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Son of the Morning (Chapter 18)

SPRING CAME SOFTLY TO THEHIGHLANDS . IT WAS MAY, AND THE mountains were carpeted with green. The cool, misty days could suddenly give way to bright sunshine and air so clear it hurt her eyes to see it. From somewhere would come a fragment of sound, the faint echo of a bagpipe, and the haunting sound made her soul weep.

It had taken her four months to get here. At first she had simply kept on driving, going south, angling toward the east. The seasons changed as she drove, winter loosening its grip more and more the farther south she went, and it was inTennessee , in mid-February, that she saw the first flower blooming. It seemed like such a miracle, in the form of a cheerful yellow jonquil, that she stopped driving then, and rested, and planned.

An early spring, the locals said, after a mild winter. The jonquils were blooming a couple of weeks earlier than usual. The winter hadn't been mild inMinnesota , but eight hundred miles farther south put her in a different climate, a different world.

She had quickly realized she couldn't do this alone, and there was only one person she could think of to call. Harmony had listened silently to Grace's request to travel with her toScotland for an unspecified length of time.

"Scotland," she finally said. "They don't still paint their faces blue, do they?"

"Only in movies."

"I don't have no passport."

"That's easy to get, if you have your birth certificate." "You said you need my help doin' something. Reckon you can bring yourself to tell me exactly what it is I'd be doin'?" "If you go," Grace said.

"I'll think about it. Call me in a couple of days."

Grace gave her three days, then called again. "Okay," Harmony said. "If I go, would I be doin' anything illegal?"

"No. I don't think." Given that she had to expect the unexpected, Grace couldn't swear that she would stay on the side of the law.

"Dangerous?"

"Yes."

Harmony sighed. "Well, hell," she drawled. "You do make it hard to resist, don't you? How long would I be gone? I got my house to look after, you know."

"I don't know. A couple of days, a couple of weeks. I'll pay all your expenses-"

"I'll pay my own way, if I go. That way, if I get pissed, I won't feel beholden to stay." She was silent for a moment, and Grace could hear her tapping her nails on the phone. "I got one more question."

"Okay."

"What's your real name?"

Grace hesitated. It felt strange to say her own name. The only time she had heard it spoken in months was when Kris had said it. She had gone by so many names that sometimes she felt as if she had no identity. "Grace," she said softly. "Grace St. John. But I'll be traveling under the name Louisa Croley; that's the name on my passport and driver's license."

"Grace." Harmony sighed. "Shit. If you'd lied to me, I coulda said no."

***

Finding where Creag Dhu had stood took some time, Grace and Harmony had been inEdinburgh more than a I week before Grace managed to track down the name, and then it was in such a remote section of the westernHighlands that it was almost inaccessible. While Grace researched, Harmony didEdinburgh . She toured the castle, she toured Holyrood House, she took day trips toSt. Andrews andPerth . It wasn't until Grace actually found Creag Dhu that she told Harmony what she was going to do, Harmony laughed in her face, but when Grace quietly went about her preparations, Harmony sighed and pitched in. She didn't laugh when she heard about Ford and Bryant.

When she had everything gathered, Grace rented a car and they drove to a smallHighland village five miles from where Creag Dhu had supposedly stood. The only accommodation in the village was a small bed-and-breakfast, which they took, but the local tavern was a hotbed of gossip. Harmony could stand elbow-to-elbow with hard-drinking Scotsmen and hold her own with them, whether it was beer or whisky, and as a reward they answered all her questions.

Aye, a fancy American had arrived some two months ago, bent on digging up a great pile of rock. A storm had delayed him a bit, turning the ground to mud and making getting to the site a bit difficult, but the weather had since turned fair and word was he was making a great deal of progress.

"It won't take him long to find it," Grace said when Harmony reported back to her. "I can't wait any longer; I have to go."

"You talk like this is a guaranteed trip," Harmony said j irritably. "Like as not all you're gonna do is give your ass a major shock."

"Maybe," Grace replied. During her own more reasonable moments, she knew that was exactly what was likely to happen. But then she would think of the documents and the things she had read, and the dreams, the sense of compulsion, and she knew she had to try no matter how crazy it sounded.

She hadn't had any dreams since arriving inScotland . Everything felt so strange, as if a veil were hanging between her and everyone else. Nothing quite touched her, not fear or anger or even the more mundane things such as hunger. An essential part of her was already gone, turned away from this time. She knew she was going, and she had prepared as thoroughly as she could.

They set out just after lunch the next day, driving as far as possible, then they got out and walked. Storm clouds hovered to the west, out over the ocean, and the mountain shadows were purple under a gaudy blue and golden sky.

Grace had carefully considered the logistics. The documents had given the formula for time, but not for location. She decided that location didn't change; where she was when she went back would be where she arrived. Standing in the middle of Creag Dhu's ruins would have been perfect, but she hadn't dared go close enough even to see it. She had to settle for getting as close as possible, then walking the rest of the way to the castle when she arrived in that time.

The narrow road they had chosen was little more than a path, and it gave out while they were still some three miles from the ruins. Gathering Grace's things, the two women left the car and walked higher into the mountains.

The air was sweet and fresh, a bird's cry high and lonely, Grace could already feel something tugging at her, a quiet anticipation, a need.

"Why don't we just shoot the son of a bitch?" Harmony suggested suddenly, lifting her lemon-white head into the wind. Her nostrils flared, her pale green eyes narrowed. She looked like some exotic goddess of war, ready to slay her enemies. "It's easier, neater, and a hell of a lot more likely to get the job done."

"Because it isn't just Parrish, it's the Foundation. Even if we kill him, another will take his place." She had finally reached that conclusion, and found a measure of peace in it. She would love simply to kill Parrish and be done with it, claim her vengeance, walk away. She couldn't do it.The Foundation of Evil… she couldn't let the Foundation get control of the Treasure.

She spotted the place where she wanted to be, and pointed it out to Harmony. The nest of rocks was almost al the peak of the mountain. Carefully they climbed up, their feet alternately sinking into damp sod and slipping on loose -rock. When they reached their goal, they stood quietly looking at the empty glen below, at the mist blowing in from the ocean. The Creag Dhu site wasn't visible; it lay beyond the next mountain. The local folk said it was a bed of black rock, jutting against the ocean. Grace tried to picture it in her mind, but even though she had seen numerous archaeological sites, the image that formed was of the great castle when it was whole, looming dark against an angry gray sea.

"Are you sure you have everything?" Harmony asked, placing her bundle on the ground and quickly arranging the items.

"I'm sure." She had made a list while still in the States, and had begun making her preparations even then. According to the instructions, she had altered her diet more than a week ago, tailoring it to the specifications. She bent down and attached the electrodes to her ankles, taping them in place.

She sensed that her detachment worried Harmony. "I'm all right," she said in answer to an unvoiced concern. "If this doesn't work-well, it just won't work. I'll get a shock, , but it won't be enough to killme. "

"You hope," Harmony snarled, her irritation growing. "If itdoes work-I don't know if any of this stuff will go with me, or if I'll suddenly appear there stark naked. If it doesn't go, carry it back to the village and do what you want with it."

"Sure. I've always wanted a velvet dress that's three sizes too little and a foot too short." ."I'm leaving the laptop anyway. I've deleted all my notes from the hard disk, but my journal is still on there. I've put everything down. If anything happens to me and I don't make it back… " She shrugged. "At least there will be a record of what happened."

"How long am I supposed to wait?" Harmony asked furiously.

"I don't know. I'll leave that up to you."

"Damn it, Grace!" Harmony turned on her, face red with fury, but she bit back her angry words and merely shook her head. "I can't reach you, can I? In your head, you're already there".

"I know you don't understand it. I don't, either." The wind plastered her gown to her form and lifted her hair, streaming it behind her. The glen stretched below her but she didn't see it, her eyes looking beyond. "It's been a year since Ford and Bryant were murdered. I haven't been able to cry for them yet. It's as if I don't deserve to, because I haven't done anything to avenge them."

"You haven't had time to cry." Harmony's voice was rough. "You've been busy just stayin' alive."

"I haven't been to their graves. I was back inMinneapolis for six months, and I didn't look for their graves. I didn't put flowers on them."

"Damn good thing. From what you've told me, this Parrish bastard would have men watching the cemetery. They'da nailed you for sure."

"Maybe. But I couldn't have gone even if I had known it was safe. Not yet. Maybe when I get back."

After that, there didn't seem to be anything left to say. Harmony hugged her, green eyes wet, then walked quickly away.

Grace sat down on the rocks and opened the laptop, turning it on. She logged into her journal and tried to gather her thoughts. It was useless; they darted about like swallows. Finally she stopped trying and simply began typing.

"May 17th- revenge takes over your life. I never realized this before, but then I've never hated before. One moment my life was ordinary and secure, happy-and the next moment everything was gone. My husband, my brother… I lost them both.

"Odd how things change, how in the blink of an eye one's life goes from the ordinary-even mundane-to a nightmare landscape of horror, disbelief, and almost crippling grief. No, I haven't cried. I've held the grief locked inside me, a wound that can't heal, because I don't dare let it out. I have to concentrate on what must be done, rather than allow myself the luxury of mourning those I've lost. If I falter, if I let my guard down even the slightest, then I'll be dead too.

"My life feels as if it belongs to someone else. Something is wrong, discordant, but what: before-or now? It's as if the two halves don't match, that one or the other simply isn't my life. Sometimes I can't feel any connection at all with the woman I was, before that night.

"Before, I was a wife. Now, I'm a widow. I had a family, small but familiar, and achingly dear. Gone. ."

"I had a career, one of those obscure, intellectually challenging jobs in which I could, and did, lose myself in dusty old parchment and precious, unknown little books, where I mentally wandered in the past for so long that Ford sometimes teased me about having been born in the wrong century . That too is gone. Now I have to run, to hide, or I too will be killed. I've spent the months scurrying from hole to hole like a rat, lugging around some stolen manuscripts and ancient translations. I've learned how to change my appearance, how to get a fake ID, how to steal a car if necessary. I eat occasionally, though not well. Ford wouldn't recognize me. My husband wouldn't know me! But I can't let myself think about that."

"How did I come to this? A rhetorical question. I know how it happened. I watched it happen. I saw Parrish kill them both. There was no transition between before and now, no time to adjust. I went from respectable to fugitive in the space of a few shattering minutes. From wife to widow, from sister to survivor, from normal to … this."

"Only hatred keeps me going. It's a hate so strong and hot and pure that sometimes I feel incandescent with it. Can hate purify? Can it burn out all the little obstacles that might keep you from acting on it? I think it can. I think mine has. I want Parrish to pay for what he's done to my life, pay for the deaths of those I love. I want him to die. But I don't want Ford and Bryant to have died for nothing, so I have to go after the Foundation too, not just Parrish."

"I don't know how long it will take me to reach my destination. I don't know if I can do it in time (a bad pun) or if I'll die in the effort. All I can do is try, because hate, and revenge, are all I have left."

"I must find Black Niall." She stopped typing, staring at the words on the screen. When she was in college she had kept a paper journal, with a butter-soft leather cover. Ford had given it to her the first Christmas after they started dating. She had intended it to be a record of her work, her thoughts on it, how the research and translations were going; instead it had become a diary of her private life, and when she switched to a laptop computer the habit had carried over to the electronic page.

In the journal she had recorded her flight from Parrish Sawyer. In it, too, was the only relief she had from the grief she kept bottled inside, for only there had she mourned Ford and Bryant. She had also chronicled her deepening fascination, and her warring senses of disbelief and awe, with what she had discovered in the old manuscripts for which Parrish had killed. She had wanted to dismiss them, but she couldn't; there were too many details that tied together, too many coincidences for them to be mere coincidences after all. Certainly Parrish didn't dismiss the secrets contained in the documents. And in the end, she too had believed.

Carefully she closed the file and turned off the laptop, setting it safely aside. She didn't know if any of the articles she had gathered would make the trip with her, or if she would arrive there – or was it when – without anything, even a stitch of clothing. She hadn't been joking about being stark naked.

She didn't know anything for certain, not even if the whole damn procedure would work. If it didn't, at least only Harmony would be a witness to what a colossal fool she made of herself. And if it didn't work, she would find some other way to stop Parrish and the Foundation. But if it did…

She took a deep breath. She had everything ready. She had checked and rechecked her figures, then checked them again. She had found the correct mineral surroundings, the rocks, for better conductivity. She had drunk the correct amount of water, calculated according to her weight and the time she needed to travel, so much that she felt bloated. She had eaten the correct things, subtly altering her body chemistry. She had prepared herself mentally, rehearsing what she would do, the sequence in which she would do it. Even the weather was cooperating, with the offshore storm advancing nearer and nearer, so that the air was crisp and crackling with electricity. The storm wasn't needed, but its presence seemed like a blessing.

It was time. Grace picked up the big, rough burlap bag she had sewn herself, and hugged it to her chest. She and Harmony had also handmade the heavy, old-fashioned garments she wore, though neither of them was particularly skillful at sewing. At least early-fourteenth-century fashions had been simple. She wore a plain cotton gown, with long sleeves and a scoop neck, not formfitting at all. Over it was another gown, a sleeveless one, of good, soft wool. The undergown was called a kirtle, the overgown a surcoat. In the bag was a heavy velvet surcoat, should she need to convey a bit of status. A length of wool was folded in the bag, to be used as a shawl should she need it.

She had taken the precaution of buying a pair of handmade moccasins while she was inTennessee , and the soft leather molded to her feet. She wore long white stockings, secured with old-fashioned ribbon garters which she tied above her knees. She wore no bra or panties, for there hadn't been any such thing as underwear back then. There were no elastic bands or garment tags to make anyone suspicious. Her long hair was secured in a single thick braid, in the style she had worn a long time ago-before. She covered her head with a thick cotton scarf, tying the ends behind her neck. The only thing she carried in the way of money was a few pieces of jewelry, the earrings and wedding band set she had been wearing when it all happened. There was nothing about her appearance, she hoped, that would be glaringly out of place. What she carried in the burlap bag would be enough to get her burned for witchcraft if she were caught. The storm was growing closer, thunder echoing like a brass gong.Now or never, she thought. She had to hurry so Harmony could collect the laptop; rain wouldn't do it any good.

Carefully she placed her foot on the pressure switch she had rigged, holding her weight just short of tripping it. She could feel the electrodes where she had taped them to her ankles, and wondered how they had managed this in the days before electrodes and batteries existed.

Closing her eyes, she began breathing deeply, slowly, and forced herself to focus on Black Niall. She had done all the right things so she should go back exactly six hundred seventy-five years, but she felt as if she needed a target. He was the only target she had, this man who had lived almost seven hundred years before. There were no portraits of him, not even a crude drawing such as had been common back then, for her to bring to mind. All she could do was concentrate onhim, the man, the essence of him.

She knew him. Oh, she knew him. He had haunted her for months, owning her waking mind while she struggled to decipher the ancient documents, then invading her dreams with images so vivid that sometimes she woke herself talking to him in her sleep, and always-always-she felt as if he'd justbeen there. He had made love to her in her dreams, tormenting her with her subconscious's sensuality. Black Niall had in some ways been her savior, for he had given her hope. The force of his personality, of the bigger-than-life man he had been, had reached out to her across the span of seven centuries. He drew her, somehow, and kept her from sinking into the tar pit of despair. There were times, during these past months, when he had been more real than the world around her.

His image began to fill her mind, forming against the darkness of her closed eyelids: a man as vivid as the lightning, as forceful as the thunder. Dimly she was aware that it was dangerous to focus on her imaginary picture of him, rather than on facts, but she couldn't change her mind to a blank screen. She could feel him, drawing closer. He was there, he wasthere…

Breathe. deep and slow. Draw the air in one nostril, circle it around. expel it out the other nostril. Complete the circle, again and again. Breathe. Breathe.. .

She saw his eyes, black and piercing, burning through the fog of time until it was as if he glared straight into her eyes. She saw the high, thin blade of his nose, the thick mane of his black hair as it swung against his muscled shoulders, the small braids that hung on each side of his face in ancient Gaelic fashion.

She saw his mouth open as he roared a command. She faintly perceived around him the din and horror of battle, but he was the only clear figure. She saw the glint of a weak, watery sun on his sword blade as he swung the massive weapon with one powerful arm. The other arm wielded a fearsome axe, rather than a shield, and both weapons were stained with blood as he hacked and parried, felling one foe after another.

In. Out.The air circled around and around inside her, drawing ever smaller, tighter, her mind fastening ever more firmly on the man who was her target. The spiral began to shrink, hugging around her, creating a sense of suction, and she knew she was almost ready to go.

Niall! Black Niall! Mentally she called to him, screaming his name, her yearning so fierce and intense that it ached in every cell of her body. There was a sensation of being compressed, condensed, concentrated. In her mind she saw his head jerk around in surprise, as if he heard the distant echo of her cry, and then his image too began condensing, tugging on her, pulling her

down into a pit of darkness. She fastened on the pure beacon of his essence, like a pilot surely guiding an airplane down on a beacon of radio waves. With her last remnant of consciousness she let her foot relax on the pressure switch, and the world exploded in a flash of blinding heat and light.

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