Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 21

   

My gaze met Dougal’s as he also looked down at the hideous wound. His lips moved, mouthing soundlessly over the man’s head the words, “Can he live?”

I shook my head mutely. He paused for a moment, holding Geordie, then reached forward and deliberately untied the emergency tourniquet I had placed around the man’s thigh. He looked at me, challenging me to protest, but I made no move save a small nod. I could staunch the bleeding, and allow the man to be transported by litter back to the castle. Back to the castle, there to linger in increasing agony as the belly wound festered, until the corruption spread far enough finally to kill him, wallowing perhaps for days in long-drawn-out pain. A better death, perhaps, was what Dougal was giving him—to die cleanly under the sky, his heart’s blood staining the same leaves, dyed by the blood of the beast that killed him. I crawled over the damp leaves to Geordie’s head, and took half his weight on my own arm.

“It will be better soon,” I said, and my voice was steady, as it always was, as it had been trained to be. “The pain will be better soon.”

“Aye. It’s better…now. I canna feel my leg anymore…nor my hands…Dougal…are ye there? Are ye there, man?” The numb hands were blindly flailing before the man’s face. Dougal grasped them firmly between his own and leaned close, murmuring in the man’s ear.

Geordie’s back arched suddenly, and his heels dug deeply into the muddy ground, his body in violent protest at what his mind had begun already to accept. He gasped deeply from time to time, as a man who is bleeding to death gulps for air, hungry for the oxygen that his body is starving for.

The forest was very quiet. No birds sang in the mist, and the men who waited patiently hunkered in the shadow of the trees, were silent as the trees themselves. Dougal and I leaned close together over the struggling body, murmuring and comforting, sharing the messy, heartrending, and necessary task of helping a man to die.

The trip up the hill to the castle was silent. I walked beside the dead man, borne on a makeshift litter of pine boughs. Behind us, borne in precisely similar fashion, came the body of his foe. Dougal walked ahead, alone.

As we entered the gate to the main courtyard, I caught sight of the tubby little figure of Father Bain, the village priest, hurrying belatedly to the aid of his fallen parishioner.

Dougal paused, reaching out to stay me as I turned toward the stair leading to the surgery. The bearers with Geordie’s plaid-shrouded body on its litter passed on, heading toward the chapel, leaving us together in the deserted corridor. Dougal held me by the wrist, looking me over intently.

“You’ve seen men die before,” he said flatly. “By violence.” Not a question, almost an accusation.

“Many of them,” I said, just as flatly. And pulling myself free, I left him standing there and went to tend my living patient.

The death of Geordie, hideous as it was, put only a momentary damper on the celebrations. A lavish funeral Mass was said over him that afternoon in the castle chapel, and the games began the next morning.

I saw little of them, being occupied in patching up the participants. All I could say for sure of authentic Highland games is that they were played for keeps. I bound up some fumble-foot who had managed to slash himself trying to dance between swords, I set the broken leg of a hapless victim who’d got in the way of a carelessly thrown hammer, and I doled out castor oil and nasturtium syrup to countless children who had overindulged in sweeties. By late afternoon, I was near exhaustion.

I climbed up on the surgery table in order to poke my head out of the tiny window for some air. The shouts and laughter and music from the field where the games were held had ceased. Good. No more new patients, then, at least not until tomorrow. What had Rupert said they were going to do next? Archery? Hmm. I checked the supply of bandages, and wearily closed the surgery door behind me.

Leaving the castle, I trailed downhill toward the stables. I could do with some good nonhuman, nonspeaking, nonbleeding company. I also had in mind that I might find Jamie, whatever his last name was, and try again to apologize for involving him in the oath-taking. True, he had brought it off well, but clearly he would not have been there at all, left to his own devices. As to the gossip Rupert might now be spreading about our supposed amorous dalliance, I preferred not to think.

As to my own predicament, I preferred not to think about that, either, but I would have to, sooner or later. Having so spectacularly failed to escape at the beginning of the Gathering, I wondered whether the chances might be better at the end. True, most of the horses would be leaving, along with the visitors. But there would be a number of castle horses still available. And with luck, the disappearance of one would be put down to random thievery; there were plenty of villainous-looking scoundrels hanging about the fairground and the games. And in the confusion of leaving, it might be some time before anyone discovered that I was gone.

I scuffed along the paddock fence, pondering escape routes. The difficulty was that I had only the vaguest idea where I was, with reference to where I wanted to go. And since I was now known to virtually every MacKenzie between Leoch and the Border, thanks to my doctoring at the games, I would not be able to ask directions.

I wondered suddenly whether Jamie had told Colum or Dougal of my abortive attempt to escape on the night of the oath-taking. Neither of them had mentioned it to me, so perhaps not.

There were no horses out in the paddock. I pushed open the stable door, and my heart skipped a beat to see both Jamie and Dougal seated side by side on a bale of hay. They looked almost as startled at my appearance as I was at theirs, but gallantly rose and invited me to sit down.

“That’s all right,” I said, backing toward the door. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your conversation.”

“Nay, lass,” said Dougal, “what I’ve just been saying to young Jamie here concerns you too.”

I cast a quick look at Jamie, who responded with a trace of a headshake. So he hadn’t told Dougal about my attempted escape.

I sat down, a bit wary of Dougal. I remembered that little scene in the corridor on the night of the oath-taking, though he had not referred to it since by word or gesture.

“I’m leaving in two days’ time,” he said abruptly. “And I’m taking the two of you with me.”

“Taking us where?” I asked, startled. My heart began to beat faster.

“Through the MacKenzie lands. Colum doesna travel, so visiting the tenants and tacksmen that canna come to the Gathering—that’s left to me. And to take care of the bits of business here and there.…” He waved a hand, dismissing these as trivial.

“But why me? Why us, I mean?” I demanded.

He considered for a moment before answering. “Why, Jamie’s a handy lad wi’ the horses. And as to you, lass, Colum thought it wise I should take ye along as far as Fort William. The commander there might be able to…assist ye in finding your family in France.” Or to assist you, I thought, in determining who I really am. And how much else are you not telling me? Dougal stared down at me, obviously wondering how I would take this news.

“All right,” I said tranquilly. “That sounds a good idea.” Outwardly tranquil, inwardly I was rejoicing. What luck! Now I wouldn’t have to try to escape from the castle. Dougal would take me most of the way himself. And from Fort William, I thought I could find my own way without much difficulty. To Craigh na Dun. To the circle of standing stones. And with luck, back home.

PART THREE

On the Road

11

CONVERSATIONS WITH A LAWYER

We rode out of the gates of Castle Leoch two days later, just before dawn. In twos and threes and fours, to the sound of shouted farewells and the calls of wild geese on the loch, the horses stepped their way carefully over the stone bridge. I glanced behind from time to time, until the bulk of the castle disappeared at last behind a curtain of shimmering mist. The thought that I would never again see that grim pile of stone or its inhabitants gave me an odd feeling of regret.

The noise of the horses’ hooves seemed muffled in the fog. Voices carried strangely through the damp air, so that calls from one end of the long string were sometimes heard easily at the other, while the sounds of nearby conversations were lost in broken murmurs. It was like riding through a vapor peopled by ghosts. Disembodied voices floated in the air, speaking far away, then remarkably near at hand.

My place fell in the middle of the party, flanked on the one side by a man-at-arms whose name I did not know, and on the other by Ned Gowan, the little scribe I had seen at work in Colum’s hall. He was something more than a scribe, I found, as we fell into conversation on the road.

Ned Gowan was a solicitor. Born, bred, and educated in Edinburgh, he looked the part thoroughly. A small, elderly man of neat, precise habits, he wore a coat of fine broadcloth, fine woolen hose, a linen shirt whose stock bore the merest suggestion of lace, and breeches of a fabric that was a nicely judged compromise between the rigors of travel and the status of his calling. A small pair of gold-rimmed half-spectacles, a neat hair-ribbon and a bicorne of blue felt completed the picture. He was so perfectly the quintessential man of law that I couldn’t look at him without smiling.

He rode alongside me on a quiet mare whose saddle was burdened with two enormous bags of worn leather. He explained that one held the tools of his trade; inkhorn, quills, and papers.

“And what’s the other for?” I asked, eyeing it. While the first bag was plump with its contents, the second seemed nearly empty.

“Oh, that’s for his lairdship’s rents,” the lawyer replied, patting the limp bag.

“He must be expecting rather a lot, then,” I suggested. Mr. Gowan shrugged good-naturedly.

“Not so much as all that, m’dear. But the most of it will be in doits and pence and other small coins. And such, unfortunately, take up more room than the larger denominations of currency.” He smiled, a quick curve of thin, dry lips. “At that, a weighty mass of copper and silver is still easier of transport than the bulk of his lairdship’s income.”

He turned to direct a piercing look over his shoulder at the two large mule-drawn wagons that accompanied the party.

“Bags of grain and bunches of turnips have at least the benefit of lack of motion. Fowl, if suitably trussed and caged, I have nae argument with. Nor with goats, though they prove some inconvenience in terms of their omnivorous habits; one ate a handkerchief of mine last year, though I admit the fault was mine in allowin’ the fabric to protrude injudiciously from my coat-pocket.” The thin lips set in a determined line. “I have given explicit directions this year, though. We shall not accept live pigs.”

The necessity of protecting Mr. Gowan’s saddlebags and the two wagons explained the presence of the twenty or so men who made up the rest of the rent-collecting party, I supposed. All were armed and mounted, and there were a number of pack animals, bearing what I assumed were supplies for the sustenance of the party. Mrs. Fitz, among her farewells and exhortations, had told me that accommodations would be primitive or nonexistent, with many nights spent encamped along the road.

I was quite curious to know what had led a man of Mr. Gowan’s obvious qualifications to take up a post in the remote Scottish Highlands, far from the amenities of civilized life to which he must be accustomed.

“Well, as to that,” he said, in answer to my questions, “as a young man, I had a small practice in Edinburgh. With lace curtains in the window, and a shiny brass plate by the door, with my name inscribed upon it. But I grew rather tired of making wills and drawing up conveyances, and seeing the same faces in the street, day after day. So I left,” he said simply.

He had purchased a horse and some supplies and set off, with no idea where he was going, or what to do once he got there.

“Ye see, I must confess,” he said, dabbing his nose primly with a monogrammed handkerchief, “to something of a taste for…adventure. However, neither my stature nor my family background had fitted me for the life of highwayman or seafarer, which were the most adventurous occupations I could envision at the time. As an alternative, I determined that my best path lay upward, into the Highlands. I thought that in time I might perhaps induce some clan chieftain to, well, to allow me to serve him in some way.”

And in the course of his travels, he had in fact encountered such a chieftain.

“Jacob MacKenzie,” he said, with a fond, reminiscent smile. “And a wicked, red auld rascal he was.” Mr. Gowan nodded toward the front of the line, where Jamie MacTavish’s bright hair blazed in the mist. “His grandson’s verra like him, ye ken. We met first at the point of a pistol, Jacob and I, as he was robbing me. I yielded my horse and my bags with good grace, having little other choice. But I believe he was a bit taken aback when I insisted upon accompanying him, on foot if necessary.”

“Jacob MacKenzie. That would be Colum and Dougal’s father?” I asked.

The elderly lawyer nodded. “Aye. Of course, he was not laird then. That happened a few years later…with a very small bit of assistance from me,” he added modestly. “Things were less…civilized then,” he said nostalgically.

“Oh, were they?” I said politely. “And Colum, er, inherited you, so to speak?”

“Something of the kind,” Mr. Gowan said. “There was a wee bit o’ confusion when Jacob died, d’ye see. Colum was heir to Leoch, to be sure, but he…” The lawyer paused, looking ahead and behind to see that no one was close enough to listen. The man-at-arms had ridden forward, though, to catch up with some of his mates, and a good four lengths separated us from the wagon-driver behind.

“Colum was a whole man to the age of eighteen or so,” he resumed his story, “and gave promise to be a fine leader. He took Letitia to wife as part of an alliance with the Camerons—I drew up the marriage contract,” he added, as a footnote, “but soon after the marriage he had a bad fall, during a raid. Broke the long bone of his thigh, and it mended poorly.”

I nodded. It would have, of course.

“And then,” Mr. Gowan went on with a sigh, “he rose from his bed too soon, and took a tumble down the stairs that broke the other leg. He lay in his bed close on a year, but it soon became clear that the damage was permanent. And that was when Jacob died, unfortunately.”

The little man paused to marshal his thoughts. He glanced ahead again, as though looking for someone. Failing to find them, he settled back into the saddle.

“That was about the time there was all the fuss about his sister’s marriage too,” he said. “And Dougal…well, I’m afraid Dougal did not acquit himself so verra weel over that affair. Otherwise, d’ye see, Dougal might have been made chief at the time, but ’twas felt he’d not the judgment for it yet.” He shook his head. “Oh, there was a great stramash about it all. There were cousins and uncles and tacksmen, and a great Gathering to decide the matter.”

“But they did choose Colum, after all?” I said. I marveled once again at the force of personality of Colum MacKenzie. And, casting an eye at the withered little man who rode at my side, I rather thought Colum had also had some luck in choosing his allies.

“They did, but only because the brothers stood firm together. There was nae doubt, ye see, of Colum’s courage, nor yet of his mind, but only of his body. ’Twas clear he’d never be able to lead his men into battle again. But there was Dougal, sound and whole, if a bit reckless and hot-headed. And he stood behind his brother’s chair and vowed to follow Colum’s word and be his legs and his sword-arm in the field. So a suggestion was made that Colum be allowed to become laird, as he should in the ordinary way, and Dougal be made war chieftain, to lead the clan in time of battle. It was a situation not without precedent,” he added primly.

The modesty with which he had said “A suggestion was made…” made it clear just whose suggestion it had been.

“And whose man are you?” I asked. “Colum’s or Dougal’s?”

“My interests must lie with the MacKenzie clan as a whole,” Mr. Gowan said circumspectly. “But as a matter of form, I have sworn my oath to Colum.”

A matter of form, my foot, I thought. I had seen that oath-taking, though I did not recall the small form of the lawyer specifically among so many men. No man could have been present at that ceremony and remained unmoved, not even a born solicitor. And the little man on the bay mare, dry as his bones might be, and steeped to the marrow in the law, had by his own testimony the soul of a romantic.

“He must find you a great help,” I said diplomatically.

“Oh, I do a bit from time to time,” he said, “in a small way. As I do for others. Should ye find yourself in need of advice, m’dear,” he said, beaming genially, “do feel free to call upon me. My discretion may be relied upon, I do assure you.” He bowed quaintly from his saddle.

“To the same extent as your loyalty to Colum MacKenzie?” I said, arching my brows. The small brown eyes met mine full on, and I saw both the cleverness and the humor that lurked in their faded depths.

“Ah, weel,” he said, without apology. “Worth a try.”

“I suppose so,” I said, more amused than angered. “But I assure you, Mr. Gowan, that I have no need of your discretion, at least at present.” It’s catching, I thought, hearing myself. I sound just like him.

“I am an English lady,” I added firmly, “and nothing more. Colum is wasting his time—and yours—in trying to extract secrets from me that don’t exist.” Or that do exist, but are untellable, I thought. Mr. Gowan’s discretion might be limitless, but not his belief.

“He didn’t send you along just to coerce me into damaging revelations, did he?” I demanded, suddenly struck by the thought.

“Oh, no.” Mr. Gowan gave a short laugh at the idea. “No, indeed, m’dear. I fulfill an essential function, in managing the records and receipts for Dougal, and performing such small legal requirements that the clansmen in the more distant areas may have. And I am afraid that even at my advanced age, I have not entirely outgrown the urge to seek adventure. Things are much more settled now than they used to be”—he heaved a sigh that might have been one of regret—“but there is always the possibility of robbery along the road, or attack near the borders.”

He patted the second bag on his saddle. “This bag is not entirely empty, ye ken.” He turned back the flap long enough for me to see the gleaming grips of a pair of scroll-handled pistols, snugly set in twin loops that kept them within easy reach.

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