirk, and was gnawing fiercely on the hilt. Jamie wrapped his hand around the blade, holding it safely away from the child, but made no effort to take the knife away.
“So would I,” Jamie said, smiling slightly. “Though I do hope it willna come to that.”
“I don’t think either army was—will be—inclined to behead people,” I said. That did, of course, leave a number of other unpleasant options available—but Jamie knew that as well as I did.
I had a sudden, passionate wish to urge him to throw it all up, turn away from it. Tell Tryon to stuff his land, tell the tenants they must make their own way—abandon the Ridge and flee. War was coming, but it need not engulf us; not this time. We could go south, to Florida, or to the Indies. To the west, to take refuge with the Cherokee. Or even back to Scotland. The Colonies would rise, but there were places one could run to.
He was watching my face.
“This,” he said, a gesture dismissing Tryon, the militia, the Regulators, “this is a verra little thing, Sassenach, perhaps nothing in itself. But it is the beginning, I think.”
The light was beginning to fail now; the shadow covered his feet and legs, but the last of the sun threw his own face into strong relief. There was a smudge of blood on his forehead, where he had touched it, crossing himself. I should have wiped it away, I thought, but made no move to do so.
“If I will save these men—if they will walk wi’ me between the fires—then they must follow me without question, Sassenach. Best it begins now, while not so much is at stake.”
“I know,” I said, and shivered.
“Are ye cold, Sassenach? Here, take the wean and go home. I’ll come in a bit, so soon as I’m dressed.”
He handed me Jemmy and the dirk, since the two seemed momentarily inseparable, and rose. He picked up his kilt and shook out the tartan folds, but I didn’t move. The blade of the knife was warm where I gripped it, warm from his hand.
He looked at me in question, but I shook my head.
“We’ll wait for you.”
He dressed quickly, but carefully. Despite my apprehensions, I had to admire the delicacy of his instincts. Not his dress kilt, the one in crimson and black, but the hunting kilt. No effort to impress the mountain men with richness; but an oddity of dress, enough to make the point to the other Highlanders that he was one of them, to draw the eye and interest of the Germans. Plaid pinned up with the running-stag brooch, his belt and scabbard, clean wool stockings. He was quiet, absorbed in what he was doing, dressing with a calm precision that was unnervingly reminiscent of the robing of a priest.
It would be tonight, then. Roger and the rest had clearly gone to summon the men who lived within a day’s ride; tonight he would light his cross and call the first of his men—and seal the bargain with whisky.
“So Bree was right,” I said, to break the silence in the clearing. “She said perhaps you were starting your own religion. When she saw the cross, I mean.”
He glanced at me, startled. He looked in the direction where the house lay, then his mouth curled wryly.
“I suppose I am,” he said. “God help me.”
He took the knife gently away from Jemmy, wiped it on a fold of his plaid, and slid it away into its scabbard. He was finished.
I stood to follow him. The words I couldn’t speak—wouldn’t speak—were a ball of eels in my throat. Afraid one would slither free and slip out of my mouth, I said instead, “Was it God you were calling on to help you? When I saw you earlier?”
“Och, no,” he said. He looked away for a second, then met my eyes with a sudden queer glance. “I was calling Dougal MacKenzie.”
I felt a deep and sudden qualm go through me. Dougal was long dead; he had died in Jamie’s arms on the eve of Culloden—died with Jamie’s dirk in his throat. I swallowed, and my eyes flicked involuntarily to the knife at his belt.
“I made my peace wi’ Dougal long ago,” he said softly, seeing the direction of my glance. He touched the hilt of the knife, with its knurl of gold, that had once been Hector Cameron’s. “He was a chieftain, Dougal. He will know that I did then as I must—for my men, for you—and that I will do it now again.”
I realized now what it was he had said, standing tall, facing the west—the direction to which the souls of the dead fly home. It had been neither prayer nor plea. I knew the words—though it was many years since I had heard them. He had shouted “Tulach Ard!”—the war cry of clan MacKenzie.
I swallowed hard.
“And will he . . . help you, do you think?”
He nodded, serious.
“If he can,” he said. “We will ha’ fought together many times, Dougal and I; hand to hand—and back to back. And after all, Sassenach—blood is blood.”
I nodded back, mechanically, and lifted Jemmy up against my shoulder. The sky had bleached to a winter white, and shadow filled the clearing. The stone at the head of the spring stood out, a pale and ghostly shape above black water.