This was when I started making stuff up.
Jennie was one of the odder contacts from my local paper days. She sat across from me with a lemonade, in jeans and a tweed jacket, her perm moussed and pinned back, a few wispy curls escaping above her ears. She looked like a headmistress. She looked normal.
“So…” I said, scratching at the stubble on my chin, “It was actually seen in here?”
Brock, the other druid she’d brought, sipped his pint, and wiped the foam from his beard. “It’s been hanging around last few weeks,” he said. “Looks just like a Labrador. Old Uther said he saw it down in the avenue, down at the lay-by.”
“It’s not here,” said Jennie quietly, her eyes closed, her hand hovering over her glass. “It’s been here, recently.”
Great, I thought. That’ll make a great podcast; oh there was a thing, but it left. Don’t miss next week’s episode.
“But it was seen somewhere else?”
Brock shrugged. “‘Down the road there. I’m not really up for the walk, Jennie’ll arrange something for next week if you want.”
“Um. It’s just that next week’s very busy…” I would be spending most of it trying to think of ideas. As much as I wanted to stay in the pub, in the warm, I needed the druids for a little inspiration. I should at least get to see them do their thing if I was going to write about it.
Jennie opened her eyes. “Actually I think we should go down there, try and do it today, even if we just make an offering or something, see what it wants. It’s been frightening people all month.” She turned to Brock. “Have you got mead in your car?”
He grinned. “I’ve got mead, I’ve got the horn, I’m game if you are. We’ll have to walk slow though, this weather makes me wheezy as all hell.”
He wasn’t joking; the man kept an actual horn in his car boot. It looked like it had been hacked from a mammoth, with wonky knotwork designs burnt into the rim. With the pint he’d smuggled out in one hand, and the horn lifted in the other, he led the way, huffing through his cheeks as he walked, spilling mead over his biker jacket.
As soon as we crossed the road and got onto the path I started to wish we’d stayed in the pub. I should have said something. I stumbled over the uneven ground in a cheap suit that was sucking mud up the trouser legs and prayed it wouldn’t rain.
The clouds were a thick, grey ceiling on the sky. The standing stones reached up from the earth like a row of broken teeth, and my own began to rattle in the cold.
I stopped. There at the bottom of the hill, right where Brock was leading us, two red eyes, unblinking, swerved through the fog. I took a step back. There was a second where I couldn’t breath. It was real. The black dog. It was real, and at the speed those pupils were growing, it must have been charging up the path to meet us.
Jennie stopped, her stilettos sinking in the mud. “Are you alright? Can you sense anything?’
The eyes of the hound came round a corner, and turned into two cyclists, one in front of the other, red reflectors blinking. They passed us without turning into the devil’s own dogs or anything else supernatural, and I tried not to feel disappointed.
“Um. No?” I replied, “should I be?”
She shook her head, so I tried to smile and kept my head down as if I was afraid to trip. We carried on, walking into the dark, following the sound of Brock’s boots and the thin beam of white light from Jennie’s phone.
The standing stones watched us as we passed. I kept looking up and wondering who could be walking out there in the dark, or waiting, still, in the field, and then I’d realise, feeling stupid again, that it was just one more of those ancient rocks.
There was nobody around but the stones and their shadows.
We reached the bottom of the avenue. Brock propped the horn and his empty glass up against the square bulk of a stone. Jennie pointed her phone down at the grass, picking up little twigs and bits of flint and laying them in a rough circle.
I set up the camera on my phone and aimed it at the circle, figuring I could always Photoshop something more interesting in later, maybe a vague dog- shape behind the stone or something. I took out my pencil and notepad. It would have been easier in the dark to type the notes on my phone, but I pretended to write anyway; I wanted to look like a real journalist, in case something happened.
Brock poured mead on the ground around the circle, and stood opposite the stone.
“Right,” he said. “We invite all spirits of land, sea and sky, to join us in the cleansing of this place.” He raised the horn above his head.
Behind him, on the line where the night was closing in on the blackened hill, I saw a Labrador.
Big, crouched against the earth as if it was hunting, it’s edges smudged with fog, it came closer. The breath in my lungs chilled.
“We invite the ancestors and the spirits of this place,” Brock went on, “We invite the great mother and the green-”
Jennie waved her hand at him. I didn’t know if she could see the thing. I watched it creep behind a hedge and disappear.
Brock grumbled back, “What?”
Her eyes were closed again, the white torch-light reflecting off her eyelids, making her face look old and pale.
“It’s the stone. It’s angry about something, unhappy, it doesn’t want us to be here. Honestly, I really feel like we should go.”
He lowered the horn and puffed his cheeks. “Oh. Oh well. Explains why I feel like shit warmed up then.”
I tried to follow what was happening and watch the line of the hedge at the same time, trying to see if the dog had an owner, or if it had joined another path somewhere along the hill. I tapped my phone against my thigh, checked again for some kind of signal, switched the torch on to try and help. The druids were hastily kicking their stick-and-stone circle apart, trying to turn it back into harmless rubbish.
“I’ll do an offering to it and then we’ll bugger off.” Brock coughed, lifted the horn again, and stiffened. His eyes were wide and red and fixed on the hill. Something about the way his arm shook made my own hands tremble.
The horn hit the grass with a thump, and mead bled into the mud.
Jennie rushed over and shook his collapsed body as it lay at the foot of the stone like a speared pig, but I could see his open and staring eyes from where I stood.
No amount of shaking was going to do any good.
I thought I saw it again, as I drove home, thought I saw it lurking behind the ambulance parked in the lay-by, a dog-like shape blurred in the wheeling blue lights, but I couldn’t be sure.
They said it was a heart attack. When I wrote it up, I claimed that the black dog had been a bad omen.
That was my first story.