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26.12.2018

She had met her life partner.

MacColla.

“I'll try a letter too.” Haley squeezed Magda's hand tight. She was certain now. Her time and place was by MacColla's side. She belonged wherever – and whenever – he was. “But… are you sure… can I really use your painting?”

At Magda's nod, Haley thanked her.

“Well, don't thank me yet. I'm not sure how this… works.”

Both women sat a little straighter, focused now.

Magda studied the painting in Haley's hands, and Haley realized what it would mean for her to give away the only likeness she had of her brother.

“There's a witch,” Magda said. “You'll need to find her. I'm certain James wishes he could take you to her, but he can't risk being recognized.”

“He's very recognizable.” Haley admitted, and both women shared a tension-relieving laugh.

“As if MacColla isn't?” Magda smiled, and Haley was grateful for her use of the present tense.

“Rollo will take you.” Magda continued. “She lives in the Highlands. Near Clan Cameron. I think she'll be able to help you.”

“But… ” Haley studied the painting in her hands. A handsome young man, with Magda's same regal features, and a head of bright red hair. “But this is the last image you have of your brother.”

“I don't need a picture to remember Peter,” Magda said, touching the edge of the painting one last time. “I don't need evidence of him when he lives on in my heart.”

She wrapped Haley's hands around the miniature portrait. “You'll see. This place changes you. The simpler life becomes, the richer it grows.”

Haley nodded wordlessly. “Thank you,” she whispered, and gave Magda's fingers an affectionate squeeze.

“Now about that letter of yours,” Magda said, smiling. She stood and walked to the desk. It was placed by the window, and a bright ray of sun shone in, illuminating the surface with hyperreal light. She took a piece of paper from a small wooden box. “My husband was a famous man. If I understand correctly, even you originally stayed back in time merely to discover if he lived or died.”

Haley looked away, embarrassed.

“Oh, I don't blame you, believe me.” Magda grew serious.

“Write them your good-bye. I'll place it with ”-

“James's sword,” Haley interrupted, eyes bright. “A sword of his is famous, it's on display in a museum in Montrose. Put it with a sword, marked as his.”

“Yes, I'll do that. With a request that the letter be delivered to whatever address you write, on whichever date you say. That way you won't worry as I did that they somehow got the letter, I don't know, when I was still in grade school.” They shared a smile.

“It could be delivered the day after I disappear,” she marveled softly.

Her gaze met Magda's. “So… they'd know by now. I mean, if time is a static thing, and my family is out there somewhere. The letter would be in their hands by now.”

“I can't wrap my own mind around it.” Magda shrugged and shook her head. “But, yes, if you think about it that way… By now, your family would've read your goodbye.”

They'd traveled for hours, hugging along a coastal inlet, finally docking in a small cove along the shore of Loch Linnhe.

The ground seemed to waver beneath her as she struggled to reclaim her land legs. Haley was stretching and stomping her limbs back to life when she sensed Rollo's abrupt movement.

She turned, amazed to see him with his pistol out loaded, and cocked in seconds.

Haley froze, looking around. “What are you shoot-?” She swallowed back a startled yelp.

A woman stood on the bank of the lake. Gray smoke spiraled up from a small fire, as if she'd been camped and waiting just for them.

Haley darted a quick look around. They were in the middle of nowhere, vast stretches of wilderness as far as the eye could see. How is it they managed to bump into someone here? The woman seemed to have simply materialized from nowhere.

And why did Rollo have his gun trained on her? He at least, seemed to have spotted the stranger straightaway.

Haley knew he was stiff from a day seated on the hard bench, but no one would ever suspect it. He stood tall, arms outstretched steadily before him, his hazel eyes turned the color of cold stone.

“Put your gun down, man.” The woman sucked at her teeth and spit into the fire. “I offer you help, not harm.”

The woman's nonchalance was studied. Haley thought she seemed, in fact, capable of great harm. Though she couldn't put a finger on why.

Long red hair flowed over her shoulders, marbled with a few strands of wiry gray. She was skinny, but not scrawny, her body all tendons and thin muscle. Something about her had the whiff of power.

Haley was happy to see that Rollo wasn't taking the woman's suggestion; his gun remained pointed straight at her. “The only thing you can help us with is your name,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I am called Finola.”

“I'm afraid I'll need more than that if I'm to lower this gun.”

“You aim your foolish weapon at me as if I am your quarry.” The woman peeled her lips back in an impatient snarl. “You are as a child who frolics in the water with no understanding of the depths below.”

Finola spread her arms wide. Her cloak fluttered about her, and what had been a dingy gray seemed suddenly brighter, whiter than before. She, somehow taller.

Haley's knees started to buckle, and she forced herself to stand tall.

Rollo, though, didn't waver. His words resonated as he asked, “What do you play at, woman?”

Voice pitched low, she incanted. “You seek a witch, and so I stand. The star road lies at my command. My power, greater than hers you seek. I am strong, my enemies weak.”

What the… Haley edged back to stand a little behind Rollo. She eyed the muscles of his back visible under the damp linen of his shirt. He was unflinching, like chiseled rock. She had to hand it to him – he still hadn't put the gun down, and it gave her courage.

“How do you know who we seek?” Haley managed.

“I know, girl.”

“What is your clan?” Rollo stepped toward her. “You stand on Cameron lands. Are you a Cameron?”

“You ask the questions of a fool.” Finola brought her arms down hard, dismissive. “Try my patience further and I'll leave you to flounder.”

No. The woman had said she was a witch. What if she were the one who could help her?

“How did you know?” Haley asked, stepping out from Rollo's shadow. “How did you know I needed to… travel?”

“Do you not listen to what I tell you?” She glared dully at Haley. “I know of your journey. Know of your man.”

Haley's breath hitched. “But… ” Hope and fear warred in her. “Why would you help me?”

“I don't help you,” the woman spat. “Pathetic creature.” Her words came out as a hiss. The eerie green and yellow of her irises flashed, then were subsumed by black. “I help myself. Campbell has made me an enemy. There is a path whereby MacColla lives. I am merely curious to see where that path leads.”

Finola turned. “But it seems you do not understand the boon you are offered.” She leaned to gather a small satchel laying by the fire. “And so perhaps I take my leave.”

“No,” Haley said, her voice sounding more confident than she felt. “I understand what you offer. Please. Help me.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

Night had come too quickly, bringing with it a biting chill and the miserly half glow of a crescent moon.

Haley wanted MacColla. Missed her father, her family. What she was about to do terrified her. What if she landed in some other strange time or place? She could get stuck with no means to return.

She was desperate for a kind word, some protection, and was grateful to see Rollo's usual stoicism soften momentarily.

“I'm scared,” she whispered hoarsely.

“Haley. So like that 'Frail boat of crystal in a rocky sea.'” Rollo tilted his head. He smiled quietly at her confusion, his teeth an eerie white in the bl ack shadows. “Not my words,” he said. “Drummond's. A poet.”

“Quoting poetry to me?” She tried to muster some bit of good humor. “MacColla would be jealous.”

“You'll see him soon, lass.” Shifting his weight, Rollo brought his cane to his other hand. Grinning, he added, “You can tell him yourself how gallant you find me.”

She was startled, and despite the trepidation that clutched at her chest, she laughed.

“You do the right thing,” he said, growing serious. “When I look in your eyes. I can almost sense MacColla, so bright is his place in your heart. The man loved you more than reason. And it's just that sort of madness that will return you to him. I cannot imagine you landing anywhere but back by his side.”

A sharp exhale announced Finola, her readiness, her impatience, and her annoyance most of all.

“Come now or don't;” she snapped. “We must work while the moon is high.”

“A man is of little use when his wife's a widow, aye?” Rollo said with another smile, ignoring the witch. “So go now, dear friend. Go save MacColla.”

But she didn't move, and so he reached a single hesitant finger, touching her chin gently. “You are brave in your heart, Haley Fitzpatrick. Fear not the bravery of your deeds.”

It struck her that only she would remember this moment. She was traveling back to a time before, and she hoped she and MacColla would be walking a new path. One that didn't end with him dead and her standing beneath a watery moon, Will Rollo and a witch as her only company.

She was the only one who'd remember Finola's crackling fire. Rollo's kind words. And the realization made her feel even more alone.