The Grove of Excarnation
A cold wind blew through the dying leaves, as Autumn's first chill touched the ancient, gnarled oaks of the grove of excarnation. Within, a druid, wizened and worn, painfully stood up and stretched his back. Standing was pure pleasure after the hours bent over, stitching the ox's skin around the corpse of Clan Fergall's chieftain. The front of his white robes was filthy, encrusted with blood from the freshly slaughtered skin, but at last his demanding task was done. The raw hide was covered with the arcane symbols of the druid's art, spiraling and twining in a bewildering labyrinth. Hidden within the hide, the chieftain's body lay curved in foetal repose, ready for excarnation. Four strong men from the clan, their faces covered by masks so that the spirits of the dead would not know them, slowly hauled on the ropes, suspending their chieftain high in the tree. His bundled form rocked gently in the chill breeze, one of dozens of remains hung for nature to claim its due.
Remnant of an Ancient Time
Whether through some magic used by the druid that first shaped it, or through the gift of some spirit, the skin used to shroud the chieftain’s body remained as fresh and whole as the day it was first flayed from the druids' sacrificial bull. Long after the name of the chieftain and even that of his clan were forgotten, it continued to be a precious relic of those who clung to the old ways.
The Ritual of Prophecy
Somehow sanctified to ancient spirits of death, the people of the heaths use the skin in the prophetic ritual called the "Taghairm", where the seeker of knowledge was stitched into the ancient skin in a desolate, wild place until the spirits shared their knowledge with him, sending visions of prophecy and voices of the long dead mixed as one.
Wrapped in the darkness of the skin, he felt a bit uncomfortable at first; it seemed as if nothing was ever going to happen. Then he started to hear a strange noise, as of men chanting rhythmically in a forgotten tongue. A sudden sense of movement assaulted him; what were they doing? Hoisting him up into a tree? When he’d agreed to be their "seeker of prophecy", they’d said nothing about that! Spinning and rocking in the breeze, some sort of light began to shine on him, a cold, funereal radiance reaching through the solid hide, chilling him like a Winter’s day.
Impossibly, he could see right through the ancient skin! Instead of the desolate riverside where he had been shrouded, he seemed to be hanging in some sort of primordial grove. Corpses hung from the twisted branches like obscene fruit, each bundled in the tattered remains of some sort of hide or skin. A few of the bodies had crows or ravens worrying at the remains. Just as the stench of rotting flesh began to twist his stomach, he started to hear something even worse than that: With whispers like the sound of fallen leaves in autumn, the dead voices began to share the prophecies he sought.
The Price of Prophecy
Eventually, the skin was lost, taken from the rural folk that revered it as a portal between the lands of the living and the dead. Its new possessors were not so respectful of the ominous relic.
My Lord, I trust that my missive finds your Worship in good health. The skin you asked about was recovered in a box of blackened oak hidden within the cairn. Although the box was obviously of ancient crafting, perhaps predating the unification of the Kingdom, it appears to have been used more recently. My men believe that followers of the old faith are still common among the rural folk of the region; this skin would no doubt be an implement of their barbaric folk magic. The skin is itself puzzling. Although it is clearly very old and covered with the primitive spiral patterns of the ancient clans, in other ways it still seems to be a freshly flayed oxhide. The inner side of the skin has bits of flesh and gore clinging to it and oozes blood when handled. It was found folded with a number of leathern thongs, which are apparently intended for stitching the edges of the skin closed. Most of my men refused to handle the item, claiming that it was an item of blackest glamourie, but I insisted that we keep it for your lordship's inspection. Eventually, I was able to prevail upon one of the men to try the alleged prophetic abilities of the skin. We stitched him into it and allowed him some time within to see if the legends you had shared with us had any substance. Unfortunately, when we removed him from the skin's filthy embrace, the man was stark mad. We have been forced to restrain him for his own protection, as he has repeatedly attempted to slash at his own flesh, saying as he cuts, "The skin must come off, the skin MUST come off!" I shall bring him with us upon our return in the hopes that he will recover from this destructive humour once he is returned to his family's embrace.