Outlander, p.74
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       Outlander, p.74
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  The stigma of the nail wound in the palm of the hand was quite small, and well healed, I was glad to see; no more than a small pink knot of scar tissue that would gradually fade. On the back of the hand, the situation was not so favorable. Eroded by infection, the wound there covered an area the size of sixpence, still patched with scabs and the rawness of a new scar.

  The middle finger, too, showed a jagged ridge of pink scar tissue, running from just below the first joint almost to the knuckle. Released from their splints, the thumb and index finger were straight, but the little finger was badly twisted; that one had had three separate fractures, I remembered, and apparently I had not been able to set them all properly. The ring finger was set oddly, so that it protruded slightly upward when he laid the hand flat on the table, as he did now.

  Turning the hand palm upward, he began to manipulate the fingers gently. None would bend more than an inch or two; the ring finger not at all. As I had feared, the second joint was likely permanently frozen.

  He turned the hand to and fro, holding it before his face, watching the stiff, twisted fingers and the ugly scars, mercilessly vivid in the sunlight. Then he suddenly bent his head, clutching the injured hand to his chest, covering it protectively with the sound one. He made no sound, but the wide shoulders trembled briefly.

  “Jamie.” I crossed the room swiftly and knelt beside him, putting my hand softly on his knee.

  “Jamie, I’m sorry,” I said. “I did the best I could.”

  He looked down at me in astonishment. The thick auburn lashes sparkled with tears in the sunlight, and he dashed them hastily away with the back of his hand.

  “What?” he said, gulping, clearly taken aback by my sudden appearance. “Sorry? For what, Sassenach?”

  “Your hand.” I reached out and took it, lightly tracing the crooked lines of the fingers, touching the sunken scar on the back.

  “It will get better,” I assured him anxiously. “Really it will. I know it seems stiff and useless right now, but that’s only because it’s been splinted so long, and the bones haven’t fully knitted yet. I can show you how to exercise, and massage. You’ll get back a good deal of the use of it, honestly—”

  He stopped me by laying his good hand along my cheek.

  “Did you mean…?” He started, then stopped, shaking his head in disbelief. “You thought…?” He stopped once more and started over.

  “Sassenach,” he said, “ye didna think that I was grieving for a stiff finger and a few more scars?” He smiled, a little crookedly. “I’m a vain man, maybe, but it doesna go that deep, I hope.”

  “But you—” I began. He took both my hands in both of his and stood up, drawing me to my feet. I reached up and smoothed away the single tear that had rolled down his cheek. The tiny smear of moisture was warm on my thumb.

  “I was crying for joy, my Sassenach,” he said softly. He reached out slowly and took my face between his hands. “And thanking God that I have two hands. That I have two hands to hold you with. To serve you with, to love you with. Thanking God that I am a whole man still, because of you.”

  I put my own hands up, cupping his.

  “But why wouldn’t you be?” I asked. And then I remembered the butcherous assortment of saws and knives I seen among Beaton’s implements at Leoch, and I knew. Knew what I had forgotten when I had been faced with the emergency. That in the days before antibiotics, the usual—the only—cure for an infected extremity was amputation of the limb.

  “Oh, Jamie,” I said. I was weak-kneed at the thought, and sat down on the stool rather abruptly.

  “I never thought of it,” I said, still stunned. “I honestly never thought of it.” I looked up at him. “Jamie. If I’d thought of it, I probably would have done it. To save your life.”

  “It’s not how…they don’t do it that way, then, in…your time?”

  I shook my head. “No. There are drugs to stop infections. So I didn’t even think of it,” I marveled. I looked up suddenly. “Did you?”

  He nodded. “I was expecting it. It’s why I asked you to let me die, that once. I was thinking of it, in between the bouts of muzzy-headedness, and—just for that one moment—I didna think I could bear to live like that. It’s what happened to Ian, ye know.”

  “No, really?” I was shocked. “He told me he’d lost it by grape shot, but I didn’t think to ask about the details.”

  “Aye, a grape-shot wound in the leg went bad. The surgeons took it off to keep it from poisoning his blood.” He paused.

  “Ian does verra well, all things considered. But”—he hesitated, pulling on the stiff ring finger—“I knew him before. He’s as good as he is only because of Jenny. She…keeps him whole.” He smiled sheepishly at me. “As ye did for me. I canna think why women bother.”

  “Well,” I said softly, “women like to do that.”

  He laughed quietly and drew me close. “Aye. God knows why.”

  We stood entwined for a bit, not moving. My forehead rested on his chest, my arms around his back, and I could feel his heart beating, slow and strong. Finally he stirred and released me.

  “I’ve something to show ye,” he said. He turned and opened the small drawer of the table, removing a folded letter which he handed to me.

  It was a letter of introduction, from Abbot Alexander, commending his nephew, James Fraser, to the attention of the Chevalier-St. George—otherwise known as His Majesty King James of Scotland—as a most proficient linguist and translator.

  “It’s a place,” Jamie said, watching as I folded the letter. “And we’ll need a place to go, soon. But what ye told me on the hill at Craigh na Dun—that was true, no?”

  I took a deep breath and nodded. “It’s true.”

  He took the letter from me and tapped it thoughtfully on his knee.

  “Then this”—he waved the letter—“is not without a bit of danger.”

  “It could be.”

  He tossed the parchment into the drawer and sat staring after it for a moment. Then he looked up and the dark blue eyes held mine. He laid a hand along my cheek.

  “I meant it, Claire,” he said quietly. “My life is yours. And it’s yours to decide what we shall do, where we go next. To France, to Italy, even back to Scotland. My heart has been yours since first I saw ye, and you’ve held my soul and body between your two hands here, and kept them safe. We shall go as ye say.”

  There was a light knock at the door, and we sprang apart like guilty lovers. I dabbed hastily at my hair, thinking that a monastery, while an excellent convalescent home, lacked something as a romantic retreat.

  A lay brother came in at Jamie’s bidding, and dumped a large leather saddlebag on the table. “From MacRannoch of Eldridge Manor,” he said with a grin. “For my lady Broch Tuarach.” He bowed then and left, leaving a faint breath of seawater and cold air behind.

  I unbuckled the leather straps, curious to see what MacRannoch might have sent. Inside were three things: a note, unaddressed and unsigned, a small package addressed to Jamie, and the cured skin of a wolf, smelling strongly of the tanner’s arts.

  The note read: “For a virtuous woman is a pearl of great price, and her value is greater than rubies.”

  Jamie had opened the other parcel. He held something small and glimmering in one hand and was quizzically regarding the wolf pelt.

  “A bit odd, that. Sir Marcus has sent ye a wolf pelt, Sassenach, and me a pearl bracelet. Perhaps he’s got his labels mixed?”

  The bracelet was a lovely thing, a single row of large baroque pearls, set between twisted gold chains.

  “No,” I said, admiring it. “He’s got it right. The bracelet goes with the necklace you gave me when we wed. He gave that to your mother; did you know?”

  “No, I didn’t,” he answered softly, touching the pearls. “Father gave them to me for my wife, whoever she was to be”—and a quick smile tugged at his mouth—“but he didna tell me where they came from.”

  I remembered Sir Marcus’s help on th
e night we had burst so unceremoniously into his house, and the look on his face when we had left him next day. I could see from Jamie’s face that he also was remembering the baronet who might have been his father. He reached out and took my hand, fastening the bracelet about my wrist.

  “But it’s not for me!” I protested.

  “Aye, it is,” he said firmly. “It isna suitable for a man to send jewelry to a respectable married woman, so he gave it to me. But clearly it’s for you.” He looked at me and grinned. “For one thing, it won’t go round my wrist, even scrawny as I am.”

  He turned to the bundled wolfskin and shook it out.

  “Whyever did MacRannoch send ye this, though?” He draped the shaggy wolfhide about his shoulders and I recoiled with a sharp cry. The head had been carefully skinned and cured as well, and equipped with a pair of yellow glass eyes, it was glaring nastily at me from Jamie’s left shoulder.

  “Ugh!” I said. “It looks just like it did when it was alive!”

  Jamie, following the direction of my glance, turned his head and found himself suddenly face-to-face with the snarling countenance. With a startled exclamation, he jerked the skin off and flung it across the room.

  “Jesus God,” he said, and crossed himself. The skin lay on the floor, glowering balefully in the candlelight.

  “What d’ye mean, ‘when it was alive,’ Sassenach? A personal friend, was it?” Jamie asked, eyeing it narrowly.

  I told him then the things I had had no chance to tell him; about the wolf, and the other wolves, and Hector, and the snow, and the cottage with the bear, and the argument with Sir Marcus, and the appearance of Murtagh, and the cattle, and the long wait on the hillside in the pink mist of the snow-swept night, waiting to see whether he was dead or alive.

  Thin or not, his chest was broad and his arms warm and strong. He pressed my face into his shoulder and rocked me while I sobbed. I tried for a bit to control myself, but he only hugged me harder, and said small and gentle things into the cloud of my hair, and I finally gave up and cried with the complete abandon of a child, until I was worn to utter limpness and hiccupping exhaustion.

  “Come to think of it, I’ve a wee giftie for ye, myself, Sassenach,” he said, smoothing my hair. I sniffed and wiped my nose on my skirt, having nothing else handy.

  “I’m sorry I haven’t got anything to give you,” I said, watching as he stood up and began to dig through the tumbled bedclothes. Probably looking for a handkerchief, I thought, sniffing some more.

  “Aside from such minor gifts as my life, my manhood, and my right hand?” he asked dryly. “They’ll do nicely, mo duinne.” He straightened up with a novice’s robe in one hand. “Undress.”

  My mouth fell open. “What?”

  “Undress, Sassenach, and put this on.” He handed me the robe, grinning. “Or do ye want me to turn my back first?”

  * * *

  Clutching the rough homespun around me, I followed Jamie down yet another flight of dark stairs. This was the third, and the narrowest yet; the lantern he held lit the stone blocks of walls no more than eighteen inches apart. It felt rather like being swallowed up into the earth, as we went further and further down the narrow black shaft.

  “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” I asked. My voice echoed in the stairwell, but with a curiously muffled sound, as though I were speaking underwater.

  “Well, there’s no much chance of taking the wrong turning, now is there?”

  We had reached another landing, but true enough, the way ahead lay in only one direction—down.

  At the bottom of this flight of steps, though, we came to a door. There was a small landing, carved out of the solid side of a mountain, from the looks of it, and a wide, low door made of oak planks and brass hinging. The planks were grey with age, but still solid, and the landing swept clean. Plainly this part of the monastery was still in use, then. The wine cellar perhaps?

  There was a sconce near the door that held a torch, half-burnt from previous use. Jamie paused to light it with a paper spill from the pile that lay ready nearby, then pushed open the unlocked door and ducked beneath the lintel, leaving me to follow.

  At first, I could see nothing at all inside but the glow of Jamie’s lantern. Everything was black. The lantern bobbed along, moving away from me. I stood still, following the blob of light with my eyes. Every few feet he would stop, then continue, and a slow flame would rise up in his wake to burn in a small red glow. As my eyes slowly accustomed themselves, the flames became a row of lanterns, situated on rock pillars, shining into the black like beacons.

  It was a cave. At first I thought it was a cave of crystals, because of the odd black shimmer beyond the lanterns. But I stepped forward to the first pillar and looked beyond, and then I saw it.

  A clear black lake. Transparent water, shimmering like glass over fine black volcanic sand, giving off red reflections in the lantern light. The air was damp and warm, humid with the steam that condensed on the cool cavern walls, running down the ribbed columns of rock.

  A hot spring. The faint scent of sulfur bit at my nostrils. A hot mineral spring, then. I remembered Anselm’s mentioning the springs that bubbled up from the ground near the abbey, renowned for their healing powers.

  Jamie stood behind me, looking out over the gently steaming expanse of jet and rubies.

  “A hot bath,” he said proudly. “Do ye like it?”

  “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said.

  “Oh, ye do,” he said, grinning at the success of his surprise. “Come in, then.”

  He dropped his own robe and stood glowing dimly in the darkness, patched with red in the glimmering reflections off the water. The arched ceiling of the cave seemed to swallow the light of the lanterns, so that the glow reached only a few feet before being engulfed.

  A little hesitantly, I let the novice’s robe drop from my arms.

  “How hot is it?” I asked.

  “Hot enough,” he answered. “Dinna worry, it won’t burn ye. But stay over an hour or so, and it might cook the flesh off your bones like soupmeat.”

  “What an appealing idea,” I said, discarding the robe.

  Following his straight, slender figure, I stepped cautiously into the water. There were steps cut in the stone, leading down underwater, with a knotted rope fastened along the wall to provide handholds.

  The water flowed up over my hips, and the flesh of my belly shivered in delight as the heat swirled through me. At the bottom of the steps, I stood on clean black sand, the water just below the level of my shoulders, my breasts floating like glass fisher-floats. My skin was flushed with the heat, and small prickles of perspiration were starting on the back of my neck, under the heavy hair. It was pure bliss.

  The surface of the spring was smooth and waveless, but the water wasn’t still; I could feel small stirrings, currents running through the body of the pool like nerve impulses. It was that, I suppose, added to the incredible soothing heat, that gave me the momentary illusion that the spring was alive—a warm, welcoming entity that reached out to soothe and embrace. Anselm had said that the springs had healing powers, and I wasn’t disposed to doubt it.

  Jamie came up behind me, tiny wavelets marking his passage through the water. He reached around me to cup my breasts, softly smoothing the hot water over the upper slopes.

  “Do ye like it, mo duinne?” He bent forward and planted a kiss on my shoulder.

  I let my feet float out from under me, resting against him.

  “It’s wonderful! It’s the first time I’ve been warm all the way through since August.” He began to tow me, backing slowly through the water; my legs streamed out in the wake of our passage, the amazing warmth passing down my limbs like caressing hands.

  He stopped, swung me around, and lowered me gently onto hard wood. Half-visible in the shadowy underwater light, I could see planks set into a rocky niche. He sat down on the bench beside me, stretching his arms out on the rocky ledge behind us.

  “Broth
er Ambrose brought me down here the other day to soak,” he said. “To soften the scars a bit. It does feel good, doesn’t it?”

  “More than good.” The water was so buoyant that I felt I might float away if I loosed my hold on the bench. I looked upward into the black shadows of the roof.

  “Does anything live in this cave? Bats, I mean? Or fish?”

  He shook his head. “Nothing but the spirit of the spring, Sassenach. The water bubbles up from the earth through a narrow crack back there”—he nodded toward the Stygian blackness at the back of the cave—“and trickles out through a dozen tiny openings in the rock. But there’s no real opening to the outside, save the door into the monastery.”

  “Spirit of the spring?” I said, amused. “Sounds rather pagan, to be hiding under a monastery.”

  He stretched luxuriously, long legs wavering under the glassy surface like the stems of water plants.

  “Well, whatever ye wish to call it, it’s been here a good deal longer than the monastery.”

  “Yes, I can see that.”

  The walls of the cave were of smooth, dark volcanic rock, almost like black glass, slick with the moisture of the spring. The whole chamber looked like a gigantic bubble, half-filled with that curiously alive but sterile water. I felt as though we were cradled in the womblike center of the earth, and that if I pressed my ear to the rock, I would hear the infinitely slow beat of a great heart nearby.

  We were very quiet for a long time then, half-floating, half-dreaming, brushing now and then against each other as we drifted in the unseen currents of the cave.

  When I spoke at last, my voice seemed slow and drugged.

  “I’ve decided.”

  “Ah. Will it be Rome, then?” Jamie’s voice seemed to come from a long way away.

  “Yes. I don’t know, once there—”

  “It doesna matter. We shall do what we can.” His hand reached for me, moving so slowly I thought it would never touch me.

  He drew me close, until the sensitive tips of my breasts rubbed across his chest. The water was not only warm but heavy, almost oily to the touch, and his hands floated down my back to cup my buttocks and lift me.

  The intrusion was startling. Hot and slippery as our skins were, we drifted over each other with barely a sensation of touching or pressure, but his presence within me was solid and intimate, a fixed point in a watery world, like an umbilical cord in the random driftings of the womb. I made a brief sound of surprise at the small inrush of hot water that accompanied his entrance, then settled firmly onto my fixed point of reference with a little sigh of pleasure.

  “Oh, I like that one,” he said appreciatively.

  “Like what?” I asked.

  “That sound that ye made. The little squeak.”

  It wasn’t possible to blush; my skin was already as flushed as it could get. I let my hair swing forward to cover my face, the curls relaxing as they dragged the surface of the water.

  “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to be noisy.”

  He laughed, the deep sound echoing softly in the columns of the roof.

  “I said I like it. And I do. It’s one of the things I like the best about bedding ye, Sassenach, the small noises that ye make.”

  He pulled me closer, so my forehead rested against his neck. Moisture sprang up at once between us, slick as the sulfur-laden water. He made a slight movement with his hips, and I drew in my breath in a half-stifled gasp.

  “Yes, like that,” he said softly. “Or…like that?”

  “Urk,” I said. He laughed again, but kept doing it.

  “That’s what I thought most about,” he said, drawing his hands slowly up and down my back, cupping, curving, tracing the swell of my hips. “In prison at night, chained in a room with a dozen other men, listening to the snoring and farting and groaning. I thought of those small tender sounds that ye make when I love you, and I could feel ye there next to me in the dark, breathing soft and then faster, and the little grunt that ye give when I first take you, as though ye were settling yourself to your job.”

  My breathing was definitely coming faster. Supported by the dense, mineral-saturated water, I was buoyant as an oiled feather, kept from floating away only by my grip on the curved muscles of his shoulders, and the snug, firm clasp I kept of him lower down.

  “Even better,” his voice was a hot murmur in my ear, “when I come to ye fierce and wanting, and ye whimper under me, and struggle as though you wanted to get away, and I know it’s only that you’re struggling to come closer, and I’m fighting the same fight.”

  His hands were exploring, gently, slowly as tickling a trout, sliding deep into the rift of my buttocks, gliding lower, groping, caressing the stretched and yearning point of our joining. I quivered and the breath went from me in an unwilled gasp.

  “Or when I come to you needing, and ye take me into you with a sigh and that quiet hum like a hive of bees in the sun, and ye carry me wi’ you into peace with a little moaning sound.”

  “Jamie,” I said hoarsely, my voice echoing off the water. “Jamie, please.”

  “Not yet, mo duinne.” His hands came hard around my waist, settling and
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