Soul of a Highlander – Katy Baker

Sophie MacCullough bent her back and dug the spade into the soft brown earth, turning it over until it became soft and crumbly. Then she added in some compost from her barrow and began planting the spring plants that Mrs. Owen had ordered. It was a lovely spring day, one of those rare days early in the year where the sun shone and the sky was crystal clear, giving hints of the summer to come. It couldn’t have come soon enough for Sophie. The winter had been long and gloomy. It felt good to finally get outdoors and get her gardening business—so quiet over the dark months of winter—back into shape. And finally start earning some money, she thought, glancing at her patched-up overalls and battered tools. And get the rent paid. Flicking her blonde ponytail over her shoulder, she moved steadily down the bed in Mrs. Owen’s back yard, planting tulips, daffodils and hyacinths that gave off a beautiful scent. The morning wore away, Sophie lost herself in the work, and by the time she straightened, wiping the sweat off her forehead with the back of one glove-covered hand, the bare bed had become a riot of color. She brushed away a strand of hair that had come free of her ponytail and nodded, a sense of satisfaction flushing through her as it always did when working with plants. A shrill ringing suddenly exploded from her pocket and she jumped with a startled cry. Shaking her head at her skittishness, she fumbled in the pocket of her overalls for her phone and pressed it to her ear.

“Hello?” “Miss MacCullough? It’s Fiona from the agency.” Sophie’s heart skipped a beat. That was quick! She hadn’t expected to hear anything so soon. “Um, hello. Did you find anything?” “That’s what I’m calling you about. We’ve looked into your request and I’m afraid we won’t be able to supply the information you asked for. You were adopted out of Scotland as you know, but your records are sealed by the courts and your birth parents’ identities are not available. I’m sorry, Miss MacCullough, I appreciate this isn’t the news you were hoping for.” The smile slid from Sophie’s face. Disappointment sat in her stomach like a bowling ball.

Having grown up in the care system, moving from one set of foster parents to another, she’d never known her real family. All her life she’d wondered who she was and where she’d come from and now she’d finally worked up the courage to try and track them down. Although if what Fiona said was anything to go by, they weren’t too keen on being found. “Okay,” she heard herself saying. “Thanks for letting me know.” She hung up and stared at the phone, annoyed at herself for being so disappointed. You should never have started this, she thought. You’ve only caused yourself a whole heap of heart-ache and what have you discovered? Precisely nothing! The only things she had of her birth parents were her name—MacCullough—and a necklace she’d been wearing when she’d been given up for adoption. She fished around in the collar of her shirt and pulled it out. It wasn’t a necklace really, at least not by normal standards.

It wasn’t made from silver or gold but instead consisted of a leather thong holding a metal disk that looked like it might be made of pewter. The disk was completely featureless, with no decoration or distinguishing features. Sophie didn’t know why she bothered to keep it. Well, that’s that, she thought. I’m not going to discover my past, so how about getting on with S living in the present? Pushing the phone call from her mind, she examined her day’s work. The flower bed was almost finished. All that remained was a bit of planting around the edges then she could put her tools away, go check on Mrs. Owen, and knock off for the day. She picked up her spade, turned towards her wheelbarrow, and gasped in shock as she almost collided with an old woman standing in her way. Pressing a hand against her chest she said, “You startled me, Mrs.

Owen—” Wait. It wasn’t Mrs. Owen at all. This woman was small and round, wearing a coat that was held closed with a brooch shaped like a deer. Her iron-gray hair was scraped back into a bun and her round face was almost cherubic as she smiled up at Sophie. “My apologies, my dear,” the woman said. “I didnae mean to scare ye.” The woman spoke with a thick Scottish brogue and her eyes were as dark as flint. Sophie smiled. “That’s all right.

I’ve just about finished here, anyway. I’ll just go get Mrs. Owen for you.” “Nay, my dear. I’m not here to see Mrs. Owen. I’m here to see ye.” “Me?” Sophie asked, puzzled. “Why would you want to see me?” Then she caught sight of her van parked outside Mrs. Owen’s house with the name of Sophie’s gardening business plastered across the side.

“Oh! I see! Well, if it’s a quote you’re after I can pop round and we can discuss it. Is it landscaping you want? Garden design? Or just some general maintenance?” The woman smiled, her dark eyes glittering. “I dinna require gardening services, my dear. I’m looking for something far more important than that.” She stuck her hand out. “I’m Irene. Irene MacAskill. It’s a pleasure to meet ye.” Sophie took Irene’s hand and shook it. The old woman’s skin felt as warm and dry as the bark of some ancient tree, but there was surprising strength in her handshake.

“So, if you don’t want a gardener, what can I do for you?” Sophie asked. Irene cocked her head. Her eyes alighted on the necklace dangling around Sophie’s neck and something flashed deep within that dark gaze. “Much,” she breathed, almost to herself. “More than ye can possibly imagine.” She looked up and that cherubic smile returned. “Ye can help me restore the balance, that’s what.” “I’m sorry? The what? I think you might have got the wrong person. I can’t help you restore anything. I’m just a gardener.

” Irene stared at her for a long moment, unblinking. “Oh, ye are far more than ‘just a gardener’ my dear. And ye are most definitely the right person.” Her eyes were so dark as to seem like pools of ink and Sophie suddenly felt as though she was falling into them. She saw eons turning in that gaze, lifetimes of memory and sadness. A shiver went through her. “Who are you?” “Maybe that’s the question I should be asking ye? Who are ye, Sophie MacCullough? Or, more accurately, do ye wish to find out?” A cloud passed across the sun and the warm spring day turned suddenly cold. The hairs rose along Sophie’s arms. She forced herself to hold her ground, even though she wanted to take a step back, to put some space between herself and this strange old woman. “Look, I don’t have time for this,” Sophie said, glancing at her watch.

“I need to get packed up and go check on Mrs. Owen. So if you don’t mind—” She gestured to the gate, hoping the old woman would take the hint. She didn’t. Irene just stood there, hands clasped, head cocked as she regarded Sophie with an expression that made her feel like she was being weighed on a set of scales. “I can see the restlessness inside ye,” Irene said. “The questions. They burn like fire and they willnae let ye know peace. Am I right?” “I’m not restless,” Sophie protested. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about!” Okay.

This woman was obviously a little unhinged. The sooner Sophie got rid of her and went home, the better. There was a bottle of wine and a huge slab of chocolate waiting in her apartment and right now she couldn’t think of anything she would like more in the world. “Do ye not?” Irene replied. “Isnae it true that ye long to discover who ye are? That ye have never felt truly at home in yer own life because ye have no foundation upon which to build it? Isnae it true that ye feel adrift?” Sophie frowned, equal parts freaked out and annoyed. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but this conversation is over. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” She turned towards the gate but she’d not even taken a step before Irene’s hand shot out and caught her wrist, clamping around her arm like the jaws of a steel trap. Sheesh, the woman was strong! “Ye canna always be lost, my dear,” Irene said. “There comes a time when ye have to discover yer true path in this life.

Only then can the balance be preserved. That time is fast approaching. Ye have a choice coming. Ye can choose to remain on this path. Or ye can take another. Ye can choose to take a terrible risk. A terrifying risk. One that will rip open yer whole life and put it back together again, piece by piece. If ye do, ye might finally find the answers ye have been seeking yer whole life.” She released Sophie’s arm and stepped back.

“Think about it, my dear. I am sure ye will make the right choice.” Then she turned and walked away, the gate swinging shut behind her with a clang. Sophie stared after her, mouth working but no words coming out. What had just happened? “Sophie, love?” called a voice. “Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve just taken some scones out of the oven.” The front door of the house opened and Mrs. Owen came pottering out. A home-knitted shawl was wrapped around the shoulders of the tall, thin woman and her white hair fell in a long plait down her back. She stopped abruptly when she saw Sophie.

“What is it, love? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” “That woman,” Sophie stammered. “That woman who was here, do you know her?” “What woman?” “The woman who just left. Literally five seconds ago. You must have seen her.” Mrs. Owen gave a puzzled shake of her head. “I didn’t see anyone and I’ve not had any visitors all day except for you.” She gave Sophie a concerned look. “Are you sure you’re all right?” Sophie nodded and forced a smile onto her face.

“Sure. I’m great. Tea and scones, you say? That sounds perfect.” She followed Mrs. Owen into the house and did her best to put Irene MacAskill from her mind. True to her word, Mrs. Owen poured her a cup of tea and piled a plate high with fruit scones that were still warm from the oven. Sophie took an appreciative bite. “Now that is what I call a scone!” she said enthusiastically. “I’ve no doubt that you are the best baker in London.

” Mrs. Owen waved her hand. “Get away with you! Come, I want to show you something.” They went into the sitting room, but rather than sinking onto the sofa, Mrs. Owen led Sophie over to the dining table where she had a huge and creaky computer set up. Mrs. Owen might be approaching eighty, but she didn’t let that inconvenience her. She could often be found surfing the net and taking part in various online forums. In her youth she’d been something of an activist and she was determined that age wouldn’t stop her from pursuing her passions. She bade Sophie sit in front of the computer and then took a seat next to her.

Sophie put down her tea cup and looked at the screen, expecting to see an article on women’s rights or the exploitation of the Amazon rainforest. She saw neither of these. Instead, a map filled the screen. “What am I looking at?” Sophie asked. “I got one of those trial memberships for tracing family trees,” Mrs. Owen said. “I’ve managed to track the MacCulloughs down to this area of the Highlands.” She tapped the screen with a finger. “I know you’ve been looking for your family. I thought this might be a place to start.

” Sophie blinked. “You…you did this for me?” Mrs. Owen smiled. “You’re not just my gardener, Sophie. You’re more like the granddaughter I never had. Here.” Mrs. Owen handed Sophie an envelope. “What’s this?” “Open it and find out.” Sophie opened the envelope.

Inside, she found a ticket to Inverness and a hotel reservation. “I…I don’t know what to say,” Sophie stammered. “You don’t have to say anything. It’s a gift. Did you think I didn’t realize it was your birthday today?” Mrs. Owen said. A sudden well of emotion brought tears to Sophie’s eyes. “I can’t accept this—” “You can and you will. Make an old woman happy. I know how much you’ve wanted to track down your family.

Now you can at least make a start. Happy birthday, love.” Irene MacAskill’s words suddenly echoed in Sophie’s head. Ye have a choice coming. Ye can choose to remain on this path. Or ye can take another. Did she know what Mrs. Owen had planned? Was this the choice she was referring to? Sophie looked at Mrs. Owen, blinking back tears. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Mrs. Owen grinned, looking suddenly like the lively young woman she must once have been. “You are most welcome, love. Just bring me back a couple of bottles of authentic Scotch whisky and we’ll call it even.” Sophie grinned back, a little flame of excitement lighting in her stomach. She was going to Scotland! Where, if she was very lucky, she might finally find some answers. CALLUM SUTHERLAND RODE as fast as he dared through the boggy, treacherous landscape. Unease gnawed at him. Something had gone wrong. He could feel it.

He set his heels to his horse’s flanks and urged greater speed down the rutted track. It had rained again during the night and deep puddles filled the ruts, making the going difficult. Spring in the Highlands was often wet, but it had been wetter than usual so far this year and if they didn’t get some drier weather soon it did not bode well for the harvest. The horse snorted, picking up on his master’s mood, and Callum realized he was gritting his teeth and holding the reins tighter than needed. He forced himself to relax and concentrate on his mission. A message had reached him at first light. An unsigned note with two words scrawled on it, left in the agreed place. Come quickly. It had been Alfred’s handwriting. Had he found something? Had he discovered information about their hidden enemy? Was that why the note had been so hastily written? Callum had no answers, only a nagging worry that he could not assuage.

The few people he saw on the road ducked their heads and hurried by, not wanting to attract the attention of a mounted, armed warrior. Callum frowned to himself. It was another symbol of these troubled times that travelers did not feel safe on the roads. I will put it right, he told himself. I will find the Disinherited and I will stop them. Several miles further on he reached a marker: a large wooden cross sitting at the junction of four roads. Callum slowed the horse and stared up at it. To most observers it would be unremarkable, just two wooden posts lashed together and set into a stone base, a place for pilgrims and travelers to take a moment’s rest under the watchful gaze of the Lord. But to Callum it was more than that. His eyes roved over the structure until he found what he was looking for: a tiny symbol carved into the base.

An osprey with wings outstretched. His nostrils flared and he looked around, checking he was alone. Around him, the countryside lay quiet and still. Whoever had carved the osprey was long gone, leaving the carving behind as a message. And perhaps a warning. The sight of it told Callum he was on the right track. The person that had left the message would have fled to the nearest safe house. Yanking the reins, he pulled the horse around and led him off the road, into the dense, trackless woodland. There were no paths through the maze of thick boughs and tangled undergrowth, but Callum didn’t need them. He knew this area intimately and had been walking its depths since he was little more than a lad.

He kept the horse to a walk, glancing around and listening intently, hand never far from the hilt of his great sword. He spotted his destination through the trees up ahead and reined in. The cottage was little more than a ruin and local folklore claimed that a witch once lived here, putting spells around the place to stop others from gleaning her secrets. That was superstitious nonsense, of course, but it suited Callum to keep the old tales alive. They would keep people away, making the cottage a safe meeting place for the Order. He slipped noiselessly from the saddle and tied the horse to a tree. Drawing his sword, he moved silently through the trees towards the cottage. It was a tiny place, just a single room that had once had a vegetable patch out the back which had long-since been reclaimed by the woodland. Now the thatch was sagging, and the door hung precariously. Callum halted several paces back and hunkered down behind a wide tree trunk, watching.

He’d learned patience at his father’s side and crouched there for a long time, still and silent, until he was satisfied that this was no trap. Finally, he rose from his position and approached the front door, pushing it open and stepping inside. He froze on the threshold. Violence had clearly been done here. The table and chairs had been overturned and the few cups and plates that the Order kept here in case anyone needed to stay overnight lay in fragments on the floor. Callum stepped inside warily, careful not to disturb anything. Footprints marred the dusty floor. Callum counted at least five different sets. A low growl escaped him. Damn it all! He was too late.

Always too late. Alfred had clearly discovered something, but their enemy had found him before Callum had. Callum crouched, examining the area thoroughly. There was no body and no blood. That meant Alfred might still be alive but captured. He made a circuit of the cottage, searching for any indication of who might have attacked and where they might have gone. But whoever it was, they were clever. They’d covered their tracks carefully and Callum could find no evidence of the path they’d taken through the woods. He circled to the front of the house and stood staring out into the trees. It looked utterly peaceful, with rays of sunlight falling through the branches, but it could not soothe Callum’s mood.

Anger and frustration swirled in his gut. He felt the need to hit something. Curse it all! Give him a living, breathing enemy, something he could fight, not this insidious enemy that vanished like mist whenever he got close! He blew out a breath and considered his options. He ought to return to the castle. His people needed him and would be wondering at his absence by now. But his vow burned inside him. The rest of the Order needed to be warned. If Alfred had been captured, they might be in danger too. He returned to the horse and swung up into the saddle. Instead of turning east, towards home, he guided the horse south, deeper into the trackless woods.

The border between his lands and his neighbors’ wasn’t marked, but all the same Callum knew when he’d crossed it. It was etched into his mind as clearly as a line drawn on a parchment. In some places in the Highlands it was dangerous to pass into bordering territory unannounced, especially with the War of Independence only a couple of generations past. Old enmities still festered beneath the surface—as Callum understood only too well. But this part of the Highlands belonged to his friend and ally and so he rode quickly, without fear of reprisals, into a land of crofts and villages that was just starting to show the green of spring after the harsh winter. He was passing down a narrow track, hemmed in close on both sides by a thicket of last year’s brambles, when the horse shied suddenly. Looking up, Callum saw a figure standing on the track ahead of him. Surprised, he slowed the horse, expecting the figure to move aside to let him pass. When it didn’t, he set his hand to his sword, wary of an ambush by bandits. But as he moved closer, he realized this was no bandit.

It was an old woman. She was swathed from head to toe in a shapeless plaid in colors he didn’t recognize and was so short she didn’t reach the shoulder of his horse. Slate-gray hair was pulled back from her face in a bun and she stood patiently on the path as though she’d been waiting for his arrival. “Good day, mistress,” he said, reining in before her. He looked around, searching for her companions, but found none. Surely an ancient such as she shouldn’t be wandering the wilds alone? “Aye, it is indeed, my boy,” she replied brightly. “And even better for seeing ye.” “Me?” “Aye. I’ve been waiting for ye, Callum Sutherland.” He glanced from side to side, suddenly wary.

What was going on here? Only Agatha and James, his most trusted retainers, knew he’d ridden out today. “I dinna ken what ye might mean by that, mistress,” he said carefully. “How could ye have known I was coming this way? Surely ye have me mistaken for someone else.” The old woman raised an eyebrow and then peered at him closely. He could have sworn he saw merriment dancing in her dark eyes. “Nay,” she said, shaking her head. “No error. Definitely ye I was looking for. Ye are difficult to mistake for another.” Callum bit back his impatience.

He needed to be away from here, not detained by the ramblings of an old woman. She was clearly a little…confused. He gritted his teeth and then swung down off his mount.

.

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