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Rolfin's Orb
Book 1 - Obsidian
Chapter 1

“Why does it always rain here?” Fiona complained to her mum. “I don’t think we’ve had a dry day all year.”

Mairi McAllister looked out the window, straining to see through the words, MacDunnie’s Tea Room and an assortment of flowers and leaves painted with lavender and green paint across the glass. “Fiona, you know you love it here. Where else can you see rhododendrons that shade of pink?” She stood on her tiptoes for a better view, pointing to a flowering bush across the street. “Let's sit and have our tea.”

The hostess seated them and brought two cups of steaming hot English tea. “Thank you, Flora. I know it’s pretty here, Mum, but it’s so boring. All it does is rain and there’s nothing to do.” Fiona sipped her tea and took a bite of a butter smothered raisin scone. “Pass me some of Mrs. MacDunnie’s homemade orange marmalade, please.”

“You’ll not find scones and marmalade as tasty as this in a big city. I grew up not far from here and I survived just fine and so will you.” Mairi dabbed her mouth with the corner of her paper napkin.

Fiona took another bite of her scone and watched the oyster-gray clouds speed by, dropping rain from their puffy underbellies. “Don’t get me wrong; I love it here in Inveralba, in a way. It’s just that everyone is related to everyone else. I’d rather live in a big city where I could meet new people. Look around you, Mum. We’re the only two people in here. It’s always like this, boring.”

An open sooty-black umbrella stopped in front of the door. As it folded up, Nellie McAllister Crawford pushed on the door and stepped inside. “Och, it’s coming down in sheets.” She shook the water off the umbrella. “Good day to you Fiona and to you too, Mairi. Do you mind if I sit down here with you?

“Of course not, Nellie.” Mairi pulled the third wobbly wooden chair out from under the table.

Nellie slipped the umbrella into the rack, put her raincoat over the back of the chair and sat down. “I think I’ll have some tea and shortbread.” Nellie looked up at Mrs. MacDunnie, who hovered about waiting for her order. After she’d left to get the hot tea, Nellie whispered to Fiona. “Her shortbread’s nice, but not as good as mine.”

Fiona giggled. “I know.”

“How’s my wee Fiona getting on these days?”

When she opened her mouth to answer, her mum interrupted her. “Fiona’s tired of the rain and now she thinks she wants to live in the big city.”

“Och, we all feel that way from time to time dear, but it will pass. I travel a lot, but I’m always glad to come home to Inveralba.” Nellie patted Fiona’s hand.

Fiona’s eyes brightened. “You’ve traveled a lot? Have you been to Africa, or Australia, or America?”

Mrs. MacDunnie brought the tea and shortbread and set it on the table.

Nellie picked up a piece of the sugar sprinkled, buttery sweet and took a bite. “Very nice, Flora,” she said, smiling at the shop owner.

Mairi couldn’t help but chuckle.

“In answer to your question, Fiona, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. The furthest away from Inveralba I’ve been is to Land’s End in Cornwall. I go there now and then to visit my sister, Penelope. Och, it’s lovely down there. I didn't have much time for travel while I was teaching school, but since my dear husband, Gavin, passed away, I've traveled a bit more. I’ve seen most of Britain and I’ve even been to Ireland, but never to Africa. It was your gran and granddad on your mum’s side who did all the traveling.” She looked over at Mairi and saw the sadness fall upon her face. “I’m sorry lass to mention your mum and dad. I know it’s not been easy for you since Ian and Heather passed away in that horrible boating accident.”

“It’s all right, Nellie. Don’t worry. They’ve been gone a long time. They did love to travel. Mum always said her favorite place was Egypt, but dad always said his was South Africa.” Mairi smiled at the memory.

“You see, Fiona, I’ve been nowhere compared to them. Och no lassie.” Nellie bit into another piece of shortbread.

They spent the next hour chatting away. Fiona listened to her mum and great aunt talk about roses, pansies, and the newest shades of wool. She sighed with boredom. When Nellie started talking about her sister, Catriona, Fiona’s grandmother, Fiona lay her head down on her arms. Her father, Kenneth, had passed away five years ago in an accident. She’d heard the same stories over and over again. “Mum, where are all your relatives? I know Gran and Granddad died, but what about the rest of your family. Everyone here is related to Dad. When am I going to get to meet one of your cousins?”

“You will, someday.” Mairi sipped her tea.

Fiona saw her mum’s eyes puddle with tears, so she changed the conversation. “Callum and Elspet were born here too, weren’t they, Mum?”

“They’re McAllisters, aren’t they? You’re right, Fiona. We are all related.” Seeing Fiona’s evident boredom, Mairi said, “Oh good. I think the rain’s stopped.”

Fiona stood up and went to the window, wiping the condensation away with the sleeve of her blouse. “It has, Mum. Can we go now?”

Mairi said her goodbyes, paid the bill and then she and Fiona left. “The air smells so fresh here. Just look at this place. Tourists come from all over the world just to fish in our lochs and rivers and hike through our heather-covered hills.” Mairi took a deep breath of the Scottish highland air. “Look at the River Alba. It’s full of trout and sparkles in the sunlight. How many times have you gone fishing, or swimming in Loch Drool? Admit it, Fiona. You do love it here. I know you do.” She watched the river flow under a stone bridge. “Dandelon Bridge has stood there for seven hundred years. They say the bridge was built about the same time as Castle Athdara, but I don’t think it’s been there that long.”

Fiona couldn’t argue. “There is nowhere on earth as beautiful as here. I know that, Mum.” She looked at Loch Doon. Small islands dotted its ebony waters, each covered with oaks, aspen, birch and pine, now displaying their fall colors.

“Listen to the birds, Fiona. Have you ever heard a melody like that?”

“Okay, Mum. I get it. Yes, Inveralba is a wonderful place to live.” Fiona burst out laughing when her mum looked at her with a shocked expression on her face. They walked hand in hand through the center of town. “Mum, have you ever been over to Castle Athdara?” Fiona saw the ruins in the middle of one of the larger islands.

“For all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never stepped foot in that castle. There’s something about it that gives me chills. I don’t want you going there either, Fiona. It's an eerie place.” The two of them stood in silence, staring at the crumbling ruins. Trying to brighten the conversation, Mairi said, “There’s Dougal’s Woolens.” She squeezed Fiona’s hand and ran across the street. They looked in the window. “Look how lovely these are. I love Arran cardigans and jumpers, don’t you? Maybe we can ask Callum’s mum to make you one for the winter. Would you like that?”

“I’d love one, Mum, but why don’t you knit it for me? Elspet’s and Callum’s mums both knit. Almost everyone’s mum in Inveralba knits, except mine.” Fiona's eyebrows arched in disapproval.

“I like to think of myself as being unique. Knitting’s just not my cup of tea. I prefer to do other things.” Mairi walked on. “Take this shop, for instance, It Makes Scents. What a creative name for a shop that sells perfumed soap. I love going in here. Do you mind?”

“No, I don’t mind. I think it’s cool the way the soap is shaped like flowers and ducks and things. It smells nice too. My favorite is Morning Rose. It really smells like roses.” When they went inside a bell tinkled. Fiona shut the door behind her. “Its like a flower garden in here.”

“It does smell lovely, but I prefer the fragrance of the fresh flowers in our own garden. Have you ever gotten up early in the morning after it’s rained all night and stood next to the rose bushes? It’s heavenly, but you’re right, the soap does smell nice.” Mairi bought a bar of the rose-scented soap for her daughter and a bar of English Lavender for herself. As Arthur Dunn rang it up, Mairi whispered to Fiona. “It’s for my underwear drawer. I like my under-things to smell pretty.”

“Mum! Shh!” Fiona chuckled with embarrassment at the mention of underwear.

After they left the soap shop, they passed The Perfect Bee. “Fiona, I need to run in here for a few minutes and see if they’re out of honey. Why don’t you stand out here and wait for me. It’s always so crowded in there. You can wave at the tourist buses.” Mairi winked at her daughter.

While her mum shopped, Fiona peered in the window. She saw boxes of Highland Toffees, Cornish Fudge, tablet, and several jars of her mum’s famous heather, bluebell, and thistle honey. A smiling bee darted across each jar’s label and the tartan fabric on the tops coordinated with the ribbon tied around the lid. A tour bus drove by; it’s gears making an awful noise as it climbed the small hill. Fiona saw its reflection in the shop window. She turned around and waved.

“We’re okay for another day or two. They’ve got six jars left. Are you hungry, or still full from your scone?” The bell hanging from the door tinkled as Mairi shut it behind her.

“I don’t think I want to go to The Hogshead Inn, Mum. I’m too full for a pub lunch, but it smells good.” Fiona knew her mum’s favorite place to eat.

“Are you sure you don’t want a bittie sandwich?” Mairi took a deep breath, imagining the salted, crispy, deep-fried chips on a bed of soft bread spread with creamy butter. “The fish and chips sound good too, so does the Ploughman’s sandwich and shepherd’s pie. Never mind, we’ll use self control and eat at home.”

They passed the Post Office, the railway station with its chugging engines and loud whistles of steam, and then Jimmy Noble’s Grocers, which reeked of turnips, onions, potatoes and cabbages.

When Mairi saw the prices marked on the boxes of apples, she gasped. “It’s a good thing we’ve got our own apple trees. Just look at the cost! Jimmy should be ashamed of himself.” The sugary aroma floating out of McKenzie’s Bakery reminded Mairi she needed to come in to work later in the afternoon.

“Are you working tonight?” Fiona read her mum’s thoughts. “If you do, bring home some pastries and cakes. I really love cake with marzipan icing.”

“Don’t I always bring you a surprise, Fiona? I’m not sure about marzipan icing. We use marzipan mostly for wedding cakes. I’ll see what I can do though. We’d better watch ourselves or we’ll soon be getting fat.” She poked Fiona in the tummy. “Say, there’s McEwan's Butcher Shop. Would you like haggis for supper tonight?”

Fiona nodded.

“I’ll be right back then.” Mairi disappeared into the shop and came out a few minutes later with a haggis in hand.

“Mum, there’s Elspet and Callum? Can I run and play for a while?” Fiona waved to her friends.

“Go ahead. Don’t be too long. Be home by five for supper. I’ve got to go to work, so please remember.” Mairi kissed Fiona on the cheek and the girl ran off.

“Elspet! Callum!” Fiona shouted, trying to catch their attention. She ran past several typical Highland village, gray stone houses. Water dripped from the black slate roofs, splattering on the cement sidewalks in front and the orange tipped marigolds and blue asters in the flower gardens in back.

# # #

Mairi headed for home. A tour bus pulled up in front of her as she stepped from the curb, about to cross Methven Street.

“Excuse me, Miss.” A man called to her as he jumped from the bus's open door. “Can you tell me where I might find someone who could show us the best place to fish around here?”

Mairi stopped. He’s a real looker. Embarrassed by her thoughts, she said, “Callum McAllister’s dad, Malcolm, is a gillie. He knows the best hunting and fishing spots in and around Inveralba. Would you like his telephone number?”

“That would be wonderful. My name’s Johnny Thomson. I’m visiting from London. And you are?”

“I’m Mairi McAllister.”

“Hello Mairi.” Johnny squeezed her hand. “You must be related to Malcolm then.”

“Everyone’s related to each other in this town, Mr. Thomson.” Mairi scribbled on a piece of paper she’d pulled from her purse. “Here’s the address. Just tell him Mairi sent you. Will you be in town long?” Why did I ask that?

“My brother, Jimmy, is meeting me here sometime in the next day or two. We’ll be staying here for about a week, maybe longer. I hope to see you again.”

The bus driver stood on the steps and whistled to Johnny, who waved back.

“If you’ll excuse me, Mairi.” He ran to the bus.

I wonder if he’s married. He’s the handsomest man I’ve seen around here in years and no ring either. Stop that, Mairi McAllister. Stop that right now! She waved, crossed the street, and disappeared around the corner.

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