“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.”
“Well, 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.”
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.
“Young Jamie,” he said briefly, before returning his attention to the mutton bone in his hands.
“Jamie? Why, whatever is the matter wi’ the lad?” Her full-cheeked countenance creased with concern.
“Naught but a scratch, my dear,” Colum soothed. He glanced across at his brother. “Where is he, though, Dougal?” I imagined perhaps, that the dark eyes held a hint of suspicion.
His brother shrugged, eyes still on his plate. “I sent him down to the stables to help auld Alec wi’ the horses. Seemed the best place for him, all things considered.” He raised his eyes to meet his brother’s gaze. “Or did ye have some other idea?”
Colum seemed dubious. “The stables? Aye, well…ye trust him so far?”
Dougal wiped a hand carelessly across his mouth and reached for a loaf of bread. “It’s yours to say, Colum, if ye dinna agree wi’ my orders.”
Colum’s lips tightened briefly, but he only said, “Nay, I reckon he’ll do well enough there,” before returning to his meal.
I had some doubts myself, as to a stable being the proper place for a patient with a gunshot wound, but was reluctant to offer an opinion in this company. I resolved to seek out the young man in question in the morning, just to assure myself that he was as suitably cared for as could be managed.
I refused the pudding and excused myself, pleading tiredness, which was in no way prevarication. I was so exhausted that I scarcely paid attention when Colum said “Goodnight to ye, then, Mistress Beauchamp. I’ll send someone to bring ye to Hall in the morning.”
One of the servants, seeing me groping my way along the corridor, kindly lighted me to my chamber. She touched her candle to the one on my table, and a mellow light flickered over the massive stones of the wall, giving me a moment’s feeling of entombment. Once she had left, though, I pulled the embroidered hanging away from the window, and the feeling blew away with the inrush of cool air. I tried to think about everything that had happened, but my mind refused to consider anything but sleep. I slid under the quilts, blew out the candle, and fell asleep watching the slow rise of the moon.
It was the massive Mrs. FitzGibbons who arrived again to wake me in the morning, bearing what appeared to be the full array of toiletries available to a well-born Scottish lady. Lead combs to darken the eyebrows and lashes, pots of powdered orrisroot and rice powder, even a stick of what I assumed was kohl, though I had never seen any, and a delicate lidded porcelain cup of French rouge, incised with a row of gilded swans.
Mrs. FitzGibbons also had a striped green overskirt and bodice of silk, with yellow lisle stockings, as a change from the homespun I had been provided with the day before. Whatever “Hall” involved, it seemed to be an occasion of some consequence. I was tempted to insist on attending in my own clothes, just to be contrary, but the memory of fat Rupert’s response to my shift was sufficient to deter me.
Besides, I rather liked Colum, despite the fact that he apparently intended to keep me here for the foreseeable future. Well, we’d just see about that, I thought, as I did my best with the rouge. Dougal had said the young man I had doctored was in the stables, hadn’t he? And stables presumably had horses, upon which one could ride away. I resolved to go looking for Jamie MacTavish, as soon as Hall was over with.
Hall turned out to be just that; the dining hall where I had eaten the night before. Now it was transformed, though; tables, benches, and stools pushed back against the walls, the head table removed and replaced by a substantial carved chair of dark wood, covered with what I assumed must be the MacKenzie tartan, a plaid of dark green and black, with a faint red and white over-check. Sprigs of holly decorated the walls, and there were fresh rushes strewn on the stone flags.
A young piper was blowing up a set of small pipes behind the empty chair, with numerous sighs and wheezes. Near him were what I assumed must be the intimate members of Colum’s staff: a thin-faced man in trews and smocked shirt, who lounged against the wall; a balding little man in a coat of fine brocade, clearly a scribe of some sort, as he was seated at a small table equipped with inkhorn, quills, and paper; two brawny kilted men with the attitude of guards; and to one side, one of the largest men I have ever seen.
I stared at this giant with some awe. Coarse black hair grew far down on his forehead, nearly meeting the beetling eyebrows. Similar mats covered the immense forearms, exposed by the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. Unlike most of the men I had seen, the giant did not seem to be armed, save for a tiny knife he carried in his stocking-top; I could barely make out the stubby hilt in the thickets of black curls that covered his legs above the gaily checked hose. A broad leather belt circled what must be a forty-inch waist, but carried neither dirk nor sword. In spite of his size, the man had an amiable expression, and seemed to be joking with the thin-faced man, who looked like a marionette in comparison with his huge conversant.
The piper suddenly began to play, with a preliminary belch, followed at once by an ear-splitting screech that eventually settled down into something resembling a tune.
There were some thirty or forty people present, all seeming somewhat better-dressed and groomed than the diners of the night before. All heads turned to the lower end of the hall, where, after a pause for the music to build up steam, Colum entered, followed at a few paces by his brother Dougal.
Both MacKenzies were clearly dressed for ceremony, in dark green kilts and well-cut coats, Colum’s of pale green and Dougal’s of russet, both with the plaid slung across their chests and secured at one shoulder by a large jeweled brooch. Colum’s black hair was loose today, carefully oiled and curled upon his shoulders. Dougal’s was still clubbed back in a queue that nearly matched the russet satin of his coat.
Colum walked slowly up the length of the hall, nodding and smiling to faces on either side. Looking across the hall, I could see another archway, near where his chair was placed. Clearly he could have entered the hall by that doorway, instead of the one at the far end of the room. So it was deliberate, this flaunting of his twisted legs and ungainly waddle on the long progress to his seat. Deliberate, too, the contrast with his tall, straight-bodied younger brother, who looked neither to left nor right, but walked straight behind Colum to the wooden chair and took up his station standing close behind.
Colum sat and waited for a moment, then raised one hand. The pipes’ wailing died away in a pitiful whine, and “Hall” began.
It quickly became apparent that this was the regular occasion on which the laird of Castle Leoch dispensed justice to his tacksmen and tenants, hearing cases and settling disputes. There was an agenda; the balding scribe read out the names and the various parties came forward in their turn.
While some cases were presented in English, most of the proceedings were held in Gaelic. I had already noticed that the language involved considerable eye-rolling and foot-stamping for emphasis, making it difficult to judge the seriousness of a case by the demeanor of the participants.
Just as I had decided that one man, a rather moth-eaten specimen with an enormous sporran made of an entire badger, was accusing his neighbor of nothing less than murder, arson, and wife-stealing, Colum raised his eyebrows and said something quick in Gaelic that had both complainant and defendant clutching their sides with laughter. Wiping his eyes, the complainant nodded at last, and offered a hand to his opponent, as the scribe scribbled busily, quill scratching like a mouse’s feet.
I was fifth on the agenda. A placement, I thought, carefully calculated to indicate to the assembled crowd the importance of my presence in the Castle.
For my benefit, English was spoken during my presentation.
“Mistress Beauchamp, will ye stand forth?” called the scribe.
Urged forward by an unnecessary shove from Mrs. FitzGibbons’s meaty hand, I stumbled out into the clear space before Colum, and rather awkwardly curtsied, as I had seen other females do. The shoes I had been given did not distinguish between right foot and left, being in either case only an oblong of formed leather, which made graceful maneuvering difficult. There was a stir of interest through the crowd as Colum paid me the honor of getting up from his chair. He offered me his hand, which I took in order not to fall flat on my face.
Rising from the curtsy, mentally cursing the slippers, I found myself staring at Dougal’s chest. As my captor, it was apparently up to him to make formal application for my reception—or captivity, depending how you wanted to look at it. I waited with some interest to see just how the brothers had decided to explain me.
“Sir,” began Dougal, bowing formally to Colum, “we pray your indulgence and mercy with regard to a lady in need of succor and safe refuge. Mistress Claire Beauchamp, an English lady of Oxford, finding herself set upon by highwaymen and her servant most traitorously killed, fled into the forests of your lands, where she was discovered and rescued by myself and my men. We beg that Castle Leoch might offer this lady refuge until”—he paused, and a cynical smile twisted his mouth—“her English connections may be apprised of her whereabouts and due provision made for her safe transport.”