Algernon had no regrets about leaving the McDougall home. His blood ran hot the day he heard his homeland was being attacked. By letting his horse rest a night, he knew he would be able to get through the mountains safely. He did not understand why Duncan McDougall would want him as a suitor for either one of his daughters. He was just a passerby for the night and he hardly knew either one.
Yet, the fair skinned, fiery hair lass remained in his mind. As he rode through the mountains, his mind wandered to images that he did not or could not remember. He had told her he remembered who she was but now that her presence was gone, so were the memories. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from his body and all that remained were faint pictures of a time long since past.
Algernon rode through the mountains just as dusk fell across the land. He would have to stop in the mountains for the remainder of the night and continue on his way at dawn. He was no stranger to the night, and as he slowed his steed to a steady trot, he surveyed his surroundings.
The path before him stretched up, winding its way through the mountains and sloping down the other side. He hoped he could at least get himself to the peak before complete nightfall, for fear of avalanches or thieves. He knew the mountains extremely well and knew once he had reached its peak, there would be caves he could use for protection.
He decided against riding his horse, with the rough terrain and fear of being attacked overriding his mind. Dismounting, he pulled his sword from its scabbard, shielding him from harm. Slowly and cautiously, he led his horse up the spiral dirt path. Before he had gotten very far up the path, he heard a crack of a twig and pivoted around just in time to see the hilt of a sword crash down upon his head.
* * * *
When Algernon finally awoke, his hands and feet were bound together by an exceptionally strong rope. His horse was chained to a nearby tree and there was a fire crackling at his feet. He knew by his surroundings he was no longer in the mountains, but he could not tell whether he was past the point he had come or he had been somehow backtracked.
His head throbbed from the pain of the hilt but he still managed to remain conscious. His head was bent and his eyes were closed but he could still feel a presence before him, from the shadow created by the firelight. The tip of a sword gently lifted his chin, causing him to open his eyes.
“Well, whatever have we here?” a sinister female voice replied.
Algernon’s eyes finally adjusted to the light of dawn and what stared back at him shocked him completely. Before him stood the most feared sorceress in all of Scotland. She was dressed from head to heel in the finest velvet, fit for a queen. The entire gown she wore was as red as wine, which created a contrast to her dark curls.
“Melinda,” he breathed.
“I see ye have not forgotten me, Algernon,” was her reply.
“How could I forget someone with a heart so cold, Melinda?” She laughed at his remark and drew the blade down his chest.
“I am sure yer heart beats hard and fast under that protective layer of skin,” she smiled. “What would become of you if I split ye from end to end?”
“Ye would not have the courage enough to run me through!”
“Very true,” she said. “But why would I kill you when I could run me sword through an innocent victim?!”
Melinda motioned to one her guards, who pulled someone out from behind a caravan wagon. Algernnon gasped at who he saw standing before him, bound by rope at the wrists and ankles.
“Lily!” he exclaimed, trying to free himself from the ropes that bound him. Along with the ropes that bound her ankles and wrists, Lily was also blindfolded as well.
“No matter how hard ye try, Algernon, you cannot free yerself or yer beloved Lily!” Melinda nodded her head and Lily was led away, out of sight from Algernon’s watchful eyes.
“Ye will not ne’er get away with this, Melinda! Me clan will come for me when they see I have not returned!”
“Algernon, you are a stupid fool! At this very moment me army is attacking poor, sweet Locera! If it was not for yer wee rendezvous with yer Scarlet, you would have been there already!”
“How did ye know about that?!” he said, defensively.
“Call it but a hunch, Algernon, just a hunch!” she broke into a harsh laugh after she turned her back on him.
“What about Lily? What part does she play in yer wee little scheme?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Lily will play a most important part in me plan. ‘Twould be in yer best benefit to worry about yer own life not hers!”
With that, the sorceress pivoted on her heels and stormed off. Algernon knew he had to free himself but the ropes that bound him were not only tight, but had a spell possessing them. He had battled Melinda once before and had her banished from all his father’s lands. To repay him for her banishment, she cast a spell upon his land, causing all his loved ones to die sudden deaths. He ne’er forgave her for what she had done and he swore she would pay dearly the next time they met.
It had been almost five years since his family’s untimely death and he ne’er chanced to meet her until this day. He did not understand what the sorceress had planned for Lily, who had nothing to do with the two of them or their conflict.
During the morning hours, Algernon was untied and aloud to roam the campsite, closely watched by one the Melinda’s guards. He ate a very hearty meal over the fire and was so intrigued at watching her guards practice their fighting skills that he did not even notice the sorceress sit beside him.
“Do you enjoy watching them fight?” she asked, breaking his silent stare.
“Aye, that I do, me lady,” he replied, not wishing to turn away.
“I do not suppose ye would like to hear a story.”
“Not at the moment, nay.”
“Even if it has something to do with yer mother and father?” Algernon quickly turned his head and stared into the most piercing dark eyes he had ever seen. “I thought ‘twould get yer attention,” she smiled.
“What about me parents, Melinda?! Have ye not done enough damage to me family?!”
“I have something to show you.” Out of her pocket she pulled a tiny black velvet pouch, which, when opened, contained various gemstones of varies shapes and colors. “Look, but do not touch. What you see here are ordinary gemstones-- emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, amethysts- but in actuality, they possess far more power than just a priceless appearance.”
“I do not understand.”
“Look carefully,” Melinda said.
She spread the gemstones out on the dirt in a specific arrangement. Once the final gem was in place, they all began to glow their brilliant colors. As if by some form of magic that Algernon did not comprehend, the colors started to blend together and form a picture.
“Me parents!” Algernon exclaimed. “If this be one of yer tricks, Melinda!”
“I assure you, Algernon, these gems have no tricks in them. ‘Tis pure magic, a power I have yet to understand completely,” she explained, then quickly added, “Besides, I came to possess these by stealing them from yer homeland.”
“’Tis true, Algernon. ‘Twould mean that someone in yer family must have studied the black arts before me and in so doing, left behind some clues as to how to use the stones for ultimate power!”
“But ‘tis impossible!” Algernon exclaimed, getting up from where he sat. “No one in me family would ever study black magic of any kind!”
“Suit yerself, Algernon, but I know there be more magic hiding where these stones came from. And I intend to find them!”
Algernon did not want to hear any more of her nonsense words. He knew he could not stay there and listen to any more from her. He walked away from the place he sat, and quickly came upon a small stream not far from the camp and knelt down to pear into its crystal blue ripples. What he saw staring back at him nearly took his breath away. The face looking back at him was not just him-- ‘twas him as a child!
He tried to close his eyes and shake the images away but they remained when he opened his eyes again. He was there, as a child, living in Locera, his homeland since his birth. He saw himself slowly growing up from a child, to an adolescent, to a young adult. There he saw himself courting his first love, Shannon O’Grady.
The images went away before him and he was left with his present reflection. The memory of Shannon was still great in his mind, for she looked just as pure and innocent in the image as she did when he had left her. The reason he could not ask her to marry him then was because she was betrothed to another man and his father needed him on the battlefield.
“Algernon?” a voice caught him by surprise. He turned around and could not believe his eyes. Before him stood his first love!
“Shannon! Wha-- whatever are ye doing here?!” he stammered.
“Whyever have ye forgotten me, me sweet?” she asked, diverting his question.
“Whatever do ye mean forgotten? I still hold ye close to me heart and soul!”
“Ye left me before we could be wed!”
“But you were betrothed! And me father needed me help in battle!” he tried to protest.
“Yer blood ran hot not for the love of a woman, but for the love of bloodshed and war!” she argued.
“’Tis not true! Ye know I loved you and still love ye now!”
“Nay, Algernon! Ye loved me once, aye, but ye still love yer knighthood more! Ye did not leave me because of me betrothal, but because ye wanted to feel more alive on the battlefield than in a woman’s arms!”
Shannon turned away and Algernon expected her to begin crying. He took a step closer and she vanished into thin air. Algernon could not believe his eyes. His mind had not fully registered that he just had a conversation with a ghost, or a mirage for that matter. He had a feeling Melinda had something to do with playing the trick of magic on him and he needed to find out what she was really up to.
“Melinda!” he called, searching the campgrounds for her.
“Ye called, me laird?” Melinda came out from behind her caravan dressed in nothing more than the undergarments of her gown.
“’Tis something I would like to ask you. Tell me more about these gemstones ye have come to possess.” Melinda’s eyes lit up like fire at the sound of his words, knowing she had enticed him enough by her magical mirage.
“Come with me, Algernon. Let me show you some of the real power of these gems!”
She led Algernon around the lake, carrying the pouch of stones on her waist-belt. She sat down on the grass, dumping the gemstones out in front of her. Algernon watched her arrange the stones into a certain pattern and place an emerald in the center. As soon as the emerald was set in place, all the gemstones began to glow.
Melinda recited some ancient spell words that Algernon guessed were in Gaelic, and the colors began to blend, forming a clear picture in the air just above the stones. The image was of Algernon asleep in a bed that did not belong to him, but belonged to the home of the clan McDougall. He lay there, sleeping restlessly, trying to ward off some evil spirit that haunted his dreams. Then, the image shifted to his dream, not the of the dark haired maiden, Lily, but the of the fiery haired, emerald eyed Scarlet.
“Whatever do these stones have to do with Scarlet?” Algernon asked, not realizing he remembered her.
“She be the source of the power,” Melinda said.
“Whatever do ye mean, the source?”
“I mean she holds the key! She has the remaining gemstone that can complete the circle of magic! As long as she possesses it, I cannot complete me greatest spell, but so long as she keeps it close to her heart, I can see all, hear all, and empower all, including actions, memories, and even dreams!” She waved her hand over the gems and the image disappeared.
Melinda gathered up the gems and placed them into the pouch, which she tied and slipped around her waist. She knew Algernon watched her every move but she refused to meet his stare. He knew she somehow needed the last gem but he could not fathom what she intended to do with it once she possessed it or what she had planned for Lily. Twas Scarlet who obviously held her attention far more than Lily. As if reading his mind, she looked up at him with a smile on her face.
“Lily is me bait, Algernon. When her sister comes to her rescue, that gem will finally be mine!”
“And what about her father? Did ye think of him in yer wee little plan?” he asked.
“Duncan will assume ye have stolen his daughter, like ye’ve done before. While he is busy dealing with you , I can destroy Scarlet and be off with the stone!”
“Ye seem to have every bit of yer plan worked out, Melinda.”
“Naturally,” she bowed her head to acknowledge his remark. “When have ye ever known me not to have a plan of action?”
“But what if something goes wrong?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“Naught will go wrong,” she answered with confidence. She got up and walked back to the campsite with Algernon at her heels.