The snow had mounded over clumps of bracken or heather—the vegetation both foreign and familiar, for how could it not seem so when in my own memories the landscape slowly emerged from the fog of forgetfulness and took on a clarity that troubled me. I wondered yet again at this legacy hinted at by those who seemed hell bent on keeping me ignorant and dependent on their guidance.
Except for Pa…
He’d promised me the time was soon approaching for some kind of transition, for explanations and revelations. He’d been right, of course, though I’d always assumed he’d be the one to take me in hand and guide me down wherever that chosen path might lead. Instead, under a forty-watt bulb, in a cabin in a holler still stinking of rotgut and sanctimonious righteousness, this man… this Callum… had appeared like an avenging angel, spilling blood and smiting down dissenters.
My ginger-haired devil.
Grinning, I wriggled to prevent a cascade of snow from invading the sacred space Callum had created within the voluminous folds of the tartan.
Callum mumbled, “Easy lassie, I’ve no wish to freeze me baws afore we start our trek.” He tucked me in close and wrapped the stiff wool around us as he rose effortlessly off the hard ground. Voice still thick with sleep, he apologized as he unwrapped the cloth, exposing both of us to the elements. “Take yer ease o’er yonder, Maisie, but be quick about it. Needs must we be on our way. ‘Tis not safe…”
I took the hint and bolted for the shelter of a stand of boulders, my boots leaving skid marks on the steep pitch. When I’d finished, I waited for Callum to join me, assuming we’d be headed down slope rather than risk the narrow ledge that divided one narrow valley from another. I’d discerned an indent lower down, like a ribbon hugging onto the side of the hill, and guessed it to be a well-worn path, though it seemed more suited to mountain goats than weary travelers like ourselves.
Touching my shoulder, Callum said, “Aye, lass, ye be correct. That be our pad.” He grinned down at me, obviously pleased. “Ye be a sharp-eyed wee one. Twill serve ye weel.”
With that, Callum used his bulk to plow out a furrow ahead of me, his right arm dipping toward the snow-covered ground to balance his descent. I followed as carefully as conditions permitted, ruing my skimpy clothing and bare hands. For a big man he moved with stealth and economy, covering ground in huge, galloping strides and leaving me to scramble in his wake.
When the slope leveled out, we paused to grab a few precious breaths before turning right onto what Callum called a pad. I noticed his accent was much thicker this day, with odd words sprinkled about, though in context I had little trouble figuring out the meaning.
Curious about words I didn’t fully understand, I asked, “What’s a baws?” Actually, I had a pretty good idea, but the urge to force Callum into an admission was too strong. Besides, my throat was dry and my belly aching with hunger. The least he could do was provide me with some entertainment on this… trek… of his.
Callum’s shoulders twitched as he muttered, “Best ye not talk so much. Put your energy toward us getting off this blasted mountain, lassie.”
Giving it two heartbeats, I then asked, “How far are we going?” Callum huffed. I persisted. “Where are we going?”
Slamming on the brakes, Callum spun around and glared at me. “Ye know vera weel, Maisie Robertson, so dinna ye be testing me patience. Not now.” His gaze swept the ridge we’d been paralleling, brows drawn tight over brownish-green eyes gone stormy with worry.
The words not safe echoed eerily in my head. I noticed his hand never left the hilt of his short sword. I whispered, “Are we trespassing,” though the answer was obvious. Wherever here was, it wasn’t a welcoming place for Callum or myself, ergo our desperate flight to cover ground.
Shrugging off my perplexed frown, the big man nodded once and aimed straight downhill, his stride bouncing off rocky outcrops and tufts of vegetation glistening with pearls of moisture as the sun struggled to warm the earth through high, thin clouds. I followed, not to be outdone by the brute, and slalomed around the obstacles with more ease than I expected.
“Now where do we go?” I whispered to Callum, as if our catapulting down the slope hadn’t set off a barrage of small stones pinging and dinging their way down the gravity well to end up in clusters at our feet. If someone was watching us or keeping an ear tuned for intruders, we’d come in like a doggone brass marching band. A seriously out-of-tune one at that.
I shivered. If anything, it was far colder in the narrow canyon than it had been up near the top of the ridge, though the layer of snow was nothing more than a coating.
Callum’s expression was grim. He asked, “What do ye sense, eh lassie?”
Sense? Say what?
“Should be naught different than the lodge, methinks.”
“I don’t understand. The lodge?”
“Aye, lass, the evil, ye ken it right away, did ye not?”
Oh, that lodge. The one stuck into the side of the hill. The one built with stones balanced atop one another, without mortar. The one with gaping holes in the thatched roof. The one with something sick and rancid groping out toward us with tendrils that burned like acid at the back of my throat.
“Evil?” The word stumbled about on my tongue, like a random, sour assault, leaving me grimacing at the acrid taste of something I knew to be true but couldn’t, for the life of me, explain.
Callum perched on the balls of his feet, rocking back and forth, almost eager with anticipation. For what, though?
“Don’t think on it so hard, lassie. Ye have it. Let it come free. Tis time.”
He might’ve been speaking Swahili, the words making little sense. “Have what? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
With a sigh, he spun away, his shoulders slouched, head shaking. Pa would do that, exactly that. Out of frustration, but sometimes out of disappointment, the kind that cut you deep, even if it warn’t your fault. Even if you didn’t mean nothing by it.
Echoing my inner thoughts, I whispered, “Didn’t mean nuthin, Callum,” though he was out of earshot now. The wispy susurration of my sorry, sorry, sorry trailed behind him like a phantom.
Straightening up, squaring my own narrow shoulders, I puckered my mouth at the slip into holler-speak, into the admission of wrongdoing expected by the righteous and judgmental. By the stout clad in gingham and patent leather shoes that only saw the light of day when tithing met the virtuous and rested safe in adherence to a moral compass forever set to non-negotiable.
Fuming at being put on the spot for something that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with me, I shuffled after the big man’s retreating back, taking care to keep him within shouting distance while allowing my ill temper and empty belly dictate terms.
The terms sucked.
Mumbling in time with my halting steps, I growled, “Damnation, I didn’t ask for this, Pa. Why me?” You’ll know it when it’s time, girl. “Right, like I knowed we’d be sucked into a vortex set to puree in that damn creep fest of a stone hut. That’d yore damn wake bore witness to an unrealized legacy. That everything I thought I knowed and unnerstood was hard set in stone, right up to the minute that beast wearing a damn skirt barged into my life.”
I glanced ahead, gauging the distance between me and Callum. He’d shortened stride, but not his dissatisfaction with me. He might even have had his head cocked, listening to my meandering grousing, though I doubted he’d been privy to much more than a word or two. No matter, it’d be out of context and leavened with phrases Grams claimed turned the very air blue.
Me and Jax, we’d spent many a happy time hid deep in the clefts cutting through the steep slopes, practicing our swearing. Playing mix ‘n match and jockeying for pots anteed up with chores in mind. Being oldest, I got to judge, though Jax would claimed foul but never argue too deep since I made sure it got split fair. Not down the middle, mind you, but with enough evenhandedness, he was willing to tolerate me playing the age card in favor of hitting the jackpot should I mess up.
Head down, eyes glued to the gravelly path, I pondered over Callum’s odd pronouncements, like me knowing where we were headed. Like I’d known what and where home was, which made no sense whatsoever.
I huffed, “Him and his doggone senses.” Like I had some special ability, could see things, know things, things ordinary folk weren’t privy to. “Wouldn’t’ve asked if I knew, now would I, Callum? I ain’t some dumb cracker—”
The words died in my throat, rendered gritty and coarse-like, making swallowing spit impossible so it pooled unladylike in sworls around my tongue. It should have moistened it up in there, but instead it got dry and sticky thick. Mostly what it did was shut me up, forcing me away from the ranty whine and directing my ire into the knot tightening in my gut.
You’re just hungry, girl, soothed that older sister, the one who’d hug Jax and tell him lies about monsters and how they wasn’t real. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here, move along. He’d ask, You sure, Maisie, and I’d chuckle and say, Sure I’m sure, kiddo.
Most times I was. But being sure and having it be true didn’t always mesh in the way you’d expect. The stone hut—the one in the forest, hidden in a copse of dense trees—had been one of those occasions. The other’d been on that hill overlooking the mirror lake. Both times there’d been bone-chilling cold, so frigid your blood turned to sludge and you forgot how to move or think or even scream.
That same chill came pecking at my pores, raising hackles, making me slow my steps until my boots got anchored in molasses, weighted down with sure and real and this ain’t just a feeling anymore.
“What is it, child?” His words caressed though he kept his distance.
My mouth on auto-pilot, I argued, “I ain’t no child…” while seeking clarity where none existed. I needed to move past the vague illusion and pinpoint exactly where the menace lay. All of it directed at Callum and me.
Callum eased the short sword out of the scabbard and held it against the voluminous folds of cloth. “What do you feel?”
Husking, “I’m not sure,” I tilted my chin in the direction of a narrow side canyon to my left and blinked twice, slow and easy, praying he’d understand.
I nodded, though the essence of rancid discomfort and the ill wind of evil hoarded within those two sets of stone walls now seemed like a sophomoric stunt compared to the threat I sensed lurking just out of reality’s range.
Callum moved to keep me at his back, rotating both of us in a lazy circle as he scanned the slopes. Stones dislodged and skittered. Callum sucked air in long, slow inhales and release. The blue vein in his thick neck vibrated like an elastic band stretched to breaking.
“I see naught.” He wasn’t accusing, just reassuring me. Nothing in his posture spoke to relaxation or disbelief. I wasn’t sure which frightened me more—the fact that someone or something meant us harm or that he believed me without reservation when all around us appeared normal, if not exactly safe.
Once more I asked the question, “Are we trespassing?” though to word it that way opened up this situation to a variety of interpretations, with overtones of sacred and profane adding a level of difficulty and upping the ante in a game lacking rules or even a goal.
It didn’t help when Callum responded, “Mayhap.”
I couldn’t help yelping, “Maybe?” Before he could clamp his hand over my mouth, I hissed, “Please tell me we’re not lost!” He shrugged and gave me a lopsided grin. I grumbled, “Oh that’s just great. We could be pissing off the Jolly Green Giant and his horde of minions just because you couldn’t take a minute to figure out which way was which. Figures, typical guy.”
I stamped my foot. It raised a whirlwind of dust, and though I looked and felt ridiculous, the act untethered something inside. Conscious control slipped away, the sensation both eerie and familiar. In its wake flowed a river of impressions, some vague, others sharply focused…
Scents. Peaty dirt, still damp from the snow melt. Heather, a delicate blend of woodsy musk and honeysuckle carried on air so pure the lungs ached with it.
Taste. Adrenaline, something sweet and sour. Not unpleasant, lingering at the back of the throat. Fear and concern balanced precariously.
Sound. Curiosity couched in shallow breaths. Heartbeats, too close together to isolate. Valves shushing open and closed. Steady.
Touch. Fibers from the tartan punctured the sheen of moisture coating skin. Callum’s palm resting possessively on a shoulder yielding to his superior weight and power.
Sight. Eyes shut, lies morphed to truth, stripping away illusion in favor of revelation.
Other. What Callum demanded, willing it into existence, as he offered his sword and his life in return for a reward too costly to contemplate.
The vessel filled and emptied, eventually seeping into a fugue state and dissipating into thin air. I came back into myself, reluctantly accepting Callum’s anxiety and curiosity but unwilling to share particulars for there was no medium by which I could lay out the fulsomeness of the experience.
Visions were just another extension of insanity, after all, and I had no wish to lay that burden on my protector. I muttered, “I think… whatever it was… it’s… it’s gone now.”
“It?” The hand on my shoulder squeezed once… hard.
A dozen possibilities hit all of a piece. Guardians. Warriors. Rival clans. Brigands, highwaymen. Children playing away from adults, exploring their boundaries and too fearful to poke their noses out to say howdy. Fellow travelers playing it safe.
The essence in the stone hut on the hill overlooking the loch threatened to consume us. It crawled with the hunger of despair, reeked with the incense of isolation. We’d have been helpless in that maw of desolation. Lost and divided from our true selves, field stripped of free will. In that moment, I hated Reverend Talbot and the heinous preachings of ideologies that embraced fear in all its guises. The memory of his rich, ripe life’s blood puddling on the dirt floor rushed in, almost swamping me with an odd sense of regret. But not for long.
I set theocracy aside, and thought back to the hut in the woods back home. The Puking Door had been nothing more than a warning and a promise. Beyond this door there be dragons. Beyond this door free will remained. Beyond this door lay a portal, a slender rift in time and space. Beyond this door lay destiny.
The difference between them was intent.
Laying my hand on Callum’s arm, I tried to explain the inexplicable, stumbling over language and concepts so foreign to us both it only served to slight the weight of the event. It left Callum with a questioning look and me with a hollow emptiness and deep-felt insecurity I wasn’t up to whatever challenge this universe had deemed mine to accept.
Lamely I said, “All I know is, I don’t think it meant us real harm.” Callum chuckled at the absurdity. I slapped away the hand still gripping my shoulder and brayed, “Damn you, you know what I meant.”
Ruefully Callum countered, “Aye, lassie, mayhap I do and mayhap I ken only what is allowed.”
My eyes snapped to his, unsure if I’d heard correctly or not. There were so many interpretations and implications, I was abruptly reminded that wherever here was, it bore no resemblance to the world I’d grown up in. I’d not the education nor the inclination to arm myself with knowledge on how to survive what might be a simple test of faith or proof of bloodline. I also didn’t need that mythical “sense” to recognize something darker, more occult was up for grabs. Cleverness, being juiced up on holler-smarts, arrogance and a don’t give a damn attitude… none of that meant squat. Not here, not now.
It had finally sunk in.
I was here for a reason.
And if I crashed and burned, I already knew the costs for failure were more than I was willing to pay.