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 14
The Great Worm
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    The school term came to an end.  Brian was looking forward to Christmas.  It was a time for presents and family life, but also a time to celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  He prayed fervently to be delivered from temptation, and indeed he was.  His nocturnal thoughts centred less on his imaginary adventures than on what he had learned about the life of his church’s patron saint and about the superstitious practices of Baldersdale.  He had avoided the Baldersdalers at school, even his erstwhile friend Specky.  Remembering Malachi’s warning he had kept away from the prefects’ study and restrained himself from seeking to consult the older boy.  He was so busy with his own thoughts that he had refrained from rebuking his classmates, and so the final weeks had passed quietly.
    He took more than usual pleasure in the Christmas services, secure in his conviction that he had done the will of his Master, and that, as a result of his efforts, the people of Baldersdale would be delivered from paganism.  The people that dwelt in darkness would see the great light of Christianity and realise how their necromancer had deceived them.
    On Boxing Day the snow fell, not just in Swardale but all over England.  It was no mere powdering.  Roads were blocked by drifts six feet deep, and when it wasn’t snowing it froze, harder and harder.  The Alebeck froze from side to side.  By New Year’s Day the Swar was solid ice.  Within a couple of weeks the Thames was frozen, and the ice spread out from the coasts across the sea.  Birds fell from their perches, killed by the cold.  Old people died of hypothermia.  Cattle in the fields and sheep on the fells were brought under cover, but still some froze to death.
    Children shivered their way to school when the new term started.  Some were warmed by snowball fights, but the deadly cold made everyone tired.  Quiet boys and girls, pupils like Brian, who preferred looking on to joining in, shook and shivered and snuffled and sneezed.  Adults hated the freezing weather, cursed the snow and frost and the freezing fog, and prayed for spring to come.
    January passed.  Snow piled on snow.  Temperatures stayed below freezing.  February came and was no better.  Swardale was swept by blizzards.  If anything the grip of winter was tightening.
    Brian did not have far to go to get to St Sweyne’s, so, through all but the worst of the weather, he was faithful in attendance at church and YPF.  On 22 February he stomped through the freshly fallen snow that threatened to fill the narrow channels dug along the pavements, to find that there was hardly anyone at YPF.  He hung around talking for a while, then went into the back room to play the harmonium.  At about half past nine he needed the lavatory, but, scarce had he closed the door than he heard Canon Tollgate’s voice.  This was unusual.  The Rector left the YPF entirely to his curate and never set foot in the church hall on Friday evenings.  Brian paused to listen, and he was in luck, for the Rector, who had called Mouse, brought his curate into the back room, and, unaware that there was anyone within earshot, stopped to talk to him outside the office, just a couple of feet from the lavatory door.
    Brian caught the word “Baldersdale”.  He pressed his ear hard against the door and strained to hear.
    “We must go there at once, Mouse,” said the Rector.  “I have had word …. Rumble rumble …. If nothing is done there will be no spring … this is no joke Mouse …. I had hoped to explain things fully to you but there is no time … I have said that we will go tomorrow and perform the ceremony at eleven.  You must bring a flask of holy water from St Sweyne’s well and the processional cross … yes, of course you must bring your cassock and surplice … rumble rumble … Worm Master … no, don’t ask questions now Mouse … exorcism, well, yes, in a way … Be at the Rectory by half-past nine ….”
    They moved away.  Brian could hear Mouse’s puzzled voice attempting to ask questions, but the Rector cut him short and left.  Brian stayed where he was in the lavatory, thinking hard.  Something must have happened in Baldersdale.  The Worm Master must have called on some satanic power to bring about perpetual winter.  Canon Tollgate had discovered his plot.  Perhaps Malachi had told him.  The Rector was going to challenge the Worm Master and overthrow him in spiritual combat.  Well if the Worm Master had thrown in his lot with Satan, the Rector, even strong in the salvation of Christ, would need all the help he could get.  The Worm Master had described the sword of St Sweyne as a weapon of power in the right hands, and he obviously meant his own.  If that were so, there might be a way to weaken him.

    Brian was on the Baldersthwaite bus again next morning.  He had prayed all night, and so strongly armed was he in the knowledge of the holiness of the task before him that the conductor made no attempt to chat but took his fare in silence and retreated to the back of the bus where he sat shivering despite his three pullovers, two pairs of trousers, greatcoat, scarf and hat.
    As for Brian, he scarcely seemed to feel the cold.  He was as oblivious to this new devilment as he had been to the heat of the storm.  He bounded off the bus, unseen by anyone, and was quickly lost in the pall of freezing fog.  Ormsgarth was deserted.  Brian sneaked around the edge of the yard.  If he were seen he’d say he had come to see Malachi and then make up some question to ask him.  He pushed open the lobby door and tiptoed into the hall.  The key was on its hook.  He took it quietly and retreated.  The ground in front of the little chapel had been cleared of snow, and the door swung outwards on silent, well-oiled hinges.
    Brian unhooked the sword.  He ran behind the chapel, laid it close to the wall, and quickly scooped a few handfuls of snow over it.  He realised he should put the key back.  The necromancer must not know his weapon of power had been taken.  He hesitated, then slunk back through the yard, pushed open the door, hung the key on its hook, pulled the door to, and fled.
    Heart thumping he slumped againt the chapel wall and listened.  No sound of pursuit.  Nothing.  He took up the sword again and skulked away.  He knew where he should hide it.  Across the beck from Ormsgarth there was an ugly, black promontory of rock projecting out of the hillside.  He had wanted to go and look at it, see if he could climb it, but Specky had refused to go near it.
    “It’s ca’d the Snout,” he had said.  “We keep away from there.  Only t’ Worm Master goes near t’ Snout.  We’ll just look at it from here.”
    Brian had looked.  He had seen why the Baldersdalers were afraid.  The Worm Master had filled their heads with superstitious nonsense, and he’d used the resemblance of the Snout to a monstrous serpent-like head, to convince them that it was a place of ill-omen.  Well, Brian, strong in the strength of Christ, was not afraid of pagan superstition.  If the Baldersdale people were afraid to go near the Snout, that was the best place to hide their relic.  That was the one place the Worm Master would never think of looking for his weapon of power.
    The track wound from Ormsgarth around a steep hillside, past a clump of stunted trees, and out onto the banks of the beck.  Brian was about to head for the stepping stones when he saw a man standing on a rock overlooking the water.  There wasn’t a chance of crossing without being seen.  There was no fog up at the top of the valley, and the frosty air was crystal clear.  Brian skulked through the rocks until he could see the man properly.  It was the Worm Master, and he was staring across towards the Snout.
    Brian looked around for somewhere to hide the sword and a landmark to help him find it again.  He picked on a big grey boulder jutting out of the snow and crept towards it.  There was a crevice under one side, just long enough for the sword.  Brian pushed it in, crammed snow on top, and felt a surge of triumph.  The Worm Master was beaten!
    Brian’s elation was short-lived.  From beyond the beck came a monstrous grinding roar.  The ground beneath his feet shuddered.  He sprang up in alarm and looked towards the necromancer.  The Worm Master had raised his arms and was chanting some spell, calling on the powers of Hell.  Brian’s confidence had gone.  This was no allegorical monster.  He could feel the evil of its presence.  The Worm Master had felt his momentary triumph and was calling on the Great Worm to find him and exterminate him.  A blast of cold air hit him, and he fell on his knees in the snow, begging forgiveness for his sin, and calling on St Sweyne to protect him with as much fervour as if he’d been a Catholic.
    It seemed his prayer was answered.  The icy blast died away.  The Worm Master lowered his arms.  The cracking and roaring quietened, and the earth no longer shuddered.  The palpable sense of evil seemed to lessen.  Brian lay trembling a moment then scrambled to his feet.  He had to escape.  If he stayed where he was the necromancer would surely sniff him out, find him, force him to hand over the sword, then kill him, or throw him to the Great Worm.
    Death, which he had welcomed in his fantasies as the gateway to heaven, terrified him now, in reality.
    He scuttled back to the track, crouching as low as he could.  Even out of sight behind the hill he could not be safe.  The Worm Master might hear him.  The Great Worm might have other senses and know an enemy was near.  Where could he go?  He had to get out of the valley or find shelter.  He had to pass Ormsgarth, but at least he knew the necromancer wasn’t there.  Perhaps Canon Tollgate had arrived, or maybe he could get to Specky’s house.
    He heard someone hurrying up the track and flung himself behind a rock.  A young man ran past, then left the track and scrambled up the steep slope.  Near the top he slipped, fell, gave a sharp cry of pain, then dragged himself on, limping and gasping.
    “Grandad!” he called.  “Grandad!  They’re here!”
    Malachi!  Warning the Worm Master that Canon Tollgate and Mouse had arrived.  So he was still on the side of the necromancer!  Brian groaned.
    Evil was in the air again.  He clung to the rock, trembling in terror.
    The Worm Master was at the top of the slope, looking down, beginning a slow, careful descent, coming straight towards him.
    There were voices on the track, people coming up: Canon Tollgate, Mouse, and a man Brian hadn’t seen before, a heavy man who moved awkwardly, jerking his body along as if it would not obey him, limping like Igor in the Dracula films.
    Brian saw him look up towards the Worm Master, who raised his hand in a quick greeting, then continued his slow progress.  Had Canon Tollgate seen him?  Was Tollgate being led into a trap?
    Brian shuddered, buried his face in his hands and prayed earnestly for guidance.  Escape!  How?
    The Worm Master joined the track and passed him.  He was going for the sword.  When he found it gone his rage would know no bounds.  Brian’s one hope was to slip past Ormsgarth while the sorcerer was in his house fetching the key, but that meant following him.
    The Worm Master plodded on.  Heavy snow clouds had darkened the sky.  Brian knew it was his only chance.  He followed.  There were trees sheltering Ormsgarth.  He could hide among them.  He was only just in time.  The Worm Master came out of the farmyard carrying the key.  Brian saw him open the door and go inside.  Then came a cry of despair. Icy wind threw a blast of sleet across the valley.  From the top of the hill came a cracking, grinding and roaring.  Evil was unleashed.
    Brian had a sudden inspiration.  He darted from his hiding place, slammed the chapel door and locked it.
    Behind the trees again, Brian threw himself onto the ground, trembling, shuddering, gasping for breath.  What next?  How could he escape?  Surely the Worm Master would use his powers to smash open the door and call the Great Worm.  Brian would be devoured before he reached Baldersthwaite.  His only chance was to find Canon Tollgate.  Back up the track he struggled, towards the cracking, roaring, earth-shaking struggle of the Great Worm to break free.
    Tollgate was standing on the rock facing the Snout, holding up the cross in courageous defiance.  Beyond him Brian could see a monstrous shape, rearing up from the hillside.  He almost fled at the sight.  Then, murmuring a quick prayer, he dragged his unwilling body forward and touched Canon Tollgate’s arm.
    “It’s all right!” he babbled.  “The Worm Master can’t come.  I’ve locked him in the chapel.  I’ve hidden the sword.  His power is broken.”
    “What?!” roared Canon Tollgate.
    Brian repeated his message.  The Worm Master was imprisoned, the sword hidden.
    “Stupid boy!” roared the Rector.  “Fool of an interfering busybody!  Go and let him out!”
    The afanc towered above them, waves of triumphant hatred hit them.  Brian staggered.  The Rector turned and brandished the cross.
    “You shall not pass!” he shouted.
    Brian’s head was filled with the laughter of the Great Worm.
    “You cannot stand against me!”  Its words were inside all their skulls.   “The ritual is incomplete!”
    Malachi grabbed the limping man’s arm and shouted in his ear.  “Grandad’s locked in the chapel.  Go and let him out!  Bring him as quick as you can!”
    The man nodded and set off down the track.
    Malachi grabbed Brian.  Brian clung to him, trembling.  Malachi shook him.
    “Find the sword!” he shouted.  “Find the sword or we’re doomed.  “It’s Ormbani!  Wormbane!  Find it!”
    Brian pointed at the boulder, his hand shaking.  Malachi took a step towards it, but Brian clung to him.  Malachi put his arm over Brian’s shoulders.
    “You’ll have to support me,” he said.  “I’ve twisted me ankle.”
    It was a relief to Brian to move away from the Worm, protected by Malachi’s arm.  Behind him he heard Canon Tollgate: “You shall not pass”.  In his head the mocking scorn of the Worm: “The ritual is incomplete.  Where is the sword?  Where is the blood?  You cannot stop a Great Worm!”
    He scrabbled wildly under the boulder.  The sword was not there!  Again he searched.
    “Where is it?” yelled Malachi.
    Brian looke up in despair, and his eyes fell on another boulder, and another.  How could he have been so stupid?  The hill was covered in boulders.
    “Which one?” yelled Malachi.
    “I don’t know.”
    Malachi grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pushed him towards the next boulder.
    He searched in vain.  Then on to the next.  “No, that one!  I’m sure it’s that one!”
    And it was.
    But it was hard to support Malachi and go back towards that monstrous head.
    “YOU … SHALL … NOT …PASS!” roared Canon Tollgate, but the serpent’s head was above him, descending upon him, and its black, venomous breath was falling onto his head.
    Mouse was at his side, attempting to scatter holy water and joining his quavering tenor to the Rector’s commanding bass.  “Y-you sh-sh-shall n-not p-p-p-p-pass.”
    Malachi stood away from Brian and held up the sword, but the Worm Master appeared beside him.  The boy surrendered the sword and the Worm Master advanced to take up his position beside the Rector.
    “I am Ormbanauðr!” he called.  “This is Ormbani!  Dragon’s doom.  The Blood of Sweyne and the Sword of Sweyne stand by the Cross of Christ and the Water of Sweyne’s well.  Yield or die!”
    “Too late!”  Brian heard the words in his skull, echoing eerily.  “The spell was not closed.  The cross-bearer falls.  The sword of Sweyne comes too late!  You cannot stop a Great Worm.  Fimbul-Winter is upon you!  Doom and death stalk the dales.  Birds fall dead from the trees.  Cattle and calves, sheep and lambs, all die in the dales.  Fish freeze in the seas.  Old men and young, all shall end.”
    Canon Tollgate crumpled and fell.  The Worm Master raised the sword, but was flung backwards to land sprawling in the snow.  The scorn of the Worm filled the air and the earth shuddered as it hauled its body from the hill.
    Mouse desperately flung the flask of holy water at the beast then grabbed the cross, and, standing over the canon’s body, brandished the emblem of Christ and cried with grim determination, “You shall not pass!”
    At the same instant Malachi snatched the sword from his grandfather’s hand and sprang to Mouse’s side.
    “This is Ormbani!  This is the Sword of St Sweyne!” he cried.  “This is Wormbane, Dragon’s Doom.  The hand that holds it is filled with the Blood of Sweyne.  Yield or die!”
    “The hands that held these weapons of power lie dying at your feet,” said the Worm.  “Do you dare oppose a Great Worm.”
    “I am armoured in the strength of Christ,” said Mouse.  “If I must give my life to stop you, then so be it.  I am not afraid.”
    “If my grandfather is dead,” said Malachi, “then his duty passes to me.  Yield, foul worm, for Ormbani confronts you in the hand of Ormbanauðr.  Yield to Wormbane in the hand of the Worm Master, or you shall die!”
    The Great Worm seemed to shrink.  Its words in their heads were less fearsome.
    “It is as it was before,” it said.  “The father falls, and the son would risk his life to save him.  It is that vile invention of our Enemy.  It is Love.  It is love that gives you courage, the only courage that can stop a Great Worm.  I yield, as I yielded before.  But I do not die.  I merely sleep, as I slept before, through long ages, and when, at last the vigilance of men shall fail, then I shall awake, and no sword or cross will halt my coming.  Fimbul-Winter shall take this land and all shall die.”
    As it spoke the Worm retreated and lowered its head to the ground.  It shuddered and hissed, then seemed to turn before their eyes into solid rock.  Mouse and Malachi stood sternly watching till all movement had ceased and the Snout lay once more inert across the hillside. Then they turned to their fallen friends.
    The Worm Master was gradually coming round, but Canon Tollgate was unconscious and none of them could rouse him.  Mouse and Malachi heaved him up so that Igor could take most of his weight on his back, while Mouse helped by supporting his legs.  The Worm Master could walk with Brian to support him, and Malachi used the processional cross as a staff, carrying the sword in his other hand.
    So they limped away from the battleground.  They had won a great victory, but at great cost.
    At Ormsgarth the women, Malachi’s mother and grandmother, put the two wounded men to bed.  Malachi busied himself with potions.  Mouse paced anxiously up and down.  Brian and Igor sat and waited.
    In the light of the farmhouse kitchen the limping man no longer seemed sinister.  He looked bewildered and unhappy.
    “It’s me dad,” said Malachi.  “He was in Italy in the war.  Got caught in an explosion.  He can manage farm work if there’s somebody to tell him what to do, but he could never learn all that’s needed to be Worm Master.  I won’t be going to Cambridge now.  I’ll get me A-levels, then I’ll be needed here.  Me grandad won’t mend, not completely.”
    “What about Canon Tollgate.”
    “There’s not much we can do,” said Malachi.  “They’ll probably take him into hospital, say he’s had a heart attack or a stroke or summat.  But they won’t cure it.  The breath of a Great Worm is fatal.”
    The Rector regained consciousness at about half past one.  Malachi and Mouse conferred and decided that Mouse should drive Canon Tollgate and Brian back to Halden without delay.
    “There’ll be snow,” said Malachi, “lots of snow.  Baldersdale will be cut off for a few days, and there’ll be roads blocked all over Swardale.  It’s the Worm’s last bit of malice, but it won’t last.  There’ll be a thaw in the south, and by next week it’ll have started up here too.  But you don’t want to get trapped here.”
    The snow was already thick on the roads, and visibility was down to a few inches.  It took Mouse nearly two and a half hours to get to Halden.  Mrs Tollgate, alerted by phone, was ready to put her husband to bed.  Mouse stayed with her to explain, and Brian plodded off home through the blizzard.  He went to bed early that night and slept until ten thirty the next morning, much too late to get to the morning service at St Sweynes.  He went to evensong, of course.  The curate presided and announced that the Rector was ill.
    “Wonder what’s wrong with him,” Brian thought.

Chapter 15: Faith

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