They hadn’t wanted to leave their homes but it was not of their choosing. Their roots were sunk deep into the land; stems of fathers and mothers, tendrils of cousins and aunts, spreading broad and deep beneath the rich peat. But men can rip up roots faster than they are grown, and do not always see the need that others have to stay in the lands of their ancestors. And so they had to move. Once uprooted, they propagated their dreams on the currents of the grey spit sea, hoping to find a place to settle beyond the setting sun. They washed up on the shores of a new land and were happy for a time, while the sun still shone.
But, as the days grew shorter, they found that their new country had an old soul.
Of all the travellers who crammed onto that ship, Jack the Smithy was the only one who had fully ripped up his roots. Since arriving on those new shores he had cast off the old ways his father had taught him, breathing the crisp air of the new world as if it were his own, personal liberation. For Jack, liberation meant only one thing; inebriation. He had been brought to fire the village’s forges, to heat and hammer the tools they needed to build their new lives. But the forges remained as cold as the peat in the old lands as Jack drank deeply in the village tavern. Even when the village elders sought to bar him from the tavern, Jack found fresh sources of drink. The villagers gossiped that he was in league with evil spirits who, during his nightly treks through the surrounding forest, tempted him with magic liquor in the hope of snatching away his soul. The truth was that Jack had a still set up in a nearby clearing where, under star filled skies, he brewed his own moonshine.
Summer had passed away into a fruitful autumn, and autumn stood on the edge of winter. As the skies flooded scarlet with the rays of early sunsets, the time came for the animals to be harvested. The streets ran red with blood, as bright as the death throes of the sun. Skin was stripped and sent to the tanneries, meat was hacked from cartilage and sinew, and the remnants were hauled to the village square for the bone fire.
As visceral as the slaughter was, it was also necessary and sacred. As such, the villagers performed their task on Samhain, a sacred day in the old lands. Samhain was Summer’s End, the day that Nuada led the Sluagh in the Wild Hunt, to round up the spirits of the dead. The villagers knew that the souls of their cattle, their sheep and their swine, would be guided to the underworld alongside any of their number who had not survived the hardship of their journey across the grey spit sea. In the old world they had carved turnips and taters with the faces of imps to protect themselves from Nuada’s hoard, so that they did not get mistaken for a lost soul and swept down into the underworld. In the new world they had found gourds twice, three times the size of the old world’s harvest and had set about carving impish faces into the firey, auburn fruit. They illuminated each gourd with flames from the bone fire and took shelter in their houses while the tumultuous night passed.
All except for Jack. Jack’s animals had been long since slaughtered and he did not see the need for bone fires and carved gourds any more. “This is a new world”, Jack announced. “What use are the old ways here? Nuada is not going to ride all the way across the sea tonight to gather up our dead! These lands are not enslaved to spirits as the old lands were. These lands belong to us now.” And so, lantern-less and in need of a stiff drink, Smithy Jack stumbled out of the village and into the dark heart of the forest.
At first, Jack’s way was clear. Crisp moonlight danced among the barren trees whose golden leaves crunched and rustled under his feet. He knew his way to the clearing by instinct, having found his way there and back many times while his head had been fogged by liquor. So, when a ground mist began to swirl and eddy around his boots he was not particularly worried. Nor was he concerned when the mist seemed to rise like a tide up to his knees, his hips, his chest. Even when his head sunk beneath the thick pearly flood, Jack did not stop striding on towards his still. All of a sudden, something snatched at Jack’s foot and, with a cry, he tumbled to the ground.
Laying among the leaves, Jack heaved air into his lungs in shock. What was it that had grabbed him so violently, he thought? Slowly, very slowly, in case his attacker was still around, Jack sat up and looked down towards his foot which, he was relieved to see, was twisted in the root of a Blueberry bush. Jack started to untangle himself, when a thought occurred to him: he realised that he had never seen a Blueberry bush on his way to the clearing before. He stood, bruised and winded, and tried to get his bearings. He looked in every direction for some clue to his whereabouts but the wall of whiteness seemed denser than before.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the glinting of gentle light. “Ahhh” thought Jack, relieved “that must be the moonlight catching the glass of the still”. With greater care now, he moved through the fog. However, when Jack reached the spot where the light winked at him, he did not find his still. Instead, the light seemed to dance before his eyes before disappearing with a child-like giggle.
Suddenly, the sky above Jack shattered. Lightening ripped through the thick air and an earth rending crack of thunder sent Jack crashing to his knees again. In an instant, a strong wind slammed through the forest, sending the fog into retreat and hurling the leaf litter into the air. Jack tried to brace himself against the storm but could feel the pull of the wind lifting him from the ground. He knew he needed to take cover.
Jack stumbled to his feet and spun around, trying and find a familiar landmark among the tumbling leaves, but nothing he knew came to his eye. Then the earth itself began to quake and rumble. Jack looked down at where he stood, but quickly realised that what was making the ground shake was above his head. The churning, molten edge of an enormous storm cloud scythed its way above the trees. And Jack was sure he could hear the thunder of horse hooves. And the howling of wolves.
As swift as a thought, Jack turned and ran with all his might away from the sounds and the storm. His terror lent him some agility as he leapt over fallen trees and darted between close growing trunks. But no matter how fast he ran, the sounds of the storm, the hammering of hoof beats and crying of the wolves, seemed to get closer.
And they were on him. Something of great weight slammed into his back, sending him skidding to the ground for the third time that night. Around him he could feel the pounding of hooves as they came to a stop and the cold, breathy snuffling of predators circling him. Jack lay, face down in the dirt, for many moments before his terror got the better of him. Slowly he lifted his head.
Around Jack were a pack of pure white wolves with blood red ears. They stood, ready to pounce, their hot breath billowing in the cold night air. Around the pack stalked a group of hunters on steaming black horses, each rider more grotesque than the last. But there was one horse which caught Jack’s eye. It was bigger than all the others and was ridden by something far more familiar. Jack stared at the rider. He was a man, but not quite as Jack understood a man to be. He was certainly not like the men in his village, or the men of the old world, and yet he was a man. There was something about the rider, which Jack found both beautiful and completely terrifying, that made him part of this forest, this place. It was as if Jack could see the roots of the rider, which sunk further into the earth than the trees of the forest. This was surely the Sluagh, which meant that the rider had to be …
“My lord Nuada.” Jack spoke, scrambling to his feet.
“What did you call me?” the rasping voice of the rider echoed through the trees.
“Lord Nuada.” Jack stuttered “Leader of the Wild Hunt?”
“I am not Nuada.” The rider’s words hung on the air like wood smoke. “I go by another name.” He leaned forward in his saddle and whispered a single word, one so ancient it chilled all who heard it. “Hobbamocke.”
The word sent ripples through the assembly. The horses reared and whinnied, the wolves paced and drooled hungrily. The will to run or fight drained from Jack. He knew now that he had been wrong; that this wasn’t a new land at all, that this was an ancient land with an ancient soul and he had come face to face with its ancient god. He had trespassed in the most terrible way. He closed his eyes and waited …
The following morning, the villagers set out find Jack, but, although they found his still in the clearing, there was no sign of him anywhere in the forest. As the years went by and their roots sunk deeper into the land, stories started to grow up about the disappearance of the town’s drunken smithy. Some say he stumbled off through the forest and continued his drunken ways with another group of settlers. Others spoke of his spirit wandering through the trees, looking for his way home. But there are others who claim that Jack was taken by the Wild Hunt because he went into the wood at Samhain without his impish lantern. So, every year, for protection, they carve their pumpkins with scary faces and set them on their doorsteps so that they do not meet the same fate.
Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)