Moodie – L. L. Muir

Penny stood ten feet back from the cliff and looked out at the sky shifting above the North Sea. The usual gray clouds gave way to engorged blue ones. The purple shadows finished the effect—a collection of bruises, swelling and turning angrier by the minute. Beneath them, a dark steel shadow marked the western horizon, a metal pole rolling steadily atop the sea, toward her island. In the six months she’d lived on Stroma, she’d seen such lines before. This was no play of light upon the water. This was the shadow of a dangerous wave on the leading edge of a killer storm, and she’d be damned if she’d leave her research subjects outside to face it! She stretched her bottom lip over her teeth, curled her tongue, and whistled with the help of every muscle in her body. She turned and whistled in all directions, hurried to the edge of the cliff and whistled down. The sound cut through the wind like a honed knife. None of the animals would miss it. After sending her shrill call one more time, she turned and headed for home, confident they would catch up with her. It was a half mile to the center of the island, and though it wasn’t the highest point, it would be safe from that wave. Fergus reached her first. He was a mix of Irish setter and bloodhound with crazy red fur and droopy skin all in one. He looked at her with questions in his eyes.

It had been a long time since she’d called him, so he was right to be confused. “Good boy,” she said, and stopped to see who else was coming. “Let’s go home.” The dog barked in answer and danced around her legs while she whistled again, encouraging the rest of the mob to join them. Some came up over the cliff from the shore. Some came from The Gloup. All of them were happy to be invited to the party. She counted noses as they approached. All present and accounted for. All beating their tails or shaking their hips in place of tails removed long ago. All seemingly happy that they could cease pretending to be wild animals. Penny sighed and rolled her eyes, then turned for home again. In a sudden burst of air, her hair lashed across her face and stung her skin. She tried to peel it away, but the ferocity of the wind pressed the dark strands against her cheeks and lips. By the time the roof of her stone house came into sight, she was holding her hands to the sides of her eyes like goggles just to see.

Fergus dashed to the front door, then turned and waited with a doggy grin, his tongue lolling to one side. “No, Fergus,” she said, then hurried around to the back. The others didn’t seem to mind that she was letting them into the barn, but the red dog, dejected, dropped his head before he reluctantly followed the others through the Dutch door. She followed the drama queen inside, closed the bottom and top of the door, then shook it to test how it might hold up to the storm. It’d do just fine. Ten dogs of all breeds and sizes checked the empty food bowls and scanned the room with their noses, no doubt wondering who might have invaded their space since they were turned out months before. And once they were satisfied, they fluffed up the straw, turned in a circle or two, then snuggled themselves into their old beds. Fergus, the eleventh and the alpha, ignored it all and sat at attention, his eyes never leaving the doorknob. He knew Penny had to turn it to open the door and go into the house. She’d ruined him. The minute she decided it was more important to keep the dogs safe than to stay true to her research, she’d known this would happen. Along with another violent gust of wind, something smacked against the barn wall to remind her why she’d called the dogs inside. She used a soothing tone to tell them they would be all right, then turned that doorknob. Fergus wasn’t going to take no for an answer and had his nose, then his body through the opening in less than a second. None of the others were interested.

By the time she made it down the hall and into the house’s main room, Fergus had already taken up his old spot on a rug in front of the bookshelf. He laid his head on a paw and avoided eye contact, but it wasn’t some attempt to punish her—he just didn’t want to take a chance she might order him outside again. Intentionally oblivious. It was a ploy another male had used on her, and though she recognized it and was tempted to rebel, she decided she’d let poor Fergus get away with it…for now. N C H A P T E R O N E umber 29 stood amongst the remaining ghosts and watched a low fog roll over the moor like a carpet, stretching out to its full length. The ghosts were unaffected, being mostly fog themselves, but the young witch who stood in their midst was nearly swallowed up to her knees. Silky tendrils of mist curled around the hem of the lass’ robe and reached higher. She shivered before she shrugged the garment closer to her body. Her kilted, dark-humored uncle stood beside the memorial cairn, his hands braced on his hips. He watched the mist as if searching for an enemy hiding within. What must it be like, 29 wondered, to feel the chill? It had been so long since he had known true sensation, it was difficult to imagine. For nearly half a year, the Highland warrior had watched as ghost after ghost had been sent on their missions. The witch had spent a moment with each, providing a word of comfort or encouragement perhaps, before each man disappeared. And since none of the soldiers had returned to the battlefield, at least while he’d been watching, he assumed they’d all been successful—completing some heroic deed and earning their chance to spit in Bonny Prince Charlie’s eye. Lucky bastards.

Lucky to have the chance to give their poor leader what for. Lucky to have left the dreary moor. But lucky, most of all, to have been the heroic type. It wasn’t his forte, more’s the pity. Heroism was for reliable, solid men. Men who had families and responsibilities and people who had every reason to depend upon them. Not men like him. Without warning, a mob of horrible memories threatened to crash through the barriers he guarded in his mind, but he held firm, clenching his fists at his sides. He shook his head to send them back from whence they came and was relieved when they receded. Of course, they would return. They never went far. Perhaps the shake of his head caught the young witch’s attention, for Soncerae turned toward him. She held out a hand, palm turned up in welcome. With no effort at all, her voice crossed the thirty feet between them. “Number 29.

” He started at the sound of his number on her lips, but did not move. He willed himself back into his grave, but he knew the flashing flames of her white fire prevented his escape. Soni smiled gently. “Do ye remember yer name, my friend?” He shook his head again. His name had long been lost to him. Instead, he remembered only his number, given to him by young Rabby when he first rose to haunt the now-sacred grounds of Culloden Moor. He’d been confused and angry at the time; the memories of being solid and living were still fresh. Now, though, it was difficult to believe he’d ever been so. A dream from centuries before. Remember his name? Auch, had he ever known one? Soncerae watched his face. “It’s all right, my friend. Come forward now. I will help ye remember.” Squaring his shoulders, Number 29 strode forward. Anxiety uncurled in his thoughts like that fog.

What if his name was lost to Soni as well? And if she did know it, would the sound of it blast through his carefully erected barriers? Surely, the words had not been uttered on this earth for over two hundred years, likely forgotten after his brother had passed. Where thorns and thistles might have caught at his boots in a past life, a new source of worry pricked at his heels as he moved from rougher ground onto the hardening November turf. It was the worry that someone, somewhere, was about to be disappointed. Wherever Soncerae chose to send him, he might be someone’s only hope. His actions would either help or harm them. And given his history… As he passed his fellow spirits, he worked to hide his unease. There was no point fashin’. In truth, despite how he felt about himself, he could not refuse the witch’s mission in front of all the others. His dignity would not allow it. Soni’s smile widened when he reached her. “Be easy. Though ye’ve answered with yer number for longer than ye might remember, ye did have a name before ye fell. And ye gave it to me once, when I was younger. Now I will give it back to ye, and I promise ye will never forget it again.” She took a deep breath and expelled it.

“Ethan. Ethan Moodie.” “Moodie,” he repeated carefully. Yes, of course! How could he have forgotten? Ethan and Colin—the brothers Moodie. A wash of grief replaced his anxiety as his brother’s image breached his mental defenses and flashed before him. “Ye promised!” Colin’s voice shrieked with anguish and betrayal. “Ye failed us!” Moodie closed his eyes to banish the ghosts. As if she could sense that he needed reprieve, Soncerae reached toward him again. “Ethan, be easy. In truth, the past is behind ye. Think on yer future now.” He nodded, though there would be little future for him, other than a mission he was destined to fail. “Aye, lass. And thank ye.” Soncerae’s smile was now animated with the hope of the young, her features almost angelic.

Moodie found himself smiling back. “Are ye ready for yer challenge, then?” Was he ready? Of course not. Damned be his pride, he had to confess he couldn’t do this! He had failed to be heroic for his own family. He would surely fail again… “Ethan?” Soni repeated, her enthusiasm no less dim for his hesitation. “Aye. Send me where ye will, I will do the deed. I will earn my revenge on Charles Stuart.” If only to keep from making a mush of myself before these blokes. The uncle cleared his throat and the lass glanced his way. After she gave her head a single shake, the man nodded and relaxed his stance. “Before ye go, Ethan Moodie,” said the wee witch, “I want to remind ye that ye have been courageous. Ye have been loving. Ye can be both again. And ye can be depended upon. Ye’re no fraud, my friend, no matter how ye remember the past.

” Moodie blinked at her. How much could she ken about his history? His family? He narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to ask her just that, but before he could utter a word Culloden Moor was swept out of his vision. On instinct, he threw his arms out to his sides to keep his balance as the ground disappeared from beneath his feet—balance he’d never needed as a ghostie! God’s teeth, I am alive again! Clouds swirled around him, thick and spiky with ice crystals. Cold! I can feel the bloody cold! It had been so long, he barely recognized what was happening to him. He breathed in deeply and relished the feel of moisture settling in his lungs. There was nothing more satisfying than the bracing chill of the Scottish Highlands. Moodie smiled at the luxury of dew kissing the skin between his fingers. How many hundreds of times had he wished he could wash his hands at the Well of the Dead? He blinked rapidly as his eyes were forced to adjust to the change from night to day. Of a sudden, his feet touched down on soft grass. The weight of a living body rested on those feet! The clouds lifted slightly, then descended again, this time tasting of salt and sea. After nigh on three hundred years, he was no longer in the fields of Culloden Moor. Instead, he stood on an island. He turned to find brutal waves crashing against short rocky cliffs, thrown by a monstrous storm. Though he knew not which way his duty lay, he knew enough to put distance between himself and nature’s fury. Rain pelted his head like the beaks of angry guillemots.

He squinted to focus beyond the sheets of water and saw small forms—little more than dots—in the distance. Large stones? Or were they houses? A lighthouse off to the north blinked at him. Quiet and unfazed by the storm, it reminded him of the memorial cairn that watched over him and his comrades for the past hundred and forty years. He wondered if this lighthouse had as many secrets to keep… A flash and rumble overhead warned Moodie he was now susceptible to the elements, then those elements were unleashed upon him like a punishment. He hastened for the ruins, noted that at least one pile of rocks still boasted a roof, and veered toward it. With purpose in his stride, he moved forward, using his arm and tartan to shield his face from the wind and rain. He tried not to think ill of Soncerae as he trudged on. After all, if her aim had been off a bit, he might have been dropped into the drin


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Updated: 16 February 2021 — 11:28

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