The wind howled and whipped snow around the thick walls, but inside it was warm and firelit. Several clansmen with their wives and children were sheltering with their chieftain, and everyone had been making merry, sharing songs and stories into the evening.
Now they sat back and listened to Ian MacLeod as his voice boomed out, filling the room. The hearth's light flickered across his face as he set the scene for his tale.
"So no one in the village could know what was to come – they looked to their harvest and their fattened stock and they thanked the Lord God for a good year. Aye, they took up arms and stood fast when the raiders rode over the hill, and they felt no fear, for there were only four to come against them, and the fine warriors had fought off larger bands easily.
"The horsemen all wore masks, each bearing a more horrible visage than the one before. Three of them wore leather as black as their hearts, but their Chieftain wore white, as bright as priest's cloth. As they charged the village they made no battle cry, and the pounding of the horse's hooves was the only sound."
Ian smiled over at his son, Duncan, and Duncan's cousin Robert, both just five summers old and wide-eyed at the tale.
"The warriors fought bravely and well, and they should have carried the day. But the horsemen were like demons; they felt no wound and they never tired. Against such evil sorcery the clansmen were helpless, and they were cut down like wheat before a scythe.
"When all the brave warriors lay dead in the mud, no longer did the marauder's Chieftain wear white – the blood had dyed him a brilliant crimson from head to foot."
Some of the young women and children moaned at that, and Ian kept his face stern with some effort. Grinning like a fool would spoil the effect.....
"But even this did'nae satisfy him, he was like Death himself – while the others tormented the women and forced them to load their plunder onto the wagons, he rode through the ruined village. His horse's hooves made no sound as it walked, and the bloody Chieftain listened for the slightest noise that would tell him if anyone hoped to hide in the wreckage. None escaped him – he could hear a child's heartbeat at thirty paces, and he would drag each one out and slice him from belly to breastbone, neat as you please.
"But his favorite thing was when a boy broke from hiding and ran. Then he would ride after him, lean down in the saddle and with one swing of his sword chop the child's head off! Thump, thump, head and body would tumble to the ground, the head in one direction, and the body in another."
Duncan shivered, the hair standing up on the back of his neck. He wanted to run to his mother and bury his face in her skirts like some of his friends were doing, but such behavior was not for the Clan Chieftain's son. Besides, Robert would never let him hear the end of it!
"When they left, they took everything worth taking, and all the women still alive they took to serve them. The last thing they did was throw torches into whatever was left standing.
"By the morning the fires had burned out, and nothing was left of the village but blackened heaps and smoke. There was not one creature left alive: not man, woman, or child, nor any beast. All were dead."
Ian grinned at the children, those who could still meet his eyes, Duncan among them. "Well then! You asked for one last story, and that was it – now off to your beds!"
"Like any of them will sleep tonight, after a tale like that to send them off!" Mary fussed as they went to tuck Duncan and Robert into the bed they shared.
"Peace, woman! The brave ones will take no harm from it," Ian said, thinking proudly of his son. "And it'll do the flutter-bellied some good."
With the children bedded down, the clansmen went back their carousing. It was an hour later when Mary heard a familiar muffled giggle. Sure enough, it was her son and his cousin, whispering under the covers. "Duncan, Robert," she called out, "you two best settle down and sleep, or Death on his horse will be coming for ye!" Immediately, the boys stilled. They stayed quiet till morning, but it was quite a while before either one slept.