A Trail of Fire (Page 8)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(8)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Aye, right. Let’s go, then.’

The air outside was wonderful after the smells of the cow-byre, cold and full of dying heather and turned earth. He thought he could even smell the moon, a faint green sickle above the horizon; he tasted cheese at the thought, and his mouth watered. He wiped a trickle of saliva away, and hurried after his rescuers, hobbling as fast as he could.

The farmhouse was black, a squatty black blot on the landscape. The dark bloke grabbed him by the arm as he was about to go past it, quickly licked a finger and held it up to test the wind.

‘The dogs,’ he explained in a whisper. ‘This way.’

They circled the farmhouse at a cautious distance, and found themselves stumbling through a ploughed field. Clods burst under Jerry’s boots as he hurried to keep up, lurching on his bad knee with every step.

‘Where we going?’ he panted, when he thought it safe to speak.

‘We’re taking ye back to the stones near the lake,’ the dark man said tersely. ‘That has to be where ye came through.’ The fair one just snorted, as though this wasn’t his notion – but he didn’t argue.

Hope flared up in Jerry like a bonfire. They knew what the stones were, how it worked. They’d show him how to get back!

‘How— how did ye find me?’ He could hardly breathe, such a pace they kept up, but had to know. The lantern was shut and he couldn’t see their faces, but the dark man made a muffled sound that might have been a laugh.

‘I met an auld wifie wearing your dog-tags. Very proud of them, she was.’

‘Ye’ve got them?’ Jerry gasped.

‘Nay, she wouldna give them up.’ It was the fair man, sounding definitely amused. ‘Told us where she’d got them, though, and we followed your trail backward. Hey!’ He caught Jerry’s elbow, just as his foot twisted out from under him. The sound of a barking dog broke the night – some way away, but distinct. The fair man’s hand clenched tight on his arm. ‘Come on, then – hurry!’

Jerry had a bad stitch in his side, and his knee was all but useless by the time the little group of stones came in sight, a pale huddle in the light of the waning moon. Still, he was surprised at how near the stones were to the farmhouse; he must have circled round more than he thought in his wanderings.

‘Right,’ said the dark man, coming to an abrupt halt. ‘This is where we leave you.’

‘Ye do?’ Jerry panted. ‘But— but you—’

‘When ye came . . . through. Did ye have anything on you? A gemstone, any jewellery?’

‘Aye,’ Jerry said, bewildered. ‘I had a raw sapphire in my pocket. But it’s gone. It’s like it—’

‘Like it burnt up,’ the blond man finished for him, grim-voiced. ‘Aye. Well, so?’ This last was clearly addressed to the dark man, who hesitated. Jerry couldn’t see his face, but his whole body spoke of indecision. He wasn’t one to dither, though – he stuck a hand into the leather pouch at his waist, pulled something out, and pressed it into Jerry’s hand. It was faintly warm from the man’s body, and hard in his palm. A small stone of some kind. Faceted, like the stone in a ring.

‘Take this; it’s a good one. When ye go through,’ the dark man was speaking urgently to him, ‘think about your wife, about Marjorie. Think hard; see her in your mind’s eye, and walk straight through. Whatever the hell ye do, though, don’t think about your son. Just your wife.’

‘What?’ Jerry was gob-smacked. ‘How the bloody hell do you know my wife’s name? And where’ve ye heard about my son?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ the man said, and Jerry saw the motion as he turned his head to look back over his shoulder.

‘Damn,’ said the fair one, softly. ‘They’re coming. There’s a light.’

There was: a single light, bobbing evenly over the ground, as it would if someone carried it. But look as he might, Jerry could see no one behind it, and a violent shiver ran over him.

‘Tannasg,’ said the other man under his breath. Jerry knew that word well enough – spirit, it meant. And usually an ill-disposed one. A haunt.

‘Aye, maybe.’ The dark man’s voice was calm. ‘And maybe not. It’s near Samhain, after all. Either way, ye need to go, man, and now. Remember, think of your wife.’

Jerry swallowed, his hand closing tight around the stone.

‘Aye. Aye . . . right. Thanks, then,’ he added awkwardly, and heard the breath of a rueful laugh from the dark man.

‘Nay bother, mate,’ he said. And with that, they were both off, making their way across the stubbled meadow, two lumbering shapes in the moonlight.

Heart thumping in his ears, Jerry turned toward the stones. They looked just like they’d looked before. Just stones. But the echo of what he’d heard in there . . . he swallowed. It wasn’t like there was much choice.

‘Dolly,’ he whispered, trying to summon up a vision of his wife. ‘Dolly. Dolly, help me!’

He took a hesitant step toward the stones. Another. One more. Then nearly bit his tongue off as a hand clamped down on his shoulder. He whirled, fist up, but the dark man’s other hand seized his wrist.

‘I love you,’ the dark man said, his voice fierce. Then he was gone again, with the shoof-shoof sounds of boots in dry grass, leaving Jerry with his mouth agape.

He caught the other man’s voice from the darkness, irritated, half-amused. He spoke differently from the dark man, a much thicker accent, but Jerry understood him without difficulty.

‘Why did ye tell him a daft thing like that?’

And the dark one’s reply, soft-spoken, in a tone that terrified him more than anything had, so far.

‘Because he isn’t going to make it back. It’s the only chance I’ll ever have. Come on.’

The day was dawning when he came to himself again, and the world was quiet. No birds sang and the air was cold with the chill of November and winter coming on. When he could stand up, he went to look, shaky as a newborn lamb.

The plane wasn’t there, but there was still a deep gouge in the earth where it had been. Not raw earth, though; furred over with grass and meadow plants – not just furred, he saw, limping over to have a closer look. Matted. Dead stalks from earlier years’ growth.

If he’d been where he thought he’d been, if he’d truly gone . . . back . . . then he’d come forward again, but not to the same place he’d left. How long? A year, two? He sat down on the grass, too drained to stand up any longer. He felt as though he’d walked every second of the time between then and now.

He’d done what the green-eyed stranger had said. Concentrated fiercely on Dolly. But he hadn’t been able to keep from thinking of wee Roger, not altogether. How could he? The picture he had most vividly of Dolly was her holding the lad, close against her breast; that’s what he’d seen. And yet he’d made it. He thought he’d made it. Maybe.

What might have happened? he wondered. There hadn’t been time to ask. There’d been no time to hesitate, either; more lights had come bobbing across the dark, with uncouth Northumbrian shouts behind them, hunting him, and he’d hurled himself into the midst of the standing stones and things went pear-shaped again, even worse. He hoped the strangers who’d rescued him had got away.

Lost, the fair man had said, and even now, the word went through him like a bit of jagged metal. He swallowed.

He thought he wasn’t where he had been, but was he still lost, himself? Where was he now? Or rather, when?

He stayed for a bit, gathering his strength. In a few minutes, though, he heard a familiar sound – the low growl of engines, and the swish of tyres on asphalt. He swallowed hard, and standing up, turned away from the stones, toward the road.

He was lucky – for once, he thought wryly. There was a line of troop transports passing, and he swung aboard one without difficulty. The soldiers looked startled at his appearance – he was rumpled and stained, bruised and torn about and with a two-week beard – but they instantly assumed he’d been off on a tear and was now trying to sneak back to his base without being detected. They laughed and nudged him knowingly, but were sympathetic, and when he confessed he was skint, had a quick whip-round for enough cash to buy a train ticket from Salisbury, where the transport was headed.

He did his best to smile and go along with the ragging, but soon enough they tired of him and turned to their own conversations, and he was allowed to sit swaying on the bench, feeling the thrum of the engine through his legs, surrounded by the comfortable presence of comrades.

‘Hey, mate,’ he said casually to the young soldier beside him. ‘What year is it?’

The boy – he couldn’t be more than seventeen, and Jerry felt the weight of the five years between them as though they were fifty – looked at him wide-eyed, then whooped with laughter.

‘What’ve you been having to drink, Dad? Bring any away with you?’

That led to more ragging, and he didn’t try asking again.

Did it matter?

He remembered almost nothing of the journey from Salisbury to London. People looked at him oddly, but no one tried to stop him. It didn’t matter; nothing mattered but getting to Dolly. Everything else could wait.

London was a shock. There was bomb damage everywhere. Streets were scattered with shattered glass from shop windows, glinting in the pale sun, other streets blocked off by barriers. Here and there a stark black notice: Do Not Enter – UNEXPLODED BOMB.

He made his way from St Pancras on foot, needing to see, his heart rising into his throat fit to choke him as he did see what had been done. After a while, he stopped seeing the details, perceiving bomb-craters and debris only as blocks to his progress, things stopping him from reaching home.

And then he did reach home.

The rubble had been pushed off the street into a heap, but not taken away. Great blackened lumps of shattered stone and concrete lay like a cairn where Montrose Terrace had once stood.

All the blood in his heart stopped dead, congealed by the sight. He groped, pawing mindlessly for the wrought-iron railing to keep himself from falling, but it wasn’t there.

Of course not, his mind said, quite calmly. It’s gone for the war, hasn’t it? Melted down, made into planes. Bombs.

His knee gave way without warning, and he fell, landing hard on both knees, not feeling the impact, the crunch of pain from his badly mended kneecap quite drowned out by the blunt small voice inside his head.

Too late. Ye went too far.

‘Mr MacKenzie, Mr MacKenzie!’ He blinked at the blurred thing above him, not understanding what it was. Something tugged at him, though, and he breathed, the rush of air in his chest ragged and strange.

‘Sit up, Mr MacKenzie, do.’ The anxious voice was still there, and hands – yes, it was hands – tugging at his arm. He shook his head, screwed his eyes shut hard, then opened them again, and the round thing became the hound-like face of old Mr Wardlaw, who kept the corner shop.

‘Ah, there you are.’ The old man’s voice was relieved, and the wrinkles in his baggy old face relaxed their anxious lines. ‘Had a bad turn, did you?’