“Aye?” Her skepticism was pronounced. “So that’s why ye encouraged him to run off from his home, and kept him with ye, wi’ no word to ease our minds about where he was?”
Jamie had the grace to look abashed at this.
“Aye, well, I’m sorry for that,” he muttered. “I meant to—” He broke off with an impatient gesture. “Well, it doesna matter what I meant; I should have sent word, and I didna. But as for encouraging him to run off—”
“No, I dinna suppose ye did,” Ian interrupted. “Not directly, anyway.” The anger had faded from his long face. He looked tired now, and a little sad. The bones in his face were more pronounced, leaving him hollow-cheeked in the waning afternoon light.
“It’s only that the lad loves ye, Jamie,” he said quietly. “I see him listen when ye visit, and talk of what ye do; I can see his face. He thinks it’s all excitement and adventure, how ye live, and a good long way from shoveling goat-shit for his mother’s garden.” He smiled briefly, despite himself.
Jamie gave his brother-in-law a quick smile in return, and a lifted shoulder. “Well, but it’s usual for a lad of that age to want a bit of adventure, no? You and I were the same.”
“Whether he wants it or no, he shouldna be having the sort of adventures he’ll get with you,” Jenny interrupted sharply. She shook her head, the line between her brows growing deeper as she looked disapprovingly at her brother. “The good Lord kens as there’s a charm on your life, Jamie, or ye’d ha’ been dead a dozen times.”
“Aye, well. I suppose He had something in mind to preserve me for.” Jamie glanced at me with a brief smile, and his hand sought mine. Jenny darted a glance at me, too, her face unreadable, then returned to the subject at hand.
“Well, that’s as may be,” she said. “But I canna say as the same’s true for Young Ian.” Her expression softened slightly as she looked at Jamie.
“I dinna ken everything about the way ye live, Jamie—but I ken you well enough to say it’s likely not the way a wee laddie should live.”
“Mmphm.” Jamie rubbed a hand over his stubbled jaw, and tried again. “Aye, well, that’s what I mean about Young Ian. He’s carried himself like a man this last week. I dinna think it right for ye to thrash him like a wee laddie, Ian.”
Jenny’s eyebrows rose, graceful wings of scorn.
“A man, now, is he? Why, he’s but a baby, Jamie—he’s not but fourteen!”
Despite his annoyance, one side of Jamie’s mouth curled slightly.
“I was a man at fourteen, Jenny,” he said softly.
She snorted, but a film of moisture shone suddenly over her eyes.
“Ye thought ye were.” She stood and turned away abruptly, blinking. “Aye, I mind ye then,” she said, face turned to the bookshelf. She reached out a hand as though to support herself, grasping the edge.
“Ye were a bonny lad, Jamie, riding off wi’ Dougal to your first raid, and your dirk all bright on your thigh. I was sixteen, and I thought I’d never seen a sight so fair as you on your pony, so straight and tall. And I mind ye coming back, too, all covered in mud, and a scratch down the side of your face from falling in brambles, and Dougal boasting to Da how brawly ye’d done—driven off six kine by yourself, and had a dunt on the head from the flat of a broadsword, and not made a squeak about it.” Her face once more under control, she turned back from her contemplation of the books to face her brother. “That’s what a man is, aye?”
A hint of humor stole back into Jamie’s face as he met her gaze.
“Aye, well, there’s maybe a bit more to it than that,” he said.
“Is there,” she said, more dryly still. “And what will that be? To be able to bed a girl? Or to kill a man?”
I had always thought Janet Fraser had something of the Sight, particularly where her brother was concerned. Evidently the talent extended to her son, as well. The flush over Jamie’s cheekbones deepened, but his expression didn’t change.
She shook her head slowly, looking steadily at her brother. “Nay, Young Ian’s not a man yet—but you are, Jamie; and ye ken the difference verra well.”
Ian, who had been watching the fireworks between the two Frasers with the same fascination as I had, now coughed briefly.
“Be that as it may,” he said dryly. “Young Ian’s been waiting for his whipping for the last quarter-hour. Whether or not it’s suitable to beat him, to make him wait any longer for it is a bit cruel, aye?”
“Have ye really got to do it, Ian?” Jamie made one last effort, turning to appeal to his brother-in-law.
“Well,” said Ian slowly, “as I’ve told the lad he’s going to be thrashed, and he kens verra well he’s earned it, I canna just go back on my word. But as for me doing it—no, I dinna think I will.” A faint gleam of humor showed in the soft brown eyes. He reached into a drawer of the sideboard, drew out a thick leather strap, and thrust it into Jamie’s hand. “You do it.”
“Me?” Jamie was horror-struck. He made a futile attempt to shove the strap back into Ian’s hand, but his brother-in-law ignored it. “I canna thrash the lad!”
“Oh, I think ye can,” Ian said calmly, folding his arms. “Ye’ve said often enough ye care for him as though he were your son.” He tilted his head to one side, and while his expression stayed mild, the brown eyes were implacable. “Well, I’ll tell ye, Jamie—it’s no that easy to be his Da; best ye go and find that out now, aye?”
Jamie stared at Ian for a long moment, then looked to his sister. She raised one eyebrow, staring him down.
“You deserve it as much as he does, Jamie. Get ye gone.”
Jamie’s lips pressed tight together and his nostrils flared white. Then he whirled on his heel and was gone without speaking. Rapid steps sounded on the boards, and a muffled slam came from the far end of the passage.
Jenny cast a quick glance at Ian, a quicker one at me, and then turned to the window. Ian and I, both a good deal taller, came to stand behind her. The light outside was failing rapidly, but there was still enough to see the wilting figure of Young Ian, leaning dispiritedly against a wooden gate, some twenty yards from the house.
Looking around in trepidation at the sound of footsteps, he saw his uncle approaching and straightened up in surprise.
“Uncle Jamie!” His eye fell on the strap then, and he straightened a bit more. “Are…are you goin’ to whip me?”
It was a still evening, and I could hear the sharp hiss of air through Jamie’s teeth.
“I suppose I’ll have to,” he said frankly. “But first I must apologize to ye, Ian.”
“To me?” Young Ian sounded mildly dazed. Clearly he wasn’t used to having his elders think they owed him an apology, especially before beating him. “Ye dinna need to do that, Uncle Jamie.”
The taller figure leaned against the gate, facing the smaller one, head bent.
“Aye, I do. It was wrong of me, Ian, to let ye stay in Edinburgh, and it was maybe wrong, too, to tell ye stories and make ye think of running away to start with. I took ye to places I shouldna, and might have put ye in danger, and I’ve caused more of a moil wi’ your parents than maybe ye should be in by yourself. I’m sorry for it, Ian, and I’ll ask ye to forgive me.”
“Oh.” The smaller figure rubbed a hand through his hair, plainly at a loss for words. “Well…aye. Of course I do, Uncle.”
“Thank ye, Ian.”
They stood in silence for a moment, then Young Ian heaved a sigh and straightened his drooping shoulders.
“I suppose we’d best do it, then?”
“I expect so.” Jamie sounded at least as reluctant as his nephew, and I heard Ian, next to me, snort slightly, whether with indignation or amusement, I couldn’t tell.
Resigned, Young Ian turned and faced the gate without hesitation. Jamie followed more slowly. The light was nearly gone and we could see no more than the outlines of figures at this distance, but we could hear clearly from our position at the window. Jamie was standing behind his nephew, shifting uncertainly, as though unsure what to do next.
“Mmphm. Ah, what does your father…”
“It’s usually ten, Uncle.” Young Ian had shed his coat, and tugged at his waist now, speaking over his shoulder. “Twelve if it’s pretty bad, and fifteen if it’s really awful.”
“Was this only bad, would ye say, or pretty bad?”
There was a brief, unwilling laugh from the boy.
“If Father’s makin’ you do it, Uncle Jamie, it’s really awful, but I’ll settle for pretty bad. Ye’d better give me twelve.”
There was another snort from Ian at my elbow. This time, it was definitely amusement. “Honest lad,” he murmured.
“All right, then.” Jamie drew in his breath and pulled his arm back, but was interrupted by Young Ian.
“Wait, Uncle, I’m no quite ready.”
“Och, ye’ve got to do that?” Jamie’s voice sounded a bit strangled.
“Aye. Father says only girls are whipped wi’ their skirts down,” Young Ian explained. “Men must take it bare-arsed.”
“He’s damn well right about that one,” Jamie muttered, his quarrel with Jenny obviously still rankling. “Ready now?”
The necessary adjustments made, the larger figure stepped back and swung. There was a loud crack, and Jenny winced in sympathy with her son. Beyond a sudden intake of breath, though, the lad was silent, and stayed so through the rest of the ordeal, though I blanched a bit myself.
Finally Jamie dropped his arm, and wiped his brow. He held out a hand to Ian, slumped over the fence. “All right, lad?” Young Ian straightened up, with a little difficulty this time, and pulled up his breeks. “Aye, Uncle. Thank ye.” The boy’s voice was a little thick, but calm and steady. He took Jamie’s outstretched hand. To my surprise, though, instead of leading the boy back to the house, Jamie thrust the strap into Ian’s other hand.
“Your turn,” he announced, striding over to the gate and bending over. Young Ian was as shocked as those of us in the house.
“What!” he said, stunned.
“I said it’s your turn,” his uncle said in a firm voice. “I punished you; now you’ve got to punish me.”
“I canna do that, Uncle!” Young Ian was as scandalized as though his uncle had suggested he commit some public indecency.
“Aye, ye can,” said Jamie, straightening up to look his nephew in the eye. “Ye heard what I said when I apologized to ye, did ye no?” Ian nodded in a dazed fashion. “Weel, then. I’ve done wrong just as much as you, and I’ve to pay for it, too. I didna like whipping you, and ye’re no goin’ to like whipping me, but we’re both goin’ through wi’ it. Understand?”
“A-Aye, Uncle,” the boy stammered.
“All right, then.” Jamie tugged down his breeches, tucked up his shirttail, and bent over once more, clutching the top rail. He waited a second, then spoke again, as Ian stood paralyzed, strap dangling from his nerveless hand.