“Jamie,” I said hesitantly. “Do you believe I love you?”
He turned his head and looked down at me for a long moment before replying. The moon shone on his face, picking out his features as though they had been chiseled in marble.
“Well, if ye don’t, Sassenach,” he said at last, “ye’ve picked a verra poor time to tell me so.”
I let out my breath in the ghost of a laugh.
“No, it’s not that,” I assured him. “But—” My throat tightened, and I swallowed hastily, needing to get the words out.
“I—I don’t say it often. Perhaps it’s only that I wasn’t raised to say such things; I lived with my uncle, and he was affectionate, but not—well, I didn’t know how married people—”
He put his hand lightly over my mouth, a faint smile touching his lips. After a moment, he took it away.
I took a deep breath, steadying my voice.
“Look, what I mean to say is—if I don’t say it, how do you know I love you?”
He stood still, looking at me, then nodded in acknowledgment.
“I know because ye’re here, Sassenach,” he said quietly. “And that’s what ye mean, aye? That he came after her—this Roger. And so perhaps he will love her enough?”
“It’s not a thing you’d do, just for friendship’s sake.”
He nodded again, but I hesitated, wanting to tell him more, to impress him with the significance of it.
“I haven’t told you a great deal about it, because—there aren’t words for it. But one thing about it I could tell you. Jamie—” I shivered involuntarily, and not from the cold. “Not everyone who goes through the stones comes out again.”
His look sharpened.
“How d’ye ken that, Sassenach?”
“I can—I could—hear them. Screaming.”
I was shaking outright by this time, from a mixture of cold and memory, and he caught my hands between his own and drew me close. The autumn wind rattled the branches of the willows by the stream, a sound like dry, bare bones. He held me until the shivering stopped, then let me go.
“It’s cold, Sassenach. Come inside.” He turned toward the house, but laid my hand on his shoulder to stop him again.
“Should I—would you—do you need me to say it?”
He turned around and looked down at me. With the light behind him, he was haloed in moonlight, but his features were once more dark.
“I dinna need it, no.” His voice was soft. “But I wouldna mind if ye wanted to say it. Now and again. Not too often, mind; I wouldna want to lose the novelty of it.” I could hear the smile in his voice, and couldn’t help smiling in return, whether he could see it or not.
“Once in a while wouldn’t hurt, though?”
I stepped close to him and put my hands on his shoulders.
“I love you.”
He looked down at me for a long moment.
“I’m glad of it, Claire,” he said quietly, and touched my face. “Verra glad. Come to bed now; I’ll warm ye.”
AWAY IN A MANGER
The tiny stable was in a shallow cave under a rocky overhang, walled in along the front with a stockade of unpeeled cedar logs, sunk two feet deep in packed earth, stout enough to deter the most resolute bear. Light spilled out through the open upper half of the stable door, and ruddy, light-filled smoke shimmered up the face of the cliff above, rippling like bright water over the stone.
“Why a double door?” she had asked. It seemed excessive labor; an unnecessary refinement for such a crude structure.
“Ye must give the beasts a place to look out,” her father had explained, showing her where to smooth the leather strap hinges tight around the curve of the wood. He picked up the hammer to tack down the leather and smiled at her, kneeling over the half-made gate. “Keeps them happy, aye?”
She didn’t know if the animals were happy in the stable, but she was; cool and shadowy, smelling pungently of cut straw and the droppings of grass-fed animals, it was a peaceful refuge during the day, when its inhabitants were out grazing in the meadow. In bad weather or at night, the little stockade was a pocket of coziness; once she had passed near enough after dark to see the soft, misty exhalations of the animals drifting through the gap between wood and rock, as though the earth itself were breathing through pursed lips, warmly asleep in the autumn cold.
It was cold tonight, the stars sharp as needle points in the hard, clear air. It was only five minutes’ walk from the house, but Brianna was shivering under her cloak by the time she reached the stable. The light spilling out came not only from a hanging lantern, she saw, but also from a small makeshift brazier in the corner, providing heat and light for the vigil within.
Her father lay curled up on a bed of straw, his plaid drawn over him, within arm’s reach of the small brindled cow. The heifer lay on her chest, feet tucked to the side, grunting now and then, a look of mild concentration on her broad white face.
His head lifted abruptly at the sound of her step on the gravel, and his hand went by reflex to his belt, under his plaid.
“It’s me,” she said, and saw him relax as she came into the light. He swung his feet to the side and sat up, rubbing a hand over his face as she came in, carefully latching the lower gate behind her.
“Your mother’s not back yet?” She was clearly alone, but he glanced briefly over her shoulder as though hoping to see Claire materialize out of the darkness.
Brianna shook her head. Claire had gone with Lizzie as escort to attend a birth at one of the farms at the far side of the cove; if the child hadn’t arrived before sunset, they would stay the night at the Lachlans’.
“No. She said if she wasn’t back, I was to bring you up some supper, though.” She knelt and began to unpack the small basket she had brought, laying out small loaves of bread stuffed with cheese and tomato-pickle, a dried-apple tart, and two stone bottles—one of hot vegetable broth, the other of cider.
“That’s kind, lassie.” He smiled at her and picked up one of the bottles. “Will ye have eaten yet, yourself?”
“Oh, yes,” she assured him. “Plenty.” She had eaten, but couldn’t resist a quick look of longing at the fresh rolls; the early faint sense of malaise had left her, replaced by an appetite mildly alarming in its intensity.
He saw her glance, and with a smile, drew his dirk and sliced one of the rolls in half, handing her the bigger piece.
They munched companionably for a few moments, sitting side by side on the straw, the silence broken only by soft snuffles and grunts from the stable’s other inhabitants. The far end of the stable was fenced off to provide a pen for the gigantic sow and her new brood of piglets; Brianna could just make them out in the gloom—a row of plump bodies packed in the straw, prophetically sausage-shaped.
The rest of the small space was divided into three rough stalls. One belonged to the red cow, Magdalen, who lay in the straw peacefully chewing her cud, her month-old calf curled in sleep against her massive chest. The second stall was empty, filled with fresh straw, ready for the brindled cow and her tardy calf. The third stall held Ian’s mare, sides glossy and bulging with the weight of an impending foal.
“It looks like a maternity ward in here,” Brianna said, nodding toward Magdalen as she brushed crumbs off her skirt. Jamie smiled and raised a brow, as he always did when she said something he didn’t understand.
“That’s a special part of a hospital, where they put the new mothers and their babies,” she explained. “Mama would take me to work with her sometimes, and let me go look at the nursery while she did her rounds.”
She had a sudden memory of the smell of the hospital corridor, faintly acrid with the scent of disinfectant and floor polish, the babies lying bundled, plump as piglets in their bassinets, their blankets coded pink and blue. She always spent a long time going up and down the row, trying to pick which one she would take home with her, if she could keep one.
Pink or blue? For the first time, she wondered what the one she would now keep might wear. The thought of “it” as male or female was strangely upsetting, and she pushed the thought away with words.
“They put the babies all behind a glass wall, so you could look at them, but not breathe germs on them,” she said, with a glance at Magdalen, contentedly oblivious to the strings of green saliva that dripped from her placidly moving jaws onto the head of her calf.
“Germs,” he said thoughtfully. “Aye, I’ve heard about the germs. Dangerous wee beasties, are they not?”
“They can be.” She had a vivid memory of her mother checking her box of medical supplies for the visit to Lachlans’, carefully refilling the large glass bottle of distilled alcohol from the barrel in the pantry. And a more distant but equally vivid memory, of her mother explaining the past to Roger Wakefield.
“Childbirth was the most dangerous thing a woman could do,” Claire had said, frowning in memory of the sights she had seen. “Infection, ruptured placenta, abnormal presentation, miscarriage, hemorrhage, puerperal fever—in most places, surviving birth was roughly a fifty-fifty proposition.”
Brianna’s fingers felt cold, in spite of the hissing pine chunks in the brazier, and her ravenous appetite seemed suddenly to have deserted her. She set the rest of her roll down on the straw, swallowing hard, feeling as though a bite of the thick bread had wedged itself in her throat.
Her father’s broad hand touched her knee, warm even through the wool of her skirt.
“Your mother willna let ye come to harm,” he said gruffly. “She’s fought the germs before; I’ve seen her. She didna let them have the better of me, and she willna let them trouble you, either. She’s a verra stubborn person, aye?”
She laughed, and the choking feeling eased.
“She’d say it takes one to know one.”
“I expect she’s right about that.” He rose and walked around the brindled heifer, squatting down and squinting at her tail. He stood up, shaking his head, and came to sit down again. He settled comfortably back and picked up the discarded part of Brianna’s roll.
“Is she doing all right?” Brianna bent and scooped up a twist of straw, holding it invitingly under the heifer’s nose. The cow breathed heavily on her knuckles, but otherwise ignored the attention, the long-lashed brown eyes rolling restlessly to and fro. Now and then the bulging brindled sides rippled, the cow’s thick winter coat rough but shining in the light of the hanging lantern.
Jamie frowned slightly.
“Aye, I think she’ll maybe do all right. It’s her first calf, though, and she’s small for it. She’s no much more than a yearling herself; she shouldna have been bred so early, but…” He shrugged, and took another bite of roll.
Brianna wiped the sticky moisture from her hand with a fold of her skirt. Feeling suddenly restless, she stood up and walked over to the pigpen.
The vast curve of the sow’s belly rose up out of the hay like a swollen balloon, pink flesh visible beneath the soft, sparse white hair. The sow lay in stuporous dignity, breathing slow and deep, ignoring the squirms and squeaks of the hungry brood that scrabbled at her underside. One piglet was nudged too roughly by a fellow and momentarily lost his hold; there was a high-pitched shriek of protest, and a jet of milk spurted from the suddenly released nipple, hissing softly into the hay.