Thrice to Thine


Spoiler Alert: This is an exclusive excerpt from Book 3 of the Once & Future Series. You may want to stop now, if you have not read Cauldron (Book 2). 

    The lingering effects of her strange encounter on the street were soon replaced by the nervous tension of first impressions when they arrived at the team office. The dour mood of the morning had been replaced by the buzz of activity. A wiry young man with long blond hair pulled into a ponytail was setting up a camera in the corner where they had set up a long folding table to serve as a conference area. He was giving instructions to a lovely red haired woman who was doing her best to follow them. Kirstie was busying herself shuffling copies of information that Dermot had printed to handout. A tall thin man with wavy blue black hair and warm brown skin was unpacking notebooks and setting up his desk. 
    Sarah was never a fan of these ice-breaking meetings. People inevitably wanted to know where you were from, and what your family was like. You’d think she would be used to explaining that she was an orphan with no family, but the story never seemed to get any easier with the telling. She usually tried to stick with her professional history, and avoid the personal stuff. 
    Dermot went to discuss the camera setup with ponytail guy. Sarah moved to her desk which was in the far corner next to the one where the black haired man was unpacking his things. On closer inspection he seemed to be Indian or Pakistani. When Sarah set her bag down he looked up and gave her a broad smile and his dark brown eyes lit with warmth. Sarah smiled back and felt her nervousness  melt away. She found it odd that this man without even uttering a word could sooth her usual awkwardness when meeting new people. She could tell immediately that this man was a friend. It was an odd sensation for someone as cautious as Sarah to feel an instant urge to trust someone. For his part the man merely nodded and went back to his unpacking.
     Sarah pulled her planner and a notebook from her backpack and placed them in front of a chair in the middle of the conference table. She considered helping Kirtsie with the handouts, but decided that the woman would only see the offer as an intrusion. So she offered her help to Dermot.
    “Would ye fetch my agenda. It’s on my desk.” He said over his shoulder as he helped the ponytail find the right camera angle. 
    “Sure.” Sarah went down the narrow hallway to Dermot’s office. She found the agenda on his desk. She noticed a couple of things that she hadn’t noticed before. For one, their illustrious team leader had a computer of his own. And right next to his computer was a framed photo. It was a beautiful woman sitting at a table next to a window in what appeared to be a library. Soft sunlight glinted off her strawberry blond hair. A book was open on the table in front of her and she looked as though she’d been interrupted while reading. Her blue eyes smiled at the camera with such love that it gave Sarah a slight hollow feeling in her chest. The colors looked slightly washed out like it was from the seventies. Sarah knew it must be Dermot’s mother. 
    Her study of the photo was interrupted when she heard Dermot call the meeting to order from the other room. Sarah grabbed his meeting agenda and planner and left the office. When she came back to the conference table she noticed that her planner and notebook had been moved toward the head of the table just to Dermot’s right. She gave him his things and sat down only to find herself across from Kirstie who was staring daggers at her. Dermot was really going to have to have a talk with her about professionalism. 
    “Right. It looks like we’re all here, so let’s get started.” Dermot was standing at the head of the table appearing authoritative and only slightly uncomfortable about it. Sarah couldn’t help smiling up at him. “I’ve spoken with all of you at some point already, but many of you don’t know each other, so let’s start by just introducing ourselves and telling what you are hoping to get out of the project.” He looked to his left. “We’ll start with you, Kirstie.”
    The smile Kirstie gave him was so sweet it made Sarah’s teeth hurt. Then she turned that smile on Sarah like a challenge. “I’m Kirstie Robinson. I’m from Dumfries, and my focus is on handcrafts like knitting, weaving, carving and the like. I hope to create a geographic catalog of handcrafts of the Highlands.”
    Next to Kirstie was the red haired young woman whose peaches and cream skin was flawless with a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheeks. She had striking green eyes that showed a sharp intelligence. “My name is Isla Moran. I’m from Fort William. I guess I’m the resident music expert. I play fiddle, tin whistle, and bodhran among other things. I’ll be collecting as much traditional music as I can. Next?”
    Ponytail guy seemed to be zoning out on Isla’s lips as she talked. He jumped when she turned to him with one ruddy eyebrow cocked. “Oh. Yeah. I’m Ewan Crawford from Glasgow. Filmmaker. I’m making a documentary on the state of Gaelic preservation in the Highlands and Islands, which reminds me, I have releases for everyone to sign.” 
    He began shuffling through a backpack beside his chair. Dermot chimed in, “Why don’t you tell the group what audience you think you’ll get for the film?”
    Ewan’s head popped up. “Oh! Yeah, it’s very exciting. I’ve gotten some interest from BBC and maybe even some cable channels in the States.” 
    Everyone looked around the table in excitement. Dermot put in, “Although our main focus is studying the oral traditions of the Gaeltachd, we have the added opportunity of raising awareness of the value of the language and traditions. Ewan is going to help us do that.”
    Dermot nodded to the man next to Sarah. When he spoke his voice was warm and smooth with a soft English accent. “I am Jujhar Gurudatt. I’m a linguist. I’m studying the similarities between Celtic languages and the languages of the Indus Valley. I am not a fluent Gaelic speaker, so I am excited to get out and hear it in a non-academic context.”
    “I think that’s true for a lot of us.” Dermot said. “I think Isla and Sarah are the only two of us who actually spoke Gaelic at home. They should be able to give you some help.” Jujhar turned a friendly smile on Sarah and Isla.
    Sarah took a deep breath, and gave her short bio. “I’m Sarah MacAlpin. You probably noticed from my accent that I’m from the States. North Carolina to be specific, but as Dermot said I grew up speaking Gaelic at home with my grandmother. I am here to study folksongs.”
    “Sarah is also an outstanding Gaelic singer. I’m hoping she and Isla can help us with some of our fundraising and publicity efforts.” Dermot beamed with pride, and Sarah could feel her cheeks flushing under everyone’s collective gaze. 
    “Right, that’s done. Now, let’s discuss our schedule for the next few weeks.” Dermot leaned forward sliding a stack of calendar pages down the table. Everyone reached forward to take one. “I think we have most of the office set up done. Thanks to Kirstie for coming in early to help with that. We’re targeting mid-March for the start of our trip through the Highlands. We’ll be heading to Inverness, then across to Skye, up through the islands and back across the north coast. But hauling ourselves and our equipment all over the country won’t be cheap, so we’re going to have to do a bit of fundraising. Our current grant covers the basics of equipment and some travel costs, but we’re going to need more unless we want to be sleeping in our cars.
    “To that end our first official fundraiser is going to be a gala Burns Night dinner on the 20th hosted by James Stuart. He has graciously offered his home for the event. We are expected to provide the readings as well as a program of traditional music for the dinner entertainment. We can discuss the specifics of the program later, but Isla and Sarah I’d like the two of you to work together on that.” He looked between the two of them. 
    Sarah glanced at Isla before answering. “I’m game, but we shouldn’t let music get all the attention. What if we also had a silent auction, so we could cover all the bases? Maybe Kirstie can round up some hand crafted goodies. If they’re donated, then all the proceeds will go to the project.”
    Sarah looked across the table to see Kirstie’s cheeks turning pink. She sat forward getting excited about the idea. “I’m sure I could find something. It’s a good idea.”
    “Great. Good thinking, Sarah.” Dermot put it. “Now, I will handle all media interviews, so if you get any media inquiries please send them my way. In the meantime, we need to setup some regular mechanisms for meeting and communication…”
    The meeting continued with everyone agreeing to a weekly planning meeting for the research trip and other operating mechanisms. Isla and Sarah agreed to meet the next day to brainstorm the Burns Night program. Sarah had to admire how easily Dermot stepped into the leadership role and delegated tasks as effectively as any project manager. Of course, she wasn’t surprised. Sarah was sure her biggest challenge on the team would be not staring doe-eyed at Dermot during every meeting they had. Unfortunately, Kirstie didn’t seem to share that sense of propriety. Sarah noticed her openly goggling at him more than once. 
    As the meeting broke up. Ewan went about breaking down his camera and everyone else went to their desks to finish settling in. Dermot went back to his office. Sarah found herself once again facing Jujhar across their desks. “Jujhar? Is that Hindu or Sikh?”
    He gave her a quick flash of his startlingly white teeth. “It’s common to both actually. Though my family is Hindu.” 
    “From Punjab, right?” She thought she remembered that from her undergrad days. She’d taken a class on world religions, and had been particularly fascinated by the variety of religions in south Asia.
    He nodded and his smile grew. “That’s right. My grandfather was a student at Oxford when the Partition happened. His family had to flee Pakistan. He’s never made it back for more than a visit.”
Sarah remembered when her grandmother would look out over the Blue Ridge Mountains and get a far off look as if she was looking at an entirely different set of mountains. “But probably missed it every day.”
    “Yes.” He studied her for a moment, his nearly black eyes showing a kinship that Sarah now thought she understood. They both lived between worlds. “Your grandmother?”
She nodded. “Fled to the Nova Scotia and then the States just before World War II, and spent the rest of her life looking homeward. Let me guess, you grew up with a mix of English and Punjabi at home.”
    He chuckled. “My sisters were determined to speak English and my parents let them, but would only speak Punjabi. And my Dada Ji always refused to speak English at home, even though his English was perfect.”
Sarah laughed. “My Granny was the same way. Although my mother refused to speak Gaelic. Bilingual conversations were the norm until my mother died.”
    Jujhar’s smile disappeared, but the warmth didn’t leave his eyes. “I’m sorry. When was that?”
    Sarah waved off his sympathy. “Oh, I was only six. It’s been ages. I do miss speaking Gaelic at home.”
    “That sounds like you learned in a vaccuum. Are you sure you learned it right?” Kirstie’s voice came from over Jujhar’s shoulder. He turned to the side to reveal the woman giving a decidedly disengenuous smile. 
Isla on the other side of Kirstie’s desk stopped what she was doing and glanced back and forth from Sarah to Kirstie. Sarah was determined not to rise to the bait. She tried to keep her tone friendly, “Well, I haven’t run into any trouble so far, but if I need any help, Kirstie, you’ll be the first person I ask.”
    Kirstie eyed her stonefaced for several seconds, then turned back to shuffling things on her desk. Isla caught Sarah’s eye and gave her a look that said she didn’t get what Kirstie’s problem was. She looked like she might say something, but just then Ewan stumbled up to her desk, several pages clutched in his hand. “I found those releases.”
    “Right,” Isla gave him a brief smile and took one of the pages he held. She began reading it, while Ewan stood there obviously staring at the elegant curve of her neck. 
    Sarah almost felt embarrassed for him. “Do you have one of those for me?”
    Ewan jumped as if she’d poked him with a pin. He shook his head to clear it and reached out a release form to Sarah taking a couple of steps toward her desk. “Oh! Yeah, hen. Here ye go.” 
    He handed forms to Jujhar and Kirstie as well, then like the needle on a compass his attention swung back to Isla. ‘Bless his heart,’ Sarah thought, ‘wonder if he has a chance?’
    Sarah caught Jujhar’s eye and could tell he was thinking something similar. It was his turn to try to distract Ewan, before he made a complete fool of himself. “Any big Hogmanay plans tonight, Ewan?”
    “Ah, no. Reckon I’ll head down for the Torchlight, but not much else planned.” He cut his eyes over to Isla. “What bout you, hen? Any plans?”
    She looked up from the release form she was still reading, smiled and looked around the group. “Some mates and I are playing at a ceilidh at The Three Sisters. You should all come down if you’re around Cowgate.”
    “How about you, Jujhar, any plans?” Sarah asked.
    “I think The Three Sisters sounds great, though I’ve never seen the Torchlight Procession. Might be good as well.”
    Isla spoke up. “No reason you can’t do both. The procession will pass right by.”
    “Well then, that sounds like a plan,” Jujhar looked at Ewan. “Are you with me?”
    Ewan looked so relieved to have a friend to go with him , Sarah thought he might hug Jujhar right there. “Aye. Right. Sounds good then.”
    “Sarah?” Jujhar invited.
    “Sounds good, but I’m afraid Dermot and I are meeting a friend for the procession. So, I’ll be out in the cold.” 
    Before Sarah could finish her statement, Kirstie shoved the release form into Ewan’s chest, shouldered her bag and stomped out. The rest of them looked at each other eyebrows raised. 
    Isla rolled her eyes, “Look like someone’s not used to being the last one picked on the playground.”