I could see a line of large birds flying, a stately procession skimming down the distant shoreline. Pelicans, searching the shallows for fish, with the sun gleaming on their wings.
I tugged at Jamie’s sleeve and pointed at them.
“Look—” I began, but got no further. There was a sharp crack! and the world exploded in black and fire. I came to in the water. Dazed and half-choked, I floundered and fought in a world of dark green. Something was wrapped about my legs, dragging me down.
I flailed wildly, kicking to free my leg of the deadly grip. Something floated past my head, and I grabbed for it. Wood, blessed wood, something to hold onto in the surging waves.
A dark shape sleeked by like a seal beneath the water, and a red head bobbed up six feet away, gasping.
“Hold on!” Jamie said. He reached me with two strokes, and ducking under the piece of wood I held, dived down. I felt a tugging at my leg, a sharp pain, and then the dragging tension eased. Jamie’s head popped up again, across the spar. He grasped my wrists and hung there, gulping air, as the rolling swell carried us, up and down.
I couldn’t see the ship anywhere; had it sunk? A wave broke over my head, and Jamie disappeared temporarily. I shook my head, blinking, and he was there again. He smiled at me, a savage grin of effort, and his grip on my wrists tightened harder.
“Hold on!” he rasped again, and I did. The wood was harsh and splintery under my hands, but I clung for all I was worth. We drifted, half-blinded by spray, spinning like a bit of flotsam, so that sometimes I saw the distant shore, sometimes nothing but the open sea from which we had come. And when the waves washed over us, I saw nothing but water.
There was something wrong with my leg; a strange numbness, punctuated with flashes of sharp pain. The vision of Murphy’s peg and the razor-grin of an openmouthed shark drifted through my mind; had my leg been taken by some toothy beast? I thought of my tiny hoard of warm blood, streaming from the stump of a bitten limb, draining away into the cold vastness of the sea, and I panicked, trying to snatch my hand from Jamie’s grasp in order to reach down and see for myself.
He snarled something unintelligible at me and held on to my wrists like grim death. After a moment of frenzied thrashing, reason returned, and I calmed myself, thinking that if my leg were indeed gone, I would have lost consciousness by now.
At that, I was beginning to lose consciousness. My vision was growing gray at the edges, and floating bright spots covered Jamie’s face. Was I really bleeding to death, or was it only cold and shock? It hardly seemed to matter, I thought muzzily; the effect was the same.
A sense of lassitude and utter peace stole gradually over me. I couldn’t feel my feet or legs, and only Jamie’s crushing grip on my hands reminded me of their existence. My head went under water, and I had to remind myself to hold my breath.
The wave subsided and the wood rose slightly, bringing my nose above water. I breathed, and my vision cleared slightly. A foot away was the face of Jamie Fraser, hair plastered to his head, wet features contorted against the spray.
“Hold on!” he roared. “Hold on, God damn you!”
I smiled gently, barely hearing him. The sense of great peace was lifting me, carrying me beyond the noise and chaos. There was no more pain. Nothing mattered. Another wave washed over me, and this time I forgot to hold my breath.
The choking sensation roused me briefly, long enough to see the flash of terror in Jamie’s eyes. Then my vision went dark again.
“Damn you, Sassenach!” his voice said, from a very great distance. His voice was choked with passion. “Damn you! I swear if ye die on me, I’ll kill you!”
I was dead. Everything around me was a blinding white, and there was a soft, rushing noise like the wings of angels. I felt peaceful and bodiless, free of terror, free of rage, filled with quiet happiness. Then I coughed.
I wasn’t bodiless, after all. My leg hurt. It hurt a lot. I became gradually aware that a good many other things hurt, too, but my left shin took precedence in no uncertain terms. I had the distinct impression that the bone had been removed and replaced with a red-hot poker.
At least the leg was demonstrably there. When I cracked my eyes open to look, the haze of pain that floated over my leg seemed almost visible, though perhaps that was only a product of the general fuzziness in my head. Whether mental or physical in origin, the general effect was of a sort of whirling whiteness, shot with flickers of a brighter light. Watching it hurt my eyes, so I shut them again.
“Thank God, you’re awake!” said a relieved-sounding Scottish voice near my ear.
“No I’m not,” I said. My own voice emerged as a salt-crusted croak, rusty with swallowed seawater. I could feel seawater in my sinuses, too, which gave my head an unpleasant gurgling feel. I coughed again, and my nose began to run profusely. Then I sneezed.
“Eugh!” I said, in complete revulsion at the resultant cascade of slime over my upper lip. My hand seemed far off and insubstantial, but I made the effort to raise it, swiping clumsily at my face.
“Be still, Sassenach; I’ll take care of ye.” There was a definite note of amusement in the voice, which irritated me enough to open my eyes again. I caught a brief glimpse of Jamie’s face, intent on mine, before vision vanished once again in the folds of an immense white handkerchief.
He wiped my face thoroughly, ignoring my strangled noises of protest and impending suffocation, then held the cloth to my nose.
“Blow,” he said.
I did as he said. Rather to my surprise, it helped quite a lot. I could think more or less coherently, now that my head was unclogged.
Jamie smiled down at me. His hair was rumpled and stiff with dried salt, and there was a wide abrasion on his temple, an angry dark red against the bronzed skin. He seemed not to be wearing a shirt, but had a blanket of some kind draped about his shoulders.
“Do ye feel verra bad?” he asked.
“Horrible,” I croaked in reply. I was also beginning to be annoyed at being alive, after all, and being required to take notice of things again. Hearing the rasp in my voice, Jamie reached for a jug of water on the table by my bed.
I blinked in confusion, but it really was a bed, not a berth or a hammock. The linen sheets contributed to the overwhelming impression of whiteness that had first engulfed me. This was reinforced by the whitewashed walls and ceiling, and the long white muslin draperies that bellied in like sails, rustling in the breeze from the open windows.
The flickering light came from reflections that shimmered over the ceiling; apparently there was water close by outside, and sun shining on it. It seemed altogether cozier than Davy Jones’s locker. Still, I felt a brief moment of intense regret for the sense of infinite peace. I had experienced in the heart of the wave—a regret made more keen by the slight movement that sent a bolt of white agony up my leg.
“I think your leg is broken, Sassenach,” Jamie told me unnecessarily. “Ye likely shouldna move it much.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said, through gritted teeth. “Where in bloody hell are we?”
He shrugged briefly. “I dinna ken. It’s a fair-sized house, is all I could say. I wasna taking much note when they brought us in. One man said the place is called Les Perles.” He held the cup to my lips and I swallowed gratefully.
“What happened?” So long as I was careful not to move, the pain in my leg was bearable. Automatically, I placed my fingers under the angle of my jaw to check my pulse; reassuringly strong. I wasn’t in shock; my leg couldn’t be badly fractured, much as it hurt.
Jamie rubbed a hand over his face. He looked very tired, and I noticed that his hand trembled with fatigue. There was a large bruise on his cheek, and a line of dried blood where something had scratched the side of his neck.
“The topmast snapped, I think. One of the spars fell and knocked ye overboard. When ye hit the water, ye sank like a stone, and I dived in after you. I got hold of you—and the spar, too, thank God. Ye had a bit of rigging tangled round your leg, dragging ye down, but I managed to get that off.” He heaved a deep sigh, and rubbed his head.
“I just held to ye; and after a time, I felt sand under my feet. I carried ye ashore, and a bit later, some men found us and brought us here. That’s all.” He shrugged.
I felt cold, despite the warm breeze coming in through the windows.
“What happened to the ship? And the men? Ian? Lawrence?”
“Safe, I think. They couldna reach us, with the mast broken—by the time they’d rigged a makeshift sail, we were long gone.” He coughed roughly, and rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. “But they’re safe; the men who found us said they’d seen a small ketch go aground on a mud flat a quarter-mile south of here; they’ve gone down to salvage and bring back the men.”
He took a swallow of water, swished it about his mouth, and going to the window, spat it out.
“I’ve sand in my teeth,” he said, grimacing, as he returned. “And my ears. And my nose, and the crack of my arse, too, I shouldna wonder.”
I reached out and took his hand again. His palm was heavily calloused, but still showed the tender swelling of rising blisters, with shreds of ragged skin and raw flesh, where earlier blisters had burst and bled.
“How long were we in the water?” I asked, gently tracing the lines of his swollen palm. The tiny “C” at the base of his thumb was faded almost to invisibility, but I could still feel it under my finger. “Just how long did you hold on?”
“Long enough,” he said simply.
He smiled a little, and held my hand more tightly, despite the soreness of his own. It dawned on me suddenly that I wasn’t wearing anything; the linen sheets were smooth and cool on my bare skin, and I could see the swell of my ni**les, rising under the thin fabric.
“What happened to my clothes?”
“I couldna hold ye up against the drag of your skirts, so I ripped them off,” he explained. “What was left didna seem worth saving.”
“I don’t suppose so,” I said slowly, “but Jamie—what about you? Where’s your coat?”
He shrugged, then let his shoulders drop, and smiled ruefully.
“At the bottom of the sea with my shoon, I expect,” he said. And the pictures of Willie and Brianna there, too.
“Oh, Jamie. I’m so sorry.” I reached for his hand and held it tightly. He looked away, and blinked once or twice.
“Aye, well,” he said softly. “I expect I will remember them.” He shrugged again, with a lopsided smile. “And if not, I can look in the glass, no?” I gave a laugh that was half a sob; he swallowed painfully, but went on smiling.
He glanced down at his tattered breeches then, and seeming to think of something, leaned back and worked a hand into the pocket.
“I didna come away completely empty-handed,” he said, pulling a wry face. “Though I would as soon it had been the pictures I kept, and lost these.”
He opened his hand, and I saw the gleam and glitter in his ruined palm. Stones of the first quality, cut and faceted, suitable for magic. An emerald, a ruby—male, I supposed—a great fiery opal, a turquoise blue as the sky I could see out the window, a golden stone like sun trapped in honey, and the strange crystal purity of Geilie’s black diamond.