Brian's Saga

by Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
-  Auksford, 2006  -

Copyright Robin Gordon 2006

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Chapter 13
Mission to Ormsgarth
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    Brian understood.  Like St Sweyne he had been stripped of his manhood and had it miraculously restored.  Like St Sweyne he was called to the task that the Lord had assigned him: to purge Baldersdale of its pagan superstition.  Just as the Druid of old had held the primitive peasants in thrall to ungodly terrors, so now the Worm Master of Ormsgarth held, by wicked and irreligious deception, the ignorant inhabitants of that benighted vale in thrall to his own perverted doctrines. Unlike St Sweyne, Brian could not kill the fountainhead of error, but, just as his ordeal had been tempered to his ability to bear it, like the wind tempered to the shorn lamb, as the scripture puts it, so his action must be tempered to the modern age.  He would not kill, but he would persuade.  He would convince the Worm Master of his sins, he would urge him to turn from them and commit his life to the Lord Jesus.  Like St Sweyne he would overcome the evil.
    The question was: how to go about it.  He couldn't very well cycle out to Baldersdale, march into Ormsgarth, whatever that might be, and demand to see the Worm Master.  As far as that died-in-the-wool sinner was concerned, Brian was just a boy and could be ignored.  He would have to find some way of spying out the land without arousing suspicion, and perhaps, somehow, get himself introduced to the evil magician.  But how?
    The answer came to him the next day at school: Specky-Four-Eyes Irving.  For the remainder of that week Brian assiduously cultivated the Baldersdale sceptic.  Not once did he mention his interest in the Worm Master or criticise in any way the peculiar beliefs and practices of Irving's home valley.  He made himself agreeable, found topics of mutual interest, and, in short, behaved like any other boy seeking to cement a friendship.  After a few days he suggested that Specky might like to visit him at home on Saturday, have lunch, and stroll around Halden in the afternoon.
    Specky, whose isolated dwelling cut him off from friendships other than those of his home village outside school hours, eagerly accepted, and, as Brian hoped and even hinted, issued a reciprocal invitation for the following week.
    There was a bus from Halden central bus-station at a quarter to nine on Saturdays.  It passed quite quickly through Geddonthwaite and Geddonby, making only token stops there, and arrived in Baldersthwaite at just before half-past nine.  Brian was the only passenger on the way out, but a crowd of women got on at Baldersthwaite to make the journey to the Halden shops.  The return journey would bring them back by half-past four, when Brian would again be the only passenger for Halden.
    Specky was there to meet him.  He led him along the main street, over the beck, to the stone cottage where he lived.  Mrs Irving welcomed him warmly, delighted that her lonely son had a school friend to visit him, but Brian did not want to stay in the cottage.  Despite the cold of an unseasonably early winter, he wanted to go out and see the beauties of Baldersdale.
    "Is that the beck that you have to beat?"
    "Yes," said Specky.
    "Do you just beat in one place, or do you walk along it beating."
    "Upstream," said Specky, "towards Ormsgarth."
    "And that's where they throw you in?"
    "Yes," said Specky.
    "Like sacrifices to a river goddess?"
    "What?" said Specky.
    "Like sacrifices to a river goddess.  Like in the old days where they used to kill boys and throw them in the river to appease the goddess."
    "Don't think so,"said Specky.  "They're just bullies, that's all.  Sometimes they throw lads in the beck just for fun."
    "Where's Ormsgarth?" Brian asked.
    "Along the Beck."
    "Can we go there?"
    "If you want."
    They strolled along beside the Baldersbeck as it tumbled down its rocky bed, dashing against boulders and spilling over little rocky falls.  The path curved away from the water towards a stone farmhouse and outbuildings with a few stunted trees around.
    "Yon's Ormsgarth," said Specky.
    "Is that where the Worm Master lives?"
    "Can we go and see him?"
    "No!" said Specky in alarm.
    "Why not?  Are you frightened of him?
    "No," said Specky, "not exactly frightened, but you don't go bothering t' Worm Master for nowt."
    "Maybe it's not for nothing," said Brian.  "Maybe the reason I've been sent here is to talk to the Worm Master."
    "What about?  Sent?  Who sent you?"
    "Wist ye not," said Brian haughtily, "that I must be about my Father's business."
    "Oh, religion," said Specky.  "That's what Jesus said, isn't it?  When 'e were twelve, like, and they couldn't find 'im an' 'e were in t'temple talking to t' priests."
    "What does the Worm Master do?" said Brian.  "Why does everbody think he's so important?  Isn't he just a farmer?  Why is he called the Worm Master?"
    "You'll have to ask sombody else," said Specky.  "I don't know nowt about it."
    "You are afraid of him, aren't you, Ronald?" said Brian.  "But there's no need to be, you know.  When we have Jesus on our side, no-one can harm us."
    "I know nowt about it," said Specky.  "Why don't you ask George Batey?"
    "I don't think he'd tell me anything," said Brian.  "He's superstitious.  He wouldn't let you say anything that time in church.  I thought you were different.  Sensible.  I thought you had a scientific mind."
    "Aw," said Specky, with sudden relief, "if it's a scientific mind you want, you can talk to Malachi.  He knows all about it."
    Brian knew Malachi by sight.  He was an ordinary looking, fair-haired boy in the third-year sixth, said to be highly intelligent, who had done an extra year at school, together with two or three other gifted pupils, so that he could apply for a place at Oxford or Cambridge.  Brian wasn't sure of his surname, but his Christian name was so unusual that, even in a school where nicknames were de rigueur, he was universally known as Malachi.
    "Does he live in Baldersthwaite?" Brian asked.
    "Naw," said Specky.  "He lives at Ormsgarth.  'E's t'Worm Master's grandson.  Come on."
    Specky now strode confidently towards Ormsgarth.  Brian followed with increasing nervousness.  This was the stronghold of the magician, the wicked sorcerer, the evil necromancer, the man whom Specky said was not to be bothered, and here they were strolling nonchalantly into his power.
    Specky marched up to the back door and knocked.  A woman answered, wiping her wet hands on her apron.
    "Morning, Mrs Boot," said Specky.  "Is Malachi in, please?"
    "I'll call him," she answered, then yelled, "Malachi!  Ron Irving's here."
    "OK, Mam."
    "How's your Dad's leg, Ron?"
    "He's got them ulcers again, Mrs Boot.  He couldn't sleep last night."
    "I'll tell t'Worm Master.  Don't worry."
    "Thanks, Mrs Boot."
    Malachi appeared.  Mrs Boot went back into her kitchen.
    "What's up?" said Malachi.
    "This is Brian Adamson," said Specky, "from our school.  He wants to know about t'Worm Master."
    "Have you tellt him owt?"
    "Mind on then."
    "I'll not say nowt.  Will you come out?”
    "Ay.  I'm fair stewed ower them buiks.  Me grandad thinks I shouldn't go to college at all, but all them teachers say I've got a good brain.  What's the good of a brain if you've got to stay in Baldersdale all your life."
    "Why doesn't your grandad want you to go," said Brian.  "I though you were up for a scholarship to Cambridge."
    "Not a scholarship," said Malachi.  "I don't think I'm that brainy.  But I know I could make summat of meself if I 'ad the chance.  Mr Eldridge says … well, never mind that."
    "But why doesn’t he want you to go?" Brian persisted.
    "I'm to be t’next Worm Master," said Malachi.  "Me dad can't take it on.  He was wounded in t'war and he's never been right since.  So it's to be me.  An' it could be anytime, me grandad says, though he looks to me as if he's got many a year to go yet."
    Brian's eyes gleamed.  The next Worm Master.  Malachi, a boy only four years older than himself.  Someone he could talk to more or less as an equal.  If he could convince Malachi, he needn't ever have to confront the necromancer himself.  When the present Worm Master died, Malachi would abolish the old superstitons.  Baldersdale would be properly Christian at last.
    The three boys wandered along the beck, back towards Baldersthwaite.
    "Where did you hear about t' Worm Master?" Malachi asked.
    "At school," said Brian.  "It was on the day of the storm.  Someone mentioned him.  I think they thought he raised the storm because of what happened in St Sweyne's Church."
    "T'Worm Master didn't raise t'storm," said Malachi.  "You been filling t'lad's head wi' nonsense, Specky?"
    "Nay," said Specky.  "I've tellt 'im nowt.  'E seems to think t' Worm Master's some sort o' devil-worshipping sorcerer."
    "Well," said Malachi, "I suppose I'll have to put 'im right.  You run off hame, Specky.  I'll bring him to your house for his dinner."
    Specky ducked away.
    "Where's your friend," said his mother.
    "Malachi's talking to him," Specky answered, and his mother just nodded.

    "I'm to be t' next Worm Master," said Malachi.  "Do I look like a devil-worshipping sorcerer?"
    "No," Brian admitted, "but you don't want to be Worm Master, do you?"
    "Would you?" demanded Malachi.  "Do you know what it means to be Worm Master?  I'll have to keep watch here, all me life, like me grandad before me, and like his father and his grandad.  Like all the generations of Boots, right back, and like the people before we came, the druids, and the priests that were here before the druids, like the people that built the stone circles."
    "You could refuse," said Brian.  "You could go to Cambridge and get a degree in … whatever …"
    "Physics," said Malachi.  "Relativity.  How the Universe came into being.  Did you ever think, there could be more dimensions than we can recognise, not just three dimensions of space and one of time.  There could be dimensions outside time, where you can look at time and see all of it at once."
    "That's called eternity," said Brian.  "It's where God is, and He made the Universe.  That's all you need to know."
    "No it isn't," said Malachi.  "If God made the Universe, how did He make it?  Has it been the same since the beginning of time, or did it start with a Bang and explode?  Why is the speed of light constant?  What is matter made up of?  We know that atoms aren't the basic building blocks  But what are protons and neutrons and electrons really made of?  How can a photon be a particle and a wave at the same time?  Will the Universe expand forever, or will it collapse back on itself?  How did life originate? -- and don't just say God created it.  How did he create it? What caused the first amino acids to form?  There's so much to know."
    "You can't stay here than," said Brian.  "You've got to get to university."
    "I've got offers already from London, Manchester and Durham," said Malachi, "but Mr Eldridge says Cambridge is the place."
    "Once you're away, you needn't ever come back," said Brian.  "The old superstitions would just die."
    "I'd come back," said Malachi.  "Of course I'd come back.  Me grandad thinks I might not, thinks I'd meet some lass at college, and marry her, and she'd never agree to live here.  But I'd not turn me back on me duty.  You wouldn't turn your back on your duty, would you?"
    "No," said Brian confidantly.  Things were going well for him at last.  "I've been given a mission," he said.  "Like St Sweyne.  Though I am but a humble sinner, I have been chosen to carry out the Lord's work."
    "Get away!" said Malachi, impressed by Brian's serious and self-confident demeanour.  "How did you find out you had a mission?"
    Brian hesitated a moment, then decided to tell all.  "My trousers disappeared," he said.  "I was just walking along an’ I met Norah Blackburn, and next thing I knew I had no trousers on."
    "That's not a miracle," said Malachi.  "That's just Norah following her natural inclinations.  Did she throw them into a tree or summat?"
    "No," said Brian seriously.  "It wasn't Norah.  She didn't do anything except laugh.  They just vanished, and then, after she'd gone, they suddenly reappeared.  It was a miracle, like when St Sweyne was stripped of his manhood and left weak until he accepted the task Our Lord had set him."
    Most boys would have laughed derisively at Brian's account of his miraculous debagging, but Malachi kept a straight face and listened politely.  He nodded approvingly when Brian told him he had read about the life of St Sweyne in Gogfran Davies' article, and, he proved such a good listener that, before it was time for Brian to go back to the Irvings' cottage, he had poured out to Malachi everything that troubled him: his dreams, his besetting sin, the lack of success of his attempts to curb the lascivious conversations of his classmates, and his increasing worries that there might be some truth in their view of  the relations between the sexes.
    Gravely and without prurience Malachi explained the procreative process and even laid to rest most of Brian's guilt-ridden anxieties over his dreams of nakedness and nocturnal emissions, whether involuntary or masturbatory.  He talked too of the life of St Sweyne, and about Baldersdale, explaining to Brian that Balder had been the brightest and best-beloved of all the old gods of the Teutonic peoples: the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Germans.  So beloved was Balder, that when he was troubled by evil dreams foretelling his death, Odin himself descended to Hell to ask the Seeress what would happen.  She foretold the god's death at the hands of his blind brother, Hod.  Then the gods and goddesses travelled about the whole of Middle Earth, and they made every thing that existed swear never to harm Balder.  Fire swore and water swore.  Earth swore and stone swore.  Oak and ash and every tree that lived in Middle Earth swore never to harm Balder, and so did every living creature: the ox, the goat, the wild boar, the mouse, the rat, the spider and the fly.  Only one thing was overlooked, the mistletoe, for Frigg, Balder's mother, thought it too young and too weak to harm anything.
    When the gods were sure that nothing could harm Balder they began to amuse themselves by throwing things at him: a clod of earth, a lump of wood, a stone.  All bounced off before they touched him and left him completely unharmed.
    The one day there came to Frigg a garrulous old woman who muttered and twined about what a disgraceful spectacle it was to see people throwing stones at that handsome young man.  Frigg explained that all things in the world had sworn not to harm the beloved Balder, but the old woman continued her nagging, wondering whether it were true that every last thing had sworn, until Frigg, tired of her badgering, confessed that she had left the mistletoe out.
    The old woman was Loki, the trickster god, and he went straight to the mistletoe, broke off a branch, and took it to Hod.
    "It's unfair that you should be left out of the sport just because you're blind," he said.  "Here, take this little branch.  I'll help you aim at Balder, and then you can have fun like the others."
    So Loki guided Hod to where the others were throwing things at Balder, and helped him to aim.  Hod threw the branch, and the mistletoe, which had sworn no oath, pierced the god Balder, and he fell and died, never to return until Middle Earth shall pass away in the destruction of Fimbul-winter, when Fenrir, the mighty Wolf shall come forth, and all the monsters with him, when the Midgard Serpent will rear up from the ocean's bed and shake the land to its doom, and the burning fires of Muspell tear the sky apart.
    "So you see, even the weakest of all creatures has its part to play, for good or ill, in the struggle between good and evil, and none of us can know what effect our action may have," said Malachi.
    It was, in its way, a good Christian sermon, but Brian, confused by Malachi's apparent regard for those old devils that had been driven out by Christ, didn't really understand it, and he had no chance to ask Malachi what he meant, for the Worm Master's grandson had brought him back into Baldersthwaite, and Specky was waiting for him at the door of his house.

    Brian thought Malachi was the best and brightest of all the boys he had ever met.  At last he had found someone he could talk to.  It had at times crossed his guilty mind that he ought to go to Canon Tollgate and make a full confession of his sins, but he had rejected the idea as a temptation sent by the devil to lure him into a popish practice – and what a relief that had been, for he was sure the stern and upright Rector would have condemned his disgusting wickedness and cast him into despair.  Mr Mouse would have been more approachable, but Brian shrank from exposing to the Curate the vileness of his nocturnal practices.  Martin would never have understood, shrouded as he was in invincible purity.  His new friend Stew might have known what he was talking about, but he would almost certainly have laughed, and he might well have exposed Brian's weakness to the Bailey-Malone gang to buy back their favour.  Only Malachi understood and neither laughed nor condemned.
    Brian's afternoon with Specky Four-Eyes Irving was neither very interesting nor very entertaining, but before he left to catch the afternoon bus back home, Brian issued an invitation to him to come over to Halden the following weekend, which Mrs Irving accepted with alacrity on his behalf, and, as Brian hoped, invited him back for the Saturday after.  He had no doubt that he'd be able to ditch Specky for a while and spend another couple of hours with Malachi.
    On Monday he went to the prefects' study and asked to speak to Malachi.  All he really had to say was that he was coming out to Baldersdale again the Saturday after next and that he wanted to talk to Malachi again.  The older boy received this news with his usual grave politeness, and Brian chattered on for a few more minutes before leaving.
    On Thursday he thought of something he wanted to ask Malachi, went again to the prefects' study, and spent a few more idyllic minutes in Malachi's company, babbling cheerfully of this and that.
    On Saturday he mooched round Halden with Specky Four-Eyes Irving, thinking what a boring boy he was and willing the day to pass until it was time for the afternoon bus back to Baldersdale.
    On Tuesday he went again to the prefects' study and asked for Malachi.  Again he babbled inconsequentially and informed his idol that he was coming out to Baldersdale that Saturday and hoped they could continue their conversation.  Malachi led him into an empty classroom.
    "Listen, Brian," he said.  "It's not a good idea to keep coming to the prefects' study and asking for me.  People are beginning to laugh about it."
    "Why," said Brian.  "What's there to laugh about?  I like you.  I want to talk to you."
    "You know what I told you about men and women t'other week?" said Malachi.  "Well, sometimes there's summat not quite right with a lad, and he gets a crush on another lad.  I mean, usually they grow out of it, but sometimes they don't.  You don't want people to think you're … well … you know."
    Suddenly the words homosexual maniac surfaced in Brian's mind.
    "No," he said.  "I wouldn't want anyone to think that.  I won't come again.  Will it be all right to talk on Saturday though?  I won't come if … but I wanted to find out more about Baldersdale and St Sweyne and the Worm Master, and that."
    "Don't worry," said Malachi.  "I know you're all right.  We'll have another talk, and I'll mebbe introduce you to me grandad."
    Brian took Malachi's advice and stayed away from the prefects' study.

    Saturday came at last and Brian was at the bus station by twenty-five to nine, walking up and down impatiently until, at last, an inspector went over to one of the buses and wound the destination board round to Baldersthwaite.  Brian bounded aboard, shivering in the early-morning chill.  He paid his fare to the conductor, choked off the man’s attempt to chat with him, and sat in silence, mulling over what he could say to Malachi to turn him from his unchristian superstition.
    “It’s a nasty cold day,” said Mrs Irving.  You can sit in the front room and mebbe play ludo or snakes and ladders.”
    “I’d like to go out a bit,” said Brian.  “I’ve been cooped up in the bus all this time with the heater going full blast.  I think I need some fresh air.”
    Specky, who couldn’t stand the thought of snakes and ladders, agreed.  He was beginning to tire of Brian’s company, and was as eager as Brian to go and find Malachi.  He really thought he’d rather be on his own than have to entertain his guest, so when Brian said, “Shall we go over towards Ormsgarth?” he was happy to acquiesce.
    Malachi was expecting them.  He listened with his usual politeness to what Brian had to say, then replied, “Perhaps you should tell the Worm Master.  I’ve told him about you and he’d like to see you.  Come on through.”
    Brian’s heart froze.  He’d thought he could escape ever having to confront the necromancer.  Malachi’s grandfather was old, and Malachi was to be the next Worm Master.  He thought all he’d have to do was convince Malachi, but clearly the Lord was not prepared to wait.  Through Brian’s mind passed the words, “Let this cup pass from me,” followed rapidly by “Thy will be done,” as he followed Malachi to the room where the evil presence waited.
    He was expecting a tall saturnine figure with cold eyes and an aura of satanic malevolence.  Instead he met a slightly built old man, a couple of inches shorter than Malachi, which made him not much bigger than Brian himself. He had a short white beard, whispy white hair, bright eyes and a friendly grin that reminded Brian of Malachi.
    “Ay, come in,” he said.  “So thu’s t’ lad ‘at’s been asking about St Sweyne and t’Great Worm o’ Baldersdale.  Well, ask away, lad.  I suppose I must expect questions after yon fella Davies wrote his buik.”
    Brian gaped and stuttered.
    Malachi helped him.
    “Brian thinks you’re a wicked necromancer, Grandad,” he said.  “He thinks you’ve led the people o’ Baldersdale astray by pretending you can do magic and that you scare them into doing your bidding by threatening to set the Worm on them.  He thinks it was you that called up the storm that time.”
    The Worm Master chuckled.
    “Is that what you think? Well, we’ll just have to let you go on thinking it, if it pleases you.  But you’ve read Gogfran Davies’ buik on St Sweyne?”
    “Yes,” said Brian.
    “And you ken what Sweyne did?”
    “He killed the Druid to get rid of pagan superstition.”
    “An’ I dare say you’d like to kill me for the same reason?”
    “I …”
    And what happened after Sweyne killed the Druid?”
    The Dragon came forth and laid waste the land.”
    “And do you know why?”
    “The Druid sent it.  Revenge.”
    “Mmm.  And why would I have sent a storm?”
    “To punish the boys that desecrated St Sweyne’s Church.”
    “Oh, so, if I did that – not that I did, mind – I must be on t’ same side as Sweyne, don’t you think?”
    “But you can’t be.”
    “Could be you’ve misunderstood.  I’m going to show you our greatest treasure here in Baldersdale.  Come on wi’ me.”
    Old Mr Boot went out into the hall and took down a key that was hanging on a hook near the door.  Brian and Malachi followed him across the farmyard and out of the gate to a little stone building that stood by itself.  The Worm Master opened the door and ushered Brian in. The boy entered cautiously, half afraid that the old man would slam the door and lock him in.  Malachi, sensing his fear, followed him in and put his hand on his shoulder.
    It was a little chapel, with a small stone altar at the far end.
    The Worm Master gestured towards the wall behind the altar.
    “What do you see there?”
    “A cross,” said Brian.
    “Ay, it’s cross-shaped,” said the old man, but look at it closer.”
    Brian peered across the gloomy chapel.
    “It’s a sword,” he said.
    “Ay,” said the Worm Master, “Ormbani”
    The old man said the strange word again, but Brian was none the wiser.
    “Sweyne’s sword,” said the Worm Master.  “Wormbane, as Dr Davies calls it in his buik, or Dragon-doom, if you like.  It’s been here in Baldersdale since the time o’ Sweyne himself, and kept in a chapel on this site for all that time.”
    “A relic,” Brian breathed.
    “A relic if you like, but it’s also a weapon of power when held in t’ right hands.  It’s a symbol, you see, of Sweyne’s own presence and of his right to banish the Great Worm …”
    Brian wasn’t listening.  He knew that the tale of Sweyne and the dragon was allegorical.  He knew that the dragon represented sin and that he, like every other Christian, had to take up spiritual arms to combat the original sin that stained his own soul.  He knew that the worship of relics was a sinful, Popish practice that had no place in the reformed Church of England, something akin to the worship of idols and graven images.  The Worm Master’s words flowed on unheeded as Brian’s troubled mind considered what should be done.  Should the sword be destroyed?  But it was the only memento of St Sweyne.  As such it should be kept, but not in a chapel to be adored by the unfortunate people of Baldersdale who had been seduced and led astray by the Worm Master and his forefathers.  If anywhere it ought to be in a museum where it would be cared for properly and where people could see it and remember St Sweyne and his heroic deeds without being tempted into idolatry.
    Mr Boot and Malachi had led him back to the house.  The Worm Master hung the key in its place, shook Brian’s hand and wished him well, then disappeared back into his room.
    “I’ll walk wi’ thee back to Specky’s” said Malachi.
    Brian walked in silence, and Malachi made no attempt to interrupt him, probably thinking he was pondering on the Worm Master’s words.  Then, as they parted, Brian burst out:
    “You shouldn’t worship relics.  It’s wrong!  It’s what Catholics do! It should be in a museum, and anyway the dragon’s just an allegory.  We have to take up arms against our own sins and the sins of those around us.  You’ve got to tell them the truth when you’re Worm Master.”
    “I shall tell them the truth,” said Malachi.  “You have done your bit now.  There isn’t any need for you to come back.”
    Brian was relieved.  It was true.  He had done his duty.  He had confronted the necromancer, and, though nothing had come of it, the old man would not last forever.  Malachi would tell the truth and the pagan superstitions would come to an end.  He stood at the bridge looking at Malachi as the older boy walked quickly back towards Ormsgarth.  To have a friend like Malachi was a wonderful thing.
    Then he turned and knocked on the door of the Irving’s house.  Mrs Irving let him in and gave him lunch with Specky, and the two boys sat for the afternoon in the front room, talking a bit, playing some of the games in a desultory way, bored with each other’s company and wishing the time away, while gusts of icy wind and squalls of sleet slapped across the dale outside.
    At last it was time for Brian to go.  He didn’t bother to invite Specky to visit him the next week.  Specky nodded a silent farewell and didn’t offer to accompany him to the bus-stop, and Mrs Irving merely said goodbye, without suggesting that he should come again.
    A few women got off the bus.  Brian got on, paid his fare, and sat in solitary silence until he reached the Halden bus station.  It was over.

Chapter 14: The Great Worm

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