It was beginning to rain, in soft spatters that caught in my hair and lashes, blurring my sight like tears. Past the boggy spot, Young Ian had mounted again, leading the way upward to the final pass that led to Lallybroch.
Jamie was devious enough to have thought of such a plan, all right, and certainly courageous enough to have carried it out. On the other hand, I had never known him to be reckless. He had taken plenty of bold risks—marrying me being one of them, I thought ruefully—but never without an estimation of the cost, and a willingness to pay it. Would he have thought drawing me back to Lallybroch worth the chance of actually dying? That hardly seemed logical, and Jamie Fraser was a very logical man.
I pulled the hood of my cloak further over my head, to keep the increasing downpour out of my face. Young Ian’s shoulders and thighs were dark with wet, and the rain dripped from the brim of his slouch hat, but he sat straight in the saddle, ignoring the weather with the stoic nonchalance of a trueborn Scot.
Very well. Given that Jamie likely hadn’t shot himself, was he shot at all? He might have made up the story, and sent his nephew to tell it. On consideration, though, I thought it highly unlikely that Young Ian could have delivered the news so convincingly, were it false.
I shrugged, the movement sending a cold rivulet down inside the front of my cloak, and set myself to wait with what patience I could for the journey to be ended. Years in the practice of medicine had taught me not to anticipate; the reality of each case was bound to be unique, and so must be my response to it. My emotions, however, were much harder to control than my professional reactions.
Each time I had left Lallybroch, I had thought I would never return. Now here I was, going back once more. Twice now, I had left Jamie, knowing with certainty that I would never see him again. And yet here I was, going back to him like a bloody homing pigeon to its loft.
“I’ll tell you one thing, Jamie Fraser,” I muttered under my breath. “If you aren’t at death’s door when I get there, you’ll live to regret it!”
PRACTICAL AND APPLIED WITCHCRAFT
It was several hours past dark when we arrived at last, soaked to the skin. The house was silent, and dark, save for two dimly lighted windows downstairs in the parlor. There was a single warning bark from one of the dogs, but Young Ian shushed the animal, and after a quick, curious nosing at my stirrup, the black-and-white shape faded back into the darkness of the dooryard.
The warning had been enough to alert someone; as Young Ian led me into the hall, the door to the parlor opened. Jenny poked her head out, her face drawn with worry.
At the sight of Young Ian, she popped out into the hallway, her expression transformed to one of joyous relief, at once superseded by the righteous anger of a mother confronted by an errant offspring.
“Ian, ye wee wretch!” she said. “Where have ye been all this time? Your Da and I ha’ been worrit sick for ye!” She paused long enough to look him over anxiously. “You’re all right?”
At his nod, her lips grew tight again. “Aye, well. You’re for it now, laddie, I’ll tell ye! And just where the devil have ye been, anyway?”
Gangling, knob-jointed, and dripping wet, Young Ian looked like nothing so much as a drowned scarecrow, but he was still large enough to block me from his mother’s view. He didn’t answer Jenny’s scolding, but shrugged awkwardly and stepped aside, exposing me to his mother’s startled gaze.
If my resurrection from the dead had disconcerted her, this second reappearance stunned her. Her deep blue eyes, normally as slanted as her brother’s, opened so wide, they looked round. She stared at me for a long moment, without saying anything, then her gaze swiveled once more to her son.
“A cuckoo,” she said, almost conversationally. “That’s what ye are, laddie—a great cuckoo in the nest. God knows whose son ye were meant to be; it wasna mine.”
Young Ian flushed hotly, dropping his eyes as the red burned in his cheeks. He pushed the feathery damp hair out of his eyes with the back of one hand.
“I—well, I just…” he began, eyes on his boots, “I couldna just…”
“Oh, never mind about it now!” his mother snapped. “Get ye upstairs to your bed; your Da will deal wi’ ye in the morning.”
Ian glanced helplessly at the parlor door, then at me. He shrugged once more, looked at the sodden hat in his hands as though wondering how it had got there, and shuffled slowly down the hall.
Jenny stood quite still, eyes fixed on me, until the padded door at the end of the hallway closed with a soft thump behind Young Ian. Her face showed lines of strain, and the shadows of sleeplessness smudged her eyes. Still fineboned and erect, for once she looked her age, and more.
“So you’re back,” she said flatly.
Seeing no point in answering the obvious, I nodded briefly. The house was quiet around us, and full of shadows, the hallway lighted only by a three-pronged candlestick set on the table.
“Never mind about it now,” I said, softly, so as not to disturb the house’s slumber. There was, after all, only one thing of importance at the moment. “Where’s Jamie?”
After a small hesitation, she nodded as well, accepting my presence for the moment. “In there,” she said, waving toward the parlor door.
I started toward the door, then paused. There was the one thing more. “Where’s Laoghaire?” I asked.
“Gone,” she said. Her eyes were flat and dark in the candlelight, unreadable.
I nodded in response, and stepped through the door, closing it gently but firmly behind me.
Too long to be laid on the sofa, Jamie lay on a camp bed set up before the fire. Asleep or unconscious, his profile rose dark and sharp-edged against the light of the glowing coals, unmoving.
Whatever he was, he wasn’t dead—at least not yet. My eyes growing accustomed to the dim light of the fire, I could see the slow rise and fall of his chest beneath nightshirt and quilt. A flask of water and a brandy bottle sat on the small table by the bed. The padded chair by the fire had a shawl thrown over its back; Jenny had been sitting there, watching over her brother.
There seemed no need now for haste. I untied the strings at the neck of my cloak, and spread the soggy garment over the chairback, taking the shawl in substitute. My hands were cold; I put them under my arms, hugging myself, to bring them to something like a normal temperature before I touched him.
When I did venture to place a thawed hand on his forehead, I nearly jerked it back. He was hot as a just-fired pistol, and he twitched and moaned at my touch. Fever, indeed. I stood looking down at him for a moment, then carefully moved to the side of the bed and sat down in Jenny’s chair. I didn’t think he would sleep long, with a temperature like that, and it seemed a shame to wake him needlessly soon, merely to examine him.
The cloak behind me dripped water on the floor, a slow, arrhythmic patting. It reminded me unpleasantly of an old Highland superstition—the “death-drop.” Just before a death occurs, the story goes, the sound of water dripping is heard in the house, by those sensitive to such things.
I wasn’t, thank heaven, subject to noticing supernatural phenomena of that sort. No, I thought wryly, it takes something like a crack through time to get your attention. The thought made me smile, if only briefly, and dispelled the frisson I had felt at the thought of the death-drop.
As the rain chill left me, though, I still felt uneasy, and for obvious reasons. It wasn’t that long ago that I had stood by another makeshift bed, deep in the night-watches, and contemplated death, and the waste of a marriage. The thoughts I had begun in the wood hadn’t stopped on the hasty journey back to Lallybroch, and they continued now, without my conscious volition.
Honor had led Frank to his decision—to keep me as his wife, and raise Brianna as his own. Honor, and an unwillingness to decline a responsibility he felt was his. Well, here before me lay another honorable man.
Laoghaire and her daughters, Jenny and her family, the Scots prisoners, the smugglers, Mr. Willoughby and Geordie, Fergus and the tenants—how many other responsibilities had Jamie shouldered, through our years apart?
Frank’s death had absolved me of one of my own obligations; Brianna herself of another. The Hospital Board, in their eternal wisdom, had severed the single great remaining tie that bound me to that life. I had had time, with Joe Abernathy’s help, to relieve myself of the smaller responsibilities, to depute and delegate, divest and resolve.
Jamie had had neither warning nor choice about my reappearance in his life; no time to make decisions or resolve conflicts. And he was not one to abandon his responsibilities, even for the sake of love.
Yes, he’d lied to me. Hadn’t trusted me to recognize his responsibilities, to stand by him—or to leave him—as his circumstances demanded. He’d been afraid. So had I; afraid that he wouldn’t choose me, confronted with the struggle between a twenty-year-old love and a present-day family. So I’d run away.
“Who you jiving, L.J.?” I heard Joe Abernathy’s voice say, derisive and affectionate. I had fled toward Craigh na Dun with all the speed and decision of a condemned felon approaching the steps of the gallows. Nothing had slowed my journey but the hope that Jamie would come after me.
True, the pangs of conscience and wounded pride had spurred me on, but the one moment when Young Ian had said, “He’s dying,” had shown those up for the flimsy things they were.
My marriage to Jamie had been for me like the turning of a great key, each small turn setting in play the intricate fall of tumblers within me. Bree had been able to turn that key as well, edging closer to the unlocking of the door of myself. But the final turn of the lock was frozen—until I had walked into the printshop in Edinburgh, and the mechanism had sprung free with a final, decisive click. The door now was ajar, the light of an unknown future shining through its crack. But it would take more strength than I had alone to push it open.
I watched the rise and fall of his breath, and the play of light and shadow on the strong, clean lines of his face, and knew that nothing truly mattered between us but the fact that we both still lived. So here I was. Again. And whatever the cost of it might be to him or me, here I stayed.
I didn’t realize that his eyes had opened until he spoke.
“Ye came back, then,” he said softly. “I knew ye would.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but he was still talking, eyes fixed on my face, pupils dilated to pools of darkness.
“My love,” he said, almost whispering. “God, ye do look so lovely, wi’ your great eyes all gold, and your hair so soft round your face.” He brushed his tongue across dry lips. “I knew ye must forgive me, Sassenach, once ye knew.”
Once I knew? My brows shot up, but I didn’t speak; he had more to say.
“I was so afraid to lose ye again, mo chridhe,” he murmured. “So afraid. I havena loved anyone but you, my Sassenach, never since the day I saw ye—but I couldna…I couldna bear…” His voice drifted off in an unintelligible mumble, and his eyes closed again, lashes lying dark against the high curve of his cheek.