It was eerily quiet in the dooryard in front of the Lallybroch estate. Murtagh was leading the mare, Jamie still perched on her back proud as a peacock. An unfamiliar man came around the corner from the blacksmith and stopped short when he saw the pair of them.
“Found him, my Laird!” the man yelled out and Murtagh looked up at Jamie with a sigh.
“Well then a bhalaich, there’s nae hiding now.”
The look on Brian Fraser’s face as he came around the house and spotted them was an equal mix of anger and fear. It was a look that Murtagh hadn’t seen on the man’s face since they fought together at Sheriffmuir in the ‘15, watching kinsmen fall around them as they stormed the battlefield. He never thought he would ever see that terrified look again, but his youngest running off barely a week after the death of his eldest was enough to leave any father panicked.
Murtagh had just put the boy’s feet back on the ground when his father reached him. The resounding smack delivered to the lad’s bottom was loud enough that Murtagh felt his own arse tighten up in sympathy. Tear tracks were still visible on his cheeks from his last cry but in front of his father Jamie wouldn’t let them spill and Murtagh couldn’t have been more proud of the lad.
“Where have ye been? Yer Mam is sick wi’ worry and yer puir Nanny, thinkin’ she’d lost ye.”
“Tha mi duilich, m’athair!”
“Yer sorry? Look of the state of ye, lad! Yer good clothes, no less.”
“Brian, a charaid, it’s my fault,” Murtaugh said. “He saw me coming and came to greet me. We were sword playing and he fell in the muck.”
“Whether that tale is true, or no, he still ran off after he was told to stay near the house. His brother isna cold in the ground yet and he’s already into mischief.”
“Leave him be!” A feminine voice called out above the rest.
Ellen Mackenzie Fraser was a tall and elegant woman. Though her limbs were long and delicate, she was the strongest woman Murtagh had ever known. Wee Jamie was a solid lad, big for his age, but with a simple ease she hoisted the boy into her arms, oblivious to the dirt, and rested him on her hip. The lad’s arms and legs wrapped tightly around his mother and his head quickly found a comfortable resting place just under her chin.
“He’s no but a bairn,” she said, kissing the crown of his head.
Brian’s hands went to his hips and he shook his head, “He’s no a bairn anymore, Ellen. He’s heir to this estate and he needs tae learn responsibility.”
“There’s plenty of time for that, a ghràidh,” she said firmly. “Until then, he’s my wee babe. Come now, a chuisle,” she addressed the boy. “Let’s find Nanny and yer sister so they ken ye’re safe, and go into the kitchen for a bannock and honey.”
In the curve of Ellen’s shoulder as she walked away Murtagh caught sight of a single blue eye peeking back from behind a curtain of curls. Smiling, he gave Jamie a wink.
“That lad will have no discipline if every time he runs foul she gives him bannocks and honey.”
“Brian, I ken ye’re worrit about him, but he’ll be okay. He’s a good lad.”
It had only been a few months since the last time Murtagh had been to Lallybroch, but his friend appeared ten years older. Brian’s skin was more rough and weathered than he remembered, deeply creased between his eyebrows, with frown lines hard carved along the outside of his lips.
“He doesna sleep. Since Willie…” Brian ran an anxious hand over shiny black hair, adjusting the simple leather thong that held it back away from his face. “He wakes in the night. It takes a moment before he kens why his brother isna there on the bed next to him, but when he does…it’s tearing Ellen apart.”
It was unimaginable to Murtagh what it truly felt like to lose a child, but he knew what it felt like to lose a brother and it was a pain no six-year-old boy should have to go through. Jamie had been Willie’s shadow from the moment he could walk. A skilled woodworker, Willie could always be seen with a small knife and a block of wood, making yet another wee bawbee for his little brother.
The bond they shared was rooted in blood but it was genuine love for one another that made them inseparable, no matter whether it was day or night. There would have come a point where Willie would have needed to let Jamie go, but it should have been so the older boy could learn the skills he needed to be a Laird, not because he had reached eternal rest.
Crossing his arms tightly across his chest, Murtagh made a quick decision. “I’ll stay with the lad tonight. Give you and Ellen some rest.”
Brian waved the other man off, “Dinna be daft, it’s not yer burden. I’ll have Mrs. Crook make up the south cottage for ye.”
“No my burden?” Murtagh asked rhetorically. “Tis why I came, to help ye in yer time of need. He’s my Godson. Besides, I promised the lad a story.”
To Murtagh’s surprise, Brian’s face broke out in a wide smile and he started to laugh, low in his throat. “You and yer stories. I am surely glad to see you a charaid.”
It was warm in the armchair by the fire and warm in the depths of Murtagh’s belly thanks to a few healthy drams of Brian’s best whisky. Nanny had brought Jenny and Jamie upstairs to put them to bed, but it wasn’t long before Jamie was running into his father’s study in his nightshirt, all knobby knees and freshly brushed hair. The lad launched himself into Murtagh’s lap, settling himself comfortably with expectation in his eyes.
“A story then,” Murtagh said, wishing he’d spent a bit less time enjoying the whisky and a bit more time thinking up a tale to tell the boy. “This is all true. I heard it from my Da, who heard it from his. It’s about a great Scottish warrior, who fought at the right hand of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots–”
“What was his name?”
“His name?” Murtagh drew a blank, looking desperately around the room for some inspiration. “Why his name was…Sheumais Alasdair Calum MacCoinnich Frisealach.”
Jamie sat up straight as a board, his eyes wide with genuine shock. “Murtagh! That’s my own name!”
“So it is! Ye didna ken ye had the name of a great warrior?”
“Ah, ‘s math sin!”
Murtagh couldn’t help but smile at Jamie’s awe and excitement, the lad not questioning for a moment whether he’d made up the detail of the story’s protagonist sharing his name. The story was more violent than Ellen would likely have approved of, but Jamie was rapt, not able to tear his attention away from the tale of the great Scotsman, a swordsman like no other, able to hold off three grown men with one hand.
It wasn’t long, amidst the story’s climax at the great Battle of Bannockburn, that the lad’s eyes began to droop and he was soon a dead weight in his Godfather’s arms. For a moment, Murtagh just appreciated the heavy warmth pressed against his chest and imagined what life would have been like had Jamie been his own son. Dismissing the thought, he hoisted the boy into his arms and set to take him to bed.
“I will be a great warrior someday, too,” Jamie’s sleepy voice grumbled against his shoulder.
“O’course a bhalaich, a bonny fighter you will be,” Murtagh replied, knowing that the chances of Jamie ever being anything other than a Laird and farmer were slim, now that he was heir.