I didn’t much care for the thought of having to hunt alone through the Scottish Highlands for a man who might be anywhere, either, but I put a bold face on it.
“I’ll manage,” I said. “It could be worse. At least he’s alive.”
“True.” She glanced at the sun, low over the horizon. “I’ll stay wi’ ye through the night, at least.”
Huddled around the fire at night, we didn’t talk much. Jenny was preoccupied with thoughts of her abandoned child, me with thoughts of just how I was to proceed on my own, alone with no real knowledge of geography or Gaelic.
Suddenly Jenny’s head snapped up, listening. I sat up and listened myself, but heard nothing. I peered into the dark woods in the direction Jenny was looking, but saw no gleaming eyes in the depths, thank God.
When I turned back to the fire, Murtagh was sitting on the other side, calmly warming his hands at the blaze. Jenny snapped round at my exclamation, and uttered a short laugh of surprise.
“I could ha’ cut both your throats before ye ever looked in the right direction,” the little man observed.
“Oh, could ye then?” Jenny was sitting with her knees drawn up, hands clasped near her ankles. With a lightning dart, her hand went under her skirt and the blade of a sgian dhu flashed in the firelight.
“None sae bad,” Murtagh agreed, nodding sagely. “Is the wee Sassenach that good?”
“No,” said Jenny, restoring her blade to her stocking. “So it’s good you’ll be with her. Ian sent for ye, I expect?”
The little man nodded. “Aye. Did ye find the Watch yet?”
We told him of our progress to date. At the news that Jamie had escaped, I could have sworn that a muscle twitched near the corner of his mouth, but it would have been stretching matters to call it a smile.
At length, Jenny rose, folding her blanket.
“Where are you going?” I asked in surprise.
“Home.” She nodded at Murtagh. “He’ll be wi’ ye now; you don’t need me, and there’s others that do.”
Murtagh looked up at the sky. The waning moon was faintly visible behind a haze of cloud, and a soft spatter of rain whispered in the pine boughs above us.
“The morning will do. The wind’s risin’, and no one will move far tonight.”
Jenny shook her head and went on tucking her hair beneath her kerchief. “I know my way. And if none will move tonight, there’s none will hinder me on the road, no?”
Murtagh sighed impatiently. “You’re stubborn as your ox of a brother, beggin’ your pardon. Little reason to hurry back, so far as I can see—I doubt your good man will ha’ taken a doxy to his bed in the time ye’ve been gone.”
“You see as far as the end o’ your nose, duine, and that’s short enough,” Jenny answered sharply. “And if ye’ve lived so long without knowing better than to stand between a nursing mother and a hungry child, you’ve not sense enough to hunt hogs, let alone find a man in the heather.”
Murtagh raised his hands in surrender. “Oh, aye, ye’ll take your own way. I didna ken I was tryin’ to talk sense to a wild sow. Get a tush through the leg for my trouble, I expect.”
Jenny laughed unexpectedly, dimpling. “I expect ye might at that, ye auld rogue.” She bent and heaved the heavy saddle up on her knee. “See that ye take care with my good-sister, then, and send word when ye’ve found Jamie.”
As she turned to saddle the horse, Murtagh added, “By the bye, ye’ll reckon to find a new kitchen maid when ye reach home.”
She paused and eyed him, then slowly set the saddle on the ground. “And who might that be?” she asked.
“The Widow MacNab,” he replied, with deliberation.
She was still for a moment, nothing moving but the kerchief and cloak that stirred in the rising wind.
“How?” she asked at last.
Murtagh bent to pick up the saddle. He heaved it up and secured the girth with what seemed like one effortless motion.
“Fire,” he said, giving a final tug to the stirrup leather. “Watch your way as ye pass the high field; the ashes will still be warm.”
He cupped his hands to give her a foot up, but she shook her head and took the reins instead, beckoning to me.
“Walk wi’ me to the top of the hill, Claire, if ye will.”
The air was cold and heavy, away from the fire. My skirts were damp from sitting on the ground, and clung to my legs as I walked. Jenny’s head was bent against the wind, but I could see her profile, lips pale and set with chill.
“It was MacNab that gave Jamie to the Watch?” I asked at last. She nodded slowly.
“Aye. Ian will have found out, or one of the other men; it doesna matter which.”
It was late November, well past Guy Fawkes Day, but I had a sudden vision of a bonfire, flames leaping up timbered walls and sprouting in the thatch like the tongues of the Holy Ghost, while the fire within roared its prayers for the damned. And inside, the guy, an effigy crouched in ash on his own hearthstone, ready to fall into black dust at the next blast of cold wind to sweep through the shell of his home. There is a fine line sometimes, between justice and brutality.
I realized Jenny was looking full at me, questioning, and I returned her gaze with a nod. We stood together, in this case at least, on the same side of that grim and arbitrary line.
We paused at the top of the hill, Murtagh a dark speck by the fire below. Jenny rummaged for a moment in the side pocket of her skirt, then pressed a small wash leather bag into my hand.
“The rents from quarter day,” she said. “Ye might need it.”
I tried to give the money back, insisting that Jamie would not want to take money that was needed for the running of the estate, but she would have none of it. And while Janet Fraser was half her brother’s size, she more than matched his stubbornness.
Outclassed, I gave up at last, and tucked the money safely away in the recesses of my own costume. At Jenny’s insistence, I took also the small sgian dhu she pressed upon me.
“It’s Ian’s, but he has another,” she said. “Put it into your stocking top, and hold it with your garter. Don’t leave it off, even when ye sleep.”
She paused a moment, as though there were something else she meant to say. Apparently there was.
“Jamie said,” she said carefully, “that ye might…tell me things sometimes. And he said that if ye did, I was to do as ye said. Is there…anything ye wish to tell me?”
Jamie and I had discussed the necessity for preparing Lallybroch and its inhabitants against the coming disasters of the Rising. But we had thought then that there was time. Now I had no time, or most a few minutes, in which to give this new sister I held dear enough information to guard Lallybroch against the coming storm.
Being a prophet was a very uncomfortable occupation, I thought, not for the first time. I felt considerable sympathy with Jeremiah and his Lamentations. I also realized exactly why Cassandra was so unpopular. Still, there was no help for it. On the crest of a Scottish hill, the night wind of an autumn storm whipping my hair and skirts like the sheets of a banshee, I turned my face to the shadowed skies and prepared to prophesy.
“Plant potatoes,” I said.
Jenny’s mouth dropped slightly open, then she firmed her jaw and nodded briskly. “Potatoes. Aye. There’s none closer than Edinburgh, but I’ll send for them. How many?”
“As many as you can. They’re not planted in the Highlands now, but they will be. They’re a root crop that will keep for a long time, and the yield is better than wheat. Put as much ground as you can into crops that can be stored. There’s going to be a famine, a bad one, in two years. If there’s land or property that’s not productive now, sell it, for gold. There’s going to be war, and slaughter. Men will be hunted, here and everywhere through the Highlands.” I thought for a moment. “Is there a priest-hole in the house?”
“No, it was built well after the Protector’s time.”
“Make one then, or some safe place to hide. I hope Jamie won’t need it,” I swallowed hard at the thought, “but someone may.”
“All right. Is that all?” Her face was serious and intent in the half-light. I blessed Jamie for his forethought in warning her, and her for her trust in her brother. She didn’t ask me how, or why, but only took careful note of what I said, and I knew my hasty instructions would be followed.
“That’s all. All I can think of just now, anyway.” I tried to smile, but the effort seemed unconvincing, even to me.
Hers was better. She touched my cheek briefly in farewell.
“God go wi’ ye, Claire. We’ll meet again—when ye bring my brother home.”
Whatever the disadvantages of civilization, I reflected grimly, the benefits were undeniable. Take telephones, for example. For that matter, take newspapers, which were popular in such metropolitan centers as Edinburgh or even Perth, but completely unknown in the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands.
With no such methods of mass communication, news spread from one person to the next at the speed of a man’s stride. People generally found out what they needed to know, but with a delay of several weeks. Consequently, faced with the problem of finding exactly where Jamie was, there was little to rely on except the possibility of someone encountering him and sending word back to Lallybroch. That was a process that might take weeks. And the winter would set in shortly, making travel to Beauly impossible. I sat feeding sticks to the fire, pondering the possibilities.
Which way would Jamie have gone from the point of his escape? Not back to Lallybroch, to be sure, and almost certainly not north, into the MacKenzie lands. South to the border lands, where he might meet again with Hugh Munro or some of his earlier rough companions? No, most likely northeast, toward Beauly. But if I could figure that out, so could the men of the Watch.
Murtagh returned from his gathering, dumping an armload of sticks on the ground. He sat down crosslegged on a fold of his plaid, wrapping the rest around himself to keep out the chill. He cast an eye toward the sky, where the moon glowed behind racing clouds.
“It wilna snow just yet,” he said, frowning. “Another week, maybe two. We might reach Beauly before then.” Well, nice to have confirmation of my deductions, I supposed.
“You think he’ll be there?”
The little clansman shrugged, hunching his plaid higher around his shoulders.
“No tellin’. The travel will no be as easy for him, lyin’ hid during the day, and staying off the roads. And he hasna got a horse.” He scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “We canna find him; we’d best let him find us.”
“How? Send up flares?” I suggested sarcastically. One thing about Murtagh; no matter what incongruous thing I said, he could be counted on to behave as though I hadn’t spoken.
“I’ve brought your wee packet of medicines,” he said, nodding toward the saddlebags on the ground. “And you’ve enough of a reputation near Lallybroch; you’ll be known as a healer through most of the countryside near.” He nodded to himself. “Aye, that’ll do well enough.” And without further explanations, he lay down, rolled up in his plaid and went calmly to sleep, ignoring the wind in the trees, the light patter of rain, and me.
I found out soon enough what he meant. Traveling openly—and slowly—along the main roads, we stopped at every croft and village and hamlet we came to. There he would make a quick survey of the local populace, round up anyone suffering from illness or injury, and bring them to me for treatment. Physicians being few and far between in these parts, there was always someone ailing to attend to.
While I was occupied with my tonics and salves, he would chat idly with the friends and relatives of the afflicted, taking care to describe the path of our journey toward Beauly. If by chance there were no patients to be seen in a place, we would pause nonetheless for the night, seeking shelter at a cottage or tavern. In these places, Murtagh would sing to entertain our hosts and earn our supper, stubbornly insisting that I preserve all the money I had with me, in case it should be needed when we found Jamie.
Not naturally inclined toward conversation, he taught me some of his songs, to pass the time as we plodded on from place to place.
“Ye’ve a decent voice,” he observed, one day, after a moderately successful attempt at “The Dowie Dens of Yarrow.” “Not well-trained, but strong and true enough. Try it once more and ye’ll sing it wi’ me tonight. There’s a wee tavern at Limraigh.”
“Do you really think this will work?” I asked. “What we’re doing, I mean?”
He shifted about in the saddle before answering. No natural horseman, he always looked like a monkey trained to ride a horse, but still managed to dismount fresh as a daisy at day’s end, while I could barely manage to hobble my horse before staggering off to collapse.
“Oh, aye,” he said, at last. “Sooner or later. You’re seein’ more sick folk these days, no?”
This was true, and I admitted as much.
“Well, then,” he said, proving his point, “that means word o’ your skill is spreading. And that’s what we want. But we could maybe do better. That’s why you’ll sing tonight. And perhaps…” He hesitated, as though reluctant to suggest something.
“Know anything about fortune-telling, do ye?” he asked warily. I understood the reason for his hesitancy; he had seen the frenzy of the witch-hunt at Cranesmuir.
I smiled. “A bit. You want me to try it?”
“Aye. The more we can offer, the more folk will come to see us—and go back to tell others. And word will spread about us, ’til the lad hears of us. And that’s when we’ll find him. Game to try, are ye?”
I shrugged. “If it will help, why not?”
I made my debut as singer and fortune-teller that night at Limraigh, with considerable success. I found that Mrs. Graham had been right in what she had told me—it was the faces, not the hands, that gave you the necessary clues.
Our fame spread, little by little, until by the next week, people were running out of their cottages to greet us as we rode into a village, and showering us with pennies and small gifts as we rode away.
“You know, we could really make something of this,” I remarked one evening, stowing the night’s takings away. “Too bad there’s no theater anywhere near—we could do a proper music-hall turn: Magical Murtagh and His Glamorous Assistant, Gladys.”
Murtagh treated this remark with his usual taciturn indifference, but it was true; we really did quite well together. Perhaps it was because we were united in our quest, despite our very basic personality differences.
The weather grew increasingly bad, and our pace even slower, but there was as yet no word from Jamie. Outside Belladrum one night, in a driving rain, we met with a band of real Gypsies.
I blinked disbelievingly at the tiny cluster of painted caravans in the clearing near the road. It looked exactly like a camp of the Gypsy bands that came to Hampstead Down every year.
The people looked the same, too; swarthy, cheerful, loud, and welcoming. Hearing the jingle of our harness, a woman’s head poked out of the window of one caravan. She looked us over for a moment, then gave a shout, and the ground under the trees was suddenly alive with grinning brown faces.
“Gie me your purse for safekeeping,” said Murtagh, unsmiling, watching the young man swaggering toward us with a g*y disregard of the rain soaking his colorful shirt. “And dinna turn your back on anyone.”
I was cautious, but we were welcomed with expansive motions, and invited to share the Gypsies’ dinner. It smelt delicious—some sort of stew—and I eagerly accepted the invitation, ignoring Murtagh’s dour speculations as to the basic nature of the beast that had provided the stewmeat.
They spoke little English, and less Gaelic; we conversed largely in gestures, and a sort of bastard tongue that owed its parentage largely to French. It was warm and companionable in the caravan where we ate; men and women and children all ate casually from bowls, sitting wherever they could find space, dipping the succulent stew up with chunks of bread. It was the best food I had had in weeks, and I ate until my sides creaked. I could barely muster breath to sing, but did my best, humming along in the difficult spots, and leaving Murtagh to carry the tunes.
Our performance was greeted with rapturous applause, and the Gypsies reciprocated, a young man singing some sort of wailing lament to the accompaniment of an ancient fiddle. His performance was punctuated by the crashing of a tambourine, wielded with some gravity by a little girl of about eight.
While Murtagh had been circumspect in his inquiries in the villages and crofts we visited, with the Gypsies he was entirely open. To my surprise, he told them bluntly who we sought; a big man, with hair like fire, and eyes like the summer skies. The Gypsies exchanged glances up and down the aisle of the caravan, but there was a unanimous shaking of regretful heads. No, they had not seen him. But…and here the leader, the purple-shirted young man who had welcomed us, pantomimed the sending of a messenger, should they happen across the man we sought.
I bowed, smiling, and Murtagh in turn pantomimed the handing across of money for information received. This bit of business was greeted with smiles, but also with gazes of speculation. I was glad when Murtagh declared that we could not stay the night, but must be on our way, thank ye just the same. He shook out a few coins from his sporran, taking care to exhibit the fact that it held only a small handful of coppers. Distributing these by way of thanks for the supper, we made our exit, followed by voluble protestations of farewell, gratitude, and good wishes—at least that’s what I assumed they were.
They might actually have been promising to follow us and cut our throats, and Murtagh behaved rather as though this had been the case, leading the horses at a gallop to the crossroads two miles distant, then ducking aside into the vegetation for a substantial detour before reemerging onto the road again.
Murtagh glanced up and down the road, empty in the fading, rain-soaked dusk.
“Do you really think they followed us?” I asked curiously.
“I dinna ken, but since there’s twelve o’ them, and no but the twa o’ us, I thought we’d best act as though they did.” This seemed sound reasoning, and I followed him without question through several more evasive maneuvers, arriving at last in Rossmoor, where we found shelter in a barn.