Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 108

   

He turned over a page, and stopped, feeling as though he’d been punched in the stomach.

May 1, 1945. Craigh na Dun, Inverness-shire, Scotland. Claire Randall, age 27, housewife. Seen last in early morning, having declared intention to visit the circle in search of unusual plant specimens, did not return by dark. Car found parked at foot of hill. No traces in circle, no signs of foul play.

He turned the page gingerly, as though expecting it to blow up in his hand. So Claire had inadvertently given Gillian Edgars part of the evidence that had led to her own experiment. Had Geilie found the reports of Claire’s return, three years later?

No, evidently not, he concluded, after flipping back and forth through those pages—or if she had, she hadn’t recorded it here.

Fiona had brought him more tea and a plate of fresh ginger nut biscuits, which had sat untouched since he had begun reading. A sense of obligation rather than hunger made him pick up a biscuit and take a bite, but the sharp-flavored crumbs caught in his throat and made him cough.

The last section of the book bore the heading “Techniques and Preparations.” It began,

Something lies here, older than man, and the stones keep its power. The old spells speak of “the lines of the earth,” and the power that flows through them. The purpose of the stones is to do with those lines, I am sure. But do the stones warp the lines of power, or are they only markers?

The bite of biscuit seemed permanently stuck in his throat, no matter how much tea he drank. He found himself reading faster, skimming, skipping pages, and finally sat back and shut the book. He would read the rest later—and more than once. But for now, he had to get out, into the fresh air. No wonder the book had upset Fiona.

He walked fast down the street, heading for the river, oblivious of the light rain falling. It was late; there was a churchbell ringing for evensong, and the evening foot traffic to the pubs was picking up across the bridges. But above bell and voice and footstep, he heard the last words he had read, chiming in his ear as though she had been speaking directly to him.

Shall I kiss you, child, shall I kiss you, man? Feel the teeth behind my lips when I do. I could kill you, as easily as I embrace you. The taste of power is the taste of blood—iron in my mouth, iron in my hand.

Sacrifice is required.

33

MIDSUMMER’S EVE

June 20, 1971

On Midsummer’s Eve in Scotland, the sun hangs in the sky with the moon. Summer solstice, the feast of Litha, Alban Eilir. Nearly midnight, and the light was dim and milky white, but light nonetheless.

He could feel the stones long before he saw them. Claire and Geillis had both been right, he thought; the date mattered. They had been eerie on his earlier visits, but silent. Now he could hear them; not with his ears but with his skin—a low buzzing hum like the drone of bagpipes.

They came over the crest of the hill and paused, thirty feet from the circle. Below was dark glen, a mystery under the rising moon. He heard a small intake of breath at his elbow, and it occurred to him that Fiona was seriously afraid.

“Look, you don’t need to be here,” he told her. “If you’re afraid, you should go on down; I’ll be all right.”

“It’s not me I’m scairt for, fool,” she muttered, thrusting her balled fists deeper into her pockets. She turned away, lowering her head like a little bull as she faced up the path. “Come on, then.”

The alder bushes rustled near his shoulder and he shivered suddenly, feeling a cold qualm go over him, warmly as he was dressed. His dress seemed suddenly ridiculous; the long-skirted coat and the weskit in thick wool, the matching breeches and knitted stockings. A play at the college, he had told the tailor who made the costume.

“Fool is right,” he muttered to himself.

Fiona went first into the circle; she would not let him come with her or watch. Obediently, he turned his back, letting her do whatever she intended. She had a plastic shopping bag, presumably containing items for her ceremonial. He had asked what was in it, and she had tersely told him to mind his own business. She was nearly as nervous as he was, he thought.

The humming noise disturbed him. It wasn’t in his ears but in his body—under his skin, in his bones. It made the long bones of his arms and legs thrum like plucked strings, and itched in his blood, making him want constantly to scratch. Fiona couldn’t hear it; he’d asked, to be sure she was safe before letting her help him.

He hoped to God he was right; that only those who heard the stones could pass through them. He’d never forgive himself if anything happened to Fiona—though as she’d pointed out, she’d been in this circle any number of times on the fire feasts, with no ill effect. He sneaked a look over one shoulder, saw a tiny flame burning at the base of the big cleft stone, and jerked his head back around.

She was singing, in a soft, high voice. He couldn’t make out the words. All the other travelers he knew of were women; would it truly work for him?

It might, he thought. If the ability to pass through the stones was genetic—something like the ability to roll one’s tongue into a cylinder or color-blindness—then why not? Claire had traveled, so had Brianna. Brianna was Claire’s daughter. And he was a descendant of the only other time-traveler he knew of—Geillis the witch.

He stamped both feet and shook himself like a horse with flies, trying to rid himself of the humming. God, it was like being eaten by ants! Was Fiona’s chanting making it worse, or was it only his imagination?

He rubbed violently at his chest, trying to ease the irritation, and felt the small round weight of his mother’s locket, taken for luck and for its garnets. He had his doubts about Geillis’s speculations—he wasn’t about to try blood, though Fiona seemed to be supplying fire—but after all, the gems could do no harm, and if they helped…Christ, would Fiona not hurry? He twisted and strained inside his clothes, trying to get out of not only his clothing but his skin.

Seeking distraction, he patted his breast pocket again, feeling the locket. If it worked…if he could…it was a notion that had come to him only lately, as the possibility posed by the stones had matured into actual planning. But if it were possible…he fingered the small, round shape, seeing the face of Jerry MacKenzie on the dark surface of his mind.

Brianna had gone to find her father. Could he do the same? Jesus, Fiona! She was making it worse; the roots of his teeth ached, and his skin was burning. He shook his head violently, then stopped, feeling dizzy; the seams of his skull felt as though they were beginning to separate.

Then she was there, a small figure grasping his hand, saying something anxious as she led him into the circle. He couldn’t hear her—the noise was much worse inside; now it was in his ears, in his head, blackening his sight, driving wedges of pain between the joints of his spine.

Gritting his teeth, he blinked back the buzzing darkness, long enough to fix his eyes on Fiona’s round and fearful face.

Swiftly he bent and kissed her, full on the mouth.

“Don’t tell Ernie,” he said. He turned away from her and walked through the stone.

A faint scent came to him on the summer wind; the smell of burning. He turned his head, nostrils flared to catch it. There. A flame flared and bloomed on a nearby hilltop, a rose of Midsummer’s fire.

There were faint stars overhead, half shadowed by a drifting cloud. He had no urge to move, nor to think. He felt bodiless, embraced by the sky, his mind turning free, reflecting starlit images like the glass bubble of a fisher’s float, adrift in the surf. There was a soft and musical hum around him—the far-off song of siren stars, and the smell of coffee.

A vague feeling of wrongness intruded on his sense of peace. Sensation prodded at his mind, rousing tiny, painful sparks of confusion. He fought back feeling, wanting only to stay afloat in starlight, but the act of resistance woke him. All of a sudden, he had a body again, and it hurt.

“ROGER!” The star’s voice blared in his ear, and he jerked. Searing pain shot through his chest, and he clapped a hand to the wound. Something seized his wrist and pulled it away, but not before he had felt wetness, and the silky roughness of ash on his breast. Was he bleeding?

“Oh, ye’re wakin’, thank God! Aye, there, that’s a good lad. Easy, aye?” It was the cloud talking, not the star. He blinked, confused, and the cloud resolved itself into the curly silhouette of Fiona’s head, dark against the sky. He jerked upright, more a convulsion than a conscious movement.

His body had come back with a vengeance. He felt desperately ill, and there was a horrible smell of coffee and burnt flesh in his nostrils. He rolled onto all fours, retching, then collapsed onto the grass. It was wet, and the coolness felt good on his scorched face.

Fiona’s hands were on him, soothing, wiping his face and mouth.

“Are ye all right?” she said, for what he knew must be the hundredth time. This time, he summoned enough strength to answer.

“Aye,” he whispered. “All right. Why—?”

Her head moved back and forth, wiping out half a sky of stars.

“I don’t know. Ye went—ye were gone—and then there was a burst o’ fire, and ye were lyin’ in the circle, wi’ your coat ablaze. I had to put ye out with the thermos bottle.”

That accounted for the coffee, then, and the soggy feeling over his chest. He lifted a hand, groping, and this time she let him. There was a burnt patch on the wet cloth of his coat, maybe three inches across. The flesh of his chest was seared; he could feel the queer cushioned numbness of blisters through the hole in the cloth, and the nagging pain of a burn spread through his breast. His mother’s locket was gone entirely.

“What happened, Rog?” Fiona was crouching by him, her face dim but visible; he could see the shiny tracks of tears on her face. What he had thought a Midsummer’s Eve fire was the flame of her candle, burned down now to the last half inch. God, how long had he been out?

“I—” He had begun to say that he didn’t know, but broke off. “Let me think a bit, aye?” He put his head on his knees, breathing in the smell of wet grass and scorched cloth.

He concentrated on breathing, let it come back. He had no real need to think—it was all there, distinct in his mind. But how did one describe such things? There was no sight—and yet he had the image of his father. No sound, no touch—and yet he had both heard and felt. The body seemed to make its own sense of things, translating the numinous phenomena of time into concretions.

He raised his head from his knees, and breathed deep, settling himself slowly back in his body.

“I was thinking of my father,” he said. “When I stepped through the rock, I had just thought, if it works, could I go back and find him? And I…did.”

“You did? Your dad? Was he a ghost, d’ye mean?” He felt, more than saw, the flicker of her hand as she made the horns against evil.

“No. Not exactly. I—I can’t explain, Fiona. But I met him; I knew him.” The feeling of peace had not left him altogether; it hovered there, fluttering gently in the back of his mind. “Then there was—sort of an explosion, is all I can describe it as. Something hit me, here.” His fingers touched the burnt place on his chest. “The force of it pushed me…out, and that’s all I knew till I woke.” He touched her face gently. “Thanks, Fee; you saved me burning.”

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