"This," said Brianna through her teeth, "is silly!"
"No, it isn't," said Roger. He felt suddenly breathless, as though a constricting band had squeezed the air from his chest. "There's a light over there."
It was barely there—no more than a flicker that promptly disappeared—but she saw it. He heard the sharp intake of her breath.
Now what? Roger wondered. Ought they to shout? Or would the noise of visitors frighten their quarry into precipitate action? And if so, what action might that be?
He saw Claire shake her head suddenly, as though trying to dismiss a buzzing insect. She took a step back, away from the nearest stone, and blundered into him.
He grabbed her by the arm, murmuring, "Steady, steady there," as one might to a horse. Her face was a dim blur in the starlight, but he could feel the quiver that ran through her, like electricity through a wire. He stood frozen, holding her arm, stiff with indecision.
It was the sudden stink of petrol that jerked him into motion. He was vaguely conscious of Brianna, head flung up as the smell met her nostrils, turning toward the north end of the circle, and then he had dropped Claire's arm, and was through the surrounding bushes and the stones themselves, striding toward the center of the ring, where a hunched black figure made an inkblot on the lighter darkness of the grass.
Claire's voice came from behind him, strong and urgent, shattering the silence.
"Gillian!" she called.
There was a soft, sudden whoosh, and the night lit up in brilliance. Dazzled, Roger fell back a pace, stumbling and dropping to his knees.
For a moment, there was nothing but the sharp pain of light on his retinas, and the blaze of brightness that hid everything behind it. He heard a cry beside him, and felt Brianna's hand on his shoulder. He blinked hard, eyes streaming, and sight began to return.
The slim figure stood between them and the fire, silhouetted like an hourglass. As his sight cleared, he realized that she was dressed in a long, full skirt and tight bodice—the clothes of another time. She had turned at the call, and he had a brief impression of wide eyes and fair, flying hair, lifted and tossed in the hot wind of the fire.
He found time, struggling to his feet, to wonder how she had dragged a log of that size up here. Then the smell of burned hair and crackled skin hit his face like a blow, and he remembered. Greg Edgars was not at home tonight. Not knowing whether blood or fire was the necessary element, she had chosen both.
He pushed past Brianna, focused only on the tall, slim girl before him, and the image of a face that mirrored his own. She saw him coming, turned and ran like the wind for the cleft stone at the end of the circle. She had a knapsack of rough canvas, slung over one shoulder; he heard her grunt as it swung heavily and struck her in the side.
She paused for an instant, hand outstretched to the rock, and looked back. He could have sworn that her eyes rested on him, met his own and held them, beyond the barrier of the fire's blaze. He opened his mouth in a wordless shout. She whirled then, light as a dancing spark, and vanished in the cleft of the rock.
The fire, the body, the night itself, disappeared abruptly in a shriek of blinding noise. Roger found himself facedown in the grass, clutching at the earth in frantic search of a familiar sensation to which to anchor his sanity. The search was vain; none of his senses seemed to function—even the touch of the ground was insubstantial, amorphous as though he lay on quicksand, not granite.
Blinded by whiteness, deafened by the scream of rending stone, he groped, flailing wildly, out of touch with his own extremities, conscious only of an immense pull and the need to resist it.
There was no sense of time passing; it felt as though he had been struggling in emptiness forever, when he at last became aware of something outside himself. Hands that gripped his arms with desperate strength, and the smothering softness of br**sts thrust against his face.
Hearing began gradually to return, and with it the sound of a voice calling his name. Calling him names, in fact, panting between phrases.
"You idiot! You…jerk! Wake up, Roger, you…ass!" Her voice was muffled, but the sense of it reached him clearly. With a superhuman effort, he reached up and got hold of her wrists. He rolled, feeling ponderous as the start of an avalanche, and found himself blinking stupidly at the tear-streaked face of Brianna Randall, eyes dark as caves in the dying light of the fire.
The smell of petrol and roasting flesh was overwhelming. He turned aside and gagged, retching heavily into the damp grass. He was too occupied even to be grateful that his sense of smell had returned.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and groped unsteadily for Brianna's arm. She was huddled into herself, shaking.
"Oh, God," she said. "Oh, God. I didn't think I could stop you. You were crawling straight to it. Oh, God."
She didn't resist as he pulled her to him, but neither did she respond to him. She merely went on shaking, the tears running from wide, empty eyes, repeating "Oh, God," at intervals, like a broken record.
"Hush," he said, patting her. "It will be all right. Hush." The spinning sensation in his head was easing, though he still felt as though he had been split into several pieces and scattered violently among the points of the compass.
There was a faint, crackling pop from the darkening object on the ground, but beyond that and Brianna's mechanical ejaculations, the stillness of the night was returning. He put his hands to his ears, as though to still the echoes of the killing noise.
"You heard it, too?" he asked. Brianna went on crying, but nodded her head, jerky as a puppet.
"Did your—" he began, still laboriously assembling his thoughts piecemeal, then snapped upright as one came to him full-formed.
"Your mother!" he exclaimed, gripping Brianna hard by both arms. "Claire! Where is she?"
Brianna's mouth dropped open in shock, and she scrambled to her feet, wildly scanning the confines of the empty circle, where the man-high stones loomed stark, half-seen in the shadows of the dying fire.
"Mother!" she screamed. "Mother, where are you?"
"It's all right," Roger said, trying to sound authoritatively reassuring. "She'll be all right now."
In truth, he had no idea whether Claire Randall would ever be all right. She was alive, at least, and that was all he could vouch for.
They had found her, senseless in the grass near the edge of the circle, white as the rising moon above, with nothing but the slow, dark seep of blood from her abraded palms to testify that her heart still beat. Of the hellish journey down the path to the car, her dead weight slung across his shoulder, bumping awkwardly as stones rolled under his feet and twigs snatched at his clothing, he preferred to remember nothing.
The trip down the cursed hill had exhausted him; it was Brianna, the bones of her face stark with concentration, who had driven them back to the manse, hands clamped to the wheel like vises. Slumped in the seat beside her, Roger had seen in the rearview mirror the last faint glow of the hilltop behind them, where a small, luminous cloud floated like a puff of cannon smoke, mute evidence of battle past.
Brianna hovered now over the sofa where her mother lay, motionless as a tomb figure on a sarcophagus. With a shudder, Roger had avoided the hearth where the banked fire lay sleeping, and had instead pulled up the small electric fire with which the Reverend had warmed his feet on winter nights. Its bars glowed orange and hot, and it made a loud, friendly whirring noise that covered the silence in the study.
Roger sat on a low stool beside the sofa, feeling limp and starchless. With the last remnants of resolve, he reached toward the telephone table, his hand hovering a few inches above the instrument.
"Should we—" He had to stop to clear his throat. "Should we…call a doctor? The police?"
"No." Brianna's voice was intent, almost absentminded, as she bent over the still figure on the couch. "She's coming around."
The domed eyelids stirred, tightened briefly in the returning memory of pain, then relaxed and opened. Her eyes were clear and soft as honey. They drifted to and fro, skimmed over Brianna, standing tall and stiff at his side, and fixed on Roger's face.
Claire's lips were bloodless as the rest of her face; it took more than one try to get the words out, in a hoarse whisper.
"Did she…go back?"
Her fingers were twisted in the fabric of her skirt, and he saw the faint, dark smear of blood they left behind. His own hands clutched instinctively on his knees, palms tingling. She had held on, too, then, grappling among the grass and gravel for any small hold against the engulfment of the past. He closed his eyes against the memory of that pulling rupture, nodding.
"Yes," he said. "She went."
The clear eyes went at once to her daughter's face, brows above them arched as though in question. But it was Brianna who asked.
"It was true, then?" she asked hesitantly. "Everything was true?"
Roger felt the small shudder that ran through the girl's body, and without thinking about it, reached up to take her hand. He winced involuntarily as she squeezed it, and suddenly in memory heard one of the Reverend's texts: "Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed." And those who must see, in order to believe? The effects of belief wrought by seeing trembled fearful at his side, terrified at what else must now be believed.
Even as the girl tightened, bracing herself to meet a truth she had already seen, the lines of Claire's tensed body on the sofa relaxed. The pale lips curved in the shadow of a smile, and a look of profound peace smoothed the strained white face, and settled glowing in the golden eyes.
"It's true," she said. A tinge of color came back into the pallid cheeks. "Would your mother lie to you?" And she closed her eyes once more.
Roger reached down to switch off the electric fire. The night was cold, but he could stay no longer in the study, his temporary sanctuary. He still felt groggy, but he couldn't delay longer. The decision had to be made.
It had been dawn before the police and the doctor had finished their work the night before, filling in their forms, taking statements and vital signs, doing their best to explain away the truth. "Blessed are they who have not seen," he thought again, devoutly, "but who have believed." Especially in this case.
Finally, they had left, with their forms and badges and cars with flashing lights, to oversee the removal of Greg Edgars's body from the ring of stone, to issue a warrant for the arrest of his wife, who, having lured her husband to his death, had fled the scene. To put it mildly, Roger thought dazedly.
Exhausted in mind and body, Roger had left the Randalls to the care of the doctor and Fiona, and had gone to bed, not bothering to undress or turn back the quilts, merely collapsing into a welcome oblivion. Roused near sunset by gnawing hunger, he had stumbled downstairs to find his guests, similarly silent, if less disheveled, helping Fiona with the preparation of supper.
It had been a quiet meal. The atmosphere was not strained; it was as though communication ran unseen among the people at the table. Brianna sat close to her mother, touching her now and then in the passing of food, as though to reassure herself of her presence. She had glanced occasionally at Roger, shy small looks from beneath her lashes, but didn't talk to him.
Claire said little, and ate almost nothing, but sat quite still, quiet and peaceful as a loch in the sun, her thoughts turned inward. After dinner, she had excused herself and gone to sit in the deep window seat at the end of the hall, pleading tiredness. Brianna had cast a quick glance at her mother, silhouetted in the last glow of the fading sun as she faced the window, and gone to help Fiona in the kitchen with the dishes. Roger had gone to the study, Fiona's good meal heavy in his stomach, to think.
Two hours later, he was still thinking, to remarkably little effect. Books were stacked untidily on the desk and table, left half-open on the seats of chairs and the back of the sofa, and gaping holes in the crowded bookshelves testified to the effort of his haphazard research.
It had taken some time, but he had found it—the short passage he remembered from his earlier search on Claire Randall's behalf. Those results had brought her comfort and peace; this wouldn't—if he told her. And if he were right? But he must be; it accounted for that misplaced grave, so far from Culloden.
He rubbed a hand over his face, and felt the rasp of beard. Not surprising that he had forgotten to shave, what with everything. When he closed his eyes, he could still smell smoke and blood; see the blaze of fire on dark rock, and the strands of fair hair, flying just beyond the reach of his fingers. He shuddered at the memory, and felt a sudden surge of resentment. Claire had destroyed his own peace of mind; did he owe her any less? And Brianna—if she knew the truth now, should she not know all of it?
Claire was still there at the end of the hall; feet curled under her on the window seat, staring out at the blank black stretch of the night-filled glass.
"Claire?" His voice felt scratchy from disuse, and he cleared his throat and tried again. "Claire? I…have something to tell you."
She turned and looked up at him, no more than the faintest curiosity visible on her features. She wore a look of calm, the look of one who has borne terror, despair, and mourning, and the desperate burden of survival—and has endured. Looking at her, he felt suddenly that he couldn't do it.
But she had told the truth; he must do likewise.
"I found something." He raised the book in a brief, futile gesture. "About…Jamie." Speaking that name aloud seemed to brace him, as though the big Scot himself had been conjured by his calling, to stand solid and unmoving in the hallway, between his wife and Roger. Roger took a deep breath in preparation.
"What is it?"
"The last thing he meant to do. I think…I think he failed."
Her face paled suddenly, and she glanced wide-eyed at the book.
"His men? But I thought you found—"
"I did," Roger interrupted. "No, I'm fairly sure he succeeded in that. He got the men of Lallybroch out; he saved them from Culloden, and set them on the road home."
"He meant to turn back—back to the battle—and I think he did that, too." He was increasingly reluctant, but it had to be said. Finding no words of his own, he flipped the book open, and read aloud:
"After the final battle at Culloden, eighteen Jacobite officers, all wounded, took refuge in the old house and for two days, their wounds untended, lay in pain; then they were taken out to be shot. One of them, a Fraser of the Master of Lovat's regiment, escaped the slaughter; the others were buried at the edge of the domestic park."
"One man, a Fraser of the Master of Lovat's regiment, escaped.…" Roger repeated softly. He looked up from the stark page to see her eyes, wide and unseeing as a deer's fixed in the headlights of an oncoming car.
"He meant to die on Culloden Field," Roger whispered. "But he didn't."