“Nay, he needs a woman, not a girl. And Laoghaire will be a girl when she’s fifty.” The grim old mouth twisted in something like a smile. “Ye may think I’ve lived in a stable all my life, but I had a wife as was a woman, and I ken the difference verra weel.” The blue eye flashed as he made to get up. “So do you, lass.”
I reached out a hand impulsively to stop him. “How did you know—” I began. Old Alec snorted derisively.
“I may ha’ but one eye, lass; it doesna mean I’m blind.” He creaked off, snorting as he went. I found the stairs and went up to my room, contemplating what, if anything, the old horsemaster had meant by his final remark.
My life seemed to be assuming some shape, if not yet a formal routine. Rising at dawn with the rest of the castle inhabitants, I breakfasted in the great hall, then, if Mrs. Fitz had no patients for me to see, I went to work in the huge castle gardens. Several other women worked there regularly, with an attending phalanx of lads in varying sizes, who came and went, hauling rubbish, tools, and loads of manure. I generally worked through the day there, sometimes going to the kitchens to help prepare a newly picked crop for eating or preserving, unless some medical emergency called me back to the Skulkery, as I called the late Beaton’s closet of horrors.
Once in a while, I would take up Alec’s invitation and visit the stables or paddock, enjoying the sight of the horses shedding their shaggy winter coats in clumps, growing strong and glossy with spring grass.
Some evenings I would go to bed immediately after supper, exhausted by the day’s work. Other times, when I could keep my eyes open, I would join the gathering in the Great Hall to listen to the evening’s entertainment of stories, song, or the music of harp or pipes. I could listen to Gwyllyn the Welsh bard for hours, enthralled in spite of my total ignorance of what he was saying, most times.
As the castle inhabitants grew accustomed to my presence, and I to them, some of the women began to make shy overtures of friendship, and to include me in their conversations. They were plainly very curious about me, but I replied to all their tentative questions with variations of the story I had told Colum, and after a bit, they accepted that as all they were likely to know. Having found out that I knew something of medicine and healing, though, they grew still more interested in me, and began to ask questions about the ailments of their children, husbands, and beasts, in most cases making little distinction between the latter two in level of importance.
Besides the normal questions and gossip, there was considerable talk of the coming Gathering that I had heard Old Alec mention at the paddock. I concluded that this was an occasion of some importance, and grew more convinced by the extent of the preparations for it. A constant stream of foodstuffs poured into the great kitchens, and more than twenty skinned carcasses hung in the slaughter shed, behind a screen of fragrant smoke that kept the flies away. Hogsheads of ale were delivered by wagon and carted down to the castle cellars, bags of fine flour were brought up from the village mill for baking, and baskets of cherries and apricots were fetched daily from the orchards outside the castle wall.
I was invited to go on one of these fruit-picking expeditions with several of the young women of the castle, and accepted with alacrity, eager to get out from under the forbidding shadow of the stone walls.
It was beautiful in the orchard, and I greatly enjoyed wandering through the cool mist of the Scottish morning, fingering through the damp leaves of the fruit trees for the bright cherries and smooth, plump apricots, squeezing gently to judge the ripeness. We plucked only the best, dropping them into our baskets in juicy heaps, eating as much as we could hold, and carrying back the remainder to be made into tarts and pies. The enormous pantry shelves were nearly filled now with pastries, cordials, hams, and assorted delicacies.
“How many people customarily come to a Gathering?” I asked Magdalen, one of the girls with whom I had become friendly.
She wrinkled a snub freckled nose in thought. “I dinna ken for sure. The last great Gathering at Leoch was over twenty year past, and then there were oh, maybe ten score of men come then—when old Jacob died, ye ken, and Colum was made laird. Might be more this year; been a good year for the crops and folk will ha’ a bit more money put by, so a good many will bring their wives and bairns along.”
Visitors were already beginning to arrive at the castle, though I had heard that the official parts of the Gathering, the oath-taking, the tynchal, and the games, would not take place for several days. The more illustrious of Colum’s tacksmen and tenants were housed in the castle proper, while the poorer men-at-arms and cottars set up camp on a fallow field below the stream that fed the castle’s loch. Roving tinkers, gypsies, and sellers of small goods had set up a sort of impromptu fair near the bridge. The inhabitants of both castle and nearby village had begun to visit the spot in the evenings, when the day’s work was done, to buy tools and bits of finery, watch the jugglers and catch up on the latest gossip.
I kept a close eye on the comings and goings, and made a point of paying frequent visits to stable and paddock. There were horses in plenty now, those of the visitors being accommodated in the castle stables. Among the confusion and disturbance of the Gathering, I thought, I should have no difficulty in finding my chance to escape.
It was on one of the fruit-picking expeditions to the orchard that I first met Geillis Duncan. Finding a small patch of Ascaria beneath the roots of an alder, I was hunting for more. The scarlet caps grew in tiny clumps, only four or five mushrooms in a group, but there were several clumps scattered through the long grass in this part of the orchard. The voices of the women picking fruit grew fainter as I worked my way toward the edge of the orchard, stooping or dropping on hands and knees to gather the fragile stalks.
“Those kind are poison,” said a voice from behind me. I straightened up from the patch of Ascaria I had been bending over, thumping my head smartly on a branch of the pine they were growing under.
As my vision cleared, I could see that the peals of laughter were coming from a tall young woman, perhaps a few years older than myself, fair of hair and skin, with the loveliest green eyes I had ever seen.
“I am sorry to be laughing at you,” she said, dimpling as she stepped down into the hollow where I stood. “I could not help it.”
“I imagine I looked funny,” I said rather ungraciously, rubbing the sore spot on top of my head. “And thank you for the warning, but I know those mushrooms are poisonous.”
“Och, you know? And who is it you’re planning to do away with, then? Your husband, perhaps? Tell me if it works, and I’ll try it on mine.” Her smile was infectious, and I found myself smiling back.
I explained that though the raw mushroom caps were indeed poisonous, you could prepare a powdered preparation from the dried fungi that was very efficacious in stopping bleeding when applied topically. Or so Mrs. Fitz said; I was more inclined to trust her than Davie Beaton’s Physician’s Guide.
“Fancy that!” she said, still smiling. “And did you know that these”—she stooped and came up with a handful of tiny blue flowers with heart-shaped leaves—“will start bleeding?”
“No,” I said, startled. “Why would anyone want to start bleeding?”
She looked at me with an expression of exasperated patience. “To get rid of a child ye don’t want, I mean. It brings on your flux, but only if ye use it early. Too late, and it can kill you as well as the child.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” I remarked, still stung by having appeared stupid.
“A bit. The girls in the village come to me now and again for such things, and sometimes the married women too. They say I’m a witch,” she said, widening her brilliant eyes in feigned astonishment. She grinned. “But my husband’s the procurator fiscal for the district, so they don’t say it too loud.”
“Now the young lad ye brought with ye,” she went on, nodding in approval, “there’s one that’s had a few love-philtres bought on his behalf. Is he yours?”
“Mine? Who? You mean, er, Jamie?” I was startled.
The young woman looked amused. She sat down on a log, twirling a lock of fair hair idly around her index finger.
“Och, aye. There’s quite a few would settle for a fellow wi’ eyes and hair like that, no matter the price on his head or whether he’s any money. Their fathers may think differently, o’ course.
“Now, me,” she went on, looking off into the distance, “I’m a practical sort. I married a man with a fair house, a bit o’ money put away, and a good position. As for hair, he hasn’t any, and as for eyes, I never noticed, but he doesna trouble me much.” She held out the basket she carried for my inspection. Four bulbous roots lay in the bottom.
“Mallow root,” she explained. “My husband suffers from a chill on the stomach now and again. Farts like an ox.”
I thought it best to stop this line of conversation before things got out of hand. “I haven’t introduced myself,” I said, extending a hand to help her up from the log. “My name is Claire. Claire Beauchamp.”
The hand that took mine was slender, with long, tapering white fingers, though I noticed the tips were stained, probably with the juices of the plants and berries resting alongside the mallow roots in her basket.
“I know who ye are,” she said. “The village has been humming with talk of ye, since ye came to the castle. My name is Geillis, Geillis Duncan.” She peered into my basket. “If it’s balgan-buachrach you’re looking for, I can show you where they grow best.”
I accepted her offer, and we wandered for some time through the small glens near the orchard, poking under rotted logs and crawling around the rim of the sparkling tarns, where the tiny toadstools grew in profusion. Geillis was very knowledgeable about the local plants and their medicinal uses, though she suggested a few usages I thought questionable, to say the least. I thought it very unlikely, for instance, that bloodwort would be effective in making warts grow on a rival’s nose, and I strongly doubted whether wood betony was useful in transforming toads into pigeons. She made these explanations with a mischievous glance that suggested she was testing my own knowledge, or perhaps the local suspicion of witchcraft.
Despite the occasional teasing, I found her a pleasant companion, with a ready wit and a cheerful, if cynical, outlook on life. She appeared to know everything there was to know about everyone in village, countryside, and castle, and our explorations were punctuated by rests during which she entertained me with complaints about her husband’s stomach trouble, and amusing if somewhat malicious gossip.
“They say young Hamish is not his father’s son,” she said at one point, referring to Colum’s only child, the red-haired lad of eight or so whom I had seen at dinner in the Hall.
I was not particularly startled by this bit of gossip, having formed my own conclusions on the matter. I was only surprised that there was but one child of questionable parentage, surmising that Letitia had been either lucky, or smart enough to seek out someone like Geilie in time. Unwisely, I said as much to Geilie.
She flung back her long fair hair and laughed. “No, not me. The fair Letitia does not need any help in such matters, believe me. If people are seeking a witch in this neighborhood, they’d do better to look in the castle than the village.”
Anxious to change the subject to something safer, I seized on the first thing that came to mind.
“If young Hamish isn’t Colum’s son, whose is he supposed to be?” I asked, scrambling over a heap of boulders.
“Why, the lad’s, of course.” She turned to face me, small mouth mocking and green eyes bright with mischief. “Young Jamie.”
Returning to the orchard alone, I met Magdalen, hair coming loose under her kerchief and wide-eyed with worry.
“Oh, there ye are,” she said, heaving a sigh of relief. “We were going back to the castle, when I missed ye.”
“It was kind of you to come back for me,” I said, picking up the basket of cherries I’d left in the grass. “I know the way, though.”
She shook her head. “You should take care, my dearie, walking alone in the woods, wi’ all the tinkers and folk coming for the Gathering. Colum’s given orders—” She stopped abruptly, hand over her mouth.
“That I’m to be watched?” I suggested gently. She nodded reluctantly, clearly afraid I would be offended. I shrugged and tried to smile reassuringly at her.
“Well, that’s natural, I suppose,” I said. “After all, he’s no one’s word but my own for who I am or how I came here.” Curiosity overcame my better judgment. “Who does he think I am?” I asked. But the girl could only shake her head.
“You’re English,” was all she said.
I didn’t return to the orchard next day. Not because I was ordered to remain in the castle, but because there was a sudden outbreak of food poisoning among the castle inhabitants that demanded my attention as physician. Having done what I could for the sufferers, I set out to track the trouble to its source.
This proved to be a tainted beef carcass from the slaughter shed. I was in the shed next day, giving the chief smoker a piece of my mind regarding proper methods of meat preserving, when the door swung open behind me, sending a thick wave of choking smoke over me.
I turned, eyes watering, to see Dougal MacKenzie looming through the clouds of oakwood smoke.
“Supervising the butchering as well as the physicking, are ye now, mistress?” he asked mockingly. “Soon ye’ll have the whole castle under your thumb, and Mrs. Fitz will be seeking employment elsewhere.”
“I have no desire to have anything to do with your filthy castle,” I snapped, wiping my streaming eyes and coming away with charcoal streaks on my handkerchief. “All I want is to get out of here, as fast as possible.”
He inclined his head courteously, still grinning. “Well, I might be in a position to gratify that wish, mistress,” he said. “At least temporarily.”
I dropped the handkerchief and stared at him. “What do you mean?”
He coughed and waved a hand at the smoke, now drifting in his direction. He drew me outside the shed and turned in the direction of the stables.
“You were saying yesterday to Colum that ye needed betony and some odd bits of herbs?”
“Yes, to make up some medicines for the people with food poisoning. What of it?” I demanded, still suspicious.
He shrugged good-naturedly. “Only that I’m going down to the smith’s in the village, taking three horses to be shod. The fiscal’s wife is something of an herb-woman, and has stocks to hand. Doubtless she has the simples that you’re needing. And if it please ye, lady, you’re welcome to ride one of the horses down wi’ me to the village.”
“The fiscal’s wife? Mrs. Duncan?” I immediately felt happier. The prospect of escaping the castle altogether, even if only for a short time, was irresistible.
I mopped my face hurriedly and tucked the soiled kerchief in my belt.
“Let’s go,” I said.
I enjoyed the short ride downhill to the village of Cranesmuir, even though the day was dark and overcast. Dougal himself was in high spirits, and chatted and joked pleasantly as we went along.
We stopped first at the smith’s, where he left the three extra horses, taking me up behind him on his saddle for the trip up the High Street to the Duncans’ house. This was an imposing half-timbered manor of four stories, the lower two equipped with elegant leaded-glass windows; diamond-shaped panes in watery tones of purple and green.
Geilie greeted us with delight, pleased to have company on such a dreary day.
“How splendid!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been wanting an excuse to go through the stillroom and sort out some things. Anne!”
A short, middle-aged serving woman with a face like a winter apple popped out of a door I hadn’t noticed, concealed as it was in the bend of the chimney.
“Take Mistress Claire up to the stillroom,” Geilie ordered, “and then go and fetch us a bucket of spring water. From the spring, mind, not the well in the square!” She turned to Dougal. “I’ve the tonic put by that I promised your brother. If you’ll come out to the kitchen with me for a moment?”
I followed the serving woman’s pumpkin-shaped rear up a set of narrow wooden stairs, emerging unexpectedly into a long, airy loft. Unlike the rest of the house, this room was furnished with casement windows, shut now against the damp, but still providing a great deal more light than had been available in the fashionably gloomy parlor downstairs.
It was clear that Geilie knew her business as an herbalist. The room was equipped with long drying frames netted with gauze, hooks above the small fireplace for heat-drying, and open shelves along the walls, drilled with holes to allow for air circulation. The air was thick with the delicious, spicy scent of drying basil, rosemary, and lavender. A surprisingly modern long counter ran along one side of the room, displaying a remarkable assortment of mortars, pestles, mixing bowls, and spoons, all immaculately clean.
It was some time before Geilie appeared, flushed from climbing the stairs, but smiling in anticipation of a long afternoon of herb-pounding and gossip.
It began to rain lightly, drops spattering the long casements, but a small fire was burning on the stillroom hearth, and it was very cozy. I enjoyed Geilie’s company immensely; she had a wry-tongued, cynical viewpoint that was a refreshing contrast to the sweet, shy clanswomen at the castle, and clearly she had been well educated, for a woman in a small village.
She also knew every scandal that had occurred either in village or castle in the last ten years, and she told me endless amusing stories. Oddly enough, she asked me few questions about myself. I thought perhaps that was not her way; she would find out what she wanted to know about me from other people.
For some time, I had been conscious of noises coming from the street outside, but had attributed them to the traffic of villagers coming from Sunday Mass; the kirk was located at the end of the street by the well, and the High Street ran from kirk to square, spreading from there into a fan of tiny lanes and walks.
In fact, I had amused myself on the ride to the smithy by imagining an aerial view of the village as a representation of a skeletal forearm and hand; the High Street was the radius, along which lay the shops and businesses and the residences of the more well-to-do. St. Margaret’s Lane was the ulna, a narrower street running parallel with the High, tenanted by smithy, tannery, and the less genteel artisans and businesses. The village square (which, like all village squares I had ever seen, was not square at all, but roughly oblong) formed the carpals and metacarpals of the hand, while the several lanes of cottages made up the phalangeal joints of the fingers.