I shuddered, and Frank put an arm around me. “There’s a bit of one of his poems left,” he said quietly. “Donald Donn’s. It goes:
“Tomorrow I shall be on a hill, without a head.
Have you no compassion for my sorrowful maiden,
My Mary, the fair and tender-eyed?”
I took his hand and squeezed it lightly.
As story after story of treachery, murder, and violence were recounted, it seemed as though the loch had earned its sinister reputation.
“What about the monster?” I asked, peering over the side into the murky depths. It seemed entirely appropriate to such a setting.
Our guide shrugged and spat into the water.
“Weel, the loch’s queer, and no mistake. There’s stories, to be sure, of something old and evil that once lived in the depths. Sacrifices were made to it—kine, and sometimes even wee bairns, flung into the water in withy baskets.” He spat again. “And some say the loch’s bottomless—got a hole in the center deeper than anything else in Scotland. On the other hand”—the guide’s crinkled eyes crinkled a bit more—“ ’twas a family here from Lancashire a few years ago, cam’ rushin’ to the police station in Invermoriston, screamin’ as they’d seen the monster come out o’ the water and hide in the bracken. Said ’twas a terrible creature, covered wi’ red hair and fearsome horns, and chewin’ something, wi’ the blood all dripping from its mouth.” He held up a hand, stemming my horrified exclamation.
“The constable they sent to see cam’ back and said, weel, bar the drippin’ blood, ’twas a verra accurate description”—he paused for effect—“of a nice Highland cow, chewin’ her cud in the bracken!”
We sailed down half the length of the loch before disembarking for a late lunch. We met the car there and motored back through the Glen, observing nothing more sinister than a red fox in the road, who looked up startled, a small animal of some sort hanging limp in its jaws, as we zoomed around a curve. He leaped for the side of the road and swarmed up the bank, swift as a shadow.
It was very late indeed when we finally staggered up the path to Mrs. Baird’s, but we clung together on the doorstep as Frank groped for the key, still laughing over the events of the day.
It wasn’t until we were undressing for bed that I remembered to mention the miniature henge on Craigh na Dun to Frank. His fatigue vanished at once.
“Really? And you know where it is? How marvelous, Claire!” He beamed and began rattling through his suitcase.
“What are you looking for?”
“The alarm clock,” he replied, hauling it out.
“Whatever for?” I asked in astonishment.
“I want to be up in time to see them.”
“Witches? Who told you there are witches?”
“The vicar,” Frank answered, clearly enjoying the joke. “His housekeeper’s one of them.”
I thought of the dignified Mrs. Graham and snorted derisively. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Well, not witches, actually. There have been witches all over Scotland for hundreds of years—they burnt them ’til well into the eighteenth century—but this lot is really meant to be Druids, or something of the sort. I don’t suppose it’s actually a coven—not devil-worship, I don’t mean. But the vicar said there was a local group that still observes rituals on the old sun-feast days. He can’t afford to take too much interest in such goings-on, you see, because of his position, but he’s much too curious a man to ignore it altogether, either. He didn’t know where the ceremonies took place, but if there’s a stone circle nearby, that must be it.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “What luck!”
Getting up once in the dark to go adventuring is a lark. Twice in two days smacks of masochism.
No nice warm car with rugs and thermoses this time, either. I stumbled sleepily up the hill behind Frank, tripping over roots and stubbing my toes on stones. It was cold and misty, and I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my cardigan.
One final push up over the crest of the hill, and the henge was before us, the stones barely visible in the somber light of predawn. Frank stood stock-still, admiring them, while I subsided onto a convenient rock, panting.
“Beautiful,” he murmured. He crept silently to the outer edge of the ring, his shadowy figure disappearing among the larger shadows of the stones. Beautiful they were, and bloody eerie too. I shivered, and not entirely from the cold. If whoever had made them had meant them to impress, they’d known what they were doing.
Frank was back in a moment. “No one here yet,” he whispered suddenly from behind me, making me jump. “Come on, I’ve found a place we can watch from.”
The light was coming up from the east now, just a tinge of paler grey on the horizon, but enough to keep me from stumbling as Frank led me through a gap he had found in some alder bushes near the top of the path. There was a tiny clearing inside the clump of bushes, barely enough for the two of us to stand shoulder to shoulder. The path was clearly visible, though, and so was the interior of the stone circle, no more than twenty feet away. Not for the first time, I wondered just what kind of work Frank had done during the War. He certainly seemed to know a lot about maneuvering soundlessly in the dark.
Drowsy as I was, I wanted nothing more than to curl up under a cozy bush and go back to sleep. There wasn’t room for that, though, so I continued to stand, peering down the steep path in search of oncoming Druids. I was getting a crick in my back, and my feet ached, but it couldn’t take long; the streak of light in the east had turned a pale pink, and I supposed it was less than half an hour ’til dawn.
The first one moved almost as silently as Frank. There was only the faintest of rattles as her feet dislodged a pebble near the crest of the hill, and then the neat grey head rose silently into sight. Mrs. Graham. So it was true, then. The vicar’s housekeeper was sensibly dressed in tweed skirt and woolly coat, with a white bundle under one arm. She disappeared behind one of the standing stones, quiet as a ghost.
They came quite quickly after that, in ones and twos and threes, with subdued giggles and whispers on the path that were quickly shushed as they came into sight of the circle.
I recognized a few. Here came Mrs. Buchanan, the village postmistress, blond hair freshly permed and the scent of Evening in Paris wafting strongly from its waves. I suppressed a laugh. So this was a modern-day Druid!
There were fifteen in all, and all women, ranging in age from Mrs. Graham’s sixty-odd years to a young woman in her early twenties, whom I had seen pushing a pram round the shops two days before. All of them were dressed for rough walking, with bundles beneath their arms. With a minimum of chat, they disappeared behind stones or bushes, emerging empty-handed and bare-armed, completely clad in white. I caught the scent of laundry soap as one brushed by our clump of bushes, and recognized the garments as bedsheets, wrapped about the body and knotted at the shoulder.
They assembled outside the ring of stones, in a line from eldest to youngest, and stood in silence, waiting. The light in the east grew stronger.
As the sun edged its way above the horizon, the line of women began to move, walking slowly between two of the stones. The leader took them directly to the center of the circle, and led them round and round, still moving slowly, stately as swans in a circular procession.
The leader suddenly stopped, raised her arms, and stepped into the center of the circle. Raising her face toward the pair of easternmost stones, she called out in a high voice. Not loud, but clear enough to be heard throughout the circle. The still mist caught the words and made them echo, as though they came from all around, from the stones themselves.
Whatever the call was, it was echoed again by the dancers. For dancers they now became. Not touching, but with arms outstretched toward each other, they bobbed and weaved, still moving in a circle. Suddenly the circle split in half. Seven of the dancers moved clockwise, still in a circular motion. The others moved in the opposite direction. The two semicircles passed each other at increasing speeds, sometimes forming a complete circle, sometimes a double line. And in the center, the leader stood stock-still, giving again and again that mournful high-pitched call, in a language long since dead.
They should have been ridiculous, and perhaps they were. A collection of women in bedsheets, many of them stout and far from agile, parading in circles on top of a hill. But the hair prickled on the back of my neck at the sound of their call.
They stopped as one, and turned to face the rising sun, standing in the form of two semicircles, with a path lying clear between the halves of the circle thus formed. As the sun rose above the horizon, its light flooded between the eastern stones, knifed between the halves of the circle, and struck the great split stone on the opposite side of the henge.
The dancers stood for a moment, frozen in the shadows to either side of the beam of light. Then Mrs. Graham said something, in the same strange language, but this time in a speaking voice. She pivoted and walked, back straight, iron-grey waves glinting in the sun, along the path of light. Without a word, the dancers fell in step behind her. They passed one by one through the cleft in the main stone and disappeared in silence.
We crouched in the alders until the women, now laughing and chatting normally, had retrieved their clothes and set off in a group down the hill, headed for coffee at the vicarage.
“Goodness!” I stretched, trying to get the kinks out of my legs and back. “That was quite a sight, wasn’t it?”
“Wonderful!” enthused Frank. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” He slipped out of the bush like a snake, leaving me to disentangle myself while he cast about the interior of the circle, nose to the ground like a bloodhound.
“Whatever are you looking for?” I asked. I entered the circle with some hesitation, but day was fully come, and the stones, while still impressive, had lost a good deal of the brooding menace of dawn light.
“Marks,” he replied, crawling about on hands and knees, eyes intent on the short turf. “How did they know where to start and stop?”
“Good question. I don’t see anything.” Casting an eye over the ground, though, I did see an interesting plant growing near the base of one of the tall stones. Myosotis? No, probably not; this had orange centers to the deep blue flowers. Intrigued, I started toward it. Frank, with keener hearing than I, leaped to his feet and seized my arm, hurrying me out of the circle a moment before one of the morning’s dancers entered from the other side.
It was Miss Grant, the tubby little woman who, suitably enough in view of her figure, ran the sweets and pastries shop in the town’s High Street. She peered nearsightedly around, then fumbled in her pocket for her spectacles. Jamming these on her nose, she strolled about the circle, at last pouncing on the lost hair-clip for which she had returned. Having restored it to its place in her thick, glossy locks, she seemed in no hurry to return to business. Instead, she seated herself on a boulder, leaned back against one of the stone giants in comradely fashion and lighted a leisurely cigarette.
Frank gave a muted sigh of exasperation beside me. “Well,” he said, resigned, “we’d best go. She could sit there all morning, by the looks of her. And I didn’t see any obvious markings in any case.”
“Perhaps we could come back later,” I suggested, still curious about the blue-flowered vine.
“Yes, all right.” But he had plainly lost interest in the circle itself, being now absorbed in the details of the ceremony. He quizzed me relentlessly on the way down the path, urging me to remember as closely as I could the exact wording of the calls, and the timing of the dance.
“Norse,” he said at last, with satisfaction. “The root words are Ancient Norse, I’m almost sure of it. But the dance,” he shook his head, pondering. “No, the dance is very much older. Not that there aren’t Viking circle dances,” he said, raising his brows censoriously, as though I had suggested there weren’t. “But that shifting pattern with the double-line business, that’s…hmm, it’s like…well, some of the patterns on the Beaker Folk glazeware show a pattern rather like that, but then again…hmm.”
He dropped into one of his scholarly trances, muttering to himself from time to time. The trance was broken only when he stumbled unexpectedly over an obstacle near the bottom of the hill. He flung his arms out with a startled cry as his feet went out from under him and he rolled untidily down the last few feet of the path, fetching up in a clump of cow parsley.
I dashed down the hill after him, but found him already sitting up among the quivering stems by the time I reached the bottom.
“Are you all right?” I asked, though I could see that he was.
“I think so.” He passed a hand dazedly over his brow, smoothing back the dark hair. “What did I trip over?”
“This.” I held up a sardine tin, discarded by some earlier visitor. “One of the menaces of civilization.”
“Ah.” He took it from me, peered inside, then tossed it over one shoulder. “Pity it’s empty. I’m feeling rather hungry after that excursion. Shall we see what Mrs. Baird can provide in the way of a late breakfast?”
“We might,” I said, smoothing the last strands of hair for him. “And then again, we might make it an early lunch instead.” My eyes met his.
“Ah,” he said again, with a completely different tone. He ran a hand slowly up my arm and up the side of my neck, his thumb gently tickling the lobe of my ear. “So we might.”
“If you aren’t too hungry,” I said. The other hand found its way behind my back. Palm spread, it pressed me gently toward him, fingers stroking lower and lower. His mouth opened slightly and he breathed, ever so lightly, down the neck of my dress, his warm breath tickling the tops of my br**sts.
He laid me carefully back in the grass, the feathery blossoms of the cow parsley seeming to float in the air around his head. He bent forward and kissed me, softly, and kept on kissing me as he unbuttoned my dress, one button at a time, teasing, pausing to reach a hand inside and play with the swelling tips of my br**sts. At last he had the dress laid open from neck to waist.
“Ah,” he said again, in yet another tone. “Like white velvet.” He spoke hoarsely, and his hair had fallen forward again, but he made no attempt to brush it back.
He sprang the clasp of my brassiere with one accomplished flick of the thumb, and bent to pay a skilled homage to my br**sts. Then he drew back, and cupping my br**sts with both hands, drew his palms slowly down to meet between the rising mounds, and without stopping, drew them softly outward again, tracing the line of my rib cage clear to the back. Up and again, down and around, until I moaned and turned toward him. He sank his lips onto mine, and pressed me toward him until our h*ps fitted tightly together. He bent his head to mine, nibbling softly around the rim of my ear.
The hand stroking my back slipped lower and lower, stopping suddenly in surprise. It felt again, then Frank raised his head and looked down at me, grinning.
“What’s all this, then?” he asked, in imitation of a village bobby. “Or rather, what’s not all this?”
“Just being prepared,” I said primly. “Nurses are taught to anticipate contingencies.”
“Really, Claire,” he murmured, sliding his hand under my skirt and up my thigh to the soft, unprotected warmth between my legs, “you are the most terrifyingly practical person I have ever known.”
Frank came up behind me as I sat in the parlor chair that evening, a large book spread out on my lap.
“What are you doing?” he asked. His hands rested gently on my shoulders.
“Looking for that plant,” I answered, sticking a finger between the pages to mind my place. “The one I saw in the stone circle. See…” I flipped the book open. “It could be in the Campanulaceae, or the Gentianaceae, the Polemoniaceae, the Boraginaceae—that’s most likely, I think, forget-me-nots—but it could even be a variant of this one, the Anemone patens.” I pointed out a full color illustration of a pasqueflower. “I don’t think it was a gentian of any kind; the petals weren’t really rounded, but—”
“Well, why not go back and get it?” he suggested. “Mr. Crook would lend you his old banger, perhaps, or—no, I’ve a better idea. Borrow Mrs. Baird’s car, it’s safer. It’s a short walk from the road to the foot of the hill.”
“And then about a thousand yards, straight up,” I said. “Why are you so interested in that plant?” I swiveled around to look up at him. The parlor lamp outlined his head with a thin gold line, like a medieval engraving of a saint.
“It’s not the plant I care about. But if you’re going up there anyway, I wish you’d have a quick look around the outside of the stone circle.”
“All right,” I said obligingly. “What for?”
“Traces of fire,” he said. “In all the things I’ve been able to read about Beltane, fire is always mentioned in the rituals, yet the women we saw this morning weren’t using any. I wondered if perhaps they’d set the Beltane fire the night before, then come back in the morning for the dance. Though historically it’s the cow herds who were supposed to set the fire. There wasn’t any trace of fire inside the circle,” he added. “But we left before I thought of checking the outside.”
“All right,” I said again, and yawned. Two early risings in two days were taking their toll. I shut the book and stood up. “Provided I don’t have to get up before nine.”
It was in fact nearly eleven before I reached the stone circle. It was drizzling, and I was soaked through, not having thought to bring a mac. I made a cursory examination of the outside of the circle, but if there had ever been a fire there, someone had taken pains to remove its traces.
The plant was easier to find. It was where I remembered it, near the foot of the tallest stone. I took several clippings of the vine and stowed them temporarily in my handkerchief, meaning to deal with them properly when I got back to Mrs. Baird’s tiny car, where I had left the heavy plant presses.
The tallest stone of the circle was cleft, with a vertical split dividing the two massive pieces. Oddly, the pieces had been drawn apart by some means. Though you could see that the facing surfaces matched, they were separated by a gap of two or three feet.