The weeks passed, uninterrupted of any more phenomenal events. Eoin kept busy with his clients that made their way to Seonaid’s house. He travelled into town with Fearchar to remedy a few of the old women who had taken to their beds with complaints of arthritis and winter cough.
He ran into Lady Daleroch once while walking through the frost-covered winter market and asked after Conner. Her son was improving remarkably, as she stated and was excited to once again invite the doctor to her end of the year event in a day’s time. Eoin was sure to press that Fearchar and Seonaid be there to help translate for him. She had agreed most amiably, thrilled with her festivities. The woman let on that the whole of the Daleroch’s family was to be there, which was proving much easier now that the children were grown.
Eoin told her that he would send his gifts ahead of his arrival: three bottles of port that he had seen fit to bring from Spain for a special occasion. He wanted to share them with the whole of the Daleroch clan to celebrate the good health of the future clan head. She was practically bursting with pride, preening under his offer. She would have to pull out her good cups for such an offer; she smiled, thrilled. She left them in the market, hurrying off in the direction of her house.
He turned from her and made his way back through the market to Brodie Brown’s house – the closest person the town had to a mail distributor. Eoin had Fearchar ask after Brodie’s son, Robert, who he wished to have run up to Seonaid’s house and fetch the port to be taken to the Daleroch’s estate. He paid the lad a silver and copper to hurry and sent a note with him to let Seonaid know where to find the bottles.
They then continued through the town, checking in on the sick and the weak to distract themselves. The doctor distributed medicines as he saw necessary and left instructions with caretakers. He needed for the town to continue recognizing his authority in the matters of health and medicine if his plan for the Dalerochs was to take off and give Robert time to deliver the port.
The evening before Hogmanay in Seonaid and Fearchar’s house dragged on. He went back and checked his parchments multiple times. He fiddled with his stores, dragging out his scales to weigh dried goods and crystallized powders. He couldn’t keep his nerves from showing. He was still torn about Widow Magaidh. With luck, he would make it up to the churchyard to bid her farewell before he left the isle. His thoughts ricocheted in his skull, bringing up old memories, old conversations.
Fearchar and Seonaid shared their evening meal together before pulling out their suitable clothing. She had forgone her usual clientele that day to iron their garments, excited about the prospect of some festivities. Fearchar whittled away at a little bird statue, smiling at her merriment. They stayed up late into the night, Eoin toiling away at his bench while Fearchar and Seonaid reminisced about the parties with friends they had joined with seasons past.
Even with little sleep, Eoin woke to the brilliant sunrise the following day. It sparkled on the snow and made the bitter cold bright and soul-wrenching in its beauty. Smudges of pink and orange clung to the hills at the sun’s crowning. Stairs to heaven, he mused. He took a warm cup of ale from the hearth and reclined in the chair that looked out through the one window in the croft. His day had come. He breathed through the rapid beat of his heart, trying to settle it. Today would be quiet for Seonaid. Most of the town was gathered with family for festivities.
He downed the cup as he heard rustling in the next room. With ease, he pulled the mask back down and snugged it close. He wasn’t about to be recognised. He rubbed the cup out with the fine sand they kept in a basket next to the hearth and dried it out with a cloth before setting it back on the little shelf they kept their cups on. He eased back to his bench, recognizing Seonaid and Fearchar’s morning routine, knowing he had a few more minutes to himself before they would come out.
He fingered his decanters and flasks, debating if he should pack the contents up now or wait for a few more days after the papers made their way to Ian and even out to the mainland. He rubbed the back of his neck, uncertain. He decided to put away a few of his less-used medicines, counting on the holiday to keep from interrupting him. Then he spotted the small hatchet left unattended in the corner under his bench. He slipped it into the back of his belt under his waistcoat tails.
He took from his stores a fine powder that he had come into possession of on the mainland shortly before sailing to the isle. He retrieved from another drawer of his cabinet a small, long metal trough and a thin blade that meshed together to make an ancient style of mortar and pestle. He spent many minutes finely grinding down the already fine powder. He knocked the powder into a pouch and added a small bowl and vial of clear liquid to another. Lastly, he added to the mortar and pestle a few berry-sized red rocks that produced a muddy yellow powder once ground. This, too, was added to one more palm-sized pouch. These all made their way into his bag at his waist.
Tonight would be his release from his induced hellish prison. He had to be ready to flee if everything went wrong. He needed to leave enough out, though, that if someone came to the residence, they would not suspect Eoin of plots. He rolled his three parchments together and stuffed them into a cylindrical holder. He slipped the ornate tube into one of his pouches.
Fearchar and Seonaid eventually emerged from their room, significantly later than usual. Their guest remained content to mess with his various glass and wood containers. They eased back into their regular routine for an off day, making breakfast for themselves. Eoin never ate with them; he refused to remove his mask. Seonaid, once their fast was broken, cleaned the plates while Fearchar finished his tiny jackdaw bird.
Eoin kept himself busy with a pair of small glass tubes, slowly diluting a tiny spoonful of powder into boiling water. The water turned a brilliant emerald green for a flash as it hit the boiling liquid. It dissipated into a muddy brown. He continued the boiling until the tubes’ contents formed a thickened sludge. He added a dash of a thin white liquid and continued for the afternoon. Anticipation built in the house as the hour neared for them to go to the Daleroch’s estate.
“What ye’ makin’, doc?” Fearchar eventually wandered over to look at the tiny tubes.
Antidote. he held the tube up for Fearchar to look at.
“Poison medicine,” Seonaid supplied, coming over to join her husband.
“Poison medicine?” Fearchar asked, looking at the vials sceptically.
For you, Eoin handed them both one of the vials. Fearchar’s eyebrows raised. “D’ye want us ta…eat…drink this now?” the man eyed the sludge with disgust.
No. Take it immediately if they make you drink the wine, Eoin elaborated, pushing a cork into Seonaid’s tube.
“Don’t drink the wine, Fear.” Seonaid looked at her tube solemnly before shoving it in her pocket. “This is if we have to.”
“Whate’er ye say, doc,” Fearchar handed his vial back to Eoin, who promptly corked it and handed it back to him. Fearchar frowned at it and shoved it into his pouch, which he had formed at his stomach with his great kilt. Impatiently, they were trying to wait out the afternoon and into the evening. The festivities would begin at midnight with the first footing.
With the eleventh bell from the church ringing clearly through the quiet snow-laden hills, Eoin, Seonaid and Fearchar emerged into the dark night with lanterns to guide their chilled steps. The snow crunched under their feet. They could faintly hear yelling and raucous music reverberating up the hill from the village. The boys would be seeking their bannocks at the doors.
They arrived at the Daleroch estate to find the yard filled with joyous festivities in front of the building. The snow had been stamped down into an icy muck. Some of the men had broken out their pipes and drums. A few younger women danced with the men in circles around a smouldering bonfire outside. There were the remains of mutton that had been roasted that day over an open fire. The Daleroch’s celebration was in full swing. Yet, no one was inside the house. They were waiting for the first-footer.
The clan let up a cheer when Mrs Daleroch noticed their presence and called out a greeting. Grannd came up to them, and Eoin was relieved to hide behind his mask, for he couldn’t restrain his grimace of disgust at the man. Grannd took Eoin’s hand and shook it heartily. “To the Doctor!” he cheered, the clan following his lead. “For saving my son’s life and restoring his health, I’d like to bid you enter our door and bless our house with good luck!” the man smiled happily. Eoin sucked in his breath. He had not expected to be the man to be put in the house first. That right would have surely gone to Grannd’s son. Eoin nodded, trying for enthusiasm behind his mask.
Daleroch pulled him to the door-stone and set Eoin’s hand on the elaborate iron handle. Eoin took his grand time of show, letting the clan think that he appreciated his role. He opened the door and walked into the cheer of the people. The house was freshly cleaned and lit with candles in many corners, causing the room to flick with shadows. He spotted another meal already laid out, his bottles of port set next to the meat. Grannd Daleroch followed him into the house. Eoin moved to the stairwell, out of the way of the incoming flood of people escaping from the plummeting cold of the winter night. The house bloomed under the press of bodies and music. Eoin fought the sudden panic gripping him with the noise and humid warmth.
He watched, trying to calm his racing heart, as Mrs Daleroch cheerily opened up the bottles of port he had provided them with as his gift. She poured them raucously into carved wooden cups, drops spilling across the table. Each cup had a tiny bit of scrawl work around the lip, matching the table the meal was spread upon. She pressed cups into the hands of her family, happily chatting with each person for a minute here and there. Soon, every person had been served, and Grannd Daleroch approached the fireplace to give the New Year’s greeting to his clan.
“My family!” He raised his cup, deep-red port sloshing out and across his fingers. The crowd cheered back, some already downing their cups with the reply. Three bottles of port did not go nearly far enough with this family. “I wanna extend ta’ ye’ my gracious thanks in bein’ here at the clan’s house t’night ta’ celebrate the New Year. We ‘ave improved the flock’s numbers n’ added a new ship ta’ the fleet. My boy, fit ‘n spry once ‘gain, will be takin’ a wife this comin’ spring and God-willin’, make me a grandfather! You have all contributed tae this success n’ with e’ery year that passes, the more land we obtain. Soon, we will be the most powerful clan on this side a’ the isle. To the New Year, n’ ta new acquisitions!” He downed what was left in his cup and held it out for his harried wife to fill with an ale.
Fearchar and Seonaid feigned drinking the dark liquid, neither one eager to put Eoin’s concoction to the test.
Eoin leaned against the stair rail, counting the seconds for the first victim to fall. The music continued until the drummer slumped. One of the men laughed it off, joking about old men not holding their drink. Soon though, others dozed off. They leaned in seats and laid their heads on tables and the floor, yet still, no one worried. Lady Daleroch went about the room, tucking people into blankets and lambskins.
“Finally.” She took her full cup of port from behind an ornate clock on the fireplace mantel and drank it. “I never thought I would get to it. Doctor, you have a way with medicine and know a good wine when you see it.”
“It was a good turnout this year. Even great-grandpap came from the other side of the hills. Thank you, Doctor, for coming to celebrate my son’s recovery and Hogmanay. It would have been a sad year to burry him if it had come to it.” Grannd watched his wife collect cups from guests and scuttle them away to the wash trough in the larder.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better year. I don’t know what we would have done.” Lady Daleroch’s voice echoed above the clatter of plate ware and water.
Grannd raised an eyebrow, a smirk skirting the corner of his lip. “Not like we can trust the other two lads to the task; all they want is to find their way to Edinburgh.”
“He’s the only one showing interest in taking over the family legacy?” Fearchar eased around sprawled feet and skirts. Picking up the iron poker at the fire side, he stirred the languishing flame.
“Come spring, we’ll have him wed again, someone healthy, able to bear sons that’ll carry on what we’re doing here. He’ll keep the line going.” Lady Daleroch returned from the larder, drying her hands on her apron.
Grannd and his wife glanced around the room then turned to each other. Grannd took up one of the woven blankets from a chair and pulled it around his wife. “Looks like you’re just as spent as the guests, Meredith. Here.” Swirling patterns in the wool weave of blue, lavender, and white matched the cup in Eoin’s hand. “It looks like all our guests have left us fur their dreams. I’m sorry that it wasn’t more.”
“Nae, it’s rather ideal; we were growin’ tired a’ waitin’.” Fearchar smiled maliciously, eyes roving across bodies. Grannd glanced up at the man. He turned back to his sleeping family. Mottled purple and black spots blossomed across exposed skin. He stooped to his son sleeping on a stool next to the hearth. Swallowing, he touched the man’s wrist. No beat. He shifted away the man’s cravat to touch his throat. Blue and purple blossomed along his kneck. No pulse. Pulling a knife from his pocket, he held the flat to the man’s nose, waiting for it to mist. It never came.
Grannd backed into his swaying wife. “Doctor! My son! He’s…he’s…” Grannd stared at the mass of death surrounding him. Tears shimmered in his eyes, fear reverberating in the room. His wife slipped to the floor. Rushing, he caught her, easing her lifeless body against the wall.
Seonaid sidled up to him to look at the woman. “You see.” Her smile was all teeth as Fearchar joined her.
“We got paid a tidy sum tae clean ye out.” Fearchar laid the poker down and pulled his hair back with a leather strap. Eoin stood from his seat on the step. With slow, deliberate steps, shined red leather boots sifted across beams such that he missed every squeaking board, he approached the last of the Daleroch.
Grannd Daleroch twisted between the husband and wife before turning to the doctor. The clan leader’s panic rimmed his eyes in pale pink. A telltale flick of his digits told Eoin the man’s hands were going numb.
“You?” The man denying his impending death stumbled.
Eoin bowed at the accusation, sweeping his hand out to reveal his light blue Southron suit. He straightened and nodded to Fearchar and Seonaid.
Fearchar charged Grannd. The clan head fell back, aiming for the doctor. The hired hand skittered, narrowly missing a body on the floor. A gleam of metal in the firelight. Grannd pulled his knife from its sheath and thrust it toward the bounding redhead’s throat. The blade in an infirm grip bobbed, slipping. Fearchar blocked, span the man around, and disarmed him. Seonaid squarely landed a cast iron pan into the clan leader’s jaw. The audible snap of the mandible crackled in the silence of the house. The man dropped with a clatter to the wood floor.
“But,” he spat out bloody teeth, “why? What did we do to you? I’ve never talked to you before today.”
Eoin strode up to the man, his fingers cold in their lined leather gloves, trembled. Kneeling, he looked the Daleroch clan chief in the eye through his green glass lenses. He shoved a small pendant on a short, braided chord into Grannd’s face. The downed leader inspected the item through foggy eyes. A dawning light flickered in them. Eoin lifted his mask a fraction, enough that Daleroch could look upon his throat and mouth.
Eoin’s lips moved, but no sound came out.
“Fyskar witch! You were dead. You were dead and buried and damned!” Daleroch hissed, droplets of blood spraying across the metal tip of Eoin’s mask. The clan leader tried to scuttle away from the mask of death. His hands went out from under him. He hit his head against a body’s foot. Turning, he faced one of his children. A high pitched wail faultered as blood filled his lungs. He gurgled, fighting for his last moment.
Eoin quietly watched the life fade from the man’s eyes. He stuffed the pendant back into his pouch and stood up. Did either of you drink the wine? He demanded of Seonaid and Fearchar with harsh, jerky movements. They both shook their heads. Good. I’m going down to the beach. I’ll see you back at the house? He drew in a deep breath and slowed his movements. He could not hide the shake in his fingers.
“We’ll have ale and an early porridge.” Seonaid desperately tried not to look at what lay around her.
They gathered their cloaks and lanterns. Seonaid put a flaming stick to the wicks, setting the rendered suet to glow a sickly yellow in the dimming room. Opening the door, Eoin tossed another small pouch and one of the parchments to Fearchar.
His handyman nodded. Pocketing the purse and parchment, he escorted his wife onto the entry stone. Eoin pulled the door closed with a soft click. A silent agreement transpired between them. Fearchar and Seonaid pulled their cloak hoods up around their ears and left Eoin to his own devices. The couple sifted through the snow, down the hill, and around the outcropping. Their lights swung, casting an army of shadowed giants against the scraggly scrub along their path.
Eoin pulled another parchment from the cylinder and a crude nail. With the back of the hatchet, he nailed the declaration to the door, warning any who would enter the domicile that they risked Plague and urged that the building be burned to its footing in a fortnight of the last resident’s death.
His fingers trembled, and his head pounded. Fear snapped across his shoulders and scrambled down his spine. He turned from the door, looking back at the building once more as he walked around to the back heading for the path down the hill to the beach and the private dock housing the Daleroch’s fishing fleet.
He glanced to the old chicken coop, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. No birds lived in it; he was certain by the collapsed roof. A twittering shuffle echoed from beyond the structure. He stilled, straining his ears in the snowfall for the sound. It echoed off the chicken coop walls. He scrambled through the snow and mud, fingers vibrating.
Behind the chicken coop, he sank to his knees in awe. The free-flight mews, with its lichen crusted slate roof stood intact. The massive golden eagle inside the protective stall stood scrawny on her log. Many of her chest feathers were missing, plucked in boredom and hunger. Once glossy and full of spirit, her head hung in dejected wariness. She chirped, spotting the intruder.
He scrambled for the door to the tack room. Her furniture sat dusty and unused, unoiled leather cracked and brittle. The empty food pots contained dirt and dead spiders. He stamped out of the building, closed the door with a bang, and returned to the main house.
Inside, he ransacked the larder for whatever meat he could bring to hand. He shredded a rabbit’s leg and took it back to the eagle. Brushing his hood back, he pulled his mask from his face, setting it on a hook. She stared at him and skittered away. The poor creature hopped once, drawing his attention to her jesses. They had not been changed since last he saw her. Ragged and muck laden, they caught on the splintered bark of her roosting bar.
He grimaced at her state. Whistling low with a series of clicks, he pulled his cravat from his throat and held out his gloved hand for her. She twisted to study him and ruffled her feathers. Stepping back and forth, she bobbed her head, focusing on the meat in his fingers. He tried the whistle again. She hunched down and brought her wings up, but flight had escaped her memories.
Tears seared at the corners of his eyes. He approached slowly, waiting for her signals that she was calm with him. He encouraged her onto his glove. She wolfed down the meat while he surveyed her prison.
Filled, she fluffed up her feathers and looked up at him. Her golden eyes bore into his soul. He could not take her back to Fearchar and Seonaid. There was no adequate housing arranged for her. Possibly their byre would suffice, but it was full to the rafters of dry peat and what had once been a dairy stall served now as secondary food storage of preserved meats and root vegetables. He could not release her to the sky. Her ability to fly had been stolen from her by the Daleroch.
He guided her to the perch and left back to the main house. She called to him, her cries piercing the witching hour.
Returning from his foray, he presented his newly acquired treasures: thick wool rugs, nails, and a hammer. The golden eagle pushed herself into the far corner of her stall while he nailed up the protective covering, blocking up the barred window. Snow slid off the roof as he worked, startling both of them.
Moonlight drifted through the cracks in the ceiling. He would need to return soon. He stalled. Picking up ragged feathers beneath her perch, he listened to the low drum of a short-eared owl outside. The eagle would not take to being cooped in the dark for too long. Resigning himself to his inabilities, he left her with food. It was the best he could do. He would return.
Finished with his task and clothed again in his mask and cravat, he dragged himself from the eagle to the other job he needed to complete. A squat tack house perched against the ring of stone at the beach edge near the pier. Its rock wall had turned into a glistening sheet of ice from the spray of the lapping water and chill wind. Easing himself to the shadowed, snowy ground, he rested his back against the structure. He tugged his mask off, unable to tolerate the confines after having been freed of it in the mews. The wind bit at his cheek. Tears tracked across his skin. Wet snow dusted his shoulders, seeping into his justacorps and breeches.
The slow slap of waves on the wooden hulls lulled him into a gut numbing pit of forlorn loneliness. His heart twisted in his chest as he allowed his years of pain and anguish to break. He pulled off his gloves, throwing the pair into a snowdrift. Glaring at them, he tossed his mask in with them, the crunch of snow making the quiet waves all that more unbearable. Rubbing his jaw, he waited for his wallowing self-pity to abate. Cold dusted his knuckles. Holding out a hand, he grasped the drops of snow falling into his palm, turning them into drops of tepid water. Too many memories fell through those little wet flakes.
He rubbed at his eyes, wishing the pain would subside. Pulling in heaving breaths, he fought to quit trembling, desperate to keep himself together.
A birlinn mast groaned. Frigid wind whistled through the lashings. The dam of emotions cracked. He laid his head in his hands and wept.
He wept for his past, for his lost future. He wept for the atrocities that kept him awake at night. Snow accumulated in drifts on his hood until he was half buried in it before he shook himself from the swirling anguish.
Drawing himself up, he paced the beach. North of the tack house, a small uneven mound told him he had found the spot he saw in his nightmares. He sank to his knees.
I’m so sorry. I wish I could have done more, done something. They are safe, I promise you, they are safe now. He buried the hatchet’s blade into the ground of the hill and hung his chord and little pendant from the handle.
He pulled his bowl, a vial of alcohol, and powders from his bag at his waist. Setting the implements into the moon-greyed snow, he added the clear liquid to one of the powders. With slow meticulousness, it turned a brilliant deep blue.
Finished mixing it to a smooth consistency, he blew a fine ochre powder across the snow and grass, streaking it in a cloud of yellow and red. Taking up his bowl, he pulled off one of his gloves. He dipped his forefinger and middle finger into the wet-dog smelling mix and pulled a small ball of the paste away. With careful work and many additions of woad powder and alcohol, he traced a massive blue triskelion across the surface of the hill.
He sat and stared at the dim blue and red-yellow of the hill. The small pendant swung on the hatchet. Snow sifted across the dock and plopped into the water behind him. The crisp air burned his lungs and froze the tips of his ears as it blew under his hood. Resigning himself to his own need to be warm for once in several hours, he replaced the mask and stood, brushing his knees off.
He needed to get up and away from the house, the memories, and the pain. Fearchar and Seonaid must have returned to their home from giving Iain the notice of Plague. With luck, there would be no issue, and the decree would go out to the town to leave the Daleroch estate alone.
Eoin drew in a steadying breath. He flipped open the lantern door and checked the length of his tallow candle. If he walked quickly, he’d make it back to the croft before the flame sputtered out on the rush. He climbed the slick hill, finding long forgotten footholds in the rock that led him out behind the property and through a shortcut to the road that would go unnoticed from the front of the house.
*Now Available as an Art E-Book on Kindle*
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
If you would like to tip the author, check out the following buttons: