“Fergus hasna come up the hill lately; I got worried,” he said simply.
“Ye’re a sweet man, Jamie.” The color was coming back into her face. She smiled at her brother and came close to hug him. It was an awkward business, with the impending baby in the way, but pleasant, nonetheless. He rested his cheek for a moment on the sleek darkness of her head, breathing in her complex aroma of candle wax and cinnamon, tallow-soap and wool. There was an unusual element to her scent this evening; he thought she was beginning to smell of milk.
“Where is everyone?” he asked, releasing her reluctantly.
“Well, Mrs. Coker’s dead,” she answered, the faint crease between her brows deepening.
“Aye?” he said softly, and crossed himself. “I’m sorry for it.” Mrs. Coker had been first housemaid and then housekeeper for the family, since the marriage of his own parents, forty-odd years before. “When?”
“Yesterday forenoon. ’Twasn’t unexpected, poor soul, and it was peaceful. She died in her own bed, like she wanted, and Father McMurtry prayin’ over her.”
Jamie glanced reflexively toward the door that led to the servants’ rooms, off the kitchen. “Is she still here?”
His sister shook her head. “No. I told her son they should have the wake here at the house, but the Cokers thought, everything being like it is”—her small moue encompassed Ian’s absence, lurking Redcoats, refugee tenants, the dearth of food, and his own inconvenient presence in the cave—“they thought better to have it at Broch Mordha, at her sister’s place. So that’s where everyone’s gone. I told them I didna feel well enough to go,” she added, then smiled, raising an impish brow. “But it was really that I wanted a few hours’ peace and quiet, wi’ the lot of them gone.”
“And here I’ve come, breakin’ in on your peace,” Jamie said ruefully. “Shall I go?”
“No, clot-heid,” his sister said affably. “Sit ye down, and I’ll get on wi’ the supper.”
“What’s to eat, then?” he asked, sniffing hopefully.
“Depends on what ye’ve brought,” his sister replied. She moved heavily about the kitchen, taking things from cupboard and hutch, pausing to stir the large kettle hung over the fire, from which a thin steam was rising.
“If ye’ve brought meat, we’ll have it. If not, it’s brose and hough.”
He made a face at this; the thought of boiled barley and shin-beef, the last remnants of the salted beef carcass they’d bought two months before, was unappealing.
“Just as well I had luck, then,” he said. He upended his game bag and let the three rabbits fall onto the table in a limp tumble of gray fur and crumpled ears. “And blackthorn berries,” he added, tipping out the contents of the dun bonnet, now stained inside with the rich red juice.
Jenny’s eyes brightened at the sight. “Hare pie,” she declared. “There’s no currants, but the berries will do even better, and there’s enough butter, thank God.” Catching a tiny blink of movement among the gray fur, she slapped her hand down on the table, neatly obliterating the minuscule intruder.
“Take them out and skin ’em, Jamie, or the kitchen will be hopping wi’ fleas.”
Returning with the skinned carcasses, he found the piecrust well advanced, and Jenny with smears of flour on her dress.
“Cut them into collops and break the bones for me, will ye, Jamie?” she said, frowning at Mrs. McClintock’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work, laid open on the table beside the pie pan.
“Surely ye can make hare pie without looking in the wee book?” he said, obligingly taking the big bone-crushing wooden mallet from the top of the hutch where it was kept. He grimaced as he took it into his hand, feeling the weight of it. It was very like the one that had broken his right hand several years before, in an English prison, and he had a sudden vivid memory of the shattered bones in a hare pie, splintered and cracked, leaking salty blood and marrow-sweetness into the meat.
“Aye, I can,” his sister answered abstractedly, thumbing through the pages. “It’s only that when ye havena got half the things ye need to make a dish, sometimes there’s something else you’ll come across in here, that ye can use instead.” She frowned at the page before her. “Ordinarily, I’d use claret in the sauce, but we’ve none in the house, save one of Jared’s casks in the priest hole, and I dinna want to broach that yet—we might need it.”
He didn’t need telling what she might use it for. A cask of claret might grease the skids for Ian’s release—or at least pay for news of his welfare. He stole a sidewise glance at the great round of Jenny’s belly. It wasn’t for a man to say, but to his not inexperienced eyes, she looked damn near her time. Absently, he reached over the kettle and swished the blade of his dirk to and fro in the scalding liquid, then pulled it out and wiped it clean.
“Whyever did ye do that, Jamie?” He turned to find Jenny staring at him. The black curls were coming undone from their ribbon, and it gave him a pang to see the glimmer of a single white hair among the ebony.
“Oh,” he said, too obviously offhand as he picked up one carcass, “Claire—she told me ye ought to wash off a blade in boiling water before ye touched food with it.”
He felt rather than saw Jenny’s eyebrows rise. She had asked him about Claire only once, when he had come home from Culloden, half-conscious and mostly dead with fever.
“She is gone,” he had said, and turned his face away. “Dinna speak her name to me again.” Loyal as always, Jenny had not, and neither had he. He could not have said what made him say it today; unless perhaps it was the dreams.
He had them often, in varying forms, and it always unsettled him the day after, as though for a moment Claire had really been near enough to touch, and then had drawn away again. He could swear that sometimes he woke with the smell of her on him, musky and rich, pricked with the sharp, fresh scents of leaves and green herbs. He had spilled his seed in his sleep more than once while dreaming, an occurrence that left him faintly shamed and uneasy in mind. To distract both of them, he nodded at Jenny’s stomach.
“How close is it?” he asked, frowning at her swollen midsection. “Ye look like a puffball mushroom—one touch, and poof!” He flicked his fingers wide in illustration.
“Oh, aye? Well, and I could wish it was as easy as poof.” She arched her back, rubbing at the small of it, and making her belly protrude in an alarming fashion. He pressed back against the wall, to give it room. “As for when, anytime, I expect. No telling for sure.” She picked up the cup and measured out the flour; precious little left in the bag, he noted with some grimness.
“Send up to the cave when it starts,” he said suddenly. “I’ll come down, Redcoats or no.”
Jenny stopped stirring and stared at him.
“Well, Ian’s not here,” he pointed out, picking up one skinned carcass. With the expertise of long practice, he neatly disjointed a thigh and cut it free from the backbone. Three quick smacks with the boning mallet and the pale flesh lay flattened and ready for the pie.
“And a great lot of help he’d be if he was,” Jenny said. “He took care of his part o’ the business nine months ago.” She wrinkled her nose at her brother and reached for the plate of butter.
“Mmphm.” He sat down to continue his work, which brought her belly close to his eye-level. The contents, awake and active, was shifting to and fro in a restless manner, making her apron twitch and bulge as she stirred. He couldn’t resist reaching out to put a light hand against the monstrous curve, to feel the surprising strong thrusts and kicks of the inhabitant, impatient of its cramped confinement.
“Send Fergus for me when it’s time,” he said again.
She looked down at him in exasperation and batted his hand away with the spoon. “Have I no just been telling ye, I dinna need ye? For God’s sake, man, have I not enough to worry me, wi’ the house full of people, and scarce enough to feed them, Ian in gaol in Inverness, and Redcoats crawling in at the windows every time I look round? Should I have to worry that ye’ll be taken up, as well?”
“Ye needna be worrit for me; I’ll take care.” He didn’t look at her, but focused his attention on the forejoint he was slicing through.
“Well, then, have a care and stay put on the hill.” She looked down her long, straight nose, peering at him over the rim of the bowl. “I’ve had six bairns already, aye? Ye dinna think I can manage by now?”
“No arguing wi’ you, is there?” he demanded.
“No,” she said promptly. “So you’ll stay.”
Jenny narrowed her eyes and gave him a long, level look.
“Ye’re maybe the most stubborn gomerel between here and Aberdeen, no?”
A smile spread across her brother’s face as he looked up at her.
“Maybe so,” he said. He reached across and patted her heaving belly. “And maybe no. But I’m coming. Send Fergus when it’s time.”
It was near dawn three days later that Fergus came panting up the slope to the cave, missing the trail in the dark, and making such a crashing through the gorse bushes that Jamie heard him coming long before he reached the opening.
“Milord…” he began breathlessly as he emerged by the head of the trail, but Jamie was already past the boy, pulling his cloak around his shoulders as he hurried down toward the house.
“But, milord…” Fergus’s voice came behind him, panting and frightened. “Milord, the soldiers…”
“Soldiers?” He stopped suddenly and turned, waiting impatiently for the French lad to make his way down the slope. “What soldiers?” he demanded, as Fergus slithered the last few feet.
“English dragoons, milord. Milady sent me to tell you—on no account are you to leave the cave. One of the men saw the soldiers yesterday, camped near Dunmaglas.”
“Yes, milord.” Fergus sat down on a rock and fanned himself, narrow chest heaving as he caught his breath.
Jamie hesitated, irresolute. Every instinct fought against going back into the cave. His blood was heated by the surge of excitement caused by Fergus’s appearance, and he rebelled at the thought of meekly crawling back into hiding, like a grub seeking refuge beneath its rock.
“Mmphm,” he said. He glanced down at Fergus. The changing light was beginning to outline the boy’s slender form against the blackness of the gorse, but his face was still a pale smudge, marked with a pair of darker smudges that were his eyes. A certain suspicion was stirring in Jamie. Why had his sister sent Fergus at this odd hour?
If it had been necessary urgently to warn him about the dragoons, it would have been safer to send the boy up during the night. If the need was not urgent, why not wait until the next night? The answer to that was obvious—because Jenny thought she might not be able to send him word the next night.