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The Monarch of the Glen, Page 2

Neil Gaiman

“So what are you doing tomorrow and Friday?”

  “Walking,” said Shadow. “I’ve got a book. There are some beautiful walks.”

  “Some of them are beautiful. Some of them are treacherous,” she told him. “You can still find winter snow here, in the shadows, in the summer. Things last a long time, in the shadows.”

  “I’ll be careful,” he told her.

  “That was what the Vikings said,” she said, and she smiled. She took off her coat and dropped it on the bright purple sofa. “Maybe I’ll see you out there. I like to go for walks.” She pulled at the bun at the back of her head, and her pale hair fell free. It was longer than Shadow had thought it would be.

  “Do you live here alone?”

  She took a cigarette from a packet on the counter, lit it with a match. “What’s it to you?” she asked. “You won’t be staying the night, will you?”

  Shadow shook his head.

  “The hotel’s at the bottom of the hill,” she told him. “You can’t miss it. Thanks for walking me home.”

  Shadow said goodnight, and walked back, through the lavender night, out to the lane. He stood there for a little while, staring out at the moon on the sea, puzzled. Then he walked down the hill until he got to the hotel. She was right: you couldn’t miss it. He walked up the stairs, unlocked his room with a key attached to a short stick, and went inside. The room was colder than the corridor.

  He took off his shoes, and stretched out on the bed in the dark.


  The boat was made of the fingernails of dead men, and it lurched through the mist, bucking and rolling hugely and unsteadily on the choppy sea.

  There were shadowy shapes on the deck, men as big as hills or houses, and as Shadow got closer he could see their faces: proud men and tall, each one of them. They seemed to ignore the ship’s motion, each man waiting on the deck as if frozen in place.

  One of them stepped forward, and he grasped Shadow’s hand with his own huge hand. Shadow stepped onto the gray deck.

  “Well come to this accursed place,” said the man holding Shadow’s hand, in a deep, gravel voice.

  “Hail!” called the men on the deck. “Hail sun-bringer! Hail Baldur!”

  The name on Shadow’s birth certificate was Balder Moon, but he shook his head. “I am not him,” he told them. “I am not the one you are waiting for.”

  “We are dying here,” said the gravel-voiced man, not letting go of Shadow’s hand.

  It was cold in the misty place between the worlds of waking and the grave. Salt spray crashed on the bows of the gray ship, and Shadow was drenched to the skin.

  “Bring us back,” said the man holding his hand. “Bring us back or let us go.” Shadow said, “I don’t know how.”

  At that, the men on the deck began to wail and howl. Some of them crashed the hafts of their spears against the deck, others struck the flats of their short swords against the brass bowls at the center of their leather shields, setting up a rhythmic din accompanied by cries that moved from sorrow to a full-throated berserker ululation . . .

  A seagull was screaming in the early-morning air. The bedroom window had blown open in the night, and was banging in the wind. Shadow was lying on the top of his bed in his narrow hotel room. His skin was damp, perhaps with sweat.

  Another cold day at the end of the summer had begun.

  The hotel packed him a Tupperware box containing several chicken sandwiches, a hard- boiled egg, a small packet of cheese-and-onion crisps, and an apple. Gordon on the reception desk, who handed him the box, asked when he’d be back, explaining that if he was more than a couple of hours late they’d call out the rescue services, and asking for the number of Shadow’s mobile phone.

  Shadow did not have a mobile phone.

  He set off on the walk, heading toward the coast. It was beautiful, with a desolate beauty that chimed and echoed with the empty places inside Shadow. He had imagined Scotland as being a soft place, all gentle heathery hills, but here on the North Coast everything seemed sharp and jutting, even the gray clouds that scudded across the pale blue sky. He followed the route in his book, across scrubby meadows and past barns, up rocky hills and down.

  Sometimes he imagined that he was standing still and the world was moving underneath him, that he was simply pushing it past with his legs.

  The route was more tiring than he had expected. He had planned to eat at one o’clock, but by midday his legs were tired and he wanted a break. He followed his path to the side of a hill, where a boulder provided a convenient windbreak, and he crouched to eat his lunch. In the distance, ahead of him, he could see the Atlantic.

  He had thought himself alone.

  She said, “Will you give me your apple?”

  It was Jennie, the barmaid from the hotel. Her too-fair hair gusted about her head. “Hello, Jennie,” said Shadow. He passed her his apple. She pulled a clasp-knife from the pocket of her brown coat, and sat beside him. “Thanks,” she said.

  “So,” said Shadow, “from your accent, you must have come from Norway when you were a kid. I mean, you sound like a local to me.”

  “Did I say that I came from Norway?”

  “Well, didn’t you?”

  She speared an apple slice, and ate it, fastidiously, from the tip of the knife blade, only touching it with her teeth. She glanced at him. “It was a long time ago.”


  She moved her shoulders in a shrug, as if any answer she could give him was beneath her.

  “So you like it here?”

  She looked at him and shook her head. “I feel like a hulder.”

  He’d heard of the word before, in Norway. “Aren’t they a kind of troll?”

  “No. They are mountain creatures, like the trolls, but they come from the woods, and they are very beautiful. Like me.” She grinned as she said it, as if she knew that she was too pallid, too sulky, and too thin ever to be beautiful. “They fall in love with farmers.”


  “Damned if I know,” she said. “But they do. Sometimes the farmer realizes that he is talking to a hulder woman, because she has a cow’s tail hanging down behind, or worse, sometimes from behind there is nothing there, she is just hollow and empty, like a shell. Then the farmer says a prayer, or runs away, flees back to his mother or his farm.

  “But sometimes the farmers do not run. Sometimes they throw a knife over her shoulder, or just smile, and they marry the hulder woman. Then her tail falls off. But she is still stronger than any human woman could ever be. And she still pines for her home in the forests and the mountains. She will never be truly happy. She will never be human.”

  “What happens to her then?” asked Shadow. “Does she age and die with her farmer?” She had sliced the apple down to the core. Now, with a flick of the wrist, she sent the apple core arcing off the side of the hill. “When her man dies . . . I think she goes back to the hills and the woods.” She stared out at the hillside. “There’s a story about one of them who was married to a farmer who didn’t treat her well. He shouted at her, wouldn’t help around the farm, he came home from the village drunk and angry. Sometimes he beat her.

  “Now, one day she’s in the farmhouse, making up the morning’s fire, and he comes in and starts shouting at her, for his food is not ready, and he is angry, nothing she does is right, he doesn’t know why he married her, and she listens to him for a while, and then, saying nothing, she reaches down to the fireplace, and she picks up the poker. A heavy black iron jobbie. She takes that poker, and, without an effort, she bends it into a perfect circle, just like her wedding ring. She doesn’t grunt or sweat, she just bends it, like you’d bend a reed. And her farmer sees this and he goes white as a sheet, and doesn’t say anything else about his breakfast. He’s seen what she did to the poker and he knows that at any time in the last five years she could have done the same to him. And until he died, he never laid another finger on her, never said one harsh word. Now, you tell me something, Mr. everybody-ca
lls-you-Shadow, if she could do that, why did she let him beat her in the first place? Why would she want to be with someone like that? You tell me.”

  “Maybe,” said Shadow. “Maybe she was lonely.” She wiped the blade of the knife on her jeans.

  “Dr. Gaskell kept saying you were a monster,” she said. “Is it true?”

  “I don’t think so,” said Shadow.

  “Pity,” she said. “You know where you are with monsters, don’t you?”

  “You do?”

  “Absolutely. At the end of the day, you’re going to be dinner. Talking about which, I’ll show you something.” She stood up, and led him up the hill. “See. Over there? On the far side of that hill, where it drops into the glen, you can just see the house you’ll be working at this weekend. Do you see it, over there?”


  “Look. I’ll point. Follow the line of my finger.” She stood close to him, held out her hand and pointed to the side of a distant ridge. He could see the overhead sun glinting off something he supposed was a lake—or a loch, he corrected himself, he was in Scotland after all—and above that a gray outcropping on the side of a hill. He had taken it for rocks, but it was too regular to be anything but a building. “That’s the castle?”

  “I’d not call it that. Just a big house in the glen.”

  “Have you been to one of the parties there?”

  “They don’t invite locals,” she said. “And they wouldn’t ask me. You shouldn’t do it, anyway. You should say no.”

  “They’re paying good money,” he told her.

  She touched him then, for the first time, placed her pale fingers on the back of his dark hand. “And what good is money to a monster?” she asked, and smiled, and Shadow was damned if he didn’t think that maybe she was beautiful, at that.

  And then she put down her hand and backed away. “Well?” she said. “Shouldn’t you be off on your walk? You’ve not got much longer before you’ll have to start heading back again. The light goes fast when it goes, this time of year.”

  And she stood and watched him as he hefted his rucksack, and began to walk down the hill. He turned around when he reached the bottom of the hill, and looked up. She was still looking at him. He waved, and she waved back.

  The next time he looked back she was gone.

  He took the little ferry across the kyle to the cape, and walked up the lighthouse. There was a minibus back to the ferry, and he took it.

  He got back to the hotel at eight that night, exhausted but feeling satisfied. It had rained once, in the late afternoon, but he had taken shelter in a tumbledown bothy, and read a five-year-old newspaper while the rain drummed against the roof. It had ended after half an hour, but Shadow had been glad that he had good boots, for the earth had turned to mud.

  He was starving. He went into the hotel restaurant. It was empty. Shadow said, “Hello?” An elderly woman came to the door between the restaurant and the kitchen and said,


  “Are you still serving dinner?”

  “Aye.” She looked at him disapprovingly, from his muddy boots to his tousled hair. “Are you a guest?”

  “Yes. I’m in room eleven.”

  “Well . . . you’ll probably want to change before dinner,” she said. “It’s kinder to the other diners.”

  “So you are serving.”


  He went up to his room, dropped his rucksack on the bed, and took off his boots. He put on his sneakers, ran a comb through his hair, and went back downstairs.

  The dining room was no longer empty. Two people were sitting at a table in the corner, two people who seemed different in every way that people could be different: a small woman who looked to be in her late fifties, hunched and birdlike at the table, and a young man, big and awkward and perfectly bald. Shadow decided that they were mother and son.

  He sat down at a table in the center of the room.

  The elderly waitress came in with a tray. She gave both of the other diners a bowl of soup. The man began to blow on his soup, to cool it; his mother tapped him, hard, on the back of his hand, with her spoon. “Stop that,” she said. She began to spoon the soup into her mouth, slurping it noisily.

  The bald man looked around the room, sadly. He caught Shadow’s eye, and Shadow nodded at him. The man sighed, and returned to his steaming soup.

  Shadow looked at the menu without enthusiasm. He was ready to order, but the waitress had vanished again.

  A flash of gray; Dr. Gaskell looked in at the door of the restaurant. He walked into the room, came over to Shadow’s table.

  “Do you mind if I join you?”

  “Not at all. Please. Sit down.”

  He sat down, opposite Shadow. “Have a good day?”

  “Very good. I walked.”

  “Best way to work up an appetite. So. First thing tomorrow they’re sending a car out here to pick you up. Bring your things. They’ll take you out to the house. Show you the ropes.”

  “And the money?” asked Shadow.

  “They’ll sort that out. Half at the beginning, half at the end. Anything else you want to know?”

  The waitress stood at the edge of the room, watching them, making no move to approach. “Yeah. What do I have to do to get some food around here?”

  “What do you want? I recommend the lamb chops. The lamb’s local.”

  “Sounds good.”

  Gaskell said loudly, “Excuse me, Maura. Sorry to trouble you, but could we both have the lamb chops?”

  She pursed her lips, and went back to the kitchen. “Thanks,” said Shadow.

  “Don’t mention it. Anything else I can help you with?”

  “Yeah. These folk coming in for the party. Why don’t they hire their own security? Why hire me?”

  “They’ll be doing that too, I have no doubt,” said Gaskell. “Bringing in their own people. But it’s good to have local talent.”

  “Even if the local talent is a foreign tourist?”

  “Just so.”

  Maura brought two bowls of soup, put them down in front of Shadow and the doctor. “They come with the meal,” she said. The soup was too hot, and it tasted faintly of reconstituted tomatoes and vinegar. Shadow was hungry enough that he’d finished most of the bowl off before he realized that he did not like it.

  “You said I was a monster,” said Shadow to the steel-gray man. “I did?”

  “You did.”

  “Well, there’s a lot of monsters in this part of the world.” He tipped his head toward the couple in the corner. The little woman had picked up her napkin, dipped it into her water glass, and was dabbing vigorously at the spots of crimson soup on her son’s mouth and chin with it. He looked embarrassed. “It’s remote. We don’t get into the news unless a hiker or a climber gets lost, or starves to death. Most people forget we’re here.”

  The lamb chops arrived, on a plate with overboiled potatoes, underboiled carrots, and something brown and wet that Shadow thought might have started life as spinach. Shadow started to cut at the chops with his knife. The doctor picked his up in his fingers, and began to chew.

  “You’ve been inside,” said the doctor. “Inside?”

  “Prison. You’ve been in prison.” It wasn’t a question. “Yes.”

  “So you know how to fight. You could hurt someone, if you had to.”

  Shadow said, “If you need someone to hurt people, I’m probably not the guy you’re looking for.”

  The little man grinned, with greasy gray lips. “I’m sure you are. I was just asking. You can’t give a man a hard time for asking. Anyway. He’s a monster,” he said, gesturing across the room with a mostly chewed lamb chop. The bald man was eating some kind of white pudding with a spoon. “So’s his mother.”

  “They don’t look like monsters to me,” said Shadow.

  “I’m teasing you, I’m afraid. Local sense of humor. They should warn you about mine when you enter the village. Warning, loony old doctor at work. Talking about
monsters. Forgive an old man. You mustn’t listen to a word I say.” A flash of tobacco-stained teeth. He wiped his hands and mouth on his napkin. “Maura, we’ll be needing the bill over here. The young man’s dinner is on me.”

  “Yes, Dr. Gaskell.”

  “Remember,” said the doctor to Shadow. “Eight-fifteen tomorrow morning, be in the lobby. No later. They’re busy people. If you aren’t there, they’ll just move on, and you’ll have missed out on fifteen hundred pounds, for a weekend’s work. A bonus, if they’re happy.”

  Shadow decided to have his after-dinner coffee in the bar. There was a log fire there, after all. He hoped it would take the chill from his bones.

  Gordon from reception was working behind the bar. “Jennie’s night off?” asked Shadow. “What? No, she was just helping out. She’ll do it if we’re busy, sometimes.”

  “Mind if I put another log on the fire?”

  “Help yourself.”

  If this is how the Scots treat their summers, thought Shadow, remembering something Oscar Wilde had once said, they don’t deserve to have any.

  The bald young man came in. He nodded a nervous greeting to Shadow. Shadow nodded back. The man had no hair that Shadow could see: no eyebrows, no eyelashes. It made him look babyish, and unformed. Shadow wondered if it was a disease, or perhaps a side effect of chemotherapy. He smelled of damp.

  “I heard what he said,” stammered the bald man. “He said I was a monster. He said my ma was a monster too. I’ve got good ears on me. I don’t miss much.”

  He did have good ears on him. They were a translucent pink, and they stuck out from the side of his head like the fins of some huge fish.

  “You’ve got great ears,” said Shadow.

  “You taking the mickey?” The bald man’s tone was aggrieved. He looked like he was ready to fight. He was only a little shorter than Shadow, and Shadow was a big man.

  “If that means what I think it does, not at all.”

  The bald man nodded. “That’s good,” he said. He swallowed, and hesitated. Shadow wondered if he should say something conciliatory, but the bald man continued, “It’s not my fault. Making all that noise. I mean, people come up here to get away from the noise. And the people. Too many damned people up here anyway. Why don’t you just go back to where you came from and stop making all that bluidy noise?”