Hurradrum

Dead Rabbits

Horse2The highland green has grown as long as the summer days, offering sheep, cattle, and horses plenty to graze and grow fat upon. The spring’s bounty is in need of counting and branding. It is a good time for the Highlanders to tend to their animals.

To that end, clans Fraiser and McPherson have taken to the open fields, collecting their herds of horse. It is hard, honest work that keeps the men busy in the weeks following the annual games. Riding with Blaise is his wife Ruby and daughter Amber, plus the na-Baron, Simon Locke, and his friend Vaush. Several other men of clan Fraiser have joined them.

Roaming herds have forced the party several days southeast of Glenfeld, near a stand of ancient rock known as Fathach Mullach, the Giant’s Crown. A common fixture for those born of the highlands, this lone hill of stone monoliths is often a point of interest for anyone from the lowlands. Taking less than an hour’s ride to reach, Amber offers to guide Simon and Vaush there while on one of their daily hunting excursions.

The arrival of the three is full of peaked curiosity as they come over a grassy ridge for their first view of the Crown. Though never without her parents, Amber has been here before and knows what to expect. For the boys, it is Simon and Vaush’s first time to the Highland Stones. Neither has ever known its like. It is an awe-inspiring sight.

Below and before them rests a natural bowl of green. Cupped by steep hills for three-quarters of the rim, the last portion is anchored by an ancient stand of forested trees. At the center of the bowl sits a single elevated hill, unnaturally rounded and flat. Combined with the contours of the surrounding landscape, the mound forms a perfectly moated structure save one land bridge leading towards the thick woods.

Atop the lone hill lines three concentric circles of stone, each progressively taller as they work towards the center. The tallest measures at least three times the height of an average man. Only a solitary hawk perched upon one of the standing giants commands a greater height.

Wanting to get a closer look, it is no real work to cross the makeshift moat filled with open land and grass. The only real hindrance the trio encounters is the immediate steepness climbing the Crown, but that is quickly overcome. Reaching the outer ring the children dismount, leaving their rides behind. Disturbed by their arrival, the hawk takes flight for the nearby forest.

Serpent stoneFalling a foot or two short of these outer guardians, Amber, Simon, and Vaush work their way between the ancient stones. The years have aged all the hard edges away, leaving some cracked and pitted. Carved, but faded images are still evident upon most of their surfaces. The majority of symbols are cryptic in meaning, with only a few resembling modern ideals. Giving them little interest, the three visitors move inward.

The second set of stones is taller still. If Amber were to guess, she would say they’re twice the height of her father with a width equal to his outstretched arms and possessing the thickness of a horse’s midsection. Standing in pairs that hardly let a man pass between them, each is capped with a granite lintel. It is beyond the children’s collective imagination as to how such massive blocks were made to stand. Or for that matter, how the builders were able to place such crushing objects across the top of each pair. This wonderment is only eclipsed by what they soon discover at the center.

Here stands a triangle of monolithic proportions. Each side is comprised of an enormous, blue-veined, granite slab, unique from the other two rings, and standing near on twenty feet tall. Though seemingly as old as the rest of the structure, these three exhibit very little weathering. Intricate carvings of swirling shapes and geometric patterns coat the entire inner-facing wall of each stone. From what they can tell, the etchings remain smooth and precise throughout.

Walking amongst these giants the three witness a single stone slab laying flat upon the ground. It has all the signs of a sacrificial altar, complete with old and ominous stains at one end and three smooth holes tunneling from side to side. Speculation about their use is kept to a quiet minimum. But unlike the surrounding monoliths, the altar stone shows significant wear from time and the elements. Whatever unsavory carvings once adorned its surfaces, they have long since vanished into history.

Vaush, finding nothing in the symbols that he can make sense of, starts following the path leading to the land bridge and the opposing forest. It’s at this moment Chester gives a plaintive whine to his master. The sound is as unfamiliar as it is disturbing to Simon. He can’t help but feel as if something is wrong… that there is imminent danger. Amber has also contracted a feeling of unease that has her hand now resting upon the pommel of her short sword.

Having just stepped forth from the outer ring and onto the land bridge, Vaush hears the concern in Simon’s voice as his name is called out in warning. It’s enough to stop him in his tracks. But standing there only gives Vaush the sense of being exposed to an unseen presence. So where is it?

Scanning the trees ahead does not make Vaush feel any safer. The dark and forbidding veil of old growth offers only more suspicion to a gut instinct screaming danger. Nor does it help that after a bit more examination Vaush spies a section where the leaves fail to rustle in the gentle breeze. Not wanting to turn his back to whatever is hidden, he slowly steps backwards into the relative safety of the stones.

Meanwhile, still standing among the giants at the center of the hill, Simon’s anxiety has elevated to a more hands-on experience. Not content to remain unarmed in the face of mysterious danger, he has readied his bow, notching an arrow home. However, before being able to pull the string back, an unseen hand firmly grasps Simon’s forearm. It is not enough to cause damage or pain, but the pressure is sufficient to stay his attempt at fulfilling the action. Not that the shock of being grabbed by some ghostly force wasn’t enough to accomplish the same results.

By now all three young explorers are spooked to the point of wanting to depart the Giant’s Crown. Regrouping, they make a rapid retreat for their horses. It is only in the effort of remounting their steeds that any take notice of the day’s most alarming occurrence: three dead rabbits.

How the rabbits came to be lying at this precise point is beyond any of the children to say. Other than their own tracks coming and going, Amber is unable to find any evidence of another’s passing. Nor can she identify the cause of death for their unexpected bounty. Each hare is unmarked, perfect as the day it was born. Health personified, excepting they are dead. To her eye, it is as if each animal simply hopped to the spot in the grass, lay down, and died for the pleasure of being the evening’s meal.

But what should they do with their discovery? Are they a gift? A warning? None of them can say for certain. Three dead rabbits might have easily been three dead children.

Not wanting to offend their potential benefactor, the children decide to take the rabbits with them. At least they won’t be returning to camp empty handed. They also decide to stave off any questions about their mystery catch by wounding each with an arrow. Better to show that they had a successful hunting trip than try to convince others of the truth.

The ride back to camp is quiet; each lost in their own thoughts about what was or what could have been. Thankfully, the camp is deserted upon their return. The other members of the party have yet to make their way back from the day’s work, giving Amber time to skin their trophies and prepare dinner.

But it is not the men who ride into camp first; rather it is two of Amber’s older male cousins, Collin and Craig. Both seem out of sorts and tight lipped. Even scared by Vaush’s opinion. Unlike Amber and the boys, the pair has nothing to add to the night’s meal. It is unlike either to return so early from the hunt empty handed. Vaush can’t resist questioning the less nervous of the two, especially in light of his own recent experience.

Only by offering up Vaush’s own odd story does Collin eventually share one of equal strangeness. It starts off well enough with the two chasing some large game into the nearby forest. But before either Collin or Craig can bring a spear to bear upon their prey, the two boys are confronted by what can only be described as a “large, two-legged pig.” Being too scared by the strange beast to continue the hunt, the pair turned tail and made haste for their rides. They didn’t stop riding until making it safely back to camp.

With their stories completed, it is quickly agreed that neither group will inform the adults of their fantastic tales. As Collin put it, “I won’t talk about your non-moving trees, if you don’t talk about my two-legged pig.” In either case, nobody is looking to have their sanity questioned.

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