Scourge of Demons

A Life of Galen short story

I’m in the middle of writing a ten book series on the life of a fictional saint set at the turn of the first millennium. In book 5, The Restless Sea, I introduce the character of Cenric. I’ve never done this for other characters but I thought I’d write a short story about this new man. It was quite fun to do and gave me a lot more depth to the character, that may or may not make it into the book.

‘You’ll do,’ Bishop Sigburt said, looking Cenric over like you might a horse when considering a purchase. ‘Yes, you’ll do very nicely indeed.’

‘Thank you, your grace,’ Cenric said as he went down on his knees to his new master and kissed the ring on the proffered hand. 

The bishop of Crowland was old and, despite his fine woollen robe trimmed with gold embroidery, he had a bedraggled look with a scrawny neck and unkempt curly hair that was turning grey in blotches that made him look like a pigeon.

‘Mind you, you’re not what I was expecting from your name,’ Sigburt said, and his voice held a note of dissatisfaction.

‘I regret to disappoint you so early on, your grace.’

Cenric had always thought his name was particularly ironic. It meant bold ruler, and he was neither. But it was what his mother had named him in a fit of enthusiasm. 

Sigburt looked thoughtfully up at him, as if reading his mind, and said, ‘Then again, you’re tall and you have a royal bearing that makes up for the rest.’

The rest, indicated by the wave of a dismissive hand, was thin mousy brown hair and a lanky frame with precious little muscle. 

The carter giving him a lift east across the flat featureless fenland that was to become his home had said, ‘Makes you look like you might be blown away by the first gust of wind.’ 

Added to that were pale grey eyes. His mother blamed his strange eyes on the fact that demons had plagued him since his teens. 

‘For what else could such ghostly looking eyes see?’ she’d said with a shudder.

Cenric had hoped that joining a monastery and living in a holy place would put an end to his torment, but it was not to be. He’d become a scribe, but an indifferent one, whose work was frequently interrupted by the demons who stood behind him, just out of sight, whispering abuse and foul temptations. Sometimes he’d land up writing these depraved deeds down, rather than the text he was supposed to be copying. It enraged the armarius, who complained to the abbot, who in turn, to keep the peace in the scriptorium, had found Cenric his new role. He was to become secretary to the bishop.

‘For God’s sake, don’t tell him about your visions,’ the abbot said in parting, and hurried away. 

Nobody else from the monastery had come to see him off, but he was used to making people uncomfortable and therefore didn’t expect a farewell.

‘What do you think of the cathedral?’ Bishop Sigburt asked, stepping aside so that Cenric could see.

It was a new building, smaller than most cathedrals. Despite it being high summer it was a heavily overcast day and dark clouds hung so low they seemed to skim the tops of the trees outside so it was dark inside and difficult to get a sense of the space. There was a stillness in the air and deep shadows broken only by a pair of candles burning at the main altar and another pair burning at the small shrine in a side chapel the bishop had been praying at. This was where Cenric was brought when he arrived.

‘It’s a fine building,’ he murmured.

‘No, it’s not,’ Sigburt said with a snort. ‘I’ve a strong suspicion it’s the smallest cathedral in the land, and we all know that’s why I was assigned to it. But never mind, we will make up for it. At least it’s a place of pilgrimage.’

‘Is it?’ Cenric said, embarrassed that he didn’t know this fact. He was woefully ignorant of much to do with the church, as he’d entered it late and his father hadn’t believed in education.

‘You’ve never heard of St Guthlac?’ Sigburt said, looking surprised.

‘No, sorry,’ Cenric murmured and watched the bishop’s estimation of him slip down a notch or two.

‘He was a hermit who lived on this island, and a religious community grew up around him. They built the monastery here because of him, and now the cathedral as well, small as it is. He was plagued by demons when he first came here. But St Bartholomew gave him a scourge with which to beat the monsters and so he was able to vanquish them.’

As the bishop spoke, he pointed upwards. Cenric noticed that there was a silver and crystal case set on the small altar and inside was a scourge so ancient the leather had turned black. He felt in that moment like he was receiving a divine message that he could be healed and that was the reason he’d landed up in this place that had felt like a God forsaken wasteland. 

‘It’s time to go, your, grace,’ a fortress of a man said as he strolled into the cathedral and towered over Cenric and the bishop. 

‘Ah, Bada, let me introduce you to my new secretary,’ Sigburt said. ‘This is Cenric. He is the eldest direct descendant of the kings of Kent.’

‘Welcome,’ Bada said and his voice was deep as befitted a large man. He also looked entirely unimpressed by Cenric’s lineage.

That was fine, Cenric seldom thought of it himself. Their royal dominion was already a good two hundred years in the past, although his family had never forgotten and traded at every opportunity upon their illustrious history. 

It was one reason he’d secured this post since Bishop Sigburt of Crowland came from lowly stock and needed something to give his position gravitas.

‘Bada is my bodyguard,’ the bishop said, as he strolled back out into the open. ‘He was a thane. He fought innumerable campaigns before he retired to become a monk. He might have remained at his monastery till his death, but on a journey I made with the monks of Crowland, we were attacked. Bada fought the entire band of a dozen bandits off with nothing but a sturdy wooden staff.’

‘A dozen men?’ Cenric murmured, looking up at Bada who’d apparently heard this story so many times he’d given up reacting to it. 

Still, even if the number of thieves had been exaggerated, Bada had clearly impressed the bishop and Cenric could see why. Although the man was old, he looked formidable. His sleeves were rolled up to reveal long bony arms roped with veins. Since joining the bishop, he’d apparently given up shaving his tonsure and also cultivated a bushy grey beard that blew about in the wind and made him look big, wild and more intimidating.

*

You’re useless, you should just kill yourself, a demon whispered in Cenric’s right ear. 

He sat rigid in his chair at the breakfast table, staring straight ahead and trying to keep his face expressionless. He had plenty of practice. People backed away from a man who muttered to himself, swung round to shout at things nobody else could see or even one whose face was constantly twitching, so he’d schooled himself to give nothing away. 

The technique he found most successful was to wear something uncomfortable. Monks wore hair shirts as a penance and a way to remind themselves to always be on the lookout for evil. The constant scratch from the coarse fibres itched and burned the skin and helped Cenric ignore the demons by focusing on his physical discomfort. Lately, though, this technique was failing him. Now, inspired by Saint Guthlac, he’d fashioned a scourge for himself and when he was most plagued by the demons, he’d run to a private place and lash his back till blood dripped to the floor and the demons shut up.

First you should kill everybody else, another demon whispered into his left ear and he sniggered and was joined by his fellows. It felt to Cenric like they were multiplying in number and the laughter was so loud it drowned out the bishop’s homily.

Cenric had been in his new role for ten days now and had learned that the bishop was fond of his own voice. Unless he was at work, where he was required to write down everything the bishop had to say, he could safely ignore him. He wasn’t sure which was the greater trial, the demons or the bishop. 

No, that wasn’t fair. The bishop was definitely not as bad as the demons. Aside from needing to have his correspondence read to him for his eyesight had failed, and an obsession with having his every thought and deed recorded, he was an unobjectionable master. 

Cenric also preferred life in a bishop’s house to the far more structured days of the monastery. At least here he wasn’t required to rise in the middle of the night for prayers. Although his sleep was disturbed by the neighbouring monastery’s bells calling the monks to prayer.

If you prayed more, you wouldn’t have us nagging you, a demonic voice insinuated into his thoughts. Holy people keep evil at bay but you’re useless. You should just kill yourself. The world would be better without you.

Cenric’s grip tightened on his knife handle, but he made no move towards the food. It was far finer fare than the mostly vegetarian diet of his old monastery. But since first hearing of St Guthlac, Cenric had read all about the saint. He prayed he might find some guidance on how to rid himself of the demons the way the saint had. 

Guthlac, it turned out, had eaten only a single slice of barley bread just before bed, accompanied by a glass of muddy water. Cenric decided he had to emulate that and so ate as little as possible. The bishop didn’t notice. He was too wrapped up in his own world and puffed up by his own importance to see what his subordinates were up to. 

Bada was another matter. He noticed on the day that Cenric started his fast that he wasn’t touching his food. At the end of the meal, just before the thralls returned to the table to take away their plates, Bada leaned over, speared the bread, cheese and slice of ham with his knife, and popped the lot into his gaping maw. He couldn’t even close his mouth it was so full, but his impassive gaze remained fixed on Cenric’s face as he chewed. Since Cenric made no comment, Bada took this as consent and no longer waited until the end of the meal to help himself to Cenric’s food. 

Look at that greedy pig, a demon sneered as Bada skewered the smoked herring of today’s breakfast. You should kill him first, then the bishop. Kill Sigburt slowly. Take his tongue so that he shuts up. It’s the only way any of us are going to get any peace.

‘And so I shall tell his majesty,’ Sigburt said and turned meaningfully towards Cenric.

Good Lord, what had he said before that? Cenric tried frantically to bring back the words from a long and rambling discourse. He couldn’t reveal that he’d not been listening.

‘You will write it all down, won’t you?’ the bishop said.

Cenric nodded, tried to ignore the howls of laughter coming from the demons, while also searching for some question he could ask to elicit the information on what the bishop had been talking about. He opened his mouth, still trying to formulate his question, when the quiet morning was shattered by the ringing of the monastery bells.

The female thrall who’d been reaching for Cenric’s plate froze. The three men at the table looked from one to the other. That was a continuous clang, clang, clang that reverberated around the house and set Cenric’s teeth on edge.

‘What on earth?’ Sigburt murmured.

‘Trouble,’ Bada said, and jumped up. ‘They won’t ring so wildly otherwise.’

Stay here, it’s not your problem, the demons said and for once Cenric wanted to obey. If you ignore everything outside, you’ll be just fine. Only he knew that wasn’t true, and Bada and the bishop had already rushed outside.

Cenric followed and joined a growing, apprehensive crowd of the bishop’s staff all asking the same thing; ‘What is it? What’s happening?’

The bell cut off abruptly, and Cenric held his breath, praying that heralded an end to the crisis.

‘I hear shouting,’ the bishop said at the front of his crowd of people.

Screams, a demon said, and it felt like he was so close it made Cenric jump.

‘Arm yourselves,’ Bada shouted, turning to the frightened householders. ‘Fighting at this hour can mean only one thing: viking’s.’

Cenric froze. He’d never been in a battle before and to be raided was so terrifying it turned his body to stone. Not so the others. As quickly as they’d rushed out of the bishop’s house, Sigburt’s retainers ran back in. The women to snatch up their children and flee, the men to fetch whatever implement they had at their disposal to protect themselves and their home.

They were too slow. A band of wild-haired and wild-eyed men came pelting down the path from the monastery, roaring like savages, blood spattered shields before them, axes ready to be brought down on any who got in their way.

‘Come on!’ Bada shouted as his hand landed on Cenric’s shoulder sending a shock like blow through him. ‘We have to protect the bishop.’

He hauled Cenric forward, roaring even more loudly than the charging vikings and brought his sturdy staff down on the two axes that were about to fell Sigburt. Cenric caught only a glimpse of the bishop’s face, white as a ghost, eyes bulging, then he turned to the vikings, now being held at bay by Bada who had the advantage of range with his height and the length of his staff.

‘Get him away,’ Bada yelled.

Cenric burst into hysterical, terrified, hiccuping laughter to realise he was the one Bada was talking to. Somehow he retained sufficient sense of self preservation to grab onto the bishop’s robe and pull him. Just away. He had no plan or space for thought beyond that. They staggered backwards, stumbled and fell. Cenric carried on, rolling himself and the bishop along the ground, then staggered back onto his feet.

The bishop’s men were going the other way, one fellow was armed with the spit from the cooking fire that still glowed a dull red, another was holding a pitchfork at the ready as he charged towards the raiders.

Better him than you, the demons said. Leave them, their only use is to delay the vikings so you can escape.

A scream punctuated the creature’s words, and Cenric couldn’t stop himself from looking. A thrall had an axe embedded in his chest. Blood fountained as the viking wrenched his weapon out, kicked the writhing man aside and closed on his next prey.

A surge of energy shot through Cenric and he ran, pulling the bishop towards the maze of houses that had grown up around the holy site of Crowland. 

‘My cathedral!’ Sigburt gasped as Cenric dragged him down a narrow lane.

It was the first words he’d spoken, and they made no sense till Cenric followed his gaze. The sky seemed to be lit by a second sun. Only a pall of smoke was rising with it. 

‘They’re burning it down,’ Cenric muttered, horrified more by that desecration than the surrounding violence.

‘My cathedral,’ Sigburt said, and it was as if all his will and pride crumbled around him and he collapsed.

‘The scourge!’ Cenric cried. ‘Saint Guthlac’s holy scourge!’

‘Gone, gone,’ Sigburt said, rocking with his words. ‘All gone up in smoke.’

‘No!’

Cenric couldn’t allow that. If the vikings burned that holy relic, the demons would win. They’d be the masters then. Cedric let go of the handful of the bishop’s robe he had clenched in his fist and ran.

Wrong way, fool, the demons howled clamouring around his back like a pack of wolves.

If they were this upset, Cenric knew he was doing the right thing. He had sufficient sense to circle the outskirts of their settlement, passing the fleeing women most carrying or dragging children into the surrounding swampland although one was pulling an old, slack faced grandmother. 

He followed the path that curved back to the cathedral and stopped at the edge of the bishop’s house. He listened first. The sound of fighting was more distant so he cautiously peered around the corner. Bloodied bodies lay splayed out on the ground. None were even groaning. Clearly the vikings had no intention of leaving a single soul alive.

The entrance to the cathedral was billowing smoke, but from this angle he couldn’t see the flames. 

Don’t go in. Only a fool would go in, a demon whined in his ear.

‘Saint Bartholomew, Saint Guthlac, I pray for you to be my guide. Help me save your relic,’ Cenric said, as he wrapped his cape about his nose and mouth. 

He sprinted across the courtyard, leaping over bodies as he barrelled through the smoke into the cathedral, eyes streaming he crashed into a chair, stumbled over the top of it and landed hard on the floor. No time, no time, he thought as he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.

The main altar was ablaze. The flames leapt up into the tower above the apse, which acted as a chimney, reducing the smoke to a mist like haze in the body of the church. Cenric staggered back into motion and headed for the side chapel and the relic. Flames were licking at the eastern wall of the chapel already, but thankfully the reliquary was still intact and glowing with an inner light.

‘Thank God!’ 

Cenric grabbed the silver and crystal casket with both hands and turned to flee, but burning pain blazed through his skin. With a cry, Cenric dropped the reliquary. It shattered at his feet, scattering shards of crystal and the scourge tumbled out and rolled across the floor. 

Whimpering, Cenric reached down and with fingers made clumsy from the burn scrabbled to pick up the scourge as a shouting figure loomed up in the smoke. He charged and kicked Cenric so hard he fell backwards and hit his head against the edge of the altar on the way down. Dazed, ears ringing, the smoke burning his throat, Cenric launched himself at the scourge, wrapped his fingers around the handle and lashed out. 

The multiple tails of the scourge whipped around the viking’s leg with a satisfying crack that could be heard over the roar of the fire. Cenric pulled, and the man toppled backwards. The flames were growing by the minute. Cenric felt as if his back was already ablaze as he launched himself onto his feet and, dodging the Viking’s questing fingers, ran for the door. It was barely visible through a heavy blanket of smoke. 

He prayed the viking wouldn’t catch up. A loud crash behind threw stone, flaming fragments and Cenric forward and he was on his hands and knees, crawling again. He only just made it through the arch of the door when the roof gave in, covering him in yet more dust as the fire took hold of the fallen beams and flames roared into the sky.

Gaining a strength that could only have come from divine intervention, Cenric forced himself back onto his feet and staggered into the ham. He pressed the holy scourge to his chest as he prayed to God, Bartholomew and Guthlac to get him back to the bishop.

*

The bishop was where he’d left him, in the shadow of a house, on his knees, praying. 

‘Come on, your grace, we have to get out of here,’ Cenric said as he grabbed the bishop by the arm without slowing his staggering run. 

A serenity had come over him that took away all fear. God and the saints would get them away. But he had to play his part, so he ran the bishop towards the thick rushes of the fens. He’d been told to avoid them because the swamp was awash with hidden dangers not least floating islands that looked firm but could swallow a man in the blink of an eye and hold on to his body amongst the submerged roots so he’d never be found again.

This was where the residents of Crowland had fled. As natives, they knew their way around and treated the fenland as a more secure barrier than any defensive palisade. Cenric couldn’t see any of the woman and children anymore, such was their ability to vanish.

The men would do what they could to slow the vikings, which would include, at the end, retreating towards the marsh and tricking the enemy into following. With their heavy weapons and armour, they would be sucked to their doom.

Trusting to his divine protectors, Cenric didn’t waste time trying to guess which of the many wooden boardwalks leading through the thick rushes was safe. He simply took the first one he came to, ran down it and at the moment he deemed best, leaped out into the black mud, dragging the bishop with him. He plunged on, pushing his way through the tall rustling, waving marsh grasses. They were thigh deep in mud and now all he could hear was his and the bishop’s rasping breaths and the wind clattering through the reeds. Birds fell silent when men went to war. It was as if they feared the violence too.

‘We can’t stay here,’ the bishop said, and his voice was pitiful and weak.

‘We are protected by God,’ Cenric said, as he turned on the spot, watching as the wake they had made through the mud slowly seeped back together so that no trace remained of where they had been.

That was when he realised he still had the scourge in his left hand. 

Cenric glanced back at the bishop, who was shivering from shock, sinking slowly in the mud so that it now took him to the top of his legs.

‘We’ll be safe here,’ Cenric muttered and, since the bishop was too stunned to notice, he slipped the scourge inside his robe.

*

It was nearing sunset, and Cenric and the bishop were now sunk to their waists. The cold had seeped into their bones and both men were shivering, despite the warmth of the summer’s day. The only advantage of the cold mud surrounding them was that it acted as a soothing balm for Cenric’s burned hands. They were red and badly blistered and a part of him that wasn’t worried about it yet wondered whether he’d ever be able to write again.

As the day passed, the birds resumed their singing. The clash of weapons dropped away and even the thick line of grey smoke that had risen into the high white covering of clouds had petered out.

For what felt like the hundredth time the bishop said, ‘Surely it is safe now?’

This time he sounded irritated and Cenric realised his spirit was reviving and he would soon resume his bossy ways. 

So he nodded and was about to say they may as well attempt to get back to the boardwalk when they heard a shout. 

‘Bishop Sigburt, Bishop Sigburt, can you hear me?’

‘Bada!’ Sigburt cried. ‘It’s Bada. Praise God!’

‘Here,’ Cenric shouted, ‘We’re here!’

‘Thank the Lord,’ Bada said. ‘Don’t move, We’ll come out and get you.’

Cenric had never been happier to hear such words in his life. They’d survived. God and Saints Bartholomew and Guthlac had delivered them to safety. 

Cenric touched the back of his hand to his chest and felt the reassuring, dense, leathery form of the holy scourge. Since he’d had it pressing against his skin, the demon’s voices had receded. God had rewarded him for his courage.