It was Jocasta’s blessing on our venture; her acceptance of Jamie’s decision—and forgiveness for what must have seemed his abandonment. It was more than generosity, and I folded the small piece of iron carefully into my handkerchief, and put it in my pocket for safekeeping.
We blessed the hearth two days later, standing in the wall-less cabin. Myers had removed his hat, from respect, and Ian had washed his face. Rollo was present, too, as was the small white pig, who was required to attend as the personification of our “flocks,” despite her objections; the pig saw no point in being removed from her meal of acorns to participate in a ritual so notably lacking in food.
Ignoring piercing pig-screams of annoyance, Jamie held the small iron knife upright by its tip, so that it formed a cross, and said quietly,
“God, bless the world and all that is therein.
God, bless my spouse and my children,
God, bless the eye that is in my head,
And bless, God, the handling of my hand,
What time I rise in the morning early,
What time I lie down late in bed,
Bless my rising in the morning early,
And my lying down late in bed.”
He reached out and touched first me, then Ian—and with a grin, Rollo and the pig—with the iron, before going on:
“God, protect the house, and the household,
God, consecrate the children of the motherhood,
God, encompass the flocks and the young,
Be Thou after them and tending them,
What time the flocks ascend hill and wold,
What time I lie down to sleep.
What time the flocks ascend hill and wold,
What time I lie down in peace to sleep.
“Let the fire of thy blessing burn forever upon us, O God.”
He knelt then by the hearth and placed the iron into the small hole dug for it, covered it over, and tamped the dirt flat. Then he and I took the ends of the big hearthstone, and laid it carefully into place.
I should have felt quite ridiculous, standing in a house with no walls, attended by a wolf and a pig, surrounded by wilderness and mocked by mockingbirds, engaged in a ritual more than half pagan. I didn’t.
Jamie stood in front of the new hearth, stretched out a hand to me, and drew me to stand by the hearthstone beside him. Looking down at the slate before us, I suddenly thought of the abandoned homestead we had found on our journey north; the fallen timbers of the roof, and the cracked hearthstone, from which a hollybush had sprouted. Had the unknown founders of that place thought to bless their hearth—and failed anyway? Jamie’s hand tightened on mine, in unconscious reassurance.
On a flat rock outside the cabin, Duncan kindled a small fire, Myers holding the steel for him to strike. Once begun, the fire was coaxed into brightness, and a brand taken from it. Duncan held this in his one hand, and walked sunwise around the cabin’s foundation, chanting in loud Gaelic. Jamie translated for me as he sang:
“The safeguard of Fionn mac Cumhall be yours,
The safeguard of Cormac the shapely be yours,
The safeguard of Conn and Cumhall be yours,
From wolf and from bird-flock
From wolf and from bird-flock.”
He paused in his chanting as he came to each point of the compass, and bowing to the “four airts,” swept his brand in a blazing arc before him. Rollo, plainly disapproving of these pyromaniac goings-on, growled deep in his throat, but was firmly shushed by Ian.
“The shield of the King of Fiann be yours,
The shield of the king of the sun be yours,
The shield of the king of the stars be yours,
In jeopardy and distress
In jeopardy and distress.”
There were a good many verses; Duncan circled the house three times. It was only as he reached the final point, next to the freshly laid hearthstone, that I realized Jamie had laid out the cabin so that the hearth lay to the north; the morning sun fell warm on my left shoulder and threw our mingled shadows to the west.
“The sheltering of the king of kings be yours,
The sheltering of Jesus Christ be yours,
The sheltering of the spirit of Healing be yours,
From evil deed and quarrel,
From evil dog and red dog.”
With a look down his nose at Rollo, Duncan stopped by the hearth, and gave the brand to Jamie, who stooped in turn and set alight the waiting pile of kindling. Ian gave a Gaelic whoop as the flame blazed up, and there was general applause.
Later, we saw Duncan and Myers off. They were bound not for Cross Creek but, rather, for Mount Helicon, where the Scots of the region held a yearly Gathering in the autumn, to give thanks for successful harvests, to exchange news and transact business, to celebrate marriages and christenings, to keep the far-flung elements of clan and family in touch.
Jocasta and her household would be there; so would Farquard Campbell and Andrew MacNeill. It was the best place for Duncan to begin his task of finding the scattered men of Ardsmuir; Mount Helicon was the largest of the Gatherings; Scots would come there from as far away as South Carolina and Virginia.
“I shall be here come spring, Mac Dubh,” Duncan promised Jamie as he mounted. “With as many men as I can fetch to ye. And I shall hand on your letters without fail.” He patted the pouch by his saddle, and tugged his hat down to shade his eyes from the rich September sun. “Will ye have a word for your aunt?”
Jamie paused for a moment, thinking. He had written to Jocasta already; was there anything to add?
“Tell my aunt I shall not see her at the Gathering this year, or perhaps at the next. But the one after that, I shall be there without fail—and my people with me. Godspeed, Duncan!”
He slapped Duncan’s horse on the rump, and stood by me waving as the two horses dropped over the edge of the ridge and out of sight. The parting gave me an odd feeling of desolation; Duncan was our last and only link with civilization. Now we were truly alone.
Well, not quite alone, I amended. We had Ian. To say nothing of Rollo, the pig, three horses, and two mules that Duncan had left us, to manage the spring plowing. Quite a little establishment, in fact. My spirits rose in contemplation; within the month, the cabin would be finished, and we would have a solid roof over our heads. And then—
“Bad news, Auntie,” said Ian’s voice in my ear. “The pig’s eaten the rest of your nutmeal.”
THE WHITE RAVEN
Body, soul, and mind,’ ” Jamie said, translating as he bent to seize the end of another trimmed log. “ ‘The body for sensation, the soul for the springs of action, the mind for principles. Yet the capacity for sensation belongs also to the stalled ox; there is no wild beast or degenerate but obeys the twitchings of impulse; and even men who deny the gods, or betray their country, or’—careful, man!”
Ian, thus warned, stepped neatly backward over the ax handle, and turned to the left, steering his end of the burden carefully round the corner of the half-built log wall.
“ ‘—or perpetrate all manner of villainy behind locked doors, have minds to guide them to the clear path of duty,’ ” Jamie resumed Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. “ ‘Seeing then’—step up. Aye, good, that’s got it—‘seeing then that all else is in common heritage of such types, the good man’s only singularity lies in his approving welcome to every experience the looms of fate may weave for him, his refusal to soil the divinity seated in his breast or perturb it with disorderly impressions…’ All right now, one, and two, and…ergh!”
His face went scarlet with effort as they reached the proper position and, in concert, hoisted the squared log to shoulder height. Too occupied to go on with the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Jamie directed his nephew’s movements with jerks of the head and breathless one-word commands, as they maneuvered the unwieldy chunk of wood into the notches of the cross-pieces below it.
“Och, the twitchings of impulse, is it?” Ian shouldered a lock of hair out of his sweating face. “I feel a wee twitch in the direction of my wame. Is that degenerate, then?”
“I believe that would be an acceptable bodily sensation at this time o’ day,” Jamie allowed, grunting slightly as they maneuvered the log the last inch into place. “A bit to the left, Ian.”
The log dropped into its notches, and both men stepped back with a shared sigh of relieved accomplishment. Ian grinned at his uncle.
“Meanin’ ye’re hungry yourself, aye?”
Jamie grinned back, but before he could reply, Rollo lifted his head, ears perking, and a low growl rumbled in his chest. Seeing this, Ian turned his head to look, and stopped in the act of mopping his face with his shirttail.
“Here’s company, Uncle,” he said, nodding toward the forest. Jamie stiffened. Before he could turn or reach for a weapon, though, I had made out what Rollo and Ian had seen among the shifting leaf-light.
“Not to worry,” I said, amused. “It’s your erstwhile drinking companion—dressed for visiting. A little something the looms of fate have woven for your approving welcome, I expect.”
Nacognaweto waited politely in the shade of the chestnut grove until he was sure we had seen him. Then he advanced slowly out of the forest, followed this time not by his sons but by three women, two of them carrying large bundles on their backs.
One was a young girl, no more than thirteen or so, and the second, in her thirties, plainly the girl’s mother. The third woman who accompanied them was much older—not the grandmother, I thought, seeing her bent form and white hair—perhaps the great-grandmother.
They had indeed come dressed for visiting; Nacognaweto was bare-legged, with leather buskins on his feet, but he wore muslin breeches, loose at the knee, and a shirt of dyed pink linen over them, belted splendidly with a girdle studded with porcupine quills and bits of white and lavender shell. Over it all he had a leather vest with beaded trim, and a sort of loose turban in blue calico over his unbound hair, with two crow’s feathers dangling down beside one ear. Jewelry of shell and silver—an earring, several necklaces, a belt buckle and small ornaments tied to his hair—completed the picture.
The women were somewhat less gorgeously arrayed, but still plainly in their Sunday best, in long loose dresses that reached their knees, soft boots and leather leggings showing beneath. They were girdled with deer-leather aprons decorated with painted patterns, and the two younger women wore ornamental vests as well. They advanced in single file, halfway across the clearing, then stopped.
“My God,” Jamie murmured, “it’s an ambassage.” He wiped a sleeve across his face, and nudged Ian in the ribs. “Make my curtsies, Ian; I’ll be back.”
Ian, looking a trifle bewildered, advanced to meet the Indians, waving a large hand in a ceremonial gesture of welcome. Jamie grabbed me by the arm and hustled me round the corner, into the half-built house.
“What—” I began, bewildered.
“Get dressed,” he interrupted, shoving the clothes box in my direction. “Put on your gaudiest things, aye? It wouldna be respectful, else.”
“Gaudy” was going a bit far in the description of any item of my current wardrobe, but I did my best, hastily tying a yellow linen skirt around my waist and replacing my plain white kerchief with one Jocasta had sent me, embroidered with cherries. I thought that would do—after all, it was obviously the males of the species who were on display here.