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Excerpt 1 – The Fiery Cross – “In Medias Res”

Copyright 2001 Diana Gabaldon


I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips. I blinked, disoriented, and by reflex put my fingers to my mouth. To keep the feeling, or to hide it? I wondered, even as I did so.

Jamie stirred and murmured in his sleep next to me, his movement rousing a fresh wave of scent from the cedar branches under our bottom quilt. Perhaps the ghost’s passing had disturbed him. I frowned at the empty air outside our lean-to.

Go away, Frank, I thought sternly.

It was still dark outside, but the mist that rose from the damp earth was a pearly gray; dawn wasn’t far off. Nothing stirred, inside or out, but I had the distinct sense of an ironic amusement, that lay on my skin like the lightest of touches.

Shouldn’t I come to see her married?

I couldn’t tell whether the words had formed themselves in my thoughts, or whether they–and that kiss–were merely the product of my own subconscious. I had fallen asleep with my mind still busy with wedding preparations; little wonder that I should wake from dreams of weddings. And wedding nights.

I smoothed the rumpled cotton of my shift, uneasily aware that it was rucked up around my waist and that my skin was flushed with more than sleep. I didn’t remember anything concrete about the dream that had wakened me; only a confused jumble of image and sensation. I thought perhaps that was a good thing.

I turned over on the rustling branches, nudging close to Jamie. He was warm and smelt pleasantly of woodsmoke and whisky, with a faint tang of sleepy maleness under it, like the deep note of a lingering chord. I stretched myself, very slowly, arching my back so that my pelvis nudged the side of his hip. If he were sound asleep or disinclined, the gesture was slight enough to pass unnoticed; if he were not…

He wasn’t. He smiled faintly, eyes still closed, and a big hand ran slowly down my back, settling with a firm grip on my bottom.

“Mmm?” he said. “Hmmmm.” He sighed, and relaxed back into sleep, holding on.

I nestled close, reassured. The immediate physicality of Jamie was more than enough to banish the touch of lingering dreams. And Frank–if that was Frank–was right, so far as that went. I was sure that if such a thing were possible, Bree would want both her fathers at her wedding.

I was wide awake now, but much too comfortable to move. It was raining outside; a light rain, but the air was cold and damp enough to make the cozy nest of quilts more inviting than the distant prospect of hot coffee. Particularly since the getting of coffee would involve a trip to the stream for water, making up the campfire–oh, God, the wood would be damp, even if the fire hadn’t gone completely out–grinding the coffee in a stone quern and brewing it, while wet leaves blew round my ankles and drips from overhanging tree branches slithered down my neck.

Shivering at the thought, I pulled the top quilt up over my bare shoulder and resumed the mental catalogue with which I had fallen asleep.

Food, drink…luckily I needn’t trouble about that. Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta would deal with the arrangements; or rather, her black butler, Ulysses, would. Wedding guests–no difficulties there. We were in the middle of the largest Gathering of Scottish Highlanders in the New World, and food and drink were being provided. Engraved invitations would not be necessary.

Bree’s new dress was almost ready; that was the most important thing. Dark blue wool; silk was too impractical for life in the backwoods. It was a far cry from the white satin and orange blossom I had once envisioned her wearing to be married in–but then, this was scarcely the marriage anyone might have imagined in the 1960′s.

I wondered what Frank might have thought of Brianna’s husband. He likely would have approved, I thought. Roger was a historian– or once had been–like Frank himself. He was intelligent, humorous, a talented musician and a lovely, gentle man, thoroughly devoted to Brianna and little Jemmy.

Which is very admirable indeed, I thought in the direction of the mist, under the circumstances.

You admit that, do you? The words formed in my inner ear as though he had spoken them, ironic, mocking both himself and me. Jamie frowned, making small whuffling noises in his sleep.

You know I do, I said silently. I always did, and you know it, so just bugger off, will you?!

I turned my back firmly on the outer air and laid my head on Jamie’s shoulder, seeking refuge in the feel of the soft, crumpled linen of his shirt.

I rather thought Jamie was less inclined than I was to give Roger credit for accepting Jemmy as his own. To Jamie, it was a simple matter of obligation; an honorable man could not do otherwise. And I knew he had his doubts as to Roger’s ability to support and protect a family in the Carolina wilderness. “Bonnet, belt, and swordie” were the stuff of songs to Roger; to Jamie, they had been the tools of his trade.

The hand on my bottom tightened suddenly, and I started. “Sassenach,” Jamie said drowsily, “you’re squirming like a toadling in a wee lad’s fist. D’ye need to get up and go to the privy?”

“Oh, you’re awake,” I said, feeling mildly foolish.

“I am now,” he said. The hand fell away, and he stretched, groaning. His bare feet popped out at the far end of the quilt, long toes spread wide.

“Sorry.”

“Och, it’s no trouble,” he assured me. He cleared his throat and rubbed a hand through the ruddy waves of his loosened hair, blinking. “I was dreaming like a fiend; I always do when I sleep cold.” He lifted his head and peered down across the quilt, wiggling his exposed toes with disfavor. “Why did I not sleep wi’ my stockings on?”

“Really? What were you dreaming about?” I asked, with a small stab of uneasiness. I rather hoped he hadn’t been dreaming the same sort of thing I had.

“Horses,” he said, to my immediate relief. I laughed.

“What sort of fiendish dreams could you be having about horses?”

“Oh, God, it was terrible.” He rubbed his eyes with both fists and shook his head, trying to clear the dream from his mind. “All to do wi’ the Irish kings. Ye ken what MacKenzie was sayin’ about it, at the fire last night?”

“Irish ki–oh!” I remembered, and laughed again at the recollection. “Yes, I do.”

Roger, flushed with the triumph of his new engagement, had regaled the company around the fireside the night before with songs, poems, and entertaining historical anecdotes–one of which concerned the rites with which the ancient Irish kings were crowned. One of these involved the successful candidate copulating with a white mare before the assembled multitudes, presumably to prove his virility–though I thought it would be a better proof of the gentleman’s sang-froid, myself.

“I was in charge o’ the horse,” Jamie informed me. “And everything went wrong. The man was too short, and I had to find something for him to stand on. I found a rock, but I couldna lift it. Then a stool, but the leg came off in my hand. Then I tried to pile up bricks to make a platform, but they crumbled to sand. Finally they said it was all right, they would just cut the legs off the mare, and I was trying to stop them doing that, and the man who would be king was jerkin’ at his breeks and complaining that his flies were knotted, and then someone noticed that it was a black mare, and that wouldna do at all.”

I snorted, muffling my laughter in a fold of his shirt for fear of wakening someone camped near us. “Is that when you woke up?”

“No. For some reason, I was verra much affronted at that. I said it _would_ do, in fact the black was a much better horse, for everyone knows that white horses have weak een, and I said the offspring would be blind. And they said no, no, the black was ill- luck, and I was insisting it was not, and…” he stopped, clearing his throat.

“And?”

He shrugged and glanced sideways at me, a faint flush creeping up his neck.

“Aye, well. I said it would do fine, I’d show them. And I had just grasped the mare’s rump to stop her moving, and was getting ready to…ah…make myself king of Ireland. That’s when I woke.”

I snorted and wheezed, and felt his side vibrate with his own suppressed laughter.

“Oh, now I’m really sorry to have wakened you!” I wiped my eyes on the corner of the quilt. “I’m sure it was a great loss to the Irish. Though I do wonder how the queens of Ireland felt about that particular ceremony,” I added as an afterthought.

“I canna think the ladies would suffer even slightly by comparison,” Jamie assured me. “Though I have heard of men who prefer–”

“I wasn’t thinking of that,” I said. “It was more the hygienic implications, if you see what I mean.”

“The–oh, aye.” He was flushed with amusement, but his skin darkened further at that. “Say what ye may about the Irish, Sassenach, but I do believe they wash now and then. And under the circumstances, the king might possibly even have found a bit of soap useful, in…in…”

In medias res?” I suggested. “Surely not. I mean, after all, a horse is quite large, relatively speaking…”

“It’s a matter of readiness, Sassenach, as much as room,” he said, with an repressive glance in my direction. “And I can see that a man might require a bit of encouragement, under the circumstances. Though it’s in media res, in any case,” he added. “Have ye never read Caesar’s Commentaries?”

“No. We can’t all be educated. But never mind; you can tell me the plot later.” I smiled and lifted a hand to his cheek, soft with auburn stubble.

As I did so, I saw that the sky outside had lightened into dawn; his head was silhouetted by the pale canvas of our shelter, but I could see his face clearly. The expression on it reminded me exactly why he had taken off his stockings the night before. Unfortunately, we had both been so tired after the prolonged festivities that we had fallen asleep in mid-embrace.

I found that belated memory rather reassuring, offering as it did some explanation both for the state of my shift and for the dreams from which I had awakened. At the same time, I felt a chilly draft slide its fingers under the quilt, and shivered.

Frank and Jamie were very different men, and there was no doubt in my mind as to who had kissed me, just before waking.

“Kiss me,” I said suddenly to Jamie. Neither of us had yet brushed our teeth, but he obligingly skimmed my lips with his, then, when I caught the back of his head and pressed him closer, shifted his weight to one hand, the better to adjust the tangle of bedclothes round our lower limbs.

“Oh?” he said, when I released him. He smiled, blue eyes creasing into dark triangles in the dimness. “Well, to be sure, Sassenach. I must just step outside for a moment first, though.” He flung back the quilt and rose. From my position on the ground, I had a rather unorthodox view which provided me with engaging glimpses under the hem of his long linen shirt. I did hope that what I was looking at was not the lingering result of his nightmare, but thought it better not to ask.

“You’d better hurry,” I said. “It’s getting light; people will be up and about soon.”

He nodded and ducked outside. I lay still, listening. A few birds cheeped faintly in the distance, but this was autumn; not even full light would provoke the raucous choruses of spring and summer. The mountain and its many camps still lay slumbering, but I could feel small stirrings all around, just below the edge of hearing.

I ran my fingers through my hair, fluffing it out around my shoulders, and rolled over, looking for the water bottle. Feeling cool air on my back, I glanced over my shoulder, but dawn had come and the mist had fled; the air outside was gray but still.

I touched the gold ring on my left hand, unfamiliar after its long absence. Perhaps it was his ring that had summoned Frank to my dreams. Perhaps tonight at the wedding ceremony, I would touch it again, deliberately, and hope that he could see his daughter’s happiness somehow through my eyes. For now, though, he was gone, and I was glad.

A small sound, no louder than the distant bird-calls, drifted through the air. The brief cry of a baby waking. I smiled a little wryly to myself.

I had once thought that no matter the circumstances, there ought really to be no more than two people in a marriage-bed. I still thought so. However, a baby was more difficult to banish than the ghost of a former love; Brianna and Roger’s bed must perforce accommodate three.

The edge of the canvas lifted, and Jamie’s face appeared, looking excited and alarmed.

“Ye’d best get up and dress, Claire,” he said. “The soldiers are drawn up by the creek. Where are my stockings?”

I sat bolt upright, and far down the mountainside the drums began to roll.