Dragon - The Dragon On The Border Part 20

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Lachlan smiled his evil smile, looked at the MacDougall and winked. The wink was obviously intended to promise all sorts of unwelcome things to be done upon the body of MacDougall with the edged weapons at Lachlan's disposal. But for all Jim could see, the unvoiced threat bounced off their prisoner without doing anything more than stirring his attention for a second.

So far, MacDougall had not said a word. He continued silent as they turned off the track and found a tree about a foot in diameter, and all of them got off their horses.

Lachlan, himself, took on the job of tying MacDougall's hands behind him around the trunk of the tree. It was obvious to Jim, although MacDougall did not allow the wince to show in his face, that Lachlan was pulling the leather thongs of the bindings cruelly tight. But Jim said nothing; and MacDougall neither spoke nor showed by his expression that anything at all uncomfortable was being done to him.

"Weel, now," said Lachlan, standing back and regarding his handiwork. "That should keep you for a while, Ewen."

"You know," drawled the MacDougall, "you used to be able to speak quite pa.s.sable English. What would have caused you to have lost the ability, I wonder?"

"Och!" said Lachlan. "Ye're mistaken. This is the way I talk all the time. Because I'm a Scotsman, all the way through. While you, y'rself, are half-French and half-English inside."

MacDougall ignored this; and Jim led Lachlan off in among the trees until they were well out of hearing, but their prisoner was still in sight. They had led all three horses along with them; so that even if MacDougall got loose, they could run him down.

"Well, now," said Lachlan, with no trace of a Scots accent in his voice at all, "what is it you've got in mind?"

"I'll tell you," said Jim. "I think this is as close as we should get to the Castle de Mer. You, and I and our prisoner back there."

"As close?" echoed Lachlan, staring at him. "Now why would you say that?"

"Well," said Jim, "we don't want him recognizing the Castle de Mer and identifying Sir Herrac and his family, do we?"

"Not if we can help it!" said Lachlan. "But if that's the only problem, we can cut his throat right now and have it done with. I thought you'd some reason in mind for bringing him along this distance, anyway."

"I have," said Jim. "Remember? I was going to use magic to make myself look like him."

"Well, then, what's keeping you from it?" exploded Lachlan. "Make yourself look like him, then; and have it done with!"

"I'm afraid it can't be done just that fast," said Jim. He began to feel a little uneasy. He had a good two inches of height on Lachlan, if it came to an argument and a fight, and possibly ten or fifteen pounds heavier. But he was not at all sure that he was any physical match for the other. Lachlan's shoulders were almost unnaturally broad; and his skill with the weapons hung about him would undoubtedly be something Jim himself could never match. This was a situation to be won by diplomacy.

"You have to understand," said Jim, "it's not enough for me to look like the man, merely. I also must sound and act like him; with the same sort of movements and gestures, and ways of standing and sitting and walking-just in case some of the Hollow Men may have met with him before and know what he's like."

"Now, if you move and talk a little different from him than they remember, what of that?" demanded Lachlan. "If you look like the man, you are the man. Why should they question any further than that?"

"I think you underestimate the Hollow Men, Lachlan," said Jim.

"I do not!" snapped Lachlan.

"Permit me," said Jim. "No offense. It's just that, being a magician, I understand some things that ordinary people don't. These Hollow Men are not ordinary people, themselves. Effectively, they're ghosts. The possibility of the body of a man they know being taken over by someone else might not occur to you, as long as he looked exactly the same. But it could well occur to one of them. There's only a single way around it I can see. I'll have to stay with him a day, perhaps, and study him."

"Perhaps, yes," said Lachlan-and then brightened up. "And perhaps, no. Come to think of it, I can tell you how the man walks and talks and sits. Haven't I seen him a matter of years now at the court and other such gatherings? All you need to know you can learn from me. There's no need for Ewen, himself, at all."

"I'm sorry," said Jim firmly, "but there is. I'm very glad to hear you can tell me all this; and it may make all the difference, your being able to do so. But I must also watch him with my own eyes for a little while.

That means we stay out in the woods with him. Now, what I wanted to ask you was-do you know of some kind of shelter near here where we could put up for a day or so?"

Lachlan looked at the ground for a long moment, without answering. Then he raised his eyes to meet Jim's.

"Yes," he said. "I'd have no wits at all if I wasn't ready to admit you've some right on your side. Very well, we'll spend our day or so in the woods; and I do know a place for it. It's a bit of a distance and a bit of a climb, but I know of a sheiling that has a hut on it. A hut that will at least keep the rain off us; and let us build a fire to warm ourselves without having the wind blow all its warmth away. Let's go back, untie Ewen and all remount."

They did so. It took them more than an hour to reach their destination. By this time, the sun was almost on the horizon, and the last half-hour of that had been considerably more than what Jim considered a bit of a climb; considering they had to dismount and almost pull the horses up after them for short stretches.

But when they came at last to the up-land pasture-because that, Jim had learned, was what a sheiling was-there were no cattle on it yet. Also, a small hut did indeed stand back in a little hollow against the face of the slanting meadow, itself, so that the hill protected it from the wind on three sides.

"Well, now," said Lachlan, cheerfully rubbing his hands together as they started across the meadow toward the hut. "Now we'll see what's what."

CHAPTER NINETEEN.

The hut, when they got inside it, proved to be a rude shelter indeed.

It was no more than a door, four walls and a roof; with a smoke hole in the ceiling above a firepit in the earthen floor beneath.

It was filthy, and it stank-things Jim had gotten used to in dwellings on this world a great deal grander than this- including some castles he had been in. However, some months without an occupant had lessened the stink, which was a combination of human body odors, raw cattle hides, and half a dozen other nameless smells. And the filth was dirt only. Jim considered them lucky. The place could have had far more repellent substances about its floor than that.

They tied their horses to stakes set in the clay wall of the hut for that purpose, and carried the gear inside. Lachlan's first step was to use a good length of rope to hobble the feet of Ewen MacDougall.

The MacDougall clan chief had been silent through most of the trip. He seemed to have lost his immediate first terror at learning that it was Jim who had made him prisoner. But he was obviously still cautious; and further, plainly intended to give away nothing. He answered only when a direct question was addressed to him, as a demand.

They got a fire going in the firepit, and luckily there was enough of a breeze above them so that most of its smoke was drawn out the smoke hole. With eyes watering only slightly, they settled themselves as close to the fire as possible and began to make a meal out of the meat and bread they had along with them. At Jim's order, they shared it with MacDougall; although Lachlan protested that this was a waste of good provender.

However, with the food down, Jim began to make an effort to talk to MacDougall.

"M'Lord Viscount," he said, blinking against the smoke of the fire, at Ewen MacDougall who was also blinking, "a little discussion between us will help us both. Now I know why you were headed as you were; and why you were carrying the gold you had with you. I know all about your plans. As it happens, they won't work. They'll end in ashes, like a house that's caught fire. But how much you're hurt by them will depend on how much you're willing to talk with me and work with me."

He waited, but MacDougall said nothing.

"Well?" demanded Jim. "Do you intend to talk openly with me, or not?"

"Och, ye're wasting time on the man!" said Lachlan disgustedly. "He hasn't the wit to understand what ye tell him. He still thinks it's a mighty thing he's doing; and his honor won't permit him to say a word."

"That can't be so," said Jim, keeping his tone as conciliatory as possible as he watched MacDougall.

"Wait and see!" said Lachlan. He opened the door of the hut and stamped outside, apparently indifferent to the fact that the moon was not even up and there was little to do outside there except take care of bodily necessities. Of course, thought Jim, the latter reason may have been why he had left them.

Jim went on trying to talk to MacDougall. But he did not answer. He was obviously very frightened of Jim, deep down; but he still would not cooperate. Meanwhile, Lachlan had come back in and Jim turned his attention to him.

"Lachlan," he said, "there's something I need to speak to you about out of this man's hearing. Could you make sure that he doesn't get into any trouble if the two of us leave him alone?"

"That I can," said Lachlan. He proceeded to use everything including the saddle girths from MacDougall's horse's saddle to tie the other to the frame of a bed that was little more than a wooden tray on the ground with some dried gra.s.s inside to soften it.

"Now," said Lachlan, standing back. "He'll do for a few minutes. But I'd not give him much more than a few before we come back, slippery callant that he is."

"Good," said Jim, and led the way outside, closing the door behind them.

By now, the moon had begun to show itself above the trees higher on the hill above the pasture. It shed very little light, being only approaching full, but it was better than the starlight only that had been available before. Jim led a few steps away from the hut and then turned toward the shadowy form and features of Lachlan, who had halted facing him.

"How am I to get him to talk?" Jim asked. "I have to study him-how he talks, how he walks, how he waves his hands. A dozen things. But the way he is now, I'm not going to learn anything."

"I could have told y'that!" said Lachlan disgustedly. "Ye'll never see such things in him up here on this sheiling. What ye must do is see him in something like the court setting he's used to; and there's no such thing near here like that, except Castle de Mer. Moreover, to see him as he normally struts and talks, he'll have to be let loose in most of the castle rooms, with only guards on the outer door to keep him from leaving the building."

"But that will involve the de Mers!" said Jim. "The very thing I don't want to do!"

"Ye've no choice," said Lachlan. "If ye want what ye say ye want, that's the only way to get it. Let him play the honored prisoner and you'll see all the ways of acting the man is capable of, including his flattery of Liseth, who will be the only gentlewoman within sight and hearing of him."

Jim stood silent, himself. But he could see no other way out.

"I could have told ye this from the start, if I'd understood what ye'd thought ye'd might be able to get out of him up here," said Lachlan. "He'll never show it here. For one thing, a wee cattle hut like this is no setting for him. Also, there's none of the type of gentles he's used to showing off to, unless he gets to the de Mers'. He'll have to go there, and he'll have to know he's there. We can solve that easily enough afterwards, with one thrust of a dagger."

Jim winced in the darkness. That was not the type of solution he was hoping to come up with.

"I still don't-" he was beginning.

"Be sensible, man!" said Lachlan exasperatedly. "It's a popinjay ye have in there, and popinjays only dance on the proper perch. It's not their nature to do anything else. Is there no way ye can understand that?"

Jim had encountered this sort of situation before. He had constantly to remind himself that he did not really know these people. Even after almost two years he did not know all about how they acted; or even a great deal about why they chose to act, when they did. In a case like this, he would simply have to trust Lachlan; and hope that somehow he could come up with a solution that would leave the MacDougall alive and still keep the de Mers from retribution at the hands of the King of Scotland.

"Very well," he said, "we'll go on down to the castle tomorrow, then."

"Now ye're talking some sense," said Lachlan. Turning away from him, the Scot went back into the hut.

Jim followed.

MacDougall had made no attempt to get out of his bindings-which seemed to earn him Lachlan's contempt, instead of approval.

"He was always a poor play-toy of a man," Lachlan said to Jim. "He was afraid that we'd come in and find him half loose and maybe one of us would be annoyed enough at that to cut his throat right now.

Well, we should get some sleep. But for all that he made no move while we were outside talking, it's best we take turns sleeping. Would ye care to go first on the bed, or shall I?"

"You first," Jim said. For one thing, he had no intention of lying down on that possibly verminous box of meadow-straw. For another, his mind was still churning, trying to come up with ideas to make his wild plans work. He had a general idea of what he wanted to do; from impersonating the MacDougall to arranging things so that all the Hollow Men had to be in that spot that Snorrl had found for him. But the details were something else again; and these hovered in a limbo full of question marks.

So he sat by the fire-or at least at a distance from it, where its smoke and heat were endurable, while Lachlan tumbled into the box of hay and was asleep within seconds.

Twice during the night Jim was given the chance to sleep while Lachlan stood watch. He rolled himself in his cloak, giving Lachlan the usual excuse that magician's requirements kept him from using anything like a bed, and twice he sat up watching a motionless, and occasionally sleeping, MacDougall; but when morning came he had still not come up with one useful idea beyond those he had had the night before.

As soon as the sun rose, they ate what was left of their food, cut the bonds of MacDougall and let him hobble around for a while until the effect of his cut-off circulation was restored, at least to the point of letting him get on a horse and ride.

They reached Castle de Mer just about noon, were welcomed by the whole family and immediately set down at the High Table with food and drink; including, at both Herrac's order and Jim's request, Ewen MacDougall.

In spite of the wine and the good food, and the relatively comfortable benches, after being tied hand and foot on an earth floor all night, it still took MacDougall the better part of an hour to thaw out and start acting as he might ordinarily have acted, if visiting in someone else's castle.

He began to talk with the de Mers, and in particular with Liseth, whom he evidently took to be possibly younger and much less intelligent and experienced than she was. In fact, he preened himself to her to such an extent that her brothers began to develop the beginnings of a dangerous scowl upon their faces. It was only Jim's giving an appealing look to Herrac, who was wise enough to understand what was going on, and Herrac's voiced order to his sons, that prevented trouble.

"Remember at all times, my children," he said, letting his large voice roll forth when there was a point of the conversation at which it was appropriate to do so, "that though m'Lord MacDougall here may be our prisoner, he is also a gentleman and a guest in this castle, and we must always show all courtesy to him. I know you will do this."

The sons understood-the implied command in Herrac's last line, if not the reasons for his ordering them to act as he had said.

Shortly after Herrac said this, Jim himself took advantage of the fact that he had more than enough food and drink to do him for the moment, and announced that he needed to talk to Liseth about Brian and look at his friend, and perhaps Sir Herrac would excuse them both from the table now.

Herrac was instantly obliging; and Liseth rose from her bench with alacrity. They went off, followed by MacDougall's disappointed eyes-fastened on Liseth, of course, rather than Jim.

"I do indeed want to know about Brian," said Jim, as they began their ascent of the winding staircase toward the invalid's room. "But I also want to make other plans with you. But to Brian, first. How has he been since I left? Also, were you able to change bandages every day; and how did the wound look each time you did?"

"We changed the bandages each morning, as you demonstrated, m'Lord," said Liseth. "The wound seems to be mending apace-indeed, with almost miraculous speed, thanks no doubt to your magic, Sir James. It hardly bleeds now, when the bandage is pulled loose-which is a marvel, considering it has only been a couple of days. There is no sign of the redness in the skin around it that you warned me to look for, either. Moreover, Sir Brian himself has become more lively; and more demanding of wine and something more than the soup we have been feeding him. In fact, I leave you to deal with his demands in that direction when we get upstairs."

"Thanks for warning me," said Jim grimly. Brian would indeed be starting to get restless, no matter what kind of shape his wound was in.

"I'll answer him on that matter, and perhaps even relent a little bit to allow him some wine, meat and bread," said Jim. "But I want to look at his wound first before I yield in any way to him on other things."

"We have discovered some young onions, already up and growing in a sheltered spot of the castle wall,"

commented Liseth, as they continued on up. "We might include those with whatever extra food you allow Sir Brian, as a special treat. They will be the first of the spring vegetables."

When she said this, Jim's own mouth began to water; and he felt a tremendous admiration for Liseth's calm proposal of this. Not only she, but whoever had discovered the onions, and everyone who had heard of them, must have shown an iron discipline in not leaping upon the first vegetables they had a chance to taste since the last of the winterstored root vegetables had been used up.

One of the things that had never occurred to him as a twentieth-century person, was how, in the middle ages, you missed vegetables-fresh vegetables, at least-for nearly nine months of the year. Then, when you did finally get to a vegetable, particularly one you liked, often its season was all too short.

He imagined that Liseth, and everyone else, had been giving a great deal of attention to the castle's vegetable gardens for some time. The servants who first discovered these onions might have been kept from immediately grubbing them up and eating them by the fear of what might happen to them if they did.

Particularly if word got back to those two who were Lord and Lady of the castle.

But it would have taken real self-denial on Liseth's part- and she surely must have been the first one to hear about the onions-to suggest they be given only to Sir Brian. On the other hand, he reflected, honor had long since laid its iron hand upon her as strongly as upon the male members of the household.

Naturally the only wounded man in the castle should have first offering of the new vegetables. On the other hand, it would have been all too easy to invent some excuse for not giving them to him-possibly the argument that they might not be good for him just at the present moment.

"Hah!" shouted a fully awake Sir Brian, as Jim and Liseth came in through the door of his room. "You are returned, James! Come, let me kiss you!"

Jim endured this with the best possible composure. Brian, close friend that he was, still had about as much body odor as any other of the fourteenth-century individuals Jim came up against, and lying in the same bed for several days had not improved it. Nor his unshaven face.

"Now!" said Brian, releasing him. "Tell me all that has occurred."

Jim proceeded to do so, as he turned back the covers and began to uncover the wound. The bandage came loose with very little difficulty; and once the wound was uncovered, it only seeped blood in a few places. There was no sign of inflammation around the edges of the wound.

Jim was secretly astounded. It was true that the original slash, though long, had been hardly more than skin deep. But it was through skin that wrinkled with every movement, and for anything like this to heal this much in just a few days was literally unbelievable, particularly under the germ-laden conditions of the environment.

The wild thought crossed his mind that perhaps on this world people simply healed faster. But Liseth had been surprised also.

A more sensible-but still very farfetched-explanation came to him. Here, as it had been in his own fourteenth century, the only adults you saw were survivors. Probably for every grown person you saw there were four to five infants, children and teen-agers who had not survived to the age of twenty.

He knew that inheritance and accustomation could arm people to deal with exposure to germs and viruses that others could not stand. Back in his own castle, the local people could, with no trouble-though they much preferred at least small beer- drink the water from the castle well. The only time Jim had tried it he had trouble believing, even in remembrance, how sick he had gotten. Angie was always careful to boil any water that she and Jim were likely to encounter, not only in drinking but in cooking.

However, right here and now it was Brian's recovery that was the matter under consideration; and the patient clearly was aware of it.

"Well, what say you, James?" demanded Brian ebulliently. "I am practically healed, am I not? There is no reason why I cannot get up and join everyone else in the castle. If you like, I will not attempt to ride for a day or two; but it is really not necessary. I could take to the saddle right now if I had to."

Dragon - The Dragon On The Border Part 20

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Dragon - The Dragon On The Border Part 20 summary

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