Outlander, p.18
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       Outlander, p.18
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon


  On the Road



  We rode out of the gates of Castle Leoch two days later, just before dawn. In twos and threes and fours, to the sound of shouted farewells and the calls of wild geese on the loch, the horses stepped their way carefully over the stone bridge. I glanced behind from time to time, until the bulk of the castle disappeared at last behind a curtain of shimmering mist. The thought that I would never again see that grim pile of stone or its inhabitants gave me an odd feeling of regret.

  The noise of the horses’ hooves seemed muffled in the fog. Voices carried strangely through the damp air, so that calls from one end of the long string were sometimes heard easily at the other, while the sounds of nearby conversations were lost in broken murmurs. It was like riding through a vapor peopled by ghosts. Disembodied voices floated in the air, speaking far away, then remarkably near at hand.

  My place fell in the middle of the party, flanked on the one side by a man-at-arms whose name I did not know, and on the other by Ned Gowan, the little scribe I had seen at work in Colum’s hall. He was something more than a scribe, I found, as we fell into conversation on the road.

  Ned Gowan was a solicitor. Born, bred, and educated in Edinburgh, he looked the part thoroughly. A small, elderly man of neat, precise habits, he wore a coat of fine broadcloth, fine woolen hose, a linen shirt whose stock bore the merest suggestion of lace, and breeches of a fabric that was a nicely judged compromise between the rigors of travel and the status of his calling. A small pair of gold-rimmed half-spectacles, a neat hair-ribbon and a bicorne of blue felt completed the picture. He was so perfectly the quintessential man of law that I couldn’t look at him without smiling.

  He rode alongside me on a quiet mare whose saddle was burdened with two enormous bags of worn leather. He explained that one held the tools of his trade; inkhorn, quills, and papers.

  “And what’s the other for?” I asked, eyeing it. While the first bag was plump with its contents, the second seemed nearly empty.

  “Oh, that’s for his lairdship’s rents,” the lawyer replied, patting the limp bag.

  “He must be expecting rather a lot, then,” I suggested. Mr. Gowan shrugged good-naturedly.

  “Not so much as all that, m’dear. But the most of it will be in doits and pence and other small coins. And such, unfortunately, take up more room than the larger denominations of currency.” He smiled, a quick curve of thin, dry lips. “At that, a weighty mass of copper and silver is still easier of transport than the bulk of his lairdship’s income.”

  He turned to direct a piercing look over his shoulder at the two large mule-drawn wagons that accompanied the party.

  “Bags of grain and bunches of turnips have at least the benefit of lack of motion. Fowl, if suitably trussed and caged, I have nae argument with. Nor with goats, though they prove some inconvenience in terms of their omnivorous habits; one ate a handkerchief of mine last year, though I admit the fault was mine in allowin’ the fabric to protrude injudiciously from my coat-pocket.” The thin lips set in a determined line. “I have given explicit directions this year, though. We shall not accept live pigs.”

  The necessity of protecting Mr. Gowan’s saddlebags and the two wagons explained the presence of the twenty or so men who made up the rest of the rent-collecting party, I supposed. All were armed and mounted, and there were a number of pack animals, bearing what I assumed were supplies for the sustenance of the party. Mrs. Fitz, among her farewells and exhortations, had told me that accommodations would be primitive or nonexistent, with many nights spent encamped along the road.

  I was quite curious to know what had led a man of Mr. Gowan’s obvious qualifications to take up a post in the remote Scottish Highlands, far from the amenities of civilized life to which he must be accustomed.

  “Well, as to that,” he said, in answer to my questions, “as a young man, I had a small practice in Edinburgh. With lace curtains in the window, and a shiny brass plate by the door, with my name inscribed upon it. But I grew rather tired of making wills and drawing up conveyances, and seeing the same faces in the street, day after day. So I left,” he said simply.

  He had purchased a horse and some supplies and set off, with no idea where he was going, or what to do once he got there.

  “Ye see, I must confess,” he said, dabbing his nose primly with a monogrammed handkerchief, “to something of a taste for…adventure. However, neither my stature nor my family background had fitted me for the life of highwayman or seafarer, which were the most adventurous occupations I could envision at the time. As an alternative, I determined that my best path lay upward, into the Highlands. I thought that in time I might perhaps induce some clan chieftain to, well, to allow me to serve him in some way.”

  And in the course of his travels, he had in fact encountered such a chieftain.

  “Jacob MacKenzie,” he said, with a fond, reminiscent smile. “And a wicked, red auld rascal he was.” Mr. Gowan nodded toward the front of the line, where Jamie MacTavish’s bright hair blazed in the mist. “His grandson’s verra like him, ye ken. We met first at the point of a pistol, Jacob and I, as he was robbing me. I yielded my horse and my bags with good grace, having little other choice. But I believe he was a bit taken aback when I insisted upon accompanying him, on foot if necessary.”

  “Jacob MacKenzie. That would be Colum and Dougal’s father?” I asked.

  The elderly lawyer nodded. “Aye. Of course, he was not laird then. That happened a few years later…with a very small bit of assistance from me,” he added modestly. “Things were less…civilized then,” he said nostalgically.

  “Oh, were they?” I said politely. “And Colum, er, inherited you, so to speak?”

  “Something of the kind,” Mr. Gowan said. “There was a wee bit o’ confusion when Jacob died, d’ye see. Colum was heir to Leoch, to be sure, but he…” The lawyer paused, looking ahead and behind to see that no one was close enough to listen. The man-at-arms had ridden forward, though, to catch up with some of his mates, and a good four lengths separated us from the wagon-driver behind.

  “Colum was a whole man to the age of eighteen or so,” he resumed his story, “and gave promise to be a fine leader. He took Letitia to wife as part of an alliance with the Camerons—I drew up the marriage contract,” he added, as a footnote, “but soon after the marriage he had a bad fall, during a raid. Broke the long bone of his thigh, and it mended poorly.”

  I nodded. It would have, of course.

  “And then,” Mr. Gowan went on with a sigh, “he rose from his bed too soon, and took a tumble down the stairs that broke the other leg. He lay in his bed close on a year, but it soon became clear that the damage was permanent. And that was when Jacob died, unfortunately.”

  The little man paused to marshal his thoughts. He glanced ahead again, as though looking for someone. Failing to find them, he settled back into the saddle.

  “That was about the time there was all the fuss about his sister’s marriage too,” he said. “And Dougal…well, I’m afraid Dougal did not acquit himself so verra weel over that affair. Otherwise, d’ye see, Dougal might have been made chief at the time, but ’twas felt he’d not the judgment for it yet.” He shook his head. “Oh, there was a great stramash about it all. There were cousins and uncles and tacksmen, and a great Gathering to decide the matter.”

  “But they did choose Colum, after all?” I said. I marveled once again at the force of personality of Colum MacKenzie. And, casting an eye at the withered little man who rode at my side, I rather thought Colum had also had some luck in choosing his allies.

  “They did, but only because the brothers stood firm together. There was nae doubt, ye see, of Colum’s courage, nor yet of his mind, but only of his body. ’Twas clear he’d never be able to lead his men into battle again. But there was Dougal, sound and whole, if a bit reckless and hot-headed. And he stood behind his brother’s chair and vowed to follow Colum’
s word and be his legs and his sword-arm in the field. So a suggestion was made that Colum be allowed to become laird, as he should in the ordinary way, and Dougal be made war chieftain, to lead the clan in time of battle. It was a situation not without precedent,” he added primly.

  The modesty with which he had said “A suggestion was made…” made it clear just whose suggestion it had been.

  “And whose man are you?” I asked. “Colum’s or Dougal’s?”

  “My interests must lie with the MacKenzie clan as a whole,” Mr. Gowan said circumspectly. “But as a matter of form, I have sworn my oath to Colum.”

  A matter of form, my foot, I thought. I had seen that oath-taking, though I did not recall the small form of the lawyer specifically among so many men. No man could have been present at that ceremony and remained unmoved, not even a born solicitor. And the little man on the bay mare, dry as his bones might be, and steeped to the marrow in the law, had by his own testimony the soul of a romantic.

  “He must find you a great help,” I said diplomatically.

  “Oh, I do a bit from time to time,” he said, “in a small way. As I do for others. Should ye find yourself in need of advice, m’dear,” he said, beaming genially, “do feel free to call upon me. My discretion may be relied upon, I do assure you.” He bowed quaintly from his saddle.

  “To the same extent as your loyalty to Colum MacKenzie?” I said, arching my brows. The small brown eyes met mine full on, and I saw both the cleverness and the humor that lurked in their faded depths.

  “Ah, weel,” he said, without apology. “Worth a try.”

  “I suppose so,” I said, more amused than angered. “But I assure you, Mr. Gowan, that I have no need of your discretion, at least at present.” It’s catching, I thought, hearing myself. I sound just like him.

  “I am an English lady,” I added firmly, “and nothing more. Colum is wasting his time—and yours—in trying to extract secrets from me that don’t exist.” Or that do exist, but are untellable, I thought. Mr. Gowan’s discretion might be limitless, but not his belief.

  “He didn’t send you along just to coerce me into damaging revelations, did he?” I demanded, suddenly struck by the thought.

  “Oh, no.” Mr. Gowan gave a short laugh at the idea. “No, indeed, m’dear. I fulfill an essential function, in managing the records and receipts for Dougal, and performing such small legal requirements that the clansmen in the more distant areas may have. And I am afraid that even at my advanced age, I have not entirely outgrown the urge to seek adventure. Things are much more settled now than they used to be”—he heaved a sigh that might have been one of regret—“but there is always the possibility of robbery along the road, or attack near the borders.”

  He patted the second bag on his saddle. “This bag is not entirely empty, ye ken.” He turned back the flap long enough for me to see the gleaming grips of a pair of scroll-handled pistols, snugly set in twin loops that kept them within easy reach.

  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 tabl
e. 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.

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