The villagers, so lately calling for the lad’s blood, were kindness itself to me. I was tenderly gathered up and carried back to the Duncans’ house, where I was plied with brandy, tea, warm blankets, and sympathy. I was only allowed to depart at last by Jamie’s stating bluntly that we must go, then lifting me bodily off the couch and heading for the door, disregarding the expostulations of my hosts.
Mounted once more in front of him, my own horse led by the rein, I tried to thank him for his help.
“No trouble, lass,” he said, dismissing my thanks.
“But it was a risk to you,” I said, persisting. “I didn’t realize you’d be in danger when I asked you.”
“Ah,” he said, noncommittally. And a moment later, with a hint of amusement, “Ye wouldna expect me to be less bold than a wee Sassenach lassie, now would ye?”
He urged the horses into a trot as the shadows of dusk gathered by the roadside. We did not speak much on the rest of the journey home. And when we reached the castle, he left me at the gate with no more than a softly mocking, “Good’ e’en, Mistress Sassenach.” But I felt as though a friendship had been begun that ran a bit deeper than shared gossip under the apple trees.
There was a terrific stir over the next two days, with comings and goings and preparations of every sort. My medical practice dropped off sharply; the food-poisoning victims were well again, and everyone else seemed to be much too busy to fall sick. Aside from a slight rash of splinters-in-fingers among the boys hauling in wood for the fires, and a similar outbreak of scalds and burns among the busy kitchen maids, there were no accidents either.
I was excited myself. Tonight was the night. Mrs. Fitz had told me that all the fighting men of the MacKenzie clan would be in the hall tonight, to make their oaths of allegiance to Colum. With a ceremony of this importance going on inside, no one would be watching the stables.
During my hours helping in the kitchens and orchards, I had managed to stow away sufficient food to see me provided for several days, I thought. I had no water flask, but had contrived a substitute using one of the heavier glass jugs from the surgery. I had stout boots and a warm cloak, courtesy of Colum. I would have a decent horse; on my afternoon visit to the stables, I had marked out the one I meant to take. I had no money, but my patients had given me a handful of small trinkets, ribbons, and bits of carving or jewelry. If necessary, I might be able to use these to trade for anything else I needed.
I felt badly about abusing Colum’s hospitality and the friendship of the castle inhabitants by leaving without a word or a note of farewell, but after all, what could I possibly say? I had pondered the problem for some time, but finally decided just to leave. For one thing, I had no writing paper, and was not willing to take the risk of visiting Colum’s quarters in search of any.
An hour past first dark, I approached the stable cautiously, ears alert for any signs of human presence, but it seemed that everyone was up in the Hall, readying themselves for the ceremony. The door stuck, but gave with a slight push, its leather hinges letting it swing silently inward.
The air inside was warm and alive with the faint stirrings of resting horses. It was also black as the inside of an undertaker’s hat, as Uncle Lamb used to say. Such few windows as there were for ventilation were narrow slits, too small to admit the faint starlight outside. Hands outstretched, I walked slowly into the main part of the stable, feet shuffling in the straw.
I groped carefully in front of me, looking for the edge of a stall to guide me. My hands found only empty air, but my shins met a solid obstruction resting on the floor, and I pitched headlong with a startled cry that rang in the rafters of the old stone building.
The obstruction rolled over with a startled oath and grasped me hard by the arms. I found myself held against the length of a sizable male body, with someone’s breath tickling my ear.
“Who are you?” I gasped, jerking backward. “And what are you doing here?” Hearing my voice, the unseen assailant relaxed his grip.
“I might ask the same of you, Sassenach,” said the deep soft voice of Jamie MacTavish, and I relaxed a little in relief. There was a stirring in the straw, and he sat up.
“Though I suppose I could guess,” he added dryly. “How far d’ye think you’d get, lassie, on a dark night and a strange horse, wi’ half the MacKenzie clan after ye by morning?”
I was ruffled, in more ways than one.
“They wouldn’t be after me. They’re all up at the Hall, and if one in five of them is sober enough to stand by morning, let alone ride a horse, I’ll be most surprised.”
He laughed, and standing up, reached down a hand to help me to my feet. He brushed the straw from the back of my skirt, with somewhat more force than I thought strictly necessary.
“Well, that’s verra sound reasoning on your part, Sassenach,” he said, sounding mildly surprised that I was capable of reason. “Or would be,” he added, “did Colum not have guards posted all round the castle and scattered through the woods. He’d hardly leave the castle unprotected, and the fighting men of the whole clan inside it. Granted that stone doesna burn so well as wood…”
I gathered he was referring to the infamous Glencoe Massacre, when one John Campbell, on government orders, had put thirty-eight members of the MacDonald clan to the sword and burned the house above them. I calculated rapidly. That would have been only fifty-some years before; recent enough to justify any defensive precautions on Colum’s part.
“In any case, ye could scarcely have chosen a worse night to try to escape,” MacTavish went on. He seemed entirely unconcerned with the fact that I had meant to escape, only with the reasons why it wouldn’t work, which struck me as a little odd. “Besides the guards, and the fact that every good horseman for miles around is here, the way to the castle will be filled wi’ folk coming from the countryside for the tynchal and the games.”
“A hunt. Usually stags, maybe a boar this time; one of the stable lads told Old Alec there’s a large one in the east wood.” He put a large hand in the center of my back and turned me toward the faint oblong of the open door.
“Come along,” he said. “I’ll take ye back up to the castle.”
I pulled away from him. “Don’t bother,” I said ungraciously. “I can find my own way.”
He took my elbow with considerable firmness. “I daresay ye can. But you’ll not want to meet any of Colum’s guards alone.”
“And why not?” I snapped. “I’m not doing anything wrong; there’s no law against walking outside the castle, is there?”
“No. I doubt they’d mean to do ye harm,” he said, peering thoughtfully into the shadows. “But it’s far from unusual for a man to take a flask along to keep him company when he stands guard. And the drink may be a boon companion, but it’s no a verra good adviser as to suitable behavior, when a small sweet lass comes on ye alone in the dark.”
“I came on you in the dark, alone,” I reminded him, with some boldness. “And I’m neither particularly small, nor very sweet, at least at present.”
“Aye, well, I was asleep, not drunk,” he responded briefly. “And questions of your temper aside, you’re a good bit smaller than most of Colum’s guards.”
I put that aside as an unproductive line of argument, and tried another tack. “And why were you asleep in the stable?” I asked. “Haven’t you a bed somewhere?” We were in the outer reaches of the kitchen gardens by now, and I could see his face in the faint light. He was intent, checking the stone arches carefully as we went, but he glanced sharply aside at this.
“Aye,” he said. He continued to stride forward, still gripping me by the elbow, but went on after a moment, “I thought I’d be better out of the way.”
“Because you don’t mean to swear allegiance to Colum MacKenzie?” I guessed. “And you don’t want to stand any racket about it?”
He glanced at me, amused at my words. “Something like that,” he admitted.
One of the side gates had been left welcomingly ajar, and a lantern perched atop the stone ledge next to it shed a yellow glow on the path. We had almost reached this beacon when a hand suddenly descended on my mouth from behind and I was jerked abruptly off my feet.
I struggled and bit, but my captor was heavily gloved, and, as Jamie had said, a good deal larger than I.
Jamie himself seemed to be having minor difficulties, judging from the sound of it. The grunting and muffled cursing ceased abruptly with a thud and a rich Gaelic expletive.
The struggle in the dark stopped, and there was an unfamiliar laugh.
“God’s eyes, if it’s no the young lad; Colum’s nephew. Come late to the oath-taking, are ye not, lad? And who’s that wi’ ye?”
“It’s a lassie,” replied the man holding me. “And a sweet juicy one, too, by the heft of her.” The hand left my mouth and administered a hearty squeeze elsewhere. I squeaked in indignation, reached over my shoulder, got hold of his nose and yanked. The man set me down with a quick oath of his own, less formal than those about to be taken within the hall. I stepped back from the blast of whisky fumes, feeling a sudden surge of appreciation for Jamie’s presence. Perhaps his accompanying me had been prudent, after all.
He appeared to be thinking otherwise, as he made a vain attempt to remove the clinging grip of the two men-at-arms who had attached themselves to him. There was nothing hostile about their actions, but there was a considerable amount of firmness. They began to move purposefully toward the open gate, their captive in tow.
“Nay, let me go and change first, man,” he protested. “I’m no decent to be going into the oath-taking like this.”
His attempt at graceful escape was foiled by the sudden appearance of Rupert, fatly resplendent in ruffled shirt and gold-laced coat, who popped out of the narrow gate like a cork from a bottle.
“Dinna worrit yourself about that, laddie,” he said, surveying Jamie with a gleaming eye. “We’ll outfit ye proper—inside.” He jerked his head toward the gate, and Jamie disappeared within, under compulsion. A meaty hand gripped my own elbow, and I followed, willy-nilly.
Rupert appeared to be in very high spirits, as did the other men I saw inside the castle. There were perhaps sixty or seventy men, all dressed in their best, festooned with dirks, swords, pistols, and sporrans, milling about in the courtyard nearest the entrance to the great Hall. Rupert gestured to a door set in the wall, and the men hustled Jamie into a small lighted room. It was one apparently used for storage; odds and ends of all kinds littered the tables and shelves with which it was furnished.
Rupert surveyed Jamie critically, with an eye to the oatstraws in his hair and the stains on his shirt. I saw his glance flicker to the oatstraws in my own hair, and a cynical grin split his face.
“No wonder ye’re late, laddie,” he said, digging Jamie in the ribs. “Dinna blame ye a bit.”
“Willie!” he called to one of the men outside. “We need some clothes, here. Something suitable for the laird’s nephew. See to it, man, and hurry!”
Jamie looked around, thin-lipped, at the men surrounding him. Six clansmen, all in tearing high spirits at the prospect of the oath-taking and brimming over with a fierce MacKenzie pride. The spirits had plainly been assisted by an ample intake from the tub of ale I had seen in the yard. Jamie’s eye lighted on me, his expression still grim. This was my doing, his face seemed to say.
He could, of course, announce that he did not mean to swear his oath to Colum, and head back to his warm bed in the stables. If he wanted a serious beating or his throat cut, that is. He raised an eyebrow at me, shrugged, and submitted with a fair show of grace to Willie, who rushed up with a pile of snowy linen in his arms and a hairbrush in one hand. The pile was topped by a flat blue bonnet of velvet, adorned with a metal badge that held a sprig of holly. I picked up the bonnet to examine it, as Jamie fought his way into the clean shirt and brushed his hair with suppressed savagery.
The badge was round and the engraving surprisingly fine. It showed five volcanos in the center, spouting most realistic flames. And on the border was a motto, Luceo non Uro.
“I shine, not burn,” I translated aloud.
“Aye, lassie; the MacKenzie motto,” said Willie, nodding approvingly at me. He snatched the bonnet from my hands and pushed it into Jamie’s, before dashing off in search of further clothing.
“Er…I’m sorry,” I said in a low voice, taking advantage of Willie’s absence to move closer. “I didn’t mean—”
Jamie, who had been viewing the badge on the bonnet with disfavor, glanced down at me, and the grim line of his mouth relaxed.
“Ah, dinna worrit yourself on my account, Sassenach. It would ha’ come to it sooner or later.” He twisted the badge loose from the bonnet and smiled sourly at it, weighing it speculatively in his hand.
“D’ye ken my own motto, lass?” he asked. “My clan’s, I mean?”
“No,” I answered, startled. “What is it?”
He flipped the badge once in the air, caught it, and dropped it neatly into his sporran. He looked rather bleakly toward the open archway, where the MacKenzie clansmen were massing in untidy lines.
“Je suis prest,” he replied, in surprisingly good French. He glanced back, to see Rupert and another large MacKenzie I didn’t know, faces flushed with high spirits and spirits of another kind, advancing with solid purpose. Rupert held a huge length of MacKenzie tartan cloth.
Without preliminaries, the other man reached for the buckle of Jamie’s kilt.
“Best leave, Sassenach,” Jamie advised briefly. “It’s no place for women.”
“So I see,” I responded dryly, and was rewarded with a wry smile as his h*ps were swathed in the new kilt, and the old one yanked deftly away beneath it, modesty preserved. Rupert and friend took him firmly by the arms and hustled him toward the archway.
I turned without delay and made my way back toward the stair to the minstrels’ gallery, carefully avoiding the eye of any clansman I passed. Once around the corner, I paused, shrinking back against the wall to avoid notice. I waited for a moment, until the corridor was temporarily deserted, then nipped inside the gallery door and pulled it quickly to behind me, before anyone else could come around the corner and see where I had gone. The stairs were dimly lit by the glow from above, and I had no trouble keeping my footing on the worn flags. I climbed toward the noise and light, thinking of that last brief exchange.
“Je suis prest.” I am ready. I hoped he was.
The gallery was lit by pine torches, brilliant flares that rose straight up in their sockets, outlined in black by the soot their predecessors had left on the walls. Several faces turned, blinking, to look at me as I came out of the hangings at the back of the gallery; from the looks of it, all the women of the castle were up here. I recognized the girl Laoghaire, Magdalen and some of the other women I had met in the kitchens, and, of course, the stout form of Mrs. FitzGibbons, in a position of honor near the balustrade.
Seeing me, she beckoned in a friendly manner, and the women squeezed against each other to let me pass. When I reached the front, I could see the whole Hall spread out beneath.
The walls were decked with myrtle branches, yew and holly, and the fragrance of the evergreens rose up into the gallery, mingled with the smoke of fires and the harsh reek of men. There were dozens of them, coming, going, standing talking in small groups scattered throughout the hall, and all clad in some version of the clan tartan, be it only a plaid or a tartan bonnet worn above ordinary working shirt and tattered breeches. The actual patterns varied wildly, but the colors were mostly the same—dark greens and white.
Most of them were completely dressed as Jamie now was, kilt, plaid, bonnet, and—in most cases—badges. I caught a glimpse of him standing near the wall, still looking grim. Rupert had disappeared into the throng, but two more burly MacKenzies flanked Jamie, obviously guards.
The confusion in the hall was gradually becoming organized, as the castle residents pushed and led the newcomers into place at the lower end.
Tonight was plainly special; the young lad who played the pipes at Hall had been augmented by two other pipers, one a man whose bearing and ivory-mounted pipes proclaimed him a master piper. This man nodded to the other two, and soon the hall was filled with the fierce drone of pipe music. Much smaller than the great Northern pipes used in battle, these versions made a most effective racket.
The chanters laid a trill above the drones that made the blood itch. The women stirred around me, and I thought of a line from “Maggie Lauder”:
“Oh, they call me Rab the Ranter,
and the lassies all go daft,
When I blow up my chanter.”
If not daft, the women around me were fully appreciative, and there were many murmurs of admiration as they hung over the rail, pointing out one man or another, striding about the Hall decked in his finery. One girl spotted Jamie, and with a muffled exclamation, beckoned her friends to see. There was considerable whispering and murmuring over his appearance.
Some of it was admiration for his fine looks, but more was speculation about his presence at the oath-taking. I noticed that Laoghaire, in particular, glowed like a candle as she watched him, and I remembered what Alec had said in the paddock—Ye know her father will no’ let her wed outside the clan. And Colum’s nephew, was he? The lad might be quite a catch, at that. Bar the minor matter of outlawry, of course.
The pipe music rose to a fervent pitch, and then abruptly ceased. In the dead silence of the Hall, Colum MacKenzie stepped out from the upper archway, and strode purposefully to a small platform that had been erected at the head of the room. If he made no effort to hide his disability, he did not flaunt it now either. He was splendid in an azure-blue coat, heavily laced with gold, buttoned with silver, and with rose silk cuffs that turned back almost to the elbow. A tartan kilt in fine wool hung past his knees, covering most of his legs and the checked stockings on them. His bonnet was blue, but the silver badge held plumes, not holly. The entire Hall held its breath as he took center stage. Whatever else he was, Colum MacKenzie was a showman.
He turned to face the assembled clansmen, raised his arms and greeted them with a ringing shout.
“Tulach Ard!” the clansmen gave back in a roar. The woman next to me shivered.