What survived of Urquhart Castle lay sprawled before Loch Ness. Hoisted high on a headland, the gutted fortress overlooked the tide that lurched onto the shore, pulsing and groping, reaching for the stronghold. Grant Tower trembled, chilled by the blue shadows that crept across the northern enclosure. They penetrated the stone depths of the gatehouse, lunged over the weakened rubble walls. The sun cringed away from the cold earth, shrinking behind the mountains, where heather spread like wildfire, engulfing the Glens in frigid purple flames.
Two women, both elementary school teachers in their twenties, ventured toward the remains of Urquhart Castle. Aurelia Clark cared little for historic sites. Flipping through the guidebook that she purchased from the gift shop, she tugged on her long dark hair and feigned interest for the sake of her girlfriend who moved forward with all the vigor of a Western frontiersman.
Courtney Harte carried herself with absolute certainty. She plunged down the hill with Aurelia in tow. "I can't believe how easily we found those records on the Ulster Scots," Courtney announced, sliding her digital camera from its case, "all over the Lowlands! But this," she flashed a wicked grin at the woman behind her, winking, "this is for you, Aura. If any of your ancestors came from Scotland, they would have to come from the Highlands."
Aurelia flicked her stare to Courtney, demeanor reserved and cool, restrained. "Is that so?"
"Yes, yes it is!"
Reaching the bottom of the hill, separated from Urquhart by a drawbridge, Courtney knelt. She tucked her bright red curls behind her ears, studying the castle through her camera lenses. The edge of her skirt slid up her thickly muscled thighs. "If you want," Courtney peered into the eyepiece like a pirate captain through a spyglass, "you can use my pictures for your sketches." Aurelia acknowledged her suggestion with a nod, quiet until her shoulders convulsed with a cough. Courtney sighed. "I know how much you hate castles, but just bear with me, okay?"
When she caught a glimpse of the ruins, Aurelia averted her eyes, dark hair falling in a feverish rush over her forehead. "Okay." Her stomach knotted, organs gripped by a mix of guilt and anxiety, which only worsened as Courtney stood.
"I got the picture I wanted. Shall we head over to the gatehouse?"
Courtney bent at the waist to snap a picture of the replica trebuchet and, while skewed at an angle, growled from the corner of her mouth. "You could at least pretend you like it." Aurelia was silent. When the shutters on the camera smacked their lips, Courtney moodily charged back onto the path. The wind clashed with her scarf and curls, swirling them into a hurricane around her head.
Aurelia panicked and called out to her. "Wait!"
Courtney turned, bold curls exploding around her cheekbones. "What?"
Aurelia curled her fingers under the hem of her citron yellow dress, wishing her nausea would subside. "Look, I'm sorry. I just don't want to go into the castle, I—"
Courtney arrested Aurelia with a glare and a harshly lifted finger. "Enough! You know what? I thought we could have fun here, but you had to spoil our visit because you hate anything historical. Why the hell did you come to Scotland with me in the first place?"
Aurelia lifted her open palms, imploring. "I want to go back to the hotel."
Courtney crossed the drawbridge. Storming through the gatehouse, expression forbidding and tempestuous, she passed one of the castle guides. Alastair Trent folded his white cuffs over his wrists, straightening out his uniform. His eyelids fell low, watchful and knowing, when Courtney blustered into the northern enclosure. He stood between her and Aurelia.
Since he discovered a Pictish brooch on the historic site, Alastair had scoured the ancient headland, searching for clues about its origins. Time had grizzled his thick hair, which bristled in the Highland breeze, and his green plaid vest rippled with a bluish tinge when he stepped into the light, gazing at the lady camouflaged in the shadows of the trebuchet.
Aurelia scowled, cheeks flushing so hotly that her orange undertones disappeared, submerged by a furious blush. She tied her hair into a bulging side braid. A tide of visitors swept down the hill, hurried by a gift shop guide, and dislodged the American from her hiding spot. Forced into the open, Aurelia decided to reconcile with Courtney.
However, the swiftness of her long bare legs was hampered by the uncertain glances that she threw over her shoulder. Alastair lifted a thick eyebrow. She was a curious spectacle, so sensitive to history, and she must be special. When her sneakers came into contact with the bridge, her energy coursed like an electric current along the length of the structure, striking Alastair and confirming his suspicions. Inhaling through his hooked nose, he merged into the darkness of the guard room, waiting.
Unaware of the stranger who lurked in the gatehouse, Aurelia moved across the drawbridge. She intended to speak with Courtney, but the bridge shifted—as if displaced by an explosion—and shook hard enough to pitch Aurelia onto her knees. Startled, she got to her feet and abandoned her guidebook. The odor of gunpowder choked her, then a stampede rumbled in the nearby distance. Aurelia gripped the railing, horrified when a horde of phantoms surged toward her.
Redcoat soldiers rushed away from the gatehouse, their rough mouths blackened, gesturing angrily at the end of the bridge. Aurelia launched herself into a mad dash, running straight into the men who shimmered like holograms when she passed through them. They shouted at the most feeble members of their ranks, paying her no heed, rushing away from the structure that would be blown to smithereens. The entire bridge lurched and Aurelia yelped, thrown against the railing, pain erupting under her ribs. Scrambling into the gatehouse, she curled against the wall, cradling her head.
The ceiling shivered into a silent arc.
Panting, tears glimmering in her eyes, Aurelia peeked out. The ghosts had vanished and the bridge no longer quaked. On the mainland, tourists swarmed the shoreline of Loch Ness, distracted by the Loch Ness monster folklore. Aurelia brushed off her knees. A guide left the guard room, undisguised intrigue glistening in his eyes as he circled her.
"How may I help you?"
Aurelia flinched, whirling around to see Alastair who imposed his presence on her. "Do you have any questions?" The peculiar slant of his smile unnerved her. Coughs heaved up her throat and, worried that she would have another sighting, Aurelia shook her head. Noticing a space between Alastair and the wall, she sprung forward. Alastair blocked her with a swing of his broad shoulders, grin widening into the shade of his black stubble. "I beg your pardon," he spoke off the tip of his English tongue, "but, have you been here before?"
"Please," Alastair interrupted, touching her waist, "let me show you around."
His fingers curled over her curves, brushing her abdomen as he steered Aurelia toward the nearby chamber. Forbidden magic swirled off his fingertips, rushing into her belly, opening her cold black eyes to the world.
"Why don't we start in the guard room?"
Disembodied voices clamored in the darkness. The stench of rotting flesh heaved out of the hall, reeking of feces and dead herring, and Aurelia gagged. "I can't go in there," she clamped her fingers over her nose, "something really stinks." When she turned to Alastair, a ghastly figure ruptured his image, stalking purposefully into the guard room. The phantom carried a pike. He swung open a gate with shrill hinges, then carved open the stomach of his victim. Starving rats scuffled across the floor and ripped into the fresh bloody flesh. Screams echoed from the cavernous passage, shackles clanging as the tormented spirits tolled from the underworld, and Aurelia staggered backwards.
"If you would prefer not to enter," Alastair murmured, "I understand."
Aurelia burst away from him. "Why are you doing this? You know that I can see it, hear it, and smell it," her voice was on the verge of breaking, "all of this stinking history!"
Alastair snapped, "You ungrateful girl! If you learned to control your powers, you would be able to distinguish people from their eras at will, and you could solve the great mysteries of our past." His thin lips curled over his teeth. "How can you ignore it?"
"I don't care about history."
"Don't care?" His tone lifted with his intensity. "Will you always run away?"
"Shut up!" Aurelia backed away. "Why are you so interested in me, huh? Can't you see it, too?"
"No, I can only sense the effect that history has on people. I distinguish historians from mindless flag-wavers."
"Well, I'm not a historian," Aurelia replied, "and I will never be."
Striding toward the doorway, under the stone arch, Aurelia left the guard house for the northern enclosure. She hated the castle, but would prefer to face it with Courtney. Sunlight broached her broad Abenaki cheekbones, sparking hope in her heart, and she tore across the landscape. When her toe scraped the path, however, a powerful quake shook the promontory.
Shrapnel, indistinguishable silver blurs, hurtled at her face.
Aurelia ducked. Debris and bullets whirled through the air, breaking the fortress down to its foundation. Aurelia tried to stand, but a second quake knocked her off balance. She tumbled against a grassy mound, breasts slammed into the earth, and groaned. She felt the currents of Loch Ness gushing under her, swelling and pumping, heartbeats conforming to the pulse of Urquhart Castle.
When a third quake rattled the headland, Aurelia tore away from the ground.
She needed to go somewhere with less history.
Bolting for Grant Tower, which had been built the most recently, Aurelia dodged the many agonized figures who once dwelled within the castle walls. Clansmen bellowed at their enemies, swearing to have vengeance, inciting bloodshed that would last for hundreds of years. They cursed their screaming wives who begged them not to go to war, shrieking under the besieged walls, hugging their discolored children into their skirts. Servants cowered under unrelenting blows, disfigured and lowly, cries amplified by the chambers of time. Cannonballs scorched the open sky and scarred the landscape so deeply that the promontory could never recover, would never forget its sinister history, and Aurelia saw it all.
Centuries roared overhead, reducing Urquhart Castle to nothing more than a skeleton.
Hem of her dress flapping over her thighs, Aurelia flew across the path. She refused to see the phantoms, focused on the distant tower, and passed the chapel. Flutters of golden light fell onto the saintly head of a priest who bent forward, clasping the hands of a frail noblewoman. Woolen fabric clung to her skull, obscuring the smallpox rashes that spread across her eyelids and into her sullen cheeks. When the castle walls, tall and illusionary, fell victim to an attack, the noblewoman stood. Carts outside the chapel halted, riders jerking on their rope bridles, shouting in Gaelic at the intruders. Horses shook their brittle manes, whinnying, alarmed when arrows whistled like scythes into the enclosure, cutting their lives short. The noblewoman fled into the courtyard, tripping over the folds of her skirts, but the enemy spread like a plague throughout the promontory. They grabbed her and threw her to the ground. As the noblewoman thrashed, sobbing and weeping and shrieking, no one intervened to save her.
Not even Aurelia; she passed the Great Hall, where only the cellar survived, and kept running.
When she entered Grant Tower, the entire headland seemed to hush.
Aurelia ran up the spiral rock staircase until she reached the top of the tower. Gripping the metal railing for stability, she gazed across the northern enclosure, shaken. Gusts stirred up spirits across the graveyard. Wisps took the form of a lonely piper. He cradled his bagpipes, fabric heavy and damp, then played a song for his dead forgotten brothers. Haunted by the Highland melody, Aurelia crumpled against the wall, sobs ravaging her throat.
When a person approached her from behind, Aurelia knew that Alastair had come for her.
Aurelia whispered, "It's not my burden to bear."
Fingering the bulge in his breast pocket, Alistair snorted. "Coward." Aurelia stood and intended to slip past him, but Alastair moved faster. He thrust her against the wall, pinning her under his oppressive hips, and the rubble quivered under their combined weights. The wall yielded when Alastair bent her back. "You cannot escape."
Aurelia struggled against his weight. "Get off me!"
Courtney stood behind Alastair and Aurelia. Her purse swung like a pendulum in her fist. "Go ahead, keep touching her like that," Courtney snarled, "and I will make you bleat like a fucking sheep." Alastair tensed and released Aurelia. Flipping up her middle finger, Courtney took Aurelia into her custody. "Stay away from my girlfriend, you sick fuck."
The guide did not reply, but his eyebrows cast a foreboding gloom over his gaze. Courtney pushed Aurelia into the staircase. Obeying her unspoken commands, Aurelia stifled her coughs and descended without a word. Alastair fumed, nostrils flaring with cold fire, scrunching his face in utter frustration. Slipping his fingers into his breast pocket, he rubbed his silver Pictish brooch, cursing under his breath.
He did not have his answers and he suspected that Aurelia had gotten away unscathed.
When she and Courtney reached their Arnold Clark rental car, however, Aurelia collapsed on the pavement. Courtney inhaled and knelt on one knee, searching for the eyes of her disheveled lover. "Look at me. You need to stand up and get into the car." Courtney attempted to soften her voice, but her eyes were flat and unfeeling, and her tongue snapped behind her lips. "Get in, Aura; it's over."
"It's not over." Aurelia choked. "How am I supposed to forget today?"
Patience lost to her anger, Courtney shouted, "That man doesn't matter. Let's go!"
Consumed by guilt and anguish, Aurelia tore away from Courtney, hot tears stinging her eyes. "It's not him!" She pointed angrily at the castle. "It's all of them, the others, in the castle. There was a woman, oh god, the woman." Her tremors escalated to convulsions, hiccups rattling up her throat, and she collapsed into a sobbing heap. "I ignored her, all of them, and now, now— they're nothing."