Neil stumbled into the doorway, grinning like a puppy. He held onto the lintel with one hand.
How would she react, he wondered, when he told her where he had been — what he had seen! What he had felt! Ailís was practical, he knew she was, but she was only practical because she had to be. Underneath her common-sense exterior, there was a young woman who felt the same wonder and amazement at the universe as he did. And when she heard where he had been, what he had seen …
He was ready to jump up and down like a child, but contained his excitement to calling again, “AILÍS!”
“Neil!” his lovely wife laughed. “Neil, we’re right here!”
And indeed, they were right there, Ailís standing by the kitchen table with a lunch of bread in her hand, ready to place a serving onto Nellie’s little tray. She smiled. “Ye’re home early. Did ye meet those folk at the market, like ye said ye were gonna?”
The market? Was that what he had told her? It hardly mattered now; she would be so thrilled when he told her where he had been and what he had done.
“Da!” called Nellie, reaching her arms out to be picked up.
“Nellie!” Neil grabbed her, tossed her into the air, and caught her in time to dance around the room with her. Nellie squealed and shrieked, while Ailís watched the two of them with jaw agape.
“Neil, Neil, what’s goin’ on?”
“The best thing!” Neil delivered a smacking kiss onto Nellie’s cheek, put her back into her seat, and gave his wife no time to escape before he pounced on her.
“Neil!” Ailís gasped when he let her (and himself, for that matter) breathe again. She put a hand on his shoulder and panted. “What’s all this about?”
“Where’s Josie?” he asked. “I want her to hear this, too!”
“Hear what? An’ she’s nappin’, I jest got her down, please don’ go wakin’ her up fer … fer whatever!”
“Oh,” Neil murmured, his shoulders slumping. But soon he was up again. If he had a tail, it would be wagging. “But this one will listen, won’t she?” he asked, patting Ailís’s just-bulging stomach.
“It could be a boy, ye know.”
“Not if our previous track record means anythin’!” Neil grinned. Ailís only looked pained. Probably because she thought she had to keep getting pregnant until they had a boy. It didn’t matter to Neil, not really; he was more than happy with their girls. Maybe someday he’d want help on the farm, but for now, he was fine. And after this one, boy or girl, they were taking a break.
… Well, they’d meant to take a break after Josie was born, too, but she was barely six months old when this one decided to start making its presence known …
Not that any of that mattered, at the moment. Neil patted Ailís’s belly one last time, for luck, before straightening and grinning at her. “Ye’ll never guess where I jest was!”
“Ye weren’t at the market?”
“Not a bit!” Neil laughed.
“Then where were ye?”
He thought of asking her to guess, but that would just be cruel — she never would get it. “The Orkney estate, fer starters!”
“Aye! Lady Dindrane axed me especial! And oh, Ailís, ye’ll never guess what she wanted me ter to do!”
“What was that?”
He wouldn’t start off right away. He’d ease her into it. “Well, first, she jest wanted ter talk — ter explain what she wanted me ter do, ye see.”
“An’ what was that?” Ailís’s voice was only mildly curious, and she had already gone back to tearing off servings of the bread and placing them onto the table.
His mouth opened to tell her — but he couldn’t do that while she still held a knife in her hand. She might hurt herself with it, from surprise. “Sweetie, can ye let me tell it the way I want ter tell it? I think — I think it’ll be better if ye let me go ter it, slow-like.”
Ailís turned to him with one eyebrow upraised and a puzzled little smile on her lips. “Well … if ye like. I still don’t know what ye’re gettin’ at, though.”
“Oh, ye will! Trust me, ye will!” He almost clapped his hands from glee. “Well, anyway, we talked fer a good long time, at first, while she explained everythin’ … Ailís, I want ye ter know, even though what I’m gonna tell ye is gonna sound daft an’ … an’ maybe jest a teensy bit dangerous, it weren’t, really. I mean, this — well, it’s the first time Lady Dindrane did all of this together, but she’d — she’d practiced the important part before.”
“What’s the important part?”
“I’ll get ter that, I promise. Anyway, Lady Dindrane an’ I were talkin’ in a right pretty little corner of the gardens, but then we went ter a … a different corner of the gardens.”
“A different corner of the gardens?”
“Aye, it was different indeed! All overgrown an’ weedy an’ …” He was stalling, and what was worse, he knew he was stalling, because he knew the next part may not meet with Ailís’s approval. But surely, surely she wouldn’t be too angry? After all, he was here, and safe. Whatever he had seen and done between kissing him goodbye and breakfast, and kissing him hello at lunch, surely she would be able to tell that he was all right now. And surely that was all that mattered?
“Anyway, that don’t matter much,” Neil continued. “Jest, ye know, it was a bit neglected, an’ so folk couldn’t see us.”
“Neil, is this where ye’re gonna tell me ye had yer way with Lady Dindrane — or Lady Dindrane had her way with ye?” Ailís teased.
“Not quite, honey. But, but, um — ye ever heard of a cowplant?”
“A cowplant? Oh, aye, o’course! Me brother Grady used ter tell Berach an’ I that he knew where one was growin’ in the woods, an’ if we didn’t give ‘im our cake, come dessert-time, he’d feed us to it.” Ailís shook her head. “Though he stopped when I pointed out that, if he really wanted cake so bad, he’d ‘ave taken some o’ the cowplant’s, an’ he’d be dead. The stories we children told each other!” she chuckled. “Lemme guess, the plant she wanted ye ter move or such-like were as big as a cowplant?”
“Er, not quite, honey.”
“Then what is it?”
“It, er, was a cowplant.”
Ailís turned to him, her jaw fallen.
“She didn’t want me ter move it,” he added, trying to smile.
“Neil, ye’re pullin’ me leg!”
“Not so! I’m tellin’ ye the truth! I’ll swear on me — me ma’s grave, if ye like.”
Ailís blinked. The last time he had offered to swear on the grave of the mother he had never gotten a chance to know, they had both been teenagers, and he had been trying to tell Ailís he loved her — not just liked her, not just enjoyed her company, not just was grateful that she tolerated him, not just wanted to get up her skirts. Loved her. He’d never offered to swear so since. He hadn’t needed to.
Ailís took a deep breath and sat down. “All right — a — a cowplant. It — were it somethin’ o’ that horrible witch’s, the Lady Morgause’s? Did she want ye ter destroy it?”
“Er, not quite.”
“She, er, wanted me ter … ye know how the legends say that the cowplant, when it’s hungry, sticks a piece o’ cake out on its tongue?”
“O’ course, I –” Ailís stood and slowly and shakily as if she had a few more months’ worth of baby inside of her. She walked up to him and stared into his eyes. “Neil, why are ye axin’ me if I know about the cake?”
“Well, um, ’cause that bit’s true!”
“Who — who says there has ter be an ‘an”?”
Ailís only let one eyebrow go up.
“Well, she, er … the Lady Dindrane wanted me ter …”
“Ter take the cake.”
Ailís gasped and fell back into her chair. “Neil! Oh, Neil!”
“I know, honey, that it sounds scary, but –”
“Sounds scary? Neil! Ye defied a noblewoman! A noblewoman what wanted ye dead! Oh, Wright, how did ye escape?”
“Er … honey, I think ye ought ter listen –”
“An’ what are we gonna do now? We can’t go ter the law about it! Her father is the Chief Magistrate! Oh, we’re gonna have ter flee the kingdom! Oh, Wright, oh, Wright!”
“Ailís, honey, we don’t have ter go nowhere!”
“Neil, a noblewoman wants ye dead!”
“No, she don’t! She’s right pleased with me!”
“Pleased with ye? Why?”
“… Well, I guess because I took the cake.”
Ailís stared at him, her jaw fallen. Her entire body fell limp against the chair.
Then, without warning, she was on her feet, shouting loudly enough that everyone on three farms could hear: “Ye did WHAT?!”
“Now, honey, it ain’t what it sounds like –”
“Ain’t what it sounds like? Ain’t what it sounds like? Then what the hell is it like?”
Nellie sent up a lone wail, but Ailís, for once, ignored her, glaring up at her husband.
“Well, fer starters, honey –”
“Ye have a family, Neil! Did ye never think o’ that? Ye were leavin’ two helpless little girls on the way, an’ a third on the way!”
“It could be a boy,” Neil tried to point out.
“That ain’t the point! Neil! What would we have done, if ye got hurt?!”
“Lady Dindrane promised me, if somethin’ went wrong, that she’d take care o’ ye. But she said that there weren’t nothin’ that were gonna go wrong. She’d done this before.”
“Fed people ter cowplants?”
“Er, not that part.”
“Then what part?”
“Bringin’ folk back, from — from –”
Ailís gasped and her hand trembled. Neil watched the air move up and down her throat as she swallowed once, twice, three times — four — he lost count somewhere between ten and twenty.
“N-Neil?” she whispered.
“Ye — ye weren’t — ye couldn’t have been …”
“Ye’re here,” she whispered.
“Oh, aye, I am! I’m here an’ fine! Here! Look at me!” He wiggled his fingers in the air for the second time that day.
“Ye do look fine …” Ailís murmured, trailing her fingers along his cheek, and slipping them in between his collar and neck, as if to feel for a pulse. She even pulled on his bead for good measure.
“Fit as a fiddle, I am! Jest like I was this mornin’!” he grinned. “Ye’d never guess I was dead in between!”
When Ailís’s bottom hit the chair, the thud reverberated throughout the cottage and the chair itself skittered back three inches. But without a word, she grabbed his hand and held onto it. Her nails dug into the back of his hand.
“But I’m fine now!” Neil tried to reassure her.
“Ye said ye were dead!”
“I was! But I came back?”
“Lady Dindrane! She brought me back!”
“But — but ye said she killed ye!”
“Naw, she jest wanted me ter take the cake, so she could bring me back!”
“I think, personally,” Neil confided, “that she wanted ter know what it was like — ye know. The afterlife an’ all.”
“Heaven, ye mean?”
“Neil! Ye didn’t get ter heaven?”
“Not, er, exactly.”
“Then where were ye?”
“In … in a room,” he decided. It was a rather strange, blank sort of room. She had said it was because the last thing she wanted to do was make yet another set — whatever that meant.
“In a room?”
“With a woman,” he admitted, “but don’t worry, she didn’t try nothin’.”
“Sweetheart, that’s the last thing I’m worryin’ about right now.”
“Oh, good! Ye want ter hear about her?”
“Ye’re sure ye she weren’t no demon or nothin’?”
“Well, I um, axed, but she jest laughed. She wouldn’t tell me why, though.”
“Let me guess — ye axed her why she was laughin’?”
“Honey, what better way is there ter get a question answered?”
“But she wouldn’t tell ye why.”
“She jest said that if I knew, it’d jest get me into trouble. She said that was why she wouldn’t let me go nowhere else, neither, so I wouldn’t tell nobody about what I saw an’ get meself in trouble.”
“Hmm,” Ailís murmured. “It’s almost like she knew ye.”
She did know, Neil thought. The strange woman, with her brown-blonde hair falling into her face, and her milk-pale skin, and her odd outfit of a loose short-sleeved tunic (only it wasn’t really a tunic) and blue trousers knew quite a bit. She knew, for instance, that Neil was only going to be there for a moment, as he was. She knew him, and the names of Ailís and the girls. And she knew they were expecting another little one.
And she knew something else — something that made her “apologize in advance,” as she put it. But in the same breath, she told him not to worry — that whatever it was, it wasn’t “life-threatening.”
“Seriously, Neil,” she had said. “I did cowplant you the once, but you are way too amusing to let die young — and I’m not mean enough to do anything to your family … er … anything life-threatening, that is. So don’t worry.”
He hadn’t had a chance to ask any more before a cloud of green smoke surrounded him, and he found himself standing in a small abandoned cottage on the Orkney estate, Lady Dindrane standing behind him.
But Neil decided he wouldn’t tell Ailís about this. It would only make her nervous — and the lady had promised that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be life-threatening.
“Aye, ’tis,” he replied to her, trying to sound nonchalant. “But I didn’t get much time ter talk ter her. Lady Dindrane called me back almost before I could axe her anythin’ else.”
“Aye. An’ — an’, well, that’s it. Me adventure. But!” Neil added. “I left out the — the second best part!”
“What would that be?” Ailís sighed.
“The thanks Lady Dindrane gave me, fer helpin’ her out — an’ the twenty-five silver pieces that went with it!”
Ailís looked up. “Twenty-five silver pieces?”
“Aye! Aye, twenty-five of them! An’ she said she’d explain everythin’ ter her father! So we can spend them however we want!”
“We should pay off the house …” Ailís murmured.
“Well, maybe, but I thought …”
“Oh, Neil! Never mind the money! We’ll figure somethin’ out. Oh … an’ Neil?”
Without further word, she grabbed him around the shoulders and pressed her lips against his. Then, pulling her lips back just a tad, she shouted, “Never, ever, ever even think about doin’ that ter me again!”
“Well, if it really bothers ye –”
“Bothers me? Bothers me? Neil, ye were dead! An’ ye could have stayed that way!”
“Er, I guess.”
“All right, all right, I know. I mean — I don’t know, maybe it were a little reckless–”
“A little reckless?”
“But don’t tell me ye wouldn’t have done the same thing in me shoes! The chance ter see — ter know–oh.”
“Lady Dindrane — Lady Dindrane said we mustn’t tell nobody about this. It would only get all of us in trouble, she said.”
Ailís snorted. “I’ll believe that,” she muttered. It was the only thing, Neil thought, that she had been able to believe without hesitation.
But little did they know, Neil and Ailís, that all of their precautions were in vain … for someone had already found out.
And the lady whom Neil had seen, in that strange blank room between life and death, had not thought to apologize in advance for her actions.