– Chapter Two –
The small monastery had been abandoned more than six hundred years before, when its last occupants had slipped quietly and sadly away from the island, only a handful of survivors from the ravages of the vile pestilence that had spread through their devout community, wreaking its black, contorted death. For centuries afterwards, the rocky, whale-shaped islet was known to people on both sides of the Forth as Plague Island: a place to be avoided, a place of ghosts and demons and eerie, whispering winds.
In time, though, the notion of a haunted island receded, as did the memory of the fearful, rat-borne disease that had laid waste to the former inhabitants. Gradually, the island regained its formal name of Inchgarvie. Gradually, too, men returned to Inchgarvie: grey-haired historians to pick over relics of the deserted monastery; bearded, top-hatted engineers to supervise construction of the nearby Forth Railway Bridge; local fishermen and seal-catchers; occasional naturalists; and others attracted to the mysterious island out of plain curiosity. Their visits had been brief, lasting a few hours usually and a day or two at most. Only once more during its history was Inchgarvie occupied by humans for any period of length: they came at the outset of World War Two to build – and later to man – the anti-aircraft gun emplacement that was sited on the east-facing point of the island to help thwart Germany’s long-range bombing sorties in the area.
Now, in the last decade of the twentieth century, visitors to the island were few and irregular. Even the multiplicity of craft that plied the Forth steered clear of Inchgarvie, deterred more by swirling, unpredictable tides than by fear of lingering ghosts. After more than fifty years, the concrete gun emplacement remained virtually intact, but centuries of neglect and exposure to the elements had exacted a more telling price from the low-built monastery which occupied the western half of the island; its roof had collapsed long ago, little remained of its internal walls and several ragged holes punctured its thicker external walls.
The returning hunting pack re-entered the dank, rubble-strewn interior of the monastery through one such narrow aperture near the base of the east wall. Their re-entry was greeted instantly with a short screech from a point among the rubble a few yards ahead of them. Uttering his own sharp call in response, Torn Coat moved swiftly towards the Watcher, whose small, pointed snout poked out cautiously from a gap below some broken masonry.
‘Pass, warrior,’ croaked Small Face.
Without further response, Torn Coat also slid under the masonry and abruptly disappeared down a deep cleft between two ancient flagstones. One by one, the others followed Torn Coat. As Fat One squeezed his unwieldy rump through the cleft, Small Face, easily the tiniest and most timid of the Watchers, called out to Twisted Foot.
‘Think of me when you’re curled up snugly in the lair,’ he wailed.
‘Never mind, comrade,’ Twisted Foot retorted, ‘we’ll keep your nest warm for your return.’
Then he, too, vanished down the tunnel that led to the underworld, leaving Small Face to maintain his lone daylight vigil.
The tunnel was long, narrow and very steep. Its roof had been rounded and smoothed by the passage of bodies over many years. By contrast, its floor was bedrock: hard and sharp, and constantly wet from seeping rainwater. Like those in front of him, Twisted Foot slithered rather than crawled down the tunnel.
Eventually, the ground levelled out and broadened, marking the entrance to the underworld. Here, as usual, crouched two surly Protectors, who observed the return of the hunting pack menacingly, but without comment or movement. Behind the Protectors and to their left was a shallow pool of murky rainwater, where the Hunters stopped briefly to lap while Fat One and Twisted Foot guarded over the slaves. Resuming their formation, Hunters and slaves moved off at speed along the wider, higher tunnel leading to the Common lair. Their work now over, the two Watchers also drank from the pool and then proceeded leisurely in the same direction.
As always, the utter blackness of the underworld and its familiar scents and sounds brought reassurance to Twisted Foot. On the world above, he felt exposed, vulnerable. There was that continual sense of anxiety, that fear of imminent intrusion by the Two-Legs. Around the outside world, the strange creatures controlled by the Two-Legs caterwauled through the air and sea and boomed across the giant bridge, threatening and unnerving him. Here in the welcoming blackness those fears were quickly forgotten. Here there was concealment from the Two-Legs, and the promise of warmth, sustenance and companionship.
The Watchers emerged from the tunnel into the Common lair. Unlike the rest of the underworld, this place was spacious, almost cavernous, easily accommodating the normal Assembly of some three hundred he-rats from the Inner and Outer Circles. The floor of the lair was oval-shaped and level for the most part. The centre of the oval was dominated by an outcrop of rock, flattened at its top to create a broad, circular platform. The walls of the lair sloped gently inwards to form a dome-like ceiling, the pinnacle of which was located directly above the platform. Along the walls, a series of low, narrow tunnels led off to the other lairs. To the right lay the abodes of the Watchers and Hunters. To the left, a gang of Protectors kept constant guard over the entrance to the Scavengers’ lair, ensuring that the bedlam and violence within did not spill out. The tunnel at the farthest end of the Common lair gave access to the home of the Protectors. From here, another tunnel led to the sanctity of the Inner Circle’s lair, a place that was also guarded continually, but for entirely different motives. A final tunnel led from the Protectors’ lair to the outside world, emerging at a point not far from the western wall of the monastery. Barely known to the other members of the underworld, this tunnel provided the Inner Circle and their Protectors with an escape route in the event of flooding, insurrection or other such calamities.
As he and Fat One moved through the Common lair towards its central platform, Twisted Foot noted that most of his Outer Circle comrades had already gathered for the Assembly. The returning hunting pack had created the usual stir among them, and more than a hundred pairs of greedy, slit eyes were now fixed on the pack’s kills, which had been placed enticingly in the middle of the platform. Bristling and growling, a ring of Protectors surrounded the platform, ready to pounce mercilessly on any who might dare to breach the circle.
The appearance of Long Snout at the entrance to the Protectors’ lair brought the commotion to an abrupt halt. Twisted Foot and Fat One scurried through the throng to join the ranks of the Watchers. The Assembly had begun.
– o –