A steel-grey sedan pulled up a disused track and parked beneath the grim walls of Glamtallon Castle. Alec MacCrimmon, unofficial county historian and caretaker of the timeworn tower, turned off the ignition but refused to leave the relative comfort of his car. With hands clasped so tight to the steering wheel that his knuckles turned white, he glanced up at the fortress and shivered. Even though bathed in the golden rays of the late afternoon sun, the lichen-festooned edifice exuded an algid chill. MacCrimmon never liked the look or feel of the place. He especially disliked being anywhere near it so close to sunset.
“Here we are, then,” the grey-haired historian said to his two young passengers. The slight strain in his voice betrayed his troubled mood. “Though, Lord help me for bringing you here at this time of day.”
“Lovely accommodations,” Rodger Birch quipped as he stuck his head through the space between the front seats. “Lovely if you’re a ghost, that is.”
“Enough of that, Rodge,” Linda Sullivan spat as she turned and pushed back her boyfriend’s grinning face back. “Can’t you be serious for once?”
“I am serious,” Rodger smirked. “It’s a right serious place for a spook!”
“The stories of devilish beasties and malevolent haunts that swirl about this place are no laughing matter,” MacCrimmon murmured with a frown. “This peel had been built by a particularly rapacious member of the Border nobility who shifted allegiance as often as the wind changes direction. It swiftly gained a sinister reputation as a centre of torture and death. Age-old rumours suggest that an especially evil descendant of Glamtallon’s original laird practiced diabolic rites and black arts. Historical fact states that this very same nobleman was burned at the stake, convicted of being in league with the Devil and consorting with demonic familiars. Stories persist to the present day of seeing spectral lights and hearing dreadful sounds coming from the empty ruin after dark. Most folk in these parts say that the place still harbours an evil first summoned centuries ago. While I’ve never seen any ghosties or ghoulies myself, I’m never to be found here at night.”
“Nighttime is the best time for me to do what I’ve come here to do,” Linda stated as she reached for her digital recorder and infrared video camera. An American graduate student studying abroad, Linda planned on writing a thesis about supernatural themes in traditional Scottish folklore. She was also interested in parapsychology, and wanted to work true-life encounters with the supernatural into her paper. "I’m here because of these stories. I want to find out what inspired such terrifying tales. I also want to know if there is any truth behind the claims of paranormal phenomena.”
“I’m just along for the ride,” Rodger shrugged. “I’m also performing the role of resident skeptic.” Linda’s beau and flat-mate didn’t put much stock in local fairy tales and campfire stories. A biology major and avowed agnostic when it came to things otherworldly, Rodger held no belief whatsoever in ghosties, ghoulies, or other things that go bump in the night. However, as a lover of life, he still enjoyed a good yarn and entertaining jaunt every now and then.
“You’re also here as an extra pair of hands,” Linda added. “Be a dear and grab the EMF detector.”
“I don’t think I’m completely comfortable with the idea of the two of you spending the night in there,” MacCrimmon grumbled.
“It’s not like we’ll be playing house,” Linda said. “Besides, you already agreed to let us investigate overnight when we discussed it before.”
MacCrimmon groaned and shook his head. He simply didn’t understand the reckless enthusiasm of youth. He was probably born old.
“Do you have your flashlight, hon?” Linda asked Rodger.
“Nae, but I do have my torch, love” Rodger replied with an exaggerated accent. He shot his girlfriend a toothy smile.
Linda grimaced, annoyed by her boyfriend’s silliness. She worried that his less-than-serious attitude would interfere with the coming night’s vigil. Linda wished to experience those aspects of the castle’s character that had inspired such eerie myths and legends. She also hoped to capture evidence of paranormal activity. An actual supernatural experience would be icing on the cake.
“Here you go, then,” MacCrimmon said with a sigh as he retrieved a large brass key from the pocket of his Harris Tweed jacket. “This unlocks the yett.”
“Do you have a yeti locked up in there?” Rodger queried with grin.
“No, Rodge!” Linda scolded. “A yett, as in an iron grillwork gate.”
“Installed to keep out fools like me?” Rodger suggested.
“Or to keep something in,” MacCrimmon implied ominously. “Iron is said to have some affect against unearthly entities.”
“I’m liking this place better already!” Rodger proclaimed. He climbed out of the backseat of MacCrimmon’s car and stared up at one of the narrow windows that cut through the upper section of the fortress wall. The setting sun gilded the stonework around the opening but did little to drive away the pervasive murk within. As he gazed upward into that dark hole, Rodger thought he caught the briefest glimpse of a deeper blackness sliding through the gloom. It looked as if someone or something had walked swiftly past the empty embrasure.
“There’s somebody up there!” Rodger exclaimed.
“Where?” MacCrimmon asked as he leaned his head out the open driver’s side window.
Rodger pointed to the spot, on the floor just below the level of the battlements.
“Impossible,” MacCrimmon grunted. “That window looks out from the lord’s solar, on the third storey of the castle. The wooden floor of that chamber rotted away long ago. Only the undercroft, great hall, and a portion of the battlements are still accessible. No one could be in that chamber.”
“No one living, that is,” Linda added. Seeing the genuine fear in MacCrimmon’s eyes made her regret saying it. She gave the old man’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then joined her beau outside the car.
“I’ll return for you in the morning," MacCrimmon stated as he started his engine, anxious to leave. “For what it’s worth, I wish you well. Be careful. This is a dangerous place, and not just due to its ruinous state.”
“Strange chap,” Rodger commented as MacCrimmon’s car pulled away.
“A walking encyclopaedia of local lore,” Linda pointed out.
“I could’ve sworn I saw something,” Rodger grumbled as he turned a puzzled look back toward the castle.
“Don’t tell me you’re actually starting to believe in ghosts,” Linda laughed.
“Don’t bet on it, me lassie!” Rodger shot back. “Twas a trick of the light, that be all.”
“Why don’t we find out for sure?” Linda suggested.
Mossy stone stairs set against the north wall led up to a pointed Gothic arch. A rusty iron grate stood within the dusky umbra of the threshold. A dank draught carrying the hint of mouldering decay wafted through the open grillwork. Linda managed to unlock the gate but needed Rodger’s help to push it open. The yett’s neglected hinges protested with a raspy squeal.
Only a fading glimmer of faint sunlight shone through the westerly windows of the castle’s great hall. The keep’s imposing walls perpetually imprisoned shards of midnight. Strange shadows lurked in far corners and darkened doorways. Filth covered the flagstone floor. Bats flew crazy patterns in clammy air that reeked of corruption.
Rodger remained silent as his torchlight struggled to part the stubborn darkness, his jocularity stifled by the dismal atmosphere. Linda, on the other hand, remained relatively unphased by Glamtallon’s unnerving ambience. She shot a slow pan of the gateway and hall before she recorded a few preliminary observations.
“Even though night has not yet fallen, the inside of Glamtallon is already quite dark,” Linda spoke into the microphone of her recorder. “Lack of visual acuity in such twilight conditions could produce hallucinatory effects. Optical illusions may create the impression of movement within the darkness. The mind’s eye may fill the void with all sorts of imagined entities.”
“Good point,” Rodger interrupted, glad that Linda was willing to considered mundane alternatives to the paranormal. “However, imagined or not, I don’t care to see anything other than bats moving around in here.”
“Why don’t we get this investigation really going down in the basement?” Linda said with a devilish smile as she switched off her recorder. She was annoyed by Rodger’s interruption, and felt it was time to drag him somewhere truly creepy.
“Why the basement?” Rodger wondered. He tried to look tough for Linda, but the quaver in his voice betrayed his anxiety. Standing in the unsettling murk, he felt the unknown intruding upon his neat, scientific view of reality. It bothered him greatly.
“Because nasty things always reside in basements,” Linda explained as she headed toward a decrepit spiral staircase built into the thickness of one of the keep’s four corners.
“Ask a silly question…” Rodger mumbled as he followed his girlfriend down the uneven stairs.
Shadows battled the light beneath broad masonry arches, advancing and retreating as Rodger’s torchlight played off the squat pillars of the castle’s undercroft. Dusty cobwebs hung like tattered tapestries from the vaulted ceiling. A well bespotted with a leprous growth sat in the centre of the earthen floor. Disturbed by the approaching footsteps, a large centipede scurried into a joint long devoid of mortar.
Curious and a bit bored, Rodger peered down the well shaft. He quickly reeled back in disgust. A foul odour rose up from the well’s slimy depths.
“That well became unusable centuries ago,” Linda pointed out. “It was probably contaminated with the castle wastes. That may be one of the more practical reasons this place gained an unsavoury reputation. I want to find out if there were other reasons as well.”
“That should’ve been reason enough,” Rodger stated. “It smells like shit down there.”
“You’re a hopeless fool,” Linda laughed.
“That’s why you’ve fallen hopelessly in love with me!” Rodger declared with a smile. “Who’s more the fool, the hopeless fool, or the one hopelessly in love with the hopeless fool? You do love me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do!” Linda replied as she wrapped her arms around his waist. “If we were anywhere else, I would show you how much I do love you, but this place kind of kills the mood.”
“Pretty much,” Rodger crooned as he leaned closer.
The two kissed, but loud metallic stomping sounded above their heads and interrupted their tender moment. A strident clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop marched from one end of the hall to the other.
“What the hell is that?” Rodger croaked as the blood drained from his cheeks.
“I’ve got to get a recording of this,” Linda said excitedly as she pressed the record button on her digital recorder. The device’s indicator lights flashed on briefly, but then went out. The phantom footsteps passed once more above their heads, but Linda’s recorder refused to work.
“Damn it!” She spat. “I think the batteries are dead.”
“I know I put fresh ones in this morning,” Rodger insisted in a husky whisper. He didn’t want to be heard by whatever was walking around in the great hall. “Check the camera.”
Linda switched on her infrared camera and stared in disbelief at the luminous screen. It showed only one bar in the battery icon.
“This was fully charged before we left,” she groaned. “It worked just fine when we were up in the hall.” Stark realization showed in the young woman’s eyes as she stared worriedly toward the stairway.
“I know,” Rodger breathed, reading her thoughts. “It’s between us and the way out.”
“I’m not ready to leave just yet!” Linda proclaimed.
“And what if it drains the torch batteries, too?” Rodger asked worryingly.
“So far, so good,” Linda said as she snatched the light from Rodger’s sweaty hand. Satisfied that it remained steadily light, she handed the torch back to Rodger and retrieved her own from her pocket.
“C’mon, let’s see if we can catch sight of whomever, or whatever, is making all that racket. I want to make sure we’re not the victims of some prankster.”
Encroaching nightfall cloaked the dreadful edifice in deepening darkness. Only the bats stirred in the hall, winging their way out the windows and into the evening sky. Rodger shined his torchlight across the flagstone, but saw no trace of any mortal intruder. Nothing had disturbed the layers of filth. Linda thought she spied a fleeting flash, as if the beam briefly glinted off some reflective object at the far end of the hall. They both heard a guttural muttering, low but distinct, coming from the doorway opposite the main entrance. The strange murmurs passed out of the tower and into a walled courtyard.
“The gardens!” Linda cried. She raced toward the courtyard. Rodger tailed reluctantly behind.
Brambles and nettles choked the garden grounds. Roses run wild thrust their thorny canes up through the bristly weeds. Their blood-red blooms looked black in the darkness. Twining vines and gnarled shrubs covered the broken cobbled path, making it nearly impossible to walk any great distance past the doorway.
“Nothing here,” Rodger said.
“Something came this way,” Linda asserted rather angrily. The night’s events hadn’t rattled her yet, but she was starting to get aggravated. “Someone is playing games with us.”
“Oh, joy!” Rodger moaned. “I’m ready to call it quits. They win.”
“Ready to give in when the night’s still young, Rodge?” Linda grinned. “That’s not like you at all. Aren’t you having fun?”
“This stopped being fun quite a while ago,” Rodger said. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
Linda’s expression grew grave. She became concerned about what effect the night’s events were having on Rodger. She wondered if his psyche could deal with such a challenge to his affirmed beliefs. She figured she would appeal to his protective side, to give him a reason to forget his fears.
“How can you be my knight in shining armour if you go all to pieces on me?” Linda asked. “I may need a big strong man before this night is through. Besides, some of this may simply be our imaginations getting the better of us.”
“Right,” Rodger said. He drew a deep breath and tried to regain some of his composure. “I’m just being a silly sod.”
The same clip-clop they heard earlier sounded above their heads, from the direction of the tower battlements. Rodger stood transfixed. Linda shined her torch upward.
A head leaned out from the space between two merlons. Upon this head sat an old-fashioned red cap. Below the cap, a pair of fiery eyes glared down at the two investigators. Then the strange sight, head, cap, and all, vanished behind the decaying stonework.
“Now it’s on the battlement,” Linda stated with a mixture of worry and awe. Something about that brief glimpse troubled her badly, but she remained determined to gather some concrete evidence of the supernatural. She was more convinced than ever that Glamtallon did indeed harbour something paranormal within its dim walls.
“And I suppose that’s where we’re headed next,” Rodger said with a sigh. He was doing his best to overcome his fears, but it was a struggle.
The couple made their way back to the hall and then slowly climbed the nearest set of spiral stairs. They picked their way carefully past piles of rubble and stepped gingerly over broken steps as they ascended to the uppermost level of the keep. Through the loopholes built into the stairwell, they could see the full moon rising over the eastern horizon.
Once in the threshold to the derelict battlements, Linda whispered for Rodger to check the EMF detector while she tried to get her recorder and camera to work. The green and yellow lights on the EMF detector in Rodger’s hand blinked wildly, indicating a massive electromagnetic field fluctuation. Linda’s camera and recorder sprang to life, but both devices acted possessed. Even though set in record mode, the digital recorder played back garbled gibberish. The viewscreen on the camera flickered between mad static and a grotesque array of leering faces. Then all went dead.
“Linda,” Rodger whispered. “Linda, the torch is going out.”
Linda glanced over at her beau with fear in her eyes. Rodger held up the torch. The light slowly dimmed and then went out. Linda checked her own torch, but it refused to turn on.
The rising moon silvered the battered top of the crenellated wall. A cool breath blew across the weathered stones. Metallic footsteps echoed along the allure and drew closer to where Linda and Rodger huddled in the deeper darkness of the stairway threshold.
A squat old dwarf clad in rough leather jerkin, iron boots, and crimson Phrygian cap emerged out of the gloom. Scraggly grey hair streamed over his hunched shoulders. Pointed teeth hung from his twisted mouth. Gleaming eyes shone from beneath his beetled brow. He held a long-hafted battle-axe in his gnarled hands. The weapon’s sharp blade glinted in the moonlight.
“Rodger, we have to get out of here,” Linda whispered. “This is no ghost. This is a redcap.”
The goblin’s pricked ears picked up Linda’s worried whisper. He cocked his head, shot the young couple a sinister smile, and then turned on his iron heels and disappeared.
“Where did he go?” Linda murmured.
“Doesn’t matter, ’cause we’re outta here!” Rodger cried as he grabbed Linda’s arm and led here back down the stone stairs.
Anxious to leave, but unwilling to face injury or death by tripping down the treacherous stairs, the two investigators felt their way along in the dark. They stubbed toes and scraped elbows as they went, but they continued their descent. However, halfway down, the panicked duo once more heard the distinctive sound of the redcap’s metal boots striking the flagstone floor of the castle hall. The dreadful realisation that the creature was now between them and escape made their blood run cold.
“Now what do we do?” Linda asked nervously.
Rodger didn’t answer her. He had no answer, and it angered him. He hated feeling so helpless.
The two lovers clung to each other, shivering in the dark. They waited for what seemed like an eternity as they listened to the brute pacing the floor below. Then all grew silent.
“I think he’s moved on,” Rodger said. “You stay here while I go check it out.”
“Rodge, no!" Linda pleaded
Rodger’s anger had finally conquered his fear. He wasn’t going to be trapped in that place forever.
“You wanted a knight in shining armour!” Rodger proclaimed. “I’m going to make sure we get out of here.”
Linda reached for Rodger’s arm to stop him, but to no avail. Her beau tore free of her grasp and headed down the stairs.
“Rodger!” Linda called anxiously.
“Stay there,” Rodger hissed back from where he stood just a few steps above the hall doorway. “I think it’s clear, but I’ll double check to make sure.”
Linda heard the shuffle of Rodger’s shoes on the dusty stones as he ventured into the hall. Then she heard a sickly thud immediately followed by a ghastly moan.
Shaking and fighting against the instinct to fly further up the stairs, Linda made her way, step by step, down to the paler gloom of the hall threshold. As she peered cautiously around the mouldering jamb, her eyes caught sight of a gruesome scene that paralysed her limbs and stopped her heart.
Bathed in the moonlight that poured through the easterly embrasures, the goblin crouched over a figure sprawled on the floor. He doffed his cap and dipped it in the glistening pool of blood that spread out from Rodger’s cloven skull. Linda whimpered her beau’s name, but she knew it was already too late.
The murderous dwarf stood erect. A cruel look contorted his ugly face. He donned his grisly hat and blood ran down his wrinkled cheeks. He then picked up his axe and strode toward his next victim.
The will to survive overrode Linda’s fright and she bolted past the abomination. She ran straight for the tower’s main entrance. The redcap’s gore-stained blade came within a hair’s breadth of ending her life, but Linda raced through the gateway and slammed the iron yett shut.
Wracked by uncontrollable sobs, Linda fell to her knees, still gripping the corroded grillwork. Burning tears ran down her freckled cheeks. For a moment, she wondered if she was caught in the clutches of a terrible dream. She thought she might wake up and find Rodger sleeping soundly next to her. The sting of the gritty bars biting into her palms brought reality flooding back.
“Rodger, Rodger,” Linda moaned her slain lover’s name over and over again.
“Rodger, Rodger”, the redcap echoed in a guttural tone. He pressed his repulsive face against the yett. “Rodger be dead!”
Linda leapt backward. She tumbled off the gateway stairs. Her right shoulder popped as she hit the ground.
Dazed and in pain, Linda lay in the dirt. Then she heard the iron grate rattle in its frame. Looking up, she could see the goblin’s taloned hands clutching the bars. His sinews twitched as he shook the gate. He laughed hideously and taunted his prey.
“You next!” The redcap shrieked. “You die next!”
Linda dragged herself up and stumbled down the unkempt road that led away from the castle. She staggered and swayed, and her right arm hung limp at her side, but she willed herself onward. The visions of Rodger lying dead on the flagstones and the redcap’s leering face peering out of the gateway kept her running. She had to get away from Glamtallon. She had to escape that horror.
Bright lights blinded her as a car approached up the track. She threw her good arm up before her eyes and tried to remain on her feet, but her wobbly legs finally gave out beneath her. She fell in a faint as MacCrimmon slammed on his brakes.
Blackness gave way to a murky haze as Linda awoke in a hospital bed. Her shoulder ached, and she felt the discomfort of an intravenous needle in her arm. She could hear the murmur of doctors and nurses talking in the corridor outside. As the haziness slowly lifted, she noticed MacCrimmon standing at her bedside. His bushy brows were screwed up into an anxious frown and his rheumy eyes displayed a disturbing sorrow.
“Rodger,” Linda muttered, only half-remembering the night’s events. “Where’s Rodger?”
“I’m so sorry, lass” MacCrimmon said. “I don’t know where Rodger is. I’m not exactly sure what happened last night, but I can hazard a guess.”
“It was you on the road, wasn’t it?” Linda asked, trying to remember.
“Aye,” MacCrimmon nodded. “Troubled by the thought of leaving the two of you in that accurst peel, I decided to go back. I never expected to find you wandering the road in such a dreadful state. It looks like you suffered a dislocated shoulder, along with some cuts and bruises. When I first found you, you seemed to be in a state of shock. All the way to the hospital, you kept muttering about Rodger, blood, and murder.”
I searched Glamtallon just after dawn, but found no trace of the lad. I then called Constable Frasier, so he could conduct an official inquiry. Seeing no evidence of foul play, Frasier seems to think it was simply a practical joke gone wrong. He’s convinced that Rodger will turn up in a few days.”
“But, but, but, it was no joke!” Linda stammered, recalling more details of the previous evening’s terror. “You found no trace of Rodger at all? No body? Nothing?”
“I did find one small clue to his fate.” MacCrimmon stated grimly. “I didn’t want to show the constable this thing. He wouldn’t understand. You and I understand all too well.”
The historian held up the blood-stained cap that he had safely tucked away in his jacket pocket.
Copyright © 2013 Richard H. Fay
Story originally published in Cover of Darkness, Issue 14, March 2013.