Inverness, Scotland, Present
It was another hour before they let him out. Niall scrawled a signature on the parchment they pushed in front of him, taking his best guess at how to spell Shawn. Judging by the other signatures on the page, script need not be legible. That suited him well.
Amy stuffed his tunic, trews, and boots into a bag, over his protests, and handed him wide blue hose of some stiff material, instead. Jeans, she called them, swiping at her eyes. When she left, he pulled his own clothes back out. He wouldn't parade publicly in such a short, immodest shirt.
Amy returned, sighing at his garb. "Never mind," Rob said. He slid his arm around her waist.
"Conrad planned to be here," Amy said over her shoulder. "But he had things to deal with."
Planned...things to deal with. The words shaped themselves in Niall's ear. "Conrad?" He kept his words to a minimum, till he could copy their language more carefully. The name sounded familiar.
Her feathery eyebrows drew together. She frowned. "You don't remember Conrad?"
"I remember nothing."
"Conrad leads the orchestra," Amy said.
So Conrad was a leader: a king, an earl, a duke? "Is he the laird?" Niall asked.
"What?" Amy sounded shocked. "There's no laird here. You don't remember the orchestra?"
"The doctor said the memory usually comes back quickly," Rob told her. "Let's get him home." He hoisted the bag of clothing and dropped a hand on Niall's shoulder, steering him toward the door. "A brief history of Shawn Kleiner. You play trombone." Niall wondered if that was a game of some sort. He tried not to stare at the cots on tall spindly legs with wheels at the end. So they hadn't been a dream. "You're a big star."
"Star?" He could make no sense of that.
"A big shot. Important. King of the hill."
Niall nodded, committing the expression big star to memory. He listened with one ear while sorting out the situation. Amy had left Shawn, the big star, in Glenmirril and come back to find Niall. So where was Shawn? In Glenmirril's tower, in Niall's time?
History said he, Niall, died on the journey, perhaps of his injuries. Well, he was healthy now, thanks to their medicines. If he'd really come forward in time, he'd just go back, King Herla's apparent failure aside. He had a job to do.
They strode out of the passageway, into a large front chamber. People turned to stare. Silence fell; then a girl squealed, "It's Shawn Kleiner!"
"Unbelievable," Amy muttered.
Rob warded off the stampeding girl, saying, "Leave him alone. He's hurt." The group that had massed for assault drew back; Amy and Rob ushered him to a large wall of glass. It slid open, without a hand touching it. Niall sucked in his breath, but said nothing. Just outside the incredible wall of moving glass, waited the one thing he'd hoped had been only a dream: the beast that had crouched outside the castle, one of the large metal wagons that shot like an arrow with no horse to pull it. Despite his intentions to learn and copy, to fit in, he took an inadvertent step back. His hand fell on the hilt of his dirk.
Rob stared at him. "Toto," he intoned.
Amy punched his arm. "Shut up, Rob."
* * *
Niall searched one last time for another explanation, on the drive to the hotel-an inn, judging by their conversation, what he could make of it through their broad, flat vowels. He'd steeled himself for the jolting against his injured parts. But the seat was soft, and the ride surprisingly smooth. He closed his eyes against the buildings speeding by, however. Behind closed lids, he soaked up their language, while searching for another possibility.
It wasn't delirium, it was far too elaborate for a ruse, and the notion of skipping across time like King Herla was too disturbing. Could he be in a fairy knowe? He'd never believed in those, either, but it seemed a touch more likely. Fairies were said to be tricksters. They'd have the means-if they existed-to create such things as he'd seen.
He let the morning drift through his mind, each detail of the broken walls of Glenmirril. But fairy knowes-so Rabbie said-held worlds more beautiful than man's, not tumbled-down copies. And even if Auld Rabbie's tales were true-which he doubted-elfin folk never came in pairs, nor bore such common names as Rob. And they captured men who wandered into their mysterious places; they did not venture into men's homes. Amy and Rob wore strange clothing, but not the beautiful things Rabbie described, and no thread of green. Fairies wore green.
Rabbie told of a people confident, devious, and sensuous. Amy had shown only forthright concern. She had not tried to seduce him with fairy kisses as the Elf queen did Thomas the Rhymer. Her eyes had flickered nervously to his knife, outside the castle, with no hint of the fairy folk's deviousness or cruelty.
Even now, she naively took his closed eyes for sleep and leaned forward from the back of the monster, talking softly about him, or rather, about Shawn. Shawn, then, whoever he was, had clearly disappeared.
"I shouldn't have left him," she said. Uncertainty trembled on every word, a sparrow in a storm. Her hand brushed his forehead, setting off pleasant tingles. He held still with some effort, trying once again to fit the facts to a ruse or kidnapping. Maybe Shawn had taken his place. His heart thudded. Surely Allene would not be fooled! Would this man, this big star, be near her?
He opened his eyes. Another of the man-carrying beasts hurtled straight toward them. He squeezed his eyes shut, tensed for death. When nothing happened, he lifted one tentative lid. The thing streaked past, almost skimming the sides of their own. He let out a thankful breath and closed his eye again. It helped not to look.
He explored the idea of kidnapping, while fighting the lurching of his stomach. He'd be held for ransom. And yet-where had he been taken? A place that looked exactly as his own castle might, in seven hundred years.
"Are you okay, Shawn?" Amy asked from the back seat. Only when her hand fell on his shoulder did Niall realize she was speaking to him. He opened his eyes, and wished, at the sight of hills flashing past, that he hadn't.
"I'm well," he said, curtly, and shut his eyes again. He listened to their voices, as they spoke with each other, and let his mind drift back to his prior thoughts, to cars and phones and leaders called conductors. He wasn't in England. Captors did not ask their victim to come along, nor looked so scared of, or for, him. And it served no purpose, pretending to think him someone else. They seemed genuinely perplexed and concerned. Especially Amy.
The car slowed as it entered the fringes of a town, which quickly became a city, with stone buildings rising like gullies on all sides. Parts of it seemed vaguely like the Inverness he knew, but full of cars and people in clothing even stranger than Rob's and Amy's. He braved the view of all those cars shooting every which way, to lean forward and study the city. Giant versions of their own car, towering two stories high, rumbled by, ready to topple on them. Women bustled along in twos and threes, carrying heavy sacks. Men sat at tables sipping from delicate, white tankards with no handles. Paintings hung everywhere! Outdoors! He wondered if they needed to be replaced often, if they were brought in on rainy days, or if these people had paints and canvas that withstood the elements.
Seven hundred years. It would explain everything. When you've ruled out all else, his tutors had taught him, what you are left with must be the answer, no matter how unlikely.
The car stopped in front of a painting of himself. A man lolled in a field of bluebells wearing a tartan wrapped around his waist, a linen shirt with billowing sleeves, and an idiotic grin. Two busty women draped themselves over him with moon-eyed gazes. Niall sat upright, staring. The man looked just like him, yes, but how could these people ever mistake him, Niall, for such a dolt!
He studied the script at the top of the painting. S-H-A-W-N. The car lurched forward again.
Glenmirril Castle, Scotland, 1314
Iohn, waiting outside the hall, whisked him to his bedchamber after the meeting, gripping his elbow. He gave Shawn no time to charm women in the bailey, or talk to Allene. Iohn followed him into his room, with the massive four poster bed and the arched stone window showing glimpses of the loch, and pulled the door shut. "Niall, I've asked ye before not to make this trip."
"Have you," said Shawn noncommittally.
"You've a reason not to go, now. You're injured. No good can come of it. 'Twas a fool's errand to start. Now, in your condition, 'tis madness. Tell me how to find Hugh. I'll go in your stead."
This mission they were all fired up about was Shawn's only chance to get out of the castle and get to Inverness. "I'll be fine," he said.
"At least let me go with you. You've an arrow wound and are disoriented. There are those who would see you dead. I can fight at your side."
And have his escape back to the orchestra thwarted? "I'll be fine," Shawn said again. "Things are coming back to me. The arrow wound...." He had no idea where the arrow wound was supposed to be. He gestured vaguely. "Can't even feel it. I'm great."
Iohn stood awkwardly for a few moments. "Sleep well, then. You leave after the moon is high?"
The Laird's words, trust no one, leapt to mind. "Much after that," Shawn agreed. "Way past. You sure you can't scare up some coffee?"
"Sure 'tis your sense of jest, this caw-fee," Iohn said. "Is it really time for jesting? Ye're no acting like my friend who trusted me with everything."
"The head," Shawn reminded him. "Sorry. Nothing personal."
"Godspeed, then. Would you would let me help you." When Shawn didn't answer, Iohn took one last look around the room, and left, pulling the door softly behind him.
Shawn looked around the room, following the path of Iohn's gaze. The Laird's orders had been followed promptly. Clothes for his night's journey lay on the bed: a monk's habit. He chuckled at the irony, but put it on, along with thick, warm leggings and sandals, and lay down, grateful to sink back into bed. It was not yet noon, but it had been a long day. He closed his eyes, planning his return to Inverness. Wouldn't the orchestra get a kick out of seeing him show up in a monk's robe! Caroline would like that!
Inverness, Scotland, Present
Niall's stomach swirled with nausea as the car approached the castle that served as an inn, suitable for the likes of whoever Shawn had been. Niall studied each detail, memorizing. Stone walls rose high. Flags fluttered on the towers, reminding Niall that castles had not really crumbled and fallen. Here was one, strong for all the world to see. They must have taken him to a very old castle, or one torn down by enemy weapons. He must believe that. He must believe there was still an explanation which had not yet occurred to him.
They drove through a tunnel of trees dappling the road. Beyond the boulevard of trees, sweeping lawns surrounded the castle. Someone shouted from an upper window. As they pulled through the massive arched gate and onto a curving path, a crowd of colorful people erupted from the wide doors, and flooded down broad stone stairs: a dozen women or more in their undergarments; a knot of men in trews chopped off above the knee, and shirts in minstrel colors with hardly any sleeves. They surrounded the car, shouting. With adrenaline racing, pumping him with the calm, clear head needed for battle, Niall searched them for weapons. He saw none.
Rob threw open his door fearlessly. Niall spun his head, barely catching the motion of his hand. He flexed his own fingers, copying.
"Back off!" Rob yelled. "The man's had a rough night!" He marched around the car, waving his arms at them, as at a flock of sheep. He spoke with humor, and Niall realized these people were friends. His heart rate slowed; the adrenaline subsided. Feeling safer, he studied the faces again, noting each detail. They had backed a bit away from the car.
"Are you getting out, Shawn?" Amy asked, from the seat behind him.
"Aye," he said, resolutely, and fumbled with the door, imitating Rob's motion. It sprang open. He climbed out gingerly, resisting the urge to rub his aching posterior.
The group surged in. A waif-like girl, with short red hair jutting from her head like a ruffled grouse, eyed him with concern, before going to Amy. A busty woman, wearing even less than Amy, edged out the others and threw her arms around him. Her blonde hair tickled his nose and eyes. "Oh, Shawn!" she cried. "I was so worried! Poor Shawn! How awful for you!"
"Aye," he agreed, barely able to breathe, and carefully disentangled himself from her web of arms and hair. She seemed oblivious to having been dismissed, and hovered behind him chattering about her fear for him. He studied the other faces. He saw naked curiosity, excitement, admiration. One young woman, with hair as pale as Rob's, hung back, throwing shy glances his way.
Men pressed forward. Tell us what happened! Women hung on his arms. Are you hurt, Shawn? and everybody spoke at once. Did you see Nessie? His heart pounded uncomfortably. Conrad scheduled the concert for Saturday morning. He couldn't wait for your decision. He studied each face in turn, making assessments.
"What are you wearing?" someone demanded.
"A hot bath! I'll run you a hot bath, you poor baby!" the bosomy woman chattered behind him.
"Dress-up day at the castle?" asked a man.
A young man, with jet black hair, stood apart from the rest, back by the castle door. He alone paid Niall no attention. Niall followed his eyes and saw that he stared steadily, sadly, at the platinum-haired girl casting shy, hopeful glances toward Niall.
A man grabbed Niall's hand, and pumped it. Good to have you back! Niall fought the desire to grab his dirk. They pressed too close for him to reach it, inside his boot. "Amy!" he snapped. "Taeke me to my room!"
"Why's he talking like that?" came out of the crowd.
"That's Shawn, all right!" someone else said. A hand slapped him on the back. The crowd parted before him, and he followed Amy up the stone stairs.
Behind him, the blonde woman huffed.
"Rob!" Niall added. "Send for Conrad. Now!"
* * *
The conductor proved to be a short and very furious man, his face brick red, arms flailing, and white hair crackling upright with irritation of its own. "What do you mean by disappearing like that!" He stamped across the sitting room of Shawn's huge suite, narrowly avoiding a mahogany table and overstuffed divan. Niall tried not to stare at the blue-papered walls and frescoed ceiling. He started as Conrad turned back suddenly, pounding a fist in his palm. "You knew I was waiting for your answer!" A vein throbbed purple in his neck. "The whole orchestra was waiting for you."
"I'm the one who left him there," Amy said.
"If you left him, he gave you darn good reason," Conrad snorted.
"This is all my fault," Amy whispered, turning as pink as Conrad was red.
"'Twas nothing to do with her." Niall pulled his attention from the box with a black glossy front. He wondered what it held.
At the same time, Conrad turned to her in almost equal outrage, yelling, "I will not have you taking blame for his stupid, irresponsible, thoughtless, selfish, pig-headed behavior!" The vein pulsed dangerously. "And where in the world did you get that outfit?" He looked up and down Niall's full-sleeved shirt, tunic, and trews. "Those boots!" he added with a harrumph. His eyebrows quivered.
Niall looked down at his boots. He rather thought the cordwainer had outdone himself on this pair. Conrad hammered out another lap up and down the chamber. Thank goodness it was so large, Niall thought, concerned for the poor man's health. "This takes the cake!" Conrad thundered. While Conrad ranted, Niall returned to his study of the room. Its size rivaled the Laird's. He tried to imagine MacDonald's chambers being used by someone like the person this Shawn seemed to be. "Of all the things you've done, this tops it!"
Niall stared in fascination as the angry torrent washed over him. Amy said there was no laird, but obviously he'd do better in this man's good graces.
"Nobody else is hurt," Amy said. She sat in the window seat, rubbing her right hand back and forth on one finger of her left hand. Her hair fell over her shoulder, brushing her leg. "No hotels are damaged."
"I guess that's an improvement," Conrad grumbled.
Niall gazed through the doorway into the bedroom, to a massive four-poster with dark blue hangings. Matching drapes framed the leaded glass windows in the sitting room. Turning from the bedroom, Niall wandered to one of the windows to look down, Conrad's angry words wafting over him unheard. A lawn stretched for acres below, smooth and green, with a few scattered trees. It begged for young children to run across it. At the far end was a stone wall, beyond which lay a garden awash in color. He'd heard the English had such things. Imagine. Walling in flowers. He thought he saw fruit trees, and vowed, forgetting Hugh for a moment, that he'd take a walk in this garden and have a piece of fruit.
"Arrows!" Conrad spit out behind him. "How do you do it, Shawn! How do you attract so much trouble?"
"This is different," Amy said, trying to calm Conrad. "He didn't do it this time."
"No, thank goodness! After lassoing the waitress in Edinburgh, I guess I should be grateful he isn't the one who did the shooting!"
"Lassoing?" Niall turned from his survey of the distant gardens.
"You don't remember?" Conrad pounded his fist in his hand. "You don't remember that?" The vein throbbed. He drew a deep breath and added, "Maybe that's just as well if it means you've turned over a new leaf."
"I know nothing of who I was," Niall lied, carefully flattening his vowels.
"He's not himself," Amy reminded him.
"Causing trouble is exactly like him! How could you do this?" Conrad shouted again.
"I beg your forgiveness, sir." Niall bowed his head low. "I wish to assure you, it will not happen again. I need to ask...."
"What's this?" roared Conrad, his white mustache quivering. He stared in shock at Niall, then turned a demanding look to Amy, who shrugged helplessly.
"I told you he's acting-different."
Niall darted a furtive look at the heavy, golden torch holders on the wall. The torches in them looked nothing like the torches he knew. They gave steady light, with no flame. Amazing! "It won't happen again," Niall repeated. Conrad stared, dumbfounded. Niall stared back, equally perplexed. Why did the man seem so baffled and angry to be given the assurance he clearly wanted?
"Well, I'll be...." Conrad let the sentence hang unfinished. He squinted, just barely, studying Niall from a slightly tilted head. "You're actually apologizing?"
"Indeed I am, my Lord," Niall said. Clearly, this Shawn had not a reputation for showing proper respect to authority, given their reactions to an apology.
Conrad's face turned slowly red again. Amy hurried over, taking Niall's arm. "I think 'sir' would have been better," she said. To Conrad, she added, "I don't think he's trying to be facetious."
"He's got a history that would suggest otherwise," grumbled Conrad. "Shawn, this is one stunt too many. Let me be blunt. Regardless of the impact on the orchestra, you're half a step from being fired. The cost of your behavior has gotten too high. I couldn't wait on your answer. We scheduled a late morning concert for Saturday. Same music."
"Yes, my-yes, sir," Niall said. He didn't know what a concert might be, but it sounded as if he'd be burned at the stake if he failed. If it involved music, surely he could pull something off, if, of course, he was still caught here five days hence. Music, he could do. "But I must ask...."
"He really is behaving strangely, isn't he?" Conrad peered more closely.
"I'm fine, sir. I need...."
"There's a horrible bruise, and cuts," Amy said. "Shawn, show him." She pushed his hair back from his temple. Her intimate touch jolted him, tingling.
Conrad stared, fingering his mustache, and muttering. "Not that courtesy and co-operation aren't a welcome change, but this seems too good to be true."
"Sir." Niall stepped into the brief silence. "I must ask...."
"The doctor says you're fine," Conrad interrupted, leaping with vengeance back to his pacing. "The concert, then. Anything you want, ask when you've given me a good concert. Otherwise, you're fired. Rehearsal tomorrow at nine. Same music."
Niall shook his head sadly, wondering how he was going to reach Hugh. Had he realized he was going to get trapped in these people's lives, threatened with firing, he'd have demanded to be taken back to the castle to work it out on his own. He imagined co-operating now would give him the greatest freedom to get help and leave when he must. "I'm sorry. I doon't remember the music."
"Don't remember! We played it two nights ago!"
"Just tell him," Amy said. "It'll come back."
"Blue Bells of Scotland," Amy added.
"Och! I knoo Blue Bells!" Niall said excitedly.
They stared at him. He wondered, uneasily, what he'd said wrong. His goal, he reminded himself, was to gain this man's favor and help.
Conrad studied him silently, doubt dawning in his eyes. "Get out your trombone!" Suspicion lined his voice like soft cotton batting.
"My...." Niall searched his brain, shifted vowels around, trying to guess what this word meant. Rob had used it, too. "My what?" He wondered, at that moment, if he was capable of earning this man's favor. Might it not be better to run now and figure out a way to help himself? But it would take a full day to walk back to the castle, if they didn't catch him and lock him up or set him ablaze.
Amy was already pulling a long, narrow case, bulging at one end, from the corner of the room. She laid it on the bed next to him. He studied it, ran his hands over a fawn-colored covering, dark brown leather around the edges, and brass studs, till he realized they were, with equal intensity, studying him.
He glanced at them, and quickly back to the case, not sure what to do. Then, he saw the latches, and, with a little fumbling, popped them. He lifted the lid to reveal the finest golden instrument he'd ever seen, a curved pipe with a flaring bell. Letters were engraved on it. He traced them, sounding them out. Conrad tapped his foot. "Edward's?" Niall looked up, excited at understanding the letters. "Edward played this?" Past and present swirled around him like the loch's mists.
"Very funny, Shawn." Conrad folded his arms across his chest.
"Of course," Niall said. Edward was seven hundred years ago. What a stupid gaff. He pulled out the curved pipe with its flaring bell. It seemed to be a horn of some sort.
"The slide?" Amy said. She reached in the box and lifted out a long, narrow part, that wrapped back on itself. She took the bell from him and fit the pieces together, looking at him with real concern.
Niall stared in dismay.
It had been a Sunday. William begged the Laird to come attend the sheep. William always had a story; he'd keep the Laird away a good long time. Niall and Iohn slipped into MacDonald's chambers and dug out the shiny new sackbut the gypsies had traded for turnips. All the way from England, they said, and such a rich, deep tone. All the Laird's musicians had tried, but none could produce anything that might be called rich.
At thirteen, Niall was not allowed to try. That didn't stop him. He and Iohn admired it, moved the slide up and down, laughing with hands pressed over mouths at their clever machinations against the Laird. Even now, he'd be hearing a long-winded list of things William had noticed about the sheep, with detailed accounts of every event that had happened on the moors leading up to these discoveries, and a lengthy discourse on the care and breeding of livestock in general. Niall blew into the instrument. A wheezing gasp of dry air came out the end.
Iohn shuddered. "Let me try," he said. He grabbed the sackbut from Niall, sucked in a deep breath, and blew, before Niall could see how he'd done it. The sound filled the chambers. Not the glorious sound described by the gypsies, but powerful.
"How did you do that?" Niall demanded. He reached for the instrument, but Iohn skipped away, laughing. "I'm better," he gloated.
A heavy stone ground in the bottom of Niall's stomach. He was invariably just a little faster, a little stronger, a little bolder. And though Iohn could sing, he couldn't make sense of the harp strings, ever.
Niall grabbed for the instrument again. He blew and blew, and produced only squawks and grunts and wheezes, while Iohn laughed louder than necessary, clutching his sides in exaggeration.
Niall glared. "'Tis a foolish thing anyway!" He shoved it back at Iohn, who blew again and got that same powerful tone. It slipped up to a higher note without a movement from the slide. Iohn took it away from his mouth and stared in delight. Niall left the chambers and never tried the sackbut again.
"This better not be for real," Conrad muttered, his arms locked like steel across his chest.
Niall stared at Edward's sackbut. Adding up all he knew of Shawn, the images all over town, the cocky, grinning face so like his own and yet so different, the talk of a concert, he understood what they expected. His face fell. He could not please this man. He saw his chances of gaining his trust and cooperation, and getting back to Hugh, dwindle to nothing. Scotland was lost, and there was naught he could do. "I canna play a sackbut," he said sadly.
Inverness, Scotland, Present
After another brief drive along the River Ness, Conrad and Niall reached a small castle of bricks and glass. Inside, several women huddled behind a low wall, under another of the large paintings. In this one, Shawn, once again with a plaid wrapped around his waist, lounged in a small boat with another buxom woman behind him, gripping his shoulders, her mouth and eyes in round O's of surprise. SHAWN KLEINER read the words above him. His sackbut stuck out like a fishing pole, reeling in a long-necked creature rising from the water. The best was all Niall managed to read of the words below, before the women popped up from behind the wall, giggling and blushing.
"Oh, I looove your shirt, Mr. Kleiner!" one of them squealed. She was far too old to be squealing like a love-sick lass, Niall thought. He looked down at his wide-sleeved shirt, laced at the throat, no different than any other man wore. Amy had refused to let him wear the tunic. He'd refused to be stuffed into Shawn's bizarre clothing. She'd relented and allowed him the trews, shirt, and boots.
"They'll all be dressed like that by tomorrow," Conrad grumbled. "Why can't you just be normal for once?" He brushed the women off and bustled Niall up a wide open flight of stairs, into a cavernous chamber larger than any great hall; greater, he was sure, than even Edward Longshanks had had in his glory days.
Niall took in the odd sight of hundreds of plush seats, cushioned like thrones, all facing the same way. No straw on the floor. He rather liked that. A path alongside the seats ended at a dais, though it rose higher than any he'd ever seen, higher than a man's waist. On it, dozens more chairs, small hard ones, faced a low raised platform. A single beam of light fell from above, as if from Heaven, on one large pillar, standing before all the chairs.
"The harp is onstage," barked Conrad. "This better be all you say it is, Shawn. You're on the brink...." Conrad snapped his mouth shut.
Niall glanced at him. Of being fired, he finished. He could play harp. There'd be no reason for Conrad to set him ablaze or shoot him. He'd play and get this man's cooperation. Easy.
He searched the dais for a small clairsach like his own. Not seeing one, he turned back toward the free-standing pillar. Its ethereal gold shone in the light. Carvings adorned the top and bottom. He walked toward it, seeing now that it sat on a base, and now-the strings stretched out in an orderly row behind the magnificent column.
This was the harp? The words almost came out of his mouth, but he remembered what they thought of his reaction to the sackbut. The tromboon, he corrected himself. He must remember the proper name.
Raised a soldier, and having learned his lesson, he kept his face impassive. But inwardly, his jaw fell, his eyes grew wide. He reached the dais and stared, in awe, at the harp rising above him. Its magnificent soundboard swelled out, swirling with floral, gold-inlaid motifs. He touched the base, the gold cool to his fingers, feeling the raised designs. Magnificent! If only the Laird could see this! He'd not quit his workshop till he'd built one himself! He studied the harp's features, memorizing every detail for the Laird.
"The stairs, Shawn. On your right. We don't have time." Conrad's grumble registered through his awe.
"Aye, sir," Niall said, forgetting that Shawn apparently did neither ayes nor sirs. He glanced to his right, found the stairs running up to the black-coated platform, and went up quickly, and back to the harp. It rose as tall as a man. "This is a harp!" he whispered.
"I like your outfit." A soft voice spoke behind him. He jumped, and turned to see the girl from the crowd this morning, the one who had hovered in the background. Hair flowed down her back, pale honey, almost to her knees. "The red strings are C." Her large blue eyes looked up at him through dark lashes. "The black strings are F. Remember when I showed you...?" Her voice trailed off. Her eyes returned to the floor, darted up again briefly to him. This must be Celine. Conrad had said she would meet them.
"No," he said softly. "I don't remember." He studied her young, innocent face, the way her eyes met his, hoping, and had a strong intuition Shawn had also shown her things. It appeared she was still smitten with him, and from her hesitant manner, he suspected Shawn had given her enough hope to keep her so, but not enough to embolden her. Scoundrel, he thought in disgust.
He turned to the harp, disturbed. She indicated the stool behind it. He seated himself, pulling the huge instrument down onto his right shoulder. The weight was greater than his small instrument, solid and gratifying.
Part of his mind stayed on Celine, hovering-and hoping-on his left. He felt for her. His insides raged, both at the man who would treat her so, and the idea that this is what people now thought of him. He touched the strings, wondering at this new complication. But it wasn't his complication, he told himself. His job was to get back to Hugh.
He sighed, and plucked a few strings, enjoying the instrument's deep reverberations. It felt good to play. It was his favorite thing, but with the cattle problems, the MacDougalls, and the looming battle with the English, there'd been little time of late. He wondered that these people led lives so easy and comfortable they could do this any time they wished!
He tried a few more strings, and played a scale. It now became easy to run his fingers over a familiar melody. He played it once, and lifted his left hand to add chords. Peace washed over him. He lowered his head, feeling nothing but the music. The bulk of the instrument, and the unfamiliar, heavy strings caused him to miss a few notes, but for the most part, he found it delightfully easy, playing this much larger instrument.
The clapping of two hands, slow and methodical, burst from the dark, jolting him from his reverie. "You've caused a lot of trouble in this orchestra, Shawn." Conrad's voice boomed from the dark. "But I always give credit where credit is due. Truly impressive. How have you managed to keep this secret from us?"
"You told me you couldn't play," Celine murmured.
Niall glanced from Celine to Conrad. "Just something I- learned," he said helplessly. And to Celine, "It seems you're a guid teacher."
"We usually do Blue Bells in D," Conrad said.
"In D?" Niall looked helplessly at Celine. "What dooz that mean?"
"Here." She edged in close, her leg coming over his. He jumped, shocked and wondering what she thought she could do with the real Shawn here in front of Conrad. Anything seemed possible in a world where women wore undergarments, and less, in public. "The pedals," she said. "I need to change the pedals." He looked down. Seven gleaming brass pedals jutted from the base. She pushed two with her foot. "Now play."
He touched the strings again. This time, Blue Bells came out all wrong, even though he'd hit the right strings. "What happened?" he asked.
"You have to transpose."
"I don't know what this transpose is," he replied, copying the word carefully.
"What happened to you? They're saying you were shot by an arrow."
"Transpose?" Niall reminded her.
"Play every note a step higher than it was?" she said, perplexed.
"Ah." His eyes lit up. He understood the concept, although he'd never heard the word. He pushed his hair back from his temple, and she gasped at the bruise. "It's made me forget much," he said. He took a moment to think, then played Blue Bells again, moving everything up a step.
Conrad clapped. "You'll do," he said, delight in his voice. "Keep playing. I'm going to move around the hall and get a feel for the sound." Niall inclined his head in acknowledgment, remembering to ease off the ayes and sirs. Conrad's footsteps faded away in the dark.
Niall wondered, uneasily, what was expected of him. He and Celine stared at each other. "I'll need help," Niall said, breaking the silence. "I don't know the music. Play it or sing it to me, and I can do it."
She smiled shyly, and worked her way in between him and the harp. He was startled, given her demeanor, at the boldness of the move. This was what she'd been asking him to remember. Shawn had done this before with her, he was certain. He stood abruptly, thinking of Allene, and backed away.
She turned to him in shock. Her face fell. Her cheeks turned bright pink, and she hung her head. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I know you told me.... But I thought, when you wanted me here today...."
"Conrad asked you here," he said, and realized, seeing the tears glisten in the corners of her eyes, that he sounded harsh. He touched her back, where she sat on the stool, awkwardly, and pulled his hand away. He was aware of Conrad still moving around the hall. "Show me the music. We'll talk when Conrad leaves," he said softly.
She nodded, and lifted graceful fingers to the strings. He took in every motion. Music flowed magically, gentle yet powerful enough to fill the chamber. The colored patterns of the strings, under her fingers, sparkled on his brain, leaving a trail for him to follow.
He sighed heavily, thinking of his need to reach Hugh, as he watched, and wondering if he'd made the right choice in coming here. Nonetheless, he was somewhat trapped, and would do what he could with the situation into which God had placed him. He leaned forward and studied her right hand, memorizing the patterns her fingers danced on the strings.
"Again, sloo-er," he said. She played again, obediently. In his mind, his fingers moved with hers. "Again." He closed his eyes and listened intently, letting his fingers, in his mind, follow the pattern. "I'll do it now," he said.
She stood, silently. He played it twice, three, four times, each time fixing mistakes, until it came out perfectly. Even as he stood to let her take the stool, his mind was once more reviewing the piece, settling it firmly into his memory.
"I don't know how you're doing that, Shawn," came Conrad's voice from the back of the hall, "but it sounds great. Celine, teach him the whole program. I'm going to talk to the board. We'll see you at rehearsal tomorrow."
A band of light appeared at the back of the hall, and Conrad's silhouetted figure disappeared out of the door. It swung shut, leaving the hall once again in darkness.
Onstage, in the glare of the spotlight, Celine waited for Niall's nod, and started the next piece. She played it several times, before he once again took his turn. "A singer will do this one with you," she said.
"Sing it, then." Niall rolled a chord. Deep reverberations resonated through his body. He fought back a thrill at the sound and touch of this magnificent instrument. After all, he was supposed to be getting back to Hugh, and this wasn't doing it. Her light, clear voice joined in.
Young Ian did a friend betray,
A friend he did betray,
He took him to the English King
And he a price did pay
Young Ian with his golden voice
Did have the blackest heart
Young Ian in his crimson cloak
Betrayed his dearest friend.
He rolled another rich chord to end the piece. "A sad tale," he said.
"In England, the same ballad treats him as a hero."
He leaned forward, and lifted his hands to the strings once more, remembering Lord Darnley, William, and Iohn singing with him on many a winter's evening by the great fire. He closed his eyes, smiling as Celine began to sing once more.
With eyes of loch and forest glen,
With eyes of loch and glen,
Young Ian spoke the falsest words,
Pretending he was a friend
But as the battle round him broke,
He raised his voice in song,
Young Ian with his crimson cloak,
Betrayed his dearest friend.
"I don't remember the rest," she said. "I'm sorry." He ran his fingers up the harp strings in a long arpeggio, and struck a low note, finishing off the song.
"Beautiful!" he said in amazement.
She taught him ballads, jigs, and dance pieces. She knew the story behind each, and Niall fascinated to hear this history of his country, things that would not happen until hundreds of years after his own birth. "Enough for one day," he finally said, rising from the stool. "Now we talk." He pulled up a chair, knee to knee with her.
They stared at each other awkwardly. He didn't know where to start. He couldn't tell the truth, of course. He'd be locked up. And even this quiet girl would most likely slap him for such a story. Allene certainly would! He wondered if Shawn had met Allene and earned a slap from her yet. He smiled.
He cleared his throat and met her eyes. "When I wook up in the castle, I dinna know who or where I was." It was almost true. Still, he hated himself for telling stories to this vulnerable girl, as Shawn had most definitely already done more than once. He only hoped she would see the sincerity of his intent in his eyes; hear it in his tone. "I canna say what happened." That was true enough. "But I tell you this: I don't remember you and I. I don't remember what I did, but I think I wasn't nice."
A single tear trailed down her cheek. "You said you loved me when you came to my house that night," she whispered. A sheet of long, honey hair fell over her shoulder, shielding her face. "You brought me a rose and said it was over with Amy. You said you didn't want to hurt her, and we had to be discreet until she accepted the inevitable."
He touched her shoulder awkwardly. Shawn had lied. Even he, stumbling into the situation, could see it had never been over with Amy.
"I'm sorry," he said. Her pain hurt him. She, he could see, would not tread on a rose petal for fear of harming it. "I was wrong. I lied. I...."
She looked up at him, her china blue eyes wet. "You lied?" She looked down at the floor again. She wiped the back of her hand against one eye, and after a few moments said, "I always knew you had. I just...I just didn't want to believe it. I don't lie. I don't understand lying."
"Remember I don't know who I was," Niall said, taking her hand. "Tell me: why did you wait for him-for me-when you knew?"
"I wanted it to be true." She stared at the floor. "I didn't think you'd lie to me."
"Why?" he asked. "Why did you want it to be true that he felt something for you?"
She studied his face.
"Look at me." Niall spread his hands. "I'm seeing-myself-as if I had been another pairson, and it seems he was not a verra nice pairson."
"Sometimes you weren't," Celine admitted.
"Because you were kind and gentle to me."
"Aye," he snapped. "Casting you aside, leave you waiting when I finished with you was kind and gentle?" He wasn't sure if he was more angry with Shawn's abominable behavior, or with Celine for buying it.
"You're right." She bit her lip. "I was a fool."
"You weren't a fool," he said. "Shawn-I mean, the auld Shawn- was skilled at deceiving. Do not let him do it again. Do not think you're worth so little."
There was a moment's silence, in which Niall's head spun. He'd gone to sleep, only last night, in the fourteenth century. The many events of the day spun through his head, the fresh morning air off the Loch, the revelations in the hospital, the stomach turning car ride, and the bizarre hero's welcome at the castle. It was this scene that ran most strongly through his mind, and he suddenly understood something. "Have you never considered," he said slowly, feeling for the right words, "that there may be someone who would treat you so much better? Someone you'd have seen had you not set your feather for Shawn?"
"You speak like you're someone else," she said.
Yes, Niall thought. He must be careful of that. "I feel as if I am," he said. "I remember nothing. Was there never another?"
She nodded. "You knew I went out with Aaron a few times."
"Aaron? The young one with the black hair?"
Celine nodded. "You said he didn't love me like you did. You said he wouldn't want me anymore. You said if I'd just wait...."
"I'm truly sorry." Niall almost choked on the words, pretending to have been such a foul person. "I'm sorry for who I was, and what I've done. Do you not see the way Aaron looks at you? Do you feel nothing for him?"
"I thought I was in love with him. But then you-you were so important, and you treated me so well. For awhile. It's hard to compare."
"Poor Aaron," Niall said. "He doesn't glitter like Sh...like I do. But perhaps he is the real gold. Did he ever leave you waiting? Did he lie to you? Did he take you away from what was good in your life?"
"No." Her head hung.
"Shawn did. Remember that when you look at me." It occurred to him that the real Shawn might be back. "No matter what I say in the future," he added. He laughed inwardly at the joke. Everything he said was seven hundred years in his future! "No matter what I say," he repeated for emphasis, "remember who treated you well. It was Aaron."
"Yes, I'll remember," she said.
"Now kiss me," he demanded.
Her eyes widened, hopefully. "You mean it? But you just said...."
He slapped his knee angrily. "No, no, no! This is what I'm talking aboot! Do you not learn! This is where you slap me!"
She heaved a sigh. "I don't understand."
"You're an innocent," he said. "You don't understand lying and deception because you dinna do it yerself. Shawn-the auld Shawn-is a liar and a deceiver. I dinna know what happened in the castle, but the pairson I am now-I want never to hurt you again. Ye must understand I may be a liar and deceiver again, in a week, in a day. When I am, you must slap me if I try to take you from the good in your life."
She still looked uncertain.
"All right, you must learn one way or another," Niall said with determination. He offered his cheek to her. "Slap me."
She lifted a limp hand, and grazed his cheek.
"Sad!" he barked. "Think of all the lies!" He rose from his chair. "Think of the days you could have spent with someone who cared aboot ye! Think of the days in your room pining for him while he was having fun with Amy, not carin' a hoot aboot ye!" He'd guessed, from the young lasses he'd seen behaving the same way, and saw in her eyes he'd guessed right. "Did ye see me walking the gairdens hand in hand with Amy," he taunted, "while ye sat in your room?"
Her eyes blazed up at him.
"I wasna even thinkin' o' ye," he mocked.
Her slap stunned him. This time, it stung hard and sent him reeling into the chair behind him. His knees caught it, and he fell, pushing over two more chairs as he went down. He landed in a heap amidst the chairs, his cheek stinging, a chair biting into his back, and the stitches in his posterior burning. He laughed in delight. "Verra guid!" he said. "Now kick me for guid measure!" She did, and he groaned. "Did ye have to get the stitches?" He rubbed hard, hoping she hadn't broken anything open.
"You're right about everything, Shawn." Her china blue eyes spit fire at him. "I'm a fool. I'm even more a fool that you have to convince me yourself how awful you've been. I knew it and I didn't want to see it."
"You're a fool with someone who's verra much in love with ye," Niall said in delight. "Go to Aaron and never, ever look at me again as someone worthy of your time! I beg you!"
* * *
Niall spent his brief respite, after playing Celine's harp, in the hotel lobby, picking up the many brochures lying around; large, glossy ones like those at the hospital.
The woman with the ruffled-pheasant-feathers hair appeared, touching his sleeve. Close up, Niall saw the sprinkle of freckles across her nose and eyes the color of cinnamon. "Shawn, you should have called me," she said.
"Excuse me?" He lowered the brochure, and tried to keep his eyes off her hair.
"Didn't you have your cell phone with you?"
He closed the brochure, frowning. "My what?"
Her eyebrows furrowed. She looked close to tears. "It's me, Dana. You don't remember me at all?"
"My apologies, no." His mind spun, trying to think what he could ask to get more information about Shawn. But she blinked eyes that pooled like dew on the bluebells, blinked fast and hard, and hastened away, almost running from the hall.
He sighed and turned back to the brochures. It took some searching at first, difficult with the print and spelling so odd to his eyes, but he found what he was looking for. Though the months varied, they all, without fail, were dated well into the twenty-first century. The Sassenach could not possibly set up such an elaborate ruse, with wonders unheard of, with people pretending to know and care for him, with an amazing tale of time travel.
They wouldn't have, when they could have just kidnapped or killed him.
After seeing the date for the ninth time, he went to his room, where he fell on his knees, head bowed, not even knowing what to pray. He clenched his hands, till his knuckles turned white.
When Amy came for him at dinner time, God had still granted him no wisdom or hope. But he'd regained a sense of calm and duty, and saw sense in giving in this time when she insisted he wear the stiff leggings, the jeans, that constrained and clung oddly to his legs, after a lifetime in loose trews and tunics; odd, short hose that came only to his ankles; useless, tight black shoes that bound his feet in and would never do for running or hiking or fighting; a white shirt with small buttons and short sleeves that ended well above his elbows.
She led him to the great hall. She called it a dining room.
He stood at the door, when they reached it, needing time to adjust to this unexpected sight. The dining room had no straw on the floor, but the same soft carpeting as the other rooms. It had a fireplace at one end, but no fire was laid. He looked for the head table, where an important man such as Shawn seemed to be, would sit. But all were identical, round and covered in white cloths. Women in short, black skirts served the food; not boys. They did not scurry, but walked placidly. The Laird would bellow at such complacency! There was not a dog in sight.
Heads turned. "There's Shawn, waiting to see who notices his grand entrance!" a man shouted.
"Come on, quit making a show of it," Amy whispered. "Why do you always have to do this?
He moved forward, among the tables, stiffening his spine resolutely as the future leader he was. He understood immediately, from the greetings of a number of men and the coquettish smiles of many women, that Shawn was a great favorite. But neither did he miss those who turned the other way as he walked past. He said little, merely nodded gravely to those who hailed him. He saw the looks of confusion on their faces, and their hands fell lifelessly.
He saw and felt the whispers swirling behind his back. Obviously, this was not the way the real Shawn would have behaved. He didn't worry. The head injury would cover a multitude of inconsistencies.
Amy led him to a table, with Rob and the pheasant-haired woman-Dana, he reminded himself-and several others. A serving woman in a short, black skirt rushed to slide a soft cushion on his chair. He seated himself carefully, nodded courteously in response to their greetings. Dana barely glanced at him, but slipped a comforting arm around Amy's shoulder. "How are you doing?" she asked, and Amy murmured back.
The servant girl hovered. "Bring me ale," Niall said to her. The seven other faces at the table turned toward him.
He looked back at them, questioningly.
"You usually prefer lager," Amy said, softly.
"Ale," Niall answered. The serving woman nodded and left.
"I hear you play harp now," one of the men said.
"What's this about an arrow in the butt?" asked another.
"It can't really have been an arrow," Amy said. "He must have gashed himself on a rock or...or something.
"You finally got Amy mad enough to ditch you," hooted another man.
"Maybe it was Amy who shot you. What did you do?"
"Would you stop it," Dana snapped.
Beside him, Amy turned red and stared at her napkin. "I told him I'm sorry," she said.
"She's not to blaeme," Niall said, feeling for her. Remembering his experience with Celine, he felt sure Amy was not at fault in anything, regarding Shawn.
The servant returned, bearing a tankard-a tankard of glass! Niall picked it up and stared at it in astonishment.
"Shawn! Put the mug down!" Amy hissed.
"Never seen a mug?" one of the men asked.
"He hurt his head," Amy explained.
"Sir?" said the woman.
He looked from the others' surprised faces, to the serving woman, and set the mug down. From a glass bottle similar to the one he'd seen in the basket, she poured what must be the ale, flowing gold, into the mug. He picked up the frothing mug, trying to recover his dignity. He gulped, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand to cover the sudden puckering of his lips, and forced back the urge to spit it out. It was strong and bitter, nothing like the ale he knew. They all watched. He swallowed, and smiled back, weakly. "Guid," he said. "Verra guid ale."
"Picked up an arrow and an accent overnight," one of the men remarked.
"An arrow, an accent, and an ale," said another.
"Aye," he agreed, for lack of anything better to say. But he vowed to listen and copy their speech more carefully. Thankfully, the woman returned, setting food in front of him: meat, peas, something like turnips, but bigger. He wondered if it would taste as he expected, or be as different as the ale was from what he knew. It smelled good. With a last, suspicious look at the so-called ale, he bowed his head. He crossed himself and folded his hands, his fingertips touching his nose. He thanked God, asked for guidance, crossed himself again, and raised his head.
The others stared, open-mouthed.
"Picked up an arrow, an accent, an ale, and religion," said Rob.
Dana glared at him. "You think this is funny?"
"Picked up an arrow, an accent, an ale, religion, and a couple of girls," said a third. Niall's ear processed his inflections for future use.
"Knock it off!" Amy set her fork down hard. Her lower lip tightened, as if holding back tears.
"Peace, Amy," Niall murmured, touching her arm. "Is the food good?" he asked the others, shaping his words carefully. He picked up one of the curious pronged forks they all favored, and copied their motions, cutting his meat with knife and fork and lifting it to his mouth. They nodded their assent, commented on the tastiness of the food, and slipped into conversation he couldn't entirely follow. He listened carefully throughout the meal, fully aware of their curious looks in his direction, as words became steadily more sensible, from the sounds coming out of their mouths.
"Are you okay, Shawn?" Amy asked him at length. "Do you want to go back to your room?"
The concern on her face reminded him what this odd word okay meant. He imitated their vowels carefully. "I'm okay. I'll stay," he said. He watched the man across the table lift a square of cloth to his mouth. He did the same. He had a great deal to learn from these people, if he was going to find a way out of this mess.
The women in short dresses came to clear the plates. One of them leaned close for his dishes, pressing her bosom against his cheek. "My apologies, madam." Niall pulled away. He heard Amy gasp, and noted the surprise on her face.
The girl in the short skirt giggled, and there was her bosom, right against his cheek again. He realized with shock that she was doing it on purpose. She slipped a bit of script-covered parchment in front of him. "Will you sign it?" she asked. "My friends couldn't believe I was going to see you tonight. Will you, please?"
Amy watched him.
"You want me to sign...my name?" he asked. She nodded so hard he feared her head would bob right off. He took the nib-less quill she offered. He thought back to the paintings of Shawn, picturing the letters that had spelled his name. He touched the quill to the parchment. Purple ink flowed from it. Purple ink! He realized everyone at the table was looking at him strangely. He lowered the quill and wrote Shawn Kleiner in his finest script. It dawned on him half way through that Shawn might not write in Niall's own fine hand, and that he himself had scrawled an illegible signature at the hospital.
He looked up at Amy. She stared at the elegant script in shock, and raised her eyes to his. Shockingly blue eyes. Shockingly upset eyes.
Glenmirril Castle, Scotland
A knock sounded on Shawn's door, seemingly minutes later. But the room was dark when he opened his eyes. He sat up, yawning, and scratching at his belly through the woolen monk's robe. The morning's hangover had passed, but not the craving for coffee. Outside the window, the moon hung low on the horizon in a pale charcoal sky. He stood up, stretching. The door eased open. To Shawn's surprise, the Laird himself came in, bearing a candle in one hand and a large bag slung on his back.
MacDonald must have seen the surprise in Shawn's eyes, even in the dim light, for he laid his hand on his shoulder. "I told you to trust few. I take my own advice. No one but you, me, and the lad must know the truth of your journey. You are my future son-in-law, and my heir. May God go with you, Niall. Ye've said your prayers?"
Shawn shook his head. Not since that last Mass, six days before his father's murder, had Shawn prayed. The old man pushed him down. He landed roughly on his knees, the Laird kneeling beside him with folded hands and bowed head. "God, our dear Father, grant Niall safety and wisdom on his journey. May God protect us all, especially my lad. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, amen." He crossed himself again, and they both rose. The Laird hefted the bag up to Shawn.
Shawn took it, wondering at its size and weight. Food? Thinking of the salmon and chocolate mousse they'd be serving at the hotel, his stomach growled. "It can't be past midnight," he said.
"Much earlier. Too many expected you to leave in the wee hours of morn. You must be well away before they start to watch for you."
"Wasn't it only the lords in the room who knew that?"
"Aye." The Laird did not elaborate. He pulled a rope from under the bed, and carried it to the window set back in the recess.
Shawn's stomach quelled again. "What's wrong with the door?" He went to the window himself, and looked out. Stiff wind yanked at his hair. He looked down, down, down into a bubbling witch's cauldron of mist. His stomach lurched far worse than any hangover. The rock wall dropped sheer, hundreds of feet. The rocky escarpment on which the castle stood dropped further still. Shawn's head reeled. He yanked it inside.
"You're kidding," he said.
"They may be watching the drawbridge. Hold the bag tightly, now." MacDonald tossed the rope out the window. It slithered down, slapping the wall. The Laird coiled the end tightly around his hands. "When you reach the bottom, run up the hill and down to the copse on the other side. Ye'll do it my way this time, eh, Niall?"
"Uh, yeah," Shawn said. He hoped the man didn't read his intentions to go his own way, directly north to Inverness.
"My way, Niall," the old man insisted. "Tweaking my plans may have worked with the MacDougalls, but not this time. Swear it!"
Shawn nodded vigorously, wanting nothing more than to be out of here. The Laird studied him hard, as if expecting more. "I'll do it," Shawn assured him.
"An' a last word of caution." The old man placed a short, thick dirk on the window ledge. Shawn eyed it. The old man eyed him. They eyed each other. "You treat the laddie proper. I'd no ha' sent him but for such desperate need."
"Yes, sir." He had no idea what the Laird feared, but the knife's sharp blade ran a cold finger down his spine.
"An' I hear a word agin you, we'll be having words." He tapped the handle of his dagger, glinting in the moonlight on the sill. "Am I clear?"
Shawn stared at the knife, blinking hard. He nodded. "Yes, sir! There'll be no complaints!"
"Good man, Niall." The Laird slid the dirk from the windowsill. With trepidation, Shawn took the oilskin bag, strapped it firmly across his back, and crawled up where the dagger had been. Wind tore at his legs, hanging out. He looked down, thankful he'd never been afraid of heights. This view, however, just might change that. "I hope you're strong," he muttered, and, clutching the rope, dropped over the ledge. He fell, slamming against the stone wall. The wind shoved at him. The rope slipped in his hands, tearing skin from his palms. He grabbed tighter, wincing at the burn.
"Hand over hand," the Laird whispered fiercely. "Careful with the bag. Ye cannna have it breaking. Hurry! My back is no what it was."
"I can do this," Shawn told himself. He managed to twist his feet in the rope-the leather sandals gripped it well-and, going against every survival instinct, forced himself to loosen his grip in one hand, then another, lowering himself down the rope. The moon, thankfully, had slipped behind clouds. Mist steamed on the loch far below; there was not a stirring of life anywhere.
He lowered himself another hand under hand, fighting the wind, and clung for several seconds, refusing to look down, before releasing his grip again.
"Hurry!" the Laird hissed from above.
Wild images of arrows in the back sprang to mind. It was a ridiculous thought. But it gave him impetus to lower himself another several feet. The rope slackened suddenly. He slipped another two feet, slamming against the wall. "I canna hold on," came the voice from above. "Faster!"
He glanced down. He was close, but not close enough. He hitched the bag up, and forced himself to lower his hands, wiggle his feet, inching toward the rocky outcropping. The rope gave a sudden lurch, and he was hurtling downward.
Only a foot, and he struck ground. His legs buckled, throwing him to his knees. The bag hit the rocks hard. The rope slithered down beside him. He coiled it, and slung it over his body.
Clouds scudded for the edge of the moon. Soon it would be bright again. He looked up to the window; it was empty. He was alone in the world. There was the hill he must cross. He hefted the bag to his shoulder, girded the monk's robe up around his bare legs.
Inverness, Scotland, Present
Dinner lasted late, with thick, rich deserts Niall had never even imagined. He sampled several. Then there were drinks. A crowd gathered around his table, questioning him about his night in the tower, making wild guesses. "Shot in the leg, is the rumor," said a man with a thin goatee.
"Shot somewhere much more interesting is what I heard!" The men chuckled.
"Don't pay attention to ridiculous rumors," Amy snapped. "He'll be fine. He just cut himself on something, that's all."
"Allowed to be a little eccentric, anyway, when you bring so much business to the orchestra and the hotel," one of the men remarked.
The woman who'd given him the hero's greeting, with hair as white and soft as corn silk, and a garnet red dress clinging more tightly than any undergarment, dropped herself boldly on his lap, wrapping her arm around his head. Dana rolled her eyes and shook her feathered head. Amy glared. The bosomy woman smiled back, flashing teeth whiter than summer clouds, and cooed in Niall's ear. "Hope it hasn't hurt anything important. I was hoping for an encore tonight."
The words themselves made little sense to Niall, but a proposition in any language, he found, was not hard to understand. He stood, forcing the woman off his lap. "My lady, my apologies. You could not know, but I am betrothed."
A gasp went around the table. The woman looked as though she'd been slapped. They all stared at Amy questioningly. She turned red. "I... um...we talked...." she stammered, and finally said, "He's joking."
"Yes," agreed Niall, wanting to ease the embarrassment he'd obviously caused her. "I spoke in jest." At their curious stares, he remembered to copy their speech, and amended his words. "I am joking." He made no move, however, to sit down to accommodate the woman again. She turned on her heel and flounced away.
Niall resumed his seat. The uncomfortable silence continued, till one of the men cleared his throat and said, "Sounds like we might be here long enough to see the re-enactment." The focus off him, Niall sat back, listening. The word Stirling caught his attention, and he leaned forward. A re-enactment, he gathered, after some time, was men pretending to be warriors of times past, playing out famous battles. Not wanting to attract any more attention, he bit back his question: Why would anyone do such a foolish thing? Were there not enough real battles and wars?
"...the Bruce," came the next words. "The Battle of the Pools."
The very battle for which Hugh was needed! Niall leaned forward. "This is what's being...re-enacted?" He tested the unfamiliar word, pleased at how quickly he was able to imitate their broad speech. His game of mimicking the Laird and Lord Darnley had a benefit he never would have guessed.
"Awful battle," another man said. "Edward destroyed the Scots. Not a single one of them left by the end. They even hunted down the townspeople hiding back on Coxet Hill and killed them all. Every last one."
The blood drained from Niall's face.