Lyn went to sleep in 20th-century America—and woke up in 17th-century Scotland!
The grass felt cool and resilient beneath Lyn’s bare feet; as she walked down the glen she breathed deeply of air scented with May. She pulled her head covering further over her eyes to shield them against the brightness of the sunlight that warmed her back and her bare arms. A lark, suddenly leaving its perch on a nearby branch, flew close, almost lighting on her shoulder. Watching it fly away again, her gaze traveled a few yards ahead and came to rest on a batch of the wild herb she wanted, growing alongside the beck. She walked toward the water, enjoying the scent and sight and sound of this fine day in spring.
She was carrying a basket of plaited fronds over one arm; as she looked down to assure herself that the plants she had picked earlier were safe, she saw that she had reached the beck, rushing noisily over its bed of stone crags. It was so unusually warm this May morning that she was thirsty; cupping her hand, she scooped some of the clear water into it and drank.
Wonderful. Another taste would quench her thirst completely; she leaned forward to the water where it lay still in a little pool, stretched out a cupped hand, and then stopped, staring at the mirror-smooth surface in shock.
The still water reflected a face that was not her own.
This was a stranger’s face, with eyes that were blue instead of gray. The new face was fair-complexioned, pink-cheeked, with a few golden freckles showing on the nose—the face of a woman at least twenty years younger than she. The fine white cloth tied over her head hid most of her hair, but she could see from the few tendrils that had escaped that they were red-gold and wavy.
Shock kept her on her knees, staring at the strange reflection, so that at first she was only aware of shouts behind her; as she turned, the noise translated itself into a name.
“Mistress Redfearne! Stay, do not move—I bring news.”
She saw young Piers DeNormandie running toward her, the plaid over his shoulder flapping behind him, almost in concert with the kilt that swirled about his well-shaped legs.
“Surely, Piers,” she said as he drew near, “after the secrets we have shared, you can call me by my familiar name.”
Even her voice was different: it was pitched higher than her normal, slightly husky tone, and her rapid speech had changed into a slower pattern with a Highland lilt.
“Aye, Gwendolyn, but in a whisper only, not a shout. Who knows what spies may be in this glen?” Piers paused, for the moment out of breath. “Anyway, are you not curious?”
He sat down on a grass-covered hillock and smiled up at her, endearing dimples showing at the corners of his mouth. He was eighteen, a slim, delicately made young man whose appearance and sexual proclivities had attracted trouble for the last year. “I have heard that the Monsignor will soon arrive in Glenwilloch.”
Why did that simple declaration chill her so? The day was hot, yet she shivered. “When?”
“Three days from now. He pretends to be a friend of the people—he wants to be known as Father Oswald, a simple priest, although he has the rank of abbot. Gwendolyn, will you have time to prepare more blocks for me? I have an idea, a wonderful idea—I’ll paint a picture of the Monsignor’s abbey.” Piers went on talking, the words rushing out of his mouth as exuberantly as the waters rushing past in the beck. “You know that becoming a servant of the Church is my only hope for a life spent painting. If Father Oswald likes my picture, he might choose me as a page, and then…”
Gwendolyn smiled. “And then you will escape life in the country. I know. I’ll try to make time to prepare your boards for painting. Lindsay Fairgreves is in labor this morning, and I must help her—I came out just now to gather herbs for the birthing.”
“They smell good.” Piers bent over the basket on her arm, his hair falling across his forehead as he rubbed a pinch of the aromatic herbs between his fingertips. “Are they all for Lindsay? Are any good for mixing paints?”
“These are for medicine, you goose. You’ll have your paints, but I’ll need other plants, not these. Come see me tonight and I’ll mix the colors for you.”
“Thank you, friend.” Piers gave her a grateful look and she was moved, once again, by the perfection of his own colors—the bright chestnut hair, the dark blue eyes fringed with black lashes. Piers, with his delicately modeled nose and sensitive mouth, possessed a countenance entirely out of keeping with his lot in life, which was to look after the laird’s sheep.
“I must go now, Piers. Blessed be.”
She watched him as he made his way through the woods that bordered the beck—no doubt he thought to use his slingshot to bring down a bird for dinner—then turned to begin the walk back to Glenwilloch.
There is naught to fear, she told herself as she strode along, feeling the breeze lift the heavy hair off the back of her neck. It was good to be alive on a day like this, with the wind blowing through her clothes and the sun, too seldom seen and felt in this northern clime, warming her so that she felt like dancing. She and her ability to practice the healing arts were essential to the well-being of the village of Glenwilloch and the neighboring hamlet of Glencorrie; her neighbors liked her, paid her in oatmeal, barley, firewood, and occasionally, rare silver coin; asked her to bless their sowings and reapings. She and her husband Iain, handfasted in a ceremony of the Old Religion almost ten years ago, lived in contentment on Gwendolyn’s earnings and the products of Iain’s hard work in the warmer months on their own small holding. In the winter he gathered firewood to split and sell or trade, or dug peat. The three of them—Gwendolyn, Iain, and their ten-year-old daughter Jennet—lived a good life on the small holding hard by Glenwilloch.
Coming into view of Angus Fairgreves’ croft, Gwendolyn hurried down the rough track that led to it. This was Lindsay’s first baby, and although she was a strong, healthy Highland woman, there was always the chance of mishap.
When she entered the croft she had to stop a moment to adjust to the dim light after the brightness outside. The one small window in the croft was covered with a strip of cloth against the curiosity of passers-by. Shreds of smoke from the brazier burning in a corner of the room swirled through the air, made heavier yet by Lindsay’s moans.
The young woman squatted on a pile of straw in the middle of the floor, clutching at the sleeve of the Widow Throgmorton. Her face shone with sweat and her dark hair lay damp and flattened against her head. “Help! Oh, help! Oh, Gwendolyn, make it go away!”
Gwendolyn assessed the situation at a glance. Nodding to the Widow, she said, “Let’s make her a cup of tea for the pains, so she’ll be more comfortable. Lindsay, I’m here to help you, fear not.”
Gently, she put her hands on the top of Lindsay’s head and let them rest there for a moment. Hers were hands that healed; she closed her eyes, concentrating hard on the energy that was coursing from her hands into Lindsay’s pain-wracked body. From the deep place in her mind, she asked Lindsay’s spirit to accept the hard work of labor and birth, and to work with, not against, the new life about to be born.
“Your hands soothe me, Gwendolyn,” Lindsay said. She opened her eyes wide and managed a small smile. “I am so glad you are here.”
Quickly, Gwendolyn examined Lindsay and found that while she herself had been out gathering herbs, Lindsay’s labor had progressed; dilation of the birth passage now measured five fingers’ width instead of two. It would not be long, now, until the new little lad or lass arrived.
Fifteen minutes later Gwendolyn had matters under control. Lindsay’s contractions had momentarily subsided, allowing her to drink an infusion of raspberry leaves, sweetened with honey, to ease her labor pains. At Gwendolyn’s direction the Widow Throgmorton had stoked up the brazier of charcoal. Into the hot coals Gwendolyn now sprinkled dried lavender; as it began to scent the room, Lindsay would breathe the vapors and calm down.
Gwendolyn loved lavender; it was good for birthing, good for ensuring sweet dreams when stuffed into pillows, good for hysteria. The dried flowers, added to bath water, would help rid the newborn baby’s respiratory system of mucus when Gwendolyn bathed him or her for the first time. Around her neck Gwendolyn also wore a string of dried lavender flowers, as a friendly signal to Her who protected laboring women: the strong, heady scent would invite Her to this little croft, in which the everyday miracle of birth would soon transpire.
Gwendolyn knelt beside Lindsay on the floor, rubbing her perineum with warmed oil to ease the baby’s passage into the world, while Lindsay rested between contractions. “You speed well, dear one,” she said to Lindsay. “In a moment I’ll give you a warm poultice.”
She wrung out a cloth in water boiled with the stems and leaves of the marsh-mallow she had picked that morning; the mallow plant was known to help delivery. Deftly she folded the cloth into a pad and placed it between Lindsay’s legs.
“That is well, Gwendolyn,” Lindsay said, and then jerked wildly, in the throes of another contraction. A cry of pain escaped her, and she screamed. “I must push down! I must!”
Gwendolyn held Lindsay’s hands until the contraction subsided, and said, “It will not be long, now. Rest while you may.”
“Oh, oh, oh!” Lindsay moaned. “Why does it take so long? Gwendolyn, may I have another warm compress? The one you gave me has cooled.”
For the next two hours the Widow Throgmorton, whom Gwendolyn instructed to wash her hands before she touched anything, supplied Lindsay with warm compresses, while Gwendolyn checked Lindsay’s progress and continued the massage. The baby was taking a long time, to be sure, but first babies rarely arrived in a hurry. From time to time, Gwendolyn placed her hand on the hard mound that was Lindsay’s future son or daughter, and spoke silently to the child. She asked him or her to work with Lindsay’s life force to make the final push into the world, and to make it soon, because Lindsay was growing very tired.
When finally the baby’s head began to appear Gwendolyn worked intensely, massaging the area around the birth passage with oil to make it stretch. She herself was breathing hard now; breathing in concert with Lindsay, willing the baby to appear.
At last Lindsay pushed with one mighty heave, screaming as she did so, “It’s coming! Now!” and Gwendolyn found herself catching a fine little dark-haired boy as he emerged, still slippery with the birth fluids, perfectly formed and precious in the eyes of the three women in the room. His eyes were still closed, but his tiny chest began to move up and down; he opened his mouth and cried. Gently Gwendolyn placed him on Lindsay’s stomach until she could deliver the afterbirth, and uttered a silent prayer of thanks to Her Whose Name Could Not Be Spoken, who had brought this longed-for child, the first child of Angus Fairgreves to be born in wedlock, safely into the world.
Lindsay looked exhausted, but her smile was ecstatic. “My baby, my darling, my love. Gwendolyn, how does he?” She tried to raise her head to look at the baby.
“Most wonderfully, Lindsay. Stay still a moment, love.”
Looking across at the Widow Throgmorton, Gwendolyn felt warm tears of joy beginning to roll down her cheeks and saw that the Widow’s eyes were wet also. “Blessed be.”
“Thanks be to the Mother,” the Widow agreed. “A fine lad, a son for Angus. He’ll help with the planting when he’s grown.”
Gwendolyn, now tying off the umbilical cord, snorted. “The little lad is but minutes old, and already you speak of work! His work is naught but to suckle for a year and a day, perhaps more.”
By five o’clock, all was quiet in the croft. Lindsay, having drunk a cup of chamomile tea to ensure a peaceful rest, was sleeping in the bed in the corner. The baby, bathed and wrapped in a blanket, lay in the crook of her arm. Gwendolyn and the Widow Throgmorton between them bundled up the straw, now soaked with blood and amniotic fluid, and took it outside to the back of the croft to bury it. They opened the door until the smell of hot blood gave way to the freshness of the wind and the lingering smell of lavender. Then, after they washed themselves and discarded the aprons they had worn—those would be boiled in the next wash with homemade lye soap—they sat down to relax with a cup of tea, talking over the happy outcome they had just witnessed.
“Lindsay is strong, but she needs care. ‘Tis a shame she has no family to look after her.”
“Aye.” The Widow Throgmorton sipped delicately at her tea. “The puir orphaned lass. Angus is the only kin she has in the world, with her parents dead of the fever, and that worthless brother of hers run away to sea.”
“There’s naught wrong with Will Buckstrup. Glenwilloch was too small for him, that was all.”
Gwendolyn was polite but firm. She had liked Will. A sudden flash of memory brought back Will’s dark gypsy eyes and the black hair that streamed out behind him as he ran like the wild red stag over the hills beyond Glenwilloch. Will had to be free; not for him the constraints of life under the heavy hand of the kirk or the gossipy tongues of his neighbors. The mother of Will and Lindsay had been one of the Romany folk, born to the road, although she had given it up for the Scots farmer who won her heart. And true to the ways of the Rom, Will had left Glenwilloch without a backward glance as soon as he was old enough.
“They do say he run off to the Americas,” the widow said.
“He may come back again one day, who knows? Mayhap, my friend, as Lindsay has no kin, you’ll stay the night here.”
The Widow Throgmorton looked pleased. “I’ll look after her and the babe. Angus will want his sleep, he’ll be up early tomorrow, for the planting.”
“If you stay with her tonight, I’ll look in tomorrow to see that she fares as she should,” Gwendolyn said.
“I’ve seen many travails, and she did better than most. Thanks to you, Mistress.”
“I had the best of help,” Gwendolyn was beginning to reply, when she heard the sound of footsteps outside.
The Widow Throgmorton rose from her seat by the brazier to see who it was, but before she could move Goodwife Primm came through the doorway. “I’ve brought oatcakes for your supper,” she said, indicating the split-oak basket she carried on one arm. “Buttermilk too, and barley soup.”
“Bless you, Sarah,” Gwendolyn said. “I am so hungry I could eat it all myself! Will you not stay and sup with us?”
“Thank you. I’ll not today, for the lads will be home soon and wanting their meal.” Sarah moved to the bed to look at Lindsay and the baby. “He’s a lusty one, isn’t he? He looks like Angus, with that russet hair. And Lindsay came through it well?”
“Indeed she did,” Gwendolyn assured her, and described the day’s events.
After Sarah Primm left, Gwendolyn and the widow spread the freshly baked oatcakes with butter and heather honey while they waited for the soup to heat. It seemed to her that never had food tasted so good as it did now, on this perfect Highland evening, with the kestrel soaring lazily on a thermal in the still-light sky and the breeze, smelling of freshly turned earth and pine needles from the tall thin trees on the hill behind the croft, sweeping through the door.
Truly, she thought as she turned to leave after kissing the sleeping Lindsay and her baby and lifting a hand in farewell to the widow, this has been the best of days.
Coming down the slope that led to the small open area in front of her croft, she could hear the ring of Iain’s axe as he split logs into firewood. He paused as she came up to him and smiled down at her. To Gwendolyn he was a gentle giant of a man; with his height—six feet five inches—and his yellow hair, she thought he might have passed for one of the dreaded Norsemen who centuries ago had raided Scotland’s sea coasts and wreaked their fury on the country’s hapless citizens.
Now she could see how the hot sun of the day had burned his fair skin. “I give you greeting, my love.” He wiped the sweat off his red cheeks with his sleeve. “How is Mistress Fairgreves?”
“Well as can be, and the mother of a fine son.”
Iain smiled, but there was a shadow behind his smile and she saw it. The old pain stirred, briefly, somewhere beneath her heart, but she would not think of that now. There was something more urgent to discuss.
“Have you heard who comes to Glenwilloch?”
“Aye. They say he lodges tonight at Glencorrie.”
They looked at each other.
“Why is he coming?” Gwendolyn asked, breaking the silence that was lasting too long for casual conversation.
Iain shrugged, and laid his ax against the wall of the house. He began to stack the firewood with care, the wood making a sweet hard sound as log knocked against log. “I hear that he looks for evil amongst us, to cast it out before we all fall into sin.”
“In that case, he should cast himself out first. Evil’s greatest friend is the kirk, as we all know!”
Iain laughed, but looked about nervously, as if to assure himself there were no unseen listeners. “That would go against his grain. Come, love, let us go inside. Jennet wants her supper.”
Although she listened for the clear, high, three-note whistle Piers used to announce his arrival to her family, he did not appear as the long evening light of spring faded into darkness; probably his parents had forbidden him to go out. Gwendolyn nevertheless went on with the preparations for his painting blocks. Taking the wooden boards that Iain had planed smooth, she covered them with a paste made of whiting and glue. After the mixture dried on the boards, Piers would sand it smooth, draw his sketch on it in charcoal, and paint it with the colors Gwendolyn mixed for him. For these, she blended pulverized dried herbs or flower petals with beaten egg, but the range of colors she could produce was limited: Piers lived for the day when he—or rather, a rich patron—could afford fine Italian colors mixed with oil.
It was pleasant in the downstairs room, the kitchen of the “but-and-ben—the two-room cottage common in the Highlands. As the light faded outside, Iain lit rushlights that sent thin spirals of smoke into the air as they burned. Gwendolyn’s bunches of dried herbs hung from the rafters, giving off faint scents of their sweet or pungent natures, and the cauldron of hot water on the hearth hissed and bubbled from time to time. Iain would bank the fire before they retired, but although the water would stop simmering it would still be hot enough for tea and porridge in the morning.
From time to time, Gwendolyn would look up to see Iain giving her a smile and a sidelong glance, as he drilled Jennet in her letters or quizzed her on the details of Scottish history. Jennet sat at her father’s feet, on a little stool near the hearth, holding the family cat on her lap. Rumple was a black-and-white tom with a reputation as the best mouser in Glenwilloch.
“That’s a good lass,” Iain said after Jennet had recited the lesson perfectly. “And can you write your name?”
“I can, and more. Father Theobald taught me. Shall I show you, Father? Shall I fetch my hornbook?”
“It grows late, lass.” Across the room, Iain caught Gwendolyn’s eye and she nodded.
“Time for bed, my love. I’ll sing you to sleep. You’ll work hard at your lessons tomorrow, and show your father how well you can write.”
“Yes, Mother.” Jennet yawned suddenly, and began to droop. Gwendolyn stacked the boards in the corner of the kitchen where they sat, and rose to prepare the small cot near the hearth that was Jennet’s bed. Jennet slept in the kitchen, which was warmer than the upstairs room.
Gwendolyn tucked her daughter into bed and sang a ballad or two, but Jennet refused to fall asleep without Megan, the doll that Piers had made for her. He’d carved it from wood, and with his artist’s skill had painted the face to resemble Jennet’s own. For the hair, Piers had asked Jennet to sacrifice one of her russet tresses, and this he glued to Megan’s head. Jennet loved Megan even more than she loved Rumple, and ever after held Piers in high esteem. Gwendolyn took the doll from the high shelf where she lived, safe from mishap, and gave her to Jennet, who at last consented to go to sleep and closed her eyes.
All was well: now the special time could begin. Gwendolyn took one of the rushlights, blew out the others, and climbed the steep, narrow stairs to the upstairs room where Iain waited.
Moonlight poured through the window into the room, filling it with silvered light and shadow. Iain reached out and took her hand, drawing her near. “Look, my love. Look how the Mother shows us her face tonight. Blessed be.”
In the silvered darkness, Gwendolyn heard Iain’s low chuckle. “I’d know you anywhere, lass, by the smell of lavender.”
By this time the sleepy, go-to-bed twitters of the birds had given way to other night sounds: the wind whispering through the pines, small rustlings as vole and fox and badger stepped lightly through the shadows about their business, and the almost noiseless footfalls of Rumple, stepping precisely over the woodchips in the yard, ready to hunt this night of the full moon.
Gwendolyn spoke in a low voice. “My love, are all the elements present?”
“They are. Earth and water, fire and air.”
She could just see, through the black and silver shadows, his hand gesturing towards the round altar—a tree stump on which reposed the athame, the ritual knife; a small bowl of salt, to represent the element of earth; a clay cup of well water; a red candle, as yet unlit, to represent fire; and a feather, to represent air.
“Then let us cast the circle to begin the time that is not a time, in the place that is not a place.”
Softly, almost without noise, they slid out of their daytime clothes and turned to face each other, skyclad; for the Great Mother whom humans called Artemis, Astarte, Diana, Brigid, Cerridwen, and many other names, required her worshippers to come before her naked, as a sign that they were free.
Step by step Gwendolyn led the way through the ritual—her right, as her sacred woman’s body mirrored the body of the Great Mother—until at last she thanked the Lady and Lord for their sacred presence and released the circle.
The esbat ritual always refreshed her spirit and she knew that Iain felt the same. He drew her into his arms and she felt his skin cool beneath her own; rejoicing in his strength, she wrapped her arms around his chest, feeling the hard muscles of his back and arms. “Blessed be, my love.”
“Blessed be,” Iain echoed, his voice full of tenderness. “Come, let us go to bed. It grows cold.”
“Yes, let us warm each other,” she agreed. Laughing, they lay down and drew the coverlet over themselves as they began to make love.
They were quiet in their delight, for fear Jennet should wake; but they knew She smiled at the low-voiced cries that tore from the lips of her worshippers.
“Thou art Goddess…”
“Thou art God…”
Later, before they drowsed into contented sleep, Gwendolyn spoke. “Today, when I delivered Lindsay of her fine little boy, I could not help but think of Robin…”
“Nay, love. Do not think of him and cry.”
“I won’t, because I know he is safe in the Summerland, waiting to be reborn one day. But I miss him still.”
Robin was the baby that had followed Jennet. He had died when he was two and Jennet was five. One minute he was a happy child, toddling after his mother as she pounded herbs, dispensed medicine to the sick, swept the floors of her house; and then he was stricken, swiftly, with a raging fever that defied all of Gwendolyn’s considerable skill. For a night and a day she tended him, oblivious of the need to eat and sleep; nothing mattered but making Robin well again. And he had slipped away from her, just as she returned to his bedside with another bowl of cold water to sponge him down.
“The Goddess may send us another son,” Iain said. He gave an enormous yawn. “We certainly gave her all the help she needs, tonight. Go to sleep, love, and dream of more fine weather.”
His voice died away to a murmur. Gwendolyn, by now more than ready for rest—truly, there was naught like loving to bring on blessed oblivion—snuggled into the curve of Iain’s hard, warm back, and followed him into sleep.
The next morning she rose early enough to speed Iain on his way to work with a kiss and a noon-piece of bread and cheese and dried apples, knotted in a kerchief that he tied to the leather belt around his waist. “I’ll be home to supper, love,” he said, saluting her as he turned to walk over the hill to the laird’s estate. Today he and the other men of the village would raise a new barn to house the cattle the laird had bought at the last fair.
“Blessed be,” Gwendolyn said, and watched him over the hill. A little icy wind seemed suddenly to blow through her mind—why? Shaking herself impatiently, she went over to the cauldron of hot water on the hearth, dipped some of it out into a smaller pot, and began to mix Jennet’s breakfast porridge.
Later, after she had sent Jennet to the stream to wash the day’s vegetables, Gwendolyn began the painstaking task of preparing her herbal medicines. As she pounded first one herb, then another into powder with her pestle and mortar, she invoked the Mother of All, who loved her children so that she sent them the gift of healing in their disguises of comfrey and cohosh, willow bark and licorice root, rosemary and rue.
And it was rue that she dispensed first of all this morning. “Mistress Redfearne,” said a timid voice beyond the open door, about ten of the clock. “May… may I come in?”
“Certainly, Morag, come inside.” Gwendolyn set aside her mortar and pestle, dusted off her hands with a corner of her apron. “Will you not have a cup of something warm?”
“No, I thank you.”
The young girl seemed hesitant. She looked around the room, as if anxious not to be seen. Seeming reassured by the silence in the croft, she allowed the hood of her cloak to slip off her head. “Mistress Redfearne, I… can you help me?”
Gwendolyn, reading the girl’s mind, knew what she wanted. “You want a charm against getting with child? When was your last moonblood?”
“A week ago. I do want children, only not now, with Gavin not working much—”
“Wait a moment.” Turning away, Gwendolyn opened a small pouch and drew out a teaspoonful of seed. These she wrapped in a scrap of cloth. “Plant these when you go home, in a sunny patch where none will notice them. And for the meantime…”
She led the way outside, to an array of small earthen containers ranged along a low table at one side of the croft. Picking up one of the containers, she showed it to Morag. “You see this herb?”
“Why yes, ’tis rue.” Morag sounded puzzled. “Is this the charm, then, Mistress Redfearne?”
“Indeed. Eat some every day. I do mean, every day,” Gwendolyn said with emphasis. “Let it be your side-dish. You may also place some of the leaves on the meat you serve your man, ’twill do him no harm. And when you wish for a child, simply do not eat it.”
Morag was eyeing the potted herb doubtfully. “‘T’will work? You’re sure?”
“Yes. There is a tea I could give you, but this is much the simplest way.”
“Thank you, Mistress. Here, I have a payment.”
Reaching beneath her cloak, Morag pulled out a small package. Unwrapping it, she showed Gwendolyn a strange fruit—three small yellowish globes, with thick, dented skin and a sharp, yet pleasing, scent.
Delighted, Gwendolyn picked up one to examine it. “What are these?”
“Their name is orange. They’re from Spain, or so the laird told me. He gave them to me when I went to the market at Glencorrie three days ago with Gavin, to sell the wool.”
“Very nice. How are they eaten?”
Morag showed Gwendolyn how to peel off the skin. Sniffing the citrus scent, Gwendolyn immediately decided to save all the orange peel, and dry it: anything that smelled so strong must have powerful healing magic.
Morag left, and Gwendolyn, feeling pleased with her fee, went on with her work. The early morning had been fair, but now cloud shadows passed before the sun’s face, momentarily blotting out the strong sunlight.
Stepping outside, Gwendolyn noticed the silvery cast of the light and smelled the air. A change is coming… rain before nightfall.
Suddenly it occurred to her that Jennet should be home by now. She had bid the girl to wash the carrots and parsnips for the stew tonight, and then to gather kindling and herbs, if she should see any. That had been two hours ago. It was time the child came home.
No harm could come to Jennet in Glenwilloch, but still… the icy wind that had blown through her mind earlier gathered force, and with dread in her heart she knew that misfortune was about to befall a member of her family.
Jennet… oh, Jennet! Forgetting that she wore her apron still, forgetting the cauldron that was seething with its herbal infusion on her hearth, Gwendolyn began to climb the hill beyond her home, hurrying to find the footpath, hurrying to forestall the looming disaster, or mitigate it if she could…
But she was too late. For as she hurried down the other side of the hill toward Glenwilloch she met her daughter, running in front of two anxious-looking men who followed with their heads down.
The child’s shriek in the quiet morning was a desecration of the harmony of wind sighing through trees and grasses, and the music of the birds as they sang to each other.
Jennet, sobbing hysterically, threw herself into Gwendolyn’s arms, and Gwendolyn, looking over her daughter’s head into the faces of the two men, had no voice to ask a question.
“Mistress Redfearne,” said one of the men, approaching her and looking down at his feet as he twisted his rough hands together, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that your husband has met with an accident.”
She felt as if someone had knocked all the breath out of her. “Does he live? I’ll fetch my medicines, my box of splints and tools—”
“Nay,” the man said. He looked at her full in the face and his eyes were sad. “I am so sorry. He is dead. As we raised the side of the barn, a loose beam fell on him and hit him on the head.”
He was alive, of course he was alive, he was only concussed, this man was talking lies; of course her Iain was alive, he needed her.
“I’m going to get my medicines,” she heard herself say. Jennet was still clinging to her, still sobbing. “Mother! Save Father! Oh, let us run! Let us go now!”
The man who had not yet spoken spoke now. “Nay, you’d best stay here. They are bringing him home.”
And in truth, she could hear voices raised skyward in a sad hymn, and in the distance she saw a column of people bearing a hurdle, a long hurdle with something very heavy on it, something covered by a plaid… Iain’s plaid, that had flapped behind him as he left early this morning, its blue-and-green tartan blending into the green May world under the pale blue sky.
Too numbed by shock to move or speak, she watched the men approach as Jennet continued to sob within the circle of her arms. And then shock turned to horror as the scene before her faded into a vision of a dark morning before dawn: a terrible morning, with the winter hills bare of grass, and the black predawn sky lit with red light from the leaping flames of an enormous fire.
The fire blazed from a pile of faggots and coals piled high around a solitary figure, robed and hooded, tied to a stake that rose from the middle of the pile. The face beneath the gray hood was in shadow, but a ringlet of strawberry-gold hair strayed from the hood itself and Gwendolyn, sick with fear, knew that if she could see the face beneath the hood it would be her own.