“And how much longer will you live?” I asked.
The irony turned inward, but the silver voice stayed steady.
“A bit less than that, I expect. No great matter. I’ve managed a good deal in the time I had; ten thousand pounds diverted to France, and the district roused for Prince Charles. Come the Rising, I shall know I helped. If I live so long.”
She stood nearly under the hole in the roof. My eyes were sufficiently accustomed to the darkness that she showed as a pale shape in the murk, a premature and unlaid ghost. She turned abruptly toward me.
“Whatever happens with the examiners, I have no regrets, Claire.”
“I regret only that I have but one life to give for my country?” I asked ironically.
“That’s nicely put,” she said.
“Isn’t it, just?”
We fell silent as it grew darker. The black of the hole seemed a tangible force, pressing cold and heavy on my chest, clogging my lungs with the scent of death. At last I huddled into as close a ball as I could, put my head on my knees, and gave up the fight, lapsing into an uneasy doze on the edge between cold and panic.
“Do ye love the man, then?” Geilie asked suddenly.
I raised my head from my knees, startled. I had no idea what time it was; one faint star shone overhead, but shed no light into the hole.
“Who else?” she said dryly. “It’s his name ye call out in your sleep.”
“I didn’t know I did that.”
“Well, do ye?” The cold encouraged a sort of deadly drowsiness, but Geilie’s prodding voice dragged me a bit further out of my stupor.
I hugged my knees, rocking slightly back and forth. The light from the hole above had faded away to the soft dark of early night. The examiners would arrive within the next day or so. It was getting a bit late for prevarications, either to myself or anyone else. While I still found it difficult to admit that I might be in serious danger of death, I was beginning to understand the instinct that made condemned prisoners seek shriving on the eve of execution.
“Really love him, I mean,” Geilie persisted. “Not just want to bed him; I know you want that, and he does too. They all do. But do you love him?”
Did I love him? Beyond the urges of the flesh? The hole had the dark anonymity of the confessional, and a soul on the verge of death had no time for lies.
“Yes,” I said, and laid my head back on my knees.
It was silent in the hole for some time, and I hovered once more on the verge of sleep, when I heard her speak once more, as though to herself.
“So it’s possible,” she said thoughtfully.
The examiners arrived a day later. From the dankness of the thieves’ hole, we could hear the stir of their arrival; the shouts of the villagers, and the clopping of horses on the stone of the High Street. The bustle grew fainter as the procession passed down the street toward the distant square.
“They’ve come,” said Geilie, listening to the excitement above.
We clasped hands reflexively, enmities buried in fear.
“Well,” I said, with attempted bravado, “I suppose being burned is better than freezing to death.”
In the event, we continued to freeze. It was not until noon of the next day that the door of our prison slid abruptly back, and we were pulled out of the pit to be taken to trial.
No doubt to accommodate the crowd of spectators, the session was held in the square, before the Duncans’ house. I saw Geilie glance up briefly at the diamond-paned windows of her parlor, then turn away, expressionless.
There were two ecclesiastical examiners, seated on padded stools behind a table that had been erected in the square. One judge was abnormally tall and thin, the other short and stout. They reminded me irresistibly of an American comic-paper I had once seen; not knowing their names, I mentally christened the tall one Mutt and the other Jeff.
Most of the village was there. Looking about, I could see a good many of my former patients. But the inhabitants of the Castle were notably absent.
It was John MacRae, locksman of the village of Cranesmuir, who read out the dittay, or indictment, against the persons of one Geillis Duncan and one Claire Fraser, both accused before the Church’s court of the crime of witchcraft.
“Stating in evidence whereof the accused did cause the death of Arthur Duncan, by means of witchcraft,” MacRae read, in a firm, steady voice. “And whereas they did procure the death of the unborn child of Janet Robinson, did cause the boat of Thomas MacKenzie to sink, did bring upon the village of Cranesmuir a wasting sickness of the bowels…”
It went on for some time. Colum had been thorough in his preparations.
After the reading of the dittay, the witnesses were called. Most of them were villagers I didn’t recognize; none of my own patients were among them, a fact for which I was grateful.
While the testimony of many of the witnesses was simply absurd, and other witnesses had plainly been paid for their services, some had a clear ring of truth to their words. Janet Robinson, for example, who was haled before the court by her father, pale and trembling, with a purple bruise on her cheek, to confess that she had conceived a child by a married man, and sought to rid herself of it, through the offices of Geillis Duncan.
“She gave me a draft to drink, and a charm to say three times, at the rising o’ the moon,” the girl mumbled, glancing fearfully from Geillis to her father, unsure which one posed the greatest threat. “She said ’twould bring my courses on.”
“And did it?” Jeff asked with interest.
“Not at the first, your honor,” the girl answered, bobbing her head nervously. “But I took the draft again, at the waning o’ the moon, and then it started.”
“Started?! The lassie near bled to death!” An elderly lady, plainly the girl’s mother, broke in. “ ’Twas only because she felt herself to be dyin’ as she told me the truth o’ the matter.” More than willing to add to the gory details, Mrs. Robinson was shut up with some difficulty, in order to make way for the succeeding witnesses.
There seemed to be no one with anything in particular to say about me, aside from the vague accusation that since I had been present at Arthur Duncan’s death, and had laid hands on him before he died, clearly I must have had something to do with it. I began to think that Geilie was right; I had not been Colum’s target. That being so, I thought it possible that I would escape. Or at least I thought so until the hill woman appeared.
When she came forward, a thin, bowed woman with a yellow shawl, I sensed that we were in serious trouble. She was not one of the villagers; no one I had ever seen before. Her feet were bare, stained with the dust of the road she had walked to come here.
“Have ye a charge to make against either o’ the women here?” asked the tall, thin judge.
The woman was afraid; she wouldn’t raise her eyes to look at the judges. She bobbed her head briefly, though, and the crowd quieted its murmur to hear her.
Her voice was low, and Mutt had to ask her to repeat herself.
She and her husband had an ailing child, born healthy but then turned puny and unthrifty. Finally deciding that the child was a fairy changeling, they had placed it in the Fairy’s Seat on the hill of Croich Gorm. Keeping watch so as to recover their own child when the fairies should return it, they had seen the two ladies standing here go to the Fairy’s Seat, pick up the child and speak strange spells over it.
The woman twisted her thin hands together, working them under her apron.
“We watched through the nicht, sirs. And when the dark came, soon after there cam’ a great demon, a huge black shape comin’ through the shadows wi’ no sound, to lean ower the spot where we’d laid the babe.”
There was an awed murmur from the crowd, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stir slightly, even knowing as I did that the “great demon” had been Jamie, gone to see whether the child still lived. I braced myself, knowing what was coming next.
“And when the sun rose, my man and I went to see. And there we found the changeling babe, dead on the hill, and no sign of our own wee bairn.” At this, she broke, and threw her apron over her face to hide her weeping.
As though the mother of the changeling had been a signal of some sort, the crowd parted and the figure of Peter the drover came out. I groaned inwardly when I saw him. I had felt the emotions of the crowd turn against me as the woman spoke; all I needed now was for this man to tell the court about the waterhorse.
Enjoying his moment of celebrity, the drover drew himself up and pointed dramatically at me.
“ ’Tis right ye are to call her witch, my lords! Wi’ my own eyes I saw this woman call up a waterhorse from the waters of the Evil Loch, to do her bidding! A great fearsome creature, sirs, tall as a pine tree, wi’ a neck like a great blue snake, an’ eyes big as apples, wi’ a look in them as would steal the soul from a man.”
The judges appeared impressed with his testimony, and whispered between themselves for several minutes, while Peter glared defiantly at me, with a “that’ll show you!” sort of look.
At length, the fat judge broke from the conference and beckoned imperiously to John MacRae, who stood to one side, alert for trouble.
“Locksman!” he said. He turned and pointed at the drover.
“Tak’ that man away and shut him up in the pillory for public drunkenness. This is a solemn coort o’ law; we’ll no ha’ the time of the examiners wasted by frivolous accusations from a sot who sees waterhorses when he’s taken too much whisky!”
Peter the drover was so astonished that he did not even resist as the locksman strode firmly forward and took him by the arm. Mouth hanging open, he glared back wildly in my direction as he was led away. I couldn’t resist fluttering my fingers in a tiny salute after him.
After this slight break in the tension of the proceedings, though, things got rapidly worse. There was a procession of girls and women to swear that they had bought charms and philtres from Geillis Duncan, for purposes such as causing illness, ridding oneself of an unwanted babe, or casting spells of love upon some man. All, without exception, swore that the charms had worked—an enviable record for a general practitioner, I thought cynically. While no one claimed such results for me, there were several to say—truthfully—that they had seen me often in Mrs. Duncan’s herb room, mixing medicines and grinding herbs.
Still, that might not have been fatal; there were an equal number of people to claim that I had healed them, using nothing more than ordinary medicines, with nothing in the way of spells, charms, or general hocus-pocus. Given the force of public opinion, it took some nerve for these people to step forward to testify in my behalf, and I was grateful.
My feet were aching from standing so long; while the judges sat in relative comfort, no stools were provided for the prisoners. But when the next witness appeared, I entirely forgot my feet.
With an instinct for drama that rivaled Colum’s, Father Bain flung wide the door of the kirk and emerged into the square, limping heavily on an oaken crutch. He advanced slowly to the center of the square, inclined his head to the judges, then turned and surveyed the crowd, until his steely glare had reduced the noise to a low, uneasy muttering. When he spoke, his voice lashed out like the crack of a whip.
“It’s a judgment on ye, ye folk o’ Cranesmuir! ‘Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth with his feet.’ Aye, ye’ve allowed yerselves to be seduced from the paths o’ righteousness! Ye’ve sown the wind, and the whirlwind’s amongst ye now!”
I stared, somewhat taken aback by this unsuspected gift for rhetoric. Or perhaps he was capable of such flights of oratory only under the stimulus of crisis. The florid voice thundered on.
“The pestilence will come upon ye, and ye shall die o’ your sins, unless ye be cleansed! Ye’ve welcomed the whore of Babylon into yer midst”—That was me, I assumed, from the glare he shot at me—“Ye’ve sold your soul to your enemies, ye’ve taken the English viper to your bosom, and now the vengeance o’ the Lord God Almighty is on ye. ‘Deliver thee from the strange woman, even from the stranger that flattereth with her words. For her house inclineth unto death, and her paths unto the dead.’ Repent, people, before it’s too late! Fall to your knees, I say, and pray for forgiveness! Cast out the English whore, and renounce your bargain wi’ the spawn o’ Satan!” He snatched the rosary from his belt and brandished the large wooden crucifix in my direction.
Entertaining as this all was, I could see Mutt becoming rather restive. Professional jealousy, perhaps.
“Er, your Reverence,” the judge said, with a slight bow in Father Bain’s direction, “have ye evidence to bring as to the charge regarding these women?”
“That I have.” The first explosion of oratory spent, the little priest was calm now. He leveled a menacing forefinger in my direction and I had to brace myself to keep from taking a step backward.
“At noonday on a Tuesday, two weeks past, I met this woman in the gardens of Castle Leoch. Using unnatural powers, she called down a pack of hounds upon me, such that I fell before them, and was in mortal peril. Bein’ wounded grievously in the leg, I made to leave her presence. The woman tried to lure me wi’ her sinfulness, to go awa’ in private with her, and when I resisted her wiles, she cast a curse upon me.”
“What bloody nonsense!” I said indignantly. “That’s the most ridiculous exaggeration I’ve ever heard!”
Father Bain’s eye, dark and glittering as with fever, swiveled from the examiners and fixed on me.
“Do ye deny, woman, that ye said these words to me? ‘Come with me now, priest, or your wound shall fester and go putrid’?”
“Well, tone it down a bit, but something to that effect, perhaps,” I admitted.
Jaw clenched in triumph, the priest whipped aside the skirts of his soutane. A bandage stained with dried blood and wet with yellow pus encircled his thigh. The pale flesh of the leg puffed above and below the bandage, with ominous red streaks extending up from the hidden wound.
“Jesus Christ, man!” I said, shocked at the sight. “You’ve got blood poisoning. You need it tended, and right now, or you’ll die!”
There was a deep murmur of shock from the crowd. Even Mutt and Jeff seemed a bit stunned.
Father Bain shook his head slowly.
“You hear?” he demanded. “The temerity of the woman kens nae bounds. She curses me wi’ death, a man of God, before the judgment seat of the kirk itself!”
The excited murmuring of the crowd grew louder. Father Bain spoke again, raising his voice slightly in order to be heard over the noise.
“I leave ye, gentlemen, wi’ the judgment o’ your own senses, and the injunction o’ the Lord—‘Ye shallna suffer a witch to live!’ ”
Father Bain’s dramatic evidence put a stop to the testimony. Presumably no one was prepared to top that performance. The judges called a short recess and were brought refreshments from the inn. No such amenities were forthcoming for the accused.
I braced myself and pulled experimentally against my bonds. The leather of the straps creaked a bit, but didn’t give an inch. This, I thought cynically, trying to still my panic, was surely where the dashing young hero was meant to ride through the crowd, beating back the cringing townspeople and scooping the fainting her**ne up onto his saddle.
But my own dashing young hero was out in the forest somewhere, swilling ale with an aging poofter of noble blood and slaughtering innocent deer. It was rather unlikely, I thought, gritting my teeth, that Jamie would return in time even to gather up my ashes for ceremonial disposal, before I was scattered to the four winds.
Preoccupied with my growing fear, I didn’t at first hear the hoofbeats. It was only as the faint murmurs and head-turnings of the crowd attracted my attention that I noticed the rhythmic clopping, ringing from the stones of the High Street.
The murmurs of surprise grew louder, and the fringes of the crowd began to draw apart to admit the rider, still beyond the range of my sight. Despite my earlier despair, I began to feel a faint flicker of illogical hope. What if Jamie had come back early? Perhaps the Duke’s advances had been too pressing, or the deer too few and far between. Whatever it might be, I strained on tiptoe to see the face of the approaching rider.
The ranks of the crowd parted reluctantly as the horse, a strong bay, poked its long nose between two sets of shoulders. Before the astonished eyes of everyone—including me—the sticklike figure of Ned Gowan spryly dismounted.
Jeff surveyed the spare, neat form before him with some astonishment.
“And you are, sir?” No doubt his tone of reluctant courtesy was a result of the visitor’s silver shoe-buckles and velvet coat—employment with the laird of clan MacKenzie was not without its compensations.
“My name is Edward Gowan, your lordship,” he said precisely. “Solicitor.”
Mutt hunched his shoulders and wriggled a bit; the stool he had been provided had no back, and his lengthy torso was no doubt feeling the strain. I stared hard at him, wishing him a herniated lumbar disk. If I were about to be burnt for having an evil eye, I thought, let it count for something.
“Solicitor?” he rumbled. “What brings you here, then?”
Ned Gowan’s grey peruke inclined itself in the most precise of formal bows.
“I have come to offer my humble services in the support of Mistress Fraser, your lordships,” he said, “a most gracious lady, whom I know of my own witness to be as kind and beneficial in the administration of the healing arts as she is knowledgeable in their application.”
Very nice, I thought approvingly. Get a blow in for our side first thing. Looking across the square, I could see Geilie’s mouth quirk up in a half-admiring, half-derisive smile. While Ned Gowan wouldn’t be everyone’s choice as Prince Charming, I was not inclined to be picky at a time like this. I would take my champions as they came.
With a bow to the judges and another, no less formal, to myself, Mr. Gowan drew himself still straighter than his normal upright posture, braced both thumbs in the waist of his breeks, and prepared with all the romanticism of his aged, gallant heart to do battle, fighting with the law’s chosen weapon of excruciating boredom.
Boring he most certainly was. With the deadly precision of an automated mincing machine, he arranged each charge of the dittay on the slab of his scrutiny and diced it ruthlessly into shreds with the blade of statute and the cleaver of precedent.