Outlander, p.14
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       Outlander, p.14
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  “If you were so anxious to get rid of it, why didn’t you let me take it off for you yesterday afternoon?” His behavior at the paddock had puzzled me then, and did so still more, now that I could see the patches of reddened skin where the rough edges of the linen bandages had rubbed him nearly raw. I lifted the dressing cautiously, but all was well beneath.

  He glanced sidelong at me, then looked down a bit sheepishly. “Well, it’s—ah, it’s only that I didna want to take my shirt off before Alec.”

  “Modest, are you?” I asked dryly, making him raise his arm to test the extension of the joint. He winced slightly at the movement, but smiled at the remark.

  “If I were, I should hardly be sittin’ half-naked in your chamber, should I? No, it’s the marks on my back.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he went on to explain. “Alec knows who I am—I mean, he’s heard I was flogged, but he’s not seen it. And to know something like that is no the same as seein’ it wi’ your own eyes.” He felt the sore shoulder tentatively, eyes turned away. He frowned at the floor. “It’s—maybe you’ll not know what I mean. But when you know a man’s suffered some harm, it’s only one of the things you know about him, and it doesna make much difference to how ye see him. Alec knows I’ve been flogged, like he knows I’ve red hair, and it doesna matter to how he treats me.” He looked up then, searching for some sign of understanding from me.

  “But when you see it yourself, it’s like”—he hesitated, looking for words—“it’s a bit…personal, maybe, is what I mean. I think…if he were to see the scars, he couldna see me anymore without thinking of my back. And I’d be able to see him thinking of it, and that would make me remember it, and—” He broke off, shrugging.

  “Well. That’s a poor job of explaining, no? I daresay I’m too tender-minded about it, in any case. After all, I canna see it for myself; perhaps it’s not as bad as I think.” I had seen wounded men making their way on crutches down the street, and the people passing them with averted eyes, and I thought it was not at all a bad job of explanation.

  “You don’t mind my seeing your back?”

  “No, I don’t.” He sounded mildly surprised, and paused a moment to think about it. “I suppose…it’s that ye seem to have a knack for letting me know you’re sorry for it, without makin’ me feel pitiful about it.”

  He sat patiently, not moving as I circled behind him and inspected his back. I didn’t know how bad he thought it was, but it was bad enough. Even by candlelight and having seen it once before, I was appalled. Before, I had seen only the one shoulder. The scars covered his entire back from shoulders to waist. While many had faded to little more than thin white lines, the worst formed thick silver wedges, cutting across the smooth muscles. I thought with some regret that it must have been quite a beautiful back at one time. His skin was fair and fresh, and the lines of bone and muscle were still solid and graceful, the shoulders flat and square-set and the backbone a smooth, straight groove cut deep between the rounded columns of muscle that rose on either side of it.

  Jamie was right too. Looking at this wanton damage, I could not avoid a mental picture of the process that had caused it. I tried not to imagine the muscular arms raised, spread-eagled and tied, ropes cutting into wrists, the coppery head pressed hard against the post in agony, but the marks brought such images all too readily to mind. Had he screamed when it was done? I pushed the thought hastily away. I had heard the stories that trickled out of postwar Germany, of course, of atrocities much worse than this, but he was right; hearing is not at all the same as seeing.

  Involuntarily, I reached out, as though I might heal him with a touch and erase the marks with my fingers. He sighed deeply, but didn’t move as I traced the deep scars, one by one, as though to show him the extent of the damage he couldn’t see. I rested my hands at last lightly on his shoulders in silence, groping for words.

  He placed his own hand over mine, and squeezed lightly in acknowledgment of the things I couldn’t find to say.

  “There’s worse has happened to others, lass,” he said quietly. Then he let go and the spell was broken.

  “It feels as though it’s healing well,” he said, trying to look sideways at the wound in his shoulder. “It doesna pain me much.”

  “That’s good,” I said, clearing my throat of some obstruction that seemed to have lodged there. “It is healing well; it’s scabbed over nicely, and there’s no drainage at all. Just keep it clean, and don’t use the arm more than you must for another two or three days.” I patted the undamaged shoulder, signifying dismissal. He put his shirt back on without assistance, tucking the long tails down into the kilt.

  There was an awkward moment as he paused by the door, seeking something to say in farewell. Finally, he invited me to come to the stable next day and see a newborn foal. I promised that I would, and we said good night, both speaking together. We laughed and nodded absurdly to each other as I shut the door. I went at once to bed and fell asleep in a winey haze, to dream unsettling dreams that I would not recall come morning.

  * * *

  Next day, after a long morning of treating new patients, rummaging the stillroom for useful herbs to replenish the medical supplies cupboard, and—with some ceremony—recording the details in Davie Beaton’s black ledger, I left my narrow closet in search of air and exercise.

  There was no one about for the moment, and I took the opportunity to explore the upper floors of the castle, poking into empty chambers and winding staircases, mapping the castle in my mind. It was a most irregular floor plan, to say the least. Bits and pieces had been added here and there over the years, until it was difficult to say whether there ever had been a plan originally. In this hall, for example, there was an alcove built into the wall by the stairs, apparently serving no purpose but to fill in a blank space too small for a complete room.

  The alcove was partly shielded from view by a hanging curtain of striped linen; I would have passed by without stopping, had a sudden flash of white from within not attracted my attention. I stopped just short of the opening and peered inside to see what it was. It was the sleeve of Jamie’s shirt, passing around a girl’s back, drawing her close for a kiss. She sat on his lap, and her yellow hair caught the sunlight coming through a slit, reflecting light like the surface of a trout stream on a bright morning.

  I paused, uncertain what to do. I had no desire to spy on them, but was afraid the sound of my footsteps on the corridor stones would draw their attention. While I hesitated, Jamie broke from the embrace and looked up. His eyes met mine, and his face twitched from alarm to recognition. With a raised eyebrow and a faintly ironic shrug, he settled the girl more firmly on his knee and bent to his work. I shrugged back, and tiptoed away. Not my business. I had little doubt, however, that both Colum and the girl’s father would consider this “consorting” highly improper. The next beating might well be on his own account, if they weren’t more careful in choosing a meeting place.

  Finding him at supper that night with Alec, I sat down opposite them at the long table. Jamie greeted me pleasantly enough, but with a watchful expression in his eyes. Old Alec gave me his usual “Mmphm.” Women, as he had explained to me at the paddock, have no natural appreciation for horses, and are therefore difficult to talk to.

  “How’s the horse-breaking coming along?” I asked, to interrupt the industrious chewing on the other side of the table.

  “Well enough,” answered Jamie cautiously.

  I peered at him across a platter of boiled turnips. “Your mouth looks a bit swollen, Jamie. Get thumped by a horse, did you?” I asked wickedly.

  “Aye,” he answered, narrowing his eyes. “Swung its head when I wasna looking.” He spoke placidly, but I felt a large foot come down on top of mine under the table. It rested lightly at the moment, but the threat was explicit.

  “Too bad; those fillies can be dangerous,” I said innocently.

  The foot pressed down hard as Alec said, “Filly? Ye’re no workin’ fillies now, are ye, lad?” I use
d my other foot as a lever; that failing, I used it to kick his ankle sharply. Jamie jerked suddenly.

  “What’s wrong wi’ ye?” Alec demanded.

  “Bit my tongue,” muttered Jamie, glaring at me over the hand he had clapped to his mouth.

  “Clumsy young dolt. No more than I’d expect, though, from an idjit as canna even keep clear of a horse when.…” Alec went on for several minutes, accusing his assistant at length of clumsiness, idleness, stupidity, and general ineptitude. Jamie, possibly the least clumsy person I had ever seen in my life, kept his head down and ate stolidly through the diatribe, though his cheeks flushed hotly. I kept my eyes demurely on my plate for the rest of the meal.

  Refusing a second helping of stew, Jamie left the table abruptly, putting an end to Alec’s tirade. The old horsemaster and I munched silently for a few minutes. Wiping his plate with the last bite of bread, the old man pushed it into his mouth and leaned back, surveying me sardonically with his one blue eye.

  “Ye shouldna devil the lad, ye ken,” he said conversationally. “If her father or Colum comes to know about it, young Jamie could get summat more than a blackened eye.”

  “Like a wife?” I said, looking him squarely in the eye. He nodded slowly.

  “Could be. And that’s not the wife he should have.”

  “No?” I was a bit surprised at this, after overhearing Alec’s remarks in the paddock.

  “Nay, he needs a woman, not a girl. And Laoghaire will be a girl when she’s fifty.” The grim old mouth twisted in something like a smile. “Ye may think I’ve lived in a stable all my life, but I had a wife as was a woman, and I ken the difference verra weel.” The blue eye flashed as he made to get up. “So do you, lass.”

  I reached out a hand impulsively to stop him. “How did you know—” I began. Old Alec snorted derisively.

  “I may ha’ but one eye, lass; it doesna mean I’m blind.” He creaked off, snorting as he went. I found the stairs and went up to my room, contemplating what, if anything, the old horsemaster had meant by his final remark.

  9

  THE GATHERING

  My life seemed to be assuming some shape, if not yet a formal routine. Rising at dawn with the rest of the castle inhabitants, I breakfasted in the great hall, then, if Mrs. Fitz had no patients for me to see, I went to work in the huge castle gardens. Several other women worked there regularly, with an attending phalanx of lads in varying sizes, who came and went, hauling rubbish, tools, and loads of manure. I generally worked through the day there, sometimes going to the kitchens to help prepare a newly picked crop for eating or preserving, unless some medical emergency called me back to the Skulkery, as I called the late Beaton’s closet of horrors.

  Once in a while, I would take up Alec’s invitation and visit the stables or paddock, enjoying the sight of the horses shedding their shaggy winter coats in clumps, growing strong and glossy with spring grass.

  Some evenings I would go to bed immediately after supper, exhausted by the day’s work. Other times, when I could keep my eyes open, I would join the gathering in the Great Hall to listen to the evening’s entertainment of stories, song, or the music of harp or pipes. I could listen to Gwyllyn the Welsh bard for hours, enthralled in spite of my total ignorance of what he was saying, most times.

  As the castle inhabitants grew accustomed to my presence, and I to them, some of the women began to make shy overtures of friendship, and to include me in their conversations. They were plainly very curious about me, but I replied to all their tentative questions with variations of the story I had told Colum, and after a bit, they accepted that as all they were likely to know. Having found out that I knew something of medicine and healing, though, they grew still more interested in me, and began to ask questions about the ailments of their children, husbands, and beasts, in most cases making little distinction between the latter two in level of importance.

  Besides the normal questions and gossip, there was considerable talk of the coming Gathering that I had heard Old Alec mention at the paddock. I concluded that this was an occasion of some importance, and grew more convinced by the extent of the preparations for it. A constant stream of foodstuffs poured into the great kitchens, and more than twenty skinned carcasses hung in the slaughter shed, behind a screen of fragrant smoke that kept the flies away. Hogsheads of ale were delivered by wagon and carted down to the castle cellars, bags of fine flour were brought up from the village mill for baking, and baskets of cherries and apricots were fetched daily from the orchards outside the castle wall.

  I was invited to go on one of these fruit-picking expeditions with several of the young women of the castle, and accepted with alacrity, eager to get out from under the forbidding shadow of the stone walls.

  It was beautiful in the orchard, and I greatly enjoyed wandering through the cool mist of the Scottish morning, fingering through the damp leaves of the fruit trees for the bright cherries and smooth, plump apricots, squeezing gently to judge the ripeness. We plucked only the best, dropping them into our baskets in juicy heaps, eating as much as we could hold, and carrying back the remainder to be made into tarts and pies. The enormous pantry shelves were nearly filled now with pastries, cordials, hams, and assorted delicacies.

  “How many people customarily come to a Gathering?” I asked Magdalen, one of the girls with whom I had become friendly.

  She wrinkled a snub freckled nose in thought. “I dinna ken for sure. The last great Gathering at Leoch was over twenty year past, and then there were oh, maybe ten score of men come then—when old Jacob died, ye ken, and Colum was made laird. Might be more this year; been a good year for the crops and folk will ha’ a bit more money put by, so a good many will bring their wives and bairns along.”

  Visitors were already beginning to arrive at the castle, though I had heard that the official parts of the Gathering, the oath-taking, the tynchal, and the games, would not take place for several days. The more illustrious of Colum’s tacksmen and tenants were housed in the castle proper, while the poorer men-at-arms and cottars set up camp on a fallow field below the stream that fed the castle’s loch. Roving tinkers, gypsies, and sellers of small goods had set up a sort of impromptu fair near the bridge. The inhabitants of both castle and nearby village had begun to visit the spot in the evenings, when the day’s work was done, to buy tools and bits of finery, watch the jugglers and catch up on the latest gossip.

  I kept a close eye on the comings and goings, and made a point of paying frequent visits to stable and paddock. There were horses in plenty now, those of the visitors being accommodated in the castle stables. Among the confusion and disturbance of the Gathering, I thought, I should have no difficulty in finding my chance to escape.

  * * *

  It was on one of the fruit-picking expeditions to the orchard that I first met Geillis Duncan. Finding a small patch of Ascaria beneath the roots of an alder, I was hunting for more. The scarlet caps grew in tiny clumps, only four or five mushrooms in a group, but there were several clumps scattered through the long grass in this part of the orchard. The voices of the women picking fruit grew fainter as I worked my way toward the edge of the orchard, stooping or dropping on hands and knees to gather the fragile stalks.

  “Those kind are poison,” said a voice from behind me. I straightened up from the patch of Ascaria I had been bending over, thumping my head smartly on a branch of the pine they were growing under.

  As my vision cleared, I could see that the peals of laughter were coming from a tall young woman, perhaps a few years older than myself, fair of hair and skin, with the loveliest green eyes I had ever seen.

  “I am sorry to be laughing at you,” she said, dimpling as she stepped down into the hollow where I stood. “I could not help it.”

  “I imagine I looked funny,” I said rather ungraciously, rubbing the sore spot on top of my head. “And thank you for the warning, but I know those mushrooms are poisonous.”

  “Och, you know? And who is it you’re planning to do away w
ith, then? Your husband, perhaps? Tell me if it works, and I’ll try it on mine.” Her smile was infectious, and I found myself smiling back.

  I explained that though the raw mushroom caps were indeed poisonous, you could prepare a powdered preparation from the dried fungi that was very efficacious in stopping bleeding when applied topically. Or so Mrs. Fitz said; I was more inclined to trust her than Davie Beaton’s Physician’s Guide.

  “Fancy that!” she said, still smiling. “And did you know that these”—she stooped and came up with a handful of tiny blue flowers with heart-shaped leaves—“will start bleeding?”

  “No,” I said, startled. “Why would anyone want to start bleeding?”

  She looked at me with an expression of exasperated patience. “To get rid of a child ye don’t want, I mean. It brings on your flux, but only if ye use it early. Too late, and it can kill you as well as the child.”

  “You seem to know a lot about it,” I remarked, still stung by having appeared stupid.

  “A bit. The girls in the village come to me now and again for such things, and sometimes the married women too. They say I’m a witch,” she said, widening her brilliant eyes in feigned astonishment. She grinned. “But my husband’s the procurator fiscal for the district, so they don’t say it too loud.”

  “Now the young lad ye brought with ye,” she went on, nodding in approval, “there’s one that’s had a few love-philtres bought on his behalf. Is he yours?”

  “Mine? Who? You mean, er, Jamie?” I was startled.

  The young woman looked amused. She sat down on a log, twirling a lock of fair hair idly around her index finger.

  “Och, aye. There’s quite a few would settle for a fellow wi’ eyes and hair like that, no matter the price on his head or whether he’s any money. Their fathers may think differently, o’ course.

  “Now, me,” she went on, looking off into the distance, “I’m a practical sort. I married a man with a fair house, a bit o’ money put away, and a good position. As for hair, he hasn’t any, and as for eyes, I never noticed, but he doesna trouble me much.” She held out the basket she carried for my inspection. Four bulbous roots lay in the bottom.

  “Mallow root,” she explained. “My husband suffers from a chill on the stomach now and again. Farts like an ox.”

  I thought it best to stop this line of conversation before things got out of hand. “I haven’t introduced myself,” I said, extending a hand to help her up from the log. “My name is Claire. Claire Beauchamp.”

  The hand that took mine was slender, with long, tapering white fingers, though I noticed the tips were stained, probably with the juices of the plants and berries resting alongside the mallow roots in her basket.

  “I know who ye are,” she said. “The village has been humming with talk of ye, since ye came to the castle. My name is Geillis, Geillis Duncan.” She peered into my basket. “If it’s balgan-buachrach you’re looking for, I can show you where they grow best.”

  I accepted her offer, and we wandered for some time through the small glens near the orchard, poking under rotted logs and crawling around the rim of the sparkling tarns, where the tiny toadstools grew in profusion. Geillis was very knowledgeable about the local plants and their medicinal uses, though she suggested a few usages I thought questionable, to say the least. I thought it very unlikely, for instance, that bloodwort would be effective in making warts grow on a rival’s nose, and I strongly doubted whether wood betony was useful in transforming toads into pigeons. She made these explanations with a mischievous glance that suggested she was testing my own knowledge, or perhaps the local suspicion of witchcraft.

  Despite the occasional teasing, I found her a pleasant companion, with a ready wit and a cheerful, if cynical, outlook on life. She appeared to know everything there was to know about everyone in village, countryside, and castle, and our explorations were punctuated by rests during which she entertained me with complaints about her husband’s stomach trouble, and amusing if somewhat malicious gossip.

  “They say young Hamish is not his father’s son,” she said at one point, referring to Colum’s only child, the red-haired lad of eight or so whom I had seen at dinner in the Hall.

  I was not particularly startled by this bit of gossip, having formed my own conclusions on the matter. I was only surprised that there was but one child of questionable parentage, surmising that Letitia had been either lucky, or smart enough to seek out someone like Geilie in time. Unwisely, I said as much to Geilie.

  She flung back her long fair hair and laughed. “No, not me. The fair Letitia does not need any help in such matters, believe me. If people are seeking a witch in this neighborhood, they’d do better to look in the castle than the village.”

  Anxious to change the subject to something safer, I seized on the first thing that came to mind.

  “If young Hamish isn’t Colum’s son, whose is he supposed to be?” I asked, scrambling over a heap of boulders.

  “Why, the lad’s, of course.” She turned to face me, small mouth mocking and green eyes bright with mischief. “Young Jamie.”

  * * *

  Returning to the orchard alone, I met Magdalen, hair coming loose under her kerchief and wide-eyed with worry.

  “Oh, there ye are,” she said, heaving a sigh of relief. “We were going back to the castle, when I missed ye.”

  “It was kind of you to come back for me,” I said, picking up the basket of cherries I’d left in the grass. “I know the way, though.”

  She shook her head. “You should take care, my dearie, walking alone in the woods, wi’ all the tinkers and folk coming for the Gathering. Colum’s given orders—” She stopped abruptly, hand over her mouth.

  “That I’m to be watched?” I suggested gently. She nodded reluctantly, clearly afraid I would be offended. I shrugged and tried to smile reassuringly at her.

  “Well, that’s natural, I suppose,” I said. “After all, he’s no one’s word but my own for who I am or how I came here.” Curiosity overcame my better judgment. “Who does he think I am?” I asked. But the girl could only shake her head.

  “You’re English,” was all she said.

  I didn’t return to the orchard next day. Not because I was ordered to remain in the castle, but because there was a sudden outbreak of food poisoning among the castle inhabitants that demanded my attention as physician. Having done what I could for the sufferers, I set out to track the trouble to its source.

  This proved to be a tainted beef carcass from the slaughter shed. I was in the shed next day, giving the chief smoker a piece of my mind regarding proper methods of meat preserving, when the door swung open behind me, sending a thick wave of choking smoke over me.

 
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