Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 14

   

I now realized that I did recall some things about the actual trip through the stone. Very minor things. I remembered a sensation of physical struggle, as though I were caught in a current of some kind. Yes, I had deliberately fought against it, whatever it was. There were images in the current, too, I thought. Not pictures, exactly, more like incomplete thoughts. Some were terrifying and I had fought away from them as I…well, as I “passed.” Had I fought toward others? I had some consciousness of fighting toward a surface of some kind. Had I actually chosen to come to this particular time because it offered some sort of haven from that whirling maelstrom?

I shook my head. I could find no answers by thinking about it. Nothing was clear, except the fact that I would have go back to the standing stones.

“Mistress?” A soft Scottish voice from the doorway made me look up. Two girls, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, hung back shyly in the corridor. They were roughly dressed, with clogs on their feet and homespun scarves covering their hair. The one who had spoken carried a brush and several folded cloths, while her companion held a steaming pail. Mrs. Fitz’s lasses, here to clean the surgery.

“We’ll no be disturbin’ ye, mistress?” one asked anxiously.

“No, no,” I assured them. “I was about to leave anyway.”

“You’ve missed the noon meal,” the other informed me. “But Mrs. Fitz said to tell ye as there’s food for ye in the kitchens whenever ye like to go there.”

I glanced out the window at the end of the corridor. The sun was, in fact, a little past the zenith, and I became conscious of increasing hunger pangs. I smiled at the girls.

“I might just do that. Thank you.”

I brought lunch to the fields again, fearing that Jamie might get nothing to eat until dinner otherwise. Seated on the grass, watching him eat, I asked him why he had been living in the rough, raiding cattle and thieving over the Border. I had seen enough by now both of the folk that came and went from the nearby village and of the castle dwellers, to be able to tell that Jamie was both higher born and much better educated than most. It seemed likely that he came from a fairly wealthy family, judging from the brief description he had given me of their farm estate. Why was he so far from home?

“I’m an outlaw,” he said, as though surprised that I didn’t know. “The English have a price of ten pounds sterling on my head. Not quite so much as a highwayman,” he said, deprecatingly, “but a bit more than a pickpocket.”

“Just for obstruction?” I said, unbelievingly. Ten pounds sterling here was half the yearly income of a small farm; I couldn’t imagine a single escaped prisoner was worth that much to the English government.

“Och, no. Murder.” I choked on a mouthful of bread-and-pickle. Jamie pounded me helpfully on the back until I could speak again.

Eyes watering, I asked, “Wh-who did you k-kill?”

He shrugged. “Well, it’s a bit odd. I didna actually kill the man whose murder I’m outlawed for. Mind ye, I’ve done for a few other redcoats along the way, so I suppose it’s not unjust.”

He paused and shifted his shoulders, as though rubbing against some invisible wall. I had noticed him do it before, on my first morning in the castle, when I had doctored him and seen the marks on his back.

“It was at Fort William. I could hardly move for a day or two, after I’d been flogged the second time, and then I had fever from the wounds. Once I could stand again, though, some…friends made shift to get me out of the camp, by means I’d best not go into. Anyhow, there was some ruckus as we left, and an English sergeant-major was shot—by coincidence, it was the man that gave me the first flogging. I’d not ha’ shot him, though; I had nothing personal against him, and I was too weak to do more than hang onto the horse, in any case.” The wide mouth tightened and thinned. “Though had it been Captain Randall, I expect I’d ha’ made the effort.” He eased his shoulders again, stretching the rough linen shirt taut across his back, and shrugged.

“There it is, though. That’s one reason I do not go far from the castle alone. This far into the Highlands, there’s little chance of running into an English patrol, but they do come over the Border quite often. And then there’s the Watch, though they’ll not come near the castle, either. Colum’s not much need of their services, having his own men to hand.” He smiled, running a hand through his bright cropped hair ’til it stood on end like porcupine quills.

“I’m no precisely inconspicuous, ye ken. I doubt there’s informers in the castle itself, but there might be a few here and there about the countryside as would be glad enough to earn a few pence by letting the English know where I was, did they know I was a wanted man.” He smiled at me. “Ye’ll have gathered the name’s not MacTavish?”

“Does the laird know?”

“That I’m an outlaw? Oh, aye, Colum knows. Most people through this part of the Highlands likely know that; what happened at Fort William caused quite a bit of stir at the time, and news travels fast here. What they won’t know is that Jamie MacTavish is the man that’s wanted; provided nobody that knows me by my own name sees me.” His hair was still sticking up absurdly. I had a sudden impulse to smooth it for him, but resisted.

“Why do you wear your hair cropped?” I asked suddenly, then blushed. “I’m sorry, it’s none of my business. I only wondered, since most of the other men I’ve seen here wear it long.…”

He flattened the spiky licks, looking a bit self-conscious.

“I used to wear mine long as well. It’s short now because the monks had to shave the back of my head and it’s had but a few months to grow again.” He bent forward at the waist, inviting me to inspect the back of his head.

“See there, across the back?” I could certainly feel it, and see it as well when I spread the thick hair aside; a six-inch weal of freshly healed scar tissue, still pink and slightly raised. I pressed gently along its length. Cleanly healed, and a nice neat job by whoever had stitched it; a wound like that must have gaped and bled considerably.

“Do you have headaches?” I asked professionally. He sat up, smoothing the hair down over the wound. He nodded.

“Sometimes, though none so bad as it was. I was blind for a month or so after it happened, and my head ached like fury all the time. The headache started to go away when my sight came back.” He blinked several times, as though testing his vision.

“Fades a bit sometimes,” he explained, “if I’m verra tired. Things get blurry round the edges.”

“It’s a wonder it didn’t kill you,” I said. “You must have a good thick skull on you.”

“That I have. Solid bone, according to my sister.” We both laughed.

“How did it happen?” I asked. He frowned, and a look of uncertainty came over his face.

“Weel, there’s just the question,” he answered slowly. “I dinna remember anything about it. I was down near Carryarick Pass with a few lads from Loch Laggan. Last I knew, I was pushing my way uphill through a wee thicket; I remember pricking my hand on a hollybush and thinking the blood drops looked just like the berries. And the next thing I remember is waking in France, in the Abbey of Sainte Anne de Beaupré, with my head throbbing like a drum and someone I couldn’t see giving me something cool to drink.”

He rubbed the back of his head as though it ached yet.

“Sometimes I think I remember little bits of things—a lamp over my head, swinging back and forth, a sort of sweet oily taste on my lips, people saying things to me—but I do not know if any of it’s real. I know the monks gave me opium, and I dreamed nearly all the time.” He pressed his fingers flat over closed eyelids.

“There was one dream I had over and over. Tree roots growing inside my head, big gnarled things, growing and swelling, pushing out through my eyes, thrusting down my throat to choke me. It went on and on, with the roots twisting and curling and getting bigger all the time. Finally they’d get big enough to burst my skull and I’d wake hearing the sound of the bones popping apart.” He grimaced. “Sort of a juicy, cracking noise, like gunshots under water.”

“Ugh!”

A shadow fell suddenly over us and a stout boot shot out and nudged Jamie in the ribs.

“Idle young bastard,” the newcomer said without heat, “stuffin’ yerself while the horses run wild. And when’s that filly goin’ to be broke, hey, lad?”

“None the sooner for my starving myself, Alec,” Jamie replied. “Meanwhile, have a bit; there’s plenty.” He reached a chunk of cheese up to a hand knotted with arthritis. The fingers, permanently curled in a half-grip, slowly closed on the cheese as their owner sank down on the grass.

With unexpectedly courtly manners, Jamie introduced the visitor; Alec McMahon MacKenzie, Master of Horse of Castle Leoch.

A squat figure in leather breeks and rough shirt, the Master of Horse had an air of authority sufficient, I thought, to quell the most recalcitrant stallion. An “eye like Mars, to threaten or command,” the quotation sprang at once to mind. A single eye it was, the other being covered with a black cloth patch. As if to make up for the loss, his eyebrows sprouted profusely from a central point, sporting long grey hairs like insects’ antennae that waved threateningly from the basic brown tufts.

After an initial nod of acknowledgment, Old Alec (for so Jamie referred to him, no doubt to distinguish him from the Young Alec who had been my guide) ignored me, dividing his attention instead between the food and the three young horses switching their tails in the meadow below. I rather lost interest during a long discussion involving the parentage of several no doubt distinguished horses not among those present, details of breeding records of the entire stable for several years, and a number of incomprehensible points of equine conformation, dealing with hocks, withers, shoulders, and other items of anatomy. Since the only points I noticed on a horse were nose, tail, and ears, the subtleties were lost on me.

I leaned back on my elbows and basked in the warming spring sun. There was a curious peace in this day, a sense of things working quietly in their proper courses, nothing minding the upsets and turmoils of human concerns. Perhaps it was the peace that one always finds outdoors, far enough away from buildings and clatter. Maybe it was the result of gardening, that quiet sense of pleasure in touching growing things, the satisfaction of helping them thrive. Perhaps just the relief of finally having found work to do, rather than rattling around the castle feeling out of place, conspicuous as an inkblot on parchment.

In spite of the fact that I took no part in the horsey conversation, I didn’t feel out of place here at all. Old Alec acted as though I were merely a part of the landscape, and while Jamie cast an occasional glance my way, he, too, gradually ignored me as their conversation segued into the sliding rhythms of Gaelic, sure sign of a Scot’s emotional involvement in his subject matter. Since I gathered no sense from the talk, it was as soothing as listening to bees humming in the heather blossoms. Oddly contented and drowsy, I pushed away all thoughts of Colum’s suspicions, my own predicament, and other disturbing ideas. “Sufficient unto the day,” I thought sleepily, picking up the biblical quotation from some recess of memory.

It may have been the chill from a passing cloud, or the changed tone of the men’s conversation that woke me sometime later. The talk had switched back to English, and the tone was serious, no longer the meandering chat of the horse-obsessed.

“It’s no but a week ’til the Gathering, laddie,” Alec was saying. “Have ye made up your mind what you’ll do then?”

There was a long sigh from Jamie. “No, Alec, that I havena. Sometimes I think one way, sometimes the other. Granted that it’s good here, working wi’ the beasts and with you.” There was a smile somewhere in the young man’s voice, which disappeared as he went on. “And Colum’s promised me to…well, you’ll not know about that. But kiss the iron and change my name to MacKenzie, and forswear all I’m born to? Nay, I canna make up my mind to it.”

“Stubborn as your Da, ye are,” remarked Alec, though the words held a tone of grudging approval. “You’ve the look of him about ye sometimes, for all you’re tall and fair as your mother’s folk.”

“Knew him, did ye?” Jamie sounded interested.

“Oh, a bit. And heard more. I’ve been here at Leoch since before your parents wed, ye ken. And to hear Dougal and Colum speak of Black Brian, ye’d think he was the de’il himself, if not worse. And your ma the Virgin Mary, swept awa’ to the Bad Place by him.”

Jamie laughed. “And I’m like him, am I?”

“Ye are and all that, laddie. Aye, I see why it’d stick in your craw to be Colum’s man, weel enough. But there’s considerations the other way, no? If it comes to fighting for the Stuarts, say, and Dougal has his way. Come out on the right side in that fight, laddie, and you’ll ha’ your land back and more besides, whatever Colum does.”

Jamie replied with what I had come to think of as a “Scottish noise,” that indeterminate sound made low in the throat that can be interpreted to mean almost anything. This particular noise seemed to indicate some doubt as to the likelihood of such a desirable outcome.

“Aye,” he said, “and if Dougal doesna get his way, then what? Or if the fight goes against the house of Stuart?”

Alec made a guttural sound of his own. “Then you stay here, laddie. Be master of horse in my place; I’ll not last so much longer, and there’s no better hand I’ve seen wi’ a horse.”

Jamie’s modest grunt indicated appreciation of the compliment.

The older man went on, disregarding such interruptions. “The MacKenzies are kin to ye, too; it’s not a matter of forswearing your blood. And there’s other considerations, too”—his voice took on a teasing note—“like Mistress Laoghaire, perhaps?”

He got another noise in response, this one indicating embarrassment and dismissal.

“Hey now, lad, a young feller doesna let himself be beaten for the sake of a lass he cares nothin’ for. And ye know her father will no let her wed outside the clan.”

“She was verra young, Alec, and I felt sorry for her,” said Jamie defensively. “There’s nothin’ more to it than that.” This time it was Alec who made the Scottish noise, a guttural snort full of derisory disbelief.

“Tell that one to the barn door, laddie; it’s no more brains than to believe ye. Weel, even if it’s no Laoghaire—and ye could do a deal worse, mark me—ye’d be a better prospect for marriage did ye ha’ a bit of money and a future; as ye would if ye’re next Master. Ye could take yer choice of the lasses—if one doesna choose you first!” Alec snorted with the half-choked mirth of a man who seldom laughs. “Flies round a honeypot would be nothin’ to it, lad! Penniless and nameless as ye are now, the lasses still sigh after ye—I’ve seen ’em!” More snorting. “Even this Sassenach wench can no keep away from ye, and her a new widow!”

Wishing to prevent what promised to be a series of increasingly distasteful personal remarks, I decided it was time to be officially awake. Stretching and yawning, I sat up, ostentatiously rubbing my eyes to avoid looking at either of the speakers.

“Mmmm. I seem to have fallen asleep,” I said, blinking prettily at them. Jamie, rather red around the ears, was taking an exaggerated interest in packing up the remains of the picnic. Old Alec stared down at me, apparently taking notice of me for the first time.

“Interested in horses, are ye, lass?” he demanded. I could hardly say no, under the circumstances. Agreeing that horses were most interesting, I was treated to a detailed exegesis on the filly in the paddock, now standing drowsily at rest, tail twitching for the occasional fly.

“Ye’re welcome to come and watch any time, lass,” Alec concluded, “so long as ye dinna get so close ye distract the horses. They need to work, ye ken.” This was plainly intended as a dismissal, but I stood my ground; remembering my original purpose in coming here.

“Yes, I’ll be careful next time,” I promised. “But before I go back to the castle, I wanted to check Jamie’s shoulder and take the dressings off.”

Alec nodded slowly, but to my surprise, it was Jamie who refused my attentions, turning away to go back to the paddock.

“Ah, it’ll wait awhile, lass,” he said, looking away. “There’s much to be done yet today; perhaps later, after supper, hey?” This seemed very odd; he hadn’t been in any hurry to return to work earlier. But I could hardly force him to submit to my ministrations if he didn’t want to. Shrugging, I agreed to meet him after supper, and turned uphill to go back to the castle.

As I made my way back up the hill, I considered the shape of the scar on Jamie’s head. It wasn’t a straight line, as might be made by an English broad-sword. The wound was curved, as though made by a blade with a definite bend. A blade like a Lochaber ax? But so far as I knew, the murderous axes had been—no, were, I corrected myself—carried only by clansmen.

It was only as I walked away that it occurred to me. For a young man on the run, with unknown enemies, Jamie had been remarkably confiding to a stranger.

Leaving the picnic basket in the kitchens, I returned to the late Beaton’s surgery, now dustless and pristine after a visitation by Mrs. Fitz’s energetic assistants. Even the dozens of glass vials in the cupboard gleamed in the dim light from the window.

The cupboard seemed a good place to start, with an inventory of the herbs and medicaments already on hand. I had spent a few moments the night before, before sleep overcame me, thumbing through the blue leather-bound book I had taken from the surgery. This proved to be The Physician’s Guide and Handbook, a listing of recipes for the treatment of assorted symptoms and diseases, the ingredients for which were apparently displayed before me.

The book was divided into several sections: “Centauries, Vomitories, and Electuaries,” “Troches and Lodochs,” “Assorted Plasters and Their Virtus,” “Decoctions and Theriacs,” and a quite extensive section ominously headed with the single word “Purges.”

Reading through a few of the recipes, the reason for the late Davie Beaton’s lack of success with his patients became apparent. “For headache,” read one entry, “take ye one ball of horse dunge, this to be carefully dried, pounded to powder, and the whole drunk, stirred into hot ale.” “For convulsions in children, five leeches to be applied behind the ear.” And a few pages later, “decoctions made of the roots of celandine, turmeric, and juice of 200 slaters cannot but be of great service in a case of jaundice.” I closed the book, marveling at the large number of the late doctor’s patients who, according to his meticulous log, had not only survived the treatment meted out to them but actually recovered from their original ailments.

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