Chapter One ONE
The little boat crept closer, over the grey-green water of the loch. Tommy could hear the slow creaking of the oarlocks, and see the white hair of the lean old man bent over the oars. His father said the MacDevon was one hundred years old, but Tommy had never had the courage to ask if it were true. The MacDevon was a clan chief, the last of his line, and you didn’t ask a clan chief a question like that.
“Good day, Mr. MacDevon.” He caught the bow of the dinghy as it crunched into the small stones of the beach. This was a weekly ritual: the old man’s shopping trip from the island of Castle Keep.
“Aye,” said the MacDevon, in his soft, rusty voice.
“Have you not brought Fergus?” Tommy was astonished; the old man never went anywhere without his dog.
“Fergus is old and tired, Thomas. Like his master.” The MacDevon stepped over the side of the dinghy, lifting his big rubber boots as if they were too heavy for him. Out of the boat he took a deep shopping basket woven of wicker, grey-brown with age. Then he walked carefully up the beach toward the village store, in which Tommy’s mother struggled to fill all at once the jobs of grocer, bookseller, fruiterer, postmistress, and occasionally—if Tommy went fishing—fishmonger. She used her son as delivery boy, though he preferred the fishing.
Tommy tugged the dinghy further up the beach and looked out over the water to the MacDevon’s island. It was no more than a rock, really: a grass-skinned slab from which the square grey bulk of Castle Keep rose like a box of stone. The castle’s grey sides were streaked yellow with lichen; there were only a few windows, and those cut so small, against attack from long-ago invaders or the everlasting Highland wind, that the walls seemed blind. It was a small castle, as castles go, but it was handsome and forbidding there alone in the loch, with the water all around and the hills of Mull rising misty beyond. Though Tommy rowed over to the island now and again, to deliver groceries or mail, he had seldom been inside. Nor had anyone else from the village. The days were long gone when Castle Keep rang with the reveling of clansmen gathered from all over the Western Isles, and every neighbor strained to hear the haunting music of the great piper MacCrimmon of Skye. Now the castle stood silent and empty, and the last MacDevon lived there alone with Fergus his dog.
But not quite alone.
Tommy gasped, jumping suddenly backward, as a strand of wet seaweed was flipped up into his face from something in the bottom of the empty boat. He thought: So you’re here again this time, are you? For an instant he heard the thread of a laugh, from the thing in the boat that he could not see. A very ancient, mischievous thing, solitary and sly, born of a magic as old as the rocks and the waves. A thing that had lived in Castle Keep for all the centuries of the MacDevon clan, and longer.
The Boggart had come shopping too.
Tommy’s mother weighed out the apples, and put them in the MacDevon’s basket. She frowned at the keys of her cash register, as she carefully punched in the prices of apples, bread, oatmeal, milk, and so she failed to see one of the apples rise quickly into the air and float sideways. But Tommy saw. Instinctively he put out a hand and snatched the apple as it passed, and from somewhere in the air he heard the echo of a small resentful wail. He handed the apple to the MacDevon. A smile flickered over the MacDevon’s pleated brown face, and he winked at Tommy with one of his bright eyes as he put the apple back in the basket with the rest. Nearby, the air seemed to quiver for a moment, as if something swiftly passed.
“So, Mrs. Cameron,” said the MacDevon, “is there any mail for me?”
“No, Mr. MacDevon, not this week,” said Tommy’s mother, as she said every week.
“Well now—what is the news?” he said.
Mrs. Cameron paused to think. She was a pretty woman, but looked always slightly worried, perhaps by the fecklessness of Tommy’s father, Angus Cameron, who as usual was away somewhere chasing a story. He was the Argyll correspondent for several Glasgow and London newspapers. By the standards of Glasgow and London, not much news was made in Argyll.
She said, “Mrs. MacNeil’s youngest, Sue, has had twins in Aberdeen.”
Tommy said eagerly, “And my father has a great new computer.”
“Ah,” said the MacDevon, without interest. In the course of his very long life he had resisted nearly all change; there was not even electricity in Castle Keep.
Mrs. Cameron sighed. “There it sits in its box waiting for Angus,” she said. “And whether he will be able to talk to it I very much doubt.”
“I can help him,” Tommy said confidently.
“I’m sure you could,” said his mother, without much hope, “if he will just stay in the one place long enough.”
Suddenly Tommy heard a bicycle bell ringing from outside the shop door, where six bicycles bought by his optimistic father stood waiting in a patient row for athletic tourists to come and rent them. He ran hopefully outside—and was greeted instantly by a great jangling crash as all six bicycles tumbled into a heap.
Tommy stood staring. Nobody was there. And he had not touched any of the bicycles, not one.
Mrs. Cameron called crossly, “Tommy! What are you doing?”
From the other side of the bicycles, in a triumphant whisper of sound, the Boggart laughed.
Swinging his golden tail, Fergus lumbered to his feet, as the MacDevon opened the great door into the castle’s drafty hall. Fergus was an elderly Labrador, deaf and almost blind, and all his world now was focused on the presence and smell and touch of the MacDevon. His master rubbed Fergus’ head absently, and moved toward the kitchen, carrying his basket. With his fine new packet of oatmeal from the Camerons’ shop, he had a mind to make a nice warming bowl of porridge for his tea.
Behind him, the Boggart swiftly transformed himself into a large hairy brown spider, and danced provocatively on the tip of Fergus’s hot dry nose. Once, this would have produced gratifyingly hysterical howls and barks. But Fergus was too blind to see the spider; he only sneezed, and shook his head, sending the Boggart rolling head over his eight heels on the floor.
It was the Boggart’s turn to sneeze, in the dust that lay thick all through Castle Keep. He changed back into his own shapeless invisible self, and flickered away to sulk on a windowsill. Outside, a fine soft rain began to fall, and all the surrounding coasts of the Western Highlands of Scotland and the Island of Mull disappeared into the mist.
For more centuries than he could count, the Boggart had lived at the edge of whatever family of MacDevons inhabited Castle Keep. He had no idea where he had come from. Nor did they. Sometimes the family knew he was there, sometimes there was nobody who noticed—though this offended the Boggart’s pride, and usually he would put the situation to rights by behavior so outrageous that even the most earth-bound human would sense that magic was at work. (Once, in the sixteenth century, in the time of a particularly bone-headed MacDevon, he had had to leave a grinning luminous skull suspended in midair over the castle steps for a full week before the clan chief stopped, looked up, and shrieked.)
The present MacDevon, last of his line, had known about the Boggart since the day when he lay in his cradle and heard something invisible squeaking like a mouse in his ear. Instead of crying, he had laughed. It was the first laugh of his life. Thus he had grown up to become a man who enjoyed practical jokes even when he himself was the object of them, and he and the Boggart had lived in silent mutual appreciation ever since.
The Boggart was his own master. Being one of the Old Things of the world, he was not made for human warmth; he belonged to the cold separate heart of the Wild Magic, which like everything that is wild operates by the law of the survival of the fittest. He did no hurt to anyone, but he lived for the satisfaction of teasing and trickery, and if the humans around him objected to his jokes they would find those jokes taking on a quality very close to malice. A boggart, by his nature, feels warmth for no one.
But once, in the faraway past, the Boggart of Castle Keep had broken this rule. Once, perhaps as much as a thousand years ago, there had been a chieftain of the MacDevon clan called Duncan, whom the Boggart had loved. This chieftain too had recognized the Boggart from his cradle, and smiled at his escapades, and through all the years of their friendship the Boggart had happily played his tricks on Duncan, and Duncan had laughed. But then, in one of the battles that bloodied the Highlands often in those years, Duncan MacDevon was killed, by a blow from the sword of an invading Norseman. And the Boggart had lost his friend.
All the members of the MacDevon clan gathered, after the murder of Duncan, and they took his body over the water to the Island of Mull. In procession they carried him, sadly, the whole length of the island, through the bare purple-green mountains and through the rocky passes. They went on foot, hundreds of them, in a long file, for days, with a single muffled drum beating before the body of Duncan, and a single piper playing his bagpipe behind. There was an irregular creaking all the way, from the wooden wheels of the cart which bore the coffin. The piper’s lament paused sometimes, since pipers need breath, but the slow rhythmic beat of the drum never stopped.
All along the track called the Road of the Chiefs they took Duncan MacDevon, through the mist and rain, until they came to the far coast of Mull, where in a little fleet of boats and coracles they crossed the water to the holy island of Columcille, which is also called Iona. The drum beat still as they carried their dead chief over the sea, and the pipe wailed its lament. And on Iona they buried him in the ground of Reilig Odhrain, the quiet graveyard where for centuries Scotsmen have laid the bodies of saints and abbots and clan chieftains, and more than sixty kings.
And all the way from Castle Keep to the island of Iona the Boggart went unseen with the procession, staying close to the body of Duncan, weeping. After the clansmen went home he stayed for a long time on Iona, listening to the gulls wailing in the sky like the lament of the bagpipe, and watching while the grass grew on Duncan’s grave. When the grave was green he went back to the castle, and for twenty years he lay quiet and made no sound or movement, nor played any trick on anybody. By the end of the twenty years he had forgotten why he was grieving, since he was a boggart and not a man, and he began to play tricks on the MacDevon clan once more. But once in a great while he remembered that he had felt pain, a terrible ache in his heart, and he swore he would never let himself feel love for a human again.
The Boggart flittered away from the windowsill. Thinking about his successful trick with the bicycles, his revenge on Tommy for rescuing the flying apple, he felt cheerful and sprightly, ready to find a heap of new ways to turn the MacDevon’s life upside down. He went to his own private place in the castle, a space between two blocks of stone high in a wall of the library, where three hundred years earlier an absentminded mason had forgotten to put mortar, and an absentminded carpenter had hidden the forgetfulness with a shelf. There he stayed, plotting and gleefully planning, while the MacDevon scraped the remains of his porridge into Fergus’s dish, to replace the dog food that gave such trouble to the poor old dog’s few remaining teeth.
The MacDevon felt very weary, suddenly; too weary even to go to bed. He sat down in his big armchair beside the fire, and Fergus, licking the porridge off his nose, flopped down with his chin over his master’s feet. Through a mist of fatigue the MacDevon thought of the Boggart, and wished he had put out an apple for him in some obvious ridiculous place, like the bath. Then he remembered that he had left all the apples he had bought in a bowl on the kitchen table, and that the Boggart loved to steal one or two things from any bowl, to leave him perplexed about how many had been there. It was the thought of the Boggart enjoying his stolen apple which brought an affectionate smile to the MacDevon’s mouth, a smile which was still there when he fell asleep.
Next morning a pale ray of sunshine slanted in through the library window, glanced up off a glass inkwell on an old desk, and woke the Boggart in his cubbyhole high in the wall. He basked in the light for a while, happily contemplating the day ahead. There was not much fun in playing tricks on Fergus anymore, since the old dog scarcely noticed anything but the touch of the MacDevon’s hand on his head. But the MacDevon still took obvious pleasure in any piece of teasing—the more ingenious the better. And his pleasure was in turn a challenge to the Boggart, who knew that he became for that moment a small child showing off. Look, I know how to fool you! Look at me!
He reviewed his plans for the morning. He would start by throwing pans around in the kitchen, if nobody was there. Then he would squawl like a lovesick cat, drawing the attention even of Fergus’s deaf ears, perhaps—and certainly of the MacDevon, who could never abide cats. When that brought the MacDevon out of his bed or his chair, the Boggart would take on the shape of a little black kitten, just for a moment, and run across the floor right past the MacDevon’s feet—and then—
The Boggart hugged himself gleefully. He could see the MacDevon’s face already: the astonishment, the outrage—and then the shamefaced incredulous laughter as he realized he had been tricked once more. It’s just you is it then, my mannie? I’ll be after you one of these days….
He flittered away to the kitchen, which was indeed empty. In the sink, half filled with water, was a saucepan lined with congealed porridge. The Boggart reached for this pan and then decided against it; he was a fastidious creature, and disliked the idea of spraying gobbets of wet porridge all over the walls and floor. Instead he took half a dozen clean—though dusty—metal pots, and hurled them all around the kitchen with a sound like that of a car crashing into a wall.
He waited, grinning, for sounds of reaction from the MacDevon. But the castle was silent. The Boggart was disappointed, but not impatient. He could wait. He helped himself to an apple from the bowl on the kitchen table, and sat on the back of a chair, nibbling.
The rays of sunshine which had been slanting through the kitchen’s one small window disappeared, as a cloud bank swallowed the sun. The kitchen grew dark, and the Boggart felt lonely. Finishing his apple, he flittered to the MacDevon’s bedroom, and like a small cloud of smoke he drifted in through the partly open door.
Nobody was there. The early sunshine must have wakened the MacDevon too. The Boggart made his way to the living room, smiling with anticipation, and began first to whimper and then to yowl like a cat in the corridor outside. Changing shape again, he trickled through the gap under the door and into the room, and looked up. Then he paused.
The MacDevon was sitting in his chair, smiling a little, with his eyes closed, and the dog Fergus lay across his feet, snoring gently. The fire in the hearth was cold ash. The Boggart looked at the two still figures and felt suddenly nervous. He made a loud abrupt cat sound.
Fergus stirred, and raised his head, but the MacDevon did not move. The old dog got shakily to his feet, and nudged with his muzzle at the limp hand lying on the MacDevon’s knee, but still the MacDevon did not move. Then Fergus’s animal instinct told him what had happened, and he put back his head and howled a wailing eerie howl, and hearing it, the Boggart knew that the MacDevon was dead.
He stayed there all day in the room, staring at the MacDevon, without stirring, without making a sound, as if by stillness he could prevent the passing of time. In his heart he felt a terrible ache, the ache he had sworn he would never feel again. The old dog Fergus howled and howled, a long ululation of mourning, as the sun rose and crossed the sky and began to sink to the west. Over on the mainland Tommy Cameron, walking home from the school bus, lifted his head and heard a faint murmur of the howling carried on the breeze. But Fergus was inside a room with ancient stone walls two feet thick, and the sound was not distinct. Tommy decided it was the passing of a flight of geese.
As the castle grew dark, Fergus’s howls changed to whimpers, and at length he put his head down again on the MacDevon’s feet, and slept. All the night long the Boggart stayed silent in the room, keeping vigil, fighting the pain of loss. When the darkness was eased by a growing light in the narrow windows of the room, and birds began faintly to chirp outside, the Boggart stirred himself and went to the kitchen to fetch food and a bowl of water for the dog.
But Fergus only raised his head, whimpered a little, and laid it down again on the MacDevon’s feet. He would neither eat nor drink. He was a very old dog, held in life only by the thread of his devotion to his master, and without that he had no wish at all to live. So very soon he drifted into a deep sleep where his breathing grew gradually slower and more faint, and the Boggart knew that he had chosen not to wake up again.
Night fell, and Castle Keep was in darkness once more. The Boggart found candles and matches, and he lit a candle in every window of the great square grey home of the last MacDevon. In his misery he wanted to sleep as Fergus slept, but he was a boggart, and boggarts do not die. Out of an anguish of loneliness and loss he howled into the night as the dog had howled, keening a lament for his friend. And gradually the sound of his mourning changed, and became a chilling echo of the time he had felt another loving grief, centuries before. So all night long Tommy Cameron and all the other villagers tossed in their safe mainland beds, as they heard through their sleep, echoing over the water from the castle of the MacDevon, the plaintive wail of a single bagpipe, the creaking of a cart, the slow muffled shuffling of many feet, and the unending steady beat of a drum.