The final day of the year of our Lord 726 AD was much like any other day. Across the Kingdom scrawny chickens pecked at grubs on muddy village greens, dogs barked and the border wars raged. A chilled north wind threatened the coming of the January unweather.
* * *
Something was wrong; the village gates were open and unguarded. He held the reins tight as the old horse with its head low, followed the water-filled wheel-ruts into the stockade. No candlelight burned in the windows, no torches lit the muddy village green. He should have heard singing from the small wooden church and a pastor telling the congregation how they were the Chosen Ones.
A Chosen One was not a blessing but a curse. Those who believed they were chosen were arselings. He kept those beliefs hidden, as he did the collection of forbidden objects in his cart. King Aethelred’s men didn’t bother an old man with a guitar, a limp and a clapped-out cart. He was safe enough.
Where were the excited children who always ran out to greet him? Why were there no Elders waiting with their pompous authority? Wherever he travelled, his songs and stories were rewarded with food, drink and a bed for the night. They had precious little other entertainment. Sometimes there would be a few shillings if the King’s tax collectors hadn’t got there first.
He pulled hard on the reins, the horse’s neck jerked up and the cart creaked to a halt by the first row of deserted huts. A waning gibbous moon doused the village in a sickly yellow light. His horse snorted, its harness jangled; the sound echoed between the empty huts.
Now he was closer, he spotted a faint glow from a flickering burned-down candle through the window of a hut. He got down from the cart, his back ached and his right leg was stiff and seized up. Twenty years ago on the borders, a Scottish lance had gone through his thigh without touching an artery. God’s will, the army pastor had said. It was a pity God hadn’t the will to save the hundreds of dead and mutilated on the battlefield. That reply went unsaid. It doesn’t do to question authority.
He tied his horse to a post and limped to the door. The walls of the hut were sealed with dried London clay. London. So much was named after the mythical city, even the mud.
He rapped once on the door and it swung open. “Hello?” he called, peering inside. The crack of a dying ember in the fireplace his only reply.
He shuffled in. A line of thin smoke rose towards the hole in the roof from the fireplace ashes. A dark wooden chest lay on its side, the drawers out and their contents tipped onto the hard-packed earth floor. He walked to the table in the centre of the room, split leather boots crunching on the spilt items unseen in the gloom.
The candle he’d seen through the window was almost extinguished. Thick wax had hardened over a small slim glass bottle that served as a candlestick. There were two plates with partially eaten cold pork and boiled potatoes. His ears pricked, his eyes circled the room, checking the shadows. A tingling rose along the base of his neck.
Several fresh candles were scattered across the tabletop and on the floor. He lit four one by one from the dying flame. He melted the ends and stuck them upright on the table. The room was a mess of broken furniture and smashed objects.
His eyes fell on the glass candlestick with the now dead candle. The bottle was smaller than a wine bottle and curved like the lower half of a buxom woman. He’d never seen anything with this exotic design before, perhaps it was from Frankia? Maybe it was a forbidden object? Hardened wax followed the lines of something shaped beneath it. He dug his thumbnail in and scraped it away.
He fished under his cloak and in the pocket of the heavy woollen tunic. His fingers wrapped around round metal-framed reading glasses. He pushed them on his nose and peered at the bottle, now cleared of wax. There were two embossed words in a strange cursive style joined by a dash symbol. It was difficult to read in the low light. He brought the bottle closer to one of the candles and traced the script with a calloused fingertip: Coca-Cola. These strange words confirmed it: this was a forbidden object.
He put the bottle in his pocket for the collection. He lifted a candle from the table and knelt to the floor, knees and right leg fighting back against him. His ears and mind were still sharp and alert. He held the candle to the floor; it was covered in a carpet of smashed objects. He recognised some, never understanding what they were. He picked up a hand-sized slim rectangular object with a shattered glass face, SAMSUNG S9 inscribed in silver on the back.
He had found several of these objects before and stored them with his other forbidden objects. Some carried the picture of an apple with a bite. The soldiers would make him disappear if they ever found them on him.
He picked up a ripped tunic made from no fabric he’d ever touched before. Smooth and light like silk but without the rich texture. It weighed less than a bag of peacock feathers and was in the colour of the evening sun. A large silver tick symbol on the front glistened in the flickering candlelight.
A broken golden chain caught his eye, glinting from the floor. He picked it up. A heart-shaped locket the size of an arrowhead hung from the chain. It had a hinge on one side and a lip on the other. He pushed the candle into the floor and picked at the locket catch. It popped open and he held it to the light.
He threw it across the room and it hit the wall with a clink. This was witchcraft — the miniature face of a smiling young man had stared back at him from inside. What sorcery was this? He waited for his breathing to calm and his heart to stop racing. There were so many things the priests could not explain; saying God moves in mysterious ways offered no enlightenment.
It was time to leave, he could not be found in such a place, too many forbidden objects.
A faint shout broke the silence; his body went rigid. He pulled himself up using the tabletop. He returned to the front door. Another shout. A man’s voice. It had come from the other side of the deserted village stockade. He touched the handle of his sword.
He limped out of the hut. More shouts, the sound of a horse braying. It must be the villagers but why were they outside the stockade after dark? Wild animals prowled at night: the big cats, hyenas and wolves. He hobbled to the open gates and staggered around the perimeter wall, slowing as he approached the source of the noises. He heard muffled voices and a horse breathing, it’s lips vibrating together.
He peered around the corner of the twelve-foot-high stockade wall. Moonlight glinted on iron helmets of two of the King’s soldiers. They waited on impatient mounts next to a huge overgrown patch of undergrowth. He pulled back behind the corner, heart pounding. Soldiers. Not good. His legs were weak with fear.
“Let's go,” said one, an accent from the northern counties. “I have no wish to be in this godforsaken treacherous village a moment longer.”
The other grunted in agreement and looked to the northern sky.
"The storms of the January unweather will be here tomorrow, Selwyn.”
They turned their horses and kicked their heels. He waited for the darkness of the forest to swallow them before peering back. The old man moved towards the bushes. Why had two of the King’s soldiers been hanging around on the edge of the forest on New Year’s Eve?
The north wind whipped up against his cloak, the promise of the storm stronger by the minute. Fork lightning lit up the horizon, the rumble of thunder followed several seconds later.
He should leave but inquisitiveness interfered. He trudged to the undergrowth to see why the soldiers had been waiting. Someone had cut a narrow path through the thick brambles. He limped along the cleared channel as dark clouds raced over the moon. An animal moved a few feet away, it sounded small, a fox or a badger. An owl called. No voices, no horses. That was good.
The end of the cleared path was in blackness. He blinked, trying to get accustomed to the darkness, it was as if the path ended in a back hole. He reached out, shaking, palm forward. His hand rested on a smooth surface. Glass. He stared for a few moments more, the clouds passed, the moon glistened once again. He faced a door of glass, over seven feet high. Behind it there was blackness. The door to hell, this village was bewitched.
Above the door, behind some uncleared brambles, a blue sign hung down from a rusted screw. He stretched up and pushed the brambles away with the tip of his sword. He twisted his head to one side and read aloud. "Welcome to London Heathrow Terminal 5." London?
That’s why the soldiers had come, the villagers had uncovered a forbidden building. They were now with the disappeared.
He spun around. Six soldiers on foot stood at the entrance to the path, swords drawn. He backed against the glass.
“We missed one.” An officer pointed at him with the tip of his sword. “Go and get him sergeant and put him with the others.”
The burly soldier approached him, an enormous club in one hand. The old man cowered and blackness came.
* * *
The first day of the year of our Lord 727 After the Death was much like any other day. Chicken pecked, dogs barked and the border war raged. The unweather arrived that morning.