Author: P Hana

Page 173


“Aye, that’s right.” She nodded, eyes still fixed on me in speculation. “So ye found my wee book? Is that how ye knew to come and look for me on Craigh na Dun? It was you, no? That shouted my name, just before I stepped through the stones?”

“Gillian,” I said, and saw her pupils widen at the name that had once been hers, though her face stayed smooth. “Gillian Edgars. Yes, it was me. I didn’t know if you saw me in the dark.” I could see in memory the night-black circle of stones—and in the center, the blazing bonfire, and the figure of a slim girl standing by it, pale hair flying in the heat of the fire.

“I didn’t see ye,” she said. “’Twas only later, when I heard ye call out at the witch trial and thought I’d heard your voice before. And then, when I saw the mark on your arm…” She shrugged massively, the muslin tight across her shoulders as she settled back. “Who was with ye, that night?” she asked curiously. “There were two I saw—a bonnie dark lad, and a girl.”

She closed her eyes, concentrating, then opened them again to stare at me.

“Later on, I thought I kent her—but I couldna put a name to her, though I could swear I’d seen the face. Who was she?”

“Mistress Duncan? Or is it Mistress Abernathy, now?” Jamie interrupted, stepping forward and bowing to her formally. The first shock of her appearance was fading, but he was still pale, his cheekbones prominent under the stretched skin of his face.

She glanced at him, then looked again, as though noticing him for the first time.

“Well, and if it’s no the wee fox cub!” she said, looking amused. She looked him carefully up and down, noting every detail of his appearance with interest.

“Grown to a bonny man, have ye no?” she said. She leaned back in the chair, which creaked loudly under her weight, and squinted appraisingly at him. “You’ve the look of the MacKenzies about ye, laddie. Ye always did, but now you’re older, you’ve the look of both your uncles in your face.”

“I am sure both Dougal and Colum would be pleased ye’d remember them so well.” Jamie’s eyes were fixed on her as intently as hers on him. He had never liked her—and was unlikely to change his opinion now—but he could not afford to antagonize her; not if she had Ian here somewhere.

The arrival of the tea interrupted whatever reply she might have made. Jamie moved to my side, and sat with me on the sofa, while Geilie carefully poured the tea and handed us each a cup, behaving exactly like a conventional hostess at a tea party. As though wishing to preserve this illusion, she offered the sugar bowl and milk jug, and sat back to make light conversation.

“If ye dinna mind my asking, Mrs. Abernathy,” Jamie said, “how did ye come to this place?” Politely left unspoken was the larger question—How did you escape being burned as a witch?

She laughed, lowering her long lashes coquettishly over her eyes.

“Well, and ye’ll maybe recall I was wi’ child, back at Cranesmuir?”

“I seem to recall something of the sort.” Jamie took a sip of his tea, the tips of his ears turning slightly pink. He had cause to remember that, all right; she had torn off her clothes in the midst of the witch trial, disclosing the secret bulge that would save her life—at least temporarily.

A small pink tongue poked out and delicately skimmed the tea droplets from her upper lip.

“Have ye had children yourself?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow at me.

“I have.”

“Terrible chore, isn’t it? Dragging about like a mud-caked sow, and then being ripped apart for the sake of something looks like a drowned rat.” She shook her head, making a low noise of disgust in her throat. “The beauty o’ motherhood, is it? Still, I should not complain, I suppose-the wee ratling saved my life for me. And wretched as childbirth is, it’s better than being burnt at the stake.”

“I’d suppose so,” I said, “though not having tried the latter, I couldn’t say for sure.”

Geillis choked in her tea, spraying brown droplets over the front of her dress. She mopped at them carelessly, eyeing me with amusement.

“Well, I’ve not done it either, but I’ve seen them burn, poppet. And I think perhaps even lyin’ in a muddy hole watching your belly grow is better than that.”

“They kept you in the thieves’ hole all the time?” The silver spoon was cool in my hand, but my palm grew sweaty at the memory of the thieves’ hole in Cranesmuir. I had spent three days there with Geillis Duncan, accused as a witch. How long had she stayed there?

“Three months,” she said, staring meditatively into her tea. “Three mortal months of frozen feet and crawling vermin, stinking scraps of food and the grave-smell clinging to my skin day and night.”

She looked up then, mouth twisting in bitter amusement. “But I bore the child in style, at the end. When my pains began, they took me from the hole—little chance I’d run then, aye?—and the babe was born in my own old bedroom; in the fiscal’s house.”

Her eyes were slightly clouded, and I wondered whether the liquid in her glass was entirely tea.

“I had diamond-paned windows, do ye recall? All in shades of purple and green and white—the finest house in the village.” She smiled reminiscently. “They gave me the bairn to hold, and the green light fell over his face. He looked as though he was drowned indeed. I thought he should be cold to the touch, like a corpse, but he wasn’t; he was warm. Warm as his father’s balls.” She laughed suddenly, an ugly sound.

“Why are men such fools? Ye can lead them anywhere by the cock—for a while. Then give them a son and ye have them by the balls again. But it’s all ye are to them, whether they’re coming in or going out—a cunt.”

She was leaning back in her chair. At this, she spread her thighs wide, and hoisted her glass in ironic toast above her pubic bone, squinting down across the swelling bulge of belly.

“Well, here’s to it, I say! Most powerful thing in the world. The niggers know that, at least.” She took a deep, careless swig of her drink. “They carve wee idols, all belly and cunt and br**sts. Same as men do where we came from—you and I.” She squinted at me, teeth bared in amusement. “Seen the dirty mags men buy under the counters then, aye?”

The bloodshot green eyes swiveled to Jamie. “And you’ll know the pictures and the books the men pass about among themselves in Paris now, won’t ye, fox? It’s all the same.” She waved a hand and drank again, deeply. “The only difference is the niggers have the decency to worship it.”

“Verra perceptive of them,” Jamie said calmly. He was sitting back in his chair, long legs stretched out in apparent relaxation, but I could see the tension in the fingers of the hand that gripped his own cup. “And how d’ye ken the pictures men look at in Paris, Mistress—Abernathy, is it now?”

She might be tipsy, but was by no means fuddled. She looked up sharply at the tone of his voice, and gave him a twisted smile.

“Oh, Mistress Abernathy will do well enough. When I lived in Paris, I had another name—Madame Melisande Robicheaux. Like that one? I thought it a bit grand, but your uncle Dougal gave it me, so I kept it—out of sentiment.”

My free hand curled into a fist, out of sight in the folds of my skirt. I had heard of Madame Melisande, when we lived in Paris. Not a part of society, she had had some fame as a seer of the future; ladies of the court consulted her in deepest secrecy, for advice on their love lives, their investments, and their pregnancies.

“I imagine you could have told the ladies some interesting things,” I said dryly.

Her laugh this time was truly amused. “Oh, I could, indeed! Seldom did, though. Folk don’t usually pay for the truth, ye know. Sometimes, though—did ye ken that Jean-Paul Marat’s mother meant to name her bairn Rudolphe? I told her I thought Rudolphe was ill-omened. I wondered now and then about that—would he grow up a revolutionary with a name like Rudolphe, or would he take it all out in writing poems, instead? Ever think that, fox—that a name might make a difference?” Her eyes were fixed on Jamie, green glass.

“Often,” he said, and set down his cup. “It was Dougal got ye away from Cranesmuir, then?”

She nodded, stifling a small belch. “Aye. He came to take the babe—alone, for fear someone would find out he was the father, aye? I wouldna let it go, though. And when he came near to wrest it from me—why, I snatched the dirk from his belt and pressed it to the child’s throat.” A small smile of satisfaction at the memory curved her lovely lips.

“Told him I’d kill it, sure, unless he swore on his brother’s life and his own soul to get me safe away.”

“And he believed you?” I felt mildly ill at the thought of any mother holding a knife to the throat of her newborn child, even in pretense.

Her gaze swiveled back to me. “Oh, yes,” she said softly, and the smile widened. “He knew me, did Dougal.”

Sweating, even in the chill of December, and unable to take his eyes off the tiny face of his sleeping son, Dougal had agreed.

“When he leaned over me to take the child, I thought of plunging the dirk into his own throat instead,” she said, reminiscently. “But it would have been a good deal harder to get away by myself, so I didn’t.”

Jamie’s expression didn’t change, but he picked up his tea and took a deep swallow.

Dougal had summoned the locksman, John MacRae, and the church sexton, and by means of discreet bribery, insured that the hooded figure dragged on a hurdle to the pitch barrel next morning would not be that of Geillis Duncan.

“I thought they’d use straw, maybe,” she said, “but he was a cleverer man than that. Auld Grannie Joan MacKenzie had died three days before, and was meant to be burying that same afternoon. A few rocks in the coffin and the lid nailed down tight, and Bob’s your uncle, eh? A real body, fine for burning.” She laughed, and gulped the last swallow of her drink.

“Not everyone’s seen their own funeral; fewer still ha’ seen their own execution, aye?”

It had been the dead of winter, and the small grove of rowan trees outside the village stood bare, drifted with their own dead leaves, the dried red berries showing here and there on the ground like spots of blood.

It was a cloudy day, with the promise of sleet or snow, but the whole village turned out nonetheless; a witch-burning was not an event to be missed. The village priest, Father Bain, had died himself three months before, of fever brought on by a festering sore, but a new priest had been imported for the occasion from a village nearby. Perfuming his way with a censer held before him, the priest had come down the path to the grove, chanting the service for the dead. Behind him came the locksman and his two assistants, dragging the hurdle and its black-robed burden.

“I expect Grannie Joan would have been pleased,” Geilie said, white teeth gleaming at the vision. “She couldna have expected more nor four or five people to her burying—as it was, she had the whole village, and the incense and special prayers to boot!”