“Oh, aye.” And Jamie launched into what appeared to be a verbatim recitation of the song, translated into English. It was an old ballad, apparently, about a young man who loved a young woman (what else?), but feeling unworthy of her because he was poor, went off to make his fortune at sea. The young man was shipwrecked, met sea serpents who menaced him and mermaids who entranced him, had adventures, found treasure, and came home at last only to find his young woman wed to his best friend, who, if somewhat poorer, also apparently had better sense.
“And which would you do?” I asked, teasing a bit. “Would you be the young man who wouldn’t marry without money, or would you take the girl and let the money go hang?” This question seemed to interest Laoghaire as well, who cocked her head to hear the answer, meanwhile pretending great attention to an air on the flute that Gwyllyn had begun.
“Me?” Jamie seemed entertained by the question. “Well, as I’ve no money to start with, and precious little chance of ever getting any, I suppose I’d count myself lucky to find a lass would wed me without.” He shook his head, grinning. “I’ve no stomach for sea serpents.”
He opened his mouth to say something further, but was silenced by Laoghaire, who laid a hand timidly on his arm, then blushing, snatched it back as though he were red-hot.
“Sshh,” she said. “I mean…he’s going to tell stories. Do ye not want to hear?”
“Oh, aye.” Jamie sat forward a bit in anticipation, then realizing that he blocked my view, insisted that I sit on the other side of him, displacing Laoghaire down the bench. I could see the girl was not best pleased at this arrangement, and I tried to protest that I was all right as I was, but he was firm about it.
“No, you’ll see and hear better there. And then, if he speaks in the Gaelic, I can whisper in your ear what he says.”
Each part of the bard’s performance had been greeted with warm applause, though people chatted quietly while he played, making a deep hum below the high, sweet strains of the harp. But now a sort of expectant hush descended on the hall. Gwyllyn’s speaking voice was as clear as his singing, each word pitched to reach the end of the high, drafty hall without strain.
“It was a time, two hundred years ago…” He spoke in English, and I felt a sudden sense of déj? vu. It was exactly the way our guide on Loch Ness had spoken, telling legends of the Great Glen.
It was not a story of ghosts or heroes, though, but a tale of the Wee Folk he told.
“There was a clan of the Wee Folk as lived near Dundreggan,” he began. “And the hill there is named for the dragon that dwelt there, that Fionn slew and buried where he fell, so the dun is named as it is. And after the passing of Fionn and the Feinn, the Wee Folk that came to dwell in the dun came to want mothers of men to be wet nurses to their own fairy bairns, for a man has something that a fairy has not, and the Wee Folk thought that it might pass through the mother’s milk to their own small ones.
“Now, Ewan MacDonald of Dundreggan was out in the dark, tending his beasts, on the night when his wife bore her firstborn son. A gust of the night wind passed by him, and in the breath of the wind he heard his wife’s sighing. She sighed as she sighed before the child was born, and hearing her there, Ewan MacDonald turned and flung his knife into the wind in the name of the Trinity. And his wife dropped safe to the ground beside him.”
The story was received with a sort of collective “ah” at the conclusion, and was quickly followed by tales of the cleverness and ingenuity of the Wee Folk, and others about their interactions with the world of men. Some were in Gaelic and some in English, used apparently according to which language best fitted the rhythm of the words, for all of them had a beauty to the speaking, beyond the content of the tale itself. True to his promise, Jamie translated the Gaelic for me in an undertone, so quickly and easily that I thought he must have heard these stories many times before.
There was one I noticed particularly, about the man out late at night upon a fairy hill, who heard the sound of a woman singing “sad and plaintive” from the very rocks of the hill. He listened more closely and heard the words:
“I am the wife of the Laird of Balnain
The Folk have stolen me over again.”
So the listener hurried to the house of Balnain and found there the owner gone and his wife and baby son missing. The man hastily sought out a priest and brought him back to the fairy knoll. The priest blessed the rocks of the dun and sprinkled them with holy water. Suddenly the night grew darker and there was a loud noise as of thunder. Then the moon came out from behind a cloud and shone upon the woman, the wife of Balnain, who lay exhausted on the grass with her child in her arms. The woman was tired, as though she had traveled far, but could not tell where she had been, nor how she had come there.
Others in the hall had stories to tell, and Gwyllyn rested on his stool to sip wine as one gave place to another by the fireside, telling stories that held the hall rapt.
Some of these I hardly heard. I was rapt myself, but by my own thoughts, which were tumbling about, forming patterns under the influence of wine, music, and fairy legends.
“It was a time, two hundred years ago…”
It’s always two hundred years in Highland stories, said the Reverend Wakefield’s voice in memory. The same thing as “Once upon a time,” you know.
And women trapped in the rocks of fairy duns, traveling far and arriving exhausted, who knew not where they had been, nor how they had come there.
I could feel the hair rising on my forearms, as though with cold, and rubbed them uneasily. Two hundred years. From 1945 to 1743; yes, near enough. And women who traveled through the rocks. Was it always women? I wondered suddenly.
Something else occurred to me. The women came back. Holy water, spell, or knife, they came back. So perhaps, just perhaps, it was possible. I must get back to the standing stones on Craigh na Dun. I felt a rising excitement that made me feel a trifle sick, and I reached for the wine goblet to calm myself.
“Be careful!” My groping fingers fumbled the edge of the nearly full crystal goblet which I had carelessly set on the bench beside me. Jamie’s long arm shot across my lap, narrowly saving the goblet from disaster. He lifted the glass, holding the stem delicately between two large fingers, and passed it gently back and forth under his nose. He handed it back to me, eyebrows lifted.
“Rhenish,” I explained helpfully.
“Aye, I know,” he said, still looking quizzical. “Colum’s, is it?”
“Why, yes. Would you like to try some? It’s very good.” I held out the glass, a trifle unsteadily. After a moment’s hesitation, he accepted the glass and tried a small sip.
“Aye, it’s good,” he said, handing the goblet back. “It’s also double strength. Colum takes it at night because his legs pain him. How much of it have you had?” he asked, eyeing me narrowly.
“Two, no, three glasses,” I said, with some dignity. “Are you implying that I’m intoxicated?”
“No,” he said, brows still raised, “I’m impressed that you’re not. Most folk that drink wi’ Colum are under the table after the second glass.” He reached out and took the goblet from me again.
“Still,” he added firmly, “I think you’d best drink no more of it, or ye won’t get back up the stairs.” He tilted the glass and deliberately drained it himself, then handed the empty goblet to Laoghaire without looking at her.
“Take that back, will ye, lass,” he said casually. “It’s grown late; I believe I’ll see Mistress Beauchamp to her chamber.” And putting a hand under my elbow, he steered me toward the archway, leaving the girl staring after us with an expression that made me relieved that looks in fact cannot kill.
Jamie followed me up to my chamber, and somewhat to my surprise, came in after me. The surprise vanished when he shut the door and immediately shed his shirt. I had forgotten the dressing, which I had been meaning to remove for the last two days.
“I’ll be glad to get this off,” he said, rubbing at the rayon and linen harness arrangement under his arm. “It’s been chafing me for days.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t take it off yourself, then,” I said, reaching up to untie the knots.
“I was afraid to, after the scolding ye gave me when you put the first one on,” he said, grinning impudently down at me. “Thought I’d get my bum smacked if I touched it.”
“You’ll get it smacked now, if you don’t sit down and keep still,” I answered, mock-stern. I put both hands on his good shoulder and, a little unsteadily, pulled him down onto the bedroom stool.
I slipped the harness off and carefully probed the shoulder joint. It was still slightly swollen, with some bruising, but thankfully I could find no evidence of torn muscles.
“If you were so anxious to get rid of it, why didn’t you let me take it off for you yesterday afternoon?” His behavior at the paddock had puzzled me then, and did so still more, now that I could see the patches of reddened skin where the rough edges of the linen bandages had rubbed him nearly raw. I lifted the dressing cautiously, but all was well beneath.
He glanced sidelong at me, then looked down a bit sheepishly. “Well, it’s—ah, it’s only that I didna want to take my shirt off before Alec.”
“Modest, are you?” I asked dryly, making him raise his arm to test the extension of the joint. He winced slightly at the movement, but smiled at the remark.
“If I were, I should hardly be sittin’ half-naked in your chamber, should I? No, it’s the marks on my back.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he went on to explain. “Alec knows who I am—I mean, he’s heard I was flogged, but he’s not seen it. And to know something like that is no the same as seein’ it wi’ your own eyes.” He felt the sore shoulder tentatively, eyes turned away. He frowned at the floor. “It’s—maybe you’ll not know what I mean. But when you know a man’s suffered some harm, it’s only one of the things you know about him, and it doesna make much difference to how ye see him. Alec knows I’ve been flogged, like he knows I’ve red hair, and it doesna matter to how he treats me.” He looked up then, searching for some sign of understanding from me.
“But when you see it yourself, it’s like”—he hesitated, looking for words—“it’s a bit…personal, maybe, is what I mean. I think…if he were to see the scars, he couldna see me anymore without thinking of my back. And I’d be able to see him thinking of it, and that would make me remember it, and—” He broke off, shrugging.
“Well. That’s a poor job of explaining, no? I daresay I’m too tender-minded about it, in any case. After all, I canna see it for myself; perhaps it’s not as bad as I think.” I had seen wounded men making their way on crutches down the street, and the people passing them with averted eyes, and I thought it was not at all a bad job of explanation.
“You don’t mind my seeing your back?”
“No, I don’t.” He sounded mildly surprised, and paused a moment to think about it. “I suppose…it’s that ye seem to have a knack for letting me know you’re sorry for it, without makin’ me feel pitiful about it.”
He sat patiently, not moving as I circled behind him and inspected his back. I didn’t know how bad he thought it was, but it was bad enough. Even by candlelight and having seen it once before, I was appalled. Before, I had seen only the one shoulder. The scars covered his entire back from shoulders to waist. While many had faded to little more than thin white lines, the worst formed thick silver wedges, cutting across the smooth muscles. I thought with some regret that it must have been quite a beautiful back at one time. His skin was fair and fresh, and the lines of bone and muscle were still solid and graceful, the shoulders flat and square-set and the backbone a smooth, straight groove cut deep between the rounded columns of muscle that rose on either side of it.
Jamie was right too. Looking at this wanton damage, I could not avoid a mental picture of the process that had caused it. I tried not to imagine the muscular arms raised, spread-eagled and tied, ropes cutting into wrists, the coppery head pressed hard against the post in agony, but the marks brought such images all too readily to mind. Had he screamed when it was done? I pushed the thought hastily away. I had heard the stories that trickled out of postwar Germany, of course, of atrocities much worse than this, but he was right; hearing is not at all the same as seeing.
Involuntarily, I reached out, as though I might heal him with a touch and erase the marks with my fingers. He sighed deeply, but didn’t move as I traced the deep scars, one by one, as though to show him the extent of the damage he couldn’t see. I rested my hands at last lightly on his shoulders in silence, groping for words.
He placed his own hand over mine, and squeezed lightly in acknowledgment of the things I couldn’t find to say.
“There’s worse has happened to others, lass,” he said quietly. Then he let go and the spell was broken.
“It feels as though it’s healing well,” he said, trying to look sideways at the wound in his shoulder. “It doesna pain me much.”
“That’s good,” I said, clearing my throat of some obstruction that seemed to have lodged there. “It is healing well; it’s scabbed over nicely, and there’s no drainage at all. Just keep it clean, and don’t use the arm more than you must for another two or three days.” I patted the undamaged shoulder, signifying dismissal. He put his shirt back on without assistance, tucking the long tails down into the kilt.
There was an awkward moment as he paused by the door, seeking something to say in farewell. Finally, he invited me to come to the stable next day and see a newborn foal. I promised that I would, and we said good night, both speaking together. We laughed and nodded absurdly to each other as I shut the door. I went at once to bed and fell asleep in a winey haze, to dream unsettling dreams that I would not recall come morning.
Next day, after a long morning of treating new patients, rummaging the stillroom for useful herbs to replenish the medical supplies cupboard, and—with some ceremony—recording the details in Davie Beaton’s black ledger, I left my narrow closet in search of air and exercise.
There was no one about for the moment, and I took the opportunity to explore the upper floors of the castle, poking into empty chambers and winding staircases, mapping the castle in my mind. It was a most irregular floor plan, to say the least. Bits and pieces had been added here and there over the years, until it was difficult to say whether there ever had been a plan originally. In this hall, for example, there was an alcove built into the wall by the stairs, apparently serving no purpose but to fill in a blank space too small for a complete room.
The alcove was partly shielded from view by a hanging curtain of striped linen; I would have passed by without stopping, had a sudden flash of white from within not attracted my attention. I stopped just short of the opening and peered inside to see what it was. It was the sleeve of Jamie’s shirt, passing around a girl’s back, drawing her close for a kiss. She sat on his lap, and her yellow hair caught the sunlight coming through a slit, reflecting light like the surface of a trout stream on a bright morning.
I paused, uncertain what to do. I had no desire to spy on them, but was afraid the sound of my footsteps on the corridor stones would draw their attention. While I hesitated, Jamie broke from the embrace and looked up. His eyes met mine, and his face twitched from alarm to recognition. With a raised eyebrow and a faintly ironic shrug, he settled the girl more firmly on his knee and bent to his work. I shrugged back, and tiptoed away. Not my business. I had little doubt, however, that both Colum and the girl’s father would consider this “consorting” highly improper. The next beating might well be on his own account, if they weren’t more careful in choosing a meeting place.
Finding him at supper that night with Alec, I sat down opposite them at the long table. Jamie greeted me pleasantly enough, but with a watchful expression in his eyes. Old Alec gave me his usual “Mmphm.” Women, as he had explained to me at the paddock, have no natural appreciation for horses, and are therefore difficult to talk to.
“How’s the horse-breaking coming along?” I asked, to interrupt the industrious chewing on the other side of the table.
“Well enough,” answered Jamie cautiously.
I peered at him across a platter of boiled turnips. “Your mouth looks a bit swollen, Jamie. Get thumped by a horse, did you?” I asked wickedly.
“Aye,” he answered, narrowing his eyes. “Swung its head when I wasna looking.” He spoke placidly, but I felt a large foot come down on top of mine under the table. It rested lightly at the moment, but the threat was explicit.
“Too bad; those fillies can be dangerous,” I said innocently.
The foot pressed down hard as Alec said, “Filly? Ye’re no workin’ fillies now, are ye, lad?” I used my other foot as a lever; that failing, I used it to kick his ankle sharply. Jamie jerked suddenly.
“What’s wrong wi’ ye?” Alec demanded.
“Bit my tongue,” muttered Jamie, glaring at me over the hand he had clapped to his mouth.
“Clumsy young dolt. No more than I’d expect, though, from an idjit as canna even keep clear of a horse when.…” Alec went on for several minutes, accusing his assistant at length of clumsiness, idleness, stupidity, and general ineptitude. Jamie, possibly the least clumsy person I had ever seen in my life, kept his head down and ate stolidly through the diatribe, though his cheeks flushed hotly. I kept my eyes demurely on my plate for the rest of the meal.
Refusing a second helping of stew, Jamie left the table abruptly, putting an end to Alec’s tirade. The old horsemaster and I munched silently for a few minutes. Wiping his plate with the last bite of bread, the old man pushed it into his mouth and leaned back, surveying me sardonically with his one blue eye.
“Ye shouldna devil the lad, ye ken,” he said conversationally. “If her father or Colum comes to know about it, young Jamie could get summat more than a blackened eye.”
“Like a wife?” I said, looking him squarely in the eye. He nodded slowly.
“Could be. And that’s not the wife he should have.”
“No?” I was a bit surprised at this, after overhearing Alec’s remarks in the paddock.