“Okay,” she said under her breath, teeth still clenched. “Okay.” The red haze had lifted like a cloud, leaving a pile of cold, icy little thoughts under it.
We have to go.
And the coldest of all:
What about Roger?
She was sitting in the study, the wood paneling glowing softly in the candlelight. There was a perfectly good reading lamp, as well as the ceiling fixture, but she’d lit the big candle instead. Roger liked to use that when he wrote late at night, writing down the songs and poems he’d memorized, sometimes with a goose quill. He said it helped him recall the words, bringing back an echo of the time where he’d learned them.
The candle’s smell of hot wax brought back an echo of him. If she closed her eyes, she could hear him, humming low in his throat as he worked, stopping now and then to cough or clear his damaged throat. Her fingers rubbed softly over the wooden desk, summoning the touch of the rope scar on his throat, passing round to cup the back of his head, bury her fingers in the thick black warmth of his hair, bury her face in his chest . . .
She was shaking again, this time with silent sobs. She curled her fist again, but this time just breathed until it stopped.
“This will not do,” she said out loud, sniffed deeply, and, clicking on the light, she blew out the candle and reached for a sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen.
WIPING THE TEARS off her face with the back of her hand, she folded the letter carefully. Envelope? No. If anybody found this, an envelope wouldn’t stop them. She turned the letter over and, sniffing, wrote Roger, in her best parochial-school penmanship.
She groped in her pocket for a Kleenex and blew her nose, feeling obscurely that she should do something more . . . ceremonial? . . . with the letter, but other than putting it in the fireplace and touching a match to it so the north wind would carry it, as her parents had done with her childhood letters to Santa, nothing occurred to her.
In her present state of mind, she found it comforting that Santa had always come through.
She opened the big drawer and was groping at the back for the catch that released the secret hiding place when something else did occur to her. She slammed the big drawer shut and yanked open the wide shallow one in the center, which held pens and paper clips and rubber bands—and a lipstick left in the downstairs powder room by some random dinner guest.
It was pink but a dark pink, and it didn’t matter that it clashed with her hair. She applied it hastily by feel, then pressed her lips carefully over the word Roger.
“I love you,” she whispered, and, touching the pink kiss with one fingertip, opened the big drawer again and pushed the spot that unlocked the hiding place. It wasn’t a secret drawer but a space built into the underside of the desk. A sliding panel let you reach up into a shallow hole about six inches by eight.
When Roger discovered it, it had three stamps printed with the head of Queen Victoria in it—unfortunately, all run-of-the-mill late-Victorian postage rather than a helpfully valuable One-Penny Black—and a wispy curl of a child’s fine blond hair, faded with age, tied with white thread and a tiny scrap of heather. They’d left the stamps there—who knew, maybe they would be valuable by the time another few generations inherited the desk—but she’d put the lock of hair between the pages of her Bible and said a small prayer for the child and his—her?—parents, whenever she came across it.
The letter fit easily into the heart of the old desk. A moment of panic: should she have included locks of the kids’ hair? No, she thought fiercely. Don’t be morbid. Sentimental, yes. Morbid, no.
“Lord, let us all be together again,” she whispered, pushing down the fear, and, closing her eyes, shut the panel with a little click.
If she hadn’t opened her eyes right as she withdrew her hand, she’d never have seen it. Just the edge of something hanging down at the back of the big drawer, barely visible. She reached up and found an envelope, far back, attached to the underside of the desk with Scotch tape. This had dried with age; her earlier slamming of the drawer had probably loosened it.
She turned the envelope over with a sense of something happening in a dream and was, dreamlike, not surprised to see the initials B.E.R. written on the yellowed envelope. Very slowly, she opened it.
Dearest Deadeye, she read, and felt each tiny hair on her body rise slow and silent, one at a time.
You’ve just left me, after our wonderful afternoon among the clay pigeons. My ears are still ringing. Whenever we shoot, I’m torn between immense pride in your ability, envy of it—and fear that you may someday need it.
What a queer feeling it is, writing this. I know that you’ll eventually learn who—and perhaps, what—you are. But I have no idea how you’ll come to that knowledge. Am I about to reveal you to yourself, or will this be old news when you find it? If we’re both lucky, I may be able to tell you in person, when you’re a little older. And if we’re very lucky, it will come to nothing. But I daren’t risk your life in that hope, and you’re not yet old enough that I could tell you.
I’m sorry, sweetheart, that’s terribly melodramatic. And the last thing I want to do is alarm you. I have all the confidence in the world in you. But I am your father and thus prey to the fears that afflict all parents—that something dreadful and unpreventable will happen to one’s child, and you powerless to protect her.
“What the hell, Daddy?” She rubbed hard at the back of her neck to ease the prickling there.
Men who’ve lived through war usually don’t talk about it, save to other soldiers. Men from my part of the Service don’t talk to anyone, and not only because of the Official Secrets Act. But silence eats at the soul. I had to talk to someone, and my old friend Reggie Wakefield became my confessor.
(That’s the Reverend Reginald Wakefield, a Church of Scotland minister who lives in Inverness. If you’re reading this letter, I’ll very likely be dead. If Reggie is still alive and you are of age, go to see him; he has my permission to tell you anything he knows at that point.)
“Of age?” Hastily, she tried to calculate when this had been written. Clay pigeons. Sherman’s—the shooting range where he’d taught her to use a shotgun. The shotgun had been a present for her fifteenth birthday. And her father had died soon after her seventeenth birthday.
The Service has nothing directly to do with this; don’t go looking in that direction for information. I mention it only because that’s where I learned what a conspiracy looks like. I also met a great many people in the war, many of them in high places, and many of them strange; the two overlap more often than one might wish.
Why is this so hard to say? If I’m dead, your mother may have told you already the story of your birth. She promised me that she would never speak of it, so long as I lived, and I’m sure she hasn’t. If I’m dead, though, she might—
Forgive me, darling. It’s hard to say, because I love your mother and I love you. And you are my daughter forever, but you were sired by another man.
All right, that’s out. Seeing it in black and white, my impulse is to rip this paper to bits and burn them, but I won’t. You have to know.
Shortly after the war ended, your mother and I came to Scotland. Something of a second honeymoon. She went out one afternoon to pick flowers—and never came back. I searched—everyone searched—for months, but there was no sign, and eventually the police stopped—well, in fact they didn’t stop suspecting me of murdering her, damn them, but they grew tired of harassing me. I had begun to put my life back together, made up my mind to move on, perhaps leave Britain—and then Claire came back. Three years after her disappearance, she showed up in the Highlands, filthy, starved, battered—and pregnant.
Pregnant, she said, by a Jacobite Highlander from 1743 named James Fraser. I won’t go into all that was said between us; it was a long time ago and it doesn’t matter—save for the fact that IF your mother was telling the truth, and did indeed travel back in time, then you may have the ability to do it, too. I hope you don’t. But if you should—Lord, I can’t believe I’m writing this in all seriousness. But I look at you, darling, with the sun on your ruddy hair, and I see him. I can’t deny that.
Well. It took a long time. A very long time. But your mother never changed her story, and though we didn’t speak about it after a while, it became obvious that she wasn’t mentally deranged (which I had rather naturally assumed to be the case, initially). And I began . . . to look for him.
Now I must digress for a moment; forgive me. I think you won’t have heard of the Brahan Seer. Colorful as he was—if, in fact, he existed—he’s not really known much beyond those circles with a taste for the more outlandish aspects of Scottish history. Reggie, though, is a man of immense curiosity, as well as immense learning, and was fascinated by the Seer—one Kenneth MacKenzie, who lived in the seventeenth century (maybe), and who made a great number of prophecies about this and that, sometimes at the behest of the Earl of Seaforth.
Naturally, the only prophecies mentioned in connection with this man are the ones that appeared to come true: he predicted, for instance, that when there were five bridges over the River Ness, the world would fall into chaos. In August 1939 the fifth bridge over the Ness was opened, and in September, Hitler invaded Poland. Quite enough chaos for anyone.
The Seer came to a sticky end, as prophets often do (do please remember that, darling, will you?), burnt to death in a spiked barrel of tar at the instigation of Lady Seaforth—to whom he had unwisely prophesied that her husband was having affairs with various ladies while away in Paris. (That one was likely true, in my opinion.)
Amongst his lesser-known prophecies, though, was one called the Fraser Prophecy. There isn’t a great deal known about this, and what there is is rambling and vague, as prophecies usually are, the Old Testament notwithstanding. The only relevant bit, I think, is this: “The last of Lovat’s line will rule Scotland.”
Pause if you will, now, dear, and look at the paper I am enclosing with this letter.
Fumbling and clumsy with shock, she dropped the sheets altogether and had to retrieve them from the floor. It was easy to tell which paper he meant; the paper was flimsier, a photocopy of a handwritten chart—some sort of family tree—the writing not her father’s.
Yes. Well. This bit of disturbing information came into my hands from Reggie, who’d had it from the wife of a fellow named Stuart Lachlan. Lachlan had died suddenly, and as his widow was clearing out his desk, she found this and decided to pass it on to Reggie, knowing that he and Lachlan had shared an interest in history and in the Lovat family, they being local to Inverness; the clan seat is in Beauly. Reggie, of course, recognized the names.
You likely know nothing about the Scottish aristocracy, but I knew Simon Lovat, Lord Lovat that is, in the war—he was Commandos, then Special Forces. We weren’t close friends but knew each other casually, in the way of business, you might say.
“Whose business?” she said aloud, suspicious. “His, or yours?” She could just see her father’s face, with the hidden smile in the corner of his mouth, keeping something back but letting you know it was there.
The Frasers of Lovat have a fairly straightforward line of descent, until we come to Old Simon—well, they’re all called Simon—the one they call the Old Fox, who was executed for treason after the Jacobite Rebellion—the ’45, they call it. (There’s quite a bit about him in my book on the Jacobites; don’t know if you’ll ever read that, but it’s there, should you feel curious.)
“Should I feel curious,” she muttered. “Ha.” Brianna sensed a definite, if muted, note of accusation there and pressed her lips together, as much annoyed at herself for not having read her father’s books yet as at him for mentioning it.
Simon was one of the more colorful Frasers, in assorted ways. He had three wives but was not famous for fidelity. He did have a few legitimate children, and God knows how many illegitimate ones (though two illegitimate sons were acknowledged), but his heir was Young Simon, known as the Young Fox. Young Simon survived the Rising, though attainted and stripped of his property. He eventually got most of it back through the courts, but the struggle took him most of a long life, and while he married, he did so at a very advanced age and had no children. His younger brother, Archibald, inherited, but then died childless, as well.
So Archibald was the “last of Lovat’s line”—there’s a direct line of descent between him and the Fraser of Lovat who would have been concurrent with the Brahan Seer—but clearly he wasn’t the Scottish ruler foreseen.
You see the chart, though. Whoever made it has listed the two illegitimate sons, as well as Young Simon and his brother. Alexander and Brian, born to different mothers. Alexander entered the priesthood and became the abbot of a monastery in France. No known children. But Brian—
She tasted bile and thought she might throw up. But Brian—She closed her eyes in reflex, but it didn’t matter. The chart was burned on the inside of her eyelids.
She stood up, pushing back the chair with a screak, and lurched out into the hallway, heart thundering in her ears. Swallowing repeatedly, she went to the lobby and got the shotgun from its place behind the coat rack. She felt a little better with it in hand.
“It isn’t right.” She hadn’t realized that she’d spoken aloud; her own voice startled her. “It’s not right,” she repeated, in a low, fierce voice. “They left people out. What about Aunt Jenny? She had six kids! What about them?”
She was stomping down the hallway, gun in hand, swinging the barrel from side to side as though she expected Rob Cameron—or somebody, and the thought made her shudder—to jump out of the parlor or the kitchen or come sliding down the banister. That thought made her look up the stairs—she’d left all the lights on when she came down from tucking in the kids—but the landing was empty and no noise came from above.