The Beast Of Glenmalure
It was Gerald who said the Beast of Glenmalure could be tamed, but it was Nathaniel who said that it would be. Gerald had plenty of time to regret his confident claim as he trudged up the hill after his cousin, constantly glancing around him at every suspicious sound that pulled at his ears as they ascended through the trees. And to Gerald, every sound the forest made was suspicious. It took great self-control not to raise his double-barrelled shotgun at each crack or rustle. Nate glanced back to check on him every once in a while, noting with some small satisfaction that his cousin was struggling to keep up.
It was the last hour of dusk, and it promised to be a bright night, but that would not help them. Mist hung in strands in the beech trees, and the higher up they went, the thicker it got. The woods around them were already a mottled mass of grey shadow. Nate had made it clear that they were not to use the lamps, and that they must wear earth colours to blend into the landscape. Their tweed suits and flat caps were of the latest cut - the finest money could buy; but he wore his with the carelessness that came from being born obscenely rich.
His well-worn boots sank into the soft turf. The soil was a thin skin over the mountain's rock skeleton, and there were grains of silvery-white granite in the mud, catching the last of the evening light.
'We'll follow the waterfall up when we meet the stream,' Nate said, softly, pulling up his collar against the damp evening air; the moisture was already dripping from his blond hair and down his neck.
'It'll mask the sound of our approach.'
'And the sound of anything sneaking up on us too,' Gerald muttered.
'You insisted on coming,' Nate stopped and turned to him. 'I could have brought someone else.'
'I thought there'd be more of us,' Gerald replied, with a scowl, as he hefted the gun cradled in the crook of his elbow. 'There's safety in numbers. This thing maimed two men last week, and sent another one home gibbering. It doesn't make sense to take it on alone. We need some more bodies - I mean, someone to carry the equipment, at least.'
They had driven a gig to the end of the road in the valley below, before tying off the horse and continuing the rest of the way on foot. He was not accustomed to carrying heavy loads, and the straps of the bag on his back were biting into his shoulders. He resented being used as a pack animal; that was the whole point of having servants, after all. The gun was getting heavy too, but he had ignored Nate's demand that he leave it behind, so he wasn't going to mention it now.
'Are you going to moan the whole way up?' Nate asked.
'You could have brought Clancy.'
Nate looked back up the hill.
'This has nothing to do with him.'
Gerald rolled his eyes, finding it hard to believe that Nate still had issues with his manservant.
Nate set off again, even faster than before, his hands gripping the straps of his backpack, and Gerald urged his tired legs after him. They had to cross an open area, the ground beneath the yellow grass damp and boggy after the recent rains. It was difficult to keep their feet from making squelching noises, and both of them kept their eyes anxiously on the tree-line ahead, eager to get back under cover. At the edge of the trees, they came upon a track, and followed it to where it met the stream that flowed down Fraughan Rock Glen, a steeply sloping valley pinched between two grassy cliffs.
Upstream, there was a waterfall, with a rough, rocky path rising alongside it. The fog was getting heavier now, they could no longer see the tops of the hills against the sky. The creature could be anywhere out there. It could be a few yards away and they might not spot it until it was too late.
'This is where it was last seen,' Gerald panted, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief. 'The men in the pub said there'd still be tracks.'
They both surveyed the surrounding land, looking for any movement, any lights or telltale sounds.
'I'm still not sure that three men in a pub is the best source of information on which to base a hunt,' Nathaniel grunted.
'You said you wanted local knowledge.'
'I was thinking more along the lines of someone who could lead us to the bloody thing.'
'Well, the last man who managed to find it had his leg broken in three places for his effort, so he won't be leading anyone anywhere for quite a while. Three men in a pub was the best I could do? What is it?'
Nate had stopped suddenly. Gerald looked round his shoulder at the spot on the ground that had seized his cousin's attention. There in the soft ground near the base of the waterfall, was a single, linear track, winding like a rigid snake into the heather that covered part of the hillside.
'It looks like the drinks are on me,' Nate breathed, shakily. 'See the size of that? It's a foot wide if it's an inch.'
'I told you it was big,' Gerald nodded. 'I've wanted to catch sight of this creature ever since Clancy used to scare us to bed with those stories of his. All these years, and nobody's managed to trap it.'
He gazed expectantly at Nathaniel, his blue eyes, flushed cheeks and damp black hair making his unhealthily pale face seem as if it were glowing.
'But you handled bigger things than this in Africa, right? You haven't steered me wrong, have you? We can still go home and get more men.'
'And have a bunch of bog-trotters traipsing around, making enough noise to wake the dead?' Nate snorted. 'That's exactly why nobody's caught the thing. No, we can handle it.'
But looking at that track, he was beginning to have second thoughts. After finishing school, he had decided to defer his place in university in favour of travelling. While some of his friends had gone off on jaunts to London, Paris, or even New York, Nate had wandered further afield. His family had made part of its vast fortune capturing and selling engimals, and he wanted to see how it was done. And the biggest, most dangerous engimals were to be found in Africa.
The family employed the services of the famous American hunter and trapper, Peregrine Herne, and Nate had defied his father, using the family's connections to get a place on an expedition to the Congo. He had spent over a year travelling with Herne across the Dark Continent, studying the various species through books and observation in the wild, and of course, joining in the hunts. He had thought that after helping trap berserkers and behemoths, he would be well able to handle whatever minor predator Glenmalure had to offer. Now, without Herne's practical wisdom, and the teams of wily black guides, Nathaniel was beginning to feel out of his depth.
'They say there's not a horse in the country that can outpace it,' Gerald said from over his shoulder.
'And it's particularly partial to crushing people against tree trunks. So, are we going, or what?'
'We're going,' Nate retorted. 'I'm going to need a lamp to follow this. The heather's thick.'
He had a small oil lamp in his bag, with a red lens and a metal hood over the glass to allow only a sliver of light to show. Lighting it, he followed the track carefully through the bent heather. The hill grew steep, and he could feel the burn in the muscles above his knees and in the backs of his calves as he climbed. Behind him, Gerald's breathing became shorter and more strained.
'You sound a bit pursy,' he hissed to his friend. 'You should walk more. This is an easy trek. You wouldn't last a day on the trail in Africa. You're breathing like a steam engine.'
'Funny then, that you're the one blowing all the hot air,' came the caustic reply.
The trail wound through some thigh-high growth, and crested a ridge. There were some sparse, stunted trees dotting the hillside, sucking a living out of the marshy soil. Nate and Gerald were peering into the fog, trying to make any kind of sense out of the blurred grey, when they heard the low rumble of a growl far off to their right.
'Did you hear that?' Gerald gasped.
Nate held up his hand for him to be quiet. There came another growl. The fog made it impossible to gauge the direction properly, but it was close enough to set their hairs on end.
'This will do, right here,' Nate whispered, beckoning his cousin into a stand of heather at the base of a fir tree. They crouched down in the soft, rough foliage, and Gerald gratefully propped the shotgun up against the tree trunk.
'If we can hear it, it can hear us,' Nate added. 'That's all I need. Hand me your bag.' Gerald shrugged off the backpack and handed it over. Nate pulled out a wooden cube no larger than a shoebox, and then another object, wrapped in cloth. Unwrapping it, he revealed a funnel-shaped piece of metal, much like the end of a trumpet, with a bend at the narrow end.
'A music box? What, you're going to play it a tune?' Gerald smirked. 'I think you spent too much time with those bloody snake-charmers.'
'Watch and learn,' Nathaniel replied, as he fitted the narrow end of the horn into the top of the sandalwood box. He inserted a small handle into the side of the music box, and started to crank it round. Gerald looked on in fascination, his curiosity winning over his sarcasm.
'Most of the larger, lone engimals are territorial,' Nate explained quietly, as he finished winding up the box. 'They don't take kindly to challengers. The Boers use these things as decoys.'
There was another mumbling growl, low and menacing. In the grey, cloudy air, it was hard to tell how close it was, or in what direction. Gerald took his small hip flask from his jacket pocket and took a swig of brandy. His fingers were shaking as tried to screw the top back on. Nathaniel took off the gold rings he wore on each of his middle fingers.
'I would have thought you'd need those,' Gerald muttered. 'You're going to need all the health you can get.'
'I saw a man tackle a berserker on the Cape,' Nate replied. 'His ring caught on its carapace; it pulled his finger off.'
'Ah, right. Well, give them here so.'
Nate handed over his rings, and dragged a large coil of rope from Gerald's bag, pulling one end free.
It had a loop tied into it, not unlike a hangman's noose.
'You're going to hang it now?' Gerald shook his head in puzzlement. 'Or is that for you, in case you should fail? You can take this whole 'honour' thing a bit far, you know-.'
'It's a lasso,' Nate told him. 'The ranchers use it to catch cattle and horses in America. Herne taught me how to use it.'
'Nate,' Gerald sat up, looking serious now. 'You can't catch this thing with a bloody rope. I don't know what you thought you'd-.'
'Quiet!' Nate was peering into the fog. There was the sound of movement nearby. 'It's closer than I thought. Stay put. Don't make a sound? And don't bloody shoot anything.'
Gerald swore under his breath, fervently wishing he'd never proposed this stupid idea. Shifting the coiled rope onto his shoulder, Nate picked up the box, and crept out into the open. He carefully placed the box down in the damp grass, and then pulled out the handle. Instead of music, a metallic chugging sound erupted from the horn, the sudden noise harsh in the muffled silence of the fog. Nate sprinted to a nearby Scots pine, dropping the rope onto the ground, making sure that the looped end was free. Wrapping the other end several times around the stout trunk of the tree, he tied it off and sank down into the heather to wait.
He had hoped for more time to prepare, but the beast had obviously heard them. Damn Gerald and his prattle. The box's noise made it hard to hear the sounds of the creature's approach, but Nate knew it was coming. It would not come stealthily, not with such a blatant challenge to its territory. And then he heard it, a deep throbbing, rising to a rasping roar. Two pinpricks of light appeared through the fog, growing steadily as they rushed towards him. The creature roared again, and its eyes blazed, the mist igniting with a white glow around it. He could hear the sound of its passage through the undergrowth now, as it crushed the heather beneath its wheels. And then it charged out of the fog towards him, its engine bellowing.
It was the biggest, most savage velocycle Nate had ever seen.
He lay frozen for a second, terrified. For that instant, his nerve failed him, and all he could do was look. Its wheels must have been two feet in diameter, its body nearly half that again in width at the cowl. The silvery metal and black ceramic of its torso bulged with power, veined with jagged, angry markings of gold and red. It stood four feet tall at the shoulder, and must have been over six feet long from nose to rump. Its cowl and horns were painted with the dried, rusty-brown blood of its most recent victims. It had raced across the clearing and screamed past him before he had time to flinch. A magnificent beast. Nate closed his eyes and let out a shuddering breath. He was a fool. He should have brought more men.
But the wet tearing of soil as it skidded into a turn told him he had seconds before it came back. There was still a chance that he could defeat it. It would be confused. The decoy gave the impression of a large, aggressive engimal, and the velocycle would have been expecting to be met by a rival. It probably hadn't even seen the box. The next charge would be slower, less confident. It didn't roar this time, rushing through the grass as if hunting for prey. Its lights were hooded as it came into sight through the mist, and then Nate was up, swinging the lasso over his head. The beast swerved past him, unprepared for a charge, and Nate pivoted and with a deft flick of his wrist, looped the lasso over the creature's horns.
He stepped clear of the rope just before the coils started to whip away. The engimal was accelerating into the mist, trying to shed the snare. And that was its mistake.
When the velocycle was forty feet away the rope snapped taut like a fishing line, anchored by the stout Scots pine. The engimal's head and shoulders were wrenched to a complete stop, and its legs and hips swung around it, throwing it onto its side. The creature lay there stunned. Nate crossed the distance to it at a full sprint, seizing it by the horns and leaping onto its back. Then he loosened the lasso and cast it off. It would just be a danger to him now.
'Right, let's see what you've got, you beauty!'
The thing didn't need any goading. It thrashed around on the marshy ground, trying to get back on its wheels. The hind legs which held its rear wheel bent at the knees, pushing its rump up and its front wheel twisted under it. Leaning on one knee, it flicked itself upright, lifting Nate with it. Its engine roared with outrage, and he held on for grim death as it bucked and spun, its spinning back wheel sending up a fountain of mud. The beast reared and then took off across the mountainside.
Nate's pulse was pounding as the wind blew his hat off and rushed past his ears. The ride was rough; the engimal swerved and bounced and tried to make sudden stops, but the swampy ground hampered its efforts. Too much turn and it would slip onto its side, and any attempt to skid to an abrupt halt ended in a long slide. Keeping his arms taut and his body supple, Nate foiled one move after another. But it would take a long time to tire, and he wouldn't. The constant shaking was jarring his senses, and he was in danger of having the teeth jolted out of his head. And all the time, Gerald's words echoed in his mind.
'You only have to hang on long enough. Long enough to make it remember.'
He hoped it would remember soon. The creature raced back and forth across the ridge, twisting and bucking and tossing him like a rag doll, but he clung on. It jumped off humps and hags, trying to lose him in mid-air, but anything that came close to throwing him also risked turning it on its side again.
It would not have that.
The enraged engimal leapt off a low embankment and Nate found himself lifting off its back as it soared, the momentum carrying him into the air. He went with it, following its movement, and as it hit the ground again, he landed back on it, his full weight crushing his groin against its metal frame. Pain drove like spears up from between his legs and he let out an embarrassing, high-pitched squeal. But he kept his grip.
The thing picked up speed, and he forced himself to ignore the excruciating pain. Tears were swept from his cheeks by the wind, chilling his face, grass and heather lashed past his legs. Every bounce over the rough ground threatened to reduce him to a blubbering baby, but he held on. It slowed, turning in tight jerks, smacking one horn and then another against his thighs, but he refused to let go. It bucked again, twisting and thrashing and throwing its wheels up, but he screamed defiance at it.
'You won't beat me, you cur! You're mine! You're mine! YOU'RE MINE, y'hear me, you goddamned machine!'
His head was spinning, and he tasted blood in his mouth. His body ached and with every move, he felt weaker. His hands and arms gripped the beast's horns with a will all their own. The engimal's thrashing seemed to be growing weaker. His head lolled back and he saw stars above him. Stars in the fog. He slumped forward over its back. It was some time before he realized he was no longer moving.
The engine was throbbing quietly beneath him. Nate raised his head and stared. The velocycle was standing still, heat radiating off it, steam hissing wearily from its nostrils.
'Bloody marvellous,' Gerald laughed.
He was leaning against a tree a few yards away, holding a cigarette in one hand.
'Best show I have ever seen, bar none,' he declared, tapping some ash off the gasper. 'My God, we could take it on tour. I haven't had this much excitement since that young Lady Haddington flashed her calves at the spring ball. You're a bloody star.'
'Ah thunk ah bit muh tongue.'
Nate pushed himself upright, and worked his jaw around. He still had all his teeth, at least. His hands were still clamped around the creature's horns. Stalks unfolded from the metal bars, and locked into place within reach of his fingers. Brake levers. It was giving him its brakes. He had tamed the Beast of Glenmalure.
He squeezed the front brake once, to acknowledge the gesture, and then peeled his hands off the horns and uncurled his stiff fingers.
'Are you going to ride it home?' Gerald asked him, stubbing his cigarette out on the tree trunk and picking up his shotgun.
'I'll have to,' Nate leaned back to ease the pain in his groin. 'Or at least as far as the gig anyway. I don't think I can walk.'
Gerald chuckled, but then his smile faded, and he gazed at the engimal for some time.
'I was right, wasn't I?'
'Yes,' he said. 'It remembered.'