An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 144

   

“If we had a dog, I wonder if it would like him, too?” she murmured, nodding after their guest, who was now engaged in animated conversation with both children.

“A man may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” Roger replied, watching with a narrowed eye. “And the claims of instinct quite aside, I don’t think either dogs or children are necessarily good judges of character.”

“Mm. Did he tell you anything else while you were out today?” Roger had taken William Buccleigh into Inverness to replenish his wardrobe, as he possessed nothing more than the jeans, T-shirt, and charity-store jacket in which he’d arrived.

“A few things. I asked him how he’d come here—to Lallybroch, I mean—and what was he doing hanging about. He said he’d seen me on the street in Inverness and recognized me, but I’d got in my car and gone before he could make up his mind to talk to me. He saw me once or twice more, though, and asked cautiously round to find out where I lived. He—” He stopped and looked at her, with a half smile. “Bear in mind what he is and when he came from. He thought—and I don’t think he was telling me a tale—that I must be an Old One.”

“Really?”

“Aye, really. And on the face of it… well, I did survive being hanged, which most people don’t.” His mouth twisted a little as he touched the scar on his throat. “And I—we—did, obviously, travel safely through the stones. I mean… I could see his point.”

Despite her disquiet, she sniffed with amusement.

“Well, yes. You mean he was afraid of you?”

Roger shrugged, helpless. “He was. And I think I believe him—though I will say that if that’s the case, he puts up a good front.”

“Would you act afraid if you were going to confront a powerful supernatural being? Or would you try to play it cool? Being a male of the species, as Mama puts it. Or a proper man, as Da says. You and Da both act like John Wayne if there’s anything fishy going on, and this guy is related to both of you.”

“Good point,” he said, though his mouth twitched at the “powerful supernatural being.” Or possibly the “John Wayne” part. “And he admitted that he was reeling a bit at the shock of everything. I could sympathize with that.”

“Mm. And we knew what we were doing. Sort of. He told me what happened when he came through—did he tell you that, too?”

They had been walking slowly but had nearly reached the door; she could hear Annie’s voice in the hall, asking something, exclaiming among the children’s chatter, and the lower rumble of William Buccleigh’s voice in reply.

“Aye, he did. He wanted—wants, and wants badly—to get back to his own time. Clearly I knew how, and he’d have to come and talk to me to find out. But only a fool would walk straight up to a stranger’s door, let alone a stranger you’d come close to killing, much less a stranger who might strike you dead on the spot or turn you into a crow.” He shrugged again.

“So he left his job and took to lurking about the place, watching. To see if we were tossing human bones out the back door, I suppose. Jem ran into him out by the broch one day, and he told him he was a Nuckelavee—partly to scare him away, but also because if he came back and told me there was a Nuckelavee up the hill, I might come out and do something magical about it. And if I did …” He lifted his hands, palms up.

“If you did, you might be dangerous, but he’d also know you had the power to send him back. Like the Wizard of Oz.”

He looked at her for a moment.

“Anyone less like Judy Garland than him—” he began, but was interrupted by Annie MacDonald demanding to know what they were hanging about being eaten by midgies for, when there was supper on the table? Apologizing, they went inside.

BRIANNA ATE SUPPER without really noticing what was on her plate. Jem was going to spend the night with Bobby again and go out fishing on Saturday with Rob on the Rothiemurchus estate. She felt a small twinge at that; she remembered her father patiently teaching Jem to cast, with the homemade rod and thread line that was all they had. Would he remember?

Still, it was just as well to have him out of the house. She and Roger were going to have to sit down with William Buccleigh and decide how best to get him back to his own time, and best if Jem wasn’t lurking around the edges of such a discussion with his ears flapping. Should they consult Fiona? she wondered suddenly.

Fiona Graham was the granddaughter of old Mrs. Graham, who had kept house for Roger’s adoptive father, the Reverend Wakefield. The very proper and elderly Mrs. Graham had also been the “caller”—the holder of a very old tradition indeed. On the fire feast of Beltane, the women whose families had passed the tradition down to them met at dawn and, clothed in white, performed a dance that Roger said was an ancient Norse circle dance. And at the end of it, the caller sang out in words that none of them understood anymore, bringing up the sun, so that as it rose above the horizon, the beam of light shot straight through the cleft of the split stone.

Mrs. Graham had died peacefully in her sleep years before—but had left her knowledge, and her role as caller, to her granddaughter, Fiona.

Fiona had helped Roger when he came through the stones to find Brianna—even contributing her own diamond engagement ring to help him, after his first attempt had ended much as William Buccleigh described his own: in flames in the center of the circle.

They could get a gemstone without much trouble, she thought, automatically passing the bowl of salad to Roger. From what they knew so far, it didn’t have to be a terribly expensive stone, or even a large one. The garnets in Roger’s mother’s locket had apparently been enough to keep him from being killed during his first, abortive try.

She thought suddenly of the burn mark on William Buccleigh’s chest and, as she did so, realized that she was staring at him—and he was staring back at her. She choked on a chunk of cucumber, and the subsequent hubbub of back-thumping and arm-raising and coughing and water-fetching luckily explained the redness of her face.

Everyone settled back to their food, but she was aware of Roger looking sideways at her. She shot him a brief look under her lashes, with a faint tilt of the head that said, “Later. Upstairs,” and he relaxed, resuming a three-way conversation with “Uncle Buck” and Jemmy about trout flies.

She wanted to talk to him about what Buccleigh had said, and decide what to do about him, as soon as possible. She was not going to tell him what William Buccleigh had said about Rob Cameron.

ROGER LAY IN BED, watching the moonlight on Brianna’s sleeping face. It was quite late, but he found himself wakeful. Odd, for he usually fell asleep in seconds after making love to her. Fortunately, she did, too; she had tonight, curling into him like a large, affectionate shrimp before lapsing into naked, warm inertness in his arms.

It had been wonderful—but that wee bit different. She was almost always willing, even eager, and that had been no different, though she’d made a particular point of dead-bolting the bedroom door. He’d installed the dead bolt because Jem had learned to pick locks at the age of seven. It was still bolted, in fact, and seeing that, he slid carefully out from under the covers to unfasten it. Jem was spending the night with his new best friend, Bobby, but if Mandy needed them in the night, he didn’t want the door locked.

The room was cool, but pleasantly so; they’d put in baseboard heaters, which would be barely adequate to the winter temperatures of the Highlands but fine for late autumn.

Bree slept hot; he’d swear her body temperature rose two or three degrees when she slept, and she often threw off the covers. She lay now, bare to the waist, arms flung over her head and snoring faintly. He cupped a hand absently under his balls, wondering idly whether they might have another go. He thought she wouldn’t mind, but…

But maybe he shouldn’t. When he made love to her, he often took his time and, at the last, was filled with a barbarous delight when she yielded her red-thatched quim—willingly, to be sure, but with an instant always of hesitation, just one final breath of something that was not quite resistance. He thought it was a means of assuring herself—if not him—that she had the right to refuse. A stronghold once breached and repaired has stouter defenses. He didn’t think she realized consciously that she did this; he’d never mentioned it to her, wanting no ghost to rise between them.

It had been a little different tonight. She’d balked more noticeably, then yielded with something like ferocity, pulling him in and raking her nails down his back. And he…

He’d paused for that one instant, but once safely mounted had had the insane urge to pillage ruthlessly, to show himself—if not her—that she was indeed his, and not her own, inviolate.

And she’d egged him on.

He noticed that he hadn’t taken his hand away and was now eyeing his wife like a Roman soldier sizing up one of the Sabine women for weight and portabililty. Raptio was the Latin word, usually translated as “rape,” though in fact it meant kidnapping, or seizing. Raptio, raptor, the seizing of prey. He could see it both ways, and noticed at this point that he still hadn’t actually removed his hand from his genitals, which in the meantime had decided unilaterally that, no, she wouldn’t mind at all.

His cerebral cortex, rapidly being overpowered by something a lot older and much lower down, hazarded a last faint notion that it was to do with having a stranger in the house—especially one like William Buccleigh MacKenzie.

“Well, he’ll be gone by Samhain,” Roger muttered, approaching the bed. The portal in the stones should be wide open then, and with some sort of gem in hand, the bugger ought to be back to his wife in…

He slid beneath the sheets, gathered his own wife up with a firm hand on her very warm bottom, and hissed in her ear, “I’ll get you—and your little dog, too.”

Her body quivered in a soundless subterranean laugh and, eyes closed, she reached down and drew a delicate fingernail up his very sensitive flesh.

“I’m meeeeeeeelllllllting,” she murmured.

HE DID FALL ASLEEP after that. But waked again, somewhere in the wee hours, and found himself annoyingly alert.

It must be him, he thought, slithering out of bed again. I’ll not sleep sound until we get rid of him. He didn’t bother being careful; he could tell from the faint rasp of Brianna’s snore that she was dead to the world. He pulled his pajamas over his nakedness and stepped out into the upstairs corridor, listening.

Lallybroch talked to itself at night, as all old houses do. He was used to the sudden startling cracks, as wooden beams in the room cooled at night, and even the creaking of the second-floor hallway, as though someone was walking rapidly up and down it. The rattle of windows when the wind was in the west, reminding him comfortably of Brianna’s irregular snoring. It was remarkably quiet now, though, wrapped in the somnolence of deep night.

They’d put William Buccleigh at the far end of the hall, having decided without speaking of it that they didn’t want him above, on the same floor with the kids. Keep him close; keep an eye on him.

Roger walked quietly down the hall, listening. The crack under Buccleigh’s door was dark, and from inside the room, he heard a deep, regular snore, interrupted once as the sleeper turned in bed, muttered something incomprehensible, and dropped back into slumber.

“That’s all right, then,” Roger muttered to himself, and turned away. His cerebral cortex, interrupted earlier, now patiently resumed its train of thought. Of course it was to do with having a stranger in the house—and such a stranger. Both he and Brianna felt obscurely threatened by his presence.

In his own case, there was a solid substratum of anger under the wariness, and a good bit of confusion, too. He had, from sheer necessity as well as religious conviction, forgiven William Buccleigh for his role in the hanging that had taken his voice. After all, the man had not tried to kill him personally and couldn’t have known what would happen.

But it was a damned sight easier to forgive somebody you knew had been dead for two hundred years than it was to maintain that forgiveness with the bastard living under your nose, eating your food, and being charming to your wife and children.

And let us not forget he is a bastard, too, Roger thought savagely, making his way down the stairs in the dark. The family tree he’d shown William Buccleigh MacKenzie revealed him as all correct, pinned down on paper, neatly bracketed by parents and son. The chart was a lie, though. William Buccleigh MacKenzie was a changeling: the illegitimate offspring of Dougal MacKenzie, war chief of Clan MacKenzie, and Geillis Duncan, witch. And Roger thought William Buccleigh didn’t know it.

Safely at the bottom of the stair, he turned on the light in the lower hall and went to the kitchen to check that the back door was locked.

They’d discussed that one, he and Brianna, but hadn’t come to an agreement yet. He was for letting sleeping dogs lie; what good could it do the man to know the truth of his origins? The Highlands that had spawned those two wild souls was gone, both now and in William Buccleigh’s rightful time.

Bree had insisted that Buccleigh had some right to know the truth—though, challenged, could not say quite what right that was.

“You are who you think you are, and you always have been,” she’d said at last, frustrated but trying to explain. “I wasn’t. Do you think it would have been better if I’d never known who my real father was?”

In all honesty, it might have been, he thought. The knowledge, once revealed, had torn both their lives apart, exposed them both to terrible things. It had taken his voice. Almost taken his life. Had put her in danger, gotten her raped, been responsible for her having killed a man—he hadn’t spoken to her about that; he should. He saw the weight of it in her eyes sometimes and knew it for what it was. He carried the same weight.

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