An epic poem set in seventh-century Northumbria on the eve of the Synod of Whitby. Brother Oswin (who first appeared in Beagrie’s Leásungspell) travels to Streanæshealh across a wild landscape steeped in magic and folklore. There he is shunned as a boggart, elfking, merman and the cursed puck responsible for spreading the pandemic that rages through the kingdom. Meanwhile the politics of faith, fealty, liberty and power play out through the lives of the people he encounters. Written in a hybrid of Old English and Northern vernaculars, the book conjures a sense of place that runs deep into the collective imagination.
Cover image: Paul Summers, Hewer
Fæ muccel tides ealle þon woruld wæs hír; þá grinden o’ hir watters þá swégan o' hir heorte þá fléot-seglede clout o’ hir wamb, gréne æfenglóm o’ mi stream-ham fisċebánful, scrapful o' wealgifts; for héo beo couþþu an’ afeohred bie alfolcs giét belýfed bie swá feāw; þá Gadderer, þá Hréodtess, þá Riverwif. An’ i wæs náht giét æn o' hir gaddered trinccets, ungestréon, betimbrede – gelic Jonah wiðin þá gutten o’ þá hwæl; mealtan int’ ealle þá grete turnens an' singungs o' þá hæppeden ðæt seten o’ hiþerness nú. From swollen tides all the world was her, the grinding of her waters the brine-sealed robe of her womb, evening green gloom of my stream home full of fish bones, scrap-riddled fear-gifts; for she be familiar and afeared by everyone but believed by so few: The Gatherer, The Reed Witch, The River Wife. And I was nothing but one of her gathered trinkets, ill-gotten treasure, remoulded – like Jonah within the belly of the whale; melting into all the great swirlings and singings of the happenstances that fixed the present. i séon þa peerans o’ Angelcynn an’ inboren yond sċeadwast o’ trēowes an’ leáf-twiges, món-rippell, friþcandel-scīne, steorr-glenten, an’ þær lust an’ willnung for þys dræd-stead; an’ i hlalhafd æf mi buttucs fæ þær splitness, níþe ‘em þær eorðbúend freodom te mi þralldom. Dyde þæge witnys min niðeweard unscrýd crēopen? Dyde þæge heorcian min brynewielm bewailen? Giet, aswellan o’ burnen an’ byren o’ lifen swá Helletess Peg’s wreccan níedling æn dai, swá héo slépeth i slipest hir line, snícest fíor æf fræ hir horpytt an’ bedd, upcyme fleótan, toweard frumleoht, fersċ erlyft an’ briddsang beweorpen þa spellion o' Stoccholm gylt. I saw the spying eyes of Angles and natives beyond the reflections of trees and branches, moon ripples, the glimmer of candles, starlight, and their lust and desire for this dreadful place; and I’d laugh my arse off at their quandary, envy their earthbound freedom to my captivity. Did they witness my lowly unclothed creeping? Did they hear my fiery waves of wails? Yet, swollen of burnings and befitting of living as Demoness Peg’s wretched slave one day, as she slept, I slipped her tethering, snuck far off from her mudhole and bed, floating upward toward the dawn light, fresh air and bird song casting off the conspiracy of Stockholm Syndrome. Brecung þa watter’s scimeren hȳd te gulpen a gobful o’ hunig sun-brēowed geþyll, swéte swá Lindisfarne meodu, fingors ġefaren fea lyfthelme an’ scrabbel toweard þa undēopra an’ oferslincen hyngrede sucen stencen gyra til fyrma grund canne upheald þa bodiġ’s wyht, roccs scæfe scinbánes an’ anclēowes; i macan fea þa becmūþa dreflian int’ ealdlic stream, slippian on mud an’ oferclimben lōges, níedgripen tréow wyrt an’ togung on þúfes o’ rieds, te craeft a hwyrftweg, gién þa sunnbéames flēahon dimme cwic-winds swæpen þa laguflód, bemænan and grommelen, sócn wiðin æfre núcc, áþerscan bulruscas, hweopan þa watters te hrycges, an’ i cunne Cwen Peg hæfd onwōcen befinden mi gan. i scúdan æt hir wylfen hlynnen, hir streng o’ cursas, hir unbletsung snér o’ wyrgung ġefeallen lic regn, an’ cuðe mynd hir gristbite an’ scripen næglas, ēagan clinced storm-blast tíht swá heofonfyr cracast þa uplyft an’ þa wapelaþ cymme lic a wealhháfoc. Breaking the water’s shimmering hide to gulp a gobful of honey, sun-brewed air, sweet as Lindisfarne mead, fingers reaching for the sky and scrabbling toward the shallows and sliding over hungry sucking, stinking slime till firmer ground could support this body’s weight, rocks scrape shin bones and ankles. I make for the beck-mouth pouring into the stream slipping on mud and clambering over logs, gripping onto tree roots and tugging on tufts of reeds, to craft an escape, but the sun beams fade to dimness, quick winds sweep the river moaning and growling, searching in every nook, thrashing bullrushes, whipping the water to ridges, and I know Queen Peg has awoken to find me gone. I shudder at her wolfen howling, her string of curses, her hexes’ snare of condemnation falling like rain, and picture her gristly bite and scraping nails, eyes screwed storm-blast tight as lighting cracks the skies and the downpour comes like a war hawk. Belīefen hit wīs te clymme út o’ þa becwatters fæ þa déadlic clyċċaþ o’ þa stream-dēofol i wræstian wyrmlic onte þa drencan eorð, ofstageran int’ þa þiccetes te hunccor, schiferen undra blǣsted, hlining tréowboles ābīden þa stormfiell an’ gehilden þa puddels swellen, brædan an’ spillen. An’ wiðin þa rippelan runnells i seo mi an’ Iohannes swá twa snot-nebbed baerns splaccen an’ bewylwen ymbut in swelc puddels æfore geten a cleot ymbut þa lugs beo ower wrāþan mōdor fæ cumen hām smittan in clām, an’ i wundor hwæt hæst becum o min bróðor? þæs puddels risc lic ælfisc int’ þa bersten fǣme o’ þa cyrnen bec swá if te niedfinde Cwen Peg. Hwíltídum héo hæfd traht mi wið cyndnes, callian mi Polwigge, stroccaþ mi, aswebban an’ féding mi truffes o’ frocgaleges, bíetles, snægeles, scrimpe, an’ seawyrt. Hwíltídum héo smothred mi in sibbecosses an’ swéte bletsunge þonne rād mi lic a lufiend. Hwíltídum héo wæs sorgful, grorn, an’ brynetéar-méðe. Hwíltídum héo wæs oféstlic, gilpsceaðan in oféstnesse, an’ bite an’ scripe mi sæyen héo mōst gobblen mi úp, snæd bie snæd, an’ scodst héo beġinst wið an earfingor? Scodst héo rēofe út min tunge oþþe bettra te rende æf a flǣsċclympe fea mi buttucs? Mi mynd beo a misthelm o’ didderens an’ i wundor hū lang hæfd i beon hir plæg-þinge? Believing it wise to climb out of the beck waters, from the deadly clutches of the river devil I writhed like a worm onto the drenched earth, staggering off into the thickets to hunker, shivering under blasted, leaning tree trunks to wait out the storm and watch the puddles swelling, co-mingling and spilling. And within the rippling runnels I saw me an’ Iohannes as two snot-nebbed bairns splashing an’ rolling about before getting a clout about the lugs by our irate mother for coming home smeared in filth, an’ I wonder what has become of my brother? These puddles rush like eels into the bubbling foam of the churning beck as if coming home to Queen Peg. Sometimes she treated me with kindness, calling mi Tadpole, stroking me, calming and feeding me titbits of frog’s legs, beetles, snails, shrimp and seaweed. Sometimes she smothered me in soft kisses and sweet blessings then rode me like a love fiend. Sometimes she was sorrowful, agitated, and weary from weeping. Sometimes she was bitter, arrogant in spite, and would bite and scratch me saying she must gobble me up, piece by piece, and should she begin with a little finger? Should she rip out my tongue or better to tear off a fleshy lump from my buttocks? My mind is a fog of tremors and I wonder how long I have been her plaything. Amangst drippian þýflas ont’ bedd o’ fællen leafs i séce te mimboran þa lifu i hæfd lǣd beforen i becymest þa feend-gyrele’s galdorspun wætling, þær wære glowerans, plaeces, healf-hoerd swégas, a ród, a fyr, a godwif, an æld mann, a Hāliġ Mōdor, þær beo wæ mægden, þa bera wealdan a wyr-æxe gíet þæge wære dreamlic dwimor an’ gliderunge; hwæþþre æn glieword stil hrang ymbut min héafod lic þa cnyll o’ þa circanbell callian æll te weorðscipe; Streanæshealh. Streanæshealh. Streanæshealh. þa abbodríce o’ herigendsang setan heáh ont’ hwít clifs fleótan ont’ efenhléoðor, friðu an’ glengful wið godwebb belócian þa bai hwær þa Esk métes þa brimflód; an’ i cūþe in mi breosthord ðæt beo hwær i níedgan. Among dripping shrubs and a bed of fallen leaves I seek to remember the life I had led before I became the fiend-girl’s enchanted wetling, there were flickerings, places, half-heard voices, a cross, a fire, a good wife, an old man, a Holy Mother, there was a young maid, the bear wielding a war-axe but they are dreamlike phantoms and slipperings; although one word of joy still rings about my head like the knell of the church bell calling all to worship; Streanæshealh. Streanæshealh. Streanæshealh. The Abbey of Praise Songs set high on white cliffs floating on choral voices, peace and adorned with flags overlooking the bay where the Esk meets the sea and I know in my heart that is where I need to go. Lætemest þa reġn wæcens þouh hlynnen windas stil blāwe. Niðer wiðin þa wudu dene þær beo næ landmearcs te aline minsylf, þouh þa wendan bec beo ġewiss te beflōw fæ úplonds fortreding fea þa hyllas. i heor min hungor grollen intone wið þa glubben becflod. Suðanlic a drumblebeā cymmes fimblen þurh þa tréows te tirgan ymbut mi, fǣtt furbeall sprecled wið blōstmcrums gaddered for swéte frummeolc beflēahen nēah, þonne setlede ont’ min forearm swá sefteful swá ælfcosses. i wilcumen þa hunig-mægden wið a hwispra æfore hit eftfléow int’ lyft gíet hit stæððan clys, flíetee nēah wiðin hits tumbian drāne, seglung eaf ænlic te eftcyme hweorfan an’ trendelan ymbut mi. þrigtide hit gan flíeten i ġeċēose te fylgaþ hwærþæra hit dwilst. At last, the rain lessens although howling winds still blow. Down in the wooded dene there are no landmarks to align myself although the winding beck is sure to flow from highlands running from the hills. I hear my hunger grumbling in tune with glugging beck song. Suddenly a bumblebee comes fumbling through the trees to buzz about me, fat fur ball speckled with pollen gathered for sweet flower milk flying close, then settles onto my forearm as soft as elf kisses. I welcome the honey maiden with a whisper before it flits off into the air but it stays close, flying near within its tumbling drone, sailing off only to return whirling and wheeling about me. On the third time it goes flitting I choose to follow wherever it leads. Hit cymmes bæcc te mi swá i wæf þruh þa wudu; þær beo a bygantide hwen i dyde tenden þa hýfe helpien æld Wunstan tilian þa mynster’s swearm gaddering þa hunigtéaras on wearme Sumer ǣfennas, sweðedlen þa hýfe in scipwullfleos fea Winterhrīm. i mimboran Wunstan sprǣcen þa drumblebeās, tellian tídungs o’ æl þa cymmens an’ gannens, swiþost ænig seócnes oþþe deáp wiðin þa friþgeard. Hwen i āscod hwi, he dyde locian ymbut in beweredon þonne sæd inan smylt hwicta swá næ oþþre sáwol miht heor, ‘Beās ābær ærendspræc betwuxl þa cwicc an’ þa deád.’ i mimboran anoþþre beā ðæt stang a wæ laddie hwo cymme rinnen te mi wiðin a wylmas o’ téaras, þa deád beā hylde in brádhand an’ i swæpende hi úp tellian hi æll wolde beo fullhál, þouh i willnæ þenc on ðas tímnes næ on hwæt becyme o’ mi bearns. ‘Hwær ðu lædnes in yower wagian weg wæ Clæfercwēn?’ It comes back to me as I weave through the woods; there was a bygone time when I tended the hive helping Old Wunstan manage the minster’s swarm gathering the honey tears on warm Summer evenings, swaddling the hive in sheep’s fleeces for the Winter’s ice. I remember Wunstan speaking to the bees, telling them news of all the comings and goings, especially of sickness or deaths within the sanctuary. When I asked why, he looked about warily then said like a gentle breeze so no other soul might hear, ‘Bees bear messages between the living and the dead.’ I remember another bee that stung a small boy who came running to me in waves of tears, the dead bee held in his palm and I swept him up telling him all would be well, although I will not think on those times nor on what became of my bairns. ‘Where do you lead in your wending way little Clover Queen?’ Wé gelísedon ofer swaðes o’ stencen hramsacrop, beorht clystres o’ gylden ǣġwyrt, ofer fixene fótspor an’ forlætan feþra læcced ont’ twigu lic bansegns hwen wé cymme te an altare hydden in þa graf bewarenen wið blōstmas, trincets, smiþcræfted heorts ídola offrunga an’ crúcas āhēngen ont’ bēn bedes. þa hearga hringende beo weaxcandel stybbas þa tréowrind cyrfen wið ruh heawan rúnstafas. Amangst þa wyrt æt þa fōt a hlided clǣġ pott. i mynd þys beo a memborangung te a luf forloren, perhappon æn hwo selfmyrðered hi fea gnornsorg. i wæcc þa drumblebeā ċirculflíet þa pott wiðin hwilc i befinde þrig hunig crompehts hwilc þa heargan’s cargást wylt næ cearu if i feriġe te eáþnes min gnagen hungor, swéte te swæcc if a miccel drie, i þanc þa Clæfercwēn for héo gyfte. We slipped over pungent swathes of wild garlic bright clusters of golden dandelions, over fox prints and discarded feathers caught on twigs like banners, when we came to an alter hidden in the grove adorned with flowers, trinkets, hand carved hearts, idols, offerings and crucifixes hanging prayer beads. The shrine was ringed by wax candle stubs the tree bark carved with rough-hewn runes. among the roots at the foot a lidded clay pot. I suspected this was a memorial to a lost loved one, perhaps one who slew himself from deep sorrow. Watching the bumblebee fly in circles around the pot I opened it to find three honey cakes which the shrine’s ghost would not care if I foraged, to ease my gnawing hunger, sweet to taste if a little dry, I thanked the Clover Queen for her gift. i steartl æt a scrycc an’ huncor niðerung amangst þa undragrowð glæran ymbut te seo þrig bearns ont’ trod giopian lic gefrosted gawccs in fryhtu, þa lytlum gyrele gewailen, héo gob lic geopen græfhús, ēagan lic fyllmona, þa middlen, a lad gehywllan út, ‘Bogart! þær beo fȳlþie hob-fiend befúlian fæder’s hearga!’ Hwil þa ieldest, néahlic a mann, pýcdede úp a sticca an’ hurlen hit æt mi gyllen, ‘Begannen dēofolcyn!’ þonne te hys bróðor an’ wæ sweostor hé barccest, ‘Flíehest ham cwicc swá ðu mōst, bringest þa wergang.’ i nied næ heor nænig mára swá dyde ofsceót hléopen þurh þa tréows lic a huntoþ héahdéor. I startle at a shriek and hunker down low among the undergrowth glaring about to see three bairns on the trail gawping like frozen gorks in fright, the little girl wailing, her mouth like an open tomb, eyes like full moons, the middle one, a lad barking out, ‘Bogart! There is a filthy hob-fiend befouling father’s shrine!’ While the eldest, nearly a man, picked up a stick and hurled it at me yelling, ‘Begone devil-kin!’ then to his brother and wee sister he barked, ‘Run home, quick as you can, bring the men folk.’ I didn’t need to hear any more so shot off, leaping through trees like a hunted stag. Æfore lang i heor þa beorcan o’ hundas an’ wer an’ cunne hie beo ont’ mi spor, þa sunu beorht an’ hát, bacen þa lond ðæt stéams æftre þa storm. i feol min scinn byrnen undra þa fýrleóma swá i snyre þruh speccals o’ leafsċeadwe swóretten an’ orðen an’ scudian úp þa ghyll an’ oferhleipen tréowefeall, næ wyrġen ymbut netel stingas næ pricþornes scripen æt mi. Þonne þa lond sméðnes ūt an’ þa stréamfaru slāwaþ widian te a smyltpól þrangen bie héah hréodes, i ġestille te læcc min brǣþ æt þa glimwatters brēost, seo in wælgryre min sċēawere int’ sunscín stricel: þa frocgalic boggart wið speccalan grénescí, blegne te scealu, wið starian blōdscottan fisclic ēagan. Næ wunder þa þrig bearns scrycced in frytu. Agæst i am æt þa yfelweorc Peg hæfd dón on mi. Wið þa blæst gannen nēahra i ġewade int’ þa pól, félnyss cólness aswefe min drie byrnan scinn, strocce min werig lims swá i gliddre niðer amangst þa stemnas o’ liliflodwyrt te ræst an’ abide til þa huntans oferleóran, sċylded bie þa daroþlácende flyht o’ dracaflégan Before long there’s the barking of hounds and men and ken they be on my tail, the sun bright and hot, baking the land that steams after the storm I feel my skin burning under the fiery rays as I hasten through speckles of leaf shadow sweating and panting and scrambling up the ghyll leaping over fallen trunks, heedless of nettle stings, briers and sharp thorns raking my bare skin. Then the land smooths out and the stream slows widening to a calm pool thronged by high reeds, I stop to catch my breath at the water’s glimmering breast, see in horror my grim reflection in the sunlit fount: the froglike boggart with speckled green flesh, blistered into scales, wide staring blood-shot fisheyes. No wonder the three bairns shrieked in fright. Aghast I am at the evil work Peg has done on me. With the uproar drawing closer I wade into the pool feeling its coolness ease my dry burning skin, stroke my weary limbs as I glide deeper among the stems of waterlilies to rest and wait until the hunt is abandoned, guarded by the darting play flight of dragonflies.
‘In the mischievous spirit of Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac or George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers, Beagrie’s invented codex rollicks along the whale-road into the reader’s heart.’
‘Erudite, engaging, attuned to the pulse of the past and the voice of the people, prepare to be challenged and enthralled by this monumental landmark collection.’
‘Historically informed, politically aware. Beagrie has clearly marked out his territory: his timeslip-style and visionary re-imaginings do for his natal Northumbria what Alan Garner does for Alderley Edge.’