The Banshee of Castle Muirn
Scottish Highlands 1638
“Not wise. Not wise at all, Alasdair Dubh. We shouldn’t be here.” The old man scanned the crowd and the wide bay round them.
“I see no danger at all.” Alasdair saw people of all ages, but most youths and children stood close to the water while the older adults sat on blankets talking quietly. Alasdair could still see faces clearly even though it was close to midnight on the longest day of the year, the feast of Saint John. He saw girls playing a counting game. The girls laughed and squealed, but the adults nearby hushed them.
“It’s what I can’t see worries me.” Ruari had been his tutor and had followed him as a soldier to the Low Countries to fight for Spain.
Alasdair pressed his lips together. Ruari was cautious and that’s why he’d reached a great age. Better to pay attention. “What do you mean?”
“No fighting men.”
Alasdair looked for men of his own age, but could see nothing but women, children and old men. “So the rumour is true. The younger men are all away in the south.”
“Or waiting for us in the trees or behind the church wall.”
“If they are truly away, we may have a chance to bring our cattle through at little cost for each beast.” Maybe this was a mad foray into enemy territory, and maybe it wasn’t. “If we pass through Campbell country, we save twenty days of sea travel or a longer journey by road.”
The crowd talked in low voices and people hunched down as they went from group to group. As if something large and predatory were about to come out of the sea.
“We could have stayed safe at home.” Ruari used the voice of instruction Alasdair knew from his youth.
He did not look at the older man. “And we’ll see another starving year. I’d rather do something about that. And if you’re here at my back, so do you.”
“Most of the time, Alasdair Dubh. They don’t look happy.” The other man shook his head and said no more. From all directions, hosts of people crept slowly to the white shore of the Tràigh Bhàn. Alasdair and his tutor stood on a ridge of sand, built up by centuries of coastal tides.
Two rocky headlands defined the curve of sand beach, with the graveyard on the east side and the castle in the west. The wind strengthened and the waves drowned the speech of the crowd closest to the water.
At midsummer the sun, a disk of red crystal, hung low in the western sky, softening the hills to the curve of a woman’s back, the marram grass waving like the fringe of her mantle. The midsummer festival was the best time for the MacDonalds to come among the Campbells, when they would neither expect nor give injury. Twilight on the longest day of the year.
Nothing would happen. He drew a long breath to calm himself.
A file of women approached from the village and parted the crowd. The leader, her grey-streaked hair loose on her shoulders, processed to the sea, followed by young women. They wore what women wear: a linen shift, red wool gown and the earasaid, a wool mantle of three loom-widths. But their belts and brooches glinted with precious stones while most of the women wore a simple pin and a plain belt over their earasaid. Two women carried cloth-wrapped bundles.
A light-headed cousin had tried to persuade him that the Campbells might look like ordinary people, but they shape-shifted into black boars with bloody tusks at the full of the moon. Few MacDonalds were willing to believe they were that accursed. Alasdair had fought in the Wars of Flanders, and in his opinion men were much alike and the good ones weren’t all on one side, so it was unlikely that the Campbells had horns, tusks or tails. Despite that, Ruari was one of only five men to join him on his quest.
They’d left their claymores with the other members of their band, who waited beyond the western headland. He and Ruari had come to the shore without heather badges in their bonnets, which would identify them as MacDonalds even in poor light. If Alasdair lost his life, the four men and six boys who waited beyond the headland could do nothing but avenge his death.
Alasdair half expected the Campbell men near him to shout “To arms!” as though they could recognize MacDonalds from their shape or scent. To his surprise, people nodded and praised the day. Of course. He passed for a Campbell gentleman because of the fine stuff of the féileadh wrapped round him, his carved belt and jewelled brooch. He stood straight in his supple shoes, while many went barefoot on the warm sand. He was indeed a gentleman, although he didn’t have a title from the king like a few of the Campbell gentry. Still, he was a MacDonald, descended from the kings of Ireland, while the Campbells were a people arrived yesterday from nowhere. Or so the elders said.
“Eistibh! Listen!” A woman put her finger across her mouth. Others repeated the gesture till all were silent.
“They’re starting!” A man’s voice. “Finally.”
The woman wrapped her arms around her chest. “High time. What a dark thing it was for the banshee to cry the evening before the midsummer festival. However beautiful her song, she brings sorrow.” She addressed Alasdair. “At least you know she didn’t lament for you. You won’t die. You’re not from this glen.”
Several people hushed her.
“No. I’m sorry for your trouble.” Mac an Donais! Damn! He hadn’t chosen a good time to come through Campbell country after all. He had bought cattle with the money he’d earned in the Spanish wars. He’d get a good price for them in the Lowland cattle markets, but Campbell country was between himself and his goal. That or a chancy sea journey.
“We don’t yet know who among us must prepare to bury a loved one.” The woman shivered and blessed herself.
“Will you not listen?” The man placed his arm on the woman’s shoulder. They must be a married couple.
“You’re welcome here, stranger. But it’s a sad time when it should be happy.” She said that pleasantly, then glowered at her husband.
“Thank you. Perhaps the ritual will bring fortune for the rest of the year.” Fond hope. The spirits of the place were angry at something. The MacDonalds had been luckless for over a hundred years and didn’t need more bad times.
The Campbells looked like his own people in their bonnets and féilidhean, and they sounded the same, most kindly, a few impatient. It was easy to pity them the loss to come.
When the crowd surged forward behind the celebrants, Alasdair and his tutor followed. The grey-haired leader raised her arm, and the crowd made room for her at the water’s edge. She stepped up on a flat rock while the six young women made a line. One of them stooped, then held out a tall silver cup to her elder. Alasdair caught his breath. While the old one poured ale, the beautiful one stared in his direction, her face golden and her hair white-blond in the light of the red sun. She might notice him, a head above most men, as she surveyed the crowd. Unlikely. She’d be too busy with the ritual. The wind blew tendrils of hair across her face; she pushed them back and faced the water.
A Dhia. Dear God.
Who was this fairy queen at the mouth of the sea? A sìtheach must have used shape magic to transform her from a swan or a mermaid. She must be a Campbell woman, so there was no question of befriending her … or anything more. That would not go down well with the Campbells or his own people. But he wanted to see her again. Studying her lovely form wouldn’t hurt anyone, and it would make him very happy indeed. When the crowd shifted, he made his way through.