On the flat top of the Carrvilyn Mesa, the ruined walls of the MacIver Castle seemed to glow blue-black with the reflection of the night sky. In those few places where the walls still stood, they pitched their menacing weight into the darkness.
Like steeple tops and mountain spires their silhouette ran ragged across the highland sky, staining the twilight like a broken quill. The slabs that lay flush upon the whispering hillside fought with all their weight against the press of moonlight and shone brightest where the stone floors remained intact. Although the castle’s majesty had been gutted centuries ago, a great deal of the stonework remained. Each of the slabs was nearly perfect in size and shape, formed by rectangular cuts from the mountain built up like scales on dragon hide.
On the southern-most side of the ruins was one of the rooms that survived most of the collapse. It was barely twelve feet wide by fifteen feet deep and probably functioned as a food cellar at one point. The ceiling had fallen in completely. Chunks of granite littered the ground and covered most of the beautifully preserved floor. Between each of the floor slabs dirt and dust settled into the creases, muffling the labor it took to create them.
But along the perimeter of one such slab, tucked far into a corner of the destroyed room, the seams looked deeper. Dust actually rose is little puffs as a draft from beneath the ruins pushed upward and found its escape into the night.
On the steep backside of the mesa, the enormous silhouette of a man slipped into the mountain, pulling the heavy earthen cover back over the concealed entrance in the slope. The draft beneath the floor stone in the ruins vanished as, a mile away, the living doorway fit seamlessly back into the night
* * * * *
Blaire placed her order, a triple pump, two percent, light whip cream mocha but sans the chocolate sprinkles, and tried to ignore the leggy, giggling blond behind her. She had been right when she pegged the little Scottish coffee shop as a local favorite. The line was horrifically long and she had been forced to listen to Blondie grope and suck on her boyfriend’s neck throughout the entire duration. It would have been all well and fine, but the blond was intentionally putting on a show for the benefit of anyone watching; the, look, I’m gorgeous, and here with my gorgeous boy-toy. It’s too bad you wish you were me, type. Blaire snatched her mocha and immediately burned herself in her hast to find a removed table.
She just caught Blondie’s smirk before the woman ordered, “A double pump, one-percent, no whip mocha, please.”
Blaire’s auburn curls swarmed past her shoulders as she sat down. Thankfully she’d been blessed in that it didn’t frizz up, but her hair would never be described as sleek. Part of that was due to its length. Even with a hairgrip in place her ponytail still swung close to the bottom of her shoulder blades. What she really got irritated with was the complexion that came with being a natural red head. Her skin was flawlessly smooth, but as she liked to say, there was no cover-up known to womankind that could hide her freckles. Twenty-four years of summers spent in the sun had seen to that—she had the golden glow, but was covered, head to foot in the damn things. At least, to some extent, she blended in. Although she was probably a good three or four inches taller than almost every other woman in the shop, Scotland was full of other redheads so she didn’t stick out too badly.
Blondie whispered something that was probably snarky in her boyfriend’s ear, smiled at Blaire, and rammed her hand deep into the back pocket of his Lucky Brand jeans. Blaire ground her teeth and somehow managed to burn herself again with the coffee. She could feel another long run in the near future. Horny as hell and single, she’d taken up exercise the way smokers so often switch to gum—obsessively. It kept her sane, and too tired to impulsively defect to any of those desires. She wasn’t a virgin, but after dating all the wrong guys she was getting sick of the heartache. Still, fighting what her biology kept asking for was, in the long run, a losing battle. Blaire stood and walked toward the door, pausing to dump another sugar packet into her coffee before heading back out and on route to the highlands.
* * * * *
The car bounced along the dirt road out of Crathie heading east. There was supposedly a preserved section of the ruins out near Carrvilyn—a town so remote and tiny it had been damn near impossible to find—but what of that was legend and what was truth, Blaire hadn’t the faintest idea. The town was barely marked on any map—the entire place boasted one café and the local residents. As far as discovery hunting went, it was a shot way in the dark, but the well-known sites had been picked and turned over for years.
The slump of rocks and few remaining walls that made up the ruins failed to attract much interest and tourism soon after their finding. But if there was even the slightest chance of making a first discovery of some missing piece of the historic puzzle, she needed to look where thousands of people hadn’t already examined before.
Forty-five minutes and a flat tire later, the rental car sputtered gratefully to a stop in front of the single sign that proclaimed, “Gwen’s Coffee and Goodies.” There was no bell to sound her entrance but the shop was so small that a single gruff from the ancient shepherd lying on the carpet was enough to alert anyone to customers. A beaming and very round woman bustled out from a doorway behind the counter.
“Well we don’t get many tourists out here! Sit, dear, I’ll fetch you something to eat.” Her voice was as round and musical as she was and the chair she gestured to had a wicker-woven seat and wooden legs that weren’t quite equal lengths. Blaire’s immediate impression was that of a woman who had clearly raised several children with nurturing care and love, rather than wealth and privilege.
Despite its initially demure appearance, the aromas billowing out from behind the counter assaulted Blaire’s already empty stomach. The tiny shop promised perfection in the form of pastries and sugar. Her cheeks flushed violently when her stomach growled loudly enough for the dog to pick up its ears. Gwen must have heard too because the next thing she knew, she was handing over a couple bills as the table became littered with a variety of lemon bars, flakey Danishes, and a cup of coffee that smelled like heaven.
Gwen let her work her way through everything in silence. After the coffee cup had been refilled twice, the woman bustled over and plopped down across the table, causing the chair to creak ominously.
“Now, where is it you’re going round here, love? We don’t get many visitors, as I said, this far out. Is there anything you’re looking for,” she winked, “or can I point you toward something, or someone new?”
Blaire’s cheeks flushed again but the woman was as open and friendly as one could hope for.
“How much do you know about the ruins site out here?” She already knew it was a pointless question but asked nonetheless.
The shopkeeper’s gaze was contemplative, but not judgmental, “I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to know. It seems every six months or so we get someone after the same old legend. But that’s just a pile of stones, dear. I’m sorry to disappoint you.” As always, her hopes died a little, but she wasn’t really expecting someone to pop up with much that she didn’t already know. In fact it was probably better for her chances of discovery that either no one knew or no one was talking. She thanked Gwen and mentioned she’d be looking around anyway.
“Well, they always do, of course,” she said. “In that case I expect you’ll need a place for the night then too. This little shop works just fine as a bed and breakfast. There are only three rooms up on the second floor. One’s mine but you’re very welcome to another.”
With her room key in hand Blaire lugged her bags up the stairs and sat down at the only flat surface in the room, the nightstand, to strategize her search.
The foundation stones of Carrvilyn Keep were simple enough to find. As Gwen had predicted, the somewhat abused rental car came nowhere near making it past the high grass and rocky earth once the dirt road ended. The damn thing gave one feeble shudder, and groaned to a halt, two hundred yards from the first upward slope. Blaire swapped her sandals for hiking boots and gathered up her few necessities into a backpack.
Thankfully, the next four miles weren’t terrible: just flat and mostly itchy in the grass until the ground began to climb up toward the unusual mesa. In a country dominated by hills that rose steeply and even peaked in places, the nearly level tabletop of the Carrvilyn mesa was an oddity in a place that already boasted a slew of unusual traits.
Gwen had told her in the morning that the ancient clan that used to control the region sheared the entire square mile hill top in order to build their keep on higher, but still flat ground. And at four-hundred feet above the gentle plains that stretched around it, that would have been no easy task.
Others maintained, lacking any true evidence to the former, a small band of MacIvers had wandered upon it, recognized the geographic potential for a stronghold, and built up from there.
By whatever means of construction, she found herself tripping over large rocks and slipping through the gravely sections where centuries of rock litter had tumbled loose. By late morning she was irritated, but by the time she crested the last little rise, the view from the top stole any complaint clean out of her mind. Back the way she’d come from, Carrvilyn’s roofs had completely disappeared into the distance, and across the flat meadow heather and wild flowers grew rampant beneath the rare highland sunshine. Squinting, she could just make out the sharp drop on the mesa’s other side where the landscape ranged free and unblemished to the horizon. Several miles out, she could see deep clouds forming atop the hills. Well it is Scotland, she said to herself, storms rolled in pretty regularly in the late afternoon. She’d optimize the sunshine while it lasted.
Her timing hadn’t been too bad. It had taken almost the entire morning yes, but she would be starting earlier the next day so it wouldn’t take as long now that she knew exactly where to go. There were still several hours before she would need to hike back down so that she could get back in town shortly after sunset.
“First things first,” she chided before digging through the bag for a snack. The salty peanut bar bit at her already dry lips but she hadn’t thought to bring lip balm along with water. With the power bar gone and excitement threatening to overwhelm her, patience ceased to be possible. With the pack flung over one arm it took all her available concentration not to spill everything as she half walked, half ran the quarter mile it took to find the first stone block.
Carrvilyn’s fourteenth-century keep was small in comparison to many others and when the MacIvers suddenly abandoned it to fight a war in another region, the site was left without the stained history and romance that drew the masses of tourists and weekend-warriors. Maybe, just maybe, Carrvilyn’s low profile had resulted in something being missed. She’d be ecstatic with anything, a broken plate, a bit of mangled wood that was once a spoon, the leg of a chair, anything that would tie into her thesis and possibly be put on display in Edinburgh’s national museum.
With careful steps she worked her way to the edge where the front gates had once been. The destroyed entrance hall spread before her along the mesa and in her mind’s eye, the castle walls and ceiling were recreated in full. The perfection of imagination swept through the entrance, decorating and filling in the missing pieces. The hall had probably doubled as a dining chamber based on its size. The kitchen was down another corridor and here and there, ruined steps lay where storage rooms or cellars had collapsed and filled again with earth.
She began as methodically as possible, by walking the perimeter and sketching where she was able to observe rooms based upon the remnants of walls. A preliminary draft gave her a sort of checklist to go over. Beginning with the smaller rooms, she scoured every stone and crack, carefully picked up and looked under every rock she could lift and continuously—found nothing. There was nothing to be found except the stones themselves. At some point, probably over the course of decades, the entire place had been swept clean.
Blaire looked up at the sky and felt the slight tingle of electricity. The thunder clouds had blown in much faster than she expected but there was still a bit longer before she’d need to race the sun back to the car. Just enough time to wrap up the goal she’d set for the day.
Two hours into the search and somewhat downtrodden, she arrived at the last of the little rooms on her map. The first looked to be about the size of a bedchamber or a medium sized storage room in which there wasn’t even much rubble from the fallen ruins above.
Along the floor beside the partially collapsed walls dust and dirt collected like grey snow, intermittently disrupted by larger chunks of rock. The floor slabs were slightly different than most of the previous rooms. The square cuts of granite were close to a foot and a half in length on each side instead of the larger blocks that comprised the floor elsewhere.
On one wall, almost on the very south-eastern corner of the site, was a gap that led into the last small space. It reminded her of a walk-in closet but that didn’t make historical sense. The entire thing was only as wide and long as she was tall and her interest peaked again when she found she had no idea what its function might have been.
Regardless, the space was so filled with debris and broken shards of granite that she was forced to start throwing them out by hand in order get to the floor. Large drops of rain began to fall as she worked but she kept her jacket dry inside her pack knowing that she’d want it for the hike down. Just as her wet shirt began sticking to her back and she was about to call it quits, she noticed something in a corner still covered by dirt and dust. All around her, the seams that separated the floor slabs were filling with water so that they created little channels that crosshatched the room. In one corner however, the water looked as if it was draining from the other cracks. As she watched, rainwater ran up to the edge of one slab and then sank into the crack without pooling.
She dug, suddenly frantic to clear the debris from atop the slab and noticed that the water disappeared into the earth on all four sides. Within a couple minutes the seam clogged with dirt and the draining stopped, causing that section of the floor to look identical to all the others again. Blaire rammed the closest thing she could find into the crevice to mark which slab it was and looked wildly for another tool.
There was an empty space beneath that stone and she needed to get into it. She had no concept of why it drained just then rather than being clogged as it now appeared, but she’d worry about that later. What she really needed at the moment was the tire iron back in the car, or something else with which to pry it out. She dug her fingers into the crack and they sank up to her first knuckle. She scraped out the mud and the water seepage began again but before it refilled, she was able to see another strip of flat granite below—a shelf that the upper slab must rest upon. The same was true on all sides.
She crouched and unthreaded the soaking laces from her boots. Slowly, with one end of both laces in each hand and a gradual sawing motion like dental floss, she worked the sturdy cord beneath one corner of the stone and pull upward. The slab rose without great difficulty and, because it wasn’t very heavy, only an inch and a half thick, she shoved the toe of her shoe beneath it to hold it up before lifting the entire piece free.
In front of her was a hole that was barely large enough for a person to squeeze through. Rainwater now ran freely into the darkness and she could hear the steady stream as it hit the floor below. She pulled out the large flashlight that always stayed in her pack and pointed it straight down into the blackness. The floor was probably less than eight feet down and by angling the beam of light she could make out objects in the chamber below.
The little archeologist inside her head nearly wet herself in excitement. Among other treasures she could see an enormous wooden chest and a wooden table. Quickly she wrapped the laces around the tops of her boots to keep them on. She judged that the height of the ceiling once she was in the room below would be low enough to jump and climb back out after she pushed the tile out of the way. Blaire pinned the flashlight beneath one arm and dangled her legs in the gaping hole. She lowered herself down until she hung below the last vestiges of daylight visible through the square opening, and dropped into the beckoning darkness.
* * * * *
Cain stiffened mid crouch and instantly tense as a bow. The draft lifted the fine black hair at his neck shouldn’t have been there, which meant something had found its way in. He drew his dagger from the destroyed tangle of fabric at his feet and silently began to seek whatever new guest he had. If the intruder was human, they would need to be captured or silenced immediately. His purpose was far too delicate to be compromised by anyone. He combed one room after another and was surprised when the breeze became fainter the closer he drew to the southern bank and the concealed entrance that lay there.
He spun and strode in the opposite direction, deeper into the mountain. Once he reached the long corridor without any doorways that stretched for almost half a mile, he turned off his lantern and ran through the pitch black. Minutes later, a scraping noise echoed off the stone walls from what he knew to be the main chamber beneath the ruins.
The draft picked up again and Cain came to a suddenly rigid halt. The faint scent of citrus and vanilla whispered past his nose and he felt himself tighten beneath the heavy pants—whoever had found their way inside was distinctly, and provocatively, female. He moved forward again, but faster now as the air current and her perfume abruptly vanished.