So, it’s getting quite late. I’ve had me tea and I’ve had a couple of brews and some scotch and put the MP3 player on loud, which always sends me to sleep. And I’m warm in the sleeping bag and I hear the noise of a horse. It’s probably one of those things that happens when you’re mainly asleep. So, I’m awake now, all tucked in and cosy, like , and I hear a kind of jingling noise, away in the distance somewhere, somewhere behind the sound of the little stream I’m camped next to and between that and the wind rusting the tent and, maybe, some faraway traffic.
I do hear something like footsteps and sort of jingling noise somewhere and , there……., I heard a horse giving a little snort somewhere. That can’t be right. Mr Bladder says that all of those cups of tea and the soup and the scotch need to come out. I stir. I struggle with the zip of the sleeping bag, cursing a bit. I fight my way into my wet boots, cold on my warm feet and tumble out onto frosty grass under a deep black starry sky. The ridge above me is even blacker. Half of my horizon is blacker than black and the other is, well, somehow a bit lighter now. There is no moon. I find a spot and,.. then a horse snorts and a voice whispers “wisht”. Wisht? Did I hear “wisht”? On the ridge, in silhouette, something moves. It grows and sways slowly into a tall shape. I watch and don’t resist the temptation to try to hide a bit.. Its about, maybe , two hundred metres away, and up the hill, on the hilltop. It stops in silhouette. There’s a glint and a jingle and a soft , horsey sigh. I can hear leather creaking. Its a horse rider. Unmistakeable. In the dark. How dangerous is that? Another rider joins the first, then a third. They seem to have weapons. They seem to have lances and there’s a glint of a steel helmet. I have completely forgotten my mission.
A fourth pony arrives, and a fifth, but there are no riders on these, just an odd shape. They move towards me, directly, and disappear into the blackness of the shadow of the hill. I crouch down a bit more. I can hear them now, but they’re invisible to me. But I know they’re getting closer with every second.
They’re very near now. I can hear the tread of the hooves moving slowly, the breathing of ponies, the creak of leather and the jingle of steel. And I can smell sweat and horse and, something foul. I recognise the smell from my early NHS days. Its the distinctive smell of a busy mortuary. It gives me images that I don’t like to see.
I crouch a bit lower. I am behind some rushes, in the rushes. I can hear my heart beating a bit quicker than it should. I try not to breath, it’s not just the noise, it’s the breath steaming in the cold.
A pony appears close by in the dark and passes by. I see boots with spurs. I can see the rider’s pale face and his sharp little beard. He does have a lance, and a sword and, maybe , a pistol. The second is the same, but a short little man with fair hair around the edge of his steel bonnet. And the third has a wild beard and a creased and wounded face – I’m not sure in the dark. They pass above me, quietly, not looking down, but gazing intently ahead into the dark. The third pulls a rope which tows the fourth pony, There’s something on the saddle, somebody on the saddle, legs sticking stiffly out. Boots and spurs and a foul smell of death and, so it is with the fifth. Something drips off the heel of the boot as it passes within feet of my face. Three riders, five ponies and two cadavers. The smell sticks as they saw off down the hill towards Liddesdale.
Its only now that I remember why I’m out here.
The smell sticks all night. I fact, I can smell it even now.
There’s a lot of darkness at this time of the year.