“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 cock 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.”

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.