Part 4 of The Castle coming right up, but first, as it’s been a while, Parts 1-3.
I could hear the echoes of a very active community around the ruins as I strolled towards the skeleton of the castle on the hill. Tall, arching windows framed the vivid blue of a sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. Darker clouds approached from the horizon – a storm coming in from the sea. The wind whipped through the scrubby bushes and grass, whistling through the narrow cracks between the castle’s stone walls.
The scent of a campfire came to me on the next gust of wind. I’d had the sense to bring a sweater, but it wasn’t nearly enough protection from the nip the wind carried from the bay. I turned to the water, fascinated by the white-capped, rolling waves. The beach was way below where I stood, with no good or easy way down. Another blast of the wind left me shivering.
“Are ya daft, lass? Come closer to the fire.”
I whirled around so fast I nearly lost my footing and toppled over the edge of the cliff I stood upon. Someone’s hard arm caught me around my waist, hauling me away from danger. “Put me down,” I ordered when my feet left the ground.
“Not likely. You haven’t the sense to come in out of the wind or the ability to dress yourself properly.”
The deep male voice made me shiver as much as the cold wind had. I hadn’t gotten a good look at him as he held me against his hip, facing away from him. He strode towards the large bonfire that blazed on the flat plain at the foot of the castle hill. Darkness had settled, confusing me as it had been mid-afternoon. What had happened here? Where had this man come from? I’d been here all alone.
“I caught me a wee sprite,” my rescuer-slash-captor announced to the three men who stood around the fire in various poses.
Laughter greeted the announcement. “I didn’t know it was wee sprite season,” one of the men joked. All gathered in a loose semi-circle around me, unabashed about staring at me.
“Never seen her before. Are ya sure she’s a she? She’s wearing trousers, and her hair is shorter than mine. Maybe you caught yourself a wee lad.”
More laughter. I ground my teeth together. “Have you never seen a woman this far from civilization?” I demanded.
“And what’s all this if it’s not civilization?” My rescuer set me on my feet. “Hmmm? D’ya have a name?”
“She has two surnames? I still think you caught a lad, Eirnan.”
Eirnan, huh? He rested heavy hands on my shoulders, keeping me near him. I decided I’d fallen asleep back in my hotel room, and that this was a very detailed dream. How else could I explain the sudden change in time of day? Or that the castle loomed over me, whole and inhabited?
“Are ya warm yet, Riley MacCormack?” His low rumble brought goosebumps to my skin, made my knees vibrate as his voice caressed my name. He didn’t await my answer, but lifted me off my feet again to rest against his hip. I bounced a bit as he strode up the hill to the castle. His three friends followed, subdued now in their teasing. Something significant had happened, but I had no idea what.
* * *
The great room of the castle was well-lit by the fire the roared at the far ends of the room, as well as the numerous candles set in sconces upon the stone walls. Tapestries hung between the sconces, depicting hunting scenes, wedding scenes, feasts, and great battles. Straw — rushes? — adorned the floor. To the left, what was clearly the dining area. A large trestle table sat before the fireplace, surrounded by more chairs than I had time to count. The other end of the room, also with a fireplace, looked to be a sitting area, although with the most uncomfortable-looking furniture I’d ever seen in my life.
.”Maida,” Eirnan called as he strode to the table. “Food, Maida. I discovered a foundling out in the weather. She’ll need proper clothing, too.” He used his foot to drag a chair out from the table, then sat me in it with little ceremony or care.
His friends ranged themselves behind him, taking up serious stances. I’ll admit, hard as it is seeing I’m a 21st century empowered woman, that I was quite intimidated. “I don’t mean to be any trouble,” I offered, confused at what exactly Eirnan expected from me. From the way he held himself now, along with his howling for service, I figured him to be the lord of the manor, as it were, and quite at ease with his authority.
“Where are you from, Riley MacCormack? What brings you here?” Eirnan waved his hand in a vague circle, near his head.
“I went out for a walk.” True enough. When fabricating, keep as close to the truth as possible. I mean, I wasn’t about to tell him I thought I’d somehow slipped through time. I had no idea what century this was, but it looked Medieval. Possibly earlier.
“At night? Without an escort? Ya think me daft then?”
“I think nothing of the sort, since I’ve never met you before. I couldn’t say if you’re daft or not, seeing as I know nothing about you.” Who knew how long I’d be here. I couldn’t afford to alienate this man.
He drew out a chair next to mine, sitting heavily. “Ya think I don’t know there’s a time slip on my cliff? I’ll repeat myself once, and not again. Where are you from?”
Well. that certainly put a different face on the subject, didn’t it? “The year 2015, from a country called the United States of America. It’s across the Atlantic Ocean. When am I here?”
“1294. Visiting my home in your own time, were you?”
“Yes.” Having never time-traveled before, I didn’t know what the rules were. Surely there were rules, right? I couldn’t tell him his home lay in ruins. I just couldn’t.
He stared hard at me. Silence reigned until a woman came in through a door I hadn’t noticed before. She carried a tray piled high with food-laden dishware. “A visitor, ya say? Needing proper clothing? Have you found a way through, then to collect our missing?”
* * *
“Your missing?” Confused, I looked from the woman to Eirnan, back and forth. “I don’t understand. Am I ill? Hallucinating? Was I in an accident? How can this be happening? What exactly is happening?”
Maida patted my shoulder. “‘Tis crazy you are not, Riley — is it? The O’Hara’s have been cursed for centuries. Legend has it that Eirnan the Black, the original Eirnan, offended the Fairy Queen by refusing her hand in marriage. She opened the time slip. Never have we heard of someone coming to us through it, dear. We usually lose two or three a year to the slip. The first to disappear was the young woman Eirnan the Black married instead of the Fairy Queen. Mary was her name. One afternoon, she went out for a walk and was never seen again. She left two children behind. Her husband, in a fit of grief, declared that all first born sons were to bear his name — Eirnan, and charged all to follow to somehow make his offense right and close the slip.”
“You’re from the future,” Eirnan stated, more for confirmation, I thought, than as a question.
“Perhaps our people are going to the future.” He drummed his fingers against the top of the well-worn tabletop. I took more notice of my surroundings now, in an attempt to memorize everything so I could remember them when I came out of this — whatever this was.
“Tis late. The light of day would see us all better for a good night’s sleep. I’ll take Riley along with me,” Maida suggested.
Eirnan scowled. “No, Maida. We know nothing of Riley. She will stay with me. ‘Tis my responsibility to see to the clan’s safety.”
“‘Tisn’t proper.” But Maida’s protest fell on deaf ears, or so I assumed for all the attention Eirnan paid her complaint — None. He gave me no time to protest either, for he surged to his feet, pausing only long enough to lift me out of the chair. I resigned myself to being carried against his hip again.
“Maida, if you don’t mind taking the food tray up to my rooms?” And with those words, he strode to the massive stone staircase and climbed upwards. Silence reigned behind us. I managed to catch a peek of Maida following at a sedate pace, a studied expression of blandness on her face.
* * *
Eirnan’s bedchamber was lit only by the fire in the enormous fireplace against the outer wall. Two long, narrow windows framed the fireplace. In the dimness, I made out a messy bed with a bench at the foot. Maida came in behind us, bearing not only the tray of food, but a candle. She set the tray on the bench, and made her way around the room lighting other candles. Finished with that, she came to stand before Eirnan, her face set into lines of disapproval.
“If she’s stuck here, you will have ruined her reputation –“
“Maida,” Eirnan said, his voice quiet. “If Riley is stuck here, that will be the least of her worries. She’ll require appropriate clothing, for starters. G’night.”
“Thank you,” I called after her when it became apparent Eirnan had said all he was going to say to her. He set me down carelessly. Back on terra firma, my legs felt unsteady. That passed after a moment out of necessity, as Eirnan urged me forwards with a nudge.
Now with the room better lit, I noticed a long table against the wall opposite the bed. A simple, sturdy chair angled away from the table. By the cluttered surface, I surmised it to be Eirnan’s desk. He ignored me now as he homed in on one of the piles that leaned precariously on the table’s surface.
Maida returned as I finished eating a stale piece of bread. At least the brown gravy added some flavor. I hoped my stomach wouldn’t rebel against this food. I doubted very much that any sort of government agency oversaw the food quality in 1294.
“Clothing for you, Riley.” Maida handed me the bundle she carried. “Including nightwear and undergarments. If Himself there gets too friendly with ye, my quarters are down the stairs, out that far door, and the second door on the left in that corridor. You come straight to me. Men don’t seem to know how to behave themselves when they have a woman near to hand, and this one, being king of his castle, will feel entitled to sample your charms whether you want him to or not.”
“Oh, God’s toes, Maida,” the king of the castle in question rumbled. “I’ve a fair bit more on my mind than a jolly romp with the lass.”
Maida snorted, but at Eirnan’s quelling glare, shrugged at me and hurried from the room, tray in hand.
I hugged the clothes to my chest and sank to the bench. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I wondered if this would all be over when I awakened in the morning. With Eirnan preoccupied at his desk, and my girls screaming to be released from the torture device known as an underwire bra, I found the nightwear and quickly changed. Then, feeling exposed, I grabbed a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around myself.
“If you’re cold, you should sit before the fire.” Eirnan strode a few feet, pulled a chair from against the wall, and stuck it before the fire. The chair did look more inviting than the one at the table. “There.”
“Thank you.” Since he’d gone to all that trouble, I decided I might as well.
The back angled from the seat, not so much as to be prone, but enough to be comfortable. Heat from the fire penetrated the blanket and thin nightgown I wore, and as I warmed up, I realized I’d been colder than I’d known. My eyes drifted closed, casting me into dreams that felt real.
To Be Continued