10719478555_a45209daa8_m Morrigan, a retelling of the Headless Horseman

A whistled song disturbs my sleep. Just outside the churchyard, I lie, warm and drowsy, buried within the earth, roofed by a grove of dark pines whose fallen needles and verdant mosses quilt my bed. Loath to leave a lovely pleasure, I rouse slowly, lift my head, look above to find stars twinkling through rising storm clouds. No moon. Not yet. Except for the whistle, the world seems as drowsy as I am. The ditty stops, then starts again.

Fully awake now, I gaze into the night. A lone man travels, treading the hallowed ground of the cemetery that surrounds the dark-as-death stone church standing guard. The only light is the flickering gold of his lantern. Illuminated gravestones rise and waver like wraiths. Carved crosses lift their arms to fly ghostlike above the turf. The man staggers, trips over his own crapulous feet, rises. The whistling stops again. Under his breath he mutters a prayer as he peers into the murky dark beyond his light before continuing down the narrow rocky path. His lamp recedes. Marble slabs retreat into gloom. Crucifixes take roost after their flight. Through the black wrought-iron gate he passes, leaving the consecrated churchyard for the profane road that snakes from village to church to farm, resuming his warble to maintain his courage.

Had he been silent, the man might have escaped. My Master will soon awaken with the noise. Like me, he seems unwilling to disturb his repose, takes too long to stir. The whistler walks safely on. I follow his progress by his occasional hiccough, more frequent curse, as he stumbles on the wagon ruts in the road.

Above a nimbused blue moon rises, gilding the scalloped edges of storm clouds sliding slowly past its face.

My Master stirs. His hand strokes my withers as he growls, “Art ye ready, Morrigan?” He savors my name, rolling it over his tongue. “Mor-r-r-igan, my sweet.”

Eager, I bow my assent. He touches me, my Lord Ewen, with the hand of a lover. My muscles quiver at the intimacy of his caress on my flank. I nuzzle under his arm, waiting a further sign of his affection, waiting to serve, waiting to submit.

At a delicate flick of his whip, I burst from the earth in a billowing grey mist. My nostrils flare in excitement; my hot breath steams the gelid air. Next to me, amidst a tenebrous cloud, a swirl of pitch-black announces my Lord’s resurrection. He whirls his long cloak about him, swathing himself in a shroud of black-watch plaid, eyes glowing fever-red. I prance before him, paw the soft ground with great hooves, nicker softly. Again, he touches me. I tremble, anticipating his need. When at last he mounts, his strong thighs embrace me.

We start slowly. He yawns. I stretch my legs. The carpet of the forest floor cushions my steps. Water oozes from the damp leafy loam muffling the noise of my hooves. My Master guides me to a gentle stream. Beneath an immense black oak tree I dabble my feet as I drink, watching wavering reflections of stars within the ripples of the dark sweet water. My soft splashes are the only sound in the silent forest beyond the eerie hoot of the night owl and the fading too-cheerful whistle of the now-distant man. His melody falters a moment, then resumes, a wee bit louder.

“We have time, Morrigan. Drink as you wish.”

When I’ve had my fill, my Lord stretches over my head, strokes me, reassures me he is mine as much as I am his. Soft and sweet his hand follows the angle of my jaw to cup my nostrils. I breathe his scent, whinny my desire.

Another flick of the whip, harder, more urgent.

“Now, Morrigan! Fly!” His heels dig into my sides.

The night is brisk, perfect for running. To please him, I reach my long legs wide, galloping with joy, mane and tail whipping the air, streaming steamy breath behind. The weather has warmed. Whilst almost gone from the road, the snow yet lingers patchy in the fields, the stubble of harvested wheat like a day’s growth of a man’s beard. The way stretches miles before me, deep ruts filled with melted snow, each puddle reflecting the golden face of the moon. I bound through every one, splashing, shattering the fulvous orbs. Droplets fall to earth, yellow tears falling from the heavenly countenance. We are nearly upon the whistler. Lord Ewen laughs, low and deep, thrilling me.

The man hears, whirls, sees us. His face whitens in the lantern glow. He screams, a terrible shriek that sears my ears, then drops to his knees whimpering like a wounded animal. I race toward him at full gallop. At last he comes enough to his senses to rise and run on legs powered by fear.

I neigh in triumph, delighting in the pursuit. The game is not yet won. My Master reins me in, extending the chase, prolonging our pleasure. The man careens toward the span that crosses the creek believing evil spirits and ghosts cannot cross running water and, with a flash of fire and brimstone, my Master and I will vanish.

Just before obtaining the bridge, the man stumbles. The lantern falls, wobbling at his feet, creating a jittery play of light and shadows on nearby trees. In an instant, I am upon him, rearing high, front legs flailing the air, braying the trumpet call of death. Terrified, he flounders beneath me, feeling my hell-breath, crawling crablike to escape my hooves. Nor stripling nor full man, he has the broad back and burly thighs of a plowboy, a comely face round and smooth, lustful lips red likely with kisses recently stolen from a barmaid.

My Master’s curved sword, as bright the smile as he once wore, sings out, slicing the man’s head from his shoulders. A spray of dense dark blood cloaks us in sweet-smelling drops.

He shudders, my Master, then slumps over my head, moans deep and visceral in my ear. Beneath him, I shiver. “Steady, girl.” His voice is soft, thick, sated. The fingers of one hand weave through my mane while the other strokes my neck gently, absently. My Lord yet breathes hard.

At last, he leaps from my back to stand tall beside me, his long legs white as a woman’s beneath his tartan kilt. His hands rise, grasping his neck. With a twist, he plucks from his shoulders his old head, tossing it away. In the soft lantern glow shines the face of an ancient man whose once-rheumy eyes are now dry and lifeless. An empty skull with tattered glaucous hair, strips of rotting muscle parting from bone, slack jaw clacking against upper teeth, spins chin over pate before disappearing into the night. My Master, holding the lad’s head before him, finds his own headless image reflected its eyes. Howling in despair, he crowns himself with this new cranium.

Centuries ago, when the King’s man severed Lord Ewen’s head in battle, it rolled, queued red hair, full moist lips soft and pink, surprised meadow-green eyes, on the hallowed ground of the churchyard where he, who kept pagan ways, could not retrieve it. Now and through eternity, we rise with every blue moon to search for the perfect head. Tonight with glossy brown curls gleaming in the lantern light and mossy eyes sparkling in a young man’s handsome face, my Master kisses me with still-warm lips and whiskey-ed breath. “Better’n the last one, Morrigan, but ‘tis na right quite yet. ‘Twill do for now.”

Down the dark road, regarded only by the fierce yellowed eyes of forest beasts, we gallop rapturously, escaping for the moment the prison of our fate. In savage battles my Master slashes pumpkins in the fields and whacks low-lying branches with his sword, repaying enemy soldiers for his death. When the vermilion fingers of dawn like fires of hell streak the cloudless eastern sky; my Master sighs, sheaths his weapon, tightens my reins, slows me, wheels me toward our grave.

Storm clouds break open above us as we fly to the west, outrunning daybreak. Hard rains wash away the blood, cleanse us, baptize us. In the distance, the village cocks crow. When we reach the pines that serve as our gravestone, we return to our earthen bed, sinking slowly beneath its warm quilt of pine needles and mosses, roofed by fragrant boughs. Wrapped in his plaid shawl, we lie together spooned close like lovers. He kisses me, falls asleep with his fingers still entwined in my mane. For a moment, things are as they were before my Master fell, before I died of grief.Cover issue -12

Reprinted from Bête Noire Magazine, Issue #12, Aug 21 2013. Bête Noire brings you the best in dark fiction, poetry and art.

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