Auldearn, Scotland, 1660
The wind blustered, and Margaret pulled her cape tighter, walking briskly past the fields of flax, past the loch, and across the dunes.
She scrambled down the path, slipping on the scree as pebbles tumbled down the dune side. Landing on her feet, she walked toward the sea. Alone in this wide land, Margaret thought, except for the gulls that swooped and shrieked above.
And in the distance, a figure, gray and brown against the sandbar.
The woman’s dress blew around her as she bent and raked. She was plucking cockles and placing them in a basket. Steady motions, bending and raking and plucking, in tune with the rhythm of the waves and the tide. Just a barefoot peasant, like generations before her and those to come after, people harvesting from the sea and blending with its melodies.
But there was something else about this woman.
A dignity. Or self-possession. An unusual stillness, as if she were a world in and of herself.
The sea churned, and two dark humps rose and fell in the green water. Dolphins. The gray-brown woman faced the sea and raised her arms as if beckoning to them.
Margaret hesitated, then walked across the sandbar as the woman straightened and looked back at her. The hood of her plaid flapped in the wind, hiding and then revealing light eyes in a pale face. Her look was both open and inscrutable. She stared at Margaret and nodded, almost as if she had been expecting her.
Suddenly Margaret stumbled, confused. Though she was just seventeen, the peasants usually bowed or curtsied when they saw her, but this woman did not. Perhaps she should have been insulted, but instead, she was curious. Who was this?
The woman lifted her arms, swinging them back and forth as if conducting an orchestra. The dolphins jumped and flipped in the air. Could they be following her commands? One had a scar on its cheek and the other a dark spot on the back. These were the two dolphins that were here so often, showing off and commanding attention like children. Margaret had always felt that they knew her. Did they know this woman, too?
Margaret clapped her hands—as she always did at their performance—so as not to let them down. “Excellent!” she shouted.
The woman peered at her again. She was younger than Margaret had thought, perhaps closer to thirty, and now she looked familiar … one of the farmtown women. Her face was marked by the pox, and her fixed stare shifted as the corners of her mouth curved up. Light seemed to shimmer around her body.
“Titania and Oberon,” cried Margaret.
The woman furrowed her brows. “What say ye, mistress?”
“Those are the names I’ve given them. After the fairy queen and king.” The dolphins jumped again and dived beneath the surface.
“The fairies, ye say?”
“Yes, in Mister Shakespeare’s play.” It had been something she wasn’t supposed to read, but when she’d found the volume containing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Aunt Grissel’s library, she’d begged and begged until she was allowed to read it. When Margaret opened the book, she found herself stepping into another world, a world where fairies danced and frolicked.
The dolphins came close, smiling and raising their soft snouts out of the water. They seemed to recognize Margaret, too, and she called their names again. “Oberon! Titania!” Now there were two or three more, and they cavorted and jumped in the water.
“Mister Shakespeare’s been to Elfane,” the woman said, “but ye need not travel to London to find it.” It was as if she knew Margaret’s thoughts and her longing to go to London, now that the ban on theater was lifted, to see a real play.
“The fairy kingdom.”
The fairy kingdom. Mister Harry preached about this belief in fairies, this “superstition of the devil to keep the people ignorant and away from God.”
The woman turned again, flicked her wrist, and called out a rhyme:
Go with the fisheries gone to sea
and bring home mickle fish to me
bring the mickle fish to me
go out with the fisheries gone to sea.
In the name of the Trinity three
The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,
In the name of St. Andrew and Trinity three,
Bring the mickle fish to me.
The dolphins dived and disappeared. Margaret gaped. “Did they understand you?”
“Aye, mistress, and they’ll do my bidding. I’ll have a good harvest when the boats come in.”
“How did you learn to talk with the dolphins?”
The woman looked around and lowered her voice. “Nay, ’tis not to say.”
The woman launched into Gaelic now. Though Margaret spoke it a little, this was too fast for her. There was one word she understood: shin, or fairies.
Was this magic? Margaret felt her legs shaking and looked around to make sure her family was not watching, even though she knew they were far away in the castle. If they could see her now, talking about fairies … or if, God forbid, Mister Harry, the minister, was about. She shuddered but forced herself to stand firm. “Have you seen the fairies?”
“I have an da shealladh, mistress.”
“The two sights.”
“I see the other world, the place of the spirits, where be the fairies.”
Margaret’s eyes widened. “The other world?” According to Mister Harry, fairies were devils, and people who associated with them were evil. She had never heard about this otherworld here on Earth where fairies lived. What did it mean? Was it like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
The woman bowed her head in assent. Veiled but piercing eyes looked up at Margaret. “And where be the dead.”
The dead? Margaret shivered.
The wind had picked up, and the woman wrapped her plaid around her shoulders. “I mun go now.”
“But—” Margaret wanted to ask, “How?” and “When?” but she was sore afraid, and the words stuck in her throat.
Without another word, the woman of second sight turned and started back along the strand. Margaret could only watch as she walked away, her body small and graceful beneath her garments.
As Margaret hastened home, the mist trailed across the machair in filaments—a bit like the fairies, beings of light and air who came and went. To her right sat the farmtown, a dreary place of peasant homes. A cluster of huts in a semicircle, gray humps that rose out of the earth like the dolphins from the sea, it was a familiar sight. But now it took on a different hue as it came to the foreground of her mind. Did that woman have a special place in this community?
Tiny columns of smoke rose from the huts and blended with the mist in a cloud of mystery.
The wind settled, and the air grew still and cold as darkness descended. Margaret walked faster, her boots sinking into the damp earth.
A rustling sound from a copse of oak made her start. Was it a fairy? A Royalist? A murder of crows rose and circled, screeching and squawking. Margaret ran, her heels sinking and pulling up from the mud with a sucking sound.
All of a sudden, something brushed across her face. A fluttering and croaking, and a mighty wing, black and shiny, flapping and rising. The crow carried the secrets of the spirits, messages from beyond. Was this a message for her? Margaret’s shoulders tensed, and she ran faster. Only when the castle towers came into sight, lit by the last rays of sun from the west, did she slow down.
Inshoch Castle was her home. Situated on the highest point for miles, it had been built over a hundred years earlier by her ancestors, the Lairds of Park and Lochloy. It was her home, and she was proud of it—proud to be Lady Margaret of the ancient clan of Hay.
The land around it, so wide and vast, was her home even more so. The machair—that grassy plain where the cattle grazed—and the loch, the flax fields with feathery greens ruffling in the wind, and the sandy path to the castle … this was where she was most free. This was her Eden.
Eden. “Beware,” Mister Harry had said. “Beware of Eden, beware of paradise, for it is here the snake doth lurk, it is here temptation lies in wait.”
“Curiosity!” he’d shouted. “Like Eve, it is woman’s sin.” Yes, she was curious, especially about the woman she’d just met. In this world were so many things to discover, and so much she wanted to learn.
“Margaret! Where have you been?” Her mother, Elizabeth Brodie, Lady of Park and Lochloy, looked up from her seat. Tall and regal in her blue brocade gown, her expression was unreadable, a combination of disapproval and relief, perhaps.
“Just walking, Mother.”
“By yourself? You know the danger. The Royalists!” Mother worried about the savage Catholics who swooped down in packs like wild dogs to steal cattle, horses, and even worse.
“But it wasn’t dark yet, Mother. And the Royalists haven’t raided us for two years.”
“Fifteen months, to be exact. And your gown and boots! Covered in mud.”
Margaret looked down. The hem of her woolen gown and her beloved red boots were wet and stained. She hadn’t given them a thought until now.
Her father, puffing on his pipe, looked up from his accounts book. He frowned but said nothing.
Margaret’s mother beckoned her to the carved oak table and sat down before a book that lay open in front of her. Candlelight illuminated the pages and flickered on the silken tapestry behind her. Hunters raced, herons soared, and a fox with a silver-embroidered eye glinted and winked at Margaret. She took the opposite chair, closest to the fireplace.
“I will read aloud from the Westminster Confession,” Mother declared. “We all must learn its wisdom.” Margaret’s sister Lucy glanced up from her chair by the fire, but her face showed no expression, and she quickly lowered her head back down over her sampler. Lucy was not interested in religion or history, though she made a good show of it when necessary. She was fourteen, three years younger than Margaret, and she had recently been trying out her flirting techniques on unsuspecting stable lads. Margaret shook her head. Her interests were drawn to far more important things.
She settled in, warming her back and wet boots by the fire. “Mother,” she said before the older woman started to read. “I want to visit London.”
“London? What new notion is this?” Mother asked, glancing quickly at her husband at his desk in the back of the room.
“I could go with Aunt Grissel. She travels there often with Uncle Alexander.” Grissel was her mother’s cousin, Uncle Alexander, her father. He was the Laird of Brodie at Brodie Castle, a nearby estate much larger than the Hay’s. “I could see Covent Garden and Bridewell Palace, the new fashions, the shops, and the great ships in the harbor. And a real play by Mister Shakespeare.”
Lady Elizabeth gave Margaret a sympathetic look but shook her head. “London is dirty. Tis ridden with disease and varmints of all kinds, both animal and human.”
“Och!” her father’s voice came out of a haze of pipe smoke. “London is the devil’s playground! Have you not heard Mister Harry speak of that place, with all its pompous papistry? And those plays are dens of iniquity where drunken knaves carouse and brawl.” He lay down his fist with finality and bowed his head again over his book.
Margaret clenched her fists.
Father must have sensed her anger, for he raised his head and his voice, shaking his pipe. “And as for this roaming about, daughter, ’twill be the devil to pay.”
Margaret knew what he meant, of course. She winced but set her jaw. Sometimes, her parents treated her like a china doll that might fall and break at any moment. Nothing untoward had ever befallen her in her “roaming.”
Lady Elizabeth cleared her throat and read from the parchment before her. “They whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace.”
Lucy sank further in her seat.
This was about predestination, though, and Margaret was interested. It was fortunate that she had learned to read and had even been encouraged to think about theology. But she was feeling contrary now. “How do we know whom God has accepted?” she said. “If I’m in the elect, then I don’t have to worry about grace. And if I’m not, I might as well give up.”
There was a shocked silence. Lucy smirked, and Mother gave her a withering look. “No, we never give up on grace.” She looked to her husband for help, who frowned, opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“Mister Harry will instruct you further, daughter,” he said.
Margaret sighed. She would have to learn this Westminster Confession. She felt a flutter of fear in her heart at the thought of the kirk session, that austere gathering where she would have to profess her faith. She pursed her lips. While the English girls got a dance to introduce them to adulthood, she had to be tested by the kirk.
And now, with the light increasing to encompass the whole day and into the evening, wouldn’t it be delightful to run along the strand and dig for cockles like the gray-brown woman? She turned her eyes to the light and imagined the fairies dancing with the dolphins.
Bessie Wilson came up from the kitchen, pushing back her head kerchief and wiping her hands on her apron. With her sunken cheeks and beady eyes, she reminded Margaret of a hawk. “Would ye be wanting anything else, m’lady?” she asked Mother as she picked up the tray. She smiled at Margaret, obliterating the image of the hawk—because, even though she had only one tooth showing, and a grayish one at that, her smile shone with warmth. Bessie had been with the Hays since before Margaret was born, and Margaret was her favorite of the children.
“No, thank you, Bessie,” Mother replied, waving her hand. Bessie sailed back through the door and down the tower stairs. The kitchen was on the ground floor, off the tower stairway that also led to the outside door.
Of a sudden, Mother’s shoulders sank, and she hunched over the book with a sigh. She struggled to her feet, huge in her voluminous layers of skirts. The baby was due soon, and the family was hoping for a boy this time … as, no doubt, everyone had hoped when both Lucy and Margaret were due. No one expected wee John, who was three, to live. If Father died when Lucy and Margaret were still unmarried, and there was not another boy child, the estate would revert to the Marquess of Huntly, also known as the Duke of Gordon, the ward holder for all the lands.
And then what would happen to us? Margaret thought. Would she be forced to marry one of the Brodie lads? Unlike their grandfather, the laird, Uncle Alexander, whose conscience and piety radiated all around him, Jack and William spent their time racing about the countryside, shouting and teasing the farm girls.
“I must see to wee John,” Mother said, holding her back as she waddled to the staircase. “You may continue your study.”
“May I sit with Bessie first, Mother?”
Her mother gave her a skeptical glance, as if talking were too much of a chore, but nodded and disappeared up the stone stairwell.
The kitchen smelled of fish and rosemary from supper, and Bessie’s cup of tea sat on the big wooden table. Above the table hung ropes of onions and herbs. Bessie was pouring water into the firepot.
“Bessie,” Margaret said, “I must ask you about the fairies.”
Bessie flinched; her eyes fearful. She slumped onto the stool and indicated that Margaret should sit on the other one. “What is it you want to know, Maggie?”
Bessie had warned Margaret and Lucy about the fairies. “You must never go near a fairy mound,” she’d said, “or they will grab you and take you to their home beneath the hill. They’ll put a substitute child, a changeling, in your place, and your family will never know that you are gone.” Margaret’s mother, though, had said that these were all stories, superstitions, and that true Christians did not believe them.
“I met a woman who sees them and talks to them,” Margaret said. “The fairies taught her to talk with the dolphins.”
Bessie narrowed her eyes.
“It seems to me a wonderful thing,” Margaret rushed on, though, in truth, she was not at all sure it was wonderful. “The fairies can help her, like the fairies in Mister Shakespeare’s play.”
Bessie’s light eyes darted back and forth under black eyebrows, looking to the doors and back. She lowered her head and whispered, “You mun’ not talk with that woman.”
“But why? She seemed to do no harm.”
“She may not seem to, but when you see the straws in the wind, these will be the fairies flying. And then you must sanctify yourself so the fairies and elves canna’ shoot the arrows at you.”
“I know; you have told me that. And I don’t believe it.” Margaret set her mouth with determination. “But I sanctify myself just in case.” She made the sign of the cross on her forehead and chest, reciting, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Bessie had taught this to both Lucy and Margaret, though they couldn’t let their mother and father know. To them, this was just another Catholic superstition. “But that woman,” Margaret said, “is not a fairy.”
“I know that woman. Her name is Isobel Gowdie. You must never talk to her, and you must always sanctify yourself when you see her.”
“But Bessie, why?”
“I say no more.”