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The walk in to their base was, in the view of most of the party, a time-wasting nuisance.
There was a track - a track suitable for wheeled vehicles - but a locked gate denied their minibus access, despite the charge the estate made for the university club's use of the old hunting lodge three miles from the motor road. Beyond the lodge the track continued deeper into the hills for some distance, first passing the gamekeeper's cottage then continuing onwards, allowing the keeper access to the remoter parts of his beat.
Winding slowly but steadily upwards it was a long three miles, burdened as the dozen walkers were by heavy rucksacks, and particularly so for the two youngest members of the party; two days past his thirteenth birthday, Craig Douglas was there only because at the last minute his older brother had persuaded the others to let him come along on this first meet of the season as a birthday treat. Normally there would have been four times that number on a meet, but a nasty case of food poisoning had hit the university halls of residence that week and few, other than those students who lived at home, remained unaffected. That Craig provided an extra body to justify not cancelling the meet was the only reason most of them had agreed to his presence.
The other youth was a student in his first year, but at sixteen he was still too young to be fully accepted by most of the other students. That several of them were themselves still in their teens and only two or three years older than Blair Sandburg was immaterial; that age difference was one that mattered, although the six or seven years between them and the oldest of the students wasn't. In addition, in the month since the academic year started, many of his fellow first year students had already learned that Blair was probably the most intelligent student among them - and because of his youth, many of them resented the fact. Although living in the halls of residence, he had escaped the food poisoning because on the day the kitchen had served the hamburgers that turned out to be tainted, he had - although not actually a vegetarian - chosen the vegetarian option.
Virtually ignored by the older members of the party - although older brother Andy, well warned by his parents to look after his brother properly, glanced back occasionally - Craig and Blair dropped to the rear of the group not long after they left the road, although they were careful not to fall too far behind - just far enough that they could talk without the others hearing what they were saying.
Blair - already at sixteen a keen observer of people and human nature - could recognize that despite their greater age, several of the group were probably less mature than Craig, and possibly attending university to avoid, for another three or four years, having to make a decision about the career they wanted. He was aware of the age difference but decided he infinitely preferred the younger boy's company to that of the Jackson twins, at eighteen the actual nearest in age to him. Ian had a short temper and a vicious tongue; Ron, while quieter, possessed a malicious streak that had earned him no friends. Fortunately they seemed content in their little group of two, unable - or unwilling - to socialise with anyone else.
Having discovered that Craig was interested in travel and archaeology and hoped for a career as a field archaeologist, Blair entertained the younger boy with a succession of stories about some of the places he had visited over the previous five or six years - with a mother who regarded country boundaries as little more than an inconvenience perpetrated by politicians with an inflated sense of their own importance, and a persuasive tongue that easily obtained the necessary visas by insisting she wanted her young son to 'see for himself the magnificent scenery/architecture/historical remains of that country rather than the sometimes unbalanced second-hand presentation he would receive from books', he had been to several places not normally visited by foreigners as well as many of the more obvious tourist attractions. The only continent she had been unable to visit had been Antarctica. And so Blair described Macchu Piccu, Ankhor Wat, and Lhasa...
It took the group a little over an hour to reach the lodge in the intermittent light cast by a full moon that was occasionally hidden behind clouds. They claimed beds, then gathered in the kitchen area to prepare a meal, each group inside the dozen preparing their own.
Conversation became more general as they discussed their plans for the following day, each group carefully noting their routes in the club log book.
The Jackson brothers planned a low-level circular walk, first going up Glen Luibeg then taking a cross-country path that would take them to the Lairig Ghru, which they would follow back to the Linn of Dee, returning to the lodge by the track they had just come up; the four oldest members of the group planned an easy ridge walk on the east side of Glen Derry that would bag them a couple of Munroes that they had not previously done although they had visited the area several times; Tony Duncan and Cliff Hutchison opted for bird-watching in the general vicinity of the lodge; and Dave and Andy had decided to climb Beinn Macdhui, a long slog but not really a difficult day for Craig, who immediately took for granted that Blair would join their group.
Blair - who had originally expected to be left to plan a solitary day and, after a careful study of the map, had thought of Derry Cairngorm as a fairly safe option - glanced at Andy.
"Do you mind?" he mouthed.
Andy grinned. "You're more than welcome to join us, Sandburg."
"Thanks," he muttered, glad that he would not, after all, have to risk a solitary walk. Self-confident though he was and competent though he knew he was, he also knew that the hills were not to be taken lightly.
It was still dark the following morning when they got out of bed, growing lighter as they breakfasted. When the sun rose, it was to a cloudless sky that promised a glorious day, and Frank Evans, the most experienced of them, shook his head. "Too bright too early," he said gloomily. "We'll be lucky to get back to the lodge dry."
Glancing around the group Blair saw a mixture of expressions, from total agreement on Bill Scott's face to considerable doubt on Ian Jackson's. For himself, he was inclined to agree, and knew that if he had been going out on his own, he would have altered his plans and stuck with a fairly low-level walk.
Frank's group set off as soon as they had washed their dishes. Craig, despite his excitement - he was actually going to climb his first Munro! - seemed to be wasting time and Andy chased him up. Blair was already waiting - he, too, felt that the quicker they got going the better. The others clearly felt there was less urgency; the circular walk the brothers planned was about twelve miles, and would only take four to five hours; they knew they would be back by early afternoon. The two who were bird-watching would never be far from the lodge; whatever the weather did, it wouldn't take them more than a few minutes to get back to it.
Finally Blair's group set off, about quarter of an hour later than Andy originally suggested.
The first hour was easy, a long, almost-level walk of about three miles on a good track. After that it got gradually steeper for another couple of miles before they really started climbing.
They hadn't gone far before Craig asked Blair about mountains he had seen in other parts of the world. Blair glanced at Andy, who grinned and said, "Yeah, tell him."
So Blair described Krakatau, Heimaey, and Pinatubo; Oloru, Chomolungma and Hualca Hualca with its high-altitude Incan remains; and from that it was a short step to talking about the Temples of the Sun and Moon, then moving on to older 'monuments' than the Incan ones - Stonehenge, the Ring of Brogar and Skara Brae, Callanish, Carnac and Lascaux. "Though I only saw the reproduction cave that was opened two years ago," he added, "and it doesn't have everything that's in the original. That was closed to the public more than twenty years ago. But if you ever get the chance to go there, the reproduction is still worth seeing."
"And your Mum took you to all those places?" Craig asked.
"Uh-huh. Naomi's a wanderer, and she's taken me all over the world."
"You call your Mum by her name?"
Blair grinned. "I think it makes her feel younger if I do. If I call her 'Mom' she remembers that she's old enough to have a son my age... Anyway, I visited a lot of the mountains I mentioned before I was... oh, ten. After that... I don't think she's particularly interested in all those antiquities, but just after my tenth birthday I picked up a book on anthropology, and once she understood how interested I was in that - and archaeology, which is sort of related - she took me to as many sites as she could." He glanced almost apologetically at the two older men. "It wasn't all just travelling around though - Mom home-schooled me, and even if she wasn't really interested she made sure I learned the facts about the places we visited.
"We were in Scotland when she eventually put me to school so that I could sit the exams that would let me get to university and believe me, the head wasn't happy to have a fifteen-year-old home-schooled brat come in and six months later pass in the top ten percent in exams meant for seventeen-and-eighteen-year-olds. But they'd tested me to see which class I should go to, and with the grade I got, he couldn't justify putting me in with my age group. What gave me the advantage in a lot of subjects - I'd seen and lived in a lot of places most people only read about, lived with the natives rather than in hotels, and because I was so young, I'd picked up a working knowledge of several languages. I'm not fluent in more than one or two, but I can understand and manage to communicate in several more. And I'd read a lot; travelling around the way we did I didn't have much chance to make friends, but there were almost always libraries. My weakest subject was maths - I only just scraped a passing grade there; although Mom taught me some maths, she didn't think algebra or geometry were subjects anyone really needed in their everyday lives."
"I don't blame her!" Craig said. "What use are all those silly theorems? I hate maths!"
Blair saw Andy's mouth open, knew that Craig would accept a comment more readily from him than from his brother, and went on quickly, "But I've discovered that some professions do need them. People like architects; they work with scale and angles all the time. And other number formulae - people who are compiling train or bus times, or water engineers, or even people in shops working out profit margins. And Craig - you're interested in archaeology, right?"
"Yes, but I don't think my parents are keen on the idea."
"They might hope you'll change your mind, because unless you're very lucky, there aren't a lot of good job opportunities in archaeology, but if they love you they'll accept that's what you want. When you're working in the field, you need to record everything you find and where it is in relation to other finds - absolutely accurately. A working knowledge of maths will help you more than you might think."
"Oh." The boy looked quite surprised.
Out of the corner of his eye, Blair saw Andy grin appreciatively, and knew that Andy had shifted from being a casual acquaintance to being a friend.
They paused for a short break when they reached Loch Etchachan, sitting on some conveniently-sized rocks, and Dave took a bar of chocolate from a side pocket of his day pack, broke it carefully into four pieces and shared it out.
A cloud drifted over the sun. Blair glanced upwards, and saw that it was the first of several.
Andy nodded. "Like Frank said - too bright too early."
"If we're lucky, it might stay dry," Dave commented.
"Well, the clouds seem to be high enough," Andy agreed, "but I'd just as soon get a move on."
They finished the chocolate, and moved on, following the shore of the small loch for a short distance before starting to gain height again. "Going this way, we'll miss some of the lesser tops," Andy told his brother, "but it's a more direct route to Macdhui itself, as well as shortening the walk a little - there's no shelter up here if the weather turns really nasty."
A steep climb of little more than half a mile took them to the summit plateau, a gently rounded surface covered with boulders. An hour earlier, it would have been very pleasant up there; as it was, it still wasn't unpleasant, but now that they would see the sky clearly in all directions it was clear that although there was still some blue showing between the steadily thickening clouds, rain wasn't too far away.
The actual summit was about another half a mile from where they had reached the plateau, clearly marked by a cairn and an ordnance survey pillar. They wasted no time in heading for it, paused at the cairn for a minute while Andy took a photo of Craig standing beside it, then Blair took one of Craig and Andy, and another of Craig, Andy and Dave standing together. Craig insisted on getting one of himself and Blair, and then they set off again, heading back east for a short distance before turning in a southerly direction to make their way down a long shoulder that would lead them to the path that would take them down Glen Luibeg and back to the lodge.
They hadn't gone far, however, when Dave stood awkwardly on a stone, lost his balance and fell. He rolled awkwardly for some yards before coming to a halt. The others joined him quickly.
He blinked up at them.
"Dave? You okay?" Andy asked.
Dave licked his lips. "I think my leg's broken."
"I've done some first aid," Blair said quietly. "Let me see." He checked quickly, and nodded. "You're right. It's broken."
Andy looked from Dave to Craig, then on to Blair, who could see the worry clear in his eyes. "One of us will have to go for help."
Blair said quietly, "You can't go on your own - how could you admit to your parents that you left Craig up here with just me - considering my age - and an injured man, in worsening weather conditions? Though you and Craig could go while I stay with Dave - that might be the best option. You'd make better time on your own, but if Craig goes with you, that gets him safely off the hill."
"I'm not a child - " Craig began.
"No, but you're not an adult either. And let's face it, neither am I. In some cultures we'd be considered adult but here, in our culture, we're both in that awkward in-between age, thinking of ourselves as reasonably grown up but legally still under age for almost everything. There are other options; you and I could go, leaving Andy with Dave, but there's still the little problem of my age. I'm quite sure your parents wouldn't be happy about Andy letting you go off with a sixteen-year-old, in worsening weather. I could go alone, leaving you and Andy with Dave, but I doubt your parents would be happy with that, either. Rightly or wrongly, in their opinion Andy's first priority should be you, and getting you safely off the hill and back to the lodge where you'll be warm and dry."
Andy nodded. "Blair's right, Craig. Dad might understand, but Mum never would. She took a lot of persuading before she agreed to let you come this weekend and if she thinks I've put anything, even an injured man, ahead of your safety, she'll never let me bring you away again. Blair can stay with Dave, and you and I will go back and call for help. Then even if I have to come back up with a stretcher party, you can stay at the lodge and we can truthfully tell Mum that you were never in any danger, that you were off the hill before the weather got too bad."
Craig made a face, but made no further objections. Andy glanced down at his friend. "We'll be as quick as possible," he promised.
Dave nodded. "Just be careful. One broken leg is enough."
"I will," Andy agreed, and turned away.
Dave and Blair watched them go. They remained visible for some minutes, getting smaller in the distance, then finally the steepening slope took them out of sight.
Blair turned his attention to the injured man. "Right, let's get you as comfortable as possible," he said with forced cheerfulness. He dug into his backpack, and pulled out a large sheet of polythene. It didn't take him long to spread it out so that it formed a sort of windbreak, held to the ground at one end by some stones and raised at the other by being held on the top of a couple of big boulders by a collection of smaller stones. It was large enough to shelter then both; the rain, when it started, would run off it and leave them dry.
At least the worsening weather was only threatening rain - or, at this altitude at this time of year, snow, which would be more of a problem as it weighed down the polythene; the wind at least was showing no sign of getting stronger.
It was close on an hour before the rain began pattering down onto the polythene, lightly at first then increasingly heavy.
"How close do you think Andy and Craig will be to the Lodge?" Dave asked after a while.
"They should be onto the lower ground by now," Blair said, determinedly cheerfully. "Maybe a couple of miles still to go? But they'll be on a path."
"So how long... "
"I'd say maybe four or five hours at least for a rescue party to reach here, unless they can get out a helicopter," Blair admitted.
"At least it's rain, not snow," Dave said unnecessarily.
Time passed slowly. They spoke only spasmodically; although they had known each other before that weekend, it was only slightly; and although Dave had found Blair's stories interesting, the two had little in common, because Dave's subject was English. They wouldn't have been on the hill together if not for Craig's assumption that Blair would accompany them.
After a while, Dave broke a short silence to say, "Is it my imagination, or is it getting darker?"
Blair, who had been lying with his eyes closed, half dozing, pushed himself up onto one elbow and looked around. "Uh-oh. The clouds are getting lower; it's quite misty - visibility's way down. I can't see the summit cairn now. That'll make finding us a little harder."
"It cuts the chance of a helicopter coming, too, doesn't it." Dave would normally have considered himself more decisive than a sixteen-year-old, no matter how much experience of life that sixteen-year-old might have, but his leg hurt and shock was taking a certain toll.
"I'm afraid so," Blair agreed. "Even if one was on its way, once the cloud level drops below a certain point... " His voice trailed off.
They lay in silence again for a few more minutes, then Blair said, "I'm just going off to have a dump. How're you doing in that line?"
"Fine so far," Dave said, knowing that if that particular problem should arise he would definitely have... well, a problem.
"Need to have a leak? I have a container in my pack that you could use."
"Nah, I'm okay. Maybe later."
Blair nodded, scrabbled in his pack and retrieved a handful of toilet paper, and crawled out into the rain. "Won't be long."
The cloud level had dropped to where they were, but only just; visibility was still at around a hundred yards or so, Blair decided as he moved away to where he could only just see the makeshift shelter, though it was decreasing fairly quickly. He pulled his pants down, shivering as the rain impacted coldly on his bare skin, dealt quickly with his business, wiped himself clean and hauled his pants up again, then gathered some small stones to cover the evidence. He straightened again, realizing that even in the short time it had taken him to do everything, the mist had already thickened to the point where he could no longer see the shelter. He was confident he knew where it was, however; then as he began to turn towards it he saw a big dark shape coming towards him through the thickening mist.
One figure. It certainly wasn't a rescue party, and it was coming from the wrong direction to be Andy, returning to make sure they were all right. In any case, Andy would need to wait to lead a rescue party to them. Someone else who had chosen this particular climb, maybe starting from the road - which would put him at least an hour or two behind them - and was following a compass course to get off the hill again?
"Hello?" he said.
Moments later, the newcomer reached him, seeming to shrink somewhat in size as he approached, and Blair looked at him in some surprise.
The man was quite tall - a little over six feet, at a rough estimate - but his clothes were totally inappropriate for the conditions. He was wearing a costume of a type that Blair had seen, but only in a historical setting - a 'great kilt'; a garment that combined both kilt and plaid in one long strip of cloth - but no waterproof clothes at all. Despite that, despite the water that dripped off the edge of the kilt showing that the cloth was soaking, he seemed oblivious of the conditions, and Blair had a sudden - and unwelcome - flash of memory.
The Fear Liath Mor; the Big Grey Man of Beinn Macdhui.
Most of the stories about the Grey Man didn't actually report a sighting other than a grey shadow seen dimly through mist; they included hearing footsteps and/or a feeling of fear, ranging from apprehension to outright terror, though he remembered reading one story where one man had been separated from the rest of his party, falling behind them as they came off the hill. Looking back, they saw him in the company of another man, then he dropped briefly out of sight and when he reappeared he was alone; and when he rejoined his friends and they asked him who the stranger was, he was insistent that he had been alone all the time, that he had seen nobody.
But the story was that only people on the hill on their own ever encountered the Grey Man. And he wasn't, strictly speaking, on his own; Dave was lying in their shelter barely a hundred yards away.
The man looked at Blair for some moments, obviously studying him, then said quietly, "Welcome, Guide. I am Seumas MacEllis; and I have been seeking you for longer than I wish to remember. Come now with me." He half turned as if to return the way he had come, back towards the no-longer-visible summit cairn.
"Wait a minute!" Blair exclaimed. "You can't just walk up to me and tell me to go with you! I've got an injured friend over there - I can't leave him!"
MacEllis seemed to flinch before saying, as quietly as before, "He will be all right. You have given him a cover from the rain, and there will soon be men arriving to carry him from the hill."
"And if I'm missing when they arrive, that will cause trouble. There'll be a search for me, people will be risking their lives, it'll be wasting their time - "
"That is no longer your concern. You are the Guide I have sought for many years."
"You could come with us, and once we're back at the lodge you can tell me what all this 'guide' business is. But you'll have to be very convincing to persuade me that it's important to me."
"No. I cannot. I cannot leave this plateau."
"Are you trying to tell me that you live up here, and want me to live up here with you?"
"It is a little more complicated than that. Come with me." There was a sudden, almost calculating note in his voice as he added, "I can promise you an interesting life - "
"No! I have a life, and I've got no wish to change it!"
With the conversation finished as far as he was concerned, Blair turned to go back to the shelter he had constructed, but had taken only a step before he felt his arm caught by a strong hand. He opened his mouth to yell, to let Dave know what was happening, and MacEllis's other hand covered his mouth before he could make a sound.
"No. I will not lose you now that I have found you!"
Blair struggled to escape, but he had not yet reached his full growth or strength; MacEllis was stronger by far. Without taking his hand from where it covered Blair's mouth he gave a sudden quick jerk that pulled Blair off-balance, and shifted the hand that gripped Blair's arm so quickly that Blair had no chance to escape. He wrapped that arm around Blair's waist and lifted him easily, then turned and, despite Blair's continued struggles, walked steadily towards the summit.
Suddenly they seemed to be caught in a gust of wind, stronger than had been blowing; it dropped as quickly as it had come, and to Blair's amazement everything had changed.
They were no longer on a bleak, stone-covered plateau walking through rain-swept mist in rapidly reducing visibility. Now they were in a pleasant, sunny meadow. MacEllis released Blair, allowing him to stand again, but remained watchful.
"What... how... " Blair could only stammer semi-coherently as he looked around.
The outline of the hills around looked identical to those he could remember from just an hour or two previously, before the cloud level dropped to shroud the tops in mist; the only difference was that instead of being weathered, inhospitable and totally wild, this place could have been four thousand feet lower; the rain and mist had vanished, the sun, sinking towards the west, shone from a blue and almost cloudless sky, the air was warm, and the whole place looked fertile, perfect land for farming. Indeed, there were cattle grazing not too far distant, and a little way beyond them, possibly half a mile away, he could see the houses of what appeared to be a small village.
MacEllis gave him a minute to look around before saying quietly, "Welcome to my world. It is more pleasant than yours, is it not?"
Blair looked at him. He looked perfectly dry, although it had been such a short time since his kilt had been dripping wet; and Blair was aware that his own clothes no longer felt clammily damp.
"Where is this place? How did you bring me here? And why?" Mixed with his confusion, Blair was aware of an unaccustomed anger.
"This is my world," MacEllis repeated. "It is what you might call a parallel world to your own. Parallel worlds come into existence when there is a pivotal incident - something happens in one world, while a new world is created where something different happens.
"For some reason we are aware of your world, and of several others, but none of those worlds are aware of the existence of the others, or of us. Perhaps this was the original world - who knows? Some split off from us relatively recently, others longer ago. These worlds are what you might call cousins of this one. Others are second or third cousins, having split off, not from us, but from one of our 'cousins'. Your world and mine are cousins, but not really close; whatever separated us happened long enough in the past that the climate is totally different. This is the plateau that in your world is bare and inclement and where only the hardiest plants and animals can live. Our scientists have not been able to ascertain just what the pivotal point was that separated us, but their current theory is that your world suffered a series of major volcanic eruptions that affected your climate while ours did not.
"At certain places there are gateways into other worlds allowing us to visit them, but if we go too far from the gate, we lose contact with it and cannot return home. Several people were lost before we realized that. It is my good fortune that there is one such gateway here."
"So you're a scientist?" Despite his anger, Blair's natural curiosity was aroused.
"No - "
Blair carried on without registering the negative. "But what could you hope to discover on what you admit is a bare and inclement plateau that can just barely support life? And why kidnap me? I'm not old enough yet - "
"Your world has one resource that this one, and all other worlds we know of, lacks," MacEllis interrupted. "Guides. I need a Guide."
Blair frowned as he forced himself to be calmer. "I don't quite understand," he said. "For a start, the Guide movement is for girls, not boys. So - I repeat - why kidnap me? I'm sure your world must have some equivalent organisation unless you have the kind of culture that says a woman's place is in the kitchen - or the bedroom."
MacEllis looked startled. "Some Guides are female, certainly, but what is this 'guide movement'?"
"It's the girls' equivalent of the Boy Scouts, I think." Blair had never been a Boy Scout, never had any interest in youth groups, and was more than vague about their aims. "I think they learn how to be self-sufficient."
"How to help Wardens?"
"Well, wardens usually have assistants, so that they can delegate some of their duties, or have someone to take over on their days off - "
"Ah. I think we are talking about two completely different things," MacEllis interrupted. "We are using the same words, but the meaning seems to be different. Here, a Warden does not get 'days off', nor can he 'delegate', for he has no assistant. His life is made easier, however, by the presence of his Guide."
He gestured at the countryside around them, continuing before Blair could comment. "I am a Warden. This is my home; my territory. I was born here, prematurely, much to my father's dismay, when my parents were visiting my mother's family, and I am tied to it by unbreakable bonds. I can visit it on other worlds - it is still my territory, no matter how changed it is. It was not merely proximity to the gate that kept me on that plateau on your world, where few people ever went. I am unable to leave my territory; if I try - and when I was a baby, my father tried to take me from it, refusing to admit that I was a Warden, refusing to accept that I was tied to my grandparents' home - I become catatonic. He left me with my grandparents, insisting that my mother accompany him back to his part of the world, and making sure that my younger brother was born there. He could have saved himself the trouble; Dugal was born normal." There was more than a trace of bitterness in his voice. "As I grew out of infancy, he tried again to persuade me to leave, with the same result. When at last he had to accept that I was a Warden, tied to here, he disowned me."
Blair frowned. "So what exactly do you mean by 'warden'? What does a warden do?"
"We have senses that are more acute than those of normal people. It means that we are born to ward the region of our birth. We can only leave it to visit it in a parallel world - as I said, all our instincts are linked to it, in ways that nobody has been able to explain. I have visited your world often, hoping that one of the few people I encountered there would be the Guide that I need. Many times I saw nobody; and finally, finally I found you." There was a touch of satisfaction in his voice - almost self-satisfaction - that instinctively repelled Blair.
"How old are you?" Blair asked. Know thine enemy... Well, maybe 'enemy' was too strong a word, but Blair doubted very much that he could ever consider this man a friend.
"I am twenty-five years old."
"That's impossible!" Blair exclaimed. "Stories about the Grey Man of Beinn Macdhui have been told for nearly a hundred years! Well, sixty years, but the first story that I know of referred to an incident thirty-four years earlier."
MacEllis said, very slowly, "I have been searching for seven years. Any stories your people have told about meeting a stranger on your plateau earlier than that do not refer to me... although it is certain that my predecessors here also searched in your world for their Guides."
Blair drew a deep breath. "And what does a guide do?"
"The Guide is our lodestone. A Warden cannot function properly without one."
To Blair, both the words and the tone of voice sounded strangely automatic, as if they were memorized, words being repeated without any great understanding of their meaning. "You seem to have been doing just fine on your own," he muttered.
"We can manage on our own," MacEllis said, "but we are more effective with a Guide beside us. The Guide is our balance." The words still sounded as if they were memorized. "But not everyone can be a Guide; as I said, my own world does not have them. Your world... to the best of our knowledge, your world has Guides but not Wardens, so your gifts are wasted there."
"And if I don't want to be a guide?"
"You have no choice; just as I had no choice about being a Warden. We are born thus." His voice was matter-of-fact, totally lacking any sympathy and, remembering the bitterness in MacEllis' voice earlier, Blair briefly wondered just how much emotional damage had been done to the man by his father's rejection.
"What of my responsibilities in my own world? What of my friends, who will search for me? What of my relatives, who will believe me dead, but with no body to give closure?"
"They are no longer your concern, Guide. This is your world now."
Blair looked thoughtfully at MacEllis. Although he had given Blair his name, at no time had he asked what Blair's name was; it seemed to Blair that it was unimportant to MacEllis, that he, his life, his likes and dislikes, were of no importance. All that was important to MacEllis was his function - he was 'Guide', and it seemed that MacEllis expected him to know instinctively what that entailed. Well, he didn't know and he didn't want to know!
"Come." MacEllis beckoned him with the autocratic gesture of a man who is accustomed to instant obedience, a gesture that Blair instantly resented. Reared by a mother who questioned authority for no reason other than it was authority, even when she sought to manipulate it for her own purposes, he instinctively and automatically rejected authority that expected to be obeyed without first proving that it was worthy to be obeyed.
He was, however, well aware that the appearance of compliance would gain him more than open rebellion. He followed as MacEllis strode towards the village, passing close to the cattle as he went.
A man - who looked ancient to the sixteen-year-old Blair - was standing, leaning on a staff, watching the beasts. As MacEllis approached, he looked towards him, then past him to Blair.
"Who's your friend, MacEllis?"
Blair nodded to himself. Of course. Quite apart from his clothes - this man, too, was wearing a combined kilt and plaid, so by the standards of this world, or at least this region of it, Blair knew he must appear very oddly dressed - judging by the size of the village, this had to be a fairly small community; everyone in it would know everyone else.
"My Guide." MacEllis, it seemed, spared no courtesy to anyone; there was a note in his voice that clearly said, 'Mind your own business'.
The elderly man directed his attention to Blair, who recognised the sympathy in his eyes. So - not everyone here would regard him as a - yes, a tool, which was clearly how MacEllis saw him. A useful tool, certainly, but still nothing more than that.
"Seumas!" The call came from nearer the village; a woman this time, waving anxiously towards MacEllis, who moved quickly towards her. Her skirt - it seemed to be a skirt rather than a kilt - was close to ankle length, which said to Blair that in at least some respects this world was more old-fashioned than his own.
The man looked at Blair, and said quietly, "You are not happy to be here."
Blair shook his head. "I have my own life, and I don't know anything about this 'guide' business."
"And MacEllis will expect you to know what to do, without any instruction," the man said quietly. He glanced over to where the woman was talking to MacEllis, clearly agitated, and then, grabbing his arm, pulled him with her towards the houses. "Come." He started walking briskly, away from the village and back towards the area where Blair had entered this world. Blair followed. "While he is distracted. His grandfather has been ill; I think, now, that he may be dying. Even finding you will take second place in MacEllis's mind, albeit briefly, but also he asssumes that everyone will be pleased that he has found a Guide. He will expect that I will keep you here, and that all he has to do is come for you once he has said farewell to Lachlan MacIain."
"So why are you doing this?"
"I was Guide to the Warden who died just before MacEllis was born." He shook his head. "MacEllis has never realized that I am a Guide. If I had been his Guide, as I was Euan's, he would have known me... and when I said nothing of it to him, nobody else did, either, not even his grandparents. He is not well liked, even by them. They love him, but they do not particularly like him."
"You came from... from my world?"
"Why didn't you ever go home again, if you know the way?"
"Because by the time Euan MacNeall died, this was my home. I had been gone - believed dead, my body never found - for fifteen years. I had - I have - a place here. What could I go back to? And while Euan lived, I was happy. Euan was kind, truly regretted bringing me here, and needed me in a way that MacEllis will never need anyone - which is one reason I never told him I am a Guide - and when I did not, nobody else mentioned it. It was not their place to do so.
"Yes, MacEllis is our Warden - but his father destroyed something in him when he was still a small child. The only people for whom he feels any affection are Lachlan and Kirsty MacIain. Warding here is his duty; it was Euan's pleasure." He paused. "This is the gate. Go between those two stones - and when you get through, run like hell. Get off the plateau as quickly as you can, and never come back to it. Indeed, you should leave Scotland as soon as possible - leave Britain - and never come back."
"And MacEllis?" an odd sense of responsibility made Blair ask.
"I will tell him now what I am, and be a Guide to him for the years that are left to me. It will not be like working with Euan... but I have missed being a Guide."
Blair hesitated just one moment longer. "Your name?"
He smiled. "It was Roger Thorpe."
"Thank you." Blair turned and walked quickly between the stones, which were just far enough apart for someone to pass between them. He felt himself caught by a gust of wind...
... which continued unabated as he looked around, peering through the mist and rain of a windswept plateau.
He heard the echo of Roger Thorpe's voice. Run like hell.
The visibility was less, even, than it had been when he was dragged from the plateau. He took a moment to try to orient himself, then began running, as quickly as was safe, back towards where he thought the shelter he had built for Dave was.
It hadn't been terribly long, he reminded himself - he had been incredibly lucky the way events in that parallel world had developed - it was unlikely that Dave had been found yet...
He heard voices in front of him, then saw the shapes of several men through the mist, just a little to his left. MacEllis? With several others, come to take him back? No, of course not - MacEllis would be behind him, even if he had realized immediately what had happened, even if Roger Thorpe had not managed to delay him.
He slowed, and joined the group at a brisk walk. "Hi."
"Sandburg! We were worried that you'd got lost." It was Andy Douglas.
"A little," he admitted, knowing that he couldn't tell anyone what had really happened. Nobody would believe it. "I was a bit disoriented in the mist. But then I heard your voices and that gave me a direction."
"Well, from what Dave says you've been away for at least an hour."
"As long as that?"
"Anyway, glad you found your way back to us," Andy said. "We were going to leave two or three men here to look for you - "
"Sorry about that," Blair said, glancing at the stranger who was standing beside Andy. "I really shouldn't have gone as far from Dave as I did, not in this poor visibility, but... I suppose he told you why I went off, and... well, I wanted to be far enough away that he couldn't possibly see me... "
Andy laughed. "Yeah, the instinct to have privacy to crap is pretty strong, isn't it."
"And I've learned a lesson from it," Blair finished. "I won't do anything that stupid again."
The plastic sheet had been folded up and was sitting, held down by Blair's daypack; the men had just finished getting Dave strapped onto a stretcher. Several of them were from their group, and he wondered where the others, like the stranger with Andy, had come from. Probably the Braemar Mountain Rescue team, he decided without asking. Instead, he crossed quickly to his pack, pushed the folded plastic into it, fastened it and swung it onto his back, ready to go.
Someone was talking on a radio link, but Blair was unable to make out the words. Then the man with the radio said clearly, "The cloud's too low to risk a helicopter coming in. We're going to have to stretcher Ingram to the Lodge and drive him into Aberdeen."
They set off downhill, following a compass direction, unable to go quickly because of the need to be careful with the stretcher, trading off carrying it at frequent intervals. And the light seemed to be failing. It wasn't just the poor visibility caused by the low, thick clouds. It had to be close to nightfall, he realized, remembering how the sun had been sinking towards the west in that alternate world.
Soon they needed flashlights to see their way.
How far would they have to go before MacEllis was unable to follow? Blair wondered. Would it be possible to get back to Aberdeen that night? He'd surely be safe in Aberdeen... You should leave Scotland as soon as possible echoed through his mind.
The angle of descent abruptly lessened, and he saw that they were on a path. Although it was narrow, they were able to make better time, and in less than two hours they reached the Lodge. Three vehicles, one of them an ambulance, waited there. While Dave was being loaded into it, Craig, Frank Evans and the Jackson brothers came out of the Lodge to join them.
"How is Dave?" Craig asked, clearly beating Frank to the question by a bare second.
"Hurting," Andy replied wryly. "It's impossible to carry anyone over rough ground without jolting him. But he's in quite good nick."
Several of the Mountain Rescue team climbed into the ambulance as well, and it set off down the track. Everyone else, including the other local men, headed into the Lodge.
"There's soup, and hot water for tea or coffee," Frank said. "Sandburg, we took the liberty of packing up your gear as well as Dave's - we decided it wouldn't feel right staying on till tomorrow, with Dave hurt."
"Thanks," Blair said. "You're right; I'd like to get back tonight." And not just because of Dave, he thought. MacEllis had implied that he couldn't come as far as the Lodge, but Blair had a suspicion that had been a lie. "It'll probably be too late to check on Dave tonight, when we get back, but it means we'll be able to phone the hospital tomorrow to see how he is, even visit him."
They ate quickly, glad of the warmth of the soup, washed up, gathered their packs and while Frank, as the unofficial leader of the group, locked up, the others piled into the Mountain Rescue vehicles - there was just room enough for everyone because some of the local men had gone back with the ambulance.
At the end of the track, the student party dropped out of the vehicles, calling their thanks for the lift, and piled into their minibus.
Next morning, after a quick phone call to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary to see how Dave was, Blair dug out the notebook that held several possible contact addresses and phone numbers for his mother. He had no great expectation of finding her - although she had an apartment in Cascade, they rarely went back to it. And while they often visited the friends she had listed, there were also times when she - taking Blair with her - had gone off and nobody at all knew where she had gone. He was perfectly prepared to discover that, a totally free agent as she had never been since leaving home as a pregnant sixteen-year-old, she had gone off somewhere without leaving any 'forwarding address'.
Not that her parents had disowned her... exactly. They had given her a generous allowance, as long as she stayed away, didn't shame them in front of their neighbours and acquaintances by showing up either well on in pregnancy or with a young child, and when they died, she - their only child - had inherited everything. All Blair knew, though, was that they didn't have to worry about money; she had never told him just how much money she had.
However, the woman at the fourth place he tried was able to tell him that Naomi had gone back to Cascade just a few days earlier. He thanked her, then rang the home number that he hadn't thought to try. The phone was answered on the second ring.
"Blair?" Naomi asked, and the concern in her voice soothed him even as he hastened to reassure her.
"I'm fine, Mom. But something a little worrying happened yesterday, and... well... I'm not really sure what's the best thing for me to do."
"You're not being bullied or anything like that, are you?"
"No, nothing like that." He hesitated for a moment. "This is going to sound really weird, but it did happen, I'm sure it happened... I didn't fall asleep and dream it. I know I didn't..."
"Now you're worrying me, sweetie - "
"You know how easily I can get lost in my books. So I decided to join the university hill-walking club, because it would take me out, give me some exercise. This weekend was the first meet of the season... " He carried on tell his mother what had happened. "Today, it sort of feels like a dream, except... This week, I'm going to check back the local newspapers for forty years ago, see if there's a report of a Roger Thorpe disappearing without trace on Beinn Macdhui - and if there is... If there is, I'm going to think very seriously about moving to a different university."
"Because he told you to move away from Scotland."
"Yes. I should be all right here for a few weeks - MacEllis doesn't know my name so it won't be easy for him to send anyone after me - but I think I should try to move, at latest at the end of the term here, use the Christmas break to relocate and start in a new university, if I can get in, in January. The problem is coming up with a good reason for wanting to move that'll let another university accept me in the middle of the academic year."
"You're still very young," Naomi said. "It wouldn't hurt if you couldn't get in somewhere else until next fall."
"I'd feel I'd wasted a year, though," Blair said unhappily.
"You could study on your own. You've done that before, after all."
"But it still adds a year to when I'd get my degree."
"I hear that," Naomi murmured. "All right. Have you any idea where you want to go?"
Blair hesitated for a moment. "Not really. Probably America, preferably the west coast. That's a good long way from here. Cascade would be perfect. I do want a university with a good anthropology department... and I think Rainier has that. And like I said, I have to have a good reason for wanting to leave Aberdeen, so soon after starting here."
"You can use me as an excuse," Naomi said. "Say I'm not well, and needing you to look after me - not full-time or permanently, just be someone living in the same house for several months as a safeguard - "
"And if they ask what's wrong?"
"I was involved in an accident? Or, better, a mugging? Not seriously hurt, but emotionally traumatised, and I've been advised that I shouldn't live on my own for a while - and who else would I want living with me, helping me get over the trauma, but my son? Would that work, do you think?"
"I think it's just as well that nobody here has actually met you," Blair said bluntly. "If they had, they'd know we were lying through our teeth."
"No, no, sweetie, not lying. Just... what was it you said again? Obfuscating."
Blair shook his head, even knowing that Naomi couldn't see him. "Say something like that just once, and nobody ever lets you forget it!" he muttered.
She chuckled, then said, "Seriously, Blair - I'm already here and I'm your 'reason' for leaving Scotland. You'd really just be coming home."
He thought for a moment. "Yes," he said. "The Principal here - or at Rainier - might want a medical report, though."
"I can get that quite easily," Naomi said confidently.
Why doesn't that surprise me? he thought. "Okay, I'll go and see the Principal here tomorrow, as well as checking the old papers for Roger Thorpe. At least get things moving. And if I do have to mark time for a year... I'd rather do that than be dragged off into a different universe by a guy I didn't even like."
He was able to see the Principal mid-Monday-morning, and gave him the story about his mother's having been mugged and needing company for an indefinite period, ending with "If I have to drop out of University for a year, and start again next year, well, that's life. But there's a university in Cascade - that's our home town. I didn't originally consider going there because we'd been living in Scotland for a while and I'd passed all my exams here in Scotland, but then the job Mom was doing finished and she went back to Cascade. I'd like to get into Rainier next term if it's at all possible... I'd be able to live at home, and Mom would have someone else in the apartment at night, which is when she mostly needs the company, while she tries to regain her confidence." And wasn't it lucky that Naomi did have a close friend in Cascade that he could refer to. "There's a friend staying with her for the moment, but she has responsibilities to her own family, and can't stay indefinitely. Obviously I haven't spoken to her doctor to see what he thinks - Mom just told me about this yesterday. She's reluctant to... well, hinder my studies, and hoped that a week or two with Aunt Laura's help would see her past the worst - but reading between the lines of what she said, she's going to need support for quite some time."
Dr. Robertson nodded slowly. "I understand your dilemma, Mr. Sandburg. Have you contacted Rainier yet to see if they will admit you part-way through the year?"
"No; I wanted to speak to you first, let you know the situation."
"I don't deny we'll be sorry to lose you; it's still quite early in the term, but already your lecturers all speak highly of your conscientiousness. And of course that's what's taking you away; your responsibility to your mother. As it happens, I have a friend at Rainier; I'll have a word with him. Now that you've spoken to me, you'll be sending them an application soon?"
"I have it ready to send off, sir."
"It's obviously too early for there to be any marks to send them, but I'll certainly give Dr. Stoddard my recommendation. But if they don't accept your application for this year, remember you're still very young; even if you lose a year at this stage, next year you'll be only seventeen, and still young to be attending university."
"Yes, sir, I know... and thank you."
Blair felt surprisingly guilty as he left Dr. Robertson's office, but balanced against possibly being rekidnapped by someone sent by MacEllis, he counted the lies as the lesser evil.
He had no classes that afternoon, so he made his way to the local library, and asked if it was possible for him to see the newspapers for 1944 to 1946 - although Thorpe had said 'forty years', Blair knew that it could easily have been a year less than that, or a year more... perhaps even two years, but he felt that looking through three years' worth of papers was enough. He explained that as a student of anthropology, he was doing a study involving the last part of WW2 and the early months of peace as experienced in the Aberdeen area, and once he had shown his student union card to prove that he was indeed at university, he was given access to the newspapers.
The papers, he immediately discovered, were very thin, and a moment's consideration provided him with a possible answer. Paper, in the mid 1940s, was probably in short supply.
In keeping with his cover story, he took out a notebook and pencil, and began scribbling notes as he scanned the papers, pausing occasionally to actually read a report, finding it more interesting than he had expected. It was possible that he might indeed manage to write up something about the period...
Thin though the papers were, there were a lot of them. It was nearly three hours before he eventually found a headline in a May 1946 paper that seemed promising - 'Aberdeen man missing in Cairngorms', and he began to read.
It was, as he had hoped, Roger Thorpe. Seventeen years old. Blair nodded to himself; although the war was ended, if he had been older than that, Thorpe would have been called up to do National Service if nothing else.
When Thorpe failed to return home after a weekend walking in the Cairngorms, his parents raised the alarm. His tent was found near the Linn o' Dee, with most of his equipment in it; his bicycle at Derry Lodge. The local gamekeeper had seen it there quite early on Saturday morning, and had been surprised that it was still there late on Sunday afternoon, but hadn't been particularly concerned because he knew that sometimes mountaineers carried a sleeping bag some distance into the hills and bivouacked there, so as not to waste time with a possible two-hour walk in (and out again) each day, and in the lengthy daylight hours of early summer a late finish still gave plenty of time for someone to cycle home while it was still light. Investigation revealed that Thorpe had left a note of his route with the bicycle - Blair read it, noting that the route was surprisingly close to the one he, Dave and the Douglas brothers had taken.
Blair turned to the paper for the following day, hoping for a follow-up report, and sure enough there was one. Shortage of manpower in the immediate post-war months prevented a proper search - the keepers on the Mar Lodge Estate and several of the local police had gone over the route on the Monday and found no sign of the missing man. They concluded that if he was there, he was either already dead or too badly injured to respond to their calls. They had their work to do, but would continue to keep an eye open any time they were anywhere near Beinn Macdhui or the routes to it.
He continued to scan through the papers till he reached the end of 1946, making more notes from time to time as he saw something that he thought he could use for his 'study', but there were no more reports about the 'missing climber'.
Thanking the librarian, he finally left and went back to the Halls of Residence.
Yes; he had to get away as soon as possible. The one thing he had in his favor, the one thing that might let MacEllis fail to find him, was that the Warden didn't know his name - nor did Thorpe, come to that; There was no persuasion MacEllis might use that could force Thorpe to betray what he didn't know.
Thorpe had made his home in that world; and he wanted the life MacEllis had planned for Blair.
Thinking about it later, Blair decided that Dr. Robertson must indeed have pulled some strings for him.
He had expected to have to wait at least a month before hearing back from Rainier; instead, he received a reply in two weeks, accepting his application, and a private letter from Dr. Eli Stoddard indicating that although it was unusual to accept someone transferring part way through the year, under the circumstances they were willing to let him start at Rainier as soon as he wanted.
The day the acceptance arrived, Blair went to see Dr. Robertson, who agreed that Blair should leave immediately, and offered to phone Rainier to let Dr. Stoddard know to expect Blair on Monday of the following week. Blair accepted with thanks, again feeling slightly guilty about the lie he had told but knowing that nobody would believe the truth.
He gave some serious thought to contacting Andy Douglas, to let him - and through him, Craig - know he was leaving, then decided that it was better if nobody in the climbing club knew where he had gone - although some meets went to other venues, the Braemar side of the Cairngorms was their home territory, the lodge at Derry their base, and if MacEllis caught any of them on Beinn Macdhui and asked where 'the long-haired youngster who was here in early October' had gone, they wouldn't have any reason not to give him the information - if they had it. He would, he decided as he went to return two books to the library, leave a letter for Andy with Dr. Robertson's secretary.
He wrote it at the library; a brief note that gave Andy his cover story without telling him where he had gone, trying to give the impression of someone so worried about his mother that he didn't think beyond letting his acquaintances know he had left. He finished by sending his best wishes to Dave and Craig, signed it, then detoured back to leave it with the secretary.
He went back to the Halls of Residence to pack, having decided to leave immediately, catching a stand-by flight to Cascade - well, anywhere in America, really; he could then continue flying standby until he reached Cascade. Everything he had went into the rucksack that had been his chosen 'suitcase' for the past three years. Large enough to hold everything he needed, it was small enough that he could take it as 'carry-on' luggage, and not have to waste any time on arrival waiting for the luggage to appear.
At least he didn't have any grants to worry about; Naomi was wealthy enough that she had paid his fees for the year, and left him a reasonable amount of spending money. Leaving the Halls of Residence, he went first to his bank, where he closed his account, explaining that family circumstances were forcing him to leave Scotland. He then took a cab to Dyce airport.
Three hours later he was in the air, en route to America.
At Newark, he checked the flights to Cascade, and managed to book a seat on the last flight of the day. It would get him in very late, and while he filled in time wandering around the airport shops he debated what was the best thing for him to do.
If he let Naomi know which flight he was taking, she would undoubtedly come to the airport to meet him - but if she did, it would certainly give the lie to the cover story she herself had suggested, should anyone at Rainier learn of it. He was quite sure that it would take him some time and a lot of persuasive words to convince her that she must spend some weeks, probably some months, remaining fairly reclusive, at least in the evenings. Finally he decided to spend the night at the airport hotel, then after breakfast he could take a cab to their apartment, claiming that he had arrived on an early morning flight.
It wasn't quite a lie - more one of the misdirections he had once called an 'obfuscation' that he had always found useful. His flight arrived just before 1 am. Early morning, so he would be telling Naomi the truth... but an edited truth. He just wouldn't tell her how early his flight had landed, and he was quite sure it would never occur to her that he hadn't landed more than an hour, at most, before his arrival on her doorstep.
He found a bookshop with a shelf devoted to travel books, and browsed contentedly, mentally comparing what he knew about some countries with what the books said, and finding one or two where the facts given didn't quite match, where the books implied a rosier standard of living for the general populace than his memory supplied.
He kept half an eye on the girl at the counter, knowing that she was watching the customers who wandered in and out, and registered from her body language the moment when she began to suspect that he was simply wasting time and had no intention of buying. Putting the book he was holding back in its place, he glanced casually along the shelf, took the one on Peru that he had decided early on looked the most interesting, and crossed to the counter with it. As he paid, he knew she had no idea how well he had read her.
Pushing the book into a side pocket of his pack, Blair wandered on.
Finally, having exhausted all the possibilities of wasting time that he could find, he sat where he could see the departure board and, pulling out his purchase, settled down to read, glancing up at the board from time to time.
Once his flight was announced on it, he made his way to the departure gate and carried on reading.
As he had known, Naomi accepted his tale of travelling standby and arriving on an early flight without questioning the exact time involved. She would have hustled him off to bed right away, but he reminded her of jet lag, that his body clock was telling him that it was late afternoon, and that he would be better not going to bed until at least early evening - not earlier than 8, possibly 9 - otherwise he would be awake half the night.
Much to his surprise, he didn't have to convince her that she had to act the part of a traumatized victim, at least for a few weeks until he was firmly settled in at Rainier. She had clearly considered what would be involved in covering his sudden move from Aberdeen, and realized that she must be careful to play her part.
"I told Laura that you were coming because you'd had a little trouble at Aberdeen, with being so young," Naomi said, "so she won't be surprised to see you."
"What sort of trouble?" Blair asked. "In case she asks."
"Just some unpleasantness caused by your being so young. A little bit of verbal bullying, telling you that you shouldn't be there."
Blair grinned. "Well, I did make a couple of friends," he said, "but you're right; I was too young to be accepted. I wasn't actually bullied, it was more muttering behind my back, but I wasn't the most popular guy on campus. As long as they left me alone, it didn't worry me. And while I'll still be too young at Rainier, I'll be staying at home, so the other students won't be seeing me outside of class."
Next morning, he phoned Rainier, asking to speak to Dr. Stoddard. He explained who he was, and was gratified to discover that Dr. Robertson had indeed let Stoddard know to expect him.
"I flew standby, so I reached Cascade faster than I'd expected," he said.
"And how's your mother, my boy?"
"Nervous," Blair said carefully, "and it's worst at night. Apart from that, not as bad as I was afraid it'd be. I don't know how badly hurt she was - she hasn't told me, and I don't want to push it - but she's terrified of it happening again. So apart from attending classes, I'll be spending most of my time with her, at least for the moment."
"Yes, I understand that. Now, I'll expect to see you on Monday at 9. I'm in Hargrove Hall. There is just one thing. Since Dr. Robertson wasn't able to give me anything other than his verbal assurance that you're a good student, could you, over the weekend, write an essay on some aspect of anthropology, at least two thousand words, so that I can judge the level of your work for myself."
Blair rang off, and sat looking at the phone for a minute, thinking. A two thousand word essay - yes, that would be easy. But he really needed to have a subject that showed he could research something...
He hurried to his room, and retrieved the notebook in which he had scribbled the notes he had taken from the Aberdeen newspapers. He read through them quickly, glad of his excellent memory as he remembered the full report for most of them.
Looking into the kitchen were Naomi was finishing washing the breakfast dishes, he said, "I need a couple of notebooks. Where's the best place for me to get them?"
She thought for a moment, then told him. Checking that he had his wallet, Blair hurried out, already considering section headings.
He returned half an hour later carrying not two, but several notebooks, two loose-leaf folders and a stock of punched sheets of paper for them, and three pens.
Settling down, he began his initial outline. He chose to begin with the end of the war, referencing back to the earlier news reports to give the context of some of his conclusions, and by mid afternoon had a rough first draft finished. Stretching, he decided to give himself a short break before starting to polish it. If he did that after dinner, he could write it out neatly in the morning...
Knowing he had to find Dr. Stoddard's office, Blair arrived at Rainier early. Once he knew where to go, he still had nearly half an hour to wait; he wandered outside and looked around.
He had enjoyed the short time he had spent at Aberdeen University; but this place spoke to him in a way Aberdeen had not, and he knew he would really like it here. And when Naomi decided to go travelling again, as she undoubtedly would... well, by then he would be settled, and he was quite sure he could come up with a convincing reason for Naomi's departure. Hey, even that she still felt nervous here, and wanted to move away to someplace where she would feel safer.
Smiling a little ruefully, he realized he had almost begun to believe their cover story. Oh, well, better if he did; that way he wouldn't slip up. Checking his watch, he headed back into Hargrove Hall, and made his way to Stoddard's office, knocking briskly on the door just a minute early.
Stoddard was younger than he had expected; Blair had thought he would be much the same age as Dr. Robertson, who wasn't far from retirement, but he didn't look to be older than perhaps forty.
"Blair Sandburg, sir."
"Ah, yes, my boy. Sit, sit!" Stoddard gestured to the chair in front of his desk.
Blair put the notebook containing his essay on the desk as he sat. "My essay, sir."
Stoddard took it and glanced at the heading; his eyebrows rose at the heading. 'A Country Recovers from War: With Particular Reference to the City of Aberdeen.' "Was this something you were given in a lecture?"
"No, sir. One of our early lectures covered how important it was for someone who wanted a serious career in archaeology or anthropology to have his name known through having papers and articles published, and I'd been wondering about possible subjects for articles, thinking that if I could write one or two with a Scottish bias, submit them by post to something like The Scots Magazine, the editors wouldn't know how young I am and if they were accepted, it would give me a start. Then I was chatting with one or two of the other students, and one of them said something about social changes caused by the war. I went to the local library and checked newspapers for the mid 1940s, and took notes - that was just before Mom contacted me. If I hadn't had to leave Aberdeen, I'd have gone back to the library and done some more reading from the newspapers of the period to get a little more detail once I actually started writing; as it is, I've had to depend on the notes I took at the time, so it's not quite as good as it might be."
"I see. Excuse me a moment." Stoddard began to glance through it. After a couple of minutes he looked up. "But this is excellent work, my boy! I wondered why Peter Robertson sounded so enthusiastic about you, but from this, I can well understand it. And you're still only sixteen?"
"I can see a great career in front of you, my boy; a great career!"
Blair had been briefly worried at being called 'my boy'; now he began to suspect that Stoddard called all the male students that, a way of disguising the fact that he didn't, couldn't, know everyone's names. He probably called all the girls 'my dear', for the same reason.
Stoddard was still talking. "... leave this with me for the moment so that I can read it properly, but from the quick look I've had I see no reason why it shouldn't count as a credit for you. Now, this is your class schedule and the books you'll need." He handed over several sheets of paper.
Blair looked quickly through the list of books, and nodded. "I already have some of them, sir, and I'll get the rest - " he looked at the class schedule - "this afternoon."
Blair settled in very quickly, almost immediately finding that, as at Aberdeen, he was too young to be easily accepted and his ability was resented by some of his fellow students; but this time he was living at home, and not rubbing his presence into the noses of the other students outside class hours. As a result, although he made no friends, he was also certain that he had no actual enemies.
The months passed surprisingly quickly and almost before Blair had time to think about it, it was mid June and time for the summer break. And Naomi, who had really been very good at maintaining the cover she had suggested, was becoming restless in a way that Blair knew well. It wouldn't be long before the wanderlust that was so much a part of her nature won out over the much weaker maternal instinct to protect her son. Indeed, Blair was secretly surprised that she had managed to control her... yes, need to travel, to see what was over the next horizon, for so long.
Dr. Stoddard had been taking names for a short 'expedition' - more a tour of old Native American sites than a 'proper' expedition, but in the course of it the party would have the chance to see more of those sites than was normally open to public view. He considered applying for a place, but finally decided that he wouldn't really fit in. He was still too young, and because he had been spending virtually all of his free time at home, he didn't know any of the other students in an informal setting.
He make a point of seeing Dr. Stoddard and explaining that to him, adding, "Mom's pretty well over her fear of being attacked again, so I can begin to socialize more next year, and then put my name down for whatever you plan for next summer." Unless it's somewhere in Scotland, he added to himself.
"I think you've made the right decision, my boy," Stoddard told him. "I don't deny I'd have been very interested to see what your conclusions about some of the sites would have been - yes, I'll be looking for a paper on it from those who go on the trip. For those of you not going, I'll want a paper on some aspect of your summer - whether you go on vacation or get a job."
Over breakfast on the day before the summer break, Naomi said, "How does South America sound?"
"That's where you're thinking of going?" Blair asked. "What part?"
"That'll depend on what flight I can get. Are you coming with me?"
"This year - yes. Next year, though, whatever you plan for the summer, I won't go with you. I'm hoping to go on whatever expedition Dr. Stoddard organises."
"I'll get the tickets today. Oh, it'll be nice to see someplace new again! Ah, now don't get me wrong, sweetie, I haven't grudged a minute of the last few months, but - "
"Naomi, I know you've been getting cabin fever. What, you think that in seventeen years I haven't learned to recognize when you're getting restless? Yes, I said seventeen - I think I knew, even when I was still a baby, when you were tired of staying in one place."
She smiled a little ruefully. "You've never had that same restlessness, have you?"
"No," Blair said. "And, Naomi - I don't expect you to get a return ticket. Get a return for me - to come back in mid-August. Dr. Stoddard's set us an assignment, and I'd like to have at least a month to work on it."
"An assignment? But this is your holiday, he can't expect you - "
"It doesn't have to be finished until mid-October although it can be handed in at any time before that, and I'd rather get it done early," Blair said.
"Oh. If it's your choice, I suppose that's all right," Naomi said, reluctance coloring her voice. She hesitated for a moment, then said, "You'll be coming back here, won't you?"
"Well, the apartment is ours, isn't it? You don't just rent it."
"Yes, it is ours - rather than have it standing empty, I'd been renting it out on a short-term lease until I decided to come back here for a while - but I wondered if you thought it might be too big for you... "
"Mom, it's your home too. I don't expect you to settle again for months at a time, any time you come back, but your room will be ready for you whenever you care to pop in."
"Thank you, sweetie. Now that you'll be on your own again, I've increased your allowance a bit because living here on your own won't be like living in university accommodation - or even with me here. You'll have house expenses to cover - the utilities are covered by direct debit on my account, but that won't cover any necessary repairs, and you'll have to feed yourself."
"Thanks," Blair said. Privately, he considered that the allowance he'd been receiving was more than adequate - he'd been able to save some of it - but he was quite happy to add to what he was saving.
"Just promise me that if you bring any girls back, you'll be careful. Always use a condom."
Used to her sometimes tactless, but always open-minded, comments, Blair remained unembarrassed by her instructions. "I promise," he said cheerfully. It was an easy promise to make. Growing up without a father, not knowing who his father was, suspecting that the man had disappeared the moment he discovered his under-age girlfriend was pregnant, Blair had long ago decided that whatever he did, he would not risk leaving any girl pregnant.
"Now, I'll get the plane tickets for next Tuesday - it's always a little cheaper travelling mid-week, and easier to get tickets too," she went on. She chuckled. "Don't tell me you've forgotten we never travelled on weekends."
"No, I haven't, but I never realized that's why."
"Oh, don't look so worried!" Naomi laughed outright. "We're not short of money, sweetie, but I've never seen any point in spending more than necessary, in adding to the profit made by big corporations. If airlines can afford to give cheaper flights when it's quieter, they have to be making excess profit by charging more when it's busy; and I object to being - well, cheated, by being charged extra just because it's a day when a lot of people want to travel. I'd guess that subconsciously you were thinking the same, by travelling standby and overnight, when you came here from Scotland."
Blair shook his head. "I just wanted to get away from Scotland as fast as possible, and travelling standby seemed the quickest way," he said. "I wasn't thinking about cost." He sighed. "I have no idea what the level of technology in that alternate world was... is. Their clothes were what we'd call old-fashioned, so I'd guess their technology isn't a match for ours - but that's just a guess. Though since Thorpe told me to leave Scotland, and seemed to think that would keep me safe, I suspect that means it wouldn't occur to MacEllis that I would find it easy to travel very far."
They ended up going to Chile, a country they had not previously visited, landing in Santiago.
Blair found that, as always, Naomi was perfectly willing to accommodate his interests, and so they hired a car, bought a tourist map, and went touring. They went to the Valley of the Moon, which - although a popular destination for visitors - had only been given Nature Sanctuary status two or three years previously. It was beautiful, in an other-worldly sort of way, but both Blair and Naomi found the total lack of any life, either plant or animal, disconcerting. They passed the remains of more than one mining town as they travelled towards the coast, finally reaching an area where there was enough moisture, courtesy of the sea fogs, to support life. After that they headed for Cuz Cuz where, according to what Blair had read, there was a large concentration of petroglyphs. The petroglyphs were spread out over a fairly large area, and over several days they were able to visit about half of the sites, Blair taking photos, sketching and making notes feverishly at each one.
Finally they headed back to Santiago, to spend a week there before it was time for Blair to return to Cascade. Naomi decided to carry on to New Zealand, to visit a cousin who had gone there some ten years previously. She had no definite plans for after that - "But I'll probably come back to Cascade next year, in time to go off with you next summer."
"Mom, you don't have to do that. Remember what I told you? Next year I'm hoping to go on whatever expedition Dr. Stoddard has planned," Blair said. "I couldn't go this year, partly because we were still pretending you needed me, partly because I'm still on the young side, but by next year, I will be old enough. I'll really need to get a part-time job, too - maybe on the weekends; I'll stand out - and not in a good way - if I don't take a job now that I'm seventeen. I don't want the other students to know my Mom can afford to support me while I'm attending university, afford to finance me on field trips. It's hard enough being so young without adding having money to the mix."
Naomi looked at him, thought about it, then reluctantly nodded. "I hear that, sweetie. You're right, it's not a good idea to let anyone know how wealthy you actually are."
"I can always say - if I must - that a scholarship covers my university fees and my family covers my living expenses, especially since I'm living at home. I can say that I've taken the job to cover the cost of any trips I go on, and that would be believed. And Mom, I do want you to visit, as often as you can."
"I hear that. And remember, if you have any problems, you can always contact Aunt Laura."
Blair nodded, privately determined that he would manage for himself, and secretly amused that his mother, who insisted that he called her 'Naomi', was equally insistent that he should call her friend 'Aunt' Laura.
It was on his second last day in Santiago that Blair found a bookshop that carried a stock of second-hand books as well as a wide range of new ones. He spent a happy afternoon in it while Naomi, her mind on her planned visit to New Zealand, went shopping for clothes, selecting several books, mostly written in Spanish, about the Cuz Cuz area and the Atacama Desert which he could use to supplement his own observations. Finally, his browsing led him to a shelf of books marked 'Precio de oferta'.
One title drew his attention - The Sentinels of Paraguay. When he checked the book, he understood why it was being sold cheaply; it was in English, not the language of choice for most of the people living in Chile, and it was clearly an old book; written by Sir Richard Burton. As a student of anthropology, Blair's immediate thought on seeing the name was 'nineteenth century explorer' rather than 'popular actor'. He was well aware that in America this book would be priced high; here, it was two thousand pesos - a real bargain.
He checked the first pages, wondering what was the significance of 'sentinels' and why Paraguay should be singled out, and stiffened when he saw the description Burton had given. A sentinel was a watchman; a man with senses more acute than normal, who watched for changes in the weather, the movement of game, the approach of potential enemies.
A watchman. A... warden? Yet MacEllis had claimed, 'to the best of our knowledge, your world has Guides but not Wardens'.
MacEllis, it seemed, had been wrong. There might not be wardens - sentinels - in this world now, but there must have been some at one time.
A curiosity he could not resist compelled Blair to add The Sentinels of Paraguay to the pile of books he had already selected. Then, assessing the bulk and weight of the books, he decided, fairly reluctantly, that these were as many as he could pack into his rucksack.
As he paid for the books, he asked where The Sentinels of Paraguay had come from. The shopkeeper smiled. "A few months ago, one of my regular customers died. He had an extensive library. His son did not want the books, and offered them all to me at a fraction of their original price. Many of them were good books, published in the last twenty years, but there were some like this one, very old, that had not come from me; I would guess they had belonged to my customer's father and maybe his grandfather before that - books that few people would find interesting. I really did not think any of these old books would sell, especially this one that is in English, but they don't take up much space and I'm reluctant ever to throw a book out; I thought, it doesn't cost me anything to keep them, and it was worth trying to make a few pesos from them. I am surprised that a young man like you would want a book so old and out of date."
"I'm a student; studying anthropology. I think this will give me some insight into the way people lived in South America last century - and if it doesn't, well, it's cheap enough for me not to feel I've wasted my money." He felt slightly guilty for not admitting how much this book would fetch in the right market, but consoled himself with the thought that if the man had no idea that old books could be valuable, it was his own fault if he under-priced them - especially since the man's appearance showed that he wasn't exactly short of money, even with inflation in Chile running as high as it did.
"The other books are for your studies too?"
"Yes." Blair grinned. "You'd be surprised how often our teachers ask us to write something about 'What I did on my vacation'. Well, I did visit these places - " he indicated the books - "and I found them interesting, but I want the books to refer to when I write that inevitable essay. Not to copy, obviously, but to remind me of what I saw."
"Good luck with it."
Blair grinned, nodded, and left the shop. He glanced at his watch; he still had a little more than half an hour before he was due to meet Naomi, and it wouldn't surprise him at all if she arrived late.
To waste time, he window-shopped all the way to the cafe where they had arranged to meet, and still arrived ten minutes early. Shrugging, he ordered a coffee and settled down to wait.
As he unlocked the door of the loft apartment he now considered his - although the utilities were paid by Naomi he was fairly certain she wouldn't be back, except for short visits, for the foreseeable future - Blair was aware that his first priority must be to go grocery shopping.
Looking around the basically open-plan apartment, he frowned slightly. Naomi had always used the big upstairs bedroom whenever they lived in Cascade; his room had been the small probably-meant-to-be-closet space under it. It seemed silly to continue sleeping in the tiny, cramped room, leaving the larger, airier one unoccupied, and he promptly decided to claim the upstairs bed for his own. It would be easy enough for him to move back downstairs any time Naomi visited.
He dropped his rucksack at the foot of the stairs - time to unpack later, after he bought in some food. Tempted to take the lazy way out and simply order takeaway for this first evening, he shook his head, firmly disciplining himself. If he did that, what would he have for breakfast? There was some food in the freezer, but he knew there was nothing there that he would want first thing in the morning. No - begin as he meant to go on.
He checked his wallet. Yes, he had enough money to buy a reasonable supply of food, but he would certainly have to visit an AMT soon - in the morning would do, though.
Turning, he headed out, his destination the nearest store.
Blair took a week to relax and accustom himself to living alone, quickly discovering that although he was accustomed to, and liked, having other people around, he actually enjoyed being on his own, and inside a week had fallen into his own pattern of living. This would, he realized, have to change slightly once he was back at Rainier, but not by much.
During that week, he found himself a nicely visible Saturday job in one of the Cascade bookshops, agreeing with the owner that he could put in extra hours near Christmas, and be able to take time off during the summer if he needed it to go on one of Dr. Stoddard's excursions into the field.
Then, with three weeks left before the start of the new term, he settled down to write up the report of his summer visit to Chile.
During the following year, Blair discovered that he was really still too young to be totally accepted by most of the other students. Now that he was no longer spending every spare hour at home, he made some casual friends that he could join for a cup of coffee between lectures, or for a meal at lunchtime, but even they did not really welcome him if they planned an evening out; not only was he too young to drink, he looked too young, and that inevitably led to the others he was with being carded. Although they all carried IDs that 'proved' they were over twenty-one, they grudged having to do it because of Blair's presence, so after the first - the only - time he tried going out in the evening, he found it easier just to spend his evenings at home, studying. His 'understanding' of their feelings won him a greater acceptance during university hours; he grinned wryly to himself, not openly admitting that although he was by nature outgoing and gregarious, he was perfectly happy to continue spending his evenings at home, studying. He had no need to experiment with alcohol, which, he knew, was what many of his fellow students, away from parental eyes for the first time in their lives, were doing. Naomi had taken him to countries where it was quite common for children to be given a little well-watered wine with their meals - it certainly removed the mystique of liquor - and by the time he was fourteen he had learned that while he liked wine - and beer - in moderation, he wasn't particularly fond of spirits and had no wish at all to drink himself drunk. He had seen several of his friends obviously nursing hangovers after one of their nights out, and suspected that there had been a lot of either "you don't want another drink? Don't be such a wuss!" 'encouragement' inside the group to persuade at least some of them to carry on drinking after they actually felt they'd had enough, or bravado on the part of the would-be 'big men' there, trying to prove that they could drink any of the others under the table.
Well, once he was eighteen, if and when he actually did go out with them in the evening, he was perfectly capable of saying "No more" and meaning it.
During the year, although he didn't concentrate on the Burton book at all, he dipped into it several times when he had an hour to spare from his studies, finding it surprisingly fascinating reading. Burton was - obviously - most interested in the sentinels, the men who watched out for their villages, who could see further, hear more acutely, smell and taste better than any of their fellows, and frequently helped their village shaman diagnose fever by simply touching the sick person. The sentinels, Burton said, usually lived alone apart from a 'companion'. There were a few passing references to the role of the companion, mostly indicating that their presence helped the sentinel to concentrate, but there was little detail about what they actually did, and none at all about how they did it; whatever Burton's opinion of the usefulness of the companion, this was a book about the sentinels.
Each village had one sentinel - only one - at any given time and all, apparently, were male. None ever left their home village, even to go hunting. Burton described how a sentinel would tell the hunters where there was game, but he never accompanied them on the hunt. He spoke of a tale told by the tribes, of a sentinel who was kidnapped by a neighboring village, his companion killed; the sentinel lost consciousness almost immediately, and died shortly thereafter.
Blair raised his head, the echo of MacEllis' words ringing in his mind.
This is my home; my territory. I was born here. . . I am tied to it by unbreakable bonds. . . If I try to leave, I become catatonic.
He turned his attention back to the book.
'And this seems to be the curse of the sentinel,' Burton went on. 'It is not even kept secret from ordinary men, perhaps to keep them from being too much in awe of his abilities. If a sentinel concentrates too much on one sense, he loses himself, loses awareness of his surroundings. When that happens, only his companion can recall him to that awareness. What the kidnapped sentinel was concentrating on, who knows? But since the man who had been his companion for several years was dead, there was nobody who could bring him back, not even the one who was destined to be his companion in his kidnappers' village.
'Therefore it appears that for each sentinel, there can be only one true companion, and it seems a sentinel will not long outlive that companion, should the man die. It is perhaps possible that anyone can act as companion to a sentinel until he finds that one who is his true soulmate; but that is merely conjecture.
'It is not certain whether a companion will outlive his sentinel, whether he can partner more than one sentinel in his lifetime, or whether he will die shortly after his sentinel does. However, since he is not in any way dependant on the sentinel, it seems probable that he will survive, perhaps for many years.'
Roger Thorpe had survived the death of his sentinel, his 'warden', but had not been anxious to become the companion of another one - but was that because he didn't want another warden, or because that warden was MacEllis?
He is not well liked.
His father destroyed something in him when he was still a small child. . . Warding here is his duty; it was Euan's pleasure.
Euan was kind... and finally, I have missed being a guide... Thorpe clearly felt he could indeed be a Guide - a companion - to MacEllis, even though he didn't particularly like the man.
But could he, Blair wondered, assume that what was possible in that other universe was also possible here? And just as some people were born to be sentinels - he decided he preferred Burton's word - were some people born to be companions - guides? He gave an unamused chuckle as he decided he preferred the term 'guide' that was used in that other universe. MacEllis had clearly recognised something in him that he had not seen in any of the other people he had encountered during the seven years he had searched for a guide.
It had seemed that Thorpe, although he had been kidnapped, taken from everything he knew, had been content with the life offered to him. Euan was kind...
Would I have been content to stay in that other world, if MacEllis had seemed kind?
Blair put the book down, and considered that thought.
Perhaps. And then again... perhaps not.
Blair knew himself to be stubborn - it was a trait his mother had frequently bemoaned, claiming it interfered with his karma. Yet it was a trait he had inherited from her. Naomi was a woman who liked her own way, but she preferred to use guile to get it; she would appear go along with something she objected to, while subtle resisting until she won, whereas he would simply dig his toes in. If MacEllis had approached him and explained, asked him to go into that other universe, he might have agreed; but MacEllis couldn't have chosen a better way to alienate him if he had spent the seven years of his search planning it.
His father destroyed something in him when he was still a small child... No; MacEllis didn't have it in him to be kind or considerate. Whatever instinct he might have had to be either had been destroyed. It couldn't have been easy for him, trapped on what Blair could only think of as the Beinn Macdhui plateau, with a father who had no sympathy for his situation and rejected him once it became clear he couldn't leave it, brought up by grandparents who had no choice in the matter either, and who, even when they loved him, probably thought their child-rearing days were past and subtly resented the grandson who was forced on them by circumstances. Oh, they were probably proud that their grandson was a Warden, but they would undoubtedly have preferred that their daughter and her husband had stayed in that little village on the plateau so that they would have had the kudos without the responsibility.
Would MacEllis have had a Warden's gifts if he had been born somewhere else?
Even being born on the plateau, would he have been born a Warden if Thorpe's Euan had still been alive? Burton indicated that each village only had one Sentinel, but were things the same in that parallel world? To judge from what MacEllis had said about 'territory', probably.
He read on. Ah - 'It is said that normally his senses are dormant when he is a child, and are triggered by solitary time spent in the wild. If he never spends solitary time in the wild, his senses will probably remain dormant. If for any reason, however, the village has no Sentinel, a child's senses will develop early.' It was probable, then, that MacEllis had simply been really, really unlucky. He had had the potential, but if Thorpe's Euan had still been alive, MacEllis would not have had his senses triggered until later in his life - if at all.
Academically, Blair could sympathise with the man. He was even aware of some slight regret that he had not felt able to help him. Emotionally, however... No. He had not liked the man, he had resented his attitude, and if he had been unable to escape from that other world, he would have resisted the enforced partnership. One of them would probably have ended up killing the other.
He could only hope that Roger Thorpe did not find working with MacEllis too unpleasant.
For himself... His curiosity had been aroused. Thanks to MacEllis, he knew what he had the potential to be. Burton had been writing, over a century previously, about tribes still living in the stone age. Such tribes did still exist in the more remote parts of the world. Were there still sentinels in those tribes? Were there still people with the potential to be sentinels in the civilised world, whose senses were never triggered?
It would do no harm to investigate the possibility that sentinels could still be found in this universe.
A 'Munro' is a hill higher than 3000 feet. They're named for Sir Hugh Munro, the man who first listed them.
The story of the Big Grey Man of Beinn Macdhui is a genuine legend. Some details of it can be found at
I would add - I've walked in this area many times, and on one solitary walk along a neighboring ridge on a beautiful day, I suddenly had an inexplicable feeling of terror, and couldn't get off the hill fast enough. The feeling did fade the lower down the hill I got, and by the time I reached the path through the glen between that ridge and Beinn Macdhui, it had completely gone; but for as many times as I went back to the area thereafter, I never went onto that particular ridge again.