Mac Ruaidh - Part Three
It was too hot for Jamie to sleep. It had been years since Jamie slept in a proper bed in a proper room and it would take some time to get used to being close enough to a fire to keep properly warm. But he didn’t dare cross to open the window. Much as he would appreciate the relief of a bit of the January chill creeping in the room to counteract the effects of a hearth larger than the dimensions of the room required it to be, Jamie was terrified of what it might do to William sleeping nestled wrapped in blankets in the basket he’d arrived in earlier.
As his mind spiraled from William developing a cold to taking fever because of the open window, Jamie could feel the memory of Claire rolling her eyes before launching into a lecture about her germs and how it wasn’t cold temperatures that caused colds before finally conceding that yes, it would still probably be safer for him to keep the window shut.
There was another person who might object to such measures––the wet nurse Lady Dunsany had summoned, a young widow named Sabrina who had lost first her husband and then her three-month-old child to fever between Christmas and the New Year. The quiet woman had a cot of her own in an adjoining room she was sharing with one of the housemaids.
Lying awake and unmoving on the bed so as not to generate further heat, Jamie listened to the once familiar sounds of a house in the night. The logs in the hearth crackled quietly with occasional louder pops; the glass panes in the small window rattled whenever the wind picked up; the creaking floorboards in the hall and the cramped servants’ quarters beyond signaled other household staff moving about as they finally came to bed for the night or waking, made use of the chamber pot before resuming their unconscious states.
But the most prominent sound and the one that kept Jamie awake even as it calmed his nerves was the steady breathing and occasional groans of William beside him. Jamie would find some way to fashion a proper cradle for the baby before long but until then he refused to leave William’s basket on the floor while they both slept and instead had nestled the basket among the blankets on the bed. There was just enough space for the basket when Jamie lay on his back with one arm draped around the woven curve but he felt most reassured when he curled his body protectively around it; the fear of knocking the basket and its bairn out of the bed lessened significantly. But lying on his back was the easiest way to feel that it wasn’t just the bairn in the bed beside him. The sounds of the house weren’t dissimilar to those of Lallybroch and Sabrina’s snoring in the next room brought a smile to his lips and memories of Claire––and her insistence that it was he who snored and not her––to his tired mind.
There was a hitch in the baby’s breathing and Jamie snapped up to peer inside. William’s fist was in his mouth but he needed something that offered sustenance rather than succor. Jamie reached in and swept him up and cradled him to his chest before he could begin to truly fuss. The warmth of his father against his cheek lulled William long enough for Jamie to slip out of bed, ease open the door between his room and the women’s, and gently rouse Sabrina for William’s feeding.
He tended the fire while she sat in a stupor, William latched to her breast but her arms holding him stiffly and she wouldn’t look at him.
“Did you wake him to feed?” she asked as the need to switch William from one breast to the other temporarily roused her from her stupor.
Jamie glanced over, his gaze falling on the back of his son’s head as it turned in search of the rest of his meal. Grinning when the boy found it, Jamie suddenly realized he’d been essentially gawking at the poor woman’s exposed breast and looked away again, grateful that the resultant flush could be blamed on the heat of the fire before him.
“No,” he muttered, finally answering her question. “No, I didna wake him. I was restless myself and heard him rouse. I’m… I’m no used to sleepin’ in the house,” he confessed.
“Me either. Not a house this grand. Thank you, by the way, for catching him before he could cry.” Surprised, Jamie looked over to see her eyes fastened unblinking on the flames in the hearth, shining with sorrow. “If he’d cried… If I’d heard him cry like that I wouldn’t have realized it wasn’t…”
“What was yer bairn’s name? The one ye lost,” Jamie asked quietly, gently.
The reply came in a whisper. “Carina… her name was Carina.”
Jamie nodded and swallowed before telling her, “Faith. My wife and I lost a lass at birth… years ago now. She was called Faith.”
“When did you lose your wife?”
There were times Jamie could feel the shape and weight of every minute he’d spent without Claire; that he could stack them in piles reaching the ceiling and group them into the days, weeks, months, and years they’d been apart. And other times it was a distinctly unquantifiable mass that he couldn’t escape––would never escape… not until death.
“Years ago now,” he repeated knowing this young widow still enveloped in her own grief would be able to understand the struggle to find a way to carry on and live within grief’s muffling embrace.
“Thank ye,” he added a moment later. “For helpin’ wi’ my wee lad.”
Sabrina nodded and finally looked down at the infant suckling her breast. “He seems to be a strong one.” Her voice was hollow but she shifted her arms and her hold of William softened.
Whether the movement unsettled him or he had simply consumed his fill, William disengaged from Sabrina and promptly began to writhe and fuss.
Jamie was there in an instant and had him away from the wet nurse.
“He ate too fast,” she suggested, readjusting her shift and rising from the chair to return to bed. “Rub his back a bit and walk him about the room. He should settle back down.” The door between the rooms closed quietly and Jamie was left to calm his son on his own.
It still amazed him just how small and light the lad was, how fragile. And yet there was growing strength and coordination as Jamie felt William’s tiny arms pushing back against his collarbone and fighting to raise his head. The efforts exhausted him, however, and had failed to alleviate his discomfort. The stiff fingers of Jamie’s right hand held William’s small torso in place while his thumb swept back and forth across the back in a steady rhythm that reduced William’s cries to a weak whimper. Jamie felt the tension leak out of William as the bubble of gas worked its way up and out of his belly. Though the smell was faintly sour, there was no dampness on his shoulder so William’s meal had successfully stayed put.
Jamie grinned and rested his cheek lightly against the small head.
An eruption from his own stomach startled him and made him laugh.
“Now yer belly’s full, mine seems to want a bite too,” he murmured. In the confusion of arranging the room and bringing his things in from the loft, Jamie had only had a few quick bites of supper in passing and hadn’t been able to take an extra bit of bread or cheese to have later as was his habit. “What say we take a short walk down to the kitchens, eh?” he told William, laying the baby on the bed long enough to pull on a pair of breeks.
William stretched, his body arching briefly and the blanket that had wrapped him slid off his legs so that his feet were exposed to the cold. The toes curled and he reflexively drew the limbs back closer to his body and the warmth of his core. Jamie pounced at the opportunity and quickly swaddled the baby as tightly as he dared, grateful to escape having to pin William’s arms and legs in place himself.
“Now, ye must be quiet as a wee mouse looking for scraps left by the kitchen maids,” Jamie whispered as he eased his way into the corridor with William tucked into the crook of one arm. William squirmed and emitted a small mouse-like squeak that made Jamie smile broadly.
The fires in the kitchen were never allowed to go out for the sake of practicality so the large room was invitingly warm even as Jamie’s bare feet slipped from the wooden steps of the servants’ back stair to the cool flat stones that lined the kitchen floor’s outer edges; as he moved closer to the main preparations table and the fire, they grew warmer to the touch.
“Is everything all right?” a voice inquired from a seat near the window.
Jamie spun to see Lord John with a fork in one hand and a plate in the other, a half-finished piece of mincemeat pie resting neatly upon it.
Jamie rolled his eyes as he closed them before looking down to check William hadn’t been disturbed by the abrupt movement. “Aye,” he said in a low even tone. “We’re fine.” The calm that had been on him as he made his way down to the kitchen––the peace of a household at rest––had fallen away. The surprise of Grey’s presence and the anticipation of a conversation he did not wish to have had sent a jolt through his system so that the pangs of his hunger were forgotten as a rush of other information flooded his senses. There were three ways out of the kitchen, the nearest being the stairs at his back, but those would only lead him deeper into the house as would the door in the far left corner; the door to the far right corner would lead to the yard and open air but Grey was still closer to both than he was and Lord John held nothing more dear than stale pie left from an elaborate dinner; it being a kitchen though, there were plenty of implements that could be used as weapons. None of which should matter because there was no real threat to either himself or the baby and yet as he stepped closer to the table––Grey having risen and carried his plate back with a gesture inviting Jamie to join him in his midnight snack––Jamie was able to do so with the steady sureness of someone prepared for anything.
Grey cut a second piece of pie from the leftovers and set the plate near the fire for a few moments to heat up. Jamie busied himself by tending to William, readjusting his blankets and settling him more firmly in the crook of his right arm.
Grey set the plate and a fork in front of Jamie. “Do you need me to hold him while you eat?”
Jamie took the fork up easily in his left hand and shook his head. “I’ll be fine.” He took care not to smile as Grey blinked with amazement at Jamie’s ability to eat left-handed.
They ate in a silence that grew increasingly tense as each waited the other out to see who would broach the subject first.
“Why in God’s name did you agree to this arrangement?” Grey finally asked, setting his own fork down forcefully. “Did you hope to buy favor with Lord Dunsany and his wife by volunteering a solution that would allow them to see their grandson? Because if you hoped this would win their support in petitioning on your behalf for being released from your parole, I’m afraid you’ll find it will actually have the opposite effect. They’ll want you here indefinitely if your leaving means you’ll take that boy with you. And if you simply wanted better treatment you need only have brought any mistreatment to my attention and I would have had a word with Lord Dunsany on the matter.”
“Are ye through?” Jamie asked when it appeared Grey was losing steam.
Grey let out a frustrated huff and picked up his fork again but only poked at the cooling piece of mince meat pie, the crust flaking off and making a mess in the pooling grease on the plate.
“I dinna expect ye to understand why I did it,” Jamie told him. “It doesna matter to me if ye do or no.”
“What do you expect you can offer this boy in your circumstances? It’s noble to offer to be a father to an orphaned child but––”
“I was a father long before this wee lad here,” Jamie interrupted firmly. “I became a father the day my wife told me she was with child. I didna stop being a father simply because the child was lost… no more than I stopped bein’ my father’s son the day he died. Ye dinna stop bein’ what ye were when circumstances change––ye can become more than what ye were before but ye dinna become less except by choice… except by how ye choose to see yerself.”
“That’s a noble philosophy but it doesn’t address the question of how you’ll provide for the boy––and I don’t just mean physically or monetarily,” Grey added. “The Dunsanys will see to both your needs as much as they can for the boy’s sake––with plenty of strings involved, I’m sure––but what do you plan to tell him? About his mother? About yourself? Christ, Jamie, I’m the only one here who even knows your true name.”
“I’ll tell him as much of the truth as I can but I’ll no lie to him,” Jamie informed Grey. “When he’s older and I’m able to take him far enough from Helwater for it to make no difference, I’ll tell him everything.”
Grey was shaking his head, still unconvinced.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Grey finally said, rising from the table and dumping the last few bites of his pie into the fire. It flared up as the flames ignited the grease.
Jamie chuckled and Grey’s head spun to watch him in confusion. “Of course I dinna ken what I’m doing––no father does. It’s something ye learn as ye go, same as most things. But this lad is mine and I’ll do what it takes to keep him safe and raise him well… even askin’ for help if and when I need it.” Grey’s eyes narrowed. “I ken that Lord and Lady Dunsany will no want to see the lad go from them and it willna matter what his age or what rumors follow him. But I also ken it wasna their influence that saw me paroled here rather than transported.”
Jamie let the weight of his observation and the as yet unasked favor underlying it to settle.
Grey’s mouth dropped slightly open for a moment before he shut it again. He nodded his understanding and reminded Jamie, “You will let me know of any concerns that arise during my quarterly visits.”