A Trail of Fire (Page 54)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(54)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Don’t worry,’ he said to the girl, hoping to reassure her. ‘I only want you to look at something. Then I’ll take you back to the convent – assuming that you still want to go there?’ He lifted an eyebrow, half-teasing. It really wasn’t his intent to frighten her, though he already had, and he feared that more fright was unavoidable. He wondered just what she might do, when she realised that he was in fact planning to take her underground.

Michael knelt on the seat, his head out the window of the coach, urging it on by force of will and muscle. It was nearly full dark, and the comte’s coach was visible only as a distantly moving blot. They were out of the city, though; there were no other large vehicles on the road, nor likely to be – and there were very few turnings where such a large equipage might leave the main road.

The wind blew in his face, tugging strands of hair loose so they beat about his face. It blew the faint scent of decay, too – they’d pass the cemetery in a few minutes.

He wished passionately that he’d thought to bring a pistol, a smallsword – anything! But there was nothing in the coach with him, and he had nothing on his person save his clothes and what was in his pockets, this consisting, after a hasty inventory, of a handful of coins, a used handkerchief – the one Joan had given back to him, in fact, and he crumpled it tightly in one hand – a tinder-box, a mangled paper spill, a stub of sealing-wax, and a small stone he’d picked up in the street, pinkish with a yellow stripe – perhaps he could improvise a sling with the handkerchief, he thought wildly, and paste the comte in the forehead with the stone, à la David and Goliath. And then cut off the comte’s head with the pen-knife he discovered in his breast pocket, he supposed.

Joan’s rosary was also in that pocket; he took it out and wound it round his left hand, holding the beads for comfort – he was too distracted to pray, beyond the words he repeated silently over and over, hardly noticing what he said.

‘Let me find her in time!’

‘Tell me,’ the comte asked curiously, ‘why did you speak to me in the market that day?’

‘I wish I hadn’t,’ Joan replied briefly. She didn’t trust him an inch; still less, since he’d offered her the brandy. It hadn’t struck her before that he really might be one of the Auld Ones. They could walk about, looking just like people. Her own mother had been convinced for years – and even some of the Murrays thought so – that Da’s wife Claire was one. She herself wasn’t sure; Claire had been kind to her, but no one said the Folk couldn’t be kind if they wanted to.

Da’s wife. A sudden thought paralysed her; the memory of her first meeting with Mother Hildegarde, when she’d given the Mother Superior Claire’s letter. She’d said, ‘ma mère,’ unable to think of a word that might mean ‘stepmother’. It hadn’t seemed to matter; why should anyone care?

‘Claire Fraser,’ she said aloud, watching the comte carefully. ‘Do you know that name?’

His eyes widened, showing white in the gloaming. Oh, aye, he kent her, all right!

‘I do,’ he said, leaning forward. ‘Your mother, is she not?’

‘No!’ Joan said, with great force, and repeated it in French, several times for emphasis. ‘No, she’s not!’

But she observed, with a sinking heart, that her force had been misplaced. He didn’t believe her; she could tell by the eagerness in his face. He thought she was lying to put him off. Jesus, Lord, deliver me . . .

‘I told you what I did in the market because the voices told me to!’ she blurted, desperate for anything that might distract him from the horrifying notion that she was one of the Folk. Though if he was one, her common sense pointed out, he ought to be able to recognise her. Oh, Jesus, Lamb of God . . . that’s what he’d been trying to do, holding her hands so tight and staring into her face. And now she’d told him . . .

‘Voices?’ he said, looking rather blank. ‘What voices?’

‘The ones in my head,’ she blurted. ‘They tell me things now and then. About other people, I mean. You know,’ she went on, encouraging him, hoping to convince him that she wasn’t whatever he thought she was. ‘I’m a— a—’ St Jerome on a bannock, what was the word? ‘. . . someone who sees the future,’ she ended weakly. ‘Er . . . some of it. Sometimes. Not always.’

The comte was rubbing a finger over his upper lip; she didn’t know if he was expressing doubt or trying not to laugh, but either way, it made her angry.

‘So one of them told me to tell ye that, and I did!’ she said, lapsing into Scots. ‘I dinna ken what it is ye’re no supposed to do, but I’d advise ye not to do it!’

It occurred to her belatedly that perhaps killing her was the thing he wasn’t supposed to do, and she was about to put this notion to him, but by the time she had disentangled enough French grammar to have a go at it, the coach was slowing, bumping from side to side as it turned off the main road. A sickly smell seeped into the air, and she sat up straight, her heart in her throat.

‘Mary, Joseph, and Bride,’ she said, her voice no more than a squeak. ‘Where are we?’

Michael leapt from the coach almost before it had stopped moving. He daren’t let them get too far ahead of him; his driver had nearly missed the turning as it was, and the comte’s coach had come to a halt minutes before his own reached it.

‘Talk to the other driver,’ he shouted at his own, half-visible on the box. ‘Find out why the comte has come here! Find out what he’s doing!’

Nothing good. He was sure of that. Though he couldn’t imagine why anyone would kidnap a nun and drag her out of Paris in the dark, only to stop at the edge of a public cemetery. Unless . . . half-heard rumours of depraved men who murdered and dismembered their victims, even those who ate . . . his wame rose and he nearly vomited, but it wasn’t possible to vomit and run at the same time, and he could see a pale splotch on the darkness that he thought – he hoped, he feared – must be Joan.

Suddenly, the night burst into flower. A huge puff of green fire bloomed in the darkness, and by its eerie glow, he saw her clearly, her hair flying in the wind.

He opened his mouth to shout, to call out to her, but he had no breath, and before he could recover it, she vanished into the ground, the comte following her, torch in hand.

He reached the mineshaft moments later, and below, he saw the faintest green glow, just vanishing down a white chalk tunnel. Without an instant’s hesitation, he flung himself down the ladder.

‘Do you hear anything?’ the comte kept asking her, as they stumbled along the white-walled tunnels, he grasping her so hard by the arm that he’d surely leave bruises on her skin.

‘No,’ she gasped. ‘What— am I listening for?’

He merely shook his head in a displeased way, but more as though he were listening for something himself, than because he was angry with her for not hearing it.

She still had a faint hope that he’d meant what he said, and would take her back. He did mean to go back himself; he’d lit several torches and left them burning along their way. So he wasn’t about to disappear into the hill altogether, taking her with him to the lighted ballroom where people danced all night with the Fine Folk, unaware that their own world slipped past beyond the stones of the hill.

The comte stopped abruptly, hand squeezing harder round her arm.

‘Be still,’ he said, very quietly, though she wasn’t making any noise. ‘Listen.’

She listened as hard as possible – and thought she did hear something. What she thought she heard, though, was footsteps, far in the distance. Behind them. Her heart seized up for a moment.

‘What— what do you hear?’ she thought of asking. He glanced down at her, but not as though he really saw her.

‘Them,’ he said. ‘The stones. They make a buzzing sound, most of the time. If it’s close to a fire-feast or a sun-feast, though, they begin to sing.’

‘Do they?’ she said faintly. He was hearing something, and evidently it wasn’t the footsteps she’d heard. They’d stopped now, as though whoever followed was waiting, maybe stealing along, one step at a time, careful now to make no sound.

Was it another of the Auld Ones? If it was, it didn’t want to be heard. It was cold here underground, but sweat crawled down the crease of her back, and her nape prickled, imagining something ancient and sharp-toothed, leaping out of the dark just behind . . .

‘Yes,’ he said, and his face was intent. He looked at her sharply again, and this time, he saw her.

‘You don’t hear them,’ he said, with certainty, and she shook her head.

‘No,’ she whispered. Her lips felt stiff. ‘I don’t— I don’t hear anything.’

He pressed his lips tight together, but after a moment, lifted his chin, gesturing toward another tunnel, where there seemed to be something painted on the chalk.

He paused there to light another torch – this one burned a brilliant yellow, and stank of sulphur – and she saw by its light the wavering shape of the Virgin and an angel. Her heart lifted a little at the sight, for surely faeries would have no such thing in their lair.

‘Come,’ he said, and now took her by the hand. His own was cold.

Michael caught a glimpse of them as they moved into a side tunnel. The comte had lit another torch, a red one this time – how did he do that? – and it was easy to follow its glow.

How far down in the bowels of the earth were they? He had long since lost track of the turnings, though he might be able to get back by following the torches – assuming they hadn’t all burned out.

He still had no plan in mind, other than to follow them until they stopped. Then he’d make himself known, and . . . well, take Joan away, by whatever means proved necessary.

Swallowing hard, rosary still wrapped around his left hand and pen-knife in his right, he stepped into the shadows.

The chamber was round, and quite large. Big enough that the torchlight didn’t reach all the edges, but it lit the pentagram inscribed into the floor in the centre.

The noise was making Rakoczy’s bones ache, and often as he had heard it, it never failed to make his heart race and his hands sweat. He let go of the nun’s hand for a moment, to wipe his palm on the skirts of his coat, not wanting to disgust her. She looked scared, but not terrified, and if she heard it, surely she— Her eyes widened suddenly and she let out a small yelp.

‘Who’s that?’ she said.

He whirled, to see Raymond, apparently come out of nowhere, standing tranquilly in the centre of the pentagram.

‘Bonsoir, mademoiselle,’ the frog said, bowing politely.

‘Ah . . . bonsoir,’ the girl replied faintly. She made to back away, and Rakoczy seized her by the wrist.

‘What the devil are you doing here?’ Rakoczy interposed his body between Raymond and the nun.

‘Very likely the same thing you are,’ the frog replied. ‘Might you introduce your petite amie, sir?’