Outlander, p.60
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       Outlander, p.60
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon



  Whatever the disadvantages of civilization, I reflected grimly, the benefits were undeniable. Take telephones, for example. For that matter, take newspapers, which were popular in such metropolitan centers as Edinburgh or even Perth, but completely unknown in the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands.

  With no such methods of mass communication, news spread from one person to the next at the speed of a man’s stride. People generally found out what they needed to know, but with a delay of several weeks. Consequently, faced with the problem of finding exactly where Jamie was, there was little to rely on except the possibility of someone encountering him and sending word back to Lallybroch. That was a process that might take weeks. And the winter would set in shortly, making travel to Beauly impossible. I sat feeding sticks to the fire, pondering the possibilities.

  Which way would Jamie have gone from the point of his escape? Not back to Lallybroch, to be sure, and almost certainly not north, into the MacKenzie lands. South to the border lands, where he might meet again with Hugh Munro or some of his earlier rough companions? No, most likely northeast, toward Beauly. But if I could figure that out, so could the men of the Watch.

  Murtagh returned from his gathering, dumping an armload of sticks on the ground. He sat down crosslegged on a fold of his plaid, wrapping the rest around himself to keep out the chill. He cast an eye toward the sky, where the moon glowed behind racing clouds.

  “It wilna snow just yet,” he said, frowning. “Another week, maybe two. We might reach Beauly before then.” Well, nice to have confirmation of my deductions, I supposed.

  “You think he’ll be there?”

  The little clansman shrugged, hunching his plaid higher around his shoulders.

  “No tellin’. The travel will no be as easy for him, lyin’ hid during the day, and staying off the roads. And he hasna got a horse.” He scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “We canna find him; we’d best let him find us.”

  “How? Send up flares?” I suggested sarcastically. One thing about Murtagh; no matter what incongruous thing I said, he could be counted on to behave as though I hadn’t spoken.

  “I’ve brought your wee packet of medicines,” he said, nodding toward the saddlebags on the ground. “And you’ve enough of a reputation near Lallybroch; you’ll be known as a healer through most of the countryside near.” He nodded to himself. “Aye, that’ll do well enough.” And without further explanations, he lay down, rolled up in his plaid and went calmly to sleep, ignoring the wind in the trees, the light patter of rain, and me.

  I found out soon enough what he meant. Traveling openly—and slowly—along the main roads, we stopped at every croft and village and hamlet we came to. There he would make a quick survey of the local populace, round up anyone suffering from illness or injury, and bring them to me for treatment. Physicians being few and far between in these parts, there was always someone ailing to attend to.

  While I was occupied with my tonics and salves, he would chat idly with the friends and relatives of the afflicted, taking care to describe the path of our journey toward Beauly. If by chance there were no patients to be seen in a place, we would pause nonetheless for the night, seeking shelter at a cottage or tavern. In these places, Murtagh would sing to entertain our hosts and earn our supper, stubbornly insisting that I preserve all the money I had with me, in case it should be needed when we found Jamie.

  Not naturally inclined toward conversation, he taught me some of his songs, to pass the time as we plodded on from place to place.

  “Ye’ve a decent voice,” he observed, one day, after a moderately successful attempt at “The Dowie Dens of Yarrow.” “Not well-trained, but strong and true enough. Try it once more and ye’ll sing it wi’ me tonight. There’s a wee tavern at Limraigh.”

  “Do you really think this will work?” I asked. “What we’re doing, I mean?”

  He shifted about in the saddle before answering. No natural horseman, he always looked like a monkey trained to ride a horse, but still managed to dismount fresh as a daisy at day’s end, while I could barely manage to hobble my horse before staggering off to collapse.

  “Oh, aye,” he said, at last. “Sooner or later. You’re seein’ more sick folk these days, no?”

  This was true, and I admitted as much.

  “Well, then,” he said, proving his point, “that means word o’ your skill is spreading. And that’s what we want. But we could maybe do better. That’s why you’ll sing tonight. And perhaps…” He hesitated, as though reluctant to suggest something.

  “Perhaps what?”

  “Know anything about fortune-telling, do ye?” he asked warily. I understood the reason for his hesitancy; he had seen the frenzy of the witch-hunt at Cranesmuir.

  I smiled. “A bit. You want me to try it?”

  “Aye. The more we can offer, the more folk will come to see us—and go back to tell others. And word will spread about us, ’til the lad hears of us. And that’s when we’ll find him. Game to try, are ye?”

  I shrugged. “If it will help, why not?”

  I made my debut as singer and fortune-teller that night at Limraigh, with considerable success. I found that Mrs. Graham had been right in what she had told me—it was the faces, not the hands, that gave you the necessary clues.

  Our fame spread, little by little, until by the next week, people were running out of their cottages to greet us as we rode into a village, and showering us with pennies and small gifts as we rode away.

  “You know, we could really make something of this,” I remarked one evening, stowing the night’s takings away. “Too bad there’s no theater anywhere near—we could do a proper music-hall turn: Magical Murtagh and His Glamorous Assistant, Gladys.”

  Murtagh treated this remark with his usual taciturn indifference, but it was true; we really did quite well together. Perhaps it was because we were united in our quest, despite our very basic personality differences.

  The weather grew increasingly bad, and our pace even slower, but there was as yet no word from Jamie. Outside Belladrum one night, in a driving rain, we met with a band of real Gypsies.

  I blinked disbelievingly at the tiny cluster of painted caravans in the clearing near the road. It looked exactly like a camp of the Gypsy bands that came to Hampstead Down every year.

  The people looked the same, too; swarthy, cheerful, loud, and welcoming. Hearing the jingle of our harness, a woman’s head poked out of the window of one caravan. She looked us over for a moment, then gave a shout, and the ground under the trees was suddenly alive with grinning brown faces.

  “Gie me your purse for safekeeping,” said Murtagh, unsmiling, watching the young man swaggering toward us with a gay disregard of the rain soaking his colorful shirt. “And dinna turn your back on anyone.”

  I was cautious, but we were welcomed with expansive motions, and invited to share the Gypsies’ dinner. It smelt delicious—some sort of stew—and I eagerly accepted the invitation, ignoring Murtagh’s dour speculations as to the basic nature of the beast that had provided the stewmeat.

  They spoke little English, and less Gaelic; we conversed largely in gestures, and a sort of bastard tongue that owed its parentage largely to French. It was warm and companionable in the caravan where we ate; men and women and children all ate casually from bowls, sitting wherever they could find space, dipping the succulent stew up with chunks of bread. It was the best food I had had in weeks, and I ate until my sides creaked. I could barely muster breath to sing, but did my best, humming along in the difficult spots, and leaving Murtagh to carry the tunes.

  Our performance was greeted with rapturous applause, and the Gypsies reciprocated, a young man singing some sort of wailing lament to the accompaniment of an ancient fiddle. His performance was punctuated by the crashing of a tambourine, wielded with some gravity by a little girl of about eight.

  While Murtagh had been circumspect in his inquiries in the villages and crofts we vi
sited, with the Gypsies he was entirely open. To my surprise, he told them bluntly who we sought; a big man, with hair like fire, and eyes like the summer skies. The Gypsies exchanged glances up and down the aisle of the caravan, but there was a unanimous shaking of regretful heads. No, they had not seen him. But…and here the leader, the purple-shirted young man who had welcomed us, pantomimed the sending of a messenger, should they happen across the man we sought.

  I bowed, smiling, and Murtagh in turn pantomimed the handing across of money for information received. This bit of business was greeted with smiles, but also with gazes of speculation. I was glad when Murtagh declared that we could not stay the night, but must be on our way, thank ye just the same. He shook out a few coins from his sporran, taking care to exhibit the fact that it held only a small handful of coppers. Distributing these by way of thanks for the supper, we made our exit, followed by voluble protestations of farewell, gratitude, and good wishes—at least that’s what I assumed they were.

  They might actually have been promising to follow us and cut our throats, and Murtagh behaved rather as though this had been the case, leading the horses at a gallop to the crossroads two miles distant, then ducking aside into the vegetation for a substantial detour before reemerging onto the road again.

  Murtagh glanced up and down the road, empty in the fading, rain-soaked dusk.

  “Do you really think they followed us?” I asked curiously.

  “I dinna ken, but since there’s twelve o’ them, and no but the twa o’ us, I thought we’d best act as though they did.” This seemed sound reasoning, and I followed him without question through several more evasive maneuvers, arriving at last in Rossmoor, where we found shelter in a barn.

  Snow fell the next day. Only a light fall, enough to dust the ground with a white like the flour on the millhouse floor, but it worried me. I didn’t like to think of Jamie, alone and unsheltered in the heather, braving winter’s storms in nothing but the shirt and plaid he had been wearing at his capture by the Watch.

  Two days later, the messenger came.

  * * *

  The sun was still above the horizon, but it was evening already in the rockwalled glens. The shadows lay so deep under the leafless trees that the path—what there was of one—was nearly invisible. Fearful of losing the messenger in the gathering dark, I walked so closely behind him that once or twice I actually trod on the trailing hem of his cloak. At last, with an impatient grunt, he turned and thrust me ahead of him, steering me through the dusk with a heavy hand on my shoulder.

  It felt as though we had been walking for a long time. I had long since lost track of our turnings amid the towering boulders and thick dead undergrowth. I could only hope that Murtagh was somewhere behind, keeping within earshot if not within sight. The man who had come to the tavern to fetch me, a middle-aged Gypsy with no English, had flatly refused to have anyone but me accompany him, pointing emphatically first at Murtagh and then the ground, to indicate that he must stay put.

  The night chill came on fast at this time of year, and my heavy cloak was barely enough protection against the sudden gusts of icy wind that met us in the open spaces of the clearings. I was torn between dismay at the thought of Jamie lying through the cold, wet nights of autumn without shelter, and excitement at the thought of seeing him again. A shiver ran up my spine that had nothing to do with the cold.

  At last my guide pulled me to a halt, and with a precautionary squeeze of my shoulder, stepped off the path and disappeared. I stood, as patiently as could be managed, hands folded under my arms for warmth. I was sure my guide—or someone—would return; I hadn’t paid him, for one thing. Still, the wind rattled through the dead brambles like the passing of a deer’s ghost, still in panic-stricken flight from the hunter. And the damp was seeping through the seams of my boots; the otter-fat waterproofing had worn away, and I’d had no chance to reapply it.

  My guide reappeared as suddenly as he had left, making me bite my tongue as I stifled a squeak of surprise. With a jerk of his head, he bade me follow him, and pressed aside a screen of dead alders for me to pass.

  The cave entrance was narrow. There was a lantern burning on a ledge, silhouetting the tall figure that turned toward the entrance to meet me.

  I flung myself forward, realizing even before I touched him that it was not Jamie. Disappointment struck me like a blow in the stomach, and I had to step back and swallow several times to choke back the heavy bile that rose in my throat.

  I clenched my hands at my sides, digging my fists into my thighs until I felt calm enough to speak.

  “Rather out of your territory, aren’t you?” I said, in a voice that surprised me by its coolness.

  Dougal MacKenzie had watched my struggle for control, not without some sympathy on his dark face. Now he took my elbow and led me farther into the cave. There were a number of bundles piled against the far side, many more than a single horse could carry. He wasn’t alone, then. And whatever he and his men carried, it was something he preferred not to expose to the curious gaze of innkeepers and hostlers.

  “Smuggling, I suppose?” I said, with a nod toward the bundle. Then I thought better and answered my own question. “No, not exactly smuggling—goods for Prince Charles, hm?”

  He didn’t bother to answer me, but sat down on a boulder opposite me, hands on his knees.

  “I’ve news,” he said abruptly.

  I took a deep breath, bracing myself. News, and not good news, from the expression on his face. I took another breath, swallowed hard, and nodded.

  “Tell me.”

  “He’s alive,” he said, and the largest of the ice lumps in my stomach dissolved. Dougal cocked his head to one side, watching intently. To see whether I were going to faint? I wondered dimly. It didn’t matter; I wasn’t.

  “He was taken near Kiltorlity, two weeks ago,” Dougal said, still watching me. “Not his fault; poor luck. He met six dragoons face-to-face round a turn in the path, and one recognized him.”

  “Was he hurt?” My voice was still calm, but my hands were beginning to shake. I pressed them flat against my legs to still them.

  Dougal shook his head. “Not as I heard.” He paused a moment. “He’s in Wentworth Prison,” he said reluctantly.

  “Wentworth,” I repeated mechanically. Wentworth Prison. Originally one of the mighty Border fortresses, it had been built sometime in the late sixteenth century, and added to at intervals over the next hundred and fifty years. The sprawling pile of rock now covered nearly two acres of ground, sealed behind three-foot walls of weathered granite. But even granite walls have gates, I thought. I looked up to ask a question, and saw the reluctance still stamped on Dougal’s features.

  “What else?” I demanded. The hazel eyes met mine, unflinching.

  “He stood his trial three days ago,” Dougal said. “And was condemned to hang.”

  The ice lump was back, with company. I closed my eyes.

  “How long?” I asked. My voice seemed rather far-off to my own ears and I opened my eyes again, blinking to refocus them in the flickering lantern light. Dougal was shaking his head.

  “I dinna ken. Not long, though.”

  My breath was coming a little easier now, and I was able to unclench my fists.

  “We’d better hurry, then,” I said, still calmly. “How many men are with you?”

  Instead of answering, Dougal rose and came over to me. Reaching down, he took my hands and pulled me to my feet. The look of sympathy was back, and a deep grief lurking in his eyes frightened me more than anything he’d said so far. He shook his head slowly.

  “Nay, lass,” he said gently. “There’s nothing we can do.”

  Panicked, I tore my hands away from him.

  “There is!” I said. “There must be! You said he was still alive!”

  “And I said ‘Not long’!” he retorted sharply. “The lad’s in Wentworth Prison, not the thieves’ hole at Cranesmuir! They may hang him today, or tomorrow, or not ’til next week, for all
I know o’ the matter, but there is no way on earth that ten men can force a way into Wentworth Prison!”

  “Oh, no?” I was trembling again, but with rage this time. “You don’t know that—you don’t know what might be done! You’re just not willing to risk your skin, or your miserable…profit!” I flung an arm accusingly at the piled bundles.

  Dougal grappled with me, seizing my flailing arms. I hammered his chest in a frenzy of grief and rage. He ignored the blows and put his arms around me, pulling me tight against him and holding me until I ceased struggling.

  “Claire.” It was the first time he had ever used my first name, and it frightened me still further.

  “Claire,” he said again, loosening his grip so that I could look up at him, “do ye not think I’d do all I could to free the lad, did I think there was the slightest chance? Damn it, he’s my own foster-son! But there is no chance—none!” He shook me slightly, to emphasize his words.

  “Jamie wouldna have me throw away good men’s lives in a vain venture. Ye know that as well as I do.”

  I could keep back the tears no longer. They burned down my icy cheeks as I pushed against him, seeking to free myself. He held me tighter, though, trying to force my head against his shoulder.

  “Claire, my dear,” he said, voice gentler. “My heart’s sore for the lad—and for you. D’ye come away wi’ me. I’ll take ye safe. To my own house,” he added hastily, feeling me stiffen. “Not to Leoch.”

  “To your house?” I said slowly. A horrible suspicion was beginning to form in my mind.

  “Aye,” he said. “Ye dinna think I’d take ye back to Cranesmuir, surely?” He smiled briefly before the stern features relaxed back into seriousness. “Nay. I’ll take ye to Beannachd. You’ll be safe there.”

  “Safe?” I said, “or helpless?” His arms dropped away at the tone of my voice.

  “What d’ye mean?” The pleasant voice was suddenly cold.

  I felt rather cold myself, and pulled my cloak together as I moved away from him.

  “You kept Jamie away from his home by telling him his sister had borne a child to Randall,” I said, “so that you and that precious brother of yours would have a chance to lure him into your camp. But now the English have him, you’ve lost any chance of controlling the property through Jamie.” I backed up another step, swallowing.

  “You were party to your sister’s marriage contract. It was by your insistence—yours and Colum’s—that Broch Tuarach might be held by a woman. You think that if Jamie dies, Broch Tuarach will belong to me—or to you, if you can seduce or force me into marrying you.”

  “What?!” His voice was incredulous. “Ye think…ye think this is all some plot? Saint Agnes! Do ye think I’m lying to ye?”

  I shook my head, keeping my distance. I didn’t trust him an inch.

  “No, I believe you. If Jamie weren’t in prison, you’d never dare to tell me he was. It’s too easy to check that. Nor do I think you betrayed him to the English—not even you could do something like that to your own blood. Besides, if you had, and word of it ever reached your men, they’d turn on you in a second. They’d tolerate a lot in you, but not treachery against your own kinsman.” As I spoke I was reminded of something.

  “Was it you who attacked Jamie near the Border last year?”

  The heavy brows rose with surprise.

  “Me? No! I found the lad near death, and saved him! Does that sound as though I meant him harm?”

  Under cover of my cloak, I ran my hand down my thigh, feeling for the comforting bulk of my dagger.

  “If it wasn’t you, who was it?”

  “I dinna ken.” The handsome face was wary, but not hiding anything. “ ’Twas one of three men—broken men, outlaws—that hunted wi’ Jamie then. All of them accused each other, and there was no way of findin’ out the truth o’ the matter, not then.” He shrugged, the traveling cloak falling back from one broad shoulder.

  “It doesna matter much now; twa of the men are dead, and the third in prison. Over another matter, but it makes little difference, do ye think?”

  “No, I don’t suppose so.” It was in a way a relief to find that he wasn’t a murderer, whatever else he might be. He had no reason to lie to me now; so far as he knew, I was completely helpless. Alone, he could compel me to do whatever he wished. Or at least he likely thought so. I took a grip on the handle of my dirk.

  The light was poor in the cave, but I was watching carefully, and I could see indecision flicker momentarily across his face as he chose his next move. He stepped toward me, hand out, but stopped when he saw me flinch away.

  “Claire. My sweet Claire.” The voice was soft now, and he ran an insinuating hand lightly down my arm. So he had decided to try seduction rather than compulsion.

  “I know why ye talk so cold to me, and why ye think ill of me. You know that I burn for ye, Claire. And it’s true—I’ve wanted ye since the night of the Gathering, when I kissed your sweet lips.” He had two fingers resting lightly on my shoulder, inching toward my neck. “If I’d been a free man when Randall threatened ye, I’d ha’ wed ye myself on the spot, and sent the man to the devil for ye.” He was moving his body gradually closer, crowding me against the stone wall of the cavern. His fingertips moved to my throat, tracing the line of my cloak-fastening.

  He must have seen my face then, for he stopped his advance, though he left his hand where it was, resting lightly above the rapid pulse that beat in my throat.

  “Even so,” he said, “even feeling as I do—for I’ll hide it from ye no longer—even so, ye couldna imagine I’d abandon Jamie if there were any hope of saving him? Jamie Fraser is the closest thing I’ve got to a son!”

  “Not quite,” I said. “There’s your real son. Or perhaps two, by now?” The fingers on my throat increased their pressure, just for a second, then dropped away.

  “What d’ye mean?” And this time all pretense, all games, were dispensed with. The hazel eyes were intent and the full lips a grim line in the russet beard. He
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