Hi, there! Louise here - now it's my turn to offer some fare for the 2016 Fright Fest season. And I thought that this year, I'd go back to basics. Forget demons and zombies and werewolves and all that supernatural stuff - if it's something truly scary or horrible that you're looking for, then you don't have to seek it out in the Otherworld, or in fantastic realms. Just open your front door and look around you. Yes, I'm talking about the human race. You can't get much more horrible than us - we've been doing things that are mean, and nasty and downright horrific for thousands of years - just open a history book, and you'll see exactly what I mean.
Today I'm going to share an insight into the evil that men do. It's a fragment from my second novel, 'The Gryphon at Bay:' the immediate follow-up to my historical novel 'Fire and Sword,' it's currently lodged with Hadley Rille Books.
The scene I've chosen to share with you imaginatively recreates an actual event which took place between October and November in 1489, so the timing is just perfect. History doesn't fill in many details: all we know is that the Lord Kilmaurs was slain by Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie. Was it murder? Was it a judicial killing? And what of the aftermath? Can we assume that the real Hugh Montgomerie felt perfectly justified in his actions? Perhaps. Did he think about it afterwards, and regret what he had done? Who knows?
Such things are, of course, beyond the scope of historical sources. But they are the meat and drink of historical fiction writers, of course.
So may I present to you an episode of true horror, from a time and a place which weathered more than its fair share of feud and war and casual brutality. Perhaps that night, the Cunninghames might have been forgiven in thinking they were in the presence of the Devil incarnate: when we join the action, the Lord Kilmaurs lies dead, and for his brother Will Cunninghame of Craigends and his son Cuthbert, Master of Kilmaurs, the future is far from secure.
They followed the road for several miles, then Craigends changed course, heading off across the fields. By the time they slowed their pace, the horses were blowing and lathered in sweat.
Craigends cocked his head. He could’ve sworn he’d heard the bray of a horn. “Alright.” He halted near a small stand of trees. “Let’s leave the horses. They’ll find their own way home.”
“What?” Cuthbert demanded, disbelieving.
“Montgomerie’s after us.”
“Surely we can outrun him?”
“He has the instincts of a sleuth-hound. And the persistence.” Craigends was already dismounting. “Don’t give him the satisfaction of hunting you down. This way, we’ll leave him a false trail.” He cast the boy an anxious glance. “Can you walk?”
Cuthbert winced as he lowered himself to the ground. “I’ll have to.”
“Good lad. Now get on with you!” He lunged and hissed at the horses, waving his arms to drive them away.
“I don’t even know where we are,” Cuthbert whispered.
“Ah, but I do. If God wills it, we’ll get home in one piece, and in reasonable health, too. We owe it to your mother.”
“We could seek shelter until he calls off the pursuit?”
“He’ll search every byre and cottage. If he found us, he’d slay us. As it is, he’ll burn the poor souls out of their homes and kill their beasts.”
* * *
Mist hung like a shroud over the land. A reassuring sight, Craigends thought, for it meant that even Montgomerie might call off the chase sooner rather than later.
Sounds travelled far in the still evening air, so they heard the hue and cry in plenty of time. The thunder of hooves, the blood-chilling calls of their pursuers.
“We’ll find cover over there.” Grasping Cuthbert’s arm, Craigends tugged him over to a dense thicket of whin and brambles that overlooked the river. They ducked deep into its depths, oblivious to the thorns that snagged their clothes and tore their flesh.
Cuthbert was trembling. Craigends held him close, an attempt at reassurance. “Not a word, for God’s Sake...” Staring into the gloom, he saw two Cunninghame retainers approach, unhorsed and stumbling with weariness. They skirted the river, wading through reeds and sliding over rocks.
Cuthbert stirred. “We must help them.”
“Hold still!” Craigends growled.
The enemy soon appeared: a dozen Montgomerie men-at-arms, fanning out across the valley.
Craigends swallowed. Sweat settled chill across his shoulders and back.
The beleaguered Cunninghames were spotted. One of Montgomerie’s retainers shouted out to his companions, and spurred his horse in pursuit. Splashing through the river, he headed up the sloping ground at a lumbering trot. He drew his sword and swept past, bringing one man down. The other fled, back towards the jeering pack of men that waited below.
Craigends glanced aside, unwilling to witness the slaughter. As he did so, he glimpsed something from the corner of his eye, a flash of white.
A horse approached, walking shin-deep through the river. A grey spectral beast, bloodstained and terrible.
And on its back, Montgomerie himself.
Lord Hugh halted, just twenty feet away. He was bloodied and unkempt, his unsheathed sword resting against his shoulder. He lifted his head, a wild beast scenting the air for quarry, nostrils flared, a feral light in his eyes. His steel gaze fixed on the thicket and he stared into its depths.
Craigends screwed his eyes shut, briefly, praying for a miracle. Alongside, Cuthbert bowed his head and stifled a moan.
A twig snapped, a figure moved nearby. It was the Cunninghame retainer they’d dismissed as dead: he scrambled to his feet, staggered a few steps.
Montgomerie’s head jerked round. He sat quite still, watching keenly as the wounded man tried to flee. Then he stirred. Lifting his sword, he closed in at a canter. With one lazy sweep, he hacked the man down as he passed. He didn’t look back, riding onwards through the river with spray flying from his horse’s hooves. He called to his men, and soon they were gone.
The silence returned.