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a Lords of Misrule story
What revels are in hand? Is there no play,
to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?
A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare (1595)
Crawling toward the pistol was a continuous agony; bright pain radiating throughout his already aching body from the knife embedded in his shoulder; embedded deep enough the tip protruded from the flesh beside his throat. He looked back as another snarling, spitting scream rent the air. She too was crawling, dragging her now useless legs, clawed fingers seeking purchase on the wooden floor. Mouth open, razor teeth flecked with bloody saliva, she advanced upon him; crimson eyes wide, her face showing nothing but hatred. Blood from innumerable bullet wounds stained the floor in a slick trail behind her. But, despite the wounds, she still moved…
A little history
The British countryside is liberally strewn with stately homes that have succumbed to either inheritance tax or urban architects; becoming yet another stop for tourist coaches, or ‘a desirable residence in a prime location’. It was Henry VIII's dissolution of England’s monasteries that saw many former ecclesiastical properties gifted to the King's favourites who, in their turn, converted them to private estates.
Headignan Abbey once occupied lands on the eastern edge of the farming village of Stowe Magna, lying alongside Reeves Lane, amongst the once wooded hills between Lodelowe and Tref-y-clawdd. As the population began its migration toward bigger villages, memories began to fade and Headingnan passed into the Domesday Book as the hamlet of Hedigan. It was many years later that Henry VIII gave away the Abbey and Hedigan Manor first appeared on maps.
When the industrial revolution recast the village as a cotton-town, Hedigan found itself engulfed by a burgeoning population's need for homes. Long centuries and successive land sales saw the Manor sited in fewer and fewer acres until, at the turn of the twentieth century, it sat behind a close boundary wall at the side of the new High Street. The Abbey was now a House.
When the last owner died on the Somme the property escheated to the British Crown, who sold the now derelict building to the parish council. As more years passed the old House morphed into a local museum, the majority of whose exhibits had been resident in the property for centuries.
There were few among the town’s current residents who remembered the tale of Hedigan House’s transition from a Benedictine abbey; fewer still remembered the Grey Mare.
The crone looked upon the maiden.
‘My daughter, your time among them has tainted you. You need to return to us and sooth your pain.’
‘No! Not yet. Not while my task is incomplete. It is my duty and my willing service. He is my responsibility. I will ensure he dies when the time comes. When all that is required has been done I will return to An-sìth-chræith to Sleep.’ S'gealach'inío bowed to the Tuatha, the lie heavy in her heart.
‘Then our dreams guide and protect you. Falbh anns a' aislinóideach.’
Sunshine and Cloud
For a High Street it wasn’t very wide, the few pedestrians quick to take umbrage as the two motorcycles roared into the village from the Ludlow Road, negotiated its narrow thoroughfares to park in the grounds of the Museum.
Kicking down the sidestand, Koto Kannon slid her leg over the blue machine and dismounted. Thomas English sat upon his bike for a few moments longer, his gaze on the old building, eyes hidden behind his tinted visor. Koto removed her helmet, ran her long fingers through her straight black hair, then stood and waited as her partner composed himself. She knew that dealing with a haunting was more strenuous for English - his talent made him a target for restless and discomforted spirits be they animal or human.
Just before ten o’clock on an autumn morning. At that hour the only occupant of the museum proved to be an elderly attendant, asleep or possibly dead given the lack of discernible movement; seated behind an old writing desk overloaded with out-of-date pamphlets for other attractions in the region and photocopied booklets on the museums exhibits. Everything, including the attendant, gave the impression of being coated in a layer of fine dust.
Silence, but for the tick-ticking of a Victorian longcase clock; the only functional exhibit within the place. Thomas English walked slowly, carefully, through the museum; savoured the quiet within the old building, the sense of calm exuding from the ornate shelves and the myriad books and objects they contained. Few of the objects registered upon English’s heightened perception; there was little of power within the fabric of Hedigan House, a few flickers, ephemeral fireflies of fae energy. One avenue of parallel shelves ended at a threadbare seat; English sat and willed himself to relax.
Head tilted as she stared incredulously at a badly taxidermied barn owl, the specimen radiated no sense of wisdom, Kannon waited patiently for English to settle. It took him a few moments to calm himself enough to begin visualizing his foci and sub-vocalising his personal mantra. As his pulse slowed and his mind sought the correct path, the energies of his talent flowed outward.
Slow seconds grew into slower minutes; English’s psychic ability unfolded throughout the old building, touching lightly upon the stones, the brick, the glass; upon the many things it contained. He could discern no specific area of power, though within its walls Hedigan held a profusion of minor manifestations of an chraeith, ‘otherness’; to English’s perception arrayed in a spiral around a blank space – a negative locus, and… a fleeting impression of something nearby, something that vanished the moment English’s mind impinged upon it. Perhaps a skittish animal spirit or maybe a watcher the Sisterhood had set upon the building to await their arrival.
While her partner worked upon his talent, Kannon amused herself by opening a locked, glass-fronted bookcase, to remove a single, small tattered book. While not powerful of itself, the book offered-up glimpses of things it was best the general public knew nothing about. With the minimum of movement Kannon slipped it into a pocket inside her deep blue motorcycle jacket. English would have loved to read it; his appetite for reading was insatiable; but like a number of esoteric volumes, Naissances mystiques by Mircea Eliade mentioned the Sisterhood and their connection to the Sidhe; a subject for which it were best English remained ignorant.
Drawn back into himself, English stood, unsteady for a few seconds, and then sought his partner. He found her standing beside a leaded window, staring across the High Street toward a small copse of trees. At his approach she turned and gave him a wistful smile.
'Do we have a target?'
English shook his head. 'It's not clear in my mind. There's a spirit of some sort trapped here. I guess we can try a spirit mirror and see if that’ll remove it.' He stood silent for a moment. 'I think the power behind it’s increasing... Something must have changed recently.' He set off toward the museum's entrance. 'I've sensed a location, but we'll need to wait until the moon rises.'
They left the Museum, Kannon holding English’s arm, one of her rare public displays of affection. While they readied their motorcycles, English noticed that Koto’s helmet kept turning to look at the small group of trees. Something had her spooked; he’d have to remember to ask.
Their next journey was just across the village, to a public house and hotel, its gabled sign announcing Offa’s Rest.
In An-sìth-chræith, a space not confined by the conventional laws of human science, the Tuatha met and schemed; their thoughts turned toward one of their own.
“Those few who choose to remember us believe the Covenant protects them. In truth it robs them of their chance to resist. And yet our work is in jeopardy.”
“You still insist the Maiden is a threat. I believe she will do what is required when the time is necessary.”
A third interjected. “Sisters, calm! While it is true that the one called English is useful, he is also becoming an unreliable tool. I have already spoken with our daughter s'gealach'inío, and she is aware of what must be done.” The crone looked around the circle of faces. “We have taken steps to ensure a clean end to this business.”
Light and Dark
Dinner was river-caught Welsh trout, wrapped in locally-sourced, sweet-cured bacon, served with sautéed potatoes and fresh, sweet peas. English ate his fill, washed down with a pint of Ludlow’s Boiling Well, while Kannon picked delicately at her meal. She had no appetite, but kept the conversation light and meaningless, steering English away from what was to come.
In their room after dinner, as English checked the contents of various pockets, he glanced across at Koto, as she stood by the window, a distracted expression once again plain on her face. English crossed the room, put his arms around her waist and kissed her neck.
‘I’m just concerned about tonight.’
‘Don’t be so worried. It didn’t feel like anything too focused. But I’ll take care; I always do.’
She turned against him, slid her arms around his neck and returned his kiss. They stood quietly together, watching the day fade.
Despite its size and the fearsome spikes that topped it, the museum’s wrought iron gates were not locked. English swung one gate open just wide enough for them to slip inside, then closed it again. It squealed in protest, though the sound was neither loud nor piercing. With the nearest residence over a hundred yards away, English wasn’t too concerned about being seen. During their brief walk from the inn they’d seen no other people. All the High Street shops were dark; blank windows reflecting the few streetlamps that stood in a row along the thoroughfare.
Across the half-cobble, half-tarmac courtyard, they passed through a smaller gate that gave access to the right-hand side of the old cloisters and a door into what would have been the kitchens, both during the Abbey’s time and after the conversion to a stately home. Now it housed a selection of rusting farm and household implements; hoes, scythes, rakes, cleavers, copper fish-kettles and saucepans, tin mixing pans and the like.
Entry proved easy. Kannon stabbed a prepared knife into the wooden door. As the glyph on the knife blade activated there came the faint sound of the tumblers in the lock turning. With a final click the lock released, English pushed the door ajar and stepped inside. Hesitating on the threshold, Kannon cast a glance back across to the gateway, before trailing after her partner.
With the only windows being small and set close to the ceiling the room was in darkness. Both English and Kannon navigated their way between the various exhibits with ease. Out in the hallway, which ran the length of the converted servant’s quarters, the darkness was even more profound. English took a small torch from one of his deep greatcoat pockets and turned it on, keeping the beam of light pointed toward the floor. Peripheral illumination flowed across the lower portions of the walls, occasionally flaring upon glass cabinets or metallic exhibits.
Despite her pretence at remaining aloof, Koto found herself intrigued by the feel of the building. When the charade was dropped and she stood as the Blade Maiden s'gealach'inío, her ability to sense her surroundings was as great as English’s; the need to maintain the glamour left her unable to feel the intricacies of her immediate environment. Somewhere nearby something kept disturbing her stunted sensitivity, perhaps whatever the museum held that they’d been directed to remove. She shrugged-off the niggling discomfort and followed her partner deeper into the museum.
Reaching the central foyer, created during the rebuilding when the ostentatious Abbey refectory was joined to the roofed-over cloisters, English once again stopped. Standing quietly, breathing controlled, he allowed his pulse to slow, his mind to clear.
The void he’d discerned earlier in the day came through with greater clarity, the helical pattern more pronounced; an abyss slowly drawing-in the few remaining flickers of spiritual energy held within the museum. One hesitant step then English wove himself into the pattern and went in search of the cause, a silvered mirror held in his left hand.
Allowing her partner to proceed for a while without her presence to confuse his senses, Kannon sat in a deep oriel window watching the front gates. Cross-legged upon the worn wooden window seat, the light from a streetlamp outside drew an answering glow from her depthless, almond eyes.
Soundlessly, step by slow step, the thief walked the hallways toward his destination in the west wing of the house; his senses teasing clues from the warp and weft where the visible and invisible worlds crossed. Either side of his path glass-fronted cases displayed their aged exhibits; a miscellany of jewellery, household items, books, dried plants and stuffed animals. Old photographs and portrait paintings adorned the walls, the faintest echoes of life captured by salts of silver or paint pigments.
As he proceeded through a selection of different-sized cabinets housing a riot of birds and mammals, English was stopped in his tracks by a faint tap-tap. He stood silently waiting, and the sound came again.
Advancing cautiously, the mirror held out of sight, English moved toward a larger cabinet. The void was deeper within the building, but a flare of energy pulsated within the case.
A hand-painted sign proclaimed ‘Corvids’, the interior crowded with aged specimens of crows and magpies. On a preserved branch a night-dark raven turned its head to watch English approach, blank glass beads in place of eyes. When English stood before the case and made no further movement, the raven leant toward the glass and tapped with its heavy beak. Its head tilted to one side, the glass eye reflecting a distorted image of the man.
A slow smile spread across English’s face. The mechanism holding the cabinet closed was a simple brass catch. Reaching out he lifted the hook from the hasp and let the glass side of the cabinet swing open. With one eye on the human the raven hopped from branch to branch, pushing past its taxidermied cousins, until it stood upon a final dried-out branch. English stepped to one side and, with a bow and a flourish, invited the bird to exit. A clatter of wings and a smell of dust, the raven flew across to the nearest bay window, where it proceeded to once again tap upon the glass with.
Stepping up to the window, English lifted the catch and swung the leaded pane aside. The bird bobbed its head then launched itself out into the night.
English relaxed and allowed his talent to roam through his surroundings. In moments he’d identified the negative locus he sought; an exhibit case near the top of the main staircase leading upward within the old house. Even from the base of the stairs he could discern faint stirrings in the air about the display. One step at a time he advanced toward the exhibit. Leaving her seat, Kannon followed reluctantly in English’s wake.
When English reached the head of the stairs he could first see a printed sign that announced ‘New Local Find!’ and below that the pale shape of a horse skull. Areas of bone were marked with faint stains of paint in obviously ritual patterns.
‘Grey mare’. The words passed English’s lips before his eye fell across a paper label, written in cursive script.
The Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) is a Welsh midwinter tradition, possibly part of New Year celebrations. A derivation of the wassail (Old Norse "ves heil”), a ritual to bring luck, where those participating accompany a person masked as a horse who travels from house to house and, at each door, either sings or recites poetry in hope of being admitted or receiving a reward of food or drink, usually beer or porter (a fortified wine). Other myths associate the Mare with the Celtic goddess Rhiannon and a 10th century Welsh text (from either Glamorgan or Gwent) links the use of a ‘stalking horse’ to the ‘scaring of evil spirits from hamlets and villages’ during the ‘turn of the year’.
As he stood there, English felt the air thicken about him; the spirits of those once trapped in their desiccated corpses throughout the museum coalescing into a miasma, as if the skull were discharging a long-held, tainted breath. Within the case he could see how dust and flecks of debris had been drawn to the Mare; even a sparrow feather, the central rachis broken, adhering to the wired-on lower jaw.
The Mare had begun to rebuild itself from its surroundings; it still contained enough residual power to draw in the minor spirits infesting the museum. With each speck of dust adhering to the horse skull its power amplified, its sphere of influence expanding. Though English doubted it would ever pose a direct threat to anyone in the village, it could impact upon any nature spirits tied to the area; a good enough reason to remove such a jaundiced focus.
Moving no further than the top step, Koto watched her partner, conscious that should she move any closer to the Mari Lwyd its negative pattern would collapse the spells wrapped about her and cause the glamour to fade.
Separating the leaves of the trap, English began arranging the various mirrors around the skull. Going over the ritual in his mind he identified the extra components he would need – sandalwood, wormwood and powdered woad seeds. They carried such items upon their motorcycles, but he knew that Koto carried limited supplies in small pouches attached to the knife belt secured about her waist.
Setting the last mirror he surveyed his handiwork and contemplated their chances of success. The Mare was still, relatively, weak. It was the full construction that could strip a village of every spirit, sprite and erg of natural energy. The skull on its own lacked capacity for such destruction, but given time…
The scream, a piercing shriek of pure pain, spun him in a circle. At the top of the stair Koto stood, mouth open, sound dying away. Behind her a shadow solidified into the figure of an Aes Sidhe Scian, a bloodied knife held in the Blade Maiden’s hand.
“I have made certain of her loyalty. S'gealach'inío will rest knowing her sacrifice protects her people.”
Blood and Bone
Even as English thrust a hand into his deep coat pocket, fingers closing about the grip of the pistol he carried, the Scian had crossed the space between them. Dagger in her left hand she swatted him with her right palm, the force propelling him sideways into the mari lwyd exhibit, shattering the glass panels and shelf, crushing the decorated skull. As English struck the floor the Scian thrust down at him, the blade piercing his shoulder; a grunt of pain escaped his tightened throat. Releasing the dagger she stepped back and drew a second etched blade, trying to wave away the spirits that had erupted from the remains of the skull and coalesced to a whirlwind occupying the air between her and the human. But the Scian’s initial blow had drawn English’s hand from his pocket, and though almost face down he rolled on to his side and fired.
The first shot struck the Scian low in the chest and staggered her backward a step, the second tore into her abdomen, another jolt backward. In the brief moments, as his attacker caught her breath, English rolled further and gripped the gun as best he could in both hands, the sensation in his shoulder slowly changing from a numbing cold to a searing fire. As the Scian reared toward him English fired again… and again. The pistol jumped in his grip but the bullets found their target, punching into the Sidhe.
English wasn’t conscious of which shot severed her spine, but, legs now useless, the Scian fell to the ground. Strength failing she threw a dagger at English. Deflecting it with the pistol, English lost his grip on the gun, it spun away and clattered to the ground. Rolling on to his stomach, he scrambled one-handed toward it. A glance back revealed the Maiden crawling after him.
Slipping on the polished wooden floor, English snatched at the pistol as claw-like fingernails bit into his ankle. Kicking against the constricting grip, he twisted himself just far enough to bring the weapon to bear; and put the last two rounds through the Scian’s left eye.
Silence returned to the Museum; the acrid stink of cordite and the sweet, coppery smell of spilt blood hung in the air. Spirits cavorted and danced arabesques above the tableau, unfettered joy a counter-point to the death beneath.
Breathing deep, teeth gritted against the pain in his shoulder, English unceremoniously stuffed the pistol back into his pocket as he crawled across to Koto’s crumpled form. She lay on her back, arms outstretched, shallow gasps fluttering her throat and stomach.
As the glamour faded, her oriental features relaxed into the sharper contours of a Sidhe, her dark eyes become darker still, the red glow diminishing, an ember releasing its last heat, dying away to a black coal. Elongated ears showed their tips through tangled black hair.
Sightless eyes turned to English, she raised a pale hand and brushed her fingers across his face. Warmth spread from her touch, banishing the fatigue of spent adrenaline; the pain in his shoulder ebbed.
She died without uttering a word. English cradled her, heedless of the blood, his tears fell upon her open eyes. Intrigued by the raw emotions emanating from the human, the animal spirits released by the mari lwyd gathered round.
Despite reversion to her true form, to English Koto was even more beautiful than ever she’d been; he felt, somewhere deep inside, that he’d always known and never cared. Despite believing he was considered nothing more than a tool by the Sisterhood (as he’d thought), he’d grown close to Koto and, eventually, she’d reciprocated his attentions. Somewhere, amid the fear and the violence, their mutual affection had turned more serious, the bond grown even stronger.
With difficulty English gained his feet and settled Koto’s body across his un-injured shoulder. Wincing at each step, he left the museum. Wisps of mist, the spirits followed, some dissipating as they left the building, fading into the moonlight; others trailed in English’s wake, still curious about the confused mixture of love and hate the human radiated.
Soraidh go maith
Across the road from Hedigan House, between the premises of a greengrocer and a butcher, lay a small open space on which grew a copse of elm trees and a tangled nest of attendant brambles. English carried Koto among the trees, heedless of the thorns scratching at his skin and catching his clothing. At the centre of the copse resided a gnarled oak, its branches a twisted nest of clutching fingers. Upon one sat the stuffed raven, head dipping and weaving as it watched English lay Koto at the base of the tree. Their dance now a demur pavane, the gathered animal spirits observed as English tried, in vain, to dig a hole with his hands. Some inexplicable decision communicated amongst the group, they dropped earthward, to gather round Koto's body and sink with her into the soil. English rocked on his heels, grief tempered only slightly with gratitude. The raven clacked its heavy beak in farewell.
It was nearly dawn when English returned to the Offa's Rest to collect his meagre possessions and a motorcycle. He’d left the other Maiden where she lay. No doubt the elders would remove all trace of her once they realised she'd failed. He took Koto’s blue machine.
The sun rose and, despite a few high clouds, the day was warm.
Epilogue: One year later
On a flint-cobbled street, within the walls of old Salzburg, is a bookshop. It never seems to be open for business and its grimy windows and decrepit decor deter casual browsers. The proprietor deals with a select clientèle, collectors who appreciate the true value of the books and folios scattered among the more mundane titles that crowd his shelves. But it's now after midnight, long past the time when customers usually call.
Hunched forward on a wing-backed chair Thomas English claws at the pain in his head. He grinds the heel of his hand against the patch covering his dead left eye; it aches in the cold and warmth has long since fled the bookshop.
'Please.' the word escapes him, directed at nothing but his own beating heart. Almost as though a response to his plea the whispers come again, floating through his mind, eroding at the resolve which carried him to Salzburg. He could run once again, but to where? He has no friends, no sanctuary. Unbidden she enters his mind. But she is a long-time dead; he finds it harder to remember her beautiful face, the soft sounds of her musical voice.
English is a man of indeterminate age; his thick beard and unkempt dark hair hide much of his face. Deep lines incised about the eyes and his raw-knuckled hands speak of the miles travelled and the years survived. There is the faintest shadow of grey about him, stealing the glow from his remaining eye, flecking his beard; even leaching colour from the clothes he wears. The shadow comes from within; an exhalation which seeps from his pores, surrounds and veils him with each expelled breath. The creased flesh holding his bones has been worn down to muscle and sinew. He is almost a ghost.
About him the bookshop is a scene of destruction; antique reading tables and chairs over-turned, glass-fronted cases smashed, books scattered and torn. Broken glass lies like a rime of ice over the worn wooden floor. Submerged beneath this ruin is the corpse of its proprietor. English hadn't meant to kill the man, but anger in the face of a blank refusal became rage. The book has to be here, somewhere, otherwise this was all for nothing and the chase is almost done.
He sits in the dark, the only illumination is starlight, falling from high windows beneath the eaves. It's bright enough for English, who no longer finds daylight either warm or comforting. There is refuge in shadows, some faint hope of concealment or escape. But each time the whispers sound he knows they're moving closer, the throats that utter the torment aren't bound by walls, have no use for doors. Their every call is the slow erosion of his existing protections. He needs a stronger defence.
English whimpers, the noise startles him into some semblance of motion. He forces himself from the chair and lets his distorted senses roam the cluttered shop. His eye is long dead, but it still sees. He breathes deep, clenches his fists to still the trembling in his fingers. He has fought against the Aes Sidhe for so long and, though his strength is nearly gone, a fire, of sorts, still animates him.
Hush little baby, don't say a word
and never mind that noise you heard.
It's just the beast under your bed,
in your closet, in your head.
Soraidh go maith. Falbh sàhailte anns a' aislinóideach
(Fare thee well. Go safely in the Dream)
© John Henson Webb 2015
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