Jamie looked around, thin-lipped, at the men surrounding him. Six clansmen, all in tearing high spirits at the prospect of the oath-taking and brimming over with a fierce MacKenzie pride. The spirits had plainly been assisted by an ample intake from the tub of ale I had seen in the yard. Jamie’s eye lighted on me, his expression still grim. This was my doing, his face seemed to say.
He could, of course, announce that he did not mean to swear his oath to Colum, and head back to his warm bed in the stables. If he wanted a serious beating or his throat cut, that is. He raised an eyebrow at me, shrugged, and submitted with a fair show of grace to Willie, who rushed up with a pile of snowy linen in his arms and a hairbrush in one hand. The pile was topped by a flat blue bonnet of velvet, adorned with a metal badge that held a sprig of holly. I picked up the bonnet to examine it, as Jamie fought his way into the clean shirt and brushed his hair with suppressed savagery.
The badge was round and the engraving surprisingly fine. It showed five volcanos in the center, spouting most realistic flames. And on the border was a motto, Luceo non Uro.
“I shine, not burn,” I translated aloud.
“Aye, lassie; the MacKenzie motto,” said Willie, nodding approvingly at me. He snatched the bonnet from my hands and pushed it into Jamie’s, before dashing off in search of further clothing.
“Er … I’m sorry,” I said in a low voice, taking advantage of Willie’s absence to move closer. “I didn’t mean—”
Jamie, who had been viewing the badge on the bonnet with disfavor, glanced down at me, and the grim line of his mouth relaxed.
“Ah, dinna worrit yourself on my account, Sassenach. It would ha’ come to it sooner or later.” He twisted the badge loose from the bonnet and smiled sourly at it, weighing it speculatively in his hand.
“D’ye ken my own motto, lass?” he asked. “My clan’s, I mean?”
“No,” I answered, startled. “What is it?”
He flipped the badge once in the air, caught it, and dropped it neatly into his sporran. He looked rather bleakly toward the open archway, where the MacKenzie clansmen were massing in untidy lines.
“Je suis prest,” he replied, in surprisingly good French. He glanced back, to see Rupert and another large MacKenzie I didn’t know, faces flushed with high spirits and spirits of another kind, advancing with solid purpose. Rupert held a huge length of MacKenzie tartan cloth.
Without preliminaries, the other man reached for the buckle of Jamie’s kilt.
“Best leave, Sassenach,” Jamie advised briefly. “It’s no place for women.”
“So I see,” I responded dryly, and was rewarded with a wry smile as his hips were swathed in the new kilt, and the old one yanked deftly away beneath it, modesty preserved. Rupert and friend took him firmly by the arms and hustled him toward the archway.
I turned without delay and made my way back toward the stair to the minstrels’ gallery, carefully avoiding the eye of any clansman I passed. Once around the corner, I paused, shrinking back against the wall to avoid notice. I waited for a moment, until the corridor was temporarily deserted, then nipped inside the gallery door and pulled it quickly to behind me, before anyone else could come around the corner and see where I had gone. The stairs were dimly lit by the glow from above, and I had no trouble keeping my footing on the worn flags. I climbed toward the noise and light, thinking of that last brief exchange.
“Je suis prest.” I am ready. I hoped he was.