The Watchers in the Hills
by Hannah Spencer
part 1 of 2
‘The hills of Simonside are out of bounds. Especially at night. That’s the first rule of this job.’
George looked up at the brooding hills glaring down on the village as he trotted alongside the old shepherd. A jagged black scar slashed across the escarpment, a stark reminder of the unforgiving reality disguised beneath the swathes of woodland.
The highest peaks had vanished into a towering mass of dark grey cloud, and, as he watched, the rocky scar was swallowed by the mist. Was that a figure moving up there? He stopped and squinted, but couldn’t make it out.
When he looked round, the shepherd was already nearly fifty yards further up the road, and he had to run to catch up. He didn’t walk fast, for an old man. And he thought himself fit.
‘Mr Benson... Alfred?What’s the problem with those hills?’
The shepherd turned to face him.
George was taken aback by the hard sneer on his face. In the short time since he’d been hired, he’d already come to think of the man as friendly and easygoing.
‘When you spend days alone on the hills, lad, you learn to see things. We’re never alone up there. The hills are not empty. There’s always something watching you.’
George relaxed. ‘You mean the Fair Folk? But they’re harmless, aren’t they? We’re used to them at home; they never cause any trouble.’
‘No, lad. Those up on Simonside, they’re different. Duergars, they’re called. You won’t have come across anything like these where you come from. They don’t like people. They don’t like us at all. It pays to leave them well alone.’
George looked round at the remaining people hurrying home. For most people, the Hiring Fair had been a success, but a few solitary figures were still waiting hopefully, crooks in hand for the shepherds, whipcord for the carters.
He caught the envious eye of a shepherd lad for a second. He lifted his chin and tried to stride like a man, wishing Alfred would slow down a bit.
‘Mr Benson... Alfred... these Duergars, I’m not going to be frightened by them. The Fair Folk aren’t a threat, all shepherds know that.’
He was pleased with the calm confidence in his voice. He was a man now, about to start proper men’s work, but he knew he looked young. Alfred must be trying to test him.
He knew the hills — he’d been shepherding on his father’s farm since he could walk — and he knew well what lurked among them. He’d even seen them, but he wasn’t afraid of them. Only children were frightened of the Fair Folk. Respect, not fear, was what he’d always been told. And never, under any circumstances, accept food or drink from them.
Alfred stopped abruptly and gripped his arm with a strength that belied his age. ‘Look, lad, you seem bright and canny enough. That’s what I liked about you. The Duke of Northumberland’s farms are the best prospect a lad can have. You’ll do well if you mind yourself. But you heed what I’m telling you. The Duergars are vicious. They’re killers.’
He thumped his crook onto the cobbles. ‘You stay well away from those hills.’
George stared, shocked at the sudden outburst. Alfred’s ice-blue eyes were burning with hatred.
‘Are you listening to me?’
‘Yes, Mr Benson. I’ll do what you say.’
After what seemed an age, the old shepherd nodded and his face broke into a smile.
‘Well, lad, I’ll see you to your lodgings. Mrs Mitchell on Church Street has a couple of rooms for lodgers, the carter’s lad has the other one. He’s about your age, you should get on well.’
They resumed their rapid pace along the cobbled street. George glanced up again at the Simonside hills, but now they were entirely obscured by cloud. A few moments later they turned into Church Street.
‘You’ve got tomorrow to settle in, then you’ll start at dawn on Monday.’ Alfred extended his hand formally and George shook it. ‘Welcome to Rothbury.’
* * *
The day was hot, despite the time of year, and the wood flanking the lane seemed cool and inviting. George had quickly grasped the layout of the town and surrounding lanes, and he still had half the day to fill. He could see the hazel trees were loaded with nuts — his favourite. Was he allowed to gather them? He couldn’t see why not. The Duke of Northumberland owned all this land, and he was now his shepherd. Surely he’d allow his workers to harvest the woods?
There was no one about to ask, being Sunday, and after a moment’s deliberation he walked into the wood.
Soon the pockets of his smock were bursting with hazelnuts. His boots stirred up the rich, earthy aroma of leaf mulch which mingled with the pungent scent of the vegetation. The trees were a melody of colour. He could see the bright yellow of the beech leaves, the pale green of the ash and the orange of the hawthorn, interspersed with the still dark green of the oak. There was a wealth of timber here, a huge array of mature trees, and his feet crunched over a carpet of beech-mast and acorns. From up in the boughs came the piercing call of a nuthatch as it gathered nuts to store under the bark.
He ambled slowly, enjoying the tranquillity. He’d have precious little time to do that after he started work tomorrow. He smirked, thinking of that other jobless lad.
At last he reached the edge of the wood and looked out across a pasture traversing the steepening slope. The woods adjoining it marked the start of Simonside.
Further up the hill, he could see a plume of smoke rising. A peculiar greyish colour; it must be the heather on fire. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Unchecked, it could burn for weeks. Months, if it spread into the peat underground. Had anyone noticed? Probably not, he’d seen no one about at all. He began to run up the slope.
He vaulted the fence adjoining the wood and pushed through the undergrowth until he reached open space.
About a third of an acre of moorland was well ablaze. The autumn had been so dry, the plants were like a tinderbox. A natural bottleneck linked the piece to the main moor; if it spread through that, the devastation would spread for miles. He knew well what the result would look like: it would take years to recover.
The narrow strip had to be wet down. There wasn’t much time, the blaze had already moved. He could see a stream a little way down the slope, but he had no buckets. He’d have to run back to the village for help, but there wasn’t time for that.
He cast about and then noticed a rooftop further up the hill, around four hundred yards away. He began to run.
It was a rough wooden building, a shepherd’s hut no doubt. He hammered on the door.
‘Hello? Anyone about? There’s a fire!’
He pushed it open. Empty. The occupant was presumably out with his flock. He found two buckets behind the door and grabbed them.
The fire had moved a good distance closer to the bottleneck in his absence. He filled the buckets and ran up the slope, but half the water had spilled out before he got there. This wasn’t going to work.
He went to the wood, took a fallen branch from beneath a rowan tree and slashed two grooves in it for a makeshift yoke. With the buckets balanced squarely over his shoulders, he was able to make much better progress.
At last, he paused. His eyes were stinging, his lungs felt as if they were full of glass, sweat was streaming down his face. But it was under control. His section of soaked heather had stopped its progress and it was starting to die down.
He raised a shaking hand and wiped his face, leaving a grubby smear across his hand. At least he’d started his new job well. He swilled his face and arms in the stream then rinsed his mouth to get rid of the taste of soot.
The sweat began to cool on his skin and he started to shiver. He looked up and saw the sun wasn’t far above the horizon; he must have been up here for hours. He remembered Alfred’s warning. He’d better get back, and quickly.
He went up to the hut, his legs trembling with the exertion. Still no one about. He put the buckets back then hurried over to an outcrop which offered a good viewpoint, using his rowan yoke as a walking stick to ease his legs.
A huge seam of bare rock split the open space below him. Was this where he’d seen that figure yesterday? It looked quite similar.
If he cut across the heather here, he decided, it should take him on a short cut back to the village. He set off, looking again at the rapidly sinking sun.
Small pockets of mist were beginning to form in the chill air, and the hairs on his arms began to stand on end. It was very quiet, he realised. The birds were silent. The trees made not a rustle. He felt as if many pairs of eyes were watching him. He turned quickly. Someone was there, he was sure of it. Or something.
‘Hello there,’ he said politely.
There was a sudden gasp as a ripple of wind passed overhead, and he wished he hadn’t spoken. He walked a bit further. Was that the snap of a twig? He looked back and saw a flicker of movement amongst the scrub behind him. He waited but saw and heard nothing more. As he turned back he caught another movement, this time in front of him. They were all around him.
He took a good helping of his leftover hazelnuts from his pocket and laid them on a rock.
‘I mean no harm,’ he said to the empty scrub. ‘I’ve brought you a gift.’ When dealing with the Fair Folk, politeness was always best. At least, it was normally. He had a feeling it would hold no brook with these Duergars.
There was an answering silence. After waiting for a moment, he picked his way carefully forward, as quietly as he could. As he rounded a clump of gorse, he saw a deer, rigid, its ears pricked. It was looking at something to the right and hadn’t seen him. Abruptly it turned and sprang towards him. It veered sharply as it noticed him and then vanished into the scrub.
George looked in the same direction. Was that the outline of a figure in the gorse?
Copyright © 2014 by Hannah Spencer