Shelter

The road became a river. The rain didn’t fall, but hurled itself at the land as if it would drown it all, the village, the hill, the grave – mounds. The water rose up to my waist. Underneath it, roots tried to grab me and pull me down.

I saw an open door and I took it; A hollow tree, a shelter with enough room for most of me if I pressed my face tight against the rotting wood. 

I didn’t hear anything scuttle, or creep, over the storm.

 I didn’t hear it until it grabbed me and pulled me in.

Forest

I want to know what those ancient trees have seen. I want to know what sort of men they’ve let pass under their arms, what kind of violence those fallen leaves have quietly buried.

Well. If they care they’re keeping it to themselves.

I stamp on the back of the shovel with my boot, and dig the hole a few inches deeper, getting down into the black, wet soil. She’ll rot quick, down here.

She is wrapped in black sacks. There are five of them; I can’t remember which bits are where. I slide them all in and push the mud back over the pile.

Above me, the trees watch, and rattle their hands.

On the way back to the road I hear voices. Shouts. Barks. It’s dark already, too late for walkers, and the police wouldn’t be here,  not with their dogs, not unless they’d found her car.

There’s rope, and bin bags, and bloodied clothes, in her car.

I leave the path, stomping over the roots and the brambles as quickly as I can without tripping, followed by the crying and snorting of dogs, the buzz of walkie – talkies, the slamming of van doors. I drop the shovel and run.

It’s her car. I stride over a ditch. Nothing connects me to it, nothing of mine, no fingerprints. I wade through wet ferns. If I can get out of here and home without being seen, there’s nothing to connect me with her at all. I stamp in a puddle. I could even go to the pub. I should go to the pub. I should sit under warm lights with a beer and the laughter of old locals and the click- tap of snooker cues and forget about her and act normal.

A root catches my foot and I’m thrown to the ground.

It takes a minute to realise why I can’t get up, why the inside of my coat is damp.

I’ve been impaled on a stick. I can’t feel it yet but I can see it’s tip, peeking out just below my ribs, red flesh clinging to the splintered edge.

The dogs are running, over pathways, over mud, calling their handlers closer. I can’t do much but lie here and look up. The tree above me waves its fingers happily.

Well. Perhaps they do care, after all.

Dangerous Tales: black dog folklore in the British Isles

 

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-”

“Brock-”

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.

 

Wild hunt

Wild hunt

The clouds rest their heads and their black swollen bellies against the land. Rain falls without rhythm; it drops to the grass in one long rush. You can’t see through it until the wind comes, throws it around, and rolls the clouds over onto their backs. The tips of the trees bend and wave in greeting.

The flapping canvas on a shed roof sounds like horses charging, drumming their hooves on the chalk.

Shadows pass over the ground, and between layers of cloud. The trees shudder and the dogs run loose. Not the old farm dogs; These are hunting hounds, clawing over the low hills towards men chosen by Woden.

You might be one of them.

You might see him, riding, the host and the hounds behind him, hear the hooves on the wind, and the whip crack in the thunder, and the howl of the wild hunt.

You might try to run.

It might work for a while, or seem to, until the night comes, and in a snap of lightning you see their silhouettes against the sky, and know that it’s you they’re taking, this time, down into their own land, down into the damp and the mould and the mist, where the halls are roofed with snakes and the high beams drip with venom.

But for now, it’s just the rain.

It leaves puddles in the fields but they don’t flood. The clouds are lounging, heavy, but they don’t sink, and the air is cooler, and fresher, as if something dead has been cleared away.