Jamie pushed back the bench and rose from the table, handing me out. He put an arm around my shoulders and smiled back at Rupert.
“Well, then, I suppose the two of us will just have to fight it out back-to-back.”
Rupert’s eyes flew open in horrified dismay.
“Back to back!?” he exclaimed. “I knew we’d forgot to tell ye something before your wedding, lad! No wonder you’ve not got her with child yet!”
Jamie’s hand tightened on my shoulder, turning me toward the archway, and we made our escape, pelted by a hail of laughter and bawdy advice.
In the dark hall outside, Jamie leaned against the stones, doubled over. Unable to stand, I sank to the ground at his feet and giggled helplessly.
“You didn’t tell him, did you?” Jamie gasped at last.
I shook my head. “No, of course not.” Still wheezing, I groped for his hand, and he hauled me upright. I collapsed against his chest.
“Let me see if I’ve got it right, now.” He cupped my face between his hands and pressed his forehead to mine, face so close that his eyes blurred into one large blue orb and his breath was warm on my chin.
“Face to face. Is that it?” The fizz of laughter was dying down in my blood, replaced by something else just as potent. I touched my tongue against his lips, while my hands busied themselves lower down.
“Faces are not the essential parts. But you’re learning.”
Next day, I was in my surgery, listening patiently to an elderly lady from the village, some relation to the soup cook, who was rather garrulously detailing her daughter-in-law’s bout with the morbid sore throat which theoretically had something to do with her current complaint of quinsy, though I couldn’t at the moment see the connection. A shadow fell across the doorway, interrupting the old lady’s catalog of symptoms.
I looked up, startled, to see Jamie rush in, followed by Old Alec, both men looking worried and excited. Jamie unceremoniously removed the makeshift tongue depressor I was holding and pulled me to my feet, clasping both hands between his own.
“What—” I began, but was interrupted by Alec, peering over Jamie’s shoulder at my hands, which Jamie was displaying to him.
“Aye, that’s verra weel, but the arms, man? Has she the arm for it?”
“Look.” Jamie grasped one of my hands and stretched my arm out straight, measuring it along one of his.
“Weel,” said Alec, examining it doubtfully, “could do. Aye, it could.”
“Would you care to tell me what you think you’re doing?” I inquired, but before I could finish, I was being hustled down the stairs between the two men, leaving my aged patient to gape after us in perplexity.
A few moment later, I was dubiously eyeing the large, shiny, brown hindquarters of a horse, located some six inches from my face. The problem had been made clear on the way to the stables, Jamie explaining and Old Alec chiming in with remarks, imprecations, and interjections.
Losgann, customarily a good foaler, and a prize member of Colum’s stable, was having trouble. This much I could see for myself; the mare lay on her side and periodically the shining flanks heaved and the enormous body seemed to shiver. Down on hands and knees at the rear of the horse, I could see the lips of the vag**a gape slightly with each contraction, but nothing further happened; no sight of tiny hoof or delicate wet nose appeared at the opening. The foal, a late one, was evidently presenting side-on or backward. Alec thought side-on, Jamie thought backward, and they paused to argue about it for a moment, until I impatiently called the meeting to order to ask what they expected me to do about it, in either case.
Jamie looked at me as though I were a bit simple. “Turn the foal, of course,” he said patiently. “Bring the forelegs round so it can get out.”
“Oh, is that all?” I looked at the horse. Losgann, whose elegant name actually meant “Frog,” was delicately boned for a horse, but bloody big for all that.
“Er, reach inside, you mean?” I glanced covertly at my hand. It probably would fit—the opening was big enough—but what then?
Both men’s hands were clearly too big for the job. And Roderick, the stable lad who was usually pressed into service in such delicate situations, was, of course, immobilized with a splint and sling of my devising on his right arm—he had broken his arm two days before. Willie, the other stable lad, had gone to fetch Roderick, nonetheless, to give advice and moral encouragement. At this juncture, he arrived, clad in nothing but a pair of ragged breeches, thin chest glimmering whitely in the dim stable.
“It’s hard work,” he said dubiously, apprised of the situation and the suggestion that I substitute for him. “Tricky, ye ken. There’s a knack to it, but it takes a bit of strength as well.”
“Nay worry,” said Jamie confidently. “Claire’s stronger by far than you, ye poor weed. If you’ll but tell her what to feel for and what to do, she’ll have it round in no time.”
I appreciated the vote of confidence, but was in no way so sanguine myself. Telling myself firmly that this was no worse than assisting at abdominal surgery, I retired to a stall to change my gown for breeches and a rough smock of sacking, and lathered my hand and arm up to the shoulder with greasy tallow soap.
“Well, over the top,” I muttered under my breath, and slid my hand inside.
There was very little room to maneuver, and at first I couldn’t tell what I was feeling. I closed my eyes to concentrate better, though, and groped cautiously. There were smooth expanses, and bumpy bits. The smooth parts would be body and the bumps legs or head. It was legs I wanted—forelegs, to be specific. Gradually I became accustomed to the feel of things, and the necessity for keeping quite still when a contraction came on; the amazingly powerful muscles of the uterus clamped down on my hand and arm like a vise, grinding my own bones very painfully until the constriction eased, and I could resume my groping.
At last, my fumbling fingers encountered something I was sure of.
“I’ve got my fingers in its nose!” I cried triumphantly. “I’ve found the head!”
“Good lass, good! Dinna let go!” Alec crouched anxiously alongside, patting the mare reassuringly as another contraction set in. I gritted my teeth and leaned my forehead against the shining rump as my wrist was crushed by the force. It eased, though, and I kept my grip. Feeling cautiously upward, I found the curve of eyesocket and brow, and the small ridge of the folded ear. Waiting through one more contraction, I followed the curve of the neck down to the shoulder.
“It’s got its head turned back on its shoulder,” I reported. “The head’s pointing the right way, at least.”
“Good.” Jamie, at the horse’s head, ran his hand soothingly down the sweating chestnut neck. “Likely the legs will be folded under the chest. See can you get a hand on one knee.”
So it went on, feeling, fumbling, up to my shoulder in the warm darkness of the horse, feeling the awful force of the birth pangs and their grateful easing, struggling blindly to reach my goal. I felt rather as though I were giving birth myself, and bloody hard work it was, too.
At last I had my hand on a hoof; I could feel the rounded surface, and the sharp edge of the yet-unused curve. Following the anxious, often contradictory instructions of my guides as best I could, I alternately pulled and pushed, easing the unwieldy mass of the foal around, bringing one foot forward, pushing another back, sweating and groaning along with the mare.
And then suddenly everything worked. A contraction eased, and all at once, everything slid smoothly into place. I waited, not moving, for the next contraction. It came, and a small wet nose popped suddenly out, pushing my hand out with it. The tiny nostrils flared briefly, as though interested in this new sensation, then the nose vanished.
“Next one will do it!” Alec was almost dancing in ecstasy, his arthritic form capering up and down in the hay. “Come on, Losgann. Come on, my sweet wee froggie!”
As though in answer, there was a convulsive grunt from the mare. Her hindquarters flexed sharply and the foal slid smoothly onto the clean hay in a slither of knobbly legs and big ears.
I sat back on the hay, grinning idiotically. I was covered with soap and slime and blood, exhausted and aching, and smelt strongly of the less pleasant aspects of horse. I was euphoric.
I sat watching as Willy and the one-handed Roderick tended the new arrival, wiping him down with wisps of straw. And cheered with the rest when Losgann turned and licked him, butting him gently and nosing him to stand at last on his huge, wobbly feet.
“A damn good job, lassie! Damn good!” Alec was exuberant, pumping my unslimed hand in congratulation. Suddenly realizing that I was swaying on my perch, and much less than presentable, he turned and barked at one of the lads to bring some water. Then he circled behind me and set his horny old hands on my shoulders. With an amazingly deft and gentle touch, he pressed and stroked, easing the strain in my shoulders, relaxing the knots in my neck.
“There, lassie,” he said at last. “Hard work, no?” He smiled down at me, then beamed adoringly at the new colt.
“Bonny laddie,” he crooned. “Who’s a sweet lad, then?”
Jamie helped me to clean up and change. My fingers were too stiff to manage the buttons of my bodice, and I knew my entire arm would be blue with bruising by morning, but I felt thoroughly peaceful and contented.
The rain seemed to have lasted forever, so that when a day finally dawned bright and fair, I squinted in the daylight like a newly emerged mole.
“Your skin is so fine I can see the blood moving beneath it,” Jamie said, tracing the path of a sunbeam across my bare stomach. “I could follow the veins from your hand to your heart.” He drew his finger gently up my wrist to the bend of the elbow, up the inner side of my upper arm, and across the slope below my collarbone.
“That’s the subclavian vein,” I remarked, looking down my nose at the path of his tracking finger.
“Is it? Oh, aye, because it’s below your clavicle. Tell me some more.” The finger moved slowly downward. “I like to hear the Latin names for things; I never dreamed it would be so pleasant to make love to a physician.”
“That,” I said primly, “is an areola, and you know it, because I told you last week.”
“So ye did,” he murmured. “And there’s another one, fancy that.” The bright head dipped to let his tongue replace the finger, then traveled lower.
“Umbilicus,” I said with a short gasp.
“Um,” he said, muffled lips stretching in a smile against my transparent skin. “And what’s this, then?”
“You tell me,” I said, clutching his head. But he was incapable of speech.
Later I lounged in my surgery chair, basking dreamily in memories of awaking in a bed of sunbeams, sheets tumbled in blinding shoals of white like the sands of a beach. One hand rested on my breast, and I toyed idly with the nipple, enjoying the feel of it rising against my palm beneath the thin calico of my bodice.
The sarcastic voice from the door brought me upright so quickly that I bumped my head on a shelf.
“Oh,” I said, rather grumpily. “Geilie. Who else? What are you doing here?”
She glided into the surgery, moving as though on wheels. I knew she had feet; I’d seen them. What I couldn’t figure out was where she put them when she walked.
“I came to bring Mrs. Fitz some saffron from Spain; she was wanting it against the Duke’s coming.”
“More spices?” I said, beginning to recover my good humor. “If the man eats half the things she’s fixing for him, they’ll need to roll him home.”
“They could do that now. He’s a wee round ball of a fellow, I’ve heard.” Dismissing the Duke and his physique, she asked whether I’d like to join her for an expedition to the nearby foothills.
“I’m needing a bit of moss,” she explained. She waved her long, boneless hands gracefully to and fro. “Makes a wonderful lotion for the hands, boiled in milk with a bit of sheep’s wool.”
I cast a look up at my slit window, where the dust motes were going mad in the golden light. A faint scent of ripe fruit and fresh-cut hay floated on the breeze.
Waiting as I gathered my baskets and bottles together, Geilie strolled about my surgery, picking things up and putting them down at random. She stopped at a small table and picked up the object that lay there, frowning.
I stopped what I was doing, and came to stand beside her. She was holding a small bundle of dried plants, tied with three twisted threads; black, white, and red.
“Jamie says it’s an ill-wish.”
“He’s right. Where did ye come to get it?”
I told her about the finding of the small bundle in my bed.
“I went and found it under the window next day, where Jamie threw it. I meant to bring it round to your house and ask if you knew anything about it, but I forgot.”
She stood tapping a fingernail thoughtfully against her front teeth, shaking her head.
“No, I canna say that I do. But there might be a way of finding out who left it for ye.”
“Aye. Come to my house in the morning tomorrow, and I’ll tell ye then.”
Refusing to say more, she whirled about in a swirl of green cloak, leaving me to follow as I would.
She led me well up into the foothills, galloping when there was road enough to do so, walking when there wasn’t. An hour’s ride from the village, she stopped near a small brook, overhung by willows.
We forded the brook and wandered up into the foothills, gathering such late summer plants as still lingered, together with the ripening berries of early autumn and the thick yellow shelf fungus that sprouted from the trunks of trees in the small shady glens.
Geilie’s figure disappeared into the bracken above me, as I paused to scrape a bit of aspen bark into my basket. The globules of dried sap on the papery bark looked like frozen drops of blood, the deep crimson refulgent with trapped sunlight.
A sound startled me out of my reverie, and I looked up the hill, in the direction it seemed to come from.
I heard the sound again; a high-pitched, mewling cry. It seemed to come from above, from a rocky notch near the crest of the hill. I set my basket down and began to climb.
“Geilie!” I shouted. “Come up here! Someone’s left a baby!”
The sound of scrabbling and muttered imprecations preceded her up the hill, as she fought her way through the entangling bushes on the slope. Her fair face was flushed and cross and she had twigs in her hair.
“What in God’s name—” she began, and then darted forward. “Christ’s blood! Put it down!” She hastily snatched the baby from my arms, then laid it back where I had found it, in a small depression in the rock. The smooth, bowlshaped hollow was less than a yard across. At one side of the hollow was a shallow wooden bowl, half-full of fresh milk, and at the baby’s feet was a small bouquet of wildflowers, tied with a bit of red twine.
“But it’s sick!” I protested, stooping toward the child again. “Who would leave a sick child up here by itself?”
The baby was plainly very ill; the small pinched face was greenish, with dark hollows under the eyes, and the little fists waved weakly under the blanket. The child had hung slack in my arms when I picked it up; I wondered that it had had the strength to cry.
“Its parents,” Geilie said briefly, restraining me with a hand on my arm. “Leave it. Let’s get out of here.”
“Its parents?” I said indignantly. “But—”
“It’s a changeling,” she said impatiently. “Leave it and come. Now!”
Dragging me with her, she dodged back into the undergrowth. Protesting, I followed her down the slope until we arrived, breathless and red faced, at the bottom, where I forced her to stop.
“What is this?” I demanded. “We can’t just abandon a sick child, out in the open like that. And what do you mean, it’s a changeling?”
“A changeling,” she said impatiently. “Surely you know what a changeling is? When the fairies steal a human child away, they leave one of their own in its place. You know it’s a changeling because it cries and fusses all the time and doesn’t thrive or grow.”
“Of course I know what it is,” I said. “But you don’t believe that nonsense, do you?”
She shot me a sudden strange look, full of wary suspicion. Then the lines of her face relaxed into their normal expression of half-amused cynicism.
“No, I don’t,” she admitted. “But the folk here do.” She glanced nervously up the slope, but no further sound came from the rocky notch. “The family will be somewhere near about. Let’s go.”
Reluctantly, I allowed her to tow me away in the direction of the village.
“Why did they put it up there?” I asked, sitting on a rock to remove my stockings before wading across a small stream. “Do they hope the Wee Folk will come and cure it?” I was still bothered about the child; it seemed desperately ill. I didn’t know what was wrong with it, but perhaps I could help.
Maybe I could leave Geilie in the village, then come back for the child. It would have to be soon, though; I glanced up at the eastern sky, where soft grey rain clouds were swiftly darkening into purple dusk. A pink glow still showed to the west, but there could be no more than half an hour’s light left.
Geilie looped the twisted withy handle of her basket over her neck, picked up her skirt and stepped into the stream, shivering at the cold water.
“No,” she said. “Or rather, yes. That’s one of the fairies’ hills, and it’s dangerous to sleep there. If ye leave a changeling out overnight in such a place, the Folk will come and take it back, and leave the human child they’ve stolen in its place.”
“But they won’t, because it isn’t a changeling,” I said, sucking in my breath at the touch of the melted snow water. “It’s only a sick child. It might very well not survive a night in the open!”
“It won’t,” she said briefly. “It will be dead by morning. And I hope to God no one saw us near it.”
I stopped abruptly in the midst of putting on my shoes.
“Dead! Geilie, I’m going back for it. I can’t leave it there.” I turned and started back across the stream.