Of Things Wraithlike and Most Uncanny: Lowlands-L’s Crypt
Of Things Wraithlike and Most Uncanny: Lowlands-L’s Crypt


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Blood on the Samhain Moon

by Thomas Mc Rae

IScary moon behind decaying foliaget was autumn and the light was fading earlier each evening while the first cold sting heralding winter permeated the air. It was still bright enough to see the glen, the brown burn flowing through, and the trees waving in the chilly breeze. To see the remains of an ancient ring of standing stones most of which had long since collapsed. To see the crumpled headless corpse lying in a pool of coagulating blood near the banks of the burn. All was quiet save for the murmurs of burn and breeze as an eight-pointer stag strode from the woodland to drink from the running water then it stood erect, ears twitching, and bolted back to the shelter of the woods.

Down the hilly slope ran a young man, large sword hanging on his back, brogues splashing as he crossed the burn and ran towards the ancient stones where he stood to regain his breath. Donald Mac Fergus looked back to the crest of the hill he had just descended. Standing there he had seen large fires start to blaze in the scattered villages below from which many smaller lights spread outwards in this direction. It was the evening of the fire festival of Samhain, a time when such fires were traditionally lit in deference to local gods and departed spirits. The ghosts walked among the living for one night only—a time to remember and welcome them back with food and gifts. This year he knew the fires had a very different import. Armed men bearing flaming torches and leading fierce hounds would follow the same route he had taken. There was very scant time before his pursuers arrived but he smiled. “Och, they’ll never find me in my secret place,” he muttered as, stepping over the corpse, he eased a dense clump of bracken aside. A cleft within the fallen stones was revealed into which he crawled. Small gaps between the stones allowed enough light to enter the space for him to see the many trophies he had collected over the years. Bronze torques, jewellery, ornate belt buckles, several daggers and even a sword. Stolen items he had been hoarding here since childhood. Nobody else knew of this little secret cave within the ruins and here he could hide from those who sought his life. They would find the bloody corpse of Angus McGowan, renowned smith and bard but they would never find his killer or the hidden treasures.

“Aye, come the dawn I’ll be off down into the forest. I can rob folk around there and travel onwards to one of the big towns. Maybe even get a boat across the waters.” Donald smiled as he thought about a new life far from the boredom of small local settlements. His sword would gain him employment as a warrior attached to a warlord, Could even gain him leadership of one of the bandit bands in the forest. For now though he must remain here quietly and wait. The shadows lengthened as night approached and moonlight replaced the setting sun with its silver glow. The moon itself remained hidden behind the hill as he recalled the events that had led to this situation.

Since childhood he and Angus McGowan had been close friends, he son of a warrior father, Angus that of the local blacksmith. Together they had been trained in the arts of combat and had shown early prowess. His friend had proved to be the one lad who could defeat him with training swords. In fact, Donald knew he was always second best to the smith’s son, although he was superior to all other growing youths. They looked to Angus as leader, not to him. When it came to lifting the Great Stones he surpassed all other competitors until along came Angus and raised one that had long defied the efforts of all other warriors. In bardic contests Donald would seem to be the winner then. Angus sang holding the listeners in thrall. In the wild dances of the clan he was renowned while Donald’s efforts were ignored. He knew he had great talents, yet everybody ignored him and praised his friend. In retaliation Donald began to take his revenge by stealing items from people he had known since infancy. In his wanderings around the area he had discovered the small cleft among the fallen stones and had hidden his collection there. In time Angus replaced his father as smith, creating fine jewellery for the women and strong weapons for his clansmen. Weapons that had been well used in recent years as deserters from warring armies down south sought refuge in the forest below the hill on the other side of the glen. Several times the bandits had launched attacks on the villagers but had been driven off in a bloody slaughter with Angus and Donald well to the fore. Angus in fact had forged the sword he now placed by his side, traces of blood still on the blade. The smith had even saved his life in a few skirmishes.

Donald sighed, “Good friend indeed Ye were, Angus, but Ye had to go.” As the moon rose above the hill he could dimly see his victim through a crack in the stone cave. It had all been the fault of Elspeth MacCullain, the chief’s daughter. She was the one who flirted with Donald, teasing and provoking him. He had believed that one day she would agree to a handfast with him, a marriage of sorts for a year and a day. He dreamed of holding her soft warm body in his arms fantasised about long winter nights of loving, a child resulting, maybe even an agreement to make the handfast for life. Yesterday Angus had shattered his hopes and plans. In the morning Angus had taken him aside to tell him “Donald my friend, let me trust Ye with a great secret. Last night Elspeth agreed to bind herself to me for life come the Feast of Imbolc, Festival of Blessed Bride. Tomorrow at dawn I shall climb to the Glen of the Sacred Stones and there create a bardic epic, dedicated to my love. I’ll sing it at the Samhain fires before the spirits of our ancestors. Wish me well my dearest friend but tell nobody for now.”

Donald managed to hide the jealousy that raged through him, smiling, he embraced Angus wishing him every joy. They parted and he watched the smith walk over to Elspeth. They went off together laughing; yet again Angus had kept him a poor second best. Mayhap the time had come for a deed which would solve all his problems. But what could he do? All day as preparations were being made for the Samhain Festival he envisaged and rejected plan after plan. As darkness fell and the moon shone its silver light on his face he knew what must be done. No longer would he be moon to Angus’s sun! Long before sunrise he was up and climbing the hill with the glen on its other side; dirk in belt, great sword on his back. The moonlight was his guide and within the hour he had crossed the burn and crawled into his secret place. Only one thing could be done and he was the man to do it! He dozed off as he waited and was awakened by sounds of joyous singing. Peering through a space between the stones he saw Angus, bathed by the rosy dawn, walk around creating the great ballad to his Beloved. He was oblivious to all else. With a stealth developed from long experience Donald left his refuge and crept up behind his friend and companion since childhood, dirk in hand.

Angus did not even realise he was behind him as he thrust the dirk into the smith’s back. Mortally wounded his victim fell to his knees turning his head to see his assailant. His mouth opened as blood gurgled forth but Donald heard him saying “Why?” as he swung the great sword and severed his friend’s head from his body. Blood spurted over the heather and bracken as Angus fell and his head bounced then rolled face upwards. The muscles convulsed and his open eyes rolled up showing the whites then, like the body, it was still. Donald yelled in triumph as he kicked the head among the bracken; the rival who had thwarted him so many times was gone at last. In time Elspeth MacCullain would be his! In his hiding place Duncan cursed as he recalled how his plans had gone so agley. Of how as he ran downhill to the village he had imagined a future with Elspeth as his wife. In time, himself elected as chief when age claimed her father. How under his direction all local villages would be united and a campaign started to clear the forest of surviving villains. The murder of Angus would be placed at their door, and the robber problem settled once and for all.

Moonlight was replaced by the glow of the false dawn as he approached his still sleeping community. He began carrying logs over to the site of that night’s bonfire making certain that others saw him as they left their huts. Others came to join him in his labours but all paused to watch as the unmarried girls assembled with large bags. Their task, to collect wild nuts, flowers, and fruits as offerings to the Gods and Spirit People. They walked to different places on the hill singing the sacred songs of Samhain as they climbed. Angus watched lovely Elspeth as she climbed upwards, face full of joy, red hair streaming in the morning winds. Her joy would be short lived this day but in time he would console her. Sheep and goats were herded into a temporary pen by the older women At dusk Ailsa the aged seeress would offer their blood to the Departed, slashing their throats with her three edged knife in the same expert way she had used it on robbers taken alive during the raids. Nobody commented on Angus’s absence, it was well known that on this of all mornings it was his custom to go at dawn to the Sacred Stones and there create an epic ballad for the new year. Donald worked alongside the other young men using his strength to help assemble the bonfire making himself as conspicuous as he could.

When his friend failed to appear later he’d be the first to express concern and organise a party to search at The Sacred Stones. He would find the corpse, and fall prostrate with false grief at Angus’s brutal murder. He’d be the last person anybody would suspect. Like all the other villages on the plain theirs was a hive of activity as late afternoon approached. Donald became aware of a disturbance on the outskirts of the village. Men and women rushed to the area and Donald was horrified to see Elspeth staggering towards him, hysterical, covered with blood, and clutching her collecting bag to her breasts. From it wet redness oozed. She was screaming, “Angus! Oh, Angus!” as concerned women rushed to support her. Stopping outside Ailsa’s hut she opened her bag but no seasonal fruits rolled out, just a single bloody human head. People recoiled in horror at the sight then the wise woman emerged and took charge. The hysterical girl was helped inside and Ailsa ordered everybody to stand well back. The screaming ceased as the wise woman administered one of her many potions.

People stood and waited for what seemed to be an eternity. Only now did they examine the head and identify it was that of Angus, the face contorted in the rictus of sudden death. But where was the rest of his body? Donald took the head, tears of simulated grief running down his face, as he carried it to a water container and began to wash off the blood then re-arrange the tangled hair keening a song of mourning as he did so. Someone brought a clean white cloth in which he wrapped it as Ailsa emerged and called the villagers together. “My bairnies, aw! A terrible thing has happened in our wee clan. As Ye know, Angus went to the glen early this morning as he was wont to do at Samhain. What you dinna know is that he and the poor wee lassie now asleep on my bed had planned to announce a handfast at the Great Fire.” There were cries of grief from the listeners as she continued.”Instead of gathering she decided to surprise her man by climbing down to the stones and walking back here in his company. When she got there she found his headless body and then his head in the bracken. The brave wee thing put the head in her bag and though she was badly shook and full of sorrow she managed to get back here with it. Someone has murdered our beloved smith and bard, that someone will be discovered and pay for it.”

There were shouts of rage and men including Donald emphatically denied they were the culprits. After all they had been working together since early morning, robbers had to be the murderers. “The guilty shall not escape!” screamed the aged sage, “I shall enter the Spirit Domain and there the murderer will be revealed to me. At dusk all must assemble by the bonfire. Aye, every man, woman, and child. If the culprit be one of Ye best he confess now because I will find the killer and exact blood retribution.” She waved her dreadful knife in the air then returned to her hut.

In his hiding place among the Stones Donald recalled the end of the affair. How, as the people broke into groups to discuss the murder, he had collected his sword and dirk. The Wise Woman would learn of his guilt for sure, it was time to get as far away as possible, but where? Aye the secret retreat known only to himself was perfect refuge. Quietly, amid the chaos around him, he left the village where he had spent his life and headed for the hill and the Sacred Stones in the glen below. Looking through a gap he saw the moon had risen and lights from torches were blazing on the hill’s summit. He heard distant voices and the baying of great hounds. Those dogs would be no problem as the scent of Angus’s blood would put them off their search. His pursuers would soon cross the burn but all he had to do was lie still and be silent. In time they would leave to start searching elsewhere. He heard the pursuers cross the burn and the cries of horror when they saw Angus’s corpse. He watched through his spy hole as the chief ordered some men to cut branches and pine foliage to form a litter. The old seeress was with the party screaming curses. He had no fear of her tracing his hiding place as, among the stones, her powers were useless against what remained from elder times. They still spoke of how, many years before, she had entered the stone circle and emerged in a raving fit which had lasted for several months. No dogs to sniff him out, no seeress to use her powers, no man knowing of his secret place, Donald Mac Fergus was perfectly safe. He smiled as he watched searchers check every nook and cranny of the area except the right one. Saw grieving men lay his victim’s body on the litter as the Wise Woman chanted a mourning dirge. “Seems Donald the Killer is not here after all,” he heard the chieftain say. “Take poor Angus back to the village, we will search further by tomorrow’s light.”

As the search party prepared to move off moonlight shone through the crevices bathing Donald with silver light then it faded. He gazed out to see a cloud pass over the moon, now high above him. He watched as the cloud moved onwards and the great silver disk of night re-appeared. But what had happened? It seemed to turn red then became a yellowish white with the face of a man clearly visible on its surface. A face contorted in the rictus of death, eyes rolled back into the head showing the whites! Angus Mac Gowan stared down through the stones at his murderer. The face seemed to grow, rapidly get closer. Moonlight got ever brighter as Angus thought the head was rushing from the sky directly to his hiding place. It was there before him and the eyes rolled down to gaze accusingly at him. The lips moved, “Why Donald? Why?” He saw blood pour from the open mouth and, screaming in terror, he rushed from his stony retreat as the searchers were about to wade back across the burn. The hounds got to him first near where Angus’s body had lain, they rent and tore at his flesh until the chieftain called them off. He raised his boar spear but Ailsa stayed the thrust. “Hold the wretch fast, me boys! I will give him to the Ancient Ones of the Circle. Pull back his head!” Some held him firmly and two grabbed his hair and pulled back tightening his throat. Ailsa chanted in a strange tongue as she drew her ghastly knife. Carefully, even caressingly she drew it gently across his throat using one sharp edge which only just entered the skin. She turned to the second edge and repeated the slow cut going slightly deeper. Some blood appeared. She turned the knife to employ the third edge and a little blood began to flow. Working with all three edges in turn she cut ever deeper. He screamed in agony as she did so but this changed to whistling snorts as she severed the wind pipe. Three more cuts deep into the neck muscles and she screamed, “Let him go!” Donald stood swaying as his life’s blood spurted forth. Through the agony and growing weakness he became aware of shadowy shapes surrounding his captors. He toppled to the ground, his blood mingling with that of poor Angus. As his life faded he saw the clans folk seem to become shadows and the others take on more substance. The last words he heard in this life were spoken by Ailsa, “Leave his body for the birds’ and beasts’ Samhain Feast! The Ancient People of the Circle will deal with his spirit.” He was able to hear the clan people start to move on before all became darkness and silence.

Donald Mac Fergus found himself standing upright free from any pain in a world of grey. Around him were the Departed of the village; many he had known, others had gone years before his birth. He saw his mother and father gaze at him reproachfully. Angus came forward staring but no words were said although he could feel contempt and hatred from those spirit people. They moved back and another group surrounded him in ancient garb and with blazing eyes. He felt impelled to move as they directed him across the glen and into the circle of the Sacred Stones. Impelled by their wills he moved towards the centre where he saw a black void spinning rapidly like a whirlpool. He tried to resist but was forced ever closer to the great pit then he was falling and spinning into blackness. What next? … No mortal can ever tell. The ancestral spirits became mist-like and moved rapidly down to join their living descendants for the Samhain Night; Donald’s corpse lay where it had fallen. A fox crept cautiously up, checked, then started tearing off a piece of his flesh. It heard howling as the local wolf pack approached and slunk off.

The moon was still high in the heavens and fires blazed on the plains.

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