Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 22

   

He surveyed me with a glance that took in every detail of my costume and appearance.

“Ye should really be armed yourself, m’dear,” he said in a tone of mild reproof. “Though I suppose Dougal thought it would not be suitable…still. I’ll speak to him about it,” he promised.

We passed the rest of the day in pleasant conversation, wandering among his reminiscences of the dear departed days when men were men, and the pernicious weed of civilization was less rampant upon the bonny wild face of the Highlands.

At nightfall, we made camp in a clearing beside the road. I had a blanket, rolled and tied behind my saddle, and with this I prepared to spend my first night of freedom from the castle. As I left the fire and made my way to a spot behind the trees, though, I was conscious of the glances that followed me. Even in the open air, it seemed, freedom had definite limits.

We reached the first stopping-place near noon of the second day. It was no more than a cluster of three or four huts, set off the road at the foot of a small glen. A stool was brought out from one of the cottages for Dougal’s use, and a plank—thoughtfully brought along in one of the wagons—laid across two others to serve as a writing surface for Mr. Gowan.

He withdrew an enormous square of starched linen from the tailpocket of his coat and laid it neatly over a stump, temporarily withdrawn from its usual function as chopping block. He seated himself upon this and began to lay out inkhorn, ledgers, and receipt-book, as composed in his manner as though he were still behind his lace curtains in Edinburgh.

One by one, the men from the nearby crofts appeared, to conduct their annual business with the laird’s representative. This was a leisurely affair, and conducted with a good deal less formality than the goings-on in the Hall of Castle Leoch. Each man came, fresh from field or shed, and drawing up a vacant stool, sat alongside Dougal in apparent equality, explaining, complaining, or merely chatting.

Some were accompanied by a sturdy son or two, bearing bags of grain or wool. At the conclusion of each conversation, the indefatigable Ned Gowan would write out a receipt for the payment of the year’s rent, record the transaction neatly in his ledger, and flick a finger to one of the drovers, who would obligingly heave the payment onto a wagon. Less frequently, a small heap of coins would disappear into the depths of his leather bag with a faint chinking sound. Meanwhile, the men-at-arms lounged beneath the trees or disappeared up the wooded bank—to hunt, I supposed.

Variations of this scene were repeated over the next few days. Now and then I would be invited into a cottage for cider or milk, and all of the women would crowd into the small single room to talk with me. Sometimes a cluster of rude huts would be large enough to support a tavern or even an inn, which became Dougal’s headquarters for the day.

Once in a while, the rents would include a horse, a sheep, or other livestock. These were generally traded to someone in the neighborhood for something more portable, or, if Jamie declared a horse fit for inclusion in the castle stables, it would be added to our string.

I wondered about Jamie’s presence in the party. While the young man clearly knew horses well, so did most of the men in the party, including Dougal himself. Considering also that horses were both a rare sort of payment, and usually nothing special in the way of breeding, I wondered why it had been thought necessary to bring an expert along. It was a week after we had set out, in a village with an unpronounceable name, that I found out the real reason why Dougal had wanted Jamie.

The village, though small, was large enough to boast a tavern with two or three tables and several rickety stools. Here Dougal held his hearings and collected his rents. And after a rather indigestible luncheon of salt beef and turnips, he held court, buying ale for the tenants and cottars who had lingered after their transactions, and a few villagers who drifted in when their daily work was completed, to gawk at the strangers and hear such news as we carried.

I sat quietly on a settle in the corner, sipping sour ale and enjoying the respite from horseback. I was paying little attention to Dougal’s talk, which shifted back and forth between Gaelic and English, ranging from bits of gossip and farming talk to what sounded like vulgar jokes and meandering stories.

I was wondering idly how long, at this rate, it might take to reach Fort William. And once there, exactly how I might best part company with the Scots of Castle Leoch without becoming equally entangled with the English army garrison. Lost in my own thoughts, I had not noticed that Dougal had been speaking for some time alone, as though making a speech of some kind. His hearers were following him intently, with occasional brief interjections and exclamations. Coming gradually back to an awareness of my surroundings, I realized that he was skillfully rousing his audience to a high pitch of excitement about something.

I glanced around. Fat Rupert and the little lawyer, Ned Gowan, sat against the wall behind Dougal, tankards of ale forgotten on the bench beside them as they listened intently. Jamie, frowning into his own tankard, leaned forward with his elbows on the table. Whatever Dougal was saying, he didn’t seem to care for it.

With no warning, Dougal stood, seized Jamie’s collar and pulled. Old, and shabbily made to begin with, the shirt tore cleanly down the seams. Taken completely by surprise, Jamie froze. His eyes narrowed, and I saw his jaw set tightly, but he didn’t move as Dougal spread aside the ripped flaps of cloth to display his back to the onlookers.

There was a general gasp at sight of the scarred back, then a buzz of excited indignation. I opened my mouth, then caught the word “Sassenach,” spoken with no kindly intonation, and shut it again.

Jamie, with a face like stone, stood and stepped back from the small crowd clustering around him. He carefully peeled off the remnants of his shirt, wadding the cloth into a ball. An elderly little woman, who reached the level of his elbow, was shaking her head and patting his back gingerly, making what I assumed were comforting remarks in Gaelic. If so, they were clearly not having the hoped-for effect.

He replied tersely to a few questions from the men present. The two or three young girls who had come in to fetch their families’ dinner ale were clustered together against the far wall, whispering intently to each other, with frequent big-eyed glances across the room.

With a look at Dougal that should by rights have turned the older man to stone, Jamie tossed the ruins of his shirt into a corner of the hearth and left the room in three long strides, shaking off the sympathetic murmurs of the crowd.

Deprived of spectacle, their attentions turned back to Dougal. I didn’t understand most of the comment, though the bits I caught seemed to be highly anti-English in nature. I was torn between wanting to follow Jamie outside, and staying inconspicuously where I was. I doubted that he wanted any company, though, so I shrank back into my corner and kept my head down, studying my blurry, pale reflection in the surface of my tankard.

The clink of metal made me look up. One of the men, a sturdy-looking crofter in leather trews, had tossed a few coins on the table in front of Dougal, and seemed to be making a short speech of his own. He stood back, thumbs braced in his belt, as though daring the rest to something. After an uncertain pause, one or two bold souls followed suit, and then a few more, digging copper doits and pence out of purse and sporran. Dougal thanked them heartily, waving a hand at the landlord for another round of ale. I noticed that the lawyer Ned Gowan was tidily stowing the new contributions in a separate pouch from that used for the MacKenzie rents bound for Colum’s coffers, and I realized what the purpose of Dougal’s little performance must be.

Rebellions, like most other business propositions, require capital. The raising and provisioning of an army takes gold, as does the maintenance of its leaders. And from the little I remembered of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender to the throne, part of his support had come from France, but part of the finances behind his unsuccessful rising had come from the shallow, thread-bare pockets of the people he proposed to rule. So Colum, or Dougal, or both, were Jacobites; supporters of the Young Pretender against the lawful occupant of the throne of England, George II.

Finally, the last of the cottars and tenants drifted away to their dinners, and Dougal stood up and stretched, looking moderately satisfied, like a cat that has dined at least on milk, if not cream. He weighed the smaller pouch, and tossed it back to Ned Gowan for safekeeping.

“Aye, well enough,” he remarked. “Canna expect a great deal from such a small place. But manage enough of the same, and it will be a respectable sum.”

“ ‘Respectable’ is not quite the word I’d use,” I said, rising stiffly from my lurking place.

Dougal turned, as though noticing me for the first time.

“No?” he said, mouth curling in amusement. “Why not? Have ye an objection to loyal subjects contributing their mite in support of their sovereign?”

“None,” I said, meeting his stare. “No matter which sovereign it is. It’s your collection methods I don’t care for.”

Dougal studied me carefully, as though my features might tell him something. “No matter which sovereign it is?” he repeated softly. “I thought ye had no Gaelic.”

“I haven’t,” I said shortly. “But I’ve the sense I was born with, and two ears in good working order. And whatever ‘King George’s health’ may be in Gaelic, I doubt very much that it sounds like ‘Bragh Stuart.’ ”

He tossed back his head and laughed. “That it doesna,” he agreed. “I’d tell ye the proper Gaelic for your liege lord and ruler, but it isna a word suitable for the lips of a lady, Sassenach or no.”

Stooping, he plucked the balled-up shirt out of the ashes of the hearth and shook the worst of the soot off it.

“Since ye dinna care for my methods, perhaps ye’d wish to remedy them,” he suggested, thrusting the ruined shirt into my hands. “Get a needle from the lady of the house and mend it.”

“Mend it yourself!” I shoved it back into his arms and turned to leave.

“Suit yourself,” Dougal said pleasantly from behind me. “Jamie can mend his own shirt, then, if you’re not disposed to help.”

I stopped, then turned reluctantly, hand out.

“All right,” I began, but was interrupted by a large hand that snaked over my shoulder and snatched the shirt from Dougal’s grasp. Dividing an opaque glance evenly between us, Jamie tucked the shirt under his arm and left the room as silently as he had entered it.

We found accommodation for the night at a crofter’s cottage. Or I should say I did. The men slept outside, disposed in various haystacks, wagon-beds and patches of bracken. In deference to my sex or my status as semicaptive, I was provided with a pallet on the floor inside, near the hearth.

While my pallet seemed vastly preferable to the single bedstead in which the entire family of six was sleeping, I rather envied the men their open-air sleeping arrangements. The fire was not put out, only damped for the night, and the air in the cottage was stifling with warmth and the scents and sounds of the tossing, turning, groaning, snoring, sweating, farting inhabitants.

After some time, I gave up any thought of sleeping in that smothered atmosphere. I rose and stole quietly outside, taking a blanket with me. The air outside was so fresh by contrast with the congestion in the cottage that I leaned against the stone wall, gulping in enormous lungfuls of the delicious cool stuff.

There was a guard, sitting in quiet watchfulness under a tree by the path, but he merely glanced at me. Apparently deciding that I was not going far in my shift, he went back to whittling at a small object in his hands. The moon was bright, and the blade of the tiny sgian dhu flickered in the leafy shadows.

I walked around the cottage, and a little way up the hill behind it, careful to watch for slumbering forms in the grass. I found a pleasant private spot between two large boulders and made a comfortable nest for myself from heaped grass and the blanket. Stretched at length on the ground, I watched the full moon on its slow voyage across the sky.

Just so had I watched the moon rise from the window of Castle Leoch, on my first night as Colum’s unwilling guest. A month, then, since my calamitous passage through the circle of standing stones. At least I now thought I knew why the stones had been placed there.

Likely of no particular importance in themselves, they were markers. Just as a signpost warns of rockfalls near a cliff-edge, the standing stones were meant to mark a spot of danger. A spot where…what? Where the crust of time was thin? Where a gate of some sort stood ajar? Not that the makers of the circles would have known what it was they were marking. To them, the spot would have been one of terrible mystery and powerful magic; a spot where people disappeared without warning. Or appeared, perhaps, out of thin air.

That was a thought. What would have happened, I wondered, had anyone been present on the hill of Craigh na Dun when I made my abrupt appearance? I supposed it might depend on the time one entered. Here, had a cottar encountered me under such circumstances, I would doubtless have been thought a witch or a fairy. More likely a fairy, popping into existence on that particular hill, with its reputation.

And that might well be where its reputation came from, I thought. If people through the years had suddenly disappeared, or just as suddenly appeared from nowhere at a certain spot, it might with good reason acquire a name for enchantment.

I poked a foot out from under the blanket and waggled my long toes in the moonlight. Most unfairylike, I decided critically. At five foot six, I was quite a tall woman for these times; as tall as many men. Since I could hardly pass as one of the Wee Folk, then, I would likely have been thought a witch or an evil spirit of some kind. From the little I knew of current methods for dealing with such manifestations, I could only be grateful that no one, in fact, had seen me appear.

I wondered idly what would happen if it worked the other way. What if someone disappeared from this time, and popped up in my own? That, after all, was precisely what I was intending to do, if there were any possible way of managing it. How would a modern-day Scot, like Mrs. Buchanan, the postmistress, react if someone like Murtagh, for instance, were suddenly to spring from the earth beneath her feet?

The most likely reaction, I thought, would be to run, to summon the police, or perhaps to do nothing at all, beyond telling one’s friends and neighbors about the most extraordinary thing that happened the other day.…

As for the visitor? Well, he might manage to fit into the new time without arousing excessive attention, if he was cautious and lucky. After all, I was managing to pass with some success as a normal resident of this time and place, though my appearance and language had certainly aroused plenty of suspicion.

What if a displaced person were too different, though, or went about loudly proclaiming what had happened to him? If the exit were in primitive times, likely a conspicuous stranger would simply have been killed on the spot without further inquiry. And in more enlightened times, they would most likely be considered mad and tidied away into an institution somewhere, if they didn’t quiet down.

This sort of thing could have been going on as long the earth itself, I reflected. Even when it happened in front of witnesses, there would be no clues at all; nothing to tell what had happened, because the only person who knew would be gone. And as for the disappeared, they’d likely keep their mouths shut at the other end.

Deep in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed the faint murmur of voices or the stirrings of footsteps through the grass, and I was quite startled to hear a voice speak only a few yards away.

“Devil take ye, Dougal MacKenzie,” it said. “Kinsman or no, I dinna owe ye that.” The voice was pitched low, but tight with anger.

“Do ye no?” said another voice, faintly amused. “I seem to recall a certain oath, giving your obedience. ‘So long as my feet rest on the lands of clan MacKenzie,’ I believe was the way of it.” There was a soft thud, as of a foot stamping packed earth. “And MacKenzie land it is, laddie.”

“I gave my word to Colum, not to you.” So it was young Jamie MacTavish, and precisely three guesses as to what he was upset about.

“One and the same, man, and ye ken it well.” There was the sound of a light slap, as of a hand against a cheek. “Your obedience is to the chieftain of the clan, and outside of Leoch, I am Colum’s head and arms and hands as well as his legs.”

“And never saw I a better case of the right hand not knowin’ what the left is up to,” came the quick rejoinder. Despite the bitterness of the tone, there was a lurking wit that enjoyed this clash of wills. “What d’ye think the right is going to say about the left collecting gold for the Stuarts?”

There was a brief pause before Dougal replied, “MacKenzies and MacBeolains and MacVinichs; they’re free men all. None can force them to give against their will, and none can stop them, either. And who knows? It may happen that Colum will give more for Prince Charles Edward than all o’ them put together, in the end.”

“It may,” the deeper voice agreed. “It may rain straight up tomorrow instead of down, as well. That doesna mean I’ll stand waiting at the stairhead wi’ my wee bucket turned upside down.”

“No? You’ve more to gain from a Stuart throne than I have, laddie. And naught from the English, save a noose. If ye dinna care for your own silly neck—”

“My neck is my own concern,” Jamie interrupted savagely. “And so is my back.”

“Not while ye travel with me, sweet lad,” said his uncle’s mocking voice. “If ye wish to hear what Horrocks may tell ye, you’ll do as you’re told, yourself. And wise to do it, at that; a fine hand ye may be wi’ a needle, but you’ve no but the one clean shirt.”

There was a shifting, as of someone rising from his seat on a rock, and the soft passage of footsteps through the grass. Only one set of footsteps, though, I thought. I sat up as quietly as I could, and peered cautiously around the edge of one of the boulders that hid me.

Jamie was still there, sitting hunched on a rock a few feet away, elbows braced on his knees, chin sunk on his locked hands. His back was mostly to me. I started to ease backward, not wishing to intrude on his solitude, when he suddenly spoke.

“I know you’re there,” he said. “Come out, if ye like.” From his tone, it was a matter of complete indifference to him. I rose and started to come out, when I realized I had been lying in my shift. Reflecting that he had enough to worry about without needing to blush for me as well, I tactfully wrapped myself in the blanket before emerging.

Loading...