Prologue The Second : Tree of Crows

tree of crows titled

St Catherine’s Hill, Winchester – one generation before our present

 The character of The Curse, our intangible, nay bodiless narrator, revealing the motive of its summoner and present intentions

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Under oak trees ambered by the evening sun, on a hilltop, murderous with crow, My Lady summoned me from wind and stone…

A gust of air chilled the dampness on My Lady’s face and her sight dimmed as though a great abyss had opened beneath her feet. The feeling lasted but a second and with her grip firm upon the knife once more, she cut into the bark of the holly tree, once, twice, to expose a strip of living wood and make the mark complete.

She knew her craft and made me well; what she had sensed was not fear, for unlike her hand, her heart did not tremble once, but only me entering her being, just as she desired. Stone-dark and ice-wind, she welcomed me, despite the shiver in her flesh, and this is what I found in the one who made me. Love received is the scent of the rose, but spurned, disregarded, mocked, it is the flesher’s knife and within her breast My Lady felt only a semblance of life, for where the life should be the knife had done its work and she was empty, save for desire to be revenged. Her throat ached, cruel as a pinch, and she sniffed and cuffed her dripping nose. Her eyes, at least, were dry now but two pale salty streaks showed the path of tears.

And what did I feel that first moment? That this desire to avenge her hurt would pass, leaving only regrets and me, unwanted and orphaned by this girl. From the beginning I knew life was equally indifferent to those to whom it gives and those from which it takes and a just God is but a necessary dream.

Through My lady’s eyes, I saw a city suspended in a bowl of hills. Beyond it, the sun dipped to the horizon. Windows glowed, carriage lamps made little darting runs, like fireflies and a ship’s lantern crawled like a glow-worm seaward on a navigation. There was shadow pricked by flame, while about My Lady the walls of the ruined chapel and the oak trees blazed in the saffron of the dying sun. Yet in her heart was darkness: she was falling and could not help herself from falling; the physicality of her act, slight as it was, the cutting of runes and blood-marking, lay out of her will. She did not truly desire this moment but supped, knowingly, from the poisoned cup for she could not endure her thirst.

I heard, through her ears, only the shrieks of crows circling the hill and the tolling of a street crier’s bell. I find the names of things in her thoughts. The city is Winchester, there is the Minster, the many-towered building is The Tower, there is the Merchant Hall, the Bishop’s Palace, Saint Cross Road, and this hill is St Catherine’s, this ruin St Catherine’s Chapel.

And her name? Her name is yet denied her for she hears it still upon his lips so I shall call her My Lady of Remorse.

Those of ordinary means seek to build a wall against their hurt and troubles but that was not My Lady’s way. As any heart-broken, spurned through another’s act or lack of act, she had resorted to her strongest suit and with My Lady, this was enchantment, gramarye, magick, and she conjured not a wall but a weapon of revenge: Me.

Yet these thoughts lay behind her deed; they were the storms that cast the wave, not the wave itself, and in the moment of its breaking, in the moment of my making, what filled her mind was but one overwhelming impulse:

“I cannot live, I cannot breath, my pulse cannot drum – unless by this.”

The mark she cut is in the shadow cast by the tree and My Lady lit a candle stub to examine her work. Each cut she measured with the back of her knife and compared it to a drawing in her book. As she worked, she did not notice the book’s worn, irregular type, or the machine-sewn binding or the flimsiness of the paper, though she did recall the hooked face of the bookseller from whom she stole it.[1] Then she opened a white silk kerchief. Stained only with her tears, one corner had in blue embroidery two initials interlinked like serpents. In this she gathered the strands of bark cut from the tree, then tied it into a bundle.

The instructions clear in her mind, My Lady reached into her bag, drew out a bottle of dark green glass and removed its stopper. She poured half the contents over the handkerchief and the remainder across the bindrune. Sealed with muneblood, nothing could unbind these runes: cut the tree down, burn it, scatter the ashes, the runes had summoned the curse. She would be the vessel of the curse, the poisoned cup, she would pass it to the one who betrayed her, and in time, he would pass it to his firstborn son. An innocent would suffer but she was blind to that, she thought only that the guilty must suffer for the hurt he caused. A hollow scraped between the roots, My Lady buried the handkerchief with its fragments of bark concealed within.[2]

The act was irredeemable as murder and perhaps she was aware of this as she gathered the book and the now empty bottle into her bag; by removing her tools from sight she was also one part removed from what they had made, and she would hide that also, hide the mark upon the tree. Working quickly now, she scribed Mann, the holly rune above the bindrune and Beorc, the concealment rune, below, whereupon the marks faded to leave only a dark stain on the trunk.[3] She had chosen the tree with care. Its roots tunnelled into a crack in the rock, drawing strength from the purest form of earth and each green spike of leaf wove power from the wind. She stood at the edge of the cliff and held to its branches. The ground below called to her, its song a lullaby, an enchantment that offered perpetual sleep, but she would not give it satisfaction, not yet. Clouds hung grey and violet against the azure of the evening and overhead the first stars disturbed the heavens. The crows had ceased their chatter and settled for the night and from a square down in the city My Lady heard a band playing marching music: either Napoleon’s Retreat, or Hussar’s Hurrah; the tune came to her in fragments. At one moment it would clearly be one, then a moment later the other. Its foolish rhythm and discordant horns made her smile even though her heart wanted silence.

Later, when the sky had darkened to a violent bruise of yellow, plum and dried blood, and the Minster bell tolled nine and the band returned to their barracks, My Lady’s thoughts turned to leaving. Though she carried me in her breast, she felt as though a weight had lifted from her or that she had climbed to a great height and from it seen the farther view, and thought it sweet. She knew the path home even in the dark, but doubted she would need the knowledge again. She could not see herself returning to this place, not ever and her back turned upon the sunset, she walked into the darkling wood.

What my lady made of the remainder of her life need not detain us now. I am what she summoned from wind and stone; a curse laid upon an innocent son. In part this story is the story of that son and in lesser part it is the story of the many whom I searched among for one I might bless and thereby end my miserable, misbegotten existence. But above all, this story is mine and if I choose to share it, it is on my terms…

<<< Chapter One: The Lost Lamb >>> Chapter Two: Noblesse Oblige

©Tamburlaine Bryce MacGregor and Nevil Warbrook

[1] The book MacGregor describes appears typical of the many cheap (though no less effective in the wrong hands) magickal texts that widely circulated in the early nineteenth century. A discerning collector of magickal texts, or grimoires, MacGregor owned a pair of thirteenth century copies of the Seventh and Eighth Book of Moses, a Greek anothem, (the so-called ‘prologue to the Book of Genesis’ now regarded as a ninth century fake) papyri fragments in Samaritan and Aramaic and an early sixteenth century collection of volkskunde (a precursor to folklore) thought to have been transcribed by a young Martin Luther during his years at Erfurt University.  Editor

[2] It is a common misconception that when engraving marks of power only the finished article is significant while the part cut away is mere waste. In fact, the matter removed is of equal and diametrically opposite power and must be disposed of with care.  Editor

[3] The runes are Beithe & Fear in the Ionian system. For this and for all subsequent references to runes and their uses please refer to The Ionian Runes and Their Meanings. Editor

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