“But if we were all killed by the serpent, that wouldn’t help anybody!” – Gillaume ‘Le Canard’ de Rouen, later explaining why he had elected to begin the encounter with the wyrm so far back up the tunnel.
XII- EARTHING THE WYRM
Medigas of Florence, Corwynn mac Murchan, Ugo, and Guillaume de Rouen crept down the tunnel to the mouth of the funnel-shaped cavern so they could all take a look at this seemingly sleeping wyrm. Coil upon coil of steely-scaled serpent lay half in submerged the little pool. Each coil looked to be between two and three feet in diameter. Neither its head nor tail were visible, being apparently tucked somewhere within those massive coils. The mound of wyrm heaved almost imperceptibly in a rhythmic fashion, which gave the impression it was sleeping. They crept back up the tunnel and Medigas started to draw his plan against the serpent.
He first ensorcelled the swords of Ugo and Guillaume, for he wished them to try to draw or chase the wyrm into the narrow tunnel in which they now stood. Then he caused two long, narrow stalacmites to form from the ground of the tunnel. These grew out at a sharp angle to the floor with the sharp end pointed up the tunnel away from the wyrm. His plan was to have the three grogs drive the wyrm into the tunnel toward him. As long as the wyrm moved only forward, it should glide easily over the two stalacmites. Once the wyrm was part way over them, Medigas would cause a third stalacmite to growout of the floor pointing toward the wyrm and preventing it from advancing. He would then try to scare the wyrm backward and the wyrm, in its haste, would impale itself upon the two stone spikes at its midsection.
Ugo asked if it would be more expedient to dress one of the grogs, Guillaume perhaps, in spiky armour and induce the serpent to swallow him, but Guillaume quacked angrily at this and Medigas pointed out that they had no spiky armour and that the plan was probably too risky.
And so Ugo crept into the funnel shaped cavern and sidled his way along the perimeter wall, being careful not to wake the snake. The bones and stone shingles on the ground beneath his feet protested with a dry chinking clatter as he trod over them, but the wyrm stirred not. Soon Ugo was on the far side of the cavern. He stood in the mouth of the far tunnel and waited.
Next, Corwynn, who stood on the near edge of the pool, tried to wake the wyrm. It was his job to attract the wyrm’s attention and draw it up the tunnel to where Medigas and Guillaume waited. Ugo was to charge the snake when its head had entered the tunnel, which is why he now waited on the far side.
Corwynn held out his arm and let the end of his quarterstaff fall, as if he had dropped it by accident. He wanted it to look like it was an accident just in case the wyrm was intelligent and objected to being woken. The staff made a loud clattering noise, but the wyrm seemed not to notice. He banged the end of the staff a few more times, but to no effect. Frustrated, he bent down and picked up a good sized piece of shale and flung it at the serpent. This time the wyrm turned.
There came a loud rasping noise as the steely coils began to move against one another. They seemed to move in opposite directions as the serpent unwound, and finally a large, snake-like head emerged from the centre of the mass. It raised itself up into the air, swinging around as it did so, and its gaze came to reston Ugo! It’s beady black eyes stared malevolently at him.
Seeing the flaw in the plan immediately, Ugo decided against running down the tunnel at which entrance he stood. For one thing, he had no idea where it went or what the terrain within was like. He knew only that it led to Rath mac Suibhne’s mines. For another, he thought that the snake would likely charge after him – which meant moving away from the others and the deadly stalacmite trap. He decided, therefore, to try and run past the snake and up the tunnel toward Medigas.
Ugo bolted into action and charged to the left. The wyrm lunged at him with lightning speed, flickering its tongue as it opened its mouth. Ugo tried to fend off its head with his sword, but failed and it bit down hard on his arm. He winced and cried out in pain as he felt the fangs penetrate his armour. He tried to break free of the serpent’s vise-like grip, but was unable to.
Seeing how Ugo was now pinned against one of the side wall by the wyrm, Corwynn tried desperately to get the serpent to notice, which had been the original plan, him by thwacking the end of his quarterstaff against one of the coils of the snake. The snake didn’t seem to notice the blows, however. It began to wind its heavy coils around Ugo. Corwynn tried striking again and again, calling back to Medigas and Guillaume for help.
Guillaume and Medigas now ran forward. Guillaume could see that his friend Ugo was in trouble. Ugo struggled vainly against the constricting snake, his face blood red and his eyes bulging as he struggled to draw a breath. So Guillaume, too, ran forward beside Corwynn and tried to draw the snake’s attention toward them. Medigas also ran forward beind Guillaume – mainly so he could get a better view of what was going on. He could see he needed to come up with a new plan, and quickly. Medigas quickly cast the spell ‘stone of the thousand shards’ on a stone he was holding in his hand. He threw the stone at the wyrm and watched it explode, but the wyrm seemed unhurt.
As the snake continued to squeeze the life from Ugo, Corwynn struck again with his staff, and this time he hit with a solid enough blow to attract the serpent’s attention. Abandoning Ugo for the moment, it swung its great head around toward Corwynn and lunged at him. Corwynn managed to duck to the side just in time to avoid the blow.
Ugo now found himself free of the crushing coils of the serpent as it turned its attention to Corwynn. He slumped to the ground for a moment, for he was very badly wounded, then he staggered to his feet. Leaning on the wall, he tried to make a dash for the far tunnel so as to escape, but a single great coil of the serpent lay in his way. He tried to step over it carefully, but tripped and fell to the ground on the far side.
A second later the cavern darkened and there came a loud roar. It seemed as if the roof of the cavern had collapsed! Yards of earth spilled down from somewhere above onto the serpent, partially covering it in heavy brown loam. The soil slumped down into the pool and created a great muddy wave which spilled over the prone Ugo, and he was lost from sight for the moment, buried in the mud. Medigas had cast an earth spell!
The head of the wyrm reared back in surprise as the weight of soil spilled down over its coils, partly burying it. Guillaume took advantage of the serpent’s distraction to run in and try to stab it in the neck with his short sword, but the blow skittered off its scales. The wyrm looked back at Guillaume and Corwynn with renewed interest, now, and it lunged at Corwynn again, this time biting him.
But then another great mass of soil spilled down, seemingly from the rocky ceiling of the cavern, and again slumped down over the serpent! The soil spilled out into the cavern like an earthen wave, knocking down poor Ugo who was still struggling to escape. Guillaume, too was knocked down, but Corwynn managed to keep to his feet. By now, only the neck and head of the snake were not covered by soil and there was no escape for the great wyrm.
Once again it lunged at Corwynn, the only person within reach. It bit again, nearly crushing Corwynn’s arm in the process. Corwynn was how heavily wounded – another bite like that and he would be done for! But now Guillaume was standing again and he moved in front of Corwynn to protect him.
Suddenly a large boulder fell as if out of nowhere and landed a crushing blow on the neck of the snake where it emerged from the pile. The head of the serpent jerked at the blow, then lunged at Guillaume, who dodged quickly to the side. The young Norman then struck back with a quick jab of his sword. The weapon slipped between two of the scales and emerged with fresh blood on it!
The wyrm looked sluggish now, and seemed unable to react properly. It looked around in a daze, when suddenly another boulder fell from the roof of the cavern. This second boulder careened off the side of the large soil mound and struck the back of the wyrm’s head, pushing it down into the mud. The serpent quivered for a few seconds, and then lay still – seemingly dead.
Guillaume prodded the great wyrm with his sword to confirm that it wasn’t moving. Then he straddled the large head and held his sword aloft with the point aimed downward. He was about the thrust the tip of it into the skull to finish the job when Medigas shouted out:
MEDIGAS: ‘Hold, Guillaume! We must think about how to harvest its magical essence before butchering it!
MEDIGAS: ‘Let me think, now. It’s magical essence will likely be the eyes? No. The fangs? Hmm – ah, I know, in the skin!
UGO: ‘The skin? All of it, master?’
MEDIGAS: ‘Yes, perhaps it is a bit much. Maybe we will take only the head. With it we can also prove we have accomplished out task.’
GUILLAUME: (gesturing to stab the wyrm in the eye with his sword) ‘Quack?’
MEDIGAS: ‘Yes, make sure it is dead, Guillaume.’
Guillaume thrust his sword deep into the brain of the thing through its eye. As he did so, a gout of ichor squirted back at him, getting into his eyes. He quacked out in alarm and jumped back, rubbing them clean. Then he stood up again and thrust the sword between the scales of the neck and, getting some leverage against one of the boulders, he vigorously sawed it off, quacking all the time like an angry drake.
XIII – RETURN OF THOMAS FITZ GOSPATRICK
Soon they returned to the cave of Rath mac Suibhne. As they approached, they could smell the steamy, fruity, malt of the Heather Yill wafting down toward them and hear the plinking of the harp. As they emerged into the light of the large grotto, the voice of the fairie raised itself over the harp.
GRACE: ‘Do I hear the sound of footsteps?’
Medigas rounded the bend, followed by the weary and beaten Ugo and Corwynn. Guillaume came last, dragging the heavy head of the wyrm in one hand and quacking quietly under his breath.
MEDIGAS: ‘Indeed, you do. We have returned.’
GRACE: ‘Ah, and what have you brought for me, my pretties?’
MEDIGAS: ‘One very large serpent head, as you can see, for we did not drive it out, but killed it outright. And we wish to claim our prize, as per the bargain.’
GRACE: ‘Excellent! Ooh, isn’t that a pretty head. By all means take this filth off my table! You two, get out of there. Make room!”
He gestured to where the still sleeping Thomas fitz Gospatrick lay on the bier. The two beautiful fairy ladies who had been combing his hair stood up and slinked away, pouting.
GRACE: ‘Now, let me see that head. Yes! Stuffed! Cormac,’ he said, gesturing to one of the picts, ‘you can perform the graces, can’t you?’ The pict named Cormac nodded.
MEDIGAS: ‘Would you not prefer the whole body?’
GRACE: ‘Ew. No!’
MEDIGAS: (gesturing toward Guillaume) ‘Tell you what – since the head was not part of the bargain, I’ll give it to you on the condition that you change my companion’s voice back to its normal self.’
GRACE: (blinking once, then snapping his fingers) ‘Done!’
GUILLAUME: (looking puzzled at why everyone was looking at him ‘Quack? Quack? Quoi? Quoi? Mais, qu’est-ce que vous regardez? Incroyable! It’s me! I speak again!’
Several of the picts laid down their picks and shovels and walked over to the wyrm’s head. They picked it up, looked blankly at Medigas, then turned and walked away with it into one of the side tunnels.
Medigas gestured toward the sleeping body of Thomas and the three grogs picked it up. Ugo helped Guillaume to heave the sleeping Thomas over is shoulder.
GRACE: ‘Well, it has certainly been a pleasure doing business with you! Hopefully we will meet again. Perhaps when the lake freezes over I will challenge you to a match! Ha! What a contest that would be!’
UGO: ‘Let us go, master! How do we get out of here.’
GRACE: (pointing to the tunnel from which they had first entered the grotto) ‘Why that way, of course.’
UGO: ‘But… the bear!’
GRACE: ‘Oh, don’t worry about the bear, a glamourous fellow was he.’ Then, looking around to see all the picts standing around doing nothing, he said ‘Hey you lot! Why so idle? Get back to work, all of you. The mines are that way! Haha!’
They proceeded up the tunnel, passing a few familiar places along the way. The way back seemed shorter, and each side fork in the tunnel seemed somehow not the right one. Continuing straight on, they came at last to the place where they had seen the bear. The old bones were still strewn about on the ground, but there was no sign of the bear. Then they came to the deep pot-hole that they had first explored when they entered the cave, and Ugo, remembering that the water was fresh, begged for a drink. Some Medigas cast a quick spell and levitated down to the level of the water and filled a skin, then rose again and gave it to Ugo, who took a swig.
UGO: (spitting the mouthful of water out) ‘SALT!’
GUILLAUME: ‘Salt? But it was fresh before?’
MEDIGAS: ‘We have, perhaps, passed from the realm of the fairie. It is time to go home.’
They emerged a few moments later into the murky daylight of early morning. The two men of Gospatrick’s who had been standing at the entrance to the cave still stood there, and in fact seemed to be still having the same conversation. Medigas interrupted, startling them.
FIRST GUARD: (speaking to the other guard) ‘So I sez to er, I sez…’
SECOND GUARD: (turning at the sound of Medigas’ approach from the cave) ‘Eh? What’s this?’
MEDIGAS: ‘We are back.’
FIRST GUARD: ‘There, you see. Just as I sez – t’ain’t very deep t’all.’
MEDIGAS: ‘You were right, but nevertheless we have brought Sir Thomas with us.’
GOSPATRICK: (calling down from the cliff above) ‘What, haven’t you gone in yet? What’s taking so long down there?’
MEDIGAS: ‘Yes, Sir Gospatrick, we have been and come back out with yous son. Guillame is just coming out with him now. He is asleep.’
GOSPATRICK: ‘What? You mean to say he’s been lying just inside that cave sleeping all this time? Why, I ought to have those men flogged who searched for him before!’
MEDIGAS: ‘Well, it is not so simple. I will come up and explain all!’
As they walked back to the manor at Culwen, Medigas explained it all to Sir Gospatrick fitz Orm of Workington, Lochlann filius Uchtred, and Gilbert fitz Gospatrick. Sir Thomas had awoken and seemed fit enough, but had more wrinkles and grey hairs than he previously had, by all accounts. Sir Thomas remembered nothing of his time in the cave, and so was hearing the tale as if it had happened to someone else. Both he and Gospatrick were sceptical that time had flowed differently in the cave, but Medigas merely pointed to the beards they had all grown while in the gave, even though hey had seemingly only been in there a few moments.
GOSPATRICK: ‘So, it really is a fairy cave, then!’
GOSPATRICK: ‘Which means that that damned harper…’
MEDIGAS: ‘Yes, he was a fairy.’
GOSPATRICK: (turning and slapping his son upside the head) ‘I told you he was no good! It never pays to meddle with harpers! And don’t you forget it. One day this land will be yours and you don’t want to go losing it in unscrupulous bets to fairies or anyone else for that matter – so keep your wits about you next time!’
MEDIGAS: ‘Your pardon, sir, but I’m sure it’s not entirely your son’s fault…’
GOSPATRICK: ‘So just how deep was that cave, anyway?’
GUILLAUME: ‘We walked for hours, and there was a bear and a big serpent…’
UGO: ‘We walked four miles, at least, there and back.’
GOSPATRICK: ‘Four miles? God preserve you, Thomas! You see? You didn’t even win the bet!’
Back at Culwen Gospatrick saw to it that everyone was washed, well fed, and had a glass of wine. As a special reward he offered them something of their choice from his cellars or stores. Medigas thought briefly about asking for horse, as Ken Muir had none and he felt it would be helpful to send messages back and forth more quickly. But given their recent trouble with wolves, he ultimately decided on a good breeding pair of hunting hounds. They left the following morning in good spirits, despite their sores, knowing that Gospatrick had been pleased with their service and would report as much as to Uchtred.
XIV – CASTLE FERGUS AGAIN
They walked on to Castle Fergus and reported to Uchtred all that had happened. Uchtred expressed surprise and wanted to know more about the fairy cave. He was even more surprised at the mention of heather ale, for it was indeed a famous drink. He expressed concern at the news that Rath mac Suibhne seemed to be in charge of a tribe of picts, whom he had long thought to be extinct from Galloway, and he was more than a little miffed to hear that they were mining something ‘from his hills’ but that Medigas had never bothered to ask what that something might be. He vowed to check all his silver to make sure it was real.
On the subject of metal, Medigas brought up the subject of lead in the hills to the north, and pointed out that where there was lead there was probably also silver. He suggested that if Uchtred should be interested in funding the development of a silver mine, then Medigas would be just the person to find the best seams. Uchtred remained guarded in his response, but Medigas could tell he was interested.
Uchtred, in turn, pushed the issue of exchanging messengers. Medigas was tempted to leave Corwynn – the most reliable of the three grogs with him – but for reasons he would not disclose, Corwynn objected in a rare show of disobedience. Ugo did want to stay because he had rather taken to the lovely serving girl, Sara, whom he had met on his previous pass through, but Medigas said ‘no’, knowing it would be a mistake to leave the dumb, mean, amorous Italian sailor behind on his own. That left Guillaume, who (with a wink at Ugo to get his goat) was willing to stay, but Medigas also felt that he maybe wasn’t the most reliable person to act as an ambassador to Castle Fergus, either. In the end, he decided to postpone the decision until he could return to Ken Muir to discuss it with his fellow magi. He promised to send someone right away upon his return to the covenant.
Uchtred, on the other hand, had no trouble picking one of his men to go with them – a young man named John Nemo – evidently a bastard.
And so they returned to Ken Muir.
XV – EPILOGUE
Corwynn knocked tentatively at Magister Thomas’ door, then entered at the sound of a muffled grunt.
THOMAS: (staring intently at something on his work bench) ‘Yes?’
CORWYNN: ‘Your pardon, Magister, but it is Corwynn.’
THOMAS: (looking up) ‘Ah, Corwynn. I have heard about your little adventure – it was well done.’
CORWYNN: ‘Thank you, magister. I have a message for you.’
Corwynn pulled out the small satchel that had the rolled up message from Gilbert fitz Gospatrick and the small, clinking, bag that Corwynn had never dared to look into.
CORWYNN: ‘This is from a man named Gilbert fitz Gospatrick, of Culwen, but whom I met at Castle Fergus. He bade me give you the message in person and in private. He said you will receive a visitor soon, and that you should know this in advance.’
THOMAS: ‘A visitor? Curious.’ A took the satchel from Corwynn, then looked back at his work table without opening it. After a moment, he asked ‘Was there anything more, Corwynn?’
CORWYNN: ‘No magister.’
THOMAS: ‘Very good. That will be all then.’
CORWYNN: (letting himself out) ‘Thank you, magister.’
GM NOTE: Well serpents are endemic to northern England and southern Scotland and there are many tales surrounding them. Alan Temperley recounts a tale of a well serpent that terrorized Dalri, for instance. The wyrm was huge and coiled itself around the motte, leaving only its tail in the well. After it had eaten a good number of sheep and the locals didn’t know hot to get rid of it, a blacksmith fashioned for himself a suit of spikey armour and allowed himself to be swallowed. In this way the serpent was killed. Whether Ugo had heard this tale when he suggested dressing Guillaume in spikey armour, or had come to the conclusion on his own, is not known.
Another and very different account of a well serpent at Corriehill, near Lockerbie, is found in an article of the Transactions of the Dumfries shire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Vol. 74, 2000 written by Iain Fraser. It can be found on page 107 of the document linked above.
Fraser repeats the following anecdote, recorded by a surveyor named James Cowan in 1850:
A name given to a Well on the Farm of Corriehill. By tradition of the district it is stated that a dragon inhabited the Churchyard of Corrie, and committed great havoc among the flocks, and several people had made hair breadth escapes; several attempts were of course made to kill it but without effect, because whenever it was attacked it ran to this Well and drank some water after which it had the power of vomiting fire; A man of the name of Johnstone at last volunteered to kill it and having tied his horse to the gate he went and put his coat over the well; and when he came back he found the Dragon had devoured half of the horse, it then ran to the Well to get its usual drink, but the Well being covered, it was not able to vomit any fire so it vomited flesh and that not being so dangerous was at last killed, quartered and buried at Cockplay, Warlock Knowe, Mile Knowe, and Jane’s Knowe. (Name Book, Dumfriesshire, No.27, p.219)