Late into his second month in Fearchar and Seonaid house, a woman knocked at the door, to Eoin’s surprise. He flinched in distaste, recognizing her. She was older but still prim and smug. Seonaid turned tail and closed the door to the bedroom before the woman could see her.
The lady came seeking medical advice for her oldest son, who had developed a horrid cough. Eoin listened to her as calmly as possible, then methodically packed up his box and took up a walking stick from the wall. The woman stalked out the door quickly, waiting for Eoin to follow her. Fearchar pulled him aside. “That’s Grannd’s wife, Eoin.”
Eoin nodded, cautious. Lady Daleroch had not aged well. The skin across her nose had tightened, and liver spots crawled across crepe hands.
“Ah am comin’ with ye.” Fearchar grabbed up his waxed canvas cloak.
Lady Daleroch turned back, waiting on the men. “Good! I need a translator fur this.” She motioned the doctor up and down. “Cannae ken why’s I’m here. Angus should’a been capable, but na’ he and Lizbet both were useless.” The gaunt woman wrung her boney fingers in her dress pleats.
They followed her to the Daleroch estate. The chill wind pressed Fearchar to be in out of the cutting cold, but he stalled as Eoin hesitated at the doorstep. The woman led them into the house to a stifling back room. Eoin’s mannerisms turned stiff and exact as he opened the windows to let in a sharp breeze and light.
In the middle of the room, the man lying in bed had lost most of his colour. He coughed wetly, on the verge of suffocating. His face beaded with sweat, his damp covers thrown to the hewn floor. Grannd’s son, Conner, toed the line between the living and the dead. Eoin tested the heir’s heartbeat, leather-gloved fingers rough as he checked for lesions and rashes to confirm a diagnosis.
“Will he be a’right?” Conner’s mother twisted a worn handkerchief she had frayed. Eoin noted the action. Not all was well in the house.
He set his box down on the small desk in the room. Pulling a pair of vials from a drawer along with a mortar and pestle, he gently fingered the worn hazel top. Leaving the small inlaid carvings, he opened several drawers and motioned his hired hand to find boiling water. Lady Daleroch fetched a kettle full at Fearchar’s prompting.
Fearchar watched the man practically vibrate as he stood in the packed little room, his hands hovering over the desk. Fearchar could not see the seething rage Eoin suffered difficulty controlling behind the mask. It was going to be all he could do to keep his cover now and help Conner get better. It was an infection of the lungs. Not easily treatable by simple country medicine. This would be using up some of his best materials, but it would be worth it in the end.
Conner’s mother returned, and Eoin showed her how to mix the tincture. When it was cool enough to not burn, he helped her give the man his first dose. The invalid sputtered and murmured, set under a delirium. He settled, though, and dozed off. His colour came back to his cheeks.
Eoin handed the woman seven days’ worth of the little packets. He instructed her to give the man the dosages with every meal and to keep the young man drinking plenty of liquids but no ale. The medicine would not combine well and would cause a swift death. Lady Daleroch promised to keep the flask away from him. She cried, happy to have a solution to her son’s suffering. Indifferent to her relief, Eoin packed up his box, nodded to her, and left quickly. “How much do I owe him?” Lady Daleroch’s trill chirp followed him out the door. He didn’t care what Fearchar answered. There was no amount of money they could possibly pay him that would relieve his feelings toward them.
He had nearly made it to the burned-out, decrepit roundhouse when he heard Fearchar running up behind him. “Told ‘er to save off pay’n ’til Conner’s be’er,. That ‘right with ye, doc?” Fearchar drew up next to him, panting. Eoin waved off the question, moved away from the roundhouse, and headed back for Fearchar’s hovel.
Three weeks later, a letter arrived by messenger for Eoin. Conner had recovered from his cough and was doing much better. He was not quite able to be up and about for long periods yet. Grannd Daleroch wanted to know if Eoin would be willing to join the family for Hogmanay in lieu of payment and as thanks for the doctor’s care. Eoin handed the paper to Seonaid to read to Fearchar before he let himself out of the house for a long cold walk. He was experiencing varying waves of relief and tension pulling him apart and could not stand to be stuck in the dark, cramped building for another moment.
The red tails of his leather cloak flipped and clapped in the wind. The door of Widow Magaidh’s blackhouse appeared before him quicker than he anticipated. The sun was feathering along the rim of the mountains. He stared up at the venting hole in the thatch to watch puttering grey smoke curl and puff, reaching thin fingers to the jackdaws that circled and cawed above. No one had been out to pull the smoked grasses down the year before for the garden. He would need to ask Fearchar about installing new thatch. A slap of leather against rough terrain echoed like gulls taking flight behind him.
He checked himself, aware that Fearchar had followed him out from Seonaid’s croft. He was at least a solid hour walk from the gloomy rock monstrosity of the Daleroch estate that caused his skin to burn, his heart to desert him, his lungs to convulse. He should have said no before going out there to torture himself. Three weeks later, the tension that knotted at the back of his ribs had yet to abate.
“Oye!” Fearchar chased after him, trying to regain his breath. He bent over, pulling in deep gulps of air, his plethora of braids sweeping forward, the beads clattering together. “Wha’ was that ’bout?”
Eoin waved him away and turned around, leaving Widow Magaidh’s rock hovel. He wasn’t ready to face Magaidh. The doctor realised, though, that he’d be hounded by the man with the dazzling ginger hair till he returned.
Fearchar kept up with his long gait as they descended the outcrop paths back to Seonaid’s home. “Daleroch said to make sure you knew that they want for you to come to Hogmanay to celebrate as compensation for helping her boy. Will he get better with what you gave him?” Fearchar stumbled over a rock. Eoin caught the redhead’s hand, saving him from sprawling in the mud and gravel.
Releasing him, Eoin nodded, burrowing his hands under his cloak. He didn’t feel like talking. It was enough that the mask hid the tears that rimmed his eyes. Heat swept across his cheeks as he tried to keep the salty drops from rolling down his skin. He swallowed hard, trying to stall. The man counted the boulders and stringy shrubs built up along the hills on the familiar path. Fearchar continued talking, but Eoin had stopped listening.
He fixated on a spiralling column of seabirds, their feathers flashing brilliant white in the gleam of the setting sun. “…and putting up a plague notice would make it unquestionable.” Fearchar pressed a hand to his side, staving off a stitch. Eoin spun, startling his handyman.
“What?” The redhead cocked his head.
Say that again, Eoin demanded, spanning the distance, hob nailed boots clicking against loose gravel.
Fearchar stepped back as Eoin’s cloak brushed up against his chest. Brilliant green eyes. “I was saying that Lady Daleroch made this easy for us. With ye already seein’ inside the ‘ouse n’ ‘elping the man, ye can fake it. Ye can make up a plague notice fur the Hogmanay. We can take out the Daleroch, and no one’ld come up ta’ check. Ye’d ‘ave ta put in with Iain at the dock. That’d make it acceptable fur the law n’ ‘ld deter packages bein’ sent up ta the house for ’em. Nae one’ld come to check with threat a’ Plague.” Fearchar traced an imaginary pen in the air with a grin. The beak mask stared at him for a good half a minute. He fidgeted, uncertain if he had made the doctor mad.
He ducked, finding himself engulfed in the man’s cloak. Eoin pulled Fearchar into him in a sudden hug of joy. Fearchar wasn’t sure how to react, but he was surprised by the thinness of the man. Fearchar didn’t have a firm impression of the doctor’s constitution with the cloak on. The physician’s hands were sinewy and muscular, his arms like fine steel bands. Eoin let him go and strode away.
This was the breakthrough Eoin needed. Iteration after iteration of ideas had proved fruitless to the doctor in figuring out a way to infiltrate the Daleroch and not have an issue after the fact. With a posted notice of plague, no one would be motivated to enter the domicile. He was there as a plague doctor. Why not make it look like that had been the true intention of his visit there after all?
They arrived back at Fearchar and Seonaid’s house to find the building vacant. Fearchar peeked into the bedroom to find it empty. “Guess’n she’s outta market t’day,” Fearchar expressed to Eoin, who had seated himself at his apothecary bench. Eoin nodded absently as he pulled out a sheet of parchment and his quills and inks. He could scratch out a hurried notice that he could tack to the door, but he wanted this to look as official as possible.
He would need two notices: one for Daleroch’s estate and one to post with Iain McCloude, who acted as the constabulary, lawyer, and judge of the little town. If desperate, he might need one more document to be sent to Edinburgh or Glasgow to make it official that the estate was to be avoided at all cost. The hours dragged by in the quiet domicile. The first interruption in Eoin’s fervent scrawling was Fearchar’s exclamation of snow when large wet flakes blanketed the rocky outcropping. He had asked if Fearchar needed to go after Seonaid. Fearchar waved him off, reassuring him that if she was caught out in a blizzard, she had enough friends in the village that would be willing to put her up for the evening. Eoin shook his head and shrugged, marvelled by the man’s relationship with his wife.
Almost complete with the second sheet, stomping feet at the doorstone interrupted Eoin’s attention. He hurriedly stowed the dry sheet and set an inverted box over the second one. He pulled out a list of ingredients and wiped the nib of his pen off before pushing a cork into his ink bottle.
Fearchar took his time getting up from the hearth and making his way to the door. The handle turned. Fearchar looked up to the crack in the door. Seonaid, bundled heavily in her wool shawl, burst in, a flurry of white flakes trying to follow behind her. She shoved the door closed, her cheeks pink from the cold. Her eyes glimmered. Eoin stayed his hand from his cleaning. Something was off with the young woman.
She glanced away from Eoin to Fearchar and back. Biting her lip, she pulled Fearchar to her, buried her head into his shoulder, and fought to keep her weeping quiet. He wrapped her in warm arms. “Wha’s the matter, Luv?”
Eoin returned to his stores and sifted through materials, wary of involving himself in a conversation not meant for his ears. In his few months of living with the couple, he could not recall Seonaid expressing sadness or anger in such a manner. Shifting in his chair, he waited for Fearchar to take her into their bedroom for privacy. His blood curdled in his veins as he listened to her tell her story.
“I went into town to fetch oats for the house. I ran into Agnus while I was down at the baker’s. She told me Widow M- Widow Magaidh had slipped last night.” She fought back another wave of tears. Eoin sprang the gap and descended on the couple. He gripped them by the shoulders, pressing for more information. They shied away from the doctor’s unusual outburst. Seonaid shook her head at him sadly.
Where? He demanded from her.
“She was found outside of town near the fork that takes you up to Dubh’s house and out to her house. She…she hit her head, they say.” She swatted at streaming tears. Fearchar pulled a handkerchief from the pouch at the front of his great kilt and pressed it to her eyes. He tossed a glare at Eoin, warning him to back off.
No, where is she now! Eoin persisted.
Seonaid blotted her face, giving herself time to regain control of her cracking voice. “Her body was sent to Cill Chriosd this morning. I barely had time to catch the cart before they headed out. I left a few flowers on her shroud. They planned to have her buried this evening if the snow permits. If they don’t get her in the ground now, the dirt’ll be too hard to dig for the next month.” She wandered to the fireplace to stare at the lapping flames. Fearchar pulled her back against his chest and held her as she swayed.
Eoin sunk to the ground in a heap. He wished, as he had so many times before, that he could scream, but all he could do was allow his sorrow and frustration to boil inside.
Fearchar patted him on the shoulder. “So sorry, doc. Ah didnae realise ye knew her well tae work…tae work yerself up o’er her. She’ll be missed.” Fearchar walked to his little stool by the hearth and sank onto it. Seonaid joined him, sitting next to his feet, and laid her head on his lap. He absently brushed at her hair, soothing himself as he leaned against the warm fireplace wall.
The evening slipped through their fingers. Eoin pulled himself from the cold floor and rolled into the little bed next to the wall. He pulled his cloak close around him and made sure the hood covered his mask as much as possible. Closing his eyes, he allowed his memories to drift him into a restless sleep.
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