The Scottish Prisoner

Page 30

“I—” Jamie began, hardly knowing where to begin for the rush of words and feelings that flooded his brain, but the abbot raised a hand.

“Aye, I know you said you’re a paroled prisoner—but from what you say regarding the service these English require of you, I think there is an excellent chance that you might win your freedom as a result.”

Jamie thought so, too, and the thought filled him with a violent confusion. To be free was one thing—to leave his son was another. Two months ago, he might have been able to leave, knowing William well looked after. Not now.

He forced down the sense of violent refusal the abbot’s words had roused in him.

“Father—I hear what ye say. But … the boy has no father, no man to … to show him the way of being a man. His grandfather’s a worthy gentleman, but very old, and the man who was legally his father is … is dead.” He drew a deep breath; need he confess that he had killed the old earl? No. He’d done it to save William’s life, and that could be no sin. “If I thought for an instant that my presence there was danger to him, rather than benefit—I would go at once. But I do not think I delude myself in thinking that … he needs me.”

The last words came hoarsely, and the abbot regarded him closely for a moment, before nodding.

“You must pray for the strength to do the right thing—God will give it to you.”

He nodded mutely. He’d prayed for strength like that twice before, and it had been granted. He hadn’t thought he’d survive, either time, but he had. He hoped if it came to a third time, he wouldn’t.

“I thought ye said this was the easy bits,” Jamie said, forcing a smile.

The abbot grimaced, not without sympathy.

“Easy to see what’s to do, I meant. Not necessarily easy to do it.” He stood up and brushed a fuzzy catkin from the shoulder of his robe. “Come, let’s be walking a bit. A man could turn to stone sitting too long.”

They paced slowly through the orchard and out into a stretch of fields, some left in meadow for a few sheep and the odd cow, some sowed and already sprouting, a green haze covering the furrows. They kept to the edges, not to trample the young neeps and tattie-vines, and eventually emerged on the edge of a bog.

This was a proper bog, not merely the soggy clay or spongy footing common everywhere in Ireland. A treeless gray-green bumpy landscape, it stretched a good half mile before them to a tiny hillock of rock in the far distance, from which a stunted pine tree sprouted, flaglike in the wind. For once out of the shelter of the trees, the wind had come up and sang about their ears, flapping the ends of Father Michael’s stola and tugging at the skirts of their clothing.

Father Michael beckoned to him, and, following, he found a wooden trackway, half sunk between the hummocks of moss-choked grass that rose up among a thousand tiny channels and pools.

“I don’t know who made these tracks to begin with,” the abbot remarked, setting a sandaled foot on the thin planks. “They’ve been here longer than any man remembers. We keep them up, though; it’s the only safe way across the moss.”

Jamie nodded; the planks gave slightly when stepped upon, water oozing through the cracks between. But they bore his weight, though the vibration of his step made the bog beside the trackway tremble, the antennae of moss quivering in curiosity as he passed.

“The Old Ones thought the number three holy, just as we do.” Father Michael’s words, half-shouted above the wind, drifted back to him. “They had the three gods—the god of thunder, him they called Taranis. Then Esus, the god of the underworld—mind, they didn’t see the underworld quite the same way we think of hell, but it wasn’t a pleasant place, nonetheless.”

“And the third?” Jamie was still clutching the abbot’s handkerchief. He wiped his nose with it; the chill wind made it stream.

“Ah, now, that would be …” The abbot didn’t stop walking but tapped his fingers briskly on his skull, to assist thought. “Now, who in creation … Oh, of course. The third is the god of the particular tribe, so they’d all have different names.”

“Oh, aye.” Was the abbot telling him this only to pass the time? He wondered. Obviously they weren’t out walking for their health, and he knew of only one reason they might be traversing a bog.

He was right.

“Now, a proper god requires sacrifice, does he not? And the old gods wanted blood.”

He’d drawn close to the abbot now and could hear him clearly, despite the whine of the wind. There were birds in the moss, too; he heard the call of a snipe, thin and high.

“They would take prisoners of war and burn them in great wicker cages, for Taranis.” The abbot turned his head to look back at Jamie, showing a smile. “A good thing for you the English are more civilized now?” The ironic question at the end of this remark was evidently meant to convey the abbot’s doubt regarding the level of English civilization, and Jamie gave him back a wry smile, acknowledging it. Being burned alive … well, they’d done that, too, the English. Fired crofts and fields, without regard to the women and children they condemned—either by the fire itself, or by cold and slow starvation.

“I’m fortunate, to be sure, Father.”

“They do still hang men—the English,” the abbot said thoughtfully. It wasn’t a question, but Jamie gave an obliging grunt.

“That was the means of dispatch preferred by Esus—hanging or stabbing. Sometimes both!”

“Well, the hanging doesna always answer,” Jamie replied, a little tersely. “Sometimes a man will live, in spite of it. Which,” he added, in hopes of leading the abbot on to the point he seemed to be tending toward, “is why whoever did in your bog-man wrapped the rope around his neck instead. Though I should have thought the bashing and throat-cutting and drowning—assuming he had any breath left to drown with—would have made it certain enough in any case.”

The abbot nodded, unperturbed. The wind was pulling wisps of his white hair loose and causing them to wave about his tonsure, much like the wisps of bog-cotton that grew near the track.

“Teutates,” he said triumphantly. “That’s the name of one of the old tribal gods, at least. Aye, he took his victims into his embrace in the water—drowning in sacred wells and the like. This way.” He had come to a spot where the trackway forked, half of it going off toward the little hillock, the other toward a gaping hole in the bog. That would be where the monks were in the habit of cutting their peats, Jamie supposed—and where they’d found the bog-man, whose grave they were almost certainly heading for.

Why? he wondered uneasily. The abbot’s conversation had implied that this wee expedition had something to do with Jamie’s confession—and, whatever it was, it wasn’t meant to be easy.

But he hadn’t yet been absolved of his sins. And so he followed, as the abbot turned toward the hill.

“I didn’t think I should put him straight back where he came from,” Father Michael explained, flattening the flying wisps of hair with his palm. “Someone cutting peats would just be digging him up again, and the whole wearisome business to do again.”

“So ye put him under the hill,” Jamie said, and a sudden chill went up his back at the phrase. That was in the poem “The King from Under the Hill”—and, to his knowledge, the folk “under the hill” were the Auld Ones, the faerie folk. His mouth was dry from the wind, and he had to swallow before speaking further. Before he could ask his question, though, the abbot bent to take off his sandals and, hiking up the skirts of his robe, skipped on ahead.

“This way,” he called back over his shoulder. “We’ll need to wade the last little bit!”

Muttering—but carefully avoiding blasphemy—Jamie stripped off shoes and stockings and followed the abbot’s footsteps carefully. He was twice the abbot’s size; there was no chance the priest would be able to pull him free, should he strike a shaking quagmire and sink.

The dark water purled up between his toes, cold but not unpleasant on his bare feet. He could feel the springy peat beneath it, spongy, slightly prickling. He sank ankle-deep at each step, but no further, and came ashore on the little hillock with no more damage than a few splashes to his breeks.

“Well, then,” Father Michael said, turning to him. “The difficult part.”

FATHER MICHAEL LED HIM to the top of the little hillock, and there beneath the pine tree was a crude seat, carved out of the native stone. It was blotched with blue and green and yellow lichens and had plainly stood there for centuries.

“This is the High Seat—the árd chnoc—where the kings of this place were confirmed before the old gods,” the priest said, and crossed himself. Jamie did likewise, impressed despite himself. It was a very old place, and the stone seemed to hold a deep silence; even the wind over the bog had died, and he could hear his heart beating in his chest, slow and steady.

Father Michael reached into the leather pouch he wore at his belt and, to Jamie’s disquiet, drew out the gem-studded wooden cup, which he placed gently on the ancient seat.

“I know what you once were,” he said to Jamie, in a conversational tone of voice. “Your uncle Alex would write to me with news of you, during the Rising. You were a great warrior for the king. The rightful king.”

“That was a long time ago, Father.” He was beginning to have an uneasy feeling, and not only because of the cup, though the sight of it was making the hair prickle on his neck again.

The abbot straightened up and eyed him appraisingly.

“You’re in the prime of your manhood, Shéamais Mac Bhrian,” he said. “Is it right that you should waste the strength and the gift you have for leading men?” Jesus God, he wants me to do it, Jamie thought, appalled. Take that cursed thing and do as Quinn wants.

“Is it right for me to lead men to their deaths, for the sake of a vain cause?” he asked, sharply enough that the abbot blinked.

“Vain? The cause of the Church, of God? To restore the anointed king and remove the foot of the English from the neck of your people and mine?”

“Vain, Father,” he said, striving for calmness, though the mere thought of the Rising in Scotland tightened every muscle he had. “Ye know what I was, ye say. But ye dinna ken what I saw, what happened there. Ye havena seen what happened after, when the clans were crushed—crushed, Father! When they—” He stopped abruptly and closed his eyes, mouth pressed tight shut ’til he should recover himself.

“I hid,” Jamie said, after a moment. “On my own land. Hid in a cave for seven years, for fear of the English.” He took a deep breath and felt the scars tight on his back, burning. He opened his eyes and fixed the priest’s gaze with his own.

“I came down one night to hunt, perhaps a year past the time of Culloden. I passed a burnt-out croft, one I’d passed a hundred times. But rain had washed out the path and I stepped aside—and I stepped on her.” He swallowed, remembering the heart-stopping snap of the bone under his foot. The terrible delicacy of the tiny ribs, the sprinkle of bones that had once been hands, strewn careless as pebbles.

“A wee lass. She’d been there months.… The foxes and corbies … I didna ken which one she was. There were three of them lived there, three wee lassies, near in age, and their hair brown—it was all that was left of her, her hair—so I couldna say was she Mairi or Beathag or wee Cairistiona—I—” He stopped speaking, abruptly.

“I said it would be difficult.” The priest spoke quietly, not looking away. His eyes were dark, the brightness of them shadowed but steady. “Do you think I’ve not seen such things here?”

“Do ye want to see them again?” His hands had curled into fists without his knowledge.

“Will they stop?” the priest snapped. “Will ye condemn your countrymen and mine to such cruelties, to the rule of the yellow-johns, for lack of will? I’d not thought from Alexander’s letters that ye lacked courage, but perhaps he was wrong in what he thought of you.”

“Oh, no, Father,” he said, and his voice dropped low in his throat. “Dinna be trying that one on me. Aye, I ken what it is to lead men, and how it’s done. I’ll not be led.”

Father Michael gave a brief snort, half amused, but his eyes stayed dark.

“Is it the boy?” he asked. “You’d turn aside from your duty—from the thing God has called you to do!—to be a lickspittle to the English, to wear their chains, to go and tend a child who does not need you, who will never bear your name?”

“No,” Jamie said between his teeth. “I have left home and family before, for the sake of duty. I lost my wife to it. And I saw what that duty led to. Mind me, Father—if it comes to war, it will not be different this time. It. Will. Not. Be. Different!”

“Not if men like you will not chance it! Mind what I say—there are sins of omission, as well as those of commission. And remember the parable of the talents, will you now. Do you mean to stand before God, come the Last Day, and tell Him you spurned the gifts He gave you?”

It came to Jamie quite suddenly that Father Michael knew. Knew what, or how much, Jamie couldn’t say—but the news of Quinn’s machinations perhaps fitted in with other things Father Michael knew, of the Irish Jacobites. This was not the first inkling he’d had of what was afoot, Jamie would swear to it.

He gathered himself, pushing down his temper. The man was doing his own duty—as he saw it.

“Is there a lang stone like that one somewhere nearby?” he asked, lifting his chin toward the cup. The cleft stone carved into its bowl wasn’t visible from where he stood, but there was a feeling on the back of his neck like a cool wind blowing—and the boughs of the little pine tree were still.

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