If we should not return…
He must have felt my grip tighten, for he stopped, and drew me alongside him.
“Claire,” he said softly. “I must say something.”
I knew already, and groped for his mouth to stop him, but my hand brushed by his face in the dark. He gripped my wrist, and held tight.
“If it will be a choice between her and one of us—then it must be me. Ye know that, aye?”
I knew that. If Geilie should be there, still, and one of us might be killed in stopping her, it must be Jamie to take the risk. For with Jamie dead, I would be left—and I could follow her through the stone, which he could not.
“I know,” I whispered at last. I knew also what he did not say, and what he knew as well; that should Geilie have gone through already, then I must go as well.
“Then kiss me, Claire,” he whispered. “And know that you are more to me than life, and I have no regret.”
I couldn’t answer, but kissed him, first his hand, its crooked fingers warm and firm, and the brawny wrist of a sword-wielder, and then his mouth, haven and promise and anguish all mingled, and the salt of tears in the taste of him.
Then I let go, and turned toward the left-hand tunnel.
“This way,” I said. Within ten paces, I saw the light.
It was no more than a faint glow on the rocks of the passage, but it was enough to restore the gift of sight. Suddenly, I could see my hands and feet, though dimly. My breath came out in something like a sob, of relief and fear. I felt like a ghost taking shape as I walked toward the light and the soft bell-hum before me.
The light was stronger, now, then dimmed again as Jamie slid in front of me, and his back blocked my view. Then he bent and stepped through a low archway. I followed, and stood up in light.
It was a good-sized chamber, the walls farthest from the torch still cold and black with the slumber of the cave. The wall before us had wakened, though. It flickered and gleamed, particles of embedded mineral reflecting the flames of a pine torch, fixed in a crevice.
“So ye came, did you?” Geillis was on her knees, eyes fixed on a glittering stream of white powder that fell from her folded fist, drawing a line on the dark floor.
I heard a small sound from Jamie, half relief, half horror, as he saw Ian. The boy lay in the middle of the pentacle on his side, hands bound behind him, gagged with a strip of white cloth. Next to him lay an ax. It was made of a shiny dark stone, like obsidian, with a sharp, chipped edge. The handle was covered with gaudy beadwork, in an African pattern of stripes and zigzags.
“Don’t come any closer, fox.” Geilie sat back on her heels, showing her teeth to Jamie in an expression that was not a smile. She held a pistol in one hand; its fellow, charged and cocked, was thrust through the leather belt she wore about her waist.
Eyes fixed on Jamie, she reached into the pouch suspended from the belt and withdrew another handful of diamond dust. I could see beads of sweat standing on her broad white brow; the bell-hum from the time-passage must be reaching her as it reached me. I felt sick, and the sweat ran down my body in trickles under my clothes.
The pattern was almost finished. With the pistol carefully trained, she dribbled out the thin, shining stream until she had completed the pentagram. The stones were already laid inside it—they glinted from the floor in sparks of color, connected by a gleaming line of poured quicksilver.
“There, then.” She sat back on her heels with a sigh of relief, and wiped the thick, creamy hair back with one hand. “Safe. The diamond dust keeps out the noise,” she explained to me. “Nasty, isn’t it?”
She patted Ian, who lay bound and gagged on the ground in front of her, his eyes wide with fear above the white cloth of the gag. “There, there, mo chridhe. Dinna fret, it will be soon over.”
“Take your hand off him, ye wicked bitch!” Jamie took an impulsive step forward, hand on his dirk, then stopped, as she lifted the barrel of the pistol an inch.
“Ye mind me o’ your uncle Dougal, a sionnach,” she said, tilting her head to one side coquettishly. “He was older when I met him than you are now, but you’ve the look of him about ye, aye? Like ye’d take what ye pleased and damn anyone who stands in your way.”
Jamie looked at Ian, curled on the floor, then up at Geilie.
“I’ll take what’s mine,” he said softly.
“But ye can’t, now, can ye?” she said, pleasantly. “One more step, and I kill ye dead. I spare ye now, only because Claire seems fond of ye.” Her eyes shifted to me, standing in the shadows behind Jamie. She nodded to me.
“A life for a life, sweet Claire. Ye tried to save me once, on Craigh na Dun; I saved you from the witch-trial at Cranesmuir. We’re quits now, aye?”
Geilie picked up a small bottle, uncorked it, and poured the contents carefully over Ian’s clothes. The smell of brandy rose up, strong and heady, and the torch flared brighter as the fumes of alcohol reached it. Ian bucked and kicked, making a strained noise of protest, and she kicked him sharply in the ribs.
“Be still!” she said.
“Don’t do it, Geilie,” I said, knowing that words would do no good.
“I have to,” she said calmly. “I’m meant to. I’m sorry I shall have to take the girl, but I’ll leave ye the man.”
“What girl?” Jamie’s fists were clenched tight at his side, knuckles white even in the dim torchlight.
“Brianna? That’s the name, isn’t it?” She shook back her heavy hair, smoothing it out of her face. “The last of Lovat’s line.” She smiled at me. “What luck ye should have come to see me, aye? I’d never ha’ kent it, otherwise. I thought they’d all died out before 1900.”
A thrill of horror shot through me. I could feel the same tremor run through Jamie as his muscles tightened.
It must have shown on his face. Geilie cried out sharply and leapt back. She fired as he lunged at her. His head snapped back, and his body twisted, hands still reaching for her throat. Then he fell, his body limp across the edge of the glittering pentagram. There was a strangled moan from Ian.
I felt rather than heard a sound rise in my throat. I didn’t know what I had said, but Geilie turned her face in my direction, startled.
When Brianna was two, a car had carelessly sideswiped mine, hitting the back door next to where she was sitting. I slowed to a stop, checked briefly to see that she was unhurt, and then bounded out, headed for the other car, which had pulled over a little way ahead.
The other driver was a man in his thirties, quite large, and probably entirely self-assured in his dealings with the world. He looked over his shoulder, saw me coming, and hastily rolled up his window, shrinking back in his seat.
I had no consciousness of rage or any other emotion; I simply knew, with no shadow of doubt, that I could—and would—shatter the window with my hand, and drag the man out through it. He knew it, too.
I thought no further than that, and didn’t have to; the arrival of a police car had recalled me to my normal state of mind, and then I started to shake. But the memory of the look on that man’s face stayed with me.
Fire is a poor illuminator, but it would have taken total darkness to conceal that look on Geilie’s face; the sudden realization of what was coming toward her.
She jerked the other pistol from her belt and swung it to bear on me; I saw the round hole of the muzzle clearly—and didn’t care. The roar of the discharge caromed through the cave, the echoes sending down showers of rocks and dirt, but by then I had seized the ax from the floor.
I noted quite clearly the leather binding, ornamented with a beaded pattern. It was red, with yellow zigzags and black dots. The dots echoed the shiny obsidian of the blade, and the red and yellow picked up the hues of the flaming torch behind her.
I heard a noise behind me, but didn’t turn. Reflections of the fire burned red in the pupils of her eyes. The red thing, Jamie had called it. I gave myself to it, he had said.
I didn’t need to give myself; it had taken me.
There was no fear, no rage, no doubt. Only the stroke of the swinging ax.
The shock of it echoed up my arm, and I let go, my fingers numbed. I stood quite still, not even moving when she staggered toward me.
Blood in firelight is black, not red.
She took one blind step forward and fell, all her muscles gone limp, making no attempt to save herself. The last I saw of her face was her eyes; set wide, beautiful as gemstones, a green water-clear and faceted with the knowledge of death.
Someone was speaking, but the words made no sense. The cleft in the rock buzzed loudly, filling my ears. The torch flickered, flaring sudden yellow in a draft; the beating of the dark angel’s wings, I thought.
The sound came again, behind me.
I turned and saw Jamie. He had risen to his knees, swaying. Blood was pouring from his scalp, dyeing one side of his face red-black. The other side was white as a harlequin’s mask.
Stop the bleeding, said some remnant of instinct in my brain, and I fumbled for a handkerchief. But by then he had crawled to where Ian lay, and was groping at the boy’s bonds, jerking loose the leather straps, drops of his blood pattering on the lad’s shirt. Ian squirmed to his feet, his face ghastly pale, and put out a hand to help his uncle.
Then Jamie’s hand was on my arm. I looked up, numbly offering the cloth. He took it and wiped it roughly over his face, then jerked at my arm, pulling me toward the tunnel mouth. I stumbled and nearly fell, caught myself, and came back to the present.
“Come!” he was saying. “Can ye not hear the wind? There is a storm coming, above.”
Wind? I thought. In a cave? But he was right; the draft had not been my imagination; the faint exhalation from the crack near the entrance had changed to a steady, whining wind, almost a keening that rang in the narrow passage.
I turned to look over my shoulder, but Jamie grasped my arm hard and pushed me forward. My last sight of the cave was a blurred impression of jet and rubies, with a still white shape in the middle of the floor. Then the draft came in with a roar, and the torch went out.
“Jesus!” It was Young Ian’s voice, filled with terror, somewhere close by. “Uncle Jamie!”
“Here.” Jamie’s voice came out of the darkness just in front of me, surprisingly calm, raised to be heard above the noise. “Here, lad. Come here to me, Ian. Dinna be afraid; it’s only the cave breathing.”
It was the wrong thing to say. When he said it, I could feel the cold breath of the rock touch my neck, and the hairs there rose up prickling. The image of the cave as a living thing, breathing all around us, blind and malevolent, struck me cold with horror.
Apparently the notion was as terrifying to Ian as it was to me, for I heard a faint gasp, and then his groping hand struck me and clung for dear life to my arm.
I clutched his hand with one of mine and probed the dark ahead with the other, finding Jamie’s reassuringly large shape almost at once.
“I’ve got Ian,” I said. “For God’s sake, let’s get out of here!”
He gripped my hand in answer, and linked together, we began to make our way back down the winding tunnel, stumbling through the pitch dark and stepping on each other’s heels. And all the time, that ghostly wind whined at our backs.