By Myranda B. Kalis
Morgan MacKenna stood over the body of her uncle, Proinsas, feeling all the helpless despair of the last few days welling up inside her, a howl of rage and frustration that longed to be let free. At her feet, her aunt Maegwyn sobbed and wailed out her grief, mostly in Gaelic but with a few indecipherable words in her native Welsh thrown in to elucidate a point in her uncontrollable weeping, her round, rosy-cheeked face buried in the blue-green tartan of his soft-spun sash. Eight of their closest kinsmen gathered about the two women and the body occupying the traditional funeral bier, their mostly tall, broad-shouldered forms diminishing the lamplight to a faint yellowish gleam reflecting from the dry, hewn-stone walls of the castle sickroom. Features that were already harsh and angular seemed doubly so in the dim lighting, eyes deep-set and hard as flint under heavy eyebrows glittered with unspoken resentment and condemnation, and mouths partially obscured beneath thick mustaches, never smiling in the first place, seemed even colder, harder now. Morgan's spine stiffened under their accusatory glares, her worn nerves drawing even tighter as the checked hostility leapt between them like summer lightning, and she had to sharply rein in her tongue before she said something that she'd likely live to regret.
"Who found him, and where?" Clan MacKenna's chieftain asked, the weariness in her tone indicating she already knew what the answer would be but wanted to hear it from someone else anyway.
Padraic, one of the more outspoken MacKenna cousins, stepped forward from the throng, the dim lamplight glinting off his almost entirely steel-gray hair and mustaches, defining his craggy face in planes of harsh illumination and shadow. "Malcolm, down where the stream crosses over the falls line." There was a lengthy, measuring pause, thick with silent tension. "Just like the others...."
Morgan cut him off before he could swing into one of his inevitable diatribes, slashing a hand down at Proinsas' body and his sobbing widow. "Enough, Padraic. I'll not bandy words over the ears of the dead." She took a deep breath, catching the eyes of her younger half-brother, Angus, as he loitered in the rear of the assembly. "We will talk upstairs in the hall. Leave Maegwyn to mourn her husband in peace."
Turning on her heel, she unlatched the sickroom door, glaring coldly over her shoulder at her motionless clansmen before stalking out into the narrow, stone-lined corridor. Whether or not they chose to follow was of strictly secondary concern to summoning a priest and getting Uncle Proinsas decently buried. The castle servants, hearing the staccato beat of her boot heels on the flagstone stairs, didn't need to speculate on what rage was driving her footsteps. They scattered the instant she cleared the landing, her long, rangy strides carrying her into the center of the main hall in three steps, her long, mahogany-red hair flying with the speed of her walk, everyone that had been idling about hoping to "overhear" a row between the chieftain and the clan elders suddenly discovering unfinished business in other parts of the castle. It was one thing to listen for voices echoing through the corridors and quite another to be right in the middle of it when Morgan MacKenna gave someone what she felt was coming to them.
Morgan's gaze roamed around the wide, nearly abandoned hall and finally settled on the youngster sweeping the ashes from the flagstones before the giant fireplace. "You! Go to the village. Bring Brother Robards."
The youngster, who hadn't been ordered to do anything more vital than clean his room by anyone more important than his mother in his entire life, leapt up from his essentially grubby task, leaving his brush and scoop and running as if Morgan were chasing him with her sword. Morgan herself crossed over the mouth of the fireplace, easily twice again as long as she was tall, and concentrated on the leaping patterns of light and shadow that the flames made on the flagstones until her wrath cooled from a boil to a low simmer. It wouldn't do at all to explode like a hysterical woman, not with so much at stake and so few willing to take her part. It would take so very little provocation for the entire clan to turn utterly against her....
"Morgan," Angus' weather-roughened voice, aggravatingly gentle, as though he feared too great a shock would send her completely over the edge, almost in her ear.
Morgan's slim lips tightened into a thin line and her blue-green eyes, the same color as the sea where it met the shore, narrowed as she turned to face her kinsmen. Gathered in loose groups of three or four, usually around an elder of particularly respected standing in the clan and community, they were her friends, her family...and, in this case, her foes. Her voice, when she spoke, was as cold and hard as their expressions. "Tell me."
Brief glances flickered among them, a silent delegation of speaking rights, and Padraic stepped forward once again to do verbal battle with his chief. "He called in from perimeter watch that all was well at midnight--nothing moving but the wind in the heather. By first light, there had been no more word from him and we sent out a search party to try and find him, hoping he'd just found a warm hollow to shelter in and fallen asleep. Young Malcolm stumbled over him as he went to water his horse by the falls, laid out on the rocks like a blood sacrifice." A ripple of unease ran through the assembled band at this, bodies shifting and hands reflexively forming a warding sign so ancient its origins had been completely forgotten. "Those who know of such things say the bites on his legs and throat are from the jaws of a...large...hunting dog."
The corners of Morgan's mouth turned down, her hands working into fists at her sides. It was the same as the others. Always the same. Alive at midnight, dead by dawn, ripped to shreds by an animal to large to be natural. Like Jaime, her youngest cousin, so young he could barely be properly called a man, found floating face-down in the falls pool, his throat torn out by the jaws of a giant highland mastiff. Or so everyone knowledgeable on the subject of animal bites said, for there were no tracks to indicate such had happened, no tracks at all but for those of Jaime and his horse. Like Ariane, the most skilled of the clan's unmarried young women, fiercely proud of her skill with her finely crafted hunting bow, her eyes clawed out by the talons of a predator bird. It continued on, a litany of clansmen gone to early and unnatural graves: Elise, Ariane's sister and hardly less skilled with her arrows; Liam, their hotheaded elder brother, burning to avenge the deaths of his sisters; Miranda, whose strength and talent with a sword were so prodigious it was often remarked that perhaps she should be allowed to wear a kilt; Seumas, Miranda's half-brother and the man who had taught her everything she knew about breaking a skull with one sweep of her sword; and finally, uncle Proinsas, her father's level-headed middle brother, her own strong right arm with the clan, who had been solidly convinced--despite the superstitious rumblings of certain other clansmen--that nothing supernatural was involved in the murders of their kin.
The clansmen that were staring silently at her now, waiting for her to say something. Waiting for her to do something. Waiting for her to stumble in her weakness so that she might be replaced by someone more to their liking.
"Keep the outriders in this night, and all the folk of the keep," Morgan finally rasped, and had the cold comfort of watching their eyes widen in shock. "I will ride patrol by myself."
Morgan turned on her heel and left them gaping in surprise as she strode across the hall, shoulders squaring, her head at an angle that those who had had the pleasure of fighting with her recognized quite well. Angus finally shook off his paralysis and caught up with her as she mounted the stairs leading to the inner chambers of the hall, where she kept her rooms, catching her by the arm and spinning her around to face him. His eyes, under a vivid shock of carrot-red hair, were the same shade as her own, widened with horror rather than surprise. "In the name of God, Morgan, what do you think you're doing?!"
Morgan peeled his fingers off her arm one by one, her jaw tightening in the stubborn manner he knew all too well, her blue-green eyes narrowing to hard, angry slits. "What I should have done a long time ago, the night we found Jaime's body with the Huntsman's marks on it. I am going to end this--here and now--if it takes the last breath in my body and the last blood in my veins to do it."
"Morgan, sister-mine, you cannot go out there alone--'tis nothing less than killing yourself if you do!" Angus' tone was sharp with anguish as he followed her up the stairs.
"Better a quick death in a fight than a slow one from betrayal, my brother." Morgan's tone lowered. "You saw them back there. They all of them are ready to pitch me out of the castle to whatever is out there anyway. Better to face it upon my own terms."
"But you canna face it on your own terms!" Angus nearly shouted and firmly resisted the urge to grab his decidedly headstrong and fast-acting sibling and shake some sense back into her. "If it were a mortal enemy with whom you could parley, perhaps--but this is the Host!"
"I know." Morgan's voice softened. "But I have no choice."
The Host of the Unforgiven Dead. Even in these days it was a name to send a cold thrill of fear through the spirit of even the most courageous of warriors, a name to be whispered in dark chimney corners and sung of in dark songs, a name to make you reflexively clutch at the hilt of your sword and glance over your shoulder. Creatures of legend, some said demons, others things far older, they had haunted the mountains and forests of the north since time beyond remembering and drunk deep of the blood of heroes in the past, roaming where they willed, killing what they wished. Little, it was said, had ever stood against them and no one had ever survived an encounter with them, and all the tales said that if the blood of all their victims were pooled in one place it would be deeper than the sea and wider than the sky. Many had thought them gone, gone forever, with the coming of the Lord and the rising of the Light, banished back to whatever hell they had come from, never to plague mankind again....
Morgan paused before the door to her chamber. "Angus...bring me a bottle from the cellar."
"Morgan--" Angus' voice was soft with misery.
"Do this for me, my brother, and I swear I'll do my best to come back." Morgan smiled wryly.
"You'll do your best anyway." Angus' eyes were bleak. "I'll meet you in the hall."
Morgan nodded, stepping inside and closing the thick oaken door firmly behind her. Then and only then, with that firm barrier between her and anyone who might happen to wander by and witness the spectacle, she let herself sink down against the thick straw ticking of her bed, tears of mingled grief and rage pouring down her face as she sobbed out all the anguish and frustration that had been building inside her for the last seven days.
It had started out innocently enough, as most of the worst trouble that had ever befallen the clan usually did. A storm had blown up out of the ocean as it was wont to do with autumn coming on, turning leaves on the wind-battered highland trees to stunning shades of crimson and gold, scattering the seed tassels clinging defiantly to the stalks to tough, sweet-smelling Scottish heather to the four winds. But for Clan MacKenna, whose castle-keep clung defiantly to the jagged and craggy coast of the western highlands, autumn was a time to brace against raids by rival clans intent on pillaging what they could of the clan's wealth and burning the rest. Highland rivalries burned hot and fierce, blood feuds enduring for centuries after the actual causes had been forgotten, and over the years Clan MacKenna had garnered more than her fair share of enemies who'd slaver at the opportunity to drag them down. Not for them was the delirious rowdiness of a harvestide celebration without a care in the world; that came after the first snows were on the ground, the high passes made unnegotiable by hip-deep mud and snow and ice, and not even the most foolhardy and virulent of foes would think of mounting a late raid meant to catch them off their guard.
While most highland clans were days-deep into their harvest celebrations, with every night a feast and every day a party, Clan MacKenna's trained swords mounted foot and riding patrols that cruised the borders of their territories day and night looking for the slightest cause for alarm. During the day, at least, they were left unmolested, by their enemies if not the elements themselves, the torrential rains and their accompanying winds making border-patrol a unique and unrivaled hell.
By night, they died. Never more than one at a time, never any deeper than their outermost layer of scouts and guards. Never by axe or sword or arrow. But still they died, one each for the past seven days, until riding outer patrol was like being handed a death sentence and every time you returned alive was not a reprieve, but merely a stay of execution--because your luck would run out eventually.
The rumbles from her clansmen had begun almost immediately, rumbles having to do with Morgan's right to lead the clan, even though her father had wished it, even though her uncle had supported her, even though she was the eldest, the child of his first marriage, and even though his second had produced a son. Some of the more roundly superstitious (and hidebound, Proinsas was wont to remark), of which Padraic and his ilk were the most vocal, openly debated the logic of having a woman in charge, wondering if, perhaps, they might have given offense somewhere by not refusing to have her and elevating her half-brother to take her place instead. Agitating among them was the priest, Robards, whom had regarded Morgan with disfavor since the moment they met and whose fire-and-brimstone sermons on the sinful and wicked nature of women had no doubt put quite a few ideas in otherwise thick heads. This sudden and unexplained rash of killings, and the nearly universal belief that the Host was responsible for them, had inflamed those sentiments, even though Morgan's reign had previously been nothing but peaceful, leading them to wonder if it wasn't too late to get rid of her and make amends. The seven dead bodies lying on their funeral biers in the keep's sickroom, bodies bearing the telltale marks of the Wild Hunt--the Host of the Unforgiven Dead--and their dark Huntsman, had filled every heart with terror and thoughts of rebellion.
You'll not be rid of me that easily, Morgan thought angrily, wiping ineffectually at her face with the coarsely woven sleeve of her shirt, angry at her tears, angry at her weakness, angry that she was entertaining the notion that they might be right--that Angus might make a better chieftain than she. If I die tonight I'll die fighting...not cowering behind the walls of this keep like a frightened child, blaming others for not stopping the unstoppable.
Morgan pushed to her feet, stripping off her clothes and tossing them negligently onto her bed, pouring a bowl of water from the pitcher on the table, oblivious to the chill as she washed herself down with a handy cloth. Twenty-five years of life lay lightly on her, five of which had been spent leading Clan MacKenna following the untimely deaths of her father and her stepmother, her tall, lithe body slender and powerfully muscled, lined here and there with old scars from fights and training both. Dark, mahogany red hair fell past her shoulders in heavy waves, green-blue eyes danced in a face that was at once handsome and severe, not frequently touched by either smiles or laughter. Her hair she braided back from her face, weaving in strips of black-dyed leather hung with the russet feathers of her father's favorite hunting falcon, dressing simply for what was certain to be a rather trying night. A simple white bell-sleeved shirt with a black over-tunic, baggy pants tucked into knee-high black leather boots, her sword belt adorning a slender waist, the hilt of her long sword bouncing low on her hip to match the thick-handled highland dagger riding high. Her sash went over one shoulder, worked in the clan colors of blue and green on black shot through with gold, woven in the distinctive pattern of the clan tartan and pinned with a silver and garnet brooch that had belonged to her late mother. Her thick, black traveling cloak went on almost as an afterthought as she left the room, striding back down the stairs with speed and just enough racket to let them know she was coming.
Angus was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, a dust-coated clay bottle of wine in his hands, which she accepted with a slight smile and a kiss for his cheek. The news that the chieftain was riding out alone tonight had made the rounds at a rather good clip, most of the clansfolk that lived in the keep itself milling about the main hall. Padraic and his supporters were standing by the fireplace, conferring in low tones with the robed and cowled Brother Robards, just come from the village and looking none too pleased with the summons he had received. Morgan nodded curtly to Robards who returned it along with an oily smile of his own, then turned to Padraic. "I am going out. If I have not returned by morning, Angus is chief."
Without waiting for a response she turned and walked from the hall, Angus following to help saddle her horse, pressing a knot of red, black, and silver string into her hands as he wished her farewell and good luck. Their embrace lasted longer than was strictly necessary, and, once it was done, Morgan rode out without another word or a single backwards glance--neither was needed--to face whatever waited in the gathering darkness.
The land beyond the keep was among some of the wildest in the entire highlands of Scotland, ridges of thin soil overlying the straining granite bones of the earth in not-so-gentle swells and ridges, spurs of grey-green rock occasionally breaking through the fragile skin of grass and heather covering them. Streams frequently ran through the lower parts of the rock-lined dells, shallow and swift-moving, chilled with the cold of melting snows and storms that blew up a bare five hundred miles south of the arctic circle. Trees that grew here were gnarled and stunted from the almost ceaseless wind, never coming close to their true stature, providing little or no protection from the elements for anyone luckless enough to be stranded in the mountains during a blow. It was a hard land, as hard as the people that lived in it, but sturdy as well, and with luck and perseverance one could make a fairly decent life there.
It was to this backside of her people's territory that Morgan rode, pressing her war-trained mare hard to beat the darkness into the hills, planning to be in position well before sunset. A fairly wide and deep stream marked the northern boundary of Clan MacKenna's holdings, wending its way along a sheer granite outcropping that stubbornly refused to give before the endless flow of the water, the brook curving away southward through more obliging territory before it hit the falls line six miles east of the castle. There was where all the bodies had been found, with no marks about them to indicate the signs of a struggle, demonstrating to Morgan at least that they must have drifted down from upstream and been washed over the falls.
Morgan dismounted in the smooth pivot of a woman that had been born on a horse, lichen-crusted granite grinding beneath her boot heels as she lowered herself down onto the outcropping. Her horse rolled an eye at her as though to protest this course of action, Morgan ignoring the beast and removing both the wine bottle and a piece of sugared apple from the saddlebags, giving the big, raw-boned warhorse what was likely to be its last treat from her hands. Then she slapped the creature smartly on the hindquarters, sending it galloping back to the keep, hopefully to be found by her clansmen in the morning. With any sense they'd listen to her orders and keep themselves safely inside, where they could not be hurt by the night's business.
Sunset was largely covered by the cloud wrack that had shrouded the northern highlands since the beginning of the week, occasional streamers of pale, crimson sunlight glinting through the ominously darkened clouds, promising rain either in the night or early the next morning. Morgan inhaled deeply, drawing in the scent of air wet with breezes from the sea, savoring the taste a last time. The wind started up again as well, a high, banshee ululation roaring along the heights as she stood waiting, pulling her cloak close about her to ward off the worst of the chill, enjoying the rough, wild sting of it against her cheeks and brow as it lifted her hair about her, the mist rising and the night closing in with dark and icy fingers. One by one the last feeble rays of the sunlight vanished behind the waters of the ocean, the dells and mountain valleys filling with the darkness of the waiting autumn night.
For a long moment after true night fell, nothing at all happened. Morgan stood alone on the giant granite outcropping, listening to the wind shriek and howl like the cry of a grief-crazed bean-sidhe, beginning to feel more than a little foolish and wishing she hadn't been so hasty about sending her horse back. Then the shadows began to twist and writhe with a life all their own, half-articulated figures forming in the murky half-light, spindly wraiths that might have once been human beings curling up out of the unhallowed ground that had swallowed their mortal husks and condemned them to an eternity of wandering without surcease, their voices raised in an eerie, voiceless wail of lamentation. Intermingling with them came far more graceful, far more solid figures--figures bearing bows and quivers, axes and staves, long, wickedly barbed spears and cruelly notched swords--tall and lithe, hugely powerful and stocky, small and sinuous as snakes, eyes glowing crimson and violet and silver and green in the darkness, their motions flowing fluidly one into another so swiftly it was all Morgan could do to distinguish them all.
The Host of the Unforgiven Dead.
Wings pounded the air from above, those hunters who wore the thickly padded hunting gauntlets and jesses stretching up their arms for their avian familiars to find perches, the deeply curved talons of Unseelie hunting falcons digging comfortably into the leather as they settled for a night of roaming. Sulfur-golden eyes flashed and the sound of paws pounding the heather could be heard, dogs that appeared to be part coursing hound and part serpent slithering about the legs of their masters, bowing their massively jawed heads to be firmly taken at the end of a tether.
A horse snorted, so close Morgan could feel the heat of its breath, smell the stench of sulfur that clung to it. Scarlet eyes regarded her from beneath the elaborately carved horns of a steel face-guard, the black hunting horse prancing lightly in place not ten paces away, its steel-shod hooves striking sparks from the granite. The black figure seated in its saddle took the reins more firmly in hand, gently pulling his high-spirited mount back into line before it could stir up the giant Unseelie hunting falcon clinging to the gauntlet wrapped protectively about his free arm. His face was invisible in the depths of his cowl, but vivid violet eyes edged with matching degrees of cruelty and amusement played idly over the watching Morgan, the minimal light flashing off the silver-and-violet tracery covering his night-black armor and clothing every time the horse moved. His saddle bristled with all those tools an experienced hunter needed for his work: a serrated boar-spear, specially designed to bring down much larger prey; a deeply curved hunting bow, sheathed at the pommel of his saddle with a quiver of black-fletched arrows; the death's head pommel of a strangely hilted long sword, the black metal still flecked with bits of dried blood from the last time it had been used for a merciful final stroke.