"There's something up ahead. Lights on in the windows."
"It'll have to do."
Sarah cursed under her breath. Why, oh why, did John decide to spend their vacation in Scotland, and in January, of all times of year? She'd wanted to go somewhere warm and beachy. She could be sitting beneath a palm tree right now wearing less clothing than she should, sipping on something iced. Not wandering through a gale in the Highlands of Scotland because John had gotten lost reading the map.
They seemed to be in a village, but all the houses were empty.
"Most of them were sold as holiday homes," said John. "Nobody's in."
"Yeah, because it's January," groused Sarah. "Who goes to Scotland in January?"
"It's the Scottish holiday season," John said. "Hogmanay and Burns Night, I read it somewhere."
"That's tonight, isn't it?" asked Sarah, as they pushed on toward the light through the snow and howling wind.
"Yeah," said John. "Maybe the whole village is at the pub. Makes sense."
"Maybe," said Sarah. "We could've done our summer trip here, you know."
John sighed and shook his head.
"The grandeur of the Highlands," he said. "The history. I think it's fascinating."
"Well, it isn't going to be fascinating for much longer if we both die out here."
"All right, let's get to the pub."
They were right; it was a pub, set strangely away from the village itself, near the edge of the roaring sea, mountains huddling around it in the background.
They pushed the door open with difficulty; it was one of those half-doors that are so common in the Scottish Highlands, and they had to squeeze in sideways to get inside.
Sarah made a relieved sound as her freezing skin met with the warm, peat-fire friendliness of the tiny pub. John did likewise, despite all his arguments to the contrary.
And then the barman walked out to greet them and Sarah's eyes widened.
"Good evening," said the barman. "What can I get for you?"
He was handsome, his black hair curling around his ears, and his wide dark eyes seemed to glow in an unearthly way in the low firelight. Sarah was dumbstruck, both by the beauty of the man and his presence there, like she could feel there was something strange about it.
"Whisky, please," John said. "It'll warm us up."
"Good choice," said the man, winking. "Exactly my choice."
He went behind the bar and got two glasses.
"Where is everyone?" asked Sarah. The Border Collie curled up by the fireplace came over to inspect them, and she absentmindedly pat its head.
"Rough night," said the bartender, pouring their drinks. "Not a lot of people out. I live upstairs so the bar is open either way. And a good thing, too. You'd have died out there."
Sarah gaped at him, and then arrowed a glare at John. He raised his hands, surrendering.
The bartender handed them both a glass of whisky.
"Would you like the special?" he asked. "Haggis, neeps, and tatties. Burns Night, you know."
He smiled a secret smile, a private joke with himself.
"Sure," said John. "It's traditional, after all."
Sarah was a bit green in the gills about the concept of haggis, but she decided that she'd give it a try, now that they weren't in danger of death.
The wind screamed around the pub outside, creaking the wood in the walls, as if it was furious it had been cheated of them. Sarah sipped her whisky and felt the warmth sink into her bones.
She realised the bartender was singing, as he cooked.
"Ae fond kiss, an' then we sever
Ae farewell, alas forever..."
John grinned at her.
"Incredible, isn't it?" he asked. "A bit of local flavour."
"Yeah," Sarah said. "Listen. Does he - remind you of anyone?"
John glanced over at their host, who was readying the dinner.
"No?" he said, but then his brows drew together. "You know. Now that you mention it. Kind of?"
"I can't put my finger on it," said Sarah. "But there's something...weird about all this. The village is empty. This pub is empty, except for this one man?"
"It's a rural village in the Highlands," John explained. "And you heard what he said, he lives upstairs. Not too difficult to open the pub."
"But who did he open it for?" Sarah asked. "There's no one here, John."
The bartender chose to arrive with two plates of food. Despite Sarah's misgivings about haggis, it smelled delicious.
"Enjoy," said the bartender. "By the way, I have a couple of rooms upstairs we rent out during the holiday season. You shouldn't be going back out in that. Trains won't be running until tomorrow."
Sarah and John exchanged a look.
"Sure," John agreed. The bartender nodded.
"I'll get you the keys," he said, and went into the back.
"John," Sarah hissed.
"What? Do you really want to take your chances out there?" he whispered back. The wind shook the pub again, and Sarah relented.
"It feels like a trap," she said. "Something pleasant meaning to swallow us whole. The belly of the beast."
"I know what you mean," John said. "And I'm sorry. But I think we'll be okay."
They both turned to look at the bartender, who was smiling at them, keys dangling from his hand. John got up and retrieved them. The bartender turned and went back into the kitchen.
"Oh my God," said Sarah, at her first mouthful of food. "This is amazing. I don't know why I've never tried it before."
John dug in, and he seemed to share her opinion. The whisky warmed them, the food filled them, and soon, they had forgotten about their worries, and about the storm raging outside.
The following morning, the sun was shining on the snow.
Sarah woke, surprised to find that she was still alive and that nothing strange had happened in the night.
They went downstairs to find the pub empty of both bartender and dog, but two plates of fruit, cold cuts, and cheese were sitting on the table.
"That was nice of him," said John. They sat down to breakfast, when Sarah noticed a scrap of paper underneath her plate.
"Did we ever get his name?" she asked, and unfolded the paper.
My apologies for not being there to greet you this morning, but Dileas (the dog) enjoys walks in the morning. I hope this is enough food for you both. Thank you for your custom and I wish you well in your future travels. The train to the city is at 10 am, and I'm afraid I won't return before then. Best wishes, Robert.
"Robert," said Sarah. Something was insistently knocking at the back of her mind, but in the bright sunlight of the day, she ignored it.
They were at the station at 10 am. The little village was still beautiful, but just as eerily empty as it had been the night before. The sun was warming the snow and melting it, but there was a chill in the air. Sarah was glad to board the train as the doors opened and she was engulfed in the warmth of the train car.
They'd splurged on First Class after their disastrous night, and John hoped to make it up to Sarah by spending some time in civilisation before they had to get on a plane home.
"You know," said Sarah, as the train began to leave the station. "Scotland isn't so bad, after all."
John grinned at her. She looked down at the placemat in front of her as the train steward poured her tea and milk. It was filled with information about Scotland and its history.
...the ploughman poet, Robert Burns, one of Scotland's most famous -
Sarah started. She grabbed the scrap of paper she'd pocketed in the pub.
Best wishes, Robert.
She suddenly stood up and looked back, her mouth in an O.
"Sarah," said John. "Sarah, what is it?"
The little village faded from view.
"Robert Burns," she said out loud. "I thought he looked familiar!"
"What?" demanded John, his face draining of colour.
"The bartender!" she insisted. "That was Robert Burns. We just got rescued from a blizzard by the national poet of Scotland!"
"But he's dead," said John. Sarah shrugged, her eyes wild.
"Guess not so much," she said.
"Do you want to go back?" asked John. "We should go back."
"We'll get out at the next station," she said. She flagged down one of the train conductors.
"If we get out at the next station, can we take the train back to the last one?" she asked.
The conductor looked puzzled.
"Aye," he said. "But the last station was some time ago, about an hour and a half. Did you forget something there, miss? I can phone ahead."
Sarah stared at him.
"No," she said. "That can't be right. We just got on the train, what, ten minutes ago?"
"I'm afraid not, miss," said the conductor, now looking concerned. "Last stop was almost two hours ago. Are you feeling well? Should I get someone?"
"No," said Sarah. "No, that's all right. Thank you."
The conductor left. Sarah and John just stared at each other.
"Well," said John weakly, lifting his mug. "Say a prayer for the soul o' Rabbie Burns?"
Sarah raised her mug likewise. She swallowed hard.
"Agreed," she said, and they clinked their mugs together.
Somewhere, alone in the shade of the mountains with Dileas, Robert Burns smiled with sharp teeth.