Page 47

Jamie stayed motionless, knowing that the stallion couldn’t reach him. Hamish jumped back with a squeak, clearly scared speechless by the sudden appearance of that monstrous shimmering head, with its rolling, bloodshot eyes and flaring nostrils.

“I dinna think so,” observed Jamie mildly. He reached down and took his small cousin by the shoulder, steering him away from the horse, who kicked his stall in protest. Hamish shuddered in concert with the boards of the stall as the lethal hooves crashed against the wood.

Jamie turned the boy around to face him and stood looking down at him, hands on his kilted hips.

“Now then,” he said firmly. “What’s this all about? Why are ye wanting aught to do wi’ Donas?”

Hamish’s jaw was set stubbornly, but Jamie’s face was both encouraging and adamant. He punched the boy gently on the shoulder, getting a tiny smile response.

“Come on, duine,” Jamie said, softly. “Ye know I wilna tell anyone. Have ye done something foolish?”

A faint flush came up on the boy’s fair skin.

“No. At least…no. Well, maybe a bit foolish.”

After a bit more encouragement, the story came out, reluctantly at first, then in a tumbling flood of confession.

He had been out on his pony, riding with some of the other boys the day before. Several of the older lads had started competing, to see who could jump his horse over a higher obstacle. Jealously admiring them, Hamish’s better judgment was finally overcome by bravado, and he had tried to force his fat little pony over a stone fence. Lacking both ability and interest, the pony had come to a dead stop at the fence, tossing young Hamish over his head, over the fence, and ignominiously into a nettle patch on the other side. Stung both by nettles and by the hoots of his comrades, Hamish was determined to come out today on “a proper horse,” as he put it.

“They wouldna laugh if I came out on Donas,” he said, envisioning the scene with grim relish.

“No, they wouldna laugh,” Jamie agreed. “They’d be too busy picking up the pieces.”

He eyed his cousin, shaking his head slowly. “I’ll tell ye, lad. It takes courage and sense to make a good rider. You’ve the courage, but the sense is a wee bit lacking, yet.” He put a consoling arm round Hamish’s shoulders, drawing him down toward the end of the stable.

“Come along, man. Help me fork the hay, and we’ll get ye acquainted wi’ Cobhar. You’re right; ye should have a better horse if you’re ready, but it isna necessary to kill yourself to prove it.”

Glancing up into the loft as he passed, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged helplessly. I smiled and waved down at him, telling him to go ahead, it was all right. I watched them as Jamie took an apple from the basket of windfalls kept near the door. Fetching a pitchfork from the corner, he led Hamish back to one of the center stalls.

“Here, coz,” he said, pausing. He whistled softly through his teeth and a wide-browed bay horse put its head out, blowing through its nostrils. The dark eyes were large and kind, and the ears had a slight forward c*ck that gave the horse an expression of friendly alertness.

“Now then, Cobhar, ciamar a tha thu?” Jamie patted the sleek neck firmly, and scratched the cocked ears.

“Come on up,” he said, motioning to his small cousin. “That’s it, next to me. Near enough he can smell ye. Horses like to smell ye.”

“I know.” Hamish’s high voice was scornful. He barely reached the horse’s nose, but reached up and patted. He stood his ground as the big head came down and sniffed interestedly around his ear, whuffling in his hair.

“Give me an apple,” he said to Jamie, who obliged. The soft velvet lips plucked the fruit delicately out of Hamish’s palm, and flicked it back between the huge molars, where it vanished with a juicy crunch. Jamie watched approvingly.

“Aye. You’ll get on fine. Go on and make friends, then, while I finish feeding the others, then ye can take him out to ride.”

“By myself?” Hamish asked eagerly. Cobhar, whose name meant “Foam,” was good-tempered, but a sound, spirited 14-hand gelding, nonetheless, and a far cry from the brown pony.

“Twice round the paddock wi’ me watchin’ ye, and if ye dinna fall off or jerk his mouth, ye can take him by yourself. No jumping him ’til I say, though.” The long back bent, gleaming in the warm dusk of the stable, as Jamie caught up a forkful of hay from the pile in one corner and carried it to one of the stalls.

He straightened and smiled at his cousin. “Gi’ me one of those, will ye?” He leaned the fork against a stall and bit into the proffered fruit. The two stood companionably eating, leaning side by side against the stable wall. When he finished, Jamie handed the core to a nuzzling sorrel and fetched his fork again. Hamish followed him down the aisle, chewing slowly.

“I’ve heard my father was a good rider,” Hamish offered tentatively, after a moment’s silence. “Before—before he couldn’t anymore.”

Jamie shot a swift glance at his cousin, but finished pitching hay into the sorrel’s stall before speaking. When he did, he answered the thought, rather than the words.

“I never saw him ride, but I’ll tell ye, lad, I hope never to need as much courage as Colum has.”

I saw Hamish’s gaze rest curiously on Jamie’s scarred back, but he said nothing. After a second apple, his thoughts appeared to have shifted to another topic.

“Rupert said ye had to get married,” he remarked, through a mouthful of apple.

“I wanted to get married,” Jamie said firmly, replacing the pitchfork against the wall.

“Oh. Well…good,” Hamish said uncertainly, as though disconcerted by this novel idea. “I only wondered…do ye mind?”

“Mind what?” Seeing that this conversation might take a while, Jamie sat down on a bale of hay.

Hamish’s feet did not quite reach the floor, or he might have shuffled them. Instead, he drummed his heels lightly against the firm-packed hay.

“Do ye mind being married,” he said, staring at his cousin. “Getting into bed every night with a lady, I mean.”

“No,” said Jamie. “No, in fact, it’s verra pleasant.”

Hamish looked doubtful.

“I dinna think I should like it much. But then all the girls I know are skinny as sticks, and they smell o’ barely water. The lady Claire—your lady, I mean,” he added hastily, as though wishing to avoid confusion, “she’s, er, she looks as though she’d be nicer to sleep with. Soft, I mean.”

Jamie nodded. “Aye, that’s true. Smells all right, too,” he offered. Even in the dim light, I could see a small muscle twitching near the corner of his mouth, and knew he didn’t dare look up in the direction of the loft.

There was a long pause.

“How d’ye know?” Hamish said.

“Know what?”

“Which is the right lady to get married to,” the boy said impatiently.

“Oh.” Jamie rocked back and settled himself against the stone wall, hands behind his head.

“I asked my own Da that, once,” he said. “He said ye just ken. And if ye dinna ken, then she’s no the right lassie.”

“Mmmphm.” This seemed a less than satisfactory explanation, to judge from the expression on the small freckle-spattered face. Hamish sat back, consciously aping Jamie’s posture. His stockinged feet stuck out over the edge of the hay bale. Small as he was, his sturdy frame gave promise of someday matching his cousin’s. The set of the square shoulders, and the tilt of the solid, graceful skull were nearly identical.

“Where’s your shoon, then?” Jamie asked accusingly. “You’ll no ha’ left them in the pasture again? Your mother will box your ears for ye if ye’ve lost them.”

Hamish shrugged this off as a threat of no consequence. Clearly there was something of more importance on his mind.

“John—” he started, wrinkling his sandy brows in thought, “John says—”

“John the stable-lad, John the cook-boy, or John Cameron?” Jamie asked.

“The stable-lad.” Hamish waved a hand, pushing away the distraction. “He said, er, about getting married…”

“Mmm?” Jamie made an encouraging noise, keeping his face tactfully turned away. Rolling his eyes upward, his glance met mine, as I peered over the edge. I grinned down at him, causing him to bite his lip to keep from grinning back.

Hamish drew a deep breath, and let it out in a rush, propelling his words like a burst of birdshot. “He-said-ye-must-serve-a-lass-like-a-stallion-does-a-mare-and-I-didna-believe-him-but-is-it-true?”

I bit my finger hard to keep from laughing out loud. Not so fortunately placed, Jamie dug his fingers into the fleshy part of his leg, turning as red in the face as Hamish. They looked like two tomatoes, set side by side on a hay bale for judging at a county vegetable show.

“Er, aye…weel, in a way…” he said, sounding strangled. Then he got a grip on himself.

“Yes,” he said firmly, “yes, ye do.”

Hamish cast a half-horrified glance into the nearby stall, where the bay gelding was relaxing, a foot or so of reproductive equipment protruding from its sheath. He glanced doubtfully down into his lap then, and I stuffed a handful of fabric into my mouth as far as it would go.

“There’s some difference, ye ken,” Jamie went on. The rich color was beginning to fade from his face, though there was still an ominous quiver around his mouth. “For one thing, it’s…more gentle.”

“Ye dinna bite them on the neck, then?” Hamish had the serious, intent expression of one taking careful notes. “To make them keep still?”

“Er…no. Not customarily, anyway.” Exercising his not inconsiderable willpower, Jamie faced up manfully to the responsibilities of enlightenment.

“There’s another difference, as well,” he said, carefully not looking upward. “Ye may do it face to face, instead of from the back. As the lady prefers.”

“The lady?” Hamish seemed dubious about this. “I think I’d rather do it from the back. I dinna think I’d like to have anyone lookin’ at me while I did something like that. Is it hard,” he inquired, “is it hard to keep from laughing?”

I was still thinking about Jamie and Hamish when I came to bed that night. I turned down the thick quilts, smiling to myself. There was a cool draft from the window, and I looked forward to crawling under the quilts and nestling against Jamie’s warmth. Impervious to cold, he seemed to carry a small furnace within himself, and his skin was always warm; sometimes almost hot, as though he burned more fiercely in answer to my own cool touch.

I was still a stranger and an outlander, but no longer a guest at the Castle. While the married women seemed somewhat friendlier, now that I was one of them, the younger girls seemed strongly to resent the fact that I had removed an eligible young bachelor from circulation. In fact, noting the number of cold glances and behind-the-hand remarks, I rather wondered just how many of the Castle maidens had found their way into a secluded alcove with Jamie MacTavish during his short residency.

MacTavish no longer, of course. Most of the Castle inhabitants had always known who he was, and whether I was an English spy or not, I now knew of necessity as well. So he became Fraser publicly, and so did I. It was as Mistress Fraser that I was welcomed into the room above the kitchens where the married women did their sewing and rocked their babies, exchanging bits of mother-lore and eyeing my own waistline with frank appraisal.

Because of my earlier difficulties in conceiving, I had not considered the possibility of pregnancy when I agreed to marry Jamie, and I waited in some apprehension until my monthly occurred on time. My feelings this time were entirely of relief, with none of the sadness that usually accompanied it. My life was more than complicated enough at the moment, without introducing a baby into it. I thought that Jamie perhaps felt a small twinge of regret, though he also professed himself relieved. Fatherhood was a luxury that a man in his position could ill afford.

The door opened and he came in, still rubbing his head with a linen towel, water droplets from his wet hair darkening his shirt.

“Where have you been?” I asked in astonishment. Luxurious as Leoch might be in contrast to the residences of village and croft, it didn’t boast any bathing facilities beyond a copper tub that Colum used to soak his aching legs, and a slightly larger one used by such ladies as thought the labor involved in filling it worth the privacy. All other washing was done either in bits, using basin and ewer, or outside, either in the loch or in a small, stone-floored chamber off the garden, where the young women were accustomed to stand nak*d and let their friends throw buckets of water over them.

“In the loch,” he answered, hanging the damp towel neatly over the windowsill. “Someone,” he said grimly, “left the stall door ajar, and the stable door as well, and Cobhar had a wee swim in the twilight.”

“Oh, so that’s why you weren’t at supper. But horses don’t like to swim, do they?” I asked.

He shook his head, running his fingers through his hair to dry it.

“No, they don’t. But they’re just like folk, ye ken; all different. And Cobhar is fond of the young water plants. He was down nibbling by the water’s edge when a pack of dogs from the village came along and chased him into the loch. I had to run them off and then go in after him. Wait ’til I get my hands on wee Hamish,” he said, with grim intent. “I’ll teach him to leave gates ajar.”

“Are you going to tell Colum about it?” I asked, feeling a qualm of sympathy for the culprit.

Jamie shook his head, groping in his sporran. He drew out a roll and a chunk of cheese, apparently filched from the kitchens on his way up to the chamber.

“No,” he said. “Colum’s fair strict wi’ the lad. If he heard he’d been so careless, he’d not let him ride for a month—not that he could, after the thrashing he’d get. Lord, I’m starving.” He bit ferociously into the roll, scattering crumbs.

“Don’t get into bed with that,” I said, sliding under the quilts myself. “What are you planning to do to Hamish, then?”

He swallowed the remainder of the roll and smiled at me. “Dinna worry. I’m going to row him out on the loch just before supper tomorrow and toss him in. By the time he makes it to shore and dries off, supper will be over.” He finished the cheese in three bites and unashamedly licked his fingers. “Let him go to bed wet and hungry and see how he likes it,” he concluded darkly.

He peered hopefully in the drawer of the desk where I sometimes kept apples or other small bits of food. There was nothing there tonight, though, and he shut the drawer with a sigh.

“I suppose I’ll live ’til breakfast,” he said philosophically. He stripped rapidly and crawled in next to me, shivering. Though his extremities were chilled from his swim in the icy loch, his body was still blissfully warm.

“Mm, you’re nice to croodle wi’,” he murmured, doing what I assumed was croodling. “You smell different; been digging plants today?”

“No,” I said, surprised. “I thought it was you—the smell, I mean.” It was a tangy, herbal smell, not unpleasant, but unfamiliar.

“I smell like fish,” he observed, sniffing the back of his hand. “And wet horse. No,” he leaned closer, inhaling. “No, it isna you, either. But it’s close by.”

He slid out of bed and turned back the quilts, searching. We found it under my pillow.

“What on earth…?” I picked it up, and promptly dropped it. “Ouch! It has thorns!”

“It was a small bundle of plants, plucked up roughly by the roots, and bound together with a bit of black thread. The plants were wilted, but a pungent smell still rose from the drooping leaves. There was one flower in the bouquet, a crushed primrose, whose thorny stem had pricked my thumb.

I sucked the offended digit, turning the bundle over more cautiously with my other hand. Jamie stood still, staring down at it for a moment. Then he suddenly picked it up, and crossing to the open window, flung it out into the light. Returning to the bed, he energetically brushed the crumbs of earth from the plants’ roots into the palm of his hand and threw them out after the bundle. He closed the window with a slam and came back, dusting his palms.

“It’s gone,” he said, unnecessarily. He climbed back into bed. “Come back to bed, Sassenach.”

“What was it?” I asked, climbing in beside him.

“A joke, reckon,” he said. “A nasty one, but only a joke.” He raised himself on one elbow and blew out the candle. “Come here, mo duinne,” he said. “I’m cold.”

Despite the unsettling ill-wish, I slept well, secure in the dual protection of a bolted door and Jamie’s arms. Toward dawn, I dreamed of grassy meadows filled with butterflies. Yellow, brown, white, and orange, they swirled around me like autumn leaves, lighting on my head and shoulders, sliding down my body like rain, the tiny feet tickling on my skin and the velvet wings beating like faint echoes of my own heart.

I floated gently to the surface of reality, and found that the butterfly feet against my stomach were the flaming tendrils of Jamie’s soft red thatch, and the butterfly trapped between my thighs was his tongue.

“Mmm,” I said, sometime later. “Well, that’s all very well for me, but what about you?”

“About three-quarters of a minute, if you keep on in that fashion,” he said, putting my hand away with a grin. “But I’d rather take my time over it—I’m a slow and canny man by nature, d’ye see. Might I ask the favor of your company for this evening, Mistress?”

“You might,” I said. I put my arms behind my head, and fixed him with a half-lidded look of challenge. “If you mean to tell me that you’re so decrepit you can’t manage more than once in a day anymore.”

He regarded me narrowly from his seat on the edge of the bed. There was a sudden flash of white as he lunged, and I found myself pressed deep into the featherbed.

“Aye, well,” he said into the tangles of my hair, “you’ll no say I didna warn ye.”

Two and a half minutes later, he groaned and opened his eyes. He scrubbed his face and head vigorously with both hands, making the shorter ends stick up like quills. Then, with a muffled Gaelic oath, he slid reluctantly out from under the blankets and began to dress, shivering in the chilly morning air.

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