Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 16

   

“Only!” his sister echoed. “If ye mun go, Jamie, take to the heather then, but to give yourself up to an English prison, whether they’ll hang ye or no—”

“Wait.” His hand on her arm stopped her. “I havena told it all to ye yet. I dinna mean just to walk up to the English and surrender. There’s a goodly price on my head, no? Be a shame to let that go to waste, d’ye not think?” He tried to force a smile in his voice; she heard it and glanced sharply up at him.

“Holy Mother,” she whispered. “So ye mean to have someone betray ye?”

“Seemingly, aye.” He had decided upon the plan, alone in the cave, but it had not seemed quite real until now. “I thought perhaps Joe Fraser would be best for it.”

Jenny rubbed her fist hard against her lips. She was quick; he knew she had grasped the plan at once—and all its implications.

“But Jamie,” she whispered. “Even if they dinna hang ye outright—and that’s the hell of a risk to take—Jamie, ye could be killed when they take ye!”

His shoulders slumped suddenly, under the weight of misery and exhaustion.

“God, Jenny,” he said, “d’ye think I care?”

There was a long silence before she answered.

“No, I don’t,” she said. “And I canna say as I blame ye, either.” She paused a moment, to steady her voice. “But I still care.” Her fingers gently touched the back of his head, stroking his hair. “So ye’ll mind yourself, won’t ye, clot-heid?”

The ventilation panel overhead darkened momentarily, and there was the tapping sound of light footsteps. One of the kitchenmaids, on her way to the pantry, perhaps. Then the dim light came back, and he could see Jenny’s face once more.

“Aye,” he whispered at last. “I’ll mind.”

It took more than two months to complete the arrangements. When at last word came, it was full spring.

He sat on his favorite rock, near the cave’s entrance, watching the evening stars come out. Even in the worst of the year after Culloden, he had always been able to find a moment of peace at this time of the day. As the daylight faded, it was as though objects became faintly lit from within, so they stood outlined against sky or ground, perfect and sharp in every detail. He could see the shape of a moth, invisible in the light, now limned in the dusk with a triangle of deeper shadow that made it stand out from the trunk it hid upon. In a moment, it would take wing.

He looked out across the valley, trying to stretch his eyes as far as the black pines that edged the distant cliffside. Then up, among the stars. Orion there, striding stately over the horizon. And the Pleiades, barely visible in the darkening sky. It might be his last sight of the sky for some time, and he meant to enjoy it. He thought of prison, of bars and locks and solid walls, and remembered Fort William. Wentworth Prison. The Bastille. Walls of stone, four feet thick, that blocked all air and light. Filth, stench, hunger, entombment…

He shrugged such thoughts away. He had chosen his way, and was satisfied with it. Still, he searched the sky, looking for Taurus. Not the prettiest of constellations, but his own. Born under the sign of the bull, stubborn and strong. Strong enough, he hoped, to do what he intended.

Among the growing night sounds, there was a sharp, high whistle. It might have been the homing song of a curlew on the loch, but he recognized the signal. Someone was coming up the path—a friend.

It was Mary MacNab, who had become kitchenmaid at Lallybroch, after the death of her husband. Usually it was her son Rabbie, or Fergus, who brought him food and news, but she had come a few times before.

She had brought a basket, unusually well-supplied, with a cold roast partridge, fresh bread, several young green onions, a bunch of early cherries, and a flask of ale. Jamie examined the bounty, then looked up with a wry smile.

“My farewell feast, eh?”

She nodded, silent. She was a small woman, dark hair heavily streaked with gray, and her face lined by the difficulties of life. Still, her eyes were soft and brown, and her lips still full and gently curved.

He realized that he was staring at her mouth, and hastily turned again to the basket.

“Lord, I’ll be so full I’ll not be able to move. Even a cake, now! However did ye ladies manage that?”

She shrugged—she wasn’t a great chatterer, Mary MacNab—and taking the basket from him, proceeded to lay the meal on the wooden tabletop, balanced on stones. She laid places for both of them. This was nothing out of the ordinary; she had supped with him before, to give him the gossip of the district while they ate. Still, if this was his last meal before leaving Lallybroch, he was surprised that neither his sister nor the boys had come to share it. Perhaps the farmhouse had visitors that would make it difficult for them to leave undetected.

He gestured politely for her to sit first, before taking his own place, crosslegged on the hard dirt floor.

“Ye’ve spoken wi’ Joe Fraser? Where is it to be, then?” he asked, taking a bite of cold partridge.

She told him the details of the plan; a horse would be brought before dawn, and he would ride out of the narrow valley by way of the pass. Then turn, cross the rocky foothills and come down, back into the valley by Feesyhant’s Burn, as though he were coming home. The English would meet him somewhere between Struy and Eskadale, most likely at Midmains; it was a good place for an ambush, for the glen rose steeply there on both sides, but with a wooded patch by the stream where several men could conceal themselves.

After the meal, she packed the basket tidily, leaving out enough food for a small breakfast before his dawn leaving. He expected her to go then, but she did not. She rummaged in the crevice where he kept his bedding, spread it neatly upon the floor, turned back the blankets and knelt beside the pallet, hands folded on her lap.

He leaned back against the wall of the cave, arms folded. He looked down at the crown of her bowed head in exasperation.

“Oh, like that, is it?” he demanded. “And whose idea was this? Yours, or my sister’s?”

“Does it matter?” She was composed, her hands perfectly still on her lap, her dark hair smooth in its snood.

He shook his head and bent down to pull her to her feet.

“No, it doesna matter, because it’s no going to happen. I appreciate your meaning, but—”

His speech was interrupted by her kiss. Her lips were as soft as they looked. He grasped her firmly by both wrists and pushed her away from him.

“No!” he said. “It isna necessary, and I dinna want to do it.” He was uncomfortably aware that his body did not agree at all with his assessments of necessity, and still more uncomfortable at the knowledge that his breeches, too small and worn thin, made the magnitude of the disagreement obvious to anyone who cared to look. The slight smile curving those full, sweet lips suggested that she was looking.

He turned her toward the entrance and gave her a light push, to which she responded by stepping aside and reaching behind her for the fastenings to her skirt.

“Don’t do that!” he exclaimed.

“How dye mean to stop me?” she asked, stepping out of the garment and folding it tidily over the single stool. Her slender fingers went to the laces of her bodice.

“If ye won’t leave, then I’ll have to,” he replied with decision. He whirled on his heel and headed for the cave entrance, when he heard her voice behind him.

“My lord!” she said.

He stopped, but did not turn around. “It isna suitable to call me that,” he said.

“Lallybroch is yours,” she said. “And will be so long as ye live. If ye’re its laird, I’ll call ye so.”

“It isna mine. The estate belongs to Young Jamie.”

“It isna Young Jamie that’s doing what you are,” she answered with decision. “And it isna your sister that’s asked me to do what I’m doin’. Turn round.”

He turned, reluctantly. She stood barefoot in her shift, her hair loose over her shoulders. She was thin, as they all were these days, but her br**sts were larger than he had thought, and the ni**les showed prominently through the thin fabric. The shift was as worn as her other garments, frayed at the hem and shoulders, almost transparent in spots. He closed his eyes.

He felt a light touch on his arm, and willed himself to stand still.

“I ken weel enough what ye’re thinkin’,” she said. “For I saw your lady, and I know how it was between the two of ye. I never had that,” she added, in a softer voice, “not wi’ either of the two men I wed. But I know the look of a true love, and it’s not in my mind to make ye feel ye’ve betrayed it.”

The touch, feather-light, moved to his cheek, and a work-worn thumb traced the groove that ran from nose to mouth.

“What I want,” she said quietly, “is to give ye something different. Something less, mayhap, but something ye can use; something to keep ye whole. Your sister and the bairns canna give ye that—but I can.” He heard her draw breath, and the touch on his face lifted away.

“Ye’ve given me my home, my life, and my son. Will ye no let me gi’e ye this small thing in return?”

He felt tears sting his eyelids. The weightless touch moved across his face, wiping the moisture from his eyes, smoothing the roughness of his hair. He lifted his arms, slowly, and reached out. She stepped inside his embrace, as neatly and simply as she had laid the table and the bed.

“I…havena done this in a long time,” he said, suddenly shy.

“Neither have I,” she said, with a tiny smile. “But we’ll remember how ’tis.”

PART THREE

When I Am Thy Captive

7

A FAITH IN DOCUMENTS

Inverness

May 25, 1968

The envelope from Linklater arrived in the morning post.

“Look how fat it is!” Brianna exclaimed. “He’s sent something!” The tip of her nose was pink with excitement.

“Looks like it,” said Roger. He was outwardly calm, but I could see the pulse beating in the hollow of his throat. He picked up the thick manila envelope and held it for a moment, weighing it. Then he ripped the flap recklessly with his thumb, and yanked out a sheaf of photocopied pages.

The cover letter, on heavy university stationery, fluttered out. I snatched it from the floor and read it aloud, my voice shaking a little.

“‘Dear Dr. Wakefield,’” I read. “‘This is in reply to your inquiry regarding the execution of Jacobite officers by the Duke of Cumberland’s troops following the Battle of Culloden. The main source of the quote in my book to which you refer, was the private journal of one Lord Melton, in command of an infantry regiment under Cumberland at the time of Culloden. I have enclosed photocopies of the relevant pages of the journal; as you will see, the story of the survivor, one James Fraser, is an odd and touching one. Fraser is not an important historical character, and not in line with the thrust of my own work, but I have often thought of investigating further, in hopes of determining his eventual fate. Should you find that he did survive the journey to his own estate, I should be happy if you would inform me. I have always rather hoped that he did, though his situation as described by Melton makes the possibility seem unlikely. Sincerely yours, Eric Linklater.’”

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