Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
hopping on one foot. The lame foot was bound up in an untidy bundle of rags, stained with fresh blood.
I glanced around, then gestured at the chest, for lack of anything else. “Sit down,” I said. Apparently the new physician of Castle Leoch was now in practice.
AN EVENING’S ENTERTAINMENT
I lay on my bed feeling altogether exhausted. Oddly enough, I had quite enjoyed the rummage through the memorabilia of the late Beaton, and treating those few patients, with however meager a resource, had made me feel truly solid and useful once more. Feeling flesh and bone beneath my fingers, taking pulses, inspecting tongues and eyeballs, all the familiar routine, had done much to settle the feeling of hollow panic that had been with me since my fall through the rock. However strange my circumstances, and however out of place I might be, it was somehow very comforting to realize that these were truly other people. Warm-fleshed and hairy, with hearts that could be felt beating and lungs that breathed audibly. Bad-smelling, louse-ridden, and filthy, some of them, but that was nothing new to me. Certainly no worse than conditions in a field hospital, and the injuries were so far reassuringly minor. It was immensely satisfying to be able once again to relieve a pain, reset a joint, repair damage. To take responsibility for the welfare of others made me feel less victimized by the whims of whatever impossible fate had brought me here, and I was grateful to Colum for suggesting it.
Colum MacKenzie. Now there was a strange man. A cultured man, courteous to a fault, and thoughtful as well, with a reserve that all but hid the steely core within. The steel was much more evident in his brother Dougal. A warrior born, that one. And yet, to see them together, it was clear which was the stronger. Colum was a chieftain, twisted legs and all.
Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome. I had never seen a case before, but I had heard it described. Named for its most famous sufferer (who did not yet exist, I reminded myself), it was a degenerative disease of bone and connective tissue. Victims often appeared normal, if sickly, until their early teens, when the long bones of the legs, under the stress of bearing a body upright, began to crumble and collapse upon themselves.
The pasty skin, with its premature wrinkling, was another outward effect of the poor circulation that characterized the disease. Likewise the dryness and pronounced callusing of fingers and toes that I had already noticed. As the legs twisted and bowed, the spine was put under stress, and often twisted as well, causing immense discomfort to the victim. I mentally read back the textbook description to myself, idly smoothing out the tangles of my hair with my fingers. Low white-cell count, increased susceptibility to infection, liable to early arthritis. Because of the poor circulation and the degeneration of connective tissue, victims were invariably sterile, and often impotent as well.
I stopped suddenly, thinking of Hamish. My son, Colum had said, proudly introducing the boy. Mmm, I thought to myself. Perhaps not impotent then. Or perhaps so. But rather fortunate for Letitia that so many of the MacKenzie males resembled each other to such a marked degree.
I was disturbed in these interesting ruminations by a sudden knock on the door. One of the ubiquitous small boys stood without, bearing an invitation from Colum himself. There was to be singing in the Hall, he said, and the MacKenzie would be honored by my presence, if I cared to come down.
I was curious to see Colum again, in light of my recent speculations. So, with a quick glance in the looking glass, and a futile smoothing of my hair, I shut the door behind me and followed my escort through the cold and winding corridors.
The Hall looked different at night, quite festive with pine torches crackling all along the walls, popping with an occasional blue flare of turpentine. The huge fireplace, with its multiple spits and cauldrons, had diminished its activity since the frenzy of supper; now only the one large fire burned on the hearth, sustained by two huge, slow-burning logs, and the spits were folded back into the cavernous chimney.
The tables and benches were still there, but pushed back slightly to allow for a clear space near the hearth; apparently that was to be the center of entertainment, for Colum’s large carved chair was placed to one side. Colum himself was seated in it, a warm rug laid across his legs and a small table with decanter and goblets within easy reach.
Seeing me hesitating in the archway, he beckoned me to his side with a friendly gesture, waving me onto a nearby bench.
“I’m pleased you’ve come down, Mistress Claire,” he said, pleasantly informal. “Gwyllyn will be glad of a new ear for his songs, though we’re always willing to listen.” The MacKenzie chieftain looked rather tired, I thought; the wide shoulders slumped a bit and the premature lines on his face were deeply cut.
I murmured something inconsequential and looked around the hall. People were beginning to drift in, and sometimes out, standing in small groups to chat, gradually taking seats on the benches ranged against the walls.
“I beg your pardon?” I turned, having missed Colum’s words in the growing noise, to find him offering me the decanter, a lovely bell-shaped thing of pale green crystal. The liquid within, seen through the glass, seemed green as the sea-depths, but once poured out it proved to be a beautiful pale-rose color, with the most delicious bouquet. The taste was fully up to the promise, and I closed my eyes in bliss, letting the wine fumes tickle the back of my palate before reluctantly allowing each sip of nectar to trickle down my throat.
“Good, isn’t it?” The deep voice held a note of amusement, and I opened my eyes to find Colum smiling at me in approval.
I opened my mouth to reply, and found that the smooth delicacy of the taste was deceptive; the wine was strong enough to cause a mild paralysis of the vocal cords.
“Won—wonderful,” I managed to get out.
Colum nodded. “Aye, that it is. Rhenish, ye know. You’re not familiar with it?” I shook my head as he tipped the decanter over my goblet, filling the bowl with a pool of glowing rose. He held his own goblet by the stem, turning it before his face so that the firelight lit the contents with dashes of vermilion.
“You know good wine, though,” Colum said, tilting the glass to enjoy the rich fruity scent himself. “But that’s natural, I suppose, with your family French. Or half French, I should say,” he corrected himself with a quick smile. “What part of France do your folk come from?”
I hesitated a moment, then thought, stick to the truth, so far as you can, and answered, “It’s an old connection, and not a close one, but such relatives as I may have there come from the north, near Compiègne.” I was mildly startled to realize that at this point, my relatives were in fact near Compiègne. Stick to the truth, indeed.
“Ah. Never been there yourself, though?”
I tilted the glass, shaking my head as I did so. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the wine’s perfume.
“No,” I said, eyes still closed. “I haven’t met any of my relatives there, either.” I opened my eyes to find him watching me closely. “I told you that.”
He nodded, not at all perturbed. “So ye did.” His eyes were a beautiful soft grey, thickly lashed with black. A very attractive man, Colum MacKenzie, at least down to the waist. My gaze flickered past him to the group nearest the fire, where I could see his wife, Letitia, part of a group of several ladies, all engaged in animated conversation with Dougal MacKenzie. Also a most attractive man, and a whole one.
I pulled my attention back to Colum and found him gazing abstractedly at one of the wall hangings.
“And as I also told you before,” I said abruptly, bringing him out of his momentary inattention, “I’d like to be on my way to France as soon as possible.”
“So ye did,” he said again, pleasantly, and picked up the decanter with a questioning lift of the brow. I held my goblet steady, gesturing at the halfway point to indicate that I wanted only a little, but he filled the delicate hollow nearly to the rim once more.
“Well, as I told you, Mistress Beauchamp,” he said, eyes fixed on the rising wine, “I think ye must be content to bide here a bit, until suitable arrangements can be made for your transport. No need for haste, after all. It’s only the spring of the year, and months before the autumn storms make the Channel crossing chancy.” He raised eyes and decanter together, and fixed me with a shrewd look.
“But if ye’d care to give me the names of your kin in France, I might manage to send word ahead—so they’ll be fettled against your coming, eh?”
Bluff called, I had little choice but to mutter something of the yes-well-perhaps-later variety, and excuse myself hastily on the pretext of visiting the necessary facilities before the singing should start. Game and set to Colum, but not yet match.
My pretext had not been entirely fictitious, and it took me some time, wandering about the darkened halls of the Castle, to find the place I was seeking. Groping my way back, wineglass still in hand, I found the lighted archway to the Hall, but realized on entering that I had reached the lower entrance, and was now at the opposite end of the Hall from Colum. Under the circumstances, this suited me quite well, and I strolled unobtrusively into the long room, taking pains to merge with small groups of people as I worked my way along the wall toward one of the benches.
Casting a look at the upper end of the Hall, I saw a slender man who must be Gwyllyn the bard, judging from the small harp he carried. At Colum’s gesture, a servant hastened up to bring the bard a stool, on which he seated himself and proceeded to tune the harp, plucking lightly at the strings, ear close to the instrument. Colum poured another glass of wine from his own decanter, and with another wave, dispatched it via the servant in the bard’s direction.
“Oh, he called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers threeee,” I sang irreverently under my breath, eliciting an odd look from the girl Laoghaire. She was seated under a tapestry showing a hunter with six elongated and cross-eyed dogs, in erratic pursuit of a single hare.
“Bit of overkill, don’t you think?” I said breezily, waving a hand at it and plumping myself down beside her on the bench.
“Oh! er, aye,” she answered cautiously, edging away slightly. I tried to engage her in friendly conversation, but she answered mostly in monosyllables, blushing and starting when I spoke to her, and I soon gave it up, my attention drawn by the scene at the end of the room.
Harp tuned to his satisfaction, Gwyllyn had brought out from his coat three wooden flutes of varying sizes, which he laid on a small table, ready to hand.
Suddenly I noticed that Laoghaire was not sharing my interest in the bard and his instruments. She had stiffened slightly and was peering over my shoulder toward the lower archway, simultaneously leaning back into the shadows under the tapestry to avoid detection.
Following the direction of her gaze, I spotted the tall, red-haired figure of Jamie MacTavish, just entering the Hall.
“Ah! The gallant hero! Fancy him, do you?” I asked the girl at my side. She shook her head frantically, but the brilliant blush staining her cheeks was answer enough.
“Well, we’ll see what we can do, shall we?” I said, feeling expansive and magnanimous. I stood up and waved cheerily to attract his attention.
Catching my signal, the young man made his way through the crowd, smiling. I didn’t know what might have passed between them in the courtyard, but I thought his manner in greeting the girl was warm, if still formal. His bow to me was slightly more relaxed; after the forced intimacy of our relations to date, he could hardly treat me as a stranger.
A few tentative notes from the upper end of the hall signaled an imminent beginning to the entertainment, and we hastily took our places, Jamie seating himself between Laoghaire and myself.
Gwyllyn was an insignificant-looking man, light-boned and mousy-haired, but you didn’t see him once he began to sing. He only served as a focus, a place for the eyes to rest while the ears enjoyed themselves. He began with a simple song, something in Gaelic with a strong rhyming chime to the lines, accompanied by the merest touch of his harp strings, so that each plucked string seemed by its vibration to carry the echo of the words from one line to the next. The voice was also deceptively simple. You thought at first there was nothing much to it—pleasant, but without much strength. And then you found that the sound went straight through you, and each syllable was crystal clear, whether you understood it or not, echoing poignantly inside your head.
The song was received with a warm surge of applause, and the singer launched at once into another, this time in Welsh, I thought. It sounded like a very tuneful sort of gargling to me, but those around me seemed to follow well enough; doubtless they had heard it before.
During a brief pause for retuning, I asked Jamie in a low voice, “Has Gwyllyn been at the Castle long?” Then, remembering, I said, “Oh, but you wouldn’t know, would you? I’d forgotten you were so new here yourself.”
“I’ve been here before,” he answered, turning his attention to me. “Spent a year at Leoch when I was sixteen or so, and Gwyllyn was here then. Colum’s fond of his music, ye see. He pays Gwyllyn well to stay. Has to; the Welshman would be welcome at any laird’s hearth where he chose to roost.”
“I remember when you were here, before.” It was Laoghaire, still blushing pinkly, but determined to join the conversation. Jamie turned his head to include her, smiling slightly.
“Do ye, then? You canna have been more than seven or eight yourself. I’d not think I was much to see then, so as to be remembered.” Turning politely to me, he said, “Do ye have the Welsh, then?”
“Well, I do remember, though,” Laoghaire said, pursuing it. “You were, er, ah…I mean…do ye not remember me, from then?” Her hands fiddled nervously with the folds of her skirt. She bit her nails, I saw.
Jamie’s attention seemed distracted by a group of people across the room, arguing in Gaelic about something.
“Ah?” he said, vaguely. “No, I dinna think so. Still,” he said with a smile, pulling his attention suddenly back to her, “I wouldna be likely to. A young burke of sixteen’s too taken up wi’ his own grand self to pay much heed to what he thinks are naught but a rabble of snot-nosed bairns.”
I gathered he had meant this remark to be deprecatory to himself, rather than his listener, but the effect was not what he might have hoped. I thought perhaps a brief pause to let Laoghaire recover her self-possession was in order, and broke in hastily with, “No, I don’t know any Welsh at all. Do you have any idea what it is he was saying?”
“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.