About Jo Noelle
ALL BY MY SELFIE
copyright © 2015 by Jo Noelle
Summary: While on vacation at McLeod Castle in Scotland, Gwen Mackenzie has nightly dreams of an ancient warrior bound by a curse. During the day, she sees Niall, nicknamed #ScottishBoyfriend. Oh, and can that man rock a kilt! As she gets to know him, she realizes that Niall is the warrior from her dreams, cursed to live as a ghost for the past five hundred years, to see life around him but never sense any of it—except Gwen.
The story is a novella at 103 pages in the clean & wholesome romance category.
During my internship in an Atlanta law office, I’d seen my share of couples in crumbling marriages, who had a baby in an effort to save their relationship, believing it would bring them together. Of course, it didn’t, and they ended up in our offices anyway, arguing over visitation and child support payments.
My hand tightens around the handles of the gift bag I have for Phillip. At least it’s not a baby. Still, it feels like desperation wrapped in paper and tied with a bow.
I turn at my name being called and find Josie jogging down the last few stairs of the office building where we both work. She’s also our up-one-flight-and-across-the-hall neighbor.
“What’s in the bag?” Before I can answer, she continues, “What’s the occasion? Did I miss something?”
I inwardly cringe. What am I doing? Maybe I’m overreacting. We don’t need gifts. Marriage is an adjustment, but it doesn’t seem like either of us are adjusting. My lungs feel like they can’t get a full breath. It’s probably that the air is unusually warm and moist for late September. Or that my heels click on the sidewalk like I’m in a race. Slow down. Calm down.
Looking down at the bag, I summon courage to push down the panic swelling in my chest. “It’s a gift for Phillip, for our one-year anniversary.” There. That doesn’t sound so bad.
“Oh, that’s so sweet!” She leans over to look inside. “Isn’t it a bit early? Like almost a year early?”
“Today’s our one-month anniversary,” I reply, trying to sound exited. The feeling in my stomach is more like dread though. “But we won’t use the gift until we hit the one-year mark.”
I pull the bag away so it doesn’t get crumpled and run my fingers down the ribbon to straighten it. “No. There’s an envelope at the bottom. I’m giving him—us—a fishing trip to a castle in Scotland.”
Josie smiles, but it fades as a puzzled look overtakes her eyes. “You don’t fish.”
This isn’t about me. I swing the handles over my wrist, then twist my hair up and slide a pen through the knot, giving myself some time to respond. “There are other things to do—hike, read, visit nearby towns.”
We walk the rest of the way to our apartment building until we reach the landing on the second floor.
A man with a large bouquet of flowers stands at my door. Red roses and white daisies are tightly bound in his fist, the very flowers that decorated my wedding and reception. He turns toward us as we approach, and his gaze swings between me and Josie. “I have a delivery for Gwen Jones.”
My heart constricts, then expands with hope. I bought a gift. He bought flowers. Phillip must have been considering how to break the ice too. This might be the start of figuring out how to make our marriage work—we’re both thinking of each other, focusing on the other person’s happiness. We’re going to make it.
I’ve needed this. All my insecurities about marriage have exaggerated the trouble we’re having. I focus on the flowers, looking for the little card, anxious to read even a simple message from Phillip. I stop and reply, “I’m Gwen Jones.”
He shoves the flowers forward, but as I reach for them, he pushes them toward Josie and hands me a large envelope instead. “Gwen Jones, you’ve been served.” He turns toward the staircase, striding away.
While I’m staring at the envelope, stunned, Josie hits the man with the bouquet as he passes her. Leaves and petals burst from the cellophane, littering the floor as she follows him down the hall, wielding the bouquet like a machete.
“How dare you? You loathsome lowlife.” She continues down a few stairs, but he’s taking them two at a time to get away from her. “You cockroach!” she yells.
The last thing I see before I enter my apartment is Josie chucking the naked stems at him on the flight below her.
I step into our apartment and close the door, leaning against it with my eyes closed, trying to figure out what I feel. My head swims without settling on a single clear thought. I’m torn between standing here or moving, seemingly incapable of the decision until I hear a soft knock on my door. This isn’t something I want to share, even with my best friend.
The moment stretches, and I hear Josie’s voice. “Call me if you need anything.”
“I will.” The words are soft, but it takes great effort to say them.
I slowly turn around, surveying the room. Phillip must have taken the day off. His recliner is gone. His kitchen table and chairs are gone, but my barstools are still here. The TV is still on the wall. We both paid for that.
My heart should be heavy with grief, but it’s just numb when I drop into the corner of the couch and tug a comforter over my legs. I stare at the manila envelope on my lap, my name and address typed neatly in the middle, Gwen Jones. The name, only a month old, that I sometimes forget is mine. A law firm’s logo is in the upper corner, not the one he works for or mine, but one that practices family law. I don’t have to open it to know. I’ve known for weeks.
Phillip didn’t need to engage a firm—I could have represented him. I could have listed all the ways our marriage didn’t work, how our romance faded before the I-dos left our lips, the strain it’s been to appear to be in love to our family and friends and even each other. How our weekend honeymoon felt more like an obligation than a celebration.
Slouching further into the sofa, I pull my feet under me and begin flipping through the pages. Cause is listed as “Marriage is irrevocably broken,” and our huge secret, our private shame, becomes a public record.
I try to put on my lawyer hat and look that this objectively. I can’t help wondering why everything fell apart for this couple, but the hat slips off, and I know it isn’t a matter of a broken heart so much as broken dreams that separated them.
The rest is a standard legal document for an uncontested divorce. Clean—no custody or property battles—and I sign on the line, returning my name to Gwen Mackenzie.
Maybe if we had been in love, we would have found a way to make our marriage work. Have I ever been in love? A hollow sounding “no” reverberates in my mind. I can’t name one relationship where I’ve been all in.
This divorce is my wakeup call. I want to change. Something.
A smaller envelope was included, handwritten, with only my first name on the front in Phillip’s precise lettering.
[_Maybe you won’t read this, but I had to send it. _]
Isn’t there some unwritten rule that you have to marry the person you’re dating when you finish college? I guess I thought there was. I’m not right for you. And living in your small town in Georgia isn’t right for me. I can say I love you, but I can’t love the life we would have created. I can’t dream it or believe it. It’s not in me. I’m sorry for everything I’m not.
Everything he’s not. He’s not the man whose face I’ll see in my children’s. He’s not the man who will assure me that he’s waited decades to see me with gray hair and laugh lines. He’s not my future—anymore.
One year later
“Hostler, Sanchez, Watson, Abrams, and DelGotto. This is Gwen. How may I help you?” I spent four years in college to earn the opportunity to spend three more years in law school, becoming a member of the State Bar of Georgia to answer phones because our receptionist is on her honeymoon. Well, bless her heart.
I wave to Josie, motioning for her to sit down. “No, we don’t handle personal injury cases—only family law.” One minute, I mouth toward her. She’s worked in this office for four years and will probably be a partner of this firm in six months, tops, adding yet another name to the list. I, on the other hand, kind of hope I never make it that far.
“I’m sorry. I don’t have another firm to recommend.”
“Yes, it sounds quite painful to slip on peaches in the produce aisle.”
“Um-huh, broken hip.” I dial my cell phone, then let it ring beside the mouthpiece. “I’m sorry—I need to answer the other line. Good luck.”
I slam the receiver, grab my sweater and handbag, and run toward the door just as the office phone rings again. No! It’s Friday night, people—stop calling! My two-week vacation starts now.
It’s not just any vacation. I’m nearly convinced that I’ve made the wrong career choice. Thinking that being an attorney would give me a chance to make a difference in the world was a mistake. My days are filled with paperwork, phone calls, shrieking clients, custody battles, and court visits. During college, it was one thing to read briefs and consider applicable laws for how cases would be argued or decided. Now, people sit beside me or across a table from me and air dirty laundry. I think I’ve had enough.
This vacation is really a trip to see if I’m committed enough to change careers and move an ocean away. A year ago on the heels of my divorce, I inherited our family’s ancestral home in Scotland, and I’m considering living there and making it a bed and breakfast.
A legal career and a hospitality career couldn’t be more different. I worked in a B&B through college. Now that I’ve done both, I miss changing other people’s sheets—not. But I miss meeting new people, happy people.
Josie ignores my escape and remains in the lobby. In slow motion, she smiles and winks my way then answers the ringing phone. “Hostler, Sanchez, Watson, Abrams, and DelGotto. This is Gwen. How may I help you?”
You are not Gwen! I give her the evil eye.
She patiently holds up her finger and responds to the caller. “Hmmm…I see. That sounds like a very interesting case. I’ll transfer you to Mr. Reed’s phone. Please leave a lengthy message for him to review on Monday. Bye-bye.” Hanging up, she joins me outside. “And by Monday, you’ll be in Scotland, surrounded by gorgeous men in kilts.”
“I googled that. They don’t wear kilts around.”
“Oh, but you didn’t deny they will be gorgeous. You’re going to have an amazing vacation.” As the office door clicks, Josie asks, “Are you packed?”
“Almost.” At least, I’m starting tonight.
I stare at another envelope on my lap, my name and address typed neatly in the middle—this one addressed to Gwen Mackenzie. My suitcase lays open on my bed, completely empty. Sitting at the top of my bed, I pull my feet under me and read the last words I have from my grandma.
I have two gifts for you as all my other possessions belong to your mother now. The first is an ancient tarc, a necklace made of strands of gold. It dates beyond our written history to a time when our ancestors were Picts and druids. Wear it when you are in Scotland—always. It’s the protection of your family. It will remind you to look back to the history and the legends you have been told. In every legend is a seed of truth. Though the years embellish the story, the kernel of wisdom inside remains the same. Gather what you will need in life through those seeds. The tarc is an amulet of magic. Learn it. Use it. Keep your head about you. Not all magic is used for good. Your parents thought to save you from it by taking you out of Scotland, but it follows you as a shadow.
The second gift is the McLeod ancestral home in Inverness. The magic of Scotland touches you deeper; we’ve known it since you were a wee girl. The time is right now. Consider well your task—it was given to you when you were too young. Though it may be set before you, like a ship you determine your fate, and not some evil wind. Go home to Scotland and see if you will stay.
Love you forever,
My grandmother’s stories of Scotland were of the rolling green land of her childhood, with valleys and glens and lochs where magic boiled up from their bottomless depths. I wouldn’t say I believed the tales of druids and curses she told me as I snuggled under the quilts in her spare bedroom when I visited, but I did believe my own tales that spun themselves as I slept.
Highlands of Medieval Scotland
As the peak of Slioch lifts near the horizon, we sway in our saddles in blissful silence, the first quiet I’ve had since we stopped for a midday meal hours ago. It’s been seven days since my friend Struan and I left the lands of Clan McLeod to retrieve the young men from the monastery at Applecross. Like them at sixteen years I returned from my schooling at the monastery and thought to make a name in my clan.
’Twas nine years ago, and I’ve neither house nor wife. And I’m playing at nursemaid, retrieving lads from school. ’Tis a disgrace that the laird’s second son is treated lower than the knight I am. There must be a reason for the slight, but no reason was given.
Is this the fate I can look forward to—the rest of my life as a servant?
’Tis likely my brother, Lorne, will be laird, and I’ll collect rents for him. Struan’s been silent since my last comment on my betrothal and mayhap an upcoming marriage, and must be biting his lips to keep his opinions inside. I shouldna said naught. Perhaps the rest of the journey will be peaceful. I look his way—no. The corners of his lips already curl with a taunt held close behind his teeth.
Struan shouts louder than if he were speaking only to me. “I’ll give ye some advice, Niall, me laddie.”
Of course he will, and I’m not his lad. He’s been giving me his advice for going on six days now. If I’m ever to marry, I have to gain the Mackenzie’s permission. “Yer advice is always as welcome as water in a boat,” I reply.
He laughs at my comment, then says, “Come here so I can slap ye side the head. Away ye go! Ye cannae be thinkin’ the Mackenzie will allow ye to poach the younger sister while the elder, whose face could dry the loch, be still unwed. That one won’t wed afore the sea turns to men.”
“I donae ken. He might if I ask.” The elder sister is promised to the laird’s son in the Chisholm clan, though he’s long past his right to take her. If we be waitin’ on him, may well the Judgment Day comes first. Deep in my heart, I know the Mackenzie won’t be lettin’ me anywhere near his daughter, but I have to hang on to that bit of hope. Our promise to wed means peace for both our clans and is holding a brittle truce ’tween the two until that day.
“Ye’re off yer head.” Struan leans low in front of his saddle as if he’s whispering in his horse’s ear. “He might, he says.” Then he roars to the sky. “The devil he might.” Then in a rare show of compassion, he adds, “If it’s for ye, ye’ll have it. Aye, ye’ll marry.” I look to see sincerity in his expression, quickly followed by a smirk. “’Course, by then, ye’ll be too old for makin’ bairns, I’d wager.”
He’s going to spout at me clean across the glen and into the mountain if I don’t break away. Mayhap the end of our group needs some checking. I rein back my horse to wait for our company to pass.
“Now, don’t go cryin’ in yer broth.” Struan yells over his shoulder, “It may well happen as ye say. At any way, ye’re young—live the day. Be happy while ye’re livin’, for ye’re a long time dead.”
I wave him on as the young men ride past. I wonder if maybe joining the church would be a good life for me—I’m a second son anyway, and I’d do some good. But there is that contract between Clan Mackenzie and Clan McLeod that I’ll make a marriage to Isabel, joining the two strongest clans of the Highlands. Aye, truth be told, I’d rather have a wife than a church.
The whole party lumbers to a stop, rousing me from my woolgathering. I look up to see smoke rising from the glen far ahead where McLeod Castle lies.
The group moves on with questions worrying our minds. At the fork leading from the Mackenzie lands, the grassy trail gives way to fresh churned soil where last night’s rain made the dirt soft. I jump from my horse as Struan does the same.
“At least a dozen horses,” he says, approaching me. A few of the lads gather round as we assess.
“Nay. More.” I point to a new path maybe twenty paces to the north of the original road, then press my finger in a fresh track to check the depth, though I know from the clods of mud shot from the hooves as they traveled, they weren’t out for training or pleasure.
“They’re moving fast.” What could have happened in the week past? “We’re not at war with the Mackenzies, and where else would they be going but McLeod Castle?”
“Aye, and on heavy horses.” Struan’s voice has taken a hard edge. When I look into his face, it reflects the anger I feel. “They’re attackin’ the castle.”
My imagination plays out a bloody scene in my mind. Time and again, our two clans have slaughtered each other. Is the castle burning? My father and brother would join the mêlée. Where are my sister and mother?
None of us are armored, but we have bows across our backs and swords at our sides. We remount and kick our horses into a run to join our kin.
A fierce battle is raging as we near the castle. Huts have been set afire, and the dead—wearing both colors of plaid—litter the grass. We veer to take the path nearest the shore of Loch Maree to avoid some of the fighting and add our numbers to those securing the castle.
The main gate has been burned and rammed, and a thick battle has overtaken the lower bailey. The battle is too tight to use archers, and they have left their posts on the walls to join the battle below. Our group charges through the hole left by the ruined gate and jumps into the fray.
Swords slash and ring from every corner above the grunts of the men wielding them or the moans of those struck. I haven’t time to consider the war, but fight to defend my home and kin. All around me, men fall by sword and dagger, some by arrow with the blood of friend and foe staining the mud black.
I pull a targe from a fallen Mackenzie and use the shield to push men away or deflect their blows as I try to gain the inner bailey and tower house, the most defensible building within our walls.
As I approach, the bodies of my father and Lorne are dropped from the uppermost window to the ground below, crumpling as rags in the dirt, just as a band of Mackenzies charge through the arched doorway of the tower house with a young woman. Swords clash fiercely, ringing through the dusty air, stirred up by dozens of boots.
My gut lurches. I’m torn between running to my kin’s bodies or pursuing the men who killed them. My heart says one, but my training says the other. I’m sorry, I whisper to the heavens, knowing they’ll understand and even approve.
I feel a whisper echo back. Kill every one of them. It’s my duty and my family’s honor as redress for the savage attack of the Mackenzies this day.
“I swear it on the blood of my father.” They’ll not even get a chance to bury these dead. Animals will pick their flesh, or they’ll rot piece by beastly piece into McLeod ground.
All around me, the Mackenzie warriors shift their formation to shield the woman and those fleeing. They move as one to turn their combatants and create an escape for her along the southern curtain wall. Who is she, and why was she here? What had my father to do with this?
I vow the murderers will not gain the main gate, and charge the men, hoping my clansmen will follow. With a wide swing, I slash men’s bodies before me. I’m powerful with the fury of a man wronged. Mayhap my brother and Da lend their strength from the other side. But the McLeods are in chaos, and haven’t followed. The Mackenzies’, who seem to have had their retreat designed before the start, surround me.
Three men raise their swords at me, and though my end is nigh, I’ll not shrink away. A hilt strikes my head, and I falter. Strong arms clamp around me from behind and lift me from my feet, rushing me behind the woman’s protectors. When we leave the stronghold, a Mackenzie sword rises before my eyes, and with another strike, I collapse.
Although the night should have been lit by a nearly full moon, the clouds obscure it completely. The dark, mud-filled woods close in tightly beside the road until I turn right into the parking lot. A spot beside a huge bolder is available, and I park. Only a couple of naked lights lead from the parking lot to the entrance, a hazy glow of mist and rain dampening their effect.
Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a man strolling around the castle’s battlement, but when I strain to look, there’s no one there.
As I retrieve my suitcase from the trunk, an eerie, shadowy feeling seems to walk behind me. Hoping to outpace it, I hurry toward the castle where a gate may have stood in centuries past, all the while imagining warriors and witches lurking in the gloom. When I enter the gateway, I try to shove the panic out of my chest.
I’m being ridiculous, but my feet still hustle toward the front door. If the wheels on my suitcase weren’t deep in mud, I’d break into a run. I’ve only thought once of dropping it and coming back for it in the morning.
Buttery light spills out as I open the door, and with it, a deep sigh of safety—probably from my own imagination or from Grammy’s tales. I shake off the shadows and exhale loudly.
A gray-haired woman at five-foot-nothing with a bright smile and fewer wrinkles than her face might have a right to calls out, “You must be Gwen. I’m Mrs. Fowler, the owner. I’ve waited up for you. How was your drive? You’ve had the devil’s rainstorm to fight this long way. ’Course, there’s always a rainstorm around the corner. Sign here.” She pushes the paper in front of me.
“If you’d’ve come a few years back…” What? Years? I hold back a giggle that she’s marking time by when it was dry. Her face reminds me of the elves in Tolkien’s stories, beautiful with fine features. Her smile is large and tips up at the corners. “…we had three weeks with no rain at all, and nearly three months with only a few storms. Here’s the key.” She pushes a key ring toward me, then pulls it back before I can reach for it.
“Oh, I’ll open the door for you. Grab your suitcase. We’ll take care of the rest of the paperwork after breakfast. I trust you. I stalked you on Facebook after you scheduled your stay.”
Well, that’s one way to find out who’ll be staying in your home. I like her.
Mrs. Fowler steps from behind the counter. “You’re a Scottish lass to be sure. I like you already,” she says, gesturing to my bright red hair, then hugs my shoulder quickly. I’m immediately at home with her. “Though, by the look of that lovely tarc twisted about your neck, your ancient family would have said you’re a lass from Caledonia. Either way, welcome back, dear.”
Without waiting for a response, she leads me through the main keep’s great hall, dimly lit with a floor lamp here and there, to the staircase, then up and up and up. She’s definitely outpacing me, but I am carrying thirty pounds caked in mud. Why do they not have an elevator? Leaving behind the third flight of stairs, we walk down a sconce-lit hallway.
“Laird’s chamber—here ’tis.” Mrs. Fowler turns the key in the deadbolt, then pushes the door open, handing me the key. “I lit a fire for you. Breakfast will be outside your door at seven tomorrow morning. There’s a spot of whiskey on the dresser. Folks say it takes some gettin’ used to, sleepin’ in this old castle what with the creakin’ and blowin’ and rattlin’. I’ve heard talk of the place bein’ haunted, but I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve seen nothin’ that makes me think we have non-payin’ guests. Still, if you’re nervous, the whiskey will likely help you sleep your worries off. The light switch is outside the toilet before you go in. Good night.” In an instant, she’s gone, and the door shuts behind her.
Within minutes, I climb beneath the quilt and roll to my side, bone tired.
Twelve months ago, I graduated from college. Eleven months ago, I got a job in a great firm in Savannah. Ten months ago, I agreed to a divorce. A day ago, I boarded a plane for Edinburgh to take a trip alone that was meant to be for my first anniversary. Oddly, it all feels right, and I drift off to sleep.
Last night, I fell into the softest bed known to mankind in the laird’s quarters at McLeod Castle, where I dreamed of salmon, like black knives, slicing through tumbling white waters at the mouth of the loch. Several times, I woke dreams of ancient stone ruins, tall oaks lining a druids’ circle, and of a man who’s caught outside of time.
The fog is thick, and I can’t see him clearly. Each time I approach him, he dissolves into the mist.
It’s so vivid that I feel as if I’m calling magic, my tarc glowing and humming, to free him. When I’ve opened my eyes, though, the dream slides behind a wall of fog, leaving me unable to see the place and the person at all. The morning feels unsettling. There’s a gloom of waiting for something to happen.
I shake it off, bathe, and dress. When I’m finished, I’m completely certain I’m going to love this vacation. My breakfast is waiting on a tray outside my door.
My original purchase included a trip for two, so when Phillip and I split, I decided to upgrade my flight and my hotel by cancelling his portion. Now, I get the best room in the castle, day tours, and a complimentary spa package—a one-hour hot stone massage today, a pedicure tomorrow, a facial the next day, then throw in a tour or hike each day.
The outer wall of the castle is at least three feet deep, easily fitting the chair within the space beside a lead-glass window overlooking Loch Maree. I pick up another blaeberry scone—looks like plain blueberries to me, but they’re apparently a Scottish cousin—and sink back into the tufted wing-backed chair within the widow’s alcove. I think I’m in love with this clotted cream. Slathering a generous amount on the scone, I hold it up and pose, pick up my phone and take a bite as I click to send another selfie to Josie. How does the cream do that? It’s cold and melty at the same time.
The sky is crystal blue today, but remnants of yesterday’s storm cling as mist climbing the slopes of Slioch to the east. It’s as if the water in the rain-soaked ground first climbs the mountains as mist before becoming proper clouds.
My grandparents on my mother’s side claim to be descended from the McLeod clan, while my father’s family are Mackenzies and still bear that name. Both boast ancient ancestry in the Ross-Shire area of the Highlands. I guess that’s why I wanted this particular vacation package in the first place—I’m drawn to the history of the region, which is my family’s history too.
Though I can’t explain why, it feels like I’ve come home. Technically, that’s true, since Grammy willed me a property fifty-some miles east of here that’s run by a rental company.
I slip her letter out of my purse. The creases are soft and worn, showing that I’ve read it many times, trying to understand her message, although it’s still a mystery. I don’t know what she meant by “magic”—it seems more important than it sounds in the letter.
My father used to enjoy the old stories my mom’s parents told, but it was as if he was just going along with some kind of joke. My mom listened with a solemn expression, and an occasional worried look cast my way. I guess there’s enough in me that believes in the other-worldly type of magic not to dismiss the idea that things happen that can’t be explained.
One line pricks my curiosity. The magic of Scotland touches you deeper; we’ve known it since you were a wee girl. I’d have to say that my dreams since I’ve been in Scotland are certainly full of magic. I gaze out the window and wonder—is that what Grammy meant?
Toward the warped edge of my suite’s window, I see a man in an archaic kilt, the blue and green of it nearly black, wrapped, belted, and thrown over one shoulder. He’s sitting on a large boulder near the parking lot, looking over the lake. Okay, Josie was so right on this one. Hot men in kilts do just hang around in Scotland. Might be fun to meet a guy to kick up the happy factor in this vacation.
Although I’ve been divorced for nearly a year after a marriage that lasted almost a month, I haven’t really been interested in dating. It’s not that I’m bitter—far from it. Just disappointed. Even that has passed, and I can think on the good times Phillip and I had in college. Oh, I have dinner with friends or go to a movie, but no one has really caught my eye—until now—and I’m completely captured. I’d forgotten how good this feels.
Trying to be stealthy, I raise my phone in front of me and take his picture. He’s not close enough to really see, so I zoom in to take another. His shirt looks like plain linen stretched across his broad shoulders, and he has one knee bent with his leather-booted foot on the rock. I catch myself staring—I’ll bet he gets that a lot. I text the close-up to Josie with a note about the “beautiful sights” I’m enjoying.
Maybe Scottish Boyfriend is an actor in period costume. I hope that’s on the program for the hotel guests; I’d love to see what the culture was like here centuries ago. His eyes flick to my window as if he’s looking right at me. I dart behind the curtain. What am I doing? He can’t see me clear up here. He’s probably just looking at the castle.
Butterflies tumble through my middle. Wondering if I have time to talk with him—strictly about history, and take a quick selfie with him before the castle tour begins—I check the clock on the table snf turn back around, but he’s gone.
When I reach the lobby to wait for the tour, I notice that all the other guests have English accents. Maybe it’s just me, but everything they say sounds so smart.
“Oh, the castle’s full of Sassenachs today. Won’t the lairds be rollin’ in their graves?” Mrs. Fowler smiles warmly at me, her eyes curving into half-moons beneath the grayish-blond bangs of her bobbed haircut. “Let’s hope the chieftains stay there, too,” she whispers to me with a warning sound in her voice.
A shiver wiggles down my neck at her comment, and I immediately think of the man I saw on the rock, then shake my head. She’s setting us up for some grand spooking along the tour, and I’m intrigued enough to play along.
Mrs. Fowler begins telling us that the building housing our rooms is the main keep, built onto the castle in the late sixteenth century. The group trails along behind her, and from my position, her voice fades away. We stroll across the upper bailey, now planted with gardens around a central fountain.
I wonder about the soldiers or guards who walked here centuries ago, first through a gateway between two round towers, entering the lower bailey, then turn into the tower house. The original stronghold dates from the thirteenth century.
The compound looks different in the light of morning than it did at my arrival. The black and gray rocks of the night before have a reddish cast to the stone in the day. Rough-hewn rocks, as if they’ve tumbled together, sit one atop each other with thick mortar squeezed between them, creating the curtain wall surrounding the castle compound. The gate towers and the main keep were also quarried from the hillside they’ve guarded for centuries. Vines and shrubs climb the walls and grow through the most ancient parts of the ruins.
Through the gateway between the middle and lower bailey, where once a great oak gate provided a second defense against warring clans, the grass is waist high in contrast to the smooth, dusty courtyard I expected. Warriors have long since abandoned their daily training here, and the weeds have covered their footprints and eaten their history.
Grammy’s tarc, resting at the base of my neck, feels as though it vibrates with the energy of this place. It could be that my body is quivering with the excitement of finally being in Scotland after years of wondering and dreaming and imagining about it. But it feels like more.
It’s the tower house amid the grass that ignites my curiosity—the oldest part of the stronghold. It knows the whole history of this place. Its arched doorway is small and the passageway is tight. As my eyes adjust from the bright outside to the darkened hall, I press my palm to the rock walls to steady myself as I rise to the first tread of the staircase that spirals around the outer wall.
My thoughts snap to a different time—I clearly see men running up the staircase, the soft soles of their boots scratching along the worn, concave treads of rock. I quickly press myself against the wall to move out of their way, but when my hand leaves the stone, they disappear.
What just happened? My pulse is raging through my veins. I look around. No clues. Except—my hand? I study my palm. Ridiculous. But still…I press it to the cold rocks again.
The men reappear. Arrows rain down from windows set in the side of the wall above them. I want to run, but I force my hand harder against the rock wall. Men collapse, and others rush past the bleeding lads on the stairs which are quickly becoming red and slick. The acrid smell of blood fills the air. When my hands leave the wall to cover my eyes, the vision stops. It feels like a dream, easily fading when my eyes open again.
I sink to a squat. My breathing is rapid, and I blow out a deep breath to calm myself. Then I turn slowly and check the stairs. Nothing.
Nothing—if I don’t touch the wall.
This isn’t jet lag. I’m not ill. And I’m certain I’m not asleep. But I don’t know what it is. The word that seems closest is “memories.” I felt like I was living the action in front of me. But why?
I pull out my phone to take a picture, turning so the gruesome scene will be behind me. I touch the wall, and the dead men reappear. I hold back my gasp and take the picture. The bodies and blood are clearly visible in the photo. When I remove my hand and look again at the stairs again, the bodies are gone, yet remain in the picture.
Magic. I brush that thought away. Get a grip.
I don’t know what kind of trick that was, but it was better than any haunted house I’ve ever seen, and the evidence is still on my phone. My stomach flutters, and I press my hand there. I’ve had a fun scare, but it was just a trick of some sort. My tarc radiates warmth against my chest with a humming, comforting vibration.
The tour group is far ahead, up the stairs, and I hurry to catch them, passing five doorways into rooms along the way. Each time I touch the wall in the staircase to balance my climb, dread seizes me at the sounds of battles and a tumble of confused thoughts fills me. Ghosts run past or through me. Swords clash, slicing the air where I stand. Men roar in agonizing pain.
At the top of the tower, I step into the room where our group has gathered, hugging myself to control my shaking arms. This is far too real. A tight knot fills my chest, and I take deep breaths, telling myself to relax—everyone else is taking this in stride. They don’t seem hesitant to touch the walls or view the scenes.
Real doubt about them having the same experience as me settles in my gut. Why am I reacting this way?
The other tourists take turns looking through the windows over the curtain wall to the hillside on the south and Loch Maree to the north. An eastern window frames the distinctive peak of Slioch, like the blade of an axe pointing skyward. For some reason, in my memory, that seems wrong, like I should see that peak in the western horizon, not the eastern.
The stone walls are thicker than the length of my arm, but cut and stacked in patterns that define parts of the room. Larger rock, lighter in color, is used to trim the fireplace and doorways. The stones around the curved arch at the window radiate out into the rest of the wall. Wood beams cross the ceiling, rough cut and heavy. It’s a fortress—home to a fierce leader in savage times. Any romantic ideas that I’ve ever had of castles is fading fast.
The tour moves away slowly. When it’s my turn, I move forward to look about and lean against the stone wall, ready this time as again, a vision claims me. I stiffen and try not to be noticed.
Men on horseback, armored, with spears in their hands, race toward the tower. My heartbeat slams in my ribs, fear clenching deep in my stomach and my voice straining with a desire to call out for help. My clansmen are coming for me.
Cognizant that this scene isn’t real, I jerk away, and the army vanishes. I touch the wall once more and take several pictures out the window.
Whose eyes am I seeing through? I want to know her story.
I check the photos. The scenes are the same as my visions. The armies don’t disappear, even though I’m no longer touching the wall.
As the tour continues down the stairs, we enter each room. Thankfully, the artifacts are behind glass, out of my reach. I want to touch them and live their stories, which sounds crazy, even to me.
“Mrs. Fowler?” I ask, waving her to me. Maybe she can see what I see in the pictures too. I really don’t think everyone should see the gruesome photos I took. I hope she’ll give me a rational, scientific reason why this is happening.
When she stands by me, I turn my phone around. “What is this?” I ask, showing her the picture from the staircase.
She answers, but gives me a look like she’s wondering about my sanity. Me too. “That’s the staircase we just came down.”
I swallow hard. “This part,” I say, pointing to a corpse.
“Oh, I didn’t know what part you be pointin’ at. That stone staircase is original to the tower house, and has been used for seven hundred years. The foot traffic has worn smooth bowls into the treads where people have climbed up and down for centuries.” She smiles and turns to lead the tour away, but pauses and asks, “Is that what you meant?”
“Yes. Thank you.” My heart is pounding. Did she not see it, or just not say anything? I know it’s the first reason.
I look at the picture again. She doesn’t see the men, but I still do.
Hell’s bells, I’m crazy.
Part of my curse is to be a shadow, a specter, a ghost. Nay, I’m less than that. I’m blighted to see without being seen, and hear without being heard. There’s no hint of my human self still acknowledged by the laws of this earth, as if I’m apart, but tethered here still.
The bonny lass I saw in the window this morn, her hair touched by the rising sun and winking like a copper coin in the window, reminds me that I’m erased. She wouldnae see a cloud or even distorted light where I stand. I’m nothing but thought, and only that to myself. It almost makes me glad that I’m only awake ten days in a decade as part of my curse—I welcome the relief sleep brings from my torture.
She signed the guest registry as Gwen Mackenzie—I could forgive her the last name. After all, she didna choose it. What makes her come to the wilderness alone on holiday? I’m mesmerized by the way the sunlight turns strands of her red hair to gold. Or her green eyes like new leaves in spring. Or the bonny sprinkling of freckles across her nose. I could blather ’bout her beauty right to her ear, and she’d no’ hear it.
Och, what does it matter? I’m only awake ten days a time, and I’ve got five days left before I sleep for another decade. Each time I wake, the world seems turned on its head. Most mornings, I try to stand by guests who are reading the news or listen to their conversations in my attempt to move along with the future.
This wakening’s biggest change might be their phones. Last time, they just talked into them. Now their phones seem to hold everything known to mankind. Kings and presidents change. Wars start and end, of a sort. Dresses go from long to short to shorter—well, I donae mind that change verra much. My world is tacked to my memory, but these snippets stretch me forward to what is the now.
This morn like so many, I start at the loch, watching the trout snatch the midges from the smooth water. I guess if there be a silver lining, it’s that the midges cannae bite me, though I doubt I’d even mind—it would be something grand to feel again. I can rub my hand across the rock and my flesh isn’t scratched. I can wade into the water without my britches gettin’ heavy or my flesh cold.
I could press my lips against her cheek with no flash or thrill of recognition. Mayhap I’m not even alive to me. Living in this time of now is a haunting, where I see much and understand little, but my past is as bright as day to recall my sins and the people who died from my mistakes.
I glance toward Eilean Sùbhainn, the largest of Loch Maree’s islands. Sorcha must be awake out there now—she always is. Our fates are tied. It’s her magic that cursed me to this shade of life, and backfired to curse her along with me. I ask her every awakening to remove the curse, but she won’t.
After they break their fast, the guests tour the castle. I keep them in sight from where I sit on the battlement. They pass along the bailey, their shoes shuffling though the dirt without a pause where Lorne and my da were cast from the window. I haven’t woken once when I donae relive the hours that followed their deaths and I fairly ran to my cursing. Even now, the memory seems as if the day I was cursed is happening again.
“He’s wakin’ up,” someone says as I rock in the bed from being shoved to and fro.
My eyes crack open for a moment to see Struan’s bearded face. Was he captured too? My neck turns, sending spikes of pain through my head, and I squint. My throat feels as if it’s nearly closed off, but I’m able to croak one word. “Where?”
“In yer own bed,” my mother’s voice answers. “Struan thwarted yer capture. Ye’re home.” Her voice sounds thick with emotion. I want to look at her face, her eyes, but I canno’ keep my own open.
Swallowing against my dry throat, I manage a whisper. “The Mackenzies will pay for the blood they spilt. And I swear… I swear I will no’ stop until they are driven from the Highlands.”
My mother kisses my cheek. “Aye, son, they’ll pay.”
Whether awake or in a dream, I don’t know, but my boots sink in the bog, water puddling around the edges as it seeps up through the moss. I look up, finding myself on the edge of the druids’ ring. I know this place—’tis the island in a loch on an island in Loch Maree. I dare not step from the mire onto the dry ground inside that circle where, at the very center, a shaft of light forbids me looking straight at it.
The glare dims, revealing a woman with thick gray hair tied high on the back of her head, long ropes of hair hanging to her waist. Her eyes dark. Her nose aquiline above lips set in a determined line.
“I’m Sorcha, the last druid priestess of the ancient religion. Come.” Her arm beckons me, and I notice a softly draping wool cloak the color of her hair. Her outer coat is the hide of a black kine atop with the bull’s horns laying over her shoulders, the tips turned up like spikes.
The perfect circle of towering oaks completely blocks the view of anything outside this primeval holy site when I step from the shadow beneath their boughs into the full sun in the middle of the circle. “I’m—”
“McLeod. I know ye, and yer fathers before ye. This war ends. Stop now, and yer kin will be preserved.”
As if carried away by lightning, I’m back in my bed, awake in the middle of the night. My muscles burn and my breath is labored. I’m laird now, and I’ll protect this clan with my dying breath. And each man here feels the same, dream or druid or no’.
I don’t bow to the witch of my enemy.
[_We march on the Mackenzies before the morning fog lifts. Our men have caught them unawares, and I am able to slip into their main keep unnoticed—or so I thought. _]
The large wooden door swings shut, and the crossbar slams into place behind me. Warriors have me circled, the points of their blades aimed to run through my heart when the Mackenzie enters the great hall.
[_“Look, ’tis the wee Baron McLeod. Come ’bout yer marriage contract, have ye?” He glances to a group of women standing on the balcony leading to the second floor. _]
[_An older woman, maybe his wife, is flanked by two lassies, likely his daughters. I’m betrothed to the younger, though we haven’t kept company. I look closer at the lass. She has a bruise on her left cheek, and a swollen eye. The older woman has her arm protectively around the girl’s shoulders. _]
“The marriage contract is void. We’ll make no pact with a McLeod who steals what isn’t his yet.”
[_I don’t know what he accuses me of. _]
“Have ye nothin’ to say?”
The battered lassie raises her chin in the air and locks her eyes with mine, anger—nay, fury—evident on her face. She was the maiden they removed from our tower house.
“What’s the meaning of yer attack on Castle McLeod?” The sounds of the battle outside the door are fierce. Surely Struan is leading the attack and directing our men.
[_ The Mackenzie mocks me to his men. “Why did we attack? he asks.” He walks slowly toward me. His chin wrinkles with each clench of his teeth, and his eyes, hard with anger, pierce into mine. The warrior immediately before me moves to allow him to step into the circle. “Why?” His gloved fist connects with my nose, snapping my head back as his other fist stabs into my gut._]
I gasp to take my next breath. A sword behind me is now pressed against my back, and another’s cold point scratches my shoulder. The circle has tightened, and the hands of the warriors before me fidget with want of running their blades through me. I look again at the women to see if they have left before the men acted, but they haven’t. A slight smile tips the mother’s lips.
[_“Don’t look at her, dog!” _]
[_The laird’s dagger lays flat against my cheek, the force turning my head away. The sharp edge cuts a thin line. _]
“The McLeods had a contract to wed Isabel, but when their laird and yer brother, Lorne, abducted her, ye gave up yer claim on her.” His hot breath delivers the words, and spittle hits my face.
[_Abducted? My mind spins. Lorne? He abducted Isabel? _]
[_The pieces fall together, and my temper flares. I had been sent to retrieve the lads from school to ensure that I’d be out of the way because Lorne was abducting the bride promised as my own! Ours was a contracted marriage between infants, but that is the way of things. In the Highlands, abduction to obtain a bride is too. _]
Anger ripples through my chest and singes my regard for my father—Lorne stole from me and from the Mackenzies with my father’s blessing and treachery.
[_Her clan came for her. It wasn’t a war. In a heated flash of anger, I realize I had fought and killed for my father’s arrogance and my brother’s selfishness and betrayal. _]
The Mackenzies have a right to kill me. To kill us all. It’s what I’d do.
I’m pulled from my memories as the tourists begin leaving the tower house. I scan each person, but I don’t see the red-haired woman with them. The phrase [_nighean vek ruadh _]interrupts, as if saying it in my native Gaelic will pull her into my life. I’m drawn to her to be sure. I wonder what her voice sounds like, where she lives, what brought her to my loch. I wonder what it would be like to hold her small hand in mine, if I were no’ an apparition, and actually feel our palms warming together.
In the centuries past, I’ve not felt particular about one soul. Why her? Why now?
When she exits, she looks vulnerable with her arms folded across herself. I jump to my feet, moving toward her, a strange feeling to protect her propelling me from the battlement, but I stop, realizing I’m a gho—a man—in stasis. I’m not sure that’s any better. She hurries to catch up with her group in the gardens that have been planted in the middle bailey, and I return to watching the castle wall crumble with age.
After I shower and dry my hair, I send Josie a few non-gory pictures I took during the tour this morning. Check out the eye candy on the castle wall. #ScottishBoyfriend
She texts right back. More pictures. More. More.
Everyone’s asleep. It’s past midnight here.
Good. Sneak around. Go get pictures. I want to see everything. And what’s with #ScottishBoyfriend? I don’t get it.
On the sly that afternoon, I had taken a great picture of him sitting on the wall while I pretended to take a picture of the fountain—“hot as a goat’s knees in a pepper field,” as Josie would say. My eyes roam around the picture, noticing how his wavy auburn hair is brushed back from his face. His square jaw and three-day beard make him look both dangerous and delicious. I send that one to Josie with the same hashtag and a note that says I’ll send more soon. If she doesn’t get the hashtag yet, she will after I flood her inbox with swoon-worthy pics of him.
I look down at my yoga pants and cami—they’re fine. I’ll just claim to have been working out if anyone asks. They won’t. I snap a picture of my bed. The canopy goes nearly to the twelve-foot ceiling, ending in a wide crown molding carved with stags and hunters circling the top. The footboard and headboard are carved with hunting scenes as well. Each wooden post at the corners ascends in a twisting helical pattern. The ruffle around the canopy, the outer curtains, and the bed skirt are all made of the bold blue-and-green McLeod plaid. I send the picture, then walk out my door. But after closing it, I realize that I need a picture of it too. Click. The pointed-arch doorway looks old, with metal studs scattered across the front.
On the main level, I start in the dining room by snapping a picture of the elaborate table and heavy chairs that could easily seat thirty warriors at once, then I turn to capture the enormous fireplace where a whole boar would fit on the roasting spit. I step closer and cautiously touch the rock with just the tip of one finger. No vision.
When I look closer at the screen to check the picture, Scottish Boyfriend is walking by the doorway in the hall. His plaid is darker than what I see around the castle. The back of his kilt is folded along the black lines of the plaid, so the vertical green and blue lines only show when he moves. The horizontal blue is so dark it’s nearly black also and only really shows in the green folds. Regency-era romance novels talk about a well-turned ankle, but I’ve seen evidence that it’s not just his ankle that turned out well.
I’ve been in awe of the building, but I haven’t taken many pictures before now. It’s so much more magical when I’m the only person there—well, almost the only one. The walls of what I learned today was the main keep’s grand hall are red, in contrast to the ornate bright white moldings around the doorways, windows, and next to the ceiling and floor. The room is massive, easily the size of two tennis courts.
Scottish Boyfriend is standing near the far wall, examining the portraits of nobles that hang side by side. My heartbeat kicks up a bit. This would be a good time to chat, since we appear to be the only ones still up. I make a quick plan to walk toward him casually as I continue to take selfies and pics. Yes, I’m being obvious. He can’t miss me taking no fewer than ten pictures that just happen to include him in the background.
I’m looking for my next shot when Mrs. Fowler comes in. “Hello, Gwen.”
“Not tuckered out from our tour today?” she asks, walking over to me.
I look toward Scottish Boyfriend again to see that he’s only moved one picture over. Hopefully, he’ll hang out at least until he meets me. To Mrs. Fowler, I say, “I wanted some pictures of the castle and the great hall to help me remember my stay. This seems like the best time to do that and not bother the other guests.” My eyes wander back to Hot Scot. He sure has the legs for a skirt. How did that go out of style?
“There are some right nice pieces in this room,” she says.
Yes, there certainly are! I’m sure she’s referring to the furniture, but I’m not.
She tucks my arm through hers, and we move over to a lamp. Just before I take a picture, Scottish Boyfriend turns toward us and smiles. My breath catches, and it takes incredible concentration not to react to him and tip off Mrs. Fowler until I know if employees can fraternize with guests. Oh, I hope we fraternize.
His eyes look mischievous. I adjust the phone to take in more of him and a bit of the lamp, which I’ll crop out later. She leads me to other furniture pieces, and each time, Scottish Boyfriend moves to be included in the picture, striking outrageous poses and making ridiculous faces. Twice, I have to cover a laugh with a cough. How does Mrs. Fowler ignore his antics? She must be used to him.
I believe we’re far enough from where he’s standing, but I still whisper, “Who is he?”
Mrs. Fowler follows my quick glance and overtly points at the wall. “Him?” Well, that’s not subtle at all, and her voice is much too loud. “He’s Kenneth Mackenzie of Garlock. He was a baron in the area in the mid-1600s. The paintin’ is very precious to the estate, though there is some doubt about whether it’s an original.” She leans over as if to whisper a secret. “Which means the claim of being original is daft.”
I’m thankful that she mistook my question to be about the man in the portrait instead of the man beside it, allowing me a bit less humiliation.
“Do you have a picture of the ceilin’ yet?” she asks.
I look up. An elaborate coffered ceiling spans the entire distance. It’s stunning, but I’m done with the photo shoot. I click a fast picture and fake a yawn.
“Thanks so much. I hate to keep you up.” Then I look at the clock on my phone. “Well, it’s getting late.” I sit on the edge of a sofa. “I’ll just check my email, then go to bed. Goodnight.”
“Yes, it is late, and I’m fair tuckered myself. Goodnight. I’ll see you in the morning.” She takes her time leaving the room. While I wait, I update Josie with a few more pictures and use the same hashtag.
She responds right back. What’s with the hashtag? Did you send the right pic? There’s no one in it.
Flipping through my gallery, Hot Scot’s clearly the center of most of the photos. I’ll answer her when I get back to my room. I walk to within a few feet of Scottish Boyfriend, still standing by the portraits.
“I’m going to take a picture of the old baron here. Would you like to photobomb? I’ll wait while you prepare.”
He just stares at me with a terrified expression, as if I’m a ghost. He hasn’t left, so I try again with a more formal approach. I hold out my hand toward him. “My name is Gwen. I’m a guest here.”
Instead of shaking it, he stares at it a moment too long, and just before I withdraw it and run up the three flights of stairs to hide in my suite for the rest of my vacation, he takes my hand in his and simply holds it, my fingers on top of his.
Heat crawls up my arm. His thumb rubs across my fingertips, sending sparks through my body. He studies my hand as if mesmerized. I can hardly breathe at the intimacy, or at the romance of his movement, or when his dark eyes lift searchingly into mine. His silent caress shatters into an electric thrill ricocheting through my chest. Continuing to look me in the eye, he bends over my hand, taking at least a thousand years, lifting it to his lips. Oh, that’s freakin’ amazing.
The rich timbre of his voice finally answers, “My name is Niall. I’m pleased to have you visit my home.” His smile broadens, and his eyes dance with mirth, radiating such joy. I feel as if I’ve put it there. He’s completed the introduction, but hasn’t released my hand, and I’m very disinclined to remove it.
Her hand—small and warm and soft in mine. If the brightness of the sun could be held, this is what it would feel like. Charges race up my arm, sparking life throughout my body.
“This is your home?” Gwen asks.
My chest, so full of emotion, is near to burst—I’ve not been seen or heard in centuries. “Yes, I’ve lived here my whole life,” I answer. Could I ever tire of hearing her voice? Nay, it’s near an insatiable craving for me. What magic brought her here? And why the now? Who is she? “I donae recognize yer accent.” I lead her back to the sofa she perched on when she dismissed Mrs. Fowler, and sit beside her.
“I’m American, but that’s not what you hear. My stompin’ grounds are in the South—Georgia, to be exact, so I’m as Southern as buttered grits. Are you related to the Mackenzies who owned this castle? I’m sorry I don’t know the history all that well. It’s called Castle McLeod, but it was owned by the Mackenzies, right? It’s a little confusing.”
“My name is Niall McLeod.” My pride swells to be able to say that aloud.
“Nial McLeod.” Though Gwen whispers my name, it pierces me, and I feel real again.
Emotion clogs my throat momentarily before I can continue. “The original owners were Clan McLeod. While it’s true that the Mackenzies were given the castle and all the land around Loch Maree more than five hundred years ago, the McLeods never really left.” At least, I didnae. I want to learn more about her and ask, “Why holiday here?”
“My mother’s people were McLeod, and my father’s, Mackenzie. This place brings both parts of my family together in history. My grandmother left me the family estate near Inverness after she passed, and I’d always hoped to see it. A management company takes care of it, but I’m going by there before I leave the country.”
McLeod and Mackenzie—together in this one appealing woman. It’s probably happened hundreds of times over the centuries, but with her, everything in my existence has changed. Why now? Why her? She looks about the room like she’s buying time afore she continues her answer. Whenever she moves her head, her hair flips, and a sweet smell drifts by me.
“That’s not really the answer—not the whole answer.” Gwen looks at me and quickly away, but then she pushes back in the sofa like she’s planning to stay a while. “The truth is, when I decided to come to Scotland, Loch Maree was all I could think about. It just felt like there was something here for me.”
Her mother may have descended from Clan McLeod, but I’m willing to wager Gwen’s of druid blood for sure. No one has looked at me in hundreds of years. Though I donae ken how she could change things for me, it feels like she might. I’m talking to her, so it already has.
I find myself leaning forward, searching her eyes. What is she thinking about me and this place? Mayhap it means the curse be running out. Or she might be able to break it. Am I different now, or is she?
Gwen continues, “Tell me about you.”
Her request snaps me out of my thoughts. What could I tell her that she would believe? Might be best to start with the truth and see how she takes it. In for a penny, in for a pound.
“Do ye wonder why Mrs. Fowler didnae tell ye my name?” A blush rises in her cheeks. Mayhap it stems from embarrassment that I heard that part of their conversation. “Aye, I heard ye ask.” A verra bonny blush indeed. “It’s because she didnae see me.”
“How could she not have noticed, with the stunts you were pulling?”
The laugh in her voice resonates in my chest, and I want to say something to make her laugh again. Instead, I just nod toward her and allow her time to consider. Half a minute ticks by, and Gwen’s forehead creases slightly between her eyebrows. She pushes away a bit and pulls her hand from mine, sliding into the corner of the sofa.
“She didn’t react to anything you did,” she says, talking more to herself than me. “She didn’t see you. And I sent Josie pictures, and she didn’t see you either. And no one on the tour looked your way, though you sat clear as day on the wall. And…” Gwen stands, then paces without finishing her sentence.
At least she hasnae run from me, but to be sure, I’d let her go. I have less than half a life. What would I bring to her but sorrow? I have no future to share with either friend or lover.
She’s walking away from me in her pacing, then pivots, spearing me with her eyes, and finishes. “And I can.”
Gwen sits aside me again and reaches for my hand. “I can see you and feel you.” Her palm rubs a circle over mine, and she squeezes. “And hear you.” She leans verra near, placing her hand on my cheek, and my heart fairly stops beating. Her cheek is near enough for her warmth to be felt on mine. She inhales and softly exhales, the air caressing my skin. “And you smell like rain.”
I want to do something that for certain would send her running, so I try to banish from my mind the image of holding her and kissing her.
She leans back and asks, “Why? Why me and no one else?”
“I cannae figure it out myself.” Her slightest movement draws my attention. The negligible friction of our legs along side each other’s—like a caress. Her weight shifting on the sofa’s cushion—like gravity pullin’ me closer. When she turns—the curls of her hair that sway and bounce like grass in the breeze.
She lowers her gaze thoughtfully. “Are you a ghost?” Her voice is soft and hesitant.
Is this when she will run? “No, I didnae die—I’m in stasis.”
“What happened?” She’s bolder now, looking me in the eye, waiting for a reason she can believe.
I stare at the intricate wool rug beneath our feet to take a moment to collect my thoughts and decide what to reveal. Caution warns me to soften the truth of it, but in the end, I tell her the whole story, including my mistakes, through the time of my father’s death.
“Wait. I want you to see this.” She seems reluctant, but hands me her phone, and I see more than a few pictures of myself around the castle. Mayhap she’s as drawn to me as I am to her. I’ve lived within a magic cage for centuries with little hope of leaving, but with her able to cross those enchanted bars also, my burden of loneliness is lighter, and my heart soars.
I look from her phone to her face—aye, she’s a beauty—and wink.
The pink is back to her cheeks. “Um, yeah, I have a few shots of you.”
Her rosy tint is a wee bit distracting. I enjoy the feeling of having caused her to blush.
“Do you know what this is?” Gwen pushes several photos across the screen, then turns it toward me.
“’Tis the stairs in the tower house.”
She pulls my hand up to wrap around the back of hers as we hold the phone together. When we do, the photo changes.
Our men lay lifeless on the stone staircase. My mouth drops open as shock flies through me. I hadn’t made it to the tower during that battle. And although I knew who died, I hadnae seen the carnage until now. My throat feels thick, and my eyes sting.
“Aye.” My voice is just a whisper, for I knew each one of them well. “Those be my kin who died in the battle when Isabel was rescued.” My chest squeezes with fresh ache at the loss.
“No one else can see them in the pictures, but I don’t need the phone to see the past. When I put my hand on the rock of the castle wall, I can see what happened there, but it seems like I only see things that matter to you. I didn’t see anything when I touched the walls here in the main keep, but then, you didn’t live here, did you?”
“Nay, this was built after my curse.” Although I’ve been here on occasion, tonight is the first time I’ve felt alive in centuries. It’s the joy and the pain I be feelin’ that is life.
“How did it happen? The curse, I mean.” I don’t answer right away, and she adds, “Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that question. It sounds so invasive. Really, though, I feel like I’ve known you for years.”
I feel the same, a deep connection though my life was set about so differently than hers. Her life turns by choices, not arrangements. It was not unusual for a marriage to be arranged in my time—sometimes a man could only hope for peace at home. With Gwen, there may have been more. But she is no’ a part of that.
“The Mackenzie captured me when the McLeods came against them. Our clan was beaten back, and I was locked in a room in the tower.” Relief swells within me to be able to talk to another person, to tell my history. Gauging her interest, I continue. “Several days later, the Mackenzie came to talk with me, and Sorcha, a druid witch, appeared. She warned us that the only way to protect the Highlands was to stop the clan wars.”
“I wanted peace, but in the end, it didnae matter. We both agreed to heal the clans—it’s hard not to when a magical crone appears in a shower of light like she did. When I told the Makenzie of my father and brother’s treachery against me in Isabel’s abduction, we settled that the marriage would proceed. That would be best for the clans.
“I was released to return to Castle McLeod to tell of the agreement. But when I called the council together, they wouldnae listen. By the deaths of my father and brother, I had the right to claim the lairdship. But no laird rules because of birthright alone. If the clan doesnae agree, there is no power. It was Mackenzie blood they wanted, and they be determined to have it. A bloody battle nearly killed our clan, and I was sent into stasis.
“Two years later, in 1494, by charter of the crown, this whole area of Gairloch was granted to Hector Roy Mackenzie, and every last McLeod was driven out by threat of fire or sword.”
Gwen’s hands hold mine, making me feel human again. The touch of another person stills my suffering a bit. “Sorcha was true to her word. I didnae stop the war, and she cursed me to watch the centuries that followed. I’m awake ten days in each decade. The rest of the days, I sleep without dreams or aging. Had the McLeods and Mackenzies, the two largest, fiercest clans of the Highlands, not fought bitter battles, all of history might have been changed. Retaliation went on for years and weakened the Scots until the English were able to eat our country whole.”
I finally look into Gwen’s face and see what I hope is compassion. “My rash decisions cost my kin and countrymen their homeland. I rushed to war and blood without finding out why the Mackenzies had attacked. If I’d looked into their cause, I’d’ve found it was just. I think my punishment might be too.”
Her hand cups my face, and she presses her cheek to mine for a long moment. Her breath and words whisper along my skin. “I can see how it might look like that to you, but you’ve only seen a few days from every decade. A lot more happened that you didn’t know about, and in places other than Ross-Shire.”
Gratitude for this small, kind woman overwhelms me. My arms circle her, pulling her against my chest. She lays her hands again atop mine and leans into me. “Thank you for trusting me,” she whispers softly.
We sit in silence. At any moment, I expect her to jump from the sofa, leaving me and this castle and maybe all of Scotland. What is she thinking, and why would she accept such a daft story as mine? I marvel at how right she feels next to me. I count the time by breathing the perfume of her hair and her gentle sighs as sleep takes her.
I wake in my room, not knowing how I got here or when. Surely everything I remember about last night really happened. I couldn’t have dreamed that, although my dreams have been unusual since being here, filled with images from an island, or an old woman with magic clinging to her, and more than one battle sequence that has a huge possibility of having happened in the past.
My dreams are now clear. Before last night, they’ve been foggy. I couldn’t see the faces clearly. But now I do—it’s Niall in the dream. It has been all along. I haven’t met the old woman in the dream yet, but last night he put a name to her—Sorcha.
After I shower and dress, I send more pictures to Josie, changing the hashtag to #lovingScotland this time. Maybe I can explain later about thinking she would see Niall in the pictures I sent—but not now. Of course, later I would look just as crazy.
I check out my window to see if Niall is on the rock, and I’m disappointed that he’s not. When I step into the hall for my breakfast tray, he’s sitting against the wall. I gasp, then realizing who it is, I giggle and immediately think, Not a dream—just dreamy.
“Care for company?” he asks.
“Yes—yours.” I leave the door open, and he follows me to the alcove where I set the tray down on a small table. I pull another chair beside mine for him so we can both look out at the loch. “Did I have to leave the door open, or could you have just walked in?” My voice sounds more serious than the tone I was going for, but I smile his way.
“Doors donae stop me.”
“Is that how I got back to my room last night?”
“No. Doors stop ye.”
“So how did you bring me to bed—I mean, back here last night?”
A sparkle of mischief gleams in his eye while he answers. “I carried ye, then used my hand around yers to open yer door.”
I really can’t explore that too much, not now, with him looking at me. My whole body flashes with heat, imagining being in his arms. I sorta wish I’d been feigning sleep like I did as a child so my dad would have to carry me from the car to the house. I mentally shake my head and try to concentrate on my breakfast.
I’m becoming quite the fan of clotted cream that makes the simple scones taste like dessert for breakfast. “Do you …?” I stop before finishing my question, but I look at the scone in my hand and raise it toward him. I haven’t started eating because it feels weird to eat in front of someone like this.
“No. I confess it’s one of the things I miss most about the curse. I don’t need food, and though I’ve tried to taste berries on a bush, they’re nothing to my mouth.”
Now maybe he isn’t trying to be suggestive, but I’m willing all the same—he can fish in my pond any time. I can’t help but tie together his ability to feel me and nothing else.
I swallow a few sips of the orange juice, making sure my lips will carry the flavor. Then I lean toward him, my heart beating madly, shifting my glance between his eyes and lips. Surprise registers on his face, but I can see he’s not going to pass up this offer and meets me halfway. The heat in his gaze sends warmth streaking through me.
His lips are softer than I expected, and move against mine tentatively. When I reach for his neck, his arm curls around my waist and pulls me to stand with him, eagerly slanting his lips across mine, firmer this time. Desire burns through my chest when I hear him sigh deep within his throat. I don’t think he’s just enjoying the OJ anymore, and honestly, his urgency robs me of coherent thought.
He leans his forehead against mine and seems as equally out of breath as I feel. In a husky voice, he says, “Even without the juice, yer lips…” He doesn’t finish, though, and kisses me again, twisting a lock of my hair in his right hand.
When we finally break apart, he pulls away and looks down. He rakes his hand through his hair, and I notice his neck and face is pink when he says, “With a kiss like that, I’d be expected to visit yer da or prepare to be handfasted. Or be used as target practice.”
One kiss, no matter how stunning—and it was!—is not grounds for planning a future together. “I guess there’s a big cultural difference between us.” And there’s that part about him not being kissed for five hundred years.
“We could spend some time together and compare yer time to mine. Mayhap you’d like a tour of my home today.”
“I would. I’d like to hear the real stories about this place.” And spend the day with you.
“Break yer fast, then meet me at the loch.”
I nod. He disappears, like that, gone. I have to sit. I know his life is different from mine, but I’m so comfortable around him, it hadn’t mattered. This might be the first time I begin to realize the scope of our differences.
Minutes later when I look outside, Niall is sitting on the same rock as yesterday, but it’s not the same. Yesterday, I thought he was like me. Now that I know he’s incorporeal, I see the subtle differences. His auburn hair falls in waves to his shoulders and doesn’t move with the breeze, though the trees and grasses do. He’s gazing over the water, but he seems to sit straighter. This time when he sees me in the window, his smile closes the distance and strikes me breathless.
As I walk through the lobby, Mrs. Fowler stops me with a knowing look. “Did you sleep well last night?” Her voice is high-pitched with that question, like she’s nudging me to tell the truth.
I don’t want to guess at what she’s insinuating or why she’s asking, so I respond that I did and try to walk away, but she reaches for my wrist, and I stop.
“Did you meet any other guests last night? After I left? Anyone interestin’?” Before I can think up a response, she says, “Oh, you might have, but you’ll not be tellin’. Not that I blame you.” She gives me another knowing look. “We’ll visit the old castle today. Do you suppose we’ll see a ghost?” When I don’t answer, because seriously, I might, she continues. “Just to be safe, best keep your bonny necklace in place.”
She nods several times to convince me, then reminds me of my excursion to the largest island, Eilean Sùbhainn, after dinner today, which to me is lunch. I leave the main keep—I’ll have to see if I’m keeping that on my agenda for today or not.
I pass through the village gate of the upper keep and hurry to the parking lot. Niall meets me and takes my hand. A shock races up my arm, and I take a breath to pull it together. This is the best part of dating someone new—every touch is exciting.
“What’s the plan?” I ask. “Maybe we could start at your rock, and you could tell me what you look at each morning.”
He sits, and pulls me in front of him to sit as well. The wind off the lake is brisk and cool. I can’t help the shiver I feel from both those things until he pulls the plaid from around his back and wraps it around me, his arms holding it in place. If we do nothing else today, I’d say it’s been a great day.
Niall leans over my shoulder and says, “The loch is named for Saint Ma’ Ruibhe, who came here in the seventh century.” The burr in his voice is stronger today, or it might be that I hear it clearer for being whispered in my ear. I lay against his chest, my head leaning back on his shoulder. “He built a refuge on one of the islands. He thought to banish the old religion. He thought to convince the people that there is no magic.”
I imagine I hear a cynical edge to his words and tip my chin a bit to look into his eyes. They’re hard. “It didn’t work—I mean, here we are,” I say, and he responds by tightening the plaid around us. It feels like a quick hug. “Tell me about the island.”
“He settled on the small island past the largest one. He missed the mark. See that rise of trees over there?” I look down his extended arm. “That is an island in a loch. That’s nothing special, but that island also has a loch within it and another island in that loch. On that wee island is a druid ring—the seat of the old religion.”
It isn’t the breeze that chills me now, but a cold river in my blood that leaks outward—I’ve seen that place in my dreams. I’ve stepped on the dirt where nothing grows, and stood in the center of the ring as a curtain of light surrounded me, the small round rocks and towering oaks lining the edges. I’ve felt both death and life there.
I stand and turn to face him, stepping out of his plaid. “I’m going there—at least to that island—after lunch. It’s the excursion for today.”
“They’ll not show ye the druid ring. Even they know enough not to desecrate the place.”
Excitement builds in my chest—I can’t help feel that place is the reason I came to Scotland. At first, I thought I had to see the property I’ve been given. But if that were really the case, I’d have stayed in Inverness, not two hours away. “Come with me. Show me the ring.”
“Aye, I’ll go with you.”
He takes my hand, and a warm glow fills me. I feel at peace with him so close.
“Come. I’ve promised to show ye around today.”
The castle is rugged rock with jagged lines of turrets and towers and the notched edges of the parapets where archers could hide and shoot. I feel memories trapped in the mason walls reaching out for my hand.
We walk around the grounds, and he tells me about the cattle, goats, and clan members who would have lived around its perimeter. I touch a wall and hear the bleating goats or see a maid milking a cow.
When we reach the entrance to the tower house, I’m hesitant to go in, but Niall takes my hand and leads me away from the staircase into a hallway at the right. He stops beside a parlor with stained-glass windows in the doors. “Watch this.” His dark eyebrows arch mischievously as he pulls a knife from his boot, then flings it toward the window.
I gasp, but instead of shattering the glass, it passes through.
Niall laughs. “I’ll have to retrieve that.” Then he walks through the same window and returns with the knife.
I punch his arm. “Don’t do that. You scared the crud out of me.” The window is beautiful, and I pull him beside me to take another selfie.
“Come here. I want ye to meet my parents.” He holds my hand, leading the way into a large round room. The stone walls are flat except for a floor-to-ceiling cross made out of stone laid to set back in the wall.
“Oh, are they in stasis too? Were you all cursed?”
“No, they’re dead.” I know how his father died, or at least, where. I doubt I could ever forget it. But I don’t know anything about his mom. He doesn’t offer a story, and I decide not to ask. “They’re buried here.”
We stand there silently for a couple of minutes, the air heavy with heartbreak. When I touch the wall, chanting and music fill my mind, along with the cloying smell of incense.
“This was our chapel.” He leads me to a wall that looks newer than the rest of the room. A huge stone is set in what looks like it used to be an opening. His voice barely a whisper, he says, “We entombed my father here. My mother died just weeks after my curse and was laid to rest with him.” His expression is bleak with sorrow. “The next year, the McLeods were driven from this land, and were gone before my first wakening nine years later. By then, the Mackenzies were building the main keep.” His shoulders slump forward, and he adds, his voice thick with emotion, “Everyone I knew, their lives were leaping from them with each of my awakenings. Then they were gone.”
We walk silently back outside. “I’ve another place to show ye.”
When he said the falls were a short walk away, I thought he meant a short walk, like when you walk from one end of the mall to the other, or even from your seat in the stadium back to your car at the far end of the lot after a football game. He means two miles. Doesn’t he know about cars, and that I actually have one—right outside the castle?
This area of the Highlands is filled with walking trails. It’s the reason tourists come here—to enjoy nature acting natural. It isn’t lost on me that this was how he lived—he walked or rode through shrubs and forests. This is a rough place, with large boulders everywhere I look. There are boulders in the loch, beside the roads, and even the nearby mountains look like massively huge boulders.
He laces his fingers with mine as he walks toward the woods, and I turn him sharply back to the parking lot. “Yeah, we’re going to drive.” A four-hour hike isn’t really very vacationish—I’m definitely driving. I turn onto the narrow road, consciously reminding myself to drive on the wrong side.
He asks, “Tell me about yer family. You said ye have kin in Scotland.”
“Both sets of grandparents grew up in Scotland, but moved their families to Georgia after they married. Both of my parents were born in the US. They met and married, and I was born. I don’t have siblings, so there isn’t much more to tell.” I put the car in park, and we hop out.
“Is this yer first holiday to Scotland?” He guides me toward the trail.
“No, I came here when I was about six with my parents and my mom’s parents. We went to Inverness to see Grandma’s ancestral home. I don’t remember much about the house, but I remember my parents being worried about me and taking me home earlier than they had planned. Years later, Mom told me that right from my first night there, I had terrible nightmares and would wake up crying about an old witch, and …” How crazy is this next part going to make me sound? But seriously, I’m talking to a man who was born in the fifteenth century, so my sanity is questionable already. “…about an old witch, and a man who lives by a lake who is lost, and only I can help him.” I don’t have to look at him to know this revelation is a big deal to him because he stops walking.
He pulls me off the trail, guiding us behind a large boulder to sit on the flattened side.
“How old are ye now?
“So ye had these dreams twenty years ago. I might’ve been awake then.”
“That’s what I’ve been thinking too. How did I know? What told me you were here and needed my help?”
“’Tis a wonder, truly. Was there more?”
So much more! “They said that I would wake at night and start walking west ‘to find the man.’ Mom tethered me to her using the tie from her housecoat so she would wake up when I started to leave. I would repeat, ‘The stones are stacked on the mountain,’ and pull at my mother’s arm as if that explained why I had to go. The dreams faded when I left Scotland, but they came back the first night I slept here.”
He caught right on. “So ye dream about me?” His lips curve into a devastating grin.
Oh, I love that look on him! And yes, yes, I do dream about him, and not just about the curse, either. I like the way he smiles with his eyes. Or the way he walks, matching his gait to mine. And the easy way he teases me. It’s comfortable with him, but it might be best if I just go on with my story.
“Sometimes Grammy and Mom would whisper about druids when they thought I wasn’t listening. Or Grammy would tell me about the old religion. When I was sixteen, I begged Grandma to bring me back to Scotland, but she wouldn’t. Now I know, it was probably the last time you were awake.”
He nods, and I continue. “And just a year ago, Grandma talked to me about magic and curses. I don’t believe in magic the way she did, though.”
“No? Ye donae believe in magic? While talking to me, with a powerful druid circlet about yer neck?” Niall’s finger pushes under the choker—it’s like fireworks light up my chest—then lifts the necklace away from my skin. “I ken there’s more to the universe than I was told in mass. I can no’ deny it—talking to ye, feeling yer hair…ye’re real, and I’m real to ye too. Aye. I can believe in magic.”
Niall winds a lock of my hair around his finger. When I lean my head into his palm, my eyes close. Just the faintest kiss brushes my lips, but only one. When I tip my chin up, Niall has moved farther away. I want to close the distance, but he looks deep in thought.
“I didn’t realize the dreams or magic were an ongoing part of my life until last night—I finally got it. You were the man in those dreams, and there’s a bigger reason why I’m here.” This is all so much bigger than me. How would the women in my ancestry know to guide the ownership of the tarc or the home in Inverness to me? It’s a little overwhelming to have the fate of another person in my hands, but I haven’t arrived here by chance.
“Aye. Seems so.”
We hike down a gully and onto a whitewashed footbridge without talking. Cascading water of silver ribbons bubbles down the rocky cliff and under the tree branches. “Did it look like this during your life?”
Niall shakes his head. “No, there was a dense forest on most of the land all about here. Over the centuries, I’ve awakened to my world vanishing bit by bit.”
His voice stirs deep within me, touching dreams and magic and memories from before my life began. I’m part of this place. When we turn to walk back to the car, a woman, the witch from my dreams with long, gray dreads and magic dripping from her, is standing on the bridge. Does she know I can see her? Probably, since she looks into my eyes. Irritation rises in my chest at the sight of her. She caused Niall to lose so much.
Niall pulls me under his arm and asks her, “Will ye release my curse, Sorcha?”
She rolls her head back and laughs. “Nay, but ye hold the hand that might.” Then, turning back to me, she adds, “When ye need my help, and ye will, burn stalks of the cotton thistle.” She point to a spiny plant nearly as tall as I am. “I’ll come to ye.” Her mirthless black eyes watch me.
The hair on the back of my neck rises in panic. I know she’s right—the dreams have prepared me for this. I wish something evil caused my reaction to her words, but instead, it’s that my very soul recognizes it as a simple truth. “Why would you help me?”
“If he gets out, I might get out too.” Sorcha smirks, then disappears in a flash of white light.
My outward self is projecting calm, but my inward self feels like it’s tumbling over the rocks in the falls.
Bagpipes call the guests to the mid-day meal, Gwen among them. I sit along the shoreline, thinking about the changes hurrying forward for hundreds of years. I hunted these hills and forests, and feel a keen loss at the view of it all. The hills and slopes still look like the craggy fortress of my home of ages ago, but the forests are gone, stripped to their bones.
Where once stood alders and oaks, now there’s only grass and heather. Where once we trapped beaver or hunted deer or boars, now there be a few hares. The bears and wolves, like the McLeods, are gone. I have four days left to look upon this. Who kens what will be here the next time I come.
A few tourists skitter across the rocky shore and pile into boats. I stow away beside Gwen, sitting on the side of the boat beside her bench. Though I could meet her on Eilean Sùbhainn, I will no’ pass up a minute or five at her side.
I lean over and pinch softly between her shoulder and neck. She gives a small smile, but shoves down a giggle and rolls her shoulder back. “Ye’re ticklish. What else can I learn about you? Do ye favor yer right hand or yer left?”
Gwen picks up her phone in her right hand and takes another selfie over her shoulder with me sitting on the side of the boat behind her. “Right hand. What work do ye do?”
“I’m a lawyer,” she replies above the sound of the motor. The woman next to her looks startled, and I nod my head so Gwen will look that way. She blushes and turns toward the woman. “I’m a lawyer. What do you do?”
I laugh as she chats with her seatmate. When they fall silent and Gwen glares at me, I say, “She seems right nice.”
She throws her hair over her shoulder by turning her head to answer no. She’s sly in the rest of her answers, and the other passengers in the boat don’t catch on to our conversation.
When we go ashore on the island, I lead her away from the group along the rugged shore. “As a boy, I thought these rocks looked like a giant’s toes dipping into the cool water.” She stumbles beside me to keep up, and I stop. “Sorry, lass. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to walk in this place.”
The ground is either a mass of moss pillows as high as yer knee, or ’tis a bog with springy heather between, stitching the two together. “Stay atop the moss if ye can. The bog will wet yer ankles and suck yer boots from yer feet.” I bend down and point to a plant near her feet. “’Tis bog myrtle. Pull the leaves and rub them on yer skin. The midges donae like it, and they’ll stop bothering ye.”
It isn’t far to the loch within this island, then I carry her over the water to a wee island to see the druid ring. Whether ’tis the magic or no, she’s light in my arms, a wee slip of a woman.
“I know this place.” Excitement rings in her voice.
This is where her magic would be strongest. Mayhap it’s where she’ll end my curse.
A dense ring of Caledonian pine, their straight brown trunks disappearing into the umbrella-like canopy above us, shield the perfect inner circle of oaks filled with barren, dry dirt where not a single grass or shrub grows. Small white stones complete the circle between each tree.
Gwen steps forward. I don’t know what will happen when the curse is broken, but from my only experience when Sorcha cursed me, the price of the magic she used drew her into the curse as well. It seems as likely that when Gwen releases the curse, the price the magic will demand is her life. She could be trapped in stasis if Sorcha and I are freed.
I pull her back against me and wrap my arms around her.
“This is it,” she whispers more to herself than me, then looks at me over her shoulder. “This is the place my dreams always take me. I stand there, in the center. I’ve seen it a dozen times—me lifting a quaich of oxblood as bright light surrounds me. I pour it on the ground, and a rowan tree grows. Berries the color of blood bunch along the edge of the limbs. I wrap the trunk in a McLeod tartan, and when the berries turn white, I cut the branch from the tree with a battle axe, and you eat the berries.”
“The price of magic is always too high.” Gwen doesn’t look my way or acknowledge what I’ve said. “Ye cannae do this.”
“I can, if I get oxblood, a quaich, a battle axe, and an ancient tartan.” She eyes the plaid I’m wearing. “Yours is different from the plaid that decorates my bedroom.”
“Aye, the castle is decorated in a modern make.”
“I’ll need yours, then.” Gwen turns as if we are leaving the island now and says, “Niall, I can do it. In fact, I think I’m supposed to. Why else would I dream all this?”
Even my imagination isn’t this good, to know the exact details of the island on an island. The trees. The white stones between them. Even the holly in the boughs.
“Ye donae ken, lassie. The magic might free me, but it will claim ye. Even a druid priestess couldnae control the outcome of the spell. Could ye live without touch? Or never taste or smell again? It’s a verra particular torture, and I bless the sleep between my awakenings. I will no’ let ye do it.”
We walk back to the boat in silence, my mind tangled with options. We climb aboard and return to the castle. How could I abandon him to continue like this when I might set him free? My dreams have always stopped before the outcome of the ceremony. I’ve seen the place, and Sorcha, and even done the ritual many times in my dreams. But I don’t know what comes after—it always ends in a flash of light.
That might be the end if there’s nothing more for me afterward, but I can’t believe that. Maybe the dark magic of putting someone in stasis requires a life payment, but freeing someone is just releasing the wrong that’s already happened. I have to believe I’m meant to do this, and it will all be fine.
“Niall, I don’t know what choice to make. I’ll think about it.” And in my dreams, perform the ritual several times again tonight. Now that I know him, I don’t think I’d be able to live with my conscience, knowing I just walked away.
The bagpipes announce supper, and I kiss Niall’s cheek and turn to leave. “I won’t come out to see you tonight. I need to make my choice. Maybe I’ll think differently when I’m not looking into your eyes.”
Niall rakes his hand through his hair. He doesn’t say anything, his eyes full of words, and he swallows hard like he’s holding back emotion. His arms surround me, pulling me close, and I wrap him tightly in mine. We both know that with or without the ceremony, we only have three more days together—either the ritual will be completed or his awakening will end. Ice spreads through my chest knowing that we could be forced apart very soon.
I stand on my toes and slant my lips across his. I kiss him with a hope for his future and desire for him in my life, and trust that the universe is fair and good. His lips are strong and hard, pushing passion through his kiss, making me swoon. I didn’t know that was a real thing until now, and I feel dizzy.
He hugs me to his chest, and his voice rumbles in my ear. “At the top of Slioch is a ruin of another kind. Only the hint of great round walls are left in the dirt, and over the years rocks have been stacked above them to mark the place. But from the top of that mountain, I can see all that was my world. From there, I can see green mountain ridges lined up one behind the next, where time doesnae touch them. There, I can imagine that the McLeods and Mackenzies found a way to live without spilling blood. And when the setting sun brushes the clouds among the hills with gray and gold, I can imagine that I’ve come home to stay.”
Within his arms, in a place only real to us, he continues. “I go to that ruin before all my last days. There’s a pool of water that tells what the future will be. It hasnae given up its secrets before, but my future has changed. I’ll go tomorrow.” He brushes his lips across my forehead and turns away, cold air off the loch blowing between us.
“Give me tomorrow to decide, and I’ll see you the next day.” I smile and kiss his cheek. I walk quickly away and enter the main keep through the door by the town gate at the north side.
Mrs. Fowler is standing a few feet away with a feather duster, cleaning the shelves and pictures as I approach. Before I can pass her, she steps into my path, her lips purse together, and her head cants to the side as her eyes peer into mine like she suspects I’m fake, and someone else lies inside them.
Her close inspection makes me nervous. “I’m just heading to supper, if you’ll excuse me.” Um, apparently not—she steps in my way when I veer to the right to move around her.
“I’ve seen some strange happenin’s goin’ on two days now.” When I nod and try to move off, she touches my arm. “We need to talk. I’ve been waitin’ for you to come in.” She leans a bit closer. “Watchin’ and waitin’, mind you.”
I try to mask my surprise, or maybe it’s fear for what she might have seen. My lips quiver slightly, but I school my face with a smile. I’m too late, and I’ve already given away that I know she should have suspicions—or at the least, questions. She gives me a knowing look and nods, then points to the open door beside us, and we enter the library.
When I try to sit in a chair, she directs me to the small sofa, then sits close enough to whisper secrets.
“So, tell me who it is.”
I need to think this through. If I answer with the truth, she won’t believe me anyway. If I try to play dumb, well, she doesn’t seem like the type to let it go.
“Now, don’t go holdin’ your tongue, lass. I know what I know.” I try to give her an innocent look, and she says, flicking her first finger up, “You could not take yourself up the stairs without touchin’ the treads. I saw you floatin’ like a cloud up three flights to your room.”
For each of the reasons she gives, another finger lifts. “You’re always talkin’ to yourself out and about the grounds. Your questions about photos and pictures are not what they seem, either.
And tonight, well, a lass cannot lean against the air like you do. And you were kissin’ more than nothin’, too.” She folds her arms across her lap. “You look like you have two wits about you, so tell me—who is he?”
This isn’t only my story to tell, but I have to trust someone. She’s hinted enough that she believes something supernatural is going on that I doubt she’ll think I’m crazy.
The story tumbles out of me like a stream running over pebbles. My story. Niall’s story. And what I know of Sorcha’s. I’m breathless when I finally stop, swiping my hands across my eyes. While I was telling it, I knew I’d made my decision. I have to try to release him.
Mrs. Fowler’s face is drawn with sorrow, and her eyes glisten as she pats my leg. “The poor ghosty, stuck in this bad business all these years.” She sits up straight. “Now that we’ve cleared that up, what do we need to do?”
“Is it black magic?” I ask, though I know it must be.
Mrs. Fowler nods solemnly. “Aye, black as the devil’s waistcoat.” She lifts her hand like she’s brushing a devil from her shoulder. “Let’s be on with it. The sun won’t stall its risin’ just so we can complete our nefarious business.”
A breath I didn’t know I was holding releases at her show of support. “I have to find the items needed for the rite. I don’t think modern items will do. In my dreams, all the items are old, probably from the time of Niall’s cursing. I don’t have any idea where to find them, and even if I do, how to buy them. They’d cost a fortune.”
“Twelve Highlanders and a bagpipe make a rebellion.”
I turn to her—what does that even mean? She smiles and pats my knee again as if what she said is reassuring. Seriously, I have no idea why she said that.
“Very few people are needed to make a change. Between you and me, we’ll get what we need.” Mrs. Fowler winks at me, then continues. “We’ll get some paper and some pie, and make a list.”
We sit in the kitchen as I recount the part of the vision that’s clear to me, while Mrs. Fowler writes down the items.
“Let’s get started.” Mrs. Fowler jumps up. I have to snag the last bite of pie before she snatches my plate away, then she motions for me to follow her through the kitchen and into an office. “We have some battle axes you need to see.” She uses the keys in her pocket to open a cabinet and removes another set of keys before we head out the side door toward the tower house.
She walks very fast for a woman older than my mother, and I hustle to keep up. “I can save us some time. I didn’t see any battle axes on the tour like the one in my dreams.” I don’t really want to go up the staircase again or touch anything in this tower.
Mrs. Fowler twists the key in the door and throws it open. “Of course you didn’t. You don’t think we’d display the valuables to tourists, now do you?”
I start to turn toward the stairs, dread building in my chest. Will there be more memories? Of course there will be. “Yes, I thought the items on the tour were originals. What are they, then?” I cross my arms over my waist as much to keep from touching the walls as to settle the nerves playing dodgeball with my stomach.
Mrs. Fowler’s hand grabs my arm, and I squeak before I realize it’s her. “Oh, we’re goin’ this way,” she says, and turns the way Niall took me when we went to visit his parents, but then takes a sharp right away from the chapel. She disables two alarm systems as we go. “They’re originals for sure that you saw on the tour today. Just less antique-y than you’d think. We bought them here and there. Most aren’t older than two or three hundred years. In you go.” She shoves me aside, then closes and locks the door behind us.
Three hundred years sounds prehistoric to my American ears. There are few things in my whole town that old.
When we near Niall’s parents’ vault, she unlocks three locks on another door. She leans back with her full weight to swing the ancient curved-arch door open and goes inside, turning on lights, but I stop at the threshold.
This is what I expected the castle to look like. The main keep is amazing, but everything looks to be eighteenth century or newer. This is old. The oak paneling is deep, dark brown. Wood chairs are carved with details of flowers and trees as well as geometric designs. I’m sure my mouth is hanging open, but if I snap it shut, it will only gasp open when I spy the next treasure.
A sunburst of spears is immediately across from me on a wall that vaults two stories, their steel heads all pointing to the center, making a pewter-colored sun with the wooden handles radiating out. Swords crisscross in herringbone patterns up the wall on both sides of the sunburst.
This is why I originally thought I was coming to Scotland—ancient history and a connection to the land of my ancestors. I wanted to feel a deeper connection. Well, I have that in spades. “That’s really amazing.”
“Aye.” Mrs. Fowler nods reverently then adds, “It’s a reminder of the barbaric lives that won and held this land in many ages.”
“Do you mind if I…” I hold up my phone.
“Not at all. I’d be pleased that you want to remember this all.”
I turn around and shoot a few selfies to send to Josie later.
A large oak table with turned legs sits in the middle of the room. Scattered around the room are glass-topped display tables each containing collections of jewelry, flatware, knives, guns, or flat bowls.
I stop at the case of jewelry. My hand moves to the tarc at my neck. One piece looks similar to the one I wear.
“You notice that, do you? I saw your necklace the moment you checked in and knew there was somethin’ about you to wonder at.” Pointing at my necklace, she continues, “Your tarc marks your family as druid stock, and was made long before the Romans pushed their way ’round Caledonia. I’d like nothin’ more than to hold your braw trinket in my hands, but I’ll not ask you to remove it. It’s a gift of protection from your ancestors. Druids’ lives are fairly soaked with magic.” She looks like she’s sorry, then adds, “For good or bad.”
She pats my shoulder gently and moves away. I try to remember Roman history, and when a date finally clicks in, I realize my tarc is likely two thousand years old. Although my grandmother told me not to remove it while in Scotland, I realize I’m wearing a small fortune—well, actually, a large fortune—casually around my neck.
“And Gwen, best to keep that trinket covered up from peerin’ eyes. I doubt I’ll be the only one knowin’ what I see there.” Her shoes click on the stone floor as she walks away. “This way. Keep up.”
Mrs. Fowler disappears around a corner, and I follow. “As you may have noticed this room is the armory. These are original pieces, and the pride of the castle. The war axe I wondered about showin’ you is here.” The layout of the massive room opens into an L-shape. Several battle axes and spears are hung on the far wall.
“It’s that one,” I say, pointing to an axe above the fireplace.
“Help me move this.” She begins pulling at a table that’s along the wall.
“We’re not going to stand on that table.”
“Of course we aren’t. You are. I’m much too old for that kind of thing.” She makes eye contact with me and tips her head toward the other end of the table as if to hurry me along.
Since no memories impose themselves on me when I touch this table, I can guess it’s younger than Niall. It’s good we only have to move it a few feet—it’s heavier than it looks. Mrs. Fowler pulls a chair nearby and motions that she’ll spot me.
I hoe without real hope that this war axe is younger than Niall—but it’s the one from my dreams. I grit my teeth and reach for it. As soon as my hands touch the wood to lift it from the wall, pictures assault my mind. I see a man a few feet in front of my point of view as the axe begins its forward swing toward his head. I suck in a breath, knowing this was used in battle, I immediately let go, not wanting to witness his death. I drop to a squat, the heels of my palms pressing onto my eyes. Maybe I could use another one. Any other.
Below that axe is one that looks quite similar. The blade is a little narrower, and a spike extends out the back. With one hand, I reach up and lay a finger on the handle. Nothing. No vision. I wrap both hands around it—still nothing. I want to take this one from the wall, but I know it’s the other that I need. The items have to be tied to Niall’s time, and those items have memories along with them.
Even closing my eyes won’t spare me from the vision. I wish I didn’t need this. [_Just do it fast, like pulling off a Band-Aid. _]My whole body shakes with trepidation of the unwelcome scene.
“Be careful up there, lass. You’ll fall on your bahookie if you’re not.”
I pull the axe from the wall, and immediately feel like I’m going to retch when the weapon cuts through the man’s neck. I scramble down from the table and push the axe toward Mrs. Fowler. “I can’t carry this.” I pull my hands from it like they’re burning, pressing them down my jeans several times. Although my rational mind knows they’re clean, I feel as if they’re still covered in blood.
I try to walk, but after a few paces, my knees give out, and I sit on the stone floor.
“Oh, lass. Best lie down a mite.” She’s beside me, helping me lean back. “Close your eyes and think of your home. What’s it like?”
I know she’s trying to keep my mind busy, and I’m grateful. She asks questions, and I answer them: I live in Savannah, Georgia; the beautiful green of the city reminds me of many places in Scotland; I love the cobblestone roads on River Street; it rains a lot there too; I live close to the beach; my best friend is Josie; I’m a lawyer.
She helps me sit up after a while. “Can you stand?”
“I think so.” I slowly rise on shaky legs, and we walk out of the tower house into the lower bailey.
“If you don’t want to tell me what happened, that’s fine, but I might be more help if I knew.” She nods to encourage me to say yes. “Let’s sit on the steps here.”
I tell her how I see the history related to Niall when I touch items from his time period. “The war axe showed me a battle, and a man died.”
Compassion is evident in Mrs. Fowler’s eyes. She hugs me quickly, and I add, “And in the upper room, where Isabel was held captive, I could see memories from her. I can also see Niall in pictures when no one else can see him.” I find myself staring at the ground and realize it’s the spot where Niall’s dad’s and brother’s bodies fell. A shiver skittles down my spine.
“I’d love to see the history of this old place the way you can. You have a heavy purpose to your life—I don’t envy you that.” After a brief silence, she adds, “Next on the list is the quaich and the oxblood. I have an idea about the oxblood. We’ll have to think on the other.”
I’ve walked this trail sixty times since my cursing. In my true life, I would have crossed Loch Maree in a boat and then begun my hike up Slioch, but now I can walk across the water to meet the trail. I could also have chosen just to appear at the top of Slioch. It seems like cheating, though. I don’t want to miss each step—’tis my own personal pilgrimage.
The sights unfold slowly this way. I have time to think as I take measured steps up the tilting mountain slope. The water slants and lurches down the hill near me on its way to join the Kinlochewe River. I sit for a few minutes watching the water tumble down the falls, knowing my opportunity might tumble away too.
Always before, Sorcha was my only hope to end the curse. At some time during each of my awakenings, she would visit me and deny my request for relief. Now there’s Gwen. She may have the ability to end it. She’s right bonny—I’d welcome staying awake, especially with her company. Of course, it isn’t as much my choice as I wish. Sorcha does what pleases Sorcha. I can’t help but wonder if that puts Gwen in danger.
There’s no mist on my face, though translucent clouds drift around me. The grass doesn’t wet my legs. Even when I reach the ridge where biting wind should push against me, I climb without interference, though every living thing about me bends to its force.
The dry-stacked rocks at the summit of the mountain still mark the old ruins. I sit on them and gaze in all directions at land that is as much a part of me as my skin. The mountain silhouettes layered beyond me in all directions are a succession of varying greens—the closest mountains, the dark green of summer, and the farthest, the gray-green of winter.
There are two pools of water just below the summit of Slioch. I don’t know who to thank for my sanity, since these twin lochans were enchanted long before history was written. The water still can’t touch me here, but the magic can—one pool to look back in history, and one to look forward.
When I dip into the pool of the past, the magic saturates me. I see my parents, my brother, and also my sister, who died as a child. My home looks as it did centuries ago, with only the tower house and huts for clan members. My every day is written in its swirling waves. Those visions end where the curse stole my future.
During my first few awakenings, I spent more time consumed by my anger over past magic than I did observing the changes in the world around me. Bone-deep regret, loathing, and a desire for revenge filled my thoughts until I couldnae remember being human. Now I only come here once, near the end of my time, to remember who I was.
The pool of the future hasn’t given up her secrets on any of my visits. Each time I enter its magic, the world is gray—the color of life in stasis. I squat at its edge, hoping this time is different, worrying what will happen to me if it isn’t. Still, I’m game enough to leave the shore, wade into the water, and immerse myself.
The gray parts as if a curtain pulls open. I see myself standing in the druid circle with Gwen. The dark sky brightens until there is only light. That’s all—a glimpse of less than a minute.
Although Gwen and I are both there, I don’t see the outcome of the rite, unless that’s all there is and everything is just gone. I wonder what it could mean. Do I stay in stasis, neither living nor dead; or just disappear; or die since I’m long past my time; or turn to dust; or stay with Gwen and begin again now? Will Gwen survive the rite? Or get pulled into stasis with me or instead of me? I fear the cure could be worse than the disease.
Nervousness overcomes my desire to enjoy the walk down the mountain, and I will myself to Gwen’s door.
Her face had a look of concern when she cracked open her door, but a smile breaks wide beneath shining eyes, and it fair takes my breath away. “I said I’d no’ see you tonight, but would ye care for a stroll?”
After she gathers her sweater, I lead her back toward the tower house. We walk in silence, enjoying the clear night sky. She holds my hand, lacing our fingers, and I like the feel of her soft palm within mine. I have less than three days left, and I’m going to spend as much of it as I can with her.
“Your life must have been so different from mine, and even now, this place is remote. What did you do when you were growing up?”
“Mostly, we worked. From the time ye could walk, there was some useful thing ye could do.” I point to the area between the tower house and the village gate. “A few cows were sheltered there before they were butchered. And just over there was a large pile of dried grass for their feed. It made a right nice place to wrestle. And farther down against the tower house’s wall…”
Gwen veers off sharply to the place I’d pointed out. “Here, you think?”
She moves to the curtain wall and pushes her hand against the stone as she watches the ground. “Ya’ll were pretty serious about winning. You sure played rough.” Her smile grows wide and she laughs, concentrating on the spot. “That’s got to hurt.”
“What is it ye see?”
She fishes her phone out of her pocket, waving me to stand close by. We hold the camera between us, and she turns on the camera to record a video, and on the small screen, I see some of the clan boys wrestling with me.
We had just brought in a couple of cows, and the lads thought to take me unawares. They were much younger and much smaller, but what they lacked in size, they made up for in tactics as two wrestled me at a time. ’Twas a good day to be wearin’ breeches, to be sure. As I watch, my heart aches for the simple life I lived, and the people who were a part of it.
“What about the wall of the tower house?” Gwen asks, touching the screen to stop the video. Then she takes my hand again and pulls me toward the tower house.
“We hung stuffed bags against this wall and drew a roundel on it. Then we threw knives at it for practice or for gambling.”
“Oh, a bull’s-eye.” Gwen’s hand is against the wall. “I didn’t know what a roundel was.” She turns on her phone again for me to see what she’s viewing. “How old are you here?”
“About ten, and that is Peigi, my sister. She was fourteen then. She always bested me at throwing a knife—and nearly everyone else in the clan.” We watch the contest for a few moments as Peigi continues to bury her knife in the center of the target. My heart is full. She gladly played with me, mayhap because I was so easy to defeat, but even as I think it, I know it was because she loved me and was easy to love.
“Mayhap ye’d care to see a spring festival? ’Tis called the Day of Beltane.” This time, I take her hand and lead her up the stairs to the walk around the top of the wall. “You’ll see it on the hillside southeast of the castle.” I lean against the parapet, as does Gwen, then she holds out her phone for me to take a look.
Two fires are lit, and the clan members walk their cows through the smoke. Gwen has an incredulous look on her face, and I explain. “The fires and smoke are to protect the cattle as they are driven to summer feeding grounds higher in the mountains.”
She turns her phone another direction and records the festivities. The young women have plaited yellow or white flowers in their hair. Fiddles, bagpipes, harps, and drums all add their tones to the vibrant music for the dancing. A stab of loneliness pricks me, and I’ve a deep wish for family and friends.
“It’s a bit like square dancing,” Gwen comments. She turns her phone back toward the fires. “What now?”
“The fires are considered sacred, so just as the animals went through, so do the couples. They jump through the fire, then they’re handfasted.”
“For a year and a day. That was usually long enough for the priest to make his rounds and solemnize the marriage. But if before the time was up, they didnae get along, they just walked away and sought a better match.”
We watch through the small screen, and Gwen pushes her fingers across it to see one couple more closely. Their hands grip each other’s wrists, and the laird wraps them with a scarf of plaid. Gwen leans her head on my shoulder as we watch several couples wed.
“Would you care to dance?” she asks, clicking off her phone and stowing it away.
“Aye, but I donae think ye’d want me to sing, and we have no music.”
She pulls out her phone again, and after several clicks, soft music plays.
“It doesnae sound like music for dancing. Shall I teach ye in slow motion?” But she simply lifts my hands to her waist, then wraps hers around my neck, her warm body running the length of mine. “But I’m happy to learn yer new dance.”
We step slowly from side to side. She smiles, and lays her head against my chest and neck. We pivot in a small circle in each other’s arms. One song leads into the next as we embrace each other. When Gwen’s head tips up toward mine and our eyes meet, I’ve the strongest desire to kiss her perfect lips, and do. Her hand moves up my neck and into my hair, lighting a fire within me, and our kiss takes on sparks. When the music ends and I lean away, my breath as labored as hers, she’s backed against the rock wall and we’re no’ dancing anymore.
“Yer dancing is fair easier to remember. I’m sure I’ll no’ forget this a’time soon.”
She kisses the corner of my mouth and then my bottom lip. “Nor will I.”
The memory of dancing with Niall on the castle wall replayed in my dreams all night. I know it’s a long path to being in love—paved with shared hopes, admiration, and even shared sorrow—but I don’t believe it’s the same path that friendship follows. That path is a mirror image of loyalty, love, and acceptance, but is devoid of chemistry, the passion that leads you to thoughts of not only someone being your lover, but being your family. So while I’m not in love with Niall, I stepped onto that path last night.
A frantic knock on my door is followed by a shrill voice. “I do need to come in, Gwen. Can you manage to open up? The now, if you please.”
I open the door of my suite, and Mrs. Fowler rushes in, a large glass jar full of blood wrapped in her arms.
“Is that…” I start to ask, but my stomach twists at the thought. “How’d you get that?”
“Aye, ’tis oxblood. Kenneth—don’t suppose you know him. He’s a butcher—made a special delivery for us on his way to Kinlochewe. I didn’t know how much we needed, so I figured, better to have extra than not enough.”
This is definitely not the time to take a pic. “Well, there is that. Now we just need the quaich.”
“I hate to say it, lass, but we need to go back to the tower house and have you look at the bowls there in the cases.”
I’m shaking my head before she finishes.
“Not to worry. ’Tis unlikely a quaich would have dreadful memories to it. It was used to hold food or drink during ceremonies—happy occasions.”
“I looked at them already. The one I need wasn’t in the displays.”
“Perhaps we could take a drive to the museum in Gairloch. If you see it there, we could think up a plan to break in. Might be hard slippin’ through a window at my age. Maybe we could jimmy a lock. Oh, maybe when the person steps out to lock up, we—wearin’ masks, of course—could push them back inside. That may need to be the last choice, since it seems a little more violent than the others to involve a person like that. I’m not plannin’ to rough anyone up, mind you. I hope it won’t come to that. Think good thoughts.” She finally notices that I haven’t said a thing. “What?”
I don’t know whether to be horrified or laugh out loud at Mrs. Fowler’s rambling. Oh, my gosh, she’s only lived in this area nearly seventy years and owns the frickin’ castle, and she thinks they won’t recognize her!
“Of course. We won’t rough anyone up. There’s another possibility.” But it might shock her, though. “There’s a druid, who put Niall in stasis, that we could ask for help.” Mrs. Fowler begins shaking her head, but I continue. “She said that if I burned some cotton thistle, she’d find me.”
“No. You don’t go takin’ favors from magical beings. The price is always too high.”
That’s what Niall said too. How high is too high to release a man from eternal bondage? As a small child, I was shown his sentence—alone, unable to feel, less than the wind.
“It wouldn’t hurt to see what she knows,” I say.
I stash the jar of blood in the bathroom, grab the midge repellant, and follow Mrs. Fowler downstairs. At the bottom of the first flight, I turn back and run to put out the sign to have no maid service today—just to avoid freaking out the staff or having to answer awkward questions.
When I catch up with her, she’s heading out the back of the office, then into a shed. She reemerges wearing thick leather gloves and holding three-foot-long pruning shears.
She hands me a box of matches, some paper, and twine. “For the record, askin’ for a witch’s help is probably a bad idea.” Her voice isn’t harsh. Then she adds, “The thistles you’re wantin’ are this way. Follow me.” She strides across the parking lot and the small highway, and by “highway,” I mean it’s a little iffy if two cars could pass each other on that road.
Once she cuts the thistle, she rolls the newspaper, then surrounds it with thistle stalks and ties it with twine. Then she drops the bundle on the dirt in front of me. She removes the gloves and then hands me the matches.
“Best to invite the witch here than to my castle. Light it,” Mrs. Fowler demands.
I strike the match and hold it to the paper. When it catches and begins burning, the green thistle stalks smoke—the color of the bloom—bright pink—snakes into the sky. I turn to Mrs. Fowler. “What do you see?”
“Smoke. And no witch.” She fans the air over her shoulder like she’s brushing off that devil again. “What is it you see?”
“The smoke is florescent pink.” As the words leave my lips, Sorcha appears beside me.
“Ye need my help?” she asks.
“Yes. The last item we need is a quaich,” I answer. “It has to be from Niall’s time period. I’ve seen it in my dreams of the ceremony. It appears to be an oak bowl rimmed with a silver band, and has silver engraved handles that attach inside the bowl and extend past it on both sides.”
Mrs. Fowler taps my arm. “Where is she? What is she sayin’? Don’t agree to anything.”
“I haven’t. She’s only asked me if I need her help.”
Sorcha turns her back on Mrs. Fowler. “If I help you, there is a payment expected. Do ye agree to pay?”
“What is the payment?” I ask.
“It’s simple. Ye’ll bear the price of the magic—whate’r it may be.” Sorcha’s voice is fast and shrill like a high-pressure salesman.
Mrs. Fowler tugs on my arm. “What’s the price?”
Without answering Mrs. Fowler, I ask Sorcha, “When?”
“In the ritual,” she answers.
Mrs. Fowler’s voice sounds concerned. “Lass, what is she askin’ for?”
“Y’all!” I raise my hands for a moment of silence to consider my choice. I know if I tell Mrs. Fowler now, she’ll snatch me from the ground, throw me over her bony shoulder, and haul me off to the dungeon of her castle—if they have one.
The ultimate price might be my life, either in stasis or not. I’ll have to hope for stasis. If the payment isn’t demanded until at the ritual, I have time to let my family know. I’ll have to write letters, because a phone call would land me in handcuffs being carted off to a police station. Mom would arrange it, and I really can’t blame her.
Disappointment is heavy in my chest. The future I thought I might have one day—husband, children—is gone. A gnawing feeling that my parents will have a similar disappointment too makes tears well in my eyes. But maybe after Mom reads my letter, she’ll understand. I think she knew this was going to happen years ago. That’s why she took me out of Scotland. That’s probably what she and Grammy talked about when they mentioned druids.
“Blow on the fire so the smoke continues,” Sorcha says.
“What deal? What are you payin’?” Mrs. Fowler demands, her eyes locking on mine.
The fire rekindles to life, and billows a stream of smoke high above our heads. I answer softly, “Whatever the cost.”
Her hands fly to cover her mouth, then she shakes her head. “Well, you had to go and make this that much harder, did you? ‘Deal,’ you says. Here’s hopin’ she can be of no help to you.”
“Where’s the quaich?” I ask the witch.
“Sorcha! If I could touch ye, I’d wring yer neck.” Niall’s voice roars from behind me. I turn toward him, looking every bit the fright I feel, but his arms wrap around me protectively.
Mrs. Fowler glares in my direction. “You’re not much for keepin’ me in the know, lassie. What’s happenin’?”
Sorcha gives Niall a thin smile. “We’ve made a deal,” she says, pointing to me.
“Your ghosty man-friend must be here, by the look of your arms all twisted around yourself.” Mrs. Fowler looks at my hands as if she can actually see Niall and says, “Well, Laird McLeod, Gwen made a deal with the witch. She’s a canny one, she is. I’m not sure Gwen can get out of this.”
Niall waits for me to explain.
“In exchange for Sorcha’s help, I agreed to bear the price of magic.”
Niall shakes his head. “No, mo chridhe. The price of Sorcha’s magic to curse me demanded that she be trapped in stasis as well. I couldnae live putting ye in this limbo.”
“She hasn’t helped me yet, so I guess there’s no deal.”
Sorcha speaks up. “I’ve already helped ye. When ye kept the smoke going, at my request, it brought him here to ye. The deal wasn’t more specific than that.” Sorcha looks at Niall. “Ye’re welcome,” she says, then disappears.
Mrs. Fowler has seated herself on a large rock. “Lass, I have to know what’s going on or I’ll be of no help.”
Taking Niall by the hand, I stand beside Mrs. Fowler and recount the conversation.
She gasps when she hears the full account, and Niall shakes his head, whispering, “No, no. No’ this.” His voice is low but even, as though he would protest, but he’s accepted that I’ve made the bargain. But looking closer, I can see tightening in his neck and jaw letting me know he’s none too pleased with my decision. I pull out my phone and click the icon for the photo library.
“You believe that this is your fate and I should leave you to it. But it’s not just yours.” I run my finger across the screen again and again, looking for the pictures I’ve taken around the castle. “Mrs. Fowler, would you help me with this?” I ask as I move to sit beside her on the rock. “Niall, please sit on my other side. I’ve shown you these before.”
He does, and I enlarge the first battle scene I took on the staircase. “What do each of you see?”
“The staircase,” Mrs. Fowler answers even as Niall says, “Tomas and Alastar.” He sucks in a deep breath, and probably the pain of remembering too.
I run my finger across the screen to show the picture I took when my hand wasn’t on the wall, then toggle between them. “When I touch the wall, I see your time. When I don’t, I see my time. That’s how I know I’m part of this. I don’t know why or how, but there’s magic in my blood, and I must release you.”
Mrs. Fowler pulls my attention away from Niall. “What is it you see, lass, when your hand is on the wall? Both pictures look the same.”
“There’s a battle scene on the stairs, and some Niall’s friends are wounded.” Mrs. Fowler leans closer, but shakes her head. I know the scenes only show her the present.
“They died from those wounds.” His voice is barely a whisper.
I flip though several pictures, thankfully not all violent, but also of him around the castle. Each time, Mrs. Fowler names the location, but never mentions people in the photo that both Niall and I see. When I finish, he’s silent. His eyes are closed now, and I imagine the battle within himself that puts honor at odds with fate.
“Will you help me?” I ask Niall.
“Your friend here—he wouldn’t have a quaich would he?” Mrs. Fowler asks.
Niall’s head bows, and his shoulders round in defeat. I know it upsets him that I’m going ahead with this, but I can’t do this without his help and have to ask. The universe has tied our lives together, impossibly, across centuries. “My family had a place on Eilean Ghruididh where we buried our treasures.”
I turn to Mrs. Fowler. “On Eilean Ghruididh.”
“Well, that’s the only place I haven’t taken Norman.” She stands and marches back to the castle with me and Niall in her wake.
Once there, she pulls a shovel, a pick, and a metal detector from the shed. The sun begins to set as we pack her tools in the back of my rental car. Mrs. Fowler slaps her hands together to rid them of dirt from the tools. “Now we wait for the dark. Things like this are best done when there won’t be any witnesses.”
“Will we need to pick up Norman when we go later tonight?” I ask, shutting the trunk.
“We have him—he’s the metal detector. I named him after the original Normans who came to Scotland lookin’ for treasure centuries ago.”
Niall laughs at the humor, and I ask, “Why do you have a metal detector?”
“You never know where treasure might be kickin’ about. I go for walks on this old trail or that, between these ancient villages where Niall or his kin might have dropped a thing or two. I find the odd coin or ring now and again and get a little mad money for myself.”
The grandfather clock in the main keep’s great hall strikes one a.m. Mrs. Fowler whispers to me as we walk to my car. “You’re doin’ a good thing here. Maybe dangerous and likely stupid. I’ll do my best for you.”
We turn east on the main road and travel a short distance. The rocky cliffs are steep on the south side of the road but level out on the north, where we park and walk to the water’s edge with our tools.
“The water in the loch is low. You can walk across, or I can carry ye at this shallow part,” Niall says, pointing to the rocky bottom of the loch. “The water would be about to yer—well, just below yer shoulders.” His neck and cheeks blush at whatever he just censored.
“Niall will carry me across. How does Norman work?”
Mrs. Fowler slips off her jacket, slings Norman across my back, and tells me to button her jacket over it. When I give her a look of surprise, she says, “I’ve had to climb a wee cliff or two on my walks and know how to do it.”
After I climb onto Niall’s back and cross my arms in front of him, Mrs. Fowler puts a shovel in one hand and a pick in the other. “Turn Norman on, listen for the dings, then dig. He’s an easy fellow to use.”
Niall walks across the surface as the waves lap toward the shore. All the while Mrs. Fowler shouts about how she can’t believe it, or wonders never cease, or how she wishes she could brag about this to Mrs. Cunningham, until we are too far away to hear her.
On the island, Niall leads me to the castle ruins, then paces off fifteen strides from the wall. “We buried them about here,” he says, swinging his arm while pointing to the ground in a vague arc.
I slip off the coat and turn Norman on. Immediately, it dings. As I move it from side to side, the dings sound more frantic and higher-pitched to my right. When the detector is shrieking, I put it down and dig a little hole, but hit rock. No matter where I move my shovel, it hits rock.
“How deep did you bury this?”
“Less than the length of yer forearm, but we placed rock around it for protection.”
So dirt has probably cemented the rocks over what I need. “Is the quaich in a box, or is it just lying in the dirt?”
“It was inside some glass bowls that’ve probably long since broken. We buried other things here we thought valuable too. There was jewelry from my mother and grandmother’s families, plus coins and crosses.”
The pick is heavier than I would have guessed. I worry about poking it into the dirt. If it hits the quaich, it could make it unable to hold the oxblood. When I swing it around and bring it down where I hope the bottom of the rock is, the force of it stopping vibrates painfully up my arms and nearly knocks me over.
“Lass, ye’re a wee thing. I cannae hold the pick, but I can hold ye while ye hold the handle.” Niall steps behind me and wraps me in both arms, his solid chest firmly against my back, his muscular arms alongside mine. His stance is a little wider than mine, his body warming me appreciably in the crisp air.
Oh, this could be very distracting!
Niall whispers in my ear, his cheek pressed against my head. A shiver gives me a little shake, and his arms tighten around me.
“I donae ken why yer helping me, and I donae like the risk, but if this is what needs to be, I’ll help.” He’s quiet for a moment, and I stand in his arms, enjoying his closeness. “Lass?”
When I turn to look at him, his lips meet mine. His fingers guide my shoulder to turn, and soon I’m facing him, kissing him, my own fingers tightening around the back of his neck. I want more time with Niall to know what makes him happy, to hear about him growing up, to learn who he is. But my deal with Sorcha will rob me of that. My chest aches, and I pull him closer—my kisses become more urgent.
“We’ll no’ finish our work in time tonight if ye’re face tips up to mine. I have no desire to stop.”
I kiss him briefly and turn away. He snugs close to me, wraps his hands over mine, and swings the pick, moving the rock. After a couple more swings, his hands loosen, and I set the pick aside.
I lean into our hole to roll the rock out of it, relieved to see only small rocks below it. With the shovel, I dig again a few more minutes, then pick up Norman. When I swing it from side to side, it screeches over the hole and over the piles of dirt on the edges. “Could you carry Mrs. Fowler over here to help me with this part?”
Niall gets a smirk on his face. “No, lassie. But I can carry ye, and ye can carry her.”
I’ve forgotten that Niall isn’t real in all the ways he is to me.
Mrs. Fowler’s exclamations of “Wonder never cease’ until I set her down on the little island.
We sift through the rocks. Within an hour, we’ve found dozens of old coins in the dirt around the hole and pile them to the side, then continue our work. Over the hours, the hole grows larger and deeper, similar to the calluses on my hands. My fingernails feel as if they’ll pop off from the pressure of the dirt under them, or from how I use them to claw away at the dirt.
At the bottom of the hole, I unearth a quaich. Even touching it with my mud-crusted fingers brings forward a vision of a young couple as they take turns drinking from it. The man wears the same dark plaid of Niall’s clothes and the woman has the same hair and eye color of Niall’s.
I don’t realize I had closed my eyes until I open them to see Niall and Mrs. Fowler staring at me.
“What did you see?” Mrs. Fowler asks. “You’ve a pretty smile for whatever it was.”
“A wedding I think.” Then I turn toward Niall. “Your parents’. You have your mother’s eyes.” To me, the vision is one more confirmation that I’m on the right track.
I set the quaich aside, and Mrs. Fowler waves the metal detector over the bottom of the hole. Norman doesn’t screech anymore. We got it all. We’ve unearthed the quaich we came for; five gold necklaces, some with hammered gold that’s twisted like a helix, others with several strands bound together; a silver brooch inlaid with several blue topaz stones from Inverness; two silver necklaces, one that has a medallion of an oak tree and one with a large ornate cross set with a ruby; several bronze bracelets and some that are silver; and more than a dozen gold rings. The piles of coins are huge. Many are silver, but one pile I’ve pushed to the side look much older and are gold.
This is worth a fortune.
Niall is sitting on the ground by the necklaces, his hand pressing over them though he can’t feel them. “My mother wore these. I helped her hide all of this, knowing my father would use the value of them to buy more swords and bows and continue the ongoing feuds with our neighboring clans.” He shakes his head, then wipes at his eyes. “She thought to save them for Peigi’s dowry.” His eyes meet mine. “But she died before marrying.” He smiles, but it looks sad.
“May I?” I ask. He nods, and I slip the necklace he was trying to touch around my neck.
His hand starts at the back and gently caresses the strand until he reaches the cross, then holds the ornament with his fingertips. He closes his eyes for a long moment, and I do too.
I whisper to him what I see. “Your mother is very young when she received this. I think it’s her mother putting it on her neck.”
“’Twas a gift for her catechism,” Niall whispers back. “She always wore it. ’Twas as much a part of her as her smile.”
I lean into him. I want to be held in his arms and hear him tell me about each piece we found. His hand is at the back of my neck, and his cheek rubs mine briefly. Then I hear Mrs. Fowler sniffle quietly and open my eyes to see her wiping hers with a tissue.
Niall releases the necklace. “I would have been part of Peigi’s dowry too. We were both to marry Mackenzies. She would have married the son likely to become the laird, and I would have married his youngest sister. I would have brought twenty other warriors to fight for the Mackenzies and marry their daughters, bonding our clans.” He closes his eyes again and says, “We buried this, then Peigi the next year. Mother’s dreams died with Peigi, and she never sought her riches again.” He swallows hard. “Twelve years after that, Sorcha buried me in time.”
Even if this ceremony releases Niall, how will he live? He has no family. No home. No way to work. He won’t exist on any record. Fingerprints and dental records won’t match him. DNA might be very interesting. I rack my brain for a legal solution. It’s not really my specialty, but he needs an identity.
“Are you all right, Gwen?” Mrs. Fowler asks from where she’s pushing dirt back into the hole. The sky is streaked with a hint of morning.
“Can Niall stay with you? He’ll need help to become a citizen.” My lawyer hat is firmly in place as I consider how to arrange his immediate future. “I only need the quaich for the rite—I think he should keep it and the jewelry from coming to the attention of the government, like a private collection. I’m sure there’s a place at the castle where it could be kept until he works out his life.”
Mrs. Fowler nods and adds, “But the old coins could be turned in to the Treasure Trove Unit. He would receive the market value for them, and use that to pay for a lawyer to have a judge make him legal.” She gets a concerned look as her eyebrows pinch together, and she glances around. “I didn’t mean to be rude, lad, and talk about you like you’re not here.” Then, directing her words to me, she says, “Is Niall still here?” I point to my left, and she continues while looking that direction. “You’d likely have a tidy sum left to start your life.”
“You’ll see to it, then?” In response, Mrs. Fowler solemnly nods. “Thank you.” Before we leave, I take the phone from my pocket and kneel beside her with Norman, the pile of coins in front of us, and take a few selfies. I don’t include the other items—I don’t want to leave any record of his keepsakes.
When we return to the castle, we park inside the walls where deliveries are made and sneak the artifacts into the office. Mrs. Fowler brings me a plate of leftovers from lunch and says, “I’m fair plucked and need a nap before we go out. I’ll meet you at the door to the town gate at ten o’clock sharp.” She looks toward my right shoulder and says, “Keep up your courage, Niall. It’s almost over.”
Niall is standing by my other shoulder, and chuckles at her gesture to include him.
We cross through the main keep’s great hall and climb the stairs to my suite hand in hand. We have a few hours until we’ll meet her to leave.
The last time Niall climbed these stairs with me, I was asleep in his arms. This time, there’s no way I can sleep. Our lives will change tomorrow, for both of us. When we enter my room, I shut the door behind him and turn into his chest, wrapping his hand behind me.
I hug him as tightly as he does me. “Everything will be fine.” I breathe in the scent of him and snuggle closer. “I’ve been dreaming about the ceremony every night and before that, even as a child.” It’s been a long day, and I have a lot more to do yet.
“Ye may know what to do, but ye shouldna have to try. Ye werena a part of the clan war or my curse.”
I touch his cheek with my palm but don’t reply. There’s nothing more for me to say about that.
The past few hours catch up with me quickly. I lie down, tugging him with me. I need to feel him hold me close, hold me together. The warmth from his legs runs beside mine, and the strong wall of his chest behind my back eases my worry. The rite has to work, but I’m scared. The weight of his arm over mine and his hand tucked between my waist and the mattress makes me feel safe and protected.
We lie together, breathing softly and hoping on tomorrows. Though I’ve only known him a few days, I can tell he’s a kind man. He loved his family, and was loyal to them and would fiercely protect them. I fall asleep, hoping to know that man better.
When we come down later, the moon is over Slioch, and it’s so clear, the sky is crowded with stars.
Mrs. Fowler says, “The boat’s here.”
“I’ll meet ye at the wee loch on the island,” Niall says as I pick up my backpack with the oxblood and the quaich safely inside. Mrs. Fowler carries the battle axe. She walks quickly to Loch Maree, where the owner of the fishing boat we took to the island two days ago waits for us.
She hands him an envelope, and he helps us in. I’m a little surprised he says nothing about the axe, but that’s what the envelope must be for. Oh, I love her!
The loch is silent and smooth this evening, with little breeze to stir the surface or even our hair. The only sound is the occasional screech of an eagle overhead. When we step onto Eilean Sùbhainn, I hug Mrs. Fowler, but I refuse to give in to any more sadness. I’ve made my decision. The words echo my grammy’s letter—“decide if you’ll stay.” Did she know how long I might stay? How my trip to Wester Ross might well be a visit that lasts centuries?
“I left letters on my bed for my parents and friends. If I don’t come back, please mail them for me.”
Mrs. Fowler nod. She hands me gloves to put on. When I first touched it, I needed to see the memories it to make sure it was the right one, but I’m so glad Mrs. Fowler thought to bring these for me now. Then she passes me the war axe.
“You’ll be back. It’s a fine adventure we’ll talk of again,” she says, making herself comfortable on a stump.
She can’t come with me. In every dream, I’m alone with Niall and Sorcha. I keep the hope of her words close to my heart as I pull on the gloves, then tentatively reach out one finger to touch the handle. No memories. Perfect.
The wind has picked up on this side of the loch and blows little waves across the surface as we move away from the boat. I walk across the marshy island toward the small loch. “Let’s hurry. I want to make sure there’s plenty of time,” I say.
“Stop now. Live yer life,” Niall pleads. His words sound heartfelt and desperate, but soft.
“We already talked about—” Niall’s mouth captures mine as he wraps his arms around me. And though I love this, I’m a little suspicious that the kiss was just to prevent my protest. Of course, he’s totally successful.
His arms tighten, and my reluctance shatters as our hearts beat in time. My palms press up his chest and around his neck. I crack my eyes open for a moment to look at him kissing me. Though he’s out of focus, a thrill passes through me at his intensity. If the ceremony steals my ability to feel anything in this world, at least this is the best last thing I could possibly feel.
Near the edge of the water, I pull my phone from my pocket and snap a picture of our faces close together. “You think kissing me will stop me, but it only makes me want to help you more. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut, and mine tells me that removing the curse is right, whatever the outcome.” I kiss his cheek. “I’ve waited twenty years to do this. Now pick me up and take me to the druid circle.”
He does, but his steps feels heavy and slow.
Moonlight winks on the gentle waves at the edge of the tiny island as Niall sets me on the shore. The thick circle of Caledonian pine that hides the druid circle is before us. This is my first, and maybe only, uncursing, so I take out my phone to get a selfie with the quaich, sans blood. Thanking Mrs. Fowler, for whose help I owe deep gratitude, I pull a much smaller jar of oxblood from my backpack that I poured from the larger jar that had sat on my bathroom counter.
I can’t look into Niall’s face now—I just have to do this—so I step between the pines and through the inner circle of oak, which is glowing white with magic, to the barren dirt, like walking onto a stage. Déjà vu flashes in my mind, guiding each step of the ceremony. His boots shuffle behind me, then he moves to my left side. The battle axe is to my right, and the quaich and oxblood are in front of me. I’m ready.
For just a second, I reach for Niall’s hand and squeeze it gently. I need to know he’s really with me before I squat down to start. My legs feel weak and my hands shake as I fill the quaich with blood and lift it in front of me. Once I pour it, it can’t be stopped. A part of me wants to run from Scotland and pretend I know nothing of curses and magic. But it’s a very small part, and the greater part gives me courage to tip the quaich.
My tarc hums against my skin while a white glow emanates from it. An equal vibration begins in my center, traveling through my bones. I feel it building throughout my body. It’s time.
A fierce wind whips around me and swirls in a cocoon until it digs a shallow dish in the dirt. Blood runs in a small stream out of the bowl into the earthen dip, making a black pool and splashing up the edges. Magic pours through me into the bowl, syphoning my strength.
The more blood that drops, the brighter my tarc glows, spreading out until my whole body seems lit when the last drop of blood falls, seeping into the ground. I stumble back from where the tree will grow.
Sorcha walks into the circle and stands opposite me. We both stare at the dark mud. Nothing happens. “Seems ye’re no’ my heir after all. I must’ve been wrong. Niall, that means ye’re still trapped. Make ye’re good-byes. Off with ye.”
Her comment startles me. ’Twas Gwen I saw in the future-pool’s vision. I’m sure she has the magic for this. “I’ll stay and see it out.”
Sorcha continues speaking to Gwen. “Och, didnae ye ken ye were my daughter’s daughter more generations than I care to name? None of the others had magic enough to see me, though. I thought that would make ye the one who could break the curse to free me.” Mayhap Sorcha is trying to discourage me or Gwen, but Gwen’s face is serene.
The ground begins to make a rumbling noise. Lightning streaks from the black night, scattering as if it hits a crystal dome above the druid ring, the bolts racing into the soil. The bloody dirt sizzles, and steam escapes the ground as the dark circle enlarges greater than the amount of blood poured. All around us, the oaks glow with the white light of the sun.
From the center of the darkened dirt, a rowan sapling pushes through and stretches to the sky, limbs and leaves bursting magically from the tree. At the edges of the limbs, blood-red berries cluster.
Sorcha rushes forward, ripping a bunch from the tree and shoving the berries into her mouth. Gwen tugs my hand back to keep me from continuing forward. “Not yet,” she whispers, and pulls the knife from my boot. She unwraps the plaid from my shoulder and cuts off a length.
When Gwen wraps the plaid around the trunk, a lightning bolt shoots from her tarc, skittering balls of light up and down the branches and blasting out of the berries, leaving them white.
She removes her gloves, and picks up the axe. She squeezes her eyes shut—her face looking pained—and takes a deep breath. When they reopen, she lifts the axe above her head and swings it through a limb, then hands me the severed branch.
With hesitation, I reach for the limb, expecting my hand to pass through it, but my fingers hold the rough wood.
“Eat now,” she says.
The white berries pass my lips, leaving a sweet taste. I havna felt this kind of pleasure in a long time. The berries’ skins pop as they release sugary juice on my tongue. I feel greedy to have the taste in my mouth.
Red juice drips from Sorcha’s lips, coloring her face as if she’s wearing a gruesome death mask from eating her cluster. It has trickled like blood between her fingers and down to her elbows. Her eyes meet with Gwen’s. Horror overtakes the witch’s face as the juice begins to boil and burn.
“Yer tarc—ye changed the spell!” she accuses. A carnal scream rips from her mouth. Red flames leap across her skin and lick up and down her body until she looks like a pillar of fire. Her skin bulges and blisters, and then slowly, she crumbles to ash.
I watch in terror when white flames begin to burn, searing my own skin and muscles and bones. Like Sorcha, I’m being consumed. Unable to stand, I drop to my knees. Burning rages inside as much as outside. My fingers claw at the dirt. In anguish, I search for Gwen, but am unable to focus past the maelstrom of pain.
The magic that made an inferno of the oaks that border the druids’ ring shrinks to the center of the circle and imprisons me within it. My vision darkens, and I can’t hear anything outside the magical light.
A vague recollection of Mrs. Fowler dragging me from the druid circle wakes me with a start. Two a.m. Maybe I’ve been in bed an hour. My head sinks deeper in my pillow, like I could push away from the misery and defeat.
My memory pulls vividly together. The ceremony happened, just as it had so many times in my dreams. But unlike those dreams, this time, I saw the end. The berries erupting to flames within Sorcha and Niall. Sorcha’s pillar of light burning hot and angry, reducing her body to ash. When the red light was gone, so was Sorcha.
The walls of fire from the oaks advanced until they surrounded and consumed Niall. That pillar constrained him and collapsed as it became smaller and smaller until nothing was left. Even the rowan tree was gone. The concussion of the rite’s final destruction exploded out of the empty air, sending black light streaking away from its center like arrows from a bow.
What was the point of the ritual? Or of the many dreams? Why could I do the magic if I couldn’t save him? I try to swallow the despair in my throat, but it stays. Hot tears roll down my cheek, and I squeeze my eyes shut only to relive Niall’s final moment.
Was anything real? The magic? The priestess? The warrior? I can’t even think his name without feeling gutted, so I turn onto my side, curling tightly with my knees pulled up.
_Just breathe. _
I’ve already had the only sleep I’ll get tonight. My brain keeps recycling every detail from the moment I stepped into the druids’ ring, checking and rechecking to find something I might have missed. I try to ban the thought of the ceremony and think of the other times we spent together.
With effort, I think of the first time I saw him, but can only hold the image for a flash as my heart twists with pain and a gasp breaks free.
I rewind my memory and pull out pictures frame by frame to try to list every detail and re-create the moments in my mind. As I finish one scene, I select another, and tell myself the story of being with him.
Although the retellings are about the happy times, heavy emotions swamp me. The only sound in my room is a faint whimper, though keening in my ears. It takes a moment before I realize the sound is coming from me. My longing has hollowed out my chest and is burning around those edges.
I lie with the memories and the night and my pain with one purpose—to keep Niall’s memories alive. To remember his family and clan. To remember their home and traditions. To remember his soul.
I breathe in and think about Niall, then breathe out to push the intruding pain away. For several hours, this is the only thing that helps me survive when the torture of watching Niall succumb to the flames interrupts my invited flashbacks.
The sun has risen high in the sky when Mrs. Fowler knocks on my door. “You’ve not touched your breakfast, and I’ve brought you a lunch tray.”
“No.” I can’t answer more. My throat is raw both from both restraining sobs and alternately releasing myself to drown in them.
“Gwennie? The guests have taken a day tour to golf in Gairloch and won’t be returnin’ until after supper. We have all the time you need to talk.” She’s quiet, maybe listening for my answer. “Do you want to come down, or shall I come in and sit with you for a bit?”
“I’ll come down.” When I try to leave my bed, my balance spins, and haunting images of fire and ash overtake my perception. I struggle to the bathroom and lean heavily on the sink, then run through basic motions to dress. Finally, I run a brush through my hair and stare into the mirror, where I look back at myself with agonized eyes.
I need to leave—not just this room or this place, but all of Scotland. I’ll fly home and spend the rest of my vacation with my mom and see if she can help me understand this loss. Without much thought, I throw everything into my suitcases and leave.
My stomach growls when I see the breakfast tray as I lock my door. I try eating one of the blaeberry scones, but it tastes like dust, so I put it down. The glass of orange juice sits on the tray untouched.
I drop my suitcase in the main keep’s great hall and go to the office to find Mrs. Fowler.
She speaks gently. “You can’t leave yet, lass. We have to talk with the people from the National Museum of Scotland. I emailed them to come see the coins.” The phone rings.
My heart crowds my throat, and for a moment, no words will pass. When I can speak, I barely whisper, “Maybe you could just say you found them, and I’ll be out of the picture.”
“I already told them I had a partner, and that both of us would be here.”
The phone rings again. I leave the office, thinking about what I should do. While I’m scrolling through the pictures and videos on my phone, a box of tissues flies out the office door, hitting my shoulder. I suppose Mrs. Fowler chucked it at me to get my attention. She waves frantically. Then I hear her voice as she points to the phone in her hand. “You say his name is Niall McLeod? Yes, yes, the poor dear suffers from amnesia.”
My heart nearly bursts as I run back to the office. I squeeze close to her to listen, and her arm hugs me to her side.
Mrs. Fowler sends me an encouraging smile and a wink. “Aye. He’s been stayin’ here at McLeod Castle for some time now. He seems so healthy, but can’t remember a thing other than his name. Poor lamb.”
My knees are weak, and I sit in a chair by the desk, anxiously listening for any word that gives me hope.
Mrs. Fowler listens for a moment, then answers. “Yes, Constable, I’d be obliged if you could bring him home. Thank you.” She slams the phone down and reaches for me. “It’s him, lass.”
I can’t stay inside even a minute more and run out the door with Mrs. Fowler following. Thanks to the wind today, I can sit on Niall’s rock near the parking lot and wait for him to arrive without the midges eating me by bits. There aren’t a lot of cars on this road, and I scrutinize each one coming our way. Finally, a patrol car turns into the drive, stopping by Mrs. Fowler.
Niall climbs from the police car. “Mo chridhe!”
I run and throw myself into his arms. Had I been patient I might have received a gentle kiss, but instead, I pull him closer. He answers with strong lips and obvious desire.
My emotions tumble between relief and longing, but never away from his kiss. After some time, he pulls back, his eyes still aflame with passion. The smile on his face eclipses the entire world. His hand lifts a stray lock of hair from my face and tucks it behind my ear. Then his knuckles graze across my cheek, leaving a river of tickles behind them.
Through my foggy thoughts, I hear Mrs. Fowler comment to the constable, “Niall spent some time with one of our American guests. They get along well, I guess. Where did you find him?”
The officer clears his throat. “He was wandering the fields by Mackenzie Castle, and the caretaker called us. There are no charges against him. He was just walking—this direction, in fact.”
After Mrs. Fowler assures the officer that Niall will be cared for, we enter the castle. In the office, Niall kisses Mrs. Fowler’s hand and tips his eyes up to meet hers.
She blinks hard and draws a quick breath. Yeah, his eyes will do that to a girl.
“My pleasure to meet ye, Lady Fowler.”
“And to see you, Laird McLeod.” When she finally thinks to pull her hand from his, she asks, “How did you get to Mackenzie Castle? Seems that’s the last place your soul would take you.”
“’Twas the place where I was cursed, so when the curse was broken, I was returned to where it started.”
Mrs. Fowler and I sit in the great room, talking with Niall while waiting for the museum officials to arrive. We have our story down. Mrs. Fowler and Niall were the partners who found the treasure, but because Niall found it and she just gave him a ride, she feels it would only be right that he be listed as the owner. Mrs. Fowler is insatiable to know about Niall’s life, family, and community and quizzes him until the appointment.
After our visit with the man and woman from the National Museum of Scotland, and lots of photographs, they load the coins into their car and ask Niall and Mrs. Fowler to sign some paperwork. Then we take a selfie, as a group, and they leave.
“Well, lass,” Mrs. Fowler says, “since you’re all packed, you might as well check out and visit that home you have in Inverness. And take him with you. He really needs a little holiday.”
One year later at the McLeod ancestral home near Inverness, Scotland
The phone rings, and Josie stretches across the desk to grab it before I do. “Go upstairs. Your wedding is in one hour.” Then, as I start climbing the stairs, she picks up the phone, saying, “Thistledown Bed and Breakfast. This is Gwen. How may I help you?”
I pivot around to stare at her. [_You are not Gwen! _]But she points up the stairs and turns her back on me. “I’m sorry. Our Internet is down, and I’m unable to check that for you right now. May I call you back tomorrow?”
From the top of the stairs, I watch Josie disable the phones, lock the front door, and leave to join the wedding party.
When I enter the master suite, I find Mrs. Fowler filling in my mom about Niall’s final hearing for citizenship. “It’s about time they decided he’s a real boy. Well, not a boy—he’s a man with bonny eyes and broad shoulders and looks as if he works long, hard hours. As they say, ‘A pretty face suits the dishrag.’ ’Course, you’ve seen him for yourself, so you know it’d be hard to make him look less than pleasing.”
Without even a breath, she turns toward me and says, “Gwennie, you’re the picture of a blushing bride. How did you pick the one sunny day in Scotland for your wedding? ’Tis magic, I’ll wager.”
Then back to my mom, she adds, “And anyway, a lad or lassie under thirty looks like a babe to me.”
My mother is laughing with her, and nods her agreement about Niall. I have to admit, my first appraisal of him rightly earned him the nickname Hot Scot. Excitement sizzles in my chest. We’ve waited months for today—we’ll officially accept each other with an ancient promise as husband and wife.
“No cryin’ now.” Mrs. Fowler hands me a tissue. “You don’t want a puffy red face in the photos.”
I dab away the moisture in my eyes before we take several pictures. Then Mrs. Fowler goes down to join the wedding party too.
Mom and I meet Dad in the lobby, and we walk arm in arm toward the garden. When we open the French doors to the garden terrace, I search for Niall. The sight of him nearly takes my breath, and the greater world fades, leaving just us.
In a way, Niall’s been waiting centuries for me and for this day. A string quartet begins playing “Canon in D Major,” the last song before Niall and I will walk to our future.
His plain white linen shirt beneath a tailored black jacket speaks to his life, as does the great kilt belted around him of the ancient tartan from his clan. Because it became unknown in the history books, he’s registered it as a private pattern, but it still ties him to his family. It will be the plaid he gives to our children and grandchildren, binding us to them as well.
Gwen stands in the garden, her bright eyes fixed on me. Her very vision of her is as an angel. Around her neck rests the ruby cross my mother wore, inviting my ancestors to our union.
My heart leaps, reminding me that I hadnae e’er thought to leave stasis, but this woman brought me life. Her father lightly kisses her cheek and places her hand in mine. Then he escorts his wife across the garden, past the bonfire, and into a seat in the front of the wedding guests.
“What would Struan say to you today, do you think?” Gwen asks.
“I’ve no doubt it wouldnae be a compliment for me. I’ve heard his speeches afore.” I try to picture my friend, closer to me than even a brother, and consider what he’d think of this woman. “Mayhap he’d raise a glass and say, ‘To the happy couple, though she be beautiful and he a rock, though she be a saint and he a log, though she be gracious and he only moss, may your bairn’s face and character be the mirror of your ma, and the strength of your fighting arm be that of your da.’”
I’m rewarded with Gwen’s bright smile and gentle laugh as the bagpipe begins to play—our signal to begin. A bonfire roars with life between us and our guests. Gwen and I walk together through the smoke to signal our hope for a blessed future together, then stand before the preacher with our family and friends behind us.
After we’ve satisfied the laws of Scotland, Mrs. Fowler brings a length of my plaid to the preacher, and Gwen and I hold each other’s wrists.
“Let it be known that this couple has chosen to join their lives and live as husband and wife from this day forward. As a sign, their hands are tied in a union.” The preacher wraps the length around our wrists in a figure eight. “To show that they will lift each other up, hold each other tightly, cheer and comfort when need arises, work together, and cradle children who may come from this union. Let no one come between you. The knot is tied. As your hands are bound, so be your lives.”
My throat is thick with love, and though I force the words out, they barely whisper to Gwen’s ear. “Mo chridhe.” I raise our bound hands with my fingers on her cheek and hers on mine to kiss her lips.
Mrs. Fowler and Gwen’s parents approach us, carrying another length of plaid, a sword, and the quaich. I take the sash of my tartan from her mother’s outstretched arms, and drape it over Gwen’s right shoulder. “My clan, Clan McLeod, accepts Gwen Mackinzie.” I fasten the sash with my mother’s topaz brooch.
My past speaks into my heart: She is mine. She is ours.
Gwen accepts a sword from Mrs. Fowler and presents it to me across both palms. She must be seeing visions of my life from its metal. The sword is a gift from Mrs. Fowler’s armory, but it was also a gift from my father when I reached manhood.
Finally, Gwen’s father lifts my family’s quaich, handing it to Gwen.
Though the meaning may be lost to the people of this Scotland, they are deeply rooted in my soul, and I cannae start our lives without my clan’s fealty of marriage.
Gwen faces me and lifts the quaich, filled with orange juice. Though untraditional, it warms me through to remember the sweet taste. Then she repeats the ancient words from centuries past. “My body, I give for your comfort. My life, I swear for your children. My heart, I gift to you alone.” She takes a sip and passes me the bowl.
Our fingers touch, and the familiar electric awareness stuns me. Looking into her eyes and with all the promise of my soul, I pledge to her, “My body, I give for yer protection. My life, I swear for yer comfort. My heart, I gift to ye alone.” I sip from the quaich, then press my lips to the new Lady McLeod’s.
Jo Noelle grew up in Colorado and Utah but also lived in Idaho and California. She has two adult children and three small kids. She teaches teachers and students about reading and writing, grows freakishly large tomatoes, enjoys cooking, builds furniture, sews beautiful dresses, and goes hiking in the nearby mountains.
Oh, and she’s two people, Canda Mortensen and Deanna Henderson, a mother/daughter writing team.
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While on vacation at McLeod Castle in Scotland, Gwen Mackenzie has nightly dreams of an ancient warrior bound by a curse. During the day, she sees Niall, nicknamed #ScottishBoyfriend. Oh, and can that man rock a kilt! As she gets to know him, she realizes that Niall is the warrior from her dreams, cursed to live as a ghost for the past five hundred years, to see life around him but never sense any of itâ€”except Gwen. Niall McLeod has been a prisoner, a ghost, for centuries. When he meets Gwen, he wonders if she is the key to releasing him, but Niallâ€™s quest for freedom may cost Gwen her life.