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Twelve years later
For a while, Deidra thought Luthias had actually forgotten about her.
But she did not possess such blessings. Apparently he'd been no more than distracted, busy hunting other witches. Word had reached her of a spectacular witch trial and hanging in the lowlands complete with torture and dunkings. The images it brought to mind made her want to crawl under her bed and hide like she had when she'd been a wee bairn. No doubt Luthias's stink was all over those trials.
Luthias Forsyth was a witch-pricker, a man well versed in the torture and execution of witches. The past few decades had been very prosperous ones for Luthias and very dangerous ones for Scotland's witches...and women. That was the difficulty with being a woman in Scotland. One did not have to be a witch to burn for witchcraft. One merely needed breasts.
That had changed for a time in 1597, when King James had rescinded his edict that had allowed witches to be hunted and killed like wild game. But King James ruled England now, too, and the Presbyteries had control of Scotland. Witch hunting was regaining popularity. Today, it had come to Strathwick. Again.
For the past three days Deidra had hid in the tower room of Strathwick, her family's home. It had been a while since she'd been forced to hide out in this manner. So long, in fact, that she'd begun to hope that perhaps the hiding was finally over.
She stretched out on the bed, reading by candlelight a chapbook about Saint George slaying the dragon. When she was younger, she had loved these stories, but the older she'd grown the less likely the stories had seemed. She had read her father's histories and attempted to read her mother's journals and herbals, but she couldn't stay awake while reading any of them. She had read and reread their translations of the Greek myths. There was nothing left to read but these chapbooks, and they just made her roll her eyes. She shut the book with a sigh.
A dog had followed her upstairs and now sat beside the bed, staring at her. When she turned even slightly in its direction it whined softly and shifted from foot to foot.
Deidra ignored it.
She never knew how long Luthias would nose around the village, asking questions about her, making sure she wasn't practicing magic. Checking up on her. Once, when he'd come, she had not hid. She'd been eighteen and feeling very idealistic and full of the need to cure injustice. She had imagined how, when he came sniffing around her, she would give him a flaying about all the innocent women he had murdered. She'd thought that somehow she would be able to make him see the error of his ways....
It hadn't turned out the way she'd planned. By the time he'd found her, she'd been surrounded by animals dogs, cats, sheep, chickens. It had been difficult to explain them away when he'd asked why all the animals in the village migrated to Goodwife Anne's house, where Deidra assisted in the shelling of peas.
She had started out strong, telling him it meant nothing; they were pets, that he was the monster, not the girls he killed. His long angular face had hardened to granite, and he'd started in on her, calling her a foul witch who communed with the animal spirits, quoting the Bible and how she was a blemish on humanity. In the end, she had run away, more frightened and confused than ever. He had followed, harrying her home, promising that soon she too would pay, as all witches did.
Her father had run him out of the village and threatened to kill him. He'd stayed away for a time, but of course he'd come back. He always came back, and when he returned he brought reinforcements. From that day forward, when he'd brought a guard of mercenaries with him, rendering her father powerless. The only thing Deidra had been able to do was hide.
He was so persistent, so intent on her. She hadn't practiced any sort of witchcraft in more than a decade, and yet still he was obsessed with her. She didn't understand why he couldn't just forget, move on, hunt other witches. And she supposed he did in the time between visits, but he never forgot about her. Every year he returned, as reliable as the seasons, and stayed for several days. But this time nearly two years had passed with no sign of him, and she'd begun to hope.
There was a tap on the door. Deidra closed her book and twisted toward the door. "Aye? Come in."
Her stepmother, Rose, peeked her head around the edge of the door. "Are you hungry?"
Deidra swung her legs over the side of the bed and sighed. "Not really."
Ignoring this, Rose entered, balancing a tray, and crossed the room. The warm smell of herbs wafted to Deidra and her stomach rumbled. Rose set the tray on the bed.
"I heard that," she admonished. "Stop being a wee fool. You will eat my soup." Rose rarely took no for an answer. A strong woman, made of steel and as beautiful as a well-honed sword. Deidra wished she could be more like her. She doubted Rose would hide from Luthias.
Rose smiled as she uncovered a dish to reveal a savory bean soup, warm bread with jam, and dried fruit. All of Deidra's favorites.
Deidra sighed but gave her stepmother a grateful smile. Rose was an amazing woman and had more than made up for the years Deidra had been motherless. She had married William MacKay twelve years ago. She was still a relatively young woman in her thirties but her hair had turned almost completely white. Her face still held a youthful beauty, but neither William nor Rose could resist using their healing magic at every opportunity, and it aged them both. Yet another reason Deidra hated this witchcraft curse it would eventually take away everything that mattered to her. It had already altered her father and Rose's life in ways they'd not anticipated.
After they'd married, Rose had borne William a son, Ross. And had miscarried every pregnancy since. It was the healing magic; something about it made her different, made her unable to bear any more than Ross. And now Ross was gone, sent to King James's English court to learn English ways so he would not be a heathen like his parents.
Luckily, thus far Ross had shown no signs of magical ability. It appeared he might be like William's brother, Drake. Deidra envied him.
"Is Luthias still in the village?" Deidra asked.
Not meeting Deidra's gaze, Rose fussed with some currants that had spilled out of the little bowl.
"What is it? It's been three days and he's still here?"
Rose straightened and planted her hands on her hips. "I think you're just going to have to show yourself. He knows you're here somewhere and he's not going away until he sees you." Her voice and face softened. "It'll be just as it always is. He'll see you are not doing any magic and go away."
Deidra dropped her chin on her fist and glowered at the wall. She did not want to show herself. A dozen years had passed since the incident that had sparked Luthias Forsyth's obsession with her, and Deidra was no longer a child but a woman...and yet she still trembled in his presence. She felt eight years old again, terrified and wanting to bury her face in her father's shirt.
"I should go away," Deidra murmured. "It brings danger to you and Da when he comes here searching about for witchcraft. There is plenty to find here. One day he will strike against you for sheltering me. I feel it." She shook her head, fear gripping her shoulders tight. "I bring danger on us all."
"What foolishness. Don't be ridiculous." Rose pushed the tray at her insistently. "You know we won't hear of it. You will stay here with us until you marry and that's the end of it."
Deidra chose to ignore that and picked at the currants instead. No man would ever marry her. She was one and twenty, and not a single offer had been made for her. Her parents took her to gatherings, but the men she met did not seem to find her looks pleasing or her person interesting. It was her hair. Wild and woolly, like a sheep's. She'd heard what the other lasses said about her. She was ugly and a mute, raised by animals. No, she would never find a man with such references.
She snatched a roll off the tray and stood, pacing the room. "I will live in the mountains, somewhere far away from here, on the Continent perhaps...the Alps, in a remote chalet where he'll never find me and I bring danger to no one."
Rose made a dismissive sound and waved a hand. "That kind of behavior never brought anyone any happiness. Remember you Stephen Ross?" She raised her copper brows. "We all loved him well, but he was so miserable he couldn't see it. So away he went and now everyone thinks he's a monster, living in the mountains. No friends or family. People fear him."
Deidra did remember Stephen Ross. He'd been a young man when she'd been a child. Crippled in an accident, he'd tried to live among friends and family, but the pain and bitterness over what had happened to him had cankered his soul and made him unpleasant. Eventually he'd moved to one of his estates in the far north to live in isolation.
"People say he is a baobhan sith," Rose said. "That he traps unsuspecting travelers and drinks their blood. Would you like them to say that about you?"
Rose was clever, playing on Deidra's need for acceptance and approval. Deidra disliked the taint of witchcraft. But she ignored the question and slid Rose a dubious sidelong look. "I thought blood witches were all women."
Rose shrugged. "I suppose they can be either men or women. I know not." Rose smiled slyly. "Perchance Mr. Forsyth could tell you more about them. Go see him and find out."
Deidra scowled and returned to the bed, where Rose sat. "Is it true? Is Stephen Ross really a baobhan sith?" She still remembered the tale her father had told her as a child, about how her great-great-great-grandsire had made a pact with a blood witch. She'd always found the story compelling but not particularly useful. After all, she'd assumed the baobhan sith were not real. A story told to children to keep them close to home.
When Rose didn't reply, Deidra pressed, "So...do you believe in the baobhan sith? Do you really think there is such a thing?"
Rose gave her a mildly condescending smile. "If you grew up in my family...and married into such a family as I did...well, you would understand that anything is possible."
This was true. Rose's sisters were both powerful witches. Rose herself had married a witch. And Deidra was a witch, though she hadn't used her magic in years. At least not intentionally. To be precise, she had become proficient at ignoring it, and it didn't trouble her overmuch these days. But that mattered little in Mr. Forsyth's world. He knew what she was capable of. He had seen it with his own eyes. And even now, though she might deny her magic to herself and to others, the animals knew and would never allow her to forget it. They sensed it in her and flocked to her. Most of them did not have the capacity for reason. They did not understand that she would never speak to them again. They all wanted something, so they kept trying.
"Drake went to a blood witch."
Deidra nearly dropped her bread. Her jaw did drop. "Uncle Drake?"
Rose nodded, the corners of her mouth tight, her gaze turned inward. She obviously wasn't certain she should be speaking of this, but she had decided to anyway. "Do you recall when Ceara was ill? And your father and I could not cure her?"
Deidra remembered well. Aunt Ceara's deadly ailment was what had turned her parents' hair white through their constant attempts to heal that which not even magic could cure.
"He took her to the blood witch."
"And?" Deidra prompted, breathless.
Rose shrugged. "I know not. Ceara is dead. Drake is...different. But he did say that he saw her. So there must be such a thing."
The baobhan sith was real after all. Deidra was intrigued. Perhaps another path lay open to her, one she had not previously considered. However, the visit had not benefited Ceara. Perhaps she should go to the source, find out what had really happened.
Her mind turned to Stephen Ross. She'd not known him well. He'd been a good friend to the MacDonells, Rose's family. He was the illegitimate nephew of an earl and very wealthy. He could afford to live off in some remote castle, far away from the stares. She remembered the way he'd limped, the lines pain had drawn in his youthful face. He'd not been born crippled, but Deidra had not known him when he'd been a whole man.
What Deidra remembered most of all when she recalled Stephen Ross was that he'd been beautiful. She'd found him angelic in countenance and particularly enchanting when he'd smiled, which had been rare. He'd never paid much attention to her, except once, when her animals had bothered him. He'd bellowed like a baited bear, terrifying her. She'd cut a wide swath around him after that.
But that had been a very long time ago. She was not a little girl but a woman, and he did not scare her.
Rose patted her knee. "Think about showing yourself, aye? Maybe then he'll go away."
Deidra smiled wanly. Even if Luthias did go away, he'd just come back. He would keep coming back until she could prove she was not a witch.
When Rose was gone, Deidra gathered up the rest of the currants and bread, wrapped them in a napkin, then stuffed the napkin into a canvas satchel. She placed the bowl on the floor. The dog preempted its instinctive rush forward and sat back, staring at her with pleading eyes, flanks quivering with hope.
"Go ahead," she said.
The dog's nose disappeared in the bowl.
Deidra crossed the room to her clothespress and threw open the doors. Scanning the interior, she grabbed fresh stockings and a clean shift. She started to close it then ran a hand over her wild, unruly curls. She snatched up her comb and stuffed it in the satchel with everything else before closing the doors.
She hesitated, standing in the center of her room, satchel in hand. She wanted to leave immediately, to get as far away from Luthias Forsyth as possible. She crossed to the bed and sank down on it. It would be unwise to leave now. Someone might observe her leaving and report back to Luthias.
It would be a few more hours yet before the castle went to sleep.
So she waited.
The dog finished eating and stared at her expectantly, trying to communicate with her. She could feel it pushing at the membrane of her thoughts, but she would not allow it entrance. She walled it out, just like she did all creatures. It had a name, but she refused to use it, refused to acknowledge it.
She lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, the weight of time and her task pressing on her soul.
Luthias had grown tired of this little hamlet. Year in and year out he came here, keeping track of the animal whisperer. He slept in smelly crofts with the rustics, who stank and fed him food unfit for animals. He had never married, and he had no family save a sister he hadn't spoken to in a lifetime. His was not a life for a family man. He lived like a nomad. Still, he had a house in Edinburgh, and it would have been nice to have had a woman waiting for him there.
But it was not his lot. God had handed him this calling, this gift of rooting out witches, and he was obligated to use it in His name. Still, there had been a time when a wife and family had been possible. That was before the MacKays. Before Deidra.
Tonight he slept on a cramped mattress stuffed with heather and probably crawling with fleas, which he had paid far too much for. His men had found stables around the village, though one slept outside this croft, protecting him. A blanket hung between Luthias and his hosts, but that did not block out the sounds of the smith rutting on his wife. They thrashed about, grunting and huffing and whimpering. He couldn't remember the last time he'd lain with a woman, but he was certain that when he had, it hadn't been nearly so noisy.
The blanket stirred, and a moment later a small face peeked around the side of it. The smith's son. Luthias glared at the lad and the face swiftly disappeared...but seconds later he was back, staring with wide, serious eyes, all the while the tanner strained and groaned on the other side of the blanket.
Luthias thought he might go mad.
He threw back the itchy wool blanket and struggled off the mattress, grabbing his cloak and rushing out of the croft into the cool night air.
He stood under the waning moon and inhaled deeply of the crisp air, thick with peat smoke. His legs twitched from agitation, and he jigged his foot impatiently.
He would leave in the morning. The witch hid from him and would not show herself. He usually did not back down from a challenge. He'd smoked witches out before, but this one's family was different. They were white witches. Luthias had long subscribed to the notion that the only good witch was a dead one, but that had been before he'd witnessed William MacKay heal a dying man. That could not have been the devil's work, for the man had been William's enemy and that enemy had been doing God's work, trying to end William MacKay's life. True evil would have let him die. True evil would have relished in the revenge. True evil such as Deidra MacKay.
She had been the murderer that day. She had set her hellhounds on the man, a whole horrifying snarling pack of them, and they had ripped the man's throat out while she'd looked on with approval. And she'd only been eight years old.
The image of such a small lovely child committing such a vile, inhuman act had haunted Luthias for twelve years now. God had made him witness to that horror for a reason. God haunted him with nightmares of the child for a reason. Every day since he had walked away from Deidra, he had regretted it. He had tried to comfort himself with the knowledge that trying a child was illegal and he'd honored the law. But he knew in his heart it had just been an excuse. God's law superseded any law created by man. He was God's servant, and Deidra MacKay offended God. It was his calling to keep her from committing any further horrors and to punish her if she transgressed. She was not a child anymore; had not been for some time. It was past time for him to set things to rights.
He took his calling very seriously.
The twitching stopped, but he didn't want to go back inside. He didn't think he could sleep in that croft tonight anyway. He crossed the dark yard and lowered himself onto a log. It was too dark to travel in such terrain, plus his men needed their sleep. Tomorrow they had a long journey ahead of them. He'd caught word of another witch in the lowlands. This one heard the voices of the dead and used her magic to find lost objects. Evil. He shuddered just to imagine the kind of evil that raised the dead for profit. He would come back to Strathwick and seek another opportunity.
As he sat contemplating his next assignment, he became aware of movement in the distance, near the castle. He sat very still, watching. A lone figure moved silently through the darkness. But he was wrong; he soon saw that it was not alone. In the distance behind it followed an entourage of figures low to the ground. Dogs, it appeared, or mayhap wolves.
Luthias recoiled inside, his lips curling.
The animal whisperer, out skulking about after everyone else was asleep. As he watched, he noted she carried a satchel. She disappeared into the stables, then reappeared moments later leading a horse. He watched her until she was gone.
She was leaving Strathwick.
He felt an unfamiliar tugging at the corners of his mouth and realized it was a smile. He'd finally smoked her out.
A change of plans was in order. He would not be heading directly to the lowlands after all. God had finally rewarded his patience with opportunity. It was time to set things right.
Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Holling