“Holy Mary!” she said, growing even whiter. “It’s the English!”
“Christ.” It was as much a prayer as an exclamation of surprise. He glanced quickly from the bed to the window, judging the possibilities of hiding versus those of escape. The sounds of booted feet were already on the stair.
“The cupboard, Jamie!” Jenny whispered urgently, pointing. Without hesitation, he stepped into the armoire, and pulled the door to behind him.
The door of the chamber sprang open with a crash a moment later, to be filled with a red-coated figure in a cocked hat, holding a drawn sword before him. The Captain of dragoons paused, and darted his eyes all round the chamber, finally settling on the small figure in the bed.
“Mrs. Murray?” he said.
Jenny struggled to pull herself upright.
“I am. And what in flaming hell are ye doing in my house?” she demanded. Her face was pale and shiny with sweat, and her arms trembled, but she held her chin up and glared at the man. “Get out!”
Disregarding her, the man moved into the room and over to the window; Jamie could see his indistinct form disappear past the edge of the wardrobe, then reappear, back turned as he spoke to Jenny.
“One of my scouts reported hearing a shot from the vicinity of this house, not long since. Where are your men?”
“I have none.” Her trembling arms would not support her longer, and Jamie saw his sister ease herself back, collapsing on the pillows. “You’ve taken my husband already—my eldest son is no more than ten.” She did not mention Rabbie or Fergus; boys of their age were old enough to be treated—or mistreated—as men, should the Captain take the notion. With luck, they would have taken to their heels at the first sight of the English.
The Captain was a hard-bitten man of middle age, and not overly given to credulity.
“The keeping of weapons in the Highlands is a serious offense,” he said, and turned to the soldier who had come into the room behind him. “Search the house, Jenkins.”
He had to raise his voice in the giving of the order, for there was a rising commotion in the stairwell. As Jenkins turned to leave the room, Mrs. Innes, the midwife, burst past the soldier who tried to bar her way.
“Leave the poor lady alone!” she cried, facing the Captain with fists clenched at her sides. The midwife’s voice shook and her hair was coming down from its snood, but she stood her ground. “Get out, ye wretches! Leave her be!”
“I am not mistreating your mistress,” the Captain said, with some irritation, evidently mistaking Mrs. Innes for one of the maids. “I am merely—”
“And her not delivered but an hour since! It isna decent even for ye to lay eyes on her, so much as—”
“Delivered?” The Captain’s voice sharpened, and he glanced from the midwife to the bed in sudden interest. “You have borne a child, Mrs. Murray? Where is the infant?”
The infant in question stirred inside its wrappings, disturbed by the tightened grip of its horror-stricken uncle.
From the depths of the wardrobe, he could see his sister’s face, white to the lips and set like stone.
“The child is dead,” she said.
The midwife’s mouth dropped open in shock, but luckily the Captain’s attention was riveted on Jenny.
“Oh?” he said slowly. “Was it—”
“Mama!” The cry of anguish came from the doorway as Young Jamie broke free of a soldier’s grip and hurled himself at his mother. “Mama, the baby’s dead? No, no!” Sobbing, he flung himself on his knees and buried his head in the bedclothes.
As though to refute his brother’s statement, baby Ian gave evidence of his living state by kicking his legs with considerable vigor against his uncle’s ribs and emitting a series of small snuffling grunts, which fortunately went unheard in the commotion outside.
Jenny was trying to comfort Young Jamie, Mrs. Innes was futilely attempting to raise the boy, who kept a death grip on his mother’s sleeve, the Captain was vainly trying to make himself heard above Young Jamie’s grief-stricken wails, and over all, the muted sound of boots and shouting vibrated through the house.
Jamie rather thought the Captain was inquiring as to the location of the infant’s body. He clutched the body in question closer, joggling it in an attempt to prevent any disposition on its part to cry. His other hand went to the hilt of his dirk, but it was a vain gesture; it was doubtful that even cutting his own throat would be of help, if the wardrobe were opened.
Baby Ian made an irascible noise, suggesting that he disliked being joggled. With visions of the house in flames and the inhabitants slaughtered, the noise sounded as loud to Jamie as his elder nephew’s anguished howls.
“You did it!” Young Jamie had gotten to his feet, face wet and swollen with tears and rage, and was advancing on the Captain, curly black head lowered like a small ram’s. “You killed my brother, ye English prick!”
The Captain was somewhat taken aback by this sudden attack, and actually took a step back, blinking at the boy. “No, boy, you’re quite mistaken. Why, I only—”
“Prick! Cod! A mhic an diabhoil!” Entirely beside himself, Young Jamie was stalking the Captain, yelling every obscenity he had ever heard used, in Gaelic or English.
“Enh,” said baby Ian in the elder Jamie’s ear. “Enh, enh!” This sounded very much like the preliminary to a full-fledged screech, and in a panic, Jamie let go of his dirk and thrust his thumb into the soft, moist opening from which the sounds were issuing. The baby’s toothless gums clamped onto his thumb with a ferocity that nearly made him exclaim aloud.
“Get out! Get out! Get out or I’ll kill ye!” Young Jamie was screaming at the Captain, face contorted with rage. The Redcoat looked helplessly at the bed, as though to ask Jenny to call off this implacable small foe, but she lay as though dead with her eyes closed.
“I shall wait for my men downstairs,” the Captain said, with what dignity he could, and withdrew, shutting the door hastily behind him. Deprived of his enemy, Young Jamie fell to the floor and collapsed into helpless weeping.
Through the crack in the door, Jamie saw Mrs. Innes look at Jenny, mouth opening to ask a question. Jenny shot up from the bedclothes like Lazarus, scowling ferociously, finger pressed to her lips to enjoin silence. Baby Ian champed viciously at the thumb, growling at its failure to yield any sustenance.
Jenny swung herself to the side of the bed and sat there, waiting. The sounds of the soldiers below throbbed and eddied through the house. Jenny was shaking with weakness, but she reached out a hand toward the armoire where her men lay hidden.
Jamie drew a deep breath and braced himself. It would have to be risked; his hand and wrist were wet with saliva, and the baby’s growls of frustration were growing louder.
He stumbled from the wardrobe, drenched with sweat, and thrust the infant at Jenny. Baring her breast with a single wrench, she pressed the small head to her nipple, and bent over the tiny bundle, as though to protect it. The beginnings of a squawk disappeared into the muffled sounds of vigorous sucking, and Jamie sat down on the floor quite suddenly, feeling as though someone had run a sword behind his knees.
Young Jamie had sat up at the sudden opening of the wardrobe, and now sat spraddled against the door, his face blank with bewildered shock as he looked from his mother to his uncle and back again. Mrs. Innes knelt beside him, whispering urgently in his ear, but no sign of comprehension showed on the small, tear-streaked face.
By the time shouts and the creaking of harness outside betokened the soldiers’ departure, Young Ian lay replete and snoring in his mother’s arms. Jamie stood by the window, just out of sight, watching them go.
The room was silent, save for the liquid noise of Mrs. Innes, drinking whisky. Young Jamie sat close against his mother, cheek pressed to her shoulder. She had not looked up once since taking the baby, and still sat, head lowered over the child in her lap, her black hair hiding her face.
Jamie stepped forward and touched her shoulder. The warmth of her seemed shocking, as though cold dread were his natural state and the touch of another person somehow foreign and unnatural.
“I’ll go to the priest hole,” he said softly, “and to the cave when it’s dark.”
Jenny nodded, but without looking up at him. There were several white hairs among the black, he saw, glinting silver by the parting down the center of her head.
“I think…I should not come down again,” he said at last. “For a time.”
Jenny said nothing, but nodded once more.
BEING NOW JUSTIFIED BY HIS BLOOD
As it was, he did come down to the house once more. For two months, he stayed close hidden in the cave, scarcely daring to come out at night to hunt, for the English soldiers were still in the district, quartered at Comar. The troops went out by day in small patrols of eight or ten, combing the countryside, looting what little there was to steal, destroying what they could not use. And all with the blessing of the English Crown.
A path led close by the base of the hill where his cavern was concealed. No more than a rude track, it had begun as a deer path, and still largely served that use, though it was a foolish stag that would venture within smelling distance of the cave. Still, sometimes when the wind was right, he would see a small group of the red deer on the path, or find fresh spoor in the exposed mud of the track next day.
It was helpful as well for such people as had business on the mountainside—few enough as those were. The wind had been blowing downwind from the cave, and he had no expectation of seeing deer. He had been lying on the ground just within the cave entrance, where enough light filtered through the overhanging screen of gorse and rowan for him to read on fine days. There were not a great many books, but Jared managed still to smuggle a few with his gifts from France.
This violent rain forced me to a new work, viz., to cut a hole through my new fortification, like a sink, to let the water go out, which would else have drowned my cave. After I had been in my cave some time, and found still no more shocks of the earthquake follow, I began to be more composed; and now, to support my spirits, which indeed wanted it very much, I went to my little store and took a small sup of rum, which however, I did then and always very sparingly, knowing I could have no more when that was gone.
It continued raining all that night, and great part of the next day, so that I could not stir abroad; but my mind being more composed, I began to think…
The shadows across the page moved as the bushes above him stirred. Instincts attuned, he caught the shift of the wind at once—and on it, the sound of voices.
He sprang to his feet, hand on the dirk that never left his side. Barely pausing to put the book carefully on its ledge, he grasped the knob of granite that he used as a handhold and pulled himself up into the steep narrow crevice that formed the cave’s entrance.
The bright flash of red and metal on the path below hit him with a blow of shock and annoyance. Damn. He had little fear that any of the soldiers would leave the path—they were poorly equipped for making their way even through the normal stretches of open, spongy peat and heather, let alone an overgrown, brambly slope like this—but having them so close meant he could not risk leaving the cave before dark, even to get water or relieve himself. He cast a quick glance at his water jug, knowing as he did so that it was nearly empty.