by Carol Reid
“D’ye hear that?” Des whispered theatrically.
Ivy shook her head and the others shifted in their seats.
Most of the Spirited Scotland tour group had gone to bed, bored stiff by the peace and quiet of the tiny Highland town of Aithness.
They’d spent a dismal day in the chugging coach, teetering over the ancient cobbled roads. At one point the whole group had to disembark and walk ahead to keep the coach from bottoming out on a humpback bridge. As it turned out, this had been the defining moment of the day. To the great disappointment of most and secret relief of a very few, no headless man had appeared at Holmwood Castle, and no Blue Lady at Thorne.
Around the scarred oak table in the lounge of the Highland Pearl, only four remained: the guide Des Sinclair, Ivy Montrose of Perth, and the two Canadians, jet-lagged and dozing in the hardwood chairs.
The clock showed nearly eleven but the sky was still awash in violet light. It was very cool for late July. The landlord had lit a small fire in the grate, taking pity on his shivering guests.
Ivy hugged herself in her cashmere shawl and took a tiny sip of the peaty liquor set before her. The Canadians held hands loosely and blinked at the topknot of blue flames above the little mound of scrap wood and sawdust in the fireplace.
Des had promised a tale to those who sat up to meet the midnight. Just as he’d expected, it was these three who hung back from their beds. He hunched forward in his chair and his mutton chop whiskers twitched as he tossed back the dregs of his whisky. He patted his lips dry with the back of his hand, and then cupped his ear.
“There’s nothing there. Not yet. But it’s coming, mind you, sure as the stars come out in the sky.”
Ivy gazed at the purple expanse through the broad window that fronted the little hotel. The sky was like a swath of soft plain cloth, as yet unspangled. This comforted her a little, and for a moment she relaxed against the thin cushion at her back.
“There are many paths in these Highland hills,” Des began, “but few that appear on any map. Some have been traveled for centuries, worn deep into the stone by countless feet, others only once, only once and never again. For paths such as these, y’must have a guide, for if you’re lost, you’ll never be seen again, in this world or the next.
“One evening, I’d taken my supper late. The roast lamb and pudding sat still and heavy in my belly. When I lay down in my bed there was a nasty press around my heart and so I rose again and thought to walk it off in the night air. It was cool enough when I set out, but the further I walked, the more it turned icy cold, and all my woolens were not protection enough against the chill.”
The Canadians shifted closer together and the man wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulder. Ivy thought they looked a bit blue around the lips, but perhaps it was a trick of the failing light. She touched her own face and found it waxy cold.
She knew she needed rest, having reached the point when she could not rightly remember why she had chosen to come along on this tour, but the thought of lying down and covering her face with a bed sheet made her queasy. She tried to focus again on Des Sinclair’s droning voice.
“I tried to stumble back to my rooms, but instead ended up far up the hillside, knee deep in damp heather. The few lights of my village seemed far in the distance. The more I tried to walk toward the light, the farther away it appeared. My legs were pillars of ice and in my ears was the sound of beating wings. I flapped my arms around my head like the fool that I was, for I was in the dark, in the silence, as alone as a soul can be in endless night.”
Ivy was dismayed to see fat rivulets of tears run out of Des Sinclair’s eyes and into his beard. She tried to stand, but was stuck in her chair like a lump of dead flesh with no option, it seemed, but to hear out his story.
“I held my breath, which came as a relief to my aching lungs, and listened to the dark again. There came a flutter of wings and a few soft notes of birdsong. The path turned clear and whitely lit ahead of me, the sky filled with shards of obsidian light...”
It was like a black tide, Ivy thought. The blackness surged toward the plate glass window and a blast of birdsong lifted the three travelers out of their seats. The glass seemed to crumble to sparkling dust against the deluge of glossy beating wings, and like a breath through a gauze curtain, the three travelers passed.
“Obsidian light,” the landlord muttered as he placed the empty glasses on his tray. He nodded toward the trio of empty chairs. “Not going along as guide?”
Des Sinclair looked out onto the twilit loch, the purple hills and indigo sky and shook his head. High up in a dark tree a lonely blackbird screeched and sang and Des took back his glass. He knew he’d broken his bond with the Reaper and his severance pay would be severe indeed. His own journey would be solitary, with no more possibility of return. But he could bear no more travels with the bewildered dead who believed they had signed up only for a holiday.
“Another small one, Jimmy,” he said. “I’m off the clock.”
Copyright © 2007 by Carol Reid