“Aye, and if ye’d known ahead of time that you might—ugh—meet it—would you not have armed yourself—better?” Roger bent his knees, lowering the stone carefully into place. He let it drop the last few inches, and wiped stinging hands on his breeks.
“If I’d known I should meet a damn bear,” Jamie said, grunting as he lifted another stone into place, “I would have taken another path.”
Roger snorted and wiggled the new stone, easing its fit against the others. There was a small gap at one side that left it loose; Jamie eyed it, walked to the stone pile, and picked up a small chunk of granite, tapered at one end. It fit the gap exactly, and the two men smiled involuntarily at each other.
“D’ye think there’s another path to take, then?” Roger asked.
Fraser rubbed a hand across his mouth, considering.
“If it’s the war ye mean—then, aye, I do.” He gave Roger a stare. “Maybe I’ll find it and maybe I won’t—but aye, there’s another path.”
“Maybe so.” He hadn’t meant the oncoming war, and he didn’t think Jamie had, either.
“As to bears, though . . .” Jamie stood still, eyes steady. “There’s a deal of difference, ye ken, between meeting a bear unawares—and hunting one.”
THE SUN STILL WASN’T VISIBLE, but it wasn’t necessary, either. Noon came as a rumbling in the belly, a soreness of the hands; a sudden awareness of the weariness of back and legs as timely as the chiming of a grandfather’s clock. The last large rock fell into place, and Jamie straightened up, gasping for breath.
By unspoken but mutual consent, they sat down with the packet of food, clean shirts draped across bare shoulders, against the chill of drying sweat.
Jamie chewed industriously, washing down a large bite with a gulp of ale. He made an involuntary face, pursed his lips to spit, then changed his mind and swallowed.
“Ach! Mrs. Lizzie’s been at the mash again.” He grimaced and took a remedial bite of biscuit, to erase the taste.
Roger grinned at his father-in-law’s face.
“What’s she put in it this time?” Lizzie had been trying her hand at flavored ales—with indifferent success.
Jamie sniffed warily at the mouth of the stone bottle.
“Anise?” he suggested, passing the bottle to Roger.
Roger smelt it, wrinkling up his nose involuntarily at the alcoholic whiff.
“Anise and ginger,” he said. Nevertheless, he took a cautious sip. He made the same face Jamie had, and emptied the bottle over a compliant blackberry vine.
“Waste not, want not, but . . .”
“It’s nay waste to keep from poisoning ourselves.” Jamie heaved himself up, took the emptied bottle, and set off toward the small stream on the far side of the field.
He came back, sat down, and handed Roger the bottle of water. “I’ve had word of Stephen Bonnet.”
It was said so casually that Roger didn’t register the meaning of the words at first.
“Have you?” he said at last. Piccalilli relish was oozing over his hand. Roger wiped the relish from his wrist with a finger, and put it into his mouth, but didn’t take another bite of sandwich; his appetite had vanished.
“Aye. I dinna ken where he is now—but I ken where he’ll be come next April—or rather, where I can cause him to be. Six months, and then we kill him. Do ye think that will give ye time?”
He was looking at Roger, calm as though he had suggested an appointment with a banker, rather than an appointment with death.
Roger could believe in netherworlds—and demons, too. He hadn’t dreamed last night, but the demon’s face floated always at the edge of his mind, just out of sight. Time to summon him, perhaps, and bring him into view. You had to call a demon up, didn’t you, before you could exorcise him?
There were preparations to make, though, before that could happen. He flexed his shoulders and his arms once more, this time in anticipation. The soreness had mostly gone.
“There’s mony an ane for him maks mane
but nane shall ken where he is gane.
O’er his white banes when they are bare,
The wind shall blaw forever mair, O—
The wind shall blaw forever mair.”
“Aye,” he said. “That’ll do.”
FOR A MOMENT, he didn’t think he was going to be able to lift his hand to the latch-string. Both arms hung as though weighted with lead, and the small muscles of his forearm jumped and trembled with exhaustion. It took two tries, and even then, he could do no more than catch the string clumsily between two middle fingers; his thumb wouldn’t close.
Brianna heard him fumbling; the door opened suddenly and his hand fell nerveless from the latch. He had no more than a glimpse of tumbled hair and a beaming face with a smear of soot down one cheek, and then she had her arms around him, her mouth on his, and he was home.
“You’re back!” she said, letting go.
“I am.” And glad of it, too. The cabin smelt of hot food and lye soap, with a clean, faint tang of juniper overlaying the smoke of reed candles and the muskier scents of human occupation. He smiled at her, suddenly a little less tired.
“Dadee, Dadee!” Jemmy was bouncing up and down in excitement, clinging to a low stool for balance. “Da—deeee!”
“Hallo, hallo,” Roger said, reaching down to pat the boy’s fluffy head. “Who’s a good lad, then?” He missed his mark and his hand brushed a soft cheek instead, but Jemmy didn’t care.
“Me! Me!” he shouted, and grinned with a huge expanse of pink gum, showing off all his small white teeth. Brianna echoed the grin, with substantially more enamel but no less delight.
“We have a surprise for you. Watch this!” She went swiftly toward the table, and sank to one knee, a pace from Jemmy. She stretched out her arms, her hands no more than a few inches from his. “Come to Mama, sweetie. Come here, baby, come to Mama.”
Jemmy swayed precariously, loosed one hand, reached for his mother, then let go and took one drunken step, then two, and fell shrieking into her arms. She clutched him, giggling in delight, then turned him toward Roger.
“Go to Daddy,” Brianna encouraged. “Go on, go to Daddy.”
Jemmy screwed up his face in doubtful concentration, looking like a first-time parachutist at the open door of a circling plane. He swayed dangerously to and fro.
Roger squatted, hands held out, tiredness forgotten for the moment.
“Come on, mate, come on, you can do it!”
Jemmy clung a moment, leaning, leaning, then let go his mother’s hand and staggered drunkenly toward Roger, faster and faster and faster through three steps, falling headlong into Roger’s saving grasp.
He hugged Jemmy tight against him, the little boy wriggling and crowing in triumph.
“Good lad! Be into everything now, won’t you?”
“Like he’s not already!” Brianna said, rolling her eyes in resignation. As though in illustration, Jemmy wriggled loose from Roger’s grasp, dropped to hands and knees, and crawled off at a high rate of speed, heading for his basket of toys.
“And what else have ye been doing today?” Roger asked, sitting down at the table.
“What else?” Her eyes went wide, then narrowed. “You don’t think learning to walk is enough for one day?”
“Of course; it’s wonderful, it’s marvelous!” he assured her hastily. “I was only making conversation.”
She relaxed, appeased.
“Well, then. We scrubbed the floor—not that anybody could tell the difference—” She glanced down with some distaste at the rough, discolored boards underfoot, “—and we made bread and set it to rise, only it didn’t, so that’s why you’re having flat-bread with your dinner.”
“Love flat-bread,” he assured her hastily, catching the gimlet gleam in her eye.
“Sure you do,” she said, lifting one thick red brow. “Or at least you know which side it’s buttered on.”
He laughed. Here in the warm, the chill was wearing off, and his hands were starting to throb, but he felt good, nonetheless. Tired enough to fall off his stool, but good. Good and hungry. His stomach growled in anticipation.
“Flat-bread and butter is a start,” he said. “What else? I smell something good.” He looked at the bubbling cauldron and sniffed hopefully. “Stew?”
“No, laundry.” Bree glowered at the kettle. “The third bloody batch today. I can’t fit much in that dinky thing, but I couldn’t take the wash up to the big kettle at the house, because of washing the floor and spinning. When you do wash outside, you have to stay there, to tend the fire and stir it, so you can’t do much else at the same time.” Her lips clamped and thinned. “Very inefficient.”
“Shame.” Roger passed lightly over the logistics of laundry, in favor of more pressing issues. He lifted his chin toward the hearth.
“I do smell meat. You don’t think a mouse has fallen into the pot?”
Jemmy, catching this, let go his hold on a rag-ball and crawled eagerly toward the fire. “Mouzee? See mouzee?”
Brianna grabbed the collar of Jemmy’s smock and turned the glower on Roger.
“Certainly not. No, baby, no mousie. Daddy’s being silly. Here, Jemmy, come eat.” Letting go the collar, she seized the little boy by the waist and lifted him—kicking and struggling—into his high chair. “Eat, I said! You stay put.” Jemmy arched his back, grunting and squealing in protest, then suddenly relaxed, sliding down out of the chair and disappearing into the folds of his mother’s skirt.
Brianna grappled for him, going red in the face with laughter and exasperation.
“All right!” she said, hauling him upright. “Don’t eat, then. See if I care.” She reached for the litter of toys, spilled out of their basket, and plucked a battered corn-husk doll from the rubble. “Here, see dolly? Nice dolly.”
Jemmy clasped the doll to his bosom, sat down abruptly on his bottom, and began to address the doll in earnest tones, shaking it now and then for emphasis.
“Eat!” he said sternly, poking it in the stomach. He laid the doll on the floor, picked up the basket, and carefully turned it over on top of the dolly. “Say put!”
Brianna rubbed a hand down her face, and sighed. She gave Roger a glance. “And you want to know what I do all day.”
The glance sharpened, as she truly looked at him for the first time.
“And what have you been doing, Mr. MacKenzie? You look like you’ve been in the wars.” She touched his face gently; there was a knot forming on his forehead; he could feel the skin tightening there, and the tiny stab of pain when she touched it.
“Something like. Jamie’s been showing me the rudiments of swordsmanship.”
Her brows went up, and he laughed self-consciously, keeping his hands in his lap.
“Wooden swords, aye?”
Several wooden swords. They’d broken three so far, though the makeshift weapons were stout lengths of wood; not twigs, by any means.