— Dumfries, Scotland —
When Ross MacLeod pulled the trigger and brought down the pheasant, he had no way of knowing he'd killed himself. And billions of others.
On a cold, damp day, the last day of what would be his last year, he hunted with his brother and cousin, walking the crackling, frosted field under skies of washed-out, winter blue. He felt healthy and fit, a man of sixty-four who hit the gym three times a week, and had a passion for golf (reflected in a handicap of nine).
With his twin brother, Rob, he'd built — and continued to run — a successful marketing firm based in New York and London. His wife of thirty-nine years, along with Rob's and their cousin Hugh's wives, stayed back, tucked into the charming old farmhouse.
With fires snapping in stone hearths, the kettle always on the boil, the women chose to cook and bake and fuss over the coming New Year's Eve party.
They happily passed on tromping the fields in their wellies.
The MacLeod farm, passed from father to son for more than two hundred years, spread for more than eighty hectares. Hugh loved it nearly as much as he did his wife, children, and grandchildren. From the field they crossed, distant hills rose in the east. And not that far a cry to the west rolled the Irish Sea.
The brothers and their families often traveled together, but this annual trip to the farm remained a highlight for all. As boys they'd often spent a month in the summer on the farm, running across the fields with Hugh and his brother, Duncan — dead now from the soldier's life he'd chosen. Ross and Rob, the city boys, had always thrown themselves into the farm chores assigned by their Uncle Jamie and Aunt Bess.
They'd learned to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, and to gather eggs. They'd roamed, forests and fields, on foot and on horseback.
Often, on dark nights, they'd crept out of the house to hike to the very field they walked now, to hold secret meetings and try to raise the spirits within the little stone circle the locals called sgiath de solas, shield of light.
They'd never succeeded, nor had they ever chased down the haints or faeries young boys knew traveled the forests. Though on one midnight adventure, when even the air held its breath, Ross swore he'd felt a dark presence, heard its rustling wings, even smelled its foul breath.
Felt — he would always claim — that breath blow into him.
In adolescent panic, he'd stumbled in his rush to flee the circle, and scraped the heel of his hand on a stone within.
A single drop of his blood struck the ground.
As grown men, they still laughed and teased over that long-ago night, and treasured the memories.
And as grown men, they had brought their wives, then their children, back to the farm on an annual pilgrimage beginning on Boxing Day and ending on the second of January.
Their sons and their sons' wives had left only that morning for London, where they would all see in the New Year with friends — and spend another few days on business. Only Ross's daughter, Katie, who was seven months along with twins of her own, had stayed back in New York.
She planned a welcome-home dinner for her parents that was never to be.
But on that bracing last day of the year, Ross MacLeod felt as fit and joyful as the boy he'd been. He wondered at the quick shiver down his spine, at the crows circling and calling over the stone circle. But even as he shook it away, the cock pheasant, a flurry of color against the pale sky, rose in flight.
He lifted the twelve-gauge his uncle had given him for his sixteenth birthday, followed the bird's flight.
It might be that the heel of the hand he'd scraped more than fifty years before stung for an instant, throbbed an instant more.
But still ...
He pulled the trigger.
When the shot blasted the air, the crows screamed, but didn't scatter. Instead, one broke away as if to snatch the kill. One of the men laughed as the darting black bird collided with the falling pheasant.
The dead bird struck the center of the stone circle. Its blood smeared over the frosted ground.
Rob clamped a hand on Ross's shoulder, and the three men grinned as one of Hugh's cheerful Labs raced off to retrieve the bird. "Did you see that crazy crow?"
Shaking his head, Ross laughed again. "He won't be having pheasant for dinner."
"But we will," Hugh said. "That's three for each, enough for a feast."
The men gathered their birds, and Rob pulled a selfie stick out of his pocket.
So they posed — three men with cheeks ruddy from the cold, all with eyes a sparkling MacLeod blue — before making the pleasant hike back to the farmhouse.
Behind them, the bird's blood, as if heated by flame, soaked through the frozen ground. And pulsed as the shield thinned, cracked.
They trooped, successful hunters, past fields of winter barley stirring in the light wind, and sheep grazing on a hillock. One of the cows Hugh kept for fattening and finishing lowed lazily.
As they walked, Ross, a contented man, thought himself blessed to end one year and start another on the farm with those he loved.
Smoke puffed from the chimneys in the sturdy stone house. As they approached, the dogs — their workday done — raced ahead to wrestle and play. The men, knowing the ropes, veered off toward a small shed.
Hugh's Millie, a farmer's wife and a farmer's daughter, drew a hard line at cleaning game. So on a bench Hugh had built for that purpose, they set up to do the job themselves.
They talked idly — of the hunt, of the meal to come — as Ross took a pair of the sharp sheers to cut the wings off the pheasant. He cleaned it as his uncle had taught him, cutting close to the body. There were parts that would be used for soup, and those went into a thick plastic bag for the kitchen. Other parts into another bag for disposal.
Rob lifted a severed head, made squawking sounds. Despite himself, Ross laughed, glancing over. He nicked his thumb on a broken bone.
He muttered, "Shit," and used his index finger to staunch the trickle of blood.
"You know to watch for that," Hugh said with a tsk.
"Yeah, yeah. Blame it on goofball here." As he peeled back the skin, the bird's blood mixed with his.
Once the job was done, they washed the cleaned birds in icy water pumped from the well, then carried them into the house through the kitchen.
The women were gathered in the big farm kitchen with air rich from the scents of baking and warmth from the fire simmering in the hearth.
It all struck Ross as so homey — a perfect tableau — it tugged at his heart. He laid his birds on the wide kitchen counter and grabbed his wife in a circling hug that made her laugh.
"The return of the hunters." Angie gave him a quick, smacking kiss.
Hugh's Millie, her curly red mop bundled on top of her head, gave the pile of birds an approving nod. "Enough to roast for our feast and more to serve at the party. How about we do some pheasant and walnut pasties there. You're fond of them, I recall, Robbie."
He grinned, patting the belly that pudged over his belt. "Maybe I need to go out and bag a few more so there'll be some for everyone else."
Rob's wife, Jayne, drilled a finger into his belly. "Since you're going to make a pig of yourself, we're going to put you to work."
"That we are," Millie agreed. "Hugh, you and the lads haul out the long table into the big parlor for the party, and use my mother's long lace cloth. I want the good candlestands on it as well. And get the extra chairs from the closet and set them out."
"Wherever we set them, you'll want them moved again."
"Then you'd best get started." Millie eyed the birds, rubbing her hands together. "All right, ladies, let's boot the men along and get started ourselves."
They had their feast, a happy family group, roasted wild pheasant seasoned with tarragon, stuffed with oranges, apples, shallots, and sage, cooked on a bed of carrots and potatoes, tomatoes. Peas and good brown bread from the oven, farm butter.
Good friends, old friends as well as family, they enjoyed the last meal of the year with two bottles of the Cristal that Ross and Angie had brought from New York just for this occasion.
A light, thin snow blew outside the windows as they cleared and washed up, all still basking in the glow, and in anticipation of the party to come.
Candles lit, fires snapping, more food — two days in the making — set out on tables. Wine and whiskey and champagne. Traditional cordials along with scones and haggis and cheeses for the Hogmanay celebration.
Some neighbors and friends came early, before midnight struck, to eat and drink and gossip, to tap toes to the music of pipes and fiddles. So the house filled with sound and song and fellowship as the old clock on the wall struck its midnight notes.
The old year died on the last chime, and the New Year was greeted with cheers, kisses, and voices raised in "Auld Lang Syne." All this Ross hugged sentimentally to his heart with Angie tucked against his side, and his brother's arm linked with his.
As the song ended, as glasses were raised, the front door swung open wide.
"The first-footer!" someone exclaimed.
Ross watched the door, expecting one of the Frazier boys or maybe Delroy MacGruder to step in. All dark-haired youths of good nature, as tradition required. The first to enter the house in the New Year must be so to ensure good luck.
But all that swept in was wind and the thin snow and the deep country dark.
As he stood closest, Ross walked to the door himself, looked out, stepped out. The chill running through him he attributed to the bluster of wind, and the odd, holding silence under the wind.
Air holding its breath.
Was that a rustle of wings, a long shadow — dark over dark?
With a quick shudder, Ross MacLeod stepped back in, a man who would never enjoy another feast or welcome another New Year, and so became the first-footer.
"Must not have latched it," he said, closing the door.
Chilled still, Ross stepped over to the fire, held his hands to the flame. An old woman sat beside the fire, her shawl wrapped tight, her cane leaning against the chair. He knew her as the young Frazier boys' great-granny.
"Can I get you a whiskey, Mrs. Frazier?"
She reached out with a thin, age-spotted hand, gripping his hand with surprising strength when he offered it. Her dark eyes bored into his.
"'Twas written so long ago most have forgot."
"The shield would be broken, the fabric torn, by the blood of the Tuatha de Danann. So now the end and the grief, the strife and the fear — the beginning and the light. I ne'er thought to live for it."
He laid a hand over hers, gentle, indulgent. Some, he knew, said she was one of the fey. Others said she was a bit doddering in the mind. But the chill stabbed again, an ice pick in the base of his spine.
"It starts with you, child of the ancients."
Her eyes darkened, her voice deepened, sending a fresh frisson of dread down his spine.
"So now between the birth and the death of time, power rises — both the dark and the light — from the long slumber. Now begins the blood-soaked battle between them. And with the lightning and a mother's birth pangs comes The One who wields the sword. The graves are many, with yours the first. The war is long, with no ending writ."
Pity moved over her face as her voice thinned again, as her eyes cleared. "But there's no blame in it, and blessings will come as magicks long shadowed breathe again. There can be joy after the tears."
With a sigh she gave his hand a small squeeze. "I'd have a whiskey, and thanks for it."
Ross told himself it was foolish to be shaken by her nonsensical words, by those probing eyes. But he had to settle himself before he poured the whiskey for her — and another for himself.
The room hushed with anticipation at the booming knock on the door. Hugh opened it to one of the Frazier boys — Ross couldn't say which — who was greeted with applause and pleasure as he stepped in with a grin and a loaf of bread.
Though the time to bring luck had come and gone.
Still, by the time the last guests left at near to four a.m., Ross had forgotten his unease. Maybe he drank a little too much, but the night was for celebration, and he only had to stagger up to bed.
Angie slipped in beside him — nothing stopped her from cleansing off her makeup and slathering on her night cream — and sighed.
"Happy New Year, baby," she murmured.
He wrapped an arm around her in the dark. "Happy New Year, baby."
And Ross fell into sleep, into dreams about a bloody pheasant dropping to the ground inside the little stone circle, of crows with black eyes circling thick enough to block out the sun. A wolf howl of wind, of bitter cold and fierce heat. Of weeping and wailing, the bong and chime marking time rushing by.
And a sudden, terrible silence.
He woke well past midday with a banging head and queasy stomach. As he'd earned the hangover, he forced himself to get up, fumble his way into the bathroom, hunt up some aspirin in his wife's little medicine bag.
He downed four, drank two glasses of water to try to ease his scratchy throat. He tried a hot shower and, feeling a little better, dressed and went downstairs.
He went into the kitchen where the others gathered around the table for a brunch of eggs and scones and bacon and cheese. And where the smell, much less the sight, of food had his stomach doing an ungainly pitch.
"He rises," Angie said with a smile, then tipped her head, studying his face as she brushed back her chin-swing of blond hair. "You look rough, honey."
"You do look a bit hingy," Millie agreed, and pushed back from the table. "Sit yourself, and I'll get you a nice cup."
"Glass of ginger for what ails him," Hugh prescribed. "It's the thing for the morning after."
"We all knocked back more than a few." Rob gulped his tea. "I'm feeling a little hollow myself. The food helped."
"I'll pass on that for now." He took the glass of ginger ale from Millie, murmured his thanks, and sipped it carefully. "I think I'll get some air, clear my head. And remind myself why I'm too old to drink until damn near dawn."
"Speak for yourself." And though he looked a little pale himself, Rob bit into a scone.
"I'm always going to be four minutes ahead of you."
"Three minutes and forty-three seconds."
Ross shoved his feet into wellies, pulled on a thick jacket. Thinking of his sore throat, he wrapped a scarf around his neck, put on a cap. And taking the tea Millie offered him in a thick mug, he walked out into the cold, crisp air.
He sipped the strong, scalding tea and began to walk as Bilbo, the black Lab, fell into companionable pace with him. He walked a long way, decided he felt steadier. Hangovers might be a bitch, he thought, but they didn't last. And he wouldn't spend his last hours in Scotland brooding about drinking too much whiskey and wine.
A hangover couldn't spoil a bracing walk in the country with a good dog.
He found himself crossing the same field where he'd downed the last pheasant of the hunt. And approaching the small stone circle where it had fallen.
Was that its blood on the winter-pale grass under the skin of snow? Was it black?
He didn't want to go closer, didn't want to see. As he turned away, he heard a rustling.
The dog growled low in his throat as Ross turned to stare into the copse of old, gnarled trees edging the field. Something there, he thought with a fresh chill. He could hear it moving. Could hear a rustling.
Just a deer, he told himself. A deer or a fox. Maybe a hiker.
But the dog bared his teeth, and the hair on Bilbo's back stood up.
"Hello?" Ross called out, but heard only the sly rustle of movement.
"The wind," he said firmly. "Just the wind."
But knew, as the boy he'd been had known, it wasn't.
He walked back several paces, his eyes scanning the trees. "Come on, Bilbo. Come on, let's go home."
Turning, he began to stride quickly away, feeling his chest go tight. Glancing back, he saw the dog still stood stiff-legged, his fur ruffled.
"Bilbo! Come!" Ross clapped his hands together. "Now!"
The dog turned his head, and for a moment his eyes were almost feral, wild and fierce. Then he broke into a trot toward Ross, tongue happily lolling.
Ross kept up a quick stride until he reached the edge of the field. He put a hand — it shook a little — on the dog's head. "Okay, we're both idiots. We'll never speak of it."
His headache had eased a bit by the time he got back, and his stomach seemed to have settled enough to allow him some toast with another cup of tea.