I have these brief lucid moments when everything seems okay and I’m filled with hope, almost trembling with anticipation. Most of the time, I keep thinking I’m insane, and then I’m really shaking.
THE SUCCUBUS OF CRANESMUIR
ROGER AND BUCK stood at the far side of the tiny square in the middle of Cranesmuir, looking up at the fiscal’s house. Roger cast a bleak look at the plinth in the middle of the square, with its wooden pillory. At least there were holes for only one miscreant; no crime waves in Cranesmuir.
“The attic, ye said?” Buck was staring intently at the windows of the top story. It was a substantial house, with leaded windows, and even the attic had some, though smaller than the ones in the lower stories. “I can see plants hanging from the ceiling, I think.”
“That’s what Claire said, aye. That she keeps her . . . her”—the word “lair” came to mind, but he discarded this in favor of—“her surgery up there. Where she makes up her potions and charms.” He inspected his cuffs, which were still damp after a hasty sponge bath at the village horse trough to remove the worst stains of travel, and checked to see that his hair ribbon was in order.
The door opened and a man came out—a merchant, maybe, or a lawyer, well dressed, with a warm coat against the mizzle. Buck shifted to one side, peering to get a look before the door closed behind him.
“There’s a servant at the door,” he reported. “I’ll knock, then, and ask if I can see—Mrs. Duncan, is that her name?”
“For the moment, aye,” Roger said. He sympathized entirely with Buck’s need to see his mother. And in all truth, he was curious to meet the woman himself; she was his five-times great-grandmother—and one of the few time travelers he knew about. But he’d also heard enough about her that his feelings were of excitement mixed with considerable unease.
He coughed, fist to his mouth. “D’ye want me to come up with you? If she’s to home, I mean.”
Buck opened his mouth to reply, then closed it, considered a moment, then nodded.
“Aye, I do,” he said quietly. He shot Roger a sidelong look, though, with a gleam of humor in it. “Ye can help keep the conversation going.”
“Happy to help,” Roger said. “We’re agreed, though: ye dinna mean to tell her who ye are. Or what.”
Buck nodded again, though his eyes were now fixed on the door, and Roger thought he wasn’t attending.
“Aye,” he said. “Come on, then,” and strode across the square, head up and shoulders squared.
“Mrs. Duncan? Well, I dinna ken, gentlemen,” the maid said. “She’s to hame the day, but Dr. McEwan’s with her just noo.”
Roger’s heart jumped.
“Is she ill?” Buck asked sharply, and the maid blinked, surprised.
“Och, no. They’re takin’ tea in the parlor. Would ye like to step in oot the rain and I’ll go and see what she says?” She stepped back to let them in, and Roger took advantage of this to touch her arm.
“Dr. McEwan’s a friend of ours. Would ye maybe be giving him our names? Roger and William MacKenzie—at his service.”
They discreetly shook as much water as possible off their hats and coats, but within a few moments the maid was back, smiling.
“Come up, gentlemen, Mrs. Duncan says, and welcome! Just up the stair there. I’ll just be fetching ye a bit o’ tea.”
The parlor was one floor above, a small room, rather crowded, but warm and colorful. Neither of the men had eyes for the furnishings, though.
“Mr. MacKenzie,” Dr. McEwan said, looking surprised but cordial. “And Mr. MacKenzie.” He shook hands with them and turned to the woman who had risen from her seat beside the fire. “My dear, allow me to make you acquainted with an erstwhile patient of mine and his kinsman. Gentlemen, Mrs. Duncan.”
Roger felt Buck stiffen slightly, and no wonder. He hoped he wasn’t staring himself.
Geillis Duncan was maybe not a classic beauty, but that didn’t matter. She was certainly good-looking, with creamy-blond hair put up under a lace cap, and—of course—the eyes. Eyes that made him want to close his own and poke Buck in the back to make him do the same, because surely she or McEwan would notice. . . .
McEwan had noticed something, all right, but it wasn’t the eyes. He was eyeing Buck with a small frown of displeasure, as Buck took a long stride forward, seized the woman’s hand, and boldly kissed it.
“Mrs. Duncan,” he said, straightening up and smiling right into those clear green eyes. “Your most humble and obedient servant, ma’am.”
She smiled back, one blond brow raised, with an amused look that met Buck’s implied challenge—and raised it. Even from where he was standing, Roger felt the snap of attraction between them, sharp as a spark of static electricity. So had McEwan.
“How is your health, Mr. MacKenzie?” McEwan said pointedly to Buck. He pulled a chair into place. “Do sit down and let me examine you.”
Buck either didn’t hear or pretended not to. He was still holding Geillis Duncan’s hand, and she wasn’t pulling it away.
“’Twas kind of you to receive us, ma’am,” he said. “And certainly we don’t mean to disturb your tea. We’d heard of your skill as a healer and meant to call in what you might say is a professional way.”
“Professional,” she repeated, and Roger was surprised at her voice. It was light, almost girlish. Then she smiled again and the illusion of girlishness vanished. She drew her hand away now, but with a languid air of reluctance, her eyes still fixed on Buck with obvious interest. “Your profession, or mine?”
“Ah, I’m naught but a humble solicitor, ma’am,” Buck said, with a gravity so patently mock that Roger wanted to punch him. Then he added, turning to Roger, “and my kinsman here is a scholar and musician. But as ye see, he’s suffered a sad accident to his throat, and—”
Now Roger truly wanted to punch him. “I—” he began, but with the cruel whim of fate, his throat chose that moment to constrict, and his protest ended in a gurgle like a rusty pipe.
“We’d heard of ye, mistress, as I said,” Buck went on, putting a sympathetic hand on Roger’s shoulder and squeezing hard. “And as I say, we wondered . . .”
“Let me see,” she said, and came to stand in front of Roger, her face suddenly a few inches from his. Behind her, McEwan was growing red in the face.
“I’ve seen this man,” he told her. “It’s a permanent injury, though I was able to offer some small relief. But—”
“Permanent, indeed.” She’d undone his neckcloth in seconds and spread his shirt open, her fingers warm and light on his scar. She shifted her gaze and looked directly into his eyes. “But a lucky one, I’d say. You didn’t die.”
“No,” he said, his voice hoarse but at least serviceable again. “I didn’t.” God, she was unsettling. Claire had described her vividly—but Claire was a woman. She was still touching him, and while her touch was not in any way improper, it was damned intimate.
Buck was growing restive; he didn’t like her touching Roger any more than McEwan did. He cleared his throat.
“I wonder, mistress—might ye have any simples, medicines, perhaps? Not only for my kinsman here, but . . . well . . .” He coughed in a way meant to indicate that he harbored more-delicate ailments that he didn’t wish to mention before others.
The woman smelled of sex. Very recent sex. It rose from her like incense.
She stayed in front of Roger for a moment, still looking intently into his face, but then smiled and took her hand away, leaving his throat feeling suddenly cool and exposed.
“Of course,” she said, switching smile and attention to Buck. “Come up to my wee attic, sir. I’m sure I’ve something there that will cure what ails ye.”
Roger felt gooseflesh ripple across his chest and shoulders, in spite of the good fire on the hearth. Buck and McEwan had both twitched slightly, and she bloody well knew it, though her face was entirely composed. Roger fixed a glare on Buck, willing his ancestor to look at him. Buck didn’t but moved to take Geillis’s arm, pulling her hand through his elbow. A slow, hot flush burned up the back of his neck.
McEwan made a very small noise in his throat.
Then Buck and Geillis were gone, the sound of their footsteps and animated voices dying away as they climbed the stairs to the attic, leaving Roger and McEwan both silent, each for his own reasons.
ROGER THOUGHT that the good doctor might be about to suffer an apoplexy, if that was the correct medical term for “blow a gasket.” Whatever his own feelings about the abrupt departure of Buck and Geillis—and those were vivid—they paled beside the hue of Hector McEwan’s face.
The doctor was panting slightly, his complexion puce. Plainly he wanted to follow the errant pair but just as clearly was constrained by the fact that he had no idea what he might conceivably do when he caught up with them.
“It’s not what you think,” Roger said, commending his soul to God and hoping that it wasn’t.
McEwan swung round to glare at him. “The devil it’s not,” he snapped. “You don’t know her.”
“Plainly not as well as you do, no,” Roger said pointedly, and raised one brow.
McEwan said something blasphemous in reply, took up the poker, and stabbed viciously at the smoking bricks of peat in the hearth. He half-turned toward the door, the poker still in his hand, and the look on his face was such that Roger leapt to his feet and grabbed him by the arm.
“Stop, man,” he said, keeping his voice pitched as low and evenly as he could, in hopes of soothing McEwan. “Ye’ll do yourself no good. Sit down, now. I’ll tell ye why it—why he—why the man’s interested in her.”
“For the same reason every dog in the village is interested in a bitch in heat,” McEwan said venomously. But he let Roger take the poker from his hand, and while he wouldn’t sit down, he did at least take several deep breaths that restored a semblance of calm.
“Aye, tell me, then—for all the good it will do,” he said.
It wasn’t a situation that allowed for diplomacy or euphemism.
“She’s his mother, and he knows it,” Roger said bluntly.
Whatever McEwan had been expecting, that wasn’t it, and for an instant, Roger was gratified to see the man’s face go absolutely blank with shock. Only for an instant, though. It was likely going to be a tricky bit of pastoral counseling, at best.
“Ye know what he is,” Roger said, taking the doctor by the arm again and pulling him toward a brocaded wing chair. “Or, rather, what we are. Cognosco te?”
“I—” McEwan’s voice died, though he opened and closed his mouth a few times, helplessly looking for words.
“Aye, I know,” Roger said soothingly. “It’s difficult. But ye do know, don’t ye?”
“I—yes.” McEwan sat down abruptly. He breathed for a moment, blinked once or twice, and looked up at Roger.
“His mother. His mother?”
“I have it on good authority,” Roger assured him. A thought struck him, though.
“Ah . . . ye did know about her, didn’t ye? That she’s . . . one of us?”
McEwan nodded. “She’s never admitted it. Just—just laughed at me when I told her where I’d come from. And I didn’t know for a long time. Not until I—” His lips clamped abruptly into a tight line.
“I’m guessing ye didn’t have occasion to heal her of anything,” Roger said carefully. “Does she . . . er . . . has it got anything to do with blue light, by chance?”
He was trying hard to avoid the mental picture of Geillis and Dr. McEwan, naked and sweating, both bathed in a faint blue glow. The woman was his several-times great-grandmother, whatever else you liked to say about her.
McEwan gave him a bleak look and shook his head.
“Not . . . exactly. She’s a very fine herbalist and not bad at diagnosis, but she can’t—do that.” He twiddled his fingers briefly in illustration, and Roger felt a faint memory of the warmth when McEwan had touched his throat.
The doctor sighed and rubbed a hand over his face.
“No point in evasion, I suppose. I got her with child. And I could—‘see’ is not quite the right word, but I can’t think of a better one. I could see the moment when my . . . seed . . . reached her ovum. The . . . er . . . the fetus. It glowed inside her womb; I could sense it when I touched her.”
A certain heat rose in Roger’s face. “Forgive me for asking, but—how do you know that happened because she’s . . . what she is? Might it not be the case with a normal woman?”
McEwan smiled—very bleakly—at the word “normal,” and shook his head.
“I had two children by a woman in Edinburgh, in—in my own time,” he said quietly, and looked down at his feet. “That . . . was one of the reasons I didn’t try to return.”
Roger made a sound in his damaged throat that was meant to be regretful and compassionate, but whether his feelings or his larynx had got the better of him, it emerged as a rather stern “Hrmph!” and McEwan’s color began to rise again.
“I know,” he said wretchedly. “I don’t seek to—to excuse it.”
Just as well, Roger thought. I’d like to see ye try, you—you— But recriminations would do no one any good just now, and he stifled whatever else he might have said on the subject, instead returning to Geillis.
“Ye said ye got her”—jerking his chin upward, to where the sounds of footsteps and bumpings were audible overhead—“with child. Where is the child?”