Andrew Knighton spent six years studying history, which qualified him to write this story and get angry at Mel Gibson films. “Holy Water” is the jamming together of various pieces of Cheshire folklore, the sort of fast and loose approach to history that got him angry at those films. What a hypocrite. He’s had over thirty short stories published in magazines and websites, and you can find out more online at andrewknighton.wordpress.com.
You can read the first part of Andrew’s story for Alt Hist for free below. If you would like to read more please order the first issue of Alt Hist.
by Andrew Knighton
The lady’s knees ached from days kneeling before the brightly painted statue. Like all of England, she felt the touch of drought. The Virgin Mary beamed down placidly upon her through the heat haze and dry, blurry eyes. Lady Hunwold felt inside out. Her mouth and throat were dry, and yet her skin was wet, dress clinging heavy and stagnant with sweat. Mind wandering she glanced down, to be certain that her soft, damp insides had not been pulled forth for examination in the nave, then gazed up again, guiltily, at the focus of her devotion.
‘Holy Mother,’ she whispered through parched lips, ‘please preserve us. We have weathered the storm of the Danes; let us not now die of drought. Our crops are failing, animals running mad from sun and heat. Men turn upon each other in rage and frustration. These past years, we have raised many churches in your Son’s name. Let our faith not be in vain.’
A cool answering breeze touched the bare backs of her hands, and, turning to peer through the chapel door, she saw dark clouds racing towards her from the west. There was a low, loud rumble, followed by the patter of raindrops falling on tiles. Lightning crashed down upon the surrounding hills, fierce winds shaking the church from floor to ceiling. She sobbed and heaved with joy, and Mary seemed, through eyes misty with tears and exhaustion, to be shaking too. Lady Hunwold swept the water from her eyes and looked up to see the holy mother lean forward to embrace her with open arms.
By the time Lord Hunwold found his poor, crushed wife she had long ceased breathing.
The statue swung slowly from the gibbet, blue and white paint flaking away around the noose. Oak and rope creaked from the strain. Despite her predicament, Mother Mary smiled softly down on Huw through the tumbling rain.
‘I still don’t see how God’s mother can be a murderer,’ he said.
Oswine looked down on the balding, curly head of the shepherd, grimacing as he watched a thick, gnarly finger plunge deep into a nostril and rummage vigorously for treasure.
‘Our Lady is not convicted of murder, her statue is,’ Oswine explained with a frown. ‘Though I admit, this work sits ill with me.’
‘Why are you here then?’ Huw asked.
‘Because, as Lord Hunwold’s clerk, I have been instructed to oversee the correct conduct of the execution. And to keep you from evading your sentence.’
‘Just because I farted in church, I’m burdened with this nonsense,’ Huw grumbled.
‘No. Because you hurled the miller in the duck pond.’
‘Aye, but no-one would have cared if I hadn’t farted in church.’
They stood for a while without speaking, the silence broken only by drumming raindrops and Huw chewing noisily on an apple.
‘King Edgar is at Farndon,’ Oswine said, staring at the hills as though he could see through them to the royal palace. ‘They say he is planning a great coronation with kings from all over Britain. Most of the lords of Cheshire have taken their clerks there, with gifts and oaths of allegiance. Mine has sent me to desecrate an image of our Holy Mother.’
Huw picked up a short branch that lay on the hillside, torn from its tree by the storm. Approaching the statue, he reached forward and prodded the dangling legs with increasing vigour.
‘Is it dead yet?’ he asked.
‘No more than it was a week ago,’ Oswine answered with a sigh. ‘I think we need to try something else.’
Huw pushed his way out of the tree-line, wet branches slapping at him as he emerged into a forest clearing. A lone rabbit watched from beneath the shelter of a clump of ferns as he trudged across the open space and dropped a pile of wood at Oswine’s feet.
‘What use is this?’ the clerk asked. ‘Look, it’s all rotten or tiny twigs.’
He grabbed a fistful of kindling and waved it under Huw’s nose. Then his eyes narrowed, squinting at the purple stains around the shepherd’s mouth.
‘Have you been eating blackberries?’
Huw swallowed. ‘They were just there in the wood. Would’ve been wasteful not to eat ‘em.’
‘You were meant to be gathering firewood, not foraging for fruit. How are we going to burn it like this?’
Oswine pointed to where the statue stood in the middle of the clearing. A pitiful collection of sticks and broken branches lay scattered around its feet, dripping into the mud. The rain had lightened to a drizzle, but showed no signs of stopping, a thin smear of water on the wind, soaking men and tinder alike. Mary stood unfazed, the weather pouring round and off her without leaving a mark.
‘Doesn’t bother me,’ Huw said with a shrug. ‘I don’t want to burn it anyway.’
‘But this was your idea!’
‘My idea was to leave the wretched thing where it was and go find somewhere dry. This was just a passing thought.’
‘I’ll give you passing thought if you don’t fetch some decent dry timber,’ Oswine said, cuffing Huw soundly round the head. ‘My lord says to execute the statue, and that’s what I shall do. It is my duty — though heaven knows the word means nothing to you.’
‘Perhaps he can explain it,’ Huw said as a large man in priestly robes burst into the clearing, his face like thunder.
‘Oswine, clerk of Lord Hunwold,’ he bellowed. ‘I will have words with you!’