McEwan drew a long, trembling breath. “I said . . . she is a very fine herb-alist . . . ?”
“Jesus, Lord,” Roger said. “Did ye know she meant to do it?”
McEwan swallowed audibly, but kept silent.
“My God,” Roger said.
“My God. I know it’s not my place to judge you—but if it was, man, you’d burn in hell.”
And with that, he went downstairs and out into the streets of Cranesmuir, leaving the lot of them to their own devices.
HE’D MADE SIXTEEN circuits of the village square—it was a small square—before getting a precarious hold on his sense of outrage. He stood in front of the Duncans’ front door, fists clenched, taking deep, deliberate breaths.
He had to go back. You didn’t walk away from people who were drowning, even if they’d jumped into a quagmire on purpose. And he didn’t want to think what might happen if McEwan, left to himself, should be overcome by anguish or fury and rush in on the pair in the attic. He really didn’t want to think what Buck—or, God forbid, Geillis—might do in that case, and the thought galvanized him.
He didn’t trouble knocking. Arthur Duncan was the procurator fiscal; his door was always open. The wee maid poked her head out of an inner door at the sound of his footsteps, but when she saw who he was, she drew it in again, doubtless thinking he’d just stepped out for something.
He nearly sprinted up the stair, a guilty conscience now furnishing him with visions of Hector McEwan hanging from the small chandelier in the parlor, helpless feet kicking in the air.
When he burst in, though, he found McEwan slumped forward in the wing chair, face buried in his hands. He didn’t look up at Roger’s entrance and wouldn’t raise his head even when Roger shook him gently by the shoulder.
“Come on, man,” he said gruffly, then cleared his throat. “Ye’re still a doctor, aren’t ye? Ye’re needed.”
That made the man look up, startled. His face was mottled with emotion—anger, shame, desolation, lust. Could lust be an emotion? Roger wondered briefly, but dismissed the consideration as academic at the moment. McEwan straightened his shoulders and rubbed both hands hard over his face, as though trying to erase the feelings so plainly displayed there.
“Who needs me?” he said, and rose to his feet with a decent attempt at composure.
“I do,” Roger said, and cleared his throat again, with a noise like falling gravel. It felt like gravel, too; strong emotion choked him, literally. “Come outside, aye? I need air, and so do you.”
McEwan cast one last look up at the ceiling, where the noises had now ceased, then firmed his lips, nodded, and, taking up his hat from the table, came along.
Roger led the way out of the square and past the last house, then up a cow path, dodging heaps of manure, until they reached a drystane wall that they could sit upon. He sat down himself and gestured to McEwan, who sat obediently. The walk had lent the doctor some semblance of calm, and he turned at once to Roger and spread open his collar—this still flapping loose. Roger felt the ghost of Geillis Duncan’s touch on his throat and shivered, but it was cold out, and McEwan took no notice.
The doctor wrapped his fingers loosely around the scar and seemed to listen for a moment, head to one side. Then he pulled his hand back a little and felt delicately up higher with two probing fingers, then lower, a small frown of concentration on his face.
And Roger felt it. The same odd sensation of light warmth. He’d been holding his breath under the doctor’s touch, but at this realization he exhaled suddenly—and freely.
“Jesus,” he said, and put his own hand to his throat. The word had come freely, too.
“It’s better?” McEwan was looking at him intently, his earlier upset subsumed in professional concern.
“It . . . is.” The scar was still bumpy under his fingers, but something had changed. He cleared his throat experimentally. A little pain, a little blockage—but noticeably better. He lowered his hand and stared at McEwan. “Thank you. What the bloody hell did you do?”
The tension that had been twanging through McEwan since Roger and Buck had entered the Duncans’ house finally eased, just as the tightness in Roger’s throat had.
“I don’t know that I can tell you with any great precision,” he said apologetically. “It’s just that I know what a sound larynx should feel like, and I can tell what yours feels like, and . . .” He shrugged a little, helpless. “I put my fingers there and . . . envision the way it should feel.”
He touched Roger’s throat gently again, exploring. “I can tell that it’s very slightly better now. But there is a good deal of damage. I can’t say whether it would ever be completely healed—in all truth, I doubt it. But if I were to repeat the treatment—it seems to need some time between treatments, no doubt for the tissue to heal, just as an external wound would. So far as I can tell, the optimum time between treatments of a serious injury is about a month; Geillis—” And here his face twitched violently; he had forgotten. He mastered himself with an effort, though, and went on, “Geillis thinks that the process may be affected by the phase of the moon, but she is . . .”
“A witch,” Roger finished for him.
The look of unhappiness had returned to McEwan’s face, and he lowered his head to hide it.
“Perhaps,” he said softly. “Surely she is . . . an unusual woman.”
“And a good thing for the human race that there aren’t more like her,” Roger said, but then checked himself. If he could pray for Jack Randall’s immortal soul, he couldn’t do less for his own great-grandmother, homicidal maniac or not. But the immediate problem was to try to extract the hapless soul before him from her clutches before she could destroy Hector McEwan utterly.
“Dr. McEwan . . . Hector,” he said softly, and laid a hand on the doctor’s arm. “You need to go right away from this place, and from her. She won’t merely bring you great unhappiness or imperil your soul—she may well kill you.”
A look of surprise momentarily displaced the unhappiness in McEwan’s eyes. He looked aside, pursed his mouth, and glanced back at Roger, side-long, as though afraid to look at him too directly.
“Surely you exaggerate,” he said, but the words had no force. McEwan’s own Adam’s apple bobbed visibly as he swallowed.
Roger drew a deep, unconstricted breath and felt the cold, damp air fresh in his chest.
“No,” he said gently. “I don’t. Think about it, aye? And pray, if ye can. There is mercy, aye? And forgiveness.”
McEwan sighed, too, but not with any sense of freedom in it. He cast his eyes down, fixed them on the muddy lane and the rain-dancing puddles in the low spots.
“I cannot,” he said, his voice low and hopeless. “I’ve . . . tried. I can’t.”
Roger’s hand was still on McEwan’s arm. He squeezed, hard, and said, “Then I’ll pray for ye. And for her,” he added, hoping no reluctance showed in his voice.
“Thank you, sir,” the doctor said. “I value that extremely.” But his eyes had lifted and turned, as though he had no power over them, toward Cranesmuir and its smoking chimneys, and Roger knew there was no hope.
HE WALKED BACK to Cranesmuir and waited in the square ’til the door of the Duncans’ house opened and Buck emerged. The man looked mildly surprised—but not displeased—to see Roger, and nodded at him but didn’t speak. They walked together to an ordinary, where they got a room and went upstairs to refresh themselves before supper. The ordinary didn’t run to a bath, but hot water, soap, razor, and towels went some way to restore them to a decent state of cleanliness.
Buck hadn’t spoken a word more than necessary, but he had an odd expression—half pleased and half ashamed—and kept darting sidelong glances at Roger, as though unsure whether to say something but rather wanting to.
Roger poured a cup of water from the ewer, drank half of it, and set the cup down with an air of resignation.
“Tell me you didn’t,” he said finally. “Please.”
Buck shot him a quick glance, looking both shocked at the words and slightly amused.
“No,” he said, after a pause long enough to knot Roger’s belly. “No, I didn’t. I’m no saying I couldn’t have, though,” he added. “She . . . wasn’t unwilling.”
Roger would have said he didn’t want to know, but he wasn’t quite able to deceive himself.
Buck nodded, then picked up the cup of water and dashed the remnants into his own face, shaking them off with a whoof of breath.
“I kissed her,” he said. “Put my hand on her breast.”
Roger had seen the upper slopes of those br**sts as they swelled above her deep-green woolen bodice, round and white as snowdrops—but a lot bigger. By a considerable force of will, he kept himself from asking, “And what happened then?”
He didn’t have to, though; Buck was obviously reliving the experience and wanted nothing more than to talk about it.
“She put her hand on mine, but she didn’t pull my hand away. Not at first. She went on kissing me—” He broke off and looked at Roger, one brow raised. “Have ye kissed many women?”
“I haven’t kept count,” Roger said, with a slight edge. “Have you?”
“Four besides her,” Buck said contemplatively. He shook his head. “That was different.”
“I’d expect it would be. Kissing your mother, I mean—”
“Not that kind of different.” Buck touched his lips with two fingers, lightly as a girl might. “The other kind. Or maybe I dinna mean that, quite. I kissed a whore once, and it wasna like that at all.” He patted his lips absently for a moment, then realized what he was doing and drew his hand away, looking momentarily embarrassed. “Ever gone wi’ a whore?”
“I have not,” Roger said, trying not to sound censorious, but not managing all that well.
Buck shrugged, dismissing it.
“Well, so. She kept my hand on her breast while she took her time about kissin’ me. But then . . .” He paused, blushing, and Roger drew himself up. Buck, blushing?
“What, then?” he asked, unable to refrain.
“Well, she drew it down, ken, over her body, very slow, and still kissin’ me, and—well, I must have heard her skirts rustle, mustn’t I? But I wasna paying attention, because when she took my hand and put it on her . . . erm . . . lady part, I thought I’d pass out from the shock.”
“Her—was she—it, I mean—naked?”
“Bare as an egg, and just as bald, too,” Buck assured him. “Have ye ever heard of such a thing?”
“I have, aye.”
Buck stared at him, green eyes wide.
“Ye mean your wife—”
“I bloody don’t,” Roger snapped. “Don’t ye dare speak of Brianna, an amaidan, or I’ll gie you your head in your hands to play with.”
“You and who else?” Buck said automatically, but waved a hand to calm Roger. “Why did ye not tell me my mother was a whore?”
“I wouldn’t tell ye something like that, even if I knew it for a fact, and I didn’t,” Roger said.
Buck looked at him for a moment in silence, eyes direct. “Ye’ll never make a decent minister,” he said at last, “if ye can’t be honest.”
The words were said objectively, without heat—and stung the more on that account, being true. Roger breathed in hard through his nose and out again.
“All right,” he said. And told Buck everything he knew, or thought he knew, concerning Gillian Edgars, alias Geillis Duncan.
“Jesus God,” Buck said, blinking.
“Aye,” Roger said shortly. Buck’s description of his encounter with his mother had given Roger a vividly disturbing image of Brianna, and he hadn’t been able to dismiss it. He hungered for her, and as a result was acutely aware of Buck’s lingering images of Geillis; he saw the man’s hand absently cup itself, fingers drawing slowly in, as though he were guddling—Christ, he could smell her on Buck’s flesh, pungent and taunting.
“So now ye’ve met her,” Roger said abruptly, looking away. “And now ye ken what she is. Is that enough, do ye think?” He was careful to make the question no more than a question, and Buck nodded, but not in answer, more as though he were having an internal conversation—with himself or with Geillis, Roger didn’t know.
“My father,” Buck said thoughtfully, without actually answering. “From what he said when we met him at the MacLarens’ croft, I thought he maybe didna ken her yet. But he was interested, ye could tell that.” He looked suddenly at Roger, a thought having struck him.
“D’ye think it was meeting us that made him—will make him,” he corrected, with a grimace, “go and find her?” He glanced down, then back up at Roger. “Would I not exist if we hadn’t come to find your wee lad, I mean?”
Roger felt the usual sense of startled creepiness at realizations of this sort, something like having cold fingers suddenly laid against the small of his back.
“Maybe so,” he said. “But I doubt ye’ll ever know that. Not for sure.”
He was glad enough to leave the subject of Geillis Duncan, though Buck’s other parent was probably no less dangerous.
“D’ye think ye need to speak with Dougal MacKenzie?” Roger asked carefully. He didn’t want to go anywhere near Castle Leoch or the MacKenzies, but Buck had a right to do it if he wanted, and Roger himself had an obligation—two of them, as kin and as priest—to help him if he did. And however such a conversation might work out, he doubted very much that it would be as disconcerting as the meeting with Geillis.