Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 57

   

The mood of the crowd now swayed to and fro, uncertain. The bloodlust that had driven it earlier was dissipating, but it might still tilt like a cresting wave and crush us. Mutt and Jeff glanced at each other, undecided; taken aback by this last development, the judges had momentarily lost control of the situation.

Geillis Duncan stepped forward into the breach. I do not know whether there was hope for her at that point or not. In any case, she now tossed her fair hair defiantly over one shoulder, and threw her life away.

“This woman is no witch,” she said simply. “But I am.”

Jamie’s show, good as it was, was no match for this. The resulting uproar drowned completely the voices of the judges, questioning and exclaiming.

There was no clue to what she thought or felt, no more than there ever was; her high white brow was clear, the big green eyes gleaming in what might be amusement. She stood straight in her ragged garments, daubed with filth, and stared down her accusers. When the tumult had quieted a bit, she began to speak, not deigning to raise her voice, but forcing them to quiet themselves to hear her.

“I, Geillis Duncan, do confess that I am a witch, and the mistress of Satan.” This caused another outcry, and she waited again with perfect patience for them to quiet.

“In obedience to my Master, I do confess that I killed my husband, Arthur Duncan, by means of witchcraft.” At this, she glanced aside, catching my eye, and the hint of a smile touched her lips. Her eyes rested on the woman in the yellow shawl, but did not soften. “Of malice, I placed a spell upon the changeling child, that it might die, and the human child it replaced remain with the fairies.” She turned and gestured in my direction.

“I took advantage of the ignorance of Claire Fraser, using her for my purposes. But she had neither part nor knowledge in my doings, nor does she serve my Master.”

The crowd was muttering again, people jostling to get a better look, pushing nearer. She stretched out both hands toward them, palm outward.

“Stay back!” The clear voice cracked like a whip, to much the same effect. She tilted back her head to the skies and froze, like one listening.

“Hear!” she said. “Hear the wind of his coming! Beware, ye people of Cranesmuir! For my Master comes on the wings o’ the wind!” She lowered her head and screamed, a high, eerie sound of triumph. The large green eyes were fixed and staring, trancelike.

The wind was rising; I could see the clouds of the storm rolling across the far side of the loch. People began to look uneasily around; a few souls dropped back from the edge of the crowd.

Geilie began to spin, twirling round and round, hair whipping in the wind, hand gracefully overhead like a maypole dancer’s. I watched her in stunned disbelief.

As she turned, her hair hid her face. On the last turn, though, she snapped her head to throw the fair mane to one side and I saw her face clearly, looking at me. The mask of trance had vanished momentarily, and her mouth formed a single word. Then her turn took her around to face the crowd once more, and she began her eerie screaming again.

The word had been “Run!”

She stopped her spinning suddenly, and with a look of mad exultation, gripped the remnants of her bodice with both hands and tore it down the front. Tore it far enough to show the crowd the secret I had learned, huddled close beside her in the cold filth of the thieves’ hole. The secret Arthur Duncan had learned, in the hour before his death. The secret for which he had died. The shreds of her loose gown dropped away, exposing the swelling bulge of a six-month pregnancy.

I still stood like a rock, staring. Jamie had no such hesitations. Seizing me with one hand and his sword with the other, he flung himself into the crowd, knocking people out of the way with elbows, knees, and sword hilt, bulling his way toward the edge of the loch. He let out a piercing whistle through his teeth.

Intent on the spectacle under the oak, few people at first realized what was happening. Then, as individuals began to shout and grab at us, there was the sound of galloping hooves on the hard-packed dirt above the shore.

Donas still didn’t care much for people, and was all too willing to show it. He bit the first hand reaching for his bridle, and a man dropped back, crying out and dripping blood. The horse reared, squealing and pawing the air, and the few bold souls still intent on stopping him suddenly lost interest.

Jamie flung me over the saddle like a sack of meal and swung up himself in one fluid motion. Clearing a path with vicious swipes of his sword, he turned Donas through the hindering mass of the crowd. As people fell back from the onslaught of teeth, hooves, and blade, we picked up speed, leaving the loch, the village, and Leoch behind. Breath knocked out of me by the impact, I struggled to speak, to scream to Jamie.

For I hadn’t stood frozen at the revelation of Geilie’s pregnancy. It was something else I had seen that chilled me to the marrow of my bones. As Geilie had spun, white arms stretched aloft, I saw what she had seen when my own clothes were stripped away. A mark on one arm like the one I bore. Here, in this time, the mark of sorcery, the mark of a magus. The small, homely scar of a smallpox vaccination.

Rain pattered on the water, soothing my swollen face and the rope burns on my wrists. I dipped a handful of water from the stream and sipped it slowly, feeling the cold liquid trickle down my throat with gratitude.

Jamie disappeared for a few minutes. He came back with a handful of dark green oblate leaves, chewing something. He spat a glob of macerated green into the palm of his hand, stuffed another wad of leaves into his mouth and turned me away from him. He rubbed the chewed leaves gently over my back, and the stinging eased considerably.

“What is that?” I asked, making an effort to control myself. I was still shaky and snuffling, but the helpless tears were beginning to ebb.

“Watercress,” he answered, voice slightly muffled by the leaves in his mouth. He spat them out and applied them to my back. “You’re no the only one knows a bit about grass-cures, Sassenach,” he said, a bit clearer.

“How—how does it taste?” I asked, gulping back the sobs.

“Fair nasty,” he replied laconically. He finished his application and laid the plaid softly back across my shoulders.

“It won’t—” he began, then hesitated, “I mean, the cuts are not deep. I—I think you’ll no be…marked.” He spoke gruffly, but his touch was very gentle, and reduced me to tears once more.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, dabbling my nose on a corner of the plaid. “I—I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying.”

He shrugged. “I dinna suppose anyone’s tried to hurt ye on purpose before, Sassenach,” he said. “It’s likely the shock of that, so much as the pain.” He paused, picking up a plaid-end.

“I did just the same, lass,” he said matter-of-factly. “Puked after, and cried while they cleansed the cuts. Then I shook.” He wiped my face carefully with the plaid, then put a hand under my chin and tilted my face up to his.

“And when I stopped shaking, Sassenach,” he said quietly, “I thanked God for the pain, because it meant I was still alive.” He let go, nodding at me. “When ye get to that point, lassie, tell me; for I’ve a thing or two I want to be sayin’ to ye then.”

He got up and went down to the edge of the burn, to wash out the bloodstained handkerchief in cold water.

“What brought you back?” I asked, when he returned. I had managed to stop crying, but I still shook, and huddled deeper into the folds of the plaid.

“Alec MacMahon,” he said, smiling. “I told him to watch over ye while I was gone. When the villagers took you and Mrs. Duncan, he rode all night and the next day to find me. And then I rode like the devil himself comin’ back. Lord, that’s a good horse.” He looked approvingly up the slope to Donas, tethered to a tree at the top of the bank, his wet coat gleaming like copper.

“I’ll have to move him,” he said, thoughtfully. “I doubt anyone will follow, but it isna that far from Cranesmuir. Can ye walk now?”

I followed him up the steep slope with some difficulty, small rocks rolling under my feet and bracken and bramble catching my shift. Near the top of the slope was a grove of young alders, grown so close together that the lower branches interlaced, forming a green roof over the bracken beneath. Jamie shoved the branches up far enough for me to crawl into the narrow space, then carefully rearranged the crushed bracken before the entrance. He stood back and surveyed the hiding place critically, nodding in satisfaction.

“Aye, that’s good. No one will find ye there.” He turned to go, then turned back. “Try to sleep, if ye can, and don’t worry if I’m not back at once. I’ll hunt a bit on the way back; we’ve no food with us, and I dinna want to attract attention by stopping at a croft. Pull the tartan up over your head, and make sure it covers your shift; the white shows for a long way.”

Food seemed irrelevant; I felt as though I would never want to eat again. Sleep was something else again. My back and arms still ached, the rope burns on my wrists were raw, and I felt sore and bruised all over; but worn out with fear, pain, and simple exhaustion, I fell asleep almost at once, the pungent scent of ferns rising around me like incense.

I awoke with something gripping my foot. Startled, I sat up straight, crashing into the springy branches overhead. Leaves and sticks showered down around me, and I flailed my arms wildly, trying to disentangle my hair from the snagging twigs. Scratched, disheveled, and irritated, I crawled out of my sanctuary to find an amused Jamie squatting nearby, watching my emergence. It was near sunset; the sun had dropped below the lip of the burn, leaving the rocky canyon in shadow. The smell of roasting meat rose from a small fire burning among the rocks near the stream, where two rabbits browned on a makeshift spit made of sharpened green sticks.

Jamie held out a hand to help me down the slope. I haughtily declined and swept down myself, tripping only once on the trailing ends of the plaid. My earlier nausea had vanished, and I fell ravenously on the meat.

“We’ll move up into the forest after supper, Sassenach,” Jamie said, tearing a joint from the rabbit carcass. “I dinna want to sleep near the burn; I canna hear anyone coming over the noise of the water.”

There was not much conversation as we ate. The horror of the morning, and the thought of what we had left behind, oppressed us both. And for me there was a profound sense of mourning. I had lost not only the chance of finding out more about the why and wherefore of my presence here, but a friend as well. My only friend. I was often in doubt as to Geilie’s motives, but I had no doubt at all that she had saved my life that morning. Knowing herself doomed, she had done her best to give me a chance of escape. The fire, almost invisible in daylight, was growing brighter now as darkness filled the burn. I looked into the flames, seeing the crisp skin and browned bones of the rabbits on their spits. A drop of blood from a broken bone fell into the fire, hissing into nothing. Suddenly the meat stuck in my throat. I set it down hastily and turned away, retching.

Still without speaking much, we moved out of the burn and found a comfortable place near the edge of a clearing in the forest. Hills rose in undulant mounds all around us, but Jamie had chosen a high spot, with a good view of the road from the village. The dusk momentarily heightened all the colors of the countryside, lighting the land with jewels; a glowing emerald in the hollows, a lovely shadowed amethyst among the clumps of heather, and burning rubies on the red-berried rowan trees that crowned the hills. Rowan berries, a specific against witchcraft. Far in the distance, the outline of Castle Leoch was still visible at the foot of Ben Aden. It faded quickly as the light died.

Jamie made a fire in a sheltered spot, and sat down next to it. The rain had eased to a faint drizzle that misted the air and spangled my eyelashes with rainbows when I looked at the flames.

He sat staring into the fire for a long time. Finally he looked up at me, hands clasped around his knees.

“I said before that I’d not ask ye things ye had no wish to tell me. And I’d not ask ye now; but I must know, for your safety as well as mine.” He paused, hesitating.

“Claire, if you’ve never been honest wi’ me, be so now, for I must know the truth. Claire, are ye a witch?”

I gaped at him. “A witch? You—you can really ask that?” I thought he must be joking. He wasn’t.

He took me by the shoulders and gripped me hard, staring into my eyes as though willing me to answer him.

“I must ask it, Claire! And you must tell me!”

“And if I were?” I asked through dry lips. “If you had thought I were a witch? Would you still have fought for me?”

“I would have gone to the stake with you!” he said violently. “And to hell beyond, if I must. But may the Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul and on yours, tell me the truth!”

The strain of it all caught up with me. I tore myself out of his grasp and ran across the clearing. Not far, only to the edge of the trees; I could not bear the exposure of the open space. I clutched a tree; put my arms around it and dug my fingers hard into the bark, pressed my face to it and shrieked with hysterical laughter.

Jamie’s face, white and shocked, loomed up on the other side of the tree. With the dim realization that what I was doing must sound unnervingly like cackling, I made a terrific effort and stopped. Panting, I stared at him for a moment.

“Yes,” I said, backing away, still heaving with gasps of unhinged laughter. “Yes, I am a witch! To you, I must be. I’ve never had smallpox, but I can walk through a room full of dying men and never catch it. I can nurse the sick and breathe their air and touch their bodies, and the sickness can’t touch me. I can’t catch cholera, either, or lockjaw, or the morbid sore throat. And you must think it’s an enchantment, because you’ve never heard of vaccine, and there’s no other way you can explain it.”

“The things I know—” I stopped backing away and stood still, breathing heavily, trying to control myself. “I know about John Randall because I was told about him. I know when he was born and when he’ll die, I know about what he’s done and what he’ll do, I know about Sandringham because…, because Frank told me. He knew about Randall because he…he…oh, God!” I felt as though I might be sick, and closed my eyes to shut out the spinning stars overhead.

“And Colum…he thinks I’m a witch, because I know Hamish isn’t his own son. I know…he can’t sire children. But he thought I knew who Hamish’s father is…I thought maybe it was you, but then I knew it couldn’t be, and…” I was talking faster and faster, trying to keep the vertigo at bay with the sound of my own voice.

“Everything I’ve ever told you about myself was true,” I said, nodding madly as though to reassure myself. “Everything. I haven’t any people, I haven’t any history, because I haven’t happened yet.”

“Do you know when I was born?” I asked, looking up. I knew my hair was wild and my eyes staring, and I didn’t care. “On the twentieth of October, in the Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and eighteen. Do you hear me?” I demanded, for he was blinking at me unmoving, as though paying no attention to a word I said. “I said nineteen eighteen! Nearly two hundred years from now! Do you hear?”

I was shouting now, and he nodded slowly.

“I hear,” he said softly.

“Yes, you hear!” I blazed. “And you think I’m raving mad. Don’t you? Admit it! That’s what you think. You have to think so, there isn’t any other way you can explain me to yourself. You can’t believe me, you can’t dare to. Oh, Jamie…” I felt my face start to crumple. All this time spent hiding the truth, realizing that I could never tell anyone, and now I realized that I could tell Jamie, my beloved husband, the man I trusted beyond all others, and he wouldn’t—he couldn’t believe me either.

“It was the rocks—the fairy hill. The standing stones. Merlin’s stones. That’s where I came through.” I was gasping, half-sobbing, becoming less coherent by the second. “Once upon a time, but it’s really two hundred years. It’s always two hundred years, in the stories.…But in the stories, the people always get back. I couldn’t get back.” I turned away, staggering, grasping for support. I sank down on a rock, shoulders slumped, and put my head in my hands. There was a long silence in the wood. It went on long enough for the small night birds to recover their courage and start their noises once again, calling to each other with a thin, high zeek! as they hawked for the last insects of the summer.

I looked up at last, thinking that perhaps he had simply risen and left me, overcome by my revelations. He was still there, though, still sitting, hands braced on his knees, head bowed as though in thought.

The hairs on his arms shone stiff as copper wires in the firelight, though, and I realized that they stood erect, like the bristles on a dog. He was afraid of me.

“Jamie,” I said, feeling my heart break with absolute loneliness. “Oh, Jamie.”

I sat down and curled myself into a ball, trying to roll myself around the core of my pain. Nothing mattered any longer, and I sobbed my heart out.

His hands on my shoulders raised me, enough to see his face. Through the haze of tears, I saw the look he wore in battle, of struggle that had passed the point of strain and become calm certainty.

“I believe you,” he said firmly. “I dinna understand it a bit—not yet—but I believe you. Claire, I believe you! Listen to me! There’s the truth between us, you and I, and whatever ye tell me, I shall believe it.” He gave me a gentle shake.

“It doesna matter what it is. You’ve told me. That’s enough for now. Be still, mo duinne. Lay your head and rest. You’ll tell me the rest of it later. And I’ll believe you.”

I was still sobbing, unable to grasp what he was telling me. I struggled, trying to pull away, but he gathered me up and held me tightly against himself, pushing my head into the folds of his plaid, and repeating over and over again, “I believe you.”

At last, from sheer exhaustion, I grew calm enough to look up and say, “But you can’t believe me.”

He smiled down at me. His mouth trembled slightly, but he smiled.

“Ye’ll no tell me what I canna do, Sassenach.” He paused a moment. “How old are ye?” he asked curiously. “I never thought to ask.”

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