The great hall of Castle Am Binnean was a huge room, with soaring stone walls and giant beams, each holding a huge wrought iron medieval chandelier. Giant fireplaces though were the focal point, no one could miss the holes in the walls large enough to stand in. The table was of an old style with the ends far across the room from one another. A few large stag horns soared high above their heads on the 20-foot walls. Several ancient tapestries covered the cold stone making the lead mullioned window set in the thick wall stand out even more. Ayda Sinclair stared at the hole appearing in the wall. The worker cursed as he dropped the chisel and hammer to grab a torch.
“I’m sorry Countess Ravensgard. It’s supposed to be eight feet thick, that’s what it was just there,” he apologized, pointing to the other channel he had chipped out earlier not a few feet away.
Half hidden in the mist stood the castle Am Binnean with only a nineteenth century bridge linking it to the rest of Scotland. Hovering ghostlike, the castle sat on an island where an ancient blockhouse had protected the bridge from being crossed, in addition to the castle battlements.
In far off times, it had been the proverbial drawbridge allowing access to a castle. They were chiseling channels to run wires for a new security system. Certain rooms had been turned into an art gallery with the oldest art and antiques housed within them. From the new exhibits came new attention from magazines and books that never cared before. With a distillery grand opening in mere days there would be more tourists coming for visits, not to mention Christmas a week later. The entire castle needed protection now.
“What’s behind it? The old kitchen? That’s about where we are,” Ayda asked as the man peered through with the torch.
“No, looks like stairs actually, My Lady. What I can see anyway.”
“Please not My Lady. It’s Ayda.”
“What’s this? I heard a crash.” A hand slipped along her waist and Ayda leaned back against her husband, Hunter. The future Duke of Cairnmuir was gorgeous to a fault, with dark blue eyes and thick brown hair streaked with blond. The sweater couldn’t hide his solid lean build, but it showed off the reddish brown tan of a man who spent a good deal of time outdoors, even if it was winter. In that, he and his brothers took the same description, and yet none looked alike. That he was all hers still surprised her.
“I swear, Sir, it’s supposed to be eight feet thick here. On the old exterior walls all along here it has been, but. . .”
Hunter started laughing. “No foul done. There’s still an old priest’s hole we’ve lost track of over the years, I doubt it’s the only place with all the building additions. Open it up then, if there’s something behind it.”
A few hard blows with the hammer and Hunter’s mother came quickly. Ayda always felt underdressed when Janet Sinclair, Duchess of Cairnmuir, was in the room. Even when she was just in the other room playing with her grandsons, she looked like she should be in a French society page and yet she was also the one who made Hunter, the former RAF pilot, take Scottish dance lessons as a child. A contradiction indeed. “What happened?”
“We seem to have found a mystery. Stairs going down,” Hunter replied.
The duchess walked closer, trying to see over the workman’s shoulder. “Is it another way into the dungeon? This is the oldest part of the castle.”
The workman shrugged his shoulders and then thought better of it. “No idea, Your Grace.”
“Wouldn’t it rather defeat the purpose of a dungeon to have another way in?” Ayda muttered.
“Besides Mother, the dungeon is under the tower over there,” Hunter added, pointing to the opposite corner of the room. There weren’t many records of people being thrown there, but the gated hole still had a lock just in case.
The duchess smiled. “I’m impatient, I know. I wonder if it was put in when the French Comtess married into the family.”
When Ayda had arrived at the castle four years earlier, it was to work on the art collection for one summer to finish up her doctoral thesis. Before the summer was up, she and Hunter were sharing a bed, but he had offered her the permanent job taking care of the collection, too. He was even willing to put aside bed, if that was what it took to keep her there. She’d been smart enough to listen that she could have both, a man fast falling in love with her and a job most dream of.
The castle history had never really been put down before, other than vague details—trying to get her paper finished, they started telling her stories they knew. It was the only way to hear the past with the holes in the bits written down, there were dates enough but the stories gave the castle life. Old stories told by the cooks around the kitchen table on cold Scottish winter nights. Those were a bawdy lot. All the clan books had been changed with her digging into the past anew. Only rumors had remained from those early days of good marriages among people, but what people, how well—those questions could not be answered.
“Hunter, help the man,” the duchess ordered.
“Ayda, don’t you want a torch?” The duchess was asking when a huge dark gaping hole filled the wall before Ayda.
Ayda came back from her thoughts. “Of course, I wouldn’t miss it.”
Hunter only shook his head as his impeccably dressed mother went first down the ancient stairs. Cobwebs everywhere, dust from centuries covering each step. The cleared opening was only two feet wide and six feet tall, Hunter had to duck his head to descend. There was no chance the opening would fall though, the way was covered in stonework. Someone had spent a good deal of time preparing it. That, right there, seemed to rule out being part of the dungeon, a room little more than dug in the very stone that made up the island she lived on now. But there at the bottom of the stairs she stared at another room dug into the very rock almost as large as the old kitchen that was now her workroom. At least what she could make out with just dim torches. It wasn’t a small room and the light vanished into the gloom.
“When do you think it dates from?” the duchess asked.
“Another mystery for you to solve, Ayda. I better get used to you hiding on me again,” Hunter joked.
Ayda wanted to shove him or something, but there was too much to see. “Very funny. If you Sinclairs would just keep better records, there wouldn’t be any for me to solve. How a family doesn’t know there is a Titian hiding in a storeroom I’ll never understand. Or that there was a Viking Princess in the family?”
“At least we knew about the ghost or you might have run off before you ever got me in bed.”
Ayda stuck her tongue out. He never let her stick her tongue out unless she was prepared to use it. With his mother there it was a taunt—he couldn’t do anything about it. “You never did say when you thought it might be from. You’re the one keeping track for restoration purposes.”
He was silent for some time just looking around. The walls were finished, but some of the mortar lay about on the ground where it had fallen onto the flagstone floors.
“The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not on any plans I’ve ever seen.”
“Ye ken it’s bluidy auld.”
Hunter could turn the accent on and off at will. He always sounded Scots with a burr to his voice that could seduce her even reading the newspaper, just not always like a highlands hermit. “Cute. You can tell me the entire history of the construction of this castle from memory; I really don’t think you overlooked something like a room.”
“There is that priest’s hole we lost. Ciaran and I have been looking for it since we were kids.” Hunter was distracted as he said it, his flashlight aimed at the ceiling.
Ayda couldn’t stop from grinning. “Probably some story made up to keep you busy and out of their hair.”
“Well maybe.” Hunter let a smile grow. “I was known to be a stinker when I was a bairn.”
“A stinker? You were a terror.” The duchess threw out, her laugh echoing in the stone cavern of a room. “I keep waiting for the day Brendan starts up acting like you.”
“Act like me?” Hunter didn’t laugh even though his mother had meant it as a joke.
Hunter and his siblings were all packed off to the castle to be raised by Grandma and Grandpa. Ayda had been with the family for some time before she realized that the duke and duchess lived in London, only visiting the castle when forced. Their jetsetter lifestyle was not carried out well in the highlands of Scotland. The family’s dirty little secret was that Hunter’s parents were too busy to raise their own kids, even with a governess in the house to do the work. Even now they were only in the castle for the grand opening of the distillery that Hunter had worked his arse off to get going over the last four years and Christmas a week later.
“I know all the tricks and how to stop him, he won’t have to make the same mistakes.”
Ayda only shook her head. “What mistakes are those?”
“That’s for a father to teach a son, not for a wife to hear.”
The duchess’s light caught something shiny. “Wait, move back there just a bit,” Ayda ordered. Three lights soon shown as one, illuminating a long shelf filled with strange contraptions along one wall. Bronze perhaps, cogs, wood.
“This is older than the French chapel built in the 1400’s. It’s not from the later construction either,” Hunter whispered.
“Then you know what these are?” the duchess asked.
Hunter shook his head and the duchess turned to Ayda.
“No, no clue.” Ayda muttered before she could ask the question as she barely touched one bronze looking machine with a small ball on top of it.
“How do you know then, Hunter?” the duchess asked.
“Just the look of the work seems older. The new work was finished smoother, the older section rougher. The construction is different on the Viking tower too. You can tell almost every addition by differences in the stone work.”
“Here we are. This should help,” the workman announced as he appeared behind them.
A work light and extension cord soon removed the gloom, but it still wasn’t easy to see every corner. A simple bed was near the far end of the room where a large fireplace stood. Other than a set of shelves and a chair, there was little furniture in the large room.
Hanging on the wall was a small embroidery panel, hand wrought in the style of the Bayeux tapestry. Only two feet square perhaps, but in such detail that she could see individual men dying. There were no names or dates, just one word, Acre. Ayda touched the panel carefully and found it was remarkably preserved.
Hunter stuck his head to look up the fireplace. “How can I see light? We should be under three floors of castle.”
“What on earth did you find?” David Sinclair asked, bringing up the rear.
The duke looked like John Forsythe. Hunter took after his grandfather more than his parents. Military man, outdoorsman, hunter, world traveler, there were pictures of Hunter’s grandfather Broderick, the man his brother was named for, hunting with Indian Rajas before World War II.
David was the jet setter, a partier looking for dinner with the rich and famous, certainly not the military. The duke was a good-looking man, but if he was the one Ayda’s age and around when she had arrived, nothing ever would have happened. Hunter alone could make her give up her life’s plans.
Now she worked on the castle’s art collection, taught a few art classes in the village, played with Brendan. Once or twice a year she helped Jerry Hutchins with a class or two on difficult conservations. Am Binnean castle, if nothing else, certainly had its share of projects.
It was the perfect life. All the work she wanted and all the free time to enjoy it.
The tables were filled with…what? Vials? Flasks? It was hard to tell under all the dust. Fabric by the look of a pile on one table. The duchess picked up a piece and it crumbled to dust.
“It’s a laboratory.” Ayda finally said. “But from when?”
“Is that a trebuchet model?” The duke asked pointing to another little contraption.
Ayda couldn’t stop staring with vague thoughts that she had seen some of them before in books. They were ancient no matter what they were.
“I’ll go get my camera and call Jerry to get us a textile conservator. I don’t want that panel damaged trying to move it.” Ayda looked around at a sight she never thought she would see. This was history frozen in time. Centuries unaffected, except by dust and cobwebs. “I’ve heard how your ancestors paid to build the castle, but before World War II so many houses were sold off because there was no money to keep them up. There’s North Sea oil money now, but what about then?”
Hunter leaned near her ear. “My great-grandmother, Marjorie of the clan Ross, inherited a chemical factory fortune and she wanted a title. There was talk she was relentless in pursuing poor great-grandfather, the only unmarried duke at the time. If there was an impoverished Prince lying around, she would have changed alliances at the drop of a hat. Money isn’t the only thing that can make you mercenary.”
Ayda stopped by the library on the way to find her camera, a two-story room of mahogany paneling surrounded her, shelves from floor to ceiling, while a railed walkway gave access to the second floor books. The shelves were filled with rare and old classics of Scottish history and law, many in ancient leather bindings.
A huge carved Renaissance mantle surrounded the fireplace. She had first seen the ghost there, as well as the painting of Marjorie Ross hanging over the renaissance era fireplace, an ethereal painting from the beginning of the 1900’s. The past of that picture didn’t seem so romantic any longer. A title whore and her son married an American commoner without a penny who had been a spy during World War II. Divine justice perhaps.
While everyone sat at breakfast, her nephew Duncan suddenly let out a screech, and knocked over his chair as he ran for the doorway. A red head if there ever was one, at almost eight it seemed to grow darker red with every year that passed.
“Da!” He cried as he was picked up by a well-built man and hugged tightly. Tall and lanky, Duncan was dwarfed by his father, Lorne.
Duncan was sent off to be raised at the castle too, but not out of “couldn’t be bothered”. When Alice ran off leaving their nine-month-old son behind with Lorne, there was no one to raise him. Lorne had been commissioned as an officer only a few months before and in a commando unit of the Royal Marines. The government wouldn’t be too sympathetic to a duke’s son getting out of anything because he had yet to marry the woman he knocked up.
Not that it would have changed anything, she still would have run, it just would have made it harder to sever ties. Despite Hunter all but raising him, Lorne had transferred to a unit headquartered in Scotland and he was home as often as he could make it, even if he had been overseas. Certainly more often than the duke and duchess saw their children growing up. Ayda gave her own three-year-old son, Brendan, an extra kiss on the top of his curly mop of black hair thinking about it. Hunter never let his nephew feel like he was put away while the parents played.
“Lorne you didn’t tell us you were coming home,” the duchess cried.
Grinning at his mother, he had a smile that Ayda swore made the rough and tumble Marine Commando look thirteen. “I didn’t know I needed permission to come home.”
Lorne was the youngest of Hunter’s three brothers. Broderick had married some months after Ayda had come to the house. He was in Australia for the moment, studying Marine Biology after leaving the Navy. While military was a common if not expected interest for work in the family, living on an island also fostered other interests, such as the sea. Their sister, Gemma, had married Jack MacGregor and settled in Edinburgh with several children even before Ayda knew the family. The wild child of the family had surprised everyone when she settled down with the Honorable Jack MacGregor. No one would have thought him enough of a partier for her taste.
“You don’t…” the duchess got out before she realized he was teasing. “Oh stop, Lorne.”
“How long are you here for?” the duke asked before Lorne could answer.
Lorne shook his head. “Fine welcome I get. No one even remembered that my commitment is up. Duncan, you’ll have to put up with me full time now.”
The yell Duncan let out kept the room from answering as he hugged his father again.
Hunter did however reach down by his chair and hold something out as his brother walked by. Lorne took the bottle from his hand and let out a low whistle. “Not everyone forgot little brother. Bottle of the best year the distillery has, can’t celebrate proper without some first class booze. And you get to put that stinker in the bath now and have him push you in. I wash my hands of the task.”
Lorne messed Duncan’s hair as he sat down with the boy in his lap. “I thought I told you to stop doing that.” Duncan only laughed. “So what is this room, some secret dungeon?”
“We don’t really know. It looks like a laboratory, to tell the truth. Someone must have lived down there as well, there’s a bed. I haven’t studied it too close, there is an embroidered panel, but it only says Acre.”
Hunter and Lorne both smiled. “Crusades,” they answered in unison. Military school came in useful sometimes.
Ayda narrowed her eyes. “Yes, but is it commemorating when Acre was taken by the crusaders, when it was taken by the Moslems, or any of the 200 years in between?” So did a doctorate in Art.
“You married a smart woman there, Hunter,” Lorne answered as he filled his plate.
“I have a textile conservator coming soon. I want it stabilized before I even touch it, before I even clean.”
“Well then Duncan, let me get my things put up, and we’ll go on an expedition to the secret room.”