Neither fisher nor seaman himself, Jamie had heard enough stories to know that bull seals were dangerous, particularly when threatened by intrusions upon their territory. Looking at the open mouth, with its fine display of sharp, peglike teeth, and the burly rolls of hard fat that girdled the enormous body, he was not disposed to doubt it.
“He weighed more than twenty stone, Sassenach,” he said. “If he wasna inclined to rip the flesh off my bones, still he could ha’ knocked me into the sea wi’ one swipe, or dragged me under to drown.”
“Obviously he didn’t, though,” I said dryly. “What happened?”
He laughed. “I think I was too mazed from tiredness to do anything sensible,” he said. “I just looked at him for a moment, and then I said, ‘It’s all right; it’s only me.’”
“And what did the seal do?”
Jamie shrugged slightly. “He looked me over for a bit longer—silkies dinna blink much, did ye know that? It’s verra unnerving to have one look at ye for long—then he gave a sort of a grunt and slid off the rock into the water.”
Left in sole possession of the tiny islet, Jamie had sat blankly for a time, recovering his strength, and then at last began a methodical search of the crevices. Small as the area was, it took little time to find a deep split in the rock that led down to a wide hollow space, a foot below the rocky surface. Floored with dry sand and located in the center of the island, the hollow would be safe from flooding in all but the worst storms.
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” I said, poking him in the stomach. “Was the French gold there?”
“Well, it was and it wasn’t, Sassenach,” he answered, neatly sucking in his stomach. “I’d been expecting gold bullion; that’s what the rumor said that Louis would send. And thirty thousand pounds’ worth of gold bullion would make a good-sized hoard. But all there was in the hollow was a box, less than a foot long, and a small leather pouch. The box did have gold in it, though—and silver, too.”
Gold and silver indeed. The wooden box had contained two hundred and five coins, gold ones and silver ones, some as sharply cut as though new-minted, some with their markings worn nearly to blankness.
“Ancient coins, Sassenach.”
“Ancient? What, you mean very old—”
“Greek, Sassenach, and Roman. Verra old indeed.”
We lay staring at each other in the dim light for a moment, not speaking.
“That’s incredible,” I said at last. “It’s treasure, all right, but not—”
“Not what Louis would send, to help feed an army, no,” he finished for me. “No, whoever put this treasure there, it wasna Louis or any of his ministers.”
“What about the bag?” I said, suddenly remembering. “What was in the pouch you found?”
“Stones, Sassenach. Gemstones. Diamonds and pearls and emeralds and sapphires. Not many, but nicely cut and big enough.” He smiled, a little grimly. “Aye, big enough.”
He had sat on a rock under the dim gray sky, turning the coins and the jewels over and over between his fingers, stunned into bewilderment. At last, roused by a sensation of being watched, he had looked up to find himself surrounded by a circle of curious seals. The tide was out, the females had come back from their fishing, and twenty pairs of round black eyes surveyed him cautiously.
The huge black male, emboldened by the presence of his harem, had come back too. He barked loudly, darting his head threateningly from side to side, and advanced on Jamie, sliding his three-hundred-pound bulk a few feet closer with each booming exclamation, propelling himself with his flippers across the slick rock.
“I thought I’d best leave, then,” he said. “I’d found what I came to find, after all. So I put the box and the pouch back where I’d found them—I couldna carry them ashore, after all, and if I did—what then? So I put them back, and crawled down into the water, half-frozen wi’ cold.”
A few strokes from the island had taken him again into the current heading landward; it was a circular current, like most eddies, and the gyre had carried him to the foot of the headland within half an hour, where he crawled ashore, dressed, and fell asleep in a nest of marrow grass.
He paused then, and I could see that while his eyes were open and fixed on me, it wasn’t me they saw.
“I woke at dawn,” he said softly. “I have seen a great many dawns, Sassenach, but never one like that one.
“I could feel the earth turn beneath me, and my own breath coming wi’ the breathing of the wind. It was as though I had no skin nor bone, but only the light of the rising sun inside me.”
His eyes softened, as he left the moor and came back to me.
“So then the sun came up higher,” he said, matter-of-factly. “And when it warmed me enough to stand, I got up and went inland toward the road, to meet the English.”
“But why did you go back?” I demanded. “You were free! You had money! And—”
“And where would I spend such money as that, Sassenach?” he asked. “Walk into a cottar’s hearth and offer him a gold denarius, or a wee emerald?” He smiled at my indignation and shook his head.
“Nay,” he said gently, “I had to go back. Aye, I could ha’ lived on the moor for a time—half-starved and naked, but I might have managed. But they were hunting me, Sassenach, and hunting hard, for thinking that I might know where the gold was hid. No cot near Ardsmuir would be safe from the English, so long as I was free, and might be thought to seek refuge there.
“I’ve seen the English hunting, ye ken,” he added, a harder note creeping into his voice. “Ye’ll have seen the panel in the entry hall?”
I had; one panel of the glowing oak that lined the hall below had been smashed in, perhaps by a heavy boot, and the crisscross scars of saber slashes marred the paneling from door to stairs.
“We keep it so to remember,” he said. “To show to the weans, and tell them when they ask—this is what the English are.”
The suppressed hate in his voice struck me low in the pit of the stomach. Knowing what I knew of what the English army had done in the Highlands, there was bloody little I could say in argument. I said nothing, and he continued after a moment.
“I wouldna expose the folk near Ardsmuir to that kind of attention, Sassenach.” At the word “Sassenach,” his hand squeezed mine and a small smile curved the corner of his mouth. Sassenach I might be to him, but not English.
“For that matter,” he went on, “were I not taken, the hunt would likely come here again—to Lallybroch. If I would risk the folk near Ardsmuir, I would not risk my own. And even without that—” He stopped, seeming to struggle to find words.
“I had to go back,” he said slowly. “For the sake of the men there, if for nothing else.”
“The men in the prison?” I said, surprised. “Were some of the Lallybroch men arrested with you?”
He shook his head. The small vertical line that appeared between his brows when he thought hard was visible, even by starlight.
“No. There were men there from all over the Highlands—from every clan, almost. Only a few men from each clan—remnants and ragtag. But the more in need of a chief, for all that.”
“And that’s what you were to them?” I spoke gently, restraining the urge to smooth the line away with my fingers.
“For lack of any better,” he said, with the flicker of a smile.
He had come from the bosom of family and tenants, from a strength that had sustained him for seven years, to find a lack of hope and a loneliness that would kill a man faster than the damp and the filth and the quaking ague of the prison.
And so, quite simply, he had taken the ragtag and remnants, the castoff survivors of the field of Culloden, and made them his own, that they and he might survive the stones of Ardsmuir as well. Reasoning, charming, and cajoling where he could, fighting where he must, he had forced them to band together, to face their captors as one, to put aside ancient clan rivalries and allegiances, and take him as their chieftain.
“They were mine,” he said softly. “And the having of them kept me alive.” But then they had been taken from him and from each other—wrenched apart and sent into indenture in a foreign land. And he had not been able to save them.
“You did your best for them. But it’s over now,” I said softly.
We lay in each other’s arms in silence for a long time, letting the small noises of the house wash over us. Different from the comfortable commercial bustle of the brothel, the tiny creaks and sighing spoke of quiet, and home, and safety. For the first time, we were truly alone together, removed from danger and distraction.
There was time, now. Time to hear the rest of the story of the gold, to hear what he had done with it, to find out what had happened to the men of Ardsmuir, to speculate about the burning of the printshop, Young Ian’s one-eyed seaman, the encounter with His Majesty’s Customs on the shore by Arbroath, to decide what to do next. And since there was time, there was no need to speak of any of that, now.
The last peat broke and fell apart on the hearth, its glowing interior hissing red in the cold. I snuggled closer to Jamie, burying my face in the side of his neck. He tasted faintly of grass and sweat, with a whiff of brandy.
He shifted his body in response, bringing us together all down our naked lengths.
“What, again?” I murmured, amused. “Men your age aren’t supposed to do it again so soon.”
His teeth nibbled gently on my earlobe. “Well, you’re doing it too, Sassenach,” he pointed out. “And you’re older than I am.”
“That’s different,” I said, gasping a little as he moved suddenly over me, his shoulders blotting out the starlit window. “I’m a woman.”
“And if ye weren’t a woman, Sassenach,” he assured me, settling to his work, “I wouldna be doing it either. Hush, now.”
I woke just past dawn to the scratching of the rose brier against the window, and the muffled thump and clang of breakfast fixing in the kitchen below. Peering over Jamie’s sleeping form, I saw that the fire was dead out. I slid out of bed, quietly so as not to wake him. The floorboards were icy under my feet and I reached, shivering, for the first available garment.
Swathed in the folds of Jamie’s shirt, I knelt on the hearth and went about the laborious business of rekindling the fire, thinking rather wistfully that I might have included a box of safety matches in the short list of items I had thought worthwhile to bring. Striking sparks from a flint to catch kindling does work, but not usually on the first try. Or the second. Or…
Somewhere around the dozenth attempt, I was rewarded by a tiny black spot on the twist of tow I was using for kindling. It grew at once and blossomed into a tiny flame. I thrust it hastily but carefully beneath the little tent of twigs I had prepared, to shelter the blooming flame from the cold breeze.
I had left the window ajar the night before, to insure not being suffocated by the smoke—peat fires burned hot, but dully, with a lot of smoke, as the blackened beams overhead attested. Just now, though, I thought we could dispense with fresh air—at least until I got the fire thoroughly under way.