“Breakfast’ll be in the kitchen when you are,” she said matter-of-factly. “Bring the jug down, aye?”
AN HOUR LATER, filled to bursting with hot tea, parritch, bannocks with honey, and black pudding, he found himself on an autumn-shaggy horse, following Brian Fraser through the rising mist of early morning.
“We’ll go round to the crofts nearby,” Fraser had told him over breakfast, spooning strawberry preserves onto a bannock. “Even if no one’s seen your lad—and to be honest,” his wide mouth twisted in apology, “I think I should ha’ heard already if anyone had seen a stranger in the district—they’ll pass on the word.”
“Aye, thanks very much,” he’d said, meaning it. Even in his own time, gossip was the fastest way of spreading news in the Highlands. No matter how fast Rob Cameron might travel, Roger doubted he could outpace the speed of talk, and the thought made him smile. Jenny caught it and smiled back sympathetically, and he thought again what a very pretty lass she was.
The sky was still low and threatening, but impending rain had never yet deterred anyone in Scotland from doing anything and wasn’t likely to start now. His throat felt much better for the hot tea, and the odd sense of calm with which he’d waked was still with him.
Something had changed in the night. Maybe it was sleeping in Lallybroch, among the ghosts of his own future. Perhaps that had settled his mind while he slept.
Maybe it was answered prayer and a moment of grace. Maybe it was no more than Samuel Beckett’s bloody existential I can’t go on; I’ll go on. If he had a choice—and he did, Beckett be damned—he’d go with grace.
Whatever had caused it, he wasn’t disoriented any longer, thrown off-balance by what he knew about the futures of the people around him. There was still a deep concern about them—and the need to find Jem still filled him. But now it was a quiet, hard thing in his core. A focus, a weapon. Something to brace his back against.
He straightened his shoulders as he thought this and, at the same time, saw Brian’s straight, flat back and the broad, firm shoulders under the dark sett of his tartan coat. They were the echo of Jamie’s—and the promise of Jem’s.
Life goes on. It was his job above all to rescue Jem, as much for Brian Fraser’s sake as for his own.
And now he knew what had changed in him and gave thanks to God for what was indeed grace. He’d slept—and waked—in a whole skin. And however bloody the mornings to come, he had direction now, calmness and hope, because the good man who rode before him was on his side.
THEY VISITED MORE than a dozen crofts in the course of the day and stopped a tinker they met along the way, as well. No one had seen a stranger recently, with or without a red-haired lad, but all promised to spread the word and all without exception offered their prayers for Roger and his quest.
They stopped for supper and the night with a family named Murray that had a substantial farmhouse, though nothing to rival Lallybroch. The owner, John Murray, turned out in the course of conversation to be Brian Fraser’s factor—the overseer of much of the physical business of Lallybroch’s estate—and he lent his grave attention to Roger’s story.
An elderly, long-faced man with rawboned, muscular arms, he sucked his teeth consideringly, nodding his head.
“Aye, I’ll send one of my lads down in the morn,” he said. “But if ye’ve found nay trace o’ this fellow up along the Hieland passes . . . might be as ye should go down to the garrison and tell your tale, Mr. MacKenzie.”
Brian Fraser cocked a dark brow, half-frowning at this, but then nodded.
“Aye, that’s no a bad thought, John.” He turned to Roger. “It’s some distance, ken—the garrison’s in Fort William, down by Duncansburgh. But we can ask along our way, and the soldiers send messengers regularly betwixt the garrison, Inverness, and Edinburgh. Should they hear a thing about your man, they could get word to us swiftly.”
“And they could maybe arrest the fellow on the spot,” Murray added, his rather melancholy countenance brightening a bit at the idea.
“Moran taing,” Roger said, bowing a little to them both in acknowledgment, then turning to Fraser. “I’ll do that, and thanks. But, sir—ye needna go with me. You’ve business of your own to tend to, and I wouldna—”
“I’ll come, and glad to,” Fraser interrupted him firmly. “The hay’s long since in and naught to do that John canna take care of for me.”
He smiled at Murray, who made a small noise, halfway between a sigh and a cough, but nodded.
“Fort William’s in the midst of the Camerons’ land, forbye,” Murray observed absently, gazing off toward the dark fields. They had dined with his family but then come out to the dooryard, ostensibly to share a pipe; it smoldered in Murray’s hand, disregarded for the moment.
Brian made a noncommittal sound in his throat, and Roger wondered just what Murray meant. Was it a warning that Rob Cameron might have relatives or allies to whom he was heading? Or was there some tension or difficulty between some of the Camerons and the Frasers of Lovat—or between the Camerons and the MacKenzies?
That presented some difficulty. If there was a feud of any importance going on, Roger ought already to know about it. He gave a small, grave “hmp” himself and resolved to approach any Camerons with caution. At the same time . . . was Rob Cameron intending to seek refuge or help with the Camerons of this time? Had he maybe come to the past before and had a hiding place prepared among his own clan? That was an evil thought, and Roger felt his stomach tighten as though to resist a punch.
But no; there hadn’t been time. If Cameron had only learned about time travel from the guide Roger had written for his children’s eventual use, he wouldn’t have had time to go to the past, find ancient Camerons, and . . . no, ridiculous.
Roger shook off the tangle of half-formed thoughts as though they were a fishing net thrown over his head. There was nothing more to be done until they reached the garrison tomorrow.
Murray and Fraser were leaning on the fence now, sharing the pipe and chatting casually in Gaelic.
“My daughter bids me ask after your son,” Brian Fraser said, with an air of casualness. “Any word?”
Murray snorted, smoke purling from his nostrils, and said something very idiomatic about his son. Fraser grimaced in sympathy and shook his head.
“At least ye ken he’s alive,” he said, dropping back into English. “Like enough, he’ll come home when he’s had his fill of fighting. We did, aye?” He nudged Murray gently in the ribs, and the taller man snorted again, but with less ferocity.
“It wasna boredom that led us here, a dhuine dhubh. Not you, anyway.” He raised one shaggy graying brow, and Fraser laughed, though Roger thought there was a regretful edge in it.
He remembered the story very well: Brian Fraser, a bastard of old Lord Lovat’s, had stolen Ellen MacKenzie from her brothers Colum and Dougal, the MacKenzies of Castle Leoch, and had ended up at last with her at Lallybroch, the pair of them more or less disowned by both clans but at least left alone by them. He’d seen the portrait of Ellen, too—tall, red-haired, and undeniably a woman worth the effort.
She’d looked very much like her granddaughter Brianna. By reflex, he closed his eyes, breathed deep of the cold Highland evening, and thought he felt her there at his side. If he opened them again, might he see her standing in the smoke?
I’ll come back, he thought to her. No matter what, a nighean ruaidh—I’m coming back. With Jem.
IT WAS NEARLY AN hour’s drive over the narrow, twisting Highland roads from Lallybroch to Fiona Buchan’s new house in Inverness. Plenty of time for Brianna to wonder if she was doing the right thing, if she had any right to involve Fiona and her family in a matter that looked more dangerous by the moment. Plenty of time to get a stiff neck from looking over her shoulder—though if she was being followed, how would she know?
She’d had to tell the kids where Roger was, as gently and briefly as possible. Mandy had put a thumb in her mouth and stared gravely at her, round-eyed. Jem . . . Jem hadn’t said anything but had gone white under his freckles and looked as though he was about to throw up. She glanced in the rearview mirror. He was hunched in a corner of the backseat now, face turned to the window.
“He’ll come back, honey,” she’d said, trying to hug him in reassurance. He’d let her but stood stiff in her arms, stricken.
“It’s my fault,” he’d said, his voice small and wooden as a puppet’s. “I should have got away sooner. Then Dad wouldn’t—”
“It’s not your fault,” she’d said firmly. “It’s Mr. Cameron’s fault and no one else’s. You were very brave. And Daddy will come back really soon.”
Jem had swallowed hard but said nothing in reply. When she’d let him go, he swayed for a moment, and Mandy had come up and hugged his legs.
“Daddy’ll come back,” she said encouragingly. “For supper!”
“It might take a little bit longer than that,” Bree said, smiling in spite of the panic packed like a snowball under her ribs.
She drew a deep breath of relief as the highway opened out near the airport and she could go faster than 30 mph. Another wary glance in the mirror, but the road was empty behind her. She stepped on the gas.
Fiona was one of the only two people who knew. The other one was in Boston: her mother’s oldest friend, Joe Abernathy. But she needed sanctuary for Jem and Mandy, right now. She couldn’t stay with them at Lallybroch; the walls were two feet thick in places, yes, but it was a farm manor, not a fortified tower house, and hadn’t been built with any notion that the inhabitants might need to repel invaders or stand off a siege.
Being in the city gave her a sense of relief. Having people around. Witnesses. Camouflage. Help. She pulled up in the street outside the Craigh na Dun Bed-and-Breakfast (three AA stars) with the sense of an exhausted swimmer crawling up onto shore.
The timing was good. It was early afternoon; Fiona would have finished the cleaning and it wouldn’t yet be time to check in new guests or start the supper.
A little painted bell in the shape of a bluebell tinkled when they opened the door, and one of Fiona’s daughters instantly popped an inquiring head out of the lounge.
“Auntie Bree!” she shouted, and at once the lobby was filled with children, as Fiona’s three girls pushed one another out of the way to hug Bree, pick up Mandy, and tickle Jem, who promptly dropped to all fours and crawled under the bench where folk left their wraps.
“What—oh, it’s you, hen!” Fiona, coming out of the kitchen in a workmanlike canvas apron that said PIE QUEEN on the front, smiled with delight at sight of Bree and enveloped her in a floury hug.
“What’s wrong?” Fiona murmured in her ear, under cover of the embrace. She drew back a bit, still holding Bree, and looked up at her, squinting in half-playful worry. “Rog playing away from home, is he?”
“You . . . could say that.” Bree managed a smile but evidently not a very good one, because Fiona at once clapped her hands, bringing order out of the chaos in the lobby, and dispatched all the children to the upstairs lounge to watch telly. Jem, looking hunted, was coaxed out from under the bench and reluctantly followed the girls, looking back over his shoulder at his mother. She smiled and made shooing motions at him, then followed Fiona into the kitchen, glancing by reflex over her own shoulder.
THE TEAKETTLE SCREAMED, interrupting Brianna, but not before she’d got to the most salient point of her story. Fiona warmed and filled the pot, purse-lipped with concentration.
“Ye say he took the rifle. Ye’ve still got your shotgun?”
“Yes. It’s under the front seat of my car at the moment.”
Fiona nearly dropped the pot. Brianna shot out an arm and grabbed the handle, steadying it. Her hands were freezing, and the warm china felt wonderful.
“Well, I wasn’t going to leave it in a house the bastards have a key to, now, was I?”
Fiona set down the pot and crossed herself. “Dia eadarainn’s an t-olc.” God between us and evil. She sat, giving Brianna a sharp look. “And ye’re quite sure as it’s bastards, plural?”
“Yes, I bloody am,” Bree said tersely. “Even if Rob Cameron managed to grow wings and fly out of my priest’s hole—let me tell you what happened to Jem at the dam.”
She did, in a few brief sentences, by the end of which Fiona was glancing over her own shoulder at the closed kitchen door. She looked back at Bree, settling herself. In her early thirties, she was a pleasantly rounded young woman with a lovely face and the calm expression of a mother who normally has the Indian sign on her offspring, but at the moment she had a look that Brianna’s own mother would have described as “blood in her eye.” She said something very bad in English regarding the man who’d chased Jem.
“So, then,” she said, picking up a paring knife from the nearby drainboard and examining the edge critically, “what shall we do?”
Bree drew a breath and sipped cautiously at the hot, milky tea. It was sweet, silky, and very comforting—but not nearly as comforting as that “we.”
“Well, first—would you let Jem and Mandy stay here while I go do a few things? It might be overnight; I brought their pajamas, just in case.” She nodded at the paper sack that she’d set down on one of the chairs.
“Aye, of course.” A small frown formed between Fiona’s dark brows. “What . . . sorts of things?”
“It’s—” Brianna began, intending to say, “better if you don’t know,” but in fact someone had better know where she was going and what she was doing. Just in case she didn’t come back. A little bubble of what might be either fear or anger rose up through the sense of warmth in her middle.