Authors: Jack Hastie
Fraser waited, doomed, for the grasp of heavy hands at his throat. Or perhaps the end would come with a knife or an axe or a gun
But nothing happened.
His ankle was sore. He couldn't run; probably he couldn't even walk. Fearfully he turned his head and looked behind him. The moor was blank. The ogre was gone. The immediate danger was over, but Fraser still faced a painful hobble home with one ankle feeling as if it was packed with little sharp needles which stabbed a hundred ways whenever he put any weight on it.
Slowly he went on, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, sometimes hopping on his one good foot, over the wall and away from the moor; till he saw Kwarutta's pool, glinting like copper where the light chequered through the leaves and wondered if his tumblings of the mind would come back with the heat and the stench.
Then agonising along the trail through the wood, often having to rest from the pain, yet each time he stopped fancying he could hear, above his thumping heart, the faintest rustle, the slightest breathing as Something stalked him through the shadows of the trees in the gathering dusk.
When he held his breath to hear better, the Thing stopped breathing too. When he was forced to breathe again with deep gasps, he was sure that he heard its hot pant just behind that tree or the bush over there. And once he was so sure that he heard It gathering Itself for the final spring that would bring It on top of him that he leaped, one legged, in his terror into a bramble bush and fell, scarred and scraped, with the red scrawls of the thorns stinging on his skin.
But the blow never came; and at last he could see the lights in the windows of his home and he knew that, if it came to the worst, he was within shouting distance.
In fact Dyer, having made a demonstration of ferocity which had had the intended effect, had turned back with a chuckle, picked up the empty latrine of his chemical toilet, replaced it and sat back with a pipe and a dram to watch the sunset. Of course, by the conditions of his rental of the site, he should have buried the latrine's contents higher up on the moor, but that would have meant carrying the thing a hundred yards along the goat trail. In any case, you couldn't reasonably be expected to dig a hole in the baked clay of the dried out peat bogs. Dyer had only tried it once.
The heat and drought lasted another three days. Then with August came the thunder; at first distant rumblings as towering clouds massed over the hills; then the steady âspit, spit' of big drops of rain; then the wind rose and the rain turned to hail as the full blast of the storm hit the van. It rocked and rattled under the bombardment, and the thunder cracked and the lightning flickered all around. But it stayed in place, held by the extra anchors Dyer had put in.
Then the mist closed in. It was as if the god of the storm realised that the fortress could not be taken by assault and that siege tactics would have to be employed. The thunder and lightning grew fainter and dimmer and faded away, the wind died down and the hail turned to rain, a steady drenching downpour.
By early evening the pools on the top of the moor were brimming and soon the whole hillside was awash as the water ran straight off the rock hard ground. Dyer had started to prepare his evening meal when he noticed the first trickle of water coming over the rocks above. At first he continued with his cooking, but the trickle became a torrent and the torrent a cascade and soon the whole ledge on which the van rested was awash and he could feel his home shudder under the force of the flood.
When he went outside to investigate he saw to his horror that part of the ledge and whole sections of the Range Rover Track were starting to collapse and crumble into a thick red paste, which was oozing onto the hillside below.
Then the van shifted and lurched as the ground to which it was anchored began to dissolve. Dyer decided to leave. A four mile hike in this downpour along the track while it was still light was something he could handle. But if the van turned over in the night, during the dark, with the track by then perhaps washed awayâ¦ so he put on his boots, waterproof trousers and cagoule and slurped off down the crumbling pathway.
Tomorrow JCBs would be brought up to rebuild the track and the next day Archie would come up with the Range Rover and a squad of men to repair the damage to the caravan site.
* * *
Bhuiridh and his six wives and innumerable offspring huddled under trees and behind bushes in the lee of the boundary wall of the wood and rode out the storm. The Ballagan Burn threw itself like a rabid animal at the wall and by morning there was a gap six feet wide where there had been only a small opening the evening before. The level of Kwarutta's pool rose until it burst its banks and surges of angry water slapped against the stonework of the ruined cottage. The scums and stains were churned and scattered and spread far and wide as the whole wood became one wide river.
Further downstream burrows were flooded and mice and voles had to take their chance above ground and fly for their lives, while slower moving creatures like slow worms were drowned.
At the bottom of the wood Sebek's pool filled fuller than even he could ever remember until it too overflowed its boundaries and the force of the water falling from above churned up the peaty bottom until the water looked like cocoa.
And lowest of all, the wetlands beside the Loch flooded and Klamath stepped delicately to a delicious feast of frogs and fish flushed out from the mud and stones where they had been hiding.
The next day the cloud lifted a little and the downpour eased to a drizzle. Bhuiridh mustered his wives and his kinsmen and led them, as he had done for years, up the Goat Trail to their moorland pasture. When they reached the caravan they found it tilted precariously, one wheel overhanging what was left of the ledge. It was still blocking their ancient right of way. Bhuiridh stepped aside when he reached it; there was room enough to pass.
“I'd knock it over.” The speaker was Gobhar. “It's got no right there. I wouldn't stand for it.”
“It'll rot away in time,” said Bhuiridh as he scavenged for anything edible that the flood water might have left.
“Scared to take it on then?” insinuated Gobhar. “Want me to do it for you?”
Three of Bhuiridh's wives and several younger females were watching with interest. Gobhar was a good-looking buck with fine, circling horns and a heavy mane and beard.
“Want me to show you how?” he repeated.
Four or five of the younger billies had gathered round by now, their interest in grazing temporarily suspended as the tension between champion and challenger riveted their attention.
“You can't teach me anything,” Bhuiridh was scornful.
“Then get on with it or I'll do the job myself.”
For a moment the two faced each other, foreheads lowered, horns swinging, like two boxers sparring for an opening. But Gobhar knew he wasn't ready to take on the older billy and Bhuiridh knew that he couldn't afford to lose face by standing back and letting his challenger topple the van.
“Here we go.” He reared on his hind legs and then, with lowered head, crashed against the side of the van. His horns scratched the paintwork. Another heave and the van juddered and balanced, rocking like a logan stone. At this Gobhar rushed forward, charging the van and with a sudden creak of resignation it lurched over the edge of the platform and somersalted in leap after leap two hundred feet down the slope, until it lodged â what was left of it â against the strong trunk of a mountain ash.
Dyer, toiling up from Kilrasken on foot to inspect the night's damage, was appalled to see the savage horned heads of the two goats staring down as his home toppled and careered to destruction.
Had he come back after dark he would have heard the eerie cry as Cruach hunted over the very spot where he had slept for two months.
Fraser's ankle had only been sprained and, at the time, that had seemed a small price to pay for not having been chopped up and eaten alive by the murderous ogre of the moor. As soon as he could escape from his mum's worried fussing and could walk without too much pain he went to see Rona.
“I've found out who's poisoning the water,” he told her and went on to explain about Dyer's caravan and the new road on the moor.
Rona told Cathy and Cathy, after checking that such a road and caravan did exist, phoned the Department of Environmental Health at the offices of the District Council. The Department sent two men in a van as far as they could go, but, as they told Cathy later, the road had been washed away, bits of the van were smashed and scattered over the moor like a plane wreck and a flock of wild goats was browsing contentedly where Dyer had hoped to make his home. They had also taken samples of water from the Ballagan Burn and it was now free from pollution. Dyer himself went away, possibly believing that there were, after all, spirits in the Burn and the Sgurr and the clouds.
All this information Rona passed on to Fraser, but when he started to go into a triumphal victory chant â “Serves him right! He'd no right toâ¦“ she cut him short.
“Fraser, there's something you must promise me.”
“You've solved the mystery?”
“Then you must promise me that you'll start taking your medicine again.”
“And you musn't ever again stop taking it.”
“I suppose so. Rona?”
“What is it?”
The big labrador bounded up and the girl who loved animals listened in envy and sadness as Fraser had his last
conversation with a four-footed creature.
After it was all over Fraser realised that it had started with the strange white ship; a tall ship with three masts like pine trees and a tangle of ropes and spars and sails. It had anchored in the loch late one evening and in the morning had been gone; like a ghost ship, Fraser had thought.
Jim Douglas, who had been out fishing with his dad that night, said the men on board “talked funny”, but then Jim thought that folk from Glasgow talked funny.
Fraser did not see the ship; from his bedroom window the view to that part of the loch was blocked by the tall trees of the wood and now that his illness had come back so seriously, he was not allowed to leave the house â ever. Klamath the heron brought him the news of what was happening in the animal world around him, and it was Klamath who told him that an animal of some kind â Klamath thought it might have been a small dog â had been thrown overboard.
It was October, the coldest and driest anyone could remember. There was little wind and most of the leaves hung on the trees instead of falling to the ground to rot, and they burned gold and yellow and chestnut brown like the rich cloaks of kings in a book Fraser had been looking at. A few days later the first flotilla of wild geese arrived on the wetlands below the wood, exhausted after their long flight from their summer grounds in Iceland.
The geese were an unusual lot. They actually
to spend the winter at Dunadd.
Most birds and animals definitely did not. They called winter the Dead Time and those who could, avoided having to live through it. The swifts and swallows had gone long ago, following the summer south into Africa where there would be plenty of delicious insects to take on the wing.
Those who could not fly away got ready for the Dead Time in other ways. Hobdax the hedgehog had been preparing for weeks. He had put on a lot of weight and now dug deep into a bank of fallen leaves, rolled himself into a ball and settled down comfortably to sleep the winter away. The squirrels did the same; they had eaten as much as they could when food was plentiful early in the autumn and had hidden as much again away in secret stores; now they settled down in trees to drowse through the worst of the hard times ahead.
The hares and the stoats and, up on the high moors, the ptarmigan turned white as if expecting that the whole of the Dead Time would be spent wrapped in a blanket of snow.
It was one of the stoats who first realised that there was something far wrong in the wood.
“The weasels have gone mad,” he told One-eye as they followed different scents one bitterly cold night.
At first the old fox thought nothing of the matter for it is well known in the woods that stoats and weasels dislike each other. Perhaps it has something to do with the weasels' envy of the stoats' winter coat; and of course those who wear a white fur which stands out, as an old weasel joke puts it “like a seagull in a rookery”, do not like to be laughed at.
But after a while One-eye began to notice for himself; firstly there were the bodies of dead weasels lying along the trails with jaws agape and glazed eyes open; then there were the shrill sounds of bitter fighting among the living weasels; and occasionally One-eye would see one of them running in circles furiously, squealing in rage and fear.
Then the fox, oldest of all the hunters of the wood, remembered something his father had told him, something which had been passed down by
father in turn; something from so long ago that no living fox or badger or wild cat had ever met it and not even Eye of the Wind, the eagle who lives forever, knew of a case in his lifetime.
“It's the Madness of the Wolves,” One-eye confided to Fraser. The boy and the fox had struck up a friendship since Fraser's illness had returned and he had had to come back to the cottage, an invalid unable to leave his room.
Fraser regularly threw tit-bits saved from meal times out of his window at night and One-eye, older and stiffer as each season passed, was glad to share with him, especially in the Dead Time, although, as a young fox, he would have been far too proud to scavenge for man's leftovers. Fraser, in turn, was glad of the company and the news of all that was happening in places he could no longer visit himself.
So now One-eye, gratefully snapping up some crusts and a chunk of corned beef, explained to Fraser: “It is an old story; older than any of us now living. At the beginning of things when the Father of Kelpies was preparing the lochs and the woods and the moors he put all the birds and the animals and the fish in their places and told them how to hunt or graze and find food for themselves and their young.
But one of the animals, the Father of Wolves, said, âI will not hunt as you have told me. I will kill as I wish. I will kill man's tame animals. I will kill man himself if I can. I will do as I please.'
The Father of Kelpies was angry at this and he turned to the Father of Wolves, âFor what you have said I will curse you. Your people will become many and strong and will be able to kill man's beasts and even man himself. Men will be afraid of you as they will fear no other animal. But they will hunt you and trap you and poison you. And one day, at last they will tame the lightning and hunt you with it so that all your people will be destroyed.'
“âVery well,' snarled the Father of Wolves. âLet man and wolf kill each other in fair fight. But if you let men tame the lightning that will not be fair. What will you give to my people to even the score?'
The Father of Kelpies thought for a moment, pawed the turf as if he was digging for an answer and then shook his yellow mane. âTo you I will give a weapon more terrible than the tame lightning. To you I will give a power to kill â for that is what you seem to want â beyond anything you can imagine. To you I will give the Madness.
âOnce in a while one of your people will go mad and will run over the moors and through the woods biting everything that comes in his way. Then he will die, but everything he has bitten will go mad in its turn, dog and fox, wild cat and badger, and they will run, spreading death through the trails and tunnels and burrows of the woods, and, this I make as a special promise to you, in their madness they will not be afraid to bite man himself; and every man bitten, even to the slightest graze, will go mad himself and will die.
âI promise this power of death to your children.'
âGood,' said the Father of Wolves. âThe odds are fair. I accept the venom of the madness for my people against the tame lightning you give to my enemy.'”
One-eye stopped and snuffled around hungrily. Fraser threw out some more crusts and a hunk of cheese.
“And that is what happened.” One-eye finished the food. “The weapon was given to the wolves. From time to time one of them would go mad and run amok â afraid of nothing â biting and killing by poison like Seti the adder, and man and his dogs suffered and so did we of the woods.
“But the Father of Kelpies remembered the other part of his promise and gave to the enemy â to your people â the tame lightning.
“How we have all suffered from that! And his curse on the wolves also came true. The last of the wolves has been killed and the last carriers of the madness died so long ago that we thought that the old war between wolves and men was over. We were glad, for the tame lightning that men carry is terrible, but the madness is worse. Now the curse brought upon us all by the Father of Wolves has come back. It is killing the weasels and every creature a weasel bites is infected and carries the curse. Warn your people.” One-eye shook himself. That had been a long speech for an animal. “Warn your people,” he repeated and bounded off.