Thirst slaked, I turned from the cliff face and nearly ran into Jamie, who had appeared as though sprung out of the earth by magic. He was putting his tinderbox back into the pocket of his coat, and the faint smell of smoke clung to his coat. He dropped a small burnt stick to the grass and ground it to dust with his foot.
“Where did you come from?” I said, blinking at this apparition. “And where have you been?”
“There’s a wee cave just there,” he explained, jerking a thumb behind him. “I only wanted to see whether anyone’s been in it.”
“Have they?” Looking closely, I could see the edge of the outcrop that concealed the cave’s entrance. Blending as it did with the other deep cracks in the rock face, it wouldn’t be visible unless you were deliberately looking for it.
“Aye, they have,” he said. His brows were slightly furrowed, not in worry, but as though he were thinking about something. “There’s charcoal mixed wi’ the earth; someone’s had a fire there.”
“Who do you think it was?” I asked. I stuck my head around the outcrop, but saw nothing but a narrow bar of darkness, a small rift in the face of the mountain. It looked thoroughly uninviting.
I wondered whether any of his smuggling connections might have traced him all the way from the coast to Lallybroch. Was he worried about pursuit, or an ambush? Despite myself, I looked over my shoulder, but saw nothing but the alders, dry leaves rustling in the autumn breeze.
“I dinna ken,” he said absently. “A hunter, I suppose; there are grouse bones scattered about, too.”
Jamie didn’t seem perturbed by the unknown person’s possible identity, and I relaxed, the feeling of security engendered by the Highlands wrapping itself about me once more. Both Edinburgh and the smugglers’ cove seemed a long way away.
Young Ian, fascinated by the revelation of the invisible cave, had disappeared through the crevice. Now he reappeared, brushing a cobweb out of his hair.
“Is this like Cluny’s Cage, Uncle?” he asked, eyes bright.
“None so big, Ian,” Jamie answered with a smile. “Poor Cluny would scarce fit through the entrance o’ this one; he was a stout big fellow, forbye, near twice my girth.” He touched his chest ruefully, where a button had been torn loose by squeezing through the narrow entrance.
“What’s Cluny’s Cage?” I asked, shaking the last drops of icy water from my hands and thrusting them under my armpits to thaw out.
“Oh—that’s Cluny MacPherson,” Jamie replied. He bent his head, and splashed the chilly water up into his face. Lifting his head, he blinked the sparkling drops from his lashes and smiled at me. “A verra ingenious man, Cluny. The English burnt his house, and pulled down the foundation, but Cluny himself escaped. He built himself a wee snuggery in a nearby cavern, and sealed over the entrance wi’ willow branches all woven together and chinked wi’ mud. Folk said ye could stand three feet away, and no notion that the cave was there, save the smell of the smoke from Cluny’s pipe.”
“Prince Charles stayed there too, for a bit, when he was hunted by the English,” Young Ian informed me. “Cluny hid him for days. The English bastards hunted high and low, but never found His Highness—or Cluny, either!” he concluded, with considerable satisfaction.
“Come here and wash yourself, Ian,” Jamie said, with a hint of sharpness that made Young Ian blink. “Ye canna face your parents covered wi’ filth.”
Ian sighed, but obediently bent his head over the trickle of water, sputtering and gasping as he splashed his face, which while not strictly speaking filthy, undeniably bore one or two small stains of travel.
I turned to Jamie, who stood watching his nephew’s ablutions with an air of abstraction. Did he look ahead, I wondered, to what promised to be an awkward meeting at Lallybroch, or back to Edinburgh, with the smoldering remains of his printshop and the dead man in the basement of the brothel? Or back further still, to Charles Edward Stuart, and the days of the Rising?
“What do you tell your nieces and nephews about him?” I asked quietly, under the noise of Ian’s snorting. “About Charles?”
Jamie’s gaze sharpened and focused on me; I had been right, then. His eyes warmed slightly, and the hint of a smile acknowledged the success of my mind-reading, but then both warmth and smile disappeared.
“I never speak of him,” he said, just as quietly, and turned away to catch the horses.
Three hours later, we came through the last of the windswept passes, and out onto the final slope that led down to Lallybroch. Jamie, in the lead, drew up his horse and waited for me and Young Ian to come up beside him.
“There it is,” he said. He glanced at me, smiling, one eyebrow raised. “Much changed, is it?”
I shook my head, rapt. From this distance, the house seemed completely unchanged. Built of white harled stone, its three stories gleamed immaculately amid its cluster of shabby outbuildings and the spread of stone-dyked brown fields. On the small rise behind the house stood the remains of the ancient broch, the circular stone tower that gave the place its name.
On closer inspection, I could see that the outbuildings had changed a bit; Jamie had told me that the English soldiery had burned the dovecote and the chapel the year after Culloden, and I could see the gaps where they had been. A space where the wall of the kailyard had been broken through had been repaired with stone of a different color, and a new shed built of stone and scrap lumber was evidently serving as a dovecote, judging from the row of plump feathered bodies lined up on the rooftree, enjoying the late autumn sun.
The rose brier planted by Jamie’s mother, Ellen, had grown up into a great, sprawling tangle latticed to the wall of the house, only now losing the last of its leaves.
A plume of smoke rose from the western chimney, carrying away toward the south on a wind from the sea. I had a sudden vision of the fire in the hearth of the sitting room, its light rosy on Jenny’s clear-cut face in the evening as she sat in her chair, reading aloud from a novel or book of poems while Jamie and Ian sat absorbed in a game of chess, listening with half an ear. How many evenings had we spent that way, the children upstairs in their beds, and me sitting at the rosewood secretary, writing down receipts for medicines or doing some of the interminable domestic mending?
“Will we live here again, do you think?” I asked Jamie, careful to keep any trace of longing from my voice. More than any other place, the house at Lallybroch had been home to me, but that had been a long time ago—and any number of things had changed since then.
He paused for a long minute, considering. Finally he shook his head, gathering up the reins in his hand. “I canna say, Sassenach,” he said. “It would be pleasant, but—I dinna ken how things may be, aye?” There was a small frown on his face, as he looked down at the house.
“It’s all right. If we live in Edinburgh—or even in France—it’s all right, Jamie.” I looked up into his face and touched his hand in reassurance. “As long as we’re together.”
The faint look of worry lifted momentarily, lightening his features. He took my hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it gently.
“I dinna mind much else myself, Sassenach, so long as ye’ll stay by me.”
We sat gazing into each other’s eyes, until a loud, self-conscious cough from behind alerted us to Young Ian’s presence. Scrupulously careful of our privacy, he had been embarrassingly circumspect on the trip from Edinburgh, crashing off through the heather to a great distance when we camped, and taking remarkable pains so as not inadvertently to surprise us in an indiscreet embrace.
Jamie grinned and squeezed my hand before letting it go and turning to his nephew.
“Almost there, Ian,” he said, as the boy negotiated his pony up beside us. “We’ll be there well before supper if it doesna rain,” he added, squinting under his hand to gauge the possibilities of the clouds drifting slowly over the Monadhliath Mountains.
“Mmphm.” Young Ian didn’t sound thrilled at the prospect, and I glanced at him sympathetically.
“‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,’” I quoted.
Young Ian gave me a wry look. “Aye, that’s what I’m afraid of, Auntie.”
Jamie, hearing this exchange, glanced back at Young Ian, and blinked solemnly—his own version of an encouraging wink.
“Dinna be downhearted, Ian. Remember the story o’ the Prodigal Son, aye? Your Mam will be glad to see ye safe back.”
Young Ian cast him a glance of profound disillusion.
“If ye expect it’s the fatted calf that’s like to be kilt, Uncle Jamie, ye dinna ken my mother so well as ye think.”
The lad sat gnawing his lower lip for a moment, then drew himself up in the saddle with a deep breath.
“Best get it over, aye?” he said.
“Will his parents really be hard on him?” I asked, watching Young Ian pick his way carefully down the rocky slope.
“Well, they’ll forgive him, of course, but he’s like to get a rare ballocking and his backside tanned before that. I’ll be lucky to get off wi’ the same,” he added wryly. “Jenny and Ian are no going to be verra pleased wi’ me, either, I’m afraid.” He kicked up his mount, and started down the slope.
“Come along, Sassenach. Best get it over, aye?”
I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of a reception at Lallybroch, but in the event, it was reassuring. As on all previous arrivals, our presence was heralded by the barking of a miscellaneous swarm of dogs, who galloped out of hedge and field and kailyard, yapping first with alarm, and then with joy.
Young Ian dropped his reins and slid down into the furry sea of welcome, dropping into a crouch to greet the dogs who leapt on him and licked his face. He stood up smiling with a half-grown puppy in his arms, which he brought over to show me.
“This is Jocky,” he said, holding up the squirming brown and white body. “He’s mine; Da gave him to me.”
“Nice doggie,” I told Jocky, scratching his floppy ears. The dog barked and squirmed ecstatically, trying to lick me and Ian simultaneously.
“You’re getting covered wi’ dog hairs, Ian,” said a clear, high voice, in tones of marked disapproval. Looking up from the dog, I saw a tall, slim girl of seventeen or so, rising from her seat by the side of the road.
“Well, you’re covered wi’ foxtails, so there!” Young Ian retorted, swinging about to address the speaker.
The girl tossed a headful of dark brown curls and bent to brush at her skirt, which did indeed sport a number of the bushy grass-heads, stuck to the homespun fabric.
“Da says ye dinna deserve to have a dog,” she remarked. “Running off and leaving him like ye did.”
Young Ian’s face tightened defensively. “I did think o’ taking him,” he said, voice cracking slightly. “But I didna think he’d be safe in the city.” He hugged the dog tighter, chin resting between the furry ears. “He’s grown a bit; I suppose he’s been eating all right?”