Cory was unnerved by the garment. It seemed as cold and empty as the extinguished hearth above which it hung. Though his family insisted that nothing had changed since his previous visits to the manor, he couldn’t shrug off the eerie serenity that the old, faded kilt brought to the hall.
He had visited the family manor – a castle compared to his modest condo back in the States – about a dozen times, and always in a warmer season. The kilt was always the first thing to meet his gaze as he entered the small fortress’s front doors, but there was no joy in seeing it this time: the greyish, pleated garment looked downright melancholic, especially in combination with the heirloom short swords that flanked it above the stoic stone fireplace.
Perhaps it was the weather, but the same could be said of the whole estate: while not drab, the property certainly wasn’t a festive one. A thick, wild wood covered the majority of it, and the manor itself seemed more fitting for Dracula than King Arthur. During Cory’s childhood visits, this grim atmosphere was accentuated by the ghost stories from his second cousin, Kieran. More often than not, Cory would end up trying to go to sleep with visions of dead warriors rising from their barrows.
“Our family has lived on this land for ages,” Kieran would explain, a note of pride in her twelve-year-old voice, “long before the English took our lands and built our house.”
“The English built your house?” a younger Cory, half her age, would ask innocently. “But if they made you leave, why did they build you a house?”
“They didn’t build it for us – we took it back!” Kieran jumped up from her seat in front of the fireplace, mimicking a sword with a log-poker as she continued the story.
“All the men of our Clan rose up against the invaders, chased them down, and chopped them to bits in this very hall!” She stabbed at the shadows, ending with a look of wild exclamation on her face. Cory looked like he might cry.
“But before that,” Kieran added, softening her voice, “they say the menfolk went into the woods and made a bargain with the faeries.” She glanced cautiously around the room. “By their own blood, they would ensure the prosperity of their daughters. So they died along with the English who had taken their lands, leaving the women, this fortress, and that—” she pointed the poker toward the kilt hanging above the fireplace: “The colors of Clan Craelich.”
Cory’s mother would insist that Kieran got those funny stories from her own crazy mum, no doubt passed down from Cory’s great-great grandfather, Alasdair Craelich, whose lonely voyage to the States would establish the Krelock family. In any case, the tales had established the kilt as a sort of anchor for his trips, a testament to the family’s blood and promises of times past, but mostly it was a nostalgic icon of his own visits here.
But again, this time was different. After greeting his relatives, he stared in confusion at the kilt, hanging as unassumingly as ever above the hearth. Something was definitely off. It was dingy, muted – sinister, even.
“Did you guys replace the lighting in here?” he asked his distant cousins.
“We’ve certainly tried to keep up with the times,” Kieran interjected. Cory hadn’t seen her yet, and her sudden appearance took him by surprise. “We’ve got indoor plumbing and central air, too,” she joked. “It’s not just a big, scary castle anymore.” She gave a sarcastic smirk, and it broke his attention long enough for proper reintroductions. Still, as the family led him to his usual quarters, he glanced again at the kilt from the corner of his eye.
Maybe it’s just the light of October, he thought.
Cory had only come to visit in autumn once before. In his adolescence, the Krelocks usually came during summer vacation. It wasn’t every year, but hiking through fields of gorse and heather in the Scottish highlands beneath a temperate summer sun was cathartic.
Just under ten years ago, though, Cory made an unexpected trip for an unexpected occasion: when his father, Nate, left their Dallas home for family business in Scotland, the man never came back. After a flight to Glasgow in early November, Cory and his mother drove up to Inverness for legal discussions and to attend the funeral service. Virtually everything was overseen and paid for by the Craelichs, for which Cory remained grateful.
Cory didn’t visit the manor that time, as he had to return home promptly for a conference. Thereafter, he found himself accepting fewer offers to visit the old country, though once in a blue moon he would be sent for work, and he’d feel obligated to visit his family. He didn’t necessarily enjoy the prospect any less than he used to; now there was just an odd sense of unease about that manor and its cold, stone walls.
Perhaps, subconsciously, he had returned this time to honor his father in the cool of autumn nearing the tenth anniversary of Nate’s death. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but Cory found little comfort in the gray weather, nor in the usual hospitality of the Craelich clan. He was certainly no better off trying to figure out why the kilt had unsettled him so. Sheltered from the cold evening in his guest bedroom, he reclined on a divan, mulling over conversations he had with his kinfolk earlier in the day.
They talked about the usual – how work was going, the political climate. But eventually they came around to remembering Nate, retelling how he’d managed to fall on his own knife after tripping in the woods of the estate. The Craelichs had often expressed how they felt responsible for the tragedy, wondering how differently things might’ve turned out if Alan and Mairi, the Craelich siblings nearest to Nate’s age, had followed more closely during their hike.
Cory tried to assure them, as he had many times before, that his father would’ve gone ahead by himself no matter how they tried to keep up:
“Dad always said he had Alasdair’s sense of adventure. He liked to set out on his own. There’s no one to blame but circumstance. Besides,” he eyed Kieran, “you guys have done more than enough to help out my side of the family.”
Kieran returned his smile: “We look after our own. You might be removed a few generations, but you’re still blood.”
Sitting in the guest room, Cory lost his gaze in the flame of the antique lamp on the bedside table. He came back to that statement. You’re still blood. The flame wavered slightly.
That was it! He shot up from the divan as he realized why the kilt had him on edge: there was – or should have been – a vibrant, crimson stripe repeated in the tartan’s pattern. It was so obvious, he didn’t know how he had missed it, but this time that blood red stripe was almost pink. The threads had simply faded – like the memory of his father over the years.
Cory’s look of achievement was replaced again with bewilderment as he stood in the hall, dim moonlight streaming in through a window. He couldn’t recall a single time during his visits when the kilt did not appear over the fireplace: none of the Craelichs had ever mentioned cleaning or care; there had never been any talk of redecorating. And yet the space lay bare.
If the faded threads bothered him before, he was surely more perturbed now at the kilt’s complete absence. The one object that he always knew would await him in the family hall had disappeared – just like his father some ten years ago.
That’s absurd, he thought. Why am I making such a big deal of this?
He was sure that the Craelichs had a plausible reason to take down the garment. He would wait until morning and inquire at breakfast. His worries somewhat allayed, he made his way to the window to look out over the property. But once again, instead of relief, he saw in the moonlight a scene that unnerved him: a figure in dark, flowing robes was shuffling hastily away from the manor toward the wood. The figure carried a bundle in its arms, though Cory couldn’t make out the details.
Why Cory pursued was beyond him, but he soon found himself in the cold October air, his house shoes plodding along in the damp grass. By the time he made it to the lawn, he saw the figure disappear onto a path in the woods. Had he stopped to think why on earth he would enter the same woods in which his father died unattended, he might’ve said it was for family, but he focused instead on wrapping his night robes tightly about him and headed into the trees.
He couldn’t be sure how long he walked. The path, while overgrown, was fairly easy to discern in the moonlight, and the figure covered its tracks poorly. Eventually Cory caught a glimpse of the figure rounding a thicket and vanishing into a cleared space beyond. Cory tried to quiet his steps as he approached, and soon found himself at the edge of a small, circular clearing in the woods.
At the center was a mound with about half a dozen large, ancient stones leaning one against another. A cairn? he asked himself. He kept to the edge of the trees, carefully surveying the area, before he noticed something out of place: a garment laid over a single, oblong stone before the structure.
After a cautious look around, he slowly made his way forward. His silent approach revealed the faded kilt draped upon the stone, ominous beneath the moonlight.
“Looking for ghosts?” The sudden clearness of Kieran’s voice made Cory’s heart jump into his throat as he spun around.
“Jesus!” he spat out, “Was that you? What are you doing out here?” Then he thought, What am I doing out here?
She paused before responding: “This place brings me calm. Much like our ancestors who are buried here.” She gestured toward the structure, exposing one hand from her dark robes, and Cory understood that he’d guessed correctly: this mound served as a barrow.
“That’s all well and good,” Cory replied, regaining his composure, “But this seems like an odd hour for visitation. And the kilt – did you bring it here?” He circled back to his original intention.
“Aye, I did.” She moved closer to him. “You remember the tale? Warriors going out into the night?” She extended the same hand toward the garment. “Their pact still holds. By Craelich blood, our ancestors ensure the prosperity of their daughters.”
At the mention of blood, he tried to return the conversation to the stripe. “I was thinking earlier, about how the kilt looked different, and—”
She cut him off: “Did you know that the bones of your own father lay here?” She pointed toward the barrow’s open entrance with the same hand. This took him off guard, and he turned toward the entrance as Kieran slipped quietly behind him. More softly, she added: “So must yours.”
Earlier, had Cory not been so preoccupied with the kilt’s absence above the hearth, he would’ve noticed that one of the short swords was also missing from the display. Only now did he recognize its shape emerging from his chest, cold steel growing warm with his blood as it shone in the moonlight.
Cory wasn’t sure what had happened. The sword faded from his focus. As his own life seeped from him, the kilt came into view: the faded stripe that had monopolized his thoughts grew gradually deeper, bolder, redder. An eerie serenity came over him, and he understood.
— © 2017 Adam Henson
From Life In A Kilt Podcast‘s “Kilt of Horrors” 2017