Search:
 
 

Before She Wakes by

Read the Excerpt

THE KELPIE’S PRIZE

*** An Irreverent Gentleman ***

Isle of Skye — 1893

I stand before one of the largest of the cascading Fairy Pools, near the forest of Glen Brittle, the serenity of its aquamarine surface barely disturbed by the noisy plunge of quadruple waterfalls. The light cloud cover dulls the harsh glare of midday, enabling me to follow the lines of the stones studding the pool’s bottom and sides.

Lovely as this is—so lovely, in fact, that I’ve written and crossed out several lines in hopelessly inadequate attempts to capture the vision in words—it’s the dramatic backdrop of the Black Cuillin mountains that has my attention. Or rather the slow but steady progression of thick, dark clouds over the knobby Scottish ridgeline.

Perhaps this is why I don’t notice the gentleman who’s joined me until he knocks a rock into the pool with the point of his walking stick, disrupting the surface along with my wary contemplation of the weather.

I glance up to find a finely dressed, darkly handsome fellow appraising me. “I believe you’re ill prepared for what’s to come,” he observes. 

Neatly as he is dressed, there’s a wildness to his looks that makes me glance around for other visitors to the pool. I passed several on my walk, but I find that we’re alone.

“I was not expecting a change in weather, sir.”

Letting his head drop back, he gives a laugh that startles a family of crows from a nearby stone, where they’ve been feasting on picnic crumbs. “In Scotland, you must always expect a change in weather, Miss … ”

“Miss Kirk,” I offer tersely.

“American?”

“You haven’t told me your name, sir.”

“So I haven’t.” He folds his hands over the grip of his cane. “Ambrose. Are you a poet, Miss Kirk?”

I lift my eyebrows. “Certainly not. Why would you think such a thing?”

His gaze roams over the dramatic scenery, and he raises a gloved finger to point at my notebook. “Noticed you scribbling.”

Pursing my lips together, I slip the notebook into my satchel. He hasn’t been rude exactly, but his scrutiny has made me feel small and foolish. At just over five feet tall—graced with a wren-like physique and streaks of turquoise hair resulting from a brief foray into alchemy—it’s a feeling to which I’ve become accustomed, but not reconciled. 

“I am a folklorist, Mr. Ambrose,” I illuminate.

He smiles. “Collecting our Scottish tales, are you?”

The smug curiosity leeches away what’s left of my civility, and I reply rather sharply, “In fact, I am. You’re a Scotsman, sir?”

“By habitation, yes. By origin, no.”

I feel the downward curl of my lips as I study the overgrown black hair and several-days’ beard growth. His accent is thick, and sounds Scottish to me, but then I’m only an American. My attention is drawn to his eyes, and as a darker cloud passes in front of the sun, further reducing the glare, I discover they’re the same shade of aquamarine as the fairy pool. 

I know he’s been studying me as well when he says, “You’ve a timepiece in your headgear, Miss Kirk. How on earth do you make use of it? A charitable gesture, perhaps, for the benefit of passing seagulls?”

My hand rises to the small hat nesting in my painstakingly confined mass of flaxen corkscrew curls. “It’s meant to be ornamental,” I mutter, resenting him for the flash of heat this brings to my cheeks. It’s also meant to distract the eye from the preternatural hue of the locks around my face, but it’s less effective in this function.

He removes his own timepiece from his vest, studying it a moment before glancing again at my hat with a bewildered shake of the head. “Clearly.”

What I want more than anything is to flee, but as is often the case with diminutive persons, I feel a compulsion to make this irreverent gentleman respect me.

“Do you know Scottish tales, Mr. Ambrose?” 

All the pertness evaporates from his expression. “I know lifetimes of tales.”

I overlook his sudden change of mood, along with the storm clouds edging out the last of the bright light of day, and congratulate myself on resisting the urge to vacate my post. “How fortuitous! Could I buy you a cup of tea in Carbost? The inn where I’m staying—”

The hair on the back of my neck pricks, and white light flashes between us. Thunder cracks the blackened sky, and I jump and look up, cheeks catching the first fat drops of rain.

“Tell me your name again,” says the gentleman.

Blinking to clear the moisture, I drop my gaze to his darkened countenance. “Miss Vivi Kirk, Mr. Ambrose. Have you some mode of transport?” I glance again at the storm clouds. “Or perhaps you live nearby? My driver from Carbost isn’t due for—”

“Viviane,” he says, like he hasn’t been listening. The intensity of his gaze has become uncomfortable. Shocked by his uninvited use of my Christian name, I open my mouth to protest.

But the gentleman has vanished.

 

*** No Place for a Lady ***

 

“Mr. Ambrose?” I cry. Scanning the stones and scrubby vegetation in the immediate vicinity, I see nothing but what has been here for perhaps a thousand years.

The summer shower has strengthened and taken on a wintry bite, needling into the linen of my overcoat. I mop turquoise strands of hair out of my eyes.

I study the fairy pool itself for signs of my former companion, but the rain makes it impossible to see below the surface. Could he have slipped and fallen in? Were his lungs filling with water even now? Ridiculous for a grown man to disappear in such a mysterious fashion, even one with the voice of a Scot and the face of a Saracen. 

“Not at all gentlemanly,” I mutter, gathering my wet skirt in my hands.

I’ll have to find a place to wait out the storm, or the return of Mr. Gordon and his steambuggy, whichever might come first. It’s difficult to imagine the delicate carriage crawling over the newly muddied road, but I don’t expect the good-natured man will abandon me to the elements.

I’ve turned to seek what shelter I can find among the rocks when my heart misgives me, and I return to the water’s edge. Noticing Mr. Ambrose has left his walking stick, I pick it up and use it to probe the pool.

“Heavens, it’s deeper than it looks.” Crouching and leaning out over the water, I push the stick in all the way to the silver handle without ever touching anything solid. I repeat this procedure in several locations with the same result.

Teeth chattering, I draw out the stick. “I hope no harm has come to you, poor fellow, but I’ve got to get out of this rain.”

I turn to resume my search for shelter, mumbling, “My kingdom for a good, old-fashioned horse”—and suddenly I find myself nose-to-nose with exactly that. Only there is nothing old fashioned about this horse.

“Saint Andrew’s beard!” I exclaim in shock. The creature before me is formed entirely of metal, with overlapping plates like a horse wearing armor. It stamps at the ground and I see that the legs are a sort of gear-and-piston affair.

“Gracious,” I whisper, taking a step backward. “Where did you come from?”

The beast doesn’t move or acknowledge me in any way, but only continues to stare at me through empty eyeholes, rain plinking steadily against its silver skin. Growing bolder, I step forward for a closer look. The two plates covering the widest part of the creature’s belly fly open like doors, causing me to jump back again.

I peer into the exposed belly and find a hollow there—the machinery that operates the animal appears confined to neck, legs, and hindquarters.

It’s an invitation, I realize. I’m a small creature and it’s a large one. There’s room for me in its belly. Not a very ladylike way to travel, but a dry one. It must have been sent by Mr. Gordon, in lieu of the steambuggy. The shabby inn must do a brisker business than I surmised, for him to afford such a luxury. Or perhaps he has a sideline as an inventor. If so, I am thoroughly impressed.

What I don’t understand is how the beast has found its way here without a rider, nor how it’s to find its way back. It’s an unpublicized advancement of this sort of technology, and I can’t help wondering if it relies entirely on physics, or has in some way incorporated alchemical or even psychical mechanisms.

Wiping my nose on my sleeve, I slump where I stand. If anything, it’s raining harder now. My hands and feet are numb. My saturated garments weigh on me like anchors, and I can no longer control my shaking.

Whispering a blessing on the Gordon household, I step closer to the horse. I don’t like close spaces, and I can see I’ll be quite confined in there. But given a choice between half an hour of discomfort and a case of pneumonia, I do what a sensible person must.

I crawl into the metallic cave, tugging my skirts in behind me, and the doors clang shut.

I close my eyes as the beast lurches forward.

There’s a violent rolling motion, followed by a loud splash, and I scream. The mechanical horse has plunged into the fairy pool.

 

I suppose it’s fitting that a folklorist should meet her death in the belly of Scottish storm kelpie. But really, I should have known better.

There’s no way to steady myself inside the great metal beast, and my head knocks repeatedly against the walls of the enclosure. The rocking motion suggests swimming, but the fairy pool is no more than a dozen feet across, and I can’t imagine how this is possible. Swimming to where?

I strike my knuckles against the set of doors that admitted me, but I have no leverage. Wriggling and squirming inside my tomb, I manage to work my knees against the doors. As I set my back against the horse’s belly in preparation to push, it occurs to me that if we are somehow still in the pool, shoving open the doors may not be the most sensible course of action.

No sooner has this thought crossed my mind than the doors swing open of their own accord. I don’t pause to assess, but push the lower half of my body through and the rest tumbles after.

Lying in a heap, water puddling around me on the stone floor, I endeavor to slow my panicked breathing.

“Welcome, Miss Kirk.”

Apparently, Mr. Ambrose is alive and well.

I roll to a seated position, skirts clinging in sodden disarray about my hips. Shoulders hunching away from the ache in my back. “My good sir,” I breathe, “where are we? How did we come to be here?”

I glance around at the rough rock walls of what appears to be a large cavern.

Ambrose studies me, still as a statue but for one slow, long-lashed blink. “This is my study, workshop, and lab,” he finally replies. The fact that he is calm and clear while I am frightened and confused does not seem to bode well, but I refuse to draw conclusions without additional information. “You came here inside Llamrie,” he continues, “but I’d have thought that obvious enough.”

“Llamrie,” I murmur, staring at him. His aquamarine eyes glitter even in the dim cavern. “King Arthur’s horse.”

 He shakes his head. “Only a tinplate copy.”

“You made this?” I ask, staring at the creature that brought me here, annoyed at the admiration warming my chest. “It’s almost like a living thing.” I turn to study Ambrose again. “Are you a student of alchemy, then?”

I note a slight hook at one corner of his lips as his eyes settle on my forehead. “As are you, I see.”

My hand flutters up to push away the plastered locks. “More to the point,” I reply, clearing my throat before continuing, “why are we here?”

He folds his arms over his chest, and I notice he’s removed jacket and vest and rolled up his shirtsleeves. “I am here because I live and work here. You are here because of an ancient curse.”

I stare at him. Is he mad? “Whatever do you mean, Mr. Ambrose?”

“Follow me, and I will explain.”

He turns from me without another word and walks into an adjoining tunnel. The kelpie remains patiently by the edge of the pool.

Glancing about, I find the cavern is lit by hanging lamps, their luminous glow suggesting phosphorescence rather than flame. Try as I might I can’t find the chain or cord that suspends them from the ceiling, even as I rise and study them from different angles.

“Come, Miss Kirk,” barks my strange companion. 

My body shakes as I rise, and not from the cold. But I shall not allow fear to befuddle me. There is yet, perhaps, a reasonable explanation for these events. And if there is not, I must rely upon reason to extricate myself—with an adversary so much larger than myself, strength will avail me not at all.

 The tunnel winds along a series of caverns, some large and open, connected with other caverns, and some smaller and self-contained. I catch glimpses of laboratory, bedchamber, and even a kitchen and larder. In passing the kitchen, I hear something very like the cry of a seabird. My gaze moves quickly, catching sight of a hole in the ceiling of the cavern, which renders this chamber brighter, and provides a peek at cloudy sky.

Hope quickens my pulse, and I drop my gaze lest the gentleman should turn and notice my interest. Though this natural porthole is inconveniently located, it appears just large enough to permit a diminutive person to pass through.

The terminus of this subterranean stroll is a large cavern filled ceiling to floor with shelves of books. There’s a mahogany desk with a crimson-padded chair, and a settee of similar design. A brightly colored Turkish carpet covers the stone floor, and more of the phosphorescent lamps light the space. Comfortable and well-appointed as any gentleman’s study—a remarkable feat considering the location.

As I follow him into the room, I note the desk is busy but uncluttered. A low stack of books on one end. Quill pen and blotter at the center. An open box of stationary next to a magnification eyepiece.

“This is your study?” I ask faintly.

“Yes. You may make yourself comfortable here.”

Glancing up at him I notice he’s gesturing not at the chamber we occupy, but at the opening to a smaller cavern, between two tall shelves of books.

“My servant has prepared tea,” he continues, “and you’ll find dry clothing on the bed. You may change behind the screen. I will return in a quarter of an hour.”

My servant. Impossible not to hope at least one of them is sound of mind.

“Look here, Mr. Ambrose,” I begin, stepping closer to him, which forces me to tip my head back considerably to hold his gaze. “I don’t know what kind of game you are playing, but I have no intention—”

“I assure you, Miss Kirk, this is no game.”

I have seen a shadow pass behind the eyes of a man, but this man’s shadow has taken up residence. Perhaps it’s no wonder, as wisps of his dark hair hang over his face like prison bars.

I grip the wet folds of my skirt to steady myself. “I have a colleague—Mr. Lang—he will be looking for me.”

“Mr. Lang, whomever he might be, will not find you.”

My fingers ache as I grip the wet fabric harder. “Andrew Lang is an esteemed author and scholar, and I assure you he will leave no stone unturned.” I wince at the unintentional pun. “We’re working together on a sequel to a book by my ancestor. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Reverend Robert Kirk?”

A low laugh rumbles from the deranged gentleman. “Indeed. The holy man who tried the patience of the fairies by spilling out all their secrets. Was found dead beside a fairy mound, if I recall. Did it not occur to you that following in his footsteps might be tempting fate?”

“N-no,” I stutter, startled into an honest reply. The story recounted by my abductor was legend, but considered to be truth by folk in the Scottish Highlands, who believed Reverend Kirk now dwelled among the fairies. As for Kirk’s descendant, I considered myself a scholar possessed of an open mind. He most certainly had recorded the secrets of highland fairies in a book read by both scholars and laymen, and it was a matter of record he’d been found dead in the fairy hills near his home.

“Mmm,” replies the gentleman. “Well, you can retire to your room of your own volition, Miss Kirk, or I can retire you.”  

His gaze takes a perfunctory stroll over my figure at this point, and I understand he means to enforce compliance bodily. Alarming as I find this possibility, I know this is my opportunity to discover how far he is willing to carry this little drama.

Releasing my skirts, I straighten to my full height, such as it is. “I demand, Mr. Ambrose, that you return me to the spot we met, at once. Your threats are ungentlemanly in the extreme. They are in fact illegal. A point I’m willing to overlook—if you return me without delay.”

“Very well, Miss Kirk.”

So stunned am I by this apparent victory, I do not react when he curls his fingers gently around my upper arm, as if to guide me out. But in the next moment, his fingertips press all the way to bone.

“Stop that!” I protest. “You’re hurting me.”

He tugs me forward, and an instant later I find myself scooped up against his chest in most immodest fashion. I raise my hands to his face to defend myself, and he spins me around as if I’m no heavier than a child. My back presses against his hard torso, and he loops one arm beneath my breasts while the other supports beneath my knees.

“Mr. Ambrose, I insist you put me down!”

He takes three long strides into the room he indicated is for my use, drops me onto the bed, and then spins and exits. I am up fast as you please to follow him out, but I make it only one step beyond the threshold before I collide against something high and solid.

Something that isn’t actually there. 

Spilling backward onto the floor I yelp with pain, hand moving to my bruised forehead, and study the doorway in confusion. I notice something I failed to before: a series of symbols sketched in an outward-bowing arc in front of the door. Druidic symbols, I would bet my book advance. 

I crawl forward and stretch my hand toward the arc. Tips of my fingers even with the line of symbols, I feel a cold surface. Like a wall of ice, but dry.

“Extraordinary,” I murmur, withdrawing and rubbing my tingling fingers. “You are a druid, sir?”

“Among other things,” he replies.

What I know of druidic ritual rushes forward into my conscious mind, and I feel a small explosion of panic in my chest.

My distress must be evident, for he continues, “But I do not intend to sacrifice you.”

“Well that’s some relief,” I mutter. “What do you intend to do with me?”

“Nothing at all.”

And with that he turns and leaves me crouched before the door of my cell.