Outlander, p.23
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       Outlander, p.23
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  more. One damn thing after another, I thought balefully. This time it was a double visitation, Murtagh and Ned Gowan, wearing similar looks of disapprobation. I exchanged glares with Ned while Murtagh came into the room and walked slowly around the bed, surveying me from every angle. He returned to Ned and muttered something in a tone too low for me to hear. With a final glance of despair in my direction, he pulled the door shut behind them.

  At last my hair was dressed to the woman’s satisfaction, swept back and pulled high in a knot at the crown, curls picked loose to tumble to the back, and ringlets in front of my ears. It felt as though my scalp were going to pop off from the tension of the strained-back hair, but the effect in the looking glass the woman provided was undeniably becoming. I began to feel slightly more human, and even brought myself to thank her for her efforts. She left me the looking glass, and departed, remarking that it was so lucky to be married in summer, wasn’t it, as I’d have plenty of flowers for my hair.

  “We who are about to die,” I said to my reflection, sketching a salute in the glass. I collapsed on the bed, plastered a wet cloth over my face, and went back to sleep.

  I was having a rather nice dream, something to do with grassy fields and wildflowers, when I became aware that what I had thought a playful breeze tugging at my sleeves was a pair of none-too-gentle hands. I sat up with a jerk, blindly flailing.

  When I got my eyes open, I saw that my small chamber now resembled a Tube station, with faces wall-to-wall: Ned Gowan, Murtagh, the innkeeper, the innkeeper’s wife, and a lanky young man, who turned out to be the innkeeper’s son, with his arms full of assorted flowers, which accounted for the scents in my dream. There was also a young woman, armed with a round wicker basket, who smiled amiably at me, displaying the lack of several rather important teeth.

  This person, it developed, was the village sempstress, recruited to repair the deficiencies of my wardrobe by adjusting the fit of a dress, obtained on short notice from some local connection of the innkeeper’s. Ned was carrying the dress in question, hanging from one hand like a dead animal. Smoothed out on the bed, it proved to be a low-necked gown of heavy cream-colored satin, with a separate bodice that buttoned with dozens of tiny cloth-covered buttons, each embroidered with a gold fleur-de-lis. The neckline and the belled sleeves were heavily ruched with lace, as was the embroidered overskirt of chocolate-brown velvet. The innkeeper was half-buried in the petticoats he carried, his bristling whiskers barely visible over the foamy layers.

  I looked at the port-wine stain on my grey serge skirt and vanity won out. If I were in fact to be married, I didn’t want to do it looking like the village drudge.

  After a short spell of frenetic activity, with me standing like a dressmaker’s dummy and everyone else racing about fetching, carrying, criticizing, and tripping over each other, the final product was ready, complete to white asters and yellow roses pinned in my hair and a heart pounding madly away beneath the lacy bodice. The fit was not quite perfect, and the gown smelled rather strongly of its previous owner, but the satin was weighty and swished rather fascinatingly about my feet, over the layers of petticoats. I felt quite regal, and not a little lovely.

  “You can’t make me do this, you know,” I hissed threateningly at Murtagh’s back as I followed him downstairs, but he and I both knew my words were empty bravado. If I had ever had the strength of character to defy Dougal and take my chances with the English, it had drained away with the whisky.

  Dougal, Ned, and the rest were in the main taproom at the foot of the stair, drinking and exchanging pleasantries with a few villagers who seemed to have nothing better to do with their afternoon than hang about getting sloshed.

  Dougal caught sight of me slowly descending, and abruptly stopped talking. The others fell silent as well, and I floated down in a most gratifying cloud of reverent admiration. Dougal’s deepset eyes covered me slowly from head to foot and returned to my face with a completely ungrudging nod of acknowledgment.

  What with one thing and another, it was some time since a man had looked at me that way, and I nodded quite graciously back.

  After the first silence, the rest of those in the taproom became vocal in their admiration, and even Murtagh allowed himself a small smile, nodding in satisfaction at the results of his efforts. And who appointed you fashion editor? I thought disagreeably. Still, I had to admit that he was responsible for my not marrying in grey serge.

  Marrying. Oh, God. Buoyed temporarily by port wine and cream lace, I had momentarily managed to ignore the significance of the occasion. I gripped the banister as fresh realization hit like a blow in the stomach.

  Looking over the throng, though, I noticed one glaring omission. My groom was nowhere in sight. Heartened by the thought that he might have succeeded in escaping out of a window, and be miles away by now, I accepted a parting cup of wine from the innkeeper before following Dougal outside.

  Ned and Rupert went to fetch the horses. Murtagh had disappeared somewhere, perhaps to search for traces of Jamie.

  Dougal held me by one arm; ostensibly to support me lest I stumble in my satin slippers, in reality to prevent any last-minute breaks for freedom.

  It was a “warm” Scottish day, meaning that the mist wasn’t quite heavy enough to qualify as a drizzle, but not far off, either. Suddenly the inn door opened, and the sun came out, in the person of James. If I was a radiant bride, the groom was positively resplendent. My mouth fell open and stayed that way.

  A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight—any Highlander, no matter how old, ill-favored, or crabbed in appearance. A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored young Highlander at close range is breath-taking.

  The thick red-gold hair had been brushed to a smooth gleam that swept the collar of a fine lawn shirt with tucked front, belled sleeves, and lace-trimmed wrist frills that matched the cascade of the starched jabot at the throat, decorated with a ruby stickpin.

  His tartan was a brilliant crimson and black that blazed among the more sedate MacKenzies in their green and white. The flaming wool, fastened by a circular silver brooch, fell from his right shoulder in a graceful drape, caught by a silver-studded sword belt before continuing its sweep past neat calves clothed in woolen hose and stopping just short of the silver-buckled black leather boots. Sword, dirk, and badger-skin sporran completed the ensemble.

  Well over six feet tall, broad in proportion, and striking of feature, he was a far cry from the grubby horse-handler I was accustomed to—and he knew it. Making a leg in courtly fashion, he swept me a bow of impeccable grace, murmuring “Your servant, Ma’am,” eyes glinting with mischief.

  “Oh,” I said faintly.

  I had seldom seen the taciturn Dougal at a loss for words before. Thick brows knotted over a suffused face, he seemed in his way as taken aback by this apparition as I was.

  “Are ye mad, man?” he said at last. “What if someone’s to see ye!”

  Jamie cocked a sardonic eyebrow at the older man. “Why, uncle,” he said. “Insults? And on my wedding day too. You wouldna have me shame my wife, now, would ye? Besides,” he added, with a malicious gleam, “I hardly think it would be legal, did I not marry in my own name. And you do want it legal, now, don’t you?”

  With an apparent effort, Dougal recovered his self-possession. “If ye’re quite finished, Jamie, we’ll get on wi’ it,” he said.

  But Jamie was not quite finished, it seemed. Ignoring Dougal’s fuming, he drew a short string of white beads from his sporran. He stepped forward and fastened the necklace around my neck. Looking down, I could see it was a string of small baroque pearls, those irregularly shaped productions of freshwater mussels, interspersed with tiny pierced-work gold roundels. Smaller pearls dangled from the gold beads.

  “They’re only Scotch pearls,” he said, apologetically, “but they look bonny on you.” His fingers lingered a moment on my neck.

  “Those were your mother’s pearls!” said Dougal, glowering at the necklace.

  “Aye,” said Jamie calmly, “and now they’re my wife’s. Shall we go?”

  * * *

  Wherever we were going, it was some distance from the village. We made a rather morose wedding party, the bridal pair encircled by the others like convicts being escorted toward some distant prison. The only conversation was a muted apology from Jamie for being late, explaining that there had been some difficulty in finding a clean shirt and coat large enough to fit him.

  “I think this one belongs to the local squire’s son,” he said, flipping the lacy jabot. “Bit of a dandy, it looks like.”

  We dismounted and left the horses at the foot of a small hill. A footpath led upward through the heather.

  “Ye’ve made the arrangements?” I heard Dougal say in an undertone to Rupert, as they tethered the beasts.

  “Och, aye.” There was a flash of teeth in the black beard. “Was a bit o’ trouble to, persuade the padre, but we showed him the special license.” He patted his sporran, which clinked musically, giving me some idea of the nature of the special license.

  Through the drizzle and mist, I saw the chapel jutting out of the heather. With a sense of complete disbelief, I saw the round-shouldered roof and the odd little many-paned windows, which I had last seen on the bright sunny morning of my marriage to Frank Randall.

  “No!” I exclaimed. “Not here! I can’t!”

  “Hst, now, hst. Dinna worry, lass, dinna worry. It will be all right.” Dougal put a large paw on my shoulder, making soothing Scottish noises, as if I were a skittish horse. “ ’Tis natural to be a bit nervous,” he said, to all of us. A firm hand in the small of my back urged me on up the path. My shoes sank moistly in the damp layer of fallen leaves.

  Jamie and Dougal walked close on either side of me, preventing escape. Their looming plaid presences were unnerving, and I felt a mounting sense of hysteria. Two hundred years ahead, more or less, I had been married in this chapel, charmed then by its ancient picturesqueness. The chapel now was creaking with newness, its boards not yet settled into charm, and I was about to marry a twenty-three-year-old Scottish Catholic virgin with a price on his head, whose—

  I turned to Jamie in sudden panic. “I can’t marry you! I don’t even know your last name!”

  He looked down at me and cocked a ruddy eyebrow. “Oh. It’s Fraser. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.” He pronounced it formally, each name slow and distinct.

  Completely flustered, I said “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp,” and stuck out my hand idiotically. Apparently taking this as a plea for support, he took the hand and tucked it firmly into the crook of his elbow. Thus inescapably pinioned, I squelched up the path to my wedding.

  Rupert and Murtagh were waiting for us in the chapel, keeping guard over a captive cleric, a spindly young priest with a red nose and a justifiably terrified expression. Rupert was idly slicing a willow twig with a large knife, and while he had laid aside his horn-handled pistols on entering the church, they remained in easy reach on the rim of the baptismal font.

  The other men also disarmed, as was suitable in the house of God, leaving an impressively bristling pile of lethality in the back pew. Only Jamie kept his dagger and sword, presumably as a ceremonial part of his dress.

  We knelt before the wooden altar, Murtagh and Dougal took their places as witnesses, and the ceremony began.

  The form of the Catholic marriage service has not changed appreciably in several hundred years, and the words linking me with the red-headed young stranger at my side were much the same as those that had consecrated my wedding to Frank. I felt like a cold, hollow shell. The young priest’s stammering words echoed somewhere in the empty pit of my stomach.

  I stood automatically when it came time for the vows, watching in a sort of numbed fascination as my chilly fingers disappeared into my bridegroom’s substantial grasp. His fingers were as cold as my own, and it occurred to me for the first time that despite his outwardly cool demeanor, he might be as nervous as I was.

  I had so far avoided looking at him, but now glanced up to find him staring down at me. His face was white and carefully expressionless; he looked as he had when I dressed the wound in his shoulder. I tried to smile at him, but the corners of my mouth wobbled precariously. The pressure of his fingers on mine increased. I had the impression that we were holding each other up; if either of us let go or looked away, we would both fall down. Oddly, the feeling was mildly reassuring. Whatever we were in for, at least there were two of us.

  “I take thee, Claire, to be my wife…” His voice didn’t shake, but his hand did. I tightened my grip. Our stiff fingers clenched together like boards in a vise. “…to love, honor and protect…for better and for worse…” The words came from far away. The blood was draining from my head. The boned bodice was infernally tight, and though I felt cold, sweat ran down my sides beneath the satin. I hoped I wouldn’t faint.

  There was a small stained-glass window set high in the wall at the side of the sanctuary, a crude rendering of John the Baptist in his bearskin. Green and blue shadows flowed over my sleeve, reminding me of the tavern’s public room, and I wished fervently for a drink.

  My turn. I stuttered slightly, to my fury. “I t-take thee, James…” I stiffened my spine. Jamie had got through his half creditably enough; I could try to do as well. “…to have and to hold, from this day forth…” My voice came stronger now.

  “ ’Til death us do part.” The words rang out in the quiet chapel with a startling finality. Everything was still, as though in suspended animation. Then the minister asked for the ring.

  There was a sudden stir of agitation and I caught a glimpse of Murtagh’s stricken face. I barely registered the fact that someone had forgotten to provide for the ring, when Jamie released my hand long enough to twist a ring from his own finger.

  I still wore Frank’s ring on my left hand. The fingers of my right looked frozen, pallid and stiff in a pool of blue light, as the large metal circlet passed over the fourth finger. It hung loose on the digit and would have slid off, had Jamie not folded my fingers around it and enclosed my fist once more in his own.

  More mumbling from the priest, and Jamie bent to kiss me. It was clear that he intended only a brief and ceremonial touching of lips, but his mouth was soft and warm and I moved instinctively toward him. I was vaguely conscious of noises, Scottish whoops of enthusiasm and encouragement from the spectators, but really noticed nothing beyond the enfolding warm solidness. Sanctuary.

  We drew apart, both a little steadier, and smiled nervously. I saw Dougal draw Jamie’s dirk from its sheath and wondered why. Still looking at me, Jamie held out his right hand, palm up. I gasped as the point of the dirk scored deeply across his wrist, leaving a dark line of welling blood. There was not time to jerk away before my own hand was seized and I felt the burning slice of the blade. Swiftly, Dougal pressed my wrist to Jamie’s and bound the two together with a strip of white linen.

  I must have swayed a bit, because Jamie gripped my elbow with his free left hand.

  “Bear up, lass,” he urged softly. “It’s not long now. Say the words after me.” It was a short bit of Gaelic, two or three sentences. The words meant nothing to me, but I obediently repeated them after Jamie, stumbling on the slippery vowels. The linen was untied, the wounds blotted clean, and we were married.

  There was a general air of relief and exhilaration on the way back down the footpath. It might have been any merry wedding party, albeit a small one, and one composed entirely of men, save the bride.

  We were nearly at the bottom when lack of food, the remnants of a hangover, and the general stresses of the day caught up with me. I came to lying on damp leaves, my head in my new husband’s lap. He put down the wet cloth with which he had been wiping my face.

  “That bad, was it?” He grinned down at me, but his eyes held an uncertain expression that rather touched me, in spite of everything. I smiled shakily back.

  “It’s not you,” I assured him. “It’s
just…I don’t think I’ve had anything at all to eat since breakfast yesterday—and rather a lot to drink, I’m afraid.”

  His mouth twitched. “So I heard. Well, that I can remedy. I’ve not a lot to offer a wife, as I said, but I do promise I’ll keep ye fed.” He smiled and shyly pushed a stray curl off my face with a forefinger.

  I started to sit up and grimaced at a slight burning in one wrist. I had forgotten that last bit of the ceremony. The cut had come open, no doubt as a result of the fall I had taken. I took the cloth from Jamie and wrapped it awkwardly around the wrist.

  “I thought it might have been that that made ye faint,” he said, watching. “I should have thought to warn ye about it; I didna realize you weren’t expecting it until I saw your face.”

  “What was it, exactly?” I asked, trying to tuck in the ends of the cloth.

  “It’s a bit pagan, but it’s customary hereabouts to have a blood vow, along with the regular marriage service. Some priests won’t have it, but I don’t suppose this one was likely to object to anything. He looked almost as scared as I felt,” he said, smiling.

  “A blood vow? What do the words mean?”

  Jamie took my right hand and gently tucked in the last end of the makeshift bandage.

  “It rhymes, more or less, when ye say it in English. It says:

  ‘Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone.

  I give ye my Body, that we Two might be One.

  I give ye my Spirit, ’til our Life shall be Done.’ ”

  He shrugged. “About the same as the regular vows, just a bit more…ah, primitive.”

  I gazed down at my bound wrist. “Yes, you could say that.”

  I glanced about; we were alone on the path, under an aspen tree. The round dead leaves lay on the ground, gleaming in the wet like rusted coins. It was very quiet, save for the occasional splat of water droplets falling from the trees.

  “Where are the others? Did they go back to the inn?”

  Jamie grimaced. “No. I made them go away so I could tend ye, but they’ll be waitin’ for us just over there.” He gestured with his chin, in the countryman’s manner. “They’re no going to trust us alone ’til everything’s official.”

  “Isn’t it?” I said blankly. “We’re married, aren’t we?”

  He seemed embarrassed, turning away and elaborately brushing dead leaves from his kilts.

  “Mmmphm. Aye, we’re married, right enough. But it’s no legally binding, ye know, until it’s been consummated.” A slow, fierce blush burned its way up from the lacy jabot.

  “Mmmphm,” I said. “Let’s go and find something to eat.”



  At the inn, food was readily available, in the form of a modest wedding feast, including wine, fresh bread, and roast beef.

  Dougal took me by the arm as I started for the stairs to freshen myself before eating.

  “I want this marriage consummated, wi’ no uncertainty whatsoever,” Dougal instructed me firmly in an undertone. “There’s to be no question of it bein’ a legal union, and no way open for annulment, or we’re all riskin’ our necks.”

  “Seems to me you’re doing that anyway,” I remarked crossly. “Mine, especially.”

  Dougal patted me firmly on the rump.

  “Dinna ye worry about that; ye just do your part.” He looked me over critically, as though judging my capacity to perform my role adequately.

  “I kent Jamie’s father. If the lad’s much like him, ye’ll have no trouble at all. Ah, Jamie lad!” He hurried across the room, to where Jamie had come in from stabling the horses. From the look on Jamie’s face, he was getting his orders as well.

  * * *

  How in the name of God did this happen? I asked myself some time later. Six weeks ago, I had been innocently collecting wildflowers on a Scottish hill to take home to my husband. I was now shut in the room of a rural inn, awaiting a completely different husband, whom I scarcely knew, with firm orders to consummate a forced marriage, at risk of my life and liberty.

  I sat on the bed, stiff and terrified in my borrowed finery. There was a faint noise as the heavy door of the room swung open, then shut.

  Jamie leaned against the door, watching me. The air of embarrassment between us deepened. It was Jamie who broke the silence finally.

  “You dinna need to be afraid of me,” he said softly. “I wasna going to jump on ye.” I laughed in spite of myself.

  “Well, I didn’t think you would.” In fact, I didn’t think he would touch me, until and unless I invited him to; the fact remained that I was going to have to invite him to do considerably more than that, and soon.

  I eyed him dubiously. I supposed it would be harder if I found him unattractive; in fact, the opposite was true. Still, I had not slept with any man but Frank in over eight years. Not only that, this young man, by his own acknowledgment, was completely inexperienced. I had never deflowered anyone before. Even dismissing my objections to the whole arrangement, and considering matters from a completely practical standpoint, how on earth were we to start? At this rate, we would still be standing here, staring at each other, three or four days hence.

  I cleared my throat and patted the bed beside me.

  “Ah, would you like to sit down?”

  “Aye.” He came across the room, moving like a big cat. Instead of sitting beside me, though, he pulled up a stool and sat down facing me. Somewhat tentatively, he reached out and took my hands between his own. They were large, blunt-fingered, and very warm, the backs lightly furred with reddish hairs. I felt a slight shock at the touch, and thought of an Old Testament passage—“For Jacob’s skin was smooth, while his brother Esau was a hairy man.” Frank’s hands were long and slender, nearly hairless and aristocratic-looking. I had always
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