“Oh, I could tell ye that.” He promptly doubled up, clasping himself, and rolled his eyes back in his head with a hideous gurgling groan.
“Is that not right, Ian?” he asked, turning his head toward the stool where Ian sat laughing, wooden leg propped on the hearth.
His sister put a delicate foot on his chest and pushed him upright. “All right then, clown. In that case, I’m glad I havena got any.”
Jamie straightened up and brushed the hair out of his eyes. “No, really,” he said, interested, “is it just that the parts are different? Could you describe it to Claire? After all, she’s a woman, though she’s not borne a child yet.”
Jenny eyed my midriff appraisingly, and I felt that small pang once more.
“Mmm, perhaps.” She spoke slowly, thinking. “You feel as though your skin is verra thin all over. You feel everything that touches you, even the rubbing of your clothes, and not just on your belly, but over your legs and flanks and br**sts.” Her hands went to them unconsciously, curving the lawn under the swelling rounds. “They feel heavy and full…and they’re verra sensitive just at the tips.” The small, blunt thumbs slowly circled the br**sts and I saw the n**ples rise against the cloth.
“And of course you’re big and you’re clumsy,” Jenny smiled ruefully, rubbing the spot on her hip where she had banged against the table earlier. “You take up more room than you’re used to.”
“Here, though”—her hands rose protectively to the top of her stomach—“that’s where you feel things most, of course.” She caressed the rounded bulge as though it were her child’s skin she stroked, rather than her own. Ian’s eyes followed her hands as they moved from top to bottom of the curving hillock, over and over, smoothing the fabric again and again.
“In the early days, it’s a bit like belly-gas,” she said, laughing. She poked a toe into her brother’s midsection. “Just there—like little bubbles rippling through your belly. But then later, you feel the child move, and it’s like a fish on your line and then gone—like a quick tug, but so soon past you’re not sure you felt it.” As though in protest at this description, her unseen companion heaved to and fro, making her stomach bulge on one side, then the other.
“I imagine you’re sure, by this time,” Jamie remarked, following the movement with fascination.
“Oh, aye.” She placed a hand on one bulge, as though to quiet it. “They sleep, ye know, for hours at a time. Sometimes ye fear they’ve died, when there’s no movement for a long time. Then you try to wake them”—her hand pushed in sharply at the side, and was rewarded immediately by a strong push in the opposite direction—“and you’re happy when they kick again. But it’s not just the babe itself. You feel swollen all over, near the end. Not painful…just so ripe you could burst. It’s as though you need to be touched, verra lightly, all over.” Jenny was no longer looking at me. Her eyes held her husband’s, and I knew she was no longer aware of me or her brother. There was an air of intimacy between her and Ian, as though this were a story often told, but one of which they never tired.
Her voice was lower now, and her hands rose again to her br**sts, heavy and compelling under the light bodice.
“And in the last month or so, the milk begins to come in. You feel yourself filling, just a wee bit at a time, a little each time the child moves. And then suddenly, everything comes up hard and round.” She cupped her stomach again. “There’s no pain, then, just a breathless feeling, and then your br**sts tingle as though they’ll explode if they’re not suckled.” She closed her eyes and leaned back, stroking her massive belly, over and over, with a rhythm like the invocation of a spell. It came to me, watching her, that if ever there were such a thing as a witch, then Janet Fraser was one.
The smoky air was filled with the trance over the room; the feeling that lies at the root of lust, the terrible yearning need to join, and create. I could have counted every hair on Jamie’s body without looking at him, and knew each one stood erect.
Jenny opened her eyes, dark in the shadows, and smiled at her husband, a slow, rich curve of infinite promise.
“And late in bearing, when the child moves a lot, sometimes there’s a feeling like when you’ve your man inside ye, when he comes to ye deep and pours himself into you. Then, then when that throbbing starts deep inside ye along with him, it’s like that, but it’s much bigger; it ripples all through the walls of your womb and fills all of you. The child’s quiet then, and it’s as though it’s him you’ve taken inside you instead.”
Suddenly she turned to me, and the spell was broken. “That’s what they want sometimes, ye know,” she said quietly, smiling into my eyes. “They want to come back.”
Some time later, Jenny rose, floating toward the door with a glance back that pulled Ian after her like iron to true north. She paused near the door for him, looking back at her brother, who sat still by the fire hearth.
“You’ll see to the fire, Jamie?” She stretched, arching her back, and the curve of her spine echoed the strangely sinuous curve of her belly. Ian’s knuckles pressed hard along the length of her back, and ground into the base of her spine, making her groan. And then they were gone.
I stretched too, arms upward, feeling the pleasant pull of tired muscles. Jamie’s hands ran down my sides and rested on the swell of my hips. I leaned back into him, drawing his hands forward, imagining them cupping the gentle curve of an unborn child.
As I turned my head to kiss him, I noticed the small form curled in the corner of the settle.
“Look. They’ve forgotten small Jamie.” The little boy customarily slept on a trundle in his parents’ room. Tonight he had fallen asleep by the fire while we sat talking over the wine, but no one had remembered to carry him up to his bed. My own Jamie turned me to face him, smoothing my hair away from his nose.
“Jenny never forgets anything,” he said. “I expect she and Ian do not care for company just now.” His hands went to the fastening at the back of my skirt. “He’ll do where he is for the present.”
“But what if he wakes up?”
The roving hands came up under the now-loose edge of the bodice. Jamie cocked an eyebrow at the recumbent form of his small nephew.
“Aye well. He’ll have to learn his job sometime, won’t he? Ye don’t want him to be as ignorant as his uncle was.” He tossed several cushions to the floor before the fire and lowered himself, carrying me with him.
The firelight gleamed on the silvery scars on his back, as though he were in fact the iron man I had once accused him of being, the metal core showing through rents in the fragile skin. I traced the lashmarks one by one, and he shivered under my touch.
“Do you think Jenny’s right?” I asked later. “Do men really want to come back inside? Is that why you make love to us?” A breath of laughter stirred the hair by my ear.
“Well, it’s no usually the first thing in my mind when I take ye to bed, Sassenach. Far from it. But then…” His hands cupped my br**sts softly, and his lips closed on one nipple. “I’d no just say she was completely wrong either. Sometimes…aye, sometimes it would be good, to be inside again, safe and…one. Knowing we cannot, I suppose, is what makes us want to beget. If we cannot go back ourselves, the best we can do is to give that precious gift to our sons, at least for a little while…” He shook himself suddenly, like a dog flinging water from its coat.
“Pay me no mind, Sassenach,” he murmured. “I get verra maudlin, drinking elderberry wine.”
There was a light knock on the door, and Jenny stepped in, carrying a folded blue garment over her arm and a hat in one hand. She looked her brother over critically, then nodded.
“Aye, the shirt’s well enough. And I’ve let out your best coat for ye; you’ve grown a bit through the shoulders since I saw ye last.” She cocked her head to one side, considering. “Ye’ve done a braw job of it today—up to the neck, at least. Sit ye down over there, and I’ll tend to your hair.” She pointed to the stool by the window.
“My hair? What’s wrong wi’ my hair?” Jamie demanded, putting a hand up to check. Grown nearly to shoulder-length, he had as usual laced it back with a leather thong to keep it out of his face.
Wasting no time on chat, his sister pushed him down onto the stool, yanked the thong loose and began to brush him vigorously with the tortoiseshell brushes.
“What’s wrong wi’ your hair?” she asked rhetorically. “Weel, now. There’s cockleburs in it, for one thing.” She plucked a small brown object delicately from his head and dropped it on the dresser. “And bits of oak leaf. Where were ye yesterday—rootling under the trees like a hog? And more tangles than a skein of washed yarn—”
“Be still, roy.” Frowning with concentration, she picked up a comb and teased out the tangles, leaving a smooth, shining mass of auburn, copper, cinnamon, and gold, all gleaming together in the morning sun from the window. Jenny spread it in her hands, shaking her head over it.
“I canna think why the good Lord should waste hair like that on a man,” she remarked. “Like a red-deer’s pelt, in places.”
“It is wonderful isn’t it?” I agreed. “Look, where the sun’s bleached it on top, he’s got those lovely blond streaks.” The object of our admiration glowered up at us.
“If ye both dinna stop it, I shall shave my head.” He stretched out a threatening hand toward the dresser, where his razor rested. His sister, deft in spite of the enormous bulge of pregnancy, reached out and smacked his wrist with the hairbrush. He yelped, then yelped again as she yanked the hair back into a fistful.
“Keep still,” she ordered. She began to separate the hair into three thick strands. “I’ll make ye a proper cockernonny,” she declared with satisfaction. “I’ll no have ye goin’ down to your tenants looking like a savage.”
Jamie muttered something rebellious under his breath, but subsided under his sister’s ministrations. Dexterously tucking in stray bits here and there, she plaited the hair into a thick formal queue, tucking the ends under and binding them securely with thread. Then she reached into her pocket, pulled out a blue silk ribbon and triumphantly tied it in a bow.
“There!” she said. “Bonny, no?” She turned to me for confirmation, and I had to admit it. The closely bound hair set off the shape of his head and the bold modeling of his face. Clean and orderly, in snowy linen and grey breeches, he cut a wonderful figure.
“Especially the ribbon,” I said, suppressing an urge to laugh. “The same color as his eyes.”
Jamie glared at his sister.
“No,” he said shortly. “No ribbons. This isna France, nor yet King Geordie’s court! I dinna care if it’s the color of the Virgin’s cloak—no ribbons, Janet!”
“Oh, all right, then, fusspot. There.” She pulled the ribbon loose and stood back.
“Aye, ye’ll do,” she said, with satisfaction. Then she turned her penetrating blue eyes on me.
“Hm,” she said, tapping her foot thoughtfully.
As I had arrived more or less in rags, it had been necessary to make me two new gowns as quickly as possible; one of homespun for daily use, and one of silk for occasions of state such as this. Better at stitching wounds than cloth, I had helped with the cutting and pinning, but been obliged to leave the design and sewing to Jenny and Mrs. Crook.
They had done a beautiful job, and the primrose yellow silk fitted my torso like a glove, with deep folds rolling back over the shoulders and falling behind in panels that flowed into the luxuriant drape of the full skirt. Bowing reluctantly to my absolute refusal to wear corsets, they had instead ingeniously reinforced the upper bodice with whale-bone stays ruthlessly stripped from an old corset.
Jenny’s eyes traveled slowly upward from my feet to my head, where they lingered. With a sigh, she reached for the hairbrush.
“You, too,” she said.
I sat, face burning, avoiding Jamie’s eyes, as she carefully removed small twigs and bits of oak leaf from my curls, depositing them on the dresser next to those seined from her brother’s hair. Eventually my hair was combed out and pinned up, and she reached into her pocket and pulled out a small lace cap.
“There,” she said, pinning it firmly to the top of my pile of curls. “Kertch and all. Verra respectable ye look, Claire.”
I assumed this was meant as a compliment, and murmured something in reply.
“Have ye any jewelry, though?” Jenny asked.
I shook my head. “No, I’m afraid not. All I had were the pearls Jamie gave me for our wedding, and those—” Under the circumstances of our departure from Leoch, pearls had been the last thing on my mind.
“Oh!” Jamie exclaimed, suddenly reminded. He dug in the sporran resting on the dresser, and triumphantly pulled out the string of pearls.
“Where on earth did you get those?” I asked in amazement.
“Murtagh brought them, early this morning,” he answered. “He went back to Leoch during the trial and got everything he could carry—thinking that we’d need it if we got away. He looked for us on the road here, but of course we’d gone to…to the hill, first.”
“Is he still here?” I asked.
Jamie stood behind me to fasten the necklace.
“Oh, aye. He’s downstairs eating everything in the kitchen and deviling Mrs. Crook.”
Aside from his songs, I had heard the wiry little man say less than three dozen words throughout the course of our acquaintanceship, and the thought of his “deviling” anyone was incongruous. He must feel remarkably at home at Lallybroch, I thought.
“Who is Murtagh?” I asked. “I mean, is he a relation of yours?”
Jamie and Jenny both looked surprised.
“Oh, aye,” the latter replied. She turned to her brother. “He’s—what, Jamie?—Father’s second cousin’s uncle?”
“Nephew,” he corrected. “Ye dinna remember? Old Leo had the two boys, and then—”
I put my hands over my ears in a marked manner. This seemed to remind Jenny of something, for she clapped her hands together.
“Earbobs!” she exclaimed. “I think I’ve some pearl ones that will just do with that necklace! I’ll fetch them directly.” She vanished with her usual light speed.
“Why does your sister call you Roy?” I asked curiously, watching as he tied his stock before the looking glass. He wore the customary expression of a man doing battle with a mortal enemy, common to all men adjusting their neckwear, but he unclamped his lips to grin at me.
“Och, that. It isna the English name Roy. It’s a pet name in Gaelic; the color of my hair. The word’s ‘ruadh’—means ‘red.’ ” He had to spell the word and say it over several times before I could catch any difference.
“Sounds the same to me, roy,” I said, shaking my head.
Jamie picked up his sporran and began tucking in the loose bits of things that had come out when he pulled out the pearls. Finding a tangled length of fishing line, he upended the bag over the bed, dumping everything in a pile. He began to sort through it, painstakingly winding up the bits of line and string, finding loose fish hooks and firmly re-imbedding them in the piece of cork where they normally rested. I moved over to the bed and inspected the array.
“I’ve never seen so much rubbish in my life,” I observed. “You’re a regular jackdaw, Jamie.”
“It isna rubbish,” he said, stung. “I’ve uses for all these things.”
“Well, the fish lines, and the hooks, yes. And the string for snares. Even, stretching a point, the pistol wadding and the balls—you do carry a pistol now and again. And the little snake Willie gave you, I understand that. But the stones? And a snail shell? And a piece of glass? And…” I bent closer to peer at a dark, furry mass of something.
“What is—it isn’t, is it? Jamie, why on earth are you carrying a dried mole’s foot in your sporran?”
“Against rheumatism, of course.” He snatched the object from under my nose and stuffed it back in the badger skin.
“Oh, of course,” I agreed, surveying him with interest. His face was mildly flushed with embarrassment. “It must work; you don’t creak anywhere.” I picked a small Bible out of the remaining rubble and thumbed through it, while he stowed away the rest of his valuable equipment.
“Alexander William Roderick MacGregor.” I read aloud the name on the flyleaf. “You said there was a debt owing him, Jamie. What did you mean by that?”
“Oh, that.” He sat down beside me on the bed, took the small book from me and gently flipped the pages.
“I told ye this belonged to a prisoner who’d died at Fort William, no?”
“I didna know the lad myself; he died a month before I came there. But the doctor who gave it to me told me about him, while he tended my back. I think he needed to tell someone about it, and he couldna speak to anyone in the garrison.” He closed the book, holding it on his knee, and stared out the window at the g*y October sunshine.
Alex MacGregor, a lad of eighteen or so, had been arrested for the common offense of cattle-lifting. A fair, quiet lad, he had seemed likely to serve his sentence and be released without incident. A week before his release, though, he had been found hanging in the horseshed.
“There was no doubt he’d done it himself, the doctor said.” Jamie caressed the leather cover of the small book, drawing one large thumb along the binding. “And he did not exactly say what he thought, himself. But he did say that Captain Randall had had a private conversation with the lad a week before.”
I swallowed, suddenly cold despite the sunshine.
“And you think—”
“No.” His voice was soft and certain. “I dinna think. I know, and so did the doctor. And I imagine the sergeant-major knew for certain, and that’s why he died.” He spread his hands flat on his knees, looking down at the long joints of his fingers. Large, strong and capable; the hands of a farmer, the hands of a warrior. He picked up the small Bible and put it into the sporran.