Bleak North - Photos, Stories and Reflections from the Highlands

The Fortress



I am uncertain when I first became aware that the creature had a physical form. Long ago – I cannot be certain how long it was – I was aware of it merely as a presence. It existed only as a wisp of darkness, caught unawares, as other darkness is dispelled, in the vivid brightness of first light, glimpsed, oh so fleetingly, before it vanished, lace winged, like stars in sunlight.


Now it prowls, night and day, with the confidence of obscenity. I dare not look at it. It knows my fear and it waits. Tonight I will no longer be able to avert my eyes or hide.


Many years ago that I considered myself fortunate to acquire the stewardship of the fortress I have since learned to call my home. I have been here now for more years, I think, than there are stars and I have seen more changes, I think, than there are grains of sand on the distant shore. In those early days of youth and hope my duties were a joy to me. I anticipated with pleasure the needs of the few inhabitants within the towering walls of the fortress; I ensured by regular inspection their safety from attack; I maintained order amongst those who served. I reassured the Dreamers who dwelt in the mystical security of the keep that nothing could threaten their rest and contentment. I gazed out over the vast encircling landscape because it too was my domain.


‘It is yours to manage,’ the Dreamers told me, ‘as far as the eye can see.’ They repeated those words, although they had no need to do so. ‘It is for you to control and to manage, as far as the eye can see! You will make it thrive and prosper. We have faith in you.’


I was proud and confident. The land that surrounded my fortress was the finest the mind could conceive. A dark forest, which had been cut back to allow space to farm and to settle, stood behind everything, a rich and ancient ground full of wild creatures and strange plants. Hamlets and farms had been built under trees, scattered remnants of that ancient wood, through which a dappled light could break and under which a cooling shade could always be found. Fields, bounded by groomed hedges, established parameters within which sheep, goats, cows and horses grazed or browsed and crops were nurtured. The stream, which wound sinuously from the invisible hills far beyond the forest, provided trout and salmon, and powered the mill. Beyond the fortress it widened, grew sleepy and sluggish and, at the extremity of vision, slipped into the oblivion of an unseen ocean.


I held the keys to the castle doors on a large iron ring which hung at my waist. The very sight and sound of them offered reassurance. As I walked from the outer curtain wall towards the keep I imagined I saw people smile and nod.  At night the keys lay beneath my pillow, connected by a thread to my wrist. It was my duty to protect. They trusted me.


As the years passed and I learned to understand the true extent of my domain, I became at first apprehensive and finally acutely anxious about the extent of my responsibility. I could not sleep. Visitors arrived unchecked and, their business complete, stretched out in the sunshine and breathed, tasted, touched the pleasure of our society but gave nothing in return. They were cynical, callous and fickle, lied, stole and took advantage of my trust. They were jealous and envious, false and untrustworthy, heedless and mercenary, degraded and shallow, obscene and contemptible. I was fearful. The Dreamers in the keep were threatened by them. I had to take action.


Those who expressed hostility, by look or gesture, or indicated discontent or resentment were quickly expelled from the castle. Those who resisted expulsion or who challenged my power and thereby threatened the security of the keep faced a more deadly fate. I was firm in my resolve. I did not waver. Some went alone, others in groups but all were all cast into the darkness of the dungeons below ground.


I reviewed my defences. I planned meticulous alterations. It took many years and many of the changes were gradual and almost imperceptible but the safety of my fortress and of the dreamers was, I believed, finally assured.


The outer walls, penetrated by a narrow and well protected gateway, now gave way through warning defences to an outer ward which offered no welcome other than that of a second great wall, bulging at intervals with towers from the arrow slit windows of which the unwelcoming, angry eyes of its one inhabitant could always be seen peering. All manner of weaponry could be brought to bear upon an unwelcomed intruder.


The second gateway, which provided access through the wall to the inner ward, was offset by some considerable distance, allowing me to assess at my leisure the suitability and general nature of any visitor. Those I feared or mistrusted were easily repelled by abuse, a closely secured gateway and a few hastily directed items of a stony or excremental nature. Fewer and fewer passed the barbican and the gatehouse and secured entrance to the inner ward. We were secure, I thought, from penetration.


Unfortunately, the beast was, even then, beginning to awaken. He rolled and stretched, he opened his mouth in a yellow toothed yawn, and he curled a greedy tongue around slavering lips. His eyes were slits behind which only evil thoughts could live. There was nothing, no savagery, no unspeakable cruelty, of which that mind was incapable. I know that now. In those distant days he was still merely a shadow to fear in the darkness. He lingered like those wretches in the dungeon and he waited.


The dungeons of the castle are dark and cold. No light can enter them unless the door is opened. I do not allow the light to fall upon the occupants. Nor do I look at them. I cannot bear the stench of the place; it repels me. Only in my dreams do I see their foul and besmirched faces and their powerless and fearful eyes. They are full of hate.


I think the monster that haunts me now emerged from those dungeon depths. I believe it was freed by them from some deeper, subterranean cellar into which they had scraped an entrance with their finger nails. It must have been the work of decades, scraping those sodden floors, progressing millimetre by millimetre, for days and months and years. They must never have tired of it. Still, they had time and numbers. It was strange and frightening to think that in all my many years in the fortress, there was never a death in that dungeon; not one.


The keep was well protected. It was entered on the first floor up a fragile wooden ladder which could be drawn up quickly from within. The reception chambers, to left and right, were spacious and colourful. Light entered through narrow windows which allowed no-one outside to even glimpse what lay within but each gave a different view of the vast landscape over which the tower dominated. The chambers were light and airy, their roofs high and wooden beamed.


In those days I spent many hours each day in the hall and in the larger reception rooms within the keep. I liked to sit on the recessed sills of the windows and gaze out. The distant prospect over forests and rivers and fields had grown barren. Most of what I saw was a dismal ashy grey, as if the whole area had been engulfed in some cataclysmic natural event. There used to be rolling folds, warm blankets of clouds; the sun shone but did not burn. The breezes, call them zephyrs, warmed and refreshed. Now, light did not penetrate the uniform grey. The winds blew a penetrating chill that would be painful, if I permitted myself to feel the pain. Within the wards, the walls, the towers and turrets, the battlements and gatehouses the keep retained its beauty and its grandeur and its occupants were, I thought, untroubled and unchanged.


There was only ever one to whom I revealed the secrets of the keep. I trusted her completely and I brought her to meet the Dreamers. I thought she was radiant, like them, that she would blossom in their presence, would add light to their light, colour to their colour, warmth to their warmth until she and they might be expected to become one.


I made her linger for some time in the outer rooms. It would not do to march her directly to the presence. That would be inappropriate. It would lack all ceremony and would suggest that to see them was of no more consequence than casually waving to a stranger in the ward below.


After a respectful time and when I was assured that she was aware of the honour I was about to bestow upon her, I opened, with a ceremonial flourish, the ornate carved oak doors and processed before her down the damask lined hall to the presence of the dreamers.


There they lay, when they did not walk the echoing hall, oblivious to our presence but welcoming nonetheless. Their eyes had a gentle naivety and their faces were innocent and vulnerable and drew the heart. There was nothing that could prepare the mind for such an experience. It was like waking in the presence of angels. Around each there was a vapour and a sweet aroma and there were movements and shapes within the vapour. Everything was beautiful yet it was a beauty that only began with the senses, which were merely a narrow gateway to somewhere else, somewhere deep and wide and infinitely beautiful.


I can truly say that in their presence I was myself a child again.


She entered their chamber with anticipation that brightened, softened and moistened her eyes. I stood before my Dreamers and timidly but with pride I revealed them to her.


‘Is this all?’ she said to me. ‘Is this all there is? I expected so much more. Who are these wizened little figures who barely achieve human shape? Why are they so pale and thin? Why, I can see through them. Their nakedness appals me,’ she said to me.

She left. She did not cast a backward glance. She did not return.


No-one has entered since. No-one will ever enter again. I do not mind. It was tiresome watching those intruders. The keep alone is safe. The outer walls have failed. I no longer dare to leave my chamber. I cannot look out of the windows. There is nothing to see. Mists have risen from the distant seas and mountains and have slipped over the flat, arid land. They hide everything from me. Even the walls are hidden although I am more aware of their decaying presence than I have ever been. Fingers of mist reach into my room and touch me. I do not like them. They are probing and cruel. At night I hear the rumbling and groaning of fractured masonry and the scream of torn timbers. I cannot sleep. Without the walls I have no defence but the keep.


The monster, though, cannot be repelled. My defences are as nothing to it. The walls are like matchwood, the gates lie open to it. It prowls nightly. Regularly now it enters the keep. I cannot keep it out.  There is a stench of decay in the air, dead wood, dead stone, dead vegetation, dead flesh and memories. I fear for the Dreamers but I rarely see them now. I do not think they trust me any more. Perhaps they blame me for their decay or perhaps they are even now dead and not merely sleeping. I never hear them now and I dare not look.


I fear the captives in the dungeon. I fear them especially tonight. The beast too has been in my thoughts. I have heard it stalking the shadows in the antechambers. I have felt it so close I could smell its breath, warm and cloying, and its rotting, undigested filth. It seems more purposeful tonight. I can sense its approach. I can hear behind it, legion upon legion, the scraping steps of the captives. They have freed themselves. They have clambered the crumbling walls. They have scaled the keep and have forced the brittle doors. I should hurry now to protect the Dreamers. They are, after all, what this was all about. Yet I cannot draw myself away from the wall against which I lie. Besides, they mean nothing to me now.


I can hear the hideous troupe mounting the ceremonial stair. I would smile, if I could, at the thought of the grotesque ceremony they are now enacting. All that was sacred is now ground under foot, smashed contemptuously to powder. They are coming nearer. They have reached the top step, they approach along the long corridor, they have passed the antechambers and still they move on. I draw back into the shadows by the wall but it is futile to hide from them.


They stop. A sudden silence freezes everything. It is so still and so cold that a single rasping breath cracks like ice. Then the door splinters and they are there, row upon row, filling the doorway, the corridor, the keep, the wards, the countryside all the way to the hills and the sea, - all of them behind the indifferent eyes of the monstrous beast.


And they laugh.