Outlander, p.17
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       Outlander, p.17

         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  He went gracefully to one knee and bowed deeply before Colum. But instead of drawing his knife for the oath, he rose to his feet and looked Colum in the face. Fully erect, he stood head and shoulders over most of the men in the hall, and he topped Colum on his rostrum by several inches. I glanced at the girl Laoghaire. She had gone pale when he rose to his feet, and I saw that she also had her fists clenched tight.

  Every eye in the hall was on him, but he spoke as though to Colum alone. His voice was as deep as Colum’s, and every word was clearly audible.

  “Colum MacKenzie, I come to you as kinsman and as ally. I give ye no vow, for my oath is pledged to the name that I bear.” There was a low, ominous growl from the crowd, but he ignored it and went on. “But I give ye freely the things that I have; my help and my goodwill, wherever ye should find need of them. I give ye my obedience, as kinsman and as laird, and I hold myself bound by your word, so long as my feet rest on the lands of clan MacKenzie.”

  He stopped speaking and stood, tall and erect, hands relaxed at his sides. Ball now in Colum’s court, I thought. One word from him, one sign, and they’d be scrubbing the young man’s blood off the flags come morning.

  Colum stood unmoving for a moment, then smiled and held out his hands. After an instant’s hesitation, Jamie placed his own hands lightly on Colum’s palms.

  “We are honored by your offer of friendship and goodwill,” said Colum clearly. “We accept your obedience and hold you in good faith as an ally of the clan MacKenzie.”

  There was a lessening of the tension over the hall, and almost an audible sigh of relief in the gallery as Colum drank from the quaich and offered it to Jamie. The young man accepted it with a smile. Instead of the customary ceremonial sip, however, he carefully raised the nearly full vessel, tilted it and drank. And kept on drinking. There was a gasp of mingled respect and amusement from the spectators, as the powerful throat muscles kept moving. Surely he’d have to breathe soon, I thought, but no. He drained the heavy cup to the last drop, lowered it with an explosive gasp for air, and handed it back to Colum.

  “The honor is mine,” he said, a little hoarsely, “to be allied with a clan whose taste in whisky is so fine.”

  There was an uproar at this, and he made his way toward the archway, much impeded by congratulatory handshakes and thumps on the back as he passed. Apparently Colum MacKenzie was not the only member of the family with a knack for good theater.

  The heat in the gallery was stifling, and the rising smoke was making my head ache before the oath-taking finally came to an end, with what I assumed were a few stirring words by Colum. Unaffected by six shared quaichs of spirit, the strong voice still reverberated off the stones of the hall. At least his legs wouldn’t pain him tonight, I thought, in spite of all the standing.

  There was a massive shout from the floor below, an outbreak of skirling pipes, and the solemn scene dissolved into a heaving surge of riotous yelling. An even louder shout greeted the tubs of ale and whisky that now appeared on trestles, accompanied by platters of steaming oatcakes, haggis, and meat. Mrs. Fitz, who must have organized this part of the proceedings, leaned precariously across the balustrade, keeping a sharp eye on the behavior of the stewards, mostly lads too young to swear a formal oath.

  “And where’s the pheasants got to, then?” she muttered under her breath, surveying the incoming platters. “Or the stuffed eels, either? Drat that Mungo Grant, I’ll skin him if he’s burnt the eels!” Making up her mind, she turned and began to squeeze toward the back of the gallery, plainly unwilling to leave administration of something so critical as the feasting in the untried hands of Mungo Grant.

  Seizing the opportunity, I pushed along behind her, taking advantage of the sizable wake she left through the crowd. Others, clearly thankful for a reason to leave, joined me in the exodus.

  Mrs. Fitz, turning at the bottom, saw the flock of women above and scowled ferociously.

  “You wee lassies clear off to your rooms right sharp,” she commanded. “If you’ll not stay up there safe out o’ sight, ye’d best scamper awa’ to your own places. But no lingering in the corridors, nor peeping round the corners. There’s not a man in the place who’s not half in his cups already, and they’ll be far gone in an hour. ’Tis no place for lasses tonight.”

  Pushing the door ajar, she peered cautiously into the corridor. The coast apparently clear, she shooed the women out the door, one at a time, sending them hurriedly on their way to their sleeping quarters on the upper floors.

  “Do you need any help?” I asked as I came even with her. “In the kitchens, I mean?”

  She shook her head, but smiled at the offer. “Nay, there’s no need, lass. Get along wi’ ye now, you’re no safer than the rest.” And a kindly shove in the small of the back sent me hurtling out into the dim passage.

  I was inclined to take her advice, after the encounter with the guard outside. The men in the Hall were rioting, dancing, and drinking, with no thought of restraint or control. No place for a woman, I agreed.

  Finding my way back to my room was another matter altogether. I was in an unfamiliar part of the castle, and while I knew the next floor had a breezeway that connected it to the corridor leading to my room, I couldn’t find anything resembling stairs.

  I came around a corner, and smack into a group of clansmen. These were men I didn’t know, come from the outlying clan lands, and unused to the genteel manners of a castle. Or so I deduced from the fact that one man, apparently in search of the latrines, gave it up and chose to relieve himself in a corner of the hallway as I came upon them.

  I whirled at once, intending to go back the way I had come, stairs or no stairs. Several hands reached to stop me, though, and I found myself pressed against the wall of the corridor, surrounded by bearded Highlanders with whisky on their breath and rape on their minds.

  Seeing no point in preliminaries, the man in front of me grabbed me by the waist and plunged his other hand into my bodice. He leaned close, rubbing his bearded cheek against my ear. “And how about a sweet kiss, now, for the brave lads of the clan MacKenzie? Tulach Ard!”

  “Erin go bragh,” I said rudely, and pushed with all my strength. Unsteady with drink, he staggered backward into one of his companions. I dodged to the side and fled, kicking off my clumsy shoes as I ran.

  Another shape loomed in front of me, and I hesitated. There seemed to be only one in front of me, though, and at least ten behind me, catching up fast despite their cargo of drink. I raced forward, intending to dodge around him. He stepped sharply in front of me, though, and I came to a halt, so fast that I had to put my hands on his chest to avoid crashing into him. It was Dougal MacKenzie.

  “What in hell—?” he began, then saw the men after me. He pulled me behind him and barked something at my pursuers in Gaelic. They protested in the same language, but after a short exchange like the snarling of wolves, they gave it up and went off in search of better entertainment.

  “Thank you,” I said, a little dazed. “Thank you. I’ll…I’ll go. I shouldn’t be down here.” Dougal glanced down at me, and took my arm, pulling me around to face him. He was disheveled and clearly had been joining in the roistering in the Hall.

  “True enough, lass,” he said. “Ye shouldna be here. Since ye are, weel, you’ll have to pay the penalty for that,” he murmured, eyes gleaming in the half-dark. And without warning, he pulled me hard against him and kissed me. Kissed me hard enough to bruise my lips and force them apart. His tongue flicked against mine, the taste of whisky sharp in my mouth. His hands gripped me firmly by the bottom and pressed me against him, making me feel the rigid hardness under his kilt through my layers of skirts and petticoats.

  He released me as suddenly as he had seized me. He nodded and gestured down the hall, breathing a little unsteadily. A lock of russet hair hung loose over his forehead and he brushed it back with one hand.

  “Get ye gone, lassie,” he said. “Before ye pay a greater price.”

  I went, bare

  * * *

  Given the carryings-on of the night before, I had expected most inhabitants of the castle to lie late the next morning, possibly staggering down for a restorative mug of ale when the sun was high—assuming that it chose to come out at all, of course. But the Highland Scots of Clan MacKenzie were a tougher bunch than I had reckoned with, for the castle was a buzzing hive long before dawn, with rowdy voices calling up and down the corridors, and a great clanking of armory and thudding of boots as men prepared for the tynchal.

  It was cold and foggy, but Rupert, whom I met in the courtyard on my way to the hall, assured me that this was the best sort of weather in which to hunt boar.

  “The beasts ha’ such a thick coat, the cold’s no hindrance to them,” he explained, sharpening a spearpoint with enthusiasm against a foot-driven grindstone, “and they feel safe wi’ the mist so heavy all round them—canna see the men coming toward them, ye ken.”

  I forbore to point out that this meant the hunting men would not be able to see the boar they were approaching, either, until they were upon it.

  As the sun began to streak the mist with blood and gold, the hunting party assembled in the forecourt, spangled with damp and bright-eyed with anticipation. I was glad to see that the women were not expected to participate, but contented themselves with offering bannocks and drafts of ale to the departing heroes. Seeing the large number of men who set out for the east wood, armed to the teeth with boar spears, axes, bows, quivers, and daggers, I felt a bit sorry for the boar.

  This attitude was revised to one of awed respect an hour later, when I was hastily summoned to the forest’s edge to dress the wounds of a man who had, as I surmised, stumbled over the beast unawares in the fog.

  “Bloody Christ!” I said, examining a gaping, jagged wound that ran from knee to ankle. “An animal did this? What’s it got, stainless steel teeth?”

  “Eh?” The victim was white with shock, and too shaken to answer me, but one of the fellows who had assisted him from the wood gave me a curious look.

  “Never mind,” I said, and yanked tight the compression bandage I had wound about the injured calf. “Take him up to the castle and we’ll have Mrs. Fitz give him hot broth and blankets. That’ll have to be stitched, and I’ve no tools for it here.”

  The rhythmic shouts of the same beaters still echoed in the mists of the hillside. Suddenly there was a piercing scream that rose high above fog and tree, and a startled pheasant broke from its hiding place nearby with a frightening rattle of wings.

  “Dear God in heaven, what now?” Seizing an armful of bandages, I abandoned my patient to his caretakers and headed into the forest at a dead run.

  The fog was thicker under the branches, and I could see no more than a few feet ahead, but the sound of excited shouting and thrashing underbrush guided me in the right direction.

  It brushed past me from behind. Intent on the shouting, I didn’t hear it, and I didn’t see it until it had passed, a dark mass moving at incredible speed, the absurdly tiny cloven hooves almost silent on the sodden leaves.

  I was so stunned by the suddenness of the apparition that it didn’t occur to me at first to be frightened. I simply stared into the mist where the bristling black thing had vanished. Then, raising my hand to brush back the ringlets that were curling damply around my face, I saw the blotched red streak across it. Looking down, I found a matching streak on my skirt. The beast was wounded. Had the scream come from the boar, perhaps?

  I thought not; I knew the sound of mortal wounding. And the pig was moving well under its own power when it had passed me. I took a deep breath and went on into the wall of mist, in search of a wounded man.

  I found him at the bottom of a small slope, surrounded by kilted men. They had spread their plaids over him to keep him warm, but the cloth covering his legs was ominously dark with wetness. A wide scrape of black mud showed where he had tumbled down the length of the slope, and a scrabble of muddied leaves and churned earth, where he had met the boar. I sank to my knees beside the man, pulled back the cloth and set to work.

  I had scarcely begun when the shouts of the men around us made me turn, to see the nightmare shape appear, once more soundless, out of the trees.

  This time I had time to see the dagger hilt protruding from the beast’s side, perhaps the work of the man on the ground before me. And the wicked yellow ivory, stained red as the mad little eyes.

  The men around me, as stunned as I was, began to stir and reach for weapons. Faster than the rest, a tall man seized a boar-spear from the hands of a companion who stood frozen, and stepped out into the clearing.

  It was Dougal MacKenzie. He walked almost casually, carrying the spear low, braced in both hands, as though about to lift a spadeful of dirt. He was intent on the beast, speaking to it in an undertone, murmuring in Gaelic as though to coax the beast from the shelter of the tree it stood beside.

  The first charge was sudden as an explosion. The beast shot past, so closely that the brown hunting tartan flapped in the breeze of its passing. It spun at once and came back, a blur of muscular rage. Dougal leapt aside like a bullfighter, jabbing at it with his spear. Back, forth, and again. It was less a rampage than a dance, both adversaries rooted in strength, but so nimble they seemed to float above the ground.

  The whole thing lasted only a minute or so, though it seemed much longer. It ended when Dougal, whirling aside from the slashing tusks, raised the point of the short, stout spear and drove it straight down between the beast’s sloping shoulders. There was the thunk of the spear and a shrill squealing noise that made the hairs stand up along my forearms. The small, piggy eyes cast to and fro, veering wildly in search of nemesis, and the dainty hooves sank deep in mud as the boar staggered and lurched. The squealing went on, rising to an inhuman pitch as the heavy body toppled to one side, driving the protruding dagger hilt-deep in the hairy flesh. The delicate hooves spurned the ground, churning up thick clods of damp earth.

  The squeal stopped abruptly. There was silence for a moment, and then a thoroughly piggish grunt, and the bulk was still.

  Dougal had not waited to make sure of the kill, but had circled the twitching animal and made his way back to the injured man. He sank to his knees and put an arm behind the victim’s shoulders, taking the place of the man who had been supporting him. A fine spray of blood had spattered the high cheekbones, and drying droplets matted his hair on one side.

  “Now then, Geordie,” he said, rough voice suddenly gentle. “Now then. I’ve got him, man. It’s all right.”

  “Dougal? Is’t you, man?” The wounded man turned his head in Dougal’s direction, struggling to open his eyes.

  I was surprised, listening as I rapidly checked the man’s pulse and vital signs. Dougal the fierce, Dougal the ruthless, was speaking to the man in a low voice, repeating words of comfort, hugging the man hard against him, stroking the tumbled hair.

  I sat back on my heels, and reached again toward the pile of cloths on the ground beside me. There was a deep wound, running at least eight inches from the groin down the length of the thigh, from which the blood was gushing in a steady flow. It wasn’t spurting, though; the femoral artery wasn’t cut, which meant there was a good chance of stopping it.

  What couldn’t be stopped was the ooze from the man’s belly, where the ripping tushes had laid open skin, muscles, mesentery, and gut alike. There were no large vessels severed there, but the intestine was punctured; I could see it plainly, through the jagged rent in the man’s skin. This sort of abdominal wound was frequently fatal, even with a modern operating room, sutures, and antibiotics readily to hand. The contents of the ruptured gut, spilling out into the body cavity, simply contaminated the whole area and made infection a deadly certainty. And here, with nothing but cloves of garlic and yarrow flowers to treat it with.…

  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.

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