By William Meikle
The sun was going down behind the mountain and the loch was fading from blue to black, the breeze throwing refraction patterns in intricate dances across its surface. Later, the moon would dance in those patterns, but, for now, there was only blackness.
There was still over an hour till nightfall, but already there was a chill in the air, a portent of the winter yet to come. The trees rustled softly and occasionally a leaf fell to swim in the ripples for a while, before softly sinking to join its decaying brothers.
Far out over the water, a deeper blackness in the gloom, the island sat like a blot on the water. Until now, I had paid it little attention, but I found myself trying to pierce its dark secrets. Despite my best efforts, the night kept it hidden from me and I had only the memory of the passage from that last fearful tome to remind me of the taint it threw on the waters of the loch.
From my vantage point on the balcony, I watched the patterns in the water, trying to instil some meaning to order my thoughts. My body was remembering the relative warmth of the library and goosebumps ran over my arms. I was going to need a jacket sooner rather than later, but my discovery had thrown all such thoughts out of my mind.
I needed to talk to someone, to share my bewildered thoughts, but Mrs. Jameson, the housekeeper, had long since closed up for the night, the remainder of the staff were abed, and Sir John wasn’t due back till the morning.
The house was dark and quiet behind me. I knew that a fire was burning in my bedroom, keeping a small spot warm just for me, but, from out here on the balcony, the house was as cold and bleak as the surrounding countryside. How Sir John coped with the solitude I could never fathom.
“Come down for the week,” he had said. “I believe Grandfather’s library has a good deal of that esoteric waffle that you find so interesting.”
We were in his club in Pall Mall, all elegance and leather and, yes, warmth.
At the time, I believed that it was a plea for company – for someone to relieve the tedium of the duties forced upon him by a chain of unfortunate deaths that led to his inheritance.
Even then, I was loath to leave London – I need the comforts of the city more than I like to admit – but then he mentioned, in his offhand way, the names of some of the books and I knew that I had to take him up on his offer.
And when I got to his residence – a journey I pray I never have to repeat – I found that John was going to be away for three days, called to officiate in some provincial court. I almost turned at the door and left, but Mrs. Jameson would have none of it.
She is one from that unbreakable mould of Scottish housekeepers; stout and broad, with a bristling energy that is as hard to ignore as it is to deny.
Within ten minutes, she had me sitting in her kitchen, a bowl of soup with enough gusto to feed a small army placed in front of me.
After that, I had no desire to travel farther than the comfort of an armchair, further fortified by some fine brandy and an even finer cigar.
“The maister telled me tae mak ye maist comfortable.” Mrs. Jameson said. “And I would no’ be doing ma job if I did onything other.”
After I recovered from her ministrations, I headed for the library.
Sir John had underestimated the worth of his Grandfather’s collection. There were early editions of Boehme and Paracelsus, but, best of all, the jewel of them all, was the collection of the works of Michael Scott, that figure of legend, astrologer to Ferdinand II, consorter with demons and necromancer. Even my beloved Corpus Christi could not boast such a hoard of delights.
I settled myself in the library that very day – if I was to plunder its secrets in a week, then I would have to apply myself.
And there I stayed for two whole days, leaving only for sustenance and sleep, fortified by more of Sir John’s fine brandy.
As I worked, I became aware of a presence among the works: a fine, legible hand that annotated and collated; a scholar who had, like me, been striving to make sense of an older, altogether different, philosophy.
The scribbles held pointers to other works on the shelves, cross references that expanded and illuminated. Soon, the table at which I worked was groaning under the weight of the books and I had taken to utilising the floor space as I strove to bring the threads together.
It was on the evening of the second day that I realised I was being led toward a conclusion, the answer to a secret more than six hundred years old, a clue to the final resting place of Auld Michael, himself.
I was puzzled when the final note in the volume I was studying pointed me to A History of the Earls of Kilbeith, but, as soon as I took the book from the shelves, I recognised the same neat handwriting to which I had become so accustomed.
It was then that I discovered the writer’s identity – it was none other than the 23rd Earl, Robert, Sir John’s grandfather. The pointer led me to a heavily annotated page near the beginning of the volume. As I read, a chill seemed to work its way into my bones, a chill that has stayed with me ever since.
I have been searching for many years and now I believe I have tracked down the source of that scourge which has so plagued my family down through the centuries. To understand it fully, it is necessary to go back to the early years of the 13th century. The first Earl, my ancestor, one Richard de Bourcy, raised the first castle on this spot, but it was not the first dwelling. At that time, there was a chapel on the island on the loch – a small cell which was home to a local cleric whose name is lost to history.
It was while the castle was being raised that a stranger came to the chapel, an old, bent man with silver in his hair and red fire in his eyes. Not long after that, strange rumours spread across the region – rumours of a jet-black steed with hooves of iron that carried on its back an old man whose very gaze spelt death. The local country folk beseeched Sir Richard to rid them of this deviltry and so it was that the Earl took himself to the island. And there, on that accursed island, his eyes met great abominations and outrages against good Christian nature, which I shall not detail here for fain of disturbing my reader’s sensibilities.
And Sir Richard took up his sword against the perpetrator of the crimes, an old man with blood on his nails and at his mouth. Yet, even as the old man was struck through the breast, he uttered an almighty curse, that the Earl and all his family would be joined with him on the island before any of them should see 50 summers. The Earl razed the chapel to the ground, cleansing it with the pure fire of his faith, but that same faith failed to sustain him and the next summer, just short of his fiftieth year, he passed from history, his resting place unknown. And so it has gone down the centuries, the old man’s curse laying its foul hand over us all. I have tracked him down, the old devil, the necromancer Michael, and tonight, I will go to the island and say the rites. If I succeed, then the curse will be forever lifted. If I fail, I leave these notes so that one who follows me might see where I did not and, if his faith be strong, succeed where I could not.
By the hand of Robert, 23rd Earl of Kilbeith, in his 49th year in the sight of our Lord, in the sure and certain hope of his infinite mercy.
I laid the volume on the desk, noticing with horror that my hands were shaking, a tremble that I could not stop. It was then that I felt drawn to the balcony, but I did not stay there long, the dark and the cold soon sending me back to the relative warmth of the library.
But the room was no longer a comforting place to be, the books now enemies rather than trusted friends. I made sure that the windows were firmly locked and repaired to my bed.
Sleep would not come. Images flowed in my mind, of dark islands and warlocks, of swords and flames. Deep in that part of the night where nothing moves, I heard, as if from far off, a loud drumming as of a horse in a wild gallop, but it was soon over and I was left staring at the soft interplay of shadows on the ceiling. Dawn was washing the sky pale before a troubled slumber finally took me down and away.
I was awoken by the rattling of the doorknob in its casing, followed by the entry of Mrs. Jameson.
“A guid morning to ye, sir,” she said, laying before me a tray of food that would have sunk the trustiest battleship. “The maister has sent word that he’ll return after lunch and asks that ye forgive his further absence.”
She didn’t wait for a reply. The door slammed behind her as if to punctuate her exit and I was left staring with dismay at the mound of food before me.
I managed a single cup of tea and two spoonfuls of porridge before my troubled thoughts drove me from my bed and out into the cool morning, where I thought that a brisk walk might bring a clearer view on my discoveries of the previous night.
For the first time, I had a view of my old friend’s estate, but I am afraid that the panoramic splendours passed me by. From all vantage points, I found my gaze drawn back to the loch and to the dark island at its heart.
By the time I headed back to the castle the sun had already passed overhead, or as near to overhead as it ever gets this far north. When I entered, I found John in the hall, a brace of fine, plump pheasants in his hands.
“William. I’m so glad you could make it,” he said, and the warmth of his welcome almost dispelled the deep chill inside me.
“Do you believe it?” he said, “I sit in trial of a poacher, find him unjustly accused, and what do you think he does? Only gives me a pair of my own birds in gratitude.”
He laughed, his head thrown back, showing off the proud, Roman profile enjoyed by all his family. The laugh was such a joyous thing that I was forced to join him. Five minutes later, we were ensconced in his study, sharing a bottle of clear, golden whisky, watched over by the imperious portraits of his ancestors. I couldn’t help but notice that they had all been caught as young men.
John was full of tales from the courts, completely enthralled in the life of the people in the area. For the first time in our long acquaintance, he looked truly happy and at ease with the world.
I was loath to break the spell that this place had woven around him. It took two glasses of whisky to loosen my tongue and a further one before I could relate my findings. I was serious and tried to impress the gravity of the situation on him. He listened intently, but his eyes told me that he didn’t believe a word of it.
“I’ve heard parts of the tale before,” he said, “We used to have an old gamekeeper here – Jim Callender. He was full of the old stories – how that man loved to hear himself talk. He tried to frighten my brother and me when we were little more than children.”
“But come,” he said, leaning forward and placing a hand on my knee, “Surely, a sophisticated gentleman like yourself has not fallen for such old wives tales?”
Suddenly, he seemed to come to a decision.
“Come on. I’ll show you that there’s no need to be afraid.”
He stood and made for the door before turning back to me.
“Well? Are you coming? There’s just enough light for the task.”
I took a last, lingering drink before placing the glass on the table and had a longing look back at it before following Sir John out to the loch.
There was a small rowing boat tied to a makeshift jetty. John must have noticed the look on my face when I saw it.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “It’s more stable than it looks. I take the boat out most evenings – there are some terrific trout in the waters around here.”
Without another word, he led me into the boat, which swayed alarmingly until we were both settled. He had taken the oars and allowed me no argument. He rowed with the ease of one well-used to the task and was not even breathing heavily when he spoke.
“You know, It’s a curious thing. I have been out on this loch more times than you can imagine, but I’ve never set foot on the island. Nobody has, for as long as I can remember.”
“I’d wager that your grandfather did.” I said, my mouth working faster than my brain. I immediately regretted it, as a cloud seemed to pass over John’s features.
“For pity’s sake, man – Granddad was going soft in the head, by all accounts. He was obsessed with the old stories. And it wasn’t the curse that got him – he killed himself, up there in that library you are so fond of.”
I jumped at that, causing the boat to sway slightly, but John didn’t miss a stroke and his face was now set against me. I could do no more than watch that dark blot appear ever closer over his left shoulder.
It was less than five minutes later when there was a grind of wood against stone and the boat came up on a steep, rocky shore.
The sun was closing in on the mountainside, laying layers of orange and red across the sky. The loch itself glowed gold like the whisky I was missing so much, a gold that was slowly turning blood-red.
I turned away from the view and forced myself to confront the island itself. At first, it was no more than a larger smudge of darkness, but then the splendour of the sunset faded from my eyes and the island asserted itself in my view.
It was smaller than I had thought – barely thirty yards in diameter, raising itself no more than six feet from the surface of the loch at its highest point. A grove of twisted yew trees seemed to grow straight from the rock, so dense that it was impossible to guess what might lie beyond them.
John was already up and out of the boat before I had time to take in the whole scene. Even then, I found that I no longer had the desire to explore this godforsaken patch of land. I watched him scramble across the slimy rocks and followed his progress until his shape melded with the greater darkness of the trees.
A stillness descended around me like a shroud, the loch around me as flat and calm as the surface of a lady’s mirror. No bird sang; nor did any of the fabled trout disturb the waters. Suddenly, I felt more alone than I had ever desired.
I called out to John, twice, my first attempt coming to little more than the thin, croaky pleading of an old man. There was no reply.
I pushed myself out of the boat, the soaking of my good brogues not improving my temper. I was glad of them only seconds later – the rocks proved a more tortuous route than I had imagined.
Once more, I called out for my friend and this time, was rewarded by an answering call, muffled, as if having travelled a great distance to reach me.
“Over here, William,” the voice said and my heart immediately lifted. I followed the source of the voice to the grove of elms and began to push my way through them, all the time becoming ever more aware that darkness was beginning to draw itself in around me.
Just when I began to believe that the grove had, somehow, become larger than the island on which it stood, I emerged into a rough clearing, no more than nine feet across. The ground rose to a taller mound, one formed of fallen rocks and rubble, rubble that seemed strangely black, even in the dim light.
“John?” I shouted and this time, I could trace the reply – he was in the mound itself. As I stepped closer, I could see a rough entrance, just above and to the left of where I was standing.
“In here,” the voice said.
I stepped closer, then stopped, halted by a sudden whiff of corruption. There was a scrape, as of stone on stone, and the caustic odor strengthened. I started to call out, but everything was driven from my mind when John screamed – a cry the like of which I hope never to hear again.
A figure barrelled out of the mound, knocking me over to scrabble, dazed, amongst the rubble. I managed to push myself upright, just in time to see John’s stout frame push away from me through the yews.
The stones beneath my feet shifted and the smell became so strong as to sting at the back of my throat and cause my gorge to rise. It was all the excuse I needed – I hurried to follow my friend.
At first, I thought that he had already gone, leaving me to go insane on this rough rock, but then I saw that the boat was still where we had left it. I came across his prone body several steps later – by that time, it was becoming so dark that I might have missed him if I had passed several steps to either side.
He had fallen victim to the rocks, losing his footing and striking his head hard. There was a warm wetness in his hair, but his breathing was strong. With no little difficulty, I managed to manhandle him into the boat – I still have a scar on my left knee where a rock sheared clean through my tweeds and into my leg.
I only looked up once, no more than a glance back to the island to get my bearings, and then I was rowing, with an energy I never knew I possessed, rowing with all haste back to the safe, warm lights of Sir John’s ancestral seat.
I will say nothing of that mad flight across the loch – the fears and terrors of it have been blanked from my mind, a necessity if I am to remain sane.
Some time later, Mrs. Jameson met us on the doorstep. The walk from the jetty, all the while carrying the dead weight of my friend, exhausted me and I fell across the door, tumbling both myself and the master of the house in an unruly heap on the carpet.
By that time, I was most willing to give myself over to the ministrations of Mrs. Jameson. She did not let me down. Within five minutes, we were installed in the stout armchairs in the study, the whole household having been roused for our attention.
Which is how I came to be facing John on his awakening.
His eyes opened first: strange, unfamiliar, red-rimmed orbs. He stared at me then his gaze lifted, looking beyond me to the portraits on the walls.
That’s when the screaming started.
I left that very night, ignoring all of Mrs. Jameson’s protestations, and since that night, I have never left London. Indeed, I rarely set foot from the safety of my warm, suburban home.
But at night, I dream.
I am once more back in that rowing boat, having managed to tumble John into position. I pick up the oars and look back, just a glance to get my bearings.
And there, backlit by the last rays of the dying sun, I see a group of figures proceeding towards us, their bare feet shuffling amongst the hard rocks, tattered clothing flapping about their flanks. One bends and lifts a rock from the shore, and I see the red of John’s blood appear at its mouth. And as the boat begins to drift away from the shore, one of my oars strikes a rock and the figures all turn towards me.
I wake, screaming, at the sight of those proud, Roman profiles, the same profile I see adorning the face of my friend Sir John, my good friend Sir John, who will be 50 in less than two months time.
Bio: William Meikle is a Scottish writer with 15 novels published in the genre press and over 250 short story credits in 13 countries. His work appears in many professional anthologies. Recent work for Dark Regions Press includes The Creeping Kelp, Sherlock Holmes: Revenant, The Invasion/The Valley, and Carnack: Heaven and Hell. He lives in a remote corner of Newfoundland with icebergs, whales and bald eagles for company. In the winters, he gets warm vicariously through the lives of others in cyberspace, so please check him out at:http://www.williammeikle.com.