Roger was at Brian’s shoulder when he grabbed the horse’s bridle.
“What in the name of the Blessed Mother are you—” Brian began, furious, but she interrupted him, looking straight at Roger.
“Your kinsman,” she said. “William Buccleigh. He sent word to Lallybroch that he’s taken bad and will ye come at once. They said he may not live.”
IT TOOK A good day and a half to make the journey, even in good weather. Given that it was raining, that the journey back was uphill, and that the latter portion of it involved stumbling around in the dark, hunting for a nearly invisible trail, they covered the distance in a surprisingly short time.
“I’ll come in with ye,” Brian had said, swinging off his horse in the dooryard. “They’re no my tenants, but they know me.”
The household—it was a modest crofter’s cottage, dull white as a pebble in the light of a gibbous moon—was closed up tight for the night, shutters drawn and the door bolted. Fraser thumped on the door and shouted in Gaelic, though, identifying himself and saying that he’d brought the sick man’s kinsman to him, and presently the door swung open, framing a squat, bearded gentleman in shirt and nightcap, who peered at them for a long moment before stepping back with a gruff “Come ben.”
Roger’s first impression was that the house was crammed to the rafters with odorous humanity. These lay in small snuggled heaps on the floor near the hearth or on pallets by the far wall, and here and there tousled heads poked up like prairie dogs, blinking in the glow of the smoored fire to see what was to do.
Their host—introduced by Fraser as Angus MacLaren—nodded curtly to Roger and gestured toward a bedstead drawn into the center of the room. Two or three small children were sleeping on it, but Roger could just make out the blur of Buck’s face on the pillow. Christ, he hoped Buck didn’t have anything contagious.
He leaned in close, whispering, “Buck?” so as not to wake anyone who hadn’t waked already. He couldn’t make out much of Buck’s face in the gloom—and it was covered with beard stubble, as well—but his eyes were closed, and he didn’t open them in response to Roger’s saying his name. Nor in response to Roger’s laying a hand on his arm. The arm did feel warm, but given the suffocating atmosphere in the cottage, he thought it likely Buck would feel warm even if he’d been dead for hours.
He squeezed the arm, lightly at first, then harder—and at last Buck gave a strangled cough and opened his eyes. He blinked slowly, not seeming to recognize Roger, then closed them again. His chest heaved visibly, though, and he breathed now with a slow, clearly audible gasping note.
“He says as there’s something the matter wi’ his heart,” MacLaren told Roger, low-voiced. He was leaning over Roger’s shoulder, watching Buck intently. “It flutters, like, and when it does, he goes blue and canna breathe or stand up. My second-eldest lad found him out in the heather yesterday afternoon, flat as a squashed toad. We fetched him down and gave him a bit to drink, and he asked would we send someone to Lallybroch to ask after his kinsman.”
“Moran taing,” said Roger. “I’m that obliged to ye, sir.” He turned to Brian, who was lurking behind MacLaren, looking at Buck with a small frown.
“And thank ye, too, sir,” Roger said to him. “For all your help. I can’t thank ye enough.”
Fraser shrugged, dismissing this.
“I imagine ye’ll stay with him? Aye. If he’s able to travel in the morn, bring him along to Lallybroch. Or send, if there’s aught we can do.” Fraser nodded to MacLaren in farewell but then paused, squinting through the murk at Buck’s face. He glanced at Roger, as though comparing their features.
“Is your kinsman from Lochalsh, as well?” he asked, curious, and looked back at Buck. “He’s the look of my late wife’s people about him. The MacKenzies of Leoch.” Then he noticed the small squat shape of what must be Mrs. MacLaren—glowering under her cap—and he coughed, bowed, and took his leave without waiting for an answer.
Mr. MacLaren went to bolt the door, and the lady of the house turned to Roger, yawned cavernously, then motioned toward the bed, scratching her bottom unself-consciously.
“Ye can sleep wi’ him,” she said. “Push him oot the bed if he dies, aye? I dinna want ma quilts all spoilt.”
HAVING TAKEN OFF his boots, Roger lay down gingerly on the quilt beside Buck—readjusting the position of the small children, who were limp and flexible as cats in sunshine—and spent the remainder of the night listening to his ancestor’s irregular snoring, poking him whenever it seemed to stop. Toward dawn, though, he dozed off, to be waked sometime later by the thick warm smell of porridge.
Alarmed by the fact that he’d fallen asleep, he raised up on one elbow to find Buck pale-faced and breathing stertorously through his mouth. He seized his ancestor by the shoulder and shook him, causing Buck to start up in bed, glaring wildly round. Spotting Roger, he punched him solidly in the stomach.
“Bugger off wi’ that!”
“I just wanted to be sure you were alive, you bastard!”
“What are ye doing here in the first place?” Buck rubbed a hand through his disheveled hair, looking cross and confused.
“Ye sent for me, fool.” Roger was cross, too. His mouth felt as though he’d been chewing straw all night. “How are you, anyway?”
“I—not that well.” Buck’s face changed abruptly from crossness to a pale apprehension, and he put a hand flat on his chest, pressing hard. “I—it—it doesna feel right.”
“Lie down, for God’s sake!” Roger squirmed off the bed, narrowly avoiding stepping on a little girl who was sitting on the floor, playing with the buckles of his boots. “I’ll get ye some water.”
A row of children was watching this byplay with interest, ignored by Mrs. MacLaren and two of the older girls, who were respectively stirring a huge cauldron of parritch and rapidly laying the large table for breakfast, slapping down wooden plates and spoons like cards in a game of old maid.
“If ye need the privy,” one of the girls advised him, pausing in her rounds, “ye’d best go now. Robbie and Sandy’ve gone to tend the kine, and Stuart’s no got his shoon on yet.” She lifted her chin toward a stripling of twelve or so, who was crawling slowly about on hands and knees, with one worn shoe in one hand, peering under the sparse furniture in search of its mate. “Oh—and since your kinsman’s lived the night, Da’s gone for the healer.”
THE SCENT OF A STRANGER
SHE’D BROUGHT Jock MacLeod the traditional hospital present of grapes. And a bottle of eighteen-year-old Bunnahabhain, which had brightened his face—or what could be seen of it behind the bandage that wrapped his head and the bruising that narrowed both eyes to bloodshot slits.
“Oh, I’m a bit peely-wally,” he’d told her, wrapping the bottle in his dressing gown and handing it to her to stash in his bedside cabinet, “but no bad, no bad. A wee dunt on the head, is all. I’m only glad the lad got away. D’ye ken how he came to be in the tunnel, lass?”
She’d given him the official version, listened patiently to his speculations, and then asked if he’d maybe recognized the man who hit him?
“Well, I did, then,” Jock had said, surprising her. He leaned back on his pillows. “Which is not to say as I know his name. But I’ve seen him, aye, often. He skippers a boat on the canal.”
“What? A charter boat, or one of the Jacobite cruise boats?” Her heart beat faster. The Caledonian Canal, he meant. It ran from Inverness to Fort William and carried a huge amount of water traffic, much of it visible from the road.
“Nice wee motor sailer—must be a charter. I only noticed because my wife’s cousin has one like it; we went out wi’ him the once. Ten-meter, I think it is.”
“You told the police, of course.”
“I did, so.” He tapped blunt fingers on the coverlet, glancing sideways at her. “I described the man so well as I could—but, ken, he didna really look unusual. I’d know him again—and maybe your wee lad would—but I don’t know as the polis would pick him out easy.”
She’d brought her Swiss Army knife out of her pocket as she talked, playing with it meditatively, flicking the blades open and shut. She opened the corkscrew, testing the sharp end of it with the ball of her thumb.
“Do you think you could maybe describe him to me? I draw a bit; I could make a stab at a picture.”
He grinned at her, eyes disappearing into the bruised flesh.
“Pour me a dram, lass, and we’ll have a go.”
BRIANNA REACHED Lallybroch again in the late afternoon, just in time for her four o’clock appointment with the locksmith. A scrap of white tacked to the door fluttered in the autumn wind; she yanked it off and fumbled it open with chilled fingers.
Had an emergency call in Elgin; won’t be back ’til late. Will call by in the morning. Apologies, Will Tranter
She crumpled the note and stuffed it into her jacket pocket, muttering under her breath. Bloody kidnapping ra**st bastards walking in and out of her house like it was the public highway and this wasn’t an emergency?
She hesitated, fingers wrapped around the big antique key in her pocket, looking up at the white-harled front of the house. The sinking sun flashed in the upper windows, glazing them with red, hiding whatever might be behind them. They had a key. Did she really want to go in there alone?
She glanced round, self-conscious, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The home fields lay tranquil, the small flock of sheep already bedding down in the setting sun. She breathed deeply, turning from side to side as she would when hunting with Da in the North Carolina forest, as though she might catch the tang of deer on the breeze.
What was she looking for now? Exhaust fumes. Rubber, hot metal, unlaid dust in the air, the ghost of a car. Or maybe something else, she thought, remembering the stink of Rob Cameron’s sweat. The scent of a stranger.
But the cold air brought her only the smell of dead leaves, sheep shit, and a hint of turpentine from the Forestry Commission’s pine plantation to the west.
Still. She’d heard her father mention a feeling at the back of his neck when something was wrong, and she felt the hairs on her nape prickle now. She turned away, got back into her car, and drove off, glancing automatically behind her every few minutes. There was a petrol station a few miles up the road; she stopped there to call Fiona and say she’d pick the kids up in the morning, then bought a few snacks and drove back, taking the farm track that circled the far edge of Lallybroch’s land and led up into the pine plantation.
At this time of year, it got dark by 4:30 P.M. Up the hillside, the track was no more than a pair of muddy ruts, but she bumped carefully along until she came to one of the clearings where the foresters piled slash for burning. The air was rough with the smell of wood fire, and a big blackened patch of earth and ember still sent up wisps of smoke, but all the fires were out. She drove the car behind a heap of fresh-cut branches, piled ready for the next day, and cut the ignition.
As she came down out of the plantation, carrying the shotgun in one hand, something large shot past her head in total silence, and she stumbled, gasping. An owl; it disappeared, a pale blur in the dark. In spite of her pounding heart, she was glad to see it. White animals were harbingers of good luck in Celtic folklore; she could use any luck going.
“Owls are keepers of the dead, but not just the dead. They’re messengers between worlds.” For an instant Roger was next to her, solid, warm in the cold night, and she put out a hand by impulse, as though to touch him.
Then he was gone and she was standing alone in the shadow of the pines, looking toward Lallybroch, the shotgun cold in her hand. “I’ll get you back, Roger,” she whispered under her breath, and curled her left hand into a fist, clenching the copper ring with which he’d married her. “I will.” But first she had to make sure the kids were safe.
Night rose up around the house and Lallybroch faded slowly out of sight, a paler blotch against the dark. She checked the safety on the gun and moved silently toward home.
SHE CAME UP the hill behind the broch, as quietly as she could. The wind had come up, and she doubted anyone would hear her steps over the rustling of the gorse and dry broom that grew thick back here.
If they were waiting for her, wanting to do harm, surely they’d be in the house. But if they just wanted to know where she was . . . they might be watching the house instead, and this was the place to do it from. She paused by the wall of the broch and put a hand on the stones, listening. Faint rustling, punctuated by an occasional dovish coo. The bats would have gone out long since, hunting, but the doves were abed.
Pressing her back against the stones, she sidled around the broch, pausing near the door, and reached out a hand, groping for the latch. The padlock was cold in her hand; intact and locked. Letting out her breath, she fumbled the bunch of keys out of her pocket and found the right one by touch.
The sleeping doves erupted in a mad flutter when the wind from the open door whooshed up to the rafters where they roosted, and she stepped hastily back against the wall, out of the way of a pattering rain of panicked incontinence. The doves calmed in a moment, though, and settled down again in a murmurous rustle of indignation at the disturbance.
The upper floors had long since fallen in and the timbers cleared away; the broch was a shell, but a sturdy shell, its outer stones repaired over the years. The stair was built into the wall itself, the stone steps leading up between the inner and outer walls, and she broke the gun over her shoulder and went up slowly, feeling her way one-handed. There was a torch in her pocket but no need to risk using it.
A third of the way up, she took up station by a window slit that commanded a view of the house below. It was cold sitting on the stones, but her jacket was down-filled and she wouldn’t freeze. She pulled a bar of Violet Crumble from her pocket and settled down to wait.