Always, always, I had had to balance compassion with wisdom, love with judgment, humanity with ruthlessness.
Only with Jamie had I given everything I had, risked it all. I had thrown away caution and judgment and wisdom, along with the comforts and constraints of a hard-won career. I had brought him nothing but myself, been nothing but myself with him, given him soul as well as body, let him see me naked, trusted him to see me whole and cherish my frailties—because he once had.
I had feared he couldn’t, again. Or wouldn’t. And then had known those few days of perfect joy, thinking that what had once been true was true once more; I was free to love him, with everything I had and was, and be loved with an honesty that matched my own.
The tears slid hot and wet between my fingers. I mourned for Jamie, and for what I had been, with him.
Do you know, his voice said, whispering, what it means, to say again “I love you,” and to mean it?
I knew. And with my head in my hands beneath the pine trees, I knew I would never mean it again.
Sunk as I was in miserable contemplation, I didn’t hear the footsteps until he was nearly upon me. Startled by the crack of a branch nearby, I rocketed off the fallen tree like a rising pheasant and whirled to face the attacker, heart in my mouth and dagger in hand.
“Christ!” My stalker shied back from the open blade, clearly as startled as I was.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded. I pressed my free hand to my chest. My heart was pounding like a kettledrum and I was sure I was as white as he was.
“Jesus, Auntie Claire! Where’d ye learn to pull a knife like that? Ye scairt hell out of me.” Young Ian passed a hand over his brow, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.
“The feeling is mutual,” I assured him. I tried to sheathe the dagger, but my hand was shaking too much with reaction to manage it. Knees wobbling, I sank back on the aspen trunk and laid the knife on my thigh.
“I repeat,” I said, trying to gain mastery of myself, “what are you doing here?” I had a bloody good idea what he was doing there, and I wasn’t having any. On the other hand, I needed a moment’s recovery from the fright before I could reliably stand up.
Young Ian bit his lip, glanced around, and at my nod of permission, sat down awkwardly on the trunk beside me.
“Uncle Jamie sent me—” he began. I didn’t pause to hear more, but got up at once, knees or no knees, thrusting the dagger into my belt as I turned away.
“Wait, Aunt! Please!” He grabbed at my arm, but I jerked loose, pulling away from him.
“I’m not interested,” I said, kicking the fronds of bracken aside. “Go home, wee Ian. I’ve places to go.” I hoped I had, at least.
“But it isn’t what you think!” Unable to stop me leaving the clearing, he was following me, arguing as he ducked low branches. “He needs you, Aunt, really he does! Ye must come back wi’ me!”
I didn’t answer him; I had reached my horse, and bent to undo the hobbles.
“Auntie Claire! Will ye no listen to me?” He loomed up on the far side of the horse, gawky height peering at me over the saddle. He looked very much like his father, his good-natured, half-homely face creased with anxiety.
“No,” I said briefly. I stuffed the hobbles into the saddlebag, and put my foot into the stirrup, swinging up with a satisfyingly majestic swish of skirts and petticoats. My dignified departure was hampered at this point by the fact that Young Ian had the horse’s reins in a death grip.
“Let go,” I said peremptorily.
“Not until ye hear me out,” he said. He glared up at me, jaw clenched with stubbornness, soft brown eyes ablaze. I glared back at him. Gangling as he was, he had Ian’s skinny muscularity; unless I was prepared to ride him down, there seemed little choice but to listen to him.
All right, I decided. Fat lot of good it would do, to him or his double-dealing uncle, but I’d listen.
“Talk,” I said, mustering what patience I could.
He drew a deep breath, eyeing me warily to see whether I meant it. Deciding that I did, he blew his breath out, making the soft brown hair over his brow flutter, and squared his shoulders to begin.
“Well,” he started, seeming suddenly unsure. “It…I…he…”
I made a low sound of exasperation in my throat. “Start at the beginning,” I said. “But don’t make a song and dance of it, hm?”
He nodded, teeth set in his upper lip as he concentrated.
“Well, there was the hell of a stramash broke out at the house, after ye left, when Uncle Jamie came back,” he began.
“I’ll just bet there was,” I said. Despite myself, I was conscious of a small stirring of curiosity, but fought it down, assuming an expression of complete indifference.
“I’ve never seen Uncle Jamie sae furious,” he said, watching my face carefully. “Nor Mother, either. They went at it hammer and tongs, the two o’ them. Father tried to quiet them, but it was like they didna even hear him. Uncle Jamie called Mother a meddling besom, and a lang-nebbit…and…and a lot of worse names,” he added, flushing.
“He shouldn’t have been angry with Jenny,” I said. “She was only trying to help—I think.” I felt sick with the knowledge that I had caused this rift, too. Jenny had been Jamie’s mainstay since the death of their mother when both were children. Was there no end to the damage I had caused by coming back?
To my surprise, Jenny’s son smiled briefly. “Well, it wasna all one-sided,” he said dryly. “My mother’s no the person to be taking abuse lying down, ye ken. Uncle Jamie had a few toothmarks on him before the end of it.” He swallowed, remembering.
“In fact, I thought they’d damage each other, surely; Mother went for Uncle Jamie wi’ an iron girdle, and he snatched it from her and threw it through the kitchen window. Scairt the chickens out o’ the yard,” he added, with a feeble grin.
“Less about chickens, Young Ian,” I said, looking down at him coldly. “Get on with it; I want to leave.”
“Well, then Uncle Jamie knocked over the bookshelf in the parlor—I dinna think he did it on purpose,” the lad added hastily, “he was just too fashed to see straight—and went out the door. Father stuck his head out the window and shouted at him where was he going, and he said he was going to find you.”
“Then why are you here, and not him?” I was leaning forward slightly, watching his hand on the reins; if his fingers showed signs of relaxation, perhaps I could twitch the rein out of his grasp.
Young Ian sighed. “Well, just as Uncle Jamie was setting out on his horse, Aunt…er…I mean his wi—” He blushed miserably. “Laoghaire. She…she came down the hill and into the dooryard.”
At this point, I gave up pretending indifference.
“And what happened then?”
He frowned. “There was an awful collieshangie, but I couldna hear much. Auntie…I mean Laoghaire—she doesna seem to know how to fight properly, like my Mam and Uncle Jamie. She just weeps and wails a lot. Mam says she snivels,” he added.
“Mmphm,” I said. “And so?”
Laoghaire had slid off her own mount, clutched Jamie by the leg, and more or less dragged him off as well, according to Young Ian. She had then subsided into a puddle in the dooryard, clutching Jamie about the knees, weeping and wailing as was her usual habit.
Unable to escape, Jamie had at last hauled Laoghaire to her feet, flung her bodily over his shoulder, and carried her into the house and up the stairs, ignoring the fascinated gazes of his family and servants.
“Right,” I said. I realized that I had been clenching my jaw, and consciously unclenched it. “So he sent you after me because he was too occupied with his wife. Bastard! The gall of him! He thinks he can just send someone to fetch me back, like a hired girl, because it doesn’t suit his convenience to come himself? He thinks he can have his cake and eat it, does he? Bloody arrogant, selfish, overbearing…Scot!” Distracted as I was by the picture of Jamie carrying Laoghaire upstairs, “Scot” was the worst epithet I could come up with on short notice.
My knuckles were white where my hand clutched the edge of the saddle. Not caring about subtlety any more, I leaned down, snatching for the reins.
“But Auntie Claire, it’s not that!”
“What’s not that?” Caught by his tone of desperation, I glanced up. His long, narrow face was tight with the anguished need to make me understand.
“Uncle Jamie didna stay to tend Laoghaire!”
“Then why did he send you?”
He took a deep breath, renewing his grip on my reins.
“She shot him. He sent me to find ye, because he’s dying.”
“If you’re lying to me, Ian Murray,” I said, for the dozenth time, “you’ll regret it to the end of your life—which will be short!”
I had to raise my voice to be heard. The rising wind came whooshing past me, lifting my hair in streamers off my shoulders, whipping my skirts tight around my legs. The weather was suitably dramatic; great black clouds choked the mountain passes, boiling over the crags like seafoam, with a faint distant rumble of thunder, like far-off surf on packed sand.
Lacking breath, Young Ian merely shook his bowed head as he leaned into the wind. He was afoot, leading both ponies across a treacherously boggy stretch of ground near the edge of a tiny loch. I glanced instinctively at my wrist, missing my Rolex.
It was difficult to tell where the sun was, with the in-rolling storm filling half the western sky, but the upper edge of the dark-tinged clouds glowed a brilliant white that was almost gold. I had lost the knack of telling time by sun and sky, but thought it was no more than midafternoon.
Lallybroch lay several hours ahead; I doubted we would reach it by dark. Meaching my way reluctantly toward Craigh na Dun, I had taken nearly two days to reach the small wood where Young Ian had caught up with me. He had, he said, spent only one day in the pursuit; he had known roughly where I was headed, and he himself had shod the pony I rode; my tracks had been plain to him, where they showed in the mud-patches among the heather on the open moor.
Two days since I had left, and one—or more—on the journey back. Three days, then, since Jamie had been shot.
I could get few useful details from Young Ian; having succeeded in his mission, he wanted only to return to Lallybroch as fast as possible, and saw no point in further conversation. Jamie’s gunshot wound was in the left arm, he said. That was good, so far as it went. The ball had penetrated into Jamie’s side, as well. That wasn’t good. Jamie was conscious when last seen—that was good—but was starting a fever. Not good at all. As to the possible effects of shock, the type or severity of the fever, or what treatment had so far been administered, Young Ian merely shrugged.
So perhaps Jamie was dying; perhaps he wasn’t. It wasn’t a chance I could take, as Jamie himself would know perfectly well. I wondered momentarily whether he might conceivably have shot himself, as a means of forcing me to return. Our last interview could have left him in little doubt as to my response had he come after me, or used force to make me return.