Black Dog Stories, 1
Fresh Blood and Feathers
by S. J. McKenzie
part 1 of 2
Warfare can be a terrible thing, and there are times when the noise and colour of the battlefield can drive away a person’s wits and leave them raving mad. Such was the fate of the Druid called Callan Longsight, who was witness to the slaughter of his own people in the Land of Lorne, many hundreds of years ago.
In those days, a Druid in battle was a fearsome sight, covered in a cloak of dark feathers, and hopping about on one leg in the pose of a crane, casting curses with one arm extended, and one eye fixed upon the enemy. He went unarmed throughout the battlefield wherever he pleased, without challenge from anyone, for the warriors were afraid that their souls would be taken if they laid a hand upon him.
But in the end, even the magic of the Druid was not enough, and the enemy Picts overran Callan’s host and destroyed them all in an afternoon. He saw the pride of his clan fall under Pictish spears, so that the white snow beneath them was stained red with their blood, and then turned dark with the feathers of the ravens that came to feast upon their bodies in the chill of the evening.
This was the sight that turned his mind, so that as the final light of day slipped away, he fled the bloody field and ran northward, raving in madness, into the secluded glens of Lorne. This is the story of what became of him.
* * *
“Get off the road, Jackie,” said an elderly woman who sat huddled up beneath some gloomy fir trees. “I think I hear the horses coming again.”
“No, that is only rocks falling into the gully,” replied her son, who was standing out in the track, looking up to the black hill that loomed beside them.
“Well then, what the Devil are you gawking at, boy?” she called again, and motioned for him to come over to where she was taking shelter. Huddled with her beneath the trees were his wife, Mary, and their baby girl, that they called Peg, just until they thought of a better name.
They were travelling along an old track just north of Invercharnan, having been turned loose from their homes a few weeks before. This was back during the Clearances, when so many people were sent away over the sea, so that the lords could have the land all to themselves.
As well as being without a home, this particular family were also on the run from soldiers. When they were evicted, they had departed with property that was not theirs, strictly speaking.
“I am not leaving without this gun,” said Jack. “I have shouldered it every day for years, and I doubt the lord has ever held it in his life. It is mine, not his. The Lord would agree, it is not theft.” And by the same token, they also took several horses, which they sold for a useful sum along the way.
Unfortunately, while the Lord above may well have agreed with Jackie on the true nature of ownership, their own particular lord did not, and put the word out that they were wanted for theft. When some soldiers had caught up with them on the shores of Loch Etive and chased them up into the narrow glen beyond it, Jackie had fired the old hunting gun on them in desperation as they fled, leaving one of the soldiers dead on the roadside. If they were found now, it would be the gallows for him, and the poorhouse for his family.
But the soldiers were not the main thing on Jackie’s mind now that they had gotten into Glen Etive. He had heard the stories about this glen, the same as everyone else in the region; strange noises in the night, folks gone missing, and the lair of a water horse sure to be somewhere about, or maybe another unnamed spirit sent by the Devil. It was these stories that ran though his mind as he stared up at the dark hillside.
“I am looking at the corbies there, Mother,” he called, pointing to where black birds flew around on the shoulder of the hill. “I thought I saw...” He trailed off, because he had no words for what he thought he had seen; a bird much larger than the others, awkward in flight, leaping from the tree tops and almost tumbling down through the branches to the snow below. But he knew of no bird that was almost the size of man, and flew in such a way.
“Well, isn’t it a fine time to be watching birds now?” called his mother, and he came to his senses and hurried over to the shelter. It was cold and about to snow, and they felt sure enough of their safety to make a small fire. Beside it, the women went off to sleep, leaving Jackie on guard for a few hours more, before finally he too dozed off.
* * *
Later that night, sometime in the dark hour just before dawn, Mary awoke screaming, soon waking the rest in a panic. Hastily they rose, and huddled together to comfort the baby, whose howls echoed around the narrow glen. But when that noise subsided, they made out another sound coming from the hill above them, and it froze them all into a silent fear.
A harsh and terrible cry was heard, something like a man screaming, but also like the noise of a wild animal. No words could be made out, but there was a pattern to it, as though the thing were calling out, again and again. It went on for several minutes and left them so frightened that all they could do was to sit huddled, praying it would come to a stop, with poor Peg bleating for warmth and comfort.
Suddenly there were some loud crashes on the hill above, as if branches were breaking, and then the noise died down. As the fear subsided, Jackie readied his gun and got the fire going again so he could see about them, while his mother quieted the baby.
Mary began to tell them of the dream that had frightened her so, at first she was still much shaken, and her breathing was ragged. But after only a short time, a calm came over her, and her words came slowly, as though part of her were still dreaming.
“I am in the wilds, in a camp with Jackie, who has gone out hunting. We are about to be married,” she said.
“Aye, well, we did that often enough at the time,” said Jackie, as his mother scowled.
“I can hear something land upon the roof; it sounds like a bird, but...now I can hear it speaking to me.” She shivered at the memory.
“What did it say to you?” said Jackie as he moved over to comfort her.
At this she began trembling, and then all at once became rigid, and she began to speak in a different voice, low and anxious, as though another person were speaking through her. “Do you remember, lady, how easy it was for us as we lay together? Things are hard for me now, living the life of a bird, while you lie there sleeping.”
And then Mary, who seemed to be in a trance, made her reply to the man in her dream, up on the roof: “Why can you not come down from there and be with me, and be whole again?”
Now Jackie grabbed her and dragged her closer to the fire where he could see her clearly. She had gone deathly pale, and her eyes had taken on a strange dark colour not her own, and would not fix upon his face. “Mary, you are awake now! Wake up!” he cried, but she seemed unable to hear him, and kept up the strange dialogue, speaking again in the man’s voice:
“What of your lover, the hunter, who is out now looking to provide for you?”
She replied: “I would rather sleep with you in the hollow of a tree than lie with him in the finest hall in the land.”
At this, Jackie began to shake her fiercely to wake her, but also in anger that some demon was taking her from him as she slept. “Mary, for God’s sake, stop it! Mother, get some water!”
But his mother was yelling at him in return: “you’ll break her neck, flinging her about like that, leave her be!” and baby Peg began to cry again, and throughout it all the strange man kept speaking through the voice of his enchanted wife:
“My path is not for a lady,” he cried out. “It is better for you to love the man that brought you here, than the crazed and famished half-man I have become”.
At that, the howling noise returned. High up on the dark hillside it was, clear and terrible, the voice of a man crying out in wordless madness, to whoever might hear. At that, Mary came out of her trance, screaming just as loud as before, and there was no calming the baby either.
“Jack, we’ve got to get away from here,” said his mother, and they gathered up their belongings as quick as they could and stumbled off down the track to Invercharnan by moonlight, to take their chances with the soldiers. At that moment, it appeared a safer course than remaining near whatever it was on the hill above them.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie