The Watchers in the Hills
by Hannah Spencer
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
He turned and began to retrace his steps. He quickly passed the scar of rock and re-entered the wood near the still smouldering heather, but soon his path was blocked by a dense mass of gorse. More concerned with what was behind him, he must have mistaken his trail. Glancing over his shoulder at the markedly empty and silent trees, he began to skirt round the obstruction.
After several hundred yards he wondered if he would be better going in the other direction. He doubled back then found an easier path downhill. The light was already failing — he was running out of time. He could see and hear nothing, but he was sure they were still there, somewhere.
The path reached a gushing torrent hurtling down the hillside. He probed it experimentally with his stick; over two feet deep. Impassable. What now?
He pictured the layout of the hills as he’d seen from the valley, but couldn’t recall a stream or any other landmark that he could now identify. All he could do was climb back up and skirt the stream, then carry on downhill.
As he climbed, the clouds began to lower, and soon he was encased in fog. He now had no idea where he was going. Rocks, trees and scrub materialised and faded in turn as he trudged on, and the damp greyness obscured all sound. He lost track of the passing time. Had the Duergars lost his trail now? If so, the fog was a blessing.
Every so often he broke free of the cloud and could see for a quarter mile into the rapidly deepening gloom. The results were not encouraging. Rock, heather, scrub, no identifiable landmarks whatsoever.
Then he saw a building in the near distance. Smoke was rising from the chimney to merge with the fog. That shepherd’s hut he’d visited earlier, he realised with relief. He fixed its direction as it began to fade again into the mist and forced himself to push on. At the very least he could have somewhere to sleep for the night.
A flicker of orange light appeared, and then the building itself materialised. He knocked on the door, waited a moment then pushed it open. The warmth struck his cold, damp face like a soft blanket as he looked inside.
The hut was empty, but a fire was burning in the hearth and a pan of stew was simmering to one side. Wherever the resident was, he couldn’t be far away.
He seated himself by the fire to wait, reasoning he wouldn’t be denied hospitality, and held his hands out to the flames. Steam began to rise from his clothes.
He heard the door open and turned. ‘I was lost,’ he started to say, then fell silent.
A small man, no more than four feet high and dressed entirely in brown, was staring at him in surprise. He gave off an impression of rock and earth, as hard as the hills.
The dwarf began to smile, then shut the door, carefully and deliberately. George felt cold. The warmth of the fire was now like shards of north wind against his skin, and the significance of his terrible mistake dawned on him.
‘You are welcome to stay here tonight,’ the dwarf said.
George felt it wise to remain silent.
The dwarf sat down and broke up a loaf of warm, steaming bread. The aroma was mouthwatering. ‘Would you care to share my humble meal?’
‘No, thank you,’ he answered at once.
The dwarf smiled slowly and didn’t comment.
His host carefully stirred his stew, the aroma of delicately steamed meat, vegetables and herbs making George unbearably ravenous. He’d never smelt anything so delicious. What the devil did he put in it?
The dwarf ladled some into a wooden bowl and settled himself down to eat. George watched every bewitching spoonful rise to his lips, almost tasting it himself. He was feeling quite dizzy, he’d never been so hungry in his life. The world shrank to the rise and fall of the alluring spoon.
After several minutes, just when he felt he could snatch the bowl from his hands, the dwarf looked up as if just remembering he was there.
‘You’re hungry,’ he stated. ‘I have plenty to spare, please have some.’
George agreed before he finished speaking.
The dwarf ladled out a second portion with infinite care. He solicitously handed over a spoon, and George plunged it in, raising a dripping spoonful of meat, gravy, roots and herbs.
As his mouth opened he glanced at the dwarf through the rising steam. His expression of hospitable concern was now replaced with spiteful, jubilant glee.
The enchantment broke. George dropped the spoon as if he’d been burnt. A drop of gravy splashed onto his lip and he hastily scrubbed it away with his sleeve. The bowl now smelt of soil and rotting leaves. He pushed the scummy mess away.
He didn’t dare look at the dwarf, but he could feel the vicious hostility in his stare. There was a sudden movement and George flinched. The dwarf had thrown his own bowl against the wall. The thin wood cracked in half, and a smear of gravy trickled down to the floor.
George gripped his walking stick that was still clenched between his knees, ready to fight him off, to run, to do anything but stay here any longer. But the dwarf merely settled down in his seat as if nothing had happened.
What was going on? They were killers, Alfred had told him. He edged forward on his seat, ready to spring to his feet at the slightest provocation, keeping his stick between him and his host. Then he stared at it. Rowan! Gods be good, it was rowan! Of course! A sure protection against fairies. With it in his hands, he was safe.
He clutched it as tight as he could, making sure he couldn’t drop it. Emboldened now, he stared directly at the dwarf, and the dwarf stared back. The fire burnt low and the air chilled. Neither stirred from their seat.
George began to shiver. His hunger, driven away by the earlier shock, returned and his stomach growled. The dwarf smirked. His hands grew numb from clutching the stick, and his feet went to sleep.
‘Make up the fire, keep yourself warm.’
The friendly words seemed riddled with malice. George didn’t dare move.
His still-damp clothes were uncomfortable and chafing around his neck and wrists, but trying to rearrange them would mean disturbing his grip on the rowan. He shifted back slightly to relieve the pressure on his leg when the dwarf appeared occupied with studying the cold ashes in the grate. His eyes snapped round to him at once.
How much of the night had passed? He felt like a hapless mouse, blocked from his hole by the tomcat sitting in his path, tail twitching, pretending to be busy washing his paws.
He resorted to counting his breaths, both to keep himself alert and to mark the time. He had reached nearly sixteen hundred when the dwarf abruptly stood up. George flinched back, his rowan out in front of him, but then he heard it too. The crow of a rooster. The herald of dawn.
Instantly, everything changed. The hut, the dead fire, the dwarf, they all vanished. George found himself sitting on a cold rock on the hillside. The dim light of early morning revealed nothing but rocks and heather. As his eyes adjusted to take in the new scene, his blood slowly turned to ice.
Just six inches to his left, where moments before the cold ashes of the dwarf’s hearth had been, was an empty expanse of air.
He dropped to his belly and looked over a precipice onto a sheer drop of almost a hundred feet. He scrambled back, shaking. If he’d gone to make the fire up, as requested...
Somewhere, not far away down the slope, a dog barked. There was someone there! George scrambled to his feet and began to run, leaping boulders and ploughing through spiteful clumps of gorse. The rowan was locked in his hand like a vice.
Three, then four figures emerged from the trees two hundred yards ahead.
‘Here! Over here!’ he yelled, suddenly panic stricken. What if they didn’t see him? He waved his fist above his head and continued shouting as the men stopped and waited. The three dogs at their heels ran up and sniffed round his legs when he at last dared to temper his sprint.
‘I take it that’s him, Alf.’
He braced his trembling hands against his knees as he gasped for breath. He could see four pairs of boots surrounding him.
‘You’ve led us a right dance, George, lad,’ Alfred said. ‘No place for getting lost, up here.’
When George managed to straighten up, their eyes met. Alfred’s sharp blue eyes raked over his face, his trembling body, the rowan stick clutched in his white knuckled fists.
He nodded slowly. ‘You’ve done well, lad. You’ve been lucky. Very lucky.’
George couldn’t bring himself to answer. Alfred’s eyes flicked to something behind him and his expression changed.
‘We need to go. Now.’
One of the dogs growled. One of the men shoved George forwards and the group began to hurry through the trees. He kept close to the other men, grateful for the dogs keeping pace just behind. He heard a rustle of leaves, the snap of a branch, the snarl of a dog before it retreated again, but he didn’t dare look back.
They cleared the wood and were into the open pasture of the valley. A few cows emerged from the early morning mist, grazing peacefully. Only when all men and dogs were safely out did the party pause and look back into the gloom. How many silent eyes were watching them?
‘Don’t you do that again, boy,’ one of the men said. ‘Next time you won’t be coming back.’
George believed him.
‘Right, lad. To the farm. We’ve got a day’s work to do now.’
George stared at Alfred and then burst into hysterical laughter.
As he followed Alfred along the lane towards the farm, he looked up at the brooding hills. Near the scar of black rock, a figure was moving. As he watched, it stopped and turned. Even over the distance, he could feel its gaze upon him.
Copyright © 2014 by Hannah Spencer