This story is by Heather Shannon and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I remember it clearly. The night of the dark moon, perfect for banishing evils that had come to tear my people asunder. The sky was clear, stars bright, the pale branches of the great elms swayed with the light breeze. It was spring, the vivid green of new leaves burgeoning to unfurl come morning. My altar was set. I spent the day cleaning, gathering, praying, setting intentions, and preparing myself for what was to come. Finally, bathed and dressed in my best robes to seek the guidance of Gaia, all was ready.
I carried kindling from my fire to light my candles and set sweetgrass and sage smouldering in a spell of protection. The flame wavered as I stepped up to the altar and lifted lit branch from white candle to black. My voice rang, echoing in the night, “I, Rhiain, priestess of Gaia, call upon thee, Morrígu! Accept thine offer, lend thine strength in defence of my kin. Allow mine eyes to share in thine wisdom…”
The candlelight quavered. The altar was sheltered, the flame should not flicker. My eyes narrowed as a shiver crawled my spine, sensing the disturbance before hearing them, but was too slow to act. From the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a white robe with a red sash. The same man who came, months ago, telling my people of the new God. I ran him off for scaring the children and intimidating our elders with his bright metal sword and armour.
‘Ambush!’ My mind screamed. I spun to fight, brandishing the small burning stick in my hand, and an invocation upon my lips. All that issued forth was a strangled yelp as a cloth hood was thrown over my head, and a rope tightened around my throat. Reaching to loosen the choking cord, I released the flame.
With every ounce of strength, I fought against the hands grasping me. Punching and kicking violently, I was rewarded with the grunt and moan of pain as someone fell away. Kicking again, my foot was captured in a vice-like grip. Unable to move it, I struck with the other, it too was caught. My hands were next, bound tightly. If it was one or two, I might have been able to fight them off, but there were five, at least five. With the cord abrading tender flesh, my mouth dried, my throat burned, my mind clouded. I weakened quickly but still fought, thrashing about until rope bound me tight from head to toe.
Gasping harshly, the air knocked from my lungs, I was thrown over someone’s bony shoulder. The language was strange, not a single word was spoken that broached understanding. From this, realisation dawned. Newcomers. The ones poking around the village setting fear into the hearts of my people. They followed the white-robed man who haunted my dreams and waking visions. Sir Francis. He was the leader, the one for whom the banishment spell was intended.
My people were faithful, they knew the abundance given by the Goddess, and were grateful for her gifts. The village was not rich in the sense of the small hamlets or large townships of the lower hills, but it was flourishing and bountiful in ways that mattered. I failed them.
Unable to move, I used the only thing left to me. My power. The gift of the Goddess. Summoning the roiling light and darkness inside my heart, I whispered a karmic curse upon Sir Francis.
“That what thy dost bring down upon me shall hath returned to thee by three.” As I rasped the words, a chilling vision filled my mind. How horrible would my fate be that his would end as thus?
Painful jerking, nauseously swaying; I was carried to places unknown in the blindness of my situation. My ears rang loudly as blood pounded like a hammer striking hot iron mercilessly inside my downturned head. Reflexes slowed as consciousness fled, I fought against the dark and light exploding behind my eyelids, but could not keep the stillness of sleep at bay.
Sulphites, caustic and burning in my nose, rousing me to darkness, the hood still not removed. Gooseflesh rose in chilly spring air. I heard water trickling, dripping, spattering on stone. No! Not water. My nostrils flared. I smelt it. Blood; coppery, metallic, that of fowl, falling steadily on granite. Drip, drip, drip… it echoed around me. Echoed. A cave? A cavern? There were many littering the vast hills and countryside. I could be anywhere.
I made to rise but paralysed by binding tethers, my body, immobilised, could not bear my weight. Bound so tight my hands tingled, moving merely made the rough hemp bite deeper, marring smooth skin raw and tender. There was no hope of escape. Only the brush of grass or moss against my bare feet soothed me. They may have bound me tight, but they could not break my connection to Gaia.
In my despair, the world was timeless. Seconds or an eternity could pass, it all felt never ending in my mind. Bile crept up my throat, and I choked it down, fear and panic would do me no good. Still, I shuddered trying to contain a sob and then a scream, while praying and lamenting my fate in the same breath. Not since the dawn of my youth had I been so fraught and overwhelmed. So much sensation filled me, clear thought was gone.
Then the voices came, echoing faintly through the cave, growing louder and more robust as others joined in. They were chanting. Incantation. It was not of my tongue, but I knew a spell upon hearing it. I froze, a shiver crawling up my spine. It did not matter. The chanting swelled, echoing, ringing, pounding ruthlessly in my ears. Malignant. Evil. Black magick. Then there was silence and stillness.
Reaching out with my senses, I felt many men around me. They had not yet abused me, which was odd in my mind. I was neither child nor crone. Some in my village called me comely, I cared not for such terms, they were needless in Gaia’s eyes. Yet, it caused me to wonder what these men wanted. I lived peaceably, harmed none, helped many. What business had they with me?
This new faith that they brought would crush the Mother from existence, and a new God would take her place. A violent God, unforgiving, unrelenting, one for which wars would be fought, and many would be killed. As a keeper of the old ways, I stood in their way. They must have heard of my powers, or they would not have come in great numbers.
The clack of flint, flare of spark, and quiet sizzle of tinder taking to flame. Then the scent of smoke rose, not sage or sweetgrass. No. It was pungent, overly sweet, bordering on sour. A violent shiver shook me as the aura of the place blackened and burned, turning the air malevolent, rotten, and stale. The stones, now seemed lifeless, the life-giving earth smelt of death and decay.
Sir Francis spoke, his voice I knew, if not the language. Moments later, I was pulled to my feet and dragged to a place in the centre of the cave. The hood was pulled away, red torches burned my eyes. I knew this place. Heart shattered, I cried seeing the circle of large stones under the stars. The sacred stone altar, piled with fowl, painted scarlet with blood. How these horrible men had defiled it. Peering down at burnt ground, righteous tears flowed. The Goddess’s sacred pentacle turned upside down, unknown marks carved in soil. Crying out for Gaia, my voice raw and choked; her power hummed through my connection to the earth, though it was weak and waning.
There were so many against me; alone. Ropes tightened, ones I had not known were loosened, pulled by monks pinioned at each pentagram point. Crushing, painful suffocation, I gasped. The chanting began anew, rising and falling in patterns that I recognised as some foul black magick. My body shook violently with the power of it. There. Under my heart. My solar plexus burnt under the succubus darkness syphoning my power away.
‘No! They could not take my magick!’ It was risky. Dangerous to invoke such a spell during the Dark Moon. Still, I summoned my will, and with raspy voice, called upon the power of three. “I beseech thee, Virgin, Mother, Crone! Protect me now while I’m alone, shield me now with all thy might, grace me with thy cleansing light. Gracious Gaia! Hear my plea, So it is, so mote it be.”
Beneath bare feet, the grass softened and smelled sweet. Standing upon it, sensing the richness of it, the life, the roots growing deep into the core of the world, I placed faith and focus there. Envisioning myself growing roots, reaching deeper and deeper into the ground, closer and closer to the Goddess, I felt her protection even as my voice died.
Sir Francis held power of his own. Calling forth vile binding spells, his voice shook with dark energy. The cord around my throat tightened with each syllable he spoke, and a deep unbearable pain radiated from my chest.
I could barely breathe, yet three times I whispered my invocation. The tension twined tighter. Pushing. Pulling. A battle of wills. Coiling, crushing, constricting inside until it shattered. Light defeated darkness. I screamed in pain, yet no sound issued from my throat, so tight was the cord.
The ropes went slack, I gasped and swayed unsteadily before toppling to the ground. All of my energy syphoned from my body by an evil that left me chilled to the bone. All but one dark silhouette moved into inky night. It did not matter, he did not look me in the eye. Ropes cut, he left me.
Blood rushed to sleeping limbs, crying in agony, no sound left my throat. Looking up, unmoving, staring at winking stars until they faded away. I do not recall stumbling from the sacred stone henge, but home I went.
They were in the village the following day, the men of their order, sowing fear into the hearts of the innocent. Monks, they called themselves. Knights, they named themselves. Spreading their God to my kin, calling Him just and kind. I knew better and tried to warn my people, but my throat tightened and would not allow the words to pass. No truth came from my lips. I may have saved my power, but they stayed my voice. Their spell was too strong.
I bided my time, waited, watching silently. My people turned away from the Goddess. A temple was built to the new God. Seasons passed. The land began to fail, and my kin began to fear me because the men in their brown robes told them to. So I kept my worship of the Goddess to myself, visiting the village only rarely, to keep watch over the man in the white robe and the red sash, for I knew – his end was near.
That morning dawned cold, mid-winter snows lay thick upon the ground. I rose and bathed in the frigid river, built a large pyre over the altar of stone henge, and went down to the village. There in the church courtyard, stood three men. Two knights in blue, holding Sir Francis.
“Under the suspicion of heresy and sorcery, Knight of Templar, Sir Francis, is hereby condemned to death.” Read one of the knights from his scroll.
The rack was first, then the wheel, before finally, he was drawn and quartered. His screams; agonised, horrific, terrible… will never be forgotten. When his corpse lay blood-soaked upon white ice, I gathered his pieces, carried them to the pyre, and burned his remains. Slowly my voice rose, chanting, “Gaia, Mother of all, break the cycle three by three, this I ask, so mote it be.”