“I dinna want to know how ye did this,” he said, with a sigh, “but for God’s sake, Sassenach, don’t do it again!”
“Well, I didn’t intend to do anything…” I began crossly, when I was interrupted by the return of Mr. Willoughby. He was carrying the little roll of green silk I had seen when he cured Jamie’s seasickness.
“Oh, ye’ve got the wee stabbers?” Jamie peered interestedly at the small gold needles, then smiled at me. “Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach, they don’t hurt…or not much, anyway,” he added.
Mr. Willoughby’s fingers probed the palm of my right hand, prodding here and there. Then he grasped each of my fingers, wiggled it, and pulled it gently, so that I felt the joints pop slightly. Then he laid two fingers at the base of my wrist, pressing down in the space between the radius and the ulna.
“This is the Inner Gate,” he said softly. “Here is quiet. Here is peace.” I sincerely hoped he was right. Picking up one of the tiny gold needles, he placed the point over the spot he had marked, and with a dexterous twirl of thumb and forefinger, pierced the skin.
The prick made me jump, but he kept a tight, warm hold on my hand, and I relaxed again.
He placed three needles in each wrist, and a rakish, porcupine-like spray on the crest of my right shoulder. I was getting interested, despite my guinea pig status. Beyond an initial prick at placement, the needles caused no discomfort. Mr. Willoughby was humming, in a low, soothing sort of way, tapping and pressing places on my neck and shoulder.
I couldn’t honestly tell whether my right arm was numbed, or whether I was simply distracted by the goings-on, but it did feel somewhat less agonized—at least until he picked up the suture needle and began.
Jamie was sitting on a stool by my left side, holding my left hand as he watched my face. After a moment, he said, rather gruffly, “Let your breath out, Sassenach; it’s no going to get any worse than that.”
I let go of the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding, and realized as well what he was telling me. It was dread of being hurt that had me rigid as a board in the chair. The actual pain of the stitches was unpleasant, all right, but nothing I couldn’t stand.
I let my breath out cautiously, and gave him a rough approximation of a smile. Mr. Willoughby was singing under his breath in Chinese. Jamie had translated the words for me a week earlier; it was a pillow-song, in which a young man catalogued the physical charms of his partner, one by one. I hoped he would finish the stitching before he got to her feet.
“That’s a verra wicked slash,” Jamie said, eyes on Mr. Willoughby’s work. I preferred not to look myself. “A parang, was it, or a cutlass, I wonder?”
“I think it was a cutlass,” I said. “In fact, I know it was. He came after…”
“I wonder what led them to attack us,” Jamie said, not paying any attention to me. His brows were drawn in speculation. “It canna ha’ been the cargo, after all.”
“I shouldn’t think so,” I said. “But maybe they didn’t know what we were carrying?” This seemed grossly unlikely; any ship that came within a hundred yards of us would have known—the ammoniac reek of bat guano hovered round us like a miasma.
“Perhaps it’s only they thought the ship small enough to take. The Artemis itself would bring a fair price, cargo or no.”
I blinked as Mr. Willoughby paused in his song to tie a knot. I thought he was down to the navel by now, but wasn’t paying close attention.
“Do we know the name of the pirate ship?” I asked. “Granted, there’s likely a lot of pirates in these waters, but we do know that the Bruja was in this area three days ago, and—”
“That’s what I’m wondering,” he said. “I couldna see a great deal in the darkness, but she was the right size, wi’ that wide Spanish beam.”
“Well, the pirate that was after me spoke—” I started, but the sound of voices in the corridor made me stop.
Fergus edged in, shy of interrupting, but obviously bursting with excitement. He held something shiny and jingling in one hand.
“Milord,” he said, “Maitland has found a dead pirate on the forward deck.”
Jamie’s red brows went up, and he looked from Fergus to me.
“Very dead, milord,” said Fergus, with a small shudder. Maitland was peeking over his shoulder, anxious to claim his share of the glory. “Oh, yes, sir,” he assured Jamie earnestly. “Dead as a doornail; his poor head’s bashed in something shocking!”
All three men turned and stared at me. I gave them a modest little smile.
Jamie rubbed a hand over his face. His eyes were bloodshot, and a trickle of blood had dried in front of his ear.
“Sassenach,” he began, in measured tones.
“I tried to tell you,” I said virtuously. Between shock, brandy, acupuncture, and the dawning realization of survival, I was beginning to feel quite pleasantly light-headed. I scarcely noticed Mr. Willoughby’s final efforts.
“He was wearing this, milord.” Fergus stepped forward and laid the pirate’s necklace on the table in front of us. It had the silver buttons from a military uniform, polished kona nuts, several large shark’s teeth, pieces of polished abalone shell and chunks of mother of pearl, and a large number of jingling coins, all pierced for stringing on a leather thong.
“I thought you should see this at once, milord,” Fergus continued. He reached out a hand and lifted one of the shimmering coins. It was silver, untarnished, and through the gathering brandy haze, I could see on its face the twin heads of Alexander. A tetradrachm, of the fourth century B.C. Mint condition.
Thoroughly worn out by the events of the afternoon, I had fallen asleep at once, the pain in my arm dulled by brandy. Now it was full dark, and the brandy had worn off. My arm seemed to swell and throb with each beat of my heart, and any small movement sent tiny jabs of a sharper pain whipping through my arm, like warning flicks of a scorpion’s tail.
The moon was three-quarters full, a huge lopsided shape like a golden teardrop, hanging just above the horizon. The ship heeled slightly, and the moon slid slowly out of sight, the Man in the Moon leering rather unpleasantly as he went. I was hot, and possibly a trifle feverish.
There was a jug of water in the cupboard on the far side of the cabin. I felt weak and giddy as I swung my feet over the edge of the berth, and my arm registered a strong protest against being disturbed. I must have made some sound, for the darkness on the floor of the cabin stirred suddenly, and Jamie’s voice came drowsily from the region of my feet.
“Are ye hurting, Sassenach?”
“A little,” I said, not wanting to be dramatic about it. I set my lips and rose unsteadily to my feet, cradling my right elbow in my left hand.
“That’s good,” he said.
“That’s good?” I said, my voice rising indignantly.
There was a soft chuckle from the darkness, and he sat up, his head popping suddenly into sight as it rose above the shadows into the moonlight.
“Aye, it is,” he said. “When a wound begins to hurt ye, it means it’s healing. Ye didna feel it when it happened, did you?”
“No,” I admitted. I certainly felt it now. The air was a good deal cooler out on the open sea, and the salt wind coming through the window felt good on my face. I was damp and sticky with sweat, and the thin chemise clung to my br**sts.
“I could see ye didn’t. That’s what frightened me. Ye never feel a fatal wound, Sassenach,” he said softly.
I laughed shortly, but cut it off as the movement jarred my arm.
“And how do you know that?” I asked, fumbling left-handed to pour water into a cup. “Not the sort of thing you’d learn firsthand, I mean.”
“Murtagh told me.”
The water seemed to purl soundlessly into the cup, the sound of its pouring lost in the hiss of the bow-wave outside. I set down the jug and lifted the cup, the surface of the water black in the moonlight. Jamie had never mentioned Murtagh to me, in the months of our reunion. I had asked Fergus, who told me that the wiry little Scot had died at Culloden, but he knew no more than the bare fact.
“At Culloden.” Jamie’s voice was barely loud enough to be heard above the creak of timber and the whirring of the wind that bore us along. “Did ye ken they burnt the bodies there? I wondered, listening to them do it—what it would be like inside the fire when it came my turn.” I could hear him swallow, above the creaking of the ship. “I found that out, this morning.”
The moonlight robbed his face of depth and color; he looked like a skull, with the broad, clean planes of cheek and jawbone white and his eyes black empty pits.
“I went to Culloden meaning to die,” he said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper. “Not the rest of them. I should have been happy to stop a musket ball at once, and yet I cut my way across the field and halfway back, while men on either side o’ me were blown to bloody bits.” He stood up, then, looking down at me.
“Why?” he said. “Why, Claire? Why am I alive, and they are not?”
“I don’t know,” I said softly. “For your sister, and your family, maybe? For me?”
“They had families,” he said. “Wives, and sweethearts; children to mourn them. And yet they are gone. And I am still here.”
“I don’t know, Jamie,” I said at last. I touched his cheek, already roughened by newly sprouting beard, irrepressible evidence of life. “You aren’t ever going to know.”
He sighed, his cheekbone pressed against my palm for a moment.
“Aye, I ken that well enough. But I canna help the asking, when I think of them—especially Murtagh.” He turned restlessly away, his eyes empty shadows, and I knew he walked Drumossie Moor again, with the ghosts.
“We should have gone sooner; the men had been standing for hours, starved and half-frozen. But they waited for His Highness to give the order to charge.”
And Charles Stuart, perched safely on a rock, well behind the line of battle, having seized personal command of his troops for the first time, had dithered and delayed. And the English cannon had had time to bear squarely on the lines of ragged Highlanders, and opened fire.
“It was a relief, I think,” Jamie said softly. “Every man on the field knew the cause was lost, and we were dead. And still we stood there, watching the English guns come up, and the cannon mouths open black before us. No one spoke. I couldna hear anything but the wind, and the English soldiers shouting, on the other side of the field.”
And then the guns had roared, and men had fallen, and those still standing, rallied by a late and ragged order, had seized their swords and charged the enemy, the sound of their Gaelic shrieking drowned by the guns, lost in the wind.
“The smoke was so thick, I couldna see more than a few feet before me. I kicked off my shoon and ran into it, shouting.” The bloodless line of his lips turned up slightly.
“I was happy,” he said, sounding a bit surprised. “Not scairt at all. I meant to die, after all; there was nothing to fear except that I might be wounded and not die at once. But I would die, and then it would be all over, and I would find ye again, and it would be all right.”