Morag rammed her dirk into the tabletop and rose to glower down at the wiry old man in highland plaid opposite. His bushy beard quivered with anger, hand dropping to the basket-hilted broadsword at his hip.
In the sudden silence a burning log cracked and shifted in the fireplace, spraying a cloud of sparks into the Gloaming Inn’s front room.
Her calloused hand slammed down and she leaned forward to look him in the eye. Weather-beaten and hardened by toil, she was well-used to handling her unruly flock, and bending this skinny old fool over her knee would pose no problem.
“You’re a lying swine, Ewan MacDonald,” she said. “And if you draw that sword I’ll take it off you and spank you with it. Still sore I wouldn’t marry you, eh?”
He scowled, hand switching to adjust his plaids. The length of finest wool wrapped around his waist and pinned over his shoulder had been enough to suit the barrel-chested Ewan of thirty years ago, but now it just made the old fool seem lost amongst all that cloth.
“I don’t have your damned sheep, you thieving slattern,” he roared, spittle flying. “And just where have my cows gone? You tell me that! Did the faeries spirit them away during yesterday’s storm? I might be old, but I’ll be damned if I let an ugly old boot of a woman talk to me this way. I must have been mad to consider you.”
Just as it seemed likely they would come to blows, from behind the bar Big John noisily cleared his throat. The hulking bald innkeeper stared at the knife buried in his table. “Are you going to pay for that then, Morag?”
She flushed, shot the smug-faced Ewan a look of distilled death, then wrenched the dirk from the wood. “Aye, I will.”
Big John glowered at them both like they were unruly children. “If you are going to have a stramash then you take it outside. I won’t be clearing up blood and teeth, I can tell you that for–”
The front door slammed open.
Chill evening air gusted in as Calum Cameron staggered through, scarred face white as a sheet, a blood-drenched young Bessie Stewart looking as lifeless as a rag doll in his arms.
Morag gasped. “Lay the lass down on the table.” Calum set her down and she checked the girl’s pulse while he slumped into a chair, panting for breath.
Big John reached under his counter, pulled out a cup and bottle of whisky, then limped over, wincing with every step, to set it down in front of Calum and pour out a big dram.
Calum gulped the alcohol down in a single swallow, coughing as it burned a trail down his throat. “I was visiting my mam’s grave up at the auld kirk,” he said. “Found Bessie atop what was left of St Columba’s cross. It must have cracked and fallen during yesterday’s storm. There’s…blood all over the churchyard.” He fished out a red knotted cord from beneath his shirt, his mother’s old charm against the evil eye. He held onto it for dear life and crossed himself for good measure.
Morag loosened the thong around Bessie’s neck that held a cheap iron cross. She pressed an ear to the girl’s chest, then checked her all over. “Not a scratch on her. Just fainted, is all.”
Calum loosed a shuddering sigh. “Thank the Lord for that. I saw all that blood and thought the worst.”
Ewan put a hand on Calum’s shoulder. “What the devil happened up there?”
Calum shook his head. “If it’s not the girl’s blood, then what about the priest?” His eyes widened. “Wait, didn’t the lass birth a wee babe just two months back? She’d surely not have left him behind.”
Big John shivered. “You don’t think–”
“Don’t say it, man,” Morag interrupted. “Not until we know one way or the other.”
A grim mood descended. Calum stood, charm still clutched in shaking hand. “Best we head on up there, then. John, I never thought I’d have to say this, but…” He stared longingly at the bottle of whisky.
“I need my sword back.”
Big John limped over to the back wall, unlocked the store room and began rummaging about inside. A minute later he came back with a long oilcloth bundle, dumped it down and cut the twine to reveal two basket-hilted broadswords in battered leather sheaths.
Calum slipped his hand into the steel guard of one of the broadswords, drew it and held it up to the light. He took a few practice swings. His arm seemed to remember the ways to kill a man all too easily. He stared at his old sword with obvious mixed feelings. Morag knew more than one man had died on that blade when the village men had signed up to fight the Border Reivers. That could not be an easy thing to face again.
Ewan drew his own sword, trying to look like he knew what he was doing, and failing. He licked his lips nervously. “Well, laddie, best we head off before night falls.”
Morag picked up the second sword. It felt lighter in her hand than killing steel had any right to be. She threw a few practice cuts, succeeding in putting Ewan to shame. Her late husband had been a fierce swordsman, before the pox claimed him. “Big John’s gout is flaring up,” she said. “So he can stay back and look after Bessie. You’ll not be going up there without me.”
She stared defiantly at Ewan as he opened his mouth to object. Then he closed it, shrugged, and said, “Aye, I expect we won’t.”
“Best bar the doors until we get back,” she said.
Big John leant back behind his counter and pulled out an iron-bound club. “Nobody will be getting past me. You be taking care of yourself, now.”
She snorted. “Any robber that lays a hand on me will find himself a gelding.”
The auld kirk that crouched atop the peak of the hill had been there longer than anybody knew, far longer than the village. It was a squat, ugly building, its insides carved all over with ancient images worn away to near-illegibility. The new priest, Father Ainsley, had been getting Bessie to sweep the place out and lay fresh heather every week before services, and lately it had seemed to lose some of its ill-favoured aspect. By the time they had climbed high enough to see it silhouetted against the dusky sky, Ewan was red-faced and puffing. The moon was full, yellow-tinged like old wax, and twilight gifted the purple heathered hills an otherworldly air.
The crosspiece of the old Celtic cross lay flat on the grass, splintered stump still jutting from blackened earth. Local legend said that the cross had been carved by St Columba’s own two hands just before he’d headed off up the great glen and down the river Ness to rebuke the loathsome beast o’ the loch. The grass was charred in a circle five paces wide around the fallen cross.
“Lightning, maybe,” Ewan said.
A squealing noise from inside the old church. They spun, blades lifting, and crept towards the kirk. A feeling of being watched raised goose bumps on Morag’s arms, but the hill was deserted, just wind, grass, sheep droppings, and withered gorse bush for company. The old oak door was splintered and hanging from a single hinge. It squealed with each gust of wind. But that wasn’t the relief it should have been – dried blood and stinking gobbets of flesh had spattered across the doorway.
The hall had been ripped apart. Pews lay in splintered piles, crosses broken, cushions torn and bleeding feathers. Shredded brown-stained pages of the Holy Bible swirled in the breeze like a flock of carrion birds over pools of gore. The church silver lay untouched — and unstolen — in the ruins of the pulpit.
Morag crossed herself. “Who, or what, could have done this black deed?
“Wolves?” Ewan suggested, staring at the silver.
“The Devil’s work, so it is,” Calum replied.
Morag pointed to a rust-red stain that smeared up the aisle to the altar stone tumbled onto its side, then disappeared into a black space beneath.
“Looks like some sort of crypt,” Ewan said.
Morag found the church candles in an alcove behind the altar and recovered the priest’s flint and tinder box from the piles of debris. She sparked a fire, then handed them a fat candle each. They peered down into the gap. Narrow stone stairs descended into darkness, crudely cut from the solid rock beneath the kirk.
Calum edged away from the steps. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Ewan snorted. “Superstitious fool. A couple of starved brigands have taken root down there. Or a madman, perhaps. I say we go down and flush them out.”
“Fine,” Calum said. “Don’t listen to me then.” He stepped back, swung out an inviting arm. “Be my guest.”
Ewan hesitated, but found himself caught by his own pride. He led the way as they descended in silence, step by careful step deep into the bones of the hill for what seemed like an age, the only sound the drip, drip, drip of water and the scuff of boot on stone. Niches hacked into the rock held grinning human skulls, but they quickly realised that the steps went far too deep for any crypt. Finally Ewan stumbled to a stop, the rhythm of descent broken by solid stone floor underfoot.
A moist, warm breeze waxed and waned from somewhere ahead, caressing their faces like some sleeping giant’s breath. It reeked like a stagnant pond choked with weed, one long since gone to mould and rot. Deeper darkness lurked beyond an archway carved all over with leering grotesque faces, each with a single staring eye where there should be two. Man-sized footprints crossed the dusty floor through the arch and then returned. A set of smaller prints made by bare feet followed the tracks.
Morag squatted down to examine the prints. “I’d say the smaller ones are more recent. A woman or a youngster.”
They moved onwards, finding themselves in a large, natural cavern. Stalactites and stalagmites glistened in the candlelight, giving Morag the disquieting image of being inside some great beast’s maw. A pit gaped in the centre of the cavern, torn spider webs and trailing slimy moss shivering in the warm air that welled up from its black depths. Rubble and rotted wood circled the pit, and the rusted remnants of an iron grate lay off to one side.
Morag padded over. She carefully set down her candle and picked up a piece of carved stone the size of her hand. The dust around it was covered in boot prints. She ran her fingertips over the carvings, discovered bright edges from a fresh breakage.
“Looks like part of a cross,” she said. “A smaller copy of St Columba’s above.”
A metallic glint from the stone caught Morag’s eye. She looked closer, scratched at the break with a dirty fingernail. “It has iron running through it. A queer sort of stone, this.” She looked up to see Ewan and Calum staring at the walls beyond the pit.
The chamber’s walls had been carved and painted with a riot of symbols and images. Many were recognisably Christian but others seemed to be older pagan images and symbols. They hurt the eye, somehow seemed unsettling, unwholesome even. The Christian crosses overlaid the older cracked and faded images, and some areas of the wall had been gouged out entirely by hammer and chisel.
Morag dropped the fragment of cross, then ran her fingers down a series of lines incised into the wall. She’d seen old Pictish standing stones carved with similar lines and images – an ancient dead language, some said. The paintings showed howling horse-headed kelpies dragging men below churning waters, and a sequence showed a dragon chasing down a group of people, then gulping them down its gullet. A stranger image still showed a one-eyed, wizened crone climbing from, or into, a well with a pair of babies clutched in the crook of her skeletal arms.
“This is no damn crypt,” Calum hissed. “We’re in a faerie mound or a bloody pagan temple.”
“What rot,” Ewan said. “I grant its oddness, but that’s just peasant superstition. What else could it be?”
Calum barked a laugh. “Are you blind? It’s the old gods and the old ways. Look at the walls, man! This is where a cult tore out men’s hearts, and sacrificed babies to dread gods.”
Ewan sneered, opened his mouth to reply–
A shrill cry echoed up from the pit, drawing all eyes to the slick, dark hole.
“What was that?” Calum whispered.
The reek of rot washed up from the pit with the rhythmic exhalation of moist, warmer air. In the feeble candlelight, the bottom was barely visible. It was no pit in truth, but the opening to another cave leading deeper still into the earth. They exchanged glances, then scanned the surrounding darkness.
A baby’s unmistakable cry wailed up from the depths.
“We can’t let the old stories scare us into believing in Bogles and Redcaps,” Morag said. “And I know the lore as well as any.” Her words said one thing, but she suspected her pale face showed another. She sat, slipping her legs over the edge of the pit. “Lower me down.” She clamped the broadsword between her teeth, freeing her hands for Ewan and Calum to grab hold of. The men’s faces grew red with strain as they eased her down into the pit – she was no skinny little slip of a girl.
Her feet thumped down, snapping and crushing dry sticks beneath her. A horrid thought coalesced in her mind. “Give me a candle!”
She stretched up for the flickering candle, swallowed, and then looked down. Bones. She stood in a pile of animal bones. They’d all been stripped clean of flesh and cracked open to get at the marrow. “Found your cows, Ewan. My sheep too.” As she looked around she realised that there were far too many bones. Some still glistened with viscous fluids, but most were old and brittle.
She slipped. The candle fell, snuffed out, plunging her into darkness. Her heart thudded with sudden panic. She heard noises in the cave, bones shifting. “Quick! Give me another candle.”
“I’m coming,” Calum said, sliding down. In an attempt to keep his candle and sword from dropping, he landed awkwardly and fell into the pile of bones. He lurched upright, panting, face beaded with sweat, swinging his sword to face every shadow cast by the flickering candles.
Something caught on her boot. She reached down, hissed, snatching her hand back. A human skull gaped at her, the side caved in. It was still slick with juices.
“Oh, Lord,” Calum said, staring.
“Calm yourself, laddie,” she said. “Take a deep breath. We’ll not be leaving that poor wee lamb down here.”
He took a deep shuddering breath. “I’ll not have a Macpherson say they’re braver than a Cameron!” he said, voice wavering with false bravado.
“You stay up there, Ewan,” Morag said. “We’ll use your stupidly long plaids as a rope to climb out. Seems you did have a lick of sense about you after all.”
Ewan blustered and moaned, but faced with the practicalities there wasn’t much he could do about it. “Ach. Fine,” he said. “You take care of her, Calum.”
Calum grunted. Morag swore she could have almost heard him mutter “The big ugly besom would be better taking care of me. Break an angry ram’s neck, so she would.” She didn’t take offence. She’d never had a gaggle of men clamouring for her hand in marriage, and didn’t care one bit, but she did take pride in being as tough as old boots. She’d stare down a hungry wolf to protect her sheep, and stave the beast’s head in if she had to. And Calum Cameron knew that fine well.
His mouth twitched into a lopsided grin as lifted his sword in salute. “You coming?”
“Aye, I am,” she said. “You cheeky wee boy.” Their joviality was forced, and dropped away as they picked their way down a narrow tunnel carpeted with bones, Calum having to stoop to avoid hitting his head. They followed the baby’s infrequent cries deeper into the cave, wincing with each clatter and crunch of bone underfoot. Darkness eventually gave way to a sickly green half-light, phosphoresce emanating from some sort of rotting mould that grew up the walls and clustered in crevices like burst boils weeping pus. The tunnel finally opening up, allowing Calum to stand straight.
An eerie melodious crooning whispered on the air, coming from just around the next bend in the cave. Morag exchanged glances with Calum, wondering if she looked as frightened as he did. A baby giggled, and that singsong voice began to trill a wordless melody of haunting beauty that resonated in the very depths of her soul. Other voices joined in chorus.
Morag’s eyelids drooped closed. She listened for what seemed like an age, praying for the song to never end. It called to her on some primal level, a lullaby warmth to sooth her aches and fears, and bear her aloft on half-forgotten dreams. As the song’s pitch rose, the melody quickened and some sixth sense – maybe a tough old boot of a shepherdess’ instinctive sense of danger to her flock – wrenched open her eyes. Calum’s eyes had glazed over, his jaw hung slack and his sword lay forgotten on the floor – beside her own. Both candles lay dead and cold on the stone. He jerked as the unseen voices hit a high note, his whole body spasmed, and then he darted forward.
Morag made a grab for his sleeve, but she was groggy from the effects of that strange song, and far too slow. He slipped past her, round the bend and out of sight. She lifted a hand to her forehead, finding herself burning up as she tried to blink away bleary vision. It was hard to see straight, hard to think. So tempting just to lie down and drift away into dreams…
She sucked in her cheek and bit down hard. Pain scoured away the mental fog.
She picked up her sword and ran after Calum as the song reached a crescendo. Then it cut off. She found herself at the entrance to a grand gallery with massive spikes of pulsing crystalline growths hanging from darkened heights. A luminescent lake filled the centre, hidden tides making the water slosh and gurgle. Hundreds of holes pitted every wall – it was like she was inside some vast insect hive.
A handful of paces to the right, a baby started shrieking from a hollow carved into a great altar of black basalt. His soft pink flesh was slick with grey slime, but otherwise blessedly unharmed. She started when the corner of her eye caught a glimpse of several large spindly shadows scuttling up the walls and into tunnels above.
Calum was on his knees at the feet of an emaciated, naked old woman. She bowed over him as if they were inexplicably kissing, faces hidden from view by the hag’s waist-length curtain of tangled white hair. The hag’s teats were shrivelled things against her protruding rib cage, but Calum’s hands groped with disturbing gusto. An eerie song emanated from the old crone, her gnarled hands lifting to cup his face with cracked yellowed fingernails more like talons.
“Calum!” Morag gasped.
The hag’s head lifted with a wet slurp, the ragged curtain of hair shifted aside. A single luminous, golden eye leered out at her from the centre of the woman’s face. The crone straightened to her full height, Calum still on his knees, eyes closed, a look of sublime and complete joy on his face. Blood dribbled from a series of small puncture marks around his face.
The hair on the back of Morag’s neck rose. “What in God’s name are you?” Blood thumped in her ears as she advanced. “Get away from them, you foul creature.”
The hag screeched, the sound feeling like a nail being driven into Morag’s skull, then leapt forward, hair flying back to reveal a horror of a face. Below that single great eye, the thing had a boneless sack of hide that opened out into a cone of quivering flesh studded with hundreds of tiny razor-teeth. Its maw looked like it could strip the flesh from a bone in seconds, and now it was spread to envelop Morag’s entire face.
Her broadsword whistled through the air. The thing’s flesh moved like water, flowing and sliding out of the way. It darted out of range quick as any fish. Morag realised her right arm stung. She glanced down to find red furrows raked in her flesh. Numbness spread from the wounds.
It crouched down on all fours, face hidden behind matted hair, tilting its head to study her, crooning softly. Morag’s head spun. The sword clattered to the floor, her arm gone limp. The creature cackled in an all too human way and something wormed itself into Morag’s mind, like cold fingers inside her skull.
She knew that old Celtic word: it meant a sacrifice.
Morag purposely wobbled on her feet, made her eyes glaze over to exaggerate the effects of its poison. The thing crabbed towards her, and when she didn’t react it stretched that huge maw open, leaned forward.
With her other hand, Morag pulled her dirk from her belt and rammed the iron blade through the thing’s face-mouth. It squealed like a stuck pig, flesh hissing where iron touched flesh, then staggered back, pulling the blade from Morag’s hand.
“I’ll give you a sacrifice, all right,” Morag said, grabbing hold of the thing’s hair. She yanked it forward to meet a head butt. Her forehead crushed its golden eye in a spray of ichor. A deathly shriek echoed through the cave, waking even Calum from his stupor. She let go and slammed a fist into it. “Your eye’s the sacrifice, you stinking old hag.”
The thing squealed, flesh bubbling and cracking. It twitched, loosed one last scream, then lay still.
From hidden crevices and the entrances to dark tunnels a hundred baleful golden eyes blinked into life. More of them crawled from dark crevices and ledges — spindly limbs bending all wrong — and scuttled down the walls. The wailing of uncountable inhuman voices echoed throughout the vast cavern, combining into a single hateful shriek that held nothing of that earlier lullaby beauty.
The luminous lake water churned and heaved, some leviathan stirring beneath. A stench of rotting flesh clogged her nose as writhing tentacles burst from the surface. She wanted to run and hide, to cry and curl up into a ball, but some instinctive animal horror rooted her to the spot as the waters sloughed off a vast and oozing body.
“Run!” Calum screamed, scooping up the sleeping baby and staggering towards her. She didn’t need telling twice, tore her eyes away from the cavern boiling over with those ghastly things, and ran for her life.
As she lurched around the corner, Calum skidded to a stop. “Damnation,” he cursed. “The sword!” He darted back.
The shrieking stopped, plunging the cavern into abrupt silence. Something vast and heavy slammed into walls. The cave shuddered around her, causing her to lose her footing and clutch the wet and luminous rock for support. The sound of crashing water and a stinking warm gust of moist air washed over her. With it came a crushing presence in the back of her mind, like being plunged into an icy loch.
Calum screamed; half hysterical laughter, half gut-wrenching naked terror. He lurched round the corner, sword point scraping along the floor behind him. His jaw hung slack, quivering strings of drool hanging from his chin. His eyes were wide and staring, leaking tears.
He shook his head violently. “Guh, n-n-no, the writhing god. The t-thing in the lake…” He cackled and slammed his face against the rock wall, began sobbing. He scraped his face along the wall, leaving a bloody smear.
Morag grabbed him by the collar and pulled him away. He stared at her through bloody tears, eyes glazed and uncomprehending. “We have to get this wee baby back to his mother,” she said.
He slowly looked down at the baby blinking sleepily in the crook of his arm. A hint of sanity flickered back into his eyes.
Some vast bulk shifted in the cavern, and a morbid impulse made her turn to look back. She tried to move past him, had to see.
He barred her way. “Don’t.” The horrified expression on his face buried any inclinations otherwise.
The hags began wailing again, and this time the stone drummed with hundreds of malformed feet. Morag and Calum ran for the pit, heads bowed low as they crunched through the carpet of bones. Morag snatched up Calum’s discarded sword with her working hand. As old faerie lore said, iron was a bane to the things chasing them. The luminous glow gradually died away, leaving them plunging ahead into darkness. A rushing tide of slapping feet, clattering bone, and screeching voices filled the cave behind them.
Finally! Light! The warm welcoming glow of candlelight shone down from above.
“Ewan,” she shouted, “Get us the hell out of here.”
Calum ran to her, stuffed the baby down the front of her dress, wedged between belt and body.
“Get that wee one out,” he said, grabbing her sword and moving back to block the cave. Blood ran freely down his chin where he’d bitten through his lower lip.
A length of plaid whipped down. She grabbed hold with her good hand. Sweat poured off her, the things were close, had to be only seconds away. “Pull, Ewan, pull,” she screamed. Ewan heaved and she was up and over, back into the light.
“Get up here, laddie,” Ewan said. But they were too late.
Calum spun, screaming, as a grey tide washed over him. He chopped and slashed, things hissing in pain at the slightest touch of steel. Ichor steamed from the blade as he severed grey clawed hands. “The iron grate!” he shouted, ribbons of flesh being flayed from his exposed flesh.
Morag grunted, heaving the rusted iron grate back over to the pit. It crumbled, bits coming away in her hand. She prayed it would hold. By the time she looked back Calum was being dragged backwards into the darkness. He looked up at her with terrified eyes, his face twisting in agony. With the last of his strength he plunged both swords point-first down into the mass of bone and debris. And then he was gone.
They tried to rush out after her, only to shy back from the blades that barred their path. They screamed in agony, disappeared back into the darkness.
“Mmooorrraaaggg,” Calum’s voice whispered from the darkness. “Don’t leavvve me. Come save meee. I am hurt. The faerie have gone away. Quickquick.”
Sobbing, Morag heaved the iron grate back over the pit. The things hissed angrily and golden eyes glimmered from the darkness beyond the upright swords.
They were imprisoned again.
But that grate was almost rusted through, and the swords wouldn’t hold them for long.
Big John swung the door open, his grin of relief stillborn at the sight of her – a bloody, bedraggled mess with a face like death. His gaze darted past Ewan, searching, then back to her. She shook her head and trudged into the bright warmth of the inn. The baby yawned and blinked in her arms.
Bessie shot to her feet, red eyes overflowing with tears. She kissed the cross that hung around her neck before taking the baby.
“Thank you,” Bessie sobbed. “I don’t know what I’d have done without my wee bairn.” She clutched him to her chest. He started bawling his head off and struggling.
“What happened?” Big John said.
Ewan shuddered and buried his face in his hands. “There is something unholy living in caverns beneath the hill. Things that fear iron. The old myths…”
He stared at Ewan, at the practical old man who had always scoffed at peasant superstitions. Then he took a good long look at the claw wounds in Morag’s skin. His face paled.
“There was a rusted old grate covering the pit leading to their cavern,” Morag said. “Father Ainsley must have moved it.” She shivered and slumped into a chair. “But it’s almost rusted through. It won’t last long. We need every bit of iron in the village.”
Big John began piling up pots, pans, fire pokers, his lucky iron horseshoe that hung over the door, everything he possessed that could be pried loose. The noise must have disturbed the baby, for he started wailing at the top of his voice.
“Hush. Hush my beautiful wee bairn,” Bessie murmured, rocking him in her arms. It didn’t seem to help much. She clutched the cross at her throat, sending up a prayer of thanks as the baby screamed itself hoarse.
Ewan grabbed whatever he could carry. “We’ll get this up there and, by God, we will stop those things ever seeing the light of day.”
Bessie pulled the cross from around her neck and held it out to Morag. “Take it. It’s good iron.”
Morag nodded her thanks and went to add it to the growing pile. The baby ceased its wailing. She stiffened, swallowed, slowly turned back, held up the iron and stepped towards the child. The baby began to bawl again. She went cold, pinpricks all over her skin.
Cameron Johnston is a Scottish writer of fantasy and horror and lives in the city of Glasgow in Scotland. He is a student of Historical European Martial Arts, a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle, and enjoys exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars (when Scottish weather allows).
His fiction has appeared in Niteblade Magazine, with more tales out later this year in Stupefying Stories and Buzzymag. His musings can be found at: https://twitter.com/CamJohnston
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Story illustration by Dave Felton.