The fog hung dull and hazy. A constant drizzle seemed to fall from the dampness which had crept into the hollow with the twilight. The ground, boggy even on dry days, splashed and gargled its muddy throat, so utterly soaked it was bathing in the dumb tears of this autumn dusk.
A day was drawing to an end, one of those dull rainy days on which light had hardly reached the ground. A day more similar to its dark counterpart of night.
A west wind had arisen. Its invisible fingers prowled through bleak bushes. They dragged and picked, swirling rotten foliage and debris upward. Mouldering leaves whirled around in grotesque courses and many an uprooted plant collided with a lonesome High Cross which dominated this no man's land. The cross was four meters high and rested on a firm foundation of heavy blocks, mouse grey and sculptured from an archaic rock which had stoically adapted to this gloomy place. Mouse grey also was the richly ornamented crown, the Celtic symbol for Jesus Christ - the round Celt plate from which the powerful joists of the stone cross pressed out on four sides. Cross and sun - the perfect synthesis of Christianity and ancient paganism.
The cross reigned over a shallow hollow between bubbling morass holes. Far away from the safe paths which approached the fortress of Dumbarton, the High Cross stood in isolation where a wild grass path found his end.
For nearly twenty years it had stood here, filling an empty land with living symbolism. The most gifted stonemasons of the Scottish royal house had crafted it with such precision that their work of several months could defy the eternity it represented. It attested to the profound mourning and eternal remembrance of an irreplaceable loss. Because for so long as eternity, the glory and memory of the one who met his unfathomable destiny here in these bleak hills should be glorified.
'Never will he return!'So it was written in the topmost stone on the High Cross, written plainly in the simple notches of the Nordic Ogham script. Not a name, nor the briefest hint of what had happened here. Only this simple, peculiar manifestation of immense grief. Such as it was, it was enough because every living soul in Dalriata knew to whom it was dedicated.
In spite of the inhospitable murky earth on which it stood, the High Cross drew pilgrims to its stony feet, roused by an obstinate tale which circulated throughout the kingdom. At first, there had been the rumour about mysterious cures which happened at the foot of the High Cross. Blind men claimed to have found their eyesight again after wetting their eyelids with the morning dew that gathered in the deeply etched notches of the inscription. Those who were gravely ill would be healthy if they could spend an icy night here, and barren women would conceive after their pilgrimage to this sacred place. The tales of miraculous cures were so plentiful that hardly a member of the kingdom would not benefit in some way or another by a reverent visit to touch its ponderous form.
Some accounted that weird jack-o'-lanterns flitted among the shadows of the dangerous bog, approaching strangers at their whim, penetrating their bodies with their victim's breath. Even these phantoms, so the wondrously recovered swore, would do God's work on their insides before escaping through their nose again. Others reported mysterious singing which would caused pleasant shudders of deep veneration and ecstasy. Fantastic descriptions of many mysterious sights appearing and disappearing, of enchanting, radiant white flower meadows near midnight in which small, delicate shapes could be seen hopping about, completed these fairy tale rumours.
Nevertheless, it was a place avoided in general - and not only because of the spiteful marsh! Packs of wolves and other slavering predators lay in wait there at night and did their dark mischief in these naked hills. Let alone those insidious shady beings who lured wanderers at night to a wet death, and sparkling apparitions who drove the daring to pure insanity. If the supernatural were not enough to evoke fear of the place, it was whispered that guilty criminals, left behind here, found their just punishment by those cruel ravings of the night. Therefore Dubh Mor, Scottish king of Dumbarton, had delivered up the most dangerous murderers and thieves, bound and helpless, to meet their destiny at this feared place. And so the base of the High Cross had a reputation for the sacred and the profane, and over a wide distance it was knows as the dreaded execution place for trials by ordeal – a heathen remnant that stayed on in the converted peoples of Dalriata. To be found alive after a night with the High Cross affirmed the innocent.
Many had tried to discover the truth about these inexplicable cures and condemned deaths. They had to be satisfied with a gruesome but unsuccessful night in the open, besieged by the lively eyes of wolves. But, one doubtless fact remained: whether judgement or release, all was attributed to the one in whose honour the cross had been created. Was it untrue, then, what was chiseled in the stone - 'Never will he return!'?
* * * * * * * * * *
It happened on one of those cheerless rainy days in late autumn after a twilight which hardly lit the sky at all, so heavy were the clouds that no light could find its way to the wet ground. Wind had arisen and an evening fog hung above the deserted High Cross of Dumbarton. The rejected foliage of the gnarled trees whirled around it. Somewhere outside the bog the howl of a lonesome wolf vied eerily with the wail of a melancholy screech owl. Roaring, murmuring, lisping, gargling and bubbling, the sounds of nature resisted the inherent solemnity of the place. Had a wanderer gone astray here that late evening, he would have heard only these. Otherwise, to what should he have paid attention, here in the midst of wet ruin?
Perhaps to soft, strangely melancholy sounds wafting below the fog, or to the jack-o'-lanterns licking ghostly flames over the water holes? The wanderer was far enough away for them not to make him a victim of their deceit. Perhaps it is a stout, hunchbacked shape which would have excited his attention, that one crouching there at the foot of the High Cross. It could have been so, had he passed alone, this nightly witness...
"Brude! Brude! Turn back!"
The crippled creature squatting in the shadow of the cross started, raising its hands as if to shield itself from attack as it stared out into the bog. The voices were still there.
"Brude! We are your home, your family! Turn back!"
A cool foggy haze snaked over the deserted swamp. Colourful jack-o'-lanterns danced gracefully towards the humpback. Soon glittering spheres swirled about the frightened creature. He had hoped it was only an illusion…in vain did he try to escape unnoticed. They saw huim and approached. What should he do?
"Remember, Brude! Remember how heavy the humiliation you have carried from their taunts! You are afflicted with ignominy! Let us wipe it out! Stay!"
But, the stooped figure held his crooked arms over his wrinkled head, looking desperately about to find a place to hide. His snow-white hair spun about his ugly face as if it were part of the haze which spitefully had encircled the colossal cross.
"Once you came here and called for us, Brude! And we promised we would come. Don't look back, Brude! You may never return!"
"I want ... back ... back!" The poor creature started to flee. With astonishing speed, the short legs carried his twisted body over the brown grass, passing dangerously close to a mudhole that yawned in the morass.
"... back ... back again ..."
"Brude! Brude! They will whip you and move you to the pillory, they will mock you! We love you, we want to soothe your pain! You are one of us, Brude! Of us! Don't forget!"
"Dalriata! Back again ... back ... cannot stay ... may not stay!"
On top of a little hill the exhausted hunchback fell to the ground.
"Dubh Mor! Dubh Mor!"
His glassy eyes roamed the abandoned countryside imploringly and rested on a mighty boulder whose vague outline dominated the drizzling horizon. Flickering lights on the thick walls of the fortress, a low roaring of the nearby creek, the soft murmur of shaking treetops…
"Dalriata ... Dubh Mor ... flesh and blood ... blood ..."
"Brude! Brude! We have heard you twice and you may call only once again! Forget, Brude! Your welfare lies in your forgetting, in this alone!"
"...cannot ...may not forget...Dubh Mor! Dubh Mor!"
Like a moan rising out of the throat of a mortally wounded animal, his lips stammered these words again and again. Fixing on the castle hill, blanketed in fog, a look unspeakably sad and filled with deep longing filled his eyes.
"My flesh and my blood ... Dubh Mor! Dubh Mor!"
"Brude! Brude! One last time we warn you! You will reap naught but scorn and affliction! Turn back to us! You only may call once again!"
"No! No! Let me go! Dubh Mor! Dubh Mor!"
The hunchback sprang up panic stricken onto his crippled feet and stumbled down the slope, tripping and jerking while his nervous fingers sought a fasthold on the tall wet stalks that emerged here and there from the mud. Inspired by an immense will, he braced upon his rickety legs only to drop and tumble like a deformed ball hardly human in shape.
"Must go...Dubh Mor... is waiting ..."
"Brude! Nobody is waiting for you and they will never believe you! Dalriata isn't your world any more! Abandon it! Let them live their lives in ignorance!"
"Dubh Mor .. must believe! All of them must believe!... this despair ... hurts so much ...!"
And the old hunchback wept quietly, tears streaming over the creased cheeks. His bony fingers wiped at them furtively. "They must ... must understand ... must believe ..."
"Brude! Brude ...!"
"I go ... they will believe ... away! Away with you!"
A little object burned like a hot coal in his clenched fist. It was a small box wet with tears and sparkling like the jack-o'-lanterns which encircled him. Confused, expressionless eyes stared at it…this tiny box mockingly peeping out between his cramped fingers.
"No, not found... not stolen…is mine! You must believe me ..."
But the old man was no longer aware of the warning voices around him. He had made his decision already long ago. He toddled off through the ghostly wall of light blue flames, then he limped away, away from the magical protection of the High Cross, away to the mighty, split mountain dome of Dumbarton that lay opposite to the sacred place.
In the shadows of the giant megalith they seized him, seized him with bursting and scornful laughter, dragged at his worm-eaten jerkin until it burst. Strong sinewy fingers grabbed the spindly arms, throwing him into the damp dust of the narrow esplanade. Strong rope cut his wrists, and a disgusting gag stopped up the toothless mouth, choking the moaning creature almost to death.
"Let us greet you again, High King of Dalriata!", their mockery rose in hoarse cries. "Well, you have returned to the castle of your fathers once again, have you? Well now, so that you may again enjoy the hospitality of your unworthy governor, we shall take you to see him! He still has many conveniences to offer!"
And they drove the helpless old man forward like livestock to auction, up the two hundred and fifty steps which led to the White Tower of Dumbarton. They had not gone far before they had to take his arms in theirs so that their deathly tired guest would not stumble. So he was dragged, more than led, through the narrow arch in the megalith. They trailed him, shoving him into a trot up the stone stair. Night's blackness settled upon them as soon as the damp cleft that split the castle rock was reached. They continued on toward the hissing torchlight which marked the next castle gate and stopped.
"Whom do you bring there?
It was a guard who had spoken from his position which straddled the access way to the combat area that was halfway up the castle grounds.
"It is the hunchback!", one of the torturers cried. "He's returned!"
"He has returned?" Amazed, the sentinel quickly stepped aside and let the mob pass by with their wretched freight.
"He really has dared to come back?"
"Yes, he's a devil of a fellow!", one of the warriors grunted cynically as he passed. "He shall get what is due him, to be sure! Dubh Mor will teach him what happens to those who dare to jest about his magnanimity! Brude, the missing High King of Dalriata returns as a ridiculous cripple! Pah!"
And so he who was mockingly called 'High King' was dragged further on. His naked feet staggered up hill and down dale, wounded by the jagged razor-sharp edges of innumerable stone steps. Indifferently his lame legs shuffled over the rough gravel of the lower castle court, in the dark heart of the funnel that ran between the two domed tops of the castle hill. Unbelieving faces stared out of miserable huts. Gaped, as if they couldn't trust their own eyes as to who was again passing that way, some whispered while many a rough throat bawled insults and slander.
"The High King of Dalriata has returned! He's actually risen from the dead! Really! We must do homage to him for all the miracles he has done for his people!"
And whoever of these was allowed to leave his work, joined in the nightly spectacle scornfully, mincing behind the sad convoy behind the growing throng. The jeering and the jeered wound their way along a deep precipice. Nestling against the naked rock it arched over the tapering castle hill on its way to the strong Tower of Dumbarton
As they reached the peak, guards once again stepped from the shadows, measuring the meaning of the strange procession with puzzled eyes. Torches, the flames spitting mercilessly in the powerful winds that swept those heights, blocked the open entrance of the fortress rising up to the overcast sky like a gigantic forefinger pointing to an unseen kingdom.
"Halt! Who desires to pass?"
"Brude has returned! The High King claims his realm!", the crowd howled. "He asks for Dubh Mor! Dubh Mor! Dubh Mor! Take care! Your throne is lost! Your throne ..."
Suddenly the mob fell silent. A mighty shape peeled itself from the surrounding darkness. "What are you crying there, you mad dogs?"
Dubh Mor strode down the steps, pushed his guards roughly aside and thrust himself threateningly before of the sunken old man. A pricking gaze penetrated the limp body.
"The hunchback ...!" The words fell in brittle pieces. Then, as the paralysis of confused astonishment passed, sudden rage loosened the bonds of speechlessness.
"This bug at my bust ...!" His enormous hands, more like paws, sprung around the dried neck of the old cripple, ready to press the last scrap of life out of the maltreated body. But, they only clasped it, not closing to a deathly pressure as if an invisible power impeded them from carrying Dubh Mor's intentions to their fullest conclusion. Finally the great arms, vibrating from anger, fell.
"Are you driven by the devil, old fool? Don't you remember the words of your king commanding you never to return?"
Dumbly nodding, the aged head lifted with infinite slowness. Death weary, pleading eyes replied with an unspeakable sadness to the furious ruler.
"You must be mad!", Dubh Mor mumbled tonelessly. "I promised you death and still, you returned! Must the king of Dalriata soil himself with your stinking blood? What do you mean, old man? Shall I do it? Advise me! You who impudently claims to be my father! Yes, give me your paternal advice. Shall I personally push you down the rock? Or shall I leave you to the wolves lurking outside the castle walls? You take me to embarrassment! And before my gathered people!"
"Dubh Mor! Believe me! Must believe me!"
The hunchback knelt, his agony apparent to all, in front of Dubh Mor's tall powerful shape.
"The proof ... my dear son ... look! The proof ..."
"You want to prove your claim?”
Frowning, Dubh Mor suddenly paused, and for an instant the bared teeth disappeared behind an unkempt, jet black beard. A low murmur had hardly begun to rise like a wave in the rows of onlookers when he demanded, "Lift him up!"
"It is our custom to grant a final wish to the doomed. Now then, old man, try it! Show me your proof! Let me see what it is that avows that you are a king of Dalriata?"
Raised up on wobbly legs the old man staggered feebly while nervously rummaging about in a small pocket sewn inside the shredded lining of his jerkin, worn so bare that it was a mere string of patches falling limply over his emaciated torso. His hand clasped what it sought and his glazed eyes held a faint glimmer of life as he pulled his hand from the vest.
"Here... proof ... the seal of Dalriata ... my seal ... my son ...!"
A glittering object clattered onto the bare stone. Dubh Mor stooped to pick it up, examining it suspiciously in the blazing torchlight. His face hardened like rock.
"The seal box of my father, Brude!", he stammered, staring as one hypnotised at the brilliant splendour of the precious gems which adorned a small box of gleaming heavy gold.
"Yes, it's true! This is my father's. It disappeared with him."
"Dubh Mor...dear son ...do you believe me... now?" the old man softly asked.
"From where have you stolen the most precious treasure of my family?" Dubh Mor seized the creature and knocked him down with one powerful stroke.
"Not found ...not stolen…is mine... believe me...son...!", he whimpered. A brutal kick landed on the crippled hump of the old man's back and he cried out in pain.
"Were you the malicious culprit who murdered my dear father? Say it, old man! Was it you who buried his body in profane earth? I know you robbed him as he lay dying! Confess, you murdering dog, you rabble! You lured your king into an ambush and killed him in cold blood as he hunted in the hills! Confess, or I shall separate your disgusting hump from the rest of you with my own hands!"
"Son ...believe me..."
"So, you will not confess?" Dubh Mor yelled furiously. "Take this as a proof of my abhorrence!" With a whirring that the hunchback knew well, a sword left its sheath.
"Son ... the seal ... is mine ...!" His words were muffled as strong hands rolled him onto his belly, and a sharp blade cut through the jerkin and made its bloody way deep into the ugly bulge.
"Do you confess your misdeed now, villain?"
"Dubh Mor...aaah!" The iron penetrated deeper and deeper into the deformed mass. An abominable layer of clotting and streaming blood surrounded the bones scraped from the old man's spine. Pain stole each spark of consciousness, and the white head limply glided aside.
Displeased, Dubh Mor pulled the sword out of the gaping wound. "He has dared to oppose me again!", he mumbled angrily. "But what's the use of his stubborn cunning lies? Down with him! His presence offends the memory of my dear father! Guards! Bring him to the High Cross where he has done his bloody deed! He shall receive his just punishment there!"
A pouring rain drummed hopelessly upon the broken body of the old man when they raised him to the shaft of the huge Celtic cross. It was hardly more than a heap of bleeding flesh they deposited there – a mass in which heartbeats, far too soft, fought desperately against the inevitable expiration of life.
"What shall happen to him now, M'lord?", one of the guards clattered.
Dubh Mor stepped before the violated creature and looked upon him lost in thought. "Even the blade of my sword did not suffice to snatch a confession from this villain. Leave him to the mercy, or the revenge, of his victim to whom this shrine is dedicated. Tomorrow we will see, whether the wolves have torn him apart or..."
He broke off pensively, his gaze once more turned to the unconscious old man. "...Or whether he has told the truth." he finally added reluctantly.
"Sir! You are doubting?", a bearded giant yelled and looked at him in amazement.
"The trial by ordeal will bring truth to the light!", Dubh Mor replied mumbling. The turning to the ones behind he cried, "Tie him up and leave him to the wolves! He is no more than a mouthful. They will be still be hungry when they have ended their measly meal. And should they be so disgusted that even they disdain him, the worms will take care of him."
These were bold words and the gathered crowd suspected the lump which choked his throat. Deeply embarrassed they lowered their heads while Dubh Mor swung himself on the back of his horse. Brashly he gave him the spurs and galloped to the castle hill.
But, when he returned with witnesses on the following morning to allay his gnawing doubt, he found the High Cross empty. The old man had gone without a trace. It was as if the ground had swallowed him. Well, the High King of Dalriata had gone home to those like him because had he been allowed to call once more.
never will he return ...