It was all white noise to Haley, though.
Loch Awe. Great. A king and a loch.
They made good progress from there, as the hills slowly smoothed into a thick carpet of knotty green grass. The loch appeared, and nausea twinged sharp in Haley's gut. She knew there weren't any such bodies of water in the Massachusetts she'd se en. It was huge, stretching along a fold in the gently curving valley, and glittering as promised.
A gray building emerged in the distance, a spectral thing in the hazy light that materialized as they approached. Her queasiness became insistent, clutching at the front of her belly. Haley breathed through her mouth now as if that could curb the roiling and flipping in her stomach.
She must've faltered, or made some sound, because she felt both of MacColla's hands steadying her.
John's castle came into focus. It was a huge rectangular building constructed of dingy gray stone and studded with a few small, square openings. A granite fortress, grim and nearly windowless, in the old “hall house” style of ancient castle.
Lochs, kilts, kings, and now castles.
“What's your king's name?” Her voice was a reedy whisper.
“Wait. MacColla. Charles? Charles the first.”
“Are you well, lass?”
She felt his hand on her shoulder, but she pulled away sharply. Swinging a trembling leg in front of her, Haley slid off the pony's back and buckled to the ground.
She heard muted chatter, then she registered the girl ranting a stream of unintelligible Gaelic.
Effortless Gaelic babbling all around.
And then the possibility came to her. But rather than the illuminating click of a bulb, Haley's sudden realization snuffed out the light. It was a boulder come crashing down, as if to seal her in a cramped, airless cave.
It was the phrase that did it. An obscure phrase that had been spoken to her. That nagged at her still. The name Jean had called her brother – she remembered it. And she knew.
Fear Thollaidh nan Tighean.
Destroyer of Houses.
The Alasdair MacColla.
She ran teetering for several yards before collapsing to her knees. The weathered building loomed in the distance, mocking her, an indifferent witness to her horror. The nausea that had quivered at the edges of her belly and in the back of her throat erupted full force now, and it was as if a great, violent fist punched into her gut, hauling up everything from Haley's stomach with its clenched hand. The strain robbed her of breath, forced bile singeing into her sinuses.
The pain in her ribs made her vision waver, and a great wail escaped her. She tried to still her spasming body, tried to silence her own cries. Every movement was sheer agony.
She felt the small blip of burst blood vessels around her eyes as she retched again. And still she convulsed, as if some instinctual part of her believed she could make it all disappear by the full force of her body alone.
The violence of it made her bones creak, awoke fresh agony in her already abused ribs, and she sicked-up once more from the stabbing in her torso alone.
She had the knack of sensing MacColla near, and she felt him now, standing over her, the cool cast of his shadow on her back. Knew without thought that he was leaning down toward her.
And though her heart pounded with fear, she summoned a look of defiance. Against him, against her condition. Against the whole unreal, unfathomable, inconceivable situation.
“No!” she shouted, as she scrambled to the side, scrubbing the trails of her body's fluids from her face. “No.”
One of the most brutal men in Scottish history. Somehow come for her.
She saw him, looming over her, as still as the hills at theirbacks. She clawed tight to her flickering consciousness and heard Jean on the edges of it. “I warned you, Alasdair. The lass is not right.”
And this time instead of focusing Haley, giving her strength. Jean's distant words erased her. Unmoored her. Not right.
And the impermeable wall of masonry Haley had spent years stacking up and around herself became a great towering house of cards, fluttering lightly to the ground.
MacColla eased himself into the bath. The copper tub barely held him, but the water was hot and unclenched his tight muscles. He reached back to grind at the knots along the tops of his shoulders, taking pleasure in the stretch of tendons along the backs of his arms.
John had generously given them their choice of rooms, th e majority of his family currently residing in their primary home in Glassary, to the east. MacColla wasn't much for luxuries, and had chosen the smaller but warmer of the rooms offered him. The hearth was big, the window faced west, and the mattress was softer than any ground he'd used as a bed these past weeks.
And still, he was tenser than he thought he had reason to be, and wondered at the strange woman who'd put him so on edge. Dunking his head underwater, he tugged his fingers through his hair, untan gling the matted mass before he washed.
MacColla sat up abruptly and whipped his hair from his face. Curse his distraction, but he still hadn't pressed the issue of the woman's clan.
He'd thought she was a spy. All signs pointed to it. She'd come upon them in Campbell's own lair. A mysterious woman, strong and alone, with no ready explanations or denials on her tongue.
And, most troubling of all, she had suspected the truth of James Graham's fate.
And yet, in his heart he didn't believe it to be true. S he'd seemed so… innocent. He'd thought it was merely her injury that made her appear so. But feeling her quake before him as they rode, steadying her with his own hand, he'd sensed her confusion, her vulnerability.
Some sort of scout for Clan Campbell? He couldn't give the notion much credence.
She'd trembled like a newborn foal, terrorized by the sight of Fincharn. And then she'd gotten violently ill, and he'd wondered if she weren't actually an enemy of John's clan Scrymgeour. And yet there had been no recognition between the two of them.
He felt mercy for the poor lass. Wary, but merciful.
And, oh, how he wanted her. The image of those creamy arms and shoulders stayed in his mind, taunting him. And the smooth stretch of her belly. He fantasized about pulling that strange white shirt up and over her head. He knew her breasts would be even paler and more perfect, if such a thing were possible.
MacColla shut his eyes, marshalling his body back to composure.
He'd keep her close until he could discover the truth of her origins.
And God help her if she turned out to be something she didn't appear to be.
Haley paced another frantic circle around the room, dragging her hand hard along the cold stone as she went. The sharp peaks and edges of granite h ad made her palm raw, but she couldn't stop herself. Something had to make this experience real to her. She pressed her hand harder onto the damp rock, foisting her physical self onto this strange world, hoping her mind would follow.
She was back in time and didn't know how it had happened, just that it had. The evidence was all around her. But it was more than simply the clothes and the Gaelic. More than the godforsaken chill of the castle she now found herself in.
Haley knew. She felt it. Felt it in the desolation around her. An animal knowing, bone- deep and as old as man, that she could travel for miles in any direction before encountering another soul. She felt the absence of technology like a sudden silence. Felt nature around her, ascendant, all-powe rful, in a way she'd never sensed it before.
Most of all, she felt small and vulnerable and terrified out of her wits.
She stopped. She needed to search again for something, anything that could be used as a weapon. She'd already noted the small candleholder on the table at her bedside.
The pitcher full of water could do some damage too. And pocketing the small knife on the tray of cheese and bread had been a no-brainer. Her eyes roved the room. There must be something else.
She stormed to the bedside for the hundredth time. Small table with candles, pitcher, basin. She peeled the thin mattress away from the bed. It was packed tightly with straw and made a light crunching sound. There was a woven hammock beneath, attached to the wooden cot. She kicked at the base of it. The thing was too sturdy to remove a leg, and it'd be too readily noticed anyhow.
She picked at the hammock that was to be her seventeenth- century version of a box spring. It was actually a well-made thing, the rope tied off into strong, even knots and pulled over and under into a dense basket weave. Definitely something to keep in mind. Once she severed that rope, though, that was it for the bed.
Oh God, how? She dropped the mattress back into place and sat suddenly. How? How had she gotten there?
Her mind kept returning to the gun. And that hideous painting. A wooden panel bearing the crude likeness of a man and a woman. The man was MacColla, she knew that now. And she was the woman, with a scar on her neck. It had been glistening with fresh blood. But whose?
That weapon and that painting were the two things that linked her to… when?
She tried to place herself in time. Tried to remember her history. When and how MacColla died. It had been on a battlefield in Ireland. He'd been betrayed, slain. She didn't recall the precise date, just that it would've been in the 1640s. The time of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, that politically correct name for what some still referred to as the British Civil Wars.
But when, exactly? 1645? '46?
And why her? Why Alasdair MacColla? She tried to remember as much as she could about the man. He'd been fierce. Brave. Vicious.
Many claimed he'd invented the Highland Charge, the battlefield strategy that had brought the Highlanders so many triumphs for so many years. Fire off a musket shot, then charge, finishing off the battle with sword and targe.
Such famous MacColla victories. Such infamous MacColla brutality.
He certainly was as huge as the history books said he was. She had never seen an image of the man, and thought with a shudder that the horrific wooden panel might be the only painting of him that ever existed. But his legend hadn't exaggerated his size. His power was clear in his broad chest, tremendous arms, and his thighs, solid as wood, which had cradled her as they rode as if she nestled within the branches of some great tree.