Outlander, p.39
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       Outlander, p.39
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  rest? I’m a mass of bruises, from head to toe!”

  “Och?” He drew back to look me over judiciously. “Well now, these I’ve apologized for,” touching my shoulder, “those,” slapping my rear lightly, “ye deserved, and I’ll not say I’m sorry for it, because I’m not.”

  “As for these,” he said, stroking my thigh, “I’ll not apologize for that, either. Ye paid me full measure already.” He rubbed his shoulder, grimacing. “Ye drew blood in at least two places, Sassenach, and my back stings like holy hell.”

  “Well, bed with a vixen…” I said, grinning. “You won’t get an apology for that.” He laughed in response and pulled me on top of him.

  “I didna say I wanted an apology, did I? If I recall aright, what I said was ‘Bite me again.’ ”

  PART FOUR

  A Whiff of Brimstone

  24

  BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS

  The hubbub occasioned by our sudden arrival and the announcement of our marriage was overshadowed almost at once by an event of greater importance.

  We were sitting at supper in the great Hall the next day, accepting the toasts and good wishes being offered in our honor.

  “Buidheachas, mo caraid.” Jamie bowed gracefully to the latest toaster, and sat down amid the increasingly sporadic applause. The wooden bench shook under his weight, and he closed his eyes briefly.

  “Getting a bit much for you?” I whispered. He had borne the brunt of the toasting, matching each cup drained on our behalf, while I had so far escaped with no more than token sips, accompanied by bright smiles at the incomprehensible Gaelic toasts.

  He opened his eyes and looked down at me, smiling himself.

  “Am I drunk, do ye mean? Nay, I could drink this stuff all night.”

  “You practically have,” I said, peering at the array of empty wine bottles and stone ale-jars lined up on the board in front of us. “It’s getting rather late.” The candles on Colum’s table burned low in their holders, and the guttered wax glowed gold, the light marking the MacKenzie brothers with odd patches of shadow and glinting flesh as they leaned together, talking in low voices. They could have joined the company of carved gnomic heads that edged the huge fireplace, and I wondered how many of those caricatured figures had in fact been drawn from the patronizing features of earlier MacKenzie lairds—perhaps by a carver with a sense of humor…or a strong family connection.

  Jamie stretched slightly in his seat, grimacing in mild discomfort.

  “On the other hand,” he said, “my bladder’s going to burst in another moment or two. I’ll be back shortly.” He put his hands on the bench and hopped nimbly up and over it, disappearing through the lower archway.

  I turned my attention to my other side, where Geillis Duncan sat, demurely sipping at a silver cup of ale. Her husband, Arthur, sat at the next table with Colum, as befitted the procurator fiscal of the district, but Geilie had insisted on sitting next to me, saying that she had no wish to be wearied by hearing man-talk all through supper.

  Arthur’s deepset eyes were half-closed, blue-pouched and sunk with wine and fatigue. He leaned heavily on his forearms, face slack, ignoring the conversation of the MacKenzies next to him. While the light threw the sharp-cut features of the laird and his brother into a high relief, it merely made Arthur Duncan look fat and ill.

  “Your husband isn’t looking very well,” I observed. “Has his stomach trouble got worse?” The symptoms were rather puzzling; not like ulcer, I thought, nor cancer—not with that much flesh still on his bones—perhaps just chronic gastritis, as Geilie insisted.

  She cast the briefest of glances at her spouse before turning back to me with a shrug.

  “Oh, he’s well enough,” she said. “No worse, at any rate. But what about your husband?”

  “Er, what about him?” I replied cautiously.

  She dug me familiarly in the ribs with a rather sharp elbow, and I realized that there were a fair number of bottles at her end of the table as well.

  “Well, what d’ye think? Does he look as nice out of his sark as he does in it?”

  “Um…” I groped for an answer, as she craned her neck toward the entryway.

  “And you claiming you didna care a bit for him! Cleverboots. Half the girls in the castle would like to tear your hair out by the roots—I’d be careful what I ate, if I were you.”

  “What I eat?” I looked down in bafflement at the wooden platter before me, empty but for a smear of grease and a forlorn boiled onion.

  “Poison,” she hissed dramatically in my ear, along with a considerable wafting of brandy fumes.

  “Nonsense,” I said, rather coldly, drawing away from her. “No one would want to poison me simply because I…well, because…” I was floundering a bit, and it occurred to me that I might have had a few sips more than I had realized.

  “Now, really, Geilie. This marriage…I didn’t plan it, you know. I didn’t want it!” No lie there. “It was merely a…sort of…necessary business arrangement,” I said, hoping the candlelight hid my blushes.

  “Ha,” she said cynically. “I ken the look of a lass that’s been well bedded.” She glanced toward the archway where Jamie had disappeared. “And damned if I think those are midge bites on the laddie’s neck, either.” She raised one silver brow at me. “If it was a business arrangement, I’d say ye got your money’s worth.”

  She leaned close again.

  “Is it true?” she whispered. “About the thumbs?”

  “Thumbs? Geilie, what in God’s name are you babbling about?”

  She looked down her small, straight nose at me, frowning in concentration. The beautiful grey eyes were slightly unfocused, and I hoped she wouldn’t fall over.

  “Surely ye know that? Everyone knows! A man’s thumbs tell ye the size of his cock. Great toes, too, of course,” she added judiciously, “but those are harder to judge, usually, what wi’ the shoon and all. Yon wee fox-cub,” she nodded toward the archway, where Jamie had just reappeared, “he could cup a good-sized marrow in those hands of his. Or a good-sized arse, hm?” she added, nudging me once more.

  “Geillis Duncan, will…you…shut…up!” I hissed, face flaming. “Someone will hear you!”

  “Oh, no one who—” she began, but stopped, staring. Jamie had passed right by our table, as though he didn’t see us. His face was pale, and his lips set firmly, as though bent on some unpleasant duty.

  “Whatever ails him?” Geilie asked. “He looks like Arthur after he’s eaten raw turnips.”

  “I don’t know.” I pushed back the bench, hesitating. He was heading for Colum’s table. Should I follow him? Plainly something had happened.

  Geilie, peering back down the room, suddenly tugged at my sleeve, pointing in the direction from which Jamie had appeared.

  A man stood just within the archway, hesitating even as I was. His clothes were stained with mud and dust; a traveler of some sort. A messenger. And whatever the message, he had passed it on to Jamie, who was even now bending to whisper it in Colum’s ear.

  No, not Colum. Dougal. The red head bent low between the two dark ones, the broad handsome features of the three faces taking on an unearthly similarity in the light of the dying candles. And as I watched, I realized that the similarity was due not so much to the inheritance of bone and sinew that they shared, but to the expression of shocked grief that they now held in common.

  Geilie’s hand was digging into the flesh of my forearm.

  “Bad news,” she said, unnecessarily.

  * * *

  “Twenty-four years,” I said softly. “It seems a long time to be married.”

  “Aye, it does,” Jamie agreed. A warm wind stirred the branches of the tree above us, lifting the hair from my shoulders to tickle my face. “Longer than I’ve been alive.”

  I glanced at him leaning on the paddock fence, all lanky grace and strong bones. I tended to forget how young he really was; he seemed so self-assured and capable.

  “Still,”
he said, flicking a straw into the churned mud of the paddock, “I doubt Dougal spent more than three years of that with her. He was generally here, ye ken, at the Castle—or here and there about the lands, doing Colum’s business for him.”

  Dougal’s wife, Maura, had died at their estate of Beannachd. A sudden fever. Dougal himself had left at dawn, in company with Ned Gowan and the messenger who had brought the news the night before, to arrange the funeral and dispose of his wife’s property.

  “Not a close marriage, then?” I asked curiously.

  Jamie shrugged.

  “As close as most, I should reckon. She had the children and the running of the house to keep her busy; I doubt she missed him greatly, though she seemed glad enough to see him when he came home.”

  “That’s right, you lived with them for a time, didn’t you?” I was quiet, thinking. I wondered whether this was Jamie’s idea of marriage; separate lives, joining only infrequently for the breeding of children. Yet, from the little he had said, his own parents’ marriage had been a close and loving one.

  With that uncanny trick of reading my thoughts, he said, “It was different wi’ my own folk, ye ken. Dougal’s was an arranged marriage, like Colum’s and a matter more of lands and business than the wanting of each other. But my parents—well, they wed for love, against the wishes of both families, and so we were…not cut off, exactly; but more by ourselves at Lallybroch. My parents didna go often to visit relatives or do business outside, and so I think they turned more to each other than husband and wife usually do.”

  He laid a hand low on my back and urged me closer to him. He bent his head and brushed his lips across the top of my ear.

  “It was an arrangement between us,” he said softly. “Still, I would hope…perhaps one day—” He broke off awkwardly, with a crooked smile and a gesture of dismissal.

  Not wanting to encourage him in that direction, I smiled back as neutrally as I could, and turned toward the paddock. I could feel him there beside me, not quite touching, big hands gripping the top rail of the fence. I gripped the rail myself, to keep from taking his hand. I wanted more than anything to turn to him, offer him comfort, assure him with body and words that what lay between us was more than a business arrangement. It was the truth of it that stopped me.

  What it is between us, he had said. When I lie with you, when you touch me. No, it wasn’t usual at all. It wasn’t a simple infatuation, either, as I had first thought. Nothing could be less simple.

  The fact remained that I was bound, by vows and loyalty and law, to another man. And by love as well.

  I could not, could not tell Jamie what I felt for him. To do that and then to leave, as I must, would be the height of cruelty. Neither could I lie to him.

  “Claire.” He had turned to me, was looking down at me; I could feel it. I didn’t speak, but raised my face to him as he bent to kiss me. I couldn’t lie to him that way either, and didn’t. After all, I thought dimly, I had promised him honesty.

  We were interrupted by a loud “Ahem!” from behind the paddock fence. Jamie, startled, whirled toward the sound, instinctively thrusting me behind him. Then he stopped and grinned, seeing Old Alec MacMahon standing there in his filthy trews, viewing us sardonically with his one bright blue eye.

  The old man held a wicked-looking pair of gelding shears, which he raised in ironic salute.

  “I was goin’ to use these on Mahomet,” he remarked. “Perhaps they could be put to better use here, eh?” He snicked the thick blades invitingly. “It’d keep your mind on your work, and off your cock, laddie.”

  “Don’t even jest about it, man,” said Jamie, grinning. “Wanting me, were ye?”

  Alec waggled an eyebrow like a woolly caterpillar.

  “No, what gives ye to think that? I thought I’d like to try gelding a blooded two-year-old all by mysel’, for the joy of it.” He wheezed briefly at his own wit, then waved the shears toward the Castle.

  “Off wi’ ye, lassie. Ye can have him back at supper—for what good he’ll be to ye by then.”

  Apparently not trusting the nature of this last remark, Jamie reached out a long arm and neatly snagged the shears.

  “I’ll feel safer if I’ve got these,” he said, cocking an eyebrow at Old Alec. “Go along, Sassenach. When I’ve finished doing all of Alec’s work for him, I’ll come and find ye.”

  He leaned down to kiss my cheek, and whispered in my ear, “The stables. When the sun’s mid-sky.”

  * * *

  The stables of Castle Leoch were better built than many of the cottages I had seen on our journey with Dougal. Stone floored and stone walled, the only openings were the narrow windows at one end, the door at the other, and the narrow slits under the thick thatched roof, intended for the convenience of the owls who kept down the mice in the hay. They let in plenty of air, though, and enough light that the stables were pleasantly dim rather than gloomy.

  Up in the hayloft, just under the roof, the light was even better, striping the piled hay with yellow bars and lighting the drifting dust motes like showers of gold dust. The air came in through the chinks in warm drafts, scented with stock and sweet william and garlic from the gardens outside, and the pleasant animal smell of the horses wafted up from below.

  Jamie stirred under my hand and sat up, the movement bringing his head from the shadow into a blaze of sunlight like the lighting of a candle.

  “What is it?” I asked sleepily, turning my head in the direction he was looking.

  “Wee Hamish,” he said softly, peering over the edge of the loft into the stable below. “Wants his pony, I expect.”

  I rolled awkwardly onto my stomach beside him, dragging the folds of my shift over me for modesty’s sake; a silly thought, as no one below could see more than the top of my head.

  Colum’s son Hamish was walking slowly down the aisle of the stable between the stalls. He seemed to hesitate near some stalls, though he ignored the curious heads of chestnut and sorrel poking out to inspect him. Clearly he was looking for something, and it wasn’t his fat brown pony, placidly munching straw in its stall near the stable door.

  “Holy God, he’s going for Donas!” Jamie seized his kilt and wrapped it hurriedly about himself before swinging down from the edge of the loft. Not bothering with the ladder, he hung by his hands and then dropped to the floor. He landed lightly on the straw-scattered stones, but with enough of a thud to make Hamish whirl around with a startled gasp.

  The small freckled face relaxed somewhat as he realized who it was, but the blue eyes stayed wary.

  “Needing a bit of help, coz?” Jamie inquired pleasantly. He moved toward the stalls and leaned against one of the uprights, managing to insert himself between Hamish and the stall the boy had been heading for.

  Hamish hesitated, but then drew himself up, small chin thrust out.

  “I’m going to ride Donas,” he said, in a tone that tried for determination, but fell somewhat short.

  Donas—his name meant “demon,” and was in no way meant as flattery—was in a horse-box to himself at the far end of the stable, safely separated by an empty stall from the nearest neighboring horses. A huge, evil-tempered sorrel stallion, he was ridable by no one, and only Old Alec and Jamie dared go near him. There was an irritable squeal from the shadows of his stall, and an enormous copper head shot suddenly out, huge yellow teeth clacking together as the horse made a vain attempt to bite the bare shoulder so temptingly displayed.

  Jamie stayed motionless, knowing that the stallion couldn’t reach him. Hamish jumped back with a squeak, clearly scared speechless by the sudden appearance of that monstrous shimmering head, with its rolling, bloodshot eyes and flaring nostrils.

  “I dinna think so,” observed Jamie mildly. He reached down and took his small cousin by the shoulder, steering him away from the horse, who kicked his stall in protest. Hamish shuddered in concert with the boards of the stall as the lethal hooves crashed against the wood.

  Jamie turned the boy around to f
ace him and stood looking down at him, hands on his kilted hips.

  “Now then,” he said firmly. “What’s this all about? Why are ye wanting aught to do wi’ Donas?”

  Hamish’s jaw was set stubbornly, but Jamie’s face was both encouraging and adamant. He punched the boy gently on the shoulder, getting a tiny smile response.

  “Come on, duine,” Jamie said, softly. “Ye know I wilna tell anyone. Have ye done something foolish?”

  A faint flush came up on the boy’s fair skin.

  “No. At least…no. Well, maybe a bit foolish.”

  After a bit more encouragement, the story came out, reluctantly at first, then in a tumbling flood of confession.

  He had been out on his pony, riding with some of the other boys the day before. Several of the older lads had started competing, to see who could jump his horse over a higher obstacle. Jealously admiring them, Hamish’s better judgment was finally overcome by bravado, and he had tried to force his fat little pony over a stone fence. Lacking both ability and interest, the pony had come to a dead stop at the fence, tossing young Hamish over his head, over the fence, and ignominiously into a nettle patch on the other side. Stung both by nettles and by the hoots of his comrades, Hamish was determined to come out today on “a proper horse,” as he put it.

  “They wouldna laugh if I came out on Donas,” he said, envisioning the scene with grim relish.

  “No, they wouldna laugh,” Jamie agreed. “They’d be too busy picking up the pieces.”

  He eyed his cousin, shaking his head slowly. “I’ll tell ye, lad. It takes courage and sense to make a good rider. You’ve the courage, but the sense is a wee bit lacking, yet.” He put a consoling arm round Hamish’s shoulders, drawing him down toward the end of the stable.

  “Come along, man. Help me fork the hay, and we’ll get ye acquainted wi’ Cobhar. You’re right; ye should have a better horse if you’re ready, but it isna necessary to kill yourself to prove it.”

  Glancing up into the loft as he passed, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged helplessly. I smiled and waved down at him, telling him to go ahead, it was all right. I watched them as Jamie took an apple from the basket of windfalls kept near the door. Fetching a pitchfork from the corner, he led Hamish back to one of the center stalls.

  “Here, coz,” he said, pausing. He whistled softly through his teeth and a wide-browed bay horse put its head out, blowing through its nostrils. The dark eyes were large and kind, and the ears had a slight forward cock that gave the horse an expression of friendly alertness.

  “Now then, Cobhar, ciamar a tha thu?” Jamie patted the sleek neck firmly, and scratched the cocked ears.

  “Come on up,” he said, motioning to his small cousin. “That’s it, next to me. Near enough he can smell ye. Horses like to smell ye.”

  “I know.” Hamish’s high voice was scornful. He barely reached the horse’s nose, but reached up and patted. He stood his ground as the big head came down and sniffed interestedly around his ear, whuffling in his hair.

  “Give me an apple,” he said to Jamie, who obliged. The soft velvet lips plucked the fruit delicately out of Hamish’s palm, and flicked it back between the huge molars, where it vanished with a juicy crunch. Jamie watched approvingly.

  “Aye. You’ll get on fine. Go on and make friends, then, while I finish feeding the others, then ye can take him out to ride.”

  “By myself?” Hamish asked eagerly. Cobhar, whose name meant “Foam,” was good-tempered, but a sound, spirited 14-hand gelding, nonetheless, and a far cry from the brown pony.

  “Twice round the paddock wi’ me watchin’ ye, and if ye dinna fall off or jerk his mouth, ye can take him by yourself. No jumping him ’til I say, though.” The long back bent, gleaming in the warm dusk of the stable, as Jamie caught up a forkful of hay from the pile in one corner and carried it to one of the stalls.

  He straightened and smiled at his cousin. “Gi’ me one of those, will ye?” He leaned the fork against a stall and bit into the proffered fruit. The two stood companionably eating, leaning side by side against the stable wall. When he finished, Jamie handed the core to a nuzzling sorrel and fetched his fork again. Hamish followed him down the aisle, chewing slowly.

  “I’ve heard my father was a good rider,” Hamish offered tentatively, after a moment’s silence. “Before—before he couldn’t anymore.”

 
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