“If it’s life you’re looking for, you won’t find it here.”
Startled, I turned and there in the shadow of the wall stood a strangely dressed man. A hood concealed his face, only part of his beard was visible. My hand still rested on the stone carving. A breeze picked up my hair, blowing it across my face. I blinked and the man disappeared. I walked towards the shadow, still running my hand over the rough stone.
“I think you’re wrong,” I said. Silence and then a sound of a footfall. It was the couple I’d passed awhile ago making their way around the ruin. We waved in recognition and then I entered the hall. A bird few from one side to the other too high up for me to recognize it. I looked around for the man who’d spoken to me but there was no one. Had I imagined it? But he was wrong. There was life here, not the bird or the grass or the little plants struggling through the stones I walked on. The stones themselves held life. I squatted down and lay my hand on the stones. I could feel the vibrations and then a voice broke the thread.
“They’re all dead.”
I looked round quickly and caught a glimpse of him moving out of a shaft of light. “Who are you?”
He was still visible. “A vapor.”
“A voice from the past,” I said. “Not dead.”
“Aye, dead and gone. What do you seek here?”
“A connection. I’ve done my research and I know this place.”
“You do not know this place.”
“Show me, tell me!” I cried.
A voice, a laugh and then the couple entered and all was lost. He disappeared. I stood up and moved towards the spiral steps, narrow and worn from many feet. Pausing at a slit in the stairwell, I looked out over the green rolling hills. They looked far away and nearer were the rooftops of the village that had grown up near the castle ruin. I continued on, feeling the muscles in my thighs as I ascended the steps.
I did not see my vapor again until I was outside the walls. I’d paused and lay my hand on the stone wall.
“Do ye feel the hot blood that ran down the wall?”
I shook my head. “So much has happened here, death, birth, happiness and…”
He stood near the wall. “Do ye feel it?”
“Yer a Gordon.”
“Yes, I am. My name is Jean Gordon. I’m from America, a land across the Atlantic Ocean.”
“Too far removed. What is time? Eternal it is. There is no end to it.”
“Are you a Gordon?”
“Aye, and ill used for it.”
“They lined them up and shot them here where ye stand. The Laird’s escort.”
“Were you there?”
“Aye, still here as I am now.”
“As a…vapor? You have a name...will you share it with me?”
“What year were you here?”
“Many years. “
“Were you born here? What year was that? Are you the son of the Laird?”
“Many questions you have. I am not a son of the Laird or of any laird. I am but a stone mason.”
“Oh, then you know stones. No wonder I…I do have many questions. Did you help build this castle?”
“Aye, and was given money by the king. He came here and gave a gift of coins to all masons.”
“That would be, um, the sixteenth century.”
“Year 1501 it was.” He disappeared again and the couple who’d been touring the castle climbed into their vehicle and drove away. My car was the only one left in the parking lot.
Ronald Gordon was a stone mason. I had an affinity with stones. I can’t explain it but I feel things, sometimes I see things. Stones endure; stones witness but are silent as to the life passing by or over them. For me, they give off a vibration that tells me something significant happened at a given place. This is not the first time I’ve felt the threads of past lives. It is the first time I’ve encountered a being from a past life. I am, to say the least, excited and curious. I’m not afraid since he doesn’t appear to be malicious in any way. Perhaps he’s as curious as I am. I’d been here for several hours now and the shadows were growing longer across the stones. The passages in the castle were lit with electric lights casting an eerie glow over the arched ceilings and stone floors. I rested on a window opening, looking out but keeping an eye on the interior for Ronald Gordon, should he reappear.
“You’re still here. Why do you linger?”
I turned, abandoning my view. “I don’t know. I’m drawn to this place. There’s something here, something other than you. I feel the threads of connection.”
“Be you a witch?”
“No, I’m not a witch.” I smiled and laid my hand on the stone near the fireplace. It felt warm in my palm as if heated by a great fire. “I’m sensitive to otherworldly things. I’m not sure that has a name. Do you often appear to visitors here?”
“I only observe and listen. 'Tis how I know your words.”
“Your native tongue was not English.”
“Nae was not. Not as you speak it.”
“Why have you appeared to me?”
He, too, ran his palm across a stone on the wall. “I canna say. I felt I could.”
“If I come again will you talk with me?”
“I will find you here.”
“It’s late and I’m going to have to leave. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“'Tis closed tomorrow.”
“Is it? How do you close a ruin? I’ll be back.”
I’m staying at the Castle Hotel. I’ve tried to record everything I can remember from this encounter I experienced today. It’s truly fascinating and tomorrow, whether the castle is open for visitors or not, I’m going back. I’m going back better prepared with questions about the past inhabitants of the castle. I still wonder about the connection I felt. I do know my ancestors came from Scotland but names and dates are rather illusive for an American to validate, especially if you don’t have the proper names and exact areas where they came from. Ronald may be the key I need.
It was quite a hike. I left my car at the hotel and walked four or five miles, I’d guess, but it wasn’t a bad walk. It’s raining a little but I’m prepared. I've brought my backpack with my lunch and another pair of shoes. Two long wet rivulets of hair hang down either side of my face. My unruly hair never stays put. I’m here at the entrance to the castle. It was quite easy to get around the paying entrance. I came through the woods over the golf course. Had the site been open for visitors I would have gladly paid the price and saved myself a drenching. There are no electric lights today and the passages are dark. I’ve a flashlight with me. It shows me the way up the stairs. There’s an impressive fireplace protected from the elements by an arched cover. I stand before it, looking up at the carvings. I wonder if Ronald also carved the stones or just set them. This was the great hall. It was cold or I was cold. It came on suddenly almost from the inside out. It had nothing to do with the cool of the rain-soaked day. This was different. I shook off the feeling of falling.
“He died in here.” Ronald appeared outside of the covering. “They brought him up from the green, suffering and twitching. He was laid out here on a table.”
“Who was he?”
“George Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly. Some say it was poison.”
“He was a fine and healthy man, struck down suddenly.”
“As I am now. Men began succumbing, one in the low chamber and three others in the tower. They said they felt cold and collapsed.”
“I felt the cold, just now, before you came.”
“'Tis the Earl. He does not rest easy. All his goods were secured in his bedchamber and after the body was taken away to prepare it for entombment, there were sounds heard in his chamber. A big heavy door was locked from the outside. There was no other way into the room.”
“Do you know for sure it was poison?”
“I believe it was. 'Tis why he cannot rest.”
“When was this, what year?”
“What kind of man was he?”
“He was a good man. He enjoyed his sport. The day he died he was out on the green playing with a ball. A game it was. He was the Lord Chancellor of Scotland.” He moved from the covering out into the room. “He was also involved in many intrigues. He cast his lot with Queen Mary. His sister was married to Bothwell, who later became the queen’s husband after her first husband was murdered.”
“Oh, you have witnessed so much here. It was an era of intrigues, blackmail and murder. I wish…I wish I could have lived in such times.”
“Careful of what you wish, Mistress Gordon. 'Tis a strange place…this. Time knows no boundaries.”
I smiled and moved from the fireplace out into the room and near him. He seemed to be as solid as I was. Not quite a vapor and yet I believed him to be what he said he was. “How was this room used?”
“The great chamber sits next to the Earl’s bedchamber. All important business was carried out here. There was a long table along there with seating for meals. The walls looked not as you see them now. It was not so bare. The house was furnished with the finest pieces and quite comfortable. Lord Gordon liked his comforts when he was in residence.”
“How old were you when you came here to work?”
“I do not know for sure. Not twenty years. I worked here for twenty years. That I do know.”
“Did you do the carvings?”
“Not all. Only one of mine remains as they were struck down by the occupiers. The Gordons were Catholic. The Scottish Covenanter army took offense, deeming them popish.”
“The rose that I found, is that yours?”
“Aye, 'tis mine.”
Half his face was now visible. A dark beard, a fine straight nose. “Did you…die here?”
“Why is it you cannot rest?”
He turned away and laid his hand on the stones. “My blood is in the stones.”
“Was it a violent end?”
“Yes. It was the 9th of September and the battle of Braxton, called Flodden by some. Alexander Gordon, then 2nd Earl of Huntly, gathered his army and me amongst them, though I was not an army regular. He gathered all fit and strong men to follow him. I was both. I took an arrow. It did not appear to be a killing blow. The arrow was removed and I was brought back here after a time but by then I was sorely sick and dying. The King of Scotland died that day, King James IV. Lord Gordon survived and one of the few who did. I did not want to be dying. I had a wife, a son, and a daughter.”
“How did your blood get into the stones?”
“They lanced me to get rid of the bad blood.”
“In this room?”
“The room no longer stands. The stones are here, though. They were moved to help preserve what is left of this castle.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“'Twas a long time ago.”
“You appear real to me, flesh and blood. Have you really never appeared before anyone?”
“Once before my wife. It was not a good meeting. She feared what she did not understand and thought I was cursed. Perhaps I am. I do not know.”
“You must have frightened her. I wish there was something I could do for you.”
“Nae, do not wish it for there is nothing to be done.”
“You might have been saved with proper care.”
The rain had stopped but water was still pooled in the open areas. I went from inside to the back of the castle. Here it was but a ruin. I went carefully over the stones, knowing if I twisted an ankle I’d be here until Thursday. I’d yet to investigate this area.
A foundation uncovered in the grass was all that was left of this structure. I didn’t know he’d followed me.
“It was here that I died. Here I lived with my family. 'Tis small, is it not? It was enough.”
“Were you still working, building, before you were conscripted into the lord’s army?”
“I was a relative and given this place to live. I worked when needed.”
“I saw this from the top yesterday and wondered what part it played in the castle.”
“This site held another timbered house that was burned to the ground. There is also another ruin, a motte. 'Tis no more than a mound now. This foundation is from the first house, the first earl’s father. I rebuilt it and it was given to me…all my efforts are now gone.”
His sadness hung around him like a mist. I wished I knew how to send him on to the next realm, to be with his wife and children. I could only imagine the conditions they must have lived in. Any wound, especially a serious one, was likely to cause death. Could I have saved him had I been there? Maybe, but then I wouldn’t have access to any modern medication.
The wind got up and I looked at the sky, expecting another downpour. The clouds were dark enough. I heard thunder and then a chicken.
She brushed by my skirts (skirts?) and four little yellow biddies ran along behind her. A mother hen. I’ll tell you, I was afraid to look up. Instead I stood quite still and looked out of the corner of my eyes, first right then left. A stone house stood on my left and to the right, up the incline was the castle. Not a ruin now. I became aware of people moving about in costume. I had about my own costume a bag slung over my shoulder, not my backpack, but a cloth bag.
A child was crying. It sounded as if it came from inside the stone house. If I had not moved I would be standing outside of Ronald’s house. I looked in the open doorway. Two women were in there in the near darkness, one in tears and the other trying to comfort the little girl. Against the wall was a bed and there lay Ronald Gordon. I understood what had happened. He’d warned me about wishing. A man emerged from the shadowy corner with a basin and a knife.
“No, No, NO!” I shouted and entered the house, going straight to the bedside. “You can’t do that. It won’t help him.”
They looked at me like I was an alien from a different planet. The man said something I didn’t understand. I shook my head and pushed his knife and basin away. Instead I pulled back the bed cover and saw the wound. It was on his left side just below his ribcage. An arrow had entered and been pulled out. He’d told me about the arrow so I knew. I leaned over and smelled the wound. It was bad. “Water, hot water.” No need to ask for soap. Using pantomime gestures I got my meaning across. Using the cloth his wife had been wiping his face with I soaked it in the hot water and then applied it to the wound, carefully cleaning it of all the dried blood and I looked for bits of anything that might still be inside him. He moved slightly but a glace told me he was unconscious. I thought to look in the bag I carried. There were some primitive fixes there, silver tweezers, some herbs and barks. I set the crying woman to making a tea with the bark and herbs. I needed light and took the only candle in the room, setting it by the bed. I hadn’t noticed when the man with the knife had left.
I wiped and probed and came upon something solid. It was part of the arrowhead. “Have to get this out,” I said, “otherwise, he’ll die.”
The older woman sat down on a stool with the child and looked at me. She said something to the younger woman, whom I took to be Ronald’s wife. I felt him go rigid beneath my fingers. I know it must hurt but I had to get that piece of metal out of his body. Grasping it with the tweezers, I pulled it out in one piece and tossed it in the basin the man had left on the floor. I was proud of myself.
“There it is. Now we can only hope and pray.”
Again I staunched the bleeding with the rag and asked for more water and another rag. I also pantomimed a needle and thread. The older woman gave me a needle from her little bone sewing kit she wore in a small pouch in her skirts. I placed it in hot water. The thread was silk, good and strong. I only took four stitches, just enough to close the wound. Once again I cleansed the skin around it, even pouring the now-warm water over his side. After drying him I was handed a little pot of some kind of grease. I smelled it and it smelled of herbs. I thought that couldn’t hurt so I slathered it on and then bandaged him up with the pieces of torn linen sheet that had been prepared for me by the young woman. She knew what I was doing and so did the older one.
The tea had been steeping while I worked. I had to get him awake enough to drink it. I leaned close to his ear. “Ronald Gordon, you must wake up. It’s Jean Gordon.”
His eyes fluttered for a moment and slightly opened. He smelled strongly of some kind of alcoholic drink.
“Drink this, you must. You don’t want to die, do you? Please, for them, drink this tea.”
He drank half a bowl. It was enough for now but he’d need it again and again. I lay my hand on his forehead. Feverish, as I had expected to find. He was pale with dark circles under his eyes. I wondered how long he’d been lying here like this. He hadn’t told me how long it took to get him home. Someone spoke sharply from the doorway and I nearly spilled the tea. The older woman rose from her stool and went to speak with the man, who blocked all light coming from the doorway. I tucked the covers back around Ronald and stood up, feeling my legs creaking from kneeling on the stone floor. I turned to face him. Wasn’t this what I’d been wishing for? Hadn’t I said I’d like to see what life was like in this era? I’d been warned not to wish, however I’m glad I was there. If I could save Ronald then it would be worth the trip. I understood I was to follow the man who’d stepped outside of the house waiting for me. I looked at the older woman and she smiled slightly and indicated I should go. I told her about the tea and when he wakes to give him some more. Upon stepping out into the light I noticed the man who’d held the knife and basin speaking to the large one in a dark green smock. They both looked at me with hard eyes.
I barely had time to admire the beauty of the castle’s interior. As Ronald had told me it looked nothing like the bare stones I had seen. I’m only 5’4” and I was trying to keep up with the Green Smock man as he quickly walked through the passageways to a set of steps that in my time were no longer standing. We arrived on the third floor and I realized this was the great chamber because of the fireplace carvings.
A man sat in a chair with a bored expression on his face. He sported a red beard and red hair. Obviously he was being petitioned about something. He waved his hand and spoke to the man draped in brown robes. He noticed the Green Smock and motioned him forward. Both men looked at me while the Green Smock filled the Red Beard in on my presence.
I had the sense to curtsy, though it may have been only a dip. When Red Beard spoke I didn’t understand a word he said.
“I am sorry; I do not speak your language. I speak English, a little French and some Spanish.”
He came back to me in French, obviously understanding. However, it was a French dialect that I’d never heard. “I’m an American from across the sea. I’m a nurse there.”
Red Beard stood up and came towards me. “English. How come ye here?”
“Um, I’m not sure. I was here and then…I came to see to Ronald Gordon.”
“What are ye called?”
“Jean Gordon, daughter of Archie Gordon, granddaughter of William Gordon, great-granddaughter of George Gordon. That’s as far back as I know.”
He raised his brows and his brown eyes looked into mine for a moment. The names I’d rattled off, except for Archie, were known to him although in a different time. He thought he had me fixed. He turned to Green Smock and waved his hand then said something quickly to him. Green Smock still looked doubtful. I heard a name, however, and knew the man in front of me to be Alexander Gordon, grandfather of George Gordon, the ghost that still roamed the ruined castle. This would be Lord Gordon, the 3rd Earl of Huntly.
Eyes followed me out of the chamber. I was taken to a woman who was sewing in an alcove by a window. The heavy fabric that served as a curtain had been pulled to one side so that she could see to her stitches. Green Smock said something to her and she looked at me with kindly eyes. I smiled back.
“Are ye a healer?” she asked in her heavy accent.
“Yes,” I nodded.
She moved a pile of fabric off a stool and motioned for me to sit. “I am Elizabeth Gordon. I speak some English.”
“Good.” I sat down and fingered the rich silk velvet she was working on. “I’m here to try and save Ronald Gordon.”
She shook her head. “I do not understand. I do not know this Ronald Gordon.”
“He’s a stonemason and lives in the row of stone houses out back of the castle.”
“Ah, stonemason, yes.”
“He was injured badly in the battle of Flodden. He does not want to die.”
She clicked her tongue and shook her head slightly. “No one wants to die.”
“He has a wife and children.” I could see Ronald meant nothing to her. She rethreaded her needle with a different silk thread and bent her head over the embroidery work she was creating. “I should go back to his bedside.”
“Where come ye from?”
“A long way in time.” How could I explain it? “And then again, not far at all. You do beautiful work.” I was restless on my stool, wishing I was back in the stone house. “Would it be all right if I went to see my patient, Ronald Gordon?”
“Yes, yes.” She waved her hand and I walked out of the alcove, unsure which way to go. I walked to my left towards a passage that turned out to be another set of spiral steps. This took me to another set and then to the ground floor. From here I could get my bearings…or so I thought. It brought me to the servants' quarters, and to the great kitchen with its enormous fireplace and the smell of a roasting hog. Several of the servants stopped and stared at me. I walked over to the fireplace and looked in the pots, sniffed and asked if I might have a small bowl of the broth. I had to pantomime and there was some discussion before I got a tankard full of broth. I looked around for an opening, several false starts and a young boy showed me the doorway to the outside. It came out behind the castle. Another boy was running by. He looked to be about six or seven. “You there, where will I find Ronald Gordon’s house.”
He stopped and looked at me a minute and smiled. He was missing his two front teeth. I followed him to Ronald’s house and he turned out to be his son. His mother spoke to him and chastised him for some wrong doing. The little girl was asleep in her small cot and the older woman was gone. I indicated the tankard and pointed to Ronald.
He was beginning to sweat which meant the tea was working to lower his fever. I bathed his face and he woke up enough to move slightly in the bed with a look of alarm on his face. “Don’t worry, it’s me again. I brought you some broth to drink. You must have something on your stomach.”
Of course it had not occurred to me before now that he would have no idea who I was. I was sorry about that, having counted on a friend in this place. I tried to assure him.
“I am a healer. I am Jean Gordon.”
“Healer,” he repeated in a raspy voice. However he reached for the tankard and was able to drain it in short order.
“Do you speak English?” I asked, reaching for his pulse. He kept his eyes on my fingers.
“English words, I know some.”
“Good. I’m trying to save your life.” I lifted the cover to make sure he hadn’t bled through the bandage. It looked clean. He grabbed the cover and pulled it up to his chin. I smiled and took the tankard from him.
I went over and looked in the pot at the tea. It was still on the hearth and warm. I strained a little out into the bowl and took it to him. “Drink this. It will bring your fever down and make you feel better.” I was being watched by a bright-eyed little boy with an infectious grin. “What is your name?” I asked him. His father translated. His name was Duncan.
“Duncan Gordon,” I repeated and smiled. His toothless grin widened. “That’s a good name.”
For the first time I looked around the house. Aside from the little girl’s cot there was another narrow bed for Duncan. A curtain divided their beds from the rest of the room. It was pulled aside for now. The fireplace was centered in the back wall and a well scrubbed table with two benches sat along the other wall. There were a few stools about, a large chest and a smaller one. The cooking utensils were on the hearth. It was a cozy space, warm in winter, but must be stifling in summer. The door to the house appeared to be heavy oak with a sizable latch on the inside. All in all not a bad place for my ‘vapor’ to live. His wife was busy with the cooking. Homey smells for Ronald. I glanced back at him and he was staring at me.
“It’s all good here,” I said. “You won’t die and unless you present yourself in the Laird’s army again, you should live and grow old with your family.”
“I live,” he said.
I felt he would. Having gotten the arrowhead out of his body, it now could concentrate on healing. Whoever the man in the black robes with the knife had been would have ended Ronald’s life. He had a long way to go but he would make it. I don’t know how long I’ll be here but while I’m here I’ll tend to him.
Now then, since I am here in this medieval timeframe, where was I to sleep, eat and hopefully bathe? Would I be here long enough to worry about these things? I thought about my lunch I’d packed in the backpack and left behind at the castle. My stomach rumbled and I stood up. “Where do I eat?” I said more to myself than to anyone else. I picked up the tankard and waved goodbye to Ronald and his family.
The kitchen to the castle was open and I went in and returned the tankard. A man was there giving orders, I assumed from the looks of the cooks and helpers. He noticed me and asked a question of the cook that couldn’t be answered.
“I am Jean Gordon, a healer.”
He must have heard of me already for he motioned for me to follow him up the winding steps. I was beginning to dislike these steps. I was back in the great hall again. I sat at the long table for the meal that was served. At one point the Laird directed a question to me and Elizabeth translated.
“How is the health of mason Ronald?”
“I believe he will live. He needs rest and nourishment and care for his wound.”
“A brave man, not many were left standing on Flodden Field,” the Laird said to the men near him. I understood Elizabeth was his wife. She was Lady Elizabeth. I hoped I hadn’t said anything to offend her.
The rest of the meal, as far as I was concerned, was eaten without interruption. Across the table and a few seats down was the man in the black robes. His cold eyes caught mine when I looked up. I believed him to be the house doctor, or whatever passed for such here. I’d made an enemy of him and I must keep my wits about me.
The meal lacked vegetables. There were leeks to eat, boiled and tasteless. I tried to eat some of everything and try not to think too much about what I was consuming. The drink was wine and ale. Not bad at all. I was suddenly very tired and yet the meal went on. I picked at what was put before me, moving it around in my plate but I was full and longed for a place to rest and think about what I was experiencing.
I should have been paying attention to the head of the table. They were speaking of the death of King James IV of Scotland. He’d met his end at Flodden. It was odd how I understood some of their language. It was easier if I didn’t try. I heard someone laugh and speak almost in a whisper. They were laughing at me. I’d nodded off and jerked myself awake just before planting my face in my food. At last Lady Elizabeth took pity and a young girl came up to me and took my hand to lead me from the hall.
She stayed with me, helping me out of my costume. With nothing else to wear, I crawled into the bed in my shift. As tired as I was, sleep was a long time coming. With any luck at all, I’d saved Ronald’s life. He no longer would be haunting the castle ruins. Having done that…how was I to get back to where I belonged? As a vapor, Ronald had warned me about wishing. That’s all well and good for the place and time but I was no longer there. The reality was frightening. Ronald’s words came back to me, ‘time is eternal; there is no end to it’. No beginning, no end, did it circle about in the cosmos? How was it possible that I’d slipped through the barrier? I had no answers and the questions were giving me a headache.
The next morning I had bread and gruel for breakfast…and ale. The bread was good. I left the castle and went to see Ronald. He was sitting up in bed and munching on bread that he was dipping into his own gruel.
“I see you’re feeling better,” I said, pulling up a stool by his bed. He had on a smock and I could see evidence that he’d been up. His leggings were on the floor by the bed.
“I live,” he replied. The little girl was on the foot of his bed with her finger in her mouth looking at me with wide blue eyes. His wife was not in the house.
“I’ll need to change that bandage today.” I pointed to his side.
“All good,” he said, putting his bowl down and handing the last of his bread to his daughter.
“You won’t know this, Ronald, but I’ve met you before.” I told him how I’d come to know him. How much of it he understood I don’t know but he looked at me in wonder. “I’ve traveled back in time and I don’t know how to go forward, to go back to where I belong.”
“Ye no travel in time.”
“I guess there’s a first time for everything. I did travel in time. I came back to save your life because you didn’t want to die and be separated from your family. Now, I’m separated from my life, from my friends, from my life as I know it.”
“Stones,” he said, looking into my eyes meaningfully.
“Maybe. You know stones as I do, don’t you?” I believe he did. It was worth a try and I decided to go to a part of the castle that I knew from my time, where I could place my hands on the stones…and wish.
“Take care, Ronald.” I placed a hand on his for a moment and then left his house.
I didn’t get far before my skirts were caught by his son. He was insistent that I follow him. I came to another house, not as large as Ronald’s but much the same. There a woman was wailing in pain trying to give birth. There were three others in the room. One I observed was the midwife. I went to the woman and lay my hand on her swollen belly. It was hard with a contraction.
“How long?” I asked the midwife.
She held up two fingers. Two days, two hours? She let out a long breath. “Two nights.”
I could hear the other two women whispering behind me. One of them was Ronald’s wife. She spoke to the midwife and the woman backed away. I sat down on the side of the bed and examined the poor suffering woman. It was a breech birth. I could even feel the baby’s foot. If I could get both of them in my fingers I’d give it a pull and see if slipped out. Again the woman was in the throes of a painful contraction. I felt for the feet again, grasped one in my fingers and pulled. The baby slipped out in a gush of fluid. It was still alive, thank God, or else I probably wouldn’t be. The woman was now whimpering and I lay the infant on her belly for her to see. The midwife cut the cord and I stood up, looking for water to wash my hands. I left them to tend to her and stepped out into the bright sunshine. Duncan was waiting outside hopping from one foot to the other.
“A boy, like you,” I said to him. He ran off shouting and I looked at the castle and began to make my way around to the front. If I could get to the front entrance where the carvings were, then I’d try to leave.
I paused to admire Ronald’s work, the carvings that had been knocked down from the entrance. I didn’t linger long but walked along the side near the rose where I’d first encountered him. There I placed my palms on stone and closed my eyes, picturing the ruin. I pictured myself standing there in my modern clothes with my backpack. I felt the vibrations in the stones. They seemed to travel up my arms and through my body. I concentrated harder, trying to block out the visions that passed in my mind. Feeling the air, different, cool and damp, I opened my eyes. I was back. I hardly had time to feel the relief before I went completely cold, so cold I collapsed by the wall.
The colors began to recede before I opened my eyes. Colors, swirling about me, sometimes violent, sometimes almost transparent. I opened my eyes and looked into a pair of concerned gray eyes framed by waves of auburn hair.
“Yer with us, again,” he said to me and handed me a cup and a drink of strong wine.
I swallowed slowly. “Where am I?”
“Strathbogie.” He gave the old name for Huntly Castle. “Where do ye come from, lass?”
“I…don’t know exactly. Who are you?”
“Ye’ve got a strange way o’talkin.” He turned to two servants. “Nae, she doesn’t have need.”
I saw a stretcher laid down on the ground. “Huntly,” I said and looked from side to side as I couldn’t see beyond the bulk of the man leaning over me. I pushed myself up, leaning my back against the stone wall.
“Which earl are you?”
He drew back and looked at me for a moment and then burst out laughing. “The only one that I know of carries the Huntly baggage. Lord Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly, at yer service.”
The restless ghost, Lord Gordon, likely poisoned. “Oh…dear.”
“Let’s have ye up, lass.” He stood up and reached for my hand and pulled me to a standing position.
There was a young boy standing slightly behind him. He turned to the boy. “Gwoan then, Georgie. Find yer sister.” The boy picked up a leather ball and jogged off towards the entrance of the castle. We were on the green which spread out before the wall.
He leaned in once we were alone. “I know who ye are. Ye’ve come to find the culprit what give me the poison.”
My eyes rounded. “I…I don’t…”
“Ye watch and tell me who t’will be. I know what ye did for t’other one. Ye’ll do for me.”
“Ronald?” I blinked.
“Aye,” he nodded. “Stay with me, lass. Stay with me, watch out for me.” He pointed to his eye.
“I…I can’t change history!” I cried.
“I’m not history…yet,” he smiled and then laughed.
I went with him through the front entrance, up the spiral steps that I was beginning to know quite well. I was dressed in a blue gown made of finer stuff than the last one. I worried about what he expected of me. His death is recorded history along with the manner of his dying. I couldn’t change it if I wanted to or was able to. Once we reached the great hall, he went on ahead to talk to some people and I stood quietly taking in my surroundings. It was a finely furnished room with great tapestries and dark wooden furniture. Many candlesticks, two great dogs were laid out in front of the blazing fireplace. They lifted their heads and looked at their master. Seeing he was otherwise engaged they lay back down.
Lord Gordon turned and held out his hand for me to join them. I was introduced to John Stewart, his steward. I was to have anything I wished; all comforts were to be afforded me. Stewart’s dark eyes regarded me without expression. As he was speaking rapidly I didn’t catch all of what he said with his heavy accent but one word stood out…witch.
“I’m not a witch,” I said to Lord Gordon.
He only smiled in response. Stewart left and came back later with wine and biscuits. We sat down at a table. After Stewart left us he lifted his goblet to me.
“I will tell you about my father. My mother kept her witches and they predicted his death. Janet said he would fall dead from his horse without a mark. And so it happened. You know what is to happen to me. Ronald Gordon told you of my demise. I want you to prevent it.”
“I don’t know that I can.”
“You will try. You have some powers. You went back in time and saved a stonemason. Surely you can do as much for the Earl of Huntly.”
“I will try.” What else could I reply? From what I recall from my research, it was not certain that he died of poison.
“You will remain close to me, oversee my food preparation and drink. If I should fall ill, it is you who will tend me. I support a large household, servants, relations, wife, children, guests come and go. Friends…friends,” he took a drink. “I trust no one here but you.”
I picked up my goblet. “And yet, you drink the wine served to you without having it tested.” It was all I could think of at the time.
He sat back, his eyes widened. “Ah, yes, I see.” He called for Stewart and handed him his goblet. “Drink from this…does it taste as it should?”
“Yes, milord, 'tis good.” Stewart had a drink and handed it back.
Lord Gordon dismissed him and turned to me. “Already, I feel safer. I shall eat nothing that is not first tasted by a servant. I have made many enemies in my time. Perhaps they wait in silence, eh?”
“I remember that you were a staunch supporter of Queen Mary.”
“Queen Mary has used my family badly and yet I had to support her. The Pope himself relieved me of all my sins. There have been many…all in the line of duty, you understand.”
“'Tis all over now. Since the peace I have not campaigned for or against her. My lands and holdings have been restored to me. I have no regrets. I’ve done what I had to at the time to survive.”
“Like renounce your religion.”
“Pah, I am a Catholic born and will die so. A man will lie when he must,” he grinned and poured another glass of wine. “I no longer take part in politics. I sometimes think I do not believe in anything or anyone. My father, ye know, was dead and they carried his body to Aberdeen to stand trial. T’were a farce. They stripped him and his progeny of ever owning anything. The queen took the furniture from these rooms.”
“But you got it back.”
“Aye, I did. I signed the treaty at Perth and all was restored to me. I’m too old to fight.”
He didn’t seem too old to me. I’d put him in his early forties. Though he’d led quite a hard life, sheriff, commander of forces, High Chancellor of Scotland, imprisoned several times, he appeared to be in good health. He was quite charming, with an easy manner about him. A man larger than life…how was I to protect him and what if I failed? How much time did I have?
“What month is it?”
“'Tis March.” He drained his goblet.
March, which meant I would be here until his end. Good lord! I fiddled with my glass. “Where is, um, Queen Mary now?”
“In England, detained at the pleasure of Elizabeth.”
“It may as well be called such. I do not think the danger comes from that direction, Lady Jean.”
“You called me Lady.”
“Are you not? Who is your father?”
“Archie Gordon,” I replied. He shook his head
I repeated my lineage as I knew it. “I can’t get past George Gordon.”
“Ah, 'tis enough. We no doubt branch out from there.”
He had, as his grandfather had done, not taken into account the many generations passed that had produced me. It was of little matter. I’d be his Lady Jean. The room began filling up and our quiet, private conversation had come to an end. I watched his eyes, alert and wary. I hoped he wouldn’t become paranoid. He had two months to live, maybe less. I didn’t know what day of March it was.
I was introduced to his wife, Lady Margaret Douglas, his second wife. The other two children, Jean who was a few years older than Georgie, were from his first wife, Lady Anne Hamilton. I was Lady Jean Gordon from…the west. Lady Margaret looked at me intently.
“You are a guest here?”
“Yes, I suppose I am. I’ve only just come.” I came without baggage and wondered how that would be resolved.
“Who is your mother?”
“Um, Janet Reese Gordon. She’s deceased.”
“Janet…” Her chin lifted and she looked away.
Janet was the name of the witch that predicted Lord Gordon’s father’s death. I couldn’t help the name but my mother certainly had no connections here. “My mother was a musician.” She had, as long as I could remember, played the organ at church on Sunday. “She was well loved and remembered.”
She smiled slightly and then caught sight of her stepdaughter, Jean. Jean was a lovely little girl or I should say, teen. She came over and dropped a curtsey to me, who didn’t deserve it at all. I dipped my head to her. She was, after all, the real Lady Jean.
The room was dazzling in candlelight. For someone who’d lost all his possessions he’d not done badly for himself. The golden light picked up the gold threads in the tapestries. Once everyone had assembled we sat down for a meal. The fare appeared to be some better than what I’d had at his grandfather’s table. Roast birds, salmon, venison, some kind of jellied thing, leeks, something bitter and green. I was seated one down on his right. He had different servers taste the food on his plate, watching them for any reaction, before he began to eat. I noticed heads turning and whispers down the table. His Margaret paid no attention to this new thing. I also noticed that he ate a lot and consumed a great quantity of wine. If this was his normal fare, then a stroke or heart attack might be in the making. I resolved to keep an eye on his meals for portion as well as anything that might cause a problem for him.
I ate a small portion of everything that was brought to me. My companions on either side of me remarked on my lack of appetite. The dogs were happy though.
Much later, after the diners had thinned out, I moved down the table and sat by him. “Lord Gordon, I’d like to talk to you about the amount of food and drink you’ve just had.” The drink was ongoing.
“Ah, and did you see I had it all tasted?”
“Yes, I did see that and that’s good if you think poison might be used. What I meant was the amount you ate.”
“Was a short meal tonight. Tomorrow I go hunting.”
“Short meal? You ate enough to feed a family of four or five.”
He looked offended. “I take no food from other’s mouths.”
“No, sir, I don’t say that you do. You simply eat too much and drink too much. That’s not good for your health.”
He patted his stomach. “A man must eat to keep up his strength.” He then rubbed his stomach a moment and belched. A wide smile graced his face.
“How old are you, sir?”
“Forty-one years…I think.” He took another long swallow from his goblet.
“Have you eaten this way all your life?”
“No, I won’t say as I have. As a man grows his stomach grows.” Again he patted his girth. “I couldna eat so much as a lad.”
I had to smile and I shook my head slightly. “You’re not going to be an easy patient. You want me to save you from a poisoner and I see the poisoner before me.”
He took my hand. “Lady Jean, I swear to you, I will not go by my own hand.” He grabbed a goblet and filled it for me. “Live, live whilst you can. Drink up! It’ll put roses in your cheeks.”
I drank and it was a stronger wine than I’d had at my plate. I felt its warmth flowing through me. No doubt roses were appearing in my cheeks. “How am I to be housed here?”
“Housed?” he grinned. “I would house you in my bed.”
“I don’t think so, and another thing, I haven’t any baggage, any clothes other than this costume.”
“I have put out that your baggage was lost at sea. Ye will not be, ah, naked, my Lady Jean.”
The way his tongue rolled over the word naked set my already rosy cheeks afire. I’d have to watch out for him.
He became serious for a moment. “You’ll be given a room here near mine. Should I need care during the night, you’ll be called. If it is true that…nae, I won’t die. You won’t let me. I am depending on ye, my lady.”
“As a nurse, as your nurse, I’d like to examine you sometime.”
He smiled broadly and held out his arms. “Anytime.”
Yes…well. This conversation had taken a dive. I put it to the wine he’d consumed. His children came in to bid him goodnight. Kisses and hugs were given with genuine love and affection. Their servants rounded them up and took them away.
“God bless ‘em,” he said. “My legacy will live on in Georgie.”
He would die; there was nothing I could do to prevent it. I might prevent his being poisoned but death was certain. History could not be rewritten. I hated it because I’d begun to like him. I placed my hand on his arm. He looked at it a moment and then slowly raised his eyes to mine. I couldn’t stand it. I rose and walked to the fireplace. His seductiveness wasn’t helping.
I couldn’t have been asleep for very long when a woman in her night clothes and sleeping bonnet shook me awake. Lord Gordon.
I was given access to his room by his steward, who remained. Lord Gordon was propped up in bed on pillows and covered with a sheet. I suspected something akin to amorous intentions. “You’d better be sick,” I said as I walked to the bed. Then I saw the basin. “Sorry, what happened?”
“Bad wine,” he answered.
His steward added, “He’s had a bad turn.”
“Does he have these turns often?” I asked.
“No, he does not,” Lord Gordon answered.
“May I?” I intended to palpitate his stomach and belly. He watched my face while I did. He winced once when I was about his stomach. I thought he was going to vomit again.
“I think,” I began, “that you may have an ulcer in your stomach. Anything acidic like wine is going to cause it to hurt. You had a great deal of wine tonight. An ulcer will bleed if it gets bad enough. He’s to have no more wine for awhile.”
“He is lying here beneath your hands,” Lord Gordon said testily.
“I see you are and what I’m saying is for your own good. Your diet needs adjusting too. Depending on how bad the ulcer is, it may heal itself if you don’t do battle with it. Will you let me treat you?”
“I am at your mercy, Lady Jean,” he grinned.
“Good. Now then, Stewart, if you’ll get me to the kitchen I may be able to find what I need there for tonight.”
Stewart let his dogs in the room and took the basin with him. We trekked through the darkened castle with his lantern, down the winding steps, down another set and through a passageway to the kitchen. There was one man on duty making bread.
“Do you have ginger root?” I made him some ginger tea. Tomorrow I’d go out in search of other herbs and barks I’d need. I’m a trained nurse but I’m also an herbalist. Stewart carried the tea and I followed.
The dogs had to be shushed before they’d let me in the room. Lord Gordon had them lying on the bed with him, huge animals I’d put in the Irish wolfhound category. They gave me a wary eye as I approached their master.
“I’ve made you a drink. From now on you’ll drink this before a meal and that meal will be decided by me.”
“It smells of ginger root.”
“It is ginger root tea. Nothing there to harm you. Tomorrow I’ll find other things that will help you to heal.”
He drank the tea and put the cup aside. “'Tis a waste, you know.”
“We don’t know that.”
“Where will I be in two month’s time? Will ginger root prevent what is to come?”
“Probably not but you’ll not suffer until then.”
“Stewart…leave us.” He waited until the door was closed. “Why should I deny myself the pleasures of life if I have so little left?”
“At least it will be a pleasant time, free from pain. How long have you had problems with your stomach?”
“Years…since my last imprisonment. Why can you not prevent my death? You saved the stonemason.”
“Yes, but the stonemason was no one of consequence. An unknown among many. I took pity on him. He didn’t ask for my help. It was I who wished I could help him. You, however, are a well known person. Your life will be documented as well as your death. You’ll be written up in history books, in the peerage. I can’t change what happened here last week, last year, much less what will happen next week. I don’t have that kind of power, Lord Gordon.”
“My name is George…when we are alone. I thought you might change the outcome.”
“I wish I could. What I can do is make sure there is no attempt to poison you and should it get past me and you do succumb to it, the killers will see justice.”
“A quick death, no trial.”
“Promise. I want your spirit to be at rest.”
“It won’t be. I have no wish to die, no more than your stonemason.”
“He didn’t know me when I appeared in his house. How is it you do?”
“I brought you here.”
It was as I suspected. “Do you know about the stones? Do you know how I feel them?”
“I know what you said about them. Alas, I am not a stonemason.”
“You should try and get some sleep. Has the tea eased the pain?”
“Aye, it has. Stay with me until I sleep.”
I woke with my head on the side of his bed and his hand in my hair. I eased myself from beneath his fingers. He appeared to be sleeping peacefully. I, on the other hand, had a crick in my neck. I quietly left the room and stepped over his steward lying at his door.
The castle had a large garden and there were vegetables that had appeared only in stews but now I designated some to be boiled and mashed. The knot garden contained herbs and I made use of them. Lord Gordon’s breakfast consisted of either soft boiled eggs or poached with bread and no meat. That didn’t please him at all but he ate his porridge and eggs and bread, sometimes giving me a hard look. The evening meal was the worst. He might have eaten three or four birds, a hefty helping of whatever meat was served, a whole fish, etc. I gave him portions and ale or a light wine in moderation. There were no more incidents in the middle of the night.
One day I explained to Lady Margaret about his diet. She understood and thought it a good thing for his digestion but not for his mood. His mood didn’t pain him in the middle of the night. It pained everyone around him during the daylight hours. She was glad to see him go off on his business to Perth. I didn’t know he’d left. He never mentioned it to me. Perhaps I spent too much time with her husband. She couldn’t know why I was there, seemingly a member of the household now. I tried to keep out of her way and spent time with the seamstress refitting her cast off clothes to fit me. Lady Margaret was lady of the manor and I…I was an odd sock.
It rained the entire week he was gone. When he returned I could see in his eyes that he’d fallen off his diet and gone back to his old ways. He greeted his wife, his children and me in the same manner. A kiss for all of us but it greatly embarrassed me. I wanted to melt into the carpet under my feet. Perhaps I was imagining something that wasn’t there.
He ate what he wanted to that night, daring me to say anything. I didn’t but I made sure he knew I’d noticed. After the heavy meal he cornered me.
“You’ve had nothing to say.”
“No, I think anything I might say will be lost before it reaches your ears. The work we accomplished was eaten away this past week…wasn’t it?”
“Work? Aye and it was too. Ye’ve cured my belly, Lady Jean.”
“Give it time…continue on as you did tonight and see how cured it is.”
“I don’t have time.”
That stopped me. I dropped my head.
He lifted my chin with his fingers. “I know ye mean well. Ye tried. I’m too old to change.”
“You aren’t that old. I only wanted you to be without pain.”
“The pain’s moved. It’s up about here now where me heart lives.”
“Don’t.” I shook my head and started to move away but he caught my arm.
“Don’t say no. I have need of ye.”
“Your need, Lord Gordon, is to live. I cannot grant you that request.”
“Och, ye're not listening to me.”
“I don’t want to hear you.” I replied. He let go of my arm. I couldn’t look at him. “Your wife would like to see the back of me. Why do you make it so much harder for me?”
“Did she say to you?”
“No, not in so many words. I don’t blame her. There are whispers and rumors flying all over the castle about me, about you calling for me in the night.”
“If ye shared my bed there’d be no need to be calling for ye.”
“Please,” I begged.
“Have I laid a hand on you?”
“No, you haven’t.”
“You’re my nursemaid, my healer. I want you near. Stewart knows what we are. He’ll put a top on the rumors. You will come to me tonight. I need to be examined, lest I have done an injury to myself.”
I looked up at him then, met his steady gray gaze for a moment and fled to my room.
When had it started? I didn’t know. He was a married man with children and I’m an odd sock. This was terrible. I was falling and he was waiting for death.
I had a heavy dressing gown over my sleeping clothes when I entered his room. Stewart remained and for that I was grateful.
He was lying in his bed with the pillows behind him, wearing a night shirt which he pulled up and looked at his stomach and belly as I approached.
“It has a look about it.”
I moistened my lips. “Does it? Shall I feel it?”
“Aye, do,” he grinned and then looked serious as I began palpating his bare stomach.
“Does that hurt?”
“Have you had your tea?”
“Nae…a little lower…there…lower.”
I stopped and looked at him. He looked up with an innocent look on his face. “Did ye feel it?”
I leaned over. “What exactly is it you want me to feel?”
“Stewart, I’ll have that special tea now.” He directed his steward to leave and bring it.
As soon as the man had closed the door he pulled me down on top of him. “Be quiet.”
I struggled against him.
“Shhh, quiet yourself. Why do you resist?”
“Please, I can’t do this.”
“Why?” He held my shoulders not letting me up. “Are you afraid?”
“Yes, I’m afraid.”
“I wouldna hurt you.”
I looked up. “It’s not physical pain, George. I don’t fear that.”
He said something in Gaelic, held me close to his body and kissed the top of my head before releasing me. I moved off him and pulled the sheet up as he’d exposed himself. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to come back in here in your bed chamber.”
He took my hand and kissed my palm. “'Tis not a good idea. Ye know my intentions.” He adjusted the pillows behind his head. “There are to be no more children in this house. Do ye understand my meaning? We don’t share a bed, Margaret and I.”
“I understand but you can’t keep me here for this, George.”
“I’ve not long to live. Ye know that.”
“What of me…afterwards? When you’re gone? It’s not fair to me.”
“I’m thinking of meself and I’m thinking I’m not dead yet. You’ll go on, you will…back to your life. I go nowhere except to the gates of heaven and I’ll not go quietly. You said you canna change the future, you canna save me. Give me something I want. Give me what you can give.”
Stewart opened the door, carrying the tea. I took it from him and with a look at George, I sipped it.
“Damn you woman!” he exclaimed, coming half way out of the bed.
“It’s all right, it’s good.” I handed him the cup. He gave me such a look.
“I won’t have you be my taster.”
Stewart looked alarmed. “I think he’s all right. He should sleep through the night.” Without another look at him I left and ran across the hall and up the six steps to my chamber and closed the door. Tears followed and I was a long time fighting the bedcovers before I slept.
The next morning I went down to the kitchen and saw to his breakfast, three eggs, soft boiled, a slab of salmon, a bowl of porridge and a hunk of bread and butter. I took a hunk of bread and let myself out the kitchen door. I walked up the lane and stood outside Ronald Gordon’s house until a man with a bristling beard came to the door and then I moved on. I should leave, I told myself, leave before this goes any farther. My estimation was that it was early April, maybe a week or two in. if I left now, what would stop him from bringing me back? He could, I knew he could. My best bet would be to keep my distance. I could do that. Oh, dear God! I wasn’t afraid of him, I was afraid of me and what he stirred in me.
While I was out walking a party of men rode in to the castle. I would later hear of some of their names. John Hamilton, a relation of his first wife, Patrick and Adam Gordon, George’s brothers. The rest of the names escape me. They were old compatriots of Lord Gordon or so I thought. It was a good excuse for me to stay away from him.
I slipped through the hall into my room but not before noticing the wine being served out and the servants bearing all kinds of foodstuffs to the long table. I could do no more. The woman who attends me, her name is Dora, speaks not a word of English but she understands it. I sent her for a plate of food for me. I’d eat in my room in private. The plate was a wooden trencher, a step up from the bread trencher I’d eaten off when seated at Alexander Gordon’s table. Knowing I liked small portions, she brought me half a chicken, cooked apples, turnips and bread. The wine was the lighter variety that I preferred. For a sweet, there were preserved figs.
I’d been here for about 3 weeks, as near as I could count. I am amazed that I could adapt to this life so quickly. There were things I missed but all in all, I could live here in this castle if things were different. I could love George Gordon. As it is, I cannot love him…am I being selfish? Give me what you can give. His words rang in my head. Through my door I heard what sounded like an argument. I opened my door and sat down on the top step where I would not be seen by anyone in the room. There was an argument in progress. Raised voices.
“Insane? He’s always been insane. Sadly, George, you could not see that. It was he and he alone who counted for so many of your troubles. Why, he was nothing, a beggar, a thief.”
“How dare you!” shouted George Gordon.
“By your own admission he was an adulterer, not to mention an accomplice in the murder of Darnley.”
“You will hold your tongue, John. All of you. The man is paying for his sins as we sit here drinking to our own health. He is at Dragsholm and not likely ever to see daylight again.”
“Well, then, Bothwell is already in hell.”
Another voice. “Why bring up the past? You may as well beat a dead horse. Those days are gone; let us drink to happier times.”
“Hear, hear!” several voices.
“Happier times? While the legitimate queen languishes in confinement? What did we fight for and why do we do nothing to free her?”
“You propose to attack Elizabeth, Patrick? Ha, dreams, lad, dreams,” Lord Gordon said. “I do not want another war with England. Meanwhile, James waits. His time is coming. Mark my words, I speak the truth.”
“Blood will out.”
“Aye, it will.”
I slipped back into my room, relieved that swords were not drawn. Bothwell, he must mean the third husband of Queen Mary of Scotland. The cad deserted her. Darnley was her second husband and he was murdered. Gordon and Boswell were both arrested for his murder and acquitted by order of the queen. I know George led a checkered past. He’d been imprisoned for treason and switched his allegiances as he saw fit. Such were the times in which he lived.
The men showed no inclination to leave the castle. I went about my business of seeing to George’s breakfast and making sure the tea was available for him if he called for it. I could do nothing about the huge meals that were served in the evenings. I continued to eat in my room and I saw little of Lady Margaret. I guessed she was doing the same, staying out of the men’s company.
One morning I’d set out for my walk and heard a horse coming up behind me. It was Lord Gordon. He pulled up beside me with his hounds.
“Do not think I have forgotten you or that you can hide from me.”
“I’m not trying to hide, only stay out of your way while you have company.”
“'Tis a hunting party. We’re off today.” He looked down at me for a moment. “You’re as fresh as the morning.” He reached in his doublet, pulled out something and tossed it to me. “I’ve been carrying this around since Perth. Keep it to remember me by.”
I caught it in my hand and looked up but he was already turning his horse and leaving. Opening my fingers, I gasped. It was a salamander made of emeralds and diamonds and gold. I’d never seen anything like it. On the back was a pin. It was to be worn as a broach. “Oh,” I said. “Thank you!” I called after him but he was out of my sight now. I pinned it on my dress and then was afraid I’d lose it in my wanderings and I placed it in a pocket, a pocket made of tightly woven gold mesh that attached to my waist. I probably shouldn’t accept this from him…but I did.
He was gone for four days and on the day he returned, Lady Jean, the younger, and I had been for a walk. We’d gone down by the stream that flows to the river. Wild mint grew there and we’d picked some. I squatted down to wash my hands in the cold water and rested a hand on a large egg-shaped stone. I immediately felt a vibration. It traveled up my arm. It fascinated me for a moment and, sensing some movement, I looked up across the stream. On the bank, half obscured by a plant was a man crouched down, wild-looking with intense blue eyes. His hair was long, braids about his face with some sort of bead. I must have made a sound for Lady Jean touched my shoulder. I withdrew my hand from the stream quickly and in a near panic began scrambling up the bank.
“What did ye see?” she asked, trying to keep up with me.
I looked back at the spot once I gained the top of the bank. There was no one there. Another apparition. Oh, God, was I never to touch another stone? The scent of mint was all around me. I’d crushed it as I climbed the hill. Jean’s hand was full of it. I tried to shake it off for her sake but I was shaken to the core.
“Hurry, we must hurry away from this place,” I said. I ran towards the castle with Jean at my side. She was enjoying this freedom to run about and be free. I was in the throes of a terror I couldn’t describe. Danger signals in the form of red blotches threatened my sight. We ran straight into the courtyard and there was the hunting party dismounting and in a raucous mood.
I was caught up in Lord Gordon’s arms. He kissed me soundly and then set me down and took up his daughter, Jean. I felt disoriented and cold.
“She saw something,” Jean was saying.
“Saw what, what did she see?”
“I don’t know…something bad.”
I moved over to the covered passage and leaned against a support column. His shadow appeared on the stones.
“Are ye all right, lass?”
My heart was still beating fast. I swallowed and tried to regain my senses. “Yes.”
He lifted my chin. “Yer white as a ghost. Did ye see one?”
“I, I don’t know what I saw. A man…a wild man.”
His voice pitched low and deadly. “Where is this man?”
“He’s…gone. I only saw…for a moment….down by the stream. It was…the stone.”
“Och, the stones. Don’t ye be touching the stones again.” He folded me in his arms, uncaring that his brother, Adam, and his son had stopped to observe us.
I flushed in embarrassment and pulled away. Young Jean tugged at my skirts.
“You should have a drink.”
“Yes, I think I should.” With a glance at George I went with her to the steps.
It was sometime later. I’d gone to my room and changed out of my muddy skirts when Lady Margaret came to my door.
“Jean tells me you are a seer.”
“A what? A seer…no, I’m not a seer.”
“You saw a man, a ghost man.”
“I’m not sure what he was. It frightened me.”
“The wild man. I have heard of him before.”
“You have? How, where?”
“'Tis an old tale. There was, at one time, a woman here, a witch. She would warn the children of the wild man by the stream. This was in George’s childhood. He told his son George of it to keep him away from the water when he was a small lad. The witch saw the wild man and swore he would come for the children.”
“I am not a child, Lady Margaret, but I felt as though he wanted to take me.”
“It is fortunate that you ran away.”
I had the feeling that she didn’t really think it fortunate at all.
She started to leave and then turned slightly. “Your mother’s name was Janet?”
“My mother has nothing to do with anything!” I replied with some heat. How dare she?
Dora arrived with a goblet of wine for me. I took it gratefully and sat on the high backed chair in my room. She busied herself with my muddy dress, giving me strange looks. I supposed it was all over the castle now. I’d seen a wild man. What I didn’t understand at the time was that their suspicions of me had been confirmed. I was Lord Gordon’s witch.
Days passed, weeks passed and the wild man had stopped invading my sleep and giving me nightmares. The party of men was still there. I’ve been called in to Lord Gordon’s room and it was to find the basin by his bed again. He didn’t look good, his eyes bloodshot, his skin clammy. I sent for the special tea made from slippery elm and flavored with ginger that I used for his more serious bouts.
“You know what causes this,” I said, bathing his face. “Why do you not stop?”
“Not much time left. I’ll not spend it eating porridge and drinking ginger tea.”
I took his pulse and lay my head on his chest, listening to his heart. This always brought out his more amorous responses, his hand in my hair, a massage on my lower back.
I looked at him seriously as I pulled away. “You’re not a well man, George.”
“It does not matter, does it? I’ve not long to suffer. Tomorrow be the first of May.”
I drew back. Without a calendar I could not keep up with the date. His hand cupped my cheek.
“Three days hence it will all be over. That is, unless you might intervene on my behalf.” His hand fell to his side.
“You know if I could I would, George. I can do nothing.”
“My own folly to bring you here. A man cannot cheat death, not even with a witch at his side.”
“I’m not a witch.”
He grinned and caught my hand and kissed it. “That is not what I hear. No matter. I’ll avail myself to a higher power…perhaps today.” He sighed and his eyes closed.
I sat with him until he slept and then went back to my room. He was in a mood and I quite understood it. It was not long until dawn and I gave up on my bed, dressed and climbed the tower steps to the top. From there I watched the wild countryside take form as the sun’s first rays began streaking across the sky. The sky was red, orange and pink. Sounds of the earth awakening drifted up, a cowbell, a cock’s crow and in the distance faint voices of the sheep. The wind picked up and I wrapped my woolen shawl closer, bringing it over my head. Other sounds of the castle people moving about. The sound of a horse. I walked to the other side and looked down into the courtyard. A groom brought a mount and stood by, holding the reins. From the covered passageway George emerged and mounted his horse. Where would he be off to this early and alone?
Later in the day I observed a carriage and another party arriving. These were women and servants, wives of some of the men who were staying here. Jean told me there was to be a big feast and celebration for May Day. In this country divided between Catholicism and Protestantism there was still room for the old pagan holiday. More arrivals followed and amongst the throng were musicians. For the first time I heard music in the castle. I’d been moving from chamber to chamber to try and stay out of the way of the new arrivals. I went outside the castle walls and sat on the grass near the spot I’d first appeared here. The haunting sounds of the piper, a jolly flute, a stringed instrument...lyre? It all sounded right and fitting. It was a warm day and somewhere beyond my sight I heard the twittering and giggling of what could only be lovers having a tryst. Why not, it was spring. A time for love…but not for me.
A shadow fell over me. “Do not think you can hide from me,” George said and sat down beside me.
“I doubt I could. You always seem to know where I am.”
“I was up there and saw you come out. I went to see a priest this morning and bared my soul or what’s left of it.”
“Did you do this before…when…?”
“Nae, I didn’t know, did I?”
“You’ve assembled quite a party here. I hear there’s to be a feast.”
“Aye, feast and dancing. You will be there. I want you there. No hiding in your chamber.”
“If you insist.”
“I do.” He took my hand, turned it palm up and kissed it. “It’s all different now. I know what is to befall me. I have decided to live until I die.”
“That’s something we should all do, not just exist. I’ll do what I can for you when the time comes.”
“Nae, you should get as far away from this place as you can. They think you have bewitched me and I cannot deny that. After I am gone there will be no protection for you. Flee as quickly as you ma...take my horse.”
“And be caught as a horse thief? I’ll go back by the stones.”
“There may not be time. It might not work. Ye didn’t come by them this time.”
He was right. It had worked for me before but there was always the chance it wouldn’t. What if I couldn’t get back? Without him there was no reason to be here. I bit my lip and squeezed his hand.
“I’ll make you a gift of a horse. There will be no question then.”
“Thank you. Maybe I can find a private place with stones I know.”
“Tell me about your stones. What is it you do?”
“I just lay my hands on them and I’ll either feel something or I won’t.” A chill went down my back with the thought of the stone in the stream. “When I do, it’s a vibration, like something in my blood that runs up my arms. Sometimes I see brief visions. Mostly it’s just a feeling that something had happened in that place, something important. With Huntly castle, I hoped to feel something to do with my ancestors. My people, whoever they were, came from Scotland. I never expected to time travel. That’s never happened before.”
“I am your people.”
“You must be.” I tried to interject some lightness into our conversation. I pulled my hand from his. “So, you see, George, just how incestuous our relationship would be if I…” His lips landed on mine, soft and yielding, I responded in kind. “There isn’t time.”
“I know, how well I know. Ye can’t blame me for taking what I can.”
“I could love you so easily. Let’s pretend I do.”
“Och, lass, don’t say that to me. I’ll have ye right here under God’s eye.”
I laughed and he did too. I think we both knew that time had come and gone and I was glad it had never come to pass. I looked up at him sideways, still smiling, and he grabbed me and hugged and then stood up.
“Gie me yer hand, lass. We’ll go down to the village tomorrow to the fair. I think you will like it.”
Like it…I loved it. It was as though I’d become a part of a painting. There were jugglers, all manner of entertainment to be had, musicians all over the place, dancing, singing, a bonfire had been lit in a field. I laughed as a pie man came along, balancing a stack of pies only to be jostled by a swarm of children and toppling the whole onto the ground. He was ranting away and the children were gathering pies and running off in all directions. I forgot myself entirely. Not all of the house party came but a good many of them did. Jean and young George were along with their minder, who was having a day trying to keep up with them. Lady Margaret did not come and so I walked around openly on George’s arm. This excursion into the village was certainly not something he’d done before his death. This was part of his live until I die pledge.
At last we went back to the castle, I on my horse riding beside George. There was time for a rest before the festivities began in the great hall. It was a night I will never forget. George was absolutely stunning in white, white leggings, white doublet trimmed in ermine, frothy lace at his neck. He wore his great emerald ring and his necklace that proclaimed him Lord High Chancellor of Scotland, which he had been at one time. Somehow he’d managed to hold onto the precious gems. And the shoes…oh, the delicate little white pumps with the silver buckle. They looked part of the costume but so out of place on his feet. For a man of his size he was surprisingly light on his feet, a graceful dancer. As the evening wore on he caught my eye several times. I knew my time on the dance floor was coming.
The piper piped, the singers sang and when they began a ballad in Gaelic, that’s when he came for me, holding out his hand. I moved as I’d seen other dancers move but as long as I kept my eyes on his, my feet moved in time. We only danced the one time but it was enough. I danced with Jean and young George and then declared myself done.
I slept late the next morning. The dawn had come and not brought much light with it. It was a dark and gloomy day that I awoke to. Dora brought my breakfast and for a moment I thought of coffee. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a cup of coffee. I had ale. I washed and dressed and left my chamber. The castle was strangely quiet. Perhaps the revelers were all sleeping in as well. I heard George’s booming voice behind his door and his son’s high-pitched voice in answer. He was spending time with his family and that was only right. I climbed up to the top of the tower and stepped out. Down on the green a party of men were shooting arrows at a target.
I didn’t think I could bear this day. And tomorrow…tomorrow it all ends. With this thought I went down the stairs and out to the courtyard. I wanted my horse and a passing servant pointed towards the stables. A groom got it ready for me and gave me a boost up. I rode to the village with the idea I might need to flee and if so I needed a place to go. The merry makers were all gone now and only a few stray dogs were about. I tried to get my bearings in regard to the present day town of Huntly. The buildings didn’t appear to be set out in any particular order. There was one main road with a few structures. I felt overwhelmed with it all. Nothing was as it should be from what I remembered. There were a few stone houses and more half timbered ones. For some reason I didn’t trust the stones…maybe I didn’t need them. The town wouldn’t do. There would be people about and I might be detained. I rode back towards the castle, keeping the tower in sight. The castle set on a rise of ground and the present day wood that I’d hiked through was not there. There were no wooded areas until you reached the stream. The stream led to the River Deveron and if I followed it there might possibly be a boat. I wouldn’t be finding out today as the heavens opened up on me and by the time I reached the castle courtyard I was soaked. My dress was so heavy I barely was able to reach the covered walkway. A groom came out and took care of my horse for me. Dragging my wet skirts, I went up the winding steps.
There was some activity going on in the great chamber but I hurried on to my own to change out of my wet clothes. Dora was not around and it took me a long time to get out of the wet dress. I more or less tore it off. It wouldn’t matter after tomorrow anyway. I braided my damp hair and wrapped it around my head like a milkmaid.
It was late, after the evening meal, and I knew him to be in his chamber so I scampered across the hall and opened his door. He was undressing with Stewart’s help. I waited against the door until he had his nightshirt over his head and sat on the side of his bed.
“I…I want to talk,” I said hesitantly.
“Stewart, leave us.” He patted the side of his bed.
“Nothing like that, George. Something you said to me has been bearing on my mind. You said I needed to get away. I don’t know where to go. I rode into the village today and decided that wouldn’t do.”
“I didn’t mean to frighten you, Jean. There are those who believe you are a witch. Seeing the wild man confirmed it for them. They may try to arrest you…here, the men under my roof. They are a suspicious lot, not all, but some more than others. They believed a witch caused my father’s death. She foretold it but did not cause it. I’ve tried to be very careful myself. Today I tried to get some of my affairs in order only to be interrupted time and time again. Come here…I promise nothing.”
I took a breath and sat beside him. His arm went around me. “There is a place beyond the river. Do you know this castle was built on the foundations of another older house? 'Twas and there are other dwelling places around it. They are abandoned now. There is a place of stones where you can cross. I’ve been across it myself. The walls are there but little else. It may be a place you can go until you decide how to get back. I wish I could take you back.” He nuzzled my ear sending shivers down my back.
“Can I get there on horseback?”
“T’would be a hard ride for the horse. The trees are thick on the ground.”
“I’ll get there.”
“We plan a hunt in the morning. Who knows, we may decide to ride over the river.”
“Aye, Adam proposed it and I could not refuse. We’ve settled some old grievances between us.”
“So…it’s later in the day?”
“Aye, and you’re not to stay. Go when you will, girl.”
“How does it…happen?”
“Ah…a game of sport…football.”
“It won’t be poison.”
“Nae, but then I do not know. It does not matter to me now.”
“Will you rest easy and not haunt the castle after this?”
“I know my fate. Whatever happens afterward I do not know. I can only hope for peace and Heaven’s gate to open.”
“That’s what I wish for you. I’ll go now. Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Why don’t you see me tonight?”
I stood up. “You never stop, do you? Haven’t you made your confessions already?”
He ran his hands down my arms and rested them on my waist for a minute then up to my breasts. “Go, go now.”
I fled. I had a dream . It was like I was far above watching. He came back from the hunt, ate a huge meal and drank wine. Someone suggested a game of football. Georgie brought the ball out, a hard leather ball somewhat smaller than a soccer ball. They began running around, passing the ball until it hit the ground. George kicked it and ran. Later the ball came back to him, there was much shouting and he kicked it again. He went still and fell over. He vomited black blood and wine and began moving his legs and arms as if they were out of control. The men ran to him and carried him into the castle, up the steps to his chamber. He was strangling on his own vomit, foaming at the mouth and nose. Only one word did he say that could be understood…look, look, look. He suffered for three hours in this state before he died. He was then taken to the great hall and laid out on the table. His brother, Adam, began an inventory of his belongings, the coffers on his work table, everything in his chamber. He counted his money, his jewels. He was accompanied by John Stewart, George’s steward. Once the inventory was complete he gave the keys to John Hamilton. All of Lord George’s things were accounted for. He left to carry the news and left John Hamilton in charge. The castle at large, had not been informed of his death. Only Georgie knew.
This is what I saw in my dream. It was a waking dream and when I came to myself I was shaking. This would happen tomorrow. There are stories that I read before I ever came to the castle about what happened after his death. I’ll recount them here, though I did not see any evidence of it in my dream.
Two men came to John Hamilton, one needing some spices for the kitchen. John had the keys and went with them up the tower stairs to the gallery where the expensive spices were kept under lock and key. He opened the coffer and said he was sick. He was seized in a fit. He fell down and began thrashing around saying “Cauld, cauld.” He was cold. One of the men, a John Spittal, helped him down the steps. Once he recovered he remembered they’d left the coffer open. He still held the keys. Both men went up the stairs and found the third man fallen over the coffer…quite dead.
The next day the men were gathered in an ante chamber next to the great hall where George Gordon had been laid out. The chamber was locked. As they were commiserating the loss of Gordon and what that would mean for them all, the troubles ahead, one man, a tall thin man dressed in black stood by the fireplace. He began to say how justice had been served up for Gordon for the murders of Darnley, and the Regent Lennox. No sooner had he spoken had he fallen down in a fit. They thought he was dead and took him to a bed. The next morning he had recovered himself but he was ‘cauld’.
A man came from Aberdeen to do the embalming. He was let into the great chamber and after he was done they took the body away to the chapel to prepare for burial. John Hamilton locked the chamber again. Patrick Gordon sat on a seat near the door to guard against any entry. While he sat there as the daylight was going, he began to hear great noises inside the chamber. He called for John Hamilton, who also heard the noises. Patrick asked him to open the door and go in to see what was making the noise. He did so but was afraid to go in so Patrick went inside. There was nothing to see. The room had been sealed up, windows, doors, all locked. John Hamilton went inside and came out afraid. There were some sixteen men now gathered out in the room talking amongst themselves. They too heard the sounds coming from the room. With candles they all went in and examined the room completely. Patrick Gordon remarked that a mouse couldn’t have escaped their eye. Back out in the anteroom with the door locked again, the noises resumed. The men began talking and arguing about ghosts and gremlins. Finally a man of the house, (my reasoning is that it was John Stewart) came among them and said to stop repeating the tale before it got out that the Earl has risen from the dead. At that time no more was said about it.
This is the story that will stand, the story that will appear in the history books written by an eye witness named Banatyne. It happens as I saw it.
Now then, it is the day and still I linger here. I’ve pulled some things out of my trunk that will do me should something awful happen and I cannot get back to my time, my world. I crammed them into my cloth bag that I use for gathering herbs, a change of clothing and shoes. Next I go down to the kitchen as I often do and poke around, picking up a loaf of bread and a pot of honey. This goes into my bag. I take an empty wooden tankard for water. No one drinks water here but me. No one pays any attention to me. Now I’m out in the lane behind the castle. I hear the horses returning to the courtyard. He’s back, but for me…he’s already gone. I don’t need to witness what I saw during the night. Am I a seer? I know what I saw in my mind’s eye but if that were true of me, why can I not see what lies before me?
I walk away toward the stream that leads to the River Deveron. I have no desire to cross that stream though it might make my journey swifter. There is something across there in the woods I don’t want to meet again. I wait until I can see the river and cross there. I walk along the river’s edge, staying clear of the woods. Soon I see what looks like a waterfall. It is the stone bridge and I will cross it to the other side.
ON TO PART 2: THE STONES ARE RUNES
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