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Excerpt from The Sword of the Banshee
Kaasmore, Ireland 1764
The Irish say that spirits walk on All Hallows Eve. India Allen knows this to be true because she saw fifty phantoms that stormy night at Cragmere ruins. She saw them pay homage to a demon and renew an oath of savagery which shook Ireland and overwhelmed the New World. That oath will haunt India Allen until the day she dies.
India was not a reckless child. She was not the kind of thirteen year old who would steal away from home in the dark of night to witness a demonic ritual. She was quiet and reserved, obedient and cautious, but she was also young and impressionable. India idolized her older cousin Lorna, so that night in 1764 when India followed her into the woods; she experienced a phenomenon that changed her life forever. * * * "Well if you won't go, I will ask my good friend, Ailis,” Lorna said tossing her head and turning to leave the bed chamber. She stole a look out of the corner of her eye at India then said, “You can stay here with the old ladies.”
“Wait,” India said reluctantly, as she slid off the bed. “I’m not afraid.”
“Well then put this on,” said Lorna tossing her a bundle of rags. “Stupid, old Eimhear was asleep and never heard me. We will blend well in these clothes, and they are good for the long walk.”
India examined the threadbare shift and shawl which belonged to their servant.
“Hurry up. They gather at midnight, and then vanish,” barked Lorna.
India unlaced her stays, stepped out of her clothing, and picked up the shift.
Lorna began to laugh. “You are as skinny as the tenants. Will you ever get a bosom?”
India blushed and finished dressing. Lorna often joked about India's skinny body, her straw-colored hair, and her unusual eyes. When she was around Lorna, India felt gauche and inexperienced, yet she would do anything for her cousin's approval.
Lorna swung a cape over her shoulders and pulled a hood up over her volumes of chestnut hair. The girl came into the bloom of womanhood early and her figure was full at fourteen. She darted to the window and looked out at the moon. Shadows danced over the lawn of the manor house. Lorna looked across to the east wing and said, “Mother’s candle is out. Let’s go.”
She picked up a candelabrum and thrust it into India’s face, laughing. “I can tell when you’re scared. Your eyes turn a dark purple.”
“I told you I am not afraid. I don‘t believe in ghosts,” said India.
Lorna smirked, and then grabbed her wrist pulling her down the stairs. India wished she had something to carry to keep her safe from the spirits. She wanted some icon the Catholics carried, such as a rosary or a sacred cloth necklace.
At the bottom of the stairs, Lorna snuffed out the candelabrum and set it on the hall table. They stepped out the front door. The moon would be their light from now on. It was cold and India draped the servant’s shawl over her head and shoulders. They paused for a moment to scan the expansive garden for signs of life. The girls knew it was unlikely they would see anyone on All Hallows Eve. The tenants firmly believed that departed souls walked this night, and it was unlikely any person would venture forth after dark.
Lorna picked up something from the door step. “Look at this.” She showed India an oatmeal cake. “I’ll bet Eimhear left this to appease the fairies tonight. You know she won’t eat any unpicked vegetables after All Hallows Eve. She believes the Pooka pisses on them tonight.” She pitched the cake into the bushes. “My mother detests this kind of superstition.”
They started for the woods. Although the estate was not far from Dublin, the countryside became rural quickly. They took the shortcut toward Kaasmore church where India assumed they would watch for phantoms. The air was crisp and smelled of dry leaves. The wind tossed the branches overhead, flinging moonbeams across their path.
India followed Lorna closely, jumping over logs, pushing away brush that grabbed at her clothing like claws. She was terrified but would not admit it. More than anything she wanted her cousin’s respect.
They walked a long time and at a swift pace. India wanted to turn around and run for home, but she said nothing forging ahead. She hated herself for being afraid. She would rather be safe and warm in her down bed, but instead, she was headed for a country churchyard to search for spirits.
As they emerged from the woods into a glade, India thought she saw movement in the brush. She kept her eyes on the spot as she walked with a prickly fear spreading across her body. Suddenly, a shadow darted out from the trees. India jumped and broke into a run. “Look out!” she screamed. All the talk had been true! The goblins were out tonight!
The shadow charged her cousin and enveloped Lorna. India heard a strangled cry from her then a laugh. “You scared the blazes out of me, Ronan! That’s not funny!” Lorna squealed, as a boy held her fast and kissed her.
India stopped and stared, trying to catch her breath. Anger and hurt replaced fear. Now it was clear why Lorna had wanted her to come tonight. She needed her as an escort through the woods, so she could meet her forbidden beau, Ronan McCormick, the son of a tenant farmer.
Ronan looked over his shoulder at India and said, “Who’s that?”
“Oh, just my cousin, come on. Let’s go.”
India knew that now Lorna would ignore her entirely. Ronan took Lorna’s hand then pushed some brush back revealing a footpath onto which they stepped. It was overgrown and apparently not used for some time. It was so thick and low they had to duck to follow it.
“This is not the way to the church,” India called.
“Shut your mouth, India. We are getting close,” hissed Lorna as she huddled closer to Ronan.
The wind wailed sending the trees into a macabre dance. India's long hair loosened flying wildly in front of her face, so she pushed it back impatiently. Hot tears filled her eyes. She quickened her pace afraid her cousin would try to desert her to be alone with her beau. They began to walk uphill, crossing a brook and climbing a steep slope. India was exhausted and her feet began to blister. Up and up they went until Lorna and Ronan reached the pinnacle and stopped staring straight ahead as if bewitched. India pulled herself up beside them panting. She was about to ask what was wrong when she looked across the treetops aghast. It was Cragmere Ruins in a blaze of fire.
India was stunned. Inside the jagged walls of the ancient fortress, a bonfire raged. Its flames licked high into the night sky. A searing orange glow pulsated across the hillside. The three stared at the sight unable to move. Suddenly, the fire swelled. It illuminated an unearthly gathering around the inferno. Phantoms of white, forty maybe fifty in number gazed up at a demon with the head of a goat standing on a crumbled wall. The specters seemed to be spellbound by this unholy leader as he paced back and forth speaking to the mass and shaking his fists. The distance was too great to hear what he preached, but it was apparent the specters were under his spell. He gestured, and several of the phantoms stepped forward to be anointed by the unholy principal.
India grabbed Lorna's arm and pulled her back, "We must go!"
Lorna did not answer, she did not move as if she were in a trance. Ronan seemed mesmerized as well, seduced by the ghastly spectacle. India looked back at Cragmere. The phantoms were forming a line taking turns lighting hollowed out turnips impaled on pikes. They began to disperse carrying these jack-o-lanterns. When several turned in their direction, Ronan and Lorna were jolted suddenly from their reverie. The night of frolic and adventure had now turned deadly. The couple grabbed hands and bolted back down the path with India right behind them. The three flung themselves down the hill panic stricken, sliding down the scree-covered terrain, grabbing at branches, stumbling and tripping.
At the base of the hill, they broke into a full run. Down the path, they scrambled and just before the glade a huge wolf-like creature jumped into their path, standing stiff-legged, snapping his jaws and snarling. The children froze, fearing the animal would lunge. They heard someone rush forward through the brush to join the creature.
The youngsters almost swooned when four of the white phantoms swooped from the underbrush. In an instant they had restrained India, Lorna, and Ronan. One of the specters ran back into the woods as another stepped up to question the youngsters.
The phantom grabbed Ronan roughly, thrusting his face close to the boy and barked, “What are you doing here!”
The terrified children realized then it was a large man dressed as an apparition. His face was blackened with soot and he wore a long white shirt with a hood. All of the men were dressed the same way making it impossible to identify one from the other. The turnip lanterns shed a dim light on the creature that cornered them earlier. It was a gaunt, surly wolfhound which continued to snarl.
“Who are you? Who sent you here?” continued the man shaking Ronan by the shoulders.
“Ronan, Ronan McCormick, son of Pol McCormick,” the boy stuttered.
The man swung around and faced the girls. “And you?”
Lorna tried to speak, but no words came.
India stammered, “In--India Allen and my cousin Lorna Allen.”
The man’s eyes grew large and he straightened up looking at his comrades. He turned back to the girls, his nostrils flared. “So, the landlord has sent spies!”
“No, no sir! We are not spies,” pleaded India.
Suddenly there was the thundering of hooves on the path as two more phantoms appeared. India’s jaw dropped when she realized one of the riders was the leader from the inferno. He too wore a long white shirt, but instead of a blackened face, he wore a mask made from the head of a goat.
The man who had been interrogating them said, “The girls are children of the landlord, sir.”
The masked leader threw his leg over the steed and jumped to the ground approaching India. Sweat drenched her body. He leered down at her, and when he grabbed her arms, she began to feel dizzy. He bent over, and his mask came so close to her face she thought it was going to hit her in the forehead.
He jerked her arm and growled, “Know this you little wench, I have memorized your face and I know where you live. If you tell anyone, mark my words, I will come when you sleep and gut you like a fish.”
The goat mask leered down at her. He smelled of sandalwood, and the thick heavy scent choked India. It was the last thing she remembered before falling into a swoon.
When India awoke, he was gone. Remembering his odor, she rolled over and began to wretch. Afterward, one of the men yanked her to her feet. He pushed the three of them into the glade telling them to run home and not look back. Ronan ran to his family cottage, and the girls flew back to the manor unnoticed.
Lorna's mother and the servants remained ignorant of the girl’s midnight excursion, but they did note a marked change in them. Lorna awakened every night for a month after the ordeal, terrified and convinced someone was lurking in her room. India simply stopped eating, wanting nothing more than to return home to the Ballydunne Valley. County Cork was the distance she needed to find peace of mind.
Time passed and she did find some peace. As the years passed, India dismissed the terror of that night as schoolgirl merely dramatics, but whenever she smelled sandalwood, a queer feeling crept up her spine. It was at those times a small part of her wondered if the hideous monster would ever find her again.