In the lash and bite of the snowstorm through which John can see nothing but white, it occurs to him that the stories must be real: the Devil lurks in these hills, sinful men will meet bad ends, and once you see the Devil over your shoulder, you are already lost.
He turns around at the sudden movement he senses behind him and braces himself. Out of the wind-whipped snow comes an apparition, complete with an iced-up beard. ‘Hamish?’ John clears his throat. The figure shuffles closer until, to his relief, he sees the pair of familiar brown eyes. ‘Man, where did you get to?’ he demands, collecting himself.
The wind hurls away his friend’s reply and John shakes his head. Hamish has no more luck understanding his words than John his own, but he beckons and beckons until, at last, John follows him back to where the rest of the gang of thieves are huddled together, gesturing and shouting.
‘. . . didn’t even know the way?’
‘. . . bloody pint of beer and my feet up . . .’
Each man is up to his calves in the snow. Connor, the youngest of them, isn’t saying anything. He is just standing out of earshot from Andrew and Ewan, his head on a constant swivel.
‘We need to get to the shelter!’ John cries.
The storm is picking up pace, but as the wind gives out for a moment Connor’s words manage to reach the rest of them. ‘Didn’t you see it? There’s something out there, in the storm—I saw it!’
John’s heart lurches. ‘What do you mean you saw something? There’s nothing out there but bad weather!’ he yells, pushing away his fear with the fire of anger. Connor, wide-eyed and hardly blinking, shakes his head emphatically, still gesturing to himself. ‘Don’t be a fool!’ John says to the lad. ‘Who would come out here in this hoolie except us?’
The pouch and its stolen goods lie heavy on his belt. He had not intended for things to go this far, but what else were folk meant to do? When the tacksman came calling at the end of a bad year that followed a string of other bad ones, none of the tenants could pay.
So one thing led to another and here they were, a servant dead in their wake and part of the Duke of Gordon’s fortune at his waist. They are up here to stash it safely under a stone until it can be fenced.
He shifts his weight and sinks deeper into the snow. It is too late to take any of it back now. They can only go onwards.
‘We need to get to the Shelter Stone,’ John says, and he turns around to continue wading through the deep snow. When he turns back a few steps later, the rest of them are following in his tracks, apart from Connor, who is staring the other way. John gestures to Ewan and Andrew, and they grab the young lad by the shoulders, turning him bodily around.
At least those two aren’t fools. No . . . no. In the crook of the Cairngorm mountains, the Shelter Stone—remote, difficult to get to . . . what had he been thinking? It made sense back in the strath, but now, with the howling wind in his ears and the ice creeping across his clothes and exposed skin . . .
John spares another quick glance over his shoulder. He can just make out each of his companions, strung out in a line behind him. He ploughs onwards, knowing that he can’t pray to be going in the right direction, for God has no reason to protect thieves.
Sinful men meet bad ends.
A strong gale blows across the white plateau, nearly knocking him over. At this rate, squinting into the white blizzard through which he can barely see his own hands, they might come within spitting distance and not see the stone under which he’d planned to stash the stolen goods. He tucks his chin deeper into his coat collar and concentrates on his feet. The snow piles down quickly. With each step, a rim of snow thickens around his boots. He struggles onward, step by step proving more difficult.
He should be checking his surroundings—looking out for the stone, for the cliffs surrounding Loch Avon or the deep pass that cuts through these mountains, the Lairig Ghru; to stumble over either in this whiteout is certain death, and a high possibility. He should be checking on his party and registering the landmarks, but it is hard to keep raising his head when all he gets is a face full of stinging snow and the sense that he is leading them all to their doom. If only they weren’t so pathetic as to be following him.
At last, after a few more paces, John stops to look up, squinting into the white void. Nothing looks like the imposing Shelter Stone. Hearing something behind him and bracing himself again, he turns to find Hamish ploughing determinedly through the snow towards him. There is something amiss, John thinks, seeing the urgency in his bearded friend’s strides.
Behind Hamish, through the whiteness, John can just about make out the shape of the other three; but there is something uncanny about it. He alternates between glaring and rapid blinking to clear the ice from his eyelashes, trying to understand what is bothering him.
‘John!’ Hamish’s usually commanding bellow is reduced to a tattered thing next to the gale’s screams.
‘What is it?’
Hamish wades a few paces closer. From here, John registers the fear in the other man’s face, his brown eyes darting from side to side, much as Connor’s had earlier.
Connor. John looks back to the indistinct shape over Hamish’s shoulder. He can just about make out the silhouettes of Ewan and Andrew, but he now sees what had not seemed right before: emptiness.
‘John!’ Hamish draws to a panting halt beside him. He takes several deep breaths. ‘There’s something out there, John. It got Connor!’
If you see the devil over your shoulder, you’re already dead.
John stiffens. It’s as if there is something behind him, breathing brimstone down his neck. But he keeps facing Hamish, resisting the urge to look around. Fairy tales and legends do no good out here. The men need common sense and leadership.
‘We have to press on,’ he says. ‘It’s getting—’
‘But he’s just a lad!’
‘There’s nothing we can do for him now,’ John says, a stab of contempt cutting through him, both for himself and for Hamish, who he knows will obey despite his protests. ‘If we don’t get to shelter soon, we’ll all be dead.’ At that moment, the wind stops for a brief lull. Ewan and Andrew are closer now, following in the large path that he and Hamish ploughed. ‘It’s every man for himself now, Hamish.’ He turns away quickly, belly churning, guilt and fear turning into bile, threatening to choke him. Despite his many weaknesses and regrets, John is sure of one thing now: he will do whatever it takes to survive.
And so he does not look over his shoulder as he breaks trail, imagining the eyes of his companions burning into his back, hating and blaming him—as they should, since the whole thing had been his design. But they are not guiltless, no. There is a heavy pouch jingling at the belt of each man, even the young one, Connor, likely lying down in a snowdrift, dying by degrees.
He does not look over his shoulder when he thinks he hears a scream. It is merely the wind; just the storm, and he is close to the Shelter Stone. He can sense it.
He does not look over his shoulder even as he stumbles on hidden rocks and the slope grows ever steeper. He does not look over his shoulder as a second set of footsteps joins his own, audible even over the howling wind.
Sinful men, looking at you, John Danvil, come to painful ends.
Superstitions, stories told to keep folk in their place so they don’t do such things as take money from the laird who is sitting in his big house while the small folk suffer.
Was that a second scream?
John grits his teeth and resists the urge to look around, but there it is again, louder and more familiar than the roar of the gale. If the stories really are unfolding on this forsaken stretch of the Cairngorms, there must only be one of his companions left. He ploughs on, trying not to think of all the ways in which Hamish has been like a brother to him over the years.
The slope is steep and the drifts are getting higher. He is close, but each step is a struggle infinitely more difficult than the last. And that sound—the other set of footsteps that somehow echo loudly even though his own are barely audible—is still there, somewhere behind him.
Suddenly losing his balance, John catches himself, the ground no longer there in front of him. Dark, empty space. He has reached a cliff. John takes stock, his heart hammering. If he’s reached the pass, he is far off course from the Shelter Stone.
Carefully turning back to retrace his steps, he sees not steadfast Hamish, nor Ewan nor Andrew, not even young Connor, but an apparition borne from his darkest dreams. The snow is melting around its cloven feet and its eyes burn into John’s.
Silence swallows the storm.
‘John,’ the figure whispers, extending a bony hand out toward him.
The fear burns inside of him. There is no snow dowsing him, no wind flaying.
‘John.’ The beast’s forked tongue caresses the name as it passes over those cruel lips. ‘You are wiser than your companions, I know.’ Those cloven hooves walk in a circle around him now.
‘You know what I can offer you, John. Eternal life. Eternal riches. No more grovelling for scraps. No more fear.’
That hand is still outstretched. John stares at it, half in a dream.
‘They will fear you,’ the Devil says, leaning forwards, its breath hot against John’s frozen face—blessedly hot at first, warming his chilled flesh like a fire. Then, just before sensing the full heat, the Devil leans back again and the cold surges back in. He can only stare at the figure, whose eyes are fixed on his own. ‘All that, and more, John. Just take my hand and it will all be yours.’
His heart still beats in the lash and bite of the snowstorm that conceals everything except the beast in front of him. The stories are real, then—no doubt about it now. The Devil is in these hills. Sinful men come to bad ends, and when you see the Devil at your back . . .
John slowly reaches out to take the Devil’s hand; his skin blisters and burns. He screams as loud as he can, but the Devil doesn’t let go. A grin splits its face.
All at once, John drops down from the clifftop. Just as he goes, he thinks he sees the Shelter Stone over the Devil’s shoulder. Are those several shapes approaching it, their heads down against the wind? It can’t be—he shouldn’t be able to see the stone from here . . .
But those are all the thoughts he could fit in before falling through the air faster than the snow, falling fast towards the rocks below. The rocks will receive him and then there will be no more thoughts from John Danvil, small-time thief and poor companion, who took the hand of the Devil at the mouth of the Lairig Ghru.
Photograph: Zac Durant