I kept my eyes on the path. The crest of the hill had been invisible, wreathed in mist, when the car had left me on the road below.
“Here?” the driver had said, peering dubiously out of his window at the deserted countryside. “Sure, mum?”
“Yes,” I’d said, half-choked with terror. “This is the place.”
“Aye?” He looked dubious, in spite of the large note I put in his hand. “D’ye want me to wait, mum? Or to come later, to fetch ye back?”
I was sorely tempted to say yes. After all, what if I lost my nerve? At the moment, my grip on that slippery substance seemed remarkably feeble.
“No,” I said, swallowing. “No, that won’t be necessary.” If I couldn’t do it, I would just have to walk back to Inverness, that was all. Or perhaps Roger and Brianna would come; I thought that would be worse, to be ignominiously retrieved. Or would it be a relief?
The granite pebbles rolled beneath my feet and a clod of dirt fell in a small rushing shower, dislodged by my passage. I couldn’t possibly really be doing this, I thought. The weight of the money in my reinforced pocket swung against my thigh, the heavy certainty of gold and silver a reminder of reality. I was doing it.
I couldn’t. Thoughts of Bree as I had seen her late last night, peacefully asleep in her bed, assaulted me. The tendrils of remembered horror reached out from the hilltop above, as I began to sense the nearness of the stones. Screaming, chaos, the feeling of being torn in pieces. I couldn’t.
I couldn’t, but I kept on climbing, palms sweating, my feet moving as though no longer under my control.
It was full dawn by the time I reached the top of the hill. The mist lay below, and the stones stood clear and dark against a crystal sky. The sight of them left me wet-palmed with apprehension, but I walked forward, and passed into the circle.
They were standing on the grass in front of the cleft stone, facing each other. Brianna heard my footsteps and whirled around to face me.
I stared at her, speechless with astonishment. She was wearing a Jessica Gutenburg dress, very much like the one I had on, except that hers was a vivid lime green, with plastic jewels stitched across the bosom.
“That’s a perfectly horrible color for you,” I said.
“It’s the only one they had in a size sixteen,” she answered calmly.
“What in the name of goodness are you doing here?” I demanded, recovering some remnant of coherence.
“We came to see you off,” she said, and a hint of a smile flickered on her lips. I looked at Roger, who shrugged slightly and gave me a lopsided smile of his own.
“Oh. Yes. Well,” I said. The stone stood behind Brianna, twice the height of a man. I could look through the foot-wide crack, and see the faint morning sun shining on the grass outside the circle.
“You’re going,” she said firmly, “or I am.”
“You! Are you out of your mind?”
“No.” She glanced at the cleft stone and swallowed. It might have been the lime-green dress that made her face look chalk-white. “I can do it—go through, I mean. I know I can. When Geilie Duncan went through the stones, I heard them. Roger did too.” She glanced at him as though for reassurance, then fixed her gaze firmly on me.
“I don’t know whether I could find Jamie Fraser or not; maybe only you can. But if you won’t try, then I will.”
My mouth opened, but I couldn’t find anything to say.
“Don’t you see, Mama? He has to know—has to know he did it, he did what he meant to for us.” Her lips quivered, and she pressed them together for a minute.
“We owe it to him, Mama,” she said softly. “Somebody has to find him, and tell him.” Her hand touched my face, briefly. “Tell him I was born.”
“Oh, Bree,” I said, my voice so choked I could barely speak. “Oh, Bree!”
She was holding my hands tight between her own, squeezing hard.
“He gave you to me,” she said, so low I could hardly hear her. “Now I have to give you back to him, Mama.”
The eyes that were so like Jamie’s looked down at me, blurred by tears.
“If you find him,” she whispered, “when you find my father—give him this.” She bent and kissed me, fiercely, gently, then straightened and turned me toward the stone.
“Go, Mama,” she said, breathless. “I love you. Go!”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Roger move toward her. I took one step, and then another. I heard a sound, a faint roaring. I took the last step, and the world disappeared.
A. MALCOLM, PRINTER
My first coherent thought was, “It’s raining. This must be Scotland.” My second thought was that this observation was no great improvement over the random images jumbling around inside my head, banging into each other and setting off small synaptic explosions of irrelevance.
I opened one eye, with some difficulty. The lid was stuck shut, and my entire face felt cold and puffy, like a submerged corpse’s. I shuddered faintly at the thought, the slight movement making me aware of the sodden fabric all around me.
It was certainly raining—a soft, steady drum of rain that raised a faint mist of droplets above the green moor. I sat up, feeling like a hippopotamus emerging from a bog, and promptly fell over backward.
I blinked and closed my eyes against the downpour. Some small sense of who I was—and where I was—was beginning to come back to me. Bree. Her face emerged suddenly into memory, with a jolt that made me gasp as though I’d been punched in the stomach. Jagged images of loss and the rip of separation pulled at me, a faint echo of the chaos in the stone passage.
Jamie. There it was; the anchor point to which I had clung, my single hold on sanity. I breathed slow and deep, hands folded over my pounding heart, summoning Jamie’s face. For a moment, I thought I had lost him, and then it came, clear and bold in my mind’s eye.
Once again, I struggled upright, and this time stayed, propped by my outstretched hands. Yes, certainly it was Scotland. It could hardly by anything else, of course, but it was also the Scotland of the past. At least, I hoped it was the past. It wasn’t the Scotland I’d left, at any rate. The trees and bushes grew in different patterns; there was a patch of maple saplings just below me that hadn’t been there when I’d climbed the hill—when? That morning? Two days ago?
I had no idea how much time had passed since I had entered the standing stones, or how long I had lain unconscious on the hillside below the circle. Quite a while, judging from the sogginess of my clothing; I was soaked through to the skin, and small chilly rivulets ran down my sides under my gown.
One numbed cheek was beginning to tingle; putting my hand to it, I could feel a pattern of incised bumps. I looked down and saw a layer of fallen rowan berries, gleaming red and black among the grass. Very appropriate, I thought, vaguely amused. I had fallen down under a rowan—the Highland protection against witchcraft and enchantment.
I grasped the smooth trunk of the rowan tree, and laboriously hauled myself to my feet. Still holding onto the tree for support, I looked to the northeast. The rain had faded the horizon to a gray invisibility, but I knew that Inverness lay in that direction. No more than an hour’s trip by car, along modern roads.
The road existed; I could see the outline of a rough track that led along the base of the hill, a dark, silvery line in the gleaming green wetness of the moor plants. However, forty-odd miles on foot was a far cry from the journey by car that had brought me here.
I was beginning to feel somewhat better, standing up. The weakness in my limbs was fading, along with the feeling of chaos and disruption in my mind. It had been as bad as I’d feared, this passage; perhaps worse. I could feel the terrible presence of the stones above me, and shuddered, my skin prickling with cold.
I was alive, though. Alive, and with a small feeling of certainty, like a tiny glowing sun beneath my ribs. He was here. I knew it now, though I hadn’t known it when I threw myself between the stones; that had been a leap of faith. But I had cast out my thought of Jamie like a lifeline tossed into a raging torrent—and the line had tightened in my grasp, and pulled me free.
I was wet, cold, and felt battered, as though I had been washing about in the surf against a rocky shore. But I was here. And somewhere in this strange country of the past was the man I had come to find. The memories of grief and terror were receding, as I realized that my die was cast. I could not go back; a return trip would almost surely be fatal. As I realized that I was likely here to stay, all hesitations and terrors were superseded by a strange calm, almost exultant. I could not go back. There was nothing to do but go forward—to find him.
Cursing my carelessness in not having thought to tell the tailor to make my cloak with a waterproof layer between fabric and lining, I pulled the water-soaked garment closer. Even wet, the wool held some warmth. If I began to move, I would grow warmer. A quick pat reassured me that my bundle of sandwiches had made the trip with me. That was good; the thought of walking forty miles on an empty stomach was a daunting one.
With luck, I wouldn’t have to. I might find a village or a house that had a horse I could buy. But if not, I was prepared. My plan was to go to Inverness—by whatever means offered itself—and there take a public coach to Edinburgh.
There was no telling where Jamie was at the moment. He might be in Edinburgh, where his article had been published, but he might easily be somewhere else. If I could not find him there, I could go to Lallybroch, his home. Surely his family would know where he was—if any of them were left. The sudden thought chilled me, and I shivered.
I thought of a small bookstore that I passed every morning on my way from the parking lot to the hospital. They had been having a sale on posters; I had seen the display of psychedelic examples when I left Joe’s office for the last time.
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” said one poster, above an illustration of a foolish-looking chick, absurdly poking its head out of an eggshell. In the other window, another poster showed a caterpillar, inching its way up a flower stalk. Above the stalk soared a brilliantly colored butterfly, and below was the motto “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
The most irritating thing about clichés, I decided, was how frequently they were true. I let go of the rowan tree, and started down the hill toward my future.
It was a long, jolting ride from Inverness to Edinburgh, crammed cheek by jowl into a large coach with two other ladies, the small and whiny son of one of the ladies, and four gentlemen of varying sizes and dispositions.
Mr. Graham, a small and vivacious gentleman of advanced years who was seated next to me, was wearing a bag of camphor and asafoetida about his neck, to the eyewatering discomfort of the rest of the coach.
“Capital for dispelling the evil humors of influenza,” he explained to me, waving the bag gently under my nose like a censer. “I have worn this daily through the autumn and winter months, and haven’t been sick a day in nearly thirty years!”
“Amazing!” I said politely, trying to hold my breath. I didn’t doubt it; the fumes probably kept everyone at such a distance that germs couldn’t reach him.