Screams in the distance. Barely there and seeming like a dream, but she awoke to them as she always did to nearly every sound in the night. She lay in her bed, cold stealing over her despite her thick blankets and the sturdiness of her father’s house. The fire in the hearth was reduced to embers, but still glowed high enough to throw light and heat.
Another scream, and she sat up. “Father?” The men slept on, unhearing. “Father, wake up.”
The snoring across the room faltered, then stopped. There was silence, then Father said, “What is it?”
“Something is wrong. I heard screaming. Outside.”
There was a pop in the distance, and Father sat up. She could barely make out his shape.
“Musket fire,” he said. Her heart stuck in her throat. Muskets? Father looked to the sitting room. The billeted soldiers were gone. Then he leapt from his bed and reached into the upper bunk to jostle its occupant. “Come, boy,” he said to his son. “Now.” To her he said, “Stay here; you’ll be safe.” Her brother dropped from the upper bunk, muttering queries in a voice thick with sleep as he drew on his brogues. Fumbling in the dark, he managed to pull his kilt around him and belt it in place. Father told him only, “Don your coat, take your dirk, and come with me.” The two men hurried to take up their weapons, and left the house.
In the darkness, the random sounds outside terrified her. She huddled in her bunk. Some men shouted, then there was silence. Another musket shot, then two more in quick succession off in the distance. A woman began screaming, long, shrill wails of grief. She went on screaming. Fear rose. Then, of a sudden, the screaming stopped. Cut short.
The door to the house opened and closed with a slam. “Father?”
There was no reply, so she knew it must not be Father, but rather a soldier. She slipped from the bed to confront him. He was a very young private, not much more than a boy, who was billeted in this house. She took a stern voice.
“What is happening?”
The lad stood by his bedroll near the fire, his sword in hand and glinting in the pulsing light of embers. He said naught, but only stared at her. He was a Campbell, and she was certain he thought himself too good to speak to her. But she was terrified, and angry at being so fearful of a Campbell, and persisted.
“What are they doing out there? Why was that woman screaming?” There were more shots, and she wished for silence. Peaceful, blessed silence.
But the young soldier wouldn’t speak. He only stared at her beneath his lowered brow, his head tilted vaguely as if he were thinking hard. There was a dull look in his eye. A look of confusion and animal stupidity. He didn’t seem to see her, but gazed through her.
The door slammed open, and another Redcoat, the other private for this house, ducked through. The newcomer spotted her standing in her nightgown, and said to the younger, “Kill her.”
The lad snapped to focus, and replied to his fellow soldier in a rattled, shaking voice, “But she’s a woman.”
“She’s a MacDonald, and scum. A born thief who would breed more thieves. Kill her, lest you find yourself on trial for treason.” The young private started to say something, but the older soldier cut him off. “God save the man who is found by the sunrise without a blooded sword. Kill her, or face trial.” The older one’s sword blade was dark, and it was plain he’d already proven himself loyal to the English crown.
Too late, she thought to run. The elder private blocked the only exit. She snatched up the skirt of her nightgown and turned to flee to the bedroom, hoping to climb over the wattle wall to the byre. The lad gave chase. She screamed, and began to cry. Death loomed. Trapped in her bedroom, she dodged back and forth in the narrow space between the bunks. “Please don’t hurt me,” she begged. But the soldier said nothing and only came at her with his sword. He could have had her then, but was still deciding. She continued to beg for her life, but each time she tried to dash past him to the byre or the sitting room he blocked her path. And the elder stood behind with his own sword ready to do the job if the lad would not.
She dodged again, and this time leapt onto her bed. Her feet tangled in her blankets and she stumbled. Crawled across her bed in a panic, weeping hopelessly.
The sword found her in the darkness. A cold, metallic pain made her gasp. Though it didn’t hurt as much as she’d feared, the certainty of death now made her cry out with the grief of it. She sobbed as the blade was withdrawn and plunged again, this time into her back. She collapsed onto her bed, unable to move any more. Her final screams were of terror, of meeting her end alone, attended only by her murderers, who were Campbells and therefore not truly men.
A third time the sword pierced her, and this time found her heart. Then she knew no more.
It was musty and stuffy in that little store, but at least it was out of the rain. Nick smoothed the wet hair off his forehead and followed Darlene into the close, smelly, dusty, overheated place. Thrift stores always had that signature odor of decay: dust and old furniture polish. Brittle wood, rotting cotton, and yellowing paper of the books crammed into cases of shelves against all four walls. Tables littered with knickknacks and old toys in rows across the floor. Ceramic ducks, a cookie jar in the shape of a cow, a digital clock with the numbers printed on a Rolodex of plastic tabs. Mismatched china in such a myriad of floral patterns as to resemble a neglected English garden. A Transformer robot missing one hand. Probably. It was hard to tell.
Nick stood near the door with his hands in his pockets, and hoped his kid sister wouldn’t be long on this errand. He was hungry, and she needed to be dropped off with the parental units in Van Nuys before he could return to his own apartment and dinner in Burbank. The freeway was a zoo today because of the weather, and they weren’t going to get anywhere in a hurry.
But hope died as Nick watched Darlene stroll slowly between the display tables, browsing ceramic figurines and discolored glass candy dishes, some of them cracked. She loved this stuff, and he’d never been able to figure out why. Old stuff. What was it about old stuff that was such a big deal to some people? A line of plastic bear-shaped honey bottles stood along a nearby shelf, and he wondered idly whether the one he had in his apartment, that had come with honey he’d bought last month, might be worth the five dollars this store was asking for theirs.
His eyes drifted toward the wall shelves and he wandered over toward them. Old books, on the other hand, were a different story. He liked books, particularly rare ones. At home he had some vintage paperbacks and some lesser first editions, but his prize was a first edition of Stephen King’s “Carrie” he’d found in a used book store a few years back. These days he couldn’t afford the thing if he’d had to buy it for what it was worth. What titles might be here? Old volumes? Or just used and tattered? His head tilted to the side as he read the spines. Some of these really were old. Hardy Boys. Ivanhoe. Emily Post from the Fifties. He reached for that, figuring it might be good for a laugh while he waited.
There was a distant scream, and Nick paused to look around. His ear tuned to what was happening, but now only heard the city noises outside the store, cars moving up and down Ventura Blvd., a constant hiss of tires on the wet street. Nobody else in the store seemed to have noticed anything. After a moment, he reached for the book again.
Another scream, nearer this time. Like someone dying of a terrible wound. It was a woman. Alarmed, this time he went to the door to look out, but saw nothing but driving rain and gray shapes moving. A chilly wind blew rain in his face and he ducked back into the store to look over at the shelf containing the Emily Post book.
Weird. Even in Los Angeles, this was weird.
He returned to the bookshelf and reached for the Emily Post, and as his fingers touched it again, there was sobbing. This time a man. The sound was in his head, and he realized the backs of his fingers were warming. The book next to the Emily Post felt warm on his fingers, and he drew back his hand. Very weird. He tipped his head to see the title along the spine of the other book, but it was only a booklet and had no spine. Rather it was nothing more than pages stitched together, seemingly by hand. He touched it, and it was still warm. Soft. The leather binding was extremely old, but still felt soft. He left the etiquette book and reached for this one.
Maybe “book” was overstating it. He turned the thin volume over in his hands. Not only was it warm, but he would swear it felt like it had a pulse. As if there were blood flowing beneath the smooth leather. He had always thought of books as friends, good company on quiet nights, but until now had never actually thought one seemed alive.
Embossed on the cover in gold leaf was the title: A History of The Bloody and Heinous Act of Treachery Against Clan Donald of Glen Coe, A Massacre Perpetrated By Soldiers In The Service of King William, 1692. No author was given.
Huh. An extremely old book, it would seem. Nick wondered whether this might be a real find. He glanced inside at the first page and found no price marked. This paper was terribly aged. More than just yellowed, the pages were quite brown and many of the edges flaking. And now he saw the book had not been printed, but was hand-written in a tidy script, the words carefully spaced, marching across the page like lines of soldiers. Rigid and tight. This volume was not just antique; it was one of a kind. The feel of the cover on his fingers was eerie. Too familiar, yet strange, and he had no idea why. Certainly this thing was valuable, and in this junk store it might turn out to be affordable. A flutter of excitement rose.
Now Nick was really curious to know how much they wanted for it. If it was as old as it looked, what was it doing here? He closed the cover and smoothed his hand cross the front. The color was strange, as if age were the only coloring on it. The leather had never been dyed, and had an odd, translucent quality. Undyed and poorly tanned. Or weirdly tanned. As if it were still skin rather than leather. Creepy.
He took the book to the display case near the door. Atop the smudged and discolored glass sat an adding machine and a book of receipt forms, so Nick figured this served as checkout. He looked around, tapping the glass with his fingertips in syncopation, then finally caught the eye of a young woman sitting on a stool nearby, staring off into space. She focused on his face and smiled.
“Ready?” Lazily she rose, loose-jointed and languid, swaying as if from a nonexistent wind.
Nick nodded, and gave the book on the counter a shove to indicate his choice. “I just need to know how much you want for this. There’s no price marked in it.”
The girl was dressed entirely in black: long, black cotton dress with sleeves so long they covered her hands nearly to her fingertips, black work boots, thin black scarf looped around her neck, and black circles under her eyes. Her thinness was extreme, to the point Nick thought in another era she might have made a living as a circus freak. The Living Skeleton. Her heavily mascaraed eyes widened when she saw the book he’d laid on the counter. “Oh. That one.”
He smiled. “Which one?”
“That massacre book. From Scotland.” Her lip curled a little, and he wondered whether she’d read the book and hadn’t liked it.
“How much is it?”
“Ten.” Apparently she didn’t need to check on this. She knew the book.
“Dollars?” She nodded. Ten dollars. No way to beat that price, if this thing was as old as he thought it was. Or even if it wasn’t. Just the weird leather made it worth that much. He reached for his wallet in his back pocket as she opened the receipt book. She took up a pen from the other side of the counter, and said, “Your name?”
He faltered, unaccustomed to having to identify himself for a cash purchase. “Nick Mouliné.” He also complied when she requested his address and phone number, but balked at telling his email address. He hated being spammed. The girl didn’t seem to care whether she had the address or not, and continued filling out the form, chatting as she wrote.
“Are you interested in Scottish history, or are you Scottish, like, on your mother’s side or something?” Her head tilted as she wrote slowly, in huge, curlicue letters.
He shrugged. “I like to read. I’m interested in books.” On his salary the really good ones were an indulgence he could rarely afford. His first glance at this one suggested paying only ten dollars for it would be more like grand theft than purchase. “How old is this book, anyway?”
The girl made a humming noise as she accessed her memory of the volume, then said, “About three hundred years, I think. It’s, like, a diary sort of.”
Nick was curious now to know why she only wanted ten dollars for it, but didn’t want to press the issue lest he talk her into charging him more than he could afford for it without tapping his savings. Maybe it wasn’t as old as she thought. If not, then he was only out ten dollars, and a hand-written story about a massacre might be worth that just for the read. He wanted the book, and opened his wallet to pay for it.
The girl continued, “Scotland. They wiped out my whole religion over there, you know.”
Nick frowned, at a loss for a reply and wondering what in the world she could be talking about. “Huh?”
“My religion. In Scotland they tried to destroy us a long time ago.” Anger tinged her voice, as if it had happened yesterday and she was choking on the whole, terrible ordeal.
In his struggle to figure out what she meant, a movie he’d once seen about Elizabethan England came to mind, and he said in an effort to be pleasant, “You’re Catholic?”
Her hand went to a small pendant he now noticed hung from a silver chain around her neck, a pentagram. “No, of course not! I’m Wicca!” Her tone suggested he was a dunce for not knowing all about this Wicca stuff.
Nick was lost again, but he asked, “And Wicca was…destroyed?”
“By the Christians. The priests came and killed all of us.”
Nick blinked. He couldn’t tell whether she was accusing him personally, or just making casual conversation. Maybe she was trying to recruit him. He sure couldn’t tell, not that he had any particular interest in religion. “When was this?”
She shrugged. “A long time ago.”
“You don’t know when?”
She shrugged again. “Everybody knows it. Christianity wiped us all out.” She held out a bag, open for Nick to drop in his book.
He did so then took the bagged book, smiled, and said cheerily, “Well, you’re still here. Looks like they missed one.”
She responded with a puzzled frown, and he turned to look for his sister. But the girl called after him. “That book.” Nick turned back, curious though he wanted to get the hell away. “How can you stand to touch it?”
“What do you mean?” He knew exactly what she meant, but didn’t want to admit it.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. It just gives me the creeps. I’ve tried to read it, but it’s…weird. Like the book doesn’t want me to read it.”
Oh, boy. He gave her another bright, entirely false smile, and said, “It’s the book’s loss then. I wouldn’t take it personally.”
The girl giggled. “No, seriously. I can sense these things, and I know what I’m talking about. The thing gives me the creeps.”
Nick glanced at the bag. “Well, we’ll see if it lets me read it when I get home.”
She nodded. “Don’t worry, it will. It let you buy it.” Her tone was light, assuring, as if she knew for a certainty he would be glad to hear it.
So he replied, “Good.” Then he went to find his sister.
The traffic was thick enough, slow enough, and visibility bad enough to annoy. Nick decided to go by surface street to return Darlene to their parents’ house, and made good time in spite of stoplights and careful drivers moving slowly through the storm. He pulled up outside the house and waited for her to make the run through the rain from his car to the door.
“Aren’t you coming in?” Twisted over the seat behind her, reaching into the back, she gathered the bags filled with her purchases from the day. It had been a long shopping haul, and there were lots of rustling plastic bags.
Nick looked at the rather large ranch house ensconced among the junipers and rhododendrons, and he sighed. “It’s a trap, waiting to be sprung. I never get away without gnawing off my foot.”
“Mom’s not that bad.”
“Oh, yeah, she is. If I go in there she’ll want me to stay for dinner. Then TV. I won’t escape till midnight. You know I can’t say no to Mom. Nobody can say no to her.”
The rustling of bags paused, and Darlene had one hand on the door handle, ready to run but wanting to settle this first. “And what do you have waiting for you at your apartment?”
“Yeah, lots and lots and lots of quiet.”
Nick only nodded and didn’t take the bait. Living alone wasn’t the ideal situation, but he didn’t figure it was the great tragedy his family thought it, either.
Darlene made a tisk noise, then said, “Okay. I’ll lie to her and tell her you had a hot date. Maybe she’ll hemorrhage and die, then we can stop being so bunged up over her.”
“Not such a lie. I have hot dates sometimes, and am liable to have another before long. You never know. It could happen.”
“Dad worries about you, you know.” That seemed to amuse her.
Nick snorted and looked off into the rain. “Yeah. He thinks I’m gay.”
“I mean, it’s okay if you are.” A grin crept across her face, for she loved teasing him. He couldn’t help smiling, either, because even at eighteen she was still his baby sister and if she stopped teasing him he might think she didn’t love him any more.
“Well, in any case, Dad doesn’t really think you are. He just doesn’t understand why you don’t get out more.”
“You know why.” In spite of the wide disparity in their ages, Darlene knew him better than anyone on the planet. “My current job does not exactly make me a babe magnet.”
“Hey, anyone can get laid if they set their standards low enough.”
That made him laugh. “Oh, yeah! There’s a goal! Mmm, wanna get me some of that there low-quality booty.”
Darlene giggled. Then she went from giggly teenager to nearly adult in that I’m growing up way she had. Serious now, she said, “Mom is pretty peeved you avoid coming home, though.”
“I do. It’s boring.” His thumb picked at a spot on his steering wheel. “Whenever I come around I get the third degree about my life, and to be perfectly honest my life just isn’t interesting enough to spend the evening talking about it in intense detail.” He rubbed his thumb hard against that spot.
“It would make her so happy if you would come for dinner.”
He sighed and looked out the windshield at the rain drumming on the hood of his car. Then he said, “Tell them I’ll be around next weekend.”
Darlene smiled wide enough for her eyes to crinkle. “Great! Okay, see you next weekend. Thanks for the ride, and thanks for the break on the car repair.”
“It should be ready by Wednesday.”
“You’re my favorite big brother!” Of course, he was her only big brother, so he laughed. “‘Bye!” And she yanked the handle
to let herself out, slammed the door behind her, and scurried through the rain up the lawn to the front door.
Nick sighed again, shifted, and eased the car away from the curb to head home.
When he got to his apartment he tossed the bag with the book in it onto the coffee table, then hung his rain-dripping jacket on the hook behind his door before heading into the kitchen in search of something to eat.
Nothing in the refrigerator to catch his eye, except he did notice a few carrots that were about ready to be tossed. He’d give them another day, and then feel less guilty for throwing them out. Nothing in the upper cabinet but boxed pasta and sauce. Rats. He didn’t feel like cooking, and now he wished he’d picked up something on the way home. He looked in the freezer. Frozen enchiladas and waffles. Neither was enticing. A rack of frost-encrusted ribs that had been there so long he was certain they were freezer-burned beyond hope. He threw them in the trash. The lower cabinet held popcorn, chips, dried fruit, coffee, and boxes of tea, herbal and otherwise. Peanut butter, ramen noodles, chili seasoning mix, and a jar of sandwich peppers. No bread in the breadbox. He needed to buy some bread. And maybe some more sandwich meat while he was at it. All he had was ham. And mayo. According to the jar on the refrigerator door he was almost out of mayonnaise.
He went to the lower cabinet and snagged the potato chips, then opened a bag of dried figs and went into the living room to settle on the couch in front of the TV. The chips and figs were no more appealing than anything else in the kitchen, except he didn’t have to do anything to them. The TV running with the sound off, the way he left his system most of the time, he left the game show on and waited until something good might come at the hour. That was ten minutes away.
The rain outside was a loud hiss on the concrete around the pool, and Nick’s thoughts drifted to work tomorrow. One of his mechanics at the shop had been coming to work stoned, and Nick intended to fire him. The other two guys would get pissy about the extra workload, but Nick figured better that than having a stoned guy handling power tools in the shop.
Chewing thoughtfully on a fig, he leaned over to the coffee table to take that book he’d bought from its bag. When he touched the binding again, he shivered though there were no voices now. The book seemed even smaller than it had in the thrift store, and older if that was possible. He flipped it open and bit into another gooey fig as he read the even, decorative script. The hand was so perfect, he could hardly believe it wasn’t type.
Herein I put forth details of the heinous and terrible crime committed by myself and my clansmen of Argyll. For the brutal slaying of thirty-nine MacIain men, women and children there can be no forgiveness, and I ask for none. For my part in that evil I have spent a lifetime of sorrow. In telling the tale, my desire is not to clear my conscience, blackened beyond any relief save mercy from my Saviour, but to lay forth the truth as warning…
…a low moaning seemed to rise behind the words inside of Nick’s head as he read. He laid the book back on the coffee table, then rubbed his hands against his jeans. More curious now of what was said in the book, he nevertheless was reluctant to touch it anymore. He left it there, closed against the pained voice, and picked up the remote to restore the volume on his TV. The game show was wrapping up, and maybe something good would be on now. For the remainder of the evening he lost himself in a string of mediocre sitcoms and let the strange book slip from his mind.
That night he stripped for bed and slid between the sheets. He’d brought that weird book with him, thinking he might read some more, but left it on the nightstand unopened and turned off the light instead. His hands just couldn’t bring themselves to touch that creepy, too-soft binding again. As he scrunched his pillow beneath his head then lay in the darkness, tomorrow’s firing drifted across his mind and he went over how he would handle that. The rain beat hard on the bedroom window near his head, and the sound, like the roll of drums, lulled him to sleep.
For a while.
There was a voice-a man’s voice, low and tense-telling him to wake up. Nick didn’t want to. It was comfortable in the darkness. Somehow he knew if he opened his eyes he would be cold. So he kept them shut and struggled to stay sleeping.
But the voice was insistent. A note of desperation tinged it, and it cut through to Nick’s soul. The intensity of it made him shiver, and brought him around to wakefulness. He opened his eyes and felt the cold, reached for the bedside lamp, but couldn’t find it. His hand grasped at empty air, though he cast about a wide arc. Only a dim idea in the back of his mind made him wonder how the man speaking to him had gotten into the apartment. Dream. It was a dream. He was concerned more about his missing lamp and nightstand. He groped farther into the darkness, but couldn’t find them.
The voice said, “Look at me.”
“Hang on.” Where was that damned lamp?
“Look at me!” The trembling voice had an accent. Scottish, maybe. Nick’s skin crawled, but he was too groggy to know why. Slowly, he pulled in his hand and turned in the direction of the voice. The room was dark, except for a light that seemed to come from a figure slouching just beyond the foot of Nick’s bed. It was an old man, gray and disheveled, hunched nearly into a question mark, neck horizontal and his head hung off the end of it like a well-balanced mobile. His coat was red, or had once been so, with faded yellow facings, crossed with tattered baldrics that had perhaps been white but now they were nearly brown with age and use, and held no sword or musket. Beneath the coat was a plaid vest. The pants were gray-brown and hung loose at his thighs. From his bony knees down his legs were bare and spindly, even to his feet with their blue veins and crusty brown toenails. Yeah, dream all right. Nick settled in for it. For a moment he thought of Jacob Marley, and wondered why this guy’s jaw wasn’t bound, but the thought fled when the figure before him spoke again.
“I am William Campbell.”
Nick took a guess. It was his dream, after all. “The guy who wrote that creepy book.”
Campbell’s mouth twitched. “I laid bare my guilt.”
“You’re an awfully old man to have committed a massacre.”
The old soldier’s red-rimmed eyes flitted this way and that. “I lived many long, grief-filled years before my own death. Years of knowing what I’d done. Knowing that no matter what the reasons for it, there had been no justice in the act and its evil would hound me all my days…” A sob erupted from him, and for a moment he only stood there with his mouth gaping, his eyes shut hard against his own weeping. Then he continued in a strangled voice, “…and beyond.”
“What beyond?” Nick yawned and wished he could go back to sleep. Or deeper sleep. Whatever.
The old soldier recovered himself enough to speak coherently, then said in a gummy voice, “Do you not see me here?”
Nick shrugged. “Yeah.”
“You see this broken soul before you, and you are not God?”
That made Nick blink. “Uh, no, I’m not.” Weird dream.
“So you see I am trapped. Imprisoned so as not to reach even the reward deserved by a murderer. No repentance can save me. No end to my suffering.” The old guy went back to sobbing, and tears rolled down his pale, wrinkled face.
Nick thought about offering a tissue, but figured if he couldn’t find his nightstand he probably wouldn’t be able to locate his dresser, either, and he was pretty sure that was where he’d left the box. So he leaned an elbow on his knee and waited. When the guy stopped crying, Nick said, “Who did you murder?”
“A woman.” A fresh sob came. “It was a woman.”
“Only one? In a massacre?”
The freshly reddened eyes peered into Nick’s, the man’s head hung low. “I was forced by duty to blood my sword, or there would have been none at all.”
“I bet you weren’t the only one killing people. Lots of guilt to go around.”
The dream-soldier grimaced, and the thought didn’t seem to ease his pain. “Aye. Some of the slaughter was accomplished with hideous relish. The MacIains were a bad lot among a bad lot. Even within Clan Donald they stood out as trouble.”
“You were following orders.”
“I was saving my own skin. Making my reputation, so my loyalty to the Crown and to my laird wouldnae be questioned. I was a coward. Am a coward still.”
By now Nick was tiring of the self-pity. He was tiring in general, and wished to go back to deep sleep where it wasn’t so cold. Maybe if he’d worn pajamas he’d be more comfortable, but he was au naturel under these blankets and not entirely sanguine about the presence of even an imaginary stranger in his bedroom.
He said, “So…why are you here?” Another yawn took him by surprise, and he struggled to get his mouth closed. Man, he was sleepy!
“‘Twas the wee folk.”
“You mean, like, faeries? Elves? Things like that?”
“Aye. Fey ones living among the mountains of Glencoe. They say the faeries tried to warn the clan. One woman who survived reported having seen a faerie woman at the river, washing the shrouds of those who would die. Over and over, she washed them, but none who saw her dared to ask whose shrouds they were. And they plagued us after. Throughout my days, I could never turn about but there would be a figure barely glimpsed as it disappeared. Eyes watched me. Voices whispered to me from the air. And finally when I made my confession to posterity, written in my own hand, one of them pounced upon it and used it to his evil ends. I’ve a spell over me, and I pay the devil for my crime.”
Now Nick thought back over what he’d eaten earlier that might have brought on this bit of bizarreness. A blot of mustard? Underdone potato? He mentally swore off potato chips and figs. “A spell? Magic?”
“Aye. A binding spell. By my effort to cleanse my soul, I gave him the means to trap me after my death. With my own words he bound me, and after my death, with my skin he bound the pages.”
Nick remembered how creepy the leather cover had felt, and a more uneasy feeling stole over him. This was really too weird. This dream wasn’t like him at all. His were all about quarterbacking in the Super Bowl, or dating Sheryl Crow. Never about killing people or using skin for book binding, for crying out loud. Not to mention…faeries? What could he know, or want to know, about faeries? He searched for a place within himself that might have given rise to this, but found none. A terrible feeling dawned: this might not have originated with himself.
“What do I have to do with these things?”
“I dinnae ken.”
“I thought it was your book.”
“It was my skin, and my words.”
Nick turned up his palms. “I wish I could help you, man, but-”
“No!” The figure fell silent, tense, looking around at the darkness as the air grew colder. Tears welled in his eyes again, and Nick thought what a pathetic old man he was, undone by this thing eating at him more than half his life. Then, with quivering lips, the old guy spoke. “What have you done?”
“Me?” Nick shivered. What felt like a gust of wind blew across him, and he drew in his knees to hug them.
“Forgive me, I beg you.” The old man’s voice cracked.
“For what will befall you. I know not what, but I fear ’twill be terrible. For the wee folk are angry, have dark powers we cannae imagine, and are daft in the bargain.”
“I don’t believe in faeries.”
The man in the tattered red uniform coat tilted his head to peer at him and said with infinite sadness, “You will.”
As he said that, there came a blinding light. Nick fell from his bed and landed hard, flat on his back, with a grunt. Something poked his buttock. A rock, it turned out, and as he shifted his weight from it his vision cleared to a view of blue sky and fluffy white clouds. The cold swept in on him, biting, and he began to shiver immediately. He sat up. Somehow he was now outdoors, surrounded by a thick pine wood, in a clearing scattered with ferns.
“Ow.” He checked for blood, but the jagged rock under him hadn’t broken the skin. His bed and bedroom were gone and he was sitting on some grass, without a stitch of clothing on. Now the dream seemed a little less weird. He’d had the naked-in-public nightmare once before. This cold was a drag, though, and he wished he’d dreamed up some warm weather instead.
Beth NicDonald hurried along the path through the woods near Inverrigan, a seldom-used shortcut that was little more than a game trail through thickets of bracken, gorse, and spreading Scotch pine. She avoided the clearing that lurked at the center. Everyone preferred to skirt the spot where a faerie ring of brown toadstools danced in a circle on the soft, mossy ground, and only game trails went through it. She was on her way home from her uncle’s house in Achnacone up the glen, to another cluster of peat houses near the River Coe, which was Inverrigan. On her hip she held the straw basket in which she carried the raw wool she’d exchanged for the thread she’d spun for her aunt. Father would be annoyed if he learned where she’d been. He thought his brother’s wife should do her own work, but Beth felt sorry for her aunt who had lost three children in as many years, and after her most recent stillbirth was hardly up to the task of caring for the rest. Beth hurried, knowing Father would reprimand her for taking the spinning up the glen, and she hoped she could slip back into the house unobserved and pretend she’d never gone.
Just as she was passing the faerie clearing, she heard a man’s voice say “Ow” in a matter-of-fact way that caught her attention. She stopped short. Had he heard her? Who in God’s name would be in that ring? Nobody she knew, certainly, which was everyone who lived in Glencoe, for the wee folk were treacherous and not to be trusted. Deeply curious, she stepped down a narrow side trail and between the fronds of some bracken to look, and her breath caught.
It wasn’t just a man, but a skyclad one, sitting square in the middle of the ring, looking about as if he’d lost his way. She tried to duck back into the forest, but too late. He caught sight of her, smiled, and called out.
She paused. Hay? “Oats to you, then,” she replied, also in English, and adjusted the plaid over her shoulders. Whatever a Sasunnach could be doing this far into the glen all alone, and naked as well, she couldn’t fathom. If Father or Dùghall were here the man would certainly not be smiling like that.
Her words gave him a puzzled frown as he pulled in his knees so she could no longer see his private bits. Not that they weren’t anything she hadn’t seen every day of her life since her brother was born. He sat, folded like that with his knees under his chin, looking as if he didn’t wish to move.
She said, “Have I interrupted a ritual, then?”
“I beg your pardon?” The smile came to his face again, and in spite of his violent shivering she realized he was quite handsome. His teeth were the whitest she’d ever seen in anyone over the age of ten, and his mouth wider than any man of any age thereabouts. Perhaps it was just as well Father and Dùghall weren’t near, for they would chase him away and she figured she wouldn’t care for that.
“With ye all skyclad there, I expect you might be communing with the wee folk.”
The man’s eyes shut for a moment, then he looked at her again. He was shaking like a newborn calf in snow, and even paling with a cold that for most men would have only pinked their cheeks. “No, I don’t do that.”
“Have ye been robbed?” Unlikely in this spot, unless it were the faerie folk playing tricks again.
The fellow hesitated, then nodded. He didn’t seem all too certain what had happened, and she thought he might have taken a blow to the head. He bore no other marks, so that seemed likely.
“Och, you poor man,” she said. She removed her plaid from her shoulders and went to him with it. “Here, take my plaid and cover yourself. Who was it robbed you? If it was Calum’s boys, I’ll have your things back myself. Was it them as robbed you?”
“I…uh, I wouldn’t know. I’m a stranger here.” He rose and accepted the plaid, in his shivering fumbling with the heavy length of brown and green wool until he finally worked out that he should secure one end of it around his waist. Then he threw the remainder of the wool over his shoulders and wrapped it around himself like swaddling. The day wasn’t so cold as that, and it was puzzling to see him tremble.
A chuckle rose from her. “Of course, you’re a stranger. I’ve lived here all my life and never seen you before. And even if not for that, your speech would give you away as a Sasunnach.”
“You’re English, I can tell.”
“Who are ye, then?”
He blinked and stuttered for a moment, then said, “My name is Nicholas Mouliné.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Mouliné, I’m Beth NicDonald, daughter of Seòras MacDonald of Inverrigan. You’re French, then. You dinnae sound French.” Better for him to be French than English, though, by a long sight.
It was her turn to be surprised. “A French colonist from America? I’d no idea there were any.” This was utterly fascinating. So exciting to meet someone who’d come from so far away. “Tell me about the New World. Is it wild and dangerous as they say it is?”
Mr. Mouliné hesitated again, then said, “Yes. Very wild. Untamed.” He made a small grimace, as if he regretted saying so.
She smiled at him. “It must be very exciting to live there. Too exciting, I think. It would be too frightening by far to leave the glen.”
A look of sadness crossed his face that remained in his eyes, though his mouth formed a false smile below them. Such a strange sort! With a toss of her head toward the path, she said, “Come. I’ll take you to my father’s house. He’ll find the lads who attacked you, and have your belongings returned.” She plunged back into the woods, but Mr. Mouliné didn’t follow. Turning back toward him, she said, “Come along. You’re so cold, you’ll want to find a warm fire.”
That moved him, and he followed, his pale, soft bare feet dancing as he stepped on rocks, dead sticks, and thorns along the path. “I don’t think they were from around here.” There was still a shiver in his voice, though the plaid covered him from shoulders to knees.
“And how would you know who might or might not be from around here?”
“I…um…they sounded English.”
A giggle rose in her. “English trespassers, and robbers as well? I’m certain they must like to live dangerously to carry on so in the glen of the MacIain! But no matter. Whether English or Dhomhnallach, Father will recover your gear. Or at least your trews, so I might have my plaid returned to me.” She turned to smile at him, and the white smile he had for her in return made her giggle. She hefted the basket on her hip and her step became just a bit livelier.
Man, this dream was taking forever to finish! Nick almost wished he could wake up, but the friendly girl was a nice touch. He looked around at the woods and marveled at his own imagination. This was the most detailed dream he’d ever had. Every blade of grass and tree leaf was clear, and there was no random shifting of time or place like there usually was. The conversation was even coherent, which hardly ever happened in his dreams. And now he was walking with this dream-creation of a woman, following her down a path that went on and on.
Uneasiness settled on him, as it had before with that old man. This wasn’t enough like a dream to suit him. Except for the pretty girl, this wasn’t like him at all. Scotland? What did he give a damn about Scotland? He’d read a paragraph in a book. Big deal. He thought of what the old soldier had said about the thing, and asked the NicDonald girl, “You said there were faeries in that clearing back there?” He stepped on yet another rock, and hopped and hobbled until the pain subsided.
“Och, aye. Did you not see the ring?”
Ring? “What, those toadstools in a circle?” He glanced back down the trail, but of course the clearing was no longer in sight. His eyes off the trail, he stepped on a twig and danced a few steps again. His attention returned to where he was walking.
“Aye. Are there none in America?”
“I think we’ve got the rings, but no faeries in them. Not that I’ve ever heard of, anyway.”
Another dimpled smile was tossed his way, and she said, “Then ’tis plain the wee folk know where home is and dinnae care to leave it.”
“I suppose not.” Man, she was pretty! He decided he wouldn’t mind if this dream went on a little longer so he could get to the good part. In the ones with Sheryl Crow they usually ended up in bed, and some body heat would feel real nice about now.
They walked some more, the path winding a distance, then it came out on a river bank. Again very un-dreamlike. Too much detail. No shifting. It was taking way too long to get to this girl’s house.
He wanted to ask what year it was, but couldn’t think of a way to phrase the question that wouldn’t make him sound like a flaming nutcase. Besides, by her dress he guessed what her reply might be. So, though he could also guess the answer to this, he asked, “Exactly where are we?”
“That there is Inverrigan.” She pointed to a cluster of houses ahead that appeared made of dirt. All had thatched roofs, and one had a goat standing atop it, grazing the dried grass and ferns. The animal lifted its head, gazed in their direction with dull eyes, and munched its fodder.
“This is Scotland, right?”
Nick’s stomach soured. If this was a dream, he didn’t want it. Not at all. “1692.”
“Not yet. Nae for another month or so. Have ye been lost so long you dinnae even know the time of year?”
Nick tugged the wool closed around his waist, and the wintry cold made inroads on his gut. He stared around him and prayed to wake up.
What happens next?