A jolt of energy bounced from her shoulder, crashed into her forehead and knocked her across the cave.
Moments later, she awoke. Her back was to the wall of the cave. The sword was clutched in her hand, the shiny double-edged blade laying across her thighs. The smell of dust was strong. Her head felt numb. She blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to remember what had happened, who she was...
The name came first. Jennifer MacAlpin. Right. Jenny MacAlpin, host of the World Travel Fishing Show. Then all of it came back. The network had sent her and her crew to Scotland, to the Highlands beyond Inverness for the trout fishing. She'd been alone, scouting a location, a trout stream in a treeless glen, when the rain started. Within seconds, she was drenched by fat raindrops that hit hard enough to hurt.
Up the hill to her left was a shadowy area in a narrow cliff. Carrying her fishing gear, she dashed along the slippery bank, then uphill on a narrow path through the heather, hoping the shadow was an overhang, a crevice, anything that would get her out of the storm.
The cave was perfect.
Laughing to herself, exhilarated by the storm and her short run, she watched the rain from the cavemouth before looking around. The cave wasn't deep, no more than a dozen feet to the back wall, where a ragged symbol was carved into the rock. She didn't know what the symbol represented but it was somehow familiar. Beneath it was a mound of stone about six feet long, three or four feet wide and three feet deep.
The hilt of the sword had been protruding from the mound. The pommel was amber encased in a loosely woven basket of untarnished silver. The amber absorbed enough of the dim light to glow like a cat's eye. The grip was fine tight chain, rusty- brown in colour, while the guard and the knuckle-bow were the same silver as the pommel.
Even in the dark cave, it was beautiful.
Now, it was in her hand.
Something shifted, something clattered...
Startled, Jenny looked around. Her fishing gear was strewn about. Rain was still falling hard outside. The cave was still shadowy. The pile of stones still caught some of the light from the entrance.
As she watched, a rock tumbled from the top of the pile, clattering down the side to the floor of the cave.
Wide-eyed and nervous, Jenny tried to stand up. Her knees were weak, her muscles rubbery. She braced her back against the wall of the cave and used the sword for support. By the time she gained her feet, she was short of breath and dizzy. She wondered what had made her so weak.
Then she remembered how she'd grabbed the sword and how the energy had raced up her arm and smashed into her head. She must have loosened some of the stones when the sword came free. That was why those few had fallen. She tried not to think about whatever force was in the sword.
Another stone fell.
A smell like old mildewed books permeated the cave.
Jenny limped to the pile. The stones hadn't fallen from where the sword had been but from a few feet away. As she watched, another rolled to the floor of the cave, leaving a deep shadow in the mound.
Jenny leaned closer to look at it. The shadow was a cavity. The odour was stronger there.
She saw a flicker of movement in the dark hole and backed away slowly.
Fingers emerged from the opening. White bones showed through shreds of pink shimmering flesh. The flesh writhed alive, moving along the bones, covering them. Then the entire hand was free, pushing more stones away, enlarging the hole.
As Jenny reached the mouth of the cave, the arm, then the shoulder appeared. The mound erupted. A man sat up.
At first, his face was little more than a skull with hair on it. Skin grew over it quickly. Features formed.
Jenny dropped the sword, turned and ran/stumbled from the cave.
A coughing grunt sounded behind her.
She skidded on the wet path, losing her balance, falling, tumbling to the bottom of the slope, landing hard by the rushing water. Downstream, it had overflowed the bank, wiping out the path, flowing into the tangle of heather and gorse and bracken.
She looked up at the cave.
The man stepped out. He was holding the sword and dressed in a kilt and mantle, long red hair tied away from his face by a strip of leather. He raised his face to the sky, letting the rain pour over it. He lifted his arms high and yelled, voice raw and harsh. The sound quivered in her stomach. She trembled with dread.
With the path to town blocked, she could only follow the trail deeper into the mountains. Either that or wait here for him. Or try to swim the stream, which was now a fierce tumbling river.
She set off into the mountains at a limping run, not looking back until the path veered away from the water a hundred yards upstream.
The man was following at a lurching walk.
Briefly, she wondered why she was running away. He hadn't actually threatened her. Hell, maybe he was just a practical joke her crew was playing on her.
Keep running, she told herself. It's no joke.
The shock from the sword and the way it had kicked her across the cave had been real. The symbol on the wall, the mound, the falling stones were all real. So was the man. And anyone who had been buried in a cairn in a cave was no one she wanted to meet. The worst thing about it was that he seemed familiar, the way the symbol had, like a half-forgotten dream.
Hell, maybe she'd fallen in the cave and was still unconscious and this was a dream.
But when she'd rolled down the hill she'd scraped her elbows and forehead. The blood and the pain weren't part of any dream.
As the muscles in her legs warmed up, her stride grew smoother. Thankful that she'd always kept herself fit, Jenny settled into an easy lope, confident she could outrun the man.
The path wandered uphill amongst ragged rocks into the belly of the swirling storm clouds.
The rain stopped.
Blind within a cloud, she slowed her stride.
Over the top and partway down the other side, she exited the mist and skidded to a halt at the edge of steep slope, almost a cliff. The path swung to the right, becoming a switchback trail through mossy rocks to a deep wooded glen below.
Footsteps pounded the path behind her.
She broke into a sprint. She slipped on the wet ground, regained her balance and eased her pace. Rivulets of rainwater ran down the trail. Jenny slid around each bend, clutching at rocks to hold her up. At the last turn, she grabbed a handful of moss. It tore free from the rock and she slid into the trees on her backside.
Lying on her back, she looked up the hill.
The man was coming down. He was yelling at her but Jenny couldn't understand what he was saying. The awkwardness was gone from his stride. His movements were fluid as he descended, hair flying, kilt swirling.
Jenny swore and followed the trail into the dark quiet woods. The trees were thick and ancient, clad in scabrous lichen, thick moss and violently coloured fungoid growths. Many of them snaked through the woods at odd angles, bent and gnarled the way trees can get if, as saplings, they are buried for a season beneath heavy snow.
Fallen branches and fallen trees, festooned with parasites, formed an impenetrable tangle, forcing her to stay on the path. Rainwater dripped from the foliage. Fingers of mist writhed amongst the boles.
Her breathing and her footsteps, even the beating of her heart, were loud in the stillness. In the distance was a rushing sound. It grew louder as she neared the source.
Before the rain, it had been a narrow, shallow stream.
Now, it was more than twenty feet across, a churning torrent that obliterated the path, impossible to cross.
Jenny retreated along the trail, searching for a place to enter the woods, a game trail, anything. For the first time, the fear threatened to be overwhelming. She wasn't given to hysterics but panic swelled up inside her. She fought it off, forced it down. Panic was destructive and Jenny MacAlpin was a survivor, a scrapper.
The man was waiting around the next bend in the trail.
He stood in the centre of the path. He had both hands on the pommel of his broadsword. The tip rested on the ground. He stared at her, one eyebrow raised, a faint sad smile curving his lips.
Running was pointless. There was nowhere to go.
Heart pounding, Jenny drew herself erect and waited, thinking, he smells like a wet dog but, damn it, he's gorgeous, so tall, so damn big, and with all that wild red hair and those blue eyes... She remembered how he'd looked in the cave and shuddered.
Growing uncomfortable under his gaze, she cleared her throat.
He cleared his own and asked, "Why do you run from me, lass? I wouldna hurt you."
As he spoke, her fear subsided. His accent was thick and his voice was as harsh as a rusty gate but the words were clear.
"Why'd you chase me?" Jenny asked.
"Because you ran," he said simply. "You dinna ken who I am, do you?"
"Should I? Who the hell are you?" She demanded.
"You've a fierce tongue for a lady," he pointed out, bowing slightly. "Ian MacKenzie, at your service. And you are?"
"And what is a MacAlpin doing in the land of the MacKenzies? Shouldna you be further south, lass, down there with the Campbells and Stewarts? Does the new laird ken you're here?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
He gazed into her eyes, then looked her up and down, frowning. "Your dress is quite peculiar." Her jeans and white shirt were torn and dirty, smeared with mud and blood, but she didn't think there was anything peculiar about them.
"Your speech is also peculiar," he added.
"What's wrong with my speech?"
"No Scottish woman ever sounded like that."
He raised one eyebrow.
"You know, American. From the United States. Vermont."
"I dinna ken what you be on about."
"Well, I don't know what the hell you're on about either, buddy. Why don't you just let me past and I'll go back where I'm supposed to be and you can go on and do whatever it is you're supposed to be doing. This is just too strange for me."
An expression of deep sorrow crossed his face like a wave. He bowed his head, shaking it sadly as he said, "I canna go back on my own. And I dinna ken why I'm here. Why did you awaken me, lass? Only the one who knows me was to do that. Only the one who knows me was to be able to do that, though you do favour her. You've the same yellow hair, the same faint smile..."
He broke off, glancing around the woods, brow furrowed by a frown. "I knew this fey foul place long ago. When last I saw it, these trees were young. Taller healthier trees stood in their stead. What is the year, lass?"
Puzzled, she told him.
"Five hundred years," he sighed, tightening his grip on the sword. "Hadna my memory been at sleep so long, I would've done all in my power to stop you coming here."
"Damn it," Jenny said, "Can't you talk so I can understand you? What's this about someone who knows you and about five hundred years? And what's wrong with this place? It's just a nasty looking forest."
"Take this," Ian MacKenzie said, pulling a dirk from his stocking. "I shall answer your questions when we're away from here."
Jenny took it.
"Stay close to my back," he ordered.
Her first impulse was to bridle at the way he told her what to do. She even toyed with sticking the blade in him. But she wasn't a fool. His concern was contagious. Something was wrong here. She followed instructions.
Hefting his sword, MacKenzie led the way back along the path. He moved warily, glancing from side to side, pausing now and then to listen. Jenny moved silently behind him. She'd spent much of her life in the woods, hunting and fishing. She knew how things were supposed to feel and this place didn't feel that way. There was something out of step, something threatening, something she'd missed during her flight and during the shock of meeting Ian MacKenzie.
A cackling laugh sounded deep in the woods.
The underbrush rustled nearby.
MacKenzie froze and said softly, "Dinna move, lass."
He held his sword ready as he peered into the gloom. Then he started walking again, Jenny following close, more confused than ever.
"Alone, I wouldna be worried. T'is rare they'll challenge a full grown man. And when they see this weapon..."
From the corner of her eye, Jenny saw one of the shadows flicker and demanded, "What the hell are they?"
MacKenzie pointed with his sword.
The man, the creature, wasn't much larger than a three-year old child. He was armed with a club. His knotted muscles were bunched and misshapen. Long black hair hung around his shoulders. His facial features were awry, one dark eye lower than the other, nose wide and splayed, lips thin and lopsided. He was naked. And blue.
As he moved to conceal himself, Jenny realised the blue was body paint.
"Forest people," Ian MacKenzie said. "They've no interest in me. But you shouldna have come here. In my day, women knew better."
"Women have changed since your day, Mr. MacKenzie," Jenny explained, understanding that he'd been in that cave for a very long time. She didn't know how such a thing could have happened, but she knew that it had.
"Be that as it may, the forest people havena changed, lass. Perhaps you should explain it to them."
"That's okay," she said. "I think I'd just like to get out of here."
"Aye, no doubt you would," he said, walking again.
One of the forest people was waiting on the trail. His hair was decorated with feathers. He stood with his arms folded across his chest.
"Get out of our way," MacKenzie said.
"Want woman," he demanded in a deep voice.
"I willna tell you again. Do you ken this sword?"
"Laird's Death," the man said, surprised, backing up a step.
Jenny stepped around MacKenzie, staring down into the eyes of the little naked man. "I don't know who you are, buddy. But I'm not going anywhere with you and I'm not going to run away from you. I'm bloody tired of being chased around and I'm fed up with being scared."
Without another word, she kicked him in the groin.
As he collapsed, dozens of them charged from the trees, eeling through the thick undergrowth, yelling and whirling their cudgels. MacKenzie swore and spun about, slashing with his sword. One dropped headless and another lost an arm with that first cut.
Jenny gasped as the blood spurted. Then she didn't have time to be shocked or revolted. One of the forest men grabbed at her. She spun around, tossing him against a tree, kicking out at another, stabbing with the dirk at yet another. One jumped on her back and she flipped him over. MacKenzie cut him in half while he was in the air.
They worked well together.
As they fought, the first one recovered from the blow to his crotch and yelled, over and over again, "Laird's Death."
MacKenzie chopped two more down before the rest realised what their leader was saying and fled. Alone with MacKenzie again, breathing heavily, Jenny looked around. There were seven tiny bodies strewn about the trail amidst a mess of severed limbs, organs and thick dark blood. One had MacKenzie's dirk buried in its chest and she couldn't remember putting it there.
She leaned against a tree and threw up.
"If you're finished, we should be on our way, lass."
Jenny nodded her head, wiped her eyes, wiped her mouth on her sleeve. "Why'd they run away?"
"Perhaps you terrified them. Perhaps they've never seen a woman who could fight better than most men."
"And perhaps you should save that for your garden. It'll help the plants grow," Jenny snapped. "Why'd they run?"
MacKenzie didn't answer. He pulled his dirk from the corpse, wiped the blade clean on the ground and sheathed it in his stocking. Then he shook his sword. The blood rained from it, leaving it spotless. He held it close to Jenny, saying, "Some time ago, they were ruled by this sword. Their memories are long."
Before Jenny could speak, he took her by the arm.
"We must be away from here. I have to return to the cave before..." He broke off, looking away from her. "Never mind. I simply have to return to the cave."
Subdued by the fight, Jenny followed him out of the glen and over the high hill. As they came down the path to the trout stream, she asked, "Why do you have to get back to the cave."
MacKenzie sighed, looking up at the sky, then around at the bleak wild landscape. "I was the laird here, once. Chieftain of the clan MacKenzie. I was wed to Moira MacLeod of Lewis..."
"My mother's name was Moira," Jenny said.
One eyebrow raised, MacKenzie stared at her. "Tell me about her."
"I can't, really. I never actually knew her. She died giving birth to me. My father always told me what a wonderful woman she was and how, even though she was blind, it wasn't much of a handicap. Few people ever realised she couldn't see because she handled herself so well. She could walk through a strange room and never stumble into anything... Anyway, forget it. Why do you want to know about my mother?"
MacKenzie had turned away when Jenny mentioned her mother's blindness. Now, he asked, "Where is this United States you mentioned?"
"Across the ocean..."
"Too far," MacKenzie sighed, shaking his head. He resumed walking. The cave was in sight now. At the bottom of the slope, he turned to Jenny saying, "My Moira was also blind."
He sat down on a rock by the path, placing the point of his sword on the ground, resting his hands on the pommel, his chin on his hands. His eyes were out of focus as he said, "We were so much in love... I canna believe anyone ever loved so hard or so well. Moira MacLeod, the most beautiful, graceful creature that ever lived. I didna ken she was blind until our third meeting when I asked her to marry me. She told me of it. I'd seen her walk through rooms without ever stumbling into anything, lass, just like your mother. Our fathers agreed that we could marry. Afterwards, I learned that Moira was a witch."
"Yeah, right," Jenny said.
MacKenzie smiled at her. "She spelled this sword and for fifteen years, the MacKenzie lands were at peace. Even the forest people accepted my rule. Aye, she was a witch. She fell ill in our fifteenth year together. She was dying. I didna want to live in this world without her, lass. People told me it was unnatural to love someone so much. Perhaps they'd never truly loved. I told Moira that on the day she died, I would be joining her in the afterlife."
Moira had a better idea, he explained. If he killed himself, there was no guarantee they would ever find each other again. If he truly wanted to die, then she would arrange things so that they would be together again. She would add a further spell to the sword, bury it in his heart and leave him protected by a spell until she could be reborn and return for him. Only she would be able to withdraw the sword.
"I didna believe it would ever happen but neither did I care. Life in this world without her couldna even be considered so, you see, it was worth the gamble. And now, here I am. How did you pull the sword?"
"Well, I didn't, not really. I mean, all I did was touch it. Look, MacKenzie, do you have any idea how hard it is for me to believe all this stuff?"
"What do you mean, why? Come on, magic swords, witches... Give me a break."
"You felt the power of the sword, lass. You saw me rise from my stony grave. You met and fought the forest people. How can you entertain any doubts?"
"Damn it," Jenny said, turning away from him.
"I'll tell you what I believe, lass. I believe your mother was my Moira. I believe this United States was too far away for her. I believe she died in order to try again in another life to reach me. And I believe she either gave her life to you, or gave enough of it so that you could find my resting place and take the sword. Perhaps she'll never find her way back. Perhaps you're an offering to me. Or perhaps you are her but you havena realised it yet."
"I'm not my mother. I'm myself."
"So I fear, lass. You merely have enough of her in you to make the sword respond," he said sadly. Jenny shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe so, MacKenzie. I don't know. I don't actually believe any of this, you know."
"Aye, I didna expect you would. But if you canna find my Moira within you, then you must help me return to my resting place."
"What do you mean?"
"I must return and wait. If I dinna get there by nightfall, I shall be trapped here, forced to live out my days..."
"So go on back and wait. What do you mean, I have to help you."
"You pulled the sword, lass. Now you must put it back."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jenny demanded, not wanting to face it.
"You understand verra well, Jennifer MacAlpin. No use pretending otherwise."
"You expect me to stick this sword in you?"
"Forget it, buddy. I'm no murderer."
"This wouldna be murder. Putting something back where you found it canna be considered murder."
"Jennifer, without your help, I'm lost," MacKenzie said, reaching out to touch her arm.
Her arm tingled.
She jerked away from his touch, glancing down at her arm, up at him, back to her arm.
"Please," MacKenzie insisted. "You must help me return."
He rose from the rock and started up the path towards the cave, dragging the sword. His head was bowed and his steps were slow, weary.
After a few seconds, Jenny swore and followed him to the cave. He was standing by the cairn.
"Did you notice, lass, how well we fought together back there?" He turned and held out the sword to her.
As she accepted it, he began moving stones from the centre of the cairn, clearing a place where he could lie down.
"I'm not going to kill you," she said.
"I'm not asking you to kill me. I'm asking you to correct what you've undone."
When he had a space cleared, he stepped into it and stretched out.
"Come out of there," Jenny said. "This is ridiculous. I have no intention of sticking this sword in you."
MacKenzie sat up, saying, "Come here."
She stepped closer and he grasped the blade, placing the point against his chest. When he released it, she was holding it against him.
MacKenzie stared into her eyes, saying, "You must."
Almost against her will, Jenny increased the pressure. She swore and dropped the sword, turning away, going to the cavemouth.
Stones rattled behind her.
As MacKenzie put both hands on her shoulders to turn her around, the jolt from his touch raced through her body. She trembled, shivering as she turned to face him.
"My middle name's Moira," she said.
MacKenzie raised an eyebrow.
"I don't remember you, Ian. But your touch is familiar."
"I canna... I mean, I can't kill you."
"Do you think I'll remember sometime?"
"You remembered enough to find me, lass. T'is a start."
Fraser lives in Burlington, Ontario and can be contacted at: email@example.com
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