It felt as if they’d gone back in time.
“He was born right here,” Janet said, pointing at the bed. “Isn’t it incredible? The old hall of the MacIntyres. Eight hundred years and just a few inches between us and the most famous laird of the clan. Andrew MacIntyre’s actual bedroom. I can’t believe I’m finally here.”
Beth glanced down at the guidebook again. She was ashamed to admit she knew almost nothing about the MacIntyre clan but then the most avid scholar would be put to shame compared to her mother. Janet Dagless had been obsessed with the MacIntyres ever since she found out that Andrew had married a Dagless all those years ago.
“They were the largest of the highland clans,” Janet said, seeing Beth's nose in the guidebook. “Did you know that? They had a lineage that went back way before the Norman invasion. Andrew was the last laird to be born here in the old hall. After his birth, they built a castle that still houses his descendants today.”
The castle was next on their list of places to visit. They were going to see if they could find any evidence of the Dagless family name in the archives of the clan library, if they ever got away from the old hall.
Janet continued, “We might actually be related to him? Distantly, of course, but still, imagine that. There might be a tiny bit of highland blood in both of us.” She stared again at the old bed. “Andrew was actually born right here. Amazing. What are you looking at?”
Beth realized her mind had wandered. She had been distracted by the ceiling. “It’s stone vaulted,” she explained. “Exactly how I’d have built it if I'd been around back then.”
“So what if it’s vaulted?”
“So it’s a domestic building. Not many could afford to vault them in stone. Must have cost a fortune. Good idea though. That way it’d be protected if there was a fire.”
“You and your architecture again. Your ancestor was born right here and all you care about is what the ceiling’s made out of.”
“We don’t know if we’re related to him yet, Mom.”
“Come on. How common is our surname? I bet we are. I wonder if the current laird would be willing to do a DNA test. Maybe we could ask him?”
“I doubt it.”
Janet looked at her daughter. “What if he’s single? I could hook you up with him.”
“How would that work if we're related?”
“I thought you didn’t believe we were.”
“It’s academic anyway, mom. I told you, I don’t want to get married.”
“And I told you I don’t believe you. Every girl wants to get married.”
“Not me. I’m happy being single.”
“Nonsense.” Janet sniffed loudly. “I can smell burning. Can you smell burning?”
Beth’s nose wrinkled. “Actually, I think I can.”
She turned to the bedroom door and was about to open it when her mother grabbed her hand. “Look, down there.”
From the gap under the door wisps of black smoke were drifting in, thin tendrils that slowly rose toward them as if trying to grab hold of them by the ankles. “Don’t open it, Beth.”
She crossed to the window only to find it was bolted shut.
“Can you break it?” Janet asked, grabbing hold of the locket around her neck, the same thing she did every time something worried her. On the day she’d been diagnosed, she didn’t once let go of the locket.
Beth examined the window. “It’s safety glass. Must be to stop anyone breaking in.”
“But we need to break out. It’s getting worse, Beth. What do we do?”
I don’t know, she thought, looking anxiously at the smoke as it began to fill the room.
It was supposed to be a relaxing trip to Scotland together. It was meant to help her mother get away from the endless hospital visits, forget about the diagnosis for a little while.
Beth booked the trip and only revealed the surprise when it was all paid for. That way all her mom had to do was enjoy it, not worry about how to pay for it. She drove them hundreds of miles north to MacIntyre Hall. She paid for the tickets, bought the guidebook, tried to learn a bit about the MacIntyres as they walked around, tried not to think how frail her mom looked.
“Move back, mom,” she said, crossing the room once again. “I’m going to look out there.”
“Wait,” Janet began but it was too late. Beth turned the handle and as the door opened a wall of flame blew inward, engulfing the pair of them.
Beth felt no pain. She always remembered that afterward. Her lungs should have filled with acrid black smoke as the roaring fire surrounded her but she was left strangely untouched by it. Not even a hint of heat. No sensation at all.
The flames licked past her, swallowing up the centuries old bedframe, running straight up the dark wood panels on the wall, racing across the ceiling but still shying away from her as if afraid to touch her.
She looked back, groping for her mother’s outstretched hand, seeing it for the briefest of moments before it vanished from sight in the thick black smoke. “Mom,” she cried out but there was no answer beyond the roar of the flames.
She couldn’t move. She was too scared. Then there was a blast of wind from behind her. Had Mom somehow managed to get the window open after all?
The wind grew stronger and yet it had no effect on the flames or the smoke. All it did was push her forward through the inferno to the corridor outside the laird’s bedroom.
She was buffeted across the floor, her feet sliding just above the melting carpet. Around her the flames moved aside as if directed by an unseen force. She called out as she was propelled forward. “This way, Mom. Follow me.”
She groped behind her and managed to catch hold of something. She tried to look back but the wind grew stronger, a hurricane blast that sent her hurtling along the corridor to the door at the end which swung open as she approached.
She burst into the open, falling to the ground, coughing and spluttering, fighting to get fresh air into her lungs as the smoke swirled like a tornado around her.
The gale died away as quickly as it had come, leaving her in a daze. She looked back at the burning hall, little more now than a wall of flames. The few parts still standing were crumbling before her eyes.
There would be nothing left when it was over, just a piece of scorched earth to show where Andrew MacIntyre was born.
She was still holding something. She looked at her hand. Her fingers were wrapped around a length of wood, the end on fire. How had she got hold of that? She dropped it to the ground and looked around for her mother.
She felt completely disorientated. She glanced around her, taking less than a second to work out something was very wrong. There were no familiar landmarks around her. She thought she’d come back out the way they’d gone in but she must have got confused. There was no parking lot next to her, no gift shop, no tourists anywhere to be seen other than a couple over by the woods who appeared to be arguing about something. Between them and her were only but green fields divided into strips, the stalks of wheat rippling as if in a light breeze, completely unaffected by the hurricane that had just blown her off her feet.
Beyond the fields and trees jagged mountains rose toward the sky, their peaks covered with snow.
Where was her mother?
“Mom,” she screamed, running toward the hall. “Mom!”
The intense heat stopped her, pushing her back. Shielding her face, she screamed again. “Mom!”
There was a thundering sound behind her and she turned in time to see men on horseback racing her way across the fields.
They were wearing perfect medieval costume. Tartan baldric over one shoulder in the bright red MacIntyre colors, brown or green hose covering their legs, swords that swung back and forth from each baldric as they slowed their horses.
One of the men was clearly in charge of the others. He leapt down and, ignoring her, directed his men, talking in a Scottish accent so broad she couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
All of a sudden he ran straight into the flames. Beth only caught a glimpse of his stern face before he vanished.
He hadn’t hesitated for a second, just sprinted into the inferno. Seconds later he came back out, an unconscious woman in his arms. Other tartan clad men followed him, darting into what was left of the hall. How were they not catching alight?
Beth had no idea how they were doing it. She tried twice to get in there but each time her skin began to singe and her body refused to let her get any closer. She could only watch as more people were dragged out, coughing and spluttering as they came, the remains of their clothes smoking.
She tried shouting again. “Mom, where are you?”
To her left people were throwing buckets of water onto the flames but she knew there was nothing anyone could do to save the place. Where were the fire engines? The hoses? The men in helmets and oxygen masks?
The building was gone. All that history, hundreds and hundreds of years, gone in moments. The stone vaulting had done nothing to protect it. Why not? It should have acted as a firebreak. Something had gone very wrong.
She kicked herself for even caring about that when her mother was still missing.
There was a noise to her right and she looked that way. Some men were running away from the hall toward an untidy row of thatched cottages. She frowned as she looked at them. Their tartan was blue, markedly different to the men who’d first appeared on horseback. Each of the blue group held a flaming torch much like the one on the grass beside her.
She couldn’t remember seeing other medieval houses next to the hall when they arrived. Had she missed them? They were eerily accurate recreations of village hovels from the twelfth century. As she watched, the torches were pressed to their thatched roofs.
Instantly, the homes were ablaze. “No,” she cried, unable to believe what she was seeing. Was it some kind of ultra-real re-enactment?
If so, things had definitely gone too far.
They had given her and her mother no warning of what was happening and surely it was dangerous to set fire to buildings with visitors still inside them?
The leader of the horseback riders emerged from the fire with another victim of the blaze in his arms. He quickly took in the scene.
The men who had been throwing water on the fire were running after the torch bearers, swords out ready. Villagers from the burning homes were trying to save what they could, throwing their possessions out onto the grass. Those rescued from the hall were slowly sitting up on the grass. Others were helping where they could, providing fresh water and blankets for the wounded.
His eyes took all that in and then he looked at her. “MacLeish,” he snarled, his voice no more than a low growl.
Beth wanted to ask him if he’d seen her mother but she couldn’t speak all of a sudden. His eyes were burning twin holes into her soul.
He was intimidating enough even if he hadn’t looked so furious. A clear six foot five, he obviously took re-enactment seriously. There were taut muscles spread across his chest, his shoulders looking like they more used to carrying horses, than riding them. His skin was blackened by the smoke and soot, sweat pouring down him creating pathways through the soot.
He had dark hair that was closely cropped. His eyes were equally dark and as he continued to stare at her. He looked livid.
He knelt for long enough to lay the elderly woman in his arms out on the grass. Then he stood up again, grabbing Beth’s tee-shirt in his enormous fist. “Why?” he said, his voice becoming a whisper and all the more aggressive for it. “Why would you burn Pluscarden?”
“I…I…” Beth stuttered. “I didn’t. I’m not one of them, I swear.”
He turned his head and she looked too. The escaping bunch had dropped their torches and were clambering onto horses. They began galloping away, firing arrows back at their pursuers as they went. One of the chasing men fell, an arrow in his chest.
The giant holding Beth bellowed at the top of his voice, “MacIntyres. To me.”
The surviving men ran back to him at once, leaving the group on horseback to vanish into the distance.
In moments she was surrounded by men, all of them looking at the torch their leader was holding. He stared at her again.
One of them prodded her in the back. “You should have run with your kin when you had the chance, lassie. One of ours is dead. Perhaps we should redress the balance with your blood.”
“Look at what you’ve done,” their leader said, letting go of her top to grab her chin, forcing her to stare down at the victims on the ground. His hand squeezed tightly, making her gasp. “Was it worth whatever Duff paid you?”
Beth’s heart began to pound with fear. He could pick me up and throw me like I’m a caber, she thought, fear growing inside her. Snap me in half without breaking a sweat.
“Okay, time out,” she said as the other men pointed their swords at her, swords that looked a little bit too real for comfort. “This isn’t funny anymore. I’m not part of your stupid re-enactment so stop acting like I am. I want my mom.”