Page 49

The priest did not respond, but hunched his round shoulders and hitched his way up the garden stair a step at a time, like a penguin hopping up an ice floe.

“That man doesn’t care overmuch for women, does he?” I remarked to Jamie.

“Considering his occupation, I imagine that’s as well,” he replied. “Let’s go and eat.”

After lunch, I sent my patient back to bed to rest—alone, this time, in spite of his protestations—and went down to the surgery. The heavy rain seemed to have made business slack; people tended to stay safely inside, rather than running over their feet with ploughshares or falling off roofs.

I passed the time pleasantly enough, bringing the records in Davie Beaton’s book up to date. Just as I finished, though, a visitor darkened my door.

He literally darkened it, his bulk filling it from side to side. Squinting in the semidarkness, I made out the form of Alec MacMahon, swathed in an extraordinary get-up of coats, shawls, and odd bits of horse-blanket.

He advanced with a slowness that reminded me of Colum’s first visit to the surgery with me, and gave me a clue to his problem.

“Rheumatism, is it?” I asked with sympathy, as he subsided stiffly into my single chair with a stifled groan.

“Aye. The damp settles in my bones,” he said. “Aught to be done about it?” He laid his huge, gnarled hands on the table, letting the fingers relax. The hands opened slowly, like a night-blooming flower, to show the callused palms within. I picked up one of the knotted appendages and turned it gently to and fro, stretching the fingers and massaging the horny palm. The seamed old face above the hand contorted for a moment as I did it, but then relaxed as the first twinges passed.

“Like wood,” I said. “A good slug of whisky and a deep massage is the best I can recommend. Tansy tea will do only so much.”

He laughed, shawls slipping off his shoulder.

“Whisky, eh? I had my doubts, lassie, but I see ye’ve the makings of a fine physician.”

I reached into the back of my medicine cupboard and pulled out the anonymous brown bottle that held my supply from the Leoch distillery. I plunked it on the table before him, with a horn cup.

“Drink up,” I said, “then get stripped off as far as you think decent and lie on the table. I’ll make up the fire so it will be warm enough.”

The blue eye surveyed the bottle with appreciation, and a crooked hand reached slowly for the neck.

“Best have a nip yourself, lassie,” he advised. “It’ll be a big job.”

He groaned, with a cross between pain and contentment, as I leaned hard on his left shoulder to loosen it, then lifted from underneath and rotated the whole quarter of his body.

“My wife used to iron my back for me,” he remarked, “for the lumbago. But this is even better. Ye’ve a good strong pair of hands, lassie. Make a good stable-lad, ye would.”

“I’ll assume that’s a compliment,” I said dryly, pouring more of the heated oil-and-tallow mixture into my palm and spreading it over the broad white expanse of his back. There was a sharp line of demarcation between the weathered, mottled brown skin of his arms, where the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt stopped, and the milk-white skin of his shoulders and back.

“Well, you were a fine, fair laddie at one time,” I remarked. “The skin of your back’s as white as mine.”

A deep chuckle shook the flesh under my hands.

“Never know now, would ye? Aye, Ellen MacKenzie once saw me wi’ my sark off, birthin’ a foal, and told me it looked like the good Lord had put the wrong head to my body—should have had a bag of milk-pudding on my shoulders, instead of a face from the altar-piece.”

I gathered he was referring to the rood screen in the chapel, which featured a number of extremely unattractive demons, engaged in torturing sinners.

“Ellen MacKenzie sounds as though she were rather free with her opinions,” I observed. I was more than slightly curious about Jamie’s mother. From the small things he said now and then, I had some picture of his father Brian, but he had never mentioned his mother, and I knew nothing about her, other than that she had died young, in childbed.

“Oh, she had a tongue on her, did Ellen, and a mind of her own to go wi’ it.” Untying the garters of his trews, I tucked them up out of the way and began operations on the muscular calves of his legs. “But enough sweetness with it that no one minded much, other than her brothers. And she wasna one to pay much heed to Colum or Dougal.”

“Mm. So I heard. Eloped, didn’t she?” I dug my thumbs into the tendons behind his knee, and he let out a sound that would have been a squeak in anyone less dignified.

“Oh, aye. Ellen was the eldest o’ the six MacKenzie bairns—a year or two older than Colum, and the apple of auld Jacob’s eye. That’s why she’d gone so long unwed; wouldna ha’ aught to do wi’ John Cameron or Malcolm Grant, or any of the others she might have gone to, and her father wouldna force her against her will.”

When old Jacob died, though, Colum had less patience with his sister’s foibles. Struggling desperately to consolidate his shaky hold on the clan, he had sought an alliance with Munro to the north, or Grant to the south. Both clans had young chieftains, who would make useful brothers-in-law. Young Jocasta, only fifteen, had obligingly accepted the suit of John Cameron, and gone north. Ellen, on the verge of spinsterhood at twenty-two, had been a good deal less cooperative.

“I take it Malcolm Grant’s suit was rather firmly rejected, judging from his behavior two weeks ago,” I observed.

Old Alec laughed, the laugh turning to a satisfied groan as I pressed deeper.

“Aye. I never heard exactly what she said to him, but I expect it stung. It was at the big Gathering, ye ken, that they met. Out in the rose garden they went, in the evening, and everyone waiting to see would she tak’ him or no. And it grew dark, and they still waiting. And darker still, and the lanterns all lit, and the singing begun, and no sign yet of Ellen or Malcolm Grant.”

“Goodness. It must have been quite a conversation.” I poured another dollop of the liniment between his shoulder blades, and he grunted with the warm pleasure of it.

“So it seemed. But time went on, and they didna come back, and Colum began to fear as Grant had eloped wi’ her; taken her by force, ye see. And it seemed as that must be the way of it, for they found the rose garden empty. And when he sent down to the stables for me, sure enough—I told him Grant’s men had come for the horses, and the whole boiling of ’em gone awa’ without a word of farewell.”

Furious, eighteen-year-old Dougal had mounted his horse at once and set out on the track of Malcolm Grant, not waiting either for company nor for conference with Colum.

“When Colum heard as Dougal had gone after Grant, he sent me and some others helter-skelter after him, Colum being well acquent wi’ Dougal’s temper and not wishing to have his new brother-in-law slain in the road before the banns were called. For he reckoned as how Malcolm Grant, not being able to talk Ellen into wedding him, must ha’ taken her away in order to have his way wi’ her and force her into marriage that way.”

Alec paused meditatively. “All Dougal could see was the insult, of course. But I dinna think Colum was that upset about it, to tell the truth, insult or no. It would ha’ solved his problem—and Grant would likely have had to take Ellen wi’out her dower and pay reparation to Colum as well.”

Alec snorted cynically. “Colum is no the man to let an opportunity pass by him. He’s quick, and he’s ruthless, is Colum.” The single ice-blue eye swiveled back to regard me over one humped shoulder. “Ye’d be wise to bear that in mind, lassie.”

“I’m not likely to forget it,” I assured him, with some grimness. I remembered Jamie’s story of his punishment at Colum’s order, and wondered how much of that had been in revenge for his mother’s rebellion.

Still, Colum had had no chance to seize the opportunity of marrying his sister to the laird of clan Grant. Toward dawn, Dougal had found Malcolm Grant camped along the main road with his followers, asleep under a gorse bush, wrapped in his plaid.

And when Alec and the others had come pelting along the road sometime later, they had been stopped in their tracks by the sight of Dougal MacKenzie and Malcolm Grant, both stripped to the waist and scarred with the marks of battle, swaying and staggering up and down the roadway, still exchanging random blows whenever they got within reach of each other. Grant’s retainers were perched along the roadway like a row of owls, heads turning one way and then the other, as the waning fight meandered up and down in the dripping dawn.

“They were both of them puffing like blown horses, and the steam rising off their bodies in the chill. Grant’s nose was swelled to twice its size, and Dougal could scarce see out o’ either eye, and both wi’ their blood dripping down and dried ower their br**sts.”

Upon the appearance of Colum’s men, Grant’s tacksmen had all sprung to their feet, hands upon their swords, and the meeting would likely have resulted in serious bloodshed, had some sharp-eyed lad among the MacKenzies not noted the rather important fact that Ellen MacKenzie was nowhere to be seen among the Grants.

“Weel, after they’d poured water on Malcolm Grant and brought him to his senses, he managed to tell them what Dougal wouldna pause to hear—that Ellen had spent but a quarter-hour wi’ him in the rose garden. He wouldna say what had passed between them, but whatever it was, he’d been so offended as to wish to take his leave at once, without showing his face in the Hall. And he’d left her there, and seen her no more, nor did he wish ever to hear the name of Ellen MacKenzie spoken in his presence again. And wi’ that, he mounted his horse—a bit unsteady, still—and rode awa’. And been no friend since, to anyone of the clan MacKenzie.”

I listened, fascinated. “And where was Ellen all this time?”

Old Alec laughed, with the sound of a stable door hinge creaking.

“Ower the hills and far away. But they didna find it out for some time yet. We turned about and pelted home again, to find Ellen still missing and Colum standing white-faced in the courtyard, leanin’ on Angus Mhor.”

There followed more confusion still, for with all the guests, the rooms of the Castle were full, as were all the lofts and cubbyholes, the kitchens and closets. It seemed hopeless to tell which of all the folk in the Castle might also be missing, but Colum called all of the servants, and went doggedly down the lists of the invited, asking who had been seen the evening before, and where, and when. And finally he found a kitchen-maid who recalled seeing a man in a back passage, just before the supper was served.

She had noticed him only because he was so handsome; tall and sturdy, she said, with hair like a black silkie’s and eyes like a cat. She had watched him down the passage, admiring him, and seen him meet someone at the outer door—a woman dressed in black from head to toe, and shrouded in a hooded cloak.

“What’s a silkie?” I asked.

Alec’s eye slanted toward me, crinkling at the corners.

“Ye call them seals in English. For quite a bit after that, even after they knew the truth of it, folk in the village would tell the tale to each other that Ellen MacKenzie was taken to the sea, to live among the seals. Did ye know that the silkies put aside their skins when they come ashore, and walk like men? And if ye find a silkie’s skin and hide it, he—or she—” he added, fairly, “canna go into the sea again, but must stay with ye on the land. It’s thought good to take a seal-wife that way, for they’re very good cooks, and most devoted mothers.

“Still,” he said judiciously, “Colum wasna inclined to believe his sister’d gone off wi’ a seal, and said so. So he called the guests down, one by one, and asked them all who knew a man of that description. And at long last, they worked it out that his name was Brian, but no one knew his clan or his surname; he’d been at the Games, but there they only called him Brian Dhu.”

So there the matter seemed to rest for a time, for the searchers had no idea in which direction to look. Still, even the best of hunters must stop at a cottage now and then, to ask for a handful of salt or a pannikin of milk. And eventually word of the pair reached Leoch, for Ellen MacKenzie was a maid of no ordinary appearance.

“Hair like fire,” Alec said dreamily, enjoying the warmth of the oil on his back. “And eyes like Colum’s—grey, and fringed wi’ black lashes—verra pretty, but the kind would go through ye like a bolt. A tall woman; even taller than you. And sae fair it would hurt the eyes to see her.

“I heard tell later as they’d met at the Gathering, taken one look and decided on the spot as there could be none other for either one o’ them. So they laid their plans and they stole awa’, under the noses of Colum MacKenzie and three hundred guests.”

He laughed suddenly, remembering. “Dougal finally found them, living in a crofter’s cottage on the edge of the Fraser lands. They’d decided the only way to manage was to hide until Ellen was wi’ child, and big enough that there’d be no question whose it was. Then Colum would have to give his blessing to the marriage, like it or no—and he didn’t.”

Alec grinned. “Whiles ye were on the road, did ye chance to see a scar Dougal carries, running down his breast?”

I had; a thin white line that crossed his heart and ran from shoulder to ribs.

“Did Brian do that?” I asked.

“No, Ellen,” he replied, grinning at my expression. “To stop him cutting Brian’s throat, which he was about to do. I wouldna mention it to Dougal, if I were you.”

“No, I don’t suppose I will.”

Luckily, the plan had worked, and Ellen was five months gone with child by the time that Dougal found them.

“There was the great to-do about it all, and a lot of verra nasty letters exchanged between Leoch and Beauly, but they settled it in the end, and Ellen and Brian took up house at Lallybroch the week before the child was born. They were married in the dooryard,” he added, as an afterthought, “so he could carry her over the threshold for the first time as a wife. He said after as he nearly ruptured himself, lifting her.”

“You talk as though you knew them well,” I said. Finishing my ministrations, I wiped the slippery ointment off my hands with a towel.

“Oh, a bit,” Alec said, drowsy with warmth. The lid drooped over his single eye, and the lines of his old face had relaxed from the expression of mild discomfort that normally made him look so fierce.

“I kent Ellen weel, of course. Then Brian I met years later, when he brought the lad to stay—we got on. A good man wi’ a horse.” His voice trailed off, and the lid fell shut.

I drew a blanket up over the old man’s prostrate form, and tiptoed away, leaving him dreaming by the fire.

Leaving Alec asleep, I had gone up to our chamber, only to find Jamie in the same condition. There are a limited number of activities suitable for indoor amusement on a dark, rainy day, and assuming that I didn’t wish either to rouse Jamie or to join him in oblivion, that seemed to leave reading or needlework. Given the worse-than-mediocre state of my abilities in the latter direction, I had decided to borrow a book from Colum’s library.

In accordance with the peculiar architectural principles governing the construction of Leoch—based on a general abhorrence of straight lines—the stair leading to Colum’s suite had two right-angle bends in it, each marked by a small landing. An attendant usually stood on the second landing, ready to run errands or lend assistance to the laird, but he wasn’t at his station today. I could hear the rumble of voices from above; perhaps the attendant was with Colum. I paused outside the door, uncertain whether to interrupt.

“I’ve always known ye to be a fool, Dougal, but I didna think ye quite such an idiot.” Accustomed to the company of tutors since youth, and unused to venturing out as his brother did among fighting men and common people, Colum’s voice normally lacked the broad Scots that marked Dougal’s speech. The cultured accent had slipped a bit now, though, and the two voices were nearly indistinguishable, both thickened by anger. “I might have expected such behavior from ye when ye were in your twenties, but for God’s sake, man, you’re five-and-forty!”

“Well, it isna a matter you’d know owermuch about, now, is it?” Dougal’s voice held an ugly sneer.

“No.” Colum’s response came in a cutting tone. “And while I’ve seldom found cause to thank the Lord, perhaps he’s done better by me than I’ve thought. I’ve heard it said often enough that a man’s brain stops workin’ when his cock’s standin’, and now I think maybe I believe it.” There was a loud scrape as chairlegs were pushed back across the stone flooring. “If the brothers MacKenzie have but one c*ck and one brain between the two of them, then I’m glad of my half of the bargain!”

I decided that a third participant in this particular conversation would be decidedly unwelcome, and stepped softly back from the door, turning to go down the stair.

The sound of rustling skirts from the first landing made me stop in my tracks. I didn’t wish to be discovered eavesdropping outside the laird’s study, and turned back toward the door. The landing here was wide, and a tapestry covered one wall almost from floor to ceiling. My feet would show, but it couldn’t be helped.

Lurking like a rat behind the arras, I heard the steps from below slow as they approached the door, and stop at the far side of the landing, as the unseen visitor realized, as I had, the private nature of the brothers’ conversation.

“No,” Colum was saying, calmer now. “No, of course not. The woman’s a witch, or next thing to it.”

“Aye, but—” Dougal’s response was cut short by his brother’s impatient tones.

“I’ve said I’ll attend to it, man. Don’t worry yourself over it, little brother; I’ll see she’s done rightly by.” A note of grudging affection had crept into Colum’s voice.

“I’ll tell ye, man. I’ve written the Duke as he may have leave to hunt the lands above Erlick—he’s keen to have a shot at the stags there. I mean to send Jamie along wi’ him; may be as he still has some feeling for the lad—”

Dougal interrupted with something in Gaelic, evidently a coarse, remark, for Colum laughed and said, “Nay, I reckon Jamie’s big enough to have a care for himself. But if the Duke’s a mind to intercede for him with His Royal Majesty, it’s the lad’s best chance for a pardon. If ye will, I’ll tell His Grace you’ll go as well. You can aid Jamie as ye may, and you’ll be out of the way while I settle matters here.”

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