OF HALDEN, III
- Auksford, 2006
Robin Gordon 2006
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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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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!”
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
“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
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
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
And it was.
But it was hard to support Malachi and go back towards that
“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
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
“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
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
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,”
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