I may have posted this before. I was reminded of it by Cedar’s post at MGC about Gothic romance and why it goes “thunk” for some readers.
The bitter, unseasonable east wind swirled around her, tangling her long skirts and cutting through her shawl. She peered into the night, searching in vain for some sign of life, some hint of a rescuer. The woman saw only darkness, felt only cold mist stinging her face. She’d snuck into the grim castle’s tower searching for answers to her questions, not expecting an unseen hand to slam the door behind her. She pushed long, dark hair out of her face and huddled next to the cold stones of the wall, trying to find a respite from the wind. Then she heard footsteps, slow, measured, heavy, coming up the stairs to the tower’s upper chamber.
Could it be Lord Gregory? Surely not. He should have been asleep, as exhausted as the others. But if not him, then whom? The woman pushed herself deeper into the small stone alcove as the first hint of light appeared in the doorway. The light glinted off patterns set into the floor, patterns that chilled the woman to her core. If only she’d refused James’s invitation!
Brigadier General Rahoul Khan covered a smile by glancing down as he shifted some files on the computer display in the table in front of him. His xenology specialist, known to most people as Commander Rachel Na Gael, blinked her eye at him, her surprise obvious, and Rahoul savored the momentary silence.
“Any questions?” he asked his gathered staff officers and senior NCO.
“No sir,” and “Not at this time,” came from around the table, with one faint exception.
Capt. Moshe Ben David smiled. “Do you want the theological or the social reason, Commander?” He teased the alien, who shook her head rapidly.
“Not theological—we’ll be here for the rest of the century!” She wasn’t exactly joking and Gen. Khan gave his adjutant a warning look. Moshe nodded and mouthed, “Yes, sir.”
Khan stood and the others followed, including Rachel. “Ask Major General McKendrick.” With that the commanding officer swept out of the briefing and meeting room, leaving his advisor as puzzled and as perplexed as she had been when he handed her the invitation and her orders.
Well, not exactly orders per se, Rachel noted as she re-read the document. “Major General James McKendrick requests the presence of Cdr. Rachel Na Gael, R.N. (ret),” at various events associated with the International Military Tattoo in Edinburgh, Scotland, Great Britain. Gen. McKendrick, now commanding officer of the 42nd Royal Highlanders, better known as the Black Watch, had led the 58th Regiment for just over two years, Rachel recalled. Exactly what she was to do the “request” did not specify, but she was to bring attire suitable for formal events as well as “nice clothes.” On the back of the invitation Rachel found a hand-written note. “Commander: no ears please. McK.” Apparently he wanted her posing as a human and the Wanderer’s evil little grin appeared as she made her way back to the laboratory. Maybe she should wear her prosthetics just to irritate him and force him to have to explain them to everyone else.
General McKendrick felt a sense of relief when his former advisor appeared at his office door, sans ears, a week later. She declined tea, accepted some cold mineral water and took the seat he waved her into. After finishing up one last (he hoped) phone call, McKendrick thumped down in the chair beside the small woman. “Thank you for coming, Commander Na Gael. How was your journey?
“You’re welcome, sir. Uneventful.”
“Good,” he stated firmly. “I like uneventful.”
Rachel smiled a little. “That makes two of us, sir. Pardon me if I am a touch lacking in proper social graces, but why did you ask for me, Sir?”
The stocky redhead took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Because you are safe, Rachel.” Even without his bifocals he could see her tip her head to the side and raise an eyebrow in a gesture that reminded him of a black Labrador dog. “That is, ah, well.” Now both black eyebrows rose and despite himself he was impressed with her makeup. “I need an escort, a female escort, to come with me to some of the upcoming social events including an overnight stay at an estate. Someone who understands military etiquette, who won’t be overly impressed by social rank, and who is not trying to find a way to take advantage of me.”
“Ah. Well, I can’t promise that I won’t accidentally upset someone, but I think I can still navigate my way through a receiving line and past the punchbowl,” the alien said thoughtfully. “And push someone’s head into the punchbowl if necessary.”
McKendrick sat back a little, relieved. “There’s that too. I don’t anticipate any problems from anywhere, but . . .”
“But. Anything definitive yet?”
“Not really besides the usual. But I think I’m seeing something and I don’t care for it.” Motion to the general’s right caught Rachel’s eye as a statue of a raven bobbed its head.
She reached into her jacket pocket, fished around for a moment and then tossed something towards the “statue.” Knox caught the bit of dried beef and devoured the treat. The general frowned and Rachel protested, “What? I thought tradition required bribing the chaperone.”
“Knox will not be with us, Commander.” Rachel looked from McKendrick to the raven and back, and Knox bobbed up and down, wings slightly spread. “I repeat; you will not be coming with us.” To the general’s discomfort, the Wanderer and corbie exchanged knowing looks before regarding him with silver and black eyes.
“Do you want to tell me what unusual you are seeing, or shall I make my own observations and then compare notes against your baseline?”
“Make your own observations, please, Rachel. It is possible that, well, I will just say that I anticipate nothing dangerous or that would require, hmm,” McKendrick looked past the Commander and noticed a silhouette against the door glass. “That would inspire the interest of your professional association.” Rachel frowned until she heard tapping and caught sight of the general’s secretary easing the door open. McKendrick stood and handed Rachel a folder. “Here is the schedule. Excuse me,” and he left her and Knox alone in his office.
Knox shook and mantled, as if threatening unseen enemies, then shook again and resumed his pose of being an object de art. Rachel made a mental note to keep her daggers on her person at all times. Before reading the file Rachel studied McKendrick’s office. She remembered the swatch of Henderson tartan and the family photographs, and Knox of course. Now a basket-hilted sword and scabbard hung from the wall behind his desk, under a highlander’s round targe, and Rachel smiled. She could see McKendrick carrying both of them into battle. A faint image formed in her mind’s eye of McKendrick, not with the elegant weapon, but with the heavy claymore sword, and Rachel’s eye narrowed. “Indeed?” she inquired of Knox, who broke pose to mantle like a raptor one more. “Good to know.”
Rachel’s social events began late the next morning, after a small detour. “Take the side road, Alisdair, if we have time. I want Commander Na Gael to see the castle from the forest side.”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant replied. Not long after, the nondescript brown sport utility vehicle bumped along a rocky, rutted road, splashing through several puddles before rolling to a halt.
McKendrick and his guest got out of the vehicle, as did their driver, who disappeared behind some convenient trees. Rachel ignored his departure in favor of staring at the castle and pulling her jacket tighter. “How many ghosts haunt these grounds, General?”
The redhead folded his arms, his mouth compressed into a thin line as he surveyed the landscape. “Far too many, Commander. Thousands of years worth, if the archaeologists are correct.”
Thick clouds and light rain darkened the scene, but the Commander suspected that even bright sunlight only warmed the castle a little, if at all. The blowing damp turned the walls and small towers dark grey, with green moor stretching into the fog-shortened distance behind it. Dark green pine forest came up to the overlook where the three warriors stood. At Rachel’s feet, the land dropped into a small valley with a stream running the length of the view, and the castle brooded on the top of the opposite hill. Some cattle and sheep grazed in the valley, and Rachel saw someone fishing below, but the dead far outnumbered the living. She turned her collar up against the wind. “Drafty inside?”
James McKendrick shook his head. “Not anymore, unless you mean the cold shoulder given to those who prefer not to waste time wondering which fork goes with which course, or who prefer beer to French wine.”
Rachel’s mouth spread into a fang-baring smile and mischief danced in her (brown) eyes. “Oh my. I see why you wanted a safe escort. Ah, I’m not expected to be able to fish, am I?”
“No, no. That is reserved for well-paying guests of the family,” McKendrick assured her. “Shall we go?”
“Yes, sir.” Rachel’s summer pelt, even under body armor and clothes, could not keep out the damp chill for much longer unless she started moving.
Rachel decided that she would not try to capture the old castle unless she had modern artillery and air support, and several days time. The SUV followed a winding route between low walls that led to the outer wall and gate, then the modern inner gate. Rachel noted where the original entrance had stood, offset to prevent direct entry into the fortress’s interior. She assumed that she’d find murder holes in both gateways along with other creative hindrances.
A lean, balding man with a fringe of white hair and wearing a black jacket and tartan trews opened Rachel’s car door, then assisted her and Gen. McKendrick with their luggage, leading them inside by a side door. “Quarters have been arranged for your driver, General McKendrick,” he assured the officer.
A subdued young woman in black took the couple’s names. “Ah, excuse me, please,” and she disappeared from behind the heavy wood reception desk. Rachel used the time to study the room. Dark green paneling covered the lower walls and equally dark green, textured wallpaper extended to the low ceiling. The heavy wooden furniture with leather upholstery looked uncomfortable even where softened by tartan blankets and pillows.
“Low ceilings are easier to heat and to defend, and the furnishings date to shortly after the ’45,” a cold voice explained. Rachel spun around, almost tripping, and caught herself with her cane. A wiry man, neither young nor old, with wavy black hair and dark eyes, appeared behind the reception desk, the receptionist trailing respectfully behind.
General McKendrick nodded, as if the words made sense. “Lord Gregory Armstrong, I take it?”
“Yes. Welcome to Glendubh Castle, General, Miss Na Gael. Ian has already taken you bags to your rooms, and you will find a schedule of events there for your consideration.” Lord Gregory walked around the desk and took Rachel’s free hand, looking into her eyes. She broke eye contact first, feigning shyness and inspecting his very dark tartan suit. Despite the flare for the overly dramatic, Rachel acknowledged the pale man’s taste, poise, and money as she brushed his very soft coat cuff with a fingertip. Probably a wool-cashmere blend, or one of the new Merino wool weaves popular this year, she decided.
McKendrick cleared his throat and the civilian released his grip, allowing Rachel to step closer to her escort without seeming obvious. “Please let my staff know if there is anything you might want or need, General, Miss Na Gael.” The soldier nodded stiffly, as if irritated with the attention paid to his “friend.” He also kept a hand on the small of Rachel’s back, or under her arm, steadying her as they followed the old servant to their rooms.
Rachel risked a mental contact with the general. <<Problem, sir?>>
His mouth tightened as he noted the distance between their rooms. <<Not yet, but I do not care for Lord Gregory importuning you.>>
<<Idea, sir. How will people respond if you act possessive, not aggressively so but,>> and Rachel showed James an image of himself bristling as a younger man asked her to dance.
<<They will talk.>> McKendrick’s displeasure colored the sending and Rachel dipped her head, acknowledging it.
<<Then act protective but slightly put upon?>> This time the picture showed James shaking his head and sighing under his breath as Rachel reached for the wrong fork, then him insisting that she sit out the next dance, for her health. <<Similar to how you usually act around me,>> and she sent a hint of humor.
The stocky redhead snorted silently. <<That I most certainly can do.>> The entire exchange took a few seconds at most and McKendrick demanded aloud, “Is there any room closer to Miss Na Gael’s?”
“No, sir. Lord Gregory himself selected your chambers,” came the bland reply.
“I see. Miss Na Gael prefers a closer room, in case she has difficulty with moving,” and McKendrick pointed to Rachel’s cane. Rachel did her best to act equal parts distressed and annoyed, but held her tongue.
“I shall so inform his Lordship. Please ring should you need anything.” And with that the man took himself off. Rachel watched him until he turned the corner. A faint draft blew down the hall.
“Well, this is most inconvenient,” McKendrick rumbled.
“But no one will dare question your moral probity,” Rachel teased, straight-faced.
He glared at her. “I will see you at the door of the ground floor lounge at 1530 for tea, Miss Na Gael.” Rachel bowed slightly, waiting until he turned away before going to her room.
I do not like this, Rachel thought. “Not one shed hair do I care for this,” she repeated aloud, studying the room. “Dark opulent,” her business partner would have termed the style, all blackened wood, heavy paneling, thick velvet-like upholstery and wall hangings. Anything could hide behind the heavy crimson curtains at the head of the four-poster bed. Equally thick curtains covered the sole window, and Rachel grimaced at the small size and the sealed glass. She’d have to break the triple-thick pane in order to get out that way, and then climb at least ten meters to reach the rough-looking bushes below. She could barely shift the heavy, expensive table and chair. In contrast, Rachel liked the thick rug and the variety of smelly bath potions, approved of the large tub for soaking, and found the hollow back of the wardrobe most intriguing. “Hmmm.” She tapped, poked, and pried around the wooden carcass of the large wardrobe until she found the latch. The panel swung toward her with a faint squeak of protest, and the Wanderer shone her torch into the opening. “No dust and a bit of a draft,” she observed before closing the panel and hanging her clothes up.
General McKendrick nodded when she appeared at his elbow several hours later, washed, fluffed, and having taken a quick nap. “How is your room?”
“I prefer more windows, but it will serve.” Rachel’s eye lit up at the display of dairy-based treats available with tea.
McKendrick led her to a small table. “Supper will be late,” he warned, ordering a plowman’s lunch along with the usual tea fare. Rachel followed suit and rediscovered why mincemeat and English mustard do not belong on the same slice of bread. “You have a little color in your cheeks,” the Scotsman observed, smiling at her predicament as Rachel tried not to cry or flee to find a water trough to dunk her head in. Her sinuses burned worse than the last time she’d gotten careless in the lab! The watercress and smoked salmon sandwiches that followed failed to quench the fire, but scones with clotted cream and gingerbread helped to sooth her temper, if not her sinuses. Neither warrior spoke much, preferring to attend to the excellent food and hot tea.
McKendrick nudged Rachel, using the teapot to point to Lord Gregory. The nobleman stood in the doorway as he surveyed the tearoom, apparently making certain that everything ran smooth despite the inclement weather and a few very rank-conscious guests. Gregory’s attention lingered on Rachel and McKendrick bristled. Rachel laid her hand on his arm, as if she’d gotten enough tea. “Thank you, General, but he would never put himself forward in such a public place.”
McKendrick frowned, “I beg your pardon?” Rachel took a sip of her tea and waited as the light dawned. McKendrick set the teapot back down and agreed. “Excellent point. You might watch Lord Lovett, Rachel.”
“Ah, for what, James?”
McKendrick shook his head. “You are an attractive woman in the company of an older man. Think.”
“Oh. I will keep that in mind. Out of curiosity, what would happen if I claim an affront to my honor?”
“You mean if you run someone through with a rapier?” He drained half his tea. “After the shrieks and screams finish, you would be arrested for murder and quite likely found guilty but not proven. Don’t do it.”
Affronted by the suggestion that she would resort to violence first, Rachel demanded, “James McKendrick, are you suggesting that I would do something so antisocial in front of the other guests?”
“And don’t shoot anyone from behind the hedges, either,” he rumbled under his breath. “Are you finished?”
“Yes, thank you,” and she accepted McKendrick’s help to get out of the soft upholstery. He kept his hand under her arm as they passed Lord Gregory. The dark-haired man said nothing, but followed the couple with his eyes until they turned to get on the lift.
Three hours later, McKendrick triple checked his flashes and cuffs, made certain yet again that his shoelaces would remain tied, and slid his skein dubh into one of his hose. Satisfied, the general tucked his room key into his sporran and strode into the hall, locking the door behind him.
“I trust this does not clash?” Rachel appeared from around the corner.
General McKendrick studied her. “No, since I’m not in uniform.” The grass-green and bright blue modern Henderson tartan worked well with Commander Na Gael’s brown dress. “Not gray?”
“I’m not on duty or in mourning,” Rachel glanced to the side, flushing slightly for some reason.
General McKendrick had suspected that Rachel might stand out from the other women and a quick glance around the room as the steward announced them proved him correct. Slim, straight skirts and off-the-shoulder necklines, or variations of strapless tops, dominated among the younger ladies and those who wished to be thought younger. Rachel’s dress sported an ankle-length, full skirt and long sleeves in warm brown edged with a darker brown, far more appropriate to both the setting and the weather, McKendrick thought. In contrast to the full skirt and sleeves, Rachel’s tailored bodice left no doubt that “Miss Rachel Na Gael” retained a trim figure that curved in the correct places. McKendrick noted the moleskin-like feel of the material as he led her down the shallow steps into the reception and dancing room.
As the couple circulated through the other guests, Rachel amused herself by spotting the men in rented kilts and those who felt uncomfortable in traditional dress. McKendrick wore his with the same ease that Rachel wore body armor, and while Rachel preferred Joschka’s Tyrolian hunting loden (and Joschka’s white-tie, and Joschka’s uniform, or Joschka in a bath-towel), she approved of McKendrick’s looks. He stopped and nodded to a gentleman in a navy and teal tartan with red stripes. “Captain MacKendrick?”
“Indeed, sir,” the man replied, and Rachel noted the South African accent. The captain’s wife looked from him to the general, obviously confused. “The general is a McKendrick of Henderson, while we are MacKendrick of Gunn” he explained to her. “My wife Marsha, from Pennsylvania. This is her second visit to Scotland.”
“Welcome home,” James smiled, extending his hand to the American woman. McKendrick and Rachel circulated a few more times before he saw a piper step into the doorway. “You need to cover your ears,” he warned. Rachel vanished, reappearing in a dark corner with her hands over her ear holes. Bagpipes in captivity caused her physical pain. The piper played three selections before yielding the floor to the traditional music group for the before-supper dancing. Lord Gregory partnered an attractive blonde for the opening set, Rachel noticed.
Rachel lasted three reels and a strathspey before retiring from the floor for a rest, discreetly massaging her crippled knee. “Will there be sword dancing?” she inquired when McKendrick sat beside her.
“Not your sort.”
The evening passed uneventfully. Supper included wild game, trout, salmon, and other foods associated with Scotland. Rachel kept up her pose as a slightly awkward young woman unused to upper-class company. McKendrick spoke to people he knew and to the few foreign military members attending the party. Rachel did hear one intriguing tidbit, and she gnawed on it for the rest of the evening.
“Is it true that Glendubh has a ghost?”
The woman sitting beside Rachel picked up her wine glass, turning it to cast sparks of light into the table. She did not laugh or smile as she answered, “So it is said, although ghost does not describe the creature purported to haunt the cellars. Supposedly, a laird betrayed his wife and then had her declared a witch in order to be rid of her.”
“That sounds all too familiar,” the younger woman commented.
“Indeed, except that when the lady stood trial, she prayed for help. The laird began laughing, then screamed and bellowed as scales sprang from his skin and he turned into a monster. It fled the hall before anyone could kill it, and some say that it remains trapped in Glendubh’s cellars.” The older woman sipped her wind before adding, “I doubt the tale is true.”
The older man across the table from the narrator agreed. “Most likely a warning tale created to keep young men from straying. Folklore is full of them.”
“Or something for the tourists,” the original questioner laughed, drawing echoes from those seated around her.
More dancing followed supper, and Rachel noted how Lord Gregory circled her, dancing with other women but returning again and again to partner Rachel. “Mine host seems rather taken with you, Rachel,” the general observed after claiming her hand for a waltz.
“Yes, and I don’t think its because I’m light on my feet.”
“Since he is also wearing ghillies, it could well be for that exact reason.”
“Oh. Good point.” She’d had slippered toes tromped by booted feet more than once.
Lord Gregory danced a second waltz with Rachel, holding her closer than strictly proper. “You dance very well, my lord,” she observed, smiling up at him.
“Thank you. Keeping traditions has helped Family Armstrong survive, at least until now.” He stared over Rachel’s head and she wondered why he’d hesitated before saying “family.”
The sound of a hand striking skin and “Hey!” stopped the pair mid-turn. “Keep your hands to yourself, Lovett,” a woman snapped.
“What are you talking about?” the man in question demanded. Rachel saw the red patch on his cheek and guessed what had transpired.
“Excuse me, Miss Na Gael,” and Lord Gregory released her to go and separate Lovett from an angry woman and her irate escort.
Rachel eased out of the thickening crowd and took a seat at the edge of the room. McKendrick joined her, content to let the younger men sort out the disturbance. But tempers continued short, and after another minor disturbance Lovatt excused himself for the evening.
The Wanderer covered a yawn. “I believe I too shall retire, James, unless you need me to stay?”
“No, thank you Rachel. I’ve fulfilled my social duties, so you are excused.” He helped her stand and escorted her out of the great room and down the hall towards the elevator. “I will give your thanks to our host.” He winked.
“Thank you and please do. What time tomorrow?”
“0830, ready to leave.”
“0830,” she repeated. “Good night.”
“Good night.” McKendrick watched until the lift doors closed before returning for the last few dances.
Two hours later, if that long, something woke Rachel from her sleep. She stayed still, listening as the wind hissed and threw rain against the window. Something else caught her ear, and she heard a faint creak, as if someone were pushing against small hinges. Rachel slid her hand under pillow, gripping her dagger and waiting. The person stopped, and their footsteps grew fainter as they retreated. “Wrong address or an attack of common sense?” Rachel whispered to herself. She got up and slid her feet into her boots, lacing them by touch. Rather than a jacket she grabbed a shawl off the back of one of the chairs, shaking it out before swirling it over her shoulders. Already clad in a warm sleepdress and breeches, Rachel slid her dagger into a boot, picked up her cane and opened the wardrobe door.
The back panel stood open, pushing against Rachel’s dresses. She bared her fangs. Rachel got a small torch out of her satchel and eased into the passage behind the panel. On a whim she turned left, walking towards the main part of the building. The passage ended at a wall, and after some careful searching Rachel felt a latch. She stepped well back from the exit and triggered the latch with her cane. Nothing happened, aside from part of the wall swinging in towards her. Rachel found herself next to the tower door. Someone or something had raised the lock bar on the door. Exceedingly curious, Rachel sniffed around the panel and then the tower door, and caught Lord Gregory’s cologne, along with a musky, almost reptilian scent, and hints of hot oil. What are you up to, my lord Armstrong, Rachel asked silently. Rachel closed the wall panel. After a moment of deliberation she pulled the iron ring on the tower door. It opened on well-oiled hinges.
Rachel walked four steps before her pocket torch dimmed, then flickered out. She tapped it against the heel of her hand but only a feeble red glow rewarded her efforts. “Oh bother.” She started turning back when the door shut with a firm “thud.” Metal scraped on metal and wood as the heavy bar slid home, locking Rachel into the tower staircase. She pushed against the iron-bound-wood with her shoulder, but nothing happened. Rachel snarled, picked up her hems with one hand and began climbing the stone steps, curving up and up in the near darkness. The open arrow-slits allowed a cold wind to whirl down the staircase, adding to Rachel’s growing discomfort.
She emerged from the stairs into a single room, near the top of the tower, and stared around. Six windows ringed the room, allowing the wind and drizzle free access. Rachel saw no sign of a fireplace or other heat source, aside from a blackened patch that might have been soot on the heavy ceiling beams and slats. The Wanderer eased sideways from the door, skirting the floor. A hint of gleam caught her attention and Rachel studied the floor more carefully, crouching down and brushing cold fingertips across cool wood and chilly, polished metal. “Well, this is fascinating but I need a way to batter the door down,” she told anything that happened to be listening. Her dagger would not do the job, not on oak that well seasoned. Rachel continued exploring by touch and scent as much as sight, but only found a rather shabby replica sword made of pot-metal. “Damn it.” Rather than waste her breath screaming or squander her energy trying to reach McKendrick in his sleep, Rachel found a less-windy spot and prepared to settle down.
Someone stepped onto stone. Rachel heard a hard-sole shoe on the gritty steps and ducked into the deepest bit of cover in the room. If it was Lord Gregory acting like an idiot, she’d tell him off and make him let her out. Otherwise, the person just might be in for a very nasty surprise. Rachel took off her shawl and spun it into a rope with her keys knotted into the end. The person drew closer and light began spilling out of the open doorway. Rachel shifted her balance, ready to attack or dodge as necessary.
Lord Gregory turned off his torch before crossing the threshold. He circled past Rachel, intent on something. The man left the torch on a small wooden table by a window. Rachel watched him take the pot metal sword down from the wall and felt her fur rising as he pointed the tip of the blade down. Gregory walked with deliberate care, weaving through the floor’s inlaid pattern until he reached the center. Rachel gritted her teeth as she felt her fur starting to spark and resisted to clamp her hands over her ears. Something whined at near ultrasonic pitch, probably whatever equipment generated the static electricity.
“All right, get out of your damn Faraday cage and tell me just what you think you’re doing,” Rachel snapped, stalking out of her hiding spot.
The human startled and dropped the sword. It clanged against the floor, sending sparks racing through the metal pattern and tripping a circuit breaker somewhere. Rachel’s fur settled down and the whine stopped. “Thank you. I hate static electricity.”
“What have you done?” Gregory yelled, eyes snapping with anger. “Foolish woman, you’ve destroyed my family!”
The Wanderer pointed to herself with her free hand. “Me? You dropped the pole and shorted the generator, not me. I can probably reset the thing if you show me where it is, unless it is contraband xeno-tech.”
Lord Gregory Armstrong stormed across the pattern until he was within arms reach of his unwilling witness. “You broke the spell of the Fey! Now House Armstrong will collapse – my fiancée will never marry me and the House will fail, you stupid, deceitful, false-hearted . . .”
The sight of Rachel’s boot dagger ten centimeters from his nose stopped the tirade. “If you are allied with an alien presence, Lord Gregory Armstrong, then I am not only in my rights but bound by my duties to ‘break the spell’ as you put it. And if you are marrying an extraterrestrial than you had both better bloody well ask my permission. A very few aliens are permitted to reside on this planet, but not without being listed.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The only Fey are aliens, or perhaps manifestations of Logres.”
Gregory drew himself up and glared at the woman. “My fiancée is not an alien. House Armstrong would never permit such a thing.”
Rachel held up her left hand, showing her House signet. “Head and War Lord of House Ni Drako.”
Gregory blanched, then flushed bright red. “Ah, my apologies my lady, I had no idea. I thought that you were, ah,” he stammered, backing away. “Heir to House Armstrong,” and he bowed. “My uncle is Head and we are currently without a War Lord.”
“Now that we have established our credentials, do you care to tell me what you were trying to do, with what equipment, and what sort of assistance is needed by House Armstrong?” Rachel tapped her booted foot, adding, “I’d prefer to do it somewhere less drafty, if possible.”
Gregory walked back into the pattern. Rachel put her dagger back into her boot and then followed him, studying the markings in the floor. “Is this your sigil?”
“No, but it is based on the Armstrong sigil.” He picked up the sword, running his hand along the edges as if testing the sharpness. Gregory lunged towards Rachel, trying to run her through. Instead she snapped the twisted shawl around the blade as she dodged, then yanked with all her weight, ripping the weapon out of the man’s hand. As he lurched, off balance, Rachel clouted him just above the ear with the side of her fist, stunning him.
“That was a light tap compared to what I can do,” Rachel warned as she tested the sword’s heft and balance, circling around and away from the shocked human. “Idiot. You’d be better off trying to bash me with the table leg: it has more mass.” She returned the weapon to its brackets and fished her walking cane out from behind a different small table.
“They said that blood could finish the spell and seal our claims and power.” Gregory hung his head and his voice roughened as if with unshed tears. “I didn’t want to hurt you, but the House can not fail. If House Armstrong fails, my family dies with it.”
“Oh sop it up,” Ni Drako barked. “Spare the pathos for someone who is not a House Head, you immature, foolish, melodramatic, foppish, twit. Poached eggs have more spine than you are showing.”
“What? I don’t, you don’t understand!” Now he straightened up, stung by the jibes.
“Then show me so I do understand why you or someone else decided to rob me of my beauty sleep.”
He retrieved his torch. “This way, my lady.” Rachel shook her head, pointing for him to lead the way. She shifted her grip on the cane, ready to bash the young man’s head if he tried any other tricks as they descended from the tower room.
Lord Gregory showed Rachel a hidden door, a second run of steps, and equipment that left her shaking her head. “Sweet jaysus, Gregory. I’m surprised Glendubh is still standing.”
“You see? That’s why I had to complete the spell!”
Rachel shook her head and began poking around. She studied the back of the machinery, taking mental notes. “If you had found a way to close the circuit, you’d probably be explaining yourself to St. Peter from under a pile of rubble.” She emerged and pointed with her cane. “See that? That melted bit up there?”
Gregory peered up, then backed away and looked again. “The copper?”
“Yes. It melted because the safety circuits overloaded. Like a fuse in an electrical box, if you are familiar with those.”
A woman’s voice interjected, “Gregory is not, but I am.” Rachel turned around to see a plump redheaded lady in a blue coverall.
“And you are?”
“Sheila McInich. Gregory’s uncle won’t let us marry until I prove my value to the House, so I’ve been repairing this,” and she waved towards the generation and matter transfer device.
“I’d say you’ve more than proved your value Miss McInich. However, you really do not want this becoming operative in its current state. Gregory, how long has this been in the family?”
He’d moved close to Sheila and thought before answering. “Before the ’15, if our records are correct, Lady Ni Drako. We lost a lot of papers in the ‘15 and again in the ’45.”
“That is enough, Blackie. The Sassenach needs know no more.” The speaker strode up, brushing Gregory aside as if he were a child.
Rachel studied the large man. Assuming that this was the uncle who was Head of the House, he shared Gregory’s dark hair and eyes, but with an olive complexion and probably weighed more than General McKendrick. The stranger reminded Rachel of a large, rotten tree. “You are courting an honor challenge if you call me Sassenach one more time, Armstrong. Ni Drako belongs to a different empire. And unless you want Glendubh collapsing around your ears, I suggest you have Miss McInich dismantle this heap and scrap it out. I’ll deal with the dangerous bits if you want me to.”
“Oh really,” he sneered. “And just what does a hoyden such as you know about anything, Miss Na Gael?”
“Commander Na Gael Ni Drako, Head and War Lord of Ni Drako, allied with Drachenburg. And this equipment has so many corroded and missing pieces that it’s a danger. The overload dampers are cracked, for one.” Rachel glared up at the man, “and I’ve beaten other HalfDragons in unarmed combat, so stop crowding me.”
He almost succeeded in hiding his flinch. “What do you mean HalfDragon?”
“Oh stop it, Gordon,” and talons clicked on stone as a True-dragon appeared. Rachel’s eye bulged as the dark green reptile spoke. “Lady Ni Drako, my apologies for my brother’s behavior. You say this is dangerous?”
Rachel smiled and curtsied. “Yes, Lord Armstrong. It is alien technology and has deteriorated far past repair, to the point of being dangerous.” She showed him the worst problems. “Even if it were not in such poor repair, unless you have access to a great deal more power than the regional grid produces, turning it on would black-out half of Scotland, if the grid did not collapse in the process.”
Sheila McInich blanched and Lord Armstrong covered his eyes with one forefoot, his whiskers limp. The True-dragon shook his head. “Ach, ‘tis as I feared. Gordy, ye gurt idiot, I told ye not to repair the beast.”
“What does this,” and Gordon lapsed into a dialect so thick Rachel did not try to follow the argument. Instead she limped over to the device and hunted around until she found the data plate. Then she returned in time to hear Lord Armstrong bellow something unflattering, judging by Gordon’s reaction and resentful glare.
Rachel waved her hand for attention. “Lord Armstrong, to make matter worse, that was built by the lowest bidder. You truly do not want it powered up.”
The dark green True-dragon glared at his brother and the HalfDragon glared right back. As they did, Gregory and Sheila exchanged looks and began easing out of sight of the angry men. With a snarl, Gordon started towards Rachel and got a stinging tail slap on the back for his pains. “That is quite enough, Gordon. What do you recommend we do with this thing, Lady Ni Drako?”
“Sell the copper, silver, steel and other parts for scrap, and let me dispose of the truly exotic bits. You gain the income and I don’t have to come back and have you arrested for violating international law by failing to report alien technology.”
“Good to know, Lady Ni Drako. A bargain. You come back and take the dangerous pieces. Sheila will dismantle the rest and House Armstrong will sell whatever we cannot use ourselves.”
Rachel offered, “I can take out the worst part now, and I’ll give you a shipping address for the post. Otherwise I agree.”
Lord Armstrong extended his forefoot and Rachel slid her much smaller hand into it. They shook on the bargain. Once she confirmed that the power had been disconnected, it took Rachel less than a quarter hour to remove the computer core and anything with obviously foreign markings, since she was not trying to be careful.
Lord Thomas “Scales” Armstrong walked her back as far as the hidden corridor. “Lord Thomas, what are you going to do about your heir? Not that it is much of my business.”
The old True-dragon sighed, fluttering his whiskers. “Have him stop reading Gothic novels, to begin with. He has a good head for business and hospitality otherwise. Toss my brother out of Glendubh for another. I thought Gordy would be a better guardian for Gregory than I would be. I’ve been entangled in House business and Major Sean Alexander Armstrong, Gregory’s father, well,” he gave Rachel a sad look and she nodded her understanding. Thomas shook himself and smiled, adding, “And I think the marrying problem will be solved before the sun sets, now that Gordy’s out of the way.”
“How so, my lord?”
He laughed very quietly. “This is Scotland, Lady Ni Drako. A parent’s permission is not required for a woman of age to wed. I expect a phone call from the Gretna Green blacksmith’s shop later today,” and he winked, before sighing, “I should have stepped on my brother years ago.”
Rachel shrugged and smiled. “Please give my congratulations to the couple when next you hear from them, Lord Armstrong, and I bid you a very good morning.”
“Good morning and rest well, Lady Ni Drako.”
Rachel managed to grab four hours sleep before meeting James McKendrick at the front desk. He observed, “You missed breakfast.”
“Yes, sir.” She held her peace as the receptionist and a different male servant bustled past, both laden with luggage. McKendrick led the way to their car. As he spoke with Alisder, Gordon Armstrong strode up, carrying a paperboard box in a plastic bag.
“From Lord Armstrong, who regrets that you missed breakfast,” the big man informed Rachel, handing her the box. “My lady,” he bowed slightly and hurried off.
“What is that all about?” James McKendrick demanded.
Rachel pointed towards the car. “I’ll explain en route, sir.”
(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved