I didn’t miss the emphasis laid on “English,” and neither did anyone else in the hall, I was sure. So, I was to be tolerated, but held under suspicion. Had he said French, I would have been considered a friendly, or at worst, neutral intrusion. It might be more difficult than I had expected to get away from the castle.
Colum bowed graciously to me and offered me the unlimited hospitality of his humble hearth, or words to that effect. I curtsied again, with somewhat more success, and retired to the ranks, followed by curious but more or less friendly stares.
Until this point, the cases seemed to have been of interest chiefly to the parties involved. The spectators had chatted quietly among themselves, waiting their turns. My own appearance had been met with an interested murmur of speculation and, I thought, approval.
But now there was an excited stir through the hall. A burly man stepped forward into the clear space, dragging a young girl by the hand. She looked about sixteen, with a pretty, pouting face and long yellow hair tied back with blue ribbon. She stumbled into the space and stood alone, while the man behind her expostulated in Gaelic, waving his arms and occasionally pointing at her in illustration or accusation. Small murmurs ran through the crowd as he talked.
Mrs. FitzGibbons, her bulk resting on a sturdy stool, was craning forward with interest. I leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “What’s she done?”
The huge dame replied without moving her lips or taking her eyes from the action. “Her father accuses her of loose behavior; consortin’ improperly wi’ young men against his orders,” muttered Mistress FitzGibbons, leaning her bulk backward on the stool. “Her father wishes the MacKenzie to have her punished for disobedience.”
“Punished? How?” I hissed, as quietly as I could.
In the center, attention now focused on Colum, who was considering the girl and her father. Looking from one to the other, he began to speak. Frowning, he rapped his knuckles sharply on the arm of his chair, and a shiver ran through the crowd.
“He’s decided,” whispered Mrs. FitzGibbons, unnecessarily. What he had decided was also clear; the giant stirred for the first time, unbuckling his leather belt in a leisurely manner. The two guards took the terrified girl by the arms and turned her so that her back was to Colum and her father. She began to cry, but made no appeal. The crowd was watching with the sort of intent excitement that attends public executions and road accidents. Suddenly a Gaelic voice from the back of the crowd rose, audible over the shuffle and murmur.
Heads turned to locate the speaker. Mrs. FitzGibbons craned, even rising on tiptoe to see. I had no idea what had been said, but I thought I recognized that voice, deep but soft, with a spiky way of clipping the final consonants.
The crowd parted, and Jamie MacTavish came out into the clear space. He inclined his head respectfully to the MacKenzie, then spoke some more. Whatever he said seemed to cause some controversy. Colum, Dougal, the little scribe, and the girl’s father all seemed to be getting into the act.
“What is it?” I muttered to Mrs. Fitz. My patient was looking much better than when last seen, though still a bit white-faced, I thought. He’d found a clean shirt somewhere; the empty right sleeve had been folded and tucked into the waist of his kilt.
Mrs. Fitz was watching the proceedings with great interest.
“The lad’s offering to take the girl’s punishment for her,” she said absently, peeking around a spectator in front of us.
“What? But he’s injured! Surely they won’t let him do something like that!” I spoke as quietly as I could under the hum of the crowd.
Mrs. Fitz shook her head. “I dunno, lass. They’re arguin’ it now. See, ’tis allowable for a man o’ her own clan to offer for her, but the lad is no a MacKenzie.”
“He’s not?” I was surprised, having naively assumed that all the men in the group that had captured me came from Castle Leoch.
“O’ course not,” said Mrs. Fitz impatiently. “Do ye no see his tartan?”
Of course I did, once she had pointed it out. While Jamie also wore a hunting tartan in shades of green and brown, the colors were different than that of the other men present. It was a deeper brown, almost a bark color, with a faint blue stripe.
Apparently Dougal’s contribution was the deciding argument. The knot of advisers dispersed and the crowd hushed, falling back to wait. The two guards released the girl, who ran back into the crowd, and Jamie stepped forward to take her place between them. I watched in horror as they moved to take his arms, but he spoke in Gaelic to the man with the strap, and the two guards fell back. Amazingly, a wide, impudent grin lighted his face briefly. Stranger still, there was a quick answering smile on the face of the giant.
“What did he say?” I demanded of my interpreter.
“He chooses fists rather than the strap. A man may choose so, though a woman may not.”
“Fists?” I had no time to question further. The executioner drew back a fist like a ham and drove it into Jamie’s abdomen, doubling him up and driving his breath out with a gasp. The man waited for him to straighten up before moving in and administering a series of sharp jabs to the ribs and arms. Jamie made no effort to defend himself, merely shifting his balance to remain upright in the face of the assault.
The next blow was to the face. I winced and shut my eyes involuntarily as Jamie’s head rocked back. The executioner took his time between blows, careful not to knock his victim down or strike too many times in one spot. It was a scientific beating, skillfully engineered to inflict bruising pain, but not to disable or maim. One of Jamie’s eyes was swelling shut and he was breathing heavily, but otherwise he didn’t appear too badly off.
I was in an agony of apprehension, lest one of the blows redamage the wounded shoulder. My strapping job was still in place, but it wouldn’t hold for long against this sort of treatment. How long was this going to go on? The room was silent, except for the smacking thud of flesh on flesh and an occasional soft grunt.
“Wee Angus’ll stop when blood’s drawn,” whispered Mrs. Fitz, apparently divining my unasked question. “Usually when the nose is broken.”
“That’s barbarous,” I hissed fiercely. Several people around us looked at me censoriously.
The executioner apparently now decided that the punishment had gone on for the prescribed length of time. He drew back and let fly a massive blow; Jamie staggered and fell to his knees. The two guards hurried forward to pull him to his feet, and as he raised his head, I could see blood welling from his battered mouth. The crowd burst into a hum of relief, and the executioner stepped back, satisfied with the performance of his duty.
One guard held Jamie’s arm, supporting him as he shook his head to clear it. The girl had disappeared. Jamie raised his head and looked directly at the towering executioner. Amazingly, he smiled again, as best he could. The bleeding lips moved.
“Thank you,” he said, with some difficulty, and bowed formally to the bigger man before turning to go. The attention of the crowd shifted back to the MacKenzie and the next case before him.
I saw Jamie leave the hall by the door in the opposite wall. Having more interest in him now than in the proceedings, I took my leave of Mrs. FitzGibbons with a quick word and pushed my way across the hall to follow him.
I found him in a small side courtyard, leaning against a wellhead and dabbing at his mouth with his shirttail.
“Here, use this,” I said, offering him a kerchief from my pocket.
“Unh.” He accepted it with a noise that I took for thanks. A pale, watery sun had come out by now, and I looked the young man over carefully by its light. A split lip and badly swollen eye seemed to be the chief injuries, though there were marks along the jaw and neck that would be black bruises soon.
“Is your mouth cut inside too?”
“Unh-huh.” He bent down and I pulled down his lower jaw, gently turning down the lip to examine the inside. There was a deep gash in the glistening cheek lining, and a couple of small punctures in the pinkness of the inner lip. Blood mixed with saliva welled up and overflowed.
“Water,” he said with some difficulty, blotting the bloody trickle that ran down his chin.
“Right.” Luckily there was a bucket and horn cup on the rim of the well. He rinsed his mouth and spat several times, then splashed water over the rest of his face.
“What did you do that for?” I asked curiously.
“What?” he said, straightening up and wiping his face on his sleeve. He felt the split lip gingerly, wincing slightly.
“Offer to take that girl’s punishment for her. Do you know her?” I felt a certain diffidence about asking, but I really wanted to know what lay behind that quixotic gesture.
“I ken who she is. Havena spoken to her, though.”
“Then why did you do it?”
He shrugged, a movement that also made him wince.
“It would have shamed the lass, to be beaten in Hall. Easier for me.”
“Easier?” I echoed incredulously, looking at his smashed face. He was probing his bruised ribs experimentally with his free hand, but looked up and gave me a one-sided grin.
“Aye. She’s verra young. She would ha’ been shamed before everyone as knows her, and it would take a long time to get over it. I’m sore, but no really damaged; I’ll get over it in a day or two.”
“But why you?” I asked. He looked as though he thought this an odd question.
“Why not me?” he said.
Why not? I wanted to say. Because you didn’t know her, she was nothing to you. Because you were already hurt. Because it takes something rather special in the way of guts to stand up in front of a crowd and let someone hit you in the face, no matter what your motive.
“Well, a musket ball through the trapezius might be considered a good reason,” I said dryly.
He looked amused, fingering the area in question.
“Trapezius, is it? I didna know that.”
“Och, here ye are, lad! I see ye’ve found your healer already; perhaps I won’t be needed.” Mrs. FitzGibbons waddled through the narrow entrance to the courtyard, squeezing a bit. She held a tray with a few jars, a large bowl, and a clean linen towel.
“I haven’t done anything but fetch some water,” I said. “I think he’s not badly hurt, but I’m not sure what we can do besides wash his face for him.”
“Och, now, there’s always somethin’, always somethin’ that can be done,” she said comfortably. “That eye, now, lad, let’s have a look at that.” Jamie sat obligingly on the edge of the well, turning his face toward her. Pudgy fingers pressed gently on the purple swelling, leaving white depressions that faded quickly.
“Still bleedin’ under the skin. Leeches will help, then.” She lifted the cover from the bowl, revealing several small dark sluglike objects, an inch or two long, covered with a disagreeable-looking liquid. Scooping out two of them, she pressed one to the flesh just under the brow bone and the other just below the eye.
“See,” she explained to me, “once a bruise is set, like, leeches do ye no good. But where ye ha’ a swellin’ like this, as is still comin’ up, that means the blood is flowin’ under the skin, and leeches can pull it out.”
I watched, fascinated and disgusted. “Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked Jamie. He shook his head, making the leeches bounce obscenely.
“No. Feels a bit cold, is all.” Mrs. Fitz was busy with her jars and bottles.
“Too many folk misuses leeches,” she instructed me. “They’re verra helpful sometimes, but ye must understand how. When ye use ’em on an old bruise, they just take healthy blood, and it does the bruise no good. Also ye must be careful not to use too many at a time; they’ll weaken someone as is verra ill or has lost blood already.”
I listened respectfully, absorbing all this information, though I sincerely hoped I would never be asked to make use of it.
“Now, lad, rinse your mouth wi’ this; ’twill cleanse the cuts and ease the pain. Willow-bark tea,” she explained in an aside to me, “wi’ a bit of ground orrisroot.” I nodded; I recalled vaguely from a long-ago botany lecture hearing that willow bark in fact contained salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.
“Won’t the willow bark increase the chance of bleeding?” I asked. Mrs. Fitz nodded approvingly.
“Aye. It do sometimes. That’s why ye follow it wi’ a good handful of St. John’s wort soaked in vinegar; that stops bleedin’, if it’s gathered under a full moon and ground up well.” Jamie obediently swilled his mouth with the astringent solution, eyes watering at the sting of the aromatic vinegar.
The leeches were fully engorged by now, swollen to four times their original size. The dark wrinkled skins were now stretched and shiny; they looked like rounded, polished stones. One leech dropped suddenly off, bouncing to the ground at my feet. Mrs. Fitz scooped it up deftly, bending easily despite her bulk, and dropped it back in the bowl. Grasping the other leech delicately just behind the jaws, she pulled gently, making the head stretch.
“Ye don’t want to pull too hard, lass,” she said. “Sometimes they burst.” I shuddered involuntarily at the idea. “But if they’re nearly full, sometimes they’ll come off easy. If they don’t, just leave ’em be and they’ll fall off by themselves.” The leech did, in fact, let go easily, leaving a trickle of blood where it had been attached. I blotted the tiny wound with the corner of a towel dipped in the vinegar solution. To my surprise, the leeches had worked; the swelling was substantially reduced, and the eye was at least partially open, though the lid was still puffy. Mrs. Fitz examined it critically and decided against the use of another leech.
“Ye’ll be a sight tomorrow, lad, and no mistake,” she said, shaking her head, “but at least ye’ll be able to see oot o’ that eye. What ye want now is a wee bit o’ raw meat on it, and a drop o’ broth wi’ ale in it, for strengthenin’ purposes. Come along to the kitchen in a bit, and I’ll find some for ye.” She scooped up her tray, pausing for a moment.
“What ye did was kindly meant, lad. Laoghaire is my granddaughter, ye ken; I’ll thank ye for her. Though she had better thank ye herself, if she’s any manners at all.” She patted Jamie’s cheek, and padded heavily off.
I examined him carefully; the archaic medical treatment had been surprisingly effective. The eye was still somewhat swollen, but only slightly discolored, and the cut through the lip was now a clean, bloodless line, only slightly darker than the surrounding tissue.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Fine.” I must have looked askance at this, because he smiled, still careful of his mouth. “It’s only bruises, ye know. I’ll have to thank ye again, it seems; this makes three times in three days you’ve doctored me. Ye’ll be thinking I’m fair clumsy.”
I touched a purple mark on his jaw. “Not clumsy. A little reckless, perhaps.” A flutter of movement at the courtyard entrance caught my eye; a flash of yellow and blue. The girl named Laoghaire hung back shyly, seeing me.
“I think someone wants to speak with you alone,” I said. “I’ll leave you. The bandages on your shoulder can come off tomorrow, though. I’ll find you then.”
“Aye. Thank ye again.” He squeezed my hand lightly in farewell. I went out, looking curiously at the girl as I passed. She was even prettier close up, with soft blue eyes and rose-petal skin. She glowed as she looked at Jamie. I left the courtyard, wondering whether in fact his gallant gesture had been quite so altruistic as I supposed.
Next morning, roused at daylight by the twittering of birds outside and people inside, I dressed and found my way through the drafty corridors to the hall. Restored to its normal identity as a refectory, enormous cauldrons of porridge were being dispensed, together with bannocks baked on the hearth and spread with molasses. The smell of steaming food was almost strong enough to lean against. I felt still off-balance and confused, but a hot breakfast heartened me enough to explore a bit.
Finding Mrs. FitzGibbons up to her dimpled elbows in floured dough, I announced that I wanted to find Jamie, in order to remove his bandages and inspect the healing of the gunshot wound. She summoned one of her tiny minions with the wave of a massive white-smeared hand.
“Young Alec, do ye run and find Jamie, the new horse-breaker. Tell ’im to come back wi’ ye to ha’ his shoulder seen to. We shall, be in the herb garden.” A sharp fingersnap sent the lad scampering out to locate my patient.
Turning the kneading over to a maid, Mrs. Fitz rinsed her hands and turned to me.
“It will take a while yet before they’re back. Would ye care for a look at the herb gardens? It would seem ye’ve some knowledge of plants, and if you’ve a mind to, ye might lend a hand there in your spare moments.”
The herb garden, valuable repository of healing and flavors that it was, was cradled in an inner courtyard, large enough to allow for sun, but sheltered from spring winds, with its own wellhead. Rosemary bushes bordered the garden to the west, chamomile to the south, and a row of amaranth marked the north border, with the castle wall itself forming the eastern edge, an additional shelter from the prevailing winds. I correctly identified the green spikes of late crocus and soft-leaved French sorrel springing out of the rich dark earth. Mrs. Fitz pointed out foxglove, purslane, and betony, along with a few I did not recognize.
Late spring was planting time. The basket on Mrs. Fitz’s arm carried a profusion of garlic cloves, the source of the summer’s crop. The plump dame handed me the basket, along with a digging stick for planting. Apparently I had lazed about the castle long enough; until Colum found some use for me, Mrs. Fitz could always find work for an idle hand.
“Here, m’dear. Do ye set ’em here along the south side, between the thyme and foxglove.” She showed me how to divide the heads into individual buds without disturbing the tough casing, then how to plant them. It was simple enough, just poke each clove into the ground, blunt end down, buried about an inch and a half below the surface. She got up, dusting her voluminous skirts.
“Keep back a few heads,” she advised me. “Divide ’em and plant the buds single, one here and one there, all round the garden. Garlic keeps the wee bugs awa’ from the other plants. Onions and yarrow will do the same. And pinch the dead marigold heads, but keep them, they’re useful.”