“No,” Jenny said again, but I thought her heart wasn’t in it. Ian was already nodding thoughtfully.
“Would ye take him with ye to France, too, Jamie?”
“Aye, that’s the thing. I shall have to leave Lallybroch, and stay away for a good bit, for Laoghaire’s sake—I canna be living here with you, under her nose,” he said apologetically to me, “at least not until she’s suitably wed to someone else.” He switched his attention back to Ian.
“I havena told ye everything that’s happened in Edinburgh, Ian, but all things considered, I think it likely best I stay away from there for a time, too.”
I sat quiet, trying to digest this news. I hadn’t realized that Jamie meant to leave Lallybroch—leave Scotland altogether, it sounded like.
“So what d’ye mean to do, Jamie?” Jenny had given up any pretense of sewing, and sat with her hands in her lap.
He rubbed his nose, looking tired. This was the first day he had been up; I privately thought he should have been back in bed hours ago, but he had insisted upon staying up to preside over dinner and visit with everyone.
“Well,” he said slowly, “Jared’s offered more than once to take me into his firm. Perhaps I shall stay in France, at least for a year. I was thinking Young Ian could go with us, and be schooled in Paris.”
Jenny and Ian exchanged a long look, one of those in which long-married couples are capable of carrying out complete conversations in the space of a few heartbeats. At last, Jenny tilted her head a bit to one side. Ian smiled and took her hand.
“It’ll be all right, mo nighean dubh,” he said to her in a low, tender voice. Then he turned to Jamie.
“Aye, take him. It’ll be a great chance for the lad.”
“You’re sure?” Jamie hesitated, speaking to his sister, rather than Ian. Jenny nodded. Her blue eyes glistened in the lamplight, and the end of her nose was slightly red.
“I suppose it’s best we give him his freedom while he still thinks it’s ours to give,” she said. She looked at Jamie, then at me, straight and steady. “But you’ll take good care of him, aye?”
LOST, AND BY THE WIND GRIEVED
This part of Scotland was as unlike the leafy glens and lochs near Lallybroch as the North Yorkshire moors. Here there were virtually no trees; only long sweeps of rock-strewn heather, rising into crags that touched the lowering sky and disappeared abruptly into curtains of mist.
As we got nearer to the seacoast, the mist became heavier, setting in earlier in the afternoon, lingering longer in the morning, so that only for a couple of hours in the middle of the day did we have anything like clear riding. The going was consequently slow, but none of us minded greatly, except Young Ian, who was beside himself with excitement, impatient to arrive.
“How far is it from the shore to the seals’ island?” he asked Jamie for the tenth time.
“A quarter mile, I make it,” his uncle replied.
“I can swim that far,” Young Ian repeated, for the tenth time. His hands were clenched tightly on the reins, and his bony jaw set with determination.
“Aye, I know ye can,” Jamie assured him patiently. He glanced at me, the hint of a smile hidden in the corner of his mouth. “Ye willna need to, though; just swim straight for the island, and the current will carry ye.”
The boy nodded, and lapsed into silence, but his eyes were bright with anticipation.
The headland above the cove was mist-shrouded and deserted. Our voices echoed oddly in the fog, and we soon stopped talking, out of an abiding sense of eeriness. I could hear the seals barking far below, the sound wavering and mixing with the crash of the surf, so that now and then it sounded like sailors hallooing to one another over the sound of the sea.
Jamie pointed out the rock chimney of Ellen’s tower to Young Ian, and taking a coil of rope from his saddle, picked his way over the broken rock of the headland to the entrance.
“Keep your shirt on ’til you’re down,” he told the lad, shouting to be heard above the wave. “Else the rock will tear your back to shreds.”
Ian nodded understanding, then, the rope tied securely round his middle, gave me a nervous grin, took two jerky steps, and disappeared into the earth.
Jamie had the other end of the rope wrapped round his own waist, paying out the length of it carefully with his sound hand as the boy descended. Crawling on hands and knees, I made my way over the short turf and pebbles to the crumbling edge of the cliff, where I could look over to the half-moon beach below.
It seemed a very long time, but finally I saw Ian emerge from the bottom of the chimney, a small, antlike figure. He untied his rope, peered around, spotted us at the top of the cliff, and waved enthusiastically. I waved back, but Jamie merely muttered, “All right, get on, then,” under his breath.
I could feel him tense beside me as the boy stripped off to his breeks and scrambled down the rocks to the water, and I felt his flinch as the small figure dived headlong into the gray-blue waves.
“Brrr!” I said, watching. “The water must be freezing!”
“It is,” Jamie said with feeling. “Ian’s right; it’s a vicious time of year to be swimming.”
His face was pale and set. I didn’t think it was the result of discomfort from his wounded arm, though the long ride and the exercise with the rope couldn’t have done it any good. While he had shown nothing but encouraging confidence while Ian was making his descent, he wasn’t making any effort to hide his worry now. The fact was that there was no way for us to reach Ian, should anything go wrong.
“Maybe we should have waited for the mist to lift,” I said, more to distract him than because I thought so.
“If we had ’til next Easter, we might,” he agreed ironically. “Though I’ll grant ye, I’ve seen it clearer than this,” he added, squinting into the swirling murk below.
The three islands were only intermittently visible from the cliff as the fog swept across them. I had been able to see the bobbing dot of Ian’s head for the first twenty yards as he left the shore, but now he had disappeared into the mist.
“Do you think he’s all right?” Jamie bent to help me scramble upright. The cloth of his coat was damp and rough under my fingers, soaked with mist and the fine droplets of ocean spray.
“Aye, he’ll do. He’s a bonny swimmer; and it’s none so difficult a swim, either, once he’s into the current.” Still, he stared into the mist as though sheer effort could pierce its veils.
On Jamie’s advice, Young Ian had timed his descent to begin when the tide began to go out, so as to have as much assistance as possible from the tide-race. Looking over the edge, I could see a floating mass of bladder wrack, half-stranded on the widening strip of beach.
“Perhaps two hours before he comes back.” Jamie answered my unspoken question. He turned reluctantly from his vain perusal of the mist-hidden cove. “Damn, I wish I’d gone myself, arm or no arm.”
“Both Young Jamie and Michael have done it,” I reminded him. He gave me a rueful smile.
“Oh, aye. Ian will do fine. It’s only that it’s a good deal easier to do something that’s a bit dangerous than it is to wait and worry while someone else does it.”
“Ha,” I told him. “So now you know what’s it like being married to you.”
“Oh, aye, I suppose so. Besides, it would be a shame to cheat Young Ian of his adventure. Come on, then, let’s get out of the wind.”
We moved inland a bit, away from the crumbling edge of the cliff, and sat down to wait, using the horses’ bodies as shelter. Rough, shaggy Highland ponies, they appeared unmoved by the unpleasant weather, merely standing together, heads down, tails turned against the wind.
The wind was too high for easy conversation. We sat quietly, leaning together like the horses, with our backs to the windy shore.
“What’s that?” Jamie raised his head, listening.
“I thought I heard shouting.”
“I expect it’s the seals,” I said, but before the words were out of my mouth, he was up and striding toward the cliff’s edge.
The cove was still full of curling mist, but the wind had uncovered the seals’ island, and it was clearly visible, at least for the moment. There were no seals on it now, though.
A small boat was drawn up on a sloping rock shelf at one side of the island. Not a fisherman’s boat; this one was longer and more pointed at the prow, with one set of oars.
As I stared, a man appeared from the center of the island. He carried something under one arm, the size and shape of the box Jamie had described. I didn’t have long to speculate as to the nature of this object, though, for just then a second man came up the far slope of the island and into sight.
This one was carrying Young Ian. He had the boy’s half-naked body slung carelessly over one shoulder. It swung head down, arms dangling with a limpness that made it clear the boy was unconscious or dead.
“Ian!” Jamie’s hand clamped over my mouth before I could shout again.
“Hush!” He dragged me to my knees to keep me out of sight. We watched, helpless, as the second man heaved Ian carelessly into the boat, then took hold of the gunwales to run it back into the water. There wasn’t a chance of making the descent down the chimney and the swim to the island before they succeeded in making their escape. But escape to where?
“Where did they come from?” I gasped. Nothing else stirred in the cove below, save the mist and the shifting kelp-beds, turning in the tide.
“A ship. It’s a ship’s boat.” Jamie added something low and heartfelt in Gaelic, and then was gone. I turned to see him fling himself on one of the horses and wrench its head around. Then he was off, riding hell-for-leather across the headland, away from the cove.
Rough as the footing across the headland was, the horses were shod for it better than I was. I hastily mounted and followed Jamie, a high-pitched whinny of protest from Ian’s hobbled mount ringing in my ears.
It was less than a quarter of a mile to the ocean side of the headland, but it seemed to take forever to reach it. I saw Jamie ahead of me, his hair flying loose in the wind, and beyond him, the ship, lying to offshore.
The ground broke away in a tumble of rock that fell down to the ocean, not so steep as the cliffs of the cove, but much too rough to take a horse down. By the time I had reined up, Jamie was off his horse, and picking his way down the rubble toward the water.
To the left, I could see the longboat from the island, pulling round the curve of the headland. Someone on the ship must have been looking out for them, for I heard a faint hail from the direction of the ship, and saw small figures suddenly appear in the rigging.
One of these must also have seen us, for there was a sudden agitation aboard, with heads popping up above the rail and more yelling. The ship was blue, with a broad black band painted all around it. There was a line of gunports set in this band, and as I watched, the forward one opened, and the round black eye of the gun peeked out.