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“A Bird In The Hand”

[Excerpt from Untitled Outlander Prequel, Copyright © 2024 Diana Gabaldon]

Brian Fraser and Murtagh FitzGibbons Fraser are hiding out on one of the battlements of Castle Leoch, where they’ve sneaked in to take part in the funeral festivities for the recently deceased Chief, Red Jacob MacKenzie. Brian would be worse than unwelcome, if anyone recognizes him as the Old Fox’s son, illegitimate or not, and the two young men are keeping out of the way while they figure things out. There are several doves sitting in the sun on the wall near them, and Brian very slowly inches close to them. He’s just inveigled one into sitting on his hand (he’s done this trick before), when a tall young woman comes striding out of a doorway at the end of the battlement near them, but comes to an abrupt stop when she sees what’s up.

dove-bird-in-the-handBrian saw her from the corner of his eye—a braw lass, tall—very tall—square-shouldered and looking well able to mind herself should things come to blows. From the corner of one eye, he caught sight of fluttering red hair, loosened for mourning, he supposed. She’d stopped when she saw them, but now came toward them, stepping slow and careful.

He could feel the dove’s heart, beating in his palm, soft and rapid. His own blood pulsed in his ears, not much slower. The young woman came to a halt, three paces from him; he didn’t look at her, but heard the rustle of her petticoats and felt his heart speed up to match the dove’s.

She watched with interest, still as a nesting quail herself, so as not to startle the dove. Brian moved his other hand slowly into the fold of his plaid, broke off a corner of the lump of bread he’d put away in case of sudden hunger, and moving still more slowly, brought it up and placed it delicately between his lips. The dove shoogled its head a bit, nervous at this novel development, but its eyes were bright and fixed on the bread.

He made a faint “tchi, tchi, tchi,” between his teeth and the bird drew itself up, interested. He turned his hand, little by little, to cause the dove to change its footing in order to stay upright, and ended with her on the back of his hand, her sharp wee claws digging in a bit. Smooth and slow, he brought her up to his face, still making the shooshing noise, so she wouldn’t be startled by his breath.

One second… two seconds… the dove turned her head, one way and then the other, fixing one eye at a time on the desired crumb. Three seconds.. f—     The dove darted out her neck like a snake and pecked the crumb neatly from his lips, launching herself off his hand in the same movement.

“Mother of God!” Brian and the lass both said, startled. They looked at each other and laughed. They were still looking a moment later, when a high female voice raised in exasperation from a window above jerked the lassie’s attention upward and away.

“Tha mi direach a’ tighinn!” she shouted, adding—in a lower tone and with lowering brow—“Take care ye dinna swallow your own spit and die, ye wee besom.”

He laughed again, and she looked at him again, deep blue eyes still creased into triangles of amusement.

“Do that wi’ a raven, a charadh,” she said. “And I’ll be truly impressed.”

And then she was gone in a flurry of skirts, loose hair flying like a shower of gold, hot from the forge.

He stood still for a moment, staring into the empty doorway as though he could make her reappear there. Instead, Murtagh came out of the shelter of a nook where he had tactfully receded.

“I should ha’ paid more attention when ye did that the first time,” he said, nodding at Brian’s hand, where the dove’s claws had left small red scratches. “But I’m of that braw lassie’s opinion, a bhalaich— ye’ll have to do it with a raven. And then move on to owls, maybe. Did ye ken who she is?” he asked, dropping his mocking.

“She lives in the castle,” Brian said, lifting his chin toward the tower above, “or yon female coo up there wouldna have been bawling for her. And given what I’ve heard of Red Jacob MacKenzie’s looks, I’ll wager ye a quart o’ beer that’s the eldest daughter. Ellen, is it—her name?”

“Aye, Ellen.” Now Murtagh was peering into the dark doorway, too. “And aye, that was her. I was down in the courtyard a wee while ago and someone pointed her out to me; she’d come down to welcome a tacksman come in wi’ his henchmen. She was dressed that wee bit better, mind, but no mistaking a lass that size for anyone else. Christ, she’s as tall as me!”

“Taller,” Brian said, laughing. He glanced at Murtagh’s spindly shanks. “And likely weighs twice as much.” He felt like he’d already drunk the quart of beer—too fast. His head seemed light and slightly foamy.

Murtagh shrugged. “If ye’re on top, what does it matter?”

“And what if ye’re not?”

“Aye, well, she might crush me, that’s true. But I’d die happy.”

“Let’s be going,” Brian said, as the sounds of multiple feet and men’s voices announced the imminent advent of a large party. “Anyone sees us who kens us, we’ll just die.”

“Well, aye, you will. My Auntie Glenna willna let ‘em kill me.”

“How long is it since ye last saw her?”

“Och, ten years, maybe twelve…”

“Ye didna even have a beard, twelve years ago. She willna ken ye from a hole in the ground. And ye willna be having much conversation wi’ her, either, wi’ your teeth knocked out. Come on!” He grasped Murtagh’s upper arm and yanked him toward the door at the other end of the battlement.

After the brightness of the day, the dark of the stairway was like having a snuffer clapped over your head. Hearing the men still behind them, they hurtled down the invisible steps, bouncing off the stone walls and arriving in a breathless heap at the bottom.

“Damn, they’re coming this way!” Voices, laughing and joking, echoed on the stairway above, and Murtagh scrambled to his feet, groping for his dirk by instinct.

“Dinna be daft, eejit!” Brian hissed in his ear. “Run!”

“No.” Murtagh had stopped, suddenly, and put out a hand to still Brian’s impatience. “Nay, listen. They’re Englishmen!”

Despite a continuing urge to flee, Brian did listen.

“Well, there’s one Englishman,” he said dubiously. “But there’s someone speakin’ French, too, and maybe someone from… the Borders, ye think?”

“Ye’re right, we should go,” Murtagh said, straightening his plaid and brushing his fingers through his hair. Curiosity stayed Brian’s feet, though, and moments later, the dark maw at the bottom of the stairs spewed out a motley group.

“Ach,” Brian said softly. “No, I dinna ken the Englishman. But him in the wig, wi’ the long nebbit? That’s him they call Bobbin’ John—the Earl of Mar. And the other one, dressed up like a dog’s breakfast—that’s Curdie MacNeill. One of Auld Jacob’s tacksmen. I’ve seen him before, at Beauly.”

Absorbed in conversation and laughter, the men gave Murtagh and Brian no more than an indifferent glance, and passed them by in a moment.

Back still pressed against the wall, Brian leaned out a bit to watch the last of them disappear around the corner.

“Maybe it’s true, what they say about Sheumas Ruadh.

“Which part? That he could still run down a deer at his age, or that he could eat the whole thing when he caught it?”

“That he has—had—to do wi’ folk in what ye might call… higher places.” He wasn’t going to risk saying the word “Jacobite” out loud. Not here.

Murtagh shrugged, impatient, and tightened his belt a notch.

“Mmphm. Let’s go have a keek at the woods, then. I can hear them bangin’ away, building towers for the tynchal already.”

[end section]

Visit my Outlander Prequel (Untitled) webpage for more information about this future book. New excerpts will be posted there as I share them.

Many thanks to Paul Fenwick and the Macauley Library for the use of their copyright image of a collared dove.

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This excerpt was posted on my on my official Facebook page on February 10, 2024. A shorter version of the excerpt was posted on December 25, 2022.

This excerpt was last updated on February 10, 2024 by me, Diana Gabaldon, or my Webmistress.