I touched the half-moon, tracing its length.
“No one’s hunted you for your pelt,” I said softly, “but they’ve hunted you, haven’t they?”
His shoulder moved slightly, not quite a shrug. “Now and then,” he said.
“Now?” I asked.
He breathed slowly for a moment or two before answering.
“Aye,” he said. “I think so.”
My fingers moved down to the diagonal slash. It had been a deep cut; old and well-healed as the damage was, the line was sharp and clear beneath my fingertips.
“Do you know who?”
“No.” He was quiet for a moment; then his hand closed over my own, where it lay across his stomach. “But I maybe ken why.”
The house was very quiet. With most of the children and grandchildren gone, there were only the far-off servants in their quarters behind the kitchen, Ian and Jenny in their room at the far end of the hall, and Young Ian somewhere upstairs—all asleep. We could have been alone at the end of the world; both Edinburgh and the smugglers’ cove seemed very far away.
“Do ye recall, after the fall of Stirling, not so long before Culloden, when all of a sudden there was gossip from everywhere, about gold being sent from France?”
“From Louis? Yes—but he never sent it.” Jamie’s words summoned up those brief frantic days of Charles Stuart’s reckless rise and precipitous fall, when rumor had been the common currency of conversation. “There was always gossip—about gold from France, ships from Spain, weapons from Holland—but nothing came of most of it.”
“Oh, something came—though not from Louis—but no one kent it, then.”
He told me then of his meeting with the dying Duncan Kerr, and the wanderer’s whispered words, heard in the inn’s attic under the watchful eye of an English officer.
“He was fevered, Duncan, but not crazed wi’ it. He kent he was dying, and he kent me, too. It was his only chance to tell someone he thought he could trust—so he told me.”
“White witches and seals?” I repeated. “I must say, it sounds like gibberish. But you understood it?”
“Well, not all of it,” Jamie admitted. He rolled over to face me, frowning slightly. “I’ve no notion who the white witch might be. At the first, I thought he meant you, Sassenach, and my heart nearly stopped when he said it.” He smiled ruefully, and his hand tightened on mine, clasped between us.
“I thought all at once that perhaps something had gone wrong—maybe ye’d not been able to go back to Frank and the place ye came from—maybe ye’d somehow ended in France, maybe ye were there right then—all kinds o’ fancies went through my head.”
“I wish it had been true,” I whispered.
He gave me a lopsided smile, but shook his head.
“And me in prison? And Brianna would be what—just ten or so? No, dinna waste your time in regretting, Sassenach. You’re here now, and ye’ll never leave me again.” He kissed me gently on the forehead, then resumed his tale.
“I didna have any idea where the gold had come from, but I kent his telling me where it was, and why it was there. It was Prince Tearlach’s, sent for him. And the bit about the silkies—” He raised his head a little and nodded toward the window, where the rose brier cast its shadows on the glass.
“Folk said when my mother ran away from Leoch that she’d gone to live wi’ the silkies; only because the maid that saw my father when he took her said as he looked like a great silkie who’d shed his skin and come to walk on the land like a man. And he did.” Jamie smiled and passed a hand through his own thick hair, remembering. “He had hair thick as mine, but a black like jet. It would shine in some lights, as though it was wet, and he moved quick and sleekit, like a seal through the water.” He shrugged suddenly, shaking off the recollection of his father.
“Well, so. When Duncan Kerr said the name Ellen, I kent it was my mother he meant—as a sign that he knew my name and my family, kent who I was; that he wasna raving, no matter how it sounded. And knowin’ that—” He shrugged again. “The Englishman had told me where they found Duncan, near the coast. There are hundreds of bittie isles and rocks all down that coast, but only one place where the silkies live, at the ends of the MacKenzie lands, off Coigach.”
“So you went there?”
“Aye, I did.” He sighed deeply, his free hand drifting to the hollow of my waist. “I wouldna have done it—left the prison, I mean—had I not still thought it maybe had something to do wi’ you, Sassenach.”
Escape had been an enterprise of no great difficulty; prisoners were often taken outside in small gangs, to cut the peats that burned on the prison’s hearths, or to cut and haul stone for the ongoing work of repairing the walls.
For a man to whom the heather was home, disappearing had been easy. He had risen from his work and turned aside by a hummock of grass, unfastening his breeches as though to relieve himself. The guard had looked politely away, and looking back a moment later, beheld nothing but an empty moor, holding no trace of Jamie Fraser.
“See, it was little trouble to slip off, but men seldom did,” he explained. “None of us were from near Ardsmuir—and had we been, there was little left for most o’ the men to gang to.”
The Duke of Cumberland’s men had done their work well. As one contemporary had put it, evaluating the Duke’s achievement later, “He created a desert and called it peace.” This modern approach to diplomacy had left some parts of the Highlands all but deserted; the men killed, imprisoned, or transported, crops and houses burned, the women and children turned out to starve or seek refuge elsewhere as best they might. No, a prisoner escaping from Ardsmuir would have been truly alone, without kin or clan to turn to for succor.
Jamie had known there would be little time before the English commander realized where he must be heading and organized a party of pursuit. On the other hand, there were no real roads in this remote part of the kingdom, and a man who knew the country was at a greater advantage on foot than were the pursuing outlanders on horseback.
He had made his escape in midafternoon. Taking his bearings by the stars, he had walked through the night, arriving at the coast near dawn the next day.
“See, I kent the silkies’ place; it’s well known amongst the MacKenzies, and I’d been there once before, wi’ Dougal.”
The tide had been high, and the seals mostly out in the water, hunting crabs and fish among the fronds of floating kelp, but the dark streaks of their droppings and the indolent forms of a few idlers marked the seals’ three islands, ranged in a line just inside the lip of a small bay, guarded by a clifflike headland.
By Jamie’s interpretation of Duncan’s instructions, the treasure lay on the third island, the farthest away from the shore. It was nearly a mile out, a long swim even for a strong man, and his own strength was sapped from the hard prison labor and the long walk without food. He had stood on the clifftop, wondering whether this was a wild-goose chase, and whether the treasure—if there was one—was worth the risk of his life.
“The rock was all split and broken there; when I came too close to the edge, chunks would fall awa’ from my feet and plummet down the cliff. I didna see how I’d ever reach the water, let alone the seals’ isle. But then I was minded what Duncan said about Ellen’s tower,” Jamie said. His eyes were open, fixed not on me, but on that distant shore where the crash of falling rock was lost in the smashing of the waves.
The “tower” was there; a small spike of granite that stuck up no more than five feet from the tip of the headland. But below that spike, hidden by the rocks, was a narrow crack, a small chimney that ran from top to bottom of the eighty-foot cliff, providing a possible passage, if not an easy one, for a determined man.
From the base of Ellen’s tower to the third island was still over a quarter-mile of heaving green water. Undressing, he had crossed himself, and commending his soul to the keeping of his mother, he had dived naked into the waves.
He made his way slowly out from the cliff, floundering and choking as the waves broke over his head. No place in Scotland is that far from the sea, but Jamie had been raised inland, his experience of swimming limited to the placid depths of lochs and the pools of trout streams.
Blinded by salt and deafened by the roaring surf, he had fought the waves for what seemed hours, then thrust his head and shoulders free, gasping for breath, only to see the headland looming—not behind, as he had thought, but to his right.
“The tide was goin’ out, and I was goin’ with it,” he said wryly. “I thought, well, that’s it, then, I’m gone, for I knew I could never make my way back. I hadna eaten anything in two days, and hadn’t much strength left.”
He ceased swimming then, and simply spread himself on his back, giving himself to the embrace of the sea. Light-headed from hunger and effort, he had closed his eyes against the light and searched his mind for the words of the old Celtic prayer against drowning.
He paused for a moment then, and was quiet for so long that I wondered whether something was wrong. But at last he drew breath and said shyly, “I expect ye’ll think I’m daft, Sassenach. I havena told anyone about it—not even Jenny. But—I heard my mother call me, then, right in the middle of praying.” He shrugged, uncomfortable.
“It was maybe only that I’d been thinking of her when I left the shore,” he said. “And yet—” He fell silent, until I touched his face.
“What did she say?” I asked quietly.
“She said, ‘Come here to me, Jamie—come to me, laddie!’” He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I could hear her plain as day, but I couldna see anything; there was no one there, not even a silkie. I thought perhaps she was callin’ me from Heaven—and I was so tired I really would not ha’ minded dying then, but I rolled myself over and struck out toward where I’d heard her voice. I thought I would swim ten strokes and then stop again to rest—or to sink.”
But on the eighth stroke, the current had taken him.
“It was just as though someone had picked me up,” he said, sounding still surprised at the memory of it. “I could feel it under me and all around; the water was a bit warmer than it had been, and it carried me with it. I didna have to do anything but paddle a bit, to keep my head above water.”
A strong, curling current, eddying between headland and islands, it had taken him to the edge of the third islet, where no more than a few strokes brought him within reach of its rocks.
It was a small lump of granite, fissured and creviced like all the ancient rocks of Scotland, and slimed with seaweed and seal droppings to boot, but he crawled on shore with all the thankfulness of a shipwrecked sailor for a land of palm trees and white-sand beaches. He fell down upon his face on the rocky shelf and lay there, grateful for breath, half-dozing with exhaustion.
“Then I felt something looming over me, and there was a terrible stink o’ dead fish,” he said. “I got up onto my knees at once, and there he was—a great bull seal, all sleek and wet, and his black eyes starin’ at me, no more than a yard away.”