Written in my own hearts.., p.28
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       Written in My Own Heart's Blood, p.28

         Part #8 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
 

  “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 yank
ed 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 rapist 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.

  She’d called the Hydro Board and asked for a week’s leave in order to deal with a family emergency. News of what had happened at the Loch Errochty dam last night had spread, so there’d been no difficulty, save in deflecting the flood of sympathetic exclamations and curious questions—all of which she’d claimed not to be able to answer, owing to the ongoing police inquiry.

  The police … they might be of help. Jock had told them about the man at the dam; they’d be following that up. She’d had to tell them about Rob Cameron. And, with some reluctance, she’d told them about his coming into the house and threatening her, since Mandy would likely blow the gaff about that. She told them about his open disgruntlement over having a woman supervisor and his harassing her at work—though that seemed like a paltry motive for kidnapping a child. She hadn’t mentioned most of the physical stuff, the priest’s hole, or Cameron’s assisted escape, though. Just said she’d hit him—first with the letter box, and then with the cricket bat—and he’d run away. She’d gone with Mandy to find Jem, that being obviously more urgent than calling the police. The police didn’t agree with that assessment, but they were British and thus polite about their disapproval.

  She’d said Cameron had told her where Jem was. If the police found him, he wasn’t going to be in any position to contradict her. She did hope they picked him up. It might cause complications, but she’d feel safer if he wasn’t wandering around loose. With her rifle. Possibly lurking in her house.

  Her hand curled up in the deep pocket of her jacket, fingering the comforting shapes of a dozen shotgun shells.

  COGNOSCO TE

  THE HEALER ARRIVED in midafternoon. He was a short man but not slight; he looked like an amateur wrestler, with shoulders nearly as broad as Roger’s own. He didn’t introduce himself but nodded politely to Mrs. MacLaren, his eyes flicking round the room in a brief, all-encompassing glance, then focused on Buck, who had fallen into an uneasy sleep and did not wake even to the disturbance caused by the healer’s entrance.

  “He says his heart—” Roger began awkwardly. The man glanced sharply sideways at him, then flicked a hand in dismissal and, walking over, peered closely at Buck for a moment. All the MacLarens waited in breathless silence, clearly expecting something spectacular.

  The man nodded to himself, removed his coat, and turned back his shirtsleeves, displaying sun-browned forearms corded with muscle.

  “Well, then,” he said, sitting down by the bed and laying a hand on Buck’s chest. “Let me—” His face went quite blank and he stiffened, his hand jerking back as though he’d received an electric shock. He gave a quick, hard shake of the head and pulled Buck’s shirt open, plunging both hands into the opening and laying them flat on Buck’s laboring chest.

  “Jesu,” he whispered. “Cognosco te!”

  Quite suddenly the h
airs on Roger’s body lifted, prickling as though a thunderstorm was coming. The man had spoken in Latin, and what he had said was, “I know you!”

  THE MACLARENS ALL watched the healer work, with great respect and not a little awe. Roger, who had learned a good bit about the psychology of healing from Claire, was just as impressed. And, to be frank, scared shitless.

  The healer had stood motionless for a long moment, hands on Buck’s chest, his head thrown back and eyes closed, his face contorted in an expression of the deepest concentration, as though listening to something far, far off. He had murmured what Roger recognized as the Pater Noster—from the looks on the faces of the MacLarens, it might as well have been the Abracadabra. Then, keeping his hands in place, he had raised one thick forefinger and begun to tap, delicately, in a slow, regular rhythm, his finger rebounding each time as though he were striking a piano key.

  Thup … thup … thup. It went on for a long time, so long that everyone in the room began to draw breath again—even Buck, whose labored gasping began to ease, his lungs filling naturally again. Then it was two fingers, Thup-tup … thup-tup … thup-tup. Slow. Regular as a metronome. On and on and on and on … Soothing. Hypnotic. And Roger realized that the rhythm was that of a beating heart—his own heart. Looking round the room at the wide eyes and slightly open mouths of the adenoidal MacLaren clan, he had the most peculiar sense that all their hearts were beating to precisely the same rhythm.

  He knew they were breathing as one; he could hear the susurrus of indrawn breath and the sea-foam rush of exhalation. He knew it—and was helpless to change his own rhythm, to resist the sense of unity that had formed insensibly among all the people in the cabin, from Angus MacLaren down to little Josephine, round-eyed as the rest in her mother’s arms.

  All of them were breathing, hearts beating as one—and somehow they were supporting the stricken man, holding him as part of a larger entity, embracing him, bracing him. Buck’s injured heart lay in the palm of Roger’s hand: he realized it quite suddenly and, just as suddenly, realized that it had been there for some time, resting as naturally in the curve of his palm as rounded river rock, smooth and heavy. And … beating, in time with the heart in Roger’s chest. What was much stranger was that none of this felt in any way out of the ordinary.

  Odd—and impressive—as it was, Roger could have explained this. Mass suggestion, hypnosis, will and willingness. He’d done much the same thing himself any number of times, singing—when the music caught the audience up with him, when he knew they were with him, would follow him anywhere. He’d done it once or twice, preaching; felt the people warm to him and lift him up as he lifted them. It was impressive to see it done so quickly and thoroughly without any sort of warm-up, though—and much more disquieting to feel the effects in his own flesh. What was scaring him, though, was that the healer’s hands were blue.

  No doubt about it. It wasn’t a trick of the light—there wasn’t any to speak of, bar the dull glow of the smoored fire. It wasn’t a huge thing; no fiery coruscations or neon. But a soft blue tinge had come up between the healer’s fingers, crept over the backs of his hands—and now spread in a faint haze around his hands, seeming to penetrate Buck’s chest.

  Roger glanced to one side, then the other, without moving his head. The MacLarens were paying rapt attention but showed no sign of seeing anything startling. They don’t see it. The hairs on his forearms lifted silently. Why do I see it?

  Thup-tup … thup-tup … thup-tup … Tireless, regular—and yet Roger became aware of some subtle change. Not in the healer’s rhythm—that didn’t vary at all. But something had shifted. He glanced down involuntarily into his palm, where he still imagined that Buck’s heart lay, and was now scarcely surprised to see it there, a ghostly round object, transparent but pulsing gently, regularly. On its own.

  Thup-tup …… thup-tup …… thup-tup. The healer now was following, not leading. Not slowing the beats but pausing for a longer period between them, letting Buck’s heart beat alone between them.

  At last, the faint sound stopped, and there was silence in the room for the length of three heartbeats. And then the silence popped like a soap bubble, leaving the onlookers blinking and shaking their heads, as those awakened from dreaming. Roger closed his empty hand.

  “He’ll be all right,” the healer said to Mrs. MacLaren, in a matter-of-fact manner. “Let him sleep as long as he can, give him something to eat when he wakes up.”

  “Much obliged, sir,” Mrs. MacLaren murmured. She patted Josephine, who had fallen asleep with her mouth open, a glimmering trail of saliva falling from the corner of her mouth to her mother’s shoulder. “Will I make up a pallet for ye by the fire?”

  “Ah, no,” the healer said, smiling. He shrugged back into his coat, put on his cloak, and reached for his hat. “I’m staying no great distance away.”

  He went out, and Roger waited for a moment, just long enough for people to turn back to their own conversations, and then followed, shutting the door quietly behind him.

  THE HEALER WAS a little way down the road; Roger saw the man’s dark figure kneeling in prayer before a tiny shrine, the ends of his cloak fluttering in the wind. Roger came up to him slowly, hanging back so as not to disturb his devotions—and, on impulse, bowed his own head toward the small statue, so weathered as to be faceless. Take care of them, please, he prayed. Help me get back to them—to Bree. That was all he had time for, before the healer rose to his feet—but that was all he had to say, in any case.

  The healer hadn’t heard him; he rose and turned, surprised at seeing Roger but recognizing him at once. He smiled, a little wearily, clearly expecting some medical question of a private nature.

  Heart thumping, Roger reached out and grasped the healer’s hand. The man’s eyes widened with shock.

  “Cognosco te,” Roger said, very softly. I know you.

  “WHO ARE YE, then?” Dr. Hector McEwan stood squinting against the wind, his face wary but excited. “The two of ye—who are ye?”

  “I think ye maybe ken that better than I do,” Roger told him. “That—the light in your hands …”

  “You could see it.” It wasn’t a question, and the wary excitement in McEwan’s eyes blazed into life, visible even in the dimming light.

  “Aye, I could. Where did ye …” Roger groped for the best way to ask, but, after all, how many ways were there? “When did ye come from?”

  McEwan glanced involuntarily over his shoulder toward the croft, but the door
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