Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 116

   

“No,” Roger muttered back. “Can you?”

“I hope not.” But Buck shuddered suddenly, as though something had walked across his grave.

“Be those thy be-asts?” the boy asked, grinning at Roger. He pointed at the stones, explaining—Roger thought—the local legend that the stones were in fact faery cattle, frozen in place when their drover had too much drink betaken and fell into the lake.

“Sooth,” the boy assured them solemnly, making a cross over his heart. “Mester Hacffurthe found es whip!”

“When?” Buck asked sharply. “And where liveth Mester Hacffurthe?”

A week ago, maybe twa, said the boy, waving a hand to indicate that the date was not important. And he would take them to Mester Hacffurthe, if they liked to see the thing.

Despite his name, Mester Hacffurthe proved to be a slight, light-haired young man, the village cobbler. He spoke the same impenetrable Northumbrian dialect, but with some effort and the helpful intervention of the boy—whose name, he said, was Ridley—their desire was made clear, and Hacffurthe obligingly fetched the faery whip out from under his counter, laying it gingerly before them.

“Oh, Lord,” Roger said at sight of it—and, with a raised brow at Hacffurthe to ask permission, touched the strip carefully. A machine-woven, tight-warped strip some three inches wide and two feet long, its taut surface gleaming even in the dim light of the cobbler’s shop. Part of the harness of an RAF flier. They had the right stones, then.

Careful questioning of Mr. Hacffurthe, though, elicited nothing else helpful. He had found the faery lash lying in the shallows of the lake, washing to and fro among the reeds, but had seen nothing else of note.

Roger noticed, though, that Ridley twitched slightly when Mr. Hacffurthe said this. And after they had left the cobbler’s house, he paused at the edge of the village, hand in his pocket.

“I thank ’ee, Master Ridley,” he said, and pulled out a broad tuppenny piece that made the boy’s face light up. Roger put it into Ridley’s hand, but, when the boy would have turned to go, laid his own hand on the lad’s arm.

“One thing more, Master Ridley,” he said, and, with a glance at Buck, drew out the identity disks.

Ridley jerked in Roger’s grasp, his round face going pale. Buck made a small sound of satisfaction and took Ridley by his other arm.

“Tell us about the man,” Buck suggested pleasantly. “And I might not break thy neck.”

Roger shot Buck a glance of annoyance, but the threat was effective. Ridley gulped as though he’d swallowed a mushroom whole, but then began to talk. Between Ridley’s dialect and his distress, the tale took some time to piece together, but at last Roger was fairly sure they had the gist of it.

“Let him go,” he said, letting go of Ridley himself. He groped in his pocket and came out with another copper penny, which he offered to the boy. Ridley’s face flexed between fear and outrage, but after a moment’s hesitation, he snatched the penny and made off, glancing over his shoulder as he ran.

“He’ll tell his family,” Buck observed. “We’d best hurry.”

“We had. But not on that account—it’s getting dark.” The sun was very low, a brilliant band of yellow light showing at the foot of a cold ochre sky. “Come on. We need to take the direction while we can.”

So far as Roger had been able to follow Ridley’s story, the strangely dressed man (some said he was a faerie, some thought him a northerner, though there was confusion as to whether this meant a Scot, a Norseman, or something else) had had the ill luck to show up at a farm two or three miles from the stones, where he had been set upon by the inhabitants, these being an antisocial clan called Wad.

The Wads had taken everything of apparent value off the man, beaten him, and tossed him into a ravine—one of the Wads had boasted of it to a drover passing through, who had mentioned the stranger in the village.

The village had of course been interested—but not sufficiently so as to go looking for the man. When Hacffurthe the cobbler had found the peculiar strip of cloth, though, rumors had started to fly thick and fast. Excitement had reached a higher pitch this very afternoon, when one of Mester Quarton’s cowmen had come into the village to have a boil lanced by Granny Racket and revealed that a stranger with incomprehensible speech had tried to steal a pie from Missus Quarton’s sill and was even now held captive whilst Mester Quarton thought what best to do with him.

“What might he do?” Roger had asked. Ridley had pushed out his lips portentously and shaken his head.

“Might kill ’un,” he said. “Might take ’un’s hand off. Mester Quarton don’t hold with thievin’.”

And that—aside from a vague direction regarding the location of the Quarton farm—was that.

“This side of the wall, two miles west and a little south, below a ridge and along the stream,” Roger said grimly, lengthening his stride. “If we can find the stream before full dark . . .”

“Aye.” Buck fell in beside him as they turned toward where they’d left the horses. “Suppose Quarton keeps a dog?”

“Everybody here keeps a dog.”

“Oh, God.”

JUST ONE CHANCE

THERE WAS NO MOON. Undeniably a good thing, but it had its drawbacks. The farmhouse and its outbuildings lay in a pocket of darkness so profound that they mightn’t have known it was there, had they not seen it before the light was quite gone. They’d waited, though, for full dark and the dousing of the dim candlelight inside the house, and then an extra half hour or so to ensure that the inhabitants—and their dogs—were well asleep.

Roger was carrying the dark lantern, but with the slide still closed; Buck ran into something lying on the ground, let out a startled cry, and fell headlong over it. The something proved to be a large sleeping goose, which let out a startled whonk! somewhat louder than Buck’s cry, and promptly set about him with beak and thrashing wings. There was a sharp, inquiring bark in the distance.

“Hush!” Roger hissed, coming to his ancestor’s aid. “Ye’ll wake the dead, let alone them in the house.” He dropped his cloak over the goose, which shut up and began waddling around in confusion, a mobile heap of dark cloth. Roger clapped a hand to his mouth, but couldn’t help snorting through his nose.

“Aye, right,” Buck whispered, getting to his feet. “If ye think I’m getting your cloak back for ye, think again.”

“He’ll get out of it soon enough,” Roger whispered back. “He’s no need of it. Meanwhile, where the devil d’ye think they’ve got him?”

“Someplace that’s got a door ye can bolt.” Buck rubbed his palms together, brushing off the dirt. “They’d no keep him in the house, though, would they? It’s no that big.”

It wasn’t. You could have fitted about sixteen farmhouses that size into Lallybroch, Roger thought, and felt a sudden sharp pang, thinking of Lallybroch as it was when he had—he would—own it.

Buck was right, though: there couldn’t be more than two rooms and a loft, maybe, for the kids. And given that the neighbors thought Jerry—if it was Jerry—was a foreigner at best, a thief and/or supernatural being at worst, it wasn’t likely that the Quartons would be keeping him in the house.

“Did ye see a barn, before the light went?” Buck whispered, changing to Gaelic. He had risen onto his toes, as though that might help him see above the tide of darkness, and was peering into the murk. Dark-adapted as Roger’s eyes now were, he could at least make out the squat shapes of the small farm buildings. Corncrib, goat shed, chicken coop, the tousled shape of a hayrick . . .

“No,” Roger replied in the same tongue. The goose had extricated itself and gone off making disgruntled small honks; Roger bent and retrieved his cloak. “Small place; they likely haven’t more than an ox or a mule for the plowing, if that. I smell stock, though . . . manure, ken?”

“Kine,” Buck said, heading abruptly off toward a square-built stone structure. “The cow byre. That’ll have a bar to the door.”

It did. And the bar was in its brackets.

“I don’t hear any kine inside,” Buck whispered, drawing close. “And the smell’s old.”

It was near-on winter. Maybe they’d had to slaughter the cow—or cows; maybe they’d driven them to market. But, cow or no, there was something inside; he heard a shuffling noise and what might have been a muffled curse.

“Aye, well, there’s something inside.” Roger raised the dark lantern, groping for the slide. “Get the bar, will you?”

But before Buck could reach for the bar, a shout of “Hoy!” came from inside, and something fell heavily against the door. “Help! Help me! Help!”

The voice spoke English, and Buck changed back at once. “Will ye for God’s sake hush your noise?” he said to the man inside, annoyed. “Ye want to have them all down on us? Here, then, bring the light closer,” he said to Roger, and drew the bar with a small grunt of effort.

The door swung open as Buck set down the bar, and light shot out of the lantern’s open slide. A slightly built young man with flyaway fair hair—the same color as Buck’s, Roger thought—blinked at them, dazzled by the light, then closed his eyes against it.

Roger and Buck glanced at each other for an instant, then, with one accord, stepped into the byre.

He is, Roger thought. It’s him. I know it’s him. God, he’s so young! Barely more than a boy. Oddly, he felt no burst of dizzying excitement. It was a feeling of calm certainty, as though the world had suddenly righted itself and everything had fallen into place. He reached out and touched the man gently on the shoulder.

“What’s your name, mate?” he said softly, in English.

“MacKenzie, J. W.,” the young man said, shoulders straightening as he drew himself up, sharp chin jutting. “Lieutenant, Royal Air Force. Service Number—” He broke off, staring at Roger, who belatedly realized that, calmness or no, he was grinning from ear to ear. “What’s funny?” Jerry MacKenzie demanded, belligerent.

“Nothing,” Roger assured him. “Er . . . glad—glad to see you, that’s all.” His throat was tight, and he had to cough. “Have ye been here long?”

“No, just a few hours. Ye wouldn’t have any food on ye, I don’t suppose?” He looked hopefully from one man to the other.

“We do,” Buck said, “but this isna the time to stop for a bite, aye?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Let’s be off.”

“Aye. Aye, we should.” But Roger spoke automatically, unable to stop looking at J. W. MacKenzie, RAF, aged twenty-two.

“Who are you?” Jerry asked, staring back. “Where d’ye come from? God knows ye’re not from here!”

Roger exchanged a quick look with Buck. They hadn’t planned what to say; Roger hadn’t been willing to jinx the enterprise by thinking that they’d really find Jerry MacKenzie, and as for Buck—

“Inverness,” Buck said abruptly. He sounded gruff.

Jerry’s eyes flicked back and forth between them, and he caught Roger’s sleeve.

“Ye know what I mean!” he said, and gulped air, bracing himself. “When?”

Roger touched Jerry’s hand, cold and dirty, the fingers long like his own. The question caught at his throat and thickened his voice too much to speak.

“A lang way from you,” Buck said quietly, and for the first time, Roger caught a note of desolation in his voice. “From now. Lost.”

That struck him to the heart. He’d truly forgotten their situation for a little, driven by the urgency of finding this man. But Buck’s answer made Jerry’s face, already drawn with hunger and strain, go white under the dirt.

“Jesus,” Jerry whispered. “Where are we now? And—and when?”

Buck stiffened. Not at Jerry’s question, but at a noise from outside. Roger didn’t know what had made it, but it wasn’t the wind. Buck made a low, urgent noise in his throat, shifting.

“I think it’s part of Northumbria now,” Roger said. “Look, there’s no time. We have to go, before someone hears—”

“Aye, right. Let’s go, then.” Jerry had a filthy silk scarf round his neck; he tugged the ends straight and shoved them into his shirt.

The air outside was wonderful after the smells of the cow byre, fresh with new-turned earth and dying heather. They made their way as quickly as they could through the yard, skirting the farmhouse. Jerry was lame, he saw, limping badly, and Roger took his arm to help. A shrill yap came from the darkness, some distance away—then another bark, in a deeper tone.

Roger hastily licked a finger and held it up to gauge the direction of the breeze. A dog barked again, and another echoed it.

“This way,” he whispered to his companions, tugging Jerry’s arm. He led them away from the house as fast as possible, trying to keep his bearings, and they found themselves stumbling through a plowed field, dirt clods crumbling under their boots.

Buck stumbled and swore under his breath. They lurched from furrow to ridge, half-legged and clumsy, Roger clinging to Jerry’s arm to keep him upright; one of Jerry’s legs seemed gammy and wouldn’t take his weight. He’s been wounded. I saw the medal. . . .

Then the dogs began to bark, voices suddenly clear—and much closer.

“Jesus.” Roger stopped for an instant, breathing hard. Where the bloody hell was the wood they’d hidden in? He’d swear they’d been heading for it, but—the beam from the lantern swung crazily, showing meaningless patches of field. He shut the slide; they’d be better off without it.

“This way!” Buck lurched away and Roger and Jerry followed perforce, hearts thumping. Christ, it sounded like a half-dozen dogs at least had been let loose, all barking. And was that a voice, calling to the dogs? Yes, it bloody was. He couldn’t understand a word, but the meaning was as clear as ice water.

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