“Friends!” he said aloud. “God help me.” He grimaced and, putting the rosary back in his pocket, tore the note to tiny pieces, which he scattered to the wind.
JAMIE REFUSED TO ALLOW GREY TO TRY TO HIRE HORSES, ON grounds that the Irish liked gossip as much as did Highlanders, and were Grey to be seen in his uniform, the castle would know it by noon of the following day.
So they walked through the night from Lough Ree, keeping to the fields in the crepuscule, resting in the woods during light of day—when Jamie went into Ballybonaggin for food—then coming out onto the roads again at dark, where they kept up a fine pace, lighted by a sympathetic moon that rose above them huge, pale, and mottled as a ball of gleaming alabaster.
The countryside was empty of people—and anything else.
They had passed from open meadows into a wooded area, and the trees clustered thick and dark, roots intruding into the road, branches overhanging, so that they walked through pools of darkness, the road invisible beneath their feet, emerging suddenly into clearer spots where the trees drew back a little, and the moon caught the sudden white flash of face or shirtfront, the glint of a sword hilt.
Even the shuffle of their feet was lost in the murmur of the woods, a fresh wind rising, rattling the new leaves. John felt the night as something wild creeping upon him, the force of spring itself rising from the ground into his feet, his legs, bursting through his body ’til the blood throbbed in his fingers, pulsed in his chest.
Perhaps it was freedom, the exhilaration of their escape. Perhaps the excitement of a hunt by night, adventure and danger before them. Or the knowledge that he was an outlaw—with pursuit and danger certainly behind him.
The road was narrow, and they jostled against each other now and then, blinded between the dark wood and the brilliance of the rising moon. He could hear Jamie’s breath, or thought he could—it seemed part of the soft wind that touched his face. He could smell Jamie, smell the musk of his body, the dried sweat and dust in his clothes, and felt suddenly wolflike and feral, longing changed to outright hunger.
Master me, he thought, breathing deep, or shall I your master be?
There were frogs in the ditches, in the bogs that lay beyond the scrim of trees. They called, high and low, shrill and bass, cascading over one another in a vast, pulsating chorus. At a distance, sitting on a lawn with that chorus as background, watching the stars come out, the sound might be no more than a pastoral, the song of spring.
This close, it was still the song of spring, but that song was revealed to be what the pagans had always known it to be—the blind urge to seize, to mate, to spill blood and seed heedlessly into the earth, wallow in crushed flowers, writhe in the juices of grass and mud.
Those bloody frogs were shrieking their passion, raw-throated and triumphant. Hundreds of them. The racket was deafening.
Distracted by the vision of amphibians in their thousands locked in slime-wrapped sexual congress amid the dark waters, he caught his foot in a root and fell heavily.
Fraser, close beside, felt him go and grabbed him, catching him round the middle and jerking him upright again.
“Are ye all right?” he asked, low-voiced, his breath warm on Grey’s cheek.
“Croakle dum-ho,” he said, breathless and dazed. Fraser’s hands were still tight on his arms, steadying him.
“Great Lord Frog to Lady Mouse. It’s a song. I’ll sing it to you later.”
Fraser made a sound in his throat that might have been either derision or amusement—maybe both—and let go Grey’s arms. He swayed, almost staggering, and put out a hand to steady himself. He touched Fraser’s chest, warm and solid through his clothes, swallowed hard, and took his hand away.
“This seems the sort of night on which one might meet the Wild Hunt itself,” Grey said, starting to walk again. His skin prickled and jumped, and he would not in fact have been surprised in the slightest to see the Queen of Faerie come riding out of the wood, fair and spectral as the sailing moon, terrible in her hunting, her pack of attendants all young men, lithe and sharp-toothed, hungry as wolves. “What are they hunting, do you suppose?”
“Men,” Fraser said without hesitation. “Souls. I was thinking the same myself. Though ye see them more on a storm-tossed night.”
“Have you actually seen them?” He believed for an instant that it was quite possible, and put the question in all seriousness. Rather to Grey’s surprise, Fraser took it the same way.
“No,” he said, but in a tone verging on doubt. “At least—that is—”
They walked in silence for a few moments, but he could feel Fraser gathering his thoughts and kept silent himself, waiting, feeling the shifting rhythms of the bigger man’s body as he moved, soft-footed, on the uneven ground.
“Years back,” Fraser said at last. “It was after Culloden. I lived on my own land then, but hidden. In a wee cavern in the rocks. I’d come out at night, though, to hunt. And sometimes I’d have need to go far afield, if the hunting was poor, and often it was.”
They had emerged momentarily into a spot where the trees fell away, and the light of the moon shone bright enough for Grey to see Fraser tilt his head back, as though considering the orb.
“It wasna a night like this, really,” he said. “Nay moon at all, and the wind going through your bones and moaning like a thousand lost souls in your ears. But it—it was wild, ye might say. Wild in the way this is,” he added, dropping his voice a little and gesturing briefly at the dark countryside surrounding them. “A night when ye might expect to meet wi’ things, should ye venture out.”
He spoke quite matter-of-factly, as though it were entirely commonplace to meet with “things.” On a night like this, Grey could believe that completely and wondered suddenly how many nights the other had spent roaming alone beneath blazing stars or a clouded vault, with no touch on his skin save the wind’s rough caress.
“I’d run down a deer and killed it,” Fraser said, also as though this was commonplace. “And I’d sat down by the carcass to catch my breath before the gralloching—that’s the cutting out o’ the bowels, ken. I’d slit the throat, of course, to bleed the meat, but I hadna yet said the prayer for it—I wondered later if it was maybe that that called them.”
Grey wondered whether “that” referred to the hot scent of the pumping blood or the lack of a sanctifying word, but didn’t want to risk stopping the story by asking.
“Them?” he said after a moment, encouraging.
Fraser’s shoulders moved in a shrug. “Perhaps,” he said. “Only all of a sudden, I felt afraid. Nay—worse than afraid. A terrible fear came upon me, and then I heard it. Then I heard it,” he repeated, for emphasis. “I was afraid before I heard it—them.”
What he had heard was the sound of hooves and voices, half-swallowed by the moaning wind.
“Was it some years before, I should ha’ thought it was the Watch,” he said. “But there wasna any such thing after Culloden. My next thought was that it was English soldiers—but I couldna hear any words in English, and usually I’d hear them easily at a distance. English sounds different, ken, than the Gàidhlig, even when ye dinna make out the words.”
“I would suppose it does,” Grey murmured.
“The other thing,” Fraser went on, as though Grey hadn’t spoken, “was that I couldna tell which direction the sound came from. And I should have. The wind was strong but steady, from the northwest. And yet the sounds came sometimes out o’ the wind but just as often from the south or the east. And then they would disappear, and then come back.”
By this time he had been standing, hovering near the body of the slain deer, wondering whether to run and, if so, which way?
“And then I heard a woman scream. She … ah.” Fraser’s voice sounded a little odd, suddenly careful. Why? Grey wondered. “It … wasna a scream of fear, or even anger. It … ehm … well, it was the way a woman will scream, sometimes, if she’s … pleased.”
“In bed, you mean.” It wasn’t a question. “So do men. Sometimes.”
You idiot! Of all the things you might have said …
He would have berated himself further for having brought back the echo of his unfortunate remark in the stable at Helwater, that injudicious—that criminally stupid remark—
But Fraser merely made a deep “mmphm” sound in his throat, seeming to acknowledge Grey’s present remark at face value.
“I thought for an instant, perhaps, rape … but there were nay English soldiers in the district—”
“Scots do not commit rapine?” Annoyance with himself sharpened Grey’s tone.
“Not often,” Fraser said briefly. “Not Highlanders. But as I say, it didna sound like that. And then I heard other noises—screeching and skellochs, and the screaming of horses, aye, but not the noise of battle. More like folk who are roaring drunk—and the horses, too. And it was coming closer to me.”
It was the notion of drunken horses that at this point had put the vision of the Wild Hunt into Jamie’s mind. It was not a common tale of the Highlands, but he had heard such stories. And heard more, from other mercenaries, when he’d fought in France as a young man.
“The queen, they said, rides a great white horse, white as moonlight,” he said quietly. “Shining in the dark.”
Jamie had spent enough time on the moors and in the high crags to know how much lay hidden in the land, how many ghosts and spirits lingered there, how much unknown to man—and the thought of supernatural creatures was not foreign to him at all. Once the thought of the Wild Hunt had come to him, he spared not a moment in leaving the deer’s carcass, as fast as he could go.
“I thought they smelled the blood, ken,” he explained. “I’d not said the rightful prayer to bless it. They’d think it was their lawful prey.”
The matter-of-fact tone of this statement made the small hairs prickle on John’s nape.
“I see,” he said, rather faintly. He saw all too well, in his mind’s eye: a helter-skelter rush of the unearthly, horses’ coats and faerie faces glowing with a spectral light, spilling down out of the dark, screaming like the wind, howling for blood. The shrieking of the lust-crazed frogs now struck him differently; he heard the blind hunger in it.
“Sidhe,” Fraser said softly. Sheee, the word sounded like, to Grey; much like the sigh of the wind.
“It’s the same word, in the Gàidhlig and the Gaeilge. It means the creatures of the other world. But sometimes when they come forth out o’ the stony duns where they live—they dinna go back alone.”
He had run for a nearby burn, out of some half-heard, half-recollected notion that the sidhe could not cross running water, thrown himself over a high bank, and crouched among the boulders at its foot, staggering against the force of water that surged to mid-thigh, half-drowned in the spray, blind in the dark but keeping his eyes tight shut nonetheless.
“Ye dinna want to look upon them,” he said. “If ye do, they can call ye to them. Cast their glamour upon you. And then ye’re lost.”
“Do they kill people?”
Fraser shook his head.
“They take people,” he corrected. “Lure them. Take them back into the rocks, down to their ain world. Sometimes”—he cleared his throat—“sometimes, the stolen ones come back. But they come back two hundred years later. And all—all they knew and loved—are dead.”
“How terrible,” John said quietly. He could hear Fraser’s breathing, heavy, like a man struggling against tears, and wondered why this aspect of the tale should move him so.
Fraser cleared his throat again, explosively.
“Aye, well,” he said, voice steady once more. “So I spent the rest o’ the night in the burn and nearly froze to death. If it hadna been near dawn when I went in, I shouldna have come out again. I could barely move when I did, and had to wait for the sun to rise high enough to warm me, before I could make my way back to where I’d left my deer.”
“Was it still there?” Grey asked with interest. “As you’d left it?”
“Most of it was. Something—someone,” he corrected himself, “had gralloched it neat as a tailor’s seam and taken away the head and the entrails and one of the haunches.”
“The huntsman’s share,” Grey murmured under his breath, but Fraser heard him.
“And were there tracks around it? Other than your own, I mean.”
“There were not,” Fraser said, the words clipped and precise. And he would know, Grey thought. Anyone who could hunt a deer like that could certainly discern the traces. Despite Grey’s attempt at logic, a brief shiver went over him, visualizing the headless carcass, clean and butchered, the blood-soaked ground left trackless in the mist of dawn, save for the deep-gouged prints of the fleeing deer and the man who had felled it.
“Did you—take the rest?”
Fraser raised one shoulder and let it fall.
“I couldna leave it,” he said simply. “I had a family to feed.”
They walked on then in silence, each alone with his thoughts.
THE MOON HAD BEGUN to sink before they reached Glastuig, and exertion had calmed Grey’s rush of spirits somewhat. These revived abruptly, though, when they found the gate shut but not locked and, passing through, saw a glimmer of light on the distant lawn. It was coming from one of the windows on the right.