Song of a Highlander – Katy Baker

JESSICA MAXWELL LEANED back in her swivel chair and tried to curb her impatience. She pulled a pen from behind her ear and began tapping it on the desk. Rat-a-tat-tat! Come on. Hurry up! She’d only started the analysis this morning, but waiting for the results felt like an eternity. With so much riding on it she could barely sit still. If she didn’t find what she needed this time… Propping her chin on her hand, she stared at the computer. Strings of incomprehensible numbers rolled down the screen as it conducted a chemical analysis of the piece of stone she’d placed into the electron microprobe. This time she would find what she was looking for. This time the analysis would confirm what she’d said all along. This time those finger-pointing idiots in the scientific community who’d ridiculed her findings would be laughing on the other side of their faces. Oh, yes they would. Definitely. She wasn’t worried at all. So why was she biting her nails like she did as a kid? She flicked her chestnut braid over her shoulder and wiped her hands down her lab coat. Her palms were sweaty.

This was no good. She was driving herself crazy. She turned to gaze through the window. Outside the little cabin that served as Jess’s makeshift lab stretched the rain-swept panorama of the Highlands of Scotland. At this time of year—late winter—it was a bleak and desolate place and far removed from her home in the sunny reaches of California. Even so, she loved it. Ever since she’d arrived in this country there had been something about the endless vistas, heather-clad mountains and sparkling lochs that called to her. It was like she’d come home. Grandma Rosa had been from the Highlands. She’d often talked about her homeland, filling her granddaughter’s head with tales of the wild, rugged land of her birth.

She’d vowed to return one day —a vow she’d not been able to keep. A sudden pang went through Jess and she reached up and clutched the tiny silver locket that hung around her neck. Even after all these years she missed her grandmother terribly. She missed her eccentric ways and bone-crushing hugs. She would have believed Jess, even if nobody else did. The computer beeped suddenly, startling her from her thoughts so abruptly that she knocked her coffee cup onto the floor. The mug shattered and coffee splashed all over her pristine white lab coat. “Damn!” Kneeling, Jess mopped it up, then hunched in front of the computer, scanning the results eagerly. But as she read, her heart sank. The analysis said: calcite, silicon dioxide, mica, quartz.

Limestone! It was damned limestone! No trace of the strange element she’d found on her first analysis. No trace of the thing that had gotten her so excited that she’d written a paper, posted it to her blog and a whole bunch of scientific discussion boards, and made herself a laughingstock in the process. She massaged her temples where a headache began to throb. Why did she always do this? Why did she jump in feet-first, following her instincts rather than her scientific training? The first time she’d analyzed the stone—ring-shaped like the weights used on a loom—she’d found something strange. She’d discovered that the stone contained a molecular structure she’d never seen before, one that seemed to change from moment to moment. It had been the discovery that would make her career. Only it hadn’t quite gone to plan. What she should have done—what any good scientist would have done—would have been to run the experiment a second time to determine that her results were genuine. Jess hadn’t done that. Her instincts had told her she was onto something big so, in true Grandma Rosa style, she’d thrown caution to the wind, posted her results, and made grand claims to have found something entirely unknown to science.

Which, of course, she hadn’t. When she’d repeated her analysis, she’d found only limestone. “Jess?” Turning in the swivel chair, she saw Adrian Wildman, her boss, standing in the doorway of her lab. As usual he was wearing an impeccable business suit, despite the roughness of their location, and round spectacles that made his eyes appear huge. Jess frowned. What was going on? Adrian never came to her lab. “Hi Adrian,” she said a little too brightly. “How nice to see you. Fancy a drink?” She hopped off her chair and went over to the kettle in the corner. “Ah, no, thank you,” Adrian said.

“Jess, listen. I’ve got some news.” From his tone of voice, she knew it wasn’t good news. Jess’s stomach twisted. Don’t say it, she thought. Don’t say it. “I’ve heard back from the research board. I’m afraid they’ve rejected your application for an extension to your research grant.” And there it was. Jess squeezed her eyes shut, fighting the sudden urge to either burst into tears or scream in frustration.

Rejected your application. Three little words. So simple. And yet they spelled the end of Jess’s dreams. After her grandmother’s death, science had become Jess’s god. She’d worked hard, put herself through college where she’d studied physics and mathematics. She’d hoped science would provide the answers she sought and fill the void in her life where a family should be. It hadn’t quite worked out that way and she’d been forced to take whatever tiny research jobs she could find. She’d been overjoyed when she’d got the placement on this project but now it was slipping through her fingers. She would have to return to her empty life back home once this project ended.

“Jess? Are you okay?” She drew in a deep breath, schooled her face into a neutral expression, and turned to face Adrian. “Of course I’m okay. You win some, you lose some I guess.” He spotted the numbers scrolling across the computer screen. He frowned. “Are you analyzing that stone again?” “I…um…” Jess squirmed. “When are you going to give this up, Jess? You’re here to conduct soil analysis for the geophysics team. I suggest you get on with that instead of wasting time on that damned stone!” Jess nodded. “Sure. Soil samples.

I’ll get right on it.” Adrian watched her for a moment. Then he sighed. “Look, a few of us are going for a drink tonight. There’s a pub in the next village that stocks a hundred different whiskies by all accounts. How about it?” Jess smiled. “I…I’ll think about it.” Adrian nodded, gave her a sympathetic smile, then turned and left. Jess’s eyes strayed to a tissue-lined box that sat next to her computer. In it lay what she referred to as the keystone.

It was about as big as her palm and shaped like a ring doughnut. Tiny markings ran around the edge of the stone. They looked a little like runes but since they didn’t correspond to any known language, the archaeologists had dismissed them as mere decoration. From this stone Jess had taken the sample in the microprobe. From this keystone she’d gotten the crazy results that had all but ruined her career. Ah, damn it! Striding to the door, she grabbed her coat, and made her way outside. A cold wind slapped her in the face and tugged at her hair. The sky above was slate gray, threatening another downpour. The dig site stretched ahead. Archaeologists were working feverishly in the trenches, all eager to get as much done as possible before the weather hit.

Jess was no archaeologist, but even to her untrained eye she could tell the site was taking shape. A series of walls had been uncovered, and it was easy to see the outline of the building the archaeologists had unearthed. Speculation rumbled as to what it might be. Some thought a manor house, others a church, but in truth the building didn’t conform to any of the usual building types which is what had the archaeologists so excited. It had proven all but impossible to put a date to it as none of the usual dating evidence—pottery and the like—had yet been found. The keystone was the only artifact found so far, buried at the base of an old doorway, and it had yielded few clues as to the site’s origins. It was one of the reasons her soil analysis was so important. Jess hunkered down in her coat and padded across the muddy ground to the northeast corner of the site. Here, the trenches had been roped off as they were deep and dangerous. Below the foundations of the building an intact cellar had been uncovered, complete with a beautiful tiled floor, dressed stone walls and a curving arch of a doorway.

It was from the base of this doorway that the keystone had been unearthed. Ducking under the rope, Jess jumped down into the trench, crouched in the mud, and used a tiny trowel to scrape soil samples into a range of small plastic pots. Taking out a pen, she carefully labelled each and then moved off into the other corner to do the same. This brought her close to the doorway and she paused, gazing up at it. The actual door had long since rotted away, leaving just the curving stones of the lintel that were covered in moss. She sighed. The structure was just stone, nothing special. She was a fool to think otherwise. She bowed her head, pressing her palm against her forehead. What was wrong with her? Why could she not just be content? Why must she always go searching for something other? “My, my, but that is a pensive expression if ever I saw one.

” Jess jumped at the unexpected voice. Turning, she found an old woman standing behind her. She was bundled up in a coat against the weather and had gray hair tied into a bun. She was tiny and had eyes so dark they seemed to be all pupil, with no iris at all. Jess stepped back a pace. Where on earth had she appeared from? “Sorry. You startled me. What did you say?” The old woman smiled, her cheeks dimpling and her eyes sparkling with merriment. She seemed ancient, her face a map of creases and wrinkles, but despite this she had an air of vigor about her. “I said that’s a pensive expression if ever I saw one.

Ye look like ye have the weight of the world on yer shoulders, my dear.” Jess smiled wryly. “Have you ever had one of those days?” “Oh, one of those days is it? Aye, my dear. I’ve had plenty of them in my time.” She gazed at Jess steadily, unblinking. Jess shifted uncomfortably. She found the old woman’s stare a little unnerving. “Um…was there something you wanted? Adrian, the site manager, gives a public tour every day at 3pm if that’s why you’re here.” The woman smiled. “Nay, my dear, I dinna need a tour of this place.

I know it very well.” She held out a hand. “I’m Irene. Irene MacAskill.” Jess reached out and shook her hand. Her skin felt warm and dry and her grip firm. “I’m Jess. Jessica Maxwell.” “I know who ye are, my dear. I read yer paper.

” Jess stifled a groan. Here we go again. “It was an interesting read,” Irene continued. “There aren’t many left with the power to see the inner world.” Jess looked at her sharply. “The what?” “The inner world, my dear,” Irene said jovially. “The hidden secrets of the world. Most dinna see them. But ye do. That’s what led to yer discovery no doubt.

” She stepped closer. “But such wisdom always comes at a cost. I wonder, are ye willing to pay it?” Even though she was shorter than Jess, Irene seemed to tower over her. Jess resisted the urge to take another step back. “I don’t have the first clue what you’re talking about.” “Dinna ye? Then mayhap I should make it plain. Ye must be careful, lass. Ye have been noticed. There are those who will covet yer abilities. They pose a very real threat.

” “I beg your pardon?” Jess was becoming a little alarmed now. “What are you talking about? What abilities? What threat?” “The ability to see the inner world is rare and powerful. Dark powers will want it for themselves.” Okay. I’m done, Jess thought. She was officially creeped out. She’d had quite enough for one day. “Right. Whatever you say. I hope you enjoy your tour.

” She turned and started to walk off, but Irene’s fingers closed around her arm. Her grip was as strong as tree roots. “What are you doing?” Jess cried. “What do you want with me?” “Only to preserve the balance,” the woman replied. “Ye have wandered far, far from yer true path, Jessica Maxwell. But ye must find yer way back and use yer knowledge and courage to stop a great wrong from occurring. Only then can the balance be preserved. Only then will ye find the thing ye so desperately seek and discover who ye really are. Ye will soon have to make a choice. Will ye have the courage to walk a dark, dangerous road if it leads to light on the other side?” Jess stared at the old woman.

Her heartbeat quickened. From fear? Or something else? Irene MacAskill was obviously crazy. So why did her words stir up an odd combination of dread and excitement in Jess’s heart? With an effort, she pulled her arm from the old woman’s grip. “I’ve got to go.” This time the old woman made no effort to stop her. Jess climbed out of the trench but then turned back and said, “Wait a minute. Irene, how did you get down there—?” Her words stuttered to a halt. The old woman had disappeared. I’m going crazy, she thought. I’m hallucinating.

Either that or Irene MacAskill moves faster than any old woman I’ve ever met. Jeez, I need some sleep. But there was no time for such luxuries. She had a soil analysis to finish and a report to write. Hunching her shoulders against the harsh weather, and trying her best to put the incident with Irene MacAskill behind her, Jess hurried back to her lab. “YE ARE SURE IT WAS them?” Ramsay MacAuley said, holding up a photograph. The groundskeeper leaned on his rake and squinted at it. “Aye, it was them all right. Wouldnae forget them in a hurry. They asked all sorts of questions.

” “Questions? Like what?” The man scratched his head. “Hmm, let me think.” Ramsay frowned, struggling to keep his patience. He and the groundskeeper were standing in a bleak, wintery castle garden. Ahead of them, at the base of the hill, and beyond the crumbling ruins of the castle, sat a loch. The water seemed as gray as the sky above, the only color the muddy green of the hills. The dank weather suited Ramsay’s mood perfectly. “Ah! I remember now!” the groundskeeper said. “They wanted to know if there were any plans of this place—both the house and the grounds. It seemed to me like they were looking for something.

” “Did they say what?” The groundskeeper shook his head. “Nay. When I couldnae give them what they wanted, they stormed off without another word.” Ramsay’s fists clenched in frustration. He’d come to this place in the hopes of tracking down his quarry. Yet again, he’d failed. He thanked the groundskeeper and headed back towards the castle that guarded the shore of the loch. The castle lay in ruins now, the roof long since disappeared along with all trace of the people who had once lived here. Now only the walls and empty windows remained, like dead eyes staring out over the darkening landscape. Long ago, the hall would have echoed to the sound of music and dancing.

The bailey would have been filled with the hubbub of life: the barking of dogs and neighing of horses, the cries of children playing, the clink of the blacksmith’s forge, the shouts of the changing guard. All gone now. All just memory. Just like my home, he thought. And everyone I knew. He turned suddenly as a group of people exited the castle gates but it was just a group of tourists, a family out for the day. Frustration rose in his gut like bile. He would find his quarry. And then he’d put things right. The group of tourists walked past him, the children staring at his odd attire.

Despite everything, Ramsay hadn’t been able to make himself give up the MacAuley plaid. It drew more attention than he liked and people often pointed at the odd Scotsman who insisted on wearing traditional dress, but he found himself unwilling or unable to give up this last tie to his past. The tourists climbed into their car and drove away and the groundskeeper returned to his raking. Ramsay was left alone. The wind swept in off the loch, moaning through the empty windows and deserted corridors of the old castle like a lost soul. “What am I doing here?” he muttered. “What’s that, dear?” said a voice suddenly. “Ye will have to speak up—I’m a bit hard of hearing.” Ramsay spun, shocked that anyone had managed to sneak up on him. He’d been trained by his uncle Finlay, the best tracker in Clan MacAuley, and his senses were acute.

But not acute enough, it seemed, to detect the approach of the old woman standing behind him now. She was short and stout and wore a shapeless brown coat held closed with a brooch in the shape of a deer. Her wrinkled cheeks were red from the wind and wisps of gray hair had come free from the bun pinned at the back of her head. Recognition hit him and his eyes widened. His hand went to his sword hilt, but of course he didn’t carry a sword anymore. Noticing the gesture, an expression of amusement crossed the old woman’s features. “It seems ye havenae forgotten all that ye once were, Ramsay MacAuley.” “Irene MacAskill,” he growled. “What are ye doing here? I thought I was done with yer meddling when ye brought me to this accursed place!” She raised an eyebrow. “When I brought ye here? I did naught, Ramsay MacAuley.

It was yer own choice as I recall.” Aye, she spoke the truth. Three years ago this woman had offered him a bargain, and he’d accepted. It had been his choice. The half-life he lived now was of his own making. Why then, did he feel a sudden, seething anger at the sight of her? “What do ye want?” he demanded. “I want no part of yer schemes. Leave me be.” She didn’t reply. Her dark eyes, like chips of obsidian, were full of sadness.

“Ah, my boy. Ye have walked alone for so long, bereft of kith and kin. Bereft of love. Do ye regret the choice ye made?” Ramsay drew in a breath and found to his surprise that he did not regret it. Despite everything, despite the soul-crushing loneliness, despite the nagging sensation that he didn’t belong, he would make the same choice again. Because, after all, he wanted to live. “My father taught me never to have regrets,” he said at last. “I knew what I was getting into when I made my choice. I know what path lies beneath my feet. I can walk no other.

” “Spoken like a true MacAuley,” Irene said with a smile. “Yet not entirely true. Every path has forks in it. Every road has switchbacks. Every road leads back to where it started—if ye have the courage to retrace yer steps.” “What do ye mean by that?” “I know what it is ye seek,” Irene said, her gaze sharp and piercing. “And I know why ye seek it. Ye think it will bring ye peace.” “It isnae peace I seek,” Ramsay countered. “I seek only to make amends.

” “Aye,” she nodded. “Because ye hope it will bring ye the solace ye yearn for.” She gazed up at him, and her fingers suddenly closed around his hand. “But it willnae.” “Ye dinna know of what ye speak!” he snapped. “Ye dinna know what I’ve done!” He glared at her. “What do ye want, Irene?” She watched him, head cocked to one side. “The quest ye are on willnae lead ye where ye hope it will. It willnae lead ye forward, but only back, back to where it all started. Are ye prepared to walk that path? Are ye prepared to go full circle? Only by doing so will ye find the redemption ye so desperately seek.

” Ramsay scowled at her. “Ye speak in riddles, woman.” “Do I? Or do I only tell ye what ye already know? Ye canna walk this path alone.” The wind whipped strands of gray hair around her face and her eyes were as dark as the depths of the loch. She seemed part of the landscape, a force of nature as vital as the wind, as solid as the ground beneath Ramsay’s feet. “I know no other way,” he whispered. Irene patted his hand. “Then ye must learn.” With that she turned and walked away, disappearing around a bend in the path. Ramsay stared after her.

Ye canna trust her, a voice said in his head. Ye know what she is. Fae. He glanced down and realized that she’d deposited something in his hand. Holding it close to his face in the gloomy light, he scanned the writing and realized it was a flyer advertising a public talk at an archaeology dig. I should forget she was ever here and go on my way, he thought. Curse it all, why had Irene turned up now? What scheme was he being pulled into this time? With a growl of frustration, he tucked the flyer into his pocket and set off.


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