Friday, July 21, 2017

Witch's Wood

Witch's Wood
Bobby Derie

"Enchanted forests do not just happen," the Head Witch looked down her long and crooked nose at Anya. "They require skill and care. This is the territory you have been assigned."

It was not much of a wood. There were trees, certainly - winnow young oaks standing in the dry yellow remnants of what were once tilled fields, and a few scattered copses of dense thorn that were once hedges.

The younger witch kept a carefully neutral face. The Head Witch gave her a too-friendly pat on the ass.

"I know it doesn't look like much, but there's supposed to be a castle buried in that mess somewhere. Plague hit a little too hard, and the whole region was depopulated. See what you can do with it, and I'll be back in a year."


The "castle" was little more than a dry stone keep, a square and boxy thing being slowly covered by winding thorn and bird shit, but it had its own well. Anya took her time desecrating the chapel, and then moved in. 

The Head Witch had, as was tradition, offered her choice of a single tool of Art - most witches chose the athame, but Anya had opted for a hatchet. Moonrise found her in a clearing not far from the keep, scraping a sapling as thick as her wrist, moving in long even strokes so that the bark peeled off in strips, and the yellow heartwood showed. A bundle of grass served as a sweep, and she braided grass and bark together around the base of the staff.

The broom was rough under her hands as she rose into the starry night. The wood - her wood - was not particularly dense; it covered what had been six farmsteads and their adjoining fields around the keep, and formed a rough triangle at the collision of three countries. The southern border was a road that ran between two towns, the north-east and north-west by rumbling creeks. Darkness reigned about the little wood, every neighboring farmhouse nearby locked tight for the night.

Swooping low, Anya began to take inventory.

There were no wolves or bears or great cats; the land had been farmed too recently, the wood too far from wilder dominions. It was a wood of snakes and mice and rabbits, thrushes and owls, worms and beetles. There were no primeval trees, and though she looked hopefully at some of the great grey boulders, Anya ascertained they were more likely glacial remnants than toppled pagan stones. Yet there were corpses, though little more than dry and rattling bones, and in the crypt of the keep a line of petty lords yet slept in their crude stone boxes.

Anya began to plan.


Farmers who had let their fields run fallow near the plague-swept region rose some weeks later noted that the forest around the fallen keep looked different than it had before. Green thorns now hedged in along its borders, as though planted by knowing hands, and oak saplings grew thicker together. The birds had taken to nesting in the branches beside the road, and watching the traffic that passed, and once followed a funeral cart all the way to town. Each bird's beak and speckled breast was tinged with red, though before they had known to all be brown.

At night were scenes as would still a weak man's heart. Boney shamblers dressed in rags, a-work by moon and starlight, planting, seeding, tending tree and thorn. Toiling balls of worms wove their way through the undergrowth, and down by the creeks the serpents multiplied. From the four winds her familiar birds came, bearing news and seed, and in her little keep the witch Anya pored over her plans.

Her diet, to this point, had mostly been rabbit, and that fair raw, for it was too soon for her to be discovered by the tell-tale smoke of a fire; and beside that a little garden with such wild vegetables as were left. Sucking a marrow-bone, the young witch meditated on her neighbors.

The milk began to fall off in the cows of the farms nearest the wood; but not all at once and not altogether, so while one canny old peasant might lay up at night waiting for a milk-thief, when spread between four or five farms the loss was attributed to something in the neighborhood - perhaps the water in the creek, which had grown less sweet of late. In town, the miller was pilloried for his count of flour to the baron coming short, and there were few of his friends and customers that would speak for him, who had his thumb on their scales too often.

One morning, the unhallowed graves outside the wall of the church yard were found open, and the excommunicants within left, no one knew where.


A darkness entered the wood then. The thorns were thick and long and low, so there was hardly a gap into the forest; and it was a forest now, for the saplings grew thick and green at the edge, and though the oaks were still young the branches seemed to knit together in shadowed canopies. A charcoal-burner, breaking through the bracken where the thorns were thinnest, might wander in shadow along quiet, well-worn paths followed by the eyes and hoots of owls who should not be about during the daytime.

Thorn-choked farmhouses still stood in the wood, and there were carefully-orchestrated horrors there where liches lay in scenes in mockery of life. In odd turns along the paths were stones raised and painted red with blood, offerings of bone twined together in strange sculptures, or let to dangle from low branches to clank and ring with the wind. At its heart, if the woodsman had not yet turned back, was the keep - the stones now held together by twining vines of wild rose more than ought else. On the desecrated altar in the chapel lay a figure in black armor, pierced together from the graves of nobility; carved and painted now with runes. Serpents twined through rents in the mail, adder-heads stared out from the visor, and a pale yellow trickle of venom ran down the length of the great blade when it was drawn.

Then, of course, the charcoal-burner would never be heard from again.

At Beltane, on the roof the keep, Anya lit the great fire which shown its witch-light over the wood. The Head Witch's shadow crossed the moon, and the young witch, riding side-saddle, rose to meet her. Silent they wafted over the witch's wood, past the macabre gardeners and bloody shrines, the pits where the serpents bred and the dark holes where the worms dug deep, the poison-tinged creeks and the stout thorn hedges, and finally the keep with its dark chapel and guardian.

"Well, that's a pass." The Head Witch grunted.


Friday, July 14, 2017

What More Do You Want?

What More Do You Want?
Bobby Derie

The body was cold. The jewels were missing. No sign of forced entry. Her son was hiding in a ditch, pockets full of bloody pearls. It happens that way sometimes. Detective Ericsson closed the murder book and decided to go out for a drink.

There are cop bars, and there are cop bars. The ones the badge bunnies don't hang out at, where the ghosts of dead cops don't stare at you from the wall accusingly. Where detectives go to pick around the edges of memories that have scabbed over, and don't have to bump into fresh meat from the academies, in for their initiation after the first week on patrol.

Detective Bastard was already propping up the edge of the bar.

"Catch one?" he asked.

"Caught and wrapped," Ericsson ordered with two fingers. The bartender poured her drink and left.

"Good." The bastard sipped his cranberry-and-soda, looking mournfully at a glass of Japanese whiskey.

"You gonna drink that?"

"Can't." The bastard smiled. "School night. Gotta pick my daughter up in a bit. What's eating you, Chanelle?"

Half the glass disappeared in a long slow sip.

"What's the worst you've ever seen, Jack?" Ericsson asked.

The bastard blinked, twice. "That's a hard question. Depends on your stomach. What brought this on?"

"I thought I had one tonight, is all. One of the weird cases, like yours."

"Yeah? Lucky, then." He sipped his cranberry-and-soda. "You don't want one of mine."

"It's just..." Ericsson flailed for words. "So fucking petty. Uncreative. Boring. They argued over money, her pushed her, hit her head. All the blood comes out, he runs. He doesn't even run far. Greedy, stupid, and scared."

"What more do you want?" the bastard asked. "Evil?"

"Sometimes, yeah." she finished off the last of her drink, held up another finger. The bartender came over and poured. Ericsson drank it down in a slurp.

"Evil's a hard one." the bastard slid the whiskey over in front of her. "I've seen cold bodies leak warm. Seen a dad barbecue his son's dog and make him fucking eat it. A guy that carried his girlfriend's head around in a bowling bag, her throat replaced with soft silicone. Cocaine smuggled over the border in diapers. Beat a priest half to death for trying to exorcise a woman with epilepsy, and I only stopped because she bit her tongue and was bleeding to death. You've heard the horror stories. It's only ever just people. Stupid, greedy, scared, crazy, petty people. Isn't that enough?"

Ericsson drank the whiskey. Her eyes watered.

"Jesus. How do you drink this stuff?"

"I don't. Not anymore." The bastard got up. Laid some bills down on the bar. "You did good tonight, Chanelle. Caught your guy. We don't always get that. Open case, shut case. What more do you want?"


Friday, July 7, 2017

Bedtime Queries

Bedtime Queries
Bobby Derie

"We never burned witches," the old woman said. "Because that would be wasteful."

The fever had not yet come into its own, but the bed had been drawn closer to the fire, and Grandmother Worm sat up with her late into the night, smoking her pipe and answering her questions.

"Did you love grandpa?" the girl asked.

"He was a keeper," Grandmother Worm's knitting needles clicked. "I knew that when didn't even flinch when it was time to hide the body." Click click. "Shared secrets can bind some people together, and break others apart. Remember that, child." Click click. "Never make someone an accessory unless you can trust them. Otherwise, they're just witnesses. And you remember what I said about witnesses?"
"Dig another grave."
"That's right, darling." Click click. "That's exactly right. Your grandpa understood that. And understanding is the basis of all relationships."

"You met on the farm, right?"

"Yes," the needles stopped, and the old woman laid a cold hand on the girl's brow. "Ye're going to the farm, when you're well. It's time for ye to learn about the rams and the ewes." Grandmother Worm knocked her pipe into the fireplace.

"You mean the birds and the bees?" The girl asked.

"Never had to castrate a bee or clean up a bird's abortion storm." The old woman said. "So I'm thinkin' no." 

There were no more questions, after that. Only the crackle of the fire.

The old woman's eyes got hazy as she stared into the fire. "I've known women that cried over the pigs they raised," Grandmother Worm held the sick girl's hand in her own. "An' sheep, and rabbits, chicken and's hard not to love a livin' thing, raised by your own hand. You git to know it. Love it." The feverish girl murmured in her dreams. "An' yet the time came, I never knew a one that didn't sharpen the knife and do what must be done. A body's got to eat."


Monday, July 3, 2017

The Exham Chronicle

The Exham Chronicle
Bobby Derie

A.D. 418. This year the Romans collected all the hoards of gold that were in Britain; and some they hid in the earth, so that no man afterwards might find them
- The Exham Chronicle

Among the manuscripts archived in the Bibliothèque nationale de France is a strange survival from Cluny Abbey: fifty-two leaves of vellum, much the worse for wear by the fire, composed in Latin and written in an insular black letter script, rebound in the 18th century. The work was identified as a recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably made in the 12th century, and appears primarily to be a copy of a Latin sections of the Canterbury Bilingual Epitome, with the addition of certain (possibly deliberate) copyist errors and a few additional and expanded entries relating to the priory at Exham; it is this latter material which has led bibliographers to refer to it as "The Exham Chronicle," and it is the source (occasionally erroneous) of much of the early history of that site.

The earliest deviation from the Canterbury Bilingual Epitome in the extant text claims that the nearby village of "Anchester" ("Ania Castra") was occupied by the 3rd Augustan Legion in C.E. 73; a distinct archaeological problem, since no village of that name currently exists and the 3rd Augustan Legion was never stationed in Britannia - however, the 2nd Augustan Legion was stationed in Britannia, and had connections with the camp at Alchester ("Ælia Castra")  in Oxfordshire, not far from the former site of the priory, and it seems likely that these represent errors on the part of the scribe who was adding these amendments to the chronicle. Regrettably, several sources have perpetuated these errors.

In the Chronicle, the future site of priory itself is first mentioned simply as a "heathen temple" (paganus templum), whence came a Phrygian priest (galli) who raised an altar to the Great Mother there in C.E. 96. The legions left Britain in 383, leaving the Romano-British to fend for themselves. Without Roman troops, they turned to Anglo-Saxon mercenaries (foederati) for aid, ceding them territory in exchange - one such troop settled near Alchester, and was given the territory surrounding the Phyrigian temple, which they fortified into a manor. This temple survived as part of the pagan kingdom of Mercia, but in the 7th century the kingdom was becoming Christianized, and it is recorded in the entry for 685: "This year there was in Britain a bloody rain, and milk and butter were turned to blood. And in this same year, the Phyrgian temple at Exham was broken, and the galli were baptized."

The much the subsequent leaves are missing, but it is evident that in 983 "The lord of the manor at Exham died without issue, and the property was gifted by the to the Abbey of Cluny, who granted a charter to a contingent of monks, ordering them to go forth. Odo of Lyon was named prior there." This was one of the "alien priories" in England, staffed by French Benedictine monks and answerable to the Abbot of Cluny, rather than the local diocese, but was only one of a number of small monastaeries that operated in Mercia, and the text shows a major focus on the adoration of the Virgin Mary (often as "the Blessed Mother" or "Queen of Virgins"). After its founding, the entries for the priory grow more frequent and detailed, noting even the creation of several castrati (whose reason for mention becomes more obvious when the same individuals are named as having acceded to the office of prior), and it is this as much as any reason that historians suspect that this chronicle was copied by a monk of the priory, as a copy to be sent to the mother-house at Cluny.

Details, however, are scant; there is an entry in 996 that "The earth gave up its ancient treasures at Exham, to the glory of the Blessed Mother," which has often been interpreted as the uncovering of a Roman or Anglo-Saxon hoard that had been buried on the property; and in 1005 "This year was the great famine in England so severe that no man ere remembered such. Yet the monks at Exham feasted well." A curious amendation to the entry for 1010 reads:

Thurkytel Myrehead first began the flight; and the Danes remained masters of the field of slaughter. There were they horsed; and afterwards took possession of East-Anglia, where they plundered and burned three months; and then proceeded further into the wild fens, slaying both men and cattle, and burning throughout the fens. Thetford also they burned, and Cambridge; and afterwards went back southward into the Thames; and the horsemen rode towards the ships. Then went they west-ward into Oxfordshire, and thence to Buckinghamshire, and so along the Ouse till they came to Bedford, and so forth to Temsford, always burning as they went. The rich priory at Exham, though it had no walls, they did not approach, but gave it a wide berth, so afraid were they of the Blessed Mother.

The remaining leaves run out, almost poetically although certainly by chance, with the invasion of England by William the Conquerer ("Bishop Odo and Earl William lived here afterwards, and wrought castles widely through this country, and harassed the miserable people; and ever since has evil increased very much. May the end be soon, when the Blessed Mother will!") Whatever wealth and power the priory had in the days before the Norman Conquest, its fortunes appear to have declined in the immediate aftermath. Details are lacking, though likely not from any deliberate erasure, but only the working of time and bookworm on records.

From local folklore we know the priory had an evil reputation, and it was not uncommon during this period for monks to grow worldly and disobey their rule, or to use their wealth as a lever against local worthies. If some scandal did erupt, it would seem likely that the priory was disbanded, its brothers recalled and distributed to new houses - not an unknown phenomena, when the Benedictine rule is broken in some flagrant manner. Whatever the case, the property was vacant except for certain tenant farmers when Henry the Third appointed it to one of his followers, Gilbert de la Poer, who was created the first Baron of Exham in 1261.

The enigma of the Exham Chronicle is, simply, how much of it to believe. Aside from the early confusion in names ("Ania Castra" for "Ælia Castra," and "Legio III Augusta" for "Legio II Augusta") and similar errors, some of the amendations vary from the plausible (the founding of the priory in 983) to the unsupportable ("999. A pilgrim returned with an image of the Blessed Mother that fell from Heaven." - an obvious reference to Acts 19:23-36); what is more, entries for the priory never mention calumnies, only emphasize its great wealth and prosperity, seemingly untouched by war or famine, and with no mention of the body of medieval legends that surrounded the priory and exist now only as oral folklore. The emphasis that several - indeed, all of the named priors - were castrati seems to suggest an effort to disabuse notions of carnal abuse. It seems likely then that the chronicle was in part meant as propaganda, perhaps to dissuade the mother-abbey of any rumors of error or scandal that might reach them.

Lacking any other contemporary source that mentions Exham Priory at all, however, historians are faced with little choice but to sift through the scanty entries here, and weigh each statement against whatever other facts we have, keeping in mind always that we are at the mercy of some medieval monk, or worse, a copyist unable to recognize their own errors.


Friday, June 23, 2017

The Third Raven

The Third Raven
Bobby Derie

In the shadow of the dragon, a fire burned. The squire warmed his hands before the coals that had once been a soldier - perhaps a friend.

The third raven settled itself next to him.

"The battle is over," it croaked. "The battle's won."

The squire nodded, staring at the skull amid the coals as it blackened and fell in on itself.

"The new king is to be crowned," the raven croaked "The new queen to be wed. The gods smile on them; the heavens are in accord once more."

"I killed the dragon," the squire said.

"Yes," the bird croaked.

"I saved the girl that would be queen. I saved the boy that would be king. I found the sword that slew the dark lord. I was their dagger in the dark, all the months of this campaign."

"You will not be remembered," the raven stared him in the eye. "No bard knows your name. No destiny is written for you. No god smiles on you."

The squire smiled at that. "The gods smile little, I think. Not at the shit-covered peasant in the field, or the woman who dies in childbirth, or the beast who feeds the army in the field. Does the antlion think of the aphid, that nourishes his prey? Does the bee consider the earthworm that works at the flower's root? A pox on all those bastards. Let me be forgotten."


Friday, June 16, 2017

The Last Kludd

The Last Kludd
Bobby Derie

"Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren."

The inside of the pulpit was dark and mildewed, though the few faces in the congregation could not see it. The Reverend Tom Mitchell peered out from behind his glasses at the familiar few. Old, grey heads nodding in their rhythm.

The fire had long since gone from his oratory. Age had broken his voice, arthritis gnawed at his wrists when the summer storms broke, his mind sometimes tumbled back to older sermons, remembering faces long dead, long past. The old grey heads, if they ever noticed his slips, had never mentioned it or seemed to mind. His eyes...could still read the book in front of him.

"And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant."

Wrinkled hands closed the book as he stared out at the crowd, the last row a blur. Yet there seemed to be more people there, filing in. Tardiness means nothing to the Lord, he thought to himself, so long as they all should get there.

"The Curse of Ham," he began the sermon, "was when Noah set one of his own number apart. Like, but not alike. So that they might all know their crime, and serve in their place..."

There were more people in the church now. The back row was nearly full - though he could make out few of the details, they seemed fairly well-dressed in white suits or...robes? Was there a choir rehearsal that he had forgotten about? Well, no matter, they could wait to the end of the mass.

"We today have forgotten our place, as others have forgotten theirs. Ours has become a mongrel society!" A spark of the old fire caught in the voice. He remembered standing before a different sort of pulpit, in a cool cavern - the klavern - lit with electric lights, the steady hum of the generator. Before him spread rank upon serried ranks of chivalrous ghosts in their pale habits. He crossed himself.

"The love of God set down rules for mankind, even as for Adam. 'Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.' Confusion! And would not Noah be confused to see the world we live in now?"

The Reverend slipped back into the present, and the church really was filling up. The choir or whomever had filled the back two rows completely, and were still filing in.

On the pulpit before him, the younger Reverend with the fiery voice had read aloud from two books, laid side by side. His voice had echoed in the cavern and shook in the souls of those present. Good men, family men, good Christians; police officers and doctors, lawyers and farmers, even the odd politician... ten dollars and an official robe bought fraternity, if not salvation.

In the chapel, the grey heads were lost in a sea of nodding white hoods, and for the first time the quivver of fear found its way into the old priest's voice.

"It was different, in that time. People lived apart. There were laws for it. You could live back then, and call yourself a good man for following those laws...those laws that kept people in their place..."

A horse, draped in white, strode into the chapel, carrying a white rider, a long sword by his side. The hooded figures parted to make way down the aisle, their hands gently brushing the sides of the horse as it clopped. The grey heads never rose to watch him pass.

"...even as in the time of Jesus. How long, oh Lord, how long did we dwell in the house of bondage?"

The figure stopped before the pulpit. The reverend stared at the sword - which flickered between an old curved cavalry saber and a straight-bladed fraternal sword, the two images wrestling superimposed. It was like watching a film of an old memory. The robed man on the horse. Yes, he remembered. He had been dubbed, like a knight. They had all been knights. The reverend stepped away from the pulpit and came up to the altar rail, the warm breath of the horse on him as the blade came down toward him.

"Do we dwell in it still?" Asked the last kludd, as the blade fell.


Friday, June 9, 2017

O Fire

O Fire
Bobby Derie

O fire, five drops of blood I give to thee,
Five drops for five lives,
The lives of five men.

One crimson drop I give for he who stole my book,
The shadow among shadows,
The grasping hand,
Bane of libraries.

One I give for he who hired him,
The false face of friendship,
The seeking eyes in my house,
The opening purse-strings in the dark.

One I give for he who bought it,
Greed-crazed, gold-fingered,
Stinking of trade,
Who sought wisdom with coin.

One I give for he who copied it,
For it was not his lore to share,
Faithful scribe,
You erred in this illicit scroll.

And the last drop of blood I shed for myself,
For I am bereft,
Though I call fire on my enemies,
Fire cannot return my book to me.