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Rolfin's Orb
Book 1 - Obsidian
Chapter 2

“Fiona, where have you been?” Elspet took her hand and they walked towards the pine forest at the edge of the village. “Callum and I have been looking for you all afternoon.”

“Mum and I were at MacDunnie’s Tea Room. We went shopping afterwards. What do you two want to do today? I have to be home about five.”

“I had an idea, if it’s all right with the both of you. My dad isn’t using the boat today. Elspet and I thought it would be great fun to row over to Castle Athdara. Have you ever been there, Fiona?” Callum knew he and Elspet hadn’t.

“I’ve never been there. My mum once told me that our ancestor lived there,” Fiona said.

“I’ve never heard of a McAllister living in the castle.” Callum scratched his head in confusion.

Fiona jumped over a puddle. “Not a McAllister ancestor, but someone on my mum’s side of the family, a Ferguson. She was born in Inverdrochit, remember?” Fiona put her hand on Callum’s shoulder and smiled.

“Fiona, why didn’t you and your mum move back there after your dad died? Elspet asked too many questions.

“I don’t know. I’ve never asked. I guess she liked it here in Inveralba.”

“That makes sense. What do you say? Do you want to go to the castle or not? The sky doesn’t look too clear. I think it might start raining again soon. We need to make a decision, Fiona.” Elspet wanted to go to the castle. “We could pick flowers for my mum.”

Because they lived in the highlands where trees, flowers and thick undergrowth grew wild, the three of them enjoyed their time together exploring, fishing and caving. On rare days when they found themselves bored, one of them would suggest teasing the highland cows and sheep, or looking for flowers to help Elspet’s mum. She used them to dye the wools she spun daily.

Fiona loved an adventure. “Let’s go, even though Mum warned me never to go there. It will be more exciting than picking flowers.”

They ran down to the loch, winding their way through pines and yellow-leafed beech. “This looks like a painting. Look at the shores. They’re lined with northern marsh orchids, yellow broom, purple thistle and white, fluffy bog-cotton.” Elspet delighted in nature’s autumn beauty.

Not paying much attention to her, Fiona interrupted. “There’s the boat, just like you said, Callum.” She looked out over the water. “It’s a bit choppy. Do you think we’ll be all right?”

“Climb in and don’t worry. Dad taught me how to row. It’s not too far. Besides that, I heard him talking to auld Mr. Lamont. He told Dad hundreds of grouse lived on the island near the castle. Maybe we’ll catch some. Your mum will be happy if you bring her home supper.” Callum sat in the boat. The ten-year-old grabbed the oars.

Elspet and Fiona sat at the other end, trying not to rock it too much. Each grabbed an oar and rowed across the dark water.

“The water’s almost black.” Fiona searched for her reflection. “It must be deeper than Loch Ness.” A breeze picked up, blowing her long blonde hair in to her jade green eyes. “It’s too choppy, Callum. I’ve heard stories about monsters in Loch Doon, like the one in Loch Ness.”

“That’s nonsense, Fiona. There’s no such thing as a monster. Stop whining. We’ve only got a few more yards to go. Close your eyes if you’re scared,” Elspet said. “You’re 11 years old, Fiona. That’s much too old to be afraid of choppy water, or imaginary monsters.”

“I’m not afraid,” Fiona said. “I don’t believe in monsters either, but I don’t like the feeling in my tummy when the water’s choppy.” Embarrassed, she gazed at the castle. The only sounds they heard were the oars moving through the water. A chill ran down her spine. Trying to distract her fears, she said, “I don’t see any grouse, Callum. Are you sure you heard your dad right?”

The bottom of the boat grated against the pebbly shore. Callum jumped out and pulled it onto the beach. “It’s a good thing I wore my rubber boots today.”

“Why are you wearing them?” Elspet looked down at the muddy boots.

“I had to help Dad this morning with the dogs. With all the rain we’ve been having, they’re a right mess in the mornings.”

Elspet and Fiona stepped onto a large mossy stone, being very careful to not get their feet wet.

“My dad said there were grouse here, so there must be.” He looked around and couldn’t see any. “Well, maybe they flew away to look for something to eat. They must come back at night to roost in the castle.”

“Sure, Callum, whatever you say.” Elspet mocked her friend and looked across at the other islands. She saw trees covered with needles. “What’s wrong with the pine trees? Where are all the needles?” “The branches here are bare. They look dead.”

“It must be because of the grouse.” Fiona giggled.

“Very funny, Fiona.” Callum didn’t appreciate the joke.

“It smells of damp mustiness and wet earth.” Fiona sniffed the air and turned to gaze at the castle. “The wall around it is still standing. I like it. The stones are covered with moss and lichen. They must be really old. See the patches of moldy green everywhere. Maybe that has something to do with the pines, or maybe the trees are haunted.”

“They aren’t haunted. It’s probably something in the ground water,” Elspet said.

Callum ran up to the wall surrounding the castle and touched the stones. “They’re made from granite, but you’re right, they are dirty and pockmarked with holes, probably from an attack on the castle a long time ago. I’ll bet some great battle took place here. It must have. Why else would it have been abandoned so long ago?”

“Did your mum tell you the history of this castle? Which ancestor lived here? I’m just curious,” Elspet said.

“I have no idea. I didn’t pay any attention when Mum was telling me about it. I think history’s boring. The castle’s very tall though. I count three stories high, with slots for windows. Maybe they poured hot oil onto their attackers. You can tell there used to be a moat, but its now just a small trench, overgrown with grass and thistles.” Fiona pointed and the other two looked. “Look at the faces carved into the wall. Ugly.” She walked up to one. Ivy entwined itself around the gargoyle’s hideous features. Parting the leaves she saw the face. “Its eyeballs are bulging and its cheeks are all puffed out like he’s going to blow bubble gum.”

Elspet looked. “Gargoyles are always ugly, Fiona. This one’s no different than any of the others. It does give me the willies though.”

“Do you think they poured hot oil through the slots in the castle towers, Fiona?” Callum gazed at the slotted windows.

“I’m not sure. They might have. That would really hurt.”

“There was probably a big gate here, between these two huge pillars. Someone had to stand here and carve or chisel all this design on the stones. I wonder what the words and symbols mean? It looks Celtic, but yet, different.” Elspet ran her fingers over the linked circles. They walked through the open gateway. “Wow, look at the yew hedges. This is cool.”

“I wonder if they had a yew hedge maze?” Callum ran around to the side to have a look.

“Callum, what’s a yew hedge maze?” Elspet ran after him.

Fiona followed. They found him standing between two tall rows of hedges. “Is this a maze?”

“It was a maze. The bushes are all over-grown now though. It’s full of thorns.” Ivy snaked its vines in and out of each yew hedge, creating a roof of green. “Whoever lived here must have had children. I’ll bet they made this for them,” Callum said.

“Do you want to go inside?” Fiona bent her knees and looked under the overgrown trees.

“What if we get lost in it? It is a maze!” Elspet hesitated.

“Come on, Elspet. It might be fun. We can stick together so we don’t get lost. I’ll lead the way. Be careful not to scratch your legs on all these thorns,” Fiona said. “If I catch my jumper on one and snag it, my mum will be furious.”

They entered the maze. Dead leaves and broken branches lay scattered over a dirt path. Some of the walls were over fifteen feet high, canopied by the woven ivy. “Why would anyone make yew hedges inside the castle walls?” Elspet held onto Fiona’s hand.

“They probably had a rose garden and the yews protected the flowers from the wind,” Callum said.

“I saw a show on the telly the other night and someone had cut yew hedges into the shapes of animals. I wonder if whoever lived here did that for their children,” Fiona said.

They tiptoed up the path. “It’s sort of spooky in here. Do you think there are creatures in the bushes?” Elspet moved in the middle, steering clear of touching the greenery.

“There might be bird’s nests, or mice, or maybe even a fox. Come on, stop being afraid,” Callum said. “There’s no goblins, or brownies, or Cornish piskies, if that’s what you mean.”

The path wound back and forth, taking strange curves. The three of them kept coming to dead ends and had to retrace their steps. “What is that?” Fiona saw a deep hole in the ground with a rotting wooden door on top of it. Behind it stood a marble statue. “I love the statue. Who is it of?”

Callum brushed the dirt off. “It says King Rolfin.”

“Who’s that?” Elspet squatted down to see if anything else was carved in the stone base.

“I don’t know. It must be one of the kings that lived in this castle. He has a nice face.” Callum looked up at the man’s stone body. “I like his sword.”

“Remind me to ask my mum about him.” Fiona stepped on the wood over the hole.

Elspet grabbed her arm when it caved in.

“Whoa! Thanks, Elspet. That’s dangerous.” Fiona struggled to catch her balance.

“It looks like an entrance to something. Don’t step on it anymore.” Callum stood above it. He lay on his tummy and looked down the hole Fiona had just made. “Hand me a stone.”

Elspet gave him one.

He dropped it into the hole. They heard it echo below them. “That’s a deep hole. Be careful.”

“Why would someone put a secret entrance in the middle of this maze?” Elspet stepped around it carefully. “And right next to a statue”

“Who knows. Let’s get out of here. It’s giving me the creeps with all these tall bushes. There’s hardly any light. Fiona, why don’t you lead the way. I’m only getting us lost.” Callum stepped aside so she could get in front of him.

“Thanks, Callum. Do you think I know the way any better than you?” Fiona looked up at the sky. “I can’t see anything but yew hedges and ivy, but the sun is in that direction. That means it’s to the west. Let’s go this way.” She led them down a straight path. They came upon a marble birdbath. “Oh look! What a pretty birdbath! There’s no water in it, so it can’t help the birds now, but I like the carvings on it.” She looked inside the bowl. “Nothing in here but leaves. Let’s go. It might take us forever to get out of here.” Five minutes later they were standing in front of the maze.

“That was fun. I’d like to go in there again when there’s more time,” Elspet said, “and when it’s lighter.”

They headed for the castle. “There are a lot of old statues. Maybe later we can go and see them.” As they neared the front, Callum said, “It’s shaped like an old Norman castle. Look at the round towers at each corner. It’s even got a huge wooden drawbridge, even though it’s fallen all over the ground.” Callum walked to the broken bridge. “You can see they must have raised and lowered it with these thick chains. Be careful not to trip on them. They’re rusty and gross and moldy.”

Fiona and Elspet followed Callum, being careful not to trip on the rubble. “Should we go inside?” Elspet wasn’t sure if she wanted to now that they stood directly in front of it.

“Come on, Elspet. It’s cold and windy out here. I’m glad I put on my jumper.” Fiona rubbed her arms.

Elspet looked at her own jumper. “My mum will kill me if I get this dirty. It’s brand new. She just finished knitting it for me this morning.”

“My mum will too. She makes a lot more jumpers and cardigans than your mum, Elspet. Your mum makes the wool and my mum knits things.” Callum boasted.

“She doesn’t make the wool. She just cards and spins and dyes it.” Elspet snapped at him. “The sheep make the wool.”

“Okay. Okay. So both of your mums knit. I wish my mum could spin wool and knit like your mums. Let’s save this conversation for when we’re sitting in our rocking chairs like old men and women sipping hot cocoa and eating chocolate biscuits. Come on, enough talking. Let’s go inside. Who’s going to be first?” Fiona bent over and peered into the darkness. Turning to Callum, she said, “Well?”

“Why are you looking at me?” Callum stared back at the girls.

“You are the boy. Boys are supposed to be the bravest, aren’t they?” Fiona scowled, trying to intimidate him. “Unless you’re a chicken.” She and Elspet strutted around, cackling and clucking like chickens.

“Oh all right. I’ll go in first. Come right behind me though.” He hesitated, hearing noises from the blowing wind and rustling leaves.

“Go on. We’re right behind you,” Fiona said. They stepped through the arched door.

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