Claire shook her head meditatively, the curls beginning to work their way loose from her hairclip. “No, I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with size. I think it’s more a matter of whether they see men as The Enemy, or just see them as men, and on the whole, rather like them for it.”
“Oh, to do with women’s liberation, is it?”
“No, not at all,” Claire said. “I saw just the same kinds of behavior between men and women in 1743 that you see now. Some differences, of course, in how they each behave, but not so much in how they behave to each other.”
She looked out over the dark waters of the loch, shading her eyes with her hand. She might have been keeping an eye out for otters and floating logs, but Roger thought that far-seeing gaze was looking a bit farther than the cliffs of the opposite shore.
“You like men, don’t you?” he said quietly. “Tall men.”
She smiled briefly, not looking at him.
“One,” she said softly.
“Will you go, then—if I can find him?” he rested his oars momentarily, watching her.
She drew a deep breath before answering. The wind flushed her cheeks with pink and molded the fabric of the white shirt to her figure, showing off a high bosom and a slender waist. Too young to be a widow, he thought, too lovely to be wasted.
“I don’t know,” she said, a little shakily. “The thought of it—or rather, the thoughts of it! On the one hand, to find Jamie—and then, on the other, to…go through again.” A shudder went through her, closing her eyes.
“It’s indescribable, you know,” she said, eyes still closed as though she saw inside them the ring of stones on Craigh na Dun. “Horrible, but horrible in a way that isn’t like other horrible things, so you can’t say.” She opened her eyes and smiled wryly at him.
“A bit like trying to tell a man what having a baby is like; he can more or less grasp the idea that it’s painful, but he isn’t equipped actually to understand what it feels like.”
Roger grunted with amusement. “Oh, aye? Well, there’s some difference, you know. I’ve actually heard those bloody stones.” He shivered himself, involuntarily. The memory of the night, three months ago, when Gillian Edgars had gone through the stones, was not one he willingly called to mind; it had come back to him in nightmares several times, though. He heaved strongly on the oars, trying to erase it.
“Like being torn apart, isn’t it?” he said, his eyes intent on hers. “There’s something pulling at you, ripping, dragging, and not just outside—inside you as well, so you feel your skull will fly to pieces any moment. And the filthy noise.” He shuddered again. Claire’s face had gone slightly pale.
“I didn’t know you could hear them,” she said. “You didn’t tell me.”
“It didn’t seem important.” He studied her a moment, as he pulled, then added quietly, “Bree heard them as well.”
“I see.” She turned to look back over the loch, where the wake of the tiny boat spread its V-shaped wings. Far behind, the waves from the passage of a larger boat reflected back from the cliffs and joined again in the center of the loch, making a long, humped form of glistening water—a standing wave, a phenomenon of the loch that had often been mistaken for a sighting of the monster.
“It’s there, you know,” she said suddenly, nodding down into the black, peat-laden water.
He opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but then realized that he did know. He had lived near Loch Ness for most of his life, fished for eels and salmon in its waters, and heard—and laughed at—every story of the “fearsome beastie” that had ever been told in the pubs of Drumnadrochit and Fort Augustus.
Perhaps it was the unlikeliness of the situation—sitting here, calmly discussing whether the woman with him should or should not take the unimaginable risk of catapulting herself into an unknown past. Whatever the cause of his certainty, it seemed suddenly not only possible, but sure, that the dark water of the loch hid unknown but fleshly mystery.
“What do you think it is?” he asked, as much to give his disturbed feelings time to settle, as out of curiosity.
Claire leaned over the side, watching intently as a log drifted into view.
“The one I saw was probably a plesiosaur,” she said at last. She didn’t look at Roger, but kept her gaze astern. “Though I didn’t take notes at the time.” Her mouth twisted in something not quite a smile.
“How many stone circles are there?” she asked abruptly. “In Britain, in Europe. Do you know?”
“Not exactly. Several hundred, though,” he answered cautiously. “Do you think they’re all—”
“How should I know?” she interrupted impatiently. “The point is, they may be. They were set up to mark something, which means there may be the hell of a lot of places where that something has happened.” She tilted her head to one side, wiping the windblown hair out of her face, and gave him a lopsided smile.
“That would explain it, you know.”
“Explain what?” Roger felt fogged by the rapid shifts of her conversation.
“The monster.” She gestured out over the water. “What if there’s another of those—places—under the loch?”
“A time corridor—passage—whatever?” Roger looked out over the purling wake, staggered by the idea.
“It would explain a lot.” There was a smile hiding at the corner of her mouth, behind the veil of blowing hair. He couldn’t tell whether she was serious or not. “The best candidates for monster are all things that have been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years. If there’s a time passage under the loch, that would take care of that little problem.”
“It would also explain why the reports are sometimes different,” Roger said, becoming intrigued by the idea. “If it’s different creatures who come through.”
“And it would explain why the creature—or creatures—haven’t been caught, and aren’t seen all that often. Maybe they go back the other way, too, so they aren’t in the loch all the time.”
“What a marvelous idea!” Roger said. He and Claire grinned at each other.
“You know what?” she said. “I’ll bet that isn’t going to make it on the list of popular theories.”
Roger laughed, catching a crab, and droplets of water sprayed over Brianna. She snorted, sat up abruptly, blinking, then sank back down, face flushed with sleep, and was breathing heavily within seconds.
“She was up late last night, helping me box up the last set of records to go back to the University of Leeds,” Roger said, defensive on her behalf.
Claire nodded abstractedly, watching her daughter.
“Jamie could do that,” she said softly. “Lie down and sleep anywhere.”
She fell silent. Roger rowed steadily on, toward the point of the loch where the grim bulk of the ruins of Castle Urquhart stood amid its pines.
“The thing is,” Claire said at last, “it gets harder. Going through the first time was the most terrible thing I’d ever had happen to me. Coming back was a thousand times worse.” Her eyes were fixed on the looming castle.
“I don’t know whether it was because I didn’t come back on the right day—it was Beltane when I went, and two weeks before, when I came back.”
“Geilie—Gillian, I mean—she went on Beltane, too.” In spite of the heat of the day, Roger felt slightly cold, seeing again the figure of the woman who had been both his ancestor and his contemporary, standing in the light of a blazing bonfire, fixed for a moment in the light, before disappearing forever into the cleft of the standing stones.
“That’s what her notebook said—that the door is open on the Sun Feasts and the Fire Feasts. Perhaps it’s only partly open as you near those times. Or perhaps she was wrong altogether; after all, she thought you had to have a human sacrifice to make it work.”
Claire swallowed heavily. The petrol-soaked remains of Greg Edgars, Gillian’s husband, had been recovered from the stone circle by the police, on May Day. The record concluded of his wife only, “Fled, whereabouts unknown.”
Claire leaned over the side, trailing a hand in the water. A small cloud drifted over the sun, turning the loch a sudden gray, with dozens of small waves rising on the surface as the light wind increased. Directly below, in the wake of the boat, the water was darkly impenetrable. Seven hundred feet deep is Loch Ness, and bitter cold. What can live in a place like that?
“Would you go down there, Roger?” she asked softly. “Jump overboard, dive in, go on down through that dark until your lungs were bursting, not knowing whether there are things with teeth and great heavy bodies waiting?”
Roger felt the hair on his arms rise, and not only because the sudden wind was chilly.
“But that’s not all the question,” she continued, still staring into the blank, mysterious water. “Would you go, if Brianna were down there?” She straightened up and turned to face him.
“Would you go?” The amber eyes were intent on his, unblinking as a hawk’s.
He licked his lips, chapped and dried by the wind, and cast a quick look over his shoulder at Brianna, sleeping. He turned back to face Claire.
“Yes. I think I would.”
She looked at him for a long moment, and then nodded, unsmiling.
“So would I.”
You Can’t Go Home Again
The woman next to me probably weighed three hundred pounds. She wheezed in her sleep, lungs laboring to lift the burden of her massive bosom for the two-hundred-thousandth time. Her hip and thigh and pudgy arm pressed against mine, unpleasantly warm and damp.
There was no escape; I was pinned on the other side by the steel curve of the plane’s fuselage. I eased one arm upward and flicked on the overhead light in order to see my watch. Ten-thirty, by London time; at least another six hours before the landing in New York promised escape.
The plane was filled with the collective sighs and snorts of passengers dozing as best they might. Sleep for me was out of the question. With a sigh of resignation, I dug into the pocket in front of me for the half-finished romance novel I had stashed there. The tale was by one of my favorite authors, but I found my attention slipping from the book—either back to Roger and Brianna, whom I had left in Edinburgh, there to continue the hunt, or forward, to what awaited me in Boston.
I wasn’t sure just what did await me, which was part of the problem. I had been obliged to come back, if only temporarily; I had long since exhausted my vacation, plus several extensions. There were matters to be dealt with at the hospital, bills to be collected and paid at home, the maintenance of the house and yard to be attended to—I shuddered to think what heights the lawn in the backyard must have attained by now—friends to be called on…
One friend in particular. Joseph Abernathy had been my closest friend, from medical school on. Before I made any final—and likely irrevocable—decisions, I wanted to talk to him. I closed the book in my lap and sat tracing the extravagant loops of the title with one finger, smiling a little. Among other things, I owed a taste for romance novels to Joe.