2 - Destination
The plane ride wasn't anything to write home about unless you count turbulence that could crack teeth as memorable. I managed the stress well enough until the stewardess denied my one request – for a teeny, tiny glass of wine – just one. Then my neighbor, a middle aged man with a hairpiece that wasn't fooling anyone, began to tell me all about his most recent allergies which included certain types of plastic. Before I could tell him he shouldn't be eating plastic, he explained how the compounds in storage containers could be transferred to the food. Which led into his lecture on microwaves and how he couldn't wait to see Templeton's Carpet Factory.
Once over the ocean, we landed in Glasgow. I had to sprint to make my connection flight to Wick, but this was not my final destination. Along with seven other people, I boarded a charter plane and waited out the bumpy, one-hour flight toward Westray Island where the 'airport' was less than extravagant.
There was a covered baggage claim, two weather-worn benches, and a lamppost shaped like a cobra. I gathered my bags and prepared for what was supposed to be a short wait. According to my paperwork, a taxi would take me to the castle. But the last passengers filed into cars and drove away, taillights fading into the distance, and still, no one had come for me.
I waited and waited. A dense fog settled in to dull the sound of distant waves against the rocks. Just as the thought of walking occurred (the island couldn't be more than a few miles in circumference), a horse drawn cart appeared through the vapor.
"Victory Montegue?" the driver asked in a thick French accent, jumping elegantly from the cart. A suit and tie draped his tall, thin frame. Black hair fell in waves to his shoulders.
"Yes…?" Timidly, I stood, one hand holding the lamp post as it watched over our interlude with hollowed-out eyes. "I'm Victory."
He nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "We have been waiting for you."
"Are you the taxi driver?" I asked, ignoring the shiver that was my better judgement.
"A jack of all trades, huh?" I assumed, tossing my purse over one shoulder and laughing nervously.
His expression didn't change. "I will be taking you to St. Vaschel."
I glanced at the cart, noted how easily I could jump out if an escape was needed, and forced a smile. "Great. I was worried I would have to walk."
We loaded my suitcases into the back of the cart – well, he loaded them – then he pulled himself into the single bench seat without offering me a hand.
I clamored up after him. "Gas prices must be pretty high around here, huh?"
He didn't find me amusing, only snapped the reins and muttered something about the trouble with modern conventions.
Puzzled and silenced, I bit my lip to keep from committing another verbal faux pas. I didn't need to anger him around so much empty grave space…
Our ride across a grassy, deserted landscape was mostly in silence save the clacking of shod palominos and the chirping frogs. The only lights came from an eerily full moon, the occasional farmhouse, and a sky brimming with stars. So bright and close, they bore down on us like those in a planetarium. After some time, the broken pavement of the country became a cobblestone street which grabbed at the wooden wheels, making the cart jerk and bounce. We had entered the village of St. Vaschel, a tourist trap for those in love with the renaissance.
The buildings, all dated well beyond this era, were two and three tedious stories high and made of stone and mortar. Pubs appeared to outnumber markets and homes two to one, everything was dingy in the low gas-light, and I wouldn't have been surprised if a plague broke out every now and then in keeping with the sixteenth century ambiance.
We traveled the very same path until the stones turned to dirt and the street became a trail which we followed a few miles more. Soon, turrets poked up through the fog in the distance. My head tilted back as we approached the castle and swept under a guarded archway beneath the Gatehouse.
So this is home, I thought, listening to the wrought iron clink shut behind me. We pulled around a beautifully manicured courtyard and came to a jolting stop outside the largest of several buildings.
The driver set aside his reins. Since his disapproving comment about conventional transportation, he'd been perfectly quiet. Not even polite discourse had left his lips.
"So…" I asked. "This is it, then?"
Both of us stared appreciatively at the massive building that loomed before us. A wide stone staircase met with colossal double doors, one of them left ajar as if to beckon. Arched windows were mostly dark - the vacant eyes of a building with many secrets.
"The Hall of Accommodations," the man explained, jumping from the cart.
"And a gigantic bat." A corbel statue splayed its wings above the entry. Exposed teeth and a dead expression might have been tantamount to a warning of doom if I were inclined to superstition.
"The school's mascot," he told me. "Desmodus Rotundus."
I was concentrating very hard on using the wheel as a step stool and not breaking any bones, so when the man spoke again, and I was sure he'd said something about temporary sleeping arrangements, I had to ask him to clarify.
"Temporary? But isn't this the only housing?" I asked, dropping to the ground. My heels stung when they met with unyielding brick. "That's what I read in the brochure."
"Living arrangements are on a case by case basis," he responded almost curtly, taking my bags and scaling the length of stairs.
I followed slowly behind, afraid to ask what he'd meant. Did they make the trouble makers sleep in the stable? Were bad grades awarded with a trip to the stockades? Those were things I had not read about in the brochure.
He placed my suitcases on the landing. "Do you know your room number?"
"There isn't an elevator. Can you manage?"
One trip at a time… "Sure."
He nodded and descended the steps. As he was hopping into the buggy, I remembered my manners and called to thank him.
"I really appreciate the ride," I said. Last ditch effort to make him smile. "If it weren't for you, I'd still be walking."
He gave a silent nod. Then he took the reins and drove away, but not before turning to meet my gratuitous gaze a final time. And that's when I noticed, as the single light of the Courtyard washed across his face. The startling color of his eyes.
Not the dark and chocolaty brown that I'd assumed. But a red so dark it appeared brown.
Two warning burgundy swirls that told me, if not in words, I'm sorry.