“Ye’ll get yerself killed, riding in the open as ye are.”
“I’m not in the mood to take the long way around.” Dylan’s flush of gratitude was wearing thin with the nagging. The Irish faerie was getting on his nerves once again, the way she had for the entire two years he’d been stuck in the 18th century.
It was only a day since the defeat at Sheriffmuir, but now he wanted to put the uprising behind him, the same way nearly the rest of the stripped and demoralized Jacobite army was doing that day. Never mind he was riding an English cavalry horse, and never mind that the countryside was crawling with Hanoverians looking for rebels, his only wish now was to reach Edinburgh and find Cait. And his son. He continued along the trail that threaded its way among wooded hills, and the horse’s hooves thumped the ground with a steady beat.
“Ye willnae get there at all if George’s men find you with this horse.” Sinann Eire sat on the rump of his stolen horse, her thin legs stretched across it and her feet dangling. One toe played with the cropped tail, and the horse snorted at the indignity of it. She leaned against Dylan’s back, and he pressed back against her to compensate.
The pre-winter frost crusted the ground and bit his nose. He huddled into the plaid he wrapped around himself, wishing he’d also been able to liberate his coat from those thieving English soldiers. Keeping his blue cap would have been nice, too, but it was somewhere back on the battlefield, probably trampled into the mud or taken by one of King George’s men for a trophy.
“Don’t worry, Tink, I’m going to sell it and we’ll be rid of the horse.” He’d already dumped the saddle and bright red blanket into a gorse thicket not far from Dunblane. “But I’ll sell it in Edinburgh where, firstly, I’ll have a shot at being just another face in the crowd and, secondly, I’ll also have a shot at getting more than a Scottish threepence for it.”
“For a certainty, laddie, it’s but another face ye’ll be in that filthy kilt ye’ve got on.”
Dylan urged the animal into a trot just to bounce Sinann from her seat and shut her up. The ends of the piece of cloth he’d tied around his cut arm for a bandage fluttered as he rode.
Tossed into the air, she flew to catch up and, once Dylan had settled back into a walk, stood behind him on the horse’s back. She squatted, held his shoulders for balance, and said into his ear, “A bit rough, aren’t ye, laddie? Who was it saved yer life and returned ye to your own time when you were mortally wounded?” Dylan tugged his plaid higher on his neck and declined to reply, but she continued, “And who was it sent you back to the battle once you were all stitched together again by your wondrous future surgeons?”
“Will. You will send me back from the future. November, 2000. Remember that. You haven’t done it yet.” His fingers went to the fresh scar just below his ribcage where he’d lost a kidney and his spleen after being run through by an English cavalry sword. Sinann had returned him to his own time, where his life was saved by modern surgery after six weeks of recovery, then she returned him to the moment of his near death. Both the entrance and exit wounds still ached. At each step of the horse’s gait, his entire left side throbbed with a dull thud.
“Be that as it may, it would be well for ye to listen to me. What will ye do once ye’re in Edinburgh? I suppose when you find Ramsay’s house ye’ll simply march right in and take her away from him, and he’ll be saying, Och, but I dinnae know! By all means, take her and be happy, the both of ye!”
Dylan sighed. “I’m crazy, not stupid, Tink. Not that I don’t think she would come with me, but I know she’s married. I know she can’t leave him without causing a big enough stink to make us both miserable for the rest of whatever.” His voice took on a thick sarcasm, “I even know that as an outlaw I’m more of a liability than protection to her and the boy. I’m not going to let them get hurt.”
“They will if you dinnae leave her there.”
Dylan shook his head. “No way. You heard him last summer. He beats her, and thinks it’s his right. He thinks she cheated him.”
“And did she not? She went to him already with child. I daresay that could be called cheating.”
“Whose side are you on, anyway?”
Sinann’s voice took on an irritating tone of anticipated triumph. “Deny it. I’m listening, lad.”
Anger rose, warming his cheeks against the frosty air. “It was her father who deceived Ramsay, not her. In a business deal, for God’s sake. He made her marry that Whig pansy to cover his political ass. Furthermore, I daresay the only reason Ramsay married her was to cover his own butt in case the Jacobites won and James took the throne. Which, for that, I could have saved him the trouble and told him the cause was doomed. Which means, Tinkerbell, now that the Jacobites have lost for the time being, he’ll treat her worse than ever. For all I know about that sleazebag, he might find a way to get rid of her so he can marry someone else. For all either of us know, her life might be in danger right now. Besides, it wasn’t her fault. She was supposed to marry me.”
“You were arrested.”
“I didn’t do it.”
“The Sassunach Major surely does not care whether ye did or dinnae, as eager as he was to cut you to ribbons with a whip in spite of knowing ye were innocent. Ye cannae win this one, Dylan Matheson. Ye’re a marked man as long as George of Hanover has the throne.”
Dylan’s jaw clenched. “I don’t want to hear any more talk about what happened. It’s done, and what I want now is to see Cait and Ciaran. That’s all I want right now, and I’ll figure out the rest later. I’ve got to see my son.” Dylan’s gut tightened, and he pressed the heel of his hand to the sore muscles. “He’s damn near a year old, and I’ve never seen him. I just want to see my son.” He tried to picture the boy, but of course had no idea what he looked like. Was he happy? Healthy? How was he affected by Ramsay’s hatred for him? Was he being taught Ramsay was his father?
Sinann slipped down behind him to straddle the horse and fell silent, her face pressed to his back. Dylan rode on, to the thudding of hoof beats on the trail and the jingle of the bit as the horse fidgeted it in its mouth.
After a while, she lifted her head and began fiddling with something behind Dylan. He glanced back, and found her untying a string she’d worn around her wrist for over a year. It was a red braid that reminded him of the friendship bracelets he sometimes had seen on kids in his kung fu classes back home. This was a long one and, tied around Sinann’s tiny wrist, the ends dangled several inches. She said, “Give me your arm.”
“Why? What’s that, more of the craft?”
“Aye. Give me your hand. It’s a talisman, for strength.”
Dylan figured he could use as much of that as he could get, so he reached back to let her tie the string around his left wrist. Even though his wrist was much larger than hers, the ends dangled some and lifted in the cold wind as he rode. Several knots had been tied along it, and he counted seven of them. He’d learned enough of the craft to know that seven was a magic number. “You made this?”
“Aye. I made it for you, and have carried it a long while. It’s time you carried it yourself.”
“Your powers being wonky and all, you’re sure it works?”
There was a short hesitation, then she said, “Aye. It’ll work. It must.” Then she said, “Ye’ll be needing to learn more of the craft, you know.”
“Yeah.” He knew that. She’d already taught him some things, and he’d come to realize the advantage of knowing useful tricks. “What’s on your mind now?”
Dylan blurted a bark of a laugh. “Been there, done that.”
“Ye dinnae say?”
“Well, enough to know that I’m a Taurus/Gemini cusp, born on May 22, 1970.” He took a deep breath and recited in a singsong voice, “I’m loyal, a lover of beauty, and I’m somewhat ambidextrous, which means that though I’m right-handed I can fight with both hands. That’s all true, but so what. Astrology’s a parlor game. Nothing really useful. Take it from one who knows, knowing the future is completely overrated. And how come a maiden of the Tuatha De Danann knows that stuff, anyway?”
“What, ye think I’ve lived in a cave all my life? Astrology, in fact, is often used by priests hereabouts, and dinnae think it hasnae been a bone of contention for the past few centuries. I, myself, have been familiar with the teachings since the coming of the priests.”
Dylan chuckled, “You can believe in the influence of planets, but you don’t believe in God?”
“Och, I wouldnae say that, now. I’ve been around quite long enough to know I dinnae know everything.”
“Which means I dinnae not believe in your Yahweh.” Dylan’s eyebrows raised, and he turned to stare at her, but she gave his chin a shove to make him face front. “Ye needn’t look at me like I’ve gone daft. I’m a great deal older than yourself, and know a great deal more.”
“Yeah, like you knew the uprising would fail.”
“Och!” She was silent, sulking, for a few minutes. Dylan’s mind drifted to Cait, pulling together a picture of her in his memory. Then Sinann said, “What time of day were ye born?”
“Huh?” Dylan returned to the discussion reluctantly.
“What time of day?”
His eyes narrowed as he tried to remember his birth certificate. “Um…5:30 a.m., I think. Something like that. Central Daylight Savings Time. Six hours earlier than here.”
There was only a moment’s pause, then, “Taurus rising. Ye’re far more than just loyal, laddie. Ye’re the one to stand by your guns and your people until death.”
Dylan grunted. “You didn’t need to know my chart to figure that. I’ve come close enough to death more than once. He shrugged one shoulder and felt one of the scars on his back tighten.”
“Nevertheless, with a nativity such as yours, ye’re in great danger this day. I beg you to get bloody hell off this track. Please. For the night, in any case.”
Dylan pulled up his horse and turned to peer at Sinann’s face. Begging? She was serious. He chewed on the inside corner of his mouth and then sighed. What the heck, the sun was setting and the bitter night cold would be on them soon. “All right.” He threw a leg over the horse’s neck and slid to the ground, then drew the animal off the trail and into the loamy forest. Sinann flew behind, scattering leaves over the track they made. He went downhill to find a burn trickling and falling over rocks among reeds and bracken ferns, then followed that to find a dry, level spot to stop for the night.
He didn’t dare light a fire, and ate the last of his army ration of oatmeal cold from his hand, wetted by water from the burn and mashed into sticky globs he then picked out with his fingers. Drammach, it was called, and he’d eaten a lot of it over the past year. Then he washed his hands and face in the burn. Once the horse was hidden and hobbled in a stand of birches, he lay in the dirt and rolled into his plaid for sleep. Sinann perched on the rump of the horse and folded her wings around herself.
He went unconscious quickly, a habit he’d developed soon after coming to this century. The ability to sleep on demand while cold and wet sometimes meant the difference between survival and death, for a fuzzy head from lack of sleep could weaken a man before his enemies.
Dylan didn’t know how long he’d slept, but the pain of awakening in a hurry told him it wasn’t long before he was disturbed. There had been a noise, he would swear it, but though he strained to hear he couldn’t tell what it had been. Dylan peered into the darkness.
The wind made the trees sigh, the sound like voices of the spirits. Branches reached out to each other then retreated, the tall pines in conference over Dylan’s resting place. Then, carried on the wind, he heard it: a distant jingling sound. He tensed as it approached, and discerned the sound of horses’ bridles on the trail above.
As they approached, hoof beats grew louder. Soldiers? Probably. It didn’t matter much, since just about everyone this side of Glen Dochart was on the lookout for scattered Jacobites. He glanced up at Sinann, who was alert in the moonlight, listening. There were no voices among the riders, which struck Dylan as strange. In fact, soldiers on the trail after dark was also very weird. He and Sinann waited as the large party passed above. When the voices and hoofbeats receded, Dylan whispered to Sinann, “How did you know?”
She snorted, “Surely even you have lived long enough to know you dinnae know everything, lad.”
The next morning Dylan shook frost and dirt from his hair as he rose from the ground and draped his plaid around himself. It was a struggle to not shiver as he arranged his plaid over his shoulder and tucked it into his belt. He rubbed his face to restore the circulation to his nose, for a moment afraid the numbness might be frostbite. But soon feeling returned, and he began to scratch his itchy beard stubble. He debated letting it grow, but decided to shave in the cold burn as he remembered there were still English soldiers out to arrest him who knew his face as bearded. The skill of shaving with his sgian dubh was like riding a bicycle, and he quickly dispatched the stubble in spite of having no fire and no hot water.
Down the trail a bit, he came upon a harvested oat field between two hills and let his mount graze on the stubble. He pulled his large dirk from the scabbard strapped to his right legging. He’d named the dirk Brigid when he’d consecrated her by fire years ago, after a pagan goddess turned Catholic saint. He spun her in the air and caught her by the hilt, then began to warm up with some light stretching. Once he was loosened, he eased into a formal kung fu exercise. Wielding Brigid, he made wide swaths in the air, and worked to hone his focus till he sweated in spite of the cold. It was good to stretch, after weeks of inactivity.
It was a struggle to clear his mind and focus. His thoughts kept drifting to Cait, causing him to tense up. He shook his head and blinked, determined to think only of the exercise at hand. Slowly the tension drained from him and his mind calmed.
Martial art and swordsmanship were nearly lifelong interests that had led to his vocation back home as an instructor of kung fu and European fencing, and there had been a time when he was as skilled a fighter as anyone he knew. But the wound and surgery had wrecked his stamina. Eighteenth century Scotland wasn’t a place where the average man could coddle himself and live. So, while his empty stomach grumbled and the November air found its way under his kilt and into his sark, he stretched the damaged muscles of his side and back until they ached and sweat trickled from his hair down his shaven jaw. Then, properly warmed and loosened, he mounted the cavalry horse and went on his way. His left hand absently pressed to his side as if still trying to hold in his guts, the way it had the day he was wounded.
It was not long at all that morning before he and Sinann emerged from a patch of forest and caught sight of Edinburgh. In the distance, across open, rolling ground, the castle was visible, perched on a rock just apart from a cluster of buildings that huddled on the length of that rock. Dylan cursed the lack of cover.
Sinann’s voice was without sympathy. “Show me a town or village in this entire kingdom to be approached by stealth on horseback in daylight. Ye’ll need to get rid of this horse, lad.”
“No, I’m going to bluff it.” He urged his mount forward again. Stray snowflakes began to drift by in the wind: big, fluffy ones that didn’t stick, but they’d be followed by others that would.
Sinann muttered something in Gaelic he didn’t quite catch, and buried her face against his back.
Dylan rode at a walk, as if he didn’t give a damn who saw him. The road was not deserted, and he encountered several people who peered at the horse and at the costly double bit in its mouth. As he neared town and the castle grew larger in the distance, there were one or two thatched stone houses to be seen along the road and Sinann urged him to try selling the horse at one of those. He didn’t reply, lest anyone along the road think he was talking to himself, and rode on. By mid-morning they were on the street that circled to the south of the castle.
The hill ended in cliffs, and the stone buildings of the castle seemed to grow from it like stalagmites. Awe struck him as he rode through the Grassmarket. He realized this place had once been the abode of Robert the Bruce and the birthplace of King James VI and I. Much of the history he’d read of Scotland had taken place within those walls. Then he circled the hill to where the battery of cannon covered the approach to the portcullis on the northeast side. Funny, it didn’t look quite right to him. He’d seen photos, and would swear he’d seen ones taken from this side, but it didn’t seem right.
Then it clicked. The entire Esplanade was…different. The approach was nothing more than a dirt track flanked by low heather and thistles. The paved Esplanade and the portcullis bearing statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce hadn’t been built yet.
Dylan gawked like a tourist, until he spotted a Redcoat on guard at the old portcullis to the north of the battery. More Redcoats rode toward the castle along the track on the hill above him, and he quickly looked away to mind his own business. He should have known there would be Redcoats: since the construction of Holyrood Palace at the other end of the city, the castle was no longer a Royal Residence. In Hanoverian-occupied Edinburgh it was now being used to garrison English soldiers.
Soon Dylan was able to duck among the tall buildings of the city, climbing the rock on which it stood, and Dylan’s mind slipped away from the soldiers. Cait was here. Somewhere in this mess of crowded, stinking stone and wood was the house where she lived, and perhaps she was thinking of him.
The wynde by which he reached the High Street was steep and crooked, and the climb was relentless until they crested the long, narrow summit. To the left the castle was just visible between tall stone buildings, and on down to the right the main road sloped gradually to the tail of Edinburgh’s rock. Shops and tenement houses, all seemed to lean on each other for support, some with turrets reaching out over the street for whatever space could be had.
The smell was appalling. Dylan had thought his time in this century had taught him to not be bothered by stench, but here the street itself was a sewer that made his eyes water from ammonia and methane. Along the side of the street a cart full of the stinking mud stood by while a woman with her skirts tied up between her legs shoveled muck from the ground. Probably she would sell it for fertilizer out in the countryside, and thank God for that or else the city must be buried in excrement. He muttered to Sinann, “I’m not so sure any more I want to sell the horse. I’ll have to walk in that.”
“Ye’re a fool if ye think a cell in a tolbooth would smell prettier.”
Dylan grunted and began looking for a sign that might indicate a buyer of horses. By the standards of eighteenth century Scotland, Edinburgh was a big place, but it still didn’t take long to find a stable. Several were tucked into the foot of the hill near Cowgate. Dylan was able to sell the horse for fifteen shillings in good, cold, English cash.
“Ye could have gotten an entire pound, at least,” said Sinann who hovered over the filthy street so as not to walk in it. Before answering, Dylan stopped at the window of a baker’s shop and bought a wheaten loaf to eat, half of which he wolfed in two bites. It was warm and delicious, heaven after having eaten nothing but two handfuls of oatmeal in two days. He moved on, wending his way between pedestrians and riders, back up a narrow wynde to High Street.
When he swallowed, he finally replied to Sinann, “No, I couldn’t have gotten an entire pound. The man guessed the horse was stolen. Which is good, since he’ll know not to let it be seen by those who would care.”
“And if he turns you in?”
Dylan peered at Sinann, “Where’s the profit in that? They’d confiscate his horse and he’d be out fifteen shillings. No, if he was going to do that, he would have refused to buy.”
He sighed and looked around at the crowds, “Yeah, well, if they find me they find me. Meanwhile, I’ve got to find Ramsay.”
“You could ask after him.”
He chuckled. “What, just go up to someone and say, Pardon me, but I’m a fugitive Jacobite and former raider for Rob Roy, and though I’m wanted by the Crown for treason and murder I’m really a nice guy and I swear I didn’t do those horrible things they say I did-well, not all of them anyway-and I’m looking for the man who married my sweetheart so I can kill him. Would you care to help me out here?”
Sinann perked up. “Ye’re set to kill him, then?”
“I would have done it already if I was.”
“You dinnae do it because I stopped you.”
Dylan opened his mouth for a stinging reply, but a rough, young voice piped up from behind Dylan, “Are ye out to kill someone? With that there sword? Can I watch?”
Dylan spun to find a runny-nosed boy in a raggedy coat, with mud on his legs almost reaching the hems of his breeches, a perfect Dickensian picture a century before Charles Dickens would be born. The coat was old, faded red and of a man’s size in the military style. Even without insignia or other brick-a-brack, Dylan figured it must have been stolen off a dead soldier. He shook his head. “I was just kid…uh, joking.
Sinann said, “Ask the lad. He’ll know where to find Ramsay.”
Dylan said to the boy, “Can you help me find someone? He promised me a job, and so I want to work for him.”
The kid frowned, not fooled. Sinann said, “Dinnae lie.”
Dylan glanced at Sinann, then back to the boy. “No, really. I want to work for him.” He addressed the boy, but his words were meant for both him and the faerie who was not visible to anyone but himself. “You know, get to learn all the ins and outs of his business. Really be indispensable to him. Maybe even get to know his family.” He cut a glance at Sinann.
Understanding lit her eyes, but the boy was still mystified. He gave a gurgling sniff that did nothing for the glob of green snot under his nose. “All right, sir, if you say so, sir. Where is it ye need to get to?”
“I need to find the offices of a merchant named Connor Ramsay.”
“Right. A thruppence for it.” Dylan fished in his purse and handed the boy a silver coin. “This way.” The boy was off like a shot, hurrying through the crowded High Street. He ducked under the head of a horse pulling a cart, and Dylan had to wait for the cartload of leather goods to pass by before he could cross. Sinann fluttering after, he caught up at the next block down the street and followed the boy through a narrow archway and down a steep wynde slippery with mud of suspicious origin. The weak northern sun nearly disappeared this deep among the towering stone buildings, and moss grew in thick patches over everything. The path leveled out at a tiny close, planted with rose bushes and surrounded on all sides by wrought iron. The boy pointed to a narrow wooden door on which was mounted an iron plaque that said in raised lettering, “Ramsay, Ltd.”
Dylan thanked him and the guide was about to dash off, but Dylan said, “Wait. Here.” Another threepence piece was pressed into the boy’s grubby hand. “You never saw me.” The boy nodded eagerly, but as he tried to dash off again Dylan grabbed his arm. “Be assured I have friends, madmen from the Highlands, who will hold you to that.” This time the boy’s eyes darkened and there was a pause before he gave a heavy, rolling sniff and nodded slowly. Then Dylan let him scurry back up the wynde.
He then faced the door, ran his fingers through his shaggy hair to get it off his face, and told Sinann, “Well, Tink, here goes nothing.”
Coming soon on Bookview Café