For your enjoyment, I am offering not only the following story, but also the first two pages of "When Time Stood Still".
In the Highlands of Scotland…
Allison Tyler fingered the class ring around her neck as she gazed at Duncarragh. The castle rose up from a huge rock on the banks of Loch Rhoswen, a silent testimony to times long gone.
A lot must have happened in and around the castle’s walls over the centuries, she supposed. But none of that interested her all that much. She only wanted to know if those silent walls had witnessed one particular event. An event that hadn’t been explained in the six years since it had happened.
If only walls could talk….
She sighed and turned away.
“Allison, Dearie! Will you be wanting your breakfast now?”
She looked up to find the keeper of this funny little inn beaming at her, a spatula in one hand and a towel in the other, as usual.
She smiled. “Yes, Mrs. Murchieson. I’m coming.”
The old woman nodded approvingly and led the way into the kitchen. “What will you do now?” she asked as she laid the plates on the table.
Allison sat down and studied her toast. What should she do? Quite honestly? She didn’t know. Her only idea had failed miserably. But perhaps that wasn’t too surprising. She never would have known that Gabe had planned on visiting this place if she hadn’t found that letter last month.
She looked up. “Huh?”
“What will you do now?” Mrs. Murchieson repeated.
“Oh!” She hesitated. “I…uh…don’t know.”
The innkeeper helped herself to a seat at the table and a slice of toast. “How about this,” she said. “You tell me what you’re trying to do, and I’ll see if I can’t give you a few ideas.”
Allison shrugged. Why not? The inn was Gossip Central. Who knew what Mrs. Murchieson might have heard.
“Well…” she began. She took a deep breath. “I’m looking for my boyfriend.”
“Gracious, Dearie! I’ve not seen you with a man, and you’ve been here four days!”
“You… lost him?”
Allison sighed. “No,” she said. “He disappeared.”
Mrs. Murchieson’s eyebrows rose as she heaped two spoonfuls of sugar into her tea.
“You see, he came here on a trip, six years ago, and he never returned.”
The spoon froze in midair, and Allison could have sworn that something flashed through the innkeeper’s eyes. But it was gone a moment later when she started sipping her tea.
“Interesting,” she said.
“That’s not exactly how I’ve thought of it.”
“I’m sure it isn’t, Dearie. Is he an American, like you?”
“And the police couldn’t find him?”
Allison shook her head. “They gave up years ago.”
“I see.” Mrs. Murchieson put down her teacup. “Dearie, will you tell me why a young lady such as yourself is taking on this task?”
“Because everyone else has given up. And I’m not that young.”
Mrs. Murchieson’s eyebrows went up again.
The old lady’s teacup didn’t quite hide the smile that twitched the corner of her mouth. “As I said, young.”
Allison didn’t bother arguing. “So what should I do?”
Mrs. Murchieson took a gentle sip. “Give it up.”
“What? That’s all the advice you have for me?”
“’Tis good advice, Dearie.”
Allison worked her fingers through the tangles in her hair. Yes, it probably was good advice. After all, she had no proof that Gabe had really come to this tiny little town…and it had been six years. If he was alive, wouldn’t he have turned up by now?
“Isn’t there anything else you can suggest?” she asked.
The old woman sat thinking for long moments. “Well…” she began. “I don’t know that I can help you too much. A precious lot of people go missing ’round these parts, but most of ‘em are found within a day or two. You might try looking through old newspapers, though. Perhaps you’ll find a story with some information.” She shrugged and rose from the table.
“That’s a thought,” Allison admitted. It wasn’t a bad one, either. Newspapers were usually eager to print even a rumor of news. Perhaps one of them had--.”
“Or…you might try asking at the castle up the way.”
Allison caught a knowing glance in the old woman’s eyes. “Up which way?” she asked.
“Up the loch,” came the quiet answer. “Duncarragh. The laird knows a thing or two.”
And she disappeared around the corner.
Allison stared at the now-empty doorway and wondered. Did Mrs. Murchieson know something after all?
She rose and put her plate in the sink, then went outside again.
Duncarragh. Yes, Gabe had said he would visit it. Perhaps it was worth trying…
She glanced at the heavy clouds. Yes, she'd go visit Duncarragh this morning, and the sooner, the better.
"Are you going to Duncarragh, Dearie?"
Allison turned around. "Yes, I am."
Mrs. Murchieson hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Let me lend you a rain coat."
Allison thanked her, followed her inside, than ran up to her little room under the eaves. She dug into her suitcase and pulled out a folder.
A photo fell into her lap. One that was six and a half years old.
She smiled. How she'd always loved the quirk in Gabe's smile and the curly brown hair he'd hated so much.
She reached for the photo, and memories flooded through her. His laughter. His sense of adventure. How he'd dared her as a seven-year-old to climb the huge oak in his backyard, then rescued her when she got stuck and not teased her about it once. The way he used to jump the fence and help her drag the trash cans down to the road when they'd been too heavy for her
nine-year-old strength to manage. How he'd defended her when they entered high school and continued to befriend her, even when his popularity far outstripped hers. How proud she'd been when he successfully climbed Mount Ranier as a Sophomore. The emotions that coursed through her when he'd asked her to the prom. How happy she'd been for him when he'd gotten a miraculous chance to climb Scotland's mountains.. even though she'd known how badly she would miss him.
How much she still missed him now.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and tucked the photo into a particular envelope, then put both in her purse. Only a fool would think he could be alive after all these years, but since she was apparently that type of fool, she may as well bring them. Just in case.
Five minutes later she was covered in Mrs. Murchieson's generous raincoat and carefully driving on the wrong side of the road in her little rental car. The castle grew bigger as she drew closer, and she pulled off the road next to the loch and parked in the shadow of the walls. She climbed out, flipped the lock on the door, and turned to face the castle.
What must have once been a guard tower loomed over her. To her left, walls stretched from the guard tower down to the water's edge. To her right, they continued on to a set of gates. Gates that looked open.
She hurried toward them, but as she drew near, she stopped. They were open by a couple of feet.
She took a tentative step inside and looked around.
Across from the entrance was a huge building that must have been the great hall, once upon a time. Wide stone steps led up to a set of double doors, and on the top step was a pair of muddy boots and a little tricycle.
Allison smiled. The thought of children running around inside a castle was curiously sweet.
To her right were several smaller buildings, and beyond one of them appeared to be a second courtyard of some sort. Sounds echoed from that direction.
She listened and caught children's laughter and shouting, as well as something more that she couldn't quite distinguish.
She took at step back and looked around the doors again. Yes, there was an intercom button. She reached out a hand to press it, then paused and looked at the open door again.
Was ringing really necessary? After all, the door was open.
She hesitated for a long moment.
No. She wasn’t going to snoop around. The last thing she needed to have to deal with was trespassing charges.
She pressed the button and waited.
Wasn't someone going to come? It seemed odd to pay for a security system, only to leave your gates open and your intercom off.
But since that's what someone had apparently done, she didn't have much of a choice anymore, did she?
Again, she slipped inside, but she paused. Should she go knock on that big set of doors? She thought for a moment, then decided. There was no point in doing that. If someone was inside, they would have heard the intercom button.
She turned and set off across the courtyard. She may as well investigate the sounds coming from behind those buildings, one of which now appeared to be stables--which she would avoid. She didn't much care for horse smells.
Besides, those strange noises were right around back. Perhaps someone was trying to hammer out a dent in machinery of some sort. Or maybe metal stakes were being driven into--
"What are you doing here?"
She whirled around.
Allison stared at the a boy standing in front of her. He couldn't be more than twelve or thirteen, she guessed. Yet he stood there, boots planted in the dirt, arms crossed over his chest, and frowning like he'd spent years practicing how to demand information from trespassers.
"Uh..." she heard herself say.
One of his eyebrows disappeared under his heavy dark hair, as though he was extremely unimpressed with her answer.
She bit back a grin. This boy was going to be ridiculously handsome in another ten years, with his serious dark eyes and muscular arms. But she really didn't need to be thinking about the future appeal a muddy boy who was probably about to turn her over to his father. After all, his father was probably who she wanted to see.
She changed her smile to one of friendliness and offered it freely. "I'm looking for your father."
His eyes narrowed and he studied her for another moment. "Wait here," he said. And he disappeared around the corner of the stable.
"Dad!" she heard him call.
The clanging stopped, and she started around the corner after him. His father was evidently the one making all the noise, and there was no point in delaying her interview with him.
She continued around a rather large bush, then stopped short.
Four men stood there. Four men who may as well be older--and taller--copies of the boy.
All four had dark hair of varying lengths, all four had jeans and work boots liberally smeared with mud, and all four were somewhere over six feet tall. The family resemblance was obvious. Unfortunately, all four were also studying her with varied degrees of disapproval in their dark eyes.
And all four were holding swords.
Make that huge swords. Swords that were as tall as she was, if not taller.
The man in the black t-shirt shifted, and she took a moment to notice that he looked a little older than the other three.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
She gulped. "Allison Tyler." Then she raised her chin. She had pressed the intercom. It wasn't her fault no one had answered.
The boy spoke up. "She said she wants to see you, Dad."
Mr. Black Shirt glanced briefly at the boy, and one eyebrow went up just like his son's had a few moments ago.
And yes, she'd been right about the boy's looks in twenty-odd years.
She turned her thoughts toward her mission. "Mrs. Murchieson said I should see the laird," she explained.
Mr. Black Shirt turned to the one next to him, who was wearing a grey shirt, and the two of them exchanged a look.
"Why did she say that?" Mr. Grey Shirt asked with a Scottish accent that Mr. Black Shirt didn't have. Come to
think of it, his son sounded American, too, interestingly enough.
Oh yeah, he'd asked her why Mrs. Murchieson sent her. "She said you... uh... he... might know something."
"I'm trying to find someone who went missing."
Four pairs of eyes watched her silently. No, five, for the boy was studying her again.
Mr. Black Shirt broke the silence this time.
"When did he disappear?"
"Six years ago."
Five pairs of eyebrows rose.
Allison sighed. She was starting to feel like she was having a conversation with their eyebrows.
She tucked her hair behind her ear to get it out of her face and squared her shoulders. "Look," she said. "I don't know who you all are, or how you could possibly help me. But Mrs. Murchieson said I should talk to the laird.
"I came here; I pressed the intercom button, and no one answered, even though the noise made it obvious that someone was here. So? Which one of you is the laird?"
Mr. Grey Shirt stepped forward. "That would be my father, and he's not here today. If you're staying at Mrs. Murchieson's inn, I'll tell him you came and ask him to stop by and see you tomorrow."
Allison's shoulders slumped. "Can't one of you help me? I've only got five more days before I have to go home, and I really want to find out what happened to Gabe, if it's at all possible." Not to mention, it was starting to rain. She'd made it a rule to limit her driving on the wrong side of the road to dry moments. She wasn’t ready to leave.
The youngest of the four moved. "Come on, Iain. It wouldn't hurt to let her tell you what happened, would it?" His accent was Scottish, too.
Mr. Grey Shirt, whose name was evidently Iain, leveled a glare at the younger man.
The fourth stepped between them. "Quit it, Tristan. If Iain says to wait for Dad, then that's exactly what she'll do."
"Tristan!" Mr. Black Shirt said in a low voice.
Tristan scowled and stalked away with his sword propped up on one shoulder.
Mr. Black Shirt turned. "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but Iain is right. You'll have to wait for his father. I'll walk you to your car."
Allison sighed. She supposed she had no choice. And there was still the library. That would be a decent place to spend a rainy afternoon. If she made it there in one piece.
Mr. Black Shirt, who was quickly becoming Mr. Wet Black Shirt, tossed his sword to Iain, who caught in as though it wasn't much more than a twig. Then he started toward the gates.
Allison turned up her coat collar and hurried in an attempt to keep up with his long strides.
"Which way did you park?" he asked as they stepped beyond the gates.
She gestured around the corner, and two seconds later, she was standing beside her little rental car, digging in her purse for keys.
Keys that weren't there.
She glanced in the car, and sure enough, there they were, in the ignition.
"What's the matter?" Mr. Black Shirt asked.
She pointed. "I locked my keys in the car."
He looked at her suspiciously.
"I didn't do it on purpose!"
A ghost of a smile crossed his face. "I won't deny the thought crossed my mind--women have done worse--but I believe you."
He paused. "Do you have AAA or anything like that?"
A chuckle accompanied a brief smile. "I suppose not."
He turned and began inspecting the windows of the car... looking for a way to break in, no doubt.
The rain picked up, and Allison stepped into the shelter of the castle walls and pulled her hood over her head.
"What's your name?" she asked, as he tried to pull the rubber away from one of the little back windows.
"Jason," he tossed over his shoulder.
"You're American, too. Aren't you?"
"Then why don't you want to help me?"
He glanced her direction. "I thought that was what I'm doing right now."
She rolled her eyes. "Not with the car. With finding out what happened to Gabe!"
He came back around the car and stood in front of her. "I never said I didn't want to help."
"You didn't have to. It's rather obvious."
He crossed his arms and studied her for yet another ridiculously long moment.
"So why?" she persisted.
"Why aren't you asking the police for help?" he asked, but he said it as though he already knew the answer.
"They could care less about old news," she answered.
He smiled. "Perhaps. But more importantly, the trail is cold. Any clue that exists should have been found six years ago. Right?"
She reluctantly agreed.
"So what makes you think it would be any different for us?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I figured Mrs. Murchieson had a reason for sending me here."
He nodded. "And so she did. She sent you to Murray. He keeps a--"
"Iain, Alec, and Tristan's father is Murray MacCoinneah. The laird, as Mrs. Murchieson calls him."
"He owns the castle and the lands around it, and he keeps a detailed journal of everything that happens around the place. If he knows anything that could help you, it will be in that journal. That is why you must wait to talk to him."
"Oh," she repeated. Then she thought of something. "Then why did... Tristan, I think his name was... seem to think you all could help me?"
A dry smile crossed Jason's face. "Tristan would bend over backwards for a pretty woman," he said mildly. "Even when bending over backwards would do neither him--nor the pretty woman--any good."
She felt a blush start to creep up her neck, and she pulled Mrs. Murchieson's rain coat higher.
"And even when the pretty woman already loves another man," he finished carefully.
She forgot about the rain coat and looked up. Jason was studying her again. Gently this time.
"You love this Gabe, don't you?" he asked as softly as the rain allowed.
A lump rose in her throat, and she tried to force it down. "I said he was my boyfriend."
"I heard you. But that doesn't always mean anything."
She studied her muddy tennis shoes and the even muddier toes of Jason's work boots. Except they probably wouldn't be muddy too long, at the rate the rain was running down over them.
She looked up. "Why do you want to know?"
"I want to know why you're looking for him."
She supposed he had a point. How did they know she wasn't dragging them into who-knows-what?
She took a deep breath. "Yes. I love him."
"Even after six years?"
She raised her chin. "Gabe is--" she hesitated. How could she possible describe him? There was no one else like him. "He's just Gabe!" she finished.
A gentle smile crossed Jason's face. "Gabriel? Your angel and your hero?"
Yes. That was exactly it. "We grew up together, and he was always there for me. Always," she repeated.
His smile warmed even more. "In that case, I hope Murray's journal has information that can help us."
He turned and led her back around the castle, in through the gates, across the muddy courtyard, and back toward
the stables... only to stop at almost exactly the same point his son has stopped her. At least this spot was under the wide eaves of the roof.
"Wait here," he said, and he disappeared around the corner.
She snorted and crept around the corner, but not around the bush. Instead, she squeezed between it and the building. The branches moved easily enough... even if they did throw water in her face... and a gap in the leaves was conveniently placed, as long as she stood on her toes.
She reached for a branch to steady herself and stretched as high as she could.
Her jaw dropped open.
There were Iain and Tristan, evidently just as comfortable in the rain as Jason was. And they still had their swords.
But they were using them. Fighting as though they wouldn't mind cutting each other's heads off, to be precise. Their muscles strained under their shirts as the huge swords swung through the air, meeting again and again and filling the air with the now-unmistakable sounds of a sword fight.
She fell off her toes, found a better branch to hold onto, and went back up on tip toe, just as Iain blocked a particularly vicious swing.
"Nice try, little brother," he said. "Perhaps in another four years you'll manage to disarm me."
Tristan wrenched his sword back and grinned. "You'd like to think so. I'll best you and Jason both before the year is out!" He wiped the water from his face and started swinging again.
Iain didn't reply, but he met Tristan's next several swings with dizzying speed. And then, quite suddenly, Tristan's sword landed in the mud.
Only then did Iain reply. "I doubt it," he said calmly. "What do you think, Jason?"
Allison adjusted her branches so she could see Jason where he stood, arms crossed over his chest again.
He shrugged. "You, perhaps. He certainly won't best me."
Iain snorted. "I have absolutely no intention of letting my sword land in the dirt anytime soo--"
His voice broke off as Tristan suddenly dropped, swung a leg out, and swept Iain's feet out from under him.
"Your sword's in the dirt now," Tristan pointed out with a smug smile.
Jason burst out laughing, and Iain heaved his muddy self to his feet. "What I meant," he said, "is that you'll not manage it with your sword. Tae kwan do doesn't count. Besides--"
"Give it a rest, you two," Jason interrupted. "Tristan, do you know when Matthew's going to get here?"
"Sometime this afternoon."
"Has he taught you any of his lockpicking skills?
Tristan shook his head briefly. "Not yet. Why?"
"Allison's locked her keys in her car."
"Good!" Tristan said with a grin. "She'll need someone to look after her. I'll see to it."
He started forward, and Allison dashed back around the corner.
Gabe sat on a crude wooden stool, watching the firelight’s reflection on the stones under his feet. The light flickered and danced, braving the cold that still filled the castle, even in these late months of spring.
He stretched out his feet toward the fire. He may have learned that a person could withstand more cold than he’d at one time thought possible, but that didn’t mean the warmth couldn’t be enjoyed when it was available.
He lifted his head and smiled at the eleven-year-old who stood at his elbow, holding a wooden doll that he had to admit had been very crudely carved.
“I fashioned a new gown for the doll you made me,” the girl said.
“So you did.”
“Màthair gifted me with a bit of cloth left from her gown.”
He noticed the tiny stiches, ordered far more neatly than those in the tiny gown she’d made with the last scrap of fabric she’d received, two years earlier.
“Your skill has grown,” he said.
A sunny smile bloomed in her face-–a smile that never ceased to make him think of Allison. Both Elspeth’s smile and Allison’s smile had the same dimples and the same little quirk in the corners. The same mischievous light flashed in their eyes, too, over a light sprinkling of freckles.
Elspeth danced away, her tangled golden curls bobbing as she wove through the crowded hall over to where her mother sat weaving in a corner.
Gabe sighed. Allison had tangled golden curls, too, once upon a time. Before she’d grown old enough to think they needed straightened to look sophisticated.
He’d teased her about it and secretly missed the sweet,little, and innocent Allison who’d always been ready for whatever fun his boyish mind could concoct.
Now, he’d be glad to see even the appalingly grown-up Allison. Any friendly face who didn’t regard him as a partially-insane misfit would be welcome.
“Gabriel!” A well-known voice spat the words out from behind him.
He turned and looked over his shoulder.
“You’ll accompany Giric on tomorrow’s raid. He’ll give the orders, and...”
Ploys and plans continued to be discussed, along with the now-familiar instructions that Gabe take the most dangerous position. Again.
“Have you heard my orders, Gabriel?”
The words shot through the hall with venom, and Gabe ground his teeth. “I heard you,” he ground out.
“Then be ready to leave at dawn.”
Gabe didn’t bother to reply.
Allison stood in one of the deep alcoves inside Duncarragh, staring through the rain-covered window.
Below, in the same courtyard where she'd been less than ten minutes ago, was a sight she certainly never thought she'd see. A boy--Jason's son, to be precise-–was down there, holding a sword that looked just a little too large for him and
faithfully following his father's movements. His swings were nowhere near as powerful as his father's, and his movements were sometimes shaky. But it was obvious that swordfighting wasn't new to him.
What kind of family was this?
She sighed as she moved through the heavy curtains that guarded the alcove and into the living room. Or the Great Hall, as she supposed Tristan had called it.
The room was almost a normal living room... just a little bigger and a little more Medieval-ish. It had a slightly worn set of furniture, a large basket full of children's toys, family pictures hanging on the walls, and an LCD screen over the massive fireplace across the room from her. Not-so-normal were the stone walls and floors, heavy draperies that flanked each window alcove, and the rough but massive wooden table at one end of the room.
She walked around an end table decorated with school books and settled into one of the easy chairs beside the fire.
"Here you go!" Tristan suddenly called.
She looked over her shoulder and found him emerging from a hallway that disappeared off one corner of the room, bearing a plate of cookies and a glass of milk.
"Chocolate chip," he announced. "Mum's standard fare for guests, travelers, and trespassers alike."
Allison narrowed her eyes at him as he set them down on the coffee table. "I wasn't trespassing. Like I told all of you, I pressed the intercom button, but no one ca--"
"I know, I know," he said with an easy grin. He settled himself into the chair opposite her. "It was probably my fault that the gate was left open, too. It usually is," he added under his breath.
He leaned forward and rubbed his hands together. "So," he said, drawing the word out. "Who's disappeared?"
Allison eyed him and wondered how accurate Jason's character sketch had been. "My boyfriend," she stated.
"And was he just a casual take-you-out-to-the-pub boyfriend, or more of the let's-be-together-forever type?"
She hesitated, not entirely sure what answer to give.
One of his eyebrows lifted just the smallest amount, and one corner of his mouth curved up. "Can I convince you that he was only the casual type?"
She stiffened. "No. You can't."
Tristan leaned back again and nodded. "Good. Loyalty in a woman is a great prize."
Allison relaxed and reached for a cookie.
"I really would help you, if I could," Tristan confided. "And not for any ulterior motive, no matter what Jason told you about me."
"Who says he told me anything about you?"
Tristan shrugged. "It's just a guess."
"And what do you think he'd tell me?"
Tristan grinned. "Oh... probably something that proves he's jealous of me."
Allison laughed. "I thought he was married."
She shook her head and changed the subject. "So is your father really gone for the day?"
He shrugged. "Probably, but--"
The big double doors swung open and an older man stepped inside, moving as if he owned the place.
"...evidently he's decided to come back earlier than expected," Tristan finished smoothly as he rose to his feet. "Hello, Dad."
Murray nodded, and Allison watched as his eyes swept the room, eventually landing on her.
She jumped to her feet.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello," she replied. Should she introduce herself, or--
"Dad, this is Allison. She's come to see if you can help her find her missing boyfriend."
Murray's eyes flicked to his son and back to her. "I'll be with you shortly," he replied as he shrugged out of a jacket and stowed it in a nearby closet.
His wife appeared a moment later, and Allison sat back down as they greeted each other.
She gripped her fingers together to keep them from shaking. Did she really want to do this? What if the information he gave proved that Gabe was dead? Yeah, it would be nice to know...but then her last hope would be gone, and she'd have to accept something she definitely didn't want to. Maybe she should make her apologies and leave. After all...what did she have to offer but an old letter?
She started to rise, but then she thought of what she'd give up. What if Gabe was alive? And what if this Murray-person held the clue?
"Dad's not an ogre."
She jumped, and found Tristan standing nearby, eyeing her.
"You can relax," he said. "Just tell him what you've told us, and if he can help you, he will."
He gave her a reassuring smile. "He'll be back down in a few minutes. I've got to run right now."
She nodded, he left, and she started fidgeting again. The letter she'd found was, at least, proof that she had a decent reason for coming. The best thing to do was probably give him the basics, show him the letter, and let fate decide what happened after that.
Murray re-entered the room and took the seat that Tristan had vacated.
"So," he began, "what can I do for you, lass?"
Allison swallowed. "I don't know if you can do anything, but I was hoping--I mean--" She took a deep breath. "Mrs. Murchieson said I should talk to you." There. That was better. If he didn't like her coming, she could blame the innkeeper.
"My boyfriend went missing."
Murray nodded slowly. "And you think I might know where he is?"
"Yes--I mean, no." She took another deep breath. "It's been six years since he's disappeared. I know the chance that he's alive somewhere is very slim, but I'm just
trying to see if I can find out what happened to him while I'm here. Just in case."
"While you're here?"
She nodded. "I won one of those drawings for a free vacation. That paid my airfare, but I ran away from the tour and came here. I've only got five days 'till my plane leaves."
Murray's mouth twitched. "So, what is your boyfriend's name?"
Murray nodded. "And he was your boyfriend?"
Allison hesitated. "Well..."
Murray eyebrows rose, and Allison started squirming again.
"We grew up together--he lived next door--and we were the best of friends. But he invited me to the prom when we graduated. I don't know if he wanted to be more than friends or not...he left on his trip to Scotland the next day, and I never saw him again."
"I see. I'm assuming the police looked into his disappearance?"
"Yes, but they gave up years ago."
Murray heaved a sigh, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms. "So where was he seen last?"
"Broadford. On Skye. He was climbing in the Cuillins with this group, but he had to leave before they did. He
got on the bus there, and never arrived in Inverness."
Murray's eyebrows rose. "So why are you looking for him here?"
She fumbled in her purse. This was why she'd brought the letter. To prove that she wasn't off on some wild goose chase without a coherent thought in her head. "I found this, unopened, in a book a month ago," she said as she handed it over.
Murray opened the single sheet and glanced at it. "Dear Grandma?"
She nodded. "The book was his grandmother's. I don't know why she didn't read it, or how it ended up in the book."
"You can't ask her?"
Allison shook her head and swallowed the lump that suddenly swelled in her throat. "She died last year."
"I'm sorry, lass. You loved her?"
She nodded. "Gabe lived with her. Next door, like I said. She was kind-of my grandma, too. Not for real, of course, but she may as well have been."
"And you found this letter in one of her books?"
Allison nodded again, and Murray bent his head to read it. He raised it again, moments later. "His grandmother was a MacKenzie?"
"Her maiden name was Margaret MacKenzie. She was always talking about how Duncarragh used to be owned by the MacKenzies, and how she'd seen it once as a girl."
Murray nodded. "Yes, it was. So your Gabe told her he meant to come see it. Do you think he did?"
"Yes. That's why I'm here. When I found this letter, looked you up on the map, and found that the bus route stops in town, I knew that's what happened. That's why no one's found any trace of him in Inverness, and no evidence of anything happening in Broaddord. He got off here to see the town and Duncarragh, expecting to take the next bus on to Inverness... but something happened, and he never did."
"That seems reasonable. Did you show this letter to the police?"
Allison snorted. "Yes. They said it didn't prove he actually came here. And even if it did, they said it had been too long."
"I suppose they would say that," Murray murmured. He glanced at the top of the letter again. "June of '02." He looked up. "Do you have a picture of him?"
"Yeah." She reached inside the envelope and pulled Gabe's picture out again. "This was his graduation picture."
Murray took it, then paused. "Just a minute."
And suddenly, he got up and left through the big front doors.
Allison sighed as hope began swelling within her. Had he recognized Gabe's picture? Did he remember something? Maybe he was going to get the journal Jason had told her about.
Overall, this was going better than she had dared to dream...although she still wondered why she let herself hope that she'd find Gabe alive.
The door opened, and Murray returned to his seat, carrying something. Hopefully, the journal.
He opened it and flipped through the pages. "June 16th," he began. "A bicycle was found early this morning, abandoned, up the road from Duncarragh. Stewart Morrison, in town, says that a young man had asked to borrow it for the day, putting thirty pounds down against its return. I fear it was the bicycle ridden by the young American who came to visit us yesterday, saying his grandmother had been a MacKenzie."
Allison swallowed and her hands started shaking again as Murray looked up. "We all looked, but we could find no trace of this young man, and I could not remember his name. Can you think of any reason why he would have left his bicycle by the road?"
"This r--" She swallowed and willed her voice to calm. "This road?"
Murray nodded and rose. "Come!"
He led her outside, across the muddy courtyard where it
had, thankfully, stopped raining, and through the front gates. "If I remember right, the bike was found there."
Allison followed his finger, then her eyes continued up the slope to the ridge.
A shaky smile slipped out. "It would have been just
like him to decide to have a quick hike up to the top of that ridge," she said. "That's what his whole trip was for--mountain climbing."
Murray nodded and his face shifted into a grim smile. "Well, lass, it does look as though he came here. I don't know that this will help us find him, though. It has been six years."
"I know," she whispered. How she knew that!
"And we did scour the whole area looking for that young man," Murray continued.
Her shoulders slumped. She supposed that was about as much as she could hope for.
"I will think on it and come see you if I discover anything. You'll stay with Mrs. Murchieson?"
He hesitated. "My wife said you were locked out of your car?"
"Then come back inside until my son's friend gets here. He's something of a miracle worker with locks."
"So I've gathered," Allison murmured as she followed him back through the gates. Twenty minutes later, she discovered exactly how true it was. In fact, Matthew--Tristan's tae kwan do training partner and friend, who also turned out to be another American--mysteriously managed to open the door in less time than it would have taken her to dig her keys out of her purse to begin with.
"Where'd you learn to do that?" she asked as she
retrieved her keys from the ignition and shoved them into the pocket of her jeans.
Matthew's mouth turned up in a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "That's the type of story I prefer to forget," he said as he turned back toward the castle's front gates.
She shrugged and hurried after him. "So how did you end up living here?" She may as well find out...just in case she wound up needing to spend more time here in the future.
Matthew glanced at her. "Here?"
"Duncarragh. Scotland." She shrugged. "Wherever it is you live."
"That would be several miles down the road, and that's another story."
"Another bad one?"
They passed in through the front gates, and he chuckled and shook his head. "No, I wouldn't call it that. Not now," he added under his breath, almost as an afterthought.
The door to the old guard tower nearby opened, and a woman with long black hair stepped out. She didn't notice them, but moved swiftly toward the main building and disappeared.
Allison glanced at Matthew in time to see a soft smile light his face. He resumed his walk, evidently forgetting about her in the process.
She smiled and turned as Murray emerged from the same door the woman had come from.
"Did Matthew get your car open?" he said.
"Yes," she answered. "Thank you for your information."
He smiled sadly. "I'm sorry I don't have more to offer you, but I will let you know if I find anything else."
"Thank you," she repeated, and then she turned and made her way to her car. It puttered to life, she put it in reverse, and narrowly missed backing into the castle walls.
She scowled. It was hard enough to drive on the wrong side of the road, much less backing up on the wrong side of the car.
She shifted into drive, eased around the corner of the walls, then paused. There was the ridge that Gabe had climbed. A place he'd visited. She hesitated only a moment, then turned left and headed up the road.
Five minutes later, she parked the car, locked her purse inside, buried her keys deep in her pocket, and began climbing.
Gabe slung his sword in the sheath on his back and tucked several daggers in his belt. Giric bellowed threats as he walked among the men, but Gabe ignored him. He'd be ready and waiting long before Giric tired of pretending he was laird. Heaven only knew why the laird tolerated it. Possibly because Giric was one of the best fighters, and a warrior on your side was better than one determined to steal your position. Or maybe it was because he'd married Giric's sister.
But since Gabe had no position worth Giric's envy and no wife pleading for her brother, he saw no reason to listen to any more of it than he had to. He swung up onto his horse and moved out of earshot. It wouldn't be long until it was time to move north, for north lay the enemy. Well, the MacKenzie's enemies. He didn't consider them his enemy, even after six years. Why should he?
They'd never stolen anything from him and never killed any of his loved ones. How could they, when he had nothing to steal and no such people existed?
But there was always the small matter of surviving. He still wanted to get home, and that wouldn't be possible if he was dead. And so he continued to spend his days doing what was necessary to survive, and his nights dreaming of home...dreams that would do him no good right now.
He shoved them from his mind as the rest of the raiding party joined him. They swept up the glen and along the river before turning north. He resolutely kept away from thoughts of home and remembered Espeth instead...sweet, innocent little Elspeth who deserved a chance to grow up...who would die if the MacKenzie enemies had their way. He'd do what he had to do for her. Again.
The cloud cover grew heavier as they finally reached the slopes of Ben Ruiseagd and moved into position. Only a few minutes more, and Giric would give the order to to sweep over the ridge and fall on the unsuspecting villagers on the other side of the ridge.
Gabe ground his teeth and shut out thoughts that still protested. He must do this. For Elspeth.
He glanced farther south, where the mountain rose to a prominent point overlooking the glen beyond. He watched as Giric slipped off his horse and crept forward.
A single glance over the ridge must have satisfied him, for he was back in his saddle moments later.
Gabe squared his shoulders and turned his mind to what he must do. It really wasn't too bad this time. All he had to do was kidnap the man whom his laird needed for ransom purposes. Perhaps he'd even manage it without killing anyone. It was always worth trying.
He glanced south again, just in time to see Giric raise his hand, then let it fall.
He spurred his horse over the ridge.
Allison surveyed the valley from her vantage point on the ridge.
Below was her little rental car and the castle she'd just left. To her right, the waters of Loch Rhoswen narrowed and disappeared into a thick forest that crept up the mountainside, almost to where she stood. To her left, the loch curved down to the town where Mrs. Murchieson kept her little inn.
Six years ago, Gabe stood here and looked down on a sight that must have been nearly identical. What had he done next? Where had he gone? Had he gone down the other side of the mountain, behind her, or had he climbed back down to his bicycle and ridden off to meet his fate elsewhere.
There were no answers and no way of knowing. In reality, there was nothing else she could do--no where
else to look. All she could do was return to the little inn and hope that Murray MacCoinneach discovered something that might be helpful in some miraculous way.
Lights began winking off, down in town, as shops were closed for the evening. She continued to watch as other lights were flipped on as people came home from work. Not that the lights were really needed yet. The long summer days of Scotland were far from over.
But perhaps it was habit. And perhaps she should get going if she wanted to make it back inn before Mrs. Murchieson's dinner got cold.
She turned her attention back to the slope in front of her. How was it that a steep slope was ten times more frightening to go down, than up? She hadn't hesitated once as she'd climbed this thing, yet now all she could see herself doing to get down was sliding.
She glanced to her right again. Maybe it would be easier to go down along the edge of the forest. At least there, tree branches and roots might be useful as hand holds and steps.
And they were, she decided as she managed to gain the nearest of them. The smear of reddish mud on her knee was far better than having her butt plastered with the stuff like her hands were. But the tree branches soon scraped her hands clean. And even if the roots tripped her more often than not, at least she wasn't sliding.
Half an hour later, Allison found herself standing at
the water's edge with her heart racing and her breath coming in gasps. She twisted her now-tangled curls into a knot on the back of her head, looked over her shoulder to the road's dead end where her rental car waited, and glanced at her watch. She had time.
She turned into the woods and sound found branches slapping her face and thorns pulling at her jeans as she pushed through the underbrush. She kept close to the edge of the river and began to smile as the rippling sound of water tumbling over rocks filled her ears. Finally, she reached a place where the bank dropped gently down to a small sandbar.
The sand sucked at her shoes until she found a wide rock, where she stood, staring at water that was clear and sparkling--the most beautiful water she'd ever seen.
Her mouth began watering, and she glanced up and down the river. There was no sign of contamination. No foam from pollution or oily rainbows shimmering on the water's surface. In fact, this place was by far the most pristine piece of nature she'd ever been in. Surely the water was clean.
She stooped, filled her hands with water, and drank. Once. Twice. A third time.
Then she sighed and checked her watch. It was time to head back.
The river was easy enough to follow as she made her way back through the briars and bushes. Seeds clung to her pants, but that didn't matter. Pulling them off would
give her something to do this evening. It's not like she had anything better to occupy her time, unless it was helping Mrs. Murchieson do dishes.
She stepped out of the forest, untangled a twig that insisted on clinging to her curls, then turned toward the valley.
I was initally posting a new installment to to Allison and Gabe's story each week, on my blog. That's on hold at the moment, but I still plan on finishing the story. When I do, I'll certainly be announcing it there.
In the meantime, I'm posting gorgeous photos in my Beautiful Scotland series, and posting occasional news and updates. Sign up for email updates so you don't miss out! Or, if you'd rather follow the story through a feed reader, this is the URL to subscribe to:
of When Time Stood Still