Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Lad on The Knoll

“Help me!” the lad implored, a desperate look in his eyes.
I was quite surprised, as he had no apparent injuries and looked to be in good health.

When I awoke that morning, it had been a gorgeous summer’s day, so after a quick breakfast of fruit salad and coffee, I packed some food and a bottle of water in my knapsack, and set out for a walk in the countryside.

I had been in Scotland for a couple of weeks, making a tour of prehistoric stone circles, tumuli and such like, a perennial fascination of mine. My OS map clearly showed a couple of sites near the small town I had lodged the night in, so I set off to see if they would be interesting.

The circle had been fantastic, set in craggy highland, the rough dark monoliths jutted suggestively up towards the heavens, enclosing a space of soft lush turf which contrasted with the heather all around, and in the centre a wide flat stone, perhaps the scene of ancient sacrifices, orgies, or unthinkable rites. I lay on the altar stone and soaked up the mysterious atmosphere for a while, sinking into a deep reverie. After some time - an hour, two, three or more, I don’t know - I began to feel hungry, and noticed that it was already well past midday.

After eating my lunch, I carried on following a narrow track that wound through crags and across valleys, slowly circling back round towards the town. At length, towards sunset, I came to a strange knoll, and on the knoll the ruins of a tower.

This was what I had been looking for, in Scotland there are several of these ancient ruined round towers, always on the tops of hills. There would not be much unusual about that were it not for a remarkable feature that they share - the entire surface of the stones at the base of the towers has been melted, in places fusing them together. There is of course no known way in which the ancient Scots, Celts, Picts, or anyone else could have achieved this.

Climbing the steep sides of the mound had left me panting for breath, but the spectacular views made it well worth the effort. The emptiness of the place began to fill me with a profound sense of loneliness, until I spotted the lad.

I hadn’t seen him when I got to the top, but suddenly there he was, standing inside the doorway to the tower, and he seemed to be scanning the horizon intently for something. He was dressed simply in black trousers, a white cotton shirt and leather boots. I walked slowly across to greet him.

“Help me!” he implored, unexpectedly.
As I looked at him questioningly, he repeated his plea, “Help me!”
“What’s the matter?” I enquired?
“If you have time to hear my tale, then listen,” said the lad, “but please promise to help save me from my captivity!”
“I have time enough,” I replied, “and if I can help you, then I shall.”
So the lad began his story.

“One day as I was coming home from work to my cottage, I saw an old man sitting on the stone wall across the road. He was all dressed in green, with a scarlet cap, and he just sat there watching the door to the house. I thought this rather odd, but decided he had probably become tired, being of advanced years, and was just resting a while.”

“The next day, when I came home from tending the sheep in the field, the old man was there again, with two more like him, old and quite short, dressed in green tunics, and breeches, with colourful caps upon their heads. Well now, I thought, this is unusual. But again I thought the old men must have become weary and paused to rest a while.

“The following day, as I was returning from the fields, again I saw the three old men. This time they were with two more, who, though younger, were somewhat short like them, and also there were two fair young women amongst them, dressed one in an orange dress and one in a red, and all the men similarly attired to the first old fellow. This time, as I passed by, the old man spoke to me.

“Good evening young Angus!” he greeted me, though I knew not his name. “How are you lad?”
“I am very well, thank you sir,” I rejoined, “may I enquire who you might be, sir?”
“We are your neighbours from across the glen,” he informed me, though never had I seen a one of them before, “and we have come to invite you to join us in a celebration.”
“I should be very pleased to join your celebration good neighbour,” I told him, “but first I must advise my parents, or they shall worry that I do not arrive.”
“Have no care, for we have already spoken with them of our invitation, and they are pleased to let you accompany us.”

“Now the old men and the young men and the two women all looked of such kindly disposition that I never suspected any evil could come of it, so happily I followed them across the glen, and they led me up the hillside until it flattened, and we continued until we came to a hummock, and on the hummock a beautiful round tower.

“This is where we live,” the old man declared.

“We went up the hummock, and marched through the door to the tower. Inside was a sight I could not have imagined! A marvellously sumptuous hall, with fine tapestries hanging all around the walls, and long tables set out for a feast! There were places set for scores of guests, and along the middle of each table food arrayed for the banquet.

“There were silver and golden platters laden with roast meats and fowl, plates of braised potatoes and other vegetables, huge serving bowls steaming with green and yellow and orange soups, dishes piled up with apples and pears, peaches and grapes, and some fruits I had never seen before. Cakes of every shape and size were on the table too, and at each place was a fine silver goblet, with pitchers of mead set between the plates of food.

“I was shown to my place as the other guests began to file in. My amazement continued, for all the guests were of the same diminutive stature as the ones who had brought me, and dressed in such colourful livery!

“The men wore pointed black shoes of the shiniest polished leather, yellow breeches of velvet, orange shirts of silk, scarlet waistcoats of satin and shimmering violet caps of the finest brocade - even the men who had brought me were changed into this new festive attire, though I had not seen them leave or return.

“The women too were a wonder to behold, each in a unique and glorious gown flowing to the ground, also of the most precious cloths with golden threads and jewels woven into them, cloths of every colour you can imagine, and certainly several that you cannot imagine! About their necks they wore necklaces and pendants, and on their heads they bore tiaras, and all of the most detailed workmanship possible, fine golden filigree forming the most intricate designs with rubies and sapphires, emeralds and diamonds set in them. Each seemed to surpass the one before!

“When they had taken their places, six more little men emerged from a high door at the back, with bejewelled trumpets, and stood three on each side of the door blowing a fanfare. Everyone stood, and the little fellow next to me instructed me to do the same.

“All eyes turned to the doorway, and out marched the Fairy Queen, for fairies by now it was plain that they were. Wonder mounted upon wonder! Her orange silk dress trailed along the ground behind her, and in its folds bright hues seemed to flicker like flames. Over this she wore a cape of cream coloured velvet, with satin embroidery of leaves and flowers, and precious stones sewn to it. She carried a long silver sceptre, sparkling with huge diamonds, and in its head an emerald the size of my fist. The golden crown she bore on her head was tall and thin, and every point tipped with a large sapphire, and on the front of it a ruby the size of my two fists!

“When she had taken her place at her ornately carved throne, we were seated once more, and the revelry began. First I tried some of the green soup, and it was the best soup I ever had tasted in my life. Then I tried the yellow soup and it was better than the green. Next I tried the orange soup, and it was the best of the three!

“And so it passed with everything I ate, meat and fowl, vegetables and fruits and cakes - each morsel more delicious than the one before, and all washed down with a never ending flow of sweet mead.

“When the eating was done, the tables were cleared away, and the chairs put against the walls to leave a large open space in the middle of the hall. Out came a fiddler, and a piper and a drummer, and they set to playing the merry music of the little people, that magic music of theirs that causes all who hear it to jump to their feet and jig and reel and whirl and spin.

“So I danced and I danced, and the fairy women danced with me too. Such fair lasses they have amongst the fairy folk, such smoothly chiseled features, such lithe forms, such elegance and grace of movement! And we danced and we danced, and even had I so wished I could not have stopped dancing, for the music moved my legs of itself!

“Until finally the music stopped, and all of a sudden the tiredness that I had not felt from the whole evening’s merriment came upon me all at once.

“I found my way to the Queen, and courteously bowed low before her, and then addressed her.

“Your Majesty,” I said, “may I thank you most profoundly for the generosity you have bestowed upon me with your invitation to this most wonderful entertainment, but now I must humbly ask your permission to take my leave.”

“On hearing this, the Queen began to laugh. The others chuckled with her too in a rather menacing fashion.

“Young lad, of course you may leave,” she then said, “if you can find the door!”
“Why that’s easy!” I replied.

“I walked across the hall towards the door that I had come in by, but now there was no door to be seen. Perhaps in all the dancing and spinning round I had become disorientated, so I began to follow the wall around the hall, looking for the entrance.

“When I had followed the wall all the way around the edge of the entire hall, with no door in it, and found myself back where I had started, I must have appeared most perplexed, as indeed I felt, for when I looked at the Queen she threw her head back to let her laughter echo out so that I thought her crown would fall from her head, and all her subjects roared with laughter too!

“Oh, silly boy!” she admonished me. “Don’t you know the rules? If you eat of the food of Fairy Land then you can never return to your own world.”

“So you see they tricked me, and I have been kept here as their servant since that day.”

I studied the lad’s lean features, sharp nose, and his grey eyes that were filled with a look of infinite despair. Even his long black hair seemed to hang forlornly around his face.

“How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know a few weeks, I suppose.”
“Let me take you with me now then.”

A look of fear and panic came over him.

“No, if you tried to pull me down the hill they would surely come and take you inside the mound too!”
“Then how can I help you?”
“Sometimes they send me to fish in the river, by the bridge.”
“So why don’t you just run away when you go there?”
“Would that it were so easy! They have me under a powerful enchantment, so that I may only go to the river, and when my buckets of fish are full, return directly.”
“What can I do then?”
“At midnight on the full moon, come and look for me there by the bridge, and bring a horseshoe on an iron chain. Hang it round my neck, and I will be able to escape. And you’d best protect yourself in like manner too, or they’ll take you in my place!”

The full moon was only two days away, so the following morning I went to the ironmonger’s store, and bought two horseshoes and some iron chain, preparing the two ‘necklaces’ as the lad Angus had instructed me.

The appointed night arrived, and I made my way along the road to the bridge over the river. There I waited in the moonlight for midnight to come around, wearing one of the horseshoes on its chain about my neck.

Sure enough, at the allotted time, Angus appeared nearby with two wooden pails and a fishing rod. He was down on the rocky shore of a fishing pool, and he sat upon a large stone, casting his line into the water.

Without hesitating, I ran over to him, and put the chain around his neck, the horseshoe hanging over his chest.

“Quick!” he cried, “We must flee!”

So we began running back up towards the bridge.

“Stop!” cried an evil little voice, “Stop at once! Come back here!”

Stones began to fly past us from behind, and one of them struck me hard in the middle of my back. Looking over my shoulder I could see five small men all dressed in green, shouting at us. Two of them were hurling pebbles from the bank at us, whilst the other three were notching arrows onto their little bows!

“I thought you said we’d be protected with these iron chains!” I complained.
“Somewhat!” replied Angus.

Not wishing to find out how much ‘somewhat’ really was, I carried on running as tiny arrows began to whizz past our ears. The two of us frantically scrambling back up the slope, Angus suddenly cried out in pain, but made it onto the bridge just behind me, and we ran off down the road together.

Once we felt we had got to a safe distance, we stopped to examine Angus’s injury. A tiny flint arrowhead was embedded in his left calf. I gently pulled it out and popped it in my pocket, and he rolled up his trouser leg. I had a clean handkerchief, so we tied it tight around the wound, until we could get back and clean it up.

Walking along the lane towards the tavern where I was lodging, the rumble of an approaching car began to make itself heard. It grew loader as the car approached. Angus looked scared.

“What in the name of God is that?”
“It’s just a car, don’t worry!”

The sharp beam of the headlights came around the bend up ahead, throwing its glare over us. Now Angus looked panic stricken, and threw himself over a low wall into a field. The car sped by and rumbled off into the distance, then the lad’s head appeared over the wall.

“Has it gone?”
“It’s gone.”
“Were you not afraid?”
“Why should I be afraid, it was just a car?”
“A car? Like a cart?”
“Like a cart, but without a horse.”
“A horseless carriage? I never knew they went so fast! Or made such noise! And who around these parts could ever afford a horseless carriage?”
“When did you say you were taken into the mound?”
“I told you, a few weeks ago, it was on Midsummer’s Eve last.”
“Well that was just a few weeks ago, but Midsummer’s Eve of which year?”
“Well, 1910, of course. Which year do you think it is?”
“I’m afraid that was a hundred years ago, it’s 2010 now.”
“2010! But…my family!” Even in the dark I could see the great sadness that filled his eyes.
“I’m sorry, …they’ll all be gone now.”
“And what am I to do in 2010? How shall I make a living?”
“This is still a rural community, I’m sure you can find work as a day labourer on a farm to begin with. Later, who knows, if you study you could even become a pilot or a computer programmer!”
“I don’t think so, I know nothing about boats, still less about this ‘computer programmer’ you speak of.”
“Don’t worry, I can lend you some money to eat and stay tonight in the tavern where I am lodged, tomorrow we can see about getting you a job.”

We arrived back at the inn, and rented another room for young Angus. I went upstairs with him, and we washed his wound, put some antiseptic, and a plaster from my first aid kit on it.

“There,” I said, “it shouldn’t get infected now.”

Downstairs in the bar I ordered a hearty dinner, and some beers, over which he told me about his life as a shepherd’s son in a tiny village nearby, his boyhood playing in the fields, and the simplicity of his rustic existence. He said that he had often heard tales of the little people, that all of the older villagers believed in them quite firmly, but the younger ones had laughed at them and thought them foolish.

“And who turned out to be the foolish one, hey?!” he added.

Then he talked about his parents and his brother and sister, and a deep regret began to overcome him.

I decided to change the topic of conversation and started filling him in on the huge changes that have taken place in the last hundred years. He listened wide eyed as I told him about aeroplanes, the two world wars and space exploration. I don’t think he believed much of what I said, but he seemed to enjoy the stories. When I got onto computers he had no way to understand what I was on about at all. A thought struck me.

“Here, I’ll show you, come with me,” I said.

I led him through to the back of the bar, where an old arcade machine stood against the wall. I put some coins in, and started to play Pac-man, explaining the idea of the game and how to move. He was fascinated, and once he was absorbed in playing he soon seemed to forget about his former concerns.

The evening wore on, and after several pints and a few whiskies we both began to feel quite drowsy and decided it was time to sleep. I agreed to help him look for work in the morning, and bidding him goodnight went to my room.

The next morning, before breakfast, I knocked on his door, but there was no reply. I went downstairs for some toast and jam and coffee, and when I had had my fill I went back to knock on his door again, but again he did not answer. I supposed he must be sleeping off his great tiredness after a hundred years as a servant in Fairy Land, and decided to wait for him downstairs.

So I sat in the barroom reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. The hours passed slowly by, and still there was no sign of Angus. Just before midday, the landlord asked me about my new friend.

“Checking out time’s twelve o’clock you know, any later than that and guests have to pay for another night.”

I explained that I had called twice at his door and received no answer, so the landlord decided to go up and knock and I tagged along. The landlord knocked at the door. Silence. He knocked harder. Nothing.

“Hello, are you in there laddie?” he called, and still there was no response.

Taking a bunch of keys out of his pocket, he opened the door, and walked in. I followed him. Angus was lying there on the bed, motionless in the gloom of the curtained room.

“It’s time to check out lad,” said the landlord, opening the curtains.

As the sunlight streamed in, the two of us stood dumbfounded by what we saw. I nervously fingered the fairy arrowhead that was still in my jacket pocket. There on the pillow was the same lean face, the same sharp nose, and the same grey eyes that I had first seen on the fairy mound, but the black hair had turned white as snow, and the face was wizened and wrinkled from brow to chin. The breath gone from his body, all that remained was the lifeless frame of a hundred year old man.

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