© Copyright by Mariah Stone.
Inverlochy Castle, Scotland, November 2020
Amy MacDougall leaned back against the castle wall and let her eyelids slide down. The November sun warmed her, a relief after three days of freezing rain.
Amy’s sister Jenny came and sat on the boulder by her side.
“Everything okay with the rebels?” Amy asked.
“We’ll see.” Jenny threw a dubious glance around the grass-covered courtyard where a dozen teenagers walked, laughed, ran around, and took selfies. “Zach threatened to climb that tower and sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” She nodded at the crumbled stump of a tower across the courtyard. “Of course, he’s showing off for Deanna. Here, you’re in a strategic position to catch Gigi if she does decide to go and see if there are any skeletons in the dungeons in the eastern tower.”
She nodded to their left and Amy frowned at the black, gaping entrance into the tower. A tiny chill ran down her spine as she imagined the confinement of the seven-foot-thick walls and the ancient ceiling that might collapse at any moment.
Jenny’s smile fell.
“I was just kidding, hon,” Jenny said, “no dungeons for you.”
Amy shook her head and forced a smile. “It’s fine, come on. I’m fine. I can go in a dungeon. It’s my job to go to dangerous places. Isn’t that why you asked me to come?”
“Well, hopefully, nothing will happen. It’s good to have a search and rescue officer as a backup on a school trip, but that’s not why I invited you to replace Brenda. I want to spend time with my sister, of course.”
Amy leaned her head against the wall. “Yeah, when does that part of the program begin? I thought there would be more whiskey, more hot Highlanders, and less teenage drama.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I thought so, too. Brenda has much more authority over them—she’d rule them with an iron fist. They think I’m a softy. Oh God, do you think they smell my fear like dogs?”
Amy chuckled. “Yeah, even I can smell your fear.”
They both giggled, and Amy rested her head against her sister’s shoulder. When was the last time they had laughed so wholeheartedly together? Both North Carolina and Vermont were full of memories, saturated with the sickening aftertaste of fear and rejection.
But here there was none of that. Here there was fresh, cold air and thick, ancient walls, and the breathtaking, raw beauty of the Highlands. The colors of fall reigned here, as though the very rocks had rusted, moss grew everywhere, and leaves were always aged. There was so much history—hundreds and thousands of years—and a part of her belonged here, too.
“Do you think any of our ancestors lived here?” Amy asked.
Jenny shrugged. “Maybe. Grandpa would have known.”
“Yeah, he would have.”
“Even Dad would probably—” Jenny suddenly stiffened, her mouth still open.
“It’s okay,” Amy said. “You can mention Dad. How is he?”
Jenny swallowed and looked at her hands. “Fine. Asking about you.”
Amy pursed her lips, her throat clenching. “Well, I’m asking about him, too, see? Is he still sober?”
“Yeah. Holding up.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“Yeah. Thank you for the money, by the way. Again.”
“Of course. You can’t support him alone on a teacher’s salary.”
It was hard to talk about Dad. To distract herself from the scratching in her throat, and to avoid Jenny’s grateful expression, Amy studied a bare bush growing by the wall to her right.
“I’m not alone. I have Dave—” Jenny’s eyes widened as she looked across the courtyard. “Hey! Zach! Stop it, get back down this minute!”
But Zach was already halfway up the pile of crumbled rocks, heading to the top of the tower, and not slowing down. Jenny jumped up and raced towards him, waving her arms and yelling for him to stop. Amy sat up straight, alert, just in case. Her hand brushed over the backpack, feeling the familiar shape of the first aid kit inside.
“What a bonnie wee crowd of children,” said a lilting female voice.
Amy glanced up, to her right. A young woman stood by the bare bush Amy had studied a moment ago. The air filled with the scent of lavender and freshly cut grass. How strange. Goose bumps covered her skin. She remembered having a similar feeling whenever she and Jenny had told each other ghost stories—suddenly the shadows had grown darker in the corners of the room, and she could almost see shapes she hadn’t noticed before.
The woman was pretty, her features delicate, her skin translucent, with tiny freckles like a sprinkling of ground cinnamon on her nose and cheeks. A dark-green woolen cloak hung from her shoulders, and the hood of a cape covered her bright-copper hair.
“Yeah,” Amy said. Her jaw must have lost the ability to close.
She studied the northern entrance which was ten feet or so away. Was that how the woman had slipped in unnoticed?
“They are a bonnie…crowd,” Amy said.
Zach was already on top and began singing, “‘Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…’”
“What is he singing?” the woman said. “I like that song…”
She swayed her head a little from side to side with the broken rhythm of Zach’s bellowing.
“Erm… It’s the American anthem…” Amy said.
“Oh. The American anthem. I shall remember that song.”
Amy smiled politely. Who was the woman? She seemed to be dressed in a historical costume underneath the cloak, a long green woolen skirt and a white shift that showed just a little from beneath the hem.
“I like your costume,” Amy said. “Are you a tour guide?”
“A tour guide?” The woman laughed. “I suppose ye might say so. My name is Sìneag. What about ye?”
Zach continued yelling, “‘And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…’”
He stepped back and lost his balance a little, and the small crowd of his schoolmates, led by Jenny, yelped.
“Come down, Zach! Right now!” Jenny cried. “Or no phone till the end of the trip.”
But Zach’s eyes were only on Deanna, who sang with him.
“Aw, looks like he is in love,” Sìneag said.
Amy chuckled. “I doubt it’s love. He craves attention, like all boys his age, that’s all.”
“Oh, aye? Do ye ken love?”
Amy crossed her arms over her chest. Sìneag was local, no doubt, so maybe it was normal here to skip the small talk and get straight to the deep stuff.
“Do I know love? I was in love. Who wasn’t?”
“But ye havna met yer man yet…” Sìneag said slowly and rubbed her chin.
“My man?” Amy laughed.
“Aye, the one man that ye truly love. The one ye change for. The one that ye want to die on the same day with. The one ye are ready to cross countries, oceans, mountains…and even the river of time for.”
Amy sighed with a smile. “Sìneag, you are terribly romantic. I definitely don’t have a man like that, nor will I ever have a man like that. The relationship you describe doesn’t exist.”
Sìneag cocked her head. “Why so sure, Amy?”
“Because I was already married, and now I’m divorced. And I had thought he was my soul mate. So trust me, I know what you describe is impossible.”
“Do ye now?” Sìneag studied Amy thoughtfully. “Do ye ken how this castle was built?”
“I read on the information board right there—built by the powerful Comyn clan in the thirteenth century—”
“Aye, but do ye ken it was built upon a stronghold of the Picts?”
Amy raised her eyebrows. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“Oh, aye. And those Picts, they kent powerful magic. They could open the river of time and build a secret tunnel under it to help people pass through.”
Amy smiled. Adorable. She enjoyed fairy tales.
“Do you mean like time travel?”
“Aye. A journey through time.”
“Fun! I’ve never heard myths and tales about time travel. Usually you have the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ sort of stories, with a cannibal witch and lost children… How does this one go?”
“Well, the castle was built upon a rock that can open such a tunnel. It takes a person with a purpose to reopen it and take the journey.”
“So did anyone travel in time?”
“Who kens? They might have. And they might again.”
Sìneag’s smile grew a little mischievous, and Amy raised her eyebrows. “Might?”
“There was once a Highlander here, a Craig Cambel. A mighty warrior, and an honorable man. Do ye ken of King Robert the Bruce?”
Amy wondered why Sìneag didn’t answer her question directly, but maybe she was leading into the story of time travel.
“The Wars of Scottish Independence, right?” Amy said. “It said on the information board, he took Inverlochy Castle from the Comyns.”
“Aye. Cambels—they’re called Campbells these days—were his allies. King Robert asked Craig to guard the castle for him against his enemies.”
Amy chuckled. “Must be an important man, that Craig.”
“Aye, he was a man of high achievements, but with a deep sorrow in his heart. Clan MacDougall betrayed him and his family, and it scarred him for life. He swore never to trust so easily again.”
“Thank God he’ll never meet me—I’m a MacDougall.”
Sìneag’s eyes sparkled. “Are ye really?”
“Well, yeah. My grandparents immigrated from Scotland to the States, so I’m American. But my last name is MacDougall.”
“Aye! Aye! Excellent.” Sìneag’s voice shook a little from excitement. “I was hoping I’d meet ye here, lass.”
Amy frowned, something about those words setting her on guard.
“Anyway,” Amy said. “What about that Craig? Did he travel in time or something?”
“Nae, he didna. He marrit a good lass to arrange a clan alliance, but he was never happy. He lived his life as a good man. An always lonely good man.”
Amy pursed her lips to fight a strange wave of emotion that Sìneag’s words brought up within her—sadness and loneliness. The desperation of being left alone and abandoned was too familiar.
“Yeah,” she said. “Some people never get over things that cut too deep.”
Sìneag’s eyes shone with understanding and empathy. “Aye. And what if the person who can heal them lives across the river of time?”
“Then they need to use that Pictish tunnel, I guess.”
“Aye, Amy! That is very true.” Sìneag clapped her hands like a little girl. “Ye said it yerself.”
A movement caught Amy’s eye. Zach hurried down the pile of rocks towards Deanna.
“Careful!” Jenny cried.
As soon as Zach was on the ground, Deanna ran with a squeal away from him. With a yell like something between a battle call and the sound of a horny chimp, he followed her.
This wouldn’t end well. Forgetting Sìneag, Amy followed every movement as Deanna circled around the courtyard, every time evading Zach’s attempt to bear-hug her. Then she launched herself faster than ever towards Amy. Amy had already prepared to grasp and stop the girl when, at the last moment, she turned to the eastern tower.
Amy took a step forward on instinct.
Deanna pushed the security grating to the side and squeezed herself behind it—towards the gaping blackness of the entrance. She took one step inside, screamed and fell.
Amy’s heart stopped.
“Damn it,” Amy cursed and raced towards the tower. “Do not even dare!” she cried at Zach, who had stopped at the grating with a pale face and a worried expression.
Amy grabbed the flashlight from her pack. Grass flashed under her feet while she ran until she reached the grate and slid through. She stopped by the entrance into the tower. Her light fell on the broken, crumbling stairs leading down—and gaping black nothingness around them.
“Damn those teenagers,” Amy cursed under her breath and climbed down the broken stairs as fast as she could without breaking her own neck.
Rocks crumbled and fell from under her feet. Some steps were missing, some were broken and turned into flat slides. It smelled of wet earth and damp stone, of rotten leaves—and something else rotten she didn’t even want to think about. By some miracle, Amy made it all the way down. The outside light didn’t reach here. Only her flashlight remained, as though nothing else existed beyond the underground. Amy shivered, memories rattling the door in her psyche that she’d closed tight long ago.
She’d learned how to deal with darkness and with confined spaces, she reminded herself. She needed to be strong for Deanna.
“Deanna!” Amy called as the flashlight ran along the rough rock surrounding her. “Deanna!”
Her words echoed in the silence as though she were alone. As though Deanna had disappeared into nothingness.
Amy looked up, but there was only a rocky ceiling and the gap she had come through. Her arms and legs chilled, and her hands shook.
Quick. Just find Deanna, help her, and get the hell out of here.
“Deanna!” Amy searched around with the flashlight. It fell on the entrance to another room. Shivering, her legs leaden, Amy moved towards it. She couldn’t leave anyone alone in the darkness.
She had to let the people she was rescuing know they hadn’t been abandoned.
Someone was always coming for them.
“Deanna,” she called as she stepped into the chamber, her voice echoing from the rock.
It was a small room—not even a room, but rather, a cave. Amy searched around the floor—no one.
Any more exits or doors?
“Where are you?” Amy called. She didn’t know if she meant Deanna or herself.
“In here,” a voice said.
Amy moved the light, and there she was. Deanna stood, hugging herself, her eyes wide, the mass of her hair in disarray. Relief flooded Amy, the tension in her chest releasing.
“Oh, thank God!” Amy said. “Are you hurt?”
“Just bumped my head a little.”
“Okay, let’s go back right away. I’ll take a look at your head when we’re up. Here, take this. I have another.”
She handed the light to Deanna and removed another one from her backpack. Deanna swept around herself with the flashlight, and it fell on something. Amy frowned.
A rock, big and flat. There was a large carving on top of it—a broad ribbon with three wavy lines. Something like a river in the form of a circle. Through it ran the broad line of a road.
“I’m freezing,” Deanna said, walking back towards the entrance.
“Wait for me,” Amy said, but then froze, her gaze glued to the rock.
Was Amy hallucinating, or was the carving glowing ever so slightly—the river blue, the road brown? Next to the carving, there was a handprint right in the rock.
Deanna’s light was already flashing in the first room. She’d be all right. Amy came closer to the rock, curious.
The glowing grew brighter, and it seemed as if the carving moved: the waves of the river seemed to flow, and it looked as though a small cloud of dust rose above the road. It was so pretty.
Was this a Pictish handprint?
A lonely hand… A lonely man…
Was it Craig Cambel’s?
Would she be touching his fingers if she pressed hers into the imprint? Holding her breath, she traced it gently. It was cold and damp. Had it been cold and damp when Craig lived here?
She laid all five fingers into the imprint. A buzzing went through her—like a wave of excitement before a journey, an adventure. Her heart raced, and her pulse beat in her temples, in the veins of her neck, in her wrists and between her fingers.
Fear struck her again—gripped her throat and her shoulders, clenched her airways till she gasped for breath.
She tried to pull back her hand but couldn’t. The rock pulled her palm like a magnet. The cold surface felt wet, as though water rose up from it.
Amy’s palm touched the stone completely and was sinking into the rock as if it were a river. The rest of her arm followed, and then her shoulder.
“Ahhhh!” Amy heard herself scream.
She gripped the stone with her other hand, scrabbled her feet against the floor, but couldn’t stop herself from falling.
And then she fell completely into the stone…and the world grew dark.