Guest Author ~ Ann GimpelPosted: October 11, 2013
In a cave deep beneath Inverness, a dragon shifter stirs and wakens. The cave is the same and his hoard intact, yet Lachlan senses something amiss. Taking his human form, he ventures above ground with ancient memories flooding him. But nothing is the same. His castle has been replaced by ungainly row houses. Men aren’t wearing plaids and women scarcely wear anything at all.
In Inverness for a year on a psychiatry fellowship, Dr. Maggie Hibbins watches an oddly dressed man pick his way out of a heather and gorse thicket. Even though it runs counter to her better judgment, she teases him about his strange attire. He looks so lost—and so unbelievably handsome —she takes him to a pub for a meal, to a barbershop, and then home. Along the way the hard-to-accept truth sinks in: he has to be a refugee from another era.
Never a risk-taker, Maggie’s carefully constructed life is about to change forever. Swept up in an ancient prophecy that links her to Lachlan and his dragon, she must push the edges of the impossible to save both the present and her heart.
Kheladin listened to the rush of blood as his multi-chambered heart pumped. After eons of nothingness, it was a welcome sound. A cool, sandy floor pressed against his scaled haunches. One whirling eye flickered open, followed by the other.
Where am I? He peered around himself and blew out a sigh, followed by steam, smoke, and fire.
Thanks be to Dewi— Kheladin invoked the blood-red Celtic dragon goddess— I am still in my cave. It smelled right, but I wasna certain.
He rotated his serpent’s head atop his long, sinuous neck. Vertebrae cracked. Kheladin lowered his head and scanned the place he and Lachlan, his human bond mate, had barricaded themselves into. It might have only been days ago, but somehow, it didn’t seem like days, or even months or a few years. His body felt rusty, as if he hadn’t used it in centuries.
How long did I sleep?
He shook his head. Copper scales flew everywhere, clanking against a pile that had formed around him. More than anything, the glittery heap reinforced his belief that he’d been asleep for a very long time. Dragons shed their scales annually. From the looks of the pile circling his body, he’d gone through hundreds of molt cycles. But how? The last thing he remembered was retreating to the cave far beneath Lachlan’s castle and working with the mage to construct strong wards.
Had the black wyvern grown so powerful he’d been able to force his magic into the very heart of Kheladin’s fortress?
If that is true— If we were really his prisoner, why did I finally waken? Is Lachlan still within me?
Stop! I have to take things one at a time.
He returned his gaze to the nooks and crannies of his spacious cave. He’d have to take inventory, but it appeared his treasure hadn’t been disturbed. Kheladin blew a plume of steam upward, followed by an experimental gout of fire. The black wyvern, his sworn enemy since before the Crusades, may have bested him, but he hadn’t gotten his slimy talons on any of Kheladin’s gold or jewels.
He shook out his back feet and shuffled to the pool at one end of the cave where he dipped his snout and drank deeply. The water didn’t taste quite right. It wasn’t poisoned, but it held an undercurrent of metals that had never been there before. Kheladin rolled the liquid around in his mouth. He didn’t recognize much of what he tasted.
The flavors are not familiar because I have been asleep for so long. Aye, that must be it. Part of his mind recoiled; he suspected he was deluding himself.
“We’re awake.” Lachlan’s voice hummed in the dragon’s mind.
“Aye, that we are.”
“How long did we sleep?”
“I doona know.” Water streamed down the dragon’s snout and neck. He knew what would come next; he didn’t have to wait long.
“Let us shift. We think better in my body.” Lachlan urged Kheladin to cede ascendency.
“Ye only think that is true.” Kheladin pushed back. “I was figuring things out afore ye woke.”
“Aye, I’m certain ye were, but…” But what? “Och aye, my brain is thick and fuzzy, as if I havena used it for a verra long time.”
“Mine feels the same.”
The bond allowed only one form at a time. Since they were in Kheladin’s body, he still had the upper hand; the dragon didn’t think Lachlan was strong enough to force a shift without his help. There’d been a time when he could have but not now.
Was it safe to venture above ground? Kheladin recalled the last day he’d seen the sun. After a vicious battle in the great room of Lachlan’s castle, they’d retreated to his cave and taken their dragon form as a final resort. Rhukon, the black wyvern, had pretended he wanted peace. He’d come with an envoy that had turned out to be a retinue of heavily armed men…
Both he and Lachlan had expected Rhukon to follow them underground. Kheladin’s last thought before nothingness descended had been amazement their enemy hadn’t pursued them. Hmph. He did come after us but with magic. Magic strong enough to penetrate our wards.
“Aye, and I was just thinking the same thing,” Lachlan sniped in a vexed tone.
“We trusted him,” Kheladin snarled. “More the fools we were. We should have known.” Despite drinking, his throat was still raw. He sucked more water down and fought rising anger at himself for being gullible. Even if Lachlan hadn’t known better, he should have. His stomach cramped from hunger.
Kheladin debated the wisdom of making his way through the warren of tunnels leading to the surface in dragon form. There had always been far more humans than dragons. Mayhap it would be wiser to accede to Lachlan’s wishes before they crept from their underground lair to rejoin the world of men.
“Grand idea.” Lachlan’s response was instantaneous, as was his first stab at shifting.
It took half a dozen attempts. Kheladin was far weaker than he’d imagined and Lachlan so feeble he was almost an impediment. Finally, once a shower of scales cleared, Lachlan’s emaciated body stood barefoot and naked in the cave.
Lacking the sharp night vision he enjoyed as a dragon, because his magic was so diminished, he kindled a mage light and glanced down at himself. Ribs pressed against his flesh, and a full beard extended halfway down his chest. Turning his head to both sides, he saw shoulder blades so sharp he was surprised they didn’t puncture his skin. Tawny hair fell in tangles past his waist. The only thing he couldn’t see was his eyes. Absent a glass, he was certain they were the same crystal-clear emerald color they’d always been.
Lachlan stumbled across the cave to a chest where he kept clothing. Dragons didn’t need such silly accoutrements; humans did. He sucked in a harsh breath. The wooden chest was falling to ruin. He tilted the lid against a wall; it canted to one side. Many of his clothes had moldered into unusable rags, but items toward the bottom had fared better. He found a cream-colored linen shirt with long, flowing sleeves, a black and green plaid embroidered with the insignia of his house—a dragon in flight—and soft, deerskin boots that laced to his knees.
He slid the shirt over his head and wrapped the plaid around himself, taking care to wind the tartan so its telltale insignia was hidden in its folds. Who knew if the black wyvern—or his agents—lurked near the mouth of the cave? Lachlan bent to lace his boots. A crimson cloak with only a few moth holes completed his outfit. He finger-combed his hair and smoothed his unruly beard. “Good God, but I must look a fright,” he muttered. “Mayhap I can sneak into my castle and set things aright afore anyone sees me. Surely whichever of my kinsmen are inhabiting the castle will be glad the master of the house has finally returned.”
Lachlan worked on bolstering a confidence he was far from feeling. He’d nearly made it to the end of the cave, where a rock-strewn path led upward, when he doubled back to get a sword and scabbard—just in case things weren’t as sanguine as he hoped. He located a thigh sheath and a short dagger as well, fumbling to attach them beneath his kilt. Underway once again, he hadn’t made it very far along the upward-sloping tunnel that ended at a well-hidden opening not far from the postern gate of his castle, when he ran into rocks littering the way.
He worked his way around progressively larger boulders until he came to a huge one that totally blocked the tunnel. Lachlan stared at it in disbelief. When had that happened? In all the time he’d been using these passageways, they’d never been blocked by rock fall. If he weren’t so weak, summoning magic to shove the rock over enough to allow him to pass wouldn’t be a problem. As it was, simply walking uphill proved a challenge.
He pinched the bridge of his nose between a grimy thumb and forefinger. His mage light weakened.
If I can’t even keep a light going, how in the goddess’ name will I be able to move that rock?
Lachlan hunkered next to the boulder and let his light die while he ran possibilities through his head. His stomach growled and clenched in hunger. Had he come through however much time had passed to die like a dog of starvation in his own cave?
“No, by God.” He slammed a fist against the boulder. The air sizzled. Magic. The rock was illusion. Not real.
Counter spell. I need the counter spell.
Maybe I don’t. He stood, took a deep breath, and walked into the huge rock. The air did more than sizzle; it flamed. If he’d been human, it would have burned him, but dragons were impervious to fire, as were dragon shifters. Lachlan waltzed through the rock, cursing Rhukon as he went. Five more boulders blocked his tunnel, each more charged with magic than the last.
Finally, sweating and cursing, he rounded the last curve; the air ahead lightened. He wanted to throw himself on the ground and screech his triumph.
Not a good idea.
“Let me out. Ye have no idea what we’ll find.”
Kheladin’s voice in his mind was welcome but the idea wasn’t. “Ye are right. Because we have no idea what is out there, we stay in my skin until we are certain. We can hide in this form far more easily than we can in yours.”
“Since when did we begin hiding?” The dragon sounded outraged.
“Our magic is weak.” Lachlan adopted a placating tone. “’Tis prudent to be cautious until it fully recovers.”
“No dragon would ever say such a thing.” Deep, fiery frustration rolled off Kheladin.
Steam belched from Lachlan’s mouth. “Stop that,” he hissed, but his mind voice was all but obliterated by wry dragon laughter.
“Why? I find it amusing that ye think an eight foot tall dragon with elegant copper scales and handsome, green eyes would be difficult to sequester. A hesitation. “And infuriating that we need to conceal ourselves at all. Need I remind you we’re warriors?”
“Quite taken with yourself, eh?” Lachlan sidestepped the issue of hiding; he didn’t want to discuss it further and risk being goaded into something unwise. Kheladin chuckled and pushed more steam through Lachlan’s mouth, punctuated by a few flames.
Lost in a sudden rush of memories, Lachlan slowed his pace. As a mage, he would have lived hundreds of years, but bonded to a dragon, he’d live forever. In preparation, he’d studied long years with Aether, a wizard and dragon shifter himself. Along the way, Lachlan had forsaken much—a wife and bairns, for starters, for what woman would put up with a husband who was so rarely at home?—to bond with a dragon, forming their partnership. Once Lachlan’s magic was finally strong enough, there’d been the niggling problem of locating that special dragon willing to join its life with his.
Because the bond conferred immortality on both the dragon and their human partner, dragons were notoriously picky. After all, dragon and mage would be welded through eternity. The magic could be undone, but the price was high: mages were stripped of power and their dragon mates lost much of theirs, too, as the bond unraveled. Lachlan had hunted for over a hundred years before finding Kheladin. The pairing had been instantaneous on both sides. He’d just settled in with his dragon, and was about to hunt down a wife to grace his castle, when the black wyvern had attacked.
“What are ye waiting for?” Kheladin sounded testy. “Daydreaming is a worthless pursuit. My grandmother is two thousand years old, and she moves faster than you.”
Lachlan snorted. He didn’t bother to explain there wasn’t much point in jumping through the opening in the gorse and thistle bushes and right into Rhukon’s arms. An unusual whirring filled the air, like the noisiest beehive he’d ever heard. His heart sped up, but the sound receded. “What the hell was that?” he muttered and made his way closer to the world outside his cave.
Finally at the end of the tunnel, Lachlan stepped to the opening, shoved some overgrown bushes out of the way, and peered through. What he saw was so unbelievable, he squeezed his eyes tight shut, opened them, and looked again. Unfortunately, nothing had changed. Worse, an ungainly, shiny cylinder roared past, making the same whirring noise he’d puzzled over moments before. He fell backward into the cave, breath harsh in his throat, and landed on his rump. Not only was the postern gate no longer there, neither was his castle. A long, unattractive row of attached structures stood in its stead.
“Holy godhead. What do I do now?”
“We go out there and find something to eat,” the dragon growled.
Lachlan gritted his teeth together. Kheladin had a good point. It was hard to think on an empty stomach.
“Here I was worried about Rhukon. At least I understood him. I fear whatever lies in wait for us will require all our skill.”
“Ye were never a coward. It is why I allowed the bond. Get moving.”
The dragon’s words settled him. Ashamed of his indecisiveness, Lachlan got to his feet, brushed dirt off his plaid, and worked his way through the bushes hiding the cave’s entrance. As he untangled stickers from the finely spun wool of his cloak and his plaid, he gawked at a very different world from the one he’d left. There wasn’t a field—or an animal—in sight. Roadways paved with something other than dirt and stones were punctuated by structures so numerous, they made him dizzy. The hideous incursion onto his lands stretched in every direction. Lachlan balled his hands into fists. He’d find out what had happened, by God. When he did, he’d make whoever had erected all those abominations take them down.
An occasional person walked by in the distance. They shocked him even more than the buildings and roads. For starters, the males weren’t wearing plaids, so there was no way to tell their clan. Females were immodestly covered. Many sported bare legs and breeks so tight he saw the separation between their ass cheeks. Lachlan’s groin stirred, cock hardening. Were the lassies no longer engaging in modesty or subterfuge and simply asking to be fucked? Or was this some new garb that befit a new era?
He detached the last thorn, finally clear of the thicket of sticker bushes. Where could he find a market with vendors? Did market day even still exist in this strange environment?
“Holy crap! A kilt, and an old-fashioned one at that. Tad bit early in the day for a costume ball, isn’t it?” A rich female voice laced with amusement, sounded behind him.
Lachlan spun, hands raised to call magic. He stopped dead once his gaze settled on a lass nearly as tall as himself, which meant she was close to six feet. She turned so she faced him squarely. Bare legs emerged from torn fabric that stopped just south of her female parts. Full breasts strained against scraps of material attached to strings tied around her neck and back. Her feet were encased in a few straps of leather. Long, blonde hair eddied around her, the color of sheaves of summer wheat.
His cock jumped to attention. His hands itched to make a grab for her breasts or her ass. She had an amazing ass: round and high and tight. What was expected of him? The lass was dressed in such a way as to invite him to simply tear what passed for breeks aside and enter her. Had times changed so drastically that women provoked men into public sex? He glanced about, half expecting to see couples having it off with one another willy-nilly.
“Well,” she urged. “Cat got your tongue?” She placed her hands on her hips. The motion stretched the tiny bits of flowered fabric that barely covered her nipples still further.
Lachlan bowed formally, straightened, and waited for her to hold out a hand for him to kiss. “I am Lachlan Moncrieffe, my lady. It is a pleasure to—”
She erupted into laughter—and didn’t hold out her hand. “I’m Maggie,” she managed between gouts of mirth. “What are you? A throwback to medieval times? You can drop the Sir Galahad routine.”
Lachlan felt his face heat. “I fear I do not understand the cause of your merriment … my lady.”
Maggie rolled her midnight blue eyes. “Oh, brother. Did you escape from a mental hospital? Nah, you’d be in pajamas then, not those fancy duds.” She dropped her hands to her sides and started to walk past him.
“No. Wait. Please, wait.” Lachlan cringed at the whining tone in his voice. The dragon was correct that the Moncrieffe was a proud house. They bowed to no one.
She eyed him askance. “What?”
“I am a stranger in this town.” He winced at the lie. Once upon a time, he’d been master of these lands. Apparently that time had long since passed. “I am footsore and hungry. Where might I find victuals and ale?”
Her eyes widened. Finely arched blonde brows drew together over a straight nose dotted by a few freckles. “Victuals and ale,” she repeated disbelievingly.
“Aye. Food and drink, in the common vernacular.”
“Oh, I understood you well enough,” Maggie murmured. “Your words, anyway. Your accent’s a bit off.” His stomach growled again, embarrassingly loud. “Guess you weren’t kidding about being hungry.” She eyed him appraisingly. “Do you have any money?”
Money. Too late he thought of the piles of gold coins and priceless gems lying on the floor of Kheladin’s cave. In the world he’d left, his word had been as good as his gold. He opened his mouth, but she waved him to silence. “I’ll stand you for a pint and some fish and chips. You can treat me next time.”
He heard her mutter, “Yeah right,” under her breath as she curled a hand around his arm and tugged. “Come on. I have a couple of hours and then I’ve got to go to work. I’m due in at three today.”
Lachlan trotted along next to her. She let go of him like he was a viper when he tried to close a hand over the one she’d laid so casually on his person. He cleared his throat and wondered what he could safely ask that wouldn’t give his secrets away. He could scarcely believe this alien landscape was Scotland, but if he asked what country they were in, or what year it was, she’d think him mad. He wondered if the black wyvern had used some diabolical dark magic to transport his cave to another locale, and then thought better of it. Even Rhukon wasn’t that powerful.
“In here.” She pointed to a door beneath a flashing sigil. He gawked at it. One minute it was red, the next blue, the next green, illuminating the word Open. What manner of magic was this? “Don’t tell me you have temporal lobe epilepsy.” She stared at him. “It’s only a neon sign. It doesn’t bite. Move on through the door. There’s food on the other side,” she added slyly.
Feeling like a rube, Lachlan searched for a latch, didn’t find one, and pushed his shoulder against the door. It opened, and he held it with a hand so Maggie could enter first. “After you, my lady,” he murmured.
“Stop that.” She spoke into his ear as she went past. “No more my ladies. Got it?”
“I think so.” He followed her into a low ceilinged room lined with wooden planks. It was the first thing that looked familiar. Parts of it, anyway. Men—kilt-less men—sat at the bar, hefting glasses and chatting. The tables were empty.
“What’ll it be, Mags?” a man with a towel tied around his waist called from behind the bar.
“Couple of pints and two of today’s special. Come to think of it,” she eyed Lachlan, “make that three of the special.”
“May I inquire just what the special is?” Lachlan asked, thinking he might want to order something different.
Maggie waved a hand at a black board suspended over the bar. “You can read?”
“Of course.” He resented the inference he might be uneducated but swallowed back harsh words.
“Excellent. Then move.” She shoved her body into his in a distressingly familiar way for such a communal location. Not that he wouldn’t have enjoyed the contact if they were alone and he were free to take advantage of it… “All the way to the back,” she hissed into his ear. “That way if you slip up, no one will hear.”
He bristled. Lachlan Moncrieffe did not sit in the back of any establishment. He was always given a choice table near the center of things. He opened his mouth to protest but thought better of it.
She scooped an armful of flattened scrolls off the bar before following him to the back of the room. Once there, she dumped them onto the table between them. He wanted to ask what they were but decided he should pretend to know. He turned the top sheaf of papers toward him and scanned the close-spaced print. Many of the words were unfamiliar, but what leapt off the page was The Inverness Courier and presumably the current date: June 10, 2012.
It had been 1683 when Rhukon had chivied him into the dragon’s cave. Three-hundred twenty-nine years, give or take a month or two. At least he was still in Inverness—for all the good it did him.
“You look as if you just saw a ghost.” Maggie spoke quietly.
“No. I am quite fine. Thank you for inquiring … my, er…” His voice trailed off.
“Good.” She nodded approvingly. “You’re learning.” The bartender slapped two mugs of ale on the scarred wooden table.
“On your tab, Mags?” he asked.
She nodded. “Except you owe me so much, you’ll never catch up.”
Lachlan took a sip of what turned out to be weak ale. It wasn’t half bad but could have stood an infusion of bitters. He puzzled over what Maggie meant. Why would the barkeep owe her? His nostrils flared. She must work at the establishment—probably as a damsel of ill repute from the looks of her. Mayhap, she hadn’t been paid her share of whatever she earned in quite some time.
Protectiveness flared deep inside him. Maggie should not have to earn her way lying on her back. He’d see to it she had a more seemly position.
Aye, once I find my way around this bizarre new world. Money wouldn’t be a problem, but changing four-hundred-year-old gold coins into today’s tender might be. Surely there were still banks that might accomplish something like that.
One thing at a time, he reminded himself.
“So.” She skewered him with her blue gaze—Norse eyes if he’d ever seen a set—and took a sip from her mug. “What did you see in the newspaper that upset you so much?”
“Nothing.” He tried for an offhand tone.
“Bullshit,” she said succinctly. “I’m a doctor. A psychiatrist. I read people’s faces quite well, and you look as if you’re perilously close to going into shock on me.”
Ann Gimpel is a clinical psychologist, with a Jungian bent. Avocations include mountaineering, skiing, wilderness photography and, of course, writing. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Several paranormal romance novellas are available in e-format. Three novels, Psyche’s Prophecy, Psyche’s Search, and Psyche’s Promise are small press publications available in e-format and paperback. Look for three more urban fantasy novels coming this summer and fall: To Tame a Highland Dragon, Earth’s Requiem and Earth’s Blood.
A husband, grown children, grandchildren and three wolf hybrids round out her family.
@AnnGimpel (for Twitter)