She’d been frozen inside for the last twenty-four hours. She hadn’t been able to eat or sleep but had kept going, shoving everything aside, tamping it down—refusing to actually believe they were going to do it, yet making the necessary preparations in a state of eerie calmness.
The leather bag hanging from her shoulder clanked a little, reassuring in its solid reality. Weight might be heavy to carry—but it would hold her steady against the pull of wind and water, secure against the earth. Jem had let go of her hand, and she reached compulsively through the slit in her skirt to feel the three hard little lumps in the pocket tied round her waist.
She’d been afraid to try synthetic stones, for fear they wouldn’t work—or might explode violently, like the big opal Jemmy had burst into pieces in North Carolina.
Suddenly she was swept by a longing for Fraser’s Ridge—and her parents—so intense that tears welled in her eyes. She blinked hard and wiped her eyes on her sleeve, pretending that the wind had made them water. It didn’t matter; neither of the kids was noticing. Now both of them were staring upward—and she finally realized, with a small, flat thump of dread, that she could hear the stones; they were humming, and Mandy was humming with them.
She glanced behind her involuntarily, checking to be sure that they hadn’t been followed—but they had. Lionel Menzies was coming up the path behind them, climbing fast.
“F-word!” she said aloud, and Jem whirled to see what was going on.
“Mr. Menzies!” he said, and his face broke into a smile of relief. “Mr. Menzies!”
Bree gestured firmly to Jem to stay where he was and took a couple of steps down the steep path toward Menzies, little rocks sliding under her shoes and bouncing downhill toward him.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, coming up breathlessly and stopping just below her. “I—I had to come, be sure you were safe. That you—that you—get away.” He nodded upward, looking beyond her. She didn’t turn to look; she could feel the stones now, humming gently—for the moment—in her bones.
“We’re okay,” she said, her voice surprisingly steady. “Really. Er . . . thank you,” she added, belatedly polite.
His face was pale and a little strained, but quirked into a small smile at that.
“My pleasure,” he said, with equal politeness. But he didn’t move to turn and go away. She breathed for a moment, realizing that the frozen core had thawed. She was alive again, completely, and thoroughly on the alert.
“Is there some reason why we might not be safe?” she asked, watching his eyes behind the glasses. He grimaced slightly and glanced over his shoulder.
“Shit,” she said. “Who? Rob Cameron?” She spoke sharply and heard the creak of gravel under Jem’s shoes as he turned sharply, hearing the name.
“Him and his friends, yes.” He nodded uphill. “You, um, really should go. Now, I mean.”
Brianna said something really bad in Gaelic, and Jemmy gave a nervous giggle. She glared at Menzies.
“And just what were you planning to do if Rob and his band of jerks all turned up after us?”
“What I just did do,” he said simply. “Warn you. I’d bloody go if I were you. Your, um, daughter . . . ?”
She whirled round to see Mandy, Esmeralda in the crook of one arm, stumping laboriously up the path.
“Jem!” She took one giant step, seized him by the hand, and they bolted up the hill after Mandy, leaving Lionel Menzies on the path below.
They caught Mandy up right at the edge of the circle, and Bree tried to grab Mandy’s hand but missed. She could hear Lionel Menzies coming up behind them. “Mandy!” She grabbed the little girl and stood, panting, surrounded by stones. The hum was higher-pitched and making her teeth itch; she gnashed them once or twice, trying to rid herself of the feeling, and saw Menzies blink. Good.
Then she heard the sound of a car’s engine below and saw Menzies’s face change to a look of acute alarm.
“Go!” he said. “Please!”
She fumbled under her skirt, hands shaking, and finally got hold of all three stones. They were the same kind, small emeralds, though of slightly different cut. She’d chosen them because they reminded her of Roger’s eyes. Thought of him steadied her.
“Jem,” she said, and put a stone in his hand. “And, Mandy—here’s yours. Put them in your pockets, and—”
But Mandy, little fist clutching her emerald, had turned toward the biggest of the standing stones. Her mouth drooped open for a moment, and then suddenly her face brightened as though someone had lit a candle inside her.
“Daddy!” she shrieked, and, yanking her hand out of Brianna’s, raced directly toward the cleft stone—and into it.
“Jesus!” Brianna barely heard Menzies’s shocked exclamation. She ran toward the stone, tripped over Esmeralda, and fell full length in the grass, knocking out her wind.
“Mama!” Jem paused for a moment beside her, glancing wildly back and forth between her and the stone where his little sister had just vanished.
“I’m . . . okay,” she managed, and with that assurance, Jem charged across the clearing, calling back, “I’ll get her, Mam!”
She gulped air and tried to shriek after him, but made only a wheezing croak. The sound of feet made her glance fearfully round, but it was only Lionel, who’d run to the edge of the circle, peering down the hillside. In the distance, she could hear car doors slamming. Doors. More than one . . .
She staggered to her feet; she’d fallen on the bag and bruised her ribs, but that didn’t matter. She limped toward the cleft stone, pausing only to scoop up Esmeralda by reflex. God, God, God . . . was the only thought in her head, an agony of unworded prayer.
And suddenly the prayer was answered. Both of them stood in front of her, swaying and white-faced. Mandy threw up; Jem sat down hard on his bottom and slumped there, wavering.
“Oh, God . . .” She ran to them, grabbed them hard against her in spite of the nastiness. Jem clung to her a moment, but then pushed himself away.
“Mam,” he said, and his voice was breathless with joy. “Mam, he’s there. We could feel him. We can find him—we gotta go, Mam!”
“You do.” It was Lionel back, breathless and scared, tugging at Brianna’s cloak, trying to straighten it for her. “They’re coming—three of them.”
“Yes, I—” But then realization struck her, and she turned to the children in panic. “Jem, Mandy . . . your stones—where are they?”
“Burned up,” Mandy said solemnly, and spat into the grass. “Puh-toody! Yuck.” She wiped her mouth.
“What do you mean—”
“Yeah, they are, Mam. See?” Jem turned out the pocket of his breeches, showing her the burnt spot and the smear of carbon black around it, smelling strongly of scorched wool.
Frantic, she fumbled at Mandy’s clothes, finding the same scorch mark on the side of her skirt, where the vaporized stone had burned through from her pocket.
“Did it burn you, honey?” she asked, running a hand down Mandy’s sturdy little thigh.
“Not much,” Mandy reassured her.
“Brianna! For God’s sake—I can’t—”
“I can’t!” she shouted, rounding on him, fists clenched. “The kids’ stones are gone! They can’t—they can’t go through without them!” She didn’t know for sure that this was true, but the thought of letting them try to go into that . . . that . . . without the protection of a stone shriveled her stomach, and she nearly wept with fright and exasperation.
“Stones,” he repeated, looking blank. “Jewels, do you mean? Gemstones?”
He stood for an instant with his mouth open, then fell to his knees, yanking at his left hand, and the next instant was whacking his right hand feverishly against a rock that lay half sunk in the grass.
Bree stared at him helplessly for a moment, then ran to the edge of the circle, ducked round a stone, and stood flat against it in the shadow, looking out. By peering sideways, she could just see human forms, halfway up the hill and moving fast.
On the other side of the stone, Menzies gave a grunt of pain or frustration and smacked something hard against the rock, with a small cracking noise.
“Brianna!” he called, urgent, and she rushed back, afraid the children were trying to go through—but it was all right; they were standing in front of Lionel Menzies, who was stooping over Mandy, holding one of her hands.
“Curl up your fist, wee lassie,” he said, almost gently. “Aye, that’s it. And, Jem—here, put out your hand.” Brianna was close enough now to see that it was a small glittering thing he put in Jem’s palm—and that Mandy’s fist was curled around a large ring, rather battered, with a Masonic emblem carved into its onyx—and the twin of Jem’s small diamond winking beside it, an empty socket on the other side.
“Lionel,” she said, and he reached out and touched her cheek.
“Go now,” he said. “I can’t leave until ye go. Once you’re gone, though, I’ll run for it.”
She nodded jerkily, once, then stooped and took the children’s hands. “Jem—put that in your other pocket, okay?” She gulped air and turned toward the big cleft stone. The racket of it hammered at her blood and she could feel it pulling, trying to take her apart.
“Mandy,” she said, and could barely hear her own voice. “Let’s find Daddy. Don’t let go.”
It was only as the screaming began that she realized she’d not said “Thank you,” and then she thought no more.
THE BURYING GROUND
SHE LOVED LALLYBROCH in winter. The gorse and broom and heather didn’t seem to die so much as simply to fade back into the landscape, the purple heather fading to a soft brown shadow of itself and the broom to a cluster of dry sticks, their long flat pods rattling softly in the wind. Today the air was cold and still, and the soft gray smoke from the chimneys rose straight up to touch the lowering sky.
“Home, we’re home!” Mandy said, hopping up and down. “Goody, goody, goody! Can I have a Coke?”
“It isn’t home, goofy,” Jem said. Only the pink tip of his nose and a flicker of eyelash was visible in the gap between his woolly hat and the muffler round his neck. His breath wisped white. “It’s—then. They don’t have Cokes now. Besides,” he added logically, “it’s too cold to drink Coke. Your tummy would freeze.”
“Never mind, honey,” Brianna said, and tightened her grasp on Mandy’s hand. They were standing at the crest of the hill behind the house, near the remains of the Iron Age fort. It had been a laborious haul up the hill, but she’d been reluctant to approach the house from the front, where they would have been visible for a good quarter mile, coming across open ground.
“Can you feel Daddy anywhere nearby?” she asked the children. She’d automatically looked for Roger’s old orange Morris in the drive as they’d crested the hill—and felt a ridiculous plunge of spirits at seeing neither car nor graveled drive. Jem shook his head; Mandy didn’t answer, distracted by a faint bleating from below.
“Iss sheep!” she said, delighted. “Let’s go see da sheep!”
“It’s not sheep,” Jem said, rather crossly. “It’s goats. They’re in the broch. Can we go down now, Mam? My nose is about to fall off.”
She was still hesitant, watching the house. Every muscle was straining, pulling toward it. Home. But it wasn’t her home, not now. Roger. “The strong, sweet, supple quality he has . . .”
Of course, she knew that he likely wasn’t here; he and Buck would be searching somewhere for Jerry MacKenzie. And what if they found him? she thought, with a little thump of something between excitement and fear.
The fear was what was stopping her racing down the hill to hammer on the door and meet whatever of her family happened to be home today. She’d spent the last few days on the road, and the hours on the final walk from where the carter had dropped them, trying to decide—and her mind was still as divided as ever.
“Come on,” she said to the kids. She couldn’t keep them standing out here in the cold while she made up her mind. “Let’s visit the goats first.”
The smell of goats struck her the moment she opened the door—pungent, warm, and familiar. Warm, above all; all three humans sighed in relief and pleasure as the animal heat rolled over them, and they smiled at the eager rush and outcry of mehhs that greeted their presence.
From the noise that echoed off the stone walls, there might have been fifty goats inside the broch—though Brianna counted only half a dozen nannies, flop-eared and dainty, four or five half-grown, round-bellied kids, and a single robust billy goat who lowered his horns and glowered at them, suspicious and yellow-eyed. All of them shared a rough pen that fenced off half the ground floor of the broch. She glanced up—but instead of the exposed rafters high above that she half-expected to see, there was the intact underside of another floor above.
The kids—her kids, that is, and she smiled at the thought—were already sticking wisps of hay through the fence and playing with the young goats, who were standing on their back legs to peer at the visitors.
“Jemmy, Mandy!” she called. “Take off your hats and mufflers and mittens and put them over by the door, so the goats don’t chew on them!” She left Jem to distentangle Mandy from her fuzzy muffler and went up the stair to see what was on the second floor.
Pale winter light from the windows striped the haunches of burlap bags that filled most of the floor space. She breathed in and coughed a little; flour dust was floating in the air, but she smelled the sweetness of dried corn—maize, they called it—and the deeper, nutty smell of ripe barley, as well, and when she nudged her foot against a particularly lumpy sack, she heard the shift and clack of hazelnuts. Lallybroch wouldn’t starve this winter.