Page 20

There was a short speech next, given in Gaelic. This was greeted with periodic roars of approval, and then the oath-taking proper commenced.

Dougal MacKenzie was the first man to advance to Colum’s platform. The small rostrum gave Colum enough height that the brothers met face to face. Dougal was richly dressed, but in plain chestnut velvet with no gold lace, so as not to distract attention from Colum’s magnificence.

Dougal drew his dirk with a flourish and sank to one knee, holding the dirk upright by the blade. His voice was less powerful than Colum’s, but loud enough so that every word rang through the hall.

“I swear by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the holy iron that I hold, to give ye my fealty and pledge ye my loyalty to the name of the clan MacKenzie. If ever my hand shall be raised against ye in rebellion, I ask that this holy iron shall pierce my heart.”

He lowered the dirk, kissed it at the juncture of haft and tang, and thrust it home in its sheath. Still kneeling, he offered both hands clasped to Colum, who took them between his own and lifted them to his lips in acceptance of the oath so offered. Then he raised Dougal to his feet.

Turning, Colum picked up a silver quaich from its place on the tartancovered table behind him. He lifted the heavy eared cup with both hands, drank from it, and offered it to Dougal. Dougal took a healthy swallow and handed back the cup. Then, with a final bow to the laird of the clan MacKenzie, he stepped to one side, to make room for the next man in line.

This same process was repeated over and over, from vow to ceremonial drink. Viewing the number of men in the line, I was impressed anew at Colum’s capacity. I was trying to work out how many pints of spirit he would have consumed by the end of the evening, given one swallow per oath-taker, when I saw Jamie approach the head of the line.

Dougal, his own oath completed, had taken up a station to Colum’s rear. He saw Jamie before Colum, who was occupied with another man, and I saw his sudden start of surprise. He stepped close to his brother and muttered something. Colum kept his eyes fixed on the man before him, but I saw him stiffen slightly. He was surprised, too, and, I thought, not altogether pleased.

The level of feeling in the hall, high to start with, had risen through the ceremony. If Jamie were to refuse his oath at this point, I thought he could easily be torn to shreds by the overwrought clansmen around him. I wiped my palms surreptitiously against my skirt, feeling guilty at having brought him into such a precarious situation.

He seemed composed. Hot as the hall was, he wasn’t sweating. He waited patiently in line, showing no signs of realizing that he was surrounded by a hundred men, armed to the teeth, who would be quick to resent any insult offered to The MacKenzie and the clan. Je suis prest, indeed. Or perhaps he had decided after all to take Alec’s advice?

My nails were digging into my palms by the time it came his turn.

He went gracefully to one knee and bowed deeply before Colum. But instead of drawing his knife for the oath, he rose to his feet and looked Colum in the face. Fully erect, he stood head and shoulders over most of the men in the hall, and he topped Colum on his rostrum by several inches. I glanced at the girl Laoghaire. She had gone pale when he rose to his feet, and I saw that she also had her fists clenched tight.

Every eye in the hall was on him, but he spoke as though to Colum alone. His voice was as deep as Colum’s, and every word was clearly audible.

“Colum MacKenzie, I come to you as kinsman and as ally. I give ye no vow, for my oath is pledged to the name that I bear.” There was a low, ominous growl from the crowd, but he ignored it and went on. “But I give ye freely the things that I have; my help and my goodwill, wherever ye should find need of them. I give ye my obedience, as kinsman and as laird, and I hold myself bound by your word, so long as my feet rest on the lands of clan MacKenzie.”

He stopped speaking and stood, tall and erect, hands relaxed at his sides. Ball now in Colum’s court, I thought. One word from him, one sign, and they’d be scrubbing the young man’s blood off the flags come morning.

Colum stood unmoving for a moment, then smiled and held out his hands. After an instant’s hesitation, Jamie placed his own hands lightly on Colum’s palms.

“We are honored by your offer of friendship and goodwill,” said Colum clearly. “We accept your obedience and hold you in good faith as an ally of the clan MacKenzie.”

There was a lessening of the tension over the hall, and almost an audible sigh of relief in the gallery as Colum drank from the quaich and offered it to Jamie. The young man accepted it with a smile. Instead of the customary ceremonial sip, however, he carefully raised the nearly full vessel, tilted it and drank. And kept on drinking. There was a gasp of mingled respect and amusement from the spectators, as the powerful throat muscles kept moving. Surely he’d have to breathe soon, I thought, but no. He drained the heavy cup to the last drop, lowered it with an explosive gasp for air, and handed it back to Colum.

“The honor is mine,” he said, a little hoarsely, “to be allied with a clan whose taste in whisky is so fine.”

There was an uproar at this, and he made his way toward the archway, much impeded by congratulatory handshakes and thumps on the back as he passed. Apparently Colum MacKenzie was not the only member of the family with a knack for good theater.

The heat in the gallery was stifling, and the rising smoke was making my head ache before the oath-taking finally came to an end, with what I assumed were a few stirring words by Colum. Unaffected by six shared quaichs of spirit, the strong voice still reverberated off the stones of the hall. At least his legs wouldn’t pain him tonight, I thought, in spite of all the standing.

There was a massive shout from the floor below, an outbreak of skirling pipes, and the solemn scene dissolved into a heaving surge of riotous yelling. An even louder shout greeted the tubs of ale and whisky that now appeared on trestles, accompanied by platters of steaming oatcakes, haggis, and meat. Mrs. Fitz, who must have organized this part of the proceedings, leaned precariously across the balustrade, keeping a sharp eye on the behavior of the stewards, mostly lads too young to swear a formal oath.

“And where’s the pheasants got to, then?” she muttered under her breath, surveying the incoming platters. “Or the stuffed eels, either? Drat that Mungo Grant, I’ll skin him if he’s burnt the eels!” Making up her mind, she turned and began to squeeze toward the back of the gallery, plainly unwilling to leave administration of something so critical as the feasting in the untried hands of Mungo Grant.

Seizing the opportunity, I pushed along behind her, taking advantage of the sizable wake she left through the crowd. Others, clearly thankful for a reason to leave, joined me in the exodus.

Mrs. Fitz, turning at the bottom, saw the flock of women above and scowled ferociously.

“You wee lassies clear off to your rooms right sharp,” she commanded. “If you’ll not stay up there safe out o’ sight, ye’d best scamper awa’ to your own places. But no lingering in the corridors, nor peeping round the corners. There’s not a man in the place who’s not half in his cups already, and they’ll be far gone in an hour. ’Tis no place for lasses tonight.”

Pushing the door ajar, she peered cautiously into the corridor. The coast apparently clear, she shooed the women out the door, one at a time, sending them hurriedly on their way to their sleeping quarters on the upper floors.

“Do you need any help?” I asked as I came even with her. “In the kitchens, I mean?”

She shook her head, but smiled at the offer. “Nay, there’s no need, lass. Get along wi’ ye now, you’re no safer than the rest.” And a kindly shove in the small of the back sent me hurtling out into the dim passage.

I was inclined to take her advice, after the encounter with the guard outside. The men in the Hall were rioting, dancing, and drinking, with no thought of restraint or control. No place for a woman, I agreed.

Finding my way back to my room was another matter altogether. I was in an unfamiliar part of the castle, and while I knew the next floor had a breezeway that connected it to the corridor leading to my room, I couldn’t find anything resembling stairs.

I came around a corner, and smack into a group of clansmen. These were men I didn’t know, come from the outlying clan lands, and unused to the genteel manners of a castle. Or so I deduced from the fact that one man, apparently in search of the latrines, gave it up and chose to relieve himself in a corner of the hallway as I came upon them.

I whirled at once, intending to go back the way I had come, stairs or no stairs. Several hands reached to stop me, though, and I found myself pressed against the wall of the corridor, surrounded by bearded Highlanders with whisky on their breath and rape on their minds.

Seeing no point in preliminaries, the man in front of me grabbed me by the waist and plunged his other hand into my bodice. He leaned close, rubbing his bearded cheek against my ear. “And how about a sweet kiss, now, for the brave lads of the clan MacKenzie? Tulach Ard!”

“Erin go bragh,” I said rudely, and pushed with all my strength. Unsteady with drink, he staggered backward into one of his companions. I dodged to the side and fled, kicking off my clumsy shoes as I ran.

Another shape loomed in front of me, and I hesitated. There seemed to be only one in front of me, though, and at least ten behind me, catching up fast despite their cargo of drink. I raced forward, intending to dodge around him. He stepped sharply in front of me, though, and I came to a halt, so fast that I had to put my hands on his chest to avoid crashing into him. It was Dougal MacKenzie.

“What in hell—?” he began, then saw the men after me. He pulled me behind him and barked something at my pursuers in Gaelic. They protested in the same language, but after a short exchange like the snarling of wolves, they gave it up and went off in search of better entertainment.

“Thank you,” I said, a little dazed. “Thank you. I’ll…I’ll go. I shouldn’t be down here.” Dougal glanced down at me, and took my arm, pulling me around to face him. He was disheveled and clearly had been joining in the roistering in the Hall.

“True enough, lass,” he said. “Ye shouldna be here. Since ye are, weel, you’ll have to pay the penalty for that,” he murmured, eyes gleaming in the half-dark. And without warning, he pulled me hard against him and kissed me. Kissed me hard enough to bruise my lips and force them apart. His tongue flicked against mine, the taste of whisky sharp in my mouth. His hands gripped me firmly by the bottom and pressed me against him, making me feel the rigid hardness under his kilt through my layers of skirts and petticoats.

He released me as suddenly as he had seized me. He nodded and gestured down the hall, breathing a little unsteadily. A lock of russet hair hung loose over his forehead and he brushed it back with one hand.

“Get ye gone, lassie,” he said. “Before ye pay a greater price.”

I went, barefoot.

Given the carryings-on of the night before, I had expected most inhabitants of the castle to lie late the next morning, possibly staggering down for a restorative mug of ale when the sun was high—assuming that it chose to come out at all, of course. But the Highland Scots of Clan MacKenzie were a tougher bunch than I had reckoned with, for the castle was a buzzing hive long before dawn, with rowdy voices calling up and down the corridors, and a great clanking of armory and thudding of boots as men prepared for the tynchal.

It was cold and foggy, but Rupert, whom I met in the courtyard on my way to the hall, assured me that this was the best sort of weather in which to hunt boar.

“The beasts ha’ such a thick coat, the cold’s no hindrance to them,” he explained, sharpening a spearpoint with enthusiasm against a foot-driven grindstone, “and they feel safe wi’ the mist so heavy all round them—canna see the men coming toward them, ye ken.”

I forbore to point out that this meant the hunting men would not be able to see the boar they were approaching, either, until they were upon it.

As the sun began to streak the mist with blood and gold, the hunting party assembled in the forecourt, spangled with damp and bright-eyed with anticipation. I was glad to see that the women were not expected to participate, but contented themselves with offering bannocks and drafts of ale to the departing heroes. Seeing the large number of men who set out for the east wood, armed to the teeth with boar spears, axes, bows, quivers, and daggers, I felt a bit sorry for the boar.

This attitude was revised to one of awed respect an hour later, when I was hastily summoned to the forest’s edge to dress the wounds of a man who had, as I surmised, stumbled over the beast unawares in the fog.

“Bloody Christ!” I said, examining a gaping, jagged wound that ran from knee to ankle. “An animal did this? What’s it got, stainless steel teeth?”

“Eh?” The victim was white with shock, and too shaken to answer me, but one of the fellows who had assisted him from the wood gave me a curious look.

“Never mind,” I said, and yanked tight the compression bandage I had wound about the injured calf. “Take him up to the castle and we’ll have Mrs. Fitz give him hot broth and blankets. That’ll have to be stitched, and I’ve no tools for it here.”

The rhythmic shouts of the same beaters still echoed in the mists of the hillside. Suddenly there was a piercing scream that rose high above fog and tree, and a startled pheasant broke from its hiding place nearby with a frightening rattle of wings.

“Dear God in heaven, what now?” Seizing an armful of bandages, I abandoned my patient to his caretakers and headed into the forest at a dead run.

The fog was thicker under the branches, and I could see no more than a few feet ahead, but the sound of excited shouting and thrashing underbrush guided me in the right direction.

It brushed past me from behind. Intent on the shouting, I didn’t hear it, and I didn’t see it until it had passed, a dark mass moving at incredible speed, the absurdly tiny cloven hooves almost silent on the sodden leaves.

I was so stunned by the suddenness of the apparition that it didn’t occur to me at first to be frightened. I simply stared into the mist where the bristling black thing had vanished. Then, raising my hand to brush back the ringlets that were curling damply around my face, I saw the blotched red streak across it. Looking down, I found a matching streak on my skirt. The beast was wounded. Had the scream come from the boar, perhaps?

I thought not; I knew the sound of mortal wounding. And the pig was moving well under its own power when it had passed me. I took a deep breath and went on into the wall of mist, in search of a wounded man.

I found him at the bottom of a small slope, surrounded by kilted men. They had spread their plaids over him to keep him warm, but the cloth covering his legs was ominously dark with wetness. A wide scrape of black mud showed where he had tumbled down the length of the slope, and a scrabble of muddied leaves and churned earth, where he had met the boar. I sank to my knees beside the man, pulled back the cloth and set to work.

I had scarcely begun when the shouts of the men around us made me turn, to see the nightmare shape appear, once more soundless, out of the trees.

This time I had time to see the dagger hilt protruding from the beast’s side, perhaps the work of the man on the ground before me. And the wicked yellow ivory, stained red as the mad little eyes.

The men around me, as stunned as I was, began to stir and reach for weapons. Faster than the rest, a tall man seized a boar-spear from the hands of a companion who stood frozen, and stepped out into the clearing.

It was Dougal MacKenzie. He walked almost casually, carrying the spear low, braced in both hands, as though about to lift a spadeful of dirt. He was intent on the beast, speaking to it in an undertone, murmuring in Gaelic as though to coax the beast from the shelter of the tree it stood beside.

The first charge was sudden as an explosion. The beast shot past, so closely that the brown hunting tartan flapped in the breeze of its passing. It spun at once and came back, a blur of muscular rage. Dougal leapt aside like a bullfighter, jabbing at it with his spear. Back, forth, and again. It was less a rampage than a dance, both adversaries rooted in strength, but so nimble they seemed to float above the ground.

The whole thing lasted only a minute or so, though it seemed much longer. It ended when Dougal, whirling aside from the slashing tusks, raised the point of the short, stout spear and drove it straight down between the beast’s sloping shoulders. There was the thunk of the spear and a shrill squealing noise that made the hairs stand up along my forearms. The small, piggy eyes cast to and fro, veering wildly in search of nemesis, and the dainty hooves sank deep in mud as the boar staggered and lurched. The squealing went on, rising to an inhuman pitch as the heavy body toppled to one side, driving the protruding dagger hilt-deep in the hairy flesh. The delicate hooves spurned the ground, churning up thick clods of damp earth.

The squeal stopped abruptly. There was silence for a moment, and then a thoroughly piggish grunt, and the bulk was still.

Dougal had not waited to make sure of the kill, but had circled the twitching animal and made his way back to the injured man. He sank to his knees and put an arm behind the victim’s shoulders, taking the place of the man who had been supporting him. A fine spray of blood had spattered the high cheekbones, and drying droplets matted his hair on one side.

“Now then, Geordie,” he said, rough voice suddenly gentle. “Now then. I’ve got him, man. It’s all right.”

“Dougal? Is’t you, man?” The wounded man turned his head in Dougal’s direction, struggling to open his eyes.

I was surprised, listening as I rapidly checked the man’s pulse and vital signs. Dougal the fierce, Dougal the ruthless, was speaking to the man in a low voice, repeating words of comfort, hugging the man hard against him, stroking the tumbled hair.

I sat back on my heels, and reached again toward the pile of cloths on the ground beside me. There was a deep wound, running at least eight inches from the groin down the length of the thigh, from which the blood was gushing in a steady flow. It wasn’t spurting, though; the femoral artery wasn’t cut, which meant there was a good chance of stopping it.

What couldn’t be stopped was the ooze from the man’s belly, where the ripping tushes had laid open skin, muscles, mesentery, and gut alike. There were no large vessels severed there, but the intestine was punctured; I could see it plainly, through the jagged rent in the man’s skin. This sort of abdominal wound was frequently fatal, even with a modern operating room, sutures, and antibiotics readily to hand. The contents of the ruptured gut, spilling out into the body cavity, simply contaminated the whole area and made infection a deadly certainty. And here, with nothing but cloves of garlic and yarrow flowers to treat it with.…

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.