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Two years before
It was a sound like no other. High, shrill, raw, it stabbed the night with sharp, juddering, ragged edges. It was a sound somewhere between a wail and a scream, yet it was unlike a voice; spoke of no human origin.
Moonless night had already claimed the city: dragging itself around the flanks of the Mound, insinuating itself through the crenels and embrasures of the castle, creeping down into the Old Town and stretching dark fingers into its narrow wynds and cramped closes; in the grand terraces and crescents of the New Town it rubbed itself blackly against the prosperous panes of the broad, high windows. But as if possessed of some dark gravity, nowhere was the night blacker than where it had sunk into the depths of the gulley that creased the city, carrying pure waters from the heights of the Pentlands to where they became soiled dark and foam crusted in the effluent shadows of the clustering mills that lined the Water of Leith.
When the sound found her, Nell McCrossan was a slight, insub- stantial shadow moving through a greater darkness. Small for her fourteen years, her frame meagre and birdlike, her skin in the scarce and insubstantial pools of lamplight as bleach white as the flour produced by the mill in which she worked. Nell was a fearful soul. She feared the walk to her shift, feared the swelling darknesses between the lamps, feared the shifting elm shadows and the voices she sometimes thought she could hear in the tumbling waters of the river.
She had learned to mistrust her ears: the thunderings and clashings of the machines in the mill had distorted her hearing, tinkling in her ears as spectral tintinnabulations and haunting the vault of her skull with booming ghosts long after she had left the mill.
A generation before, her people had come to the city from the Highlands, driven from the green quiet of strath, mountain and glen to make way for the greater profit of sheep. The only world Nell had known had been the clattering, cramped, smoke-wreathed clamour of the tenements, alleys and closes of the Old Town, and the harsh, guttural Sassenach tongue of Edinburgh, yet her childhood had echoed with her parents’ soft Gaelic and tales of an unseen otherworld. So, as she made her shadow-haunted, brisk-paced way to her work in the mill, the mistrusted sounds of an ink-sleek river reached out to her from the gulley beside the path and conjured up remembered tales of selkies and kelpies and other malevolent water spirits.
But when the sound found her, all other fears, all other noises real and imagined, fell from her.
The sound – that terrible wailing screech of a sound – seemed to penetrate her insubstantial flesh and ring in her bones. Nell gave a cry of her own as the fear within her welled up and spilled into the night.
The sound came again, a shuddering, ragged screech that seemed to swell and echo in the depression of the gulley, reflecting itself off the black flanks of the mills until it seemed to come from every direction at once.
Nell whimpered, a child lost in the night, desperately scanning the darkness to catch sight of the dread thing that issued such a fearful sound, to work out in which direction she should run.
Again. A third inhuman wailing.
Nell turned on her heel and fled, plunging into the darkness between the lamp standards. She ran straight into it. A mass unseen in the darkness but suddenly solid, as if the shadows had coalesced to form an obstruction to her flight. The force of her collision caused her to rebound and she landed painfully, her back slamming against the grease-slicked cobbles. The impact winded her, and she desperately sought to draw air back into her tortured lungs.
She had no breath to scream for help as the shape leaned down over her, its silhouette growing larger, darker yet against the black gathered night. Strong hands seized her, and Nell issued a strangled cry, still not yet possessing enough breath to shape a scream. And still her captor remained inhuman; she could make out no face, no feature. The dark form lifted her to her feet as if there were no substance to her. It held her by her upper arms and she felt it would cost this monster no effort to crush her, to fold and crack her bones. She was helpless as he steered her into one of the pools cast by the gas lanterns.
The lamplight and shadow now etched a face for Nell to see. Her breath had returned to her but she found herself still unable to form a scream, to call out into the night for deliverance from the rough beast who now held her captive. The man in the gaslight had features that instilled terror. Heavy, brutal, harsh features that, while cruelly handsome, provoked revulsion.
Fright. Terror. She felt captured by some monster; by the devil. Then she recognised him. She knew exactly who he was and it did little to abate her fear.
Tomorrow: The Hanged Man
Hyde, by Craig Russell, is published by Constable in hardback, next month, priced £16.99