Outlander, p.9
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       Outlander, p.9
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  my gentle, peace-loving husband. But then, if it were true—and I was beginning to admit, even to myself, that it might be—then he could in fact be almost anything. A man I knew only from a genealogical chart was not necessarily bound to resemble his descendants in conduct.

  But it was Frank himself I was concerned with at the moment. If I was, in fact, in the eighteenth century, where was he? What would he do when I failed to return to Mrs. Baird’s? Would I ever see him again? Thinking about Frank was the last straw. Since the moment I stepped into the rock and ordinary life ceased to exist, I had been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped and jostled. I had not eaten or slept properly for more than twenty-four hours. I tried to control myself, but my lip wobbled and my eyes filled in spite of myself.

  I turned to the fire to hide my face, but too late. Jamie took my hand, asking in a gentle voice what was wrong. The firelight glinted on my gold wedding band, and I began to sniffle in earnest.

  “Oh, I’ll…I’ll be all right, it’s all right, really, it’s…just my…my husband…I don’t—”

  “Ah lass, are ye widowed, then?” His voice was so full of sympathetic concern that I lost control entirely.

  “No…yes…I mean, I don’t…yes, I suppose I am!” Overcome with emotion and tiredness, I collapsed against him, sobbing hysterically.

  The lad had nice feelings. Instead of calling for help or retreating in confusion, he sat down, gathered me firmly onto his lap with his good arm and sat rocking me gently, muttering soft Gaelic in my ear and smoothing my hair with one hand. I wept bitterly, surrendering momentarily to my fear and heartbroken confusion, but slowly I began to quiet a bit, as Jamie stroked my neck and back, offering me the comfort of his broad, warm chest. My sobs lessened and I began to calm myself, leaning tiredly into the curve of his shoulder. No wonder he was so good with horses, I thought blearily, feeling his fingers rubbing gently behind my ears, listening to the soothing, incomprehensible speech. If I were a horse, I’d let him ride me anywhere.

  This absurd thought coincided unfortunately with my dawning realization that the young man was not completely exhausted after all. In fact, it was becoming embarrassingly obvious to both of us. I coughed and cleared my throat, wiping my eyes with my sleeve as I slid off his lap.

  “I’m so sorry…that is, I mean, thank you for…but I…” I was babbling, backing away from him with my face flaming. He was a bit flushed, too, but not disconcerted. He reached for my hand and pulled me back. Careful not to touch me otherwise, he put a hand under my chin and forced my head up to face him.

  “Ye need not be scairt of me,” he said softly. “Nor of anyone here, so long as I’m with ye.” He let go and turned to the fire.

  “You need somethin’ hot, lass,” he said matter-of-factly, “and a bit to eat as well. Something in your belly will help more than anything.” I laughed shakily at his attempts to pour broth one-handed, and went to help. He was right; food did help. We sipped broth and ate bread in a companionable silence, sharing the growing comfort of warmth and fullness.

  Finally, he stood up, picking up the fallen quilt from the floor. He dropped it back on the bed, and motioned me toward it. “Do ye sleep a bit, Claire. You’re worn out, and likely someone will want to talk wi’ ye before too long.”

  This was a sinister reminder of my precarious position, but I was too exhausted to care much. I uttered no more than a pro forma protest at taking the bed; I had never seen anything so enticing. Jamie assured me that he could find a bed elsewhere. I fell headfirst into the pile of quilts and was asleep before he reached the door.

  5

  THE MACKENZIE

  I woke in a state of complete confusion. I vaguely remembered that something was very wrong, but couldn’t remember what. In fact, I had been sleeping so soundly that I couldn’t remember for a moment who I was, much less where. I was warm, and the surrounding room was piercingly cold. I tried to burrow back into my cocoon of quilts, but the voice that had wakened me was still nagging.

  “Come then, lass! Come now, ye must get up!” The voice was deep and genially hectoring, like the barking of a sheepdog. I pried one reluctant eye open far enough to see the mountain of brown homespun.

  Mistress FitzGibbons! The sight of her shocked me back to full consciousness, and memory returned. It was still true, then.

  Wrapping a blanket about me against the chill, I staggered out of bed and headed for the fire as fast as possible. Mistress FitzGibbons had a cup of hot broth waiting; I sipped it, feeling like the survivor of some major bombing raid, as she laid out a pile of garments on the bed. There was a long yellowish linen chemise, with a thin edging of lace, a petticoat of fine cotton, two overskirts in shades of brown, and a pale lemon-yellow bodice. Brown-striped stockings of wool and a pair of yellow slippers completed the ensemble.

  Brooking no protests, the dame bustled me out of my inadequate garments and oversaw my dressing from the skin out. She stood back, surveying her handiwork with satisfaction.

  “The yellow suits ye, lass; I thought it would. Goes well wi’ that brown hair, and it brings out the gold in your eyes. Stay, though, ye’ll need a wee bit o’ ribbon.” Turning out a pocket like a gunnysack, she produced a handful of ribbons and bits of jewelry.

  Too stunned to resist, I allowed her to dress my hair, tying back the sidelocks with primrose ribbon, clucking over the unfeminine unbecomingness of my shoulder-length bob.

  “Goodness, me dear, whatever were ye thinkin’, to cut your hair so short? Were ye in disguise, like? I’ve heard o’ some lasses doin’ so, to hide their sex when travelin’, same as to be safe from they dratted redcoats. ’Tis a fine day, says I, when leddies canna travel the roads in safety.” She ran on, patting me here and there, tucking in a curl or arranging a fold. Finally I was arrayed to her satisfaction.

  “Weel now, that’s verra gude. Now, ye’ve just time for a wee bite, then I must take you to himself.”

  “Himself?” I said. I didn’t care for the sound of this. Whoever Himself was, he was likely to ask difficult questions.

  “Why, the MacKenzie to be sure. Whoever else?”

  Who else indeed? Castle Leoch, I dimly recalled, was in the middle of the clan MacKenzie lands. Plainly the clan chieftain was still the MacKenzie. I began to understand why our little band of horsemen had ridden through the night to reach the castle; this would be a place of impregnable safety to men pursued by the Crown’s men. No English officer with a grain of sense would lead his men so deeply into the clan lands. To do so was to risk death by ambush at the first clump of trees. And only a good-sized army would come as far as the castle gates. I was trying to remember whether in fact the English army ever had come so far, when I suddenly realized that the eventual fate of the castle was much less relevant than my immediate future.

  I had no appetite for the bannocks and parritch that Mrs. FitzGibbons had brought for my breakfast, but crumbled a bit and pretended to eat, in order to gain some time for thought. By the time Mrs. Fitz came back to conduct me to the MacKenzie, I had cobbled together a rough plan.

  * * *

  The laird received me in a room at the top of a flight of stone steps. It was a tower room, round, and rich with paintings and tapestries hung against the sloping walls. While the rest of the castle seemed comfortable enough, if somewhat bare, this room was luxuriously crowded, crammed with furniture, bristling with ornaments, and warmly lit by fire and candle against the drizzle of the day outside. While the outer walls of the castle had only the high slit windows suited to resisting attack, this inner wall had been more recently furnished with long casement windows that let in what daylight there was.

  As I entered, my attention was drawn at once by an enormous metal cage, cleverly engineered to fit the curve of the wall from floor to ceiling, filled with dozens of tiny birds: finches, buntings, tits, and several kinds of warblers. Drawing near, my eye was filled with plump smooth bodies and bead-bright eyes, set like jewels in a background of velvet green, darting amon
g the leaves of oak, elm, and chestnut, carefully tended trees rooted in mulched pots set on the floor of the cage. The cheerful racket of conversing birds was punctuated by the whir of wings and rustle of leaves as the inhabitants flitted and hopped about their business.

  “Busy wee things, are they no?” A deep, pleasant voice spoke from behind me, and I turned with a smile that froze on my face.

  Colum MacKenzie shared the broad planes and high forehead of his brother Dougal, though the vital force that gave Dougal an air of intimidation was here mellowed into something more welcoming, though no less vibrant. Darker, with dove-grey rather than hazel eyes, Colum gave that same impression of intensity, of standing just slightly closer to you than was quite comfortable. At the moment, though, my discomfort arose from the fact that the beautifully modeled head and long torso ended in shockingly bowed and stumpy legs. The man who should have topped six feet came barely to my shoulder.

  He kept his eyes on the birds, tactfully allowing me a much-needed moment to gain control of my features. Of course, he must be used to the reactions of people meeting him for the first time. It occurred to me, glancing around the room, to wonder how often he did meet new people. This was clearly a sanctuary; the self-constructed world of a man to whom the outer world was unwelcome—or unavailable.

  “I welcome ye, mistress,” he said, with a slight bow. “My name is Colum ban Campbell MacKenzie, laird of this castle. I understand from my brother that he, er, encountered you some distance from here.”

  “He kidnapped me, if you want to know,” I said. I would have liked to keep the conversation cordial, but I wanted even more to get away from this castle and back to the hill with the standing stone circle. Whatever had happened to me, the answer lay there—if anywhere.

  The laird’s thick brows rose slightly, and a smile curved the fine-cut lips.

  “Well, perhaps,” he agreed. “Dougal is sometimes a wee bit…impetuous.”

  “Well.” I waved a hand, indicating gracious dismissal of the matter. “I’m prepared to admit that a misunderstanding might have arisen. But I would greatly appreciate being returned to…the place he took me from.”

  “Mm.” Brows still raised, Colum gestured toward a chair. I sat, reluctantly, and he nodded toward one of the attendants, who vanished through the door.

  “I’ve sent for some refreshment, Mistress…Beauchamp, was it? I understand that my brother and his men found ye in…er, some apparent distress.” He seemed to be hiding a smile, and I wondered just how my supposed state of undress had been described to him.

  I took a deep breath. Now it was time for the explanation I had devised. Thinking this out, I had recalled Frank’s telling me, during his officer’s training, about a course he had taken in withstanding interrogation. The basic principle, insofar as I remembered it, was to stick to the truth as much as humanly possible, altering only those details that must be kept secret. Less chance, the instructor explained, of slipping up in the minor aspects of one’s cover story. Well, we’d have to see how effective that was.

  “Well, yes. I had been attacked, you see.”

  He nodded, face alight with interest. “Aye? Attacked by whom?”

  Tell the truth. “By English soldiers. In particular, by a man named Randall.”

  The patrician face changed suddenly at the name. Though Colum continued to look interested, there was an increased intensity in the line of the mouth, and a deepening of the creases that bracketed it. Clearly that name was familiar. The MacKenzie chief sat back a bit, and steepled his fingers, regarding me carefully over them.

  “Ah?” he said. “Tell me more.”

  So, God help me, I told him more. I gave him in great detail the story of the confrontation between the Scots and Randall’s men, since he would be able to check that with Dougal. I told him the basic facts of my conversation with Randall, since I didn’t know how much the man Murtagh had overheard.

  He nodded absorbedly, paying close attention.

  “Aye,” he said. “But how did you come to be there in that spot? It’s far off the road to Inverness—you meant to take ship from there, I suppose?” I nodded and took a deep breath.

  Now we entered perforce the realm of invention. I wished I had paid closer attention to Frank’s remarks on the subject of highwaymen, but I would have to do my best. I was a widowed lady of Oxfordshire, I replied (true, so far as it went), traveling with a manservant en route to distant relatives in France (that seemed safely remote). We had been set upon by highwaymen, and my servant had either been killed or run off. I had myself dashed into the wood on my horse, but been caught some distance from the road. While I had succeeded in escaping from the bandits, I had perforce to abandon my horse and all property thereon. And while wandering in the woods, I had run afoul of Captain Randall and his men.

  I sat back a little, pleased with the story. Simple, neat, true in all checkable details. Colum’s face expressed no more than a polite attention. He was opening his mouth to ask me a question, when there was a faint rustle at the doorway. A man, one of those I had noticed in the courtyard when we arrived, stood there, holding a small leather box in one hand.

  The chief of Clan MacKenzie excused himself gracefully and left me studying the birds, with the assurance that he would shortly return to continue our most interesting conversation.

  No sooner had the door swung shut behind him than I was at the bookshelf, running my hand along the leather bindings. There were perhaps two dozen books on this shelf; more on the opposite wall. Hurriedly I flipped the opening pages of each volume. Several had no publication dates; those that did were all dated from 1720 to 1742. Colum MacKenzie obviously liked luxury, but the rest of his room gave no particular indication that he was an antiquarian. The bindings were new, with no sign of cracking or foxed pages within.

  Quite beyond ordinary scruples by this time, I shamelessly rifled the olivewood desk, keeping an ear out for returning footsteps.

  I found what I supposed I had been looking for in the central drawer. A half-finished letter, written in a flowing hand rendered no more legible by the eccentric spelling and total lack of punctuation. The paper was fresh and clean, and the ink crisply black. Legible or not, the date at the top of the page sprang out at me as though written in letters of fire: 20 April, 1743.

  When he returned a few moments later, Colum found his guest seated by the casement windows, hands clasped decorously in her lap. Seated, because my legs would no longer hold me up. Hands clasped, to hide the trembling that had made it difficult for me to stuff the letter back into its resting place.

  He had brought with him the tray of refreshments; mugs of ale and fresh oatcakes spread with honey. I nibbled sparingly at these; my stomach was churning too vigorously to allow for any appetite.

  After a brief apology for his absence, he commiserated with me on my sad misfortune. Then he leaned back, eyed me speculatively, and asked, “But how is it, Mistress Beauchamp, that my brother’s men found ye wandering about in your shift? Highwaymen would be reluctant to molest your person, as they’d likely mean to hold ye for ransom. And even with such things as I’ve heard of Captain Randall, I’d be surprised to hear that an officer in the English army was in the habit of raping stray travelers.”

  “Oh?” I snapped. “Well, whatever you’ve heard about him, I assure you he’s entirely capable of it.” I had overlooked the detail of my clothing when planning my story, and wondered at what point in our encounter the man Murtagh had spotted the Captain and myself.

  “Ah, well,” said Colum. “Possible, I daresay. The man’s a bad reputation, to be sure.”

  “Possible?” I said. “Why? Don’t you believe what I’ve told you?” For the MacKenzie chieftain’s face was showing a faint but definite skepticism.

  “I did not say I didn’t believe ye, Mistress,” he answered evenly. “But I’ve not held the leadership of a large clan for twenty-odd years without learning not to swallow whole every tale I’m told.”

  “We
ll, if you don’t believe I am who I say, who in bloody hell do you think I am?” I demanded.

  He blinked, taken aback by my language. Then the sharp-cut features firmed again.

  “That,” he said, “remains to be seen. In the meantime, mistress, you’re a welcome guest at Leoch.” He raised a hand in gracious dismissal, and the ever-present attendant near the door came forward, obviously to escort me back to my quarters.

  Colum didn’t say the next words, but he might as well have. They hung in the air behind me as clearly as though spoken, as I walked away:

  “Until I find out who you really are.”

  PART TWO

  Castle Leoch

  6

  COLUM’S HALL

  The small boy Mrs. FitzGibbons had referred to as “young Alec” came to fetch me to dinner. This was held in a long, narrow room outfitted with tables down the length of each wall, supplied by a constant stream of servants issuing from archways at either end of the room, laden with trays, trenchers, and jugs. The rays of early summer’s late sunlight came through the high, narrow windows; sconces along the walls below held torches to be lighted as the daylight failed.

  Banners and tartans hung on the walls between the windows, plaids and heraldry of all descriptions splotching the stones with color. By contrast, most of the people gathered below for dinner were dressed in serviceable shades of grey and brown, or in the soft brown and green plaid of hunting kilts, muted tones suited for hiding in the heather.

  I could feel curious glances boring into my back as young Alec led me toward the top of the room, but most of the diners kept their eyes politely upon their plates. There seemed little ceremony here; people ate as they pleased, helping themselves from the serving platters, or taking their wooden plates to the far end of the room, where two young boys turned a sheep’s carcass on a spit in the enormous fireplace. There were some forty people sat to eat, and perhaps another ten to serve. The air was loud with conversation, most of it in Gaelic.

  Colum was already seated at a table at the head of the room, stunted legs tucked out of sight beneath the scarred oak. He nodded graciously at my appearance and waved me to a seat on his left, next to a plump and pretty red-haired woman he introduced as his wife, Letitia.

  “And this is my son, Hamish,” he said, dropping a hand on the shoulder of a handsome red-haired lad of seven or eight, who took his eyes off the waiting platter just long enough to acknowledge my presence with a quick nod.

  I looked at the boy with interest. He looked like all the other MacKenzie males I had seen, with the same broad, flat cheekbones and deep-set eyes. In fact, allowing for the difference in coloring, he might be a smaller version of his uncle Dougal, who sat next to him. The two teenage girls next to Dougal, who giggled and poked each other when introduced to me, were his daughters, Margaret and Eleanor.

  Dougal gave me a brief but friendly smile before snatching the platter out from under the reaching spoon of one of his daughters and shoving it toward me.

  “Ha’ ye no manners, lass?” he scolded. “Guests first!”

  I rather hesitantly picked up the large horn spoon offered me. I had not been sure what sort of food was likely to be offered, and was somewhat relieved to find that this platter held a row of homely and completely familiar smoked herrings.

  I’d never tried to eat a herring with a spoon, but I saw nothing resembling a fork, and dimly recalled that runcible spoons would not be in general use for quite a few years yet.

  Judging from the behavior of eaters at other tables, when a spoon proved impracticable, the ever-handy dirk was employed, for the slicing of meat and removal of bones. Lacking a dirk, I resolved to chew cautiously, and leaned forward to scoop up a herring, only to find the deep blue eyes of young Hamish fixed accusingly on me.

  “Ye’ve not said grace yet,” he said severely, small face screwed into a frown. Obviously he considered me a conscienceless heathen, if not downright depraved.

  “Er, perhaps you would be so kind as to say it for me?” I ventured.

  The cornflower eyes popped open in surprise, but after a moment’s consideration, he nodded and folded his hands in a businesslike fashion. He glared round the table to insure that everyone was in a properly reverential attitude before bowing his own head. Satisfied, he intoned,

  “Some hae meat that canna eat,

  And some could eat that want it.

  We hae meat, and we can eat,

  And so may God be thankit. Amen.”

  Looking up from my respectfully folded hands, I caught Colum’s eye, and gave him a smile that acknowledged the sangfroid of his offspring. He suppressed his own smile and nodded gravely at his son.

  “Nicely said, lad. Will ye hand round the bread?”

  Conversation at table was limited to occasional requests for further food, as everyone settled down to serious eating. I found my own appetite rather lacking, partly owing to the shock of my circumstances, and partly to the fact that I really didn’t care for herring, when all was said and done. The mutton was quite good, though, and the bread was delicious, fresh and crusty, with large dollops of fresh unsalted butter.

  “I hope Mr. MacTavish is feeling better,” I offered, during a momentary pause for breath. “I didn’t see him when I came in.”

  “MacTavish?” Letitia’s delicate brows tilted over round blue eyes. I felt, rather than saw Dougal look up beside me.

 
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