Distracted by these musings, I hadn’t noticed Auntie Monika, who had come quietly up beside me.
“Danke,” she said softly, laying a gnarled hand on my arm.
“Gern geschehen.” I put my hand over hers and squeezed gently. “You were a great help—thank you.”
She still smiled, but a line of worry bisected her forehead.
“Not so much. But I am afraid, ja?” She glanced over her shoulder at the bed, then back at me. “What happens, next time, you are not hier? Dey don’t stop, you know,” she added, discreetly making a circle of thumb and forefinger and running the middle finger of the other hand into it in a most indiscreet illustration of exactly what she meant.
I converted a laugh hastily into a coughing fit, which fortunately went ignored by the relevant parties, though Mr. Wemyss glanced over his shoulder in mild concern.
“You’ll be here,” I told her, recovering. She looked horrified.
“Me? Nein,” she said, shaking her head. “Das reicht nicht. Me—” She poked herself in her meager chest, seeing that I hadn’t understood. “I … am not enough.”
I took a deep breath, knowing that she was right. And yet …
“You’ll have to be,” I said, very softly.
She blinked once, her large, wise brown eyes fixed on mine. Then slowly nodded, accepting.
“Mein Gott, hilf mir,” she said.
JAMIE HADN’T BEEN ABLE to go back to sleep. He had trouble sleeping these days, in any case, and often lay awake late, watching the fading glow of embers in the hearth and turning things over in his mind, or seeking wisdom in the shadows of the rafters overhead. If he did fall asleep easily, he often came awake later, sudden and sweating. He knew what caused that, though, and what to do about it.
Most of his strategies for reaching slumber involved Claire—talking to her, making love to her—or only looking at her while she slept, finding solace in the solid long curve of her collarbone, or the heartbreaking shape of her closed eyelids, letting sleep steal upon him from her peaceful warmth.
But Claire, of course, was gone.
Half an hour of saying the rosary convinced him that he had done as much in that direction as was necessary or desirable for the sake of Lizzie and her impending child. Saying the rosary for penance—aye, he saw the point of that, particularly if you had to say it on your knees. Or to quiet one’s mind, fortify the soul, or seek the insight of meditation on sacred topics, aye, that, too. But not for petition. If he were God, or even the Blessed Virgin, who was renowned for patience, he thought he would find it tedious to listen to more than a decade or so of someone saying please about something over and over, and surely there was no point to boring a person whose aid you sought?
Now, the Gaelic prayers seemed much more useful to the purpose, being as they were concentrated upon a specific request or blessing, and more pleasing both in rhythm and variety. If you asked him, not that anyone was likely to.
Moire gheal is Bhride;
Mar a rug Anna Moire,
Mar a rug Moire Criosda,
Mar a rug Eile Eoin Baistidh
Gun mhar-bhith dha dhi,
Cuidich i na ’h asaid,
Cuidich i a Bhride!
Mar a gheineadh Criosd am Moire
Comhliont air gach laimh,
Cobhair i a mise, mhoime,
An gein a thoir bho ’n chnaimh;
’S mar a chomhn thu Oigh an t-solais,
Gun or, gun odh, gun ni,
Comhn i ’s mor a th’ othrais,
Comhn i a Bhride!
he murmured as he climbed.
Mary fair and Bride;
As Anna bore Mary,
As Mary bore Christ,
As Eile bore John the Baptist
Without flaw in him,
Aid thou her in her unbearing,
Aid her, O Bride!
As Christ was conceived of Mary
Full perfect on every hand,
Assist thou me, foster mother,
The conception to bring from the bone;
And as thou didst aid the Virgin of joy,
Without gold, without corn, without kine,
Aid thou her, great is her sickness, Aid her, O Bride!
He’d left the cabin, unable to bear its smothering confines, and wandered in a contemplative fashion through the Ridge in the falling snow, ticking through mental lists. But the fact was that all his preparation was done, bar the packing of the horses and mules, and without really thinking about it, he found that he was making his way up the trail toward the Beardsley place. The snow had ceased to fall now, but the sky stretched gray and gentle overhead, and cold white lay calm upon the trees and stilled the rush of wind.
Sanctuary, he thought. It wasn’t, of course—there was no safe place in time of war—but the feel of the mountain night reminded him of the feel of churches: a great peace, waiting.
Notre Dame in Paris … St. Giles’ in Edinburgh. Tiny stone churches in the Highlands, where he’d sometimes gone in his years of hiding, when he thought it safe. He crossed himself, remembering that; the plain stones, often nothing more than a wooden altar inside—and yet the relief of entering, sitting on the floor if there was no bench, just sitting, and knowing himself to be not alone. Sanctuary.
Whether the thought of churches or of Claire reminded him, he remembered another church—the one they had married in, and he grinned to himself at the memory of that. Not a peaceful waiting, no. He could still feel the thunder of his heart against his ribs as he’d stepped inside, the reek of his sweat—he’d smelled like a rutting goat, and hoped she didn’t notice—the inability to draw a full breath. And the feel of her hand in his, her fingers small and freezing cold, clutching at him for support.
Sanctuary. They’d been that for each other then—and were so now. Blood of my blood. The tiny cut had healed, but he rubbed the ball of his thumb, smiling at the matter-of-fact way she’d said it.
He came in sight of the cabin, and saw Joseph Wemyss waiting on the porch, hunched and stamping his feet against the cold. He was about to hail Joseph, when the door suddenly opened and one of the Beardsley twins—Christ, what were they doing in there?—reached out and seized his father-in-law by the arm, nearly pulling him off his feet in his excitement.
It was excitement, too, not grief or alarm; he’d seen the boy’s face clearly in the glow of the firelight. He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, white in the dark. The child was come, then, and both it and Lizzie had survived.
He relaxed against a tree, touching the rosary around his neck.
“Moran taing,” he said softly, in brief but heartfelt thanks. Someone in the cabin had put more wood on the fire; a shower of sparks flew up from the chimney, lighting the snow in red and gold and hissing black where cinders fell.
Yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward. He’d read that line of Job many times in prison, and made no great sense of it. Upward-flying sparks caused no trouble, by and large, unless you had very dry shingles; it was the ones that spat straight out of the hearth that might set your house on fire. Or if the writer had meant only that it was the nature of man to be in trouble—as plainly it was, if his own experience was aught to go by—then he was making a comparison of inevitability, saying that sparks always flew upward—which anyone who’d ever watched a fire for long could tell you they didn’t.
Still, who was he to be criticizing the Bible’s logic, when he ought to be repeating psalms of praise and gratitude? He tried to think of one, but was too content to think of more than odd bits and pieces.
He realized with a small shock that he was entirely happy. The safe birth of the child was a great thing in itself, to be sure—but it also meant that Claire had come safe through her trial, and that he and she were now free. They might leave the Ridge, knowing they had done all that could be done for the folk who remained.
Aye, there was always a sadness in leaving home—but in this case, it might be argued that their home had left them, when the house burned, and in any case, it was overbalanced by his rising sense of anticipation. Free and away, Claire by his side, no daily chores to do, no petty squabbles to settle, no widows and orphans to provide for—well, that was an unworthy thought, doubtless, and yet …
War was a terrible thing, and this one would be, too—but it was undeniably exciting, and the blood stirred in him from scalp to soles.
“Moran taing,” he said again, in heartfelt gratitude.
A short time later, the door of the cabin opened again, spilling light, and Claire came out, pulling up the hood of her cloak, her basket over her arm. Voices followed her, and bodies crowded the door. She turned to wave farewell to them, and he heard her laugh; the sound of it sent a small thrill of pleasure through him.
The door closed and she came down the path in the gray-lit dark; he could see that she staggered just a little, from weariness, and yet there was an air of something about her—he thought it might be the same euphoria that lifted him.
“Like the sparks that fly upward,” he murmured to himself, and smiling, stepped out to greet her.
She wasn’t startled, but turned at once and came toward him, seeming almost to float on the snow.
“It’s well, then,” he said, and she sighed and came into his arms, solid and warm within the cold folds of her cloak. He reached inside it, drew her close, inside the wool of his own big cloak.
“I need you, please,” she whispered, her mouth against his, and without reply he took her up in his arms—Christ, she was right, that cloak stank of dead meat; had the man who sold it to him used it to haul a butchered deer in from the forest?—and kissed her deep, then put her down and led her down the hill, the light snow seeming to melt away from their feet as they walked.
It seemed to take no time at all to reach the barn; they spoke a little on the trail, but he could not have said what they talked about. It only mattered to be with each other.
It wasn’t precisely cozy inside the barn, but not freezing, either. Welcoming, he thought, with the pleasant warm smell of the beasts in the dark. The weird gray light of the sky filtered in, just a bit, so you could see the hunched shapes of horses and mules dozing in their stalls. And there was dry straw to lie on, for all it was old and a trifle musty.
It was too cold to undress, but he laid his cloak in the straw, her upon it, and lay upon her, both of them shivering as they kissed, so their teeth clacked together and they drew back, snorting.
“This is silly,” she said, “I can see my breath—and yours. It’s cold enough to blow smoke rings. We’ll freeze.”
“No, we won’t. Ken the way the Indians make fire?”
“What, rubbing a dry stick on a …”
“Aye, friction.” He’d got her petticoats up; her thigh was smooth and cold under his hand. “I see it’s no going to be dry, though—Christ, Sassenach, what have ye been about?” He had her firmly in the palm of his hand, warm and soft and juicy, and she squealed at the chill of his touch, loud enough that one of the mules let out a startled wheeze. She wriggled, just enough to make him take his hand out from between her legs and insert something else, quick.
“Ye’re going to rouse the whole barn,” he observed, breathless. God, the enveloping shock of the heat of her made him giddy.
She ran her cold hands up under his shirt and pinched both his ni**les, hard, and he yelped, then laughed.
“Do that again,” he said, and bending, stuck his tongue in her cold ear for the pleasure of hearing her shriek. She wriggled and arched her back, but didn’t—he noticed—actually turn her head away. He took her earlobe gently between his teeth and began to worry it, rogering her slowly and laughing to himself at the noises she made.
It had been a long time of making silent love.
Her hands were busy at his back; he’d only let down the flap of his breeks and pulled his shirttail up out of the way, but she’d got the shirt out at the back now, and shoved both hands down his breeks and got his hurdies in a good two-handed grip. She pulled him in tight, digging in her nails, and he took her meaning. He let go her ear, rose on his hands, and rode her solid, the straw a-rustle round them like the crackle of burning.
He wanted simply to let go at once, spill himself and fall on her, hold her to his body and smell her hair in a doze of warmth and joy. A dim sense of obligation reminded him that she’d asked him for this, she’d needed it. He couldn’t go and leave her wanting.
He closed his eyes and slowed himself, lowered himself onto her so her body strained and rose along his length, the cloth of their clothes rasping and bunching up between them. He got a hand down under her, cupped her bare bum, and slid his fingers into the straining warm crease of her bu**ocks. Slid one a little farther, and she gasped. Her hips rose, trying to get away, but he laughed deep in his throat and didn’t let her. Wiggled the finger.
“Do that again,” he whispered in her ear. “Make that noise again for me.”
She made a better one, one he’d never heard before, and jerked under him, quivering and whimpering.
He pulled out the finger and guddled her, light and quick, all along the slick deep parts, feeling his own c**k under his fingers, big and slippery, stretching her …
He made a terrible noise himself—like a dying cow—but was too happy to be shamed.
“Ye’re no verra peaceful, Sassenach,” he murmured a moment later, breathing in the smell of musk and new life. “But I like ye fine.”
I TOOK MY LEAVE, starting from the springhouse. Stood inside for a moment, listening to the trickle of the water in its stone channel, breathing the cold, fresh smell of the place, with its faint sweet scents of milk and butter. Coming out, I turned left, passing the weathered palisades of my garden, covered with the tattered, rattling remnants of gourd vines. I paused, hesitating; I hadn’t set foot in the garden since the day that Malva and her child had died there. I set my hands on two of the wooden stakes, leaning to look between them.
I was glad I hadn’t looked before; I couldn’t have borne to see it in its winter desolation, the ragged stems blackened and stiff, the rags of leaves rotted into the ground. It was still a sight to strike a pang to a gardener’s heart, but no longer desolate. Fresh green sprouted everywhere, spangled with tiny flowers; the kindness of spring laying garlands over winter’s bones. Granted, half the green things growing were grass and weeds; by summer, the woods would have reclaimed the garden, smothering the stunted sproutings of cabbages and onions. Amy had made a new vegetable patch near the old cabin; neither she nor anyone else on the Ridge would set foot here.