Authors: Kirsty Ferry
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Collections & Anthologies
The Memory of Snow
The Memory of Snow
© Kirsty Ferry 2012
All rights are reserved. No part of this publication
may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without
prior written permission of the copyright owner.
All characters depicted within this publication other
than the obvious historical figures are fictitious and any resemblance to any
real persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
The moon shone over the frosty landscape, gilding everything
with unearthly silver. The two men picked their way across the fields,
stumbling now and then over ridges in the ground and lumps of stone embedded in
the crunchy grass.
‘How much further?’ hissed the younger
‘Not far,’ replied his companion, a stocky figure silhouetted
by the candle-light which spilled out from his miner’s lamp. ‘It’s down here. I
saw them working on it.’
‘What if they’re still about, guarding it or something?’
The older man snorted with laughter.
‘Guarding the place? Howay, Tommy. Who’s going to nick any of
that stuff anyway?’
‘But we’re nicking...’
‘No! We are not nicking stuff. We are liberating stuff. John
Clayton’s got enough at his place along the road. Truth be told, they say he’s
been giving it away anyway. You could come and stand around watching like the
Lords and Ladies, and be a little begging dog if you want. But this is the
man’s way of doing it, the lead miner’s way.’
‘Clayton is eighty four, man! Can we not let him have his
little bit of glory, Ralph?’
‘Glory? He’s had enough of that as well. He’s done alright
for a town clerk, that man. But it’s us, see, who need to find out what’s going
on up here. I’ve heard there’s some sort of treasure trove. And them
archaeologists blokes, they’re not working at the weekend, right? So we can
take our time. The other lads are comin’ later on. I reckon about thirty of
them’ll come down. We want to get there first. It’s kind of like our right
anyway– if it wasn’t for our lads discovering it, the top blokes would be none
‘I don’t know, Ralph. It’s a bit weird down here. I’ve heard
tales. A lad in Hexham said it was haunted.’
‘Rubbish. It’s a story they’ve put about to discourage honest
folk like us. They want to hang onto it all for themselves. Ah. Here it is.
Look. They’ve got it all penned off.’
Tommy shuddered and looked around him.
‘It’s spooky, man.’
‘It’s nigh on midnight in the countryside, Tommy. Nae lights.
That’s all it is, lad. Come on.’ Ralph ducked under the ropes and unfolded his
sack. Setting his lamp down on the grass, he peered into the marshy pool before
him. Lined with blocks of stone, the water glowed like mercury in the
half-light of the moon. A tray lay next to the pool, covered in canvas. Ralph
lifted the cover and smacked his lips. ‘You little beauties,’ he said.
The tray was full of small, round, dirty objects; Roman
coins, he was willing to bet. He grabbed a handful of relics from the tray and
shoved them into his sack. His contacts had promised this – they said they
would sell for quite a few pounds, if he saw the right man in Newcastle.
‘I don’t know, Ralph. It’s just...wrong. We shouldn’t be
here. Those things were put there for a reason,’ whispered Tommy. The place had
a queer feel to it, he thought. Not quite right. It felt like they were nicking
the lead from the church roof or something.
‘These things were put there years ago, mate. Who’s going to
miss them now? Easy come, easy go,’ replied Ralph, scooping another handful out
of the tray. ‘Do you think they counted these? You reckon they know how many
there were?’ he asked. ‘Not to worry. There’ll be plenty more in that Well.
Load of old rubbish anyway; bleedin’ gods and goddesses and water nymphs.’ He
laughed. ‘More like a dumping ground. Look at it all. We’ll get a canny price
for these, mate, see if we don’t.’
‘There’s some altars or something, Ralph. Standing up in the
field over there. It must be canny deep for them to have put those things in
it.’ Tommy stood up and shivered, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. ‘Come on, I
think we’ve got enough now,’ he said, folding over the top of his sack.
‘There’s tons of stuff!’ muttered Ralph, not listening. ‘I
think there’s a box of jewellery over here as well. Oh yes. Come here, my
lovelies…’ He rummaged through the tray, the pins and brooches cold even
against his October fingertips.
‘Ah no, you can’t take them!’ cried Tommy. They’re bound to
have written that lot down.’
‘Ye could be right, my lad,’ said Ralph. ‘Best to maybe take
things they haven’t picked out of the water yet. Come on, let’s have a dip into
it.’ He leaned over the Well and stared into it. The water had an oily, muddied
cast from this angle. Ralph pulled a face. ‘It’s ganna be chilly, lad, but it’s
worth it.’ He plunged his hand in up to the elbow and gasped with the cold. The
water was so icy it almost burned him. Ralph swore loudly, but churned up the
water, groping around for something, anything before he lost all sensation in
his arm. His fingers finally closed around something hard and rounded. ‘Gotcha,
my beauty,’ he said, and he pulled the object out of the Well. He shone his
lamp over it carefully and scraped the mud off it. Then he screamed.
Clutched in Ralph’s hand was a smooth piece of bone; the top
of a skull. Globs of mud dropped from it, plopping back into the Well, breaking
away from the curved edges which seemed to be the top of the eye sockets
Ralph dropped the thing to the ground, still screaming and
the skull rolled towards Tommy, touching him on his foot.
‘Aaaah! Aaaah! Get it away!’ yelled Tommy, jumping up and
down, his lamp swinging wildly from his hands. ‘Is it real? What’s it doing
here? Was it an animal?’ Ralph joined in the shrieking, slapping his hand back
and forth across his breeches, wiping the mud off and trying to get rid of the
sensation of touching the skull. ‘I divvn’t kna, I divvn’t kna!’ he kept
‘Ralph, what’s that?’ howled Tommy. A shadow was breaking
away from the area around the Well; a black mass that seemed to swell and grow,
morphing into the shape of a man.
‘Run!’ yelled Ralph. ‘Quickly. Get away from it!’ He grabbed
the sack and his lamp, and leaped over the ropes, shouting back towards Tommy
to follow him. Tommy screamed and pelted after Ralph, the pair of them heedless
of the uneven ground, stumbling and tripping as they ran away from the Well.
The coins bounced around in the sack, but the men did not slow down until they
were well away from the dig.
Far behind them, the black mass moved towards the Well and
stood over the skull. Then it faded into the moonlit landscape, becoming part
of the shadows once more.
The white-clad figure knelt by the spring. Around about her,
the hills glowed emerald in the lowering light of the Autumn Equinox.
‘Blessed Coventina, I thank you on this, our celebration of
Mabon. The hours of darkness and hours of daylight are equal, the wheel has
turned. Summer is over, but our harvest has been plentiful. Take these
offerings and bless my people. I pray to you and the sacred water nymphs,
thanking you for our food and asking for your help to carry us through winter,
towards Yule and then towards Imbolc and the promise of new life.’ The girl
threw a handful of grains into the Sacred Well and watched as they swirled and
separated, eventually sinking out of sight. ‘Please accept these gifts as a
sign of my devotion.’
She closed her eyes and trailed her fingers through the clear
water, feeling the coolness against her skin. An owl skimmed past her, the air
current beneath its beating wings barely moving her fair hair.
As Meggie prayed, the air settled and became still in the
little hollow at the bottom of the slope. She opened her eyes and stared around
her, aware of the shift in the atmosphere. Her gaze alighted on an uneven mound
of earth to the east; an abandoned fort, silent now for twelve hundred years.
Fallen debris and stones littered the structure, but here and there, traces of
a rampart or a wall jutted out of the grass.
Meggie looked up. The setting sun glinted off something
before the earth swallowed it; a figure stood silhouetted on the mound, a cloak
appearing to flap around its body. It seemed to be grasping something in its
hand; a sword or a weapon of some description. A flash of light bounced off it.
Meggie blinked, refocusing her grey eyes on the figure.
The owl swooped past her again. The girl ducked her head as
the bird’s wings brushed her hair. When she looked back at the mound of earth,
the figure had gone.
The long, hot summer had baked the ground to a husk. Dead,
yellow grass covered the hillside, with dusty patches of brown speckling the
countryside like a thrush’s wing.
In the valley below Carrawburgh Fort, the earth shrank back
from the corner of a grey slab. Slowly, inch by inch, it pulled away, exposing
three stone altars. Touches of red and green paint clung to the letters carved
into the stone.
DEO INV M L ANTONIVS PROCVLVS PRAEF COH I BAT ANTONIANAE VSLM
"To the Invincible God Mithras, Lucius Antonius
Proculus, prefect of Antonine's Own First Batavian Cohort willingly and
deservedly fulfills his vow."
D IN M S AVL CLVENTIVS HABITVS PREF COH I BATAVORVM DOMV
VLTINA COLON SEPT AVR L VSLM
"To the Invincible and Most-Sacred God Mithras, Aulus
Cluentius Habitus, prefect of the First Batavian Cohort, of the Ultinian voting
tribe, a native of Colonia Septimia Aurelia Larinum, willingly and deservedly
fulfills his vow."
DEO INVICTO MITRAE M SIMPLICIVS SIMPLEX PREF VSLM
"To the Invincible God Mithras, the prefect Marcus
Simplicius Simplex, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow."
The sacred water from Coventina’s Well had preserved the
temple for centuries; blocked with offerings, the spring had flooded the ground
nearby, protecting the stone building buried deep in the marshland.
The temple belonged to the cult of Mithras. A dark,
mysterious place where no sunlight was allowed. But now, it had decided to
expose its secrets.
Janus shifted position, wriggling his toes inside his leather
sandals. This bleak northern territory was one of the worst places in the
Empire. He blew on his hands to warm them and frowned as he saw the nailbeds
with their blue-ish tinge. He lifted his head and his eyes settled on the
Temple to the south west of the fort. Suffering this cold was beyond
comprehension; at least Mithras the Sun God could be relied upon to bring
warmth to the legions at Carrawburgh.
Janus could see the soldiers moving around the temple from
his station on the fort. His friend Marcus had told him he had bought a new altar
for the temple. Janus saw two men carrying a rectangular object into the
building and smiled as he realised this was the latest addition to the
building. It would be dedicated within the next few days. Marcus had described
the altar to Janus as they bathed one evening.
‘I have requested them to carve rays of light by the head of
Mithras. When the Father lights a torch and lays it behind the altar, a
flickering glow will illuminate the rays – a true Sun God, yes?’
Janus had nodded, sinking deeper into the hot water.
‘And will that make the Sun God look upon us fondly, my
friend? It is far too dreary in this place. I do believe Mithras has been
avoiding us.’ He plunged his head beneath the water and emerged, shaking his
hair out like a dog. The water laid it sleek against his skull, glistening the
blue-black of a raven’s wing.
‘Ah, Janus my friend. Do not be disheartened. We have much to
look forward to at this outpost. We have been promised a celebration for
Saturnalia; and shortly after that, our new Commander will be taking up
‘I have heard a rumour that he is a Christian,’ he said,
placing his hands on the edge of the bath. He raised himself out of the pool
and stood on the side looking down at Marcus. Rivulets of water dripped down
his body, making channels between the well-defined muscles on his chest.
‘A Christian?’ laughed Marcus. ‘I do believe our god Mithras,
along with the goddess Coventina and the sacred water nymphs will defy him in
some way then. This land is dedicated to them. A Christian is no match for our
‘Yes. It is a pity they say the ordeal pit in our temple is
no longer in use. I feel our brothers in the cult may have been able to convert
him back, given the opportunity.’
‘Maybe,’ smiled Marcus. ‘Yet the rumours could be unfounded.
If that is not so, then I hope he does not appear before the Saturnalia
celebration. That would be an ordeal I am not willing to go through with.’
‘Ah, so Lucius was speaking the truth when he suggested you
would favour dressing as a woman for this celebration?’
‘It is tradition, my dear Janus. Men dress as women, masters
as servants. The ordinary rules of life are turned upside down.’
‘But, my friend, there is no rule to say you have to enjoy it
quite so much as you appear to do,’ said Janus. Laughing, he turned and made
his way back towards the dressing room, Marcus’ protestations lost in the
echoes of the other conversations in the bath house.