Curious, she went up one more flight and on the top floor found a good number of small wooden casks arrayed against the wall. It was much colder up here, but the heady aroma of good whisky filled the air with the illusion of warmth. She stood breathing it in for a moment, wanting very badly to be drunk on the fumes, to obliviate her mind, be able not to bloody think, if only for a few minutes.
But that was the last thing she could do. In minutes, she’d have to act.
She stepped back onto the narrow stair that wound up between the inner and outer walls of the broch and looked out toward the house, with vivid memories of the last time she had been here, crouched on the stair in the dark with a shotgun in her hands, watching the light of strangers in her house.
There were strangers here now, too, although her own blood. What if . . . She swallowed. If Roger had found Jerry MacKenzie, his father would be only in his early twenties—much younger than Roger himself. And if her own da was here now—
“He can’t be,” she whispered to herself, and wasn’t sure if that was reassurance or regret. She’d met him for the first time in North Carolina, pissing against a tree. He’d been in his forties, she twenty-two.
You couldn’t enter your own lifeline, couldn’t exist in the same time twice. They thought they knew that for sure. But what if you entered someone else’s life twice, at different times?
That was what was turning her blood to ice and making her curled fists tremble. What happened? Did one or the other of your appearances change things, perhaps cancel out the other? Would it not happen that way, would she not meet Jamie Fraser in North Carolina if she met him now?
But she had to find Roger. No matter what else happened. And Lallybroch was the only place she knew for sure he’d been. She took a deep, deep breath and closed her eyes.
Please, she prayed. Please help me. Thy will be done, but please show me what to do . . .
“Mam!” Jemmy came running up the stair, his footsteps loud in the confined stone corridor. “Mam!” He popped into sight, blue eyes round and hair standing half on end with excitement. “Mam, come down! A man’s coming!”
“What does he look like?” she asked, urgent, grabbing him by the sleeve. “What color is his hair?”
He blinked, surprised.
“Black, I think. He’s at the bottom of the hill—I couldn’t see his face.”
“All right. I’m coming.” She felt half choked but no longer frozen. It was happening now, whatever it was, and energy fizzed through her veins.
Even as she hurtled down the stairs behind Jemmy, rationality told her that it wasn’t Roger—distance or not, Jemmy would know his father. But she had to see.
“Stay here,” she said to the children, with so much command in her voice that they blinked but didn’t argue. She threw open the door, saw the man coming up the path, and stepped out to meet him, closing the door firmly behind her.
From the first glance, she saw that it wasn’t Roger, but the disappointment was subsumed at once in relief that it wasn’t Jamie. And intense curiosity, because it must surely be . . .
She’d run down the path, to get well away from the broch, just in case, and was picking her way through the stones of the family burying ground, eyes on the man coming up the steep, rocky path.
A tall, solid-looking man, his dark hair graying a little but still thick, glossy, and loose on his shoulders. His eyes were on the rough ground, watching his footing. And then he came to his destination and made his way across the hill, to one of the stones in the burying ground. He knelt by it and laid down something he’d been carrying in his hand.
She shifted her weight, uncertain whether to call out or wait ’til he’d finished his business with the dead. But the small stones under her feet shifted, too, rolling down with a click-clack-click that made him look up and, seeing her, rise abruptly to his feet, black brows raised.
Black hair, black brows. Brian Dubh. Black Brian.
I met Brian Fraser (you would like him, and he, you) . . .
Wide, startled hazel eyes met hers, and for a second that was all she saw. His beautiful deep-set eyes, and the expression of stunned horror in them.
“Brian,” she said. “I—”
“A Dhia!” He went whiter than the harled plaster of the house below. “Ellen!”
Astonishment deprived her of speech for an instant—long enough to hear light footsteps scrambling down the hill behind her.
“Mam!” Jem called, breathless.
Brian’s glance turned up, behind her, and his mouth fell open at sight of Jem. Then a look of radiant joy suffused his face.
“Willie!” he said. “A bhalaich! Mo bhalaich!” He looked back at Brianna and stretched out a trembling hand to her. “Mo ghràidh . . . mo chridhe . . .”
“Brian,” she said softly, her heart in her voice, filled with pity and love, unable to do anything but respond to the need of the soul that showed so clearly in his lovely eyes. And with her speaking of his name for the second time, he stopped dead, swaying for a moment, and then the eyes rolled up in his head and he fell.
SHE WAS KNEELING in the crunchy dead heather beside Brian Fraser before she’d even thought to move. There was a slight blue tinge to his lips, but he was breathing, and she drew a deep cold breath of relief herself, seeing his chest rise slowly under the worn linen shirt.
Not for the first time, she wished fervently that her mother was there, but turned his head to one side and laid two fingers on the pulse she could see at the side of his neck. Her fingers were cold, and his flesh was startlingly warm. He didn’t rouse or stir at her touch, though, and she began to fear that he hadn’t just fainted.
He’d died—would die—of a stroke. If there was some weakness in his brain . . . oh, God. Had she just killed him prematurely?
“Don’t die!” she said to him aloud. “For God’s sake, don’t die here!”
She glanced hastily toward the house below, but no one was coming. Looking down again, she saw what it was he’d held: a small bouquet of evergreen twigs, tied with red thread. Yew—she recognized the oddly tubular red berries—and holly.
And then she saw the stone. She knew it well, had sat on the ground beside it often, contemplating Lallybroch and those who lay sleeping on its hillside.
Ellen Caitriona Sileas MacKenzie Fraser
Beloved wife and mother
Born 1691, Died in childbed 1729
And below, in smaller letters:
Robert Brian Gordon MacKenzie Fraser
Died at birth 1729
William Simon Murtagh MacKenzie Fraser
Born 1716, Died of the smallpox 1727
“Mam!” Jem skidded down the last few feet, almost falling beside her. “Mam, Mam—Mandy says—who is he?” He stared from Brian’s pallid face to her own and back again.
“His name’s Brian Fraser. He’s your great-grandfather.” Her hands were trembling, but to her surprise she felt suddenly calm at the speaking of the words, as though she had stepped into the center of a puzzle and found herself to be the missing piece. “What about Mandy?”
“Did I scare him?” Jem squatted down, looking worried. “He looked at me just before he fell down. Is he—dead?”
“Don’t worry, I think he’s just had a shock. He thought we were . . . somebody else.” She touched Brian’s cheekbone, feeling the soft prickle of his beard stubble, and smoothed the tumbled hair behind his ear. His mouth twitched a little as she did so, the ghost of a half smile, and her heart jumped. Thank God, he was coming round. “What did Mandy say?”
“Oh!” Jem stood up, fast, eyes wide. “She says she hears Dad!”
REALITY IS THAT WHICH, WHEN YOU STOP BELIEVING IN IT, DOESN’T GO AWAY
ROGER TURNED HIS horse’s head toward Lallybroch, knowing nowhere else to go. He’d taken leave of Brian Fraser six weeks before and had been sad at what he’d thought was a permanent parting. His heart was eased a little now at the thought of seeing Brian again. Also at the certainty of a sympathetic ear, even though there was little he could openly discuss with him.
He’d have to tell Brian, of course, that he hadn’t found Jem. That thought was a thorn in his heart, and one felt at every beat. For the last weeks, he had been able to put the brutal ache of Jemmy’s absence aside for a little, hoping that somehow, finding Jerry might also lead to finding Jem. But it hadn’t.
What the devil it did mean was a complete mystery. Had he found the only Jeremiah there was to be found here? If he had . . . where was Jem?
He wanted to tell Brian that he’d found the man to whom the identity disks belonged—Brian would ask. But how to do so without divulging either Jerry’s identity, Roger’s relationship with him—or explaining what had happened to him? He sighed, reining his horse around a large puddle in the road. Maybe better to say simply that he’d failed, hadn’t found J. W. MacKenzie—though it troubled him to lie outright to such an openhearted man.
And he couldn’t discuss Buck, either. Beyond thought of Jem, Buck was the matter lying heaviest on his mind at the moment.
“Ye’ll never make a decent minister, if ye can’t be honest.” He’d tried to be. The honest truths of the situation from his own selfish point of view were that he’d miss Buck’s company badly, that he was deeply jealous of the possibility that Buck might make it to Brianna, and—not least, he assured himself—that he was terrified that Buck wouldn’t make it through the stones again. He’d die in the void, or maybe be lost once more, alone in some random time.
The truth for Buck was that while it could be argued (and with no little force) that Buck should remove himself forthwith and permanently from the vicinity of Geillis Duncan, going through the stones was maybe the least desirable means of ensuring such an outcome.
To accept Buck’s gallant gesture was a temptation, though. If he could make it, tell Bree where Roger was . . . Roger didn’t think Buck could come back, though. The effects of travel were cumulative, and Hector McEwan likely wouldn’t be standing by next time.
But if Buck was willing to risk the crossing, in spite of the very real danger to his own life, surely it was Roger’s obligation to try to persuade him to return to his own wife, rather than to Roger’s?
He brushed the back of his hand against his lips, feeling in memory the softness of Morag’s brown hair on his cheek when he’d bent to kiss her forehead on the banks of the Alamance. The gentle trust in her eyes—and the fact that she’d bloody saved his own life very shortly thereafter. His fingers rested for an instant on his throat, and he realized, with the flicker of surprise that attends recognition of things already long known, that whatever the bitterness of his regrets about his voice, he’d never for an instant wished that she hadn’t saved him.
When Stephen Bonnet would have thrown Morag’s son overboard, Roger had saved the child from drowning, and that at some risk to his own life. But he didn’t think she’d done what she’d done at Alamance in payment of that debt. She’d done it because she didn’t want him to die.
Well. He didn’t want Buck to die.
Did Morag want Buck back? Buck thought not, but he might be wrong. Roger was fairly sure that the man still loved Morag and that his abnegation was due as much to Buck’s own sense of personal failure as to what he thought Morag’s desires might be.
“Even if that’s true,” he said aloud, “where do I get off trying to manage people’s lives?”
He shook his head and rode on through a light mist that wove shreds of fog through the wet black spikiness of the gorse. It wasn’t raining, that was one thing, though the sky bore a burden of cloud that brought it down to shroud the tops of the nearby mountains.
He’d never asked his adoptive father anything about the art of being a priest; it was the last thing he’d ever thought of being. But he’d grown up in the Reverend’s house and had seen parishioners come every day to the comfortably shabby study in search of help or advice. He remembered his father (and now felt a new oddness in the word, layered as it was with the freshness of Jerry MacKenzie’s physical presence), remembered him sitting down with a sigh to drink tea in the kitchen with Mrs. Graham, shaking his head in response to her questioning look and saying, “Sometimes there’s nothing you can give some of them but a friendly ear and a prayer to be going on with.”
He came to a dead stop in the road, closed his eyes, and tried to find a moment’s peace in the chaos of his thoughts. And ended, as every priest since Aaron’s time doubtless had, by throwing up his hands and demanding, “What do You want of me? What the hell should I do about these people?”
He opened his eyes when he said that, but instead of finding an angel with an illuminated scroll standing before him, he was confronted by the beady yellow eyes of a fat seagull sitting in the road a few feet from his horse and not discomposed in the slightest by the presence of a creature a hundred times its size. The bird gave him an old-fashioned sort of look, then spread its wings and flapped off with a piercing screek! This echoed from the hillside above, where a few more gulls wheeled slowly, barely visible against the paper-white sky.
The presence of the gull broke his sense of isolation, at least. He rode on in a calmer frame of mind, resolved only not to think about things until he had to.
He thought he was close to Lallybroch; with luck, would reach it well before dark. His belly rumbled at the prospect of tea, and he felt happier. Whatever he could and couldn’t tell Brian Fraser, just seeing Brian and his daughter Jenny again would be a comfort.
The gulls cried high overhead, still wheeling, and he looked up. Sure enough: he could just make out the low ruins of the Iron Age hill fort up there, the ruins he’d rebuilt—would rebuild? What if he never got back to—Jesus, don’t even think about it, man, it’ll drive you crazier than you are already.