Not a bird, he thought, nor yet the abbey’s bell. It was a sound he’d never heard before and yet somehow familiar. The bog had fallen silent; even the hum of the midges had ceased. He listened, but the sound did not repeat itself, and slowly he began to shovel again, pausing now and then, listening—for what, he did not know.
It came again as he had nearly finished. The grave lay neatly mounded, though with an opening at the head. He had it in mind to lay the cup there, let Quinn take the bloody thing to hell with him, if he liked. But as he lifted his cloak to unwrap the cup, twilight began to rise from the earth, and the sound came clear to him through the still air. A horn.
Horns. Like the blowing of trumpets, but trumpets such as he had never heard, and the hairs rippled on his body.
They’re coming. He didn’t pause to ask himself who it was that was coming but hastily put on his breeks and coat. It didn’t occur to him to flee, and for an instant he wondered why not, for the very air around him quivered with strangeness.
Because they’re not coming for you, the calm voice within his mind replied. Stand still.
They were in sight now, figures coming slowly out of the distance, taking shape as they came, as though they materialized from thin air. Which, he thought, was precisely what they’d just done.
There was no mist, no fog over the water. But the party coming toward him—men and women both, he thought—had come from nowhere, for there was nowhere from which to come; nothing lay behind them save a stretch of bog that reached clear to the shore of the lake beyond.
Again the horns sounded, a flat, discordant sound—would he know if they were tuneful? he wondered—and now he saw the horns themselves, curving tubes that caught the rays of the sinking sun and shone like gold. And it came to him what they sounded like: it was the honking of wild geese.
They were closer now, close enough to make out faces and the details of their clothing. They were dressed plain, for the most part, dressed in drab and homespun, save for one woman dressed in white—why is her skirt no spattered wi’ the mud? And he saw with a little thrill of horror that her feet did not touch the ground; none of them did—who carried in one hand a knife with a long, curved blade and a glinting hilt. I must remember to tell Father Michael that it wasna a sword.
Now he saw another exception to the plain appearance of the crowd—for it was a crowd, thirty people at least. Following the woman came a tall man, dressed in simple knee-length breeks and bare-chested but with a cloak made in a checkered weave. The tall man wore a rope around his neck, and Jamie gulped air as though he felt the noose tighten around his own throat.
What were the names Father Michael had told him?
“Esus,” he said, not aware that he spoke aloud. “Taranis. Teutates.” And, like clockwork, one man’s head turned toward him, then another—and finally the woman looked at him.
He crossed himself, invoking the Trinity loudly, and the older gods turned their gaze away. One, he saw now, carried a maul.
He’d always wondered about Lot’s wife and how it was that she turned to a pillar of salt, but now he saw how that could be. He watched, frozen, as the horns blew a third time and the crowd came to a stop, hovering a few inches above the glimmering surface of the bog, and formed a circle around the tall man—he stood a head taller than anyone else, and now the sun lit his hair with a gleam of fire. The woman in white came near, lifting her blade, the man with the maul moved ceremoniously behind the tall man, and a third reached for the end of the rope round his neck.
“No!” Jamie shouted, suddenly released from his captive spectatorship. He drew back his arm and hurled the Cupán as hard as he could, into the midst of the eerie crowd. It hit the bog with a splash, and the people vanished.
He blinked, then squinted against the glare of the setting sun. Nothing moved on the surface of the silent bog, and no bird sang. With the sudden energy of a madman, he seized his spade and shoveled dirt furiously, tamped it down, and then, catching up his cloak under his arm, ran, water splashing from his sandals as he found the wooden causeway, half-submerged.
Behind him, he thought he heard the echo of wild geese calling and, despite himself, looked back.
There they were, now walking away, backs turned to him, into the face of the setting sun, and no glinting sight of the curving horns. But he thought he saw the flash of checkered cloth in the crowd. It might have been the tall man’s cloak. It must only be a trick of the fading light that made the checkered cloth glow pink.
THEY DIDN’T TALK MUCH ON THE WAY TO HELWATER. TOM was with them, of course—but beyond that, there wasn’t much that could be said.
It was early autumn, but the weather had been foul. Pouring rain turned the roads to mud, and wind lashed the leaves from the trees, so they were either damp or soaked to the skin, plastered with mud, but absurdly spangled with gaudy blots of red and gold. They came to each inn at night shaken with cold, blue-lipped, and wanting nothing save warmth and food.
They shared a room, never a bed. If there were not beds enough, Jamie slept on the floor with Tom, wrapped in his cloak. John would have liked to lie in the darkness, listening to them breathe, but fatigue usually overwhelmed him the moment he lay down.
He felt almost as though he were escorting Jamie to his execution. While Fraser would of course continue to live—in contentment, he hoped—their arrival at Helwater would be the death of the relationship that had grown up between them. They could no longer behave as equals.
They would speak now and then, he supposed; they had, before. But it would be the stiff, formal conversation of gaoler and prisoner. And infrequent.
I’ll miss you, John thought, watching the back of Jamie’s head as the Scot negotiated a plunging slope ahead of him, leaning far back in the saddle, red plait swinging as the horse picked its way, slewing and skittering through the mud. He wondered, a little wistfully, whether Jamie would likewise miss their conversations—but knew better than to dwell on the thought.
He clicked his tongue, and his horse began the last descent to Helwater.
The drive was long and winding, but as they came into the last turn, he saw several well-bundled figures taking the air on the lawn, all women: Lady Dunsany and Isobel, and with them a couple of maid-servants. Peggy the nurse-maid, with William in her arms … and Betty Mitchell.
Beside him, he felt Fraser stiffen, rising slightly in his saddle at the sight. Grey’s heart contracted suddenly, feeling the Scot’s sudden surge of eagerness.
His choice, he reminded himself silently, and followed his prisoner back into captivity.
HANKS WAS DEAD.
“Quicker than he deserved, the sod,” Crusoe observed dispassionately. “Slipped going down the ladder one morning and broke his neck. We picked him up dead.” Crusoe gave Jamie a sidelong glance; it was plain that he wasn’t sure how he felt about Jamie’s reappearance. On the one hand, Crusoe couldn’t handle all the work himself, or even half of it, and Jamie needed no training. On the other … with Hanks dead, Jamie might take over as head groom, and Crusoe might well fear the consequences of that.
“God rest his soul,” Jamie said, and crossed himself. He’d let the question of who was to be head groom bide for now. If Crusoe could handle the responsibilities, he was welcome to them. If not … time enough to deal with that later.
“I’ll take Eugenie’s string out, then, aye?” he said, casual. Crusoe nodded, a little unsure, and Jamie went up the ladder to the loft, to leave his sack of belongings.
He’d come back better clothed than he left; his shirt and breeks were still rough, but new, and he had three pair of woolen stockings in his sack, a good leather belt, and a slouch hat of black felt—the latter, a gift from Tom Byrd. He disposed these items in the box that stood beside his pallet, checking as he did so to see that the things he had left in it were still there.
They were. The little statue of the Virgin that his sister had sent him, a dried mole’s foot, to be carried against the rheumatism—he took that out and put it in the small goatskin pouch at his waist; his right knee had begun to ache on wet mornings, since Ireland—the stub of a pencil, a tinderbox, and a chipped pottery candlestick, an inch of melted wax still in it. A scatter of stones, picked up because of their feel in the hand or a pretty color. He counted them; there were eleven: one each for his sister, for Ian, for Young Jamie, Maggie, Kitty, Janet, Michael, and Young Ian; one for his daughter, Faith, who had died at birth; another for the child Claire had carried when she went; the last—a piece of rough amethyst—for Claire herself. He must look out for another now: the right stone for William. He wondered briefly why he had not done that before. Because he hadn’t felt the right to claim William even in the privacy of his own heart, he supposed.
He was pleased, if surprised, to find his things intact. It might be only that there was nothing there worth the taking, of course. Or it might be that they expected him to come back and were afraid to tamper with his box. Someone had taken his blanket, he saw.
His most intimate keepsake was one that could not be lost or stolen, though. He flexed his left hand, where the thin white line of the letter “C”—carved a little crookedly, but still perfectly legible—showed on the mound at the base of his thumb. The “J” he had left on her would be likewise still visible, he supposed. He hoped.
One more thing to be put away. He took the heavy little purse from the bottom of the bag and tucked it under the balled-up stockings, then closed the box and went down the ladder, surefooted as a goat.
For now Jamie was surprised at the sense of peace he felt in the stable. It wasn’t homecoming, precisely—this place would never be home to him—but it was a place he knew, familiar in its daily rhythms, and with open air and the calm sweet presence of the horses always there at the bottom of it, no matter what the people were like.
He took his string of horses out along the road past the mere, then up a little way—not onto the fells but beyond the outer paddocks, where a grassy track led the way up and over a series of small hills. He paused at the summit of the highest, to breathe the horses and to look down over Helwater. It was a view he liked, when the weather was clear enough to see it: the big old house couched comfortably in its grove of copper beeches, the silver of the water beyond, rippling in the wind, its lacy edging of cattails spattered with blackbirds in spring and summer, their clear high song reaching him if the breeze lay right.
Just now there were no birds visible save a small hawk circling below the crest of the hill, alert for mice in the dead grass. There were tiny figures coming out along the drive, though; two men, mounted—Lord Dunsany and Lord John. He recognized the first by his stooped shoulders and the way his head jutted forward, the second by his square, solid seat and his easy, one-handed way with the reins.
“God be with ye, Englishman,” he said. Whatever John Grey had thought of Jamie’s announcement that he meant to court Betty Mitchell—Jamie grinned to himself at memory of Lord John’s face, comically trying to suppress his astonishment in the name of courtesy—he’d brought Jamie back to Helwater.