In the cool before sunrise the fog that flows down from the river settles a heap in the burrows and then pushes its way up the hill to the flags, those old wooden spikes planted jagged with the torn fabrics that ripple sideways in the wind. The colours are dulled some, but still vibrant are their yellows and orange. And it’s always windy, up there, at the spot that marks where the skulls would begin.
The legend runs deep in this town. Everyone knows the story. Some of the older folk even claim to have seen them. Convincing tales they would make, too, if it weren’t for how different each retelling was. That they come once a millennia, or a century, or in rare full moons; that the creatures are fierce and bloodthirsty in their countenances, or timid and short, or gigantic, like trolls; that they lumber cumbersome, or ride fleshless skeletons of hideous beasts brought back from the dead.
Memories wane to the benefit of these imaginations. Rapt audiences familiar with the absurdity are nonetheless captivated, never diminishing, these performances at the local pub with couplings of music and ale and hearty guffaws better than the finest production at the theatre.
For all his appearance as a seasoned drinker, Micky Dobson would listen sober, usually at the back, stone-faced, shadowed from view, more attentive than the rest. The only reason he ever left his unwell grandmother of an evening was to hear these stories. As though he had a sixth sense about them, never wrong, always drawn to his next study by hereditary instincts impossible to explain.
His great grandfather had been a sheep farmer with a plot that bordered that hill, and his grandfather and father had each of them been witness many a time to the sincerity of his conviction. That what he saw before the sun rose, on a date he could never recollect, was of a nature hitherto untold in any book, hard to describe for the impact that it cast upon him when he saw it.
Waves of fog too thick for God’s earth, he would say, beneath which great mounds of skulls rose from the dirt, each of those flags pushed high in the air like claims to their ghastly treasure below. Skulls that came from no human; oversized bones with spikes and horns and jaws like blocks of gnarled wood, variation vast that it spoke to many a species. Yet, in spite their various forms, it was all the same, they all came from the same hellish lot, he somehow knew.
He would say: the cold of that morning was slowly illumed by the sun. His transfixed gaze frozen when the groaning soon came. Tall shadows of figures in the haze, he saw. Manacled green giants in rows that dragged their feet with fallen heads, difficult to see, but by their language he knew their pain.
With daylight the fog rose to obscure the scene in its totality, and it was only the cries that spoke, then. Beastly pleas to the sky from unspeakable torments, never answered. These terrible agonies so great that they pierced an arrow he would never fully remove.
A lone rider in view at the crest stood watchful for a time. Regarded him with a silent disdain, menace to a warning to remain where he stood. To leave. A warden of that demonly gaol which had revealed itself for reasons no-one, perhaps not even the warden, would ever know. Even from that distance the flash of eye-fire as the rider turned could be seen. Come no closer, it seemed to say. Go home, go back to your pathetic little town, speak what you have seen to no-one.
But he spoke it eventually to his son and his grandson, and, in turn, they both told it to Micky. Who now saw in these diverging tales similarities that seemed to fit a bigger puzzle than even his great grandfather had known.
The closest date, the mean of all estimates, was the Winter Solstice, a few days before and after he liberally spread to be safe.
Micky had always been astute as a camper. Saved for the best gear when he was younger, which was well-preserved with naught a smear or scratch or tear. The hike was a half day to the peak where the creek widened to the river before the falls, there being his best reckoning of the widest vista.
His camp set, prepared, ready, he waited, and watched.
Two dawns passed uneventful but for the crows, one of which had ingratiated itself to the benefit of the stale bread that he picked and threw when bored, which was often. The third morning, was the Solstice.
He woke sharp to an echo of grinding metal from the ravine below and very nearly jumped a hole through his tent. He was already fully dressed and ripped with vigour the zipper back and stepped into the cold and felt the crunch of the frost beneath his feet as he was still putting his gloves on. Excitement less the case than finally the test of his family crest that would make of him a man with a tale to pass on. But his eagerness was excessive for the task, and towards the rocky ledge he slipped and fell backwards and broke a campfire branch with a snap that sounded loud and resonant in the predawn air, and he knew, then, there being an ear down there, he had made himself known.
The grinding ceased, and tentative he crawled to the edge and looked down to see a white fog spread vivid as a woollen blanket, its thickness stranger and more otherworldly than he had ever seen. But, unlike the stories, this was a scene without motion. The fog was risen too high to make out the flags, so the skulls, if they were there, couldn’t be fancied. Just the fog, and the quiet, and the creeping light from the first arc of an eastward sun.
His study was so singular and focused that he didn’t hear the hooves on the rock, until they were close. When he did, when his head turned and he looked up and saw that grotesque skeleton of a steed and its faceless, fire-eyed rider, he couldn’t help his smile.
Fate, he thought. Stories in the bones that no-one would ever know. His own story, now, likely, to never be told. Another skull to the pile…hidden beneath the fog, hinted in views seen once a year, or less, maybe, among thousands of others just as good.
Eyes shutting to a close, he prayed.