Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 24

   

It occurred to me, listening to the chorus, that men in a hospital ward seldom really snore. Breathe heavily, yes. They gasp, groan occasionally, and sometimes sob or cry out in sleep. But there was no comparison to this healthy racket. Perhaps it was that sick or injured men could not sleep deeply enough to relax into that sort of din.

If my observations were sound, then my companions were plainly in the most robust health. They certainly looked it, limbs casually asprawl, faces slack and glowing in the firelight. The complete abandon of their sleep on hard boards was the satisfying of an appetite as hearty as the one they had brought to dinner. Obscurely comforted by the cacophony, I had pulled my traveling cloak around my shoulders and went to sleep myself.

By comparison, I found myself now rather lonely here in the solitary splendor of my tiny, smelly attic. Despite having removed the bedclothes and beaten the mattress to discourage unwelcome co-habitants, I had some difficulty in sleeping, so silent and dark did the chamber seem after I had blown out the candle.

There were a few faint echoes from the common room two floors below, and a brief flurry of noise and movement, but this served only to emphasize my own isolation. It was the first time I had been left so completely alone since my arrival at the castle, and I was not at all sure I liked it.

I was hovering uneasily on the verge of sleep, when my ears picked up an ominous creaking of floorboards in the hall outside. The step was slow and halting, as though the intruder hesitated in his path, picking the soundest-appearing of the boards for each next step. I sat bolt upright, groping for the candle and flint box by the bed.

My hand, blindly searching, struck the flint box and knocked it to the floor with a soft thump. I froze, and the steps outside did likewise.

There was a soft scratching at the door, as of someone groping for the latch. I knew the door was unbolted; though it was fitted with brackets for a bolt, I had searched unavailingly for the bolt itself before retiring. I grabbed the candlestick, yanked the stub of the candle out, and slid out of bed as quietly as I could, clutching the heavy pottery.

The door squeaked slightly on its hinges as it gave. The room’s only window was tightly shuttered against both elements and light; nonetheless I could just make out the dim outline of the door as it opened. The outline grew, then to my surprise, it shrank and disappeared as the door shut again. Everything was quiet once more.

I stayed pressed against the wall for what seemed like ages, holding my breath and trying to hear through the noise of my pounding heart. At last I inched toward the door, edging carefully around the room next to the wall, thinking the floorboards must surely be more solid here. I eased my foot down at each step, gradually trusting my weight to it, then pausing and groping with bare toes for the seam between two boards, before setting the other foot as solidly as I could judge.

Once the door was reached, I paused, ear pressed to the thin panels, hands braced on the frame, on guard against a sudden bursting inward. I thought perhaps I heard slight sounds, but wasn’t sure. Was it only the sounds of the activity down below, or was it the stifled breathing of someone on the other side of the panel?

The constant flow of adrenaline was making me slightly sick. Tiring at last of this nonsense, I took a firm grip of my candlestick, yanked open the door, and rushed into the hallway.

I say “rushed”; in actuality, I took two steps, trod heavily on something soft, and fell headlong into the passageway, skinning my knuckles and banging my head quite painfully on something solid.

I sat up, clutching my brow with both hands, completely uncaring that I might be assassinated at any moment.

The person I had stepped on was swearing in a rather breathless manner. Through the haze of pain, I was dimly aware that he (I assumed from the size and the smell of sweat that my visitor was male) had risen and was groping for the fastening of the shutters in the wall above us.

A sudden inrush of fresh air made me wince and shut my eyes. When I opened them, there was enough light from the night sky for me to see the intruder.

“What are you doing here?” I asked accusingly.

At the same time Jamie asked, in a similarly accusatory tone, “How much do ye weigh, Sassenach?”

Still a bit addled, I actually replied “Nine stone,” before thinking to ask “Why?”

“Ye nearly crushed my liver,” he answered, gingerly prodding the affected area. “Not to mention scaring living hell out of me.” He reached a hand down and hauled me to my feet. “Are ye all right?”

“No, I bumped my head.” Rubbing the spot, I looked dazedly around the bare hallway. “What did I bang it on?” I demanded ungrammatically.

“My head,” he said, rather grumpily, I thought.

“Serves you right,” I said nastily. “What were you doing, sneaking about outside my door?”

He gave me a testy look.

“I wasna ‘sneaking about,’ for God’s sake. I was sleeping—or trying to.” He rubbed what appeared to be a knot forming on his temple.

“Sleeping? Here?” I looked up and down the cold, bare, filthy hallway with exaggerated amazement. “You do pick the oddest places; first stables, now this.”

“It may interest ye to know that there’s a small party of English dragoons stopped in to the taproom below,” he informed me coldly. “They’re a bit gone in drink, and disporting themselves a bit reckless with two women from the town. Since there’s but the two lasses, and five men, some of the soldiers seemed a bit inclined to venture upward in search of…ah, partners. I didna think you’d care overmuch for such attentions.” He flipped his plaid back over his shoulder and turned in the direction of the stairway. “If I was mistaken in that impression, then I apologize. I’d no intention of disturbin’ your rest. Good e’en to ye.”

“Wait a minute.” He stopped, but did not turn back, forcing me to walk around him. He looked down at me, polite but distant.

“Thank you,” I said. “It was very kind of you. I’m sorry I stepped on you.”

He smiled then, his face changing from a forbidding mask to its usual expression of good humor.

“No harm done, Sassenach,” he said. “As soon as the headache goes away and the cracked rib heals, I’ll be good as new.”

He turned back and pushed open the door of my room, which had swung shut in the wake of my hasty exit, owing to the fact that the builder had apparently constructed the inn without benefit of a plumb line. There wasn’t a right angle in the place.

“Go back to bed, then,” he suggested. “I’ll be here.”

I looked at the floor. Besides its essential hardness and coldness, the oaken boards were blotched with expectorations, spills, and forms of filth I didn’t wish even to contemplate. The builder’s mark in the door lintel had said 1732, and that was plainly the last time the boards had been cleaned.

“You can’t sleep out here,” I said. “Come in; at least the floor in the room isn’t quite this bad.”

Jamie froze, hand on the doorframe.

“Sleep in your room with ye?” He sounded truly shocked. “I couldna do that! Your reputation would be ruined!”

He really meant it. I started to laugh, but converted it into a tactful coughing fit. Given the exigencies of road travel, the crowded state of the inns, and the crudity or complete lack of sanitary facilities, I was on terms of such physical intimacy with these men, Jamie included, that I found the idea of such prudery hilarious.

“You’ve slept in the same room with me before,” I pointed out, when I had recovered a bit. “You and twenty other men.”

He sputtered a bit. “That isna at all the same thing! I mean, it was a quite public room, and…” He paused as an awful thought struck him. “You didna think I meant that you were suggesting anything improper?” he asked anxiously. “I assure ye, I—”

“No, no. Not at all.” I made haste to reassure him that I had taken no offense.

Seeing that he could not be persuaded, I insisted that at the least he must take the blankets from my bed to lie upon. He agreed to this reluctantly, and only upon my repeated assurances that I would not use them myself in any case, but intended to sleep as usual in the cover of my thick traveling cloak.

I tried to thank him again, as I paused by the makeshift pallet before returning to my fetid sanctuary, but he waved away my appreciation with a gracious hand.

“It isna entirely disintested kindness on my part, ye ken,” he observed. “I’d as soon avoid notice myself.”

I had forgotten that he had his own reasons for keeping away from English soldiery. It did not escape me, however, that this could have been much better accomplished, not to say more comfortably, by his sleeping in the warm and airy stables, rather than on the floor before my door.

“But if anyone does come up here,” I protested, “they’ll find you then.”

He reached a long arm out to grasp the swinging shutter and pulled it to. The hall was plunged in blackness, and Jamie appeared as no more than a shapeless bulk.

“They canna see my face,” he pointed out. “And in the condition they’re in, my name would be of no interest to them, either, even were I to give them the right one, which I dinna mean to do.”

“That’s true,” I said, doubtfully. “Won’t they wonder, though, what you’re doing up here in the dark?” I could see nothing of his face, but the tone of his voice told me he was smiling.

“Not at all, Sassenach. They’ll just think I’m waiting my turn.”

I laughed and went in then. I curled myself on the bed and went to sleep, marveling at the mind that could make such ribald jokes even as it recoiled at the thought of sleeping in the same room with me.

When I awoke, Jamie was gone. Going down to breakfast, I met Dougal at the foot of the stairs, waiting for me.

“Eat up quickly, lass,” he said. “You and I are riding to Brockton.”

He declined to tell me anything further, but he seemed a bit uneasy, I thought. I ate quickly, and we soon found ourselves trotting through the misty early morning. Birds were busy in the shrubbery, and the air gave promise of a warm summer day to come.

“Who are we going to see?” I asked. “You may as well tell me, since if I don’t know, I’ll be surprised, and if I do, I’m intelligent enough to act surprised, anyway.”

Dougal cocked an eye at me, considering, but decided that my argument was sound.

“The garrison commander from Fort William,” he said.

I felt a minor shock. I wasn’t quite ready for this. I had thought we had three days yet until we reached the Fort.

“But we’re nowhere near Fort William!” I exclaimed.

“Mmphm.”

Apparently this garrison commander was an energetic sort. Not content to stay at home minding his garrison, he was out inspecting the countryside with a party of dragoons. The soldiers who had come to our inn the night before were part of this group, and had told Dougal that the commander was presently in residence at the inn at Brockton.

This presented a problem, and I was silent for the rest of the ride, contemplating it. I had counted on being able to extract myself from Dougal’s company at Fort William, which I thought to be within a day’s travel of the hill of Craigh na Dun. Even unprepared for camping, and lacking food or other resources, I thought I could cover that much ground alone, and find my way to the stone circle. As to what would happen then—well, there was no way to tell except by going there.

But this development threw an unexpected spanner into my plans. If I parted company with Dougal here, as I well might, I would be four days’ ride from the hill, not one. And I did not have sufficient faith in my sense of direction, let alone my endurance, to risk it alone on foot among the wild crags and moors. The last weeks of rugged travel had given me a wary respect for the jagged rocks and crashing burns of the Highlands, let alone the occasional wild beast. I had no particular desire to meet a boar, for example, face-to-face in some deserted glen.

We reached Brockton at mid-morning. The mist had burned away, and the day was sunny enough to give me a sense of optimism. Perhaps it would be a simple matter, after all, to persuade the garrison commander to provide me with a small escort who could see me to the hill.

I could see why the commander had chosen Brockton as his temporary headquarters. The village was large enough to boast two taverns, one of them an imposing three-story edifice with attached stable. Here we stopped, turning our horses over to the attention of a hostler, who moved so slowly as to seem ossified. He had barely succeeded in reaching the stable door by the time we were inside and Dougal was ordering refreshment from the innkeeper.

I was left below, contemplating a plate of rather stale-looking oatcakes, while Dougal mounted the stair to the commander’s sanctum. It felt a bit strange to see him go. There were three or four English soldiers in the taproom, who eyed me speculatively, chatting to each other in low voices. After a month among the Scots of clan MacKenzie, the presence of English dragoons made me unaccountably nervous. I told myself I was being silly. After all, they were my own countrymen, out of time or not.

Still, I found myself missing the congenial company of Mr. Gowan and the pleasant familiarity of Jamie whatever-his-name-was. I was feeling rather sorry that I had had no chance to bid farewell to anyone before leaving that morning, when I heard Dougal’s voice calling from the stair behind me. He was standing at the top, beckoning me upward.

He looked somewhat more grim than usual, I thought, as he stood aside without speaking and gestured me into the room. The garrison commander stood by the open window, his slim, straight figure silhouetted by the light. He gave a short laugh when he saw me.

“Yes, I thought so. It had to be you, from MacKenzie’s description.” The door closed behind me, and I was alone with Captain Jonathan Randall of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons.

He was dressed this time in a clean red-and-fawn uniform, with a lace-trimmed stock and a neatly curled and powdered wig. But the face was the same—Frank’s face. My breath caught in my throat. This time, though, I noticed the small lines of ruthlessness around his mouth, and the touch of arrogance in the set of his shoulders. Still, he smiled affably enough, and invited me to sit down.

The room was plainly furnished, with no more than a desk and chair, a long deal table, and a few stools. Captain Randall motioned to a young corporal who stood to attention near the door, and a mug of ale was clumsily poured and set before me.

The Captain waved the corporal back and poured his own ale, then sank gracefully onto a stool across the table from me.

“All right,” he said pleasantly. “Why don’t you tell me who you are, and how you come to find yourself here?”

Having little choice at this point, I told him the same story I had given Colum, omitting only the less tactful references to his own behavior, which he knew about in any case. I had no idea how much Dougal had told him, and didn’t wish to risk being tripped up.

The captain appeared polite but skeptical throughout my recital. He took less trouble to hide it than Colum had, I reflected. He rocked back on his stool, considering.

“Oxfordshire, you say? There are no Beauchamps in Oxfordshire that I know of.”

“How would you know?” I snapped. “You’re from Sussex yourself.”

His eyes popped open in surprise. I could have bitten my tongue.

“And may I ask just how you know that?” he asked.

“Er, your voice. Yes, it’s your accent,” I said hastily. “Clearly Sussex.”

The graceful dark brows nearly touched the curls of his wig.

“Neither my tutors nor my parents would be much obliged to hear that my speech so clearly reflects my birthplace, Madam,” he said dryly. “They having gone to considerable trouble and expense to remedy it. But, being the expert at local speech patterns that you are”—he turned to the man standing against the wall—“no doubt you can also identify my corporal’s place of origin. Corporal Hawkins, would you oblige me by reciting something? Anything at all will do,” he added, seeing the confusion on the man’s face. “Some popular verse, perhaps?”

The corporal, a young man with a stupid, beefy face and broad shoulders, glanced wildly about the room seeking inspiration, then drew himself up to attention and intoned,

Buxom Meg, she washed my clothes,

And took them all away.

I waited thus in sore distress,

And then I made her pay.

“Er, that will do, Corporal, thank you.” Randall made a dismissive motion, and the corporal subsided against the wall, sweating freely.

“Well?” Randall turned to me, questioning.

“Er, Cheshire,” I guessed.

“Close. Lancashire.” He eyed me narrowly. Putting his hands together behind his back, he strolled over to the window and peered out. Checking to see whether Dougal had brought any men with him? I wondered.

Suddenly he whirled back to me with an abrupt “Parlez-vous français?”

“Très bien,” I promptly replied. “What of it?”

Head to one side, he looked me over carefully.

“Damme if I think you’re French,” he said, as though to himself. “Could be, I suppose, but I’ve yet to meet a Frenchie could tell a Cockney from a Cornishman.”

His neatly manicured fingers tapped the wood of the tabletop. “What was your maiden name, Mrs. Beauchamp?”

“Look, Captain,” I said, smiling as charmingly as I could, “entertaining as it is to play Twenty Questions with you, I should really like to conclude these preliminaries and arrange for the continuation of my journey. I’ve already been delayed for some time, and—”

“You do not help your case by adopting this frivolous attitude, Madam,” he interrupted, narrowing his eyes. I had seen Frank do that when displeased about something, and I felt a little weak in the knees. I put my hands on my thighs to brace myself.

“I have no case to help,” I said, as boldly as I could. “I’m making no claims on you, the garrison, or for that matter, on the MacKenzies. All I want is to be allowed to resume my journey in peace. And I see no reason why you ought to have any objection to that.”

He glared at me, lips pressed tight together in irritation.

“Oh, you don’t? Well, consider my position for a moment, Madam, and perhaps my objections will become clearer. A month ago I was, with my men, in hot pursuit of a band of unidentified Scottish bandits who had absconded with a small herd of cattle from an estate near the border, when—”

Loading...