Page 71

Snow fell the next day. Only a light fall, enough to dust the ground with a white like the flour on the millhouse floor, but it worried me. I didn’t like to think of Jamie, alone and unsheltered in the heather, braving winter’s storms in nothing but the shirt and plaid he had been wearing at his capture by the Watch.

Two days later, the messenger came.

The sun was still above the horizon, but it was evening already in the rockwalled glens. The shadows lay so deep under the leafless trees that the path—what there was of one—was nearly invisible. Fearful of losing the messenger in the gathering dark, I walked so closely behind him that once or twice I actually trod on the trailing hem of his cloak. At last, with an impatient grunt, he turned and thrust me ahead of him, steering me through the dusk with a heavy hand on my shoulder.

It felt as though we had been walking for a long time. I had long since lost track of our turnings amid the towering boulders and thick dead undergrowth. I could only hope that Murtagh was somewhere behind, keeping within earshot if not within sight. The man who had come to the tavern to fetch me, a middle-aged Gypsy with no English, had flatly refused to have anyone but me accompany him, pointing emphatically first at Murtagh and then the ground, to indicate that he must stay put.

The night chill came on fast at this time of year, and my heavy cloak was barely enough protection against the sudden gusts of icy wind that met us in the open spaces of the clearings. I was torn between dismay at the thought of Jamie lying through the cold, wet nights of autumn without shelter, and excitement at the thought of seeing him again. A shiver ran up my spine that had nothing to do with the cold.

At last my guide pulled me to a halt, and with a precautionary squeeze of my shoulder, stepped off the path and disappeared. I stood, as patiently as could be managed, hands folded under my arms for warmth. I was sure my guide—or someone—would return; I hadn’t paid him, for one thing. Still, the wind rattled through the dead brambles like the passing of a deer’s ghost, still in panic-stricken flight from the hunter. And the damp was seeping through the seams of my boots; the otter-fat waterproofing had worn away, and I’d had no chance to reapply it.

My guide reappeared as suddenly as he had left, making me bite my tongue as I stifled a squeak of surprise. With a jerk of his head, he bade me follow him, and pressed aside a screen of dead alders for me to pass.

The cave entrance was narrow. There was a lantern burning on a ledge, silhouetting the tall figure that turned toward the entrance to meet me.

I flung myself forward, realizing even before I touched him that it was not Jamie. Disappointment struck me like a blow in the stomach, and I had to step back and swallow several times to choke back the heavy bile that rose in my throat.

I clenched my hands at my sides, digging my fists into my thighs until I felt calm enough to speak.

“Rather out of your territory, aren’t you?” I said, in a voice that surprised me by its coolness.

Dougal MacKenzie had watched my struggle for control, not without some sympathy on his dark face. Now he took my elbow and led me farther into the cave. There were a number of bundles piled against the far side, many more than a single horse could carry. He wasn’t alone, then. And whatever he and his men carried, it was something he preferred not to expose to the curious gaze of innkeepers and hostlers.

“Smuggling, I suppose?” I said, with a nod toward the bundle. Then I thought better and answered my own question. “No, not exactly smuggling—goods for Prince Charles, hm?”

He didn’t bother to answer me, but sat down on a boulder opposite me, hands on his knees.

“I’ve news,” he said abruptly.

I took a deep breath, bracing myself. News, and not good news, from the expression on his face. I took another breath, swallowed hard, and nodded.

“Tell me.”

“He’s alive,” he said, and the largest of the ice lumps in my stomach dissolved. Dougal cocked his head to one side, watching intently. To see whether I were going to faint? I wondered dimly. It didn’t matter; I wasn’t.

“He was taken near Kiltorlity, two weeks ago,” Dougal said, still watching me. “Not his fault; poor luck. He met six dragoons face-to-face round a turn in the path, and one recognized him.”

“Was he hurt?” My voice was still calm, but my hands were beginning to shake. I pressed them flat against my legs to still them.

Dougal shook his head. “Not as I heard.” He paused a moment. “He’s in Wentworth Prison,” he said reluctantly.

“Wentworth,” I repeated mechanically. Wentworth Prison. Originally one of the mighty Border fortresses, it had been built sometime in the late sixteenth century, and added to at intervals over the next hundred and fifty years. The sprawling pile of rock now covered nearly two acres of ground, sealed behind three-foot walls of weathered granite. But even granite walls have gates, I thought. I looked up to ask a question, and saw the reluctance still stamped on Dougal’s features.

“What else?” I demanded. The hazel eyes met mine, unflinching.

“He stood his trial three days ago,” Dougal said. “And was condemned to hang.”

The ice lump was back, with company. I closed my eyes.

“How long?” I asked. My voice seemed rather far-off to my own ears and I opened my eyes again, blinking to refocus them in the flickering lantern light. Dougal was shaking his head.

“I dinna ken. Not long, though.”

My breath was coming a little easier now, and I was able to unclench my fists.

“We’d better hurry, then,” I said, still calmly. “How many men are with you?”

Instead of answering, Dougal rose and came over to me. Reaching down, he took my hands and pulled me to my feet. The look of sympathy was back, and a deep grief lurking in his eyes frightened me more than anything he’d said so far. He shook his head slowly.

“Nay, lass,” he said gently. “There’s nothing we can do.”

Panicked, I tore my hands away from him.

“There is!” I said. “There must be! You said he was still alive!”

“And I said ‘Not long’!” he retorted sharply. “The lad’s in Wentworth Prison, not the thieves’ hole at Cranesmuir! They may hang him today, or tomorrow, or not ’til next week, for all I know o’ the matter, but there is no way on earth that ten men can force a way into Wentworth Prison!”

“Oh, no?” I was trembling again, but with rage this time. “You don’t know that—you don’t know what might be done! You’re just not willing to risk your skin, or your miserable…profit!” I flung an arm accusingly at the piled bundles.

Dougal grappled with me, seizing my flailing arms. I hammered his chest in a frenzy of grief and rage. He ignored the blows and put his arms around me, pulling me tight against him and holding me until I ceased struggling.

“Claire.” It was the first time he had ever used my first name, and it frightened me still further.

“Claire,” he said again, loosening his grip so that I could look up at him, “do ye not think I’d do all I could to free the lad, did I think there was the slightest chance? Damn it, he’s my own foster-son! But there is no chance—none!” He shook me slightly, to emphasize his words.

“Jamie wouldna have me throw away good men’s lives in a vain venture. Ye know that as well as I do.”

I could keep back the tears no longer. They burned down my icy cheeks as I pushed against him, seeking to free myself. He held me tighter, though, trying to force my head against his shoulder.

“Claire, my dear,” he said, voice gentler. “My heart’s sore for the lad—and for you. D’ye come away wi’ me. I’ll take ye safe. To my own house,” he added hastily, feeling me stiffen. “Not to Leoch.”

“To your house?” I said slowly. A horrible suspicion was beginning to form in my mind.

“Aye,” he said. “Ye dinna think I’d take ye back to Cranesmuir, surely?” He smiled briefly before the stern features relaxed back into seriousness. “Nay. I’ll take ye to Beannachd. You’ll be safe there.”

“Safe?” I said, “or helpless?” His arms dropped away at the tone of my voice.

“What d’ye mean?” The pleasant voice was suddenly cold.

I felt rather cold myself, and pulled my cloak together as I moved away from him.

“You kept Jamie away from his home by telling him his sister had borne a child to Randall,” I said, “so that you and that precious brother of yours would have a chance to lure him into your camp. But now the English have him, you’ve lost any chance of controlling the property through Jamie.” I backed up another step, swallowing.

“You were party to your sister’s marriage contract. It was by your insistence—yours and Colum’s—that Broch Tuarach might be held by a woman. You think that if Jamie dies, Broch Tuarach will belong to me—or to you, if you can seduce or force me into marrying you.”

“What?!” His voice was incredulous. “Ye think…ye think this is all some plot? Saint Agnes! Do ye think I’m lying to ye?”

I shook my head, keeping my distance. I didn’t trust him an inch.

“No, I believe you. If Jamie weren’t in prison, you’d never dare to tell me he was. It’s too easy to check that. Nor do I think you betrayed him to the English—not even you could do something like that to your own blood. Besides, if you had, and word of it ever reached your men, they’d turn on you in a second. They’d tolerate a lot in you, but not treachery against your own kinsman.” As I spoke I was reminded of something.

“Was it you who attacked Jamie near the Border last year?”

The heavy brows rose with surprise.

“Me? No! I found the lad near death, and saved him! Does that sound as though I meant him harm?”

Under cover of my cloak, I ran my hand down my thigh, feeling for the comforting bulk of my dagger.

“If it wasn’t you, who was it?”

“I dinna ken.” The handsome face was wary, but not hiding anything. “ ’Twas one of three men—broken men, outlaws—that hunted wi’ Jamie then. All of them accused each other, and there was no way of findin’ out the truth o’ the matter, not then.” He shrugged, the traveling cloak falling back from one broad shoulder.

“It doesna matter much now; twa of the men are dead, and the third in prison. Over another matter, but it makes little difference, do ye think?”

“No, I don’t suppose so.” It was in a way a relief to find that he wasn’t a murderer, whatever else he might be. He had no reason to lie to me now; so far as he knew, I was completely helpless. Alone, he could compel me to do whatever he wished. Or at least he likely thought so. I took a grip on the handle of my dirk.

The light was poor in the cave, but I was watching carefully, and I could see indecision flicker momentarily across his face as he chose his next move. He stepped toward me, hand out, but stopped when he saw me flinch away.

“Claire. My sweet Claire.” The voice was soft now, and he ran an insinuating hand lightly down my arm. So he had decided to try seduction rather than compulsion.

“I know why ye talk so cold to me, and why ye think ill of me. You know that I burn for ye, Claire. And it’s true—I’ve wanted ye since the night of the Gathering, when I kissed your sweet lips.” He had two fingers resting lightly on my shoulder, inching toward my neck. “If I’d been a free man when Randall threatened ye, I’d ha’ wed ye myself on the spot, and sent the man to the devil for ye.” He was moving his body gradually closer, crowding me against the stone wall of the cavern. His fingertips moved to my throat, tracing the line of my cloak-fastening.

He must have seen my face then, for he stopped his advance, though he left his hand where it was, resting lightly above the rapid pulse that beat in my throat.

“Even so,” he said, “even feeling as I do—for I’ll hide it from ye no longer—even so, ye couldna imagine I’d abandon Jamie if there were any hope of saving him? Jamie Fraser is the closest thing I’ve got to a son!”

“Not quite,” I said. “There’s your real son. Or perhaps two, by now?” The fingers on my throat increased their pressure, just for a second, then dropped away.

“What d’ye mean?” And this time all pretense, all games, were dispensed with. The hazel eyes were intent and the full lips a grim line in the russet beard. He was very large, and very close to me. But I had gone too far already for caution.

“It means I know who Hamish’s father really is,” I said. He had been half-expecting it, and had his face well under control, but the last month spent telling fortunes had not been in vain. I saw the tiny flicker of shock that widened his eyes and the sudden panic, swiftly quelled, that tightened the corners of his mouth.

Bull’s-eye. In spite of the danger, I knew a moment’s fierce exultation. I had been right, then, and the knowledge might just possibly be the weapon I needed.

“Do ye, then?” he said softly.

“Yes,” I said, “and I imagine Colum knows as well.”

That stopped him for a moment. The hazel eyes narrowed, and I wondered for an instant whether he was armed.

“He thought it was Jamie for a time, I think,” I said, staring directly into his eyes. “Because of the rumors. You must have started those, feeding them to Geillis Duncan. Why? Because Colum got suspicious of Jamie and started to question Letitia? She couldn’t hold out for long against him. Or was it that Geilie thought you were Letitia’s lover, and you told her it was Jamie to quiet her suspicions? She’s a jealous woman, but she can’t have any reason to protect you now.”

Dougal smiled cruelly. The ice never left his eyes.

“No, she can’t,” he agreed, still speaking softly. “The witch is dead.”

“Dead!” The shock must have shown as plainly on my face as in my voice. His smile broadened.

“Oh, aye,” he said. “Burnt. Stuck feet first in a barrel of pitch and heaped about with dry peats. Bound to a stake and lit like a torch. Sent to the devil in a pillar of flame, under the branches of a rowan tree.”

I thought at first this merciless recitation of detail was meant to impress me, but I was wrong. I shifted to one side, and as the light shone fresh on his face, I could see the lines of grief etched around his eyes. It wasn’t a catalog of horror, then, but a lashing of himself. I felt no pity for him, under the circumstances.

“So you were fond of her,” I said coldly. “Much good it did her. Or the child. What did you do with that?”

He shrugged. “Saw it placed in a good home. A son, and a healthy babe, for all its mother was a witch and an adulteress.”

“And its father an adulterer and a betrayer,” I snapped. “Your wife, your mistress, your nephew, your brother—is there anyone you haven’t betrayed and deceived? You…you…” I choked on the words, quite sick with loathing. “I don’t know why I’m surprised,” I said, trying to speak calmly. “If you’ve no loyalty to your king, I suppose there’s no reason to think you’d feel it for your nephew or your brother, either.”

His head snapped round and he glared at me. He raised his thick dark brows, the same shape as Colum’s, as Jamie’s, as Hamish’s. The deepset eyes, the broad cheekbones, the beautifully shaped skull. Old Jacob MacKenzie’s legacy was a strong one.

A big hand clamped hard on my shoulder.

“My brother? You think I’d betray my brother?” For some reason, that had stung him; his face was dark with anger.

“You’ve just admitted that you did!” And then I realized.

“The both of you,” I said slowly. “You did it together, you and Colum. Together, as you’ve always done things.” I pulled his hand off my shoulder and flung it back at him.

“Colum couldn’t be chieftain, unless you would go to war for him. He couldn’t hold the clan together, without you to travel for him, to collect the rents and settle the claims. He couldn’t ride, he couldn’t travel. And he couldn’t father a son, to pass the chieftainship on to. And you had no son by Maura. You swore to be his arms and legs”—I was beginning to feel a little hysterical by this time—“why shouldn’t you be his cock, as well?”

Dougal had lost his anger; he stood watching me speculatively for a moment. Deciding that I was going nowhere, he sat down on one of the bales of goods and waited for me to finish.

“So you did it with Colum’s knowledge. Was Letitia willing?” Knowing by now just what sort of ruthlessness they possessed, I wouldn’t put it past the brothers MacKenzie to have forced her.

Dougal nodded. His anger had evaporated.

“Oh, aye, willing enough. She didna fancy me particularly, but she wanted a child—enough to take me to her bed for the three months it took to start Hamish. A boring damn job it was too,” Dougal added reflectively, scraping a bit of mud from his boot heel. “I’d as soon swive a warm bowl of milk pudding.”

“And did you tell Colum that?” I asked. Hearing the edge in my voice, he looked up. He regarded me levelly for a moment, then a faint smile lightened his face.

“No,” he said quietly. “No, I didna tell him that.” He looked down at his hands, turning them over as though looking for some secret hidden in the lines of his palms.

“I told him,” he said softly, not looking at me, “that she was tender and sweet as a ripe peach, and all that a man could want in a woman.”

He closed his hands abruptly and looked up at me, that momentary glimpse of Colum’s brother submerged once more in the sardonic eyes of Dougal MacKenzie.

“Tender and sweet is not precisely what I’d say of you,” he observed. “But all that a man could want…” The deepset hazel eyes traveled slowly downward over my body, lingering on the roundness of breast and hip that showed through my open cloak. One hand moved unconsciously back and forth, stroking lightly across the muscles of his thigh as he watched me.

“Who knows?” he said, as though to himself. “I might have yet another son—legitimate, this time. True”—he tilted his head appraisingly, looking at my midsection—“it hasna happened yet wi’ Jamie. You may be barren. But I’ll take the chance. The property is worth it, at any rate.”

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.