Near Stirling, Scotland. Present day.
Andrew McAlistair stared at the muddle of buildings. He’d never seen such a mess.
His personal assistant obviously didn’t share his opinion. The moment she spied the heap of junk, she said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Neither have I.” Sarcasm threaded through his remark.
“Elizabeth Parker, you’re odd.” Andrew shook his head. “Surely this can’t be the right place. It has to be a mistake.” He’d stopped the hire car by a pair of iron gates, once grand, but now hanging drunkenly on rusty hinges. One of the lions perched askew atop the posts flanking the gates had its concrete nose sliced off. “My uncle and aunts can’t live here—we’ve obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere.”
“No, that lady at the post office said this is the place. Drive on to the door.”
Andrew’s insides cringed as he drove past a garden gone to weed, where motley shrubs battled to survive against a choking tangle of thistles.
“The house looks promising,” Liz said, her eyes still sparkling with excitement.
Andrew groaned. Back in Melbourne, those green eyes lit up the moment he mentioned his uncle’s castle. Liz read Scottish history as if it was the most interesting literature in the world, and possessed an understanding of Celtic lore and languages. She was the only person he knew who spoke fluent Gaelic.
“My God, it looks like the house that Jack built,” he complained. “The bloke who designed it must have been crazy. Or drunk.”
A two-storied house stood stoutly in front of a larger four-storied structure with turrets at the top of the two front corners. Curved steps went up to immense double doors. Small grimy glass panes were set high in each door.
The moment Andrew stopped the car these doors flew open and two elderly ladies pranced out. One wore a bright tartan skirt and red blouse with frilled neck and cuffs. The other’s black dress covered her from neck to ankle.
His aunts, Kitty and Tilda. Andrew could only stand and stare.
“Andy, is it really you? Ye’re here, all the way from Australia!” The plump one had a mass of hair like corkscrews. She drew Andrew against her ample bosom, her tartan skirt swirling as she rocked him back and forth. Her cardigan had seen better days, as had her scuffed brown leather boots. Vermilion lipstick ran through cracks at the side of her mouth. The scent of lavender and mothballs made Andrew cough. As he tried to free himself from the old lady’s clasp, he saw Liz’s grin.
As she pumped Liz’s hand the thinner of the two old ladies twittered, “An’ you must be Andy’s trusty companion.”
Andrew managed to free himself from the plump one, only to be dragged into a pair of stick-thin arms that pressed him against a breast as flat as a board.
“I’m yer Aunt Kitty.” The bigger one stood back and beamed. “I cannae believe you’re really here, Andy.”
Kitty was in her early seventies. Her boots looked sturdy enough to take her over the hills and dales and she looked fit enough to hike for miles.
“This is Tilda.” With an indifferent sniff Kitty pointed to her lean sister. Tilda’s tight bun dragged the skin of her face back from her prominent cheekbones, pulling her narrow mouth into a straight line. Probably sixty, Tilda looked ancient. Like a hyperactive sparrow she jerked from foot to foot.
“I’ll call the old bugger.” She rushed inside. Andrew blinked.
“Tilda’s a bit slow,” Kitty put a finger to her forehead and rotated it while she rolled her eyes. “Come away inside. The old fellow will fetch yer luggage in.” She waved a hand in the general direction of the vehicle. “Yer car can stay there. The garage has a hole in the roof, so it will do just as well where ‘tis.”
Andrew’s disappointment grew in leaps and bounds as they went into the hall. Instead of the marble fireplaces, oak panels and Persian carpets of his fancies, the large lofty hall was starkly unfurnished, except for a few rusted weapons hanging on walls whose plaster was peeling. The paintwork bore water stains, the stair carpet was threadbare and the whole house seemed dilapidated, draughty and in need of repair.
“Now, can I get you a cup of something hot? You must be feeling the cold something awful after coming from the tropics.” Kitty yanked on the waistband of her skirt.
“Australia isn’t exactly tropical, er...um...Aunt Kitty.” Andrew ran a hand over his hair, then down his nape. Good God, the woman didn’t feel a bit like a relative. And he wasn’t keen on the amusement Liz was failing, to conceal. “At least not in Victoria where we come from.”
“Ah well, once ye get settled in ye can tell me all about yer home and work...and everything.” She rubbed her palms together.
“I’d like a hot drink, Kitty.” Liz asked, then added, “May I call you that?”
“Good gracious me, yes. Now then, follow me.” She started off along the wide hallway, her skirt swaying.
“What century was the castle built in?” Liz asked, obviously intrigued by this monstrosity of a place. Andrew shook his head.
“The original part at the back was built in the seventeenth century, dear, but bits have been added on over the years. Not much has been done in the past few years, though.” Kitty tut-tutted sadly as she opened a door beneath the staircase then gestured with red-tipped fingers for them to enter. “We eat in the kitchen these days, ‘tis warmer.”
She waved for them to sit at a long wooden table with ten chairs around it, and then went over to the huge black stove throwing out enough heat to warm the cavernous room. “The kettle will take but a moment to boil.” She tugged on her cardigan, rubbed her hands together a few times, and sat opposite them.
“Yer uncle will no doubt wait until later to welcome ye himself. I’m sorry to say he’s a wee bit obstinate, is that brother of mine. Fancy letting his own flesh and blood go for so long without one word over the years!” Sighing, she dramatically pulled her bottom lip into her mouth. Then she sent Andrew a coy smile, declaring, “No doubt yer heart is softer than his, laddie. ‘Twas a dreadful shame that yer father left after that awful row with Lawrence. But no doubt he made a fortune for himself in Australia.” Her eyes gleamed with curiosity.
“He did all right,” Andrew admitted quietly. “My father always took some misplaced pride in being the black sheep of his family, but never told me exactly what the argument was over.” He paused, then added, “My father never spent much time discussing anything with me, really.”
“That’s an awful shame.” Kitty reached to pat his hand.
“The row had something to do with money,” Kitty went on. “I think yer father had a hand in a wee bit of smuggling or the suchlike.”
“That would be about right.” Andrew noticed Liz’s quizzical gaze. He seldom spoke about his father and apart from telling her he’d died four years ago, and went to Australia in 1956 at the age of twenty-five she knew little else.
Kitty busied herself making a pot of tea, then poured them all one. “An’ it was also a crying shame that ye never got to meet yer grandparents, Andy,” she said as she sat again.
It never bothered Andrew before. But now he came to think about it, it was depressing, to be the last in a long family line.
“Still, an’ all, ye’ll be having bairns of yer own afore long, laddie. Then the family will grow again like it was in the old days, when there were many proud McAlistairs.”
Andrew stared into his cup, saying nothing.
Kitty asked brightly, “So, did ye have a good drive over from the airport at Edinburgh?”
“Yes,” Liz said. “The scenery is superb, Kitty. All that I expected. And the town looks lovely sprawled over the hills. I can’t wait to go to Stirling Castle.”
“Aye, an’ we have the Campsie Fells south of here, an’ then the Ochil Hills on the other side of the Firth of Forth. An’ you’ll have to visit the Antonine Wall. ‘Tis just a wee ride away.”
Andrew looked over to Liz. Her wide eyes shone with expectation. “Oh, don’t worry, she’ll visit every place within a hundred mile radius,” he said with conviction. Her zest for life and interest in all things ancient was astonishing. She had the fair complexion that usually accompanied auburn hair and a few of the freckles attractively spotting her up-tilted nose showed through her make-up. A smile twitched at the corners of her generous mouth as she looked from him to Kitty. A smile was always lurking in her eyes, and he knew she always went out of her way to get him to snap out of his seriousness. It had become a game they played, where she laughed openly and he held back. Even in the well-cut suits and prim blouses she always wore to the office, with her hair coiled at the back of her head, her vivacious spark shone through.
“D’ye wish to go to yer rooms now, laddie, and freshen up?” Kitty was watching him expectantly.
“Oh, yes, sure.” He stood, pushing the rung-backed chair beneath the table.
“Come away with me, then. I’ll show ye up.” With another tug on the raggedy cardigan she beckoned to them as she made for the door.
After the warmth of the kitchen the hallway struck as cold as a tomb. Andrew shuddered. With a bit of luck they could see his uncle, make peace with him, then scoot back home as soon as possible.
The upper hallway was no better than downstairs, with frayed and faded carpet on the floor and streaks of water damage on the walls.
“Right, this one is yers, Andy.” Kitty stopped and opened a door with a flourish. She stood back, beaming. “And right next door is the lassie’s. The bathroom is over there. There’s hot water, but sometimes the heater plays up, so ye’d best work it out between yourselves so one has a bath at night and one in the morning.”
Andrew groaned. It seemed as if that was all he’d done since he first saw this dreadful pile of bricks. Behind Kitty’s back he put a hand to his head, and pressed his fingers to his temple. Liz’s grin widened.
“We’re hoping ye’ll stay awhile, the pair of you.” Kitty patted his arm, and gave him a benevolent smile. “The days are short and the winds heavy about now, but in spring the heather covers our hills with purple. Some foreigners think this a savage land, but we’ve hidden glens where torrents of water rush through them. An’ there’s gently rolling hills and mighty mountains. All that a soul with Scottish blood in his veins can desire.”
Andrew scowled at Liz’s broad grin. How the hell had he let this incorrigible history fanatic talk him into this?
“I told you everything would be all right, didn’t I?” Liz said, as Andrew put the phone down and jotted a few notes on the pad in front of him.
Andrew sat on the corner of the desk, drawing her eyes to the powerful leg muscles beneath the fabric of his trousers as he began to swing a foot. With an effort she dragged her gaze away.
In the three years they’d worked together Liz had grown to admire and respect him, but at times could be maddened by his arrogance. Her boss took life far too seriously. If he would only take life more lightly he would be perfect.
What the hell, he was nigh on perfect, with dark softly waving hair, gold hawk’s eyes and a powerful physique he kept in well-honed athletic condition.
“Yes, as you forecast, Ray is managing with the Dickinson project admirably. With Paula’s help.” He raked a hand through his hair. It was cut short, so he didn’t disrupt its neatness. He sat on the chair opposite hers at the side of the fireplace dominating the library, the only other habitable room on the ground floor. The castle was definitely the drabbest and coldest place either of them had ever lived in. In the two days they’d been here both hovered close to the fire whenever they could.
“I still don’t know how you inveigled me into coming here, Parker,” he grumbled. “I told you it would be bloody freezing here in March.”
“I wanted to skulk around a castle in Scotland.”
“As I said—mad.” He shook his head.
“Well, if I wasn’t a bit soft in the head I wouldn’t have slaved for you with only one holiday in two years, now would I?”
“I was going to suggest you take some time off after we’d cleared up the Dickinson job,” he allowed magnanimously.
“Ah well, this is more exciting than a couple of weeks in Bali, boss.”
“Crazy,” he muttered. “Uncle Lawrence seems quite taken with you. I’m beginning to think he doesn’t give a carrot about me, for all he says I’m his heir.” Stuffing his hands deep in his pockets he scowled at his feet. “I wonder what I’m doing here.” He made a sound of disgust. “The old boy doesn’t seem to be at death’s door at all, contrary to their letter. Aunt Kitty couldn’t give a hoot about him or how sick he is, and from what I gather, she never goes up to his room. Personally I don’t think she can stand the sight of him. Tilda seems to have more time for him. At least she spends an hour or so in his room each day.”
“Poor dear. She’s definitely a bit slow. And she’s not impatient like Kitty. Did you see how Kitty’s eyes lit up when you were talking about your business, and how well your father had done in Australia? I think she’s of the opinion you’re her pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. She likes the latest clothes, so she told me.” Liz rocked back on the other moth-eaten armchair as she laughed. “She reckons her brother is so tight he squeaks as he walks. Not that she should say that. The poor old soul can’t walk.”
“Poor old soul—what rubbish. He’s cantankerous and rude, and that male nurse of his has the patience of a saint. During the short time I visited with him yesterday he complained about the cost of running this place, the price of food, the wages he pays to the staff.” Andrew ticked the complaints off on his fingers. “Staff—what a joke? My God, he’s only got two old retainers. No wonder the place is falling apart.”
“Yes, but it’s fascinating, admit it. Your uncle told me to go up and rummage through the trunks in the attic any time I feel like it.” Liz leaned forward in her eagerness. “Imagine what we may find up there.”
“Imagine.” Andrew grimaced. “He’s definitely found a soul mate in you. He thinks you’re the bees’ knees. What were you talking about for two hours yesterday afternoon?”
“He shares my interest in the history of this place.” Liz looked about at the dusty drab room, seeing images of shadows of its past inhabitants in every corner. “Can’t you feel it? The castle is steeped in it. I swear I saw a ghost last night as I got into bed.”
“You would. It was probably the first McAlistair who lived here. What did you say his name was?” Andrew sat forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
“I don’t really know. I haven’t been able to trace your tree so far back yet. But if he’s anything like the paintings of your other ancestors in the gallery, he can haunt my bedroom anytime he likes. What dishes. One of them was called Travis. I don’t really think the castle’s history goes back to the first one. God, but there’s something romantic and dashing about a man in a kilt. And those bagpipes really stir the soul.” She winked mischievously.
“Ha,” he grunted. “I think you must have more Scottish blood in your veins than I have.”
“That’s a fact. This place draws me. I think I love it, ghost and all.” She looked about. “I found out what the family tartan is. You’d look great in a kilt, boss.” She leant back and appraised him through narrowed eyes.
“That is definitely one garment you’ll never get me in. Forget it. And what the hell am I going to do with this dump?” Once his uncle passed on, this castle would be his and Liz knew the mere thought made him morose.
“You could always use it as a holiday home,” Liz suggested. “Imagine what fun you can have telling your friends that you’re off to the Highlands for a break.”
“Fun?” Andrew shivered visibly. “It’s miserably cold and damp. The furniture should have been burned years ago. Look at it.” He slapped at one of the cracks on the arm of his chair. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into coming.”
“It was worth coming if only for that porridge we had for breakfast. Only the Scots know how to make real porridge.” She closed her eyes and purred in blissful reminiscence. “And what about that dish Kitty called Scots Collops we had for dinner last evening. Wasn’t it tasty?”
“Just tasted like mince to me.”
“We’ve been promised Finnan Haddie for dinner tonight.” She concentrated on keeping the amusement out of her voice.
“Finnan Haddie?” He scowled. “What the hell’s that?”
“It’s haddock from Findon, so Tilda said. Apparently that’s a fishing village near Aberdeen.”
Pressing a finger and thumb to his eyes, Andrew sighed. Liz hid a smile. “Can we visit Stirling Castle later, please? It’s only down the road a bit. Look, I’ve got a pamphlet.”
“Just another one of the hundreds you’ve accumulated since our plane landed.”
Ignoring his sarcasm, she read, “The castle was a strategically important place. It played a major part in the Scottish struggle against the English.” She glanced up. “Just imagine it. Great names like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were involved in the sieges there. And Andrew the Second tossed the Earl of Douglas’ body from a window of the castle. He’s supposed to have invited the earl to dine, and then stabbed him over the dinner table because he’d gone out of his way to provoke him.”
“Nice people in those days.” Andrew’s mouth twisted wryly.
“Mm, and parliament decided Douglas deserved it because he resisted the king’s persuasion. So he got away with that one nicely.” She waved the leaflet. “Mary, Queen of Scots, spent her childhood there, too.”
“Okay we’ll go this afternoon. Just as long as we don’t have to take the two old biddies along with us. I know I’m not being very gracious, but honestly, I’ve had just about all I can take of them today. Where are they now, by the way?” He glanced about as if expecting them to jump out at him.
“I think Tilda’s reading the daily newspaper to your uncle. And Kitty’s preparing our lunch, I believe. She loves food. I must say her shortbread is the food of the gods. I think she’s trying to charm you with her creative cooking. She’s heard that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” He grunted and Liz closed her eyes, humming blissfully. “I think I’ll need to go for a run round the grounds later or I’ll end up with a spare roll of fat around my middle.
“Tilda told me Kitty lost her one true love over fifty-five years ago when he went off to war and never came back. She was talking about this Robert as if he was visiting this afternoon and Tilda put me straight. Poor Kitty hasn’t seen him since she was a teenager. Isn’t that sad?”
“Yes, it is rather,” Andrew agreed.
“Come on then, let’s go up to the attic and see what we can find. What do you say?” She got up and tugged on his sleeve.
He looked up at her, obviously amused by her eagerness. “God, Parker, you should have been born in another century. You’re too weird for this one.” With a sigh he pushed himself upright and followed her out.
The house seemed to be all passages, corridors and twisting turns. Climbing the main staircase up to the first floor, they went to the end of the wide upper hallway, and then opened a door that brought them out to a narrow staircase. It wound so tightly the steps were narrower on one side than the other.
“Guess this must lead to the part of the house that looks like the original bit. This house is a maze. I wonder where those little turrets with the curved windows are. They must be up this way somewhere.” Liz shivered in expectation.
“Cold?” Andrew touched her on the shoulder.
“No, just excited at the prospect of what we might find up here.” She strove to ignore the thrill that trembled through her at his touch. “This reminds me of a time when I was a kid. We went to visit an old aunt of my mother’s and she swore her house was haunted.”
“You’re the only woman I know who gets excited about the prospect of meeting a ghost.”
At the top of the staircase a narrow door blocked their way. Liz tried the rusted handle. “I can’t turn this.”
“Here, let me try,” Andrew offered.
She glanced over her shoulder. There was barely room for the two of them to turn in the small space. “Come on, back down a bit.” He placed his hands on her waist and lifted her. For a moment he kept his hold on her as he lowered her slowly to the lower stair. Her face was on a level with his chest, as he said, with a strange gruffness in his voice, “You’re as light as a bag of feathers.”
Liz bent her head as he turned his attention to the door. A stupid blush rushed to her face, and his very masculine smell surrounded her, mingling with her own perfume; a heady mixture.
He seemed oblivious to her moment of confusion and awareness. “There, that’s done it.”
The door creaked on its hinges as it swung inwards. Stepping up the last stair Andrew turned to offer a hand, letting go once she’d joined him. The door opened into a large room, and at the far side was another small staircase. At its top yet another door swung open with a squeak and a groan, and Andrew led the way into a dim room where a small amount of light filtered in from one small filthy window high up on the wall.
“This isn’t a turret.” Disappointed, Liz brushed a cobweb from her cheek.
“It’s as filthy as hell in here.” Andrew sneezed as they stood side by side, peering into the gloom. “I suppose there’s a light switch somewhere.” His arm brushed her breasts as he ran his fingers up and down the wall and Liz jumped.
“You’re very touchy today.” His tone, as smooth as melted honey, sent feathery shivers right up to her nape. “Aha, here it is.” He flicked a switch and the attic was illuminated by a single light bulb hanging from one of the beams. “At least there’s a light, such as it is. This place is like something out of the Dark Ages.”
As her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, Liz looked around. Cobwebs festooned the room and inches of dust covered every surface. Great oak beams sloped down to one side of the room. Dust motes floated in the dim light. They sneezed simultaneously and laughed as both said, “Bless you.”
“Hey, there’s four trunks here.” Liz knocked cobwebs out of the way as she went over to the huge metal-bound containers. She tried the rusted lock of the nearest one. “Damn—it’s locked. We’ll have to ask your uncle or aunts if they know where the key is. What do you suppose could be in it? I wonder if there are any old diaries, books or ledgers.” Trying the next one to find the lid lifted a fraction, she cried eagerly, “Look, this one’s open.”
“Here, let me.” Andrew gently pushed her aside. After a small struggle he managed to force the lid up. “It’s full of old rags.” He brushed his palms together as Liz blew at the dust and cobwebs around the inside of the lid.
“Rags,” she snorted, picking up the top article. It was a plaid scarf. Rummaging about beneath a layer of yellowed tissue paper, she cried, “This, sir, is a set of highland dress. Look, here’s a kilt. It’s magnificent.” Holding it aloft, she shook it, sending dust flying, which set them both sneezing again. “It’s in your clan colors, too. Don’t you just love this green and red plaid? Try it on.” She held it in front of him.
“Like hell I will.” He turned away.
“You haven’t an ounce of romance in your whole body.” With a click of the tongue, she bent to sort through the clothing again, producing a black jacket with gilt buttons, then a sporran. “Look at this.”
“I can be as romantic as the next man,” he assured her, “but my idea of romance isn’t tied up with wearing a dirty old kilt that reeks of mothballs and dust.”
“You can put it on over your trousers. You don’t have to strip off. Come on, just slip it around your waist.” Before he could stop her she wrapped it about him.
“Go and look in that mirror.” She gave him a gentle push then wiped a piece of rag over the mottled cheval mirror standing in a corner. “See how proud and Scottish you look. Why, if your hair was longer you’d be the image of old Travis in the portrait downstairs.”
Liz bit her lip. She’d revealed too much, after her declarations about how handsome she thought Travis. Quickly, she bent over the trunk again.
“Here’s a funny sort of cape. It looks like it’s made of animal hide.” Liz forgot her dismay as she lifted her find, struggling to give it a shake. Its rolled collar ended in a tag caught together by a clasp. “It sure is heavy. I don’t recall ever reading about anything quite like this. And I’ve never seen a picture of one of these cloaks. Have you, Andrew?” So engrossed was she in her find that only when it was out of her mouth did she realize she’d used his name. That was something she never did around the office.
He peered at it. Any other man wearing a kilt over a pair of trousers would look ridiculous, but not Andrew. Because they’d been feeling the cold, they’d gone into Stirling yesterday to buy warmer clothing. He now wore his new fleecy work shirt under a warm Shetland sweater, and a pair of heavy leather walking boots with thick woolen socks folded over their tops. Liz loved her new ankle-length tartan wool skirt. Black tights, calf-high suede leather boots, chunky red sweater, and plaid shawl matching her skirt sure kept out the chill that was really foreign to them.
“Try it on, it’s got a funny looking sort of brooch clipped at the front,” she said, touching the two inch by four inch sheet of flattened metal.
There was an inscription on it. “What does it say?” Andrew asked, leaning over as she took it nearer the light bulb and rubbed at it with the scrap of cloth.
“Translated it says: ‘Commit thy work to God’. Hey, that’s your family motto. I saw it on one of the portraits downstairs. And this squiggle about the edges must be wild heather, the same plant as on your family crest. Put it on, boss.” Liz struggled to lift the cloak. She was average height but it was still a long way up to his broad shoulders. “This thing’s sure heavy.”
“Steady on.” As she fell against him, Andrew took a step back. He managed to pull the cloak in place with one hand and hold her steady with the other. “You’re not kidding. It’s heavy all right.”
Liz clung to his upper arms, and the strange clasp pressed against her breasts. She was hit with the oddest sensation—as if it was branding her.
The floor shuddered violently beneath them, sending vibrations up her legs. A draught of ice-cold air whirled about them.
“Did you feel the earth move?” His tone was gently mocking, and Liz buried her face against his sweater, shivering.
Wrinkling her nose at the smell coming from the pelt she whispered, scared, “Actually I did. I thought it was my imagination. Do they have earthquakes in Scotland?”
“I’m not sure.” Liz barely heard him, for a strange buzzing filled the air, and she felt as if her eardrums were going to explode as everything about them seemed to vibrate and shudder. Wrapping her arms about his middle, she screamed, the noise burbling from her throat.
Then the light went out.
Liz shivered wildly, clinging to Andrew as if he was a life raft in a stormy sea. Her flesh felt as if a thousand ants were creeping over it, and she couldn’t help herself, she whimpered. She’d never been a coward, but now her hair was definitely standing on end, every hair on her body at attention.
The blackness was intense.
“Great,” Andrew moaned. “Stuck in the dark. Didn’t we leave that damned door open?”
“Yes, we did, actually,” she squeaked. “It must have slammed shut in that blast of wind.” Liz’s voice shook as she asked fretfully, “And why isn’t there any light coming in from the window? It’s as dark as the tomb. Do me a favor, will you?”
“What?” He sounded slightly querulous.
“Put your arms about me, please? I hate the dark,” she whispered, her teeth chattering. She also hated owning up to her weakness.
Gently, securely, he wrapped her in the circle of his arms, pressing her close to his solid length. When she shivered convulsively he rubbed his palms reassuringly up and down her back.
“I never knew you were scared of the dark, Parker. You’re always so confident and brave.” His breath was warm and comforting on her forehead. “Now, let’s make our way over to the door. Okay?” As she nodded, his lips brushed her temple.
His steady heartbeat beneath her cheek eased her panic—if only a fraction. She would be safe with Andrew. He began to shuffle sideways, never loosening his hold. When they’d covered the few paces that should have brought them up against the door he released her. As if sensing her unease he said soothingly, “It’s all right,” as he circled his fingers about her left upper arm.
Andrew groped about, then cursed, “Bloody hell, I think we must have moved in the wrong direction. I felt sure the door was here, didn’t you? Here’s the wall.” He felt something solid beneath his fingertips. “If we keep working our way around we’ll come on the door eventually.” Without a doubt, the door should now be beneath his hand. He strived to keep his weird feelings of apprehension to himself. Something very peculiar was happening. A tingling of fear brought him out in a sweat, even though the temperature had certainly dropped.
Liz clung silently to him while he began to follow the wall. He felt distinctly odd; somehow lighter. For the first time in his life he knew terror, and this fear had no feasible grounds.
After they’d covered what he felt sure was the circumference of the attic room Andrew muttered, “That’s strange.” This was extremely puzzling. “Weren’t the walls covered in a sort of plasterboard? And wasn’t it oblong?”
“Yes,” she said in a tight little voice.
“Well, I haven’t come on a corner yet.” Andrew worked hard to conceal the uneasiness engulfing him. If they’d made their way around the entire room, why hadn’t they tripped over the trunks lined up along the far wall?
Strangest of all was that the wall seemed to be of packed earth and bits of rock, with strips of timber at intervals. The roughness of it grazed his hands. And he could have sworn the ceiling beams were low at the far end of the room. If he’d walked beneath those beams at their lowest point he would have hit his head.
“Come on, let’s keep going,” he urged quietly, striving to keep the panic from his voice. “Hang onto my belt, Liz. I need both hands free.” She obeyed him silently, but he could hear her teeth knocking together and wondered if it was with fright or cold. The cold was seeping into his bones, and fear gripped him. “Here, put this on.” Removing the cape he placed it about her shoulders.
“It smells a bit,” she complained. Her voice shook, and he admired the bravado he knew she’d tried to inject into her tone. “And it’s very heavy.”
Andrew used both hands as he continued the search of the walls. “I’m sorry, but I have to tell you there’s something very odd happening here.” He stopped, resting his hands on her forearms beneath the cape, glad she couldn’t see his face for he knew it mirrored his unrest.
“This wall has no corners, and it appears to be made of a different substance from the room we were in. We’re definitely not in the attic where we found the trunks. In fact they’ve disappeared. Did I hit my head or something? Tell me this is a dream.”
“If it is, boss, then I’m having the same one, because you feel as solid as I do.” She moved closer to him.
Andrew circled her waist then stretched out his other arm. He touched what felt like a solid wood panel, and said, “Thank God, at last. I think we’ve found the door.”
“I can hear voices. It must be your aunts out there looking for us.” Liz’s relief showed in the tremble of her voice.
“I can’t open it.” Andrew ran his fingers up and down where he expected the latch to be, then cursed softly. “It doesn’t have a doorknob or latch of any sort.”
“Let’s bang on it and they’ll let us out.” She began to thump on the wood. Andrew joined her, using both fists.
“Help! Kitty. Tilda. Open the door, please,” they both yelled. “We’re locked in.”
They were ignored, and the rumble of voices grew louder, as if an argument was going on.
“How on earth can they be carrying on so on that narrow staircase,” Liz whispered. Andrew hadn’t the heart to tell her what he suspected. Something exceedingly weird had happened. This was not the same room they’d entered; even the door was different. This one was heavily studded and the hinges of iron were huge, unlike the ordinary hinges and panels on the one they’d entered by.
Suddenly the door opened wide.
He blinked as light streamed in. Before them a wide staircase led down to a cavernous hall. Immense soot-laden beams held up a ceiling of what appeared to be tightly packed straw, and the walls were timber pylons reinforced with mud or clay.
A fire roared in a fireplace large enough to roast a whole cow. Two large soot-encrusted pots containing what smelt like some sort of stew hung over the fire. Peat blocks were stacked up at one side of the hearth and enough wood to keep a fire going for a week was piled up on the other side.
People sat around on stools or rough wooden benches. It was impossible to estimate at first glance how many there were. Everyone stopped talking at once, and a sudden eerie silence filled the hall as they all gazed up at them.
Liz crumpled in a heap at Andrew’s feet.
“Liz, for heaven’s sake!” Andrew went down on his haunches beside her, pulling her into his arms. The boy who’d opened the door stood with his mouth agape, staring at them as if they were apparitions.
A giant of a man slowly lifted himself from one of two throne-like chairs that flanked the fireplace and, taking the steps two at a time came to tower over them, mouthing words Andrew couldn’t understand.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to speak English.” Andrew wondered how he’d managed to get the words out, as picking Liz up, he went down the stairs and looked about for a soft place to set her down. The man followed him, and then faced Andrew, his hand on a deadly looking dagger-type weapon that was thrust through his belt.
The only likely place Andrew could put Liz was on a wide bench. It didn’t look much more comfortable than the floor, which was strewn with heather, lavender stems and rushes. As Andrew set Liz down he glanced up. The man’s scowl was ferocious as he scratched at his dark head.
His mass of thick black wavy hair reached past his shoulders, and his beard was just as black. He babbled on in the same strange tongue, and the rest of the crowd began to mutter and whisper, moving closer and doing little to disguise their almost childlike curiosity.
They were dressed in an odd assortment of clothing. Andrew had never seen anything quite like it. The men wore a sort of kilt without pleats. They all had leggings or bindings around their calves. Some, including the giant, wore shirts, others a sort of sleeveless vest. Most of the women wore ankle-length long sleeved shift-like dresses, belted at the waist. The children, even the boys, sported similar knee-length shifts, tied about the middle with cords or leather thongs. None of the children had shoes on, but the adults all appeared to be wearing soft leather moccasin type slippers.
A tall woman rose gracefully from the other high-backed chair.
Liz stirred, opening her eyes, muttering, “He wants to know what the blazes we’re doing in his home. He seems to suspect we’re more spies sent by some enemy or other. A guy named MacGriers. And he thinks you’re my bodyguard.” She giggled. Andrew sensed a touch of hysteria in her laughter. This certainly wasn’t amusing. “He’s telling the tall woman with the grey hair that you’re an odd-looking sort. He’s wondering where you got such fine footwear and that skirted garment. He can’t make out your trousers. He reckons they’re like nothing he’s seen before.”
“How the bloody hell can you understand him? I can’t.” Andrew glared at the man, whose strange kilt had a large clump of gathered material flung over one shoulder. The garment was cinched at the waist by a belt with a buckle bearing a design similar to the one on the cape Liz had draped round her shoulders.
“He’s talking Gaelic,” Liz said. “The woman is his mother.” Sitting up, she put her fingers to her head. “I never faint,” she complained as she straightened her hair, which had sprung loose, and was streaming about her shoulders. Andrew was awe-struck. He’d never seen her hair loose. She always wore it in a demure pleat at the office or on their dinner engagements. The change in her appearance astounded him. The giant seemed to be just as impressed, if his gleaming devil’s eyes were anything to go by.
Coming to lean over Liz the Scot demanded, “What, may I ask, were ye doing in my round tower?” His stance was threatening; his long muscular legs apart, his fisted hands on his hips.
Liz stared at him in awe. This was incredible. Unbelievable. This great hulk was the image of the Travis in the portrait downstairs in the castle hall. She blinked a couple of times.
“This is a joke, right?” She let out a small nervous laugh. “You have a secret passage in the castle, and you sort of changed the walls about like they used to in—” Turning to Andrew she asked in English, “What was that TV program where walls used to change shape and rooms disappear?”
“I don’t believe this. We’re stuck here in God-knows-where, with this odd-ball character, and you’re wondering about a TV show,” he said, shaking his head.
“Well, that’s what I think must have happened.” She flicked her hair back. “We sort of went through some kind of barrier into another dimension. Or it’s a big joke your Uncle Lawrence is playing on us.” Even as she spoke she knew she was clutching at straws.
“I somehow doubt that crusty old devil on his deathbed would have the humor, let alone the energy, to pull a stunt like this. No, Liz, there’s got to be another explanation.”
The crowd moved closer, muttering amongst themselves and staring in blatant interest. But they didn’t appear to be threatening in any way. At least that was what Liz told herself, while trying to ignore the flutter of fear inside her chest.
“What is yon fool saying?” the big man asked. His heavy brows lowered as he gave Andrew a look full of menace.
“He’s not a fool. And he’s wondering how we got here, and how we came to be shut in your tower,” Liz explained. “And, as a matter of fact, I’m wondering the same.”
“Dinnae play games with me.” He tugged on his short uneven beard, and pointed a thick accusing finger at her. “Ye’ve been hiding out in yon tower. Who sent ye to spy on me? How is it ye’re dressed so oddly? What explanations have ye for invading my home? How did ye get in? There’s but one way in an’ that is across the bridge an’ into my bailey. I will send for my guards to draw forth their excuses. Someone will pay for his behavior this day. And what of this one?” He gave Andrew a taunting once-over. “He is yer body servant, aye? Or yer personal protector? I must say he seems a bit dim in the head. The fool cannae understand the simplest of words.” He tapped his temple.
Liz couldn’t help it, she spluttered. Then her hackles went up. “Now just a minute.”
“What the hell’s he going on about?” Andrew tugged on the waistband of the kilt, and then looked down. Liz saw the remorse move across his face when he realized he still wore the plaid garment over his trousers.
Andrew strode away a few paces, and the crowd stepped back to allow him a path through. This brought him to one of the long narrow slits in the outer wall. A curtain of plaited rushes kept out some of the cold wind howling about the building. He pushed this aside, and then exclaimed, “Good God, Liz. Come and take a look.”
Liz kept one eye on the big man and went to join Andrew. The Scot looked rather savage, even if there was sometimes a twinkle of amusement at the back of his eyes. “I don’t believe it.” She gaped. They were in a high building, but the view outside was nothing like the one from the castle they’d been in a short while ago.
Below them a deep ditch encircled the structure. A high picket fence enclosed the whole area as far as she could see. At the edge of her vision a bridge crossed the ditch on its outer side. A heavy gate was being lifted to allow a couple of riders through. It was lowered again as soon as they’d passed and the sound of the horses’ hooves drifted upwards as they clattered over the wooden bridge. On the other side of the fence a herd of cattle grazed. The cows were the only normal part of the whole scene.
In the distance a cluster of thatched-roofed cottages stood sheltered within a small stand of pine trees. If not for the smoke drifting from their chimneys Liz would have presumed they were a figment of her imagination.
“It’s some sort of nightmare. It has to be. It’s rugged and wild out there.” Her voice rose. “Where’s the garden gone? I know your uncle’s place was a bit of a mess, but this is a positive jungle. In fact I’d say it’s never seen a gardener. I feel faint again.” She clutched at him and Andrew put an arm about her waist as she leant into him. “This looks like something out of one of my history books. I’d say this place was fashioned in the style of the stockades the Scots built with a motte and bailey and the main part of the castle high on a mound. I’m dreaming, and this is one of the pictures in a book I was looking at come to life.”
“I don’t think so.” Andrew had gone very pale.
Liz turned to the highlander, whispering, “Where are we?” The words had trouble coming from her numb lips.
“Ah, come now, fiery little spy, ye know as well as I where ye are. Ye found yer way into my home. Invaded our privacy. Dinnae play games with me.” Cynicism replaced the amusement in his tone.
“No, no. I can assure you we’re not playing games. We must have lost our way. Perhaps you could help us.” She bit her lip. This lack of confidence was totally unlike her. This man put fears in her she’d never encountered before. But she’d be damned if she’d let him see it.
“I will humor ye, lass, but I must warn ye that should I prove ye’re spies, both of ye will surely meet the fate of those who have tried to infiltrate my ...