Magical Short Story – Kelham Island Dinghy Rentals Inc by Isaac Stovell
Suibhne, Drust and Galchobar arrived frantic & out of breath in the copse where I was foraging.
“Feidelmid! You must come at once!” said Drust.
“Can you tell me something of what is happening?” I asked him.
“We’re not… not exactly sure,” he said. “We already spoke to Aonghus and he told us you would be better suited to… inform on these kinds of strange matters.”
“That’s right,” parroted Drust, “not wanting to say he seemed worried but he made a face like this and said ‘ask the druidess’.”
“Just druid is fine,” I corrected him – since Nynniaw had passed back unto whence we all come, I was the most experienced living keeper of mystical lore in our town. Typical chieftains, delegating at the first whiff of a complexity or difficulty, I thought, combing in the grass to pluck out a final two fungal chunks, deposited them in my pouch, then stood. “Okay. Lead the way.”
It was a windless cloudy midsummer’s afternoon, and arightly suspecting that whatever I was being summoned to investigate would still be happening whenever we got there, I refused to let my fetchers rush me, walking at the pace which one walks when eyeing all passing flora to glean any particularly rare items, and did so silently, allowing the three to worry among themselves.
We passed by the town; I tried to send Drust & Galchobar back but they reappeared behind us after several minutes with a loaf of ryebread and a large skin of elderflower wine. Suibhne led us along the hillcrest which afforded long views out across the river of the goddess Danu, or at least did now that the dense ancient woodland along the valley had mostly been burnt down by new settlers in the last fifty years to create grazing slopes for sheep. Danu’s river curled lazily below us, lapping and sparkling with an occasional salmon.
“We should find some tree cover nearer by,” said Galchobar.
“They won’t see us,” said Suibhne, “we will remain far enough away to not be seen. Besides, they are all at work.”
“This isn’t just another panic about the castle, is it?” I asked, in reference to an ugly keep of stone hewn from the surrounding hills, on the old walled motte between Danu’s river & her lesser sibling (the same which once marked the border between Mercia & Danelaw, before both were conquered by Wessex – at least so went the rumour. as much as I trust my own peoples’ capacity for holding memories reliably, the political situation upon our home isle was turbulent in the extreme, and so-called rulers came and warred and went like sparrows; while we’d well preserved our traditional lifestyle, hidden from sight of much of this rumpus, it helped to know at least whose leaders currently thought they were in charge, so if needed you could blithely state your loyalty to soldiers and pass as legitimate subjects – however our people being who & where they are, and Albion’s throne changing bums as often as it did, such facts often escaped our immediate notice). “They’ve been developing that for years.” They were invaders from across the southern sea, who had battled the Norse-Anglo-Saxon alliance & triumphed, killing the Godwin House’s last king to replace the lineage with more of a French one.[see – I do know some current events!]
“No,” said Suibhne seriously, “this is… something new.”
I saw exactly what he meant as we passed the final kink of the lee which obscured the rapidly-growing city from view. Aonghus had been right – whatever was happening was beyond his power to respond at – and probably mine. Not a chicken’s leap from the flows’meet of Danu & her sibling something monstrously flat & dry was indignantly sat in the middle of the sacred river. A claw-shaped protrusion of clay & dirt & rock seemed to have been innovatively piled from the riverbank out into the water to bisect Danu’s body in twain with all the brutal efficacy of a battleaxe; at the point where this manmade peninsula began, the foundations of the banks had been dug up deep and replaced with a stone flue so that Danu’s flow kept up on both sides of the promontory. In fact it seemed slightly faster on the inner side – doubtless a result of the second (and worse) abomination, an enormous slope built from a similar stone to the keep raised from Danu’s bed itself and angled such as to forcibly distort her flow into the flue.
And to what end? Squatting & jostling along the sides of this – stream? canal? of half of Danu – were a number of buildings of various size & material; several relatively docile-looking, though many belched thick smoke from open fires or from metal pipes extending from their walls & roofs. The single commonality all had were the part-submerged wood-and-metal wheels that span on arms rooted in the buildings, serrated with planks & wings & buckets as they turned in the power of an injured river-goddess.
I saw all this in a few seconds & fell to my knees.
On the soft wind I caught shreds of noise floating uphill from it all, the grinding of millstones, the rasping of sharpeners & blades, the dull whunks & clacks of construction & firekeeping, behind it all the faint babble of resident workers impiously congratulating themselves on their industriousness. “First them gobdaws start sluicing waste straight into her and now this,” said Drust.
Galchobar put a hand on my left shoulder and held out the wineskin to me. I didn’t take it. I still couldn’t speak. “What does it mean? What is it?” he asked me. They passed around the skin in apprehensive silence as I maintained my mute consternation.
I prostrated myself forwards, knees & elbows & palms pressed flat against the grassy hillside – face buried as I wept noiselessly into the loam. “They have made their way of life a chariot,” I said, eventually, “and think they can train Danu to be their horse.”
“The arrogance of these foreigners,” spat Suibhne.
“No,” I said, looking up and blinking away tears, “now this land is theirs too. Our older ways have been on the road to forgetten a long time & while the truths of our wisdom shall never perish, as anew they are born & die with every plant & animal – but maybe for a time they will diminish under the rainclouds of ignorance & haste. We too shall die. I cannot say who will bear the torches for the wild places in those days. Perhaps nobody.”
In the back of my mind a sensation stirred, tender in tone but jarring & icy in the message I felt it was brimming with. A vision. A vision sent directly from Danu.
Reverently I stood, raised my arms high & began to recant an incantation of reception, eyes unfocused staring out at pure sky. And I saw the same city untold years hence, greyly overgrown as to be scarcely recognisable. Smog & soot spouted from foully fat flumes of charred brick sprouting from a terrible conglomeration of buildings as dense & dark as the woods had once been there. Thousands of sickly-looking people trudged up, down, left & right & in & out of these, kept busier than I had ever seen a population being kept yet it looked like night-time. Though maybe the filthy air obscured the day’s lights. The castle was gone but many were new edifices larger than it in height & width; I saw inside these in a whorl of dreamsight – vast arrays of works carnal & ingenious, metal behemoths which ground & rasped & whunked & clacked & screeched & bellowed: FEED US LEST WE CONSUME YOU – and the people did so with diligent exhaustion, children, women, men, all, moving together with the beasts in repetitive symphonic slavery & Danu carried me through the deathly hives of activity out into putrefied air & showed me Herself – stinking & sludgen & black.
Then the vision was ended & I broke down in a horrified wail. Do not dismay, I heard her say in my dreamsight-hearing’s last whispers, they shall bend me, batter me, make me their dumping ground for flotsam & jetsam & dregs & dung, they shall cripple me with dams & pipeworks, exploit me with wheels & wiers, take my coat of woods & choke my lungs of wildlife. But listen to me, faithful Feidelmid, when I say they shall not break me. And their foolishness will not go without its own divine natural penance.
And she was gone.
Drust was oblivious that anything had happened, and sat with his hand halfway through the ryebread loaf watching a worker wrestling a donkey over the flue-bridge. Suibhne and Galchobar though implored me to tell them what I had seen & heard.
To this day I have told nobody. The weight of dread at what is to come for Danu, for our land, is too great for anyone to have to bear. Even when later Aonghus had asked I had simply told him that it was not something we could alter ourselves, but Danu was alive & angry & her wrath would, in time, make whoever dwelled alongside her change their ways to her pleasure.
Author’s Note: This short story began life with its title, which was jestingly gesticulated as a possible business venture in the flood-prone Don Valley. While the copyright remains very much open for anyone who may wish to set up such a service, the writer themself didn’t take it further and instead only hammered out a probably-anachronistic-