Or it might have been the smell of lavender water. Geilie’s loose, flowing gowns smelled always of the essences she distilled: marigold, chamomile, bay leaf, spikenard, mint, marjoram. Today, though, it was lavender that drifted from the folds of the white dress. The same scent that permeated Mrs. Graham’s practical blue cotton and wafted from the corrugations of her bony chest.
If Geilie’s chest was likewise underlaid by such skeletal supports, there was no hint of it visible, in spite of her robe’s low neckline. It was the first time I had seen Geilie Duncan en déshabille; customarily she wore the severe and voluminous gowns, buttoned high at the neck, that were suitable to the wife of a fiscal. The swelling opulence now revealed was a surprise, a creamy abundance almost the same shade as the dress she wore, and gave me some idea why a man like Arthur Duncan might have married a penniless girl of no family. My eye went involuntarily to the line of neatly labeled jars along the wall, looking for saltpeter.
Geilie selected three of the jars from the shelf, pouring a small quantity from each into the bowl of a tiny metal brazier. She lit the layer of charcoal underneath from the candle flame, and blew on the dawning flame to encourage it. A fragrant smoke began to rise as the spark took hold.
The air in the attic was so still that the greyish smoke rose straight up without diffusing, forming a column that echoed the shape of the tall white candle. Geilie sat between the two columns like a priestess in her temple, legs folded gracefully under her.
“Well then, that will do nicely, I think.” Briskly dusting crumbs of rosemary from her fingers, Geilie surveyed the scene with satisfaction. The black drapes, with their mystic symbols, shut out all intrusive beams of sunlight, and left the candle as the only source of direct illumination. The flame was reflected and diffused through the pan of still water, which seemed to glow as though it, too, were a source rather than a reflection of light.
“What now?” I inquired.
The large grey eyes glowed like the water, alight with anticipation. She waved her hands across the surface of the water, then folded them between her legs.
“Just sit quiet for a moment,” she said. “Listen to your heartbeat. Do you hear it? Breathe easy, slow and deep.” In spite of the liveliness of her expression, her voice was calm and slow, a distinct contrast to her usual sprightly conversation.
I obediently did as she instructed, feeling my heart slow as my breathing steadied to an even rhythm. I recognized the scent of rosemary in the smoke, but I wasn’t sure of the other two herbs; foxglove, perhaps, or cinquefoil? I had thought the purple flowers were those of nightshade, but surely that couldn’t be. Whatever they were, the slowness of my breathing did not seem to be attributable only to the power of Geilie’s suggestion. I felt as though a weight were pressing against my breastbone, slowing my breathing without my having to will it.
Geilie herself sat perfectly still, watching me with unblinking eyes. She nodded, once, and I looked down obediently into the still surface of the water.
She began to talk, in an even, conversational way that reminded me again of Mrs. Graham, calling down the sun in the circle of stones.
The words were not English, and yet not quite not English, either. It was a strange tongue, but one I felt that I should know, as though the words were spoken just below the level of my hearing.
I felt my hands begin to go numb, and wanted to move them from their folded position in my lap, but they wouldn’t move. Her even voice went on, soft and persuading. Now I knew that I understood what was being said, but still could not summon the words to the surface of my mind.
I realized dimly that I was either being hypnotized, or under the influence of some drug, and my mind took some last foothold on the edge of conscious thought, resisting the pull of the sweet-scented smoke. I could see my reflection in the water, pupils shrunk to pinpoints, eyes wide as a sun-blind owl’s. The word “opium” drifted through my fading thoughts.
“Who are you?” I couldn’t tell which of us had asked the question, but I felt my own throat move as I answered, “Claire.”
“Who sent you here?”
“Why did you come?”
“I can’t tell.”
“Why can’t you tell?”
“Because no one will believe me.”
The voice in my head grew still more soothing, friendly, beguiling.
“I will believe you. Believe me. Who are you?”
A sudden loud noise broke the spell. Geilie started and her knee bumped the bassin, startling the reflection back into the water.
“Geillis? My dear?” A voice called through the door, tentative yet commanding. “We must be going, my dear. The horses are ready, and you’re not yet gowned.”
Muttering something rude under her breath, Geilie rose and flung open the window, so that the fresh air rushed into my face, making me blink and dispelling some of the fog in my head.
She stood looking down at me speculatively, then stooped to help me up.
“Come along, then,” she said. “Come over a bit queer, have you? Sometimes it takes folk that way. You’d best lie down on my bed while I dress.”
I lay flat on the coverlet in her bedroom below, eyes closed, listening to the small rustling noises Geilie made in her privy closet, wondering what the hell that had been all about. Nothing to do with the ill-wish or its sender, clearly. Only with my identity. With sharpness returning gradually to my wits, it occurred to me to wonder whether Geilie perhaps was a spy for Colum. Placed as she was, she heard the business and the secrets of the whole district. And who, other than Colum, would be so interested in my origins?
What would have happened, I wondered, had Arthur not interrupted the summoning? Would I have heard, somewhere in the scented fog, the standard hypnotist’s injunction, “When you wake, you will remember nothing”? But I did remember, and I wondered.
In the event, however, there was no chance to ask Geilie about it. The bedroom door flew open, and Arthur Duncan came in. Crossing to the door of the privy closet, he knocked once, hastily, and went in.
There was a small startled scream from within, and then dead silence.
Arthur Duncan reappeared in the door, eyes wide and staring-blind, face so white that I thought perhaps he was suffering an attack of some sort. I leaped to my feet and hurried toward him as he leaned heavily against the door jamb.
Before I reached him, though, he pushed himself away from the door and went out of the room, staggering slightly, pushing past me as though he didn’t see me.
I knocked on the door myself.
“Geilie! Are you all right?”
There was a moment’s silence, then a perfectly composed voice said, “Aye, of course. I’ll be out in a moment.”
When we at length descended the stairs, we found Arthur, apparently somewhat recovered, sipping brandy with Jamie. He seemed a bit abstracted, as though he were thinking of something, but greeted his wife with a mild compliment on her appearance, before sending the groom for the horses.
The banquet was just beginning as we arrived, and the fiscal and his wife were shown to their places of honor at the head table. Jamie and I, somewhat lower in status, took our places at a table with Rupert and Ned Gowan.
Mrs. Fitz had excelled herself, and beamed in gratification at the compliments heaped upon the food, the drink, and other preparations.
It was in fact delicious. I had never tasted roast pheasant stuffed with honeyed chestnuts, and was helping myself to a third slice, when Ned Gowan, watching in some amusement at my appetite, asked whether I had yet tried the suckling pig.
My reply was interrupted by a stir at the far end of the Hall. Colum had risen from his table, and was headed toward me, accompanied by Old Alec MacMahon.
“I see there is no end to your talents, Mistress Fraser,” Colum remarked, bowing slightly. A broad smile marked the arresting features.
“From dressing wounds and healing the sick to delivering foals. We shall be calling upon you to raise the dead before long, I suppose.” There was a general chuckle at this, though I noticed one or two men glancing nervously in the direction of Father Bain, in attendance this evening, who was methodically stuffing himself with roast mutton in the corner.
“In any case,” Colum continued, reaching into his coat pocket, “you must allow me to present you with a small token of my gratitude.” He handed me a small wooden box, lid carved with the MacKenzie badge. I hadn’t realized just how valuable a horse Losgann was, and mentally thanked whatever benign spirits presided over such events that nothing had gone wrong.
“Nonsense,” I said, trying to give it back. “I didn’t do anything out of the way. It was only luck that I have small hands.”
“Nevertheless.” Colum was firm. “If you prefer, consider it a small wedding gift, but I wish you to have it.”
At a nod from Jamie, I reluctantly accepted the box and opened it. It contained a beautiful rosary of jet, each bead intricately carved, and the crucifix inlaid with silver.
“It’s lovely,” I said sincerely. And it was, though I had no notion what I might do with it. Though nominally a Catholic, I had been raised by Uncle Lamb, the completest of agnostics, and had only the vaguest idea of the significance of a rosary. Nonetheless, I thanked Colum warmly, and gave the rosary to Jamie to keep for me in his sporran.
I curtsied to Colum, gratified to find that I was mastering the art of doing so without falling on my face. He opened his mouth to take a gracious leave, but was interrupted by a sudden crash that came from behind me. Turning, I could see nothing but backs and heads, as people leapt from their benches to gather round whatever had caused the uproar. Colum made his way with some difficulty around the table, clearing aside the crowd with an impatient wave of the hand. As people stepped respectfully out of his way, I could see the rotund form of Arthur Duncan on the floor, limbs flailing convulsively, batting away the helpful hands of would-be assistants. His wife pushed her way through the muttering throng, dropped to the floor beside him, and made a vain attempt to cradle his head in her lap. The stricken man dug his heels into the floor and arched his back, making gargling, choking noises.
Glancing up, Geilie’s green eyes anxiously scanned the crowd as though looking for someone. Assuming that I was the one she was looking for, I took the path of least resistance, dodging under the table and crawling across on hands and knees.
Reaching Geilie’s side, I grabbed her husband’s face between my hands and tried to pry his jaws open. I thought, from the sounds he was making, that he had perhaps choked on a piece of meat, which might still be lodged in his windpipe.
His jaws were clamped and rigid, though, lips blue and flecked with a foamy spittle that didn’t seem consistent with choking. Choking he surely was, though; the plump chest heaved vainly, fighting for breath.
“Quickly, turn him on his side,” I said. Several hands reached out at once to help, and the heavy body was deftly turned, broad black-serge back toward me. I drove the heel of my hand hard between the shoulder-blades, smacking him repeatedly with a dull thumping noise. The massive back quivered slightly with the blows, but there was no answering jerk as of an obstruction suddenly released.
I gripped a meaty shoulder and pulled him onto his back once more. Geilie bent close over the staring face, calling his name, massaging his mottled throat. The eyes were rolled back now, and the drumming heels began to slacken their beat. The hands, clawed in agony, suddenly flung wide, smacking an anxiously crouching onlooker in the face.
The sputtering noises abruptly ceased, and the stout body went limp, lying inert as a sack of barley on the stone flags. I felt frantically for a pulse in one slack wrist, noticing with half an eye that Geilie was doing the same, pulling up the round, shaven chin and pressing her fingertips hard into the flesh under the angle of the jaw in search of the carotid artery.
Both searches were futile. Arthur Duncan’s heart, already taxed by the necessity of pumping blood through that massive frame for so many years, had given up the struggle.
I tried all the resuscitative techniques at my disposal, useless though I knew them now to be: arm-flapping, chest-massage, even mouth-to-mouth breathing, distasteful as that was, but with the expected result. Arthur Duncan was dead as a doornail.
I straightened wearily and stood back, as Father Bain, with a nasty glare at me, dropped to his knees by the fiscal’s side and began hastily to administer the final rites. My back and arms ached, and my face felt oddly numb. The hubbub around me seemed strangely remote, as though a curtain separated me from the crowded hall. I closed my eyes and rubbed a hand across my tingling lips, trying to erase the taste of death.
Despite the death of the fiscal, and the subsequent formalities of obsequies and burial, the Duke’s stag hunt was delayed by no more than a week.
The realization of Jamie’s imminent departure was deeply depressing; I suddenly realized just how much I looked forward to seeing him at dinner after the day’s work, how my heart would leap when I saw him unexpectedly at odd moments during the day, and how much I depended on his company and his solid, reassuring presence amid the complexities of life in the castle. And, to be perfectly honest, how much I liked the smooth, warm strength of him in my bed each night, and waking to his tousled, smiling kisses in the mornings. The prospect of his absence was bleak.
He held me closely, my head snuggled under his chin.
“I’ll miss you, Jamie,” I said softly.
He hugged me tighter, and gave a rueful chuckle.
“So will I, Sassenach. I hadna expected it, to tell the truth—but it will hurt me to leave ye.” He stroked my back gently, fingers tracing the bumps of the vertebrae.
“Jamie…you’ll be careful?”
I could feel the deep rumble of amusement in his chest as he answered.
“Of the Duke or the horse?” He was, much to my apprehension, intending to ride Donas on the stag hunt. I had visions of the huge sorrel beast plunging over a cliff out of sheer wrong-headedness, or trampling Jamie under those lethal hooves.
“Both,” I said dryly. “If the horse throws you and you break a leg, you’ll be at the Duke’s mercy.”
“True. Dougal will be there, though.”
I snorted. “He’ll break the other leg.”
He laughed and bent his head to kiss me.
“I’ll be careful, mo duinne. Will ye give me the same promise?”
“Yes,” I said, meaning it. “Do you mean whoever left the ill-wish?”
The momentary amusement was gone now.
“Perhaps. I dinna think you’re in any danger, or I wouldna leave ye. But still…oh, and stay away from Geillis Duncan.”
“What? Why?” I drew back a little to look up at him. It was a dark night and his face was invisible, but his tone was altogether serious.
“The woman’s known as a witch, and the stories about her—well, they’ve got a deal worse since her husband died. I dinna want ye anywhere near her, Sassenach.”
“Do you honestly think she’s a witch?” I demanded. His strong hands cupped my bottom and scooped me in close to him. I put my arms around him, enjoying the feel of his smooth, solid torso.
“No,” he said finally. “But it isna what I think that could be a danger to ye. Will ye promise?”
“All right.” In truth, I had little reluctance to give the promise; since the incidents of the changeling and the summoning, I had not felt much desire to visit Geilie. I put my mouth on Jamie’s nipple, flicking it lightly with my tongue. He made a small sound deep in his throat and pulled me nearer.
“Open your legs,” he whispered. “I mean to be sure you’ll remember me while I’m gone.”
Sometime later, I woke feeling cold. Groping sleepily for the quilt, I couldn’t find it. Suddenly it came up over me of its own accord. Surprised, I raised up on one elbow to look.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said. “I didna mean to wake ye, lass.”
“What are you doing? Why are you awake?” I squinted over my shoulder at him. It was still dark, but my eyes were so accustomed that I could see the faintly sheepish expression on his face. He was wide awake, sitting on a stool by the side of the bed, his plaid flung around him for warmth.
“It’s only…well, I dreamed you were lost, and I couldna find ye. It woke me, and…I wanted to look at ye, is all. To fix ye in my mind, to remember while I’m gone. I turned back the quilt; I’m sorry you were chilled.”
“It’s all right.” The night was cold, and very quiet, as though we were the only two souls in the world. “Come into bed. You must be chilled too.”
He slid in next to me and curled himself against my back. His hands stroked me from neck to shoulder, waist to hip, tracing the lines of my back, the curves of my body.
“Mo duinne,” he said softly. “But now I should say mo airgeadach. My silver one. Your hair is silver-gilt and your skin is white velvet. Calman geal. White dove.”
I pressed my h*ps back against him, inviting, and settled against him with a sigh as his solid hardness filled me. He held me against his chest and moved with me, slowly, deeply. I gasped a little and he slackened his hold.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didna mean to hurt ye. But I do want to be in you, to stay in you, so deep. I want to leave the feel of me deep inside ye with my seed. I want to hold ye so and stay wi’ you ’til dawn, and leave you sleeping and go, with the shapes of you warm in my hands.”
I pressed firmly back against him.
“You won’t hurt me.”
After Jamie’s departure, I moped about the castle. I saw patients in the surgery, I occupied myself as much as I could in the gardens, and I tried to distract myself by browsing in Colum’s library, but still time hung heavy on my hands.
I had been alone nearly two weeks, when I met the girl Laoghaire in the corridor outside the kitchens. I had watched her covertly now and then, since the day when I had seen her on the landing outside Colum’s study. She seemed blooming enough, but there was an air of tenseness about her that was easily discernible. She seemed distracted and moody—and little wonder, poor girl, I thought kindly.
Today, though, she looked somewhat excited.
“Mrs. Fraser!” she said. “I’ve a message for you.” The widow Duncan, she said, had sent word that she was ill, and requested me to come and tend her.
I hesitated, remembering Jamie’s injunctions, but the twin forces of compassion and boredom were sufficient to set me on the road to the village within the hour, my medicine box strapped behind me on the horse’s saddle.