His hand slid down to take hold of mine, and with the other he reached down to pick up the photographs. He laid them on his knee, looking at them with head bent, so I couldn’t see his face.
“Brianna,” he said softly. “Ye say it wrong, Sassenach. Her name is Brianna.” He said it with an odd Highland lilt, so that the first syllable was accented, the second barely pronounced. Breeanah.
“Breeanah?” I said, amused. He nodded, eyes still fixed on the pictures.
“Brianna,” he said. “It’s a beautiful name.”
“Glad you like it,” I said.
He glanced up then, and met my eyes, with a smile hidden in the corner of his long mouth.
“Tell me about her.” One forefinger traced the pudgy features of the baby in the snowsuit. “What was she like as a wee lassie? What did she first say, when she learned to speak?”
His hand drew me closer, and I nestled close to him. He was big, and solid, and smelled of clean linen and ink, with a warm male scent that was as exciting to me as it was familiar.
“‘Dog,’” I said. “That was her first word. The second one was ‘No!’”
The smile widened across his face. “Aye, they all learn that one fast. She’ll like dogs, then?” He fanned the pictures out like cards, searching out the one with Smoky. “That’s a lovely dog with her there. What sort is that?”
“A Newfoundland.” I bent forward to thumb through the pictures. “There’s another one here with a puppy a friend of mine gave her…”
The dim gray daylight had begun to fade, and the rain had been pattering on the roof for some time, before our talk was interrupted by a fierce subterranean growl emanating from below the lace-trimmed bodice of my Jessica Gutenburg. It had been a long time since the peanut butter sandwich.
“Hungry, Sassenach?” Jamie asked, rather unnecessarily, I thought.
“Well, yes, now that you mention it. Do you still keep food in the top drawer?” When we were first married, I had developed the habit of keeping small bits of food on hand, to supply his constant appetite, and the top drawer of any chest of drawers where we lived generally provided a selection of rolls, small cakes, or bits of cheese.
He laughed and stretched. “Aye, I do. There’s no much there just now, though, but a couple of stale bannocks. Better I take ye down to the tavern, and—” The look of happiness engendered by perusing the photographs of Brianna faded, to be replaced by a look of alarm. He glanced quickly at the window, where a soft purplish color was beginning to replace the pale gray, and the look of alarm deepened.
“The tavern! Christ! I’ve forgotten Mr. Willoughby!” He was on his feet and groping in the chest for fresh stockings before I could say anything. Coming out with the stockings in one hand and two bannocks in the other, he tossed the latter into my lap and sat down on the stool, hastily yanking on the former.
“Who’s Mr. Willoughby?” I bit into a bannock, scattering crumbs.
“Damn,” he said, more to himself than me, “I said I’d come for him at noon, but it went out o’ my head entirely! It must be four o’clock by now!”
“It is; I heard the clock strike a little while ago.”
“Damn!” he repeated. Thrusting his feet into a pair of pewter-buckled shoes, he rose, snatched his coat from the peg, and then paused at the door.
“You’ll come wi’ me?” he asked anxiously.
I licked my fingers and rose, pulling my cloak around me.
“Wild horses couldn’t stop me,” I assured him.
HOUSE OF JOY
“Who is Mr. Willoughby?” I inquired, as we paused under the arch of Carfax Close to peer out at the cobbled street. “Er…he’s an associate of mine,” Jamie replied, with a wary glance at me. “Best put up your hood, it’s pouring.”
It was in fact raining quite hard; sheets of water fell from the arch overhead and gurgled down the gutters, cleansing the streets of sewage and rubbish. I took a deep breath of the damp, clean air, feeling exhilarated by the wildness of the evening and the closeness of Jamie, tall and powerful by my side. I had found him. I had found him, and whatever unknowns life now held, they didn’t seem to matter. I felt reckless and indestructible.
I took his hand and squeezed it; he looked down and smiled at me, squeezing back.
“Where are we going?”
“To The World’s End.” The roar of the water made conversation difficult. Without further speech, Jamie took me by the elbow to help me across the cobbles, and we plunged down the steep incline of the Royal Mile.
Luckily, the tavern called The World’s End was no more than a hundred yards away; hard as the rain was, the shoulders of my cloak were scarcely more than dampened when we ducked beneath the low lintel and into the narrow entry-hall.
The main room was crowded, warm and smoky, a snug refuge from the storm outside. There were a few women seated on the benches that ran along the walls, but most of the patrons were men. Here and there was a man in the well-kept dress of a merchant, but most men with homes to go to were in them at this hour; the tavern hosted a mix of soldiers, wharf rats, laborers and apprentices, with here and there the odd drunkard for variety.
Heads looked up at our appearance, and there were shouts of greeting, and a general shuffling and pushing, to make room at one of the long tables. Clearly Jamie was well-known in The World’s End. A few curious glances came my way, but no one said anything. I kept my cloak pulled close around me, and followed Jamie through the crush of the tavern.
“Nay, mistress, we’ll no be stayin’,” he said to the young barmaid who bustled forward with an eager smile. “I’ve only come for himself.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Oh, aye, and no before time, either! Mither’s put him doon the stair.”
“Aye, I’m late,” Jamie said apologetically. “I had…business that kept me.”
The girl looked curiously at me, but then shrugged and dimpled at Jamie.
“Och, it’s no trouble, sir. Harry took him doon a stoup of brandy, and we’ve heard little more of him since.”
“Brandy, eh?” Jamie sounded resigned. “Still awake, is he?” He reached into the pocket of his coat and brought out a small leather pouch, from which he extracted several coins, which he dropped into the girl’s outstretched hand.
“I expect so,” she said cheerfully, pocketing the money. “I heard him singin’ a whiles since. Thankee, sir!”
With a nod, Jamie ducked under the lintel at the back of the room, motioning me to follow. A tiny, barrel-ceilinged kitchen lay behind the main taproom, with a huge kettle of what looked like oyster stew simmering in the hearth. It smelled delicious, and I could feel my mouth starting to water at the rich aroma. I hoped we could do our business with Mr. Willoughby over supper.
A fat woman in a grimy bodice and skirt knelt by the hearth, stuffing billets of wood into the fire. She glanced up at Jamie and nodded, but made no move to get up.
He lifted a hand in response, and headed for a small wooden door in the corner. He lifted the bolt and swung the door open to reveal a dark stairway leading down, apparently into the bowels of the earth. A light flickered somewhere far below, as though elves were mining diamonds beneath the tavern.
Jamie’s shoulders filled the narrow stairwell, obstructing my view of whatever lay below us. When he stepped out into the open space below, I could see heavy oak rafters, and a row of huge casks, standing on a long plank set on hurdles against the stone wall.
Only a single torch burned at the foot of the stair. The cellar was shadowy, and its cavelike depths seemed quite deserted. I listened, but didn’t hear anything but the muffled racket of the tavern upstairs. Certainly no singing.
“Are you sure he’s down here?” I bent to peer beneath the row of casks, wondering whether perhaps the bibulous Mr. Willoughby had been overcome with an excess of brandy and sought some secluded spot to sleep it off.
“Oh, aye.” Jamie sounded grim, but resigned. “The wee bugger’s hiding, I expect. He knows I dinna like it when he drinks in public houses.”
I raised an eyebrow at this, but he merely strode into the shadows, muttering under his breath. The cellar stretched some way, and I could hear him, shuffling cautiously in the dark, long after I lost sight of him. Left in the circle of torchlight near the stairs, I looked around with interest.
Besides the row of casks, there were a number of wooden crates stacked near the center of the room, against an odd little chunk of wall that stood by itself, rising some five feet out of the cellar floor, running back into the darkness.
I had heard of this feature of the tavern when we had stayed in Edinburgh twenty years before with His Highness Prince Charles, but what with one thing and another, I had never actually seen it before. It was the remnant of a wall constructed by the city fathers of Edinburgh, following the disastrous Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. Concluding—with some justice—that no good was likely to come of association with the English to the south, they had built a wall defining both the city limits and the limit of the civilized world of Scotland. Hence “The World’s End,” and the name had stuck through several versions of the tavern that had eventually been built upon the remnants of the old Scots’ wishful thinking.
“Damned little bugger.” Jamie emerged from the shadows, a cobweb stuck in his hair, and a frown on his face. “He must be back of the wall.”
Turning, he put his hands to his mouth and shouted something. It sounded like incomprehensible gibberish—not even like Gaelic. I dug a finger dubiously into one ear, wondering whether the trip through the stones had deranged my hearing.
A sudden movement caught the corner of my eye, causing me to look up, just in time to see a ball of brilliant blue fly off the top of the ancient wall and smack Jamie squarely between the shoulderblades.
He hit the cellar floor with a frightful thump, and I dashed toward his fallen body.
“Jamie! Are you all right?”
The prone figure made a number of coarse remarks in Gaelic and sat up slowly, rubbing his forehead, which had struck the stone floor a glancing blow. The blue ball, meanwhile, had resolved itself into the figure of a very small Chinese, who was giggling in unhinged delight, sallow round face shining with glee and brandy.
“Mr. Willoughby, I presume?” I said to this apparition, keeping a wary eye out for further tricks.
He appeared to recognize his name, for he grinned and nodded madly at me, his eyes creased to gleaming slits. He pointed to himself, said something in Chinese, and then sprang into the air and executed several backflips in rapid succession, bobbing up on his feet in beaming triumph at the end.
“Bloody flea.” Jamie got up, wiping the skinned palms of his hands gingerly on his coat. With a quick snatch, he caught hold of the Chinaman’s collar and jerked him off his feet.
“Come on,” he said, parking the little man on the stairway and prodding him firmly in the back. “We need to be going, and quick now.” In response, the little blue-clad figure promptly sagged into limpness, looking like a bag of laundry resting on the step.