“There is no trace in Highland folk-lore of the idea of benevolent gods.”
—“A Highland Goddess,” Donald A. Mackenzie, 1912
THE voice whispered to Angus as he lay in that otherworld between wake- fulness and sleep. A woman’s, the accent honeyed American with a hint of Scottish bleeding through. He smelt her warm breath on his neck, faintly rancid, like meat on the turn.
You could have saved me.
His hands bunched into fists, gripping a wad of bedclothes. He squeezed his eyes shut and heard the thundering of distant hooves. The hammering grew louder. Closer. The harsh caw of a crow cut above the din. Then silence. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead, crawled like fingernails down his back. He could taste salt on his sandpaper tongue. Behind the soft membrane of his eyelids, his vision flickered.
He saw a flock of birds circling an island with a distinctive, snoutlike peak, but before he could get a handle on the image, he heard the frightened whinny of a horse. He was transported to a grove, where a woman knelt in a halo of light. Behind her stood a figure in a deer-skull mask. The figure looped a thin ligature around the woman’s neck. Angus tried to shout, but words stuck like rocks in his throat. The thing jammed a knee in the woman’s back and yanked—
Angus sat bolt upright. Beside him, Ashleigh groaned in her sleep, flame-red hair fanned out on the pillow. She pulled the duvet back over a milky-white shoulder. He tore his eyes away from his wife, and forced himself to look. Three shadowy figures stood at the foot of the bed.
The Burned Man.
The Strangled Woman.
The Drowned Boy.
An unholy trinity whose eyes begged for answers.
He heard his father’s voice, a dim whisper.
These things you see, they’re all in your head, son. All in your head.
The boy’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. He choked, heaved. His eyes bulged.
You could have saved me!
The woman’s voice rang around the room, but his wife did not stir. Angus sprang from the bed, bare feet slapping on the warped oak floorboards. He swayed, like a fisherman on a rolling sea, and threw out a hand to steady himself. His fingers found the bedroom wall, but the textured wallpaper—a flowery motif Ash had chosen from Moy’s in Silvaig—felt alive, like the flank of some great beast. He could smell the feral stink of it, feel the blood course beneath its soft pelt. He whipped his hand away as if burned, and lurched towards the bedroom door, grabbing yesterday’s clothes as he went.
What felt like a second later, he was pounding down the rocky path past the Lost Village. Flecks of phlegm flew from his lips. His breath plumed into the cold air. Ahead of him, sheep scattered, bleating in fright as they bounded for the safety of tumbledown black houses. The ruins of the old crofting com- munity littered the glen like piles of broken teeth, gaping and eerie in the wan dawn, the hillside scarred from claw-mark furrows of long-abandoned lazy beds.
Heart thrashing, he hurdled a stile and was swallowed by the bracken, hawthorn, and gorse that carpeted the lower slopes. Thorns raked his hands and face as he ploughed blindly forward, heading downwards, ever down- wards, guided by shadows. He burst from the gorse and powered across the raised beach towards the sand dunes. Marram grass bit at his ankles, and the memories he had buried came flooding back—thrashing in the cobalt-blue sea, the boy’s dead weight in his arms.
With one final push, he reached the top of the dunes. There he paused, gasping for breath, as the kneeling woman had at the end. The sun now crested the callused shoulder of Sgurr an Teintein. A dark crust of seaweed curved around the bay, marking the high-tide level. Past it, silver sand stretched out to the sea, Eilean Coille rising from the waves like a kelpie, the Small Isles of Eigg, Rum, Muck, and Canna cowering in the background.
Everything was exactly as he had seen it: Eigg with its distinctive peak, even the rocks covered in blooms of crotal ruadh, the red lichen that Gills claimed was congealed blood left after nocturnal battles between the fairies. You could have saved me. . . .
A sound made him look up. From the west, a flock of black birds surged across the sky: starlings, hundreds of them. The din as they passed overhead was awful, like the wails of tormented souls.
He returned his attention to the beach. Something lay on the sand, half- way between the scab of seaweed and the waves. A small mound, with a greenish tint, like a dead seal coated in algae. A breeze whipped in off the sea, carrying with it a scent of decay.
No, not a seal—
The object moved. Angus flinched. The movement had been little more than a twitch, as if anything more were too great an effort. Hope and disbelief rooted him to the spot. Then he leapt, arms flailing in midair, before he landed, fell, and tumbled down the dunes. He hauled himself upright, spat sand, and ran. His feet crunched across the shingle until he reached a plateau of soft marbled sand, pockmarked with lugworm castings. Footprints meandered hither and thither, left by the seabirds his father had taught him to identify—herring gulls, oystercatchers, and curlews. None were human.
The cloying reek hung in the air like a smirr of rain. He ran, head down, into the teeth of the wind, until he could go no farther. A marionette on a string, he raised his eyes from the beach.
It was no seal.
She lay in the foetal position on a smooth blanket of sand, her back to him. He leaned over her body and a ragged sob escaped his cracked lips.
He fell to his knees beside her broken body as if seeking absolution. But there was no forgiveness in her lifeless stare.
He screwed his eyes shut and clenched his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms until the pain thumped inside his head. Only when the skin was close to breaking did he stop. He opened his eyes and forced himself to look at the girl. Her eyes had been emerald green and had sparkled like dewdrops when she’d talked about art and horses. No more. Her irises were empty grey voids that somehow reminded him of the ruined houses in the glen. Her purple lips were slightly parted, as if she were mumbling something in a dream.
Only, nobody slept with their wrists bound like that. She wore a green velvet cloak over a diaphanous silver gown. The front of the gown was spattered with gore as if she were a gutted fish. A thin ligature caked in dried blood arced around her throat, cutting deep into her alabaster skin. A fold of her cloak flapped in the wind, like the wing of a dying raven, which accounted for the movement he’d seen from the dunes. Her damp hair had lost its golden lustre and was matted in blood on one side.
There were no footprints in the sand around her body, but if the sea had spat her out, wouldn’t her clothes be sodden? He placed a tentative hand on the girl’s arm. Her cloak was damp but not waterlogged. If she hadn’t washed up on the tide, how had she gotten here?
His hand shook as he placed two fingers on her neck, not to check for a pulse—it was obvious she was dead—but to feel her temperature. Her skin was cold. She had been dead for hours. His hope had been in vain. He sat back on his haunches and screwed his eyes shut. He clenched his fists, again digging the nails into his palms. Too late, always too late!
He felt the shadows crowd around him again—man, woman, and child—their dead eyes boring into him. He could have saved them all.