Raesan! Neka, banishment, abyss: will you please explain before you show me more. Neve was still with Alan in his hall in Hindrelagh and, though the rain still lashed at the walls, this seemed to be another day. The hounds no longer lounged by the fire. Only Nihel and Stefan, his kin, kept him company with much rolling of eyes and tutting as he paced the long hall, unable to settle, awaiting the news on Zrone’s return.
But I have said of the wells—
That they connect to the abyss. That much I know – though . . . what is the abyss? I thought it was what existed before The Creation. Isn’t that what Kerrid said? Neve had translated that as the non-existence before the Big Bang. Or perhaps an incredibly dense black hole? But how then did the wells form a connection? Unless they were worm holes.
How much you’ve forgotten, Lady, you’re too rutting human. And humans are time-bound. So you think, yeh, that just because from the abyss was created the Light that the abyss no longer exists? Of course it exists. Just not as . . . well, things are different there, yeh—I can’t believe I’m explaining this to you. And before you ask, yeh, there is no form there. No feel, no sight, no smell, no nothing, yeh.
I guess, yeh – What’s a vacuum? Anyway, there dwells the demons – beings without form, yeh. And Neka is, like . . .well, he’s the Daddy of them all. He chuckled as if he’d cracked a joke. Neve did not understand it. Yeh, Neka’s the Daddy of them all.
So – Neve tried to give structure to what he had said – in the formless, timeless pre-Bang ‘abyss’ there existed a formless, timeless mega-demon which, by use of the connecting wells, could appear in this time- and form-bound world.
But why doesn’t it just appear at any old time? What’s the relevance of the archbishop’s exorcism?
Are you jesting me, Lady? Listen. Neka dwells in the formless abyss, yeh, because he has not form. And without that he can’t come here cos here this world is the World of Form. So, unless he can usurp another’s body, he has to stay in his place. It’s the same for all demons, yeh. But the lesser ones, they can latch to the minuscule. Like the microbes, isn’t that what you call them? Then they can cause trouble, see. Plagues and AIDS and typhus and, I don’t know, rabies. But Neka, yeh, he’s too big to possess—
How ‘too big’ if he has no form?
Lady! Raesan’s sigh was more of a gale as it roared through her head. She hoped, in his agitation, that his exudation wouldn’t inadvertently destroy half her home.
Big as in power, yeh? Like, Asaric power. Since the Battle of Idiglat Plain, yeh, he’s been safely confined to the abyss. But if that bishie-man sprinkles his angel-blessed water upon him then – it might be enough of a goad for him to try for re-entry, as NASA might say. And Saint Keldreda’s well? That would direct him directly to . . . to Her.
Because Keldreda is another name for Kerrid?
Neka and Kerrid, the most ancient of enemies – from the Beginning, yeh.
No wonder Kerrid had paled on hearing Zrone’s news. Yet St Keldreda’s well was in Yorkshire, inland, almost abutting Westmorland. While Kerrid was far south of that, in Norfolk. Yea, and standing on an island, surrounded by water. That did leave her vulnerable.
Neve – or Alan – tightly wound with anxiety, started at the clatter of doors. Light exploded into the rain-darkened hall; Neve could see it, even if he could not. It was Water and Fire, Silver and Flame, the wild-haired shamanic Huat and the long-limbed Zrone. And following close behind was Ribald, puffing and panting. He’d worked hard to keep pace with the Asars.
“Hegrea . . .” he said and had to pause to catch breath.
“The Eld’s lady, the witching lady, these three moments past has arrived with thunderously unwanted news,” Zrone cut in. “The Church has agreed to the abbess’s request, her exceptionally unfriendly request.”
“What did she offer the celibate priest?” Nihel laughed.
“I’ll warrant it wasn’t her body,” Ribald said and earned a black-eyed look from Huat.
Huat’s arms were whirling about him like a child in a tantrum. “Where is this well? Well, where is it?” he asked “I need be there at once. Now.”
“Now, today?” Alan asked. “In this weather? Have you any idea how grim these moors . . .?”
Huat swung round to answer him. “Have you any idea how grim this demon, have you?”
“It’s today, this afternoon, the blessing and . . . stuff,” Ribald said, apologetic though it wasn’t his fault they had less warning. “Archbishop Thomas wants it done while there’s no king to ask questions and cause delay.”
“Or refuse it,” Stefan added quietly.
“But we’ll never reach Helgrind Moor in time to stop it,” Alan groaned. “Not by nightfall, certainly not by afternoon. And with only Crooked Copsi to offer us shelter the night.”
“Zrone’s brought horses for all, hasn’t he,” Huat said. “So move. Let’s go.”
“Weapons,” Zrone said. “Gather yourselves armfuls of beautiful keen-edged weapons.”
“I’ll call out my men.” Despite his complaints, Alan was glad to be spurred to action though he then sent Nihel to round up the men. Hegrea floated in, the heavy mailcoat in arms appearing incongruous. She held it for Alan. It glistened as if it were oiled. “That’s not my . . .”
“Wear it. I have another for my lover, and one for his young brother. Do not spurn magic when dealing with demons.” She laughed. “Your face. I tease. Yet it is imbued with Asaric healing – should there be need.”
Alan sighed, so heavy. “After all that I’ve done, now demons in wells. That’s the stuff of my child-days, my mother’s tales. And now the time has come . . .” He couldn’t say it. While the warrior in him still was strong, his faith of late had taken a battering. His friend, the Abbot Baldwin, would have slapped him heartily across his back and said of doing God’s work in facing this demon. Yet it was those very men of God, like Baldwin, and the Archbishop Thomas, who would release this evil upon the world. Everything was tumbling head over heels, the world order in chaos.
His thoughts were no more settled when, in his castle keep, cluttered still with building materials, he addressed his men. But how much to tell them? He couldn’t lie and say they went to face the Scots, border-raiding again. It was the rain falling unrelenting on them which decided him. They’d rather be riding, rather be on the road to action, than listening to him.
“Mount,” he said, an arm held out, “on magical horses.” That raised a laugh. “We ride to Helgrind Moor.” The laughter stopped. “Ay, we’re expecting trouble there.”
“The mines?” Ernald, the castle-constable, asked.
“Ney. Beyond,” Alan said but wouldn’t say more. Zrone and Huat already were mounted, both impatient to be gone.
“But, my lord count,” Ernald said, “we can’t reach those mines before nightfall. And there’s nowhere to shelter, but with Crooked Copsi. And in this weather . . .” He looked skyward, as if the rain couldn’t be seen all around.
“We’ll be there,” Alan said quietly, almost no more than a silent mouthing of words.
“Is it the miners the trouble?” The question came from amongst the men.
“Our lord’s a-checking on ‘em. Make sure they’re all working despites of the weather,” another said. There was much more skyward looking.
“This is pressing, no time for discussion. Mount!” Alan ordered his men. “Eon! The gate!”
The Asars had already taken knowledge of the land from Alan’s head. As soon as the gates opened, they were off. Alan never would catch them, already so far ahead. Yet the horse that rippled with muscles beneath his seat truly was a magical beast. It flew! Not a jolt when its hooves touched the ground. He glanced back. His men were following, close. The speed was both amazing and alarming. And though that rain should have been spearing sharp into his face, he felt not a thing – except where it trickled inside the mailcoat and dampened and swelled the padding beneath it, stealing his heat, leaving him uncomfortably cold and clammy.
They took the high road west. It was the most direct and avoided the river which, after three days of rain, was gushing full and fast and in danger of flooding. Yet the high road wasn’t easy going, deeply rutted by the weight of the wagons serving the mines. But there were no wagons rumbling along it today, and that was a blessing. Had the men sense they’d be hived off in their huts. Alan hoped that were so: out of sight, out of seeing. Though he imagined Bodin was fretting that his head would be for it if Alan discovered them there.
Raesan, the archbishop won’t go through with a consecration in this weather. Would he? Neve admitted she knew little about the Church. She supposed he’d have had to travel from York. And he’d have others with him. Clerics and choirboys and such.
Na, he’ll have his Saxon slaves from the south, yeh, all busily keeping his dry. They’ll erect a pavilion and hold up a canopy. He’s probably even a boy to hold up his precious gold skirts.
I hope he gets splattered with mud. There was enough mud on the road, wide quagmires of it, all hidden beneath the mirroring puddles – except the puddles only reflected grey. Everywhere, everything, all grey. They were heading up into the Pennines but she couldn’t see beyond two arms either side of her, all veiled by the rain. Yet she could see – by using Alan’s memories. She took those memories.
Beneath them a river wound through a steep-sided vale where grey stone buildings marked out the farms. Ahead, close now, was what looked like a village. Yet she knew these were the mine-workers’ huts. She counted eight wagons; she couldn’t see the horses. Or did they use oxen? Well, she couldn’t see those either, and neither the men. She could see where they’d been working. Opencast mining, a sore gash in the land.
The road divided – a crossroads, though offset by a little. They took the right turn, to climb more steeply, following a rain-busied rill.
“Cart tracks,” Stefan pointed to them though Alan had seen. A great number of horses had passed this way too.
“How long ago?” he asked. Then, “But this is foolish, we never can stop them. It all will be over, a waste of our time. And we wouldn’t yet be here were it not for these horses. Deceit. It all smacks of deceit. The Church and the abbess.”
The track climbed relentlessly up, taking them through and beyond the rain. Here there was mist – and above the mist, the sun. But that sun already was far from its zenith.
How much farther? Neve asked.
I should know, eh? I’ve been here before?
They breasted the ridge and . . . a pole-and-rope construct of regal red silk advertised clearly that the clergy were there. A host of armed knights, the equal of Alan’s, formed an arc and defined an arena. At its centre was the archbishop, obscenely encrusted in gold.
Raesan was right. Two young boys held up his skirts, his white ankles flashing, while four more struggled to support a silken fringed canopy despite the wind blew horizontally. He, meanwhile, sharply contrasted with this wasteland moor setting, circled around what must be the well – Neve couldn’t yet see – a smouldering censer a-sway from one hand, his crosier held erect in the other. The wind carried his words – in Latin, which wasn’t a problem if Neve put her mind to it, she could translate them.
Foul angel-speakers! Venom thickened Raesan’s words.
Despite the use of Zrone’s magical horses, they’d arrived too late. The Church rites had already begun.
Next episode, 20th August: Of Rainbows and Angels