It was a noble performance. He talked. And he talked. And he talked some more, seeming occasionally to pause respectfully for instruction from the bench, but in fact only drawing breath for another onslaught of verbiage.
With my life hanging in the balance, and my future entirely dependent on the eloquence of this skinny little man, I should have hung rapt on his every word. Instead, I found myself yawning appallingly, unable to cover my gaping mouth, and shifting from foot to aching foot, wishing fervently that they would burn me at once and end this torture.
The crowd appeared to feel much the same, and as the high excitement of the morning faded into ennui, Mr. Gowan’s small, tidy voice went on and on and on. People began to drift away, suddenly mindful of beasts that needed milking and floors that wanted sweeping, secure in the surety that nothing of any interest could possibly happen while that deadly voice droned on.
When Ned Gowan finally finished his initial defense, evening had set in; and the squatty judge I had named Jeff announced that the court would reconvene in the morning.
After a short, muttering conference amongst Ned Gowan, Jeff, and John MacRae the locksman, I was led off toward the inn between two burly townsmen. Casting a glance over my shoulder, I saw Geilie being moved away in the opposite direction, back straight, refusing to be hurried, or for that matter, to acknowledge her surroundings in any way.
In the dark back room of the inn, my bonds were at last removed, and a candle brought. Then Ned Gowan arrived, bearing a bottle of ale and a plate of meat and bread.
“I’ve but the few minutes with ye, my dear, and that hard-won, so listen closely.” The little man leaned nearer, conspiratorial in the flickering candlelight. His eyes were bright, and save a slight disarrangement of his peruke, he gave no hint of exertion or fatigue.
“Mr. Gowan, I am so glad to see you,” I said sincerely.
“Yes, yes, my dear,” he said, “but there’s no time for that now.” He patted my hand in a kindly but perfunctory fashion.
“I’ve succeeded in getting them to consider your case as separate from that of Mrs. Duncan, and that may be of help. It would appear that there was no original intent to arrest you, but that you were taken because of your association with the w—with Mrs. Duncan.”
“Still,” he continued briskly, “there is some danger to ye, and I’ll not hide it from you. The climate of opinion in the village is none too favorable to ye at present. What possessed ye,” he demanded, with uncharacteristic heatedness, “to touch that child?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but he waved the question aside impatiently.
“Ah, well, it’s of no matter now. What we must do is to play upon the fact of your Englishness—and hence your ignorance, ye ken, not your strangeness—and draw matters out so long as we may. Time is on our side, ye see, for the worst of these trials take place in a climate of hysteria, when the soundness of evidence may be disregarded for the sake of satisfyin’ blood-hunger.”
Blood-hunger. That captured completely the feeling of the emotion I had felt emanating from the faces of the mob. Here and there I saw some traces of doubt or sympathy, but it was a rare soul who would stand against a crowd, and Cranesmuir was rather lacking in characters of that stamp. Or no, I corrected myself. There was one—this dry little Edinburgh lawyer, tough as the old boot he so strongly resembled.
“The longer we go on,” Mr. Gowan continued matter-of-factly, “the less inclined anyone will be to take hasty action. So,” he said, hands on his knees, “your part on the morrow is only to keep silent. I shall do all the talkin’, and pray God it will be to some effect.”
“That seems sound enough,” I said, with a weary attempt at a smile. I glanced at the door to the front of the inn, where voices were being raised. Catching my look, Mr. Gowan nodded.
“Aye, I’ll have to leave ye momentarily. I’ve arranged that you’ll spend the night here.” He glanced around dubiously. A small shed tacked on to the inn, and used mostly for the storage of oddments and spare supplies, it was cold and dark, but an improvement of several-fold over the thieves’ hole.
The door to the shed opened, silhouetting the form of the inn-keeper, peering into the dark behind the pale waver of a candle flame. Mr. Gowan rose to go, but I gripped him by the sleeve. There was one thing I needed to know.
“Mr. Gowan—did Colum send you to help me?” He hesitated in his reply, but within the limits of his profession, he was a man of irreproachable honesty.
“No,” he said bluntly. A look almost of embarrassment flitted over his withered features, and he added, “I came for…for myself.” He clapped his hat upon his head and turned to the door, wishing me a brief “Good e’en,” before disappearing into the light and bustle of the inn.
There had been little preparation for my accommodation, but a small jug of wine and a loaf of bread—clean, this time—sat on one of the hogsheads, and there was an old blanket folded on the ground at its foot.
I wrapped myself in the blanket and sat down on one of the smaller casks to dine, musing as I munched the sparse fare.
So Colum had not sent the lawyer. Had he known, even, that Mr. Gowan intended to come? Chances were that Colum had forbidden anyone to come down to the village, for fear of being caught up in the witch-hunt. The waves of fear and hysteria that swept over the village were palpable; I could feel them beating against the walls of my flimsy shelter.
A noisy outburst from the nearby taproom distracted me from my thoughts. Perhaps it was only deathwatch plus one. But on the edge of destruction, even an extra hour was cause for thanks. I rolled myself up in the blanket, pulled it over my head to shut out the noises from the inn, and tried very hard to feel nothing but gratitude.
After an exceedingly restless night, I was roused soon after dawn and marched back out to the square, though the judges didn’t arrive for another hour.
Fine, fat, and full of breakfast, they buckled straight down to work. Jeff turned to John MacRae, who had returned to his station behind the accused.
“We find ourselves unable to determine guilt solely on the basis of the evidence presented.” There was a burst of outrage from the regathered crowd, which had made its own determination, but this was quelled by Mutt, who turned a pair of eyes like gimlets on the young workmen in the front row, quieting their yapping like dogs doused with cold water. Order restored, he turned his angular face back to the locksman.
“Conduct the prisoners to the loch side, if ye please.” There was a pleased sound of expectation at this that roused all my worst suspicions. John MacRae took me by one arm and Geilie by the other, to steer us along, but he had plenty of help. Vicious hands tore at my gown, pinching and pushing as I was yanked along. Some idiot had a drum, and was beating out a ragged tattoo. The crowd was chanting in a rough rhythm to the tuck of the drum, something that I didn’t catch among the random shouts and cries. I didn’t think I wanted to know what they were saying.
The procession flowed down the meadow to the edge of the loch, where a small wooden quay projected into the water. We were pulled out to the end of this, where the two judges had taken up their posts, one at either side of the quay. Jeff turned to the crowd waiting onshore.
“Bring out the cords!” There was a general mutter and expectant looking around from one to another, until someone ran up hastily with a length of thin rope. MacRae took it and approached me rather hesitantly. He stole a glance at the examiners, though, which seemed to harden his resolve.
“Please be so kind as to remove your shoon, Ma’am,” he ordered.
“What the he—, what for?” I demanded, crossing my arms.
He blinked, plainly unprepared for resistance, but one of the judges forestalled his reply.
“ ’Tis the proper procedure for trial by water. The suspected witch shall have the right thumb bound by a cord of hemp to the great toe of the left foot. Likewise, the left thumb shall be bound to the right great toe. And then…” He cast an eloquent glance at the waters of the loch. Two fishermen stood barefooted in the mud of the shore, trews rolled above their knees and tied with twine. Grinning insinuatingly at me, one of them picked up a small stone and heaved it out across the steely surface. It skipped once and sank.
“Upon entering the water,” the short judge chimed in, “a guilty witch will float, as the purity of the water rejects her tainted person. An innocent woman will sink.”
“So I’ve the choice of being condemned as a witch or being found innocent but drowned, have I?” I snapped. “No thank you!” I hugged my elbows harder, trying to still the shiver that seemed to have become a permanent part of my flesh.
The short judge puffed himself up like a threatened toad.
“You’ll nae speak before this court without leave, woman! Do ye dare to refuse lawful examination?”
“Do I dare refuse to be drowned? Too right I do!” Too late I caught sight of Geilie, frantically shaking her head, so that the fair hair swirled around her face.
The judge turned to MacRae.
“Strip her and skelp her,” he said flatly.
Through a daze of disbelief, I heard a collective inhalation, presumably of shocked dismay—in truth, of anticipatory enjoyment. And I realized just what hate really meant. Not theirs. Mine.
They didn’t bother taking me back to the village square. So far as I was now concerned, I had little left to lose, and I didn’t make it easy for them.
Rough hands jerked me forward, yanking at the edges of blouse and bodice.
“Let go of me, you bloody lout!” I yelled, and kicked one man-handler squarely where it would do most good. He crumpled with a groan, but his doubled form was quickly lost in a boiling eruption of shouting, spitting, glaring faces. More hands seized my arms and hustled me stumbling onward, half-lifting me over bodies fallen in the crush, pushing me bodily through gaps too small to walk through.
Someone hit me in the stomach, and I lost my breath. My bodice was virtually in shreds by this time, so it was with no great difficulty that the remainder was stripped off. I had never suffered from excessive modesty, but standing half-naked before the jeers of that crowd of ill-wishers, with the prints of sweaty hands on my bare br**sts, filled me with a hatred and humiliation I could not even have imagined.
John MacRae bound my hands before me, looping a woven rope about my wrists, leaving a length of several feet. He had the grace to look ashamed as he did it, but would not raise his eyes to mine, and it was clear I could expect neither help nor lenience from that quarter; he was as much at the mercy of the crowd as I was.
Geilie was there, no doubt similarly treated; I caught a glimpse of her platinum hair, flying in a sudden breeze. My arms stretched high above my head as the rope was thrown over the branch of a large oak and hauled tight. I gritted my teeth and held tight to my fury; it was the only thing I had to combat my fear. There was an air of breathless expectancy, punctuated by the excited murmurs and shouts from the crowd of watchers.
“Give it ’er, John!” one shouted. “Get on wi’ it!”
John MacRae, sensitive to the theatrical responsibilities of his profession, paused, scourge held level at waist height, and surveyed the crowd. He walked forward and gently adjusted my position, so that I faced the trunk of the tree, almost touching the rough bark. Then he drew back two paces, raised the whip and let it fall.
The shock of it was worse than the pain. In fact, it was only after several blows that I realized the locksman was doing his level best to spare me what he could. Still, one or two blows were hard enough to break the skin; I felt the sharp tingle in the wake of the impact.
I had my eyes shut tight, cheek pressed hard against the wood, trying for all I was worth to be somewhere else. Suddenly, though, I heard something that recalled me at once to the here and now.
There was a little slack in the rope that bound my wrists; enough to let me make a lunge that brought me clear around, facing the mob. My sudden escape disconcerted the locksman, who brought his lash down on empty air, stumbled forward off-balance, and knocked his head against a limb. This had a very good effect on the mob, who roared insults and started jeering at him.
My hair was in my eyes, stuck to my face with sweat, tears, and the filth of confinement. I shook my head to free it, and managed at least a sidelong glance that confirmed what my ears had heard.
Jamie was shoving his way through the hindering crowd, face like thunder, ruthlessly taking advantage of his size and muscle.
I felt very much like General MacAuliffe at Bastogne, sighting Patton’s Third Army in the offing. In spite of the horrible danger to Geilie, to me, and now to Jamie himself, I had never been so happy to see anyone.
“The witch’s man!” “Her husband, it is!” “Stinkin’ Fraser! Crowner!” and similar epithets began to be heard among the more general abuse aimed at me and Geilie. “Take him too!” “Burn ’em! Burn ’em all!” The crowd’s hysteria, temporarily dispersed by the locksman’s accident, was rising to fever pitch once more.
Hampered by the clinging forms of the locksman’s assistants, who were trying to restrain him, Jamie had come to a dead halt. A man hanging from each arm, he struggled to force his hand toward his belt. Thinking him reaching for a knife, one man punched him hard in the belly.
Jamie doubled slightly, then came up, smashing an elbow to the nose of the man who’d hit him. One arm temporarily freed, he ignored the frantic pawings of the man on the other side. He dipped a hand into his sporran, raised his arm and threw. His shout reached me as the object left his hand.
“Claire! Stand still!”
Not much place for me to go, I thought dazedly. There was a dark blur headed straight for my face, and I started to flinch backward, but stopped in time. The blur struck my face with a clattering sting and the black beads fell on my shoulders as the jet rosary, flung bola-style, neatly ringed my neck. Or not quite neatly; the strand had caught on my right ear. I shook my head, eyes watering from the blow, and the circlet settled into place, crucifix swinging jauntily between my nak*d br**sts.
The faces in the front row were staring at it in a kind of horrified bemusement. Their sudden silence affected those further back, and the roaring seethe of noise subsided. Jamie’s voice, customarily soft-spoken, even in anger, rang out in the silence. There was nothing soft about it now.
“Cut her down!”
The hangers-on had dropped away, and the waves of the crowd parted before him as he strode forward. The locksman watched him come, standing gape-jawed and frozen.
“I said, cut her down! Now!” The locksman, freed from his trance by the apocalyptic vision of red-haired death bearing down on him, stirred himself and fumbled hastily for his dirk. The rope, sawn through, let go with a shuddering snap and my arms dropped like bolsters, aching with released strain. I staggered and would have fallen, but a strong, familiar hand caught my elbow and pulled me upright. Then my face was against Jamie’s chest, and nothing mattered to me anymore.
I may have lost consciousness for a few moments, or only been so overcome with relief that it seemed that way. Jamie’s arm was hard around my waist, holding me up, and his plaid had been thrown over me, hiding me at last from the stare of the villagers. There was a confusion of voices all around, but it was no longer the crazed and gleeful blood-lust of the mob.
The voice of Mutt—or was it Jeff?—cut through the confusion.
“Who are you? How dare ye to interfere wi’ the investigations of the court?”
I could feel, rather than see, the crowd pushing forward. Jamie was large, and he was armed, but he was only one man. I cowered against him under the folds of the plaid. His right arm tightened around me, but his left hand went to the sheath on his hip. The silver-blue blade hissed with menace as it came half out of its scabbard, and those in the forefront of the crowd came to a sudden stop.
The judges were made of somewhat tougher fabric. Peering out from my hiding place, I could see Jeff glaring at Jamie. Mutt appeared more bemused than annoyed at this sudden intrusion.
“Do ye dare to draw arms against the justice of God?” snapped the tubby little judge.
Jamie drew the sword completely, with a flash of steel, then thrust it point-first into the ground, leaving the hilt quivering with the force of the blow.
“I draw it in defense of this woman, and the truth,” he said. “If any here be against those two, they’ll answer to me, and then God, in that order.”
The judge blinked once or twice, as though unable to credit this behavior, then surged to the attack once more.
“You have no place in the workings o’ this court, sir! I’ll demand that ye surrender the prisoner at once. Your own behavior will be dealt with presently!”
Jamie looked the judges over coolly. I could feel his heart hammering beneath my cheek as I clung to him, but his hands were rock-steady, one resting on the hilt of his sword, the other on the dirk at his belt.
“As to that, sir, I swore an oath before the altar of God to protect this woman. And if you’re tellin’ me that ye consider your own authority to be greater than that of the Almighty, then I must inform ye that I’m no of that opinion, myself.”
The silence that followed this was broken by an embarrassed titter, echoed here and there by a nervous laugh. While the sympathies of the crowd had not shifted to our side, still the momentum carrying us to disaster had been broken.
Jamie turned me with a hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t bear to face the crowd, but I knew I must. I kept my chin as high as I could, and my eyes focused beyond the faces, to a small boat in the center of the loch. I stared at it ’til my eyes watered.
Jamie turned back the plaid, holding it around me, but letting it drop far enough to show my neck and shoulders. He touched the black rosary and set it swinging gently to and fro.
“Jet will burn a witch’s skin, no?” he demanded of the judges. “Still more, I should think, would the cross of our Lord. But look.” He dipped a finger under the beads and lifted up the crucifix. My skin beneath was pure white, unmarked save for the smudges of captivity, and there was a gasp and murmur from the crowd.
Raw courage, an ice-cold presence of mind, and that instinct for showmanship. Colum MacKenzie had been right to be apprehensive of Jamie’s ambitions. And given his fear that I might reveal Hamish’s parentage, or what he thought I knew of it, what he had done to me was understandable too. Understandable, but not forgivable.