Thursday, October 8, 2009

In the Presence of Saint Modwenna

Today's guest blogger book excerpt is from Andrew M. Boylan at Taliesin Meets the Vampires. Not only is he an author, and has a great movie and book review site, but I also love his rules of the game (devised from a list of research material). To read more from Andrew Boylan, head over to his sister site: Taliesin Writes the Vampires.

The following is an extract from Concilium Sanguinarius, actually chapter twenty, and has also been published as a stand alone in the zine Ethereal Tales.

Thanks Andrew - readers enjoy!

West Yorkshire, England – 1347

The campfire had just, grudgingly, flickered into life; the damp sticks producing as much smoke as they did light. The woman, a nun, knelt on the floor warming her hands whilst the two guards stood nearby grumbling to each other.

“Dame Startin,” the taller of the two guards addressed the woman, “begging yer pardon, but I’d ask you to reconsider. This forest ain’t safe.”

The woman shook her head and, silently, asked God for strength before replying. “Master Warder, I have left the title of Dame behind. I am the Prioress of Kirklees now.”

“As you say ma’m, but I’d still ask you to reconsider.” There seemed to be a small edge of panic or anxiety in the grizzled man’s voice.

“Master Warder, for better or for worse I fear that we are stuck in the forest until day breaks. I will not risk the horses by stumbling blind through the undergrowth.”

“But the inn is only two hours ride and ‘tis a lot safer than this ‘ere forest.” He insisted.

“The inn may as well be a hundred leagues distant if one of our mounts breaks a leg, and we have no need to fear the forest. The outlaws in Sherwood are centred around Nottingham and we are in Yorkshire. I doubt they will travel all this way to rob a penniless nun. Now will they?”

“Ma’m, the notorious brigands are to be found round Nottingham way, I grant you, but the forest is still thick with thieves, none-the-less.”

For a moment her voice carried the edge of her previous station in life. “Sir, I will broke no more discussion on the matter, we make camp here.” Her voice softened slightly before she added, “How long until we reach the priory if we ride at daybreak?”

Jack Warder groaned inaudibly, if she wanted to make good time to the priory they would not be stopping at the inn to break fast. “God willin’, we’ll be there by sunset tomorrow ma’m.”

Startin’s voice dropped into a mumble as she turned her attention back to the fire, “Good… good…” The discussion was over.

The guards moved out of earshot to confer.

“What do you make of it James?”

“It’s a rum ‘un, I’ll give you that,” replied the second guard, “But I can un’erstand it. A trip will lame a horse an’ that’ll slow us down on the morrow.”

“Not as much as ‘avin’ our throats cut.” Warder ran a dirt-encrusted finger menacingly across his throat to illustrate his point.

“Aye, you ‘ave a good point Jack lad, we’ll just ‘ave to keep a good watch.” James shrugged and then added, “As it is I ‘ave to make water, you make sure her ladyship don’t stray from the fire now.”

Neither guard noticed the shadow slipping through the trees, outside the light from the campfire.

James Goldborough watched his companion return to the campfire and then headed into the trees; he wanted to make sure he was out of sight of the camp. It wouldn’t do him any good to allow a lady of God to see him making water.

His friend’s concerns were well founded; the forest had become notorious in recent years. That said the Prioress was also right, most of the trouble was out round Nottingham. Thieves were not a localised problem though and caution was always needed. That was why Lord Grafton had insisted an armed guard escort the Prioress to her new position. Warder had been irritable through the entire journey, however, probably down to the fact that they’d had to take horses; he’d never been much of a horseman. If the truth was told neither of them were comfortable around the Prioress. She was a devout woman, of that there could be little doubt, but that also meant that when they stopped for the night, on the nights when they had stopped at inns, there had been no chance to play dice or get drunk or whore. Plenty of time for that on the way home though, James grinned to himself.

Once out of sight of the camp James lifted his padded aketon and dropped his hose. A relieved sigh escaped his mouth as the hot stream of urine splashed against the side of the oak.

He never saw the shadow creeping behind him, never knew it was there until two icy cold hands gripped his head. He managed a startled grunt before the hands twisted, snapping his neck and killing him instantly.

His body dropped softly to the floor, his own urine running back from the tree and pooling around his corpse, and the shadow slipped back into the night.

Jack Warder took off his kettle hat, placing it gently onto the floor so as not to disturb the Prioress, and then removed the padded coif that sat beneath it and scratched. The damned coif made his head itch. Probably full of lice, he thought, as he scratched furiously at his sweat-dampened hair.

The sooner they were out of the damn forest the better. He believed all he had said about outlaws true enough, but then there was the other thing. He hadn’t had the courage to mention it to the Prioress, she’d never believe him, nor to James for that matter, the younger guard would have laughed until he pissed himself. Jack knew better though, Jack knew the forest was haunted.

His cousin Ben had told him the stories. The tale of the White Lady who haunted the forest. Some said it was the ghost of a Saxon lady restless after the Normans had taken her husband’s lands and then raped and killed her a few hundred years back.

Others said it was the presence of Saint Modwenna punishing those who broke the Commandments, though Jack couldn’t say why a Saint would attack those out in the forest. Worse thing was, he thought to himself, if it was the Blessed Saint then he was doomed if she found him. He had never been one for observing the Commandments.

Thing was, this White Lady was real enough, Ben had sworn it, and he’d never known the boy lie.

He scratched at his head again. The prioress seemed lost in her own thoughts and the horses, tied to a nearby tree, were quiet enough. James was taking his own sweet time though.

“Jack come ‘ere.”

He looked at the Prioress but she hadn’t reacted. The other guard’s voice had seemed odd, no more than a whisper. He might have seen something in the trees, something that had forced him to lower his voice. Maybe he had caught sight of brigands in the woods. Warder picked up his rough handled knife and moved to the edge of the clearing.

“James, James Goldborough, where are you?” He hissed.

The shadow touched his mind again and whispered “Over ‘ere Jack.” To Warder it sounded like Goldborough, though he wasn’t to know that his friend lay dead amongst the trees.

Warder moved further into the forest, away from the light of the fire, fear gripping his stomach. Damn the boy, he thought, what sort of game was he playing? Tree branches caught at his clothing, tugging at him in the dark, and scraped across his rough face. A sound made him whirl around, cracking his head on a low branch. He swore lightly, it had been an owl. As he rubbed his sore skull he realised that he had left his helm at the camp.

“Goldborough?” His voice was stretched, barely audible above the frantic pounding of his own heart.

James Goldborough did not reply.

“What the hell…” He thought he saw a shadow flitting through the undergrowth, but then rationalised that it was just the thin moonlight moving through the swaying branches. Even so his hand gripped the knife tightly, his knuckles white.

“To Hell with you Goldborough, enough of your games.” He said almost too loudly. He turned to move back to the camp.

He glimpsed her for just a second before the talon like fingernails ripped his throat. Enough time for him to recognise the White Lady. Enough time for his feverish mind to realise that he had been right to believe Ben and for a stream of urine to soil his dirty grey hose.

He fell to the floor, clutching the gapping hole in his throat, blood spraying through his fingers and spilling onto the forest floor. Unable to make a sound.
Unable to warn his charge.

The shadow flitted towards the clearing.

At the edge of the clearing, outside the light flickering from the fire, she watched the Prioress. The older woman was praying, her fingers flickering over a set of ornate rosary beads.

The shadow circled around until it stood behind the Prioress, head still bent in prayer. She edged closer and closer until she stood directly above the nun. Her white fingers, stained red with Jack Warder’s blood, reached out slowly and then gently pulled back the wimple.

The Prioress’ eyes shot open; she twisted around to see a young girl, beautiful and yet so pale of skin. She was about to ask the girl her name when the girl’s mouth opened and she saw the fangs and the luminescent flash of red in the girl’s eyes.

She lifted the rosary, holding the tiny crucifix up to the devil, for devil it surely must have been. “God preserve me… I beg of you Lord, preserve your servant.”

The vampire laughed, the woman was absolutely sincere in her prayer, sincere in both her will to live and her belief that her God would protect her. She took the rosary from the Prioress’ hand and looked at it for a moment before throwing it to one side. “Which God would that be?” She asked the trembling nun, and then she struck, her fangs burying deep into the older woman’s neck.

For a moment the Prioress felt the touch of paradise. She sank into the vampire’s embrace willingly, offering up her life.

The horses panicked, neighing and whinnying franticly, pulling back at the ropes that tied them and kicking back into the night, kicking naught but air, or each other. One of them managed to break its head collar and ran into the night, neighing furiously.

The vampire ignored the horses and fed.

Two nights later the new Prioress of Kirklees arrived at her post, her habit stained from her travels, her ornate rosary clutched in her hands.

Her appearance took the nuns aback at first. She was so much younger than they had expected and she was also a day late. They asked her where her escorts had gone, concerned that she should have travelled the roads alone. Her escorts had been forced to return to their Lord with all haste after ensuring she was safe, she explained. Surely the nuns had seen the horsemen galloping off down the road. One remembered that she had and then another. Foolish men, thought one, always rushing here and there. They should have come in for the night, rested and returned to their Lord on the morrow.

Within hours Danaan had settled into the Prioress’ room, leaving explicit orders that she was extremely fatigued and was not to be disturbed the following day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved this part of Concilium Sanguinarius; it's the start of a famous legend, and it was pure genius on Taliesin's part to link it with a vampire.