There was a muffled thump from the far side of the landing, and I risked peeping out. It was the girl Laoghaire, pale as the plastered wall behind her. She was holding a tray with a decanter; a pewter cup had fallen from the tray to the carpeted floor, making the sound I had heard.
“What’s that?” Colum’s voice, suddenly sharp, spoke from inside the study. Laoghaire dropped the tray on the table next to the door, almost upsetting the decanter in her haste, and turning, fled precipitately.
I could hear Dougal’s footsteps approaching the door, and knew I would never make it down the stairs without discovery. I barely had time to wriggle out of my hiding place and pick up the fallen cup, before the door opened.
“Oh, it’s you.” Dougal sounded mildly surprised. “Is that the stuff Mrs. Fitz sent for Colum’s raw throat?”
“Yes,” I said glibly. “She says she hopes he’ll be better presently.”
“I’ll do.” Moving more slowly, Colum came into view in the open door. He smiled at me. “Thank Mrs. Fitz for me. And my thanks to you, my dear, for bringing it. Will ye sit a moment while I drink it?”
The conversation I had overheard had effectually made me forget my original purpose, but I now remembered my intention of borrowing a book. Dougal excused himself, and I followed Colum slowly into his library, where he offered me the run of his shelves.
Colum’s color was still high, the quarrel with his brother still fresh in his mind, but he answered my questions about the books with a good approximation of his usual poise. Only the brightness of his eyes and a certain tenseness of posture betrayed his thoughts.
I found one or two herbals that looked interesting and put them aside while I browsed a novel.
Colum crossed to the birds’ cage, no doubt intending to soothe himself as per his usual custom by watching the beautiful little self-absorbed creatures hop about amongst the branches, each a world unto itself.
The sound of shouts from outside attracted my attention. From this high point, the fields behind the castle were visible, all the way to the loch. A small group of horsemen was sweeping around the end of the loch, shouting with exhilaration, as the rain pelted them on.
As they drew nearer, I could see that they weren’t men after all, but boys, mostly teenagers, but with a younger lad here and there on a pony, pressing hard to stay up with the older youths. I wondered if Hamish was with them, and quickly found the telltale spot of bright hair, gleaming wildly from Cobhar’s back in the middle of the pack.
The gang came charging toward the castle, headed for one of the innumerable stone walls that separated one field from another. One, two, three, four, the older boys on their mounts popped over the wall with the careless ease born of experience.
It was doubtless my imagination that made the bay seem to hang back a moment, for Cobhar followed the other horses with apparent eagerness. He charged the fence, set himself, braced and leaped.
He seemed to do it just as the others had, and yet something happened. Perhaps a hesitation by his rider, a too-hard pulling on the reins, or a not-quite-firm seat. For the front hooves struck the wall just a few inches too low, and horse, rider and all, somersaulted over the wall in the most spectacular parabola of doom I had ever seen.
Drawn by my exclamation, Colum turned his head to the window in time to see Cobhar land heavily on his side, the small figure of Hamish pinned beneath. Crippled as he was, Colum moved with speed. He was by my side, leaning out of the window, before the horse had even begun to struggle to his feet.
The wind and rain beat in, soaking the velvet of Colum’s coat. Peering anxiously over his shoulder, I saw a cluster of lads, pushing and shoving each other in their eagerness to help. It seemed a long time before the crowd parted, and we saw the small, sturdy figure stumble out of the press, clutching his stomach. He shook his head to the many offers of help, and staggered purposefully to the wall, where he leaned over and vomited profusely. Then he slid down the wall and sat in the wet grass, legs sprawled, face upturned to the rain. When I saw him stick out his tongue to catch the falling drops, I laid a hand on Colum’s shoulder.
“He’s all right,” I said. “Only had the wind knocked out of him.”
Colum closed his eyes and let his breath out, body sagging suddenly with the release of tension. I watched him with sympathy.
“You care for him as though he were your own, don’t you?” I asked.
The grey eyes blazed suddenly into mine with the most extraordinary expression of alarm. For an instant, there was no sound in the study but the ticking of the glass clock on the shelf. Then a drop of water rolled down Colum’s nose, to hang glimmering from the tip. I reached involuntarily to blot it with my handkerchief, and the tension in his face broke.
“Yes,” he said simply.
In the end I told Jamie only about Colum’s plan to send him hunting with the Duke. I was convinced by now that his feelings for Laoghaire were only those of a chivalrous friendship, but I didn’t know what he might do if he knew that his uncle had seduced the girl and got her with child. Apparently Colum didn’t mean to procure the services of Geilie Duncan in the emergency; I wondered if the girl would be wed to Dougal, or if Colum would find her another husband before the child began to show. In any case, if Jamie and Dougal were going to be shut up together in a hunting lodge for days on end, I thought it might be as well if the shade of Laoghaire were not one of the party.
“Hm,” he said thoughtfully. “Worth a try. Ye get verra friendly wi’ each other, hunting all day and coming back to drink whisky by the fire.” He finished fastening my gown up the back and bent to kiss my shoulder briefly.
“I’d be sorry to leave ye, Sassenach, but it might be best.”
“Don’t mind for me,” I said. I hadn’t realized before that his departure would necessarily leave me alone at the Castle, and the thought made me more than slightly nervous. Still, I was resolved to manage, if it might help him.
“Are you ready for supper?” I asked. His hand lingered on my waist, and I turned toward him.
“Mmm,” he said a moment later. “I’d be willing to go hungry.”
“Well, I wouldn’t,” I said. “You’ll just have to wait.”
I glanced down the dinnertable and across the room. By now I knew most of the faces, some intimately. And a motley crew they were, I reflected. Frank would have been fascinated by the gathering—so many different facial types.
Thinking about Frank was rather like touching a sore tooth; my inclination was to shy away. But the time was coming when I would be able to delay no longer, and I forced my mind back, carefully drawing him in my mind, tracing the long, smooth arcs of his brows with my thoughts as I had once traced them with my fingers. No matter that my fingers tingled suddenly with the memory of rougher, thicker brows, and the deep blue of the eyes beneath them.
I hastily turned toward the nearest face, as an antidote to such disturbing thoughts. It happened to be Murtagh’s. Well, at least he looked like neither of the men who haunted my thoughts.
Short, slightly built but sinewy as a gibbon, with long arms that reinforced the simian resemblance, he had a low brow and narrow jaw that for some reason made me think of cave dwellers and pictures of Early Man shown in some of Frank’s texts. Not a Neanderthal, though. A Pict. That was it. There was something very durable about the small clansman that reminded me of the weathered, patterned stones, ancient even now, that stood their implacable guard over crossroads and burial grounds.
Amused at the idea, I looked over the other diners with an eye to spotting ethnic types. That man near the hearth, for example, John Cameron, his name was, was a Norman if I’d ever seen one—not that I had—high cheekbones and a high, narrow brow, long upper lip, and the dark skin of a Gaul.
The odd fair Saxon here and there…ah, Laoghaire, the perfect exemplar. Pale-skinned, blue-eyed, and just the tiniest bit plump…I repressed the uncharitable observation. She carefully avoided looking at either me or Jamie, chattering animatedly with her friends at one of the lower tables.
I looked in the opposite direction, toward the next table, where Dougal MacKenzie sat, apart from Colum for once. A bloody Viking, that one. With his impressive height and those broad, flat cheekbones, I could easily imagine him in command of a dragon ship, deepsunk eyes gleaming with avarice and lust as he peered through the fog at some rocky coastal village.
A large hand, wrist lightly haired with copper, reached past me to take a small loaf of oat-bread from the tray. Another Norseman, Jamie. He reminded me of Mrs. Baird’s legends of the race of giants who once walked Scotland and laid their long bones in the earth of the north.
The conversation was general, as it usually was, small groups buzzing between mouthfuls. But my ears suddenly caught a familiar name, spoken at a nearby table. Sandringham. I thought the voice was Murtagh’s, and turned around to see. He was seated next to Ned Gowan, munching industriously.
“Sandringham? Ah, old Willie the arse-bandit,” said Ned, meditatively.
“What?!” said one of the younger men-at-arms, choking on his ale.
“Our revered duke has something of a taste for boys, or so I understand,” Ned explained.
“Mmm,” agreed Rupert, his mouth full. Swallowing, he added, “Had a wee bit of a taste for young Jamie here, last time he visited these parts, if I remember rightly. That were when, Dougal? Thirty-eight? Thirty-nine?”
“Thirty-seven,” Dougal answered from the next table. He narrowed his eyes at his nephew. “Ye were rather a pretty lad at sixteen, Jamie.”
Jamie nodded, chewing. “Aye. Fast, too.”
When the laughter had died down, Dougal began to tease Jamie.
“I didna ken ye were a favorite, Jamie, lad. There’s several about the Duke as ha’ traded a sore arse for lands and offices.”
“Ye’ll notice I havena got either one,” responded Jamie with a grin, to further roars of laughter.
“What? Never even got close?” said Rupert, chewing noisily.
“A good bit closer than I would have liked, truth be known.”
“Ah, but how close would ye ha’ liked it, hey, lad?” The shout came from further down the table, from a tall, brown-bearded man I didn’t recognize, and was greeted with more laughter and ribald remarks. Jamie smiled tranquilly and reached for another loaf, undisturbed by the teasing.
“Is that why ye left the Castle so sudden and went back to your father?” asked Rupert.
“Why, ye should ha’ told me ye were having trouble that way, Jamie, lad,” said Dougal, with mock concern. Jamie made a low Scottish noise in his throat.
“And if I’d told ye about it, you old rogue, ye would have slipped a bit of poppy juice in my ale some evening, and left me in His Grace’s bed as a wee gift.”
The table roared, and Jamie dodged as Dougal hurled an onion at him.
Rupert squinted across at Jamie. “Seems to me, lad, I saw ye, soon before ye left, goin’ into the Duke’s chambers near nightfall. Ye’re sure ye’re not holdin’ back on us?” Jamie grabbed another onion and threw it at him. It missed and rolled away into the rushes.
“Nay,” Jamie said, laughing, “I’m a maiden still—that way, at least. But if ye must know all about it before you can sleep, Rupert, I’ll tell ye, and welcome.”
Amid shouts of “Tell! Tell!” he deliberately poured a mug of ale and sat back in the classic storyteller’s posture. I could see Colum at the head table, head cocked forward to hear, as attentive as the ostlers and fighting-men at our table.
“Well,” he began, “it’s true enough what Ned says; His Grace had something of an eye for me, though being the innocent I was at sixteen—” Here he was interrupted by a number of cynical remarks, and raised his voice to go on. “Bein’, as I say, innocent of such carryings on, I’d no idea what he meant, though it seemed a bit strange to me, the way His Grace was always wanting to pat me like a wee dog and was so interested in what I might ha’ in my sporran.” (“Or under it!” shouted a drunken voice.)
“I thought it stranger still,” he went on, “when he found me washing myself at the river and wanted to wash my back for me. When he finished my back and went on wi’ the rest, I began to get a wee bit nervous, and when he put his hand under my kilts, I began to get the general idea. I may have been an innocent, but no a complete fool, ye ken.
“I got out of that particular situation by diving into the water, kilts and all, and swimming across to the other side; His Grace being not of a mind to risk his costly clothes in the mud and water. Anyway, after that I was verra wary of being alone with him. He caught me once or twice in the garden or the courtyard, but there was room to get away, wi’ no more harm than him kissing my ear. The only other bad time was when he came on me alone in the stables.”
“In my stables?” Old Alec looked aghast. He half-rose to his feet and called across the room to the head table. “Colum, ye’ll see that man stays oot o’ my sheds! I’ll not have him frightening my horses, duke or no! Or troubling the boys, neither!” he added, as an obvious afterthought.
Jamie went on with his story, unperturbed by the interruption. Dougal’s two teenaged daughters were listening raptly, mouths slightly agape.
“I was in a horsebox, ye ken, and there wasna room to maneuver much. I was bendin’ over [more ribald remarks]—bendin’ over the manger, I say, muckin’ up husks from the bottom, when I hear a sound behind me, and before I can straighten up, my kilts are tossed up round my waist, and there’s something hard pressed against my arse.”
He waved a hand to still the tumult before going on. “Weel, I didna care much for the thought of being buggered in a horsebox, but I didna see much way out at that point, either. I was just gritting my teeth and hoping it wouldn’t hurt too much, when the horse—it was that big black gelding, Ned, the one ye got at Brocklebury—you know, the one Colum sold to Breadalbin—anyway, the horse took an objection to the noise His Grace was making. Now, most horses like ye to talk to them, and so did that one, but he had a peculiar aversion to verra high voices; I couldna take him in the yard when there were small bairns about, because he’d get nervous at their squeaks, and start pawing and stamping.
“His Grace, ye might recall, has a rather high-pitched voice, and it was a bit higher than usual on this occasion, him bein’ a trifle excited. Weel, as I say, the horse didna care for it—nor did I, I must say—and he starts stamping, and snorting, and swings his body round and squashes His Grace flat against the side of the box. As soon as the Duke let go of me, I jumped into the manger and eased away round the other side of the horse, leavin’ His Grace to get out as best he might.”
Jamie paused for breath and a sip of ale. He had the attention of the whole room by this time, faces turned toward him, gleaming in the light of the torchères. Here and there might have been discerned a frown at these revelations concerning a most puissant noble of the English Crown, but the overriding reaction was an untrammeled delight in the scandal. I gathered that the Duke was not a particularly popular personage at Castle Leoch.
“Havin’ been so close, as ye might say, His Grace made up his mind as he’d have me, come what might. So next day he tells The MacKenzie that his body servant’s fallen ill, and can he borrow me to help him wash and dress.” Colum covered his face in mock dismay, to the amusement of the crowd. Jamie nodded to Rupert.
“That’s why ye saw me go to His Grace’s room in the evening. Under orders, ye might say.”
“You could have told me, Jamie. I’d not have made you go,” Colum called, with a look of reproach.
Jamie shrugged and grinned. “I was prevented by my natural modesty, Uncle. Besides, I knew ye were trying to deal with the man; I thought it might impair your negotiations a bit if you were forced to tell His Grace to keep his hands off your nephew’s bum.”
“Very thoughtful of you, Jamie,” said Colum dryly. “So you sacrificed yourself for my interests, did you?”
Jamie raised his mug in a mock-toast. “Your interests are always foremost in my mind, Uncle,” he said, and I thought that in spite of the teasing tone, there was a sharp undercurrent of truth to this, one that Colum perceived as well as I.
He drained the mug and set it down. “But, no,” he said, wiping his mouth, “in this case, I didna feel that family duty required quite that much of me. I went to the Duke’s rooms, because you told me to, but that was all.”
“And ye came out again wi’ yer arse-hole unstretched?” Rupert sounded skeptical.
Jamie grinned. “Aye, I did. Ye see, directly I heard about it, I went to Mrs. Fitz, and told her I was in desperate need of a dose of syrup of figs. When she gave it to me, I saw where she put the bottle, and I came back quiet a bit later, and drank the whole lot.”
The room rocked with laughter, including Mrs. Fitz, who turned so red in the face I thought she might have a seizure. She rose ceremoniously from her place, waddled round the table and cuffed Jamie good-naturedly on the ear.
“So that’s what became of my good physick, ye young wretch!” Hands on her hips, she wagged her head, making the green ear-bobbles wink like dragonflies. “The best lot I ever made too!”
“Oh, it was most effective,” he assured her, laughing up at the massive dame.
“I should think so! When I think what that much physick must have done to your innards, lad, I hope it was worth it to ye. Ye canna have been much good to yourself for days after.”
He shook his head, still laughing.
“I wasn’t, but then, I wasna much good for what His Grace had in mind, either. He did not seem to mind at all when I begged leave to remove myself from his presence. But I knew I couldna do it twice, so as soon as the cramps eased up, I got a horse from the stables and lit out. It took a long time to get home, since I had to stop every ten minutes or so, but I made it by supper next day.”
Dougal beckoned for a new jug of ale, which he passed down the board hand-to-hand to Jamie.
“Aye, your father sent word he thought perhaps you’d learned enough of castle life for the present,” he said, smiling ruefully. “I thought there was a tone to his letter I did not quite understand at the time.”
“Weel, I hope ye’ve laid up a new batch of fig syrup, Mrs. Fitz,” Rupert interrupted, poking her familiarly in the ribs. “His Grace is like to be here in a day or two. Or are ye counting on your new wife to guard ye this time, Jamie?” He leered at me. “From all accounts, ye may need to guard her. I hear the Duke’s servant does not share His Grace’s preferences, though he’s every bit as active.”