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Authors: Cathy Maxwell

The Scottish Witch (16 page)

BOOK: The Scottish Witch
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“Then she’ll know about mugwort.”

“But you want to know about reincarnation.” And every ounce of good sense Portia had resisted his speaking to Lizzy about that spell.
Something bad would happen if he did.
The warning was very clear in her mind.

“I don’t believe it wise we are seen together,” she said, tying her cloak at her neck. “I thought we knew we must keep up an appearance.”

“Why do you fear my going with you to Lizzy’s?” he asked.

“I’m not afraid,” she lied. “And Lizzy isn’t the reason we shouldn’t be seen together. It is Lady Emma. She will not take kindly to you and me keeping company.” She took the basket from him.

Harry made a dismissive sound. “I don’t care for her opinion.”

“I do,” Portia said. “She is my landlord’s daughter, remember? I like Camber Hall. I like Glenfinnan. I want to keep my roof over my head. If she grows too jealous, she will make her father turn us out.”

She went out the door. Harry followed, catching her arm and turning her to him. “I’m not worried about Lady Emma,” he restated. “And if you want Camber Hall, I shall buy it for you. It is the least I should do for you.”

“You should do nothing for me, especially buying my house for me. What will people think?”

“I don’t care what they think,” Harry answered. “I’m only concerned that you are free of the tyranny of Moncrieffe’s pampered daughter.”

“And I worry about my reputation.” She looked around to assure herself they were alone. This sense of impending disaster was not comfortable. “I would be ruined completely if the valley knew.”

“If the valley knew what? That you are my mistress?”

Mistress
. It was such an ugly word.

It also was the truth. And this was not how her life was supposed to be. She’d prided herself on being circumspect and dutiful. She’d thought she would die a spinster, never knowing the touch of a man, and now, here he was. Harry had turned her life inside out. All he had to do was glance at her and she would toss aside all that she’d once held dear.

“I’m not your mistress,” she said. “I come here of my own free will.”

That didn’t sound good, either.

“I didn’t mean an insult,” Harry said. “Please, Portia, I care for you. I only sought to help, not to insult you. But I’m a wealthy man. My brother saw to my investments, and I could make your life easier. I can buy whatever you want and would do so happily.”

I care for you.

After all the passion they had expended on each other, all the energy, “I care for you” sounded like the milk toast one would feed a child. The words sounded trivial.

“I know you care for me, Harry,” she responded in a surprisingly strong voice. “I just don’t want you to ruin me.”

“I already have,” he replied, the words heavier than any physical blow. Immediately, he heard what he’d said and apologized. “I didn’t mean that the way they sounded.” He held out his hands as if begging her to understand. “I meant
no
offense. I
want
to be here with you. I think you want to be with me as well.”

She did
. But she also realized they couldn’t go on forever like this. Something
would
change. It was inevitable.

He spoke, his jaw tightening with resolution. “I’m going with you to see Lizzy.” He began saddling his horse.

Portia’s response was to turn and start walking, her stomach feeling as if it was full of stones. She was being unwise. She should stop meeting him—

“Portia.” He said her name before taking her arm and turning her around. His lips came down on hers. He held her, kissing her and saying with his touch what they were both afraid to speak aloud. In his kiss was an apology, a wish that all could be different, a promise that his feelings were honest.

She closed her eyes, giving herself over to him, not embracing him, but standing in his hold, Lizzy’s basket still on one arm.

He broke the kiss, his eyes serious as he said, “You may not want to let me be your protector, but know I shall protect you all the same.”

Their time together was passing—and she was afraid.

Could she return to the loneliness of her spinsterhood after knowing the joy of being in his arms? Or would life be even more unbearable than it had been before him?

She understood why Rose had jumped from her tower.

“You will go with me to Lizzy’s no matter what I want, won’t you?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I must.”

Portia stepped back. His decision was made and her concerns were unimportant. “Let me visit her first. You can come later.” She walked off without waiting for his response.

She’d gone no more than ten steps when she saw Owl. The cat was on the ground close to the tree line. Portia stopped, watching as the cat pounced on something only she could see, hustling with her paws to catch it.

“Portia?” Harry said behind her.

Owl looked up. Her large eyes met Portia’s, and for a second, the animal appeared human. Then, with a flick of her tail, Owl bounded off into the woods in the direction of Lizzy’s house.

Harry was coming up behind her. Portia could hear his booted steps. She turned, almost afraid he’d seen Owl.

And if he did, what would he do to the cat?

Instead, he was focused on her, his expression concerned. “Is something the matter?”

“Don’t follow me,” Portia heard herself say. “Don’t follow me.” She was backing away from him, watching him until she reached the tree line.

She plunged into the forest, but Owl was nowhere to be seen. Even when she called Owl’s name, the cat did not answer.

Portia hurried to deliver her basket to Lizzy.

Harry
would
follow. He wasn’t the sort of man to wait patiently.

Chapter Thirteen

C
razy Lizzy’s hut was made of rock, mud, twigs, and straw. It was a strange, round, windowless building with only the doorway for light. The old lady kept a fire in her hearth at all times. Some days it would be of peat, the smoky scent of it filling the air; other days, her fire would be of wood, acrid and hot.

Lizzy claimed that her different fires served a purpose. Portia had assumed the choice had more to do with what was at hand and Lizzy’s eccentricities. However, after Harry’s talk of spells and reincarnations and curses, Portia feared she was ready to give anything Lizzy said more credit than what it deserved.

Portia knew from having been there that the walls inside the house were stacked with shelves and shelves of herbs. There was a humble table in the middle of the room and Lizzy’s pallet on the floor to the side of the hearth.

As she entered the clearing surrounding the hut, she saw Lizzy sitting on a chair outside the door, eating a meal of cooked turnips. The crone’s face split into a toothless smile of greeting. She was as round as she was high and wore a mob cap over her frizzy gray hair. Her cheeks were chubby and her eyes reminded Portia of two brown buttons. But she was also old and wrinkled, with a huge mole close to her left eye that gave her a sinister look.

She wore the castoffs given to her by members of the kirk. Most times, considering her size, the skirts were too long, but she wouldn’t hem them. She’d wear them as they were, even if she continually tripped over them.

“I was hoping to see ye today, lass,” Lizzy said in her thick brogue. She’d stood. “Would ye like a cup of mint tea?” She started for the door.

“I don’t think I have time, Lizzy, but thank you,” Portia said, aware that Harry was following. She held the basket out to her. “The bread is yesterday’s but still fresh.”

“I shall enjoy it,” Lizzy said.

“Good. Well, then, I’ll be on my way.”

“Why are ye so anxious to run off? Let me show ye my newest doll.” Lizzy made dolls of scraps of materials and dried fruit and whatever she could find. The bodies were twigs she fastened together. They were truly very clever and Lizzy had gifted Portia with several.

“I wish I could, but I am needed at home.” Portia took a step in the direction of Camber Hall, until a thought struck her. “Lizzy, by any chance did you see a small cat around here?”

“Oh, I see many cats. I don’t like them. They make me sneeze.”

“This would be an unusual one. She’s white like a ghost and her ears are deformed. They fold over so her head is shaped like an owl’s.”

“I’ve not seen a cat like that.”

So Owl had
not
come in this direction.

“Lizzy, why do people think you are a witch?” The question just popped out of Portia. She’d assumed all the whispers about Lizzy in the valley came from the superstitious and ill-informed.

But after her conversation with Harry, she was no longer convinced of what she thought.

She had expected Lizzy to deny the charge or to be offended. Instead, the woman cackled with delight. “They think that,” she agreed.

“Is it true?”

Lizzy’s smile grew larger. “What do ye think, lass?” It was almost as if she was daring Portia to say she was.

“I don’t know. Do you have special powers?”

Placing a knowing finger by the side of her nose, Lizzy said, “Why should I tell ye?”

“Because we are friends,” Portia said, a bit annoyed. “I bring you food.”

“Ye do, ye do.” Lizzy patted the basket.

“Then answer my question, please. Are you a witch?”

“There was a man who came through these parts who asked the same thing,” Lizzy said. “An Englishman. A Chattan. He wants one particular witch.”

“But there is no such thing as witches, is there?” Portia pressed.

Lizzy reached up and scratched her head beneath her mob cap and pulled her skirt up over her belly before saying, “I don’t know of any.”

“Then why do they say you are a witch?” Portia repeated.

The crone took three steps toward her. Lizzy smelled of the herbs she treasured and the deepest part of the forest. “I have the gift of sight,” she whispered.

“Sight? Such as you can tell the future?”

“I dinna like it,” Lizzy said, placing a finger of each hand together as if creating the sign of a cross. “I try to not do it, but sometimes it comes upon me. I hear the voices. Terrible voices.”

“What do they say?” Portia asked.

Lizzy ignored her question. Instead, she said, “Rose of Loch Awe had the gift of sight. Hers was greater than mine and she was younger. I just see the edge of the future. Just a wee bit and not much more. Makes me useless. Makes me . . . afraid.”

Portia felt the blood drain from her face. “Rose of Loch Awe? Rose of the Macnachtan?”

“Aye, one and the same. It’s a story told to me by my mother. Rose’s clan and mine were once the same. My mother told me not to be afraid of my gift. A wise woman knows how to use it. But the others”—she nodded her head toward the woods as if speaking of those in the valley—“they don’t understand. They are afraid of me. When I told Nan Bellamy that her baby would be born dead, they were angry with me, even though he was. They thought I’d caused his death.”

“It is not a good thing to say,” Portia murmured.

“It is what I saw.”

“Have you seen other things?”

“Oh, many.” Lizzy walked over to where she’d set her bowl of turnips on the ground. “I saw when the old reverend’s horse would die. I could tell that Jaimsie Macdonald would drown in the loch. I warned his mother not to let him out of her door. She laughed at me. No one wants to hear sad news. None of them paid me any heed.”

“Has anyone listened to you?”

Lizzy’s face lit up. “Ye know Robbie, the laird’s gardener? I told him to stay off a boat crossing Loch Shiel ten years ago on All Hallows’ Day. He listened. The boat sank.” She pointed her finger down to the earth and gave a low whistle to illustrate her point. “Four good men died. Robbie lived.” She leaned toward Portia as if having a great secret when she said, “We can all change our fate.”

“And did Rose know her fate?” Portia asked softly.

Lizzy shrugged. “Who knows? No one can see everything. Not perfectly.”

But what if Rose had?

“Do you know anything about reincarnation?” she asked Lizzy.

“Wot?” Lizzy cocked an ear as if not hearing her.

“Reincarnation,” Portia repeated. “Coming to life after you are dead, in a new body.”

Lizzy dropped the turnip bowl and the basket and whirled in a circle before coming to a stop and forming another cross in front of her. “That’s blasphemy. Keep yer blasphemy away.”

“I’m sorry, Lizzy,” Portia hurried to say. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Why are ye asking these questions?” Lizzy wondered, craning her neck and tilting her head. She was growing agitated. People had warned Portia that Lizzy could be set off.

“I was curious,” Portia said. “Nothing more.”

Lizzy jerked away, her brows coming together, her shoulders hunching. “There are things of which we should not speak, lass. Dark arts. I’m not of the dark arts. My herbs are of the earth.”

But Portia had come too far to back away now. “Fenella knew dark arts, didn’t she?”

“I don’t know Fenella. I don’t know Fenella,” Lizzy began repeating the words over and over, her voice low as if she spoke to herself.

At that moment, Harry rode into the clearing. Portia had meant to be gone by the time he arrived.

Crazy Lizzy looked up at him and then jerked her head toward Portia, then back to him. “Nooooo,” she keened in a low voice as she sank to her knees.

“Lizzy, what is it?” Portia demanded, hurrying to the small woman’s side.

A hand gripped Portia’s arm like a vise. Lizzy’s nails were long and dirty. She held tight as she said to Portia, “You shall be the
death
of him.”

It was a benediction that sent a chill to Portia’s heart.

“His death.
You
will be
his
death,” Lizzy repeated.

Harry had dismounted and come over to them, leaving Ajax to stand. He heard what Lizzy said. “
Why?
” he asked, kneeling beside her.

Lizzy started to speak, and then her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she collapsed. Portia held on to her. “She’s swooned,” Portia said in surprise.

“Here, let me have her,” Harry said. He carried Lizzy into the hut, where he laid her on her pallet.

Having picked up the bowl and the basket where Lizzy had dropped them, Portia set them on the table. She found some strips of material that she made into a compress. She doused it with cool water and rested it against Lizzy’s brow. Her hands shook as she worked. Lizzy’s outburst had been unnerving. It had been frightening.

Harry seemed calm. “What was going on between you?” he asked. He was wandering around the hut, investigating the rows of herbs on the shelves. He had to stoop because the ceiling was low. The air was smoky and oppressive from the peat on the fire. He coughed.

Before Portia could answer, Lizzy moaned and opened her eyes. “Hello, Miss Maclean,” she said as if greeting Portia for the first time. “Good to see you today.”

“It’s good to see you,” Portia said, uneasy. She glanced at Harry. He took a step forward so he would be in the woman’s line of vision.

“Hello, Lizzy.”

She smiled up to him as well, her earlier distress gone. “How did you come in here?” she asked the two of them.

“You invited us,” Portia said.

“I forgot,” Lizzy answered with her toothless grin. “Did I have a spell?”

“I believe so,” Portia answered.

“I’m all right now,” Lizzy assured her, and started to sit up to prove the truth of her words.

Portia came to her feet as well, taking the hand Harry offered.

“Ye are a couple, aren’t ye now?” Lizzy said. She chuckled. “There will be an uproar in the valley about this. There are those who don’t want ye together.”

“Who?” Harry asked.

Lizzy became sly. “I’m not to be telling. I know better.”

Portia placed a hand on Lizzy’s arm. “You don’t remember anything you said before you swooned?”

“I swooned?” Lizzy tilted her head in happy surprise. “Aren’t I fancy now? Swooning!”

The light was growing dark outside. Portia knew she needed to leave. “I must return home. Will you be all right?”

“Let me escort you home,” Harry said.

Portia shook her head. Lizzy might have forgotten what she’d said but Portia hadn’t. She needed a moment to herself to clear her head and steady her nerves. “Perhaps if you would stay with Lizzy a moment until we are certain she is all right.”

“I’d be happy to do. She can explain to me what all these herbs are for,” he said.

“I will, if you wish,” Lizzy answered.

“Then I’ll go,” Portia said, and went out the door. Harry followed.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“I don’t know. She seems to have forgotten everything we had discussed.”

“And what
were
you discussing?”

“Fenella,” she said, knowing the impact of that one word on him. “But she doesn’t seem to remember now.”

“Or else she is pretending.”

Portia glanced back at the hut. “If she is, hers is an excellent performance. I truly believe the conversation is gone from her mind.”

“What did she mean that you would be my death?”

She drew a deep breath and released it. “She says she has the gift of sight . . . or the person she was at the time claimed to have it. Right now, she acts completely different. Harry, she referred to Rose as ‘Rose of Loch Awe.’ She told me her family was distant cousins of Rose, Fenella’s daughter. Perhaps that is how Rose met Charles Chattan of Glenfinnan. She may have come to visit.”

“What else did she tell you?”

“Not very much. I asked her if she was a witch.” To his raised eyebrow, she explained, “Well, I never knew. Everyone in the valley claimed she is. I believed she wasn’t but all this talk of strange things has made me curious. Perhaps
I
am the one who is wrong.”

“And what did she say?”

“Lizzy said she isn’t, but she has the gift of seeing the future. That’s when she claimed I would cause your death, and then she swooned.”

He made a scoffing sound. “How could you cause my death?”

“I don’t know.” She crossed her arms. “Aren’t you worried?”

Harry shook his head. “No, are you?”

“I would not want your death on my conscience.”

“Well, it won’t be there,” he answered. He walked over to Ajax and picked the reins up off the ground. Only then did the well-trained horse move. Harry tied the reins to a low-hanging tree branch.

He was so vital and alive, so self-confident. He was the warrior, the rebel, the man who feared nothing.

Yet there was a gentler side to him as well. He cared for his family enough that he would sacrifice his life for his brother’s. She had come to know this side of him well. He was a man who understood her yearnings and pleased her in a way she knew no other could. He was a man who had regrets, who was vulnerable, who had fears but persevered anyway.

He was the man with whom she’d fallen in love
.

Yes, she loved him.

She had not intended to do so, but perhaps she’d had no choice.

She’d started falling in love with him at the dance when he had pleaded General Montheath’s case. Or had she felt the first inklings of love that night when he had knelt in front of her in the moonlight and begged for his brother’s life?

Crazy Lizzy’s warning now made sickening sense.

Portia knew Harry valued her, but did he love her?

No, not yet.

Could he? Was that what Lizzy had been warning her against? He was a Chattan male. Even as a second son, the curse could apply to him. If he loved her, he would die.

But that didn’t mean she couldn’t love him.

For a second, her world was transformed with the knowledge. The green of the firs around her was more green, more vibrant. The air was sweet with their scent. She’d not noticed before, but now, the world was perfect.
She loved
. Two words more powerful than any magic.

BOOK: The Scottish Witch
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