The Yellowhammer’s Cradle  

In Scotland and northern England, children are urged to destroy the Yellowhammer’s nest, eggs and nestlings because according to ancient folklore, it is said to drink a drop of the Devil’s blood every May Day morning.

A guid new year to ane an’ a’
An mony may ye see,
An’ during a’ the years to come,
O happy may ye be.
An’ may ye ne’er hae cause to mourn,
To sigh or shed a tear,
To ane an’a baith great an’ sma’
A hearty guid New year.

Anon.

Prologue

August 14th 1846
Although the gloaming has drawn a purple veil over forest, loch and sea, the local Fair is still in full swing with sounds of distant laughter, of men parading their prize beasts, and crabbit gulls from the Irish Sea fighting among feed sacks and left-over picnics. But the young stalker hears only the crush of twigs and old leaves underfoot as each sure step takes her deeper among those downy birches whose cool foliage and lichen-covered limbs touch her skin.

Sometimes she stops to hear if she in turn is being followed. Cleverly, she has wrapped a mourning veil over her hair and the lower part of her face. Now in this private spot close to the loch’s shore, where birch gives way to whinberry bushes and the straight-boled alder, where the ground leaves her boot prints all too visible, she must draw breath and bide her time. She slaps at those persistent clegs and midges trapped under her veil, until the sinner arrives to lean against a tree to wait. A woman dressed like a Tail, yet nervous as if she knows being there is wrong.

Without warning, two Gordon setters, one black, one brown, appear from the undergrowth, sniffing the ground. No time to wonder where they came from or to whom they belong. These dogs spell trouble. The hunter snatches the nearest collar and, before the brown setter can bark a warning, severs his skull with a rock. She pulls a length of mooring rope tight around his throat until those silky ribs stop heaving.

The Tail must be deaf or too busy waiting for her lover to notice anything amiss, but when the black dog lopes off alone along the shore, she calls him back. To no avail.

That mooring rope’s taut again between the killer’s hands, ready and waiting for her real target. Strong for her age and fit, she soon brings the adulterer down into the whinberries. Her already bloodied rock makes short work of this thicker skull and, while the Tail lies as still as the dog, her painted mouth agape and blue eyes fixed on the alders’ crowns, those greedy, young fingers lift her torn dress, probe its petticoats and pull free the frail, peach-coloured undergarments.

Suddenly, a shout. Then a man she recognises hurtles towards the corpse. Shock and grief in his fox-coloured eyes. He’s too late, but not late enough to avoid the leaking smell of death. The screech of Devilish curses aimed his way, rising from that secret place to scar the sky.

 

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