Greetings, everybody... I bid you welcome, for this, my contribution to the Heroines of Fantasy Fright Fest...
I’m not a great fan of writing short stories. It's too much effort, for too little reward. I mean this in the intellectual sense; it’s like listening to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier when I’d much rather be absorbed in a vast sweeping epic symphony. But occasionally, just occasionally, something connects in my head and out pops a story.
Today I’m going to post part of a story which is certainly horrible, and which was inspired by an incident which took place more than two decades ago. I was tending a much-loved horse on a cold January night. The local fox-hunt had been around that day, and one of the huntsmen was out in the pitch black freezing fog, blowing his horn to recall a stray hound. That's all you could hear, a desolate hunting horn, interspersed with the lonely voice of the hunt servant.
At around the same time, I was working as a council archaeologist in Glasgow: I’d stumbled across references to a very peculiar Neolithic site in South Lanarkshire which consists of a vast circular bank and ditch, built in the middle of nowhere in a hollow halfway up a hillside. It was reused as a burial place in the Bronze Age.
Years later, the ideas finally connected and a story was born. The end result was, I suppose, my tribute to the Bronze Age and Scottish Archaeology. It also provided an ideal a way of exorcising my hostility towards fox-hunting!
As an interesting afterword, I finally visited that site on a field survey just last year. Yes, there was a raven. And yes, I showed him/her deliberate courtesy, just in case...
Unfortunately, I can’t share the whole story with you, because it’s just too long. But here’s the opening – extra Brownie points to those who spot all the archaeological references!
Down in the valley, the hounds are calling. The emasculated bray of the horn rings out once, twice.
Morrigan’s dark ears swivel and she looks up, curious, not frightened. She sniffs the air, remembers hunts from long ago, when her power was at its zenith. The horns were different then. Strident, glorious...
She blunders through undergrowth. But ‘she’ isn’t a ‘she’. She’s a boar, all male reek and power.
Hounds nip at her heels. Morrigan turns at bay with a roar, eyes glittering red, breath steaming in the cold air. When Morrigan tosses her head, hounds are thrown aside like straw. They yelp and whimper as she stamps their bones into the mud...
Morrigan settles comfortably back into the brambles. Her gold eyes gleam in the dim light, the ground beneath her damp with dew. Drops of water hang like jewels from the gossamer that sags amongst the twigs.
It’s an ancient place. It reminds her of times past. While the trees and shrubs are not old, they taste the age from earth and water. They whisper it to those who can hear. But such places are few and far between now. Only small islands remain, in a sea of land that’s been ripped by the plough, over and over again, throughout the centuries.
She sees the flash of sunlight on bronze, hears the shouts of men erupt around her. It’s only now that Morrigan feels truly alive. They drive their spears deep, into her body, but Morrigan feels no pain. Her rage is primal, she thrusts herself forward, making the spear squelch more firmly into her guts.
Perhaps, when Morrigan recalls these times, she understands what it is to be old. She’s lived through aeons, and now...
She cannot recall a time when her powers have been so weak.
It’s been two thousand years since the Christchild came, but Morrigan doesn’t mourn the passing of the ancient days. She’s incapable of mourning. She observes the movement of sun and moon with a dispassionate eye, knowing that like the moon, her strength waxes and wanes.
Though these days, even the Christchild’s power is waning. Men worship new gods. They no longer care for the land, instead they take green fields and strip them bare to bedrock. Thousands of years, lost in an instant. Old places despoiled, their magic forgotten, and where they once stood, houses are built, row upon row, identical.
Morrigan wanders far and she’s seen it for herself. Perhaps even she mourns the destruction of the wild places, the old places, and the memories they carried. Perhaps that’s why, when she finds them, she clings to them. She likes to laze in the shadow of the standing stones, to lie on hilltops where once the bones were picked clean by the carrion birds, where the corrupt flesh was scoured from the relics of the ancestral dead.
The horn sounds again. A twig snaps, closer to hand. Morrigan’s being quivers with expectation, her snout twitches as she catches the whiff of Man.
Voices. “It’ll be over soon.” The speaker’s a male. A tall, slender young man. He sounds disgruntled. His hair’s dyed, jet black with a streak of vivid red. He wears it long, tied back in the old warrior way...
Her long tusk pierces flesh, blood runs warm over her jaws. A young man screams, but he’s brave. He will not yield. With his last strength, he draws his sword, slashes down. The bronze blade strikes her neck, hacking through muscle, bone, but Morrigan isn’t held captive in mortal flesh. She just shakes her head and gores him harder.
Their eyes meet briefly. Burning red against ice-cold blue. She sees terror, but she also sees courage.
Morrigan respects courage. This time, she will be lenient. The boar’s form is shrugged lightly aside. She’s a raven fluttering up into the trees. She looks down at the men below, croaks loud as they crouch about the fallen warrior.
Morrigan lifts her head, suddenly watchful. The young man’s not alone. There’s a woman with him. Like him, she wears clothes that make her fade into the vegetation. She’s young, too. But she’s smaller, broader. Her brown hair’s tied back and she has a silver stud in her nose.
“Poor bloody fox,” she says.
“We missed all the action. Knew we were heading out the wrong way.” He glowers at the earth. “We’d better move, and see what they’re up to.“ He grimaces. “I should’ve guessed that the Bill was too good to be true.” He kicks the turf. “Bastards.”
Rummaging in his pocket, he pulls out a thin roll of white paper the length of his finger. A copper coin comes with it; it’s sitting in the palm of his hand. He stares at it, tosses it up into the air with a sigh. It spirals down, gleams briefly as the sun catches it; there’s a plop as it falls into the clear water of the spring.
They carry the young man home to the village, and then the rituals begin. The sword must be broken, and offered to the water, for it has touched immortal flesh and so it can no longer stay in the realms of the living. The spearhead, too, is split from the haft and given to the ground. All through the night, they burn fires and sing songs in her honour.
“What was that for?” the girl asks.
“Aw, you know.” Lighting the rolled-up paper, he breathes deep. “Throw a coin into a fountain. Make a wish.”
He sighs, and smoke drifts from his lips. “They believed it, in prehistoric times. Offering a sacrifice to the water gods was potent magic.”
Morrigan sits atop the roof thatch, preening glossy black feathers. Women chant at the young man’s bedside, but Morrigan knows that this time he’ll live. He’ll limp all his life, but he’ll bear the scar like a mark of honour. Some men are warriors because they carry the spear and the axe and the sword. He’s a warrior because he’s fought the gods, and lived to tell the tale.
“So what would you wish for?” the young woman asks.
“I wish...” He pauses. “I wish we could get rid of this fucking hunt.”
Morrigan’s nostrils flare. She smells the copper, the magic metal. She feels the slide of the coin through the water, the grate as it settles down into the silts of the stream bed,
Once she’d have ignored such a paltry offering. But after a thousand years of waiting, Morrigan is bored. They’ve used the old magic, so she’ll grant their wish. She’ll hunt again. She’ll live again.