Well of the Dead
This is an excerpt taken from a chapter In DARK BIRTHRIGHT
“A MAGICAL TIME”
WHINNYFOLD, SCOTLAND ~ OCTOBER 31, 1635
The bay of Whinnyfold glistened in the moonlight. Waves swelled and pounded the sandy shore. Dughall threw a bundle of heather on the fire and watched purple sparks float into the air.
Ian pointed. “Look. The bonfires stretch clear to Collieston.”
Dughall warmed his hands in his pockets. “Aye. I love the day of the dead. Aunt Maggie says it’s the day when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest.”
Ian snorted. “Hmmphhh… We don’t know anyone who’s dead.”
Dughall shivered. “Good thing.”
“I liked it better when we went guising, begging for apples and causing mischief.”
“Father didn’t like it.”
The wind whipped hair around their faces. “The fire’s dying. Let’s place the stones.” Dughall was solemn as he took out three flat stones. He crouched and planted one in the ashes. “Father’s stone is the largest.” He moved around the circle and placed another. “Mother’s is the bonny pink one.” The third stone was lovingly buried in ashes. “Aunt Maggie’s. May we have her with us another year.”
“That stone will be gone tomorrow.”
“Well, she’s awfully old. She could die.”
“Let’s hope not.”
Ian crouched and planted two red stones next to each other. “You and I. Brothers always.”
Dughall brushed sand from his breeks. “Let’s ask Aunt Maggie to tell the story.”
“About the well of the dead?”
“Father won’t like it.”
“We turned sixteen today. We’re grown men. I can tell a story from the truth.”
Ian snickered. “Well, it’s about time.”
They stood at Maggie’s door and knocked. There was a sound inside, and the door opened slowly. The old woman stood with a basket of apples in her hand. “Ach! I thought ye were rascals come guising to do mischief.”
Dughall smiled. “Nay, Aunt Maggie. We’ve had the bonfire and placed the stones.”
“Ye put one out for me?”
“I guess I can live another year.”
Maggie stared. “Don’t pout, lad. It’s the day of the dead. Ye should be haunting the moors. What do ye want with an old woman?”
Ian took an apple from her basket. “Dughall wants to hear the story again.”
“About the well of the dead?”
Maggie grinned. She put down the basket, took her shawl from a peg, and pulled it around her shoulders. She stepped outside and closed the door.
Dughall’s eyes shone with anticipation.
Maggie drew the end of her shawl across her face and pointed at the moon. “The night was as black as a raven. It was late October and the moon was full. I don’t remember what woke me. It could have been a voice in my head.”
“Are ye afraid, lad?”
“Ye should be.”
Dughall’s eyes widened. “Tell us, Aunt Maggie.”
“I slipped out of bed quietly, leaving James alone, and dressed warm. Somehow I knew I’d go far that night.”
“How old were ye?”
“Seventeen I think, and just married. Let’s walk to the point.”
They walked the path through a row of cottages and followed a narrow stream. Dried heather and wildflowers rattled in the wind. When they reached the point overlooking the Skares, Maggie gathered her skirts and sat, patting the ground. “Sit down, lads.” They sat on either side of her. “I sat in this place feeling the wind lift my hair, and wondered about the souls of the dead. So many had perished on the rocks that year. Young Ewan Quinlan had been tossed in the drink, only to swim to shore. His father Andrew jumped in after him and was bashed on a rock, leaving his arm useless. He disappeared under the waves. Then six men from Peterhead tried to put ashore in a storm and drowned when their scaffie hit the Skares.”
“What about that young mother?”
“I almost forgot. Mary Cormoch threw herself off the point after she lost a baby. I thought of those eight as I stared out to sea.” A cloud drifted across the moon, darkening the night sky. The old woman paused to admire it.
“What happened, Aunt Maggie?”
“The sea grass and clover was soft underneath me, and I nearly fell asleep. I closed my eyes, and opened them to a wondrous scene.” The cloud drifted past, allowing yellow moonlight to flood the beach. She pointed at the shore. “Near the Caudman I saw a figure crawl out of the water. At first I thought it was a seal, so I stood to get a better look. What looked like fur became a dress, soaked with seaweed. A hand reached out and steadied itself, and a head lifted. It was Mary Cormoch, or at least her spirit. She reached into the water and picked up a bundle, the baby she’d lost. My bones chilled as she stared, her eyes as vacant as a dead man’s.”
Ian snorted. “Well, she was dead!”
“Aye. Behind her, a man crawled out of the sea and rested on the beach. His long red hair and seaman’s coat told me it was Andrew Quinlan. Seaweed and water pooled beneath him as he stood and turned to the sea, calling for Ewan. My heart ached.”
Dughall stared. “Did ye tell Ewan this?”
“I never told a soul. Things like this get ye flogged as a witch.”
“Now where were we? The six from Peterhead walked out of the sea, pulling a ghostly scaffie onto the beach. Their blue stockings and jerseys glowed in the moonlight. They scratched their heads and looked up at me.”
“Were ye scared?”
“My heart nearly stopped when they started up the path.”
Ian stared. “I would have run.”
“I wanted to run, but I was frozen. I drew my shawl around me as Mary’s head appeared. I was riveted to the sight as she stood on the point, pulling down her dress to nurse the spirit child. Seven ghostly men appeared behind her, water squishing out of their sea boots.”
“They came towards me, chilling my soul to the bone. I cried out, beseeching them to stop, but they didn’t hear. I could have been a tree for all they cared. The procession passed right through me and walked along this very stream, heading north.”
“Why didn’t they just float?” Ian asked.
Maggie smiled. “’Haps they didn’t know they were dead, so they followed a path that men made!” She sniffled. “Soon they reached the footpath to the sands of Cruden. I thought that Mary might seek her cottage. She gazed in that direction, smoothed the baby’s hair, and kissed his forehead. The fishermen from Peterhead started down the path. Andrew lifted her chin and pointed to the beach. She covered the child and they followed the men on the sandy footpath.”
“What did the ghosts look like?” Ian asked.
“They looked like people, but when the moonlight was strong you could see through them. Their eyes were vacant and ringed with dark circles.”
“What about the well?”
“Ach! Be patient, lads. I followed as they tramped across swirling sands until they reached the Hawklaw and turned inward toward the sand hills.”
“To Saint Olaf’s well,” Dughall said, ominously.
“Aye. A haze hung over the land as we neared the well. I heard a thousand ghostly voices whispering around us.”
Dughall leaned forward. “I love this part.”
“The fishermen went first. They walked widdershins around the well and bowed their heads in prayer. One by one, they lifted their leg over the edge and slipped into the well. Andrew was last. Mary stayed, gazing all around. She passed her baby down the well, grasped my shoulders, and looked in my eyes.”
“My heart pounded until her eyes cleared, and I saw a look of gratitude. Her spirit child cried and she loosened her grip. She turned away, walked around the well, and passed down into the afterlife.”
Ian snorted. “She went to hell? The baby too?”
“Nay, lad. They went to the Summerland. That’s what the Celts called the afterlife.”
“They didn’t believe in heaven and hell?”
Maggie looked wistful. “Nay. They believed in a magical and loving Goddess, the mother of all living things. The Summerland is where we go to see old friends, rest, and be reborn.”
“Into a new body, to experience life again.”
“We’ve been here before?”
“Aye. Many times.”
Dughall smiled. “I like that idea better.”
Maggie nodded. “So do I, lad. Don’t tell your father.”
The story continues in DARK BIRTHRIGHT.
About the Author: Jeanne Treat is the author of the Dark Birthright Saga.