Outlander, p.40
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       Outlander, p.40
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  Jamie shot a swift glance at his cousin, but finished pitching hay into the sorrel’s stall before speaking. When he did, he answered the thought, rather than the words.

  “I never saw him ride, but I’ll tell ye, lad, I hope never to need as much courage as Colum has.”

  I saw Hamish’s gaze rest curiously on Jamie’s scarred back, but he said nothing. After a second apple, his thoughts appeared to have shifted to another topic.

  “Rupert said ye had to get married,” he remarked, through a mouthful of apple.

  “I wanted to get married,” Jamie said firmly, replacing the pitchfork against the wall.

  “Oh. Well…good,” Hamish said uncertainly, as though disconcerted by this novel idea. “I only wondered…do ye mind?”

  “Mind what?” Seeing that this conversation might take a while, Jamie sat down on a bale of hay.

  Hamish’s feet did not quite reach the floor, or he might have shuffled them. Instead, he drummed his heels lightly against the firm-packed hay.

  “Do ye mind being married,” he said, staring at his cousin. “Getting into bed every night with a lady, I mean.”

  “No,” said Jamie. “No, in fact, it’s verra pleasant.”

  Hamish looked doubtful.

  “I dinna think I should like it much. But then all the girls I know are skinny as sticks, and they smell o’ barely water. The lady Claire—your lady, I mean,” he added hastily, as though wishing to avoid confusion, “she’s, er, she looks as though she’d be nicer to sleep with. Soft, I mean.”

  Jamie nodded. “Aye, that’s true. Smells all right, too,” he offered. Even in the dim light, I could see a small muscle twitching near the corner of his mouth, and knew he didn’t dare look up in the direction of the loft.

  There was a long pause.

  “How d’ye know?” Hamish said.

  “Know what?”

  “Which is the right lady to get married to,” the boy said impatiently.

  “Oh.” Jamie rocked back and settled himself against the stone wall, hands behind his head.

  “I asked my own Da that, once,” he said. “He said ye just ken. And if ye dinna ken, then she’s no the right lassie.”

  “Mmmphm.” This seemed a less than satisfactory explanation, to judge from the expression on the small freckle-spattered face. Hamish sat back, consciously aping Jamie’s posture. His stockinged feet stuck out over the edge of the hay bale. Small as he was, his sturdy frame gave promise of someday matching his cousin’s. The set of the square shoulders, and the tilt of the solid, graceful skull were nearly identical.

  “Where’s your shoon, then?” Jamie asked accusingly. “You’ll no ha’ left them in the pasture again? Your mother will box your ears for ye if ye’ve lost them.”

  Hamish shrugged this off as a threat of no consequence. Clearly there was something of more importance on his mind.

  “John—” he started, wrinkling his sandy brows in thought, “John says—”

  “John the stable-lad, John the cook-boy, or John Cameron?” Jamie asked.

  “The stable-lad.” Hamish waved a hand, pushing away the distraction. “He said, er, about getting married…”

  “Mmm?” Jamie made an encouraging noise, keeping his face tactfully turned away. Rolling his eyes upward, his glance met mine, as I peered over the edge. I grinned down at him, causing him to bite his lip to keep from grinning back.

  Hamish drew a deep breath, and let it out in a rush, propelling his words like a burst of birdshot. “He-said-ye-must-serve-a-lass-like-a-stallion-does-a-mare-and-I-didna-believe-him-but-is-it-true?”

  I bit my finger hard to keep from laughing out loud. Not so fortunately placed, Jamie dug his fingers into the fleshy part of his leg, turning as red in the face as Hamish. They looked like two tomatoes, set side by side on a hay bale for judging at a county vegetable show.

  “Er, aye…weel, in a way…” he said, sounding strangled. Then he got a grip on himself.

  “Yes,” he said firmly, “yes, ye do.”

  Hamish cast a half-horrified glance into the nearby stall, where the bay gelding was relaxing, a foot or so of reproductive equipment protruding from its sheath. He glanced doubtfully down into his lap then, and I stuffed a handful of fabric into my mouth as far as it would go.

  “There’s some difference, ye ken,” Jamie went on. The rich color was beginning to fade from his face, though there was still an ominous quiver around his mouth. “For one thing, it’s…more gentle.”

  “Ye dinna bite them on the neck, then?” Hamish had the serious, intent expression of one taking careful notes. “To make them keep still?”

  “Er…no. Not customarily, anyway.” Exercising his not inconsiderable willpower, Jamie faced up manfully to the responsibilities of enlightenment.

  “There’s another difference, as well,” he said, carefully not looking upward. “Ye may do it face to face, instead of from the back. As the lady prefers.”

  “The lady?” Hamish seemed dubious about this. “I think I’d rather do it from the back. I dinna think I’d like to have anyone lookin’ at me while I did something like that. Is it hard,” he inquired, “is it hard to keep from laughing?”

  * * *

  I was still thinking about Jamie and Hamish when I came to bed that night. I turned down the thick quilts, smiling to myself. There was a cool draft from the window, and I looked forward to crawling under the quilts and nestling against Jamie’s warmth. Impervious to cold, he seemed to carry a small furnace within himself, and his skin was always warm; sometimes almost hot, as though he burned more fiercely in answer to my own cool touch.

  I was still a stranger and an outlander, but no longer a guest at the Castle. While the married women seemed somewhat friendlier, now that I was one of them, the younger girls seemed strongly to resent the fact that I had removed an eligible young bachelor from circulation. In fact, noting the number of cold glances and behind-the-hand remarks, I rather wondered just how many of the Castle maidens had found their way into a secluded alcove with Jamie MacTavish during his short residency.

  MacTavish no longer, of course. Most of the Castle inhabitants had always known who he was, and whether I was an English spy or not, I now knew of necessity as well. So he became Fraser publicly, and so did I. It was as Mistress Fraser that I was welcomed into the room above the kitchens where the married women did their sewing and rocked their babies, exchanging bits of mother-lore and eyeing my own waistline with frank appraisal.

  Because of my earlier difficulties in conceiving, I had not considered the possibility of pregnancy when I agreed to marry Jamie, and I waited in some apprehension until my monthly occurred on time. My feelings this time were entirely of relief, with none of the sadness that usually accompanied it. My life was more than complicated enough at the moment, without introducing a baby into it. I thought that Jamie perhaps felt a small twinge of regret, though he also professed himself relieved. Fatherhood was a luxury that a man in his position could ill afford.

  The door opened and he came in, still rubbing his head with a linen towel, water droplets from his wet hair darkening his shirt.

  “Where have you been?” I asked in astonishment. Luxurious as Leoch might be in contrast to the residences of village and croft, it didn’t boast any bathing facilities beyond a copper tub that Colum used to soak his aching legs, and a slightly larger one used by such ladies as thought the labor involved in filling it worth the privacy. All other washing was done either in bits, using basin and ewer, or outside, either in the loch or in a small, stone-floored chamber off the garden, where the young women were accustomed to stand naked and let their friends throw buckets of water over them.

  “In the loch,” he answered, hanging the damp towel neatly over the windowsill. “Someone,” he said grimly, “left the stall door ajar, and the stable door as well, and Cobhar had a wee swim in the twilight.”

  “Oh, so that’s why you weren’t at supper. But horses don’t like to swim, do they?” I asked.<
br />
  He shook his head, running his fingers through his hair to dry it.

  “No, they don’t. But they’re just like folk, ye ken; all different. And Cobhar is fond of the young water plants. He was down nibbling by the water’s edge when a pack of dogs from the village came along and chased him into the loch. I had to run them off and then go in after him. Wait ’til I get my hands on wee Hamish,” he said, with grim intent. “I’ll teach him to leave gates ajar.”

  “Are you going to tell Colum about it?” I asked, feeling a qualm of sympathy for the culprit.

  Jamie shook his head, groping in his sporran. He drew out a roll and a chunk of cheese, apparently filched from the kitchens on his way up to the chamber.

  “No,” he said. “Colum’s fair strict wi’ the lad. If he heard he’d been so careless, he’d not let him ride for a month—not that he could, after the thrashing he’d get. Lord, I’m starving.” He bit ferociously into the roll, scattering crumbs.

  “Don’t get into bed with that,” I said, sliding under the quilts myself. “What are you planning to do to Hamish, then?”

  He swallowed the remainder of the roll and smiled at me. “Dinna worry. I’m going to row him out on the loch just before supper tomorrow and toss him in. By the time he makes it to shore and dries off, supper will be over.” He finished the cheese in three bites and unashamedly licked his fingers. “Let him go to bed wet and hungry and see how he likes it,” he concluded darkly.

  He peered hopefully in the drawer of the desk where I sometimes kept apples or other small bits of food. There was nothing there tonight, though, and he shut the drawer with a sigh.

  “I suppose I’ll live ’til breakfast,” he said philosophically. He stripped rapidly and crawled in next to me, shivering. Though his extremities were chilled from his swim in the icy loch, his body was still blissfully warm.

  “Mm, you’re nice to croodle wi’,” he murmured, doing what I assumed was croodling. “You smell different; been digging plants today?”

  “No,” I said, surprised. “I thought it was you—the smell, I mean.” It was a tangy, herbal smell, not unpleasant, but unfamiliar.

  “I smell like fish,” he observed, sniffing the back of his hand. “And wet horse. No,” he leaned closer, inhaling. “No, it isna you, either. But it’s close by.”

  He slid out of bed and turned back the quilts, searching. We found it under my pillow.

  “What on earth…?” I picked it up, and promptly dropped it. “Ouch! It has thorns!”

  “It was a small bundle of plants, plucked up roughly by the roots, and bound together with a bit of black thread. The plants were wilted, but a pungent smell still rose from the drooping leaves. There was one flower in the bouquet, a crushed primrose, whose thorny stem had pricked my thumb.

  I sucked the offended digit, turning the bundle over more cautiously with my other hand. Jamie stood still, staring down at it for a moment. Then he suddenly picked it up, and crossing to the open window, flung it out into the light. Returning to the bed, he energetically brushed the crumbs of earth from the plants’ roots into the palm of his hand and threw them out after the bundle. He closed the window with a slam and came back, dusting his palms.

  “It’s gone,” he said, unnecessarily. He climbed back into bed. “Come back to bed, Sassenach.”

  “What was it?” I asked, climbing in beside him.

  “A joke, reckon,” he said. “A nasty one, but only a joke.” He raised himself on one elbow and blew out the candle. “Come here, mo duinne,” he said. “I’m cold.”

  * * *

  Despite the unsettling ill-wish, I slept well, secure in the dual protection of a bolted door and Jamie’s arms. Toward dawn, I dreamed of grassy meadows filled with butterflies. Yellow, brown, white, and orange, they swirled around me like autumn leaves, lighting on my head and shoulders, sliding down my body like rain, the tiny feet tickling on my skin and the velvet wings beating like faint echoes of my own heart.

  I floated gently to the surface of reality, and found that the butterfly feet against my stomach were the flaming tendrils of Jamie’s soft red thatch, and the butterfly trapped between my thighs was his tongue.

  “Mmm,” I said, sometime later. “Well, that’s all very well for me, but what about you?”

  “About three-quarters of a minute, if you keep on in that fashion,” he said, putting my hand away with a grin. “But I’d rather take my time over it—I’m a slow and canny man by nature, d’ye see. Might I ask the favor of your company for this evening, Mistress?”

  “You might,” I said. I put my arms behind my head, and fixed him with a half-lidded look of challenge. “If you mean to tell me that you’re so decrepit you can’t manage more than once in a day anymore.”

  He regarded me narrowly from his seat on the edge of the bed. There was a sudden flash of white as he lunged, and I found myself pressed deep into the featherbed.

  “Aye, well,” he said into the tangles of my hair, “you’ll no say I didna warn ye.”

  Two and a half minutes later, he groaned and opened his eyes. He scrubbed his face and head vigorously with both hands, making the shorter ends stick up like quills. Then, with a muffled Gaelic oath, he slid reluctantly out from under the blankets and began to dress, shivering in the chilly morning air.

  “I don’t suppose,” I asked hopefully, “that you could tell Alec you’re sick, and come back to bed?”

  He laughed and bent to kiss me before groping under the bed for his stockings. “Would that I could, Sassenach. I doubt much short of pox, plague, or grievous bodily harm would answer as an excuse, though. If I weren’t bleeding, old Alec would be up here in a trice, dragging me off my deathbed to help wi’ the worming.”

  I eyed his graceful long calves as he pulled a stocking up neatly and folded the top. “ ‘Grievous bodily harm,’ eh? I might manage something along those lines,” I said darkly.

  He grunted as he reached across for the other stocking. “Well, watch where ye toss your elf-darts, Sassenach.” He tried a lewd wink, but wound up squinting at me instead. “Aim too high, and I’ll be no good to you, either.”

  I arched one eyebrow and snuggled back under the quilts. “Not to worry. Nothing above the knee, I promise.”

  He patted one of my rounder bulges and left for the stables, singing rather loudly the air from “Up Among the Heather.” The refrain floated back from the stairwell:

  “Sittin’ wi’ a wee girl, holdin’ on my knee—

  When a bumblebee stung me, weel above the kneeeee—

  Up among the heather, at the head o’ Bendikee!”

  He was right, I decided; he didn’t have any ear for music.

  I relapsed temporarily into a state of satisfied somnolence, but roused myself shortly to go down for breakfast. Most of the castle inhabitants had eaten and gone to their work already; those still in the hall greeted me pleasantly enough. There were no sidelong looks, no expressions of veiled hostility, of someone wondering how well their nasty little trick had worked. But I watched the faces, nonetheless.

  The morning was spent alone in the garden and fields with my basket and digging stick. I was running short of some of the most popular herbs. Generally the village people went to Geillis Duncan for help, but there had been several patients from the village turning up of late in my dispensary, and the traffic in nostrums had been heavy. Maybe her husband’s illness was keeping her too busy to care for her regular customers.

  I spent the latter part of the afternoon in my dispensary. There were few patients to be seen; only a case of persistent eczema, a dislocated thumb, and a kitchen boy who had spilled a pot of hot soup down one leg. Having dispensed ointment of yawroot and blue flag and reset and bound the thumb, I settled down to the task of pounding some very aptly named stoneroot in one of the late Beaton’s smaller mortars.

  It was tedious work, but well suited to this sort of lazy afternoon. The weather was fair, and I could see blue shadows lengthening under the elms to the wes
t when I stood on my table to peer out.

  Inside, the glass bottles gleamed in orderly ranks, neat stacks of bandages and compresses in the cupboards next to them. The apothecary’s cabinet had been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and now held stores of dried leaves, roots, and fungi, neatly packed in cotton-gauze bags. I took a deep breath of the sharp, spicy odors of my sanctum and let it out in a sigh of contentment.

  Then I stopped pounding and set the pestle down. I was contented, I realized with a shock. Despite the myriad uncertainties of life here, despite the unpleasantness of the ill-wish, despite the small, constant ache of missing Frank, I was in fact not unhappy. Quite the contrary.

  I felt immediately ashamed and disloyal. How could I bring myself to be happy, when Frank must be demented with worry? Assuming that time was in fact continuing without me—and I couldn’t see why it wouldn’t—I must have gone missing for upwards of four months. I imagined him searching the Scottish countryside, calling the police, waiting for some sign, some word of me. By now, he must nearly have given up hope and be waiting, instead, for word that my body had been found.

  I set down the mortar and paced up and down the length of my narrow room, rubbing my hands on my apron in a spasm of guilty sorrow and regret. I should have got away sooner. I should have tried harder to return. But I had, I reminded myself. I had tried repeatedly. And look what had happened.

  Yes, look. I was married to a Scottish outlaw, the both of us hunted by a sadistic captain of dragoons, and living with a lot of barbarians, who would as soon kill Jamie as look at him, if they thought him a threat to their precious clan succession. And the worst of it all was that I was happy.

  I sat down, staring helplessly at the array of jars and bottles. I had been living day to day since our return to Leoch, deliberately suppressing the memories of my earlier life. Deep down, I knew that I must soon make some kind of decision, but I had delayed, putting off the necessity from day to day and hour to hour, burying my uncertainties in the pleasures of Jamie’s company—and his arms.

  There was a sudden bumping and cursing out in the corridor, and I rose hastily and went to the door, just in time to see Jamie himself stumble in, supported by the bowed form of Old Alec McMahon on one side, and the earnest but spindly efforts of one of the stable lads on the other. He sank onto my stool, left foot outstretched, and grimaced unpleasantly at it. The grimace seemed to be more of annoyance than pain, so I knelt to examine the offending appendage with relatively little concern.

  “Mild strain,” I said, after a cursory inspection. “What did you do?”

  “Fell off,” Jamie said succinctly.

  “Off the fence?” I asked, teasing. He glowered.

  “No. Off Donas.”

  “You were riding that thing?” I asked incredulously. “In that case, you’re lucky to get off with a strained ankle.” I fetched a length of bandage and began to wrap the joint.

  “Weel, it wasna sae bad as a’ that,” said Old Alec judiciously. “In fact, lad, ye were doin’ quiet weel wi’ him for a bit.”

  “I know I was,” snapped Jamie, gritting his teeth as I pulled the bandage tight. “A bee stung him.”

  The bushy brows lifted. “Oh, that was it? Beast acted like he’d been struck wi’ an elf-dart,” he confided to me. “Went straight up in the air on all fours, and came down again, then went stark, staring mad—all over the pen like a bumble-bee in a jar. Yon wee laddie stuck on too,” he said, nodding at Jamie, who invented a new unpleasant expression in response, “until the big yellow fiend went ower the fence.”

  “Over the fence? Where is he now?” I asked, standing up and dusting my hands.

  “Halfway back to hell, I expect,” said Jamie, putting his foot down and trying his weight gingerly on it. “And welcome to stay there.” Wincing, he sat back.

  “I doubt the de’ils got much use for a half-broke stallion,” observed Alec. “Bein’ able to turn himself into a horse when needed.”

  “Perhaps that’s who Donas really is,” I suggested, amused.

  “I wouldna doubt it,” said Jamie, still smarting, but beginning to recover his usual good humor. “The de’il’s customarily a black stallion, though, is he no?”

  “Oh, aye,” said Alec. “A great black stallion, that travels as fast as the thought between a man and a maid.”

  He grinned genially at Jamie and rose to go.

  “And speakin’ of that,” he said, with a wink at me, “I’ll no expect ye in the stables tomorrow. Keep to your bed, laddie, and, er…rest.”

  “Why is it,” I demanded, looking after the crusty old horsemaster, “that everyone seems to assume we’ve no more on our minds than to get into bed with each other?”

  Jamie tried his weight on the foot again, bracing himself on the counter.

  “For one thing, we’ve been married less than a month,” he observed. “For another—” He looked up and grinned, shaking his head. “I’ve told ye before, Sassenach. Everything ye think shows on your face.”

  “Bloody hell,” I said.

  * * *

 
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