Outlander, p.4
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       Outlander, p.4
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  bit of a prediction for you, and say your husband isna like to stray far from your bed.” She gave a surprisingly deep and bawdy chuckle, and I blushed slightly.

  The elderly housekeeper pored over my hand again, stabbing a pointed forefinger here and there to mark her words.

  “Now, there, a well-marked lifeline; you’re in good health, and likely to stay so. The lifeline’s interrupted, meaning your life’s changed markedly—well, that’s true of us all, is it not? But yours is more chopped-up, like, than I usually see; all bits and pieces. And your marriage-line, now”—she shook her head again—“it’s divided; that’s not unusual, means two marriages…”

  My reaction was slight, and immediately suppressed, but she caught the flicker and looked up at once. I thought she probably was quite a shrewd fortune-teller, at that. The grey head shook reassuringly at me.

  “No, no, lass. It doesna mean anything’s like to happen to your good man. It’s only that if it did,” she emphasized the “if” with a slight squeeze of my hand, “you’d not be one to pine away and waste the rest of your life in mourning. What it means is, you’re one of those can love again if your first love’s lost.”

  She squinted nearsightedly at my palm, running a short, ridged nail gently down the deep marriage line. “But most divided lines are broken—yours is forked.” She looked up with a roguish smile. “Sure you’re not a bigamist, on the quiet, like?”

  I shook my head, laughing. “No. When would I have the time?” Then I turned my hand, showing the outer edge.

  “I’ve heard that small marks on the side of the hand indicate how many children you’ll have?” My tone was casual, I hoped. The edge of my palm was disappointingly smooth.

  Mrs. Graham flicked a scornful hand at this idea.

  “Pah! After ye’ve had a bairn or two, ye might show lines there. More like you’d have them on your face. Proves nothing at all beforehand.”

  “Oh, it doesn’t?” I was foolishly relieved to hear this. I was going to ask whether the deep lines across the base of my wrist meant anything (a potential for suicide?), but we were interrupted at that point by the Reverend Wakefield coming into the kitchen bearing the empty tea cups. He set them on the drainboard and began a loud and clumsy fumbling through the cupboard, obviously in hopes of provoking help.

  Mrs. Graham sprang to her feet to defend the sanctity of her kitchen, and pushing the Reverend adroitly to one side, set about assembling tea things on a tray for the study. He drew me to one side, safely out of the way.

  “Why don’t you come to the study and have another cup of tea with me and your husband, Mrs. Randall? We’ve made really a most gratifying discovery.”

  I could see that in spite of outward composure, he was bursting with the glee of whatever they had found, like a small boy with a toad in his pocket. Plainly I was going to have to go and read Captain Jonathan Randall’s laundry bill, his receipt for boot repairs, or some document of similar fascination.

  Frank was so absorbed in the tattered documents that he scarcely looked up when I entered the study. He reluctantly surrendered them to the vicar’s podgy hands, and came round to stand behind the Reverend Wakefield and peer over his shoulder, as though he could not bear to let the papers out of his sight for a moment.

  “Yes?” I said politely, fingering the dirty bits of paper. “Ummm, yes, very interesting.” In fact, the spidery handwriting was so faded and so ornate that it hardly seemed worth the trouble of deciphering it. One sheet, better preserved than the rest, had some sort of crest at the top.

  “The Duke of…Sandringham, is it?” I asked, peering at the crest, with its faded leopard couchant, and the printing below, more legible than the handwriting.

  “Yes, indeed,” the vicar said, beaming even more. “An extinct title, now, you know.”

  I didn’t, but nodded intelligently, being no stranger to historians in the manic grip of discovery. It was seldom necessary to do more than nod periodically, saying “Oh, really?” or “How perfectly fascinating!” at appropriate intervals.

  After a certain amount of deferring back and forth between Frank and the vicar, the latter won the honor of telling me about their discovery. Evidently, all this rubbish made it appear that Frank’s ancestor, the notorious Black Jack Randall, had not been merely a gallant soldier for the Crown, but a trusted—and secret—agent of the Duke of Sandringham.

  “Almost an agent provocateur, wouldn’t you say, Dr. Randall?” The vicar graciously handed the ball back to Frank, who seized it and ran.

  “Yes, indeed. The language is very guarded, of course.…” He turned the pages gently with a scrubbed forefinger.

  “Oh, really?” I said.

  “But it seems from this that Jonathan Randall was entrusted with the job of stirring up Jacobite sentiments, if any existed, among the prominent Scottish families in his area. The point being to smoke out any baronets and clan chieftains who might be harboring secret sympathies in that direction. But that’s odd. Wasn’t Sandringham a suspected Jacobite himself?” Frank turned to the vicar, a frown of inquiry on his face. The vicar’s smooth, bald head creased in an identical frown.

  “Why, yes, I believe you’re right. But wait, let’s check in Cameron”—he made a dive for the bookshelf, crammed with calf-bound volumes—“he’s sure to mention Sandringham.”

  “How perfectly fascinating,” I murmured, allowing my attention to wander to the huge corkboard that covered one wall of the study from floor to ceiling.

  It was covered with an amazing assortment of things; mostly papers of one sort or another, gas bills, correspondence, notices from the Diocesan Council, loose pages of novels, notes in the vicar’s own hand, but also small items like keys, bottle caps, and what appeared to be small car parts, attached with tacks and string.

  I browsed idly through the miscellanea, keeping half an ear tuned to the argument going on behind me. (The Duke of Sandringham probably was a Jacobite, they decided.) My attention was caught by a genealogical chart, tacked up with special care in a spot by itself, using four tacks, one to a corner. The top of the chart included names dated in the early seventeenth century. But it was the name at the bottom of the chart that had caught my eye: “Roger W. (MacKenzie) Wakefield,” it read.

  “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting a final sputter of dispute as to whether the leopard in the Duke’s crest had a lily in its paw, or was it meant to be a crocus? “Is this your son’s chart?”

  “Eh? Oh, why, yes, yes it is.” Distracted, the vicar hurried over, beaming once more. He detached the chart tenderly from the wall and laid it on the table in front of me.

  “I didn’t want him to forget his own family, you see,” he explained. “It’s quite an old lineage, back to the sixteen hundreds.” His stubby forefinger traced the line of descent almost reverently.

  “I gave him my own name because it seemed more suitable, as he lives here, but I didn’t want him to forget where he came from.” He made an apologetic grimace. “I’m afraid my own family is nothing to boast of, genealogically. Vicars and curates, with the occasional bookseller thrown in for variety, and only traceable back to 1762 or so. Rather poor record-keeping, you know,” he said, wagging his head remorsefully over the lethargy of his ancestors.

  It was growing late by the time we finally left the vicarage, with the vicar promising to take the letters to town for copying first thing in the morning. Frank babbled happily of spies and Jacobites most of the way back to Mrs. Baird’s. Finally, though, he noticed my quietness.

  “What is it, love?” he asked, taking my arm solicitously. “Not feeling well?” This was asked with a mingled tone of concern and hope.

  “No, I’m quite well. I was only thinking…” I hesitated, because we had discussed this matter before. “I was thinking about Roger.”


  I gave a sigh of impatience. “Really, Frank! You can be so…oblivious! Roger, the Reverend Wakefield’s son.”

  “Oh. Yes, of course,” h
e said vaguely. “Charming child. What about him?”

  “Well…only that there are a lot of children like that. Orphaned, you know.”

  He gave me a sharp look, and shook his head.

  “No, Claire. Really, I’d like to, but I’ve told you how I feel about adoption. It’s just…I couldn’t feel properly toward a child that’s not…well, not of my blood. No doubt that’s ridiculous and selfish of me, but there it is. Maybe I’ll change my mind in time, but now.…” We walked a few steps in a barbed silence. Suddenly he stopped and turned to me, gripping my hands.

  “Claire,” he said huskily, “I want our child. You’re the most important thing in the world to me. I want you to be happy, above all else, but I want…well, I want to keep you to myself. I’m afraid a child from outside, one we had no real relationship with, would seem an intruder, and I’d resent it. But to be able to give you a child, see it grow in you, see it born…then I’d feel as though it were more an…extension of you, perhaps. And me. A real part of the family.” His eyes were wide, pleading.

  “Yes, all right. I understand.” I was willing to abandon the topic—for now. I turned to go on walking, but he reached out and took me in his arms.

  “Claire. I love you.” The tenderness in his voice was overwhelming, and I leaned my head against his jacket, feeling his warmth and the strength of his arms around me.

  “I love you too.” We stood locked together for a moment, swaying slightly in the wind that swept down the road. Suddenly Frank drew back a bit, smiling down at me.

  “Besides,” he said softly, smoothing the wind-blown hair back from my face, “we haven’t given up yet, have we?”

  I smiled back. “No.”

  He took my hand, tucking it snugly beneath his elbow, and we turned toward our lodgings.

  “Game for another try?”

  “Yes. Why not?” We strolled, hand in hand, back toward the Gereside Road. It was the sight of the Baragh Mhor, the Pictish stone that stands at the corner of the road there, that made me remember things ancient.

  “I forgot!” I exclaimed. “I have something exciting to show you.” Frank looked down at me and pulled me closer. He squeezed my hand.

  “So have I,” he said, grinning. “You can show me yours tomorrow.”

  * * *

  When tomorrow came, though, we had other things to do. I had forgotten that we had planned a day trip to the Great Glen of Loch Ness.

  It was a long drive through the Glen, and we left early in the morning, before sunup. After the hurry to the waiting car through the freezing dawn, it was cozy to relax under the rug and feel the warmth stealing back into my hands and feet. Along with it came a most delicious drowsiness, and I fell blissfully asleep against Frank’s shoulder, my last conscious sight the driver’s head in red-rimmed silhouette against the dawning sky.

  It was after nine when we arrived, and the guide Frank had called for was awaiting us on the edge of the loch with a small sailing skiff.

  “An’ it suits ye, sir, I thought we’d take a wee sail down the loch-side to Urquhart Castle. Perhaps we’ll sup a bit there, before goin’ on.” The guide, a dour-looking little man in weather-beaten cotton shirt and twill trousers, stowed the picnic hamper tidily beneath the seat, and offered me a callused hand down into the well of the boat.

  It was a beautiful day, with the burgeoning greenery of the steep banks blurring in the ruffled surface of the loch. Our guide, despite his dour appearance, was knowledgeable and talkative, pointing out the islands, castles, and ruins that rimmed the long, narrow loch.

  “Yonder, that’s Urquhart Castle.” He pointed to a smooth-faced wall of stone, barely visible through the trees. “Or what’s left of it. ’Twas cursed by the witches of the Glen, and saw one unhappiness after another.”

  He told us the story of Mary Grant, daughter of the laird of Urquhart Castle, and her lover, Donald Donn, poet son of MacDonald of Bohuntin. Forbidden to meet because of her father’s objection to the latter’s habits of “lifting” any cattle he came across (an old and honorable Highland profession, the guide assured us), they met anyway. The father got wind of it, Donald was lured to a false rendezvous and thus taken. Condemned to die, he begged to be beheaded like a gentleman, rather than hanged as a felon. This request was granted, and the young man led to the block, repeating “The Devil will take the Laird of Grant out of his shoes, and Donald Donn shall not be hanged.” He wasn’t, and legend reports that as his severed head rolled from the block, it spoke, saying, “Mary, lift ye my head.”

  I shuddered, and Frank put an arm around me. “There’s a bit of one of his poems left,” he said quietly. “Donald Donn’s. It goes:

  “Tomorrow I shall be on a hill, without a head.

  Have you no compassion for my sorrowful maiden,

  My Mary, the fair and tender-eyed?”

  I took his hand and squeezed it lightly.

  As story after story of treachery, murder, and violence were recounted, it seemed as though the loch had earned its sinister reputation.

  “What about the monster?” I asked, peering over the side into the murky depths. It seemed entirely appropriate to such a setting.

  Our guide shrugged and spat into the water.

  “Weel, the loch’s queer, and no mistake. There’s stories, to be sure, of something old and evil that once lived in the depths. Sacrifices were made to it—kine, and sometimes even wee bairns, flung into the water in withy baskets.” He spat again. “And some say the loch’s bottomless—got a hole in the center deeper than anything else in Scotland. On the other hand”—the guide’s crinkled eyes crinkled a bit more—“ ’twas a family here from Lancashire a few years ago, cam’ rushin’ to the police station in Invermoriston, screamin’ as they’d seen the monster come out o’ the water and hide in the bracken. Said ’twas a terrible creature, covered wi’ red hair and fearsome horns, and chewin’ something, wi’ the blood all dripping from its mouth.” He held up a hand, stemming my horrified exclamation.

  “The constable they sent to see cam’ back and said, weel, bar the drippin’ blood, ’twas a verra accurate description”—he paused for effect—“of a nice Highland cow, chewin’ her cud in the bracken!”

  We sailed down half the length of the loch before disembarking for a late lunch. We met the car there and motored back through the Glen, observing nothing more sinister than a red fox in the road, who looked up startled, a small animal of some sort hanging limp in its jaws, as we zoomed around a curve. He leaped for the side of the road and swarmed up the bank, swift as a shadow.

  It was very late indeed when we finally staggered up the path to Mrs. Baird’s, but we clung together on the doorstep as Frank groped for the key, still laughing over the events of the day.

  It wasn’t until we were undressing for bed that I remembered to mention the miniature henge on Craigh na Dun to Frank. His fatigue vanished at once.

  “Really? And you know where it is? How marvelous, Claire!” He beamed and began rattling through his suitcase.

  “What are you looking for?”

  “The alarm clock,” he replied, hauling it out.

  “Whatever for?” I asked in astonishment.

  “I want to be up in time to see them.”


  “The witches.”

  “Witches? Who told you there are witches?”

  “The vicar,” Frank answered, clearly enjoying the joke. “His housekeeper’s one of them.”

  I thought of the dignified Mrs. Graham and snorted derisively. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

  “Well, not witches, actually. There have been witches all over Scotland for hundreds of years—they burnt them ’til well into the eighteenth century—but this lot is really meant to be Druids, or something of the sort. I don’t suppose it’s actually a coven—not devil-worship, I don’t mean. But the vicar said there was a local group that still observes rituals on the old sun-feast days. He can’t afford to take too much interest in such goings-on, you see, be
cause of his position, but he’s much too curious a man to ignore it altogether, either. He didn’t know where the ceremonies took place, but if there’s a stone circle nearby, that must be it.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “What luck!”

  * * *

  Getting up once in the dark to go adventuring is a lark. Twice in two days smacks of masochism.

  No nice warm car with rugs and thermoses this time, either. I stumbled sleepily up the hill behind Frank, tripping over roots and stubbing my toes on stones. It was cold and misty, and I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my cardigan.

  One final push up over the crest of the hill, and the henge was before us, the stones barely visible in the somber light of predawn. Frank stood stock-still, admiring them, while I subsided onto a convenient rock, panting.

  “Beautiful,” he murmured. He crept silently to the outer edge of the ring, his shadowy figure disappearing among the larger shadows of the stones. Beautiful they were, and bloody eerie too. I shivered, and not entirely from the cold. If whoever had made them had meant them to impress, they’d known what they were doing.

  Frank was back in a moment. “No one here yet,” he whispered suddenly from behind me, making me jump. “Come on, I’ve found a place we can watch from.”

  The light was coming up from the east now, just a tinge of paler grey on the horizon, but enough to keep me from stumbling as Frank led me through a gap he had found in some alder bushes near the top of the path. There was a tiny clearing inside the clump of bushes, barely enough for the two of us to stand shoulder to shoulder. The path was clearly visible, though, and so was the interior of the stone circle, no more than twenty feet away. Not for the first time, I wondered just what kind of work Frank had done during the War. He certainly seemed to know a lot about maneuvering soundlessly in the dark.

  Drowsy as I was, I wanted nothing more than to curl up under a cozy bush and go back to sleep. There wasn’t room for that, though, so I continued to stand, peering down the steep path in search of oncoming Druids. I was getting a crick in my back, and my feet ached, but it couldn’t take long; the streak of light in the east had turned a pale pink, and I supposed it was less than half an hour ’til dawn.

  The first one moved almost as silently as Frank. There was only the faintest of rattles as her feet dislodged a pebble near the crest of the hill, and then the neat grey head rose silently into sight. Mrs. Graham. So it was true, then. The vicar’s housekeeper was sensibly dressed in tweed skirt and woolly coat, with a white bundle under one arm. She disappeared behind one of the standing stones, quiet as a ghost.

  They came quite quickly after that, in ones and twos and threes, with subdued giggles and whispers on the path that were quickly shushed as they came into sight of the circle.

  I recognized a few. Here came Mrs. Buchanan, the village postmistress, blond hair freshly permed and the scent of Evening in Paris wafting strongly from its waves. I suppressed a laugh. So this was a modern-day Druid!

  There were fifteen in all, and all women, ranging in age from Mrs. Graham’s sixty-odd years to a young woman in her early twenties, whom I had seen pushing a pram round the shops two days before. All of them were dressed for rough walking, with bundles beneath their arms. With a minimum of chat, they disappeared behind stones or bushes, emerging empty-handed and bare-armed, completely clad in white. I caught the scent of laundry soap as one brushed by our clump of bushes, and recognized the garments as bedsheets, wrapped about the body and knotted at the shoulder.

  They assembled outside the ring of stones, in a line from eldest to youngest, and stood in silence, waiting. The light in the east grew stronger.

  As the sun edged its way above the horizon, the line of women began to move, walking slowly between two of the stones. The leader took them directly to the center of the circle, and led them round and round, still moving slowly, stately as swans in a circular procession.

  The leader suddenly stopped, raised her arms, and stepped into the center of the circle. Raising her face toward the pair of easternmost stones, she called out in a high voice. Not loud, but clear enough to be heard throughout the circle. The still mist caught the words and made them echo, as though they came from all around, from the stones themselves.

  Whatever the call was, it was echoed again by the dancers. For dancers they now became. Not touching, but with arms outstretched toward each other, they bobbed and weaved, still moving in a circle. Suddenly the circle split in half. Seven of the dancers moved clockwise, still in a circular motion. The others moved in the opposite direction. The two semicircles passed each other at increasing speeds, sometimes forming a complete circle, sometimes a double line. And in the center, the leader stood stock-still, giving again and again that mournful high-pitched call, in a language long since dead.

  They should have been ridiculous, and perhaps they were. A collection of women in bedsheets, many of them stout and far from agile, parading in circles on top of a hill. But the hair prickled on the back of my neck at the sound of their call.

  They stopped as one, and turned to face the rising sun, standing in the form of two semicircles, with a path lying clear between the halves of the circle thus formed. As the sun rose above the horizon, its light flooded between the eastern stones, knifed between the halves of the circle, and struck the great split stone on the opposite side of the henge.

  The dancers stood for a moment, frozen in the shadows to either side of the beam of light. Then Mrs. Graham said something, in the same strange language, but this time in a speaking voice. She pivoted and walked, back straight, iron-grey waves glinting in the sun, along the path of light. Without a word, the dancers fell in step behind her. They passed one by one through the cleft in the main stone and disappeared in silence.

  We crouched in the alders until the women, now laughing and chatting normally, had retrieved their clothes and set off in a group down the hill, headed for coffee at the vicarage.

  “Goodness!” I stretched, trying to get the kinks out of my legs and back. “That was quite a sight, wasn’t it?”

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