Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

The Witch of Wicken Fen

by Ash Silverlock



Huw, Captain of the Duke of Chepstow's household guard, had patrolled the Welsh borders for a dozen years both as soldier and officer. In all that time, he had never encountered a sight as gruesome and troubling as the one that now appeared before him, that of a dead body in a hut in the tiny hamlet of Frome. He had scoffed initially when he had been summoned to Frome with wild tales of black magic and Devil worship. A man of faith, Huw had nevertheless grown up trusting the evidence of his own two eyes above all else and he had been quick to dismiss mutterings of sorcery and the like -- old wives' tales as far as he was concerned. However, even his own instincts were now telling Huw that what he had discovered was the Evil One's own work, for surely no human could be responsible for this.

The body was that of a middle-aged man, somewhat on the portly side but with the coarse skin and rugged look of a peasant farmer. His body was splayed out on the floor of the hut and a chalk circle had been drawn around it so that the impression was that of a pentacle -- a witch's tool -- with the man taking the place of the five-pointed star that would usually appear inside the circle. There was not a mark on the dead man's body and it might therefore have been difficult to determine the cause of death had it not been for the fact that the corpse, which was barely a day old, was marble white already. The poor fool had been drained entirely of his blood.

"The Baobhan Sith?" said Owain, Huw's young Lieutenant, in a questioning whisper, articulating the worst fears of many of the villagers that they had met.

Huw shook his head roughly. As far as he was concerned tales of the vampiric Baobhan Sith were nothing more than that -- just stories told to scare children that were no part of a serious investigation. He was disappointed that Owain, who was otherwise a promising young officer, had allowed the hysteria which had gripped the inhabitants of the hamlet to overcome him to such an extent that he had suggested a supernatural origin for the murderer.

"Nonsense Owain, there is no doubt in my mind that the agency behind this foul deed is mortal, albeit one so warped and twisted as to barely deserve to be called human. I'll have no more talk of ghosts, witches or the Baobhan Sith while we carry out our investigations," Huw said.

"But sir," protested Owain, "we have checked this hut for signs of intruders and found none. There is no evidence that anyone else was here apart from the victim, Gruffud ap'Pwyll, at the time he was killed. This hut does not even belong to the dead man -- we have no idea what he was doing here."

Huw was seized by the sudden urge to leave the enclosed space of the tiny hut immediately. Dead bodies did not particularly disturb him most of the time -- he had seen more than enough in his previous life as a soldier even before it had become his job to investigate crimes committed in the Duchy on his master's behalf -- but there was something about this place that made him uneasy. The atmosphere was dank and there was a prevailing gloom that was a result of the lack of light that filtered through the tiny windows -- slits really -- in the walls around them. Then there was the body itself. Although it was still relatively fresh and free from the cloying stench that it would gradually acquire as the hours wore on, especially in the heat of Mede, the sixth month of the year, it troubled Huw in other less definable ways. The worst thing was that it seemed horribly familiar for some reason, although Huw was no nearer to identifying why this was than he had been when he had first seen it earlier that morning. He made a decision then that nothing more was to be gained from remaining inside the hut for the time being -- besides, in the course of his musings, Owain had stumbled inadvertently upon a potentially useful line of inquiry.

When Huw left the hut, the first thing he saw was the same milling crowd of peasants that had followed them here when they had first arrived in Frome. Their headman, a huge fellow named Geraint, approached cautiously, a mixture of curiosity and fear warring upon his face.

"My lords," he said, inclining his head to show his respect for them as Duke's men, "My people are restless, concerned that the Evil One walks among us. Any word on when the Church will send a priest to exorcise the shadow that has fallen over our village?"

"I have seen no evidence of magic here, black or otherwise," said Huw dismissively, "and so long as the matter remains temporal rather than spiritual in nature it is the Duke's authority that will hold sway here, not that of the Bishop."

"Of course, my lord, of course," said Geraint, bowing this time, "I did not mean to suggest . . ."

Huw knew what the headman had not meant to suggest and had no wish to hear it spoken out loud. Everyone in the Duchy knew that Duke Edric of Chepstow and the Bishop, Gilles de Giscard, were not the best of friends, despite their efforts to maintain the seeming that they were. Although the Saxon Duke had been baptized and kept a Christian home and hearth, even going so far as to marry a Norman noblewoman, he had been born and raised in the Marches and was deeply familiar with the Old Faith that had existed in these parts long before the coming of Christianity. Bishop Gilles, all too aware of Duke Edric's mixed loyalties, was always alive for the opportunity to discredit his erstwhile ally. Huw had no doubt that the most lurid rumours concerning what had happened in Frome had originated from outside the village, probably from Tintern Abbey, but for the time being he would keep his suspicions to himself -- after all, that was all they were until he had proof to support them. For now, Huw would do nothing to further fan the flames of the superstitious paranoia that was currently sweeping through the Duchy -- an effect that could only strengthen the position of the Bishop and undermine that of his own master.

"Enough," Huw said, raising a hand to forestall Geraint's apology, "I need to know who this hut belongs to."

"Of course, my lord, this is the home of Fenran the Forester. He is a good man, a widower since his wife and child died last winter and he has understandably been somewhat withdrawn since that happened. He is often away from the village for a few days at a time collecting timber and supplies in the Whispering Wood but . . ." Geraint's face fell suddenly, ". . . my lord, you cannot think that he had anything to do with this -- this abomination!"

"I have formed no conclusions yet Master Geraint, I am merely gathering information at this stage."

It was a phrase that Huw had used many times before, a phrase that he was sure had been used on countless occasions by other men of the law before him. Huw knew, however, that this time he and his men would need help if they were to bring Gruffud's murderer to justice. Huw only wondered if the price for resorting to this help would be greater than his master the Duke would be willing to pay.

***

"By God, sir, this place is smaller and even more forsaken than Frome!" said Owain.

Huw nodded in agreement with his Lieutenant's words, which were true, but said nothing. It had been many years since he had last visited the village of Wicken Fen, which lay midway between Frome and Chepstow along one of the few Roman roads built in this part of the British Isles, and it had changed little in that time. It was, like Frome, more of a hamlet than a village but its location, beneath the brooding shadow of the Black Mountains with wild woodland bordering it on virtually every side, made it seem a far more isolated and desolate place. For this and other reasons it was not a village that attracted many visitors, but that did not matter -- Huw had not come to see a place, he had come to see a person.

"Sir, I've heard things about Wicken Fen . . ." Owain began, but stopped short when he saw that they had been noticed.

The villagers on the streets, some of whom were occupied in menial tasks like cleaning, while others were in small knots either bartering goods or perhaps just exchanging gossip, stopped what they were doing when the two guardsmen passed by. As Duke's men, they were not exactly unwelcome in these parts but the villagers would certainly not go out of their way to make them feel at home. Huw and Owain might have Welsh blood running through their veins but they bore the insignia of a Saxon lord, and for the people of Wicken Fen that made all the difference.

It should not have made a difference of course, Huw was forced to remind himself. These people had owed the Dukes of Chepstow their fealty for several generations by now, more than enough to wipe away the scars of conflict between Celt and Saxon in any other part of the kingdom. But time ran differently this side of the border, so it was said, and as a consequence grudges were nursed for longer and the old ways were forgotten more slowly. For instance, as Huw knew from personal experience, the new religion of the Christian Church was paid little more than lip service in Wicken Fen, which in many ways remained a bastion of the Old Faith. Of course, that was one of the main reasons why this was the perfect place to begin his investigation of the murder in Frome.

"You there," Huw said, pointing at one of the villagers, "where can I find the Wise Woman Morag?"

The villager, a big, surly-looking fellow, paid Huw no more mind than he might have to a gnat buzzing around his face, which was to say that he ignored him completely.

"Answer him, peasant," said Owain, placing one hand on the hilt of his sword for emphasis, "We are Duke's men, here on dire business."

Huw winced at his Lieutenant's tone and especially at his use of the term 'peasant' but it seemed to do the trick. The yokel spat to one side and jerked a thumb in the other direction.

"Where she has always been, in the hut over yonder. My lord."

The last sounded more like an insult than an honorific and drew a few smirks from one or two of the other rustics but Huw decided to let it go. Owain clearly had other ideas and was on the verge of drawing his sword, apparently intent on teaching these commoners a lesson in manners, before Huw placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.

"There are two of us to fifty of them, lad," he said in a voice low enough that only the other could hear him, "and the Duke's authority in these outlying areas is not so absolute that the locals won't resort to violence if provoked."

"That's treason, sir," spluttered Owain, "I'm not afraid to die in the Duke's name!"

"No more am I. But are you prepared to have the massacre of an entire village on your conscience in the afterlife?"

Owain dropped his head at that, chastened. Huw had spoken only the truth, for the law of the Norman kings was brutal and absolute. They did not tolerate any insubordination among the peoples that they conquered, and they saw the Saxon failure to do the same as a weakness that had allowed them to be defeated in the Norman Conquest centuries earlier. For this reason none of the Saxon lords, including Duke Edric, dared to meet any sign of defiance from their subjects with anything less than the most brutal of reprisals. This included laying a hand on those carrying out the Duke's justice.

Still on horseback, Huw and Owain continued to make their way through the village. Huw tried to master his discomfort at the itching between his shoulder blades that he felt as he passed the crowd of people that had by now gathered in the village square, and whose eyes bored into his back. More pairs of eyes peered out of ramshackle homes on either side of them as Huw and Owain rode past. Eventually they reached a hovel at the end of the street that was so decrepit that it barely deserved to be called a hut, let alone a house.

"Sweet Lord!" said Owain, "What could we possibly want from here?"

"Careful Lieutenant," said Huw, "If you keep calling on the Almighty like that, he might actually appear."

Despite his subtle put-down of the lad, Huw found Owain's reaction, dramatic as it was, perfectly understandable. The hut, with its splintered beams and thatched roof full of gaping holes, looked like it was falling apart. There was a garden of sorts out in front, but it looked like it had not been tended in an age, overgrown as it was with weeds. That and the house's general state of disrepair gave the impression that the place had been abandoned for some time.

"Stay here." Huw said as he dismounted. Owain gave him an uncertain look but remained on horseback. His hand, Huw noticed, remained firmly on the hilt of his sword.

Memories, dark as crow's wings, assailed Huw as he walked up the path to Morag's hut. He had barely been more than a boy when last he had visited and the Wise Woman of Wicken Fen had been old even then. His father had already passed away by that time and his mother was wasting away at the hands of the illness that would claim her life barely a year later. He was a parent in all but name to his younger brother and sister and was growing used to -- if not necessarily comfortable with -- the weight of responsibility that would become one of the defining features of his existence from that time forward.

Pushing past his memories, Huw knocked on the door of the hut softly. Since the door was half-hanging off rusted hinges Huw dared not hit it more forcefully and, when he received no answer, he pushed it open gently. When he was inside the hut he almost gagged as an overpowering, stagnant odour struck him full in the face. It smelled as if the place had not been aired in centuries, almost as if it was a mausoleum. The tomb-like atmosphere was enhanced when, looking past all the rickety tables and chairs, past the evil-smelling potions and jars filled with who-knew-what lining the shelves, Huw saw Morag lying still on her bed.

Huw rushed to the old woman's side and at first glance thought that she must be dead. Her wizened face had a ghastly yellow pallor, like a plague-ridden corpse, and her wrinkled hands were folded on her chest, as if she had been prepared for a funeral cortege. It was only when Huw laid his head on her ancient chest, his ear to her heart, and felt the gentle rise and fall of Morag's breathing that he realised that the Wise Woman still lived.

"Do not grieve," said a voice from behind him, "she is not dead yet."

At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, Huw turned around and saw in surprise that a young, dark-haired woman stood in the doorway of the hut. As she moved into the light Huw noted piercing green eyes, a wide, almost cruel mouth, and skin that was as pale as ivory. She might have been called beautiful if it were not for the fact that she seemed to have made a conscious effort to appear as intimidating as possible, despite her slight feminine form. She was clothed entirely in black and wore a silver torque around her neck. Silver also sat on her forehead in the form of a much more delicate circlet, this one inset with an emerald that was as green as her eyes. Yes, she might not have been beautiful but the manner in which she attired herself ensured that she was definitely striking.

Huw was about to ask the young woman what was wrong with Morag but the words died on his lips at the look that suddenly crossed her face. He doubted that the dark woman ever looked entirely approachable but her expression had turned openly hostile when she saw him clearly for the first time. Or rather, when she saw the brooch pinning cloak to shoulder that was the sign of his office as the Captain of Duke Edric's household guard.

"A Saxon!" she hissed.

"I am no Saxon," said Huw, and this time it was his turn to bristle, "I am Huw ap'Nudd and I was born in the village of Usk, not ten leagues from here, as true a Welshman as any other from the Wye Valley."

"And yet plainly you serve a Saxon princeling -- or do you deny it?"

"I deny nothing. Duke Edric of the House of Hengist is an honourable man and I am pleased to serve as his captain."

The dark woman's mouth twisted at the mention of the Duke, clearly showing her opinion of him. Her mood seemed to mellow slightly at hearing of Huw's heritage, however, and her manner changed from open hostility to cold formality -- a slight improvement but one for which Huw was grateful nonetheless.

"What business does the Duke's captain have in the home of a humble herbwife?"

Huw almost laughed at the woman's description of Morag as 'humble'. The Wise Woman of Wicken Fen had for years been renowned for her wisdom, herblore and arcane knowledge. As long as Huw had been alive, folk had been known to come from all over the Wye Valley and beyond to consult her, which was part of the reason he was here. He had no intention of telling the still-unidentified young woman that just yet however.

"I would be happy to tell you, mistress, but first, you have something of an advantage over me?"

"You may call me Raven. I have the honour of being Mistress Morag's apprentice."

You may call me Raven, Huw noted as the answer she gave, not my name is Raven. Still, it would do for the time being.

"I did not know Morag had taken on an assistant. She has always worked alone as long as I have known her."

"Mistress Morag," said Raven, making sure that Huw was aware of the emphasis she placed on the Wise Woman's honorific, "took me on as an apprentice last summer." Again, the emphasis was notable -- she had not seemed to like Huw referring to her as an 'assistant.'

Raven moved to stand over Morag, bringing Huw into close enough proximity to her that he could smell the fragrance of lye on her skin and scented oils in her hair. She had bathed recently, which made the thought come into Huw's head, unbidden, of Raven naked. Aware as he had suddenly become of her, Raven seemed suddenly oblivious to his presence as she instead focused her intense gaze on Morag. Huw hoped that also meant that she could not tell what he had been thinking.

"She has been this way since the last new moon. It is beyond my art to tell what is wrong with her or how to cure it." Raven said, then looked at the small wooden cross that hung from a pendant around Huw's neck. "Perhaps your new religion will have an answer where the Old Faith has found none."

Huw grasped the cross.

"I will say a prayer for her."

Raven's expression grew unreadable.

"Now perhaps you can tell me what you came here for, man of Usk."

Huw gave her a wry grin.

"I was hoping that the High Priestess of the Old Faith would have an answer for a problem that may be beyond the Christian Church."

Raven's eyebrows shot up in interest but she gave no other outward sign of what she thought as Huw filled her in briefly on what had happened in Frome.

"You tell an intriguing tale, but I still do not understand why you came to see my mistress -- did you hope that she would give you a spell that would repel the Boabhan Sith?"

Raven gave him a mocking grin. Heat entered Huw's voice as he replied.

"I am not a fool and I do not believe in folk tales," he said, trying to keep a rein on his temper, "I am, however, aware of the old ways and the rituals that go hand in hand with them. This incident bore all the hallmarks of a pagan blood sacrifice."

That got Raven's attention.

"If what you say is true . . ." she began.

". . . then if we do not act quickly, the Duke would have no choice other than to institute an even more bloody reprisal."

Huw would not, until that moment, have believed that the dark woman's expression could have turned more sombre. She looked at him with a face as pale as that of a corpse and spoke in a voice cold enough to freeze winter's heart.

"I will go with you."

***

The ride back to Frome was silent and tense. Owain seemed unsure what to make of Raven, who, after the briefest of introductions, barely deigned to acknowledge his presence. The young man plainly had concerns about the direction in which their investigations were taking them but dared not voice them in front of the dark woman. Although on reflection, Huw thought that was perhaps one of the few good things about having Raven around.

Huw had his own misgivings, which only grew as they approached Frome. He had been uncertain enough about going to Morag but at least the old Wise Woman was a known quantity. He knew almost nothing about the woman who called herself Raven and what little she had revealed about herself hardly inspired confidence. Still, she seemed willing to offer what little help she could -- even if her motivations remained something of a mystery -- and that was something.

It was almost nightfall when they arrived back at Frome and for that Huw was grateful. It meant that the crowd that had gathered around the murdered man's hut earlier had by now largely cleared. There were still a couple of die-hard busybodies looking on but they at least kept a respectful distance between themselves and the scene of the crime. Huw hoped that would also mean that he would not have to explain away Raven's presence to too many people. The villagers of Frome were much more pious than those of Wicken Fen in their devotion to the Church and they were unlikely to welcome a pagan priestess -- even a novice one -- in their midst at this time.

"Stay here," Huw told Owain as he and Raven dismounted, "Let no one in until we are finished."

The interior of Gruffud's hut remained in much the same shape as it had been earlier that day, right down to the body that still lay spread-eagled in the middle of the floor. Taking a sidelong look at Raven, Huw was impressed by her reaction -- or rather lack thereof. The young woman took in the scene like a seasoned campaigner, not flinching at the sight of the dead man as she scanned the room for clues. When she had finished her initial appraisal, Raven began to inspect some of the items in the hut more closely, stepping around what was left of its former owner as if he was nothing more than a pile of refuse in the street. Huw was both impressed and chilled by the sight.

"Well?" he said when she was done.

"You were right to come to me," said Raven, her brow furrowed in thought, "Blood has been spilled by the blade of an athame and vervain has been burnt here. I am not Morag, but even I can see the signs that this poor fool was the victim of a sacrifice."

"To the old gods?"

"Undoubtedly." This time she sounded more reluctant.

Huw's heart sunk. This was the news that he had been dreading.

"Perhaps someone is trying to discredit the Old Faith?"

Raven shook her head.

"I wish it were so but from the signs it is clear that, if anything, it was the opposite."

Huw was confused by the priestess's words.

"The opposite? I do not understand."

Cold green eyes pinned him in place.

"I think that this is a message to those who follow the new religion, an attempt to show that the old ways are as strong as ever in the Wye Valley. This is an act calculated to instill fear in the people of Frome."

If so, it's working, thought Huw, although he did not trust himself to say anything out loud.

"Then we must go back to Wicken Fen," Huw said, "My men can search there and in other villages where the Church has failed to take root."

"It would be a fool's errand," Raven said dismissively, "My opinion, if you want it, is that we should remain here."

"What would that achieve?"

"I am almost certain that the perpetrator will return to survey his handiwork and see if it has had the desired effect."

A murderer always returns to the scene of the crime. Another piece of old wisdom, although Huw was unsure if it would be of any help here.

"I find that hard to believe. What could possibly make the culprit want to risk giving himself away like that?"

"His hatred," Raven said, then turned to Huw, her emerald eyes glittering. "Do not make the mistake of thinking that you can understand the motivations of the one who did this deed. I can, since we at least share the same gods."

Huw nodded, although he was far from convinced.

"We stay then, just for tonight."

At Raven's request, Huw then sent Owain away. The lumbering idiot will destroy any chance we have of catching the killer, Raven told Huw, although he put it to his Lieutenant in slightly more diplomatic terms. Owain obeyed, although it was clear from his expression that he was not happy to leave his captain alone in the home of a murdered man with a pagan priestess.

It was already late when Owain left and it soon darkened as day gave way to evening. Although he had no real appetite, Huw dined on some trail rations to keep his strength up. What little he had he offered to Raven but the priestess coolly declined. She did not eat or drink anything else as far as he could tell, although she did join him at the crofter's table.

With the onset of darkness came an unsettling silence as the sounds of the village gradually faded away around them. It seemed that people were turning in, Huw concluded, and they were no doubt barring their doors as they did so. Huw made an attempt at conversation with Raven, more to break the tension than anything else.

"Did you grow up in Wicken Fen? I can't remember ever having seen you when I visited the place as a lad."

"No, I came from over the water." Raven did not elaborate to confirm whether the 'water' to which she referred was the River Wye, the English Channel or the North Sea. Before he could ask any further questions, she spoke again. "And you, man of Usk, how came you to serve a Saxon lord?"

This time it was Huw's turn to be evasive.

"It is a long story."

"One which you are not willing to tell?" said Raven, with a smile that could only be described as cruel, "You will forgive me, I only asked because I wanted to know what could lead a trueborn Welshman could betray his people as you have done."

Huw backed away from the table, not liking the ugly edge that Raven's voice had suddenly acquired. He became uncomfortably aware that he had left his sword on the other side of the room, beyond reach, thinking that he would not need it while he supped with an erstwhile companion. She is only a woman, Huw thought, surely I would not need a sword if it came to that. For some reason, however, he failed to find the thought reassuring.

Raven had risen smoothly at the same time as Huw. Her feral smile widened, revealing teeth that were suddenly startlingly white behind her red lips.

"Surely you do not fear a frail woman like me, captain? But then, your Norman masters have never let that deter them from slaughtering women of Celtic blood, and children too, in their thousands."

Huw gritted his teeth, not liking Raven's words but unable to completely deny the truth in them.

"Duke Edric is not a Norman and he does not kill women and children."

"Norman, Saxon or Welsh turncoat, you are all the same," Raven spat, "Killing indiscriminately, taking what is not yours, hurting the land as much as the people who live there."

Huw found that his back was now to the wall or he would have moved further away from the priestess if he could. He noticed that the emerald nestled in Raven's circlet seemed to have changed colour and become a ruby. With shock, he saw that the eyes of the priestess were now just as red as the jewel in her hair.

"I came here to stop further death!" Huw said, although he had no doubt by now that his protests would fall on deaf ears.

"Oh, you poor fool, do you still not understand?" said Raven, opening her mouth wide to reveal long, cat-like fangs, "I brought you here to kill you."

Transfixed by the demon's gaze, Huw was unable to move, helpless as she advanced on him. Her nails were now every bit as long and cruel as her teeth.

"The crofter was a poor meal, after so long a sleep," Raven said, her voice no longer recognizable as human, "The blood of a fighting man like you, Huw ap'Nudd, should sustain me for longer and ensure that I do not need to take a risk like this before I have to feed again."

Caught in the demon's power, Huw could not even close his eyes as her jaws reached for his neck. The bite never came, however, for Raven stopped suddenly, her eyes glazing over in shock. Looking down, an almost comical expression crossed her face as she saw a shaft of wood thrust through her heart from behind. She collapsed to the floor, the wood still embedded in her chest, revealing the ancient form of the Wise Woman of Wicken Fen standing before Huw.

Morag looked from the creature on the floor of the hut to Huw and back again.

"We must hurry," she said, "The stake only immobilizes the Boabhan Sith, it does not kill."

***

The village of Wicken Fen took its name from an evil-smelling marsh not far from it. Properly speaking it was the marshland that was Wicken Fen, although the locals tended to call it simply 'The Fen.' Few went anywhere near the Fen, for its ground was treacherous, and more than one villager had been swallowed up by the marsh in years past. Even the rumour of treasure buried in the Fen's depths was not enough to entice anyone to go there these days -- which made it the perfect place to hide a body.

"The Baobhan Sith are more spirit than flesh," Morag said as she helped Huw carry the unexpectedly light body of Raven through the marshes, "A fair outer seeming which is no more than a shell to conceal the demon within. Once a year she arises from her grave to feed on young men by night, seducing victims with her beauty, inviting men to dance with her and eventually drinking their blood."

"She spared me the from dancing at least," Huw said, although there was little humour in his voice.

"Her hatred for you was perhaps one of the few genuine things about her. The swords of the Saxons have accounted for as many of her kin as mine."

There was no hint of bitterness in Morag's voice but Huw nonetheless thought it wise to change the subject quickly.

"How did she overcome you?"

"The Baobhan Sith can compel as well as kill and I fear that even my willpower was no match for hers in that respect. Fortunately, she only wanted me out of the way rather than dead, which is the only reason that I am breathing right now -- and you for that matter might I add."

"I am grateful, Wise Woman," said Huw with feeling, "But are you sure that we and everyone else in the valley are now safe? You mentioned that the creature was not dead."

"That much is true, for I cannot kill Raven and her ilk."

"Then why have we come to this marsh -- in the hope that the smell will account for her?"

Huw put a hand to his nose, for the odour of swamp gas was indeed overpowering in its intensity. The old crone cackled, clearly amused.

"We will bury the body and build a cairn over the grave to prevent the evil spirit escaping."

Huw paused, not liking the idea.

"There is no other way? What if someone were to tamper with the cairn -- wouldn't that free the demon?"

"It is a risk," Morag said, sighing heavily and for the first time showing the burden of her vast age, "but I dare not try anything else. Of old it was said that a vampire could be slain by staking it at a crossroads until it could be burnt to ashes by the light of the dawn sun. Sadly that is not an option that is open to us."

"Why not?"

"Don't you see, Captain? The demon was not acting alone -- she had to have been summoned, probably by someone in either Frome or Wicken Fen. If we left her body at a crossroads it would be gone long before morning."

The information was like ice in Huw's gut. He had not in truth even entertained the possibility that a mortal agency was behind the vampire's rampage.

"Do not despair," said Morag, seeing Huw's face fall, "Now we know that those who follow the old ways are moving against your lord and that will prove an advantage, however slight, in the days ahead."

"But they are your people -- why would you help a Saxon Duke against them?"

At that Morag again let out a loud, cackling laugh that Huw found profoundly unsettling in the darkness and silence of the marshes.

"I might ask you the same question, Captain!" then she grew serious, "I foresee a time when all of us must combine forces against a common enemy, far more terrible than any we have seen before on the Isle of the Mighty."

Huw remained puzzled. "How can you have foreseen this? And to what foe do you refer -- the Normans?"

"You will have the answer to your second question in due course. As to your first, well," Morag gave a gap-toothed grin, "call it a woman's intuition."


THE END


2017 Ash Silverlock

Bio: I'm a blogger and short story writer. My website "Fabulous Realms" is dedicated to fantasy, folklore, myth and legend and has over two thousand followers. My most recently published short story appeared in the anthology 'Bardic Tales and Sage Advice' (Volume 8, August 2016).

E-mail: Ash Silverlock

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.