An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 45

   

What sort of Highland name begins with “Y”? she thought, puzzled. There’s McKay, but that’s in the wrong order …

“You—er—don’t know which grave might be Grandda’s, do you?” she asked Jem hesitantly. She was almost afraid to hear the answer.

“No.” He looked surprised, and glanced where she was looking, toward the assemblage of stones. Obviously he hadn’t connected their presence with his grandfather. “He just said he’d like to be buried here, and if I came here, I should leave him a stane. So I did.” His accent slid naturally into the word, and she heard her father’s voice again, distinctly, but this time smiled a little.

“Where?”

“Up there. He likes to be up high, ken? Where he can see,” Jem said casually, pointing up the hill. Just beyond the shadow of the broch, she could see the traces of something not quite a trail through a mass of gorse, heather, and broken rock. And poking out of the mass at the crest of the hill, a big, lumpy boulder, on whose shoulder sat a tiny pyramid of pebbles, barely visible.

“Did you leave all those today?”

“No, I put one whenever I come. That’s what ye’re meant to do, aye?”

There was a small lump in her throat, but she swallowed it and smiled. “Aye, it is. I’ll go up and leave one, too.”

Mandy was now sitting on one of the fallen gravestones, laying out burdock leaves as plates around the dirty teacup, which she had unearthed and set in the middle. She was chatting to the guests at her invisible tea party, politely animated. There was no need to disturb her, Brianna decided, and followed Jem up the rocky trail—the last of the journey accomplished on hands and knees, owing to the steepness.

It was windy, so near the crest of the hill, and they weren’t much bothered by the midgies. Damp with perspiration, she added her own pebble ceremoniously to the wee cairn, and sat down for a moment to enjoy the view. Most of Lallybroch was visible from here, as was the road that led to the highway. She looked that way, but no sign yet of Roger’s bright-orange Morris Mini. She sighed and looked away.

It was nice, up so high. Quiet, with just the sigh of the cool wind and the buzz of bees busy working in the yellow blossoms. No wonder her father liked—

“Jem.” He was slumped comfortably against the rock, looking out over the surrounding hills.

“Aye?”

She hesitated, but had to ask.

“You … can’t see your grandda, can you?”

He shot her a startled blue look.

“No. He’s dead.”

“Oh,” she said, at once relieved and slightly disappointed. “I know. I … just wondered.”

“I think maybe Mandy can,” Jem said, nodding toward his sister, a bright red blot on the landscape below. “But ye can’t really tell. Babies talk to lots of people ye can’t see,” he added tolerantly. “Grannie says so.”

She didn’t know whether to wish he would stop referring to his grandparents in the present tense or not. It was more than slightly unnerving, but he had said he couldn’t see Jamie. She didn’t want to ask whether he could see Claire—she supposed not—but she felt her parents close, whenever Jem or Mandy mentioned them, and she certainly wanted Jem and Mandy to feel close to them, as well.

She and Roger had explained things to the kids as well as such things could be explained. And evidently her father had had his own private talk with Jem; a good thing, she thought. Jamie’s blend of devout Catholicism and matter-of-fact Highland acceptance of life, death, and things not seen was probably a lot better suited to explaining things like how you could be dead on one side of the stones, but—

“He said he’d look after us. Grandda,” he added, turning to look at her.

She bit her tongue. No, he was not reading her mind, she told herself firmly. They’d just been talking of Jamie, after all, and Jem had chosen this particular place in which to pay his respects. So it was only natural that his grandfather would be still in his mind.

“Of course he will,” she said, and put a hand on his square shoulder, massaging the knobby bones at the base of his neck with her thumb. He giggled and ducked out from under her hand, then hopped suddenly down the trail, sliding on his bottom partway, to the detriment of his jeans.

She paused for a last look round before following him, and noticed the jumble of rock on top of a hill a quarter mile or so away. A jumble of rock was exactly what one might expect to see on any Highland hilltop—but there was something slightly different about this particular assortment of stones. She shaded her eyes with her hand, squinting. She might be wrong—but she was an engineer; she knew the look of a thing built by men.

An Iron Age fortress, maybe? she thought, intrigued. There were layered stones at the bottom of that heap, she’d swear it. A foundation, perhaps. She’d have to climb up there one of these days for a closer look—maybe tomorrow, if Roger … Again, she glanced at the road, and again found it empty.

Mandy had grown tired of her tea party and was ready to go home. Holding her daughter firmly by one hand and the teacup in the other, Brianna made her way down the hill toward the big white-harled house, its windows fresh-washed and glinting companionably.

Had Annie done that? she wondered. She hadn’t noticed, and surely window-washing on that scale would have entailed a good bit of fuss and bother. But then, she’d been distracted, what with the anticipations and apprehensions of the new job. Her heart gave a small hop at the thought that on Monday she would fit back one more piece of who she’d once been, one more stone in the foundation of who she now was.

“Maybe the piskies did it,” she said aloud, and laughed.

“Piskies diddit,” Mandy echoed happily.

Jem had nearly reached the bottom, and turned, impatient, waiting for them.

“Jem,” she said, the thought occurring as they came even with him. “Do you know what a Nuckelavee is?”

Jem’s eyes went huge, and he clapped his hands over Mandy’s ears. Something with a hundred cold tiny feet skittered up Brianna’s back.

“Aye,” he said, his voice small and breathless.

“Who told you about it?” she asked, keeping her voice calm. She’d kill Annie MacDonald, she thought.

But Jem’s eyes slid sideways, as he glanced involuntarily over her shoulder, up at the broch.

“He did,” he whispered.

“He?”she said sharply, and grabbed Mandy by the arm as the little girl wiggled free and turned furiously on her brother. “Don’t kick your brother, Mandy! Who do you mean, Jemmy?”

Jem’s lower teeth caught his lip.

“Him,” he blurted. “The Nuckelavee.”

“THE CREATURE’S HOME was in the sea, but it ventured upon land to feast upon humans. The Nuckelavee rode a horse on land, and its horse was sometimes indistinguishable from its own body. Its head was ten times larger than that of a man, and its mouth thrust out like a pig’s, with a wide, gaping maw. The creature had no skin, and its yellow veins, muscle structure, and sinews could clearly be seen, covered in a red slimy film. The creature was armed with venomous breath and great strength. It did, however, have one weakness: an aversion to freshwater. The horse on which it rode is described as having one red eye, a mouth the size of a whale’s, and flappers like fins around its forelegs.”

“Ick!” Brianna put down the book—one of Roger’s collection of Scottish folklore—and stared at Jem. “You saw one of these? Up by the broch?”

Her son shifted from foot to foot. “Well, he said he was. He said if I didna clear straight off, he’d change into himself, and I didna want to see that, so I cleared.”

“Neither would I.” Brianna’s heart began to slow down a little. All right. He’d met a man, then, not a monster. Not that she’d actually believed … but the fact that someone had been hanging around the broch was worrying enough.

“What did he look like, this man?”

“Well … big,” Jem said dubiously. Given that Jem was not quite nine, most men would be.

“As big as Daddy?”

“Maybe.”

Further catechism elicited relatively few details; Jem knew what a Nuckelavee was—he’d read most of the more sensational items in Roger’s collection—and had been so terrified at meeting someone who might at any moment shed his skin and eat him that his impressions of the man were sparse. Tall, with a short beard, hair that wasn’t very dark, and clothes “like Mr. MacNeil wears.” Working clothes, then, like a farmer.

“Why didn’t you tell me or Daddy about him?”

Jem looked about to cry.

“He said he’d come back and eat Mandy if I did.”

“Oh.” She put an arm around him and pulled him to her. “I see. Don’t be afraid, honey. It’s all right.” He was trembling now, as much with relief as with memory, and she stroked his bright hair, soothing him. A tramp, most likely. Camping in the broch? Likely he was gone by now—so far as she could tell from Jem’s story, it had been more than a week since he had seen the man—but …

“Jem,” she said slowly. “Why did you and Mandy go up there today? Weren’t you afraid the man would be there?”

He looked up at her, surprised, and shook his head, red hair flying.

“Nay, I cleared, but I hid and watched him. He went away to the west. That’s where he lives.”

“He said so?”

“No. But things like that all live in the west.” He pointed at the book. “When they go away to the west, they dinna come back. And I’ve not seen him again; I watched, to be sure.”

She nearly laughed, but was still too worried. It was true; a good many Highland fairy tales did end with some supernatural creature going away to the west, or into the rocks or the water where they lived. And of course they didn’t come back, since the story was over.

“He was just a nasty tramp,” she said firmly, and patted Jem’s back before releasing him. “Don’t worry about him.”

“Sure?” he said, obviously wanting to believe her, but not quite ready to relax into security.

“Sure,” she said firmly.

“Okay.” He heaved a deep sigh and pushed away from her. “Besides,” he added, looking happier, “Grandda wouldn’t let him eat Mandy or me. I should have thought o’ that.”

IT WAS NEARLY SUNSET by the time she heard the chugging of Roger’s car on the farm road. She rushed outside, and he’d barely got out of the car before she flung herself into his arms.

He didn’t waste time with questions. He embraced her passionately and kissed her in a way that made it clear that their argument was over; the details of mutual apology could wait. For an instant, she allowed herself to let go of everything, feeling weightless in his arms, breathing the scents of petrol and dust and libraries full of old books that overlay his natural smell, that indefinable faint musk of sun-warmed skin, even when he hadn’t been in the sun.

“They say women can’t really identify their husbands by smell,” she remarked, reluctantly coming back to earth. “I don’t believe it. I could pick you out of King’s Cross tube station in the pitch-dark.”

“I did have a bath this morning, aye?”

“Yes, and you stayed in college, because I can smell the horrible industrial-strength soap they use there,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I’m surprised it doesn’t take your skin off. And you had black pudding for your breakfast. With fried tomato.”

“Right, Lassie,” he said, smiling. “Or do I mean Rin-Tin-Tin? Saved any small children or tracked any robbers to their lairs today, have ye?”

“Well, yes. Sort of.” She glanced up at the hill behind the house, where the broch’s shadow had grown long and black. “But I thought I’d better wait until the sheriff came back from town before I went any further.”

ARMED WITH A STOUT blackthorn walking stick and an electric torch, Roger approached the broch, angry but cautious. It wasn’t likely the man was armed, if he was still there, but Brianna was at the kitchen door, the telephone—at the full stretch of its long cord—beside her, and two nines already dialed. She’d wanted to come with him, but he’d convinced her that one of them had to stay with the kids. Still, it would have been a comfort to have her at his back; she was a tall, muscular woman, and not one to shrink from physical violence.

The door of the broch hung askew; the ancient leather hinges had long since rotted away and been replaced with cheap iron, which had rusted in turn. The door was still attached to its frame, but barely. He lifted the latch and maneuvered the heavy, splintering wood inward, pulling it away from the floor so it swung without scraping.

There was still plenty of light outside; it wouldn’t be full dark for half an hour yet. Inside the broch, though, it was black as a well. He shone his torch on the floor and saw fresh drag marks in the dirt that crusted the stone floor. Aye, someone had been here, then. Jem might be able to move the door, but the kids weren’t allowed to go in the broch without an adult, and Jem swore he hadn’t.

“Halloooo!” he shouted, and was answered by a startled movement somewhere far above. He gripped his stick in reflex, but recognized the flutter and rustle for what it was almost at once. Bats, hanging up under the conical roof. He flashed his light round the ground floor and saw a few stained and crumpled newspapers by the wall. He picked one up and smelled it: old, but the scent of fish and vinegar was still discernible.

He hadn’t thought Jem was making up the Nuckelavee story, but this evidence of recent human occupation renewed his anger. That someone should not only come and lurk on his property, but threaten his son … He almost hoped the fellow was still here. He wanted a word.

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