Once more, I drew my own finger down the length of his, then took it gently between my thumb and index finger, just below the distal joint. I could feel the crack in my mind, a thin dark line of pain.
“There?” I asked, opening my eyes.
He nodded, a faint smile on his lips as he looked at me.
“Just there. I like the way ye look when ye do that, Sassenach.”
“What way is that?” I asked, a bit startled to hear that I looked any way in particular.
“I canna describe it, exactly,” he said, head tilted to one side as he examined me. “It’s maybe like—”
“Madame Lazonga with her crystal ball,” Brianna said, sounding amused.
I glanced up, taken aback to find Brianna gazing down at me, head cocked at the same angle, with the same appraising look. She switched her gaze to Jamie. “A fortune-teller, I mean. A seer.”
“Aye, I think you’re maybe right, a nighean. Though it was a priest I was thinking of; the way they look saying Mass, when they look past the bread and see the flesh of Christ instead. Not that I should think to compare my measly finger wi’ the Body of Our Lord, mind,” he added, with a modest nod toward the offending digit.
Brianna laughed, and a smile curved his mouth on one side, as he looked up at her, his eyes soft despite the lines of tiredness round them. He’d had a long day, I thought. And likely to be a lot longer. I would have given anything to hold that fleeting moment of connection between them, but it had passed already.
“I think you are both ridiculous,” I said. I touched his finger lightly at the spot I’d held. “The bone is cracked, just there below the joint. It’s not bad, though; no more than a hairline fracture. I’ll splint it, just in case.”
I got up and went to rummage through my medical chest for a linen bandage and one of the long, flat wood chips I used as tongue depressors. I glanced covertly over the raised lid, watching him. Something was definitely odd about him this evening, though I still couldn’t put my finger on it.
I had sensed it from the first, even through my own agitation, and sensed it even more strongly when I held his hand to examine it; a sort of energy pulsed through him, as though he were excited or upset, though he gave no outward sign of it. He was bloody good at hiding things when he wanted to; what the hell had happened at Fergus’s house?
Brianna said something to Jamie, too low for me to catch, and then turned away without waiting for an answer, and came to join me by the open chest.
“Do you have some ointment, for his hands?” she asked. Then, leaning close on pretext of looking into the chest, said in a low voice, “Should I tell him tonight? He’s tired and he’s hurt. Hadn’t I better let him rest?”
I glanced at Jamie. He was leaning back against the settle, eyes wide open as he watched the flames, hands resting flat on his thighs. He wasn’t relaxed, though; whatever strange current was flowing through him, it had him strung like a telegraph wire.
“He might rest better not knowing, but you won’t,” I said, equally low-voiced. “Go ahead and tell him. You might let him eat first, though,” I added practically. I was a strong believer in meeting bad news on a full stomach.
I splinted Jamie’s finger while Brianna sat down beside him and dabbed gentian ointment onto the abraded knuckles of his other hand. Her face was quite calm; no one would ever guess what was going on behind it.
“You’ve torn your shirt,” I said, finishing off the last bandage with a small square knot. “Give it to me after supper and I’ll mend it. How’s that, then?”
“Verra nice, Madame Lazonga,” he said, gingerly wiggling his freshly splinted finger. “I shall be getting quite spoilt, wi’ so much attention paid me.”
“When I start to chew your food for you, you can worry,” I said tartly.
He laughed, and gave the splinted hand to Bree for anointing.
I went to the cupboard to fetch a plate for him. As I turned back toward the hearth, I saw him watching her intently. She kept her head bent, eyes on the large, callused hand she held between her own. I could imagine her search for words with which to begin, and my heart ached for her. Perhaps I should have told him privately myself, I thought; not let him near her until the first rush of feeling was safely past and he had himself in hand again.
“Ciamar a tha tu, mo chridhe?” he said suddenly. It was his customary greeting to her, the beginning of their evening Gaelic lesson, but his voice was different tonight; soft, and very gentle. How are you, darling? His hand turned and covered hers, cradling her long fingers.
“Tha mi gle mhath, athair,” she replied, looking a bit surprised. I am well, Father. Normally he began the lesson after dinner.
Slowly he reached out with his other hand and rested it gently on her stomach.
“An e ’n fhirinn a th’agad?” he asked. Do you tell me true? I closed my eyes and let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. No need to break all the news, after all. And now I knew the reason for his taut-strung strangeness; he knew, and whatever the knowledge cost him to hold, hold it he would, and treat her gently.
She didn’t know enough Gaelic yet to tell what he’d asked, but she knew well enough what he meant. She stared at him for a moment, frozen, then lifted his sound hand to her cheek and bent her head over it, the loose hair hiding her face.
“Oh, Da,” she said, very quietly. “I’m sorry.”
She sat quite still, holding to his hand as though it were a lifeline.
“Ah, now, m’ annsachd,” he said softly, “it will be all right.”
“No, it won’t,” she said, her voice small but clear. “It can’t ever be right. You know that.”
He glanced at me out of habit, but only briefly. I couldn’t tell him what to do, now. He drew a deep breath, took her by the shoulder and gave her a gentle shake.
“All I know,” he said softly, “is that I’m here by ye, and your mother, too. We willna see ye shamed or hurt. Not ever. D’ye hear me?”
She didn’t answer or look up, but kept her eyes on her lap, her face hidden by the rich fall of her hair. A maiden’s hair, thick and unbound. His hand traced the shining curve of her head, then his fingers trailed along her jaw and lifted her chin so her eyes looked into his.
“Lizzie’s right?” he asked gently. “It was rape?”
She pulled her chin away and looked down at her knotted hands, the gesture as much an admission as her nod.
“I didn’t think she knew. I didn’t tell her.”
“She guessed. But it’s no your fault, and dinna ever think so,” he said firmly. “Come here to me, a leannan.” He reached for her, and gathered her awkwardly onto his knee.
The oakwood creaked alarmingly under their combined weight, but Jamie had built it after his usual sturdy fashion; it could have held six of him. Tall as Brianna was, she looked almost small cradled in his arms, her head tucked into the curve of his shoulder. He stroked her hair gently, and murmured small things to her, half in Gaelic.
“I’ll see ye safe marrit, and your bairn wi’ a good father,” he murmured to her. “I swear it to ye, a nighean.”
“I can’t marry anybody,” she said, sounding choked. “It wouldn’t be right. I can’t take somebody else when I love Roger. And Roger won’t want me now. When he finds out—”
“It’ll make no difference to him,” Jamie said, grasping her harder, almost fiercely, as though he could make things right by pure force of will. “If he’s a decent man, it’ll make no difference. And if it does—well, then he doesna deserve ye, and I shall beat him into pulp and stamp on the pieces, and then go and find ye a better man.”
She gave a small laugh that turned into a sob, and buried her head in the cloth of his shoulder. He patted her, rocking and murmuring as though she were a tiny girl with a skinned knee, and his eyes met mine over her head.
I hadn’t wept when she had told me; mothers are strong. But now she couldn’t see me, and Jamie had taken the burden of strength from my shoulders for the moment.
She hadn’t cried when she told me, either. But now she clung to him and wept, as much from relief, I thought, as from grief. He simply held her and let her cry, stroking her hair again and again, his eyes on my face.
I blotted my eyes on my sleeve, and he smiled at me, faintly. Brianna had subsided into long, sighing breaths, and he patted her gently on the back.
“I’m hungry, Sassenach,” he said. “And I should imagine a wee drop wouldna come amiss for any of us, aye?”
“Right,” I said, and cleared my throat. “I’ll go and fetch some milk from the shed.”
“That’s no what I meant by drink!” he called after me in mock outrage.
Ignoring both this and Brianna’s choked laugh, I pushed open the door.
The night outside was cold and bright, the autumn stars bright sparks overhead. I wasn’t dressed to be outdoors—my face and hands were already beginning to tingle—but I stood quite still nonetheless, letting the cold wind sweep past me, taking with it the tension of the last quarter hour.
Everything was quiet; the crickets and cicadas had long since died or gone underground with the rustling mice, the skunks and possums who left off their endless search for food and went to dream their winter dreams, the rich fat of their efforts wrapped warm about their bones. Only wolves hunted in the cold, starry nights of late autumn, and they went silent, fur-footed on the frozen ground.
“What are we going to do?” I said softly, addressing the question to the overwhelming depths of the vast dark sky overhead.
I heard no sound but the rush of wind in the pine trees; no answer, save the form of my own question—the faint echo of “we” that rang in my ears. That much was true at least; whatever happened, none of us need face things alone. And I supposed that was after all as much answer as I needed, for now.
They were still on the settle when I came back in, red heads close together, haloed by the fire. The smell of gentian ointment mingled with the pungent scent of burning pine and the mouth-watering aroma of the venison stew—quite suddenly, I was hungry.
I let the door close quietly behind me, and slid to the heavy bolt. I went to poke the fire and lay a new supper, fetching down a fresh loaf of bread from the shelf, then went to get sweet butter from the crock in the pantry. I stayed a moment there, glancing over the loaded shelves.
“Put your trust in God, and pray for guidance. And when in doubt, eat.” A Franciscan monk had once given me that advice, and on the whole, I had found it useful. I picked out a jar of black currant jam, a small round goat cheese, and a bottle of elderflower wine, to go with the meal.
Jamie was talking quietly when I came back. I finished my preparations, letting the deep lilt of his voice soothe me, as well as Brianna.
“I used to think of you, when ye were small,” Jamie was saying to Bree, his voice very soft. “When I lived in the cave; I would imagine that I held ye in my arms, a wee babe. I would hold ye so, against my heart, and sing to ye there, watching the stars go by overhead.”