The road to Lallybroch was long and lonely, surrounded by a vast wilderness of wide open moors, thick forest and today a thick mix of sleet and rain. Murtagh had come directly from Beauly with a package for Brian, and looked forward to a warm fire, a hearty meal, a stiff whisky and a good night’s rest before he was called upon again. The road turned rocky in the final descent into the Valley and Murtagh dismounted his spotted mare, cursing Brian Fraser for building the house in a place that was damn near impossible to reach with any level of convenience.
The courtyard was quiet, but given the poor weather that was to be expected. It was coming on November and looked like it was going to be a rough winter ahead. He didn’t have a chance to call up to the house before a lad ran out from behind the stables, checking over each shoulder suspiciously. Murtagh immediately recognized the teen and called out to stop him before he could sidle his way into the barn.
“Ian Murray! What are ye up to, lad?”
Like a deer in headlights the scrawny brown-haired boy looked this way then that, his hands nervously fumbling with the pockets of his jacket.
“Jus’…waiting on ye, Mr. Fraser. Himself is inside wi’ my Da, if ye care to leave yer mount. I’ll take care of her for ye.”
The lad held the reins while Murtagh hoisted his heavy saddlebags free, throwing them over his shoulder along with his bedroll and canteen. He paused only a moment to watch Ian lead the spotted mare toward the warmth and safety of the barn where she would get some well earned rest before heading in the direction of his own.
He found Brian and Auld John, Ian’s father, in the speak-a-word room deep in conversation. Not wanting to interrupt, he waited, taking a moment to appreciate Brian’s fine kedge - the walls lined with book shelves overflowing with novels and philosophical prose in a variety of languages on one side, the other with farm ledgers and knickknacks the Laird had collected over the years.
Murtagh couldn’t help but lift the corner of his mouth in a smile upon seeing a familiar lump of quartz, found while exploring a cave he and Brian discovered on a hunting expedition. Murtagh had seen it first, a shimmering prism protruding from the rock face, giving icy cold light to an otherwise bleak environment. Without a moment’s consideration, he’d knocked the crystal free with the hilt of his dirk and handed it to his friend, knowing it would be inappropriate to give it to Ellen himself.
Other trinkets once belonging to the gone but not forgotten Lady of Lallybroch filled the shelf - a flower press that she would use to leave hidden treasures for the children inside their books, a key ring with the master key for every door in the house, a tortoise shell comb with one tooth broken off and a miniature portrait of Janet, all shiny black hair and her father’s blue eyes, holding a ruddy-faced baby James.
“Murtagh! I didna see ye there, man. How was the journey?” Brian asked, moving across the room in a few long strides to grasp his friend’s hand.
“Long,” Murtagh said briskly. “Looking forward to a wee rest.”
“And ye’ll have it,” Brian said with a smile. He walked back toward his desk, calling over one shoulder. “Did the auld man have anything for me?”
“Aye,” Murtagh reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a leather purse, heavy with coin. “This being the most important giftie sent along by Lord Lovat - payment for three loads of hay.”
He went to hand Brian the bag but was stopped short when the man’s hand pressed it back into his chest, the edges of the silver pressing into his palm.
“Hang on to that, will ye? I have another small thing to ask of ye.”
“Anything, a charaid.”
Brian motioned to John to pass him the letter they had been looking over and he glanced down at the words on the page with a heavy sigh. It was long, two pages if Murtagh had to guess but he couldn’t get a good enough look at the red seal in order to see who it was from.
“I’ll be needing ye to go to Beannachd.”
Murtagh felt the bottom of his stomach drop uncomfortably. He couldn’t image what possible business Brian would have with Dougal Mackenzie that he would need to make the trek to the man’s estate, especially with a full purse. The confusion on his face was question enough that he didn’t need to speak.
“I need ye to take Jamie.”
“What? Why? We shouldna allow the Mackenzies to poison his mind–”
“It was part of my marriage contract,” Brian interrupted. “Mine and Ellen’s. She made an agreement with Colum that our son would foster with Dougal for a time. They’ve got a fine tutor arranged for his studies, they’ve sent along the man’s credentials and he looks to be quite well equipped to handle a boy of Jamie’s fine intelligence. They’ve horses there for him to tend and of course he’ll be learning Dougal’s trade.”
“Stealing kine and terrorizing the tenants? Aye, important skills for a lad of 14 to ken.”
“Murtagh,” Brian said with a warning tone. “Dinna forget where he comes from. Like it or no, that boy is a Mackenzie and they’ve just as much right to him.”
“What right?!” Murtagh asked wide-eyed. He knew he should be easier on Brian, that this wasn’t a decision he made lightly - or one he wanted to make at all - but he didn’t have any choice in the matter and was just trying to make the best of it. Arms crossed tightly across his chest, he moved toward the window, staring out at the courtyard below and the cold, damp fields that stretched out beyond.
“Did they no consider that he’s yer only lad? If anything should happen to him…”
“I did consider - on their behalf,” Brian said. “I canna keep him curled up in his plaidie safe at home for the rest of his life, a charaid. As he is my only heir, I dinna think I trust Dougal Mackenzie to keep a proper eye on him. Which is why I’m asking ye to go wi’ him. Keep him safe and out of trouble.”
The tension of the room was broken abruptly by the sound of Murtagh’s laughter. His head shook in disbelief as he leaned closer to the window, squinting out into the distance. Turning, he was not surprised to see Brian and John’s faces pursed in curiosity by his outburst.
“I suppose ye’ve already told Jamie of this news?”
“Aye,” Brian nodded. “Sent the lad up to his room to read his bible and hopefully rid him of some of the more unsavoury phrases that happened to come out of his mouth.”
“I wouldna be so sure about that,” Murtagh said with a smile. Both men continued to look on with a mixture of suspicion and confusion, glancing between the bearded man and the window. “I just caught sight of Young Ian darting across the field ower yonder…on my horse.”
Murtagh didn’t think Brian had a chance to even take a breath before he was calling for a servant to bring Jamie down from his room, none of them seemingly shocked when the woman returned looking nervous, eyes bouncing between the three men.
“Master James is not in his rooms, my Laird,” the young woman said quietly, giving them a quick bob before shuffling out of the room to avoid whatever wrath might end up pointed in her direction.
“This has the smell of a plan about it,” John commented dryly.
Brian nodded, both hands going to his hips. He glanced at the miniature in the book shelf, Jamie’s soft cheeks and tiny hands brought to life with loving care by his wife’s undeniable skill.
“We dinna have to worry about Dougal Mackenzie not doing right by the lad. I’ll kill him myself.”
In a flash of black hair and white hot rage, Brian was out the door and headed down the stairs, Murtagh hot on his heels.
“You canna thrash the lad to death!”
They came to an abrupt halt at the bottom, Brian turning to his old friend with a sardonic smile.
“By the time I’m through wi’ him, he’ll wish I had. Now come on, they shouldna be hard to find.”