The wood is transforming under his fingers, the curves of the snake materalising before his eyes as he brushes the shavings to the floor.
Sawney. Like the snake that he had left behind at Lallybroch, tucked high on a shelf in his father’s study, carved in the soft evening quiet of the Highlands, the setting sun setting the moor ablaze as that snake, that first snake slowly came to life under his brother’s careful hand.
Occasionally, he still feels the weight of it- the worn, warm weight of the wood that he had carried with him always, that had been tucked into the depths of his sporran at Prestonpans, that he had pressed into Fergus’s paw before Culloden; that clever, deft hand that had been severed against the lush green of the undergrowth; pale, lost fingers raised high in supplication.
The knife shudders slightly as he forces his hand to be still, squeezing his eyes shut against the suffocating weight of memory.
Watching helplessly from the cave as Fergus was dragged to the great, white boulder; face blanched white, eyes wide and ragged with fear.
The gut-wrenching scream that had ripped the quiet of the evening air apart as the blade came down; scarlet blood staining the rock with the boy’s sacrifice.
William’s warm weight radiating through his arms as he held the bairn close, unable to move or think, the shapeless, squaking bundle the only sound in the shocked silence of the gallery.
Something had healed in him as he had knelt to cradle the baby, some wound so deeply broken and scarred that he had thought it as a permenant part of him.
Bonny. Bonny and canty and braw and yet… And yet… A Dhia, so small!
Slowly he takes a breath, forcing the memories back. It is an aching, longing breath, pulling himself into the present, into the soft, evening darkness of the stable loft, the glow of the candle that he had lit that evening, the shadow of the crudely carved statue of St Anthony dancing in and out of the guttering light.
Below his feet, the horses snort and stamp; a disgruntled whinny piercing the quiet.
William, his Willie would be abed now, tucked away in the nursery with his governess and Isobel watching over him, the soft slant to his eyes hidden by the safe mop of dark hair that he was blessed to have, instead of the fiery mass of copper and cinnabar that would betray his parentage in an instant.
He turns the snake over, smoothing down the lines, thinking of another knife, slowly paring away at a thumb of beechwood by the glowing light of the solar fire. Thinking of another Willie and his own excitement as at the age of five, he had had enough of his older brother’s smug smile and begged to be told what he was hiding. But a small, infruiating smile had crept into the corner of his brother’s lips, the grey-blue eyes shining with all the wisdom of an eight-year-old and he had shaken his head.
Only for a small thumb of wood to be slipped under the table and into his hand at breakfast the next morning.
‘Look underneath,’ Willie had whispered consipiratorily and Jamie remembers the way his fingers had shaken as they had turned the wood upsde down to see the thick knife cuts declaring the name Sawney.
'For me?' At the age of five, he could not believe that his brother at the grand age of eight would do such a thing for him and was only stripped of this view when Willie had got his head into his arms and ruffled his hair none too gently.
‘Aye, ye wee clotheid. Who else would it be for?’
The words rise from the mists of memory, spoken as surely as if his brother was standing there beside him in the shadows of the loft, observing his work over his shoulder.
His brother taken far too soon at the age of eleven, dying with the ghost of that soft, sad smile catching at his lips.
‘Be at peace brother’, Jamie murmurs, watching the candlelight dance against the wood, burning against his half closed eyes, letting the snake rest against his palm.
It was burning for his brother now, but, in the soft quiet of an evening after he had spent the afternoon with Willie and his pony; carefully lunging the beast through its paces on the lawn, it burnt for another child.
A child that unlike the one asleep in the nursery across the yard, he would never get to see.
‘Lord that she may be safe!’ The words come as easily as breathing, the first prayer that came to his lips in the morning and the last at night. 'She and the child!'
Turning the snake over once more and bringing it up to the candle so that the wood glows against the light, Jamie begins to carve.