Gideon darted out his head like a snake, aiming for the leg of the rider just ahead. Seas! Jamie wrenched the big bay’s head around before he could take a bite. Evil-minded whoreson, he muttered under his breath. Adam Chisholm, unaware of his narrow escape from Gideon’s teeth, caught the remark, and looked back over his shoulder, startled. Jamie smiled and touched his slouch hat apologetically, nudging the bay up even with Chisholm’s long-legged mule. A bit edgy, he said, with a nod toward the horse’s head. One notched ear stuck out of the bay’s head at a right angle, the other lay flat back. Best I take him on and let him work it off, eh?
Chisholm looked warily at the bay’s rolling eye and edged as far to the side of his mule’s blanketed back as he could without falling off. Oh, aye, he said. A bit high-heided, is he? Oh, a bit. Jamie kicked Gideon ungently in the ribs, urging him past the rest of the slow-moving travelers at a speed fast enough to keep the brute from biting, kicking, trampling stray bairns, or otherwise causing trouble. He passed Brianna and Marsali, halfway up the column, at a slow trot; by the time he passed Claire and Roger, riding at the head, he was moving too fast to do more than lourish his hat at them in salute.
A mhic an dhiabhoil, he said, clapping the hat back on and leaning low over the horse’s neck. See how long ye last in the rough, eh? He pulled hard left, off the trail, and down the slope, trampling dry grass and brushing leafless dogwood out of the way with a gunshot snapping of twigs. What the seven-sided son-of-a-bitch needed was flat country, where Jamie could gallop the bejesus out of him and bring him back blowing. Given that there wasn’t a flat spot in twenty miles, he’d have to do the next best thing.
He gathered up the reins, shouted Eyaah, ye bastard, go! ammed both heels into the horse’s ribs, and they charged up the shrubby hillside as though they had been fired from a cannon. Gideon was large, well-nourished, and sound of wind, which was why Jamie had bought him two days before. He was also a hard- mouthed, bad-tempered reester of a horse, which was why he hadn’t cost much. As they sailed over a small creek, jumped a fallen log and hared up an almost vertical hillside littered with scrub-oak and persimmon, Jamie found himself wondering whether he’d got a bargain or committed suicide.
That was the last coherent thought e had before Gideon veered sideways, crushing Jamie’s leg against a tree, then gathered his hindquarters and charged down the other side of the hill into a thicket of buckbrush, sending coveys of quail exploding from under his huge flat feet. Half an hour of dodging low branches, lurching through streams and galloping straight up as many hillsides as Jamie could point them at, and Gideon was, if not precisely tractable, at least manageable.
Jamie was soaked to the thighs, bruised, bleeding from half a dozen scratches, and breathing nearly as hard as the horse. He was, however, still in the saddle, and still nominally in harge. He turned the bay’s head toward the sinking sun and clicked his tongue. Come on, then, he said. Let’s go home. They had exerted themselves mightily, but given the rugged shape of the land, had not covered so much ground as to lose themselves entirely. He turned Gideon’s head upward, and within a quarter-hour, had come out onto a small ridge he recognized.
They picked their way along the ridge, searching for a safe way down through the tangles of chinkapin, poplar and spruce. The party was not far away, he knew, but it could take some time to cross to them, and he would as soon rejoin them before they eached the Ridge. Not that Claire or MacKenzie could not guide them–but he admitted to himself that he wished very much to return to Fraser’s Ridge at the head of the party, leading his people home. Christ, man, ye’d think ye were Moses, he muttered, shaking his head in mock dismay at his own pretensions.
The horse was lathered, and when the trees opened out for a space, he halted for a moment’s rest–relaxing the reins no more than enough to take the strain off his wrists, and keeping a sufficient grip as to discourage any notions the outheidie creature might still be entertaining. They stood among a grove of silver birch, at the lip of a small rocky outcrop above a forty-foot drop; he thought the big bay held much too high an opinion of himself to contemplate self-destruction, but in case he had any thought of flinging his rider off into the laurels below… The breeze was from the west.
Jamie lifted his chin, enjoying the cold touch of it on his heated skin. The land fell away in undulating waves of brown and green, kindled here and there with patches of color, lighting the mist in the hollows like the glow of campfire smoke. He felt a peace come over him at the sight, and breathed deep, his body relaxing. Gideon relaxed too, all the feistiness draining out of him. Slowly, Jamie let his hands drop lightly on the horse’s neck, and the horse stayed still, ears forward. Ah, he thought. This was a Place, then. He thought of such Places in a way that had no words, only recognizing one when he came to it.
He might have called it holy, save that the feel of such a place had nothing to do with church or saint. It was simply a place he belonged to be, and that was sufficient, though he preferred to be alone when he found one. He let the reins go slack across the horse’s neck. Not even a hrawn-heided horse like this Gideon would give trouble here. Sure enough, the horse stood quiet, massive withers steaming in the chill. They could not tarry long, but he was deeply glad of the momentary respite–not from the battle with Gideon, but from the press of people.
He had learned early on the trick of living separately in a crowd, private in his mind when his body could not be. But he had learned early, too, the enchantment of solitude, and the healing of quiet places. Quite suddenly, he had a vision of his mother, one of the small portraits that his mind hoarded. He had been hunting rabbits on a illside, hot and sweaty, his fingers pricked with gorse and his shirt stuck to him with mud and damp. He had seen a small grove of trees and gone to them for shade. His mother was sitting in the greenish shadow, on the ground beside a tiny spring.
She sat quite motionless–which was unlike her–long hands folded in her lap. She had not spoken but smiled at him, and he had gone to her, not speaking either, but filled with a great sense of peace and contentment, resting his head against her shoulder, feeling her arm go about him and knowing he stood at the center of the world. He had been five, maybe, or six. As suddenly as it had come, the vision disappeared, like a bright fish vanishing into dark water. It left behind it the same deep sense of peace, though–as though someone had briefly embraced him, a soft hand touched his hair.
He swung himself down from the saddle, needing the feel of the pine needles under his boots, some physical connection with this place. He stood still for a moment, then turned himself carefully to the right, facing the north. He no longer recalled who had taught him this–whether it was mother, father, or Auld John, Ian’s father. He spoke the words, though, as he turned himself sunwise, murmuring the brief prayer to each of the four airts in turn, and ended facing west, into the setting sun.
He cupped his empty hands and the light filled them, spilling from his palms. Celtic prayer] With an instinct older than the prayer, he took the flask from his belt and poured a few drops of wine on the ground. It was sacramental wine, but not consecrated–not ’til now. Scraps of sound reached him on the evening breeze; laughter and calling, the sound of horses making their way through brush. The caravan was not far away, only across a small hollow, coming slowly round the curve of the hillside opposite. He should go now, to join them on the last push upward to the Ridge. Still he hesitated for a moment, loath to break the spell of the Place.
Some tiny movement caught the corner of his eye, and he bent down, squinting as he peered into the deepening shadows beneath a holly bush. It sat frozen, blending perfectly with its dusky background. He would never have seen it had his hunter’s eye not caught its movement. A tiny kitten, its gray fur puffed out like a ripe milkweed-head, enormous eyes wide open and unblinking, almost olorless in the gloom beneath the bush. A Chat, he whispered, putting out a slow finger toward it. Whatever are ye doing here? A feral cat, no doubt; born of a wild mother, fled from some settlers’ cabin and long free of the trap of domesticity.
He brushed the wispy fur of its breast, and it sank its tiny teeth suddenly into his thumb. Ow! He jerked away, and examined the drop of blood welling from a small puncture wound. He glowered at the cat for a moment, but it merely stared back at him, and made no move to run. He paused, then made up his mind. He shook the lood-drop from his finger onto the leaves, an offering to join the dram he had spilled, a gift to the spirits of this Place–who had evidently made up their minds to offer him a gift, themselves. All right, then, he said under his breath.
He knelt, and stretched out his hand, palm up. Very slowly, he moved one finger, then the next, and the next and the next, then again, in the undulant motion of seaweed in the water. The big pale eyes fixed on the movement, watching as though hypnotized. He could see the tip of the miniature tail twitch, very slightly, and smiled at the sight. He made a small noise through his teeth, a whistling hiss, like the distant chittering of birds. The kitten stared, mesmerized, as the gently swaying fingers moved invisibly closer.
When at last he touched its fur again, it made no move to escape. One finger edged beneath the fur, another slid under the cold wee pads of one paw, and it let him scoop it gently into his hand and lift it from the ground. He held it for a moment against his chest, stroking it with one finger, tracing the silken jawline, the delicate ears. The tiny cat closed its eyes and began to purr in ecstasy, rumbling in his palm like distant thunder. Oh, so ye’ll come away wi’ me, will you?
Receiving no demur from the cat, he opened his shirt and tucked the tiny thing inside, where it poked and prodded for a bit before curling up against his skin, purr reduced to a silent but pleasant vibration. Gideon seemed pleased by the rest; he set off willingly enough, and within a quarter-hour, they had caught up with the others. The stallion’s momentary docility evaporated, though, under the strain of the final upward climb. Not that the horse could not handle the steep trail; what he couldn’t abide was following another horse. It didn’t matter whether
Jamie wished to lead them home or not–if Gideon had anything to do with the matter, they would be not only in the lead, but several furlongs ahead. At every widening of the trail, Gideon shouldered his way rudely ahead, shoving past pack-mules, sheep, and mares; he even scattered the three pigs trudging slowly behind Grannie Chisholm, who bolted into the brush in a chorus of panicked oinks as Gideon bore down upon them. Jamie found himself in perfect sympathy with the horse; eager to be home and working hard to get there, irritated by anything that threatened to hold him back.
At the moment, the main impediment to progress was Claire, who had–blast the woman–halted her mare in front of him and slid off in order to gather yet another bit of herbage from the trailside. As though the entire house was not filled from doorstep to rooftree with plants already, and her saddlebags a-bulge with more! Gideon, picking up his rider’s mood with alacrity, stretched out his neck and nipped the mare’s rump. The mare bucked, squealed and shot off up the trail, loose reins dangling. Gideon made a deep rumbling noise of satisfaction and started off after her, only to be jerked unceremoniously to a halt.
Claire had whirled round at the noise, eyes wide. She looked up at Jamie, up the trail after her vanished horse, then back at him. She shrugged apologetically, hands full of tattered leaves and mangy roots. Sorry, she said, but he saw the corner of her mouth tuck in and the flush rise in her skin, the smile glimmering in her eyes like morning light on trout-water. Quite against his will, he felt the tension in his shoulders ease. He had had it in mind to rebuke her; in fact, he still did, but the words wouldn’t quite come to his tongue. Get up then, woman, he said instead, gruffly, with a nod behind him. I want my supper.
She scrambled up, kilting her skirts out of the way, and Gideon, irascible at this additional nuisance, whipped round to take a nip of the roundly tempting target offered by her arse. Jamie was ready for that; he snapped the end of the rein sharply off the stallion’s nose, making him jerk back and snort in surprise. That’ll teach ye, ye bastard, Jamie said, with a small sense of satisfaction. He pulled his hat over his brow and settled his errant wife securely, fluttering skirts tucked in beneath her thighs. She rode without shoes or stockings, and her long calves were white and bare against the dark bay hide.
He gathered up the reins and kicked the horse, a trifle harder than strictly necessary. Gideon promptly reared, backed, twisted, and tried to scrape them both off under a hanging poplar bough. The kitten, rudely roused from its nap, sank all its claws into Jamie’s midsection and yowled in alarm, though its noise was quite lost in Jamie’s much louder screech. He yanked the horse’s head halfway round, swearing, and shoved at the hindquarters with his left leg. No easy conquest, Gideon executed a hop like a corkscrew.
There was a small eek! nd a sudden feeling of emptiness behind him, as Claire was slung off into the brush like a bag of flour. The horse suddenly yielded to the pull on his mouth, and shot down the path in the wrong direction, hurtling through a screen of brambles and skidding to a halt that nearly threw him onto his hindquarters in a shower of mud and dead leaves. Then he straightened out like a snake, shook his head, and trotted nonchalantly over to exchange nuzzles with Roger’s horse, which was standing at the edge of the spring clearing, watching them with the same bemusement exhibited by its dismounted rider.
All right there? asked Roger, raising one eyebrow. Certainly, Jamie replied, trying to gasp for breath while keeping his dignity. And you? Fine. Good. He was already swinging down from the saddle as he spoke. He flung the reins toward MacKenzie, not waiting to see whether he caught them, and ran back toward the trail, shouting, Claire! Where are ye? Just here! she called cheerfully. She emerged from the shadow of the poplars, limping slightly but looking otherwise undamaged. Are you all right? she asked, cocking one eyebrow at him. Aye, fine. I’m going to shoot that horse.
He gathered her in briefly, wanting to assure himself that she was in fact whole. She was breathing heavily, but felt reassuringly solid, and kissed him on the nose. Well, don’t shoot him until we get home. I don’t want to walk the last mile or so in my bare feet. Hey! Let that alone, ye bugger! He let go of Claire and turned to find Roger snatching a fistful of ragged-looking plants away from Gideon’s questing nose. More plants–what was this mania for gathering? Claire was still panting from the accident, but leaned forward to see them, looking interested. What’s that you’ve got, Roger?
For Bree, he said, holding them up for her inspection. Are they the right kind? To Jamie’s jaundiced eye, they looked like the yellowed tops of carrots gone to seed and left too long in the ground, but Claire fingered the mangy foliage, and nodded pproval. Oh, yes, she said. Very romantic! Jamie made a small tactful noise, indicating that they ought perhaps to be making their way, since Bree and the slower-moving party of Chisholms would be catching them up soon. Yes, all right, Claire said, patting his shoulder in what he assumed she meant to be a soothing gesture.
Don’t snort; we’re going. Mmphm, he said, and bent to put a hand under her foot. Tossing her up into the saddle, he gave Gideon a Don’t try it on, you bastard glare and swung up behind her. You’ll wait for the others, then, and bring them up? Without waiting for Roger’s nod, he reined around and set Gideon upon he trail again. Temper momentarily expended, and mollified at being in the lead, Gideon settled down to the job at hand, climbing steadily through the thickets of chinkapin and poplar, chestnut and spruce.
Even so late in the year, some leaves still clung to the trees, and small bits of brown and yellow floated down upon them like a gentle rain, catching in the horse’s mane, resting in the loose, thick waves of Claire’s hair. It had come down in her precipitous descent, and she hadn’t bothered to put it up again. His own equanimity returned with the sense of progress, and was quite restored by the fortuitous finding of his hat, hanging from white oak by the trail, as though placed there by some kindly hand.
Still, he remained uneasy in his mind, and could not quite grasp tranquility, though the mountain lay at peace all round him, the air hazed with blue and smelling of wood-damp and evergreens. Then he realized, with a sudden jolt in the pit of his stomach, that the kitten was gone. There were itching furrows in the skin of his chest and abdomen, where it had climbed him in a frantic effort to escape, but it must have popped out the neck of his shirt and been flung off his shoulder in the mad career down the slope. He glanced from side to side, searching in the shadows under ushes and trees, but it was a vain hope.
It was nearly dark, and they were on the main trail now, while he and Gideon had torn through the wood. [.. a Dhia], he murmured, and crossed himself briefly. Go with God. What’s that? Claire asked, half-turning in the saddle. Nothing, he said. After all, it was a wild cat, though a small one. Doubtless it would manage. Gideon worked the bit, pecking and bobbing. Jamie realized that the tension in his hands was running through the reins once more, and consciously slackened his grip. He loosened his grip on Claire, too, and she took a sudden deep breath. His heart was beating fast.
It was impossible for him ever to come home after an absence without a certain sense of apprehension. For years after the Rising, he had lived in a cave, approaching his own house only rarely, after dark and with great caution, never knowing what he might find there. More than one Highland man had come home to his place to find it burnt and black, his family gone. Or worse, still there. Well enough to tell himself not to imagine horrors; the difficulty was that he had no need of imagination–memory sufficed. The horse dug with his haunches, pushing hard.
No use to tell himself this was a new place; it was, with its own dangers. If there were no English soldiers in these mountains, there were still marauders. Those too shiftless to take root and fend for themselves, but who wandered the backcountry, robbing and plundering. Raiding Indians. Wild animals. And fire. Always fire. He hadn’t realized that Claire was tensed, too, until she suddenly relaxed against him, a hand on his leg. It’s all right, she said. I smell chimney-smoke. He lifted his head to catch the air. She was right; the tang of burning hickory floated on the breeze.
Not the stink of remembered conflagration, but a homely whiff redolent with the promise of warmth and food. They rounded the last turn of the trail and saw it, then, the high fieldstone chimney rising above the trees on the ridge, its fat plume of smoke curling over the rooftree. The house stood. He breathed deep in relief, noticing now the other smells of home; the faint rich scent of manure from the stable, of meat smoked and hanging in the shed, and the breath of the forest nearby–damp wood and leaf-rot, rock and rushing water, the touch of it cold and loving on his cheek.
They came out of the chestnut grove and into the large clearing where the house stood, solid and neat, its windows glazed gold with the last of the sun. It was a modest frame house, white-washed and shingle-roofed, clean in its lines, and soundly built, but impressive only by comparison with the crude cabins of most settlers. His own first cabin still stood, dark and sturdy, a little way down the hill. Smoke was curling from that chimney, too. Someone’s made a fire for Bree and Roger, Claire said, nodding at it. That’s good, he said.
He tightened his arm about her waist, and she made a small, contented noise in her throat, wriggling her bottom into his lap. Gideon was happy, too; he stretched out his neck and whinnied to the two horses in the penfold, who trotted to and fro in the nclosure, calling greetings. Claire’s mare was standing by the fence, reins dangling; she curled her lip in what looked like derision, the wee besom. From somewhere far down the trail behind them came a deep, joyous bray; Clarence, hearing the racket and delighted to be coming home.
The door flew open, and Mrs. Bug popped out, round and flustered as a tumble-turd. He smiled at sight of her, and gave Claire an arm to slide down before dismounting himself. All’s well, all’s well, and how’s yourself, sir? Mrs. Bug was reassuring him before his boots struck ground. She had a pewter up in one hand, a polishing cloth in the other, and didn’t cease her polishing for an instant, even as she turned up her face to accept his kiss on her withered round cheek. She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned at once and stood a-tiptoe to kiss Claire, beaming.
Oh, it’s grand that you’re home, Ma’am, you and Himself, and I’ve the supper all made, so you’ll not be worrit a bit with it, Ma’am, but come inside, come inside, and be takin’ off them dusty cloots, and I’ll send old Arch along to the mash-hoose for a bit of the lively, and we’ll… She had Claire by one hand, towing her helplessly into the house, talking and talking, the other and still polishing briskly away, her stubby fingers dextrously rubbing the cloth inside the cup. Claire gave him a helpless glance over one shoulder, and he grinned at her as she disappeared inside the house.
Mrs. Bug would not blink an eye, once informed that supper would be for ten more than expected. Gideon shoved an impatient nose under his arm and bumped his elbow. Oh, aye, he said, recalled to his chores. Come along then, ye prickly wee bastard. By the time he had the big bay and the mare unsaddled, wiped down with a wisp of dry hay and turned out to their feed, Claire ad escaped from Mrs. Bug; coming back from the paddock, he saw the door of the house swing open and Claire slip out, looking guiltily over her shoulder as though fearing pursuit. Where was she bound?
She didn’t see him; she turned and hurried toward the far corner of the house, disappearing in a swish of homespun. He followed, curious. Ah. She had seen to her surgery; now she was going to her garden before it got completely dark; he caught a glimpse of her against the sky on the upward path behind the house, the last of the daylight caught like cobwebs in her hair. There would be ittle growing now, only the overwintering things like carrots and onions and garlic, but it made no difference; she always went to see how things were, no matter how short a time she had been gone.
He understood the urge; he would not feel entirely home himself until he had checked all the stock and buildings, and made sure of matters up at the still. The evening breeze brought him an acrid hint from the distant privy, suggesting that matters there were shortly going to require his attention, speaking of buildings. Then he bethought him of the new tenants coming, and relaxed; digging a new privy would e just the thing for Chisholm’s eldest two boys. He and Ian had dug this one, when they first came to the Ridge. God, he missed the lad. A Micheal… , he murmured. Blessed Michael, protect him.
He liked MacKenzie well enough, but had it been his choice, he would not have exchanged Ian for the man. It had been Ian’s choice, though, not his, and no more to be said about it. Pushing away the ache of Ian’s loss, he stepped behind a tree, loosened his breeks and relieved himself. If she saw him, Claire would doubtless make what she considered witty remarks about dogs and wolves marking their home-ground as they returned o it. Nothing of the sort, he replied to her mentally, why walk up the hill, only to make matters worse in the privy? Still, if you came down to it, it was his place, and if he chose to piss on it… e tidied his clothes, feeling more settled.
He raised his head and saw her coming down the path from the garden, her apron bulging with carrots and turnips. A gust of wind sent the last of the leaves from the chestnut grove swirling round her in a yellow dance, sparked with light. Moved by sudden impulse, he stepped deeper into the trees and began to look about. Normally, he paid attention only to such vegetation as was immediately comestible by horse or man, sufficiently straight-grained to serve for planks and timbers, or so covered with thorns as to pose difficulty in passage.
Once he began looking with an eye to aesthetics, though, he found himself surprised at the variety to hand. Stalks of half-ripe barley, the seeds laid in rows like a woman’s plait. A dry, fragile weed that looked like the lace-edging on a petticoat. A stem of blue spruce, unearthly green and cool among the dry bits, leaving its fragrant sap on his hand as he tore it from the tree. A branch of glossy oak-leaves, that reminded him of her hair, in shades of gold and brown and gray. And a bit of scarlet creeper, snatched for color.
Just in time; she was coming round the corner of the house. Lost in thought, she passed within a foot or two of him, not seeing him. Sorcha, he called softly, and she turned, eyes narrowed against the rays of the sinking sun, then wide and gold with surprise at the sight of him. Welcome home, he said, and held out the small bouquet of leaves and twigs. Oh, she said. She looked at the bits of leaf and stick again, and then at him, and the corners of her mouth trembled, as though he might laugh or cry, but wasn’t sure which.
She reached then, and took the plants from him, her fingers small and cold as they brushed his hand. Oh, Jamie–they’re wonderful. She came up on her toes and kissed him, warm and salty, and he wanted more, but she was hurrying away into the house, the silly wee things clasped to her breast as though they were gold. He felt pleasantly foolish, and foolishly pleased with himself. The taste of her was still on his mouth. Sorcha, he whispered, and realized that he had called her so a moment before. Now that was odd; no wonder she had been urprised.
It was her name in the Gaelic, but he never called her by it. He liked the strangeness of her, the Englishness. She was his Sassenach. And yet in the moment when she passed him, she was Sorcha. Not only Claire, it meant–but light. He breathed deep, contented. He was suddenly ravenous, both for food and for her, but he made no move to hasten inside. Some kinds of hunger were sweet in themselves, the anticipation of satisfaction as keen a pleasure as the slaking. Hoofsteps and voices; the others were coming up the trail into the clearing.
He had a sudden urge to keep his peaceful solitude a moment longer, but too late–in seconds, he was surrounded by confusion, the shrill cries of excited children and calls of distracted mothers, the welcoming of the newcomers, the bustle and rush of unloading, turning out the horses and mules, fetching feed and water… and yet in the midst of this Babel, he moved as though he were still alone, peaceful and quiet in the setting sun. He had come home. [next morning] Drugged with fatigue, languid with love, and lulled by the comforts of a soft, clean bed and Jamie’s warm body, I slept like the ead.
Somewhere toward dawn, I began to dream–pleasant dreams of touch and color, without form. Small hands touched my hair, patted my face; I turned on my side, half-conscious, dreaming of nursing a child in my sleep. Tiny soft fingers kneaded my breast, and my hand came up to cup the child’s head. It bit me. I shrieked, shot bolt upright in bed, and saw a gray form race across the quilt and disappear over the end of the bed. I shrieked again, louder. Jamie shot sideways out of bed, rolled on the floor and came up standing, shoulders braced and fists half-clenched. What? e demanded, glaring wildly round in search of marauders.
Who? What? A rat! I said, pointing a trembling finger at the spot where the gray shape had vanished into the crevice between bed-foot and wall. Oh. His shoulders relaxed. He scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair, blinking. A rat, aye? A rat in our bed, I said, not disposed to view the event with any degree of calm. It bit me! I peered closely at my injured breast. No blood; only a couple of tiny puncture-marks that stung slightly. I did hope it wasn’t rabid. Dinna fash. I’ll deal with it.