Drums of Autumn(6)

By: Diana Gabaldon



“I do, Duncan, and could wish I did not.” Jamie shuddered despite the heat. “I kept awake myself half the night after he told us that one.”

“What was it, Uncle?” Ian was leaning over his cup of ale, round-eyed. His cheeks were flushed and streaming, and his stock crumpled with sweat.

Jamie rubbed a hand across his mouth, thinking.

“Ah. Well, it was a time in the late, cold autumn in the Highlands, just when the season turns, and the feel of the air tells ye the ground will be shivered wi’ frost come dawn,” he said. He settled himself in his seat and sat back, alecup in hand. He smiled wryly, plucking at his own throat. “Not like now, aye?

“Well, Gavin’s son brought back the kine that night, but there was one beast missing—the lad had hunted up the hills and down the corries, but couldna find it anywhere. So Gavin set the lad to milk the two others, and set out himself to look for the lost cow.”

He rolled the pewter cup slowly between his hands, staring down into the dark ale as though seeing in it the bulk of the night-black Scottish peaks and the mist that floats in the autumn glens.

“He went some distance, and the cot behind him disappeared. When he looked back, he couldna see the light from the window anymore, and there was no sound but the keening of the wind. It was cold, but he went on, tramping through the mud and the heather, hearing the crackle of ice under his boots.

“He saw a small grove through the mist, and thinking the cow might have taken shelter beneath the trees, he went toward it. He said the trees were birches, standing there all leafless, but with their branches grown together so he must bend his head to squeeze beneath the boughs.

“He came into the grove and saw it was not a grove at all, but a circle of trees. There were great tall trees, spaced verra evenly, all around him, and smaller ones, saplings, grown up between to make a wall of branches. And in the center of the circle stood a cairn.”

Hot as it was in the tavern, I felt as though a sliver of ice had slid melting down my spine. I had seen ancient cairns in the Highlands myself, and found them eerie enough in the broad light of day.

Jamie took a sip of ale, and wiped away a trickle of sweat that ran down his temple.

“He felt quite queer, did Gavin. For he kent the place—everyone did, and kept well away from it. It was a strange place. And it seemed even worse in the dark and the cold, from what it did in the light of day. It was an auld cairn, the kind laid wi’ slabs of rock, all heaped round with stones, and he could see before him the black opening of the tomb.

“He knew it was a place no man should come, and he without a powerful charm. Gavin had naught but a wooden cross about his neck. So he crossed himself with it and turned to go.”

Jamie paused to sip his ale.

“But as Gavin went from the grove,” he said softly, “he heard footsteps behind him.”

I saw the Adam’s apple bob in Ian’s throat as he swallowed. He reached mechanically for his own cup, eyes fixed on his uncle.

“He didna turn to see,” Jamie went on, “but kept walking. And the steps kept pace wi’ him, step by step, always following. And he came through the peat where the water seeps up, and it was crusted with ice, the weather bein’ so cold. He could hear the peat crackle under his feet, and behind him the crack! crack! of breaking ice.

“He walked and he walked, through the cold, dark night, watching ahead for the light of his own window, where his wife had set the candle. But the light never showed, and he began to fear he had lost his way among the heather and the dark hills. And all the time, the steps kept pace with him, loud in his ears.

“At last he could bear it no more, and seizing hold of the crucifix he wore round his neck, he swung about wi’ a great cry to face whatever followed.”

“What did he see?” Ian’s pupils were dilated, dark with drink and wonder. Jamie glanced at the boy, and then at Duncan, nodding at him to take up the story.

“He said it was a figure like a man, but with no body,” Duncan said quietly. “All white, like as it might have been made of the mist. But wi’ great holes where its eyes should be, and empty black, fit to draw the soul from his body with dread.”

“But Gavin held up his cross before his face, and he prayed aloud to the Blessed Virgin.” Jamie took up the story, leaning forward intently, the dim firelight outlining his profile in gold. “And the thing came no nearer, but stayed there, watching him.

“And so he began to walk backward, not daring to face round again. He walked backward, stumbling and slipping, fearing every moment as he might tumble into a burn or down a cliff and break his neck, but fearing worse to turn his back on the cold thing.

“He couldna tell how long he’d walked, only that his legs were trembling wi’ weariness, when at last he caught a glimpse of light through the mist, and there was his own cottage, wi’ the candle in the window. He cried out in joy, and turned to his door, but the cold thing was quick, and slippit past him, to stand betwixt him and the door.

“His wife had been watching out for him, and when she heard him cry out, she came at once to the door. Gavin shouted to her not to come out, but for God’s sake to fetch a charm to drive away the tannasq. Quick as thought, she snatched the pot from beneath her bed, and a twig of myrtle bound wi’ red thread and black, that she’d made to bless the cows. She dashed the water against the doorposts, and the cold thing leapt upward, astride the lintel. Gavin rushed in beneath and barred the door, and stayed inside in his wife’s arms until the dawn. They let the candle burn all the night, and Gavin Hayes never again left his house past sunset—until he went to fight for Prince Tearlach.”

Even Duncan, who knew the tale, sighed as Jamie finished speaking. Ian crossed himself, then looked about self-consciously, but no one seemed to have noticed.

“So, now Gavin has gone into the dark,” Jamie said softly. “But we willna let him lie in unconsecrated ground.”

“Did they find the cow?” Fergus asked, with his usual practicality. Jamie quirked one eyebrow at Duncan, who answered.

“Oh, aye, they did. The next morning they found the poor beast, wi’ her hooves all clogged wi’ mud and stones, staring mad and lathered about the muzzle, and her sides heavin’ fit to burst.” He glanced from me to Ian and back to Fergus. “Gavin did say,” he said precisely, “that she looked as though she’d been ridden to Hell and back.”

“Jesus.” Ian took a deep gulp of his ale, and I did the same. In the corner, the drinking society was making attempts on a round of “Captain Thunder,” breaking down each time in helpless laughter.

Ian put down his cup on the table.

“What happened to them?” he asked, his face troubled. “To Gavin’s wife, and his son?”

Jamie’s eyes met mine, and his hand touched my thigh. I knew, without being told, what had happened to the Hayes family. Without Jamie’s own courage and intransigence, the same thing would likely have happened to me and to our daughter Brianna.

“Gavin never knew,” Jamie said quietly. “He never heard aught of his wife—she will have been starved, maybe, or driven out to die of the cold. His son took the field beside him at Culloden. Whenever a man who had fought there came into our cell, Gavin would ask—’Have ye maybe seen a bold lad named Archie Hayes, about so tall?’ He measured automatically, five feet from the floor, capturing Hayes’ gesture. “ ‘A lad about fourteen,’ he’d say, ‘wi’ a green plaidie and a small gilt brooch.’ But no one ever came who had seen him for sure—either seen him fall or seen him run away safe.”

Jamie took a sip of the ale, his eyes fixed on a pair of British officers who had come in and settled in the corner. It had grown dark outside, and they were plainly off duty. Their leather stocks were unfastened on account of the heat, and they wore only sidearms, glinting under their coats; nearly black in the dim light save where the firelight touched them with red.

“Sometimes he hoped the lad might have been captured and transported,” he said. “Like his brother.”

“Surely that would be somewhere in the records?” I said. “Did they—do they—keep lists?”

“They did,” Jamie said, still watching the soldiers. A small, bitter smile touched the corner of his mouth. “It was such a list that saved me, after Culloden, when they asked my name before shooting me, so as to add it to their roll. But a man like Gavin would have no way to see the English dead-lists. And if he could have found out, I think he would not.” He glanced at me. “Would you choose to know for sure, and it was your child?”

I shook my head, and he gave me a faint smile and squeezed my hand. Our child was safe, after all. He picked up his cup and drained it, then beckoned to the serving maid.

The girl brought the food, skirting the table widely in order to avoid Rollo. The beast lay motionless under the table, his head protruding into the room and his great hairy tail lying heavily across my feet, but his yellow eyes were wide open, watching everything. They followed the girl intently, and she backed nervously away, keeping an eye on him until she was safely out of biting distance.

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