He turned his horse’s head toward the top of the Ridge and urged it on, kicking gently with his good foot. Soon now. He had no idea what his reception might be, but that didn’t matter.
Nothing mattered now save the fact that he was here.
CHILD OF MY BLOOD
Some enterprising rabbit had dug its way under the stakes of my garden again. One voracious rabbit could eat a cabbage down to the roots, and from the looks of things, he’d brought friends. I sighed and squatted to repair the damage, packing rocks and earth back into the hole. The loss of Ian was a constant ache; at such moments as this, I missed his horrible dog as well.
I had brought a large collection of cuttings and seeds from River Run, most of which had survived the journey. It was mid-June, still time—barely—to put in a fresh crop of carrots. The small patch of potato vines was all right, so were the peanut bushes; rabbits wouldn’t touch those, and didn’t care for the aromatic herbs either, except the fennel, which they gobbled like licorice.
I wanted cabbages, though, to preserve as sauerkraut; come midwinter, we would want food with some taste to it, as well as some vitamin C. I had enough seed left, and could raise a couple of decent crops before the weather turned cold, if I could keep the bloody rabbits off. I drummed my fingers on the handle of my basket, thinking. The Indians scattered clippings of their hair around the edges of the fields, but that was more protection against deer than rabbits.
Jamie was the best repellent, I decided. Nayawenne had told me that the scent of carnivore urine would keep rabbits away—and a man who ate meat was nearly as good as a mountain lion, to say nothing of being more biddable. Yes, that would do; he’d shot a deer only two days ago; it was still hanging. I should brew a fresh bucket of spruce beer to go with the roast venison, though…
As I wandered toward the herb shed to see if I had any maypop fruits for flavoring, my eye caught a movement at the far edge of the clearing. Thinking it was Jamie, I turned to go and inform him of his new duty, only to be stopped dead in my tracks when I saw who it was.
He looked worse than he had the last time I’d seen him, which was saying quite a bit. He was hatless, hair and beard a glossy black tangle, and his clothes hung on him in tatters. He was barefoot, one foot wrapped in a bundle of filthy rags, and he limped badly.
He saw me at once, and stopped while I came up to him.
“I’m glad it’s you,” he said. “I wondered who I’d meet first.” His voice sounded soft and rusty, and I wondered whether he had spoken to a living soul since we had left him in the mountains.
“Your foot, Roger—”
“It doesn’t matter.” He gripped my arm. “Are they all right? The baby? And Brianna?”
“They’re fine. Everybody’s in the house.” His head turned toward the cabin, and I added, “You have a son.”
He jerked sharply back toward me, green eyes wide with startlement.
“He’s mine? I have a son?”
“I suppose you do,” I said. “You’re here, aren’t you?” The look of startlement—and hope, I realized—faded slowly. He looked into my eyes and seemed to see how I felt, for he smiled—not easily, no more than a painful lifting of the corner of his mouth—but he smiled.
“I’m here,” he said, and turned toward the cabin and its open doorway.
Jamie sat in his rolled-up shirt sleeves at the table, shoulder to shoulder with Brianna, frowning at a set of house drawings as she pointed with her quill. Both of them were liberally covered with ink, being inclined to enthusiasm when discussing architecture. The baby snored peacefully in his cradle nearby; Brianna was rocking it absently with one foot. Lizzie was spinning by the window, humming softly under her breath as the great wheel went round.
“Very domestic,” Roger said under his breath, stopping in the door-yard. “Seems a shame to disturb them.”
“Do you have a choice?” I said.
“Aye, I do,” he replied. “But I’ve made it already.” He walked purposefully up to the open door and stepped inside.
Jamie reacted instantly to this unfamiliar darkening of his door; he pushed Brianna off the bench and lunged for his pistols on the wall. He had one leveled at Roger’s chest before he realized what—or whom—he was looking at, and lowered it with a small exclamation of disgust.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said.
The baby, rudely wakened by the crash of the overturned bench, was shrieking like a fire engine. Brianna scooped him out of his cradle and clasped him to her breast, looking wild-eyed at the apparition in the door.
I had forgotten that she hadn’t had the benefit of seeing him even as recently as I had; he must be substantially changed from the young history professor who’d left her in Wilmington nearly a year before.
Roger took a step toward her; instinctively, she took a step back. He stood quite still, looking at the child. She sat down on the nursing stool, fumbling at her bodice, bending protectively over the baby. She pulled a shawl across her shoulder and gave him a breast in its shelter, and he stopped squawking at once.
I saw Roger’s eyes shift from the baby to Jamie. Jamie stood beside Brianna with that utter stillness that so frightened me—straight and still as a stick of dyn**ite, with a lit match laid a hairsbreadth from the fuse.
The flame of Brianna’s head moved slightly, looking from one to the other, and I saw what she saw; the echo of Jamie’s dangerous stillness in Roger. It was both unexpected and shocking; I had never seen any resemblance between them at all—and yet at the moment they might have been day and dark, images of fire and night, each mirroring the other.
MacKenzie, I thought suddenly. Viking beasts, bloody-minded and big. And saw the third echo of that flaming heritage blaze up in Brianna’s eyes, the only thing alive in her face.
I should say something, do something, to break the awful stillness. But my mouth was dry, and there was nothing I could say in any case.
Roger’s reached his hand toward Jamie, palm up, and the gesture held no hint of supplication.
“I don’t imagine it pleases you any more than it does me,” he said, in his rusty voice, “but you are my nearest kinsman. Cut me. I’ve come to swear an oath in our shared blood.”
I couldn’t tell whether Jamie hesitated or not; time seemed to have stopped, the air in the room crystallized around us. Then I watched Jamie’s dirk cut the air, honed edge draw swift across the thin, tanned wrist, and blood well red and sudden in its path.
To my surprise, Roger didn’t look at Brianna, or reach for her hand. Instead, he swiped his thumb across his bleeding wrist, and stepped close to her, eyes on the baby. She pulled back instinctively, but Jamie’s hand came down on her shoulder.
She stilled at once under its weight, at once a promise of restraint and protection, but she held the child tight, cradled against her breast. Roger knelt in front of her, and reaching out, pushed the shawl aside and smeared a broad red cross upon the downy curve of the baby’s forehead.
“You are blood of my blood,” he said softly, “and bone of my bone. I claim thee as my son before all men, from this day forever.” He looked up at Jamie, challenging. After a long moment, Jamie gave the slightest nod of acknowledgment, and stepped back, letting his hand fall from Brianna’s shoulder.
Roger’s gaze shifted to Brianna.
“What do you call him?”
“Nothing—yet.” Her eyes rested on him, questioning. It was only too clear that the man who had come back was not the man who’d left her.
Roger’s eyes were fixed on hers as he stood. Blood was still dripping from his wrist. With a small shock, I realized that she was as changed to him as he to her.
“He’s my son,” Roger said quietly, nodding at the baby. “Are you my wife?”
Brianna had gone pale to the lips.
“I don’t know.”
“This man says that you are handfast.” Jamie took a step closer to her, watching Roger. “Is that true?”
“We still are.” Roger took a deep breath, and I realized suddenly that he was about to fall over, whether from hunger, exhaustion, or the shock of being cut. I took his arm, made him sit down, sent Lizzie to the dairy shed for milk, and fetched down my small medical box to bind his wrist.
This small bustle of normality seemed to break the tension a little. Meaning to help things along in that direction, I broke out a bottle of brandy from River Run, pouring a cup for Jamie, and putting a good-sized dollop in Roger’s milk. Jamie gave me a wry look, but sat back on the replaced bench and sipped his drink.
“Verra well, then,” he said, calling the meeting to order. “If you’re handfast, Brianna, then you’re married and this man is your husband.”
Brianna’s flush deepened, but she looked at Roger, not Jamie.
“You said handfasting was good for a year and a day.”
“And you said ye did not want anything temporary.”
She flinched at that, but then set her lips firmly.
“I didn’t. But I didn’t know what was going to happen.” She glanced at me and Jamie, then back at Roger. “They told you—that the baby isn’t yours?”
Roger raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, but he is mine. Mm?” He lifted his bandaged wrist in illustration.
Brianna’s face had lost its frostbitten look; she was pink around the edges.
“You know what I mean.”
He met her eyes straight on.
“I know what you mean,” he said softly. “I am sorry for it.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Roger glanced at Jamie.
“Aye, it was,” he said quietly. “I should have stayed with you; seen you safe.”
Brianna’s brows drew together.
“I told you to go, and I meant it.” She twitched her shoulders impatiently. “But it doesn’t matter now.” She took a firmer hold on the baby and sat up straight.
“I just want to know one thing,” she said, her voice trembling only a little. “I want to know why you came back.”
He set his empty cup down deliberately.
“Did ye not want me to come back?”
“Never mind what I wanted. What I want now is to know. Did you come back because you wanted to—or because you thought you should?”
He looked at her for a long moment, then down at his hands, still clasped around the cup.
“Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. I don’t know,” he said very softly. “That’s God’s truth; I don’t know.”
“Did you go to the stone circle?” she asked. He nodded, not looking at her. He fumbled in his pocket, and laid the big opal stone on the table.
“I went there. That’s why I was long in coming; it took me a long time to find it.”
She was silent for a moment, then nodded.
“You didn’t go back. But you can. Maybe you should.” She looked at him straight on, her gaze the twin of her father’s.
“I don’t want to live with you, if you came back for duty,” she said. She looked at me then, her eyes soft with pain. “I’ve seen a marriage made from obligation—and I’ve seen one made for love. If I hadn’t—” She stopped and swallowed, then went on, looking at Roger. “If I hadn’t seen both, I could have lived with obligation. But I have seen both—and I won’t.”