Samhain – 1618
At the very edge of England is a land of fables and superstition, where tales are told of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the tragic love between Tristan and Iseult, forced by a spell to seek one another.
Here stands the fishing village of Port Gwyneth, facing the Atlantic Ocean, on the edge of the sea. A little haven, nestling in a sheltered cove amidst the rugged granite cliffs, it consists of a small cluster of wooden houses. Boats rock at anchor on the land-side of a dilapidated jetty.
High above, at the top the cliffs, snow begins to fall from the sky.
Joan Kemp kneels by the precipice, searching amongst the scrub for plants that can make and mend. Knapweed and Feverfew, good for those bruised from a fall, or to heal wounds. As flakes hit her face and melt, she looks up.
Astonished by a fiery light streaking over the horizon, she cries out to her husband Clem.
‘Look above, ’tis stardust! Dancing int’ sky!’
They watch the sparkling object as it approaches. For a brief moment, a bright glow blinds them. As it fades, it reveals (on what, a split second ago, was bare ground) a circle of ancient lichen-covered standing stones, sunk deep in the grass.
‘What were that?’ asks Joan in a tremulous voice. ‘A sign from God?’
Clem, for a moment, is taken aback, but his mind insists on finding a rational explanation for this strange event.
‘’Tis just the moonlight sparking on the old stones.’
‘What old stones?’ Joan queries. Then, as if a long-lost memory has resurfaced, she answers herself. ‘Oh yes, the circle.’ How could she have forgotten them? Had she not played hide and seek amongst them as a child? Lichen covered menhirs that have stood here for centuries, the villagers believing curious stories of their origin and purpose.
‘They be playing tricks on us,’ she mutters. ‘Must be some old magic still in them.’
They go back to their foraging, but the snow falls more heavily, impeding their work.
‘This is no good,’ moans Clem. ‘We should never have come out on a night as foul as this.’
‘You know,’ replies Joan, ‘the book sayeth the best time to gather is in moonlight, for the plants to work best.’
For just a moment, her mind tricks her into hearing an infant’s cry.
‘Did you hear that?’
‘I hear nothing,’ replies Clem, ‘but the blasted wind. I tell ‘e, a blizzard be coming. We should be away to our beds!’
Joan dismisses the noise as an illusion, until she hears the cry again, louder this time, piercing through the sound of the storm.
‘You must have heard that!’ she cries, fighting her way through the forming snow drifts, letting the bawl guide her towards the standing stones.
‘Impossible,’ shouts Clem, stumbling after her. ‘It cannot be.’
They run as best they can through the deepening snow in the direction of the cry. Every so often they stop, listening for the location of the next sob. Clem sweeps the flaming torch he carries in an arc, back and forth, to identify the source of the howl.
Amid the stones, the fire illuminates something wriggling in the snow.
‘God’s heart!’ exclaims Clem. ‘Stone me, it’s—’
‘A baby! Oh my Lord!’
They fall to their knees beside a child, lying in the snow.
‘It looks all right. No cuts or bruises,’ remarks Clem, ‘but naked, poor thing. So cold and stiff. Did someone leave it here to die?’
‘How could anyone be so cruel? It’s so tiny!’ replies Joan.
Clem stands, removes his coat and passes it to her to swaddle the baby in.
Joan cuddles the baby, and it stops crying, as it gulps large breaths in her arms. She whispers, ‘There, there, little baby. You’re safe now.’
Back in the wooden shack they call home, the two surrogate parents dote over the baby, wrapped in a warm blanket in Joan’s arms.
‘Oh, she’s perfect, Clem. Look at her beautiful red hair,’ says Joan, kissing the child. ‘God only knows how she has suffered!’
‘Aye, she’s such a beauty; I can scarce believe she’s natural, so perfect. She looks right with you though… like you were made to be her mother.’
Joan sighs, and Clem is concerned. ‘I didn’t mean… I just meant… well… maybe God has seen to put right our past misfortunes.’
Headstones in the village cemetery attest to the various tragedies that have befallen the Kemps, for they have lost more than one child at birth or to influenza. Now left childless, they have no hope of conceiving again.
‘Aye,’ says Joan, with a tear in her eye. ‘God seems to sow and reap as he pleases. Having taken from us, perhaps he has given for a change.’
The baby wriggles, thrusting its hand out from the surrounding blanket.
Joan smiles contentedly. ‘Now I can be sure that my knowledge will not die with me. I will teach her the cures and the ways of magic.’
‘What shall we call this little miracle?’ asks Clem.
‘Aye, ’tis from the bible. It means, “My delight is in her”.’
Back at the stones, a distraught mother, filled with remorse and regret, searches for the baby she has abandoned. She wishes she could go back to the time before she succumbed to the charms of Ned, before he pushed her down on the deck of his boat and forced himself upon her. She wishes she had ignored her mother’s demands. Don’t let a small mistake ruin your life, be rid of it. It’ll be fine; someone will find it. But what if they don’t? The baby could freeze to death. Or be taken by animals. Why had she been so stupid, so heartless? Is she too late to redeem herself?
With relief, she spots the child. It has crawled beneath one of the stones, to shelter from the snow.
She looks down at the baby’s face, peaceful and angelic in sleep. Identical in every regard to the baby cradled at this moment, less than a mile away, in Joan’s arms.
‘Please forgive me,’ she weeps. ‘I promise I will never leave you again. We cannot stay here, though, for they have contempt for a fallen woman in this place.’
At this point in the story, it would be useful to turn the clock back an hour or so. To the exact moment Joan and Clem stared up at the fiery lights in the sky, but a different location, hundreds of miles away. Snow-capped mountains, shaped by ancient ice sheets, loom over black lochs. Here in the Highlands of Scotland, a tall man with a pale face and a long nose stalks the hill above his village. A greater contrast between the innocence of an abandoned baby and the corruption of adulthood could not be found. Fraser Campbell is a sharp-tongued rogue, a thief, and a lying drunken rascal. Only someone fooled by the warmth of alcohol would venture out on a night like this.
Icy flakes scourge his face and he stumbles in the dark, squelching through bog and thickets of heather. He shakes his fist at the snow-filled night sky above.
‘Whit’s this? ’Tis lik’ th’ heavens ha’e opened!’ he cries in anger.
He thinks, with bitterness, of the wife who has thrown him out of his home. The one skill he has is catching fish, but he has upset the whole community with his untrustworthy behaviour and the sheriff has confiscated his boat. Many are the times he cried ‘’ere they are!’ whilst pointing in the opposite direction to an incoming shoal, so that his own boat could land the biggest catch.
A burning light in the sky illuminates the black landscape, and for a moment he is awestruck. Then he shakes his head with contempt.
‘Whit dae ah care fur omens o’ doom?’ he mutters. ‘Ah hate th’ world ‘n’ a’ body in it. Let thare be an end tae it all!’
In a moment he regrets this statement, as he feels a sharp pain in his back. Gasping for air, he turns and twists around. An assailant has pulled a long knife, covered in blood, from Fraser’s back. Now he thrusts it into his chest.
Fraser looks down at the hilt protruding from his rib cage, then, in shock, stares up into the man’s face. Baffled, he struggles to make sense of what he sees…. The cold reality chills his blood.
It is a face he recognises. His own face. As he eyes flicker shut, his last thought is of the impossible — that he has murdered himself.