I just put the finishing key-strokes on a short story prior to sending it off to Scotland for the monthly newsletter!! It's a retelling of the St. George and the Dragon story, inspired by the time I spent at White Horse Hill [the authentic Dragon locale] in the South of England.
It's a typical mushy romance [at least, as mushy as I ever get, haha]--a bit predictable, but oh well. 'Twas fun to write. Here 'tis. And the poem at the top, well, that was just a scrap unfinished verse I had lying about that seemed to fit with it tolerably. Copy and Paste ingnored the italics, and I'm not going ot go over it again.
I really would rather not have this blog cluttered up with a lot of writing, so this is probably the only sotry for a bit [to be honest, it's the only thing I have finished.]. If reading 6-page stories is not your thing, feel free to skip to the next post down :)
And wind and grass and white-chalk horse.
The earthen ramparts of an ancient fort
Rise tall; on their steep sides the harebells thoughtless bloom,
Remembering not the conquerors
Who crushed their sky-blue bells beneath avenging feet.
The full moon shone over Uffington, shining white where the chalk road wound up towards the hill-fort, picking out glints on rustling beech-leaves, putting stark shadows behind the rises of the downs. A breeze, warm and laden with the dusty golden scent of cut hay-fields, stirred the long grass on the hill.
Not enough light to see the flowers by, the harebell and scabious, but enough to show the girl's dark shape against the grass in a fold of the hill. Frolicking as a lamb might caper in new pasture in the spring-time, recking not who might be watching and indeed not caring. Small she was, a little under average height and slender. A cloud of dark red hair floated around her shoulders, crowned by a wreath of harebells. Barefoot, she danced on, taken by the mad joy of a summertime moon.
At last Myrna threw herself down on the grass, and lay back looking at the stars, breathless, with hair wild and harebell-crown askew. As abruptly she sat up again; a noise had come from behind her. Oh, it would be too bad to have been watched by someone! The clan's herbalist and healer had her dignity to consider, after all!
She turned and looked straight into the eyes of the person who had been watching her. Tall (he seemed still taller by the fact that he was standing above her on the slope), clad in a worn tunic and leather jerkin with a staff in his hand. Myrna quickly took in the sun-browned skin and blond hair, lighter than was common in the downlands. He was not as old as she had at first thought, indeed not much more than her own age; and injured, to judge from the stained rags wrapped about his sword-arm. There was a peculiar expression on his face. Doubtless he thought her ridiculous for doing such a childish thing as dancing about with flowers in her hair. Well, let him! She did not care.
"Greetings to you," she said warily, and then, as he did not reply, "Do you seek shelter with our people?"
"Aye. I would be grateful." His voice sounded strange, an unfamiliar accent (and perhaps feverish. Mayhap the wound was worse than it seemed.)
Myrna turned and walked swiftly up the hill—the young man followed, somewhat slower and with halting step. She waited, then, and asked, for courtesy's sake and not from real interest, "Have you come far?"
"I have. From far to the south-west." Indeed, he sounded ill. And now he stumbled, and only his staff kept him from falling.
"My lord, you are injured. Let me help you." Such was the healer's task, to help even when she did not wish to! Myrna put her shoulder under the stranger's good arm, and they got in the gate without more trouble. She could feel the heat of his skin through the rough tunic—clearly, a bad fever. Probably the wound had gone bad, and travel and lack of food (for he was thin as a reed) had made it worse. She supposed she would have to deal with him!
First to the chieftain, sitting by his fire with his hound like a rug over his feet—"My lord, this traveler is injured. Have I your leave to treat his wounds?"—and then, acquiescence gained, to the turf-roofed building where she prepared her salves and other herbal brews. The clan healer had always a sleeping-place apart from the others, to keep an eye on her patients.
"What is your name?" she asked, gathering water, bandages and a light.
"It is Finn, my lady," he said, voice weak.
"Well then, Finn, you need not call me lady. I am only the healer of the clan. Myrna is my name."
Myrna had been removing the clumsy bandage as she spoke—evidently he had tried to dress the injury himself. The wound was a clean sword-slash, but it had not healed properly. She washed the wound, paying no heed to his obvious discomfort, and put on a compress of yarrow, and bandaged all neatly. Finn still seemed to be burning with fever. Well, many cups of yarrow and pennyroyal tea would settle that.
But indeed it took more than one brew of tea, and much cold water, before his fever broke. Myrna sat up with him through the night, mopping his brow and forcing him to drink still more tea. At times he was positively delirious. Before dawn he awoke again, and cried out "Nay! Don't send me away—" in such agony that she was at last moved to pity, despite her vague irritation with this strange visitor, and curiosity as to what had befallen him. His fever subsided soon after.
With the passage of a few days, and careful nursing and good feeding, Myrna pronounced Finn well enough to leave the infirmary. She would have insisted on his sleeping with the men in the chieftain's hall, but he suggested it himself, and indeed seemed eager to oblige her.
The truth was that Finn had fallen instantly and madly in love with Myrna, and now could think of nothing but her. His first sight of her, dancing in the moonlight, had seemed, in his fevered state, to be that of an elf or fay, not altogether of this world. On closer view she seemed no less beautiful. Others might not think her so, face too pale and hair too red, but there was something in her that called out to him, that seemed akin to the wildness of the moors near his home, and yet somehow also like primroses flowering under the beech-trees in spring, like a dove-call in the woods.
He could not recall the dark fields and fevered valleys where he had wandered in his fever; he only remembered rising through shadows, at last to Myrna's face white in he firelight, and her hand wiping his forehead, and her eyes looking into his.
It was quite clear that she only felt compassion for him, as she might for any wounded creature. Finn supposed he would soon have to leave the fort; he ought not to overstay his welcome. The road north was long, and waited for no man. And then, with a stab of pain, he realized he would in all likelihood never see Myrna again. A lonely road was before him, and no prospect of home-coming beyond.
The other folk of the clan had been curious enough about this stranger, for few enough ever came to the fortress, but Finn, who had been merry and ever ready to talk at his home, now presented such a forbidding aspect that they did not get much out of him.
It was at this time, as the summer waned and a few beech-leaves turned yellow and drifted down, and the swallows went south, that the people of Uffington began to hear to hear rumors of fear stirring. First there was a story told by a traveler from the western mountains, of a shepherd whose flock had been decimated by some unknown thing. The bodies of his sheep were found in the morning with the flesh picked from their bones.
Then a few days in which people talked late around their fires, and finally decided there was nothing to fear—and then there came another traveler, but this time from nearer the downs, who had heard a tale of a child wandering lost outside a settlement at night who was found next morning—but not alive. He had perished in the same manner as the sheep.
Finn had not paid much attention to these stories, and Myrna was inclined to discount them; but the clan became uneasy, and spoke of wolves, though it was still summer.
Myrna was kept busy with her herbs, treating the occasional wound from a scythe or such. She sometimes found Finn's sharp-boned face and fierce grey eyes intruding into her memory. Indeed, though, why she should be thinking of him she didn't know! He was a chance-met stranger from the south, who would undoubtedly soon depart; but her mind shied away from that thought.
It was night when the tidings came. All day the sun shone strongly, but the wind had been rising, and by dark there was positively a gale blowing from the west. The stars were bright, and the waning moon just rising from behind the swell of the down, showed the dark figure running up to the gate. It was the shepherd Cradoc, who in summer slept with his flock on the open down. Myrna was close enough to hear him gasping out his story to the guard at the gate.
"At the foot of the down—there's something terrible! The sheep were frightened, I couldn't see anything but there was a hissing sort of sound and something must have grabbed hold of one of the sheep, she was bleating so. I saw it then—it was huge—the size of a cow—two cows—but with a skin like a snake. It was tearing with it's teeth at the ewe—all the others were panicked, I couldn't do anything with them."
Cradoc had been speaking loudly; the commotion had roused some other of the clan members, and they came crowding from the chieftain's hall, firelight spilling out and casting their shadows across the courtyard. Some carried torches which streamed in the wind, displacing the moonlight. Myrna saw Finn's fair head among the others.
She was not much frightened—surely the shepherd's fright had magnified what he had seen. But Cradoc was not one to leave his flock.
Now he was answering the chieftain's questions. Myrna heard him say "...as big as a house..."—oh surely he was exaggerating now! First it was as big as a cow—but he must have seen something. Now she remembered the tales of the travelers from the west; and were there not rumors of great dragons in the hills of Cymru; might this not be one of the same?
Myrna turned to Finn, who must have come up to her from the press of men at the gate, and exclaimed in alarm, "Oh Finn! What shall we do?"—but if he replied it was lost in the chieftain's voice, now raised above the clamor of the crowd.
"Hear me, my people! Cradoc has told me of some unknown peril outside our gates. No one may leave the enclosure without my leave. Tomorrow my swordsmen will go forth and rid us of this creature. Go now about your business."
Myrna began to walk back towards her sleeping-house and noticed Finn still beside her. Still not knowing why she turned to him for reassurance, she asked, "Do you think there can be such a beast? Surely Cradoc was mistaken."
"I do not know. In my home land there are tales of monstrous creatures, some that breathe fire, but I have never spoken to anyone who has seen them. I do not think you need be afraid."
Strangely comforted, less by his words than by his tall presence at her side, Myrna paused at the door to her cottage. "Good night, Finn."
"Good night—Myrna," he said, then turned and walked away. As she ducked her head beneath the thatched door-lintel, Myrna realized that it had always been "My lady"—this was the first time he had said her name.
* * *
Next morning the unseasonable wind had died down. At first light a band of the clan's men, Finn among them, searched the downs and surrounding woodlands but found no sign of the beast, save for the unhappy remains of the sheep. Cradoc went with them, and gathered in his scattered flock. Not a few had hidden themselves in various places, and were not brought in until noon; but the armed men returned before then, having found nothing. The chieftain decreed that no-one was to leave the fort. The sheep and few milch-cows kept by the clan were brought into the enclosure that they did not usually occupy until winter, when prowling wolves and deep snows threatened their safety at night. Food both for them and for the people of the clan presented no problem, for the hay had already been cut and the barley was in.
Myrna however was distraught, for her stock of herbs needed replenishing. Indeed that very day she had planned to gather yarrow and mugwort for drying, and the round fury leaves of lady's mantle from the stream a mile or two from Uffington.
A day passed, and two more; the clansmen became less nervous as parties went out to search for the mysterious beast and returned empty-handed. Still no-one was allowed out; but the guard at the gates was relaxed in the daytime.
Myrna became increasingly restive. At last, early n the morning of the fourth day, she came to a decision. She was milking her small shaggy cow, behind the turf hut. Most of the milch-cows were kept in the wattle stock enclosure, but Myrna kept hers close at hand, for the beast had been injured by one of the other cows' horns. Myrna cleaned the wound and reflected that what was really needed was a poultice of comfrey leaves—which she did not have on hand. Really she had to do something, she needed other herbs, no sign had been seen of anything unusual outside since Cradoc's story. She went to fetch a basket.
* * *
A few minutes later, having made the cow comfortable, armed with basket, staff and cloak (for it was not much past dawn and still cold on the high downs), Myrna crept out through the gate. The guard had just gone away after his night-duty. Autumn was at hand; the beeches at the foot of the down were beginning to yellow, cobwebs dotted the grass, grey with dew. There was a heavy covering of mist near the stream, but the down was clear. The low sunlight lay pale on the hills.
Myrna was more nervous than she would have liked to admit as she neared the bottom of the down. She went under the shadow of the beech trees, gold leaves crackling under her feet. The faint smell of dry leaves hung sweet in the air.
There was a noise behind her. Myrna jumped, uncontrollably afraid, but her fear turned to irritation upon seeing that it was Finn.
"Finn! Where have you sprung from!" she said, almost angry with him, and angry with herself for having startled like a panicky sheep.
"I—saw you leave. Myrna, where are you going?"
"Herbs are needed. I am going to get them," she said curtly.
"May I come with you?" he asked. "The beast—" Myrna cut him off. "You need not come. I will be quite safe." And turning, she walked swiftly away from him, at the same time wondering how she could have been so rude—and perhaps foolish.
When, a few minutes later, she risked a glance backward, Finn was no longer in sight.
Myrna was relieved, but still regretful and trying to think what had gone wrong between them. After half an hour's brisk walk she was at the stream. By now the mist had nearly burned away. The sun, still low, glanced through the leaves and grey branches of the alder trees that lined the water. Comfrey, lady's mantle and dock grew rankly by the damp stream-side. As Myrna bent to gather the leaves from a thick clump of comfrey, she sniffed—was there an unpleasant smell in the air, vaguely dry and musty yet somehow sickening? But no, she must have been mistaken. She straightened and moved towards the water—and as she did so, at last her eye caught that of the creature that had been watching her, from behind a large alder to her right.
It was the most horrible thing Myrna had ever seen. Somewhat like one of the tiny lizards that scuttle over warm rocks in the sun, but monstrously overgrown. From behind the numbness of terror she thought, "Cradoc was wrong—it is much bigger than a cow." Great claws, and leathery sides—surely this creature was undefeatable! But it was the eyes that fascinated her; nothing else could keep her body from bolting, from running from the danger. As big as her hand, unblinking, cold and emotionless, they stared at her. A forked tongue whipped snakelike from the mouth. The creature moved towards her and the smell became stronger, dizzying.
Myrna felt her senses leaving her. If only she had listened to him! Oh Finn. It was too late now. She fell heavily, striking her head against a tree-branch; whispered his name before the blackness took her.
* * *
After the quarrel, Finn strode away from Myrna, hurt and anger contending in his heart. Oh, that he had never laid eyes on the girl! Obviously she cared nothing for him. That was very well—there were plenty of other things in the world besides that red-haired vixen!
And then he could not help thinking about how she had looked up at him the night the alarm had been raised, her hair turned the colour of flame in the torchlight, the fear evident in her voice; and he forgot to be angry. By this time he had come to a halt, and turned and looked back the way she had gone.
Finn never knew afterwards why he went after her—he did not recall the feeling he had at that moment, that he was needed at the foot of the hill. Running the way Myrna had gone, heart pounding, he came at last to the stream-bank, and stopped short at what he saw.
She was lying by the side of the stream, hair tumbled about her pale face, a basket on the ground where she had evidently let it fall. The creature of Cradoc's story crouched a few feet away from her. But Finn scarcely heeded that, his only thought was with Myrna; he knew only that he loved her, and she was dead—killed—
Filled with a sudden fury he drew his sword and ran at the monster. Disturbed while at its prey, the creature's jaws snapped, ripping Finn's sleeve and missing his wrist by a fraction. His sword-arm was still maddeningly stiff from the old wound; but with every ounce of strength he drove his heavy sword deep into the foul gaping mouth. The beast gave a harsh tearing scream. Finn was unprepared for the violent death-spasms of the creature, indeed he did not at first believe he had killed it. He was hit by the thrashing of the massive tail and knocked to the ground. Fouled by the creature's blood, sweating, breath aching in his throat, he rose to his knees and bent over Myrna.
Her face seemed even more beautiful in death, though it was very pale and there were tear-stains under her eyes.
Finn had been hopeful even when he had been forced to leave his clan; he had thought that he would make a new life for himself. And what, he thought bitterly, had happened? He had met an elf-fair wisp of a girl who had all but spurned him—and he had been too late even to tell her he loved her. If he had come a moment sooner she would still be alive, if he had kept her from coming, not gone away in a selfish rage...he had only himself to blame.
There was nothing now to keep him from taking her in his arms and touching her still lips, yet he felt that it would be as much a violation of her spirit as if she were alive. He took her hand in his and kissed it.
No, no her hand is not still warm, she is not moving, not opening her eyes....this is a dream. She moans, touches the wound on her head. It is a dream. Let me never wake.
I have not wept since I was a child. The tears fall from my eyes, onto her hair. She is in my arms, saying my name, weeping also. There is blood from the wound on her head, and tears from the dream I am dreaming. Our lips meet, in this dream. I shall never wake.
I am not dreaming.