Rabbie made mock puking noises. “Christ, who’d be a Frenchie!”
Fergus, standing close to Rabbie, whirled and shot out a lightning fist. Fergus was small and slender for his age, but strong for all that, and with a deadly aim for a man’s weak points, knowledge acquired as a juvenile pickpocket on the streets of Paris. The blow caught Rabbie squarely in the wind, and he doubled over with a sound like a stepped-on pig’s bladder.
“Speak with respect of your betters, if you please,” Fergus said haughtily. Rabbie’s face turned several shades of red and his mouth opened and closed like a fish’s, as he struggled to get his breath back. His eyes bulged with a look of intense surprise, and he looked so ridiculous that it was a struggle for Jamie not to laugh, despite his worry over jenny and his irritation at the boys’ squabbling.
“Will ye wee doiters no keep your paws off—” he began, when he was interrupted by a cry from Young Jamie, who had until now been silent, fascinated by the conversation.
“What?” Jamie whirled, hand going automatically to the pistol he carried whenever he left the cave, but there was not, as he had half-expected, an English patrol in the stableyard.
“What the hell is it?” he demanded. Then, following Young Jamie’s pointing finger, he saw them. Three small black specks, drifting across the brown crumple of dead vines in the potato field.
“Ravens,” he said softly, and felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. For those birds of war and slaughter to come to a house during a birth was the worst sort of ill luck. One of the filthy beasts was actually settling on the rooftree, as he watched.
With no conscious thought, he took the pistol from his belt and braced the muzzle across his forearm, sighting carefully. It was a long shot, from the door of the stable to the rooftree, and sighted upward, too. Still…
The pistol jerked in his hand and the raven exploded in a cloud of black feathers. Its two companions shot into the air as though blown there by the explosion, and flapped madly away, their hoarse cries fading quickly on the winter air.
“Mon Dieu!” Fergus exclaimed. “C’est bien, ça!”
“Aye, bonny shooting, sir.” Rabbie, still red-faced and a little breathless, had recovered himself in time to see the shot. Now he nodded toward the house, pointing with his chin. “Look, sir, is that the midwife?”
It was. Mrs. Innes poked her head out of the second-story window, fair hair flying loose as she leaned out to peer into the yard below. Perhaps she had been drawn by the sound of the shot, fearing some trouble. Jamie stepped into the stableyard and waved at the window to reassure her.
“It’s all right,” he shouted. “Only an accident.” He didn’t mean to mention the ravens, lest the midwife tell Jenny.
“Come up!” she shouted, ignoring this. “The bairn’s born, and your sister wants ye!”
Jenny opened one eye, blue and slightly slanted like his own.
“So ye came, aye?”
“I thought someone should be here—if only to pray for ye,” he said gruffly.
She closed the eye and a small smile curved her lips. She looked, he thought, very like a painting he had seen in France—an old one by some Italian fellow, but a good picture, nonetheless.
“Ye’re a silly fool—and I’m glad of it,” she said softly. She opened her eyes and glanced down at the swaddled bundle she held in the crook of her arm.
“D’ye want to see him?”
“Oh, a him, is it?” With hands experienced by years of unclehood, he lifted the tiny package and cuddled it against himself, pushing back the flap of blanket that shaded its face.
Its eyes were closed tight shut, the lashes not visible in the deep crease of the eyelids. The eyelids themselves lay at a sharp angle above the flushed smooth rounds of the cheeks, giving promise that it might—in this one recognizable feature, at least—resemble its mother.
The head was oddly lumpy, with a lopsided appearance that made Jamie think uncomfortably of a kicked-in melon, but the small fat mouth was relaxed and peaceful, the moist pink underlip quivering faintly with the snore attendant on the exhaustion of being born.
“Hard work, was it?” he said, speaking to the child, but it was the mother who answered him.
“Aye, it was,” Jenny said. “There’s whisky in the armoire—will ye fetch me a glass?” Her voice was hoarse and she had to clear her throat before finishing the request.
“Whisky? Should ye not be having ale wi’ eggs beaten up in it?” he asked, repressing with some difficulty a mental vision of Fergus’s suggestion of appropriate sustenance for newly delivered mothers.
“Whisky,” his sister said definitely. “When ye were lyin’ downstairs crippled and your leg killin’ ye, did I give ye ale wi’ eggs beaten up in it?”
“Ye fed me stuff a damn sight worse than that,” her brother said, with a grin, “but ye’re right, ye gave me whisky, too.” He laid the sleeping child carefully on the coverlet, and turned to get the whisky.
“Has he a name, yet?” he asked, nodding toward the baby as he poured out a generous cup of the amber liquid.
“I’ll call him Ian, for his Da.” Jenny’s hand rested gently for a moment on the rounded skull, lightly furred with a gold-brown fuzz. A pulse beat visibly in the soft spot on top; it seemed hideously fragile to Jamie, but the midwife had assured him the babe was a fine, lusty lad, and he supposed he must take her word for it. Moved by an obscure impulse to protect that nakedly exposed soft spot, he picked up the baby once more, pulling the blanket up over its head.
“Mary MacNab told me about you and Mrs. Kirby,” Jenny remarked, sipping. “Pity I didna see it—she said the wretched auld besom nearly swallowed her tongue when ye spoke to her.”
Jamie smiled in return, gently patting the baby’s back as it lay against his shoulder. Dead asleep, the little body lay inert as a boneless ham, a soft comforting weight.
“Too bad she didn’t. How can ye stand the woman, living in the same house wi’ ye? I’d strangle her, were I here every day.”
His sister snorted and closed her eyes, tilting her head back to let the whisky slide down her throat.
“Ah, folk fash ye as much as ye let them; I dinna let her, much. Still,” she added, opening her eyes, “I canna say as I’ll be sorry to be rid of her. I have it in my mind to palm her off on auld Kettrick, down at Broch Mordha. His wife and his daughter both died last year, and he’ll be wanting someone to do for him.”
“Aye, but if I were Samuel Kettrick, I’d take the widow Murray,” Jamie observed, “not the widow Kirby.”
“Peggy Murray’s already provided for,” his sister assured him. “She’ll wed Duncan Gibbons in the spring.”
“That’s fast work for Duncan,” he said, a little surprised. Then a thought occurred to him, and he grinned at her. “Do either o’ them know it yet?”
“No,” she said, grinning back. Then the smile faded into a speculative look.
“Unless you were thinking of Peggy yourself, that is?”
“Me?” Jamie was as startled as if she had suddenly suggested he might wish to jump out of the second-story window.
“She’s only five and twenty,” Jenny pursued. “Young enough for more bairns, and a good mother.”
“How much of that whisky have ye had?” Her brother bent forward and pretended to examine the level of the decanter, cupping the baby’s head in one palm to prevent it wobbling. He straightened up and gave his sister a look of mild exasperation.
“I’m living like an animal in a cave, and ye wish me to take a wife?” He felt suddenly hollow inside. To prevent her seeing that the suggestion had upset him, he rose and walked up and down the room, making unnecessary small humming noises to the bundle in his arms.
“How long is it since ye’ve lain wi’ a woman, Jamie?” his sister asked conversationally behind him. Shocked, he turned on his heel to stare at her.
“What the hell sort of question is that to ask a man?”
“You’ve not gone wi’ any of the unwed lasses between Lallybroch and Broch Mordha,” she went on, paying no attention. “Or I’d have heard of it. None of the widows, either, I dinna think?” She paused delicately.
“Ye know damn well I haven’t,” he said shortly. He could feel his cheeks flushing with annoyance.
“Why not?” his sister asked bluntly.
“Why not?” He stared at her, his mouth slightly open. “Have ye lost your senses? What d’ye think, I’m the sort of man would slink about from house to house, bedding any woman who didna drive me out wi’ a girdle in her hand?”
“As if they would. No, you’re a good man, Jamie.” Jenny smiled, half sadly. “Ye wouldna take advantage of any woman. Ye’d marry first, no?”
“No!” he said violently. The baby twitched and made a sleepy sound, and he transferred it automatically to his other shoulder, patting, as he glared at his sister. “I dinna mean to marry again, so ye just abandon all thought of matchmaking, Jenny Murray! I willna have it, d’ye hear?”
“Oh, I hear,” she said, unperturbed, She pushed herself higher on the pillow, so as to look him in the eye.
“Ye mean to live a monk to the end of your days?” she asked. “Go to your grave wi’ no son to bury you or bless your name?”
“Mind your own business, damn ye!” Heart pounding, he turned his back on her and strode to the window, where he stood staring sightlessly out over the stableyard.
“I ken ye mourn Claire.” His sister’s voice came softly from behind him. “D’ye think I could forget Ian, if he doesna come back? But it’s time ye went on, Jamie. Ye dinna think Claire would mean ye to live alone all your life, with no one to comfort ye or bear your children?”
He didn’t answer for a long time, just stood, feeling the soft heat of the small fuzzy head pressed against the side of his neck. He could see himself dimly in the misted glass, a tall dirty gangle of a man, the round white bundle incongruous beneath his own grim face.
“She was with child,” he said softly at last, speaking to the reflection. “When she—when I lost her.” How else could he put it? There was no way to tell his sister, where Claire was—where he hoped she was. That he could not think of another woman, hoping that Claire still lived, even knowing her truly lost to him for good.
There was a long silence from the bed. Then Jenny said quietly, “Is that why ye came today?”
He sighed and turned sideways toward her, leaning his head against the cool glass. His sister was lying back, her dark hair loose on the pillow, eyes gone soft as she looked at him.
“Aye, maybe,” he said. “I couldna help my wife; I suppose I thought I might help you. Not that I could,” he added, with some bitterness. “I am as useless to you as I was to her.”
Jenny stretched out a hand to him, face filled with distress. “Jamie, mo chridhe,” she said, but then stopped, eyes widening in sudden alarm as a splintering crash and the sound of screams came from the house below.