Authors: Chris Page
Tags: #Sorcery, #Magic, #Fantasy, #Spell, #Rune, #Pagan, #Alchemist, #Merlin, #Magus, #Ghost, #Twilight, #King, #Knight, #Excalibur, #Viking, #Celtic, #Stonehenge, #Wessex
BOOK TWO OF
THE VENEFICAL PROGRESSIONS
Gemini Thunder published in 2010 by
Andrews UK Limited
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published, and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
The characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any real person or actual happening.
Copyright © Chris Page
The right of Chris Page to be identified as author of this book has been asserted in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyrights Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Manus haec inimica tyrannis
This hand is an enemy to tyrants
To James Richard Page,
Plus ultra filius
A veneficus is a hybrid of sorcerer, magician, hermit, alchemist, oracle, wizard, and wax-pale ghost. Each one lives for exactly one hundred years. All are born on All Hallows Day (Halloween - 31st October). Venefici cast no shadow, leave no footprint, and have an individual aura.
They do not need sleep after childhood. They do not eat food or drink liquids after childhood. They can be born to any parents but are extremely rare. Venefici do not feel physical pain but are susceptible to emotions. They can be killed, but it takes a skilled and deadly opponent - or another veneficus to do it. They have been on this earth for at least ten thousand years. The Wessex venefici are buried under their named Destiny Stones at Avebury. Each one needs to be trained by another in the use of the enchantments. It usually takes twenty years, although Twilight only had seven years with Merlin. There is at least one in Wessex at all times. There is one there now. There may be more.
The Romans left Britain in 410 AD. From that point on, the island was caught in a ferment of conﬂict as myriad local warlords vied with improbable monarchs and unlikely imperators to dominate and rule. Marauding tribes of Britons, Picts, Jutes, Saxons, Celts, Angles, and Gauls tore down the more civilized vestiges of the Roman occupation in frenzied attempts to eliminate each other and establish their own dynasties. Succeeding only in establishing a plethora of mini-kingdoms, the slaughter gathered pace. Thus the period known as the Dark Ages took shape against a background of reestablished paganism and brutal dominance.
Toward the end of the Dark Ages, an even more menacing invader appeared. Led ruthlessly by Guthrum, leader and king, they slaughtered anyone who got in their way to a level of malevolent barbarism beyond anything previously experienced during the Roman occupation and subsequent conﬂicts. Wholesale slaughter, rapine, pillage, and slave-taking had arrived on these shores in the horned helmets of the berserker tribes of the Northmen.
Better known as the Viking.
They had to be challenged, and the only way to do it successfully was through an equal brutality, equal savagery, but with the addition of the magic and iridescent truths of the holder of the Wessex enchantments. A veneficus.
Twilight, having now taken over from his beloved mentor, Merlin, whom he buried under his destiny stone at the sacred site of Avebury three years ago, is now the defender and veneficus of the Wessex Celts. Ably assisted by his loyal pica and the troubadour Desmond Kingdom Biwater and operating under the patronage of King Alfred, he uses all his powers to assist the young king in a desperate attempt to defend Wessex against the brutal invaders.
Desmond falls head over heels in love with the warrior maiden Gode.
The vaunted Viking savages don’t do cunning of any sort. Full-on frontal berserker charging with lots of deity-based howling is their stock approach, and for the early battles it has worked.
Because they also have their own enchanted venefici in the shape of the male and female twins, Go-ian and Go-uan, their brand of sorcery puts Twilight’s to the test.
As the death tolls mount on both sides, King Alfred loses the first two battles and hides in the marshlands of the Summerland Levels to regroup. Twilight and Desmond continue the fight with a band of mangy mercenaries called Jack Cat’s Renegades.
Freyja, queen of the Viking venefica and mother of the twins, replaces them at Guthrum’s side as the conﬂict intensifies.
There is sadness and joy as a final battle sees a victory at great cost to both sides.
Born with a hatred fuelled by an undiluted will to slaughter human beings, the invaders of Wessex from the Norse lowlands never had any intention of taking prisoners. Besides this threat, the normal everyday ability to draw breath for a suitable length of time that could be said to constitute ‘a life’ in medieval Wessex had no rights or time span. It was a transitory function that depended upon the individual’s prowess in avoiding slashing swords, piercing arrows, flung spears, and stealthy poisons. Being on the same side as a veneficus didn’t help much either. Multiple deaths stalked the venefical gift, those who opposed it and those who supported it. It was, simply, the only way of creating some sort of civilization.
A blood-soaked progression toward the future.
The arrival of the new holder of the venefical gift of enchantments in the shape of the twenty-three-winters-old Twilight was a particular case in point, for it coincided with the ravening and murderous invasion of Wessex by one of history’s most vicious and brutal tribes.
Three years after placing the long magus under his Obelisk burial stone, Twilight faced his first big test as the Wessex veneficus. There had been a number of minor, localized trials of his newly acquired skills, including the ridding of perceived demons causing cattle deaths, the extermination of wraiths inhabiting a village elder, causing him to scream nonstop for a week whilst beating his terrified wife and children with a leather flail, and the halting of a witch stoning. The last one was different. The witch woman had undoubtedly deserved to be stoned after causing the sacrificial deaths of female twins born to a village girl who was simple, but who had also proclaimed to be a true veneficus and the descendant and rightful inheritor of Merlin’s former position. It was in this capacity that she claimed the right to sacrifice the lives of the twin girls on the basis that they were an abomination of an evil spirit and must be rid of. Their simple, husbandless, and frightened mother handed the girls over, and the witch carried out her own sentence by taking them to the edge of the forest and leaving them to the wild animals. By the time sensible villagers found out and forced her to take them to the spot, all that was discovered was a blood-sodden patch of dry ferns and a pile of very small bones. As the villagers were preparing to stone her to death, the witch claimed that her heritage as Merlin’s successor entitled her to a face-to-face battle of the enchantments against Twilight to prove her rightful position as the Wessex veneficus. The villagers, being true Celts with a fear and suspicion of anything that smacked of ghosts and spell-bindery, had let her go on the basis that a venefical confrontation with Twilight would decide her fate.
A large crowd gathered to witness the supposed venefical confrontation. It began with the witch woman dancing in front of Twilight, spitting bile, gesticulating, and wailing her unintelligible spells. After some minutes of this and with the crowd beginning to get restless, Twilight smiled and waved his hand in a circular motion . . . and the witch suddenly found herself hanging upside down in the air with her long brown coarse linen peasant’s dress hanging down over her face and her black matted hair hanging to the ground. Kneeling down beside the still spitting and now screaming woman, Twilight lifted the dress, tapped her gently on the head to silence her, parted the dirty, matted hair, and spoke directly into her mind.
You are responsible for the deaths of two innocent babies. You will do it again. As a father of two small children myself, I can only imagine the pain caused. I will not allow it. The next time you and I will meet will be in the sarcophagal mists.
The final moment of your wretched eternity has just arrived.
The manner of his delivery caused a momentary flash of fear to replace the hate on her upside-down face.
Then she was gone.
Hardly believing their eyes, the assembled crowd dropped to their knees and hid their faces. When they finally looked up, Twilight had also disappeared.
As the newly installed Wessex veneficus, Twilight had officiated at three annual Equinoctial Festivals of the Dead on his own since Merlin’s departure. Although he’d had to build himself up for each one of them, he’d come through successfully using the long magus’s tried and tested rule of
De mortius nil nisi bonum
— say nothing but good of the dead. Placate and listen, then placate and listen again . . . and again.
The big test came with the sudden arrival outside his small compound of an exhausted bird and leader of his Wessex pica called Bell. Twilight had established his home by building a small, willow-fenced compound in a small copse on a hill overlooking the hamlet of Avebury and from where he could see every one of the circle of ninety-nine venefical destiny stones with the Silbury Mound in the background. Modelled on Merlin’s old compound in the mighty Savernake Forest, the living quarters were also made of woven willow with a reed roof. Sitting with his five-year-old daughter, Eleanor, on his knee whilst his wife, Rawnie, fed their two-year-old son, Harlo, Twilight quickly handed over his daughter and went to meet the exhausted bird, which had landed on the ground by the compound gates.
Bell managed a weak rising of his right claw in the traditional salutation greeting to his liege-lord. Twilight put a tender hand on Bell’s back and felt the wildly beating heart through the glossy black and white feathers. Instantly the heartbeats slowed and the brightness returned to the eyes.
After a brief conversation with his lead bird, Twilight returned to Rawnie.
‘Trouble?’ she said, gently placing both children down on the grass and shooing them away to play.
, so many enemies. Four ships, probably Vikings, landed at Lyme Regis. They are razing the settlement to the ground and killing wantonly. I must go at once.’
He bent to kiss her upturned face.
‘Fortuna prospera, veneficus
, our love goes with you,’ she said softly.
Every time Twilight did something to justify his position as Wessex veneficus, he found himself rehearsing alibis in his head in preparation for an explanation to his mentor, the long magus. It was as if the old astounder was still standing alongside him in judgment of his actions, which, in all things other than actual presence, he was. Most days when time allowed, usually late in the evening or very early in the morning just as dawn broke, Twilight walked every one of the ninety-nine venefical stones. Now a fully grown and developed veneficus, he didn’t require sleep or food and drink. He knew every stone and its occupant by name, every deed performed, and the details behind each one of the smaller tribute stones surrounding them. Placing his hands on each large stone, the bardic runes would echo down the ages as the clarion calls of the enchantment-driven heroics of the holder zinged through his fingertips. Nine thousand, nine hundred years of venefical deeds performed by the ninety-nine holders, each buried under their own named stone, each inviolate, different, special in any number of unusual ways and, as a result, completely irreplaceable. None more so than his own mentor Merlin, the last stone in the sequence. He always stayed with this stone, named Obelisk by Merlin, for a long time, his cheek pressed up hard against its sarsen coolness. It talked to him, every word and example of sorcery, snippet of wisdom, and magical experience of the seven short years that he had sat at the great man’s feet. Not that he ever forgot anything. Like all the venefici in the Avebury stone circle, he had total recall of all words spoken to him and the events, places, and circumstance within which they took place. But it gave him added strength to touch the mighty Obelisk and run their seven years together through his mind, in particular the battles with the wolf woman, Elelendise. And to lay out his actions for the metaphorical pat on the head that his old teacher would bestow if he agreed with a course of action the new Wessex miracle-monger had decided upon for a particular problem.
When Twilight had first joined the long magus, he’d hated the killing and wars. Death, in all its many forms upset him, especially by his or Merlin’s hand, and he found it hard to live with. He’d actually begged Merlin to refrain from killing Penda’s soldiers when they were trapped in the whirlpool, but in the ongoing bloody battle with Elelendise, he gradually began to understand that getting rid of those who would kill wantonly or for the sake of power or religious conversion was a means of saving many others, perhaps even thousands of lives.
Or, as his now dead mentor would have said, raising his right hand:
‘Manus haec inimical tyrannis, eh skirmisher.’
‘This hand is an enemy to tyrants.’
But he was still uncomfortable taking a life, even when ridding this turning earth of sub-human, deranged killers such as the witch, who, if allowed to live, would undoubtedly continue to sacrifice innocent lives in the name of her illicit sorcery.
How many more lives would he have to take in the next year, let alone the next seventy-seven?
Thirty paces to the right of Merlin’s Obelisk was the empty space that would hold his own huge sarsen stone in seventy-seven years’ time when he reached the allotted time span of one hundred. To be named Blue Horn, after the noble pica Horn with the unusual blue feathered streaks in his wings who had been so callously killed by Lupa, the wolf woman’s protector, it, too, already had many tribute stones around the spot. At this point Twilight always found himself fingering the necklace of forty Wessex pica beaks around his neck that his daughter Eleanor took such great delight in fondling.
‘It’s a dangerous business to make friends with the likes of us,’ Twilight had said when he first saw the smaller stones and the long magus had explained their meaning.
How many more small tribute stones would be accompanying his mighty Blue Horn stone when his successor finally put it in place?
Death had always stalked the venefical gift, and the reign of Twilight would be no different. The fact that he was still somewhat uncomfortable with the taking of lives also made no difference. Many would die; opposition was everywhere.
There simply was no other way. If the Celtic way of life was to be preserved, those who would threaten it had to die by the venefical hand.
The Viking raiding party had drawn four brightly coloured long ships, dragon prows first, onto the shallow sands at Lyme Regis and shipped the oars. There were fifty oars to each side, making four hundred of them. The prow of each vessel was carved into a colourful, warlike figure from their Nordic deity. A horn-helmeted guard stood watch high on a lookout platform at the front of each ship.
The settlement was no more. Where it had stood lay shouldering piles of ashes and a pile of blackened, seared bodies, most of them covered in sword slashes that had laid them open to the bone. The air reeked of charred death. Two hundred defenceless men, women, and children, and all of their animals, killed in a wanton slaughter. A small settlement of peaceful Wessex fishermen, land workers, and their families going about their innocent day.
Their last day.
A pennant fluttered in the sea breeze on the end of a long lance stuck into the ground, its swastika denoting the crooked cross symbol of Thor, the thunder god of the Viking. Propped up against the raiding party lances and swords stuck in the ground were the brightly coloured circular metal-framed wooden shields that each owned, the design denoting the family the holder belonged to. Alongside each shield lay at least one severed head of the slaughtered inhabitants of the settlement, each face etched in a grotesque, frozen study of terror as the final moment had come. After soaking them in oils, the plunderers would take these heads away with them and hang them on the walls of their individual houses as proof to their leaders and families that they had won a great victory.
Nearby, the rabid band of murderous berserkers danced and hollered a paean to the sky in thanks to their gods for a great victory, their ale-horns held high. All of them were heavily tattooed in blues and purples with warlike inked images of their Nordic deities fighting for recognition against the encrusted dirt: Hel, their goddess of the dead, Tyr, the god of war, the messenger Hermoder, Ymir, father of the giants, and Aegir, god of the ocean. These were obviously tattoos of choice, but the one everyone seemed to have most prominently and suitably fierce across the neck and face was Thor. He was obviously the leader of the Nordic deities, rather like Zeus was for the Greek Olympian immortals.
The iron spoils of their pillage formed a pitiful pile around which they postured. A few iron cooking pots and utensils, a plough, some small axes for chopping wood, and a length of coiled chain. Such was the fishing settlement’s shared ironmongery, which showed also just how poor they had been. As the Viking war party danced and whooped, they tore at the pink flesh from captured goats and sheep roasting on spits. Whole bodies and limbs of the settlement dead sizzled and exploded as they were thrown onto the fires for fuel; captured clay pots of mead were poured down throats until empty, then smashed against the nearest rock. Other bodies were piled high to form a platform upon which was mounted their leader, a huge, red-haired individual with a long beard and horned metal helmet. At his exhortation they screamed heavenward and waved their blood-soaked hands in the air. As his oratory increased its cadence, so did their frenzy, until they almost entered a trance of post-battle exaltation.
Except it had not been a battle but a wholesale slaughter of innocents. Twilight took all this in within moments from the top of a cliff. He did not need to find the warm resting place of an animal to see how events had unfolded, especially what they had done with the women before killing them. This was the human spirit at its nadir, a level of sub-species behaviour that shamed all breath-drawing
on this turning earth.