The Elk Pool

The elk found under a bungalow provides compelling evidence of a hunt in early winter 13,500 years ago. The badly injured elk escaped but died in a pool, whilst his human hunters went hungry.’
The Harris Museum

It was a time of hunger for hunters and for elk; all skeletal, ragged hip bones, like the naked birch. Snow fell on the heads of reeds, on bulrushes, on spiky sedge. The elk limped on, broad-footed, in his rolling gait, in spite of the barbed point stuck in the bone of his left foreleg. His hunters followed. For them with their two legs the wetland was treacherous, each patch of ice an unknown depth. Hunger, the gnawer of bellies and deadly as a spear in the guts, drove them on, following the prints.

At sunset they saw him illuminated before the blood-red sun and dug deep into a place beyond our understanding of endurance, readied bows, spears, called for blessings from the gods and spirits of the hunt. And they ran, as quickly as two-legged beings can, leaping between frozen tussocks of grass. For the elk had slowed and when he looked back at them they had seen his death in his eyes. The icy puddles and the pools glinted red with the sun’s reflection. Startled widgeon flashed up in a whistling flock and fled toward the coast. Somewhere a curlew called and called and did not stop calling.

The hunters ate the distance between them and the injured elk and also, it seemed, between them and the huge red sun. The elk limped and plunged. They released their flint-tipped arrows, singing through the air, thudding into his ribcage with thumps that sounded like the last heart-beat before death.

Stalwart, the fastest runner, the strongest hunter, sprinted up and thrust his spear into the elk’s chest. Its barbed point he had splintered from elk antler, carved, nocked, blessed, for this very moment in response to a dream. He clung onto the haft as the elk’s forefeet plunged onto ice, through ice, into water, as down he dove into the icy pool. With a crash, a splash, a splintering and bucking, both elk and hunter disappeared. All that was left as the sun sunk was a red pool and the curlew’s bubbling call.

The cold of the ice stole Stalwart’s breath before his lungs filled with freezing water. Something told him to let go of the spear, to swim up, to swim away toward the dim red light, yet he could not. It was if his hands were glued to it with birch bark tar – his fate and the elk’s bound together. They shared their final agony, the filling, the burning of lungs, the darkness of the deep growing darker, warm bodies entangling and growing colder as they floated down to rest together in a muddy bed.

***

When Stalwart opened his eyes the whole sky was crimson and the watery landscape a vivid blue. There was an elk-shaped hollow beside him, elk-prints leading away, reminding him briefly of something. Prompted by the hunting instinct within he got up and follow the prints through a landscape both strange and familiar – birch trees who greeted him with open arms, widgeon whose whistles contained messages he could not quite decipher, two long-legged cranes dancing in the distance.

As the light bled from the sky Stalwart lost sight of the prints. In the inky indigo of twilight the landscape became stranger, terrifying. A group of alders shaking their cones when there was no wind. One moment the grove was on his left and then it was on his right. Dark shapes began to pull and splash themselves out of the water. He began to run, tripped over what he thought was a root then realised was the leg of a man, lying face down, arrows and a spear-haft protruding from his ribs.

A memory tugged at him. Like a barbed point lodged within his chest. But fear drove him to flee. On and on, sinking waist-deep, feeling something slimy-cold and eel-like brush his leg, staggering out trembling. On and on not sure where he was going or whether he was getting anywhere. On and on until he looked back and was appalled by his guilty relief when he saw far behind him the dark creatures crowded around the dead man, necks sinking, heads rising, sharp teeth full of flesh as they fed.

As the light ebbed out of the sky flickering campfires flared up where he was certain no camp had been with the scent of smoke, and drumming – a beat that awoke something within him like a heart.

Its thump bore his steps, walking on water, to the camp of elk-skin tents. Lining each side of the way to the central tent, which was topped by a mighty pair of antlers, were people with drums and rattles, clad in elk-skins, with rattling bone necklaces. The men wore antlers and the women did not.

Some of the younger men and women were dancing ecstatically and all were shouting their welcomes.

“The Chief of the Herd returns.” “The Chief of Elk.” “Our Chieftain.” “The Timekeeper.”*

As Stalwart looked about him for this regal figure the crowd descended on him as one, fighting to touch his flesh. They lifted him up high, yanking him up by his armpits and waist, many hands on his thighs, knees, and lower legs, bearing him upright to the central tent and the woman before it.

She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was tall. Long auburn hair flowed over strong, broad shoulders. Her eyes were dark and liquid. Her lips looked soft as her large, bare breasts.

“My love you have returned,” she spoke softly as he was set down and she cushioned him in an embrace. After she kissed his stiff then unresisting lips and stepped back she said, “you are much changed.”

“I… uh… I think there’s been a mistake…” Stalwart stammered weak at the knees.

As the woman looked at him uncertainly an older man, with heavy antlers, leaning on a staff, reassured her, “Chieftess, he has spent long on the Otherside. Memory loss is common. Once he has eaten our food, drunk our drink, been re-crowned, our Timekeeper will recall himself and our stories.”

The Chieftess of the Elk took Stalwart’s hand and guided him gently into the central tent. She sat him beside her on a fur at the head of the tent and the rest of the herd seated themselves cross-legged on furs in a circle around the warm fire that blazed in the centre. How so many managed to fit into the tent, which suddenly seemed so warm and womb-like, so large and spacious, he could not guess.

Children entered with wooden bowls filled with birch leaves wrapped around mashed up bark. Stalwart knew he shouldn’t eat the meat of trees, the food of the Otherside, but he couldn’t remember when he last ate. He was so, so hungry. So he tucked in, chewing with strong molars, savouring the bitter taste, dimly aware of the chomping of the herd around him. The meal was washed down with cups of the blue, blue, water, the sweetest, clearest, purest water he had ever tasted.

“Now for his re-crowning,” spoke the old man. The herd got to their feet and cheered and roared as the antlers from above the tent were carried in and set upon Stalwart’s swimming head. They didn’t fit, they felt too big, they reminded him of something kicking in the water, yet he did not resist as they were forced down and stuck on fast. A heavy weight, an unbearable weight, for an imposter.

“Now, Timekeeper, do you remember?” asked the old man with a show of long yellow teeth.

A man, stuck with arrows and a spear face-down in the water, the dark things eating him. “No stories.”

“Perhaps,” said the Chieftess, glancing meaningfully around the gathering, “I may have a chance to revive his memory.

The herd exchanged knowing glances. When they had departed Stalwart slept with the woman. As he watched their shadows cast by the fire on the tent-walls he almost remembered someone else’s face.

When they were done she took his chin in her hand, turned it toward her, forced him to look into eyes filled with the shades of her strange land. “Do you not remember anything? Do you not feel?”

“No,” said Stalwart helplessly. “Nothing at all.

“You will,” the Chieftess embraced him fiercely, “you must,” almost crushing him. “For the fate of the herd depends on it. Only our stories maintain the Elk-Scape, keep the Dark Ones of the Seas at bay.”

***

The next morning Stalwart and the Chieftess left their tent with elongated faces ending in dexterous lips, thick furred coats, on four broad-footed legs. By day, at the head of the herd, they feasted on long tussocky grasses, reared up to tear down leaves from the highest birches, plunged deep into the pools and rose dripping with green tresses of underwater plants hanging from their mouths. When the crimson light began to fade and the dark things beneath the water to stir they set up camp.

After they had eaten and drunk, “last night,” said the old man, “we were lucky. Although another poor storyless soul was not. The Dark Ones feasted well, were well fed, on one newly passed, but tonight they will be hungry again. One of our herd, a piece of the Elk-Scape, will be lost if we have no stories.”

“Timekeeper.” “Chieftain.” “Please.” The herd implored Stalwart. “Our people are dying.” “Our land shrinks.”

Stalwart shuddered with guilt and fear as he recalled that horrible feast. “Is this true?” he asked the Chieftess.

“Yes,” she replied, squeezing his hand. “Please try to remember. For our people. For me.”

“Perhaps if you tell me a little about the Dark Ones that will jog my memory?”

“You once told us,” said the Chieftess, “that they are the last remnants of the primal waters of Old Mother Universe, the birthing and devouring goddess, from whose womb our world was born.”

Two bodies tangled together in the darkness and the tugging of a bond between them like conjoined twins.

“That the god who can not only control them but rides their fury is the Hunter, Lord of Death and the Deep.”

A dream of the Hunter gifting him an antler, guiding his hands as he carved and blessed the barbed point.

“He who favours neither man nor beast, hunter nor hunted, nothing but the thrill of the hunt, its finale. When we complained that antlers were not enough to defend us from the Dark Ones he gave us stories, and when they began to fail you went to the Otherside to the Man-Scape, to find new tales…”

“So I did,” it was not Stalwart who spoke but his story which seized his tongue. “I was born a man.”

The herd gasped in collective disbelief.

“A small boy in a land of water and ice. Three days after my birth a Wise Woman proclaimed that I would grow up to be a mighty hunter, and so it was, for I was shooting arrows before I could walk. Widgeon rained down from the skies and my barbed spears felled all my prey in one throw, but one elk.

“He haunted my dreams standing on the red horizon looking back at me with his death in his eyes. The Hunter said the hunting of the Chief of Elk was my destiny. The Wise Woman told me that it would be my undoing. I… fell in love…” he glanced guiltily at the Chieftess. “I had seven children. My herd, I mean my people, were hungry, we had nothing to eat. I swore I’d give my life to save them.

“When the Chief of Elk finally appeared I couldn’t believe I missed. That’s when the Hunter appeared in my dream. For seven days and seven nights and seven days again we tracked him and on the seventh night I killed him yet I lost my own life in the pool and here I am and…” as the realisation washed through him, “before he could make it back to his people he was eaten by the Dark Ones.”

“The Chief of Elk became a man?” “A man the Chief of Elk?” “Who is who?” “Are you truly our Chief?”

“I… really don’t know,” admitted Stalwart.

As he spoke laughter began to echo around the tent. Laughter that shook wooden bowls, rattled necklaces, like the wind tore away the tent flaps leaving only a mightier set of antlers above and their wearer on the back of a black water-horse with countless legs churning the skies, gnashing its teeth.

“Well, that’s a story to keep the Dark Ones at bay,” said the Hunter. “They’ll be fuddled for days and days can last forever in the Elk-Scape where the light and the land are held together by a good story.

“Yet on the Otherside the people you swore to stand by, for whom you gave your life, are starving. They too need stories, their Timekeeper, to stop the Dark Ones rising from the pools and from the Seas.”

As the first crimson light appeared Stalwart found himself submerged beneath bloody waters. This time he let go of the spear-haft that bound him to the man who had been eaten by the Dark Ones of the Seas. Lungs bursting, he struggled up, up and away from the sinking elk toward the patch of light.

His wife, Sinew, pulled him out, an auburn-haired, strong, broad-shouldered woman. His people roared and cheered, although they lamented their loss of the elk. They ate little but roots and bark that night, but Stalwart told them a story beginning, “I’m not who you think I am… I should explain…”

Afterwards the Timekeeper moved between the worlds, between man and elk, maintaining the stories. For many thousands of years the Elk Pool was known as a special and sacred place. When the last elk on the Island of Britain was killed he returned to the Otherside and his tales were forgotten. Since then there has been no-one to stand vigil at the pool and no words to hold the Dark Ones back.

When the bones of the Chief of Elk and the barbed point that bound two hearts together were dug up the Timekeeper returned from the Elk-Scape and my rattling fingerbones were seized by his story.

*The elk in the Harris museum has been nicknamed Horace from the Latin ‘Hour in Time’ or Timekeeper’.
**With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the image from a video display about the hunting of Horace in the Discover Preston Gallery.

Rhymi

‘The bitch Rhymi… in the form of a she-wolf… she goes around with her two whelps. She has killed my livestock many times, and she is down below Aber Daugleddyf in a cave.’
– Culhwch and Olwen

I was in a multitude of shapes before I assumed wolf-form. My keen sense of smell, my canine teeth, the sense of awe surrounding the silence of my feet and my savagery were all conducive to my role as a death-eater.

I was feared and revered by the people of Prydain for thousands of years until they decided their dead: human and animal should not be eaten by wolves.

I’m not sure what brought about this decision – whether it was their abandonment of hunting for farming, their penning in and marking ownership of the herds, the arrival of the sheep or the religion of the sheep with its shepherd-like patriarchs who despised both wolves and women.

Whatever the case, I became reviled. Whenever farmers caught me raising my jaws from a half-eaten carcass, gnawing bones dragged from a freshly dug grave, they sent huntsmen after me with hounds, bows and arrows, knives and spears, to bring back the trophy of my head.

Of course, I knew how to deal with huntsmen. My most ardent pursuer was Deigyr of Caerdydd. When numbers and brute strength did not succeed, he decided to track me by stealth instead. Disguising his scent in fox urine he followed me from kill to kill. Leading him into Caerdydd, I slipped off my wolf-fur and, taking a softer form, allowed him to buy me a flagon of bragget.

We got talking about the art of hunting and the nature of the wolf. The bragget slid down like hot blood. Soon I was back at his house, lounging on a wolf-skin rug, admiring the furs on his walls, the heads of beavers, badgers, foxes, boars, and wolves.

After we slept together I killed Deigyr with his hunter’s knife and devoured his corpse. Many moons later I gave birth to two whelps: Gwyddrud and Gwydden, in a sea-cave beneath Aber Daugleddyf.

Their suckling on the polyps of my teats was interrupted by a ship with a rude white prow carrying hundreds of warriors. As they fired their bows into the water I snapped every arrow with my jaws and rose up, barging and harassing the vessel I recognised as Prydwen to the shore.

An army awaited me with endless rows of spears and shields.

When I showed no fear, Arthur called on God to change me into my own form, grasped my wolf-fur and pulled it off.

The spears dropped to the floor.

The King of Prydain recoiled in dismay, eyes bulging like sea anemones, face pale as coral, “Please God, change her back!”

When his plea went unanswered, Arthur desperately attempted to throw the fur back over me, but it landed limp and useless on the sand.

“Please God, change her back. Please cover her up!”

Rhymi sketch

The Dragon of Marton Mere

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Two miles east of Blackpool lies a lake called Marton Mere which was born when the Ice Age reshaped the land leaving a glacial boulder, a huge ball of ice thousands of years old. This melted a kettle hole and in the melt water a dragon formed serpentine, curious, luxuriating in her freedom to swim and lap at the thawing earth after enduring her icy bonds.

When the first people came and paddled out on animal skin coracles they were aware of the stillness of that depth. As they fished with bone hooks within a panorama of reeds and bulrushes amidst piping calls of wetland birds they often thought they glimpsed an eye beneath, a flash of shimmery skin, wondered if it was a giant pike, something more reptilian.

The dragon knew if she appeared in their reality she’d undo their minds and landscape. So she entered the dreams of one of the young fishermen as a beautiful woman, taught him how to charm the fish and gift back to their spirits who swam thick where the real ones roved.

In turn he taught his people what she taught him and he became well-respected within his tribe. She often asked for personal gifts: shells, bone ornaments, joints of meat, to maintain that he acknowledged the source of his wisdom. Before he died he told his people about the lady of the mere and asked for his body to be deposited in its midst.

A tradition arose that when the person who served the lady died she entered the dreams of the next. So she did until a time of change. Her current fisherwoman was awkward and unpopular and had a tough message to deliver. An era of heavy rain approached when the lady would take her true form and devour their village.

The fisherwoman stammered but spoke the truth bravely. Her people did not believe her. It was their village, their mere, they’d lived beside it for generations. A group who secretly wanted rid of the lady’s influence so they could take control knocked the fisherwoman out in her sleep, took her out on a coracle to the middle of the mere, slit her throat and threw her into the dark water. An angry wind of dragon’s breath blew them back across the mere. A tidal wave overturned their coracle. Beneath it they drowned. Rain poured from dark clouds.

The next morning a young man leapt from his sleeping pallet, half-naked, clutching his dishevelled hair “they killed her! I saw them kill her! Behind them a dragon rose up. A dragon. A huge beautiful monstrous dragon with caves for eyes and the skin of a pike and a parade of winds leaping from her nostrils. She’s going to kill us.”

He ran from his dwelling and threw himself to his knees at the end of the jetty uttering a stream of incoherent words. Following through torrential rain his tribe saw the coracle floating in the distance like an empty tortoiseshell. Floodwaters rushed toward their village.

They could get no more sense from the young man. Recalling the tradition of retaining the lady’s favour with gifts, they collected together their finest bronze spears and axes, took them to the end of the jetty and cast them into the mere with prayers of placation.

Still the waters rose. As waves washed over the young man’s knees he suddenly shouted “leave! Go to the ridge: one day it will be Marton. Your offerings have saved everyone but he who saw the dragon.”

All the warriors could not drag him from where he stuck to the platform. With deep regret they left him and departed to the ridge where Great Marton now stands, stood arm in arm, hand in hand, and watched the mere devour their village.

Afterward it became an ill omen to dream of the lady or worse the dragon. Those who saw her, daring not to admit it to their people, either served her privately, left, or lost their minds.

When the Romans arrived they left the inhabitants of Marton and the mere well alone. Contrastingly the Culdee monks (who settled at the site later known as Kilgrimol) were astonished by the stupidity of their refusal to fish in the abundant mere, farm the surrounding landscape or allow anyone else to. So they decided to create a story stupid enough to fool them.

Drawing on the rumours of people making offerings of meat to the dragon they came up with the idea a monk hid a spring in a side of bacon disguised as a gift and threw it into her maw. Its rushing waters forced her jaws open and drowned her. She sunk to the bottom of the mere and was never seen again.

In spite of the logical inconsistency of the drowning of a water dragon some of Marton’s people were fooled. They wanted desperately to live in a world that was safe and governed by one God who gifted his monks with power over dragons.

Fishing on the mere gained in popularity and rights were highly contested. Farmers began to work the land but, in spite of God’s omnipotence, it was frequently inundated by flood water and plagued by disappearances of cows, sheep and pigs. Whispers of a dragon continued.

In the 18th century a decision was made by the majority of Marton’s people to drain the mere. Main Dyke was deepened and widened sluicing all but a fragment of those ominous waters which gave birth to the dragon away into the river Wyre.

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During the digging two coracles and bronze axes and spearheads were unearthed: an uneasy reminder of the legend. The people consoled themselves that with the dyke draining the mere like a severed vein pulse by pulse the dragon would be too weak to return.

Although Marton Mere has been drained its kettle hole remains and the dragon lives on. In spring and summer water lilies do not grow above her lair. After the M55 was built a driver swore he saw a crocodile heading across the lanes to the mere.

A new village of holiday homes lies perilously close to the water’s edge. It is said the dragon haunts the dreams of those who sleep there and waits for the one who will share her message.

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*This story is based on the archaeology, history and folklore of Marton Mere, much of which is covered in Nick Moor’s extensive on-going project on the history of Blackpool and the Fylde: http://www.blackpoolhistory.co.uk/#!pdf/c1e71

The River Syke

Syke StreetOn a rainy day in the not so-distant future, Tom, a tour-guide in training, decided to visit the city of Preston.

Great intrigue surrounded the town of priests, which had once been the Catholic capital of Lancashire. Every spire and street name told a story, from the cathedral of St Walburge to Friargate, to the catacombs beneath St Peter’s. Each had its relics and dealt in a great number of copies to tempt the less discerning tourist.

However, Tom was not interested in the rise and decline of Christianity. Neither did he care for the oral tales passed on by the city’s people such as the headless black dog that haunted Maudlands, the wicked fairy on the market with his tricksy ointment, or the Bannister Doll.

Tom had been led to Preston by a new myth about the underground river Syke.

This watercourse had run from present day Syke Street, through Winckley Square, parallel with Fishergate then into the Ribble at the New Bridge. At one point there had been fish garths across the Ribble and a boatyard where the two rivers met. In 1812, as industrialisation progressed, the Syke was culverted beneath the town. It had not seen daylight since.

250 years later, as part of a desperate money-making bid, the tourist board decided to open its underground passageway to the public. Above the grate covering the Syke’s mouth they erected a ticket booth, then a flight of stairs leading down to a platform. Over the entrance was placed a flashing neon sign- Enter the mouth of Annwn- the Ancient British Otherworld.

Caroline, Tom’s girlfriend, had been obsessed by stories about Annwn. “It is a beautiful, terrible world,” she had used to tell him, “peopled with fairies and monsters. There are thin places where you can slip over. It is possible to find your ancestors, and the lost ones you once loved. It’s possible to escape again, if you do not fall prey to its seductions.”

Several days ago, Caroline had left on a trip to Preston and had not returned. She was not the only one. Another three people had been reported missing, mysteriously disappearing on the boat ride back to the entrance. These stories were connected with rumours of people hearing strange songs and experiencing visions of ships and fishermen, huge fish, and women with fishtails.

If it hadn’t been for Caroline’s absence, Tom would have thought this was all propaganda. However, his strongest suspicion was these tall tales were a cover for poor management. A fact left untold was that the Ribble is tidal. Should the attraction remain open as the tides washed in, the entrance to the Syke would be blocked and its passageway flooded. Tom suspected these poor souls had drowned, and he was terrified Caroline might have met the same fate.

After paying his admission, Tom entered a sheltered area where he joined two families, three couples and a group of teenage girls who were talking and laughing.

“We need to look out for ghostly fishermen.”

“Mermaids.”

“Mermen, more like.”

“It’s some kind of creature with slimy tentacles that will drag you down through the water and into the Otherworld.”

Once the preceding group had exited they were ushered down to the platform. Standing beside the Ribble’s churning grey, Tom recalled Caroline telling him how every river had its goddess and each stream its nymph. The name of the Ribble’s goddess was Belisama and it was believed she claimed a life every seven years.

“Is everybody ready to enter the mouth of Annwn?” asked the tour guide, an aging man dressed in a wax jacket and waders. His long greying hair hung damp from beneath a fisherman’s hat.

To cries of affirmation he pressed a button, which rolled back the grate. The passageway was illumined by intermittent white lights, which cast an occasional silver sheen on the dark water. One by one they entered the tunnel, walking in a single line, on the river’s left. Enthralled by its impenetrable flow, Tom could not help himself imagining Caroline trapped beneath those waters drowning amongst terrible aquatic creatures who had not seen sunlight for 250 years.

The girls in front of Tom jostled and giggled. “I can see a fish!” “I think it was a mermaid!” As their conjectures became wilder their voices grew more high pitched.

The weight of the walls pressed in and the river’s roaring voice and echo rose to an unsteadying crescendo. By the time they reached the boat, Tom was trembling and disoriented. As he crossed the gangplank onto Syke’s Trawler, it took all his effort to hold his balance. Looking beneath he glimpsed something silver, dark and serpentine, then in a flash of dread saw Caroline’s sunken face staring up at him. The tunnel spun around him.

The next thing he knew, Tom was assailed by the scent of wax and brine. The tour guide was lowering him onto a wooden bench, fastening his seat belt and placing his hands firmly on the rail. “Hold on tight. Keep your eyes well shut and be careful not to listen. You do not want to fall prey to the lures of Annwn.” There was a mocking, knowing look in his grey eyes

He cast off and took the wheel with such exuberance and expertise Tom realised he must have been a true fisherman in his time.

The boat pitched down river. The teenagers screamed.

“Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Tom was almost deafened by the river repeating its name. “Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Or could it be the voice of its goddess?

The limitations of the tunnel shattered to reveal bright sky and a flashing landscape, the grey shapes of yachts and fishermen.

“There are places where you can slip over,” Caroline’s words filled Tom’s mind.

He held tightly to the rail, imagining himself as Odysseus lashed to the mast.

“It is possible to find your loved ones.”

Tom realised Caroline’s voice was not in his mind. She stood on the adjacent vessel beside an older fisherman who shared her dark features. Tom guessed he was her grandfather.

“Caroline!” Tom cried.

“Tom, how I’ve missed you, I knew you would come to find me!” Caroline rushed to the edge of her boat.

“I’ve been worried sick about you,” said Tom. “What happened?”

“Come and join us,” said Caroline. As her boat drifted closer she held out her hand.

Unable to stop himself, Tom let go of the rail and unfastened his seatbelt. Leaning between the swaying boats he took Caroline’s hand and scrambled over. After all those long months they were together again, embracing and kissing. In her arms the rocking deck, perilous river and distinction between the worlds no longer mattered.

A horn blared from Syke’s Trawler.

Caroline pushed Tom away. “The tides are coming in.” The colour left her face and her skin became cold to his touch. With the sweep of a long black and silver fishtail she dove into the water. Tom noticed her grandfather had already disappeared. The boat shuddered beneath his feet then, with a dismal groan, plank by plank began to break apart.

With a thunk something round and orange struck his chest. It was a rubber ring, attached to a rope, attached to the trawler.

“Get in and keep hold,” the tour guide’s voice bellowed, “if you want to return to Preston, that is.”

Struggling against panic, Tom managed to pull the rubber ring on as the deck gave way beneath him and a wave crashed over his head. The cold water stunned him. He struggled and gasped for breath, thrown this way and that between the incoming tide and the river’s force. Hauled back onto the trawler by the tour guide he coughed up salt water before descending into uncontrollable sobs.

By the time his tears had ended, the boat was safely moored on the Ribble’s bank and the rest of the group had gone.

“You love her, but you don’t want to die for her?” the tour guide’s voice was soft in Tom’s ear. His nostrils filled with his briny scent. “I know how you feel, and I may be able to help.”

Tom looked up hopefully, “how?” he rasped.

“It is possible to walk, or sail, between the worlds,” said the old fisherman. “Why don’t you join me, as my trainee, at the helm of Syke’s Trawler? You can learn to serve our goddess. We’re desperately short of tour guides.”

Mouth of the River Syke

Lady of the Oak

I leave the shelter of the grove ducking beneath twisted hawthorn branches. The trees weave the entrance closed behind me. Rain hits my face, falling from a heaven of relentless grey. Reading the sky’s grimace I wonder what has been seen.

A crow caws his warning. Sprinting toward me up the hollow way I see a young man, legs a blur of blue white checkers and feet a splash of mud and leather. Hair slicked to his head, his dark eyes flicker with awe and wariness. The first dapples of a beard play across his chin like leafy shadows.

“M-my Lady of the Oak,” he stammers pulling up.

His breathless chest heaves beneath a sodden tunic. It is rare for youths to approach me without an elder. Looking more closely at my gnarled face his eyes widen in dawning horror. “Bad news travels from up river. A Man of the Oak wishes to speak with you.” He runs away in a flurry of muddy feet.

I follow down the hollow way heedless of the downpour weighing my cloak for the damp of the air already resides deep within my bones. Looking east, rain drenches the green hill, our sacred headland, and the greener barrow housing our ancestors. The torrent’s drumming beat strikes bubbles across the marsh land. As I walk onto the wooden pad way the reeds hiss like snakes. Decay bites my throat. The steely cast of the river of shining water reflects the glumness of the sky.

In a canoe roped to the jetty my cousin Drust sits hunched in his robes. I question what he is doing here, alone.

The river’s song answers. Her visions flood my mind. I see the battle at the ford of roaring water. Broken chariots, tribesmen slaughtered, the hero light vanishing from their eyes like fleeing stars. The eagle standard flies high, reflected in the crimson river. Seeing the pale flicker of their separating ghosts I speak a prayer for the souls doomed to return to a land where they no longer belong.

Sorrow chokes me like bile. I vomit it in anger at Drust, “what are you doing here, when your clan are dead?”

Drust looks up, yet his face remains hidden by his cowl. “I am taking the remnants of our traditions and our gods to the island across the sea.”

I laugh, a throaty brittle sound like twigs twisting and snapping. “Gods are not like saplings, to be taken away and re-rooted and traditions are not nurtured by foreign soils. It seems the ideas of the invaders have penetrated more deeply than I imagined.”

Drust tenses. Drawing my knife from its leather sheath I lean down and slice the rope tying his canoe to the jetty. The river sluices him west and out to sea.

The wind carries enemy voices. Reflected in the falling droplets I see swords and plumed helms. Slipping on the wood and slithering up the hollow way I reach the grove and beg the hawthorns for passage. A peace of ancient green breaks over me, like I’m sinking into a bed of moss. Beneath the canopy’s protective shadow I believe myself safe until tumult disturbs the roots. Crows caw, anticipating carrion.

I cross a sea of acorns and approach the grove’s mighty king. Putting my arms around his trunk, I press my face to the rough bark. “Brother Oak, let me see into the future.”

My heartbeat merges with the pulse of rising sap. My feet become roots reaching downward through damp soil to the outer edges of the grove. My arms stretch into branches and split, bearing bunches of lobed leaves nourished by the hidden sun, washed by the rain, flourishing green.

The ground shudders at the march of soldiers, galloping hooves and chariot wheels. Battle cries are hollered. Bows hum to the crash of metal. Screams and groans rock me. I taste blood and its bitterness fills me.

Earth and water shift as ditches are cut, fields plundered to feed the enemy. Ancestral ghosts clutch my twigs shrieking of their barrow torn down and a temple built to a foreign god. I moan at the ache of rot softening my flesh, bowing and creaking as my branches snap and innards hollow. I beg for lightning’s merciful release but there is no answer from the clouds of sorrow.

“Brother, let me return,” I speak. “The tribe need my support in their defeat.”

I ease back from the oak as the hawthorns scream and turn to see branches broken, shredded leaves and burst haws at the sandaled feet of a man dressed in a plumed helmet, iron breast plate and red woollen tunic. His eyes are blue, skin tanned by the sun of a hotter land. Brandishing a sword stained with blood and sap he accuses me of witchcraft, of sacrificing innocents to divine the future from their death throes.

I smile. The man freezes in horror. I draw my knife and mustering all my oaken might I drive it between the iron plates and slice open his stomach, spilling his guts upon the grass. Attempting to gather them in like rope he drops twitching and groaning to his knees.

I read the future of his people and their empire from his pulsing entrails.

Kneeling, I pick up a handful of blood soaked acorns and address my brother, “do not fear. Whilst tribes and empires rise and fall, the steady strength of oak will conquer all.”

Oak, St Mary's graveyard, Castle Hill