Till There Was You – Lynn Kurland

The last rays of sunlight sparkled against a ruined castle that stood in the midst of rolling hills, sweetly singing streams, and roads still dusted with the last of a winter’s snow. A lone man strode through the castle gates as the sun set. He wasn’t unused to the chill of a long winter, yet still he shivered under the heavy cloak he wore fastened over his shoulder with an enormous brooch. His kilt swung about his knees and a great sword slapped against his thigh as he walked without haste but with definite purpose. He had business that night. He crossed the courtyard and climbed the well-worn stairs. There were no front doors left to the great hall, but that was to be expected. The place was ripe for not only a bit of mischief but a decent remodel as well. Fortunately, he knew just who could see to both. He walked into the hall, spared the place a bit of a look, then continued over to the hearth. It likely hadn’t seen a fire in a pair of centuries, but that was no deterrent. He created a roaring fire with a negligent flick of his wrist, then chose a likely spot and placed a comfortable chair there. He paused for quite a while, wrestling with a decision he didn’t particularly want to make. He considered, frowned, and then, with a sigh, surrendered. And then Ambrose MacLeod, laird of the clan MacLeod during the flowering of the Renaissance— which hadn’t exactly been yesterday—placed a Tudor-rose-patterned cushion upon the seat.

He didn’t particularly care to indulge in such luxuries, but he wasn’t as young as he used to be— never mind that he was no longer troubled by the aches and pains of a mortal frame. The castle surrounding him was austere enough. If a body couldn’t enjoy at least the sight of a few creature comforts now and again, what pleasures could he reasonably take? He sat with a contented sigh, plucked a hefty tankard of ale out of thin air, then settled back to anticipate what he was certain would be a robust and entertaining evening of conversation. At least he might enjoy it without being stalked like a hapless rabbit across the moor by a woman who had no business casting her steely eye his way, but that was perhaps an observation better left unmade at present. He savored the crackle and pop of the fire in the hearth for quite some time before he put his hand to his ear. Hark, was that a curse? And a stomp? He was certain he’d heard the reassuring sound of both. He looked to his left and watched a man stride through what had once been the sturdy doors of the great hall in which he now sat. That man continued to grumble his way across the hall before he, after much ado and many more complaints, settled down in his own chair with his own bit of comfort in a mug. Ambrose nodded politely. “Fulbert.

” Fulbert de Piaget, second son of a very illustrious earl of Artane and, to everyone’s continued surprise, Ambrose’s own brother-in-law, grunted. “I’ll dispense with pleasantries. You’re mad.” Ambrose lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “Am I? Why do you say that?” “We do better when we’re not inviting unknowns into our midst,” Fulbert said. “This new plan of yours is a mistake. Mark my words.” Ambrose marked them, but unfortunately he couldn’t discount them as easily as he might have liked. Fulbert had a point. He, Fulbert, and the third of their number had been about their work for quite some time now without any outside aid, and they were quite used to each other’s methods.

Bringing in someone new, someone untested and unused to the particular delicacies necessary for their usual business … well, it might spell disaster. “I also don’t know why we’re here in this wreck,” Fulbert muttered. He looked up at the night sky that was quite visible thanks to the lack of a proper roof. “Wyckham? Lovely in its time, perhaps, but surely not now.” He shot Ambrose a disgruntled look. “We could have been quite comfortably ensconced at the Boar’s Head Inn.” “I thought a change of venue might be refreshing,” Ambrose said brightly. Fulbert leaned forward and looked at him intently. “I imagine you do, my cowardly friend. Perhaps we would be well served by discussing what your reasons for that thought might be—” “Ah, look,” Ambrose said suddenly, gesturing with his mug toward the door.

“There’s Hugh.” “Run as long as you like, Ambrose,” Fulbert said knowingly. “Your doom is waiting for you back at the inn. Garbed, I imagine, in pink.” Ambrose had no doubt that was the case, but that was something to think on later. Business, as always, came first. Hugh McKinnon, laird of the clan McKinnon in the distant memory of Scottish glory, crossed the floor, frowning furiously and paying not a shred of attention to where he was going. That might have had to do with the fact that he was concentrating very seriously on something that looked remarkably like a clipboard. Ambrose was past being surprised by what tangles Hugh became embroiled in, so he merely waited until Hugh stopped tapping his chin with his pencil and muttering things about microfiche and census records. “Hugh?” Ambrose prodded.

Hugh looked up, cross-eyed. “By the saints, Ambrose, ‘tis a dodgy business, this genealogy. I can scarce read my own writin’, not to mention what those friars managed to scribble in their records. How is a body to possibly find a bleedin’ ancestor for the soul in question?” “Are you telling me you haven’t managed the feat?” Hugh drew himself up. “Of course, I managed,” he said with a sniff. He paused. “Eventually. After a bit of a tussle.” “Hugh,” Ambrose said sternly, “what have you done?” Hugh scrunched up his face and looked back defiantly. “I did nothin’ untoward.

Them genealogy librarians can be a mite testy, I’ll tell ye that. They’re there to help, not do for ye.” He scowled. “I daresay I gave more than one feisty biddy the vapors before I found one willing to do instead of lecture.” Ambrose could only imagine. “And what did all your labors yield?” Hugh straightened his clothes, adjusted the cap on his head, then stepped back and gestured with a flourish toward where the hall doors had once been. In stumbled a gentleman of advanced years and very salty tongue, looking equal parts dazed and annoyed. He made his way over to the fire, then looked at them and took their measure. “England,” he said with distaste. “Thought I’d left the damp behind for good.

” Ambrose fashioned another chair, then leaned over and handed the newcomer a mug of ale. “Please, sit and be comfortable. If I might inquire who—” “You might, or you might not,” the man said, taking his drink and sitting down with a grunt. “No need to introduce yourselves. I’ve been favored with all manner of tales concerning your exploits all the way here.” He shot Fulbert a look. “I’m not accustomed to associating with Brits—” Ambrose put his hand out and stopped Fulbert from drawing an as-yet-nonexistent sword. He couldn’t stop Fulbert’s growl, but he supposed their new addition deserved what he got. Ambrose sat back slowly and wondered if Fulbert had it aright. Perhaps they had made an error in bringing in someone new.

He revisited his reasons, just to see where a flaw might have been found. They had as their victim —er, subject, rather—a man who was not unused to things of a paranormal nature. He was also, as it happened, not unused to things of a dating nature. Ambrose had lost count over the years of the women the lad had squired about. Short ones, tall ones, plump ones, far-too-skinny ones, beautiful ones, notso-beautiful ones. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a lassie to suit. Ambrose had decided that ’twas past time to take matters into his own hands. The only trouble was that the soul in question was powerfully stubborn and wouldn’t be sent in the direction of a truly fine match without a goodly nudge. Hence the thought of bringing in fresh blood, as it were, to potentially convince the recalcitrant descendant that ancestors on both sides of the family were very interested in seeing him well settled. Ambrose put on his most charming smile.

“We all must associate at times where we’re less than eager, but we endure it as best we may. Now, if you wouldn’t mind telling us a bit about yourself … ?” The newcomer looked around with a resigned air, then fortified himself with a hefty swig of ale. “Drummond,” he said. “Laird John Drummond, if we’re to be exact—” “Drummond?” Ambrose interrupted in surprise. He looked at Hugh, startled. “I thought we were looking for a Mackintosh.” “Depends on what part of the tree ye’d be wantin’ to sit in,” Hugh said darkly. “He was the best I could find. And he didn’t want to be found.” “Why should I?” John Drummond demanded.

“There I was, happily dividin’ my time between a very nice perch atop the Space Needle and, when the rain vexed me overmuch, lurking belowdecks in the Underground—” “In Seattle?” Ambrose asked. Laird Drummond shot him a look. “I thought a bit of distance was needful after my own brother murdered me in my own bed!” Ambrose looked at Hugh, who only shrugged helplessly. “As I said,” the Drummond continued with a scowl, “there I was, minding my own afterlife affairs, when I was accosted—simply accosted, I tell ye!—by that red-haired madman, who waved a clipboard at me and almost stabbed me in the eye with a pencil—” “I did not almost stab ye,” Hugh said hotly. “You certainly did!” “Did not!” “Did, too!” Ambrose broke in before swords could be drawn. “Whatever the particulars might be, you’re here and we’re glad of your company.” “The McKinnon said there’d be bloodshed.” The Drummond shot Ambrose a look. “’Tis the only reason I came.” Ambrose sent Hugh a look that had him shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“Well,” Hugh said defensively, “there might be.” Ambrose wasn’t completely certain Hugh didn’t have that aright, but he thought it best not to say as much. He turned back to their new addition. “I can’t guarantee there won’t be a bit, but in this venture we’ll try to keep it to a minimum. The noble task laid before us is of a different nature than a full-on battle, though no less exciting.” Drummond leaned forward, his ears perking up. “Are we moving the border again? Southward this time? I’m a Highlander myself and I’ve generally no use for those feeble Lowlanders, but if work can be done for Scotland’s glory, then count me in.” Fulbert set his cup on the floor, then looked at Ambrose expectantly. “Aye, what specifically are we doing, Ambrose? War? Mayhem? Foul deeds wrought in the middle of the night? Do tell.” Ambrose ignored him.

It was either that or pull the dirk free of his boot and stab Fulbert through the heart. The thought had occurred to him before, true, but he resisted it now as admirably as he had for the past four hundred years. “Our business is of a more, shall we say, timeless nature.” The Drummond’s eyebrows went up immediately. “The abolition of taxes on whisky?” Even Hugh made approving noises about that. “Nay,” Ambrose began slowly. “Death?” the Drummond asked, looking no less enthusiastic. “You know, death and taxes are the only two things that are final.” He shot Fulbert a look. “An American said that.

” Fulbert only rolled his eyes. “Nay, not death, either,” Ambrose said. “But there is nothing else—” “Love, man,” Fulbert exclaimed. “We’re speaking of love!” The Drummond recoiled as if he’d been bitten. “Love?” “Aye,” Ambrose said. “Our task is to shepherd a certain lad in the proper direction, then see to any additional details—if there are any of those sorts of details—after that proper direction has been taken.” The Drummond looked at the three of them as if they’d suddenly announced they were carrying the plague. “You three are matchmakers?” “I’m not,” Fulbert said, holding up his hands quickly. “I’m the Voice of Reason.” Hugh shot Fulbert a glare.

“Ye’re as deep into this as we are, ye bloody Brit.” Fulbert started to balk, then shrugged, picked up his cup, and applied himself to its contents. Ambrose applied the full potency of his most convincing look on the Drummond. “We have taken it upon ourselves, as guardians of our respective lines, to assure that those lines are continued on in the best fashion possible. No matter the danger, or the delicacy required, we press on, boldly going where no shade has gone before—” “Aye, straight to Bedlam,” Fulbert whispered loudly. Ambrose glared at him, then turned back to their temporary helper. “We can see to this on our own, of course, but we thought that since we are looking at a particularly difficult case, we wouldn’t spurn aid from a new source. And so I asked Hugh to take his life in his hands and cross the Pond with the hope of finding an American ancestor willing to cast his lot in with us and give our charge the appropriate nudge if necessary.” The Drummond was speechless. “And who is the lad again?” Fulbert asked, looking at Ambrose over the top of his cup.

“I forgot.” “Zachary Smith,” Ambrose said, sending him a warning look. “Isn’t he James MacLeod’s doorman?” “He isn‘t, which you well know,” Ambrose said shortly. “He’s the lady of the keep’s brother, her youngest, though he is a score and eleven himself.” Fulbert sighed. “I do know what it is not to be the eldest. A burden, that’s what it is.” “He seems to have borne it fairly well,” Ambrose said, “and he’s made a great success of himself.” He turned to John Drummond. “You would be proud of him.

He started university very young and had his degrees by a score and two. He’s had quite a successful career over here where his particular feel for old structures has come in useful. Not only that, he’s full of proper Scottish virtues that he no doubt inherited from ancestors hailing from north of the border.” Fulbert grunted, but said nothing. “But I don’t think he wants to wed,” Hugh ventured. “You know, Ambrose, he’s dated scores of women and not found a one to love.” “He’s looking in the wrong place,” Ambrose said firmly. “’Tis our job to make certain he looks in the right place.” “And where would that be?” the Drummond asked with a snort. “In a nunnery? In a pub? Surely not here in England?” “He could do worse,” Fulbert said, throwing the other man a dark look.

“I’m not certain he could,” the Drummond said archly. Fulbert growled. The Drummond rubbed his hands together and suddenly a very snazzy purple gym bag materialized at his feet. He drew forth an eminently authentic-looking dirk and flipped it into the air a time or two, catching it expertly each time. “I think I might have a bit to say about where this lad begins his search,” the Drummond said pointedly, “seeing that he’s my descendant.” Fulbert looked down his nose at the blade. “And I think I’ll be offering my opinion quite loudly until I see a bit of steel that impresses me.” The Drummond flipped the knife back up into the air, then stood and caught it as it fell back to earth in the shape of a mighty Claymore. Fulbert stood and twitched aside his velvet cape to reveal a very lethal-looking sword bearing a handful of large jewels in the hilt. “Outside, then.

We’ll settle this before young Zachary arrives and is forced to watch me humiliate his wee grandpa. Hugh, care to come learn by observation?” “Aye, if ye mean learn what not to do.” Insults ensued, mingled with grumbles, slurs, and other mottos and slogans appropriate to the significance of the moment. Ambrose watched the trio troop across the floor flexing limbs and tongues equally. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. Perhaps it had been a mistake after all to bring in someone new. It wasn’t as if he, Fulbert, and Hugh didn’t have a vested interest in Zachary’s happiness. Zachary was brother-in-law to a MacLeod, and he had certainly spent enough time in Scotland to have earned a place in the clan. Still, when embarking on a difficult quest, it helped to have family about. “Damn you, McKinnon, if you poke me one more time with that bloody pencil—” Their voices faded, to be replaced in good time with the reassuring sound of steel against steel.

Ambrose turned back to his contemplation of the fire. Aye, family was a fine thing indeed to have about. But better still was finding a love that would outlast both death and taxes. And given the difficulty of the match he intended to make, he supposed he might be wise to bet on the last two

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