The winds blow across Old Man Storr. The mists settle about the lochs. Clouds trail across the high reaches. In the highlands, I am at home again. -- in the year of our Lord, 1692
The dark bloom of ink at the end of his date sent the man in the deep red leather cloak scrambling for the blotting paper. His nib needed cutting. “Mr. Niloofar!” The captain’s cry jarred the man’s attention from his journal. Mr. Niloofar flinched, his gloved hand brushing the damp blue liquid across the velum. Beneath the plague mask, he glowered at the offending materials and reached for the bottle of setting powder. The hatch creaked, sending a shaft of light to scatter dust motes in the hold of the ship.
He shielded his face against the blinding crescent. The large man in a simple brown kilt and homespun shirt clumped down the narrow stairs while Mr. Niloofar shifted his calligraphy set around, still in a panic for the paper. The ink was seeping, wicking down the side.
“Ye awake, Mr. Niloofar?” The captain approached the cloaked figure. Furtively, the man in the hold shifted the plague mask low on his face and held out a stilling gloved hand to the captain. Unable to see the movement, the captain continued his approach in the cramped space. Close enough to Mr. Niloofar’s makeshift desk of crates, he stopped with a frown to look down at the mess his guest was making. “If ye come out now, the fog’s risin’. Ye’ll see Bàgh Faoileag comin’ up along the ridge line.”
The masked man waved the captain to his job. Dragging his effects together, the man in the red cloak put away his inks and pens into a leather satchel. The setting powder had ended up in the bottom of the bag. He pulled it out and dusted the papers. While he waited for the papers to dry, he shoved his satchel into an oiled duffel bag leaning against the box he had commandeered for his ruminations.
The man shifted a short rectangular box no larger than his torso out from under his makeshift cot of canvas and rigging. The pages set, he tied them into his leather folio and eased it into a slot in the box. He tugged the duffel to check the weight. Nothing had been moved in it, save for the satchel. The padlock on the chest next to it gleamed under lamp light.
Pulling at the hood of his floor length cape, he flicked a glance to the stairwell. Setting his jaw, fingers trembling, he tapped the top of the box, contemplating. He was not ready to see home. The slap of the ocean against the hull walls did nothing to ease the knot in his chest. He shook his fingers, banishing the tell. Trying to draw in a breath against his constricting throat, he reached into his cloak hood to adjusted the steinkirk threatening to throttle him. Metal at the tips of his fingers drove his fear to the back of his brain. Closing his eyes, he slipped along the rolling twist of gold hidden beneath the silk tie holding his collar together. A Brent Goose’s honk shot an arrow of nostalgia through his heart. Pushing past his cerebrations, he took to the end of the hold. The ladder steps were shallow and he jammed his knee on a tread as he emerged. Tripping forward into the dawn, he swallowed the view in front of him.
Salt hung thick in the cold, damp air. It accumulated on the green glass view ports of his mask. Waves slapped and harassed the tar smeared hull of the birlinn. The oars bruised and harried the water, seeking a purchase by which to move a scant length forward. The breeze cut through the leather cloak, probing and slashing. The drifting scent of fish and the bark of seals made his eyes water. It had been too long since he had seen these shores. Land came into view in the murky, fog laden sunrise that cast the hills in blood and fire. Buildings popped up through eddies of brume along the edge of the bay, marking the village centre of Bàgh Faoileag.
He ignored the captain and his son clattering about the deck. The man lost himself in the sights and sounds of home. Ten years he had not felt his feet on his own land. His heart twisted and heat spread under his eyes at the view. He found solace in the mask that hid the tears flowing down his cheeks from the captain and his men.
The plague doctor settled himself into the crook of the foredeck, watching over the bowsprit as mist rushed over the top of the walls in bursts and tendrils. The last half a mile to the dock was an excruciating practice in patience.
Faces he would never see again swam across his memory with every tree and shrub emerging in the gloom amongst the coastline’s ancient volcanic rocks. They bobbed in an out with the tide, up into the shallows to scuttle away amongst the algae and cockles. Memories, bemoaned by fate and fire, trickled down boulder faces and dashed away in spots of teasing laughter. He curled his fists around the wood at his finger tips, fighting to bury the longing he had to see skirts and kilts in a sky blue shade shimmying along the shore.
With a clack and thunk, the boat eased up to a slew of posts and water logged decking stretching ghostly fingers through the murk. Dock hands yelled back and forth with the men on board to tie the birlinn off. The masked man turned from his position at the bow and headed for the lowest point in the middle of the vessel and jumped to the slick boards. His cloak billowed up around him, allowing a burst of cold air to strip away his warmth from his sky blue Sassenach suit. The man sighted on the end of the dock, the road leading up to the realm of familiar. The dock hands jumped back from the commossion. One crossed himself, his face draining of colour when he saw what hid the cloaked man’s face. It never was a good sign when a beak doctor swept into a village.
“Mr. Niloofar, sir!” The captain bellowed from his ship. The man, impatient to be about his morning, turned to the portly seaman, sparks of sunlight glinting off his mask, casting green dots across the planks. “We’ll get yer luggage aff an’ waitin’. Go get yerself fed an’ come back wit’ a hand. Straight up frae here ‘n tak a right’ll put tae the howf.” The captain pointed the doctor in the direction of the main thoroughfare.
He waived his thanks and turned back to continue his ascent into Bàgh Faoileag. Squaring his shoulders, he grimaced, willing nerves to hold together. The weight of the leather cloak did little to still the thrumb of blood in his fingers threatening to break free. He considered he should have shortened the hem when he commissioned the garment. It would inevitably drag in the mud and snow.
A large gold and turquoise circular brooch pinned the mass of leather to his right shoulder. The hood drooped over his eyes, shading him from the blinding morning sun that popped between the horizon and the overhang of looming clouds threatening to burst.
The buffed camel leather of his gloves, matched to his mask, gleamed in the frost bitten air. The thin felt lining kept his skin warm against the isle’s insistent chill. Brass fittings around the green glass of his beak mask provided a macabre pair of eyes to his appearance. The stitching was meticulous, not worked at great speed, but with love and dedication for the craft. The mask possessed a pair of dark canvas faux nares in an illusion of an avian face. The silver cap at the end of the beak had been manipulated to create a division between the mandibles and a deadly looking tip. The impression overall was that of an exotic scavenging bird enclosed in a shawl of it’s own feastings.
Ice prickled air swept under his cloak as he traipsed up the rocky slope that would take him deeper into the village. The red leather billowed about him, startling roosting birds into flight. The breath of the sky swirled and groped, trying futilely to find a purchase into his vestments. Though his spadderdashes and boots hugged his calves and crawled their way up, trying to caress his knees, they could not quite reach, allowing a pair of pure white silk stockings to peak out between their edge and the hem of his breeches. A little old fashioned, tucking them under the hem, but it felt more comfortable to him that way. Less likely for the ribbons to come undone. Not that much could be seen of them save for the sky blue almost white waistcoat that skimmed the matching breeches’ hem edge.
His gloves, which held back the ballooned sleeves of his waistcoat, were fitted to the fingers. Decorative stitching ran from the tips to the centre top where it merged into a bird with it’s wings outstretched. The cuffs were a wide funnel, clasped tight with a button at the wrist. Edges of the leather were bound with carefully patterned embroidery. The left glove drooped with a large, red, knotted bobble and tassel at the cuff. The tightness and the swinging mass were reassuring in their familiarity as he approached what had once been home.
Mr. Niloofar knew where he was going, as long as the Taigh-seinnse Druma is Flasg had not burned since he had last seen it. Rock, Tudor-style buildings rose on both sides of the street. Raw sewage crept in a melting runnel down the middle of the path. He hugged close to the east side of the worn structures, enjoying what warmth he could glean from the foggy sunrise.
Not much had changed. He recognised the older villagers and could guess at the lineage of the younger beginning their morning chores. They skittered out of his way though when they noticed his looming presence. All they saw was a haunting figure signifying death that had been at best second hand news from years ago.
A fire roared in the tavern’s fireplace. Lanterns hung strewn about the rafters, illuminating the shadows the morning sun had not yet banished from the dim room. A clatter of dishes resonated from the kitchen hidden behind 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 a thin warm ale. Setting the plates 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 waived 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 inn keep 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, 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,” she reassured.
Fearchar washed down what little breakfast he had consumed with a thin ale, now cooled from Hepsibah’s earlier minstrations. The fire at the hearth freshly smoked that morning, leaving the room damp and cloudy. 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 tak his medicines. He guid, Aunty?”
Hepsibah, emerged from behind the counter with a serving tray. “Ye done murd’rin’ yer breakfast, Fearchar?” she asked as 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,” she chided him.
“Hepsibah!” he bemoaned the woman. She smiled at him, whacking him lightly on the shoulder. “It were stale anyway,” she let on as she left.
“Na, Ah thought it was jist out’ta the o’en!” he called back after her.
“Awa’ an bile yer heid!” she giggled, disappearing back into the kitchen.
“Now, Aunty Magaidh, who’s this dotair ye’ve got comin’ in?” He turned back to the aged woman across from him.
“Jist ’cause ‘e’s someone Ah know an’ ye don’nae, does’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 thin lips fell into a deep frown, wrinkle lines sinking in to reveal her fragile age. He waited, knowing when she went wandering through her memories it could be many minutes before she returned to the conversation. She did return 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,” she consoled. The rims of her eyes had reddened and moisture built along the edges.
He was none too pleased. Honestly, what was his grandmother’s friend expecting from him? He had become close to her in the last three years after having moved from the far end of Skye. His grandmother had passed away, and upon her deathbed, she had requested his help of her friend as a last favour. He still did not quite understand where Widow Magaidh was coming from when her mind wandered. What could she possible see in him that would lead her to volunteer him to a doctor? He could not even read. “Aunty, Ah am nae 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.” He fingered his empty cup, unable to meet her gaze.
She shrugged, again, waiving him away. “Ye fought val’antly on the mainland, Fearchar. Ah heard aboot 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.” She smiled.
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 that he would partner up with the man. “Ye’re on.” He smirked, knowing what a surprise it would be to bring home a gold coin for his lovely little woman.
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