Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 13

   

Numerous marigolds were scattered throughout the garden, bursting into golden flower. Just then the small lad she had sent in search of Jamie came up, out of breath from the run. He reported that the patient refused to leave his work.

“He says,” panted the boy, “as ’e doesna hurt bad enough to need doctorin’, but thank ye for yer consairn.” Mrs. Fitz shrugged at this not altogether reassuring message.

“Weel, if he won’t come, he won’t. Ye might go out to the paddock near noontide, though, lass, if ye’ve a mind to. He may not stop to be doctored, but he’ll stop for food, if I ken young men. Young Alec here will come back for ye at noontide and guide ye to the paddock.” Leaving me to plant the rest of the garlic, Mrs. Fitz sailed away like a galleon, young Alec bobbing in her wake.

I worked contentedly through the morning, planting garlic, pinching back dead flower heads, digging out weeds and carrying on the gardener’s never-ending battle against snails, slugs, and similar pests. Here, though, the battle was waged bare-handed, with no assistance from chemical antipest compounds. I was so absorbed in my work that I didn’t notice the reappearance of young Alec until he coughed politely to attract my attention. Not one to waste words, he waited barely long enough for me to rise and dust my skirt before vanishing through the courtyard gate.

The paddock to which he led me was some way from the stables, in a grassy meadow. Three young horses frolicked gaily in the meadow nearby. Another, a clean-looking young bay mare, was tethered to the paddock fence, with a light blanket thrown across her back.

Jamie was sidling cautiously up along one side of the mare, who was watching his approach with considerable suspicion. He placed his one free arm lightly on her back, talking softly, ready to pull back if the mare objected. She rolled her eyes and snorted, but didn’t move. Moving slowly, he leaned across the blanket, still muttering to the mare, and very gradually rested his weight on her back. She reared slightly and shuffled, but he persisted, raising his voice just a trifle.

Just then the mare turned her head and saw me and the boy approaching. Scenting some threat, she reared, whinnying, and swung to face us, crushing Jamie against the paddock fence. Snorting and bucking, she leapt and kicked against the restraining tether. Jamie rolled under the fence, out of the way of the flailing hooves. He rose painfully to his feet, swearing in Gaelic, and turned to see what had caused this setback to his work.

When he saw who it was, his thunderous expression changed at once to one of courteous welcome, though I gathered our appearance was still not as opportune as might have been wished. The basket of lunch, thoughtfully provided by Mrs. Fitz, who did in fact know young men, did a good deal to restore his temper.

“Ahh, settle then, ye blasted beastie,” he remarked to the mare, still snorting and dancing on her tether. Dismissing young Alec with a friendly cuff, he retrieved the mare’s fallen blanket, and shaking off the dust of the paddock, he gallantly spread it for me to sit on.

I tactfully avoided any reference to the recent contretemps with the mare, instead pouring ale and offering chunks of bread and cheese.

He ate with a single-minded concentration that reminded me of his absence from the dining hall the two nights before.

“Slept through it,” he said, when I asked him where he had been. “I went to sleep directly I left ye at the castle, and didna wake ’til dawn yesterday. I worked a bit yesterday after Hall, then sat down on a bale of hay to rest a bit before dinner.” He laughed. “Woke up this morning still sitting there, wi’ a horse nibbling at my ear.”

I thought the rest had done him good; the bruises from yesterday’s beating were dark, but the skin around them had a good healthy color, and certainly he had a good appetite.

I watched him polish off the last of the meal, tidily dabbing stray crumbs from his shirt with a moistened fingertip and popping them into his mouth.

“You’ve a healthy appetite,” I said, laughing. “I think you’d eat grass if there was nothing else.”

“I have,” he said in all seriousness. “It doesna taste bad, but it’s no verra filling.”

I was startled, then thought he must be teasing me. “When?” I asked.

“Winter, year before last. I was livin’ rough—ye know, in the woods—with the…with a group of lads, raidin’ over the Border. We’d had poor luck for a week and more, and no food amongst us left to speak of. We’d get a bit of parritch now and then from a crofter’s cottage, but those folk are so poor themselves there’s seldom anything to spare. They’ll always find something to give a stranger, mind, but twenty strangers is a bit much, even for a Highlander’s hospitality.”

He grinned suddenly. “Have ye heard—well, no, ye wouldna. I was goin’ to say had ye heard the grace they say in the crofts.”

“No. How does it go?”

He shook his hair out of his eyes and recited,

“Hurley, hurley, round the table,

Eat as muckle as ye’re able.

Eat muckle, pooch nane,

Hurley, hurley, Amen.”

“Pooch nane?” I said, diverted. He patted the sporran on his belt.

“Put it in your belly, not your bag,” he explained.

He reached out for one of the long-bladed grasses and pulled it smoothly from its sheath. He rolled it slowly between his palms, making the floppy grainheads fly out from the stem.

“It was a late winter then, and mild, which was lucky, or we’d not have lasted. We could usually snare a few rabbits—ate them raw, sometimes, if we couldna risk a fire—and once in a while some venison, but there’d been no game for days, this time I’m talkin’ of.”

Square white teeth crunched down on the grass stem. I plucked a stem myself and nibbled the end. It was sweet and faintly acid, but there was only an inch or so of stem tender enough to eat; hardly much nourishment there.

Tossing the half-eaten stalk away, Jamie plucked another, and went on with his story.

“There was a light snow a few days before; just a crust under the trees, and mud everywhere else. I was looking for fungas, ye know, the big orange things that grow on the trees low down, sometimes—and put my foot through a rind of snow into a patch of grass, growing in an open spot between the trees; reckon a little sun got in there sometimes. Usually the deer find those patches. They paw away the snow and eat the grass down to the roots. They hadn’t found this one yet, and I thought if they managed the winter that way, why not me? I was hungry enough I’d ha’ boiled my boots and eaten them, did I not need them to walk in, so I ate the grass, down to the roots, like the deer do.”

“How long had you been without food?” I asked, fascinated and appalled.

“Three days wi’ nothing; a week with naught more than drammach—a handful of oats and a little milk. Aye,” he said, reminiscently viewing the grass stalk in his hand, “winter grass is tough, and it’s sour—not like this—but I didna pay it much mind.” He grinned at me suddenly.

“I didna pay much mind to the thought that a deer’s got four stomachs, either, while I had but one. Gave me terrible cramps, and I had wind for days. One of the older men told me later that if you’re going to eat grass, ye boil it first, but I didna know that at the time. Wouldn’t ha’ mattered; I was too hungry to wait.” He scrambled to his feet, leaning down to give me a hand up.

“Best get back to work. Thank ye for the food, lass.” He handed me the basket, and headed for the horse-sheds, sun glinting on his hair as though on a trove of gold and copper coins.

I made my way slowly back to the castle, thinking about men who lived in cold mud and ate grass. It didn’t occur to me until I had reached the courtyard that I had forgotten all about his shoulder.

7

DAVIE BEATON’S CLOSET

To my surprise, one of Colum’s kilted men-at-arms was waiting for me near the gate when I returned to the castle. Himself would be obliged, I was told, if I would wait upon him in his chambers.

The long casements were open in the laird’s private sanctum, and the wind swept through the branches of the captive trees with a rush and a murmur that gave the illusion of being outdoors.

The laird himself was writing at his desk when I entered, but stopped at once and rose to greet me. After a few words of inquiry as to my health and well-being, he led me over to the cages against the wall, where we admired the tiny inhabitants as they chirped and hopped through the foliage, excited by the wind.

“Dougal and Mrs. Fitz both say as you’ve quite some skill as a healer,” Colum remarked conversationally, extending a finger through the mesh of the cage. Well accustomed to this, apparently, a small grey bunting swooped down and made a neat landing, tiny claws gripping the finger and wings slightly spread to keep its balance. He stroked its head gently with the callused forefinger of the other hand. I saw the thickened skin around the nail and wondered at it; it hardly seemed likely that he did much manual labor.

I shrugged. “It doesn’t take that much skill to dress a superficial wound.”

He smiled. “Maybe not, but it takes a bit of skill to do it in the pitch-black dark by the side of a road, eh? And Mrs. Fitz says you’ve mended one of her wee lads’ fingers as was broken, and bound up a kitchen-maid’s scalded arm this morning as well.”

“That’s nothing very difficult, either,” I replied, wondering what he was getting at. He gestured to one of the attendants, who quickly fetched a small bowl from one of the drawers of the secretary. Removing the lid, Colum began scattering seed from it through the mesh of the cage. The tiny birds popped down from the branches like so many cricket balls bouncing on a pitch, and the bunting flew down to join its fellows on the ground.

“No connections to clan Beaton, have ye?” he asked. I remembered Mrs. FitzGibbons asking at our first meeting, Are ye a charmer, then? A Beaton?

“None. What have the clan Beaton to do with medical treatment?”

Colum eyed me in surprise. “You’ve not heard of them? The healers of clan Beaton are famous through the Highlands. Traveling healers, many of them. We had one here for a time, in fact.”

“Had one? What happened to him?” I asked.

“He died,” Colum responded matter-of-factly. “Caught a fever and it carried him off within a week. We’ve not had a healer since, save Mrs. Fitz.”

“She seems very competent,” I said, thinking of her efficient treatment of the young man Jamie’s injuries. Thinking of that made me think of what had caused them, and I felt a wave of resentment toward Colum. Resentment, and caution as well. This man, I reminded myself, was law, jury, and judge to the people in his domain—and clearly accustomed to having things his own way.

He nodded, still intent on the birds. He scattered the rest of the seed, favoring a late-coming grey-blue warbler with the last handful.

“Oh, aye. She’s quite a hand with such matters, but she’s more than enough to take care of already, running the whole castle and everyone in it—including me,” he said, with a sudden charming grin.

“I was wondering,” he said, taking swift advantage of my answering smile, “seeing as how you’ve not a great deal to occupy your time at present, you might think of having a look at the things Davie Beaton left behind him. You might know the uses of a few of his medicines and such.”

“Well…I suppose so. Why not?” In fact, I was becoming slightly bored with the round between garden, stillroom, and kitchen. I was curious to see what the late Mr. Beaton had considered useful in the way of paraphernalia.

“Angus or I could show the lady down, sir,” the attendant suggested respectfully.

“Don’t trouble yourself, John,” Colum said, gesturing the man politely away. “I’ll show Mistress Beauchamp myself.”

His progress down the stair was slow and obviously painful. Just as obviously, he didn’t wish for help, and I offered none.

The surgery of the late Beaton proved to be in a remote corner of the castle, tucked out of sight behind the kitchens. It was in close proximity to nothing save the graveyard, in which its late proprietor now rested. In the outer wall of the castle, the narrow, dark room boasted only one of the tiny slit windows, set high in the wall so that a flat plane of sunlight knifed through the air, separating the darkness of the high vaulted ceiling from the deeper gloom of the floor below.

Peering past Colum into the dim recesses of the room, I made out a tall cabinet, equipped with dozens of tiny drawers, each with a label in curlicue script. Jars, boxes, and vials of all shapes and sizes were neatly stacked on the shelves above a counter where the late Beaton evidently had been in the habit of mixing medicines, judging from the residue of stains and a crusted mortar that rested there.

Colum went ahead of me into the room. Shimmering motes disturbed by his entry swirled upward into the bar of sunlight like dust raised from the breaking of a tomb. He stood for a moment, letting his eyes grow used to the dimness, then walked forward slowly, looking from side to side. I thought perhaps it was the first time he had ever been in this room.

Watching his halting progress, as he traversed the narrow room, I said, “You know, massage can help a bit. With the pain, I mean.” I caught a flash from the grey eyes, and wished for a moment that I hadn’t spoken, but the spark disappeared almost at once, replaced by his usual expression of courteous attention.

“It needs to be done forcefully,” I said, “at the base of the spine, especially.”

“I know,” he said. “Angus Mhor does it for me, at night.” He paused, fingering one of the vials. “It would seem you do know a bit about healing, then.”

“A bit.” I was cautious, hoping he didn’t mean to test me by asking what the assorted medicaments were used for. The label on the vial he was holding said PURLES OVIS. Anyone’s guess what that was. Luckily, he put the vial back, and drew a finger gingerly through the dust on a large chest near the wall.

“Been some time since anyone’s been here,” he said. “I’ll have Mrs. Fitz send some of her wee lassies along to clean up a bit, shall I?”

I opened a cupboard door and coughed at the resulting cloud of dust. “Perhaps you’d better,” I agreed. There was a book on the lower shelf of the cupboard, a fat volume bound in blue leather. Lifting it, I discovered a smaller book beneath, this one bound cheaply in black cloth, much worn along the edges.

This second book proved to be Beaton’s daily log book, in which he had tidily recorded the names of his patients, details of their ailments, and the course of treatment prescribed. A methodical man, I thought with approval. One entry read: “2nd February, A.D. 1741. Sarah Graham MacKenzie, injury to thumb by reason of catching the appendage on edge of spinning reel. Application of boiled pennyroyal, followed by poultice of: one part each yarrow, St. John’s-wort, ground slaters, and mouse-ear, mixed in a base of fine clay.” Slaters? Mouse-ear? Some of the herbs on the shelves, no doubt.

“Did Sarah MacKenzie’s thumb heal well?” I asked Colum, shutting the book.

“Sarah? Ah,” he said thoughtfully. “No, I believe not.”

“Really? I wonder what happened,” I said. “Perhaps I could take a look at it later.”

He shook his head, and I thought I caught a glimpse of grim amusement showing in the lines of his full, curved lips.

“Why not?” I asked. “Has she left the castle, then?”

“Ye might say so,” he answered. The amusement was now apparent. “She’s dead.”

I stared at him as he picked his way across the dusty stone floor toward the doorway.

“It’s to be hoped you’ll do somewhat better as a healer than the late Davie Beaton, Mrs. Beauchamp,” he said. He turned and paused at the door, regarding me sardonically. The sunbeam held him as though in a spotlight.

“Ye could hardly do worse,” he said, and vanished into the dark.

I wandered up and down the narrow little room, looking at everything. Likely most of it was rubbish, but there might be a few useful things to be salvaged. I pulled out one of the tiny drawers in the apothecary’s chest, letting loose a gust of camphor. Well, that was useful, right enough. I pushed the drawer in again, and rubbed my dusty fingers on my skirt. Perhaps I should wait until Mrs. Fitz’s merry maids had had a chance to clean the place before I continued my investigations.

I peered out into the corridor. Deserted. No noises, either. But I was not naive enough to assume that no one was nearby. Whether by order or by tact, they were fairly subtle about it, but I knew that I was being watched. When I went to the garden, someone went with me. When I climbed the stair to my room, I would see someone casually glance up from the foot to see which way I turned. And as we had ridden in, I hadn’t failed to note the armed guards sheltering under the overhang from the rain. No, I definitely wasn’t going to be allowed simply to walk out of here, let alone be provided with transport and means to leave.

I sighed. At least I was alone for the moment. And solitude was something I very much wanted, at least for a little.

I had tried repeatedly to think about everything that had happened to me since I stepped through the standing stone. But things moved so rapidly around this place that I had hardly had a moment to myself when I wasn’t asleep.

Apparently I had one now, though. I pulled the dusty chest away from the wall and sat down, leaning back against the stones. They were very solid. I reached back and rested my palms against them, thinking about the stone circle, trying to recall every tiny detail of what had happened.

The screaming stones were the last thing I could truly say I remembered. And even that I had doubts about. The screaming had kept up, all the time. It was possible, I thought, that the noise came not from the stones themselves, but from…whatever…I had stepped into. Were the stones a door of some kind? And into what did they open? There simply were no words for whatever it was. A crack through time, I supposed, because clearly I had been then, and I was now, and the stones were the only connection.

And the sounds. They had been overwhelming, but looking back from a short distance, I thought they were very similar to the sounds of battle. The field hospital at which I was stationed had been shelled three times. Even knowing that the flimsy walls of our temporary structures would not protect us, still doctors, nurses and orderlies had all dashed inside at the first alarm, huddling together for courage. Courage is in very short supply when there are mortar shells screaming overhead and bombs going off next door. And the kind of terror I had felt then was the closest thing to what I had felt in the stone.

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