Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 48

   

“I don’t suppose,” I asked hopefully, “that you could tell Alec you’re sick, and come back to bed?”

He laughed and bent to kiss me before groping under the bed for his stockings. “Would that I could, Sassenach. I doubt much short of pox, plague, or grievous bodily harm would answer as an excuse, though. If I weren’t bleeding, old Alec would be up here in a trice, dragging me off my deathbed to help wi’ the worming.”

I eyed his graceful long calves as he pulled a stocking up neatly and folded the top. “ ‘Grievous bodily harm,’ eh? I might manage something along those lines,” I said darkly.

He grunted as he reached across for the other stocking. “Well, watch where ye toss your elf-darts, Sassenach.” He tried a lewd wink, but wound up squinting at me instead. “Aim too high, and I’ll be no good to you, either.”

I arched one eyebrow and snuggled back under the quilts. “Not to worry. Nothing above the knee, I promise.”

He patted one of my rounder bulges and left for the stables, singing rather loudly the air from “Up Among the Heather.” The refrain floated back from the stairwell:

“Sittin’ wi’ a wee girl, holdin’ on my knee—

When a bumblebee stung me, weel above the kneeeee—

Up among the heather, at the head o’ Bendikee!”

He was right, I decided; he didn’t have any ear for music.

I relapsed temporarily into a state of satisfied somnolence, but roused myself shortly to go down for breakfast. Most of the castle inhabitants had eaten and gone to their work already; those still in the hall greeted me pleasantly enough. There were no sidelong looks, no expressions of veiled hostility, of someone wondering how well their nasty little trick had worked. But I watched the faces, nonetheless.

The morning was spent alone in the garden and fields with my basket and digging stick. I was running short of some of the most popular herbs. Generally the village people went to Geillis Duncan for help, but there had been several patients from the village turning up of late in my dispensary, and the traffic in nostrums had been heavy. Maybe her husband’s illness was keeping her too busy to care for her regular customers.

I spent the latter part of the afternoon in my dispensary. There were few patients to be seen; only a case of persistent eczema, a dislocated thumb, and a kitchen boy who had spilled a pot of hot soup down one leg. Having dispensed ointment of yawroot and blue flag and reset and bound the thumb, I settled down to the task of pounding some very aptly named stoneroot in one of the late Beaton’s smaller mortars.

It was tedious work, but well suited to this sort of lazy afternoon. The weather was fair, and I could see blue shadows lengthening under the elms to the west when I stood on my table to peer out.

Inside, the glass bottles gleamed in orderly ranks, neat stacks of bandages and compresses in the cupboards next to them. The apothecary’s cabinet had been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and now held stores of dried leaves, roots, and fungi, neatly packed in cotton-gauze bags. I took a deep breath of the sharp, spicy odors of my sanctum and let it out in a sigh of contentment.

Then I stopped pounding and set the pestle down. I was contented, I realized with a shock. Despite the myriad uncertainties of life here, despite the unpleasantness of the ill-wish, despite the small, constant ache of missing Frank, I was in fact not unhappy. Quite the contrary.

I felt immediately ashamed and disloyal. How could I bring myself to be happy, when Frank must be demented with worry? Assuming that time was in fact continuing without me—and I couldn’t see why it wouldn’t—I must have gone missing for upwards of four months. I imagined him searching the Scottish countryside, calling the police, waiting for some sign, some word of me. By now, he must nearly have given up hope and be waiting, instead, for word that my body had been found.

I set down the mortar and paced up and down the length of my narrow room, rubbing my hands on my apron in a spasm of guilty sorrow and regret. I should have got away sooner. I should have tried harder to return. But I had, I reminded myself. I had tried repeatedly. And look what had happened.

Yes, look. I was married to a Scottish outlaw, the both of us hunted by a sadistic captain of dragoons, and living with a lot of barbarians, who would as soon kill Jamie as look at him, if they thought him a threat to their precious clan succession. And the worst of it all was that I was happy.

I sat down, staring helplessly at the array of jars and bottles. I had been living day to day since our return to Leoch, deliberately suppressing the memories of my earlier life. Deep down, I knew that I must soon make some kind of decision, but I had delayed, putting off the necessity from day to day and hour to hour, burying my uncertainties in the pleasures of Jamie’s company—and his arms.

There was a sudden bumping and cursing out in the corridor, and I rose hastily and went to the door, just in time to see Jamie himself stumble in, supported by the bowed form of Old Alec McMahon on one side, and the earnest but spindly efforts of one of the stable lads on the other. He sank onto my stool, left foot outstretched, and grimaced unpleasantly at it. The grimace seemed to be more of annoyance than pain, so I knelt to examine the offending appendage with relatively little concern.

“Mild strain,” I said, after a cursory inspection. “What did you do?”

“Fell off,” Jamie said succinctly.

“Off the fence?” I asked, teasing. He glowered.

“No. Off Donas.”

“You were riding that thing?” I asked incredulously. “In that case, you’re lucky to get off with a strained ankle.” I fetched a length of bandage and began to wrap the joint.

“Weel, it wasna sae bad as a’ that,” said Old Alec judiciously. “In fact, lad, ye were doin’ quiet weel wi’ him for a bit.”

“I know I was,” snapped Jamie, gritting his teeth as I pulled the bandage tight. “A bee stung him.”

The bushy brows lifted. “Oh, that was it? Beast acted like he’d been struck wi’ an elf-dart,” he confided to me. “Went straight up in the air on all fours, and came down again, then went stark, staring mad—all over the pen like a bumble-bee in a jar. Yon wee laddie stuck on too,” he said, nodding at Jamie, who invented a new unpleasant expression in response, “until the big yellow fiend went ower the fence.”

“Over the fence? Where is he now?” I asked, standing up and dusting my hands.

“Halfway back to hell, I expect,” said Jamie, putting his foot down and trying his weight gingerly on it. “And welcome to stay there.” Wincing, he sat back.

“I doubt the de’ils got much use for a half-broke stallion,” observed Alec. “Bein’ able to turn himself into a horse when needed.”

“Perhaps that’s who Donas really is,” I suggested, amused.

“I wouldna doubt it,” said Jamie, still smarting, but beginning to recover his usual good humor. “The de’il’s customarily a black stallion, though, is he no?”

“Oh, aye,” said Alec. “A great black stallion, that travels as fast as the thought between a man and a maid.”

He grinned genially at Jamie and rose to go.

“And speakin’ of that,” he said, with a wink at me, “I’ll no expect ye in the stables tomorrow. Keep to your bed, laddie, and, er…rest.”

“Why is it,” I demanded, looking after the crusty old horsemaster, “that everyone seems to assume we’ve no more on our minds than to get into bed with each other?”

Jamie tried his weight on the foot again, bracing himself on the counter.

“For one thing, we’ve been married less than a month,” he observed. “For another—” He looked up and grinned, shaking his head. “I’ve told ye before, Sassenach. Everything ye think shows on your face.”

“Bloody hell,” I said.

Aside from a quick trip to the dispensary to check for emergencies, I spent the next morning ministering to the rather demanding needs of my solitary patient.

“You are supposed to be resting,” I said reprovingly, at one point.

“I am. Well, my ankle is resting, at least. See?”

A long, unstockinged shin thrust up into the air, and a bony, slender foot waggled back and forth. It stopped abruptly in mid-waggle with a muffled “ouch” from its owner. He lowered it and tenderly massaged the still-puffy ankle.

“That’ll teach you,” I said, swinging my own legs out from under the blankets. “Come along now. You’ve been frowsting in bed quite long enough. You need fresh air.”

He sat up, hair falling over his face.

“I thought ye said it was rest I needed.”

“You can rest in the fresh air. Get up. I’m making up the bed.”

Amid complaints about my general unfeelingness and lack of consideration for a gravely injured man, he got dressed and sat long enough for me to bind up the weak ankle before his natural exuberance asserted itself.

“It’s a bit saft out,” he said, with a glance through the casement, where the mild drizzle had just decided to buckle down to it and become a major downpour. “Let’s go up to the roof.”

“The roof? Oh, to be sure. I couldn’t think of a better prescription for a strained ankle than climbing six flights of stairs.”

“Five. Besides, I’ve a stick.” He produced the stick in question, an aged hawthorn club, from behind the door with a triumphant flourish.

“Wherever did you get that?” I inquired, examining it. At closer range, it was even more battered, a three-foot length of chipped hardwood, age-hardened as a diamond.

“Alec lent it me. He uses it on the mules; raps them twixt the eyes wi’ it to make them pay attention.”

“Sounds very effective,” I said, eyeing the scuffed wood. “I must try it sometime. On you.”

We emerged at last in a small sheltered spot, just under the overhang of the slate roof. A low parapet guarded the edge of this small lookout.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Despite the gusty rain, the view from the roof was magnificent; we could see the broad silver sweep of the loch and the towering crags beyond, thrusting into the solid grey of the sky like ridged black fists.

Jamie leaned on the parapet, taking the weight from his injured foot.

“Aye, it is. I used to come up here sometimes, when I was at the Castle before.”

He pointed across the loch, dimpling under the beat of the rain.

“D’ye see the notch there, between those two craigs?”

“In the mountains? Yes.”

“That’s the way to Lallybroch. When I’d feel lonely for my home, sometimes I’d come up here and look that way. I’d imagine flying like a corbie across that pass, and the look of the hills and the fields, falling down the other side of the mountain, and the manor house at the end of the valley.”

I touched him gently on the arm.

“Do you want to go back, Jamie?”

He turned his head and smiled down at me.

“Well, I’ve been thinking of it. I don’t know if I want to, precisely, but I think we must. I canna say what we’ll find there, Sassenach. But…aye. I’m wed now. You’re lady of Broch Tuarach. Outlaw or no, I need to go back, even if just long enough to set things straight.”

I felt a thrill, compounded of relief and apprehension, at the thought of leaving Leoch and its assorted intrigues.

“When will we go?”

He frowned, drumming his fingers on the parapet. The stone was dark and slick with rain.

“Well, I think we must wait for the Duke to come. It’s possible that he might see his way to doing Colum a favor by taking up my case. If he cannot get me cleared, he might be able to arrange a pardon. There’d be a good deal less danger in going back to Lallybroch, then, ye see.”

“Well, yes, but…” He glanced sharply at me as I hesitated.

“What is it, Sassenach?”

I took a deep breath. “Jamie…if I tell you something will you promise not to ask me how I know?”

He took me by both arms, looking down into my face. The rain misted his hair and small droplets ran down the sides of his face. He smiled at me.

“I told you that I wouldna ask for anything that ye dinna wish to tell me. Yes, I promise.”

“Let’s sit down. You shouldn’t be standing on that foot so long.”

We made our way to the wall where the overhanging slates of the roof sheltered a small dry patch of pavement, and settled ourselves comfortably, backs against the wall.

“All right, Sassenach. What is it?” Jamie asked.

“The Duke of Sandringham,” I said. I bit my lip. “Jamie, don’t trust him. I don’t know everything about him myself, but I do know—there’s something about him. Something wrong.”

“You know about that?” He looked surprised.

Now it was my turn to stare.

“You mean you know about him already? Have you met him?” I was relieved. Perhaps the mysterious links between Sandringham and the Jacobite cause were much better known than Frank and the vicar had thought.

“Oh, aye. He was here, visiting, when I was sixteen. When I…left.”

“Why did you leave?” I was curious, remembering suddenly what Geillis Duncan had said when first I’d met her in the wood. The odd rumor that Jamie was the real father of Colum’s son Hamish. I knew myself that he wasn’t, couldn’t have been—but I was quite possibly the only person in the Castle who did know. A suspicion of that sort could easily have led to Dougal’s earlier attempt on Jamie’s life—if in fact that’s what the attack at Carryarick had been.

“It wasn’t because of…the lady Letitia, was it?” I asked with some hesitation.

“Letitia?” His startled astonishment was plain, and something inside me that I hadn’t known was clenched suddenly relaxed. I hadn’t really thought there was anything to Geilie’s supposition, but still.…

“What on earth makes ye mention Letitia?” Jamie asked curiously. “I lived at the Castle for a year, and had speech of her maybe once that I remember, when she called me to her chamber and gave me the raw side of her tongue for leading a game of shinty through her rose garden.”

I told him what Geilie had said, and he laughed, breath misting in the cool, rainy air.

“God,” he said, “as though I’d have the nerve!”

“You don’t think Colum suspected any such thing, do you?” I asked.

He shook his head decidedly.

“No, I don’t, Sassenach. If he had any inkling of such a thing, I wouldna have lived to be seventeen, let alone achieve the ripe old age of three-and-twenty.”

This more or less confirmed my own impression of Colum, but I was relieved, nonetheless. Jamie’s expression had grown thoughtful, blue eyes suddenly remote.

“Come to think on it, though, I don’t know that Colum does know why I left the Castle so sudden, then. And if Geillis Duncan is goin’ about the place spreading such rumors—that woman’s a troublemaker, Sassenach; a gossip and a scold, if not the witch folk say she is—well, I’d best see that he finds out, then.”

He glanced up at the sheet of water pouring from the eaves.

“Perhaps we’d best go down, Sassenach. It’s getting a wee bit damp out.”

We took a different way down, crossing the roof to an outer stairway that led down to the kitchen gardens, where I wanted to pull a bit of borage, if the downpour would let me. We sheltered under the wall of the Castle, one of the jutting window ledges diverting the rain above.

“What do ye do wi’ borage, Sassenach?” Jamie asked with interest, looking out at the straggly vines and plants, beaten to the earth by the rain.

“When it’s green, nothing. First you dry it, and then—”

I was interrupted by a terrific noise of barking and shouting, coming from outside the garden wall. I raced through the downpour toward the wall, followed more slowly by Jamie, limping.

Father Bain, the village priest, was running up the path, puddles exploding under his feet, pursued by a yelping pack of dogs. Hampered by his voluminous soutane, the priest tripped and fell, water and mud flying in spatters all around him. In a moment, the dogs were upon him, growling and snapping.

A blur of plaid vaulted over the wall next to me, and Jamie was among them, laying about with his stick and shouting in Gaelic, adding his voice to the general racket. If the shouts and curses had little effect, the stick had more. There were sharp yelps as the club struck hairy flesh, and gradually the pack retreated, finally turning and galloping off in the direction of the village.

Jamie wiped the hair out of his eyes, panting.

“Bad as wolves,” he said. “I’d told Colum about that pack already; they’re the ones that chased Cobhar into the loch two days ago. Best he has them shot before they kill someone.” He looked down at me as I knelt next to the fallen priest, inspecting. The rain dripped from the ends of my hair, and I could feel my shawl growing sodden.

“They haven’t yet,” I said. “Bar a few toothmarks, he’s basically all right.”

Father Bain’s soutane was ripped down one side, showing an expanse of hairless white thigh with an ugly gash and several puncture marks beginning to ooze blood. The priest, pasty-white with shock, was struggling to his feet; plainly he wasn’t too badly injured.

“If you’ll come to the surgery with me, Father, I’ll cleanse those cuts for you,” I offered, suppressing a smile at the spectacle the fat little priest presented, soutane flapping and argyle socks revealed.

At the best of times, Father Bain’s face resembled a clenched fist. This similarity was made more pronounced at the moment by the red mottling that streaked his jowls and emphasized the vertical creases between cheeks and mouth. He glared at me as though I had suggested that he commit some public indecency.

Apparently I had, for his next words were “What, a man o’ God to expose his pairsonal parts to the handling of a wumman? Weel, I’ll tell ye, madam, I’ve no notion what sorts of immorality are practiced in the circles you’re accustomed to move in, but I’ll have ye to ken that such’ll no be tolerated here—not sae long as I’ve the cure of the souls in this parish!” With that, he turned and stumped off, limping rather badly and trying unsuccessfully to hold up the torn side of his robe.

“Suit yourself,” I called after him. “If you don’t let me cleanse it, it will fester!”

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