Present day, Near Stirling, Scotland.
“I see what you mean, Liz.” Beth Anderson’s gaze skimmed over the walls of the ancient building. “This is one weird castle.”
“Hey, this is my home you’re mocking!” Liz McAlistair wrinkled her nose as she glanced at the odd assortment of buildings.
“Well, you did prepare me, but to be honest it’s far worse than you led me to believe.” Although disappointed, there was no way Beth would upset her friend by going on about it.
“Come on, let’s go inside, you must be worn out. Andrew will fetch your other bags and put the car away.” Liz took hold of her arm. “What do you think of my husband? A real highland hunk, isn’t he?”
Beth smiled. “Yes, I have to say he is. You weren’t lying when you told me about him and your exploits here in Scotland.”
Andrew and Liz had picked Beth up at Edinburgh airport and he’d taken her larger suitcase inside while Beth and Liz lingered to look at the outside of the castle Andrew inherited after his uncles’ death last year. Well, Liz called it a castle—but to Beth, it looked more like a jumbled collection of buildings some lunatic had put together.
“No, I sure wasn’t. Andrew was sorry he didn’t get a chance to meet you while we were back in Melbourne. He had too many business meetings.” By now they were inside the great hall of the main building. Beth glanced around, shivering.
Liz rubbed her arms. “Sorry, it’s always a bit chilly in here. Come on through to the kitchen where it’s warmer.
Beth played with the bracelet on her wrist as she followed Liz through the hallway and then beside the staircase to a door. Liz opened it wide and beckoned her inside. A cavernous kitchen threw out welcoming warmth.
“Andrew’s aunts, Kitty and Tilda, will be pleased to meet you. They’ll be back shortly.” Liz put a huge kettle on the biggest stove Beth had ever seen.
“I’m looking forward to meeting them too.” Liz made Beth and the others laugh back in Melbourne, recounting her first impression of the two elderly ladies, one with a penchant for bright colors, the other as plain and thin as a pikestaff.
A fat tortoiseshell cat sidled up to Beth, smooching round her legs. She bent to stroke its soft back. “I see your cat travelled safely over from Australia.”
Liz laughed as she sat at the table and gestured for Beth to do the same. “Yes, Jock had to pass blood tests for some disease—can’t recall what it’s called—before being passed fit to travel here. But I couldn’t leave him behind.” She ran a hand over her rounded belly. “I’m so glad you’ll be here for the birth of my baby.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay for two months,” Beth said quietly. There was nothing to rush back for—yet she had no wish to interfere in her friend’s obviously idyllic relationship with her husband by overstaying her welcome.
“Oh, Beth.” Liz’s mouth turned down at the corners. “You promised to help me refurbish the castle. It’ll take more than a couple of months to do that. As you can see, it’s a mammoth task.” She waved a hand.
It sure would be a mammoth job. The kitchen, although in much better condition than the vast hallway, still needed a lot of work.
“We’ll see.” Beth didn’t wish to promise anything.
Liz’s face suddenly lit up, and Beth glanced over a shoulder. Andrew strolled in, his attention on his wife’s face. He was by far one of the handsomest men Beth had ever set eyes on. “Well, what do you think of our castle?” he asked, a hand on Liz’s shoulder as he smiled down at her.
“I’ve heard so much about this castle from Liz and can’t wait to explore.” Beth smiled as Andrew went to turn off the gas beneath the steaming kettle. He made a pot of tea.
“I’ll show you around once you get settled,” Liz said.
“I can’t wait.” Wasn’t that the truth. The odd building fascinated Beth. It resembled no other castle she’d seen in pictures, but its antiquity was enough to intrigue her.
Once they were all sipping their drinks, Liz asked, “So, Emily is really going along all right after her recent operation?”
“Yes, she has more use in her right hand now.” Beth bit her lip. Her sister, Emily, was married to Liz’s old tutor, and spent her life in a wheelchair. Beth came to know Liz through her friendship with Emily. Beth shared Liz’s keen interest in Gaelic folklore and language.
“That’s good.” Liz finished her drink at the same time as Beth, and rising, offered, “I’ll show you to your room. You probably want to rest for a while. I don’t suffer from jet lag myself, but most people do.”
Beth hunched her shoulders. “I’m not really tired, but must admit to feeling the need for a shower.”
Liz laughed. “Hmm sorry, we haven’t got round to installing them yet, you’ll have to make do with a bath for now. How’s the hot water situation?” she turned to ask her husband, who was now washing their used cups in the large square stone sink.
“The new hot water tank should provide enough for Beth to get a hot bath. We are slowly putting in all mod cons, but as you’ll soon find out, these things take a while to get moving.” He grinned at Liz.
A sinking feeling in Beth’s stomach made her sigh. If only Saul had been as loving a husband as Liz’s turned out to be.
They made their way up the wide staircase. “We haven’t replaced the carpets yet. Andrew considered it wasn’t worth it until we got the renovations under way,” Liz said as Beth stopped by a painting.
“Is that Andrew?” Beth asked; admiring the man in a kilt pictured, black hair streaming about his shoulders.
Liz’s expression went strange, before she smiled. “No, that’s one of Andrew’s ancestors. They are alike, aren’t they? It seems all the males in his line bear a striking resemblance.”
“Goodness, yes. Except for the long hair, and beard. I thought perhaps Andrew had grown both especially for the portrait. But now I look more closely, I can see the portrait was painted years ago, it’s worn and faded.”
“Yes, but once the decorators move in we’re sending this painting off to the restorers.” Liz looked at the highlander with genuine affection in her eyes.
“I guess his likeness to Andrew is the reason you seem very attached to that portrait,” Beth said as they continued up the stairs.
“You could say that.” Liz smiled enigmatically, as she stopped by one of the open doors along the upstairs hallway.
“You certainly have your work cut out doing this place up. I don’t envy you.” Beth looked around the large room they entered. A fire had been lit in the grate, throwing out a decent heat.
“That’s why I’m so happy you came, Beth, I want it restored to its previous grandeur and hope we can keep the authenticity. There’s no one else I’d trust with advice—except maybe the prof.”
“And you’d never get him over this side of the world. Emily is, as she’s always been, his number one priority.” Beth sighed. “You people are so lucky.”
“Poor Beth.” Sitting on the bed Liz patted the quilt at her side. “How are you really going without Saul?” she asked softly.
“I know it may sound wicked, Liz, but I’m going really well. You knew he was driving while drunk when he got killed, don’t you?” Liz nodded, and Beth went on, “Our marriage wasn’t made in heaven, by any stretch of the imagination. He was so different to me in every way.”
“Sometimes that’s a good thing. Andrew’s nature is probably the opposite of mine. Or it was, he’s not half as serious and stodgy now as he was before we—” She looked away and Beth eyed her quizzically.
“Before you what?” Beth knew something exciting happened to Andrew and Liz while they were staying here in the castle last year, but Liz was very cagey about what exactly took place before they married.
“Before we decided we were crazy in love with each other.” Liz stroked a palm over her large tummy and smiled a secretive little smile that only intrigued Beth more.
“Come, on, you’re not telling me all. I know you were madly in love with him while you worked for him in Melbourne. So, something cataclysmic must have occurred here in Scotland.”
“You could say that.” Liz stood and Beth took hold of her hand.
“You can’t leave me in suspense like this. What really happened last year? When you came back to Melbourne I was still in a state of shock after Saul’s accident, so didn’t take a lot of notice of what was going on around me. But I know you hinted at weird happenings here in this castle.”
“We haven’t told a soul the truth.” Liz sat again and turned sideways so they faced each other. “I don’t want you to think I’m crazy.”
“How could I?” Beth smiled. Considering how Liz shared the same intense interest in ancient customs as Beth, Emily, and the Prof, she was also one of the most mischievous people Beth knew. Most people were astounded when they found out Liz’s interests. Unlike Beth. People fully expected someone as serious and plain as herself to be a history buff. No one to date showed any surprise when they found out she spent her working life in the library at a University, and her spare time poring over tomes or manuscripts. In her earlier days she’d been teased by her schoolmates for spending so much of her life with her nose in a book.
Saul hated it. To this day she couldn’t understand why he’d married her. She was nothing to look at; wore her blond hair in a simple bob curving about her ears. She seldom used more than a touch of lipstick, and often forgot to put any on at all. And, as Saul pointed out many times, she possessed no dress sense. She sighed.
“If I tell you the story, you must promise you’ll never tell a soul,” Liz interrupted her thoughts. “It’s the sort of thing that could get you put away in a mental hospital if the wrong person happened to hear it.” With a small laugh that seemed to hold a touch of nervousness, she wrinkled her nose.
Beth gasped. “You’re really serious, aren’t you? This isn’t a gag, is it?”
Liz slowly shook her head and her lovely auburn hair swirled about her shoulders. How Beth envied her, she seemed to have everything; a lust for life, a doting husband, and great looks. And now she carried a baby conceived in love.
“No, this is the gospel truth. You, more than anyone will understand because we share the same interest in Gaelic lore.” Liz moved closer and put a hand on Beth’s arm, staring at her intently as she declared, “First you must swear to never tell anyone what I’m about to disclose.”
Beth’s laugh sounded strained. “Of course I’ll promise. You have my undivided attention now and I’d do anything to hear the story. If you don’t tell me I’ll die of curiosity.” This sounded serious. Surely it couldn’t be a joke her friend was playing on her. The castle seemed to have a brooding presence; perhaps it had affected Liz’s funny bone.
Liz got up and moved about the room, touching the heavy furniture as she walked. Stopping by the window, she looked out on Andrew’s estate, and hers, since Liz was now his wife.
“Andrew and I went back in time,” she said softly.
Beth laughed out loud, she couldn’t help it. “Back in time? You’re having me on!” At Liz’s look, Beth snapped her mouth shut. “No, you’re telling the truth.” She frowned. “When you say back in time, do you mean you found a time machine, or went into a trancelike state as in hypnotism?”
“No, I mean Andrew and I experienced a strange phenomenon.” Liz ran a hand over her large belly and drew a deep breath. “We were whisked back to 1050.”
“Forgive me if I gape at you, but I can’t believe this.” Beth shook her head. “You’re kidding, right? What sort of phenomenon can send you back into a far off time period?” This was too hard to take in. Liz seemed to be speaking the truth, but how could a serious minded person with all their wits about them believe such a story. “Those sorts of things only happen in films. You must have been hallucinating.”
“Right.” Liz chewed on her bottom lip. “I could have been dreaming, but how do you account for Andrew being there with me, sharing all our experiences. And...” She pushed her hair back, and then waved a hand towards the door. “The hunk in the painting, well a man who looked an awful lot like him, was there. We thought it was Travis in the painting, but there were no artists working in oil at that time. At least we don’t think there were. So we worked it out that the men right down the line must have looked the same.”
“This man called Travis was there?” Beth ran a hand over her chin. This had to be a joke. “Sure. You and Andrew met Andrew’s ancestor back in 1050. Pull the other leg.”
“I’m not spinning a tale. It really happened.” Liz’s eyes went soft again as they had when looking at the portrait on the staircase. “Andrew saved Travis’s life in a roundabout way.”
“You’ll have to forgive me if I seem a bit confused,” Beth scoffed. “I find it all hard to take in. I suggest you tell me the story. Then I just might be able to make some sense of all this.”
Liz stared at her a moment, then with a sigh said, “All right, I’ll start at the beginning. Then you can make up your own mind.”
Liz settled back on the bed, her legs crossed at the ankles, and patted the quilt at her side. Beth shimmied up until she also rested against the headboard, half facing Liz as she began her story.
Beth turned on her side and puffed up the pillow. Glancing at her travelling clock on the bedside chest she saw it was two fifteen. Goodness, she should be sleeping like a log after her long journey from Australia, and the excitement of landing in Scotland, a country she’d longed to visit since first becoming fascinated by Gaelic lore at the age of twelve.
The fire had dwindled to a soft glow of coals in the hearth, but the room was still fairly warm. She sat up and took a sip from the glass of water she always had by her bedside. She’d always sat up reading into the early hours, and Saul complained about it often, said it disturbed his sleep. Not that she could blame him for that.
She put her feet to the floor and went to sit on the rug before the hearth. Liz’s story was spellbinding, and so unbelievable she had no hope of getting any sleep this night.
Every sensible bone in her body told her it just didn’t happen; nobody travelled through time. But Liz made it sound so convincing, and so real. Andrew and she went up to the attic in this jumble of buildings and found a cloak and badge in a chest that had somehow whisked them back to meet this Travis, who sounded a thorough rogue.
No wonder Liz went all soft at the mention of the highlander, he was gentle-hearted and lovable while being tough enough to rule his people and fight his enemies with cold-blooded skill. Liz admitted to being frightened of him at first when he’d put on his barbarian act, but soon found it was an act.
Beth now fostered the most intense yearning to meet this man. Saul possessed not one heroic characteristic. They’d met at university, but hadn’t started dating until her twenty-fourth birthday, two years ago. He’d walked into the pub where her few friends were celebrating with her, and sauntered over. Not a handsome man, he nonetheless possessed a certain charm which bowled her over. Beth had never dated seriously, and was a virgin on their wedding night, which amused Saul. He’d stopped touching her intimately a month after their wedding day.
Beth sighed as she went back to bed. Snuggling beneath the covers, her thoughts returned to Liz’s story. What would it be like to be loved by a man like Andrew, or this Travis? It was likely she would never know; likely she would never meet anyone like them.
Many times Saul had told her she was a bore, was plain and dowdy, and no man in his right mind would want her. When she’d queried him as to why he had wanted her, seeing as he considered himself of sound mind, he’d prevaricated. At his funeral, she’d learnt the reason.
Saul’s real love was there, frantic with grief, sobbing fit to die. A relative of Saul’s broke the sad truth to her. Saul married her simply to keep his position in the company he worked for. The senior partners in the law firm would not employ homosexuals. She had simply been a cover.
Punching the pillow, Beth willed herself to sleep.
* * *
Beth yawned and stretched. When her toes encountered a cold patch at the bottom of the bed she pulled her knees up to her chest and opened her eyes. The small clock by the bed said it was nine-o-clock. Sunlight streamed in through the long windows.
She tossed back the covers and pulled on her dressing gown, then saw a note on the bedside chest.
“We’ve all gone to the market. You were sleeping so soundly we didn’t want to disturb you. There’s plenty of hot water for a bath. Help yourself to breakfast. Be back about eleven.” Liz had signed it.
Beth pulled out fresh undies and a warm T-shirt and jeans, and made her way along the hallway. Eager to look around the castle, she didn’t dally long in the bathroom, and was soon down in the kitchen making toast.
By the time she’d washed her mug and plate and wandered about it was still only ten. She went up the staircase and stopped by the portrait of the man who looked like Travis. What wonderful eyes this ancestor of Andrew’s had. There was mischief in their brown depths, but something else. A deep knowledge. They were the sort of eyes that seemed to look into her soul—delved deep to find the sadness and loneliness dwelling there.
It was cold in the hallway. A gnarled old man, who Liz explained did the odd jobs, was lighting the fire in her room. After nodding her way he went back to his task. She pulled a thick sweater over her head.
As she wandered along the hallway Beth studied the other paintings. A few of the other men also looked similar to Andrew and Travis. One portrait of a woman intrigued her. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but Beth couldn’t put a finger on who it possibly reminded her of. Fair-headed and dressed in a simple kirtle, happiness shone from her eyes. She seemed to be smiling at the artist—or someone standing behind him—a smile of a woman in love.
As if her feet were guided by a will of their own, Beth found herself by a door at the end of the hallway. A door Liz said led to the upper part of the house. The part where they’d come upon the articles that propelled them back in time. A compelling force made her open the door and mount the stairs on the other side.
The house was a maze of corridors, staircases, and doors opening onto more staircases. Without considering where she was going she let her instincts guide her. Up in the attics she came to a door where a strange feeling overwhelmed her. It was as if a force again directed her actions.
Beth pushed open the door. The room beyond was dim, with one high small window throwing a little amount of light in. Old trunks were lined up along one wall. She flicked a switch and a single light bulb sent a dull glow onto the dusty space. Instinct told her this was the attic where Liz and Andrew were propelled back in time. Her heart raced, her palms itched. Unafraid, even though she knew deep inside she should be, Beth walked over to the nearest trunk. The lid lifted easily. A damp, musty odor rose and she wrinkled her nose.
Was the folded cloak the one Liz had taken out last year? Beth fingered the animal hide, and then lifted it. The garment was heavy, and as she shook it gently dust flew up, making her sneeze. A metal clasp secured the long roll collar, and Beth took both cloak and badge over beneath the bulb so she could examine it more closely. There were some letters engraved on the metal plate, but she couldn’t make out the words in the dim light. But an unmistakable cloverleaf was scored into it.
Her hands and knees shook. This was most definitely the garment and badge Liz and Andrew had found. It was doubtful she would be going anywhere though, it must have needed the chemistry between her friends to set off the strange cycle of events. She chuckled, the small sound echoing about the dusty room. What was she thinking? Liz was probably having her on. Perhaps they told the same tale to all visitors to the castle. It helped set the mood.
Yet Liz did seem sincere. And if it was the truth, Andrew was drawn back through time to save Travis, his ancestor. Liz happened to be there with him, probably needed to encourage Andrew into the attics.
Half afraid, half skeptical, Beth put the cape about her shoulders, her slim frame nearly collapsing beneath its immense weight. She peered down at the badge, rubbing her wrist over its surface.
The room vibrated as a flash of light coursed through the window, then seemed to run through her body. Her first thought was that a bolt of lightning had hit her. Then reason returned and she remembered it was sunny outside and there’d been no sign of a storm. But perhaps Scotland was prone to sudden storms. That seemed the likeliest explanation. With a spurt of laughter she shook her head.
Then the floor shuddered. Beth screamed as the ground opened beneath her. Flinging her arms out she tried to catch onto the nearest solid object, but found none. She was hurtling into a vortex, sure it must be an earthquake. But if that were so the walls would be caving in—yet all she felt was a dark emptiness. Her screams vibrated in her head, while her whole body trembled. Or was it the air surrounding her? Panic overwhelmed her until she felt sick with it.
Blackness like nothing she’d known before surrounded her as she fell into an endless pit. Arms scrabbling for a hold reached out but still touched air, and strangely, her legs felt detached from her body and dangled below her.
She was going to die, she just knew it.
But didn’t people see a light above them when they spoke of out of body experiences and before death visions, not this darkness? She was unbelievably cold, yet feverish at the same time. Was she having a stroke? As if caught in a whirlpool her body fell, and fell, and fell, as her screams grew louder.
* * *
Beth lay motionless. If she’d died, then when she opened her eyes she would be at the pearly gates. Every muscle in her body ached. It hadn’t hurt this much since she’d fallen off a horse as a child and bruised every part that touched earth.
A buzzing in her ears made her dizzy, but a bird singing sweetly nearby comforted her. At least she wasn’t dead. Unless they had birds in heaven to serenade you. Good grief, now she was raving nonsense.
Warily she opened her eyes. The branches of a tree curved above her, not clouds. With a hand to her temple Beth slowly turned her head, first one way then the other. She lay out in the open, and the tree above her was one of half a dozen in a small glade. Bracken grew waist high all around her. The air was crisp, the grass beneath her cold and damp. She shuddered.
Perhaps she’d had a funny turn and passed out, then wandered outside in a trance. What was she doing when she began to feel dizzy? Ah yes; the attic and the cloak! Peering down warily, she ran a hand over her front. She still wore the strange garment.
This couldn’t be happening. She was going mad. This wasn’t a glade, and these weren’t real trees. She must have bumped her head and was hallucinating. That was the only explanation.
Her mind veered away from the obvious answer.
She’d been studying the engraving on the badge before the lightning flash. Touching it, she twisted it until she could read the inscription and clearly see the markings. Was it like Aladdin’s lamp, one rub and a genie appeared? Or in this case, you were propelled into another dimension.
No, that was just plain silly. The likeliest explanation was that she’d had some sort of blackout and wandered out of the castle and into the surrounding countryside. She wanted to believe that one. The first person to pass would verify the date and time and that this was the month of May.
She sat up, massaging her thighs. At least her legs felt normal now, although her muscles still ached as if she’d run a mile. The dizziness had subsided and the ringing in her ears was gone. Rubbing her face she glanced around. Everything seemed normal and the few cattle grazing about a hundred meters away added to that normalcy.
Beth tried to remember the lie of the land on their drive back from the airport but couldn’t recall seeing any cattle near the McAlistair’s castle. But that didn’t prove anything. She could have wandered aimlessly on the far side of the estate while in this stupor, or whatever ailed her. It certainly looked wild and rugged—but perhaps the countryside was like this over most of Scotland. In Australia you only traveled a short distance from some towns to find oneself in the outback.
She must have passed out. This was the only feasible answer to the feeling of flying helplessly through that vortex. Between the hurtling sensation and the blackness, all she could recall was the cold. And it had been freezing when that strange wind blew up.
“Come on, be practical.” She stood and slapped at her sides. She’d always been level-headed. Boring and unimaginative, that was Beth Anderson. She steered away from the answer that was emerging, crying out to be heard.
“No. I’m still near Liz and Andrew’s estate. As soon as someone comes by I’ll prove it.”
With a definite nod of the head Beth looked about, trying to get her bearings from the position of the sun. What time could it be? It was just after ten when she left her room after donning the thick sweater. So, depending on how long she’d been in this strange state, it could be anywhere between ten thirty and eleven. The sun wasn’t quite at its height, which proved she was more or less right. It was streaming in her window this morning, which meant the castle had to be...
Beth turned about. This was so stupid. How on earth could she work out which direction to take? A city girl didn’t have to worry about such things. There were street signs in the city and always someone to ask for directions. Here she was surrounded by trees, the few cattle, and bracken. As she pondered which way to walk, the thundering of hooves disturbed the tranquility. Thank the lord. Beth breathed a sigh of relief—now she’d find out where she was.
A hand shielding her eyes, she faced the rider.
A giant of a man rode one of the biggest horses she’d ever seen. Black flowing hair streamed out behind him, and he rode as if all the devils from hell were on his heels.
As he neared Beth saw that he had a beard as black as his hair. He wore some sort of strange garment, like a philabeg, the old Gaelic version of a kilt. A claymore hung at his side, and leather strapping bound his calves.
It was Andrew.
Relief flooded her. Why hadn’t Liz told her he was taking part in a highland pageant? She laughed out loud as he saw her, and lifted her hand to wave.
He skidded the horse to a standstill. It was then, as the man controlled the wild, panting beast, Beth recalled something Liz told her last night. Andrew wasn’t a good rider. Her throat dried up, and she couldn’t swallow. The rider stared at her as if she was a ghost just risen from the earth. His mouth worked but no words came out.
Some sixth sense told her exactly who this stranger was.
“Travis.” A hand covering her mouth, Beth whispered the name hoarsely. Dizziness swamped her, and vaguely she heard him use a Gaelic curse before she toppled into oblivion.
* * *
“What is it about ye women from the future that makes ye faint at the sight o’ me?” a deep voice questioned in Gaelic as she opened her eyes.
She was on the ground again, this time with one of his arms about her shoulders.
“How do you know I’m from the future?” she whispered, staring into familiar eyes. Similar eyes had stared out at her from the portrait. There was no hint of mischief in these eyes though. They looked forbidding. She should have stayed unconscious.
“Ye wear the same garment Beth wore when she departed.” He touched the collar of the cloak, his brow furrowed.
“Beth? You mean Liz?” Groggily she pushed him away and sat up on her own. He went back onto his haunches and stared hard at her.
“Elizabeth is the one we speak of. Aye, that’s the one. Did she send ye back here?”
“Send me...” Beth let out a laugh. “No, believe it or not, I did it all on my own. I can’t believe this.” She put a hand to her temple and pressed.
“Oh, I believe it all right. Ye women seem to have the knack of flitting through time as a normal woman would walk the forest.”
“I...” Beth moved away from him. His masculine scent filled her nostrils, despite the aromas of bracken and earth. He smelled of the outdoors, sweat, and wildness. A tantalizing combination.
Pushing the tangle of hair back, he stood and strode away a few paces. Hands on hips, he took a few deep breaths then turned back. There was nothing of the mischievous rogue Liz told her about. This man was frightening, his eyes as cold as the snow on Mount Everest.
“I went up to have a look at the cloak and badge after Liz told me about how she and Andrew were swept back to your time last year. I was just curious. Don’t ask me what happened but—” She shrugged and spread her arms. “Here I am. But don’t worry, I’ll just rub this badge as I did before and get tossed back.”
As she bent to do just that he moved with the speed of a panther and stilled her hand. “No! Seeing as ye’re here, ye might as well stay awhile. I have a yen to learn how Beth is faring.”
“Why do you keep calling her that? Her name’s Liz. I’m Beth.” She eyed him warily. His hold on her arm was like a manacle. If she was truthful she had to admit he terrified her. He was so big. Beth felt small for the first time since she’d been about ten and started to spring up.
“Ye’re Beth? Ye don’t say? Well, here’s a strange turn of events.” Finally he released her, but his look was penetrating as he stared at her. “Are all the women in yer time called such?”
“Don’t be silly,” she chided, and then bit her lip when he scowled harder at her. “My name is really Bethelia, and Liz’s is Elizabeth.”
He nodded. “Well, Bethelia, will ye stay awhile?”
Nervously, she looked about. “Please don’t call me that. I prefer Beth.” What was she to do? If she tried to rub the badge again he might use real force this time. Surreptitiously, she took the piece of metal in her fingers. They trembled, as did her limbs. And her teeth chattered, so she clamped them together until her jaw ached.
“Are ye scared of me?” he demanded.
“Of course not,” she lied. She was terrified.
“Ye lie.” After staring again, he said, “The other Beth was nay scared of me.”
“Perhaps she was and you just didn’t see it.”
He laughed, but there was no humor in it. “I havetae get back to my home. Are ye coming or going?”
“Well, seeing as you don’t seem to care one way or the other, I think I’ll go, thank you.”
He went to catch the reins in his hand, nodding. “As ye like.” Mounting, he watched her as she rubbed at the badge with shaking fingers. Ridiculously hurt by his apparent disinterest she defiantly tossed her head and glared back at him.
“Well now, nothing seems to be happening,” he said.
Beth rubbed harder, frantic now. This whole experience was terrifying. At first she’d thought perhaps it was a weird continuation of her dreams—a manifestation of the thoughts tumbling about in her head after Liz finished her strange tale. But this Scot was far too solid and large—and real—to be a fantasy she’d conjured up.
“I don’t wish to keep you. You don’t have to hang around. This may take a while.” Her voice quivered. Turning her back on him she chewed on her lip as she tried to remember exactly what she’d done to set the transition in motion. Tears formed in her eyes.
“Is this going to take all day?”
“How the hell should I know? I simply touched the blasted thing before and was propelled here, so why isn’t it doing anything now?” She realized she was becoming hysterical, and had cursed in English while conversing easily with him in Gaelic.
“Perhaps because ye were meant to stay. I suggest ye come along with me now then ye can keep trying at yer leisure.” He sounded bored.
Beth flapped a hand at him. “I’ll stay here if you don’t mind.” She had the feeling she shouldn’t leave this spot. Here was where she’d arrived, so here was where she would leave.
Suddenly he moved up behind her, leaned over and hauled her onto the giant animal. Beth cried out as she landed side-on in front of him.
“Enough of this nonsense. Ye’ll come back to my home, now.”
With that he kicked the horse, clicked in his throat, and sent the animal straight into a canter. Forced to hold on to the arms encircling her, Beth clung for dear life.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she yelled as the wind whistled past her ears and made her eyes water.
“I dinnae think, I know. Ye couldnae make up yer mind, woman, so I made it up for yer. I dinnae think for one moment ye had any hope of making yer charms work this day. Best leave it ‘til another time to try and make yer way to yer home.”
They were moving at a cracking pace, and Beth thanked her stars she’d spent many hours horse riding in her early years.
Arms like steel bands clasped her to him. Beth took the chance to look about. The countryside was rugged, wild and untamed. Her stomach still felt tied in knots. This wasn’t really happening to her—surely any moment she would come out of this trance or whatever it was Liz’s story, the painting, and tales of Travis sparked off.
She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself to wake up back in the castle. But the movement of the horse beneath her continued, the arms of steel still held her prisoner.
Their pace didn’t slow for perhaps ten minutes. Then a large menacing building appeared up ahead. They passed a cluster of small hovels, smoke coming from the chimneys the only proof of occupancy. A herd of cattle grazed nearby, a few of them lifting their heads as the horse slowed to a trot.
Then the castle loomed above them, dark, hostile, and forbidding. It was fortified with unassailable towers and surrounded by a high picket fence that would undoubtedly keep invaders out. A sturdy oak-wood gate lifted as they slowed to a walk and as they clattered across a wooden bridge spanning a ditch the gate closed behind them. It was obviously controlled from within the castle, and probably the only way in and out. The bottom of the ditch held a shallow stream of slime-covered water.
Another heavy gate lifted then lowered as soon as they passed through. Then they were in the bailey. Despite her roiling stomach Beth noticed a cluster of buildings pressed along the outer wall. The castle appeared to be fashioned in the style of the stockades the ancient Scots built, with the main part of the castle high on a mound. They used to dig out the encircling ditch and toss all the dirt in the middle to form the motte where the castle was built. This was all too much to take in; the whole scene being like a picture from one of her history books.
Through an open door she saw a man working over a bench; perhaps making weapons. There wasn’t time to study him further, for a boy came from one of the buildings and took the reins Travis tossed him. The boy gave Beth a quizzical look, but said nothing as Travis dismounted then held up his arms. Hesitantly she allowed him to aid her down. Her legs buckled and threatened to give way beneath her.
“Welcome to my home. Come.” He strode off, leaving her to trail behind.
The boy took the horse into a long hut; obviously a stable. Shutters along its sides were dropped down to let in the fresh air. No doubt they were closed at night to keep out the cold winds and rain.
Travis disappeared inside the main building, forcing Beth to run or be left behind. They entered a small gloomy chamber, and then he strode along a dank, musty, earth-lined inner passage. Despite her fear, Beth couldn’t help but be interested in the surroundings. This was just as Liz explained, a prime example of ancient highland architecture fashioned from packed mud and clay.
When they entered a large hall where a fire burned in a massive grate, he stopped and gestured for her to be seated on one of the rough-hewn benches arranged near the fire. A few children played among the rushes on the floor and a couple of huge hounds bounded around Travis’s legs. He ignored them as he sat on one of the high-backed chairs. A couple of women in kirtles silently stared Beth’s way. They stood as if waiting for Travis to say something.
Perspiration formed on Beth’s upper lip as she sank onto the stool, hands clasped on her lap. Glancing furtively about, she took in the staircase at the back of the hall with a doorway at its top.
“Is that the tower room where Liz and Andrew arrived in this time?” she asked, as she undid the clasp behind the badge and eased the cloak from her shoulders, ensuring she kept it secured beneath her bottom. She wasn’t about to let go of the garment.
“Aye.” The highlander nodded, glancing up the stairs. “Tell me how ye came to follow in their wake to find yerself in the same predicament.”
Beth fidgeted, and then tucked her hands under her thighs. “As I said, I was curious to see the badge Liz told me about. I found it in a trunk in the attic, and the next thing I knew I was hurtling through dimensions.”
Or falling into some strange hallucination.
But that was hard to believe. Everything felt so real, and this giant of a man with a ferocious glare on his face was certainly real enough to make her tremble with fear.
“Ye understand me, so ye appear to be as knowledgeable of my time and language as Beth—the other Beth. Tell me, how does she fare?” His eyes, previously cold as flint, now softened.
Pushing her hair back nervously, she said, “She’s very well, and exceptionally happy with Andrew. They expect their first child in two months.”
“A bairn, eh?” He grunted out an unrecognizable oath. “So, she married the fool.”
“Fool? Do you mean Andrew? If you do, he’s far from a fool. He’s a wealthy, caring, and intelligent man, let me tell you.”
“Are ye in love with him, too?” he demanded.
Beth gasped. “Goodness, of course I’m not in love with him. He’s Liz’s husband, I simply admire him.’
Another grunt told her nothing of his feelings. “An’ did they return to the country of their birth?”
“They went back to Australia, yes.” Beth nodded. “But they’re now living in the castle.”
“Ye mean the castle that stands on this spot in the future.”
“Yes.” A thought occurred to Beth and she frowned. “I wonder why I didn’t land in the tower room as they did.”
He shrugged massive shoulders. “Who knows about such things? ‘Tis strange enough ye have also come through time.”
Beth was perspiring profusely, but didn’t want to remove her sweater, or part with the cloak, so eased her stool back from the fire.
He nodded curtly, his eyes softening again when a young woman, heavy with child, entered. The two women said a few words to her, and then she too stared at Beth as if she’d seen a ghost, a hand to her throat.
“Don’t gape, Wenda.” The woman looked repentant at his rebuke. “‘Tis mighty hard to believe, I know, but we have another such as Beth. An’ would ye believe it, her name is Beth also.”
“It is? I dinnae believe it.” She neared, continuing to look at Beth as if she was an apparition. “Welcome to our home.” Despite her obvious trepidation, she said that with gentle courtesy. “How is Beth?” she asked softly.
“Liz is fine.” Beth smiled and the young woman lost some of her apprehension, smiling shyly. “She and Andrew are married and expecting a baby, as I see you are.”
“This is my sister.” Travis’s expression gentled even more when he looked at the young woman. “Wenda is married to Macrin, one of my trusted men.”
“Yes, I remember now, Liz said you have lovely sisters. Three of them live here in your castle.” Beth glanced about. “Are the others here?”
With a muttered oath he got up and strode about, kicking up the rushes. The dogs watched his every move and the children moved out of his way. Beth was surprised—more than that—astounded. The Travis Liz told her about was always fussing over the children in his castle. There was so much about this man that was different to Liz’s Travis. Perhaps Liz’s impressions had become blurred with time. Or perhaps because Travis saved Andrew’s life she’d painted a complementary picture in her mind.
“Win is about somewhere.” The other women now sat quietly in a corner. “Go and fetch her,” he ordered brusquely. One of them scurried off. For a moment he stared at nothing in particular, then said in a cold tone, “Megan is no longer with us.”
“Oh, did she marry and move away?” Beth asked.
His dark brows drew together menacingly, and he came to stand in front of her. Beth cringed, she couldn’t help it. But when he said in a sad voice, filled with bitterness, “Megan is dead,” her heart filled with pity.
“I’m so sorry.” She had a great urge to comfort him. “How did she die? She couldn’t have been all that old.”
“Barely past her twentieth summer.” He flung himself onto the high-backed chair and put a hand on the head of the nearest hound as if drawing comfort from the animal. It whimpered. Wanda pulled up a stool and sat at his side, her face creased with grief.
“Twenty?” Beth gasped out. “But how did she die? Did she catch a fever?”
“Nay. ‘Twas not her that suffered the fever, but my mam.”
This was getting confusing. Liz told Beth how his mother and his fiancée tried to poison her. It occurred to Beth that he should be married by now to Flora; the witch who’d nearly killed Liz.
Loath to question him, she decided to bide her time. The woman would no doubt appear before long. But why hadn’t she come to greet her husband?
After a lengthy pause, she asked, “How did Megan die then, if not of a sickness?”
His lips drew back over his teeth in a grimace. “My dear sister was slain by one of Flora Stewart’s brothers.”
Taken aback, Beth could only stare at him. My God, Liz told her they were barbarians in this time. “Slain? You mean she was killed by this man?”
“That’s what I said, didnae I?” If possible his glare grew more ferocious.
“But why? Was it an accident?”
“Nay, it wasnae an accident. He killed my wee sister to spite me for returning his sister to their home—unwed.” Running a hand through his dark mane, he ruminated for a while before adding, “His revenge was taken out on one of those dear to my heart.”
Well that answered one question. “But...but I thought Flora...” Should she continue? He looked fierce enough to bite. “I thought Flora and you were...” She looked across at Wenda, who slowly shook her head. Perhaps she shouldn’t have mentioned his fiancée.
“Aye, Flora and I were betrothed, for sure. But I wouldnae marry the wench after what she did to Beth. She tried to kill her, didnae she? I sent Flora off home in disgrace. This didnae please her kin. They refused to believe she would try to poison someone.” For a long silent time he stared into the fire, absently stroking the dog. “Flora fell to her death, didnae she?”
Beth’s mouth fell open. “Fell to her death?”
“Aye.” His shoulders lifted in a shrug.
What could she say to this news? So much had happened since last year it was hard to take it all in.
“And so her brothers sought their revenge in the only way they knew would hurt me the most.” He bit out a word Beth didn’t recognize—probably the equivalent of a curse. “My poor sister suffered. And so now they will suffer. I’ve killed one of them, but havnae done away with Megan’s murderer as yet.”
He said this so matter of factly; as if murder was as natural to him as eating and sleeping. Which it probably was. He was a heathen and Beth would do well to remember that.
“But how did Flora come to fall?” Beth asked in a hushed voice.
“Who knows? ‘Twas said she jumped from the tower because her heart was full of grief.” He paused, staring down at his hand on the dog’s head. “But that is something only she and her maker will know for sure. ‘Twas a dark night and no one was around to see how it happened.” His expression was thunderous. Beth had never met anyone who projected so much anger.
Afraid to speak, she glanced around. The silence grew oppressive. Beth sighed. Might as well get it all out in the open. “And your mother? You say she died of a fever.”
Wenda mumbled what sounded like a prayer.
“Aye, Mam died of a fever.” His deep sigh touched Beth’s heart. The woman might have tried to murder Liz, but she was his mother after all, and apparently only tried to get Liz out of the way to make room for Flora.
“Would ye believe it?” His snort of anger conveyed all his pent up frustration. “She cured all an’ every one of fevers and sickness over the years, but couldnae save herself when a fever hit her.”
It sounded like poetic justice after the trouble she caused Liz and Andrew. But hadn’t Liz also said his mother saved Andrew’s life with her poultice and medicine when he was wounded.
“I’m sorry.” What more could she say. “When did this happen?”
“I sent Flora off home as soon as I got back here after Beth and Andrew left. Mam sickened soon after and died within a few days. Megan went missing a sennight after Flora left, and her broken, despoiled body was placed at my gate a few days later. We learned that Megan was taken the day after Flora’s body was discovered.”
Despoiled? “You mean...? Your sister was also...?”
“Aye, the poor wee lass was ravaged and broken.”