Outlander, p.41
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       Outlander, p.41
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  Aside from a quick trip to the dispensary to check for emergencies, I spent the next morning ministering to the rather demanding needs of my solitary patient.

  “You are supposed to be resting,” I said reprovingly, at one point.

  “I am. Well, my ankle is resting, at least. See?”

  A long, unstockinged shin thrust up into the air, and a bony, slender foot waggled back and forth. It stopped abruptly in mid-waggle with a muffled “ouch” from its owner. He lowered it and tenderly massaged the still-puffy ankle.

  “That’ll teach you,” I said, swinging my own legs out from under the blankets. “Come along now. You’ve been frowsting in bed quite long enough. You need fresh air.”

  He sat up, hair falling over his face.

  “I thought ye said it was rest I needed.”

  “You can rest in the fresh air. Get up. I’m making up the bed.”

  Amid complaints about my general unfeelingness and lack of consideration for a gravely injured man, he got dressed and sat long enough for me to bind up the weak ankle before his natural exuberance asserted itself.

  “It’s a bit saft out,” he said, with a glance through the casement, where the mild drizzle had just decided to buckle down to it and become a major downpour. “Let’s go up to the roof.”

  “The roof? Oh, to be sure. I couldn’t think of a better prescription for a strained ankle than climbing six flights of stairs.”

  “Five. Besides, I’ve a stick.” He produced the stick in question, an aged hawthorn club, from behind the door with a triumphant flourish.

  “Wherever did you get that?” I inquired, examining it. At closer range, it was even more battered, a three-foot length of chipped hardwood, age-hardened as a diamond.

  “Alec lent it me. He uses it on the mules; raps them twixt the eyes wi’ it to make them pay attention.”

  “Sounds very effective,” I said, eyeing the scuffed wood. “I must try it sometime. On you.”

  We emerged at last in a small sheltered spot, just under the overhang of the slate roof. A low parapet guarded the edge of this small lookout.

  “Oh, it’s beautiful!” Despite the gusty rain, the view from the roof was magnificent; we could see the broad silver sweep of the loch and the towering crags beyond, thrusting into the solid grey of the sky like ridged black fists.

  Jamie leaned on the parapet, taking the weight from his injured foot.

  “Aye, it is. I used to come up here sometimes, when I was at the Castle before.”

  He pointed across the loch, dimpling under the beat of the rain.

  “D’ye see the notch there, between those two craigs?”

  “In the mountains? Yes.”

  “That’s the way to Lallybroch. When I’d feel lonely for my home, sometimes I’d come up here and look that way. I’d imagine flying like a corbie across that pass, and the look of the hills and the fields, falling down the other side of the mountain, and the manor house at the end of the valley.”

  I touched him gently on the arm.

  “Do you want to go back, Jamie?”

  He turned his head and smiled down at me.

  “Well, I’ve been thinking of it. I don’t know if I want to, precisely, but I think we must. I canna say what we’ll find there, Sassenach. But…aye. I’m wed now. You’re lady of Broch Tuarach. Outlaw or no, I need to go back, even if just long enough to set things straight.”

  I felt a thrill, compounded of relief and apprehension, at the thought of leaving Leoch and its assorted intrigues.

  “When will we go?”

  He frowned, drumming his fingers on the parapet. The stone was dark and slick with rain.

  “Well, I think we must wait for the Duke to come. It’s possible that he might see his way to doing Colum a favor by taking up my case. If he cannot get me cleared, he might be able to arrange a pardon. There’d be a good deal less danger in going back to Lallybroch, then, ye see.”

  “Well, yes, but…” He glanced sharply at me as I hesitated.

  “What is it, Sassenach?”

  I took a deep breath. “Jamie…if I tell you something will you promise not to ask me how I know?”

  He took me by both arms, looking down into my face. The rain misted his hair and small droplets ran down the sides of his face. He smiled at me.

  “I told you that I wouldna ask for anything that ye dinna wish to tell me. Yes, I promise.”

  “Let’s sit down. You shouldn’t be standing on that foot so long.”

  We made our way to the wall where the overhanging slates of the roof sheltered a small dry patch of pavement, and settled ourselves comfortably, backs against the wall.

  “All right, Sassenach. What is it?” Jamie asked.

  “The Duke of Sandringham,” I said. I bit my lip. “Jamie, don’t trust him. I don’t know everything about him myself, but I do know—there’s something about him. Something wrong.”

  “You know about that?” He looked surprised.

  Now it was my turn to stare.

  “You mean you know about him already? Have you met him?” I was relieved. Perhaps the mysterious links between Sandringham and the Jacobite cause were much better known than Frank and the vicar had thought.

  “Oh, aye. He was here, visiting, when I was sixteen. When I…left.”

  “Why did you leave?” I was curious, remembering suddenly what Geillis Duncan had said when first I’d met her in the wood. The odd rumor that Jamie was the real father of Colum’s son Hamish. I knew myself that he wasn’t, couldn’t have been—but I was quite possibly the only person in the Castle who did know. A suspicion of that sort could easily have led to Dougal’s earlier attempt on Jamie’s life—if in fact that’s what the attack at Carryarick had been.

  “It wasn’t because of…the lady Letitia, was it?” I asked with some hesitation.

  “Letitia?” His startled astonishment was plain, and something inside me that I hadn’t known was clenched suddenly relaxed. I hadn’t really thought there was anything to Geilie’s supposition, but still.…

  “What on earth makes ye mention Letitia?” Jamie asked curiously. “I lived at the Castle for a year, and had speech of her maybe once that I remember, when she called me to her chamber and gave me the raw side of her tongue for leading a game of shinty through her rose garden.”

  I told him what Geilie had said, and he laughed, breath misting in the cool, rainy air.

  “God,” he said, “as though I’d have the nerve!”

  “You don’t think Colum suspected any such thing, do you?” I asked.

  He shook his head decidedly.

  “No, I don’t, Sassenach. If he had any inkling of such a thing, I wouldna have lived to be seventeen, let alone achieve the ripe old age of three-and-twenty.”

  This more or less confirmed my own impression of Colum, but I was relieved, nonetheless. Jamie’s expression had grown thoughtful, blue eyes suddenly remote.

  “Come to think on it, though, I don’t know that Colum does know why I left the Castle so sudden, then. And if Geillis Duncan is goin’ about the place spreading such rumors—that woman’s a troublemaker, Sassenach; a gossip and a scold, if not the witch folk say she is—well, I’d best see that he finds out, then.”

  He glanced up at the sheet of water pouring from the eaves.

  “Perhaps we’d best go down, Sassenach. It’s getting a wee bit damp out.”

  We took a different way down, crossing the roof to an outer stairway that led down to the kitchen gardens, where I wanted to pull a bit of borage, if the downpour would let me. We sheltered under the wall of the Castle, one of the jutting window ledges diverting the rain above.

  “What do ye do wi’ borage, Sassenach?” Jamie asked with interest, looking out at the straggly vines and plants, beaten to the earth by the rain.

  “When it’s green, nothing. First you dry it, and then—”

  I was interrupted by a terrific noise of barking and shouting, coming from outside the garden wall. I raced throug
h the downpour toward the wall, followed more slowly by Jamie, limping.

  Father Bain, the village priest, was running up the path, puddles exploding under his feet, pursued by a yelping pack of dogs. Hampered by his voluminous soutane, the priest tripped and fell, water and mud flying in spatters all around him. In a moment, the dogs were upon him, growling and snapping.

  A blur of plaid vaulted over the wall next to me, and Jamie was among them, laying about with his stick and shouting in Gaelic, adding his voice to the general racket. If the shouts and curses had little effect, the stick had more. There were sharp yelps as the club struck hairy flesh, and gradually the pack retreated, finally turning and galloping off in the direction of the village.

  Jamie wiped the hair out of his eyes, panting.

  “Bad as wolves,” he said. “I’d told Colum about that pack already; they’re the ones that chased Cobhar into the loch two days ago. Best he has them shot before they kill someone.” He looked down at me as I knelt next to the fallen priest, inspecting. The rain dripped from the ends of my hair, and I could feel my shawl growing sodden.

  “They haven’t yet,” I said. “Bar a few toothmarks, he’s basically all right.”

  Father Bain’s soutane was ripped down one side, showing an expanse of hairless white thigh with an ugly gash and several puncture marks beginning to ooze blood. The priest, pasty-white with shock, was struggling to his feet; plainly he wasn’t too badly injured.

  “If you’ll come to the surgery with me, Father, I’ll cleanse those cuts for you,” I offered, suppressing a smile at the spectacle the fat little priest presented, soutane flapping and argyle socks revealed.

  At the best of times, Father Bain’s face resembled a clenched fist. This similarity was made more pronounced at the moment by the red mottling that streaked his jowls and emphasized the vertical creases between cheeks and mouth. He glared at me as though I had suggested that he commit some public indecency.

  Apparently I had, for his next words were “What, a man o’ God to expose his pairsonal parts to the handling of a wumman? Weel, I’ll tell ye, madam, I’ve no notion what sorts of immorality are practiced in the circles you’re accustomed to move in, but I’ll have ye to ken that such’ll no be tolerated here—not sae long as I’ve the cure of the souls in this parish!” With that, he turned and stumped off, limping rather badly and trying unsuccessfully to hold up the torn side of his robe.

  “Suit yourself,” I called after him. “If you don’t let me cleanse it, it will fester!”

  The priest did not respond, but hunched his round shoulders and hitched his way up the garden stair a step at a time, like a penguin hopping up an ice floe.

  “That man doesn’t care overmuch for women, does he?” I remarked to Jamie.

  “Considering his occupation, I imagine that’s as well,” he replied. “Let’s go and eat.”

  * * *

  After lunch, I sent my patient back to bed to rest—alone, this time, in spite of his protestations—and went down to the surgery. The heavy rain seemed to have made business slack; people tended to stay safely inside, rather than running over their feet with ploughshares or falling off roofs.

  I passed the time pleasantly enough, bringing the records in Davie Beaton’s book up to date. Just as I finished, though, a visitor darkened my door.

  He literally darkened it, his bulk filling it from side to side. Squinting in the semidarkness, I made out the form of Alec MacMahon, swathed in an extraordinary get-up of coats, shawls, and odd bits of horse-blanket.

  He advanced with a slowness that reminded me of Colum’s first visit to the surgery with me, and gave me a clue to his problem.

  “Rheumatism, is it?” I asked with sympathy, as he subsided stiffly into my single chair with a stifled groan.

  “Aye. The damp settles in my bones,” he said. “Aught to be done about it?” He laid his huge, gnarled hands on the table, letting the fingers relax. The hands opened slowly, like a night-blooming flower, to show the callused palms within. I picked up one of the knotted appendages and turned it gently to and fro, stretching the fingers and massaging the horny palm. The seamed old face above the hand contorted for a moment as I did it, but then relaxed as the first twinges passed.

  “Like wood,” I said. “A good slug of whisky and a deep massage is the best I can recommend. Tansy tea will do only so much.”

  He laughed, shawls slipping off his shoulder.

  “Whisky, eh? I had my doubts, lassie, but I see ye’ve the makings of a fine physician.”

  I reached into the back of my medicine cupboard and pulled out the anonymous brown bottle that held my supply from the Leoch distillery. I plunked it on the table before him, with a horn cup.

  “Drink up,” I said, “then get stripped off as far as you think decent and lie on the table. I’ll make up the fire so it will be warm enough.”

  The blue eye surveyed the bottle with appreciation, and a crooked hand reached slowly for the neck.

  “Best have a nip yourself, lassie,” he advised. “It’ll be a big job.”

  He groaned, with a cross between pain and contentment, as I leaned hard on his left shoulder to loosen it, then lifted from underneath and rotated the whole quarter of his body.

  “My wife used to iron my back for me,” he remarked, “for the lumbago. But this is even better. Ye’ve a good strong pair of hands, lassie. Make a good stable-lad, ye would.”

  “I’ll assume that’s a compliment,” I said dryly, pouring more of the heated oil-and-tallow mixture into my palm and spreading it over the broad white expanse of his back. There was a sharp line of demarcation between the weathered, mottled brown skin of his arms, where the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt stopped, and the milk-white skin of his shoulders and back.

  “Well, you were a fine, fair laddie at one time,” I remarked. “The skin of your back’s as white as mine.”

  A deep chuckle shook the flesh under my hands.

  “Never know now, would ye? Aye, Ellen MacKenzie once saw me wi’ my sark off, birthin’ a foal, and told me it looked like the good Lord had put the wrong head to my body—should have had a bag of milk-pudding on my shoulders, instead of a face from the altar-piece.”

  I gathered he was referring to the rood screen in the chapel, which featured a number of extremely unattractive demons, engaged in torturing sinners.

  “Ellen MacKenzie sounds as though she were rather free with her opinions,” I observed. I was more than slightly curious about Jamie’s mother. From the small things he said now and then, I had some picture of his father Brian, but he had never mentioned his mother, and I knew nothing about her, other than that she had died young, in childbed.

  “Oh, she had a tongue on her, did Ellen, and a mind of her own to go wi’ it.” Untying the garters of his trews, I tucked them up out of the way and began operations on the muscular calves of his legs. “But enough sweetness with it that no one minded much, other than her brothers. And she wasna one to pay much heed to Colum or Dougal.”

  “Mm. So I heard. Eloped, didn’t she?” I dug my thumbs into the tendons behind his knee, and he let out a sound that would have been a squeak in anyone less dignified.

  “Oh, aye. Ellen was the eldest o’ the six MacKenzie bairns—a year or two older than Colum, and the apple of auld Jacob’s eye. That’s why she’d gone so long unwed; wouldna ha’ aught to do wi’ John Cameron or Malcolm Grant, or any of the others she might have gone to, and her father wouldna force her against her will.”

  When old Jacob died, though, Colum had less patience with his sister’s foibles. Struggling desperately to consolidate his shaky hold on the clan, he had sought an alliance with Munro to the north, or Grant to the south. Both clans had young chieftains, who would make useful brothers-in-law. Young Jocasta, only fifteen, had obligingly accepted the suit of John Cameron, and gone north. Ellen, on the verge of spinsterhood at twenty-two, had been a good deal less cooperative.

  “I take it Malcolm Grant’s suit was rather fi
rmly rejected, judging from his behavior two weeks ago,” I observed.

  Old Alec laughed, the laugh turning to a satisfied groan as I pressed deeper.

  “Aye. I never heard exactly what she said to him, but I expect it stung. It was at the big Gathering, ye ken, that they met. Out in the rose garden they went, in the evening, and everyone waiting to see would she tak’ him or no. And it grew dark, and they still waiting. And darker still, and the lanterns all lit, and the singing begun, and no sign yet of Ellen or Malcolm Grant.”

  “Goodness. It must have been quite a conversation.” I poured another dollop of the liniment between his shoulder blades, and he grunted with the warm pleasure of it.

  “So it seemed. But time went on, and they didna come back, and Colum began to fear as Grant had eloped wi’ her; taken her by force, ye see. And it seemed as that must be the way of it, for they found the rose garden empty. And when he sent down to the stables for me, sure enough—I told him Grant’s men had come for the horses, and the whole boiling of ’em gone awa’ without a word of farewell.”

  Furious, eighteen-year-old Dougal had mounted his horse at once and set out on the track of Malcolm Grant, not waiting either for company nor for conference with Colum.

  “When Colum heard as Dougal had gone after Grant, he sent me and some others helter-skelter after him, Colum being well acquent wi’ Dougal’s temper and not wishing to have his new brother-in-law slain in the road before the banns were called. For he reckoned as how Malcolm Grant, not being able to talk Ellen into wedding him, must ha’ taken her away in order to have his way wi’ her and force her into marriage that way.”

  Alec paused meditatively. “All Dougal could see was the insult, of course. But I dinna think Colum was that upset about it, to tell the truth, insult or no. It would ha’ solved his problem—and Grant would likely have had to take Ellen wi’out her dower and pay reparation to Colum as well.”

  Alec snorted cynically. “Colum is no the man to let an opportunity pass by him. He’s quick, and he’s ruthless, is Colum.” The single ice-blue eye swiveled back to regard me over one humped shoulder. “Ye’d be wise to bear that in mind, lassie.”

  “I’m not likely to forget it,” I assured him, with some grimness. I remembered Jamie’s story of his punishment at Colum’s order, and wondered how much of that had been in revenge for his mother’s rebellion.

  Still, Colum had had no chance to seize the opportunity of marrying his sister to the laird of clan Grant. Toward dawn, Dougal had found Malcolm Grant camped along the main road with his followers, asleep under a gorse bush, wrapped in his plaid.

  And when Alec and the others had come pelting along the road sometime later, they had been stopped in their tracks by the sight of Dougal MacKenzie and Malcolm Grant, both stripped to the waist and scarred with the marks of battle, swaying and staggering up and down the roadway, still exchanging random blows whenever they got within reach of each other. Grant’s retainers were perched along the roadway like a row of owls, heads turning one way and then the other, as the waning fight meandered up and down in the dripping dawn.

  “They were both of them puffing like blown horses, and the steam rising off their bodies in the chill. Grant’s nose was swelled to twice its size, and Dougal could scarce see out o’ either eye, and both wi’ their blood dripping down and dried ower their breasts.”

  Upon the appearance of Colum’s men, Grant’s tacksmen had all sprung to their feet, hands upon their swords, and the meeting would likely have resulted in serious bloodshed, had some sharp-eyed lad among the MacKenzies not noted the rather important fact that Ellen MacKenzie was nowhere to be seen among the Grants.

  “Weel, after they’d poured water on Malcolm Grant and brought him to his senses, he managed to tell them what Dougal wouldna pause to hear—that Ellen had spent but a quarter-hour wi’ him in the rose garden. He wouldna say what had passed between them, but whatever it was, he’d been so offended as to wish to take his leave at once, without showing his face in the Hall. And he’d left her there, and seen her no more, nor did he wish ever to hear the name of Ellen MacKenzie spoken in his presence again. And wi’ that, he mounted his horse—a bit unsteady, still—and rode awa’. And been no friend since, to anyone of the clan MacKenzie.”

  I listened, fascinated. “And where was Ellen all this time?”

  Old Alec laughed, with the sound of a stable door hinge creaking.

  “Ower the hills and far away. But they didna find it out for some time yet. We turned about and pelted home again, to find Ellen still missing and Colum standing white-faced in the courtyard, leanin’ on Angus Mhor.”

  There followed more confusion still, for with all the guests, the rooms of the Castle were full, as were all the lofts and cubbyholes, the kitchens and closets. It seemed hopeless to tell which of all the folk in the Castle might also be missing, but Colum called all of the servants, and went doggedly down the lists of the invited, asking who had been seen the evening before, and where, and when. And finally he found a kitchen-maid who recalled seeing a man in a back passage, just before the supper was served.

  She had noticed him only because he was so handsome; tall and sturdy, she said, with hair like a black silkie’s and eyes like a cat. She had watched him down the passage, admiring him, and seen him meet someone at the outer door—a woman dressed in black from head to toe, and shrouded in a hooded cloak.

  “What’s a silkie?” I asked.

  Alec’s eye slanted toward me, crinkling at the corners.

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