Paul Bradley


The Toll

These Scottish Highlands are a haunted place.

Thursday, 11th April 2019

My dear readers,

I hope this journal entry finds you all in good spirits and rude health. For my regular readers, those of you that have followed my travels cycling around Europe will know that I like to share both the good and bad times on this blog. I’m at a low point. Probably one of the worst sections of my trip. I’m writing this entry from a run-down tavern in Tornapress called “The Horseman’s Head”, sounds scary I know, but you haven’t seen the owner!. While I’m safe enough at the moment I’ve got reservations about this place.

After the ordeal I’ve endured over the last twenty-four hours, you’d understand why. You’d understand why writing this down, and sharing with the world, might begin to help me find peace with the experience I’ve endured. Let me start at the beginning, save to say this:

These Scottish Highlands are a haunted place.

I’d set out from Applecross Inn early yesterday morning planning to cycle over Bealach na Ba, alongside Loch Torridon heading north towards Laide. A distance of sixty miles which would have seen me reach Laide by early evening. Bealach na Ba is the third highest road in Scotland. I say road, it’s more like a single-track similar to the mountain passes I traversed through the French Alps. Twenty-eight hairpin bends with steep gradients approaching twenty per cent.

The two thousand foot climb certainly gave my thighs and lungs a good workout. The scenery is stunning. The ascent starts straight out of Applecross with dramatic high cliffs on both sides of the road. Cliffs gouged out during the last ice age. As you approach the upper half of the climb the cliffs fall away seemingly swallowed up by the landscape leaving exposed moorland to both sides. Solitude. Just you and a few sheep.

The weather had been perfect during the climb, not too warm and hardly any wind. However, as I neared the summit a mist had started to descend, enveloping the mountain top in its soggy shroud. I zipped up my windcheater as the temperature dropped noticeably and tapped out the revolutions keeping my eyes on the power meter, spinning my pedals with smooth efficiency. While the visibility was poor, I sensed the summit approaching, resistance through the pedals eased up indicating that road must be levelling out.

As I crested the summit, that’s when I saw them.

Three bodies sat huddled at the side of the road.

I called out to them morning.

No response.

As I got nearer I realised they weren’t moving. Weren’t breathing. Hadn’t moved in a long while. Pressed together like three mummies trying to keep warm, it was obvious they were dead. The shock nearly made me fall off my bike. Un-clipping myself from the pedals and propping up my bike, I approached the trio whilst unlocking my mobile phone ready to call the emergency services.

It was clear these poor souls had been deceased a long time. Practically skeletons, their bones held together by the hiking gear they wore and the few bits of sinewy flesh that still hadn’t perished. How long had these folks been here? By the looks of their hiking gear maybe a decade. Whilst not used every day there should been some travellers pass this way. Why hadn’t they been found before now?

I tried my phone. Typical no signal. I took a picture, not for any macabre reason, just so I had proof to show the police when I got into the next town.

Looking at the three skulls, peering out from Peter Storm waterproofs, I wondered at how they’d died. Had they got lost hiking? Dying from exposure sat next to this road waiting to hitch a ride out of their predicament. It was very puzzling.

Looking into the hallows which once contained eyes I tried to get a sense for who they were. Why were they here. Suddenly, two small pin-sized eyes blinked from the darkness of one eye socket. I jerked backed nearly slipping on the fog dampened grass. My heart jackhammering in my chest. The two eyes formed into a head and a snake-like creature oozed out of the left eye socket curling as it extracted itself from the skull.

I hate snakes.

The creature dropped from the skull and writhed in the grass and it was then that I recognised it for what it was. Not a snake. But a legless lizard. Either way, it freaked me out a bit.

As I stood there trying to regain my composure I noticed how cold I was getting. It was time to get moving again before I started to get exposure. Returning to my bike two thoughts kept gnawing at my consciousness. Why hadn’t the hikers simply walked off the mountain? Even if one of them was injured, the strongest remaining member of their team should have gone for help. If they had all been injured somehow, why the hell hadn’t they been found before now.

I vowed to alert the police in the next town and ensure that the bodies were retrieved so that their families could finally have closure and bury them properly. With dignity.

Retrieving my gloves, I checked all the straps on my panniers before checking my phone one last time. Still no signal. I mounted my bike and started the descent down the other side of Bealach na Ba.

Oddly after a few minutes, the road started to climb again. This was strange because I was sure from looking over the map while planning my route that it should have been a steep descent down into the next valley. I didn’t mind too much as the effort of peddling up hill again was getting my blood pumping making me feel much warmer. After a minute or so I could see the crest of a hill loom out of the mist. And so did the three corpses sat at the side of the road.

What the hell.

I scanned the summit to see if anyone else was around. Was someone playing a sick joke on me? Was someone hiding in the mist? Was this some sick pranksters idea of fun?

I pedalled straight past the bodies, nodding in respect as I cycled past. The road tilted downwards as I picked up speed. Again the road started to climb. Again I came across the three bodies sat huddled at the side of the road.

What wired voodoo is this!

The road only went to two destinations. Back to Applecross from where I’d started or east to Tornapress. I fished out my mobile phone and loaded the map I’d saved the day before. Sure enough, just as I’d remembered, there were no sidetracks or roads that could bring me back to this summit.

I set off a third time, feeling uneasy, shortly arriving back at the same spot. Was I getting disorientated in the mist?. I doubted it. Cycling through Europe for the last year my sense of direction and navigation skills were exceptional. No, something was keeping me here on this mountain pass.

In that instance, I knew what fate had befallen the three hikers. They had been trapped here. Kept by whatever force was preventing me from leaving. Oh. My. God. Was this how I was destined to end up. Trapped until I starved or froze to death. My body slowly decomposing, until eventually, my skull cavity became a playground for legless lizards.

I shuddered at the thought and knew something of the fear these three poor souls must have endured during their last days.

I hadn’t given up hope yet though. I tried another ten times to leave the mountain top in different directions, each time returning to the summit.

Exhausted from both pedalling and the mounting fear I decided I needed to take a break. It was starting to get dark and the realisation hit me that I’d been spending the night on this mountain. I retrieved my tent from the rear pannier and found a place to pitch. The soil was very shallow making it impossible to use the tent pegs, resorting instead to using stones plundered from the cairn which marked the summit.

Sat in my tent sipping a steaming hot mug of tea some of my strength returned along with my resolve to survive this. Whatever this thing was. I checked my food, not a great amount left as I’d planned to restock in Laide. I made a mental note to start rationing myself, not knowing how long I’d be up here. Water could be a problem too. I was checking over all my equipment when I heard it.

Thud. Clunk. Shuffle.

What was that?

Thud. Clunk. Shuffle. Wheeze.

Tentatively I peered out of the tent door pulling the flap to one side. The sun was setting over the horizon and a solitary hunched figure padded up the road, cast a long ominous shadow back down the valley. As the figure approached I could see it was a woman. An extremely old woman. Dragging an injured leg she hobbled up the road with the aid a wooden staff. Draped in a long black cloak she was carrying something on her hunched back. A backpack. A backpack with several balls hanging off, secured by twine. As the woman got closer I could hear her raspy gurgling breath and realised the balls hanging off her backpack were in fact skulls. Human skulls bleached yellow after years of being exposed to the elements.

As she reached level with my tent I could smell her. Damp. Fetid. Musty. I held my breath.

“Have yer got the toll?” she gruffed.

“Toll? What toll?” I replied.

“Yer need to pay the toll to get off this mountain. Six pieces of silver. Otherwise, you’ll end up like my hiker friends over there, they couldn’t pay. It won’t be long and I’ll be able to add their skulls to my collection” she said grinning and patting her backpack.

“Sod off, I’m not paying any toll. Plus I don’t have any money. Who is the toll for? bring them here. Let me speak to them.”

“I’m just the toll collector” she said “no human has ever seen the master. All I know is the master won’t release the force field around this place until you’ve paid his toll. Most can’t pay, but I hope you’ll find a way, you seem a nice lad.”

“What do you mean? Are you implying some extra-terrestrial being is keeping me here? For what purpose?”

“Extra-terrestrial, huh. I wouldn’t know anything about that. I’ve not seen the master, not in physical form anyway. I’ve no understanding of its reasoning for holding people within its trap. I was the first to be caught in his web of force three hundred years ago. There was no way I could pay the toll, my farther being a simple farmer. But I used my noggin, I managed to negotiate to become his toll collector, meaning I got to stay alive. Well, I say alive, as you can see I’m no spring chicken, I am ageing but at a much slower pace than the passage of time. I’d made a promise to serve the master till the end. Maybe one day I’ll eventually die and be released from this pointless job.”

She sighed, shifting her weight off her crippled leg and added “I collect at sunset and sunrise. So I guess I’ll see yer in the morning. Use your initiative lad, remember six pieces of silver.” and with that, she shuffled off down the road.

I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. I had so many questions, but I needed to find six pieces of silver. I emptied all the kit from my panniers and started to inspect it. Very few things were made of metal, let alone, silver. Most items were either plastic or carbon fibre to keep the weight down.

Feeling panicked, I suddenly realised I had one silver item, the Saint Christopher pendant my mother had given me before I departed on my travels. Saint Christopher was the patron saint of travellers and my mother had given it to me to keep me safe on my travels. I hoped it would now save my life. Realising that the collector had only asked for six pieces of silver, she’d not mentioned how big each piece had to be. I looked at the pendant and realised I could probably split into four pieces meaning I would only have to find two more bits. Using my tin opener, I managed to score two lines into the circular pendant and work the metal backwards and forwards until fatigued the pendant broke and I had four pieces. I stowed them safely away in my pocket.

Realising I didn’t have any more silver on me, the only other place to look was the three corpses. I wasn’t hopeful as they’d fail to pay the toll but I searched their pockets anyway and found nothing. Teeth, I thought, check their teeth, weren’t old-style fillings made from composite metals including silver. I checked the first skull, slowly prising the lower jaw down so I could peer inside. No fillings, and thankfully no lurking lizards. Likewise, the second corpse had no fillings. Thankfully, the third had two fillings, both silver. The first tooth came away easily, the second was more stubborn and wouldn’t budge.

Saying a silent apology to the corpse, I took my tin opener and dug the tooth containing the filling out of the jawbone and pocketed it with the other, hoping that this would be enough to satisfy the old women. I retired to my tent and had a fitful nights sleep waiting for dawn to arrive.

Sure enough, as the suns rays pierced the darkness the collector of tolls, and skulls, was back shuffling up the road. I ran over to her eager to get this over with.

“Howd you do lad?” she asked.

“Here” I said, shoving the six pieces of silver into her hands.

She examined the teeth and fillings with suspicion, it was clear she’d never known about fillings in her time, but she recognised the metal for what it was and grinned. “Well done lad. This will do. It’s been a while since anyone actually paid. The master will lift the barrier and let you pass.”

“Thank you” I said, and hurried off to pack my tent.

“Good luck” she said as she shuffled off.

It’s the quickest I’ve ever dropped camp. Shoving everything to my panniers as quickly as possible. Praying, I mounted my bike and set off, anxious that a mean turn of fate would bring me back to the summit. But I kept descending, quicker and quicker. Tears started to fill in my eyes. Partly due to the speed I was going, partly with relief to see the back of that mountain.

The descent brought me down to Tornapress and it was here that I saw the lights were on in the local tavern. I knocked on the door and the owner let me in. A big barrel of man with a thick ginger beard and even thicker Scottish accent. Sensing I was shaken, cold and hungry he offered me a coffee and a bowl of porridge. Which I thankfully took and sat the in the corner writing this journal while eating the breakfast.

Make of this story as you will. I’ll check-in when I get to Laide. In the meantime, be prepared and stay safe.

– Sam Fields

After hitting publish on my journal, I finished the last of my porridge and headed to the bar to pay. Fishing out my credit card I asked the owner how much I owed him.

“Nah lad, the porridge is on the house, but I’ll be needing yer toll fee before you can leave the bar.” he said with a mischievous grin.

“Toll!” I said nervously, slowly backing away to the door. “You are joking right?”

“No son. I’ll be needing six pieces of silver before you leave.”

Friday, 20th March 2020

Detective Thomas Bradley closed the case on Sam Fields. He’d done a brief investigation into the disappearance of Sam after his parents had reported him missing. Sam had been a bit of an internet celebrity with thousands of people following his travel blog. Many of them had contacted the Scottish police saying they were worried that he’d never posted again. They insisted the police should check out The Horseman’s Head tavern. His last known whereabouts.

Thomas had searched for several days but couldn’t find the tavern. Everybody he’d interviewed had never heard of the Horseman. He’d found the road most likely to be the one Sam had cycled along but found no tavern. At one intersection he did find a derelict outbuilding that might have been a tavern at one time. Now it just lay in ruins.

Getting back into his car, he phoned head-office to close the case and asked the desk clerk to add Sam’s name to the missing person’s database. Flicking his car into gear he headed out, deciding to take the scenic route over Bealach na Ba.