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Third Witch

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Third Witch


  To Angela,

  with true and deepest gratitude,




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Author’s Notes


  About the Author

  Also by Jackie French


  Chapter 1

  Morning mist trickled about my ankles. It smelled of cold mud and sweated leather from the men who had trudged across this moor yesterday to fight for King Duncan. I could almost hear the bagpipes’ wail as the wind drew clouds across the sun.

  Old Agnes hauled up some skinny leaves and glanced at Mam and me. ‘Old Man’s Bottom,’ she informed us.

  I choked back a giggle. This was not a day for giggling. Today our thane and men faced the massed swords and daggers of the rebel Thane of Cawdor. Down in the village, women kept their terror from their children while they waited to see if their men came home whole, or missing arms or legs, or not at all. And here on the moor Agnes talked of Old Man’s Bottom . . .

  Agnes glared at me. ‘There’s naught funny about Old Man’s Bottom, girl. The leaves soothe a man outside and in.’

  I thought of Lord Murdoch, asking for my ribbon to wear into battle, his armour gleaming on his warhorse. ‘Who wants to soothe a man?’

  My mistress didn’t want to soothe her husband either. She paced and fretted up on the castle battlements, trying to peer over hills and through fog, hoping that after this battle King Duncan would finally give Lord Macbeth the honours he deserved. Which was why I stood here on the moor, shivering. My lady had ordered me to fetch a potion from old Agnes to stiffen Lord Macbeth’s sinews and make him ask King Duncan to reward him with the rebel Thane of Cawdor’s lands. Lord Macbeth was valiant in battle, but not in asking for his due reward.

  ‘A bit of soothing would do you no harm at all. You’d best keep your head down in times like these,’ said Agnes bluntly.

  Thunder muttered beyond the hills, as if it had heard her words. The mist blazed blue-white then blinked back to grey.

  ‘King Duncan will win this time,’ I said.

  Agnes snorted. ‘The royal idiot’s lost ten battles in ten summers, and half his army in each one. That man’s like a kitten that scratches a tom cat then wonders how it came to lose an ear.’

  ‘That was because he kept attacking the whole English army,’ I informed her. A village herb woman couldn’t know the politics of the land, like we did up at the castle. ‘This battle is just against a rebel thane. And this time the king has Lord Macbeth to command his army.’ I put up my chin. ‘And Lord Macbeth will come marching back again.’

  But not with all his men, the mist whispered. No battle has ever been won with all men left standing. I shut the thought out.

  ‘What else do we need for my lady’s potion?’ I demanded.

  Agnes raised a shaggy eyebrow at me. When Ma and I first lived with her I’d thought her looks could boil water. But now I met her eyes.

  ‘Annie . . .’ Mam’s voice held a plea.

  I sighed. ‘Please,’ I added.

  Old Agnes had taken Mam and me in six years ago, after Da had marched to war and not come home again. Near a third of the village had died that winter, after English raiders burned the crops. Agnes’s herb and snail broths had kept us alive. We’d eaten fenny snake and newt soup for a week once, but we had lived. And it had been Agnes’s word to a guardsman who’d come to her for a salve for his old scars that had led to me being given a maid’s job at the castle when I was twelve years old. The true beginning of my life.

  ‘This?’ Agnes held up the bundle of herbs. ‘This is dinner for your ma and me. Herb broth boiled up with snails to give strength to old bones. Not all of us dine on venison up at the castle.’

  ‘But you promised me a potion!’

  And I’d brought her and Mam a neck of venison just last week. Which I knew she remembered as well as I did.

  ‘That I did not,’ said Agnes flatly. ‘I promised I’d give your Lord Macbeth enough gumption to become the Thane of Cawdor. You need more than a few leaves to do that.’

  ‘A . . . a charm?’

  Agnes traded charms in secret, and those who wanted them came to her cottage in darkness. Charms feed the foolish, Agnes said, but what else could an old woman trade who had neither father, son nor husband?

  Lord Macbeth was not a fool. ‘A charm won’t work,’ I said firmly. ‘Not on a thane.’

  ‘It will if we do it right. The right words, at the right time.’

  I shivered. Not at her words, I told myself — I was too old to be shivered just by words. The mist was thickening into rain.

  ‘We?’ asked Mam, a quiver in her voice. ‘Annie and I know naught of charms.’

  ‘Do you think a thane will take note of one old woman?’ said Agnes. ‘He’d not even stop his horse to hear me. It must be three who stand across the path this afternoon. Three of us will say the words — I’ll need to teach you. A simple man can be fooled by a simple charm, but you need wit and gentlefolks’ words to charm a thane.’

  ‘He’ll recognise me!’ I said, panic rising.

  Agnes cackled. ‘On the heath, with your cloak about your head? He’ll see what we want him to see, like any man.’

  Excitement prickled, replacing the panic. Me, who’d once been ragged Annie Grasseyes, charming a great thane! I had no choice, I told myself. It was my duty to do what her ladyship commanded.

  ‘I can speak with gentle wit enough,’ I told Agnes. ‘But I must ask her ladyship’s permission.’

  And tell her I would not be back at the castle till after dark. A maid who wandered after dark was reckoned not a maid.

  ‘Good,’ said Agnes. ‘Bring us back some cold mutton. Not too lean, mind, I likes the fat. And no bannock. It’ll get soggy in the rain. Soggy bannock can give you the runs.’

  ‘Make sure your cloak is warm,’ Mam told me. ‘Wear that nice sealskin her ladyship gave you last Christmas.’ She glanced at Agnes and added firmly, ‘I can learn whatever’s needed.’

  Mam was a loyal daughter of the kirk, but she’d take part in a charm for me. Just like she’d gathered nettles till her hands bled to make me broth the summer Da had died. And crouched through the long arc of each autumn day to pick up grains of barley after the harvesters had finished.

  ‘I’m sorry about the rain,’ I said. ‘You’re going to get soaked.’

  ‘Don’t you worry about that,’ said Agnes. ‘Me and your mam are wearing my goose-fat liniment. No one gets congestion of the chest if they’re rubbed with that.’

  That explained the smell.

  She peered at me through the drizzle. ‘You’d be better with a good coat of liniment as well.’

  ‘No,’ I said, then politely added, ‘Thank you.’ I could imagine my lady’s face if I appeared smelling of old goose and sour leaves.

  Lightning spat into the mist, so suddenly I flinched. The thunder cracked like a clash of swords.

  ‘Well,’ demanded Agnes, ‘when shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’

  Mam shivered as a gust of rain lashed her face. ‘When the hurly-burly’s done.’ Her voice turned bitter. ‘When the battle’s lost and won.’

  Our thane had
won the battle Da had fought in, but Mam had still lost her husband and I my father.

  ‘Just before the set of the sun,’ I said. Macbeth and his close companions would surely ride ahead while what was left of his army limped home.

  Agnes nodded. ‘Where?’

  ‘Upon the heath,’ suggested Mam.

  The heath was a good choice — though it would take Mam and Agnes six hours to trudge there in the rain. It was close enough to the battleground that Macbeth could return to the king before nightfall to ask for his reward.

  ‘There to meet with Macbeth,’ I breathed.

  Excitement pounded in me like horse’s hooves. If this worked, it would be due to me. And her ladyship would know it.

  A cry bit through the fog. Something grey rubbed against Agnes’s skirts. She looked down and smiled.

  ‘Paddock calls,’ said Mam, smiling too. Cats and dinner were reassuring even on a day of battle.

  Paddock yowled her agreement.

  ‘I come, grey cat,’ Agnes said.

  ‘She’ll have to wait till you’ve boiled the snails,’ I said.

  ‘Paddock can catch herself a mouse. And we have a mouse of our own to catch.’ Agnes gazed at me. ‘I’ll teach you the words now so you can practise. This is the first bit — say it after me: Fair is foul, and foul is fair: hover through the fog and filthy air.’

  I stared at her. I’d never heard Agnes use words like that before, as good as gentlefolks’.

  ‘Where did you learn that?’ I demanded.

  ‘That’s my business, nosey nose. Just say the words.’

  ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ I repeated.

  ‘Not like that, girl! Give them words power!’

  I thought of my lady waiting at the castle. Of a village girl speaking words that would charm a thane. I let my heart flow into the words.

  ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair: hover through the fog and filthy air.’

  Agnes nodded grudgingly.

  I glowed. I’d done it well. They were only words, but I’d felt the air about us quiver.

  Chapter 2

  Big Rab, the blacksmith, grinned at me as I walked past the forge on my way back to the castle. The flames from his fire shone on his bare arms and leather apron. Up on the hill his mob of sheep flowed white among the heather, tended by Charlie Squint-Eye. He was a fine man, Big Rab, with the smithy and his sheep, a good stone house, and old Maggie Two-Teeth as housekeeper since his ma had died; the best catch for any girl in the village. But I wasn’t a village girl now. I nodded and kept walking.

  I heard the thud as Rab let his giant hammer fall. Suddenly he was beside me, bareheaded despite the drizzle, grinning down at me.

  ‘A fine day for it, Mistress Annie.’

  The thunder snickered. I put my hands on my hips, giving him a glimpse of the silk dress under my cloak.

  ‘A fine day for what, Rab McPherson?’

  ‘For war or love. Your choice.’ The grin was wider now.

  ‘A thunderstorm is good for a battle?’ I carefully ignored the word ‘love’.

  ‘Why yes. The rain will wash the gore away.’

  For an instant rage drew a curtain across my eyes. ‘Brave men are fighting, Rab, and you make light of it? War is no joke.’

  ‘No, it is no joke.’ His face was serious now. ‘But that is what the king and thanes make of it, all those fine gentlemen of yours from the castle, riding above the blood and screams in their armour on their great horses.’

  ‘And you make a profit on that armour, but do not march yourself.’

  With each battle that Macbeth had fought for the king, Rab had grown richer. None of the castle armourers had his skill. Rab’s swords never shattered on a battlefield.

  ‘I’ll not be part of great folks’ games,’ he said. ‘But I look after my own.’

  I knew that. After Da died and we were starving on nettle broth, Rab had smuggled bannocks to us, till his mam caught him and told his da to give him a beating. A hard woman, Rab’s mam, who’d help no one unless they were kin. It was said that when the thane’s stallion kicked Rab’s father in the head and he died from it, Rab’s ma followed him to death herself rather than let anything of hers slip from her fingers. Rab had his father’s height and his mother’s wits, but his heart was his own.

  I let my arms fall. ‘It’s good to see you, Rab.’

  And it was. Most of my good memories of village life had Rab in them.

  The grin returned. ‘I’ll walk you to the castle then.’

  ‘To save me from vagabonds?’

  ‘Nay. The vagabonds will be fighting today, or waiting to steal from the sporrans of the dead. I’ll walk you for the pleasure of your company, even though you’ve a tongue as hot as your hair.’

  Lord Murdoch said my red hair was like dancing flames. Lord Murdoch would be safe, surely, up on his warhorse out of reach of the foot soldiers’ pikes, and well armoured against arrows. Even if he was captured, his father, Thane of Greymouth, would ransom him. Everyone knew it was better to capture a lord than kill him.

  But there was no use expecting courtly words from Rab. ‘You’ll get wet,’ I said to Rab. ‘Wetter.’

  ‘I’ll dry. And I have another kilt or two, even if I am just a blacksmith and not a knight in armour.’

  There must be a way to send away a man who was twice your height and three times the width of your shoulders, but I hadn’t found it. And it felt warmer walking next to Rab, even away from the fire at the forge. We were silent for a while. The drizzle thinned. The fog sifted down like flour on the hills, hiding the sheep, though I could still hear their bleats.

  ‘Your ma’s looking well,’ Rab said.

  ‘She is.’

  ‘She’d be happier at a hearth of her own though, I warrant.’

  I shook my head. ‘She’ll not marry again. There are widows six a farthing these days and no men left for them.’

  ‘I meant at the hearth of her daughter,’ he said carefully.

  I just as carefully didn’t look at him. ‘I’ll not marry for years yet, if ever. Not after her ladyship’s kindness in training me.’

  ‘And what useful things has her ladyship trained you to do? Bake bannocks?’

  ‘I baked the best bannocks in the village at ten years old, Rab McPherson.’

  He put up his hand as if to ward off a blow. ‘I believe you, Grasseyes!’

  Murdoch had said my eyes were the colour of emeralds. Had Rab even seen an emerald?

  ‘I can dress a lady’s hair and pin her frock. Do you know it takes a thousand pins just to dress a lady for her dinner?’

  ‘A useful skill indeed. Where would the world be if no one knew how to put in a thousand pins afore dinner?’

  ‘Don’t mock me, Rab McPherson. I wear silk now instead of rags. I even have some coins put by. Mam will never starve again, even after Agnes dies.’

  ‘Agnes’ll last forever, like the hills. She’s been as old as that ever since I’ve known her. Annie . . .’

  I thought he was going to try to kiss me in full sight of half the castle. I prepared to stomp on his foot.

  But he just said, ‘I’d best leave you here, else Cook’ll want to know why I haven’t patched up her best cauldron.’ He grinned. ‘I’m mortal afraid of Cook. That ladle of hers could do a man real harm.’

  ‘And why isn’t her cauldron mended?’

  ‘Because I have been forging swords for men about to die. Happy pinning, Mistress Annie.’

  Murdoch would have bowed to me and winked with his laughing eyes. Rab strode off down the hill without looking back.

  I glanced up at the battlements as I walked across the drawbridge towards the castle. There was no sign of her ladyship. The rain must have driven her back to her chambers.

  The porter dozed in his cubbyhole as I slipped past. The castle, an old building made of older stones, breathed quiet with a faint scent of mouse. The yells and curses and hammerings of the past few weeks had vanished with the army.
  Even though the master was absent, the fire in the Great Hall was lit and the torches in the sconces too. A serving maid curtseyed to me. I glanced at her sharply. Some of the underservants hadn’t taken kindly to a village girl rising so high in our lady’s favour. But the maid looked at the floor respectfully.

  I climbed the stairs to my lady’s chamber, narrow, steep and winding. If ever an enemy forced their way across our drawbridge, two men with strong swords standing on these stairs could hold back an army.

  My lady’s voice echoed down the stairs. ‘Fie upon it! Your tapestry’s like an unweeded garden. Things rank and vile possess it merely. Away!’

  A door clicked shut. The vast bulk of Mistress Ruth almost collided with me as I entered the corridor.

  ‘I beg pardon, Mistress Annie,’ she muttered, wiping away tears.

  ‘Her ladyship is annoyed?’ I whispered.

  Mistress Ruth flashed me a smile from beneath her red eyes. ‘Nothing is right for her today.’

  Her tapestry did look like an unweeded garden, but it was unkind to say so. Mistress Ruth had been my lady’s nurse. Nurses were not known for their tapestry.

  ‘She’s worried,’ I said softly.

  Mistress Ruth nodded. ‘’Tis hard for the poor pet to have to wait to see if her husband comes safe home from battle.’

  And even harder for her to see him riding home having risked his life and lost his men for no reward.

  Instead I said, ‘She will love your tapestry by midday, I’m sure of it.’

  A steadier smile now. ‘You can always coax her, Mistress Annie.’

  I smiled back gratefully.

  My lady had called me an impudent frog two years ago when I’d told her straight that her arctic fox furs looked like a crone’s hair, but that wolfskin lent her complexion the glow of pearls. The next day she had called me to wait upon her. I’d served as one of her ladies ever since. I’d thought Mistress Ruth and Mistress Margaret would resent a villager gaining their mistress’s fancy. But they’d welcomed a girl closer to her ladyship’s own age, had helped me to learn how to dress and talk and use a finger bowl. ‘’Tis hard for a young girl like her ladyship, far from home, with just old biddies like us to keep her company,’ Mistress Margaret had told me kindly as she stitched one of my lady’s old dresses to fit me. And Mistress Ruth had called me ‘a good child’.

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