Duels, magic, and plenty of ghosts await in The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle, the third book of T. L. Huchu’s USA Today bestselling Edinburgh Nights series.
Everyone’s favorite fifteen-year-old ghostalker, Ropa, arrives at the worldwide Society of Skeptical Enquirers’ biennial conference just in time to be tied into a mystery—a locked room mystery, if an entire creepy haunted castle on lockdown counts. One of the magical attendees has stolen a valuable magical scroll.
Caught between Qozmos, the high wizard of Ethiopian magic; the larger-than-life Lord Sashvindu Samarasinghe; England’s Sorcerer Royal; and Scotland’s own Edmund MacLeod, it’s up to Ropa (and Jomo and Priya) to sort through the dangerous secret politics and alliances to figure out what really happened. But she has a special tool—the many ghosts tied to the ancient, powerful castle.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle by T.L. Huchu, on sale 8/29/23
Boom. Lassie from the slums winds up in a castle. Ain’t that a right old fairy tale? If I didn’t know any better, I’d have done up my dreadlocks, worn a tiara and called myself princess. Nah, screw that Disney malarkey. I’m just loving the Isle of Skye right now. This must be what being on holiday feels like. Though how would I know? Seeing as I’ve never done nothing posh like that.
Frances Cockburn wouldn’t let me bring my fox, River, along. Her being a boss lady type, with a big ol’ stick up her arse, who doesn’t want me working in Scottish magic. She said no pets allowed on this particular jaunt, or some such jazz. It’s a proper downer, but hey ho . . .
In terms of the day job, it’s nose to the grindstone, ’cause I’ve been seconded to what we call the Hamster Squad. They’re the admin gophers where I work. We’re helping organize the Society of Sceptical Enquirers’ biennial conference at Dunvegan Castle. That’s real, important work right there. And it means little ol’ me is mixing with the great and good of Scottish magic. But being me, I’ve also nabbed myself a wee ghostalking side hustle in Skye’s village of Dunvegan, just for while we’re here. The Society don’t pay me nothing for my labouring, so I have to be creative. Inshallah, they’ll turn my unpaid internship into a proper apprenticeship any day now. I flunked my last test on a technicality, so all I have to do is to take it again and I’m in, baby. But right now, the island’s sea air smells like crisp banknotes to me, and I’m sat in a cottage with a couple in dire need of my skills.
‘So, this here lassie be a real magician? We dinnae need none of that,’ says the husband, Brodie Budge, all gruff like, tossing peat into the stove.
‘I’m a registered ghostalker,’ I correct him. Impersonating a registered magician’s a big offence.
‘Still our shillings you want, right enough.’ He sounds proper annoyed, but I can tell he’s actually masking shame. Poverty does that to you. Better to lash out than admit you’re hard up.
I give his partner, Ellie, a look. She’s a wee mouse. Narrow face, long snout, hunched shoulders like she could disappear into that hole in the skirting board. Brodie’s kinda the same, but more extreme ’cause he’s got actual whiskers poking out round his cheeks. They’re that kind of couple who’ve blended till they resemble each other. It’s there in their body language and facial expressions, and a weird tic of flinching at random moments. Too much sorrow’s written in their eyes too.
━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━
‘I’ve been saving from the cleaning jobs I’ve been doing,’ Ellie says, barely audibly. ‘It’s got tae be done.’
‘If my boat hadnae sunk, I’d be good for it,’ Brodie replies, softening.
‘Ah ken. You survived. That’s all that matters, love.’
‘I’m useless. Nae jobs to be had anywhere on this goddamned island.’
‘Dinnae be silly.’ Ellie reaches out and strokes his arm. ‘We’ll be alright.’
Folks out here lost everything during the Big Yin. A massive storm that was. The Hebrides were devastated and so was a huge slice of the west coast of Scotland. Fishermen like Brodie Budge lost their livelihoods as Mother Nature devoured their boats. There’ve even been news reports of debris from broken-up vessels washing up on beaches in Florida. Broke the camel’s back, that did. It was always lean times in the fishing trade anyway, with the way fish stocks were decimated round about the time of the Catastrophe when everything went to shit. Since then, people have been leaving the Island of Skye like it was the nineteenth century all over again.
Still, Ellie asked me here to help them, so it is what it is.
Be a pro, Ropa, just like them suit and tie folks.
Her and him live in this old shepherd’s cottage on the outskirts of the village. The whitewashed walls could do with some DIY. Walking in, I was also worried the slate would fall off the roof on top of my head. The room we’re in now is pretty glum, with the windows boarded up, and a solar lamp illuminating ’cause the power’s gone again. Springs in the sofa poke my behind. Could do with some reupholstering – I’m sure these date from before them two were sprogs. There’s wires dangling out of a broken socket in the wall too. It’s definitely seen better days, but I still don’t see how this pair could afford a pad like this. Reckon one of them must have inherited it.
There’s a pink teddy bear underneath the coffee table.
I can smell damp in the air and glance at the black mould painting Guernica on the walls. An almighty draught’s blowing in from somewhere, cancelling out the fire’s warmth.
‘Morag said you could help us,’ Ellie says with an air of desperation. Good ol’ Morag. She’s a good egg, my favourite of the staff at the castle, and has had my back since we got there. Her and me have been lounging in downtimes blether-ing about the myths and legends woven into the fabric of Skye. Half the time I don’t know if she’s spinning yarns or she believes these tales to be true.
‘Sometimes it’s best to leave things the way they are,’ Brodie complains.
‘I cannae sleep nights on account o’ that awful racket. Then I have tae get oot each morning and work mysel tae the bone while you’re moping and wallowing. I cannae take it anymore, Brodie. It’s got tae stop, you hear?’
Ellie breaks away from him and storms off to the far side of the room, keeping her back to us. Brodie clenches his jaw and stays schtum. I’m beginning to regret taking on this gig. Dramarama. Keep it pro, Ropa, I tell myself. When emotions flare, I must be the grown-up in the room. Good thing is, I’ve got tons of practice dealing with my little sister’s wild moods.
‘How long’s this been going on? The haunting?’ I ask to bring them back firmly to the matter at hand.
‘Couple of months,’ Brodie replies.
‘A year and some,’ Ellie contradicts. ‘Started a few weeks after Ava died. Christ, do yous even remember her?’ she snaps at Brodie.
‘What kind of twisted question is that? She was my daughter too. My own flesh and bone.’
‘How often does it happen?’ I say quickly. I need them to stop bickering and stick to the facts.
‘Used tae be odd times. Once or twice a week, maybe. Now it’s every single night. I wake up tae hear the sound of my dead bairn wailing. And all I can think about is how I used tae hold her in my arms and rock her tae sleep at night.’
‘Both of you hear these sounds?’ I ask.
‘Aye. I’ve entered the nursery many times and seen the cot bed rocking back and forth all by itself,’ says Brodie. ‘But it’s nothing tae be afeard of. Ava’s soul is just here with us. Cannae you see that?’
‘Jesus Christ. Listen tae yersel. It’s got tae stop,’ says Ellie. Morag, who lined up this gig for me, didn’t tell me the couple weren’t in alignment. But I’ve seen it all. Not everyone who has a resident poltergeist wants it gone. There’s people who hold on to the souls of the dearly departed, unwilling to let go. My grandmother told me that kind of situation’s none too salubrious. Grief and growth go hand in scythe. Eventually, you have to move on. Try telling that to those who’ve loved and lost, though. But I also know that the souls of babies don’t linger unless they’re held by force, by strong emotions. The well of sorrow’s a tough place to tread water in. But in the murky waters after loss, there are those spirits who aren’t in the light and who may try to move in. That’s when shit gets real dark. First, I have to work out which of these is going on here.
A piercing wail comes from upstairs, making Ellie jump. A cold shiver runs down my spine. It’s horrible. A cry that sounds like torture. Nails on a blackboard. A wave of revulsion washes over me. I feel like throwing up but I’m not the sort to waste my tea like that. Ellie yells out and covers her ears, shutting her eyes tight as tears stream down her cheeks. But it’s given me my answer.
I grab my backpack and unzip it pronto, pulling out my mbira. The metal keys shine, reflecting the candlelight, ’cause I gave it a good polish earlier. Even oiled the wooden keyboard too, so it looks real swank. I’m headed for the stairs when Brodie blocks my path.
‘I cannae let you do this. That’s my bairn you’re wanting tae kill all over again. I cannae lose her twice, lassie.’
‘That’s not your daughter, pal,’ I respond. The revulsion I feel tells me all I need to know. You don’t think these things, your gut tells you in plain Shona and Scots.
‘I ken the sound of her voice. Used tae wake me up many nights, changing nappies, feeding her, holding her till she slept in mine arms.’ He holds out his hands, imploring. ‘She’s come back home.’ Brodie tears his shirt off and shows bite marks around his nipples. The flesh there is purple-black with bruising. ‘I’ve been breastfeeding ma baby like a father should.’
I shake my head and administer the pill without sugar coating. His child had moved on long ago.
‘The souls of babies don’t linger here like those of adults can. Not even in the everyThere, just beyond our plane, whose sharp claws clasp tightly to our own world. In very rare cases indeed they can be held back by another soul known to them. Only usually by a father or a mother. But you’re both here, so this isn’t the case. Your daughter ascended to the realm of the purest, a place of light and love where babies go. She isn’t here anymore.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘And how did you know how to find shoals of cod in the barren sea? It’s my job to know,’ I reply.
The wailing upstairs intensifies. A mix of hunger and anger, known to parents everywhere as the signal their baby is demanding to be fed. Even I feel its awful pull. The way it makes you want to go up to it and serve it. Soothe it. But listen closely and you’ll hear something sinister in the notes, a timbre not quite right, the undertone of the damned. Once you hear it, you can’t unpick it from the rest of the cries. It’s what me and Ellie hear, but not this oaf.
‘Listen, Brodie Budge, really listen to it,’ I say.
My grandmother taught me the ‘Song of Clarity’ before I turned ten and I strum it now on the keys of my mbira. Softly and quietly, beneath the loud cries. It’s not meant to over-whelm the noise. Instead, I insert the notes like a wedge between the blank spaces within the cries. Prising them apart gently. Stretching the sound out, bit by bit. Brodie freezes in shock, his face going blank. I keep playing those ancient notes passed down across generations. And as I do, with each passing moment, the gaps between the cries grow wider. Then in those spaces emerges something else, the scary sound of the choirs of the damned. Heavy metal. It’s deafening. No baby cries like that.
‘Breast milk. Feed me sweet blood. Hungry,’ it demands. When Brodie’s chin hits the floor, I stop playing and push him out of my way, heading up the stairs to the nursery. Ellie timidly follows, a few steps behind.
On the landing up top, I feel as if I’ve been plunged underwater.
It’s hard to breathe.
But I press on against the pressure front trying to push me back.
The cries grow louder and angrier with each step I take. The sound swells up and surrounds me like a stirred-up swarm of demon babies. It comes from under my feet. Behind me. Presses down from above. I feel it pound my insides like a heavy bassline. It freaks me out, like nothing I’ve ever encountered.
‘It’s nae been this bad before,’ Ellie says, voice quivering. I stay calm. Tell myself to focus. Then I hold out my right hand, muttering an incantation invoking the Anemoi, those Greek wind gods, to send an airwave, the shape of my palm, slamming into the door of the nursery, bursting it wide open. From within comes the sound of an angered hornets’ nest as
I stride inside.
‘That’s enough,’ I say with Authority. This is MY realm.
Earth belongs not to the spirits but to us beings of flesh.
A dark figure glowers from the white crib in the corner. The music box dangling above it cranks up and begins to play a distorted electronic lullaby. The carousel wheels within it house a menagerie of brightly coloured toy animals. Round and round they go. Faster and faster. The wheel breaks and shoots off, forcing me to duck so it misses and hits the wall, spraying plastic toys everywhere. Holograms of green stars dance around the room. The weight of this dark energy is abominable. I’m overwhelmed by revulsion and loathing.
The spectre in the crib comes to the bars and holds them, its large yellow eyes staring defiantly out. It looks far more simian than human. Feels ancient and terrible. ‘Breast milk. Feed me sweet blood. Hungry . . .’
‘You are not supposed to be here.’ I strum my mbira once more.
‘And you look delicious. Let me feast on you, my sweet,’ it says.
‘The only thing you’ll be getting is my boot up your back-side.’
I play Musekiwa Chingodza’s ‘Kutema Musasa’ furiously and drive it back against the wall to show my Authority. I must stamp this down quickly, as I do with all spirits who’ve come over to us from the other side. And I won’t allow it to challenge me again. Gran warned me before I set off for Skye that this isle is littered with restless souls from bygone eras, desperately clinging on to the world of the living. There’s been much suffering, destruction and death here, and many are angry they didn’t have the lives they felt they should have had. This is clearly one of them.
‘Don’t hurt baby,’ it pleads, pinned back by the vibrations of my melody.
Normally, I would bargain, but not today. I have no sympathy for evil spirits that torment grieving parents. Gran taught me that ’cause they’ve been gone for so long, they no longer feel anything except for the most extreme of emotions. They feed on fear and misery and become ever more malev-olent along the way. It’s like losing your sense of taste until the only thing you can feel are the hottest chillies ’cause they, at least, set off the pain receptors on your lips. That’s better than nothing. Hauntings like this happen to satisfy the spir-it’s grotesque craving.
‘Be on your way, never to return to this plane, nor have dealings with the living for ever more. Do this or I’ll cast you out to the Other Place,’ I say.
‘Bargain with baby, please,’ it replies.
‘There’ll be no bargain, no compromise. You will obey.’ ‘Obey baby must. Baby curses you,’ it says, retreating further into the corner. Its yellow eyes fix on mine with menace.
‘Off with you!’
I hammer my mbira’s keys and drive the spirit through the wall, out into the darkness where it belongs. It desperately tries to grip on to this reality, but my power is too great. I’ve cut it off from the tether that held it to this world, so now it falls into the void.
By and by, the pressure recedes. Lightness returns, like a storm’s lifted. I survey the nursery this ghost has desecrated. Brodie and Ellie had taken the little they had in this world and tried to make something magical for Ava. But they lost her in that very crib to something banally termed Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. SIDS sounds like a mate’s name or something. It doesn’t tell you what exactly happened to your baby. You’re just supposed to accept it as something scientific, even though it’s a diagnosis that belongs more to quackery than anything. I take in the feature wall with cartoonish giraffes bounding west, the toys scattered about the floor, a soft baby blanket. The absence of one who’d been loved beyond all else has sucked the life out of this place. And into that vacuum stepped the spirit I’ve just vanquished.
It makes me feel mighty low. A real sadness that rips my heart apart.
Ellie sniffles behind me.
‘Is it over?’ she asks.
‘You’re free of it now and for ever more,’ I reply. ‘Gather up these toys and pack them away. Dismantle the crib and set it in storage. Paint these walls something neutral. Grieve. Then move on.’ I say the words I think my grandmother would speak at a time like this. Giant boots to fill but I’ve got fair-sized trotters.
Ellie rushes up to me, grabs my hand and presses money into it. Just another day in the office for me, but I can’t not feel this mother’s pain. A year of this will have taken its toll on her nerves. Her hands are rough from labouring. Tears fill her eyes, and she trembles.
‘You’re going to be alright. You are strong,’ I tell her. Words have great power. Through them we create reality.
She nods and I break away to pack my mbira, leaving her knelt before the empty crib, weeping silently. I know I should say something more to her, but I won’t be here for the next steps. She’ll have to find something within herself. Brodie’s in the doorway and I signal for him to join his partner. He’s ashen and shaking. The spirit had been messing with them both for a while. Now he’s lost whatever diabolical hope it dangled.
‘I dinnae ken what came over me.’ His voice is filled with shame.
‘Make sure Ellie’s okay,’ I say.
‘Thank you, Ropa Moyo.’
I walk down the stairs alone, leaving them to face the five steps of grief together; the scab’s been opened up again. I make for the door but before I go, I stop at the telephone table and place the money Ellie gave me onto it. They need it more than I do – I know where I’ll be getting mine.
Copyright © 2023 from T.L. Huchu
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