Written in my own hearts.., p.74
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       Written in My Own Heart's Blood, p.74

         Part #8 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
 

  WHILE IT WAS undeniably true that standing stones didn’t bite, Roger thought, that didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. It had taken them only a day and a half to find the stone circle. He’d made a quick sketch of standing stones on the back of his hand with a bit of charcoal, to assist communication, and it had worked surprisingly well. While the scattered people they’d found had regarded them with immense curiosity—and not a few private glances accompanied by whirling motions of the forefinger beside the head—no one had found the visitors more than odd, and everyone had known where the stones were.

  They’d come across a tiny village, in fact—consisting of a church, a public house, a smithy, and several houses—where the last household they’d approached had even sent one of their younger sons along to guide Buck and Roger to their goal.

  And there they were now: a scatter of stumpy, lichened, wind-scored pillars beside a shallow lake filled with reeds. Ageless, harmless, part of the landscape—and the sight of them filled Roger with a fear that shivered as coldly over his skin as though he stood there naked to the wind.

  “Can ye hear them?” Buck muttered under his breath, his own eyes fixed on the stones.

  “No,” Roger muttered back. “Can you?”

  “I hope not.” But Buck shuddered suddenly, as though something had walked across his grave.

  “Be those thy be-asts?” the boy asked, grinning at Roger. He pointed at the stones, explaining—Roger thought—the local legend that the stones were in fact faery cattle, frozen in place when their drover had too much drink betaken and fell into the lake.

  “Sooth,” the boy assured them solemnly, making a cross over his heart. “Mester Hacffurthe found es whip!”

  “When?” Buck asked sharply. “And where liveth Mester Hacffurthe?”

  A week ago, maybe twa, said the boy, waving a hand to indicate that the date was not important. And he would take them to Mester Hacffurthe, if they liked to see the thing.

  Despite his name, Mester Hacffurthe proved to be a slight, light-haired young man, the village cobbler. He spoke the same impenetrable Northumbrian dialect, but with some effort and the helpful intervention of the boy—whose name, he said, was Ridley—their desire was made clear, and Hacffurthe obligingly fetched the faery whip out from under his counter, laying it gingerly before them.

  “Oh, Lord,” Roger said at sight of it—and, with a raised brow at Hacffurthe to ask permission, touched the strip carefully. A machine-woven, tight-warped strip some three inches wide and two feet long, its taut surface gleaming even in the dim light of the cobbler’s shop. Part of the harness of an RAF flier. They had the right stones, then.

  Careful questioning of Mr. Hacffurthe, though, elicited nothing else helpful. He had found the faery lash lying in the shallows of the lake, washing to and fro among the reeds, but had seen nothing else of note.

  Roger noticed, though, that Ridley twitched slightly when Mr. Hacffurthe said this. And after they had left the cobbler’s house, he paused at the edge of the village, hand in his pocket.

  “I thank ’ee, Master Ridley,” he said, and pulled out a broad tuppenny piece that made the boy’s face light up. Roger put it into Ridley’s hand, but, when the boy would have turned to go, laid his own hand on the lad’s arm.

  “One thing more, Master Ridley,” he said, and, with a glance at Buck, drew out the identity disks.

  Ridley jerked in Roger’s grasp, his round face going pale. Buck made a small sound of satisfaction and took Ridley by his other arm.

  “Tell us about the man,” Buck suggested pleasantly. “And I might not break thy neck.”

  Roger shot Buck a glance of annoyance, but the threat was effective. Ridley gulped as though he’d swallowed a mushroom whole, but then began to talk. Between Ridley’s dialect and his distress, the tale took some time to piece together, but at last Roger was fairly sure they had the gist of it.

  “Let him go,” he said, letting go of Ridley himself. He groped in his pocket and came out with another copper penny, which he offered to the boy. Ridley’s face flexed between fear and outrage, but after a moment’s hesitation, he snatched the penny and made off, glancing over his shoulder as he ran.

  “He’ll tell his family,” Buck observed. “We’d best hurry.”

  “We had. But not on that account—it’s getting dark.” The sun was very low, a brilliant band of yellow light showing at the foot of a cold ochre sky. “Come on. We need to take the direction while we can.”

  So far as Roger had been able to follow Ridley’s story, the strangely dressed man (some said he was a faerie, some thought him a northerner, though there was confusion as to whether this meant a Scot, a Norseman, or something else) had had the ill luck to show up at a farm two or three miles from the stones, where he had been set upon by the inhabitants, these being an antisocial clan called Wad.

  The Wads had taken everything of apparent value off the man, beaten him, and tossed him into a ravine—one of the Wads had boasted of it to a drover passing through, who had mentioned the stranger in the village.

  The village had of course been interested—but not sufficiently so as to go looking for the man. When Hacffurthe the cobbler had found the peculiar strip of cloth, though, rumors had started to fly thick and fast. Excitement had reached a higher pitch this very afternoon, when one of Mester Quarton’s cowmen had come into the village to have a boil lanced by Granny Racket and revealed that a stranger with incomprehensible speech had tried to steal a pie from Missus Quarton’s sill and was even now held captive whilst Mester Quarton thought what best to do with him.

  “What might he do?” Roger had asked. Ridley had pushed out his lips portentously and shaken his head.

  “Might kill ’un,” he said. “Might take ’un’s hand off. Mester Quarton don’t hold with thievin’.”

  And that—aside from a vague direction regarding the location of the Quarton farm—was that.

  “This side of the wall, two miles west and a little south, below a ridge and along the stream,” Roger said grimly, lengthening his stride. “If we can find the stream before full dark …”

  “Aye.” Buck fell in beside him as they turned toward where they’d left the horses. “Suppose Quarton keeps a dog?”

  “Everybody here keeps a dog.”

  “Oh, God.”

  JUST ONE CHANCE

  THERE WAS NO MOON. Undeniably a good thing, but it had its drawbacks. The farmhouse and its outbuildings lay in a pocket of darkness so profound that they mightn’t have known it was there, had they not seen it before the light was quite gone. They’d waited, though, for full dark and the dousing of the dim candlelight inside the house, and then an extra half hour or so to ensure that the inhabitants—and their dogs—were well asleep.

  Roger was carrying the dark lantern, but with the slide still closed; Buck ran into something lying on the ground, let out a startled cry, and fell headlong over it. The something proved to be a large sleeping goose, which let out a startled whonk! somewhat louder than Buck’s cry, and promptly set about him with beak and thrashing wings. There was a sharp, inquiring bark in the distance.

  “Hush!” Roger hissed, coming to his ancestor’s aid. “Ye’ll wake the dead, let alone them in the house.” He dropped his cloak over the goose, which shut up and began waddling around in confusion, a mobile heap of dark cloth. Roger clapped a hand to his mouth, but couldn’t help snorting through his nose.

  “Aye, right,” Buck whispered, getting to his feet. “If ye think I’m getting your cloak back for ye, think again.”

  “He’ll get out of it soon enough,” Roger whispered back. “He’s no need of it. Meanwhile, where the devil d’ye think they’ve got him?”

  “Someplace that’s got a door ye can bolt.” Buck rubbed his palms together, brushing off the dirt. “They’d no keep him in the house, though, would they? It’s no that big.”

  It wasn’t. You could have fitted about sixteen farmhouses that size into Lallybroch, Roger thought, and felt a su
dden sharp pang, thinking of Lallybroch as it was when he had—he would—own it.

  Buck was right, though: there couldn’t be more than two rooms and a loft, maybe, for the kids. And given that the neighbors thought Jerry—if it was Jerry—was a foreigner at best, a thief and/or supernatural being at worst, it wasn’t likely that the Quartons would be keeping him in the house.

  “Did ye see a barn, before the light went?” Buck whispered, changing to Gaelic. He had risen onto his toes, as though that might help him see above the tide of darkness, and was peering into the murk. Dark-adapted as Roger’s eyes now were, he could at least make out the squat shapes of the small farm buildings. Corncrib, goat shed, chicken coop, the tousled shape of a hayrick …

  “No,” Roger replied in the same tongue. The goose had extricated itself and gone off making disgruntled small honks; Roger bent and retrieved his cloak. “Small place; they likely haven’t more than an ox or a mule for the plowing, if that. I smell stock, though … manure, ken?”

  “Kine,” Buck said, heading abruptly off toward a square-built stone structure. “The cow byre. That’ll have a bar to the door.”

  It did. And the bar was in its brackets.

  “I don’t hear any kine inside,” Buck whispered, drawing close. “And the smell’s old.”

  It was near-on winter. Maybe they’d had to slaughter the cow—or cows; maybe they’d driven them to market. But, cow or no, there was something inside; he heard a shuffling noise and what might have been a muffled curse.

  “Aye, well, there’s something inside.” Roger raised the dark lantern, groping for the slide. “Get the bar, will you?”

  But before Buck could reach for the bar, a shout of “Hoy!” came from inside, and something fell heavily against the door. “Help! Help me! Help!”

  The voice spoke English, and Buck changed back at once. “Will ye for God’s sake hush your noise?” he said to the man inside, annoyed. “Ye want to have them all down on us? Here, then, bring the light closer,” he said to Roger, and drew the bar with a small grunt of effort.

  The door swung open as Buck set down the bar, and light shot out of the lantern’s open slide. A slightly built young man with flyaway fair hair—the same color as Buck’s, Roger thought—blinked at them, dazzled by the light, then closed his eyes against it.

  Roger and Buck glanced at each other for an instant, then, with one accord, stepped into the byre.

  He is, Roger thought. It’s him. I know it’s him. God, he’s so young! Barely more than a boy. Oddly, he felt no burst of dizzying excitement. It was a feeling of calm certainty, as though the world had suddenly righted itself and everything had fallen into place. He reached out and touched the man gently on the shoulder.

  “What’s your name, mate?” he said softly, in English.

  “MacKenzie, J. W.,” the young man said, shoulders straightening as he drew himself up, sharp chin jutting. “Lieutenant, Royal Air Force. Service Number—” He broke off, staring at Roger, who belatedly realized that, calmness or no, he was grinning from ear to ear. “What’s funny?” Jerry MacKenzie demanded, belligerent.

  “Nothing,” Roger assured him. “Er … glad—glad to see you, that’s all.” His throat was tight, and he had to cough. “Have ye been here long?”

  “No, just a few hours. Ye wouldn’t have any food on ye, I don’t suppose?” He looked hopefully from one man to the other.

  “We do,” Buck said, “but this isna the time to stop for a bite, aye?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Let’s be off.”

  “Aye. Aye, we should.” But Roger spoke automatically, unable to stop looking at J. W. MacKenzie, RAF, aged twenty-two.

  “Who are you?” Jerry asked, staring back. “Where d’ye come from? God knows ye’re not from here!”

  Roger exchanged a quick look with Buck. They hadn’t planned what to say; Roger hadn’t been willing to jinx the enterprise by thinking that they’d really find Jerry MacKenzie, and as for Buck—

  “Inverness,” Buck said abruptly. He sounded gruff.

  Jerry’s eyes flicked back and forth between them, and he caught Roger’s sleeve.

  “Ye know what I mean!” he said, and gulped air, bracing himself. “When?”

  Roger touched Jerry’s hand, cold and dirty, the fingers long like his own. The question caught at his throat and thickened his voice too much to speak.

  “A lang way from you,” Buck said quietly, and for the first time, Roger caught a note of desolation in his voice. “From now. Lost.”

  That struck him to the heart. He’d truly forgotten their situation for a little, driven by the urgency of finding this man. But Buck’s answer made Jerry’s face, already drawn with hunger and strain, go white under the dirt.

  “Jesus,” Jerry whispered. “Where are we now? And—and when?”

  Buck stiffened. Not at Jerry’s question, but at a noise from outside. Roger didn’t know what had made it, but it wasn’t the wind. Buck made a low, urgent noise in his throat, shifting.

  “I think it’s part of Northumbria now,” Roger said. “Look, there’s no time. We have to go, before someone hears—”

  “Aye, right. Let’s go, then.” Jerry had a filthy silk scarf round his neck; he tugged the ends straight and shoved them into his shirt.

  The air outside was wonderful after the smells of the cow byre, fresh with new-turned earth and dying heather. They made their way as quickly as they could through the yard, skirting the farmhouse. Jerry was lame, he saw, limping badly, and Roger took his arm to help. A shrill yap came from the darkness, some distance away—then another bark, in a deeper tone.

  Roger hastily licked a finger and held it up to gauge the direction of the breeze. A dog barked again, and another echoed it.

  “This way,” he whispered to his companions, tugging Jerry’s arm. He led them away from the house as fast as possible, trying to keep his bearings, and they found themselves stumbling through a plowed field, dirt clods crumbling under their boots.

  Buck stumbled and swore under his breath. They lurched from furrow to ridge, half-legged and clumsy, Roger clinging to Jerry’s arm to keep him upright; one of Jerry’s legs seemed gammy and wouldn’t take his weight. He’s been wounded. I saw the medal.…

  Then the dogs began to bark, voices suddenly clear—and much closer.

  “Jesus.” Roger stopped for an instant, breathing hard. Where the bloody hell was the wood they’d hidden in? He’d swear they’d been heading for it, but—the beam from the lantern swung crazily, showing meaningless patches of field. He shut the slide; they’d be better off without it.

  “This way!” Buck lurched away and Roger and Jerry followed perforce, hearts thumping. Christ, it sounded like a half-dozen dogs at least had been let loose, all barking. And was that a voice, calling to the dogs? Yes, it bloody was. He couldn’t understand a word, but the meaning was as clear as ice water.

  They ran, stumbling and panting. Roger couldn’t tell where they were; he was following Buck. He dropped the lantern at one point; it fell over with a clank and he heard the oil inside gurgle out of its reservoir. With a soft whoosh, it flowered into brilliant flame.

  “Shit!” They ran. It didn’t matter where, what direction. Just away from the burning beacon and the irate voices—more than one now.

  Suddenly they were into a scrim of trees—the low, wind-crabbed grove they’d lurked in earlier. But the dogs were on their track, barking eagerly, and they didn’t linger but fought their way through the brush and out again, up a steep hill turfed with heather. Roger’s foot sank through the spongy growth into a puddle, soaking him to the ankle, and he nearly lost his balance. Jerry set his feet and yanked Roger upright, then lost his own balance when his knee gave way; they clung together, wobbling precariously for an instant, then Roger lurched forward again and they were out of it.

  He thought his lungs would burst, but they kept going—not running any longer; you couldn’t run up a hill like this—slogging, planting one foot after another, after anot
her … Roger began to see bursts of light at the edges of his vision; he tripped, staggered, and fell, and was hauled to his feet by Jerry.

  They were all three half sopping and smeared head to foot with mud and heather scratchings when they lurched at last to the crest of the hill and stopped for a moment, swaying and gasping for air.

  “Where … are we going?” Jerry wheezed, using the end of his scarf to wipe his face.

  Roger shook his head, still short of breath—but then caught the faint gleam of water.

  “We’re taking you … back. To the stones by the lake. Where … you came through. Come on!”

  They pelted down the far side of the hill, headlong, almost falling, now exhilarated by the speed and the thought of a goal.

  “How … did you find me?” Jerry gasped, when at last they hit bottom and stopped for breath.

  “Found your tags,” Buck said, almost brusque. “Followed their trail back.”

  Roger put a hand to his pocket, about to offer them back—but didn’t. It had struck him, like a stone to the middle of his chest, that, having found Jerry MacKenzie against substantial odds, he was about to part from him, likely forever. And that was only if things went well.…

  His father. Dad? He couldn’t think of this young man, white-faced and lame, nearly twenty years his junior, as his father—not the father he’d imagined all his life.

  “Come on.” Buck took Jerry’s arm now, nearly holding him up, and they began to forge their way across the dark fields, losing their way and finding it again, guided by the light of Orion overhead.

  Orion, Lepus. Canis major. He found a measure of comfort in the stars, blazing in the cold black sky. Those didn’t change; they’d shine forever—or as close as made no difference—on him and on this man, no matter where each one might end up.

  End up. The cold air burned in his lungs. Bree …

  And then he could see them: squatty pillars, no more than blotches on the night, visible only because they showed dark and immobile against the sheet of moving water stirred by the wind.

  “Right,” he said hoarsely, and, swallowing, wiped his face on his sleeve. “This is where we leave you.”

  “Ye do?” Jerry panted. “But—but you—”

  “When ye came … through. Did ye have anything on you? A gemstone, any jewelry?”

  “Aye,” Jerry said, bewildered. “I had a raw sapphire in my pocket. But it’s gone. It’s like it—”

  “Like it burnt up,” Buck finished for him, grim-voiced. “Aye. Well, so?” This last was clearly addressed to Roger, who hesitated. Bree … No more than an instant, though—he stuck a hand into the leather pouch at his waist, pulled out the tiny oilcloth package, fumbled it open, and pressed the garnet pendant into Jerry’s hand. It was faintly warm from his body, and Jerry’s cold hand closed over it in reflex.

  “Take this; it’s a good one. When ye go through,” Roger said, and leaned toward him, trying to impress him with the importance of his instructions, “think about your wife, about Marjorie. Think hard; see her in your mind’s eye, and walk straight through. Whatever the hell ye do, though, don’t think about your son. Just your wife.”

  “What?” Jerry was gobsmacked. “How the bloody hell do you know my wife’s name? And where’ve ye heard about my son?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Roger said, and turned his head to look back over his shoulder.

  “Damn,” said Buck softly. “They’re still coming. There’s a light.”

  There was: a single light, bobbing evenly over the ground, as it would if someone carried it. But look as he might, Roger could see no one behind it, and a violent shiver ran over him.

  “Thaibhse,” said Buck, under his breath. Roger knew that word well enough—spirit, it meant. And usually an ill-disposed one. A haunt.

  “Aye, maybe.” He was beginning to catch his breath. “And maybe not.” He turned again to Jerry. “Either way, ye need to go, man, and now. Remember, think of your wife.”

  Jerry swallowed, his hand closing tight around the stone.

  “Aye. Aye … right. Thanks, then,” he added awkwardly.

  Roger couldn’t speak, could give him nothing more than the breath of a smile. Then Buck was beside him, plucking urgently at his sleeve and gesturing at the bobbing light, and they set off, awkward and lumbering after the brief cooldown.

  Bree … He swallowed, fists clenched. He’d got a stone once, he could do it again.… But the greater part of his mind was still with the man they had just left by the lake. He looked over his shoulder and saw Jerry beginning to walk, limping badly but resolute, thin shoulders squared under his pale khaki shirt and the end of his scarf fluttering in the rising wind.

  Then it all rose up in him. Seized by an urgency greater than any he’d ever known, he turned and ran. Ran heedless of footing, of dark, of Buck’s startled cry behind him.

  Jerry heard his footsteps on the grass and whirled round, startled himself. Roger grabbed him by both hands, squeezed them hard enough to make Jerry gasp, and said fiercely, “I love you!”

  That was all there was time for—and all he could possibly say. He let go and turned away fast, his boots making a shoof-shoof noise in the dry lake grass. He glanced up the hill, but the light had vanished. Likely it had been someone from the farmhouse, satisfied now that the intruders were gone.

  Buck was waiting, shrouded in his cloak and holding Roger’s; he must have dropped it coming down the hill. Buck shook it out and folded it round Roger’s shoulders; Roger’s fingers shook, trying to fasten the brooch.

  “Why did ye tell him a daft thing like that?” Buck asked, doing it for him. Buck’s head was bent, not looking at him.

 
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