County Meath, Year of the Antlion
The great scarab had pushed the flaming dungball over the hill of Tara, where it sat behind the clouds, like a puddle of dog piss in a pile of dirty snow, pushing the shadow of the church steeple over the houses of the village of Sgregain. With the solemn passage of minutes the spiky finger crept over the shop of Rudraighe, the blacksmith whose ironlace wings hung over every threshold for a mile around, and past his anvil and his coalshed, to point accusingly at a leaning two-storey pub that seemed almost as one with the small mound the top floor rested against. The pub had no great glass windows, only small portholes that let in a bit of the morning light. It had no letters on its walls or doors, no sign or post to mark it, but a pole was set out above the open door, and hanging at the end of it, just higher than the forehead of a tall man, hung an unbleached horse’s skull, a spike of porous bone jutting out from its forehead.
Along the road from Navin came a stranger to the village of Sgregain, when Rudraighe saw him the big man made the sign with his left hand, and the stranger did not return it, or given any acknowledgement, but stared straight on and kept walking. And he stepped warily over the shadow cast by the church steeple, the stranger, to stop and stare for long moments at the curious totem that marked the pub, and at length his curiosity was rewarded when a scarlet bumblebee flew from one dark socket, and off toward the clover that grew on the hillock the inn leaned against. The stranger walked quickly past under the skull and into the open doorway, and as he passed the men at the bar could hear the bees, once quiet, buzzing angrily.
As he stood blinking in the darkened tap room, Art and Caedach got their first look at the stranger. He was a short man, stout in the chest but thin-limbed, with a face perpetually ruddy and flushed, and a shock of copper hair, kept trim against the scalp; blue-grey eyes stared out from beneath a wide brow and above a rounded nose above a mouth that showed many lines for grimacing and smirking, but few for laughs and smiles. The stranger dressed well, as a country lawyer or doctor might, who knows his clothes must keep for miles and years, and the smell of the road was on him. For luggage he carried a satchel or horse-bag, carried by a shoulder strap. Two fingers went up, and the bartender nodded and began to pour the pints as the stranger found a small table against the wall.
It was the fingers that caught Art’s interest, and he nudged Caedrach’s leg with his own; the other Irishman’s chin lowered a hair, and they both studied the stranger more intently now. The fingers of his hands were pale and long, and tiny blood-crimson segmented streaks ran along the great metacarpals and along each finger to the last joint, seemingly buried in furrows of scaly white flesh. From here, Art could not make out the legs and bulbous heads, but he had heard of such things—millipede familiars, laid over the bone, legs burrowing into the muscles, secreting their strange essences. The furrowed flesh would grow up around their bodies, and the master would have to pick at the skin to keep the familiars from being buried, for they needed to breathe.
Art and Caedach conferred for a few minutes as the barman brought over the stranger’s pints, then picked up their own drinks and walked over to his table.
“Good morrow sir.” Art said.
“Good morrow.” he replied.
“Would you mind if we join ye?” said Caedach.
The stranger held out his hand to the other seats at the table, and the two Irishmen set down their drinks and sat down.
“I am Art mac Conn” Art said “And this be my friend, Caedach mac Cairbe, born and raised in this here village. We noticed your familiars, sir. Are you a cunning man, by any chance?” Art studied the stranger’s eyes.
“I am.” he replied, eyes steady “John Magnus, of St. Alban’s.”
“We thought so.” Art said. “We recognized your familiars straight off, as samples of the craft. Caedach and I dabble a little in it, in a small way.”
“And Thomas.” said Caedach, staring at John Magnus’ hands as the cunning man sipped his beer. “The three of us here grew up together in Sgregain, and as young ‘prentices we were shared the adventures of boys and men. We are far from the cities here, but there are wild things that chitter and burrow in the wilds around here, and bits of the science come to us from time to time, the detritus of travelers and learned men which tends to wash up in old villages, to collect dust on forgotten shelves. We had some small success at catching leprechauns and working the maggot-cure. In a few years, we had saved up enough the three of us bought this pub, in even thirds.”
“Three days gone,” said Caedach “a traveler came through from Navin—once he was a cunning man, but he fell to illness, and his familiars were dead, dried things who poisoned him with their deaths. He died the morning after he came here, and there were items of the craft among his things, so we claimed them to pay the dead man’s bill. The trove was divided in three, and we diced for them. I had the lowest toss, and settled on his ring, symbol of the craft.”
Caedach drew up his own left hand, to show the banded black worms on his knuckles, the shell of some golden brown beetle set into a ring where a wedding band might be.
“I’d a greater lot,” Art said, drawing a sheaf of papers from his shirt “and took this book, in the old script, which I can read a little of.”
“Thomas now,” said Caedach “had the high throw and the greatest treasure. A dark box the old man had on him, from some Stygian tomb, marked with the signs and seals of ancient pharaohs.”
“Aye,” Art said, voice dipping “and we fear it has destroyed him.”
Magnus said nothing while the Irishmen poured out there tale, but those terrible fingers flattened out those old papers, a fingernail tracing certain words of the arcane Coptic script. The grey-blue eyes returned often to settle on the ring on Caedach mac Cairbe’s hand, only to return again to the papers. Finally, he finished his pint, and shuffled the papers together.
“Show me,” he said.
The stairs were narrow, crooked and steep, creaking at each step and following the slope of the hillock that the pub’s top floor rested upon. The little room was barely enough for the three men to stand in, crammed as it was with an old bed, the kind where the mattress is held up by a net of ropes, a three-legged milking stool, and a writing desk, wood almost black with age. There were about six inches between the tiny porthole window and the earth of the hillock. The room smelled like shit, the deep foulness of a chamber pot at a hospital unemptied for a week, or a stable unswept for a day after the horses are ill. It was enough to make Art gag a little and cover his mouth, and there was no question of the source of the odor.
John Magnus’ first impression of the figure in the bed was a woman with child, a month past time. The rising dome of the belly beneath the sheets, the strange squat posture near the edge of the bed hit a primeval chord. Then the head turned, and he looked into the gaunt, unshaved face of Thomas of Sgregain. There was no fat on the face, and the flesh hung loose, eyes and nose begun to sink into the dead sockets, and Magnus gave a dog’s shiver, shoulderblades working to crush some unseen flea. On the wall above the head of the bed was the shadow where a cross had lain, replaced by a pair of ironlace wings.
On the desktop was the strange box, opened and empty save for a nest of old leaves, some worn down to dust. John Magnus ran a finger over the inscriptions on it, like the pages that Art had taken out below, and a carving much like the ring Caedach bore on his wedding finger. It was fossil-wood, transmogrified to stone by the alchemy of age, cut and carved so the old lines of living wood could still be seen, here and there. The cunning man looked on the reverse side of the lid, and swore under his breath a name that had the two Irishmen next to him crossing themselves. John Magnus sneered at that, and turned with a purpose back to the bed, stepping forward and whipping away the sheet.
The limbs were skinny things, clutching at the distended abdomen; red and waxy like the belly of a swollen deer tick, a map to an unknown country laid out in stretch marks and broken veins on the vast fleshy dome. Down between his legs was a brown-black thing with spindly legs, about the size of a man’s heart. Magnus took it all in, reached over and spread the bony knees apart to get a better look, and the stench in the room got worse. Art and Caedach stood off. They had seen it before.
“Go down to the bar. We’ll need two bottles of poteen, a bucket and some matches.” the Cunning Man said. Art nodded and hurried off down the stairs, one hand still clutching his nose.
“Can ye help our Thomas?” said Caedach.
“I’ve seen worse.” Magnus said. “Granted, that was the Blight of ’76.”
The Irishman’s brow crinkled. “In Dublin? The Third Horseman’s Wind?”
Magnus sighed. “Despite what you might have read, it was only thirteen people and small granary attached to a brewery. Mayrick exaggerated the numbers a bit to sell papers.”
The cunning man squeezed over to the desk and heaved his satchel up on it. He undid the flap, and fetched from the hide bag a small wooden box, and a leather wallet, bound with a bit of cord. Caedach watched intently over his shoulder as the cunning man undid the thong, unfurling the wallet to reveal a handful of thin metal blades and tools, like those of a dentist or yegg-man, held in a series of pockets. The top of the box unfolded along clever hinges to reveal a dozen cavities lined in green velvet, each filled with a small glass vials of colored liquid, labeled with scraps of paper in the same figures as the manuscript Art had revealed in the tap room below. Magnus selected three vials, scrutinized the hieroglyphic figures on their labels, and replaced two of them, leaving the last one out.
“It is no terrestrial beetle that clung to the stricken Irishman’s flesh,” Magnus told Caedach. “The prodigious size, the arrangement and number of limbs, speaks of its celestial heritage—harkening back across the centuries to when a fragment of the sun fell from the sky into the desert sands, and a lone priest of the Scarab-God Khepri braved the flaming wreckage, becoming host to the demigod-scarab that dwelt within. He was the first Wabau Thotep, the first cunning man. His cartouche is on your man’s manuscript—and on your friend’s box. I would have given much to ask your stranger where he got those items. Here, help me move him.” Together, the two men brought Thomas so that his bare arse was hanging over the edge of the bed, his spindly legs bent nearly double to rest on the bed frame itself.
Art returned with the bucket and two unlabelled bottles, the matches sticking out of his pocket. The cunning man took charge of the situation, placing the bucket and stool at the foot of the bed, John Magnus seated on it. The quarters were so close his back was flush against the wall. The bottles of alcohol and matches were on the floor by his left foot, his wallet of tools and the small fossil wood box on the right. As Art and Caedach watched, he began to partially disrobe; removing his coat, vest, shirt, and even undershirt until only his bare chest was visible, handing his clothes off to the two men to hold. Small, regular scars interrupted the sparse, pallid flesh of the cunning man, and high on his back was exposed an armored pate, like the brown shell of a crab, with a tail or spike of the same material visible in the flesh above the spine.
John Magnus poured about a fifth of poteen into the bucket, then took a long swig himself. He set the bottle back by his foot, and reached for the small vial. The cuning man undid the top of the small vial, and emptied its contents into the palm of his hand. It was thin, clear oil, slightly brown, and he rubbed it into his hands and arms up to the elbows, paying special care to the vein-like familiars on the back of his hands. From the wallet he selected a dull, fat-bladed knife with a bone handle. With a draw and a poke, he tested the single edge and point on the inside of his left arm, but failed to draw blood. Then he leaned in close between the stricken man’s legs, like a midwife.
Art and Caedach never knew exactly what happened next, as the cunning man’s hands were hidden from their sight, but there was the slightest of exhalations from Thomas lips. A shot of scarlet fluid, flecked with black, fell into the bucket and Art mac Conn swooned and fell from the room, and the foul odor redoubled. Caedach blanched but stood firm as the blood gave way to a stream of shiny brown-back bodies fell into the bucket. A slight chittering susurration seemed to fill the room now, and John Magnus reached down with his left hand for the poteen, his right forearm still tensed as though holding something tightly. The cunning man poured more liquor into the bucket, and the chittering died down, replaced by a sort of frothing hiss. Then Magnus turned back to his labor.
The cunning man’s face was a mask of concentration, and his forearms tensed and relaxed in some strange rhythm, and like as if he milked a particularly bizarre and obstinate cow, it seemed to the Irishman that the dark foul liquids which shot out from his poor friend were released in time to the cunning man’s movements. This went on for several minutes, and Caedach noted that Thomas’ belly was no longer quite so distended–what had before been swollen and taut was now somewhat deflated, the skin seeming to sag, though it was far from normal yet. John Magnus worked for several minutes, until the bucket was almost full to the lip. Then he balanced the knife on his knee, and with his left hand, fiddled with a match. It took a few tries, but eventually he managed to strike it against his shoe, and holding the flame up high, dropped in the bucket at his feet.
Between John Magnus and Thomas of Sgregain was a lake of flame, and tiny black things moved and swam and died in it. Caedach could feel the heat from his post in the doorway, nearly choked on the smoke as the foulness burned down. He could not imagine how the cunning man could stand it, and poor Thomas moaned as if he was previewing the pleasures of hell for his dabblings in things best left untouched by men.
The ordeal lasted for hours. Art came back later, after having a few shots of courage, and was sent away again for more poteen, more matches, and another bucket. He came back with all of those and a priest, who received such a black scowl and glare from the bare-backed John Magnus that the holy man consented to administer the last rights to Thomas from the safety of the hall.
By the time sun had set, Thomas was quiet and still, and the smoke-dinged room smelt like the inside of the devil’s own hole. Art and Caedach had taken to turns at the watch, ready to answer the cunning man’s orders, and now it was Caedach at the threshold, as Art took a bucket of half-burned filth out to the side of the pub to dump on the midden-heap. For the first time since he began, John Magus reached again for his tools, taking from them a long, thin set of calipers or tongs. Caedach watched with awe as the great black-brown scarab was drawn out. Trailing behind the celestial insect was semi-translucent brown film, shot through with tiny black globes. John Magnus laid it in the fossil-wood box—it was almost a perfect fit. Art watched the cunning man lick his lips, and then he began to whisper-sing a high-pitched song, one finger gently stroking the scarab’s back, even as the scarab was held firmly by the tongs in his right hand. The great shell split and the wings fluttered for a moment, and to Caedach’s great surprise another voice began singing in harmony to the cunning man’s song.
Caedach lifted his left hand, and saw the golden-brown beetle ring spread and close its wings, humming in different pitches in time to John Magnus’ low voice. The Irishman watched as the great scarab in the box drew the film back into itself, and settled once more in its bed of dried leaves. With great care, and still singing his queer song, the cunning man released the celestial bug from the tongs, and slid the lid shut. As the song ended, the beetle-ring ceased its humming, the wings fluttering once, twice, and then going still once more. Art arrived then at the top of the stairs, carrying the empty bucket.
“Thomas?” said Caedach.
“Your friend will live.” Magnus said. “Though for the rest of his life, he’ll need to sit down to take a piss.”
“What is…that?” said Art.
“An old and sacred thing.” Magnus said. Then the cunning man stood up and stretched, cracking bones in his back and neck. “Now gentlemen, I could use dinner and a drink…and we can discuss my fee.”
The shadow of Tara fell across the pub again the next morning, but by then the cunning man was gone.