The six standing stones rose like pale grey ghosts above the heather. They were weathered and pitted, lashed by centuries of cold and damp Scottish weather. They stood crooked, bent over, a few had collapsed and lay like stone benches on the ground. The winds blasted them as well, leaving their surfaces pitted and cracked. Whatever markings that once may have existed were long ago erased, leaving their purpose and presence a mystery, even to the nearby inhabitants of this land. Usually standing stones were placed on flat ground, but these were on a gentle slope, an odd formation.
Not that many of the locals cared much to know. There were merely part of the landscape of rock and heather and sky and mist. Some legends existed from ancient time about the standing stones, but in these uncertain times, few cared about these stories. There were more pressing matters that were spreading urgently across the country, determining whether they would live or die.
Silence was the usual sound in the moor surrounding the pillars. If one lingered around the stones, one would notice not even the sounds of birds and insects within a certain radius of them, but not that many cared to linger. The standing stones held no special attraction, there were not even stories to scare young children, but they were avoided on principal all the same, although no one could say exactly why. Sometimes people felt nauseous or dizzy near them, or noticed weird noises, but that was hardly an interesting story for a night by the hearth fire.
A rare sound now interrupted the still, strange silence of the stones, rough and loud orders, cursing. A troop of horses and soldiers emerged from the surrounding mist, spreading out across the ground. Red-coated soldiers, rifles held at the ready, scouting through the tall grass. Two of them, clearly officers by their uniforms and manner, rode ahead of them.
One of them, a young ensign, spoke up. "There's nothing here. I suppose the damned rebels have yet to show up this far inland."
"Perhaps," the older man acknowledged. "Well then, we'd better not be late in reporting to the Colonel. You know how irritable he can get when he doesn't get his reports in a timely manner."
The other man snorted. "Where'd he come from, I wonder. Do you think he's another London dandy up from the court?"
His companion shrugged. "He doesn't seem like the usual flunky I've seen, and he hardly seems a dandy. He looks like he's done his share of fighting. Perhaps he's been out to India, or the Americas, quelling the natives. Don't know why he'd be sent up here, though. Might also explain why he's rather not sociable. This is hardly a plum posting, you've noticed."
"Let's get back anyway, we can at least get out of this damned cold. Bloody miserable country!"
He turned and barked an order to the soldiers, and they hurriedly departed the area of the standing stones. Soon they disappeared into the cold and mist. A few minutes after they had vanished from sight, two figures stealthily crept out from their hiding place behind the stones, and made off in the other direction. And the circle was quiet again.
Angus Murray looked outside for a final time before shutting the stout wooden door of his inn, and securing the latch. He shook his head in disgust – no custom again! At this rate he and Morag would go even deeper into debt than they already were, and soon they would lose their everything. They'd end up begging on the streets, or worse. A hundred unique disaster scenarios paraded through his head, which made him more disconsolate than ever, if possible.
His wife Morag bustled about the kitchen tidying up, although for what reason Angus could not imagine, there weren't any travelers to impress. She was younger, shorter, and considerably wider, than her husband and about as different in personality as in height and size.
"Not to worry dear," she said brightly, although Angus hadn't said anything. "I'm sure some travelers will be about soon who'd love to stay here. Soon it will be dark and they'll want to get off the road."
"You keep imagining that," Angus said sourly. "Who'd be out nowadays, with wars and rumors of wars all about? These are bad times coming, you may count on it."
"Do you think it can be true, that the King has come back over the water?"
"The King is in his palace in London and likely to stay there, you remember that!"
Angus had no interest at all in the Stuart Restoration, and knew his wife enough to know that she really had no idea in her tiny head what that implied, only that it seemed to fit some romantic delusion she cherished. As long as it didn't get them into trouble, as if they needed any more.
Morag sighed. "Perhaps we should join our Donald in the Americas. Sell up and start a new life. Where was it that he went to? Virginia…or now was it Jamaica?"
Angus snorted, a bit irritated that she mentioned their son, who had emigrated over two years ago, and they had barely heard a word since then. "That's another witless thought from you, as if there isn't fighting over there too…all those painted savages," he didn't dare think about his son encountering one of those wild Indians. "Anyway, we couldn't afford the passage there, even if we sold up. We'd end up having to work off our passage when we got there, like Donald is doing, slaving away on some farm for someone else."
"Well, it's just a thought."
"Try to keep your thoughts here!"
For awhile they both busied themselves with trying to complete some of the endless tasks about their home, while Angus worried over his debts and the lack of travelers, and Morag lost in dreamy thoughts far from their mundane lives. But they were both rattled out of their musings when a series of hard knocks landed on their door. They nearly jumped in surprise.
"Who's there?" Angus called out hesitantly. He should have been excited at the prospect of a traveler, but for some reason he felt anxious, and hoped it was just someone lost, maybe needing directions, who would leave right away.
"Travelers in need of lodging," replied an stern voice beyond the door. "Do you have an room?"
"Yes, yes we do!" Morag said quickly before Angus could think of anything to say. He glared at her.
"Then open the door."
Against his better judgment, he did as the voice ordered and stepped back quickly. Angus and Morag froze stock still as a man and woman walked in, of such appearance that it took them both a minute to take it in. The owner of the voice was a handsome but grim-faced man, blonde and clean-shaven, with grey, cold eyes, some of the coldest Angus had ever seen. He was dressed in a dark grey plaid, of a plain design Angus had never seen before, which he wore draped over his shoulder and around his waist in the Highland-style, secured by a thick leather belt and buckle. His shirt and leather boots were soiled by long travel. Angus was only moderately relieved to notice he didn't appear armed with a sword or a pistol, but he looked dangerous enough without them. The woman accompanying him was likewise of an imposing appearance, very beautiful with blonde hair and blue eyes; she was clearly a woman of some rank, dressed appropriately for travel on Scotland's rough roads, wrapped in a long light-blue traveling cloak. She strode in after the man, her arms folded across her chest. She barely looked at them, her attention taken up by the furnishings of their modest, actually rather poor, establishment, as if they were the furnishings at Versailles. These were certainly travelers of a type neither of them regularly encountered.
The Highlander stepped up to Angus and demanded again, "You have an empty room here?"
"Umm…ahhh…well at the moment…we are not exactly-" Angus began stammering, to the growing irritation of the stranger, until Morag quickly piped up.
"Why, yes, yes we do! Is-is it for you and…your lady?" Morag tried to sound as cheerful as possible, curtsying clumsily as well, making Angus cringe inwardly.
"We require a room for several days, where we won't be disturbed."
"Certainly Of course. We-"
"We have only very poor rooms," Angus finally found his tongue. "Probably not what you are accustomed to, and not to your…"
"Very good," the women spoke up, and she sounded much more congenial than her companion. "My name is Sapphire and my friend's name is Steel. We only intend to stay here a short time," she smiled. "I'm sure we won't cause you any particular trouble, and we require no luxuries."
"Well, still, we…" Angus struggled to find some reason to turn them away. He was certain they meant trouble, despite this woman's reassurance. Most Highlanders were trouble, even in the most peaceful of times. Morag kept smiling but her eyes were shooting daggers at him.
The man reached into a fold in his plaid and dropped several coins on the table. Angus and Morag's eyes widened at the gold coins. "Will this suffice for payment?"
"Absolutely, sir!" Morag leapt onto the money. "You will have our best room sir, our very best room, it's upstairs so you and your lady will not be disturbed at all, not a bit, you will have complete privacy! I'll show you upstairs immediately!"
Angus felt helpless, which was usual when his wife really got going. The man calling himself "Steel" only gave him a curt nod as he and "Sapphire" followed Morag up the stairs. When she returned alone, he turned on her.
"What do ye think you're doing you silly bitch?" he waved his arms, but he made sure he didn't raise his voice so it didn't carry enough to be overheard.
"Don't you be rude!" she scolded. "You know we need the money. Look at these guineas! Can you imagine-"
"Who knows how many people he's robbed and killed for those! He's either a bandit or a rebel. Both of them, or possibly she could be a hostage…"
"You're just being absurd now. You saw for yourself, he didn't even have weapons! Who heard of a Highlander without at least a dirk?" She quickly tucked the coins away for safekeeping. "Anyway, he doesn't even have the Highland tongue, you heard him, and neither does his woman."
"I don't like it." Angus grumbled. "We'll be lucky if we're not murdered in our sleep, or caught in something really bad."
"You don't have to like it," Morag smiled, "Just put up with it. Just for a few days anyway, like he said. She'll hardly want to have her bairn in our place."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"You silly man! Couldn't you tell? That one's far enough along if she's a day."
"Oh great, just great!" Angus collapsed into a chair, rubbing his forehead. A headache now, on top of it all.
Upstairs, Steel paced the small room, sparsely furnished with a bed, over which a heavy wool blanket and sheepskins were tossed on, a table, and an large chair in the corner. He looked out the single window, which faced towards the moor and the standing stones beyond. Sapphire had removed her cloak and sat on the edge of the bed, facing away from Steel, again taking in every detail of the room. Her bulging stomach was clearly evident.
"Have you detected anything unusual about this inn?" Steel inquired, pausing by the window.
"No," Sapphire replied. "It's an old house – the present structure was built in 1657, but the foundations go back to the 1400s. It is what's in the house that's interesting: there are at least 8 time anomalies in this inn."
"'Anomalies'?" Steel stared at her. "Explain."
Sapphire nodded towards the wall facing the bed. There was a small painting hanging there, an innocuous and not very well executed still life of a bowl of fruit. "That painting there, for example."
"What about it?"
"The oils used to paint it were manufactured in the early 20th-century, in Chicago, Illinois. The iron cookware downstairs in the kitchen was also manufactured in the 20th century, but from the 1990s."
Steel's brow creased. "Items from the 20th century in 1700s Scotland. How did they get here?"
Sapphire stretched out on the bed, stared up at the ceiling, one hand resting on her stomach. "Clearly, the proprietors downstairs brought them to their inn. The question is: where and how did they obtain them?"
"Could they be Transient Beings?"
"No. They're human, and I don't think they're aware that there is anything out of temporal phase here. At least, they don't act like it."
"But the time distortion is not here. It must be nearby then." There were more and more of them occurring now that many of the Elementals were out of action, and the Transient Beings on the offensive. Sapphire and Steel knew that they had to close them off before they could be used by them. "It should be a basic matter of shutting it off the temporal irruption. If it was very big..."
"Why here, though?" Sapphire wondered.
"This is northern Scotland, 1745. The time of the final Jacobite Rebellion, the last attempt to restore the Stuart Dynasty to the throne of Great Britain."
"Is there a significance?"
"The rebellion fails in the next year at the Battle of Culloden, the last battle fought on British soil. The Highland clan system is subsequently destroyed, and many Scots emigrate worldwide. The Hanoverian dynasty is firmly established, leading to a more stable and peaceful development of constitutional monarchy, rather than extending the absolute monarchy preferred by the Stuarts."
Her voice drifted off. Steel noted that she had more of a tendency to do this as her pregnancy developed. Sometimes days would pass without her speaking a word to him.
Changing the subject, he tentatively asked, "How… long before your confinement, now?"
Sapphire hesitated a moment, then answered: "Four days, 11 hours, 22 minutes…approximately."
He considered a moment. "Then we'll stay here, after we eliminate the time distortion."
Sapphire sat up in surprise. "Here?"
"Steel, I just told you that this place is in the central area of a mounting war!"
"You just gave me a range of four days before you enter into delivery stage. We'll hardly be caught up in a war by then."
Sapphire insisted, "We should find the Sanctuary, not linger here."
Steel had had this argument with Sapphire before, and he clenched his fist in irritation on the windowsill. "We don't know that such a place exists. It could be another trap, like the gas station."
Sapphire's voice reflected her frustration with her partner. "You won't attempt it because the message came from Silver," she accused.
"Or someone purporting to be Silver," Steel corrected her. "We can't be sure who hasn't turned, who has remained uncontaminated."
"That's not the reason why. You don't want to face him. You knew he would have stopped you."
"That's unimportant now. What matters is…what you are carrying. I've told you before - if the Transient Beings learn of our plan, then they will do anything to prevent it from coming to fruition. We will not risk an attempt to find out if Silver is a traitor or not!"
Sapphire fixed her pale blue eyes on his. "You'd risk my life to stay here."
"We are both expendable," Steel said curtly. "The new Element is of primary importance now."
Sapphire turned away from him, and when she spoke again, her voice was as cold to match Steel's. "I've done what you demanded, ever since we fled. I've endured all the…experiments, but once you have what you want…I will no longer. Whatever war you think you intend to fight, I will not be a part of it."
Steel knew Sapphire meant what she said, and he only wondered that it had not happened sooner. He turned his attention back to the view of the window, not trusting himself to look at her directly.
"Until then," he retorted. "We will focus on the mission."
In an alcove adjacent to the guests' room, Morag stepped back very, very quietly. Always, you could pick up news and gossip from travelers, and it had helped them more than once, but she had never heard anything like this before. She couldn't understand a lot of what they were saying but surely, they were involved in the rebellion! The rumors were true: the bonny prince had indeed landed! This news might be worth something to someone. As quietly as she could, she made her way downstairs to tell her husband everything she'd heard.
To be continued.
Thanks for reading! Reviews requested! My apologies for getting any historical details wrong, I have never been to Scotland so my info comes from Wikipedia.