As we drew near, there was a sudden terrible racket from the direction of the outbuildings, and Donas shied and reared. No horseman, I promptly fell off, landing ignominiously in the dusty road. With an eye for the relative importance of things, Jamie leapt for the plunging horse’s bridle, leaving me to fend for myself.
The dogs were almost upon me, baying and growling, by the time I found my feet. To my panicked eyes, there seemed to be at least a dozen of them, all with teeth bared and wicked. There was a shout from Jamie.
“Bran! Luke! Sheas!”
The dogs skidded to a halt within a few feet of me, confused. They milled, growling uncertainly, until he spoke again.
“Sheas, mo maise! Stand, ye wee heathen!” They did, and the largest dog’s tail began gradually to wag, once, and then twice, questioningly.
“Claire. Come take the horse. He’ll not let them close, and it’s me they want. Walk slowly; they’ll no harm ye.” He spoke casually, not to alarm either horse or dogs further. I was not so sanguine, but edged carefully toward him. Donas jerked his head and rolled his eyes as I took the bridle, but I was in no mood to put up with tantrums, and I yanked the rein firmly down and grabbed the headstall.
The thick velvet lips writhed back from his teeth, but I jerked harder. I put my face close to the big glaring golden eye and glared back.
“Don’t try it!” I warned, “or you’ll end up as dogsmeat, and I won’t lift a hand to save you!”
Jamie meanwhile was slowly walking toward the dogs, one hand held out fistlike toward them. What had seemed a large pack was only four dogs: a small brownish rat-terrier, two ruffed and spotted shepherds, and a huge black and tan monster that could have stood in for the Hound of the Baskervilles with no questions asked.
This slavering creature stretched out a neck thicker than my waist and sniffed gently at the proffered knuckles. A tail like a ship’s cable beat back and forth with increasing fervor. Then it flung back its enormous head, baying with joy, and leaped on its master, knocking him flat in the road.
“ ‘In which Odysseus returns from the Trojan War and is recognized by his faithful hound,’ ” I remarked to Donas, who snorted briefly, giving his opinion either of Homer, or of the undignified display of emotion going on in the roadway.
Jamie, laughing, was ruffling the fur and pulling the ears of the dogs, who were all trying to lick his face at once. Finally he beat them back sufficiently to rise, keeping his feet with difficulty against their ecstatic demonstrations.
“Well, someone’s glad to see me, at any rate,” he said, grinning, as he patted the beast’s head. “That’s Luke—” he pointed to the terrier, “and Elphin and Mars. Brothers, they are, and bonny sheep-dogs. And this,” he laid an affectionate hand on the enormous black head, which slobbered in appreciation, “is Bran.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, cautiously extending a knuckle to be sniffed. “What is he?”
“A staghound.” He scratched the pricked ears, quoting
“Thus Fingal chose his hounds:
Eye like sloe, ear like leaf,
Chest like horse, hough like sickle
And the tail joint far from the head.”
“If those are the qualifications, then you’re right,” I said, inspecting Bran. “If his tail joint were any further from his head, you could ride him.”
“I used to, when I was small—not Bran, I don’t mean, but his grandfather, Nairn.”
He gave the hound a final pat and straightened, gazing toward the house. He took the restive Donas’s bridle and turned him downhill.
“In which Odysseus returns to his home, disguised as a beggar,…” he quoted in Greek, having picked up my earlier remark. “And now,” he said, straightening his collar with some grimness, “I suppose it’s time to go and deal with Penelope and her suitors.”
When we reached the double doors, the dogs panting at our heels, Jamie hesitated.
“Should we knock?” I asked, a bit nervous. He looked at me in astonishment.
“It’s my home,” he said, and pushed the door open.
He led me through the house, ignoring the few startled servants we passed, past the entrance hall and through a small gun room, into the drawing room. It boasted a wide hearth with a polished mantel, and bits of silver and glass gleamed here and there, capturing the late-afternoon sun. For a moment, I thought the room was empty. Then I saw a faint movement in one corner near the hearth.
She was smaller than I had expected. With a brother like Jamie, I had imagined her at least my height, or even taller, but the woman by the fire barely reached five feet. Her back was to us as she reached for something on the shelf of the china cabinet, and the ends of her dress sash dipped close to the floor.
Jamie froze when he saw her.
“Jenny,” he said.
The woman turned and I caught an impression of brows black as ink-squills, and blue eyes wide in a white face before she launched herself at her brother.
“Jamie!” Small as she was, she jarred him with the impact of her embrace. His arms went about her shoulders in reflex and they clung for a moment, her face tight against his shirtfront, his hand tender on the nape of her neck. On his face was an expression of such mingled uncertainty and yearning joy that I felt almost an intruder.
Then she pressed herself closer to him, murmuring something in Gaelic, and his expression dissolved in shock. He grasped her by the arms and held her away from him, looking down.
The faces were much alike; the same oddly slanted dark blue eyes and broad cheekbones. The same thin, blade-bridged nose, just a trifle too long. But she was dark where Jamie was fair, with cascades of black curly hair, bound back with green ribbon.
She was beautiful, with clear-drawn features and alabaster skin. She was also clearly in a state of advanced pregnancy.
Jamie had gone white at the lips. “Jenny,” he whispered, shaking his head. “Oh, Jenny. Mo cridh.”
Her attention was distracted just then by the appearance of a small child in the doorway, and she pulled away from her brother without noticing his discomposure. She took the little boy’s hand and led him into the room, murmuring encouragement. He hung back a little, thumb in mouth for comfort, peering up at the strangers from behind his mother’s skirts.
For his mother she plainly was. He had her mop of thick, curly black hair and the square set of her shoulders, though the face was not hers.
“This is wee Jamie,” she said, looking proudly down at the lad. “And this is your uncle Jamie, mo cridh, the one you’re named for.”
“For me? You named him for me?” Jamie looked like a fighter who has just been punched very hard in the stomach. He backed away from mother and child until he blundered into a chair, and sank into it as though the strength had gone from his legs. He hid his face in his hands.
His sister by this time was aware that something was amiss. She touched him tentatively on the shoulder.
“Jamie? What is it, my dearie? Are ye ill?”
He looked up at her then, and I could see his eyes were full of tears.
“Did ye have to do that, Jenny? Do ye think that I’ve not suffered enough for what happened—for what I let happen—that ye must name Randall’s bastard for me, to be a reproach to me so long as I live?”
Jenny’s face, normally pale, lost all vestiges of color.
“Randall’s bastard?” she said blankly. “John Randall, ye mean? The Redcoat captain?”
“Aye, the Redcoat captain. Who else would I mean, for God’s sake! You’ll remember him, I suppose?” Jamie was recovering enough of his customary poise for sarcasm.
Jenny eyed her brother closely, one arched brow lifted in suspicion.
“Have ye lost your senses, man?” she inquired. “Or have ye taken a drop too much along the way?”
“I should never have come back,” he muttered. He rose then, stumbling slightly and tried to pass without touching her. She stood her ground, however, and gripped him by the arm.
“Correct me, brother, if I’m wrong,” Jenny said slowly, “but I’ve the strong impression you’re saying I’ve played the whore to Captain Randall, and what I’m askin’ myself is what maggots you’ve got in your brain to make ye say so?”
“Maggots, is it?” Jamie turned to her, mouth twisted with bitterness. “I wish it were so; I’d rather I was dead and in my grave than to see my sister brought to such a pass.” He seized her by the shoulders, and shook her slightly, crying out, “Why, Jenny, why? To have ye ruin yourself for me was shame enough to kill me. But this…” He dropped his hands then, with a gesture of despair that took in the protruding belly, swelling accusingly under the light smocking.
He turned abruptly toward the door, and an elderly woman, who had been listening avidly with the child clinging to her skirts, drew back in alarm.
“I should not have come. I’ll go.”
“You’ll do no such thing, Jamie Fraser,” his sister said sharply. “Not before you’ve listened to me. Sit yourself down, then, and I’ll tell ye about Captain Randall, since ye want to know.”
“I don’t want to know! I don’t want to hear it!” As she advanced toward him, he turned sharply away to the window that looked out over the yard. She followed him, saying “Jamie…,” but he repelled her with a violent gesture.
“No! Don’t talk to me! I’ve said I canna bear to hear it!”
“Och, is that a fact?” She eyed her brother, standing at the window with his legs braced wide apart, hands on the sill and back stubbornly set against her. She bit her lip and a calculating look came over her face. Quick as lightning, she stooped and her hand shot under his kilt like a striking snake.
Jamie let out a roar of sheer outrage and stood bolt upright with shock. He tried to turn, then froze as she apparently tightened her grip.
“There’s men as are sensible,” she said to me, with a wicked smile, “and beasts as are biddable. Others ye’ll do nothing with, unless ye have ’em by the ballocks. Now, ye can listen to me in a civil way,” she said to her brother, “or I can twist a bit. Hey?”
He stood still, red-faced, breathing heavily through clenched teeth. “I’ll listen,” he said, “and then I’ll wring your wee neck, Janet! Let me go!”
No sooner did she oblige than he whirled on her.
“What in hell d’ye think you’re doing?” he demanded. “Tryin’ to shame me before my own wife?” Jenny was not fazed by his outrage. She rocked back on her heels, viewing her brother and me sardonically.
“Weel, and if she’s your wife, I expect she’s more familiar wi’ your balls than what I am. I havena seen them myself since ye got old enough to wash alone. Grown a bit, no?”
Jamie’s face went through several alarming transformations, as the dictates of civilized behavior struggled with the primitive impulse of a younger brother to clout his sister over the head. Civilization at length won out, and he said through his teeth, with what dignity he could summon, “Leave my balls out of it. And then, since you’ll not rest ’til ye make me hear it, tell me about Randall. Tell me why ye disobeyed my orders and chose to dishonor yourself and your family instead.”
Jenny put her hands on her h*ps and drew herself to her full height, ready for combat. Slower than he to lose her temper; still she had one, no doubt of that.
“Oh, disobey your orders, is it? That’s what eats at ye, Jamie, isn’t it? You know best, and we’ll all do as ye say, or we’ll come to rack and ruin, nae doubt.” She flounced angrily. “And if I’d done as you said, that day, you’d ha’ been dead in the dooryard, Faither hanged or in prison for killing Randall, and the lands gone forfeit to the Crown. To say nothing of me, wi’ my home and family gone, needing to beg in the byroads to live.”
Not pale at all now, Jamie was flushed with anger.
“Aye, so ye chose to sell yourself rather than beg! I’d sooner have died in my blood and seen Faither and the lands in hell along with me, and well ye know it!”
“Aye, I know it! You’re a ninny, Jamie, and always have been!” his sister returned in exasperation.
“Fine thing for you to say! You’re not content wi’ ruining your good name and my own, ye must go on with the scandal, and flaunt your shame to the whole neighborhood!”
“You’ll not speak to me in that way, James Fraser, brother or no! What d’ye mean, ‘my shame’? Ye great fool, you—”
“What I mean? When you’re goin’ about swelled out to here like a mad toad?” He mimicked her belly with a contemptuous swipe of the hand.
She took one step back, drew back her hand and slapped him with all the force she could muster. The impact jarred his head back and left a white outline of her fingers printed on his cheek. He slowly raised a hand to the mark, staring at his sister. Her eyes were glittering dangerously and her bosom heaved. The words spilled out in a torrent between clenched white teeth.
“Toad, is it? Stinking coward—ye’ve no more courage than to leave me here, thinking ye dead or imprisoned, wi’ no word from one day to the next, and then ye come strolling in one fine day—with a wife, no less—and sit in my drawing room calling me toad and harlot and—”
“I didna call ye harlot, but I should! How can ye—”
Despite the differences in their heights, brother and sister were almost nose to nose, hissing at one another in an effort to keep their carrying voices from ringing through the old manor house. The effort was largely wasted, judging from the glimpses I caught of various interested faces peeping discreetly from kitchen, hall, and window. The laird of Broch Tuarach was having an interesting homecoming, to be sure.
I thought it best to let them have it out without my presence, and so I stepped quietly into the hall, with an awkward nod to the elderly woman, and continued into the yard. There was a small arbor there with a bench, on which I seated myself, looking about with interest.
Besides the arbor, there was a small walled garden, blooming with the last of the summer roses. Beyond it was what Jamie referred to as “the doocot”; or so I assumed, from the assorted pigeons that were fluttering in and out of the pierced-work opening at the top of the building.
I knew there was a barn and a shed for silage; these must be to the other side of the house, with the farm’s granary and the henyard, kailyard, and disused chapel. Which still left a small stone building on this side unaccounted for. The light autumn wind was from that direction; I sniffed deeply, and was rewarded with the rich smell of hops and yeast. That was the brewhouse, then, where the beer and ale for the estate were made.
The road past the gate led up and over a small hill. As I looked, a small group of men appeared at the crest, silhouetted in the evening light. They seemed to hover a moment, as though taking leave of each other. This appeared to be the case, for only one came down the hill toward the house, the others striking off through the fields toward a clump of cottages in the distance.
As the single man came down the hill, I could see that he limped badly. When he came through the gate, the reason for it was apparent. The right leg was missing below the knee, and he wore a wooden peg in replacement.
In spite of the limp, he moved youthfully. In fact, as he drew near to the arbor, I could see that he was only in his twenties. He was tall, nearly as tall as Jamie, but much narrower through the shoulder, thin, in fact, nearly to the point of skinniness.
He paused at the entrance to the arbor, leaning heavily on the lattice, and looked in at me with interest. Thick brown hair fell smoothly over a high brow, and deepset brown eyes held a look of patient good humor.
The voices of Jamie and his sister had risen while I waited outside. The windows were open to the warm weather, and the disputants were quite audible from the arbor, though not all the words were clear.
“Interfering, nosy bitch!” came Jamie’s voice, loud on the soft evening air.
“Havena the decency to…” His sister’s reply was lost in a sudden breeze.
The newcomer nodded easily toward the house.
“Ah, Jamie’s home, then.”
I nodded in reply, not sure whether I should introduce myself. It didn’t matter, for the young man smiled and inclined his head to me.
“I’m Ian Murray, Jenny’s husband. And I imagine ye’ll be…ah…”
“The Sassenach wench Jamie’s married,” I finished for him. “My name is Claire. Did you know about it, then?” I asked, as he laughed. My mind was racing. Jenny’s husband?
“Oh, aye. We heard from Joe Orr, who’d got it from a tinker in Ardraigh. Ye canna keep anything secret long in the Highlands. You should know that, even if you’ve been wed as little as a month. Jenny’s been wondering for weeks what you’d be like.”
“Whore!” Jamie bellowed from inside the house. Jenny’s husband didn’t turn a hair, but went on examining me with friendly curiosity.
“You’re a bonny lass,” he said, looking me over frankly. “Are ye fond of Jamie?”
“Well…yes. Yes, I am,” I answered, a bit taken aback. I was becoming accustomed to the directness that characterized most Highlanders, but it still took me unawares from time to time.
He pursed his lips and nodded as though satisfied, and sat down beside me on the bench.
“Better let them have a few minutes longer,” he said, with a wave at the house, where the shouting had now turned to Gaelic. He seemed completely unconcerned as to the cause of the battle. “Frasers dinna listen to anything when they’ve their danders up. When they’ve shouted themselves out, sometimes ye can make them see reason, but not ’til then.”
“Yes, I noticed,” I said dryly, and he laughed.
“So you’ve been wed long enough to find that out, eh? We heard as how Dougal made Jamie wed ye,” he said, ignoring the battle and concentrating his attention on me. “But Jenny said it would take more than Dougal MacKenzie to make Jamie do something he didna care to. Now that I see ye, of course I can see why he did it.” He lifted his brows, inviting further explanation, but politely not forcing it.
“I imagine he had his reasons,” I said, my attention divided between my companion and the house, where the sounds of combat continued. “I don’t want…I mean, I hope…” Ian correctly interpreted my hesitations and my glance toward the drawing-room windows.