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The Beast of Glenmara by Newton Webb
A Cosmic Horror Short Story: Family loyalty and humanity collide when Elspeth learns the horrifying truth of her heritage.
Wrapped in a heavy woollen cloak, Elspeth huddled within the prickly concealment of the heather. The world was a palette of slate grey and bruised purple, an endless vista of brooding cloud and gnarled scrub, rippling in the ceaseless howling of the Outer Hebrides winds. Her leather mask, with its two eyeholes, limited her vision and obscured her face, concealing her deformities. Her mismatched eyes, one small, milky, and shrivelled, the other large with a jet black iris, stared intensely at the couple. She longed for the warmth that they shared, a defiance against the cold, salty air.
A short, stocky lad, his face lined with laughter and graced by a thick beard, lay in the moss holding a girl in a laced-up woollen gown. Their bodies curled around each other, sharing whispered words and tender kisses. His voice was low and deep as he sang bawdy songs to her, and the girl giggled.
Elspeth's heart ached at the sight. She yearned to feel the sensation of touch, to hear words of love whispered in her ear, to exist beyond the leather confines of her mask. Yet she was a phantom, unseen and untouched, an observer. Caught up in the moment, she hummed along in time to the songs, wanting to share in the connection between the two lovers.
The man's eyes flickered. His gaze found Elspeth's hideaway. With a growl, he disentangled himself from the woman, rising to his full height. Fear, sharp and swift, propelled her to her feet, and she fled. Her cloak snapping around her.
"If you weren't the laird's daughter," he snarled, his voice roughened by disgust and hatred, "I'd thrash you. Be off with you, beast!"
Elspeth stumbled away, her heartbeat pounding in rhythm with the desolate wind. Her breath echoed loudly in her ears, confined behind the mask. Behind the leather mask was a girl, the laird's daughter, but to all who saw her, she was the beast of Glenmara.
The sound of tinkling cow bells pierced Elspeth's sorrow. The ceaseless cries of the gulls and the ever-present moan of the sea threatened to drown out the delicate noise, but on recognising them, she lifted her head, a smile emerging beneath her mask. It was Fergus, the cattle trader who brought fresh beasts for the MacCulloch herd each month. Striding behind his herd, he made his way over to where she lay crumpled against the stone wall lining the path.
"Och, lassie," he said, stooping down to her side. "What's got you in a state?"
Elspeth, her tears hidden behind her mask, replied, "I'm all right. Dinnae worry yourself over me."
Fergus huffed a soft laugh. "Worry about you? Lass, I've had me fair share of worries in my time. A calf born breech. A coo that wouldnae yield her milk. A bull with a temper as sour as green apples." He offered a calloused hand to her. "But you, Elspeth, are no cause for concern."
Elspeth lifted her masked face, her large black eye staring up at him through her tears. "The villagers call me a beast," she whispered. "Because I look different."
Fergus smirked, his eyes crinkling under the thatch of his reddish-brown hair. He pointed towards his herd of shaggy Highland cattle, grazing nonchalantly under the indifferent gaze of the seagulls. "I ken beasts, lass. I live with them, eat with them, sleep with them. I know them as well as I know me own skin. Every soul looks different. But let's see now, lass." He stroked her hair softly, feeling for any hidden horns. "No horns." He looked down and frowned. "Two legs? That's not nearly enough. And," he offered his hand a second time, "a heart of gold. That settles it, anyone who calls you a beast deserves a swift skelp."
She accepted his hand and he hoisted her to her feet. Looking up at him, she asked, "How can you be so sure? Can beasts not have two legs?"
Fergus glanced back at his cattle. "Sure they can, but they won't sell well. They'll be falling over all the time." He gazed at her, his hair whipped by the strong island winds. "Now then, my wee lassie, we'll hear no more nonsense about you being a beastie."
Her tears slowed, and she even managed a chuckle as she sniffed. "How about you show me where me friends go? They've had a rough day. I dinnae think any of them enjoyed our wee trip here in the boat. Too many legs to be sailors. Maybe you could be a sailor when you're older?" Fergus moved to the back of his small herd. "Would you care to join me, lassie? I'll sing you a song about a pirate queen."
Elspeth took up a position at his side and pointed down the path towards the gate. Fergus shook a coloured rattle and watched as the herd trundled forward. With his stick, he lightly tapped a hesitant cow and she lowed reproachfully before joining the rest. As the herd moved, he sang low and soft about a Viking shield maiden who raided the coasts of Scotland.
Elspeth had known Fergus for most of her life; he was the only person who made her laugh. Whereas others had always avoided her or insulted her, Fergus had never been put off by the mask.
When they approached the gate to the paddock, which Fergus's cattle were destined to replenish, her gaze instinctively moved to the tower. The stony stare of her grandmother, Morag, pierced through her, her eyes focused chillingly on Fergus. A tremor of apprehension reverberated in Elspeth's chest and her good humour dissipated.
The keep's stone courtyard was a cold, lonely place, where the moon shone palely on the cobblestones, cast long, dark shadows. A stone pen stood to the side, against the formidable structure. The keep, under the ghostly luminescence, loomed over Elspeth as she led a nervous cow. The creature's low moos reverberated through the eerie silence. She calmed it with soothing sounds.
With a gentle nudge, she coaxed the cow onto the slab within the pen and released the weathered leather halter. Turning her back on the animal, she pulled a heavy iron lever. A muffled thud echoed through the courtyard as a trapdoor beneath the cow swung open, the sudden void swallowing the animal whole.
The cow's terrified cries cut through the night as it fell into the basement below. The sickening crunch of breaking bones filled the courtyard. As familiar as the sound was, it was so grotesque that it made Elspeth's stomach churn.
She quickly turned the large wooden wheel that controlled the trapdoor. As the door shuddered back into place, she could hear the dreadful sounds of gnashing and tearing echoing from the basement. A monstrous growl, deep and primal, resonated up from the bowels of the keep, and she hurried away from it.
The stone keep was shrouded in shadows, the feeble, flickering flames of the fireplace casting dancing shapes on the ancient walls. Thick tapestries depicted battles long past and seascapes with churning waves. The air was heavy, scented with the dampness of old stone, wax from the guttering candles, and the acrid smoke from the hearth.
Elspeth, her back bent from the weight of the large pot she carried, made her way to the long wooden table. Her shadow, monstrous and deformed, stretched and shrank across the uneven floor, merging with the other twisted creatures birthed by the gloom. She set down the pot with a soft thud, the aroma of beef, barley, and root vegetables wafting up in a steamy haze.
At the table's head sat her grandmother, Morag, her eyes sharp and cold, glowing faintly in the guttering candlelight. Her hands, bony and covered in liver spots, clutched the armrests of her chair like talons. She watched Elspeth through narrowed eyes, her mouth set in a grim line. Beside her sat Elspeth's father, the laird, Alastair, his milky white eyes staring blankly ahead, his face as unreadable as ever.
"Seventeen," Morag's voice cut through the thick silence, her tone icy. "You and your sister are ripe to bear bairns."
Elspeth, ladling the soup into Alastair's bowl, didn't speak, her eyes widened under her mask and her heart beat rapidly. She pretended to ignore the insinuation in her grandmother's words, focusing her attention on feeding her father. His albino skin appeared ghostly under the dim light, and he made no movement or sound as she gently guided the spoon to his lips.
Despite the heat from the soup, a chill crept up Elspeth's spine as she fed Alastair. She glanced back at her grandmother, who continued to watch her with predatory intent. "That cattle trader, Fergus. He seems strong."
Elspeth stopped, her breath catching in her throat as hope swelled in her heart. "He's so kind, his arms are big and his beard's wonderful and bushy. But he has a wife, a family."
"None of that will matter during the ritual. Your father protested at first too, but nobody can resist the smoke. Invite him to supper on his next visit." Morag poked at her bowl.
Alastair grunted angrily and Elspeth realised she had been frozen in place, holding the spoon of soup in front of his face. She forced herself to continue feeding him. "Whatever do you mean, grandmother?"
Morag slurped a spoonful of the thick soup. "The red smoke, the druids stopped travel from other realms to ours, but the Fomorians are wise in the old ways. They can send their souls here to wear a body like we'd wear a set of clothes. Your sister has stronger blood, her heirs will be stronger still."
"My sister? No' me?" Grief, marred with jealousy, made Elspeth feel faint. "Why Morven?"
"You have too much humanity in you. Your sister's a better match," Morag said spitefully. "I could see you making eyes at Fergus. I trust you'll do your duty for your family."
"Did the red smoke do this to Father?" Elspeth looked at the shattered husk of a man, his hair, skin, mind, all drained of life.
Morag nodded. "He was strong. He survived long enough for the red smoke to possess him and breed with your mother. Of course, he was never the same. But a pureblood Fomorian will have the power to heal him, to heal all of us. Life eternal."
"Is that why I look like this?" Elspeth put down the spoon.
"You had powerful parents, your looks are a blessing." Morag sucked at a piece of beef in her teeth. "You will do the right thing, won't you?"
Elspeth bowed her head, she turned towards the exit, then towards Morag, and then the exit again. She thought of Fergus, breathing in the smoke and becoming a shell of himself. Losing that laugh, losing that smile, his big strong arms turning loose and skeletal. She turned a final time, looking at her grandmother. "I will... I'll do the right thing." Plucking a knife from the table, she dashed forward and stabbed Morag in the chest, then the throat. Morag gurgled, her eyes looking at Elspeth with a hell-born fury.
Her father rose and wailed, slamming both his fists on the table. Elspeth looked at him with regret and walked over to him, still holding the knife. "Father, please sit down, I had to... I had to do the right thing."
Alastair howled and then struck Elspeth in the face. She fell back onto the floor, more from shock than the strength of his attack. His legs gave out underneath him, the strength given to him by rage exhausted. Under the table, she made eye contact with him as he gazed at her with pure, unadulterated hatred. As she looked at him, she imagined the same fate befalling Fergus, a man with such strength of character, enfeebled.
"Father, I canna stay here any more." She climbed to her knees and then rose, approaching her father. "I'm sorry, you deserved better."
His hand reached out and clawed at her ankle, his grip was wiry, his nails cut into her skin. "Goodbye, father." The knife slashed down.
Elspeth sat in the corner of the room, gazing at her father's corpse. For the first time, since she had known him, he looked at peace. Morag's corpse, however, even in death, gazed at her with a baleful look of pure hatred. Slowly, she rose, she gently closed Morag's eyelids and then, finding her feet, dragged her towards the stone pen. The wind was howling around the tower, the salty air and lashing rain bit at her eyes. She squinted as she dragged the stick thin, old lady. Her grandmother's body was as heavy as a sack of rocks. Elspeth was out of breath as she pulled the lever. When the body fell down into the pit, the usual snarling sounds and gnashing of teeth were replaced by a long, mournful howl.
"I had to dae it! I had to!" Elspeth cried out as she wound the wheel to close the trapdoor. "Please understand. I couldnae let her hurt poor Fergus, he's a good man."
A long growl echoed from the trapdoor as it closed and, eyes full of tears, Elspeth ran to get her father's corpse. Her sister, Morven, had never met Fergus, she couldn't possibly understand.
Her father seemed easier to move despite his size. As she dragged him onto the platform, she pulled the lever. The moment the trapdoor opened and the body fell, a large, hairy form leapt up, dragging broken chains behind it.
"FER--GUS," it bellowed. Its long hair-covered legs loping towards the fishing village in the bay. "FER--GUS!"
Elspeth wailed, "Stop, sister! He's a good man." As her sister's form started to dwindle into the night, she gave chase.
Elspeth's feet pounded against the stony path. Her heart thudded in her chest as she dashed through the moonlight night, after the monstrous form of her sister. The wind howled around them, cutting through her clothing like icy daggers. The rolling moorlands gave way to the fishing village, a cluster of stone cottages nestled against the rugged cliffs, the scent of salt and fish heavy in the air.
Ahead, the fishing village was stirring. A dog began to bark, followed by a chorus of others. Doors slammed open, faces peered out, squinting against the gusts of wind.
The monstrous form of her sister was unmistakable, even in the darkness. She was a grotesque shadow under the moon's pale light, her one large eye gleaming with a wild, unholy shine, her small withered eye hidden under a mop of unkempt hair. Her small horns glinted, an unsettling contrast to the softness of her hair.
"No! Stop!" Elspeth yelled, her voice barely carrying over the howling winds. She was too far behind, too slow compared to her sister's bounding stride.
She had lost sight of her sister by the time she made it to the village, but it wasn't hard to track her. Bodies littered the streets, doors were smashed in and a fire had started.
Exhausted, she put on a final burst of speed. Fergus was running, Morven savagely pursuing him as he slipped between buildings.
"Come on then, if you want me, come and get me." Fergu challenged as he led her away from the village.
Elspeth ran after them, the path winding as Fergus fled towards the outskirts of the village, heading uphill.
Even with his head start, Fergus couldn't outrun Morven forever. Ducking between the stone huts, he avoided her clumsy charges. Elspeth could see him dancing between the thick clumps of foliage towards the cliff face. Morven had slowed, seeing her quarry trapped.
"FER-GUS," Morven bellowed.
Fergus was standing on the edge of the cliff face.
He is sacrificing himself for his family, for the village.
Elspeth was near the end of her energy, but she powered forwards.
My family did this. It is our responsibility. We are all beasts.
Fergus spotted Elspeth and shook his head. "Stay back," he shouted.
Morven charged directly at Fergus who braced himself, pulling a knife from his sock.
Elspeth collided into Morven, the two of them flew into the cool, night air. Elspeth screamed as they fell. Her body crashed into the roiling silver waves. As she rose gasping for air, the salt burned her skin and smoke rose from it as she screamed in agony. Next to her, her sister screeched, a high pitched sound that seemed incongruous with her bestial form. She swam forwards, the water felt like acid against her skin as she reached her sister and held her in her arms.
Together they slipped beneath the waves, in a tight embrace.
If you enjoyed this free short story, then please consider Tales of the Macabre, Vol. 1. My first collected works on Amazon containing sixteen short stories and novellas by Newton Webb.