Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 52

   

She caught me from behind and pushed me flat on my face into the shallow water. Floundering and gasping, I managed to rise to my knees, sloshing water in all directions. Geilie stood calf-deep in the stream, skirts soaked, glaring down at me.

“You bloody pig-headed English ass!” she shouted at me. “There’s nothing ye can do! Do ye hear me? Nothing! That child’s as good as dead! I’ll not stand here and let ye risk your own life and mine for some crack-brained notion of yours!” Snorting and grumbling under her breath, she reached down and got me under the arms with both hands, lugging me to my feet.

“Claire,” she said urgently, shaking me by the arms. “Listen to me. If ye go near that child and it dies—and it will, believe me, I’ve seen them like that—then the family will blame you for it. Do ye no see the danger of it? Don’t ye know what they say about you in the village?”

I stood shivering in the cold breeze of sunset, torn between her obvious panic for my safety, and the thought of a helpless child, slowly dying alone in the dark, with wildflowers at its feet.

“No,” I said, shaking the wet hair out of my face. “Geilie, no, I can’t. I’ll be careful, I promise, but I have to go.” I pulled myself out of her grasp and turned toward the far bank, stumbling and splashing in the uncertain shadows of the streambed.

There was a muffled cry of exasperation from behind me, then a frenzied sploshing in the opposite direction. Well, at least she wouldn’t hamper me further.

It was growing dark fast, and I pushed through the bushes and weeds as quickly as I could. I wasn’t sure that I could find the right hill if it grew dark before I reached it; there were several nearby, all about the same height. And fairies or not, the thought of wandering about alone out here in the dark was not one I cared for. The question of how I was going to make it back to the Castle with a sick baby was something I would deal with when the time came.

I found the hill, finally, by spotting the stand of young larches I remembered at the base. It was nearly full dark by this time, a moonless night, and I stumbled and fell frequently. The larches stood huddled together, talking quietly in the evening breeze with clicks and creaks and rustling sighs.

Bloody place is haunted, I thought, listening to the leafy conversation overhead as I threaded my way through the slender trunks. I wouldn’t be surprised to meet a ghost behind the next tree.

I was surprised, though. Actually, I was scared out of my wits when the shadowy figure slid out and grabbed me. I let out a piercing shriek and struck at it.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, “what are you doing here?” I crumpled for a moment against Jamie’s chest, relieved to see him, in spite of the fright he had given me.

He took me by the arm and turned to lead me out of the wood.

“Came for you,” he said, low voiced. “I was coming to meet you because night was comin’ on; I met Geillis Duncan near St. John’s brook and she told me where you were.”

“But the baby—” I began, turning back toward the hill.

“The child’s dead,” he said briefly, tugging me back. “I went up there first, to see.”

I followed him then without demur, distressed over the child’s death, but relieved that I would not, after all, have to face the climb to the fairies’ crest or the long journey back alone. Oppressed by the dark and the whispering trees, I didn’t speak until we had crossed the brook again. Still damp from the previous immersion, I didn’t bother removing my stockings, but sloshed across regardless. Jamie, still dry, stayed that way by leaping from the bank to a central boulder that stood above the current, then vaulted to my bank like a broad-jumper.

“Have ye any idea how dangerous it is to be out alone at night like that, Sassenach?” he inquired. He didn’t seem angry, just curious.

“No…I mean yes. I’m sorry if I worried you. But I couldn’t leave a child out there, I just couldn’t.”

“Aye, I know.” He hugged me briefly. “You’ve a kind heart, Sassenach. But you’ve no idea what you’re dealing with, here.”

“Fairies, hm?” I was tired, and disturbed over the incident, but covered it with flippancy. “I’m not afraid of superstitions.” A thought struck me. “Do you believe in fairies, and changelings, and all that?”

He hesitated for a moment before answering.

“No. No, I dinna believe in such things, though damned if I’d care to sleep all night on a fairies’ hill, for a’ that. But I’m an educated man, Sassenach. I had a German tutor at Dougal’s house, a good one, who taught me Latin and Greek and such, and later when I went to France at eighteen—well, I studied history and philosophy and I saw that there was a good deal more to the world than the glens and the moors, and the waterhorses in the lochs. But these people…” He waved an arm, taking in the darkness behind us.

“They’ve ne’er been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born, except for a great thing like a clan Gathering, and that might happen twice in a lifetime. They live among the glens and the lochs, and they hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in kirk of a Sunday. That and the old stories.”

He held aside an alder branch and I stooped under it. We were on the deer trail Geilie and I had followed earlier, and I was heartened by this fresh evidence that he could find his way, even in the dark. Away from the fairies’ hill, he spoke in his normal voice, only pausing occasionally to brush away some tangling growth from his path.

“Those tales are naught but entertainment in Gwyllyn’s hands, when ye sit in the Hall drinking Rhenish wine.” He preceded me down the path, and his voice floated back to me, soft and emphatic in the cool night air.

“Out here, though, and even in the village—nay, that’s something else. Folk live by them. I suppose there’s some truth behind some of them.”

I thought of the amber eyes of the waterhorse, and wondered which others were true.

“And others…well,” his voice grew softer, and I had to strain to hear him. “For the parents of that child, maybe it will ease them a bit to believe it is the changeling who died, and think of their own child, healthy and well, living forever with the fairies.”

We reached the horses then, and within half an hour the lights of Castle Leoch shone through the darkness to welcome us. I had never thought I would consider that bleak edifice an outpost of advanced civilization, but just now the lights seemed those of a beacon of enlightenment.

It was not until we drew closer that I realized the impression of light was due to the string of lanterns blazing along the parapet of the bridge.

“Something’s happened,” I said, turning to Jamie. And seeing him for the first time in the light, I realized that he was not wearing his usual worn shirt and grubby kilt. His snowy linen shone in the lantern light, and his best—his only—velvet coat lay across his saddle.

“Aye,” he nodded. “That’s why I came to get you. The Duke’s come at last.”

The Duke was something of a surprise. I don’t know quite what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t the bluff, hearty, red-faced sportsman I met in Leoch’s hall. He had a pleasantly blunt, weatherbeaten face, with light blue eyes that always squinted slightly, as though looking into the sun after the flight of a pheasant.

I wondered for a moment whether that earlier bit of theatrics regarding the Duke might have been overstated. Looking around the hall, though, I noticed that every boy under eighteen wore a slightly wary expression, keeping his eyes fixed on the Duke as he laughed and talked animatedly with Colum and Dougal. Not merely theatrics, then; they had been warned.

When I was presented to the Duke, I had some difficulty in keeping a straight face. He was a big man, fit and solid, the sort you so often see booming out their opinions in pubs, bearing down the opposition by dint of loudness and repetition. I had been warned, of course, by Jamie’s story, but the physical impression was so overwhelming that when the Duke bowed low over my hand and said, “But how charming to find a countrywoman in this remote spot, Mistress,” in a voice like an overwrought mouse, I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from disgracing myself in public.

Worn out from travel, the Duke and his party retired early to bed. The next night, though, there was music and conversation after dinner, and Jamie and I joined Colum, Dougal, and the Duke. Sandringham grew expansive over Colum’s Rhenish wine, and talked volubly, expounding equally upon the horrors of travel in the Highlands and the beauties of the countryside. We listened politely, and I tried not to catch Jamie’s eye as the Duke squeaked out the story of his travails.

“Broke an axle-tree outside of Stirling, and we were becalmed three days—in the pouring rain, mind you—before my footman could find a blacksmith to come and repair the blasted thing. And not half a day later, we bounced into the most tremendous pothole I’ve ever seen and broke the damn thing again! And then one horse threw a shoe, and we had to unload the coach and walk beside it—in the mud—leading the lame nag. And then…” As the tale went on, from misfortune to misfortune, I felt an increasing urge to giggle, and attempted to drown it with more wine—possibly an error in judgment.

“But the game, MacKenzie, the game!” the Duke exclaimed at one point, rolling his eyes in ecstasy. “I could scarce believe it. No wonder you set such a table.” He gently patted his large, solid stomach. “I swear I’d give my eyeteeth for a try at a stag like the one we saw two days ago; splendid beast, simply splendid. Leapt out of the brush right in front of the coach, m’dear,” he confided to me. “Startled the horses so we near as a toucher went off the road again!”

Colum raised the bell-shaped decanter, with an inquiring c*ck of one dark brow. As he poured to the proffered glasses, he said, “Well, perhaps we might arrange a hunt for ye, your Grace. My nephew’s a bonny huntsman.” He glanced sharply from under his brows at Jamie; there was a scarcely perceptible nod in response.

Colum sat back, replacing the decanter, and said casually, “Aye, that’ll do well, then. Perhaps early next week. It’s too early for pheasant, but the stag hunting will be fine.” He turned to Dougal, lounging in a padded chair to one side. “My brother might go along; if you have it in mind to travel northwards, he can show ye the lands we were discussing earlier.”

“Capital, capital!” The Duke was delighted. He patted Jamie on the leg; I saw the muscles tighten, but Jamie didn’t move. He smiled tranquilly, and the Duke let his hand linger just a moment too long. Then His Grace caught my eye on him, and smiled jovially at me, his expression saying “Worth a try, eh?” Despite myself, I smiled back. Much to my surprise, I quite liked the man.

In the excitement of the Duke’s arrival, I had forgotten Geilie’s offer to help me discover the sender of the ill-wish. And after the unpleasant scene with the changeling child on the fairies’ hill, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to try anything she might suggest.

Still, curiosity overcame suspicion, and when Colum asked Jamie to ride down and escort the Duncans to the castle for the Duke’s banquet two days later, I went with him.

Thus it was that Thursday found me and Jamie in the Duncans’ parlor, being entertained with a sort of awkward friendliness by the fiscal, while his wife finished her dressing upstairs. Largely recovered from the effects of his last gastric attack, Arthur still did not look terribly healthy. Like many fat men who lose too much weight abruptly, the weight had gone from his face, rather than his stomach. His paunch still swelled the green silk of his waistcoat, while the skin of his face drooped in flabby folds.

“Perhaps I could slip upstairs and help Geilie with her hair or something,” I suggested. “I’ve brought her a new ribbon.” Foreseeing the possible need of an excuse for talking to Geilie alone, I had brought a small package with me. Producing it as an excuse, I was through the door and up the stairs before Arthur could protest.

She was ready for me.

“Come on,” she said, “we’ll go up to my private room for this. We’ll have to hurry, but it won’t take too long.”

I followed Geilie up the narrow, twisting stair. The steps were irregular heights; some of the risers were so high I had to lift my skirts to avoid tripping on the way up. I concluded that seventeenth-century carpenters either had faulty methods of measuring or rich senses of humor.

Geilie’s private sanctum was at the top of the house, in one of the remote attics above the servants’ quarters. It was guarded by a locked door, opened by a truly formidable key which Geilie produced from her apron pocket; it must have been at least six inches long, with a broad fretwork head ornamented with a vine-and-flower pattern. The key must have weighed nearly a pound; held by the barrel, it would have made a good weapon. Both lock and hinges were well oiled, and the thick door swung inward silently.

The attic room was small, cramped by the gabled dormers that cut across the front of the house. Shelves lined every inch of wall space, holding jars, bottles, flasks, vials, and beakers. Bunches of drying herbs, carefully tied with threads of different colors, hung neatly in rows from the rafters overhead, brushing my hair with a fragrant dust as we passed beneath.

This was nothing like the clean, businesslike order of the herb room downstairs, though. It was crowded, almost cluttered, and dark in spite of the dormer windows.

One shelf held books, mostly old and crumbling, the spines unmarked. I ran a curious finger over the row of leather bindings. Most were calf, but there were two or three bound in something different; something soft, but unpleasantly oily to the touch. And one that to all appearances was bound in fish skin. I pulled a volume out and opened it gingerly. It was handwritten in a mixture of archaic French, and even more obsolete Latin, but I could make out the title. L’Grimoire d’le Comte St. Germain.

I closed the book and set it back on the shelf, feeling a slight shock. A grimoire. A handbook of magic. I could feel Geilie’s gaze boring into my back, and turned to meet a mixture of mischief and wary speculation. What would I do, now that I knew?

“So it isn’t a rumor, then, is it?” I said, smiling. “You really are a witch.” I wondered just how far it went, and whether she believed it herself, or whether these were merely the trappings of an elaborate make-believe that she used to alleviate the boredom of marriage to Arthur. I also wondered just what sort of magic she practiced—or thought she practiced.

“Oh, white,” she said, grinning. “Definitely white magic.”

I thought ruefully that Jamie must be right about my face—everyone seemed to be able to tell what I was thinking.

“Well, that’s good,” I said. “I’m really not much of a one for dancing round bonfires at midnight and riding brooms, let alone kissing the Devil’s arse.”

Geilie tossed back her hair and laughed delightedly.

“Ye don’t kiss anyone’s much, that I can see,” she said. “Nor do I. Though if I had a sweet fiery devil like yours in my bed, I’ll not say I might not come to it in time.”

“That reminds me—” I began, but she had already turned away, and was about her preparations, murmuring to herself.

Checking first to see that the door was securely locked behind us, Geilie crossed to the gabled window and rummaged in a chest built into the window seat. She pulled out a large, shallow pan and a tall white candle stuck in a pottery holder. A further foray produced a worn quilt, which she spread on the floor as protection against dust and splinters.

“What exactly is it you’re planning to do, Geilie?” I asked, examining the preparations suspiciously. Off-hand, I couldn’t see much sinister intent in a pan, a candle, and a quilt, but then I was a novice magician, to say the least.

“Summoning,” she said, tugging the corners of the quilt around so that the sides lay straight with the boards of the floor.

“Summoning whom?” I asked. Or what.

She stood and brushed her hair back. Baby-fine and slippery, it was coming down from its fastenings. Muttering, she yanked the pins from her hair and let it fall down in a straight, shiny curtain, the color of heavy cream.

“Oh, ghosts, spirits, visions. Anything ye might have need of,” she said. “It starts the same in any case, but the herbs and the words are different for each thing. What we want now is a vision—to see who it is who’s ill-wished ye. Then we can turn the ill-wish back upon them.”

“Er, well…” I really had no wish to be vindictive, but I was curious—both to see what summoning was like, and to know who had left me the ill-wish.

Setting the pan in the middle of the quilt, she poured water into it from a jug, explaining, “You can use any vessel big enough to make a good reflection, though the grimoire says to use a silver bassin. Even a pond or a puddle of water outside will do for some kinds of summoning, though it must be secluded. Ye need peace and quiet to do this.”

She passed rapidly from window to window, drawing the heavy black curtains until virtually all the light in the room was extinguished. I could barely see Geilie’s slender form flitting through the gloom, until she lit the candle. The wavering flame lit her face as she carried it back to the quilt, throwing wedge-shaped shadows under the bold nose and chiseled jaw.

She set the candle next to the pan of water, on the side away from me. She filled the pan very carefully, so full that the water bulged slightly above the rim, kept from spilling by its surface tension. Leaning over, I could see that the surface of the water provided an excellent reflection, far better than that obtainable in any of the Castle’s looking glasses. As though mind reading again, Geilie explained that in addition to its use in summoning spirits, the reflecting pan was an excellent accessory for dressing the hair.

“Don’t bump into it, or you’ll get soaked,” she advised, frowning in concentration as she lit the candle. Something about the practical tone of the remark, so prosaic in the midst of these supernatural preparations, reminded me of someone. Looking up at the slender, pallid figure, stooping elegantly over the tinderbox, I couldn’t think at first of whom she reminded me. But of course. While no one could be less like that dowdy figure athwart the teapot in Reverend Wakefield’s study, the tone of voice had been that of Mrs. Graham, exactly.

Perhaps it was an attitude they shared, a pragmatism that regarded the occult as merely a collection of phenomena like the weather. Something to be approached with cautious respect, of course—much as one would take care in using a sharp kitchen knife—but certainly nothing to avoid or fear.

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