A smoking peat fire sputtered in the tavern’s fireplace. Reflector oil lamps hung strewn about the rafters, illuminating the shadows the morning sun had not yet banished from the dim room. The acid smell of burning rush and beef suet mingled with the peat, leaving the building coated in an earthy scent. A clatter of dishes resonated from the kitchen hidden behind a thick wood door. To match the cacophony, a hoarse cough rattled against the plaster walls in the main room.
“Widow Magaidh, ye’re lookin’ peely-wally. Ye should get thon hack looked efter!” The inn maid called from the kitchen door as she pressed the impendence with robust hips. She swung to the main hall, her hands full of plates and a massive jug of thin, warm ale. Setting the dishes behind the slab of tree trunk hewn to serve as the bar counter, the maid turned to regard her guests with a worried frown.
An old woman in a homespun dress and apron sat near the single large window in the tavern, staring out at the road and the rising sun. She waved the inn woman off. “Waste yer time worryin’ on someone other than me, Hepsibah. Ma doctor’s comin’ tae look efter me soon!” Widow Magaidh chortled back.
“He better come wi’ a golden cure, fur how lang ye’ve gone on with thon rattle!” The innkeeper cackled back, taking up a series of glasses to polish with her apron.
“Knowin’ him, he micht make thae happen,” Widow Magaidh whispered conspiratorially to the kilted man at her table.
He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he regarded her under thick brows, his storm grey eyes flashing. Bright red hair, pleated into many small coils and decorated with glass and bone beads, was tied away from his face to create a massive cascade of copper down his back. A short beard hugged his chin, though a moustache lacked at his upper lip. “Ah dinnea ken, Aunty. Dinnea a draught frae a tincture.” He muddled his bannock over the top of a late season apple fritter, leaving crumbs in a small pyramid on his thin clay plate.
Widow Magaidh waved away his nervousness as she would a fly in summer. “Yer heid’s full o’ mince, Fearchar. He asked fur someone tae do heavy work fur him. See’s no reason ye’d have trouble with thae.”
The fire at the hearth freshly smoked that morning, leaving the room damp and cloudy. Fearchar washed down what little breakfast he had consumed with the ale, now cooled from Hepsibah’s earlier ministrations. He wrapped his great kilt tightly around himself, wishing he was back home in bed with his wife. “Ye ne’er mentioned na doctor a’fore now an’ ye take his medicines. He guid, Aunty?”
Hepsibah emerged from behind the counter with a serving tray. “Ye done murd’rin’ yer breakfast, Fearchar?” She took Widow Magaidh’s plate. He nodded his head morosely. The portly little woman took his dish, displeased with his handiwork. “Tell that lassie a’ yer’s nae waste her time away in thae wee hoose in them hills. She should cummeon an’ visit more of’en. Then maybe ye’d have manner tae eat yer breakfast like a proper man.”
“Hepsibah!” He leaned over the table in feigned dejection.
She whacked him lightly on the shoulder and spun away from the table to take the plates to the sinks. “It wert stale anyway.”
“Na, Ah thought it was jist out’ta the o’en!” He joined in with her teasing.
“Awa’ an bile yer heid!” She disappeared into the back of the inn, the door closing behind her with a soft click. Dishes clanked in the quiet left in her merry wake.
“Now, Aunty Magaidh, who’s this dotair ye’ve got comin’ in?” He turned back to the ancient matron sitting quietly in the opposing chair.
“Jist ‘cause ‘e’s someone Ah knows an’ ye don’nae, don’nae make him a chancer, Fear. He’s become a good doctor since last Ah saw him.” Her reassuring smile did little to allay his fears. She gained a far-off look in her eye as her gaze settled on the window, and the raised corners of her creased lips fell into a deep frown, wrinkle lines sinking in to reveal her fragile age. He waited, knowing when she wandered through her memories, it could be many minutes before she returned to the conversation. She returned after a time, lifting her face back into a hollow smile. “ ‘e needs some’n ta ‘elp ‘im while ‘e’s ‘ere. Jist for a bit.” The rims of her crinkled eyes reddened. Moisture built along the edges.
He was none too pleased with the situation. Honestly, what was his grandmother’s friend expecting from him? His grandmother, upon her deathbed, requested he help Widow Magaidh as a last favour. After moving from the far end of Skye three years ago, befriending the woman, and finding a niche of handy work in Bàgh Faoileag dry stacking and thatching, he still did not quite understand where Widow Magaidh travelled when her mind wandered. “Aunty, Ah am nae scholar nor wet nurse – “
“Oh, haud yer wheesht. Ye’re perfect fur what ‘e asked fur.” She patted his arm.
He stole himself against her reassurances. “Less’n ‘e needs fresh bodies, Ah’m nae his man, Aunty Magaidh. Ah never learned ta good book nor to hold a nib. Ah kin nae keep numbers. Ah’m nae apothecary. The best Ah kin is the difference ‘tween uil-ìoc and caorann. Learned it the hard way.” He fingered his empty cup, unable to meet her gaze.
She shrugged again, waving his self-pity away. “Ye fought valiantly on the mainland, Fearchar. Ah heard about yer adventures. Sure’s ye’ll be useful. An’ here’s this.” She reached into her pocket. Holding out her gnarled hand for Fearchar’s inspection, he inhaled sharply. Looking from her hand to her face, he studied her to see if she was serious. “Gold coin sayin’ ye’ll help him.” Her misty eyes danced above her toothless grin.
Not like he had a gold coin to his name, but he would be a fool to turn her down now. Unless her doctor was also a general, he saw no good reason to partner with the man. “Ye’re on.” He shook her hand over the bet, knowing what a surprise it would be to bring home a gold coin for his lovely little woman.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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