Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
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 heroine 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.
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 breasts, 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