He opened the book gently, to keep the pages from falling out. Greek lettering looked to me like the conniptions of an ink-soaked worm, but he found the bit he was looking for with no difficulty.
“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is
before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out
to meet it.”
The words were before him, and yet I thought he was not reading them from the paper, but from the pages of his memory, from the open book of his heart.
The door slammed, and I heard Roger shouting outside now, cracked voice raised in warning, calling out to Jemmy, and then his laugh, deep and half-choked, as Bree said something to him, a lighter sound too far away to hear in words.
Then they moved away, and there was silence, save for the sough of the wind in the trees.
“The bravest are those who have the clearest vision. Well, you’d know about that, wouldn’t you?” I said softly. I laid a hand on his shoulder, just where it joined his neck. I traced the powerful cords of his neck with my thumb, looking at the worm-writhings on the page. He would, and so would I; for the vision he had was the one I had shown him.
He kept hold of the book, but tilted his head to one side, so that his cheek brushed my hand, and the thickness of his hair touched my wrist, soft and warm.
“Ah, no,” he said. “Not me. It’s only brave if there’s a choice about it, aye?”
I laughed, sniffed, and wiped the wrist of my free hand across my eyes.
“And you think you haven’t a choice?”
He paused for a moment, then shut the book, though he continued to hold it in his hands.
“No,” he said at last, with a queer tone in his voice. “Not now.”
He turned in his chair, looking through the window. Nothing was visible but the big red spruce at the side of the clearing, and the deep shade of the oak grove behind it, tangled with the brambles of wild blackberry, escaped from the yard. The blackened spot where the fiery cross had stood was overgrown now, covered with thick wild barley.
The air moved and I realized that it was not silent, after all. The sounds of the mountain were all around us, birds calling, water rushing in the distance—and there were voices, too, speaking in the murmured traffic of daily rounds, a word by the pigpen, a call from the privy. And under and over everything, the sound of children, faint shrieks and giggles borne on the restless air.
“I suppose you’re right,” I said, after a moment. He was; there was no choice about it now, and the knowledge gave me a sort of peace. What was coming, would come. We would meet it as best we might, and hope to survive; that was all. If we didn’t—perhaps they would. I gathered the tail of his hair in my hand and twined my fingers through it, holding tight, like an anchor’s rope.
“What about the other choices, though?” I asked him, looking out with him over the empty dooryard, and into the shades of the forest beyond. “All the ones you made that brought you here? Those were real—and bloody well brave, if you ask me.”
Beneath the tip of my index finger, I could feel the hair-thin line of his ancient scar, buried deep beneath the ruddy waves. He leaned back against the pull of my hand, and swiveled round to look up at me, so my hand now cupped the bone of his jaw.
“Oh. Well,” he said, smiling slightly. His hand touched mine, and drew my fingers into his. “Ye’d know about that, now, wouldn’t ye, Sassenach?”
I sat down beside him, close, my hand on his leg, and his hand on mine. We sat thus for a bit, side by side, watching the rain clouds roll in over the river, like a threat of distant war. And I thought that whether it was choice or no choice, it might be that it came to the same thing in the end.
Jamie’s hand still lay on mine. It tightened a little, and I glanced at him, but his eyes were still fixed somewhere past the dooryard; past the mountains, and the distant clouds. His grip tightened further, and I felt the edges of my ring press into my flesh.
“When the day shall come, that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’—ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”