A bedtime story…
“Once upon a time, there was a King, and his name was Bridei. He was very powerful and very wise, and he was about to lead his people into a battle that would either win them their freedom, or destroy their way of life forever.”
The little girl hugged her stuffed bear tighter, her eyes lighting up with anticipation. “But he won the battle, right Gramma?”
Her grandmother smiled. “Aye, he did. Because he knew that if he had lost, the Picts would be swallowed up by the invaders, and that eventually, everything that made them special would be lost forever.”
“How did he know that?” She tried, and failed, to stifle a yawn.
“Because that’s what happens, when people lose a battle, and someone else takes over their lands. So he did something no one had ever done before, just to be safe. He gave one family all of the knowledge of the Picts, and told them to keep it safe forever, no matter what happened. No matter how much time passed.”
“And they did?” She already knew the answer.
“Yes, to this day. And that is why we speak the secret language that no one else knows, Nessa.”
“But he won the battle. Tell me about the torches.” The little girl yawned again, and her grandmother gently tucked the blanket higher around her chin. For a moment she felt…not quite a sense of déjà vu, but more like a strange quickening of fate. It was not the first time she had felt this way when looking at her small granddaughter.
“Yes, the Picts were waiting when King Ecgfrith marched north to Dunnichen Hill to put down the rebellion. Some of them pretended to run away, and when Ecgfrith went after them, the rest came out of hiding. They won of course, and after the battle, they went looking for the men who had fallen, because it was a great honor to die in battle, and they would have a special celebration for those that lost their lives that day.”
“And they had torches,” the girl mumbled sleepily, her eyes growing visibly heavier.
“Yes, they searched well into the night to make sure they had found every last man, and because there was such violence and emotion there that day, they say that even the hill itself remembers it.”
Her grandmother nodded. “Kind of. Maybe like the ghost of a moment in time. Places, and even things, can hold memories, like a photograph or a video. Even today, when the night is just right, you can see the torches moving about Dunnichen Hill in the darkness, as the ancient Picts search for the bodies of their dead.”
“I want to see them.”
“Maybe someday you will Nessa dear, but now it’s late and time for sleep.”
Orkney Islands 682 AD
Bridei, King of the Picts, stood tall at the stern of one of the largest boats in his fleet, watching the distant strip of land grow larger. All of his attempts at diplomacy had long since failed, and now his heart pounded in anticipation of the impending battle. The people of Orkney would know by now of their arrival, and would be preparing their weapons, hiding their treasures, and secreting away their women and children. But they didn’t stand a chance against the five thousand men he had brought with him, all trained with the sword and the axe, and all prepared to die for Pictland…and for him.
Their clothing was torn and spattered with dirt and blood when they finally sailed away that night. The fires they’d left in their wake were still visible, glowing orange and red against the pitch black of the sky.
They had destroyed everything in sight.
It would be a very long time before the Chieftains of Orkney were again a threat, and those that had lived had pledged their oath to him as their King, as they should.
They camped that night on the shore of the mainland, and if he had expected dreams of fire and blood-soaked swords and the screams of dying men to haunt him, Bridei would have been greatly mistaken. He woke with a start, and the woman he had been reaching for in his dream vanished like a mist. He hadn’t seen her face, but she had felt perfect in his arms, and his cock was hard and aching as if he’d been about to take her in the dream. Such a pity he’d woken too soon. For a brief moment he thought he could still smell her, a soft, feminine scent that had made his heart beat faster. He would remember that dream…that sweet scent of woman, and the way his heart had pounded with what felt like pure joy, for a very long time.
“Angus, wait!” Nessa grabbed for the hem of her uncle’s rumpled button-down oxford and missed, her fingers closing around nothing but cool, damp air. He was already scrambling out of the water just ahead of her, while she was still sputtering and clawing wet tangles of hair out of her face. Even though her mind hadn’t caught up yet with the sudden change of circumstances, she knew in her bones that something world-shattering had just happened— something that had probably just changed her life, irrevocably, forever. She also knew that sometime in the next minutes or hours, she was going to know exactly what that something was.
Only a few heartbeats ago, she and Angus had both been quite definitely inside the passage grave on top of Clough Hill, which had been as dry as a bone. This place—wherever it was—was most definitely wet. In fact, she now found herself nearly up to her waist in icy cold water. She looked around, her heart pounding in her chest and her mind still dizzy with the sudden turn of events, trying to make sense of things. They were in a small stone-lined room, not much bigger than the pool of water it contained, and Angus was already at the far end, climbing a set of narrow steps towards a shining sliver of daylight. Sudden fear made Nessa’s breath hitch in her throat and she slogged through the pool as fast as she could after him. Who knew what was up there?
“Angus, wait!” She scrambled clumsily out of the dark water, pulling herself up onto a narrow stone ledge. Her clothes were heavy and dripping. She stumbled forward, barely catching herself as she lurched towards the stairs. Swearing under her breath, she hurried after her uncle, feet slipping on the damp, moss covered steps, her fingers grabbing the moist rock that made up the walls. She emerged from the narrow passageway only seconds after him, soaking wet and shell-shocked, momentarily blinded by bright sunshine. She reached again for Angus, and this time her fingers found purchase in his wet shirt. She curled them tightly into the fabric and held on, as much to steady herself as to keep him from running off into god-knew-what. This wasn’t good. Not good at all. Something had just happened that shouldn’t have happened.
The last thing she remembered she was crouching on the ground in the passage tomb next to Angus. The dusty, dry ground. How could they possibly have ended up in the water? Was there another exit to the tomb that she hadn’t known about? Her mind raced, trying out possibilities and just as quickly discarding them. Could she have had a seizure? Blacked out? Hit her head?
But as her eyes adjusted and her vision cleared, Nessa knew she had much bigger problems than a bump on the head. A bump on the head would have been simple. Easy. A visit to the doctor, maybe a few days off work, and everything would have been normal again.
Nothing was ever going to be normal again.
Her fingers curled even more tightly into the fabric of her uncle’s shirt, until her short nails dug painfully into her own palm. Her heart was suddenly beating way too fast, or was it not beating at all? She couldn’t seem to draw a breath. The swift rush of adrenaline pumping through her veins made her legs tremble and her vision seem far too bright. She swayed slightly before catching herself on the doorway of the stone passage, holding onto it for dear life, and inadvertently letting go of Angus. The air that wafted out of the tunnel behind her smelled of cold water and moss and damp earthiness.
“Angus… what have you done?” Her voice sounded breathless and far away to her own ears. Her instincts had switched over to some sort of dreamily lucid survival mode, and she was grateful that full-blown panic probably wouldn’t come till later.
But Angus—he was grinning from ear to ear and bouncing on his toes like a little boy at a carnival. Didn’t he notice that their whole world had just been flipped upside-down?
“It worked!” He whisper-shouted near her ear.
He couldn’t have sounded more pleased with himself.
“It worked Ness, we’re here!”
“Where…” But she stopped short, eyes fixed on a drop of fresh blood on the ground. She was already beginning to have a sneaking suspicion, but now she had little doubt. There was one reason they had been on Clough Hill, and it was because she had promised her uncle she would bring him there so he could try out his latest math or physics, or whatever he did all day. But she had been humoring him. If she’d believed even for a second that it would work…
Nessa swallowed hard, and swung her gaze upward to the proof of his apparent success. An unfortunate blow to the head years ago had left her uncle with the mental age of a ten year old child, and a crazy, almost mystical kind of genius. Though she hadn’t believed he’d actually found a way to travel back in time when she’d gone with him into the passage grave, she was starting to believe it now. One moment they’d been in a tunnel at the top of an old hillfort near their home in Inverness, and an instant later she was gasping at the surface of a pool of water in an entirely different underground chamber.
Had she and Angus actually… travelled back in time? Any other explanation currently eluded her. Her uncle was a certifiably crazy… genius.
And how did she know they had gone back in time and not just through a tunnel to somewhere else in 21st century Scotland? Because people in 21st century Scotland didn’t tattoo intricate designs on their faces or wear long, belted tunics fastened with elaborate metal pins in the shape of fantastical beasts. And they certainly didn’t carry around what looked to be freshly decapitated lamb’s heads in shallow baskets, with the glazed-over eyes staring lifelessly up at the sky. She watched in stunned fascination as several more droplets of dark red blood fell and soaked into the worn earth below.
Angus pointed—quite rudely—at the heads.
“Look Ness, I think they were on their way to this well with an offering for the Goddess of the Underworld.” His voice held a tone of child-like fascination that she really wished she felt as well. But they obviously had problems, and she needed to focus. The way she saw it, this could go one of two ways: either they would be welcomed, or killed. And she really wasn’t ready to die at just twenty-four years old.
As it happened, they were standing face to face with a group of six women, each wearing an identical expression of stunned surprise. One of the women—who wasn’t holding a decapitated head—overcame the initial shock of seeing her and Angus emerge from the chamber, and after glancing at her peers—they obviously weren’t going to do anything—turned and started shouting to others in the distance, making a sweeping gesture with her arm high above her head, a thick gold armband glittering in the sun.
“Fetch the King! Now!”
Nessa’s ears perked up, her fear and confusion forgotten for a moment. The language sounded slightly foreign yet oh-so-familiar, like flashes of memory returning from a dream. For a moment the context was so wrong that she didn’t realize her mind had flawlessly translated their words. It couldn’t be… but it was. It wasn’t English they were speaking. It was Pictish. A language that in Nessa’s time had been dead for at least a thousand years. A language she had spoken for as long as she could remember. An echo of a time when the Highlands had been filled with the ancient and beautiful words. The King, the woman had said. Fetch the King…which King? When were they? A tiny spark of intrigue pushed away some of the fear. Maybe this was a world she knew, after all.
The woman, not satisfied that her call had been heard, turned and ran for help. As Nessa’s gaze followed her, she noticed for the first time a huge stone broch rising in the distance, and beyond it, the sea. The shape of the land as it jutted into the water was also familiar. She had been here before, many times. Burghead? The well…of course. Burghead had a well just like this, and had been a Pictish stronghold for hundreds of years. Had been. The last time she had seen it, it had been smattered with modern houses and quaint little streets, the broch only a ghostly shell of what it once was. She had been right here in January with Nathan to watch the Fire Festival, a ritual that had its roots in ancient times. The two of them had cuddled together on a blanket spread on the grass and watched the burning clavie make its rounds amidst the cheering of the crowd. When the fire finally made it to Doorie Hill to blaze brightly against the night sky, Nathan had leaned in and kissed her.
Now, a mass of smaller wooden structures with thatched roofs surrounded the towering broch, most round, a few rectangular, some with thick smoke rising from stone chimneys. People were appearing from within and between them, obviously eager to see what the commotion was about, and why the King was being summoned so urgently to the well on what was otherwise an apparently ordinary day.
Angus pulled at her sleeve, and Nessa sucked in a breath. Oh god, she had almost forgotten about him for a minute there. She was completely responsible for him; he didn’t have anyone else. Especially not here.
“Our people, Ness! Did you ever think you’d see the day? Oh, we must look so strange to them—he looked down at his crumpled khaki trousers—“do you think we should take off these clothes?”
“What? No! Angus…please, just…keep quiet until I figure out what to do. And keep your clothes on! And don’t say anything,” she added, just in case. If it was really true…if they had somehow slipped through time, it was going to be up to her to keep them both alive until they could return home.
Her eyes swept back to the lambs’ heads in their baskets, still blindly staring, still dripping blood, and she recalled that the Picts also practiced human sacrifice, often using their enemies as offerings to the gods. She knew a lot about this culture, but only from written texts and stories passed through the generations. She had to assume she knew almost nothing of the finer nuances, and she didn’t want to make a wrong move. The women were still eying them with a mixture of curiosity and unease, and her gaze skimmed across the sharp daggers strapped to each one of their belts. They stood back a good twenty feet, but she thought she heard whispers of the word ‘goddess’. Did they think she was some sort of deity that came up out of the well? No wonder they were so alarmed. She wanted to tell them that she wasn’t even close to being a goddess, but thought better of it. If they knew for sure she was far from divine, they might be inclined to use those daggers.
Thank goodness her brain seemed to have recovered enough for logical thought to return. It was starting to sink in that she had just travelled back in time. A sudden thought occurred to her.
“Angus, can you take us home again? If we go back in the well?” A few of the women narrowed their eyes at her words, spoken in English, a language they didn’t understand. One slowly wrapped her fingers around the handle of her knife.
“Yes, of course. But not yet, Nessa.”
She relaxed just a fraction. He could get them home again. Of course he could. He knew all those numbers and figures and…whatever the hell else he was always working on. As much as she’d like to stay a while and look around, it was probably best to leave right away while they still had the chance. Once all of the people that were now closing in on them from all sides got within arm’s length, they might be stuck for a while. And there were a lot of people, some walking, others loping towards them at a good clip. There were enough of them that a faint cloud of dust began to rise in the air as they came. Her heart began to speed up again.
“Angus. We really need to get out of here. I don’t think it’s safe. If we turn and run back down the stairs right now, I think we can make it.”
She grabbed his arm, intending to drag him with her. The blasted man dug in his heels.
“Not yet. The voices told me to come here.”
“Voices? What voices? Angus I…”
Suddenly several men came around from behind the well, swords raised, blocking their escape.
She sighed. “Never mind. I think we just lost our chance.”
They were now surrounded by people, both men and women; most of their faces curious, but some with hard lines of suspicion. All strangers. All, as far as Nessa was concerned, a lethal threat until proven otherwise. There were at least a hundred, if not more, fanning out from the entrance of the well where she and Angus stood, and at the center was one man that stood out from the rest, even before she could clearly see his face. He walked slightly ahead of a large group of men that flanked him on all sides, and everyone else quickly stepped out of his way as he came near. The way he moved spoke of power and authority. He didn’t just walk, he strode, head held high, square jaw set with just a touch of arrogance. Or was it just sheer confidence?
The King. If her heart had been speeding before, now it tripped along in a staccato rhythm that nearly made her dizzy. She reached for Angus’s hand and held onto it. Nessa didn’t know it, but from that moment on, her life had become firmly grounded on a one-way track; one she had no hope of escaping. Even though she would one day travel back to 21st century Inverness, she would never really leave this place, or the man she was about to cross paths with against odds so great she would one day know that Fate must have had a hand in it.