Ian took a deep breath, his long, homely face hardening slightly. “Have ye, then?” The thin layer of pleasantry spread over the occasion vanished suddenly, like morning dew.
I could feel Jamie beside me, tensing slightly as he prepared to defend his nephew as best he might.
“He’s a good lad, Ian,” he said.
“Is he, so?” It was Jenny who answered, her fine black brows drawn down in a frown. “Ye couldna tell, the way he acts at home. But perhaps he’s different wi’ you, Jamie.” There was a strong note of accusation in her words, and I felt Jamie tense at my side.
“It’s kind of ye to speak up for the lad, Jamie,” Ian put in, with a cool nod in his brother-in-law’s direction. “But I think we’d best hear from Young Ian himself, if ye please. Will he be upstairs?”
A muscle near Jamie’s mouth twitched, but he answered noncommittally. “In the scullery, I expect; he wanted to tidy himself a bit before seein’ ye.” His right hand slid down and pressed against my leg in warning. He hadn’t mentioned meeting Janet, and I understood; she had been sent away with her siblings, so that Jenny and Ian could deal with the matters of my appearance and their prodigal son in some privacy, but had crept back unbeknownst to her parents, wanting either to catch a glimpse of her notorious aunt Claire, or to offer succor to her brother.
I lowered my eyelids, indicating that I understood. No point in mentioning the girl’s presence, in a situation already so fraught with tension.
The sound of feet and the regular thump of Ian’s wooden leg sounded in the uncarpeted passage. Ian had left the room in the direction of the scullery; now he returned, grimly ushering Young Ian before him.
The prodigal was as presentable as soap, water, and razor could make him. His bony jaws were reddened with scraping and the hair on his neck was clotted in wet spikes, most of the dust beaten from his coat, and the round neck of his shirt neatly buttoned to the collarbone. There was little to be done about the singed half of his head, but the other side was neatly combed. He had no stock, and there was a large rip in the leg of his breeks, but all things considered, he looked as well as someone could who expects momentarily to be shot.
“Mam,” he said, ducking his head awkwardly in his mother’s direction.
“Ian,” she said softly, and he looked up at her, clearly startled at the gentleness of her tone. A slight smile curved her lips as she saw his face. “I’m glad you’re safe home, mo chridhe,” she said.
The boy’s face cleared abruptly, as though he had just heard the reprieve read to the firing squad. Then he caught a glimpse of his father’s face, and stiffened. He swallowed hard, and bent his head again, staring hard at the floorboards.
“Mmphm,” Ian said. He sounded sternly Scotch; much more like the Reverend Campbell than the easygoing man I had known before. “Now then, I want to hear what ye’ve got to say for yourself, laddie.”
“Oh. Well…I…” Young Ian trailed off miserably, then cleared his throat and had another try. “Well…nothing, really, Father,” he murmured.
“Look at me!” Ian said sharply. His son reluctantly raised his head and looked at his father, but his gaze kept flicking away, as though afraid to rest very long on the stern countenance before him.
“D’ye ken what ye did to your mother?” Ian demanded. “Disappeared and left her thinkin’ ye dead or hurt? Gone off without a word, and not a smell of ye for three days, until Joe Fraser brought down the letter ye left? Can ye even think what those three days were like for her?”
Either Ian’s expression or his words seemed to have a strong effect on his errant offspring; Young Ian bowed his head again, eyes fixed on the floor.
“Aye, well, I thought Joe would bring the letter sooner,” he muttered.
“Aye, that letter!” Ian’s face was growing more flushed as he talked.
“‘Gone to Edinburgh,’ it said, cool as dammit.” He slapped a hand flat on the table, with a smack that made everyone jump. “Gone to Edinburgh! Not a ‘by your leave,’ not an ‘I’ll send word,’ not a thing but ‘Dear Mother, I have gone to Edinburgh. Ian’!”
Young Ian’s head snapped up, eyes bright with anger.
“That’s not true! I said ‘Don’t worry for me,’ and I said ‘Love, Ian’! I did! Did I no, Mother?” For the first time, he looked at Jenny, appealing.
She had been still as a stone since her husband began to talk, her face smooth and blank. Now her eyes softened, and the hint of a curve touched her wide, full mouth again.
“Ye did, Ian,” she said softly. “It was kind to say—but I did worry, aye?”
His eyes fell, and I could see the oversized Adam’s apple bobble in his lean throat as he swallowed.
“I’m sorry, Mam,” he said, so low I could scarcely hear him. “I—I didna mean…” his words trailed off, ending in a small shrug.
Jenny made an impulsive movement, as though to extend a hand to him, but Ian caught her eye, and she let the hand fall to her lap.
“The thing is,” Ian said, speaking slowly and precisely, “it’s no the first time, is it, Ian?”
The boy didn’t answer, but made a small twitching movement that might have been assent. Ian took a step closer to his son. Close as they were in height, the differences between them were obvious. Ian was tall and lanky, but firmly muscled for all that, and a powerful man, wooden leg or no. By comparison, his son seemed almost frail, fledgling-boned and gawky.
“No, it’s not as though ye had no idea what ye were doing; not like we’d never told ye the dangers, not like we’d no forbidden ye to go past Broch Mordha—not like ye didna ken we’d worry, aye? Ye kent all that—and ye did it anyway.”
This merciless analysis of his behavior caused a sort of indefinite quiver, like an internal squirm, to go through Young Ian, but he kept up a stubborn silence.
“Look at me, laddie, when I’m speakin’ to ye!” The boy’s head rose slowly. He looked sullen now, but resigned; evidently he had been through scenes like this before, and knew where they were heading.
“I’m not even going to ask your uncle what ye’ve been doing,” Ian said. “I can only hope ye weren’t such a fool in Edinburgh as ye’ve been here. But ye’ve disobeyed me outright, and broken your mother’s heart, whatever else ye’ve done.”
Jenny moved again, as though to speak, but a brusque movement of Ian’s hand stopped her.
“And what did I tell ye the last time, wee Ian? What did I say when I gave ye your whipping? You tell me that, Ian!”
The bones in Young Ian’s face stood out, but he kept his mouth shut, sealed in a stubborn line.
“Tell me!” Ian roared, slamming his hand on the table again.
Young Ian blinked in reflex, and his shoulder blades drew together, then apart, as though he were trying to alter his size, and unsure whether to grow larger or try to be smaller. He swallowed hard, and blinked once more.
“Ye said—ye said ye’d skin me. Next time.” His voice broke in a ridiculous squeak on the last word, and he clamped his mouth hard shut on it.
Ian shook his head in heavy disapproval. “Aye. And I thought ye’d have enough sense to see there was no next time, but I was wrong about that, hm?” He breathed in heavily and let it out with a snort.
“I’m fair disgusted wi’ ye, Ian, and that’s the truth.” He jerked his head toward the doorway. “Go outside. I’ll see ye by the gate, presently.”
There was a tense silence in the sitting room, as the sound of the miscreant’s dragging footsteps disappeared down the passage. I kept my own eyes carefully on my hands, folded in my lap. Beside me, Jamie drew a slow, deep breath and sat up straighter, steeling himself.
“Ian.” Jamie spoke mildly to his brother-in-law. “I wish ye wouldna do that.”
“What?” Ian’s brow was still furrowed with anger as he turned toward Jamie. “Thrash the lad? And what have you to say about it, aye?”
Jamie’s jaw tensed, but his voice stayed calm.
“I’ve nothing to say about it, Ian—he’s your son; you’ll do as ye like. But maybe you’ll let me speak for the way he’s acted?”
“How he’s acted?” Jenny cried, starting suddenly to life. She might leave dealing with her son to Ian, but when it came to her brother, no one was likely to speak for her. “Sneakin’ away in the night like a thief, ye mean? Or perhaps ye’ll mean consorting wi’ criminals, and risking his neck for a cask of brandy!”
Ian silenced her with a quick gesture. He hesitated, still frowning, but then nodded abruptly at Jamie, giving permission.
“Consorting wi’ criminals like me?” Jamie asked his sister, a definite edge to his voice. His eyes met hers straight on, matching slits of blue.
“D’ye ken where the money comes from, Jenny, that keeps you and your bairns and everyone here in food, and the roof from fallin’ in over your head? It’s not from me printing up copies o’ the Psalms in Edinburgh!”
“And did I think it was?” she flared at him. “Did I ask ye what ye did?”
“No, ye didn’t,” he flashed back. “I think ye’d rather not know—but ye do know, don’t you?”
“And will ye blame me for what ye do? It’s my fault that I’ve children, and that they must eat?” She didn’t flush red like Jamie did; when Jenny lost her temper, she went dead white with fury.
I could see him struggling to keep his own temper. “Blame ye? No, of course I dinna blame ye—but is it right for you to blame me, that Ian and I canna keep ye all just working the land?”
Jenny too was making an effort to subdue her rising temper. “No,” she said. “Ye do what ye must, Jamie. Ye ken verra well I didna mean you when I said ‘criminals,’ but—”
“So ye mean the men who work for me? I do the same things, Jenny. If they’re criminals, what am I, then?” He glared at her, eyes hot with resentment.
“You’re my brother,” she said shortly, “little pleased as I am to say so, sometimes. Damn your eyes, Jamie Fraser! Ye ken quite well I dinna mean to quarrel wi’ whatever ye see fit to do! If ye robbed folk on the highway, or kept a whorehouse in Edinburgh, ’twould be because there was no help for it. That doesna mean I want ye takin’ my son to be part of it!”
Jamie’s eyes tightened slightly at the corners at the mention of whorehouses in Edinburgh, and he darted a quick glance of accusation at Ian, who shook his head. He looked mildly stunned at his wife’s ferocity.
“I’ve said not a word,” he said briefly. “Ye ken how she is.”
Jamie took a deep breath and turned back to Jenny, obviously determined to be reasonable.
“Aye, I see that. But ye canna think I would take Young Ian into danger—God, Jenny, I care for him as though he were my own son!”