Outlander, p.46
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       Outlander, p.46
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  “A what?”

  “Witches canna feel pain,” Geilie explained. “Nor do they bleed when they’re pricked.” The witch-pricker, equipped with a variety of pins, lancets, and other pointed implements, was charged with testing for this condition. I vaguely recalled something of this from Frank’s books, but had thought it a practice common to the seventeenth century, not this one. On the other hand, I thought wryly, Cranesmuir was not exactly a hotbed of civilization.

  “In that case, it’s too bad there won’t be one,” I said, though recoiling slightly at the thought of being stabbed repeatedly. “We could pass that test with no difficulty. Or I could,” I added caustically. “I imagine they’d get ice water, not blood, when they tried it on you.”

  “I’d not be too sure,” she said reflectively, overlooking the insult. “I’ve heard of witch-prickers with special pins—made to collapse when they’re pressed against the skin, so it looks as though they don’t go in.”

  “But why? Why try to prove someone a witch on purpose?”

  The sun was on the decline now, but the afternoon light was enough to suffuse our hutch with a dim glow. The elegant oval of Geilie’s face showed only pity for my innocence.

  “Ye still dinna understand, do ye?” she said. “They mean to kill us. And it doesna matter much what the charge is, or what the evidence shows. We’ll burn, all the same.”

  The night before, I had been too shocked from the mob’s attack and the misery of our surroundings to do more than huddle with Geilie and wait for the dawn. With the light, though, what remained of my spirit was beginning to awake.

  “Why, Geilie?” I asked, feeling rather breathless. “Do you know?” The atmosphere in the hole was thick with the stench of rot, filth, and damp soil, and I felt as though the impenetrable earthen walls were about to cave in upon me like the sides of an ill-dug grave.

  I felt rather than saw her shrug; the shaft of light from above had moved with the sun, and now struck the wall of our prison, leaving us in cold dark below.

  “If it’s much comfort to ye,” she said dryly, “I misdoubt ye were meant to be taken. It’s a matter between me and Colum—you had the ill-luck to be with me when the townsfolk came. Had ye been wi’ Colum, you’d likely have been safe enough, Sassenach or no.”

  The term “Sassenach,” spoken in its usual derogatory sense, suddenly struck me with a sense of desperate longing for the man who called me so in affection. I wrapped my arms around my body, hugging myself to contain the lonely panic that threatened to envelop me.

  “Why did you come to my house?” Geilie asked curiously.

  “I thought you had sent for me. One of the girls at the castle brought me a message—from you, she said.”

  “Ah,” she said thoughtfully. “Laoghaire, was it?”

  I sat down and rested my back against the earth wall, despite my revulsion for the muddy, stinking surface. Feeling my movement, Geilie shifted closer. Friends or enemies, we were each other’s only source of warmth in the hole; we huddled together perforce.

  “How did you know it was Laoghaire?” I asked, shivering.

  “ ’Twas her that left the ill-wish in your bed,” Geilie replied. “I told ye at the first there were those minded your taking the red-haired laddie. I suppose she thought if ye were gone, she’d have a chance at him again.”

  I was struck dumb at this, and it took a moment to find my voice.

  “But she couldn’t!”

  Geilie’s laugh was hoarsened by cold and thirst, but still held that edge of silver.

  “Anyone seein’ the way the lad looks at ye would know that. But I dinna suppose she’s seen enough o’ the world to ken such things. Let her lie wi’ a man once or twice, and she’ll know, but not now.”

  “That’s not what I meant!” I burst out. “It isn’t Jamie she wants; the girl’s with child by Dougal MacKenzie.”

  “What?!” She was genuinely shocked for a moment, and her fingers bit into the flesh of my arm. “How d’ye come to think that?”

  I told her of seeing Laoghaire on the stair below Colum’s study, and the conclusions I had come to.

  Geilie snorted.

  “Pah! She heard Colum and Dougal talking about me; that’s what made her blench—she’d think Colum had heard she’d been to me for the ill-wish. He’d have her whipped to bleeding for that; he doesna allow any truck wi’ such arts.”

  “You gave her the ill-wish?” I was staggered.

  Geilie drew herself sharply away at this.

  “I didn’t give it to her, no. I sold it to her.”

  I stared, trying to meet her eyes through the gathering darkness.

  “There’s a difference?”

  “Of course there is.” She spoke impatiently. “It was a matter of business, was all. And I don’t give away my customers’ secrets. Besides, she didna tell me who it was meant for. And you’ll remember that I did try to warn ye.”

  “Thanks,” I said with some sarcasm. “But…” my brain was churning, trying to rearrange my ideas in light of this new information. “But if she put the ill-wish in my bed, then it was Jamie she wanted. That would explain her sending me to your house. But what about Dougal?”

  Geilie hesitated for a moment, then seemed to come to some decision.

  “The girl’s no more wi’ child by Dougal MacKenzie than you are.”

  “How can you be so sure?”

  She groped for my hand in the darkness. Finding it, she drew it close and placed it squarely on the swelling bulge beneath her gown.

  “Because I am,” she said simply.

  * * *

  “Not Laoghaire then,” I said. “You.”

  “Me.” She spoke quite simply, without any of her usual affectation. “What was it Colum said—‘I’ll see that she’s done rightly by’? Well, I suppose this is his idea of a suitable disposal of the problem.”

  I was silent for a long time, mulling things over.

  “Geilie,” I said at last, “that stomach trouble of your husband’s…”

  She sighed. “White arsenic,” she said. “I thought it would finish him before the child began to show too much, but he hung on longer than I thought possible.”

  I remembered the look of mingled horror and realization on Arthur Duncan’s face as he burst out of his wife’s closet on the last day of his life.

  “I see,” I said. “He didn’t know you were with child until he saw you half-dressed, the day of the Duke’s banquet. And when he found out…I suppose he had good reason to know it wasn’t his?”

  There was a faint laugh from the far corner.

  “The saltpeter came dear, but it was worth every farthing.”

  I shuddered slightly, hunched against the wall.

  “But that’s why you had to risk killing him in public, at the banquet. He would have denounced you as an adulteress—and a poisoner. Or do you think he realized about the arsenic?”

  “Oh, Arthur knew,” she said. “He wouldna admit it, to be sure—not even to himself. But he knew. We’d sit across the board from each other at supper, and I’d ask, ‘Will ye have a bit more o’ the cullen skink, my dear?’ or ‘A sup of ale, my own?’ And him watching me, with those eyes like boiled eggs, and he’d say no, he didna feel himself with an appetite just then. And he’d push his plate back, and later I’d hear him in the kitchen, secret-like, gobbling his food standing by the hutch, thinking himself safe, because he ate no food that came from my hand.”

  Her voice was light and amused as though she had been recounting some bit of juicy gossip. I shuddered again, drawing away from the thing that shared the darkness with me.

  “He didna guess it was in the tonic he took. He’d take no medicine I made; ordered a patent tonic from London—cost the earth too.” Her voice was resentful at the extravagance. “The stuff had arsenic in it to start; he didna notice any difference in the taste when I added a bit more.”

  I had always heard that vanity was the besetting weakness of murderers; it seemed th
is was true, for she went on, ignoring our situation in the pride of recounting her accomplishments.

  “It was a bit risky, to kill him before the whole company like that, but I had to manage something quickly.” Not arsenic, either, to kill like that. I remembered the fiscal’s hard blue lips and the numbness of my own where they had touched him. A quick and deadly poison.

  And here I had thought that Dougal was confessing to an affair with Laoghaire. But in that case, while Colum might be disapproving, there would have been nothing to prevent Dougal marrying the girl. He was a widower, and free.

  But an adulterous affair, with the wife of the fiscal? That was a different kettle of fish for all concerned. I seemed to recall that the penalties for adultery were severe. Colum could hardly smooth over an affair of that magnitude, but I couldn’t see him condemning his brother to public whipping or banishment. And Geilie might well consider murder a reasonable alternative to being burnt on the face with a hot iron and shut up for several years in a prison, pounding hemp for twelve hours a day.

  So she had taken her preventive measures, and Colum had taken his. And here was I, caught up in the middle.

  “The child, though?” I asked. “Surely…”

  There was a grim chuckle in the blackness. “Accidents happen, my friend. To the best of us. And once it happened…” I felt rather than saw her shrug. “I meant to get rid of it, but then I thought it might be a way to make him marry me, once Arthur was dead.”

  A horrible suspicion struck me.

  “But Dougal’s wife was still alive, then. Geillis, did you—?”

  Her dress rustled as she shook her head, and I caught a faint gleam from her hair.

  “I meant to,” she said. “But God saved me the trouble. I rather thought that was a sign, you know. And it might all have worked nicely, too, if not for Colum MacKenzie.”

  I hugged my elbows against the cold. I was talking now only for distraction.

  “Was it Dougal you wanted, or only his position and money?”

  “Oh, I had plenty of money,” she said, with a note of satisfaction. “I knew where Arthur kept the key to all his papers and notes, ye ken. And the man wrote a fair hand, I’ll say that for him—’twas simple enough to forge his signature. I’d managed to divert near on to ten thousand pound over the last two years.”

  “But what for?” I asked, completely startled.

  “For Scotland.”

  “What?” For a moment, I thought I had misheard. Then I decided that one of us was possibly a trifle unbalanced. And going on the evidence to hand, it wasn’t me.

  “What do you mean, Scotland?” I asked cautiously, drawing away a bit. I wasn’t sure just how unstable she was; perhaps pregnancy had unhinged her mind.

  “Ye needna fear; I’m not mad.” The cynical amusement in her voice made me flush, grateful for the darkness.

  “Oh, no?” I said, stung. “By your own admission, you’ve committed fraud, theft, and murder. It might be charitable to consider that you’re mad, because if you’re not—”

  “Neither mad nor depraved,” she said, decisively. “I’m a patriot.”

  The light dawned. I let out the breath I had been holding in expectation of a deranged attack.

  “A Jacobite,” I said. “Holy Christ, you’re a bloody Jacobite!”

  She was. And that explained quite a bit. Why Dougal, generally the mirror of his brother’s opinions, should have shown such initiative in raising money for the House of Stuart. And why Geillis Duncan, so well equipped to lead any man she wanted to the altar, had chosen two such dissimilar specimens as Arthur Duncan and Dougal MacKenzie. The one for his money and position, the other for his power to influence public opinion.

  “Colum would have been better,” she continued. “A pity. His misfortune is my own, as well. It’s him would have been the one I should have had; the only man I’ve seen could be my proper match. Together, we could…well, no help for it. The one man I’d want, and the one man in the world I couldn’t touch with the weapon I had.”

  “So you took Dougal, instead.”

  “Oh, aye,” she said, deep in her own thoughts. “A strong man, and with some power. A bit of property. The ear of the people. But really, he’s no more than the legs, and the cock”—she laughed briefly—“of Colum MacKenzie. It’s Colum has the strength. Almost as much as I have.”

  Her boastful tone annoyed me.

  “Colum has a few small things that you haven’t, so far as I can see. Such as a sense of compassion.”

  “Ah, yes. ‘Bowels of mercy and compassion,’ is it?” She spoke ironically. “Much good it may do him. Death sits on his shoulder; ye can see it with half an eye. The man may live two years past Hogmanay; not much longer than that.”

  “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, Jamie?”

  “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 conti
nued 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.”

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