As the sun went down, I snuffed out the candle and bedded the bairns on the floor, their plaids wrapped round and round. Little Maria was demanding more milk, but the cow had not yet recovered from the winter, and there was no more, so I gave her a cup of ale I’d hidden behind the chest and a dram to the other two, as well. Immediately, the three bairns fell fast asleep. I banked the peat on the fire, peeled off some hay from the bale, threw it over the byre for the animals, and spread the extra plaids on the mat in the corner. And then my husband Hugh Gilbert, who had been watching me in silence, grabbed me and pulled me down.
I submitted, as always. And as always, Hugh was fast and rough. This time, I felt some pleasure as I thought of Thomas the Rhymer, the man in green, and my body delighted as the warmth of Thomas came into me.
Hugh began to snore. I closed my eyes, and my body went still. Would I see him? Thomas, as full of sunshine and light as Hugh Gilbert was consumed in sullen darkness.
Would tonight be the night? Slowly, slowly, the familiar feeling came. My body became stiff, and now I was above it, with body beneath me. It was not my body now, but a stiff wooden thing: a broom, a besom, a twig tied with branches and straw. The besom would lie in the bed. And if Hugh awakened before I returned, he would think this piece of wood and straw to be his wife.
Now I was outside the hut, and here was Thomas, his clothing all white this time, his long yellow beard and hair wild and fiery. “Are you ready, my lady?” His eyes glittered like sunlight on water. Beside him hovered a slight and vigorous spirit all in red, a tiny figure with long red hair. The Red Reiver: my own sprite. I knew him in my heart and mind and soul. He was, in fact, a part of me, in me and beside me, a spirit to protect me in my sojourns into this other world.
“I am ready, Thomas.”
Thomas lifted his chest and looked down at me. “But lady, my name be William.”
I stepped back. “William?” I stepped further back to the door, or what passed for a door, that hole in the mud wall.
“Aye,” he roared, standing taller and taller. “Thomas be the king of the Fairies, but I am greater and grander.”
I had thought to meet with Thomas the Rhymer, he who lives with the fairies and courts the fairy queen with his silver harp. I lowered my head and peered at him through my lashes. “And why should I go with you?” I demanded. Was there something here to bargain for?
“I can give you power.”
I felt the Red Reiver spritely and close. He nodded vigorously and hopped up and down. “Power? I have the power. I know the power of the sea, and the crow and the hare, the plants to heal, the charms and the cures.”
“Ah.” He looked down from his great height with the merriest of smiles, his face aglow with light and honey. “But with me, you will fly. You will eat and drink your fill, you will learn to spite your enemies. You’ll be invisible; you will be able to strike and kill who you will.” His smile was a fiery glint. “All this and more.”
I had hoped for Thomas, but perhaps this William was greater. I could journey with him, and have all manner of power. I could spite my enemies.
“Come,” beckoned William, fast astride his black stallion.
And now I saw that my own white steed awaited. I sprang upon the horse as quick as lightning, calling, “Horse and hattock, ho! Ho and away!” And now I was aloft, and my body alive, every part, with the flight and the thrill and the speed. I was no longer hungry, and pain was unheard of, unknown, unimagined. My body was light—light as air. And now I was large, so great that I was part of everything, and everything a part of me. “Horse and hattock, ho!” I called again, and we flew through the night, over farmtown and field, over dunes and machair and mountains.
I could swoop without effort, and even through clouds, see all below. We soared, almost to the Cairngorms, over Ben Rinnes, its mountaintop painted white with snow. Now fading and misting, now clearing, but yes: a dingle, a fire, a camp. Men and horses, stomping and shouting and bucking.
“No time to stop,” William called, and on we went, above the mountains and west, all the way to Darnaway Castle. In through the chimney and into the Great Hall, the seat of the Earl of Moray, the grandest hall in all of Morayshire and perhaps all of Scotland.
Here were noblemen and ladies in the finest of dress, gowns in silks and velvets, diamonds in their hair and on their fingers. They stood in the dusky hall in torchlight and candlelight, their satin and jewels glittering in the shadows. With glances and whispers, they stared at me. “Who is she?”
No longer the ragged peasant, one who was ignored and dismissed, now I was seen—and not only seen, but honored. The noble people looked at me in awe. I was their queen. I wore a shimmering gown of diaphanous silver, the most dazzling one of all. The people bowed to me, and I felt my power. Here was Elspeth Nychie, whom William called “Bessie Bold;” and now Lilias Dunlop, “Able and Stout.” Here were Bessie Wilson and so many others from the farm town, all dressed as fine ladies, though none as fine as Isobel the Cunning Woman.
The room flickered and thrilled with the presence of William: lusty William, so full of secret delight that when he passed and touched me with the softest graze, I warmed and quivered to my very root. This was a feeling Hugh Gilbert could never cause, let alone imagine.
William had transformed again. He was now clad all in black. A long black doublet, black breeches and boots, his hair and beard and eyes…all black. We were in the kitchen now, and he opened his arms and waved his hands over everything. “Eat! Drink!” I didn’t stop to wonder why he had transformed again, this time from light to dark. I was hungry, and I ate.
Meats and breads, cheeses, cakes, and fruits on delicate plates, and wine in crystal glasses. We feasted until we were full and could eat no more. We laughed and danced to the pipes and sang until dawn had nearly come, right there in the castle kitchen.
In an instant, a flash of the eye, we were back on our steeds and flying. Through the sky and back to my bed I flew, a woman of power. I, who knew words and rhymes, the thread and straw and clay, the fruit of the corn, the sheaves of rye, and knew what use to make of them. And now I knew more…so much more.
This is an excerpt from Nancy Kilgore’s recently published novel, Bitter Magic (Sunbury Press, 2021.) The novel is inspired by the 1662 witchcraft trial of Isobel Gowdie in Auldearn, Scotland. Nancy is the author of two other novels, Sea Level (RCWMS, 2012) and Wild Mountain (Green Writers Press, 2017). Nancy has received the Vermont Writers Prize, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year award.