“But what about the other hair?” Rabbie demanded. “Ye dinna shave there!” Young Jamie giggled at the thought, going red again.
“And a damn good thing, too,” his elder namesake observed. “Ye’d need the devil of a steady hand. No need of a looking glass, though,” he added, to a chorus of giggles.
“What about the ladies?” Fergus said. His voice broke on the word “ladies,” in a bullfrog croak that made the other two laugh harder. “Certainly les filles have hair there, too, but they do not shave it—usually not, anyway,” he added, clearly thinking of some of the sights of his early life in the brothel.
Jamie heard his sister’s footsteps coming down the hall.
“Oh, well, that’s no a curse,” he told his rapt audience, picking up the basin and tossing the contents neatly through the open window. “God gave that as a consolation to man. If ye’ve ever the privilege of seeing a woman in her skin, gentlemen,” he said, looking over his shoulder toward the door and lowering his voice confidentially, “ye’ll observe that the hair there grows in the shape of an arrow—pointing the way, ye ken, so as a poor ignorant man can find his way safe home.”
He turned grandly away from the guffawing and sniggers behind him, to be struck suddenly with shame as he saw his sister, coming down the hall with the slow, waddling stride of advanced pregnancy. She was holding the tray with his supper on top of her swelling stomach. How could he have demeaned her so, for a crude jest and the sake of a moment’s camaraderie with the boys?
“Be still!” he had snapped at the boys, who stopped giggling abruptly and stared at him in puzzlement. He hastened forward to take the tray from Jenny and set it on the table.
It was a savoury made of goat’s meat and bacon, and he saw Fergus’s prominent Adam’s apple bob in the slender throat at the smell of it. He knew they saved the best of the food for him; it didn’t take much looking at the pinched faces across the table. When he came, he brought what meat he could, snared rabbits or grouse, sometimes a nest of plover’s eggs—but it was never enough, for a house where hospitality must stretch to cover the needs of not only family and servants, but the families of the murdered Kirby and Murray. At least until spring, the widows and children of his tenants must bide here, and he must do his best to feed them.
“Sit down by me,” he said to Jenny, taking her arm and gently guiding her to a seat on the bench beside him. She looked surprised—it was her habit to wait on him when he came—but sat down gladly enough. It was late, and she was tired; he could see the dark smudges beneath her eyes.
With great firmness, he cut a large slab of the savoury and set the plate before her.
“But that’s all for you!” Jenny protested. “I’ve eaten.”
“Not enough,” he said. “Ye need more—for the babe,” he added, with inspiration. If she would not eat for herself, she would for the child. She hesitated a moment longer, but then smiled at him, picked up her spoon, and began to eat.
Now it was November, and the chill struck through the thin shirt and breeches he wore. He hardly noticed, intent on his tracking. It was cloudy, but with a thin-layered mackerel sky, through which the full moon shed plenty of light.
Thank God it wasn’t raining; impossible to hear through the pattering of raindrops, and the pungent scent of wet plants masked the smell of animals. His nose had grown almost painfully acute through the long months of living outdoors; the smells of the house sometimes nearly knocked him down when he stepped inside.
He wasn’t quite close enough to smell the musky scent of the stag, but he heard the telltale rustle of its brief start when it scented him. Now it would be frozen, one of the shadows that rippled across the hillside around him, under the racing clouds.
He turned as slowly as he possibly could toward the spot where his ears had told him the stag stood. His bow was in his hand, an arrow ready to the string. He would have one shot—maybe—when the stag bolted.
Yes, there! His heart sprang into his throat as he saw the antlers, pricking sharp and black above the surrounding gorse. He steadied himself, took a deep breath, and then the one step forward.
The crash of a deer’s flight was always startlingly loud, to frighten back a stalker. This stalker was prepared, though. He neither startled nor pursued, but stood his ground, sighting along the shaft of the arrow, following with his eye the track of the springing deer, judging the moment, holding fire, and then the bowstring slapped his wrist with stinging force.
It was a clean shot, just behind the shoulder, and a good thing, too; he doubted he had the strength to run down a full-grown stag. It had fallen in a clear spot behind a clump of gorse, legs stuck out, stiff as sticks, in the oddly helpless way of dying ungulates. The hunter’s moon lit its glazing eye, so the soft dark stare was hidden, the mystery of its dying shielded by blank silver.
He pulled the dirk from his belt and knelt by the deer, hastily saying the words of the gralloch prayer. Old John Murray, Ian’s father, had taught him. His own father’s mouth had twisted slightly, hearing it, from which he gathered that this prayer was perhaps not addressed to the same God they spoke to in church on Sunday. But his father had said nothing, and he had mumbled the words himself, scarcely noticing what he said, in the nervous excitement of feeling old John’s hand, steady on his own, for the first time pressing down the knife blade into hairy hide and steaming flesh.
Now, with the sureness of practice, he thrust up the sticky muzzle in one hand, and with the other, slit the deer’s throat.
The blood spurted hot over knife and hand, pumping two or three times, the jet dying away to a steady stream as the carcass drained, the great vessels of the throat cut through. Had he paused to think, he might not have done it, but hunger and dizziness and the cold fresh intoxication of the night had taken him far past the point of thinking. He cupped his hands beneath the running stream and brought them steaming to his mouth.
The moon shone black on his cupped, spilling hands, and it was as though he absorbed the deer’s substance, rather than drank it. The taste of the blood was salt and silver, and the heat of it was his own. There was no startlement of hot or cold as he swallowed, only the taste of it, rich in his mouth, and the head-swimming, hot-metal smell, and the sudden clench and rumble of his belly at the nearness of food.
He closed his eyes and breathed, and the cold damp air came back, between the hot reek of the carcass and his senses. He swallowed once, then wiped the back of his hand across his face, cleaned his hands on the grass, and set about the business at hand.
There was the sudden effort of moving the limp, heavy carcass, and then the gralloch, the long stroke of mingled strength and delicacy that slit the hide between the legs, but did not penetrate the sac that held the entrails. He forced his hands into the carcass, a hot wet intimacy, and again there was an effortful tug that brought out the sac, slick and moon-shining in his hands. A slash above and another below, and the mass slid free, the transformation of black magic that changed a deer to meat.
It was a small stag, although it had points to its antlers. With luck, he could carry it alone, rather than leave it to the mercy of foxes and badgers until he could bring help to move it. He ducked a shoulder under one leg, and slowly rose, grunting with effort as he shifted the burden to a solid resting place across his back.
The moon cast his shadow on a rock, humped and fantastic, as he made his slow, ungainly way down the hill. The deer’s antlers bobbed above his shoulder, giving him in shadowed profile the semblance of a horned man. He shivered slightly at the thought, remembering tales of witches’ sabbats, where the Horned One came, to drink the sacrifice of goat’s or rooster’s blood.
He felt a little queasy, and more than a little light-headed. More and more, he felt the disorientation, the fragmenting of himself between day and night. By day, he was a creature of the mind alone, as he escaped his damp immobility by a stubborn, disciplined retreat into the avenues of thought and meditation, seeking refuge in the pages of books. But with the rising of the moon, all sense fled, succumbing at once to sensation, as he emerged into the fresh air like a beast from its lair, to run the dark hills beneath the stars, and hunt, driven by hunger, drunk with blood and moonlight.
He stared at the ground as he walked, night-sight keen enough to keep his footing, despite the heavy burden. The deer was limp and cooling, its stiff, soft hair scratching against the back of his neck, and his own sweat cooling in the breeze, as though he shared his prey’s fate.
It was only as the lights of Lallybroch manor came into view that he felt at last the mantle of humanity fall upon him, and mind and body joined as one again as he prepared himself to greet his family.
TO US A CHILD IS GIVEN
Three weeks later, there was still no word of Ian’s return. No word of any kind, in fact. Fergus had not come to the cave in several days, leaving Jamie in a fret of worry over how things might be at the house. If nothing else, the deer he had shot would have gone long since, with all the extra mouths to feed, and there would be precious little from the kailyard at this time of year.
He was sufficiently worried to risk an early visit, checking his snares and coming down from the hills just before sunset. Just in case, he was careful to pull on the woolen bonnet, knitted of rough dun yarn, that would hide his hair from any telltale fingering of late sunbeams. His size alone might provoke suspicion, but not certainty, and he had full confidence in the strength of his legs to carry him out of harm’s way should he have the ill luck to meet with an English patrol. Hares in the heather were little match for Jamie Fraser, given warning.
The house was strangely quiet as he approached. There was none of the usual racket made by children: Jenny’s five, and the six bairns belonging to the tenants, to say nothing of Fergus and Rabbie MacNab, who were a long way from being too old to chase each other round the stables, screeching like fiends.
The house felt strangely empty round him, as he paused just inside the kitchen door. He was standing in the back hall, the pantry to one side, the scullery to the other, and the main kitchen just beyond. He stood stock-still, reaching out with all his senses, listening as he inhaled the overpowering smells of the house. No, there was someone here; the faint sound of a scrape, followed by a soft, regular clinking came from behind the cloth-padded door that kept the heat of the kitchen from seeping out into the chilly back pantry.
It was a reassuringly domestic sound, so he pushed open the door cautiously, but without undue fear. His sister, Jenny, alone and vastly pregnant, was standing at the table, stirring something in a yellow bowl.
“What are you doing in here? Where’s Mrs. Coker?”
His sister dropped the spoon with a startled shriek.
“Jamie!” Pale-faced, she pressed a hand to her breast and closed her eyes. “Christ! Ye scairt the bowels out of me.” She opened her eyes, dark blue like his own, and fixed him with a penetrating stare. “And what in the name of the Holy Mother are ye doing here now? I wasna expecting ye for a week at least.”