“Jamie!” I shrieked, as loudly as I could. He looked up from the rocks at his feet, saw where I was pointing, and hurled himself flat in the rubble as the gun went off.
The report wasn’t terribly loud, but there was a sort of whistling noise past my head that made me duck instinctively. Several of the rocks around me exploded in puffs of flying rock chips, and it occurred to me, rather belatedly, that the horses and I were a great deal more visible there at the top of the headland than Jamie was on the cliff below.
The horses, having grasped this essential fact long before I did, were on their way back to where we had left their hobbled fellow well before the dust had settled. I flung myself bodily over the edge of the headland, slid several feet in a shower of gravel, and wedged myself into a deep crevice in the cliff.
There was another explosion somewhere above my head, and I pressed myself even closer into the rock. Evidently the people on board the ship were satisfied with the effect of their last shot, for relative silence now descended.
My heart was hammering against my ribs, and the air around my face was full of a fine gray dust that gave me an irresistible urge to cough. I risked a look over my shoulder, and was in time to see the longboat being hoisted aboard ship. Of Ian and his two captors, there was no sign.
The gunport closed silently as I watched, and the rope that held the anchor slithered up, streaming water. The ship turned slowly, seeking wind. The air was light and the sails barely puffed, but even that was enough. Slowly, then faster, she was moving toward the open sea. By the time Jamie had reached my roosting place, the ship had all but vanished in the thick cloudbank that obscured the horizon.
“Jesus” was all he said when he reached me, but he clutched me hard for a moment. “Jesus.”
He let go then, and turned to look out over the sea. Nothing moved save a few tendrils of slow-floating mist. The whole world seemed stricken with silence; even the occasional cries of the murres and shearwaters had been cut off by the cannon’s boom.
The gray rock near my foot showed a fresh patch of lighter gray, where shot had struck off a wide flake of stone. It was no more than three feet above the crevice where I had taken refuge.
“What shall we do?” I felt numbed, both by the shock of the afternoon, and by the sheer enormity of what had happened. Impossible to believe that in less than an hour, Ian had disappeared from us as completely as though he had been wiped off the face of the earth. The fogbank loomed thick and impenetrable, a little way off the coast before us, a barrier as impassible as the curtain between earth and the underworld.
My mind kept replaying images: the mist, drifting over the outlines of the silkies’ island, the sudden appearance of the boat, the men coming over the rocks, Ian’s lanky, teenaged body, white-skinned as the mist, skinny limbs dangling like a disjointed doll’s. I had seen everything with that clarity that attends tragedy; every detail fixed in my mind’s eye, to be shown again and again, always with that half-conscious feeling that this time, I should be able to alter it.
Jamie’s face was set in rigid lines, the furrows cut deep from nose to mouth.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Damn me to hell, I don’t know what to do!” His hands flexed suddenly into fists at his sides. He shut his eyes, breathing heavily.
I felt even more frightened at this admission. In the brief time I had been back with him, I had grown once more accustomed to having Jamie always know what to do, even in the direst circumstances. This confession seemed more upsetting than anything that had yet happened.
A sense of helplessness swirled round me like the mist. Every nerve cried out to do something. But what?
I saw the streak of blood on his cuff, then; he had gashed his hand, climbing down the rocks. That, I could help, and I felt a sense of thankfulness that there was, after all, one thing I could do, however small.
“You’ve cut yourself,” I said. I touched his injured hand. “Let me see; I’ll wrap it for you.”
“No,” he said. He turned away, face strained, still looking desperately out into the fog. When I reached for him again, he jerked away.
“No, I said! Leave it be!”
I swallowed hard and wrapped my arms about myself under my cloak. There was little wind now, even on the headland, but it was cold and clammy nonetheless.
He rubbed his hand carelessly against the front of his coat, leaving a rusty smear. He was still staring out to sea, toward the spot where the ship had vanished. He closed his eyes, and pressed his lips tight together. Then he opened them, made a small gesture of apology toward me, and turned toward the headland.
“I suppose we must catch the horses,” he said quietly. “Come on.”
We walked back across the thick, short turf and strewn rocks without speaking, silent with shock and grief. I could see the horses, small stick-legged figures in the distance, clustered together with their hobbled companion. It seemed to have taken hours to run from the headland to the outer shore; going back seemed much longer.
“I don’t think he was dead,” I said, after what seemed like a year. I laid a hand tentatively on Jamie’s arm, meaning to be comforting, but he wouldn’t have noticed if I had struck him with a blackjack. He walked on slowly, head down.
“No,” he said, and I saw him swallow hard. “No, he wasn’t dead, or they’d not have taken him.”
“Did they take him aboard the ship?” I pressed. “Did you see them?” I thought it might be better for him if he would talk.
He nodded. “Aye, they passed him aboard; I saw it clear. I suppose that’s some hope,” he muttered, as though to himself. “If they didna knock him on the head at once, maybe they won’t.” Suddenly remembering that I was there, he turned and looked at me, eyes searching my face.
“You’re all right, Sassenach?”
I was scraped raw in several places, covered with filth, and shaky-kneed with fright, but basically sound.
“I’m fine.” I put my hand on his arm again. This time he let it stay.
“That’s good,” he said softly, after a moment. He tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow, and we went on.
“Have you any idea who they were?” I had to raise my voice slightly to be heard above the wash of the surf behind us, but I wanted to keep him talking if I could.
He shook his head, frowning. The effort of talking seemed to be bringing him slowly out of his own shock.
“I heard one of the sailors shout to the men in the boat, and he spoke in French. But that proves nothing—sailors come from everywhere. Still, I have seen enough of ships at the docks to think that this one didna have quite the look of a merchant—nor the look of an English ship at all,” he added, “though I couldna say why, exactly. The way the sails were rigged, maybe.”
“It was blue, with a black line painted round it,” I said. “That was all I had time to see, before the guns started firing.”
Was it possible to trace a ship? The germ of the idea gave me hope; perhaps the situation was not so hopeless as I had first thought. If Ian was not dead, and we could find out where the ship was going…
“Did you see a name on it?” I asked.
“A name?” He looked faintly surprised at the notion. “What, on the ship?”
“Do ships not usually have their names painted on the sides?” I asked.
“No, what for?” He sounded honestly puzzled.
“So you could bloody tell who they are!” I said, exasperated. Taken by surprise by my tone, he actually smiled a little.
“Aye, well, I should expect that perhaps they dinna much want anyone telling who they are, given their business,” he said dryly.
We paced on together for a few moments, thinking. Then I said curiously, “Well, but how do legitimate ships tell who each other is, if they haven’t got names painted on?”
He glanced at me, one eyebrow raised.
“I should know you from another woman,” he pointed out, “and ye havena got your name stitched upon your bosom.”
“Not so much as a letter ‘A,’” I said, flippantly, but seeing his blank look, added, “You mean ships look different enough—and there are few enough of them—that you can tell one from another just by looking?”
“Not me,” he said honestly. “I know a few; ships where I ken the captain, and have been aboard to do business, or a few like the packet boats, that go back and forth so often that I’ve seen them in port dozens of times. But a sailing man would ken a great deal more.”
“Then it might be possible to find out what the ship that took Ian is called?”
He nodded, looking at me curiously. “Aye, I think so. I have been trying to call to mind everything about it as we walked, so as to tell Jared. He’ll know a great many ships, and a great many more captains—and perhaps one of them will know a blue ship, wide in the beam, with three masts, twelve guns, and a scowling figurehead.”
My heart bounded upward. “So you do have a plan!”
“I wouldna call it so much a plan,” he said. “It’s only I canna think of anything else to do.” He shrugged, and wiped a hand over his face. Tiny droplets of moisture were condensing on us as we walked, glistening in the ruddy hairs of his eyebrows and coating his cheeks with a wetness like tears. He sighed.
“The passage is arranged from Inverness. The best I can see to do is to go; Jared will be expecting us in Le Havre. When we see him, perhaps he can help us to find out what the blue ship is called, and maybe where it’s bound. Aye,” he said dryly, anticipating my question, “ships have home ports, and if they dinna belong to the navy, they have runs they commonly make, and papers for the harbormaster, too, showing where they’re bound.”
I began to feel better than I had since Ian had descended Ellen’s tower.
“If they’re not pirates or privateers, that is,” he added, with a warning look which put an immediate damper on my rising spirits.
“And if they are?”
“Then God knows, but I don’t,” he said briefly, and would not say any more until we reached the horses.
They were grazing on the headland near the tower where we had left Ian’s mount, behaving as though nothing had happened, pretending to find the tough sea grass delicious.
“Tcha!” Jamie viewed them disapprovingly. “Silly beasts.” He grabbed the coil of rope and wrapped it twice round a projecting stone. Handing me the end, with a terse instruction to hold it, he dropped the free end down the chimney, shed his coat and shoes, and disappeared down the rope himself without further remark.
Sometime later, he came back up, sweating profusely, with a small bundle tucked under his arm. Young Ian’s shirt, coat, shoes and stockings, with his knife and the small leather pouch in which the lad kept such valuables as he had.
“Do you mean to take them home to Jenny?” I asked. I tried to imagine what Jenny might think, say, or do at the news, and succeeded all too well. I felt a little sick, knowing that the hollow, aching sense of loss I felt was as nothing to what hers would be.