The Scottish Prisoner

Page 28

Grey flattered himself that he knew Fraser better than most people did—and paused for an instant to ask himself whether he was perhaps only discomfited to think that Fraser might have shared this personal bit of information with a stranger. But he dismissed that possibility at once. Which left the logical, if equally discomfiting, conclusion that Quinn had known Fraser before he joined their company. Long before London. With a sudden jolt, he recalled Quinn’s remark about ostriches and the King of France’s zoo. He, too, had been in France. And by the mathematical principle of equality, if A equaled B … then B equaled A. Fraser had known Quinn before—intimately. And had said nothing.



THE MONASTERY OF INCHCLERAUN STOOD ON THE EDGE OF A small lake, a cluster of small stone buildings surrounding the church. There had once been a surrounding wall and a tall, circular tower, but these had crumbled—or been knocked down—and the stones lay tumbled, half sunk in the soft soil and mottled with lichens and moss.

Despite the signs of past depredation, the monastery was unquestionably inhabited and lively. Jamie had heard the bell from the far side of the lake and now saw the monks coming out of the church, scattering to their labors. There was a fenced pasture behind the buildings, where a small flock of sheep was grazing, and a stone archway showed the ordered rows of a vegetable garden, where two lay brothers hoed weeds in the resigned manner of men who had long since accepted their Sisyphean lot.

One of these directed him to the largest of the stone buildings, where a long-nosed clerk took his particulars, then left him in an anteroom. The atmosphere of the place was peaceful, but Jamie wasn’t. Besides the conflict between Grey and Quinn—one more remark from either one, and he was seriously tempted to crack their heads together—there was the looming confrontation with Siverly to be thought about, and the duchess’s cryptic warnings about Twelvetrees … and, somewhere far down underneath the more pressing concerns, an uneasy awareness that Quinn’s Druid cup was presumably here, and he had not quite made up his mind whether to ask about it or not. And if it was here, what then?

Despite these agitations, his first sight of the abbot made him break into a smile. Michael FitzGibbons was a leprechaun. Jamie recognized him at once from Quinn’s description of the race.

The man came up perhaps to Jamie’s elbow but stood straight as a sawn-off arrow, a stiff white beard bristling pugnaciously from the edges of his jaw and with a pair of green eyes, bright with curiosity.

These eyes had fixed upon Jamie at once, and lit with cordiality when he introduced himself and mentioned his uncle by way of bona fides.

“Alexander’s nephew!” Abbot Michael exclaimed, in good English. “Aye, I mind you, boy. I heard a good deal of your adventures, years agone—you and your English wife.” He grinned in his beard, displaying small, even white teeth.

“She turned St. Anne’s finely upon its ear, from what I heard. Is she with you now, by chance? In Ireland, I mean.”

Jamie could tell from the sudden look of awareness and horror on the abbot’s face what his own must look like. He felt the abbot’s hand on his forearm, amazingly strong for its size.

“No, Father,” he heard his own voice say, calm and remote. “I lost her. In the Rising.”

The abbot drew a breath of audible pain, clicked his tongue three times, and drew Jamie toward a chair.

“May God rest her soul, poor dear lady. Come, lad, sit. You’ll have a tint of whiskey.”

This wasn’t phrased as an invitation, and Jamie made no argument when a sizable dram was poured and shoved into his hand. He lifted the glass mechanically toward the abbot in acknowledgment, but didn’t speak; he was too busy repeating over and over within himself, Lord, that she might be safe! She and the child! as though fearing the abbot’s words had indeed sent her to heaven.

The shock of it waned quickly, though, and soon enough the icy ball in his wame began to thaw under the gentle flame of the whiskey. There were immediate things to be dealt with; grief must be put away.

Abbot Michael was talking of neutral things: the weather (unusually good and a blessing for the lambs), the state of the chapel roof (holes so big it looked as though a pig had walked across the roof, and a full-grown pig, too), the day (so fortunate that it was Thursday and not Friday, as there would be meat for dinner, and of course Jamie would be joining them; he would enjoy Brother Bertram’s version of a sauce; it had no particular name and was of an indistinct color—purple, the abbot would have called it, but it was well known he had no sense of color and had to ask the sacristan which cope to wear in ordinary time, as he could not tell red from green and took it only on faith that there were such colors in the world, but Brother Daniel—he’d have met Brother Daniel, the clerk outside?—assured him it was so, and surely a man with a face like that would never lie, you had only to look at the size of his nose to know that), and other things to which Jamie could nod or smile or make a noise. And all the time, the green eyes searched his face—kind but penetrating.

The abbot saw the moment when Jamie felt once more in command of himself and sat back a little, inviting him by posture more than words to state his business.

“If I might ask a moment of your time, Father …” He drew the folded sheet of paper out of his bosom and handed it across. “I know ye’ve a reputation for learning and history, and I ken my uncle said ye’ve a rare collection of tales of the Auld Ones. I should value your opinion of this bit of verse.”

Abbot Michael’s brows were thick and white, with long hairs curling wildly in the manner of old men. These perked up, vibrating with interest, and he bent his attention to the paper, eyes flicking from line to line like a hummingbird in a flower patch.

Jamie’s own eyes had been traveling round the room as Abbot Michael talked. It was an interesting place—any place where work was done interested him—and he stood up with a murmured excuse and went to the bookshelves, leaving the abbot to his close inspection of the poem.

The room was as big as the Duke of Pardloe’s library and had at least as many books, and yet the feeling of it was more akin to the small cluttered hole in which Pardloe clearly did his thinking.

You could tell from the books whether a library was meant for show or not. Books that were used had an open, interested feel to them, even if closed and neatly lined up on a shelf in strict order with their fellows. You felt as though the book took as much interest in you as you did in it and was willing to help when you reached for it.

The abbot’s books were even more overt. A dozen volumes—at least—lay open on the big table by the window, half of them lying on top of one another, all open, and leaves of scribbled notes sticking out of the pile, wavering—beckoning—in the draft from the window.

Jamie felt a strong desire to go across and see what the open books were, to go to the shelves and run his knuckles gently over the leather and wood and buckram of the bindings until a book should speak to him and come willingly into his hand.

It had been a long time since he’d owned a book.

The abbot had read through the sheet several times, with interest, then frowning in concentration, soft lips moving silently over the words. Now he sat back with a small, explosive ‘hmmph!’ and looked over it at Jamie.

“Well, now, there’s a piece of work,” he said. “Would you know who wrote it?”

“I would not, Father. It was given into my hand by an Englishman, but it wasn’t him who wrote it. He’d been sent it and wanted me to translate it for him. Which I did but poorly, I’m afraid, me not having the Irish close to my tongue.”

“Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.” The abbot’s childlike fingers tapped gently on the page, as though he might feel out the truth of the words.

“I’ve never seen a thing like it,” he said at last, sitting back in his little chair. “There are a deal of stories about the Wild Hunt—you’ll know that, maybe?”

“I ken ‘Tam Lin,’ though it’s nay a Highland tale. A man from the Lowlands told it, when we were in prison together.”

“Aye,” the abbot said thoughtfully. “Aye, that’s right; it’s from the Borders. And this wee sheet doesn’t mention anything from Tam Lin’s tale—save maybe for this reference to the teind. Ye’ll know that word, will you?”

Jamie hadn’t much noticed the word when doing his own translation, but at the speaking of it felt a prickling of the hairs across his shoulders, like a dog putting up its hackles at a scent.

“A tithe?” he said.

The abbot nodded, tapping his fingers now against his chin as he thought.

“A tithe to hell. Some versions of the tale have it, and some don’t. But the notion is that the faeries owe a tithe to hell, for their long lives—and that tithe is one of their number, given over once every seven years.”

His lips pursed, pink and clean in the neat frame of his beard.

“But I’ll swear this isn’t truly old, as you might think. I couldn’t be saying, now, without a good bit more thought, what it is exactly about this”—he rubbed his fingers softly over the lines—“that makes me think it was a man of this century who wrote it, but I do think that.”

Father Michael rose abruptly from his desk. “D’you find that you think better on your feet? I do, and a wearisome thing it is in the chapter meetings, the brothers going on at length and me wanting to leap from my seat and dance a jig in the middle of the room to clear my mind but pinned in my chair like that small little fellow there.”

He gestured toward a glass case on one of the shelves, in which a gigantic beetle with a huge horny protuberance on its head was pinned to a sheet of thin wood. The sight of its thorny legs and tiny, nasty clawed feet gave Jamie a strong crawling sensation down his back.

“A grand specimen, Father,” he said, eyeing it warily.

“Do you like it? ’Twas sent me by a friend from Westphalia, a Jew. A most philosophical sort of Jew,” he assured Jamie, “a man of rare parts named Stern. Look, he sent me this, as well.”

He plucked a discolored chunk of what looked like ivory out of the clutter on the shelf and put it into Jamie’s hand. It proved to be an enormous tooth, long and curving to a blunt point.

“Recognize that, do you?”

“It’s the tooth of something verra large that eats flesh, Father,” Jamie said, smiling slightly. “But I couldna tell ye is it a lion or a bear, having not had the advantage of bein’ bitten by either one. Yet,” he added, with a discreet sign against evil. “But as I havena heard that there are lions in Germany …”

The abbot laughed.

“Most observant, mo mhic, a bear is just what it is. A cave bear. You’ll have heard of them?”

“I have not,” Jamie said obligingly, recognizing that this apparently idle chat was in fact the abbot’s means of walking up and down while turning over the question of the poem in his head. Besides, he was in no hurry to return to his companions. With luck, one of them would have killed the other before he came back, thus simplifying his life. At the moment, he didn’t much mind which one survived.

“These would be the massive things, sure. Stern gave me the measurements he’d taken of the thing’s skull, and I tell you, man, ’twould be as long as the distance from your elbow to the tip of your longest finger—and I do mean yours, and not mine,” he added, twinkling and flexing his wee arm in demonstration.

“All gone now, though, alas,” he said, and shook his head regretfully. “There are bears still in the German forests, the creatures, but nothing on the lines of the fellow that bore that tooth. Stern thinks it’s some thousands of years old.”

“Oh, aye?” Jamie said, not knowing quite what to say to that.

His eye had caught the glint of metal on the shelf, and he squinted, trying to make it out. It was a glass box, with something dark inside, and the gleam of gold within that. But what—

“Oh, you’ve spotted our hand!” said the abbot, delighted at the chance to show another of his curiosities. “Now, there’s a thing!”

He stood on his tiptoes to reach down the box and beckoned Jamie over to the broad table, washed in sunlight from the open window. There was a flowering vine of some kind twining round the window, and the monastery’s herb garden was visible outside. The fine spring day washed in on a tide of sweet scent—all of these overpowered when the abbot opened the box.

“Peat?” Jamie said, though there could be no doubt about it. The curled black object—which was indeed a human hand, broken off at the wrist and dried in some way—gave off the same acrid tang as the peat bricks that graced every hearth in Ireland.

The abbot nodded, moving the hand delicately so the ring wedded to the skin of one bony finger showed more clearly.

“One of the brothers found it in a bog. We didn’t know whose it was, but clearly ’twas no peasant. Well, we poked about a bit more and found butter, of course—”

“Butter? In the bog?”

“Beannachtaí m’ mhic, everyone puts their butter into the bog in summer to keep cool. Now and then, the woman o’ the house forgets just where she put it—or maybe dies, poor creature—and there it sits in its wee bucket. We often find butter when the lay brothers cut peats for the fire. Not often edible,” he added, with regret. “But recognizable, even after a great long while. Peat preserves things.” He nodded at the hand. “And as I was saying, we went back and prodded and cut a bit, and eventually we found the rest of him.”

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