Copyright 1987, Sarah Hartwell
This came about following an odd dream.
The Captain-Priest ordered us to ring the Church and wait for the creatures to emerge. Most men and woman in the area had joined us although what we would accomplish against the undead was uncertain. The only way to dispatch them was to behead them and even then they would keep lashing out blindly with their decapitated bodies, catching the weary and unwary. Was this any way for a woman to die?
For four days the bodies had lain in state in the House of Lord while bereaved relatives made arrangements for their entombment with full rites to ensure the departed would be welcomed into the greater glory of a life closer to Our Lord. All had been brave men in their time and had died in an accident on the Main Canal where an ancient warehouse had slid into the murky waters. No-one had considered the possibility that Caerinnon the Necromancer, Master of Black Arts would weave his dark spells on their bodies.
I had only a meat cleaver, snatched up in haste from the kitchen, and the ankh-crucifix which was issued to all of us in childhood to protect us from the evil of sorcerers and necromancers like Caerinnon. I doubted very much that Our Lord could do much against modern day sorcery especially since the dead had been raised while inside the Church of Our Lord where we had thought them safe from Caerinnon's enchantments.
I hitched up the skirts of my blue dress so that I would not trip over it and peered around. My companions-in-arms were showing signs of the growing nervousness we all felt. Young men talked bravely of the Callings they would dispatch, their faces pale and slick with the sweat of fear, their hands fingering the ankh-crucifix as they murmured prayers to Our Lord that he would protect them against the dark arts. Women swaggered Amazon-like trying to show themselves no less brave than the men. The noise inside the Church of Our Lord grew as the Callings battered their way out of barricaded doors and windows.
"Remember your Crucifix!" called the Captain-Priest, as the creatures lumbered forward, growling incoherently from faces that were once human and were now hideously maimed and succumbing to putrefaction.
Brave men screamed at the sight of old drinking companions raised from death and young men ran, their bravado drained from them like water. 'What chance have I when grown men turn and run,' I thought, dropping my makeshift weapon from trembling fingers and scrabbling away through a yew hedge. The noise was fierce as the living fell injured and others broke and ran, as the once-human creatures shambled through their ranks.
I picked up my skirts and fled; past shuttered houses where families hid in fear, past a field of cattle who bolted in noisy panic around the enclosure looking for an exit. At the bottom of the field were the sheds of field workers; I hurried towards them on legs turned to jelly by the howls of the injured and the undead.
I huddled in the musty darkness of a shed, among hoes and spades and lengths of leather hosepipe, comforted by the smells of earth and wood. I could hear the lowing of cattle and the lilting tones of a herdboy's flute as he calmed them with familiar sounds. Footsteps pattered across the hard dirt paths between the allotment strips and the cottager's homes and sheds.
"Emmy, look!" a child's voice called. I looked up to see a solemn-faced seven-year old girl. Her hair was pulled back into a single dark, bobbing ponytail and she held a skipping rope with knotted handles.
"The lady's hiding," her friend, a younger and grubbier girl observed.
I must have looked a sight, dress torn and grimy-faced; tears tracing glistening paths down my cheeks. I called the children back but they laughed and ran off, oblivious to the danger from Callings.
I left the safety of the shed to look for them; the older of the two stopped and looked back at me, "It's safe here," she said, "Cae won't let the things hurt us."
As if on cue, a black-cloaked figure appeared behind her. He must have been using a cloaking spell to hide his presence as I did not see him arrive. The girl ran off, shouting to her friend for not waiting.
"Caerinnon," I breathed, inclining my head slightly before the dread necromancer and hoping whatever death he decided to inflict on me would not be too protracted or painful.
He nodded, his face sallow against the cowled black hood of his cloak. An aura of restrained malice hung about him like a second cloak. We had been told that Caerinnon was old beyond contemplation but this was no withered little magician. The skin of his face was stretched as though the years had tightened it but he was nearly 6 foot tall, his back was straight, not stooped with years and his hair was auburn-brown and unkempt as if he had pulled the hood on in haste.
His features defied description, some spell stopped me from observing too clearly and they seemed blurred and nondescript, the face of neither a young man, yet not old, the face of someone who has crammed a great deal of living into a relatively short time. Only his bearing marked him as a man of power, that and the necromancer's black cloak.
"Perhaps you will come with me," he said in a voice that crackled with power which defied me to disobey, and he turned and walked back towards the fringes of the town where the smaller homes and cottages made up the poor quarter, black cloak trailing and snagging in exposed roots and the splintered stubs of stakes.
I followed, a lump of fear blocking my throat. Somewhere, children played and I pitied them for their blind trust in the necromancer. We stopped before a simple, white-painted house built in the new style with thick walls against the weather and no upper storey.
"Please, come in," the voice was silky and I followed through the door he held open, "Take a seat," and once again I obeyed feeling there was nothing else I could do.
The walls were decorated with cases of beetles and spiders pinned to boards and meticulously labelled. Below the displays were children's drawings of insects and animals, titled and signed in childish writing. There was little furniture in the room, some low stools pushed up against the whitewashed walls and a small table positioned under the curtained window. Light filtered in through the open door and between the curtains, tinting the room soft grey. A glass pitcher of water had been left on the table; sparks of sunlight swam like iridescent fish in its depths.
The necromancer reached out and I drew back in fear but he only plucked the ankh-crucifix from my neck.
"Quaint," he murmered, "They think a crucifix has some divine power against me." He smiled and dropped the cross into my lap like so much junk. "Not what you expected?" he asked gesturing towards the children's paintings.
I shook my head, not trusting my voice. To my surprise the necromancer laughed, a human sound. Despite the aura of restrained evil his presence was not uncomfortable and I began to relax. He was not going to use me in some dark spell after all.
"The children surprise you?" he asked.
"They trust you," I said, conveying puzzlement by my inflection of those three short words.
"And why ever not? I have done nothing to them. Their innocence is a joy to me. They demand nothing in return for their company; no bribes, no blackmail." He leaned forward to study me more closely, "You think they should not trust me?"
His tone of voice suggested I was not meant to reply and he continued pacing the width of the room.
"You will stay here for a while," he said and the latent power in his voice told me it was an order, "I'll get you something to drink, you look hot," but the voice conveyed little regard for my comfort.
He left the room for a few moments and although the door to the outside world was still ajar, I did not dare to leave. He smiled when he returned to find me still there and I wondered whether he had deliberately given me a chance to run and I had not taken it. I took the proffered glass of minted tea and sipped it, conscious of Caerinnon's constant scrutiny.
"Only tea," he said when I cautiously tasted the liquid, "Did you expect anything other?"
Outside, the children were playing; I could hear them shouting and calling to one another; for a moment the necromancer's eyes took on a faraway look as he listened to them.
"It pleases me sometimes to listen to their thoughts," he said quietly, "Emmy is daring little Gerda to jump the brook and Gerda doesn't want to get wet; she knows Emmy has longer legs and can jump further. It surprises you that I enjoy the company of children?"
I did not look at him and after a moment's silence he continued.
"Children have no preconceptions; they do not know what a necromancer is - to them I am just an adult who has time to listen to their tales - that is very important to children. They take you for what you are - not what they think you ought to be," he said, smiling.
He walked across to the window, his cloak swishing slightly against the uncarpeted floor, and drew back the curtains so that he could look out at the playing children.
"You seem to think that because I have the power to raise the dead that I am a danger to them," he said.
He turned to face me but his face was in deep shadow and his expression was hidden; still I could feel those unfathomable eyes burning through me and felt that my mind was an open book under that piercing gaze. I sipped nervously and he took the empty beaker from me without a word.
I turned away from that fierce stare and studied my hands as they twitched nervously at the folds of my skirts and turned the ankh over and over in my hands until it felt skin-hot.
"Tell me," he said, "How old was your father when he died?"
"Fifty," I stammered, unsure of what the question meant.
"And what did he die of?"
"He was just old," I replied, mystified and dared to look at the shadow shrouded face.
He moved away from the window and the sunlight streamed in, painting the concrete floor lemon and gold.
"At fifty he died of old age. Would you believe me if I told you that many generations ago people lived to twice and three times that age?"
I shook my head slightly, more in disbelief than disagreement, "I don't see how ..."
Icy fingers brushed the back of my neck as he walked behind me to the other side of the room, "And that carts ran without oxen?"
Again I shook my head and he sighed.
"Do you know where we are?"
"Burmnam," I said, wondering where the conversation was leading.
"Burmnam!" he laughed, "A largish trading town built among canals and trading hides, wools and ceramics. Its inhabitants worshipping a god several thousand years out of date and held in thrall by the church."
My hand made the sign of Our Lord automatically although my faith was shaky and I knew that all the signs and symbols of Our Lord could not ward off the evil in this man.
"Do you know why I talk to the dead and the spirits?"
I did not want to know and did not answer.
"Bah! Afraid of what you might learn from the past," he spat, "Because the books of Our Lord tell you not to dwell on the mistakes of the past but to prepare for the future. Do you know how old the Cult of Our Lord is?" He waited for an answer but I had none. "It was four thousand years ago that the Prophet, the Sun of Our Lord, walked this earth healing the sick and raising the dead. In four thousand years the Cult split into different beliefs which diversified, fought and finally came together to form a single Cult. And still it is dying. Two thousand years ago this town you call Burmnam was a vast, thriving city in the industrial heartland of Yukay."
"You have learnt all this from the dead?" I asked meekly.
"The dead have much to say - they would have said it during their lifetimes but no-one wanted to listen or the Cult forbade it. How can I learn from them if the townsfolk insist on destroying them at each calling?"
"But they cause great havoc," I ventured.
"Of course they will defend themselves if attacked, won't any man? Keep out of their way and you will come to no harm." His face paled with anger and the thought of the damage done to his Callings. "Instead of which you set about them with iron and steel. Do you wonder that people get hurt?"
"But they don't recognise us, they only died four days back and they don't know who we are!" I protested, "If they knew us they wouldn't fight us," I protested.
"Only the bodies were reawakened, the spirit must be summoned back from the spirit worlds to reinhabit that empty shell of flesh," he said quietly, "All that you see is an ... animal, something with enough instinct to survive but without that spark of intelligent consciousness that makes us who we are." He pushed back the sinister hood, and ran his fingers through red-brown hair to push it away from his face where it had fallen. Still I could not determine his age,
I sat silently and his anger drained away. He sighed and looked away as though at the realisation he was dealing with a simpleton. A grubby face peered round the outer door and, seeing Caerinnon, a dishevelled five year old skipped into the room and threw her arms round the necromancer's waist.
"Hello Cae," she said, sneaking a glance at me from under one arm.
"Have you got something for me, Lucy?" Caerinnon asked, his expression mellow, as he looked down at the tousle-headed child clinging to him.
"You guessed," she shouted in her shrill child's voice, obviously well pleased with the game.
The child let go of him and ferreted in her dress pockets. She produced two small bantam eggs which had mercifully not been smashed in that impulsive embrace. She offered them in one grubby hand, pouting slightly. The necromancer mad a show of inspecting them carefully although he had to stoop nearly double to do so.
"Eggs for tea?" Caerinnon asked and Lucy nodded. "That's nice," he said, thanking her. "I think Emmy and Gerda are playing by the stream."
He took the eggs and placed them carefully on the table next to the water pitcher. The little girl dashed out again and Caerinnon watched after her longingly.
"The innocence of youth," he said softly as he watched her vanish from sight, "They do not question what I am, they judge for themselves over time." He sighed and turned back to me. "And can you still hate me now that you know me better?"
The question was completely unexpected and I had no answer. It was true that what I had taken for an aura of menace was in actuality a feeling of power; I had been neither threatened nor harmed, in fact I had been treated with courtesy and consideration at all times.
"I see," he breathed when no answer was forthcoming, "Prejudices are hard to eradicate." He turned away from me again.
"Can you stop the Callings?" I asked quietly.
At first I thought he had not heard, his face was turned towards the window and he was listening the children playing.
"Your people have already destroyed them. I would not let them defend themselves. Does it please you?"
I nodded, pleased that the undead had been laid to rest. For a long while we were silent, the necromancer watching through the window and I deep in thought, my preconceptions turned upside down.
"Whose children are they?" I asked finally, the question had been worrying me for a while but I had not dared ask it earlier.
He shrugged but did not turn away from the window, "They live in the town. I can see images of their parents but through a child's eyes. They only know them as 'mother' and 'father' not by their given names."
"Do their parents know they are here?"
"They know they play in the fields and play hide-and-seek in the sheds. They think that 'Cae' is another child who comes here to play. In a way he is," and he smiled enigmatically, "because when I was a child I did not play, I wanted to learn about history and know 'why' things were, not just accept things."
"And you have to practise forbidden arts to do so," I stated.
"Because the Cult of Our Lord ordered the histories burned so that we could start anew with a clean slate. No past - and no future." He smiled wryly at me. "And we can make all those mistakes again."
"I'm sure the Cult acted as they thought wise," I countered, unwilling to speak against the Cult in case word reached them and I was punished as an example to those who profaned against them.
"And this from a non-believer."
I paused, choosing my words carefully, "I find it hard to accept the Scriptures. If Our Lord exists why doesn't he help us - when the harvest fails, when we are flooded? If he exists he can't care about us that much."
"Don't the Ministers have an answer to that?"
"That we must resolve these things for ourselves and be elevated to glory when the Sun of Our Lord rises again."
"They have been saying such things for four thousand years, in that time we did solve those things - but the Cultists destroyed everything because they thought we would lose sight of Our Lord and have no need of him."
"Why would they do that?" I asked incredulously.
"If we could cure all diseases, control the flow of rivers and cure old age we would have no need of a god, we would be gods! Then came the Red Death which killed whole cities. There was no cure and the leaders of different cults proclaimed that Our Lord was punishing us for aspiring to be gods. Now we have no sciences, no 'electricity', no 'medical science' so Our Lord cannot be offended. Our Lord saved the Cultists because of their cleanliness and holiness so they could glorify his name forever. Don't the Scriptures tell you that?"
I shook my head, I had rarely listened to the Ministers or the itinerant Preachermen. He went on.
"Only Our Lord did not save the Cultists on purpose, they died as readily as everyone else. After centuries of fighting each other, the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims and a dozen other sects founded the Cult of Our Lord to preserve the word of Our Lord for a new people. They destroyed the trappings of the Old World to humble us in the face of Our Lord."
"The dead tell you this?"
"And more besides. That is why the Cultists teach that necromancy is evil, because we can learn from the past."
"But you raise the dead!" I protested, incautious in my anger.
The necromancer merely smiled and for a moment I wondered what he would do to me for my hasty outburst. I braced myself for his wrath but it never came.
"Who better to ask about the past? I have my reasons, but they are my reasons - not for you to know. Don't misunderstand me," he said waving aside my protests, "I knew many of them personally, they were my friends. For the most part I prefer to talk to spirits. Didn't the prophet, Sun of Our Lord, bring the dead to life?"
"I don't think it was quite the same," I said hesitantly.
He laughed dismissively and changed tack again, "The Scriptures, did you know that the original Book of Our Lord was a history of his chosen people?"
"I didn't," I said simply, my head buzzing with conflicting sets of facts and struggling to remember the Scriptures that were taught in the House of Our Lord, lessons I had ignored at the time.
"No matter, the modern writings have been twisted to suit the Cultists, to justify the burning of history, the Purging of Humanity. Don't you care about what things used to be like?"
"I've never given it any thought," I admitted.
"That the Cult incorporates ideas from Christianity, Islam and Judaism; symbolism from Druidism, Occultism and paganism? Ideas and taboos that are nearly as old as civilisation? That everything we say or do has its roots in a past which the Cultists have tried to obliterate?"
I shook my head again.
"That Yukay used to be split into several kingdoms, England, Scotland, Wales ...? That these kingdoms used to be split into smaller ones: Mercia, Elmet, Lyonesse, Wessex ...? Much has been destroyed - only the dead know the secrets of the past. There is so much I must know!" He emphasised the last point, hitting the small, sturdy table with his fist. His dark cloak billowed about him at the sudden movement.
"But why?" I pleaded, "What is wrong with now that you must dwell in the past?"
"We can learn so much; improve our lives. Two thirds of the population die in childhood; every year we are either flooded or the harvest is scorched in the field; every decade plagues wipe out most of the livestock - why do we allow these things to happen, year in, year out? As you say, if Our Lord exists and still these things happen, he cannot care about us. The Cult says it is punishment for past sins - what sort of god punishes us for the sins of our banished ancestors, not a loving god."
Arguments and counter-arguments buzzed through my head like swarming bees. Nothing made sense and yet in some strange way everything made sense. Burmnam was built from the ruins of another place which had been burnt to the ground; we still found potsherds and incomprehensible metalwork which had been used by our forefathers. Caerinnon's words struck a chord within me, I understood the gist of his ideas; the Cultists taught of a god punishing us for our sins while maintaining that he loved and cherished us as a father cherished his children. The solid foundations of my world disintegrated at his every statement.
"How, how did you find out about necromancy, Caerinnon?" I asked.
He laughed softly, "I wondered when you would come to that. Did your mother tell you fireside tales of Warlocks and Witches?"
"Sometimes," I conceded.
"The tales pass down from person to person instead of being written in books the Cultists could destroy. I travelled widely when I was young and listened to what tales people had to tell. I learned much. Sorcery is an ancient art practised before the Cult of Our Lord was born; much of it lives on in Cult Rituals or folk history. It is a power that lives within us; I use that power for necromancy and sorcery. The Sun of Our Lord is said to have used the inner power for healing. It is a matter of application."
"Does learning so much about the past ever make you wish you lived then, instead of now?" I asked quietly, "So that you could actually see the past as it was instead of hearing about it secondhand?"
"At last, some curiosity about our history! How long I have waited for someone to show the least bit interest in history instead of following the 'don't know, don't care' doctrine of the Cult." He was silent a moment, his head cocked to one side as though listening to something. "The children have gone home for tea; their mothers told them to be home before nightfall."
The light was dimming, no longer illuminating the bare floor, and he found a wax taper from somewhere, lit it with a gesture and stood it on the table. The dancing flame wept brown wax onto the dull wood and our shadows danced huge on the walls.
"Tomorrow they will return and find me gone" he spoke more to himself than to me as he observed the sputtering, flickering candle-flame. After a few moments of thoughtful silence he turned back to me, "Yes, I would love to live awhile among our ancestors, learn about their 'electricity', their 'medical science'; find out what a 'reactor' is and how it splits materials into things called 'sub-atomic particles'," he pronounced the strange words carefully as though they were words of power in a spell. "Tonight I will weave my greatest spell, no mind that my friends will not be able to travel with me to the older days."
"There are spells to do that?" I breathed, astounded by the very idea.
"Sorcery holds secrets even our ancestors could not solve. Yes, I can go back; I would like to read the histories before the Cultists destroyed all the books. I would like to prevent the histories being destroyed but to read them would be an enough. Most of all I would like to spend some time in the past that the Cult has tried to eradicate."
I shook my head in wonder at his ambitions.
"You should go now," he said abruptly, "It is time I make preparations for the journey back." He turned his back on me, indicating the audience was over.
"Why have you been telling me all this?" I asked breathlessly.
"To clear my name perhaps?" he laughed, "To share my dark secrets? No, child, it has been a long time since I have talked with people other than the dead whom I raise; sometimes I need human company. Children do not comprehend these ideas and if they should tattle they might be punished. Even a necromancer needs friends among the living!"
I understood what he meant, I knew the price for consorting with spellweavers; the thought of children suffering the burning tongs, the blades and the red-hot coals was sickening.
"And perhaps," he admitted, "because I wanted to awaken someone in our sick society to the possibility that we may learn from our past."
"In case you don't return?" I asked to his turned back.
He did not reply for a long while then, turning his head to look at me one more time he said, "The Cult will not last forever, no religions ever have. But while it does, while my arts are forbidden, someone must ensure that they are not forgotten," and smiling enigmatically, he turned away.
I should have felt tainted but strangely I felt only curiosity; questions without answers spiralled in my head; questions I wanted to ask the necromancer.
Caerinnon seemed preoccupied and began to murmur under his breath; distractedly he suggested I might wish to leave. I was no longer sure, he was fascinating with his notions of learning about the forbidden years before the Cult humbled man before Our Lord; his words were so much more plausible than the Scriptures with their glossed-over inconsistencies. The desire to learn, to find out about my ancestors, about ages dead, buried and officially forgotten now burned within me; a dormant ember fanned into glowing life by his ambitious words. His eyes were no longer with me and he was chanting forbidden rites to conjure up spirits to guide him back.
I walked alone from the cottage, listening to the gathering force of spells as he called into being the elementals who would grant him passage. How did my people live in those distant times - what was 'electricity'? How could wagons run without horses or oxen to pull them? How could dying children be kept alive into adulthood and those adults survive into their seventies, eighties, beyond? Who made the decorated china that came to light when we ploughed furrows in the ground?
There were so many questions, endless questions and no answers because the Cultists had destroyed the records. We alternately starved and drowned, suffered famine and water-borne plagues, the ancients had ways to prevent and cure these things. I desperately wanted to learn more; how did their women live? Their homes - we flitted like shadows in the ruins, how did THEY live? I wanted to see it with my own eyes, not just hear it in hearthside fable.
On an impulse, I turned and ran back to the cottage, tripping in the darkness, feeling like a child eager to claim a prize; the prize being knowledge.
"Cae, Cae!" I called, "Caerinnon wait for me, "Teach me!"
The room was empty, and the rooms beyond that. The walls were blackened as if by a sudden swift conflagration which had consumed the cases of insects, the drawings and curtains, blistered the white paint from walls and charred the wooden stools and tables. My voice echoed through the building.
"Cae! I need you to teach me!"
The stench of soot and sulphur hung acrid in the air, particles settling to coat the floor and surfaces in grey-black dusty shrouds. Caerinnon was not there. I needed to learn and there was no-one to teach me.
* * *
I began to read the Scriptures, anxious to learn and limited in the same way Caerinnon had been limited. I met others who showed me crumbling book fragments - histories, ancient romances and books about sciences we now knew nothing of. With no dark reputation as sorceress to hold me back, I gained access to old texts - texts stored in chests in attics, their bindings crumbling and their pages tattered. Some were no more than stories set in a world unfamiliar to me with words describing concepts I couldn't begin understand.
Slowly I began to glean facts about our history from the one writing the Cult had allowed to survive into the New Age. I was haunted by how much we had lost. But one particular passage haunted me. It was in a small volume of histories rejected by the Cult because it didn't fit into their view of how things were, and how things should be:
"And in the years after the great Red Death which humbled mankind before the Godhead, the Cult was founded to guide humanity to God's greater glory. A great and powerful man came to us; said by some to be the second coming of the Sun of Our Lord come to guide us into a bright and glorious future free from the evils of the past.
This new Sun shone among us like a new star in the heavens and he led our people into an age of peace, teaching us to learn from our past errors. He was raised to glory by Our Lord and his name will be sung for many ages.
We have learnt through him that the greatest sin of man was to aspire to godhead.
The trappings and mechanations which brought such ruin upon our haughty race have been destroyed so that once more we are humbled before Our Lord, Protector and Merciful father of our race.
We give thanks to the great martyred prophet Korinnen and his name is revered by the united childrens of Our Lord. Amen."
Somehow Caerinnon had wrought this future he sought to undo and had sought to undo his own doings. And I knew that somewhere in the surviving hidden histories would be the clues I needed to undo what Caerinnon, in his arrogance, had done to our world.