“What do you mean you haven’t seen my sister in two weeks?” Kim shouted.
“She kept to herself the whole time,” the receptionist shrugged. “How was I supposed to know she went missing? She paid the room upfront. I don’t go snooping into my guests’ private business. This is a respectable –”
She droned out the woman’s outraged tirade. Kim couldn’t explain her emotional outburst, either. It wasn’t like her to lose control or to care about her sister’s whereabouts. In the past her sister had made clear she preferred it that way, too.
“Where did you last see her?” she interrupted the receptionist’s rambling. “Kirriemuir isn’t such a big village. She can’t just have gotten lost.”
The receptionist looked miffed at Kim’s impoliteness. Served her right, Kim thought, for not noticing one of her guests had gone missing.
“Last time I saw her she told me she was going for a walk in the woods.”
Kim tapped her fingers on top of the counter. “You couldn’t be a bit more specific by any chance?”
The receptionist breathed out heavily through her nose like an annoyed dragon. Kim was surprised smoke hadn’t curled from her nose. She slammed down a tourist brochure and circled a stretch of forest labelled Kate’s Wood with such strength the shiny paper tore.
“Thank you,” Kim growled and ripped the brochure from under her hands.
With the wrinkled town map in her hands she made her way uphill. Kim passed the town’s cemetery and a playground, which had, for some reason, a huge pirate ship, crocodile and fairies as decoration, along with statues of little boys and one girl – all in their pyjamas.
Country folk were indeed strange. Kim still didn’t understand what had made Kate want to come here. She probably only had because she had wanted to be different from her.
A mother saw her standing at the edge of the playground, staring at her wrinkled map in confusion. She came up to Kim and advised her to try the Camera Obscura. It was really beautiful and whatnot.
Kim politely declined and since she was not in the mood to make inconsequential small talk with people she was never going to see again, she told the woman some lie about how she was busy hiking and walked into the first stretch of forest she could find.
If she followed the path and signs she should end up in Kate’s Wood sooner or later, according to the map. But what did she expect to find there? A corpse?
Kate would kill her, she thought, once she found out she had followed her to Kirriemuir. She detested Kim’s presence as much as Kim loathed hers.
Then what was she doing here?
Kim sat down on a tree stump and consulted the map again. She estimated she had walked at least a mile. According to the wrinkled map in her hands it was a few more hundred yards until she would reach Kate’s Wood.
She should go there and have a quick look around. Maybe she would find something. Maybe not. Kate might have gone back to Glasgow without ever informing her. It wasn’t like she usually reported her every move to Kim. On the contrary, Kate still liked to pretend she was out of the country, whenever Kim called her, despite having moved into the city where Kim was living.
Kim stumbled further into the wood. She was lucky it wasn’t raining or she would have sunk ankle deep into the ground of dead leaves and of whatever else forest grounds consisted. On second thought, she should have brought her wellies. It would take her ages to get all of this muck off her designer shoes.
Here I go again, she thought, ruining a beautiful pair of flats thanks to a sister who probably preferred rotting in a country forest to having me find her corpse; not to protect me from the trauma but because she expected my reaction to be: I told you so.
Kim stepped on something squishy. She halted, looked down and screamed. She had trodden on top of a dead hare. How absolutely disgusting! Kate better appreciate what she was doing for her for once. Those shoes were beyond recovery now.
Kim gingerly stepped over the furry corpse and paid more attention to where her feet were taking her. This saved her from stepping right on top of a fly agaric, which she supposed explained the dead hare.
Then she caught sight of something which made her stomach churn even worse than stepping on a dead animal. She caught a glance of a hairband, which looked unmistakably like the one both her sister and she had received for their fifteenth birthday. It had been their grandmother’s last attempt to bring together two binary opposites.
Kim had banned hers to the back of a wardrobe the day she had received it. All this time she had believed Kate had done the same but obviously she had actually worn it.
Thinking back later, Kim thought she shouldn’t have touched it to make sure she didn’t wipe off any fingerprints with hers. But in that moment she needed to feel the pale pink hairband in her hand to know she was not imagining it.
She reached for the hairband with such urgency she didn’t see the tree root coming. The moment her fingers touched the silken fabric, she fell forward. Her stomach turned like she was going down on a rollercoaster.
Kim felt dizzy by the time she had hit the ground. At least she hadn’t landed on a furry corpse this time. She sat up, the headband still clutched in her hand, and looked around. There was nothing else indicating any human presence.
There was just depressingly plain forest. Again, she cursed her sister for having such a weird attraction to country life and scrambled to her feet. First her shoes, now she had ruined her expensive trousers, too.
Well, the hairband was what she had been waiting for. She had found an indication Kate had been here, but nothing else. Kate might as well have lost it. God knows, Kate often was distracted like that, once Kate had set her mind on one of her creative endeavours.
Kim walked back the path she had come from, fighting with her conflicting emotions. It wasn’t like she had hoped to find her sister’s dead body. She supposed in this case no news were good news. But where did that lead her? She had proof her sister had been here, nothing else. Kate might be back in Glasgow in the flat whose address Kim still hadn’t been able to find out or Kate might have been injured, kidnapped; each new scenario flashing through her mind was worse than the previous one.
Kim reached one of the country roads outside the forest. How strange. Hadn’t it been paved when she had walked on it before? Surely, she couldn’t have been too lost in thought not to notice it was nothing more than an uneven dirt track?
She didn’t give Perthshire’s infrastructure any further thought, considering she still had a lost sister to contemplate. That is, until she entered the village.
Kim certainly wasn’t in Kansas anymore, nor was this the village of Kirriemuir as she remembered it.
There still was a village but it looked terribly old, older than before but in a new way. Yes, this was how confused her thoughts were.
“What the hell,” she whispered and pulled her phone from her pocket.
Calm down, Kim. Maybe this is just some Renaissance fair event she walked into. Maybe this part of the village is supposed to be one of those live museums. Everything’s ok, she told herself, just look it up online. There’s a logical explanation for everything.
Except there was no reception.
Not good. Not good at all. A man dressed in positively medieval clothes (and she didn’t meant that as an insult, but literally) approached her.
He said something in a language either so ancient or so Scottish she was unable to make sense of it. However, his panicked pointing at her phone was self-explanatory.
“I haven’t got reception either,” she told him, wishing Kate had gotten lost in a proper city with normal people instead.
He still looked confused. She unlocked the phone and showed him the missing bars. Her phone beeped. Damn, the power was running short and she was lost in No Man’s Land. Thank you ever so much, Kate.
“Witch,” the man shrieked, pointing at her with a face of horror.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Witch,” he yelled again and soon she was surrounded by villagers who chanted the same word at her over and over again, like the country pumpkin Rumplestiltskin folkdance group.
“If you have to insult me, at least be a bit more creative,” Kim growled and pocketed her phone. These simple country folk had probably never seen such a modern piece of technology. “Stop acting like you’re from the sixteenth century.”
That stopped them for a moment. Ever so slowly, as all traces of reason left her, she began to consider the impossible. “Please tell me you are not actually from the sixteenth century.”
Before they could recover from their shock, she decided to give in to her instinct of flight. She pushed past the circle of people. Fortunately, they moved away, scared she would wave her mobile at them.
She kept running, back into the forest but on a different track, the one less trodden on. How poetic. Behind her resounded the hobby witch hunters’ yells, as they followed her on her heels. She hoped they hadn’t brought along their pitchforks.
Glad her best friend insisted on forcing her to jog with him regularly, she made her way deeper into the forest. Kim kept running until she spotted a group of people sitting around a small campfire.
“What is this now?” she groaned. “Pirates?”
“Highwaymen,” the man sitting closest to her replied with surprise. “Though you might also call us outcasts or Merry Men, like our role models. We’re moral highwaymen, you see. Piece of hare?”
Kim doubted they were a threat. Although they claimed to be highwaymen, they were decidedly nicer than the villagers hunting her. Kim’s feet buckled and she fell down on the ground next to him, clutching her side.
“Are you okay, love?” the man asked, helping her to sit up.
She threw a glance at his companions. There were three more men and one elderly woman. They eyed her with suspicious looks. The woman had a hand on a dagger sheathed in her belt and in spite of her age Kim didn’t think for one second she wouldn’t use it, if Kim proofed to be dangerous.
“I’m…sort…of…being…hunted,” Kim said, panting hard between each word.
“Hunted?” the man asked. “Why?”
“I’m not sure I should say.” She glanced at the man’s companions again. “I’ve had enough of being yelled at for one day. All I want is to go home.”
“Where is home?”
She took a deep breath, sucking much-needed air into her lungs. “Glasgow.”
“Nice,” he said. “So how did you end up here?”
“I’d really, really rather not say.”
“Come on, it can’t be stranger than falling through time, unless…”
He glanced at her attire.
“You fell through time, too?”
Kim didn’t know why she sounded so excited at the prospect of such a ridiculous concept but momentarily it was the only logical explanation.
“Yeah,” he replied slowly. “You aren’t going to hand me over to the witch hunters for that, are you?”
She waved her phone at him. “So you know what this is?”
Kim packed away her mobile again, disappointed.
“But I am from the 1970s and this looks quite futuristic.” He gave me an apologetic smile. “What year are you from?”
Before Kim had the chance to tell him it was a couple of decades later, there was a strange noise.
She scrambled to her feet. “I hope that’s not those crazy villagers again.”
The old woman, speaking for the first time, said something as intelligible as the villagers had spoken.
“She isn’t suggesting you hand me over to the witch hunting club?”
Mr 70ies put a finger over his lips. “Shush. There is someone on the path.”
“We are not going to pull a Dick Turpin on them, are we?” I whispered.
Considering how the other highwaymen and lady glared at her, not to mention the fact they were all armed, Kim decided to stay silent. It wasn’t like she had to worry she might get arrested for being part of a dangerous band of thieves. There was already a death warrant with her name on it for supposedly being a witch.
She tiptoed after the highwaymen and when they jumped out from behind bushes, cornering the poor peasant walking on the path, she joined them. Skidding to an ungraceful halt on the dead leaves she found her spot in the circle.
Kim looked at the captured peasant and screamed.
Kirriemuir. Two weeks before.
“This is perfect,” Kate said to herself as she glanced out of the window.
She had a room in one of the nicest B&Bs in the village. There were loads of activities to be done and yet it had the feeling of a peaceful small village.
That was what she had genuinely believed; Kirriemuir, the perfect place to relax.
For the first day her opinion had been like the bubbling speech of a morbidly happy woman in a tourism brochure. That was the day she had arrived late and immediately retired to her room.
On the second day though, she had made the decision to go for a lengthy morning walk.
And what had Kate done?
Of course she had walked straight into a time portal. So much for learning to contain her accidental spurts of magic, she thought. Kate had barely walked past a meadow, observed by cows munching languidly on grass, when she felt the power shift in the air and hey presto, there she was.
Stranded in a parallel universe, yet again.
“Still contemplating your tragic past, are we?”
Kate glared at the cat, which had been her housemate for three months now. “If you were trapped in a parallel universe you would do the same.”
“Only if I were incredibly bored.” Her ginger companion stretched and yawned. “What’s for dinner?”
“How about cat stew?” she teased. “It’s not like we could just order a pizza. Bloody sixteenth century.”
The cat growled. “How about human stew?”
“Recycling my joke as a comeback is just lazy.”
Kate opened the door to the pantry. The little cottage she had obtained, once she saw there was no possibility for her to leave – not with the bane on her magic having been activated the moment she had been transported back in time – was small but large enough for one person and their cat, in spite of the latter’s high standards.
Kate looked around the pantry and sighed. “Looks like we’ll need to go shopping, meaning in this time, more like hunting and gathering.”
“I hope when you say we, you mean you will stumble around the forest in search for food.”
The ginger cat moved about two feet, before deciding that was enough walking for the day and plopped down in front of the fire, where it curled into a furry ball.
“Chop, chop,” it yawned. “I’m expecting food when I wake up.”
“Keep this attitude and you won’t wake up because you will be the food,” Kate told it.
Its only response was soft snoring.
“Selfish cat,” she muttered.
Though Kate knew very well, without it she would have died on her first day here, she decided enough was enough. It should do its part in bringing food on the table. Kate picked up the cat and put it in her basket. Ginger bared its teeth at her in a snarl, but she wasn’t that easily intimidated.
After having been jostled around a great deal while Kate was walking, the cat hopped out of the basket. It pretended to retch up a hairball and reconciled itself to having to walk next to her. Together, they strolled down the path into the forest. From her extensive walks through this particular stretch, she knew there was a little meadow full of tasty and fortunately non-poisonous mushrooms not far from here.
Lost in her dreams of yummy mushroom stew, she was too slow to notice the people jumping onto the path from behind bushes and trees. They cornered Kate and the cat methodically, pointing at them with firearms. Clearly, they were the feared highwaymen haunting the area.
Kate faced the thief in front of her, or rather the barrel of his firearm, and screamed.
Kirriemuir. Five centuries before.
I scrunched up my cat ears. Humans simply made too much noise, even those who weren’t burning other people because they didn’t know how to spot a proper witch.
All I wanted was a good meal, curl up in front of the fireplace and get a good night’s sleep. I was a busy cat after all. But no, my human had to get captured by a group of highwaymen and two highwaywomen.
I examined the highwaywoman in front of us closer. How very curious. The woman was an exact copy of my human. The woman’s scream alarmed my human so much she started shrieking, too. Their ear-splitting voices were identical as well.
For the sake of my sensitive ears, I was glad the proper highwaymen were too professional to join the shrieking match.
“What on earth are you doing here?” my human screamed.
“You wouldn’t text me back,” the other one replied haughtily. “I thought you might be lying somewhere in a ditch, so I wanted to check up on you. Someone has to be the responsible twin.”
So they were twins rather than doppelgangers; what a boring explanation. But what was this texting they were talking about? I may have had the magical ability to understand and speak Modern English, as well as speaking to humans in general – though I didn’t bother to do so most of the time because humans mostly behave like peasants – yet, texting was a concept I had never come across before.
“The responsible twin? That has to be you of course,” my human shot back. “Miss Perfect, always organized and popular.”
My human looked like she wanted to lunge at her sister and pull her hair. Why did they fight like little children? I had seen puppies better behaved than that.
Humans, I growled. They think they are the pinnacle of Creation, but pitch them against each other and they lose control like beasts.
“Obviously,” the twin replied through gritted teeth. “You have nothing better to do than get trapped in the past and dress like a peasant.”
“Not everyone can be as obsessed with designer clothes a you are,” my human retorted. “How many thousand pounds did you throw out of the window by walking through a forest in delicate designer clothes?”
The elderly highwaywoman brandished her knife at the twin, so she would keep her mouth shut. Ah, a human after my liking. Maybe I should give her the chance to serve me. My current human wanted to go home to her time anyway.
On second thought, maybe the elderly lady wasn’t a good candidate. Threatening people with knives to restore serene silence was acceptable, trying to cut off that person’s clothes, because they supposedly were worth thousands of pounds, which I doubted very much, unless there had been an extremely steep inflation the next couple of centuries, was simply indecent.
One of the male humans seemed to agree. Curiously enough, he spoke a rather modern form of English as well. Maybe if I sat back on my paws and waited a little, a more competent human than any of them would be thrown back in time to serve me. I might get my paws on a human who bothered to scratch me behind my ear, brush my beautiful ginger coat, and most importantly, knew how to cook.
I purred, pleased with my idea. In that case, I should send those shrieking harpies and their boyfriend back to their own time.
First things first, though, I had to save them from getting killed. Honestly, humans. Always relying on cats to save the day.
I rubbed against my human’s feet to get her attention. Stupid human wouldn’t look at me. I stood up on my hind legs and propped my front paws on her leg. I made sure to dig in my claws deep, very, very deep.
My human yelped and gave me a glare. If I hadn’t already made the decision to replace her, I would do so now. I hissed at her and lowered myself back on my four paws. If they didn’t want to listen to my plan, they’d have to see for themselves how they would escape. Or fail and die.
The elderly highwaywoman had her knife against the twin’s throat, in spite of the male’s protests.
It was time for some magic, before they ended up hitting each other. Where would be the fun in that for me?
Abracadabra, badabing badabum and all the shebang.
I did love the confused looks on humans’ faces when they realized magic was real.
The highwaymen and woman ran back into their forest, peaking from behind bushes and trees at the three people who had fallen through time, whispering to each other nervously.
I hissed at the three barn owls in front of me. Human at the core they might have been but their owl instinct made them quieten.
Ah, blissful silence.
Considering they were too uncoordinated to fly – this was apparently where animal instinct stopped and human overthinking began – I was able to drive them like scared chickens. I watched them hop with fluttering wings to keep their balance and licked my chops. Pity, I was too merciful to make them my dinner for annoying me.
At least my human had some experience being transformed into an owl and led her fellow owls to my cottage, where I had graciously let my human live until now. It was so impractical to have servants stay in a different house after all.
There I transformed them back into humans, which of course lead to exclamations of “What the” insert curse word of your choice “did just happen?” etc. etc.
One might have thought my human would be competent enough to explain but no, I had to do everything myself.
I hopped onto the table and pushed a heavy metal pot to the ground. The resounding noise of it crashing onto the wooden floor and pouncing off it again had the desired affect. I had their attention and they were quiet.
“Listen up, peasants.” I barred my teeth at them for good measure. “I turned you into owls so we…well, you could escape. You may worship me later for this great act of selflessness.”
The man stared at me with wide eyes. “Please tell me it’s not the cat talking.”
The twin however, crunched up her lips and glared at her sister. “I always knew you were a witch. I just never realized you were one in the literal sense.”
“She’s not the witch. I am,” I said and added a devilish hiss for good measure. “And I know just the spell to get rid of you annoying humans and send you back to your own time.”
“How?” my human asked. “Why didn’t you say so before?”
At least one of them was wise enough to listen to me. I sat on my hind legs and smirked. “It’s not without risk.”
“Tell us,” my human said. “Please?”
“For the spell to function there are a few requirements needed –”
“Anything you need,” the twin interrupted. “I can give you my phone…ruined designer pumps worth two thousand pounds. Each. Oh, and a gold hairpin.”
I growled. “Quit interrupting me, before I transform you into mice and eat you.”
The twin let out a forced laugh.
“I don’t think it’s a joke,” my human cautioned her.
Due to incessant questioning of my competence, the procedure they’d have to endure so I’d perform the spell just got a little more difficult. Ah, to have power. A bit of magic and you hold the world in your paw.
I told them what exactly they’d have to do for my spell to work. Naturally, I didn’t explain all I actually needed to do was wave my paw. In my defence, entertainment had been lacking the past few months and what better entertainment than to play with puny humans.
“I’m not doing that,” the twin protested. “You make your cat do a different spell. This plan is barking mad.”
I arched my back and hissed. “Take it or leave my house and get killed by the villagers.”
I let the humans talk to each other in a low whisper I was still able to hear in spite of their underestimation of my superior hearing. It was clear enough they would soon come to the conclusion they had no other choice but to rely on me. Then I’d watched them grovel.
They didn’t grovel as much as I had hoped for but my time was valuable and they had argued for far too long.
Amused, I watched as they followed me like dutiful little ducklings into the village. I could always rely on the gossips to spread the word. It didn’t take long and the humans were cornered by a large mob.
Then my human confessed to being a witch in the perfect Middle English I had taught her. I hopped onto a cart, from which I had a perfect view onto the stakes, against which the three humans were bound.
I purred upon seeing their expressions. That was what you got from annoying me. Besides, it wasn’t like I was going to let them get charred, although the thought had crossed my mind when the twin had insulted my beautiful coat.
As tongues of fire began flickering at the bottom of their stakes, I worked my magic and made them disappear. The villagers seemed disappointed at how unentertaining the burning had turned out to be. No drama, no screams.
I hopped off the cart. One of the young men among the villagers, who was especially grumpy at how unexciting the burning of the famous witch, Kate Porter, and her accomplices had turned out to be, blocked my path.
Bloody fool was so grumpy he kicked me when I would not jump out of his path. How dare that peasant?
A wink of magic and ta da. Instead of a disgruntled youth a cowering hare sat in front of me.
Read about what inspired this story, and download it as epub, mobi or pdf from my website, linked on my profile.
Want to read more? There are more short stories coming up, meanwhile check out my new novel TO BE A HERO.