“We are alive,” Brianna MacKenzie repeated, her voice tremulous. She looked up at Roger, the paper pressed to her chest with both hands. Her face streamed with tears, but a glorious light glowed in her blue eyes. “Alive!”
“Let me see.” His heart was hammering so hard in his chest that he could barely hear his own words. He reached out a hand, and reluctantly, she surrendered the paper to him, coming at once to press herself against him, clinging to his arm as he read, unable to take her eyes off the bit of ancient paper.
It was pleasantly rough under his fingers, hand-made paper with the ghosts of leaves and flowers pressed into its fibers. Yellowed with age, but still tough and surprisingly flexible. Bree had made it herself–two hundred years before.
Roger became aware that his hands were trembling, the paper shaking so that the sprawling, difficult hand was hard to read, faded as the ink was.
December 31, 1776
My darling daughter,
As you will see, if ever you receive this, we are alive…
His own eyes blurred, and he wiped the back of his hand across them, even as he told himself that it didn’t matter, for they were surely dead now, Jamie Fraser and his wife Claire–but he felt such joy at those words on the page that it was as though the two of them stood smiling before him.
It was the two of them, too, he discovered. While the letter began in Jamie’s hand–and voice–the second page took up in Claire’s crisply slanted writing.
Your father’s hand won’t stand much more, she wrote. And it’s a bloody long story. He’s been chopping wood all day, and can barely uncurl his fingers–but he insisted on telling you himself that we haven’t–yet–been burnt to ashes. Not but what we may be at any moment; there are fourteen people crammed into the old cabin, and I’m writing this more or less sitting in the hearth, with old Grannie MacLeod wheezing away on her pallet by my feet so that if she suddenly begins to die, I can pour more whisky down her throat.
“My God, I can hear her,” he said, amazed.
“So can I.” Tears were still coursing down Bree’s face, but it was a sun-shower; she wiped at them, laughing and sniffing. “Read more. Why are they in our cabin? What’s happened to the big house?”
Roger ran his finger down the page to find his place and resumed reading.
“Oh, Jesus!” he said.
You recall that idiot, Donner?
Gooseflesh ran up his arms at the name. A time-traveler, Donner. And one of the most feckless individuals he’d ever met or heard of–but nonetheless dangerous for that.
Well, he surpassed himself by getting together a gang of thugs from Brownsville, to come and steal the treasure in gems he’d convinced them we had. Only we hadn’t, of course.
They hadn’t–because he, Brianna, Jemmy, and Amanda had taken the small horde of remaining gemstones to safeguard their flight through the stones.
They held us hostage and rubbished the house, damn them–breaking, amongst other things, the carboy [ck.] of ether in my surgery. The fumes nearly gassed all of us on the spot…
He read rapidly through the rest of the letter, Brianna peering over his shoulder and making small squeaks of alarm and dismay. Finished, he laid the pages down and turned to her, his insides quivering.
“So you did it,” he said, aware that he shouldn’t say it, but unable not to, unable not to snort with laughter. “You and your bloody matches–you burned the house down!”
Her face was a study, features shifting between horror, indignation–and yes, a hysterical hilarity that matched his own.
“Oh, it was not! It was Mama’s ether. Any kind of spark could have set off the explosion–”
“But it wasn’t any kind of spark,” Roger pointed out. “Your cousin Ian lit one of your matches.”
“Well, so it was Ian’s fault, then!”
“No, it was you and your mother. Scientific women,” Roger said, shaking his head. “The eighteenth century is lucky to have survived you.”
She huffed a little.
“Well, the whole thing would never have happened if it weren’t for that bozo Donner!”
“True,” Roger conceded. “But he was a trouble-maker from the future, too, wasn’t he? Though admittedly neither a woman, nor very scientific.”
“Hmph.” She took the letter, handling it gently, but unable to forbear rubbing the pages between her fingers. “Well, he didn’t survive the eighteenth century, did he?” Her eyes were downcast,
their lids still reddened.
“You aren’t feeling sorry for him, are you?” Roger demanded, incredulous.
She shook her head, but her fingers still moved lightly over the thick, soft page.
“Not…him, so much. It’s just–the idea of anybody dying like that. Alone, I mean. So far from home.”
No, it wasn’t Donner she was thinking of. He put an arm round her and laid his head against her own. She smelled of Prell shampoo and fresh cabbages; she’d been in the kailyard. The words on the page faded and strengthened with the dip of the pen that had written them, but nonetheless were sharp and clear–a surgeon’s writing.
“She isn’t alone,” he whispered, and putting out a finger, traced the postscript, again in Jamie’s sprawling hand. “Neither of them is. And whether they’ve a roof above their heads or not–both of them are home.”