A Plague of Toads

Neve was cold when she woke, the sun gone from the window. She pushed to a sit, shaky but able. She was about to clamber out of the tub when . . . no. These waterlogged clothes would leave a river behind her. She needed to shed them while still in the bath. But that wasn’t so easy, not with Raesan lurking. What if he should enter? And where was her bathrobe? Hung on a hook on the back of the door. Not exactly within easy reach. But, no alternative, she would have to risk it.

It would have been easier had she first pulled the plug and let out the water. But the gurgling would have alerted Raesan. With hurried fingers she fumbled with tiny pearl buttons, then peeled the silk from her wet and cold skin. She shivered, jaws juddering. And Raesan was right of her backside. Stepping out of those now-rigid trousers, then climbing out of the bath, her buttocks did hurt.

She had just closed her fingers around the robe, was about to lift it from its hook, when she heard his tread on the stairs. “Raesan? Just wait a moment downstairs, huh? Till I’m dried and dressed.”

Without reply he obeyed. Maybe he wasn’t so bad.

Ten minutes later she collapsed on the settee. Raesan hovered. “You want coffee, yeh?”

Did she! “You’ll do it?”

He nodded. He was looking very sheepish.

“So, you fill the kettle with water and switch it to boil. And you’d best use the instant . . . you don’t understand, do you? Just take it from my head.” Like he’d taken everything else.

He returned shortly with a mug of steaming nectar.

“What day is this?” she asked once she’d settled the mug on the low table beside her. If she had missed work Ms Cox would fry her.

Raesan shrugged. But of course, what need had he to know the days of the week. Hadn’t she been the same for eighteen years – or at least until she extended the electricity into her bedroom and installed her first treasured computer. Before that, if she forgot to mark the calendar she was lost until reminded by the next butcher’s or baker’s or grocer’s delivery.

She dragged herself to the desk and powered the computer.

“Friggle jacks!” She stared at the date, sweating and feeling suddenly sick. With gestures and disjointed words she sent Raesan to fetch the phone, cradled on the wall in the kitchen.

“Ms Cox? . . . Yes, Ms Cox, I’m . . . Yes, I know I should have . . . No, Ms Cox, I’ve been ill . . . But I was stuck in my bed . . . No, the phone was downstairs . . . No, it’s flu, Ms Cox, nothing worse . . . No, truly, I was completely steam-rollered . . . No, Ms Cox, I’m sure by tomorr . . . Yes, I promise, Ms . . . No, I won’t let you down.”

She slumped with head in her hands.

“What happened to the days?” she asked Raesan, head still supported in her hands. “Wednesday, Raesan, it’s Wednesday.” She wished she had the strength for anger. But she’d not even the strength to sit up; that phone call had drained her. “Saturday. Sunday. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How, Raesan? Was I asleep all those days?”

“Lady, you dehydrated,” he said, weakly.

“Iwas lost in your memories all those days?”

“Lady, you kept taking them, don’t blame me. As soon as you died I—“

What!” She shot to a sit. “I did what?”

“Lady, you hadn’t a light.”

“No, Raesan, don’t turn away.” Were they tears in his eyes? And his body a mess of trembles.

“I got you into that water as fast as—”

“Yea, but how in Hell’s name did you think to submerge me in water would help rehydrate me? I needed to drink it, not swim in it!”

“You weren’t swimming. It’s known of Bellinn, yeh, like-to-like. Like when Olun slept all winter on that lake-bed. Remember? And, yeh, I ought to have known from when he tried to kill y—I mean when he tried to kill Kerrid, yeh, by stopping her air. But that’s how I knew what was needed.”

“You saved me?”

She had seen Kerrid on Widow Cob’s Cat. Like Raesan, her light was a bright yellow shimmer. She was Air. And this Olun—Raesan’s brother? Had he told her as much? He had tried to kill Kerrid by blocking her air-flow? Neve was Silver. As a Bellinn, a Mark, she was nigh indestructable, yet deprived of water, her element, she would die. And Raesan had saved her.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be shouting. But, Raesan, don’t you see, it still was your fault for not letting me out of your memories.”

“I said, you kept taking them. Lady, you think me like Olun?”

She slumped again on the settee. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely his fault. She had lost her sense of self, merged entirely with Guy. Drawn in by the fashions, the styling, the cuts. Trying to take it all in: the details, the stitching, the embroidery. Then around her the plants that were different; no American imports, nothing yet from the Himalayas, just indigenous plants in healthy profusion not yet treated as weeds. Even the horses hadn’t quite the same shapes as now in the twenty-first century. But it was the fabrics fascinated her most, the colours: wools dark and muted; linens natural, pastels and sun-bleached white; the bright and riotous silks. And the brocades! Stiff with their metallic embroideries, all aglint in the sun and the firelight. But once she had merged completely with Guy she’d no longer noticed these things. What a chance she had missed. That silk-like fabric the angel Gabriel had worn . . .

She laughed. Just listen to her: the angel Gabriel indeed. But Guy had accepted it. Here were the angels Michael and Gabriel, the big angels, yet to him it had been no big deal. She sighed. And finally realised her belly was grumbling.

“I’m gagging for food, Raesan, but I haven’t the strength. You know the chippy on the High Street?’” But, hells, she never ate chips. “Though I suppose you’ve no money?” She couldn’t think how much she had in her purse. She mostly used plastic.

“I don’t need your money.” He sounded offended. “You want fish and chips, yeh? Plaice? Cod? Haddock? They do chicken – proper legs.”

“Plaice.”

“Curry sauce?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Just plaice and chips will do.”

He nodded, still looking sheepish. Then the displaced angel was off to the chippy. After everything prior, that amused.

~ ~ ~

While Raesan was gone Neve checked out some facts. She started with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. She had a copy, a translation. She had a vague recollection, something of famine around the time of the threatened Danish invasion. She could remember her query at the time of reading, whether this was weather-related or as a result of King William’s own actions, destroying great swathes of crops and livestock, to deny food to any invading army, never mind that the peasants would starve.

She flicked through the pages until . . . 1086. The passage she wanted prefaced that entry.

A pestilence among cattle. Corn and crops left standing. Great misfortune with the weather. Great thundering and lightning, many men killed. And a famine over all England.

Great thundering and lightning . . . as on that night of Guy’s prayer. Was the storm that night a natural phenomenon? Or was it the dragon’s doing? And many men killed.

Next she checked on the Internet. Had there been studies made of the weather during that period? It seemed likely. And yea, she found what she wanted. A study by the University of East Anglia. There had been extensive coastal flooding that same year, though they put it down to a North Sea Surge.

Moreover another study published by the same university suggested that around this same time the river Bure had been diverted to its current course, its previous mouth being blocked by – she could not believe this – by wind-driven sand.

“No!” she exclaimed though there was no one to hear her. “It was caused by a dragon on-heat.”

While online she checked out Guy and his lord, Rauf Rainald.

Her first attempt yielded nothing. She cursed. She needed a copy of the Domesday Book. She hit the Amazon site, It was expensive, she resisted the purchase. She Googled Domesday Survey. Why pay when she could do it for free. And lo! But, so said the words in a bright bordered box, the site was still under construction. There was a list of the counties so far completed.

Luck was with her; there was Norfolk. She keyed in Covesby and anxiously waited while the programme searched its database. Would Covesby exist? The results were delivered to a new screen.

    • County: Norfolk
    • Hundred: West Flegg
    • Manor: Covesby
    • OE: Cofesbyr
    • TRE: Barn Hagni
    • Tenant-in-Cheif: Peter de Lissay
    • Subinfeudated: Miles fitzPeter
    • Details: 2 carucates of land; 4 villans; 10 bordars; 2 acres meadow; woodland for 5 swine; 8 ploughs in demesne; 8 ploughs of the men; 21 freemen with 45 acres; 10 sokemen; soke and sake with the earl and king.
    • Valued at: 20s.

20 shillings, £1, that didn’t seem much. But two more datafields on the screen gave additional holdings of Peter de Lissay. Altogether seven manors in Norfolk, two – the largest – held of Peter de Lissay by his steward, Hugh. Then further holdings listed in Suffolk and Essex, Dorset, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. But unfortunately the site didn’t yet cover South and West so she couldn’t check them out.  She did, however, with another search, find the town of Lissay in France, though no record of the de Lissay family.

Next she tried for Rauf Rainald and had equal success. He had but a handful of estates in East Anglia, his main holdings being northern. His brother was listed as holding of him. Had he no sons? So Adele was an heiress. No wonder she had refused lowly Guy.

She checked on Roger Bigod next and found confusion. Some sites gave him as sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, while others named him as earl.

In agitation she turned to the bookshelf. Something . . . she had read something . . . somewhere. She scanned the books’ spines for titles. Edward the Confessor. Normans. Hastings.  Plantagenets. Here it was, Hastings, the Aftermath. She pulled out the book, opened it at the back, ran her finger down the index. And turned to the page. This was it.

After Earl Ralph’s rebellion in 1075 King William refused to name any man earl of these two eastern counties.

She snapped shut the book. So if Roger Bigod ever was earl then it could only be after King William died.

But something still niggled her, something of sheriffs and earls. She had some sense of her missing something. But whatever it was, it was a thousand years gone and, twenty-first century, she needed fresh air.

As she entered the kitchen a sudden movement outside in the garden caught at her eye. She was through the next room in a flash, grasping the door-handle, key already turning. But she stopped. Outside was unnaturally quiet.

Slowly, soundlessly, she opened the door.

And the noises returned in a crash. The sounds of town traffic, barely muted by houses, the gulls mobbing a fisherman’s boat as he returned to the quay, the sparrows and starlings chirping and squabbling, the pigeons and collared doves sedately calling.

Next door’s cat sat on next door’s outmoded coalbunker, while by the back hedge, formed of a shouldering of flowering shrubs, the old leaves rattled.

Hand still grasping that cold metal handle, Neve scanned her eyes across the garden. She was surprised at how green it now seemed. It wasn’t only the daffs, spring finally had come. But there was no sign of the Watcher. It must have been her imagination. She closed the door.

Then it came to her, what had been niggling. If in 1086 there was no Earl of East Anglia, who was Hawk’s lord? For she clearly remembered Guy thinking that Hawk’s lord would protect him against the sheriff, for said lord was the earl and had the greater status. So who was he?

She wasn’t allowed to ponder long. Raesan returned with the plaice and chips.

~ ~ ~

Late afternoon, the sun finding no window, the house seemed dull. Raesan was out. Still weakened from the dehydration, yet Neve wasn’t sleepy, not after four days in a trance. But she couldn’t just lounge on the settee. She turned on the spotlight beside her; she would spend the time in embroidering. Ironically her current project, begun before she met Raesan, was a dragon. Now having seen Skimaskall she was tempted to unpick it and change the colours. It was styled after her grandfather’s seal. Not that she had thought the seal was actually his. She had thought it a family relic. Ivory-handled, intricately carved, like everything else, James Bullock had wanted to put it auction. She had refused.

iTunes played 60s rock though she was only part-listening – until there came a track by The Who. Suddenly she was on the school coach, returning from her first hockey match as part of the team. Carleston College had thrashed Thorpe End Middle. Everyone on the coach was in high spirits. Loud. Making jokes. Being silly. And on the radio played a song by The Who.

Such a catchy tune, with catchy words, of course they all joined it. But it was Laura who began it – Laura whose place on the team Neve had taken, Laura who now was demoted to reserve.

Laura’s coterie of sarki-souls soon joined in. Standing – though holding the seats as the coach lurked around corners. Pointing at Neve as they sang the chorus, changing the words. “She’s a gyp, she’s a gyp, but the girl won’t admit it.”

Miss Buckworth had allowed them their fun. Now she stood. Off went that radio. Down sat the girls, cheeks aflame. Miss Mason stirred from her z-rattled slumber.

“I take it this is directed at Nineve,” Miss Buckworth said, suddenly stern. “Because of her . . . complexion? And what a disgrace you all are. And that after she has saved us ten goals.” Neve played defence. ESP skills made it easy to anticipate the opponents’ intentions. “Nineve Carpory is not a gypsy. And were she, this still would be the most unacceptable behaviour.”

Neve had noticed Laura’s eyes seeking out Jazzy. So Jazzy had told her. Would she now repeat it? But Neve had given her no chance, into her head and stopping the words before were out.

It had not been the first time, their taunts of Paki! Nig-nog! A-rab! souring her first term at Carleston. But before, no one had dared say it openly. She’d heard it only in her head.

It had not been like that at the village school. The children there had taken no notice, assuming it was just that her skin darkened in the sun. And as a young child Neve had been always out in the sun, Helping Grandma with the gardening, seeding and weeding; milking Meenie and Minee, the goats. She helped to groom Old Bess, helped Grandma to harness her, then off they would go in the trap for a jaunt – though Neve always had known it was done just to distract her.

“I know my skin’s darker than yours,” Neve had said to Jazzy mid-way through that first term. She hadn’t wanted to go to Carleston, a girls’ boarding school. And her grandma hadn’t wanted to send her. But James had insisted. He’d said her grandpa had arranged it long ago before she was born. And it would take the pressure off Old Phoebe, bringing up the child on her own.

“I’m as English as you,” Neve had said. “My mother and grandma, both were born here. It’s only my grandma’s ma who was Rom.”

“What’s Rom?” Jazzy had asked. And fool Neve had told her.

So now instead of Paki and Nig-nog, they called her Gypo, still scorning.

She’d been nine years old when that song had played on the coach radio. Nine years old when she dampened her extra sensory skills, though it took another two years to totally close her ESP-ears so she’d not have to hear their barbed thoughts. Until then she had been able to produce credible illusions. It was easily done. Get into their thoughts, find what was there, rearrange them. She once had produced a plague of toads that hopped and croaked their way through the classroom. Mayhem ensued as their teacher squealed in horror and the children, laughing, chased the toads back onto the road.

Until she had vowed never again to use them, her tricks had been the same tricks as Raesan’s.

. _____ .

Next episode to be posted Tuesday 5th March: Aquilergy

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About crimsonprose

After years as a multi-colour octopus in entertainment, now chilling and writing
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4 Responses to A Plague of Toads

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    So, as you hinted, blame is not so clear-cut, and Raesan appears in a better light . . . though I’d still be tempted to commit mayhem on him. I like the touch about not being able to sleep after being in a trance for days, even though for her they were lively days. Brain and body in conflict, I imagine.
    Did you ever read Daphne DuMaurier’s “The House on the Strand,” her time-travel story back to the 1300s?

  2. Russell says:

    First, I really love “Friggle Jacks.” Neve is still pretty generous, as BB has said, but then again, she’s otherwise unharmed (as far as we know) and having the kind of experience she only dreamed about before Raesan came careening into her life.
    I admit I had to adjust my mental image of Neve when done reading this post, despite earlier references. Nice way to work that into a flashback, starting with The Who. Always liked that song.

    • crimsonprose says:

      Brought up by her gypsy grandma, sent away to girls’ boarding school, 18 yrs thereafter of nursing the old lady, no tv, no radio, no mixing, Neve is hardly likely to use stronger language. My daughters used to say ‘follicles’ (at least in front of me}, but Friggle Jacks has more delivery. And you’re right of Neve; Raesan might be annoying but he’s company, he transports her to her favourite period of history. And they share qualities. It must be awful to be outcast in so many ways. Alone. And she’s not exactly streetwise; a bit of an anachronism herself. As to the music, I have changed one or two of the original artists, thinking of publishing and copyright. Hence Wise Men Three are fictional, as are Gothic-B-Damned. If you’re interested I could post Neve’s and Raesan’s playlists. Not exactly the same tastes; she’s likes music with muscle, he likes to dance. And I’m glad you’re still enjoying it. Because I know what’s coming, I feel the reveal is slow. That’s me, impatient, would never make a stripper.

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